My experience working in the Culture of Medicine Lab

Author: Matt Kianpour


I am an undergraduate research assistant for Professor Vania Smith-Oka. She is a cultural and medical anthropologist who specializes in the effect of institutions (medical, economic, development) on the behavior and choices of marginalized populations, especially women.

Before matriculating to Notre Dame, I felt that I was at a crossroads, torn between my professional interests in the sciences, but also, justice-based work. However, through Notre Dame’s flexibility of its curriculum, I became interested in pursuing the intersection of my interests: medicine and society. I got involved in the Health, Humanities, and Society department as a first-year, where I met Professor Vania Smith-Oka. The program approaches medicine and healthcare through its institutional structures, economic and political spheres, and systems of cultural practices, which fascinates me. As I learned more about Professor Vania Smith-Oka’s work, and how it aligns with my interests in becoming a physician, she agreed to take me on with her research. 

The Culture of Medicine Lab meets each week with Professor Smith-Oka, receiving guidance from her as we work on the lab’s projects. Currently, I am working on The Latinx Obstetric Violence Project. The project explores obstetric violence as women share their birthing experiences through poems, short essays, drawings, paintings, embroidery, and more, calling attention to the impact obstetric violence has on mothers. Additionally, Professor Smith-Oka encourages her research assistants to pursue our own research questions with the lab’s support. Using Professor Smith-Oka’s older data, this semester, I am exploring urban reproduction in Mexico. Excitingly, I will present my work at the Department of Anthropology Student Anthropology Research Forum later this semester. 

Vania Smith-Oka, an associate professor of anthropology, talks with a student in the department's home in Corbett Family Hall.

As a student of the College of Science, my initial impressions of research were limited to laboratories, lab coats, and science. However, after working under Professor Vania Smith-Oka, my perspective on research has expanded, learning more about social science research and ethnography. After working on The Latinx Obstetric Violence Project, I now understand that research can directly affect others, and it is not just for the exclusive spheres of academia. Through Professor Smith-Oka’s work, I can directly interface with the Spanish speaking community in South Bend. With my interdisciplinary interests in medicine, Professor Smith-Oka’s research combines my interests, combining social science research with medicine. My work as a research assistant has confirmed to me my interests in becoming a physician that is aware of how patients can be deleteriously affected by the institution of healthcare.