Laboratory for Human Biology Research

Northwestern University












Thomas W. McDade, PhD

Martin J. and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Professor
Department of Anthropology
Director, Laboratory for Human Biology Research
Associate Director, Cells to Society (C2S): Center on Social Disparities and Health
Fellow, Institute for Policy Research

Northwestern University
1810 Hinman Ave.
Evanston, IL 60208

Phone:  847/467-4304 
Fax:  847/467-1778


Areas of Interest 

Biocultural perspectives on health and human development; human biology; stress; immune function; field and laboratory methods; life history theory; medical anthropology; global health

Curriculum Vitae


Research Statement

     My research is in the area of biological anthropology, with an emphasis on human population biology.  I am broadly interested in understanding how diverse social, cultural, economic, and physical ecological factors shape variation in human physiological systems and health, and I have focused primarily on immune function and inflammation as important systems that link environments and health across the life course.  Despite current calls for multi-level, integrative research on human health, most research happens in silos:  Biomedical and life scientists unravel the molecular mechanisms of disease, but often ignore the broader social contexts; social scientists enrich our understanding of how social, economic, and cultural factors shape human health in diverse communities, but rely on limited measures of health.  A comprehensive understanding of human biology and health demands an integration of these perspectives.  The holistic tradition of anthropology provides a framework for such an integration, and I have devoted considerable effort to developing tools to advance theoretically driven, methodologically grounded, biocultural research in human biology and health. 
     Three common threads weave their way through my work.  The first emphasizes the importance of understanding human biology in relation to the surrounding ecological contexts that shape the development and function of biological systems.  The immune system represents a particularly illuminating example in this regard, since input from the environment is essential to the process of generating effective anti-pathogen defenses that are specifically tailored to the local ecology.  While my work involves analysis of several biological mechanisms and outcomes, my emphasis on context and population-level processes distinguishes it from the molecular level of analysis that characterizes current research in biomedicine.  Over the past several years I have spent much of my time in collaborative, multi-disciplinary research settings, and through this experience it has become increasingly clear to me that the holistic, ecologically grounded, adaptationist perspective of human biology/biological anthropology is absolutely essential.      
     A primary focus on human development and the life course is the second theme in my work.  Much research in biological anthropology centers on the well-being of adults at one end of the life course, and infants at the other.  In between are the childhood and adolescent years, which—with the exception of research on growth and pubertal timing—have been relatively neglected.  From a life course perspective, infancy, childhood, and adolescence are important periods for establishing trajectories of physiological function, with implications for health later in life.  Adults are products of their current as well as early life environments, and a developmental perspective provides a more comprehensive understanding of human biology and health.
     Lastly, careful consideration of difficult methodological issues has been a central theme in my work.  Much research in biological anthropology (as well as recent work in social epidemiology and biodemography) attempts to link social/cultural and ecological contexts to variation in growth and health outcomes through proximate physiological mechanisms.  However, investigations into these mechanisms have been hampered by constraints imposed by conducting research in field settings.  As such, I have invested extensive effort into the development and application of new methods that allow the study of physiology and health outside the clinic or lab.  A community-based approach to research in human biology opens up a wider range of research questions and foregrounds the ecological factors that may be important determinants of human biological variation. 

I.  Integrative, biocultural perspectives on stress and health

     A holistic approach to understanding human diversity and human origins has been a foundational, signature contribution of anthropology.  Despite divisive tendencies within anthropology in general, and increased specialization within physical anthropology in particular, a strong tradition of biocultural research continues to draw on conceptual and methodological tools from anthropology as well as allied biological and social/behavioral sciences.  Attention to the health impact of cultural and economic transitions has been a major theme of biocultural research, and for my dissertation I investigated culture change as a source of stress for children and adolescents in the islands of Samoa. 

     More recently, I have developed a U.S.-based program of research on socio-cultural environments, stress, and health.  I am currently PI of an RO1 award from NICHD that is directly supporting this line of research.  The project team includes five faculty, three postdoctoral researchers, and two graduate student RAs, and together we are investigating the impact of social and economic stressors on biomarkers of health in a nationally representative sample of more than 15,000 individuals.  The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) is the flagship study of health in young adulthood in the US, and for the first time in its 15 year history the study is collecting a panel of minimally invasive biological measures from participants.  The study provides an opportunity of unprecedented magnitude to integrate detailed contextual and lifestyle information with objective physiological data on the function of cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine, and immune/ inflammatory systems.  The data have just been released, and we are pursuing several analyses to examine the mechanisms through which social contexts “get under the skin” to shape human physiology and health.


