On the Digital Humanities

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the MLIS Colloquium Speaker Series at Rutgers University titled “Digital Humanities: New Roles for Libraries.”  The panel consisted of a diverse group of Digital Humanities scholars, staff, librarians, and specialists who discussed a broad range of topics ranging from an overview of the Digital Humanities to the specific roles of the various members of the panel.  As a PhD student in the Humanities, it was fascinating to learn about the general role of the Digital Humanities as well as the role they can play in my own scholarship.  The panel allowed me to consider the benefits of this kind of technology in academia, and to think about scholarship in ways that I had not previously thought about it.  In the following paragraphs, I intend to share my learning experience with you!

Perhaps an obvious, but very important aspect of the Digital Humanities is that it allows us to conduct research remotely.  The example provided was the Jazz Oral History Project at Rutgers – a project devoted to the recording and digitization of the oral history of jazz musicians and their profession.  By digitizing the oral history interviews, we are able to access these materials from any location, thus eliminating the need to travel to conduct research.

The most interesting aspect about this project, however, is the notion that it changes the way we study history.  We are no longer simply memorizing important people and eventful dates, but instead listening to and learning from the seminal figures that lived this history and are providing us with the opportunity to rewrite it.  As one of the panelists stated, we are experiencing history through storytelling, arguably more exciting than the traditional experience we are used to.

I think the greatest potential of the Digital Humanities lies in the opportunity for collaboration.  Digital Humanities librarians are able to work with scholars from many different departments of the university.  Furthermore, the Digital Humanities can bring together researchers from two seemingly disparate fields, such as Foreign Languages and Computer Science.  This allows for various networking and professional exchanges, but it also provides the opportunity to consider your research from different and multidisciplinary perspectives.  I believe this is especially relevant in today’s academic world; STEM disciplines and the Humanities are often at odds with each other, but it is truly in our best interests to narrow the gap between the two and take advantage of the chance to collaborate.

The Digital Humanities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and prove to be a valuable tool in academic research.  In a world of continual scholarly production across multiple disciplines, the Digital Humanities allows us to engage in both technical and creative endeavors, providing us the opportunity to expand our work and the collective knowledge of humanity in previously unthinkable ways.

Biological Science Boot Camp: Bridging Theory and Experiment

Society is a complex network of people needing to effectively communicate. To advance the standard of living, it is imperative that communication exists between people who articulate different perspectives and work towards a common goal.  For example, teams of medical workers are needed to deliver healthcare, groups of politicians are required to debate public policy, and teams of scientists are vital in every branch of society.

In many instances, the complex nature of society requires scientists, politicians, and medical workers to work towards a shared goal. For this to occur, ideas need to be communicated effectively. Medical workers need to know the expected impact of a life saving drug developed by scientists, and politicians need to determine if the new drug meets regulatory policies.

Before a drug can be put in the hands of trained personnel, a team of scientists with diverse expertise in experimentation and theory need to design and thoroughly test the drug. However, theorists may not have the background to understand the limitations of experiments, and experimentalists may not have the theoretical background to simulate and model data. Effective communication and collaboration can bridge the gap between theorists and experimentalists.

This winter break, I am bridging the gaps in my science by attending the intensive two week interdisciplinary boot camp offered by the Rutgers Center for Integrative Proteomics Research. The boot camp offers an immersive experience for scientists interested in finding potential collaborators, and learning new methods, for exploring theoretical and experimental biology. The main tool being used to teach the many aspects of biology is the Green Fluorescent Protein, a Nobel Prize winning subject important for the advancement of biological science. This boot camp is offered Jan. 6-17, 2014, and is open to all.  For more information click here

Collaborative Hunting and Gathering

When I try to describe Comparative Literature to those unfamiliar with my field, I think back to the way one of my undergraduate professors put it. Comp Lit, she said, is like a mad scientist’s laboratory, except for the humanities.  Working and thinking in such an interdisciplinary field means that I am encouraged to think outside of the traditional boundaries of thought (in my case looking to Sociology, Caribbean Studies, critical theory, novels, film, and medicine). So how do I conduct research? The short answer is “Read a lot and write a lot”, but thinking about how I’m going to approach writing a paper on Ralph Ellison this semester, I intend to:

