Oregon Quarterly Summer 2020

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SENSITIVE SCIENCE

Kodom works with the monkeys year-round and helps Christie (right) identify individuals for data collection

Research the Right Way An anthropologist respects indigenous groups while doing her work STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DENISE SILFEE

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n a dry, deciduous forest in central Ghana, Diana Christie spends her days watching white-thighed colobus monkeys through binoculars. With her blond ponytail, hiking boots, and pants tucked into her socks to protect her legs from biting ants, the University of Oregon PhD anthropology student stands out. Locals walking the trails pass by wearing flip-flops and balancing large bowls of firewood or farm tools on their heads. The women wear colorful wraps and skirts and the men loose shorts or trousers, and they call out to Christie in Twi, the local language. “Maakye! Wo ho te sen? [Hello! How are you today?]” Christie pauses in her work to respond, also in Twi, with a smile and small talk. Christie spends six months of the year at a

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forest sanctuary for the critically endangered monkeys located between the communities of Boabeng and Fiema. She is researching how the social behaviors of the monkeys— grooming and resting near each other, sharing in the care of infants—impact the microbes in their digestive tracts. Her work could help scientists better understand the link between the health of microbes in human digestive systems and disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Her relationship with the community also has an impact. Christie’s research is done with cultural sensitivity, which includes learning about local history and customs. Science has a history of extraction— scientists have come into small communities like Boabeng and Fiema, extracted data, and left. Those researchers

would take that data home and use it to publish findings, contributing to academic knowledge and furthering their careers. In worst-case scenarios, Western scientists have done so while treating indigenous communities with indifference, condescension, or outright disdain. “Often the people in those communities don’t even hear the results of that research, and in too many cases scientists directly exploited and abused local communities,” Christie says. She has been trained to consider the complicated history of her field and to think critically about global issues of privilege and power. Nelson Ting, a UO anthropology professor, prepares students such as Christie for field research and interacting with communities.