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Who tells the story? Madhushree Ghosh speaks on science and the arts at the Examined Life Conference


The Examined Life Conference -- Madhushree Ghosh, Featured Presenter

Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m., 1505 Seamans Center, University of Iowa, Free


Madhushree Ghosh — Hannah Claire Photography

Madhushree Ghosh returned to California from Belgium on Friday and will fly to Iowa this week to be the featured presenter at the 16th annual Examined Life Conference, hosted by the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. The conference focuses on the links between medicine and the arts.

Ghosh travels to Belgium every two weeks in her work with diagnostic oncology. Her memoir, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family (University of Iowa Press, 2022), which is a deeply personal account of the intersection of life and place, also deals with the intersection of hard science and the humanities.

Ghosh moved to the U.S. from India in 1993 to pursue a graduate degree and, because of visa requirements, she continued to study.

“Immigrants are often seen as grateful,” she said, “but that gratitude is a two-way street. We also bring a lot of value and experience and expertise. Being an immigrant means trying not to let go of something you’ve voluntarily given up.”

The work Ghosh does sits at the intersection of diagnostic oncology and social justice.

“Gen Xers have made all these sacrifices and at the end of the day, when you’re on your deathbed, the company will be sorry but they’ll also be looking for your replacement,” Ghosh said. “I’m not going to diss corporate America — corporate America has given me a lot … My role right now is to correct what I did. Our mistakes were: We were good at school, and we were good at corporate jobs. We are missing births, marriages, funerals, death, missing everything just to be good at our jobs.”

Ghosh says she has faith in younger generations not to repeat these mistakes. Her social justice work is driven by her work in diagnostic oncology because she has experienced first-hand the disparity of treatment between gender and race.

Early in her career, Ghosh said, she was naive, but when she was passed for a promotion despite being significantly more qualified than the man who received the promotion (she was told he had a wife at home and needed the pay raise) the moment offered her all of the information she needed.

“A ‘no’ gives you plenty of answers, plenty of data … Single women aren’t considered to have a work-life balance. Mothers are considered to have a work-life balance but they are being ‘allowed’ to do unpaid labor. That is not work-life balance. That’s a work-work balance.”

Madhushree Ghosh, PhD speaks as part of the Examined Life conference Thursday, Oct. 20 at University of Iowa.

This problem, Ghosh added, has been exacerbated since 2020: “We are still in a pandemic whether we like it or not, and lots of people — lots of women — left the workforce,” maybe not intentionally, but because someone had to take care of the home and this role is expected of women. “Women deserve to be paid. The gender-pay parity is real. Essential workers — women and people of color — are not being paid and they are dying. Of course they are leaving.”

Ghosh came to writing, she said, from a culture of folklore.

“I come from a culture of myth and wars and justice and really badass women and celebration of family. A culture of show and tell. When I answer questions it’s a rabbit hole because I respect those who have an end point and bring you along with them. Telling stories in a braided fashion is my go-to and how my brain works and it’s how we are all connected. It’s also important to ask: who tells the story?”

Ghosh began working on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion teams, but discovered that “diversity, equity, and inclusion means nothing if it doesn’t include a sense of belonging.” She chose to pursue her talent for science and research over the arts because she knew, based on visa requirements, she’d spend a lot of her life in academia. The question to ask, she said, is who is missing and who is silenced?

But the humanities and the sciences still need one another to thrive.

“We hear ‘cancer diagnosis’ with our ears and translate it into our brains, but we understand it in our hearts,” Ghosh said. “We need to talk face-to-face and get out of the lab and see the people who are experiencing the thing you’re making diagnostics for. We are doing ourselves a disservice as science people when we don’t talk to arts people. It’s important and interesting to challenge our own biases.”

“I would like to be very frank and ask that we give ourselves the opportunity to fail,” she continued. “I would like to ask people to use both sides of the brain. We have not been taught compassion, we have not been taught teamwork, we have not been taught kindness. We don’t need to be taught kindness, maybe, but we forget it on the way to becoming so competitive. We need to acknowledge each other if nothing else.”


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