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EP45 Bioethics Club with Sarah Rezendes and Elise Blegen
Alexandra Arriaga: Hello and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. My name is Alexandra Arriaga and today we're going to learn more about the Bioethics Club, which is an undergraduate student-run organization that promotes interest in bioethics outside the classroom. We're going to talk to it's Co-Presidents, Elise and Sarah. Elise is an Anthropology Major at NYU’s College of Arts and Science, and she is interested in science education and the ways in which scientific knowledge is communicated to the public. Sarah is currently a senior at New York University studying Global Public Health and Anthropology. She hopes to pursue a career in Epidemiology after finishing her bachelor's degree. If you want to learn more about the club and how to join, please stay tuned. Hi guys. So today I am here with Elise and Sarah. Would you guys please introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to NYU?
Elise Blegen: Hi, so my name is Elise Blegen. I am the CAS Co-President of Bioethics at NYU. I'm also a senior Anthropology Major. I'm approaching graduation rather quickly. Starting about Junior fall I got really interested in bioethics and moral philosophy and that led to this club being started through collaboration with the Center and other students. And now we're here and I came to NYU because I grew up in Missouri and I really wanted to get up and out. So I went and found a big city that I liked and I'm here.
Alexandra Arriaga: And you chose the biggest city.
Elise Blegen: Yes, for sure.
Sarah Rezendes: I'm Sarah. I am the GPH Co-President of the Bioethics Club. I am also a senior rapidly approaching graduation. I am from the smallest state, Rhode Island, and I, very similar to Elise, wanted to live in a big city. A lot of my older friends at my high school went to NYU, so it wasn't really on my radar until then. And then I went to go visit the school and I absolutely fell in love. Then I got in, so now I'm here.
Alexandra Arriaga: Amazing. And could you please tell us about the Bioethics Club and what inspired you to start this organization or get involved with the organization?
Elise Blegen: Yeah, so bioethics fundamentally is ethics or moral philosophy as it relates to issues of humanity, sort of broadly, both in the way that we interact with each other but also in the way that we interact with the world, technology, the environment, animals, definitely with an emphasis on the technology and data aspect in 2019 for sure. And the club got started because there was a push from the Center for Bioethics Faculty to get more students involved and interested in bioethics. And they had some interested students, i.e, me and Sarah among others. And there was, you know, cause there was the undergraduate minor getting started and they were starting to offer more and more undergraduate courses. And so there was a push to offer this environment in which anyone and everyone can discuss bioethics with less of, less of a formalized philosophy background. And more just examining how it pertains to each and every one of us.
Sarah Rezendes: For me, at least, the club was starting to get formed right when the undergraduate classes started to come out. So, I was already enrolled in the Introduction to Bioethics class, and that was going to start the next semester. And I was in another Global Public Health course and Amy approached me. She was one of the students who was in charge of putting the club together and she said, "Hey, you seem really interested in these types of things. Are you interested in bioethics at all?" And I said, "yeah, I'm actually taking the class." So she was like, "how would you like to get involved in the club process?" And I was like, "that would be amazing." Somehow I ended up co president, which made me very happy. I'm now actually a Bioethics Minor so it just kind of all came together really naturally; just the way the Undergraduate Program, the Minor Program, and now the Club kind of just came together like perfectly at the exact right time. So I highly encourage people to look into it. At least the Minor or the Club. They're good, they coincide really well.
Alexandra Arriaga: And it's interesting that you're talking about bioethics and even when you were talking about it, it still sounds, you know, very academic. So in what ways does bioethics intersect with our everyday life or maybe the movies we watch or the books we read?
Sarah Rezendes: So ethics is a very complicated term that I feel like people hear but don't really understand. So ethics is definitely a form of philosophy, but it's not really about looking at how the world works. Ethics is more about how should we act and how should we treat people. And then bioethics itself kind of analyzes a lot of more like technology, medical, social media, a lot more newer issues that we've been dealing with and how we have to act. So you see things in the headlines all the time. Like in China, they genetically engineered those babies to be resistant to HIV and some people were really uncomfortable with that. Some people really excited about that but didn't really have the language to discuss why they were having these reactions to that and why they think it's wrong or why they think it's right. Bioethics gives you the tools to how to discuss these subjects that used to be science fiction that are now not science fiction, they're a reality. Technology is rapidly progressing a lot faster than our morals can keep up with. Like with surveillance, with like facial recognition; it's just everything is coming out before we can stop and think about should we actually be doing this. So bioethics is a place where we can sit down and discuss, do we think this is okay? In what ways is it okay? What ways is it morally permissible? How could this be like a slippery slope? And it's not just like real world. If real world is like scary to discuss, which it can be, bioethics is a great way to look at science fiction and like fictional issues. We talk a lot about Black Mirror, which is a really popular Netflix show. It really touches upon a lot of the anxieties we have about technology, but it is set in a fictional future world. So it's a bit easier to discuss. Like we don't want it to go that way. Or like why is this so unsettling to us? So yeah.
