MD/ PhD Program

Photo from left to right: Sara Rendell, Adriana Petryna, Michelle Munyikwa, Josh Franklin, Lee Young, Utpal Sandesara, Caroline Hodge, Ben Sieff, Alex Chen, Randall Burson.

The Anthropology Track in the Penn MD-PhD Program/MSTP is dedicated to training physician-anthropologists who will become next-generation leaders in an integrated practice of clinical medicine and social science. Our program recognizes that the modern life sciences involve much more than the generation of knowledge about biological processes. By fostering insight into the entwinement of biomedical knowledge and human society, the MD-PhD Program enables trainees to explore the practices and paradigms that contribute to health inequality, and to innovate clinical and investigative frameworks of moral responsiveness and care.

Exploring the full breadth of anthropological inquiry, MD-PhD trainees are advised and supported during the entirety of their clinical and research training by faculty in Anthropology as well as across the social sciences and humanities. As they carry out ethnographic projects within the United States and across the globe, they are making critical interventions in diverse fields including medical anthropology, science and technology studies, political anthropology, urban studies, and feminist and critical race studies.

Immersed in integrated training at all stages, students develop a practice of inquiry and care that is fully medical and fully anthropological. Because we believe this inquiry is best done in collaboration, the Anthropology Track in the Penn MD-PhD Program draws upon our unique multidisciplinary training and breadth of interests to build a praxis of peer mentorship and support. Together, members of the Penn MSTP Anthropology community are reimagining a critical and politically engaged medicine for the 21st century.

For inquiries about the program, please feel free to contact Dr. Adriana Petryna, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in Anthropology and Director of the Anthropology Track in the Penn MD-PhD Program at the University of Pennsylvania.


News Section

"Training physician-scholars to see patients as people, not categories". 

Utpal Sandesara, who graduated from the MD-PhD program in 2019, is in his first year of residency at UCLA - wrote this opinion piece from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in LA, where he is doing his residency.

Lessons on Ebola: Alex Chen studies emergency disease preparedness. 

Caroline Hodge was awarded the Penn Prize for Excellence in Teaching by Graduate Students.



The admissions process for the MD-PhD program in Anthropology is coordinated through the MD-PhD office.  Admissions decisions are made jointly in an integrated process by the Anthropology Graduate Group, the MD-PhD Program, and the Medical School.  Initially, applicants must submit their application via AMCAS.  In addition to all materials in the AMCAS and Penn MD-PhD supplemental application, there is one additional essay which should be submitted directly to the MD-PhD office.  This is a personal statement which should address the factors that have encouraged you to seek an education from Penn Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, including any significant personal or professional experiences related to your program of study.  The essay should be no more than 1000 words or 6000 characters.   These materials will be used for the initial review process by the MD-PhD program and the Anthropology Graduate group.  Candidates who are selected for an interview will then be asked to complete additional application materials by the Anthropology Graduate Group. For more information on the program and related courses go to the website: or contact Dr. Adriana Petryna, Dr. Deborah Thomas, Dr. Frances Barg, Ms. Maggie Krall (Director of Administration, Medical Scientist Training Program, Penn Med School); or the Anthropology Graduate Group Coordinator.


Current Students


Randy Burson

3rd Year MD-PhD Candidate

What did I do before this? Originally from New Mexico, I moved to the Philly area to attend Swarthmore College where I studied Biology and Anthropology. After undergrad, I completed a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Chile focused on intercultural mental health services. I also carried out research on clinical informed consent, patient-reported outcomes in the post-ICU setting, and Centers of Excellence models as a research assistant in the Social Science Lab in Perioperative Medicine (SSLiPM) in Penn’s Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care.

What’s my anthropological project? Situated at the intersections between anthropology and health services research, my research focuses on how health policy and scientific evidence are operationalized in health services, and how patients and providers navigate these services in the US and Latin America. Currently, my project focuses on approaches to culturally adapting mental health services for indigenous Mapuche patients in Southern Chile. Through interviews and participant observation with patients, mental health teams, and traditional Mapuche healers/leaders, my fieldwork seeks to understand approaches to mental health care for Mapuche patients and the local and long-range forces shaping intercultural mental health services. 

What are my medical interests?  After 6 months of clinical rotations, I’m still undecided but have enjoyed internal medicine, psychiatry, and emergency medicine. Ultimately, I’m interested in a clinical career that lets me continue to pursue fieldwork and teaching.

Want to get in touch? Let’s chat! Email me at and follow me on twitter, @RandyBurson2.


Caroline Hodge

5th year MD/PhD (MD - UCSF, PhD - Penn) 

What did I do before this? 

