Biomedicine and Culture

Anne Pollock

Anne Pollock (left) as guest on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Show

Anne Pollock (left) as guest on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show

I am an Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Culture in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech.  My research and teaching focus on biomedicine and culture, theories of race and gender, and how science and medicine are enrolled in social justice projects.  These areas may seem like disparate spheres for some, but for me, they are deeply intertwined.  Biomedical research and practice are human projects as much as they are technoscientific ones.  That means that biomedicine is inextricable from our social and cultural world—as the world is, and as we would have it be.  My research in wide-ranging areas is animated by the question: how do we enroll medical technologies and disease categories in stories we tell about identity and difference, especially with regard to race, gender, and citizenship?

I received my PhD from MIT in Science, Technology and Society.  Science, Technology, and Society (STS)—also called Science and Technology Studies—is an interdisciplinary field of study that seeks to understand how science and technology shape society and culture and how society and culture, in turn, shape the development of science and technology.  Since I had found being in an environment of scientists and engineers to be very intellectually exciting, I welcomed the opportunity to pursue my interdisciplinary research and teaching at a tech school.  Moreover, when considering possible jobs to pursue, I was reluctant to choose just one disciplinary home, as an anthropologist, or a historian, or something else like a medical ethicist of some stripe—and the chance to forgo those reinventions to be situated in a program in Science, Technology and Culture in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC) sounded fantastic.  Now that I approach my seventh year here, it has indeed turned out to be a good place to land.

One thing that has been new for me is that here in LMC is that many of my colleagues are trained in literature. Although my own training was more anthropological, sociological and to a lesser degree historical, I have long been centrally interested in narrative.  My conversations with my LMC colleagues has helped me to hone this engagement.

From my experience at MIT, I was used to hanging out with scientists and engineers.  In my larger STS circles, most of my interlocutors are anthropologists, sociologists, and historians.  One thing that has been new for me is that here in LMC is that many of my colleagues are trained in literature.  Although my own training was more anthropological, sociological and to a lesser degree historical, I have long been centrally interested in narrative.  My conversations with my LMC colleagues has helped me to hone this engagement.

In my classes, we read mostly non-fiction narratives, in diverse forms—illness narratives; biographies and memoirs of scientists and physicians; ethnographic and historical accounts of the perspectives of healthcare researchers, providers and patients.   We also critically read stories drawn from diverse genres that are not themselves humanistic, such as pharmaceutical advertisements and scientific reports.

In the lab and in the newspapers, topics in biomedicine are frequent subjects of debate.  From assisted reproductive technology and stem cells, to pharmaceuticals and imaging technologies, to life support and its termination, biomedical technologies are shaping our lives in unprecedented ways. In my teaching and in my writing for academic and broader audiences, I strive to provide students and interested others with both information and analytical tools to grapple with the intersections of biomedicine and culture in society.

As a teacher, I am committed to challenging students from across the social sciences, humanities, sciences, and engineering to think critically about their social worlds.  Medicine is a great topic for that kind of project.  For example, much of my research explores pharmaceuticals.  Pharmaceuticals are objects that are easily recognized as being simultaneously stuff and symbol, carrying both matter and meaning.  Critical examination of them gives us the opportunity to think about the physical and social existence that we shape and are shaped by.

The LMC slogan—“diverse humanistic perspectives on a technological world”—is a great description of what I do in the classroom and in my research. 

One of the distinctive aspects of my classes is that I strive to have the students explore nuance in often polarized debates.  Thus, rather than having a pro and con debate about, say, embryonic stem cell research, we talk in a grounded way about what is at stake, not just for the embryo but also for the women who provide the reproductive material, for people with disabilities, for people in poverty who cannot afford existing medicines much less high tech innovations.

I find the process of preparing courses and the liveliness of the classroom environment to be intellectually stimulating complements to my research.  My first book, Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference, was published in 2012. In that book, I trace the discourses of heart disease and race from the founding of cardiology to the commercial failure of a drug called BiDil, which in 2005 became the first drug ever approved by the FDA with a racial indication, for heart failure in “self-identified black patients.”  In my current work, I continue to explore themes of race and medicine in the U.S. and beyond.  One ongoing project, “Places of Pharmaceutical Knowledge-Making,” involves ethnographic research at a small South African startup pharmaceutical company with an elite international scientific board, which was founded with the mission of drug discovery for HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.  For this project, I travel to Johannesburg to talk with the scientists about their research and why its location matters, and also trace the global networks of the training of these African scientists.  My writing on this project explores how the location of the scientific knowledge component of pharmaceuticals—rather than their production, licensing, or distribution—matters for both the scientists involved and for all interested in global health.

The LMC slogan—“diverse humanistic perspectives on a technological world”—is a great description of what I do in the classroom and in my research.  I look forward to further developing my research and teaching here, and to seeing how we all grow together.

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