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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Celia Lowe
HUM 597
Seattle Campus

Special Topics in the Humanities

Credit/no-credit only.

Class description

Synthetic Biology in Question

Course Meeting Dates and Times: Monday, Oct 29, 9:30-11:20 am, CMU 202 Monday, Nov 5, 9:30-11:20 am, CMU 202 Tuesday, Nov 13, 9:00-6:00 pm, CMU 202 [Synthetic Biology Conference]* Wednesday, Nov 14, 9:00 am-1:00 pm, CMU 202 [Synthetic Biology Conference]* Monday, Nov 19 9:30-11:20 am, CMU 202

*Conference times subject ot change.

Designed for graduate students across the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and professions, this course aims to prepare students to engage with and reflect on a two-day conference on “Synthetic Biology in Question,” to be held at the Simpson Center for the Humanities on November 13 and 14, 2012.

Over the last decade, engineers, social scientists, funders and the media have established synthetic biology as a prominent new brand of bio-engineering, one promising the routinized and standardized engineering of living systems. The brand’s success has turned on its claims to technical novelty and a re-imagined future of health, wealth and security, as well as the fact that proponents offer a unified story to justify and draw together divergent research programs—from the modularization of genetic circuits to the production of biofuels. Crucially, synthetic biology’s rise to prominence has been facilitated by the sustained engagement of scholars from the human and social sciences, who have helped make talk of ethics, openness, and security part of synthetic biology’s self-definition.

This micro-seminar will examine synthetic biology's rise to prominence, and pose the question of the extent to which synthetic biology may be exemplary of the dynamics of new engineering and scientific subfields as well as the political, ethical and cultural conditions of their rise and stabilization. It will examine the ways in which social scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and others have involved themselves in synthetic biology's formation, and raise the question of the ethics of such attempts at collaboration.

“Synthetic Biology in Question” is part of Biological Futures in a Globalized World , a jointly sponsored project of the University of Washington and the Center for Biological Futures at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Student learning goals

1) To prepare students for active informed engagement in “Synthetic Biology in Question” conference;

2) To take stock of the history, ethics, and politics of the synthetic biology, including descriptions of how anthropologists, philosophers and others have engaged practitioners and research communities;

3) To appraise the combination of discursive framing, funding, politics, and engineering work that has taken form as synthetic biology, and assess its possible futures;

4) To identify key concepts, and research questions informing future work with new initiatives in science and engineering.

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

Students will be asked to participate in an active e-post discussion board. They will be asked to come to class prepared to discuss readings. In addition they will prepare a response to the conference for the final class.

Students will be graded credit/no credit. They will receive credit for active participation in all components of the course.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Miriam Bartha
Date: 08/08/2012