Katherine Mason

Katherine Mason, PhD

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

1. What is your current status at Brown?
I am an Assistant Professor of Anthropology. I am also affiliated faculty at Brown’s Population Studies and Training Center, and Brown’s Program in Science and Technology Studies.

2. How did you first get interested in global health?

There is both a dull, ordinary answer to this question, and a somewhat more dramatic answer. The dull and ordinary answer is that since a relatively young age my interests have been characterized by a combination of a desire to be involved with healing and helping people who are suffering, a commitment to social justice, and an element of wanderlust. So doing global health work is a natural fit for me. The more interesting answer has to do with the particular way in which I came to be involved with global health work in China. When I graduated from college in 2001, I had no idea what to do with myself, but I knew that I wanted to spend some time abroad. So I took part in a wonderful program called the Yale-China Teaching Fellowship. I went to Guangzhou, China for two years to teach English. I knew very little about China at the time and spoke almost no Chinese, so there was a steep learning curve. This was transformative in itself, but it just so happened that I was still there when, in 2003, the SARS epidemic hit southeastern China and later other parts of the world. This scared a lot of people, and led to my evacuation at the height of the epidemic back to the United States, where my family members tried to put me in quarantine in my sister’s apartment in Philadelphia. I broke my quarantine and fled to New York, where I got a job as a science journalist and committed myself to figuring out what exactly had just happened. The vast gulf between how people perceived the same disease in Guangzhou vs. Philadelphia really fascinated me, and led me back to China a few years later as a graduate student in medical anthropology. I spent the next 10 years or so trying to sort out this incident, and the result was my first book, Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health after an Epidemic, which comes out with Stanford University Press in April 2016.

3. How did you become involved with your project?
The story I just told explains how I came to be involved with my first major ethnographic project, which I am still writing and speaking about, but which has pretty much wrapped up. That project explored how the public health profession in China came to reinvent itself in the aftermath of SARS, and how a new disease control system came into place. I argue in my book that both the country of China, as well as local public health systems more generally throughout the world, deserves more attention among global health scholars. We tend to equate “global health” with the provision of health resources to those living in resource-poor countries with weak states. With a strong state and a lot of resources, China doesn’t really fit into this mold, and so it tends to be ignored in discussions about global health, despite making up nearly one-fifth of the ‘globe’ population-wise.

I have two newer projects that I’m working on now, both of which also relate to global health in non-traditional ways. The first is a mixed methods project I have been working on with colleagues at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that examines HIV-related stigma among Chinese immigrants to New York City. I came to this project while doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia in 2013-14 as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar. Actually, the project sort of came to me, since the team was looking for input on the ‘cultural’ side of things when trying to understand Chinese immigrant communities. Immigration is another issue we don’t tend to associate as much with global health, and yet it is really the quintessential global problem. We can’t understand what’s going on with the health of Chinese immigrants to the US without considering what is going on in both China and the U.S. at the same time.

The other project is an ethnographic study of perinatal mood disorders in the U.S. and China. This project seeks to relocate the study of perinatal mood disorders (including prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety) to the home environment, and to examine these disorders as shared family experiences, as opposed to just individual psychiatric conditions. It also seeks to broaden our understanding of the experiences of perinatal distress to a wide range of families across cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides. I came to this project also initially as a post-doc at Columbia, but it was something that I noticed people becoming more and more aware of while I was doing research in China as well. And it is also very much a global health problem. Mental illness constitutes one of the greatest disease burdens worldwide, and China is no exception.

4. What is most difficult about your global health work? Most rewarding?
The most difficult is the travel. I have a young family and am not quite as mobile as I used to be! The other part of that is that China is changing so rapidly that it is hard to keep on top of what is going on there, even if one visits frequently. The most rewarding aspect is feeling like what I do matters. I feel that the most in my teaching. I teach a global health course to undergraduates, and it’s extremely rewarding to open their eyes to the suffering that goes on around the world, and to help them see how interconnected this suffering is with what happens here in Providence. I learn a ton from my students.

5. How does your global health work fit in with your career plans?
It is my career, basically! It’s what I teach and research about, and that is the bread and butter of an academic anthropology department.

6. What has your experience been with global health at Brown (Framework, GHI, etc.)?
It’s been great so far. The thing that has most impressed me about Brown is the openness and collaborative atmosphere here, especially compared with other institutions I have worked in. I’ve had a fantastic time getting to know folks in the medical school and clinical faculty at associated hospitals, who have generally been extremely receptive to my ideas and willing to help me with my research. I have in the past had difficulty connecting with clinicians and other scientists who all too often dismiss the kind of qualitative research that anthropologists do as unscientific or unimportant. That has not been the case here at all, which has truly been a welcome surprise!

7. Any other thoughts/comments you’d like to add?
It’s great to see Brown’s Global Health program growing and to meet so many interested and interesting students. I look forward to being involved with GHI for many years to come!