FACULTY Q + A
Julie, you have had an interesting – and unusual – innovation journey. Tell us, how does someone with an artistic background, with both a B.F.A. and Master of Art degree, end up focusing on DNA technology at MIT?
During the first year of my Masters at the MIT Media Lab, I was tasked to help organize a synthetic biology, or biotechnology (biotech) workshop. This introduced me to a newfound love for biology and biotech. It helped me understand what it is, how it is used, and how the media can mislead those of us without scientific backgrounds when it comes to big scientific topics.
I then tried to explore biotech in a regular laboratory, but found that no existing resources were really made for beginners who just love to create and learn by doing. So, using my artistic design background, I created the learning tools I needed to explore the science comfortably, safely, and in my own office. It soon became clear that others could also benefit from these tools, and many educators, peers and others reaffirmed this once I started sharing my work.
In last month’s Bedroom Biotech webinar, you mentioned that “ethics is at the core of being a scientist.” How can scientists continue to innovate, while also considering the ethics of their actions?
Ethics don’t stop a scientist from pursuing a particular project, or stop innovating. Rather, ethics guide and direct a path forward using philosophical tools. For example, it is common in biotech to avoid using animals for testing unless absolutely necessary. You can learn a lot from using microbes and modelling without causing harm.
There are many other tools and contexts that can help shape your motivations and path to innovation. Ethics also involves learning about past methods, arguments and mistakes so they are not repeated.
You are an entrepreneur and educator with a background in arts who works in biotech – that is a lot! How do you explain to others exactly what it is that you do?
My job is to help beginners understand that biology isn’t made of magic, but can be manipulated to create new and important things like medicine, fuel and materials.
What are you most excited for on your journey with SU Canada in 2020?
With the SU Canada community being so diverse, I am excited to see the story of democratized biotech reaching different audiences and stakeholders across the country and the globe.
What are your predictions for 2020? What do you see happening in the world of biotechnology?
I see a lot happening – for Canadian consumers, we will see increased competition in biotech resources for education and to use at home. On an international level, there will be more media exposure about how different nation-states are competing to become the global leader in biotech. I also predict that the first CRISPR medical trials will show results.