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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Wissler

Introduction - or How I learned to stop worrying and love my dissertation


Every email, news article, tweet, post, etc., these days seems to start with some version of "in these uncertain times." And while these words may have become tiresome, we can't deny that these are indeed uncertain and troubling times. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of April 6 1,133,758 [1] people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 - a number almost certainly underestimated. An estimated 62,7841 [1] worldwide have died of COVID-19 or related complications. 6.6 million people in the United States filed for unemployment [2]. Medical personnel are writing their wills [3]. Warehouse workers are working inordinate amounts of overtime [4]. None of us can predict what the next few months are going to look like or when this will end.

My examining some animal bones while on a hike in Arizona
Examining some animal bones on a hike in Arizona

And somewhere in there is me. I am an anthropology graduate student at Arizona State University. I am a bioarchaeologist - which means I study human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts (not dinosaurs). Right now I am self-isolating in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was in the middle of collecting the data for my dissertation at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History when everything shut down. My dissertation is on the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Specifically, I am researching whether people who had preexisting conditions were more likely to die during the 1918 pandemic, whether people of a certain age, sex, or social race were more likely to die, and whether people who survived the pandemic were

more resilient to later stress and disease. So my dissertation on a pandemic... was interrupted by a pandemic.

My friends and colleagues have been eager to point out how "extremely relevant" my work is at the moment. Never again shall I have trouble justifying the importance of my research to funding agencies. When I submitted my dissertation proposal to NSF in August of 2019 my Broader Impacts section included the following:

"By identifying risk factors for increased influenza mortality and characterizing how the

disease may spread differently in various populations, this project will aid with predicting

how a future influenza outbreak could spread and develop into another pandemic. Our

results will also identify sources biological resiliency that can be used to buffer at-risk

groups from illness. Enhancing our ability to anticipate another pandemic and predict

how it will spread will minimize the disease burden on society."

In the present moment this indeed seems relevant. In the past few years, however, I've become increasingly disillusioned with academia. One of the things that has bothered me most has been the number of times I have seen people tout the amazing positive impacts their research will have on society with no logical or practical plan to create change. Their research will "empower indigenous groups," "reveal the history of discrimination and eliminate racism today," or "show us how to reverse climate change." I don't believe that all academics should be versed in science policy or that every project should end in political action. This overblown verbiage probably comes not from a deliberate attempt to overstate the impact of our research, but from increasing competition to get funding in a world that seems to be turning its back on science. I certainly fell prey to this same rhetoric in my first proposal submission to NSF. One of my reviewers (ah Reviewer #2) rightly pointed that my broader impacts were "overstated."

After 2 years of working nothing but one project and receiving numerous rejections from funding agencies it becomes easy to only see the flaws in your project and feel as though your research is useless and irrelevant. I looked around and saw people having tangible impacts on society: helping migrants with legal cases so they can remain in the country, developing composting and recycling programs, creating fitness routines to empower women, trans and non-binary individuals. In the face of amazing people doing amazing things I questioned my life choices because it didn’t feel as though I could ever have such a positive effect on my community. I wanted my research to have the impact I wrote about in dissertation proposal, but it no longer felt possible.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating effect on everyone's lives. Personally, it has prevented me from going home, from attending the PhD defenses of a best friend (and soon an additional 2 friends), interrupted my research, and potentially added a year to my graduation. But the pandemic has also shown me that my research isn't useless. It has demonstrated to me that the he rhetoric I used in my NSF proposal weren’t empty promises, but actionable ways my research can help people.

As I am stuck in self-isolation (along with the rest of you), I needed something to do with my time other than actually write my dissertation (sorry committee chair). So I decided to share my enthusiasm and expertise with the subjects of pandemics, anthropology by creating this blog. My overall goal is to highlight how studying our past can improve our future. In recent decades, the humanities and social sciences have been decried as being a waste of time and a waste of money. Meanwhile, hundreds of doctors, professors, and graduate students throughout the world have studied past disease outbreaks - both ancient and modern - through the lenses of anthropology, history, literature, art history, and demography. Lessons learned from these studies can help us predict the behavior of new pandemics in order to decrease their harmful impact on society; anticipate related social issues such as the rise of racism, fear-mongering, and fake cures; and identify social, biological, and economic factors that place people at risk.

Many of my topics will undoubtedly involve comparing COVID-19 and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Some future essays I have my eye on include how the 1918 pandemic impacted indigenous groups and how that can help us know how COVID-19 will affect indigenous groups today; the influence of social status on infection rates, mortality, and the disease experience in 1918 and today; and a photo essay looking at how our experience today mirrors and differs from that of people during the 1918 pandemic. I hope this will keep you entertained and informed during these uncertain times.

Stay safe and stay tuned


[1] World Health Organization. COVID-19 Situation Report 76. 5 April 2020.

[2] Anneken Tappe. “A 3,000% jump in jobless claims has devastated the US job market.” CNN Business. 2 April 2020.

[3] Bari Weiss. “Doctor’s are Writing Their Wills.” New York Times. 26 March 2020.

[4] “Amazon Workers Being Worked Overtime for COVID-19.” Occupational Health and Safety Magazine. 23 March 2020.

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