Siobhán Mattison, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology and director of the Human Family and Evolutionary Demography Lab at The University of New Mexico, recently took a group of undergraduate and graduate students to the south Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu to introduce them to and prepare them for future research.

Students on the trip were Biochemistry major and senior Madelyn Gomez, Anthropology major and senior Nick Allen, sophomore and pre-Anthropology student Savannah Mary Gallegos, and Joseph Merl, a senior pursuing a degree in Emergency Medical Services. UNM Anthropology Ph.D. student Khaled Bin Oli Bhuiyan directed energetics on the data collection; UNM grad student and Mattison’s spouse Peter Mattison was involved in many aspects of the work, including photographing the team’s experience; and Daniela Kraemer, a UNM research assistant professor of Anthropology, who directed fieldwork, assisted Mattison setting up the Research Experiences for Undergraduates field experience. Rutgers University grad student Denise Mercado directed sociodemographic portions. UNM Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ian Wallace also accompanied the group.

The Vanuatu project is both deeply anthropological and highly interdisciplinary, Mattison noted, with collaborators that have expertise in human biology, demography, epidemiology, bio-cultural anthropology, local ethnography, and chemistry.

“We are very intentional in this project to engage diverse perspectives to ensure the best science. We are also making more connections with policy experts to help understand how we can translate what we learn to support people in different family situations,” Mattison said.

There were many reasons to choose Vanuatu for the project: “I fell in love with Vanuatu the moment I stepped on its volcanic soil. People are smart, friendly, highly adaptable, and just amazing to work with. It’s also one of the most diverse places on earth in terms of linguistic and cultural diversity. This makes it an outstanding place to investigate how different cultural contexts affect relationships between family structure and health.”

“The Vanuatu trip was a training experience for the students,” Mattison said. “They learned the local lingua franca, Bislama, and put it into practice during household interviews and biomarker data collection overseen by faculty. They engaged with our local field team. They had lots of experiences learning the local culture, including museum visits, cultural village excursions, and so on. They started working with us in the spring of 2023 and we hope to keep many of them through next year to learn how social science research is done in soup-to-nuts fashion, including disseminating results. They have diverse career ambitions and we hope the training will support them all.”

“Have you ever seen the Instagram clip where a family feeds their baby ice cream for the first time? The baby’s eyes go all wide and they devour the ice cream like they can’t get enough. That’s what I want for the students. To open their eyes to something they haven’t experienced and for them to want to engage critically with the research enterprise."

- Siobhán Mattison, assistant professor, evolutionary anthropology

The team participated in sociodemographic interviews, and examined social networks, anthropometry, and biomarkers, only a few of the tasks they worked on. 

“We were conducting research and exposing undergraduate and graduate students to social science field research,” Mattison explained. “For many, it was their first time seeing this kind of work being done. Our projects engage topics related to the effects of family structure on health outcomes. We are particularly interested in the effects of adoption and fosterage on health and well-being… We will know a ton about folks when we are done with the work, which I hope never happens, because I love it there and the potential for training and co-production with local people is so high.”

Gomez is currently in her senior year as an undergraduate studying Biochemistry. 

“I've been interested in science ever since I was a little girl. I had also found it the most appealing and interesting subject. It also helped that the concepts seemed to come fairly easy to me compared to other subjects. I have mostly gravitated towards chemistry and biology which is why I decided to major in biochemistry. I am more so interested in research and lab analysis in relation to human health. I decided to go on this trip because I thought it would be a great opportunity to get my foot in the door into research and to learn if this is something I wanted to pursue in my professional career,” Gomez said. 

Gomez participated in data collection ranging from asking questions from a survey, taking health measurements, and communicating with island residents and recording their answers to the questions. She and the other students also measured details such as height, weight, and grip strength, and tested for anemia, hypertension, and Type II diabetes.

Gomez found the people of Vanuatu welcoming and full of kindness to each other and the student research group, willing to converse and answer any questions the students had about the island and its people.

Allen, a major in Anthropology and Political Science with a Community and Regional Planning minor, is interested in researching topics such as nationalism and how it manifests through different cultures. After graduation, he hopes to be a Fulbright recipient and pursue a career in foreign diplomacy or research.

