Freeman, EmilyCareer Profile: Emily Freeman

Emily Freeman, born and raised in South Carolina, received her bachelor of science and masters degrees in geosciences from Mississippi State University. An AAG member since 1995, she is now a Ph.D. candidate and assistant professor in the School of Geography and Geology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Among her research interests are geographies of health and disability and qualitative research methods in health sciences. Her dissertation work is featured on the Internet at www.endostudy.com.

This profile was published in 2003. Emily is currently a postdoctoral research Fellow in psychosocial oncology at University of Toronto/University Health Network. 

AAG: Where did your work in geography begin?

Emily: My first interests in geography were in meteorology and climatology, and I have a strong interest in tornado research. But I’ve switched career paths. I’m working now in the fields of medical geography, and feminist/social geography.

AAG: No more chasing tornados?

Emily: Some days, I think in many ways, climatology was easier for me. Now I’m looking at how women experience chronic illness and spaces of health care and social support. In particular, I’m studying women diagnosed with endometriosis and how they have experienced health care from diagnosis through treatment.

AAG: What precipitated this change?

Emily: I myself was diagnosed with endometriosis in 1994. During my masters degree studies, I had a really hard time with the symptoms. And at that point I decided, this was a really important part of my life and I should do some investigation into it. So I began working with Dr. Vera Chouinard here at McMaster on health geography.

AAG: I understand you are also active in the AAG’s Disability Specialty Group.

Emily: Yes. I’ve often thought that the most helpful aspect of being a member of the AAG is that it is a support network. I think the support I had through contacts I met through the AAG helped me decide to go forward with this new line of work.

AAG: Where are you in your Ph.D. program?

Emily: I’m in the final part of writing up my dissertation. I’ve got chapters out to my committee and hope to finish up this year.

AAG: Congratulations, so you are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now?

Emily: Yes, and I’ve been very fortunate. My work has been funded through the Susan Moore Morgan Research Grant in Women’s Health and it’s been very well received. I’ve done a lot of work in Washington DC with the National Coalition of LGBT Health and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Healthy People 2010 program, as well as with Congress, with the National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies.

AAG: What are your major findings?

Emily: What is very interesting is that most research from medical sociology and public health treats chronic illness as a very linear process going from diagnosis to treatment, and then the patient goes on with life. The unique perspective that geography gives me though, is how women experienced their illness as a journey that is affected by not only diagnosis, treatment, and social support, but the complex interactions along this journey.

AAG: How did a geographic perspective shed new light on these interactions?

Emily: What geography brought to this was the understanding that chronic illness is not a linear process but is very recursive. What affects women in terms of the different spaces of their lives impact other spaces, for instance how she experiences diagnosis and treatment in health care spaces impact her personal spaces of employment and social support and vice versa. What happens in one space dramatically impacts what happens in the other spaces.

AAG: What might this type of study mean for research in disability geography?

Emily: I feel that geographic research on disabilities should not only include those that are visibly disabled but also those that may have a hidden illness, like endometriosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus.

AAG: What are the implications of your study?

Emily: This is very important for the medical community especially when you are dealing with an illness like endometriosis that has no cause and no cure. What we can do is – by better understanding how women experience the disease in different spaces of their lives – try to improve their treatment. I was just in a lecture this week listening to a prominent Harvard researcher in public health, and she put out a call for more interdisciplinary research, saying that doctors and medical researchers cannot find these solutions alone. Geography is definitely one of those disciplines that can and should contribute.

Dr. Patricia Solis, 2003