An anthropological look at the COVID-19 pandemic

Within the study of anthropology, UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student Sierra Roark specializes in archaeology. That can mean, she says, that people think she hunts for lost treasures. Her work, however, investigates the relationships between Native peoples and plants before and during the colonial era, when Europeans arrived in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and Virginia.

Through her research, Roark is unearthing evidence for how Siouan-speaking peoples lived during uncertain times that included the arrival of devastating diseases. By carefully examining artifacts and plant remains, she is learning about how people responded to past conflicts, epidemics and changing economic structures.

This research has informed her collaborative work on a UNC-Chapel Hill anthropology research project focused on a modern-day crisis: COVID-19.

Caela O’Connell, assistant professor within the anthropology department and Environment, Ecology and Energy Program, is working with five anthropology doctoral students and five undergraduate students to study how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and undergraduate students. After hearing from students in the spring who were relocating to housing that was not secure or who were worried about a loss of income or access to technology, O’Connell designed a study focused on student experiences.

“Without the participation of graduate students in design and implementation,” said O’Connell, “this study would not have launched in time to capture important longitudinal data with the goal of looking for changes in how students and their families are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over time.”


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