Research

RESEARCH AREAS

PROJECTS

Current Book Project: American Tropics
Second Book Project: Marston Bates
Plants and their Collectors

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RESEARCH AREAS

History of biology, Environmental history, History of the field sciences, American science, Cultural and intellectual history, Science and technology studies, US history, History of the US and the world, Latin American and Caribbean history, US Western history, Nineteenth and twentieth centuries, history of tropical biology, history of tropical ecology, history of tropical research stations

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PROJECTS
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American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science.

“Biodiversity” has become a major organizing concept in biology and global conservation, yet our histories have paid little attention to the roots of the idea in early 20th-century tropical research. This book project traces the emergence of the field of tropical biology within the US scientific community and the role that long-term, place-based research played in shaping ideas about the diversity of the tropics. For researchers from the US, field stations enabled access to tropical organisms and environments while living in comfort, health, and safety. They also allowed a qualitatively different set of research practices. By facilitating the study of living tropical organisms in situ over long periods of time, stations opened up studies in ecology, physiology, and behavior in places where research based on preserved specimens had previously dominated. New approaches reoriented research toward the ecological and evolutionary causes of tropical species richness. In the process, biologists shifted from a language of tropicality, which framed species diversity as an exotic attribute of the tropics, to one of biodiversity, which cast it as a quantifiable global phenomenon. Thus, field research shaped ideas about tropical nature that would become the core of policies of both natural resource exploitation and conservation in the late 20th century.

Historians of science have devoted considerable attention to the role of US research stations in the emergence of the discipline of biology. By following American biology into the tropics, however, I raise important issues not confronted by the existing historiography, while also forging ties across the history of science and Latin American environmental history. In the 20th century, conducting fieldwork in the tropics necessarily entangled US biologists in the networks of empire––whether this meant working within European colonies or the growing avenues of US economic, political, and military influence in the Caribbean area. The connection of American science to colonial and neocolonial ventures is most obvious in the realm of tropical medicine and agriculture. Nevertheless, sites for basic ecological research also depended on the broader structures of US hegemony in the region. To achieve institutional stability, station founders and administrators had to maintain connections to streams of funding, transportation infrastructure, and sources of local labor. Most fundamentally, they had to ensure access to suitable land in the tropics. The stations I focus on, located in the Panama Canal Zone and on a Cuban sugar plantation, became the oldest US-run tropical stations not by “carving out” space for basic research, but by fostering connections to corporate and government interests. As scientists today grapple with the legacies of colonial science and struggle to maintain long-term research sites, a deeper understanding of the origins of tropical biology lends valuable historical perspective to the enduring North-South tensions inherent in international conservation today.

For a collection of online images related to my research:

Research completed at the following institutions:

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Marston Bates Biography
This second book project examines the changing role of science and environment in US relations with the Global South through the life of Marston Bates, from his early field work for the Rockefeller Foundation and United Fruit Company to his popular science and nature writing of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.”
Marston Bates, The Nature Of Natural History

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Plants and their Collectors:  A  Mapping Tool for the JSTOR Plants Database and the History of Botany

Cooperating with Frederick Gibbs of the George Mason University Center for History and New Media, Hanni Jalil and Gabriela Soto Laveaga of the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Gregg Mitman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I helped to design an interactive webtool to map historical plant type specimen collections from the JSTOR Plant Science database. I used the tool to interpret nineteenth- and twentieth-century botanical collections throughout the Caribbean region. We advised JSTOR on ways to make the Plant Science database more accessible for researchers in the humanities. This project was presented at the 4th Global Plants Initiative Meeting, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama City, Panama, January 10-14, 2011.

 

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