We recently sat down with Elise K. Burton (IDRF 2014) in order to celebrate the publication of her book Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity (Stanford University Press, 2021). In the interview, Burton touches upon a number of the book’s central themes, from its challenge to traditional historiographies of science in the Middle East to the role of colonialism and violence in genetic research. The interview also served as an opportunity to hear from Burton about her time spent researching as a fellow with the International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF).

Elise Burton is a historian of the life sciences in the modern Middle East, focusing on developments in genetics, evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, and medicine during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her current research examines the relationship of these sciences to the formation of racial, ethnic, and national identities, and how these identities, in turn, shape the dynamics of transnational scientific collaborations. Her training in Middle East area studies informs a commitment to working across languages, geographies, and disciplines to challenge Eurocentric approaches to the history of science as well as science and technology studies. In addition to her first book, Genetic Crossroads, Burton’s work has been published in Comparative Studies of Society and History, Social Studies of Science, and Isis.

First, I just wanted to say congratulations on the publication of the book! As a student of Middle East history, I really enjoyed reading it, and there were also definitely some points that resonated with me on a personal level.

My first question, then, was about how you personally came to the fields of human genetics and Middle East history. Genetic Crossroads is truly an interdisciplinary work, and you bring together a lot of scholarship from these two fields. So, I wanted to hear a little bit about your own trajectory and path to these two fields.

“Why do they have this presumption…that there is no connection between modern science or biology and Middle Eastern studies?”

Thanks. This project came out of experiences I had as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. I went into university knowing that I wanted to major in Middle East studies. At the same time, I had always done well in science in high school, and my father is a geneticist—not a human geneticist—but we have this science background in our family as well. And so, within my first semester at college, I decided that the whole “single major” plan was too limited for me. I very quickly added a major in biology along with my Middle East studies major. My primary interest there as the years went on was genetics. I had the opportunity at Berkeley to work in a genetics laboratory and have direct experience sequencing DNA, seeing what the laboratory machines look like. At the same time, a lot of faculty members and other students started asking me, what do biology and Middle Eastern studies have to do with each other? They were very curious. There wasn’t anything malicious in it but what that question told me was that there’s a strange perception about the Middle East. Why is it that people do not associate it with science? Why do they have this presumption, for example, that there is no connection between modern science or biology and Middle Eastern studies?

That made me wonder what a history of genetics told from the Middle East would look like. That was the guiding question that took me toward this project for graduate school. Then, of course, the question of what genetics might look like seemed quite obvious at that time. We are talking about 2008–2010 that I was first conceiving this project. At that time, there was a lot of publicity around Jewish genetics. A lot of attention was paid to the possible genetic relationships of Jews and Palestinians. With that in mind, I focused very much on human genetics in this project.

Another question I have that you hinted at is about the place of the Middle East in genetics and why the Middle East has been written out of certain types of histories of genetics at the international level. What sort of particularities are there about the Middle East that have rendered unto it this positionality within genetics that you just mentioned?

There are several reasons for that, and they are related to the way that the history of science is written more broadly. It is only really in the past couple of decades that historians of science have started to pay a lot more attention to the non-West generally. So, it is not only the Middle East, but all parts of the world outside of Europe and its settler colonies, like the United States or Australia. All those parts of the world had been written out of most early histories of science. But I have to acknowledge that this is not just due to the blind spots of historians, but also the material reality of doing history in these places.

For example, European scientists—and I found this to be true in my own project—who were working with the Middle Eastern scientists I was trying to study, kept these copious archives of their own papers, and these get preserved at institutions. Those archives are catalogued, they are worked on, and they are relatively easy to find. So, when I then went to the Middle East—and we will talk about this more later—I was often just astonished at how much of an institutional drive there was especially at the level of universities to try to collect and keep together the papers of their very productive scientists. Because it was harder to find dedicated archives for all these Middle Eastern scientists, I ended up spending a lot more time than I expected searching through European or North American archives and finding the traces of the scientists in collections of papers that had been named for other people, named for people who are North American or European.

There is a historiography issue, but also a material basis of history that is a problem, and it had to be overcome. So even though I am not an anthropologist or an ethnographer—I am much more comfortable working with documents than people—I found that I had to do more oral history than I had bargained for. I might not find the collections of people’s papers, but I could find, in a few cases, people who were still alive and, in fact, who are now living in diaspora communities. I actually ended up interviewing some people after I came back from my work abroad.

