Photo of Emily Yates-Doerr speaks with graduate students

Emily Yates-Doerr’s job is to listen to people…all over the world.

And she’s good at it, too. Recently, the assistant professor of anthropology was awarded a 1.5 million euro grant from the European Research Council to study global health interventions around early life nutrition. Her research is focused on the critical period scientists call the First 1,000 Days of Life, from conception until a child’s second birthday, in the Netherlands, Guatemala and the Philippines. The First 1,000 Days of Life initiative has been an official public health policy program in these countries and has received support from both UNICEF and the World Bank.

Those sites were chosen specifically because the challenges faced by communities there are different, from concerns about obesity in the Netherlands to food insecurity in the Philippines. Health experts currently recognize the social complexities among the sites involved, but tend to treat these differences as obstacles to overcome. Yates-Doerr sees these differences not as roadblocks, but as vehicles for learning how best to improve lives. At the heart of her research, are the mothers and children involved in the project.

“Experts come in with certain ideas of how something is going to work, but their ideas can take unintended turns,” she says. An example of this is global health workers designing a nutrient supplement that is sent into communities without regard to how people cook or eat. Sometimes the supplement goes unused: “Experts imagine that supplements have ‘perfect nutrition.’ But they have no nutritional value if people will not eat them.”

Yates-Doerr’s project involves conducting interviews and having conversations with everyone from the mothers who are part of the First 1,000 Days of Life initiative to the global health workers, scientists, and policymakers affiliated with organizations like USAID or the Pan American Health Organization.

“Part of what I do is collect stories about how these projects are working from the different people involved in the process,” she says. She then passes these stories on to policymakers. “We want to see what’s working well in community care so we can communicate that back to these organizations,” she says of her research.

The First 1,000 Days of Life initiative brings together economists, agricultural scientists, obstetricians, nutritional scientists, and many other aspects of the natural sciences and public health.

The interplay between the world health experts creating policy and the people they’re creating it for is at the forefront of her research. By listening to the various actors involved, Yates-Doerr says her research aims to have a better sense of not only what people’s intentions are, but how those intentions unfold in practice, like a nutrient supplement that seems like a great solution in a lab or a conference room, but that doesn’t work in the field.

Instead of interventions that come from the top down, Yates-Doerr asks how lessons from the field might inform and change what is currently considered expert knowledge.

Anthropology does not directly solve these problems, but instead teaches how to ask better questions. And how to listen to the answers.

Photos provided by Emily Yates-Doerr. You can see more of her photography from Guatemala here