Reilly Center names new director of Medicine and the Liberal Arts program

Author: Carrie Gates

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The John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values has announced new leadership for a key program — Vania Smith-Oka, an associate professor of anthropology, will serve as the inaugural director of the center’s Medicine and the Liberal Arts program.

“The Reilly Center is fortunate to have this program in the hands of an excellent scholar and administrator,” said Robert Goulding, the center’s director. “Our new program in Medicine and the Liberal Arts has an ideal inaugural director in Vania Smith-Oka. Her research interests coincide precisely with the broad vision we have of pre-health education in Arts and Letters.”

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Vania Smith-Oka

The Medicine and the Liberal Arts program offers conferences, lectures, classes, and professionalization opportunities focused on empathy, ethics, and the social and historical background of medicine. The program will also provide undergraduates with summer fellowships, mentorship opportunities, and support for research positions, lab placements, and internships.

While the programming is aimed primarily at students with a supplementary major in Arts and Letters pre-health, Smith-Oka said, it will be of value to all students who wish to gain a better understanding of the nature of medicine.

A cultural and medical anthropologist, Smith-Oka investigates the effect of medical institutions on the lives and practices of people within them. Using hospital ethnography she has investigated the doctor-patient relationship in maternity wards in Mexico — particularly the role of space/place, notions of social and medical risk, violence and discrimination, and quality of care. 

Her most recent project, Becoming Gods: Medical Training in Mexican Hospitals, explored how skills, practices, and attitudes of medicine are transmitted to medical students. Her current research addresses the process by which practices such as obstetric violence become prevalent within medical care. 

“Serving as the inaugural director of the Medicine and the Liberal Arts program allows me to align my research, teaching, and service,” she said. “Given that medical practice is always simultaneously technical, scientific, humanistic, and social, this program will ground students in social and humanistic perspectives within health care.”

In addition to offering gateway and foundational courses, the program will work closely with various departments and programs in the College — including anthropology, sociology, Romance languages and literatures, history, and gender studies — to create a stable of cohesive courses. A core component of the program will be to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the curriculum.

“The program was launched with the very generous support of Dr. Joan Coogan,” Goulding said. “She and her husband Philip Coogan (ND ’59) helped found the Quillen School of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, driven by a sense of mission to the people of Appalachia. Our intention, following Joan’s wishes, is to help instill the same sense of vocation, service, and mission among students at Notre Dame.”

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