Miriam Lipton in Tbilisi, 2019

PhD student Miriam Lipton this week received the Oregon Sylff Fellowship for International Research. This prestigious fellowship is awarded to doctoral students who have “high potential for leadership in international affairs, in public life or private endeavor.” Lipton is thus a prime candidate for such an award. She kindly answered some questions about the fellowship and her intended research.

Lipton’s research focuses on how people within the Soviet Union and the United States fought bacterial infections in the wake of the emergence of two competing methods, antibiotics and bacteriophages from the time of their discoveries in the 1920s until the emergence of antibiotic resistance in the 1950s. Therefore, Lipton’s dissertation will explore the divergent views of public health scientists and officials in the United States and Soviet Union about the dangers of antibiotic resistance. How did these divergent paths develop and emerge? And how did scientists operate to solve the problems of bacterial infections in the two different countries.  Moreover, how did these divergent views inform international consensus in the 1950s, when the World Health Organization was poised to provide guidance to the world?

How does your prospective research project address global issues noted within the parameters of the award? 

Great question. I hope that with the award I can coordinate and create some lecture series discussing the issues of antibiotic resistance and offering some policy advice.

How does your project contribute to the wider discussion surrounding medicine and science in the Cold War? 

Well, there is a lot of scholarship on science and medicine during the Cold War, especially as it relates to the United States. And there is some scholarship on Soviet science and medicine during the Cold War, but a lot of that has focused on Lysenko, atomic science, and the Space Race. I hope that my project helps to give the issue of science and medicine and the Cold War a new perspective. 
There has a been a lot of literature on superiority of Soviet science (a la Lysenko) and how that led to a stunting of Soviet science, and the ways in which their ideas of superiority dissuaded them from using “western” scientific ideas. This may be another one of those stories. However, since bacteriophages were a Soviet science which actually seemed to work, it is kind of like a twist on this narrative. Because when antibiotic resistance came about, the two countries handled the issue in very different ways, and I hope to understand how that came out. 

How do you intend to use your award for the purposes of your research? Do you have any trips or archives in mind? 

I would like to visit archives. Specifically, the WHO Archive in Geneva. I would like to go to the bacteriophage research center in Tbilisi and to the Selman Waksman archive at Rutgers (he was a leading early advocate of antibiotic resistance).
I also hope to conduct interviews with patients at the bacteriophage center in Tbilisi, (and use the funds to hire a Georgian translator, if they do not speak Russian or English). 
I also want to create a lecture series of interdisciplinary panelists to discuss antibiotic resistance and what we can learn about the different approaches to antibiotics and bacteriophages. 

Bacteriophage at the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages

How have your previous travels to and experiences in Russia prepared you for this project? 

Well, great question. Having been to Russia I have gotten better with the language and culture and it has allowed me also make connections with people that I would not have ordinarily had a chance to make had I not been already. I am also very comfortable in Russia, it is like a second home, and conducting research there is not only exciting, it is also a welcome task. And since new literature into the history of science and medicine in Russia/Soviet Union by non-Russians is very sparse, I am hoping to add to this dearth of literature. 

Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for students hoping to apply for graduate funding or other awards? 

Do it! For me, what really helped to get this scholarship was taking to previous recipients. Specifically, I spoke to Linda Richards, a former SYLFF awardee, and current OSU faculty instructor in history, and her insights were very helpful. I didn’t change my application or my mission as a result, but speaking to her helped me narrow my focus for the award and helped me understand what makes a strong candidate. I also had people look over my application, not just academic people, but people without knowledge of my field, and I think that really helps too. 

The Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) award is a $15,000 stipend for doctoral fellows to aid with research and education funding. Lipton, a second year PhD student is in the midst of her comprehensive examinations before advancing to candidacy.

Congratulations to Miriam Lipton!