Block’s students get valuable research skills during COVID-19 study


November 17, 2020

By Mike Killeen

Study examined how the virus is impacting healthcare providers, their families and patients.

Graduate student anthropologists in the mid-2000s didn’t often get training in ethnographic skills, such as transcribing, coding and analyzing data.

“Most anthropologists who got their Ph.D.’s around when I did didn’t really get taught to do that,” said Ellen Block, an associate professor of anthropology in the Sociology Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

But Block is trying to change that trend.

Using three CSB students as research assistants – Mackenzie Carlson, Grace Savard and D’Havian Scott – Block submitted preliminary findings on “COVID-19: Clinical and Personal Perspectives from Healthcare Providers in the United States.”

Their qualitative research examines how COVID-19 is impacting healthcare providers (HCPs), their families and their patients. The team conducted 55 interviews with HCPs across 18 different states between April and September.

“What Megan Sheehan and I are trying to do is to train students in ethnographic skills, from interviewing to transcribing, coding and interpreting data,” Block said of her fellow anthropology assistant professor at CSB and SJU.

“These students have gotten some really valuable hands-on experience, and it’s been really fun for them,” Block said. “We’re actually doing something that is important and meaningful. And, it’s really powerful for them.”

Mission accomplished, according to the students.

“I have gotten to see the research process almost in its entirety,” said Carlson, a senior sociology major with a concentration in anthropology from Roseville, Minnesota. “I have learned the necessary skills for conducting research.

“I feel confident now that I could conduct my own larger-scale research project in graduate school or another setting,” Carlson added.

“It was a transformative experience,” said Savard, a junior biology and peace studies double-major from Arden Hills, Minnesota. “I loved that we were able to participate wholeheartedly in recruitment, interviewing and the analysis/identifying of emerging trends.

“Professor Block welcomed our input and we frequently collaborated as a team when making decisions. While we worked together to accomplish team goals, all of us had individual tasks to complete as well,” Savard said.

“I’ve worked on research before in class but never to this magnitude,” said Scott, a senior sociology major with a concentration in anthropology from Nassau, Bahamas. “I would say research projects I did in class really prepared me to dive into this research.

“I’m glad that I got to experience what research outside of the classroom looks like. It gave me a feel for what practical challenges I may face, but also the benefits of doing this work,” Scott added.

Block’s previous research also dealt with a worldwide health issue. In 2019, “Infected Kin: Orphan Care and AIDS in Lesotho,” a book she wrote with Will McGrath, was published, analyzing how the illness shaped and impacted families in the African country.

“Then this (COVID-19) pandemic happened, and I was thinking that this is such a perfect example of a kinship disease. It’s a disease that literally impacts every single human on Earth right now, whether you know someone who’s had it or not,” Block said.

“I was thinking, ‘How can I use my ethnographic skills, my anthropological insights, to think about this problem in light of the connection to the central idea of my first project in Lesotho?’ ” Block said. “I thought healthcare providers would be a really interesting place to start, because they’re in the belly of the beast.

“They’re in the eye of the storm, dealing with COVID patients at their sickest, but also in the position of putting themselves at risk, and then going home to put their families at risk,” she added.

Block and the students interviewed doctors, nurses, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Through the interview process, they investigated three areas:

  • Professional impacts of COVID-19 on HCPs;
  • Personal impacts of COVID-19 on HCPs;
  • Isolation and its reverberating effects.

One interesting finding the team made is that “COVID-19 is also characterized by a unique isolation and loneliness for patients and families that healthcare providers bear witness to. The effects of this isolation are devastating and disrupting the fundamental ways that humans make meaning, especially around the important rite of passage of dying.

“Piecemeal or limited mental health and wellness efforts for healthcare providers will not be adequate to address the immense physical and psychological challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

The students’ liberal arts background helped, they all agreed.

“I’ve been doing research from when I was a freshman and it’s always something that was encouraged in my major,” Scott said. “I think attending a liberal arts institution really helped to give us an opportunity to grow and develop in ways other students at other colleges may not have. I’m appreciative of the experiences I have gained from having a liberal arts education and being able to draw on different fields of study is helpful when doing research.”

“Being at a small liberal arts school was helpful because I have been able to get to know my professors to the point where I can just reach out and say, ‘Hey, can I join this?’ and it works out,” Carlson said. “I think if I were at a larger school I would not have the relationship with Ellen that allowed me to join so easily.”

“I firmly believe that everything is connected. Cross-disciplinary connections are at the heart of a liberal arts education. I am double majoring in peace studies and biology on a pre-PA track, yet I have a passion for medical anthropology and sociology,” said Savard, who has submitted a thesis proposal to explore the biosocial and sociological elements in order to further understand the effects of COVID-19 on healthcare workers and the broader society .

“While I am not a sociology major, I had an opportunity to assist and work alongside Professor Block on an incredible healthcare-related project that I am super passionate about. Our research tied together elements of sociology, anthropology, political science and communications.  I do not think that I would have had this opportunity at a non-liberal arts school,” Savard added.

“This has been a really cool experience for them,” Block said. “They’re presenting at two professional conferences, they’re working on a paper for publication and one of them is doing a thesis, so they’ve been central to this. I think they’ve learned a lot.”

Editor’s note: Ellen Block had her article, “Exposed Intimacies: Clinicians on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published in the June issue of Anthropology in Action: Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice (Volume 27, Issue 2). 

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Mackenzie Carlson

Mackenzie Carlson

Grace Savard

Grace Savard

D’Havian Scott

D’Havian Scott

Ellen Block

Ellen Block