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Q&A with Cosima Herter, Science Consultant

Cosima Herter is Orphan Black’s Science Consultant, and the inspiration for her namesake character in the series. In real-life, Real Cosima is a PhD. student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, working on the History and Philosophy of Biology. Hive interns Billi Knight and Peter Rowley spoke with her about her role on the show and the science behind it…

Q: Describe your role in the making of Orphan Black.
A: I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science. I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so (it’s) not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.

Q: Do you notice a lot of inaccuracy in television shows?
A: Absolutely. All the time.

Q: How much of the show would you say is science fiction and how much would you say is accurate science now – science fact?
A: Well, I think there’s lots of different levels. I think that the possibilities for the kinds of science that are being represented are not fictional. I think some of the things that make these things fictional are the fact that there are actual clones running around, but the capacity or the potential or the research to create such an event is not fiction.

Q: What do you think has stopped that from happening? Which part? What’s preventing us from having human clones running around?
A: A lot of it is, we’re not entirely sure if that science is entirely perfected. I mean there was Dolly in ’96 and that took hundreds of tries. There’s also a moratorium on human cloning. There’s different kinds of cloning – there’s therapeutic cloning, and reproductive cloning. We can do therapeutic cloning, we do it all the time with all kinds of animals. Your cells clone themselves all the time, but reproductive cloning, – cloning meant for the reproduction of humanity – that’s not legal – at least not in North America. Whether that’s being researched in other areas, I have very little doubt that it is. We’re not allowed to hear about it, because we’re not allowed to do it. But we do clone other species, mammals. So, conceivably it’s not impossible that human beings could be.

Q: Extrapolate on the future of this technology; where do you see it going?
A: Oh I don’t even know that I could. I’m an historian, so I look in the past, and I see how things have developed over time. I see how the science of biology, almost more than any other science, is marshalled into the service of politics, which it tends to be. And, the conception of this show, right down to the characters, the fact that you have a main female character multiple times over! Women are often, throughout history reduced to their biology. And marginalized because of that biology. So it’s very timely that you have a character like that. That’s very interesting. Some of the other characters like Felix, like the homosexual relationships: homosexuals are people who are also (often) reduced to their biology. (Social) Class, reduced to your biology, different ethnicities are reduced to their biology. This [Orphan Black] actually really tries to show how complex that is. And that’s what I do as an historian. I look at those complex processes, over time. If it hasn’t always been this way, then it doesn’t always need to be this way. So I couldn’t forecast the future.

Q: Tell us about the dynamic form of your work with the writers. Is the writing pushing the science, or is the science pushing the writing? Is the writing informing the science, or is the science informing the writing?
A: I think it’s both. I think it’s totally both. I mean as an academic, you spend a lot of time by yourself. You don’t write collaboratively, – at least not very often -, so this process… it’s amazing. If only I were in seminar rooms with other students like this all the time! It’s not just me. There’s an idea, here’s the science; listening to the kinds of creative processes that are happening. Then trying to figure out how I fuel that, because there’s lots of great ideas but they’re not all relevant, and they can really derail you. You’ve been in that room. Time can get really tight and you can talk about a million things, but you have to wait and listen to see what people are needing to know, and then try to say from what’s real, whatever real is, – the history and the knowledge I have, try to keep feeding it in a way that’s productive. So that particular process is super exciting for me. It’s really exciting. I don’t always know what the science is (the writers) need until the story starts to progress. And then it’s like, what about this…!!! So I think it goes both ways.

Q: We know you and Graeme are long-time friends. How early in the process did he involve you?
A: Like any friendships, you have conversations over time. Any early conversations didn’t feel like it was involved in a ‘process’ – it was about friends talking about ideas. That’s my favourite thing, to talk about ideas: what are you working on, I’m working on this – oh that’s interesting because… You share ideas. I think the first time that I was asked to really participate was when Graeme was at the Canadian Film Centre. But even then, I wasn’t really sure what it was that we were doing. When the show was picked up, that’s when I became part of the process. But other than that I wouldn’t say it would be anything more than sharing ideas amongst friends in a creative way. Talking. So I’m really lucky.

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