Jane Thrailkill has been interested in the relationship between literature and illness, between the humanities and the sciences, since she was 18 years old.
Thrailkill is an English and comparative literature professor and a co-director of the Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration lab.
“The written word was my playground,” Thrailkill said. “But the summer before I went off to college, I had this incredible experience in the mountains of New Hampshire and I thought to myself, ‘wow, I want to choose a career where I can just live in the mountains of anywhere forever.’”
At that moment she wanted to pursue medicine and an English degree at Amherst College, but soon she said she became disillusioned with her peers in her science classes.
Even so, she said she never lost interest in medicine, and when she came to UNC to teach in fall 2001, she started creating interdisciplinary health-humanities classes based on her intersecting interests.
“There is something I have found in teaching these literary works with questions of health care and healing, and the clinic and the medical industrial complex in mind,” Thrailkill said.
In the spring of 2015, inspired by a colleague at Brown University, Thrailkill began working to create the HHIVE lab, a collaboration between the literary and medical communities at UNC.
Chandler Batchelor, a second-year graduate student in literature, medicine and culture at UNC, said HHIVE appealed to her because she had a background in psychology and comparative literature.
“It allowed me to explore the questions I had about psychology in a more holistic and humanistic way, and teach me a lot of the quantitative research skills that I hope to carry forward with me,” Batchelor said.
Thrailkill said once the HHIVE lab received funding through a grant, they began studying the obesity epidemic in North Carolina.
“Our study question was: what if we were to teach the discipline and skills that go along with composition to people who have diabetes? What would that effect have on...their sense of life coherence,” she said.
Kym Weed, a Ph.D. candidate in English and the assistant director of HHIVE, got involved with the lab before it even started because Thrailkill was her dissertation director.
“She’s encouraging and rigorous simultaneously,” she said. “It’s OK to try out new ideas and to experiment with ideas, but she makes you put the work in to fully flesh them out.”