Laura Otis, English, History of Science

 


Laura Otis is fascinated with science and passionate about literature. But it is the intertwining of the two that commands her greatest interest and attention. Relationships—between science and literature, biological elements and people, people and animals, academic departments and disciplines—are at the core of Otis's opus. In the many different facets of her work, this scholar is repeatedly driven to explore the connection between something...and something else.

Professor of English with an affiliation to the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, Otis earned her B.S. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale; her M.A. in neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco; and her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell. In 2000 she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her innovative work integrating science and literature. In 2007 Otis published Müller's Lab, which describes the complex relationships between Johannes Müller, a German physiologist and anatomist, and seven students who worked with him during the mid-nineteenth century. In researching Müller, Otis found that people's accounts of the scientist varied widely—making it difficult to understand what kind of person he truly was. Motivated by her diverse interests, Otis set out to tell a multi-perspective story about Müller and his students. Her book provides a unique history of science that traces the lives and interactions of eight intriguing individuals.

Like Müller's Lab, Otis's most recent article dissects an intricate relationship. In this case, however, the interaction takes place between the body and culture. Otis argues that, while some aspects of the body are innate, others shape the way we think about our bodies and function in society. For instance, the phrase "I see" is used to indicate that an object is within one's path of sight; but it is also a way of expressing comprehension (i.e., "I understand"). Another example? "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach" can be found in multiple languages, including English, German, and Chinese. Interested in how the body is incorporated into such adages, Otis sponsored an international context to find maxims that use bodily references. Her favorite, and the winner of the contest, was "What louse has crawled over your liver today?" Translation: "What's your problem?!"

Fortunately, Otis's liver is louse-free; and she's head over heels about several future projects, including a study of visual and verbal thinking. Through her role as an educator, Otis has found that individuals' thought processes tend to rely on some combination of pictures and words. However, students who think in words are often valued over those who think in images. Otis's goal is to incorporate research from the areas of cognitive psychology, philosophy, and literary theory in order to better understand the importance of images in thought formation. Using an interdisciplinary approach to promote open dialogue is particularly important to her. She explains, "One of my missions in life is to try to bring science and literature and other fields in the humanities closer together, to show that people thinking and asking questions in those fields do have common goals…I don't want people who are trying to learn things to be alienated from each other, to feel that they're against each other somehow."

A second project that Otis hopes to tackle involves storytelling and scientific discovery narratives. According to Otis, scientific myths about major discoveries abound; but many are tall tales that "improve upon" reality for the sake of a better story. Otis gives the example of Friedrich August Kekulé, a German chemist who claimed to have discovered the structure of benzene after a vivid dream. In Kekulé's dream, says Otis, "the atoms were whirling around and then they turned into a snake, and then the snake bit its own tail, and it was a ring." Kekulé consequently divined that the benzene structure must be a ring. Otis is planning a book that explores specific scientific discoveries, including Kekulé's benzene breakthrough. Looking to history, she will examine the conditions under which discoveries were made, in an attempt to separate fact from fiction and reveal the true story behind each innovation.

In her teaching, as in her research, Otis strives to integrate science and literature. She is enthusiastic about working with students, and considers Emory's undergraduates to be particularly bright, creative, and motivated. She comments, "They really want to learn as much as possible about everything and put it to work in whatever they're going to be doing." In the classroom, Otis is passionate about exploring relationships between different subjects. Her favorite courses focus on science and medicine, as well as science and literature in nineteenth-century classic books. She is also developing the curriculum for a new freshman seminar, which will compare North and South American literature. For Otis, working with first year students is particularly rewarding: "Freshmen are wonderful to teach, they're totally enthusiastic, totally hard working. They'll challenge you, but they're open to everything."

Over the last year, Otis has worked as a visiting scholar in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She will return to Emory in Fall 2008 and is looking forward to it. "The really great thing about working at Emory is that I'm back in touch with scientists, and it's so easy here to communicate with people in other departments," she says. She enjoys working with faculty from different programs, and appreciates the ease with which she is able to do so in this context. In fact, one might say that Otis has found her stride at Emory. And, of course, she's putting her best foot forward.