Student Profile: Misha Laurence

Here is the latest installment of ADTSG’s student profiles feature!

These profiles are a way for the ADTSG membership to become acquainted with the next generation of anthropologists of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.  In this vein, each profile will introduce one graduate or undergraduate student to the group by asking them a series of questions related to his/her background and career aspirations in this field.

In this installment, we are profiling Misha Laurence, a recent graduate from Grinnell College.

Why did you choose to study anthropology?

When I first went to college, I frankly had no idea what anthropology was, nor any passion for it, nor any predictions that I would end up loving it so much. Although I was always interested in human behavior, I started college with the intention of studying neuroscience (and possibly philosophy, in case I wanted to go to law school). At the time, it was honestly the only way I could conceive of studying human behavior. 

One upside of attending a liberal arts college like Grinnell College (which has rather flexible graduation requirements) is that I was actively encouraged to take classes in a variety of disciplines. Nonetheless, I was a little shocked when I was placed into an introductory anthropology course, as I do not remember marking that down on my registration form as a second or even a third choice. The course was taught by a professor whose research focuses on families. There didn’t seem to be anything in common between her interests in mine at first, but I unexpectedly found myself genuinely fascinated by class discussions. Quite a few students in that course, as I recall, were not actually intending to major in anthropology at the time, so people from diverse disciplinary backgrounds participated in our conversations. I was mostly a STEM-focused student with a passing familiarity with some philosophy at that point (mostly bioethics), and I actually felt my contributions were valued even as other people challenged them. So I decided I simply could not switch out of that course – it was that good.

What I did not predict was that taking this course actually threw me off-track for my intended biology major. If I wanted to continue in biology, my total time at college would have been more than four years, and I simply could not afford that kind of expense. I had a bit of a breakdown, and went to some anthropology professors for help. We eventually figured out that I had actually already fulfilled many of the prerequisites of the anthropology major by accident, and it would be easy for me to graduate on time in that major. After some introspection, I realized it would be much better, both short-term and in the long run, to graduate on-time in a field I actually enjoyed, instead of taking more time to complete a major I was beginning to get bored of anyway. (No offense to biology at all! It’s obviously an important and interesting field. It just wasn’t for me.) 

Additional anthropology courses confirmed to me that this was the right choice. I really liked anthropological perspectives on explaining why humans act and think the way they do. And the best part was that I did not have to discard my other interests or anything else I had learned so far – having multiple perspectives enriched what I got out of the experience. 

Why are you interested in alcohol, drugs, and tobacco research?

I entered the field of drug research through my interest in cannabis. However, I decided to study medical cannabis in particular, mostly because I have personal connections to it. Quite a few people I know use or have used cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes (though I personally think this dichotomy is a misleading one). In addition, I grew up in Washington State and have lived through legal battles about cannabis, and seen firsthand the profound implications it has had for Washington’s cultural, economic, and political landscape. And growing up with a chronic illness made me seriously consider at times if my symptoms would be relieved if I used cannabis. (At the time, though, I was too scared to bring up the topic to anyone or try it for myself.) 

To me, American politics always seemed obsessed with drugs of all kinds, including alcohol. Our fixation on drugs is connected with how we talk about class, crime, health, immigration, race, and so many other issues. Drugs, disability, and health are thus some excellent windows into American history and the American experience. Also, I was thrilled to realize that I was watching history unfold in real time. 

Medical cannabis in the United States is, in my opinion, an understudied topic in the social sciences. Most research I have seen focuses on “recreational cannabis” (though I personally consider the medical/recreational dichotomy a false one). This obscures the diversity of cannabis users and subtly reinforces the perception that cannabis use is a social problem or perhaps just a trivial concern, rather than a public health phenomenon concerning people’s very real suffering and pain. After some reflection, I think the same can be said for many other drugs as well, particularly in how they are connected to disability, which is connected in turn to our cultural perceptions of human worth and deep difference. 

What are your research plans for studying alcohol, drugs, and tobacco?

Before I graduated, I already decided that I didn’t want to go to graduate school right away. I want to gain firsthand experience actually working “in the field” of drug-related public health, and not just to be an anthropologist! Despite all the virtues of anthropological perspectives, I also feel the need to divert myself from it, at least for a while, and be more genuinely embedded in other contexts. 

That’s not to say I don’t care about anthropological research – I really do, and I plan to enter graduate school in a few years. But first I need to make up my mind about what kind of program would best suit my goals. (Medical anthropology? Applied anthropology? A dual anthropology PhD/MPH degree? I’m not really sure yet.) No matter how theoretical and abstract my research gets, I want it to be clearly and obviously translatable to people’s current practical needs. That’s why I’d love to focus on intersections between cannabis and other topics like class and disability, especially outside of the United States. Public health focuses more and more on underserved populations, and combined with drugs, that’s something I’d be very excited to be a part of. 

If you are a student and would like to be profiled for the ADTSG website, please contact ADTSG’s Student Liaison, Breanne Casper, at casperb@mail.usf.edu for more information!

Leave a Reply