Elise Blegen: Yeah, and I think bioethics kind of as a broad concept is everywhere. I mean, it's in our news headlines, it's in books, it's on TV. It's, I mean it's Westworld, it's Black Mirror. The Good Place now has a lot of moral philosophy intertwined throughout it, which is amazing. It's the Facebook data breach, it's any and every issue that pertains to how we interact with our surroundings. So I think a lot of those conversations aren't had within the formal bioethics academic sphere. I think that a lot are, but I think that even more, I mean, Facebook comments sections on any and every article. There is a lot of conversations going on where people have concerns and have uncertainties but aren't really sure how to discuss them. And so that's somewhere that either bioethics courses or the Club can provide that language and that framework for asking those questions and thinking about them in a more critical way.
Alexandra Arriaga: So it seems like, obviously, you guys have a lot of discussions, but what activities does the club organize?
Sarah Rezendes: So we do a very wide variety of activities, just because we want to appeal to a broader NYU audience. We don't want people who are just knowledgeable in bioethics because we as the e-board, we bring the background knowledge of bioethics to the discussion to help frame our discussions. But we really don't need people to come in and taking like all the minor required classes and having this huge background in philosophy. So some activities we've had, we have had Black Mirror screenings, we did a screening of the film Gattaca, which I highly recommend even if you don't want to join bioethics, it's great. We did a collaboration with the NYU Anthropology Club called the Ethics of Exhumation, where we brought in a bunch of case studies about the exhumation of bodies and of museum artifacts and kind of who has a right to those. What do we consider a person? Who can own these types of things? How long does a body have to be buried for it to be like almost public domain? Do these groups that have a genetic tie to these bodies, do they have a right to claim those bodies back? When does science trump cultural comfort? Just like that kind of discussion. We weren't saying this is right, this is wrong. It was more like, what are your opinions on this? How does it change case to case?
Elise Blegen: Each and every event that we offer and they vary in form, as Sarah said, from Black Mirror screenings - movie screenings and discussions - to something like a Ted Talk to an in-person guest speaker from a variety of NYU and beyond academic departments. For each event that we offer, our goal is for someone to be able to come in with little to no background knowledge of the issue or of the situation and then to be able to discuss that and to work through the questions that it presents. So there's never any background reading or philosophical knowledge required, but our hope our hope is that by the end of each event you feel a little bit more comfortable discussing those and taking that outside and off the campus to your daily life. Because I think especially in the modern age, a lot of these things are being advanced outside of the academic sphere. Anybody with a computer at home can make technological advancements and be working outside of that. And so having those conversations with family, with friends, with whoever to be like, hey, you know, there's questions coming up here and we should know, if not how to answer them, at least how to go about working out what makes us uncomfortable or what is something to be concerned about.
Alexandra Arriaga: Excellent. The mission of the club seems pretty clear to me now. I was wondering who are your faculty advisors and how does their work correlate to the mission of the club?
Elise Blegen: Our faculty advisors are primarily Professors Jordan MacKenzie and Daniel Fogal, of the Center For Bioethics. But one of the really nice things about working so closely with the Center For Bioethics is that there are only five full-time faculty members. So really everyone kind of gets involved and is really helpful and is willing to either moderate a discussion or lend a hand. Certainly with Professor MacKenzie and Professor Fogal, they are both so enthusiastic and so excited to be there and to lead discussion and to hear what people have to say. They are very, very involved in a way that other clubs that I've been a part of or been involved with don't have that same connection to their faculty. And I think that it's very, very useful, especially to a club like ours where there is that discussion taking place to have someone who knows how to moderate a discussion and to ask questions without imposing their own viewpoint and to really like be able to listen to someone's response and say, oh that's a really interesting point you're bringing up. Can we all maybe think about this question that I'm thinking of that kind of comes off of that. So they are just, they're wonderful. They're very, they're great.
