The Ratty opened its pitches and published its first article in February 2020, which I’m sure we’ll reflect on for many years to come as some of the worst possible timing. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and at the time, we were beyond excited to put this thing out into the world. Publishing has been more sporadic than we would have liked. Getting pitches has often been an uphill battle. But we get it. Things have just been really hard. In addition to looking out for ourselves and our staff, we’re doing our best not to add to the already heavy burdens graduate students are carrying. So, we’re publishing what we can when we can, and continuing to support graduate student public scholarship to the best of our ability.
This isn’t so much a “year in review” as a look back on everything we have done. In the midst of a global pandemic, we have managed to publish 10 pieces and pay our editors and our authors for their work. We’re choosing to think of this as a win. So, we’re pleased to share with you all a list of the brilliant scholarship that we’ve had the privilege to help share with the world.
Traveling through modern-day Turkey for his research forces Classics PhD candidate Sam Butler to think more deeply about his role in the field of Classics and what it means to study Classics beyond just Greece and Rome.
While many of us may have been introduced to the term “fake news” around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, the concept of “fake news” has been used to undermine women and their agency for at least 1,000 years.
When most people think of the Hebrew Bible, they think of the area that is now occupied by modern-day Israel. But this view often overlooks the role of Egyptian and non-elite actors in the history and politics of the time.
The image of the Parisian model dressed to the nines in couture surrounded by a lavish dinner setting while looking like they are undernourished is not new to your Instagram feed. Graduate student Elise Bouley explores the contradiction in these images and their deep-rooted past in French fashion.
In April of 2020 the pandemic was still new, but all of the financial, mental, and physical issues we are still struggling with today began to rear their ugly heads for graduate students in particular. Underfunded and under-supported, we turned to writing as a way to let out some of our feelings, feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and guilt. Hopefully, this piece shows some of you that whatever you are feeling, you are not alone.
Colonizing a hostile planet like Mars can seem like an impossible task, until you remember that humans have done it before. Using her indigenous knowledge, graduate student and Shinnecock Nation citizen Sierra V. Kaufman studies how we might grow food on other planets.
A diagnosis of brain cancer has the potential to rank among the scariest experiences of your life. Glioblastoma in particular is especially aggressive, which means it is one of the most important targets of current cancer research. Graduate student Yusuke Suita works with a team at Brown University Rhode Island Hospital on an innovative treatment for glioblastoma.
The threat of nuclear war has been a political reality for many of the world’s superpowers for decades now, and experts are still debating the best ways to eliminate the threat. Sharing his preliminary dissertation research, Daniel Post critiques the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, showing why ramping up may do more harm than good.
In 2017 #MeToo became a worldwide movement, calling on survivors of sexual assault to share their stories and stand together in solidarity. Since then, the movement has found its way into contemporary fiction, working its way into the mainstream cultural conversation.
The threat of climate change is immediate, and greenhouse gases sit at the center of the urgency. Is it possible to turn some of this greenhouse gas-producing waste into a viable fuel source. Abdulrazaq Omo walks us through the process of turning fruit waste into an alternative power source.
Living with waste causes hurdles that become unbearable as time goes on. The resulting greenhouse gases such as methane, a significant drive to climate change, and some other artificial chemicals would leave a permanent mark in the atmosphere, contributing to the much feared air pollution. On land, an increase in cockroaches and rodents would increase land pollution, gradually causing health issues for nearby communities. The harmful effects of these natural and plastic wastes are a bane to society, and although the majority of students and individuals worldwide see and dislike these effects, not many can visualize how well these harmful effects could be curbed through a bit of chemistry and engineering.
Ideas for how to solve our waste problem come in various shapes — with various levels of effectiveness. The idea that some of this waste will eventually rot continues to thrive in some communities, with some individuals suggesting that all waste will eventually decompose, no longer presenting a problem. Of course, some waste does rot but the process isn’t in any way pretty or beneficial to the problem. All of this could be avoided and even reversed if we could just reduce the amount of waste but also convert it into something usable, something valuable, something better than risking environmental devastation.
As a student, I was fortunate to work with a team of engineers on obtaining valuable products from the waste of fruit (pineapple in particular) through a bit of fermentation, heating and distillation. Our goal was BIOMASS—fuel that is clean and sustainable enough to reduce pollution while providing alternative means of power compared to conventional fuels like fossil fuel.
Biomass is a renewable fuel derived from organic materials and acts as an alternative for producing fuels, heat and electricity. Converting these waste to biomass is essential in producing cleaner fuels and reducing the pollution these waste build.
We carried out a series of steps and chemical reactions before converting this waste to ethanol.The process of collection involved visits to any polluted environment with a significant amount of fruit waste in order to launch our experiment. We considered the amount of fruit waste to be a gauge of how high our ethanol yield would be.
Research, collection, and grinding
At first, gathering this waste could be unhealthy without taking into consideration proper measures. When working on this project, we used a nose mask to avoid inhaling the foul smell this waste produces, and gloves when gathering fruit waste.
To ensure maximum ethanol production, I worked with a group that researched the amount of alcohol in different fruits at different stages of decay. Ripe fruit waste usually contains more alcohol than their unripe counterparts, hence we used about 2.4kg of ripe pineapple waste retrieved from the waste site. We rinsed off excess dirt and germs with water in preparation for the home grinding appliance we later used to grind the peels.
Grinding this amount of waste mixed with 1.5 liters of water yielded small, moist chunks of pineapple waste which were separated by filtration in order to distinguish the solid chunks from the liquid. The resulting mixture was pure liquid which we termed “the filtrate.”
The filtrate was heated for about 3-4 hours in order to produce sugar. This sugar content was measured using a hydrometer. The sugar syrup is then diluted and fermented using Sacchromyces cerevisiae (yeast). Diluting the sugar is a practice performed to prevent the sugar from killing the yeast. 10ml of this yeast was added and mixed with 100ml of 37°C water, then stirred regularly for 10 minutes, before finally being allowed to sit for 3-4 days in a sealed container at room temperature. At intervals, the mixture was manually agitated to ensure proper mixing and fermentation of the yeast with the sugar.
During fermentation, our liquid produced heat through a gradual stirring process, which yielded alcohol. Research shows a 7-8% by volume ethanol production at 50-70 hours into fermentation, with some studies showing that an 80-100 hour fermentation would yield 8-9 % ethanol. This fermented product has alcohol present and while some use this for the well known Tepache recipe, our goal was ethanol production. With this in mind, our fermented product was heated and separated through fractional distillation, a technique used to separate mixtures of various boiling points.
Fractional distillation was only possible due to the difference in boiling points between the alcohol and water present in the fermented product. Definitely, the ethanol present would evaporate before the water due to its lower boiling point (about 78.37°C). The vapor passes through a copper pipe which is rapidly cooled and yields liquid as the end product (through condensation). This liquid is ethanol, although it could contain a bit of water if proper distillation wasn’t carried out.
From this experiment, we successfully reduced both air and land pollution in exchange for ethanol using fractional distillation, a biofuel that is ecologically effective and releases less carbon emissions when used in automobiles.
But there’s a catch: When reaching our desires for economic, social, and environmental sustainability, there needs to be a valuable and reasonable amount of input to yield the same reasonable amount of output. Unfortunately, this was not the case when producing ethanol from pineapple waste. Our experiment showed that from a 2.5 litres of fermented pineapple juice, we could only obtain about 0.05 litres of ethanol, which is much less than the required amount to even partially replace conventional fuels.
Continuing to work on producing ethanol with such low yields might mean the possibility of food shortage. The United States Environmental Protection Agency highlights that economic models reveal biofuel use can result in higher crop prices.
The large scale ethanol production process is by no means efficient yet and a huge amount of money invested in developing efficient means might also spike the ethanol distribution costs — opposing one of the most adored reasons for producing bioethanol: it’s cheap cost. Our already occupied land and environment would have to be cultivated with a huge amount of crops from which waste could be obtained in order to produce a reasonable amount of ethanol that rivals or completely replaces fossil fuels.
