STMS Conference 2023: Abstracts

Here is our list of conference abstracts, compiled in order of when they are discussed in our program.

“The Chinese Public’s Perception of Science”

Xinyi Wang (University College London)

On 24 November 2022, He Jiankui posted on his personal social media that his new lab had been settled in Beijing. The news has caused shock in China as well as worldwide and prompted people to rethink the ethics of human gene-editing experiments. In 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had used CRISPR, a gene editing technology to give birth to three babies who claimed to be born immune to HIV. Then in 2019, he was convicted of “illegal medical practice” and sentenced to an imprisonment of three years.

He Jiankui’s experiment was criticized globally, however, in 2018, the Chinese public was not consistent in their attitude towards this incident: some media celebrated the birth of the first gene-edited baby as groundbreaking work, but most considered the experiment irresponsible. Several years later, after being released from prison, He Jiankui announced that he would continue his research on gene-editing technology. This time, despite his claim that he would use gene editing technology to treat rare diseases and bring convenience to patients, the public in China was very unified in their attitude, with criticizing He Jiankui’s research.

The author’s 2022 summer research project found that Chinese universities has introduced a compulsory course called Dialectics of Nature, which affects the perception of students on science. This project intends to analyse how education affects the public’s understanding and attitudes towards science, based on the change in attitude of the Chinese public towards He Jiankui.

“Racing to the Rescue: The First Modern American Ambulances and the Paramedics who Operated Them”

Abraham Tolkoff (Yale University)

Seeing an ambulance is a relief for some; for others, it signifies the stress of emergencies. For others still, it is an everyday workplace. The connecting thread between these reactions is that the visual of an ambulance connotes the provision of professional medical care outside of the hospital. Yet modern emergency ambulances have only existed in the United States for just over fifty years. From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, ambulances began to evolve from hearses and police cars operated by those with a few hours of first aid training to mobile intensive care units (MICUs) operated by highly trained paramedics and EMTs.

This shift was facilitated largely through field-based research done on the streets of Pittsburgh, PA with the Freedom House Enterprises Ambulance Service. Begun as a solution to a confluence of resource deficiencies within the city’s Black majority Hill District, Freedom House soon became a national leader in the provision of emergency medical education and prehospital care. The technicians, mainly Black people from the neighborhoods they served, were among the first and some of the best paramedics in the country. They laid the groundwork for emergency medical education nation- and worldwide. Although the history of medicine has largely ignored pre-hospital emergency care and only recently begun to recognize the efforts of Freedom House Ambulance, I argue that this service, its leadership, and its medical providers revolutionized pre-hospital care in the United States.

“Substantially Equivalent yet Notably Different: a History of the AquAdvantage Salmon”

Kiran Badial (York University)

This paper is one of the first histories of the AquAdvantage salmon, now on sale in certain Canadian and American grocery stores. This was the first vertebrate organism to undergo transgenic engineering for sale as a food product: an Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, with antifreeze and growth hormone transgenes inserted. Yet its rollout was, to put it mildly, controversial, confronted with human health, environmental, and labeling concerns. This paper first looks at these concerns about health and environmental risk, then looks at the paradox between AquaBounty Technologies (ABT) patenting rights and substantial equivalence. To gain patenting rights, ABT emphasized that AquAdvantage Salmon was notably different than any natural species, but later insisted that AquAdvantage Salmon was substantially equivalent to Atlantic salmon. This created a duality between two opposing concepts. It was this paradox that led to the voluntary labeling of the AquAdvantage Salmon, a move that AquaBounty supported since involuntary labeling would negatively impact commercialization. I will focus specifically on the responses made by ABT, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to these concerns and argue that they were made in a way that emphasized AquAdvantage salmon as an innovatively engineered product when matters of intellectual property were at stake, but, on the other hand, its ‘naturalness’ when environmental or health risks were aired.

“An Exploration into Protein Functionality and its Applications to Global Agriculture”

Sahil Mehul (Cornell University)

Intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) are found widely in eukaryotes and are unique in that they lack a proper three-dimensional structure, defying the classical structure-to-function paradigm of proteins (Tompa and Kovacs, 2010). Alternatively, these proteins form multiple different conformations depending on their interaction with other proteins. Moreover, recent studies have demonstrated that IDPs may interact with cellular organelles to facilitate the activation and regulation of different stress response pathways. Here, we explore the functionality of IDPs, particularly two gene candidates encoding disordered proteins, in relation to the germination of Arabidopsis thaliana (A. thaliana) seeds in environments that include stressors such as drought and salinity. Using genetic phenotyping, I was able to address patterns in differential germination rates in the mutants when compared to wild-type seeds. Overall, this experiment elucidates IDPs potential role in regulating seed germination under environmental stressors in Arabidopsis and provides us with preliminary data to build further hypotheses on the functionality of these genes.

