Introducing Peter Locke: New Global Health Studies faculty member

Peter Locke, a new faculty member in Global Health Studies and Anthropology at Northwestern, is bringing new perspectives and experiences to enhance undergraduate global health education.

Peter Locke hopes to be a resource for undergraduates pursuing paths in global health.

Peter Locke hopes to be a resource for undergraduate global health students.

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Locke debated whether to become a humanitarian practitioner or to focus on critical thinking and research in global health. Drawn to anthropologists’ capacity to reflect deeply about the ways that international aid encounters are shaped by cultural difference, politics, and social inequalities, he decided to pursue a PhD in cultural and medical anthropology at Princeton University. There he began to explore humanitarian psychiatry and the politics of post-traumatic stress in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, under his mentor João Biehl. His PhD dissertation focuses on how small psychosocial support organizations and their beneficiaries have survived, searched for resources, and adapted to the many challenges of everyday life after times of war.

Through fieldwork, Locke saw how survivors’ experiences of psychological distress were shaped as much by the socioeconomic and political challenges of the present as by the traumatic events of the recent past. “One role of anthropological research, I saw, was to open up the idea of trauma—to show all these other determinants that shape people’s mental health symptoms after a war,” he explained.

After finishing his doctorate, Locke worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a lecturer at Princeton, helping to develop their global health program. Over the course of three summers, he led undergraduate global health students to Sierra Leone to pursue research internships in collaboration with the medical humanitarian NGO Wellbody Alliance. Locke and his students observed firsthand the deep poverty and limited public health infrastructure—as well as the legacy of distrust left by the fragmented aid projects of the colonial and postcolonial eras—that have become so central to the Ebola epidemic currently afflicting Sierra Leone and its neighbors. It was there that he strengthened his commitment to harnessing anthropological research methods and insights to enrich undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and experiential learning.

“The students, understandably, would come in with a lot of idealism about the possibilities of medical humanitarianism and their own immediate contributions,” Locke said. “There would be some tough reality checks at first, recognizing how complex and difficult these problems were. I learned how important it is to help students transform natural disillusionment into a productive critique of reigning paradigms in global health and a renewed, potentially lifelong commitment to the field.”

When a position opened up at Northwestern, Locke was excited by the opportunity to continue to apply his experiences and knowledge to teaching. Locke’s position as Assistant Professor of Instruction allows him to devote much of his time to building and delivering global health courses for undergraduates. Locke’s course this quarter, Health and the Social Markers of Difference, focuses on the intersection of social categories like race and gender with public health—and how these interactions affect health disparities and access to care in a range of contexts, from the U.S. to South Africa. In the winter quarter, he will teach Introduction to International Public Health and a smaller seminar on medical humanitarianism. In the spring, he will offer a Qualitative Research Methods course and a seminar called War and Public Health.

Locke is also looking to develop a new undergraduate summer research program based in Bosnia, where students will have the opportunity to explore public health and mental health challenges in the aftermath of a war and with the fall of Yugoslavia’s socialist political and economic order. This summer, he plans to return to Bosnia to reengage his contacts from the time of his dissertation fieldwork, and hopes to officially start the program in the summer of 2016.

“I’m really excited about traveling with students and getting to introduce them to these concepts and issues firsthand, guiding them in their research and discovery.”

Locke is enthusiastic about his new role at Northwestern, as well as his new life here in Evanston.

“I’m excited to be here in Chicago and to explore the region,” Locke said. “I’ll be interested to see how we navigate the winter.”

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