Rebecca Wilbanks, PhD

Rebecca received her PhD in 2017 from Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature, and holds a BA summa cum laude in comparative literature and biological sciences from Cornell University. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of the History of Medicine, and a Hecht-Levi fellow at the Berman Institute of Bioethics. Addressing the intersection of science and culture, her work engages literary studies, science and technology studies, the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine, and the environmental humanities.

Her dissertation and current book project, “Synthetic Biology and Life’s Imagined Futures” charts the movement of narratives about creating and modifying life from science fiction to scientific practice and back. In doing so, it demonstrates the concrete effects of future fictions on the development of the field of synthetic biology and related efforts by self-described “biohackers” to extend the tools of the field to non-professionals. In this analysis, science fiction provides both legitimizing myths for biotechnology’s political economy as well as alternative modes of co-producing new life forms with forms of social order.

At Hopkins, she is excited to join other Bioethics and History of Medicine colleagues at the Center for Bridging Infectious Disease, Genomics, and Society (BRIDGES), where her work focuses on applications of gene editing technologies to fight infectious disease (for example, through the genetic modification and release of disease vectors such as mosquitoes). How have discussions about modifying either human bodies or other species to combat infectious disease evolved since the mid-twentieth century? How have the implications of genetic modification on our relationship with our own bodies and the environment been explored in science fiction and other narrative forms? What kinds of governance and public engagement are adequate to the development and deployment of technologies such as gene drives in a transnational context?