“Horton Hears a Higgs: simulation models and the problem of epistemic access”

Tessa Ai-Lin Ng (University of Toronto)

The importance of models in the story of scientific progress is difficult to overstate. From the humble orrery to our most sophisticated machine learning networks, models have established themselves as key players in virtually every niche of empirical science. Within the last 50 years, the domain of experimental particle physics has witnessed the rise of computer simulations from the status of catalytic aids to indispensable vehicles for representation and experimentation. It is imperative that as scientists’ applications of models complexify, our philosophical treatment of them evolves to reflect this change. This presentation seeks to explicate the epistemic status of models in contemporary physics by performing a focused case study: the hunt for the Higgs boson. In the search for the Higgs, simulations were deployed at every major stage of the project; namely, to generate the theoretical background and reconstruct experimental events.

The intimate intertwining of simulation with experiment presents us with a cornucopia of engrossing methodological questions. For starters, how ought we interpret the relationship between a computer model (a non-physical extension of mathematical theory) and its target system (the physical world)? At no point does the model causally interact with its target system, so how does it glean information from it? Most importantly, should computer simulations be treated as epistemically “on par” with traditional experiments? Wrestling with these questions will make for a rewarding discussion, the upshots of which have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the epistemic status of models and the stake they hold in constructing scientific knowledge.

““It’s Easier to Kill a Guerrilla in the Womb than in the Mountains” – Examining 1970s Science for the People Articles about Population Control “

Rebecca Siddall (University of Cambridge)

Members of the 1970s social justice movement Science for the People (SftP) expressed a moral obligation to use their own status and privilege, both as members of the scientific community and as US citizens, to advocate for poorer women of colour targeted by coercive population control initiatives. They felt a social responsibility to raise awareness of the human impact of their government’s development initiatives within an imperialist context. In addition, SftP examined the US feminist movement’s historical complicity in population control, identifying the shortcomings of their own movement. Publications in the SftP magazine allowed members to share these perspectives with the public, inviting debate and pushing for direct action. In doing so, their analysis reflects the beginnings of what we now term ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw, 1989) – recognising and labelling the power imbalances associated with different social identities. I feel that in examining the case study of SftP, my paper brings out the continued importance of an intersectional feminist approach to science and technology today.

(Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167.)

“Synthetic or Not – Implications of Hormonal Birth Control on Women’s Hormones and The Cortisol Stress Response”

Madeline Perry (DePauw University)

The field of women’s health, and more specifically women’s reproductive health, is highly understudied and it is necessary that adequate research is granted to the women’s health field. I am conducting an interdisciplinary research study on stress response differences between hormonal birth control users and non-users. Hormonal birth control (HBC) is one of the greatest technologies afforded to women and further research is necessary to ensure women are guaranteed bodily autonomy and women’s health education. However, because HBC is a hormonal prescription, the estradiol and progestin, even though synthetic, have effects on other bodily processes, decision-making, and behavior. Studies within the scope of psychoneuroimmunology and neuroendocrinology have shown that the cortisol stress response via the HPA axis is altered and even blunted in hormonal birth control users. Concurrently, research has also shown that HBC users have higher total cortisol levels associated with chronic stress and depression. In this study, both a survey and cortisol saliva sample test will be performed to address perceived stress, reproductive health knowledge, and stress response. Data combined between the survey and cortisol testing will provide important and necessary information to the research field regarding women’s reproductive health and autonomy.

“Evolutionary Theory as a Crutch: Involuntary Sterilization in Canada”

Amy Ward (York University)

19th and 20th-century observations in science and medicine ignited eugenic movements that paved the way for eugenic law in Canada. Seldom is it acknowledged in Canada that between the 1930s and the 1970s, combined, British Columbia and Alberta performed thousands of involuntary sterilizations. This paper examines the precursors of sterilization laws in Canada, including scientific observation, the validation of these observations in healthcare and legislation advocating for social reforms.

This paper examines the origins of eugenics in science from Charles Darwin, Francis Galton and their peers, and through the use of perceived intellectual measurements. From these origins, we can explore the justifications employed for negative eugenics in medicine and legislation in Canada. As highlighted by Eric Dyck (“Eugenics in Canada: Choice, Coercion and Context,” 2018), the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (CNCMH) pushed for “social and moral reforms” to reduce prison and asylum populations, manufacturing “a bond between eugenics and institutions.”

