Biomarkers and Biocultural Anthropology: An Integrative Perspective on Global Health




Assistant Professor Of Anthropology

Project Summary

Where do biochemistry, anthropology, and global health intersect?


As someone that’s deeply interested in all three disciplines, this is an existential question that I’ve tried to answer for a while. And luckily, I found my answer — in a quaint, newly set-up laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.


This summer, I worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Biocultural Anthropology Methods Lab (BAMLab) at Penn Museum. The overarching goal of the BAMLab is to explore the myriad ways by which society and culture can influence our health on a cellular and physiological level. To answer these complex questions, we engage in mixed-methods research, employing rigorous biomarker analytics as well as narrative ethnographies that give us a more holistic perspective. Further, to see these theories and hypotheses play out in real life, we conduct research at our field site in Nuñoa, Perú (near Machu Picchu), in a rural community undergoing nutritional and economic transitions, much like most of the developing world.


At the BAMLab, I focus on harnessing molecular biology and biomarkers towards our global health research projects. The two projects I worked on this summer included: 1) using inflammatory proteins (e.g. C-Reactive Protein) to examine stress response pathways following traumatic psychosocial events, and 2) analyzing biomarkers of systemic and enteric inflammation in Nuñoa as a model for how social adversity and economic development can influence chronic disease pathogenesis. 


My work in the BAMLab continually reminds me of the critical interplay between biology, society, and culture. Walking to the lab every morning, I’m greeted by ancient artifacts and sacred statues in the marble halls of the Penn Museum. And yet, just through a few sets of doors, I emerge into a state-of-the-art biological research facility, equipped with the latest (and shiniest) machines and instruments. It’s the clashing of two worlds, and I love it.


Without a doubt, my summer at BAMLab has fundamentally transformed the way I think about health, medicine, and society at large —  it’s given me a new direction to pursue my passions in the biological and social sciences. Through my research, I gained the confidence to pursue unconventional ideas, and derive power from not fitting neatly within the traditional parameters of a particular discipline or field. After all, to address the complex issues facing our world, we must first analyse them through a multidisciplinary and nuanced lens. There are no simple problems, and certainly no simple solutions either. But for me, that’s the most exciting part.


I’m grateful for the support I’ve received from PURM, and especially for the advice and mentoring from Dr. Hoke and my colleagues in the BAMLab, who were always available to discuss and debate new ideas. Beyond this summer, I’m excited to continue exploring biocultural anthropology and global health at BAMLab, and look forward to seeing how my passions evolve.