Our alarming need for transportation fuel alone rises daily, as explained by Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich of the World Resources Institute in their working paper. Large fossil fuel consuming regions have established ambitious biofuel targets that amount to 10% transportation fuel by 2020. If such targets were to go global by 2050, using 30% of a year’s harvest today would only produce about 10% of the transportation fuel needed, making a sustainable food future more difficult.
We’d be sacrificing a valuable portion of the Earth’s soil to produce a somewhat minuscule amount of valuable biomass required to power our automobiles today. This cost makes the situation rather unwise for such an industrial project by large scale industries. Those same industries could emit large amounts of gases, causing minor water pollution. Although it’s still a debate, our pineapple waste experiment showed that we have not yet achieved the perfect alternative to fossil fuels we all wish for.
Our Sustainability cycle
There is irony in the fact that such a simply-made alternative to fuel introduces a new set of such serious problems.
The waste that resides in polluted environments is not enough to produce a desired amount of ethanol for powering vehicles, and yet to increase these wastes for higher yields is unsustainable as well. Using the Earth’s soil to cultivate crops not for food but instead solely for ethanol and BIOMASS production causes its own environmental damage, along with the social issues of acquiring the land and not feeding populations in need. But the experiment which was carried out shows that ethanol production and waste reduction are possible — if not on an institutional level, then at least on an individual one. We can’t produce enough ethanol sustainably for entire regions, but hobbyists could make biofuel for their own personal use and reduce pollution in their society at the very least, making it a rural-based humanitarian service for people deeply affected by environmental pollution.
In 2017, a viral hashtag became a worldwide movement. Though the phrase “me, too” was first used in reference to sexual violence in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, the hashtag #MeToo gained widespread attention when, on 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano used it on Twitter and encouraged fellow survivors to follow suit.
Milano’s tweet was a call to arms to expose the ubiquity of sexual violence, and that call was answered more than 12 million times across various social media platforms in the first 24 hours alone. Scholars Jessica Ringrose, Kaitlynn Mendes, and Jessalynn Kellar note that #MeToo is the most high-profile example of a growing movement towards “digital feminist activism, [following] a growing trend of the public’s willingness to engage with resistance and challenges to sexism.”
Four years later, #MeToo is synonymous with the global fight against sexual violence. It was no surprise, therefore, that the movement would be explored in feminist fiction. But how is #MeToo fiction influencing the cultural conversation, and vice versa?
The Cat Person Effect
Feminist scholar Catharine R. Stimpson asks, “Does a single book change a life? Not by itself, for nothing exists in isolation. A lightning bolt needs a sky charged with electricity and a vulnerable ground.” Stories can both document social change and serve as a means of bringing about that change. Good fiction can reinforce or disrupt narratives, provide a warning, or offer new and enticing possibilities for a better society.
Gayle Green, author of Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), described the feminist fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s as “so close to the pulse of the times that it is possible to use it as documentary of and commentary on the social and political scene.” Much the same could be said about more recent feminist writing and about #MeToo fiction in particular.
Academic and critic Rita Felski also explores the idea of fiction as a form of social construction and historical record. She writes in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change that fiction “does not reveal an already given identity, but is itself involved in the construction of this self as a cultural reality.” Arguably the most influential piece of fiction associated with the #MeToo movement is Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published in the New Yorker in October 2017. The story chronicles a bad date, bad sex, and the ugly, misogynistic aftermath between college student Margot and thirty-something Robert, and has been described as the first short story to go viral.
At its heart, Cat Person is about the grey areas of consent. The story was read, shared, and discussed worldwide, with many young women expressing how relatable they found Margot and her experience. Cat Person is uncomfortable to read, forcing the reader to experience an awkward, unwanted sexual encounter up close and to acknowledge that people (particularly women) sometimes say yes because it seems less risky than saying no.
Unlike many portrayals of sexual violence in fiction, Cat Person contains no crime or clear act of violation. Instead, it embraces the ambiguities of sex, power, and the limits of virtual communication. Since the sex portrayed in the story is at least nominally consensual, in that Margot outwardly gives consent despite her discomfort and even revulsion, it raised challenging questions and sparked fierce debates about personal responsibility, consent, and whether Robert is the villain of the piece or not.
Cat Person’s viral success can be attributed to the fact that it captures, at precisely the right moment, a conversation that was at the forefront of cultural consciousness. It seems likely that, in another fifty years, stories like Cat Person will be viewed as historical social commentary in the same way as feminist fiction of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
To return for a moment to Stimpson’s memorable metaphorical question, when real-world events charge the sky and prime the ground, stories can be those lightning bolts of clarity.
Reading in the #MeToo Era
Regardless of authorial intent, any post-2017 piece of fiction that deals with sexual violence will be understood in light of the #MeToo movement. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel My Dark Vanessa—which tells the story of an abusive relationship between fifteen year old Vanessa Wye and her English teacher, Jacob Strane—took eighteen years to write, according to the author. In an interview with Fiona Sturges for The Guardian, Russell admitted that she was nervous about the timing of the novel’s publication and did not want to be viewed as opportunistic.
Though My Dark Vanessa does make reference to a collective social-media-based reckoning similar to #MeToo, it is clear (given the lengthy writing, revision, and development time) that Russell did not originally conceptualise the novel as a #MeToo story. But does authorial intent matter, and to what extent? I argue that it matters far less than the context into which the work is released.
A novel about sexual abuse published in 2020 can never be separated from the #MeToo movement, and any audience will receive the work in that context. Regardless of the precise timing of its writing and acceptance for publication, a novel like My Dark Vanessa will be viewed as a #MeToo story and consumed in light of that reality.Similarly, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney was released in 2018 and, according to the author, written and accepted for publication before the #MeToo movement gained traction. Even so, Zinovieff acknowledged in a 2019 interview with Eleni Papargyriou that Putney will inevitably be perceived as “part of the zeitgeist” in relation to the movement.
Where Will #MeToo Fiction Go Next?
Something of a second wave of #MeToo fiction is currently in progress. In the wake of several significant real-world events, from the sentencing of Harvey Weinstein to the murder of Sarah Everard in London, the #MeToo movement has seen a resurgence in activism and engagement across the world. It seems likely that a new generation of #MeToo fiction will follow.
Reviewing the canon of fiction about sexual violence reveals a notable trend away from futuristic, dystopian themes in the last two to three years. Instead of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale or the nightmarish isolated island of Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters (2017), many of the post-#MeToo additions to the canon bring sexual violence into everyday locations: schools, homes, campuses, bedrooms. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise explores harmful power dynamics between teenagers and adults at a performing arts school. Kate Walbert’s His Favorites tackles the abuse of a student by a teacher. Rosie Price’s What Red Was explores sexual assault alongside other contemporary concerns such as addiction, class, and family dysfunction. Even ostensibly dystopian fictions often tackle immediate and pressing real-world concerns. For example, Leni Zumas’ The Red Clocks imagines an America without legal abortion, a reality that seems to come closer each year.
#MeToo forced societies around the world to acknowledge the enormity of the sexual violence problem. It challenged the idea that violations are rare and committed only by monsters, and showed us that the “monsters” are ordinary people who walk among us. Fictions related to the #MeToo movement will likely continue to follow this same path. I believe we will continue to see more stories anchored in the real world and real (or at least realistic) experiences, as well as those that embrace ambiguity and nuance, asking difficult questions about the nature of consent and power. It is also my hope that we will hear from more diverse voices. As of now, the #MeToo movement and associated literature is disproportionately dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied women with educational and financial privilege. Though this is beginning to change, there is a long way to go before the canon is truly representative of the vast array of stories and experiences that exist. What will be the next Cat Person—the next story that captures the heart of an issue at precisely the right moment? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.
The most recent version of the United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), written in 2018 during the Trump administration, claims that Russian strategy “mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.” This strategy is encapsulated in the phrase “escalate to de-escalate” (E2DE), which may be defined as a strategy in which a state attempts to escalate a conflict with the express purpose of deterring further military action by the adversary and/or terminating the conflict on terms favorable to itself.
