Philosophy in Bioethics Research (feat. Carolyn Neuhaus)
Alumni Aloud Episode 29
Carolyn Neuhaus is a research scholar at the Hastings Center, the oldest independent, nonpartisan, interdisciplinary research institute in the world. She earned her PhD in Philosophy from the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Carolyn talks about the journey through her PhD program, the opportunities that were most beneficial to her career development, and the beginnings of her career in bioethics research.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
VOICE OVER: Kate Pendoley conducted this episode’s interview. Kate works at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development and is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. She interviewed Dr. Carolyn Neuhaus who talked with us about getting into the field of bioethics research from the philosophy program at the Graduate Center.
KATE PENDOLEY, HOST: Hi Carolyn.
CAROLYN NEUHAUS, GUEST: Hi Kate.
PENDOLEY: It’s so nice to see you and talk to you today. So my first question for you is to just tell us a little bit about what your journey to the Hastings Center was like—just to tell us a little bit more about how you ended up here today.
NEUHAUS: Sure, thanks for having me. So my journey… I suppose we can start while I was at the Graduate Center as a PhD student in Philosophy. And I feel like I knew fairly early on as a student that I wanted to do philosophy that was a bit more applied, which is to say not purely theoretical work but work for which I could see practical implications, policy implications, and sort of a real world application. And that really does cover a lot of philosophy. Philosophy gets a bad rep as a purely theoretical discipline, and all aspects of philosophy are in some sense applied, but from the standpoint of philosophy as a discipline, the sort of applied areas are bioethics, business ethics, and other ethical domains. So I was really drawn to bioethics as a discipline.
So actually my first entry point into bioethics was taking a neuroethics course at NYU’s department of philosophy. And that was in part because those classes just weren’t offered by the GC philosophy program and I recognized that I would have to go elsewhere to take those courses. So I took advantage of the consortium of schools here in New York and enrolled for that course at NYU with a philosopher named Matthew Liao. And that just kind of hooked me. That was in my second semester, second year. So I’d already taken quite a few classes in philosophy and kind of knew that I needed to do something else to really keep me engaged. So I took that course, was really hooked, continued taking courses again at NYU actually because they again weren’t offered internally.
So by the time I was ready to be… actually before I go to candidacy, there actually was an opportunity internal to the Graduate Center, which was an ethics fellowship at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. There was a professor there named Rosamond Rhodes who also got her PhD in philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY. And she very lovingly and generously now essentially invites Graduate Center philosophy students to take part in an ethics fellowship program at Mt. Sinai. And this is going to sound kind of crass, but essentially we’re TAs. It’s like a fancy name for a TA-ship in which I was mentoring and leading discussion sections with medical students who were also learning about bioethics. So that sort of brings me to year two/threeish where I was taking classes at NYU and also learning ethics really practically at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
PENDOLEY: How did you find out about the Mt. Sinai fellowship?
NEUHAUS: So again, it’s an internal program that Rosamond administers. It’s a bit of a mix of application and invitation. Students who are interested in bioethics kind of have to advocate a little bit and express that to Rosamond—she’s not on campus here—to sort of register with the department and with Rosamond that you are really interested in bioethics. And that kind of initiates an application process. I think that was third year. So I was already doing things and taking courses and thinking about what I want to write my dissertation on. And I decided to do a dissertation in sort of a squarely philosophical discipline—meta-ethics. So my dissertation is on the nature of moral reasons. That was kind of strategic actually—already recognizing that I would probably shift in a more applied direction and go towards bioethics.
My advisors, including Rosamond and Matthew, but also internal to the GC recommended doing a dissertation in philosophy in part to gain that skill set and really hone my philosophical research skills and methods. But also just to keep a foot in the door and I didn’t sort of leave philosophy too quickly. And I think that was totally the right advice and I’m really glad I wrote my dissertation on meta-ethics. But at the same time I was writing my dissertation, I then applied for a job in bioethics.
