Eck Institute for Global Health faculty affiliate, Lee Gettler, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, discusses his fascinating work in the biology of fatherhood, helping students design research projects they are passionate about, and the struggle of achieving work-life balance as a tenure track faculty member.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your research program. How and when did you first become interested in the field?
A. I am a biological anthropologist who specializes in human biology. Much of my research has focused on the way in which men’s hormonal physiology responds to major life transitions, such as marriage and fatherhood. Perhaps surprisingly, I have been interested in what happens to men’s biology when they become fathers ever since I was in high school, when my friends and I used to have joking conversations about how our fathers were so much bigger and stronger than we were. We came up with the idea that when men became fathers they then became much more burly. We called this the “theory of man strength.” That simplistic, joking idea was not going anywhere but later, as an undergraduate at ND, I took an anthropology class with Dr. Agustin Fuentes (who is the Chair of my current department) and learned about some fascinating hormone research that was being done on New World monkey fathers that help care for their young. Working with Agustin, I started looking into what research had been done on human fathers’ biology and found that the area was basically wide open. Lucky for me, that was still true a few years later (2007) when I began graduate school at Northwestern University. From that point on, I started to develop my research program on the biology of fatherhood, particularly looking at how hormones like testosterone, prolactin, and cortisol response to parenting. Along the way, I have also studied a number of other health-relevant questions focused around topics such as men’s body composition, physical activity, immune function, and cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Through a variety of global collaborations, I have expanded my focus to work on family systems, including the psychobiology of mothers, fathers, and children, parents’ physical and mental health, and child well-being, growth, and development. I am also fortunate to collaborate with colleagues at Notre Dame to study intersections between refugee and host community social and economic networks, psychosocial stress, social neuroendocrinology, and health. Presently, I work on research projects related to these interests in the United States, the Philippines, Kenya, Serbia, and the Republic of Congo.
Q. What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
A. I have recently begun exploring how men’s physiological responses to parenthood may represent risks for depression and chronic disease. I have been testing these hypotheses through the lens of evolutionary medicine, particularly the idea that the biology of fatherhood may be mismatched to the expression of parenthood for men in some contemporary societies. In a number of my studies at different sites, we are trying to understand how fathers function in families to help shape child development, health, and psychobiology. Fathers are surprisingly very understudied in virtually all disciplines and their influences on child outcomes are often discounted or missing from global/public health perspectives. One of our main contributions to this area is a focus on biological dynamics within family systems, and an ongoing goal for me, as a scientist, is to continue to uncover how parents’ biology affects and reflects family function and (in the long run) to try to model whether that helps us better understand child outcomes. Along those lines, in the coming months and years, I will be working with new epigenetic data from children from a collaborative project in the Republic of the Congo, which focuses on two neighboring small scale societies. In this setting in which resources are often constrained and pathogen exposure is high, we will be exploring what ecological and familial factors shape children's profiles for epigenetic aging as well as regulation of genes involved in responses to psychosocial stress and social behavior.
Q. What is your greatest scientific/research achievement to date? Is there a publication you are most proud of?
A. Yes, the study I dreamed about being able to do since the time I started thinking seriously about the “biology of fatherhood” is what I am most proud of, to date! I was able to lead the first longitudinal study that showed that if you track men from the time they are single non-fathers through life history transitions over a number of years, you see that men becoming newly married new fathers experience much larger declines in testosterone (declining by around 1/3, on average) compared to men who remain single non-fathers. We also showed that dads who were the most involved in childcare generally had lower testosterone than other fathers. The paper was published at PNAS and was featured on the front page of the New York Times (among other media coverage), which was very exciting! Over the years, I have also received a number of personal messages from fathers, who have expressed that this research resonated with them, which means quite a bit to me.
Q. What do you find the most rewarding aspect of training students?
A. I am fortunate to get to work with amazing ND undergraduates and PhD students in our department. While the scope and intensity of what they do is different, the most rewarding aspect of working with both of these groups of students is to help mentor them to the point where they can design and execute independent research projects about which they are passionate. I have had ND undergraduates write senior theses focusing on hormones and improv comedy, competition, camaraderie, and psychobiology on ND’s top-ranked fencing team, and psychosocial stress, family interactions, and physiology among migrant families, among other topics. I would never have gotten to work on or think about these specific topics if not for our students. Similarly, our graduate students have connected me to their own innovative research on health and human biology on topics ranging from high altitude acclimation and work capacity in Nepal to refugee health and well-being in Serbia and Kenya.
Q. Do you have any plans for the future? If so, what are they?
A. Professionally, I am working on new research in the Philippines focused on developmental psychobiology, particularly related to the transition to adrenarche, which occurs in middle childhood, and have begun collaborating on epigenetic perspectives on child health in Republic of the Congo. In terms of personal plans for the future, I am excited to continue to support my wife as she finishes a graduate program to become a Family Nurse Practitioner and to watch my two beautiful, young children grow up and develop their relationships with one another and their friends.
Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself, or something you enjoy doing in your free time. What's it like to balance teaching, conducting research, and home life?
A. I enjoy trying to stay as physically fit as is possible with the challenges of being on the tenure track with two young children. Training was easier when my kids were younger and I could push both of them in a double stroller. They are getting too big now! It is hard to manage the productivity and teaching expectations at a great university with home life and self-care, but people need to do it or they will get burned out. We have been sleep deprived for years, and it really takes a toll. At some point, you realize that you cannot produce high quality work when you are exhausted.