What is Medical Anthropology? Listen to our show with Dr. Sean Bruna where we talk about the study of human beings and what can affect their health. We also talk about “aliens”, meeting Barak Obama, physicians bedside manner, food deserts and the physical dangers of scientific research. We end with Dr. Bruna talking about America’s most famous forensic anthropologist, Bones.
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>> Here we go!
[? Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ?]
? Neutron, proton, mass defect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant
? Mass spectrograph, pure electron volt, atomic energy erupting
? As I get all open on betatron, gamma rays thermo cracking
? Cyclotron and any and every mic
? You’re on trans iridium, if you’re always uranium
? Molecules, spontaneous combustion, pow
? Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight
? I’m every element around
(Dr. Regina) This is Spark Science where we explore stories of human curiosity. My name is Regina Barber DeGraaff. I teach physics and astronomy at Western Washington University. I love Harry Potter. I’m here with my cohost Jordan Baker. Do you also love Harry Potter?
(Jordan) I’ve never read a book, never seen a movie.
(Regina) It’s like, everything I like you don’t like. You don’t even like it? You don’t have an opinion?
(Jordan) I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars. Somebody was asking me yesterday about some other franchise. I’ve never seen it!
(Regina) Some other franchise? I’ll just be like, “Jordan, have you seen some other franchise?” And your answer is, “Probably not.”
(Jordan) Yeah. Was it Dumb and Dumber then Dumb and Dumberer then Dumb and Dumber Too?
(Regina) I love Dumb and Dumber. That’s a good movie.
(Jordan) Then I’ve probably seen 2/3 of them.
(Regina) OK. [Laughing.] How’s The Upfront?
(Jordan) It’s doing well. We’re doing the science-y Space Trek.
(Regina) You hate Star Trek. So, you actually still do it though?
(Jordan) I don’t hate Star Trek I just don’t watch it nor care for it.
(Regina) I don’t know.
(Jordan) I wouldn’t watch it. If it were on TV and something else was on TV, I’d watch something else.
(Regina) OK, but you don’t hate it?
(Regina) That sounds like you hate it.
(Jordan) No. I think you’re reading into it.
(Regina) Listeners will disagree with you because they’ll listen to past episodes where you groan.
(Jordan) They’ll come and see this show and they’ll say, “Wait, I think he likes space stuff.”
(Regina) This week we are going to talk about medical anthropology. Our gust today is Dr. Sean Bruna. How’s it going?
(Dr. Bruna) It’s pretty good. It’s great to be here. It’s kind of, I’m actually going to be at the Star Trek show next week. Not because I’m a big fan but a very big fan is dragging me out there so I have to do a little research and know exactly what my favorite episode is.
(Regina) Well the Space Trek improve thing or an actual Space Trek thing.
(Dr. Bruna) The improv one. Which in this town is apparently pretty big.
(Regina) It was sold out. I was going to go the other day and actually support my friend here and I couldn’t because it was sold out.
(Dr. Bruna) There’s a couple of Trekkies in this place.
(Jordan) It’s already sold out for Saturday and it was Monday. They sold out.
(Regina) That’s insane! You’re that popular? Do you have groupies, Jordan?
(Dr. Bruna) Is there a green room to watch from backstage?
(Jordan) I’ll sneak you in the backdoor. There’s a camera.
(Regina) This is a good Segway, right, because when we’re talking about anthropology, the most generic definition I understand, and please correct me Sean, is that anthropology is the study of humans and culture, human culture, I don’t know.
(Dr. Bruna) That’s pretty good. We look at human behavior in context.
(Regina) Improv is the best way to do that.
(Dr. Bruna) Well, improve, you really have to know people to practice improv, absolutely. That would be a great scene to be behind the scenes, checking it out.
(Regina) Taking notes, making them feel uncomfortable.
(Jordan) Poking and prodding at all of their insecurities?
(Regina) Right. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) That’s a pretty good definition. That’s a pretty good place to start.
(Regina) How would you put more detail into that definition?
(Dr. Bruna) I look at what people do in context. In my case, as a medical anthropologist, I wonder how, what people do, and where they do it, impacts their health and wellness.
(Regina) OK. Alright. So, before we go into what you do now, I want to go to the way back machine. We’re all in the time machine now and [voicing humming like a machine] we’re going back in time and we’re going to visit baby Sean and why he wanted to go into medical anthropology.
(Dr. Bruna) How baby are we talking about? I remember the first time I wore pants when I came to the US. I grew up in South America.
(Regina) Really? Tell me about the first time you wore pants. That’s awesome.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s kind of weird. I couldn’t bend my knees.
(Jordan) Leg presence.
(Dr. Bruna) I was 8 years old. Totally let presence.
(Jordan) I hate them.
(Dr. Bruna) In El Paso, Texas right on the border, one of the strangest, largest towns out there, it was weird.
(Regina) So before then it was all shorts?
(Dr. Bruna) All shorts.
(Regina) Never pants.
(Dr. Bruna) Never pants.
(Regina) That’s crazy because I do not remember the first time I wore pants. I can imagine it could be really weird though. You’re right. If you’ve never had any cloth restaurant below the knee, right?
(Dr. Bruna) We all get used to what is around us. When you’re put in different context like I was, maybe that was the beginning of anthropology for me.
(Regina) It was! We found it!
(Dr. Bruna) In context, and all of the sudden I went, “This is strange.” Including the border town, which was incredibly strange. I think that’s we’re I started with my interest in anthropology. Coming to is different country, in this case I came to the US, things were pretty different, people were different, a lot of strange interactions on the US Mexican border. You get a lot of people clashing together. It’s the busiest port in the world. I think that’s where it started. I was more interested in archaeology when I started college.
(Regina) Because of Indiana Jones?
(Dr. Bruna) I admit it, yeah. Because of Indiana Jones. [Laughing]
(Jordan) Guilty pleasure. [Laughing]
(Regina) Yes, you’re right.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s pretty bad, exactly right. I went to school in Chicago and I was working on Mayan and Aztec archaeology. I studied Nawat, an indigenous language in Mexico. Then I started going more into bioarcheology so I was really into pollen for a while. I was in a lab one day and I was spending about 10 hours in a lab looking at pollen under a microscope, looking at the bumps on the pollen, counting them.
