A philosopher receiving money from a science organization, however, is noteworthy, and McHugh’s plans for the money are both innovative and potentially groundbreaking.
McHugh will use the funding to conduct research for a grant titled “Situated Communities: A Pragmatist Approach to Scientific Research,” and then write an eight-chapter book, author at least four articles and make presentations at conferences on the subject. For as complicated as the subject matter sounds, and as ambitious as this grant project truly is, McHugh’s motivation is actually quite simple.
“I am frustrated by the distance philosophy and philosophers have from issues that matter substantially in the world,” McHugh said. “I also firmly believe that the kind of action that can come out of philosophical thinking can create substantial changes in how people live.”
McHugh, who wrote her dissertation on the role of democracy in science, said she has been interested in the subject of social and ethical impact of knowledge generating practices of science for several years. After attending a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on Feminist Epistemologies at The Pennsylvania State University two years ago, McHugh was inspired by conversations with colleagues to seek out new ideas in her field.
But how? That was the question until McHugh traveled to Vietnam, thanks to a grant from the Freeman Foundation, which provided Wittenberg’s East Asian Studies Program with a $1.9 million grant in 2002 to ensure that all students and as many faculty members as possible have an encounter with Asia. As part of a 2004 seminar titled “Transition and Transformation in Vietnam,” McHugh visited a peace village in the Tu Du Hospital in Saigon, where Vietnamese people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide developed for the American military to defoliate trees and shrubbery in tropical climates, are being treated.
The use of Agent Orange, a mix of the chemicals 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T, was discontinued in 1971, but two generations later, the Vietnamese population continues to suffer in new and sometimes mysterious ways from the spraying. McHugh was profoundly impacted by what she experienced at the Peace Hospital.
“Our visit started out like many of our visits in Vietnam — meeting with officials, discussing how we could work with them,” McHugh said. “There was a clear desire on their part to work with scientists, educators and doctors, but not too much was said about philosophers.
“I wondered, as I frequently wondered when I was in these types of discussions in Vietnam, where was my place? What kind of contribution can a feminist epistemologist and philosopher of science make to the Vietnamese people?”
So after attending a conference in this country and a seminar in a foreign land, both with the intent of developing teaching skills and acquiring knowledge, McHugh was on the cusp of something with a much greater potential impact. As someone interested in the study of epistemology — defined as the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity — McHugh was troubled by the notion that laboratory studies indicated one thing about Agent Orange exposure and its lingering effects, but the reality of the situation on the ground in Vietnam was clearly another.
“The physical evidence of what I was seeing didn’t fit with the physical laboratory claims made by researchers who worked on the effects of dioxin,” McHugh said. “I want to emphasize in both cases the evidence was physical, one was in the clinical setting of the laboratory and one was here, in a living, situated environment, a physical and social environment in which Agent Orange existed and has existed as part of daily life since it was first sprayed in 1961.
“Scientists tend to dismiss evidence from the ‘wild’ nonclinical setting, which ironically is the setting in which life takes place, and we actually experience things.”
Using case studies on the effect of Agent Orange on Vietnamese women and children, hormone replacement therapy and endometriosis (a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found elsewhere in the body), McHugh hopes to “illustrate how choices in research methods affect lives and actual communities,” according to her grant proposal. She plans to take a sabbatical in the near future to focus on her research and writing for the grant.
McHugh, who came to Wittenberg in 2000 and holds a bachelor’s degree from Lake Erie College, a master’s degree from Cleveland State University and a Ph.D. from Temple University, is looking forward to this daunting task.
“Being excited and invigorated by ideas is incredibly important for any teacher,” she said. “Research does this. It allows a professor to bring into the classroom ideas and knowledge that they are passionate about. This gets students excited also.
“So I hope to have some new ideas to bring in to the classroom that will get students thinking critically and thinking about how they can make an impact on the world. Not only am I working in the interdisciplinary field of science studies, I am also working with scientific and medical research for my three case studies. This type of work embraces the core values of a liberal arts institution.”
- Ryan Maurer
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