Residency in Jill’s Lab

At the end of the semester, I met with Jill again to ask how I could continue to work with her. Coming from a fairly traditional philosophical background in terms of research-relationship structures, the only way I had interacted with professors outside the classroom was in one-on-one meetings, in reading groups, and at talks and conferences. Coming from a fairly traditional scientific background, Jill’s go-to answer was to have me come sit in on research meetings with her lab, a group comprised of 2-4 undergraduates, 4-8 graduate students, and 1-2 postdoctoral students, which met weekly to discuss progress on the lab’s various research projects and hear an extended presentation from one member. Presentations were assigned on a rotating basis, and Jill added me to the rotation. It would never have occurred to me that this would be a way of engaging with scientists, and it quickly became a formative experience.

There is no generalizable lesson here for my role in this development other than that sometimes you can get really lucky, but it is worth mentioning that if you can get yourself embedded in a research lab, you should. In addition to attending weekly meetings, I was invited to open house events and added to the lab calendar and email list. I learned who worked where in the lab and came to know what the various instruments did. I was eventually given the keycode to work in the offices. After a while, I was listed on the lab website as their “Resident Philosopher.”

Participating in the life of the lab changed the way I thought about the reasoning processes behind scientific research. It allowed me to witness the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research in a way that no amount of reading about the social construction of scientific knowledge, or reading published scientific papers, could. It gave me immediate access to expert assistance in understanding the details of experimental setups and characterization techniques, significantly decreasing the amount of time it took me to get up to speed on the mechanics of a piece of theory or experiment. Most importantly, though, it let me see how much science doesn’t get published: not only the failed experiments, but the figures that are painstakingly drawn and then discarded when they don’t land with the lab audience, the follow-up trials to confirm or disconfirm a suspicion about a particular synthetic pathway, the spirited debates about what theoretical model best captures and explains an observed pattern, and even the semantic questions about how to name a new nanoscale architecture. These are all topics that are the subjects of papers and research programs in STS disciplines, but no amount of reading even detailed descriptions of the activity behind a publication can substitute for witnessing and participating in it. My research is not about the activity of laboratory life; it is about scientific reasoning. However, I could not write about scientific reasoning the way I do without having spent years witnessing it in action.

My first few times at lab meetings I acted as a non-participant observer, taking careful notes not only about the content of the presentations but about the way members of the lab interacted and how they approached their research questions. This was not a fruitful approach, for two reasons. First, I did not have the social science background to enact this observation in a systematic or insightful way and, second, I did not have the chemical background to follow many of the discussions in the lab meetings.

Realizing this, I changed tactics and, like the philosophers of old, started asking questions. I asked clarification questions about the mechanics of instruments and experimental protocols. I asked why a particular result led to the need for further experiment. I asked what parts of a diagram were to scale, and what parts were merely schematic. The collaborative, constructive atmosphere of the lab meetings boosted my confidence to ask varieties of questions that I could not have had answered by the publication record, and the ability to seek answers to these questions generated unique insights into the nature of scientific reasoning.

Most of my questions centered on the assumptions and inferences behind a particular piece of scientific reasoning, or about why a researcher was thinking about a problem in a particular way. These became known in the lab as “Julia questions,” and other members of the group started asking them as well. These kinds of questions became a hallmark of my collaboration with the lab. They led to a number of the research projects in my dissertation, as well as to short essays in scientific journals and refinements in experimental protocols. I still recall fondly the day about three years into the collaboration when, during a lab meeting, one student asked another a question about how to understand part of a diagram. I couldn’t help but feel proud when the student’s response began, “That seems like an epistemological issue.”

