Like a good cultural anthropologist, Dr. Amy Dao believes that it is critically important “to live in the communities that we are studying.”
In 2015 and 2016, Dao, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona), spent time in Vietnam researching the country’s pivot to universal health coverage.
At the time, she was working on her dissertation, which she completed as a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
But her time in Vietnam was personal too. Dao’s parents fled the country after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. They met in San Jose, California, and Dao and her brother were born years later.
Growing up, there was always the expectation that Dao would attend college. She enrolled at the University of California, Riverside, where she was mentored by Dr. Juliet McMullin, a cultural and medical anthropologist, and had the opportunity to engage in research. That experience got Dao thinking seriously about graduate school.
“That’s when I started to realize that I really enjoy doing research and I love anthropology,” says Dao, who worked full-time for McMullin for three years before enrolling at Columbia and earning a Ph.D. in 2018. She has been on the faculty at Cal Poly Pomona for the past four years.
“I realized I could turn whatever curiosity I have about anything into a potential career,” says Dao.
That’s the message she’s trying to impart to her undergraduate students — many of whom are immigrants and first-generation students who are pursuing a college degree amid being full-time workers and parents, struggling through the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“My students remind me of myself and students I was around as an undergraduate,” says Dao, who has successfully found a way to integrate research into all of her courses, thus helping her manage what would otherwise be considered a heavy teaching load of four classes a semester.
“There is a synthesis between teaching and researching,” says Dao, who recently secured a National Science Foundation grant to examine how multigenerational households are providing care, managing risks and negotiating infectious disease safety during the pandemic.
She hopes that her research will help inform public policy and make a difference.
“The hope is always that whatever work that I end up doing has some kind of impact outside of the academy and theory,” says Dao, who has aspirations of turning her dissertation into a book. Scholars, she says, should principally be focused on making their research accessible to the public.
“I like how anthropology puts itself in the context of people’s lives,” she says, adding that the intersections between anthropology and public health, particularly in the age of COVID-19, are pronounced. The joy, she says, of being a professor at this moment in history is that she is helping her students gain invaluable experience including how to interview their subjects and present their findings at scholarly convenings. Officials at Cal Poly laud Dao, adding that she has made invaluable contributions to the college since joining the faculty.
“The daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a first-generation college graduate, Amy Dao’s world expanded with possibility after the opportunity to work with her own faculty mentor as a student,” the officials note. “To pay it forward, Dao weaves the opportunity for hands-on research into her required Anthropology Methods class, giving students of all abilities the chance to learn ethnographic techniques and see how ethnographic research can address current real-world issues.”
They point out that, at Cal Poly Pomona, the student body is 58% underrepresented minorities. Women comprise 74% of the population and Latinx students make up 54% of the student body. “Oftentimes work, family and other commitments make it difficult for the students to conduct research in addition to classes,” they add, pointing out that Dao has successfully baked in research into all of her courses — a model that is embraced at the university.