What I'm working on over summer: Emily Parke

13 February 2017
Dr Emily Parke

We’re catching up with our researchers to find out what they will be working on over the summer.

There are two threads to Dr Emily Parke’s research this summer: the philosophical debates surrounding the definition of life, and the way that experiments and models function in science.

Emily will be working with a summer scholar, Sam Woolley, to engage with the debate about where the line between animate and inanimate lies. This long-running discussion has generated a large number of proposed definitions of ‘life’, but none has been generally agreed-upon by scientists or philosophers.

Sam has just finished a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science conjoint, majoring in Philosophy and Biology.

This summer the pair will be looking at all the definitions that have been proposed, and categorising them with an eye on how they might be used in scientific enquiry.

Emily explains that they want to “create a framework for the roles that different definitions will play in scientific practice”.

“We will be connecting philosophy with what scientists actually do.”

The second major thread of Emily’s work will be engaging with how experiments and models function in science.

“A lot of people argue that experiments are better, because of their capacity for surprise. I argue against this, and instead demonstrate how experiments and models work together.”

Emily has done a lot of work using microbial models, and has another work in progress engaging with the history of how these have been used in the lab, and how they differ from — and work together with — mathematical models.

“Model organisms are an interesting middle ground between models and experimental systems.”

She is also working on a survey of experimental evolution of E.coli and other microbes, the challenges scientists face with inferences from the lab applied to the natural world, and the relationships between hypothesis testing and exploratory experiments.

“It’ll be fun to work on all these things in tandem, I’ve been thinking about them for a while.”

Things will really get going for Emily when she continues a collaboration with Dr James Russell, who is leading a Biological Heritage National Science Challenge project in high tech solutions for invasive mammal pests.

The project will be developing tools and deployment strategies to eliminate small mammal pests in New Zealand. Emily and James will be collaborating to convene a bioethics panel tasked with considering the broader ethical and societal implications of making New Zealand predator free.

“It will be a fun project to get involved with.”

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