Celeste Giordano: Anthropology PhD Student Highlight

Celeste Giordano
Sep. 22, 2015

Celeste Giordano, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, is a UNLV Presidential Fellow and recently received a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant to help fund her studies on health and diet among Alaska Native populations. She works with Dr. Daniel Benyshek and Dr. Liam Frink.


Tell us a little about yourself and what drew you to anthropology.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA and received my B.A. in biological anthropology from Temple University. During my teens, I worked with my mother doing social work at different Philadelphia homeless shelters and was surrounded by a lot of poverty, malnutrition, racism, and other injustices early on. I read a book, Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley, which inspired me to take an anthropology course, and I was hooked. I became very interested in the Thrifty Phenotype Hypothesis (by David Barker) as it better explained the uneven distribution of diabetes across different ethnic and racial groups. Simple individual diet-choice explanations never seemed sufficient, and I knew I wanted to research diet, disease, and disenfranchised minority groups. I applied only to UNLV, was accepted, and drove out to Las Vegas for graduate school with Dr. Daniel Benyshek. I was interested in his diabetes prevention work with American Indian/Alaska Native populations, and my MA focused on this. Meanwhile, through my fieldwork in Alaska, I became fascinated with Alaska Natives and health and diet in general, and my PhD work has since taken on this more specific undertone.


Could you please elaborate a little on your research/area of study?

I am a biocultural anthropologist, utilizing methods that span a broad range of anthropology subdisciplines. My dissertation research focuses on the traditional Yup’ik Alaska Native diet. In particular, how traditional food storage and processing activities may influence nutritional intake and the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants. My research is twofold. On the one hand, I use classical cultural anthropology methods, including extensive literature and historical document research, to investigate the intricate and critical food storage and processing methods used by arctic foragers living in extreme climates. This is combined with fieldwork in two traditional villages in southwestern Alaska (Tununak and Chefornak) where I conduct participant observation (I reside with Yup’ik families and “do what they do”), interviews, and audio/video documentation (I might be one of the first to use GoPros for rural fieldwork!). On the other hand, very little research has investigated the potential benefits and hazards of these foods as they are actually prepared and eaten. The majority of lab data on the safety of such foods is based on raw species collected by Alaska Fish and Wildlife researchers “fresh out of the water.” However, Yup’ik Alaskans rarely eat raw food. In a region where the harvesting windows are small (herring - the staple Yup’ik food - arrive for two weeks out of the entire year) and the catch at a single moment large (a seal, a whale, a walrus), the importance of expertise on food processing, storage, and preservation is absolutely key to avoid food spoilage and ensure food security during the long periods when food is scarce. I investigate these processes by watching the methods that are still practiced by Yup’ik people and, for those practices that only the elders still have knowledge about, by designing experiments. I collect food samples throughout different seasons and stages of processing/storage/preservation, and I send them to external labs for various analyses on environmental contaminant concentration (heavy metals, a few microbial toxins, persistent organic pollutants) and nutritional value (the basics plus some detailed data on key vitamins and different fatty acids). I also maintain data loggers in various storage sites that I have set up throughout the communities which collect data on time, temperature, and relative humidity every hour for a year at a time. My dissertation will be a culmination of these different rich sources of information into a report that speaks to one important point - culture and history matter in what are commonly viewed as simply “hard science” health questions.


What drew you to this research?

I was drawn to a deeper investigation of the Yup’ik Alaska Native diet as a result of my fieldwork with Alaska Natives during my MA research project. Dr. Benyshek and I focused on the Yup’ik Alaskan diet in our fetal origins diabetes prevention research because, despite their genetic relatedness to American Indians, Yup’ik Alaskans have some of the lowest rates of diabetes. Based on experimental animal models, we believed this had something to do with the high consumption of fish (high in polyunsaturated fatty acids) in the diets of women with now grown children. I took this out of the lab and started investigating in real Alaska Native communities. This was when I met Dr. Liam Frink who introduced me to the traditional Yup’ik community he had been working with for almost 20 years. Two things came up during my MA fieldwork. First, it was clear that elder Yup’ik women with adult-aged children were in fact still relying heavily on traditional foods during their past pregnancies, but many of the foods that they described were unknown to me (such as ninamayuk - “poked herring”). Second, our research was focused on the value of a marine-based diet during pregnancy for preventing diabetes in children when they become adults (for which there is much supporting data from other sources), but popular advice about not eating fish during pregnancy because of potential contaminants seemed to abound. I couldn’t get past this contradiction and that’s when my research focus took a little turn - we needed to first know more about the traditional Alaska Native diet.


What is the significance of this research to your field?

There are many gaps in research on arctic foragers. Many biological anthropologists, especially those interested in the evolution of humans as a species, are primarily interested in modern-day hunter-gatherers in Africa who live in the type of environment that most closely approximates what life was like for most of human history (approx. 200,000 years ago). Humans have only been living in arctic environments for approximately 43,500 years, and some have claimed that this is far too recent to be of value for understanding the evolution of human behavior. The fact that African hunter-gatherers are mobile and consequently do not store food to any significant extent, (like our distant ancestors), further pushed arctic foragers out of these grander evolutionary discussions. However, not only are we now aware that human biological adaptations can happen in just thousands of years as a result of changing food practices (for example, the evolution of lactose tolerance among animal herders) but that non-cooking food preparation practices that continue to be popular in the arctic (such as fermentation and oil preservation) were more widespread than is acknowledged. This may be a significant oversight because aging and fermentation share many features with cooking in terms of the effects they have on foods, the latter of which has been implicated as one possible driving force behind human brain evolution (for instance, both increase the caloric density and digestibility of foods and decrease the presence of spoilage-causing microorganisms). While no modern-day arctic foraging group is isolated from modernizing forces on all levels, many groups (like Yup’ik Alaskans) still depend heavily on locally hunted and gathered foods and continue to prepare them in traditional ways. The insight this can provide for our understanding of human flexibility and adaptability (behaviorally and physiologically) in the face of extreme environments is surely of value. However, the rapid pace of change in these communities limits the time anthropologists have to investigate some of these questions.


What is the significance of this research to the global community?

There seems to be a misconception that cultural anthropology is becoming obsolete as globalization has created a situation where there are few remaining, truly isolated, hunting and gathering societies. While it is true that there probably do not exist any societies “untouched” by modernization this, in my opinion, does not make cultural anthropology - it’s methodology, it’s purpose, it’s driving force (cultural relativism) - any less important in the quest for understanding human groups - their health, their behavior, their flexibility.


Could you please summarize the take home message of your research?

Culture and history matter in what are commonly viewed as simply “hard science” health questions. There is no such thing as “hard science” and “soft science” - it’s all science. Cross-discipline communication needs to improve before we can solve the complex issues that the world faces today.