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Consciousness & Uncertainty

A Reflection on Dr. Nita Farahany’s Lecture

While I was making the trek up Research Drive for one of our routinely-scheduled seminar sessions, I contemplated our agenda for the day. I broadly knew that Dr. Nita Farahany was the director of the Science & Society department, that she had quite a few letters after her name, and that she had recently published a breakthrough article in Nature with seventeen co-authors. Up to this point, the Huang Fellows program had a track record of presenting us with extremely distinguished academics and scientists. I assumed this would be another successful individual with a meandering career path who meaningfully contributed to their field. Little did I know that I was about to hear from one of the most accomplished individuals I had ever encountered, and that I would walk out with a perspective shift unlike that which any other talk had been able to produce.

Her talk immediately started off different from previous ones. Rather than lecture us in a chronological description of her professional background, Dr. Farahany jumped right into an interactive discussion of her most recent paper, “The Ethics of Experimenting with Human Brain Tissue”. We were promptly immersed into her interdisciplinary world of bioethics – a field that raises complex ethical, legal, and social questions concerning revolutionary breakthroughs in neuroscience. She presented us with shocking research, including a Yale study that restored cellular activity in the head of a slaughtered pig. As she described new work in modelling the brain, from mini-brain organoids to animal-human hybrids, my own brain started swimming with ethical dilemmas and questions about the boundaries of this uncertain science. The entire time, I couldn’t help thinking of WestWorld, an HBO science fiction TV series in which artificial consciousness is created in non-humans. The work she was describing on the neural correlates of consciousness made the concept seem less fictitious, and maybe nearer in our future than I imagined possible.

Nita Farahany Aneesha Raj Huang Fellows 2018 Poster Session“ width=

While the work presented was almost unbelievable at first, Dr. Farahany kept all of us engaged. She clearly articulated the complex implications of these projects and demonstrated the extent to which collaboration was required for the success of research efforts. I resolved to remain in a state of awe, and was recovering from our perplexing discussion of neuroethics when Dr. Farahany began telling us about her career. I was plunged back into a state of near-disbelief when she told us that she studied for the MCATs, LSATs, and the GRE. I could barely process her successful career path- from charting out her own JD/PhD dual degree program at Duke to being appointed to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

At the end of her talk, I was extremely overwhelmed – both by the implications of the research she presented, and by the accomplished career that placed her in a position to pursue such work. I could see the same combination of uncertainty, incredulity, and self-consciousness in the faces of my peers. We all had to take a couple deep breaths as we left the lecture, each member of our cohort having their own personal existential crisis. After I processed what I had heard in that lecture, I reflected back on how I could connect to our speaker. While I don’t have a six-page CV and could barely study effectively for my Organic Chemistry exams, I resonated with Dr. Farahany’s indecisiveness in the initial stages of her career. I don’t know what I want my major to be, and don’t know if medical school will end up being the right path. I took comfort in the fact that Dr. Farahany had trouble envisioning her career when she was in my position and couldn’t have imagined her destination while on her journey.

Another concept from the lecture stuck with me for a while. She mentioned the Precautionary Theory, which broadly urges that processes whose effects are unknown should be resisted. Dr. Farahany rejected this theory in the context of neuroethics, in the fear that being morally apprehensive would halt innovation and technological advancement. Through both her research and her career choices, she demonstrated the importance of taking risks and seizing opportunities. I agreed with her theory and began extrapolating it to my own life. I am facing a lot of unknowns in the early years of my academic career, and Dr. Farahany’s talk made me realize that uncertainty shouldn’t hold us back from letting our passions lead us. Instead of thinking of my checklist of pre-med requirements, I stopped trying to plan too far into the future and became excited about the opportunities I could take advantage of. Dr. Farahany’s talk on consciousness and uncertainty in bioethics allowed me to reflect on these concepts (maybe not literally) in my own life. In the future, I plan to be conscious of my continuing journey, and to face uncertainty with the reassurance that going on the journey will be worth letting life lead me.

I am facing a lot of unknowns in the early years of my academic career, and Dr. Farahany’s talk made me realize that uncertainty shouldn’t hold us back from letting our passions lead us.

Aneesha Raj, Huang Fellow ’18

Aneesha RajAneesha is on the pre-med track and plans to major in neuroscience and obtain a certificate in Science & Society.