Doctor of Science Candidate (’20),

Social and Behavioral Sciences | Critical Media Practice

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The overarching theme of Alen’s research is the multimodal investigation ofpositive health, a sub-discipline of public health that treats health more than just merely the absence of disease. Trained in participatory action research, program development and evaluation, occupational health and psychometrics, Alen relies on the medical humanities – particularly

public health, medical anthropology and critical media practice – to solve human health issues. Coupling abstract concepts such as diet, work, happiness, participation, partnership and bureaucracy together with objects, moving images and his own body, Alen uses the vitality, risk and play inherent in sculpture, video and performance to deviate from public health’s fetish with populations, large datasets and disease.

Alen’s long-running project has been concerned with how science ascribes meaning to what a healthy diet is and can be. Tracing the discovery of the so-called “Mediterranean Diet” in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s, Alen explored how scientists’ overemphasis of The Diet’s biochemical properties overshadowed the sensory-aesthetic qualities of the Mediterranean “way of life” that investigators ironically enjoyed during their fieldwork to Italy and Greece, hence further disregarding the Classic Greek definition of diet (diata) that is, “to direct one’s own life.” Following a series of failed attempts to fly to the Mediterranean to conduct the research, Alen fell back on “armchair anthropology” to reenact and reimagine the discovery and meaning of The Mediterranean Diet. This involved the use of green screen, super-telephoto lenses, drones, livestreaming, living room karaoke, projections, mannequins, ready-made props – as well as appearing as an extra for the Canadian Food Network and breaking into a professor’s island cottage. His findings were presented at science talks and poster sessions and documented with Super 8, Hi8 and pro- and consumer-grade video cameras.

Alen’s dissertation explores the conditions for happiness (or “flourishing”) in the workplace.

Based on 12 months of embedded ethnography, he explores his own lab’s implementation of a community-based intervention. Alen studies the lived experience of academics as they pierce bureaucracies set up by funders, ethics boards, tenure committees and the scientific institution that defy their work’s rigor and credibility. His study extended into a conference poster session, where Alen did a live demonstration of a costume that promises to “turn any community-based researcher into a real scientist.” The performance was made into a short film, “catching social reality in flight.”

Another study is concerned with an academic partnership between Harvard and Levi Strauss & Co. surrounding “worker flourishing.” Based on interviews, observations and archives derived from Mexican apparel factories, Alen is exploring how low-wage workers in the Global Supple Chain make sense of researchers measuring their health according to “happiness,” contrary to a long tradition of performative audits that solely examine fatalities, accidents, illness and human rights violations. Using survey data from 2,500 workers, he will also explore the theoretical construct of happiness at work. Alen will present his findings in the form of a live webinar (stay tuned).

Alen is finishing his Doctor of Science degree (’20) in Social & Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and approaching his Capstone for Critical Media Practice, a secondary field program offered through The Film Study Center. Alen is also a Rose Service Learning Fellow at Harvard Chan and a New Civics Scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Alen grew up in Kings Highway, Brooklyn. He arrived to the U.S. under refugee status in 1992 from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasus, which also inspired his recent performance, “i’m the only caucasian here.”

External Link:

Photo credits to Joyce Fung, Harvard College (’20)