Mellon Foundation awards Wheaton $560,000 grant

Funding will support humanities-driven efforts to address inequities in health and medicine

The Mellon Foundation has awarded Wheaton College a competitive $560,000 grant to support humanities-centered curricular pathways to change how we think about race in health and medicine.

Wheaton’s proposal “Transforming the Future of Health Education: Centering Race and Medical Humanities” aims to provide the opportunity for students, faculty and institutions of higher learning to understand the role that race, cultural backgrounds and global perspectives play in the study of health and medicine and in the equitable delivery of health care.

“This grant will allow Wheaton humanities faculty to develop and share their expertise with other educators on two cutting-edge areas that are shaping our health care futures—storytelling and the use of digital tools in understanding needs and providing service,” said M. Gabriela Torres, Wheaton associate provost and principal investigator on the grant. “It will give Wheaton students new social justice-focused opportunities to learn about the ways that race and racialization shape the quality of health care and limit our ability to truly understand and act to address the most challenging issues of human health.”

Humanities include the study of history, modern and classical languages, literature, culture, visual and performing arts, religious studies and philosophy—examined through a lens that focuses on our shared human experiences.

“At Wheaton, the grant will create new courses, minors and experiential opportunities that better prepare our students to critically engage with the legacies of slavery, racial bias and inequality that impact the understanding of health, human biology and health care,” said Torres, professor of anthropology.

During the next three years with the Mellon Foundation support, Wheaton humanities scholars plan to lead faculty collaborations aimed at transforming health education at Wheaton and beyond. The work will expand the curriculum with new courses and teaching materials as well as create new Liberal Education and Professional Success (LEAPS) and sophomore experiences; and prepare students to enter health and medical fields by equipping them to better serve diverse and underserved populations. It also will position professors as leaders in carrying out the college’s goals for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

Wheaton plans to create 10 free-to-use learning modules that can be shared with other colleges and universities for educators to explore race as a layered foundation of health sciences. Postdoctoral fellows, also funded through the grant, will bring to campus their expertise in global narratives and help students build skills in digital health humanities.

“Global narrative medicine is based on the idea that the effective practice of medicine requires the ability to acknowledge, interpret and act on the global diversity of stories that are central to the practice of medicine. That means that any good health care requires knowing how to closely read and act on the narratives that patients tell, the narratives of caregivers themselves and the narratives that develop between caregivers and patients or colleagues,” Torres said.

“Importantly, health care today requires understanding that human health narratives are undeniably global. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that. Reading or acting on global knowledge requires an expanded humanities skill set to understand human cultural and geographic differences that this grant will help us bring to students,” she said.

“Digital health humanities focus on understanding health care at its evolving intersection with technology,” Torres said. “This approach to understanding health care starts from an analysis of the cultural, historical, ethical and technical features of digital tools used in health care.”

Torres, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Touba Ghadessi and the college’s Corporate and Foundation Relations team all worked together to create the successful grant proposal.

Over the past several years, Wheaton has been awarded several Mellon Foundation grants. They include $100,000 awarded in 2017 to support planning for cooperatives to support the digital publication of documentary and scholarly editions; $500,000 awarded in 2016 for faculty development and off-campus programs integrating experiential learning into the arts and humanities curriculum; and $100,000 in 2015 to support presidential leadership.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding.

“The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive,” as stated on the Foundation’s website.

Ghadessi, professor of the history of art and co-founder of the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities, said she is excited about the opportunities that are ahead for the college.

“We will address large questions that have a large impact, but we will do so with pragmatism, intentionality and courage. Thanks to this grant, we will leverage our existing strengths and expand them in a meaningful way, augmenting capacity and shining light on narratives that have been historically silenced,” she said.

Torres said that the idea for the “Transforming the Future of Health Education: Centering Race and Medical Humanities” proposal stems from collaborations involving her medical anthropology, global health and First-Year Experience (FYE) classes and various faculty members in the biology and chemistry departments—particularly professors Jennifer Lanni (biology), Hilary Magruder Gaudet ’09 (chemistry and biochemistry) and Shawn McCafferty (biology).

“Students over the years in medical anthropology and global health played matchmaker between myself and their biology professors, which began a series of class visits and discussions on race, humanities, health, DNA and biology,” Torres said. “This work led me to co-teach a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-sponsored summer lecture with Hilary Magruder Gaudet on health disparities. We co-taught an FYE together with [Professor Emerita of English] Claire Buck titled ‘Medical Mysteries’ where we introduced students to narrative medicine, the cultural study of medical knowledge and the science behind the medical diagnostic process. These collaborations together slowly gave rise to the grant.”