Pathways for Exploring Race in the Health Sciences

Humanities scholars at Wheaton College in Massachusetts will develop 10 exportable curricular modules on such topics as genetics and race.

March 16, 2023
A small globe with showing North and South America is encircled by a stethoscope.
Humanists at Wheaton College in Massachusetts are developing curricular modules on genetics and race, race in medical communication, global narrative health and more, to be used across courses and fields.
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As part of a new $560,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, humanities scholars at Wheaton College in Massachusetts are developing 10 curricular modules on the role of race, cultural backgrounds and global perspectives in health and medicine—and professors beyond Wheaton will be able to incorporate them into existing courses.

Ready-to-use format: The modules will help professors across fields better understand inequities in health and medicine and facilitate class discussions about them. Crucially, the modules will include lesson plans, assignments and interactive experiences to use with students.

Module topics include genetics and race, race in medical communication, and global narrative health.

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Lead investigator M. Gabriela Torres, associate provost for academic administration and faculty affairs and William Isaac Cole Chair in Anthropology at Wheaton, says, “We’re really trying to create adaptable, student-centered teaching modules that could be used in the humanities or the natural sciences, or even the social sciences.”

The modules are expected to launch within two years.

Role of student input: Noting that the project was inspired by students making connections between their courses and professors in different programs, Torres adds that race is too often treated as a mere “variable” in the natural sciences. This, she says, “is where the humanities really has an ability to lead the discussion.”

Individual scholars will write the modules, but they’ll be based on feedback from interdisciplinary study groups.

How the modules will be used: Jennifer Lanni, associate professor of biology and biochemistry at Wheaton, say she’s looking forward to integrating forthcoming modules on global narrative medicine and digital health humanities into her courses. Many of Lanni’s students intend to pursue careers in health care and biomedical research, fields that are “permeated by issues of racialization and racial equity,” she says. Yet the “critical topic of race is notably absent from most undergraduate science curricula.”

Lanni attributes this curricular gap in part to her and her colleagues’ own scientific training, which she says doesn’t “equip us to facilitate discussion on race and health inequities.”

The student success link: Lanni says there’s a “large and problematic gap” between public discussions about race and the scientific understanding of race.

In a genetics class, for example, the professor can demonstrate why race can’t be biologically defined, “but this finding contradicts the clear health inequities experienced on the basis of race,” she says. In this light, Wheaton’s modules will help students “better understand the paradoxical role of race in biology and medicine.”

Moreover, Lanni says, by connecting class content to “their immediate world, students will appreciate the direct relevance of their work” and be motivated to engage on a deeper level.

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Torres agrees, saying that the modules might help “give context to students who are enrolled in science courses, by making this about the now, rather than about knowledge that isn’t grounded in applied reality—which I think students are always looking for.”

Professors and academic affairs professionals are invited to contribute an academic success tip describing a way of teaching, structuring a course or other action that’s promoting student success.

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