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Biology & Society: Where Dr. Frankenstein meets Dr. Maienschein

October 19, 2006
When Mary Shelley wrote her novel, Frankenstein, present day research on topics like cloning, stem cells, the human genome, and nanotechnology would have seemed as fictional as her protagonist Frankenstein’s creation of his monster. Still, Shelley’s 19th century parable about man’s ill conceived creation – plundered from gravesites, imbued with life – which ultimately destroys him, carries a warning as relevant today as it was two centuries ago.

While the rapid pace of scientific discovery offers advances for technology and medicine, this pace often outstrips public understanding and social policy. Lacking regulations, restrictions, and responsible conduct in research, scientific discoveries could present Frankenstein-like hazards for present and future gnerations. To help assure that they do not is where individuals, like Jane Maienschein, ASU School of Life Sciences Regents’ Professor and Parents Association Professor, and institutions, like the Center for Biology and society, step in.

“Judgments are made every day about what science to fund, which experts to trust, which results to report. Our Biology and Society program studies the history and philosophy of biology and the way biology, bioethics, and biopolicy play out in society. We combine analysis of the standards of evidence, theories, laboratory practices and experimental approaches with study of people, institutions, and changing social, political, and legal context in which science thrives. This provides a rich understanding of the nature of science and scientific change,” states Maienschein.

Arriving at ASU in 1981, Maienschein is now part of the Human Dimensions faculty group within the School of Life Sciences, where she also serves as director for the Center for Biology and Society. The center gained the Regents’ formal approval when the School of Life Sciences was organized in 2003 and now involves 22 life sciences faculty and 20 others outside of the school.

What drove the creation of the center?

Maienschein says that it started with ASU undergraduates: “Many of them were taking double majors: biology and political science, biology and English, biology and sociology, biology and ethics. Some of our brightest students came to us and said, ‘We want something that puts the biology together with the world, with society.’ So we invented an undergraduate major. And then we thought, well if that’s good for undergraduates, why not for graduate students too?”

It is fitting that the center’s formation started with the students. Maienschein notes that while most centers focus primarily on promoting research, the Center for Biology and Society’s central mission includes promoting undergraduate and graduate educational opportunities, building collaboration and community, and nurturing “teacher-scholar-citizens” around three areas of concentration: History and Philosophy of Science; Bioethics, Policy and Law; and Communicating Science.

The School of Life Sciences Biology and Society major is unusual too in that each undergraduate student is required to take a Research Colloquium class and complete an independent research project. Students define a research topic, consider what questions they are going to ask, what methods they are going to use, and which mentor they are going to approach for guidance.

“We tell them to be creative and do what they love. Don’t worry about fitting in any box, think about where you want to go and develop skills to get you there,” says Maienschein.

As a result, colloquium thesis research can result in very different forms of expression. For example, Allison Karow took an upper division biology course with Les Landrum, “Arizona Trees and Shrubs.”

She was inspired and produced her own personal interpretive records around plant galls, “an uncontrolled plant cell growth caused by parasites,” in the form of illustrations and studio art. She also archived plant specimens for the herbarium and natural history collections at ASU. Karow won a Biology and Society Unusual Student Project Grant and had a gallery opening of her work, Megaspora, in downtown Tempe’s Neti Neti Gallery.

Another student, Kristin Bolfert, focused her study on the sexually transmitted disease, human papilloma virus. Bolfert did a survey and asked: How many people at a college age really understand and know about this virus? How many people get tested and know that there’s a vaccine for HPV? Bolfert presented a poster for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium: “HPV: A Misguided Approach to Education,” which won the 2005-2006 Award for Excellence in Research in the Humanities.

Sarah Lusk was a Bioethics Fellow in the Biology and Society program. Her research project and honors thesis involved working with a local health clinic for the uninsured, the Wesley Community Center’s Centro de Salud. The clinic was built by the community in Nuestro Barrio neighborhood in Phoenix. She examined the impact the clinic had on the surrounding community’s health and social support systems and the importance of culturally competent care and information. She also examined the impact when the clinic was burned – apparently in protest against undocumented immigrants – and the efforts of the community to rebuild.

Such multidisciplinary study, investigative insights, focus on communication and engaged educational outreach may be why, of the 17 students graduating with honors in the life sciences in May 2006, eight of them were mentored by Maienschein. Maienschein’s ability to focus on each student’s particular talent, as well as efforts to create new forms, venues, and methods to communicate science and understanding of scientific and ethical issues may be what earned her the 2006 Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award. These characteristics may also be what have attracted dynamic assistant professors to School of Life Sciences, like Jason Robert, who directs a sophomore learning community in “Medicine, Society, and Public Health: Making Better Choices,” and Manfred Laubichler, who won the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2006. The development of SOLS and establishment of the center also attracted Lincoln Professor Joan McGregor to head the program in Bioethics, Policy, and Law, and professor Richard Creath to direct the History and Philosophy of Science Program within the center.

While the center’s nexus is in School of Life Sciences, it is a multidisciplinary group that draws members from biology, philosophy, political science, history, religious studies, law, sociology and ethics; and which interfaces with many other groups, including the ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology and Society; Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; Center for Law, Science and Technology; Responsible Conduct in Research program; and beyond ASU with the Mayo Clinic – Scottsdale; the Arizona Consortium for Medicine, Society, and Values; Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin; and Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). This semester two new members have joined the center, Karin Ellison (coming from the University of Wisconsin to head the Responsible Conduct of Research Program) and assistant professor Andrew Hamilton (coming from UC San Diego and UC Davis).

“It’s the ASU model that has lots of intersecting things. It’s all about training grads, undergrads, building teams – all the time thinking about biology in society, thinking about human dimensions; and biology’s place within the whole of social and intellectual culture,” explains Maienschein.

Some of the newest directions for the center involve building connections with SOLS Natural History Collections and professors like Kathleen Pigg and incoming systematist and ASU Interim Divisional Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Quentin Wheeler.

The two groups are collaborating on exhibits and discovering a strong natural affinity between those working on natural history and those interested in the history of science. “There’s a deep respect for the changes over time in species, in sciences, and our understanding about the sciences. There are a lot of parallels,” Maienschein notes.

One thing is certain, if Mary Shelley lived today and had come to ASU as an undergraduate, she would have most likely found a creative home for her novel thesis work in Biology and Society. What warnings – perhaps mixed with understanding of opportunity – would her creation have carried then?