A seat at the table

This week on #meetascientist, Dr. Melissa Creary shares her journey moving from biomedical research to public health and policy. A professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, Melissa is also a member of the 500 Women Scientists Advisory Board. We're lucky to have someone who thinks deeply about science's role in society and has such a rich background in organizing on our board!

When did you first identify as a scientist?

I remember always really being interested in science, at least interested enough to take AP Biology. I wanted to become a scientist relatively early, but I don’t think I identified as one until after I graduated college and had my first job in a biochemistry and microbiology lab at Morehouse School of Medicine. That was the first time I was actually doing science and really felt like a scientist. After that position, I became a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which took me away from basic science and more into public health.

You were recently appointed professor at University of Michigan. What does your research center on there?

I work on the policy around sickle cell disease in Brazil. In 2006, the committee that developed the National Health Policy for the Black Population (NHPBP) chose sickle cell disease as their “flag to demand health rights.” The Brazilian policy embodies simultaneous constructions of race and science that occur through sickle cell disease. I am interested in the lens that the disease provides both in a Brazilian context, and in a global context.


I’m also interested in how people think about the validity and legitimacy of knowledge production when it’s attached to certain populations. So if a marginalized group is making a contribution to science, but it doesn’t look the way that scientists think it should look, what does that mean about how we build knowledge? Currently, I am developing concepts around these ideas. One is called biocultural citizenship, which relates to belonging in terms of genotype and ancestry. Another is called bounded justice, which is an attempt to distribute health rights without disturbing the underlying mechanisms that generated initial inequalities. I go into these terms in greater detail on my website.

I’m interested in how these concepts play into knowledge production as we’re entering a booming era of precision medicine. We’re being really careful about public engagement, and bounded justice can potentially lend itself to think about the complicated and unintended consequences of inclusion. Biocultural citizenship can also help us frame responses that citizens make to make claims to the government in order to feel like fuller citizens, in Brazil and elsewhere -- under their own agency, using their bodies, using their genetic makeup to contest exclusion. These genetic identities and social movements around genetic identities can help us think through how policy gets made and what that means for marginal populations.

You have a background in organizing, which is one of the (many reasons) you're an asset on our advisory board. Can you talk about how you found your way into that space? What is the most valuable lesson you've learned that you'd like to pass on?

The summer after I got my Masters in public health, several friends and I raised around $10,000 for Susan G. Komen for breast cancer research. From that group of women, three of us splintered off to create an organization that could raise awareness and funds for issues that weren’t as sexy as breast cancer. We had an idea to create an organization that would shed light on important social issues that were based in either health and science or the arts. We called this organization Shadow Blossom, helping organizations get out of the shadows and to grow to their full potential. We had the philosophy of teaching folks how to fish instead of feeding them the fish and worked with a number of organizations on strategic planning and fundraising planning and program planning in general. As a co-founder I was intimately involved in the way that we organized ourselves and presented ourselves to the greater Atlanta community. I was also the volunteer coordinator and I helped build capacity for the organizations once we had chosen them through an application process.


It was a very fulfilling and meaningful time. I am very grateful to to have this idea around development and organizing be embedded with who I am as a scientist and an academic. The fact that Shadow Blossom existed at all is in alignment with my commitment to marginal populations and an attempt to make sure that folks have a seat at the table where they normally would not.

The most valuable lesson I got out of that time is a thoughtfulness around making sure that people who aren’t normally at the table get a seat. There’s already a space in which women scientists are fighting to be heard and to be thought of as rigorous and professional and legitimate. 500 Women Scientists exists because we’re trying to be a vocal and amplify the  voices of women all over the globe who have been called to a particular mode of resistance right now. I’m very proud that 500 Women Scientists has made it very clear in their mission and vision statements that we are a proponent of diversity. So it’s up to us to make sure that we move beyond just words. It’s up to us to make sure the diversity goes beyond gender and what kind of science is represented. We are on our way to putting our money where our mouth is in terms of how we want society to look and how we want science to look, and how they’re intertwined with each other.

You have a super hectic schedule. So what drew you to commit to advising 500 Women Scientists?

Primarily, through a personal connection with the co-founder, Jane Zelikova, and her vision for 500 Women Scientists. Because of the time we’re in right now, there is an absolute need for organizing around resistance when it comes to truth and who gets to be a proponent of that truth. I teach my students every semester to question everything — that the knowledge that is produced is not done so without this notion of epistemic privilege. I recognize how much epistemic privilege is located in the scientific community. But I also recognize what happens when those in power ignore current facts. So I’m happy to be a part of any movement that is going to make sure that people are held accountable for what is true and what is right. Of course, when it comes to science, science is never exactly truth. But we’re fighting for something much larger with 500 Women Scientists.

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Outside of science, how do you spend your time?

I am very much into photography. Both as a hobby and as part of my scholarship. And I also love to dance. I dance salsa, bachata, cha-cha, and samba, due to my time in Brazil and my time in a salsa dance company for many years. I’m trying to commit to the things that bring me joy outside of science, so hopefully you’ll find me on more dance floors as time progresses!

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Melissa Creary is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan where she works on the politics of inclusion, knowledge production, and citizenship.  She analyzes how frameworks of biology, social determinants, and policy respond to Brazilian cultural and historical ideas about race, health, identity, and legitimacy.  You can learn more about her work here or follow her on Twitter @MelissaSCreary