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Dr. Jane Maienschein Bridges the Gap Between History, Philosophy, and Science

07/27/2023
By Patricia Soochan

We are approaching seven decades since scientist and novelist C. P. Snow delivered his 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” in which he lamented the growing cultural divide between the sciences and other intellectual fields. Four years later, however, Snow took a more optimistic approach and suggested the coming of a transdiciplinary Third Culture that would bridge this divide. Dr. Jane Maienschein, an eminent historian, philosopher, scientist, longtime AWIS member, and former AWIS fellow and board member, is a living example of this transdisciplinary Third Culture.

Dr. Jane Maienschein
Dr. Jane Maienschein, photo by ASU School of Life Sciences Visualization Lab

How did she find her way to her myriad roles? Dr. Maienschein grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the daughter of a nuclear physicist father, who was an Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) division director, and of a humanist and social activist mother. She acknowledges that she was influenced by a culture of science at home and in the larger community and says that the question wasn’t whether or not she would become a scientist, but, rather, which discipline of science she would choose.

Fascinated by cosmology, she first decided to pursue astrophysics, the major she chose when she matriculated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She started to develop some substantial doubts about her chosen field, however, when she came face to face with differential equations. She realized that although she liked pure math, including number theory, she found differential equations to be absolutely boring. When she shared this epiphany with her adviser, he told her that she couldn’t forgo differential equations if she wanted to be an astrophysicist. Luckily, she had grown up in an environment with early and frequent exposure to science in the context of the broader society, so she was not opposed to considering other paths.

Oak Ridge was home to one of the primary locations of the Manhattan Project, which led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. In 1949, the American Museum of Atomic Energy (later renamed the American Museum of Science and Energy) opened in Oak Ridge and included exhibits to recount this history. Dr. Maienschein remembers visiting exhibits about the aftermath of the bombings, and they had a deep impact on her. In addition, her father’s work gave her an early understanding that science is deeply integrated into the human experience, and her mother’s social activism taught her the importance of seeing and valuing other points of view, such as those of segregated Black and poor miners in Appalachia. Both perspectives planted seeds that would come to influence her ultimate path.

Parting Ways with Differential Equations

After spending a year at MIT in the company of differential equations, Dr. Maienschein wanted to get as far away from astrophysics as possible. Not only did she separate herself from astrophysics, but she also left MIT, transferring to Yale University, which she had wanted to attend in the first place but which only started admitting women as she approached her sophomore year. At Yale, she selected a special major called “History, the Arts, and Letters” and was initially attracted to art history. She soon discovered, however, that she still retained her love of science, although not for a specific discipline. In her senior year, she encountered several courses in the history and philosophy of science (HPS) and learned about its existence as an actual academic field. She went on to write an HPS honors thesis, and her advisors encouraged her to apply to the handful of doctoral programs that existed in this field.

HPS in the Politics of Today
As science has become more accessible, historians and philosophers must occupy not only the space between science and history/philosophy, but also the space between science and politics. Dr. Maienschein emphasizes that in all her work, she does not advocate for a particular political position but instead tries to impart the best available scientific knowledge. For example, in her recent article, “The Camouflaged Metaphysics of Embryos,” she explains the dangers in the “scientized political discussions” that were used by abortion opponents in the June 2022 Supreme Court decision that turned over abortion law to state legislatures.

 

She goes on to dissect several assumptions about fetal development, including the theory that an embryonic human heart starts beating at five or six weeks of gestational development. She explains that the tissue that will develop into the heart begins pumping fluid at around the fifth week, but the four-chambered heart organ that pumps blood through the body doesn’t form in the human fetus until about 20 weeks of gestation.

 

She urges Americans to stop debating the binary extremes of the abortion issue, such as referring to a developing embryo as “just a clump of cells” or to a fertilized ovum as a baby. Dr. Maienschein encourages us, instead, to engage in thoughtful discussions about where the boundaries should lie based on scientific understanding, such as those that focus on when an abortion is acceptable and when it is not.

Dr. Maienschein was intrigued by this new potential career, but she also wanted to explore being a historian in a traditional setting like a museum. She decided to volunteer at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, but she found the working atmosphere to be toxically competitive. So she put her plans for a museum career on hold and decided to move more decidedly toward science, although in a liminal space with history and philosophy.

She went on to pursue her PhD in HPS at Indiana University (IU), where she decided to pursue a minor in developmental biology, with a particular focus on embryology, despite being advised that the hot allied field for HPS graduates was genetics. Along the way, she enjoyed a summer fellowship at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History working with the history of medicine.

Finding Her Place

After completing her PhD, Dr. Maienschein received two tenure-track offers, one at Johns Hopkins University and another at Arizona State University (ASU). Mentors strongly advised her to take the Hopkins offer, but she felt a calling to work for a public institution, where she thought her teaching would make a difference in the lives of students from diverse backgrounds. She also thought she would learn more in a different kind of place with different kinds of students.

