Anthropologist Crystal Patil works for a better world
Crystal Patil thought she wanted to be a nurse.
Until, as a college freshman, she took her first anthropology course.
“I had never heard of anthropology,” she said. “But now I couldn’t stop taking the classes. I loved that it was such a diverse discipline and covered a range of topics.
“I told my parents, ‘I’m going to be a professor of anthropology when I grow up.’”
Today, as an associate professor of anthropology, one of her research focuses is pregnancy and birth in Tanzania, where maternal and infant mortality is high. She is seeking a grant from the National Institutes of Health to “reconceptualize prenatal care” in the African nation.
The country suffers from a severe shortage of health care workers.
“Africa has 13 percent of the world’s population, but only 3 percent of the health workers,” she said.
“I’m trying to make health care delivery more efficient, so health care workers are not so stressed and can offer higher quality of care to pregnant women.”
This is accomplished partly by counseling women in groups instead of one on one.
“We use groups of eight to 12 women,” Patil said. “It’s more efficient — the women are more comfortable answering questions in a group, and it saves the provider time.”
In the U.S., she is concerned with sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder most common among African Americans. One in 12 carries the trait.
Bullying of victims in school is a problem.
“There is a yellowing of the whites of the eye, and frequent hospitalizations and IVs or blood transfusions that can be interpreted as ‘track marks’ on the arms. Many with sickle cell disease are mislabeled as drug seekers,” Patil said.
She helped film a video that is being distributed in Chicagoland and through YouTube. It explains sickle cell and its symptoms, including thirst and frequent urination and the need to avoid strenuous exercise.
Food insecurity — lack of access to nutritious and affordable food — is another issue that occupies Patil.
She used a postdoc grant from the National Science Foundation to work with refugees in St. Louis.
She studied four groups of refugees who settled in this country because of religious or political discrimination — Somali Bantu and Liberians from Africa, Bhutanese from Asia and Meskhetian Turks from Russia.
The latter are Muslims who, in their homeland, couldn’t own property, have driver’s licenses or send their kids to school.
“I looked at what it’s like to try to find a job and learn a new language and how that relates to health and food,” Patil said.
“Usually they want to maintain their home diet,” difficult when one of your staples is goat, for example, and you must seek out a specialty store.
Patil is also involved in an HIV prevention program in Malawi, in southern Africa.
“From research to applying findings to real life is a 17-year gap — that’s a long time,” she said.
Calling on local governments, the health system and volunteers in the community, Patil and colleagues in the College of Nursing and in Malawi “are finding ways to turn research into something people can apply in their local communities,” she said.
“After introducing an implementation model, we will gradually withdraw from the program as communities begin to take ownership of it.”
Patil grew up in Bucks County in suburban Philadelphia. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Bloomsburg University and a master’s and Ph.D. from Ohio State University.
She taught anthropology at the University of South Florida for two years before taking her present post in 2007. She came to UIC to develop and start the Anthropology and Global Health program, a joint degree between anthropology and public health.
“For fun,” Patil trains and runs races — 5K, 8K and half-marathons.
Her husband, Vikas Patil, was a social worker until in 2004 he “put his career on hold for me as a stay-at-home dad,” she said.
Vikas, now a substitute teacher in the public schools, occasionally travels with her to Africa.
They have two sons, Mikah, 15, and Mason, 10.
The family lives in Brookfield, “right by the zoo,” Patil said.
“When my kids were younger we visited almost every week. Now they are less inclined to go — we might have overdone it.”