In May 2019, over 25 alumni of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship came together to discuss topics they were working on in their own personal or professional fields. Those conversations generated several podcasts, and this one, focusing on “Genetic Engineering For The Rest of Us,” features Stefanie Leacock, Arvin Gouw, Megan Powell Cuzzolino and Heather Wax, and was hosted by Zack Jackson.
With advances in genetic knowledge and genetic engineering, how do we explain and explore the ethical questions with non-scientists? How much knowledge should be required before contributing an opinion? And how can experts communicate these complicated, nuanced topics to laypeople?Read Transcript
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting, and is incubated at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The following podcast is a project of our Sinai and Synapses Fellowship, a select interfaith group of clergy, scientists and writers who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science. To find out more about the fellowship and our other programs, or to help support our work, please visit us online at SinaiandSynapses.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you very much.
Applications are open for the Sinai and Synapses fellowship through December 4th, 2019. If you’re interested in exploring some of the biggest, most challenging, most crucial questions we’re facing in this world and want to learn from experts and peers and colleagues from across the diverse realm of academic and intellectual and political and geographic worlds, then we encourage you to apply. Go to SinaiandSynapses.org, and applications are open until December 4th, 2019.
This extemporaneous conversation focuses on the questions of “How can we teach genetics to laypeople, clergy, students? How do we understand and explain so many of the complicated nuances of genetics and genetic engineering?” This conversation features Stefanie Leacock, Heather Wax, Megan Cuzzolino, Arvin Gouw and Zack Jackson.
Stefanie Leacock: Like I said, I’m an instructor and I teach Intro Bio, and I’m really interested in how I teach my students about current issues in genetics and especially gene editing. And especially the past 6 months have been one that has opened up a lot of questions. And I just want to think more about how I teach my students to look at these questions.
So I’ll just start off with one topic that I think is a good maybe entry point for some of them for thinking about genetics, because it’s visible and tangible, and that is to consider the protein that’s called Green Fluorescent Protein. So what we know is that proteins are biomolecules, and they’re made using instructions provided by genes. And so three scientists shared a Nobel Prize for their work on Green Fluorescent Protein, which I’ll call GFP, in 2008. And this protein occurs totally 100% naturally in a species of jellyfish. And so these scientists discovered this protein, characterized it, and transferred the gene to other types of organisms. So now, basically, you can make any organism glow under UV light with a color of fluorescence that can be green, but now we can even make different color proteins.
So I tried teaching my students about this protein, and then I asked them the question: “Are the sea jellies – formerly known as jellyfish – are the sea jellies that have GFP genetically modified organisms?” And 1/3 of them said yes. So this is even after experiencing a short lesson on this topic. So there’s a disconnect here between something that they think is weird and something that is natural. And the reason that this is also a good touchpoint for them is because there are pet fish, that you can now even buy at pet stores, called GloFish. And those also have been given this fluorescent gene, or different versions of this fluorescent gene.
And so I routinely ask them, “Do you approve of this? Do you approve of fluorescent fish, just to be pets, like with no really obvious advantage for the fish?” And between 20 and 30% of them usually say they approve, and about 50 to 60% disapprove. So I guess I’ll just open up this first question of “What do you think of this entry point into understanding gene editing, and how can we consider the sort of things that happen in nature as normal, but if we then move that to a different organism, is that abnormal, and how does that change our opinion of that thing?”
Heather Wax: Just a question about the experience with your students, did you ask them why they approve or disapprove?
Stefanie Leacock: I do, and I don’t have a sort of summary answer. The most common answer is, “It’s not natural,” or “It might harm the fish.”
Zack Jackson: Do you ever ask them their opinions on bananas or grapes?
Stefanie Leacock: As examples of selective breeding, right? That’s what you mean, right, like we’ve manipulated those over time in a different way?
Zack Jackson: You’ve only ever eaten one banana genetically in your life.
