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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As you all know, the gig that takes up a lot more of my time is that I am an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I would like to accept at least one graduate student into our program this year to be advised by me. I get emails and messages from folks all the time saying how they would like to work with me.

Why not apply to our PhD program and see if we would be a good fit together? (ETA: Alternately, I’m looking for a postdoc! Write to me and maybe we could apply to this Postdoctoral Fellow Program together at Beckman.)

I am looking for a committed, motivated, curious, hardworking student who wants to make a difference in the world. I want to support the independent research of a junior colleague who wants to work broadly in women’s reproductive ecology, life history theory, and/or evolutionary medicine. While I’d love it if you wanted to work within one of my existing projects, I would also gladly support a student who wants to pave her or his own way in a new, thoughtfully conceived field site.

My projects

Below are my two main projects, the descriptions culled largely from recent grant proposals. You can always chat with me on Twitter or Facebook to find out more.

Girl power! How girls negotiate their environments. Humans’ flexibility in the timing of menarche allows for multiple selection pressures to drive it early or late. Past research demonstrates that early maturity is often driven by psychosocial stress, as one should initiate reproduction when future reproductive opportunities are poor. But what cultural, behavioral and social factors augment one’s experience of her environment and thus her age at menarche? How do these factors influence post-menarcheal physiology and function? The study of resilience offers an exciting way to understand how and why the body allocates resources in the face of selection pressures throughout development.

This is a longitudinal study that follows ethnically and economically diverse pre-menarcheal fifth grade girls at an elementary school in Champaign County, Illinois. Anthropometry will capture growth, ovarian hormones reproduction, and biomarkers maintenance effort to track life history trade-offs. Established psychometric scales for ego resilience, positivity, ethnic identification, and social support will track personal and social resources.

My research aims are 1) to assess the relationship between girls’ personal and social resources, particularly resilience, and their allocation to growth, maintenance, and reproduction in the six to twelve months leading to menarche, and 2) to understand how that transition affects post-menarcheal allocation to growth, maintenance, and reproduction in the six to twelve months following menarche. This project is important to our understanding of evolutionary medicine and mismatch theory as it could suggest a mechanism for additional individual variation in environmental reactivity.

My long-term educational goals are to develop more young female scientists and increase research that solves major problems in girls’ and women’s health. My educational aims are 1) to encourage upper-elementary students to see themselves as scientists through role modeling, reflection activities and hands-on science, and 2) to encourage graduates and undergraduates to remain in science through close mentoring, high expectations and independence.

I have received grant money to fund the pilot, which began this fall. Other grants are pending or being written.

Why some pregnancies don’t make it: ecological influences on the maternal environment. Low fertility likely has been naturally selected in the great ape lineage in order to produce offspring worthy of heavy parental investment. There are multiple points through the course of reproduction where mechanisms exist to select against the fetus, yet it isn’t always clear what conditions promote their activation. Further, while many pregnancies fail due to genetic abnormalities, some patterns of pregnancy loss suggest additional mechanisms via inflammation. An emerging understanding of inflammation’s contribution to reproductive success leads to fascinating questions about human reproductive ecology in the context of parental investment trade-offs. Systemic inflammation can vary not only with immune challenges, but social environment, childhood environment, adiposity and age. What of these factors produce a non-pregnant maternal environment more likely to lead to reproductive success?

This question requires an investigation of endometrial function as a key component of implantation. Trade-offs between maintenance and reproduction are more challenging to observe under conditions of energetic surplus in an industrialized environment, and so I will draw my sample from women in a non-industrial agricultural environment at the Mogielica Site in rural Poland. Energetic constraint and immune challenges should influence resource allocation to ovarian hormone production and endometrial thickness over the menstrual cycle. Therefore I will test hypotheses on 1) intra-population variation in endometrial function, 2) ovarian-endometrial interactions, and 3) inflammatory responses to ecological stressors through the use of ultrasounds, urine collection for biomarkers and ovarian hormones, and anthropometry.

I am applying for funding for this proposal right now. The Mogielica Site is where I did my dissertation fieldwork and so is a viable site for dissertation research regardless of whether a potential student of mine wants to work on the endometrium.

Other past and ongoing research includes work on ecological influences on both ovarian and endometrial function. I have several papers in revision right now on how systemic inflammation correlates with ovarian follicular waves and hormones, more in preparation on hormones, energetic constraint, and endometrial thickness. I have a side project on hormonal contraception that would be fun to talk about as well. And as you know if you read this blog, I am committed to science education and outreach and think there are lots of great post-PhD jobs in addition to academia.

The Department

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Department of Anthropology is a four-field department. We might be one of the friendliest anthropology departments around which, if you know anything about anthropology and the biological determinism warz, is an impressive feat.

We have eight biological anthropologists, many of whom co-advise students and collaborate together. Our bio anthro crew teaches anatomy at the Medical School, has affiliations with Animal Biology, the Program in Evolution, Ecology and Conservation, Bioinformatics, the Institute for Genomic Biology, and teaches some of the most popular courses on campus. Our last several graduates have gone on to great faculty and postdoctoral positions. Frankly, my colleagues are a bunch of badasses who are just too nice to promote themselves and say so.

As our admissions website notes:

“Successful applicants to our department will be joining one of the leading anthropology programs in the nation.  According to the 2010 National Research Council (NRC) report on graduate programs across the nation, Anthropology at the University of Illinois ranked 12th out of 82 peer programs overall, and received rankings of 1st in program outcomes; 1st in percentage of students fully supported through the graduate program; 6th in percentage of minority students; 7th in percentage of international students; and 8th in time to degree.”

So yeah, we’re awesome.

Quality of life

The University of Illinois is the flagship public university for my state, located in east central Illinois. We’re less than two hours to Indianapolis, three to St. Louis and Chicago. The benefits of living near farmland and away from a big city are that the cost of living is low, and the quality of the locally available food (meat, dairy, eggs and produce) is very high year round. I eat better in Urbana, Illinois than I did in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My commute is short (less than a mile) and the park system and recreational opportunities are great.

The graduate students have a union, so you know you have people fighting for your benefits and pay. This means you don’t have to stress as much about whether you will be abused or not get raises commensurate with inflation: the union’s got your back. Instead, you can focus on your research and teaching.

The application

Applications for the Anthropology PhD program are due by December 1st, 2012. You need a good transcript and good GRE scores to be considered, but what I’ve found really makes an application are the quality of the recommendation letters and personal statement.  For the recommendation letters, talk to your letter writers about the qualities that you think make you well suited to a PhD program in anthropology and to doing anthropology research. For the personal statement, do not write about how you’ve wanted to do anthropology since the first time you saw Indiana Jones or first left the United States. Instead, use the statement as an opportunity to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are a scientific thinker — share your scholarly interests, some questions you would like to answer over the course of your PhD. Propose a potential dissertation topic, and make sure to say why you would be a good fit for the university and department to which you are applying.

Learn more about the department: http://www.anthro.illinois.edu/programs/graduate/admissions/index.html

Apply: http://www.grad.illinois.edu/admissions/apply

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Awreynol 9:18 pm 11/8/2012

    Potential students:

    Take it from an undergrad who visited UIUC less than a month ago to meet another professor in the Anthro department. Everyone I met that day (including Dr. Clancy) were some of the most welcoming and nicest people ever! The faculty seems really focussed on students becoming great scientists and moving on to be leaders in their fields. They are on the cutting edge of research and there is simply a lot of energy in the department. You’re going to love it!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 7:09 am 11/17/2012

    Thanks so much, Awreynol, I appreciate the endorsement and it was a pleasure to meet you earlier this year!

    Link to this

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