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New endowed chair blends science and humanities

originally posted by UC Davis Campus News, 7-25-2012

Educating a generation raised on video games, University of California, Davis, Professor Colin Milburn makes use of students’ literacy in interactive media — coaxing poetry and literature off the pages and into the third dimension.

Milburn, an associate professor of English, is newly appointed to the inaugural Gary Snyder Endowed Chair in Science and the Humanities at UC Davis, a position in which he will further develop his research and teaching at the intersection of the sciences and humanities.

“UC Davis is quickly becoming the top institution for productive, transformative collaborations between the sciences and the humanities,” said Milburn, who now holds one of only a handful of endowed professorships in the country that unite sciences and humanities as a primary focus. “UC Davis is a particularly exciting place to be because it has a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Milburn came to UC Davis in 2005 principally because it offers rich opportunities to merge his many interests and background in science, history and literature. One of Milburn’s goals is to develop more “playable scholarship” where students can, for example, immerse themselves in the time and place they are studying through interactive virtual environments. He also is authoring a book, “Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter,” which examines the convergence of video game culture with the molecular sciences.

The Snyder Chair in Science and the Humanities is supported by a $1 million endowment from the estate of late high-tech entrepreneur Charlie Soderquist, a UC Davis graduate and former University of California regent who died in 2004. He was an admirer and friend of Snyder, a professor emeritus of English and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist and environmental activist for whom the chair is named.

Milburn said he is honored to hold a chair named for Snyder. “Gary Snyder has always shown us how to think across boundaries, understanding nature and culture as complexly entangled.” Snyder’s work represents a way of thinking that, according to Milburn, is a foundation for any effort to move between the humanities and the sciences. “I also find it particularly significant that the chair represents the friendship between Snyder and Soderquist,” he said. “In my experience, the best interdisciplinary work begins in friendship.”

Educated in molecular biology, the history of science, and literature, Milburn is the author of “Nanovision: Engineering the Future” (Duke, 2008), which explores the cultural and social impacts of nanotechnology and illuminates the links between these new scientific and technological horizons and science fiction. He has also written numerous chapters and articles on topics such as science fiction, gothic literature, the history of biology and the history of physics. He co-edited the book “Quantum Engagements: Social Reflections of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies” (AKA-Verlag, 2011).

Milburn is the founding director of the UC Davis Humanities Innovation Lab. Together with an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students, he is developing projects at UC Davis and internationally, researching off-the-shelf strategies for scholars in the “digital humanities” to create projects and publications in modifiable, three-dimensional virtual reality.

One prototype project called “Going to the Movies in Paris in the 1930s” uses Second Life, an online application that allows participants to make and share interactive, three-dimensional experiences on their computer screens. Based on the research of UC Davis American studies professor Eric Smoodin, this project has been created in both Second Life and the UC Davis KeckCAVES to investigate practices of cinema spectatorship in 1930s Paris. (The KeckCAVES facility was installed in 2005 following a $1 million gift from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation. The facility accommodates collaborative interdisciplinary research based on visualizing large, complex sets of data in a three-dimensional, interactive environment.)

In the Paris project, participants can virtually “walk” through the theaters of Paris much the way 1930s moviegoers did. One can catch a glimpse of this learning innovation by going to the website for the UC Davis Humanities Innovation Lab. The third entry on the home page features Smoodin explaining the culture of cinema in 1930s Paris with virtual Paris in the background: Another video of Milburn “walking” through the project is viewable at

“This kind of technology can be used for science as well as the humanities, for example, to help researchers to understand their data or experience cultural materials in new ways,” explains Milburn. “It really comes alive.”

He teaches courses that focus on video games and their social aspects, in addition to other classes that incorporate everything from “Shakespeare and the Scientific Revolution,” to science fiction literature and biotechnology.

During the next six years, Milburn will be co-principal investigator with the IMMERSe project (Interactive and Multi-Modal Experience Research Syndicate), a collaborative initiative among the Games Institute at Canada’s University of Waterloo, the UC Davis Humanities Innovation Lab and several other universities. Funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Milburn and his colleagues will study the cultural impact of video games and immersive technologies.

In addition to these projects, Milburn also received a UC President’s Faculty Research Grant for 2012-2013 and a UC Davis Chancellor’s Fellowship for 2011-2016 — all supporting his innovative research in the history of science, literature and media.

“It is especially appropriate that the new Gary Snyder Endowed Chair in Science and Humanities, which represents the distinctive brand of humanities at UC Davis, is held by someone who embodies such innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship,” said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. “Colin Milburn celebrates Gary Snyder’s spirit of academic collaboration and diversity of thought while embracing current technologies that make learning, teaching and researching so exciting.”

Endowed professorships are funded by gifts that are invested as endowments to ensure ongoing scholarly and research support for successive endowed professorship holders through many generations. The professorships help UC Davis to attract and retain the best scholars and teachers from throughout the world.

The Soderquist gift to create the endowment is counted as part of The Campaign for UC Davis, a universitywide initiative launched in 2006 to inspire 100,000 donors to contribute $1 billion in support of the university’s mission and vision.

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