Mention genetically modified foods and you’re likely to hear some strong opinions — some well-informed, some not so much. But public discussion of the bioethics of GMOs or any number of other topics that touch on the biological sciences often turn into rhetorical dead-ends. Jennifer Nicklay, a CBS undergraduate and winner of a 2010 Scholarly Excellence in Equity and Diversity award for her work with the environmental committee of the SE Como Improvement Association, wants to change that.
“Biology isn’t exactly the natural place for people interested in bioethics to land,” says Nicklay, who feels that more debate needs to happen within the biological sciences in order to adequately address the concerns of those outside the discipline. “I feel it’s important to be embedded in the scientific culture but also take courses that give me the tools to critique that culture.”
Nicklay, who is majoring in biology and minoring in global studies and social justice, gravitated to bioethics in response to a perceived lack of bioethical debate within biology, but also due to an absence of clear channels of communication between scientists and concerned members of the public.
“There’s this huge break in communication between scientific researchers in academia and in corporate settings and people who are activists. … There’s just no mechanism for scientists and activists to communicate,” says Nicklay. “That’s where I see myself landing within bioethics, as a moderator.”
“As a biologist the knowledge you have makes you powerful. We have so much power within institutions … it’s important to understand that not everybody has that power and to work to make that more equitable. … to open communication and give people a voice.”
Nicklay’s interest in bioethics is rooted, in part, in a lifelong commitment to service. “My family always pushed the idea that giving your strengths to others is important and that service is just something you do, not a sort of requirement. … When I got to the U, I went on the social justice leadership retreat, which opened a whole new dimension for me. … It was life-changing.”
She found inspiration within her CBS coursework as well. Nicklay studied with David Tilman, one of the most respected ecologists in the world and Clarence Lehman, CBS associate dean for research. “[Ecology] was the first biology class where I thought ‘wow this is totally how I feel … the care for the environment is built into the discipline. When you’re an ecologist you are already thinking about how science and the larger world interact.”
Nicklay has since undertaken work on a range of topics from studying the ethics of animal research to helping organize soil testing near student housing. She is hoping to study ecological and political sustainability in Australia or Northern Ireland next year. “I’d like to study how other parts of the world view bioethics.” But ultimately she has her sights set closer to home. “Eventually, I’d like to work as a professor in the Twin Cities because there’s so much energy in the food movement here and it just keeps getting bigger. … I really want to be a part of that.”
– Stephanie Xenos
"As a biologist, the knowledge you have makes you powerful. … it's important to understand that not everybody has that power and to work to make that more equitable."