Research & Innovation

Going Viral: Stevens Professor Publishes Book on the Viral Nature of Global Health Epidemics

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic evoked a global fascination with and fear of viruses. It also exposed the difficulties that scientific institutions faced with managing both the emerging global health threat and growing apprehension toward an uncontainable infectious disease. In a global pandemic, how are global scientific institutions able to deliver coordinative information to society? And how is expertise determined in public health?

Prof. Theresa MacPhail explores these questions in her new book The Viral Network: A Pathography of the H1N1 Influenza Pandemic (Cornell University Press, 2014), where she focuses on the day-to-day practices of virologists and epidemiologists in order to pose questions about the production of scientific knowledge, the construction of expertise, disease narratives, and the different "cultures" of public health in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, and China.

“I was interested in influenza and the threat of bird flu because before I went back to get my PhD, I lived in Hong Kong,” she said. “I lived there right after SARS, so infectious diseases seemed very real and very scary there.”

An Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Stevens, MacPhail’s research centers on the culture of public health, the production of scientific knowledge, networks of expertise, and information sharing. By examining everyday lived experiences of epidemiologists and microbiologists, she is able to study infectious diseases from an anthropological perspective.

“Anthropology is different from other ‘sciences’ in that our job is to not know exactly what we're looking for in our data. We let the people we're studying tell us what they think is important. I had some curiosity about how they process soil samples to look for new influenza viruses, but I didn't know what I'd find,” she said.

MacPhail, who was recently featured in the media for her expertise on the ebola outbreak, is teaching a new course titled Global Public Health in the Science, Technology & Society discipline this spring. The course will provide Stevens students the opportunity to explore the global dimensions in current local and national practices of public health while also examining the impact of advances in science and technology on the development of disease surveillance, prevention, and response programs. Students will spend time analyzing public policy and news media coverage in order to understand the social and cultural narratives of global public health.

“For a medical anthropologist, ‘science’ is culture; there's no way to separate out the scientists from the cultures they live and work in. Each scientific institution has its own ‘culture’ and social networks. So if you focus on just the science, you tend to miss all the things that equally affect a public health response: politics, economics, social structures,” she said.