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Introducing this year’s Conversations in Bioethics panelists

Conversations in Bioethics is an annual campus-wide discussion of a crucial bioethics issue.

Hosted by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, each year this series brings together creative student work, distinguished speakers, and the broader campus community to explore a topic in bioethics and inspire leadership for change.

This year, our focus is on personal genomics. The revolution in DNA sequencing technology has made it widely possible to sequence individual human genomes, with dramatic implications for personalized medical care, prenatal genetic testing, forensic investigation, and genetic information privacy.

Join distinguished experts Spencer Wells, Explorer in Residence at National Geographic whose work on evolution and genetics has taken him across the globe and deep into human history, Joanna Rudnick, whose Emmy-nominated documentary explores her family’s experience with a harmful BRCA1 gene mutation, and James Fallon, a neurobiology researcher whose work on psychopaths unexpectedly revealed that he is one, for a lively discussion and Q&A moderated by Maggie Little, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

The evening begins with a curated gallery of student encounters with personal genomics on the first floor of Healy Hall. Browse the gallery and enjoy passed drinks and hors d’oeuvres with students and panelists before moving upstairs to Gaston Hall for the moderated discussion.

Read on below to learn more about this year’s panelists.

Joanna Rudnick

Joanna Rudnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker living in the Bay Area. Her directorial debut In the Family told her very personal story about coming to terms with learning that she had the BRCA1 gene that greatly increases each woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Since its national broadcast on PBS in 2008, In the Family has been broadcast in at least 10 other countries around the world. The film was screened as part of the successful effort to pass the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (2008). It also served as a public educational resource to raise general awareness about the dangers of the gene patenting and secrecy around sequencing results, especially for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutation data still controlled by Myriad Genetics. Her own personal story has led Ms. Rudnick to serve as a member-advocate for the ”Free the Data” movement, a grassroots coalition made up of policy makers, advocacy organizations, academic centers, individuals, and industry partners, who actively advocate and actually share their genetic information to help scientists and researchers overcome the information gap about genetic sequences. The goal being to move toward an understanding of the risks associated with genetic mutations and how and why particular genetic mutations can cause hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Pooling data and making it available also is expected to help elucidate the consequence of other genetic variants of unknown significance.

In late 2014, Ms. Rudnick premiered her new award-winning film On Beauty, documenting former fashion photographer Rick Guidotti’s effort to broaden the world’s narrow view of beauty. The work focuses on two young women: Sarah, who has Sturge Weber Syndrome that leaves a port wine stain on her face and her brain, and Janye, who has albinism, a complete absence of pigment, that leaves her with special safety issues in her Eastern African homeland where witch doctors still pay for the body parts of people with albinism.

Rudnick began her career as a producer for the American Masters series at PBS/WNET in New York. This series creates comprehensive film biographies of range of people important in American cultural history. Rudnick contributed to The Story Within: Personal Essays on Genetics and Identity, published by John Hopkins Press. An associate and former Director of Development with Kartemquin Films, the media company behind both In the Family and On Beauty, she also served as Supervising Producer on Crossfire Hurricane, a documentary about 50 years of music by the Rolling Stones. Rudnick has a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Science and Environmental Journalism from New York University. She is married and has two young daughters.

James H. Fallon

James Fallon is a brain researcher. He is Professor Emeritus, Anatomy & Neurobiology and Professor, Psychiatry & Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine. His research work explores the way genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the human brain gets built and then seeks to understand how an individual’s particular experience and environmental exposure further shapes and changes his/her brain development. This work focuses on neurobiology, neuroanatomy, and epigenetics, “carefully orchestrated chemical reactions that activate and deactivate parts of the genome at strategic times and in specific locations on the genome” as a result of environmental factors such as stress, diet, toxins, and behaviors. Some of Dr. Fallon’s research work contributed to understanding aspects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia, and conditions such as nicotine and cocaine additions and psychopathic personality. He has also done research on the basic brain biology on topics such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. He was the first to show the mass mobilization of adult stem cells in models of chronic stroke and Parkinson’s disease, and the postnatal expansion of neurons in human neocortex.

Fallon’s work on chemical neuroanatomy and brain imaging took an interesting turn when his mother told him of violent family history on his father’s side (she made sure that was clear!) that included seven alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. Fallon knew from his research that psychopaths have brains with greatly decreased activity in the portions of the frontal lobe (the orbital cortex) amygdala and insula, areas of the brain that have to do with empathy, morality, aggression, and violence. While finishing up a study on the brains of impulsive and psychopathic killers, he happened to be analyzing brain images and genetics of people with Alzheimer’s disease and controls, including those of family members in the study. He found that all the brains were structurally normal when compared to those of psychopaths, except for the serendipitous surprise that his own brain showed the same brain anatomical differences and genetics as the psychopaths that he had been studying. Although he has some traits, Fallon does not behave like a full blown psychopath. He has had a long, productive, and stable career and marriage. He has raised three, well-adjusted children and is a happy person. Fallon used to believe in genetic determinism but now believes that genes are not enough to determine behavior.

Fallon is widely published in scientific journals and has received a number of awards for his work. He has spoken widely about his research and personal experience. His book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (2013), tells his personal experience but  also points out that work on epigenetics and in the new field of imaging genetics may result in better understanding and better treatment of all sorts of behaviors, but it may also raise troubling ethical issues. He holds a Ph.D. in Neuroanatomy/Physiology from the University of Illinois, College of Medicine and an M.S. in Psychophysics/Psychology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. He leads The Genographic Project, which is collecting and analyzing hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from people around the world in order to decipher how our ancestors populated the planet. A collaborative effort of scientists around the world, the Genographic Project will also capture a genetic snapshot of humanity before it is erased by modern-day influences. The Project combines Well’s two great passions, biology and history, and builds on his earlier work gathering DNA around the globe as featured in his award-winning book and documentary television program, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.

Wells’ landmark research findings based on early field work surveying Asia and former Soviet Republics in the late 1990s led to advances in understanding of the male Y chromosome and its role in allowing scientists to trace ancient human migration patterns.  In addition to his global DNA research work, Wells also has served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University and as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company.

Wells is the recipient of numerous scientific awards including the 2007 Kistler Prize for accomplishment in the field of genetics. He has appeared in a number of documentary films and is the author of two other books, Deep Ancestry and Pandora’s Seed. His fieldwork has taken him to more than 80 countries, where he has worked with everyone from heads of government and Fortune 500 corporations, to tribal chieftains eking out a precarious living in places as remote as Chad, Tajikistan and Papua New Guinea.. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas at Austin, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted postdoctoral work at Stanford and Oxford. He is also the owner of Antone’s, the iconic blues club in Austin, TX.

Learn more about this year’s conversation »