I earned my undergrad degree in religion from Princeton, where my thesis research focused on Christian responses to epidemic diseases, namely leprosy and HIV/AIDS across time. This research led me to a master's program in Medical Anthropology at Oxford, where I got a crash course in the discipline of anthropology and honed both my research interests and my desire to practice clinical medicine, not just study it anthropologically. Just before medical school, I worked in a lab studying the malignant progression of breast cancer and spent my spare time teaching sex education, a formative experience in terms of my current research interests. I'm unlike the rest of my cohort in that I'm split between two institutions: I started medical school at UCSF, and during the first year realized that I really wanted to pursue a PhD as well, which I'm lucky enough to be doing here at Penn. 

What's my anthropological project? 

My dissertation research centers around contraception, exploring how this commonplace technology exceeds its mandate as "birth control" in the American Midwest. Contraception, indeed, refers to a wide range of technologies (e.g., the Pill, the condom, natural family planning) that work on or in a diverse set of users to achieve a disparate set of goals (which may be pregnancy prevention, but also includes regulating heavy or painful periods, treating endometriosis or other gynecologic conditions, use as migraine prophylaxis, and more). Within this great diversity, I'm interested in understanding how people form, articulate, and enact contraceptive desires, how contraceptive technologies move in and through intimate relationships, and what the embodied experience of contraception is like in the Heartland, where matters of reproductive health form the center of a contentious and on-going policy debate. 

What are my medical interests?

My clinical aspirations align with my research interests, and I think that I will either end up in obstetrics and gynecology, or in some branch of pediatrics (adolescent medicine, pediatric gynecology, neonatology) that allows me to continue thinking about reproductive health and working with women and girls as they plan and realize their families. I'd like a career that allows me to combine clinical work and research with teaching, and I'm especially committed to increasing the remit of the social sciences in medical education. 

Want to get in touch? Email me at


Chuan Hao (Alex) Chen

5th year MD/PhD 

What did I do before this? 

I studied architecture for five years at Cornell, drawing building plans and constructing models by day while taking basic science courses at night. I fell in love with medical anthropology in my last year of college and designed a "Hipster Hospital" - inspired by Foucault - for my thesis project. I then pursued a Master of Design Studies in Risk and Resilience at Harvard, conducting fieldwork with Emergency medical Technicians before coming to Penn. 

What's my anthropological project? 

Building upon my Master's project, my dissertation examines how the building of preparedness infrastructures modulates and shapes ideas of risk and safety in the wake of the Ebola crisis. Ethnographically, I focus on a network of public health officials, policy makers, physician scientists, and healthcare providers/volunteers who share expertise, conduct drills, design elaborate protocols, and build biocontainment units. By attending to how affective dimensions like fear and humanitarianism motivate what is done at the viral, personal, and systemic levels, I probe the tolerance for risk in contemporary United States. How is safety and security engendered by the construction of this preparedness network? Historically, I trace how the design of such infrastructures draws upon longstanding notions of contagion, the innocent self, and the polluting Other.

What are my medical interests? 

Because I love the visual, I am deciding between the fields of radiology and pathology. I have done observerships in both, and have been thinking about medical examiner work recently because it can direct my medical training to the social and political work that I want to do in the future.  

Want to get in touch? 

Email me at


Ben Sieff

6th year MD/PhD

What did I do before this?

As an undergrad, I studied biology at Brown University, where I wrote my senior thesis in anthropology on HIV/AIDS stigma in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. I spent the following year in South Africa, where I worked as a medical assistant in Mthatha, a small city in the eastern cape, and conducted ethnographic research with evangelical HIV/AIDS activists in Khayalitsha, a peri-urban township on the outskirts of Cape Town. When I returned to the US, I worked as a math and science tutor in New York City for two years.

What's my anthropological project?

My project concerns the medical response to the opioid overdose crisis in the United States. Specifically, it focuses on private sector buprenorphine-based treatment for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) in rural Pennsylvania. I'm studying this addiction care in a county where buprenorphine remains a controversial medication for many stakeholders. Many residents perceive buprenorphine as a habit-forming substance akin to OxyContin or Percocet, rather than a legitimate longterm medication that reduces the risk of overdose and opioid-related morbidity. Local police have investigated and sanctioned a number of prescribers in the area for "selling prescriptions" for buprenorphine--likening these "rogue prescribers" to "drug dealers in white coats" who exploit vulnerable patients for profit. I am interested in how rural prescribers care for patients on a daily basis, while negotiating this fraught moral and legal terrain. At the same time, how are practices of "care" formally recognized--or found wanting--by law enforcement and medical authorities? And how is legitimate addiction care understood by rural OUD patients?

