As an ethnographer deeply committed to scholarship that broadens our understanding of the contemporary world, by engaging with technologies that reconfigure aspects of it, I work on the social production of scientific and medical knowledge. I am also concerned with how cultural practices in the life sciences draw from—and also delimit—various aspects of bodily experience and biological change.

I have mostly worked in major cities in France, Senegal, and the United States. Around the globe human concepts of self, group, and other inflect the biological questions we pose for ourselves as proposals for the life sciences.

My first book, The Enculturated Gene, explores how sickle cell anemia in Senegalese people, as a ‘population,’ became classed by Western geneticists as ‘mild’ when compared to groups within Africa and among its diaspora. During my fieldwork I delved into various field sites where the discourse of mild Senegalese sickle cell circulated. These ranged from specialized clinics to research labs, from ‘traditional’ healing clinics to market places, from people's homes to patient advocacy groups, from health ministries to historical archives.

In the end, I found that histories of race and ideas of human difference within former French West Africa mapped onto contemporary care regimes—or rather voids of care—where resources for this disease paled in the face of other public health ‘priorities’ for Africa. In the context of scant funding for sickle cell in Dakar, humans (modern and traditional healers) and the environment have rushed into the breach to provide phyto-therapeutic agents that reportedly stave off the most serious effects of red blood cell sickling. One of my interests is how the principal plant used by patients in Dakar may inspire biological changes that geneticists have long attributed to a series of single nucleotide polymorphisms around the sickle cell gene, called the ‘Senegalese haplotype.’ At its most general level The Enculturated Gene explores how economic scarcity in this part of West Africa results in a scientific and cultural framing of fitness and health for Senegalese sicklers.  I document how patients’ self-care, safety nets, and kinship networks allow them a mysterious quality of life that has historically been pegged to signature patterns in the DNA in and around their sickle cell genes.

The Enculturated Gene: Sickle Cell Health Politics and Biological Difference in West Africa.
Princeton University Press, 2011

My second book project is an ethnographic study with scientific practitioners who hope to characterize human genetic variation in a meaningful way for human health.  Many of the scientists in question give special attention to social markers of representation (i.e. U.S. racial/ethnic categories) in their genetic research. As such, they design their protocols to address both political inclusion and empirical biosocial issues simultaneously.  I am interested in how scientific professionals make sense of racial and ethnic identity for molecular genetic studies and how the use of these identifiers also contributes to the concepts ofgenetic, social, and scientific risk. In several labs studied to date, practitioners hope that by working from social descriptors of culturally understood phenotypic traits that they will be able to capture shared biological, societal and environmental risks that aggregate to make some groups sicker than others.  Scientists at multiple sites believe that the biogenetic component of race is not a ‘fiction,’ or social construct, and they are determined to localize its role in complex disease and pharmacological susceptibility. At still other sites, individual genomic variation and rare traits take precedence as points of departure. On a broader register I am also interested in the current cultural configuration of this new genetics of difference (both group and individual) as it intersects with civic ideas of scientific citizenship, participant involvement in personal genomics, and historical reckoning, especially when individuals reconstruct origin stories through sets of markers discovered in basic genome research.

 'Asking questions at the bench.' Professor Fullwiley in the field at a University of Chicago lab where researchers are attempting to discern social and genetic components that yield higher rates of aggressive prostate cancer in African-American men. 2007.