Anthropology MD/PhD student wins Fulbright Research Award

Michael Drasher, the first M.D./Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, received a Fulbright Research Award in April 2023 to support anthropological fieldwork in Sierra Leone during the 2023-24 academic year. Drasher’s Fulbright-funded dissertation research on maternal mortality is inspired by four years of fieldwork he previously participated in during the Ebola response in West Africa. Dr. Jonathan Stillo serves as Drasher's doctoral advisor in the Department of Anthropology. 

Anthropological research in Sierra Leone
Michael Drasher (top row, second from left) leads a meeting during his anthropological fieldwork in Sierra Leone.

Drasher’s anthropological research is immersed in Sierra Leone’s pluralistic healthcare landscape, where Western biomedicine, African medicine, and spiritual beliefs often integrate across patient experiences. The main issue driving Drasher’s research is that despite the country’s Free Maternal Healthcare Initiative, which provides free, accessible, and quality clinical care to women, maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone are still among the highest in the world.

The present narrative in Sierra Leone about why patients are not utilizing available services attributes maternal mortality to a “failure of motherhood.” This claim is problematic because it reproduces a racist, colonial narrative that places blame on pregnant women and ignores the effects of structural violence on women’s health.

In his dissertation research, Drasher aims to gather and analyze ethnographic evidence that reveals how neo-imperialism and the exploitation of Sierra Leone are inextricably linked to gendered inequality and women’s poor health outcomes. His anthropological approach employs community-based participatory research, combining historical, political economy and personhood in ways that place caregiving and reproductive health at the center of social theory. Drasher’s research will demonstrate how working with, rather than against, local institutions and caregivers is critical for aligning service delivery to the needs of target patient populations.

His research findings, especially his attention to the social factors and meanings of pregnancy and birth, will have widespread applications for Global Health research, policy and outreach. Drasher’s Fulbright-funded dissertation research in Sierra Leone is a vivid illustration of how racial disparities in maternal mortality are rampant across the globe and a demonstration that biomedical interventions alone have been inadequate in addressing them.

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