I was wondering if I could circle back just briefly to approaches to the history of science in the Middle East and to the role of prior scholarship in STS (science, technology, and society) in your own work. I was wondering if you could speak about what those types of approaches, whether it be histories of science or STS, bring to the study of Middle East nationalisms. In the book, you talk about the concept of co-constitution, which you adapt from the idea of coproduction coming out of STS studies. Could you talk about how that approach is helpful in understanding the relationship between nation-building projects in the Middle East alongside scientific developments?

“The whole idea of nationalism is so deeply informed by these various scientific ideas about race, ethnicity, and human difference that all of these things are actually moving forward at the same time.”

I think it was a very helpful concept for me to come across. Sheila Jasanoff (at Harvard) is the main person known for writing about and developing further this idea and language of “coproduction.” I remember when I wrote my dissertation prospectus, this was something I was working really hard to convey: The idea that we are not just seeing some simplistic case of political bias in the way that science is done, because until now, that has been a major tendency of the way that Middle East historians have tried to understand the history of science in the region. They normally write it primarily from a viewpoint of political history and so their perception of when they see evidence of what we would now call scientific racism, for example, was, “Well, this is a scenario where we have politically motivated people interpreting science, wrongly, and if they had been doing science correctly, they would have come up with different results.” And so, I was trying to say, “Look, no, actually you also have to understand that it is the scientific discourse that is influencing the politics at the very same time.” The whole idea of nationalism is so deeply informed by these various scientific ideas about race, ethnicity, and human difference that all of these things are actually moving forward at the same time. There are no singular arrows of influence on politics, on science, or vice versa.

I was trying very hard in my dissertation prospectus to explain this in multiple paragraphs. And it turned out all I had to do was reference Sheila Jasanoff’s work or the many other STS scholars who had taken up her work and indeed come up with other terms like “co-constitution.” That term I first read in Kim TallBear’s work, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, and I really liked her formulation of why co-constitution helps us understand, even more so than the term coproduction, that there is not an intentionality behind what is going on. It is the way that science works, and the way that society works, together.

I had read prior works, especially on the question of eugenics and race science in the Middle East and great work done by scholars like Nazan Maksudyan and others, but they would tend to fall back on this idea that race science is pseudoscience. Of course, they are looking from a “presentist” perspective, where we now realize that so much of what was being done in that field of science was just deeply flawed and would no longer be considered good science. But then when you are looking at it from an STS perspective—or I would even consider this now to be a mainstream history of science perspective—to call it pseudoscience is anachronistic. When you are looking from a historical perspective, you see that when Middle Eastern scientists were participating in race science or these racialized forms of genetics, they were doing cutting-edge science of that time.

So, I thought it was really important to bring this into the whole discussion. I did not want people to read this book and say, “Oh, Middle Eastern people, they can’t do science properly.” It was really important for me to convey that they were very much a part of what was globally considered to be real science at that time.

Right, I think another point that I found helpful about the book is that it de-exceptionalizes Middle East science in another way too. On the one hand, as you mention, you’re saying that it is not pseudoscience, but it is also saying that Western science is often just as susceptible to genetic nationalism.

I was wondering, for readers who might not be familiar with the concept of genetic nationalism, if you could describe the concept for us and talk about its role in your analysis in the book.

Absolutely. I think what I would call the core ideas that are underlying genetic nationalism are, on the one hand, something that social science scholars have already talked about, which is called methodological nationalism—the idea that the nation or the nation-state is the default unit of analysis for any social science. Related to that is the concept in genetics of “population,” which is actually a very broad term but underlies everything that we see in contemporary human genetics, even the way that we look at commercial genetic ancestry testing and how people try to engage with the idea of genetic ancestry’s meaning for an individual. They give you these percentages back in terms of what reference population they can correlate aspects of your genetic makeup to. What I tried hard to explain is that the populations that geneticists are using very often fall into the concept of methodological nationalism that social scientists have talked about. When you look in the history of genetics, and when I was looking through all these published genetics papers and data sets, you would have so many of these so-called genetic populations being labeled with the name of a nation-state. This struck me as amazing when I was looking at this for Middle Eastern states because most of those countries are so new. I was constantly asking myself when looking at the genetic data for those who were called “Saudi Arabians” or “Lebanese,” what did it mean a hundred years ago to call these populations by these genetic labels when that label had only just come into existence?

