decorative image
Bryn Mawr College home page
  Alumnae Bulletin  
  Alumnae Association  
 Admissions Academics Campus Life News and Events Visit Find

Barbara Herr Harthorn ‘73 co-directs social science center that explores the social and ethical issues of nanotechnology

By Tom Nugent

Exploring Particles 1/80,000th the width of a hair
A research anthropologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and associate director of its Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, Barbara Herr Harthorn ’73 was in October named co-director and lead principle investigator at UCSB’s new Center for Nanotech­nology in Society.

The challenge for the new center, which won a year-long competition for start-up funding of $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to “try to separate the hype from the reality” about new forms of technology that could one day accomplish such marvels as providing cheap, limitless drinking water and targeting diseases with tiny “nanobot-delivered” medicines, one cell at a time.

Often defined as technology conducted at the level of molecules and atoms, nanotech relies on our growing ability to perceive and manipulate particles of matter on the incredibly tiny “nanoscale,” where most objects are less than 1/80,000th the width of a human hair, and thus far too small to see with the naked eye.

“Nanotechnology is an incredibly exciting new field of study, but it’s also fraught with perils,” Harthorn said during a recent interview at UCSB.“I really don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this new group of nanotechnologies will be ‘world-changing,’” she says. “But nanotech will also present us with many uncertainties, many unknowns, along with the expected benefits. And those unknowns are what will make nanotech very chancy, from a societal standpoint. Nanotechnologies are expected to make significant new contributions in medical, environmental, and electronics industries, among others, yet possible risks include wide-ranging environmental and health toxicities and social disruption via invasion of privacy and new forms of social differentiation.”

Harthorn’s long-standing research interest has been issues of health inequality, and in more recent years the risk perception and social impact of toxic agricultural chemicals among migrant farm workers in California. But her research really began after her junior year at Bryn Mawr.

A summer in Uganda

A thoughtful, independent-minded 17-year-old struggling with the “moral problem” that was the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, Harthorn remembers her 1969 freshman year as not only filled with bright lanterns gliding along winding sidewalks and Greek lyrics sung as a paean of praise to the goddess of wisdom, Athena, on Lantern Night.

“Bryn Mawr was a very rigorous place, and freshman year was a really tough year,” she recalls with a nostalgic smile. “The classes were extremely demanding, for one thing.

“At Bryn Mawr in the late sixties, you soon discovered
that the focus was on women and women’s achievements.
And that attitude of women’s empowerment permeated the entire school.

“Looking back, I’m amazed by the quality of the mentoring we received. As an anthropology major, I wound up studying with [the late ethnographer-author] Frederica de Laguna ’27 , who was a dedicated and intrepid field researcher. During my sophomore year, our visiting scholar was [feminist author] Kate Millett, who lived in my dorm.

“These women were powerful role models for us, and there’s no doubt that they played a major part in my eventually becoming the kind of feminist scholar that I am trying to be today.”

Another decisive burst of inspiration came to Harthorn right after her junior year, when Bryn Mawr anthropologist Philip Kilbride and his wife Janet invited her along for a summer of fieldwork in East Africa.

“When I look back on that summer, I’m just amazed at the generosity they showed to a college undergrad,” Harthorn says. “They took me to Uganda, and we wound up living in Kampala at the very height of [former dictator] Idi Amin’s troubled rule. The Baganda people we were studying were solicitous hosts . . . but I got caught up in the huge exodus of the [non-African] population that Amin suddenly ordered.

“There was a great deal of social and political unrest on the streets—and I felt very lucky to retain a seat on one of the last planes out, in order to get back to Bryn Mawr for my senior year.”

“There’s no doubt that my summer in East Africa helped initiate my career as an anthropologist,” says Harthorn. “I furthered my study of the methodological rigor of scholarship in grad school at UCLA . . . but the systematic approach to mastering a discipline I learned during those challenging years as an undergrad at Bryn Mawr.” More challenges, typical of anthropological research, followed en route to Harthorn’s 1983 Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA.