At first glance, the E2DE strategy might appear to be paradoxical and counter-intuitive. How might a country go about escalating a conflict and de-escalating it at the same time? Nevertheless, many decision makers in the United States, including national security officials, assume E2DE to be part of the current Russian nuclear weapons strategy. The logic of this strategy is as follows: If one side of a conflict employs a sudden or sharp escalation, i.e. the crossing of an important threshold or a dramatic movement beyond previous limitations, the other side may capitulate. Capitulation would occur, the logic continues, because the receiving state understands (after the dramatic escalatory move) that its adversary is more committed, resolved, and willing to escalate to higher levels of violence than the receiving state.
The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review argues that the Russian assessment is mistaken, and yet the same E2DE strategy was a bedrock of U.S. and NATO policy throughout the Cold War. J. Michael Legge, a former analyst for the RAND corporation, explains the development and implementation of NATO Cold War nuclear strategy thoroughly in his 1983 piece. He writes: “The strategy formally recognized that if deterrence failed… NATO might have to resort to using TNW [Theater Nuclear Weapons] in a further attempt to end the conflict by convincing the Soviet Leadership that they had miscalculated.” If the U.S. and NATO assumed that E2DE might work then, why is faith in this strategy now a dangerously mistaken belief? Indeed, it is possible to argue that the strategy did work, as a deterrent strategy at least, since the U.S. and NATO never had to defend themselves from a Russian invasion of eastern Europe.
Other questions remain regarding the potential effectiveness of an escalate to de-escalate strategy in terms of deterrence as well as, more importantly in my view, in terms of what happens when the strategy is employed not as a deterrent threat but an escalatory attack. First, how prevalent is belief in the strategy’s efficacy among decision makers in the U.S.? Secondly, why (or under what conditions) do experts believe such a strategy might work? Finally, does evidence exist to support belief in the efficacy of E2DE strategy? My dissertation research seeks to answer these questions through a multi-method approach utilizing expert interviews, a survey experiment and a historical review of wargames and military exercises specifically related to the concept of limited nuclear war.
I argue that a majority of the U.S. strategic community believes that “limiting” nuclear war is difficult and unlikely but nevertheless believes the U.S. should develop specific strategies and capabilities for limited nuclear war, rather than simply relying on other deterrence strategies, such as assured retaliation or asymmetric escalation. I also suggest that a significant portion of the U.S. strategic community believes that nuclear adversaries embrace a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, I hypothesize that a significant portion of experts believe that the U.S. needs to have a similar strategy in response, both to deter adversaries as well as to respond in kind. Adopting this strategy is potentially catastrophic. If both parties to a nuclear conflict believe that escalation is a path to coercive success and war termination, a cyclical reciprocation of destructive proportions is a likely result.
In order to interrogate this intuition, my first research question asks: What do U.S. leaders, experts and members of the United States strategic community, including decision makers in the nuclear command and control enterprise, think about the feasibility of conducting limited nuclear war? In other words, what are their beliefs about the ability to control and limit escalation in a nuclear war? I also ask how these experts think about the strategy of E2DE among nuclear powers. I plan to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews among members of the U.S. strategic community, which includes a variety of high-ranking military officers, civilian Department of Defense officials, think tank analysts, and other members of U.S. nuclear command and control organizations. Thankfully, due to my ongoing military service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, I have unique access to many of these individuals and my previous military experiences and contacts will be of great help in this research.
With a deeper understanding of the beliefs of this strategic community, the next step will be to compare those beliefs to empirical evidence. Are these leaders and potential decision makers correct in their assessment of the viability of such a strategy?
I will investigate two different but complementary sets of data. First, I will conduct a survey experiment utilizing a hypothetical future scenario between the U.S. and a smaller nuclear power. In this experiment, respondents will represent the U.S. and will be asked about their preferred response when placed in a situation where the adversary attempts to achieve war termination through escalation, i.e. an attempt at E2DE. This will help me answer the question of whether or not the employment of nuclear weapons (detonation of a nuclear weapon to achieve some physical and psychological effect on the adversary) in a conflict makes escalation more or less likely than an equivalent conventional (non-nuclear) attack.
The next component of my study will address the question: What historical evidence exists from past wargames and military training exercises to support or refute a belief that a strategy of E2DE might work among nuclear powers? To investigate this question, I will conduct a historical review of wargames and military exercises conducted by the U.S. and NATO, and other countries where available, in the nuclear era (post-1945) to assess the relationship between conflict escalation and war termination, or the strategy of E2DE among nuclear states. A wargame, as defined by wargaming expert Peter Perla is “a warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, and in which the flow of events is shaped by decisions made by a human player or players.”
My goal in this portion of my research is to examine available records of wargames and exercises, like Operations Sagebrush, Carte Blanche, and Able Archer, akin to what Reid Pauly, professor of nuclear security and political science at Brown University, did with U.S. wargames in “Would U.S. Leaders push the button?” In his piece, Pauly systematically reviewed past wargames with elite level participants as a research method to assess when and why leaders might choose to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. In my project, the universe of cases would include games and exercises in which deliberate escalations were perpetrated by at least one side, whether use of nuclear weapons or other forms of escalatory attacks. I will be looking at instances where one side attempts to escalate to de-escalate, whether or not through nuclear attacks, and what adversary response and escalation dynamics occurred in the wake of this decision.
As an example, in 1967 two very high-level politico-military wargame exercises known as BETA I and II – 67 were conducted by researchers and senior Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon. During these games, both sides, representing the U.S. and the Soviet teams, experimented with attempts at E2DE with both conventional and nuclear weapons. The attempts were only successful once out of the four tries made by both sides. The one successful attempt was accomplished with conventional weapons, with the nuclear attempts resulting in cyclical reciprocation ending in massive nuclear exchange. Numerous other wargaming records are available for similar analysis and may be able to tell us important things about the dangers or merits of escalating to de-escalate.
One advantage to this method is that in games where the debates and arguments around decision making have been recorded it is possible to gather information about how decision makers were thinking and what their reasoning was. As Pauly recently explained for the Watson Institute, crisis simulations are useful as research tools in order to “see problems in different ways, anticipate unintended consequences, generate unanticipated outcomes, pose new questions to ask, and reveal unknown assumptions.” My research agenda asks important questions, the answers to which are likely to inform decision makers’ strategies for deterrence as well as their likelihood of engaging in conflicts that risk nuclear escalation. As the United States, Russia, Pakistan and other states increasingly explore the idea of lower-yield, shorter range, high accuracy weapons for “tactical” or “limited” use, and update their existing nuclear arsenals (in some cases bringing back weapons systems previously retired), understanding escalation dynamics in a nuclear war is of the utmost urgency. My project aims to help the U.S. strategic community and potential policy and decision makers to be cognizant of their own beliefs, to be aware of available evidence to support or challenge those beliefs and to acknowledge the implications if beliefs and evidence are misaligned. At a minimum, these misalignments may result in inefficient use of limited resources. Of more concern might be deterrence strategies and policies that are ineffective and may reduce stability between nuclear powers. Most importantly, if leaders are wrong about the ability to employ nuclear weapons as a de-escalatory measure the potential consequences could be a devastating nuclear war, something which is clearly in no one’s best interest.
What if you get diagnosed with cancer? What if your beloved family member, partner, or friend gets diagnosed with cancer? The news may fill you with fear and despair. Particularly, what if you get diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM)? GBM is the most aggressive type of brain cancer with an average overall survival of 15~21 months after the first diagnosis. Moreover, GBM patients’ 5-year survival rate is less than 7%, one of the lowest among all cancers. Although treatment for other types of cancer is becoming more and more successful, current treatment options for GBM are largely ineffective and inevitably result in relapse and death. However, at the Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and Plasticity at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, we are working on innovative new treatments for GBM. One of these projects is called GliaTrap.
What’s Drug discovery process?
