Saturday, February 23, 2019

Teresa Woodruff @ Northwestern: "History, Context, and Relevance of Reproductive Dystopias"

More One Book, One Northwestern programming, inspired by Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale! Last week, I got to catch reproductive scientist Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D., exploring some contemporary themes and issues through the lens of Atwood's novel. Very brief notes below:
  • Talks about being inspired by the hatching-chickens exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry, later inventing tools to measure egg thickness as part of a science fair project.
  • Warns against assuming that reproductive technology tends towards dystopia.
  • Woodruff was one of the discoverers of the "zinc spark" that occurs at egg fertilization, an important new tool for evaluating viability in IVF.
    • Woodruff's talk framed around 3 selections from Handmaid:
    • The established order can vanish overnight.
    • Atwood insisted that technology in the book had to be currently available. (Part of why Atwood considered herself "not a science fiction writer", at least for a while there.)
      Quote from the novel's coda, with men mocking an educated women.
  • Looking at issues in "established order", Woodruff outlines some very problematic trends right now—worsening health for women, and some of the factors underlying that. One is the way that testing for medicine is overwhelmingly male-centric (XY animals & cell testing, for instance), compounded by barriers to women in the science & medical pipelines.
  • In the sciences, women make 64 cents to a man's dollar; receive on average $40k less for an NIH grant; and while women are starting to win awards, they tend to be less lucrative.
  • Discussion of some of the range of technologies available today that were not around in 1985 when Atwood wrote the novel. Particular focus on the way that fertility has, until recently, not been a priority in cancer treatmentslater infertility from increasingly-successful cancer treatments in children, for instance. Concept of "oncofertility", looking at fertility treatments alongside cancer therapy.
  • Review of some big advances in in vitro fertilization and other tech. First successful test-tube baby, Louise Brown, recently turned 40.
  • Woodruff goes over the zinc spark and some other "wow" advances, including artificial ovary scaffolds, bioprosthetic ovaries, and encapsulated in vitro follicle growth.
  • Goal of oncofertility is transgenerational hope.
  • Importance of education so people can make good choices about their body, and stave off Gilead. Woodruff tells us about Repropedia, a reproductive health website that seeks to be accessible to all, including Schoolhouse-Rock-style short videos for younger learners.
  • Possibility of a Northwestern course focused specifically on reproductive dystopias. I'm sure this would not lack for material, there's tons out there; I listed a few back when I was working on reproductive technology in Cherryh's work, but there's really an astonishing amount of SF tangling with these ideas.
After the talk, we split into some good table discussions on some of the issues; our table wound up banging our head against ideas of how to make empathy & education more built-in to our society. Very nice event, and One Book One Northwestern has some more lined up.

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