So I was a part-time research assistant in the NYU division of medical ethics, which, in a really complicated and long story, is not the same NYU where I took my classes. So there’s a center for bioethics in the graduate school of arts and sciences, which is now actually in the school of public health, and then there’s a separate medical ethics division at the school of medicine. So I was an RA at the school of medicine with Dr. Arthur Caplan who’s a bioethicist. I loved my dissertating years in part because I got to do this really cool philosophy project that I enjoyed on a topic that was and is really helpful for me to have studied and developed a view about. But at the same time, being an RA was just a crash course in this whole new field of study, whole new research methods, totally different kinds of readings and interactions, totally different kind of writing, and I just loved all of it.
PENDOLEY: And were you doing those two things concurrently? You were writing in both modes at the same time?
NEUHAUS: That’s right. I was also babysitting like practically full-time. Which I probably shouldn’t mention, but you know, you do what you can and that’s totally okay. And I started looking at postdocs in bioethics, of which there are about maybe like ten to twelve around the country at different universities. So I knew that my pool was limited, but that I wasn’t ready to commit to an academic philosophy job that I actually just didn’t want to, but the sort of route in bioethics was a postdoc route. Bioethics is a bit of a complicated field and maybe we can talk about that next, but some bioethics postdocs are at medical schools and some bioethics postdocs are in arts and sciences schools or schools of humanities. So that kind of changes the tenor of the postdoc a little bit and the application process.
And I was open to both of those, and one sort of looks a little bit more like philosophy and one looks a little bit more like clinical ethics. And I was applying to all of them essentially. But I ended up being able to stay at NYU for my postdoc, which was in the school of medicine. And that was supposed to be a two-year postdoc, but halfway through—so during my first year—a job at the Hastings Center opened up as a research scholar. I applied and what feels like miraculously got the job as research scholar and I couldn’t pass it up.
PENDOLEY: So I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you were hired at the Hastings Center. You had already been on the job market once and then very quickly again you were on the job market. And what did it look like when you were applying there versus when you were applying for the postdoc process?
NEUHAUS: So the Hastings Center is a research institute and so it actually wasn’t all that different from what my postdoc application process looked like in terms of putting together a research statement, a research sort of packet of publications, and a statement of where I see myself going in the future. So those kinds of basic things that you would think about in an academic job search for an academic job application or a postdoc application. It was kind of the same components. What’s really different about that application process was that it doesn’t have a teaching component. So I did have lots and lots… endless interviews, phone interviews, and then in-person the whole day where you give a talk and you do all that stuff. But since I don’t teach as part of my job, I didn’t have to send my teaching statement or anything like that. But I will say I was offered the job at the end of April, so probably a bit later than would normally happen, but they needed me to start as soon as possible, so I started the first week of June.
PENDOLEY: And you were still in your postdoc at NYU?
NEUHAUS: I was still at my postdoc at NYU.
PENDOLEY: Did you end that early?
NEUHAUS: I ended it early in terms of it was supposed to be two years and I left a year early. Like I left NYU on a Friday and started my job at the Hastings Center on a Monday. Thankfully I didn’t…well, I had to move to the burbs, but I didn’t have to move states. My partner did not have to leave his job. I’ve now been in the position about 18-months and I have to say the first year was pretty heavy into grant writing. It’s a private, independent research institute and we rely pretty heavily on research funding—grants essentially—so a pretty big component of my job is grant writing.
PENDOLEY: And is that something new you were doing?
NEUHAUS: It’s something I had already done at NYU as a research assistant. So I wasn’t writing my own grants at NYU, but I had been helping to write grants. So it’s a skillset that I had picked up along the way and just a process I had learned about. The grants I had been applying to at NYU, and still apply to at the Hastings Center, are federally funded and that grant process is crazy. So I was really glad to have already walked through that entire process twice before being expected to do it solely—or, I’m still part of a team—but with a bit more responsibility for the grant.
