When Adia Benton heads off to her first class in the fall, chances are she won’t have to consult a campus map to get there. The Brown alum, who earned her bachelor’s in human biology in 1999, will be in familiar surroundings. Benton credits her time at Brown for sending her down the career path she eventually chose, studying public health and medical anthropology.
“One reason I chose Brown was because I had such a wonderful experience here as an undergrad and I really appreciated how amazing and bright my friends and peers were. And the experience was pretty formative in terms of how I think about the world,” Benton said.
After earning a master’s in public health from Emory University, Benton set off for Sierra Leone to examine how the expansion of AIDS treatment to poor countries affected the people there for her Ph.D. dissertation research at Harvard. Based on her findings there, which she hopes to turn into a book, Benton makes the case that treating AIDS an an “exceptional” disease often serves to take attention away from the area’s other problems.
“My biggest critique is that as long as we understand AIDS to be in every situation exceptional, we miss out on the fact that it’s not. To understand AIDS as exceptional is to give it way too much weight in places where other problems are much more prevalent.”
Benton’s current research has taken her to the equally far-flung locale of Mozambique, where she is collaborating with her husband to study access to surgical care in poor countries and how the global health agenda has often neglected this aspect of healthcare for a variety of reasons.
Although she’s still in the initial stage of the research - she hopes also to travel to Haiti and Rwanda - Benton already has several theories why surgery hasn’t been made a priority in poorer countries as it has in more developed countries. She cites a cultural belief in the biomedical community that surgeries are high-cost, high-skill efforts. In reality, Benton points out, some of the most common surgical conditions can be managed by appropriately trained general practitioners and nurses.
Benton also says that many preventative measures are low-cost and easy to implement, such as immunizations, sanitation, and bednets, while surgeries continue to be perceived as moving beyond the mandate of low-cost, largely prevention-oriented public health. While recent global health efforts have tried to change this perception, the gap for surgery persists, with many of the surgeries that are recognized as significant continuing to be in the realm of obstetrics and gynecology and facial surgery for kids. Support for other types of simple surgeries for common problems like hernia and injuries continue to be considered less necessary than the others, Benton said. “All of these things contribute to this weird perception that surgery is not something that should be delivered as a standard package of care for poor people,” Benton said.
Though her passion for research is obvious, Benton didn’t always know that public health was her calling. She entered Brown as an engineering major, but soon realized that she was better suited for the social sciences.
Work with a Swearer Center program at Rhode Island community centers, teaching AIDS prevention to unwed teenage mothers who were pursuing their GEDs, served to affirm that interest. Benton hopes to give other students a similar experience, with plans to develop a service-based course that will allow students to engage in community service learning around health issues using the tools of anthropology and social science.
“One of the things that enriched my experience here was being able to work outside the campus bubble,” she said. “Having to drive to Warwick or Pawtucket to speak to students there gave me a better sense of the place I was living in and the problems and challenges people here face.”