Embracing the Big Questions

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Nancy Joseph 08/11/2015 August 2015 Perspectives

To teach Biofutures, a humanities course that explores legal, ethical, scientific, and commercial aspects of biotechnology, it helps to have a science background. And a humanities background. And a fascination with culture and society. And a willingness to think outside the box.

In other words, it helps to be Phillip Thurtle.

Thurtle, professor in the Comparative History of Ideas Program (CHID), developed Biofutures with colleagues in the School of Medicine and the School of Art about a decade ago, through a Simpson Center for the Humanities program aimed at interdisciplinary course development. They team-taught the course twice, but when that became cost prohibitive, Thurtle continued the class on his own.

With a background in philosophy, history, anthropology, and biochemistry — including an early job in a molecular immunology laboratory — Thurtle was uniquely qualified to take on the challenge. And the idea of bringing together students in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences to discuss the future of biotechnology excited him. It still does.

"This started as this quirky little class and now it's drawing people from all over campus," says Phillip Thurtle.

“This started as this quirky little class and now it’s drawing people from all over campus,” says Thurtle. “That’s one of the things I absolutely love about it. Humanities and social science students probe me on social justice issues right away, and science students ask me science questions to make sure I have my chops. I have to be aware of cutting-edge work in both the sciences and the humanities to teach something like this.”

The course explores biotechnology through a variety of lenses, including financial exchange, power, media literacy, imagination, and time and place. Discussions range from the exchange of body parts through organ donation to how we glean biotechnical information from the media. It covers the joining of organisms from different continents through gene splicing, and Supreme Court rulings on the types of genes that can be patented. “We’re at a really interesting time in our society when it comes to biotechnology,” says Thurtle. “We’re beginning to have a proliferation of biotechnological techniques, but not necessarily the conceptual apparatus to help guide us in thinking about the most ethical and creative ways for using those techniques.”

We’re beginning to have a proliferation of biotechnological techniques, but not necessarily the conceptual apparatus to help guide us in thinking about the most ethical and creative ways for using those techniques.

With no existing textbook covering the content of the course, Thurtle created a multimedia DVD “textbook” for his students with the help of colleagues at Duke University and the University of West Virginia. The textbook has since been reconfigured as a free online website, accessible to anyone interested in the topic. Thurtle frequently updates the site, and his lectures, to keep up with the rapidly changing field of biotech.

“I have to do an incredible amount of reading and keeping up with journals,” says Thurtle. “It’s not just about figuring out what’s out there, but also what’s going to work within the framework of the course. That requires constant vigilance.”

The vigilance has paid off. The timeliness and breadth of the material draws students in, encouraging them to look at biotechnology in a new light. Briana Edwards, a biology major before switching to CHID, remembers being particularly blown away by a discussion about patenting human genes. The discussion focused on the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes tied to certain genetic cancers, and led to questions about ownership of DNA and privatizing of information that can benefit humanity. “I’d been studying the biology of BRCA genes with leading scientists at the UW, yet I was never presented this powerful, tangible side of the subject before Biofutures,” says Edwards. “Now when I read a news article or someone presents some story or information with a biology component, I can’t help but ask difficult questions about who it impacts and how it impacts them. What’s the benefit of studying cancer if we don’t really explore the lives that it affects?”

Biochemistry major Kevin Kwong was similarly changed by the course. “Coming from a strictly science background, my previous coursework never asked me to consider the implications of and reasoning for scientific progress,” he says. “Biofutures gave me a good push to try to analyze the world around me a little differently. I’m a lot more interested in learning about philosophy now and make a point to find videos and books that challenge me to think outside the box.”

Victor Aque, a CHID and history double major, knew what he was getting into when he enrolled in Biofutures, having taken other classes from Thurtle. “The course has definitely had a meaningful impact on the way I see the world,” he says, “but then again so have the half-dozen or so other classes I’ve taken from Phillip.” Aque has recommended the class to friends, with one caveat: “I tell them that they should go into it with an open mind and thinking about not only what is being taught, but also why those things are being taught.”

The fact that humanities and science students champion Biofutures in equal measure is a reflection of Thurtle’s deep respect for both disciplines. At the heart of the course is his belief that the humanities and sciences can inform each other in meaningful ways.

“In planning the class, I asked myself what tools these students will need,” says Thurtle. “I believe they need to not be afraid of science, an unequaled way of thinking about how things work in the world. But they also need to be prepared to embrace the big questions that people in the humanities like to ask, because that’s where we get our moral compass, our sense of who we are and where we’re going as a society. I want every Biofutures lecture to somehow change someone’s thinking. My goal is to have students leave the class looking at the world differently than when they came in.”