Student Profile: Heather Henderson

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 their background and career aspirations in this field.

In this installment, we are profiling Heather Henderson, a Ph.D. student from the University of South Florida.

Why did you choose to study anthropology?

I am not sure if I chose to study anthropology, so much as anthropology chose me. When I first started out, I did not know much about college — only that I loved literature and wanted to be a writer.  A professor at my community college scoffed at this goal, assuring me that writers made no money. Hadn’t I heard the phrase “starving artist”? I would be much better off if I switched to a STEM major so that I could “actually find a job.” So, the next week, I changed my major to environmental science. With this major, I was able to begin thinking about the world in a more scientific way, learn how to form hypotheses and conduct research, and understand the world around me. In the second year of my associate degree, I was fortunate enough to be selected to work with a Department of Energy laboratory one summer in Tennessee, as an intern on a climate change project. This was cutting edge research into understanding the global carbon and nitrogen cycle in relation to overall climate change — but as I sifted red clay soil for six weeks because roots responded better to sifted soil, I couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. The lab environment was fascinating for sure, but where was that human component? As it came time to begin the second half of my undergraduate degree, I felt adrift and unsure as the please select your major box stared at me from my application screen. On the list was anthropology. I remembered reading something earlier about forensic anthropology that seemed incredibly interesting, so I checked the box with the reasoning that I could always change my major if it was not a good fit. Here we are six years later, and I could not imagine another framework for my research and how I see the world. The work that I do now relies so heavily on culture and lived experiences, and I am certain that the reason the applications of my research have been so successful is due to its anthropological framing.  I arrived at medical anthropology in a rather circuitous route from environmental ethnobotany, but heroin research is a reasonable segue from botany, right? And it would appear that I was also able to become a writer too, after all.

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

I bring a great deal of lived experience with me to this research; every member of my immediate family has an active, ongoing substance use disorder (opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder, and polysubstance, respectively). I have seen firsthand the complex interplay of poverty, criminality, and lack of access to basic needs and healthcare, and I believe this has given me a definitive edge. Not only in being able to emically connect with patients, but also by utilizing my academic and professional training to connect with providers and community leaders to bring together the village it requires to provide appropriate care for this and other marginalized patient populations.

And on a practical level, the ability to provide translation services between patients and providers to ensure access to care and a smooth emergency department encounter, when a patient sees a doctor who will not care for them and a doctor who sees a patient that is not having an emergency. Ultimately my goal is to develop a community of care, one that allows us to follow these patients through a system that is currently difficult to navigate, that ensures long term stability, care, and recovery in a way that is compassionate, empowering, and provides autonomy over the healthcare and recovery experience.

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

My dissertation focuses on how medical anthropology can work in tandem with emergency medicine to co-create clinical treatment pathways in a hospital setting for socially complex disease states (with a focus on substance use disorders). These treatment pathways would function as a cultural bridge between patients who seek acute care for illness, and emergency medicine physicians (and others) who treat them but find no acute disease. My dissertation centers on one such pathway built in a level one trauma center for opioid use disorder, and the implementation of medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in emergency rooms.

By having a treatment pathway and protocol that appear very clinical and direct, providers are able to feel comfortable addressing the complex social and structural facets of illness in addition to the biological implications of disease that comprised the bulk of their training. Further, these pathways also function as a stigma buster because it moves substance use disorders into the “legitimate” sphere with other chronic relapsing disorders treated in the emergency department (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, and asthma). By building out these culturally salient clinical tools, we are able to switch an encounter comprised of moral failing on the patient side, to business as usual on the provider side where the patient receives everything they need to stabilize and access both acute and downstream care.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

I hope to continue my work in emergency medicine building out new pathways that address gaps in care for marginalized patient populations, along with my work in the community. We are hard at work to scale up our MOUD pathway into emergency departments across Florida. A next novel step now that COVID has illustrated that Telehealth really works, is starting a home induction pathway for patients that come in as an overdose and cannot receive MOUD in the emergency department. Telehealth would allow us to discharge them with a prescription and induce them virtually, bridging them to their treatment provider appointment in the community. Further, harm reduction is definitely one of my passions. We are excited to be launching a syringe service program very soon here in Tampa that will provide a broad array of services to keep people safe and healthy if/until they become ready for treatment.

If you are an anthropology student and would like to be profiled for the ADTSG website, please contact ADTSG’s Student Liaison, Breanne Casper, at for more information!