Amidst loss, anthropology professor finds professional path
Published: Friday, September 7, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 7, 2012 00:09
Anthropology is the study of all things human. Anthropologists in a number of fields including global health apply their knowledge to imagine and implement strategies to solve humanity’s countless problems by integrating perspectives from many areas into their research.
The field of anthropology is organized into the fields of archeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology and cultural anthropology. Within these fields there are sub-studies that use techniques from each field to understand their unique questions about humanity.
Medical anthropologist, Cameron Hay-Rollins understands the importance of integrating knowledge from multiple fields. She has anthropological field experience that changed the way she viewed the world.
Hay-Rollins has been a part of Miami University’s anthropology department since 2005 and currently teaches five different anthropology classes and is working on a committee to develop a new minor program in global health.
Abby Sapadin, a senior anthropology major, said Hay-Rollins uses anthropology to examine the world and pushes her students to do the same.
“In my mind, she is passionate, she is critical, and she pushes you to investigate deeply problematic issues in the world and decide for yourself how you will approach them,” Sapadin said.
Hay-Rollins has a tidy office with two chairs for visitors and large clear desk. She wears a pressed button down shirt and her square framed glasses and shoulder-length white hair give her the intellectual look of a professor. Her warm smile and openness to conversation show another side of her that is more accustomed to working with unique people.
“I like people,” Hay-Rollins said. “In what other field do you get to go out and hang out with people, and watch what they do and figure out what their interests are without having necessarily an agenda of your own?”
Hay-Rollins said the field of anthropology is based on the powers of observation.
“Unlike other fields that do science based on experiments, anthropologists’ primary method is ethnography or observational research,” Hay-Rollins said. “We look at natural settings and see behaviors. Human and not human, we look at how they react in natural settings, which means we have very little control over what people do.”
Hay-Rollins did not originally have a huge interest in medical anthropology.
“I was a cultural anthropologist and I was interested in psychological issues – identity issues actually,” Hay-Rollins said. “I was trained in the biological questions during grad school and I loved the cultural questions or approaches to theory, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the biological portion. I wanted to study identity. And then I got into the field,”
In a tiny village on the island of Lombok in Indonesia Hay-Rollins’ plans for studying identity quickly evaporated.
“These people weren’t interested in their identity,” Hay-Rollins said. “They knew who they were; they didn’t care what anyone else thought about who they were! They had no interest whatsoever in their identity!”
“What they were interested in, what they talked about, what consumed a good portion of their lives was illness,” Hay-Rollins said. “I was in a community of 800 people and I went to a burial a week for two years.”
Hay-Rollins shared the loss and suffering with the people of Lombok and her experience shaped the future of her studies as an anthropologist. “This was what was salient for them,” Hay-Rollins said. “And so I became a medical anthropologist because that’s what mattered to them.”
The people of Lombok helped her realize that issues of suffering and resilience are central to humanity especially when dealing with issues like healthcare.
Hay-Rollins recalls the people in Lombok coped with illness and healthcare differently as a result of their culture and low level of access to medical knowledge.
“I came back to the U.S. and I realized that the Internet was making medical access more egalitarian,” Hay-Rollins said. “So I said ‘well, what’s happening with that, how does patient access to medical information online affect their illness experience and doctor patient relationships?’”
After finishing her Ph.D program at Emory University, Hay-Rollins went on to conduct postdoctoral research at the Center for Culture and Health at UCLA.
More recently, Hay-Rollins has done research comparing the memory processes of healers in various medical traditions. Her research was recently published in a chapter of a book titled The Encultured Brain, which covers a new specialty field called neuroanthorpology.
“In my chapter,” said Hay- Rollins “I argue that healers or physicians in different traditions augment their mental memory skills to fit with the ideology of their particular tradition.”
She also has worked on a number of research projects that focus on various topics including empathy in clinical interactions, cultural competency in medical practice and an undergraduate research project on the experience of stress.
Upon coming to Miami University in 2005, she conducted an interdisciplinary research program on clinical decision-making that has been published in medical and health policy journals. At Miami she also continued to examine empathy as well as starting two projects that looked at student health.
Hay-Rollins’ studies have affected her on both a personal and professional level. She has won awards for her research and published work. However, she said she names teaching as her greatest accomplishment.
“Most of my classes don’t have any pre-reqs so I get a wonderful array of students that come in and each student brings in their own perspectives from their own lives and we get these great dialogues,” Hay-Rollins said.
Sapadin said that her classes with Hay-Rollins led her to pursue a career in urban or global medicine.