Molly Fox, 28, Anthropology
In ninth grade, Molly Fox started volunteering at a local nursing home. “The better I got to know the residents there, the more their frustrations from living with dementia distressed me,” she said.
Over the next three years, she did her best to improve their lives. She spent lots of time talking to them, and she started a singing troupe to entertain them. She did so much for them, in fact, that she was named the New York State Health Facilities Young Adult Volunteer of the Year.
Molly Fox. (Photo: Cambridge University)
Fox went on to Yale, where she majored in theater and anthropology. While there, she co-wrote a musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher andwon the Stanley Wheeler Prize, given each year to Yale’s top arts student.
Then she moved to England to get her anthropology Ph.D. at Cambridge on a full ride as a Gates scholar, who are chosen for their “outstanding intellectual ability and a commitment to improving the lives of others.” Today she’s back in the states, as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California-Irvine. (In her free time, she plays badminton and the trumpet.)
Fox’s academic career is already distinguished by three big discoveries: One, that good hygiene is linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s—she used data from 192 countries to determine that. Two, that breastfeeding lowers a mother’s risk of developing dementia. And three, that, for genetic reasons, grandmothers like their sons’ daughters best.
Thanks to these and other revelations, Fox’s peers and higher-ups regard her as a brilliant researcher. When she amended the prevailing hypothesis for the evolutionary origin of human longevity to include a genetics perspective, her paper became one of the Royal Society’s most downloaded articles.
Her most recent work examines serotonin’s role in depression. She’s also looking into the connection between progesterone and Alzheimer’s, as well as how prenatal stress affects fetuses. In short, she likes to study babies and old people.
One of Fox’s goals is to better understand older family members’ roles throughout history. She does this, in part, by piecing together what dementia risk might have been in ancestral environments. “I’m especially interested in the evolutionary forces that shaped the length of the human lifespan,” she says, “and in the central role of women’s reproductive biology.”
It concerns Fox deeply that Alzheimer’s affects one in six American women. “With an aging population so ravaged by dementia, we are losing the wisdom of the elderly,” she says. “The moral synthesis and historical perspective that should guide our lives are damaged.” By doing the work she does, Fox hopes to figure out how to stop dementia from stealing so much.