From Arlington to the Amazon

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February_Kerri_BrownAh, The Question.

Kerri Brown knows it well. The Martin High School alum would get it each time she mentioned her major of anthropology while a University of Texas at Austin undergrad.

Got it every time she returned to her West Arlington digs, where she grew up.

Got it every time she got together with old high school pals moving right along into pre-med and engineering and marketing.

What, inquiring minds inquired about anthropology, are you going to do with that?

Now that Brown is a Ph.D. candidate in Medical Anthropology at Southern Methodist University, she still gets The Question. The answer to what she’ll do with it, though, is quite simple:

Whatever she wants.

In fact, if there’s a quandary for Brown, who this month heads off to Brazil on a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Grant – one of only 86 nationwide to receive such an honor – it is trying to figure out which of the many options she’ll want to pursue.

Her life over the next 18 months might bring that into focus as she continues work on her dissertation about public policy related to traditional medicinal plants in Brazil. She became interested in medical anthropology while a UT student studying there and volunteering at Criola, an organization that empowers Afro-Brazilian girls and women to seek better life conditions.

Brown was unnerved by some of those conditions, such as little health care, particularly for impoverished women suffering from domestic violence and other issues. Criola is where Brown became interested in their access to health care and how medicinal plants growing by the thousand in the world’s rainforests could benefit them.

That’s what anthropologists do.

Ask what, why and how. For the grant, Brown will spend nine months in Rio de Janeiro and then head off to Oriximiná, a small town in the Amazon, to continue her research.
“Sooooo excited,” Brown told me from behind her laptop at the Starbucks on Little at I-20. “It’s going to give me so much flexibility and opportunity to just concentrate on this research.”

Martin teachers and classmates might remember Brown as the by-the-books, play-it-safe student who would go into accounting because, well, it was the practical thing to do. Stable job. Good pay. A CPA for life. Now she’s trekking off to the Amazon and the unknown, literally.

Brown grew up near Lake Arlington, one of two daughters to parents who gave them enough rope to move around and figure things out for themselves. No wonder they weren’t freaking out about the “anthropology thing.”

“My parents were always supportive of what we were doing and raised us in a let-live kind of way. They allowed us to do the things we wanted, where a lot of parents would say, ‘what are you going to do with anthropology? You’re not going to make any money with that.’ My parents were always, ‘hey, go do it.'”

Brown knew the academic drill. She tried sports (track, for a semester, but no thanks) played in the Martin Orchestra and took lots of advanced placement classes. Then came the big Ah-ha moment.

“I didn’t want to do the practical thing,” she said. An anthropology book from her mother’s bookshelf helped her decide on taking a class in the subject at UT, which she found intriguing.

“I figured I would take the practical stuff later in my college career,” Brown said. “I wanted to take the fun things first.”

Who knew anthropology would be the fun stuff?

Once she returns to Arlington, more work. She’ll take a year to write her dissertation and then follow that up with another two years of a post-doctoral fellowship.

After that, the sky really is the limit.

“We’ll see,” Brown said of her future, sounding nothing like the play-it-safe thinker who roamed the halls at Martin. “We’ll see what I do next.”

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Kenneth Perkins

Columnist Kenneth Perkins has been a contributing writer for Arlington Today since it debuted. He is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.