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About the University

Amade M’charek

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

Engagement

‘My parents are first-generation migrants from Tunisia who did not go to school. After we moved to the Netherlands, I grew up in Haarlem and later Beverwijk. I went to school in Aerdenhout. As it's home to the upper crust of the Dutch population, I was different from the majority. I wanted to study medicine after finishing secondary school, but when I did not get a place in the degree programme, my second choice was originally chemistry. However, I opted for political science at the last minute because I was politically engaged. I believe that my engagement was fuelled by my childhood and my location growing up. As a migrant girl, I could feel the political urgency almost physically. My interests were always broader than what I was taught in secondary school, even though my world was already quite expansive. I was the kind of girl who read the newspaper on the bus going to school at a time when there were a lot of socio-political issues at play.’

To Amsterdam

‘My father would have liked me to attend Leiden University after I graduated from secondary school; to him, Amsterdam was a dangerous city. I had already heard about the UvA, which I pictured as a university of freedom and political engagement; that was where I wanted to go. Never will I forget my first moments at the university when we stood there in the Oudemanhuispoort as first-year students. I was overwhelmed and had this feeling of “do I actually belong here?” That feeling quickly changed when a lecturer refused to give a lecture and we took action. A group of us students occupied the Political Science secretariat and we soon found ourselves in negotiations with the university to find a solution. We quickly got acquainted with all the various layers of the organisation that way. Oddly enough, this situation was a way for me to find my place at the UvA.’

The philosophy courses provided me with the intellectual challenge that I had craved.

Human Genome Project

‘At the time, I was not impressed with the Political Science programme. While the programme has changed tremendously in the meantime, it was too superficial for my taste back then. As a result, I expanded my course load to include courses in philosophy, economics and sociology. I loved economics, especially the history of economic thought and political economics, but it was the philosophy courses in particular that provided me with the intellectual challenge which I had craved. That's what taught me to love learning. Inspired by these philosophy courses, I wrote my thesis on the Human Genome Project (HGP). It was gaining traction at the time and was supposed to produce the first genetic map of our human DNA. However, no one was talking about this major development. The HGP was the first preview of what was to come in the field of genetics. My thesis was about the history of genetics, eugenics, the continuity and discontinuity with the HGP, and the social aspects of genetic knowledge.’

Into the lab

‘During my time at university, I really grappled with what I wanted to do with my future. Should I stay in academia or give something back to the society that had provide me with so much? As I really enjoyed doing research and writing, it dawned on me that one can achieve things while contributing to society as a scientist. I also knew for sure that I did not want to stay on the sidelines as a scientist with my genetic research. The position of the arrogant, all-knowing social scientist who would tell geneticists what was possible and what wasn't struck me as untenable. For example, having a sick child is bound to change your view of genetics. I decided to go into the lab, learn how to analyse DNA and investigate what genetics is all about in practice.’

My foreign tribe was the lab populated by geneticists, their equipment and methods.

Doctorate

‘The Belle van Zuylen Institute for Gender and Cultural Studies at the UvA invited me to conduct doctoral research on genetics. Given my thorough interest in genetics, I opted for participatory research in an anthropologist capacity. Anthropologists are textbook examples of experts in participatory research. They often conduct research on the culture and habits of foreign tribes in far-flung places. My foreign tribe was the lab inhabited by geneticists, their equipment and methods. It was home to its entirely own culture complete with its own habits, rituals and techniques. I immersed myself in this culture as a researcher. Although it was not what I had studied, I have gradually become more of an anthropologist through my research.’ 

The path to professor

‘After finishing my doctoral thesis, I worked as a population geneticist at a forensic lab in Leiden for a bit. Later, the UvA invited me to join the Department of Biology. I was hired as an assistant professor and soon progressed to associate professor. During that time, in 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 every science programme 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.’

RaceFaceID

‘Although I still teach, it only makes up a small part of what I do. My current work is primarily research-oriented and focuses specifically on my ERC project RaceFaceID. This project concerns forensic identification techniques that put a face on an unknown suspect or victim. It involves new genetic techniques such as DNA phenotyping and classic techniques such as skull reconstructions. This process of creating a face is cluster work that must slowly lead to a face that can be individualised. Race also plays a role in this process, this search for the identity of an unknown person. That aspect is difficult, because what is race? Although we claimed after World War II that race was dead, it now certainly seems to be making a comeback. It remains ambivalent, but race is used as an investigative category in our DNA legislation. It is even more complicated because there is a consensus in the field of genetics that race does not exist, as biological and genetic differences are gradually distributed across the global population. As a result, the question is how biological differences that are found in the lab are translated, changed and adjusted when this knowledge is transferred to the courtroom. The question is also when are static differences made racial and projected onto an individual. By exploring these questions, I aim to improve our understanding of the relevance that race has for the field of forensics, especially how race is interpreted in practice and the value attached to it. Through my research, I am keen on contributing to our understanding of the issue of race and racism in society.’

Drowned migrants

‘Personally, I am involved in a niche within this project where I examine the use of forensic techniques for identifying drowned migrants. I just got back from Tunisia, where the bodies of 80 refugees washed ashore in the last week alone. The bodies of these individuals have been rendered unrecognisable and it is unclear in many cases from where they came. Forensic identification is the way in which we can put a name to them. I saw bodies wash ashore in Tunisia with my own eyes. Although it has basically become a part of everyday life there, one never really gets used to it. 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 tend to push this topic away, which is understandable. In Europe, we shut ourselves off from the outside world, from Africa; however, we can't deny what is going on all the time. That's why I also believe that it is important to keep young people interested, 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 student is someone who seeks out freedoms

Privileged

‘The UvA is the university that suits me the best fit. It is a beacon for thinking, for gathering, for sharing ideas and experiences between people. The UvA is a place where we not only follow the beaten track but especially deviate from it as well, with various roads leading to amazing results. Every university passes along part of its culture to its students. In our students, I still see what I experienced myself in the early days: engagement, the will to take initiative on one's own – and perhaps a touch of impudence. 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 been 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.’