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Virginia Vitzthum Receives NSF Funding To Study Reproductive Issues In Greenland

A research team from The Kinsey Institute, Montana State University and the University of Greenland is conducting a 3-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation-funded study of the biological, cultural and environmental challenges facing an Arctic population. Like many coastal and modernizing communities worldwide, northern Greenlanders are confronted by a changing climate, demographic shifts, and global economic forces that threaten their continued existence.

Kinsey Institute Senior Scientist Dr. Virginia VitzthumThe research team is led by Virginia Vitzthum, senior scientist at The Kinsey Institute, and Elizabeth Rink, associate professor at MSU. Through a process known as community-based participatory research, the team will work with local residents to develop a research design that targets pressing local issues, such as migration and reproductive choices, as well as questions of global significance such as how a changing environment impacts health and reproduction. Dr. Krista Milich, postdoctoral fellow at The Kinsey Institute, will be at the fieldsite this summer, gathering information for the study.

Cultural reproduction of communities and biological reproduction of individuals are necessarily linked, but rarely is this intimate connection so clearly revealed as when facing unprecedented challenges to indigenous lifeways,” Vitzthum explained. 

Greenland, while roughly a quarter of the size of the United States' contiguous states, has seen its population shrink below 60,000. Why and how the population is changing is an intergral part of the research.

Vitzthum, also a professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, has conducted research in Bolivia, Germany and Central Asia to determine the ecological, behavioral and biological causes of variation in human reproduction, particularly the reasons for population differences in various hormones that influence fertility and health.

In Greenland, the focus is on the unique conditions of the residents, who experience months of continuous twilight in winter and continuous daylight in summer. Extreme changes in light exposure on human hormone concentrations are not well understood, but may affect both efficacy of hormonal contraception and their side effects.

Coastal village in Greenland.

Findings from this study in the Arctic may also be relevant to people who have varied waking and working hours, including swing and night shifts workers. Vitzthum also noted that Americans, in general, sleep less than they did a century ago.

The international collaborative research team also includes Stephanie Sanders, interim director of The Kinsey Institute and professor in the Department of Gender Studies; Krista Milich, post-doctoral fellow at The Kinsey Institute; Gitte Trondheim, associate professor and chair, Department of Cultural and Social History, and Ruth Montgomery-Andersen, researcher, both at the University of Greenland. The team will gather data on changing kinship and adoption practices, assess contraceptive and condom use and effectiveness, measure hormones in saliva and urine samples, record dietary and activity patterns, and evaluate physical and psychosocial well-being. A central focus is young adults and how they perceive their future, the changes they are experiencing, and their strategies for dealing with these rapid changes in their world.

"It's critical to understand what's happening in this far-north community and how it affects people's lives," Vitzthum said. "Changes around the globe will be dramatic, and it's reasonable to think that coastal communities everywhere will be affected. The changes are underappreciated because we don’t see these changes yet in the temperate zones, but they're happening right now in the Arctic."

The grant title is "Population Dynamics in Greenland -- A Multi-Component, Mixed-Methods Study of Demographic Change in the Arctic."

A version of this article was originally released by IU Newsroom, May 1, 2014.

See also "What happens in Greenland won't stay in Greenland."

Photo of Dr. Vitzthum by Kevin Atkins.
Greenland Photo by Glenn Mattsing, courtesy of Visit Greenland.


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