Intercambios: Cross-disciplinary, Cross-cultural, and Cross-language Experiences Studying the Placenta on Exchange in Brazil

I wrote this writeup at the request of my supervisor to promote the work I am doing on exchange in Brazil.

On Exchange

I am passionate about and committed to research that moves between, beyond, and across disciplinary boundaries, particularly those that seem, to me, to be the most fortified: ones that divide the sciences from the social sciences. In my case, I work to traverse divides between sociology and reproductive biology, a project that has brought me, much to my surprise, to Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University, I am currently participating in a research exchange at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). Having arrived over one month ago, I can attest to the richness of the invaluable experiences I have gained here in Brazil and am pleased to report on the exciting research I am conducting.

Dr. B. Anne Croy, Queen’s biologist and Canada Research Chair, Dr. Aureo Yamada, her longtime collaborator and UNICAMP biologist, and co-applicants and Queen’s researchers Dr. Charles Graham, Dr. Chandrakant Tayade, Dr. Myra J. Hird, and Dr. Graeme Smith, received a grant to create a research exchange project for their PhD students from a program established last year by the Canadian and Brazilian governments and administered by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES). Though focusing primarily on reproductive sciences and especially on using mouse models to study pregnancy, Dr. Croy and Dr. Yamada invited me, on the suggestion of my supervisor Dr. Myra J. Hird in the Department of Sociology, to participate in the exchange. When I eagerly agreed, they asked me to plan a research project for a 6 month stay in Brazil.

Current Research

As a sociologist I study science, and specifically, I study placenta science. It may be surprising to learn that the placenta has a prolific life in science. Of course, the placenta is studied extensively in reproductive biology, since it is central to pregnancy and can be highly determinative of pregnancy outcomes. Yet the placenta is also convenient to study in fields beyond reproductive biology, because the tissue is large, widely available, often considered “waste,” and has many interesting and diverse properties. It has a wide variety of scientific applications in many fields including immunology, cancer research, toxicology, and tissue engineering. Because of this, placentas are regularly collected in hospitals around the world and utilized in scientific experiments. All of my research is concerned with the practices of placental donation, collection, and use in science.

When asked to participate in the exchange, I had just completed the fieldwork for my ethnographic study of placenta science and scientists. With financial support from SSHRC, Queen’s University, and the Department of Sociology’s Blakely Student Initiatives Fund, I had the privilege of conducting fieldwork, including observation and interviewing, in 4 countries with 31 participants involved in placenta science. These participants included leading, senior, and early career scientists, graduate students, laboratory technicians, and hospital staff from different 10 countries. I sought to ascertain the social dynamics of this diverse field and to explore the relationship between it and society at large.

During interviews, placenta scientists often reported believing that, with few exceptions, women generally do not care about the fate of their placenta once it is delivered. In my analysis, I noted that this belief was used to reconcile or qualify the ethical dilemmas they experienced in working with this organ. However, given how pervasive the practice is, neither scientific nor social scientific research has adequately established pregnant and post-partum women’s level of support for placental collection and research, nor how such support might vary in different cultural contexts.

I had a vague goal of developing such a study before being invited to Brazil, but the exchange presented a funded opportunity to refine my ideas and actualize a novel and exciting research project. Brazil provides a unique and important case through which to explore women’s opinions of placental donation and use in science, as religious views, indigenous cultures, socio-economic disparities, public understandings of science, cultural values, legal structures, and familial structures may significantly shape women’s views of placental donation.

I proposed the study and it was quickly accepted as part of larger and ongoing research work on women and children’s health in Brazil. I was welcomed as a research team member at the Centro de Pesquisas Materno-Infantis de Campinas (CEMICAMP), a research centre at UNICAMP which focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights. It works closely in interdisciplinary collaboration with the Centro de Atenção Integral à Saúde da Mulher (CAISM), the women’s hospital here at UNICAMP, where I was also welcomed as an associate. My mentors and collaborators include Dr. Maria José Duarte Osis, a CEMICAMP researcher, Dr. José Guilherme Cecatti, an obstetrician-gynecologist, graduate coordinator, and Director of Maternity Services at CAISM, and Simony Lira, a graduate student at CAISM.

We are conducting a survey to be analyzed quantitatively and interviews to be analyzed qualitatively with 384 and 10-15 women, respectively, who have given birth at CAISM, asking their opinions of and experiences with placental donation. We believe results of this research will lead to important and interesting insights regarding the relationship between science, medicine, and publics, as well as open avenues for further research such as cross-cultural, comparative studies. It is my hope that this research will not only illuminate topics of sociological and scientific interests but will also, in assessing one indicator of the level of support for scientific research on the placenta, ultimately benefit the health and wellbeing of women and children.

Experiences in Brazil

Brazil is a wonderful place in which to live and conduct research. I was immediately impressed with the welcome and level of support I received from countless new friends. I was very uncertain my first weeks in Brazil as the culture, language, climate, and city were unfamiliar to me, and indeed, I missed home. However, rarely did I have reason to worry. I have been welcomed at many parties, other social functions, and in various laboratories. I have received unlimited help in navigating the admittedly thick bureaucracy here in Brazil. Much to my delight, I have the opportunity to learn Portuguese in a language course at UNICAMP, complemented by the help of my colleagues and friends who recognize the value in developing an international literacy and collaborative network. Finally, I’m learning capoeira, a distinctively Brazilian martial art that incorporates rhythmic music and dance. This is just one example of the unique cultural experience available in Brazil.

In Portuguese, intercambios means exchanges. Each day I am in Brazil, I have the opportunity to exchange: to move between, beyond, and across not only universities, but cultures, languages, and disciplines. It is a privilege.