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Portrait Gallery: Marisa Abbe, Department of Anthropology

Marissa Abbe, Department of AnthropologyMarisa Abbe, graduate programs coordinator for the Anthropology Department, earned a prestigious honor: her dissertation was named one of the top 40 dissertations in cultural anthropology in 2011 by Anthropologyworks blog.

Abbe studies how medical providers can be more sensitive and responsive to the needs of diverse patient populations. Abbe also works part-time at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.

What is your position and how long have your been at UNT?

I have been the graduate programs coordinator in the Anthropology Department since 2006 when we added the country’s first and only online master’s program in applied anthropology to our on-campus program. I greatly enjoy working with prospective students, helping them see if a career in anthropology is right for them, and mentoring our current students on how to use anthropology in the real world.

What is your academic and professional background?

My academic career began here at UNT where I earned a bachelor's degree in psychology. After working a year in that field, I decided to attend graduate school for medical anthropology and graduated with my doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2010.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up down the road in Arlington.

Why did you choose to study medical anthropology?

After getting my bachelor's degree, I worked as a crisis counselor in an out-patient mental health clinic and I thought I wanted to continue schooling in clinical psychology. It was while working there that I realized we didn’t fully understand crucial elements that impacted health and illness, like cultural and linguistic differences and barriers such as poverty. I went to graduate school for medical anthropology to study health and illness and learn how to apply that knowledge to benefit communities and organizations.

Describe your dissertation.

My interest in medical anthropology focuses primarily on clinics. I’m inspired to study clinics and our health care system to understand why ethnic minority populations develop higher rates of diseases and have worse health outcomes than Caucasians.

My dissertation research studied language and cultural differences between Caucasian clinicians and Mexican patients. I spent almost two years at a free clinic in Dallas; I observed 120 medical encounters and interviewed patients, clinicians and interpreters.

I found that while there is a tremendous push in medicine for clinicians to be culturally competent, cultural differences were not what caused problems between patients and clinicians.  The barrier instead was in navigating the health care system itself, and my research pointed to a wider set of competencies than those that solely focus on cultural difference.

What do you do at Children’s Medical Center?

My part-time position is as a research scientist in the Injury Prevention Department. Children’s is the 7th largest pediatric hospital in the nation and is a Level 1 Trauma Center. We focus on injury prevention because injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in children and adolescents.  Each year, more children die as a result of injuries than from all other causes of death combined.

I work on a multi-disciplinary team and our research works to both understand the complex mechanisms of injury that bring children to the hospital as well as contribute to interventions aimed at community injury prevention. We are currently working on a study that examines how and why children were injured by falling from heights (like a second story window) so that we can advocate for safer building codes, for example. A second study on dog bites will help create an educational program for children and families on how to act around dogs and humane dog treatment.

What are your future career plans?

I have the best of both worlds in my current positions. I will always look for a position that allows me to use anthropological theory and research to help communities stay healthy.

What do you do in your free time?

My husband and I cook together and we also enjoy riding our bikes at the greenbelt and at Lake Ray Roberts. I have loved catching up on my reading and knitting on the A-Train to Dallas.

Tell us about your family.

My husband and I have been together since 2000.  He is a chef at our local, family-owned business, Weinberger’s Deli. We are blessed that both our families live close and play a large role in our lives.

- Interview by Jessica DeLeon, University Relations, Communications and Marketing

Posted on: Mon 30 April 2012

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