I remember, early in 2007, I discovered a TV Show called Bones and fell in love with the lead character who was a Forensic Anthropologist. Since then, I’ve always wanted to interact with one, and this project was an opportunity for me to talk to one. But, sadly enough, though a lot of profiles say that my interviewee is one, she isn’t, as you will discover soon enough. On the other hand, she does love Star Trek and Bones, and we did talk a lot about those two. The interview actually went on for much longer than what is transcribed here, but most of it was just chatting about random other things and tangents during the interview.
She is incredibly smart, she is very funny and an amazing person to talk with. Here is my interview with Dr. Amade M’Charek.
So, a lot of profiles of you say that you’re a forensic Anthropologist, but given our previous conversation, that isn’t quite accurate is it?
No, it’s not. I’m trained as a social scientist and I’m holding a chair in anthropology of science, however, in the past, I did work, hands-on in laboratories, forensic laboratories, working on the issue of forensic DNA. But the research in Forensic Anthropology really entails working with bones and skulls and skeletons, and trying to identify to whom these bones belong or to determine what happened using the trauma to the skeleton. So, that’s not the kind of work I am doing. But I have a large ERC (European Research Council) project and in that project, one of my PhD students is focusing on precisely the forensic anthropological research. She has been working hands-on in Forensic Anthropology Laboratories where they are doing facial reconstruction of skulls to help identify them. Typically, what I like to do is to, as a social scientist – and this is how I train my PhD students to engage, hands-on in the other disciplines that we are also interested in studying.
So, mostly I am interested in knowledge production. How do we produce knowledge and what does this knowledge do in science, but also in society.
Before we get into anything else, can you tell me what Anthropology of Science is?
It can be many things, but the area I’ve been trained into comes from realising that modern societies can not do without science, can not do without technologies. That becomes interesting when we look at what kind of technologies we are producing and what impact do they have on our societies. I mean, there are differences and there are choices that can be made. To understand the impact is not just to assess the final stage of knowledge or technology development. Once the thing is happening, once it is done, once it has been developed, then how is it being used in societies, I think it is much more interesting to follow science in the making. If I would be interested, for example, in your research, I would not just interview you, I would come with you to where you work, and I would be sitting with you all day long, trying to follow you around, trying to see the model you are using, what kind of analysis you’re sending around to colleagues elsewhere to help you understand the phenomenon you are studying. So, it really is science in the making rather than the finished paper.
So, on top of epistemology, it is also the behaviour and the act of creating?
Behaviour is interesting, but then what do you need to produce your knowledge? For example, if I would read your paper, it will not become clear to me that you are actually connected internationally to colleagues who are using your data or testing your models, so this is from a far away knowledge of physics. I would not understand the fact that you might need these kinds of networks to produce knowledge. So it is not just behaviour but also the material setting that is there.
Also, what kind of theories count? In the field that I am most familiar with, which is Genetics, I know that certain laboratories have a certain tradition of doing mitochondrial DNA research – maternally inherited genetic material – others are much more focused on the Y chromosome – the male sex chromosome, and this has an impact on the kind of knowledge they can produce. So it is trying to approach scientific practices, not just as epistemological or methodological but also as a cultural practice, where many things need to be there in order for knowledge to happen.
How did you find your way into this field? Was it happenstance or was it intentional?
I think I stumbled upon it! As a young girl, I had a big love and that was Medicine – I wanted to become a doctor. In the Netherlands, it is such that you have a lottery system. So, either you’re in or out. I didn’t make it to medical school. After medicine, I would either do Chemistry or Political Science. I skipped the second and went for Political Science, which I didn’t like too much. So I did philosophy, sociology and political economy – which I liked a lot. Towards the end of my studies, I found myself being drawn to my interest in the natural sciences, and then I became interested in the human genome project – which is this international project to map the human genome.
That’s when I decided I was really interested in genetics and wanted to know, not only the history of genetics but also the future. I started to talk to geneticists, and then I asked if they would really mind teaching me what they were doing. And they were really open and welcoming. This is how I entered the lab and finished my studies with a thesis on the human genome project.
Then I wanted to do a PhD, but I didn’t want to be doing science critique, which is often the case form the social science perspective – this or that might become a dangerous technology and we have to think about the possible effects thereof.
Something like the ethics of technology?
Yes, ethics is important, but many people do ethics at a distance. So it is based on principles and rules. There are a very small group of scholars that do ethics based on empirical research by thinking together with the scientists or the users of the knowledge.
So, I wanted to get closer to the field of genetics, and my interest in biology, chemistry and physics were because of my MA thesis, and I thought PhD was a good opportunity to get back into my interests and pipette and get my hands dirty and to do some DNA extraction.
Much like your love of Star Trek and Bones and wanting to explore different areas, I am the kind person who did not want to stay in one discipline and looking for ways to incorporate the various interests that I have, so after my MA thesis, I became interested genetic diversity. Not the Human genome as such, but diversity questions. That was the starting point for my PhD research. The lab turned out to be a forensic lab as well, who do research in population, but their major research work was forensics. So I became very familiar with forensics and forensic genetics.
