Doctoral Dissertation Research: Degeneration in Miniature: History of Cell Death and Aging Research in the Twentieth Century

Project: Research project

Project Details


Doctoral Dissertation Research: Degeneration in Miniature: History of Cell Death and Aging Research in the Twentieth Century Doctoral Dissertation Research: Degeneration in Miniature: History of Cell Death and Aging Research in the Twentieth Century Degeneration in Miniature: History of Cell Death and Aging Research in the Twentieth Century The overall dissertation presents a history of cell degeneration research in the twentieth century in form of four historical episodes from the 1930s to 1990s. Each episode focuses on specific cases and examines how biological materials, research styles, and biomedical priorities shaped the ways cell degeneration was approached experimentally, represented with theoretical models, and interpreted within the larger context of biological ideas. The dissertation analyzes the emergence of diverse meanings of cell degeneration in the contexts of these research programs and broader biomedical concerns. These four episodes have shaped where the field is today, both constraining research and pointing it in particular directions, using particular organisms. I will show how diverse interpretations of cell degeneration emerged within these complex research systems and contributed to the transformative and interdisciplinary dimensions of this research. The first three episodes are largely written and contextualized in draft form. This current proposal requests funding mostly for archival visits and interviews to characterize the fourth historical episode of cell degeneration research: molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate H. Robert Horvitzs study of cell death in the nematode C. elegans from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. In the context of the history of twentieth century research on cell degeneration this episode is both the culmination of earlier studies as well as the starting point of current interdisciplinary and model organism based research agendas. It is thus a natural conclusion of this dissertation. Specifically, by the early 1990s Horvitz represented cell death as a specific cellular state of differentiation caused by a network of gene expressions. This opened the door for future genomic approaches to cell death, aging as well as cancer research through studying the model organism C. elegans. Intellectual Merits First, the dissertation contributes to deeper understandings of the complex history of biomedical research by providing a comprehensive history of cell degeneration studies. While examining carefully the scientific practice within cases, the project also connects specific cases to broader historical backdrops and consequences. Second, the project contributes to discussions in history and philosophy of science and science studies on the roles of new biological material, research styles, and priorities in the modern development of biology, especially with the intricate interplay between changing experimental systems and concepts of cell degeneration these systems embodied. Third, the project is among the pioneering efforts in exploring the history of aging research. As shown in the recent workshop the author helped organize, this project constitutes a major voice in the current dialogue about the significance and direction of historical study of biogerontology. Fourth, by analyzing the scientific, material, and historical contexts of current knowledge and research programs related to cell degeneration, this project offers valuable perspectives for contextualizing, questioning, and reevaluating them. Broader Impacts The project engages scientists with a history that contextualizes and problematizes current knowledge and research programs about cell degeneration through conversations. A few scientists including Leonard Hayflick, Robin Holliday, and Judith Campisi have been very interested and expressed that they had gained novel insights through such conversations. In addition, the project communicates central but highly complex science of cell degeneration to the public through: (1) the online encyclopedia of embryology the Embryo Project, (2) an online virtual exhibition about history of biology of aging at the Marine Biological Laboratory Repository, and (3) a prize-winning podcast by Chemical Heritage Foundation, Distillations.
Effective start/end date3/15/1310/31/13


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $12,155.00


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