This essay examines the role of social interactions in the search for blood stem cells, in a recent episode of biomedical research. Linked to mid-20th century cell biology, genetics and radiation research, the search for blood stem cells coalesced in the 1960s and took a developmental turn in the late 1980s, with significant ramifications for immunology, stem cell and cancer biology. Like much contemporary biomedical research, this line of inquiry exhibits a complex social structure and includes several prominent scientific successes, recognized as such by participating researchers. I use personal interviews and the published record to trace the social interactions crucial for scientific success in this episode. All recognized successes in this episode have two aspects: improved models of blood cell development, and new interfaces with other lines of research. The narrative of the search for blood stem cells thus yields a robust account of scientific success in practice, which generalizes to other scientific episodes and lends itself to expansion to include wider social contexts.
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This study is in full compliance with the Bloomington Campus Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects (protocols 05-10426, 06-11106).
For more on robustness in this sense, see Gerson, 1998.
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This research was supported by Dissertation Year Fellowship from the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (2006–2007) and a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (SES-0620993). Guidance in sociological research methods was generously provided by Tom Gieryn. Many thanks to Jordi Cat, Elihu Gerson, Tom Gieryn, Jim Griesemer, Jutta Schickore, Fred Tauber, two anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the Universities of Western Ontario, California at Santa Cruz, California at Davis, Exeter, and Pittsburgh for helpful comments and criticism. Last but not least, I thank the interviewees and their colleagues for patiently sharing their time and experiences in research. Any errors are my own.
The preceding account draws on first-hand experience, examination of published literature, and interviews with researchers involved. The first and the last require some explanation. As a graduate student in the Weissman laboratory (1994–1997), I became familiar with fragments of this episode of immunology research. Though not directly involved in the search for HSC, I was aware of the ongoing work of the ‹stem cell group,’ which was discussed in weekly lab meetings, and presented in detail at annual departmental and laboratory retreats. Perhaps more importantly, for three years I worked alongside a number of researchers involved in isolating and characterizing blood stem cells. This collegial contact allowed me to become familiar with the terminology, techniques and working styles of those involved with the search for HSC. My training also gave me an in-depth understanding of aspects of laboratory research that are not emphasized in published reports, including the important role of social interactions in fostering productive research. My personal experience with the case allowed me to efficiently examine relevant published sources: research articles, reviews, editorials and abstracts.
Interviews with eleven participants supplemented these published sources. The purpose of these interviews was two-fold: to obtain a detailed and accurate description of social interactions involved in the search for HSC; and to reveal participants’ attitudes toward these interactions. In particular, I sought to understand how interviewees conceived of their research activities in relation to those of other scientific inquirers, within and among laboratories and research communities, and the impact of these interactions (if any) on achievement of research goals (scientific success). To allow participants’ attitudes to emerge, rather than imposing my own assumptions in the form of leading questions, I used the methodology of qualitative research interviewing.Footnote 1 Interviews focused on the search for HSC, and tended to proceed chronologically; otherwise discussion was unstructured.Footnote 2
Though mainly affiliated with the Weissman lab, interviewees were diverse in other respects, occupying various roles (graduate student, laboratory manager, medical student, post-doctoral fellow, principal investigator, technician) and participating for various intervals (from several years to four decades). Subsequent career trajectories also vary widely, and include academic research, clinical research, and industry. The description emerging from these multiple interviews is therefore robust to these different perspectives and roles.Footnote 3
Interviews took place during visits to subjects’ laboratories, and were supplemented by one or more of the following: a tour of laboratory facilities, further informal discussions with lab personnel, and attendance of the weekly lab meeting. These laboratory visits contextualized the taped interviews in two ways. First, they provided information about interviewees’ current setting and style of working, and framed their attitudes toward past interactions in terms of contemporary roles and projects. Second, these engagements with interviewees’ current working environment provided an opportunity to discuss the relation between the search for HSC and their current projects, eliciting interviewees’ attitudes toward scientific success over time. Both were important for framing and interpreting the taped interviews. The resulting narrative is not an attempt at exhaustive description of all the social interactions involved in the search for blood stem cells. Rather, focus is on social interactions that participating researchers pick out as crucial, either in published articles and commentaries at the time, or in retrospective accounts of the episode. The above sections incorporate these diverse perspectives within a coherent narrative of the search.
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Fagan, M.B. Stems and Standards: Social Interaction in the Search for Blood Stem Cells. J Hist Biol 43, 67–109 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-008-9174-8