Spring 2021 Alum Interview: Rachel Faulkner-Gurstein

Dr. Rachel Faulkner-Gurstein (Ph.D., 2015) has been a Research Fellow in Social Science in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine at King’s College London for the past three years. Dr. Faulkner-Gurstein’s dissertation focused on the institutionalization of harm reduction and she now uses that work to provide policy insights about national healthcare systems like the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).
The interview below was edited for clarity and brevity.

Claudia Benincasa: Do you feel studying Political Science at the GC endowed you with any particular skills, knowledge, or experiences that have contributed to success in your post-grad life? 
RFG: The methodological pluralism of the GC’s brand of political science has helped me to recognize and adapt to opportunities where I find them. Professionally, what I value most from the GC is space afforded to read widely. While it may seem like taking classes on ancient and modern political thought or urban policy and ethnography would not be relevant to my current role in a public health department, I am actually very grateful for the depth and range of my training. As far as memories from my time at the GC, I look back with fondness to the many hours spent strategizing with comrades in the Social and Political Theory Student Association (SPTSA office.)  
CB: Would you please discuss your current areas of interest and how they’ve evolved from your time at the GC?
RFG: My Ph.D. research was on harm reduction policy in New York City. This topic came from my experience in a harm reduction organization in Vancouver, BC in the early 2000s. I was particularly interested in the intersection between public health and criminal justice—how progressive policy shifts in what was/is a highly stigmatized area were achieved. The dual and sometimes duelling camps of social justice activists and public health technocrats made for interesting bedfellows. My research now focuses on the clinical research infrastructure embedded within the U.K.’s national health service. It centers on the role of feminized care labor in the production of both epistemic and economic value within a state-funded research system designed to maximize both patient health and national wealth. It may seem like a departure from my previous research, and in many ways it is. But while the NHS and clinical research may be new areas for me, analysing the political economic rationalities that underpin national policy is something that, thanks to my time at the GC, I am well prepared to do.
CB: Though currently on hold, your digital media startup, Oma Media, created an app, Meema, that utilizes play to connect very young children and distant friends and family. What was it like starting this process that though based on current research, was not through typical academic/institutional channels?
RFG: Oma Media was a partnership between me and a friend who was also a postdoc in London at the time. She was an American anthropologist and mom of 3-year-old twins whose research focused on digital media use by children and families, and I was the mom of a two-year-old who was looking for ways for my daughter to connect with my dad in Canada who had been diagnosed with cancer. I came to her with an idea about creating an app that could facilitate meaningful interactions between young children and their faraway loved ones through shared reading. She liked the idea, so we wrote a grant for £100,000 in development funds from Innovate U.K., a government business grant scheme. Amazingly we were funded, and we partnered with a local tech company to develop the app, Meema. It was a great experience, but ultimately we decided not to pursue it. I had done the bulk of the app development work while on maternity leave with my 2nd child and my return to work meant something had to give. The app itself wasn’t connected to my research, though it was very relevant to my partner’s area of expertise. Working on the app helped her to transition out of academia and land a great job in her field at a big tech company in California. What I’ve taken from the experience is a knowledge of how to apply academic techniques—like researching, grant writing, communicating to diverse audiences—to other domains. And it was a lot of fun to moonlight as a tech founder, even if only briefly!