We're All Friends Here
By Robin Roenker
At first glance, the types of work being done by theoretical physicists and philosophers or by biologists and sociologists might seem to be worlds apart.
But on closer inspection, the questions explored by researchers across the varied fields that make up the College of Arts & Sciences are often, surprisingly, intertwined.
Interests in broad issues connect the work of researchers at UK in fields as varied as history, sociology, anatomy, and behavioral neuroscience. English professors focusing on eco-criticism and nature writing are informed by the research of biologists. Psychologists working to understand the neuro-pathways that lead to drug dependency collaborate intimately with faculty in anatomy and neurobiology.
It’s during these moments of truly cross-disciplinary collaboration that the seeming divide between the so-called “hard” sciences and the social sciences and humanities begins to shrink, if not disappear altogether.
The addition of several new faculty members at UK has only served to broaden and deepen this integration of the natural sciences across many of the A&S disciplines. The research interests of new faculty members in Philosophy, History, Sociology, and Psychology as well as a veteran professor of English converge at the rich intersection where the natural and social sciences and the humanities meet.
Philosophy of Science
Meg Wallace is an analytic philosopher who specializes in metaphysics, which is to say that she is a philosopher who spends her time pondering the “essence of things.” Does a table exist? If so, what are its attributes? Do the molecules that make up the table equal the table itself? In other words: can the parts be the same as the whole?
While these questions may seem abstract, she attends to them with an analytic rigor bound by precise, definable logical laws.
“Scientists have mathematics. Philosophy has logic. Certain laws of logic have to hold,” said Wallace, who joined UK’s Philosophy Department as an assistant professor in 2010. “The idea is that we are going to apply the same amount of rigor in exploring these philosophical questions as scientists would use when applying mathematics to their theories.”
Applying analytic skills to theories of the world isn’t the only way that science informs Wallace’s studies. A new course this fall on the Philosophy of Food Ethics taught by Bob Sandemeyer will draw upon research from fields like agriculture and environmental and sustainability studies. And Wallace’s 500-level Philosophy of Science course is a popular one. In it she guides her students in analyzing how logical precepts — like Ockham’s Razor, the idea that the simplest solution is often the best — have informed the ways in which scientists perceive and choose between various scientific theories, including, for example, a geocentric versus heliocentric view of the world.
The class also explores the ways in which research in certain fields of the natural sciences, like theoretical physics, has moved to some degree beyond our ability to directly empirically test it. “That’s really where we tread in the philosophy of science,” Wallace said. “We look at that intersection, when the distinction of what counts as empirical and observable and what isn’t, gets a little blurry.”
The History of Addiction
In the 1600s, coffee and tobacco were virtually unknown to Europe, but by 1700 they were pervasive. These new commodities began making their way in large quantities from the New World, and — almost immediately — users noticed their addictive properties.
Scott Taylor, who joined UK’s History faculty in 2012 as an associate professor, researches and teaches about the history of drugs in Western civilization. His forthcoming book traces the introduction of coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, sugar, and distilled spirits like rum and gin into European societies between 1590 and 1825.
By studying early 17th century medical and scientific texts written in England, Spain, France, and the Netherlands — leaders of the maritime trade at that time — Taylor has uncovered evidence of Europeans’ pervasive unease at the seeming addictive properties of these new imports, an idea so new that even physicians then lacked adequate words to clearly express it.
“Every single one of these things was controversial when it appeared,” said Taylor. “They all had medicinal associations to them, but people started using them for pleasure. It didn’t take long for people to realize that once you smoke tobacco regularly, for example, you can’t stop. The medical writers of the time thought they knew tobacco’s properties, what it does, what it’s good for, how it cures you. But when they tried to talk about how people become addicted, they would go to religious language, saying it’s ‘bewitching,’ or adopt terms like ‘becoming a slave to tobacco,’” Taylor said.
Taylor’s book will address the ways in which these addictive commodities changed European social structures, impacted trade and slavery, and offer a lens through which to view broad human themes like willpower, class, and gender prejudice.
Health, Society and Populations
There’s a growing awareness in medical fields that one’s health is directly impacted not only by biological processes but also socio-cultural, behavioral, and psychological influences — so much so that the new, revised Medical College Administration Test (MCAT), set to be introduced in 2015, will include a new section emphasizing understanding of the social and behavioral sciences.
