National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

Socio-technical Integration through Midstream Modulation

Meghnaa Tallapragada, Cornell University

January 2013

When I conduct the SEI training for lab users, I usually conclude by asking the researchers in the room about some ways they can begin to engage with people around them. Encouraging them to contribute towards upstream engagement in tiny ways such as talking to their family and friends (from outside their discipline) about their work in the labs and eventually become motivated to participate in science cafes. Deliberations with friends, family, or larger groups of people are all beneficial forms of socio-technical integration. I was recently exposed to another form of such integration called midstream modulation.

Let me digress here to tell you where I was introduced to this technique. I recently attended a winter school organized by Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, all part of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Faculty from these universities and fourteen students from across the world were brought together to discuss their research on anticipatory governance for emerging technologies. Dr. Eric Fisher, one of the faculty members at the school, discussed his work on midstream modulation in nanotechnology laboratories.

In one of his seminal studies, he established an ongoing working relationship with a researcher working on synthesizing CNTs in 10 micrometer silica fibers. One of the main challenges the researcher faced was trying to evenly coat the inside of the fiber with alumina slurry, because he wanted to avoid the silica from interacting with Ferrocene. He eventually realized that he could do without the barrier between the silica substrate and the Ferrocene catalyst. Throughout this process, Fisher kept up with the researcher, asking him questions about his choices, opportunities, concerns, alternatives, and noted down all outcomes. One of the turning points happened when Fisher asked the researcher about his almost adamant choice of selecting only Ferrocene for a catalyst, which is often considered difficult to handle and dispose. The questions prompted the researcher to become reflexive about his catalyst choice, and eventually he was able to think of an alternative for Ferrocene. He decided to go with my all time favorite play material, ferrofluid. Ever played with ferrofluid and a bunch of magnets?! I love it! Give me a beaker of ferrofluid and two magnets, and I will be way too engaged for any other conversation. Along with the fun and distracting elements that ferrofluids could bring to the hardworking researchers in the lab, they are also known to be the more environmentally responsible material in comparison to the Ferrocene. The researcher admitted that he found the experience of having Fisher in the lab to discuss his decisions key in moving his study towards a responsible direction.

Midstream modulation seems exciting to me, but my biggest question is if the goal of midstream modulation is to one day ‘create’ scientists who can be reflexive about their decisions without the help of another person questioning them? Can every scientist question his every decision? Some might argue that every scientist, in fact, does think about his every decision. If you are that reflexive and responsible about your every decision, then kudos to you, but what would help those other scientists who are so engrossed in wrapping up their work and getting those publications out, to pause and think about the outcomes of their research? The societal and ethical impacts their decision can have inside and outside their labs. How many of you would allow for midstream modulation in your labs? If you are up for it, I would love to come ask you questions about the decisions at your work.

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