A Perfect Fit

Multidisciplinary field school in Costa Rica suits one student’s varied interests to a tee.

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 20, 2013) – USF’s National Science Foundation-funded REU Globalization and Community Health Field School in Costa Rica appeared to be perfectly suited to Joseph Friedman’s seemingly disparate interests. The senior pre-med and anthropology major at the University of Vermont with minors in biochemistry and Spanish was “overjoyed” when he found out about it.

University of Vermont student Joseph Friedman conducting water tests in a local stream during USF’s field school in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

“I was looking for a research experience that would combine my interests in medicine and social sciences,” he said. “Applied anthropology, the use of anthropological theory for tangible goal-centered applications, seemed the best way to combine the insights of social science with the pragmatism of medicine.” Fortunately, for him, the field school “was focused on using applied anthropology for community health benefit.”

Friedman believes it’s important to couple anthropological study “with pragmatic applications to truly empower a community to make change,” he said.

The addition of engineers to the Field School worked out well for him.

“Working with engineers I learned valuable skillsets, such as laboratory water testing methods, GIS mapping, and how to help a farmer choose an animal waste treatment system. I think these skills will help me approach health holistically, focusing not just on pathogens and symptoms but also on other important aspects such as food and water quality.”

Acceptance to the field school requires proficiency in Spanish. That worked for him as well.

“I lived in Mexico for a semester, and I was looking for opportunities to further refine my Spanish,” he said.

Like his fellow students, Friedman lived with a local family.

“I also really enjoyed the homestay experience. Spending day in and day out with a family from a completely different part of the world was really valuable. I felt like I got to experience life in another culture, and I was really accepted as a member of the family for two months.”

This left him with lasting memories and images, such as “running through the hilly mountainsides of Monteverde in the early hours of the morning with my host brother, wading through streams and hiking up hillsides to collect water samples, and the laughing face of my host mother cracking jokes over breakfast.”

There’s more to come.

“As this year was the first of a multi-year study, the research we did was preliminary. We had topics of inquiry, but investigation was required to assess the current situation and ascertain ‘the problems’ as defined by the community. The process of hitting the ground and working with community members to orient our research and future stages of the project was very insightful for me.”

Friedman’s experience may have inspired him to take a potentially worthwhile detour.

“I am strongly considering pursuing a master in medical anthropology before going to medical school,” he said. “In this modern day and age I think that defining researchers solely by discipline is almost insufficient. It’s more useful to speak in terms of skillsets; what can you do in the field?”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.