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Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

02/10/2017  BOSTON, MA    Bioethicist Jeantine Lunshof (cq) poses for a portrait at Harvard Medical School.   (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Jeantine Lunshof, Ethicist, Philosopher. Creidt: Aram Boghosian, The Boston Globe

After her initial philosophy studies, Jeantine Lunshof worked in a hospital while earning her nursing degree. For her, this represented a huge turning point because it was the first time she saw the gap between theoretical ethical principles and real-world questions that arise at the bedside. Bridging the gap became essential to her. After more than 10 years of clinical work, she has spent most of her career working alongside scientists, studying their work, and developing the field of Collaborative Ethics. Learn more about Jeantine and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

What is Collaborative Ethics?

Collaborative Ethics is the practice that I established where an ethicist or philosopher works within a scientific environment. In the case of the Wyss, it is an institute for biologically inspired engineering, but it could theoretically be a physics lab, a chemistry lab, or even an astronomy observatory. The philosopher/ethicist is not studying the people, they are studying the scientific work and the theories and principles scientists use. They are treated as a collaborative colleague in the lab, instead of an outside observer. I’ve developed this practice over the course of my career as a philosopher/ethicist in clinical genetics, systems biology, synthetic biology, and biologically inspired engineering.

How does Collaborative Ethics relate to each stage of the Wyss Innovation Funnel and technology translation?

Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics
Jeantine working in the lab right alongside scientists at the Wyss Institute. Credit: Jeantine Lunshof

When I look at the Wyss Innovation Funnel, I can clearly map Collaborative Ethics’ role at each stage. At the idea generation and concept refinement stage, my role is in conceptual analysis. I ask, “What is this?” This might seem like a simple question, but since many Wyss projects are truly creating something that didn’t exist before, there is often a lot to unpack. For example, with the Biostasis project, I might ask, “What is this state between life and death that the researchers are trying to extend in order for humans to receive critical, life-saving care?”

Then, at the technology validation stage, my role is normative analysis. This is where I ask, “Is this technology relevant for ethical analysis at all?” If the answer is yes, I’d move on to the third stage of the Wyss Innovation Funnel: technology optimization. Here, my role is in applied ethics. At this point I ask, “What practical ethical questions does this project raise?”

At the final stage of the Wyss Innovation Funnel – commercialization – Collaborative Ethics plays a role in the regulatory science and legal aspects. Here my research colleagues and I ask the ethical questions that were raised in the previous step, in Organ Chip-based drug development for example, “What is the ethically appropriate and simultaneously most effective way to test this new or repurposed drug?” The answers will guide scientists as they face this stage’s unique challenges, like submitting proposals to Internal Review Boards or piquing market interest. Ultimately many different professionals contribute to getting a technology translated. As the circle of people involved widens, my role decreases. But hopefully, if researchers have kept ethics in mind at each stage of technology development, they will be better equipped to overcome translational and regulatory hurdles at the final stage.

Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics
Wyss Innovation Funnel & Collaborative Ethics as a dynamic model: Philosophy and Ethics can be involved from the earliest stage of research with philosophical analysis of initial ideas and concepts, moving through normative analysis and applied ethics towards advice on technology translation. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

What inspired you to develop the practice of Collaborative Ethics?

After earning my BA in philosophy and Tibetan language and culture, I went to a large hospital that had their own nursing school. I worked at the bedside while simultaneously taking courses and received my RN. I had not planned to stay for the three years and receive the degree, but I found the work uniquely fulfilling. This was a huge turning point, because before that, everything had been theoretical. This was the first time I saw how ethics and philosophy could be applied in practice.

Then I went to the Clinical Research Unit of the Netherlands Cancer Institute. During my nearly ten years there, I continued my philosophy studies. At some point, it began to feel like I was wearing two hats. On the same day, I would attend philosophy seminars in the morning and work in the oncology clinical research unit in the afternoon and evening. I saw a lot of ethical questions arise in the clinic. My colleagues would approach me hoping I had expertise in biomedical ethics, but my concentration was in political philosophy with a minor in health law.

Through these early experiences in my clinical career, I identified the points where it would be beneficial to have an ethicist involved directly. Working as an RN in a general hospital and then in clinical research showed me that I could apply my humanities and philosophy knowledge in these settings.

To me, this further cemented the importance of very careful ethical evaluation happening jointly with scientists as technology development progressed.

Jeantine Lunshof

Then, once I completed my studies, I entered the field of genetics as an ethics adviser to the Dutch umbrella organization of patient groups involved with genetic disorders. This was in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when genetics as a science was in incredible development. There were so many questions, including ethical ones, surrounding genetics, genome sequencing, and early gene therapies. Unfortunately, we saw some mishaps with gene therapy, where adverse events happened, and things went wrong in clinical trials. This set the whole field back. To me, this further cemented the importance of very careful ethical evaluation happening jointly with scientists as technology development progressed.

What excites you the most about your work?

Being involved in cutting-edge scientific development excites me. I loved working as a philosopher/ethicist in genetics at such an exciting time in the field. Our knowledge was skyrocketing, and I was sitting alongside the people developing this information. I got to see how they formulated new concepts and thought about how to apply them. At the same time, I saw patients and their families and heard their questions, both in the patient groups and in the clinical genetics center.

I feel the same way working with Wyss scientists now. I have the privilege of being in an environment where fascinating philosophical questions emerge because the work is bioinspired and groundbreaking. For so much of what we do, there are no precedents. You need to start your thinking from scratch, and that is a fantastic opportunity!

