by Nahyan Fancy
STMS Conference Participants: (from left to right) Monica Green, Annica Balentine, Aura Ochoa, Kaiyan Cai, Sarah Kang, Midori Kawaue, Eric Layne, Christina Wells, Julia Erdlen, Marisa Lucht, Nahyan Fancy (Not pictured: Alida Roorda)
Between March 10 and March 12, 2017, DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana) welcomed ten students from across the country to present their engaging work on topics as diverse as debates in the Early American Republic over science and religion, to ethical concerns raised by cyberattacks such as Stuxnet—the computer worm that attacked Iranian nuclear enrichment centrifuges. The theme for this first, (and it is hoped, annual) undergraduate conference on Science, Technology, Medicine and Society was “Transcending Disciplinary, Temporal and Regional Boundaries.” We received approximately three dozen submissions from institutions across the United States, including Gonzaga, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Princeton, Rutgers and Wesleyan. Many of the submissions were from students enrolled in traditional disciplinary programs (e.g. Biochemistry, History, Mathematics), but who were introduced to history of science, philosophy of science, STS and/or history of medicine in courses outside of their majors and/or in the process of pursuing research for their senior theses. The conference thus was an excellent way to introduce these students to the exciting work being done in these fields by engaging with each other’s papers, and through conversations with faculty discussants and our keynote speaker, the distinguished historian of science and medicine, Monica Green (Arizona State University).
The eleven selected papers were broken up into three panels (unfortunately, one participant had to withdraw due to a medical emergency). The first panel on Saturday morning was on “Science, Religion and Ethics.” The Vice-President of Academic Affairs, Anne Harris, a medieval Art Historian with a strong scholarly interest in the history of science, began the proceedings by welcoming all participants, highlighting the transformative work of Monica Green on the Trotula texts and medieval women’s health. Midori Kawaue (DePauw) next presented work from her History senior thesis, which examines the relationship between Edward Hitchcock, the early American geologist, and his uncle, Epaphras Hoyt, using the latter’s newly discovered notebooks. Kawaue highlighted the role played by natural theology and Scottish common-sense philosophy in the work of Hoyt and Hitchcock. Annica Balentine (Gonzaga) presented her preliminary findings on the gender biases implicit within OB/GYN textbooks that minimize the risks of contraceptive techniques for women while validating similar risks in the case of men. Aura Ochoa (Wesleyan) concluded the session by analyzing how women of color were used as experimental subjects for various invasive, reproductive techniques throughout the twentieth century. Her paper raised important questions on the ethics of experimental research, and how scientific racialization of pain helped erase the bodies and experiences of women of color from the dominant narratives of scientific progress. The discussant, Jeffrey Dunn (Philosophy, DePauw), responded to each of the papers and guided the students and audience in an energetic discussion on the nature of scientific research, the ethics of data collection and its use, and the social situatedness of science and its implications for our current political climate. The discussion got contentious at times, which was as much a testament to the diverse faculty and student perspectives present in the room as to the quality of the individual student presentations.
The second panel on Saturday afternoon was on “Science and Gender.” Alida Roorda (DePauw) presented work from her senior seminar paper analyzing medical debates at the turn of the twentieth century in Britain over women’s cycling. Julia Erdlen (Notre Dame) highlighted some preliminary findings on gender inequality in Nobel Prize distribution based on datasets that are now digitally available. Marisa Lucht (Notre Dame) complemented both presentations by examining the various factors that led to the disengagement of women from Computer Science after having been much more represented at the onset of computing. As the discussant, Tamara Beauboeuf (Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, DePauw) pushed the students and audience to consider how social contexts, cultural expectations, ideologies and politics mutually inform science and scientists, she also encouraged students to reflect on how they may have overcome gender and/or racial biases and discrimination in their own lives, and how that has impacted their scholarly endeavors in terms of research questions, approaches, goals, etc.
Saturday’s events concluded with Monica Green’s keynote, “Bringing Disciplines, Eras, and Continents Together: Stories from the History of Medicine.” Green showed how in the process of constructing her courses, and in anticipating questions from her undergraduate students, she was led to expand her textual, theoretical, disciplinary and geographical scope over a long and productive career—one that started by examining the Trotula texts and gynecological medicine in a small region of the Italian peninsula and has expanded now to incorporate the study of global pandemics, especially the Black Death, across Eurasia using tools from modern genomics, bioarchaeology, climate science and traditional history of medicine. Green encouraged students to continue to probe and ask questions, utilize what the various disciplines have to offer (their tools, methodologies and perspectives), and to think broadly across regions and time periods to gain a better understanding of contemporary public health concerns, such as Ebola or Zika.
The final panel on Sunday morning was on “Contemporary Issues.” Kaiyan Cai (Columbia/DePauw) presented her research on developing a statistical method with her Mathematics advisor for ranking US states on their release of recent toxic chemicals (based on data available through the EPA). Sarah Kang (Wesleyan University) presented her senior thesis work on the food choices that certain families are forced to make due to poverty. Her work was grounded in an ethnographic study of customers who shop for food items at the Dollar Store. She situated her study within the larger political machinations that permit the sale of foods with adverse health effects from which various industries profit. Eric Layne (Notre Dame) pushed the audience to engage with the tremendous ethical issues confronting cyberwarfare in an age when computer worms and viruses (e.g. Stuxnet) can damage physical structures (e.g. Iranian
nuclear enrichment centrifuges) across the globe. Finally, Christina Wells (Notre Dame) examined the scientific studies conducted by Glaxo Smith-Kline on a drug for adolescent depression, for which the company was later sued. Her presentation highlighted significant issues in how research findings are shared in for-profit corporate settings, the problem of pharmaceutical companies colluding with outside researchers to use their names for publication, and how pharmaceutical companies find ways to bypass FDA approval for contentious drugs.
The conference ended with a discussion of these papers, led by Glen Kuecker (History & Urban Studies, DePauw), who built upon the discussion from the keynote and instilled in students the importance of research in an era of destabilized knowledge and the politicization of science.
In conclusion, as the post-conference surveys confirmed, the conference accomplished its goals of bringing together talented students working on topics from across the history of science and STS in order to learn from each other, receive valuable feedback on their work, and to instill in them the confidence to continue working on their projects, each of which can make valuable contributions to the contemporary public and scholarly discourse on science, technology and medicine in society.
Funding for the conference was provided by DePauw University, through the Asher Fund in Social Sciences, the Prindle Institute of Ethics and the Office of Academic Affairs. The conference is set to take place again next year at DePauw University, in Spring 2018. The call for papers will be circulated in the Fall and made available at the History of Science Society’s meeting in Toronto. The keynote speaker for next year’s conference will be Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra (University of Texas, Austin).