Grad Students Pursue Joint Degrees (D.O./Ph.D.)

Recent medical anthropology students in the department are opting to pursue both a DO degree and a PhD in Anthropology through the joint degree program offered with the College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM). Students who apply to both COM and the department can pursue both degrees over a period of seven or eight years, following their own plan for completing exams, fieldwork, rotations, and dissertations. The DO-PhD program was created in the 1970s, but most students pursued PhDs in lab sciences (for example Genetics and Microbiology) until Anthropology began enrolling students more recently. This was partly due to the encouragement of Dr. Linda Hunt and Dr. Justin McCormick (DO-PhD Program Director), who saw that the joint degree option could attract high-achieving students in Anthropology. There has already been one graduate: Dr. Emilia Boffi, who finished her PhD in 2015 and is now a medical resident at Georgetown.

To complete both degrees, students spend the first year taking classes in Anthropology, then the next two years in the medical school followed immediately by their medical board exams. During their fourth year they begin rotations, but only part time while preparing for their comprehensive exams in Anthropology. Once they have finished their exams (including the proposal defense), they do dissertation fieldwork and finish their PhD dissertations before going on to do their medical residency. One advantage of the program is that COM funds the students completely, including their fieldwork. This makes the program attractive to students and easy for the department to accommodate, since students can be flexible when scheduling exams and rotations without having to time their studies around external grant deadlines.

First-year student Melissa Chavarria was attracted to the program because of the holistic approach that the DO offered and the flexibility of the combined program. With a BA in Anthropology and an MS that focused on biomedicine and immunology, she’s excited to work with Latino populations to answer questions about the language and discourse of infectious disease. Elisabeth Arndt is a second year student and currently taking medical classes. She is interested in how pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) affects cultural understandings of risk for HIV transmission.

Kelly Colas and Evan Guay are both fourth year students currently working on their Anthropology exams with an eye towards dissertation research. Kelly is researching c-section decision-making in Mexico’s public hospitals, where low income women deliver and the c-section rate is high. She’s examining the factors that influence the doctors, who must decide after the patient is admitted what kind of birth they will have. While doctors want what is best for their patients, they must navigate constraints around time, money, and space. She’s already conducted pre-dissertation research, and has a Gliozzo scholarship (via MSU ISP) to supplement her DO funding. Evan is planning to investigate the development of medicine in Malawi and the role of interpersonal touch in patient-doctor encounters. He hopes to observe unique clinical environments, such as mobile offices, to see how diverse settings may affect the way examinations are conducted. In preparation for this research, he studied Chichewa supported by a FLAS during his second year of study.

Emilia Boffi’s dissertation, titled “How social forces don a white coat: The social context of childbirth management in Metro Detroit,” describes the power hierarchies reproduced by institutionalized birthing practices. Dr. Boffi conducted interviews and participant observation at prenatal clinics and delivery units to investigate how social stratification influences medical care and patient autonomy. She found that while the practice of American obstetrics limited the autonomy of expectant mothers, these limitations were particularly pronounced among disenfranchised groups in Detroit. She argues that the perceived objectivity of biomedicine further conceals these processes of disempowerment.

While biomedicine is often critiqued by Anthropology, what these students find interesting is the ways the two intersect. Compelling research questions can be answered at the fertile intersection between Anthropology and clinical experience. As Kelly says, “Recognizing that health is influenced by social variables as much as physiologic factors has helped me to understand medical issues with greater depth.” Or as Evan notes, “These fields should be in conversation, especially since Anthropology’s turn toward greater activism. Both strive to understand the intricacies of human life and have a positive impact.”

Below: Dr. Linda Hunt (center) with DO-PhD students (left to right) Evan, Emilia, Kelly, and Elisabeth


This article appears in our Fall 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.