University of Oxford, April 2019

I’ll be presenting at the conference “Standards and their containers: a global history of pathogen standardization” at the University of Oxford on April 12-13, 2019.

When standardization means variation: the movement towards heterogenized mouse environments

In April 2018, Nature magazine published a news feature with the title “Squeaky clean mice might be ruining research: send in the germs.” The article chronicled the adventures of immunologists who were going to great lengths to obtain wild mice infected with various pathogens—visiting local pet stores, setting up traps in horse barns and petting zoos—and then bringing these mice back to their laboratories to live with their experimental rodents. This paper argues that we should view the deliberate introduction of variation into experimental systems as an act of standardization, rather than as the undoing of an established standard or as a manifestation of the tension between standardization and novelty. As I will show, the ultimate aim of proposals to “heterogenize” animal environments is to generate more consistent experimental results; and in particular, to enhance the inter-operability of animal models and clinical experimentation—aims that are consistent with other kinds of standardization projects that seek particular kinds of uniformity across space, across geographical distance, or across species. By focusing on the desired outcome of particular experimental acts rather than the acts themselves, actions that appear at first glance to create disorder can be conceptualized as part of processes of scientific standardization.