Dr. Virginia J. Vitzthum, Senior Scientist at the Kinsey Institute, Professor of Anthropology, and Director of the Evolutionary Anthropology Laboratory at Indiana University, has retired this summer and transitioned to Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. Dr. Vitzthum has been on the Indiana University faculty and a valued member of the Kinsey Institute research team since 2008.
Throughout her career, Dr. Vitzthum has been passionate about women’s health, and researching questions that can provide the information women need for their emotional and physical wellbeing.
Beginning in the 1990s, Vitzthum sought to investigate a then unresolved paradox: how is it that women in the western world (specifically the US) who undertake an exercise program often cease ovulating and become infertile, whereas women in less-developed countries may have many children despite ongoing strenuous physical labor?
Dr. Vitzthum’s novel approach turned the conventional debate on its head. She developed the “Flexible Response Model,” that posited that women’s reproductive function responds to specific conditions and has mechanisms that calibrate a woman’s hormonal response to fit the prevailing environmental and physical conditions she is living in. Vitzthum began a longitudinal study of hormonal variation in highland Bolivian women. She found unequivocally that lower hormone levels were normal for Bolivian women. Despite living at a high altitude and consuming an average of only 1800 calories a day, they were able to conceive with hormone levels far below those considered ‘normal’ for American women.
Out of these observations, and in the following decades, she has undertaken numerous research projects studying hormonal variation and conception patterns around the world, including studies in Bolivia, Mongolia, Germany, the United States, and in the Arctic regions. She and her colleagues have investigated the influence of diet, activity, and environmental factors (like the extreme variations in light patterns in northern climates) on women’s hormone levels, fertility, immune functioning, depression, and sleep patterns.
Dr. Vitzthum’s development of the Flexible Response Model and her resulting research program have bridged the gap between academia and the world of applied health policy including contraceptive technology. In 2017, Dr. Vitzthum also became the Director of Scientific Research at Clue, a women’s health app that supports menstrual and reproductive health, where she has overseen and consulted on several studies on ovulation, menstruation, sex and technology, and women’s reproductive health.
Dr. Vitzthum’s pioneering work has received support from the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Scholar Program, and private foundations and organizations. In 2011, she was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her contributions to understanding the causes and consequences of female reproductive variation.
In addition to expanding her Arctic research program, Dr. Vitzthum has recently established new collaborations, including projects in Africa, an international study of the effects of COVID infection on the menstrual cycle and fertility, and a study of the impact of the COVID pandemic on access to contraception throughout the U.S.
Please join us in applauding Dr. Vitzthum for her considerable contributions to the study of reproductive variation and a career of accomplishments. We wish her all the best in her retirement and future endeavors.
Dr. Vitzthum’s recent publications:
Virginia J. Vitzthum, Jonathan Thornburg, Hilde Spielvogel, Tobias Deschner. 2021. “Recognizing normal reproductive biology: A comparative analysis of variability in menstrual cycle biomarkers in German and Bolivian women.” (Feature Article). American Journal of Human Biology.
Virginia J. Vitzthum. 2021. “Field methods and strategies for assessing female reproductive functioning.” (HUMAN BIOLOGY TOOLKIT). American Journal of Human Biology.