Key papers

McDade, T.W., Chyu, L., Duncan, G.J., Hoyt, L.T., Doane, L.D. and E.K. Adam (2011).  Adolescents’ expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood.  Social Science and Medicine 73: 391-8.

McDade, T.W., S.T. Lindau, and K. Wroblewski (2011).  Predictors of C-reactive protein the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project.  Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 66: 129-36.

McDade, T.W. (2009) Beyond the gradient: An integrative anthropological perspective on social stratification, stress, and health. In Health, Risk, and Adversity, C. Panter-Brick and A. Fuentes (eds.).

Sweet, E., McDade, T.W., Kiefe, C.I., Liu, K. (2007). The Interaction between skin color, income, and blood pressure among African Americans in the CARDIA Study. American Journal of Public Health 97: 2253-2259.

McDade, T.W., Reyes-García, V., Blackinton, P., Tanner, S., Huanca, T, and W.R. Leonard. (2007). Ethnobotanical knowledge is associated with indices of child health in the Bolivian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 6134-6139.

McDade, T.W. (2007). Challenges and opportunities for integrative health research in the context of culture: A commentary on Gersten, “Neuroendocrine biomarkers, social relations, and the costs of cumulative stress in Taiwan”. Social Science and Medicine.

McDade, T.W., Hawkley, L.C. and J.T. Cacioppo (2006).  Psychosocial and behavioral predictors of inflammation in middle-age and older adults:  The Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychosomatic Medicine 68: 376-81.

McDade, T.W. (2002).  Status incongruity in Samoan youth:  A biocultural analysis of culture change, stress, and immune function.  Medical Anthropology Quarterly 16: 123-150.

McDade, T.W., Stallings, J.F. and C.M. Worthman (2000).  Culture change and stress in Western Samoan youth:  Methodological issues in the cross-cultural study of stress and immune function.  American Journal of Human Biology 12: 792-802.

II.  Developmental ecology of immune function and inflammation

     Current biomedical research on immune function illuminates the cellular and molecular mechanisms that characterize immune defenses, but the human immune system is a product of natural selection that develops and functions in whole organisms that are integral parts of their surrounding environments.  Similarly, inflammation—a central part of innate immune defenses against infectious disease—has generated intense clinical and epidemiological interest due to its association with the progression of a wide range of chronic degenerative diseases, including cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.  However, current understandings of inflammation are based almost exclusively on research conducted in affluent industrialized settings with low burdens of infectious disease.  A comparative, developmental, ecological perspective is therefore a necessary complement to current biomedical research, and I have been working to establish human ecological immunology as an important domain of inquiry in biological anthropology that can address this gap.  Ongoing NSF and NIH funded research in Bolivia, Ecuador, and the Philippines has provided data to test several new hypotheses regarding the development and function of the human immune system.


Key papers

McDade, T.W., Tallman, P.S., Adair, L.S., Borja, J. and C.W. Kuzawa (in press).  Comparative insights into the regulation of inflammation: Levels and predictors of interleukin 6 and interleukin 10 in young adults in the Philippines. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 

McDade, T.W., Rutherford, J.N., Adair, L. and C. Kuzawa (2010). Early origins of inflammation: microbial exposures in infancy predict lower levels of C-reactive protein in adulthood.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277: 1129-37.

McDade, T.W., Rutherford, J.N., Adair, L. and C. Kuzawa (2009). Population differences in associations between C-reactive protein concentration and adiposity: comparison of young adults in the Philippines and the United States.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89: 1237-45.

