Autumn 2016

5 Questions with a Genetics Educator

A conversation with Johnny Kung

Ethics Issue

  • by Susan Karcz

Johnny Kung
Research Associate, Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School
Director of New Initiatives, Personal Genetics Education Project

What first caught your scientific fancy? 

I was always fascinated with exploring my backyard, looking at plants and animals, and understanding how nature works. Eventually I knew I wanted to make this interest a career. One of my science heroes is Charles Darwin; I admire his dedication to understanding nature and his care in teasing out how nature works. In my own research, I studied X-chromosome inactivation, the process that shuts down one of the two X chromosomes in each cell of the female mammal during embryonic development. I loved doing a deep dive into the molecular mechanisms by which certain RNAs turn genes, or entire chromosomes, on or off. 

What made you shift from the lab to the classroom?

It hasn’t been that much of a shift, really. I’ve always been interested in the social dimensions of science as well as in physiological processes. I think that for scientific research to be applicable to society and to most equitably benefit its members, everyone, including researchers, policymakers, and the general public, needs to understand the broad social, ethical, and legal aspects of genetics research. 

What have you learned from the people you’ve visited in community settings?

I’ve found there is genuine interest in having conversations about the impact of science on society. When my pgEd colleagues and I visit classrooms, congregations, or other community groups, the people we talk with have a lot of good questions about emerging ethical issues of genetics research, such as its potential use to select or modify offspring for desirable traits. What we call genetic literacy should not be about the science only, but also about how genetics relates to individuals and families. 

What are the benefits to taking genetics education “on the road”?

New genetic technologies are coming, and they will affect society. People can, and perhaps should, help shape how these tools are developed and used. If all members of society become aware of what the tools of genetics can do and cannot do for them, they will be in a better position to decide whether or how to integrate those tools into their lives. Genetic testing, for example, can have many beneficial uses, but there are concerns about privacy, about discrimination. By becoming aware, people can make informed decisions about whether to undergo genetic testing.

What one thing would you like people to know about personal genetics?

I think it’s important to know that genetics is not deterministic. Your genetic makeup does influence how you develop and what your risk is for certain diseases, but there’s more at work than just what’s in your DNA.

Environmental influences, such as where you live, the behaviors of people you live with, even who and what you encounter when you walk out your front door, all affect how what’s in your DNA will manifest. It’s never as simple as isolating one gene as the cause for something.

Image: John Soares