UCL Health of the Public


Spotlight on Dr Dalia Iskander

10 April 2024

This month we speak to Dr Dalia Iskander, Associate Professor at the UCL Department of Anthropology, to find out how her research is improving the health of the public.

Dalia Iskander

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am an Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology and currently also the Head of Medical Anthropology in our Department. During term time, I am mostly teaching core courses or optional modules that I developed in areas that are close to my heart – the Anthropology of the Body and Multisensory Experience, and the Anthropology of Infectious Diseases. Teaching can be as varied as giving a lecture to 120 students to having one-to-one supervisions with PhD students, so every day is different. When I am not in the classroom, I try to fit in as much research as possible. As an anthropologist, this mainly involves a mix of doing fieldwork and writing. Fieldwork usually entails periods of participant observation – essentially spending time with and talking to people for long periods of time to understand more about their daily lives. When I can, I like to get out of the office and write in all the amazing libraries around London.

How are you improving the health of the public? 

It’s sometimes hard to see the direct impact of your research on people’s health. But, I really care about incorporating elements of participatory research into my work, which means that, as well as giving me access to their lives so I can understand more about their health, participants are also given the opportunity and means to make changes for themselves. Over the years, I have found that one effective way of doing this is through using creative visual methodologies. Making photographs, films, or drawings together enables me and the participants to get at the nuanced factors that shape health or intimate ways people experience illness. This can be transformative for people and it also means we produce something tangible that can be used to communicate with others, leading to even more positive change. For example, for my PhD (the subject of my first book, The Power of Parasites), I worked with predominately indigenous Pälawan communities in the Philippines and evaluated how and why using photography brought about changes to the way children dealt with malaria – a disease that remains endemic on the island of Palawan, despite decades of very costly intensive malaria control. Taking and sharing photographs of everyday life living with parasites allowed young people not only to identify and deeply reflect on some of the reasons malaria persists but also to come together to make changes in their homes and communities. In all my research I try to incorporate creative ways of working with people to help improve health in indirect ways like this.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work? 

I love being an anthropologist because it gives me a professional licence to be nosy. Doing fieldwork is definitely the most enjoyable aspect of my work because I have the opportunity to travel around the world, meet different sorts of people, and spend time with them. I am constantly taken aback by how open and hospitable people are and how willing they are to invite me in to their lives and share their knowledge and experiences with me. It is always interesting, fun and often involves a lot of eating and drinking.

How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your research?

There is always more than one way to look at things and I think it’s important to constantly challenge your own assumptions about the world. Take micro-finance as an example. I was lucky enough to work on with Katherine Brickell from King’s College London recently on a UKRI-funded project called Depleted by Debt. I got to work with Geographers, Economists, Environmental Scientists, Nutritionists and Development Studies experts as well as artists from Cambodia and India to explore if and how credit-taking is being used by rural anticultural communities to mitigate against the effects of climate change and what impact living with debt was having on people’s lives and their health. Working collaboratively meant we could explore so many different dimensions of this complex phenomenon and get an in-depth understanding of how climate, subsistence, nutrition, health, gender and debt coalesce in ways that are ultimately threatening people’s health. Looking at the issue from so many different angles helped the project have more of a compelling policy impact but distilling multifaceted findings down into clear and concise recommendations for our reports, events and meetings with government stakeholders was a challenge.

What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary research?

I’ve had the privilege of working with lots of different people from epidemiologists to film-makers in my career. It can be exciting but it can also be frustrating because it means that, from the outset, you are likely to define what you are researching in different ways, identify divergent gaps or problems, and then have different approaches to understanding and tackling them. My advice would be to embrace this disparity and contestation. Have confidence in what you or your own discipline brings to the table, hone your own craft and try and stay as true to this as possible. Far from constraining ways of working productively together, I think this is the route to fostering creative responses to challenging problems. Health is so complex and it's only by approaching it in many different ways that I think we can ever hope to better preserve it.

What's next on the research horizon for you?

Ten years ago, when I was stressed writing up my PhD thesis, my husband bought me a dollshouse to renovate as a way to relax. I’ve been hooked on miniature worlds ever since.  Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the connection between craft and health. So, two years ago, I began a new research project, working with hobbyists and artists who craft scaled-down objects – everything from dolls houses to model railways. Through a mix of participant observation, interviews and apprenticeship, I have explored the socio-cultural, political-economic and material-affective factors that shape people’s ability to craft Miniverses (as some makers call them), as well as the impact this practice has on people’s identity, health and wellbeing. I am currently writing my findings up in a book in which I apply insights from chaos theory, namely the principles of self-organisation, predictable unpredictability and fractal self-similarity, as a paradigm for understanding how the production and circulation of tiny material objects transform social relations at a different scale, and concurrently acts as an antidote to an array of larger health and social issues in contemporary Britain.

If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be?

Creativity has been at the centre of my work in one way or another from the outset. I am more persuaded than ever that it is a fundamental facet of human experience that we need to cultivate in order to live well. If I could change one thing, it would be to ensure that everyone everywhere was always afforded the opportunity to nurture and express their creative potential and use it to have a positive impact in and on the world.