Alondra Nelson: Advocate for the Social Sciences

November 15, 2014

Alondra Nelson, the new dean for the social sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says part of the job is to be “an advocate and a cheerleader” for the departments of anthropology, economics, history, political science and sociology.

“I want to support and showcase the remarkable work being done by some of the best thinkers and researchers in the world,” says Nelson, a scholar of race, gender and science and former director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

Since her appointment was announced last June, Nelson has held divisionwide faculty meetings to discuss academic priorities and ways departments can collaborate in research and the classroom. “It has been a chance to have interesting, inspiring conversations, to learn more about each others’ work,” she says, adding that these meetings have been the centerpiece of a strategic planning process for the future of the division.

Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies, describes herself as an interdisciplinary social scientist whose academic interests include science and technology, medicine and health, and social movements. Her recent research focused on how genetic analysis affects families and communities, and can be used for political purposes.

“Genetic information is changing how we think about belonging, about the past and the present,” Nelson says. “It tells us things about ourselves that are very individual but also confirm that we are all part of an overlapping, interwoven human family.”

She notes that genetic analysis has been used in Argentina to identify remains by relatives of those who disappeared during the military dictatorship of 1976-83; in South Africa to identify victims of apartheid; and in New York after the discovery of an African burial ground in lower Manhattan.

Nelson herself underwent genetic ancestry testing and discovered she is related to the Bamileke people of Cameroon. “That ethnic specificity was never a burning question for me,” she says. “But people I encountered while carrying out my research kept asking about this. It became a credibility issue.”

Her new book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome, will be published in 2016. She traces her interest in the use of genetic analysis for political purposes to a 2002 class-action lawsuit seeking reparations from several corporations, claiming they profited from slavery. When the suit was dismissed for lack of standing in 2004, the plaintiffs turned to genetic ancestry testing to prove they were descended from slaves. They still lost their appeal.

Nelson, who earned a Ph.D. in American studies from New York University in 2003 and her undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego, is also the author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, which won four scholarly awards after it was published in 2011.

Though the Panthers are best known as a militant political movement, Nelson explored the group’s lesser-known foray into health care with a network of free health clinics in the 1960s and ’70s. In addition to caring for poor African Americans who were underserved by mainstream medicine, they provided screening and counseling for sickle-cell anemia—a genetic disease that primarily affects people of African descent and was largely ignored by the medical system at the time.

“This foreshadowed contemporary health politics, what we now know as racial health disparities,” Nelson says. “It highlighted the fact that even if you have health insurance you may not be treated well.”

Nelson joined the Columbia faculty in 2009 after six years at Yale. Among the courses she has taught is one called “Post-racial America?” looking at issues surrounding racial intermarriage, multiracial identity, mass incarceration, health disparities and inequality in the education system. “In some areas things have gotten better and in some areas things are getting worse,” she says. “I wanted students in that class to appreciate the nuance of race in the U.S., to show the complexity of one of the most polarizing issues in our society.”

While she is not teaching this year because of her new role as dean, she expects to be back in the classroom next fall. Her new research is on computer-coding academies and non-profits as a grassroots response to concern about the lack of women and minorities in science. “Technology is a vector of power. These organizations are betting that knowing a little code can help one get to a better place.”

— By Georgette Jasen