TEDxNorthwesternU 2010



Alice Dreger, PhD, is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. For seven years, she served as chair of the board and director of medical education for the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), a non-profit policy and advocacy organization for people born with atypical sex. Dreger’s scholarship and patient advocacy have focused on the social and medical treatment of people born with norm-challenging body types, including intersex, conjoinment, dwarfism, and cleft lip. She has frequently collaborated with health care professionals on improving the care of families with children whose bodies vary from the average.

Dreger is the author of numerous medical and medical humanities articles and has published three books, including two with Harvard University Press, most recently One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, which has received positive reviews in the New YorkerNature, the London Review of Books, and the New England Journal of MedicineOne of Us was also named the book of the month by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Her essay “Lavish Dwarf Entertainment” was chosen for Norton’s Best Creative Non-Fiction volume of 2009. Dreger’s essays on science, medicine, and life have been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. She has appeared on dozens of broadcasts, including Good Morning America, HBO, Discovery Health, National Public Radio, CNN International, ESPN, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She is a regular columnist for the Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum, and a blogger for Psychology Today. Under the auspices of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is currently completing a book on science and identity politics in the Internet Age.


Rick Kittles, PhD, received a BS in biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1989 and a PhD in biological sciences from George Washington University in 1998. He then helped establish the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. Currently, Kittles is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), as well as the associate director of the UIC Cancer Center.

Kittles is well known for his research of prostate cancer and health disparities among African Americans. He has also been at the forefront of the development of ancestry-informative genetic markers, and how genetic ancestry can be used to map genes for common traits and disease. His work on tracing the genetic ancestry of African Americans has brought light to many issues, new and old, which relate to race, ancestry, identity, and group membership.

Kittles’ high profile research and his strong ability to communicate genetic concepts and issues eloquently and understandably to the lay public has been featured over the past decade in five PBS and BBC network documentaries related to human biological diversity, race and disease. His work has been featured on CNN and the CBS show 60 Minutes where he was interviewed by Leslie Stahl. In addition to his research, he is scientific director and co-founder of African Ancestry, Inc., a private company that provides DNA testing services for tracing African genetic lineages to genealogists and the general public around the world. Kittles has published more than 85 research articles on prostate cancer in the African American population, race and genetics, and health disparities.

Program Schedule, December 15, 2010

7:00 – Welcome
Michael Kennedy, PhD; Northwestern University

7:05 – TED video talk

7:25 – “The Biology of Race in the Absence of Biological Races”, Rick Kittles, PhD; Department of Medicine, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Illinois at Chicago 

Defining “race” continues to be a nemesis. Knowledge from human genetic research is increasingly challenging the notion that race and biology are inextricably linked, engendering tremendous ramifications for human relations, identity and public health. It has become fashionable for geneticists and anthropologists to declare that race is a social construction. However, there is little practical value to this belief since few in the public believe and act on it. Thus race is mainly a social concept which in the US has been based on skin color and ancestry. Yet biomedical studies continue to examine black/ white differences. I will discuss why using race in biomedical studies is problematic using examples from U.S. groups which transcend “racial” boundaries and bear the burden of health disparities.

7:45 – TED video talk

8:05 – “Democracy After Anatomy”, Alice Dreger, PhD; Medical Humanities and Bioethics, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University

America’s democratic institutions have historically been restricted – and then opened up – based on appeals to anatomy. Voting, for one, was first essentially restricted to white men. Over time, groups with other anatomies struggled their way into being seen as “created equal.” Civil rights movements of all sorts – for sex equality, racial equality, dis/ability equality – have tended to be based on the idea that our common anatomy is more important than our anatomical differences. Yet even today, many legal restrictions are based on anatomical distinctions: age in voting and drinking, viability in abortion and withdrawal of life support, and sex where marriage and the draft are concerned.

As our democracy has matured, it has still retained an ancient reliance on anatomy as deeply meaningful. Yet at the same time, science has been dissolving the bright lines between anatomical categories. So what’s next? What could – what will – democracy look like after anatomy?

8:25 – Close and reception