After developing new human genetic tests in the 1980s, Dr. Doris Zallen was moved by the host of ethical issues that arose in the field of genetics. These moral dilemmas spurred Dr. Zallen to take a leap of faith and change careers. She has now spent more than two decades working in the field of bioethics and doing research on the ethics behind genetic testing.
How did you make the switch from traditional laboratory science, to your current research in bioethics?
Some years back, as I was working in the lab to develop tests that identified genes associated with single-gene disorders, I had the opportunity to meet individuals and family members dealing with those disorders. Many of these people were quite interested in the tests I was working on and eager to use them. Unexpectedly (for me), others were not. Their resistance to obtaining scientific information – information that would surely impact their lives – really surprised me. As I probed further into their views, I learned that their reasons were perfectly valid. For example, one woman remarked that she preferred the “security of the uncertainty” rather than the bitter choice of knowing either that she had inherited a gene that would cause health problems later on in her life causing her to worry about it each day or of knowing that she was spared the gene but then leaving her with the survivor guilt she would surely feel if her sister was not so lucky. I began to spend more and more of my time exploring the value of genetic information for individuals and families. Eventually, this exploration led me across the curricular divide from science to the humanities and has become the center of my research efforts and teaching interests.
What kind of new skills did you need to use, and learn, when you changed the focus of your career?
Whenever one crosses borders, it’s often necessary to learn new languages. In crossing curricular borders, I certainly had to learn the “languages” – the assumptions, tools and approaches – of disciplines such as history, philosophy, and literary analysis. And I also learned a lot by seeking out and listening to people, outside of academia, whose life experiences have given them significant insights into genetic issues. Changing career direction does take time – time to bring yourself up to speed so that your contributions are meaningful and are recognized by others. In my case, it took several years. Luckily bioethics – the field I now call home – is an interdisciplinary subject. Scholars from various backgrounds struggle together to understand, and hopefully address, crucial problems in society today. As a result, it’s very a welcoming intellectual arena. We need each other and we learn a great deal from one another.
What does a typical day in the office look like for you?
A typical day for me starts well before I go to the office. For me, my most creative time is early in the morning. So I work on my research projects for several hours before heading to campus. Once in my office, I concentrate on preparing for my courses and working with students. My office overlooks the quadrangle where students in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets are housed. At 5 pm, the sound of the bugler initiates the evening flag-lowering ceremony and alerts me to the fact that it’s time to think about going home.
You have written a number of books on genetic testing and the ethics associated with the topic, are you working on anything currently? Out of the books that you have worked on, do you have a favorite?
I have written two books on genetic testing. The first (Does It Run in the Family: A Consumer’s Guide to DNA Testing for Genetic Disorders) focuses on single-gene disorders. My more recent book (To Test or Not to Test: A Guide to Genetic Screening and Risk) focuses on newer genetic tests for susceptibility to common disorders such as breast cancer, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. The common disorders present a more complex situation since many different genes and environmental factors interact in ways that are still poorly understood. The second book builds on the first. Right now, I’m working to develop new forms of educational materials that can assist consumers in making decisions about whether particular forms of genetic testing are right for them. As you can see, I’ve come a long way from assuming (as I did when I was in the lab) that genetic testing was always right for everyone.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I have one of the best jobs in the world. Each day, I interact with bright and talented students, both graduate students and undergraduates, who are eager and idealistic and poised to embark on their life journeys. I have the chance to share what I and others are working on, respond to their critiques, and help them prepare for their futures. What could be better?
How did you become involved with The Exchange?
I learned about The Exchange from my husband, a physicist, who had been contacted and I felt that I would like to be involved too. Genetics has begun to play a large part in modern medicine. Yet, there is so much erroneous information floating about. Sadly, too often people make decisions based on this incorrect information. My interest in participating in the Exchange is to be of help so that the popular media can transmit useful, accurate, ideas to inform the wider public.
Do you have any favorite moments from working with The Exchange? Any particularly interesting or memorable moments?
Recently, I was asked to help a script-writer present genetic-test results that provided vital data (for the story) on a question of paternity. Medical genetics presents people with probabilities, with statistics, and it’s often hard to convey just what these numbers mean, especially within the constraints of an unfolding story line. Nonetheless, it’s important to get it right. I was glad to be of assistance.
What advice would you give young scientists who are looking to work in your field? Any words of wisdom?
I don’t expect that many young scientists will be making the same transition that I did. However, I would urge all of them to enrich their programs of study by taking courses beyond the sciences — courses in medical and environmental ethics, or the history of science and medicine, or science policy, or in the medical humanities. These courses can open them to new perspectives regarding their research and provide them a context for understanding the possible applications of their work.
We have heard a lot about your course entitled Science and the Public, can you tell us a little about the course and what it aims to communicate to the students who take it?
We developed the “Science and the Public” course as part of our Science and Technology Studies graduate program at Virginia Tech with the help of a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Innovation Award. This course provides students with the opportunity to work in public settings on projects that they design to examine the links between scientific work and the wider community. Their projects have taken many forms from medical to environmental, from using more traditional modes of communication to employing the new modes made possible by the social media. Our goal is not to find ways to educate an otherwise “ignorant” public about the importance of science. Rather, it is to empower both the scientists and the members of the public groups to contribute from their separate realms of expertise in obtaining a fuller understanding of the issues at stake and in collaborating to find solutions when problems or disagreements exist. We also hope that, with this hands-on experience, many of our students will seek to work in such public settings in the future.
Is there anything that we should have asked you but didn’t? Anything you would like to add?
Yes, there is one thing more. Back in 1985, as part of my then new and still-emerging interests, I started the “Choices and Challenges” public forum series at Virginia Tech. This series of one-day forums brings experts and the wider public together to consider scientific and medical controversies of current concern. In the nearly 30 forums that have taken place since the start, we have covered issues ranging from the genetic manipulation of a single cell to issues associated with the exploration of the universe. We use many approaches (e.g., dramatic vignettes, plays, case-studies) to engage the audience and the invited speakers in a useful dialogue. This series has received regional and national awards. The “Choices and Challenges” effort underscores the basic foundation of my work which is that there is much to be gained when the wisdom held by scientists is combined with the wisdom held by members of the wider public who have faced issues posed by science and medicine in their own lives, made decisions, and live with the consequences.