Mary Beth (Bird) Knipper (B.S.’10) is one of this year’s VCU Alumni 10 Under 10 recipients. The awards program honors alumni who earned their first VCU degree within the past 10 years and have enjoyed remarkable professional success, made important contributions to their community and loyally supported the university.
By VCU Office of Development and Alumni Relations
“I have always loved the adventure of moving,” says Mary Knipper, describing how her childhood as an “Army brat” became an adulthood that includes ethnographic research in Lesotho, a southern African nation.
Knipper, who is pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. in anthropology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, first traveled to Lesotho as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2012. Later, she returned as a 2015 Fulbright Scholar and continued working with the Basotho people. She presented the resulting research at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
She continues to conduct research in Basotho communities in the Eastern highlands of Lesotho, with a particular interest in local forms of neonatal exposure therapy. These customary medical and protective practices bring infants into contact with known environmental threats in a controlled manner. Knipper is exploring the ways that Basotho mothers describe these practices as a cultural metaphor for early infant immunizations, with an eye toward understanding the complex interplay between western biomedicine and customary Basotho medicine in the region.
Knipper describes her time at VCU in an excited jumble: a major in biomedical engineering, work with a medical aid team in southwestern Kenya, feminist political theory courses for fun, learning to love writing and ballroom dancing. She tells stories of how Deirdre Condit, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the political science department in the College of Humanities and Science, started as her professor and became a dear friend.
“VCU allowed me to explore and change my interests along the way. It was an institution that made it OK for me to evolve,” she says.
Other loved ones have done the same. She says her husband, Jake, “joyfully follows me wherever in the world my academic and professional pursuits take us.” The couple have a black Lab, Darcy, and a cat, Yeti.
Knipper says it is her “fervent hope” to preserve her sense of humanity despite the undeniable toll that clinical medicine takes on its practitioners. “I want to be more than a doctor; I want to be a witness to the reality of the human condition,” she says.