Kirsten Ostherr receives the 2024 Health Humanities Visionary Award

Kirsten Ostherr Health Humanities Visionary Award
Kirsten Ostherr award
Kirsten Ostherr (right), Rice's Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English and founding director of the Medical Humanities Research Institute, was nominated for the 2024 Health Humanities Visionary Award by Rice alumna Rachel Conrad Bracken (left). (Photo provided by Kirsten Ostherr)

Kirsten Ostherr, a media scholar and health researcher at Rice University, has been honored with the 2024 Health Humanities Visionary Award by the Health Humanities Consortium (HHC) during its April 10-13 conference in Phoenix. This recognition highlights Ostherr’s groundbreaking contributions to the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities, where she has pioneered innovative approaches to understanding the human experience of health and illness through the lens of media studies, digital technologies and computational health.

As the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English and founding director of the Medical Humanities Research Institute (MHRI) at Rice, Ostherr has been at the forefront of advancing translational research on health narratives and patient data. Her interdisciplinary background, encompassing a Ph.D. in American studies and a Master of Public Health in health promotion and behavioral sciences, reflects her commitment to bridging the gap between humanities scholarship and biomedical research.

“I’m very honored and gratified to get this kind of recognition,” Ostherr said, explaining that she has championed interdisciplinary collaboration as essential for addressing complex health care challenges. “Some of the biggest problems that we face are not ones that we can address through one disciplinary lens alone.”

The HHC’s awards committee, composed of scholars in the field, commended Ostherr for her visionary contributions. In its award letter, the committee highlighted Ostherr’s role in increasing the visibility and relevance of health humanities to both the general public and educators across various arenas.

“Beyond your scholarship, your work as a teacher and mentor, as well as a program founder and program leader, continue to make crucial, and quite concrete, interventions in what you have aptly dubbed the Translational Health Humanities,” the committee wrote. “Indeed, we find your articulation of that concept and your demonstration of its possibilities to be a visionary contribution in itself.”

Rice alumna Rachel Conrad Bracken, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, lauded Ostherr’s transformative research in areas such as outbreak and contagion, mobile health and artificial intelligence in her nomination letter.

“Her CV speaks for itself,” Bracken wrote. “What is not contained in Dr. Ostherr’s CV, however, is the full extent of her innovative teaching and the impact of her generous mentorship.”

Bracken said that Ostherr has left an indelible mark on the next generation of health humanities scholars, adding that her innovative pedagogical approaches, including hands-on interdisciplinary learning experiences, have reshaped graduate education in the field.

Therese “Tess” Jones, founding co-president of the HHC, commended Ostherr’s ability to bridge 20th century humanities scholarship with contemporary inquiry in media studies and information technologies in a letter to the committee.

“Her commitment to education whether it be in a traditional classroom, in front of a national think tank or in the extraordinary work of the Medical Futures Lab has made her one of the most well-recognized, highly regarded and sought after teachers nationally and internationally,” Jones wrote.

“It really raises the visibility of what Rice is doing in terms of research, but also in terms of education and pedagogy in this field,” Melissa Bailar, executive director of MHRI and associate director and senior lecturer in medical humanities, said of Ostherr’s award. “It helps even more to put us on the national stage.”

In honoring Ostherr, the HHC reaffirms its commitment to promoting scholarship, education and practices that enrich our understanding of the human experience in health and illness. Through initiatives like the annual conference and ongoing collaboration, the consortium aims to foster a vibrant community of scholars dedicated to advancing the health humanities for the betterment of society.

“Although the field has existed since the 1970s, medical humanities is still really an emerging field,” Ostherr said. “My hope is that through the work of the MHRI, we will move that forward to get to a point where agencies such as the National Institutes of Health recognize this is a field that needs its own grant mechanisms and that its research is needed to complete the biomedical research they’re already funding."

Learn more about the MHRI at Rice here.