There's something innovative and unusual going on in South Africa, and Anne Pollock has a front row seat.
An associate professor of science, technology and culture in the Ivan Allen College's School of Literature, Media and Communication, Pollock explores how medical technologies tell stories about identity, particularly in terms of race, gender, and citizenship.
The focus of her latest ethnographic research is a Johannesburg-based pharmaceutical start-up named iThemba, the Zulu word for hope. The idea behind the company, headquartered on the grounds of a historic Nobel dynamite factory, is to discover novel pharmaceuticals for the prevention and treatment of unmet medical needs in Africa.
"The researchers are highly skilled in their respective fields," says Pollock, who joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 2008. "Synthetic chemistry and the other scientific methods they use are the same as you'd find in any well-equipped laboratory anywhere. One of the things that makes iThemba different is that they are focused on diseases most relevant to Africa: HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis."
The company was set up with the South African government owning a 51 percent stake, "which helps ensure the company serves a public purpose with a mission that will enhance the nation."
From an ethnographic perspective, iThemba Pharmaceuticals is significant because it's an effort by a developing country to reduce its historical dependence on an extractive economic by taking a pioneering role in the discovery of scientific knowledge — a role traditionally the exclusive realm of wealthy nations. This point is a source of national and regional pride, says Pollock, who gathers information by interviewing scientists, attending meetings, and just hanging out and asking questions.
On the practical side, "researchers can work close to home," she adds. "They don't have to move to Europe or North America to do the research and development work they were trained to do."
She stresses that iThemba is focused on medical research, not the actual manufacture, licensing, or distribution of drugs. While interrelated, the issues are separate.
Pollock admits that iThemba's ambition is not without skeptics. "It's not clear at all whether these efforts will be successful," she says. "There are those who say Africa can't afford R&D; it's too risky. Let the rich countries pay for it."
At the same time, she notes, South Africa is an obvious site for a global health initiative.
"It has a huge impoverished population of black Africans with unmet health needs, but it also has a good upper-level education system; economic growth; a robust transit infrastructure; and a multiracial, educated middle class that wants to and could plausibly participate in global science. So I consider these kinds of initiatives as opportunities to see how South Africans might come together."
Pollock traces her interest in iThemba back a few years to a symposium she attended dealing with human rights, health, and the law. An emerging consensus at the meeting was that the most effective way to make life-saving drugs more affordable to developing nations in Africa and elsewhere was through reform of intellectual property laws, thereby increasing the accessibility of less expensive generics.
But one of the featured speakers, an iThemba founder and Emory University professor, argued that if Africans were engaged in drug discovery on their own, the results would be more accessible in terms of cost and more relevant to their needs.
The message made quite an impression on Pollock, who earned a Ph.D. in history and social study of science and technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There's a lot of complexity involved, she says, but it's a compelling and little-researched perspective about the relationship between rich and developing nations, also known as the global north and global south, respectively.
"Why do we assume that knowledge has to flow just one way — that the only place knowledge can be made is in the global north?" she asks. "Is it possible to imagine a world in which knowledge-making is more democratically and equitably distributed? These are the kinds of questions I'm interested in."
Her research into these questions informs her classroom instruction at Tech.
"One of the things I love about teaching at Georgia Tech is that my classes are very diverse in terms of the students' backgrounds," says Pollock. "Teaching courses such as Biomedicine and Culture to a class that includes both biomedical engineering majors and liberal arts majors — as well as students from across the Institute — offers opportunities to explore the intersections of science, technology, and culture together in innovative ways."
Pollock is an associate professor of Science, Technology and Culture in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and the coordinator of the graduate certificate in Science, Technology and Society. Her research and teaching focus on biomedicine and culture, theories of race and gender, and how science and medicine are mobilized in social justice projects.