Prerna Srigyan

Prerna Srigyan, anthropology graduate student, has received a $31,400 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how political engagement shapes science educators and the pedagogies they evolve, enact, and practice. During her one-year study, she’ll travel to various sites around the U.S. to observe and interview science educators with long careers of political engagement, people involved in community-based science programs, and grassroots science organizations with active intergenerational membership. Below, Srigyan discusses her work and pathway to UCI.

Tell us about your research and the work you'll be pursuing with the award.

My dissertation research examines how political engagement shapes science educators and the pedagogies they evolve, enact, and practice. I specifically look at educators who are teaching against the grain to reimagine what both science and pedagogy can be. Very often, science pedagogical programming is designed to foreclose students’ futures by channeling their aspirations, anxieties, and hopes towards highly specialized careers. It also refuses to acknowledge, much less think critically and creatively about the ongoing violent and extractive practices associated with big pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries; colonialism, enslavement and imperialism; and accumulation of wealth and land in the hands of just a few. 

What ideas, if at all, do science educators have about political engagement in science? Does their political engagement change the way they teach scientific methods, objectivity, scientific ethics, and the role of “culture” and “place” in science? How do science educators perceive themselves as a community of experts? What roles do they imagine themselves as having in cultivating future generations of knowers, learners, and experts? These are some of the specific research questions that guide me, building on anthropological studies of pedagogy, apprenticeship, schooling, and learning; on critical and radical pedagogies; and on intersectional analyses of science and technology as cultural and political processes.

My fieldwork will be spread across different sites in the United States. I plan to follow organizations where one can observe intergenerational plays of pedagogy: community-based science programs, grassroots science organizations with active intergenerational membership, and science educators with long careers of political engagement. Following my fieldwork, I will write brief pedagogical biographies and case studies illustrating significant moments of change in science pedagogy and science itself.

What problem do you hope your findings will help solve?

First of all, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx scholars and people on the ground have been saying for decades that science education cannot be ahistorical and apolitical, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Science education in the United States came of age in the highly militarized Sputnik-era, at the edges of the Cold War and in the aftermath of two world wars and numerous decolonizing movements around the world, including the U.S. This legacy continues on one hand, in a narrow imagination of what science education can do and what science pedagogies can be enacted and practiced. On the other, it continues in the careful work of decades of grassroots science teaching and organizing that occurs at institutional margins. In recent years in the United States, reckoning of environmental and social justice has brought front and center the role educators play in cultivating the next generation of students, experts, and knowers. My research can help illustrate processes of teaching science as historical and political so educators and scientists today can learn from that.

Second, my research can help learners and educators keep open the possibilities of learning and teaching science beyond highly specialized and determined pathways and yet to pursue pathways within science that feel meaningful and relevant to them. Frequently, discussions of political engagement become translated as discussions about representation that both engenders and limits political possibility. Rather than prefigure what political engagement can be, my research will keep open the pathways to see multiple sites and possibilities where hopeful politics can be enacted.

What made you decide to pursue anthropology as a field of study, and specifically at UCI?

I joined my Ph.D. program in 2019, but I decided to pursue anthropology a couple of years earlier because of two reasons. The first is my interest in ethnography as a method of knowing the world. During and after my MA–that I completed at Ambedkar University Delhi in 2016–I have conducted complex qualitative research projects before that even resulted in the publication of a co-authored book which introduced me to ethnography. I became curious about why and how ethnography made sense: what is the relationship between ethnography, knowledge, and ethics? The second reason is being shaped by collaborative and experimental ethnographic methods. In 2017, I became involved with a transnational research project on environmental governance by UCI anthropology professors Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun, who are now my dissertation co-chairs. I remember meeting like thirty people on Zoom from around the world doing exciting and highly relevant research on environmental governance. It was refreshing to see collaborative knowledge being evolved and practiced.

UCI anthropology is a spectacular department where different ideologies and expertise are co-present in ways that produce creative tension. This is a space where experimentation in research design and ethnographic practice is highly encouraged. Often, the hidden curriculum of anthropology restricts many marginalized students, often students of color and international students, to pursue careers in anthropology. UCI anthropology’s sequence of research that covers ethnographic methods, research design, and grant writing, are remarkable efforts to make explicit and transparent the slow process of becoming an anthropologist. The department’s connections to other programs, from comparative literature to earth system sciences, makes it an enlivening and interdisciplinary space for critical conversations.

Who are your faculty mentors? What impact have they had on your academic career?

I feel very lucky and grateful to have the kind of committee that I do. My dissertation committee co-chairs are Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun, who have been my long-term mentors even before I joined UCI Anthropology. I have learned so much from their commitment to student welfare, advocacy-oriented anthropology, and experimental ethnographic methods. They have also cultivated a community of researchers within and beyond UCI that build upon each other’s work. For students like me who are very far from their home communities, these spaces are critical. My committee members Angela Jenks and Sal Zarate are really two of a kind. Angela is a leading thinker and practitioner of radical pedagogy in anthropology–I continue to learn from her deep engagement with reparative ways to teach, such as transforming an undergraduate GE course into a transformative space for activating political potential. Sal’s approach to anthropology is so refreshing. Even though (or perhaps because) he is not trained as an anthropologist but as an ethnic studies scholar, the way he brings his storytelling, activism, and personal history to anthropology makes it a better place for all of us. All my faculty mentors have not only offered me intellectual insight into my project; they have influenced me by being the kind of people they are and the spaces they cultivate.

Tell us about your educational pathway to UCI.

My previous schooling experience, from school to master’s, was completed in India. I did my bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of Delhi, interning in two pioneering scientific research laboratories in India that introduced me to advanced scientific research. I also became involved with political organizing in the campus during my undergraduate studies. As a result of this participation and also as a result of being dissatisfied with my scientific learning experiences, I shifted gears and joined the School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University Delhi to pursue an M.A. in environment and development. The program allowed me to pursue both scientific and humanistic paths, and I studied varied courses, from advanced ecology to urban and agrarian studies.

Any unique experiences that have guided your educational journey, or any other tidbits you'd like to share?

I feel fortunate to receive the variety of learning experiences that I have accrued over the years. I started my schooling journey in a village in eastern India with hardly any infrastructure, moved to a British-era residential school for a couple of years, moved to Delhi and lived there till 2019. In the meantime, I worked in educational spaces, research laboratories, interdisciplinary forums, and organizing spaces. Throughout this time, my teachers and elders have continuously pushed me to work through my relative privilege due to my religious, caste, and class status, and encouraged me to pursue meaningful education pathways to do my part in civic engagement. This variety of learning experiences geared toward raising critical consciousness influences me as a scholar and as a person.

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