When you are trying to talk about genetics or evolution, you are usually talking about timescales of hundreds of years, so well before many of these countries came to exist. By making this point using the Middle East, I think I am able to demonstrate the absurdity of what this means as a scientific practice. So why is it being done? There is a very simple reason: Methodologically speaking, scientists have to come up with a label for the different populations. They end up defaulting to national labels when what might really make more sense, biologically, are more localized labels or sometimes less localized labels. Defaulting to nationalism reflects the way people think about citizenship, and it also relates to how they got the approval or the funding to do their genetic work, because they are usually getting funding or approval from national-level agencies. All of this is shaping the way scientists fall into this pattern of using national categories to label different human populations.

“What does genetic nationalism mean for what we would call political nationalism?”

This is what is going on at the scientific level. What does genetic nationalism mean for what we would call political nationalism? I am trying to show how these scientific, material, or technical aspects of nationalism go on to affect how we think about the nation-state. We already know from the nineteenth century that nationalism is based on a concept of shared history—some kind of shared ancestry in most cases. Now, we see that these technical processes of genetic nationalism are not just limited to the way science is done or the way that things are being talked about just within scientific journals. These results get filtered out to broader audiences, and they end up reinforcing these nationalist sensibilities. Even—and this is really important—when geneticists themselves are trying to demystify their work or are trying to say, “Oh we are all human, we are all related.” These are very important discourses for modern-day genetics to say that genetics shows that we are all related, we are all one big family. But then, when data gets reported on the basis of certain kinds of categories—including national categories—it ends up reinforcing certain beliefs about difference: for example, that a national difference is in fact a real biological difference in ancestry or biological characteristics. This becomes true in the Middle East not simply on the basis of categories like “Lebanese” or “Saudi Arabian.” You also see genetic nationalism taking root with the use of population labels that are correlated to certain religious groups or ethnic groups that are believed to have a special claim to the nation-state.

So, obviously, you do not see much reporting on Israelis as a genetic category. It is always reported as Jews and Arabs, or subcategories of Jews and Arabs, in that context. When you’re looking at data in Lebanon, for example, you very frequently see breakdowns according to religious groups. If you think about the Lebanese Civil War, the idea that you could distinguish genetically between, for example, Maronite Christians and Muslim groups, or other kinds of Christian groups, does have immense significance for the nationalist narratives that exist and are driving certain kinds of conflict.

With genetic nationalism, I was trying to do some really massive things, both in talking about the way that we understand how genetics is done as a science all over the world, but then I was also showing that this actually has very particular and, in a way, particularly dangerous implications for the Middle East as well.

Thank you. That was a really helpful theoretical grounding for us to talk about the book. I wanted to ask about the sites that you chose to study, because this work is more than just locally specific case studies of the science of human genetics. It highlights the interaction between these different sites and the international community and among the sites themselves at times. It allows for you to make broader arguments about how the science of human genetics is similar across some of these sites as well. I was wondering if you could briefly explain why you chose a multisited structure focusing on many sites in the region but specifically Iran, Turkey, and Israel.

This is a great question. When I got my funding from the SSRC and began this project as a dissertation, I was starting out with what I thought would be a manageable project on three sites: Israel, Iran, and Turkey. I did have a number of reasons for choosing these sites but also received some immediate pushback for not including Arab countries. This is why I expanded the book to be more genuinely regional and included additional sites.

Still, when I started out, it was very much in response to the literature on genetics in the Middle East at that time. I was applying for funding around 2013–2014, and Israel was the site that had been the best-studied.

On the one hand, you have historians and scholars like Nurit Kirsh who have been working for over a decade to recover the history of Israeli geneticists, especially those who are working on Jewish populations. Then, in 2012 Nadia Abu El-Haj’s book, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, comes out. She is writing from an anthropologist’s perspective, and this book was extremely influential for me, and I think also for the field generally.

“I said to myself, I really do not think the story is complete when we only have this idea that all of this is about nationalist self-study and that it’s all solely about Jewish identity.”

