Congratulations Dissertation Prize-winners

Editor’s note: The HSS Newsletter warmly congratulates the winners of the 2021 DHST Dissertation Prize. Instituted in 2005 by the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Division of History of Science and Technology (IUHPST/DHST), these prizes have been awarded once every two years since 2017 to up to five outstanding history of science or technology PhD dissertations in any language from any part of the world. The 2021 laureates are:

Sooyoung An, “Cross-cultural Transfers of Chinese Materia Medica Knowledge in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Toward a Global History of Natural Knowledge,” [Original language: Chinese]. (National Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, 2019. Director: Shaoxin Dong).

Johan Gärdebo, “Environing Technology: Swedish satellite remote sensing in the making of environment, 1969–2001,” (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, 2019. Director: Nina Wormbs).

Charles A. Kollmer, “From Elephant to Bacterium: Microbial Culture Techniques and Chemical Orders of Nature, 1875–1946,” (Princeton University, 2020. Director: Angela N. H. Creager).

Fateme Savadi, “The Historical and Cosmographical Context of Hay’at al-arḍ with a Focus on Quṭb al-Dīn Shīrāzī’s Nihāyat al-Idrāk,” (McGill University, 2018. Director: F. Jamil Ragep).

Although they could not travel to Prague to receive these prizes as originally intended, the 2021 laureates together with their predecessors from 2019 participated in an online session in Virtual Prague at the 26th ICHST. The awardees this year represent our community in all its wonderful diversity—disciplinary and linguistic—but please, don’t take my word for it. Read on and find out for yourselves.

What was your dissertation about? Could you please briefly summarize the main argument or discovery?

An: Although my dissertation is about the transmission of natural knowledge across three cultures—Korea, Japan, and Britain—my aim was to shed light on the cultural diversity of how knowledge about natural things traveled. By taking a comparative perspective, it highlighted the efficacy of imagining the world as multiple centers of knowledge-making for understanding the diverse ways that the material, e.g., specimens and textual, e.g. books, sources of materia medica knowledge, were translated and received and, in turn, influenced each of the cultures of naturalist inquiries in the three localities.

Gärdebo: In many ways, my dissertation is fundamentally about the creation of the environment as a crisis concept. It tells that story by focusing on how Sweden, a seemingly minor space power, promoted remote sensing satellites as a tool for both monitoring and managing the Earth’s environment.

Kollmer: My dissertation explored the circumstances in which scientists assembled microbial cultures, and how this work shaped scientists’ understandings of living things as chemical entities. I compared techniques and materials adopted by microbiologists in Western Europe and North America between the end of the nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, tracing how experts trained in different backgrounds came to see the cultivation of microbes as central to their professional identities. For many researchers, the isolation of microbes in test tubes and petri dishes carried an alluring promise: the ability to define fleeting vital processes in precise chemical terms. Culture techniques indeed fostered a plethora of insights into chemical facets of microbial life, yet these efforts also raised vexing questions subject to acrimonious debates. Then as now, microbes were emphatically multifarious, lending themselves to overlapping, even dissonant definitions indissociable from humans’ relentless repurposing of living things as technologies.

Savadi: My dissertation aimed at defining a distinct genre of scientific geographical writing that was part of a broader genre of theoretical astronomy in the pre-modern Islamic world and at showing how the development of this genre is also central to the study of the geographical and cosmographical traditions of the medieval Islamic world. To do so, I prepared a critical edition and translation of a certain geographical work by the thirteenth-century scholar Quṭb al‐Dīn al‐Shīrāzī and showed how he fashioned his work to both fit into and expand the genre in question, and how he revised his text several times after its initial composition in 1281.

How did you find the topic of your dissertation?

An: First, I had never imagined myself delving into the history of science at the time I was starting my PhD. The motivation emerged along the way when my adviser Professor Dong inspired me to continue the research on ginseng, which had been the topic of my master’s thesis. While the initial intention had been to write a “global history of ginseng,” my path shifted rather dramatically while I was still at the stage of searching out historical materials. During this time, I went to Britain for academic visits to the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge and Warwick University, where I accidentally encountered the notebooks and letters of Daniel Hanbury, a nineteenth-century naturalist who had made extensive studies of Chinese materia medica. At the same time, I also found numerous writings about ginseng, which were mostly written by natural historians. Gradually I became more fascinated by the research practices and rhetorical strategies deployed by these scientists from the past. Back in Korea, at my local library, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a book about Japanese naturalists engaging in a materia medica survey in Korea. One of them was primarily interested in ginseng cultivation. Thus, in short, the story of my coming up with my dissertation topic consisted of moments of coincidence rather than being a pre-planned project.

Gärdebo: I was initially interested in how the Swedish Government first began the detailed mapping and categorization of natural resources during the late 1800s. Nina Wormbs, who later became my PhD supervisor, persuaded me to pursue those questions through the history of satellite images, which shifted my research focus to the late 1900s.

Kollmer: I wanted to develop a transnational approach to the history of the modern life sciences that would allow me to weave together source materials written in languages that I had studied before and during my doctorate. The professionalization of microbiology coincided with an intensive internationalization of scientific research, and microbiologists routinely traveled for fellowships and conferences, communicating their undertakings in all the languages I had learned (and several that I had not). The dissertation project crystallized around an odd document I stumbled upon that billed itself as a “Nomenclature of Nutritional Types of Microorganisms.” This source helped me formulate the dissertation’s central questions, namely, how did people professionally concerned with the activities of microbes go about positioning these organisms in nature’s order? What tools and concepts did they wield in doing so? How did the technical work of cultivating microbes fit within different human cultures that sustained it?

