Q&A with Claudia Valeggia

In Claudia Valeggia’s opinion, President Barack Obama is a pretty cool guy.

At a White House event last month, Valeggia said the president made sure to emphasize how he and the first lady support their daughters’ inclination for science.

This resonated with Valeggia, who has a strong scientific inclination of her own. She was at the White House on Oct. 17 to receive one of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Valeggia, an associate professor of anthropology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, was one of 94 recipients from universities, institutes and laboratories selected for their pursuit of innovative research and a commitment to community service.

Her work, funded by a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award, is focused on a group of Toba women and girls from the province of Formosa in northeastern Argentina. A biological anthropologist, Valeggia studies how human beings develop in their ecological and cultural contexts. In the Toba community of Argentina, Valeggia is examining life transitions among young girls and women: the move from infancy to childhood, then into puberty, and finally, into menopause. To track the changes, Valeggia takes monthly measurements and examines other physiological data. She also conducts interviews with the girls and women who are part of her study.

“Culture informs biology and biology informs culture; there’s no reason to try to disentangle them,” she says. “They both contribute to the way people go through these changes, and I’m trying to highlight their interaction in my research.”

Between trips to Argentina, Valeggia teaches at Penn, including one class on sex and human nature that she co-teaches with her husband, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Eduardo Fernandez-Duque. She is also involved in the Guatemala Health Initiative, an organization of students who are doing community health work in that country, as well as Programa LACTAR, an initiative to promote breastfeeding in the Hispanic/Latino population in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Current sat down with Valeggia, one day before she was due to travel back to Argentina, to talk about how her work in Formosa focuses on transitions in that community, and how she made her own transition from studying monkeys as an undergrad to the field of anthropology.

Q. What does the Presidential Early Career Award mean to you in terms of your professional life?
A. It’s an exciting recognition, of course. It’s incredibly stimulating and it supports women in the sciences, which I definitely support. … I’m part of the Penn Forum for Women Faculty. Some of the issues we discuss are how to promote representation of women in the sciences, and having women win these awards is a big push. That’s something that President Obama mentioned when we were with him. He was very happy and impressed at how the number of women has been growing in the last few years.

Q. Your NSF grant funds your work with the Toba people in Argentina. What does that project entail?
A. It’s [on] three different transitions in life. My research is following the transitions. That’s the key word in my research because I study mostly groups that are transitioning in their lifestyle. This particular indigenous group of people, until very recently, were hunter-gatherers. They foraged. It was in the last 50 years or so that they started to settle and become more immersed in the market economy. I’m trying to document that transition, the way they respond to the change in their lifestyle. That’s the first meaning of transition for my research.
The second meaning is that in each individual life, particularly in women, I would like to take a holistic approach and study all the correlates of three different transitions. One is the transition from infancy to childhood, when the baby is being weaned from the breast. The second transition is puberty, and the third one is menopause. [These are] three important transitions at the biological level because they are marked by very concrete changes in the bodies of women. But also, I wanted to immerse that in the cultural scenarios: What is the meaning of the weaning transition to puberty and menopause for this particular culture? Do they have particular meanings or not? We have discovered that this culture doesn’t see transitions the same way we Westerners do. That’s one interesting aspect already.
It’s a five-year project. I am following a cohort of babies, a cohort of girls, and a cohort of perimenopausal women. I had to start earlier than what I would have done here in North America, or in Europe, because [Toba] women become menopausal at an earlier age. I’m starting with women when they are 40, so I’m able to capture the end of their reproductive life during the study. Girls, I started with 10-year-olds, and then started going earlier because they also [experience transition at] an earlier age. So I have 9-year-olds, 10-year-olds who are already experiencing menarche, which speaks of different life trajectories. That is one of the foci of my research. Human beings grow more or less in the same way, so there’s a universal pattern. But the shape and the timing of those events differ in different populations. It may respond to a strategy, an evolutionary strategy, to respond to the demands of the environment.

Q. By environment, do you mean everything from diet to location?
A. Anything from the prenatal environment, or nutrition, during pregnancy may affect the way that baby will grow and will experience a healthy and adult life. My study has implications both for a more theoretical perspective in evolutionary biology and also a very nice applied perspective in trying to show that health is not a dichotomous thing, that you’re [not] either normal or abnormal. There are variations and this variability you see may respond to something that is adaptive.

Q. You mentioned the women go through the transitional life stages earlier. How do you account for this?
A. One possible explanation for that is that if this particular group was experiencing high mortality during the recent past, it’s more adaptive to reproduce earlier. Because you don’t know whether you’re going to survive or not, you have an accelerated pace of life. You choose the fast lane because you don’t know whether you’re going to be able to make it or not. That’s one possible explanation. Other populations show the same response when you increase nutrition, so better nutrition early on means more resources. Different ecologies will shape your physiology in different ways. You have to always pay attention to the ecology, the local ecology of the population to interpret those variations.

