Prof. Nancy J. Nersessian

Nancy J. Nersessian is Regents' Professor of Cognitive Science (Emerita), Georgia Institute of Technology. She currently is a Research Associate at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the creative research practices of scientists and engineers, especially how modeling practices lead to fundamentally new ways of understanding the world. Her research has been funded by the US National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is a Fellow of AAAS, the Cognitive Science Society, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.



For twelve years I have been conducting an investigation into the cognitive and learning practices in four cutting-edge bioengineering sciences research labs – two in biomedical engineering (a tissue engineering lab; a neural engineering lab) and two in integrative systems biology (one is purely computational with external biosciences collaborators; one has a wet-lab for conducting biological experiments in the service of model-building). I am working on a book, “Re-Engineering Biology: Modeling Practices in the Bioengineering Sciences”, that will bring together insights stemming from these investigations. These modeling practices take place in contexts where, primarily, engineers conduct basic biological research in the context of application.

In science studies it is widely held that the “cognitive” and the “socio-cultural” are incompatible categories of analysis. In the practices of researchers, however, these are necessarily entwined: the practices require the sophisticated kind of cognition that only rich social, cultural, and material environments can enable The models bioengineering scientists construct to simulate and investigate biological phenomena are what researchers in cultural studies refer to as the “material culture” of communities, but they also function as what cognitive scientists refer to as “cognitive artifacts” participating in the reasoning and representational processes of a distributed cognitive system. My point is that it is not possible to fathom the creative intellectual work they afford by focusing exclusively on one or the other aspect. They are crucial components of the cognitive-cultural fabric in which creative scientific thinking occurs.

The practices within emerging engineering-inspired fields such as integrative systems biology, bioengineering, and synthetic biology appear to have more in common with engineering approaches than with traditional biological ones. Researchers in these fields come from engineering (and applied mathematical) disciplines. They import into biological investigations engineering models, methods, concepts, and technologies. The result has given rise to a complex interplay of different conceptual and methodological frameworks, and interdisciplinary interactions that have yet to be fully explored by philosophers. A host of engineering concepts have already entered biology as a means to understand cognitive constraints when handling complex biological systems and also as a source of heuristics for understanding biological organization itself, such as robustness, modularity, and noise. But modern systems and synthetic biology and biomedical engineering go further yet by transporting epistemic values (such as abstraction and control), mathematical engineering theories and frameworks (such as control theory), and engineering methodologies as tools of biological representation and analysis.

During the period of my fellowship I plan to sift through and analyze my transcript data (likely focusing on one issue given the brevity of my tenure): 1) to examine how these engineering perspectives reshape biological investigation and representations of biological systems, 2) the affordances and limitations of engineering and technology in the production of biological results and biologically informative simulation models, and 3) the challenges of transdisciplinary interaction in collaborations between engineers and biologists in developing computational simulation models.


Her numerous publications include: 

  • Creating Scientific Concepts, 2008 (MIT), 
    Patrick Suppes Prize in Philosophy of Science, 2011
  • Science as Psychology: Sense-making and Identity in Science Practice, 
    with L. Osbeck, K. Malone, W. Newstetter, 2011 (Cambridge), 
    William James Book Prize, 2012.