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
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. I am currently preparing a book manuscript (working title: Anatomy of a Hybrid: Cultivation of Silk and Genetics in Modern Japan”) that chronicles the Japanese pursuit of the ideal silk cocoon type in the archipelago and its role in generating biological knowledge. The material object of the scientific hybrid cocoon, a result of breeding Japanese varieties with those from China and elsewhere, stands as a focal point of the book, a history of breeding science and genetics from the late nineteenth century through the post-World War II era. Archival research in laboratory archives, libraries, and private collections in Japan, the United States, and the National Archives of Thailand inform this analysis of the tensions between scientists and stake holders in the silk industry. Together with detailed descriptions of the partner species and the shared human-animal product, this book illustrates why the creation of the scientific hybrid served as a potent site for understanding an entanglement of industrial standardization, biological race, and national identity in Japan. 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 newer research involves 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. I am also working on the history of silkworm genetics in the atomic age and am interested in how scientists who experienced wartime re-initiated their mutation experiments and served positions of leadership in high-profile roundtable discussions on the effects of radiation on lifeforms in 1950s and 1960s Japan. Addition work on the communication of Mendelian thought in Meiji Japan is slated to appear in an edited volume on the topic of agriculture and genetics.

Another aspect of my research program focuses on the experiences of Asian American scientists in the biosciences and more broadly, the migration of Japanese breeding/cultivation knowledge to the Americas. I’m currently completing a journal article on the late Ray Wu, a Chinese-descent molecular biologist who played an instrumental role in the early history of DNA sequencing in the 1960s and 1970s. On tap is an ongoing project on the history of Japanese chicken sexing expertise and its relationship to eugenic science. This work will complement Nikkei studies of the diasporic experiences of expert chicken sexers before and after the exclusionary immigration policies of the United States. I am also collecting materials related to the history of ornamental fish breeding and the introduction of koi to the United States as a way to understand a phenomenon opposite of the standardized silk cocoon, which involves the cultivation and extraordinary value of individuality and difference.
Research Grant
  • Academic Research Fund Tier 1 (2015-)
  • Academic Research Fund Tier 1 (2017-) [by MOE]
Current Projects
  • Biomaterial Matters: Historicizing the preservation of silkcraft and the production of purified silk protein in the long twentieth century
  • 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.

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