Saving the world requires an interdisciplinary perspective
By Isabel Slingerland
At the tender age of five, one day I woke up and said, I’m done playing with Littlest Pet Shops and Polly Pockets; I want to save the world.
That day, I began devising plans. I schemed about how to filter salt out of the entire ocean to solve the global need for clean water, I “prescribed” drugs to my stuffed animals (who were apparently struggling with intense mental health problems), and I created a chart to sign everyone with cancer up for free chemotherapy—the world was my oyster. Though I whole heartedly believed that every single one of these interventions would save the world, performing any of these ideas outside of my imaginary universe would have surely caused the world’s ecosystems to collapse, caused patients with mental health struggles to relapse, and forced unnecessary suffering in those who, understandably, didn’t want to suffer the side effects of chemotherapy. Besides having no idea what I was doing, my main problem as a stubborn five-year-old was that I was unwilling to refer to those who could provide alternate perspectives to my own. This problem is not unique to five-year olds determined to save the world. Grown adults, non-profit organizations, and national governments are still facing the same problem I faced: they are unwilling to incorporate an interdisciplinary perspective to their global relief plans.
“Grown adults, non-profit organizations, and national governments are still facing the same problem I faced: they are unwilling to incorporate an interdisciplinary perspective to their global relief plans.”
When I first arrived at Emory University as an undergrad, I had a limited understanding of what it meant to take on an interdisciplinary perspective when pursuing a field of study. Originally a neuroscience major, before class registration I would sit and read through course descriptions and find myself loath to pick one. Each one sounded the same as the next.
I spoke to my freshman advisor, who was from the English department, since I had also put down creative writing as a potential major. My advisor had no idea how to help me but suggested that I look at classes outside of my comfort zone. As a somewhat lost freshman grateful for advice, I began looking at classes outside of my “designated majors” to see what jumped out at me. Almost immediately, I became entranced with the Anthropology course descriptions. Each one varied from the next and I had no idea how they could all be related to a single course of study. Naturally, I signed up for as many of them as I could during my next few years at Emory. I studied monkey brains, cross-cultural mental health, economics, chemistry, health policy, and film all under the label of being an Anthropology and Human Biology Major. Though I eventually decided against pursuing a creative writing major, I took a number of classes that qualified me for an English Minor. Not one of the classes I took at Emory were remotely similar, but I found this to be the most rewarding part of my college experience, and I now feel like I can begin to think better ways to possibly save the world, but this time not as a stubborn five year old.
One of the major world problems that I have always dedicated myself to learning more about is inequality. As someone who grew up with friends from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, I saw how inequality runs rampant in our healthcare system. The more I learned at Emory, the more I saw how this problem was not unique to my town, let alone the United States. With the five-year-old within me still wanting to get things done, I tried to use my courses to learn as much about global health inequalities. Through my interdisciplinary classes I was able to get a multifaceted view of health. In my global health classes I learned about how The Gates Foundation tried to cure polio but failed because they didn’t incorporate educational programs on polio and the vaccine associated with it. In my biology classes, I learned about how polio and other viruses infiltrate the immune system. In my economics classes, I learned about how western countries continue to colonize the global south through international economic policies that restrict nations from building adequate healthcare systems. In my political science classes, I learned about how the CIA works to overthrow government systems that do not agree with American moral and economic values. In my gender studies classes, I learned about how western social interpretations of femininity lead to the unequal distribution of healthcare resources. In my English classes, I learned about the rhetoric of resistance and how writing can be used as a tool to combat healthcare inequality through the creation of well-developed arguments. All of these classes combined allowed me to develop a multifaceted understanding of why global healthcare inequality is happening and how we can begin to address it. No problem can be fully understood by looking at it from one point of view.
“No problem can be fully understood by looking at it from one point of view.”
If, as an adult, I remained as stubborn as my five-year-old self, then I would not have seen the importance of viewing global health inequalities from multiple perspectives. Interdisciplinary studies helps us achieve outcomes that reflect our best intentions, leaving far less room for projects intended to save the world to destroy it instead. Though we often praise all global health aid projects, many of them still fail to understand this, and as a result, health and wealth inequality around the world continue to increase. However, by incorporating an interdisciplinary perspective, we can begin to alleviate these problems. When global health experts referred to anthropologists during the Ebola epidemic of 2014, they were able to learn that the virus was spreading through intricate death ceremonies that were deeply valued by the community in West Africa. The containment of Ebola would not have been possible without incorporating this interdisciplinary perspective. There are countless examples of moments in history–and even in the present–when multi-faceted approach was needed to address a complex issue appropriately and effectively.
More than ever, I now realize that true growth requires the use of an interdisciplinary approach. While expertise is important, the feedback and perspective that comes from interdisciplinary study is invaluable. It is time for global health experts to start consulting anthropologists, English professors, and even five-year olds to help form a more complete understanding of the problem they are trying to solve.
Isabel is a rising senior at Emory University studying Anthropology and Human Biology, but she regularly ventures into other departments to broaden her horizons. She has a passion for public policy and increasing the accessibility of healthcare resources, and she aspires to pursue a career in Public Health.