Professors discuss important issues surrounding health

Content warning for this article, includes descriptions of genocide, gendered violence, and sexual assault/rape

The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) hosted the Brown Bag Faculty Research Series featuring two speakers: Dr. Rebecca Bales and Dr. Zurine De Miguel on April 16. Each speaker was allotted 20 minutes to delve into their research topics, and there was a question and answer event following the closure of each professor’s keynotes, Bales’ and De Miguel’s keynotes each pertained to issues surrounding the healthcare system from genocide to neurobehavorial research. 

Bales discussed the feminization of genocide. She gave a content warning at the beginning of her talk, because her research included gendered violence and she discussed graphic crimes and state-sanctioned violence. Bales initially became interested in the line of gendered violence research because her family was affected at the hands of the medical community. She discussed forced sterilization, which is an issue many non-white women have faced at various intervals of history in the United States. Bales mentioned that her mother’s first language is Spanish and that she had an accent. The medical community’s perception of an individual can dictate the kind of respect and autonomy that a person is given.

Bales was the last of four children. During her mother’s pregnancy with Bales, her mother was told by her doctor that she was “too small,” and “that she wouldn’t be able to carry the baby to term.” The doctor recommended that she have an abortion. After Bales’ birth, the doctor recommended a hysterectomy. Bales’ father intervened and rejected the doctor’s suggestion. Many women of the global majority are sterilized by their doctors, often without their consent. This is one of the many ways that gendered violence manifests. 

This gave a segue into the definitions of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The United Nations considers rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and any form of sexual violence to be crimes against humanity. Bales describes several instances of crimes against humanity as it pertained to Native and Indigenous women in the United States – including the Mystic Massacre – which was an attack on a Pequot village on June 5, 1637. 

“Basically when we start to see the conflict that arises,” Bales said. “A few things start to happen. We have for the first time children being taken for ransom.” 

Bales discussed how colonizers were attempting to curb the Native populations by taking children, an act that many would follow in an attempt to destroy Indigenous communities. 

Bales also described how the California Gold Rush paid settlers and militia bounties for the capture and murders of Indigenous California peoples. She also mentioned that the enslavement of Indigenous people preceded the enslavement of African people.

“There were reports of rape and mutilation that started to emerge in newspapers,” Bales said. “California laws didn’t give permission for this to happen, but they led to it.” 

Bales transitioned the discussion to contemporary manifestations of gendered violence. The commodification of women’s bodies is important to consider, because Bales believes that this subject is not thought about in the context of genocide. Forced sterilization is a practice that is used in eugenics. Eugenics is the pseudo-scientific practice of attempting to only pass on traits considered “desirable,” which was rooted in racism, ableism and anti-Semitism. The Civil Rights movement is an important facet of this conversation because the mainstream discussion of the movement often leaves out the most vulnerable, which includes women and children. 

Forced sterilization has been a policy included in the United States, which targeted women deemed “mentally unfit,” as well as Black women and women of Mexican descent, especially in California from the 1920s to the 1950s. Currently, this practice was exposed by whistleblower Dawn Wooten – a nurse who worked in an ICE detention facility in Irwin County, Georgia – where Wooten states immigrant women were forcibly sterilized in 2020. 

After addressing the forced genocide practices of Bales research, the keynote transitioned over to De Miguel’s presentation, where she informed viewers of her research as a behavorial neuroscientist. 

De Miguel defines this position as “someone who studies the neurobiology of the brain, and combines it with the study of psychological processes.” Her talk described research that she and her team have done regarding the benefits of exercise on individual physiology, specifically how blood proteins reveal the gateway of how exercise is beneficial. Though most of the models are mice, she is currently in the process of translating her lab to include this research on humans. 

De Miguel began by framing her topic and giving scientific definitions. She presented a slideshow full of graphics and information that exemplified the research she has done. 

De Miguel reflects on the fact that exercise is commonly regarded as beneficial, but what’s lacking is the conversation around what processes specifically exercise is beneficial to. Studies have shown that exercise can decrease the risk of dementia, and can be beneficial to increase cognitive function during aging, brain damage and neurodegeneration.

“Some of these positive effects increase neuroplasticity,” De Miguel said. “Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to change biology.” Included in these changes is an increase in the number of neurons, called neurogenesis. Exercise has also been linked to decreased inflammation in the hippocampus, or the area of the brain that’s important for learning and memory. De Miguel explains that most of the research she would describe focused on the hippocampus. 

“A growing number of studies support that exercise can increase the number of many proteins in plasma,” De Miguel said.

Some of the proteins are also connected to increased neurogenesis. It is unknown what the overall effect that exercise plasma has on the brain. De Miguel explains that the research studies mice that exercised on a running wheel for 28 days, and compared their plasma to sedentary mice. The observation proved that sedentary mice showed an increase in neuroblast cells. She also explained that runner plasma infusions improved memory and learning. De Miguel included a discussion of clusterin, which is a key protein of the anti-inflammatory effects that runner plasma has on the hippocampus. 

De Miguel summarized that the peripheral factors that are released in plasma due to exercise have positive effects on the body, especially the brain and reduces neuroinflammation in the hippocampus. She ended her talk by acknowledging the various organizations that allow her research to be successful, including the TWC Lab, the ELIAS lab and the behavioral neuroscience lab and psychology department of CSUMB. 

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