Dr. Coleman Nye is interested in the blurry distinctions between science fiction and science fact.

GSWS, Faculty, Research

Faculty Profile: Dr. Coleman Nye, Assistant Professor, GSWS

November 27, 2015

The newest faculty member in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Assistant Professor Dr. Coleman Nye comes to SFU from Brown University where she completed her PhD in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and her MA in Anthropology. As her website outlines, Nye’s research and teaching traverses the fields of “feminist science and technology studies, critical race and gender theory, theatre and performance studies, bioethics, disability studies, environmental politics, and anthropology of medicine and reproduction.” 

Nye has published two articles on “previval” (the pursuit of surgical ovary removal or preventative mastectomy) in women at risk for ovarian or breast cancer and her book, Speculative Sciencelooks at previval, cancer genetics, and genetic patenting. She is also co-authoring, with Sherine Hamdy, her former MA supervisor in Anthropology, Lissa (Still Time), a graphic novel that looks at “bioethics in a global context.” Nye’s newest book project, Second Natures, examines how biotechnology, the environment, and ecologies are interwoven, taking up a question posed by Donna Haraway: “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Nye says that she is “asking questions about sensory apparatuses, food technologies, things that force us to think about where our bodies begin and end.” This question will also propel her course “Dude Where’s my Body?” a special-topics GSWS course for the Spring 2016 semester.

When asked how she became interested in these research areas, Nye says it was a “weird trajectory.” As an undergraduate, her honors thesis in Anthroplogy examined amputee subculture, specifically the medical and ethical issues around people who sought to become amputees, and the doctors who performed those surgical procedures. “I had just discovered [Judith] Butler and I was interested in how certain forms of embodiment are desirable while others are considered undesirable or even unethical.”  Ethical questions around what it means to surgically intervene on healthy bodies came out of that research, Nye recounts, and during her graduate work she began to look at similar issues in ovarian or breast cancer genetics.  

“On the one hand, in this case of amputation, I saw how certain doctors were being kicked out of the medical establishment for helping people pursue amputation. On the other hand, women were getting genetic testing and upon finding they had a risk for breast or ovarian cancer, opting for preventative mastectomy or ovary removal.” Nye says when she began doing research on preventative surgery for her MA, surgery was clinically-recommended in the US as the “most effective way of managing risk for breast and ovarian cancer.” The question that emerged in her research, Nye says, was “How is it that we perform illness in healthy bodies? When women without breast cancer are getting the same surgical treatments as women with breast cancer, how is it that we that we make sense of risk?”  It was at this stage that Nye says she found Theatre and Performance studies to be a logical space to think through these questions. “[Performance Studies] has this robust language for mining the spaces between the real and the not-real, or the material and immaterial.”

In her current research, Nye is interested in the blurry distinctions between science fiction and science fact. One of her chapters in Speculative Science addresses gene patenting, and she notes that while television shows like Orphan Black are addressing issues like corporate copyright and “biotechnology gone awry,” the US Supreme Court is also setting legal precedence on copyright and genetic material. “This is just one way we’re seeing science fiction and science fact becoming interwoven,” according to Nye.

Nye has also been writing about BiteLabs, an experimental art website that proposes using celebrity DNA to make artisanal salami from James Franco, Jennifer Lawrence and Kanye West. Launched by New York-based art collective, Hello Velocity, Nye notes that while the website and fake promotional YouTube video are excellent examples of satirical science fiction, the experimental art project is closer to “science fact” than one might think. “In the last couple years it’s been proven that you can grow meat from stem cell tissues. That science presents itself as trying to get away from the environmentally devastating and ethically problematic factory farm industry. What I’ve noticed is that “science fact” in in vitro meat science—whether it’s the PR side or in the science itself—it’s also being informed by science fiction.” 

The first lab-grown hamburger eaten live on television in 2013 in the UK—funded by Google’s Sergey Brin—is yet another example Nye cites as demonstrating the blurry divide between science fact and science fiction. The eating of the “Google burger,” as it was nicknamed, was live-televised and Nye points out that some of the practices around the event drew upon an earlier art project by Australia-based art collective, The Tissue Culture and Art Project, where “the artists grew frog legs in vitro and served them to spectators on a sort of bourgeoisie dining table adorned with living frogs.”

Google’s Brin reportedly told the press in the UK that if people thought eating synthetic beef was science fiction, that was a “good thing” and “if what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.” Nye says this example shows how “transformative science relies on or is influenced by speculative or imaginative science, and how the divisions between science fiction and science fact, or between science and art, are very unclear.” Instead, she says what we’re seeing more and more is that “these are deeply enmeshed pursuits and practices.” 

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