Multidisciplinarity: Reflections on a Molecular Microbiologist’s Visit to a Literature Course

Marcelo Vinces leads the newly established Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR). He helps coordinate on-campus undergraduate research, trains peer mentors, and coordinates workshops for faculty. Vinces earned a BA in biology at Cornell University and a PhD in molecular microbiology at Tufts University. Prior to Oberlin, Vinces worked in Washington, D.C., as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology policy fellow at the National Science Foundation.

Kelly Bezio is a visiting assistant professor of English. Her research is in communicable disorders, particularly how American authors used such illnesses to imagine—paradoxically—community formation. This research has allowed her to explore, among other topics, the mysteries and miracles of smallpox inoculation, the dank boredom of foreign quarantine, and awe-inspiring scourges such as cholera.  She is currently co-editing an essay collection titled Religion and Medicine in America’s Secular Age, and aspires to write a second monograph on how literary depictions of democratic liberal subjectivity drew on developments in modern chemistry—creating what we might call a chemical aesthetics. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marcelo’s observations:

Kelly and I met for the first time when we sat next to each other at one of our students’ presentation for a biology class. The student, Nicole Le, gave an oral presentation on the nightingale for her final class project that was squarely at the intersection of literature, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. From our initial meeting and subsequent conversations, Kelly ended up inviting me to her class.  So, on February 18, early in the semester, I took part in ENGL 351, Literature, Medicine, Culture, a course that explores what stories about doctors and medicine, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Fox TV’s House, tell us about our culture, our history, and the experience of being human. The topic of the day’s class was Nature vs. Nurture (Mad Scientists.)

Students had read two short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccinni’s Daughter” and “The Birth-Mark,” as well as selections from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Additionally, Kelly had asked if I had any suggested readings, and I recommended an essay by H. Davies, “Can Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein be read as an early research ethics text?” I had previously used this as a recommended reading to summer research students in conjunction with a research ethics session the Office of Undergraduate Research had organized and an unrelated screening of Bride of Frankenstein that I had organized.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (Creative Commons)

Kelly shared her planning notes for the class with me which called for a very interactive class between students talking about “doing science” and the students talking about the stories they had read for class. Some of the main questions to be covered included: What is the nature/nurture debate? How have you related to the nature/nurture debate in the past? How do the readings give us a new perspective on this debate? In other words, what would our scientist characters say about this debate? In contrast, what would our authors say about this debate? How does the “mad scientist” (as a stock character) complicate this debate?

Reflections on the Discussion

I introduced myself and gave a brief chalkboard chat on the research I did for my PhD and for my postdoc. As I was explaining the science, it occurred to me to raise the point of why I chose to study what I did. It’s easy to explain why the questions I pursued were interesting scientifically, but were there other underlying motivations? For example, what made the topics exciting and sexy to me? Was there an aesthetic quality I was not consciously aware of that made me gravitate towards such questions? Did I feel love towards my research? I think I was conscious of these notions only because of the context of the class and the readings we had just done. It would otherwise never have come up in conversation or even in my thoughts within the context of doing science research and being among science colleagues.

Marcelo Vinces Chalkboard Image

The students did not have many questions for me as the start. I felt they were still a bit shy or reserved or didn’t yet know what to make of me. But one good question I did get asked me if, “as a scientist, was there a conflict in trying to get to answers and at the same time trying to get publications?” I absolutely loved this question because it is a fundamental conflict in science. While we are in it to get answers to questions, there are the realities that also put demands on us, sometimes in line with our need for selfless inquiry, but other times in conflict: publish or perish, aiming for high profile journals, needing to get tenure, patents. These don’t always lend themselves to pure scientific inquiry for the sake of truth and knowledge. For example, I noted to the student, we often have interesting but negative results that hide for eternity in lab journals that would be of interest for other scientists to know, but that no journal would want to publish. Vast amounts of good and useful data may lie in lab notebooks and computers around the world that we may never know about. This is due to the current structures that scaffold the scientific enterprise.

The discussion moved into the readings, focusing on what we could call an “irrational spark” as the motivation for doing science, which, after all, is usually seen as the most rational form of inquiry that exists. And yet the scientists in these stories, driven by love or fame, used science for what many would say were not just irrational purposes, but immoral ones too.

It was difficult to discern what Hawthorne was getting at in these stories, if he had something definitive to say about scientists or science. With Shelley we had the help of the reading I suggested, which takes the view that Shelley was not an anti-science romantic, but rather saw the promise of science but also the very human drives that compromised it.

