After graduating from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Vaia Sigounas trained as a surgeon and became increasingly aware of the limitations and possibilities of biomedicine. She came back to UNC to get a PhD in medical anthropology because she wanted to “understand how the social can save us, or doom us, in ways biomedicine cannot.”
Sigounas now studies the development, distribution and use of prosthetic legs by people who have lost their limbs in Uganda.
“Historically, people who have undergone an amputation and live in a low-resource country like Uganda might improve their mobility by modifying donated assistive devices such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, or by designing and building their own devices using found materials,” Sigounas noted. “Recently, however, there has been a drive on the part of the medical device industry and engineering schools in high-resource settings like the United States to design assistive devices specifically intended for people living in low-resource settings.”
“Basically, I study how people who have undergone life-changing traumas like amputation reconstruct their identities and social relationships using technology.”
In designing devices for this new market, engineers and device makers frequently modify standard prototypes by using cheaper materials and simplifying product design to make the final product easier to build, use and repair.
“But the intended recipients value more than simplicity and cost when it comes to assistive devices. They are using assistive technology to help them develop new social relationships, engage in paid work, function as care-givers and address the negative impact of disability on their identities.”
Sigounas’s research, which was recently awarded a CURS-supported National Science Foundation Dissertation Grant, seeks to understand how engineers from high-income countries like the United States and Canada develop new kinds of designs when they build prosthetic legs intended for recipients in low-resource settings.
Her research looks into how people in Uganda accept, reject or alter assistive devices to better meet their needs for self-efficacy, improved economic prospects and social relationships.
“I’m also interested in how culture and social relationships influence the ways people living in under-studied parts of the world use technology to address disability,” Sigounas said. “Along those lines, this project is determining how the inequitable distribution of technological innovations in the form of assistive devices influences how individuals and communities in high and low-resource settings perceive ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ bodies, navigate health systems and reorganize social relationships.”
Why does she do this study in Uganda?
“Uganda is a magnificent place to do my work, in part because young Ugandans are currently creating exciting scientific and technological innovations of, and from, Africa,” explained Sigounas. At the same time, Uganda has been a frequent recipient of international humanitarian aid in recent years. In the mid-1980’s and 1990’s, the Ugandan government was extraordinarily open to receiving international humanitarian aid to rebuild the country after the devastation of colonialism, civil wars, the dictatorship of Idi Amin, the bush wars and the AIDS epidemic.
“However, Ugandans didn’t just take up foreign ideas or use foreign devices the way donors from the global North intended for them to be used – they transformed them to suit their own specific circumstances. So, for someone studying technological inventiveness and transformation, Uganda is a pretty compelling country.”