Microbiology 213: “Social Issues in Biology”—a graduate-level biology course taught by Harvard Medical School Professor Jonathan R. Beckwith, who, back in 1969, isolated the first gene from a bacterial chromosome—sounds intimidating. But students in Microbiology 213 will not be churning out scientific papers to be published in Nature any time soon—instead, they are producing a play.
Their piece, entitled “The Edge of the Map,” will run April 12 to 14 in Science Center 302 and delves deeply into the ethical issues that connect biology and medicine to the human experience. Professor Beckwith has taught this class for over 20 years, but this is the first year that the class has produced a theater piece. Genetic identity, Huntington’s Disease, designer babies, and compulsory sterilization are just a few of the tangled topics that New York-based director Catherine “Calla” Videt ’08-’09 hints will feature in the experimental narrative of the play. “We will address questions of how much we choose to know about ourselves genetically, what we should pass on to our future generations, what it means to have children, and how much we want to control any of these things,” Videt says.
Benjamin T. Morris ’09, a Ph.D student at the Harvard Medical School and a teaching fellow for the class, was able to collect talent from the greater Harvard community. The class attracted theatrically minded undergrads as well as talented alumni like Videt to help write and produce the show.The class and the theater project are two separate entities that Beckwith and Morris hope will feed organically off each other, with some students involved mostly in the art-making portion rather than in the class. Students in the class will also engage in other avenues for creative expression through media such as Twitter.
The theater piece also explores bringing new ways of learning about science to the theater. According to Mariel N. Pettee ’14, who is producing, choreographing, and acting in the production, some experimental techniques that the production uses may engage audience members in new ways, like moving them physically around the performance space. Pettee says she and Videt had preliminary discussions about distributing audio files to the audience, but ultimately decided not to do so.
The play will incorporate a number of different interwoven narratives. Videt says that some characters draw upon the lives of real people, like a Canadian woman sterilized against her will and a patient with Huntington’s; other characters are new creations. Some storylines will be set in the present, and others in the future. Morris described the plot as fragmentary, and Videt described it as a collage.
Pettee, while she is involved only in the show and not the class, remarks that the class is progressive. “It is the only class that engages with science and art in a concrete way, a more-than-abstract way, ending in an actual piece of performance art,” she says.
Morris hopes that the play will have a life beyond this one semester at Harvard. After its first run in April, the production team hopes to take the show to New York sometime in August. Ultimately, the class and its constantly changing format is a response to what professor Beckwith calls the unfortunate prevailing culture of science.
“A life outside of science is discouraged, and scientists have taken little ethical responsibility with their work,” Beckwith says. His success in 1969 in isolating a gene forced him to face the ethical dilemmas of the future of science. Beckwith’s concern that biologists in this era may not realize the human ramifications of their discoveries is the primary motivation for this project and class.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTIONS: April 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the course title of Microbiology 213: “Social Issues in Biology.” The article also incorrectly stated that in 1969 Harvard Medical School Professor Jonathan R. Beckwith isolated the first bacterial genome. In fact, Beckwith led a team that isolated the first gene from a bacterial chromosome. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that students in Microbiology 213 are writing a play, while in fact they are producing a play written by Harvard students in collaboration with New York-based director Catherine “Calla” Videt ’08-’09 and a professional playwright.
CORRECTIONS: April 11, 2013
The headline of an earlier version of this article and a statement in the story incorrectly stated the location of a microbiology course's upcoming performance. In fact, that production will take place in Science Center 302, not at Arts @ 29 Garden. In addition, the story incorrectly stated that the organizers of the performance had discussed giving iPods to the audience. In fact, organizers had talked about distributing MP3 files to audience members, and ultimately decided not to do so. The story also misstated the title of the performance, “The Edge of the Map.”