*: Peter Chalmers Mitchell, “Life,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1911.
I am a historian of science, specializing in the history of the modern life and physical sciences, as well as the history of microscopy. I am currently a Digital Humanities Consultant with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library & Archives on the project “Oral Histories of Biology, Medicine, and Pandemic Response,” and a Fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry.
I study the history of ideas of life and matter in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the ways biologists thought about the physical and chemical basis of life. Many of our most basic conceptions of what a molecule is, how an enzyme works, and how an organism is like a “machine” have changed a lot in the last 50 years, let alone the last 200. Even if words like “molecule,” “mechanism,” or “coagulating” have been around for a long time, what they mean, and how scientists shape their research around those ideas — these have never stayed still. My research examines how changes in physical and chemical theory and practice lead biologists to change their ideas of what living organisms are made of, how organisms are materially “organized,” and how these ideas move back and forth between biology, physics, and material sciences. I have a particular interest in the history of the cell membrane, and how we discovered what I call the “biological microworld” of individuated molecules self-organize and assemble into structures, cells, and whole organisms.
My colleagues know me as one of the very few specialists in the history of colloid physical chemistry, and I am among a few historians who study the history of protoplasm theory. Much of my research focuses on how diagrams and illustrations allow scientists to imagine and manipulate entities and structures that fundamentally cannot be seen — for example, the way DNA twists around histone proteins, or the way individual ions move across a lipid bilayer membrane. Historically, these imaginative images have been both upheld as creative thought experiments, but they have also been condemned as un-scientific and unrigorous flights of fancy. In my research and writing I show how these images could be used (and abused) together with inferential visualization tools like polarized light microscopy, x-ray diffraction imaging, and other methods of physical measurement.
I received my Ph.D. in 2016 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, working under Professor Lynn Nyhart. I have been an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (2016–18), working in the Biohumanities Research Group, led by Professor Samantha Frost (political science). From May through July 2017 I was a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Department II).
Image credit: inspired by Nadya Lev, Coilhouse, 2009.