Anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas receives the Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award

Recognized for interdisciplinary work on health, climate, and equity

Amy Moran-Thomas, Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology; photo, Jon Sachs

MIT anthropologist Moran-Thomas “stands out in this field by bringing a humanistic approach into dialogue with environmental and science studies to investigate how bodily health is shaped by social well-being at the community level and further conditioned by localized planetary imbalances." 

— from the Edgerton Award Selection Committee statement

Amy Moran-Thomas, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology, has received the 2021-22 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award in recognition of her “exceptional commitment to innovative and collaborative interdisciplinary approaches to resolving inequitable impacts on human health,” according to a statement released today by the 2019-20 Edgerton Award Selection Committee.

A medical anthropologist, Moran-Thomas investigates linkages between human and environmental health, with a focus on health disparities. She is the author of the award-winning book Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (University of California Press, 2019), which frames the diabetes epidemic in Belize within the context of 500 years of colonialism.

On human and planetary well-being

Moran-Thomas “stands out in this field by bringing a humanistic approach into dialogue with environmental and science studies to investigate how bodily health is shaped by social well-being at the community level and further conditioned by localized planetary imbalances,” the selection committee’s statement said. “Professor Moran-Thomas shows how diabetes resides not only within human bodies but also across toxic environments, crumbling healthcare infrastructures, and stress-inducing economic inequalities.”

Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and head of the MIT Anthropology program, called Moran-Thomas “a fast-rising star in her field.” Paxson, who nominated Moran-Thomas for the award, added that “She is also a highly effective teacher and student mentor, an engaged member of our Institute community, and a budding public intellectual.”

Detail: Hurricane Hattie Belize, by Delvin "Pen" Cayetano, 1996; ©2018 Artists Rights Society, New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; reproduced with permission

"During her research in Belize, Moran-Thomas noted that some people with diabetes, when talking about the impact of the diabetes epidemic, would invoke Hurricane Hattie (which ravaged their country in 1961) as a metaphor for the kinds of slow health changes that can suddenly erupt into a full-blown crisis. She appreciated their apt metaphor: 'In many ways,' she says, 'the chronic wear on both the planet and on people is accumulating like a gathering storm.'"

A profound discovery for medical equity

“Professor Moran-Thomas’s work has an extraordinarily profound and impactful reach,” according to the committee, which highlighted a widely read 2020 essay in Boston Review in which Moran-Thomas revealed that the fingertip pulse oximeter — a key tool in monitoring the effects of respiratory distress due to Covid-19 and other illness — gives misleading readings with darkly complected skin. This essay inspired a subsequent medical research study and ultimately led to an alert from the US Food and Drug Administration spotlighting the limitations of pulse oximeters.

The selection committee further lauded Moran-Thomas for her pedagogy, including her work developing the new subject 21A.311/The Social Lives of Medical Objects. She was also commended for her service, notably her work on the MIT Climate Action Advisory Committee and with the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing group within MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing.

Moran-Thomas earned her bachelor’s degree in literature from American University and her PhD in anthropology from Princeton University. She joined MIT Anthropology in 2015, following postdoctoral fellowships at the Woodrow Institute for Public and International Affairs and at Brown University’s Cogut Humanities Center. She was promoted to associate professor without tenure in 2019.

About the award

The annual Edgerton Faculty Award, established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton, honors achievement in research, teaching, and service by a non-tenured member of the faculty.

The 2019-20 Edgerton Award Selection Committee was chaired by T.L. Taylor, a professor of Comparative Media Studies/Writing. Other members were Geoffrey Beach, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Mircea Dinca, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry; Hazhir Rahmandad, an associate professor of system dynamics in the Sloan School of Management; and Rafi Segal, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture.


Suggested links

Amy Moran-Thomas

MIT Anthropology

Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award

Story: Moran-Thomas receives 2020 Levitan Prize
Prize will support research on the cultural dimensions of climate denialism.

Story: Moran-Thomas on planetary and human health

Solving Climate | Humanistic Perspectives from MIT

Traveling with Sugar, Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (UCal Press, 2019)
Available via open access at MIT Libraries

Boston Review: How a popular medical device encodes racial bias
Pulse oximeters give biased results for people with darker skin. The consequences could be serious.

Story: A closer look at the diabetes disaster
Moran-Thomas examines how diabetes is reaching epidemic levels in countries across the world.

Representative courses taught by Professsor Moran-Thomas

21A.312 Planetary Change and Human Health
Intersections between health of the planet and the health of human beings

21A.301 Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics
From a cross cultural and global perspective, examines how medicine is practiced, with particular emphasis on biomedicine. Analyzes medical practice as a cultural system.

21A.00 Comparing Human Cultures
Explores fundamental questions about what it means to be human. How culture shapes societies and affects the way institutions work, from scientific laboratories to mega-churches.


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
20 April 2022