(Regina) From ancient civilizations?
(Dr. Bruna) Yeah. I was actually working on an archaeological site from New Mexico from about 1500 years ago. I was reconstructing the landscape as part of my undergraduate class. I was working on someone else’s project. After about 10 hours, I looked up and said, “I can’t do this, I have to speak to a human.” It was the last archaeology class I took.
(Regina) Indiana Jones, I mean, he talks to so many people. It’s so inaccurate. [Laughing]
(Dr. Bruna) He’s out in the field he’s having fun, he’s going all over the world, I had to change, I had to go cultural at that point which is much more fun, hanging out with people and doing what they do. It’s great. I switched over at that point to cultural anthropology and started interacting with people and working, actually, at that point at powwows quite a bit. Powwows there in the Midwest.
(Regina) In the same culture you were studying before? Just more modern?
(Dr. Bruna) I ended up moving north. I finished my undergrad degree in anthropology in Latin American studies at that point. I thought I would take a little time to figure it out so I worked at the university there at Chicago. I was a coordinator for student activities. Chicago is weird, it’s sort of where fun goes to die.
(Regina) Oh no! [Laughing]
(Jordan) Don’t tell my wife that. [Laughing.] She’s from Chicago.
(Regina) And all of our Chicago listeners, we love you. [Laughing]
(Dr. Bruna) You might understand, the University of Chicago.
(Jordan) Chicago is also one of the heart places of improv.
(Regina) It is!
(Jordan) It’s worth pointing that out.
(Dr. Bruna) It is, absolutely.
(Regina) Maybe they are also studying cultural interactions. They are definitely. You’re in Chicago, students . . .
(Dr. Bruna) I’m working in student activities and trying to make it more fun. I started working on partnerships between the university and museums, really getting students off campus. I started thinking again, “I think I want to maybe go back and get a masters, or maybe go to law school.” I wasn’t exactly sure.
(Regina) Don’t go to law school. The market is flooded with people.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s a little different. I got a Master’s in social science and at that point I said, “Well, I’m interested in native studies, I’m interested in law.” So I focused on federal Indian law which was neat. I tried out research for the first time. I was working with a tribe back in El Paso, Texas where I immigrated to. It was kind of fun and exciting. I contacted them and their tribal sectary. I said I would love to do some research with you all. She said, “Great, why don’t you send questions.” I faxed over, faxed, faxed over questions because that’s what they wanted.
(Regina) Wait, what year was this?
(Dr. Bruna) This was in about 2003 but they wanted it in fax.
(Regina) That’s not too bad. Fax?
(Dr. Bruna) They wanted them faxed over.
(Regina) There wasn’t a lot of scanning and emailing then.
(Dr. Bruna) They were paper heavy. They got this fax and then they never got back to me. Completely ignored. I never heard anything again. So I said, “Alright, I got my Master’s. I have to think about this whole research thing.” Then I went to work in a law firm as a paralegal. It was a social justice law firm.
(Regina) No offense to any lawyers, my husband is a lawyer, it’s just a flooded market. That’s all I’m trying to do. People are like, “I want to go into law, I want to do constitutional law.” And there’s this comic kind of cartoon online that says, “Oh, you wanted to go into constitutional law, did you go to Yale? Did you go to Yale in the 1970’s? Then you won’t do constitutional law.” So, it’s a very restricted field. I don’t know anything about social justice.
(Dr. Bruna) It is pretty restrictive. The only constitutional lawyer I knew was Obama, because he was in Chicago and I used to work with his wife.
(Regina) Did you ever meet Obama?
(Dr. Bruna) Oh yeah, absolutely.
(Regina) The way you say that sounds so fake. [Laughing.] You absolutely did.
(Dr. Bruna) Yeah. I worked with his wife.
(Regina) And he didn’t go to Yale in the 70s. I think he went in the 80s, right?
(Dr. Bruna) I’d have to look that up a little later but that’s OK.
(Regina) It’s really close.
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Dr. Bruna) I wanted to get my feet wet by working at this social justice law firm so I worked as an anthropologist, absolutely loved it because I could go out in the field. I worked on farm worker rights cases in California. I know everything you want to know about asparagus. You know about meat packing in the US, which is a really frightening, difficult industry.
(Regina) It’s probably really dangerous too.
(Dr. Bruna) Incredibly dangerous. It’s so fast. People get chopped up. They chop up fingers. From a social justice . . .
(Regina) My friend Jordan is a butcher.
(Jordan) I’m a butcher [said with a silly accent.]
(Regina) Yeah, you don’t know anything about the meat packing industry do you? It’s awful.
(Jordan) I do, yeah.
(Dr. Bruna) Mass production meets difficult.
(Jordan) Bringing illegals over and getting them departed.
(Regina) Getting raided.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s a lot of what we worked on. We were on the worker cases. I ended up working on this really neat ethical case where some scientists where defrauding the government. They were making up subjects in a study. Very rare. Another scientist blew the whistle on them and it turned into a humongous lawsuit. Part of it went to the Supreme Court.
(Regina) So is it public now? Can you talk about it?
(Dr. Bruna) I believe the case is still ongoing so I can’t go into details but it’s a fascinating case. Part went to the Supreme Court. Not the science part but the part that I researched was to look at some laws from the civil war era about defrauding the government in qui tam era, kind of weird that an anthropologist can do this.
(Regina) It sounds way more exciting than most lawyers.
(Dr. Bruna) Oh it’s great! They’d say, “Alright Sean, go into the archive.” I’m reading the congressional record I’m trying to understand what people were thinking when they created these laws during the civil war.
(Regina) It was a different time.
(Dr. Bruna) Totally different. That part ended up going to the Supreme Court and that little piece won. The case I believe is still ongoing.
(Regina) I’m going to ask my husband about it. He’s going to look it up.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s fascinating. It’s pretty neat. I will say this, after working for a law firm I realized I did not want to become a lawyer. Mainly because you have to work within the framework of the law. There are these very strong structures. I wanted to critique the world around us not use those tools to move things forward.
