New courses and a debut speaker series connect pre-med study to the liberal arts.
By Julia Munemo
The daughter of two physicians and the sister of a medical resident, Laura Wang ’21 wasn’t planning to follow her family’s career path. She came to Williams for the liberal arts. In her freshman year, she took chemistry and math classes as well as introductory economics and psychology. She decided to major in economics, but medicine tugged at her. As she found her way to the pre-med track, she was determined to incorporate the ideas she was engaging with in her other courses into that field of study.
“I had thought the pre-med track would exclude other disciplines,” Wang says. “That’s in part because I knew there was an idea in the medical community that politics should be kept separate from medicine.”
Then she took a course last fall that shattered her assumption: Epidemic! A Critical History of Medicine, Science and Power, taught by Richmond Visiting Professor Ahmed Ragab. The course “investigated the place of epidemics in medical and scientific thought, how they relate to race, gender, sexuality and colonialism, and how they change the world we live in,” says Ragab, who received a medical degree from Cairo University and a Ph.D. in the history of science from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.
Wang, who will enroll next fall at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says Epidemic! helped her understand “there is no way science and medicine are disconnected from social hierarchies and politics. I began to see how important it is for physicians to understand more than just medicine.”
Of the 13 students who took Epidemic!, most were juniors and seniors, and roughly half were on the pre-med track, even though the course wasn’t required. Ragab says he was delighted to see so many pre-
med students in the course: “I found they were starved for content that will prepare them for health care careers in a way that is embedded within the humanities.”
Medical humanities is an expanding field that focuses on how medicine and public health intersects with topics such as history, literature and religion. During the spring semester, Ragab taught two more courses in the field, the introductory Science, Technology and Colonialism, and the advanced Race, Gender and Science. He’ll continue as a visiting professor in 2021-2022.
Ragab also leads a lecture series at Williams’ Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences about the Covid-19 pandemic. Some events bring outside scholars into conversation with faculty; others are discussion-based and open to the entire community. “This becomes a space to talk about how Williams is dealing with and working through the pandemic,” says Ragab, who has previously taught at the Harvard Divinity School and is director of the Center for Black, Brown and Queer Studies. The independent center aims to address inequities in academia by “raising historical and cultural awareness around issues of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, citizenship status and colonialism,” according to its website.
Ragab, who also advises a pre-med student group and leads a reading group for students, says the series, “along with the courses I teach, helps bring medical humanities into the larger conversation we’re having at Williams. It’s key to sustaining the liberal arts mission.”
Wang says she is grateful Ragab came to Williams before she graduated. In the spring she took Race, Gender and Science and worked as Ragab’s research assistant.
“The courses I’ve taken with Professor Ragab will influence how I practice medicine,” she says. “I will question things more, like who the health care system benefits and who it leaves out, and how different people interact with it.”