GSWS 210 Gender Today: Contemporary Reproductive Politics from ‘Womb to Tomb’ at SFU

I am excited to teach another course in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University: GSWS 210: Gender Today: Contemporary Reproductive Politics from “Womb to Tomb.” Here is the course description:

Reproductive politics refers ongoing struggles to define, constrain, medicalize, technologize, spur, and/or prevent reproduction. This is an introductory course that builds interdisciplinary and feminist tools to analyze narratives, issues, practices, and arguments regarding reproductive politics as they manifest through out the lifecourse, from preconception to end of life. Topics include reproductive choices, fertility, non-normative kinship, childbirth, child rearing, menopause and andropause, and the developmental origins of health and disease. Recognizing the topical and controversial nature of reproductive politics as well as the role of GSWS in transforming students into critical advocates for social change, assignments encourage students to engage in public dialogues on reproduction.

This second year course, suitable for students who are both new to or familiar with feminism and reproductive politics, includes interesting assignments that encourage engagement beyond the university.

If you have any questions about this course, please do not hesitate to contact me!

GSWS 320: A Womb of One’s Own?: Feminisms Engaging with Reproduction (SFU Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies course)

I am very excited to be given the opportunity to teach a course at SFU in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department this summer. The course, GSWS 320, is a special topic building on my research on reproduction and reproductive politics. It is entitled A Womb of One’s Own?: Feminisms Engaging with Reproduction. Here is the course statement:

In this course, we develop tools to analyze narratives, issues, practices, and arguments regarding reproduction. We define reproduction not simply as a biological fact of life, but a ‘naturalcultural’ phenomenon where biology and culture collide in the continuance and dynamism of humans through generations. Students learn how to think critically about a wide range of issues in reproduction using tools provided by feminist theorists and researchers. Recognizing the topical and controversial nature of debates on reproduction as well as the role of GSWS in transforming students into critical advocates for social change, assignments encourage students to engage in public dialogues on reproduction. Topics include biomedicine, reproductive politics, reproductive technologies, and gendered, racialized, and sexed roles.

Assignments include an opinion editorial, film review, and collaborative multimedia project. The prerequisite is 15 credits.

Here is the syllabus. If you are a prospective student and have any questions, please email me at rebecca_yoshizawa@sfu.ca.

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.

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…

Coffee Shop as a Microcosm for Public Understandings of Science

Today at a coffee shop I spied a bit on the greeting and conversation of two men who appeared to be close friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. As one of them went up to get his coffee, he asked the other if he would like one. The man said yes – even though he had already had a lot today. It wasn’t a problem, he said, as he had just heard of a new study which found that men who drink a lot of coffee have lower rates of prostate cancer.

The study he is referring to was recently widely reported in media (CBC, Science Daily, MSNBC, CBS News, etc.). It purports that men who drink 6 or more cups of coffee a day are less likely to get an aggressive form of prostate cancer (original research here).

The men had a little chuckle (and a little more coffee) and went about their reunion, while I started thinking about the encounter as reflective of the relationships between science and publics. In the CBC news article, one of the researchers is quoted:

It is premature to recommend that men increase coffee intake to reduce advanced prostate cancer risk based on this single study. In addition, the effects of coffee consumption on other aspects of health must be considered in making consumption recommendations.

So, as readers we can’t take away much more from the study than “that’s interesting. They should keep working on that.” As a supporter of and advocate for science, this notion resonates with me. But I wonder if that is enough for others.

While cautious statements like these mean much in the context of science which places so much emphasis on qualification and admitting limitations, they provide very little guidance on how publics should act on the knowledge produced. I can’t know whether the study actually informed the decision-making of the man at the coffee shop; however, I think the conversation illustrates a typical disjoint in the translation of the ‘official recommendation’ that comes from science to the everyday lives of people who are plunking along making decisions towards their short and long term health, happiness, and satisfaction. They make these decisions in a context where there is too little known and where too much of what is known is contradictory. And they make these decisions using knowledge that comes from diverse realms of life – not just science.

Since the study cannot offer any actionable advice, how are publics to “digest” the knowledge shared? Certainly if it is the case that the man decided to drink more coffee because of the study, this means that the disclaimer provided by the researchers may not be what “sticks” in the minds of readers about the research. The coffee shop encounter, then, raises ethical questions for researchers who are sharing their work. What if it is later found that the harms of drinking coffee outweigh the benefits? Or that there is some other explanation for the results of the study that are unrelated to compounds in coffee? I could go on – but the point is that uncertainty colours the knowledge produced by this study in many different ways. If it is the case that the man drank more coffee because of the study, their disclaimer does not absolve them of facing the ethical challenge posed by uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Still, if only “absolutely certain” results were shared with the public, well, we’d never hear from science again.

So my questions are: At what point in the production of scientific knowledge is it most advantageous to inform publics of what scientists are doing and finding? How should the knowledge be presented?

Medical Clowns and IVF: A Dialogue with Danielle Deveau

Photo from Pawns (flickr) Creative Commons Licence

A story is making the rounds in various news sources that researchers in Israel have shown that women who were visited by a “medical clown” after receiving in vitro fertilization treatment had a 16% higher rate of pregnancy than women who did not receive this followup visit.

I study science and reproduction; my colleague Danielle Deveau studies humour. Here, we have a dialogue about the story.

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