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Transplant Imaginary: Prof. Lesley Sharp explores moral thinking in experimental science

Prof. Lesley Sharp, Barnard’s Ann Whitney Olin Professor in Anthropology, has published a new book, The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science, an ethnographic study of the future possibilities in organ transplantation that explores a range of ethical conundrums that scientists face in their day-to-day work in their laboratories.

Additionally, Prof. Sharp has been chosen to deliver the Distinguished Lecture in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. Her talk, “The Totemic Rat: Thinking Through Human-Animal Relations in Experimental Laboratory Science,” will expand on the topics addressed in her book.

This public lecture is taking place on December 18, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. in the Linder Theater. Attendees can use the West 77th Street entrance to AMNH, located between Central Park West and Columbus Ave.

How did this book come about? Can you talk about your research process?
For over fifteen years, my research focused on organ transplantation in the United States—specifically, how specialists oversee the ways that transplantation is portrayed to the public, and how non-surgeons think about the consequences of taking parts from the deceased. In the course of that research, I encountered a very complicated moral terrain in terms of how organ donors are described and discussed. For example, references to death and cadavers are taboo. Instead, you should celebrate the life and experience of the person receiving a transplant, not the donor’s life. But, at the same time, I’ve observed increasing anxiety over the shortage of human organs and expanding waiting lists, where supply cannot meet demand. When I finished my previous book about transplants, Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self, I wanted to continue with this area of research but found myself experiencing a form of research fatigue—there are a lot of heartbreaking situations: children as donors, many of whom are victims of gun violence. I started to think that maybe I should look at the future of organ transplants, and the ways that scientists hope to eliminate our dependence on using human parts.

In my most recent book, I decided to focus on two areas of transplantation: xenotransplanation, which involves transferring animal parts to human beings, and biomechanical engineering, involving the design of a range of “artificial” or mechanical organs. As I delved into these alternative realms, I became fascinated by the “what if” quality of the research, and the ways that scientists imagine the potential promises of their work. And I became increasingly interested in how their moral imaginings strayed from the codified, regulatory, bioethical frameworks that guide research efforts. This book is very much an exploration of the moral domains that scientists navigate as they think about highly experimental work outside formalized frameworks and within the context of their day-to-day lives.

Can you talk about the concept behind the book’s title, The Transplant Imaginary?
The idea of “imaginaries” has captivated social scientists for quite a while. My approach is deeply inspired by Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, who wrote an essay on the medical imaginary over a decade ago. Her work addressed contexts within oncology where end-stage patients participated in highly experimental treatments that might offer them a bit more time, but that ultimately might benefit other people. My book takes this same idea, and shifts it to another domain of highly experimental work, where scientists imagine the possibility of remaking the human body into a more perfect form.

In transplantation, like many areas of research, scientists have to think in very structured ways about what is ethical—how to do no harm, what is in compliance with federal law or university policies. But what interests me is, how do they think about their work when they go home at the end of the day? What ideas do they talk about informally with their colleagues, families, and friends? In science, I’ve seen that the more experimental the domain, the more lively the moral debates and ideas and considerations and quandaries.

Are there any particularly surprising anecdotes or trends that you discovered in your research?
I was shocked to learn about device autopsies. Engineers talk all the time about autopsies, but it’s not an autopsy on the human being—it’s an autopsy on the device. That kind of language surprised me. When a patient agrees to be implanted with a long-term device, they sign a release agreeing that the device will be returned to the manufacturer.  There were times at scientific conferences—which are absolutely wonderful venues for doing research—when I would observe presentations on device autopsies where I had known the patient, which was quite upsetting. In experimental work, though, scientists might have little or no contact with the patient—which ultimately can allow them to be more detached from the human subject, and as a result be more imaginative about the promises of their work.

Another thing that surprised me was the affinity that human beings have for the animals with which they work. Some wonderful and wacky things go on in laboratory research, in terms of the fondness that scientists feel for certain animals. There are a lot of regulations about what’s allowed with regard to apes and monkeys, so researchers keep their distance from these creatures. But with pigs and xenotransplant research it’s a different story. I’ve sat through countless presentations where pigs are featured in PowerPoint presentations, with slides of researchers posing with pigs; in one instance a pig was peeking over the back of a couch.  Bioengineers work with calves, and they keep track of their own history through stories of research calves’ lives—many researchers can name the most famous calves and the devices implanted within them, alongside the names of important researchers.  I think of these as “calf genealogies.” You can interpret this on many levels—it could mark efforts to process the guilt they feel about what they’re doing to these animals. Maybe it is driven, too, by American understanding of farm animals as utilitarian creatures. There’s also the fact that the researchers are not necessarily the same people who are responsible for the care of these animals day in and day out, and they’re often not the ones who have to put the animals down—there’s a complicated network of people involved in their care, and their experiences inspire different understandings of animals in laboratories.

How did the process of writing this book influence the way you’re approaching these subjects in your teaching?
I have the luxury of teaching students at all levels, but when I have an idea I want to try out, I give it to my undergraduates. They help me think my way through my work. In the last two semesters, I’ve created two new classes:  “The Absent Body” and “The Medical Imaginary,” both of which evolved from support from both a Barnard Presidential Research Award and a Tow Family Award for Innovative and Outstanding Pedagogy. In both classes, I’ve given the students materials that I’m trying to think my way through. They’re fantastic. Undergrads are very creative thinkers. They read really carefully, and they think about the theories they’re learning in very different and creative ways. They can make wonderful connections that I may not see. Also, I’ve always worked with undergraduate research assistants, and they’re not just entering data—they are conducting interviews and doing research in the field. I tell them that the data we gather belong to them as well, always with the hope that it might turn into a senior thesis, which it often does. It’s very satisfying to see a student’s work blossom into meaningful research of their own.

On December 18, you will be delivering the Distinguished Lecture in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. What will be the focus of your talk?
The world of laboratory animals is fascinating, and in this lecture I plan to focus on the humans that inhabit this world: the researchers, the veterinarians, the lab technicians, and other people who deal with lab animals in various capacities. Regulatory frameworks would suggest that these people are supposed to think of the animals in generic terms, but in reality, they personalize or render the animals singular in all kinds of ways. There are naming practices, rituals when the animals die, instances of rescuing animals from labs—these are patterns I’ve seen in lab after lab. Anthropologically, there’s something very interesting about the ways that humans are inclined to express a sense of kinship with these animals. They are not pets, or livestock, but they are very specialized creatures. It’s human to name animals, and it is also human to face nagging questions about the fear of doing harm to them, and thus the morality of this kind of work.