Skip to main content

Thomas McDade

Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology
Thomas McDade

IPR Fellow | Director of IPR's Cells to Society: The Center on Social Disparities and Health

PhD, Anthropology, Emory University, 1999

Thom McDade is a biological anthropologist who conducts research on how experience becomes biology.  In other words, how do social, economic, and cultural contexts shape human biology and health over the life course?  Much of this work focuses on the long-term effects of early environments, and the integration of biological measures into population-based, social science research. He is director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research, which has as its central mission the development and application of minimally invasive methods for studying human biology and health in diverse community-based settings around the world.

McDade's work has appeared in a wide range of journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings of the Royal Society, New England Journal of Medicine, Social Science and Medicine, American Journal of Public Health, Demography, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, American Journal of Human Biology, Medical Anthropology, and Psychosomatic Medicine. In 2002, he received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the nation's highest honor for scientists early in their career. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Current Research

Screening for Coronavirus Antibodies in Neighborhoods (SCAN).  With colleagues at the Feinberg School of Medicine, McDade is leading an effort to investigate the behavioral and contextual factors that promote, and prevent, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the community.  The team has developed a “no contact” protocol for recruiting and surveying thousands of participants across neighborhoods in Chicago.  The protocol includes the mailing of a kit for the self-collection of a finger stick dried blood spot sample, which is mailed to the lab for the quantification of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.  Data from the study will be used to inform policies to limit viral transmission on the community, and to illuminate the factors that are contributing to stark social inequalities in rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality.

Social Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Early Environments. Epigenetic processes are responsive to experiences during development and play important roles in regulating gene expression. A focus on epigenetics in community-based studies encourages us to reconceptualize the human genome as a dynamic substrate that incorporates information from the environment to alter its structure and function—an approach that moves beyond simplistic “nature vs. nurture” and “DNA as destiny” metaphors. Several studies are investigating epigenetic signatures of socioeconomic adversity early in life,  epigenetic modifications to inflammatory genes as a mechanism linking early environments with inflammation in adulthood, and the social and ecological factors that predict gene expression during pregnancy.  

Pathways Linking Social Inequalities, Inflammation, and Health Within and Across Generations. Inflammation is an important part of normal immune function, but excessive or chronic activation of inflammation contributes to adverse birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic degenerative diseases. McDade is conducting research in the United States and the Philippines that investigates the social and developmental factors that shape the regulation of inflammation. Recent papers have documented significant impacts of stress, breastfeeding duration, birth weight, and microbial exposures in infancy on inflammation in adulthood. A new project is focusing on the developmental origins of social inequalities in chronic inflammation using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to Adult (Add Health). The study includes a focus on inflammation during pregnancy as a potential mechanism contributing to the intergenerational transmission of social inequalities and health.  

Biomarkers for Population-Based Health Research. The application of minimally invasive, "field-friendly" methods for measuring physiology is an important part of McDade's effort to conduct integrative population-based research on health. He has developed methods for assaying biomarkers in a drop of blood collected from a simple finger prick, and he consults on the implementation of these methods into a number of large, nationally representative health surveys, including the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, Health and Retirement Study, and WHO Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health. McDade recently developed a method for quantifying coronavirus antibodies in finger stick dried blood spot samples that facilitates remote, “no contact” testing of large numbers of people to track viral spread in the community. 

Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health. Social and cultural contexts are critical determinants of human development and health, but we know very little about the processes or pathways through which they act. Along with colleagues at IPR, McDade has helped establish C2S as a center at Northwestern to serve as catalyst for innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to understanding health disparities.

Selected Publications

McDade, T., A. Demonbreun, A. Sancilio, B. Mustanski, R. D’Aquila, and E. McNally. 2021. Durability of antibody response to vaccination and surrogate neutralization of emerging variants based on SARS-CoV-2 exposure history. Scientific Reports 11, 17325.

McDade, T., J. Meyer, S. Koning, and K. Harris. 2021. Body mass and the epidemic of chronic inflammation in early mid-adulthood. Social Science & Medicine 281, 114059.

McDade, T., and S. Koning. 2021. Early origins of socioeconomic inequalities in chronic inflammation: Evaluating the contributions of low birth weight and short breastfeeding. Social Science & Medicine 269, 113592.

McDade, T., E. McNally, A. Zelikovich, R. D’Aquila, B. Mustanski, A. Miller, L. Vaught, N. Reiser, E. Bogdanovic, K. Fallon, and A. Demonbreun. 2020. High seroprevalence for SARS-CoV-2 among household members of essential workers detected using a dried blood spot assay. PLOS ONE  15(8): e0237833. 

McDade, T., J. Borja, N. Lee, C. Aquino, T. Barrett, L. Adair, and C. Kuzawa. 2020. C-reactive protein response to influenza vaccination predicts cardiovascular disease risk in the Philippines. Biodemography and Social Biology 65 (1): 88–96.

McDade, T., C. Ryan, M. Jones, M. Hoke, J. Borja, G. Miller, C. Kuzawa, and M. Kobor. 2019. Genome-wide analysis of DNA methylation in relation to socioeconomic status during development and early adulthoodAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology 169:3–11.

McDade, T., and K Harris, eds. 2018. Biosocial Pathways of Well-Being Across the Life Course. RSF: The Russell Sage Journal of the Social Sciences 4(4).

McDade, T., C. Ryan, M. Jones, J. MacIsaac, A. Morin, J. Meyer, J. Borja, G. Miller, M. Kobor, and C. Kuzawa. 2017.  Social and physical environments early in development predict DNA methylation of inflammatory genes in young adulthoodProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(29): 7611–16.