The 2017 Harrison Lecture for Innovation: “Harrison’s Gift? Frozen Life in a Melting World”

The unintended consequences of refrigeration and freezing technology is the topic of this year’s Harrison Lecture, held as part of Barwon Health and Deakin University Research Week 2017.

Research Week, from Monday 13 November to Friday 17 November, showcases the research activities of Barwon Health and Deakin and includes guest lectures by prominent Geelong researchers, various presentations, and education sessions aimed at early researchers.

The 2017 Harrison Lecture, “Harrison’s Gift? Frozen Life in a Melting World”, explores how, in an age of global warming and melting ice-caps, freezing can be a technology of deferral – putting off the extinction of species or extending human fertility – but also delaying critical action on climate change.

It was presented by Deakin medical and cultural anthropologist Professor Emma Kowal from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), convenor of the Deakin Science and Society Network.

“James Harrison is known for building the first commercial ice making facility in the world at Rocky Point on the Barwon River. Along with other refrigeration pioneers, he helped create the infrastructure of many things we take for granted, from fresh food to air-conditioning to vaccination.

But cooling has a dark side. In a twist of fate that James Harrison could not have predicted, cooling technologies now account for over 20 per cent of electricity usage, endangering our warm future.”

– Professor Emma Kowal

A former medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health settings in Australia, Professor Kowal’s work focuses on two major anthropological streams: indigenous health and Australian race relations; and the social study of genomics, biomedical research, bioethics and public health, particularly in understanding the implications of the increasing use of genetic science for Indigenous health and ancestry.

She has been Convenor of the Asia-Pacific Science, Technology and Society Network, Convener of Deakin’s Science and Society Network and founding Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, the first Indigenous-governed genome facility in the world.

The author of “Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia”, Professor Kowal recently co-edited “Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World”, a collection of essays from experts in anthropology, history of science, environmental humanities, and indigenous studies examining the political and cultural consequences of extending life and deferring death through freezing.
Professor Kowal co-edited the book with long-term collaborator Professor Joanna Radin, an expert in the history of science and medicine from Yale University in the US.

She said her Harrison Lecture would be a “reflective talk” on subjects raised in the book, as well her own work in this area.

“A lot of my research focuses on the impact of genomics on Australia’s indigenous people,” Professor Kowal said.

“One of my main projects for the past seven years has centred on a large collection of blood samples from dozens of Indigenous communities in the 1960s and 70s and preserved in freezers in Canberra for half a century.

“All the while they’ve been frozen, the world outside the freezer has been changing dramatically, and the samples have taken on a different meaning. Advancing technology now means they can be used to generate new kinds of insights into population histories and, looking to the future, medical advances such as precision medicine. And advancing ethics means that we understand Indigenous people should be in control of research that seeks to benefit them.

“The fact that these blood samples have been preserved meant that something had to be done to decide what happened to them. This led to the development of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics, which has pioneered new ethical frameworks that have had international influence on how this kind of research is done.”