Celebrating 50 Years of JAS-Bio

This past weekend in New Haven, Yale hosted the 50th annual Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology, known colloquially as JAS-Bio. Since 1965, the seminar has been hosted by institutions up and down the Eastern seaboard. JAS-Bio is a unique setting where historians of biology at all stages of their careers can meet and interact. While all the papers are given by graduate students, the audience is a great mix of senior faculty, early career scholars, and graduate students from many different institutions. This makes JAS-Bio an ideal venue for graduate students to receive feedback on their research, both from their peers and from more established scholars.

Polly Winsor, the esteemed historian of biology, published a short history of the seminar in Isis in 1999. Winsor describes the seminar as a small, friendly, and supportive environment in which students could “try their wings in circumstances less daunting than the annual meeting of HSS.” This year’s meeting was no exception. After each paper, the audience of over fifty people had an abundance of friendly feedback for the speakers. There were so many questions, in fact, that some session chairs had to forbid speakers from responding in order to collect all of the comments. The intellectual exchange didn’t stop there. At coffee breaks, meals, and receptions, I heard speakers field questions about their talks and discuss their larger research projects (including one lively conversation that carried on well after midnight). As compared to larger national meetings, there really is something unique about the type of intellectual engagement that happens at JAS-Bio. The seminar provides the time and space for extended conversation that can get drowned out in a larger conference setting. The regular attendees also take the seminar’s tradition of supporting graduate students very seriously, and it shows.

Reminiscing about fifty years of JAS-Bio. Photo Credit: Daniel Liu.

On Saturday, ten talks were delivered by students from Johns Hopkins, Yale, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, UW Madison, Brown, and Princeton (check out the program here). The papers covered everything from the biochemistry of the cell membrane (Daniel Liu, UW Madison) to the economics of goldfish breeding (Laurel Waycott, Yale). I learned why the disappearing pinky toe has become a ubiquitous symbol of human evolution (Emily Kern, Princeton) and how the discovery of echolocation grew out of military research on sonar and radar during WWII (Richard Nash, Johns Hopkins). I would say there was an even split between intellectual history and social/cultural history, with some speakers dabbling in intellectual frameworks such as disability studies and the history of capitalism. What struck me was not only the high quality of all of the papers, but also the growing awareness among graduate students about what makes a good presentation. Shira Shmuely (MIT), for example, took advantage of Powerpoint to show off her amazing archival find: handwritten laboratory inspection notebooks from late Victorian Britain. Speakers also shared a lot of jokes and light-hearted anecdotes, which was fitting given the relaxed tone of the meeting (also, I just really enjoy puns).

My favorite part of the day was the final session. Henry Cowles, AmericanScience alum and co-organizer of the conference, invited audience members up by “cohort” (the year they first attended the meeting) to reminisce and reflect on their experience. Over the next hour, audience members sketched out an informal history of the seminar and, in the process, the history of the discipline. Three members of the audience – Everett Mendelesohn, Garland Allen, and Ruth Cowan – had attended the original 1965 meeting at Yale. They recalled the department’s hospitality as well as the intellectual generosity of the original gathering. Research in the conference archive (held at the Smithsonian) revealed that two of the graduate students originally slated to give papers that day were unable to do so when time for discussion ran short. They were apparently quite relieved, however, as they had been roped into giving talks by their advisor and didn’t actually have anything prepared!

In her history, Winsor highlights the role of JAS-Bio as a “training ground” for young scholars giving their first academic paper. The tradition continued at this year’s seminar. The program included four first-year graduate students and one incredibly impressive undergraduate (Eliza Cohen, Brown). Indeed, the list of scholars who gave their first academic paper at JAS-Bio is impressive: Ruth Cowan, Gar Allen, Steven Shapin, Bernie Lightman, Rob Koehler, Jane Maienschein, John Harley Warner, Janet Brown, and  Jim Secord, among many others. In reminiscing, these scholars recalled the nerve-wracking experience of delivering their first papers (tenured professors – they’re just like us!). Bernie Lightman was afraid that his mother (in attendance) was going embarrass him by asking a question; John Harley Warner was worried that the smart British girl who presented before him would make him look bad (it was Janet Browne). Pam Henson, scheduled to present her first paper after taking three days of oral exams, tried to escape the lecture hall (but was dragged back in by one of her professors).

Leonard Wilson was the co-founder of JAS-Bio (along with Frederic Holmes). Reflecting on the seminar’s history in 1999, he said: “Clearly the Joint Atlantic Seminar filled a need, unexpected but real, that was not met by national meetings. It was the need of students working in relative isolation to talk about their work, to meet others engaged in similar problems, and to exchange ideas and information. When Frederic Holmes and I were planning the first Joint Atlantic Seminar, we thought that if it were not a good idea, the meeting simply need not be repeated. So far it has been worth repeating.”

This exercise in collective memory also turned up a host of other entertaining anecdotes. When Stony Brook hosted JAS-Bio in 1994, James Watson was invited to give short opening remarks, which ballooned into a forty-minute lecture on the history of biology. As Nathaniel Comfort recalled, Watson’s speech was “interesting to [historians of biology] in ways that he could not even imagine.” Sharon Kingsland described eleven-hour drives from Toronto and groups of graduate students lounging around the seminar room listening to Janis Joplin (before getting busted by their advisors). In 2009, graduate students had to work together to help a fellow speaker who locked himself out of his room wearing only a towel (while his clothes and talk remained inside). At the very end of the day, Luis Campos opened a package containing the very first advance copy of his book, fresh from the publisher. Luis explained that he wanted to share the accomplishment with his JAS-Bio family, who had been there since the beginning of the project. Put together, all of these anecdotes demonstrate the role that JAS-Bio has played not just intellectually, but socially, in the creation of a history of biology community. I can attest to the fact that the meetings are a great venue for forging friendships across institutions. This is true not only of JAS-Bio but its many siblings, including the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Medicine (JAS-Med), the Midwest Junto for the History of Science, and Phun-Day (the Harvard-Princeton-MIT History of Physical Sciences Workshop).

With so much reflection on JAS-Bio’s history, we weren’t left with much time to reflect on its future. Upon studying the list of this year’s participants and their first JAS-Bio appearances, one scholar noted that there was a conspicuous gap between 1965 and 1978. What happened to the scholars who had first presented during those years? Someone suggested that the gap could be explained by the dismal job market during that time, a comment that was not lost on current graduate students facing our own job market crisis. As more historians of biology find employment outside of the academy, or forge hybrid careers, JAS-Bio has the potential to bridge the academic/non-academic divide by bringing together the largest possible number of historians of biology (regardless of academic appointment) at least once a year. And while I don’t pretend to know which new framework will preoccupy us ten, twenty, or thirty years down the line (if I did, I would write a book about it!), this year’s papers indicate that graduate students are not afraid to push the discipline in exciting new directions. Here’s to another fifty years of fun, friendship, and exciting ideas in the history of biology.

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