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The Asthma Files: Creating a Portrait of Asthmatic Spaces in New York State and Beyond

March 24, 2010

The Asthma Files: Creating a Portrait of Asthmatic Spaces in New York State and Beyond

Last spring, the Fortuns and STS graduate students Alison Kenner and Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn laid the groundwork for the Asthmatic Spaces courses. They developed a set of research questions to examine how asthma is understood and addressed in different places, and then conducted intensive fieldwork in Houston, Texas, interviewing key players focused on air quality and public health.

About 300 million people around the world have difficulty breathing due to asthma, and for several years, it’s been a special research interest for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Associate Professor Kim Fortun. The incidence of asthma has increased dramatically in the United States and globally in recent decades, making asthma one of the most common chronic diseases in the world.

This spring, Fortun, associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in Rensselaer’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, is teaching a collaborative social science research project course titled Asthmatic Spaces: New York. The course is bringing together students and faculty from diverse disciplines to understand how asthma is produced, experienced, and cared for in specific spaces such as neighborhoods, cities, and countries.

The goal of the class project is to produce new understandings of asthma patterns, drivers, and experiences in New York state. Also, real-time results will be shared with faculty and students undertaking similar research in Houston, Texas; Knoxville, Tenn., and New Orleans.

“Asthma was chosen as a subject to study because of its impact on public health, because of its scientific complexity, and because of the way it draws together people with many different kinds of expertise — in health care, basic science, air quality assessment, building design, genetics, and many other areas,” Fortun said.

The results of the project will contribute to The Asthma Files, an electronic public archive of knowledge about asthma designed to promote scientific and environmental health literacy, according to Fortun. The online platform has been created with input from social scientists, artists, activists, students, and others concerned about asthma, as a way to facilitate collaboration and dialogue among the groups. The archive will include text, still images, video, and audio that illustrate multiple perspectives on asthma — from the vantage point of affected people in different locales and communities, health care providers, and scientists from many different disciplines.

“Asthma sufferers and caregivers also struggle daily to make sense of asthma, trying to understand the rhythms of incidence, triggers, and effective modes of care and prevention,” Fortun said. “The Asthma Files project aims to bring all these groups into conversation.”

Launch of the Project
Fortun and her husband, Mike Fortun, also an associate professor of STS at Rensselaer, have been focused on asthma research for nearly four years. A historian of life sciences, his research focuses on the contemporary science, culture, and political economy of genomics.

Fortun noted that they first envisioned The Asthma Files while participating in a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded collaborative effort led by Harvard University to develop gene-environment interaction research responsive to health disparities, using asthma as a case study.

“The key goal of the collaboration was to identify genetic study designs that incorporated robust environmental indicators,” Fortun said. “As part of the organizing group for a June 2006 workshop at Harvard University, we brought together diverse researchers to consider possibilities and challenges.”

“It was very clear that geneticists, epidemiologists, and environmental scientists have had very limited prior contact, and worked with very different kinds of data and conceptual schemes. In addition, there was a tendency to think that the group needed to come to consensus to work effectively together,” Fortun added. “We became interested in how explanatory pluralism – or dissensus — could be highlighted, deliberated and leveraged, rather than merely managed, and The Asthma Files works toward this.”

“Differences of interpretation are almost always an important part of the growth of knowledge in any field,” Mike Fortun said. “Even radical disagreement about fundamental issues and concepts cannot only be normal, but enormously productive in the sciences.”

Kim Fortun noted that a defining feature of The Asthma Files project is its focus on the different ways that researchers and societies deal with complex problems. “While learning about the ways different patients, care-givers, researchers, and governments deal with asthma, the research group is also learning about ways of dealing with complex problems in general.”

“The interdisciplinarity among researches involved in The Asthma Files project is an important corollary. When you are dealing with problem-based research, there are many factors to consider. Having people involved from a variety of disciplines leverages different modes of thinking, and encourages development of new angles on the problem,” she added.

The collaboration with the University of Houston Honors College came as a result of Fortun’s connection with philosopher Daniel Price, associate professor with Houston Honors College and director of the class there. The asthma research in New Orleans is being carried out by Nick Shapiro, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford.

Fortun’s class comprises nine students who come from a range of disciplines that include mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering, as well as mathematics, physics, management, architecture, and science and technology studies. The undergraduate students are Andrew Cronin, Michelle Cullum, Douglas Das, Alexander Richman, William Schmitt, Jennifer Spartz, and Kevin Watters. The graduate students are Alison Kenner and Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn.

“The class provides students with an opportunity to participate in a multidisciplinary research process, and to learn how to work with complex data sets and information,” Fortun said. “The aim of the class project is to develop students’ capacity to creatively integrate and communicate data on a complex problem.”

Last spring, the Fortuns and STS graduate students Kenner and Costelloe-Kuehn laid the groundwork for the Asthmatic Spaces courses. They developed a set of research questions to examine how asthma is understood and addressed in different places, and then conducted intensive fieldwork in Houston, interviewing key players focused on air quality and public health.

Hosted by Daniel Price and the University of Houston Honors College, they also participated in a roundtable discussion with biomedical researchers, exposure scientists, health care providers, environmental activists, city officials, journalists, educators, and students to discuss the particularities of asthma triggers and patterns in the area. The Houston research allowed them to develop and test their research protocol, and produced preliminary data for making comparisons between areas. The goal is to refine the protocol through comparative study of U.S. cities and regions so that it can direct later research abroad. The Fortuns are particularly interested in extending their study to New Delhi and to Japan.

The undergraduate classes now under way at Rensselaer and the University of Houston will contribute to the larger project. Students will work extensively with an ever-growing cache of research materials related to asthma in their area of concern. They also will conduct their own surveys and oral history interviews. At the end of the semester, each student will present a “portrait” of asthma in their area, aiming to draw out both unique aspects and patterns observable across areas.  The Web platform for The Asthma Files, now supported by the Texas Learning and Computation Center at the University of Houston, will provide space to showcase the students’ work.

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Contact: Jessica Otitigbe
Phone: (518) 276-6050


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