“I decided to apply and go on this trip because I wanted research experience. I have taken classes where I learned about research techniques and skills, but I needed some way to apply those skills. I also wanted to see if research was a possible career goal for me, and I found that it is,” he said.

On the Vanuatu trip, Allen learned various techniques of collecting biospecimens and subject interviewing.

“I focused more on interviewing, and I was able to talk to several respondents while testing out my Bislama,” he noted.

The biggest takeaway of the trip for Allen was learning how to do research, observing, “I came in skeptical if research was something I wanted to do and I came out wanting to find more opportunities. Vanuatu provided a great experience for me as a first-time researcher and it showed me that I shouldn’t be scared.”

Bhuiyan is a Ph.D. student studying evolutionary anthropology focusing on diversified human life courses and how they are shaped by individual and socio-ecological factors. His research on in Vanuatu tries to understand how much energy island children spend each day, and in which ways, such as physical activity, growth, body maintenance, and storage (fat), and how it is related to their physical activity, immunity, socio-economic situation. 

“Participating in this research and from field experience, I got the opportunity to work closely with new people, ni-Vanuatu, which involves living with them, close observation, and data collection. It is a unique opportunity to understand collective social action and their own understanding of reality from the local point of view," he said.

Rutgers Ph.D. candidate Mercado studies Human Evolutionary Studies. She remains in Vanuatu conducting fieldwork.

“Vanuatu is an incredible place and home to people who I would be happy to work with far past this project. This project is my first intensive fieldwork in grad school and this is especially valuable to me because the COVID pandemic forced me to cancel my original fieldwork plans in 2020. Siobhan and the rest of HFEDLab have been deeply supportive and have offered me the chance to develop skills in the field that will no doubt be useful for the rest of my academic career.”

Like Gomez, Allen found the people of Port Vila and all of Vanuatu to be kind and welcoming.

“Walking and talking with people, you can tell that they are full of love for others and pride for their country,” he said.

“One thing I took away from this experience is how connected the people of Vanuatu were to each other and how they were tied to the land,” Gomez said. “Vanuatu recently was hit two major cyclones which took a toll on the people and the land. Despite this event, the people showed true resilience and community connectedness as they recovered. The island we went to, Efate, is a very lush and tropical environment. Food is practically growing everywhere. The locals can easily grow their own food, and if needed, sell to markets to earn some money as well. It is through community support and exchange that the people of Vanuatu are able to do well for themselves in hard times, and I think many countries could learn a thing or two from them.”

Savannah María Guadalupe Gallegos is a sophomore majoring in evolutionary anthropology with a minor in Health, Medicine, and Human Values. A first-generation college student from the small rural northern New Mexico community of Villanueva, she hopes to work in evolutionary medicine and pediatrics.

“I wanted to go on this trip so that I could get a taste of fieldwork and experience working in communities without adequate access to healthcare,” she said. 

Traveling around the island of Efate, from rural villages to the bustling streets of the nation’s capital, Port Vila, she worked collecting biomarkers. While visiting the Vanuatu National Museum, the research group watched a museum guide work on sand art as he told them the story of how kava was cultivated. He told them that "the ultimate purpose in being a human being was learning how to be good at loving and leading. Something about that really stuck with me, even after I left,” she noted. 

“Overall, it was an amazing experience, especially as it was my first time abroad. Vanuatu is truly one of the happiest places I’ve been. The biggest takeaway I had was the beauty and strength in community resilience. As one Ni-van I met told me, ‘Vanuatu’ means ‘everyone’s home,’” Gallegos said.

Questions about human families are of enduring interest to anthropologists, Mattison said.

“It’s amazing how diverse family structures are across the world, yet this can be lost on policy makers who sometimes believe there is one ‘normal’ way to put together a family. Connecting family structure to health in different settings where norms vary is essential to understanding the diverse ways that we put together our families and what that means for the members of our households.” 

Mattison enjoys watching her students at work.

“Have you ever seen the Instagram clip where a family feeds their baby ice cream for the first time? The baby’s eyes go all wide and they devour the ice cream like they can’t get enough. That’s what I want for the students. To open their eyes to something they haven’t experienced and for them to want to engage critically with the research enterprise. There is so much we don’t know - more people participating from diverse backgrounds is what we need to continue for true scientific breakthroughs. I’m so grateful to the students who let us play a small part in their science journeys.”

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