Student Profile: Olivia Marcus

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 him or her a series of questions related to his/her background and career aspirations in this field.

In this installment, we are profiling Olivia Marcus, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut.

Why did you choose to study anthropology?

I wanted to study everything when I entered university: medicine, political science, chemistry, economics, history, biology, and human behavior. Anthropology intrigued me as a discipline that considers these various disciplines in a particularly critical way. I had a particular interest in health, medicine, and well-being, especially as they relate to spirituality and various therapeutic techniques. It was my fascination with the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the anthropological lens that was a deciding factor for me to sway more toward the social science-public health work rather than approaches found in conventional biological science. My pressing question had always been: why do epidemics and health disparities still exist when western medicine is so effective? Also, what drives people to continue to use various other forms of therapeutic modalities and why do people persist in unhealthy behaviors when they ostensibly know better? Like many freshman in their first foray into the vast world of ethnography, I was deeply influenced by the political-economic explanations put forth by medical anthropologists such as Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Arthur Kleinman, and Paul Farmer, yet also was fortunate to stumble upon the works of Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Eduardo Luna, and E. Jean Langdon. From a young age I had an interest in consciousness and altered states, and upon discovering works in medical anthropology, political-economic critiques, and anthropology of consciousness, I found that my various interests (which also included studying languages, ethnobotany, and traveling) could be explored in a holistic, interconnected way.

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

Since childhood, I had a fascination with what role psychedelic drugs play in the search for so-called “higher” states of consciousness and deeper levels of self-knowledge. Growing up in Silicon Valley was definitely an influence in my process, since the culture and early access to the internet made it relatively easy to find people, books, and online resources with which I could explore these topics. When I learned that psychedelics were not only used for meditation and altering consciousness, but also for healing/medicinal purposes, I wanted to understand more about the different contexts in which this healing occurs, how many different traditions and methods exist, and the extent to which these methods are effective. I began my doctoral research with a lot of hesitancy toward using the word ‘drug’ and the term “drug research” to characterize my research since I focus on the use of plant medicines, specifically ayahuasca and the various other plants used among shamans in the Peruvian Amazon. I became interested in this context upon learning of the various therapeutic applications for both psychedelic and non-psychedelic plant preparations that are attracting a growing number of global audiences to the jungle. I find this work an exciting exploration of my interest in health-seeking behavior in a therapeutically plural environment, particularly for mental health and well-being.

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

I am currently conducting fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon for my doctoral dissertation on the therapeutic uses of ayahuasca shamanism for mental health. I focus on the cathartic aspects of plant-based healing techniques (both psychoactive and non-psychoactive) for mental well-being, particularly in light of the many claims that ayahuasca may be beneficial for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I further question how people who come for healing in the Amazon re-conceptualize their perceptions of health and healing. In this context, ayahuasca and other psychedelic plants are just a few items in the vast medicine cabinet of the Amazon rainforest. However, as a growing profession in Peru and abroad, ayahuasca shamanism has emerged as an important focus in my research, particularly the processes of medicalization and professionalization that are part of the constant re-shaping of shamanic practices and their diffusion around the world.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

At this point, I feel so immersed in my fieldwork that it is tempting to say I would like to continue living down here and studying plants for years to come. But I have always had an applied orientation to anthropology and envisioned being able to bridge my fieldwork and dissertation research with public health applications. This would involve advocacy for drug policy reform in the US in an effort to facilitate more opportunities for good scientific inquiry into psychedelic substances with therapeutic potential. I also plan to continue the process of helping to design and conduct good studies that can provide evidence for the benefits and risks of psychedelic use, as well as the pros and cons of legalizing them only for medical or therapeutic use.

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