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Egenis · Research

‘Translational Space’: An ethnographic study of stem cell research

Jean Harrington

Start date


Affiliated staff

Christine Hauskeller and Andrew Pickering (CSSIS)


Homepages: , and Andrew Pickering.Email: j.l.harrington@exeter.ac.uk

Funded by

ESRC (Egenis)


This PhD project is concerned with the ‘translation’ of stem cell knowledge and techniques into novel medical applications. Using treatments for heart disease as a case study, my research examines the interaction between medicine and biology, between medical staff and basic scientists. I aim to analyse and describe translation and explore the character of the ‘translational space’, as I have chosen to term it; the metaphor pointing to the complex and multi-relational set of places and interactions that make up the research in the translational sphere and the subsequent shaping of outcomes and disciplinary and clinical formations.

My hypothesis is that ‘translational space’ is where stem cell research is performed through practice, where various actors are engaged in the enactment of the objects, regulations and concerns, and cure of a disease. Observations made through ethnographic research in stem cell laboratories and clinics over the past three years have led me to recognize this temporal practice as an open-ended process with multiple inputs; be they biological, cultural or technical. The image is that of a situation in constant flux; a complex amalgam of the mutual interaction of disciplinary culture, practice and environment, evolving technology, regulation and funding situations, set within a temporal framework where notions of space and time are unifying categories.

This reflection of ‘translational space’ is in sharp contrast to the ‘pipeline’ representations often adopted by basic research scientists, clinicians and social theorists, where the trajectory of the translational imperative is shown as both linear and progressive. ‘Translational research’ is currently being understood by policy makers, funding bodies and science practitioners as important and as a distinct approach, that utilizes multi-disciplinarity to achieve the radical breakthroughs, that biomedicine ought to be geared toward, in shorter time frames. The push of laboratory research toward application is strong and one element of my research is to critically analyse the environments and effects of what one might call a translational politics or a translational ideology in the particular field of near-to-clinical or clinical stem cell research in practice.


The aim with this dissertation is to contribute an alternative and empirically-based understanding of “translation” and the formation of biomedicine in action to the respective sociological literature, in order to do so, I

  • Provide ethnographic descriptive materials through the observation of research on the translation of stem cell treatment, particularly of the heart.
  • Explore the ways in which scientists relate to regulatory, ethical and other practices governing their field.
  • Examine how different actors and participants both ‘accommodate’ and ‘adjust’ to the various forms of ‘resistance’ that they encounter.
  • Critically analyse the everyday activity of translating stem cell knowledge, concepts and techniques into clinical practice and treatments.


The study is drawing on empirical data gathered via ethnographic observation in basic laboratories, conferences, workshops and clinical trials, and interviews with basic research scientists, clinicians, administrators, analysts and regulators.


Hauskeller, C. and Harrington J., ‘? A Decision Making Role Play on Stem Cell Research and Ethics.’ 2007

Harrington, J. and Hauskeller, C., `The death of the Frankenbunny?' Newsletter of the ESRC Genomics Network 7, 2008, pp. 15–17.

Hauskeller, C. and Harrington, J., `The death of Frankenbunny? Reply to the Response of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.' Newsletter of the ESRC Genomics Network 8, 2008, pp 28–30.

Harrington, J. and Stephens, N., "A Social Science View on the FRAME Symposium: Identities and Networks." ATLA: Alternatives To Laboratory Animals 2010, 38 (Supplement): 101-4.

Selected Presentations:

Harrington J., 'Social Science Aspects of Cardiovascular Translation’: UK National Stem Cell Network Annual Conference, University of York, March 2011.

Harrington J., ‘Is re-production a ‘local’ affair? The effect of culturing routines on stem cells’. Joint Egenis/Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Workshop, Negotiating Identity: Objects and Methods of Reproduction in 20th Century Life Sciences, Max Planck Institute, Berlin. May 2010

Harrington J., ‘Translational Space: The science around stem cell treatment of the heart’ EGN Conference, Cardiff. October 2009

Harrington J.,‘Animal as Artefact: tensions surrounding the ‘animal model’ in stem cell research’. Poster, FRAME Symposium. September 2009

Harrington J., ''Translational Space’: The science around stem cell treatment of the heart'. Max Planck Institute, Berlin. July 2009.

Harrington, J. and Hauskeller, C., ‘Making sense of clinical trials using autologous stem cells for heart repair’. BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference, University of Sussex. September 2008.

Harrington, J., ‘Knowledge Criteria in Stem Cell Science’, Plenary talk at the UK National Stem Cell Network Inaugural Conference, Edinburgh. April 2008