So basically, I already had the sensibility that there was an amazing breadth of work on the racialization of Jews through genetics, both as a historical process and as an ongoing phenomenon in Jewish communities around the world. However, I was very curious about the sensibility of this scholarship that what was going on in Israel, particularly historically, was simply Jewish self-study through genetics. When you look at all these historical publications from the 1950s, Israeli scientists were indeed doing a lot of studies on Jews. But I noticed that later, especially in the 1960s, Israeli scientists start studying a lot of non-Jewish populations, either within Israel or within the occupied territories, after 1967. I said to myself, I really do not think the story is complete when we only have this idea that all of this is about nationalist self-study and that it’s all solely about Jewish identity. I thought what I was seeing there was probably being replicated in other parts of the Middle East and began to think about what the good comparative cases might be. To me, Turkey and Iran made a lot of sense because what we have there are nation-states that were extremely concerned about territory in a way similar to Israel, even though these are not settler colonies the way Israel is.

Iran and Turkey after the First World War were extremely concerned about territorial losses and about further questions of separatism. We have something different from other parts of the Middle East, where you have mandates that are still under forms of colonial rule. There’s also the question of Arab nationalism and how important of a phenomenon it was across the different Arab states. I perceived that that would be a complicating factor, and so when I was setting out to do the dissertation, I thought I would work on the Arab states in a later project. At the same time—this turned out to be more or less true—I thought that I would see, for example, a lot more scientific connections or evidence of collaboration between Israel with Turkey and Israel with Iran before 1979. This turned out to be much truer for Iran actually, and I did not see much evidence of collaboration with Turkey. So not all of my expectations panned out, but those were some of the underlying thoughts I had when I did that site selection.

Later, as the book was developing and I expanded the project, I did not work on all of the Arab countries equally—they are much less evenly represented. Still, some sites emerged quite naturally. Lebanon, and in particular, the American University of Beirut turned out to have really great archives that I was able to work with remotely. I wish I could have worked on Egypt and Iraq more, though I have no doubt others will. I think, if I were encouraging students who are interested in doing this kind of research, I’d tell them that there is so much more to be done on Egypt and Iraq. I was only able to just barely scratch the surface on those sites.

I also wanted to ask about how those case studies or your focus on the different sites in the book tell us about genetics beyond the Middle East because there’s a very clear effect and centrality of many of these studies of Middle East populations to the international scientific community. I was wondering if you could speak about what is at stake in describing the roles that different figures had in this research, whether it be Western international scientists, local Middle Eastern scientists, or the local populations themselves.

The clearest example of what you’re describing appears in these two central chapters in the book on sickle cell disease and favism. When these questions about the evolution of genetic diseases arose, this was something that interested the entire scientific community worldwide. The middle of the [twentieth] century was really the first time that they were finding evidence about how these diseases might have evolved in a way that was not just limited to ancestry. These diseases, until the 1950s and 1960s, had just been correlated with family pedigrees. That is why something like sickle cell disease being discovered in the United States was so heavily racialized and believed to be an “African disease” and so on.

“Scientists situated in Europe and North America were able to conduct new research because of their access primarily to certain colonial sites.”

The discovery of diseases like sickle cell and favism being actually present in very high frequencies in parts of the Middle East shook the beliefs of a large part of the Eurocentric scientific community. They were confronted with the fact that racial ancestry alone cannot explain the distribution of genetic diseases, so they had to think about other possibilities for why those diseases had higher frequencies in specific places. Scientists situated in Europe and North America were able to conduct new research because of their access primarily to certain colonial sites. For example, Anthony Allison, through working in different parts of Africa, was able to experimentally substantiate the idea that sickle cell disease had a relationship to malaria and, specifically, the idea that if you are heterozygous for the sickle cell trait you might have a natural immunity to certain types of malaria.

He was working, still, on mostly African origin populations, and this idea that the disease was connected to immunity to malaria was not immediately recognized as being brilliant as we might like to believe nowadays. There were huge schisms within the scientific community because a lot of people clung to the idea that there was a racial component to these diseases. Looking at how this debate about sickle cell disease plays out in relation to possibly similar mechanisms for favism in the Middle East is fascinating. In the book, I wrote about this global debate at the very moment of its development: You have scientists in the Middle East who are already at work on these genetic diseases—they did not just come to research this later, it was not a process of diffusion from the West, they were involved from the beginning—but local scientists in the Middle East took sides, sometimes in very surprising ways.

For example, in the case of the Israeli geneticist Chaim Sheba, he was very firmly against the idea that malaria immunity played an important role in the evolution of favism because he wanted to use favism as a genetic marker to trace Jewish ancestry and history. On the other hand, Arab scientists wanted at various times to acknowledge the historical presence of an African slave trade, which brought people of African origin to different parts of the Middle East, and therefore argued that sickle cell disease in Arab countries was the result of this slave trade. Because of this, a lot of Middle Eastern scientists were, in fact, undecided or ambivalent, but they were still collecting data and actively considering these different hypotheses.