Alexandra Arriaga: That sounds awesome. It's interesting how you're describing all these things and I'm imagining like these discussions where everyone's just giving out their opinions and you're discussing obviously how ethical or unethical something is. I'm just wondering what type of conclusions do you reach or is it just more about the discussion itself?
Elise Blegen: I think that's one way in which bioethics and really philosophy broadly can be very frustrating to someone who maybe hasn't had practice of thinking that way or exploring issues that way. It seems like you always end up with more questions than answers for sure. But I think that that in itself can be valuable. And there's, kind of, I think the end goal isn't 'is this right, is this wrong?' but perhaps why do we feel like it might not be okay or why do we feel like it might be okay and what kind of interesting, complex issues are being raised and how does that perhaps apply to other situations? It's not necessarily an answer-finding mission as much as it is a questions-finding mission and it's a way of thinking more than it is a way of answering the world's questions.
Alexandra Arriaga: That makes a lot more sense. This is more of like an exploration sort of.
Elise Blegen: Absolutely.
Alexandra Arriaga: Okay. And that being said, what would you say distinguishes the club from other student run organizations?
Sarah Rezendes: I think our club is good if you want a place to have these types of discussions and a safe, almost non-academic space, like when you're in a classroom and you're touching on these topics, you always have to worry about, what am I going to be graded on this? Like I'm going to have to write a paper on this. You're just not really focused on enjoying the discussion in the issue itself. So this is a place for people who want to have these kinds of discussions and just kind of want to broaden their horizons when it comes to philosophy and how they think about the world. And it just gives them a safe space to do that. It's a very laid back organization. Like we just want people to feel comfortable. We want people to come in when they have the time, if they want to have these discussions. So I think that's kind of what separates us. There's not a lot of pressure involved with being involved in the Club. We want people to feel welcomed and we want people to participate in the Club. It's not just us e-board members sitting there with like a PowerPoint and being like, you're going to sit and you're going to listen to us. We want people to interact with us. We want people to meet other people in the Club, find those interests as well. Maybe branch out from what they're learning in their own majors because we want to encourage people who aren't just interested in philosophy or public health or pre-med. We want everyone to be able to come in and have these types of discussions because they affect everyone.
Elise Blegen: I think some student organizations are very geared at kind of niche, pre-professional networking, figuring out how you can apply your specific field to your career, et cetera. And I think we're kind of that, but in a different way. Instead of saying, "oh, you want to be a Bioethicist, here's how you do that," it's more, "Oh hey, you want to be a public health professional, you want to be a scientist, you want to be a computer scientist, you want to be a teacher. Here's how bioethics applies to you and here's how you can take these questions and this way of thinking out with you into the world." I think that's why we really try to have guest speakers and meeting topics from a wide range of disciplines. We had an Animal Studies guest speaker in late February, we have a professor of philosophy coming in to talk about Confederate statues and whether or not they should be taken down, and in what contexts. So it's really about applying bioethics and bioethical issues to the world more broadly.
Alexandra Arriaga: So basically you're looking to attract everyone and anyone who wants to be a part of it. So I just thought about this. Do you remember an instance that maybe you were having one of these discussions and the topic just got super heated, like it was super controversial.
Sarah Rezendes: When we were watching a Black Mirror episode, The USS Callister, we talked a lot about what makes a person and what is okay. Because basically the whole plot of the episode of USS Callister is this man, he built this very popular video game where it's basically like VR. You plug into it, it's basically like Star Trek. You have a big spaceship and you fight blah, blah, blah. He's very introverted in real life, but he has a vendetta against his co-workers. So he'll take pieces of their genetic code and he'll be able to put them in the game. So they act and they feel and they look just like his people in real life, but they're just AI copies, they're just code. So he goes through and he tortures these virtual versions of the people so he doesn't hurt the people in real life. Basically it's a way of him venting his frustrations with his people in real life while targeting just basically like when you have a SIM and you put a SIM in a pool and take away the ladder; it's just a more extreme version of that. A lot of the discussion, people were like "that's not okay, that's not okay.: So we kept trying to push, well, what makes it okay? It's not real people, it's just a bunch of code. Just because they look and act like people, why is that wrong? They're like, "it's just wrong, it's just wrong, they have feelings." So just kind of trying to push people to think deeper. Is this just an immediate reaction from you, is this just an emotional response, or is this a logical reasoned response? So we were able to get people to look deeper into why they're uncomfortable with the thought of AI that looks and talks and feels like a real person getting hurt versus, to the same extreme, as watching an actual person getting hurt and try to question what do we define as a person? Can an AI be considered a person? Is it still wrong to do that even if they weren't a born in flesh human being? So that was one of the more interesting, more heated debates we got into.
