“Imprecision Medicine: Health Without History” with Dr. Rick W.A. Smith

November Seminar with Dr. Rick W.A. Smith, MA, MS, PhD

Dr. Rick Smith speaking with the Eichler fellows and greater Dartmouth community.

This talk titled “Imprecision Medicine: Health without History” given by Dr. Rick W.A. Smith of the Dartmouth Anthropology department targeted the intersection of Anthropology and genomic advancements. The Eichler fellows were joined by their classmates and colleagues as Dr. Smith shared his insights on his research interspersed with the information he would’ve wanted to hear as a pre-medical student. 

We are all familiar with the recent boom in genetic tests commercialized to uncover our family lineage and ancestry; these consumerized genetic test kits are what Dr. Smith refers to as “the unfulfilled promise of precision medicine”. Following the advancements in genetic medicine, we were promised a revolution in health, but what we got were take-home ancestry kits. In this talk, we were encouraged to think about all the greater possibilities and untapped potential in genetic testing. 

Dr. Smith’s research focuses on the ways that social and political power structures shape human biology in both ancient and contemporary societies. Not only does colonialism leave marks on the physical locations of civilization, but also on the bodies of the native civilians. Violence and trauma can be traced through genetic and epigenetic data. However, it has been only scientists deciding that “pure” blood qualifies a person as indigenous; genetic scientists have been studying indigenous populations without acknowledging the social experiences, trauma, and sexual violence that these populations have experienced. This manner of genetic data collection erases the history of white violence on indigenous bodies that indigenous women have faced.

How are scientists, removed from a historical and cultural context of what they are studying, the ones making decisions regarding indigenous people? Not only has this resulted in the erasure of alterations in genetic variation of indigenous people following colonialism, but also raises an ethical problem of how scientific literature determines both who is getting studied and what the implications mean without a full understanding of the social context.

This seminar topic and the work of Dr. Smith are a robust examples of interdisciplinary study. Dr. Smith’s multidisciplinary approach to his work is one that the Dartmouth Health Care Foundations program hopes to continue inspiring in pre-medical students. We must not only examine the most pressing issues in medicine as a biomedical problem – but additionally, how to approach these issues from a sociological/anthropological, psychological, social perspective. In doing so, we – as future medical leaders – will be able to better represent the people and phenomena we are studying. 


For more information on the Dartmouth Health Care Foundations program, visit the site here.

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