Notre Dame graduate student Mallika Sarma has done fieldwork in the mountains of Nepal and the forests of Congo.
She’s traveled to remote villages accessible only by helicopter, speedboat, or days of hiking.
She dreams of conducting research in space.
All in search of data on how humans adapt to extreme environments.
“I’m interested in the intersection between human biology and behavior,” Sarma said. “And what makes my research exciting is that I am able to draw from various fields. I work in a lab with biological data, but I also draw from psychology, looking at resilience, behavior, and cognitive processes.
“And because I’m based in anthropology, I approach everything in a very holistic way, looking at how humans are in context with everything else. Not only how they are being shaped by their environment but are, in turn, shaping their environment — and how that co-constructive process allows humans to thrive in places where they really shouldn’t be able to.”
A third-year Ph.D. student in anthropology, Sarma is heading to Wyoming later this year to continue research for her dissertation, which will compare adaptations among populations who have lived in high- or low-altitude environments for generations with those who move to a high-altitude environment for a few months.
This work is especially important now, she said, as the earth enters a period of unprecedented environmental change.
“With the increase in natural disasters happening — hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts — there are huge groups of people who are being displaced to different environments. And even for people who are living in the same place, the climate is changing very quickly.
“So, understanding how humans adapt to new environments — and knowing what we can do to make them more resilient and successful and to make the transition less traumatic — is so important. I feel that it’s the responsibility of the scientific community to provide whatever answers we can.”
Mountains and jungles
Sarma, who received a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship in 2016, focuses specifically on neuroendocrine systems and energy expenditure in the populations she studies.
Two years ago, she studied a village near Mount Manaslu in Nepal, whose residents have lived at high altitudes for generations. Last summer, she researched in a low-altitude village along the Motaba River in the Congo.
At both sites, she collected biological data, such as saliva and fingernail samples, and behavioral data, tracking activity levels with wearable monitors and shadowing participants.
“We are finding that there is an interesting relationship between hormones like cortisol and testosterone and total energy expenditure,” she said. “And that varies based on what environment they’re brought up in. So we’re seeing substantially different physiological profiles in high-altitude versus low-altitude individuals.”
In her work with a hunter-gatherer population in the Congo, Sarma also found significant differences among genders.
“There were very distinct physiological profiles between men and women and large differences in their physical activity levels,” she said. “It begs the question about how much behavioral and social norms affect how people are acting and how that, in turn, changes their physiology.”
In Nepal, Sarma became interested in the way technology influences human adaptation in these environments — including “technology” as simple as an insulated jacket in the snow.
She plans to further explore that in Wyoming, where she’ll be working with the National Outdoor Leadership School to gather data from participants in their 90-day Rocky Mountain wilderness expeditions.
“What is really cool about this work is that we’re looking at how things are changing in real time — and even a jacket changes how you’re physiologically adapting to your environment,” Sarma said. “It’s going to be an awesome comparison to have with this NOLS group, because they’re thrown out into the middle of the wilderness, but they have all this tech available to them. So, how does that impact what you think should just be this person-environment interaction?”
The red planet
Sarma’s long-term career goals include working for the Human Research Program at NASA to look at how humans adapt when they’re in space.
The comparison work in her dissertation addresses some important questions about long-duration space travel, said Sarma, who is on the student board for the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research.
“If we’re planning to send people to Mars, we want to make sure we’re sending people who are the most equipped on all levels and that we know how to prep their physiology to deal with these intensive stressors for a long period of time,” she said. “Understanding how much the human body can change within a lifetime is critical as we move to new environments.”
Sarma, who received a bachelor of science degree in psychology and evolutionary anthropology from the University of Michigan, has always wanted to do work on “what makes humans special.”
“What is really incredible about humans is that any group of populations are more similar than they are different — there is more variability within a group than between groups,” she said. “And that’s exciting because it means that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you have the ability to survive and adapt anywhere. You can do that because humans are so variable and so flexible. We just need to figure out how to best support that.”
When she began looking for a graduate program, Sarma realized that very few people were doing the kind of work she wanted to do. One of her undergraduate professors suggested that she visit Notre Dame and talk with Agustín Fuentes, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Endowed Chair in Anthropology.
Most people who are doing this kind of work are looking at it from a biomedical perspective and looking at cell cultures,” she said. “There are not many people who are looking at whole human systems. But Agustín appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the work I wanted to do.”
Notre Dame’s Department of Anthropology, she said, has provided everything she needs to pursue her research in this nascent field, including research funding from the department and various campus institutes, and faculty support from Fuentes; her adviser Lee Gettler, an assistant professor; and James McKenna, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor of Anthropology.
“Notre Dame’s program enables you to do such interesting and cool work because people here are so generous with their ideas and resources — which you don’t really get at most institutions,” she said. “If I could go back, I would choose Notre Dame, every single time. The opportunities I have, the resources I have available, the support I get — I don’t think I would be able to do this anywhere else.”
Produced by the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters.