UCL Anthropology


Paulina Perez Duarte Mendiola - Medical Anthropology MSc

23 March 2021

Paulina Perez Duarte Mendiola

‘According to Greek mythology a Chimera has the head of a lion, the body of a goat and a serpent’s tail’.

During my professional career as a paediatrician, as well as my time in medical school, I practiced as a clinician in multiple urban and rural settings around Mexico. As a clinical paediatrician, I was constantly in pursuit of effective ways to explain chronic-illnesses to paediatric patients, enabling them to learn and become active participants in their own healthcare. Over time, I became extremely interested in how sociocultural factors influence healthcare delivery, which eventually led me down a path toward Medical Anthropology. As an MSc student at UCL, I nourished my interests, discovered a wide range of answers to my queries and acquired a brand-new mindset.

As a physician, I progressively recognised the existing need to increase the dialogue between biomedical and social sciences. In addition to this, I advocated for the necessity and potential of providing medical care utilising a multidisciplinary approach. As such, it is one of the reasons, I, as a doctor, have transitioned my career into the field of social sciences. In this regard, I wrote an article for the UCL Medical Anthropology Blog about the complete 360-degree mindset change that was needed to achieve this, as well as bridge the gap between both worlds. During my time at UCL, I also wrote an article for Anthropolitan, our departmental journal, based on pre-existing ethnographic research conducted with terminally-ill paediatric patients. It aimed to provide a forum to debate the potential benefits, or lack thereof, in communicating with children with terminal diagnoses and whether we should engage in a conversation regarding their mortality.

Why did I choose to study my MSc at UCL? Back in Mexico, I bombarded one of my Medical Anthropology Professors with all my questions and he recommended that I explore the possibility of studying an MSc overseas: ‘I think you should look for universities in the UK, USA, Canada or Australia… over there you might be able to find the solutions you are looking for’. As such, I did my due diligence on each of these country’s top universities and their ‘Medical Anthropology’ Master’s programs… Despite the advantages of some of these countries and their program, UCL offered a program that was tailored for people with diverse professional backgrounds, and one not only for anthropologists! As you can imagine this was a key element for my situation. In addition to this, I was highly curious about two of the modules: ‘Aspects of Applied Medical Anthropology’ and ‘Biosocial Anthropology, Health and Environment’. However, the clincher for me was reading about some of the UCL’s professors I would hopefully meet or take their classes. Reading their bios and looking into their classes intrigued me. I was craving to learn directly from many of them, especially from Dr. Sarah Gibbon. For me, she seemed like a ‘rockstar’ doing what I wanted to do in the future: creating positive change throughout Latin-America.

Life at UCL is eye-opening, educational and inspiring. The combination of ‘diverse backgrounds’ within the classroom was definitely one of most enjoyable and rewarding things. Every class was an enriching experience; I loved sitting back and listening to each singular point of view, expressed by passionate, knowledgeable people with diverse nationalities, cultural upbringings and professional qualifications. This diversity was wonderful in every aspect! Even during lunch-time, in the common-room, I childishly liked asking my peers: ‘What are you having?’ It was always a fun way to start the conversation and led to some great chats (and free international cooking lessons). Every moment at UCL was constantly adding new ideas, perspectives and flavours to my brain.

For my dissertation project, enabled by the insightful guidance of Dr Carrie Ryan, I conducted ethnographic research and learned that ‘Play’ was the optimal ‘tool’ to empower children and create the channels of effective communication I was searching for. It was titled: ‘How to explain chronic-illnesses to children, according to Health Play Specialists (HPS) in the United Kingdom’. This captured HPS' perspectives and provided evidence of the profound impact of ‘Play’ on sick-children’s development, learning and healthcare experiences.

I didn’t want to write a dissertation that was simply going to be put on a shelf; I wanted my research to be applied and potentially create change. Therefore, after graduating, I have been sharing and applying my new ‘Pro-Play’ mindset to inspire those who work in paediatric healthcare. Aware of the limitations of ‘time’ as a major obstacle within hospital-settings, I have been developing content and sharing my research findings, as well as highlighting important issues in this area, through social media, with the intention of reaching younger generations and busy healthcare workers.

One of the unforeseen benefits of starting @paediatricianwithsign has been its unique ability to open doors and create subsequent opportunities, such as being interviewed for a podcast, speaking at international conferences, interviews for online articles, as well as other informal connections, which have enabled me to not only push forward with my goal of becoming a leading voice for children and 'Play & Health', but has also increased my audience and capacity to reach more and more people with my professional ideas and goals.

Currently, I am building-upon my previous research to discover 'children’s perspectives' of ‘Hospital Play’, as well as uncover the potential benefits ‘Play’ could bring to children’s health and their overall developmental-wellbeing. In addition to this, I started working as Director of Development for Pediatric Potential Inc., a non-profit organisation aimed at redefining international paediatric healthcare experiences. In this organisation, I have been working with a like-minded multidisciplinary and multinational team, including two of my former UCL’s classmates, who used to share with me their viewpoints and experience (as well as their lunch!).

My desire as a paediatrician to delve into the field of social sciences, plus all the learning accomplished at UCL, as well as my major ‘playful’ awakening… created a powerful and useful combination. My time at UCL changed the shape and form of my own brain, it was not an easy ride, but a very fruitful one. Into the future, I will continue to be a ‘chimerical’* healthcare professional, who is constantly aiming to improve paediatric-healthcare delivery, internationally.

*Chimera is defined as an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution. According to Greek mythology a Chimera has the head of a lion, the body of a goat and a serpent’s tail.