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Graduate Student Profile: Elizabeth Dobson Jones October 13, 2015

Posted by emmiemiller in Uncategorized.
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DSC_3726Elizabeth Dobson Jones, “A History of Ancient DNA Research: A History of Celebrity Science,” Session T2: Developing Disciplines, Thursday, November 19, 2015, 1:30-3:30 PM

What will you be discussing in your HSS talk?

In my talk, I argue that the history of ancient DNA (aDNA) research is a history of celebrity science. Ancient DNA research – the search for DNA in fossils – is a contemporary, interdisciplinary, and controversial technoscientific practice. It emerged from the interface of paleontology, archeology, and molecular biology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Over the last thirty years, aDNA research has evolved as a professional discipline under the influence of intense public interest and extreme media exposure. I argue that celebrity science is a type of science that has constant news value which results in consistent attention from media. Its presence in the media is so substantial that the science and scientists respond, positively or negatively, to the attention and even reinvent their reputation accordingly. I show evidence for the interplay between science and media and how this relationship has driven and directed the formation of aDNA research as a technoscientific practice, especially in the 1990s. The search for the most ancient DNA from the most iconic fossils was inspired by evolutionary interests in professional science but encouraged and enhanced by productions of popular science, like Jurassic Park. I argue that aDNA research is a case study of a celebrity science, and most importantly I suggest to historians of science the opportunity to use this argument as a framework for asking questions and finding answers about the development of other sciences under persistent publicity and pressures of media.

How does this fit with your panel? 

My talk is part of a panel on “Developing Disciplines.” The panel includes subjects from astronomy and chemistry to modern archeology and paleontology. I hope my work will suggest how media can be, and often is, a real and influential social force in the development of science in general. I also hope my work will benefit from the expertise of other historians in other sciences by identifying similarities and differences in how sciences across time, space, and topic emerge and evolve.

How did you come across the topic of ancient DNA research?

I studied history, philosophy, and paleontology at North Carolina State University and my paleontology professor, Mary Schweitzer, was involved in novel but controversial work in molecular paleontology, specifically molecular dinosaur paleontology. Instead of prepping and preserving fossils for museum display, she broke open bones to sample what was inside (amino acids, proteins, DNA, and so on). The idea was that molecules are fossils too. I loved the changing meaning of fossils, the intersection of molecular biology with evolutionary biology, and I wanted to learn more. I knew nothing about ancient DNA research so I selected it as my thesis topic and continued it for my PhD project.

What do you find most challenging about your subject?

The most challenging (but rewarding!) part of my work is that it is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. The topic of ancient DNA research is broad, covering the molecular and evolutionary history of humans, animals, plants, bacteria, and more. My approach as a historian of science in Science and Technology Studies is also broad, including history, philosophy, sociology, science communication, and science policy.

What do you wish you could have included in your HSS talk?

I interview scientists from across the world and use their stories to help write my story of the history of ancient DNA research. I wish I could include all the gossip! These scientists are fascinating and I wish I could include the hilarious and sometimes inappropriate remarks they share with me.

What are you looking forward to about this upcoming HSS? 

This is my first time attending and presenting at HSS! I am so excited! I want to meet as many people as possible, hear about other research, and see how I can help the society in the future.

Biography: I am a third year PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. I am a historian of science interested in the history, philosophy, and sociology of biology and paleontology. For my PhD project, I am writing a history of ancient DNA research. My question is,  “How has ancient DNA research evolved from an emergent into an established research practice?” To answer this question, my method is oral history through interviews with 45 ancient DNA and related researchers.

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