In 2010, Shannyn Snyder received her master of arts in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on anthropology and global health. When she entered the interdisciplinary studies program (MAIS), she originally thought she would concentrate on women's studies. “After a brief introduction to water scarcity in a global issues course, I realized that I wanted to focus on water and global health, but no such specific program existed at Mason,” Shannyn said, “but with the help of Charles Milling in MAIS, I found out that I could connect water, health and culture in the individualized concentration.”
After learning more about the effects of water scarcity in developing countries, Shannyn set out to find a community to serve as a focal point of her research. Her children’s au pair, Amelia Peixoto, from Maceio, Brazil, who lived with them for several years, began sharing personal insight about cultural issues such as nutrition, healthcare, water, disease, and sanitation in her native country, particularly with regard to urban shanty villages, called favelas. Brazil became the focal point of Shannyn's fieldwork. Thus, she traveled to the country to do a pilot study in January 2008 and then returned in the summer of 2009 for her main research.
“The severity of the poverty in the shanty areas was a bit shocking. There was no running water or sanitation [in the favela I visited], and many of the children did not attend any school, often caring for younger siblings while their parents found work.” Although the communities were on the periphery of the city, they were just outside the reaches of basic services, so an entire population was going without water, food, social services and employment. Shannyn found the health implication of lack of services disconcerting, and she began to learn about typical sanitation practices, as well as the frequency of illness due to those practices. With the help of her advisor, Dr. Hugh Gusterson in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, they began to build the ethnographic connection between poverty, lack of access to services, disease and globalization. Shannyn’s thesis scope was a broad undertaking, but Dr. Gusterson’s guidance was paramount in helping her orient her coursework and research in a focused manner.
“Dr. Gusterson was fantastic,” Shannyn said. “His particular courses in methodology and ethnography began preparing me for fieldwork very early in my degree, and he and professors Dr. Linda Seligmann and Dr. Curtiss Swezy helped me narrow my scope and find background material to support my claims.”
Shannyn took as many courses as she could the following semesters, which was not easy, as she homeschools her two children and works part-time. “My family supported me completely, and my going back to school was great role modeling for the girls. I enjoyed being on campus, and there were a few times that the kids came with me to the library or to study at Fenwick. I was able to focus on them and on my degree. The evening timing of graduate classes makes that possible.”
Of course, Shannyn’s focus and hard work paid off. Her coursework set her up well to do an intensive thesis on access to water and sanitation in the Brazilian favelas. Shannyn compiled a four-person committee that included faculty from anthropology and global health. Shannyn notes that it was a unique challenge to incorporate concentrations from two different sciences, and the committee members each had unique expertise that they contributed to her work. In order to fully maximize the interdisciplinary nature of her committee, Shannyn worked hard to integrate the theory and practice of both disciplines into her thesis.
Shannyn also received support from a non-profit group called The Water Project, which agreed to be the focus of her global health practicum, and Shannyn has continued to work with the organization as a member of their staff, developing educational materials for students and teachers to encourage water topics in the classroom. Striving to continue learning about the topics she discovered in Brazil, Shannyn now also works for Small Victories Project, a local non-profit, which is developing a public health education symposium in Kenya in 2011. Urged by one of her committee professors, Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen, of the Global Health Department, to continue her education in the field of epidemiology to learn more about waterborne diseases, Shannyn is taking a stream ecology course and has become a team lead in a local fecal coliform analysis program. “I will be testing local streams for coliforms over a period of a year, incubating the samples and analyzing the results,” says Shannyn. “It’s very exciting.”
Shannyn is optimistic about upcoming opportunities in her field. Her continuing work in this area has brought her back to Mason! She's now pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies. She has regularly been asked by GMU professors to speak to undergraduate and graduate classes on topics of water scarcity, water pollution, bottled water and sanitation concerns, and she has become a member of several professional associations focusing on anthropology and public health. “Water scarcity, globalization, inequality and the connections between are not just up-and-coming topics, they are here and now.”
As for advice she gives for incoming interdisciplinary studies students, Shannyn says, “the interdisciplinary studies degree provided me with a great opportunity, but it is self-propelling, and students need to take responsibility for themselves to make the most of it. It requires a little creativity, but GMU certainly has the faculty and resources to make your unique degree happen.”