“How Can We Anticipate and Respond to Technologies and Information That is Rapidly Changing?” – Josephine Johnston

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Never forget that humility is the mark of greatness

Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.

Josephine Johnston, Director of Research, The Hastings Center

Josephine Johnston is an expert on the ethical, legal and policy implications of biomedical technologies, particularly as used in human reproduction, psychiatry, genetics, and neuroscience. In her current projects, she addresses the ethical implications of new kinds of prenatal genetic tests, the relationship between gene editing technologies and understandings of human flourishing, and, with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, the potential use of genetic sequencing technology in newborns. 

She is also a member of Columbia University Medical Center’s Center for Excellence in Ethical, Legal and Social Implications looking at psychiatric, neurologic and behavioral genetics. In addition, Johnston has, with colleagues at Kent Place School, developed a Hastings Center-style research program for high school students.

What are you working on right now?

I am trying to understand how we can reap the benefits of advances in genomics without harming individuals or abandoning our commitments to freedom and justice. That sounds very abstract, so a more specific answer is that I am working on three grant-funded research projects on the ethical, legal and social implications of advances in genomics. These projects focus on different areas and applications—prenatal testing, newborn screening, psychiatry and neuroscience—and one project considers the implications of gene editing technologies for human flourishing.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?

Adequately accounting for the complexity and uncertainty in the science is a huge challenge for ethics and policy. One of my geneticist collaborators said that “we are building the plan as we’re flying it,” which is a fact that creates challenges not just for science and medicine but also for those of us working on ethical, legal, and social issues. How can we anticipate and respond to technologies and information that is rapidly changing?

Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months.

I’d like to see a sharper focus on the policies, practice and social norms that shape how we respond to and use new information and technologies. For example, as we look towards the possibility of noninvasive prenatal diagnosis (rather than just screening) we need to think not just about policies and practices in the clinic around the time that these tests are offered and the result is returned, but also at the surrounding social policies, laws, and norms that shape how women view these tests and what they think they should do.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I was trained in law, but sometimes felt constrained by the law’s rather specific way of thinking about problems. Then I encountered the field of bioethics, where it seemed to me that a much broader range of questions are asked. This was thrilling to me, but I quickly learned that engaging with these questions requires an ability to read the work of—and often to work with—people whose training, terminology, and knowledge base is very different from my own. I have to be able to read scientific articles, medical practice guidelines, legislation, social science research, and philosophical scholarship, to name just a few. Over the past fifteen years, I have learned how to conduct truly interdisciplinary research, and I am proud of my ability to communicate across disciplinary boundaries, including to the broader public. 

Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?

Jennifer Doudna—I would love to hear more about her journey as a scientific leader—what barriers did she face, and how did she overcome them. And I’d love to know more about how she thinks we can maximize the potential good of gene editing technologies while minimizing the possible harms. I think she has already shown an unusual and admirable willingness to raise and engage with possible concerns about the technology she co-invented. It’d be a privilege to know more about her life and work. And Ernest Rutherford, who was a fellow New Zealander and the first person to split the atom. I have no idea what he was like as a person, but wouldn’t it be fun to hear him converse with Dr. Doudna about the responsibility of scientists to identify and help address the possible implication of their work?

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

People did give me some pretty good advice, actually—I just wish that I had taken it even more to heart! That advice included: Prioritize your own writing, if something doesn’t make sense to you then perhaps it doesn’t make sense (i.e. trust your judgment), and try to keep a lid on self-doubt (something I know many women struggle with). One of my colleagues likes to say “no good deed goes unpunished” and that’s something I wish I had thought harder about early on—you really do have to be careful about what you show yourself to be good at because before you know it, you are being asked to do way too many things!

Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution.

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