UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


Emma Tobin: philosophy with ice cream for STS’s new lecturer

20 October 2010

Tobin, Emma 2010

by Louis Stupple-Harris
STS Year2 student

Emma Tobin is the newest staff addition to STS. I sat down with her to discover how she got here and what makes her tick.

Where are you from? Let’s have a quick life story!

I’m from West Cork, in Ireland, a little town called Clonakilty, that’s where my parents are from. I moved to University College Dublin to do a BA in English and Philosophy and then to Trinity for my combined post-grad and PhD. The Irish Research Council funded my PhD and since then I’ve been at Bristol University, teaching and researching my post-doctorate in the Metaphysics of Science with Alexander Bird.

Your work with natural kinds is fascinating; can you remember what first attracted you to the subject? What was the path you took?

My research trajectory has been absolutely bonkers. When I started doing my PhD I wanted to do work on consciousness, and then I ended up working on natural kinds. I always enjoyed writing, from an early age, but there was no reason I thought I’d be a philosopher. I’ve written poetry and played music, and I think that’s always been philosophically driven, always dealing with the meaning behind things. It wasn’t until university that I got into pure philosophy.

Who inspires you?

So many people! When I started doing philosophy, the person who inspired me most was Kant. I was obsessed with the critique of pure reason; it’s really what got me into philosophy. He does so much work on explanation, causality and perception; all things that I’m fascinated by. During my PhD my peers influenced me hugely, people like Stephen Mumford, Alexander Bird and Peter Lipton were massively inspirational. John Stuart Mill is also a hero of mine and he’s really the first philosopher of science, so he’s pretty important in my history.

What do you think of the STS department so far?

It’s fantastic! It’s been a really fun and happy environment so far. Everyone is so friendly and collegial. I think it’s also a really good place to be if you’re coming at philosophy of science from my direction, since the work that happens here is so directly informed by what’s happening in science right now. I’m completely fascinated by the work that others in the department are doing, and that I have no idea about. I think it’s a great place to be and I’ll learn a lot!

What would you like to be doing in a few years time?

I’m hoping to develop my teaching over the next few years. I’ve taught a lot of philosophy of science in Bristol, as well as more generally in philosophy at Trinity. I’m also developing a project on the philosophy of biochemistry about the relationship between structure and function in biomolecules. Philosophers in the emerging field of philosophy of chemistry can be quite reductionist in their thinking, and the more I read about genomics and other areas the more I realise that there’s more to the function of molecule than can be discerned by their structure. It’s a continuation of my work on natural kinds, but with a more scientific spin.

How do you feel about continuing your research here at UCL?

I think I’m definitely in the right department for this project, and there are loads of people here who are interested in these areas. I’m also hoping to get in touch with some of the biochemists at UCL since I’m really interested at looking at some of the computational modelling of biomolecules as part of this project.

It sounds like you’ll get on brilliantly here, but where in the world are you happiest?

At home in West Cork, I think. I manage to get back there every three months or so, and in true Irish tradition it’s still home to me.

Is there anything you’re afraid of?

I don’t like spiders! I seem to have passed that onto my daughter too!

And finally, what’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?

It has to be honeycomb.

With the chunks?

Oh, I love it.

Thanks Emma!