While it was never our primary intent, these questions occasionally contributed to experimental design. The biggest tangible contribution I made to the advance of a particular experiment came from a relatively innocuous question about how the experimenter was thinking about the material he was trying to make. A graduate student was building an experiment to test some of the mechanical properties of silver nanorods, that is, how they respond to stresses and strains. He had developed a complex protocol to enact the test, and during a lab meeting presentation, he reported some difficulty in determining the force needed to bend a rod. While other members of the lab were asking questions and offering suggestions about changing the protocol, I asked about how the student was modeling the mechanical forces in the experiment: what theories or material parameters he was relying on in order to determine the threshold forces that he needed to get out of the chemical interactions between the coatings. In particular, I was interested in what I saw as a mismatch between two pieces of the experiment. The student was drawing from two competing theories of matter—continuum and molecular mechanics—to develop the protocol, and it turned out that this was affecting his ability to construct a model for measuring the bend of the rod.

The effectiveness of continuum mechanics is a particularly thorny problem for philosophers of the physical sciences, and the problem had never seemed so vivid as it did here in the middle of a lab meeting, when a totally new material was being developed and modeled by a continuum mechanical model—and it wasn’t behaving the way the theories said it should. This problem became a preoccupation of my research, even as it changed the direction of the experiment. The question I posed to the student was about whether continuum mechanics even applied to the nanorods in this experiment. My concern was that, because continuum mechanics assumes uniform bulk behavior and ignores surface interactions, and because the nanorods’ behavior was, like many nanomaterials, disproportionately influenced by the behavior of its surfaces, the theory would fail to describe the predominant behavior of the nanorods. This question reframed the entire experiment and forced a re-evaluation of the whole protocol. Here, it turned out, was philosophy of science having an immediate and tangible impact on a particular piece of research, above and beyond affecting the general tenor of discussions in the lab.

Like a lot of real science, too, the next chapter in the experiment’s history was something other than a celebratory triumph that ended with a high-profile publication and a revolution in research: while the reformulation helped to advance the experiment, the protocol still did not produce a reliable bend in the rods that reached Jill’s standards for publication. Additional external pressures affected the student’s research activity and the experiment continues to lie “dormant,” to use Jill’s word, until the right student or the right funding or the right theoretical motivation arises to pursue the protocol further. In this respect, the situation is not so different from philosophy, when articles can sit in tucked-away folders for years, awaiting reduced teaching loads, the right publication venue, or the missing piece of an argument.

An important upshot of this story is that, because the experiment never made its way into the publication record, I would not have encountered it if the publication record were my only access to scientific research. This experiment has become something of a touchstone for me, because in it are three of the central tenets of my research: that the materially different role of surfaces in nanomaterials impacts how we characterize, understand, explain, and manipulate those materials; that scale plays an explanatory role in the properties and behaviors of nanomaterials; and that constructing theories in philosophy of science using primarily well-tested and successful pieces of science (described after the fact in the publication record) has led to a variety of oversights among philosophers about the nature of scientific reasoning. For present purposes, this story is evidence of the unique benefits conferred by a field philosophy approach.

Likewise, even though it never made it to publication, this experiment is an instance of philosophy of science materially impacting the course of scientific research. My question led the experimenter to change his plans for refining the experiment by revealing an avenue of investigation that the rest of the lab had not considered. Jill and I have talked about this incident a number of times and she believes—and I am inclined to agree—that the lab would likely have reached a similar place of revisiting the computations that led to the protocol’s specifics even if I had not been in the room, but that it would not have originated from an epistemic concern about the exportation of information between atomic and continuum theories. Chemists use mismatched theories all the time because it works; telling the story of why it works is a job for philosophers. In this case, though, the assumption that it would work broke down because of the scale of the materials in the experiment, which generated puzzles for myself and the chemists that have since impacted the shape of both our research programs.

During my residency in Jill’s lab, the nanomechanics experiment was the most poignant moment of philosophical questions impacting both scientific and philosophical research. However, plenty of other questions, both philosophical and scientific, impacted both our research programs from that time. I was frequently surprised which of my questions were interesting to the lab members. This feedback had a significant impact on the kind of researcher I became and the kinds of philosophical problems I wanted to answer. It also shaped the way I think about what the relationships between philosophy and science, and between philosophers of science and scientists, should be.

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