(Regina) There’s not a lot you can change as a lawyer too. You can have cases and they can go to the Supreme Court and then things can change but it’s so hard.
(Dr. Bruna) If you want change as a lawyer became a policy maker.
(Regina) Be a lobbyist. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) Became a lobbyist. [Laughing.]
(Jordan) Go to K Street.
(Regina) You were talking about the meat packing and the asparagus, the farm workers, what was your specialty in that? Was it what Jordan said, the people were undocumented so all these horrible things were happening and so they couldn’t complain about it, and they couldn’t get any help because then they would gooey departed?
(Dr. Bruna) Certainly, I’m not a lawyer so anything I say should be taken with a grain of salt.
(Regina) Warning for our listeners.
(Dr. Bruna) Absolutely. Individuals might work for someone, in this case let’s say asparagus. Asparagus grows and all of the sudden it’s ready for harvest and it all has to be harvested incredibly quickly. People end up working, instead of 40 hours a week they may work, 80 or more hours a week. Non-stop, just crazy work. Individuals might or might not have documentation to work. More often than not, a company might say, “We don’t want to pay you overtime.
So, how about you borrowing someone else’s Social Security Number and we’ll pay you the first part of your wage as employee A and the second part of your wage as employee B.” The employer doesn’t have to pay overtime. The individual ends up working a lot and they feel like they don’t have rights. We became aware of this through people who were working with farm workers.
As an anthropologist, my job was to interview people, to meet people and to ask them if they wanted to participate in this class action law suit and then hear their stories and help depose them, help interview them, to hear their story of what’s happening. It’s difficult work, but really really good work.
These are individuals there are providing our food. I can no longer look at asparagus the same way now. I have such a hard time buying because of the stories that people told me about when they were harvesting. But, hopefully now, we can buy, in this case, asparagus from a more reputable company. It takes work though. It was good work. It was a good experience.
(Regina) Do you have any connections or know anything about farm workers in this region? Jordan and I grew up in Lynden. There’s a lot of berries right?
(Jordan) I was picking berries at 12 years old. [Laughing.]
(Regina) There’s a lot of migrant workers but there’s also a lot of Lynden kid workers that the bus comes around and picks us up and they pay us in cash at the end of the day. Yeah. [Laughing] So, that’s legal right? I don’t know.
(Jordan) It’s by the pound, it peace work right?
(Regina) That’s right. Do you know anything about . . .?
(Dr. Bruna) A little bit. Actually, one of the undergraduate students that’s in my medical anthropology lab is pretty engaged with social activism here in the region. I was working with him in some affiliate roles. He actually researched in one of my classes, student activism. He wanted to understand why students do or do not become active in social issues.
(Regina) That’s Meta.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s absolutely Meta. He wanted to see how he could be more effective in bringing other individuals into a cause. Pretty neat.
(Regina) I wonder how well Whatcom County treats its workers. I think it’s gone up and down over the years but I have no idea. Is I wanted to know, but I guess you don’t know.
(Dr. Bruna) That’s not so much my specialty but there’s a lot of organizations here in town that are pretty engaged. There’s Community to Community for example. There’s a lot of groups that are working on these issues that certainly would be fabulous hosts to talk about some of the local packing questions.
(Regina) That was your story. Was there anything else that totally got you? We haven’t even talked about your current research. We will, but anything else that got you to this point?
(Dr. Bruna) Yeah, I mean, after the Master’s where the tribe I worked with never got back to me, I said, “Things have to change.” I went back for another Master’s and a PhD but I said, “I’m going to work differently, I’m going to partner for my research.” That completely changed my trajectory. When you ask people what they want to change, they want to work with you. That completely changed my trajectory into health research.
(Regina) Are you a tenure track faculty member at Western in the anthropology department?
(Dr. Bruna) In the anthropology department.
(Regina) Is there any cross disciplinary stuff that happened with anthropology? You’re a medical anthropologist so you must work with biology right?
(Dr. Bruna) Absolutely. Oh sure, I have a lot of training in public health and I was a fellow at the CDC and also with the Robert Johnson Foundation and Mallon Foundation. Half of me is maybe more, would we think of a scientist? I look at the numbers and the statistics and the other half of me is very humanistic and almost wants to give people a hug.
(Regina) Yeah, I don’t like touching people.
(Dr. Bruna) I look at how the two different ways of thinking work with each other. Totally different thinking. When they combine, yeah, they either work beautifully or it’s an explosion but something new is usually created.
(Regina) That’s awesome. We are going to take a break. We’re going to come back. We’re going to come back to aliens. Then we’re going to talk about your current research.
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Regina) Welcome back to Spark Science. We’re talking to Dr. Sean Bruna about medical anthropology but mostly about studying human culture in context. Is that basically what you said?
(Dr. Bruna) Yeah, absolutely.
(Regina) Awesome. Before we get into your research, I wanted to get back into our random walk of aliens. You said that there are anthropologists that study people that believe there are aliens. I kind of want to know about that a little bit and then I want to know about our other alien reference.
(Dr. Bruna) Certainly. I got my PhD in New Mexico. So, there’s Roswell in New Mexico which is absolutely amazing.
(Regina) I drove by there and people were like insane.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s incredible. The lights down the street are alien heads.
(Jordan) I need to go there one day.
(Regina) You really want to go.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s incredible. Everyone has to go through Roswell at some point. It’s a great detour if you’re on a road trip across country. I recommend having an Irish wolfhound in the back of the Subaru when you do it. It makes a fabulous trip.
(Regina) What do they add to the trip? Barking?
(Dr. Bruna) Company. When you stop through the south I got free ribs and sweet tea just for having a hound.
(Jordan) I have an old dog. Would that get me free ribs?
(Dr. Bruna) Totally.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s amazing how nice people get with animals.
(Regina) It’s true. I think people who are slightly obsessed about aliens, maybe wouldn’t be as friendly with you but with a dog, I don’t know. Unless you do believe in aliens. I’m assuming that you’re studying them and you don’t.
(Dr. Bruna) That’s a fabulous question to ask. [Laughing.] I want to believe.