Stefanie Leacock: That’s right. Yeah, I don’t have that sort of data collection here, but that’s definitely something we talk about: what could be natural which took years of breeding to achieve – you said bananas, grapes, I often use watermelons also as an example, seedless watermelons, because they’re also genetically weird. But what if you could achieve that in one step through gene editing? Are you then opposed to it?
Zack Jackson: Right. So is the question, “Are we opposed to it?”
Stefanie Leacock: No, the question is are we – do we have an insight on how we should ask students to think about that question, right. So “What does it mean to be natural or not, and does human intervention change that outcome?” is what I want to ask them to think about. And I just don’t know if I’m asking that in the most effective way.
Megan Cuzzolino: So Stefanie, one of the things that you just said when you were answering the question about why students disapprove of the fish is you said they saw it as not natural, or that it might harm the fish. And to me, those feel like they could be related, but they could also be separate things, separate concerns, which would require being addressed in different ways.
So, harming the fish – it seems like you would be able to show empirically whether or not that’s true. Are the fish having shortened life spans? Is there anything that’s wrong with their health? Versus a sense of “not natural,” which I associate with kind of a concept of purity, or playing God, or messing with nature’s “intentions,” whether or not there’s any harm. And so I’m wondering to what extent is this concern about harm, versus just this sense that we shouldn’t be messing with nature, regardless of the outcome?
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah, I’d say that both concerns exist, and I think you’re right that those are separable, but also potentially related. I should also add that my student population is relatively diverse. We are an urban campus, and this course in particular is a mixture of majors and non-majors. So they come with different notions about what biology is about, and they’re also really age diverse. Like, I could have students from age 19 to 52 all mixed up in there. So I sort of think that’s why maybe we’ll see a lot of different concerns, because everybody brings a different background to the conversation.
Heather Wax: So it sounds like – I don’t know much about jelly fish or fish, but the example that you’ve chosen, I’m guessing doesn’t harm the fish, it’s what we might call neutral. Or does it harm the fish?
Stefanie Leacock: So I haven’t seen any data to suggest harm. It’s hard when looking at these “GloFish” that are sold as pets, because you can’t really control for how people maybe are caring for their pet fish.
Zack Jackson: Right.
Heather Wax: Just because what I’m wondering is you’ve picked an example that seems, on the face of it, relatively neutral, as opposed to picking an example, which you could have, that is – either on the face of it does create harm, or on the other side of it, does confer a benefit. And so I’m just curious if you picked on purpose an example that seems, on the face of it, net neutral, for the most part.
Stefanie Leacock: Yes, that’s what I wanted to sort of enter with, right, because clearly it must be either neutral or advantageous for the sea jellies because it’s there – or at least we would think. And so I wanted to use that example as a way of entering into the conversation of, “Is moving things between organisms inherently bad, right, or inherently good, or inherently neutral?” And so that was a sort of easy example, and it’s also visible, right, because you can put a fluorescent light on it and see it, versus a change in a single base pair of DNA. When we get into more of the specifics of gene editing, in particular leading to human gene editing, we can’t necessarily see that change, right. And so [that] this is sort of visible – more tangible, maybe, to their perception, is why I started with that example.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, it’s like nobody’s asking the question as to whether or not keeping fish in a fish tank is ethical, either, like regardless of if it’s okay to edit their genes.
Arvin Gouw: That’s not natural to begin with.
Zack Jackson: Right. I mean we’ve already taken them out of the sea and put them in our houses. But we understand how that process works. There’s no scary science involved, there’s no Dr. Frankenstein involved. We have way too many movies where scientists ruin everything and experiment. We just are imagining Jurassic Park all the time, I guess, whenever there are scientists involved.
Arvin Gouw: So, sorry, is that a familiarity issue, then, that scientists are very familiar with the GFP sequence, and how to move them along to different organisms, such that it becomes a normal thing and quite natural. For people who are not used to hearing that, or unfamiliar, then it becomes unnatural. So is naturalness, then, a proxy for familiarity?
