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Improving Lives by Listening to People’s Stories

Anthropologists often have a more difficult time explaining their work than scientists who study sharks, stars or cyclones.

headshot of Saira Mehmood, Ph.D.
Saira Mehmood, Ph.D.

But cultural and medical anthropologist Saira Mehmood, Ph.D., makes it simple. Whether working as a professor, or health scientist, or community organizer, when meeting non-academic folks for the first time she says, “I’m an anthropologist. I study people. And that is what gets them interested to say, ‘Tell me more.’ We listen to people, and we tell their stories. And I think at root, I am a storyteller.”

Mehmood is in the current class of distinguished scientists and engineers chosen as AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows. For nearly five decades, the program has placed these innovators in all three branches of the U.S. Federal Government for a year. The program combines together the knowledge and experience of STEM professionals, with the federal policymakers’ intricate understanding of how laws and regulations are made. The goal? Ensuring that fellows learn about policymaking and that government can benefit from their analytical skills.

That challenge is a complex one. In the early weeks, the fellows and their new government colleagues are working to speak the same language. There are also the sometimes frustrating realities for the fellows in learning the government can move slowly, by design.

“Having worked in local government before I did my Ph.D., I learned there are a lot of different actors, different personalities in government, so just figuring out the inner workings, that will be a learning curve,” Mehmood says.

Mehmood is currently working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). While we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the role of widespread scientific misinformation, racism and socioeconomic injustice are some of the topics Mehmood will deal with in her assignment.

“My placement is to help look at strategic activities to improve health equity, and analyze social determinants of health research in diabetes, endocrinology and metabolic diseases and across the NIDDK,” Mehmood says.

Mehmood is the only anthropologist in her division, but she says an atmosphere of teamwork is built into the fellowship program. The fellows also have a Slack channel so they can bounce ideas off each other.

“I think working at the federal government level can be very intimidating and overwhelming, but one of the reasons I applied for this was there's a cohort, so you're not doing this alone,” Mehmood says.

Mehmood’s hometown of New Orleans helped inspire both her career choice and her early field work. She’s a lifelong fan of the New Orleans Saints and this NFL football team provided an unexpected spark to launch her STEM career.

“The very first time I actually heard the word ‘anthropology’ was during a Saints game. Back in high school, Aaron Brooks was the quarterback, and I remember a commentator mentioned that he had majored in anthropology and I was like, ‘what is that?’”

As an undergraduate at Tulane University, Mehmood evacuated to Houston for a few months after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. When she returned, she says her classes in anthropology helped her make some sense of the damage and despair across the region.

She later did a policy fellowship in the City of New Orleans Mayor's Office. That “boots on the ground” fieldwork, interviews and analyses led to her Ph.D. dissertation, which examined how individuals with chronic mental illnesses navigated the healthcare system in New Orleans.

Mehmood’s research looked at race, racism and whiteness, all things that can contribute to health disparities. And from her own experience, inequities can start with something as basic as mispronouncing a name.

“Whether I was at conferences, undergrad or grad school, even after correcting people on my name, it was a continuous pattern of people still saying it incorrectly. It's just exhausting. I think it's a microaggression, but this is the name my parents gave me, there's meaning behind it. That's what I want to be called. It's not that difficult,” Mehmood says. Her email signature now includes a link to an audio file of the correct pronunciation of her name.

Before beginning her AAAS policy fellowship, Mehmood was a visiting professor at Spelman College, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Atlanta. The medical anthropology class she taught included the topic of medical racism and dramatic disparities in treatment of Black women giving birth. For example, the near-death experience of tennis legend Serena Williams during her pregnancy reveals that racism, not just class, impacts maternal and infant mortality.

“So this is Serena Williams, who is famous, has the social capital, the symbolic capital, the economic capital and if she's that close to dying then what about everyone else?” says Mehmood.

As her fellowship journey unfolds over the next two years, Mehmood says she will be listening to more stories of those struggling to get health care, mental health assistance, or just needing someone to hear them out.

“But I'm just looking forward to continuing to learn, absorb, observe and bring my skillset to the table, see what I can do. So whether it's government, policy or something else, I'm going in with an open mind,” Mehmood says.

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