UCLA professor Bonnie Taub is an accomplished medical anthropologist, public health researcher and educator. She brings passion and dedication to her work at UCLA and her engagement in humanitarian programs in Central America. Taub is working to document ethnographic stories of indigenous people and provide more culturally sensitive public health and surgical care while educating, assessing and medically assisting poor villagers. As chair of the master’s program in Latin American Studies in the International Institute at UCLA and faculty in the Fielding School of Public Health and the Department of Anthropology, she has a diverse skill set, honed as a UCLA graduate student, and now uses it adeptly to teach and inspire the next generation of students. Taub is dedicated to creating positive change in the world, and building bridges across cultures and the campus.
A native New Yorker, Taub was a high school Rotary Club exchange student and lived with families in Mexico where she learned Spanish and began her love of Latin American arts, culture and medicine. She saw extreme inequalities in income, education and health access, and was especially compassionate about the plight of the Tarahumara Indians who sat on sidewalks, begging for food. After completing her undergraduate degrees in psychology and French at the University of Michigan, and a university in France, she decided to pursue her graduate studies in California. She initially moved to Berkeley, where she worked as a bilingual health educator at Planned Parenthood, cementing her desire to work in public health. Taub found it troubling “how many Central American and Mexican immigrant women were coming in for health care, but were having difficulty communicating with providers who didn’t know much about their beliefs about anatomy, health, herbal medicine, nor their cultural background. Many of the women who came to the clinic were from villages in Guatemala or Mexico where they had seen women die in childbirth and were fearful of seeing health providers.” Taub decided to dedicate the next chapter of her life to learning about and addressing the problems from which these women were suffering.
Taub saw a PBS documentary about renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead which included a segment about Susan Scrimshaw, a medical anthropologist and professor of public health and anthropology at UCLA doing a study on cultural beliefs and birth in Latin American women in Los Angeles. Taub was inspired and applied to UCLA’s articulated master’s degree programs in public health and Latin American studies in which she now mentors students. She recalls, “I was fortunate that soon after I arrived Scrimshaw hired me as her research assistant during my master’s and doctoral studies.”
As a result of her prior experiences, Taub wanted to take a person-centered approach to medical anthropology that combined both looking at cultural aspects of issues and health, as well as people’s stories from an insider’s perspective. She worked with Scrimshaw studying Latin American women and their families with regards to pregnancy, stress and coping at the UCLA medical center and found the process both rewarding and motivating. Taub decided to pursue her doctorate in anthropology and was mentored by Scrimshaw, Professor Allen Johnson and Professor Johannes Wilbert. “The three of them all inspired me to do my dissertation work on indigenous people in Mexico.” Her doctoral fieldwork focused on how the Zapotec of Oaxaca combined the use of traditional healers with Western medicine for both physical and mental disorders. She was fascinated by indigenous culture bound syndromes, such as “soul loss” and “magical fright,” their diagnosis and ritual treatments, as well as their similarity to depressive disorders. There was a variety of other research opportunities that she was afforded at UCLA. For example, with Scrimshaw she traveled to Guatemala to help develop educational training materials and a film about how to use rapid anthropological assessment techniques to assess primary health and nutrition. Taub worked as a research assistant on the project going from village to village with Scrimshaw talking with people, and training local providers on how to interview and effectively learn about their lives and best serve them. Many villagers were initially fearful of outsiders as they had suffered human rights abuses from local authorities and foreigners “coming in and taking their men because it was a period of torture and disappearances politically, and some children had been kidnapped for organ trafficking.” Taub realized that “as medical anthropologists they needed to act as cultural brokers and explain to the villagers that they were humanitarian educators to gain their trust and develop rapport.”
Taub currently is working on a major collaboration with UCLA pediatric plastic surgeon Reza Jarrahy to provide culturally sensitive healthcare and surgery in Guatemala. An accomplished craniofacial surgeon, scientific researcher, educator and humanitarian, Jarrahy had traveled for years to Guatemala, with nonprofits like Medical Missions for Children, to repair cleft lips and palates. However, foreign surgeons on such mission trips “parachuted in, operated and left.” He realized he didn’t know much about his patients and thus he invited Taub to accompany him to Guatemala to observe and conduct interviews to learn about the culture of the patients as well as the culture of surgery, providing an anthropological point of view. Taub and Jarrahy received a pilot grant from UCLA’s Center for Translational Science Institute. Their research focuses on the collection of ethnographic stories of children with cleft lips and palates, and their families and providers, as well as preliminary development of a cultural assessment tool. They are also involved in community service projects such as the building of energy efficient stoves in villages with the nonprofit Mayan Families. They call their work “surgical anthropology,” which aims to assist healthcare and surgical providers to understand their patients in a more holistic way. Their hope is to “forge a new paradigm, to take into consideration the cultural context, as well as the nutritional and public health background of patients treated in global surgical settings worldwide, and provide more humanistic care.”
Taub says that her work on developing cultural assessment tools “builds on those earlier assessment tools that Scrimshaw developed and she worked on while a graduate student.” She remarks that her goal as a medical anthropologist currently is two fold: one is to “learn holistically about a culture and then move towards implementing change that is respectful of health beliefs and practices and will create positive change for the local people,” and the second is to “collect the narratives, the anthropological stories in order to get a fuller picture and to understand the importance of the transformative nature of surgery.” Taub believes their research will be valuable to anthropologists, public health educators, surgeons, medical students and professionals who will train and work globally. As an anthropologist, she always bears in mind that any care that is rendered “needs to be provided in a way which is sensitive to the patient’s beliefs and to the cultural and shamanic practices that they already have.” Taub and Jarrahy have presented several papers at national and international conferences about surgical anthropology and have a manuscript in progress about their pilot study. They hope to receive additional donor support to expand their work to study and serve families in other sites in Latin America.
In addition, for several years Taub has taught a popular series of interdisciplinary courses on health, disease, shamanism, poverty, human rights and culture, and others about indigenous peoples in Latin America and about cultural competency training of clinicians.
For the past two years with Jarrahy, she has also developed an innovative, successful global health symposia series entitled, “At the Crossroads: Medicine, Surgery, Anthropology & Humanitarianism in Latin America.” The series brings together professors, academics, consulates, physicians, surgeons and other experts. One of Taub’s most proud moments as a professor at UCLA was when she was enjoying lunch at a symposium with a diverse group of attendees including a lawyer, a surgeon, a nonprofit director, undergraduates, an artist, a medical student, a surgical resident, anthropologists and public health colleagues. “It was wonderful to see how inspired everyone was – the sort of enthusiasm that undergraduates often have, to make a difference, to change the world, was being rekindled and enhanced in all of them.” It is this collaborative and interdisciplinary atmosphere that makes Taub proud and excited to be a professor at UCLA.
Taub has also been involved with programs at UCLA Alumni Affairs, including as a Bruin Woods lecturer and with UCLA Alumni Travel as an accompanying professor for trips to Mexico, France, Cuba and Italy.
Looking forward, Taub believes that the future is bright for incorporating anthropology into the practice of medicine. “My hope is that medicine and surgery will continue to be fields which will incorporate the social sciences in their work,” she says. She is excited by the fact that there is a heightened interest and awareness on the part of the medical community to better understand the cultural context of people so that they are not just seen as cases. Taub is proud to be a triple Bruin, to be able to pursue her research and teaching passions at UCLA, and to make the world a better place through her service, advocacy of indigenous peoples and work towards making medicine more humanistic.
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