  1. Ask myself questions: What are the key themes and issues that have come up for the authors? What do I find most confusing/interesting? This is an important step, since the last thing I want to do is impose my theories onto a text or author. In the case of Invisible Man, I’m really interested in how the trope of invisibility is linked to blackness, and I wonder about the way the author portrays history.
  2. Make connections: This is what brought me to Comp Lit in the first place! How does what I am reading relate to my larger research interests? How can I make this useful as I think ahead to my dissertation? Is there a particular theoretical model that is useful in thinking about the topic? I’ve also noticed some similarities and differences between this novel and writing by authors from the same time period in the Caribbean.
  3. Meet with my professor: Our professors are an incredible source of knowledge and experience, and the earlier you meet to discuss you ideas, the more focused your ideas will become: they can steer you toward key texts and theorists and advance your thinking before you begin to dig in the stacks.
  4. Hunting and gathering: Sometimes I prefer to do more free-writing (my idea of “gathering”) to really hone in on what I care about;  other times, I really need to dig in and find out (“hunting”) what has been said and done on a topic first. With my Ellison paper, I’ll probably  go the library route first: a) the Rutgers library website, b) the MLA Bibliography, c) my subject librarian, d) Google Scholar, e) for larger projects, traveling to archives to access relevant original documents.
  5. Writing! One of my mantras is “writing is thinking.” The only way I can really know what I think about something is to write about it, so after completing steps 1-4, I’ll begin writing my paper.

Although there are certainly times when my work revolves around my own relationship with the texts I’m exploring, the process really is collaborative…having a conversation with the authors and filmmakers I’m working with. As the conversation gets larger and the stakes higher, the sources you tap into may take you farther than you expect.

Identity, Goals, and Diversity in Interdisciplinary Research

While I was an undergraduate physics major, my interests and research experiences were quite clearly of the pure physics variety: particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics.  There was never any question about my scientific identity or goals — I was unambiguously a “physicist,” and with that label implicitly came values about what I was supposed to study and how.

When I began graduate school, however, I found a new interest: biophysics, an interdisciplinary science if there ever was one.  While Rutgers has many physics Ph.D. students and faculty studying problems in biophysics and quantitative biology, I couldn’t help but suffer a bit of an identity crisis, albeit one more professional than adolescent in nature (not so much “Who am I?” but rather “What kind of job will I be able to get?”).  This seemed exacerbated by my specific research, which focuses on evolution; while physical analogies abound within the mathematical models, the phenomenon itself is plainly biological.  So when describing my work to others, I had to wonder: am I still a physicist?  Or am I a biologist?  Am I some type of hybrid, i.e., a biophysicist, and if so, what does that really mean?

Over time, though, I’ve come to believe what defines our identities as scientists is not so much what we study but how we study it.  More precisely, it is not the questions we ask but the kinds of answers we seek that are important in defining this identity.  Many different types of scientists (biologists, chemists, physicists, etc.) in a field like biophysics are basically studying the same problems — gene regulation, biochemical kinetics, protein folding, etc. — but their actual work may look completely different from each other’s on paper.  A good example is given by protein folding, the famous problem of understanding how a chain of amino acid molecules making up a protein folds relatively quickly into a unique 3D conformation (Ref. 1).  To a structural biologist or a bioinformatician, so-called homology-based methods provide an adequate solution.  These methods predict unknown structures of proteins using large databases of known structures and statistical algorithms.  To a physicist, however, this is not really a solution at all — it is a practical tool to make predictions, but it offers no insight into the fundamental physical principles underlying how the folding process occurs.

This issue has real consequences for a discipline, beyond just a little angst for students.  Despite all the good intentions of funding agencies, journals, and institutions toward cultivating interdisciplinary research, they run into problems when geneticists are evaluating physicists’ proposals by genetics standards or when mathematicians are evaluating biologists by mathematics standards.  As demonstrated by the example of protein folding, scientists can have genuine disagreements about whether a problem is even solved.  An interdisciplinary field must be aware of these different values and should openly discuss how to make different scientists’ goals and styles complementary for the sake of scientific progress.  Indeed, interdisciplinary research has tremendous power to meet the daunting challenges of the 21st century, but only when effective communication and collaboration exist to take advantage of it.

[1]  Dill KA, et al.  (2007)  “The protein folding problem: when will it be solved?”  Curr. Opin. Struct. Biol. 17:342-346.