Questions without borders

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I attended a forum at the UMN called “Questions without borders: why future research and teaching will be interdisciplinary.” As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, it's a topic that holds a lot of interest for me. The main remarks were by Myron Gutmann from the National Science Foundation. His unit recently released a report called Rebuilding the Mosaic which collects white papers on cross-cutting research and innovative directions for the future. His talk addressed the ways in which the types of problems we're facing in areas like the environment increasingly call for interdisciplinary solutions, while acknowledging the obstacles to interdisciplinary work. He used the field of Materials Science as an example of an interdisciplinary field of study that became established in academia. He shared that less that 2.5% of bachelor's degrees and less than 1% of master's degrees are interdisciplinary. With that as our reality, he posed these questions:

  • How do we effectively measure interdisciplinary research and teaching?
  • How can we create a safe space for adventuresome faculty?
  • What is the appropriate reward structure, for students and faculty?

Gutmann thinks that new data management capacities make interdisciplinary problems newly tractable. Fields of study are not static; new ones are formed, changed, and phased out as the science advances. Through his research, Gutmann believes these are the things that make interdisciplinary work happen:

  • Shared intellectual problem
  • Agency leadership and resources
  • Organizational change within science organizations

Three University of Minnesota faculty members gave 5-minute responses to Gutmann's remarks.

In the news 1/19/12

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egg.jpgRecent articles directly or vaguely related to my areas of interest. It's been a while since I did one of these, so I have lots of links to share. Today's post focuses on articles about pregnancy, prenatal genetics, and reproductive technologies.

In the news 1/11/12

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Recent articles directly or vaguely related to my areas of interest. It's been a while since I did one of these, so I have lots of links to share. Today's post focuses on articles about animals, animal rights, and the human-animal boundary.

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt on the rise of women in science

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sally600.jpgI attended a lecture by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt titled “Uncovering the past, charting the future: the rise of women in science.” A few points she made that stuck with me:

  • History writing is entwined with history making

  • The concept of “compensatory history” – seeking out women to study

  • The role of “collaborative couples” – how being married to a scientist gained female scientists access to resources

  • Yes, Marie Curie was amazing, but focusing too much on well-known women like Curie overshadows the work of ordinary women in higher education science.

  • The “leaky pipeline” – women drop off as you move to higher and higher degrees

  • Research has shown that fathers make a big difference in encouraging daughters to pursue science.

Why create human-animal hybrids and chimeras?

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I imagine the most common question in discussions of creating animal-human hybrids is "why do it?" Julian Savulescu wrote an article for the American Journal of Bioethics addressing this question. He assents that there may be questionable motives - "commercial exploitation of 'freaks'; artistic motivation...or curiosity, just to see what it is like" (22). But he also discusses reasons that are more difficult to dismiss.

Medical purposes: Studying oncogenesis, as source of stem cells, or combining our genes with those of a species resistant to certain diseases

Delay aging or prolong human life: Could we incorporate turtle genetic sequences into our own to reduce telomere degradation?

Enhance human capabilities: Incorporate an elephant's memory genes, an owl's night vision, or a bat's ability to navigate in the dark.

Human-animal hybrid literature review

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If "science fiction is the dress rehearsal for social change" (Vint 181), what this genre has to say about human-animal hybridity will not only allow us as individual readers to examine our views on genetic hybrids and chimeras, but it will also become an important foundation for the ethical and moral discussions of society as a whole. The time for these discussions is ripe; the last decade has seen increasing research in the creation of chimeras (a product of two species in which the genes do not combine) and hybrids (each cell contains genetic material from both parents).

These conversations are taking place within bioethical and philosophical journals, but they are also playing out between literary scholars. The five articles I analyzed talk about what it means to be on the cusp of creating beings that occupy the space between human and animal, each calling on literature to ground their arguments in our culture.

In the news 11/23/11

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Enhanced prosthetics in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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In the world created for the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Sarif Industries creates high-tech prosthetics whose use is encouraged for everyone in the name of human enhancement. The catch is that once you have one of these prosthetics, you need to stay on the anti-rejection drug for the rest of your life—and drug prices are skyrocketing. Those protesting Sarif Industries use rhetoric like “Human augmentation: enslaving us all” and “Be human. Remain human. Purity first.”

Quick hit: the indifference engine

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science fiction museumMcLeod, Ken. “The indifference engine: how science fiction contributes to the public understanding of science, and how it doesn’t.” Extrapolation 51.1 (Spring 2010): 170.

In this article, McLeod examines why written science fiction (sf) is expected to contribute to public understanding of science. After all, he argues, “[w]e don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history.” His answer, drawn partly from the work of Gary Westfahl and Hugo Gernsback, is that sf as a genre contains, by definition, scientific fact—it's one of three elements: charming romance/thrilling adventure, scientific fact, and prophetic vision.

Another important aspect that “makes written sf distinctive as a genre is its relationship to its subject matter and to its core readership.” Fans of written sf expect real science and are able to identify scientific errors. McLeod believes this does not hold true for fans of “media sf”: films, TV, and games. These fans tend to be much less bothered by, and indeed less knowledgeable about, scientific errors.

McLeod concludes thus:

“the very minimum that written sf does is to popularize the rhetoric of science, and make the language of science familiar to the reader. It valorizes and validates interest in science, and stimulates thought about the consequences of discoveries and of new applications of science. But I would go further than that, and claim that science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

A noble distinction, to be sure.

Photo of the Science Fiction Museum via Flickr user adactio, creative commons.

Accelerated surrogacy in Silver Sling

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silversling3.jpgTze Chun's short film Silver Sling takes place in a near-future New York City and tells the story of Russian immigrant Lydia, who is considering becoming a pregnancy surrogate for the third time. In the world of Silver Sling, surrogates are given an injection that accelerates pregnancy, shortening it to three months. While acting as a surrogate comes with a good deal of money (enough so that Lydia could bring her little brother over from Russia), a third surrogate pregnancy usually leaves the surrogate sterile. Lydia struggles to balance the needs of the present (finding the money to take care of her brother) with the possibilities of the future (having children with her boyfriend Stephen).

What I liked best about this film was the way it let the technology itself be value-neutral while focusing on how our cultural and economic structure shapes the technology's use. Accelerated surrogacy is positioned as a smart choice for busy professionals; the company's promotional film contains lines like "In a world where you shouldn't have to wait for anything, why wait 9 months for your child to be born?" and "At Silver Sling, you can have the baby you've always wanted—in a time frame appropriate for the fast-paced world of today." Though this part didn't make the film, the synopsis on the film's web page says, "corporations offer financial incentives to their high-ranking female employees to pay for chemically accelerated surrogate births." The United States is economically polarized and highly focused on consumerism and convenience. It makes sense that a convenient but unnecessary service like this would be pitched to upper class women, just as it makes sense that the women hired to do the actual labor are, as the film's synopsis states, "people on the lower end of the economic spectrum—often immigrants or people looking to make their rent." Director Tze Chun said he wanted to explore how "immigrants function as a life support system" in New York City: "They cook food, they nanny children, they take out the trash. What if they literally became the life support system for the city's future generations?"