May 15, 2020
Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist is an assistant professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is an affiliate of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and is the co-host of the podcast Anthrolactology. In this episode, Dr. Palmquist describes her winding and worthwhile path to science. She stands in her goals of decolonizing and achieving justice within science, and uses them to motivate her work every day.
Dr. Kate Clancy (Intro): Hello and welcome to the Courageous Scientist Podcast. This is Kate Clancy, anthropology professor and aspiring courageous scientist. This podcast is a single season sanity project that arose from the global COVID-19 pandemic. I am releasing short interviews with inspiring scientists every week for the next few months. I want us to remember that we are connected and that we are all capable of doing good. I want us to notice that there is good work being done right now and many of us unable to do our work who will pick it back up again soon.
I ask each guest three questions: What brought you to science? How do you show courage in science? What do you want others to know about being a courageous scientist?
My guests have shown me what it means to have clear values, to stand in them even when scared, and how to approach obstacles. That doesn’t mean all courageous scientists overcome all obstacles. It means that we know how to come out of the other side is not an indicator of our worth.
Today, I am bringing you an interview with Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist. An assistant professor of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Dr. Palmquist is an anthropologist and co-host with Dr. E A Quinn of the podcast Anthrolactology.
Dr. Kate Clancy: So Dr. Palmquist thank you so much for joining me tonight.
Dr. Aunchalee Palmquist: Thanks for having me.
Clancy: So as you know, I have just three questions that I would like to ask you about the kind of courage that you’ve shown as a scientist or what it means to be a courageous scientist. So I’ll start with the first one: what brought you to science?
Palmquist: What brought me to science…anthropology actually brought me to science. I took an anthropology class as an undergraduate and…. really not knowing much about the discipline and being completely inspired and drawn into this particular discipline that allowed me to understand human biology… human biology as a process in conversation with both natural and social environments. To understand, sort of, ecological perspectives of how different kinds of natural environments shaped the expression of human biology in different places and then also to unite that with more sociocultural understandings about how people interpret what’s going on in the body and different strategies to understand, make sense of and address different kinds of… different states of being, most particularly different states of illness and disease. And so I was really drawn to medical anthropology as a biocultural science, in the sense that it allowed me to unite both my fascination with human biology and with the sociocultural study of human culture and diversity.
And so I just, I thought for a while, ‘I might go into medicine,’ but then I thought for a well, ‘Well maybe I’ll just do more applied kinds of anthropology,’ but really I couldn’t get away from this intersection of biology and society that has fueled my research ever since. So yeah, I would say that is really what drew me to science. Kind of all of these things within anthropology that allow us to answer these questions at the intersection of biology culture, human biology and culture.
Clancy: I guess it makes sense that we have similar, I don’t know, similar rationalities for doing what we do since we’re in similar fields. But that was really lovely to hear. Thank you.
So now for my next question: how have you shown courage in science?
Palmquist: I think one of the ways that I show courage in science is that I… I have chosen to do research on topics that are somewhat controversial in service of things like social justice and disrupting the status quo of power and turning the traditional ‘white anthropologist goes somewhere far in the world to study brown people’. I am a scientist of color who studies white people. (Laughs) I study a really controversial topic which is infant feeding and more specifically human milk sharing.
When I decided to kind of move full force into this topics I knew that what… I knew that what the findings were going to be, findings that really pushed against these major public health agencies and medical authorities telling women that what they were doing was wrong and harmful and dangerous to their babies and I did it anyways. And I did it knowing that I probably wouldn’t get a lot of funding for it. I do the research that I do a little more broadly in the area of infant feeding knowing that we’re up against large commercial organizations and entities trying to spread a lot of information about infant feeding that is not supportive of the diverse ways that people want to feed their babies. And there are a lot of commercial interests behind the kinds of research that gets funded. And I have to turn down lots of funding and so all of these little decisions that I make… (Laughs) seemingly little decisions that I make about where I get funding from, the kinds of research that I do, who I collaborate with and how I frame the kinds of research that I do, I think all represent different levels of courage.
It’s not a popular thing to tell, you know, the larger public health organizations of our country that they missed the mark in some of the guidance that they were giving. That they’re spreading misinformation, social stigma. But the kind of ethnographic research I did on, particularly, human milk sharing was really people, mother’s voices saying that what they’re telling us about how risky this infant feeding practice is doesn’t reflect what I’m doing in my every day life and we’re not bad parents, we are not bad mothers for this type of infant feeding care which was more or less the rhetoric that was being spread at that time.
So, I also, I think I really showed courage in the fact that I am really guided by my commitment to social justice to help equity and human rights in my research. I find that sometimes when I get invitations to do different collaborative projects or to think about starting a new research project that if I’m grounding myself in what is really important to me and want my work to reflect, it always comes back to these issues of decolonizing anthropology so fighting for social justice, centering racial equity, centering the voices of people of color and marginalized populations around the world that really helps me. But that orientation of work doesn’t always get you the biggest grants and the most… you know I am almost ten years passed my first tenured-track job and I still don’t have tenure (Laughs). You know so I think we’re not rewarded in the same ways that other scientists sometimes are for doing this kind of engaged work and this kind of political work, but I think it’s really important and so, at least from my perspective I think that shows courage to some degree.
