Burns graduated from the University of Washington in 1973 with a Ph.D. in anthropology. His research has focused on the Yucatan Region of Mexico. He has administered a student exchange program for many years with the Autonomous University of the Yucatan. Among other prestigious offices, he is a member of the Foundation Board of the University del Valle of Guatemala, as well as a consultant with the Minister of Education in Honduras. Burns also serves as a member of the technical advisory board on infectious disease for the Pan American Health Organization.