The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this morning that it had named Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Jenny Tung one of twenty-six 2019 MacArthur Fellows for her work “revealing links between social environmental factors—such as social status and social integration—and genomic variation and how these connections impact health, well-being, and longevity.”

Tung, thirty-seven, is one of two 2019 Fellows who live in North Carolina. The other is artist Mel Chin, who resides in the small township of Egypt (population 595), in Yancey County.  

The fellowships, commonly known as Genius grants, come with an unrestricted $625,000 award. According to the Foundation, they are given “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” based on criteria including “exceptional creativity,” “promise for important future advances,” and “potential for the Fellowship to facilitate future work.”

Tung’s work is focused on the intersection of social experiences, genomics, and health. Studying a population of Kenyan baboons living in the wild, she’s found that conditions such as isolation, low social status, and drought can shorten life spans—and, importantly, these experiences leave their marks at the genomic and cellular levels. Working with captive rhesus monkeys, she and her colleagues found that monkeys assigned to a lower-ranking status had a worse immune system than those assigned to a higher-ranking status, and the effects can be reversed.  

“Tung’s research has important implications for human health,” the MacArthur Foundation says. “While associations between socially induced stress and negative health outcomes have long been observed in humans, her findings suggest there is a causal link between social and environmental adversity and poor health.”

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