New Faculty Q&A with Dr. Alexis Walker

January 1, 2021
Headshot of Dr. Alexis Walker

What attracted you to Columbia? What are you most excited about in joining the Division of Ethics?

I’m a scholar with a very mixed background – an undergraduate degree in biology; research experience in geophysics in Nicaragua and plant genetics in Germany; a master’s completed in France; a PhD with committee members in history, sociology, and anthropology, and dissertation research in Guyana and Washington, D.C.; and mentors in public policy and in philosophy. Columbia is a place with so many amazing scholars, where I can develop connections that continue to build on this background, especially through interdisciplinary centers like the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, the Center for Science and Society, and the Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics. My research examines social issues at the intersections of health, business and finance, so Columbia’s strong business school is of particular interest to me.

The Division of Ethics is the heart of what drew me to Columbia. Its position within the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics, which has strengths in narrative and social medicine, makes it a fabulous place to nurture my expertise across both ethics and the broader social studies of science, medicine, and technology. Dr. Sandra Lee has been a key leader in the development of an anthropological approach to bioethics, and I am so excited to work with her to build the Division in this tradition. This means conducting research, teaching, and programming that focuses on the texture of peoples’ lived experiences, with close attention to systems of oppression and late capitalism, and the dynamics of policy and expertise that both maintain and transform current systems.

How did you get into your field of research?

In my college applications I said that I wanted to major in either biology or history. Twenty years later, I like to think I’ve done a pretty good job of combining those fields into a career investigating the social dynamics of biomedicine. And even though I’m not a historian per se, my work pays close attention to the historical roots that lead to present challenges – and I have published from the oral history work that I conducted with nurses in the Caribbean, regarding the financial constraints and shifting health systems from the socialist period to the present. 

After completing my undergraduate biology degree and a year of bioscience research at the Max Plank Institute in Cologne, Germany, I was feeling a bit removed from the social issues that most concerned me. I took a job in the Science Policy division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and while I was in there, I met a policy scholar who continues to be an important mentor to me – Dr. Shobita Parthasarathy. Dr. Parthasarathy played a major role in suggesting I do a PhD, especially in the department where I ended up – in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Cornell.

My postdoctoral fellowship in Johns Hopkins’ Berman Institute of Bioethics also played a major role in my development as a scholar. While bioethics and STS share many concerns and methods, bioethics involves a much wider range of approaches and scholars – including philosophers, lawyers, physicians, nurses, etc.  Working in this context allowed me to see real benefit in offering my STS perspectives to a broader field of scholarship and practice.

What makes this work meaningful to you?

“Critical” social science is inherently about analyzing and critiquing the systems of power that underlie inequity and injustice. And while perspectives from these fields do not always make their way quickly into broader public debate, the body of scholars and scholarship in these fields are a hugely significant space for nurturing ideals of justice and pushing towards them. At the same time, bioethics is a field that has significant institutional connections with the policy apparatus in the United States, which opens opportunities for impact.

What are your priorities during your first year?

During my first year, and throughout my career, I want to prioritize developing strong relationships at the University, with faculty and staff both within department and more broadly. I will also be working on my R00 project, investigating how people working in biotech startup companies think about the social and ethical dynamics of their field. This includes both survey and focus group research, building on the interview study I conducted during my postdoctoral fellowship and K99 award work.

What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?

In addition to my mixed academic background, I have a mixed personal background; my father (who passed recently) was a black and Native American pathologist, and my mother is a white, feminist gynecologist who led Planned Parenthood of Southern California for many years. I’m lucky to have a strong model of love, empathy, and the struggle for health and social justice.

Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?

My interest in social justice is much more than academic, and I’ve worked towards this goal in many forms over the years. Recently I have been working with the Fight For Our Lives Coalition – a Black-led umbrella group that uses mutual aid, teach-ins, and other methods to promote justice in NYC with regards to housing, policing, education, etc.

What’s a favorite piece of advice from a mentor or inspiring figure in your life?

My mentor Dr. Katharine Sheehan – who happens to be my mother – consistently advises me not to spend energy on things I cannot change. This advice isn’t defeatist, as she couples this with a deep belief in the possibility for personal and social change. Instead, it means really thinking about where we spend our energy, focusing on where we can take action for the future!