How does a new treatment get discovered? The drug discovery process is divided into three steps:
1. Drug Discovery and Development.
2. Preclinical Research
3. Clinical Research.
During Step 1, researchers elucidate the mechanisms of disease progression, which leads to the discovery and development of a treatment that inhibits the disease process. Once a potential therapeutic candidate is selected, this candidate will go to Step 2 where researchers test the safety, side effects, how the drug affects the body, how the body responds to the drug, and so forth. Preclinical research requires a different laboratory setting than an Academic Research Lab and it should be monitored by a third party (e.g. the FDA in the US). Once this therapeutic candidate is determined to be safe enough, then this treatment will go to Step 3, Clinical Research, where its efficacy in human patients will be tested. This entire process takes about 10-15 years for a single treatment candidate to become available to patients.
Current therapies for GBM include surgical removal, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of those. Each treatment modality has its own advantages and disadvantages. Surgery removes most of the bulk tumor but it cannot remove individual cells, which remain in the brain. Chemotherapy is normally administered to treat these remaining GBM cells, however it is challenging to specifically target the distributed GBM cells without killing the surrounding healthy normal cells. Radiation therapy has similar disadvantages as chemotherapy since targeting only cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy normal cells is impossible. As explained above, all the current approaches face huge clinical challenges, which makes GBM currently impossible to treat.
To address this challenge, we are developing a new technique for GBM therapy: GliaTrap. GliaTrap basically functions just like a Japanese cockroach trap “Gokiburi hoihoi”, a container that houses foods to attract cockroaches and drugs to kill the attracted cockroaches. For the concept of GliaTrap, you should think of cancer cells in the brain like the cockroaches in my example. (Figure 2). GliaTrap uses a biocompatible material called hydrogel, like the container of the Gokiburi hoihoi, to house food and drugs that lure and kill cancer cells. Food for cancer cells is called a chemoattractant, and GliaTrap uses this molecule to lure the residual GBM cells post-surgery to the vicinity of the empty space, just like a cockroach trap uses food to attract cockroaches. Once these cancer cells are attracted to GliaTrap, GliaTrap uses an anti-tumor agent to kill those cells at the vicinity of the empty space without causing significant damage to healthy cells, just like cockroach traps use drugs to kill the cockroaches. We hope that GliaTrap will be able to eliminate the remaining cancer cells from the surgery to prevent tumor recurrence.
GliaTrap can utilize not only anti-tumor agents, but also lure/use the body’s natural immune cells. Anti-tumor agents in GliaTrap can be replaced with immune cell activators, molecules that boost the ability of immune cells to attack cancer cells. GliaTrap can serve as a new treatment delivery method in concert with surgical removal and chemotherapy. GliaTrap combines targeted capture and drug release to increase therapeutic efficacy and safety by selectively killing the cancer cells that surgical removal and chemotherapy might miss. As a result, GliaTrap could increase the survival rate of GBM patients.
Looking forward, GliaTrap can potentially be applied to other types of invasive cancers that don’t have effective current treatments such as pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a similar treatment protocol – surgical removal followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of those. GliaTrap could be implanted into the empty space created by removal of pancreatic cancer cells, and perform in a similar way as described for GBM by choosing an optimal chemoattractant for pancreatic cancer cells. To ensure the coverage of capturing cancer cells, genetic profiles of cancer cells can be investigated and optimal chemoattractants can be utilized. Chemoattractants and therapies can be selected based on the genetic profiles of cancer patients, and GliaTrap can be tailor-made for each patient. With continued effort, GliaTrap could become a platform for combination therapies for various types of cancers contribute to personalized treatments options.
The GliaTrap project has great potential but as every paradigm shifting discovery, it comes with many challenges. It needs a lot more studies to prove its effectiveness and safety before it can be applied to patients. Ultimately, with our work at the Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and Plasticity, we hope to help patients and their loved ones to no longer view the diagnosis of cancer as a death sentence, but rather as a challenge that can be overcome with the right treatment.
1. Louis, D. N. et al. The 2016 World Health Organization Classification of Tumors of the Central Nervous System: a summary. Acta Neuropathologica 131, 803–820 (2016).
2. Toms, S. A., Kim, C. Y., Nicholas, G. & Ram, Z. Increased compliance with tumor treating fields therapy is prognostic for improved survival in the treatment of glioblastoma: a subgroup analysis of the EF-14 phase III trial. J Neurooncol 141, 467–473 (2019).
When you think of colonizing a planet, your mind may turn to a science fiction-like existence: new and cutting-edge technologies you could never have dreamed of; humans living in enclosed habitats; and harsh, unforgiving environments that must be tamed in order to survive. What you may not think of is that humans have done it before—here, on Earth.
I am a member of the Shinnecock Nation and a planetary scientist. Originally, I saw my native identity as extraneous to my scientific career. How could my indigenous knowledge ever help me when researching a completely different world? But the more I delved into my work, the more I saw there were problems that could be solved using “Two Eyed Seeing”.
Two Eyed Seeing is a term originally coined by Mik’maw elder Albert Marshall and introduced to me by Dr. Roger Dube, a Mohawk Native from the Rochester Institute of Technology. The term refers to using western and indigenous scientific approaches simultaneously. The indigenous approach to science places an emphasis on observation and working in a way that is synergistic with what the natural world already offers, while western science follows the typical scientific method of posing a question and conducting an experiment. Importantly, because of the focus on synergy with the natural world, indigenous science generally has a lower impact on environmental surroundings when used responsibly.
The inaugural manned mission to Mars is expected in 2024 for SpaceX and in the 2030’s for NASA, and with humans reaching the Red Planet we may be headed towards colonization. The first step to approaching Mars’ colonization through a more indigenous lens is to remember that we must view the planet as a living thing and as a provider. In many North American indigenous cultures, we refer to the land that indigenous people inhabit as “Turtle Island”, a term that harkens back to a creation story1 which describes how we live on the back of a giant turtle moving through the oceans. In that sense, while you have been permitted to live on this being, you must also respect it, for it too is alive. Mars may not be as prolific a provider as Earth, but there are resources there that can be worked in tandem with rather than simply exploited. We don’t have to be a resource-hungry culture going from planet to planet using up everything that we can and moving on.
Every kilogram of resources imported from Earth costs large amounts of money, fuel, and time to reach Mars. If we brought fertilizer and soil there, both highly dense items, these would be literally worth more than their weight in gold. Thus, the respect for the resources on Mars becomes important not only from a moral standpoint, but also from economic and logistical standpoints. On Mars, water-ice is abundant beneath the surface, especially in polar regions. It can be melted for drinking, daily necessities and other purposes. It can also be transformed into rocket fuel by splitting the water molecules into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Building materials found on Mars, such as easily accessible iron from meteorites on the surface and regolith, could be used to build habitats with 3D printing. Through an indigenous approach we can learn to utilize these resources while sustaining them for long-term growth and future exploration. Traditionally, many indigenous communities in the Americas grew their own food, amended soil naturally and organically, and were able to create a self-sufficient, near-vegetarian community. Corns, beans, and squash, known to many tribes as “the three sisters”, were grown together in a beneficial, symbiotic arrangement quite different from the monocrop, non-rotational farming that is currently popular in the food growth industry. The beans added nitrogen back to the soil to be used by the corn and squash, the corn provided a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash served as a living mulch that fought off pests with its prickly texture. These three foods together rounded out the complete nutritional needs of a human, however they were not the varieties you are used to buying in a grocery store.
Due to colonization and the forced removal of native peoples, as well as the assimilation tactics used, most tribes no longer grow their own food and many heritage species have been lost. The switch to grocery store varieties has seriously impacted native communities, especially those in “food deserts” where the reservation residents do not have a true supermarket nearby. The increased sugars in today’s varieties, along with low food budgets forcing people to choose less healthy options has caused an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, with rates as high as 60% among the adults of some tribes. Traditional or “heritage” indigenous foods are higher in nutritional value and many were cultivated to be resistant to various specific environmental conditions. These resistances were developed over thousands of years of seed selection for desirable traits and this work can be utilized and continued in an off-planet habitat where a unique and unfamiliar environment will allow certain seeds to thrive and become the newly selected seeds.
