Interview: Misha Angrist, Science Writer and Genetics Professor
By Hsien-Hsien Lei, PhD, HUGO Matters Editor
One of the the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since I began writing about genetics and health is the opportunity to meet interesting and inspiring characters in the field, whether virtually or in-person. Dr. Misha Angrist aka Genomeboy is someone who I’ve learned a great deal from over the years. His candidly astute (astutely candid?) observations on genetics and life and his participation as one of the original study subjects of the Personal Genome Project mark him as someone to watch as the genome revolution unfolds. Once you’re done reading this interview, hop on over to Twitter and follow Dr. Angrist’s stream of consciousness. You’ll be glad you did.
HUGO Matters: On your profile page at the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, it says you’re Assistant Professor of the Practice. What does that mean and how did you end up going from an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars to an MS in genetic counseling to a PhD in genetics to Assistant Professor of the Practice?
Dr. Angrist: I actually got the MS in genetic counseling first, had so much fun doing research that I went for a PhD in genetics, and then years later, after burning out as a postdoc and floundering a bit in the real world, decided to get an MFA. After that I took a job at Duke as a science editor and eventually became Assistant Professor of the Practice. “PoPs” are full-time faculty who are non-tenure-track. They generally teach more than they do research, although that’s not always the case. I enjoy both and am fortunate that I get to do both. I teach, I write grants, I do research, I write papers, and I have written what I hope will be the first of several books. (You can read about PoPs here: http://chronicle.com/article/For-These-Professors/31149/)
HUGO Matters: You’re currently working on a book, Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, that’s due for release in November 2010 about personal genomics and the characters involved in the development of the field. Can you tell us more about the process of writing a popular science book?
Dr. Angrist: Writing “HiaHB” was both the most gratifying thing I’ve ever been paid to do and the hardest. Despite having an MFA, I’m not convinced that anything could have prepared me for it. I made many, many mistakes and I continue to make them in the editing process.
I think for me what clinched the decision to go forward with the book was meeting George Church–such a fascinating, charismatic, eccentric, visionary and brilliant guy. And extremely warm and generous, too. He made my job so much easier than it would have been had I chosen to focus on someone else. And indeed, I was blessed to be able to talk to/follow around dozens of other compelling people inside and on the fringes of the personal genomics world. I imagine any writer of a narrative nonfiction/journalistic book relies on the kindness of strangers–I certainly did.
HUGO Matters: As if all the above weren’t enough, you’re also the fourth subject in the Personal Genome Project. Why did you decide to make your personal genome public? Do you think we should all do the same?
Dr. Angrist: I decided to make my genome public because I thought I needed to walk the walk. I’m someone who decries genetic determinism and says we shouldn’t be afraid of this stuff, so I thought I should put my DNA where my mouth was. Does that mean everyone should do it? Absolutely not. I think one of the things about personal genomics that gets lost sometimes, particularly by some of my colleagues in the humanities, is that it’s personal. You should be free to share or hide as much of yourself as you want; it’s not for me to say whether it’s appropriate or not. It’s none of my business. The fact that I chose to do it is a decision I made for me, not for anyone else.
I have heard the objections: “What about your family? Aren’t you exposing them?” Yes and no. I have young daughters and a family history of early-onset breast cancer. So yeah, I wanted to see whether I carried a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 before I went public. (My BRCA genes are clean as far as I can tell.) Not because I didn’t want my daughters to know what might be in their genomes, but because I’m their Dad and if their risks were high I wanted them to learn about those risks from me and their Mom, not from the internet. But still, I would rather know than not know. If their children were at risk for a late-onset disease, some parents might not want to know–I respect that. But I would. As for the public aspect, I still maintain that genomes are probabilistic things and we learn about these same probabilities to some extent every time Uncle Joe can’t remember where he parked his car or Grandpa needs angioplasty.
I suspect that within a few years the power of these arguments will diminish. Anonymous genomes will always be hard to keep anonymous and their usefulness will be limited by their anonymity. Perhaps even more important, my generation (I’m 45) and its qualms about genetic information will have been overtaken by the Facebook generation and its willingness to let it all hang out.