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Painterly image of a microbiome


How is individuality changing in the face of the new biosciences?
Given novel developments in many areas of biomedicine and biotechnology, what do we mean by "the human" now?

BioHumanity: New ecologies of individuality, is an 18-month project and strategic research theme exploring the influence of the biosciences on concepts of human individuality. We will explore emerging research on:

  • personalised or precision medicine
  • the human microbiome.

These arenas present new ecologies of the individual: the first tailors medicine to the individual using population data, while the second seeks to understand populations within, or constituting, an individual.

Our project articulates between knowledge practices in the humanities and social sciences and the life sciences concerning categories of the human, person, self and individual. Our research is transforming our understanding of these concepts.

Such concerns have long been regarded as fundamental to the humanities and social sciences. There is a pressing need to bridge these research domains, to bring biological and biomedical scientists into conversation with humanities scholars, and to promote new research collaborations and funded research projects.

Through a series of masterclasses, symposia, and workshops the BioHumanity theme will allow a rich, embedded, practical engagement of the humanities with the life sciences.

We hope to connect diverse scholars across the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with scientists in the Charles Perkins Centre (diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and related conditions), the Marie Bashir Institute (infectious diseases and biosecurity) and the Cancer Research Network in ways that uncover new conceptual terrains, mentor younger scholars, build research capacity, foster external links, and influence health policy.

The BioHumanity research theme works closely with the Biopolitics of Science Research Network.

Drawing of fingers breaking open a medicinal capsule to reveal a double helix

Special event

The value(s) of precision medicine

Masterclass with Professor Barbara Prainsack

Exploring how precision medicine, with its programmatic focus on individual patients, could– perhaps counterintuitively – shed light on the substantive meaning of value in healthcare.

2-5 pm
Wednesday 19 February 2020
CCANESA Boardroom
Madsen Building, Eastern Avenue
The University of Sydney

Find out more and register.

Open to all higher-degree researchers and early career researchers. Spaces limited, please RSVP by Feb 7.

For more information, contact: Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen

Key research team

Previous events

Date: 28 October 2019

About: There is convincing evidence that the gut microbiomes of humans living in subsistence economies are more resistant to non-communicable chronic diseases than the gut microbiomes in urbanised and industrialised contexts.This talk focuses on the question how stool, a substance historically produced as polluted, and which played a defining role in dividing the primitive from colonial modernity, can be turned so effortlessly into a form of biovalue. What do these translations from waste to biovalue — or from shit to medicine — disclose about contemporary technoscience?  

Find out more.

Date: Thursday 22 August

What do the advent of precision medicine and advances in eHealth technology mean? Very soon, treatment based on our individual genetic information and health histories will be readily available. Some suggest this will lead to vastly improved diagnoses, avoidance of detrimental side-effects, fewer errors and greater efficiencies when we visit the GP. But these breakthroughs are not without risk. Others express legitimate concerns as the growing sophistication of our eHealth systems increases security vulnerabilities and the cost of customised medicines.

Sociologist Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen joins this expert panel on incoming disruption, including specialists in metabolic cybernetics and eHealth and sociology as they unpack what medical treatment could mean for you in the very near future.

Find out more.

Listen to the podcast.

Date: Friday 31 May 2019

The "human", "person" or "self" has always been an unstable category in social theory, pronte to multiple readings in the humanities and conflicting taxonomies in the sciences. This symposium will bring together a range of social theorists to ask how the "human" has existed – as a concept, a framework, a method – and how we might deepen and recast our social theories of the human in the context of bioscientific innovations and multispecies entanglements. Pushed to their limit by abounding environmental crises and emerging knowledge of our more-than-human worlds, prevailing concepts of the human cannot hold. Disciplinary boundaries and methods for studying the human need to be reworked. This symposium is free and open to all but we ask you to register.

More information and register.

Download the flyer, including featured speakers and discussants.

Date: 18 November 2018


  • Maureen O’Malley, University of Bordeaux and The University of Sydney
  • Derek Skillings, University of Pennsylvania and City College of New York

About: Microbiome research, the study of microbial communities in host organisms, is a well-funded, media-friendly and supposedly "revolutionary" science. Claims are made that microbiome research is transforming our understanding of the natural world, including our notions of self and individuality. How true is any of this? 

This masterclass focuses on human biome research, with particular attention to suggestions that microbiomes are causally implicated in human health, including mental health.

Download more information.

Date: 28 November 2018

About: A working lunch run by the Biopolitics of Science Research Network inviting social scientists to debrief on the Future of Microbiome Research conference and Microbiome masterclass, and closely examine the concepts raised.

Contact us

Jaya Keaney, Project Manager

Research Director

Headshot of Dr Sonja van Wichelen
Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen
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