Faculty Spotlight: Cameron Hay-Rollins

photo of Cameron Hay-Rollins

  • professor and chair of Department of Anthropology
  • coordinates Miami's minor in Global Health and administers the Global Health Research Innovation Center
  • teaches courses on medical anthropology, global health, ethnographic research, transdisciplinary anthropology, and more
  • currently conducting 7 separate research projects, including a collaborative community-based project that examines the high rates of African-American infant mortality in Butler County


"When I was a first-year undergraduate, a friend of mine suggested that I take an anthropology class. My response was, 'What's anthropology?' and she said, 'It's the study of humans.' I took the class, and after the very first lecture, I called my parents to tell them that anthropology is what I would being doing for the rest of my life. I just knew it was the perfect fit for me.

"The heart of anthropology is understanding the 'other' and realizing that the 'other' is actually us. Anthropology offers the perspectives and methods to understand and appreciate human diversity. Anthropologists do everything from ethnographic fieldwork in rural villages to primate observations in jungles to studying conversational patterns at social gatherings to archaeological digs of human pasts — all as part of the holistic project to better understand what it means to be human.

"After studying cultural anthropology at Grinnell College, I went to Emory University for its biocultural anthropology training and there earned both my master's and Ph.D. degrees, conducting fieldwork in Indonesia and specializing in medical and psychological anthropology.

"Anthropology gives me the tools to understand human suffering and resilience, including the processes through which coping with illness happens, be it in interactions with care providers or in the accommodations families make in their everyday lives.

"Branching out into global health was a natural extension of my deep commitment to understanding and ameliorating health disparities which contribute to suffering, whether local or abroad. For me, the problem-solving aspects of global health, of course, need to be informed by anthropology.

"Now, as the new chair of Miami's Department of Anthropology, I'm excited about the opportunities for students and faculty to continue to offer unique opportunities for students within a vision of anthropology as a key contributor to understanding the issues of the 21st century."


"I work to ignite my students' interest and passion in engaging with the world around them. Anthropology is very strange to a lot of people until they wrap their heads around it! So I usually start courses weighing class time towards lectures to give students a sense of how anthropologists think, and then shift the balance towards open discussions, so that the students and I learn from each other.

"I teach an assortment of classes. For example, the Miami Plan capstone, ATH 448 - Developing Solutions in Global Health is designed to teach students how to write grant proposals. The first month is very intense with a really dense reading list. Then I put students on teams, assign them a country, and the rest of the semester is student-driven, problem-based learning as students identify a global health problem for that country that they are interested in, they do their own literature review, and in a series of iterative steps, write a grant proposal to address their identified problem. After the first month, my job is to shift from being a teacher to being a coach, a resource for them to produce a great proposal.

"I also teach a medical anthropology course (ATH 348), where students are tasked at looking at disease differently—not just the microbes in the environment or in our body but also the social processes and structures that expose us to certain microbes as opposed to other microbes. Socially contextualizing disease is important: for example, an anthropologist would not blame a child or even the child's parents if the child developed a disease like rubella. Instead, as anthropologists we would look at society, at the social processes or structures that may have inhibited the child from being vaccinated.

"In that course, my students also are trained to do an illness narrative interview with someone they know to learn about that person's illness experience. I teach students the skills of how to get past the 'I'm fine now' to really understand what it was like to walk through that experience for that person, and then how to analyze it using anthropological theory.

"Another class I teach is called ATH 378 - Doctors, Clinics, and Epidemics, where we look at American biomedicine and teach students about the constraints on the medical system in the U.S. Students learn how to go online to find raw data of clinical interactions between doctors and patients. They transcribe and analyze these data, and in so doing, learn both about the research process and about the social dynamics that influence health care in the U.S.

"In each of my classes, I try to create innovative assignments to enable students to learn new skills and new ways of thinking about the world."


"All of my research projects have very different topics, but they are joined by common threads. I'm interested in understanding experiences of illness and well-being, how it affects health behaviors, and how we can use that to improve interactions between health care providers and patients. Physicians try hard and many of them are excellent in interacting with patients, but the structures that organize physicians' limited schedules really affect the kinds of interactions that they can have and thus patient experience.

"Among the 7 live research projects I'm currently involved in, at least 4 of them involve students. In one we are looking at student response to the possibility of a contagious disease like mumps on campus, and students did all the data collection. For another, a student and I have done interviews for our research on pediatric stroke, and we have a paper from that study that is currently under review.

"The largest and most collaborative research project I have right now, is called 'PRIMed,' which is built off Butler County's initiative called PRIM (Partnership to Reduce Infant Mortality). It's a community-based participatory research project that examines the high rates of African-American infant mortality in Butler County. We work with community members to understand their needs. All the students in my global health seminar last fall have been IRB-certified and approved, and they joined our collaborative research project with community members, certified community health workers, and with Elizabeth Armstrong in the Department of Theatre, Paul Flaspohler in the Department of Psychology, the Butler County Health Department with Health Commissioner and alumnus Jenny Bailer, and certified midwife and Miami alumnus Toni King.

"We started our project by having Dr. Armstrong lead the community members in a digital storytelling process in Hamilton. Our students drafted the first digital stories by taking the community members' words and photographs to create short videos. The community then used these videos as drafts to create their own digital story voicing their concerns about what contributes to infant death. The students were integral to the project's success.

"I am doing another research project with Jonathan Levy in the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability and with colleagues in the U.S. and Zambia that is focused on understanding lead contamination pathways in Zambia. Current senior Rachel Serafin worked on this project this summer and she is currently working with us on data analysis.

"I'm also working with Vaishali Raval in Psychology on two different projects: one in India that looks at cultural competency, and another with her and Yvette Harris (also in Psychology) that examines well-being in families that have a child with sickle-cell disease.

"All of these are important collaborative projects that need answers: how families cope with the uncertainty of having a sick child, how lead contamination affects communities over a life cycle, why African American babies die at twice the rate of white babies in Butler County, and so on. I do this work because it is work that matters in people's lives and for their well-being."

Outside the Classroom

"I love to garden. I'm not very good at it, but I can get something done in a single afternoon in my garden. When it comes to my teaching and research, it's a long process. Nothing gets done in the matter of hours. I also love hanging out with my family, playing board games, and walking our dogs.

"A part of what keeps me motivated is getting to come to work every day. Within the Department of Anthropology and across Miami, I get to work with really interesting, fun, and engaging people, both faculty and students.

"The Anthropology faculty and the faculty across all divisions that contribute to our Global Health program, are all passionate researchers and scholars while also deeply committed to students. We're involved in teaching not because it's part of our job but because we all find it so interesting, important, and fun."

[October 2017]