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ASU provides fertile ground for anthropologist to thrive

2024 Regents Professor Alexandra Brewis credits ASU for contributing to her success

ASU Professor Alexandra Brewis poses for a portrait outside

Biocultural anthropologist Alexandra Brewis founded ASU’s Center for Global Health in 2006 and has authored eight books on her research, including the award-winning "Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health." Photo by Armand Saavedra/ASU

February 22, 2024

Alexandra Brewis believes that anthropology should be an active part of any good life.

“It is the broadest and the deepest of all the fields,” she said. “It addresses the really fundamental questions like, ‘Where did we come from?’ and ‘Where are we going?’” 

Brewis is a biocultural anthropologist and newly named Regents Professor at Arizona State University. 

“What’s really special about anthropology,” she said, “is that it looks to humans in all places, at all times. It's the best way to think about all the possible blueprints for a successful society.”

In fact, anthropology may have helped Brewis think about her own blueprint for success.

Brewis founded ASU’s Center for Global Health in 2006 — creating the first and still the largest undegraduate global health program. 

The professor and former director of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change was named President’s Professor in 2013 for her innovation and ability to inspire original and creative work by her students.

And beyond ASU, her research as a biocultural medical anthropologist led to eight authored books, including the award-winning "Lazy, Crazy, and Disgusting: Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health," published in 2019.

Despite all of these accomplishments, when Brewis talks about being named Regents Professor, pride is not her primary emotion.

“It's a very great honor because there are so many really remarkable Regents Professors at ASU that have inspired me,” Brewis said. “So it’s humbling in that regard.

“It almost feels like you're being rewarded for being given so many opportunities by being at ASU."

Learn about the 2024 Regents Professors

Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate.

Supply chain management scholar Thomas Choi.

Space exploration leader Meenakshi Wadhwa.

The Regents Professor title is the highest faculty honor awarded at ASU. This elite designation is given to internationally recognized faculty members who have used their expertise to make unique contributions to the quality of the university. 

Brewis is one of four professors chosen for the prestigious position this year. The select group of Regents Professors make up less than 3% of ASU’s faculty. 

“Professor Alexandra Brewis embodies what I believe is essential to the social sciences —        real-world impact for our local and global communities,” said Magda Hinojosa, dean of social sciences at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Her new title as Regents Professor only expands her long list of achievements.”

Hinojosa said ASU is fortunate to have a top scholar in the social sciences like Brewis, who has shaped many colleagues and students she has served, led and mentored.

“Her tireless research efforts transcend boundaries in disciplines including anthropology, global health, medicine and more,” she continued. 

Christopher Stojanowski, professor and former director of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, describes Brewis' research profile as “explosive.” 

Video by Academic Enterprise Communications

Navigating current health challenges

Right now Brewis is focused on finding solutions to complex global environmental and health challenges. Her current work is based on field research around three primary problems.

  • Improving household water insecurity for millions of global households.
  • When and how we should — or shouldn't — tackle the issue of obesity.
  • Reducing unintentional stigma in global health practice.

Her studies explore the emotional effects of weight-related stigmas that are embedded in medical practices. These stigmas can trigger illnesses such as depression and undermine health and healing.

Brewis said the rise in social media on a global scale has increased the focus on weight around the world.

“I started my career as an anthropologist more than 30 years ago, studying health issues in the islands of the Pacific,” said Brewis, former co-director of Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions. “So much has changed over the years in the health issues we face.

“For example, since then I have spoken to people in many different places around the world where weight wasn’t even an issue who, over time, became very anxious about their weight,” Brewis said. “And sometimes, the shift in how people think about health issues like weight can happen very quickly, from two to five years.”

Brewis is testing the efficacy of new approaches to de-stigmatization through innovations in medical training. 

A new approach to global health

For 35 years, Brewis has worked as an anthropologist in health care settings around the world, including Zambia, Haiti, Palestine and Mozambique. After working in these countries, she became interested in the idea of creating a school of global health. 

“When you work in the places where development projects are trying to do things like improve health or sanitation, you encounter a lot of people from elsewhere that come in with an idea that they're going to make positive change,” Brewis said. “They're very well meaning and motivated. But often they go awry because there's a misalignment between world views and understanding priorities and how things are organized.

“At some point, I realized that public health and medical training weren’t doing what they needed to do in terms of giving that baseline of understanding about when to stop and think and listen. Those are things that anthropology really understands. When I came to ASU there was this remarkable opportunity and freedom to get away from that sort of really conservative and traditional thinking about how we train people to work in global health.

“It’s one of the reasons I pushed to develop new global health degrees that started with the understandings that maybe the ways things are done needs a shake up." 

ASU’s Center for Global Health has the nation’s foremost research-intensive anthropology program and prioritizes global health solutions that put people first. 

Stojanowski said that Brewis was highly instrumental in the school’s “transformation from a nationally recognized department of anthropology to a world-renowned intellectual powerhouse in anthropology, global health and computational social sciences.”  

Brewis also runs the Culture, Health, and Environment Lab (CHELab) with three other anthropologists on the Tempe campus. Each semester, the lab trains up to 35 students in rigorous, cutting-edge ethnographic and biocultural research methods. 

"We've had a lot of exciting initiatives come out of that lab over the years,” Brewis said.

Digging into Brewis’ roots

Brewis’ own interest in anthropology began as a child in New Zealand, when she studied Latin and started thinking about what life was like in ancient Rome. 

Brewis received her undergraduate and master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. 

And then she decided on a slightly different direction — getting a PhD in anthropology from the University of Arizona, and majoring in biological anthropology and minoring in medical anthropology. That was followed by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at Brown University. 

"What drew me to biocultural anthropology was the growing realization that nothing was as simple as it was presented," she said. "That biology and culture should not be separated in how we think about what makes us humans think and act as we do."

Brewis credits collaborations with peers and ASU’s innovative culture for many of her successes.

“I never have a singular idea that I advanced from start to finish,” she explained. “I have a team of really talented people who have their own areas of expertise and we ping off of each other.”

Brewis, along with four other ASU faculty members, co-authored a newly published anthropology textbook called “The Human Story.” It is considered one of the only introductory anthropology textbooks that integrates perspectives from all four fields: cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. 

Brewis said that one of the privileges of working at ASU is being in an environment that allows that kind of collaboration to happen.

That environment has provided a fertile ground for this anthropologist to thrive. 

“Part of the privilege of being recognized for the Regents Professor is that I know in my heart that I couldn't have done any of this if I hadn't been at ASU,” she said. “It would not have been possible. I have so much to be grateful for.”

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