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Duke Health Humanities Lab combines science, storytelling and advocacy

Are you a pre-medical student who loves to read Chaucer? Or a history buff who enjoys researching the human genome? The Health Humanities Lab could be perfect for you. 

The HHL was founded in 2016 by three Duke faculty and staff members who hold appointments in a number of departments. They organized the initiative after the creation of similar successful programs at the University of California, Berkeley and Ohio State University. 

The lab has partnered with several other campus organizations to provide an outlet for students to combine interests in the humanities and health sciences. It offers classes on storytelling in a science-based environment. 

One example of the lab’s work is the Narrative Medicine seminar series, which is led by Assistant Professor of Neurology Sneha Mantri. She explained that these workshop sessions focus on close reading and reflective writing, using memoirs and short stories to uncover aspects of the patient-physician relationship. 

“In my narrative medicine workshops, we frequently have a mix of medical professionals, therapists, undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of fields,” Mantri said. “Medical practice, like graduate school, is otherwise deeply siloed, so this is a wonderful opportunity to build community across Duke.” 

Last spring, the HHL organized the Disability in Disciplines conference to display work focusing on disabilities as well as a presentation from Marina Tsaplina, an associate at the Trent Center, which explored “the eugenics impulse.” 

The event attracted people with disabilities from across the Triangle, said Marion Quirici, co-director of the HHL and lecturer in the Thompson Writing Program. The HHL directors plan to attend a consortium in Tennessee in March to improve the quality of the next conference. 

“We wanted to create opportunities for people across the disciplines to consider how the field of disability studies could challenge and improve their work,” Quirici said. “Our initiative includes faculty from medicine, engineering, the social sciences, brain sciences, law, divinity and the humanities.”

Additionally, the lab has bolstered its potential by offering another creative outlet to its activities: film. The lab recently produced the Keepers of the House, a 15-minute documentary featuring interviews with eight hospital housekeepers whose stories would not have otherwise been emphasized, said HHL Co-Director Neil Prose, also a professor of dermatology. 

He explained that the documentary is “primarily designed for health care students and providers, with important lessons about empathy, humility and teamwork” as they work toward medical licenses. 

The HHL is also striving to promote a broader presence through course offerings. Quirici is teaching three writing seminars for first-years: Neurodiversity, Narratives and Activism; Disability and Representation; and Literature and Medicine. 

Correction: The story was updated Wednesday night to clarify the number of individuals who founded HHL, the nature of the work at the Disability in the Disciplines conference and the production of Keepers of the House. The Chronicle regrets the errors. 

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