Stefanie Leacock: I think that’s a great point. So these scientists shared the Nobel Prize for this in 2008, which is already more than a decade ago, and they didn’t just get the Nobel Prize because it was cool. They got the Nobel Prize because it turned out to be really useful. It transformed the way we’re able to see things, again because it’s a visual output of something happening at a cellular level. It made things visible to scientists that were previously not visible, or only visible with great difficulty. So it transformed science, and so it is not just familiar to us, it’s one of our most amazing tools that we have now. So to scientists, it does seem totally familiar and beneficial, whereas to our students, maybe, it still seems completely unfamiliar, right, and sort of in the realm of science fiction.
Arvin Gouw: So do you do the survey again at the end of the course, after they’ve learned everything? Do they change?
Stefanie Leacock: I haven’t done that – I could do that, I still have one more week of class.
Zack Jackson: That would be interesting.
Stefanie Leacock: So I do take it up a level. So after I get about 50 to 60% disapprove – just using the fish example – then I ask them what if we were going to do it to your dog or cat, right, just to make it furry and, you know, cuddly. And then it goes up to 60 to 70% disapprove. So there are definitely also emotions here, and maybe Megan can speak more to that, like how people’s emotions are tied to what gene editing means.
Megan Cuzzolino: Yeah, well actually I was thinking a lot about the use of metaphor. And we know from educational research and cognition that metaphor or analogy are really powerful teaching tools, but one of the things that can make an analogy really powerful is actually choosing examples with very different surface features, because that allows you to get at some of those deep structural similarities between the scenarios. And so you’re moving between fairly close scenarios here, talking about the sea jellies and talking about the pet fish and the different ways or contexts in which GFP is used. And I’m wondering if there are other analogies into other tools in science where students might feel comfortable, because they are more familiar, that allow us to see things we couldn’t see before, or to understand a phenomenon in a new way, that might be very different on the surface than this example using GFP, but that might actually allow students to access some of the deep structural points you’re trying to make about the value of this tool.
Stefanie Leacock: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but is there until you have an example of when you mean? Not for this particular scenario, but when in general – like a metaphor that really works.
Megan Cuzzolino: Sure. So in a completely different context to this – so I have been for many years part of a teaching team for a course about cognitive science and education. And when we talk about metaphor and analogy, one of the examples we use is we show students a skyscraper and a corncob, and we ask students to talk about what they notice about the similarities between these two images. And so they notice the individual kernels of corn and how they are functioning in context of the cob as a whole, and they make a connection to the individual rooms within the building, and they talk about the, you know, elongated shape of each of these structures, and what that might afford them.
So they’re completely different – they’re on completely different scales, they’re really different in a lot of ways, and those differences allow the learner to then key into the things that are similar about the two, often having to do with structure and function. So I’m thinking, in this case, is there some other context in which something that, you know, maybe decades ago, felt sort of controversial or foreign to us in science, but is similarly not unnatural, that we now think of as commonplace and as a useful tool for helping us understand something?
Zack Jackson: Like dog breeds?
Megan Cuzzolino: Can you say more about the connections you’re seeing?
Zack Jackson: There are certain genetic problems with certain dog breeds. Greyhounds, they can’t sit, they end up with a lot of problems, even if they’re not raced, they have a lot of problems, but they were bred for racing, right. Pugs can’t breathe. (laughs) You know, we bred certain dogs for certain purposes, not thinking about their own quality of life. And how often now, now that those dogs are established, do we even second-guess it, you know? Pug puppies are cute. They’re disgusting adults, but they’re cute when they’re little. And it’s not very natural to be breathing in that way.
Arvin Gouw: Right, I think 80% of dog species right now are all created, and so unnatural, and I don’t think people are even aware of that. I mean kids, especially.
