Skip to main content

Sera Young

Associate Professor

PhD Cornell University 2008

Research interests

The focus of Dr. Young’s work is on the reduction of maternal and child-undernutrition in the first 1000 days, especially in low-resource settings. Methodologically, she draws on her training in medical anthropology (MA, University of Amsterdam), international nutrition (PhD, Cornell) and HIV (Fellowship, University of California San Francisco) to take a biocultural approach to understanding how mothers in low-resource settings cope to preserve their health and that of their families. 

Current work

Water Insecurity. Which experiences of water insecurity are universal? How can we best measure these? Problems with water quality and quantity are increasing in frequency and severity throughout the world. High-resolution, globally comparable data that go beyond physical availability to assess access and use have been extremely helpful for understanding the human health impact of other health issues, e.g. food insecurity, but have not existed for water. To fill this gap, Young. has led the development of the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) and the Individual Water Insecurity Experiences (IWISE) scales, the first cross-culturally equivalent way of measuring water access and use ( These scales have been implemented in at least 50 countries by more than 100 governmental, policy, research, and civil organizations. The Young Research Group is currently using these scales to estimate the prevalence of water insecurity globally, and to investigate its causes and consequences.

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, members of the Young Research Group have conducted observational and intervention studies in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

Pica (Non-Food Cravings). 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 has used 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.


Recent classes taught include “Water insecurity: anthropological and global health perspectives”; “Ecology of infant feeding”; and “Turning your numbers into a story”. She also teaches as part of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.


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
  • 2009 Dissertation Award, Society for Medical Anthropology
  • 2009 Allan Rosenfield Scholar, New Investigator in Global Health, Global Health Council
  • 2003 Rudolf Virchow Award, Honorable Mention, American Anthropological Association
  • 2002 Christine Wilson Award, American Anthropological Association

Professional Service

Select publications

Scholar page

Water Insecurity

Mao F, Miller JD, Young SL, Krause S, Hannah DM, HWISE-RCN. Inequality of household water security follows a Development Kuznets Curve. Nat Commun. 2022 Aug 8;13(1):4525.

Wutich, A, Rosinger AY, Brewis A, Beresford M, Young SL, Household Water Insecurity Experiences-Research Coordination Network. (2022) Water sharing is a distressing form of reciprocity: Shame, upset, anger, and conflict over water in 20 cross-cultural sites. American Anthropologist.

Young SL, Bethancourt HJ, Ritter Z, Frongillo EA. The Individual Water Insecurity Experiences (IWISE) Scale: Reliability, equivalence, and validity of an individual-level measure of water security. BMJ Global Health 2021;6:e006460.

Nagata JM, Miller JD, Cohen CR, Frongillo EA, Weke E, Burger R, Wekesa P, Sheira LA, Mocello AR, Otieno P, Butler LM, Bukusi EA, Weiser SD, Young SL. (2021) Water insecurity is associated with lack of viral suppression and greater odds of AIDS-defining illnesses among adults with HIV in western Kenya. AIDS and Behavior.

Young SL. (2021) Viewpoint: The measurement of water access and use is key for more effective food and nutrition policy. Food Policy. Oct 1;104:102138

Young, S.L., Frongillo, E.A., Jamaluddine, Z., Melgar-Quiñonez, H., Pérez-Escamilla, R., Ringler, C., Rosinger, A. Y. (2021). The importance of water security for ensuring food security, good nutrition, and well-being. Advances in Nutrition. *Based on plenary session at Nutrition 2020

Rosinger, A. & Young, S.L. (2020). The toll of household water insecurity on health and human biology: Current understandings and future directions. WIREs Water. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1468

Food Insecurity

Santoso MV, Bezner Kerr RN, Kassim N, Martin H, Mtinda E, Njau P, Young, SL. (2021) A Nutrition-Sensitive Agroecology Intervention in Rural Tanzania Increases Children’s Dietary Diversity and Household Food Security But Does Not Change Child Anthropometry: Results from a Cluster-Randomized Trial. The Journal of Nutrition July;151(7): 2010–2021. *Selected as Editor’s Choice by the journal Science

Cetrone HM, Santoso MV, Kerr RB, Petito L, Blacker L, Nonga T, Martin, HD, Kassim, N, Mtinda, E. Young SL. (2021) Food security mediates the decrease in women’s depressive symptoms in a participatory nutrition-sensitive agroecology intervention in rural Tanzania. Public Health Nutrition. Oct: 4682 - 4692. *Selected as paper of the month,

Guevara Alvarez G, Miller JD, Santoso MV, Wekesa P, Mbullo Owuor P, Onono M, Young, S.L. (2021) Prevalence and Covariates of Food Insecurity Across the First 1000 Days Among Women of Mixed HIV Status in Western Kenya: A Longitudinal Perspective. Food Nutr Bull. May 20;037957212199902.

Tuthill, E., Maltby, A., Conteh, J., Sheira, L., Miller, J., Onono, M., Weiser, D., & Young, S.L. (2020). Persistent food insecurity, but not HIV, is associated with depressive symptoms among perinatal women in Kenya: a longitudinal perspective. AIDS & Behavior.


Young, S.L. (2011) “Craving earth: Understanding pica” Columbia University Press.

Young, S.L. (2011) “Craving earth: Understanding pica” Columbia University Press. Young, S.L., Sherman, P.W., Lucks, J, Pelto, G. (2011). Why on earth?: Evaluating hypotheses about the physiological functions of human geophagy. Quarterly Review of Biology. 86(2):97-120. doi: 10.1086/659884

Young, S.L. (2010). Pica in Pregnancy: New Ideas About An Old Condition. Annual Review of Nutrition. 30: 403-422. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.012809.104713

Young, S.L., Khalfan, S., Farag, T., Kavle, J., Rasmussen, K., Pelto, G., Ali, S. M., Hamadi, B., Tielsch, J., Stoltzfus, R. (2010). Pica is associated with anemia and gastrointestinal distress among pregnant Zanzibari women. American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene. 83(1):144-151. doi: 10.4269/ajtmh.2010.09-0442