Continuing on this theme, could you speak about the role violence plays in genetic research? You referenced it when speaking about how certain scientists had better access to sites because of their particular colonial relationships at the time and how these relationships shift over time. There are several points in the book in which you return to this theme.

Building off of what I said earlier, most of the players we typically think of as globally important in genetics were European and North American. The reason that they seem so globally important is not necessarily because the populations in Europe are so fascinating, but because these players are able to go to certain parts of the world and study what are considered to be the most genetically interesting or important populations. I think I clarify this most in the chapter where I discuss both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the decolonization of parts of the Middle East in the 1960s. What I am trying to show in that chapter is what a lot of British geneticists, in particular, had taken for granted. They believed that they were always going to have special kinds of access to different Arab populations in Egypt, Iraq, Aden in Yemen, the Southern Arabian colonies. Even once places like Iraq or Egypt became officially independent, Britain still had very important connections to people living in those states, not the least because many of the Arab scientists working there ended up going to London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom for their own education or scientific training.

“What I found most striking of all was how often a lot of these British geneticists relied on the military.”

Through my research, I was able to uncover some of these interesting networks of Arab and European scientists. But what I found most striking of all was how often a lot of these British geneticists relied on the military. There were many examples of them explaining in a publication how they got certain samples from Egyptians or tribesmen from Aden. In these descriptions, they are constantly identifying the people who sent them blood samples by military titles like captain or brigadier general. This really helped me understand how closely these human genetic surveys were tied to territorial occupation, not just through seemingly “benevolent” educational networks but actually directly through the apparatus of military occupation. That made me think again about the Israeli case. Why is it nowadays we recognize that Israelis happened to be so prolific in their human genetics research? Well, what made that possible was this huge watershed moment of 1967.

When we talk about the pre-1967 Israeli genetics community, we see that they were quite limited in who they could study—mostly peoples living within the Green Line. In the examples I discuss in the book, I show how Israeli geneticists had to be connected to global networks—to the British, for example—in order to get comparative data on neighboring Arab populations. In contrast, after 1967, Israel is suddenly this conquering occupying power, and within days Israeli geneticists are going into the Occupied Territories. Even before the war is really over, we have examples of an Israeli geneticist, Batsheva Bonné, who is going to Nablus to study this Samaritan community that she has not been able to access herself before. Within a year, she is also going to Sinai to study the Bedouin population there. Again, she is only able to do that with the permission and logistical support of the Israeli military. It is through that kind of occupational apparatus that this woman was able to become a world-famous geneticist.

This helps us think, again, about how we do genetics today because these are troubling implications to think about. When we think about the newest kinds of genetic studies coming out of the Middle East in the last few years—and I mention this briefly in the book—on Yazidis and Assyrians, we have to think about these implications. There are serious ethical challenges to doing this kind of work, and I did want us, both as historians and also as scientists, to reflect on this issue.

I am really looking forward to hearing about the next project you are working on. But I was hoping to ask just one more question, if you do not mind, about your time as an IDRF fellow. I was wondering if you could tell us about which sites and what types of archives you looked at as a fellow. It also would be great to hear about what types of obstacles you faced while conducting your research, whether they be logistical complications or questions of access and sources. Many of our fellows are researching in less-than-ideal circumstances right now given the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic, and a good portion of them have seen their projects take new directions as a result. How did your project change through the course of the fellowship or as you moved from research to dissertation to book? Were there things that surprised you or moments when you had to re-assess?

The IDRF was definitely one of the most important awards I received that made it even close to possible to do this kind of research. I have nothing but good things to say about the program and my time as a fellow. When I defended my dissertation proposal at the Harvard history department, some faculty were very discouraging and basically said, “This is not possible, it’s too many countries, too many languages.” So, it is resources like the IDRF, which have a lot of flexibility, that allow you to travel to many different sites, as opposed to residential fellowships that expect you to stay in one place. IDRF also understands that your project might change while you are abroad and makes it possible to reallocate some of your funding. This happened to me multiple times, and the IDRF program was just so supportive and friendly at every step of the way. Whenever I needed to change my project plan or reallocate parts of my budget, I never encountered any resistance from them or anything but support. My time as a fellow was really wonderful.

