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C’elegans: a Sculpted Reflection on Abstraction and the Notion of Progress in Science

In Winter 2018, Science & Justice Visiting Scholar Kim Hendrickx convened a meeting in the lab of Distinguished Professor of MCD Biology Susan Strome to discuss C. elegans, the elegant see-through worm that has long served as a model in developmental biology research.

Strome and lab members welcomed Hendrickx, Distinguished Professor Emerita Donna Haraway and Science & Justice Director Jenny Reardon along with the S&J community.

Invited art student, D (aka Daniel Lynch) created a physical response to the ‘Addressing Biology’ discussion in the form of a sculpture made from discarded laboratory rods, hardware and band saw blades. In their written statement, the student explained: “The UNC blade both suspends and is contained by the construction much like the way scientific dialogue can become bound by the knowledge it has already produced.” Hendrickx responded: “It is strange and exciting to see something very familiar in a new form.” The student, overseen by Dee Hibbert-Jones in the Art Department, was allowed to use this response piece as their final class project. All involved felt the excitement of such creative and engaged interactions between the arts, sciences, social sciences and humanities.

j-UNC by D (aka Daniel Lynch)

Discarded Laboratory Rod & Hardware, Discarded Band-Saw Blades 

C’elegans is a nematode characterized by its S-shaped movement, and is studied as a model organism. Experimentation has caused a variety of mutations in individual worms. Remarkably some have developed neurons instead of reproductive germs. Others lose their characteristic movement, becoming uncoordinated. These are named “UNC” by researchers.

The worm is treated both as a subject and tool, whereas the blade transforms from tool to subject. The legible, linear detail of the teeth reflect the visible, linear nature of the worm’s internal biology. The blade that is held in examination by the construction is torqued into a curve that is evocative of the worm’s natural movement. In contrast, the heavier blade on the floor appears contorted, referencing the UNC.

The material used to build the construction gains new importance through form while retaining its identity and history as a support structure used in scientific experimentation. The construction’s, upward-stretching and outward-reaching form represents a methodic progression towards something, in abstraction of science. The UNC blade both suspends and is contained by the construction, much like the way scientific dialogue can become bound by the knowledge it has already produced.

Paloma Medina: The Diversity of the Natural World

Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at SJRC, contributes to the field of population genetics with a distinctly feminist mindset.

By Bradley Jin, SJRC Communications Intern, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate in Sociology and Feminist Studies

Biology has been integral in the formation of what is ‘natural.’ Concepts of the natural have shaped many of our understandings of what is normal in terms  of race, sexuality, and gender. The history of population genetics is not immune to the prejudices carried by the people who seek to understand population diversity. Moreover, genetic population studies have been used as justification to promote systems of inequality. To learn from and change this history, Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center, works with queer community members to inform the applications of her research in population genetics. She works in what is known as ‘queer ecology.’ Queer ecology has many definitions, but it can be loosely described as the interdisciplinary practice of biology that focuses on the gender and sexual diversity found in nature. Queer ecology is a way of practicing just and fair science.

Medina is inspired by the diversity she sees in nature and many biologists share her mindset. She leads a queer ecology research cluster reading group at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Here, graduate students meet to read about and discuss the variety of the natural world. “Biodiversity is almost sacred to biologists. When I tell them about sex and gender diversity in the natural world, they’re like ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’" In the Queer Ecology Research Cluster, Medina seeks to move beyond the critique of science and elevate the stories of queer animals, of which there are many.

For Medina, the side-blotched lizard is a striking example of biodiversity in the animal kingdom. Medina relates that “they have different coloration patterns on their neck that coincide with their lifestyle strategy.” Here, ‘lifestyle strategy’ is almost synonymous with gender expression. This pattern of coloration communicates the behavior of the individual lizards to others. Aggressive males are marked one way, non-aggressive males another. It forms a sort of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ style of dominance. This species, among others, challenges the concept of dichotomous, ‘biological and natural’ gender and sex. Animals like the side-blotched lizard inspire Medina to think of ‘queer’ animals as a reflection of the diversity of human identity.

Along with running the queer ecology reading group Medina has given presentations on biodiversity at the Brain Mind Consciousness Society at UCSC and at the Queer U conference at the University of British Columbia. Having given both lectures and workshops, she states,  “I think students get more out of a workshop than a lecture because students can engage with other students and converse about ideas in a workshop setting. Of course the two styles are not mutually exclusive, but allowing the opportunity to talk about and relate to ideas is critical to learning and expanding.” In addition to workshops, Medina is working with the Youth Group of the Santa Cruz Diversity Center on an illustrated novel. The novel will tell the story of a clownfish who transitions from male to female when the matriarch of their colony leaves.  She hopes this project will elevate the voices of queer and trans youth to a broader community.

 

 

Paloma Medina is a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At the Center Medina strives not to practice science as justice, or justice as science, but instead view them as the same thing. For her, science is justice, and justice is science. Technology and science intersect with society to such a degree that they are inseparable.