Jenny Tung, featured in 2018, studies how social environments — including social status, relationships and isolation — influence primates’ genes and health. Her study subjects have included captive rhesus macaques and wild baboons.
What has been the most notable progress in your work since 2018?
We have built layers of complexity onto [our] initial story. A few years ago we were showing that it’s possible for social interactions to have profound effects on the function of our genome. And now we’re trying to derive a much better understanding of how and why and when, and what are the exceptions.
The other thing I’m really excited about is our ability to move away from this very powerful but very artificial system using captive primates and to ask about what’s going on in the field with wild monkeys. I’ve studied wild baboons in Kenya for many, many years. We know a lot about the social environments, the social experiences. And now with the ability to collect some simple blood samples, we’re also seeing strong signatures of things like social status and social integration, social bonds, social connectedness in the function of these animals’ genomes. That’s pretty exciting because lab studies are powerful and wonderful, but there’s always this question of, “Well, is this real in the real world?”
You were named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019. What have you been pursuing since?
It was a real honor. It has encouraged us to continue down some of these paths … and to also do some more comparative work and think about species beyond the ones that I have traditionally studied. So in the past few years, I’ve picked up work in other social mammals — wild meerkats and these very social rodents called mole rats — that have their own advantages in giving us insight into how our social world has shaped both how we came to be, our evolutionary past, and how we do day to day in our present.
I’ve been doing more work on something that’s an old love of mine: trying to understand the evolutionary consequences of intermixing between different primates. The population of baboons that I study in Kenya actually sits right at the edge of where the ranges of two different species of baboons meet. And so this population is intermixed between one species, the Anubis baboon, and this other species, the yellow baboon.… We think those patterns of intermixture influence some things about what [the animals] look like, how they behave and so on.…
We know that [humans] have also intermixed a lot with some groups that don’t even exist today, like Neandertals and Denisovans. That process of admixture that we observe right now in living primates [is] potentially relevant to understanding our species’s history.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced since 2018?
In many ways, I felt very fortunate during the pandemic; as an academic with tenure, I have a secure job. But we were also home with a 3-year-old for a long stretch. I spend usually at least a month a year in Kenya, and I have since 2006. But not in 2020. We had to figure out some way of keeping [the research] continuous without any ability to travel there. We have a permanent staff in Kenya — they are Kenyan — who are very important to us and have been working with our project in some cases for many decades, and they were having their own issues, and isolation, and risks in the face of a lot of uncertainty.
I spend a lot of time in my research life thinking about social interactions. And every species that I study … they live in groups. And humans, to a large extent, we live together. We didn’t evolve to be on our own for a long period of time. And so I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and working on, “Why when you don’t have the right sort of social connections, why does your risk of death just shoot up? What’s the consequence of chronic social stress?” One of the things that I really appreciate in a more visceral manner [now] is how important my social network is to me. I think that we’re all looking for ways to connect during the pandemic. And that’s when your personal experience and the things that you’re writing papers about and thinking about really collide.
— Interview by Aina Abell