Celebrating Our Contributors #3

Last year, we marked the first year of the pandemic by celebrating those members of the EHN community who, despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, completed their degrees. As we near the end of yet another year of this global pandemic this March, we want to continue that tradition of celebrating our contributors’ brilliant work.

This month, we published a series of posts to showcase the work and celebrate the accomplishments of nine EHN contributors who graduated in the past year (see #1 here and #2 here). In this final post, let’s toast to Elizabeth Hameeteman, Sarah Qidwai, and Luísa Reis Castro!

Dr. Elizabeth Hameeteman

Graduated in January 2022,
PhD in History earned

at Boston University.

Dissertation titled:
“Pipe Parity: Desalination, Development, and the Global Quest for Water in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
I am interested in efforts to understand, value, and manage water in the development era of the 1950s and 1960s, and how and why these took shape. My dissertation focuses on desalination—which is the process of turning sea water into water you can drink—as one of those efforts. Driven by the strong conviction that water resources needed to be managed, controlled, and used in a rational manner, fears about not being able to meet present and future water needs triggered and justified the proliferation of large water infrastructure projects in the post-WWII period—and also, as I propose, the pursuit of desalination.

I found that a loosely allied network of international scientists, politicians, and officials firmly believed in its potential as an ample and low-cost alternative to fresh water from more conventional sources of supply. The very notion that fresh water could be produced whenever, wherever, and in whatever quantity, regardless of water scarcity and variability, only reinforced and perpetuated longstanding ideas of water being a resource to be controlled and managed to better meet human needs. While this is a story about a pipe dream, there lies value in showing how desalination constituted this other iteration of well-established ideas about the control of nature through technology, and that the wider push to meet water-related challenges from the supply side was complicated and contested to say the least.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
There are so many aspects that I would have loved to untangle more or random finds to further pursue. One example is an April 1961 article on the promise of desalination as a new, untapped source of supply from Resources for the Future, a magazine published through the same-titled U.S. nonprofit organization. This article, titled “Fresh Water From the Sea,” was included in a reel one archivist scanned for me, but did not directly relate to the other documents therein. After doing some follow ups, I quickly realized that pursuing this one find further would open a can of worms. While definitely tempted to do so, I also wanted to finish this dissertation at some point.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
To be honest, I don’t think my process was really that unique. I had scheduled all these research trips in the first half of 2020… but then COVID-19 threw a wrench in all of those plans. In hindsight, that might have been a blessing in disguise though. It forced me to stop accumulating more archival material and work around the fact that I would not be able to conduct additional on-site archival research. It meant I needed to get a little creative and think outside the box in order to still finish in a somewhat timely manner regardless of pandemic restrictions.

It would have been easier to narrow my scope and just focus on the U.S. part of the story, but I did not want to do that for several reasons. For one, it was important for me to tell how the transfer of desalination thought and practice was not all unilateral, and that the U.S. story is part of a larger global one. I consider the pursuit of desalination taking hold as part of a much wider attempt to survey, retrieve, and use previously inaccessible water in the post-WWII period. By taking a case study approach, I tried to uncover how several countries and international organizations imagined the potential of desalination during this time and attempted to jumpstart its widespread adoption. In doing so, though, I definitely made things a little (too) complicated for myself than if I would have focused on just one set of desal efforts—and ended up with a monster of 498 pages. But I had a vision of what I wanted this dissertation to be and just went with it. While still having a much stronger focus on the U.S. than I originally envisioned due to research restrictions, I am proud of the fact that I found a way to include different case studies by using a variety of sources from online databases and material that archivists scanned for me. More than anything, it just offers a multitude of different avenues for further research—and how exciting is that!

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
There have definitely been weeks where my days were filled with ups and downs, and just tried to take things step by step—or rather, bird by bird. Sometimes it took hours to write just one sentence and I would get so frustrated with myself because I wanted to shoot for the stars and write X amount of words every single day (usually a large amount) in order to get to the finish line. But by trying to let go of those expectations and just focus on getting that one sentence (or word!) right, I allowed myself a little wiggle room to breathe. And often, that one sentence helped me get going the next day and gave me a little fuel to reach those stars. I definitely learned that “writing” your dissertation is so much more than just typing out words, it’s a process to say the least.

More than anything, I wanted to move on. But my loved ones reminded me to also live in the here and now. Running gave me structure, stress relief, and a goal to work towards that was unrelated to my dissertation. Yoga helped to uncrinkle my body after sitting for extended periods of time. And my work for EHN has been—and continues to be—soul soothing, and grateful for all the connections I have made along the way.

