Health, Healing, and Death: The New Track in Barnard’s Anthropology Department

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By Ella Koscher

October 16, 2018, 2:27 AM

For Barnard junior Emma Senner, it all began last fall when she stumbled across a poster in the Diana Center. Soon after, her phone buzzed with a text from her mom. “Did you know about this?” it read, with a picture of the very same poster, which her mother had come across on Facebook. Within the hour, another buzz, this time from Senner’s friend and current Barnard junior Emily O’Dell, with the same photo. “Have you seen this?”

“Okay, this is a sign,” Senner remembers thinking. The poster, announcing the Barnard anthropology department’s brand new medical anthropology track, had been posted at the defining moment of her college career: choosing her major. As a pre-med student, Senner began college anticipating to study chemistry or biology. However, after taking a couple anthropology classes to fill her schedule, she fell in love with the discipline, and her interest in the medical anthropology track reaffirmed that the major was the right path for her.

Starting last fall, Barnard students can now declare a major in medical anthropology, making it the third track for majors within the department. Up until then, students could decide only between the general anthropology track, which focuses on sociocultural anthropology, and the archaeological track. Now, the year-old medical anthropology track offers students the option to concentrate in a different realm of the discipline.

The medical focus of the track may naturally elicit conclusions that this track is made for a niche group: pre-med and pre-health students looking to supplement their STEM studies with the social sciences. But beyond this group, it provokes the question: Who else is this track for?

Since the track came to fruition, it has attracted students with their sights set on the medical field, but also offers an option for students interested in medicine or healthcare who don’t necessarily want to be become a doctor or go into public health. A social sciences degree has grown increasingly valuable in the medical world, and medical school admissions offices have begun to encourage applicants to take social sciences courses as undergraduates. Though a social sciences major like medical anthropology won’t allow pre-med students to finish their requirements with more ease, it does allow them to supplement their STEM studies with disciplines that provide more context to their work and allow for social exploration.

So what is medical anthropology?

“Medical anthropologists are interested in health, healing, sickness, suffering, death,” professor Lesley Sharp, chair of the Barnard anthropology department, lists off for me as we sit in her office, tucked in the corner of the anthropology department in Milbank Hall. “The body is this instrument, in a sense, of human experience. The way in which we move through the world is through the body.”

A sociocultural and medical anthropologist by training, Sharp has been at Barnard since 1994 and became chair of the Barnard anthropology department this fall. Sharp’s work has taken her from the study of indigenous healers in Madagascar to the social nature of organ transplants and analyzing suffering within the human-animal interface in labs in the United States.

According to the Society for Medical Anthropology, medical anthropology can encompass the influences, experiences, and treatments regarding issues of health, well being, illness, healing, and therapy, as well as issues surrounding medical care and healthcare systems.

It can be difficult for someone outside of the field to pin down the exact nature of medical anthropology—something to put a finger on. Sharp explains that anthropology is composed of several subfields––strands that are threaded together to make the discipline what it is. When Columbia established the U.S.’s first anthropology department in 1896, the discipline’s “four field approach” comprised of four subfields: sociocultural, linguistic, biological (also known as physical and evolutionary), and archeological anthropology. The sociocultural field studies cultures and societies of the present and recent past, while archaeology studies past societies through their material remains, such as tools, places, and bodies. The biological field aims to study human evolution, while linguistic anthropology studies the construction and evolution of languages, as well as languages’ social and cultural contexts.

Sharp explains that while some medical anthropologists like to see their field as a fifth subfield of the discipline, she sees medical anthropology as a means of drawing upon one or several of the four fields. Though the track is rooted in sociocultural anthropology training, medical anthropological approaches within the discipline’s other fields are possible as well.

Anthropology is ultimately a discipline that works to comprehend how humans and the human body experience the world, a question that has long intersected with studies of health and healing. Students in Barnard’s department noted and understood this intersection long before the medical anthropology track was implemented.

“The department has always been an attractive major for students who were in pre-health,” Sharp explains.

One of these students is Hannah Ashkinaze, currently pursuing a master’s in public health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, after graduating from Barnard with a general anthropology degree in 2016. Ashkinaze wrote her senior thesis on mental health advocacy, a project that steered her interest in public health.

“People in the medical field are increasingly interested in incorporating knowledge of culture and the community environment into their work,” Ashkinaze says. “I definitely would have done [the medical anthropology] track if it was offered when I was there.”

Seniors, like Ashkinaze, have often written theses on a medical anthropology topic, but “medical anthropology” could not be explicitly written on their transcripts, even if they had made it the focus of their major or thesis. Sharp highlights this pattern she observed year after year, and while she states there were not necessarily students actively advocating for the track’s establishment, “there were students who lamented that it didn't exist.”

Even before last fall, then, there were enough classes and enough student interest that, in effect, medical anthropology already existed at Barnard—it was just a matter of making the track official.

Shortly after Ashkinaze graduated, implementing the medical track became a serious consideration within the department. Sharp estimates that the entire formal process took a year, beginning with internal department conversations and then working through the natural path any new major, minor, or track endures within Barnard’s Committee on Instruction.

Students were notified of the new track once the committee voted to approve its implementation. A year after students could begin the track, Sharp tells me that about a third of the department’s current majors have chosen to pursue the medical anthropology track.

Since 2008, an average of 23 seniors each year have graduated from Barnard with an anthropology degree, with the highest being 33 graduates in 2010 and the lowest being 13 graduates this past spring. This fall, 14 seniors are enrolled in the department’s senior seminar, a requirement for graduation, and this May will be the first time any Barnard students graduate with a degree in medical anthropology.

