Cousins Post 5: Specificity, Hierarchy, and a Laboratory’s Public Face

My presentation this week is going to focus mainly on science labs as potential models for DH labs in future construction / further development of the field. For my post this week I’d like to focus on something that I won’t get to talk about in  my presentation: How do labs present themselves to the public?
Latour and Woolgar’s study was meant to “penetrate the mystique of science” (18). While their account of the Salk Institute does go into a lot of depth, this is just one lab, and I’m still interested in what feels like high fence around actual scientific practice. When we talked about labs on Monday, we described them as “sterile” and “uninviting”, or didn’t have a universal image (I’m going to go into this aspect of perception in more detail in my presentation). But why do we (and I do mean those of us who don’t have lab experience) have these certain assumptions / visions if we haven’t actually been inside the fence? What versions of labs are presented to the public – for both science and DH?
This interest is partially sparked by my own trip to the NCAR lab (National Center for Atmospheric Research), which was also an education in how big labs are packaged for the public. While actual access to workspaces was barred by the usuall “Authorized Personnel Only” signs (and I can certainly see reasons for this), the contrast between the sections for visitors (interactive, museum like spaces with guided tours and informational videos) and the spaces for scientists (hidden behind doors; I didn’t actually see a single person except for one security guard) made me think about how labs (DH and scientific) present themselves. Yet there was plenty of stuff to do as a visitor if I were only looking to learn about the lab’s research, not how it is actually carried out. What was presented was the lab’s use,  its value to society and the importance of its contributions, as well as museum-like activities that dealt (on a much less complicated level) with the lab’s research. It was interesting to see this museum-like, visitor-oriented section, followed by no entry signs and yellow chains across hallways. The “mystery” of the lab isn’t the same as that described by Latour and Woolgar; the lab has a public face.
Interested in public faces, I started looking at “About” pages on both CU science labs and several DH labs. I used “worlde” to look at frequent language used (recognizing that its an oversimplification of how these labs describe themselves) – just to see if there was any difference in the ways that different types of labs present themselves on a basic words-used-to-public level. Please note this was a very unscientific endeavor! I was just curious, really.
The wordles did show some contrast, though, in specificity. The scientific wordles were so specific to each lab’s research that some of them were completely out of my realm of knowledge (which, yeah…isn’t exactly broad when it comes to science). For these labs, there didn’t seem to be any need to explain what they do on a large scale (their scientists, they discover things about the real world, and this is a given) but instead go into detail about specific research areas. In our reading this week the member of the Salk Institute were adamant that “the observer” understand the specificity of their work, as well as the importance of its specific content: neuroendocrinology. Here are some of the wordles:
Salk Institute
Van Blerkom
Perhaps because the discursive construct that is DH seems to put a lot of emphasis on collaboration, descriptions can often be vague–the inclusion of DH tools or digital subject matter is sometimes emphasized, as Kirschenbaum noted, over specific content (work, projects)–DH labs also had less specific language to describe their work, were less explicit about exact research and more vocal about the potentials and possibilities of collaboration and digital research in general.
HUM lab
Innovation studio
This was the slight difference: specificity. The second was the difference in names – which led to my own assumptions about hierarchies.
When I first looked at CU labs, I was struck by the fact (which would probably seem completely normal to anyone who has had science lab experience) that all the labs were named after their director. Occasionally, the research done in that lab was even described as “his” or “her” research:

The Old laboratory develops and utilizes advanced methods in mass spectrometry to study signaling networks that regulate cell growth, communication and migration in multicellular organisms, and to better understand how these networks become dysregulated and drive cancer.  Specifically, he uses biological mass spectrometry to study complex biological systems, with an emphasis on the role of metabolic and signaling networks in human disease. His lab is developing methods to map and integrate multi-omic datasets rapidly determine the mechanism by which drugs and genetic perturbations affect cellular behavior.

Because of that, and because of my own preconceptions about science labs as being hierarchical (this is also partly because of the Latour and Woolgar reading), I expected every lab “About” to look like this one:
 Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 4.19.40 PM
or this one:
 Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 4.16.23 PM
or this:
Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 4.19.14 PM
Purely a focus on the main researcher, complete with their photo, but with little about anyone else OR a sectioned list from top (director) to bottom (technicians and undergrads). Most of the lab info did look like this.
But I also found some like this:
Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 4.17.24 PM
This is the web page for the Espinosa lab at CU boulder – even just visually, it is present less as a hierarchy and more as a team of “we”.
When it came to Digital humanities labs, most profiles were either written collectively (without designation of roles) or had “about” pages like the espinosa lab above–less hierarchical, more visually egalitarian, like the one from HUMlab:
Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 5.28.42 PM
There were also some like this (
Research in Computing for Humanities
While I realize these are purely presentations and not necessarily representative of how real labs operate, it was interesting to me to have my expectations subverted when it came to a separation in technique between “the two cultures”. Yes, they are just websites – but I wonder if there is an extent to which how a lab presents itself to the public is indicative of the way it runs? Are scientific labs inherently more specific and more hierarchical than DH ones? Or is it more complicated than that?
All this being said, not a single DH lab was named after their director. The one with a slightly more “hierarchical” representation above is called the Collaboratory for Research in Computing for Humanities –collaboration is already implied in the name. Is DH trading specificity for egalitarianism / possibility? Does hierarchy aid in production / orientation?

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