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Professor Emily York joins the ISAT Depatment

ISAT professor, Emily York, joins the ISAT Department

By: Brett Seekford

While it is easy to assume that JMU’s Department of Integrated Science and Technology (ISAT) expressly focuses on work in the fields of science and technology, ISAT also explores human contributions to complex problems in order to find solutions. Therefore, the professional backgrounds of the faculty members vary widely. While many professors have degrees in biology, engineering, or other science-related subjects, others have studied the social sciences and humanities. Professor Emily York is one faculty member with a background in multiple areas, and she uses her analytical skills to investigate the social contexts and ethics surrounding technological innovation.

York earned both a B.A. in English Language and Literature and an M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Chicago. She began working as a software developer after graduating, but she came to realize that she wanted something more out of her professional life.

“I enjoyed working as a software developer, but it felt static after a while. I knew I needed to work in a more dynamic atmosphere,” York said.

Moreover, her thoughts continually circled back to questions about how we, as a society, come to imagine the future. Reflecting on a long steely gray futuristic corridor she saw at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, she began to ask: Whose visions of the future get made through technological innovation?

“While walking through the airport, I realized that this futuristic corridor was not my idea of the future,” York said. Recognizing that technological innovation is grounded in visions of the future, she wanted to learn more about social, ethical, and political dimensions of emerging technologies.

These thoughts led her to enroll in the Communication Studies Ph.D. program at the University of California—San Diego. She specialized in science studies, focusing her dissertation on the rise of nanotechnology and the political and economic contexts of research in the emerging field of nanoengineering.

“Many political factors influence research and innovation,” York said. “Technological change is often equated with progress, but if we don’t train scientists and engineers to consider social contexts, they may not recognize major complicating factors that could undermine success and challenge their visions of progress.”

According to York, social and economic forces encourage rapid innovation, and this speed of innovation may in some cases exceed the speed with which we, as a society, can assess and plan for potential social, ethical, safety, or environmental implications of these changes. “Complex problems can take more than one political term or one economic cycle to solve. We must address this reality as a society,” she said.

After earning her Ph.D., she soon learned about JMU’s ISAT Department and was hired as an assistant professor. She was impressed with the departmental focus on the social contexts of science and technology. Her background in both the humanities and the sciences, furthermore, made her a perfect candidate for a job that required critical thought and scientific knowledge.

Since coming to JMU, York is working on a book proposal based on her research. She has also branched out to new topics as well. She is beginning to do Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) research on integrating social contexts into STEM curricula. She is additionally beginning a research collaboration focused on nanotechnology standards and policy. And she is beginning a cultural analysis that compares the original Cosmos television series with its 2014 reboot to explore the different assumptions the producers of each series make regarding their audiences’ scientific awareness.

York’s teaching has been rewarding as well. Much like the many different topics she studied while a student, her new position offers an environment where she can continue developing new and exciting ideas while learning from her students and colleagues.

“Every class period is different,” York said. “I’m always learning new content and trying new teaching styles. There’s a constant learning curve, and I love that.”

Published: Thursday, February 23, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, January 29, 2018

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