Dr. Caity Placek cares passionately about making sure women across the world have healthy pregnancies.

No, she’s not an OB-GYN. She’s an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Sciences and Humanities. The field examines both biological and cultural human evolution, which can touch on behavior, environment, genes, society, and other areas.

Placek studies what causes some expecting mothers to chew tobacco, use drugs, or eat certain foods.

She is quick to point out that her research is not about assigning shame or blame. On the contrary, Placek hopes that her work can help erase the stigma that these women face and show that their behavior is influenced by their environment, their culture, and even their own biology.

Only by examining the issues through the objective lens of science can we craft solutions, according to Placek.

These are not moral failures, nor do these behaviors exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by a multitude of factors. When we destigmatize these health concerns, we can improve overall health for everyone.

Placek earned undergraduate degrees in psychology and anthropology from Eastern Kentucky University. She then earned a master’s and doctorate in anthropology from Washington State University. Her research on the topics of human behavior and global health have been published in numerous leading journals, including “Evolution and Human Behavior,” “Human Nature,” “American Journal of Human Biology,” “BMC Infections Diseases,” “Public Health,” and “Midwifery.”

The bulk of Placek’s research has examined communities in both India and here in Indiana. She uses interviews and biological data to test hypotheses about what influences behavior in pregnant women.

In India, her research has focused on a variety of pregnancy-related issues such as tobacco use, HIV and HIV stigma, cultural food taboos, and the use of a free medical mobile clinic for prenatal care.

In Muncie, Placek led “Healthy Moms, Healthy Communities,” an immersive learning project, to try to identify predictors of opioid use in pregnancy and the postpartum period. In interviewing women, Placek and her team of student research assistants discovered that shame and embarrassment, plus a lack of affordable health care, are common factors that prevent women from seeking substance abuse treatment.

The students learned a key lesson for future anthropologists: how to conduct science with sensitivity.

“As researchers, we are strangers and outsiders to those women,” she said. “So, one of the challenges is building positive relationships and gaining trust. Only then can we share their story and increase awareness around these issues.”

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