Editor’s note: The successful completion and defense of the PhD dissertation is one of the most important rites of passage in the academic life of many HSS members. The dissertation may become a book, a chapter, an article (or several), or nothing at all. But whatever the outcome, it leaves an indelible mark on anyone who has persevered through the rigors of the PhD and emerged on the other side. The International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Division of History of Science and Technology (IUHPST/DHST) has honored the discipline with their DHST Dissertation Prizes since 2005. As of 2017, competitions are held every two years and up to five historians of science and technology are recognized for outstanding doctoral dissertations. The Prize does not specify distinct thematic categories or time periods; submissions must be recognizable dissertations on the history of science or technology in any part of the world.
HSS congratulates the winners of the 2019 DHST prize for their hard work and success. This year’s competition pool included submissions in English, Russian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese on subjects as varied as the history of resins, human evolution, and Aztec epidemics. A complete list of this year’s Laureates and honorable mentions, with details about their dissertations and directors, is available on the DHST website. Readers might find it useful to take a quick look there or in our own member news section to orient themselves before reading on.
This group of laureates and those of the 2020 competition will present their research at the 26th ICHST, to be held in Prague in July 2021. Come fall 2020, HSS members who have finished or will finish their dissertations between 26 September 2018 and 1 September 2020 should keep an eye out for details on the next round of the competition. Who knows, you too may win a trip to Prague! Meanwhile, although one would have to wait until 2021 to put faces to the names and ideas in these dissertations, here are some excerpts from online interviews with 2019 laureates Sandra Elena Guevara Flores, Emily Kern, and Marcin Krasnodębsk about their prize-winning work. All three were kind enough to answer the questions in English, even though they wrote their respective dissertations in Spanish, English and French.
In 1-2 sentences (neither of which should repeat the title) summarize the main argument or discovery of your dissertation.
Sandra: The main objective of my dissertation was to reconstruct the sociocultural entity of cocoliztli—in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, a word meaning epidemic disease—which occurred in the New Spain (modern-day Mexico) between 1545-1548 C.E. The research highlights the fact that cocoliztli was neither an indigenous nor a Spanish disease. Rather, it was a colonial construction, resulting from the interaction between Spanish and Aztec medicines in a specific time and space.
Emily: In my dissertation, I traced the intellectual and cultural histories of the ‘out of Asia’ and ‘out of Africa’ hypotheses of human origins. By following these ideas from the Enlightenment through East African decolonization, the project demonstrates how geographical theories of human evolution were constructed and reinforced through beliefs about race, language, evolution, and the perceived centrality and importance of Asia and Europe and irrelevance of Africa in world history.
Marcin: Although largely forgotten nowadays, resin chemistry used to be a robust international academic discipline for almost half of a century. Its history tells us about a place of research on renewable materials in the context of constant competition with petrochemistry.
How did you find/choose your research topic?
Marcin: My research project was initially conceived as a rescue mission of the archives of the Pine Institute, a global research center in resin chemistry based in Bordeaux. The Institute existed for one hundred years but after its closure around 2010, its archives dating back to early 1900s came under threat of destruction. My supervisors, prof. Pascal Duris and dr. Jérôme Pierrel, identified the collection, which was stored in the basement of an old building at the campus of the University of Bordeaux, and secured funding from local authorities to study it. I was lucky to come in contact them at the right moment to have a chance to work with these documents.
Sandra: My bachelor’s dissertation in biological/physical anthropology helped me. After studying matlazahuatl (in nahuatl “blue rash like a net”), another epidemic disease characterized by a skin rash that struck the New Spain from the sixteen to nineteen centuries in New Spain, I emphasized the fact that in order to properly understand the epidemiological situation of the Spanish viceroyalty, it was more than necessary to separate cocoliztli from matlazahuatl. After finishing my master’s degree, I decided to continue with cocoliztli. Dr Pardo, my PhD tutor, really helped me to focus on the disease from a sociocultural perspective, instead of taking a biomedical view.
Emily: In my first year of graduate school, I took seminars with Erika Milam on the history of evolution and with Michael Gordin on the global history of science. When I started looking for a dissertation topic, I really wanted to work on something that combined my interests in global history and the history of science. The history and politics of human evolution research and the way ancient hominins are invoked as collective, global ancestors at certain points in time had caught my interest, although narrowing down the topic to something manageable took some time. As my advisors, Erika and Michael were fantastic about pushing me to refine my arguments and focus at each stage of the project.
What was the most rewarding aspect of working on your dissertation?
Emily: I really enjoyed bouncing ideas around with my advisors, trying out new arguments with my writing group, and presenting pieces of the work in progress at workshops and seminars with other historians of science and as part of a collaborative group of global historians. For me, research and scholarship are all about working within a larger community and learning from each other.
