A new release in our Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics Series, Weighing the Future is an ethnographic exploration of how epigenetic thinking is changing the way pregnant women are seen as maternal environments, as revealed through two major clinical studies. In the interview below, author Natali Valdez explains some of the key insights from the book.

Natali Valdez is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.

Epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression, has been heralded as one of the most promising new fields of scientific inquiry. Current large-scale studies selectively draw on epigenetics to connect behavioral choices made by pregnant people, such as diet and exercise, to health risks for future generations. As the first ethnography of its kind, Weighing the Future examines the sociopolitical implications of ongoing pregnancy trials in the United States and the United Kingdom, illuminating how processes of scientific knowledge production are linked to capitalism, surveillance, and environmental reproduction. Natali Valdez argues that a focus on individual behavior rather than social environments ignores the vital impacts of systemic racism. The environments we imagine to shape our genes, bodies, and future health are intimately tied to race, gender, and structures of inequality. This groundbreaking book makes the case that science, and how we translate it, is a reproductive project that requires feminist vigilance. Instead of fixating on a future at risk, this book brings attention to the present at stake.

How did you become interested in this topic?

This whole research project unfolded in a surprising way. I had originally set out to examine metabolic illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity, among Mexican populations in the US and Mexico. However, a few different experiences shifted my focus towards the design and implementation of lifestyle interventions that target metabolic illnesses. Specifically, I became more interested in who designs these interventions, and how they are implemented.

I completed two years’ worth of coursework in public health at UC-Berkeley and Irvine with a focus on child-maternal health and epidemiology, which helped me learn about pregnancy trials. Through my work in public health, I was connected to scientists and principle investigators who designed these trials, which culminated in my ethnographic research in Weighing the Future.

What was something unexpected that you learned over the course of your research?

I was surprised to learn how similar data could be used to inform distinct maternal health policies in the United States and United Kingdom. In addition, it was surprising to learn first-hand how challenging it is to recruit diverse pregnant populations for clinical trials in different healthcare environments. Since I worked at the US trial as a staff member, I was in charge of recruiting and delivering the intervention to clinical trial participants. This unique form of participant observation gave me great insight into why and how pregnancy trials are designed and implemented.

What is the main message you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope readers will understand the value of examining medicine, health and science from a critical race and feminist lens. Doing so can significantly improve current methods, tools, and interventions in evidence-based medicine.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on two projects. The first is a follow-up to the book, which is titled Postgenomic Reproduction and the Aftermath of Failure. This project is currently funded by an AAUW postdoctoral fellowship, and explores how environmental epigenetics studies in reproduction are inconclusive. In other words, studies in the fields of epigenetics are not successfully finding clinically significant results in human models. My main research question is, how do scientists deal with failure in postgenomic reproduction?

My second project is in its preliminary stages and is a collaboration between myself and the COLEV research team in Bogota, Colombia. This team examines the design, collection, and analysis of big data in shaping national public health concerns. I am currently the Gender and Technology research collaborator on the project.