March 28, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Re: ‘What’s in Your DNA?’

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To the Editor:

While the prospect of a “free” 23andMe DNA test might help to draw students to the biology department’s “Personal Genomics and Medicine” course, The Sun’s coverage of this attraction raises far more questions than answers.

The March 25 article states that the course aims to “demystify genetics and genetic science.” I’d argue that currently available genetic tests like 23andMe actually do the opposite. Instead of simply revealing a genetic blueprint to the user, direct-to-consumer genetic tests are riddled with social, political and ethical questions, turning the results into more than objective “data.”

The article briefly raises the question of privacy, but this is not enough. How are these technologies regulated? Who owns the data, and what can they do with it? Do family members get a say? How do these technologies, and the assumptions built into them, change discourses around cultural and ethnic identity?

Bringing these technologies into the classroom introduces even more ethical questions. How does pressure from peers and from a powerful, trustworthy professor figurehead (who submits his sample, too) complicate informed consent? If these tests are offered to students for free — despite already paying thousands of dollars to take the course — where does the funding come from? Is it from the company’s “education” initiatives, and if so, what does this mean? Why this specific test, from this specific company?

We can — and should — go on with this line of questioning.

It’s unclear whether the lack of discussion on these critically important topics is a failure of the course itself or simply a failure of this article to properly represent the course. With such high stakes, I hope it’s the latter, as not considering these questions would be irresponsible. Certainly, more general education about biology and genetics is a positive thing, but let’s talk about these ethical and pedagogical questions, too.

Rebecca Harrison ’14 grad