Clancy: It absolutely does. And you actually ended up answering, there’s sort of a follow-up question in my head of, ‘What are the values that are undergirding all of these really wonderful decisions and courageous decisions that you’re making?’ And what you’re saying around racial equity and social justice and everything, I mean that, you know when you’re holding true to your values, even when they’re costly I feel like it makes it a little easier to make, you know, to hold true to what you believe when you make those decisions.
Which kind of leads me to the last question, or at least I suspect it does: what do you want others to know about how to be a courageous scientist?
Palmquist: In think the thing that I most often tell my students who come from a range of disciplines is that, I mean, you have to… it’s so cliché, but you have to love what you do. Finding that seed of inspiration or passion for what you do and then kind of looking at where you see your contribution to the field, those things kind of fall from that. But you have to be, I think you just have to be really clear for yourself, like what are your values? What is it that excites you, inspires you, allows you to be in that space of the most creativity? And how do you hope to contribute to your discipline or your field or society and beyond? These are things that I think are really grounding, or have been grounding for me.
I also think, in terms of courage in science that I feel like, especially young scientists and early career scientists, because of all the, you know expectations that you have, that academia has or that the field has we set expectations for ourselves, like we have to have this sort of linear trajectory. We’re going to do this and that and this and kind of fall in line in this path that leads from A to B in a really clear way. And I would just like to encourage young scientists, early career scientists to think about what might happen if you take an opportunity that doesn’t seem to really fit right now but that’s a really exciting opportunity and just kind of go for it and see where it leads.
If we had the opportunity to talk about my career trajectory, it’s very much a zigzag (Laughs) up and down and sort of around about way of getting to where I am right now. And I couldn’t have predicted it, but along the way there were opportunities that I took that didn’t seem to make any sense at the time, but ended up giving me opportunities to learn to be an interdisciplinary scholar, to learn… work on quantitative methods, to work in institutions that were you know disciplines or fields that were quite different from my home discipline. So I think in that sense just… looking for those opportunities to broaden and expand your horizons and not being so concerned about doing XY and Z correct thing or quote on quote the correct thing because really we all have, our paths are all, they can call be very different. I think that once you have a chance to talk to lots of different scientists in this, sort of, series that you’re doing, you’ll find that there isn’t a recipe for success necessarily. Except for that people are really, they love science. They want to be doing it and they want to contribute to the greater good I guess. So yeah I mean not being so invested in having that clear directive that, you know, being willing to take some more opportunities to do some new things. That’s really been important for me.
Clancy: Yeah, wow. So we do have just a couple minutes left. I was really struck by, you know, what you were saying about these different paths. Do you want to give just one example of one of those moments where you decided to take a chance on something and how it went?
Palmquist: Yeah so when I graduated with my doctorate in anthropology, I was… I probably sent out that year maybe twenty applications for a tenured track positions and I didn’t get any of them. And then I applied for a couple of other, a couple of post-doctoral opportunities. There was an opportunity for me to go the National Institutes of Health. Their National Human Genome Research Institute had a branch, the Social and Behavioral Research branch and to do, to learn how to do social network methods. And it was really just, seemed like a cool opportunity but it was just one of those things where it was something to apply to and I really want a job. So I cast I wide net and I ended up getting and interview and I ended up getting recruited to come to the NIH to learn how to do social network method’s as an anthropologist and at that time my research, I was really interested in obesity and early developmental influences on obesity but I ended up in this situation where I was primarily, I was primarily a cultural anthropologist with some training in human biology being asked to learn to do things like really complicated statistical methods and work with different scientists from all different… social and behavioral scientists from psychology and public health and physiology and communications and statistics. And it was interesting and it was challenging and at the time I was like, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do with this training.’
Now, looking back I’m like, that was really formative for me. I mean now I am an anthropologist in the department of maternal and child health in a school of public health. And that was… I probably would have never made that jump and be in the position that I am not had I not had that formative experience as a post-doc and it was like really interdisciplinary to learn new methods. I can’t do social network methods, modeling myself but I understand it conceptually and even that training helps me to think differently about all kinds of things that I think about now like social support in perinatal and postnatal period and social media and social networks and how information gets disseminated through social networks. All of those things were, I am able to understand them much better because I had that unique opportunity.
Clancy: That is so cool. And I love how it’s from sort of thinking about your values around social justice, ending on this expertise and understanding of social networks and the ways in which that that has sort of brought you to the career that you’re now. Thank you so much for doing this interview Dr. Palmquist I really appreciate it. You do a great service to the discipline of anthropology, it’s just such a pleasure to learn more about you and your work so thank you so so much.
Palmquist: Thank you. I feel the same way about you. (Laughs) Thanks so much.
Clancy (Outro): Thanks for joining me for the Courageous Scientist Podcast. I hope that you will check out our website couragoues-scienctist.libsyn.com, that’s L-I-B-S-Y-N .com. The reason for that is that these amazing role models that I have been interviewing are not just strong people; they’re scholars. They do lots of amazing things they publish great papers. They have podcasts like our guest today and I want to make sure you get to know the whole them. So check out the show notes, click on the links, and learn about the amazing scholarship of some really courageous people.
Like I said, this is a short-term passion project to keep me sane during the pandemic so, I don’t want your money. Please do tell budding scientists and science educators of all ages about the podcast though because I think they’ll like it. And, if you have the means, send a few bucks the way of your local food bank. Thanks for listening.