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Fulbright Appointment to Expand Hilary Smith’s Asian Experience into Taiwan

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Steve Koppes


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Hilary Smith

Hilary Smith’s appointment as a Fulbright Scholar to Academia Sinica in Taiwan is still months away from its January 2024 start date. And yet, Smith, associate professor of history in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, realizes that she needs to rewrite her Modern China course syllabus to include some of the lessons she already has learned.

Smith will spend six months in Taipei as a Fulbright Scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology. The institute is full of scholars who, like Smith, specialize in Chinese history and the history of science and medicine. Her host in Taiwan will be Li Shang-Jen, a historian of medicine.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. Fulbright’s network of scholars, alumni and global partners aim to foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and partner nationals, share knowledge across communities and improve lives around the world.

Smith’s children, ages 15 and nine, will accompany her to Taiwan because of her firm belief in the Fulbright mission.

“Get to know people and let them get to know you, and we’ll build better international relations overall and more understanding globally. Maybe that’s idealistic, but I really do believe that,” she says.

Smith studied in Beijing as an undergraduate learning Mandarin Chinese. After graduating from Princeton University, she taught English for a year in Dalian, in northeast China, near the Korean Peninsula. She also spent another year and a half in Beijing conducting research as a graduate student. And she has taught in study abroad programs in Hangzhou on the Chinese mainland north of Taiwan. But she has spent only short periods of time in Taiwan.

While in Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow, Smith hopes to find a faculty member with whom she can arrange a Collaborative Online International Learning Class (COIL). In the COIL, her students will connect virtually with students in Taiwan on a project or assignment.

“Especially in this post-COVID age of uncertainty, a lot of students haven’t had the opportunity to study abroad. Or maybe their life circumstances prevent them from studying abroad. This seems like a really good way to give them a direct connection with someone in Taiwan who might have very different experiences and perspectives from theirs.”

Smith’s agenda in Taiwan includes gathering material for her second book, whose working title is “Nutritional Imperialism: How Science Turns Difference into Sickness in China.” In the pages within, she will present five examples where she sees this happening in nutrition science. One example is lactose intolerance.

“A high percentage of people in China are lactose intolerant, which means that after infancy their bodies stop producing a lot of the enzyme which breaks down lactose. And so, when they consume fresh milk or other forms of dairy, that can often produce uncomfortable symptoms. Gas and diarrhea,” Smith explains.

When Western scientists began researching lactose intolerance in the 1960s, they sought to learn when the genetic mutation occurred that brought about the condition in other populations. After about 10 years of research, they realized, “Wait a minute. We’re the freaks. We’re the ones who have the genetic mutation,” Smith says.

In her book, Smith will argue that modern nutrition science has tended to pathologize Chinese bodies and dietary patterns. Often, she says, “Things that look like deficiencies or illnesses that need to be corrected are really just differences.”

Smith is drawn to history and China because of her desire to see things differently.

“I like to look at how people in very different times and places, living under different circumstances, thought about the world, organized their lives. What their experiences were like,” she says.

“By looking at those things, we learn how peculiar our own world and our own way of thinking are. It’s basically a desire to disorient myself and my students. To ask questions about things that we take for granted and see how strange and foreign those things can seem when seen in the context of another society or another place in time.”

The history of China lends itself to that because most of her students have had little contact with Chinese ideas, language, history or culture. It’s new to them, as it was to Smith before she went to college.

“The history of science, too, is good for disorienting yourself and making you question things that you had just taken for granted,” she says. “Historians of science tend to look at science in the same way we would look at art or religion or any other human creation. I don’t think science is just like any other way of knowing, but it is subject to the same kinds of scholarly treatment as any other way of knowing.”

The Fulbright Scholar application cycle is currently open for 2024-25 academic year. The application deadline is September 15, 2023. Interested applicants can contact the DU Fulbright Scholar campus liaison, Leasa Weimer:, with specific questions or personal consultations.