Elise Blegen: I'm trying to remember, I'm like, "I don't remember that meeting being that heated," and then I was like, "oh yeah, I remember now." It got intense because, well, the question, right, is in that episode, people's initial reaction tended to be, 'Oh, well, like that doesn't seem okay because it was told from this very immersive first person perspective of like you're in the game with them and they're real people, et cetera.' And the question was raised of like, "OK, but we all played the Sims growing up and there were shenanigans, you know, with your Sims and Sims would die in the pool, whatever." And that seems fine because, you know, there's that degree of separation, that computer screen, that mouse. Especially, now that we see video games and technology improving VR and simulations, it seems if you can approximate reality in a simulation, it becomes less and less okay to cause harm to simulated humans just because they so closely resemble living humans. It seems to reflect something about your humanity that you're okay with killing something or inflicting simulated harm on something that it so approximates a human, whereas if you're playing a game on your phone, it doesn't seem to be as big of a deal if you're simulated, you know, your like Nintendog dies or whatever. It's like a very blurred line.
Sarah Rezendes: It is. For sure.
Elise Blegen: Yeah.
Alexandra Arriaga: Hmm, interesting. So well for everyone that's listening and they're thinking, man, I want to go watch Black Mirror and have these discussions, how can they get in touch with you? How can they participate in the Bioethics Club?
Elise Blegen: There are a number of options. We have a Facebook Page which is called Bioethics at NYU. We are also on the Center For Bioethics website under Student Resources. And on that page there is a description of our club, profiles of our e-board and faculty advisors, a link to our Facebook, and a link to sign up for our email list. And then we are also on NYU Engage. So if you have an NYU Net ID, you'll find us on that portal. If you just search bioethics. I think we're the only bioethics club, so that's us.
Sarah Rezendes: So NYU Engage is great because you can basically sign up for the Club on NYU Engage and then you'll be able to see all our upcoming meetings, there's a calendar, you can RSVP directly on the website, so we get a good idea of how many people are interested in coming. You can say if you're bringing in guest or not. It's free to sign up. It's through NYU, so if you're interested in any other NYU clubs, it's a good place to look up NYU clubs. We keep it very updated, all our meetings will be on there once we have them finalized. It's a good way that you can keep in touch with us if you're not very social media inclined. We also do have our Facebook page.
Alexandra Arriaga: And guys finally, what motivates you to do this work and where does that motivation come from for you?
Sarah Rezendes: I think just looking at the world around us, especially all of the different headlines that have been coming out and a lot of these topics are in the pop culture references that have been coming out recently. It just is something that is very engaging that I really enjoy discussing. So a lot of my friends aren't really as interested in having these discussions as I am. So having this place where I can sit down with people who are actually interested in having in depth conversations about these very intense and interesting topics. It just really motivates me. Every week I just want to sit down and be like, okay, let's get the Club together. Like this new episode came out, or Oh my God, did you see this article? Like what are these scientists doing? Like I want to talk about it. So it just, it really motivates me because I'm as much of a member as I am on the e-board. So it just gets me really excited for it.
Elise Blegen: I think that for me, unlike other disciplines, not all, but at least some, I think unlike other disciplines, bioethics is something that really and truly affects every single person's day to day life. Every time you pick up your phone or check your email or go to the doctor and they're storing your health data somewhere. So I think that whereas not every person needs to be a mathematician or an engineer. I think it would benefit everyone to have some form of toolkit to discuss and think about bioethical issues because I think it's something that so permeates our everyday life and it's really important to consider because it, it affects us. And so when policies are being proposed or when you check the box that you've read the terms and conditions when you haven't, those are instances where it's really about kind of taking your own moral agency into your hands and thinking about that, considering it and how it might affect you.
Alexandra Arriaga: Makes a lot of sense. Well guys, thank you so much for joining us. We've had a lot of fun with you and hopefully we will see you again soon.
Elise Blegen: Thank you so much.
Sarah Rezendes: Thank you so much.