“Reoxygenating” Research

By Laura G. Goetz

In a world in which politicians and media outlets are spreading “alternative facts,” detached objectivity may be an elusive and undesirable basis for a scientific gold standard. Context matters, both for the questions we ask and the answers we obtain. Separating science from society is no longer an option, because knowledge loses its power if people do not care about it. In Meeting the Universe Halfway, STS scholar Karen Barad asserts, “Matter(ing) is a dynamic articulation/configuration of the world.” Mattering requires explaining the world in a way that can move within the world. Scientific researchers need to think about the questions that matter and how to disseminate their results beyond the confines of academic journals and indices. Against calls for greater isolation, science should generate evidence-based knowledge that can travel more widely.

I began thinking about science that can travel while studying risk factors for iron-deficiency anemia in the adult women of a Qom indigenous community in Namqom, Formosa, Argentina. My original goal was collecting data about diet composition, reproductive history, and hemoglobin levels, stripping them of context, and using them to contribute to a universal understanding of biology. When I removed the data from their place of origin and considered them in the context of the biomedical literature on anemia, the findings were clear: diet impacts risk, but reproductive history does not. Yet, despite contributing to the understanding of a public health problem, those findings felt insufficient. While portraying “truth,” they did not convey the only truth. My findings were trimmed of their roots in Namqom and, for that reason, could not be transplanted successfully. These numbers represented detached scientific questions, not what mattered to the community members. Taking a diagnosis of anemia—unable to adequately move oxygen around one body—metaphorically offers a conceptual framework for considering these apparent insufficiencies in how scientific research is done at large.

The only way to reoxygenate public discourse about truth and information is to create research that can travel.

Detached objectivity comes at the cost of human experience. Integrating scientific and sociocultural methodologies is one way of treating “anemic science” to provide a richer understanding of what research results mean in their situated context. When I considered ethnographic interviews with community members, I gained a much better understanding of not only what factors influenced health in Namqom, but also why those factors matter to lived experiences. More so, my research findings better reflected the most salient concerns in participants’ lives, and consequently became more consequential. Considering both an anemia of blood and an “anemia” of resources in the community enabled my findings to circulate and have more meaning to both scientists and civilians.

While this proposed methodological intervention remains unusual in the field of biochemistry and biophysics, so is our current historic moment. To protect our work in a post-truth world, research scientists must break with the status quo in order to share information and why people should care about it more effectively. In the words of anthropologist Ruth Behar, we must “speak in a way that matters, in a way that will drive a wedge into the thick mud of business as usual.” She importantly does not call for leaving the dirt, but instead creating change by interacting with it.

In reply to Behar, I posit, what would change if scientists spoke in a way that matters and who would be doing that speaking? There are many ways of circulating information, and while some start with researchers, ideally power over knowledge can propagate as research results are shared person to person as well. While in Namqom, I worked with local women to figure out how to answer participants’ questions about la anemia and other common health disorders in a way that made sense to them, and used that lexicon to create posters for community buildings to continue sharing that information after I left. I also wrote two reports for the community about my research results—one in medical Spanish and one in more common terminology—so the knowledge generated in the study could travel back to the people who made it possible. Considering questions that mattered in context and presenting results in accessible formats allowed women in Namqom to regain power over the scientific findings by understanding and sharing them.

Rejecting the notion of a neutral gaze, feminist scholar Donna Haraway has asked, “With whose blood were my eyes crafted?” To continue contributing to public knowledge in this changing political milieu, I propose scientists ask as well, with whose blood is my research crafted? Recognizing our biases alone is not good enough. The only way to reoxygenate public discourse about truth and information is to create research that can travel. When we make decisions about what to ask and how to circulate the results outside of scientific communities, that is one way of mattering.

Laura G. Goetz is a senior BS/MS candidate in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry at Yale College, where she is also pursuing a double-major in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.