Spotlight on: Donna Bilak

Donna Bilak, who expects to complete her doctoral work later this summer, has received a fellowship from the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Donna received her MA in history from York University, Toronto. Before embarking on her academic career, she was a jewelry designer in Toronto.

You are working on your PhD at the BGC, What were you doing beforehand.   What attracted you to our program?
Prior to graduate school, I trained as a jewelry designer and worked in Toronto's jewelry industry as a designer-wax model maker, and unanticipated life events led me to pursue a master’s degree in history. I received my MA in history at York University in Toronto in 2002-3.  My thesis, under the supervision of Richard C. Hoffmann, a medieval environmental historian, examined the emergence of botany in the sixteenth century.  It was Hoffmann, actually, who had heard about the BGC, and advised me to pursue a doctorate here.  He believed that the BGC’s transdisciplinary approach was the best place to develop my interests.  The BGC has stretched my mind in ways that I never conceived of before I began the program.

What is your focus of study here; how did you find yourself involved with it?
This is a unique institution that allowed me to pursue my dual interests in nineteenth-century jewelry history and technology—a subject I've been lecturing on professionally in Toronto and New York since 2000—and early modern intellectual culture (which I fell in love with at York while I was working on my master’s). My dissertation evolved out of my comps at the BGC, two of which handled related topics: early modern garden and landscape history, and early modern intellectual and cultural history. The dissertation is an intellectual biography of one John Allin (1623-83), a Puritan alchemist who operated on both sides of the Atlantic, and a material culture study of seventeenth-century alchemical practices in England and America, based on Allin’s extant correspondence and library inventory.

You have received a fellowship.  Will you describe this?
Yes!!! It is through the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, an academic research center that has a rich holding in early modern medical-alchemical rare books.  I plan to further my research in early modern alchemy with the aim of producing a monograph on an alchemical treatise published in 1618 (Atalanta fugiens) which articulates the laboratory process using music and art, essentially encoding scientific information audially and visually.  I am super pleased about receiving this award because it shows the flexibility of the BGC's training —that my studies at the BGC have enabled me to build a diverse methodological toolkit, which, in the field of early modern history of science and technology, lets me explore and interrogate primary sources from innovative perspectives.

What ultimately is your goal?   
First, I aim to take a very lengthy yoga retreat following my upcoming defense. I want to teach, do research, and write around my dual interests in both nineteenth-century jewelry history and early modern alchemical culture.  It will be interesting to see how things unfold, and where—my efforts to date have been geared towards positioning myself for a university professorial appointment.


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Donna's dissertation on the wall for editing, early February.