Savadi: Most of the scientific texts that were written in the pre-modern Islamic world are not available in scholarly critical editions. My supervisor, Professor F. Jamil Ragep, had edited one of the most historically significant works of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), who was Shīrāzī’s teacher. This project was appealing because it offered a chance to help fill a gap in the availability of scholarly texts and to examine how Shīrāzī adapted, criticized, and assimilated Ṭūsī’s text when writing his own.

What was the most rewarding aspect of working on your dissertation?

An: I can still clearly remember the moment of epiphany that I experienced, which did not occur until the last stages of writing the introduction and conclusion of my dissertation. Only when I reached this stage did I realize that the dissertation as a whole is indeed a vivid reflection of my long-duree agony. For me, the question of how to effectively think and narrate out of the box of the “center-periphery” framework took precedence over everything else. This mindset is likely related to my identity as a Korean, born and raised in a country, which has had a history of being particularly vulnerable to many strong “centers”—China, Japan, and the US. Although my dissertation itself is far from recognizable, I take personal pride in the fact that writing my dissertation led me to deliberate on how to effectively contribute to the scholarship of global history as a researcher from the so-called periphery, which, however, consists of major “Europe-” or “China-centered” narratives. In this sense, I consider the experience as an important part of my personal growth.

Gärdebo: I have always been fascinated by how we get to know an environment—how people can feel geographically lost somewhere and then use a set of tools to develop relationships with their surroundings. Working on my dissertation taught me a lot, not only about how technical means found their way into people’s everyday life but also how culturally arduous that process seemed to the people involved in getting others to adopt these technologies.

Kollmer: The ambitious scope of the project forced me to hone my skills as a thinker and storyteller. It also provided a plausible excuse to live in Europe for a year, visiting archives in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Perhaps most rewardingly, I found intellectual communion with scholars who share my fascination with the history of microbiology.

Savadi: I enjoyed working with the medieval Arabic manuscripts, especially reading the texts directly in Shīrāzī’s hand and locating his handwriting as he made corrections to other manuscripts that were copied under his supervision.

What sort of unanticipated hurdles or challenges did you have to face on this journey? How did you meet or overcome them?

An: As a Korean who had chosen to study abroad in China, the biggest, most obvious challenge was my limited fluency in Chinese. During my first two years in the PhD, I struggled a lot to adapt to the new learning environment. What terrified me most almost every moment during the early phases was the anticipation that I would fail to write the dissertation in Chinese, which was required by the school and my advisor. However, thanks to the patient support and guidance from my advisor who had me write a book review in Chinese as homework every week, and the kind help of the friends I made in school who were so kind as to take on the role of my language tutors, I made “unanticipated” progress and managed to complete the dissertation. The writing is far from perfect because I first wrote drafts in English and Korean and only translated them into Chinese later, but it is, nevertheless, something that I can be proud of.

Gärdebo: I soon realized that the Swedish satellite experts gained power within the country through activities beyond Sweden. Methodologically then, the challenge was to follow these activities, namely, the uses of Swedish satellite images, rather than a specific set of actors. My solution was to find people whom the Swedish experts had worked with or against, and talk to them over a cup of coffee. It turned out to be quite a lot of cups of coffee, and in different countries. These interviews, along with private documentation kept in basements and attics, supplemented official sources from government and company archives, often telling stories that would not have been found otherwise.

Kollmer: Some of the archives I visited initially had been thoroughly picked over, and I had difficulty saying anything particularly interesting or novel about the things that I was finding. Through luck and persistence, I did locate sources that had not yet been studied, helping me find a tack toward the topic that felt distinctive. Further along, in the throes of writing, I often worried I had not done enough background research for each chapter, but I was also nervous that I was spending too much time on any one leg of the project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I quieted this anxiety by presenting draft chapters at every opportunity, which forced me to move nimbly through large bodies of secondary literature.

Savadi: While working on my dissertation, I had to modify and focus the scope of my project to fit within the timeline of my studies. Although it was difficult to part with some of the ideas that I had in mind at the proposal stage, I am glad that I now have the opportunity to get back to them as I am forming the dissertation into a book for publication.

What or where has life after the dissertation brought you?

An: Currently, I am working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Shanghai Normal University. I appreciate the opportunity not only because the school affords me material support to continue my research but also because I believe that the environment in China has unusual merits for a historian. In particular, it encourages one—me—to think about the question of perspective for and toward a “global history.” My point of view is still in the process of shaping and evolving, which may be the reason that I am thinking of trying to find yet another opportunity to continue to study abroad—this time, outside China—in the near future.

Gärdebo: Since graduating with my PhD, I have become engaged in understanding Sweden’s environmental politics, not only at the international but also at the national level, especially our present-day ambitions of transitioning towards a low-carbon society. I am currently traveling to Swedish industrial towns, talking to people in steel factories, petrochemical refineries, and cement production plants about what they think should be the priorities for transition politics. But I also plan to conduct more projects on Swedish environmental management, this time focusing on meteorology, so I do expect to be back in the archives before too long.

Kollmer: Currently, I am a postdoctoral instructor in the history of biology at Caltech. Relocating across the United States during the pandemic was stressful, but my partner and I have come to enjoy living in Southern California greatly. Despite the disruptions of the past year-and-a-half, Caltech has been an excellent place to begin work on a book manuscript. I have been fortunate to teach courses that dovetail with my research interests, and conversations with colleagues and students here have been immensely stimulating.

Savadi: I’m still at McGill University, but with a new designation and new project! I am now a postdoctoral researcher working with Professor Robert Wisnovsky on a project entitled “Muhammad ‘Abduh’s Supercommentary on al-Dawani’s Commentary on al-Iji’s Creed: A New Source for the Renewal of Islamic Analytical Theology,” sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

More from the October 2021 Newsletter