Member Spotlight: Laura Klein

Member Spotlight is a monthly series for the ISRHML Trainee Blog designed to highlight the talent of TIGers around the world. Each month, one ISRHML trainee member will be selected and featured so we can get to know more about him or her and what he or she is doing within the field of human milk and lactation research. This month, we meet Laura Klein, a doctoral candidate studying milk as it relates to immune development at Harvard University in Boston, MA.

Klein photo
Laura Klein, PhD candidate at Harvard University.

“A lot of people think that anthropologists only study people to see how life was in the past,” I was told by Laura Klein, a PhD candidate in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. “But in the US [in some ways], life is in the past compared to other places,” Laura told me as we discussed maternity leave in the US. While collecting milk samples in Poland, the topic of maternity leave frequently emerged in discussions with the mothers participating in the study. Many of these women expressed a great deal of disbelief at the abbreviated duration of maternity leave in the US (often between 6-12 weeks). In contrast, Polish women are allotted a full 12 months of maternity leave, which allows them plenty of time to breastfeed without the complications related to returning to work. Indeed, when I asked Laura what she believed was currently the biggest issue in human milk and lactation research, Laura responded differently than all other interviewees to date: she suggested that while we need to continue understanding milk composition and the health benefits breastfeeding offers to infants, we also need to figure out how to give women more opportunities to breastfeed and put this knowledge into practice, particularly through increased access to maternity leave.

Laura Klein grew up in Illinois, and completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in integrative biology with a minor in chemistry. During this time, she participated in research under Dr. Kathryn Clancy, a biological anthropologist who studies reproductive ecology and the variation in human biological processes, especially as it relates women’s reproductive biology. Dr. Clancy was conducting several projects related to inflammation at the time, which is how Laura developed an interest in how the immune system develops in humans. Working with this group also gave Laura her first experience in anthropological fieldwork, where she assisted in collecting data for a pilot project at the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site (MHESS) in southeastern Poland <https://evoecogroup.wordpress.com/>. Upon completing her bachelors degree in 2011, she was accepted by Harvard as a doctoral student to be mentored by Dr. Katie Hinde (sidenote: Dr. Hinde has since taken a new position, and is now at Arizona State University. She continues to serve as Laura’s major professor).

Given her interest in the development of the immune system, Dr. Hinde’s lab was a perfect match, despite the fact that Laura had never considered research in human milk. However, once she realized the critical role of human milk in early-life development, she jumped headfirst into her doctoral research. Laura’s project focuses on how a woman’s environment affects the composition of the immune molecules in her breastmilk. As part of a nine-month longitudinal study for her dissertation research, she headed back to Poland (thanks to funding support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation  and the National Science Foundation), to collect milk from women living in rural farming communities at the MHESS, as well as in urban Krakow. People living in rural communities in SE Poland are historically subsistence farmers, but these populations have been undergoing a transition to wage labor. This process was accelerated when Poland joined the European Union, because more economic opportunities became available outside the country. Laura’s project compares immune molecules in the milk of three groups of women: those from rural families who continue to practice subsistence farming, women living in the same villages whose households have largely forfeited farming in favor of other economic pursuits, and women living in urban areas.

Currently, Laura is approaching the final defense of her doctoral work, and says that she spends most of her time writing and doing final statistical analyses for her projects. When not doing fieldwork or in the lab, Laura has enjoyed volunteering at the Boston Museum of Science in the Hall of Human Life, sharing science with the public and children. She also loves podcasts and books, recently re-reading Margret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale,” and biking along Lake Michigan in Chicago, where she divides her time with Boston to live with her spouse, an astronomer. In the future, Laura hopes to continue pursuing research examining how variation in milk composition affects infant outcomes, particularly if it gives her the opportunity to interface with mothers and help them understand benefits of breastfeeding.Klein photo coffee

Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us, Laura!

We wish Laura the best of luck as she wraps up her doctoral program and takes her next steps as a human milk researcher! If you are interested in Laura’s work, you can read more about her current work here and her lab’s projects here.

If you think you may be able to collaborate with Laura or would otherwise like to contact her, you can view her LinkedIn profile or email her at: lauraklein@fas.harvard.edu.

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