By Meghan Marjorie Shea, Stanford University
For much of my ocean-loving life, I would have never predicted that I would find myself presenting at the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) annual meeting. As a toddler, I proudly proclaimed that I would become a “marine biologist specializing in seahorses,” and for much of my early academic journey, I aspired to reach a slightly-more-broad version of that vision. I took required history courses online in high school to free up my schedule for my oil spill bioremediation science fair projects, and I spent my undergraduate engineering degree finagling as many opportunities to be in and on the ocean as possible, collecting scientific data from the waters of the Pacific Northwest to the reefs of Palau.
But like the currents I snorkeled through and tracked from research cruises, the watery connective tissue of our planet, my interests in marine science became increasingly inseparable from other ways of contextualizing and knowing ocean realms. Now, as a PhD student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Research at Stanford, my work has tendrils reaching in many different disciplinary directions.
I study environmental DNA (eDNA)—the little bits of DNA that organisms leave behind in their ecosystems. By taking samples of soil, water, or even air, we can extract and sequence that DNA detritus and use it to identify what creatures might have been present. In marine environments, eDNA is poised to dramatically reshape the type and scale of biodiversity data we can collect, especially crucial for understanding how human impacts are changing ocean ecosystems. In some of my research, I still do field and laboratory research where I collect and analyze eDNA, particularly in intertidal environments, to better understand the spatial and temporal scales the samples represent. But at the same time, deploying eDNA tools is never divorced from its context, and my work also seeks to make visible the stakes of the transition to eDNA. I’ve interviewed community science practitioners using eDNA to better characterize the successes, and the challenges, of efforts to engage the public with this new tool. I’ve done ethnographic field work on an interdisciplinary research cruise with a new eDNA remit to understand how scientific perceptions of what is possible with eDNA may shape research agendas. And in November 2022, thanks to the generous support of a fellowship from ICHO, I shared the early stages of a project that has transported me from the archives to the intertidal at the Society for the History of Technology annual meeting in New Orleans.
I presented my paper, “From Encounters to Environmental DNA: The Stakes of Changing Evidentiary Forms in Intertidal Research,” in the SHOT Graduate Student Workshop. The paper traces from a now-paradigmatic field guide to the Pacific coast from the mid-1900s—Between Pacific Tides by Edward F. Ricketts and Jack Calvin—to contemporary tools like iNaturalist and eDNA. Along the way, it argues that the success of new technologies for engaging the public in the intertidal is not ahistorical; a long history of celebrating sensory encounters as scientific evidence informs how people interpret new ways of observing intertidal ecosystems. That is: it matters that eDNA no longer requires that you see the organism you are studying, especially when working with the public.
But SHOT was not just an opportunity to share my own work-in-progress, but to connect with others thinking about, with, and through ocean histories. Many of the ocean connections were obvious, such as Elexis Trinity Williams’ talk on using sound studies to unravel ocean histories and the ocean-centric session—Fluid Technologies: Engineering Marine Space and Species—organized by Lijing Jiang. But many other moments emerged more serendipitously; learning about Charlotte Leib’s research on meadowlands and landscape planning reminded me that the littoral is a much more diverse category than just the rocky intertidal ecosystems I study. And the connections weren’t limited to SHOT itself; as I listened to Sam Muka’s presentation on artificial reefs as trash technologies, the lack of regulation and pollution potential felt parallel to deep sea mining, reminding me other the work of other historians not present, like Jonathan Galka and Sonya Schoenberger. Because of these moments and many others, I left SHOT feeling even more invested in the historical angles of my research and filled with new ideas for potential projects to come.