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Sera Young

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Health

PhD in Nutritional Anthropology, Cornell University, 2008
MA in Medical Anthropology, University of Amsterdam, 2002
BA in Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1999

Methodologically, anthropologist Sera Young draws on her training in nutrition and medical anthropology to take a biocultural approach to understanding how mothers, especially in low-resource settings, cope to preserve their health and that of their families. She has spent much of her career studying food insecurity, especially during pregnancy and early childhood. Most recently, she has led efforts to develop the Water InSecurity Experiences (WISE) Scales, cross-culturally equivalent tools to quantify household- and individual-level experiences with water insecurity.

Young is the author of more than 150 peer-reviewed papers. Her work has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Wenner Gren Foundation. Her research has been covered by The New York Times, BBC, NPR, National Geographic, and Scientific American. Recent awards include the Norman Kretchmer Memorial Award in Nutrition and Development, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, and the Margaret Mead Award for her book about pica, Craving Earth

Young was previously an assistant professor of global health and nutrition at Cornell University.

Select Awards and Honors

2022: Norman Kretchmer Memorial Award in Nutrition and Development, American Society for Nutrition
2019: Carnegie Fellowship
2013: Margaret Mead Award, American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology


Institute for Policy Research Faculty Fellow; Global Health Studies; Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics; Buffett Institute for Global Studies; Northwestern Center for Water Research; Northwestern International Institute for Nanotechnology; Program in African Studies; Third Coast Center for AIDS.

Current Research

Household-Level Water Insecurity. Problems with water quality and quantity are increasing in frequency and severity throughout the world. While much is known about how to measure experiences with food insecurity, little is known about how to measure experiences with water insecurity and its ensuing consequences. Young has led the development of the Water InSecurity Experiences (WISE) Scales, cross-culturally equivalent tools to quantify household- and individual-level experiences with water insecurity. The WISE Scales have been implemented around the world by more than 100 governmental, policy, research, and civil organizations.

Food Insecurity. What role does food insecurity play in adverse maternal and child health and nutritional outcomes—especially when mothers and children are living with HIV? What are the types and magnitude of effects—and which of these are modifiable? How can food insecurity be mitigated amongst women and children in low-resource settings? To answer these questions, Young has conducted observational and intervention studies in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

Pica (Non-Food Cravings) and Health. Is pica—the craving and consumption of non-food items such as earth, charcoal, and ice—an adaptive response to health challenges? What is the relationship between pica and iron deficiency? Using data from East Africa, North America, and elsewhere, researchers have long observed that non-food cravings and iron deficiency are associated, but the nature of the relationship is unclear. Young is using a variety of in vitro and in vivo animal studies, as well as observational studies in human and nonhuman primates, to ascertain the mechanisms underlying this observation, and to test the two major physiological hypotheses about pica: supplementation and detoxification.

Selected Publications

Mao, F., J. Miller, S. Young, S. Krause, D. Hannah, and the HWISE-Research Coordination Network. 2022. Inequality of household water security follows a Development Kuznets Curve. Nature Communications 813, 4525.

Young, S. 2021. Viewpoint: The measurement of water access and use is key for more effective food and nutrition policy. Food Policy 104, 102138.

Young, S., G. Boateng, Z. Jamaluddine, J. Miller, E. Frongillo, et al. 2019. The Household Water InSecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale: Development and validation of a household water insecurity measure for low-income and middle-income countries. BMJ Global Health 4(5), e001750.

Jones, A., F. Ngure, G. Pelto, and S. Young. 2013. What are we assessing when we measure food security? A compendium and review of current metrics. Advances in Nutrition 4(5): 481–505. 

Young, S. 2010. Pica in pregnancy: New ideas about an old condition. Annual Review of Nutrition 30: 403–22.

Read more about Sera Young's publications.