How was the experience of working in a lab and with the forensic side of things?
It was extremely exciting and interesting. Here the doors are closed – that is, you work in solitude. This is not what happens in a Lab – they are very much a community, the radio is always on from early in the morning till late at night. So that was a very interesting thing to see. I also liked that in labs, specifically forensic work, is very standardized. You cannot mess around with the evidence, so it has to be according to certain rules and standards. It was also interesting to see how important it was to be careful with the material you handle because things are at stake. You are working with DNA, but you are also working within the criminal justice system. It is about the accusation about the person. If they are found guilty, they will disappear into jail for several years, and that is not a minor thing.
What’re some of your other research interests?
I’m also interested in race, the real Face ID project. Many of these technologies are aimed at individuality, of course, you can’t incarcerate a group of people, it is about one individual suspect in the end. As you want to identify this one unknown subject, you often cluster a group of people who might be suspects. For example, not too long ago, there was an important case in the Netherlands, the Milica Van Doorn case, she was a young girl who was raped and killed In the early nineties, I think 1993 , and there was no clue as to who the suspect was. Not too long ago, there was suspicion that it might’ve been a person from the Turkish community where the girl lived. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, also the location of the crime, and it was a location where strangers would not go easily unless you live there – so they could confine the community of the potential suspect. Then, through the analysis of the Y chromosome, they found out there was a particular variation – a DNA Variation – on the Y-chromosome that has only been found in turkey and not outside. That is how they reduced the pool to a community.
Here the work was done very very carefully, in a very good way, I would say. What they did then is familial searching – they invited a group of people that they thought might belong to the suspect population and the idea was that none of them would be a suspect, but looking for a relative who might’ve been the suspect. They were looking for a partial match, and the partial match might lead you to the true suspect.
So something like the Golden State Killer case in the states?
Yes, exactly! Though that was through a database. They found the killer through a relative in the database.
But in the case like Milica Van Doorn, you want to be very careful not to produce some racism in society.
While hearing you explain to me your field and your research, it seems to me that is it fairly inter, and even multi-disciplinary. Is that a fair statement to make?
Yes. I think it holds for my research and for the field as a whole. There’s Anthropology of Science, there’s Sociology of Science, Science and Technology Studies that has more mixed background also in philosophy and history. I think, more or less, a big part of the scholarship in there, people are generally interested in other fields as well – fields other than the ones they grew up in, as it were. So, yes, I think interdisciplinarity is really the key, to the success of the field also.
Is it important to foster such research? How important is it going forward?
Yes, I think so. We started this conversation on how important science and technology is for our society, and so, if you want to evaluate, or assess the past or present of the technologies or knowledge, you really have to get closer to other disciplines and other working practices. There are multiple axes to consider. If we are interested in solving a problem, for example – youth sexuality, there might be biology in play, we need to look at food intake as well, the drinking habits of young people. But, also you need to take into account a more anthropological approach to youth cultures – an approach that is focusing more on social media and how they engage and interact with that. So, if we are really interested in – maybe not even solving because problem-solving is quite complicated, but just understanding the problem that is ongoing in the societies, you can not be single sighted – that doesn’t work.
To your second part, I think interdisciplinarity is precisely important in issues where the problems are not really simple, they are very convoluted and very complicated. Where there is not just something at stake for one institution or one group of actors, but for multiple. Where you also know, that if you solve something here, it might have an impact somewhere else. So, you need to take much more into account before going and solving that problem, or prescribing that pill.
Should Interdisciplinarity be enforced throughout the university or just certain disciplines?
I feel like it would be really really good if that were in all curricula, and introduced to the students what it means to do interdisciplinary work, the added value. Just to understand the possibilities. That can, indeed, be minor in a bachelor’s program or something like that. Maybe one in which you don’t do conventional sort of teaching but more project-oriented teaching, where you bring students together from multiple fields to sort of experience what multi or interdisciplinarity can be about. But I think it is important also to foster the disciplines. It should not be the case where we all should be engaged in a sort of constant traffic between the departments. It requires, I think, for us to educate ourselves in interdisciplinary thinking and doing – when is it important to do an interdisciplinary collaboration, which is something we have to figure out. So, as much as I love being engaged in interdisciplinary research, I will not be able to tell you how much we need, because that is something we need to explore further at these kinds of institutions.
To end on a lighter, and fun note: What is the best, and the worst thing about your work?
The worst thing would be that it is never done. It is like a mushroom, it grows in all directions and you can not control it. It is beautiful, simultaneously, but also troubling and keeps you awake at night.
The best thing would be that I love working with young people at the end of their studies and heading towards research, and to be mesmerized by their thinking. And also the best thing is that your body and mind are the important tools and they keep being fed by yourself. You get so excited when you solve something, which you don’t get when you just tick boxes in some other kind of job that doesn’t engage your mind.
Thank you so much for your time, it was an absolute pleasure talking with you
We spoke about so many more things, but here is one of her favourite videos: