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German Research Foundation approves research unit to study extreme experiences in human life

New research unit examines extreme experiences in human life using biomedical explanations and worldly experience

The German Research Foundation (DFG) is establishing a new research unit at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The interdisciplinary group will examine how new biomedical capabilities can lead to extreme experiences in human life.

Specifically, it deals with issues arising from the technologically assisted reproduction or medically assisted death. The DFG Research Unit "Life Sciences, Life Writing: Extreme Experience in Human Life between Biomedical Explanations and Worldly Experience" offers 12 doctoral candidates a structured research and training program, where they can gain qualifications and early scientific independence starting April 2014. The German Research Foundation will initially provide approximately EUR 2 million to the research unit for four and a half years.

"We want this research unit to expand the natural sciences–medical research perspective of extreme experience in human life to include the worldly experience that the Humanities and Cultural Studies examine. Doing so promises to provide us with new perspectives on people as human beings," said the coordinator of the new research unit and director of the Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine, Professor Norbert W. Paul. The unit will focus on extreme experiences in physicality, such as that in eating disorders, in capabilities, including the ability to become a member of society for those suffering posttraumatic stress disorder, or with regard to temporal dimensions, including the life-long impact people suffer from premature birth.

The goal of the new research unit is to develop joint methodological approaches to extreme human experience where medicine, the individual, and society interact. "The research unit will serve as a platform for young researchers to examine the tension between biomedical explanations and worldly dimensions and to research what we refer to as extreme experiences in human life. One such extreme experience is medically assisted death," emphasized Paul.

Graduate and postgraduate scholarships for the structured research and training program will be awarded in a competition. Successful applicants from the Natural Sciences, Medicine, the Humanities, and Cultural Studies will then have joint supervision from a representative of Biomedicine/Life Sciences as well as Life Writing/Humanities and Cultural Studies.

In addition to the Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine and the American Studies division of Mainz University, who are in charge of the "Life Sciences, Life Writing" research unit, it will also include participation from the disciplines of Cultural Anthropology, Pharmaceutical Biology, Molecular Biology, Psychosomatics, Child and Youth Psychology as well as the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB). "Our joint goal is to provide a worldly perspective to the compliment clinical care and to provide Humanities and Cultural Studies scholars with a practical focus to access real-world practices in research and health care," explained Professor Mita Banerjee, co-spokesperson for the research unit and Professor of American Studies at the JGU Department of English and Linguistics.

"The establishment of the new interdisciplinary research unit 'Life Sciences, Life Writing' emphasizes once more the importance that our university places on training young researchers across disciplines," emphasized Professor Georg Krausch, President of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "This research unit is an excellent example of a beneficial cooperation between the Mainz University Medical Center and the Humanities and Cultural Studies at JGU," added the scientific chair of the Mainz University Medical Center, Professor Ulrich Förstermann.

Since the middle of the 20th century at the latest, life sciences have been key to our understanding of the world and what it means to be a human being. The embedding of people in a socio-cultural context on the one hand and in a material sphere on the other hand has historically driven the differentiation between Natural Sciences and the Humanities, later Life Sciences, Sociology, and Cultural Studies. Biomedicine, which uses scientific methods to explain and maintain human life, has, in its search for rational decision making and actions, settled mainly on natural science models viewing the human being as an organism. By contrast, the Humanities and Cultural Studies have since the middle of the 20th century tended to focus on the individual and the individual's various ways of interpreting the world. As a framework for capturing human experience, particularly as it is being re-shaped by new biomedical possibilities, the genre of life-writing has emerged, which encompasses all forms of describing and documenting human life – from biography and autobiography to various forms of testimony, from oral accounts to electronic blogs.
Professor Dr. Norbert W. Paul
Institute of the History, Philosophy, and Ethics of Medicine
Mainz University Medical Center
Langenbeckstr. 1, D 55131 Mainz
phone +49 6131 39-37355
fax +49 6131 39-36682

[in German]

Professor Dr. Mita Banerjee
American Studies
Department of English and Linguistics
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
D 55099 Mainz
phone +49 6131 39-22711
Fax +49 6131 39-22480

Petra Giegerich | idw
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