(Regina) Exactly, like X-Files.
(Dr. Bruna) Maybe I have a sticker somewhere that says “I want to believe.” [Laughing]
(Regina) I want to believe like X-Files. I do. For me personally as an astronomer, an astrophysicist, I know there must be other life. There has to be. The universe is so big. Do I believe they came here? That’s where I get not as sure.
(Dr. Bruna) Some of my research has been in the spirit world, not quite aliens but different planes and different belief systems. I wish there were aliens.
(Regina) Do you know of people who study the culture of like, American or even just human obsession with aliens?
(Jordan) What would be the findings they would get? I’m sure it’s the same people that do Sasquatch or something.
(Regina) That’s a good question. Is it the same people that do Sasquatch?
(Dr. Bruna) That’s a whole different realm that looks at Sasquatch. There’s giants in lore and mythology and a lot of native traditions. They’re very common particularly in this area in the Northwest and the North. Very common, and there’s some individuals in the Midwest that I’ve had wonderful discussions about Sasquatch. I won’t go there because I have yet to encounter Sasquatch but there is a big part in lore for Sasquatch and aliens too.
I think with aliens though, one thing I think is rather interesting, if we think of Roswell, is the tourism that surrounding it. When we look at people who believe, there are people who might capitalize on it in some way. What that does to tourist economies, I mean, in Roswell there’s a museum there that grosses over a million dollars with one dollar admission at a time. There are so many people going through there. It drastically changes economies. When we hear “Roswell,” that’s what we think of. There are entire tourism economies that forever change New Mexico. One alien T-shirt at a time.
(Regina) That’s true. I think parts of Canada and even in the Northwest here, we actually try that too. We try to capitalize on Big Foot.
(Jordan) Big Foot coffee, etc.
(Regina) I think in Chilliwack here, which is Canada, a little Northeast from where we are now, it’s called Sasquatch country. There’s Sasquatch stuff everywhere. My husband, who’s a fisherman, well, I mean he’s a lawyer for money and a fisherman for joy, he goes up there all the time. I don’t know if he honestly believes in Sasquatch or if he just says it to annoy me, but he thinks Sasquatch is real but Yetis are ridiculous. Why would there be Yetis? I was like, “I don’t understand that reasoning.” And he told me many times, I don’t remember the reason.
(Dr. Bruna) A lot of times these sorts of creators are really there for different morality reasons. You can’t necessarily discount them because then you discount the lessons that might be taught with those. I’ve learned that when I encounter all of these, take them with respect, with seriousness. Some of my research, let’s say in South America, I’ve encountered similar stories and I may not necessarily personally believe in them but I respect them. More importantly their trying to teach us something. I’m not sure what the Slim Jim Sasquatch might be teaching us but I know there’s a lesson there. That’s important.
(Regina) I almost wonder if that’s my husband’s reasoning because he is very much interested in the Haida people here. He cares very much about it but knows nothing about other cultures so maybe that’s why he doesn’t believe in the Yeti, I don’t know.
(Jordan) I think I remember him being at my house watching Harry and the Henderson’s probably a few dozen times in a row.
(Regina) He loves it. He loves it. Culturally, morally, where do aliens come in? I feel like I’m totally with you on the cultural stories and ligands when it comes to Sasquatch and other things and giants and spirits but where do aliens come in. Is it spirits or where would that come in, morally and culturally?
(Dr. Bruna) That’s going way off in a different realm. I think people want to think of more than just humanity in some sense. Whatever scale we’re at, we may have something that teaches us, or provides an opportunity to look at ourselves from outside of ourselves. Aliens are a great opportunity to do that. Look at Independence Day one of the greatest movies ever, as ridiculous as that movie is, we can talk about this elsewhere, but, it’s one of the movies that I love and I hate.
(Regina) I enjoy it.
(Dr. Bruna) It pushes us to think beyond ourselves. I think people constantly want to do that and we find ways as humans to evaluate ourselves, our surroundings and perhaps aliens are one way to do that.
(Regina) Which brings me to another point. I agree with you. When people do get kind of obsessed with if there were aliens and did they visit here, is this a way to kind of connect with something other than themselves. However, on the other end of the spectrum, when we have illegal aliens, which we were talking about earlier, it’s something where they don’t want to connect, right, they don’t want to have a connection with a person who is definitely not, or what people see as not themselves. It seems to be a complete clash of the exact opposite of what we’re saying about extra-terrestrial aliens right?
(Dr. Bruna) I don’t want to generalize everyone thinking that for sure.
(Regina) There is a population that doesn’t want illegal aliens and has a very strong feeling against that, so.
(Dr. Bruna) One nice litmus test might be the term we say, aliens, or immigrants, is certainly one point. As anthropologists we try to humanize individuals particularly, this may be an ethical challenge, individuals that may not have a certain voice in some context. We try and document what’s happening and bring awareness to experiences. One of those is certainly saying that individuals are immigrants, their humans. In my case I’m documented. I was technically a US citizen born abroad to an alien. My mom had me had the coolest card growing up that said she was an alien.
It is interesting thinking that there are individuals that, for some reason, perhaps there is fear at some level, it’s a difficult question, some people fear or question that other might get angry at others for a variety of reasons. That’s certainly one of the challenges right now. What I think is interesting is how those populations change over the years. It’s linked to policy, a lot of trade policies, where for a while there may have been Cubans at the forefront, then Haitians, then Mexicanos. It changes over time. Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, it’s fascinating.
(Regina) Well, during the gold rush, you know, only this many Chinese could come in right? Then it was blocked for decades and decades and decades. It’s crazy. What you said was interesting when you said, do we call them aliens or do we call them immigrants. I never thought about that. This idea of not humanizing somebody if you call them an alien. That makes complete sense now [Laughing] the way you say that. Like you were saying, your mom had this awesome alien card.
My mom became an American citizen when I was like 2 or probably before. I think she became an American citizen before I was born, either way, she was an American citizen, I grew up here on the Canadian border and we would go to Vancouver all the time. It was the only way we could see any Asian culture.