McDade, T.W., Reyes-García, V., Tanner, S., Huanca, T., and W.R. Leonard.(2008). Maintenance vs. growth: Investigating the costs of immune activation among children in lowland Bolivia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

McDade, T.W., Rutherford, J.N., Adair L.S., Kuzawa, C. (2008). Adiposity and Pathogen Exposure Predict
C-Reactive Protein in Filipino Women. Journal of Nutrition 138: 2442-2447

McDade, T.W., Leonard, W.R., Burhop, J., Reyes-García, V., Vadez, V., Huanca, T. and R.A. Godoy (2005). Predictors of C-reactive protein in Tsimane’ 2-15 year-olds in lowland Bolivia.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

McDade, T.W. (2005).  The ecologies of human immune function. Annual Review of Anthropology

McDade, T.W. (2005).  Life history, maintenance, and the early origins of immune function.  American Journal of Human Biology 17: 81-94. 

McDade, T.W. (2003).  Life history theory and the immune system:  Steps toward a human ecological immunology.  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 46: 100-125. 

McDade, T.W., Beck, M.A., Kuzawa, C. and L.S. Adair (2001).  Prenatal undernutrition, postnatal environments, and antibody response to vaccination in adolescence.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 74: 543-548.

McDade, T.W. and C.M. Worthman (1999).  Evolutionary process and the ecology of human immune function.  American Journal of Human Biology 11: 705-717.

III.  Development of minimally-invasive field methods in human biology

     Biological anthropologists often choose to conduct research in remote field settings in order to explore the range of human variation in biological processes and outcomes.  However, methodological constraints associated with venipuncture blood sampling impose significant obstacles to field-based physiological research, which further reinforces the status quo understanding of human biology that is based on work in affluent, industrialized populations, usually conducted in clinical or laboratory settings with non-representative samples.  In an attempt to overcome some of these challenges, a major focus of my work has been the development of minimally-invasive, “field-friendly” methods for assessing aspects of human biology and health.  In particular, I have focused on dried blood spots (DBS) as a convenient means for collecting, transporting, and processing blood samples in community settings.  In contrast to the relative invasiveness of venipuncture, whole blood samples can be collected from a simple finger prick.  Samples are dried on filter paper, and—unlike plasma samples—do not need to be centrifuged or immediately frozen.

     To date, I have successfully used this technique to collect blood samples from children and adolescents in Samoa, Kenya, and Bolivia for my own research, and I have worked with collaborators to implement these methods in Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mexico, Nepal, and the US.  I have validated laboratory methods for measuring aspects of immune function (antibodies against the Epstein-Barr virus, antibodies against the Cytomegalovirus, C-reactive protein, total IgE) and nutritional status (serum transferrin receptor, leptin) in DBS.  Two recent grants are supporting the development of methods for anti-mullerian hormone (AMH), as well as a multiplex panel of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines.  These methods are significant in that they facilitate the study of physiological mechanisms in relation to social and ecological contexts in diverse population-based settings, promote future field-based research into the ecology of immune function and health, and expand the range of questions that can be addressed by human population biology.  

Key papers

McDade, T.W. and M.D. Hayward (2009).  Rationale and methodological options for assessing infectious disease and related measures in social science surveys.  Biodemography and Social Biology 55: 159-177.

Lindau, S.T. and T.W. McDade. (2008) Minimally-invasive and innovative methods for biomeasure collection in population-based research. In Biosocial Surveys, M. Weinstein, J.W. Vaupel, and K.W. Wachter (eds). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

McDade, T.W., Williams, S., and J.J. Snodgrass. (2007) What a drop can do: Dried blood spots as a minimally-invasive method for integrating biomarkers into population-based research. Demography 44: 899-925.

Miller, A., Sharrock, K., and T.W. McDade. (2006). Measurement of leptin in dried blood spot samples. American Journal of Human Biology. 18: 857-60.

McDade, T.W., Burhop, J., and J. Dohnal (2004).  High sensitivity enzyme immunoassay for C-reactive protein in dried blood spots.  Clinical Chemistry 50: 652-654.

McDade, T.W. and B. Shell-Duncan (2002).  Whole blood collected on filter paper provides a minimally-invasive method for assessing human transferrin receptor.  Journal of Nutrition 132:  3760-3763.

McDade, T.W., Stallings, J.F., Angold, A., Costello, E.J., Burleson, M., Cacioppo, J.T., Glaser, R. and C.M. Worthman (2000).  Epstein-Barr virus antibodies in whole blood spots:  A minimally-invasive method for assessing an aspect of cell-mediated immunity.  Psychosomatic Medicine 62: 560-568.