Penn Anthropologist Wins Presidential Early Career Award

PHILADELPHIA — Claudia Valeggia, an associate professor of anthropology in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, has been selected as one of this year’s winners of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.  Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

The work for which Valeggia received the PECASE award was funded by the National Science Foundation and involves a group of Toba indigenous women and girls living in the province of Formosa in Argentina. The ongoing project aims to better understand three key life transitions: the move from infancy to childhood, puberty and menopause.  Valeggia and her colleagues take monthly measurements and other physiological data from the participants to chart physical changes in their lives.

“Even though humans grow more or less following the same blueprint,” Valeggia said, “different populations have different ways of dealing with challenges in their environments. Children in one place may have an accelerated pace and develop earlier, but in places where resources are scarce it could be better for them to keep growing at a slower pace and start reproducing later in life when their children have better chances of surviving. Studying the variations of how groups or individuals respond to these environmental challenges can help us understand the evolution of these traits.”

Though Valeggia is a biological anthropologist, she combines quantitative data with qualitative accounts of what making these transitions means in a cultural sense, gleaned from interviews with the women and girls.  

“Culture can affect life transitions,” she said. “For example, if there are a cultural prohibitions against eating certain things, or certain quantities of food, that may change individuals’ biological pathways and allow for a different trajectory of growth.

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