Katie is an assistant professor at Harvard University where she, as head of the Comparative Lactation Lab, does pioneering research into the behavioral biology of mother’s milk. Katie is also heavily involved in efforts to increase diversity and equal opportunities in academia. Back in July she, along with her colleagues, published the results of the SAFE (Survey of Academic Field Experiences) study, which describes the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault at academic field sites.
In response to our survey questions, Katie provided details not only about her background and research, but also the unique tournament she hosts each year on her blog Mammel Suck… Milk!
Why/How did you end up in science?
I started out at Seattle Central Community College and fell head over heels for anthropology, but couldn’t decide between biological or linguistic subfields. When I transferred to the University of Washington I enrolled in a course on primate growth and development. As undergraduates we in charge of weighing, measuring, and x-raying baby monkeys. Two things about that, it was the 90s when such research opportunities were more available and BABY MONKEYS!!!
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I took as many classes about primate behavior offered at the UW in both anthropology and psychology. I was hired as a part-time technician at the Primate Center on campus. I was always thinking about natural selection and adaptations and mother-infant dynamics. I still have the key articles I read as an undergrad by Phyllis Lee and Lynn Fairbanks about maternal care and the behavioral dynamics of the weaning process. And those print outs have my wild notes in the margins, speculating about mother’s milk.
Tell us about your work?
I study mother’s milk and it is amazing. Natural selection has shaped the defining adaptation of our mammalian class- the synthesis of milk from mammary glands- for tens of millions of years. As a result of a multitude of selective pressures, across mammals today, mother’s milk is food, medicine, and signal to the developing neonate. Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy and materials for somatic growth, but through other milk constituents that shape immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development. Indeed, thousands of bioactive constituents are present in mother’s milk but we still have not described all of the bioactive constituents nor identified what most of them do when ingested by the neonate. Not only is this a problematic gap in our basic biological knowledge, this is a deficit in crucial information for shaping clinical practice, public policy, and global health. My Comparative Lactation Laboratory has pioneered approaches to lactation biology research and provided the first evidence in primates for differences in milk for sons and daughters and the role of mother’s milk in shaping offspring behavior.
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?
Some of the biggest health challenges facing the world today can be reduced or treated with breast milk. For the first time in human history, the health of more people is threatened by being overweight rather than underweight. And breastfed infants are less likely to develop obesity. Globally, diarrheal disease is a leading cause of infant and childhood mortality. Specially adapted sugars in milk can protect against diarrheal disease. HIV is a worldwide epidemic. Constituents in breast milk can kill the HIV virus. Breast milk has pluripotent stem cells that can differentiate into multiple cell lineages and are a potential avenue for regenerative medicine research. So next time you are walking down the dairy aisle at the grocery store, remember, mother’s milk has been shaped by natural selection for hundreds of millions of years. Milk is older than dinosaurs.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
Through research, outreach, and community conversations I work to increase diversity and equal opportunity in academia. Racial, ethnic, gender, religious, LGBTQQA, and alter-abled diversity at institutions of higher learning remain under-represented. Moreover, numerous societal, institutional, and inter-personal obstacles prevent these spaces from being truly equal opportunity. A few months ago, colleagues and I reported on sexual harassment and sexual assault at academic field sites, known as the SAFE Study (Survey of Academic Field Experiences). We are continuing that conversation as well as intersections among the many groups still encountering chilly climate and workplace hostility in STEM fields.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
Annually since 2013, in honor of the NCAA College Basketball March Madness Championship Tournament, my blog “Mammals Suck… Milk” features simulated combat competition among 65 species of animals in a virtual tournament. Scientific literature is cited to substantiate likely outcomes should two animals or two groups of animals encounter one another. Battle outcome is a probabilistic function of the two species’ attributes within the battle environment. Attributes considered in calculating battle outcome include temperament, weaponry, armor, body mass, running speed, fight style, physiology, and motivation. The other organizers (Josh Drew, Columbia; Kristi Lewton, Boston U; Chris Anderson, Dominican U) and I live tweet and then storify all the bouts. Basically, we use sports championship mimicry to educate about adaptations, community ecology, and conservation.
How would you describe your ideal day off? (Scientists are people too!)
Backpacking through the Hoh Rainforest on the Washington State peninsula, breaking through the moss-laden trees to see the Pacific Ocean, dropping my bag and wading through tide pools and checking out the amazing animals making their homes there.
Please welcome Katie to RealScientists!