Sandra: I would highlight two aspects. The first aspect was the opportunity to work with and learn from researchers really committed to the study of ancient diseases and medicine. The second aspect I found the most rewarding was the opportunity to study indigenous codices and reconstruct the ideas and notions of a society that lived five hundred years ago.
Marcin: Two aspects deserve mention. First, access to an unexplored collection with files documenting the life of an institution over a period of one hundred years. Whereas most student historians work on the documents already described and treated by archivists, I got the opportunity to work with hundreds of boxes covered in decades-thick dust, with no description. While this process took much more time, there was a sense of adventure in unpacking these files, as I never knew whether the next box would revolutionize my narrative or provide a basis for another chapter. The second great thing about my work was its interdisciplinary nature. Understanding the scientific ecosystem surrounding resin chemistry is not just about the history of chemistry, but also about the history of the environment, life sciences, French and American science policy, and even about ethnobotany and international trade history. All these diverse disciplines, schools of thought, and intellectual trajectories have to be taken together to understand the variety of questions I explored in my work.
What sort of unanticipated hurdles or challenges did you have to face on this journey? How did you meet or overcome them?
Marcin: Since the documents were stored in an old basement of a chemistry institute about to be decommissioned and demolished, there was a sense of urgency about my work. The basement was slightly flooded once, and throughout the entire duration of the project, we worked closely with local archivists to preserve the documents. Thankfully the project led not only to my dissertation but also to the successful transfer of the documents to the National French archives.
Sandra: When I started my PhD studies, my idea was to study cocoliztli from a biomedical perspective. In other words, I wanted to identify the pathogen. Dr Pardo changed my mind when he challenged me to study the disease as it was experienced and understood within its original context. My difficulty was to forget about disease as a biomedical and biological entity, and approach it as a social construct.
Emily: For about a week in 2017 (about five months before I was due to submit), I was pretty sure I’d lost all my organized archival documents because of a software fault, which I discovered while traveling internationally for a big conference. However, I had backups of everything saved in both an external disk and in the cloud, which took things from “potentially catastrophic” to just somewhat annoying. Fortunately, the software issue was resolved a week later, so I didn’t have to reorganize from scratch!
What or where has life after the dissertation brought you?
Sandra: Currently I am a lecturer at three universities, teaching such subjects as the history of medicine, gender and sexuality, human evolution and forensic anthropology at the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM), the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), and the International Academy of Formation in Forensic Sciences. Additionally, I work as a researcher in a group that in 2018 commemorated the 500 anniversary of the arrival of Hernan Cortés to México. Finally, I am a member of a research group that focuses on disability and inclusive education at UNAM.
Marcin: After a postdoc project on the history of photonics at University of Bordeaux, and another one on the environmental history of south-western France at IRSTEA, I am currently embarking on another project at the University Paris Saclay. I will be studying the history of industrial chemistry in the second half of the 20th century in France, with a focus on the major research center in Aubervilliers. In particular, I am interested in the social embeddedness of the center and its role in reshaping the industrial panorama of Aubervilliers, a city that was at the heart of ‘the red belt’ ruled by the French Communist Party for more than fifty years.
Emily: I’m currently a postdoctoral research fellow on the New Earth Histories project, led by Alison Bashford at the University of New South Wales, where I’m working on turning my dissertation into a book and making plans for the next project. It’s been a huge treat to get to live some place as beautiful as Sydney with lots of wildly interesting wildlife, and it’s great getting to be a part of the lively history of science community in Australia.
Any advice for a new PhD student embarking on a related topic?
Emily: This advice is not topic specific: first, back up all your files. Also, find a community of friends who will read your material and tell you when it needs more work and when it is done.
Marcin: As I mentioned before, my dissertation is strongly interdisciplinary, a feature often appreciated by my peers, supervisors, and colleagues. I am convinced that this approach was the only one to capture the specificity of resin-related research and the challenges it faced in the twentieth century. After a slightly erratic search for postdocs after my defense—which led me in very different directions such history of physics and environmental history—however, I realized that the interdisciplinarity is not always an asset. Academic positions still tend to favor the more traditional disciplinary divisions such history of chemistry, technology, or the life sciences. I often felt at a disadvantage when competing with my colleagues with narrower but more focused backgrounds. This might seem counterintuitive because many funding schemes encourage interdisciplinarity. In my experience, however, considering the scarcity of positions, sticking to a single discipline appears to be a safer bet for early stage careers. My advice to young scholars, therefore, would be to ‘play it safe’ and build through their dissertations an easily readable professional identity.
Sandra: You must love your topic. If you don’t love it, you will suffer throughout your studies because you have to live with it. Most PhD students decide to study just because they cannot find a job. But if you don’t appreciate your topic and don’t want to become a researcher, your doctoral studies will feel like your worst nightmare come true.