The new track has drawn a lot of attention, from both inside and outside the major. O’Dell, for instance, would not have joined the major if it had not been for the new track. Though she enjoys her general anthropology classes, she believes that the inherent “medical” aspect of her major is extremely valuable to her pre-health track and her pursuits to become a physician's assistant. Senner, on the other hand, believes she would have ultimately done the anthropology major if the track didn’t exist, probably pursuing the archaeological track with a biological specialization. Both O’Dell and Senner abandoned their plans to major in a STEM field to pursue medical anthropology.

For students like O’Dell and Senner, the major allows for flexibility in the courses they choose to to study across disciplines, and is a sign of the growing popularity of health humanities and social sciences programs across the country.

Taking a couple of classes in the Barnard anthropology department spurred Barnard senior Hannah Yamamoto’s passion for the discipline, and at the end of her sophomore year, she dropped her pre-med track and declared as a general anthropology major. Since then, she has switched to the medical track but has also kept up with her lab work, in case the medical field once again becomes a possibility she would like to pursue.

“I was always interested in applying healthcare science,” Yamamoto says. “A lot of great stuff is being done in the lab, but translating that [and] making it useable is important.” The track allows her to study these approaches, helping her to fulfill that mission.

Nicholas Bartlett, a professor in Barnard’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and trained medical anthropologist himself, echoes the importance of studying health outside the confines of a lab, noting health and healthcare’s use of resources and their major role in the economy.

“So much of health falls out of the more narrow biomedical understandings of … clinical interventions,” Bartlett says. “Different disciplines can really help to elucidate pieces of the puzzle that fall out of the encounter between doctor and patients.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the track allows students to explore medical anthropology topics outside the anthropology department. Classes with certain professors in departments such as women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and Columbia’s department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology, which absorbed the Columbia anthropology department’s once existent biological anthropology major, can count towards the major. For example, several of Bartlett’s classes in the Asian and Middle Eastern cultures department, including “China and Politics of Desire” and “Health and Society in Contemporary East Asia,” can count for the track.

The fluidity of the discipline and the flexibility of the major, by design, allow students to construct a path that works best for them and is tailored to their interests.

“We do have certain requirements, but we have always taught anthropology here in such a way that there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what you take,” Sharp says. “So it’s not that … there’s step A, then step B, then step C … which you might find for instance in a science major. We don’t teach that way. We want you to discover what it is that matters most to you.”

The cross-disciplinary design of majors like medical anthropology is increasingly valuable in medical school as well. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, more pre-med students are opting for humanities programs and non-STEM degrees, and three years ago, the association even added sociology and psychology elements to the Medical College Admission Test.

“There is much more of a sensitivity and an encouragement to spread one's wings outside of the more narrow confines of pure science than there was before,” Dr. Robert Mayer, a medical oncologist and dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School, says.

The medical school, Mayer tells me, has changed its admission policy to “strongly recommend” applicants to take at least one semester of sociology or psychology, and about 25 percent of the school’s entering students hold an undergraduate degree in the social sciences or humanities, he says.

“I think medicine is a much more complex community of individuals now than it was in the past,” Mayer explains. “It's much more diverse and having that experience in sociology and psychology and social medicine helps people, when they complete medical school, to be better physicians.”

Attempting to balance their lives with the rigorous nature of STEM, pre-med and pre-health students have sought majors like medical anthropology to practice the social sciences approach to studying and treating the human body. However, considering the lack of overlap between the pre-med track and non-STEM majors, the reality of being a pre-med student in this major doesn’t make the track any easier.

“You don't want to major in anything simply because it seems like a good idea and it’s strategic and then you have something to talk about during your medical school interviews,” Sharp urges. “You need to go take some anthropology and then decide first whether or not this is what you're passionate about. Otherwise, why major in something that bores you stiff or you don’t like at all?”

A non-STEM approach to medicine also exists across the street on Columbia’s campus in the relatively new medicine, literature, and society major offered by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Requirements for the major consist of comparative literature, a second language, biology, and service learning requirements, plus several courses within the student’s chosen concentration, which can be broad and range across disciplines. The major requires students to study a second language, but from there, it’s as flexible and interdisciplinary as they come. Sitting down with Columbia College junior Jasmine Bar, it became clear that she chose her major for reasons similar to Senner, O’Dell, and Yamamoto.

A pre-med student herself, Bar has noticed how her peers can get caught up and grow weary amid the requirements and stress of the pre-med track, losing sight of their pursuits. “It just seems like so much build up,” she says. “Then you have to take the MCAT, then you have to get into med school, and then you have to get your residency and it’s such a long path, and if you’re doing that kind of without any larger perspective, I think that can be really hard.” Bar highly values the design of the major, saying it works with ideas of “holistic medicine and treating people as people and not as diseases.”

Sifting through the courses that qualify for the Barnard medical anthropology track—“Death and the Body,” “Culture and Mental Health,” “Gender and HIV/AIDS,” “Trauma”—it’s necessary to recognize the issues of health, healing, and suffering that exist beyond the confines of a hospital or a doctor’s office. Disciplines like biology, chemistry, and physics, while inherently essential for future medical practitioners to study, demand to be supplemented with questions and studies rooted in culture and society. Doctors like Mayer, and students like Senner and Bar, understand that.

Bar believes that pre-med students at Barnard and Columbia can become weighed down by all of their requirements, and choosing a STEM major on top of that “leaves very little time for exploration.” As she ponders her decision to major in the humanities, she concludes, “I think this is a really nice piece of exploration that I feel grateful for.”