Canadian politicians—particularly in Alberta and British Columbia, methodically legalized eugenic programs. These atrocities are a portion of an untold truth in Canadian history that remains largely unacknowledged and hidden from general Canadian education. This research is vital in understanding the impact of eugenics on public policy and its role in perpetuating Victorian colonial ideologies, particularly in its colonies.

“The History of Insulin Shock Therapy”

Shaan Bhandarkar (Yale University)

A historical predecessor to the specialties of neurology and psychiatry, phrenology is a pseudoscience that acquired a massive following in antebellum America for its appealing scientific racism, explanations of social deviance, and spiritual assurance. German physician Franz Joseph Gall first devised the field as “craniology” and then “organology,” referring to localized mental functions in different parts of the brain (then referred to as “organs”). His colleague, Johann Spurzheim, eventually coined the term phrenology and went on lecture tours at prestigious American institutions like Yale and Harvard The pseudoscience enabled its physician devotees to predict mental traits based on “bumps” of the human skull, effectively offering a biological basis for discrepancies in human behavior. However, this ideology only remained influential from 1810 into the early 1840s. Why did phrenology become the vogue in this specific time period of America? This concurrence with America’s antebellum revelations on questions of race and its evolving democracy suggests a connection that I explore further in this piece through several primary sources. I particularly focus on one influential text published by the famed phrenological company Fowler & Wells in 1842: Warren Burton’s “Uncle Sam’s Recommendation of Phrenology to his Millions of Friends in the United States.” Forwarding phrenological versions of racial stereotypes through garb of this patriotism in the piece, Burton’s letters seem to be representative of the contributions of phrenology to antebellum America’s social and intellectual landscape.

“Women’s Health Activism and the Breast Cancer Treatment Landscape”

Emily Tran Huynh (University of Pennsylvania)

This presentation discusses how women’s health activism in the 1970s changes the breast cancer treatment landscape overtime. How did patient’s experience change? Treatment options? Gains in breast cancer research?

Using legislative records, testimonies from breast cancer survivors, medical documents, in addition to building off the work of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, this paper will explore how 1970s activism, specifically against radical mastectomies, affected a woman’s overall experience in receiving breast cancer treatment. Breast cancer advocacy contributed to increased legislation towards greater informed consent in medicine, the de-implementation of radical mastectomies, and subsequently, the rise of new treatment options. In doing so, physicians were required to disclose different treatment options and women were less likely to undergo the overly extensive radical mastectomy, conserving more of their breast. On the other hand, although legislation towards informed consent passed, women continued to feel disempowered in breast cancer decision-making and physician-patient interactions. Further, despite radical mastectomies being pushed into the downstream, breast cancer patients nonetheless faced the harmful effects of newer treatment options.

““What kind of mother are you?”: The Influence of 1918 Advertisements on the Relationship Between Women and Medicine”

Emma Martel (University of King’s College)

In Nova Scotian newspapers from 1918, pandemic themed advertisements appear alongside public health announcements. These advertisements range from unregulated medication ads to advertisements for ladies’ gloves. This paper investigates the way that women are addressed and characterized by these ads. An ad in the Evening Star for Nuxated Iron supplements addresses mothers specifically and makes health a moral issue. According to the ad, an ill mother is a bad mother and the solution for bad motherhood is the iron supplement advertised. Comparing the supplement ad with Lydia Pinkham’s advertisements for her famous vegetable compound, I argue that the advertiser themselves is an important component in how women are spoken to by ads. Pinkham’s compound is a medication for women by a woman, and her ad campaign reflects this in its use of customer testimonials. Looking specifically at the influenza focused ads of 1918, the paper situates this argument in the context of a pandemic. These ads place a moral imperative upon women to keep themselves and their families in good health. Running a flu-conscious household requires buying certain products as preventative medicines. The good wife and mother must make the right choices for her family as the head of the domestic space. This is not an easy task, given how saturated the 1918 newspapers are with advertisements. Through examining the overlooked potential of these advertisements, I suggest that the relationship between women and medicine in 1918 Nova Scotia was significantly impacted by unregulated medical ads.

“The History of Medical Technology for C-sections”

Mayerling Colin (Yale University)

High United States cesarean section (c-section) rates have persisted, with 32.1% of all national births occurring by cesarean in 2021. The risks of this obstetric surgery— postpartum hemorrhage, anesthesia complications, thromboembolisms, and postpartum infections— are inextricably tethered to the United States’s concerning rates of maternal mortality and maternal morbidity. Important to the conversation are the racial disparities that encode differences in c-section rates, and their associated postoperative risks; Black women have higher rates of cesareans (36.8%) compared with their white counterparts, and are also subject to higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. In this paper I will explore the American public opinion and medical culture that gave way to the rise of cesarean section beginning in the 1960s. I point out how technology permeated its way into obstetric spaces and forever changed the birthing experience of American women. The normalization of cesarean sections and more broadly highly medicalized births, left laboring mothers themselves to contend with the aftermath of technological interference in what was once a natural process; this obstetric panacea culminated in a response that took form in the birth reform movement. A grounded understanding of the historical origins of cesareans should prompt a rethinking of the purview obstetric authority continues to hold medically and socially. I argue that without acknowledging the fallibility of modern technologies, especially in the form of cesarean sections, women will continue to suffer the brunt of medical intervention.

