From French lit to biotech regulation…

Inevitably when people find out I started a PhD in French literature before switching to political science, I hear: “You were a lit major? How’d you end up here?” In my mind, the route from French to political science is actually very clear! But sometimes I come across an article that helps me explain it better.

Carl Zimmer reported in The New York Times last week on how the “Editing of Pig DNA May Lead to More Organs for People.” Zimmer writes about a new method for editing genes, called Crispr, that presents the possibility of altering pig DNA in a way that would allow doctors to successfully transplant pig organs into humans. Andrew Pollack has discussed Crispr and its potential before, but now we’re beginning to see the results of experiments using it.

Of course, such a breakthrough in genetic engineering raises a whole host of ethical concerns – perhaps least of all in terms of animal rights. Such a powerful scientific technique could be used to alter human DNA, and that raises the specter of “designer babies,” a theme that frequently appears in dystopian texts.

And this is where my research interests intersect! When I was pursuing literary studies, I was mainly driven by questions of cultural identity and how that identity becomes challenged by cataclysmic events. My interest in French literature focused on post-WWII texts, which situate the war and the Holocaust as apocalyptic events in human history. While WWII wasn’t the literal end of the world, the catastrophic destruction and loss of life, as well as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made people feel like their world had ended. And, in fact, the world that civilization had known did end; a new, bipolar world order was established with the start of the Cold War.

Although I had always been interested in literary representations of cultural, political, and economic shifts, it was becoming more difficult to study them in a literature program the way I wanted, which led to my switch to political science. Now, I look at how states face catalytic challenges through policy making. After changing programs, I continued to study Europe, but began to focus on questions of how governments regulate science and technology. One branch of my research specifically focuses on the regulation of genetic engineering, and the fears that advancements in biotechnology evoke. In addition to researching agbiotech risk regulation, I’ve also been studying the regulation of genetic engineering techniques in reproductive health. Occasionally, I even get to merge my literature background with political science, using utopian/dystopian studies as a frame for looking at risk. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which envisions a post-apocalyptic world where biotech corporations rule and everything is genetically modified, was a great point of departure for me to merge some of these interests. In the world of MaddAddam, pigoons are genetically engineered pigs from which scientists harvest organs to transplant into humans. I wrote about how Atwood’s series provides a reflection of cultural fears about biotechnology in the forthcoming, The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future. When dystopian fiction starts to become reality, the route between literary studies and political science gets a lot shorter!

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