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Interviews with Alums : Conor Douglas

11 May 2012

The PFGS has now been running for fourteen years and has seen many people pass through their PhDs and into jobs and lives within and beyond the academy. In this interview series, we are catching up with Alumni who have shaped the Forum, and our first E-interview is with Dr. Conor Douglas. Conor was the Chairman of the PFGS in 2008 when the current chairs, Stevie and Rachel, were starting out on their PhDs. We asked him to share some of his stories and recollections of his time in the PFGS, his thoughts on working in academia and the advantages of being involved in a student forum.

How did you first get involved with the PFGS?

My first contact with the PFGS was at an Innogen conference in February of 2005. I was a brand-spanking new PhD student and research associate in the SATSU at York (UK) and I was taking in the conference as one of my first activities upon touching down from my home of Vancouver. I must of looked new, and a PhD student, as I was approach by a PhD student from Egenis, Ingird Holm – now Dr. Ingrid Holme at Southampton- who asked me about my work. It didn’t take long before she was suggesting I organize the next PFGS annual meeting! While Jamie Lewis and Andrew Bartlett ended up organizing the 2005 meeting in Cardiff, we held the 2006 meeting in York.

What were some of the activities you engaged in? Tell us about what you think of the idea of mentorship – formal or informal-  in postgraduate academia?

As mentioned, myself and Helen Cox organized the 2006 meeting in York, but pretty much since that meeting with Ingrid I was involved with some kind of PFGS activity until I left the UK in 2008. One of the nicest things that I think we did was apply for -and receive- grant money from the ESRC to hold a seminar series. That was done with Jamie Lewis, Bonnie Green, and Ingrid Holme. Rather than holding a conventional seminar series on genetics and society we decided to run the events as kinds of regional meetings of the PFGS, and have them be more orientated to training for doing research on genetics and society. So we had things like ‘doing lab ethnography’ (York), ‘interviewing scientists and policy makers’ (Edinburgh), ‘doing multidisciplinary research’ (Sheffield), and the like [Editor’s comment : summaries of these events are available here] These events brought in experts to talk about the subject, but they also had PFGS members presenting, and certainly participating. This was a unique kind of mentorship which I think really typifies the PFGS.

What’s the best PFGS memory you have, and how do you think things in the ‘genetics and society’ research field have changed since you got involved?

Well, I have a lot of great PFGS memories, it was without a doubt one of the best academic components of my PhD. I made a lot of very meaningful connections with people through this organization, which is so important in getting through the PhD process. Also, I had a lot of really useful discussions about work, which really pushed my thinking and helped to develop my ideas.

As for the field of ‘genetics and society’….well, clearly the so called ‘ELSI gold rush’ is over. And this more or less true internationally. As the promises of genetics fizzled, and the complexity of gene-environment interactions continue to unravel, it has become increasingly clear to everyone that thinking solely about ‘genetics’ in relation to society isn’t really that helpful. In fact, people in the PFGS have been saying this for a long time. Things are broadening out from ‘genetics’ to ‘the life sciences’, but a lot of the tensions and co-constructivists dynamics persist.

Would you say the PFGS helped in clarifying your research? Establishing a career in the field? Or even just surviving your PhD? (eg, presenting work in progress, getting familiar with online platforms, establishing an online presence, making contacts)

Like I mentioned in the above, the PFGS helped doing all of these things. But I think one of the biggest things that the PFGS experience imparted on me was that you really get out of these things what you put in. The PFGS always has been -and will hopefully always continue to be- a volunteer organization run by PhD students, and run for PhD students. If people don’t put their time in, then nothing happens. If on the other hand you are able to mobilize and galvanize people to get involved -similar to what Ingrid Holme did for me in Edinburgh in 2005- then some great stuff can happen. So I think the PFGS can be a great medium to clarifying your research, establishing a career, survive the PhD, presenting work in progress etc. but it is only a medium. You need active, interested, and engaged people to do the work for themselves, and others.

If you hadn’t stayed in academia, what might you have done instead?

That’s a tough one, because I always wanted to go into academia. Professional basketball maybe? Bartending? Hahaha, no, seriously, I mean life in academia is not insured for me now. Not within this financial climate, and not with the somewhat lackluster support for social science research. I am a post-doc, soft money researcher now, so I am always looking for the next move – and it may not be in academia. I have a good friend who started his own consulting company, using a lot of social science and STS methods and theoretical underpinnings. An interesting point was also made during a meeting I was at in a new network I am involved in, and that was that academics working in this area need more allies outside of academia: in the policy rooms, in the regulatory offices, in industry. Simply because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you will be in academia for life. In fact, one might be deluding themselves if they thought that was the case. Depending on your motivations, a lot of work can be done on issues relating to genetics and society from different institutional settings, and I think that is something that is really important to keep in mind.

 

Tell us about some of the national differences you’ve found in the academic sector, the strengths of the working environments?

Answering that question is a thesis in and of itself! In fact one of the interesting facets of the PFGS is that you could get a flavor of what is happening in different countries as we would have members and participants in the annual meeting from all over the world. Seriously, a very interesting anthropology of PhD defenses and associated ceremonies (and parties) could be written – in fact I am sure it already has!

What do you see as the primary role of research into contemporary issues, such as that done on the SYBHEL project? 

This is also a complex question, with a number of elements to it. I have always thought that the primary role of the social sciences was to speak truth to power, based on empirical observations and arguments. Science is basically the way in which the North-Western hemisphere makes sense of world; how they construct their creation stories, and how they explain human nature. I think that research -on issues like synthetic biology- can actively hold up a mirror to those involved in the techno-scientific development process, and offer a chance at reflection. Increasingly my work is based on developing strategies to deal with what one sees in that mirror – which is a fancy way of saying policy options and recommendations. What I think is interesting is that there is now a much broader understanding of what policy is (it certainly isn’t limited to laws, regulations, and guidelines) and who relevant policy actors are (and they certainly aren’t all based in Brussels). So a primary role for research in contemporary techno-sciences like synthetic biology might be to look and see what is actually happening on the ground (or in the lab, or at the national meetings, etc), reflect on what the implications of that may be, and then think about ways to ensure that these developments are not totally repressive and unjust.

Thanks Conor for your thoughtful answers, we’re sure that your reflections will be of interest and inspiration to others! We’ve got a few other alumni lined up, but if you’d like to suggest anyone, just email the committee.

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