“Advertising Audism in America: From Home Tonics to Cochlear Implants”

Alexis Sye (Yale University)

Despite the prevalence of people with hearing loss in America, the medical profession along with American culture at large has historically viewed deafness as a problem in need of a cure rather than a simple variation in a human trait. It has upheld audism—the belief that the ability to hear makes one superior to those with hearing loss—and it has clashed with the Deaf community’s attempts to show that deafness merely grants one access to a new culture, community, and way of life. In this paper, I analyze two primary source advertisements for deafness ‘cures’—an 1887 pamphlet entitled “A Rational Treatment for the Cure of Deafness and the Perfect Restoration of the Hearing” and a 2022 commercial called Hearing Connects Us to the World and to the People and Things that Matter in Life—to compare the audist rhetoric in the medical perspective across time. I also dissect an article by Felicity Barringer that compares the Deaf and hearing responses to increased technological advances in cures for deafness. Within these analyses, I contextualize the sources within the larger political, societal, and educational movements surrounding medicine and deafness. Both advertisements and the article include extensive audist rhetoric, which shows how little progress has been made over 135 years. This suggests that long as the medical establishment supports audism, it will continue to prevail. The first step of change, of bringing the cultural perspective and deaf success to fruition, is awareness of the problem. This paper is an attempt to begin that process.

“Reconfiguring Care: HIV/AIDS Caregiving in the Post-Treatment Era”

Sumin Yoon (Rice University)

The development of antiretroviral therapies (ART) has transformed HIV/AIDS from an acute, deadly disease of the 1980s into a “chronic” condition. As a result, most of the discussion around HIV/AIDS today centers around treatment adherence and living with HIV, with minimal attention given to those who continue to suffer from HIV/AIDS as an acute condition. In this paper, I examine the evolution of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the 1980s-present through the lens of biological citizenship and how a treatment-centered approach that emphasizes individual responsibility over structural forces in HIV management creates dichotomies within the HIV-positive population: “successful” HIV citizens who live with HIV as a chronic condition and “failed” HIV non-citizens who suffer from HIV/AIDS as an acute condition (Paparini and Rhodes 2016). Given the existence of these two drastically different populations, I explore how care is negotiated and performed for HIV non-citizens and its role in highlighting the fluidity of HIV citizenship. Through analysis of autoethnographic reflections, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews with caregivers at a hospice for HIV/AIDS residents, I argue that this community-based HIV/AIDS organization has adapted to the post-treatment era by redefining the boundaries of “hospice” care and leveraging the power of biosociality to continue kinship-like care practices. Ultimately, this research contributes to the growing understanding of structural factors that drive the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how care practices are being reconfigured by community organizations to care for those left behind in the era of treatment.

“Assistive Action through Everyday Interaction – An Ethnographic Case Study of the Use of Digital Voice Assistants in the Life of an Older Adult”

Emily Stryker (University of Alberta)

Are digital voice assistants (DVAs) to be understood as an assistive technology to support the wellbeing of elderly people, or an extractive technology that profits by breaching privacy? This project, following Alač et al. (2020), argues that this question cannot be fully addressed without attending to how actual DVAs are grounded in the lived environments and ordinary interactions of elderly people.

In this paper, I explore Alač’s approach in my ethnographic case study of a 94-year-old American woman, Alice, who has incorporated DVAs—in the form of Alexa-enabled smart speakers—into her everyday practices. Through asking Alexa for help with spelling, Alice engages both a material and a social need because spelling aloud is something her late husband formerly helped her with. This suggests that DVAs can affect social wellbeing by participating in complex interactions through which social meaning is articulated. Alice’s perception of each DVA speaker as human-like or object-like is contingent on its location in the house, the reasons for which it is interacted with, and a number of other idiosyncratic associations, which highlight the situated character of DVA interaction. Finally, the ambiguous ontological status of Alice’s DVAs contributes to her comfort with having DVAs in her home because while they can help her meet her social needs, they do not have social needs she feels obligated to attend to. This case, while limited in its generalizability, demonstrates the importance of considering assistive technologies from lived, situated perspectives, where neat distinctions between “objects” and “humans” break down.