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Professor Ralph Garruto

Biomedical anthropology for the 21st century

Master’s program stresses cross-disciplinary
approaches to human health

by Meghan Stratton

Associate Professor Chris Reiber
Chris Reiber, associate professor of anthropology, is the director of the biomedical anthropology master’s program.

The Harpur College biomedical anthropology master’s program is the only one of its kind in the country – and probably the world.

The program was created as a professional master’s program in 2003 by Professor Ralph Garruto — Binghamton University’s resident member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World — to fill what he saw as a vacant niche in the professional world of human health.

“Many of the jobs in health research don’t actually require a PhD,” says Chris Reiber, associate professor of anthropology and the current director of the program, “but they require more than what you get as an undergraduate student.”

Reiber says that while most schools are focused only on doctorate-level programs, Harpur College has strongly supported this professional master’s program. As an intentionally terminal master’s program, it is unique within Harpur College, though perhaps not for long. Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman recently awarded the program a Graduate Growth Initiative award, and it will be a model for other professional master’s programs.

While most master’s programs require around 30 credits, the Harpur College biomedical anthropology program requires 43 and includes a graduatelevel internship, which leads many of the students to careers. Students intern all over the country and internationally — in the summer of 2013 alone, two students interned in Vanuatu, along with a recent graduate.

Most students are also involved in research, and some publish papers on their work. Before they graduate, they must also give a formal presentation on their internship experience to their professors, peers and professionals in the health sciences field.

Heather Junkins, a 2004 graduate of the program who is now a health science analyst at the National Human Genome Research Institute, says that the program provided her with a strong foundation to build on throughout her career.

“The biomedical anthropology program provided me with the didactic and lab-based training that I needed to become a critically thinking and creative scientist,” she says. “The program also instilled a sense of confidence and independence that I feel is really important to be successful. If you don’t believe in your own ideas and projects, who will?”

Despite the intensity, Garruto says students in the program are definitely up to the challenge. “They’re go-getters, they’re very bright students. They immerse themselves.”

And their hard work pays off. The program has a 98 percent placement rate. According to Reiber and Garruto, it is probably closer to 100 percent, but a few graduates have lost touch with the program.

Both Reiber and Garruto attribute the program’s success and high placement rate to the breadth of courses students take, the jobs they are prepared for and the depth students are exposed to in their courses, internships and research.

Amanda Roome, a current student from Pompton Plains, N.J., says she is being prepared for a wide range of careers. “The program is very beneficial for students by offering hands-on research experience in a variety of lab, field and classroom settings,” she says.

This versatility, Reiber says, stems from being trained to approach problems from a more dynamic perspective than the conventional mechanistic, medical approach.

Students are trained to address health issues methodologically, medically, culturally and evolutionarily through classes in quantitative methods, forensics, human biological variation, skeletal biology, anthropology, epidemiology, international health and more, enabling them to evaluate humans and their health as products of evolution within their cultural context.

This varied approach “allows you to add that layer of questioning that can often lead you down a novel pathway,” Reiber says. “If you don’t know why it’s designed the way it is, sometimes you can’t see the big picture.”

With students from undergraduate programs that range from anthropology to environmental science to biology, the program fosters this multidisciplinarity by encouraging students to collaborate and learn from each other.

“When they leave this program, they can speak multiple scientific languages,” Garruto says.

“The program trains them in everything from molecular biology and genetics in the laboratory to understanding and appreciating cultural diversity.”

This makes graduates a perfect fit for a number of jobs, he says, and many decide to apply this training to careers in public health. Considering the large ethnic populations in many communities, “who better than an anthropologist who understands other cultures and has great knowledge of biomedicine?” Garruto asks.

And with the aging population and growing need for healthcare, the range of jobs accessible to biomedical anthropology graduates is growing.

With plans to double in size within the next five years, the Harpur College biomedical anthropology program is growing to meet that increased demand, Reiber says.

“The number of opportunities is tremendous for them when they come out.”

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Last Updated: 12/10/14