According to a talk given at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference in 2020 by Dr. Gioia Massa of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the current focus for food growth in a Mars habitat is on crops that can be eaten fresh or, with the future addition of a heating apparatus, staple crops that can be consumed with minimal preparation and cooking. While using the three sisters as the main crops may not be viable for the early missions, as the post-preparation needs of a crop are fundamentally important to optimizing astronaut time, the variety of each of the crops considered, as well as the production methods, can be scrutinized as well.
One method that would save significant transportation cost and would put us a step closer to future terraforming would be to use a direct sow method of plant production; in other words, to use the soil available on Mars to grow the plants. The general martian soil is not hospitable to plants; it is sandy, low in nutrients, and in some areas has high levels of salts and perchlorates which are poisonous to the emerging plant life. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas which may be hospitable.
With the support of my PhD advisors Jack Mustard and Jim Head, I decided to test the viability of growing heritage crops in martian soils, and to determine if the soils with a large clay component would allow for viable plants to grow. The plant variety I chose was Bear Island flint corn, which was traditionally grown on islands with isolated ecosystems by the Chippewa/Ojibwa tribe and was ground into meal and flour. This variety was recently popularized within indigenous communities in the Midwest by the tribal food sovereignty activist Winona LaDuke because it is resistant to drought, high winds, and contains nearly 12% protein, more than twice the amount as other varieties.
I planted the corn in three soil types: MiracleGro Seed Starter Formula (a control for comparison), Exolith lab’s MGS-1 (a martian soil simulant representative of the general martian soil composition), and MGS-1C (an amended version of MGS-1 that contains 40% smectite clays and is representative of the soil at the Mars Perseverance planned landing site). The corn was kept in a grow chamber at ideal conditions for corn growth (65% humidity, 16 hours of light, and 22ºC), cared for daily by the wonderful folks at the Brown Plant Environmental Center, and never fed fertilizer or other additives. Other studies that have successfully grown plants in martian soils have mainly added nitrogen based fertilizer, which would be extremely expensive to bring due to its weight.
The seeds planted in the MiracleGro had an 81.25% germination rate (13/16); they germinated in only 4 days after planting. The seeds in the MGS-1 soil had a 0% germination rate (0/16); nothing was able to grow at all. Interestingly, the seeds in the MGS-1C had a 31.25% germination rate (5/16) and ranged in time to germination between 17-21 days. The published germination time for this variety of corn was 9-14 days under normal conditions, and admittedly these conditions were far better than normal. The published germination time is significantly more than that shown with the MiracleGro soil, but less than that seen from the MGS-1C seeds.
In martian-type soil with a clay component, the corn was able to germinate. This means that we can use the soils present on the planet rather than bringing in other resources if a landing site with sufficient clay content is chosen. The benefit of using certain heritage plants is their viability in difficult environmental conditions. Corn may not be a crop grown by the first missions, but looking past the common plant varieties seen today and considering traditional heritage crops will still allow knowledge of indigenous food practices to be utilized. By using a direct sow method, the plants that are grown in these soils will begin to produce seeds more adapted to the planet, continuing the centuries-old practice of selecting plants for hardiness. .
Other native principles, such as using all parts of a resource, similar to the zero waste movement today, point towards a sustainable cycle where we could use the inedible parts of plants to compost and rejuvenate the soils, or perhaps even use pre-composted human waste to add fertilizer and increase rates of germination and growth. Native people speak about building for the seventh generation. Mars will eventually be colonized, so we should take steps now to ensure that it will be done in a way that we can be proud of seven generations later. I believe that by considering the people who were most affected by the colonization that occurred on this planet, we can learn the lessons we need to effectively and honorably colonize another.
We’re all on unsure footing here. We weren’t sure what this week and the return to classes — albeit in an entirely different format — would look like, and we weren’t sure what The Ratty would look like in the wake of the changes to the Brown community. Rather than pushing forward, pretending everything was functioning as normal, we wanted to address what this situation feels like to grad students. And because we are primarily a blog, we wrote about it. The rest of this article features our editors discussing how they’re dealing with digital learning, sheltering-in-place, and the world in the wake of the pandemic. I wasn’t sure how I was going to introduce such a peculiar, composite article, so to prepare you I thought I would provide a list of various titles this piece has been known by:
Ratty Editors Vent About Being A Grad Student During COVID-19
Ratty Editors in Isolation
Grad Students in Isolation
I Have the Drive to Create but Am Paralyzed by Anxiety, What Should I Do?
What If We All Just Vented Our Feelings into a Google Doc?
Professionally, I thought social distancing would be a cinch. I’m a computational chemist – no wet lab, no on-site instrumentation, no live specimens, and thus, no physical location required! Yet the strain to perform my work has… well… soared in intensity, weighing heavier each day, as the mental and emotional burdens grow.
I’m an avid climber and aikido practitioner – two physical, social activities that I thrived on. My drive to research was fueled by these outlets, and I called on them regularly to reset for each new day. Then, I was told to stop. To refrain from my restorative lifelines, in order to prevent the worst. Even though I understood, I felt wounded and afraid as my lifelines suddenly vanished.
I’m afraid to feel loneliness and despair. I’m anxious, uncertain of each step forward. I’m angry — regrettably, at myself — when I struggle to accept these emotional pains as “reasonable” explanations for delays. I yearn to return to our earlier status, to break free of this physical confinement and emotional turbulence. I continue to hope that this situation will evaporate. Yet, I accept that this may be the norm for quite some time.
So, I’ve begun improving how I carry this new burden. I’ve found time to self-reflect. I might be climbing my door frames. My friends and I, near and far, have embraced remote connectivity. For as long as this may last, I aim to be kind to myself, to create new outlets, and to brace for the rest of the ride.
Honestly, the week off before spring break came as a relief to me. I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, and I was being handed extra time to focus on my reading lists instead of class preparations. So I holed up in my apartment, surrounded by antiquated computer hardware and piles of what material I was able to grab from the library before it closed.
And I’ve been able to accomplish so little.
Comps are an inherently stressful time, no matter how often your advisors repeat the fact that they shouldn’t be. And I was already scared — afraid that I wouldn’t be a good enough student, that I would be deemed unworthy to continue my education here. But now, in addition to the fear that I won’t pass, that I don’t belong, there’s the fear of the Academia I will enter into even if I succeed. Job positions have been put on hold, hiring frozen, and some schools have even closed permanently. The world on the other side of these exams is unimaginable; right now, it’s hard to conceive that I can make it there, and that I’ll recognize the landscape if I do.
And then there’s the guilt. I’ve watched my friends lose jobs and close their businesses in an effort to flatten the curve with no assurance that they’ll ever reopen. Others post about taking their family members to the hospital, sick with the virus, and being unable to visit them, to be with them as they convalesce (or don’t). I’ve been so fixated on my uncertain future that I’ve lost sight of what others have sacrificed, and while I know I have the right to my anxiety, I still feel guilty about being upset over *so* much less. So I’ve tried to donate what I can, especially to circusstudios that I have counted as a second home, but now it’s near the end of the month and the declined payments and overdraft notices are coming in.
And then I’m angry — at the people online who tell me it’s okay for this semester to be bad, that our energy should be spent not on ensuring “A”s in classes but on supporting our fellow humans. But it’s not okay for me to phone in my comps. And how dare all these talented artists and community establishments make their work available online, when I can’t spend my time accessing it because I have to study? And the nerve of my friends to want to check in on me and reach out over Zoom and Discord, when I’m staring blankly into space trying to muster the energy to do the work that I have to do?
I will take breaks in the middle of reading chapters to sob, and then, drained, try to find where I left off on the page. But it’s never what I remember reading.
Uncertainty makes me uncomfortable and always has. I am an obsessive planner; keeping my life scheduled and in order does a lot to keep any anxieties at bay. This time of crisis is the clear opposite of planned and scheduled, which has left me feeling anxious in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. In perhaps a strange twist, I was able to get a lot of work done in the week off we were given before Spring Break. I dove back into projects with gusto, projects that had long been left on the back-burner of my to-do list. After all, I am in the humanities – if I am able to get my hands on reading material, I can do my job. Then communications from professors started to come in.
