From Las Vegas to Cuba: Studying Life History Theory and Immune Behaviors

By Cheryl Reed

When Tiffany Alvarez studied women’s health through the lens of life history theory as an undergraduate student and McNair Scholar at UNLV, she didn’t know how far it would eventually take her. Now a doctoral student at Washington State University in evolutionary anthropology, she is planning to study in Cuba next summer with her advisor, Edward Hagen. The two will be investigating the effects of acute immune activation on components of pregnant women’s behavioral and biological immunity—or life history.

Life history theory seeks to explain aspects of an organism’s anatomy and behavior in reference to the way its life histories have been shaped by natural selection. The theory depends on principles of evolutionary biology and ecology and is widely used in other areas of science.

Alvarez explained how recent discoveries show that immunity appears to have behavioral components, often referred to as sickness behaviors, which serve to reduce exposure to pathogens and conserve energy. The features that characterize immunity are uniquely distinguished by their relationship with biological processes and also environmental contexts ranging from the socio-political to cultural and ecological. An ecological immunity perspective acknowledges that culturally mediated, class- and sex-specific patterns of activity, resource access, and reproduction are sources of significant diversity that affect immune response. She also explained that pregnancy is a reproductive state of unique immunity and a period of dynamic changes to immuno-competence.

In Cuba, Alvarez and Hagen will collect baseline levels of biological and behavior immunity from a sample of 100 pregnant women. After the data is collected, the researchers will randomize it into treatment groups that will receive different vaccines. It is predicted that the treatment group who receives the influenza vaccine will report markedly higher behavioral immunity than the groups who received the placebo.

Alvarez’s and Hagen’s research will determine if acute immune activation alters the behaviors of pregnant women in ways predicted by life history theory. Specifically, whether or not acute changes in pregnant women’s health status trigger a suite of compensatory behaviors that contribute to pathogen avoidance and mitigate energetic immune costs. These findings will contribute to larger theoretical and empirical discussions regarding context-specific variation in host-pathogen interactions and behavioral sickness symptom expression.

Alvarez is a first-generation college student from Last Vegas, Nevada. She is now on a streamline track to earn a master’s and doctoral degree in 5 years. As a McNair Alumna and teaching assistant, Alvarez has the opportunity to spread her research passion to other students.

“My work is so exciting,” says Alvarez. “My advisor is training me to be a peer, and I find that to be so valuable.”

Washington State University’s graduate degree in evolutionary anthropology has a strong record of research funding, and students are regularly involved in research and teaching from their first semester. Most students gain research experience at field and laboratory sites early in their careers.

Find out more about WSU’s graduate degree programs and where your research will take you at