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Undergraduate Update

Spanish, Anthropology & International Studies Major Pursues Senior Honors Thesis in Medical Anthropology

Photo courtesy of Faith Cole.

By Carissa Van Heest

Faith Cole, triple majoring in Spanish, Anthropology, and International Studies with a concentration in Global Environment and Health, is currently completing a senior honors thesis in the field of medical anthropology.

“Medical anthropology is interested in looking at how sickness and medicine are different throughout the world; how medical systems, practices, and histories are different,” said Cole.  “Breaking down some of the assumptions that medicine and bodies are universal; studying how they are unique in different places and in different medical systems.”

Cole’s interest in anthropological research began when she took a Critical Theory in Medicine and Healing course with U-M Anthropology Professor Elizabeth Roberts, which also led her to join Prof. Roberts’ undergraduate qualitative coding lab.

“Professor Roberts’ lab is organized around the concept of bio-ethnography; creating platforms to put data from a long-term environmental study alongside ethnographic data in analyses of the various forces that shape health in Mexico City,” Cole remarked.  “I am part of a team of undergrads who help her organize and analyze her data.”

“It’s been a great way to get experience in anthropological research in a collaborative way,” said Cole.  “Working in the lab has introduced me to a model of using anthropology alongside other disciplines to understand health grounded in a local place.”

For her honors thesis project, Cole is studying “how disease and diagnosis are situated in socioeconomic circumstances, healthcare infrastructure, and policy, and what the consequences are of that.”

“I am doing an analysis of a subset of the ethnographic data Dr. Roberts collected through the Mexican Exposures Project,” said Cole.  “I am using the data she has about two specific families that live in the same working-class neighborhood, tracing the diagnostic story of the daughters of the two families to get an idea of what the importance of diagnostic certainty is in accessing medical resources.”

Cole said she’s studying interview transcripts, field notes, and photographs from Dr. Roberts’ year-long ethnography to “put a story together about how diagnosis is significant in their family settings, looking at what circumstances and differences affect their ability to receive and respond to a diagnosis.”

She highlighted the connections she sees between her Spanish major coursework and her Anthropology honors thesis work.

“I’ve had the opportunity to learn about Latin America in ways that I wouldn’t if I wasn’t majoring.  Studying politics, history, and literature with a regional focus on Latin America has influenced the way I’m reading the field notes,” she said.  “Also, the practical ability of speaking and reading Spanish has been really useful to my research, in analyzing field notes and also for my literature review.”

During her U-M academic career, Cole studied abroad in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Through the semester program in Buenos Aires, I lived there for seven months.  It made my Spanish so much better. It was really valuable,” she remarked. “It was the first time I’d lived in a big city.  I want to go back to live and work in Latin America.”

After graduation, Cole will spend some time working or researching; then she plans to apply to graduate school in Anthropology and Public Health.

“The ultimate goal is to address health issues on a local level, using anthropology to help address health care inequities,” she said.  “I would like to continue seeking out ways to create platforms for multidisciplinary studies for healthcare issues and designing local models to address those issues.”

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