June 16, 2024
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Career options: Biomedical anthropology offers a pathway to public health

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Through the wear of time, lead paint begins to crack and chip. Opening and closing windows in their painted frames can release toxic lead dust particles, which can find their way onto floors, toys and little hands.

Binghamton University alumna Sarah Walker didn’t know much about the impact of lead poisoning until she landed a position at the Broome County Health Department. Now project director of their HUD Lead Hazard Reduction Program, she is deeply familiar with lead’s lasting impact on children: permanent developmental delays, organ damage, learning difficulties and more.

“All it takes is a very small amount to poison a child, unfortunately,” she said. “I would love to work myself out of a job.”

Walker earned both her MA in biological anthropology and MS in biomedical anthropology in 2008, completing both a thesis and an internship in the field. The two coincided: her thesis concerned a project she worked on during her internship with the health department on physical fitness in local schools. The relationships she built also led to her current career, along with the skills she mastered in the anthropology program.

“It is a career path that I had never even heard of, but I feel like I am amazingly well-suited to this type of work. It’s a great mix of administrative and field work, very challenging, always something new and different,” she said.

Walker is far from the only biomedical anthropology student to get their start interning with the health department. Students in the program frequently intern at public health agencies, including Anna Lynch, who is pursuing her MS through a 4+1 program after completing her bachelor’s in anthropology this spring. She is currently doing an AmeriCorps-funded internship through the Rural Health Network of South Central New York, with a placement at the Broome County Health Department, where she is focused on COVID vaccination initiatives.

Her duties range from helping callers locate vaccines to working at pop-up vaccination sites and communicating with area pharmacies on vaccine availability. She also follows up with individuals to help them obtain their second dose, and designs informational posters and flyers.

Long-term, she is gearing up for a career in public health that expands on her interest in social justice.

“I’m really passionate about trying to expand access to people who are less likely to have easy access to healthcare, such as people in poverty, or in rural areas and hard-to-reach places,” Lynch said.

Biomed at Binghamton

Originally from Orange County, New York, Lynch chose Binghamton for its affordable and high-quality academic programs. She was initially on a pre-medical track, but found herself drawn to public and global health after taking two classes with Africana Studies Chair and Associate Professor Titilayo Okoror.

“That really opened my eyes to how Western medicine is pretty much exclusive to most Western countries, and people have to take different approaches to treating health in areas where it’s not as developed,” Lynch said.

Other professors who made a difference for Lynch include the late Distinguished Service Professor Gary James, from whom she learned the importance of statistics in the medical field. She credited Visiting Assistant Professor Deborah Schechter with sparking her interest in medical anthropology, and introducing her students to graduates now working in the field.

“I really like biomedical anthropology because it takes a unique approach to understanding health,” Lynch said. “In the field, we really try and unravel the ultimate causes of ill health by looking at people or a group of people’s behaviors, and learn about how our habits influence our outcomes.”

Like Lynch, Walker explored different pathways before choosing anthropology: A native of the Poconos, she earned her bachelor’s in psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. During her senior year, she ended up taking a nutritional anthropology course that sparked her interest.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, she worked as a therapeutic staff support aide with autistic children while pursuing reading and self-study. When it came time to explore graduate programs, she knew she wanted something interdisciplinary that would allow her to explore the complex connections between the human body, culture and the environment. Binghamton’s biomedical anthropology program proved the best fit, and was the only place she applied.

“I wasn’t thinking of a public health career initially. I didn’t think that the blood-and-guts of working in the trenches as a doctor or nurse was for me, and an MPH program was not at all on my radar,” Walker said. “I was interested in finding a cross-disciplinary research program that looked at human biology and behavior through a cultural and evolutionary lens. The biological MA/biomedical MS, along with EvoS, fit the bill.”

Many of her professors had joint appointments with the biological sciences, psychology, nursing, anthropology and evolutionary studies programs, and all worked on incredibly interesting research projects, including prion diseases, high-altitude adaptations, PMS and religion. Her fellow graduate students were equally diverse, and have since pursued careers ranging from archaeology to research and public health.

Her experience in Professor Ralph Garruto’s Methods in Biological Anthropology course was a turning point, as was her experience with his Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) surveillance project. After venison from a deer with CWD was accidentally served at an Oneida County game dinner, Walker and fellow students enrolled attendees in a surveillance study, held a public information meeting, collected data and then followed up annually for several years. She does many of the same tasks for her current job, she said.

“Most of the professors I worked with are involved in fascinating research projects, and they know their fields very well. They encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone. You really have to be prepared and know your stuff,” she said.

Responding to community needs

Today, Walker directs a competitive $4.1 million federal grant program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that abates lead-based paint hazards in low-income housing where young children live. The job involves a wide array of tasks, from grant writing to coordinating staff, subcontractors and community partners, and field work in neighborhoods and homes.

Every day, she uses the skills she mastered in biomedical anthropology, and not just the topics covered in coursework. The program also helped her develop skills ranging from writing and communications to time management, organization, public speaking, networking and more.

“I had opportunities to speak at conferences and got used to standing up in front of people and presenting my work. That is coming in very handy,” she said. “So is cultural awareness and sensitivity, since we’re working in people’s homes.”

Working in public health means expecting the unexpected — such as a global pandemic. In addition to coronavirus, Walker also pitched in during devastating floods, the H1N1 flu pandemic and the shooting at the American Civic Association. Disseminating information, contact tracing, running vaccination clinics or working in emergency shelters comes with the job.

The University brought Walker to Binghamton, and her career at the health department has encouraged her to stay. The same is true of Lynch, who appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the community that has given her so much as a student.

With that in mind, Lynch has a message for current Bearcats.

“Regardless of your major, try to get involved in the community in Binghamton in some way. There’s a huge number of organizations and events that go on year-round, but especially in the summer,” she said. “Find an organization whose values and work speak to you and see how you can get involved. If we took more time to appreciate how lucky we are, and show our respect to the citizens whose city we spend eight or more months a year in, we can build meaningful relationships and an even stronger community.”

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