Katie Ulrich traveled far from Haverford’s campus to conduct the research for her senior thesis, “Problematizing the Future: Brazil, Biofuels, and Basic Science.” The anthropology and biology double major, who also did a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights, conducted fieldwork in a botany lab in Brazil, which is the second largest producer of bioethanol in the world (after the United States “I [had] started researching biofuels in the U.S. and became interested in questions of biotechnology and the future and how biofuels were intertwined with these,” says Ulrich, who is now considering specializing in the anthropology of science in graduate school. “And I was interested in the application of anthropology to basic science, as I had done basic science research in numerous labs before and during my time at Haverford.”
What is your biggest takeaway from the project?
From my field research in Brazil I obviously learned a lot about the country and, also a lot about myself from the experience of living alone in a foreign country—especially without a structured study abroad program. During the analysis of my research I continued to learn about Brazil, biofuels, and many other topics. I truly enjoyed engaging with various literatures on futures, modernities, and globalization. Finally, writing my thesis taught me about writing longer, refined, journal article-like pieces as well as writing ethnography (the genre of many anthropological works). It was essentially a year-long advanced workshop on writing, and I think this will be one of the most important and widely-applicable takeaways from this experience.
How or why could your research help other researchers or academics?
Although science has historically been understood in the Western tradition as immune to cultural and social forces—that is, universal and timeless—the fields of science and technology studies and the anthropology of science have been demonstrating for the past several decades that this is indeed not the case. Science is very much mediated by social, historical, and cultural processes. My thesis contributes to this notion. It looks at how scientific problems travel to different global sites, what happens when they do, and what this means for science and scientists. It argues that scientific problems become intertwined with other social, historical, political, and cultural problems specific to particular contexts, and, therefore, that these scientific problems become re-articulated and re-inscribed in particular ways in these particular contexts. In other words, these scientific problems come to mean and encompass different things; they do not simply travel around the globe “packaged and intact,” universal and timeless. For example, I look at the scientific problem of biofuels and how in Brazil biofuels are intertwined with questions of modernity, progress, relations of power, and the future.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.