We’d come back and through the Lynden border there was a border patrol guy who always say to my mom, this was like every three weeks, every two weeks, he knew who she was but he would be like, “Where is your alien card?” Every single time. She would go, “I’m an American citizen.” In her thick Chinese accent and then he would go, “Where are your kid’s alien cards?”
And she’s like, “My kids were born in America, they’re American.” He’d be like, “Come inside I don’t believe you.” He would do this to her, I remember being in the car several times and the border patrol agent who was inside was really nice. He would be like, “Just go, just go, I know who you are, just leave.” It totally makes sense now, it’s clicking in my head, him using alien versus, and constantly accusing her is very dehumanizing. I didn’t think about that at the time. It’s crazy.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s surprising how many of us have experiences like that from all sorts of walks of life. From coming into the US and having experiences coming across the border. In my case I think that’s part of why I research race and ethnicity. It was because of some of those experiences I had in coming to the US, to the town El Paso Texas that had very different race relations. I definitely experienced racial slurs, I look fair skinned but I’m bilingual so I heard things from English speakers, Spanish speakers, but when you come to the US…
(Regina) It’s so nice when you get it from both sides. Sarcasm.
(Dr. Bruna) Yeah, absolutely, it makes life interesting for sure. A lot of us have those experiences coming across the border, I don’t know, hopefully things will continue to improve as we become more aware.
(Regina) You’re studying how it’s improving, right, or not improving? [Laughing]
(Dr. Bruna) Some I do work on some issues with immigrants, mainly with health though.
(Regina) Let’s actually get to your, sorry, get to your research. I like talking about all of these things.
(Jordan) You’re just exploring your human curiosity.
(Regina) I am! I’m curious about these things. Thank you Jordan.
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Regina) When all of this relates to health, we’re talking about race relations and human experiences and extra-terrestrial aliens, but how does this all relate to studying culture and helping them in their health? I think you we’re telling me how you we’re working with different tribes around diseases. Tell me more about that.
(Dr. Bruna) One thing I like to do is critique common sense. That’s a phrase we hear a lot, “That’s common sense.”
(Regina) That sounds dangerous.
(Dr. Bruna) We hear it from politicians all the time. The common sense really isn’t that common. We get used to our environment, our context, and in my case, in my research, I work on chronic diseases; diabetes, highblood pressure, type 2 diabetes, these sorts of issues. After, it seems like a while ago, after the tribe in the first master’s never got back to me I said, “Let’s change it up, is there a research topic you might be interested in?” They said, “oh, how about type 2 diabetes.” Elder after elder was suggesting it.
I started to work with them on that issue and part of it is to look at that common sense. In a health center, particularly our medical system today, we have this idea of the body being kind of like a car and doctors just diagnose. We’re learning that’s really far from the truth. People actually have lifestyles. There’s this great, I love telling this story, for example when I started my research I was asking individuals, in the preliminary stages, what they would eat. People might say, “Oh, I have a salad at dinner along with the rest of dinner.” And I say, “OK, that’s interesting.” I’d write it down in my notes.
Christmas day I was having lunch with one of the families I worked with. They invited me over and I came over. They said, “Hey Sean we have some wonderful salad, go grab some along with the rest of the food.” I said, “Great.” Some folks might immediately know where I’m coming from. I go to the kitchen there’s this huge silver bowl and it’s a Jell-O fruit salad with like the canned oranges and the whip cream. I went, gross. Oh man.
(Regina) It’s not salad!
(Dr. Bruna) It’s totally not salad. It’s kind of weird and different, I kind of liked it.
(Regina) Things can be good but when you go in with a certain mindset of a certain word, like salad, and then you see something else, it’s kind of shocking.
(Dr. Bruna) We have those experiences all the time when we go into different context. Doctors have them too, community members might have them when they go see their doctor. A lot of what I do is try to get different population to be able to work together. I critique that common sense.
I’m writing a lot right now about critiquing practices at the national institutes of health and the DDC. Largely because their developed by weird people, weird scientists. They’re usually from western countries and educated, they are industrial nations, they’re rich and democratic. They’re really weird. Most science is built on weird people. In fact, most health science is based on white middle-aged men. I’m trying, in a lot of my work, shift beyond that and say, “Hey, let’s critique this common sense and let’s start to look at things from a different perspective.”
(Regina) You’re absolutely right with the word salad. If you go to different regions of the US, salad will mean something else like potato salad or macaroni salad. If you go to Hawaii, right, they have mac salad, or what is it called?
(Dr. Bruna) One of my graduate students is doing research there on diabetes and the food sounds fabulous. Salads are really different. The local culture, the phrase out there, local, it means something completely different. It’s fabulous in Hawaii.
(Regina) You’re absolutely right, the eating habits in different cultures, I think not a lot of people get exposed to, they get exposed to restaurants like Chinese restrains, Mexican restaurants, but they don’t get exposed to the everyday food. I think when I was growing up, my mom was Chinese and she would cook stir-fry every day. There was something green in every single meal. Then I would go for the summers to my dad’s family who’s Mexican American and there wasn’t a lot of green. I love you all Barber’s and they listen to the show but um, there’s not a lot of green. I would see so much carbs and so much meat and there wasn’t a lot of salad.
(Dr. Bruna) Northern Mexico by the border in particular, that’s a lot of beans and rice.
(Jordan) I would ask the Barber family to send their extra food to my house. [Laughing.]
(Regina) [Laughing.] Jordan! I would complain a lot. I would just be like, “I need green.” I think for me, it was really really obvious why there are health issues in certain cultures. The everyday, what you eat and what you think is good for you and what might not be good for you. Or just habit.
(Dr. Bruna) Then here’s where the context part comes in. That’s all the individual behavior. We look at the context for it. If the individual is working two shifts or they’re working a lot, they’re not going to go to a super market and shop for produce or maybe they live in a neighborhood that’s not that great. Where I did my research it was a bit of a, well, none of the restaurants in a 2-3 mile area had salads on it and the produce in the supermarkets weren’t that great. If you wanted to eat fruits and vegetables, it was kind of hard to do it. That context becomes critical.