I am very lucky to have some truly compassionate professors this semester. It is no coincidence that their classes were the ones in which I always felt time moved too quickly, where I wanted nothing more than to talk through these ideas for another hour. Emails from them have been kind, clear, and gentle. Reading them eased more anxiety than I could have guessed. However, these professors are contingent faculty, on the job market when most institutions have hiring freezes. I wish their compassion and understanding in this time when their tenured counterparts are not always doing the same could be rewarded with some kind of support. Of course, it won’t be.
I tell myself that I am angry about how unfair all of this is. Unfair to those students who look to their schools as a safe haven from their difficult backgrounds. Unfair to those contingent faculty doing the most they can for their students while struggling with their own precarity. Unfair to those grad students who have been desperately seeking feedback from advisers and knowing there is no way they will get it now. But I think I’m mostly angry about the loss of the things that kept me sane throughout grad school that I no longer have access to, the things that my professors probably didn’t realize I needed to keep going with my work.
I miss my weekly climbing gym dates where E.L. and I would challenge our bodies and let off steam about the latest week as a grad student. I miss my early morning long runs where I got my head on straight before sitting down in my office. I miss my LGBTQ running group and the wisdom of people who had dealt with the same problems and always had ample advice. I miss my bookshelf. I miss riding my bike to campus. I miss a lot. For now, I try to schedule Zoom meetings with friends to get some or any of these back in any form possible. As classes start back up virtually this week, I guess I am waiting to see how successful these replacements will come to be.
I find myself in the fortunate position where I am able to continue my research unabated in Providence, while my family in Canada and India are also largely unaffected by the ongoing crises. Admittedly, there are minor inconveniences and a few challenges: using a slow VPN connection to transfer files back and forth from storage servers at Brown, finding new ways to exercise from a cramped apartment, and assisting bewildered technophobic professors with the transition to online classes.
However, I cannot complain too much considering the nightmare many of my international student colleagues are grappling with: the sheer frustration from their research coming to a grinding halt, made worse by the feeling of helplessness as the number of cases continues to dramatically increase back home for their family and friends. I can only empathize and offer words of encouragement. Know that we are all in this together, that our community is strong, and “this, too, shall pass”.
We don’t have any answers. Everyone wears isolation and pandemic differently. We suggest that starting from a place of kindness and compassion is probably good, but we’re not sure what the next steps are. Brown Counseling and Psychological Services remain open — a good resource if you aren’t sure where to start. And in the meantime:
Content Warning: The content of this piece engages with the topic of eating disorders.
As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one morning, I stumbled across an “inspiration” page. Among snapshots of long-limbed models posing in Parisian couture ateliers and close-up shots of clavicles protruding from power pink, feather-stitched garments, appeared images of decadent food—chocolate-covered croissants, overflowing cheese boards, and creamy pasta dishes. The page staged a clear aesthetic cross-fertilization between economic wealth, physical slenderness, and rich, “pretty-looking” food. The trickery and the dishonesty of this association lies in thinking of this fattening food as being consumed by the emaciated beauty who appears in the picture beside it. Although the women looked positively starving, the ostentatious display of food hinted at their supposed—probably contrived—bon vivant nature. Perhaps unwittingly, this entire page tapped into stereotypical representations of femininity in French culture, where changing fashion trends, cultural roles, and dietary regimes require that, while she must remain slender, the French woman never holds back.
The gazelle-like creature of the “ideal” model goes back to mid-nineteenth-century France, during which time both dresses and bodies were getting slimmer and longer. Women were becoming more active, leaving their stovetops for more enthralling pursuits. The corset’s tyranny was fading and women’s bodies were starting to be liberated from centuries of restraint and decades of containment. Paul Poiret’s designs were much more draped than they were structured, thus liberating women’s upper bodies and elongating their silhouettes. Coco Chanel made hemlines go up and waistlines go down, and clothing—rather than supporting and shaping the body—was slowly but surely reclaiming its own space.
Meanwhile, although access to good quality food improved during the nineteenth century, the typical French diet remained meagre. In his book France Fin-de-Siecle, Eugen Weber describes the eating habits of the French as “a continuous fast” (Weber, 65). Fashion magazines and beauty manuals of the time encouraged women to not overeat: overeating was described as gastrolary — harmful to gut health — and perceived as greedy, almost immoral. In her Cabinet de Toilette, the Baroness Staffe recommends the following daily diet: a glass of milk for breakfast, an egg and a vegetable for lunch, and a light dinner that must exclude meat, liquors or wines, condiments, and spices. She even encourages eating to be done secretly, safe from the prying eyes of husbands or domestic servants. But around the dinner table, it was recommended that women continue to adopt the air and attitude of someone who both enjoys and engages in the arts of the table.
In nineteenth-century France, economic wealth and access to food have always gone hand-in-hand. The type of performative eating on display at the dinner table was limited to the women of the bourgeoisie, those who could afford a great deal more than what they were encouraged to consume. In the nineteenth century, a slender figure could be obtained through voluntary self-inflicted hardships rather than through a painful remodelling of the body by items of clothing. As dangerous and unsafe as it was, a corset could have made a plump body look slimmer. As the corset fell out of vogue, it became harder for women to look thinner than they actually were, since food restriction required time, commitment, and consistency.
Nowadays, fitness and Instagram models have attempted—sometimes with success—to restore the reputation of the corset’s cheap sister: the waist trainer. However, thinness achieved through food control remains a popular method. While the deformation of the body by fashion(able) objects sounds bad enough, a self-inflicted method of starvation seems even worse to me. Food restriction may cause irreversible damage to the organs and the flesh, including thyroid malfunction, severe dehydration, heart failure, and other complications. But in order to reach the highest peak of glamour, I argue that one must never make this sacrifice visible. A woman appearing to indulge in decadent eating is perceived as glamorous as long as she physically looks like she never does.
We can observe the unfolding of this specific stratagem in modern fashion videos. The world renown fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue recently started publishing short videos of models getting (runway) ready, giving viewers a glimpse into what their daily lives look like. In a video showcasing the Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill, simply entitled “Bergdorf! Bodegas! Hot Cheetos!”, we see Hill lying on the floor of a luxurious fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York City’s most famous and costly stores. She is wearing a sumptuous baby blue gown covered in silver sequins and taffeta flowers, with a bowl of chips nestled between her breasts. “I can eat a whole bag [of Cheetos] in, like, one go,” she says after having already taken a bite out of a lobster sandwich. Suki Waterhouse, in Vogue’s “Diary of a Model” video, is seen ordering a grilled cheese and fries at a restaurant before going to a Jeremy Scott fashion shoot. In “How Model Birgit Kos Gets Runway Ready”, the twenty-four-year-old Dutch model enthusiastically asks for a plate of crepes.
In none of these videos, however, do we ever see the models take more than one small bite of the junk food in front of them. Indeed, Vogue seems to force-feed the spectator with the distorted idea that stick-figure models eat vast quantities of food every day. The magazine also intends to trick us into thinking that these models’ staged behaviors are absolutely authentic. Could this be an attempt to make the women seem more relatable? Could it also serve the false depiction of the model-like figure as a surreal or unreal creature? A goddess whose body would not be subjected—like us—to the laws of nature? In any case, we are given an idea contrary to the familiar notion that a woman must suffer for beauty.
As a fashion scholar and a freelance model myself, I find it to be the most extraordinary insult to the legitimacy of the fashion industry to make fashion enthusiasts believe these icons are no different than the girl next door, to make it look like the woman who embodies timeless, mysterious, modern beauty standards also has fingers covered in Cheeto dust. This is not to say I wish for Vogue to showcase proudly starving models, nor do I assume that models who claim to eat nothing other than kale and lettuce are lying. I think that fashion should avoid going out of its way to convince us that traditional beauty standards can be achieved through unhealthiness and excess. I believe this process actually takes away from the enunciative role of fashion as an elaborate creative system, both capable of producing beauty and rendering us sensible to it. Instead, it convinces us all that fashion beauty standards are attainable, even and especially when one engages in excess, and reminds us that a true mark of effortless elegance—in good old French tradition—is to seemingly engage in excess without ever truly doing so.