Q. What is the community in the province of Formosa like?
A. This particular study is being conducted in a peri-urban village, the village of Namqam, which means ‘Our People’  in their language. It’s more or less 10 kilometers from the provincial capital, but it’s very separated in many different meanings of the word because it’s very homogeneous. It’s all Toba people. The non-indigenous people seldom go to this village, so the communication is poor, which is very sad because [communication] is one of the key issues for them to be recognized as valuable members of the overall community. 
Right now, we have 54 babies, close to 40 girls and about 40 women [participating in the study]. We keep recruiting.

Q. You do not only quantitative research in the field, measuring physiological characteristics and recording that data, but you also talk to the women. Why has it been important in your research to do both?
A. Because you cannot get the whole picture of human behavior if you don’t take into account both quantitative aspects—physical, anatomical, biological—and the qualitative ones, the lived experience. Everything is an embodied experience.
My choice of studying the menopausal comes from my own bias of looking at it as a very important stage where your reproductive life is over and you run out of eggs and you stop menstruating. But that’s a very Western biological view, and particularly in our society menopause has been so medicalized, you get all the hormonal patches and jokes about the hot flashes. For us, it’s an important, significant stage, [and] it is, in terms of purely biological processes, something that is marked very definitely on a woman’s body. You run out of eggs, your whole body composition changes, you start accumulating fat. So I thought, this is something to look at. Then you start talking to the Toba women and [ask] them, ‘OK, what happens during menopause?’ They say, ‘Meno—what?’

”You cannot get the whole picture of human behavior if you don’t take into account both quantitative aspects ... and the qualitative ones, the lived experience.”

Q. So it’s not marked as a significant life change and doesn’t carry all of the implications it does in the U.S.?
A. No. You ask, ‘But what happened to you?’ They say, ‘I thought I was pregnant, but no.’ There is not even a term in their language that describes ‘I stopped menstruating.’ Therefore, there’s not a big fuss about it. They know none of the symptoms we associate with menopause. They may experience tiredness, but they do not experience hot flashes or night sweats [because] it’s such a hot place. But definitely, the more serious symptoms, physical symptoms that are described for industrialized societies are not there, and if they are there, they will never say, ‘Well this is because of menopause.’ This is because ‘my children drive me crazy’ or ‘I’m worried.’ Something that is a reoccurring theme for them is being worried about their kids. They really embody all their worries. Menopause is not on their map. That in itself is interesting because by telling them we are particularly interested in studying this, we are planting something in their minds. They wonder, ‘Should I be worried?’

Q. What about a young woman’s transition into adulthood? Is it as insignificant when a young girl begins menstruating as when a woman stops?
A. They have rituals. They have different models for explaining the first menstruation. When girls start [reaching] 7, 8 years old, they are instructed not to look at the moon. The moon is a male and by looking at the moon, really staring at the moon for a long time, the moon may cause the girl to experience her first menstruation. 

Q. How did you get interested in this particular community?
A. It’s a 15-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. It’s the province of Formosa, in the northern area of Argentina, on the border with Paraguay. My field site is very close to my husband’s field site. It makes our family life a lot easier. We have three boys, they go to the field, they participate in research. One is a freshman here, one is a 15-year-old and one is an 8-year-old. They have their best friends in the field. They really enjoy it.
My first research question had to do with breastfeeding and fertility—how breastfeeding behavior, the intensity of breastfeeding, affected post-partum fertility. I needed a population in which breastfeeding was very prevalent and exclusive and intense. It’s not easy to find nowadays, women who breastfeed on demand. You have this mostly in traditional communities. I started contacting colleagues in Argentina. My husband [who studies monkeys] was also looking for a field site. And there we have this amazing province with indigenous communities who have breastfed for a long time, and monkeys ... so it was a good combination.

Q. You did undergrad work in Argentina and then went to UC Davis to study animal biology. How did you make the transition to anthropology?
A. My itinerary is eclectic. For my undergraduate thesis I studied crabs. But I was interested in animal behavior, so I applied to the animal behavior program, which is one of the best in the country at UC Davis and became interested in the reproductive biology of this particular monkey species. I did my dissertation describing the biology of titi monkeys. I always blame it on hormones, because I was pregnant with my second child when I started reading about human reproduction ecology, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know this subject existed. This is what I like to do.’ So, I started investigating breastfeeding when I was breastfeeding. I always followed my own life trajectory, and I am now interested in perimenopausal women. It gives me perspective.

Q. Were you always interested in science, either animal or human biology?
A. I was always interested in science. My father said, ‘Well, you’re going to be the scientist.’ I think he always wanted to be, but I think because he was born in Italy during the war, he never realized that dream. But when I was growing up, I did not realize that there was a whole field of human biology that I could work in without it being medicine. What I do has applications to medicine, but it’s not about medicine. It’s studying humans as part of the animal kingdom and understanding our part in evolution, too.

