Baylor Researcher Selected to Join Prestigious CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program
- Samuel Urlacher, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor University, has been named an Azrieli Global Scholar by CIFAR, a global research organization based in Canada. (Matthew Minard/Baylor University)
- Baylor University anthropologist Sam Urlacher, Ph.D., and students in his lab use state-of-the-art stable isotope tracking technology to measure the number of calories individuals spend in their everyday lives. (Matthew Minard/Baylor University)
Baylor anthropologist Sam Urlacher, Ph.D., earns research funding, career development support
By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing & Communications
WACO, Texas (Aug. 13, 2020) – A leading international research organization which funds outstanding early-career researchers and provides opportunities for mentorship and collaboration has named a Baylor University anthropology professor to its prestigious global scholar program.
Samuel Urlacher, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences, was named an Azrieli Global Scholar by CIFAR, a global research organization based in Canada. The program supports early-career researchers “with exceptional leadership potential” through mentorship, a global network of potential collaborators which includes 20 CIFAR Nobel laureates, professional skills development opportunities and more than $75,000 in unrestricted research funds ($100,000 CAD). He becomes one of only 13 Azrieli Global Scholars selected from nearly 200 applicants from 31 countries in this year’s competition.
“It’s an incredible honor to be named a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar,” Urlacher said. “The goal of CIFAR is to bring people with diverse research programs together to address some of the biggest challenges we’re facing as humans. As someone whose work is inherently interdisciplinary in nature, this opportunity for innovation is really exciting. I’m looking forward to CIFAR’s development and training programs and to working with this amazing group of researchers.”
CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars join CIFAR research programs for 24 months where they collaborate with fellows and contribute new approaches toward the most important questions facing science and humanity. Following the program, many scholars stay connected to the CIFAR community as fellows.
“Early-career researchers have the brilliant ideas that will change the world, and we want to help them develop and grow as researchers and professionals,” said Alan Bernstein, Ph.D., CIFAR president and CEO. “These 13 scholars join an incredible community of researchers from around the world, interested not just in advancing knowledge in a silo, but in seeing the impact that knowledge can have across disciplines and on the wider world.”
Addressing Health Disparities
Urlacher is a human evolutionary biologist and anthropologist with a focus on understanding variation in human biology, aging and health. Much of his research investigates how children utilize calories and how early life experiences and economic development shape lifetime metabolic health outcomes. He will apply that background as a part of the Child & Brain Development program, one of 13 CIFAR research programs.
“My research interests began in the ways in which children grow and how they are able to grow in challenging environments, like when food is limited or infections are common,” Urlacher said. “This is one piece of a broader interest in variation in child development. I want to know how kids spend calories to do all of the things that they need to do, like grow their brain, fight off infections and play. At the end of the day, I’m really interested in how these patterns vary in different environments and how such variation underlies lifetime health. This interest ties in ideally with CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program, which has a focus on understanding the early life origins of health and disease.”
Since joining the Baylor faculty in 2019, Urlacher’s lab has grown in pursuit of these goals. Using state-of-the-art stable isotope tracking technology, Urlacher and his students can measure the number of calories individuals spend in their everyday lives. The approach is at the forefront of the field —Urlacher knows only of Duke University among schools whose anthropology labs utilize similar technology, which he describes as the “gold standard” for measuring daily energy expenditure through the analysis of urine samples collected over the course of a study.
Last year, Urlacher’s research on energy expenditure in Amazonian children appeared in Science Advances, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and could provide clues into addressing global obesity trends.
The research focused on forager-horticulturalist Shuar children living in the remote Amazon region of Ecuador. The data collected with the Shuar, with whom Urlacher has lived for more than 25 months since 2011, challenged conventional wisdom. Shuar data were compared to those of industrialized children in the United States and United Kingdom, which revealed that Shuar children – despite being 25 percent more physically active and experiencing elevated immune activity – spent the same total number of calories each day as their industrialized counterparts.
“This similarity in daily energy expenditure suggests that the human body can flexibly balance energy budgets in different contexts,” Urlacher said. “Ultimately, eating too much, not moving too little, may be at the core of long-term weight gain and the global nutrition transition that often begins during childhood. We’re following up on this idea in my lab in several different ways.”
Urlacher’s research will continue to focus on the energetic pathways of obesity and the connections between environment, variation in childhood development, and lifetime health disparities.
Future goals for Urlacher include translating his research into applied programs and training that make a difference for people globally; CIFAR provides this kind of training to Global Scholars in addition to collaboration opportunities.
“I’m really excited about the training CIFAR provides to connect my research to application,” Urlacher said, “to translate it with policy makers and to truly help people. The science is exciting, but, ultimately, we hope that our research can help to improve health among the Shuar, in the United States. and elsewhere. This kind of outreach and professional development is an element of CIFAR that prepares scholars to communicate these issues and to ensure research findings are properly transmitted to benefit others.”
As Baylor pursues R1 research status and lives out the vision of the strategic plan of Illuminate through research marked by “quality, visibility and impact,” research awards such as Urlacher’s CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar recognition and funding advance the University’s research portfolio as it addresses societal challenges.
“CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars is a highly competitive and prestigious program that includes some of the top scholars in the world. Dr. Urlacher’s invitation to this program recognizes his abilities to conduct high-impact research on child development and contribute to global issues of immediate importance,” said Michael Muehlenbein, Ph.D., professor and chair of anthropology at Baylor. “Awards like these are also reflective of the investment that Baylor is placing on recruiting and retaining top researchers. That Dr. Urlacher has received such a prestigious award in his first year as a faculty member speaks to his remarkable talent as well as Baylor’s commitment to attract such talent in order to achieve our R1 goals.”
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