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Review: Medicine | Race | Democracy Lab

A review of Medicine | Race | Democracy Lab, a digital humanities project exploring access and care beyond hospital systems, led by Lan Li, Ricardo Nuila, Fady Joudah, Pierce Salguero, and their team

Published onOct 31, 2022
Review: Medicine | Race | Democracy Lab

Medicine | Race | Democracy Lab

Project Directors
Lan Li, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Ricardo Nuila, Baylor College of Medicine
Fady Joudah, Physician and Poet
Pierce Salguero, Penn State Abington

Faculty Advisors
Melissa Bailar, Rice University
Richard Mizelle, University of Houston

Expert Advisors
Sam Lê, Medicine, Race, Democracy Lab
Liyen Chong, Artist
Laura Napier, Artist
Eana Meng, Harvard University
John Paul Liang, American College of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine

(Please visit the website for a full list of team members)

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Amelia Gibson, University of Maryland at College Park

Project Overview

Lan Li

The Medicine | Race | Democracy (MRD) Lab is an interdisciplinary digital humanities project investigating issues related to access and care beyond hospital systems. We de-center the hospital as a site of medical care by engaging with grassroots public health movements such as community centers, community clinics, and non-biomedical services. Our research includes an exploration of temples, churches, and health centers that provide translation services, support groups, addiction and recovery activities, adult primary care, comprehensive HIV/AIDS care, COVID-19 testing and treatment, and more. Individual sites serve as a microcosmic lens into the political, economic, and practical dimensions of health care. From acupuncture needles to threadbare amulets, temples and community clinics occupy spaces between medicine and religion, experience and ritual, service and activism. By examining the social impact of these sites, we aim to create an alternative view of public health demographics in Houston and beyond. 

The MRD Lab is composed of eight research clusters that center on specific questions and methods that inform the lab as a whole, from reviewing keywords complicating literature in "social determinants of health" to personal reflections on medicine, memory, immigration, and war. Each cluster is advised by either a faculty with expertise in the topic at hand or a partnership between faculty that specializes in content and/or form. Among the principal investigators and faculty advisors, we have expertise in history, film, fiction writing, non-fiction writing, poetry, and ethnography to apply to Houston's broad range of Latin American, Asian American, Middle Eastern, and African American communities. Our expert advisors include a talented team of digital artists, designers, poets, and story editors. Students on our team include majors in the sciences and humanities with interest in art, aesthetics, and activism.  

We relied on over a dozen platforms for collaboration, data organization, data analysis, and visualization. Specifically, team members communicated via Groupme and Slack; met via Zoom and Google Meet; collaboratively edited documents using, Google Docs, and miro; conducted data analysis using and Zotero; and designed the final visualizations using Adobe Premiere, Descript, and WIX. These tools have allowed us to create a digital library of interviews with patient activists and scholar-physicians. These interviews are associated with an original map of community centers around Houston, a collection of podcast episodes and edited interviews, and articles focusing on the history of community health care through the use of non-biomedical practices in public health movements.

To this end, different lab outputs are meant for different kinds of audiences. For instance, “The Clinic Locator” was created in collaboration with Houston’s American College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as a way to offer a comprehensive representation of board-certified acupuncturists and their registered locations. These sites were juxtaposed alongside mortality, income, and COVID vaccination data. This representation offers a basic foundation for physicians to speculate on possibilities for expanding access or developing a hypothesis of causes that inhibited access. As a pedagogical research lab, our essays are meant to be iterative as the project develops new cohorts of researchers as a digital project. For instance, review essays are meant to be further peer-reviewed and edited for clarity.

One of the principal investigators’ research funds initially funded this project to create a small research team composed of students who had lost internship opportunities due to COVID-19 in 2020. The project was further funded by a seed grant from the Chao Center for Asian Studies, which allowed the team to pilot a series of essays on Buddhist medicine. It was then able to expand these methods of examining issues related to medicine, race, and religion with the aid of the BRIDGE (Building Research on Inequality and Diversity to Grow Equity) Grant and the Provost’s TMC Collaborator Fund from Rice University. The MRD Lab will further serve as the primary model for digital humanities research at the Center for Black Brown and Queer Studies.

Project Review

Amelia Gibson

Medical research is not often focused on social and political structures, community, and interpersonal dynamics. As a result, the sometimes-messy personal motivations and introspections contained within these larger contexts are set aside in favor of more easily (and cheaply) counted, reproducible, and manipulable forms of data. The Medicine | Race | Democracy (MRD) Lab offers, instead, a diverse portfolio of multimedia projects that embody deeply relevant discussions about race, power, and the boundaries between science, medicine, religion, culture, and art. The lab’s projects take a humanistic approach to exploring medical education and politics and the health and wellness of people in the community surrounding the Texas Medical Center in Houston, Texas.

The four MRD Lab podcasts — the MRD Speaker Series, Metastasis, Point Break, and Bermac Sessions — present rich, grounded considerations of the racial and social politics of medicine, from acupuncturist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, to dybbuk (the “disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person”) and the gendered politics of medical training, to racial cosmetic surgery. Episode 1 of the Bermac Sessions podcast, for example, featured hosts Lan Li and Tani Barlow engaging medical anthropologist Victoria M. Massie and visual artist John Sparagana in a conversation about race and representation. Cleanly produced and warm, the episode illustrates the style and range of many of the MRD Lab’s podcasts and highlights the permeability of boundaries between art and science. Massie draws a comparison between her own research on genetic (minutely scaled) “truths” as related to racial identity and Sparagana’s artistic illusions and plays on visual perception at various scales. Asking, “How do we know what we know?” Massie pushes us to consider the rhetorical and social implications of genetically-based racial “truth.” MRD Lab’s critical cartographies, such as “The Clinic Locator,” “The Buddha’s Doctor,” and “The People’s Doctor” projects, contextualize current and historical connections between places, people, social movements (such as the Black Panther Party) and community access to acupuncture and Buddhist medicine.  

The Pulses exhibit, comprising three outdoor “rooms” on the Rice University campus, engages visitors through visual, auditory, and tactile explorations of the human pulse within Chinese and Western medical practices. The rooms focus separately on basic understanding of pulses, primary source material on pulses from Chinese and Western cultures (including literature, poetry, interactive digital projects, and health literacy), and digital assessment of pulse taken by an Arduino device that matches the participants’ meridians with relevant music. Worksheets instruct participants on how to take their own pulse and participants can read descriptions of different types of pulses along the walls. Here again, we are asked to trade a one-dimensional, utilitarian quantification of health — beats per minute — for a more holistic reflection on the pulse as “a temporal and a textured sensation” that offers a nuanced sense of the body.

The MRD Lab’s portfolio of projects impress and reimpress upon the reader/viewer/listener/participant the intimate, visceral, and complex nature of wellness, highlighting the discordance of current healthcare research with the experiences and ways of being embodied by so many Black, Brown, queer, and disabled people. 

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