Science is a social process, conducted for people by people. And that’s what makes it so interesting!
The photo above shows the fossil arm of Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex at Chicago’s Field Museum. It also shows the delicate metalwork that holds her heavy, fragile bones and positions them in a particular way. We tend to look right past the work of making nature into scientific specimens, to focus on the amazing and beautiful objects for their own sake. But that work is just as fascinating and important as the data and knowledge that scientists make from these specimens. For example, what is missing from Sue’s arm is just as informative to scientists as what is visible: the rock that this dinosaur was buried in. How people removed and studied that rock, glued the broken bones together, reconstructed the missing bones, and decided how to pose the skeleton are complex and skillful decisions and processes. The workers who carry out these processes therefore make it possible for this fossil, as one of very few T. rex forearms ever found and as a part of the largest and most complete T. rex specimen, to provide scientists with extremely valuable data about evolution and Earth history.
The behind-the-scenes, behind-the-science work is what I study. From the perspectives of social science, history, and philosophy, my work investigates how scientists, technicians, and other workers make specimens, data, and knowledge in laboratories. This topic includes who works in laboratories and what they do, how people teach and learn how to do and understand science, how social structures shape how people work, and how groups of workers define themselves based on their concepts of skill, expertise, and social status. My studies of how lab workers make and use specimens and images of nature show the complexity, skillfulness, and creativity of scientific work. In particular, I am interested in the unwritten work and workers of science: the technicians whose names and work are missing from publications, the volunteers and students whose contributions to lab work are often overlooked, and the tacit, innovative, trial-and-error techniques and skills that workers rely on to generate “good” data. Studying who these people are, what they do, and why they are overlooked can help us understand the meanings and roles of science in our society.
I’m an assistant professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia. I’m an alum of the University of Cambridge and the University of Chicago. I’m also a clarinetist, a cyclist, and an ex-expat.