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University of York academic to explore ethics of face transplants

Posted on 7 May 2019

A University of York academic has been awarded a Future Leader Fellowship from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to study the emotional history and ethics of face transplants.


Dr Fay Bound Alberti will draw on her expertise in emotion history and combine approaches from anthropology, sociology, literary theory and medical ethics for the research project.

Dr Fay Bound Alberti’s research will inform discussions about the viability of face transplants in the UK, where the new and increasingly prevalent form of surgery is yet to take place.

Since the emergence of face transplantation surgery in 2005, as a means to improve the quality of life of people severely disfigured by facial trauma, burns, disease or birth defects, there have been international concerns about its impact.

"Frankenstein science"

Dr Bound Alberti will explore the social, ethical and emotional context of reactions to face transplants, which are often more grounded in emotional than scientific reasoning. She will examine the history of our attachment of identity and beauty to the face, societal responses to (and definitions of) disfigurement and anxieties about “Frankenstein science”.

Working in the US, UK and China with extended surgical teams, transplant recipients, donor families, ethicists, artists and innovators, this critically-needed research will explore the historical emergence of facial transplantation surgery and its emotional meanings for those affected by it, as well as its portrayal in policy debates, works of fiction and media coverage. The project will offer crucial insights into how face transplants have evolved as a necessary, yet controversial response to severe facial disfigurement.

Identity

Dr Bound Alberti, from the Department of History at the University of York, said: “Attitudes to facial transplantation reflect historical, emotional concerns about identity and the face as much as scientific and medical priorities, so an interdisciplinary approach is essential to this path-breaking research.  I look forward to connecting with colleagues at York across the faculties of Arts and Humanities, Social Science and the Sciences.

 “Against a backdrop of intense cultural interest in the face and its links with identity, heritage, authenticity and personhood, this project raises critical questions not only about the ethics and limits of surgical innovation, but also the meanings of embodied identity in the early 21st century.”

Brightest researchers

The Future Leader Fellowship programme provides government funding for future leaders in science and research across the UK.  The scheme supports major interdisciplinary research programmes with wide-ranging societal, scientific and ethical impacts - led by the brightest researchers and innovators at universities across the country.

Science and Innovation Minister Chris Skidmore, said: “From Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, to Rosalind Franklin whose work was critical in understanding DNA, we have a rich history of talented individuals who have paved the way for ground-breaking research and discoveries in their fields.

“Our investment in these Future Leaders Fellows will enable the brightest and best of our scientists and researchers to work with leading lights in industry, to help their research move from the laboratory to the commercial market.

“This support to the next generation of scientists and researchers is a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy, and our commitment to raise R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 will maintain the UK’s position as a world-leader in science and innovation and building on our historic legacy.”

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