Biodemography Laboratory Opens After Renovation

Photo by Dominick Ojeda | Staff Photographer

Dominick Ojeda

Under the direction of UCSB anthropology professor Michael Gurven, the newly renovated Biodemography Laboratory allows undergraduate and graduate students to discover medical explanations to many social science questions.

Previously located in the neuroscience building, the newly expanded Biodemography Laboratory officially opened on April 16 in the basement of the new BioEngineering building. In an interview with The Bottom Line, Gurven explained that this expansion “will allow social scientists to use biomarkers in their research.”

These biomakers, which will be available in the refreshed laboratory, are measurable substances such as diseases, infection, or environmental impacts on human behavior, to explain how sociocultural and economic influences affect physiology and health. The field of biodemography combines techniques of analyzing human interaction and movement with biomarkers to provide social science researchers a more accurate account of a civilization.

UCSB’s newest laboratory is currently aiding researchers to answer a variety of questions, such as how stress in impoverished communities affects residents’ immune systems, how breastfeeding affects a mother’s antibiotics, and why some primates are at higher risks of diseases.

This interdisciplinary laboratory is available to and encourages all interested researchers to contact laboratory workers about utilizing their services. With the help of centrifuges, cell counts, and other biological techniques, laboratory workers provide researchers with in-depth analyses of the community of interest. Workers and researchers take precautions to assure that their work is carried out in the most unobtrusive methods to keep from harming the communities they are studying.

During his speech at the grand opening ceremony, Charles Hale, Dean of Social Sciences, said that the laboratory was an “opportunity to develop a social science-rich approach to [medical] sciences.” Hale believes that since this university does not have a medical school, researchers are able to offer an alternative perspective to medical issues, which has already shown valuable to outside medical researchers.

Nikka Keivanfar, an undergraduate researcher who participated in the Blackwell Lab, went on to work at 10X Genomics and currently goes to UCSC graduate school. Gurven hopes to have more undergraduate participation and believes students like Keivanfar will be better equipped for post-graduation after working at the laboratory.

Researchers at this biodemography laboratory have started research in the Bolivian Amazon, studying how aging in a different environment affects health and social networks among community members. The Bolivian Amazon provides these researchers with a unique population to study, because of their preserved diets and habits from hundreds of years ago. Researchers are specifically trying to determine if heart disease is historically a human defect, or if it exists because of modern civilization.

So far, researchers have found members of the Bolivian Amazon show traditional indications of heart disease, but do not have higher rates of heart disease. Gurven says that the patients in Bolivian Amazonian study show the lowest heart disease rates of any population ever studied. This research has dramatically changed how medical researchers look at heart disease and aids in fighting the disease in a more effective way.

Gurven hopes to continue growing the scope of this laboratory and invite more departments to utilize biodemography in their research.