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Environmental Studies

"Sweet Blood" and New Directions: Matthew Klingle on his Sabbatical Leave

Story posted November 25, 2013

Matthew Klingle

Although sabbaticals are thought by many students to allow professors a break from the rigors of teaching a full class load, the reality is often quite different. Associate Professor Matthew Klingle (History and Environmental Studies), who teaches interdisciplinary courses in both departments, used his sabbatical during the 2011-12 and 2012-2013 academic years as “an opportunity to begin tentative new directions in [his] scholarship and teaching.”

Thanks to a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports humanities scholars to blend disciplines and fields in innovative ways, Klingle began working on a project tentatively titled “Sweet Blood: History and the Nature of Diabetes and Chronic Disease America.” His initial “patchwork, bricolage type of research” has evolved to combine the fields of medicine, science and technology studies, public health, and history to answer three broad questions: How has our scientific and cultural understanding of diabetes changed over time? How has our understanding of the environment altered diseases like diabetes? And how has the disease affected communities in the United States differentially?

In order to answer these questions, Klingle had to gain a deeper understanding of several fields that were completely new to him. In the summer of 2011, he took courses in epidemiology and social epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Thinking back on the experience, he notes, “there is nothing more humbling than taking a course outside of your expertise and comfort…in the middle of your career.”

During his year-and-a-half sabbatical, he spent time traveling around the country to gather oral histories from research scientists, visit archives and libraries, and delve into historical biomedical literature. But starting an interdisciplinary project on this scale has not been without its challenges. Klingle found it especially difficult to “get on top of a disparate and varied set of fields” and learn the methodologies of interpreting research in each. Throughout this project, he has spent as much time reading scientific journal articles as he has visiting archives. The interdisciplinary nature of the work has allowed him to gain a basic working knowledge of the intricacies of other fields, as well as a deeper understanding of his own students. After taking classes on an advanced level on topics outside of his comfort zone, he noted that he “had a new appreciation of what it takes to be on the other side of the classroom.”

Diabetes Awareness

In addition to the ways in which the project stretched him personally, he faced challenges with limitations of available data. “I naively thought that I’d be able to answer some concrete questions about the etiology and epidemiology of diabetes,” Klingle stated, reflecting on the way he’d searched for some common factor that would link all other parts of his work together. However, as he notes, “one difficulty is that you aren’t going to find that specific moment because people weren’t taking data on it.” Until recently, physicians and public health officials collected data from select populations, often ignoring those at the margins of medical care: communities of color and the rural or urban poor.  How the diabetes has changed from an ailment of affluence and whiteness to a disease of poverty and minorities over the past century is major part of his research.

Moreover, with new methods of diagnosis and treatment, it’s hard to separate out increases in diabetes prevalence and incidence rates with improvements in medical testing and diagnosis. Since diabetes is a chronic disease and is rarely the direct cause for death, even characterizing the changing number of fatalities from the disease is challenging. Despite the lack of an easy answer, Klingle still sees his research as crucial to understanding diabetes and an environmental and historical problem that contributes to the deaths of more than 230,000 US citizens per year. While the ultimate goal is to produce a book, he has given several invited talks on his research across the country and is working on two articles for submission to historical journals in the coming year.

Klingle also used his time away from the classroom to continue his collaboration with Associate Professor Michael Kolster (Visual Arts) on the history and aesthetics of American waterways. So far, their joint project, “A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin River in Time and Place,” has yielded several public talks and a summer 2012 exhibition at the Bowdoin Museum of Art. Together they are exploring to expand the project to encompass other waterways across the nation. Although the two projects may seem unrelated, he commented that “both of the projects point to the resiliency of human and non-human communities, and the challenges of blurring different fields…and looking for nature in places where you don’t expect to find it.”

Citing the opportunities to refresh and re-energize his teaching style, refocus on some previous work, and begin a new project, Klingle concluded, “Sabbatical leave is critical for my success here as a teacher and a scholar…it has and will transform me in so many ways.”

Photo credit to Michael Kolster (top), 2013, and the National Library of Medicine (lower image).

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