The questions and discussions, very nicely facilitated by Kelly, included, what motivates scientists? How has science changed our definition of evil? Are Hawthorne and Shelley offering cautionary tales? Mourning the imperfectability of the scientific method? Something else?  Can science actually make things more evil than nature? Can literature?

Missed opportunities? More Reflections

We sadly ran out of time just as the discussion was reaching a crescendo of ideas, thoughts and energy. In retrospect, Kelly or I could have offered more prompts for students designed to take advantage of a scientist in the room. As we discussed the above questions, what would a scientist have to say? Do scientists think of these questions? What does a scientist feel and think as he or she reads about these mad scientists? Are there mad scientists? What exists to make sure mad scientists don’t run amok? What could the scientist in the room learn from these readings and subsequent discussion?

I am curious to hear from Kelly’s point of view how this guest appearance worked for her course, how engaged were the students, and what she would do differently in the future.

Future ideas?

I for one feel the session opened up pathways of inquiry for me that are not usually ones available in the scientific context. For example, what is the psychology at work that drives a scientist to spend hours alone, at night and weekends, to seek answers to sometimes very obscure questions? What are the misunderstandings that exist among non-scientists about the scientific endeavor? What place can literature serve in educating scientists of about research ethics, motivation, and science history? Ultimately, I feel this is a perfect illustration of how we need more of these intersectional events that bring together people from very distinct disciplines that may nevertheless share some important interests in common.

——

Kelly’s observations:

The students were enthusiastic about having Marcelo come in. They hadn’t heard of CLEAR, and it struck me as a good opportunity to introduce them to the many ways interdisciplinarity was happening on campus.

My intention was for Marcelo to come in and talk about the research he conducted as a scientist in order to provide students with a modern counterpoint to the stories about scientists they were reading by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Listening to Marcelo’s comments, I was noticing some common themes: interest becoming obsession, the delights of observation, the power that comes from doing research, the role love plays in doing research, to name a few.

I framed the visit to the students (an approach Marcelo and I agreed on ahead of time) as an opportunity to learn what Marcelo had to teach us about doing scientific research and an opportunity to teach him, in turn, something about the stories we had read.

A couple of interventions may have made this frame more successful, in terms of empowering the students. On the one hand, it may have helped to tell them ahead of time to come up with discussion questions. That is to say, teaching is often about asking questions, not delivering information. (The next day in class, the students told me they would have liked to have heard more of Marcelo’s perspective on the stories we all read. This could have happened if they or I had thought to ask him his perspective on particular moments in the text or about the readings in general. The students reported that they were worried about offending him, since the stories we read are often taken as critical of the scientific enterprise.) On the other hand, it may have helped to have students break up into groups after Marcelo’s comments and come up with the “lessons” or “questions” they wanted to put to him, rather than jumping right in to discussion.

That being said, we had a really wonderful discussion that day, and I speculate that it was because they were imagining Marcelo’s potentially-offended response to the critique of science, and so pushed beyond that interpretation of the stories. (Maybe). Over the course of the discussion, we came up with several excellent questions:

  • How is science changing the definition of evil?
  • How is literature changing the definition of evil?
  • What motivates science? (If we want to continue our literary corollary, what motivates literature?)
  • What do we want science’s motivations to be?
  • What do we want literature’s motivations to be?
  • Can humans make things that are more evil than Nature would create?

Ultimately, given the opportunity to do this kind of collaboration again—which I would love to do—I think I might try to build conversation between the class and the guest speaker by asking questions like, “As a scientist, how did you respond to the stories?” and “As a literature student, how did you respond to the stories?”

Follow Up:

Marcelo and I met on March 20 to discuss the joint session [see above], and I was really taken with the photograph he took of the whiteboard from our class, which was covered with his drawings of his research, questions we came up with as a class during our discussion, and a student’s note about a scientist he studied in another class.

What struck me about photograph was how well it represents the benefit of this kind of multidisciplinary day in the classroom. It collects the topics we discussed, all of which came from specific disciplinary perspectives, and the new questions that arose when those topics were brought up together.

I noticed also during our conversation that Marcelo and I came up with different disciplinary inspirations post-class. I was interested in how talking about “mad scientists” with a scientist helped us to ask new literary questions of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For instance, at the end of class, one of the students raised the idea that Hawthorne may have been interested in working through cultural expectations of literature and what it was able to do—or should do, ethically speaking. In other words, the stories we read may be as much about literary ethics as they are about scientific ethics. On the other hand, Marcelo was thinking about how literature might be used to enliven the study of ethics in a STEM context.

I think in conclusion that multidisciplinarity produces different ways of being disciplinary. This is not new (of course), but I was intrigued by the material results of this abstract truism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *