After Nervous System today, I grabbed some tea from Brody Cafe (fighting a cold) and headed over to Gilman Hall. I took the spiral staircase on the side up to the third floor and walked into one of Dr. Fissell’s offices. She has two; one here in Gilman looking out at the spherical paper lamps and down on the atrium, and one in Welch Library at the Medical School. A professor of the History of the Medicine on both campuses, Dr. Fissell is my mentor for a research project I’m doing for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. I wrote about it in one of my older blogs this summer when I first found out I would be a part of the fellowship and setting off on the project, but I figured I would give a quick update (probably a good thing for myself too) on where I am now, now that my focus has been slightly more refined.
My project looks at Ayurvedic medicine in light of British colonialism in India (mostly in the late 18th and 19th century). While a lot of current literature exists on the ways in which this traditional form of Indian medicine was largely influenced and often replaced with the Western medicine of England, my research focuses on the ways in which traditional methods of treatment, healing, and preventative regimens actually fared during this time when they collided with a substantially different (but also particularly similar) medical system.
If that sounds broad, that’s because it is. And I was terrified that I would have no way to tackle a project so complex and naively ambitious. I mean I can’t, of course, but working with Dr. Fissell since summer has helped me refine my focus into some component of that question that is a lot more manageable to work with. Since the summer, I’ve been reading a book called Colonizing the Body by David Arnold as a foundational text that outlines the narrative of British-Indian medical exchange. Over the semester, I’ve worked my way through the book and used it to find primary sources that I could look into. I got more sources to look into as well from a professor at UPenn who works with Dr. Fissell who’s been tremendously helpful in my project so far.
This upcoming semester, Dr. Fissell and I are going to do an Independent Study course. Basically, we’ll pick a book to read every two weeks from the working bibliography I’ve been putting together. It will help me get background on my project, sure, but I think the main benefit is that it will teach me how to read the right way. How to consume book after book and take the right notes so that you don’t have to read it again. I’d say I’m a pretty slow-and-steady reader, so this is definitely a skill I want to pick up by the end of the year.
Later today, we had a meeting for the fellowship in the Glass Pavillion. They serve dinner, so, like, I had to go. I took a generous serving of mac and cheese and sat down for the meeting. Today, some current seniors presented overviews of their projects that they’re wrapping up and looking forward to presenting next semester. They ended each presentation with advice. And while at first I couldn’t help but tune that part out with this sort of smugness that I had a million years till I would be in that position, it sort of hit me during my last bite of macaroni that I had two and a half, actually.
But with that came excitement, and this nerdy sort of giddiness. I seriously can’t wait to make my project more concrete, travel, and actually contribute something back to a real field. I’m looking forward to letting it become a big part of my time here at Hopkins, and something I can take with me when I’m done. Here’s the last paragraph of my proposal I wrote last year when I applied:
This project is a personal journey for me, not only because of how important both Western and Ayurvedic medicines have been to my life growing up, but also because of how I envision integrating them into my profession looking forward. I plan on becoming a physician: the epitome of Western medicine. And while I will prescribe as many allopathic drugs as I deem necessary, I will also understand firsthand that the medicine I prescribe will be pitted against deeply-held traditional beliefs in not only the South Asian culture, but in a majority of belief systems around the world. My medicine cabinet has always been a thing of fascination to me: an artifact of centuries of divergence and convergence and integration and separation of medical approaches that ultimately came together to form the route of medical treatment that has carried me to where and who I am today. And while it may be a slightly improvised route, pulling from and gluing together mismatched components from different medical approaches, it is one that has and still continues to iterate itself in every cultural household and community around the world embedded in multiple medical cultures. To study the de facto relationship between Western orthodox and ethnically traditional medicine is to have a vastly more pragmatic understanding of the ways in which the therapeutics I deliver will actually be received, in hopes of creating a more seamless and enduring physician-patient relationship. It will engender an ability to think critically and realistically in order to reach optimal solutions with my patients, understanding that while my empirically-grounded medicine may make perfect sense to me, there are far more social and cultural variables that go into household medicine that I very much need to. I want to shed light on this untold narrative.