Rena Selya, Ph.D.

Rena Selya, Ph.D.

Department affiliations: 

Society for Neuroscience and Department of Neurobiology Postdoctoral Fellow in Neuroscience History 2013-16

Research interest: 

History of 20th century life sciences, including genetics, molecular biology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience; intersection of science and politics in the Cold War; history of cancer research; social and cultural American history.

Research Overview

From 2013-2014, Dr. Selya researched and co-wrote (with Joel Braslow and Marcia Meldrum) an online history of the first 25 years of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), 1969-1995, supplemented with video interviews, photographs, and archival documents.  Since its creation in 1969, the SfN and its members have played a major role in shaping our scientific and cultural knowledge of how the brain and nervous system work, in forging a disciplinary identity for the neurosciences, and in helping to promote effective national neuroscience policy. This story draws on the Neuroscience History Archive and materials from SfN, as well as extensive interviews with the leadership and members of the Society.  Following completion of the history project, in 2015-16, Dr. Selya oversaw the transfer of the SfN archives to UCLA for long-term preservation and researcher access.

Her previous research has focused on other disciplines that straddle the fluid boundary between 20th century American biology and medicine. Dr. Selya's work emphasizes the social and political context and applications of biomedical research. My master’s thesis examined the transformation of the rosy periwinkle from a plant commonly used in folk medicine to a source of potent cancer chemotherapy. This project incorporated the histories of ethnopharmacology, botany, cancer research and cancer therapeutics, and examined the popular response to the history of this cancer drug. Similarly, my dissertation was a biographical study of Salvador Luria (1912-1991), a Nobel prize-winning virologist and molecular biologist who began his career as a medical doctor and retired as the director of the Center for Cancer Research at MIT. Her narrative described how Luria’s research was at the crossroads of many of the biomedical disciplines that emerged in the Cold War era. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Dr. Selya's work detailed his life as a scientist outside the laboratory, as a political activist and as a member of numerous scientific societies. As an immigrant from Italy during World War II, Luria took his role as an American citizen very seriously, and devoted considerable energy to liberal causes. His identity as an American was bound up in his identity as a scientist, and he was committed to using scientific knowledge as a tool to benefit American society. Over the course of his career, Luria participated in many scientific societies. His engagement in this important public aspect of scientific life included episodes from the histories of the Genetics Society of America, the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.