What are my medical interests?

I am still undecided on this, but I'm interested in primary care, internal medicine, or possibly psychiatry.

Want to get in touch?

Email me at


Sara Rendell 

7th year MD/PhD 

What did I do before this? Prior to my time at Penn, I studied at Saint Louis University where I worked with four other students to create and formalize a neuroscience major and conducted three years of neuro-engineering research on peripheral nerve regeneration that lead to my honors thesis on the topic. After graduating, I deferred coming to Penn to study state-subsidized maternal health care in Burkina Faso as the recipient of a Fulbright US Student Program Grant.  

What's my anthropological project? My dissertation focuses on how transnational kinship is intimately remade while racialized immigration policies dictate which kinship relations matter, and how. I've worked with pro-bono legal aid organizations serving people detained and in deportation proceedings in prisons, jails and courtrooms in the midwest and south of the US. These are contexts in which medically-based claims are especially salient. Concurrently, I have been doing intimate ethnography with each person in a transnational kinship network spread out between North America and West Africa. I also conduct historical documentary research on US immigration policy exploring trends in family-related immigration restrictions since the 1960s. 

What are my medical interests? Currently, I'm planning to become an infectious disease specialist. I'm in the midst figuring out whether I want to go into pediatric or adult infectious disease and have back-to-back clinical connections in each field set up to help me figure that out. 

Want to get in touch? Email me at  


Joshua Franklin

7th year MD/PhD 

What did I do before this? I attended Princeton, and although I started as a math major, I switched in my sophomore year to anthropology with a certificate in Portuguese. I traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil over two summers to conduct ethnographic fieldwork at a gender identity clinic where transgender patients had used right-to-health litigation to secure access to publicly-funded gender affirming care. This work formed the basis of my senior thesis, and after graduation, I returned to conduct an additional 9 months of fieldwork with a Fulbright US Student Program Grant. While an undergraduate, I was also trained as an EMT and worked as a volunteer for the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad. 

What's my anthropological project? My dissertation focuses on gender affirming care for transgender and gender expansive children. Based on fieldwork I have conducted at a pediatric gender clinic with patients, clinicians, and their families, my project examines the impact of gender affirming care for young people and the adults who care for them. I also have worked as an ethnographer in clinical and public health research on transgender health and HIV prevention and treatment in Philadelphia, and my dissertation draws on these experiences to examine the race- and class-based inequalities in access to trans health resources. Broadly, my work considers the role that young people play in reshaping the meaning of gender in US culture today, within the context of identity-focused medicine.

What are my medical interests? I am planning to apply to residency programs in psychiatry, with an interest in child and adolescent mental health. During my time in the MSTP, I have completed training programs in psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and adolescent health. I hope to combine my anthropological training with my future experiences as a physician to better understand the social and cultural context of young people's well-being.

Want to get in touch? Email me at


Lee Young

8th year MD/PhD

What did I do before this? I completed undergraduate studies at the University of Louisville where I majored in Anthropology and minored in Russian Language and Cultural Studies. I worked in a molecular anthropology laboratory for several semesters and spent most of my summers studying in Russia. After graduation, I conducted a one-year ethnographic study of drug addiction treatment modalities in Kazan, Russia as a Fulbright Scholar.

What's my anthropological project? My dissertation is an ethnography of policing in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Fieldwork involved eighteen months of ethnographic research, primarily with police personnel in various settings—ride-alongs with patrol officers; strategic planning and community stake-holder meetings; a state-of-the-art surveillance center; public relations and community outreach events—as well as with representatives from various public agencies and NGOS, business leaders and urban redevelopers, civic organizations, and residents. This research traces the relations between the ongoing production of geographic heterogeneity, racial difference, and capital value, and seeks to elucidate how the police both mediate and generate these relations. In doing so, this project poses novel questions concerning value creation, racial differentiation and policing under contemporary configurations of racial capitalism in the American city. 

What are my medical interests? Internal medicine, community health.

Want to get in touch? Email me at


Michelle Munyikwa 

9th year MD/PhD 

What did I do before this? Prior to my time at Penn, I studied at the College of William and Mary, where I self-designed an interdisciplinary major in biochemistry & molecular biology and double-majored in anthropology. There, I developed a curiosity about the potential of translational research and wanted to work at the interface of cancer biology and clinical medicine, leading to my application to medical school. After working at Merck Research Laboratories, however, I learned I was most interested in the social, political, and economic worlds of medicine and scientific research, and I’ve been an anthropologist ever since.