So one thing I really love about the Hastings Center is that we’re a relatively small research staff—just like ten people—and most of our funded projects are collaborative. So we’ll have three or four of us on any one project. So the grants I’ve been writing, and thankfully I’ve now received a couple of them, but we’ll continue to write a lot in the future are much more collaborative. And that’s very different I think than inside of a university where a PI is just one person who’s solely responsible for writing the grant, for conceiving the grant and whatnot. It’s much more collaborative at the Hastings Center where almost all of our grants have two PIs and then two or three co-investigators.
So I’d say it’s sort of a give and take between obviously what the scholars are interested in, what I want to work on, what’s fundable at any given moment in time, which is a changeable thing but something I have to be responsive to, and also what’s important. A sense at the Hastings Center, as sort of the only independent bioethics research institute in the country, is that we sometimes take on projects that our colleagues at the universities couldn’t because of their sort of critical stance or the topic or the funder. How we decide any given project we’re going to write about is a bit of a give and take.
PENDOLEY: So I wonder, you said something a little while back, you said you were gesturing towards the complication of bioethics as a field, and I’m wondering if you can just say a little more about what that complication is and what bioethics looks like from your perspective, having been integrated in these various ways.
NEUHAUS: Yeah, so bioethics I like to think of as a field of study. It’s not a discipline in the sense that there aren’t any prescribed research methods to people who call themselves bioethicists. So bioethicists can come from lots of different backgrounds. Mine happens to be philosophy, but social sciences, urban planning, nursing, medical fields, legal experts, lawyers, policy, health policy, political science. I mean, pretty much any field you can imagine who are doing work that’s related or the unifying theme is that it’s related to values in medicine and research.
PENDOLEY: Does that mean you’re working with people who are coming from lots of different backgrounds?
PENDOLEY: How exciting.
NEUHAUS: Yes, so the Hastings Center staff is interdisciplinary and the projects we run tend to bring into the Hastings Center people from a lot of different fields. So all of our work is from its conception interdisciplinary. Which is one thing that attracted me so much to the field, which is that I get to read a lot of different stuff—mostly in academic journals—so it’s not like I’m just reading newspapers—it’s still rigorous research—but I get to read way beyond philosophy, which was and is very exciting to me. I get to write in different ways. So I’m still incentivized and still want to write for more philosophical audiences and use philosophical research methods, but my work also tends to bring in sociology and history and other humanities disciplines, documentaries in ways that philosophers can do and sometimes do really well, but it doesn’t necessarily fly on a job market.
PENDOLEY: And when did you see that as something that was possible in bioethics?
NEUHAUS: I think I really liked the flexibility in thinking styles—that I didn’t have to just think as an analytic philosopher, I could be a bit more flexible in how I would come to an issue and think about an issue—how it gripped me. And then also in writing. I came to philosophy because I really like writing philosophy and I like that writing style. For me, I think it fits. But doing that for a wider variety of audiences through lots of different kinds of writing.
PENDOLEY: Can you tell us a little bit about your work within bioethics that you’re working on now?
NEUHAUS: Sure, yeah. One thing I’m working on right now and have been for a couple of years has to do with genetically modifying nonhuman organisms. So the sort of posterchild for this is genetically modifying mosquitos to combat malaria, dengue, zika, and other mosquito-borne illnesses. And there are different mosquitos for every one of those, but the point is the same. And there’s various different ways of genetically modifying mosquitos and releasing them. And the idea is to release them into the environment and then depending on the kind of genetic modification you’ve done, it will or should or is expected to have an impact on the population of mosquitos, either lowering the population of mosquitos and ultimately eliminating it or changing some genetic trait in the mosquito so it’s essentially inoculated or immunized from the disease it carries.
