Academic Profile

Academic Profile

Asst Prof Lisa Onaga

Assistant Professor
School of Humanities
College of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences

Phone: (+65)65921562
Office: HSS-05-11(HIST)

  • PhD Cornell University 2012
  • MA Cornell University 2006
  • BSc (Biology) (Hons) Brown University 2000
Assistant Professor (tenure track), 2012-present
History Programme, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Postdoctoral fellow and lecturer, 2011-2012
Institute for Society and Genetics, University of California, Los Angeles
D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia

Ph.D., M.A., Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University
Sc.B., Biology, Brown University
Research Interests
My research bridges interests in the history of science and technology, STS, and the history of Japan in the world. I am currently preparing a book manuscript, Cocoon Cultures: An Entangled History of Silk and Science (Duke University Press, under contract) that chronicles the Japanese pursuit of the ideal silk cocoon type in the archipelago and its role in generating biological knowledge. The mass production and global export of silk commodities that made imperial Japan a formidable international power relied, in no small part, on the scientific improvement of the domesticated silk moth species, Bombyx mori. The material object of the scientific hybrid cocoon, an environmentally sensitive result of breeding Japanese varieties with those from China and elsewhere, stands as a focal point of this history spanning the nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries. Archival research in laboratory archives, libraries, and private collections in Japan, the United States, and Thailand inform this analysis of the tensions between scientists and silk/worm producers. Through the object of the cocoon, I show that what appeared to circulate as universalized biological knowledge had a particular genealogy connected to the ancient but changing craft of silk-making and with it, changing ideologies of the state and Japan’s relation to the world. Any comprehensive historical understanding of Japanese modern biology before, during, and after empire must necessarily engage with the cocoon.

My ongoing research examines the history of post-war efforts to rebuild, if not rehabilitate, bioscience through efforts to preserve genetic resources at the national and global levels. By attending to postwar discussions in Japan about creating national infrastructure for “strain preservation,” I study how activities built around the infrastructure previously created for silkworm genetics gave way to a national discourse concerning “bioresource management” that set the stage for the National Bioresource Project present today. Other research includes the history of silkworm genetics in the atomic age, the communication of Mendelian thought in Meiji Japan, and an oral history of the Singapore Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum relative to a collaborative project on the notion of uncertainty as represented by the idiomatic phrase "Turtles all the way down" (MOE 2016-T1-002-104).

New research on Biomaterial Matters (MOE Tier1 2015-T1-001-026) works toward a critical history of the formation of a discipline known as biomaterials science and engineering by focusing on silk as a material. This research combines multidisciplinary interests in medicine, materials science, proteomics, art, agricultural biotechnology, and other fields that have contributed to or interrogated processes of making animal proteins inspiring, biocompatible with, or toxic to living things.
Current Projects
  • Biomaterial Matters: Historicizing the preservation of silkcraft and the production of purified silk protein in the long twentieth century
  • Building The Biological: Exploring Global Continuities In The History Of Japanese Bioscience From Empire To The Atomic AgeNew Silk Road 50%, General Academic Excellence ( 50%)
  • Uncertainty and ”Turtles All the Way Down": The Spatio-temporal Life of a Mytheme and its Appropriation in Anxious Inquiry
Selected Publications
  • Lisa Onaga. (2017). Reconstructing the Linear No-Threshold Model in Japan: A Historical Perspective on the Technics of Evaluating Radiation Exposure. Technology and Culture, 58(1), 194-205.
  • Onaga, L. (2015). More than Metamorphosis: The Silkworm Experiments of Toyama Kametarō and his Cultivation of Genetic Thought in Japan’s Sericultural Practices, 1894–1918. Archimedes, 40, 415-437.
  • Onaga, Lisa A. (2014). Ray Wu as Fifth Business: Deconstructing collective memory in the history of DNA sequencing. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 46, 1-14.
  • Onaga, Lisa A. (2013). Bombyx and Bugs in Meiji Japan: Toward a Multispecies History?. Scholar & Feminist Online, 11(3),
  • Onaga, Lisa. (2010). Toyama Kametaro and Vernon Kellogg: Silkworm Inheritance Experiments in Japan, Siam, and the United States, 1900–1912. Journal of the History of Biology, 43(2), 215-264.

« Back to Research Directory