Immunization, the Amish, and Madagascar make up the disparate worlds of three Mac anthropology majors. 

Anthropology students’ research can lead them to explore a remarkable variety of topics in places all over the world. The work of one trio of Macalester senior anthropology majors, “a great group of students doing very innovative work,” as anthropology chair Dianna Shandy puts it, provides three such examples. One tried to raise toddler immunization rates in northern Wisconsin, another observed a group of Amish people in Ohio, and a third studied the conservation movement in Madagascar. 

Sydney Fencl ’12 (Sobieski, Wis) spent last summer in Green Bay’s Brown County Health Department, a county in which only 75 percent of toddlers are fully immunized by age 2. In an effort to increase that rate, she helped publicize the immunization clinics, put together an immunization website, and administered a survey to find out how best to serve the population. Not a simple matter, given that Brown County has an increasing Hmong, Somali, and Hispanic population. “I found it easier to work with several cultures at once because of my anthropology background,” says Fencl. 

The importance of her work was very clear to her, she adds. “So much of health is about preventing disease because we can’t always cure it. I was interested in immunization promotion because I see it as the first line of defense in disease prevention. Plus it’s so controversial right now, I hoped I could make a difference.” Fencl plans to earn a master’s degree in public health after graduating from Macalester.  

A high school summer spent with the Amish got Lauren Martinez ’12 (Redmond, Wash.) interested in that subculture. Determined to do her senior project on the same topic, she spent two weeks last summer living with Amish families outside Millersburg, in northeastern Ohio.  

There Martinez did what anthropologists call “participant observation,” in which she studied the differences between coming of age rituals among the New Order and Old Order Amish, as well as how each group interprets the ordnung, a set of rules for living. 

She was struck by how much of the Amish cultural understanding is tacit knowledge. “There were many times when I would ask my host sisters why they did something,” says Martinez, “and they would say, ‘I don’t know, we just always have.’ ” 

After graduation Martinez, who is also majoring in economics, hopes to work in business consulting.  

The Indian Ocean destination of Leigh Bercaw ’12 (Berthoud, Colo.) was exotic in a different way. She spent four months in Madagascar, an island nation known for its biodiversity—first in a study abroad program and then doing independent research into conservation and national parks. Bercaw won a Gerdes Scholarship, which allowed her to spend an extra month on research.  

Madagascar’s main environmental threat is the rapid changeover of its forestland to agricultural land. “I wanted to understand how conservation is done in a country where the main environmental threat is poverty-based rapid land-use,” says Bercaw. She attempted to understand conservation through the eyes of various rural communities living in and around new Madagascar parks, particularly as these subsistence agriculture-based societies deal with changing land-use regulations. Although each community had its own culture, the parallels among their food security problems really struck Bercaw. She’ll be writing her honors project on the topic. 

Doing “real” fieldwork—“eating bugs, getting lice, conducting interviews in tiny smoky huts”—is the part of anthropology she likes best, says Bercaw. She hoped the experience “would help me decide whether I want to become a professional anthropologist and do fieldwork for one- to two-year stretches of time.” 

To make sure, she plans to put off graduate school and work for a few years after graduation to see if “I’m still madly in love with anthropology.”

February 16 2012

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