Portrait of Caroline Compretta
Through her research grants, Dr. Caroline Compretta is committed to helping improve the health of residents in marginalized communities.
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People of the U: Caroline Compretta

Published on Wednesday, February 5, 2020

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

Dr. Caroline Compretta, a former college English major who loves to read, has devoted her career to helping others write their own life stories.

The medical anthropologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center has done so for the past 20 years in West Jackson through research grants that have brought, and are still bringing, everything from computer coding to healthy habits to the lives of children in that marginalized community.

“I am one drop in a large bucket,” said Compretta, an assistant professor with faculty appointments in the departments of preventive medicine and pediatrics, as well as the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities. “But I have seen children empowered. More are going to college now, and are excited about it.”

Group of people pose for photo.
"The Stewpot fam," as Yolanda Kirkland, right, puts it, includes Compretta and Fred Burns, shown here in April 2018.

Fred Burns is one of them. Now working as a software engineer for Verizon Wireless in Dallas, the Jackson native said, “She transformed my life and helped fill a void. She’s is a loving person, the type who wants to know all about you. She even knows the names of all my girlfriends.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her.”

The two first met at Stewpot Community Services on West Capitol Street, where she was leading a children’s program. That’s where her life, too, was transformed. “That shaped where I was going,” she said.

Before that, she thought she was headed for a graduate degree in English. From her hometown of Hattiesburg, she arrived in Jackson, where she majored in English and minored in anthropology at Millsaps College.

“But I decided I needed to know more about what was going on in the community; I wanted to do more to help. I didn’t want to sit at a desk and analyze English literature all day long,” said Compretta, who chose instead to pursue, at the University of Kentucky, a Ph.D. in anthropology.

And she chose to do her dissertation in West Jackson, a slice of the city embracing Stewpot, which offers a food pantry, soup kitchen, children’s and teen’s program and more. In that community she has wielded her expertise as a medical anthropologist.

Instead of analyzing English literature, she analyzes disease – more precisely she breaks down the “experience” of disease – how different people are affected by the same illness depending on their circumstances.

“The experience of a woman who is a doctor, or the wife of a doctor, with, say, pancreatitis, would be different from that of a single mom with limited means,” she said.

By fastening onto chronic disease, especially among children, she hopes to show that researchers can make a difference, no matter where they are, including in West Jackson, she said. “I can do that here at UMMC.”

At UMMC, Compretta teaches Qualitative Data Analysis in UMMC’s School of Population Health, as well as classes in Public Health in Film & Literature and Culinary Medicine for medical students.

But, as a medical anthropologist, her setting is the community, not the campus. Part of her job is to find research grants that enable her to explore ways residents can live healthier lives.

“We can shed some light on what they need,” she said, “and we can get their voices heard.”

Early on, one voice she heard belonged to Fred Burns, enrolled at the time at Stewpot’s summer camp for children, which Compretta directed. But their connection didn’t end there.

“She has been a very big part of my life for a long time,” Burns said. “She was at all of my graduations – elementary school, middle school, high school and college. She is the person who took me to Walmart for the first time to celebrate my graduation from the fifth grade.”

 Inspired to continue his education after high school, Burns eventually arrived at Jackson State University to study computer engineering – a decision that would bring them together again.

While Compretta had remained in touch with him over the years, she called him one day to discuss more than the weather. “She was talking about an app that would expose children to technology,” Burns said. “She asked me if I would like to be a part of this.”

Group of people pose on porch with laptops.
The Kid Koders crew, as photographed in August 2018 at Stewpot, is, from, left, Gia Montgomery, Burns, Justin Bell, MonAnthony Brown, Anthony Hawkins, Jemarcus Cain, Compretta, Aaron Love and Ariel Love.

“This” became the Kid Koders for Health project, funded by a grant from the National Institutes for Health and the University of Alabama; it provided 16 weeks of computer coding classes for teens in the Stewpot program. One of many grant-funded projects Compretta has secured, it also generated a group-based fitness app the teens developed themselves.

“Caroline has a heart,” said Yolanda Kirkland, director of Teen and Youth Services at Stewpot.

“We have a lot of high school students and we want to get them college-ready; with Caroline, they learn how to study; they work on their comprehension. Things that are so vital.

“She has been able to provide what was missing from our program. That has been a huge, huge gift for us.”

Because of her, a former student became a gift as well. “All of us who have known Caroline through Stewpot wish we could replicate her,” Burns said.

“No one would want to replace their own mom. But, at some point, those who meet Caroline wish they could have two.”

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