From Research to Relief
Baylor anthropologist Mark Flinn began a research project on child health in a small community on a small Caribbean island, he envisioned being there for just a short while.
That was 30 years ago. And while his research is still ongoing, Dr. Flinn’s focus for the last year or so has been helping the village recover from a devastating hurricane.
Petite Soufrière has a population of about 500 people, and is on the east coast of the Commonwealth of Dominica. “It’s about two-thirds of the way down the arc of Caribbean islands from Florida to the South American coast,” said Flinn, a professor of anthropology.
“I had done previous work in Trinidad, which is close to the coast of South America,” Flinn said, “but the kinds of research questions I was interested in are best studied in a more isolated environment without interference from people constantly coming in and out. I needed an agrarian, kin-based community. I had spent part of my childhood in the Caribbean, and Dominica seemed like a potentially great spot. The ministry of health was interested in the work that I wanted to do.”
Flinn said the initial research project that took him to Petite Soufrière was “primarily to investigate why the psychology of family relationships has such a big influence on health and child development, because it’s a bit of a mystery.”
“There’s all the folk wisdom about stress, but what are the actual nuts and bolts of this linkage between a child being anxious and worried and insecure in their family environment and the physiological outcomes that then have downstream consequences, broad consequences on their health,” he said. “There are critical links among family, community, church and health.”
Previous work on that topic had been subjective, Flinn said, and consisted of researchers asking questions such as, “How do you feel today? Can you put a four or five on that? And is your four or five the same as her four or five?”
“Data had not been objective,” he said.
Flinn, a biomedical anthropologist who joined the Baylor faculty in 2018 after serving nine years as chair of the anthropology department at the University of Missouri, took subjectivity out of the equation by measuring the stress hormone cortisol, analyzed from children’s saliva samples.
“The idea was that we ought to be able to detect levels of this hormone from saliva just like we can in blood,” he said. “We did some testing before I went down to see if that might be the case and it seemed to work out perfectly.”
Flinn initially collected saliva samples from 62 children to measure the level of cortisol in each. He obtained repeat samples from some of the children and tested those as well, “to check out that the lab results were reliable,” he said.
Flinn expected that cortisol levels would remain about the same, and they did –– except for two subjects.
“There was this one family where two kids were way off the map,” he said, and their retest showed a threefold increase in cortisol.
“As serendipity would have it, I’d taken notes as I was collecting these samples,” Flinn said. “The second time I came by, the kids were crying under the table because one of them had spilled a glass of water and their aunt was threatening to beat them and they were really stressed out and so the light bulb went off in my head. Oh, my goodness. Maybe (cortisol) is very responsive to social environment so we could use it as a tool to see what it is that causes children’s stress levels to go up and down.” The insights gained led to 30 years of monitoring hormones, family relationships and health.
Flinn has received several grants from the National Science Foundation to continue his research.
“I don’t want to say I started a movement in this, because once it was clear that you could monitor steroid hormones from saliva, it was a tool that just spread like wildfire and colleagues in child development and psychology got very interested,” Flinn said. “I had a lot of fun giving a bunch of talks. The field exploded.”
In part because of his pioneering research, Flinn was elected as a Fellow of prestigious organizations –– the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Psychological Science and the Human Biology Association. He also received the Distinguished Science Award for the Study of the Family from the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Flinn’s research in the community of Petite Soufrière took a backseat, however, on Sept. 18, 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit the island of Dominica, which Flinn said gave “real immediate urgency to my work” in recovery efforts.
Maria “went from a tropical storm to a Category Five-plus in a little over 24 hours,” he said. “There was very little warning, and it hit exactly on the community. It had sustained winds over 175 miles an hour. Giant trees that had been there over a hundred years, big old mango trees, were thrown about like matchsticks. Cars were thrown hundreds of yards.”
Across the island, 15 people died according to reports from the BBC at the time, “but no one died in my community,” said Flinn, who has lived in Petite Soufrière for more than 60 months over the past three decades. The roof was blown off the home of Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of Dominica, “but I was taken to safe ground by police officers, thank God,” Skerrit told CNN.
"People in this community are not leaving. They're resolute and what matters to them is their home and the social ties that they've had."
Flinn was talking via cell phone with a friend in Petit Soufrière as the hurricane was making landfall, and the friend handed the phone to his daughter, who was hunkered down in a kitchen cabinet “as his house was starting to disintegrate,” Flinn said.
“She of course was crying, and I was trying to console her, and the noise, just the shaking and the banging, was so loud, I couldn’t hear her.”
Her father, meanwhile, had gotten blown out of the house, had his clothes stripped from his body by the wind, but “he got ahold of a rock and held on for dear life,” Flinn said, eventually suffering a serious leg injury from flying debris.
Skerrit, the prime minister, was concerned that some communities in Dominica might have been too damaged to rebuild, and that the task would prove too mighty.
“People in this community are not leaving. They’re resolute, and what matters to them is their home and the social ties that they’ve had,” Flinn said. “I was very encouraging of people who wanted to stay, and I said, ‘I’m with you.’ And I think that mattered to a lot of people who thought, ‘OK, Mark is going to be with us. He’s gonna continue to work here. He’s gonna be back. He’s gonna help us.’”
Many of Flinn’s former graduate students and colleagues who had visited Petite Soufriére also got involved, and that proved to be a key factor.
“I also did my very best to help people there communicate,” Flinn said. “I was able to get satellite photos and the flyovers from the emergency military aircraft and post those up on Facebook. With the help of a couple of former graduate students, we could focus in and say, ‘OK, that's your brother’s house, or it was your brother’s house. It’s now gone. Here are the houses that are somewhat intact. Here’s the church in the neighboring village that’s reasonably intact, and the school.’”
Besides wanting to rebuild the community for the sake of the families who had lived there for generations, Flinn also kept his research interests in mind.
“I wanted to interview as many people as I could when I was down there and find out whether there were psychopathologies as consequences of the hurricane, in particular posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders,” he said. “Global changes in the frequency and severity of natural disasters puts urgency into understanding the social and health consequences of such events.”
As Baylor builds on its strong commitment to improving global health, Flinn believes that he is in the perfect place to advance his research while helping people he has grown close to rebuild their community.
“The people of Petite Soufriére are so tough and hard-working and dedicated to their community. They are an inspiration to show what the human spirit can overcome,” Flinn said. “I am so blessed to be here at this point in my career.”