Northwestern anthropology professor on learning Swahili, eating clay, and Beyoncé
Sera Young is a nutritional anthropologist focused on reducing undernutrition among mothers and children in developing countries. Her work falls into three broad categories: food and water insecurity, maternal and child health, and the the craving and consumption of non-food items, also known as pica.
How do you start your day?
I wake up at 5 a.m. every morning and work for two hours before my two young daughters wake up. I plan what I’m going to do in the mornings at least the night before, if not the week before. That two-hour window is when I do my quiet and serious thinking. I apply for grants or finish manuscripts — things that require careful analysis.
How do you manage global travel with kids?
Very carefully, and with lots of presents. I would say that picking your partner is super important. It’s not always easy, but my husband and I have a very good system. He was just in Spain, and before that I was in Ghana. I’m going to London really soon. But it all works out because we are both competent and caring and supportive of each other.
What you do to relax or disengage from heavy stuff?
I watch Beyoncé videos. And I dance around the house with my family. My husband plays ukulele. One of my daughters is learning to play the violin, and another is a great dancer. We do a lot of singing together, too.
The most surprising thing you’ve learned about pica?
That people feel so strongly about pica one way or the other. For some people, eating non-food items is an extremely pleasurable thing, and others are so upset that someone would eat clay or dirt or ice. “How can people be doing this!?” they’ll say. There are also lots of judgmental physicians all around the world, with really strong feelings.
Young with her daughter in Tanzania
How long did it take you to learn Swahili?
About six months. I was a Rotary Cultural Ambassador in Zanzibar and I lived with a Swahili family. I don’t really consider myself fluent, but I can bargain for anything I need at the market.
Advice to a young anthropologist?
Persist, persist, persist. Science isn’t easy, but if you find something you love, stick with it. Additionally, you ought to be having fun! All of the things that have been the most professionally satisfying were things that I really enjoyed — like writing my book, "Craving Earth." And third, listen to what people are telling you in the field. I listened to the women who were telling me they ate clay, and I listened to the women who were telling me water was a key concern. My research has been guided and informed by listening to others.
Who are your personal heroes?
I have three. Bob Dylan, because he has metamorphosed so many times and his lyrics are perfect. Lynda Barry, a cartoonist/graphic novelist, for capturing awkwardness and making it epic. And Beyoncé, because she works toward equity and female empowerment while being so glamorous.