So the science is really complicated, and that’s another thing about bioethics, that you have to be very willing to engage with science and scientists, which is another thing I really like. But bracketing that, what I’m really interested in is how do we decide whether, when, and how to release a genetically modified organism into the shared environment. So bioethics historically, or a subfield of bioethics, is research ethics and human subjects research protection. As I’m sure many GC students know, having gone through an IRB process, is that often you have to ask individuals to consent to do research as a condition of respecting their autonomy and personhood. The problem is in this kind of research, this kind of biomedical research, you can’t actually really go door to door and meaningfully ask every participant is it okay if this scientific team releases genetically modified organisms into the shared environment. And there’s various reasons for that, so sort of what are the processes by which communities in a local sense, national sense, and possibly even international sense given the reach of some of the organisms being modified should we decide to go forward with this research agenda. So I’m drawing on a background in research ethics, which even within bioethics is a subfield to think more broadly about how we make collective decisions, in particular stewarding the environment and nonhuman animals.
PENDOLEY: So I’m wondering about the kinds of things you did while you were a grad student here that you feel especially retrospectively really helped you to prepare for the kind of work you’re doing now in the way you’re doing it now.
NEUHAUS: So the one thing that I already mentioned was seeking opportunities outside of my coursework and outside the philosophy department that were really interesting to me. So no one told me that I should go take a neuroethics class, that was a thing I just decided was important to me and that I wanted to learn about. So I think just sort of having the initiative to seek out and take seriously those sort of outside opportunities is one.
But then I think from a more personal standpoint, one thing that was incredibly helpful to me was finding my tribe within the philosophy department. And that also took a little bit of trial and error and didn’t happen initially. But by the time I was second/third year, I’d found a really amazing group of women who were doing really incredible work and we really supported each other in ways I think I still don’t appreciate how important it was to find a group of colleagues, my peers, who were willing to read my work and I read theirs. We had a writing accountability group and would actually meet every other week in one of our apartments to go through the writing sample or the letters or whatever we had for that week and give each other constructive feedback. So to find a group of people where I could practice both those skills in a safe space was super valuable and I think made me a lot better at doing it now, but also just gave me a lot of confidence to put myself out there a little bit more in ways I think I wouldn’t have been able to do had I not found that group of people.
So I think it’s okay to try out different friend groups, and if you’re feeling like you don’t have that initially doesn’t mean it won’t appear at some point in your graduate career. And also, make it. If those things don’t exist in your program right now, ask just one person to be in a writing accountability group and start small. But I think honing those skills of how to give and receive criticism, in any job, is a really important thing to know how to do and to feel comfortable doing.
PENDOLEY: You sort of made some recommendations just now and I’m wondering if there are other things you’d recommend to students who are current graduate students now that you think are really important.
NEUHAUS: I think it’s important to have interests and to pursue interests outside of your academic field and also to know that it’s okay to spend your time doing those things instead of reading or working on your dissertation or taking another class. I think I realize now just how much more freedom I had as a graduate student, and as a graduate student I always thought, oh, when I have a job, that’s when I’ll be able to do all those things that I’m not doing. But when you have a job you’re just going to be ten times busier than you are as a grad student. So if you have hobbies or interests or anything else you want to pursue, I think graduate school is actually a really great time to do it. And I know that probably sounds overwhelming cause graduate school feels really busy and you also have no money, but it’s actually from my perspective a pretty good time to take advantage of the freedom you have, especially sort of cognitive freedom and mental space you have to think about other pursuits and other areas where you could be happy.
Although, I’ll tell this funny story that sticks out so strongly. I think it was my second year. I was a Graduate Teaching Fellow at one of the campuses and one of the faculty there came up to me and said, if there’s anything else you could do that would make you happy, you should do that instead of going into philosophy. And at the time, I was just like, you’re super curmudgeonly, man, did you just come from a bad faculty meeting? But I think it also did get me thinking—there are a lot of things in this world that make me really happy. And philosophy is one of them, reading philosophy, writing philosophy, doing philosophy is one of them. But it’s certainly not the only thing. And him saying that was almost like permission I didn’t need to do other things that make me happy. I think the idea that, oh it’s okay if I don’t have a tenure track philosophy job. For someone to be like A) it’s okay if you just don’t even want it, actually was big. And it’s also okay to not have it and to try other things, to pursue other things. So again, my job right now is, I call it quasi-academic. Because a lot of the standards for me are the same as the standards for people on the tenure-track job or even tenured. But it’s also not in many ways. In part because I’m not teaching. I’m at a very different kind of institute that affords me flexibility.
