Emma Frow joined Arizona State University in 2015 and holds a joint appointment in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS), and the School of Biological & Health Systems Engineering (SBHSE). Her research focuses on the governance of emerging biotechnologies, with a particular emphasis on biological engineering and synthetic biology. Emma is interested not just in studying the governance of emerging biotechnologies, but taking an active role in shaping and experimenting with the governance of technology in real-time. She pursues this through a set of experiments focused on studying and working alongside scientists & engineers pursuing biotechnology research, and on developing innovative ways to teach our upcoming generation of bioengineers to integrate broader societal considerations into their world-changing designs.

Emma initially trained as a scientist, with a BA in neuroscience and a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University. She then spent two years working as a subeditor for the journal Nature in London before re-training in the social sciences, gaining a master's degree in science and technology studies from the University of Edinburgh. She completed postdoctoral research at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at the University of Edinburgh, and at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and was an assistant professor in science, technology and innovation studies at the University of Edinburgh before moving to ASU.

Publications 

Frow, E., Brafman, D., Muldoon, A., Krum, L., Williams, P., Becker, B., Nelson, J.P. & Pritchett, A. (2019) Characterizing direct-to-consumer stem cell businesses in the Southwest United States. Stem Cell Reports
Frow, E.K. (2017) From ‘experiments of concern’ to ‘groups of concern’: Constructing and containing citizens in synthetic biology. Science, Technology & Human Values, doi:10.1177/0162243917735382
Balmer, A.S., Calvert, J., Marris, C., Molyneux-Hodgson, S., Frow, E., Kearnes, M., Bulpin, K., Schyfter, P., Mackenzie, A. & Martin, P. (2015) ‘Taking roles in interdisciplinary collaborations: Reflections on working in post-ELSI spaces in the UK synthetic biology community.’ Science and Technology Studies 3: http://www.sciencetechnologystudies.org/node/2573

Projects

Biofoundries and the rise of automation in synthetic biology

The ‘biofabrication facility,’ or biofab, has emerged in recent years as a type of biotechnical enterprise seeking new routes to value creation through the (re-)design of living organisms. The hope is that these facilities will churn out a host of new, valuable and world-saving bioproducts, ranging from cultured meats and biofuels to anti-malarial drugs and spider silk. There is currently a lot of excitement and investment pouring into these facilities. Our project aims to construct a broader cultural history of biofoundries. We are attempting to do this by studying and characterizing the biofabrication facility (1) historically, (2) ethnograpically, and (3) prospectively. First, we are using interviews and archival research to understand how the biofabrication facility has emerged as a contemporary value proposition. Second, we are conducting multi-sited, comparative ethnographic fieldwork across academic and industry biofabrication facilities in the US, to understand what is happening on the ‘shop floor’. Third, we are embarking on a program of experimental collaborations with biofab practitioners designed to facilitate collective problematization of the value propositions being pursued in these facilities. Together, these lines of research should help to build up an empirically grounded portrait of this new entity taking shape at the intersection of biotechnology and information technology.

This project is in collaboration with SFIS PhD student Annie Hammang and Dr. Gaymon Bennett in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies (SHPRS)

Negotiating evidence and expertise around experimental stem cell treatments

 Would you consider an experimental stem cell treatment to help manage a chronic medical condition? What kind of information or evidence would you look for in making your decision? What role do you think the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should play in deciding whether or not a treatment should be made available to patients? This research project focuses on current, lively debates around the regulation of experimental stem cell treatments in the US. The only stem cell treatments currently approved by the FDA are for treating bone and blood cancers and related conditions. But over the past decade a sizeable and dynamic marketplace for unregulated, direct-to-consumer stem cell treatments has emerged in the US. In this project, we are mapping and analyzing the different kinds of evidence that get used to advocate for more or less regulation of these treatments. 

This project is in collaboration with Dr. David Brafman in SBHSE, and has received seed funding from ASU’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR). We have been fortunate to bring in a set of talented undergraduates to assist with data collection and analysis. A recent, open access article by our research team has received a lot of media attention.

Changing the culture of engineering education

 I believe that the social and political dimensions of scientific practice should be part of the training for all scientists and engineers. The rationale is not to task them with the sole responsibility for carrying out social and policy research, but to equip them with the capacity to identify important questions, and to develop collaborative projects with researchers and publics who have relevant expertise. Such collaborations are critical if we want to see engineering be a force for positive transformation in the world. I am working to foster core competencies for collaborative practice in each of the biomedical engineering courses I teach, and am also working with faculty in SBHSE to design and build an ‘ethics spine’ in the undergraduate BME curriculum. Some of this work has been supported by a mini-grant from the CPREE project (Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education), and has been presented at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).  

Grants

Engineering Life (European Research Council, Mar 2014-Feb 2020, €1.5 million)

This project is in collaboration with researchers at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

The emerging field of synthetic biology promises to engineer the living world. Its proponents argue that it will deliver new fuels, medicines and materials that will drive the next industrial revolution. But what is meant by engineering biology, and what would it mean to successfully engineer living things? This project aims to provide insights into the engineering imagination, how it is applied to living things, and how it is challenged and expanded in interdisciplinary interactions. The Engineering Life project studies both the engineering of biology and the role of social scientists within this. Its two core objectives are:

  • to investigate the movement of ideas, practices and promises about synthetic biology between engineering and the life sciences;

  • to examine the ways in which social scientists and other groups are being mobilized as part of this endeavor.

We are tackling these issues by collecting empirical data through a variety of mechanisms, including semi-structured interviews, ethnographic research in synthetic biology laboratories, and a series of highly experimental workshops that explore the possibility of producing new knowledge across disciplinary divides.

 

Synthetic cells that learn without evolution (National Science Foundation, Sept 2019-Aug 2022, $1 million)

This project is in collaboration with researchers at the University of Washington, Georgia Tech, University of New Mexico, and UCLA.

Adaptation is a fundamental and defining feature of biology. In principle, living systems can adapt via two mechanisms: evolution and learning. Learning is a potentially rapid and powerful mode of adaptation. Even the simplest cells can evolve, but can they demonstrate learning in the absence of evolution? If so, what modes of learning can they engage in, and how simple can learning cells or cell-like systems be? In setting out to address these fundamental questions about the Rules of Life, this project will help to define the essential biological nature of learning systems. 

This project aims to create synthetic cell systems capable of associative learning. Specifically, we will develop a synthetic cell that learns to respond to a light pulse signal by associating it with the addition of molecules detected by olfactory receptors. Success will provide a proof-of-principle that genetically encoded information-processing systems can carry out learning tasks, and will generate a reusable library of learning circuit motifs. Modeling and design of associative learning circuits will inform the development of corresponding genetic regulatory circuit architectures. Multi-input chemical signals will be sensed using a library of olfactory receptor proteins, and the effects of membrane encapsulation on system behavior will be studied. Finally, an integrated Human Practices component will explore the relationship between learning synthetic cells and artificial neural networks/machine learning, from historical, conceptual and ethical perspectives.

This project will make important progress towards the bottom-up construction of ‘smart’ synthetic cell systems, with potential future applications across a wide range of academic, industry, clinical and environmental settings. A multi-disciplinary cohort of graduate students will be recruited and trained in interdisciplinary research, and a set of ‘science & society’ modules for bioengineering-related courses will be developed. Furthermore, the project will engage a broader public audience by developing hands-on activities related to the goals of the project.