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Lecture links biotechnology to capitalism

The talk by Hallam Stevens is the second in a series engaging science with capitalist concepts

Understanding biotechnology is impossible without considering capitalism, said Hallam Stevens, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, during a lecture Wednesday night.

A small group of students and faculty members gathered in Barus and Holley 190 to hear his talk, part of the Science and Capitalism speaker series sponsored by the Program in Science and Technology Studies.

During the lecture, Stevens drew from his book on bioinformatics — the use of computer science tools to analyze biological data — published two weeks ago.

Stevens explored the development of bioinformatics and its relationship with computers, focusing on the story of Intelligenetics, a start-up company founded by Stanford University researchers. Intelligenetics created software for computing nucleotide sequences of DNA that helped biologists plan experiments, increasing their productivity.

Since computers started as business machines primarily used to track accounts and payroll, some capitalist concepts — such as productivity and acceleration — carried over when computers were applied to biology, Stevens said.

Almost all the students and faculty members who attended the event asked Stevens questions, engaging in a conversation that lasted almost as long as the lecture itself.

Facilitating such discussions is one of the lecture series’ primary goals, said Assistant Professor of History Lukas Rieppel, who organized the series. “It’s a way to bring different people from campus into a shared conversation around ideas that a lot of people are interested in,” he added.

“Now I have something to talk to my sister about over Thanksgiving,” Rachel Knecht GS told The Herald after the lecture. “She’s studying biophysics and I’m a historian — sometimes I feel like we are speaking different languages.”

Rieppel said he organized the series after arriving on campus this fall. He is currently working on a book that uses dinosaurs as a tool to talk about the cultural history of capitalism, an expansion of his dissertation, he added.

The lecture series will bring in three more speakers next semester who will engage with a range of topics that fit with the science and capitalism theme, Rieppel said.

He said he believes the intersection of science and capitalism is an important area to study because it offers a different perspective on the economy that goes beyond the theories people usually use to describe it, such as supply and demand, he said. Taking into account that “science is shaped by cultural forces” gives new insight, Rieppel said.

The study of science and capitalism is also applicable to current times because “so much of modern capitalism is dependent on science (and) technical innovation,” Rieppel said, adding that he believes the field has become especially popular in the past five years because of the financial crisis.

“Once the system stops working, you realize it’s there,” Rieppel said. “It’s like your body ­— when something doesn’t work, you become very aware of everything.”


Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article's summary deck incorrectly stated that Nanyang Technological University Assistant Professor Hallam Stevens’ talk was the first in the Science and Capitalism speaker series sponsored by the Program in Science and Technology Studies. In fact, his talk was the second in the series. The Herald regrets the error.


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