Illustrating this pre-med preparation/curriculum shift, UK’s newly launched Health, Society, and Populations (HSP) major will draw from courses across disciplines to blend insights of both the natural and social sciences in its approach to health studies. “This new liberal arts major will provide students with a greater understanding of the cultural and structural factors that influence who is more or less likely to live a healthy life and have access to the resources necessary to do so,” said anthropology professor Erin Koch, who will co-direct the new major with sociology’s Carrie Oser.
Koch’s work on responses to tuberculosis in post-Soviet Georgia has produced policy-relevant insights about the strengths and limitations of top-down approaches to public health. While Oser’s work on health disparities and health services utilization among special populations of drug users has led to intervention studies for both patients (HIV interventions) and healthcare providers (collaborating with criminal justice organizations to implement evidenced based practices).
Mairead Moloney, a medical sociologist who joined the UK Sociology Department as a new hire this fall, is also affiliated with the new HSP major. She will help develop a new Introduction to Sociology course, which will be required of all UK pre-med students.
“We’ll talk about the health care system and explore why it is that some populations are healthier than others,” said Moloney. “It will be a real mixture of health care and sociology.”
Moloney’s own research includes work with hospitals’ transitions to Electronic Medical Records, studies of cancer incidence among minority groups, and a quantitative analysis of 15 years of medical data, which suggests a steep rise in the use of prescription drugs to treat insomnia. “When patients talk about sleeplessness, they often mention hating their job or the stress of caring for children or a parent,” Moloney said. “So there is a real sense that we may be medicalizing or transforming life issues into medical issues via prescriptions of sleep aids.”
The Psychology of Addiction
Psychologist Josh Beckmann’s interests in behavioral neuroscience — specifically, the neurotransmitters that may play a role in drug addiction — and his cutting-edge research with UK’s psychopharmacology program have provided him with frequent opportunities to collaborate with UK faculty in the medical and biological sciences.
For instance, Beckmann and Greg Gerhardt, in anatomy and neurobiology, are collaborating on a current project that uses state-of-the-art, micro electrodes capable of providing real-time data on the release of different neurotransmitters in rodents’ brains as they intake various substances or perform various tasks that have an abuse potential. The study is one of the first ever to provide researchers with real-time data on neurotransmitter release, according to Beckmann, who joined UK’s Psychology Department in Spring 2014, after having completed his postdoctoral fellowship here.
“In particular, we are measuring the release of a neurotransmitter called glutamate. We know that glutamate is involved in the learning processes in the brain that are associated with memory and reward — and therefore may play a role in reinforcing the use of drugs of abuse in some people,” Beckmann said.
The goal of Beckmann’s work, at its essence, is to better understand the underlying neuro-circuitry within the brain that can lead to addiction. That work, in turn, may one day inform the development of pharmacotherapies to help substance abusers overcome their addictions.
After receiving mass praise for his critically acclaimed 2006 work "Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness" — an investigation into the environmental effects of radical strip mining in Appalachia — UK English professor Erik Reece followed up in 2013 with "The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future," which he co-wrote with UK biology professor James Krupa.
Reece’s interest in Robinson Forest dates back at least a decade, he said, when he first discovered it as a go-to retreat for students in his nature writing class at UK.
“There are cabins there. You can get the kids away from their screens, since there’s no cell phone reception there. I wanted to find a place where they could go to really get off by themselves, to write in solitude. I was trying to give them that Thoreau experience,” said Reece.
But because Robinson Forest is surrounded by areas that have been strip mined, Reece and his students came to an unsettling conclusion: “You can’t write about Robinson Forest in a strictly pastoral way, as Thoreau wrote about the natural world. You also have to also write about it as a threatened landscape,” he said.
Reece’s work is marked by cross-disciplinary collaboration. He teaches courses in both the Appalachian Studies Program and Environmental and Sustainability Studies major. While researching his books, he collaborated with faculty in biology, forestry, sociology, and anthropology. He has even led a UK course about coal with sociology professor Dwight Billings.
“Robinson Forest became a kind of laboratory for me, a way to do real interdisciplinary work and research,” said Reece, whose next project is a look at the Utopian movement in America, from its earliest beginnings in the 19th century to today.