I am an Assistant Professor in the History department at University of Wisconsin–Madison. My research investigates the social dimensions of biomedical knowledge production, especially genetic knowledge. There are many characteristics or diseases that we think of today as having a genetic component, and my work investigates how these genetic explanations are produced, circulated, and change over time. I employ mainly ethnographic and qualitative methods, and I’m especially interested in how the practice of doing genetic research shapes scientists’ understandings of the phenomena that they study—for example, how seeing a mouse’s behavior altered by a noisy fire drill in the laboratory impacts a researcher’s understanding of the genetic and environmental contributions to behavior, or how the day-to-day running of a clinical trial alters researchers’ predictions about how molecular information might be used in the clinic.

You can also check out my profiles on ResearchGate and Google scholar or my faculty page at UW–Madison.

Model Behavior: Animal Experiments, Complexity, and the Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders

Available April 2018, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 9780226546087

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Cover image of
  Model Behavior

Mice are used as model organisms across a wide range of fields in science today—but it is far from obvious how studying a mouse in a maze can help us understand human problems like alcoholism or anxiety. How do scientists convince funders, fellow scientists, the general public, and even themselves that animal experiments are a good way of producing knowledge about the genetics of human behavior? In Model Behavior, Nicole C. Nelson takes us inside an animal behavior genetics laboratory to examine how scientists create and manage the foundational knowledge of their field.

Behavior genetics is a particularly challenging field for making a clear-cut case that mouse experiments work, because researchers believe that both the phenomena they are studying and the animal models they are using are complex. These assumptions of complexity change the nature of what laboratory work produces. Whereas historical and ethnographic studies traditionally portray the laboratory as a place where scientists control, simplify, and stabilize nature in the service of producing durable facts, the laboratory that emerges from Nelson’s extensive interviews and fieldwork is a place where stable findings are always just out of reach. The ongoing work of managing precarious experimental systems means that researchers learn as much—if not more—about the impact of the environment on behavior as they do about genetics. Model Behavior offers a compelling portrait of life in a twenty-first-century laboratory, where partial, provisional answers to complex scientific questions are increasingly the norm.


Introduction: A Furry, One-Ounce Human?
1 Containing Complexities in the Animal Behavior Genetics Laboratory
2 Animal Behavior Genetics, the Past and the Future
3 Building Epistemic Scaffolds for Modeling Work
4 Epistemic By-Products: Learning about Environments while Studying Genetics
5 Understanding Binge Drinking
6 Leaving the Laboratory
Conclusion: An Expanded Vocabulary for the Laboratory