DIBS Faculty Network Member Jenny Tung Wins Genius Grant

Tung studies long-term health consequences of social stress

Thursday, October 17, 2019
Picture of Jenny Tung discussing her work
From the MacArthur Foundation: Jenny Tung discusses her work

If you asked Jenny Tung’s parents, “no one’s kids that they knew of went off to Africa every summer to look at monkeys.” But Tung has been doing just that since her first trip to Kenya in 2006 to study the wild baboons of Amboseli.

She joined a research project that year that had been watching the same troops of free-ranging baboons within sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro since 1971, witnessing pairings, births, fights, deaths. Many generations of baboons later, the Amboseli Baboon Research Project is still going on, and Tung, first as a Duke graduate student and now as an associate professor, has built on its treasure of data.

Her major contribution has been adding sophisticated DNA analysis to the decades of Amboseli observations and seeing new patterns over the span of time. Tung is now expanding her examination of links between social status and health to rhesus macaques, meerkats and mole rats.  In the macaques, Tung’s team has shown that the stress of life at the bottom of the social ladder can alter the immune system, just as it does in baboons. The results provide evidence that low social status leads to disparities in health, not just the other way around, as some researchers have argued.

On Wednesday, Tung, 37, was awarded a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship -- also known as the “genius grant” -- for her work. The five-year, $625,000  fellowship is awarded to 20 to 30 individuals each year “to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.” Past recipients have included writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, and others.

Tung is a scientist with a broad view. She wants to understand how social and environmental adversity affects health and survival over the lifespan of an individual. 

Numerous studies show that human childhood trauma can have far-reaching effects on adult health; Tung’s research finds that the same is true for baboons. In 2016, Tung and colleagues showed that baboons that experience multiple misfortunes in early life live shorter adult lives. 

In humans, such patterns might be attributed to differences in diet, exercise or medical care. But Tung’s results show that early adversity, such as being born in a drought or being orphaned young, can have long-term negative effects on survival in communities of social animals in which those differences don’t exist. Tung is the third acting Duke professor, all women scientists, to win the MacArthur prize while at Duke, and the first in 30 years. She follows in the footsteps of biochemist Jane Richardson (awarded in 1985) and primatologist Patricia Wright (1989).  

Excerpted from Duke Today story by Robin A. Smith, PhD