ASU News

Science talk: ASU grad says there are no easy answers

August 11, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: What motivates a scientist? How does research today affect the universe tomorrow? These are the questions that keep the students of" target="_blank">Triple Helix awake at night. This article is part of a series that looks at the work being done by Triple Helix, an undergraduate science forum.

"I have quite possibly the greatest degree ASU offers," says Ellen Dupont, a recent graduate who now holds a bachelor's degree in biology and society from ASU. Download Full Image

The degree, which emphasizes scientific study in historical, ethical and political contexts, was well-suited for Dupont, who also led the ASU chapter of Triple Helix – an international, undergraduate-run organization that explores, through written articles and, more recently, podcasts, the intersection of science, society and law. Its 800 students hail from leading universities across the United States and abroad.

To listen to the latest Triple Helix podcast on what it means to be human, click" target="_blank">here. 

"My first Triple Helix article grew out of a paper I wrote for one of my elective courses in biology," Dupont says. "It examined problems associated with the way genetic research is presented in the mass media. Instead of an extracurricular competing for time with my coursework, it often felt like they were two pillars of the same education. I loved writing that article, and I toyed with pursuing a career in science journalism."

Although Dupont eventually chose to abandon the idea of becoming a journalist, she remains committed to the pursuit of creating open dialogues about the processes and implications of science, and plans to work in the public health sector for developing nations as both a practitioner and policymaker.

"The coexistence of Western medicine and traditional healing practices in some cultures will make communication absolutely key, and I hope to put my Triple Helix lessons to good use!"
Thinking about science in broader terms

Triple Helix is not just about science. As a sophomore psychology major, Dupont took her first class from a faculty member affiliated with Center for Biology and Society. It was a class that challenged her views of science and technology, and offered her new tools to understand them.

She immediately changed her major.

In writing her first article for Triple Helix, Dupont discussed the importance of framing and reframing science.

“I was bothered by some newspaper headlines I read that said things like ‘Gene for Alcoholism Identified’ and ‘New Hope for Victims of Disease,’” Dupont said. “Science journalism is a touchy subject for both sides because science moves slow and news moves fast, but oversimplification and hype when it comes to fields such as genetics can be a serious problem. Were we promoting genetic determinism, the idea that genes determine everything about us, from disease susceptibility to personality traits? Were we fostering ‘new hope’ in families whose loved ones had genetic diseases, when in fact cures were years, even decades away? If so, who was responsible for the miscommunication, and more importantly, how could we do a better job?

“I had to consider the conflicting motivations of scientists and journalists, the way science is perceived as proceeding versus the way it actually proceeds, and the human element of it all – the scientists, the journalists, the readers – that often gets lost amid assumptions of ‘scientific objectivity.’ And there were so many other directions I could have gone with that article, all of which the Triple Helix would encourage: What does it mean that private companies can patent genes? That health insurance companies might demand a copy of your genome if you get it sequenced? So a simple observation led to a complicated investigation, and I learned that there were no easy answers, but that asking the questions and keeping an open mind can challenge the way we think about science and the people who practice it and who benefit or suffer from it.”

For Dupont, her area of undergraduate study, along with her Triple Helix work, have all taught her that science has never been “just science.”

“There have always been – and always will be – social, philosophical, ethical and political implications of what we do in the lab,” she said. “The question is whether we examine them fully enough, and who’s doing the examining.”

The Triple Helix podcast series was recorded in the" target="_blank">Grass Roots Studio, in the School of Life Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – features the scientific expertise of students, researchers and professors at ASU.