Pigs bioengineered to grow human-tissue organs that can be transplanted into a human, fact or fiction?
The answer is both. Well, sort of. Margaret Atwood’s fictional pigoons could grow six human kidneys at once in her 2004 science fiction novel Oryx and Crake. Fast-forward 12 years and real-life scientists in California successfully combined human stem cells and pig DNA to create human-pig embryos. Now what?
Beyond space and lasers, gamma rays and mutants, clones and intergalactic wars, science fiction is rooted in humanity — where ‘what ifs’ intersect with ‘what could happen’ as a result. It’s a genre Rhona Trauvitch has incorporated into her classes for most of her career. An associate teaching professor of English and director of FIU’s Science & Fiction Lab, Trauvitch is hoping more professors will incorporate science fiction into their classrooms at FIU. She is working with FIU humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) faculty to build a digital library of teaching resources that can deliver more humanities education to STEM courses and more STEM knowledge to humanities courses — all by making connections between literature and science. The project was recently awarded a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
So where do bioengineered pigs fit in? In Atwood’s novel, once the organs are transplanted into sick patients, the fictional pigoons are obscurely discarded, leaving her characters wondering if the pork they eat is secretly pigoon meat. (No spoilers here!) This among other ethical dilemmas — like technological overreach, do the pigoons have souls and can they can grow human brains — gives readers a lot to think about. In 2016, the real-life scientists terminated their experiment after 28 days. But if grown to term, the scientists said they believe the pigs would have developed a human pancreas. In light of that scientific achievement, it would appear Atwood’s 2004 dystopian creation has given people a lot more to think about. It’s that very humanistic approach to thinking Trauvitch and her collaborators are looking for.
“What is gained by integrating sci-fi into a curriculum is the same as what is gained by incorporating humanities courses into a university’s general education requirements,” she said. “Students learn to more thoroughly comprehend the world, themselves and each other.”
For the project, dubbed “Science, Fiction, and Science Fiction,” the NEH grant will support two key components. The first is what the collaborators call portable course content jigsaw modules — stand-alone lessons that can be slotted into any course like a puzzle piece. Humanities faculty and STEM faculty are working together to develop modules that any instructor can adjust to fit their course’s requirements, modality and timeline. A biology professor might search the digital library for something on genetically altered beings. An English professor might explore climate fiction. An engineering professor might want a module on futuristic societies living with technology that currently only exists as fiction.
“It’s a great way for students to gain new perspectives on their fields of study,” Trauvitch said. “Students can consider the very technologies they are already studying, but this time through the lenses of ethics, exile and social justice.”
Beyond science fiction, the project also explores how literature can help make complex scientific realities more accessible. Trauvitch gives the example of 11-dimensional space — it’s difficult for most people to comprehend or visualize, yet scientists believe it may be our reality. She says analogies found in literature can help students better connect with scientific concepts that otherwise seem too fantastic or complex. Finding patterns in literature that help make these connections is an area of study called fi-sci (fiction-science), and it’s also part of the Science, Fiction and Science Fiction project. The NEH grant supports the development of micro-credentials — mini courses where students can earn badges for learning how to map a pattern in literary fictions onto a science.
To further their reach, the collaborators are planning a multimedia expo and competition for undergraduate students, an annual lecture series and a podcast. Trauvitch says she’s grateful for all the support the project has received at FIU and from NEH to help expose more humanities students to science and more science students to humanities.
“I’m still processing that this is happening,” she said. “This has been a passion of mine for a long time — the connections between fiction and science. For me it’s all about using metaphors to explore and understand something new. So it’s really great that we’ve received so much encouragement and are going to be able to do this at FIU.”
Prior to receiving the NEH grant, Trauvitch worked with FIU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Office of Micro-Credentials and Honors College for seed money that funded a pilot project of faculty fellowship institutes. For this, 24 faculty members from across the university developed interdisciplinary, portable course content. This served as a proof of concept and strengthened the grant application, Trauvitch said.
Co-directors for Science, Fiction, and Science Fiction include Maikel Right, associate director of Instructional Learning Technology at FIU Online; Mark Finlayson, associate professor of Computer Science and director of the Cognition, Narrative and Culture Laboratory; and Rebecca Friedman, associate professor of History and founding director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab.
The grant awarded to the project is one of 204 recently awarded by NEH to advance humanities education and access to humanities across the country.