Oh and I tried to read for fun (gasp!) –my mom gave me a big box with Michael Connolly books to read in the summer of 2020, including a list in which order to read them. Sometimes it took me days to finish a book, sometimes even weeks. But by picking up a Connolly book every so often, it helped me to whine down and decompress. For someone who finds it difficult to relax and “do nothing,” reading has also helped with post-defense anxiety about what’s next. Once I finish all the books from the box (now reading the second to last one!), I might just start watching the Bosch series.

The box with Connolly books.
[Image description: an open box scatteredly filled with books with a piece
of paper in a sheet protector on top that lists in what order to read them.]

Dr. Sarah Qidwai

Graduated in November 2021,
PhD in History of Science earned
at the University of Toronto.

Dissertation titled:
“Sir Syed (1817-1898) and Science: The Place of Polymaths and Popularizers in Nineteenth Century History of Science.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
My dissertation takes a nationalist figure in India and Pakistan, the Muslim reformer and founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and re-examines him in his historical setting. Drawing on a wealth of published and archival material in several languages including Urdu, Persian, French and English, I argue that Sayyid Ahmad’s science popularization efforts have been under-examined because of his image as a Muslim reformer in India. In fact, many of his interlocutors and collaborators have been erased because of this image. I use him as a template to show how scientific knowledge was transformed in India from multiple perspectives. In short, I was interested in a simple question: why is such a well-known historical figure absent in the history of science?

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
One thing of interest is that in 1864 Sayyid Ahmad founded a society called The Scientific Society. At its peak, around the 1870s there were about 550 members. While there were some European members the majority were Indian. Thinking about the nineteenth century—a period that is so important to our understanding of many scientific disciplines—I am currently trying to find out more about the society. For example, at one point the Duke of Argyll was listed as a patron. This is a reference to George Campbell (1823-1900), the 8th Duke of Argyll. This again was a strange connection and investigating it led to further interesting discoveries.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
It was quite an interesting process—I draw on several different fields to write my historical narrative. I decided to present my work at numerous conferences. It is great learning from so many different scholars and tackling their methodological questions. I have really enjoyed participating in a wide range of discussions. There are definitely disciplinary differences that I have encountered (such as transliteration practices) and I hope to write about those in the future.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
We already know that the PhD is a grueling process. Like most of us, I did not anticipate a global pandemic derailing the last year of research for me… A strong support system kept me going. I can’t thank my family enough. From amazing meals to simply watching TV together. The small moments really kept my sanity in check. But my supervisor, dissertation committee, and the wider community definitely provided a sense of support. Virtual HistSTM was another fantastic community. I do think that watching Anime such as One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, and numerous others with my siblings was quite the accomplishment. For reference, there are currently 1000+ episodes for One Piece and the Manga is still going!

Dr. Luísa Reis Castro

Graduated in August 2021,
PhD in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS)
at MIT.

Dissertation titled:
“Vectors of Health: Epidemics, Ecologies, and the Reinvention of Mosquito Science in Brazil.”

Give us your elevator pitch. What was your dissertation?
My dissertation examines efforts to address the pathogenic viruses transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. In Brazil, the Aedes aegypti is a persistent presence in urban landscapes, with disease outbreaks being an almost expected public health issue. Since the early 20th century, this insect has been the focus of scientific research and public health campaigns, framed as a conveyor of death and targeted as a winged enemy to be destroyed. However, I investigate three experimental interventions in Brazil that, rather than fight against the Aedes aegypti, work to harness the insect in the very efforts to address the viruses it can transmit.

To examine these biopolitical entanglements, I analyze two vectorial reversions: shifting mosquitoes from vectors of disease to vectors of health, and Brazil from object of scientific inquiry and place beset by epidemics to producer of authoritative scientific knowledge, providing solutions to worldwide epidemics still to come. What, I ask, are the different geopolitics of knowledge production and health practices that drive efforts to address mosquito-borne diseases? What kinds of multispecies arrangements emerge in these racialized, political ecologies? How are the histories and imaginaries of Brazilian science reinscribed or transformed through these initiatives? By combining archival and ethnographic research, I argue that mosquitoes and their enrollment in various scientific and health campaigns can be understood as materializing a racialized politics of the Brazilian nation.