Stefanie Leacock: I think that’s a great point and there are a lot of people interested in using dogs as a great example of selective breeding, and there’s a lot we can uncover genetically there.
I think one other issue related to what you said, Megan, is what has happened decades ago, maybe that should be familiar but actually still isn’t familiar to them. And so this, I think, is kind of a failure of scientists for the past decades in communicating their results. So for example, we already know that tons of medicines are made in genetically modified bacteria. That was controversial back in the 1980’s. But most of my students weren’t even alive even back then, and so science hasn’t conveyed to people what has been possible as a result of genetic modification. And so now we’re asking our students to leap forward and understand, you know, four decades of research, and then look at something super-controversial, like human gene editing, and they just don’t have the knowledge of how that has proceeded over years of research.
Zack Jackson: What if you bypassed the whole pet thing, the cute and cuddly thing, and you asked them about genetically modified mosquitoes, that are – you release a couple thousand of these genetically modified mosquitoes into a place with malaria, and the population of mosquitoes drops, right, because they – I don’t remember exactly what it is that they do something about, that they introduce a gene that makes all eggs unviable or something. And how that could be a huge cure for places that have malaria. And nobody cares about mosquitoes, nobody cares about mosquito rights, we all hate mosquitoes universally.
Megan Cuzzolino: Except for ecosystem scientists.
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah, the ecologists.
Zack Jackson: Well yeah, but how many of those are out there really. (laughter)
But like, if you ask them about something where the benefit is pretty clear, and you don’t have to think about the cute thing being harmed – if they would care as much.
Stefanie Leacock: I mean, my guess is that’s true, that they would tend not to care as much. But yeah, so I’m just interested in any way that I should teach this, any path that I should take, that allows us to consider, you know, why we want to draw the lines that we want to draw, is really the real question, right. And how do people know where to draw the line, if they don’t understand, you know, what all the possibilities are, and what all the possible side effects are? So in the same way that, you know, some of us might not care about a decrease in mosquito population, but you know, somebody who wants all the other animals to have food to eat might care about the loss of the mosquito populations. So how do we give them the information necessary to really consider the question thoughtfully, is kind of what I’m interested in.
Arvin Gouw: So how much of science do you think they need to know to be able to assess the situation? You know, when we talk about CRISPR, for example, gene editing, it might not be necessary for them to understand what Guide RNAs are and how you synthesize them, how you have the CAS-9 cell lines. But just explaining, “This is what CRISPR can do on plants, animals and humans, how do you react to that?” And then probably go back to the recombinant protein issues – some of them are on moratorium. “By the way, this was a concern back then too, similar issues, and this is what happened since, in cases of plants, animals and humans.” Your insulin shots are recombinant proteins, so how would they react to that? So maybe the approach could be by example only, but not the science. I wonder how far that would go, whether in the end they would want to know, “Well, what is the difference between putting in a recombinant protein and actually doing CRISPR CAS-9 on a cell?”
Heather Wax: I think, too, just from a science communications point, there is a need just to explain basic terms. I think – I don’t know about your students, but I think members of the public struggle with “When I hear gene editing, is that the same as when I hear genetic modification? Is that the same as – what’s germ line editing?” And so I think I totally agree with you. Sometimes it gets too far into the weeds of the science, and maybe that is not necessary to explore some of these other issues about how you feel about it.
But I do think there is a need to explain some of these more basic concepts, and how they’re different, and what exactly they mean, and what it means in different contexts in terms of plants and humans and animals, and what do these different terms mean? And what can scientists actually do, and what are still things that people are talking about in the future that are possible, but not yet? And what are some of these things that are very improbable, but we want to be ready for?
Zack Jackson: And how much have the new prevalence of labels on food that say “GMO-free,” how much has that turned the public perception that genetic modification is inherently bad?
