Şerife Tekin: Using philosophy to advance our understanding of mental health treatment

September 15, 2022
Şerife Tekin: Using philosophy to advance our understanding of mental health treatment

Although science and medicine often focus on analyzing information from concrete, observable measurements, Şerife Tekin likes to dig deeper beneath the raw data, exploring the philosophy and ethics that naturally intertwine with science, research, and medical treatment. For example, how do we know when to cease treatment if a patient suffers from a terminal illness? Or how does one decide when to discontinue life-sustaining measures if a patient on life support is unlikely to survive? 

Tekin, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Classics in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA), studies the ambiguity of such questions as part of her research.

" That's the beauty of philosophy. There are no set answers," Tekin said. “As long as you develop an argument and you can support your conclusion with premises and examples, there is really no wrong answer. I think my students find that scary, but also very liberating.”

Tekin’s research is wide-ranging, applying philosophical thinking to topics like science, medicine, psychiatry, bioethics, and ethics of artificial intelligence. At the core of her work, she seeks to understand the human mind, with a specific focus on cognition and mental disorders. Her fundamental goal is to make the concept of the self a central component of how we approach mental health and its treatment.

In her research, Tekin incorporates first-person accounts of those living with a mental illness, such as memoirs, blogs, social media postings, and interviews that she conducts herself. She believes that these direct testimonials are a rich and under-utilized resource that can expand and supplement existing scientific literature around mental health. 

“I want to know what happens when people experience mental disorders, and what happens when the mind does not work in the way we want it to,” Tekin said. “We live in a very opportune time where science of the mind is advancing rapidly, and all these different branches of science have really enriched our understanding of how these illnesses emerge. But even with this expansion of scientific knowledge, there’s still so much that we don’t know about how the mind works.” 

During the 2021–2022 academic year, Tekin was able to advance her research and explore these questions even further when she was awarded the Lutcher Brown Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded to newly tenured faculty who have demonstrated scholarly excellence and commitment to student success and was established to help accelerate the research of outstanding faculty at UTSA.

“I had an incredibly productive year thanks to this fellowship,” Tekin recalled. “The funding allowed me to really invest in my research, and I was able to write a lot of scholarly articles and grant applications during that time.”

In addition to her increased research output, the Lutcher Brown Fellowship also presented Tekin with multiple academic opportunities both stateside and abroad. Tekin was asked to be a visiting research fellow with the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, a leading institute in her area of study. She was also invited to become an honorary fellow for the University of London’s Center for Olfactory Research and Applications.

As a Lutcher Brown Fellow, Tekin established formal connections with the University of Oxford as well. She was invited to be a faculty partner with the Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care, an organization within Oxford’s St. Catherine’s College. The center promotes the idea that values-based and evidence-based approaches should be considered equally to support balanced decision-making in patient care. It brings together experts from a wide range of disciplines to study and promote the use of ethics and philosophy in mental health treatment, surgery and other areas of health care.                                                      

With this new institutional partnership, Oxford and UTSA faculty plan to collaborate to teach guest lectures at each other’s universities. 

“This is a huge step for the international recognition of UTSA, especially the medical humanities program, which will in turn benefit our students dramatically,” Tekin said. “As a Hispanic Serving Institution, our students do not always come from backgrounds that would allow them to connect with people at a place like Oxford. This gives us a unique opportunity to bring some Oxford education to UTSA. Without the Lutcher Brown Fellowship, I wouldn’t have been able to establish this working relationship with the university.”

Tekin was born and raised along the Aegean coast in Turkey. She likes to think that her love of philosophy comes from growing up near ancient Greek ruins, walking the same paths as renowned ancient philosophers. She received her bachelor’s degree in economics from Middle East Technical University in Turkey, and then moved to Canada to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Saskatchewan.  

After earning her doctorate in philosophy from York University in Canada, Tekin moved to the U.S. and taught at Daemen College for five years before coming to UTSA in 2018 as an assistant professor. She earned tenure at UTSA in 2021 and was also selected to become the director of COLFA’s medical humanities program that same year. The program is currently one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Tekin has made a lasting impression on her students as well. UTSA student athletes recognized her as a “Professor of the Game” in both spring and fall of 2019. The award is given to instructors who have made a positive impact on their lives. She was also presented with the Most Inspirational Faculty Award on three separate occasions while teaching at Daemen College.

“I think one of the reasons I have such a good relationship with my students is that I consider myself a student as well,” Tekin said. “I love learning, and I consider myself to be a lifelong student. Each class I teach, even if I’ve taught it a million times, I’m learning something new from my students.” 

Tekin teaches the following courses:

  • PHI 3033: Philosophy of Science
  • MHU 4813: Seminar in Medical Humanities

Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.