Marta Bertolaso is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the Faculty of Science and Technology for Humans and the Environment and at the Institute of Philosophy of Scientific and Technological Practice, at University Campus Bio-Medico of Rome (UCBM), Italy. She is the director of the Research Unit of Philosophy of Science and Human Development. She teaches Epistemology of the Experimental Design, Human Ecology & Sustainability, Digital Mindset Transitions in the same university for undergraduate and graduate students.
Her expertise in philosophy of life sciences and scientific practice, and philosophy of complex organized systems has allowed her to promote and collaborate in interdisciplinary research and educational projects. She is currently focusing her work on an integral understanding of organismic development, of the notion of human progress and human work. She is currently contributing, in collaboration with companies and enterprises, to the development of an ‘ecosystem accelerator’ of a new industrial and social development after the COVID19 epidemic.
Her collaboration with CCBIO, more specifically, relies upon the work she did on cancer research and cancer biology in the last two decades, from which also the paradigm of integral development emerged. In particular, she is focusing on the assumptions and epistemological foundations for an adequate identification and implementation of biomarkers for cancer’s diagnosis and treatment. More recently, she has been discussing explanatory advantages and limits of different models of carcinogenesis and cancer development with Professor Lars A. Akslen and Professor Roger Strand for a more comprehensive understanding of some empirical results the CCBIO teams are currently focusing on.
From cancer research to philosophy of science
We asked Professor Bertolaso how she came to choose her field of work, as her first degree and academic training is, in fact, in molecular biology and cancer research.
“I started working in a lab with very good professors and mentors. They helped me more by asking relevant questions than by giving a lot of answers,” she explains. “As a result, I became more and more interested in understanding the paradoxes and dichotomies that were emerging in cancer research, while I was finding more and more convergences between cancer and organismic development and pathways. My scientific background always encouraged me to take scientific work and advancements very seriously, while at the same time acknowledging that models are not always useful or adequate to account especially for complex dynamics and integral organic development. My attention was therefore captured by certain debates in the scientific literature that were engaged in a discussion about the ‘right’ theory to account for carcinogenesis. Typically, they are represented by the SMT (Somatic Mutation Theory) and TOFT (Tissue Organization Field Theory) debate.
I eventually decided to move into philosophy of science, as the questions that were emerging in science were, in fact, epistemological and ontological questions about organisms and the special status of the life sciences. As a philosopher of science, I have applied a specific methodology that develops philosophical discourse and research activity ‘from within science’. As I have written elsewhere*, if we are interested in exploring the assumptions and methods underlying the sciences, we need to explore both the theories and results produced by scientists and the processes by which they come to these conclusions.
In this way I developed my own research program looking at how paradoxes emerged and at how we can make sense of dichotomies in life sciences, thus developing a “relational epistemology” that is able to make sense of complex systems transitions and functional states and different models to account for the same phenomena.
It is exciting to see how such philosophical and epistemological work is now also contributing to empirical science. Some of my publications are, in fact, the results of this fruitful collaboration with scientists at both the methodological and theoretical levels in order to explore new paradigms and models to better represent and control complex organized dynamics that we paradigmatically find in living systems,” she says.
Bridging the gap between scientific work and theoretical understanding
Professor Bertolaso hopes to contribute to making the most of empirical results and speeding up the process toward better therapeutic approaches.
“First of all, I have to acknowledge that in CCBIO I am always learning and stimulated to explore new questions and challenges,” she says. “The very interdisciplinary and open environment that characterizes the CCBIO group, moreover, allows me to consider empirical results and methodological approaches from my specific viewpoint, that is, asking what perspective might be more useful to account for major empirical results and questions,” she continues.
“Sometimes scientists don’t have time to do this as other pressures and commitments require them to focus on practical aspects and pragmatic aims. Thus, I really hope my contribution will be of service to bridge the gap between well-done scientific work and the more comprehensive theoretical understanding of the phenomena scientists are exploring and investigating.
I always like to quote Chesterton on this point who said "The pessimist is commonly spoken of as the man in revolt. He is not. (…) The person who is really in revolt is the optimist, who generally lives and dies in a desperate and suicidal effort to persuade all the other people how good they are” (G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to "The Defendant"). Inherited wrong paradigms and old perspectives in life sciences can make scientific endeavor really challenging and stressful. Therefore, encouraging by expanding viewpoints, making the most of empirical results and speeding up the process toward better therapeutic approaches - which is also an ethical and social commitment of primary importance for me - will hopefully be my main contributions in the CCBIO group,” she concludes.
We are happy to welcome Marta to the CCBIO family, and look forward to interesting work and interaction!
Marta Bertolaso is also Editor of the Springer Series “Human Perspectives in health Sciences and Technology” (https://www.springer.com/series/16128) and she has been responsible for the scientific side of the "Human and Technology" section of the website Saluteuropa - https://saluteuropa.org/category/uomo-e-tecnologia/
Bertolaso M (2016) Introduction in “Philosophy of Cancer – A Dynamic and Relational View”. Springer Series in “History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences”.
Bertolaso M. (2017), “A System Approach to Cancer. From Things to Relations”, in Green, S. (ed.), Philosophy of Systems Biology – Perspectives from Scientists and Philosophers. Dordrecht, Springer, History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences (HPTL), pp. 37-47.