UC Santa Cruz receives Mellon Foundation humanities grant to investigate race, biomedicine

Portrait of Jennifer Derr
Associate Professor of History Jennifer Derr’s scholarship explores the intersections among science, medicine, and the environment.

Over the next two years, thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, faculty and students at UC Santa Cruz will have a chance to critically investigate the relationships among medicine, race, and the environment both in the United States and in other regions of the globe shaped by the influence of American medicine. 

The $225,000 award will support “Race, Empire, and the Environments of Biomedicine,” a Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Culture, that, starting in Fall 2022, will bring scientists, physicians, and scholars of the humanities and social sciences together with students and members of the UC Santa Cruz community for a series of public lectures, reading groups, and research fellowships at the graduate and postdoctoral levels. 

“We wanted to create a larger conversation about how assumptions about race and the environment are built into the knowledge and practice of American medicine," said Jennifer Derr, associate professor of history, the founding director of the Center for the Middle East and North Africa at UC Santa Cruz, and the seminar’s primary Principal Investigator. “We think that it’s important to understand the history and the practice of these relationships to advocate for a more equitable practice of medicine and one that is prepared to address the threats of climate change.” 

"This is an extraordinary example of the genuinely interdisciplinary, yet deeply grounded work that makes UC Santa Cruz such an innovative and intellectually exciting place,” said Nathaniel Deutsch, faculty director for The Humanities Institute. 

Derr is joined by Jenny Reardon, professor of sociology, the founding director of the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz, and the project’s other Principal Investigator. Maya Peterson, an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, who died in childbirth in June 2021 was also a Principal Investigator. Peterson was the author of Pipe Dreams: Water and Empire in Central Asia (Cambridge, 2019). 

The scope of this upcoming project is appropriately wide, encompassing, among other subjects, the effects of structural racism on the practice of biomedicine, how communities of color adapt and cope during times of environmental crisis, how climate change may impact the practice of biomedicine, and how capitalism in America – and in the geographies of its empire – influences global public health. 

“We’re trying to create a new kind of intellectual space that will help cultivate an intellectual community and a community of young scholars,” said Reardon. “It’s a real opportunity for us to turn Santa Cruz into a hub for national and international discussion on these topics.” 

The issues being raised dovetail with the research that both Reardon and Derr have undertaken in recent months, making them ideal leads for this project. Derr’s scholarship explores the intersections among science, medicine, and the environment. She is currently researching a book project concerning the history of liver disease in Egypt and how its treatment has been linked to formations of American biomedical empire. Reardon is known for her research on the ethics and inequalities of modern genome research. Over the last couple of years, she has begun a project entitled Caring for Prairie that is exploring questions at the intersection of race, environment and health on the grasslands of the Central plains of the U.S.   

Currently, the team behind this project are making final decisions about which outside scholars they will be inviting to UC Santa Cruz for public lectures and collaboration, as well as preparing to issue a call to recruit two UCSC graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow from outside the campus community. 

“The point here is to think together about the connections among race, environment, medicine, and empire,” Derr said. As Reardon notes “This is an exciting opportunity for young scholars to work in this area and to have a very supportive intellectual community around them.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant will be administered by The Humanities Institute (THI) at UC Santa Cruz.