Featured Faculty, Dr. Masako Fujita: A passion for anthropology and making a difference in women’s health and wellness

Dr. Masako Fujita

Dr. Masako Fujita is an Associate Professor in biological anthropology, specializing in contemporary human variation. She also directs the Biomarker Laboratory for Anthropological Research. She regularly teaches the graduate course Quantitative Methods in Anthropology and undergraduate courses such as Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Human Adaptability

Dr. Fujita joined MSU as an Assistant Professor in 2008. She remembers that period of time as “a little hectic” because when she moved to East Lansing to join MSU Anthropology, she had submitted her final dissertation copy only about ten days prior. Even though the abrupt transition to becoming a professor was challenging, things got better over time. “I have been fortunate to work with friendly office staff, graduate assistants, and colleagues,” she says.

In terms of research, Dr. Fujita is interested in women’s health and wellness, particularly women in vulnerable life stages like pregnancy and lactation. Her research thus far has focused on maternal nutrition and health, breastfeeding, and mothers’ milk. Her Master’s research focused on the impact of sedentarization on maternal diet, nutrition, and morbidity among formerly nomadic pastoralists in northern Kenya. For her PhD dissertation, she continued with people of northern Kenya and investigated how mothers cope with food insecurity amid repeated and increasingly severe droughts. 

More recently, Dr. Fujita’s research has focused more on mothers’ milk, investigating the notion of maternal buffering – “there is this assumption that mothers can maintain high-quality milk to nourish infants even under nutritional or infectious disease stress. But in some harsh environments, I feel that it is unrealistic to expect mothers to pull this off. So, I have been trying to address this question in my research, working with my collaborators”. 

Her research team recently published two journal articles; one on the micronutrient folate in mothers’ milk and the other on the antimicrobial protein called lactoferrin in mothers’ milk. Both these papers deal with the question of maternal buffering. 

Dr. Fujita is excited about the current research she is involved in with her collaborators investigating iron nutrition and COVID-19 risk among healthcare workers. Iron is a vital nutrient for both humans and microorganisms. This means that humans have walked a fine line between too much iron (which can fuel infections) and too little iron (which can compromise health) through evolutionary history. Dr. Fujita and colleagues are testing the optimal iron hypothesis, predicting that having somewhat low iron in the blood will be protective against infections, including COVID-19. The research team has collected data among healthcare workers in Nigeria, and they are about to begin data analysis. She looks forward to disseminating the results from this research. 

Dr. Fujita always had a passion for anthropology. She initially took an introduction to anthropology course as an elective in British Columbia and learned some fundamental concepts such as holism and ethnocentrism. She says, “I was an international student, and anthropology helped me adapt to the life in the host country. Born and raised in a more homogeneous country, it was my first time to live among people with different cultural backgrounds. Anthropology helped me navigate life.” When asked to share a piece of advice for her students, Dr. Fujita mentioned important advice she received from her loving mother: “Enjoy the process – my mother said that at her age nearing the end of life, what she has come to treasure the most is the process – being in the midst of it – rather than her achievements. Looking back at my own years as a student, I too treasure the journey part – it was lengthy and at times unsure if I would ever finish, but in hindsight those were invaluable years!”