Reilly Center names new directors of Medicine and the Liberal Arts, GLOBES programs

Author: Carrie Gates

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The John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values has announced new leadership for two key programs — Vania Smith-Oka, an associate professor of anthropology, and Amy Hixon, an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences. 

Smith-Oka will serve as the inaugural director of the center’s Medicine and the Liberal Arts program, and Hixon has been named director of the GLOBES graduate certificate program.

“The Reilly Center is fortunate to have two of its programs in the hands of two excellent scholars and administrators,” said Robert Goulding, the center’s director. “Amy Hixon has been involved in GLOBES for several years and is a mentor to many of our students. She brings both long experience and new perspectives to this interdisciplinary graduate program. And our new program in Medicine and the Liberal Arts has an ideal inaugural director in Vania Smith-Oka. Her research interests coincide precisely with the broad vision we have of pre-health education in Arts and Letters.”

Medicine and the Liberal Arts

Vania Smith Oka 600
Vania Smith-Oka

The Medicine and the Liberal Arts program offers conferences, lectures, classes, and professionalization opportunities focused on empathy, ethics, and the social and historical background of medicine. The program will also provide undergraduates with summer fellowships, mentorship opportunities, and support for research positions, lab placements, and internships.

While the programming is aimed primarily at students with a supplementary major in Arts and Letters pre-health, Smith-Oka said, it will be of value to all students who wish to gain a better understanding of the nature of medicine.

A cultural and medical anthropologist, Smith-Oka investigates the effect of medical institutions on the lives and practices of people within them. Using hospital ethnography she has investigated the doctor-patient relationship in maternity wards in Mexico — particularly the role of space/place, notions of social and medical risk, violence and discrimination, and quality of care. 

Her most recent project, Becoming Gods: Medical Training in Mexican Hospitals, explored how skills, practices, and attitudes of medicine are transmitted to medical students. Her current research addresses the process by which practices such as obstetric violence become prevalent within medical care. 

“Serving as the inaugural director of the Medicine and the Liberal Arts program allows me to align my research, teaching, and service,” she said. “Given that medical practice is always simultaneously technical, scientific, humanistic, and social, this program will ground students in social and humanistic perspectives within health care.”

In addition to offering gateway and foundational courses, the program will work closely with various departments and programs in the College — including anthropology, sociology, Romance languages and literatures, history, and gender studies — to create a stable of cohesive courses. A core component of the program will be to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the curriculum.

“The program was launched with the very generous support of Dr. Joan Coogan,” Goulding said. “She and her husband Philip Coogan (ND ’59) helped found the Quillen School of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, driven by a sense of mission to the people of Appalachia. Our intention, following Joan’s wishes, is to help instill the same sense of vocation, service, and mission among students at Notre Dame.”

GLOBES Graduate Certificate

Amy Hixon
Amy Hixon

GLOBES, an interdisciplinary training program in environment and society, offers Notre Dame graduate students from any college the opportunity to supplement their education as part of an engaged community of scholars seeking innovative ways to address the environmental challenges facing humankind and the planet.

The program includes interdisciplinary seminars and training modules in which students use current topics as lenses to examine how fields work together to address contemporary environmental issues. Students also develop an integrative research project as a component of their dissertations and participate in group discussions and projects as part of the GLOBES community.

Graduate students in the program are able to extend research in new directions, integrate new skills and knowledge, and become effective communicators across disciplines. 

“I am excited to take on the role of GLOBES director,” Hixon said. “I plan to maintain the current foci on communication and policy, provide new opportunities for graduate students to engage in environmental activism and this year’s Reilly Center theme of Race, Justice, and Equality, and bring back an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies.”

Hixon focuses her research on the chemistry and geochemistry of the actinide elements, specifically plutonium, and works towards solving societal problems related to clean energy and national security. 

She joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2013 from Clemson University, where she completed her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in nuclear environmental engineering and science. Hixon has won early career awards from the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation based on her research efforts.

While a doctoral candidate, she also held a position at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, where she supported the work of the Performance Assessment and Environmental Review branches.