(Regina) You always get the iceberg lettuce. It’s like all you’ve got. I remember as a kid in Southern California there were the Roberto’s or Alberto’s and they would have the taquitos with the giant amount of guacamole and it would be the only green I would get for days.
(Dr. Bruna) That sounds delicious.
(Regina) That was good but it was, you know , you’re looking for some amount of fiber or something.
(Jordan) I know whenever I go to Chicago, I go to the grocery store, because I work at a grocery store and there’s two kinds of apple, Red Delicious and Granny Smith. Here we’ve got like 20 different kinds of apples year round.
(Regina) We are very spoiled here.
(Jordan) We are. [Laughing.] They have like one cherry. It’s ridiculous.
(Regina) We’ve got kale all over the place you know? People know how to cook it.
(Jordan) It started at a garnish and people learned how to cook it.
(Dr. Bruna) Things here grow easily. In the US Southwest, part of the research, we had a community garden at the tribe. Not at all for food purposes though, it was actually a calendar, a dance calendar in a sense for religious activities. A little different way of thinking about health and wellness. It was incredibly difficult to make things grow there. You really had to work on some developing and remembering about old indigenous growing techniques in the desert.
Here, oh my gosh, things, I mean I have berries growing wild in my back yard and they’re almost a nescience. In the US Southwest, man, you have to be hardy to grow out there whether you’re a plant or a human.
(Regina) Right, you’re absolutely right. It’s not only cultural it’s local, it’s also like, do you even know how to cook it? If certain people have the opportunity, let’s say somebody moves from a different region of the US and comes here and sees the kale and sees all the stuff, so. We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back I want to know more about what studies you’re doing right now and how is that going to effect the region.
Then also, I want to talk about pop culture. I want to come back to X-Files and I want to come back to Bones. I want to talk about Bones. I would love to talk to Bones but I want to talk about Bones.
(Dr. Bruna) Ah, the Jeffersonian, where I was a fellow. It’s a great place. [Laughing.]
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Jordan) Welcome back to Spark Science where we’re talking about medical anthropology. We’ve been talking about diseases, aliens, and . . .
(Jordan) Yeah, fennel that’s right! [Laughing.] I forget about the fennel.
(Regina) Let’s find out more about what you are doing right now, your current research.
(Dr. Bruna) My current research, absolutely. I’m working on a couple of different things right now. One that is kind of fun is I’m looking at safety issues in field research. Anthropologists go out whether in their own back yards or different parts of the world. I worked in the Amazon, let’s say.
(Regina) That’s pretty dangerous.
(Dr. Bruna) Parts of it are, yeah, absolutely. In fact in the 80s I learned that 80 anthropologists died conducting field research and all sorts of things happen. I started talking to a biologist.
(Regina) I like that you started with, “This is kind of fun,” but we’re being super dark right now.
(Jordan) This is awesome!
(Dr. Bruna) Well field work can be super dangerous. Anthropologists are working all over. I started talking with field biologists, in this case the other Dr. Bruna, my brother, and biologists encounter issues. I said, “Alright, here’s where the geeky fun part comes in.” I said, “Let’s actually look at this and see what people are actually encountering, everything from too many bug bites to car accidents, to whatever it might be in the field.”
So, I’m developing a global survey and some interviews to speak with field biologists and anthropologists to learn more about what we do and making it safer. I know it sounds maybe a little bit morbid and dark but it’s fun because I get to hear from people who are working all over the world in all different context. I’m super excited about this project. The first proposal has gone in and another will go in this spring. It’s a wonderful opportunity, really, to get my students involved. Part of their mentorship will be interviewing these individuals as well and different scientists all over the world. It’s a fun project.
(Regina) You’ll help people collect all of this data and you might find out how not to die. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) We’ll see these trends and we’ll also, [laughing] right, you make it sound like so much fun. [Laughing.] We will see these trends and then we also know what to do for training, train our students before they go out into the field in whatever setting it might be. Its part of what, I don’t know, sort of the behind the scenes of what we do more safer, more fun, more engaging.
(Regina) And the numbers are better now. You said in the 80s, 80 . . .
(Dr. Bruna) The numbers are different, they’re different, they’re changing.
(Regina) [Laughing] oh no.
(Dr. Bruna) There’s different things that people are encountering in the field. A lot of human interactions in the field that are not good I think is what we are seeing. Car accidents, man, people like to crash in different parts of the world.
(Regina) Right, yeah, certain areas are worse than others.
(Dr. Bruna) Or mosquitoes, man, they’re the worst, the absolute worst. We’ll know more in about a year or so, by the fall we’ll have some pilot data and we’ll have a little bit more after that. It’s fun talking to folks about their field research experiences. Talking to experts in biology and anthropology, its great having that opportunity. I’m also looking at the way doctors work with patients right now. I started a project with an undergraduate that I advise that just graduated. She wanted to look at culturally appropriate care. This whole idea that doctors may not know the cultural backgrounds of their patients so they can’t really engage with them, they may not understand how to work with them.
There’s this idea that if doctors just get some sort of culturally appropriate training, they may be able to work with their patients better. We said, “Alright, let’s look at some curricula that’s out there that’s used to train doctors.” They’re not very good.
(Regina) The curricula?
(Dr. Bruna) The curricula that are out there which is like, OK, they aren’t very good which brings a possibility of, let’s make a better one. Let’s improve science and move it forward. At the same time let’s look at why doctors might need this in the first place. Are there enough doctors that are coming from the populations that are booming in the US today and developing, particularly Latino populations? I’m looking at one end and what conditions are making it so that the doctors need this training and at the same time saying, let’s improve current doctors.
(Regina) Could you give me an example of what you want, like a scenario in which culturally appropriate curricula would help? Maybe an ongoing issue that certain doctors have because there’s this disconnect between cultures.
(Dr. Bruna) It turns out that doctors may not ask patients certain questions if they don’t identify with their cultural background. They may be less likely to ask them about food or sex practices for example.
(Regina) Which would give them more information to treat them. Oh god, that’s awful.
