Dissertation Project 

Humans and Organs on Chips: Translational Medicine & the Politics of Biomedical Innovation  

In the wake of concerns about the translation from bench research to bedside therapies, new technologies, actors, and fields have come to the fore, offering new tools that illuminate the biotechnological imaginary that marks 21st century science. Organ chips, a group of these new tools, are microfluidic devices made to model human organs. The hype surrounding these technologies paints a desirable future: one in which non-human animals are no longer the requisite tools of biomedical research, pharmaceuticals are developed faster and at a lower cost, and people have access to therapeutics that are tailored to their personalized health needs. In a time when many aspects of biomedicine are being transformed, biotechnological advances are not only changing health care practices, they are also remaking biomedical research. This dissertation investigates our current moment in biomedicine in which the utility, value, and constitution of models long-used in biomedical research are being renegotiated. 

My dissertation examines the production of emergent biomedical technologies, organ chips, and the upstream politics and investments that shape their trajectory. Through an analysis of the emergence and construction of organ chips, the dissertation unpacks the social, political, and economic drivers that shape what kinds of research and technologies are pursued in the name of "translation." I show how organ chips engender particular ideas about what counts as being human and how ideas about social difference come to matter when developing biomedical models of the human body. Critically, this work examines new technologies while they are being developed-a unique and critical time for the social study of technologies. The dissertation draws on multi-sited ethnography conducted over eighteen months in laboratories developing organ chips, scientific conferences, research symposia, and one semester-long bioengineering course on microfluidic biotechnologies. I also conducted 30 interviews with researchers, laboratory staff, and others involved in organ chip development. Finally, the dissertation includes an analysis of media and document about organ chips and translational medicine published between 1990-2020. Findings from the dissertation research have been published in Engaging Science, Technology & Society and in an edited volume (Routledge, 2021).

Pandemic Science: The Disruptions to Laboratory Life Study

Following the closure of research laboratories during the COVID-19 pandemic, I conducted an interview-based study to understand how disruptions impacted lab workers. I conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews with biomedical research trainees (advanced doctoral students and postdocs) who spend 70% or more of their daily work time (pre-pandemic) at the bench, over an 8-month time period. Initial interviews (T1) were conducted in September-October 2020 (n=39), approximately six months into the pandemic. Follow up interviews (T2) were conducted in February-March 2021 (n=36), approximately six months following the first interview. This second time point was approximately one year after early cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States, and 11 months following widespread shut downs. This study documented workers' experience of disruptions and  how the nature of scientific work itself -- that is, decisions around experimental design, research processes, and team science -- were changing in the wake of the pandemic. A manuscript based on this project (currently under review), shows that the "new normal" that emerged during the pandemic was marked by emergent stratifications and inequities in access to sufficient lab time, increased stress regarding productivity, and exacerbated frustrations with the culture of academic science. Combined with the working conditions, the loss of sociality in scientific work amplified existing social inequities in the workplace ultimately resulted in workers' estrangement from science itself. Read more about lab workers' experience during the pandemic here. 

Past Projects:

Beyond BMI: Conceptualizing Health in the 'Obesity Epidemic'

Obesity has been at the forefront of the public health agenda in the United States since the late 1990s. Commonly considered a simple condition of excess for most of the 20th century, this project investigated how early obesity researchers legitimized obesity as an object of scientific inquiry in the late 20th century. Drawing on document analysis, in depth interviews with obesity researchers, and ethnographic observation, this project explains how the frame of complexity has been instrumental for obesity researchers carving out a legitimate area of scientific inquiry and expanding the research arena.

Findings from this project can be found in BioSocieties


The Ethics of Inclusion: Diversity in Precision Medicine Research (2018 - 2021)
PI: Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, PhD (Columbia University); MPI: Janet Shim, PhD (UCSF)

This project examines how goals around inclusion and diversity are enacted and operationalized in precision medicine research (PMR) in the US. Drawing on ethnographic observations of scientific activities and in-depth interviews with precision medicine research investigators and stakeholders of three PMR consortia, as well as document analysis, our team investigates how priorities for diversity and inclusion play out on the ground. 

Team members: Co-Is: Aliya Saperstein, PhD (Stanford University); Stephanie Malia Fullerton, DPhil (University of Washington); Research Staff: Emily Velasquez (Columbia University), Michael Bentz (Columbia University), Nicole Foti (UCSF), Melanie Jeske


Experience of Illness & Sociology of Diagnosis (2014-2018)
PI: Kelly Joyce, PhD (Drexel University)

Recent estimates suggest over 80 diseases are autoimmune illnesses or autoimmune related and effect over 50 million people living in the United States (AARDA 2017; Autoimmunity Institute). Autoimmune is a broad category of illnesses in which a person's immune system identifies healthy cells as pathological. Autoimmune diseases include well known illnesses such as celiac, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes, as well as lesser known diseases like Guillain-Barre syndrome, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, IgG1-related sclerosing disease, Crohn's, and mixed connective tissue disease. Moreover, autoimmune illnesses can be particularly difficult to diagnose, and receiving a "correct" diagnosis can take years. This project interviewed 45 people living with autoimmune illnesses to learn about living with complex, chronic illnesses marked by heterogeneity and uncertainty.

This project illuminated how people navigate their illness experiences and the strategies they develop to live well, and how broad and narrow diagnostic classifications perform different work in shaping the illness experience. Findings from this project can be found in Social Science and Medicine (Joyce and Jeske, 2020), Sociological Viewpoints (Joyce and Jeske, 2019). Together with Jennifer James, we extended our concept of regimes of patienthood in a 2020 article in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society.


Additionally, I have brought qualitative research expertise to interdisciplinary teams of clinical researchers and nursing scholars. On these teams, I have studied how youth living with HIV use technology to manage their care and how community hospitals implement quality improvement programs.

Header Photo: Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise France. Leonardo Da Vinci's home for the last three years of his life. Photo taken by M. Jeske.