Farewell, Brasil, Despedida

Tomorrow I leave Brazil to go home to Canada, a parting that will be bittersweet. Brazil was a pleasant surprise in my life. I never could have guessed I would be living in Brazil for 5 months in the last year of my PhD. It is true that Brazil did not seem to come at an ideal time. I was just beginning to write my dissertation when I decided to come to Brazil. I had to come up with a brand new research project that could be conducted in a few months in a country I knew little about. But then again, Brazil came at the perfect time, because I now feel more ready than ever to write a dissertation about the science of the placenta. I’d thought my study of the science of the placenta was done when I finished my fieldwork. But now I realize it had only begun and will go on, even after the dissertation is gathering dust.  That is the nature of all knowledge: always a production, in production. There will always be more to find out – about the placenta, and anything else worth studying.

I had the opportunity to accomplish a lot in Brazil. Along with my collaborators, we undertook a large-sample questionnaire study in a very busy maternity ward. We weathered many challenges, and succesfully navigated the waters of Brazilian bureaucracy at the government, bank, and university. I delivered 6 lectures at UNICAMP, the Universidade Federal de Alfenas, the Universidade Federal de Goiás, and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Goiás. I gave a lecture to a high school class about the culture and geography of Canada. I spent time tutoring English and editing manuscripts and posters. I attended a Portuguese class and did a talk about Canada entirely in (terrible, but working) Portuguese.

I took the chance to do some travelling to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I went white water rafting with new friends. I even enrolled in a capoeria class (but let’s just say that I didn’t exactly become the skilled capoeirista I’d envisioned). I so much enjoyed tasting the many wonderful fruits available in Brazil that I had never even heard of before. I had the chance to pick the most beautiful and gigantic avocados straight from the tree. I danced a bit of samba.

Principally and with as much earnestness as can possibly be mustered, I want to relay what a privilege it has been to have been guided and supported by Dr. Maria José Duarte Osis, Dr. José Guilherme Cecatti, Dr. Aureo T. Yamada, Dr. B. Anne Croy, Dr. Myra J. Hird, and everyone at the Centro de Pesquisas em Saúde Reprodutiva de Campinas (CEMICAMP) and the Centro de Antenção Integral à Saúde da Mulher (CAISM). What a pleasure it has been to collaborate with Simony Lira do Nascimento, Suelene Coelho, and Ana Carolina Godoy on the project. I am lucky to be able to consider these people my colleagues and friends. I hope our work together continues into the future.

Tchau, Brasil. Até mais.

*Many thanks to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES), Brazil, for funding the project.

Always a researcher… even in the middle of a lecture

I spent the last two days in Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil, presenting three lectures at the Universidade Federal de Goiás and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Goiás. It was a wonderful and productive trip organized by Profa. Simone Maria T. de Saboia Morais, a UFG and UNICAMP researcher who generously invited me to talk about my sociological research on the placenta with her colleagues and students. They formed a genuinely animated audience. During one of the lectures while I was talking about various cultural perspectives of the placenta, an audience member informed me that there is a joke in some parts of Brazil that might have an impact on the perception of the placenta. As I understand it, if a child is misbehaving they will say it’s because the mother accidentally took the placenta home, instead of the baby, and raised it. It is as if the placenta is the “evil twin,” or merely just a “bad egg.”

I have been living in Brazil for nearly 5 months studying perspectives on the placenta and have yet to hear of this joke. Needless to say I was excited and intrigued by the bit of information and took the opportunity, perhaps as a true ethnographer should, to make a detailed note of the observation… in the middle of my lecture. Everyone laughed and it was a really wonderful moment of sharing knowledge and research.

Thank you for the opportunity, Dr. Simone!

Update: Here is a little news item about my lecture at PUC (in Portuguese).
Isso é uma notícia sobre a palestra no PUC.

Sobre Minhas Pesquisas

(A short description of my research interests in Portuguese)

Como socióloga eu estudo ciência e, especificamente, estudo ciência da placenta. Pode ser surpreendente descobrir que, do ponto de vista da ciência, a placenta tem várias utilidades. É claro que a placenta é estudada extensivamente em biologia reprodutiva, por que é fundamental para a gravidez e pode ser determinante para os resultados da gravidez. Mas também é necessário estudar a placenta a partir do referencial de outros campos além da biologia reprodutiva, porque se trata de um tecido grande, amplamente disponível, muitas vezes considerado “lixo,” e que tem diversas propriedades interessantes. Tem uma grande variedade de aplicações científicas em muitos campos como imunologia, pesquisa do câncer, toxicologia e engenharia de tecidos. Por isso, placentas são regularmente coletadas em hospitais de todo o mundo e utilizadas em experiências científicas. Todas as minhas pesquisas se concentram nas práticas de doação, coleta e utilização da placenta para fins científicos.

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.

