Dr. des. Caterina Schürch

Dr. des. Caterina Schürch

Post-doc Project | Acquiring Biological Information From Practice

The project examines practices of researching life processes and their historical development. It comprises two subprojects that revolve around the same question: What experimental actions did practitioners perform to explore the physical and chemical processes in living beings?
The first subproject deals with the study of physiological mechanisms in the interwar period and examines how researchers chose to study particular phenomena (such as cell elongation or pigment synthesis). I outline why and how physicists and chemists became involved in the study of biological processes and I discuss the experimental interventions researchers made to support their theses about the entities and activities constituting the phenomena. The second subproject investigates agronomic-plant physiological research in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, I examine contemporary studies of the phenomenon of “flashing flowers” and the growth of electrified crops to trace how naturalists attempted to elucidate the relationship between organic and electrical processes.
The work on the two subprojects promises a better understanding of actual research practices in the biological sciences. We not only gain valuable insights into the material, conceptual, and social conditions of biological research, but also learn more about the methodological norms of practitioners and how they dealt with complex and difficult-to-control organic systems.
Host institutions: History and Philosophy of Science, University of Copenhagen | Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, Indiana University Bloomington | Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge | University of East Anglia | University of Exeter

Dissertation Project | The Search for Fundamental Physiological Mechanisms: Collaborations between Biology, Physics, and Chemistry (1918-1939) (completed)

The thesis analyzes a particular type of biological research that gained importance in the first half of the 20th century: the explanation of macroscopic life processes via underlying biophysical or biochemical processes. It aims to better understand this kind of research in terms of its practice and disciplinary location: How did researchers choose their research problems and how did they go about solving them? The thesis thus takes a fresh look at biology in the 1920s/30s. The literature has previously viewed the period in terms of individual actors (e.g., Jacques Loeb), institutions (e.g., the Kaiser Wilhelm Society), or funding programs (e.g., those of the Rockefeller Foundation), or alternatively sought precursors and roots of molecular biology or genetics. In contrast, the thesis examines four episodes in sensory physiology, hormone research, chemical genetics, and electrophysiology that are little known to the history of science but have been widely received contemporarily.
The episodes are analyzed from an intensively discussed perspective of the philosophy of science, the new mechanism. According to the proponents of this perspective, biological phenomena are explained by describing the mechanisms responsible for them. The new mechanists’ theses serve as analytical tools to shed light on historical episodes. They help to describe and explain the basic features of research practice in physical-chemical biology. However, it is revealing it is to broaden the view and additionally include the motivation of the actors as well as the resources and competences available to them. Knowledge of these local factors allows to explain the formation of interdisciplinary research alliances.

A summary of the work (in German) can be accessed here.

The dissertation was awarded the following prizes

Max Weber-Prize for outstanding dissertations and postdoctoral theses in the humanities and social sciences, awarded by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, December
• Henry-E.-Sigerist-Prize for the promotion of young researchers in the history of medicine and the natural sciences 2021, awarded by the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine and the Natural Sciences (SGGMN), November
• Georg-Uschmann-Prize for the History of Science, awarded every two years by the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, September
• Doctoral Promotion Award of the Munich University Society, July
• Caspar-Friedrich-Wolff-Medal of the German Society for the History and Theory of Biology (DGGTB) in recognition of an outstanding scientific paper on a topic in the history of biology, June