Garruto made honorary member of SUNY Distinguished Academy
May 7, 2014Tweet
Ralph Garruto, research professor of biomedical anthropology, has been awarded the SUNY Medallion of Distinction, a system-wide recognition of “exceptional individuals who have distinguished careers … but who have never been eligible for appointment to Distinguished Faculty Rank” as outlined by the SUNY Board of Trustees. As a recipient, he becomes an honorary member of the SUNY Distinguished Academy that includes more than 400 active members, nearly 40 of them at Binghamton.
“We could not be more honored or proud to count you among us and to thank you for your meaningful and valued engagement with the University,” wrote SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, in a letter to Garruto, inviting him to an awards ceremony on May 20.
“As an elected member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Ralph Garruto is internationally recognized for his work,” President Harvey Stenger said. “We are thrilled that the SUNY system is also acknowledging his many contributions advancing the field of biomedical anthropology.”
In addition to his being a member of two academies, one national and the other international, Garruto has been recognized with the National Honor Plaque of Panama, the Franz Boaz Distinguished Achievement Award from the Human Biology Association and as an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“This is the first honor I’ve received from SUNY, so it’s nice to know that your institution thinks well of you and of your work, and recognizes you for your contributions to science. It’s very gratifying,” said Garruto, who had been tenured at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) but chose not to follow a tenure track when he came to Binghamton in 1997 on an inter-institutional agreement and joined the faculty in 2004.
Because of that decision, Garruto is ineligible for appointment to the distinguished rank according to SUNY guidelines. “I’m fairly unique in that way,” he said. “It’s an issue of independence for me. I came to Binghamton for a very specific task – to build a program – which I’ve done.”
That program – a master’s of science program in biomedical anthropology – fills a need that Garruto saw to provide multidisciplinary training for students that brings together biomedicine and anthropology. “I saw a need for a master’s-only program,” said Garruto. “At the NIH, I saw that what the labs needed were not PhDs. They needed some very sharp people who were not going to be independent scientists.”
Garruto chose Binghamton as the place to build his program due to a few already established connections – he is a native of Binghamton, but also had colleagues here. He was a graduate student with Michael Little, distinguished professor of anthropology, conducting research in the same region of Peru and working with the same mentor. “Thinking about where to consider it, I thought of Penn State and other places, but it happened to come together here,” he said.
So far, the program has been extraordinarily successful, Garruto said. Originally only able to take in a dozen new students each year, with additional resources the program has been able to expand and student interest is high. “The metrics are exceptional,” he said. Those who have completed the program “are all out there doing well, at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIH, Yale labs, New York state and county health departments, and forensic labs.
The program was built to train students across the broad set of subdisciplines with skills that meld biomedicine and biological anthropology into a single framework. “It was the first such program in the world,” said Garruto, so graduates looking for jobs might not think they fit into particular job descriptions, but they do.
“The quality and intensity of this kind of program makes one feel pretty good,” he said. “People say, ‘Wow! Once I found out what a biomedical anthropologist could do!’ I knew that’s what I wanted.”
More than that, Garruto said, is that employers see that they have people they can use. Program graduates are “taught several disciplinary languages” so they can speak as well as do the work. “They say, ‘That’s different. That fills something I never thought of in terms of needs, and these graduates understand the way we talk.’”
Garruto’s pride in the program is evident, though he is low-key when speaking about his own accomplishments. The drivers for him? “First, a love for discovery, scientifically,” he said. “As a research scientist, you have to get excited about finding something new. You have to see something new in science and become excited about it.
“The second thing for me has been the opportunity to work among other cultures, among very isolated remote human populations in the developing world for most of my career,” he said. “I’m still conducting field work in the South Pacific, and have a major project in Vanuatu with another faculty member, Koji Lum, where I have the opportunity to see what I call natural experiments at play – natural experimental models of disease.”
The longest Garruto has spent in the field at one time has been about nine months, and he’s hoping to salvage a planned trip to Vanuatu with some students this summer, if the government there grants approval. His hope is to set up a memorandum of understanding between Binghamton University and the Vanuatu Ministry of Health to formalize an internship site there.
“It would be a formal site for the graduate program in biomedical anthropology, though we bring select undergraduates there as well,” he said. “The MOU would be useful to them because they want us to deliver training in statistics and the ability to analyze data, as well as to train some of their health professionals in research. But I also want to facilitate some way to have our biomedical students do something the government wants based on its public health needs. Thus it would be useful to have Vanuatu as a formal internship site for our Biomedical Anthropology Program and for our students to train and learn in the developing world in a culture very different from our own, an experience of a lifetime.”
When a major medical problem is occurring in one of these remote areas at 100 times the rate it is happening anywhere else in the world, the chance of finding an answer could be at hand, he said. But field work in areas such as Vanuatu or elsewhere in the developing world is challenging. “I tell my students that the first thing is always to remain an outsider,” he said. “That maintains legitimacy. As a visitor, people will tell you things they would never tell someone in their culture. You also don’t have to know or follow the rules of the society, which may be very different. Once you become a member of the society, there is little forgiveness for not following cultural or societal rules compared to when you are a visitor or outsider, and that’s exactly what you want. That kind of privilege is huge.”
Garruto is also involved in undergraduate research training on campus. “We have a couple of projects in New York state and one on Lyme disease right now with a huge team that put in between 15,000 and 17,000 research hours in the past year,” he said. “There are 54 students on the project right now, 10 graduate students and the rest undergraduates. It’s been a huge amount of work, but also gratifying. These students are really the cream of the crop of an outstanding undergraduate University and it’s been fun to work with them.”
With the expectation of adding a molecular and biomedical anthropology research stream to the Freshman Research Immersion program in the future, Garruto hopes to have the opportunity to mold even more young undergraduate researchers. “They’ll know whether they’re research material after about a year and a half,” he said. “For now, the students we have are long term, working a minimum of 10 hours a week and 20-40 hours a week during the summer for some of them. They do well, learn a tremendous amount and contribute back a tremendous amount and that’s a great research environment to have.”
What excites him is that the undergraduates he is working with span multiple disciplines. “We bring all of these students from all disciplinary backgrounds into one pool to learn from us, but they also learn from each other,” he said. “They are all beginning to understand how each of the disciplinary areas that they are not in contribute so they understand a bit about the nature of interdisciplinary research.”
They’re required to work on more than one subproject that covers different disciplinary areas, with group and project meetings each week. The entire group gets together several times a semester to ensure students understand all aspects of project. “We don’t want them sequestered in a small area of research,” said Garruto. “They must understand the broad aspects of where this project is going, what their contribution is, and they must all learn how to speak, how to write and how to interpret and present their research.”