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah. I haven’t asked that question specifically in my class, although we do talk about examples, especially of genetically modified plants, mostly as it relates to food. But yeah, there’s definitely a sort of public perception that – again, I just want them to understand [that] if you’re opposed to genetic modification, it could be for a variety of reasons, right. Ecosystem, or just a feeling that you didn’t like it, or the commercialization issue, right, there’s a monetary impact here. So there is a variety of reasons why an individual, a student or just a nonscientist, could have an opinion on genetically modified organisms. But I really want them to know what it is at its core, so maybe they don’t have to understand, you know, the 27 steps it took to make that organism, but how is it different – like, what physically is different about it than its non-GMO counterpart? And does that make a difference in their perceptions of it, and how they sort of approach, then, decisions about that in their life?
Arvin Gouw: So in your case, presentation is very powerful, then, as a window, as an entrypoint where you can lead them to teach more about the science, because now they actually want to know what the science is, and then they would also want to know the ethical framework, so to speak, as to why they would want to say yes or no. I guess you would also want to provide them with resources as to – maybe you look at the National Academy of Sciences, or –
Stefanie Leacock: Who do we go to, as our leaders, to find out? Because even as scientists, to be honest, most of us receive our scientific training, [and] we don’t receive much training in ethical framework, right. We do the experiments and that’s what we’re judged on. And so most of us don’t receive that kind of training. And so I think that’s definitely one area that I really am interested in, you know, being fair and teaching them how they can look at this question.
Heather Wax: Do you notice a difference – I think you said your students come from different disciplines. Do you notice a difference in – are there any like, disciplinary differences in terms of those who are interested in an ethical implications and those who aren’t?
Stefanie Leacock: I haven’t teased apart their opinions in that way yet. I would love to consider that in the future, if there’s a way to, you know, tease apart their differences. It could be their different backgrounds, could be a lot of different things, but that would require a good setup and waiting to tease apart that data.
Megan Cuzzolino: So maybe this gets back to your question of emotion a little bit, Stefanie. The suggestion that Zack made before, about using the example of mosquitos as sort of downplaying the stakes or the emotional investment in the well-being of the organism, because a lot of people don’t care about mosquitoes, is one way of shifting the context. Presumably you could also shift it the other way to increase the emotional investment or the stakes and say, “What if we were talking about this from a medical standpoint? And what if we’re talking about it in the context of a loved one?”
So I am wondering if those conversations have come up in your classroom, and is part of the concern that students are expressing about, “We shouldn’t just be doing this willy nilly for fun, to have pets that glow, but if we are addressing the health of humans, then this is worthwhile” or does that same resistance still exist?
Stefanie Leacock: So I am starting to looking at that question, largely inspired by another former Sinai and Synapses fellow who asked similar questions in one of his classes in Iowa. Basically, the difference in whether or not someone would choose to gene-edit their child vs. do they wish their parents had been able to gene edit them.
And I don’t have clear data yet, but anecdotally, it seems that the percentage of students that would gene-edit their child is greater than the ones who wish they had been gene-edited themselves. So we have our own personal identity of who we are, and we don’t necessarily wish that that was different.
Zack Jackson: Really! I actually had the opposite reaction. I would be scared to mess up my kids, like if there was some kind of adverse reaction we didn’t know about. But I would have, if my parents had the option, to have edited the genes that make my HDL so low, that has messed up my cholesterol my whole life, yeah, I would have loved if they have done that.
Heather Wax: That’s interesting, I wonder, does that tease apart gene editing for the purpose of medical and health benefits, as opposed to…
Arvin Gouw: Entertainment? Like a Captain America sort of thing? (laughter)
Heather Wax: Right, things that are more superficial.
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah, so that’s why I haven’t – that’s one thing I’d like to pursue in the future, is sort of getting a set of questions, to be exactly right to sort of get to those questions, because if a student might be young and not know about some future health problem, they might be more likely to say “No, I don’t need any editing, I’m totally good”, right, versus, you know, a student who has a known health problem, or you know, is older, and has had something going on with them, they might have had a reason to think like “Oh man, if I could be different, then I would be.” And so I think that you have to look at why that is, and what traits people are willing to consider being edited. And so I think that just requires a lot of input and asking. I need to ask the right questions, in the right way, to really understand those reactions.