What's my anthropological project? My dissertation, titled “Up from the Dirt”: Racializing Refuge, Rupture, and Repair in Philadelphia, was an ethnographic and archival exploration of forced migration to Philadelphia. That work examined how humanitarian practices of care for refugees and asylum seekers in the city are shaped by the local contexts of Philadelphia, both past and present. I am currently working on transforming that dissertation into a book project. I am also beginning work on two projects inspired by questions that arose in my dissertation. My first project, drawing upon my interests in the politics and practices of knowledge creation, examines how new epigenetic research on the embodiment of trauma is transforming contemporary understandings of disease inheritance and transmission for researchers, practitioners, and patients alike. The second is a personal project, an oral history centered around my maternal grandfather, who was a political prisoner during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle; this work engages themes around asylum, justice, and freedom that arose in my dissertation research. 

What are my medical interests? Currently, I'm preparing to apply to residency in Med-Peds (combined programs in internal medicine and pediatrics). I am interested in global health at home and away, and hope to bring my anthropological experiences to bear upon care for underserved adults and children in a number of contexts. 

Want to get in touch? Email me at I would love to talk with you about a career as a physician-anthropologist!


Our Alumni


Nick Iacobelli

PhD completion 2017, MD completion 2018

Dissertation: My dissertation was about the right to healthcare ostensibly granted to prison inmates in the United States under the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. Through historical analysis, legal scholarship, critical theory, and participant-observation data from 18 months of fieldwork in the medical unit of a men's maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania, I examined what this right looks like in practice and the kinds of care it fosters behind prison walls. I worked to understand how the institutional logics of the prison, the law, and medicine abut interpersonal desires for care, compassion, and recognition.  Even though the Eighth Amendment primarily exists as a mandate not to inflict too much harm, it also creates the conditions for which inmates come to rely on the state for life-saving and life-sustaining services, perpetuating historical forms of racial subjugation through care and containment in the process.

Current Projects: I'm in my second year of Internal Medicine residency at the University of Washington. During residency, I am working to publish the findings of my dissertation as a book-length manuscript titled Wards of the State: Care and Custody in a Pennsylvania Prison with the University of California Press's Public Anthropology Series. I'm also working locally in Seattle to develop a research project that investigates the role of medical-legal partnerships and their impact on the lives of those experiencing comorbid homelessness and drug addiction. I'm looking to continue my focus on the intersections of law, medicine, and other forms of institutional power on personal trajectories to see how they shape the struggle to avoid incarceration while seeking access to housing and treatment.

Future Plans: I want to continue research and teaching in anthropology while providing medical care to structurally vulnerable populations as a general internist. I'm considering dividing my time between an academic job in anthropology and work either for the Department of Health or in academic medicine working in university-based hospitals and community outreach clinics. 

Want to get in touch? Email me at


Utpal Sandesara

PhD completion 2017, MD completion 2019

Dissertation: My dissertation examined sex-selective abortion in one district of western India's Gujarat state. Although the practice has been illegal in India since 1994 (and the focus of extensive government public health campaigns since the mid-2000s), it continues to drastically skew the child population in many parts of the country - to the extent that Mahesana City, where my research centered, had approximately 760 girls for every 1,000 boys in the last census. Over 18 months of fieldwork from 2012 to 2015, I explored sex selection as a lived experience. In addition to observing hundreds of clinical visits, I conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 50 doctors and black market brokers, over 100 pregnant women and their families, and dozens of government officials charged with curbing sex selection. The resulting dissertation argues for understanding sex selection as a morally complex act of care embedded in broader contexts of familial and medical care. It uses this argument as a starting point for thinking about how we might come up with better representations of and interventions on an obviously problematic phenomenon.

Current Projects: I am in my first year of Internal Medicine residency training at UCLA (more specifically, the Olive View-based Primary Care track). During residency, I am revising my dissertation into a book-length manuscript titled She Is Not Ours: Understanding Sex Selection in Western India. I am also undertaking autoethnographic fieldwork on the experience of residency training with the aim of producing a text that combines personal reflection, social scientific theory, and literary forms of writing to offer future health professionals a unique perspective on the practice of medicine (and initiation into it).

Future Plans: After residency, I intend to practice general internal medicine (primary care or hospitalist) with structurally vulnerable populations while continuing to conduct research and teach. More specifically, I hope to use my combined training in medicine and anthropology in order to write for social scientific, clinical, and lay audiences, and to foster in health professions students curiosity and passion for the social side of medical care.

Want to get in touch? Email me at