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Keirsten Snover with the aid of a ventilator to help with breathing
Anthropologist Keirsten Snover suffers from Mitochondrial Myopathy - an incurable disease | Photo Courtesy of Keirsten Snover

U.S. woman faces incurable disease, launches Anthropology 4U

My muscles fatigue easily, and my eye muscle movement weakens. I have difficulty walking, so I need to be in a wheelchair. My stomach is paralyzed, and I am fed through a J-tube. On top of all these aids, I must use a ventilator to help me breathe.

Interview Subject
Keirsten Snover is an American anthropologist with two master’s degrees. She fights every day to take anthropology out of universities and turn it into a public and accessible subject. Despite being confined to her home, she launched the online learning platform Anthropology 4U, her virtual academy.

She battles an incurable disease called Mitochondrial Myopathy and cannot work in a traditional environment. She has about 2,000 students in her program and is calling on colleges and universities to provide more opportunities to teaching staff like her.
Background Information
One in 4,000 people in the United States has mitochondrial myopathy, and there is currently no cure for this condition. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the characteristics of the labor market for people with disabilities demonstrates the difficulty this population has in finding suitable jobs. They also suffer discrimination in labor process.

SPOKANE, Washington ꟷ I suffer from a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease called Mitochondrial Myopathy. My muscles fatigue and my eye muscles weaken. I am confined to a wheelchair and use a tube for feeding because my stomach is paralyzed. A ventilator helps me breathe.

Yet, my illness is not everything. I am an anthropologist, a teacher, and a mother of two young adults. My passion for teaching remains my life’s mission. Nothing will stop me from fulfilling my career.

Despite condition, woman dreams of making anthropology more accessible

Mitochondrial Myopathy affects my day-to-day life, causing major muscular problems and defective cells throughout my body. No cure exists for this progressive disorder. My specialization in medical anthropology allows me to study people’s perceptions and actions regarding their health and disease.

When I first began this career as a teaching assistant for a forensic anthropology course, I noticed how the students in the class worried about the course content. The class required an understanding of medical and anatomical concepts, and it intimidated them.

To help the students, I created a fun class activity to memorize specific bones. If they placed the bones in a certain way, they could resemble an animal or object. I discovered by simplifying complex subjects into something easier to understand, students enjoyed themselves. In that moment, I developed a passion for teaching, realizing everyone can learn.

For years, I dreamed of teaching anthropology at community colleges to make it more accessible. However, my medical difficulties prevented it. Every day, I need eleven hours of medical care at home and must constantly attend medical appointments at the hospital.

Woman launches learning platform Anthropology 4U

Despite my disease, I decided to take a chance and look for alternative ways to make anthropology more accessible. At the time, it was primarily taught at the university level. That teaching included complex, professional jargon, which excluded students who lacked basic knowledge of the field.

I believe the anthropology curriculum should be open and welcoming to as many students as possible. This could be achieved by collaborating with other areas of expertise. I wanted to show that anthropology was not an exclusively academic field but was also applicable in the real world.

I wanted professors to offer clear, dynamic, and straightforward explanations so students could understand better, especially those who may not want to become anthropologists. To fulfill my dream, I created an accessible online learning space and welcomed a broad range of people to join and learn.

I launched Anthropology 4U in July 2019. I teach seven virtual courses in video and text, and we have approximately 2,000 students. This virtual academy allows me to work from home, which suits my personal needs. I can take breaks whenever I get severe symptoms or even pause my work and resume the next day.

At Anthropology 4U, I create educational content while caring for my health. I wish I could make much more content, especially text-based courses in anthropology, to offer students. For now, I dream about teaching anthropology in the world of UX. Since this field increasingly requires cultural and social analysis skills, I am working on my Google certification.

Keirsten Snover during her years as an anthropology student | Photo Courtesy of Keirsten Snover

Message to those suffer from mitochondrial myopathy 

I have a message for those who live with mitochondrial myopathy: even though the symptoms can be problematic, we can find creative activities we enjoy. The Internet gives us many possibilities. YouTube includes videos to help people who live under the same circumstances we do. We can also find and develop new hobbies. I am learning to paint now by watching tutorials online.

I also have a message for educational institutions. You must enable processes to integrate staff with specific medical difficulties. We have a lot to contribute as professionals, and it is time for us to have the aids we need to do what we do best in our professions.

I firmly believe the phrase, “When one door closes, another one opens.” When you cannot find a door to accomplish your dreams, look for a window! Find creative ways to adapt, no matter how difficult your dream might be to achieve. Don’t give up.

As for me, I will continue to teach anthropology despite my disease. I strongly believe my passion will open many doors for the students I interact with.

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Lieth Daelyn Carrillo Sánchez is a Colombian anthropologist and researcher who studies the dynamics of violence, conflict, and criminology in Latin American countries. She writes because she believes that words allow us to build and rebuild the world.