Assistant Professor of Anthropology
By the time Sherine Hamdy started her undergraduate career at Stanford, she had already lived in New York, Haiti, Mali, and Mexico, so studying anthropology might have seemed like a suitable choice. But she was interested in medicine, so she completed her pre-medical requirements and received her B.A. in human biology. Along the way, she became interested in health and healing from a cross-cultural perspective, and added a simultaneous M.A. in anthropology, also at Stanford. “Now,” she says, “I study doctors — they are my informants.”
It was her undergraduate thesis research on infertility in Egyptian women that led her to focus on the larger role of illness in society rather than just on its pathology. Hamdy points out that it is very socially stigmatizing for a woman to be incapable of bearing children in Egypt. “It’s a good example of a condition that is not only medical but has so many larger social and even political ramifications,” she says, “and I was fascinated by it.”
Hamdy went on to earn her Ph.D. in anthropology at New York University. For her dissertation she returned to Egypt, where she studied the bioethics of organ transplantation, which is the subject of a protracted national debate. While media in the United States is more likely to characterize organ transplantation as a miraculous “gift of life,” Egyptians, by and large, have had a rather different experience. Hamdy says that in Egypt organs are sold to wealthy buyers, and even stolen from patients, sparking heated moral and religious opposition to the practice. There is currently insufficient agreement on the issue to warrant a national organ transplantation program. Her research is the subject of a book in progress, titled Our Bodies Belong to God: Islam and Bioethics in Egypt.
For the last two years Hamdy has been a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at Brown, where she has enjoyed teaching courses in science and society, bioethics and culture. “I find Brown students to be intellectually courageous,” she says, “and it’s important to me that they are not afraid to cross disciplines.” This fall, she joins the Department of Anthropology as an assistant professor and was named the Stanley J. Bernstein Assistant Professor of the Social Sciences and International Affairs.
Hamdy says her goal is to get her students to understand the social ramifications of science, which she calls the most powerful ideology of our society. “It influences everything that we do. Science is inextricably linked with social and political interests,” she says, “and just to be responsible citizens and good intellects, we have to be able to analyze those connections.”