New Publication: Book Review of Rom Harré’s “Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory”

I wrote a book review for the journal Public Understanding of Science of Rom Harré’s Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory (Oxford University Press, 2009). Here is a short excerpt:

Harré spends considerable time describing the use of plants in experiments, phenomena that demand more scholarly and public attention. He paints a picture of science teeming with diverse vital matter: animals, plants, bacteria, lichen, humans, and even “imaginary beings.” The implied thesis emphasizes research with life rather than on life.

I think the book would work well as reading material for introductory courses in science studies or animal studies.

Public Perspectives on the Utilization of Human Placentas in Scientific Research and Medicine: New Publication

I have a new publication appearing in the journal Placenta entitled “Public perspectives on the utilization of human placentas in scientific research and medicine.” Here is the abstract:

Placental tissues are frequently utilized by scientists studying pregnancy and reproduction and in diverse fields including immunology, stem cell research, genetics, cancer research, and tissue engineering, as well as by clinicians in many therapies. Though the utilization of the human placenta in science and medicine has benefitted many people, little is known about public perspectives of this phenomenon. This review addresses placental donation, collection, and utilization in science and medicine, focusing on public perspectives. Cultural values and traditions, ethical paradigms and concerns, public understandings of science and medicine, and political considerations may impact perceptions of the utilization of the placenta in science and medicine, but systematic study is lacking. It is argued that knowledge of public views gained from empirical investigation may underpin the development of collection protocols and research projects that are more responsive to public will, spur more extensive utilization in science and medicine of this unique organ, and/or aid in the realization of the mobilization of knowledge about the placenta for clinical and educational ends. New avenues for research on public perspectives of the placenta are proposed.

Keywords: Placenta donation, Public understandings of science, Ethics, Donor perceptions

I wrote this article to point to the lack of research on public perspectives of the placenta, address the implications of this gap, and call for more research attention. The article serves as a backdrop for one of my current collaborative studies, which assesses women’s perspectives of donating the placenta to science and medicine in Campinas, Brazil.

I would like to thank the editors of Placenta and their anonymous reviewers. I was impressed by the process, feedback, and their willingness to consider publishing the work of a social scientist in a scientific journal.

I am very interested to hear comments and in particular would like to know of the perspectives of women who have given birth, women who have donated their placentas or been asked to donate, and scientists who study the organ. What is the meaning of the placenta for you? What do you think about the use of placentas in scientific research and medicine?

Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed in news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

New Publication: The Barker Hypothesis, Obesity, and Transdisciplinarity

I have an article appearing in the most recent issue of the journal Social Theory and Health entitled “The Barker hypothesis and obesity: Connections for transdisciplinarity and social justice.” It is the culmination of work on the Barker hypothesis and obesity first set in motion by a visit to Queen’s University in March 2010 of epidemiologist David Barker and an invitation to present to him a 5 minute talk regarding sociological perspectives on his work. Here is the abstract:

Obesity is the object of incredible amounts of resources and attention purportedly aimed at reducing corpulence and increasing health. Despite this, consensus with respect to the definition, causes or solutions is lacking, making obesity a prominent knowledge controversy. In this article, I argue that the Barker hypothesis, a theory of foetal development, can support the redistribution of expertise necessary to address this knowledge controversy. A vast scientific literature confirms its argument that many diseases can be traced to the conditions for development in utero determined by the commingling of temporally and spatially complex processes. The Barker hypothesis does not support solely reductionist, biophysiological paradigms of health and disease, but rather evinces complex understandings that span biology, social positionality, place and generation. I argue that this makes the hypothesis significant for transdisciplinary studies of health and disease, and prompts consideration beyond the conventional bounds of epidemiology to new sites of understanding and action that may support movements concerned with body politics and justice for fat people. I point to literature on the potential for injustice engendered by the Barker hypothesis, and suggest that these critiques reveal the very necessity for transdisciplinary collaboration on obesity in the first place.

Alongside Dr. Barker’s visit, I found critical inspiration and challenges for ideas in this article in what is sometimes called “the fatosphere,” a nebulous collection of blogs and bloggers who write about fat. For example, I highly recommend Australian blogger Definatalie (Natalie Perkins) for her critical and candid writing style and her powerful artwork regarding fat.

The arguments I present in the article are tendentious and represent my attempt to contribute to the already-tendentious terrain of obesity. I welcome any feedback on the article.

Curiosity Between, Beyond, Across, Outside

Using the phrase “between, beyond, and across disciplines” is a common and quick way of describing the imperative of the transdisciplinarian in the literature on transdisciplinarity. “Outside” is also sometimes added and rightly so, as lines that demarcate matters of disciplinary concern must also inquired upon.

As revolutionary as they might sound, these terms position transdisciplinarity in relation to disciplines assumed stable. They can construct a tautology in the very same disciplinary boundaries the transdisciplinarian is challenging. Asking how we can not only destabilize disciplines, but how they have come to be seen as stable in the first place, is therefore a critical question.

That means trying to be a transdisciplinarian is ultimately iterative and frustrating. Transdisciplinarity is a moving target, and the measure of successful hits is murky. I will admit that sometimes I even wonder exactly what I mean when I say “transdiscipline.” Ultimately, transdisciplinarity seems to me to mark a spirit of inquiry, rather than a set of practices that can be prefigured, described, or taught.

It is for this reason that the tagline to this site begins with “curiosity.” The move toward transdisciplinarity will always include this because, I think, curiosity is the desire for experience beyond the experienced, and that includes wondering what experience itself is.

I hestitate to say that curiosity is, according to a more common understanding, the desire to know beyond the known, because knowledge is only one kind of experience. More expansive a concept, experience encompasses all kinds of relations in place and time that may lie between, beyond, across, and outside matters of disciplinary concern.

Curiosity about curiosity may be the most important talent at the disposal of the transdisciplinarian. If that recursion doesn’t frustrate you, maybe you’d make a good transdisciplinarian.

New Funding for Brazil Project

I am very pleased to announce that our project in Brazil, “Survey of Women’s Perspectives on Placental Donation in Campinas, Brazil / Opinião de mulheres a respeito da doação de placenta para pesquisa em Campinas-SP, Brasil,” is now being funded by the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in addition to the fellowship support I received from DFAIT and CAPES. This new grant greatly enhances our ability to collect data and to publish the results in a timely manner. I believe this new grant supports the claim that Brazil is increasingly supporting research and has funds available. I hope I have the privilege of doing more research in Brazil in the future!

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.