Sometimes language has the power to move mountains, and other times — it has the power to move microbes.
“I care about how words work as scientific tools,” said Erika Szymanski, Colorado State University assistant professor of rhetoric of science in the department of English, and science and technology studies researcher. “In particular, I’m interested in how the kinds of metaphors that we use for things that might be difficult to grasp directly, like microbes, are really central to the kinds of things that we can do with microbes or with other scientific objects.”
As part of two National Science Foundation grants — a $459,000 NSF CAREER Grant and a $1.1 million NSF/United Kingdom Research and Innovation Grant — Szymanski is studying how the words we use to communicate about microbes and the microbiome can impact what we do with them.
“They’re becoming creatures to be recognized as being social,” Szymanski said. “And in being social, we’re seeing them as more complex than we previously realized them to be. Simultaneously, microbes are being engineered. They’re being reprogrammed.”
They’re also becoming potentially untapped resources for addressing global challenges, she said.
But in what roles? How might microbes and scientists, and maybe microbes and other humans, work together? That’s what Szymanski wants to explore with her NSF CAREER project, microbiomish, by documenting existing metaphors for understanding microbiomes and imagining new ones.
“My goal is to explore the variety of ways that we could be working with microbes that might not be currently obvious or available,” she said. “I’m also interested in prompting the scientists that I work with — along with the variety of other people who act in this space — to think about how we’re making choices about what microbiomes become and what we do with them. How it’s not just inevitable that they are what they are and we have to respond to that, but how we are active in deciding what kinds of futures we want to build, not only for ourselves but for the variety of other creatures who live on the planet with us.”
That’s where the second NSF grant Szymanski is working on, Future Organisms — a partnership with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Keio University in Japan — comes into play.
“We’re interested in the intersection of synthetic genomics or whole-genome synthesis and what it means to do responsible research,” Szymanski said.
Increasingly, scientists in Europe, Japan and the United States are being required to incorporate responsible research and innovation or RRI into their funded research projects. However, RRI often becomes merely a barrier to cross to get to the science part of things.
“But it could be — and in our minds, it should be — a space to think about not just what we can do, but what we want to do,” Szymanski said. “What kinds of futures are the technologies we’re building today building? Who benefits from them and who doesn’t? Who are they good for? Because when we talk about technology being better for society, it’s never equally better for everybody.”
Conversations with microbes
That includes the organisms involved in the projects themselves.
“We’re getting to a point where scientists are designing and building whole genomes with DNA,” Szymanski said. “That means that they can reimagine what a creature might be or what they want it to be. So how do we bring the creatures into that conversation?”
Much of Szymanski’s work involves reading, seeking metaphors and other ways of using language to pattern how we understand and work with microbes and other organisms.
“Once we have that understanding of what currently exists, we’re going to use our knowledge of specific projects — or what I would call discursive immersion in the field — and collaborate with microbiome scientists to imagine what additional possibilities might be empirically supportable,” she said.
Some of her previous research suggests that scientists could even think of microbes as users of technology themselves, Szymanski said.
“If you build a pathway that’s supposed to do something out of DNA, the very first creature who has to use that pathway is the organism itself,” she said. “It’s the bacteria sitting in the dish. And if the bacteria can’t figure out how to use the DNA you’ve built to make the thing you wanted to make, then there is no future human end user for your technology.”
Another way to think about engineering microbiomes might be to have “conversations” with them, she said.
“So maybe we can think about participatory design when your participant is a yeast cell, in contrast to computer programs that we then reprogram or factories that we engineer.”
The project will also involve experimental workshops with scientists, artists, designers, social scientists, people from industry, and people from NGOs, asking them to think together in new ways.
“By pulling together multiple perspectives — including perspectives that are often not part of these conversations — our aim is to create a space where everyone is free to think outside the norms that typically govern their everyday work,” she said. “Institutions come with expected ways of doing things or with pressures for what you have to do, or are expected to deliver. So we hold workshops as a way of creating an alternative space for different kinds of conversations.”
An unexpected direction
It’s not every day the Department of English gets an NSF grant, much less two. As a result, Szymanski has been able to hire two post-doctoral researchers who will be trained in interdisciplinary approaches.
“Being interdisciplinary, you’re always a little bit out of place everywhere,” Szymanski said. “I work across not only humanities and biology and engineering —because I’m interested in engineering biology, specifically — but also with what often ends up being in the social sciences. I think of myself as being someone who’s interested in problems, more than being interested in disciplines. These interdisciplinary approaches are essential to understanding the social dimensions of scientific research.”
It actually can be an advantage to be in a department where people don’t expect you to be, said Szymanski, who is the first humanities faculty member of the University-wide Microbiome Network
“Sometimes when people hear about what I do, they come up with some stereotypes that are unhelpful,” she said. “But I get to broaden their ideas about what humanities and STEM can do together.”