What was one thing that stood out to you, a cool find you came across, or something that surprised you in the course of your research?
In my early years of grad school, when I was doing preliminary research and still piecing together what my project was about, I talked to an entomologist who was researching the Aedes aegypti mosquito. As I delivered what I hoped would be a convincing justification for my interest in mosquitoes and Brazilian science, the entomologist nodded emphatically, “Of course, it makes sense. When it comes to mosquitoes, the world will become Brazil.” She then described the importance of Brazil-based research to understand mosquito ecologies and to develop new strategies for mosquito-borne diseases, especially considering that the ongoing deforestation/urbanization and planetary climate transformations have been enabling the Aedes aegypti to expand its geographical range.

After we said our goodbyes and I thanked her for her time, I could not stop thinking about her words: “When it comes to mosquitoes, the world will become Brazil.” It reminded me of the words of U.S. American epidemiologist Fred L. Soper who, while working with the Rockefeller Foundation in Brazil during the 1930s and 1940s, had described the region as a “land filled with mosquitoes” (see Packard and Gadellha 1994). Brazil had long been associated with mosquitoes, a connection that unfortunately became further crystallized during the Zika virus epidemic in 2015-2016, which was linked to an increase in fetal malformation cases and babies born with health issues (nowadays known as Congenital Zika Virus Syndrome).

However, there was now something different: mosquito ecologies in Brazil were being considered as a harbinger of future epidemics still to come. While in the early 20th century, vector control campaigns in Brazil aimed to eliminate mosquitoes as part of a broader goal of controlling nature to “civilize” the country, contemporary vector control strategies are being implemented in part to offer an oracular view of potential environmental and epidemiological conditions in other places, especially Europe and North America. It was after that conversation that I was convinced of the need for a historically-minded analysis of these new strategies to address mosquito-borne diseases, tracing the politics and significance of this reshaping of Brazilian ecologies in the reinvention of mosquito science.

Tell us a little bit about your process. Was there anything unique about how you did the work?
To write my dissertation, I had to navigate through different kinds of data and literature. I conducted ethnographic research and qualitative interviews in different places in Brazil: Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Fernando de Noronha, and Foz do Iguaçu. I also conducted archival research and collected several documents through the Brazilian Access to Information Law. In addition, I wanted to be in conversation with very disparate scholarships: history of science, medical anthropology, multispecies ethnography, science and technology studies, environmental humanities… and the list goes on. I think it is very productive to draw upon a variety of sources and literatures but it can be challenging. What worked for me was to write a first draft and then I would keep revising the document, moving back and forth between writing and revisiting my fieldnotes, notes from my archival research, and collected documents as well as reading (or in many cases re-reading) the relevant scholarship.

It was an extraordinarily rough year to complete a degree. What kept you going?
I would not have finished this dissertation if I was writing it alone. Most of my dissertation writing was during the pandemic, but I had two friends, Boyd Ruamcharoen and José Cândido Lopes Ferreira, with whom I would “meet” on Whatsapp and work together. These were usually my most productive hours. I also was lucky to find a lovely community of writers called #AnthroCoWrite (non-anthropologists also welcomed!), who meets on Discord and works together across multiple time zones. I’m also grateful to have had wonderful mentors, Stefan Helmreich, Harriet Ritvo, Amy Moran-Thomas, and Rosana Castro, who would read several versions of my chapters. Their belief in me and in my work was what kept me going and what impelled me to complete and submit my dissertation. Finally, because I did ethnographic research, I also felt a sort of obligation towards my interlocutors and their generosity in welcoming me into their lives—and my interlocutors would often remind me that, after all, I spent all that time with them to “do my PhD research.” In the different places I conducted research, I formed a friendship with people and kept close contact with some. As they updated me on their lives (a new baby, being accepted for graduate school, a new job or a new house), they would ask if I had finished my PhD. It was a reminder of why I did my research and why I had to write—and finish—my dissertation.

*Cover image: Artwork (October 2021) by EHN contributor Kay Sohini.

[Cover image description: a scenic comic image of snow-capped mountains with few fluffy clouds illustrated as a backdrop. At the top, a text box reads “with every recollection, I lose more and more details, except for this one unflickering image that has remained distinct through the years—” Below, four smaller images detail a cartoon scene. The first shows two figures from behind, one with short hair wrapping their arm around a smaller figure with shoulder length hair and a text box that reads “My grandfather marveling at how the days seemed to have gotten shorter,” above it, a small translucent image of a palace fades into the larger mountain scene. The next box shows two bowls of food sitting on a table. The next box, two figures face each other leaning against a door frame that opens to a mountain view. The final cartoon box reads, “In that moment, we attributed the speediness of time to our brief respite from the daily demands of life and the joy it brought us.”]