In 1981, she became an assistant professor of philosophy at ASU. In that same year, scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos. In her developmental biology work at IU, she had replicated earlier historical experiments related to neuroblast stem cells in tissue culture, while learning about the history of such research. At ASU, she became the go-to person in the department as questions came flying in about what these “new” stem cells were and why they were useful. She also became an expert consultant, working with Arizona’s Congressman Matt Salmon during the 105th US Congress, which happened to be when cloning and human embryonic stem cell research appeared on the scene.

A Short History of HPS

Since the 19th century, science, history, and philosophy have formally occupied different domains in helping us understand and learn about navigating our world. We now clearly understand that science is the study of the physical and natural world, while philosophy looks at the nature of science, and history examines how that changes over time.

 

Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher, mathematician, and writer, explained this in a 1958 address that he gave in accepting a UNESCO prize: “The separation of science from ‘culture’ is a modern phenomenon.” How did science, once called “natural philosophy,” diverge from its original place in philosophy? As early as the 17th century, signs of divergence appeared as the modern scientific method started to emerge and as demarcations developed between such areas as alchemy and chemistry, and physics and metaphysics.

 

Tensions between science and culture persisted into the 20th century, at least in terms of how to conduct science. While a leading historian of science George Sarton emphasized in the first half of the twentieth century the importance of respecting and studying science in detail but in an historical context, philosopher Karl Popper later in the century defined science on stringent terms. His theory of falsification demanded that any theory in science must be testable and capable of being falsified.

 

Many other philosophers and historians rejected Popper’s ideas and carried out lively discussions about the nature of science and how it changes over time. Among them, Thomas Kuhn offered alternative ideas about the structure and nature of scientific theories, which can change (though rarely) through revolutions or what he called paradigm changes. These ideas and debates about them stimulated development of new graduate programs and scholarly work at the intersections of history and philosophy of science. HPS was born.

Her experience in exploring different paths, wandering intellectually (sometimes against the grain), and finding the right place for herself is something that she now shares with her students: “Trust yourself and follow opportunities that feel right for you. There are times when people will question your judgement and advise you to take less-resistant paths. But only you can decide what feels true to yourself.”

Today, Dr. Maienschein’s many titles include University Professor of History in Science; Regents, President’s, and Parents Association Professor; Director of the Center for Biology and Society in the School of Life Sciences; Codirector of the Center’s Embryo Project; and Director of the History Project and Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), an international center for research and education in biological sciences based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and affiliated with the University of Chicago. More roles are listed on her profile on the ASU website.

Dr. Jane Maienschein with students and colleagues on National Pi Day, photo by the ASU Center for Biology and Society.
Dr. Jane Maienschein with students and colleagues on National Pi Day, photo by the ASU Center for Biology and Society.

Asked about the history and philosophy of the Center, she explains that it began with a group of undergraduate ASU Flinn Scholarship recipients who decided that they wanted to take interdisciplinary courses that combined science with other disciplines without having to pursue multiple majors. Soon their initial ask snowballed into a request for a transdisciplinary science major; into the first and only undergraduate-coauthored editorial in the journal Science, which stressed the importance of science literacy; and into support from the Board of Regents and senior administrators to establish an institutionally funded center dedicated to the study of science and society.

Among the Center’s diverse programs, the Embryo Project is a collaboration with the MBL. The Embryo Project (www.embryo.asu.edu) serves as a resource for teaching, research, and outreach on the history of embryology, developmental biology, and reproductive medicine. The online reviewed publication, supported with graduate student collaborators, received over 3 million page views a year from a very diverse international audience.

In addition, through her separate affiliation with MBL’s History Project, Dr. Maienschein is collaborating with a cell biologist/historian, artist/historian, and library director to present Seeing Cells, a digital exhibit on the history of cell observation, imaging, and engineering.

Herstory at AWIS
Dr. Maienschein became an AWIS member in 1999, was named an AWIS Fellow in 2004, and served as an AWIS board member from 2006 through 2008. She is proud to have seen the organization and the status of women in science grow. She remembers her first board meeting, when some members were brought to tears as they described the gender discrimination and harassment they had faced. Although she acknowledges that many obstacles remain in achieving gender equity in STEM, she is heartened by the fact that much has improved for women since her first year at MIT, when the man-to-woman ratio was 18 to 1.

What unites Dr. Maienschein’s various endeavors is her commitment to increasing our understanding of science and its value to society, while acknowledging the challenges to do things right. She works to achieve this goal primarily through policy studies, as well as through science communication, shedding light on socially controversial issues related to her expertise in developmental biology. Her work routinely tackles hot-button topics, such as evolution, cloning, stem cell research, and more recently what is meant by “fetal remains.”

As she engages her diverse students, she does not advocate for a particular path for them but instead builds support systems to help them carve out their own paths to achievement as they pass through or continue working in HPS programs. She proudly describes the various achievements of her students, who include such diverse roles as: two Rhodes Scholars, many physicians, policy makers, computer programmers, a blood bank technician, and a physical therapist.

AWIS member Patricia SoochanPatricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants provided primarily to undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and The Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

 

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.