Princeton and São Paulo: Academic Partnership Leads to Real World Impact

August 15th, 2013 / Advancement
Student in Sao Paulo

Students and faculty from São Paulo and Princeton in front of the Catedral Metropolitana in downtown São Paulo.

The first Princeton Brazil Global Fellows are returning from São Paulo with research material that will define their senior theses and doctoral dissertations, and experiences that will shape their lives as scholars and citizens of the world.

The inaugural fellows—six juniors and two graduate students—spent two months this summer examining health care research and practices in Brazil, where health care is a constitutional right and where academic work is critical to public debate and policy making.

Under the auspices of the University of São Paulo (USP), the fellows carried out field research in and around the city, interviewing specialists and policy makers and working in public health clinics in urban shantytowns. They studied the intersections between human health and the environment and how treatment access and care can be influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality. They also learned about the social, cultural, and economic challenges involved in implementing the “right to health” amidst Brazil’s economic boom and deep-rooted disparities.

Back in Princeton, the fellows will build on their work by taking courses and pursuing research in global health and health policy, medical anthropology, and Latin American and environmental studies.

The Princeton-USP Strategic Partnership

The fellows program is part of a three-year pilot project in the Program in Global Health and Health Policy in the Woodrow Wilson School’s Center for Health and Wellbeing. It evolved from a strategic partnership between Princeton and USP, launched in 2012, that promotes exchanges of students, faculty, teaching, and research between the institutions. Princeton has three such partnerships (the others are with Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Tokyo) that create frameworks enabling collaborations across borders on worldwide issues such as global health, energy technology, and urban infrastructure.

Professor Biehl taught the inaugural class of USP’s new Global Health and Sustainability graduate program.

João Biehl, Princeton’s Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology, coordinates the fellows program and co-directs the Program in Global Health and Health Policy, one of the University’s largest and most interdisciplinary certificate programs. A native of Brazil who has taught at Princeton since 2001, Biehl was instrumental in consolidating the USP partnership. He sees great potential in pairing Princeton, “this incredibly dynamic and innovative university with its strong focus on integrating the social sciences and humanities with basic science and policy,” with the leading center of higher education in Brazil. USP has about 90,000 undergraduate and graduate students and numerous high-ranking professional schools, including the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health, which are partnering with Princeton along with its pioneer Department of Anthropology.

“Our students can go to Brazil and carry out research projects on a scale and depth they could not do at Princeton,” Biehl said, “such as working in a university-run health center that serves 100,000 people and participating in studies that will inform public policy.”

Building Transnational and Interdisciplinary Relationships

When the fellows arrived in Brazil last June, they were not strangers to São Paulo. A spring break trip had introduced them to USP’s wealth of academic and material resources, and they had already formed relationships with their USP faculty mentors in the Departments of Anthropology and Preventive Medicine and the School of Public Health.

Brazil Medical Center

Princetonians in the environmental health lab of USP’s Faculdade de Saúde Pública, School of Public Health. They were joined by the school’s dean, Professor Helena Ribeiro (far left).

As a result, they were already plugged into a powerful network of academics “who greatly helped them to make contacts with health officials and policy makers and scholars in other academic institutions,” Biehl said. Peter Smith ’14, a sociology major pursuing certificates in Latin American studies and Portuguese, used his contacts to interview “everyone from patients at a public nutrition clinic, to cattle breeders, to members of Congress” for his research on the health and environmental aspects of meat eating in Brazil.

Naomi Zucker ’14, an anthropology major pursuing a certificate in global health and health policy, immersed herself in clinical practice as she “shadowed” doctors, nurses, and health professionals at an educational health post run by USP’s Department of Preventive Medicine. She said working in “a clinical setting that might otherwise have been inaccessible” furthered her research on the Brazilian model of integrated health care, which seeks to address the social determinants of health and to personalize the patient’s experience.

In Brazil, the fellows learned about different research methodologies as they also witnessed the wave of public demonstrators that took over the country’s main cities asking for more investments in infrastructure, education, and health.

“To be exposed to Brazil’s rich intellectual tradition and to be immersed in the fast-paced daily life of this middle-income country that is highly influential in the global sphere is greatly enriching,” Biehl said. “The students become more inquisitive, more questioning of analytical frameworks and of the public role of academia.” He expects the fellows to return to Princeton as stronger scholars and researchers, “better prepared for the rigors of their senior theses and doctoral dissertations and with a unique cross-cultural sensibility and critical acumen.”

Continuing Connections: Brazilian Scholars at Princeton

The strategic partnership has also led to new faculty research and to new teaching opportunities both at USP and at Princeton. In the coming year, the pilot project will sponsor two new courses with visiting USP faculty members at Princeton: “Health and the Social Markers of Difference” and “Medical Humanities.” The University has appointed Brazilian anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz as a Princeton Global Scholar, one of a select group of foreign academics who will come to teach at recurring intervals over several years.

Schwarcz and her USP colleagues from anthropology and preventive medicine will co-teach these courses and develop a series of research-related workshops for students and faculty from Princeton and Brazil. A small number of USP graduate students will also come to campus to attend courses in anthropology, global health, and public policy, interact with Princeton students, and conduct their research under Biehl’s mentorship.

Professor Joao Biehl

During a home visit, Professor Biehl (second from right) and research collaborators talk to 12-year-old Alexandre, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, and his mother. The family opened a right-to-health lawsuit against the Brazilian government demanding access to high-cost enzyme replacement therapies.

For Biehl, who received the Princeton President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2005 and the University’s Graduate Mentoring Award in 2012, helping students to carry out people-centered research, and developing new courses and new approaches to teaching, are the highlights of this wide-ranging international initiative.

“I love teaching and I am deeply moved by this global generation and their efforts to both understand and intervene in the world,” he said. “Internationalization must continue in the classroom, and we have to keep exploring creative ways to integrate into our teaching the rich field-based experiences Princeton students now have.”

For more information on how you can support Princeton’s international initiatives, contact Tracey Storey, associate director for leadership gifts, at 609.258.7741.