Dr. Janina Wellmann


  • Dr. Janina Wellmann


Algorithmic Animation. Embryology and the simulation of development

My research project investigates the notion of biological motion. At mecs, my research focuses on the history and epistemology of computer-based representations of embryological development.

Surprisingly, very little has hitherto been written on the epistemology of motion in the life sciences. I argue, however, that motion has been a central category for the apprehension and conceptualization of living processes at least since the beginning of modern biology ca. 1800 and that much of the history of the science could be told as the story of attempts to make sense of biological motion. Historically considered, there is no single kind of ‘biological motion’, but a multitude of ways in which motion was perceived and envisioned in and around organisms. Especially intriguing is the intricate relationship between the apprehension of biological motion and the conceptualization of biological development.

Accounting for the transformations observed during embryogenesis has posed a major challenge to biological thinking since the end of the 18th century. In my previous work I have argued for the central role of visual representations in the history of embryology. I have shown how the developmental series - a sequence of images each depicting a different stage in the genesis of the embryo - was central for the establishment of the modern understanding of development in biology.

However recent advances in the technology of computer-based simulation of embryogenesis might challenge this established epistemology. Combining various technologies such as laser-scanning-microscopy (LSM), fluorescent tagging and three-dimensional (3-D) imaging technology, 3-D images can be generated by capturing a stack of two-dimensional images, reconstructing them and dynamizing them on the temporal axis. Ideally, the technique should allow for the construction of a ‘digital embryo’, in which every single step in the developmental process at single-cell resolution will be represented.

My projects aims at a better understanding of the epistemological consequences of the application of computer simulations in the study of embryogenesis. Arguably, the shift from the representation of the embryo as ‘moving through development’ to simulation of the whole developmental process in terms of the movement of each and every single cell challenges our basic understanding of biological development.

Janina Wellmann graduated from Humboldt University Berlin and holds a joint PhD in history of science from the Technical University Berlin and the Ecole de Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales Paris. Her work focuses on the history and epistemology of the life sciences in the modern era. She is the author of Die Form des Werdens. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Embryologie, 1760-1830 (Wallstein 2010).