Regarding sources that did not meet expectations, I might first draw an example from the summer before I started with the IDRF. I had funding from another source to go to Germany. I basically spent two whole months there where I expected, on the basis of prior scholarship, to find things related to Nazi scientific involvement in Iran and Turkey. I spent a lot of time in the German Federal Archives, this big archival institution, but I was not finding anything that I thought was very interesting. I had spent weeks and weeks of my time there, and it did not feel very worthwhile.

Then, at the very end of that Germany trip, I left Berlin and went to a smaller city called Mainz where a couple of historical actors that I study had gone to university. There, while not a huge amount of material, I was able to find some very surprising and interesting things. In the Mainz City Archives, I found that one of these geneticists had been arrested for participating in political protests, which changed my whole perception of his career. Also, in the Mainz University archives there were these uncatalogued materials I hadn’t known about, and there was a great archivist who let me look at all of it.

“I had this experience of realizing that, in some cases, national archives, which we think of as these massive treasure troves of documents, are actually quite limited.”

So, I had this experience of realizing that, in some cases, national archives, which we think of as these massive treasure troves of documents, are actually quite limited. For doing the kind of history I was doing, they were not actually all that useful, and I found this observation true for other sites I went to for my IDRF. When I went to Turkey, I spent a lot of time at the National Library, which was fantastic for looking at old Turkish-language scientific journals and was the main reason I had gone there. I had also hoped to find access to other kinds of material like scientists’ cataloged papers, but it just did not seem to be there, and I didn’t have much luck at other libraries in Ankara or Istanbul either.

It was sort of disheartening to realize that, basically, if I wanted to find papers for some of these scientists, I would actually have to track down their family members, ask if they had any documentation from their parents or grandparents and see whether they would be willing to share that with me. During the months I was in Turkey, I just was not able to make those connections. I did manage to find some great material that was frustratingly undocumented. For example, there was an oral history project that someone had deposited entirely in DVD format at the National Library in which I found interviews with Muzaffer Aksoy, a major Turkish scientist in the book. This was great; it was like a hidden gem, but I know nothing about who recorded that oral history, why it was there, or what date it was made.

I think in the experience of doing archival work, so many things are unexpected. The real treasure of the IDRF is that it gives you so much time to work through these things and overcome all of these obstacles. Having a year-long fellowship makes such a big difference. It allows you to recalibrate while on-site and think about other places you could be looking for information. Year-long fellowships are really important, and, honestly, I can only hope even now as a faculty member that I will have a similar kind of fellowship that I can apply to in the future.

Speaking of your future projects, could you tell us about what you are working on next?

The project that I am in the very early stages of working on now is a direct outgrowth of one of the discoveries I made while working on this book. I did have this blind spot of my own while working on the book, which was that I was looking specifically at connections between Middle Eastern scientists and European and North American ones. I very much had this sort of bias around what kinds of scientific collaborations I was looking for and what I expected in terms of power hierarchies. Then, at some point, I randomly came across scientific publications from a collaboration between Japanese geneticists and Iranian scientists. Along the way, I found more and more studies of interactions between Turkish archaeologists and Japanese ones, as well as Indian anthropologists working in Iran, and Iranian anthropologists who went to India to be trained rather than to Europe to get their PhDs.

From these singular case studies, which did not seem to really fit into the narrative I was telling in Genetic Crossroads, I am now hoping to do a bigger study of what I am calling “trans-Asian scientific collaboration.” Instead of being really focused on the Middle East’s relationship to the so-called West, I am hoping to look in the opposite direction. I am going to continue looking at genetics, but I am also expanding into archaeology, forensic fingerprinting, and what I am loosely calling “sciences of identity” or “sciences of origin.” What if, instead of obsessing over the Middle East’s relationship with the West, we think about it as Southwest Asia—as some people argue it should be called? How does our perception of science in this region change when we consider it as part of the Asian continent?

I know that the SSRC used to have this initiative called the InterAsia Program, and I understand that, unfortunately, they are no longer funding research projects. I would have loved to have applied. I think this new project is very much in the vein of what the SSRC wants to encourage in terms of analyzing the way that science and knowledge are produced. I am very much looking forward to the future project.

That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read that book as well.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Banner photo: “Tamir Nassar in his Laboratory,” Saab Medical Library, American University of Beirut.