Modeling proteins, making scientists : an ethnography of pedagogy and visual cultures in contemporary structural biology
Ethnography of pedagogy and visual cultures in contemporary structural biology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
MetadataShow full item record
This ethnography tracks visualization and pedagogy in the burgeoning field of structural biology. Structural biologists are a multidisciplinary group of researchers who produce models and animations of protein molecules using three-dimensional interactive computer graphics. As they ramp up the pace of structure determination, modeling a vast array of proteins, these researchers are shifting life science research agendas from decoding genetic sequence data to interpreting the multidimensional forms of molecular life. One major hurdle they face is training a new generation of scientists to work with multi-dimensional data forms. In this study I document the formation and propagation of tacit knowledge in structural biology laboratories, in classrooms, and at conferences. This research shows that structural biologists-in-training must cultivate a feel for proteins in order to visualize and interpret their activity in cells. I find that protein modeling relies heavily on a set of practices I call the body-work of modeling. These tacit skills include: a) forms of kinesthetic knowledge that structural biologists gain through building and manipulating molecular models, and by using their own bodies as mimetic models to help them figure out how proteins move and interact; and b) narrative strategies that assume a teleological relationship between form and function, and which figure proteins through analogies with familiar human-scale phenomena, such as the pervasive description of proteins as "machines." What I find is that these researchers are not only transforming the objects of life science research: they are training a new generation of life scientists in forms of knowing attuned to the chemical affinities, physical forces and movements of protein molecules, and keyed to the tangible logic and rhetoric of "molecular machines."(cont.) This research builds on concerns in the feminist science studies literature on modes of embodiment in scientific practice, and contributes to studies of performance in science by examining visual cultures as performance cultures. In addition, I incorporate historical studies of the life sciences to map the making of the protein-this intricately crafted entity whose forms and functions, I argue, are recalibrating scientific expertise, reanimating biological imaginations, and reconfiguring the very contours and temporalities of "life itself."
Thesis (Ph. D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS))--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Program in Science, Technology and Society, 2007.Includes bibliographical references (p. 260-277).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Program in Science, Technology and Society.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Program in Science, Technology and Society.