(Dr. Bruna) Which would give them more information. If they don’t connect with the individual, they may not ask things in the first place. They may not know what to ask. The patient, if they feel uncomfortable may not divulge information and just say what they think the doctor wants to hear. So, that little incongruity, that cultural incongruity can have huge impacts in health and health care. I mean, I think they favorite doctor that I’ve had over the years is one that I would go and we’d chat for 20 minutes almost.
I don’t know how he was able to do this with his appointment schedule but we would talk about all sorts of random things. Somehow the conversation would go into the checkup. Today we don’t do that often in health care. We go right into the case of what’s wrong with you, what are the symptoms, take this medication, call me in the morning.
(Regina) This is really similar to even, this sounds weird, but, business practices. I talked to people who are in the MBA program and they’re talking about how in America, when you talk to other people about business, and you’re trying to do a project together with somebody from another company, we get right down to business. If you do this in Germany or you try to make business in like, Japan, you have to start with, “Oh, my name is this. I have a daughter. Do you have a daughter?”
You actually have to be a human being for a little while. Otherwise, they’re not going to deal with you. My favorite doctor is the one that helped me deliver my daughter and we’d talk about Twilight, like, we loved those books. She’s like, “I’m reading that book right now!” It was awesome, her name was also Regina so we made a connection. Jordan’s making this awful face. [Laughing.]
(Jordan) You give birth to a hybrid baby. [Laughing.]
(Regina) There is a horrible birth scene in the Twilight series. I’m not saying they were great books. I’m just saying we made a connection.
(Jordan) You’re from Washington they’re from Washington. [Laughing]
(Regina) Right! That lady has never actually visited Washington, but anyway. [Laughing.] So, you’re training these doctors to basically try to have better bedside manner and bedside manner that’s actually culturally appropriate.
(Dr. Bruna) Absolutely. That will be the sort of development of the research. Right now we are looking at the curricula. Some of my previous work looked at doctors in a clinic and then said, let’s see, people live out in a community, why don’t we work with community health workers. In this case, Promotoras, individuals from communities that have some health training that can actually go to your house and continue the discussions about health and wellness and learn a little bit more about what people are doing and report back to the doctor.
At the same time they can help with education. There’s a lot of innovative work happening now that’s really out of that clinical exchange. It’s outside of the doctor’s office. So, I’m slowly shifting from looking at this case at the doctor patient interactions and then expanding out to see what’s happening in communities.
(Regina) That’s awesome.
(Jordan) Last time my insurance made me go get a physical. I was like, “alright, whatever.” The doctor couldn’t have me in until January but I needed to get it in by the time the year was over so I saw the nursing precautionary and it was the most clinical foreplay I’ve ever had where she was like, “Tweek tweek prod here prod here,” and then I was like, “Oh, so I’m good to go?” And she’s like, “Yep.” OK.
(Regina) I had my first male nurse. He had to ask, you know the generic questions you do at any checkup. Some of them have to relate to woman things. He was like, “I’m very sorry because I’m a man.” I was like, “No no no it’s OK.” He was super apologetic and he was super funny. He had a tattoo of Batman and I was like, “I love Batman.” As soon as I said that he was like, “Oh, thank God.” [Laughing.]
(Regina) He was suddenly normal and it all went well. I think it’s really important that we have this conversation with medical professionals because there is so much that we, I mean, people need to kind of not, like you said, treat humans like a car. You shouldn’t deal with the symptoms after, you should help people have healthy lives and it’s hard to ask those hard questions.
(Dr. Bruna) Have healthy lives, exactly. Not just have a healthy clinical engagement.
(Regina) Right. Have healthy lives.
(Dr. Bruna) It’s actually what we’re doing outside of the doctor’s office. Yeah, sure.
(Regina) I am going to ask you a question that I ask all of our gusts. How is your field, how is your science, and I’m going to treat anthropology as a science, you’re doing medical science.
(Dr. Bruna) It is by the NSF definition, the National Science Foundation.
(Regina) I’m inclusive. How is your science portrayed in pop culture? Is it portrayed good? Is there some, you know, things that show like accuracy and or some that are just crazy bad?
(Dr. Bruna) Yes. [Laughing.]
(Regina) Yes to both of those. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) I mean, everyone thinks of Indiana Jones. When I say I’m an anthropologist they comment on Indiana Jones. Which is nothing at all like archaeology whatsoever.
(Jordan) If I could just chime in really quick. When you say we’re going to be interviewing a medical anthropologist, what I thought was, I think he’s, I don’t know, a little Jordanian guy who’s on the history channel. [Laughing.]
(Jordan) Do you know the guy I’m talking about?
(Regina) And it’s so scripted! [Laughing]
(Jordan) Yeah! [Laughing.] I thought, “Ah, we’re talking to that guy.”
(Regina) We’re you let down?
(Dr. Bruna) Hey thanks, y’all.
(Jordan) I imagined a guy in a V-neck Tommy sweater. Come on. [Laughing.]
(Regina) But he did want to be Indiana Jones. I heard Bones has some amount of accuracy.
(Dr. Bruna) For sure. I mean, well, it’s the Jeffersonian that is Smithsonian. It’s a great institution.
(Regina) Right which is supposed to be the Smithsonian.
(Dr. Bruna) Totally. It’s totally fun. The only thing is, there is some accuracy, there’s some good science in there and there’s actually advisors on show from the CDC that help advise on health issues or science. That’s built on wonderful works that were written on forensic anthropology. There is some good information in there and some good science that happens, however, her lab is really great. They have the most amazing blue lightning, it’s lit fabulously, there’s tons of space, people are not cramped for time, etc.
(Regina) Everyone is good looking. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) Everyone’s fabulously good looking and dressed as well. Maybe it’s a DC thing but . . .
(Regina) I’ve been to DC. People dress really well there.
(Dr. Bruna) Oh ya, they’re a little sharp and conservative. A little V-neck-y.
(Regina) Yeah. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Bruna) But otherwise pretty good.
(Regina) Oh Jordan. [Laughing.] He’s not going to let you go.
(Jordan) That’s quite alright. [Laughing.]
(Regina) You’re like, “I deserve every bit of it.”
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Regina) The Jeffersonian, I almost feel like it’s telling the public that scientists are like, all crazy rich and all of our labs are awesome when that is not the case, right?
(Dr. Bruna) That’s the case on probably most shows. You see what they’re doing, they live this glamorous life and you don’t actually see when they’re sitting there saying things like, “OK, I’ve gotta go to the supermarket.” We don’t see that part of life when they are comparing or shopping. Of course not.
(Regina) When they’re budgeting. [Laughing]
(Dr. Bruna) Whatever their life is, they’re a scientist and they’re thinking, “I’m going to go back home and work on a grant.” Which is what I’m doing tonight.
(Regina) Which is going to pay me all next year.
(Dr. Bruna) Exactly. Pretty much.
(Regina) So what is crazy bad anthropology?
(Dr. Bruna) Crazy bad anthropology? I think that they could do a better job talking about some of the contemporary race issues and ethnicity. That’s sort of glossed over a lot in society and in our own conversations and certainly here in Bellingham whether it’s TV or in Bellingham I think we don’t like to talk about some of these uncomfortable issues and I think that a lot of shows that deal with anthropology, skirt around on that.
They’re afraid to discuss those issues that people are talking about on the streets today. They like to pull back to those safe things like, science. Science is very safe because there’s this idea that its objective, it’s removed from all of these things um, oh, difficult, messy, in a relationship . . .
(Regina) It’s not human.
(Dr. Bruna) Perhaps, it’s not human. The Bones character I think reflects that in a sense.
(Regina) She’s very stereotypical.
(Dr. Bruna) She’s portrayed as being a scientist that’s very objective when actually anthropologists are far from the truth. We’re very critical and we push a lot of sociological issues. We’re actually engaging in local policy and you don’t see that so much in bones and in some of the other shows and portrayals in the media perhaps.
(Regina) Right. I’m trying to think of if there’s any other anthropology characters than Bones. She’s not an anthropologist.
(Dr. Bruna) She’s a forensic anthropologist.
(Regina) She’s a forensic anthropologist. OK.
(Dr. Bruna) Which is certainly looking at human remains and the such. I don’t think there are other portrayals that I can think of right now.
(Regina) That’s it. Sad. I’m sorry.
(Jordan) I’m sorry we don’t have more shows dedicated to your field of study.
(Regina) Well I mean, astrophysicists got a lot.
(Jordan) There’s not a lot of butcher shows either. [Laughing.]
(Regina) Right. [Laughing.] I agree that racial issue is not brought up, but I feel like there’s this wave coming.
(Dr. Bruna) I think it’s already come. Um, you know, it’s already washed over the US. We’re in the middle of it. We’re wondering if the tides are going to recede and we’re going to see a water mark or if things are going to settle down and everyone’s going to continue on. It’s a tough time. Maybe we’re talking about it but all of these shows need to catch up.
(Regina) Yeah. That’s very true. And actually, speaking of media and race, there’s actually studies from the UCLA that show that shows that are actually more racially diverse do better. Like movies that are more racially diverse do better like the Fast and Furious franchise and all this kind of stuff. It’s really odd that studios haven’t really understood that.
If studios really care about money, they should actually think about these things. I want to bring up any other pop culture. We were talking about X-Files. Is there, we were talking about studying people who love aliens, studying people who love Sasquatch but do you know any anthropology that studies people who are really obsessed with things like X-Files or Harry Potter or Star Wars, do you know of anyone that does research in that? Like pop culture cult things.
(Dr. Bruna) I’m sure there’s enter fields of anthropology that look at pop culture and media. It’s not at all what I do. [Laughing.]
(Regina) [Laughing.] Alright. Fair enough.
(Dr. Bruna) Absolutely. We can look at, right now we have the whole discussion happening with the Oscars right now. You can’t get more pop culture than that.
(Regina) Oh my gosh let’s go back to that.
(Dr. Bruna) How many individuals do we have that are say, not white?
(Regina) Do you not know about this Jordan?
(Regina) So last year, at the Oscars, every single person that was nominated for an acting award was white. Like every single person and they’re like well, that’s awful and there was a big uproar. It happened again this year. Like, and before last year it had never happened until, it had been 20 years since that had happened, I don’t remember the numbers now. I was just reading an article about it. I don’t remember anything.
(Dr. Bruna) I mean, this happens in all sorts of institutions, whether it’s the Oscars, whether it’s higher education, whether it’s local government, I think as more of us that are Latinos or Latinas or from underserved populations start to move up the ranks in careers and education, the idea is, maybe, hopefully, more individuals will become stars and professors and fill in all of these roles but, we’re seeing just how hard it is to break the norms in society and actually have things like, oh, Oscar nominees there aren’t just white. Honestly we need to give roles to actors and actress that fit the changing demographics and support those movies. I think that will be a nice beginning.
(Regina) Right. And, the UCLA study is showing that they are getting supported and that TV is far ahead of movies actually.
(Jordan) Actually FM radio is the most uh, diverse. [Laughing.]
(Regina) [Laughing.] I think our show is the best in the studio. Dr. Bruna, Sean, thank you for coming to talk to us. We’ve had a really good time going all over the, I don’t know, map [Laughing] of what anthropology is, what is funny, and who should we study, and what should happen in this world. So, thank you for coming.
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
(Regina) Thank you for joining us. We just spoke with Dr. Sean Bruna about medical anthropology. I’m Regina Barber DeGraaff.
(Jordan) And I’m Jordan Baker.
(Regina) If there’s a science idea that you’re curious about, send us an email or post a message on our Facebook page Spark Science. Today’s episode, The Anthropology Files, was produced in the Spark Radio KMRE studios located in the Spark Museum on Bay Street in Bellingham. Our producer is Eric Faburetta [sp?], the engineer is Nathan Miller.
(Jordan) Our theme music is Chemical Calisthenics by Blackalicious.
(Regina) And our feature song today is Grillwalker by Modeselektor.
[? Modeselektor playing Grillwalker ?]
[? Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ? ]
? Lead, gold, tin, iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think
? Iodine nitrate activate
? Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound
? Balance was unbalanced then you add a little talent in
? Careful, careful with those ingredients
? They could explode and blow up if you drop them
? And they hit the ground
[End of podcast.]