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Portrait of Amade M'Charek

Who? Amade M’charek (b.1967)
What? Professor of Anthropology of Science
Studied: Political Science, with optional courses from Sociology, Philosophy and Economics
First job: De-husking flower bulbs
Favourite place at the UvA: The Common Room in the Department of Anthropology
Essential: Friends and colleagues with whom I can engage in conversation on complicated aspects of research

Amade M’charek (1967) is an Anthropology of Science professor. She is the daughter of first-generation migrants from Tunisia. After finishing secondary school in Aerdenhout, she decided to study political science at the UvA. Having got off to a flying start, she expanded her individual curriculum and discovered new talents and interests thanks to philosophy. This resulted in a graduation thesis on the Human Genome Project. Her enthusiasm for genetics remained undimmed; following further doctoral research and a variety of successes, she eventually accepted a position as Professor of Anthropology.

From political science to economics, philosophy and sociology, and then finally on to anthropology... that's quite an academic trajectory. What can you tell me about it?

‘Well, although the Political Science degree programme has changed a great deal since then, at the time I felt it didn't quite have enough depth, even though I was politically engaged myself. That's why I expanded my curriculum. I loved economics, especially the history of economic thought and political economics, but it was the philosophy courses in particular that offered me the intellectual challenge that I had craved. Those courses are where I learned to love academic pursuits. Inspired by the philosophy courses, I wrote my graduation thesis on the Human Genome Project (HGP). At the time, the project was only just beginning its efforts to map out human DNA for the very first time. Yet no one was talking about this major development. The HGP was the first inkling of what was to come in the field of genetics. The Belle van Zuylen Institute for gender and cultural studies at the UvA asked me to carry out a doctoral research project in genetics. Given my thorough interest in genetics, I opted for participatory research. Although it’s not what I had studied, I have gradually become more of an anthropologist through my research.’

You didn’t start out as an anthropologist, so how did you end up as a Professor of Anthropology?

‘After finishing my doctoral thesis, I worked as a population geneticist at a forensic lab in Leiden for a bit. After that, I joined the Biology department at the UvA. I was hired as an assistant professor and soon progressed to associate professor. In those days, the early 2000s, I developed two interdisciplinary Master's programmes that encompassed the entire Faculty of Science. The first was a Master's in Science, Technology and Public Management, while the second was the Master's in Forensic Science. This latter programme, which still exists, is an intersection where all sorts of scientific backgrounds and disciplines converge. I had students from all the different science degree programmes in my classes, which made my work very interesting and inspiring. In 2008, I was invited to join the Department of Anthropology as an associate professor. I was promoted to Professor of Anthropology in 2014 when I received an ERC Consolidator Grant of €2 million from the European Research Council.’

As a scientist, one can achieve things while contributing to society.
Anthropologists are textbook examples of experts in participatory research.

As a professor, your contribution to society goes further than most people realise, doesn't it?

‘Teaching is only one small component of my work. Mostly, I conduct a great deal of research and concentrate primarily on my ERC project, RaceFaceID. This project deals with forensic identification techniques used to reconstruct the face of an unidentified suspect or victim. It involves both new genetic techniques such as DNA phenotyping and traditional techniques like skull reconstruction. This process of creating a face is cluster work that must slowly lead to a face that can be individualised, as part of efforts to identify the unknown subject. I am now also involved in a sub-focus within this project, in which I explore the use of forensic techniques to identify drowned migrants. I just got back from Tunisia, where the bodies of 80 refugees have washed ashore in the last week alone. The bodies of these individuals have been rendered unrecognisable and, in many cases, it is unclear where they came from. Forensic identification is the way in which we can put a name to them. Through my research, I hope to make the consequences of European border politics even more of a theme and to keep it on the public radar. People have a tendency to try and push this topic aside, which is understandable. That's why I also believe it is important to keep the younger generation engaged, not only in science or technological questions about the future, but also with regard to important normative issues involving race, racism, sexism, economic inequality and exploitation.’

The UvA is a sanctuary for thinking, for gathering, for people to come together and exchange ideas and experiences.

Are you being given enough free rein within the UvA?

‘Even before I started here, I pictured the UvA as a university that stood for freedom and political engagement. The UvA is the university that suits me best. It is a sanctuary for thinking, for gathering, for people to come together and exchange ideas and experiences. A place where we not only follow the beaten track, but (perhaps more importantly) deviate from it as well, with various roads leading to amazing results. In our students, I still see what I experienced myself in the early days: engagement, the will to take the initiative, and perhaps a touch of cheek. The UvA student is someone who seeks out freedoms. Unfortunately, due to the changes in higher education and the increasing pressure to perform, this freedom has diminished. Being able to guide the students is a privileged position, especially during the last part of their studies, to observe how they grow in a short period of time. There are always students who keep me excited about my field.’