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A Srinivas Group-led collaborative public engagement project has been awarded more than £188k to bring a multi-disciplinary approach to the concepts of ‘destiny’ and ‘embodiment’ to the local Oxford community.

© Drawing to the left depicts early sixteenth century pamphlet: ´The Monster of Ravenna’. Embryo Image to the right Credit: Dr Richard Tyser, Srinivas Group

The Srinivas Group has been awarded a £188,185 Enriching Engagement project grant for an exciting inter-disciplinary project bringing together science, humanities and the arts to engage the various communities of Oxford. "Shaping Destiny: Experiments in Embodiment" is a major cross-divisional collaboration between DPAG and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

During embryonic development, the fate of cells and the form of the body are, in a very real sense, determined by the activity of genes. However, there are obvious limits to the role of genes in determining, for example, our capabilities, place in society, relationships, sense of self, and our destiny. There is a tension between genetic determination of our physical form and the manifest ability of individuals to transcend biological determinism and societal constraints. Historically, society has explained congenital defects, and even normal variation, in terms of the ‘monstrous’, brought about either by devilish intervention, or by the actions or thoughts of the mother to be during pregnancy.

The aim of the “Shaping Destiny” project is to explore different, changing, understandings of the key concepts of destiny and embodiment, in collaboration with partners with different perspectives. Setting molecular biology in tension with dance, theatre, and creative virtual reality, we will investigate intersecting conceptions of embodiment, physical form and the social norms which determine and shape human destiny.

From a biomedical researcher’s perspective, embodiment is primarily a material idea, concerning the generation and shaping of tissues, organs etc. A humanities researcher would see embodiment as capturing ways in which human experience is defined by our having bodies with a range of capacities and attributes, which are themselves embedded in historical and cultural contexts. The feedback loop through which individual perception, both of others and of ourselves, is shaped by social norms and culturally determined interpretation has a profound effect on our collective understanding of human destiny and on our personal sense of embodied selfhood.

Together with a number of external partners and community groups, the project team will explore the above ideas, distilling concepts to co-create and co-produce various art in different forms such as dance, theatre performance and a virtual reality experience.

According to the team: “We hope to further engage the wider public with the products and share our collective experience with the public, to inspire awareness of the biology underpinning our form, and the different perceptions of form experienced by all of us.”

Enriching Engagement was a pilot grants programme open to Wellcome grant holders and awardees at the University of Oxford, to develop and deliver Public Engagement with Research projects. It ran five application rounds from 2019-2021, funded by £1.25m from Wellcome. In January 2022, six projects have been awarded funding in the final two rounds of the scheme. More information about the scheme and awarded projects can be found on the Enriching Engagement page of Oxford University’s Public Engagement with Research website.

The Principal Investigator is DPAG’s Academic Lead for Public Engagement Professor Shankar Srinivas, who holds Wellcome Trust awards to study embryonic development. The Project Lead is Dr Tomoko Watanabe, a member of DPAG’s new Outreach and Public Engagement Working Group, which aims to identify, promote and deliver departmental and cross-departmental participation in Public Engagement with Research. The principal internal partner is Professor Wes Williams, Director of TORCH and Professor of French, in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. The project team are working with the following external partners: Sophie Stanley (Parasol Project, Oxford), Emma Jane Grieg (Body Politic, Oxford), Alexander Whitley (Alexander Whitley Dance Company, London), and Kostas Pataridis (Andromeda Software Development, Oxford).

The team will be looking for volunteers to help at a number of stages across the project. Expressions of interest can be sent to Project Lead Dr Tomoko Watanabe.

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