At Emory University

Graduate Students


Sara Kauko

I had never set foot in São Paulo. Nor did I speak Portuguese on a level much different from that of a six-year old. But given my training as an anthropologist and Latin Americanist, I felt comfortable and excited to join Dr. Lesser’s research team in the neighborhood of Bom Retiro, Sao Paulo, in June 2016. My camera joined as well.

I accompanied the task team from Bom Retiro’s health center, Time Verde, a few times a week as they visited and attended to patients in their homes. Wearing my anthropologist’s hat, I was drawn to learning more about the patients’ backgrounds and present lives. Wearing my photographer’s hat, I let my camera document these patient rounds and the life in the neighborhood.

As a Spanish speaker, I learnt Portuguese quite easily. My camera often mediated my interactions with people, which helped me to learn more. The time I spent in Bom Retiro eventually turned into an archive of hundreds of images and a photographic exhibition on one of the health center’s walls.

I am finishing my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between socioeconomic mobility, race, and entrepreneurialism in northern Argentina. The difference between the vertical megalopolis of Sao Paulo and the flat provincial city where I do research is colossal. Yet in both places, the human experience of ethno-racial exclusion and aspirations for upward mobility can be remarkably similar. Those similarities intrigue me. I plan to go back to Argentina’s Portuguese-speaking neighbor someday to explore them further.


Emily Pingel

Social inequalities influence health through the mechanisms of money, status and power, as these elements are differentially distributed along the divisions of race, ethnicity, class, gender, etc. Given its national healthcare system – the Sistema Único de Saúde (known as SUS) – Brazil is well-positioned to address issues of health equity. In theory, if not always in practice, all Brazilian citizens have access to basic primary care services. Non-Brazilians residing in Brazil are often able to access these services as well.

To understand how patient care unfolds across sociocultural and linguistic difference, I am conducting 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the neighborhood of Bom Retiro in central São Paulo. Bom Retiro’s patient population is comprised of immigrants from across multiple continents (e.g., Bolivia, Korea, and Portugal), Northern and Northeastern Brazilian migrants, and lifelong São Paulo residents.

I explore how health professionals – including community health workers, doctors and nurses – construct racialized understandings of patients based upon their membership in ethnoracial groups that in turn shape their approach to patient care. I also investigate the everyday organizational practices of community health workers as they seek meaning in their work while laboring within a neoliberal approach to health management.

With the support of the Fulbright Research Award, the Boren Fellowship, and the Bom Retiro community health team, I will conduct an ethnographic study of these processes using participant observation – both within the clinic and out in the neighborhood – alongside in-depth semi-structured interviews with patients and providers. These data will form the basis for my dissertation in the Department of Sociology at Emory University.

To learn more about my work, please visit my academic homepage.


Alexander Cors

Far from Brazil, in the heart of North America, lay the eighteenth-century Spanish colony Louisiana, stretching from the Gulf Coast northward until present St. Louis. The few colonial towns along the Mississippi River were inhabited by French, English, Spanish, German, and Irish settlers, as well as free and enslaved people of African and indigenous descent. Most of the territory claimed by Euro-American empires however was controlled by powerful indigenous nations like the Osage or Quapaw.

My research investigates indigenous communities and Anglo-American settlers who moved from the Trans-Appalachian West across the Mississippi River into Spanish claimed territory. I’m interested in the conflicts that arose among officials and immigrants who were steeped in different legal cultures, had diverging ideas about race and property, and practiced different religions.

I have set up and currently maintain the website for the Lesser Research Collective.

Undergraduate Students

Doris Cikopana

My honors thesis explores the topic of accessibility to health services in Brazil. The thesis is a case study of the UBS Bom Retiro, a health post/clinic in the neighborhood of Bom Retiro located in São Paulo, Brazil. The neighborhood is home to multiple immigrant groups such as the Bolivians, Koreans and Paraguayans.

This thesis aims to better understand how accessibility barriers work in this neighborhood and what initiatives has the staff taken to reduce these barriers. Another aim of this thesis is to analyze the level of access to health services by patients who do not speak Portuguese as a first language. Lastly, this thesis contains possible health policy suggestions that could provide solutions to accessibility barriers in UBSs that are located in neighborhoods with a similar demographic profile as Bom Retiro.

My research was supported by the Fox Center Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellows Program.


Daniella Gonzalez

I had the pleasure of working in Team Lesser in the Bom Retiro neighborhood last summer. While in the Bom Retiro neighborhood, I joined physicians and nurses during medical appointments with pregnant patients (prenatal care) and women who had recently given birth. The physicians and nurses described their prenatal cases as either “planned” or “unplanned” on daily activity logs and the women’s medical files.

This led me to my research question, how do patients and healthcare providers of the clinic (physicians, nurses, and community agents) conceptualize family planning? In other words, what makes a pregnancy “planned” or “unplanned” for patients and providers? I spoke with women during their medical appointments to understand how they describe their own pregnancies and their definitions of a planned pregnancy. I then spoke to community agents, physicians, and nurses to ask about their own conceptualizations and whether they perceived differences in cases with women that stated planning their pregnancies and women that did not plan. 

This information, along with demographic information found in women’s medical files, demonstrated that patients and providers did indeed conceptualize family planning in different ways. This gap between patient and provider must be closed to improve family planning services within the clinic. To do so, providers must acknowledge these conceptual differences and engage their patients in more conversations on family planning and contraception use. 

I wrote about this in my thesis.


Alexandra Llovet

Over two summers in Brazil, I compiled four types of sources from 1924 to 2018: (1) literary sources, (2) visual sources, (3) medical records, and (4) oral narratives. Using literary analysis of themes and representations, I analyze visual and literary sources of Leprosy in Brazil.

I gathered oral narratives of healthcare workers and patients through snowball sampling in two leprosaria, a state reference hospital, and local clinics. I used medical records (1920s-1980s) from the Emilio Ribas Public Health Museum’s archives in São Paulo that show a narrative of the patient’s lives in the leprosaria, detailing runaways, removed children, etc. and clinical treatment. The pool of sources helps understand life when labelled a “leper” in Brazil.

Through the diversity of sources across time and intended fields (literature, art, public health), I show the continuity of stigma and fear despite leprosy’s curability since 1941. In my thesis analyze the diverse origins of the stigma of leprosy and suggest that the cultural phenomena surrounding leprosy has a longstanding impact on patient’s quality of life.