Networking science.

The Swiss Young Academy networks young researchers from a wide range of scientific disciplines and creates an inspiring environment for inter- and transdisciplinary exchange and innovative ideas. Its members are the representatives of Swiss science and are regarded as the young voice of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.

Shuttling between different worlds

Sandra Bärnreuther - a medical anthropologist – studied in Münster, Heidelberg, New York and New Delhi, conducted research in the laboratories of large urban hospitals in India, investigated how digital change affects medical care in rural regions of West Bengal and currently teaches at the University of Lucerne. She believes it is important to have a “comparative perspective” – including for the Swiss Young Academy, of which she is a founding member.

Portrait I Astrid Tomczak

It’s frequently (supposed) chance events that steer our lives in a direction we might otherwise never have taken.  Sandra Bärnreuther often uses the word “chance” when talking about her career. When the young woman was faced with choosing a degree course, she knew above all what she didn’t want to study: “Courses like medicine or economics were out of the question for me,” she says.  “Then at an information day someone told me about social anthropology.  I read the information leaflet and thought: yes, that’s it.” Sandra Bärnreuther grew up in a Munich suburb, but wanted to leave home for her university studies, so she opted for Münster. Here again, chance played into her hands:  in Münster, students of social anthropology had to learn a non-European language. “I learnt Hindi because it fitted into my course of study.”


“What interests me are medicine’s global interrelations”


She then decided to study a year abroad at the University of Delhi and, after her return, to continue her studies in Heidelberg, because there was an interdisciplinary institute specializing in South Asia, and because the subfield she was interested in – medical anthropology – was also represented. “I’m interested in medicine not only as a clinical practice, but also as a field that has been shaped socially, politically and economically,” she explains.  She presents her PhD research on In vitro fertilization (IVF) as an example. “I examined, on the one hand, how IVF is practiced and used in India and, on the other, how the IVF sector has emerged over time. My work has always had a focus on global interrelations,” emphasizes the social scientist, who works as an assistant professor at the University of Lucerne. For example, she has studied the role India played in global reproductive medicine.


Since her first stay 20 years ago, Sandra Bärnreuther has travelled again and again to different regions of India: to Ladakh, in northern India, for her Master’s thesis, and to New Delhi for her dissertation. She is now researching in rural areas near Kolkata in West Bengal. “I learnt Bengali for this,” she says. This is important for her current research project on digital technologies in India’s healthcare sector. “Many people don’t speak English in rural areas, so Bengali is necessary,” she emphasizes. She is investigating how the introduction of digital platforms which make online consultations possible, but also store health data is changing primary care in India. How do digital transformations affect social relationships, for example between patients and doctors? What new role is being played by community healthcare workers who utilize these technologies? To what extent are existing hierarchies being broken down or reinforced?   


“As a social anthropologist based in Switzerland, I have the opportunity to conduct research in countries of the global South. This rarely happens the other way round.”


Social inequality is an important topic in her work, including in academia. “As a social anthropologist based in Switzerland, I have the opportunity to conduct research in countries of the global South. This rarely happens the other way round.” Indeed: the idea of an Indian anthropologist conducting research into IVF in Switzerland or Alpine customs, for example, seems probably rather strange to most people. “I was part of a project at the University of Zurich that tried to make it possible for academics from the Global South to conduct research in Switzerland.” Unfortunately, however, funding opportunities are still rare, and visa regulations often pose difficulties for academics from the global South to spend time in Switzerland for research.


She would also like to see the Young Academy open up more internationally. “Interdisciplinarity has always been very important in my career. And being a member of the Young Academy is a great opportunity to have conversations with people from various disciplines,” she says.  “But it would be great if we had more members from outside Europe, particularly from the Global South.”


Commitment to innovative teaching formats


At the Young Academy, Sandra Bärnreuther is currently working on a project on innovative teaching formats at the science-society interface. “We aim to explore teaching beyond lectures and seminars” she points out. “It’s exciting to try out something new – particularly at the science-society interface. Social anthropology can offer important insights that rarely reach a broader public.” On the one hand, the project group plans to take stock of innovative teaching formats at Swiss universities and facilitate networking opportunities between lecturers, while on the other also encouraging students to further develop their work. Students who have already attended such seminars can take part in a workshop where they can learn from experts how to professionalize and publish the results of their projects, such as blogs, videos or podcasts.


“I thrive on communicating and cooperating with other people.”


When interviewing Sandra Bärnreuther it becomes clear that she certainly doesn’t get bored. What fascinates her about her work are interactions with people. “I thrive on communicating and cooperating with other people.” She says about herself: “Although I’ve found my dream job, I can’t recommend it to everyone.” What does she mean by that? Among other things, she likes the flexibility, which may be a burden for others. “I was very mobile for a long time. But that might not be possible for everyone. And I was lucky. Working conditions in academia are precarious and many people work in temporary positions. If it hadn’t worked out with my current job, I might now no longer be working in the academic world.” But, of course, it takes more than chance and luck to get to where she is today. Perseverance – and a degree of tenacity? Bärnreuther hesitates, but then says: “Perseverance? Yes.” But, more importantly, collaboration with colleagues has always been central for her career. She would like to encourage others to pursue their career path, even in the face of resistance. “I sometimes see people who get discouraged by rejections. That’s a pity.”


A Bavarian globetrotter


Sandra Bärnreuther grew up in a Munich suburb with two younger siblings. She first studied in Münster for two years and, after spending a year abroad at the University of Delhi, completed her Master’s degree in Heidelberg. Subsequently, she was a Fulbright Fellow at New York University and then spent another year in India, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She gained her PhD in Heidelberg in 2015.  She then worked as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Zurich and has been at the University of Lucerne since February 2020, where she now teaches and researches as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, specializing in medical anthropology. Her current research project focuses on data-driven development approaches in India and Kenya. The globetrotter has also kept a little bit of New York for herself in Switzerland: Sandra Bärnreuther enjoys dancing Lindy Hop in her leisure time.