PENDOLEY: So what does it look like for you to be an employee at a research institute? What does your day look like?
NEUHAUS: With one caveat, which is that the Hastings Center is a very specific kind of research institute. It’s very small. Our whole staff is about 20-25, and about half of us are researchers. So we might be smaller than what you think about as your typical think tank. And we have a beautiful campus in Garrison, NY in an old converted mansion. So it’s just a lovely place to go, which maybe makes a difference compared to most offices. So my day to day is that I go to this very idyllic old mansion on the Hudson River and I do have an office. I do tend to go there 4 days a week. I can work from home, which is also really nice. And I do that just to avoid the commute. But everyday looks a little bit different and it kind of depends on the projects I’m working on. So I have funded projects—collaborative projects I was describing before—and I continue to do grant writing and project development in various capacities. And I have some of my own work that I continue to work on that’s not grant funded or collaborative or at least not with my Hastings Center colleagues, so I kind of have to protect time to do my own research in that sense.
And other things that I think make the Hastings Center different from a university or what I’d do inside a university is that we have a visiting scholars program. So on any given day, we might have one or two people who are actually staying at the Hastings Center. We have apartments on campus that I don’t live in, but that our visitors can come stay in who are doing projects related to bioethical issues. We have visiting scholars around who sometimes give presentations or who are just looking for conversation partners. So that’s another aspect of my day to day.
And then another thing that I really love that the Hastings Center does is that we have a big emphasis on public engagement and public education about bioethical topics. So that manifests in two ways. One is through media. Oftentimes, or intermittently with news cycles, I’ll talk to journalists about the stories they’re writing about bioethical topics. So I’m in more of an educative role. So just this week I was talking to a documentary filmmaker who’s doing a documentary on genetically modifying both humans and nonhuman organisms. So I got to just have a conversation with him about the documentary—about some of my takes on what his work is and sort of explore opportunities to work together. But it’s very informational at that stage. People who are in the orbit, but not necessarily academics. People who are creating materials, whether that’s news articles, books, graphic novels for public consumption that address the issues that the Hastings Center writes about. So that’s a big part of my job and super fun. And that’s the place where I get to think really flexibly about how to present ideas and also to clarify them in creative ways. I’m not all that creative. I think the people I talk to are much more creative. But I hope that I can help them clarify things.
And then another is with teachers. This summer we had our first professional development workshop with high school teachers and we’re hoping that that’s an ongoing thing. So we essentially teach teachers to incorporate bioethics into their science classes so that as high school students are learning about genetics, they’re also learning about ethical issues when it comes to genetically modifying humans or animals. So I’m also developing educational programs, particularly for high school teachers, but it could also be brought in to others who are open to teaching bioethics.
PENDOLEY: Within your own research that you’re also pursuing independently but also while at the Hastings Center, is that expected? Is that part of the role you’re expected to pursue? Or is it sort of like an additional bonus that you can pursue? What’s the expectation there?
NEUHAUS: I would say a little bit of both. From the project developments standpoint and even from a writing standpoint, if I hope to get a grant in a couple years about a topic I’m interested in, I have to show that I actually thought about that topic. The easiest way to do that is to publish on it. So I know that it’s instrumentally valuable to pursue things I’m independently interested in so that down the line I can apply for grants on those topics. But I think it’s also just good to have my own interests and pursue things I’m enjoying and might not turn into anything but I like to read about. It’s a lot harder obviously to make time for those kind of things, but I try.
PENDOLEY: So when you’re applying for these grants, who’s your competition for the grants and what does your grant application need to look like in order to be competitive?
