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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Heller Faculty Notes

Her teaching draws on diverse experience in anthropology, public health

A conversation with Nina Kammerer, Senior Lecturer

Q:  What led you to a career in anthropology? 

A:  As I was selecting courses for my first semester of college, I pored over the bulletin - which in those days took the form of a large paperback volume - looking for subjects I had not had a chance to study in high school. Anthropology spoke to me because it explores the richness and diversity of human worlds. Since I was eight years old, the power of culture to shape our understandings of ourselves and others has fascinated me.

A third grader during the Cold War, I accompanied my parents to a neighbor's cocktail party in honor of a physician visiting from the USSR. To my surprise, I was terrified of the Russian doctor, not because of anything said in my family but because I had crouched during drills, hands over head, beneath my school desk. The physician must have seen fear in my face; he gently invited me to sit next to him, drew out his wallet, and showed me photos of his wife and children. Just a father, like my own, I realized. I marveled at the fear formed by things said and done in my local public school.

Q:  You also have a degree in public health. How did that come about?

A:  Prompted by the AIDS epidemic, I joined with one Thai and two western social scientists to explore cultural and structural factors contributing to vulnerability to HIV infection among three mountain minorities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS pandemic was Thailand, with infection rates highest in the northern region. That is where I had conducted dissertation research from 1979 to 1981 on the ways ritual and cosmology, kinship, gender, and political organization interlock for Akha, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people, as well as post-doctoral research from 1985 to 1987 on Christian conversion and urban migration.

As an interpretive social scientist with no training in quantitative methods, I found it difficult to communicate our research findings to epidemiologists and physicians designing HIV prevention efforts. Academic and professional disciplines can be seen as cultural systems, so what I was then experiencing were problems in cross-cultural communication. I therefore returned to school to obtain training in public health, choosing concentrations in epidemiology and biostatistics, the keystones of the field, and in social and behavioral sciences, the public health perspective on anthropology's arena.

Q:  What caused you to turn your focus from Thailand to the US?

A:  Careers are shaped not only by our interests but also by serendipity and by our life circumstances. After I got my MPH in 1997, I found myself unwilling to travel to Thailand with or without my young daughter, so I looked for work locally. It was my good fortune to land a job in Boston at a small, nonprofit public health research, evaluation, and consulting firm, where I worked with a number of the Schneider Institutes' current researchers, including Lee Panas, Mary Brolin, Meelee Kim, and Peter Kreiner.

Q:  And is this where your experience in program evaluation also took shape? 

A:  Yes. In something of a trial by fire, I immediately took the lead on evaluations of four demonstration projects designed and funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. I had studied program evaluation as part of my MPH coursework and I had done research in Southeast Asia's famed Golden Triangle when it was the world's major producer of opium, but I had no previous expertise or experience in either health services research or the field of substance abuse and treatment.

Q:  How did you learn about the Heller School and land a job in the PhD Program?

A:  Off and on during the 1990s I taught such courses as AIDS in Anthropological Perspective in the Anthropology Department here at Brandeis, so I have long known of Heller. But my marvelous and memorable introduction to what Heller training means in the real world of health policy and practice followed from my work on those evaluations.

While based at the Boston research firm, I partnered with Norma Finkelstein, a social worker who got her PhD from Heller in 1987, a pioneer in the development of gender-specific substance abuse services for women, and the founder of the Institute for Health and Recovery in Cambridge. We worked together on the WELL (Women Embracing Life and Living) Project, one of 9 sites across the country in the Women, Co-Occurring Disorders, & Violence Study, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, that developed and then tested the effectiveness of integrated trauma-informed and trauma-specific services for women with diagnoses of substance abuse and mental illness and lifetime experiences of physical and/or sexual abuse. We also participated in a sub-study of the effectiveness of trauma-informed services for the children of women in the overarching study.

Landing my dream job here at Heller involved a bit of serendipity, a conversation between a colleague in the Brandeis Anthropology Department and Christine Bishop, then director of the PhD Program, about Heller's need for someone to teach the two qualitative methods seminars.

Among the many joys of my job is that in my teaching and mentoring I draw on all the diverse training and experience I have had, and continue to have, as a cultural anthropologist, a self-trained medical anthropologist, and a public health specialist. Across years, disciplines, and continents, I have been involved in research that touches on all the concentrations in the PhD Program, from assets and inequalities to behavioral health; children, youth, and families; and global health and development. I find the seminars in qualitative research exciting because they bring together students from all the concentrations, students with an affinity for qualitative research, and students who find it an alien culture. Like many, perhaps all, who choose to be teachers, I love to learn. Every year Heller students are my teachers.

Knowledge Advancing Social Justice