You have a Ph.D. in biochemistry and you teach history at Princeton. How did this happen?
Yes, I’m kind of a renegade in that I do not have any formal degrees in history. As an undergraduate I had a very strong interest in the humanities, and I was a double major in biochemistry and English. As I finished college I decided to apply to graduate programs in biochemistry, but I only applied to universities that had programs in the humanities and social sciences that I thought might also interest me. As it turned out I went to Berkeley and I loved the biochemistry program and the lab I was in. But I found I always preferred working in the library to working in the lab, which for a scientist is rather anomalous. In my fourth year of graduate school, in the last phases of the Ph.D., I took a history of biology course and it was like a light went on. The first day of that course I thought: This is what I want to do. It required all of the knowledge I had in biology, but it also allowed me to research and write. I realized it was history I wanted to pursue. One of my professors suggested that I apply for a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in order to study history of science. Much to my surprise I was awarded the fellowship, and I was able to spend two years at Harvard doing graduate-level course work in the history of science, followed by another year at MIT. Still, until I got the job at Princeton I wasn’t sure whether I would need to go back and do a second Ph.D. in history of science, although by that time I had done the equivalent amount of course work.
What is Life of a Virus about?
The book is about tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), the first virus ever discovered. It was discovered independently in 1892 and 1898; the second person to discover TMV recognized it as a new kind of pathogen, distinct from bacteria and fungi, and used the term “virus” to describe it. It turned out that TMV was an excellent object for laboratory study. When it infects tobacco, TMV is produced in very high concentrations in the leaves, and as a result you can get very concentrated samples of virus in solution. By the 1930s and ‘40s, the period I was focusing on in the book, scientists could get samples of TMV that were essentially chemically pure and then do studies to investigate its chemistry, its physics, its shape, its size, as well as its infectivity and heredity. In addition the virus is harmless to humans, it’s very stable, and it appears in basically the same form around the world, so results obtained in labs in Russia or Great Britain or the U.S. were comparable. TMV was extremely important in defining the field of virology.
What was it about the topic that grabbed you?
I was interested in how viruses became important things not just for medical researchers to study, but also for biologists to study. In particular I was looking at the laboratory of one researcher, the biochemist Wendell Stanley, who in the 1930s developed techniques to obtain chemically pure samples of the virus, techniques which other researchers in his lab extended. What intrigued me was that he wasn’t getting funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was getting funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, from the National Institutes of Health, from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which today is the March of Dimes. That is, TMV was being seen more and more as an important virus to study for medical purposes. Not because it infects people, but because you could study TMV better than any human or animal virus and thereby learn about the general properties of viruses.
I was also interested in TMV for its role as a model system. There are a handful of organisms that have been studied intensively by biologists over the last 50 years and have subsequently become standard points of reference--the best-studied examples of their genera or class. TMV is one of these model systems, like the mouse or the fruit fly or E. coli. Because it was so well studied, TMV had a tremendous impact on other lines of research. Wendell Stanley was studying viruses that are human pathogens, like flu virus and polio virus, using exactly the same methods he had developed working with TMV. I was struck by the interplay between this plant pathogen, which was not obviously an important medical object, and major problems in biomedical research. Later on TMV was also important to understanding the genetic code and other basic problems in biology. I’m very much interested in this kind of example-based reasoning, and not just in biology but in various areas of study. Things like case-based reasoning in law and medicine, or the way that Athenian democracy is used in political philosophy, or the uses of the prisoner’s dilemma in rational-choice-based social science. I’m currently editing a book on this topic with Elizabeth Lunbeck and Norton Wise called Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases, and Exemplary Narratives.
You’re also at work on a second book.
Yes, I’m writing a book about the distribution and use of radioisotopes. After World War II radioisotopes became very important research tools in science, especially in biology and medicine, because you could tag particular molecules with these radioactive elements and then trace their actions within the body or within the cell. Scientists had already begun to do this before World War II using radioisotopes produced in cyclotrons; however, this was a difficult and expensive way to produce radioisotopes. During the war, as part of the Manhattan Project, the world’s first large-scale pile reactor was secretly built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. Unlike cyclotrons, radioactive piles could produce scientifically useful isotopes cheaply and in large amounts. As the war ended there was a debate about what should happen to the Oak Ridge facility, since by then larger reactors elsewhere were producing plutonium for bombs. A group of scientists presented a plan to the military arguing that Oak Ridge should be used to produce specific radioisotopes for users outside the Manhattan Project--for scientists and physicians who could use them in their work. The plan was approved, and in 1946 Oak Ridge began to ship radioisotopes to laboratories around the country, and the following year to labs in England and Europe. There was an element of PR in all this--the leaders of the Manhattan Project were eager to show the civilian benefits of nuclear weapons research--but they did sincerely wish to get these new tools into the hands of researchers.
Recently you coedited a volume titled Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology, and Medicine. What is the collection about?
It’s about the impact that feminism has had on science, technology, and medicine. Elizabeth Lunbeck, Londa Schiebinger, and I thought it would be productive to get historians of science, technology, and medicine in a common conversation about the effects of the women’s movement in the history of these areas and feminist theory in the ways we study them. The results were interesting. In science, most feminist concerns are either about the poor representation of women in a number of fields, or about biases in research. For instance, when we study female and male animals, do we filter our observations through our assumptions about female and male humans? In the sciences, in other words, feminism really has to do with epistemology: How do we know our subject? Historians have identified different issues with respect to technology. Here it has more to do with the gendering of consumption. Do women have a role in designing products, or are they merely passive consumers? If women have often been relegated to being consumers, what if consumption is not simply a passive activity, but shapes objects? In the area of medicine there was a combination of concerns. Historians are interested in women as the subjects of medical research, and also in evaluating women’s access to healthcare as patients and consumers.
Are you interested in questions of this kind--why women are poorly represented in certain fields, and the barriers they face?
Yes, definitely. I’m affiliated with the Program in the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton, and every other year I teach a course on gender and science. What’s great about that course is that I get a mix of non-science students who are involved in the women’s studies program and women who are studying science, engineering, or math and who plan to go on to medical school or graduate school and are grappling with what it is to be a woman in these fields. I always want to be tremendously supportive to women who are planning to go into science, medicine, or engineering and to urge them on.
Is there anything you miss about being a practicing scientist?
The only thing I miss is that laboratories are very social places. The experimental sciences are much more social and collaborative than the humanities. Students have it wrong when they think that they don’t want to go into science because they will spend their days alone at the bench with a test tube. If you go into biology, you’re going to be around people all the time.
I noticed that you still have a lab coat.
It isn’t a prop. Several years ago I redesigned my history of biology course to include a lab component, and I had to go out and buy a lab coat. The students got to perform experiments, both to illustrate topics from the reading and to recreate historic experiments. In the last session we went down to the undergraduate molecular biology labs and did a polymerase chain reaction experiment. The students took a swab of cells from their cheek tissue and then analyzed it to look at the polymorphisms in their DNA. It was very cool.