Barbara Herr Harthorn, a master of interdisciplinary studies and a UCSB women’s studies professor, combines gender, race, class and media issues – all under the umbrella of nanotechnology.
Harthorn’s multifaceted approach to science has earned her the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow honors.
Currently, she leads one of three research groups associated with the National Science Foundation nanotechnology center on campus. Harthorn is the co-director of the NSF National Center for Nanotechnology in Society, and she works with political science and communication professor Bruce Bimber to study risk perception and social response to the newly developing field of nanotechnology. Harthorn said the other two research groups examine the historical context of the nanoenterprise and the innovation system for nanotechnology.
“It’s unusual that NSF funded the whole National Center to do this kind of work,” Harthorn said. “The work is mostly still happening in the lab. A lot is being talked about, but it is not yet commercialized.”
Harthorn’s group conducts qualitative interviews with nanotechnology experts to assess the potential risks of the field. To determine the consequences, the group asked questions about the conceptions of the nanotechnology field, lab practices, the handling of nanomaterials and the ways in which scientists view society and societal interests.
“My group is also doing work on modes for effective public participation in new technology research and development,” Harthorn said.
In order to make the National Center for Nanotechnology in Society on campus more open, the center has “NanoMeeters,” which are informal communal meetings intended to generate public interest. A NanoMeeter will take place tonight at 7 in the Faulkner Gallery at the Santa Barbara Public Library. It will feature professor and National Center executive committee member Richard Appelbaum and physical chemist Alec Wodtke.
The National Center began its research in January 2006, Harthorn said. However, she said they have not had enough time to publish a report on their findings. Currently, her group is analyzing the data accumulated from an experiment last February. They plan on collaborating with their UK counterparts to compare the data and hope to submit a report within the next month.
In her free time, Harthorn is working on a book about farm workers and their health risks. She has conducted research on the subject for 15 years and hopes to have more time next year to write it.
Harthorn became the sole director of the National Center for Nanotechnology in Society in July. Before that, she co-directed the center with UCSB associate history professor Patrick McCray. She said she acquired the title because the NSF wanted core researchers to lead the center.
“NSF feels centers should be led by people who are directly involved in the research,” Harthorn said.
The CNS was founded in 2004, when the NSF called for a national center and a team of UCSB researchers decided to compete for it, Harthorn said. The entire process lasted from Sept. 2004 to June 2005, and it included submitting a pre-proposal, enduring peer reviews, writing a full proposal and visiting the NSF in Arlington, Va. When the group visited the NSF, four schools were still competing. However, Harthorn said it turned into an unusual process because originally, the NSF wanted one $13-million center, but in the end, they split the money between four campuses.
The National Center was founded at both UCSB and Arizona State University, and money was also given to projects at Harvard and the University of South Carolina, she said.
“For me, this research builds off previous research on the California farm workers’ health risk perceptions,” Harthorn said. “My past work fits in with what the NSF was looking for.”
The project features the work of 65 individuals, including researchers from Canada, the UK and China. Seven, including Harthorn, are members of the executive committee on campus. In March 2008, all of the project’s members will meet to discuss their findings.
Harthorn began as a social psychology post-doctoral candidate at UCSB in the 1980s and continued her stay as associate director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center for five years. In 1993, she was promoted to the director of Social Science Research Development on campus as well as a professional researcher of anthropology. Last November, she became a professor, and this quarter she teaches two courses – feminist research and practice and gender and society.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which awarded Harthorn her fellowship, is an international nonprofit organization that publishes Science, which has the largest paid circulation of all peer-reviewed general science journals.
The AAAS fellowship program began in 1874. To become a member, the Fellow is nominated by either the Steering Groups of the Association’s 24 sections, three current AAAS Fellows or the Chief Executive Officer. This year, 471 members became Fellows, five of them from UCSB. New Fellows will receive an official certificate and rosette pin at the Fellows Forum in Boston in February.