Megan Cuzzolino: I think the other question that I have is about how much you think this is an issue of misunderstanding or scientific misconceptions, versus misinterpreting a correct understanding of scientific information. So do you think that students are lacking information, or an understanding, that is causing them to provide example answers that are not desirable? Or is it that no, they really do have the understanding, they are choosing to interpret it in a way because of a philosophical standpoint, which feels harder to shift?
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah, I wish I had a good answer to that. Have you asked your students similar questions to get at that? Maybe not about gene editing, but I know you’ve had other–
Megan Cuzzolino: Yeah, I mean I’m thinking about the process of conceptual change that we often try to elicit in science education that requires some kind of shift in perspective or understanding, and that critical first step in that process is revealing the learners’ existing understanding, and getting them to engage in this meta-cognitive process where they become aware of their own understanding. And then you’re helping them sort of see where you want them to go.
And so I’m thinking that a further teasing out of the origins of students’ initial reactions to the questions you’re asking them, where they’re doing some sort of, you know, reflective journaling exercise or something that helps them think more critically about where their discomfort or where their response is coming from, and what they’re basing it on. Maybe even some kind of concept-mapping exercise, where you’re really getting them to make their thinking visible, could help then be directly engaged in that process of “Here are the pieces of my thinking that I’m going to be exploring, whether or not they are changeable over the course of this learning experience.”
Arvin Gouw: Right. And it could be a little bit of both, in terms of misunderstanding the science, assuming that if you change your genes, you can change your personality, which is very, very far-fetched scientifically. But there’s also the perception issue that we are our genes, that our DNA defines who we are, it’s a very genocentric world view, it’s just more of a conceptual change than a scientific change. And they’re very closely connected, and it might be very tricky to tease those issues apart.
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah. And you raise two good points, I think, which is again, like most scientists don’t have training in ethics framework, we also don’t have much training in educational framework. So a lot of us are sort of learning this as we go. How do we teach this, and how do we teach it not as a set of facts, but as a means to understanding greater questions?
And the second thing that you said was, “To see where you want them to go.” And here is where I also want to be really careful of not giving them their opinion. And so I want to be really careful with how I broach these questions. It’s really hard to teach a science class where you’re not giving them an answer, but leading them to where [you] want them to go. But that place where I want them to go is their own answer, and that’s sometimes really difficult.
Zack Jackson: (laughs) You just described my job.
Stefanie Leacock: Yeah, yeah! So I just think a lot about this, and what I hope to depart from my class is really just well-informed students who are capable of thinking about the questions without these misconceptions, but maybe not even all ending up at the same place.
Megan Cuzzolino: Well yeah, and I think that’s where being really transparent with students about your understanding goals can be so helpful. To say, lay out, “Here are the understandings that I want you to develop about the scientific concepts, another goal that I have for you as a student in this class is that you will be able to develop an informed opinion and back it up based on your understanding,” so that you’re sort of helping them see, “Here are conceptual, fact-based understanding goals that I have for you as your instructor, and then here’s a set of skills that I want you to develop, which is to be able to create and articulate and defend your opinion based on your understanding.”
Stefanie Leacock: I think that’s exactly the nail on the head that I’m trying to hit, but I don’t think I’ve hit it yet.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Thanks so much for listening to this podcast, created by the Sinai and Synapses Fellows. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a world view that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. It is fiscally sponsored by and housed at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship is supported by a grant secured by the Issachar Fund and by individual donors.
To learn more about some of the topics that Sinai and Synapses, explores from genetic engineering to astrobiology, from political psychology to existential philosophy, from environmental ethics to artificial intelligence, please visit SinaiandSynapses.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Once again, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Founding Director, wishing you all good things.