Spotlight on Faculty: Dr. Barnes and Dr. Laird

Dr. Barnes and Dr. LairdMedicine is not always about hospitals and biomedical research.  For this reason, Dr. Linda Barnes and Dr. Lance Laird worked to create the Medical Anthropology and Cross Cultural Practices (MACCP) program here at BUSM.  A “program by design,” students in this program experience a new way of examining medicine and the process of health and healing in cultures from around the world, particularly as these cultures have entered the United States.

Can you tell me a little about the MACCP program?

Dr. Barnes: Medical Anthropology is a branch of cultural anthropology.  The field focuses on how cultures view and respond to sickness, suffering, healing, and medicine.  The MACCP program highlights four areas:  1) We take students through the practical skills required to practice medical anthropology after graduation.  They design a fully detailed study, participate in field work, and learn how to write for various audiences, in addition to receiving training in specific professional skills. 2) The students also gain solid training in theoretical analysis and its application to their data.  3) Our program teaches students how to develop a study within a local community or group.  While medical anthropology often focuses on global health overseas, our program teaches students to relate global health to Boston.  4) Finally, this program offers students the chance to customize their program.  In addition to core required courses, students choose their electives from offerings throughout the university, to fulfill their long-term goals.  Because the program is so customized, it is a small program, ensuring a lot of one-on-one interaction with the faculty.

Dr. Laird:  MACCP is not only about how cultures view health issues, but also how they define health.  It is important to remember that a culture does not have to be foreign or ethnic.  Our program examines the cultural views of mainstream biomedical science to understand the people who work in healthcare within the local community.  After studying world-view assumptions of medical sciences, we can better understand how a culture influences professions and professionals.  For instance, what beliefs, values, or norms is a physician considering when he or she prescribes the HPV vaccination or an anti-depressant to a patient?  We study the cultures of the clinic.

What kind of career do students in the MACCP program pursue after earning their degree?

Dr. Barnes: Our students have a variety of backgrounds and experiences.  The element that ties them together is their willingness and ability to “see outside the box.”  Some students have completed pre-medical tracks during their undergraduate education and want to continue on to medical school with a different perspective.  Others have an anthropology background, but want to focus in on medical anthropology.  Some students have heard about the field of medical anthropology but don’t yet have the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a Ph.D. program.  Others are drawn to public health kinds of careers, but want to focus on a more localized population using anthropological methods.

Dr. Laird: It is important to recognize that the program focuses on cross-cultural practices as well as medical anthropology.  Students will learn how medicine is practiced in many different cultures.  We often have public health students enrolled in our classes.

How did you become an educator?  Is there any research in your field you are working on?

Dr. Barnes: I was trained at Harvard in an interdisciplinary program that combined medical anthropology and world religions.  My research focuses on Chinese medicine and healing traditions, how these came to Boston, and how they have spread throughout the United States.  I have worked extensively with the Boston Healing Landscape Project, which was the basis for our Masters program.

Dr. Laird: As a graduate student at Harvard, I studied Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, and I also received training in anthropology to better understand religious boundaries.  I taught out West after completing graduate school, and it was the interdisciplinary class “Body, Mind, and Soul,” taught by a ballet instructor, psychologist, and myself, a comparative religion instructor, that I became interested in how religion is expressed through the body.  It was a profound experience to watch as students danced to express a serious illness.  After five years, I moved to Boston with my family, and Dr. Barnes invited me into the BU community.  Currently, I am researching the Muslim community, focusing on the healing practices and spiritual needs of Muslim patients and providers and reaching out to improve the overall health of this community.

What advice would you give to GMS students regarding courses, or in general?

Dr. Barnes: You can pretty much do anything you really want to do, as long as you find someone to sign off on it.  If you have a good idea, there should be a way to do it.  Take the extra steps and jump through the hoops if that is what it takes.  Such a philosophy provides an approach for an interesting life and career.  Similarly, be passionate about the field in which you are working.  There is a difficult job market right now, and life does not always go in straight lines.  Nothing happens immediately, and you will need the passion to carry you through the difficult times.  Work closely with your advisor, your peers, and the faculty to take full advantage of your education.  Be sure to think long-term, particularly when choosing your electives.

Dr. Laird: Be prepared to work hard, and challenge yourself to see the world through others’ eyes.  Examine your blind spots and think outside the box of traditional medical sciences.  Find support in the BU community, the program, and among your faculty and peers.