Island Living

The year was 1979 and Harthorn had just disembarked from a fishing vessel onto a sparsely populated, raised limestone island in Fiji. She would spend the next one and a half years doing research on 389 islanders.

There was no electricity, telephones, running water or hospital. Harthorn slept every night on a woven pandanus floor mat, and her meals consisted almost entirely of boiled rice and canned fish.

Barbara Herr Harthorn ‘73 in Fiji.

A cargo-passenger ship would stop at the island in six to eight weeks. What if she got sick or injured in the meantime? And what if the islanders refused to accept her daily presence among them?

“I knew when I decided to study anthropology at Bryn Mawr that there would be some risks involved,” says Harthorn, who has studied indigenous cultures in East Africa, Melanesia and Polynesia. “I knew that if I became ill or got hurt while living on that island, I could have been in serious trouble. I also knew it was going to be tough to live with some of their social customs—such as the total lack of privacy. On the island, it was perfectly acceptable to enter anyone else’s home at any time, day or night. And that was pretty difficult for a Westerner to handle. Life there wasn’t easy, but I managed to get my research done.”

Not afraid of ‘gray goo”

Harthorn says, “Our mission at the new center is to conduct new social science research on social and ethical issues of emerging nanotechnologies and to help educate various publics—including members of the academy, policymakers and the news media—about the benefits and the hazards. Our charges from the NSF include becoming a clearinghouse for new research on the relationship between the nano enterprise and the global society in which it is taking place and helping to develop a national and international network of such social science researchers.” The center’s website is

“What’s really amazing about nanotech is the way these materials suddenly start changing their [physical and chemical] properties at the nano-level,” says Harthorn. “At the nano-scale, things melt when you wouldn’t expect them to, or change color, or become able to conduct electricity, or suddenly start moving around. What nanotechnology does is to exploit those changes. And that allows you to start manufacturing new kinds of products with them—things like ‘metallic rubber,’ which is flexible enough to be made into auto tires, but much stronger.

“Because of their remarkable properties, these nanoparticles and structures—along with the new techniques that will be used on them—are eventually going to transform our world. Right now, it seems likely that they will vastly improve our computers, our medical procedures, our food production . . . and maybe even the way we manufacture such key products as automobiles and airplanes.

“For those of us who are working in social science disciplines that study science and technology, including nanotech, this is a very exciting time to be doing research!”

While Harthorn admits that this new approach to manipulating the physical world carries some risks (although not likely to include the often described threat of a runaway explosion by self-duplicating nano-particles that could bury the earth in “gray goo”), Harthorn says she’s confident of nanoscience’s ability to “handle the complexity involved; the challenge will come from domestic U.S. and global needs to manage the new technologies and their environmental, social, and health implications.

Described as “calm and level-headed” by her colleagues, she seems the ideal candidate for an assignment that calls for a steady hand on the tiller. “Barbara is a very centered and down-to-earth researcher, and her studies of how cultures perceive risk will be very helpful,” says CNS co-director and UCSB associate history professor W. Patrick McCray. “She also has a very good, dry sense of humor, which will help a lot. I’m looking forward to working with her.”

Dr. Evelyn L. Hu, an electrical engineer and UCSB computer expert who has special expertise in nanotech, describes her as “an expert in her area of the social sciences who will bring many good things to the table.

“The great thing about Barbara is that she’s determined to make sure everybody’s views get heard,” says Dr. Hu, also a CNS co-principal investigator. “She has lots of calm wisdom to share, based on a lifetime of research.”

Harthorn reassures, “At the end of the day, I guess I want to believe that knowledge and education and plenty of free, open discussion are the best way to protect all of us from the hazards in our changing world.”


Return to February 2006 Highlights





Bryn Mawr College · 101 North Merion Ave · Bryn Mawr · PA · 19010-2899 · Tel 610-526-5000