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Student studies human perceptions to help solve global issues

May 06, 2011

ASU anthropology graduate student Ashlan Falletta-Cowden is committed to bringing about global change by researching the human condition here and abroad.

Last summer, Falletta-Cowden flew to Bangladesh to study a crisis affecting upwards of 25 million people: poisoning by arsenic that occurs naturally in the groundwater. She collected data from local women to help determine how they understand and deal with the associated risks. Perceptions regarding pregnant women, fetuses and nursing infants were of primary concern.

She found that all participants knew arsenic was a danger to health, but their understanding of how it affects health didn’t necessarily match biomedical and public health models. For example, women in her sample believed breastfeeding puts infants at risk for arsenic exposure, though biomedical findings suggest that arsenic cannot be transmitted through breast milk.

“This field experience was transformative for me because it gave me a new way of seeing Bangladesh’s arsenic crisis and presented new avenues for approaching research on health risk perception,” she said. Ultimately, she hopes her findings contribute to messaging and policies that help the people of Bangladesh safely navigate their difficult environs.

With a range of interests that includes biocultural anthropology and nutrition, Falletta-Cowden has assisted several ASU professors with research projects. Recently, she was part of a cross-cultural examination of fat stigma and body image. The study, led by professor Alexandra Brewis, executive director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC), was published in the April issue of Current Anthropology and has received widespread media attention by showing that fat stigma has rapidly gone global.

Falletta-Cowden, who also is pursuing a certificate in museum studies, continued her water issue-related work this spring by contributing to the ASU Museum of Anthropology exhibit, “Choosing a Future with Water: Lessons from the Hohokam.” She conceptualized one of the interactive features of the faculty research-based presentation that looks at sustainable water use in the Phoenix area.

Falletta-Cowden will travel to Reykjavik, Iceland, this summer to marry fellow anthropology student Sveinn Sigurdsson. Then, she’ll hop right back into research mode by spending two weeks collecting data in Iceland for a research project led by ASU anthropologist Daniel Hruschka on how virtues come into conflict in daily life.

This April, Falletta-Cowden presented on her Bangladesh experience at the 6th Annual SHESC Master’s Research Symposium. She will receive a master’s degree in May and continue her studies at ASU as a sociocultural anthropology doctoral student.

Contributed by Rebecca Howe, School of Human Evolution and Social Change