A people perspective: Allison Daminger and the social determinants of health

Written by
Alex Wheatley
Aug. 2, 2016

Allison Daminger ’12 didn’t plan to focus on health at Princeton. She planned for international relations, politics, or diplomacy. Joao Biehl’s Medical Anthropology class changed her course. She describes it as a “series of a-ha moments”; the course opened her eyes to a much wider view of health, one that examined culture and the social determinants of health rather than just a biological, medical world.

After graduating in 2012 with a degree in anthropology and a certificate in global health and health policy, she worked in the nonprofit sector for four years. She’ll enter Harvard University in the fall of 2016 as a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and social policy.

Allison's story is best summed up in her own words of advice: “make a plan, but don’t stick to it.” At Princeton, she says, you will find a few core passions. You should follow them—but you don’t know where they’ll take you. “Be receptive,” she says. “Look out for those chance meetings and encounters that can point you in a slightly different direction.”

Through Medical Anthropology Allison found the Global Health Program (GHP), and Professor Biehl has been an influential figure in her GHP story. Biehl encouraged students to understand how interventions affect people’s lives, rather than settling for purely quantitative measures of how many bodies were fed or pills delivered.  She says that her studies in GHP taught her that “we should go in [to a situation] with some humility. And think about not just demonstrating our way as the right way, but appreciating what perspectives people already have.” She loved that in GHP you learn within a framework of action; you’re “not just studying in this ivy tower, but getting training to go out and address these problems in the real world.” She has acted on this perspective in her work with The Food Project and ideas42.

The Food Project is a nonprofit working to increase access to healthy, affordable food among low-income families in the greater Boston area. She values this experience in direct service for what it has taught her about the issues and the nature of nonprofit work on the ground. ideas42 is a behavioral science consulting firm that strives to design scalable solutions to a variety of economic, political, and health-based problems.  At ideas42 she was able to explore the intersection of research and front-line social change.

Allison truly loves qualitative research and the challenges that come with reconciling many different perspectives on a problem (i.e. doctor, pharmacist, and patient perspectives on nonadherence) and crafting an effective solution. Equipped with a GHP foundation and front-line health and social work experiences, Allison will dive into the social determinants of health and social policy at Harvard in the fall.