Announcement: New Research Project in Brazil

Dr. Anne Croy, Queen’s University, and Dr. Aureo Yamada, University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, recently received funding from the Canada-Brazil Awards: Joint Projects initiative to create a training and exchange program for graduate student researchers to conduct research on pregnancy, maternal health, and fetal health in Canada and Brazil. While many participants in this program will be conducting basic science and clinical studies, as the first sociologist to participate, starting January 2012 I will spend 6 months in Campinas, Brazil conducting a survey of women’s perspectives on donating their placentas for scientific research. Placentas are integral to the conduct of scientific research on pregnancy, yet women’s views on the use of their placenta in research have not been systematically studied. My research will begin to address this gap. Ethical protocols for collecting and using placentas, as well as pregnancy research in general, may be made more responsive, efficient, and appropriate with insights from this research.

Around the world, donation, collection, and consent procedures differ vastly; likewise, experiences and perspectives of women regarding the use of their placenta in scientific research are likely to be highly contextually- and culturally-specific. As such, the program organizers and I plan to develop a comparative component with a complementary survey at Queen’s University.

I talked with Queen’s Journal about my participation in the study, and other components of the program are described, here.

I am looking forward to beginning this research and am excited for the opportunity to live in Brazil! Now to try to learn Portuguese…

New Publication: “Body Worlds’ Plastinates, the Human/Nonhuman Interface, and Feminism”

My article entitled “Body Worlds’ Plastinates, the Human/Nonhuman Interface, and Feminism” was recently published in a special issue on the nonhuman in the journal Feminist Theory, edited Myra J. Hird and Celia Roberts. Body Worlds is an exhibition that displays dissected human bodies that have been preserved by a process called plastination which infuses them with a polymer that purportedly makes them impervious to decay. While the exhibition’s creators claim to display “real human bodies,” because they are made with significant amounts of plastic and other materials, I argue that these exhibits are ambivalently human. But they are also ambivalently nonhuman as they can still engage the spectator in decidedly human, affective encounters. In this way, they signal a grey area in the human/nonhuman duality that underpins much of our economics, politics, and ethics. In this article, I discuss the important implications this has for feminism, which has always grappled with the questions of who should be granted the status of human and what privileges such status should confer.

I thank Dr. Hird and Dr. Roberts for their support in the writing of this article, as well as Dr. Kirsten McAllister and Dr. Zoë Druick, who supervised this research at Simon Fraser University.

I would be very happy to hear any comments readers have regarding this article.


Body Worlds is a hugely popular exhibition that claims to offer a reverential and educational experience of the ‘real human body’ through the display of plastinated dead human bodies. However, because they are posed, staged, and composed of significant nonhuman artifice, plastinates are ambivalently ‘real’ as human bodies, let alone ‘real’ as humans. Plastinates are as much nonhuman as human, and neither category fully accounts for them. In this article, I discuss the consequences of this for feminist theory. Approaches in feminist theory that reify, either implicitly or explicitly, a human/nonhuman binary framework are challenged by plastinates. I show that locating plastinates within either ontological category, though not fully accounting for them, enables feminist critiques of the exhibition; however, these categories also paradoxically permit forms of violence with which feminists are typically concerned. In this way, I argue that plastinates force feminist thought to the very interface of the human/nonhuman divide. When applied to Body Worlds, these concepts at best form a heuristic ontological hinge whose angle is determined by ethical and political commitments, illustrating the ways in which key ontologies should be seen as political strategies more or less amenable to feminist goals, but not more or less true. I argue that what lies at the crux of this hinge, in the case of plastinates, is death, and suggest that Body Worlds demands that the interface of death with life become a key feminist concern.

Upcoming Conference: International Federation of Placenta Associations Annual Conference

I will be attending the International Federation of Placenta Associations annual conference, “Placenta, Predicting Future Health,” held in Geilo, Norway, from September 14th to September 17th. Last year, I attended the IFPA conference in Santiago, Chile, to conduct fieldwork for my study, “Laboratory Lives of Afterbirths: Placentas as Working Objects of Study,” which is a sociological investigation of placenta science. This year, I’ll be presenting the results of my study in both a poster and a plenary talk.

♦ Invited Plenary Talk: “‘It’s this all-singing, all dancing organ’: A Sociologist’s Perspective on how Placenta Scientists see the Placenta, their Science, and Themselves.”

♦ Poster: “A Sociology of Placenta Scientists: Towards Transdisciplinary Collaboration.”

I’m very excited to share my findings with conference delegates, some of whom contributed to my study, as well as to hear about the latest science on the placenta.

Remembering Jack Layton

Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away today. It is a very sad day for Canada, as we have lost not only a tireless politician and staunch activist, but a great man. I can say that Jack Layton, being NDP party leader for my entire voting life, was the key to bringing my interest to politics. He gave me hope that there were different paths for Canada. His book, Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis, exposed me to public intellectualism at a crucial time in my life. His leadership during the most recent Canadian election seemed to single-handedly inspire renewed socially-progressive politics in our country. In all, I know I will miss Jack Layton.

Thank you, Jack Layton.