Every month, one member of the TGMI team will tell us why they are so committed to the vision of the TGMI, and share a bit more about their work and interests. This week we hear from the TGMI’s Scientific Engagement Manager Eva Amsen.
What has been the main focus of your work to date?
After my PhD I decided to focus entirely on science communication and scientific community management, so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past eight years. At the moment I do scientific engagement for the TGMI and the Mainstreaming Cancer Genetics programme (running our websites and Twitter accounts, among other things), but before this I ran community and outreach projects for academic publishers. I’ve also worked on a few independent projects. I organised a very broad cross-disciplinary science/art-themed events, and co-founded a career site for science students. The common thread between all these things is connecting communities around science.
Beside this, I’m also a writer. I mostly write about the overlap of science and culture (e.g. music), or the culture of science.
What are you most excited about in genetic medicine?
When I was a PhD student in biochemistry everyone around me was focused on finding the function of all the genes that were discovered during the human genome project. It occurred to me at the time that this was a finite goal: there are only so many genes – wouldn’t we run out of things to discover once we figured out the function of every gene?
Genetic medicine is the follow-up story to that. It uses the knowledge of gene functions and the association of genes with disease to find practical solutions and treatments.
So, for me, genetic medicine is the answer to what I used to see as a dead end in biology research. There is a lot more work to be done!
What are you most concerned about in genetic medicine?
I am concerned about the science communication challenges related to genetic medicine. How does new research information reach beyond the community of researchers who worked on it? Do different providers of genetic information use the same language and benchmarks? How do people interpret genetic information? How do we communicate risk effectively?
Why did you get involved in the TGMI?
The TGMI is very committed to engagement, but also to openness. Coming from the open science community, I strongly support making articles and relevant discussions (like peer review reports) public, and the TGMI shares this vision.
Open science also includes inviting wide participation in conversations about relevant topics. You can see an open conversation in the comments of last week’s blog post, where people weighed in on the meaning of genetics and genomics.
What is the most important thing that you would like the TGMI to achieve?
I would like to see the TGMI become a go-to source for people working on different aspects of genetic medicine. They should be able to use the TGMI to get access to tools and ideas, but also to find others working on the same problems.
If you had a magic wand (i.e. unlimited people/resources) what would you do to make genetic medicine work?
I’d like to get people of different professional backgrounds together to have a coffee and casually chat about the work they’re doing (whether that’s developing new bioinformatics tools, counselling patients or finding new treatments). They’ll get new ideas, find out what others are struggling with, and get a better sense of where their own work fits in.
The only reason these sorts of interactions aren’t happening to the extent that they should is that nobody has time to explore much beyond their own field. Anything that’s not directly work-related is pushed to the background. But, to bring up my favourite quote (by Hans Ulrich Obrist), “at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break”.
So with my magic wand I’d like to give everyone time to take a few steps back to observe the bigger picture. (For Harry Potter fans: You’ll notice I don’t really need a wand at all. I just want everyone to have a time-turner like Hermione had.)
Do you have a favourite gene? If so – what and why?
I like genes that tell interesting stories. One of my favourite genes is one that humans don’t even have. The gene gulonolactone oxidase (GULO) makes it possible for most mammals to produce their own vitamin C. But humans, other primates, guinea pigs, capybaras, and (to some extent) fruit bats don’t have a functioning GULO gene anymore. Instead, we have to get vitamin C from our diet.
I wrote a blog post about the far-reaching implications of our missing GULO gene a few years ago, tracing its links to world history and even including some pirates.
What is a surprising fact that few people know about you?
I spent the first years of my life, until I was almost six, living on a house boat moored just outside a small village in the Netherlands.
If you had a chance to experience a completely different career for a week, what job would you try?
I’d love to spend a week running a bookshop, performance venue or community space. Or ideally a combination of those, where people can wander in and explore or attend interesting events. Something like the 826 stores, or a smaller version of the Wellcome Collection.