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Using a computational approach to study the history of systems biology: from systems to biology, 1992-2013

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Systems biology studies complex biological systems. It is an interdisciplinary field, with biologists working with non-biologists such as computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and mathematicians to address research problems applying systems’

Systems biology studies complex biological systems. It is an interdisciplinary field, with biologists working with non-biologists such as computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and mathematicians to address research problems applying systems’ perspectives. How these different researchers and their disciplines differently contributed to the advancement of this field over time is a question worth examining. Did systems biology become a systems-oriented science or a biology-oriented science from 1992 to 2013?

This project utilized computational tools to analyze large data sets and interpreted the results from historical and philosophical perspectives. Tools deployed were derived from scientometrics, corpus linguistics, text-based analysis, network analysis, and GIS analysis to analyze more than 9000 articles (metadata and text) on systems biology. The application of these tools to a HPS project represents a novel approach.

The dissertation shows that systems biology has transitioned from a more mathematical, computational, and engineering-oriented discipline focusing on modeling to a more biology-oriented discipline that uses modeling as a means to address real biological problems. Also, the results show that bioengineering and medical research has increased within systems biology. This is reflected in the increase of the centrality of biology-related concepts such as cancer, over time. The dissertation also compares the development of systems biology in China with some other parts of the world, and reveals regional differences, such as a unique trajectory of systems biology in China related to a focus on traditional Chinese medicine.

This dissertation adds to the historiography of modern biology where few studies have focused on systems biology compared with the history of molecular biology and evolutionary biology.

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  • 2016

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Development, evolution, and teeth: how we came to explain the morphological evolution of the mammalian dentition

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This dissertation begins to lay out a small slice of the history of morphological research, and how it has changed, from the late 19th through the close of the 20th

This dissertation begins to lay out a small slice of the history of morphological research, and how it has changed, from the late 19th through the close of the 20th century. Investigators using different methods, addressing different questions, holding different assumptions, and coming from different research fields have pursued morphological research programs, i.e. research programs that explore the process of changing form. Subsequently, the way in which investigators have pursued and understood morphology has witnessed significant changes from the 19th century to modern day research. In order to trace this shifting history of morphology, I have selected a particular organ, teeth, and traced a tendril of research on the dentition beginning in the late 19th century and ending at the year 2000. But even focusing on teeth would be impossible; the scope of research on this organ is far too vast. Instead, I narrow this dissertation to investigation of research on a particular problem: explaining mammalian tooth morphology. How researchers have investigated mammalian tooth morphology and what counts as an explanation changed dramatically during this period.

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  • 2017

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The Carnegie Image Tube Committee and the Development of Electronic Imaging Devices in Astronomy, 1953-1976

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This dissertation examines the efforts of the Carnegie Image Tube Committee (CITC), a group created by Vannevar Bush and composed of astronomers and physicists, who sought to develop a photoelectric

This dissertation examines the efforts of the Carnegie Image Tube Committee (CITC), a group created by Vannevar Bush and composed of astronomers and physicists, who sought to develop a photoelectric imaging device, generally called an image tube, to aid astronomical observations. The Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism coordinated the CITC, but the committee included members from observatories and laboratories across the United States. The CITC, which operated from 1954 to 1976, sought to replace direct photography as the primary means of astronomical imaging.

Physicists, who gained training in electronics during World War II, led the early push for the development of image tubes in astronomy. Vannevar Bush’s concern for scientific prestige led him to form a committee to investigate image tube technology, and postwar federal funding for the sciences helped the CITC sustain development efforts for a decade. During those development years, the CITC acted as a mediator between the astronomical community and the image tube producers but failed to engage astronomers concerning various development paths, resulting in a user group without real buy-in on the final product.

After a decade of development efforts, the CITC designed an image tube, which Radio Corporation of American manufactured, and, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation, the committee distributed to observatories around the world. While excited about the potential of electronic imaging, few astronomers used the Carnegie-developed device regularly. Although the CITC’s efforts did not result in an overwhelming adoption of image tubes by the astronomical community, examining the design, funding, production, and marketing of the Carnegie image tube shows the many and varied processes through which astronomers have acquired new tools. Astronomers’ use of the Carnegie image tube to acquire useful scientific data illustrates factors that contribute to astronomers’ adoption or non-adoption of those new tools.

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  • 2019