Regeneration: the Life Sciences and the Humanities

Computer-generated image of a stem cell.

Regeneration: the Life Sciences and the Humanities

Charis Thompson and Cori Hayden

Thanks to the generous support of the Townsend Center G.R.O.U.P. program in the Spring semester of 2006 and the Mellon Strategic Group program this semester, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty have all had a chance to address topics at the intersection of the Life Sciences and the Humanities. In early 2006, we put out a call through the URAP program for undergraduate students interested in spending a semester working on topics in this area. We received a large number of applications from highly qualified students and selected a diverse group of 15 upper classmen drawn from across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We were also able to offer research stipends to two graduate students who served as informal sources of information and mentoring for the undergraduates while working on their own projects.

Over the course of the semester, we divided our discussions and meeting times between readings in Science and Technology Studies of the life sciences, and work on research projects carried out by the students. Some of the students formed into working groups for their projects, and others carried out their own research; a few did both. One group looked at international comparative aspects of biotechnology regulation and ethics; a second group looked at life sciences, especially regenerative medicine and associated patient activism, and its relations to disability; a third group worked on historically underserved populations and their representation in and access to the fruits of biotechnology and biomedicine; and a final group, made up of science majors, drew up a plan for including ethical, legal, social, and historical perspectives on science in Berkeley’s undergraduate science curriculum. The individual projects included one research paper on student attitudes to egg donation for the fertility industry and for stem cell research; one project comparing large scale government funded projects in the life sciences; and a third involved an ingenious Wittgensteinian approach to the question of the moral status of the embryo.

G.R.O.U.P. undergraduates and graduate students had two opportunities to present their work. At the end of the semester, at the Townsend Center, every student presented his or her research. Students whose research related to the California Stem Cell initiative (a proposition whose passage in November 2004 had in part prompted our G.R.O.U.P. proposal) also had the chance to present their research at the first annual Asilomar retreat of the newly formed UC Berkeley Stem Cell Center. At the Asilomar retreat, G.R.O.U.P. students presented alongside students and faculty from the sciences and engineering, (where we discovered that we were being referred to as the G.R.O.U.P.ies by the retreat organizer!). On both of these occasions, the students did a remarkable job presenting their work. A selection of the final projects can be found on the website of the Science, Technology, and Society Center. Among the students from G.R.O.U.P. who graduated last year, several have gone on to work positions or graduate school in areas directly related to their G.R.O.U.P. projects. Others have continued their interest in the field in their choice of classes and campus activities. Overall, they were a delight to work with and a perfect illustration of how much can be achieved by committed undergraduates when they are given the opportunity to imagine new ways of organizing their curriculum and new opportunities for exposure to research. For us, as professors at a large public university, it was a great pleasure to have this unique opportunity to work so intensively with a truly remarkable group of undergraduates.

The second phase of this Townsend-supported initiative is underway this semester (Spring 2007) with a faculty Mellon Strategic Group on the life sciences and the humanities, which involves scholars from a range of departments in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. While the emphasis of the undergraduate G.R.O.U.P. initiative was spurred primarily by the California Stem Cell Initiative, stem cells are just one component driving faculty interest in the Strategic Group. Other core concerns of the group include historical, anthropological, and humanistic approaches to such arenas as bio-security, biomedicine, AIDS, the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, synthetic biology, bio-energy, and reproductive technologies. Within and beyond these focal points, some of the issues on which we are focusing include new and old intersections between race and genetics; the life sciences in film and literature; feminist and philosophical discourses on life and life politics; the role of bioethics as a form of research governance in the U.S. and transnationally; intellectual property and other languages and mechanisms of ownership, access, and circulation; changing definitions of sciences’ “publics” in new and shifting relationships among the military, the academy, and industry; and global aspects of science, technology, and medicine in both historical and contemporary frames.

Finally, we share a commitment to opening up spaces within the university in line with the mission of public universities to promote broad-based and free intellectual inquiry in teaching and research. Within this mission, the values, epistemologies, and roles of science and technology must be productively and critically engaged. The Strategic Group hopes to contribute to these goals through, for example, our research and teaching proposal on Alternative Energies in a Globalizing World, the focus of which was prompted by the announcement of the UC Berkeley/British Petroleum (BP) Biofuels initiative in February 2007.

Thus far collective conversations and individual contributions have proven equally rewarding, and always surprising and energizing. Paul Rabinow commented of the group that “it is more than fortuitous timing, given what is going on with the BP deal. We have the chance to reflect and intervene in a timely fashion thanks to very rich trans-disciplinary exchange.” Donna Jones adds that “this has been a good opportunity to engage with the pressing technical and scientific information of the day as a humanist; this is central.” Jack Lesch describes the group as “an excellent opportunity for historical perspectives on bioscience and biotechnology to enter a dialogue with perspectives from other fields,” while Abena Osseo-Asare cites the importance of the group to her as a new faculty member of campus finding colleagues with shared interests in other departments. The Strategic Group is providing ample evidence that there is, in Paul Rabinow’s words, “no disjunction whatsoever between large conceptual issues and events in the wider world.”

The Mellon Strategic Group members are: co-convenors Charis Thompson (Rhetoric/Gender and Women’s Studies) and Cori Hayden (Anthropology); members Paul Rabinow (Anthropology), Donna Jones (English), Anne Nesbet (Film Studies/Slavic Languages and Literatures), Jack Lesch (History) and Abena Osseo-Asare (History); and auditing members Judith Butler (Rhetoric/Comparative Literature) and David Winickoff (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management).

This article can be found in the April/May 2007 newsletter