Sarah S. Richardson is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. She is jointly appointed in the Department of the History of Science and the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. A historian and philosopher of science, her research focuses on race and gender in the biosciences and on the social dimensions of scientific knowledge. She is the author of Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome (Chicago, 2013) and co-editor of Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (Rutgers, 2008) and Postgenomics (Duke, 2015).
In Sex Itself, Richardson traced the history of genetic theories of sex differences from 1900 to the present. The book demonstrates how the human X and Y chromosomes became the pillars of a particular way of thinking about biological sex: as an unalterable binary encoded at the level of the genome. Richardson shows how over the course of the twentieth century, conceptions of the X and Y as the "female" and "male" chromosomes influenced understandings of human sex differences in biology and medicine. In the book’s concluding chapters, Richardson outlines key ethical, conceptual, and methodological issues in the expanding study of genomic sex differences today.
The Maternal Mystique
Richardson’s current book project, with the working title The Maternal Mystique, is a history of maternal effects research. The term “maternal effects” refers to the influences of a mother’s behavior, exposures, and physiology on her offspring’s future health and development. Today, maternal effects research is an expanding field in medicine, public health, psychology, evolutionary biology, and genomics. The book explores the intersection between the rise of maternal effects research in the life sciences and changing conceptions of motherhood, health citizenship, and genetic determinism in the twentieth century.
Race and Gender in the Postgenomic Moment
Richardson's research presses for scholarly reflection on the many developments underway in the present postgenomic moment. Her 2008 edited volume, Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (with Koenig and Lee), framed an interdisciplinary discussion about the implications of human genome research for conceptions of racial difference, identity, and health inequalities. Richardson's article, “Race and IQ in the Postgenomic Age” profiled recent research on the possibility that gene variants implicated in brain development, cognition, and mental health may have different frequencies in different racial and ethnic populations. Her essay, "Maternal Bodies in the Postgenomic Order," discussed the implications of a prominent postgenomic research stream that situates the maternal body as a central site of epigenetic programming and transmission and as a significant locus of medical and public health intervention. A recent piece on autism and sex differences research (with Gillis-Buck) examined how higher rates of autism diagnosis in males have become a departure point for basic research on the genetics, endocrinology, and neuroscience of sex differences, with implications for charged discussions about differences between males and females in math and science propensity.
Richardson's forthcoming book Postgenomics (Duke 2015, with Stevens) features new essays by a multidisciplinary group of scholars. The book explores several dimensions of the post-Human Genome Project biomedical sciences, including its transdiciplinary practices of knowledge production; the refiguring of notions of genomic difference and similarity; the newly elevated focus on the interaction of social and environmental factors with genome function; attempts to move toward more holist rather than reductionist approaches; forms of affect and hype in the postgenomic moment; and scientists’ experiences of rupture and continuity in the postgenomic era.
Originally from Billings, Montana, Richardson loves hiking, gardening, baking bread, and experimenting with fermentation. She has recently taken up beekeeping (with little success).