"MacGyver-Meets-Dr. Ruth": Science Journalism and the Material Positioning of Dr. Carla Pugh

By Campbell, Lillian | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

"MacGyver-Meets-Dr. Ruth": Science Journalism and the Material Positioning of Dr. Carla Pugh


Campbell, Lillian, Women's Studies in Communication


This article examines the rhetorical consequences of foregrounding female scientists' materials through an analysis of seven news articles on Dr. Carla Pugh, a surgeon who designs medical patient simulators. Journalists foreground Pugh's materials by positioning her as both "MacGyver," creatively assembling simulators from everyday objects, and "Dr. Ruth," willingly discussing intimate parts. These positions avoid focusing on Pugh's personal life or body but still ultimately gender her and her work. The MacGyver position associates Pugh with gendered activities, objects, and spaces while undermining her affiliation with the technical aspects of design. Meanwhile, the Dr. Ruth position implies Pugh's knowledge comes from inherent bodily expertise, making certain scientific fields appear more natural for women.

Keywords African American women, female scientists, health and medicine, materiality, rhetoric

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Medical students arrive at a comprehensive understanding of a procedure not only by reading about it in a textbook or observing a doctor's techniques but also by enacting it themselves. In her own account of her years in medical school, Dr. Carla Pugh, now a surgeon at the forefront of medical simulation design, shared her feelings of bewilderment: "If a doctor had his finger inside a man's rectum while performing a prostate exam, you could only see the back of his hand. You didn't know what he was touching on the patient" (Trice, 2010, p. 1). After years of frustration with her medical training, Pugh started building simulated body parts, beginning with an e-pelvis and then expanding to include rectal and breast models. These simulators offer medical students hands-on practice and feedback prior to their clinical placements. Pugh's work has received unexpected media coverage over the past decade, spurred in part by the unique materials she uses in simulator construction and the taboo body parts she builds. This article examines seven news articles that describe the work of Dr. Pugh and considers the rhetorical consequences of foregrounding this female scientist's materials.

Dr. Pugh began doctoral work in education at Stanford in 2001 with the goal of developing a "web based educational program for surgeons." While there, she "found lower hanging fruit in simulation technology" and began to cooperate with fellow students to construct an e-pelvis that used sensory technology to measure and categorize touch (Pugh, 2012a, p. 1). Since expanding to design breast and rectal models, Pugh has received grants from the National Board of Medical Examiners as well as the National Institutes of Health, and in 2010 she was given the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) by President Obama for her simulation research. Her impact has already been far-reaching: "Currently, over one hundred medical and nursing schools are using one of her sensor enabled training tools for their students" (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, 2012, p. 5).

From 2002, when her e-pelvis received its patent, to her most recent grants for simulated breast design, Pugh has been featured in Wired, the Chicago Sun Times, BBC News, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, and the Daily Mail. As an African American female scientist at the forefront of designing virtual simulators of intimate organs, Pugh provides an interesting case study for media coverage. Previous research has found that journalistic coverage of female scientists often relies on details about their looks, dress, and personal lives to garner reader interest: "These women are not only scientists (in their representation in the columns), they are also portrayed in their social or cultural roles as females with different personal traits" (Shachar, 2000, p. 354). My analysis of coverage of Pugh brings me to the same conclusion--that a woman scientist is differentially positioned because of her female role. …

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