I have the privilege of being in an environment where fascinating philosophical questions emerge because the work is bioinspired and groundbreaking. For so much of what we do, there are no precedents. You need to start your thinking from scratch, and that is a fantastic opportunity!

Jeantine Lunshof

What are some of the challenges that you face?

My biggest challenge is that it’s hard to create something new in an established system. Collaborative Ethics requires breaking down silos between science and the humanities and working in two disciplines. There’s no established role for that. For example, at most academic institutions, there’s no established job in the philosophy department for a professional that works in a scientific lab, and there’s also no established position in, say, the chemistry department for a philosopher.

Because Collaborative Ethics is new, it can be hard to explain. I’m lucky to have the support of Seth Kroll from the Wyss Communications Team, who helped me create the visualization seen above. That has been immensely useful in helping my colleagues understand how my work fits in with theirs. I am fortunate to work in a place like the Wyss where researchers are so open, because they are used to breaking down silos and working with colleagues that specialize in different disciplines.

How did you come to join the Wyss Institute?

I remember when the Wyss was first founded, and work took place in Harvard Medical School’s New Research Building. I’d been collaborating with George Church since 2006. In early 2009, some Church lab colleagues started “disappearing” from our lab. We took the elevator to the tenth floor and found them. We didn’t know what was going on, but that was the earliest days of the Wyss –  I got to visit it soon after its birth in its “maternity clinic.”

Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics
Jeantine and her intern Julia kayaking on the Charles River. Credit: Jeantine Lunshof

From then on, I got increasing reports about what the Institute was and what opportunities were available there. The idea of bioinspired engineering intrigued me. Finally, in 2019, I had the opportunity to formally join.

What is unique about the Wyss?

The concept of bioinspired engineering is so unique, and it’s not always evident to people. There is plenty of Wyss work that is not biological at all but is inspired by biology. I often give the example of the soft exosuits, which are clearly inspired by how bodies naturally move, but there are no living materials in these devices.

The community here is absolutely unique. I hold a weekly office hour that has been known to last over three hours because people are so engaged and willing to discuss their work, their questions, and their ideas. They’re also incredibly kind and supportive. I have an autoimmune disorder which makes certain physical activities challenging, but recently, my intern Julia and others assisted me in going kayaking on the Charles River. No matter the situation, people at the Wyss are always willing to collaborate and problem-solve.

How do you collaborate with and support teams across the Wyss Institute?

Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics
Jeantine works in the lab alongside researchers and collaborates with them directly as a colleague. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

In principle, I’m available to work with anyone at the Wyss, though if everyone asked for my help I’d need to be cloned, because the Wyss is so big, and the work done here is so diverse!

When I begin to collaborate with and support a research team, I read a lot of science journals. Before I can truly join the conversation, I must understand what they’re doing. I need to know why they’re asking what they’re asking.

Just as I don’t exist within a silo, neither do the research teams at the Wyss. Teams are often multidisciplinary and incorporate members of different groups and can even include external collaborators. It’s common to see some overlap between teams, so ethical questions may affect multiple projects. The work is not isolated.

Then my colleague scientists view me as exactly that, a colleague. I’m someone with whom they can consult or chat, and who is attending meetings with them. I may give advice, but final decisions are ultimately up to them. I’m not part of a review board, I’m on a level playing field with them. Recently, I’ve been an author on publications on topics ranging from COVID-19  testing lab protocols, to Xenobots, to the effects of microbiome-focused interventions on ecosystem resilience.

What is something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?

I’m a synesthete. This means I have synesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon that affects sensory perception. I see characters and numbers as colors. Because synesthetes have this unique trait from birth, they often don’t know they have it. Musicians, artists, and scientists are overrepresented among synethetes, For example, Richard Feynman was a synesthete. Synesthesia has been detectable via fMRI since 2007, and I’ve been a subject of synesthesia research. People with synesthesia have strong pattern recognition skills, so I think it could make it easier for me to integrate my thinking and perform the transdisciplinary work that I do.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

Jeantine Lunshof on Collaborative Ethics
Jeantine with other members of the Wyss Community at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University as part of a Green Team initiative to plant a tree for Arbor Day. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

I don’t know, maybe I would have become an artist. I had a high level of arts education as a teenager. Or maybe I would have had a career in medicine, since I’ve had a strong commitment to working with patients. I also love plants. I’m on the Green Team at the Wyss. So, perhaps I could have been a horticulturalist. I love libraries, so maybe I could have been a librarian.

What does it feel like to be contributing to cutting-edge research that could be used to develop technologies that have the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

It’s my dream job! The field of Collaborative Ethics is so important, and we need more young people doing it. I’m glad when they approach me to say they’re interested in doing this kind of work. I had two interns this summer, both studying philosophy, that want to have the same focus for their philosophical work that I have. Mentoring them is one of my great joys, and it is important for getting structures for Collaborative Ethics established.

At the Wyss new questions are forming, new ideas are being generated, and collaborative scientists are working, which makes it the uniquely perfect place to teach the next generation of collaborative ethicists.

Jeantine Lunshof

At the Wyss new questions are forming, new ideas are being generated, and collaborative scientists are working, which makes it the uniquely perfect place to teach the next generation of collaborative ethicists. At the same time, I’m happy to provide value to Wyss scientists though Collaborative Ethics.

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