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Jenny Tung: Ready to Test Stress

Evolutionary anthropologist investigates how genes and behavior influence each other

Evolutionary anthropologist Jenny Tung doing field work with baboons in Africa.
Evolutionary anthropologist Jenny Tung doing field work with baboons in Africa.

Jenny Tung's favorite spot on campus is Duke Gardens. It's quiet, tranquil -- a perfect place to get rid of stress. Though Tung studies stress and other behaviors and their affects on health, she said she is not sure how well her research influences her own behavior.

In the summer of 2012, Tung, 30, returned to Duke -- where she earned her undergraduate and graduate degree -- to be an assistant professor in the department of evolutionary anthropology. She studies baboons and rhesus macaques, exploring how individuals' behaviors and their genetics interact.

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Tung's interest in research began in her freshman biological anthropology class, which explored social ideals through the lens of evolution. Part of the FOCUS program that year, the class "introduced me to the idea of taking an evolutionary perspective on understanding behavior and really helped move me toward thinking about the biological, material basis for observable phenomena," Tung said. It also "helped move me off a rather uncommitted pre-med track into thinking about going into basic research," she added.

Not too long after her first year, Tung discovered the Sarah P. Duke Gardens while spending a summer living in the Central Campus apartments and doing research. Each day, she walked a route through the gardens to the lab. "It made for a great commute," she said.

Tung received her B.S. in biology in 2003 and stayed at Duke to work on her graduate degree. Under the joint supervision of biologists Greg Wray and Susan Alberts, she studied the wild baboon population of the Amboseli basin in Kenya and tried to determine the relationship between the animals' genes and their behaviors.

Jenny Tung
Jenny Tung

"Studying the genetic basis for behavior has been a real challenge, in part because the relationship between genetic differences and behavior is often rather indirect, and in part because non-genetic factors such as life experiences are often just as important as genetics," Wray said.

"Jenny's work with wild primate populations is important because it demonstrates that it is possible to discern connections between genetics and behavior in a natural setting," Wray said. He said she has a tenacity and focus, along with a "willingness to be critical of her own work," that make her a great scientist.

Tung worked with Wray and Alberts until completing her Ph.D. in 2010. She then moved to the University of Chicago and worked as a post-doctoral fellow with molecular geneticist Yoav Gilad. They studied captive rhesus macaques at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and discovered differences among the genes being switched on and off in high-and low-ranking female macaques. The differences may explain why female macaques with higher social status are healthier than their low-ranking counterparts.

On a personal level, the research also emphasizes how physiologically challenging chronic stress can be, Tung said. "I definitely think about it in my day-to-day life, and it's an additional reminder about why trying to keep life in balance is important for long-term reasons too. I'm not sure how much this helps me, though."

Along with Tung's new professorship, she is also the associate director for genetics of the Amboseli Baboon Research Project and a faculty associate of the Duke University Population Research Institute (DuPRI).

She oversees the genetic and genomic analyses of the Amboseli project baboons and travels to Kenya once or twice a year, which she has been doing for the past six years. She also works with the other directors to get funding and ensure that the long-term field research in the region can continue.

As a part of DuPRI, Tung said she hopes to provide biological perspectives, data and analysis to population studies and bridge the gap with the social scientists, creating more collaboration. "What I like about Duke is the commitment to opening boundaries and including more interdisciplinarity," she said. "I also like the collegial atmosphere. Even when there are questions that come up in research, there's a discussion of different perspectives, a spirit of engagement, rather than defensiveness."

Tung said she does get to relax occasionally, and when she does, she likes to cook, play with her two dogs and read. She lives in Durham with her husband, Duke statistician Sayan Mukherjee, and she still likes to walk through Duke Gardens. "Though, I don't get there quite as often as I should," she said.