Imaging/Imagining Reproductive Crisis: time-lapse microscopy, animation and fertility discourse

Posted: 11 July, 2024

Picture of cells as imaging

In this blog we hear from Irish Research Council DOROTHY MSCA COFUND awardee Dr Rebecca Close on her research on the role of time-lapse technologies in imaging the reproductive cell in lab settings and shaping social imaginaries around fertility and reproduction more broadly.


The fertility rate has dropped in 11 of the 27 EU members states in the last 20 years, suggesting a ‘crisis in reproduction’ in Europe. Fertility is also understood to decline abruptly after a certain age, even though the mechanisms of resilience of reproductive cells is only beginning to be studied. Time-lapse microscopy has been at the centre of the way we know about reproductive biology since the early 20th century, and today continues to condition how scientists create images of reproductive cells in laboratory settings. In this sense, animation techniques are key to scientific and popular understandings of both the ‘biological clock’ and the supposed challenges or urgencies of population replacement.

Dr Rebecca Close’s DOROTHY MSCA project examines the role of time-lapse technologies in imaging the reproductive cell in lab settings and shaping popular understandings of fertility and reproduction more broadly. The project joins The Institute for the History of Science at Universidad de Barcelona Autonoma and the School of Applied Social Studies at University College Cork in partnership, and addresses the racial, gender and sexual politics of imaging/imagining fertility and reproduction to be ‘in crisis’ in Europe through lab ethnography and animation film creation. Rebecca will be working to build an integrated understanding of the connections between scientific knowledge and practice, between knowledge and power.

Rebecca’s doctoral research on The Fixed Capital of Fertility situated emergent computational and networked landscapes of assisted reproduction in Europe in a longer history of reproductive technologies and politics since the 1970s. While revising commercial fertility websites, Rebecca noticed that time-lapse animation footage is increasingly used by companies as a marketing technique and was able to compare these with some fascinating examples of early 20th century time-lapse microscopy footage held by Wellcome Collection archive. Rebecca documented this in an animation film The Wife of Them All (2022), which made anarchic links between different drawn, clay and stop-motion animation techniques used historically across both arts and science contexts. Rebecca’s PhD thesis and film were awarded the 2024 Doctoral Thesis Award by the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University, yet the project left many threads open.

Poster for a film titled, The Wife of them all. with perspective facing down with feet

Although the study of science and technology is now many decades old, one problem in the field was described very early by sociology of knowledge and Black Feminisms scholar Patricia Hill Collins (2000) and still rings true today: as researchers who take into account questions of gender, race, sexuality and ability in the history and study of science, there is a tendency to focus on either scientific knowledge or scientific practice; either ‘theory’ and ‘philosophy’ or ‘applied’ and ‘activist’ work. In Rebecca’s words:

‘The objectives of the present post-doctoral research are to situate contemporary reproductive cell and tissue imaging practices in a history of time-lapse microscopy, with a focus on the technological status of the oocyte in lab practice, which has remained understudied in the literature. The project also considers how scientific knowledge about reproductive biology is often shaped by changing ideas and beliefs about how reproduction can or should be organised. I’m looking forward to bringing together critical and creative methods to research this link between ‘imaging’ and ‘imagining’ and thrilled to be able to strengthen my scholarly contributions to science and technology studies from within the interdisciplinary framework of the DOROTHY programme’.

The DOROTHY MSCA COFUND programme’s combined emphasis on public engagement, policy and scholarship will provide Rebecca with a support structure for interrupting and moving beyond the either/or logic and its focus on network building will help sustain Rebecca’s continued participation in the global networks of artists, scholars and activists working across disciplines on reproduction and public health. This is important for achieving a main objective of the research: to contribute to a shared societal understanding of how reproductive issues – from the production of scientific knowledge about reproductive biology to political questions of access to reproductive resources – stand at the centre of public health concerns.

Rebecca recently presented the paper “Fertility Fixes and Reproductive Crisis” at the Historical Materialism conference in Barcelona. The first article resulting from this DOROTHY MSCA COFUND project, “The Fertility Fix”, is due to be published by The New Bioethics.

Find our more about this project on

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