Trying to cure cancer while some bloke goes on about Arabs

There are many things about the Cambridge college system that may not look terribly good in the twenty-first century, but there are also things that do. In particular, a college of, say, about seven hundred people, of whom maybe three hundred are engaged in research, is a good size of community for researchers across many different fields to interact, learn from each other and so forth without one necessarily being forced to deal with people whom one would rather avoid. It’s a good group to make friends in, and there’s a handy expert in most fields to go and ask about something with whom you have an immediate connection to draw on.

The bridge over the River Cam in Clare College, Cambridge

The bridge over the River Cam in Clare College, Cambridge

That said, these interactions can benefit from helping along, and not everywhere tries to foster them. One of the things I’ve so far enjoyed most about being a College Research Associate at Clare in Cambridge is that the college does try and make these things happen, and consequently feels like a genuine scholarly community. And it escapes the old-fashioned image of the Oxbridge college to an extent simply by the subjects those scholars are studying. The reason for this post is the Clare Research Symposium, whose third instalment took place on March 11 this year and which I was at, and the program from it demonstrates my point, have a look at this:

Session 1

  • Eamon Murphy, “Shakespearean Tragedy and the Literature of Roguery”
  • Karina Jakubowicz, “Concepts of Landscape in the Writing of Hilda Doolittle”
  • April Ledbetter, “Make Your Own Myth: identity in Harry Potter costume play”
  • Mark Schenk, “Folded Textural Sheets—from Origami to Concrete Formwork”
  • Simon Byrne, “Graphical Methods”
  • Alison McDougall-Weir, “‘What Do Scientists Do All Day?’: Architectural Intent and User Experience in the Architecture of Science”

Session 2

  • Peter Riley, “Walt Whitman and Real Estate”
  • Robin McCaig, “Debunkin’ Dönitz: what the Nuremburg Trial really said about submarine warfare”
  • James Blackstone, “‘Reds under Beds’ Revisited: the McCarthyite Right and US Foreign Policy, 1950-1954”
  • Rebecca Voorhees, “Crystallographic Study of the Ribosome: quality control in protein synthesis”
  • Jutta Wellmann, “Can Mechanical Forces Regulate Cell Adhesion?”
  • Matt Cliffe, “How to INVERT Data and Structure: structure determionation of disordered materials from diffraction detail”

Keynote Speech

Session 3

  • Rebecca Bradshaw, “The Creation and Evolution of Royal Iconography as seen in the Bett al-Wali Temple, Egypt”
  • Jared James Eddy, “The Roman Disease Pthisis and Modern Pulmonary Tuberculosis”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “What’s in an Ethnonym? Arabic-named Christians on the Frontier of Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Gary McDowell, “Frogs, Mice, Zombies? Making Proteins Stable in the Quest for Brains”
  • Madzia Kowalski, “A Glimpse into Translational Ovarian Cancer Research: is AMD3100 a potential therapy?”
  • Scott Newman, “Evolving Genomes in Breast Cancer”

Session 4

  • M. Tamaruya, “Sue You in America or in England?”
  • Teale Phelps Bondaroff, “Prime-Time Campaigning: the media capture strategy of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
  • Peter Dixon, “Barriers to Cooperation in Civil War Interventions, or, Why Can’t They Get On?”
  • Susanne Schweizer, “Gaining Control: from cognitive to affective control”
  • Sinead English, “Measuring Growth Rates in Wild Meerkats”
  • Merlin Sheldrake, “Horticulture-Vultures”

Now, one can immediately tell from this that Clare’s investment in the natural sciences and medicine is pretty high, but they had made a valiant effort to balance arts and sciences, or at least humanities and sciences, and also to make everyone talk to the others. So each of these papers except for the keynote was a ten-minute presentation with as few difficult words in as possible, and as a result I think everyone learnt a lot about others’ fields. This is good. The keynote, also, I think, did a very good job of introducing the non-historians in the audience, of whom there were many, to some of the basic problems of agency that we face in thinking about the past: does society shape individuals or vice versa and, in this particular case, how individual and undetermined is genius? I think the scientists would rather have seen experiments devised to test this than an account of the past couple of centuries’ thinking about it, since as we have said here before there are no authorities any more, but it was still a sweeping address that reached people at several levels.

The Riley Auditorium in the Gillespie Centre, Clare College, Cambridge

The Riley Auditorium in the Gillespie Centre, where the Symposium was held

Particular note should also go to: April Ledbetter’s paper, which was one of the braver pieces of academic presentation I’ve seen; to Simon Byrne’s albeit mainly because if I’d seen his paper before I’d written this post the post would have been far far more useful; Peter Riley for sheer passion; Jared James Eddy for having correctly gauged the audience and pitched a historical paper with a heavy bio-medical angle to it; me, I think, for managing to keep to a ten-minute slot when presenting material about which I have before gone on for an hour; and Scott Newman for the line, “Now, you may be thinking that’s an unusually good-looking genome, and you’d be right because it’s mine.” Also, his paper was the one that I was most struck by, because firstly he had some very clear graphs of the messed-up spliced and interspliced genome of a breast cancer cell, which brought home to me what I had not before realised, that in many terms cancer is actually a different organism from its host, and secondly because he seemed excitingly close to having pinned down at least one cause of breast cancer. But it was all interesting and it was great to take part on at least notionally equal terms. Now some of these people are saving lives and some of them are trying to end wars or build laboratories for the ages, and even among the humanities some are trying to change the way we read books and poems enjoyed by millions, so I’ve no illusion about the actual importance of a project I don’t have the backing to do against all this, but all the same, it makes one feel like a scholar to stand up and join in the discourse like this.

8 responses to “Trying to cure cancer while some bloke goes on about Arabs

  1. You make us all want to be there to hear these papers. This is research and a scholarly community in the best sense.

  2. I hope you gave Robin McCaig a good old glare for that title.

    • I waited until chucking-out at the pub that he, I and others went to afterwards for him to show any kind of shame or remorse but I’m sorry to report it didn’t occur. Historians eh? what can you do, etc.

  3. If we’re talking titles, my stand-out would have to be: “Frogs, Mice, Zombies? Making Proteins Stable in the Quest for Brains”
    Now that’s a paper I want to hear!

    • Yeah, sadly the zombies were basically confined to the title there…

      It was one of the strange things for me, the only real instance of the ‘two cultures’ thing, that a great many of the science papers took animal experimentation, including genetic hybridization, as such a given that it didn’t even need excusing. Which, I realise, it is, that far into the business. But it’s not from the arts side; however justifiable it may be, there’s a justification to make. The paper that was most sensitive to this issue was the one on meerkats, where they had made some effort to assure themselves as well as the audience that they weren’t messing the creatures up; but then, if they had been, it would have invalidated their results…

  4. OK, I’ll bite. ‘Merlin Sheldrake’ on ‘Horticulture-Vultures’. That’s the one you’re making up to check if we’re reading the post thoroughly, aren’t you? Arthuriana meets morphic resonance. If not, what was that one all about?

    • If you don’t believe me, you can try and decide whether I was also able to hack the symposium webpages… But I see your point, and I had trouble believing in him myself. The paper was about the Clare College Student Garden Society or some similar concatenation of those words, and was mainly a publicity piece. That said, however, I can’t actually find any obvious trace of that on either college or college union websites, so I can’t rule out that he may have made himself up…

  5. Pingback: Expressions of Hispanist medevalist community, in Exeter | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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