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PFGS Colloquium revisited

13 August 2013

Hello all. It’s now been a month or so since the University of Leeds hosted the Postgraduate Forum for Genetics and Society 2013 Colloquium. Those of you who did make it to the event will find in this post a couple of announcements aimed at ensuring the PFGS remains an ongoing community of people interested in common themes. For those who couldn’t make it, you’ll find a selective run down of some of the papers and key themes that emerged over the two days. Due to the breadth and depth of the topics involved, we’ve had to limit our selection to an overview, but all the papers were fantastically prepared, eloquently delivered, and showed excellent promise for the PhD projects that will emerge from them.


Jackie Leach Scully set the opening tone with her paper on scientific responsibility in an age when genomics might be shifting from a preventative mode – in which potential medical problems are identified prior to birth – to a proactive mode, in which much can be done subsequent to birth. Her talk revealed just how little research has been done to date to uncover the experiences of those who live with disability, and several of us found this particularly striking. In her view, researchers have routinely failed to capture the daily lives of those we spend so much time discussing. This seems a provocative challenge, and could well make an excellent topic on one of the new PFGS message boards, which as of last week are live and ready to receive your communications! These are an entirely friendly place for you to discuss research questions, debate hot topics, gripe about PG life, in fact anything at all you think the PFGS community might take an interest in (we’ve already set up a science fiction page for instance!).


One of our first PG speakers, Rob Meckin, discussed the incentives for turning to synthetic biology for the production of many valuable chemicals (in this instance artemisinin). The production of such is already undertaken in extant contexts, contexts which are typically less centrally structured and ensure employment for a larger number of people. There is a well recognised and uncomfortable overlap between the seemingly scientific way of doing things, and the one that guarantees an increased rate of return to the companies involved, regardless of the damage this might do to local economies. Over time, what the synthetic production of artemisinin was said to achieve actually changed significantly, allowing scientists and entrepreneurs to define success and failure (and future expected successes and failures) on their own terms. A rather different industry and different set of futures were implicated in Lucy van de Wiel’s paper on oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing to you and me). Here, the big money potential for expanding the fertility industry lurked in the background, as we focussed instead on the much more personal stories of those women who pursue this treatment and what this decision entails. One central character was the subject of a 2010 Dutch documentary ‘Eggs for Later’, Marieke Schellart as she determines to freeze her eggs, out of hope for a future relationship and against the ‘ticking-clock’ of her looming infertility. Her hope for a future relationship left the characteristics of the male partner implicit, unlike those in Sophie Zadeh’s paper, which focused on the qualities sought by the women in sperm donations. Sophie’s paper began with an historical overview of the origins of artificial insemination, which can be traced back to the early C20th. Many of us are of course familiar with the eugenics movement and the emphasis placed upon the selection of decent breeding partners. What came as a particular surprise however, was that many eugenicists were also strong supporters of artificial insemination in single women, provided of course the donor’s involved were providing seriously good samples.


This in turn became the central focus of our second keynote paper, delivered by Bronwyn Parry. Prof. Parry asked us to think about the contributions made by sperm donors on the west coast of America, and surrogate mother’s in India, in terms of their clinical labor. There is a significant difference between the ways in which both groups are perceived in their different countries, the men donating to California Cryobank being held as the altruistic elite while the women in India are offered virtually no statutory protection in what is most definitely a buyers market. At the same time however, Prof. Parry asked us to look beyond the traditional stories of exploitation that are all too easily associated with the latter. The motivations that lead women into surrogacy in India are numerous, and provided proper controls can be introduced, greater parity between the reified clinical labor of elite sperm donors and the inadequately recognised efforts of surrogate mothers might be reached.


After an incredibly well catered bit of dining from Nat Tallents, everyone went to bed very early so as to be refreshed for the next day’s papers and absolutely nobody jogged about looking for a pub that was actually open. In the opening panel of day two, Charlotte Flint showed us some arresting images of people who had been electronically tagged, but then chose to make their ankle bracelets into fashion items. Some designers even set about producing a series of mini ankle-bags deliberately drawing upon this new celebrity bad-girl culture (and it was most certainly a female phenomenon, though it would be interesting to know to what extent men have attempted to appropriate the meaning of their own state enforced jewelry). Mexican genomics and biobanking was the theme of the second panel, with rich discussion arising between the different approaches taken by the three papers towards issues of public trust, the Mexican genomic bioeconomy and the role of the law. Arley Cruz Santiago then took us through some of the more horrific aspects of Mexican forensics, but also some of the hope that might be returning to families of lost relatives through ‘citizen led’ biobanks, an initiative that she is herself helping to pioneer. The last paper we shall mention in this brief report is that of Ros Williams. Her paper focused on the ways in which the UK collection of umbilical cord stem cells can be bureaucratized and informed by political, racial and economic ideologies. Her analysis of the images used in umbilical cord blood banking advertisement led her to a framing of her work which included Henrietta Lacks, unknowing source of the first “immortal” cultured cell line, now know as the HeLa. Considering the recent news about the agreement reached by the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health, and its repercussions for descendants of donors, this, we feel is an ambiguously positive note to end on.

Thanks again to all of you who contributed to the colloquium, either by giving a paper or by sharing your work in conversation. Special thanks go to our keynote speakers, many of whom traveled large distances in hectic schedules to be with us in Leeds. We we hope to see many of you again at our future events (so keep an eye out for announcements!). PFGS Committee signing out!

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