Penn research center aids community growth in Argentina
Research focuses on cultural aspects of health and fertility
March 21, 2013, 10:12 pm·
Approximately 4,700 miles south of Penn’s campus, in Argentina, stands a house called “Casa 100.”
Purchased by Penn in 2007, the house serves as a field station for Fundación ECO, an umbrella organization founded in 1999 by two Penn professors that works on research while promoting the region’s growth and development.
In 1996, Eduardo Fernandez Duque and Claudia Valeggia — who are married — were pursuing individual projects in the province of Formosa, located in northern Argentina. Fernandez Duque’s Owl Monkey Project focuses on primate behavior and mammal conservation, while Valeggia’s Chaco Area Reproductive Ecology Program centers on human reproductive biology.
“The common thread between the two projects was to promote education,” said Valeggia, an associate professor of anthropology. The region, which is home to the Toba indigenous population, faces problems including malnutrition, lack of education and social discrimination.
“I am from Argentina originally, but it was my first time visiting these communities in my own country, so that was quite a shock,” she added.
Since its founding, many Penn students have joined the mission, spending time at the research site as part of their education. Monika Wasik, who graduated from the College in 2012, is there today. As the field coordinator for the Chaco Area Reproductive Ecology Program — which aims to study the impact of lifestyle changes of the indigenous populations on fertility, investigate the effect of transculturation on fertility and health status and explore child-rearing practices on growth and development — Wasik works with urban Argentinians and Toba.
“They offer a unique perspective … and it’s part of the role of the project and the Fundación to offer opportunities for the community in which we work,” she said.
She is assisting with a five-year longitudinal study investigating life history transitions — weaning, first menstruation and menopause — among Toba women in the region. “It turns out that in different cultures, women have really different experiences of menopause and different symptoms that are salient,” she said.
Cara McGuiness, who graduated from the College in 2009, spent almost two years on site. She recruited a group of 90 women, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in an effort to get the Life History Transitions project off the ground.
“A lot of the health disparities, instances of abuse and lack of resources that I witnessed in Argentina furthered my conviction that I wanted to be involved in women’s health care education,” she said.
Today, she is back at Penn, where she is pursuing a Nursing degree and is set to graduate in 2014.
Elaine Yang, who majored in anthropology and graduated from the College in 2011, spent the summer of 2010 in Formosa, where she worked as a research assistant.
She was drawn to the Fundación because she was interested in Valeggia’s research model, which incorporates changes in biology of the Toba but also studies these changes through an anthropological framework.
“The reason why I chose to be an anthropology major is because … I’m very much interested in the sociocultural and outside-of-science aspects that contribute to people’s health,” she said.
Now a medical student at the University of Southern California, Yang found her time in Formosa — where she conducted interviews on the self-perception of health of the indigenous population — to be an affirmation of her interest in pursing a health-related field.
“I saw that the most immediate need on the ground was health care,” she said.
Both undergraduate and graduate students can get involved with the Fundación. Valeggia said that undergraduates usually have backgrounds in anthropology, health and societies, nursing and the pre-med track.
“It’s very satisfying to see what a turning point this experience is for all of the students,” said Valeggia. “It’s an eye-opener to different realities and it’s very nice to see the friendship exchange that happens in the field between the Toba and the students.”