Medical anthropology studies the cultural differences in how people perceive, respond to, treat and prevent illness and disease.
Marta Levitt ’76 got her start in the field of medical anthropology with a BA in anthropology from Stony Brook University. She went on to work in more than 11 countries to prevent HIV/AIDS, reduce maternal and neonatal mortality, and address critical issues like child health, nutrition and malaria.
Today, Levitt continues to put her degrees to work in Nigeria as chief of party for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Integrated Health Program.
Tell us about your areas of expertise in the field of medical anthropology.
My PhD research and dissertation was on birth and traditional birth attendants in Nepal. My research became the basis of Nepal’s National Traditional Birth Attendant Training Program. The government then invited me to be the advisor for that program, where I worked in the Ministry of Health for 10 years.
This led to a 40-year career throughout Asia and Africa that combined medical anthropology research, theoretical knowledge and public health practice to focus on maternal and newborn health, HIV/AIDS, family planning and reproductive health, child health, nutrition and malaria.
Can you explain your primary responsibilities as chief of party for one of the largest USAID integrated health programs?
As chief of party for the Integrated Health Program (IHP) in Nigeria, I am responsible for managing and implementing a very complex project — working to reduce morbidity and mortality to women of reproductive age and children under five.
In this role, I provide overall vision, leadership and guidance and supervise senior staff. IHP has six sub-projects, each with a full staff in four states. In total, we have over 200 Nigerian staff.
The IHP covers a wide range of primary healthcare interventions in both the public and private sectors. We also help healthcare settings strengthen their financial and information systems, human resources, health commodities and drugs, digital health and technical solutions, and service delivery. My job is to ensure the integration of all technical areas and strong collaboration with donors, other implementers and local counterparts.
I play an essential role in coordinating with other U.S. Government projects and development partners. I represent the project and work with the highest levels of government at the national and state levels, as well as with senior policymakers, and in professional and donor forums. An important part of my work is to build team spirit and cohesion.
Tell us about your journey from Stony Brook University to your current position. How did your experiences at Stony Brook prepare you for this role?
I initially majored in bioengineering as an undergraduate but quickly changed to anthropology after taking a course with Professor Paula Brown Glick. After that, I took a lot of anthropology courses and found incredible support from the department’s late chair, Phil Weigand, a renowned Central Americas archaeologist who engaged me in lab research. I was also inspired by Professor David Hicks, a social anthropologist who introduced me to the study of kinship, ritual and cultural beliefs. This shaped my anthropological interests and led to further courses with Department of Linguistics Professor Mark Aronoff.
Living in eight countries and working in many more, how has your worldview of healthcare inspired your work?
In many cultures I’ve worked in, illness can have spiritual causalities that require rituals and prayer, so one must understand and build on these beliefs to introduce modern medicine and health interventions. It takes social mobilization and working with influential people, such as healers, traditional birth attendants and religious leaders. So I have learned to respect and understand such beliefs, keeping traditional/local practices that were helpful while trying to replace harmful practices that can lead to illness with effective public health practices.
Your work has tackled major issues, from HIV/AIDS to maternal and neonatal mortality. What have been your proudest achievements?
I have had many proud moments in my career. I designed the Maternal and Child Health Worker Program in Nepal, for example, which trained and employed local women as health workers in the country’s most remote areas. This program still exists after 25 years.
I founded the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood in India, which influenced national policies and led to significant declines in maternal mortality.
In Zambia, I collaborated within an inter-agency U.S. government team to bring HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment services that saved thousands of lives.
In Washington DC, I worked with USAID, the State Department and the private sector to design and implement the Saving Mothers, Giving Life Initiative, which reduced maternal mortality in select areas of Zambia, Uganda and Nigeria by over 40 percent in less than four years.
What advice would you give to students following in your footsteps?
Be creative — take courses and seize opportunities for learning and research across disciplines. If you are interested in public health, get multiple degrees with a strong foundation in a social science, science, math or medical field before earning your Master’s in public health.
In addition to your studies, find employment, internships or research opportunities that provide you with experience in your field. You may want to consider programs such as the Peace Corps to get your foot in the door for both government and non-government jobs.