ANTHROPOLOGY : Real Science For Real People

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by B. Denise Hawkins

Shedra Amy Snipes

Title: Fellow, National Cancer Institute Cancer Education and Career Development Program, University of Texas School of Public Health (present – fall 2010) Assistant professor of Biobehavioral Health, The Penn State University (starting fall 2010)

Education: Ph.D. and M.A., biocultural anthropology, the University of Washington; B.S., anthropology and human biology, Emory University Age: 32

Career mentor: Lovell Jones, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Sharon Cooper and Maria Fernandez, University of Texas School of Public Health

Best advice you were given regarding your career path? “Choose an academic home, colleagues, collaborators and mentors who will promote your scholarship to its highest level, all while giving equal consideration to your personal happiness and familial commitments. One should not be compromised for the other.”

Not much has changed about Dr. Shedra Amy Snipes since she was a little girl in Savannah, Ga., who grew up loving science, cherishing the “well-stocked” chemistry set her mother made sure was at her disposal, realizing that she was part tomboy and part “nerd,” and always asking “why?”

And that’s a good thing. At 32, Snipes, a biocultural anthropologist, says she has found the perfect home for her inquisitiveness and all that she loves about science, people, culture and health. Snipes credits the undergraduate course in medical anthropology she took by chance while at Emory University for shaping what became her life’s work.

“I learned how important faith and belief and art were to how people made their health decisions. When you and I define health, we may define it as the absence of illness. Someone from another culture may define it in a spiritual way or by connecting to an ancestor,” says Snipes, a lecturer who holds dual postdoctoral fellowships in public health and cancer prevention at the University of Texas School of Public Health and in health disparities research at UT’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. “When I learned that I could have a career understanding the nuances of health rather than the reactionary parts of health, that’s what inspired me.”

Dr. Lovell Jones, director of the Center for Research on Minority Health at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, advised Snipes and other Kellogg Health Scholars. He calls Snipes “one of those rare jewels that has been able to effectively blend” science and health policy.

“She is a protégé every mentor wishes that they would come across in their lifetime,” he says. “She is my academic daughter.”

Snipes’ scientific tentacles and interests are multidisciplinary, intersecting health disparities, biology and culture. And even justice.

“I want to understand the unjust pieces of health and disease that don’t have a biological explanation. Unless we link the biology with other things like people’s cultural and belief systems, we only get a piece of the picture,” she explains.

Snipes’ research has allowed her to view aspects of the environment and health through a cultural lens. The work she began as a student researcher on a National Institutes of Health study titled “For Healthy Kids: Reducing Pesticide Exposure in Children of Farmworkers” has bourgeoned into her passion and taken her from the laboratory to the cotton fi elds.

In 2005, Snipes began working in fields and orchards in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Now she travels along the Texas-Mexico border, primarily in Lubbock, Texas, with Mexican farmworkers, sharing their often substandard living quarters, their labor of picking cotton and their lives while managing to collect urine and other biological specimens from a population on the move. Snipes’ up-close-and-personal approach to examining the cultural beliefs and behaviors on farmworkers’ vulnerability to pesticide exposure has earned her recognition from the scientific community and her subjects’ coveted trust and respect.

In November, the American Journal of Public Health published the results of Snipes’ study of 99 Mexican farmworkers in Washington, which found that the risk of pesticide-induced illnesses and potentially cancer-causing agents increases for Mexican farmworkers who labor in the nation’s fields and orchards. “For one thing, Mexican immigrant farmworkers’ knowledge of and beliefs about pesticides differ from traditional occupational health definitions, such as those of the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Snipes.

With each research trip she makes to the fields, she takes a piece of her grandmother and other family members who knew the “uninterrupted hours of stooped labor and the open cuts and scratches on your skin that increase the danger of pesticide exposure” that came with picking cotton for a living in South Carolina.

“The story of my grandmother helps me to connect with them (Mexican farmworkers) and with my work. Because of that, I am more motivated to make my science mean something to real people. It means something to my grandmother and to those who came before her and to those who are currently picking cotton in a toxic environment.”

— B. Denise Hawkins

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