NEUHAUS: That’s another reason to continue publishing independently. When I’m applying for a grant, my competition is almost always people inside universities. So I have to sort of look like a university candidate or professor to be competitive for certain grants, especially from federal funders, but increasingly foundations as well. So I do have to publish more or less at the same rate that people inside universities publish. I imagine my sort of independent interests go above and beyond the grant-funded projects I’m collaborating on, which are also churning out publications, so it’s not expected of me over and above the expectations of normal academic production, but I’m very aware of the fact that especially, it becomes most salient within the context of grant writing, that my peers within that are university professors. So I have to look on paper like that.
PENDOLEY: And does publication look like what you expected it would look like?
PENDOLEY: This sounds to me like so much from the pre-PhD side of things. It sounds like a lot of publication. But does it sound like the same pace that you’d be expected to produce in a tenure track position?
NEUHAUS: Well, the big difference is that my publications are not discipline specific. I publish mostly in bioethics journals, which are by nature somewhat interdisciplinary. I haven’t published in just philosophy journals. Although that’s not for lack of interest. That’s just how things are shaking out right now. But I also publish in medical journals quite frequently. And journals that are aimed at scientists. I consider those publications a bit more of an educative role and synthesis. So I’m doing less rigorous analysis and more presentation. There’s still an argument, but with a different purpose. So the pace of publications is actually probably higher than the pace of publication I would have if I was tenure track in a philosophy department. But that’s because I’m encouraged to publish and invited to publish in a lot of different kinds of outlets. So it’s much different to publish an 8000-word philosophy article than it is to publish a 2000-word thing in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Which by all accounts is a fabulous journal. But it’s a very different writing style. And how those compare to each other doesn’t really match up. So the standards I have internal to my organization are very different than the standards that a tenure track professor has.
PENDOLEY: Did you have expectations coming into your position? What’s been different about the position you have now than you expected?
NEUHAUS: So one thing that surprised me and continues to overwhelm me is the breadth of topics that I’m researching on any given day, week, month, or year. And I find that really exciting. I try to look at it through silver linings and I really like being able to bounce around. But at the same time I’ve had to learn a lot about a lot of different kinds of scientific happenings and goings-on. So someone who’s studying scientific research ethics, you have to know the science and understand what’s going on in labs and around the world and that can be kind of overwhelming. So I think what surprised me is that I haven’t specialized as much as I thought I would. And if anything, the amount of things I need to know just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You become more and more aware of how much you don’t know, which everyone tells you and that’s totally true.
PENDOLEY: Maybe it’s kind of exciting, because you get to see that there are all these new avenues and opportunities for learning and research.
NEUHAUS: And for someone like me who has a short attention span, it’s really nice to be able to flip back and forth between them. Actually that was another reason why I didn’t think I’d really enjoy a tenure track job, which was in part the expectation of specialization and how much time you have to spend on any particular task and any particular research agenda. That really didn’t appeal to me. And I think I only made it through writing my dissertation because I had this huge distraction, which was learning the field of bioethics. And if I had only been writing my dissertation I don’t think I would’ve done it nearly as efficiently as I did.
One more thing I do want to plug is that I mentioned the Hastings Center has a visiting scholars program and that bioethics is super interdisciplinary and people from all different disciplines are welcome in the field. So this is only to encourage Graduate Center students to look up the Hastings Center, and if you’re doing anything related to the history of medicine, health policy, urban planning, educational programs, those all have a place in the field. And we’re located just 70 miles up the Hudson River on a beautiful idyllic campus. So if you need a respite from NY and a place to do some thinking about medicine and research you should totally consider visiting us at the Hastings Center. And feel free to get in touch with me and ask any questions.
PENDOLEY: Thanks so much for talking with me today about your academic journey and also the work you’re doing now and all your thoughts about this, Carolyn.
NEUHAUS: Oh, you’re welcome, thanks so much!
VOICE OVER: Thanks again to Carolyn for walking us through her journey from the philosophy program here at the Grad Center to her research career at the Hastings Center. And thanks to Kate for conducting the interview. If you’d like to check out what our Office of Career Planning & Professional Development has to offer, you can go to our website at cuny.is/careerplan or follow us on Twitter @careerplanGC. Thanks for listening!
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