DURHAM — The list of this year’s prestigious McArthur Foundation Fellowship grants includes Jenny Tung, associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University.
The $625,000 fellowship is awarded annually to 20 to 30 individuals with “no-strings attached” to “encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.”
Tung, who is 37-years old, lives in the Durham area with her husband, a Duke statistician and mathematician, and their young son, who is 22 months old.
Over the years, Tung has been nominated for, and has won, several awards, but Tung told NSJ the MacArthur award was completely unexpected, and her first reaction was a rush of adrenaline followed by disbelief.
“We put our science out in the world, and you hope that people find it useful and interesting,” said Tung. “And it’s sort of this incredible validation that there are people in my community, and even outside it, who think what we’re doing is good.”
Tung lived in a small town in Delaware of around 5,000 people until she was 14 years old before finishing high school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents still live.
It was a class her first semester of college about the evolution of animal societies, evolutionary thinking and evolutionary explanations for the natural world, Tung explained, that attracted her interest.
“It just made a lot of sense to me, and I loved the fact that that kind of logic could be applied to things as complexes as social behavior, you know, as relationships between individuals,” said Tung. “And then, you know, for me getting into evolution meant getting into genetics because genetic variation is kind of the substrate for evolution.”
Tung received both her Bachelor of Science (2003) and her Ph. D (2010) degrees from Duke University. After Duke, Tung was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago.
Tung’s current work involves the long-term studies of baboons and rhesus macaques, examining the genetic mechanisms between social experiences and the health of the animals.
“We’re trying to understand in the baboons how things that happen early in life somehow seem to have these really long-term effects on how these animals do, how many babies they leave behind, how long they live and so on,” said Tung.
Tung says they’re trying to ask whether those factors are the result of long-term changes in how their cells are regulated and how their genome is regulated.
With the rhesus macaques, Tung describes ongoing experiments manipulating aspects of their social hierarchy to see if their bodies retain a memory of what happened to them in the past.
Tung also said that recent work includes meerkats in South Africa and how adoption of different social roles changes the way their cells are regulated. Tung added that she is working with colleagues at UNC and the University of Chicago on how some of her models might overlap with their work with social trauma in humans in challenging situations.
“We’re going to start doing some real comparative work to ask whether what we’re seeing in these in these sort of animal models looks like what happens in people like us who are in maybe analogous challenging situations,” Tung said.
Another MacArthur Fellow recipient from North Carolina this year is Mel Chin, who the MacArthur Fellows program characterizes as a “category-defying artist.” Chin’s art focuses on complex social and environmental issues in “collages, sculptural objects, animated films, and video games to large-scale, collaboratively produced public installations.”
There are three criteria for selection of McArthur Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and the potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
The McArthur Foundation’s independent selection committee does not accept unsolicited nominations, but instead selects nominees from a very broad range of fields chosen from a “constantly changing pool of invited external nominators.”
Nominees can be either residents or citizens of the United States and can’t be an elected official or hold an advanced position in government.
Since 1981, 1040 people have been named MacArthur Fellows, and recipients have included artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, writers and scientists.