Associate Professor of Anthropology; specialist in Tibet, Nepal, and the Himalayas
University of Colorado
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
As a junior in college, I studied abroad in Nepal. I was introduced to anthropology and conducted my first independent research project. From that moment on, I was hooked by fieldwork, by the anthropological method of participant-observation meaning to live within a community as both participant and anthropological observer.
For me, immersing oneself in a community in order to best understand and interpret it made intuitive sense, was deeply effective intellectually, and also greatly rewarding personally. I knew then that I wanted to become a professor of anthropology: a field researcher, a teacher, and a writer. I thought it would be the best job in the world which is exactly what it turned out to be. I love all aspects of what I do.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Am I allowed to say all of them? Cultural anthropologists tend to work on a solo practitioner model, so all of my research projects have been my own independent, original research. I have had phenomenal mentors over the years, as well as wonderful colleagues I’ve collaborated with on writing projects, and most importantly, hugely inspiring individuals with whom I’ve worked in the Tibetan exile community.
If you made me choose just one project, it would be my longstanding research on the Tibetan resistance army Chushi Gangdrug. This was a joint anthropological and historical research project (as I hold a PhD in both anthropology and history from the University of Michigan) culminating in my book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010). Arrested Histories tells the story of how ordinary Tibetans rose up to defend their families, their leaders, and their country against the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s.
It is a history of this independent army which was funded and trained in part by the CIA, and an ethnography of contemporary life for the Tibetan veterans. What does it mean to have fought an unsuccessful war, to have lost one’s country, and to have this history forgotten within your community? How do those Tibetans who saw their military service as a form of religious service reconcile this with the Dalai Lama’s current policy of nonviolence? And, what do the stories of these retired veterans, now mostly anonymous old men, tell us about broader politics of community, history, truth, and hope in exile?
This project involved years of research in Nepal and India, countless hours spent in people’s homes recording their stories, digging deep into the social politics of the refugee community, making sense of how cultural logics inform historical truths. I use critical theory to make arguments about ethnography and history, translate rare texts into English, interview both Tibetan veterans and retired CIA officers, and embrace the unique, embodied, and messily precise methodology of participant-observation.
Anthropology is a discipline that traverses the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. My corner of it is where the social sciences meets the humanities. Our research is not lab-based, nor does it involve replicable hypotheses. Instead, it seeks to find, articulate, and explain cultures as they are actually lived, experienced, and understood by people in their everyday lives. This part of what I do—meeting people in their own worlds, being trusted to pass on their stories, and doing so within a committed disciplinary framework—is the heart of cultural anthropology.
Role models and heroes:
- The Dalai Lama.
- The late father of the Tibetan family with whom I have lived in the field for the last eighteen years.
- My grad school mentor Ann Stoler.
- My undergraduate mentor Mary Moran.
- The musicians, artists, writers, and poets of the world: science needs them too.
- And my two kids. They inspire me daily.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Find something you are passionate about. Follow your dreams and don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Work hard to create opportunities for other women, and all worthy individuals whose paths you cross. In terms of lingering gender discrimination in the academy and STEM worlds outside the academy, commit to creating the world you want and find good partners and colleagues to do it with. Believe in yourself.
Favorite website or app:
For anthropology: anthropologyreport.com (a new, but immediately indispensable blog featuring fresh content, great resources, and committed to showcasing anthropology’s relevance to what’s happening around the world)
Anthropology Major Fox (whose url is slightly crude although the site is not at all. Instead it is an insightful, funny meme that covers all of anthropology: archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics as well as cultural anthropology)
For Tibet: highpeakspureearth.com (an invaluable site that translates writing—journalistic writing, blogging, poetry, song lyrics—from inside Tibet in either Tibetan or Chinese into English, with excellent commentary as well)
General: twitter.com (I think of Twitter as a micro-blogging platform allowing me to share and exchange ideas and information. It’s my personally curated newsfeed and has introduced me to other anthropologists, activists, writers, and scholars doing excellent, inspiring work around the world including the STEMinist team.)