The Hebrew Bible serves as the foundation of several modern religions, from Judaism to Lutheranism. The study of this ancient text is a complex and multi-layered discipline, embracing methodologies from a variety of fields and drawing influence from as many places as it reaches. Bias in biblical scholarship is widespread, affecting both scholarly training and commonly used sources, meaning that certain viewpoints are often privileged over others. In particular, scholars of the Hebrew Bible often overlook the role of Egyptian historical actors and non-elites of the ancient world. One way to ensure the inclusion of such traditionally marginalized voices is to employ socio-anthropological and historical-critical methods in biblical scholarship.
Scholarship of the Hebrew Bible focuses primarily on analysis of the Bible as a composite text, a collection of originally independent stories combined into one document long after the historical period each tale claims to describe. One theory used to describe the text’s composition is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis posits the existence of four independent, original sources known as the Jahwist (Yahwist), Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly texts, which were later combined within the Pentateuch to form the Hebrew Bible as it is known today. Scholars argue that each of these original source texts contains a specific agenda and a particular perspective. In order to determine the cultural context which informs each individual text, scholars must choose what kinds of comparative evidence to foreground in their research, introducing another layer of bias into the study of the Hebrew Bible.
Many biblical scholars approach their research from the standpoint of either archaeological or textual evidence. The refusal to integrate the two approaches often means that scholars lack a complete picture of a particular text’s history, which might be achieved by using all the available evidence. Due to the standard path laid out for a biblical scholar-in-training, the most common sources for comparative evidence, both textual and archaeological, include Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and eastern Syria), and the Levant (modern Israel, western Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey). This choice of geography, made by generations of scholars, is predictable. Textual comparisons between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example, are numerous. Yet the refusal to integrate archaeology and textual criticism into biblical scholarship, as well as the continued focus on comparisons with the Ancient Near East, has meant that the Bible’s connection to other ancient cultures remains under-scrutinized.
While textual comparisons with Mesopotamian materials are useful, it is important to recognize the potential biases of Mesopotamian authors. These writers likely represent elite scribal and political classes, with the requisite wealth and status to be exposed to language learning in an advanced professional position. But what about the non-elites? Do their lifestyles reflect the influence of the conquerors of their land coming from far-off Mesopotamia? To untangle this complexity, we must incorporate comparative materials from other cultures bordering the Levant and Mesopotamia to elucidate the lives and beliefs of the non-elites within ancient Israelite society. If the texts reflect upper-class biases, how can we discern elements of the lifestyles of non-elites, particularly those that are influenced by a foreign entity?
Foreign powers in the ancient world tended to display tactics of political imperialism, economic imperialism, and cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism can be used as a lens by the historian to examine the impact of a foreign culture upon all levels of society. In modern terms, cultural imperialism is most commonly used to describe the influential media of world powers, such as the United States, infiltrating daily lives and influencing cultures across the globe. For instance, the term was used recently by the president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in regard to Netflix. The term can, however, be used to discuss the ancient world, and provides an important framework for examining how foreign powers outside of Mesopotamia exerted great influence over the Levant during the biblical period.
My work on multiple archaeological excavations of Iron Age Israelite sites (c. 1000-586 BCE), primarily domestic areas far from ancient cities, suggests the value of new perspectives. Early on, I was struck by the absence of material culture in these sites related to Mesopotamia, in comparison with fairly regular finds of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, objects. While Mesopotamia is cast as the enemy in the literature of the Israelite period (c. 1000-586 BCE), the Levant was under Egyptian control during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200 BCE) and is simply closer to Egypt than to Mesopotamia. Why, then, do we continue to rely almost solely on Mesopotamian materials in comparative work when the archaeological evidence frankly demands a focus on Egypt? The reality is that, by the time the Hebrew Bible was being composed, Egyptian rulers had lost much of its influence in the region and was not a political threat in the minds of the biblical authors, except for a brief period in the late seventh century BCE. Remnants of Egypt’s powerful distant past remain in the minds of the authors, represented in stories such as the Joseph novella. Unfortunately, arguments about Egyptian influence on the Hebrew Bible tend to lead to meaningless debates, resulting in the few new perspectives regarding the impact cultural contact with Egypt and other neighboring societies on the people of the Levant and on the content of the Hebrew Bible.
I argue that Israelite cultural identity is more closely related to that of Egypt, especially at the lower echelons of society. In fact, Egyptian-style scarabs, scaraboids, and Bes figurines are central to local Israelite domestic religion and culture. This is in stark contrast to the portrait of Israelite culture painted within the Hebrew Bible, which displays a gradual shift to centralized worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, particularly under the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This shift is, in my opinion, solely textual, based on the specific religious and political agendas of the scribes who authored these biblical texts. As members of the Jerusalem elite, the scribal school saw as its enemies the Neo-Assyrians and, later, the Neo-Babylonians of Mesopotamia, who threatened to overtake their position in Israelite culture. At the same time, however, Israelite domestic life amongst the populace continued to function as it had for several centuries. This continuation represented not the Mesopotamian culture that threatened the elites but rather a local identity that reflected many aspects of neighboring Egyptian culture, lingering after years of Egyptian rule.
The archaeological record displays Egyptian cultural imperialism reaching down even to the lower rungs of society. The prevalence of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, material culture, like the examples mentioned above, points to influences from the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors which is not echoed by political powers in Mesopotamia. While biblical scholars will likely continue to use Mesopotamian material as a key point of comparison, we must be aware that influences from other powers such as the Egyptians and the Hittites may not always be reflected in the textual record.
I identify as a historian and scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, though many in my field would avoid such a title. Employing both literary and historical methodologies provides a framework for incorporating additional evidence into the study of this ancient text. I study the complex creation of the Hebrew Bible in conjunction with a variety of textual and archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct the historical, social, and political realities of the period. This extra-biblical evidence is extensive, including texts written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, multiple stages of the Egyptian language, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and other languages that range in time period from about 3,000 BCE to the 1st millennium CE. By incorporating this additional material, I seek to understand groups that are often overlooked in traditional analyses but have important perspectives to offer on the historical context of the Hebrew Bible’s creation. Rather than continuing to search for comparative evidence in the literature of Mesopotamian elites, we must recognize the global character of the Ancient Near East as well as its deep local social networks of actors. Drawing on historical methods like cultural imperialism and focusing on traditionally overlooked cultures encourages scholars to think about the Hebrew Bible from below and beyond.
[A note on pronunciation of Old Norse: ‘ð’ and ‘Þ’ are both pronounced ‘th’; ’æ’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’; ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘y’.]
We live in an era of ‘fake news.’ Fraudulent Facebook accounts and alternative facts have shined a new spotlight on the importance of equal and uncompromised access to the truth. Are biased information sources purely a modern symptom of today’s politics and the unregulated wilderness of the internet? The women of Viking Age Iceland might beg to differ. At times, disinformation and false reporting were utilized to devastating effect in the sagas recorded by medieval Icelandic authors. Even within this temporally distant and culturally distinct context, we can examine how fake news was wielded against medieval women in explicit efforts to undermine their agency.
In 1000 CE, on a small, glaciated island almost a thousand miles from mainland Europe, news meant oral testimony carried on horseback from homestead to homestead, or ferried across storm-tossed oceans on the tongues of travelers. In a world of slow, oral news, far removed from the infrastructure of modern media, we can revisit basic questions about the dissemination of information we moderns might take for granted. What was newsworthy? Where did news come from? Who was responsible for its circulation? How was information verified, and who was able to access it? All of these questions are difficult for scholars of the Viking Age to answer; written sources of the period are few, and those that do exist don’t privilege oral news. In other words, no letters, newspapers, or notice-boards tell us how information was presented in 11th-century Iceland.