Q. Talk about your involvement with the Guatemala Health Initiative. What is that group?
A. I’m very grateful to Fran Barg [associate professor of family medicine and community health at the Perelman School of Medicine]. She is a colleague, and she was working in the Guatemala Health Initiative. One of the themes of the Maya community presented to the researchers from Penn is motherhood and maternal mortality, and infant mortality. They were concerned about that. Those were the beginning topics that we started to explore with them. So we came up with the ecology of motherhood in Santiago, trying to understand the experience of being a mother there. What are the challenges? What are the predicaments? What are the things that together, with a community, we can change or restructure to just decrease the high rates of mortality there? The Guatemala Health Initiative is more of a qualitative project for me, although I have been starting to include some quantitative aspects as well. It’s mainly understanding the experience of Mayan mothers there.

Q. How often do you travel to Guatemala for the project?
A. I went twice, and I consider myself very fortunate because it’s an amazing place. The community is extremely welcoming. One of the things that strikes you the most is that there are three volcanoes and a lake that is amazing. The landscape is gorgeous, and then you contrast that with the poverty and the struggle of the people, and the aftermath of Hurricane Stan and the trauma that caused. So many people died in the mudslides. It’s an emotional roller coaster, because you’re constantly amazed by the lake and the beautiful colors and textures you see in the market, and then you see the not-so-exciting part, the struggles, the trauma. They are happy people anyway. They find sources of happiness.

Q. You also teach here. What are you teaching this semester?
A. This semester I am teaching one class, next semester two classes. Next semester, I’m teaching an introduction class to human biology called ‘Being Human.’ It’s biology, but it’s also culture, so it’s about the human experience. The second [class] is more specific to my field of studies, ‘Human Reproductive Ecology.’ It’s a seminar. We discuss the current debates in the field and we work together with the students. We work on how to think about a research proposal. First, we read about human reproductive ecology and the students have to come up with research questions. [They also] have to come up with a method, with a research design, and write it in a format that is, for example, meant for [a foundation]. Some of the proposals are amazing, they can definitely be fundable. … I’m very impressed with Penn undergrads.

Q. After receiving the award, are you reflecting on what lies ahead for you professionally?
A. The NSF Award is great, because I don’t have to worry about the constant asking for money. For five years, I still need some supplements, but I’m fine. My whole research career is oriented to work documenting these transitions. I see myself working in the same community, maybe incorporating the non-indigenous population more as a comparative perspective. [I also hope to get] more involved in the Guatemala Health Initiative. I also work in collaboration with a local OBGYN in Northeast Philadelphia. Her name is Gail Herrine. We are interested in a project that encourages women to breastfeed more. She noticed that in her practice—even though most of her patients are Hispanic—they are not breastfeeding. Why? [Breastfeeding] is so deep-rooted in the culture of Latinas. We started working together, trying to understand why and what are the obstacles. We found several points of possible intervention, like doctors being more breastfeeding-friendly, nurses in the post-partum floor being more breastfeeding-friendly. We also found that the first 48 hours after the mom comes back home with a new baby; those are crucial. If they [the moms] receive support, if they find places to ask questions or to check whether things are going right, they have more chances of breastfeeding.

Q. Is it just a resource issue? Does that account for why more women in that community are not breastfeeding?
A. It’s a resource issue, but it’s also breastfeeding in public. That’s another thing they do not like. Breasts are very sexualized and they do not like to breastfeed in public. My personal bias, I thought, ‘Well, it’s the guys. The guys don’t want their girlfriends or wives to breastfeed.’ I was wrong. The guys were very supportive, they said, ‘Yes, I think this is best for the baby,’ and most women say, ‘No, it’s not for me.’

Q. So, you’re working with doctors and nurses to encourage them to talk to their patients about it more?
A. Gail and I were able to recruit students to do theses and investigate this, so one of her student residents there worked with the doctors. Then last year, one of my students, a master’s student, worked trying to assess the attitudes and knowledge about this among nurses at HUP, at Pennsylvania [Hospital] and Temple, and we saw a lot of differences at three different hospitals. It’s ongoing.
Now one of my students who is a health and societies major is doing research on attitudes on infant feeding among young people. She thought, ‘Well, most of them are going to be future parents.’ These are educated young people, mostly with professional ambitions, what do they think now about breastfeeding? She did an online survey, and she’s going to pass it to different students and have instructor interviews with different students to capture a more nuanced response, and her senior thesis is going to be on that.

Q. It seems like so much of your work sparks really interesting student projects. That must be gratifying to you as a researcher.
A. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences working with [young people]. Many students have come to the field with me. It’s a complete eye-opener for them to see other realities, other ways of looking at life.

Q. You’ve also started something called Fundación ECO. What is that?
A. My work in Argentina couldn’t be possible without the collaboration and the participation of the Toba community, but also, without the collaboration of the people of an NGO, which is Fundación ECO, which I created together with my husband in 1999. It’s our way of giving back to the community. This is an NGO that fosters and promotes education in the area. One of the activities is [matching] what we call a Padrin or Madrin, which are like godparents, with a student in Formosa, so that the student can continue his or her studies. It’s like a scholarship program. Or we have workshops, wildlife conservation workshops or environmental education for elementary schools—all programs that support education in the area.

Q. You’re not just going there as a researcher, but it seems like you’re doing something that gets you personally involved in the community.
A. It is a way of channeling our decision to really be part of the community.

Claudia Valeggia