As a double-major in Mollecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Philosophy, I wanted to do a senior project that reflected my two areas of interest. So, instead of a traditional department-specific honors thesis, I decided to do a HELA project that blended philosophy and biology. Initially I proposed to create a podcast exploring various issues in bioethics; but, upon further reflection, I decided to narrow down to genetics-related issues. Thus my HELA project was conceived: a podcast breaking down the various ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of up-and-coming genetics research and technology.
My motivations in making this podcast were twofold. For one, I wanted to contribute to public discourse about genetics issues. We are currently in a post-genomic era with many exciting, rapid developments in genetics; consequently, genetics is a very current and relevant topic that often appears in the news. The problem, however, is that popular reporting on genetics often oversimplifies and overpromises. To write eye-catching headlines and crisp articles, popular media tends to lean into deterministic and essentialist descriptions of genetics concepts; furthermore, it often paints genetic technologies as overly futuristic, which can unnecessarily cause reactivity and alarm instead of fostering thoughtful discussion. Through my podcast, I wanted to inject some nuance into the popular discussion of genetics-related issues. By breaking down the issues at hand in a way that laypersons could understand, I hoped to empower non-experts to participate in genetics governance in a deliberate, informed way.
Secondly, I chose to make this podcast to improve my own public education skills. Through the course of this podcast, I learned valuable lessons in effective audio narration and science education. I was also able to practice my creative writing and public speaking skills.
Aside from the work I put into the podcast itself, my side projects and coursework also influenced the design and development of my project. My side projects included a genethics symposia series with A2Ethics (a local Ann Arbor group that promotes ethics in the local community through public events and discussions) as well as designing a website to host student-made educational videos in genetics. These and other side projects allowed me to observe and practice effective public communication of genetics concepts and dilemmas.
In terms of the technical side of my project (actually producing the podcast), I was very grateful to receive an Honors grant, which allowed me to hire a producer. My producer not only produced the episodes, but also gave me great advice on podcast production and helped me to refine my scripts and storyboards. I also took advantage of the University’s student computing package (which included programs such as Adobe Audition, allowing me to record and manipulate audio) as well as the University library’s Shapiro Design Lab. The staff at the Design Lab were very helpful in troubleshooting the technical aspects of podcasting, especially at the beginning.
Overall, I found my HELA project to be very fulfilling. It allowed me to dive deeper into my course work, either by revisiting previous courses or by actively drawing connections between concurrent courses and my developing podcast. It also inspired me to participate in community-oriented initiatives in both genetics and genethics; these opportunities not only allowed me to teach what I knew, but also allowed me to establish professional and personal connections that I hope to maintain into the future. I will continue working on this podcast beyond my graduation and hope to continue growing its impact and improving on its quality. Though I often struggled with motivation and self-doubt, in the end I am glad that I pushed myself to complete an independent, creative project that makes (or will make) a difference in my community.
You can listen to Veronica's podcast, Next-GenEthics, on the podcast's website or wherever you get your podcasts!