For Anthropos’s first publication, I sat down with Ph.D. Student Tawni Tidwell, whose research is concerned with how Tibetan doctors learn to identify and diagnose diseases, specifically indigenous varieties of cancer. I organized our interview to learn about some of her experiences with conducting research, but it soon became evident that many of Tidwell’s experiences were not typical of most academics in Anthropology.
I asked if she’d experienced any hesitation, or even hostility, during her interviews with the Tibetan doctors. She laughed and explained how during her research, she possessed a very different identity than many of them were used to in a westerner. Tidwell boasts something that literally no one else in the world can: she is the first westerner to complete a Tibetan Doctorate. The process requires a profound amount of study and concludes in a six day exam administered entirely in Tibetan, one of the world’s most difficult languages for a non-native speakers. Most researchers and ethnographers working in the area are granted permission to conduct their research from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Tidwell was noted as a particularly interesting character amongst the community at Men-Tsee-Khang Tibetan Medical Institute, one of the locations of her training and simultaneous research.
I asked why she decided to go to a Tibetan medical school. It seemed to be, apart from the embodiment of “participant observation”, perhaps the least direct and most complicated method of making contact with the subjects and location of her research.
Tidwell’s interest in Eastern medicine began when she was very young. From ages 2-5, her family was stationed in Korea, as her father was a doctor for the U.S. army. Initially interested in Chinese medicine and healing, Tidwell also found herself intrigued by the body operating under extreme conditions. This interest was reinforced as she later grew up near the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Tidwell was first introduced to Tibetan medicine while studying as an undergraduate at Stanford. She says she was drawn to the combination of the irregular terrain and unusual body practices (such as yogis) of that area and the fact that their “medical system would need to explain [these] abnormal phenomena and have a pretty good explanatory model to do so.” Inspired by the topic, she began taking Tibetan language classes.
This is when, as she puts it, her “schizophrenic life history” began to interrupt the order of her studies. Before completing her Masters at Emory during the school’s first Tibetan partnership program, Tidwell took on a number of eclectic roles. She trained extensively as a tracker on a biological preserve, worked as a ranger and preserve caretaker, studied Buddhism and Medicine in Northern India, taught private survival lessons, started “The Women’s Rights of Passage” in Washington, and worked for the “Where There Be Dragons” gap-year program.
Finally, while studying cultural ecology in parts of the Amazon, Tidwell chose to get back in touch with what had initially inspired her. She got in touch with the vice principle of Men-Tsee-Khang, who agreed to tutor her in Tibetan Medicine and found Emory’s Graduate program. Just a few short years after, Tidwell passed the Tibetan Medical Exam and returned to Emory to begin her work as a Ph.D. student. Though her experiences have been immensely varied, it seems that each has provided her not only with specialized skills, but also with incredibly unique and diverse insights, earning her a position as a highly valued member of Emory’s Anthropology department.