With limited contemporaneous textual records of Viking Age Iceland, we have to turn to alternative sources to piece together answers to these questions. What we know about the lives of Viking migrants and Icelandic settlers around the turn of the first millennium comes primarily from archaeological sources, genealogical records, and the later Icelandic sagas. The sagas were written in Old Norse during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, two or three hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, by Christian clerics, or other church-taught men, in large vellum manuscripts. The sagas relay entertaining legends of Icelandic settlement and details of fiery family feuds, but they are a problematic source for a historian of the Viking Age, given the centuries-wide gap between their creation and the time being described. Whether or not the sagas can be treated as settlement-era sources, they can tell us what 12th-century Icelanders believed or hoped life was like for their ancestors, and they can reveal the attitudes and morals of their later (elite, male) authors.
As is the case for many medieval written sources in Western Europe and beyond, the sagas and other Icelandic texts of the period privilege the actions and perspectives of men. Icelandic laws, first written down in the 13th century but likely codified in an oral tradition much earlier, suggest that women had little de jure authority, though they did have the right to divorce their husbands (for, among other reasons, wearing low-cut shirts).
Despite the fact that women had fewer rights and limited access to wealth or education, the Icelandic sagas are notable among other medieval sources for their rich depictions of outspoken and intimidating woman characters wielding de facto power within the family and sometimes in society at large. The 13th-century Laxdælasaga, or Saga of the Laxdalers, is so sensitive to the experiences of women that some scholars even suggest it may have been written by a woman.
Whether or not it comes from a woman’s hand, Laxdælasaga revolves around a host of complex women characters. Many episodes detail the frustrations of navigating social, legal, and physical structures created by and for men. One of these obstacles is the process of obtaining information, a relatively tedious project for everyone in the medieval world, but particularly so for women living on isolated farms, where news traveled only as fast as the fastest Icelandic pony could tölt.
Generally confined to the home and discouraged from travelling on their own, women probably relied on male visitors to relay news from the outside world. Middlemen controlling women’s access to information results in notable and familiar problems for which we now have modern buzzwords, such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, ‘fake news.’
Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is one of the protagonists of Laxdælasaga, a beautiful and intelligent farmer’s daughter who nonetheless has difficulty finding and keeping a good man. Her first marriage to Þorvaldr is brief, unhappy, and ends in divorce. Her second husband, Þord, drowns at sea. Finally, Guðrún meets the dashing saga hero Kjartan Óláfsson. They flirt in secret, defying her father’s wishes, and fall passionately in love.
Before they marry, Kjartan tells Guðrún he wants to seek his fortune in Norway. Angry, Guðrún demands that Kjartan take her with him on the voyage.
“Guðrún said: ‘I want to go with you this summer. Then I could forgive you for arranging this trip so suddenly. After all, it isn’t Iceland I’m in love with.’ ‘It can’t happen,’ said Kjartan. ‘Your brothers are young and your father is old, and there won’t be anyone to take care of them if you leave home. So, wait for me for three winters.’” [Translated from Old Norse by the author]
Kjartan’s decision to sail to Norway alone, despite Guðrún’s request, is a catalyst for the tragic conflict that occurs later in the saga. Like all good romantic dramas, Laxdælasaga involves a love triangle. Guðrún loves Kjartan, Kjartan loves Guðrún…and so does Kjartan’s closest childhood friend, Bolli. Because of their friendship, Bolli accompanies Kjartan on the journey to Norway, but he doesn’t forget about the woman left behind.
Though Kjartan doesn’t explicitly point to Guðrún’s gender as the reason for refusing to bring her along, his dismissal of her desire to travel highlights a clear division between gendered spaces in medieval Iceland. Women tend to the home while men are left to farm, to fish, to study, to vote, and to travel abroad. Kjartan reminds Guðrún of her responsibility towards her younger brothers and elderly father, who will be left unprotected if she were to pursue her desire to travel.
Emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as grounds for impeding her movement appears in many modern studies of the migration of women. For example, women who emigrated from the country of Georgia in the 1990s were vilified for leaving their families behind. Referring to the “feminization of migration” in Georgia, social scientists Hofmann and Buckley observe, “most respondents described it as unnatural, challenging the male role as breadwinner and female responsibilities for childcare and eldercare.” The clear delineation of gendered occupations is deployed as a barrier to women’s movement outside the home as much today as it was a thousand years ago. Confinement to the home means prohibition from male spheres of political, social, and economic exchange—more often than not, the places where news happens.
The knowledge and experience gained from travel abroad are traditionally available only to men. In Laxdælasaga, the first thing Kjartan and his followers do when they arrive in Norway is ask other men for tíðindi, or tidings. They catch up on the gossip, such as it was in early medieval northern Norway, undoubtedly including plenty of rumors about who won what battles, the best English beaches for landing a raiding party, and who the king’s sister currently favors. Disinformation and fake news, as we’ll see later on, can be a powerful tool of political and psychological maneuvering in a world without third-party fact-checking services. As the saga continues, Kjartan cozies up to the Norwegian king and starts to make a name for himself as a competent warrior and all-around Icelandic heartthrob.
Bolli returns early to Iceland, leaving Kjartan at the Norwegian court. He heads straight for Guðrún, armed with all the instruments of modern psychological warfare. Bolli deliberately turns Guðrún against her former lover, describing how Kjartan is enjoying his newfound fame in Norway. He insinuates that Kjartan’s heroic qualities have caught the eye of the king’s marriageable sister, and implies that Kjartan has forgotten Guðrún and their old attachment.
Guðrún at first refuses to believe him, but Bolli enlists the help of her father and brothers, who together spin stories about Kjartan’s reprehensible behavior and undermine Guðrún’s convictions, until she begins to believe that Kjartan is not the man she thought he was; a classic example of what would today be termed gaslighting. Without any way of communicating with Kjartan, and unable to travel to Norway to ascertain the truth for herself, Guðrún is coerced into marrying Bolli instead.
When Kjartan returns to Iceland a few months later, he is distraught to discover that Guðrún is married to his best friend. News of his arrival and the truth about his stay in Norway reaches Guðrún, revealing Bolli’s deceit. She confronts her husband about his campaign of misinformation, but he demures: “Bolli declared that he had said what he knew to be the truth.” You can almost imagine the deafening shrug. Here, news is weaponized against a woman by a man armed with the facts and determined to twist ‘the truth’ to his own ends.
Resentment rages between the three characters, even as Kjartan moves on and marries another woman. After a series of escalating offenses occurs over several years, Bolli, egged on by his brothers, finally takes up a sword against his friend. Kjartan, refusing to fight, casts away his shield and allows himself to be fatally stabbed. Bolli takes the dying Kjartan in his arms and pours out his remorse at being driven to such a terrible act. Soon after, Kjartan’s sons avenge their father by killing Bolli.
The tragic conclusion hints at an unexpected but relatively lucid Viking Age moral. A great deal of grief originates from Bolli’s decision to modify facts, and from Guðrún’s isolation from the masculine realms of movement and information exchange. If Guðrún had accompanied Kjartan on his journey as she requested, if she had been supplied with all available information or been able to verify the news she received some other way, the saga’s tragic conclusion might have been avoided. Based on the arc of this episode, it would seem the author of Laxdælasaga regards the obstruction of a woman’s movement and access to information as inappropriate and potentially perilous. Manipulation of facts and deliberate misinformation leads to two deaths and an unhappy ending for everyone involved.
Other brief but telling episodes in medieval Icelandic literature hint at a tacit approval of the movement of women. We see Viking Age heroines throughout the western diaspora (Iceland and the British Isles) commissioning their own ships, setting out on long journeys, and striving to form their own networks of information exchange through kin and marital ties. It may be that these women are simply literary figures playing out imagined fantasies that would never have been possible for real women of the time; or, perhaps these examples reveal some awareness of the importance of the agency of women.
In this modern era of fake news and alternative facts, we might do well to remember some of the simpler lessons of Icelandic history. Honesty, as a medieval Icelander would probably tell you, is the best policy. Obscuring the truth leads only to blood feud and bitter regret.