Synthetic biology and de-extinction through the eyes of a science journalist

I met Torill Kornfeldt at the iGEM Jamboree last year in Boston, where she kindly tolerated my less-than-fluent Swedish language skills, and put up with my questions on science journalism and synthetic biology. As her viewpoints are very interesting, I asked her and she agreed to share them with the community; the result is the interview below.

Konstantinos Vavitsas: You have studied biology. What made you transition to journalism, and in retrospect, how do you feel about your choice?

Torill Kornfeldt: I really loved to study biology, and even started a Phd. But I was doing freelance work as a science journalist on the side, and it began to take up more and more of my time and my focus. It took a while, but I eventually realized that I'm a lot happier as a journalist than as a scientist. One aspect is that I now have the opportunity to be a generalist instead of a specialist when it comes to knowledge, I can write about planet formation one week, genetics the next, and behavioral ecology the third. I really love to have that variation and high pace in my work. Another aspect is that I can alternate between longer and shorter deadlines, depending on my focus for the moment. Longer projects, like writing a book, take a year or two, but at the same time I can record radio shows for a few weeks or write short texts that only take a day. 

I sometimes miss the freedom in the academic world, that is something that is hard to find in other areas. As a freelance journalist I am partly creating that freedom for myself, but not quite. On the other hand I really don't miss the hierarchical system within the academic world.

All in all, I have never regretted leaving academia for journalism.

KV: How interested are people in Sweden and in Scandinavia in general about science and synthetic biology? Are there any specific challenges with reporting science in Swedish?

TK: Swedes in general love new technology and we tend to be early adopters of basically everything. :) Most people in Sweden don't really know what synthetic biology is, but so far synthetic biology has induced curiosity, rather than fear and skepticism, in Sweden. That said, swedes are also enormously environmentally-minded, so anything that is perceived as an environmental threat is almost automatically rejected.

Reporting about science in Sweden is always interesting: on one hand people are in general very interested in science and the general level of education is high, which makes my job easer. On the other hand there are very few outlets for science news, since the populations is to small to support too many publications. The public service radio and TV are the main channels from which people in Sweden get their science news.

KV:   You recently published your book (in Swedish) “The return of the Mammoth: the extinct species' second chance”. Can you tell us a few words about it and how you decide to write about de-extinction? What is your personal opinion on this subject?

TK: The book, which is actually going to be published in English as well, is about the handfull of ongoing projects where researchers are trying to recreate extinct species - such as the mammoth, the passenger pigeon and the auroch. But this book also covers research aboutgenetic technologies to help save endangered species or species that have gone extinct very recently.

I choose to write about deextinction partly because it really resonated with my inner 11-year old. Who doesn't feel a bit of a thrill if you think about seeing alive mammoth again? Having that enthusiasm and curiosity to draw from was really important when I needed energy to get me through the tough parts of the work.

The other reason is that deextinction beautifully summaries a lot of the important factors in the emerging genetic boom. Lots of different types of science is involved, so I could explain many different techniques. But it also include a lot of ethical and philosophical concerns, as well as the general question of what kind of world we want to live in.

Personally, I'm still really undecided when it comes to deextinction. The ethical concerns when it comes to individual animals are very real, but on the other hand I do feel that we have an obligation to try to make the world a better place - even if that involves lab-grown rhinos. But the fundamental benefit in this research lies in the basic science, in the discoveries about genetics, embryology, and ecology that this will lead to.

KV: What is, according to you, the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity of synthetic biology?

TK: When a field develops as rapidly as synthetic biology, and has as many successes and discoveries, it inevitably leads to a slight hubris within the field. It's not so much individual researchers but a general culture of invincibility that slightly permeates conferences, meetings, papers and so on. This is good in many ways, because it creates courageous scientists who try out new things even if they might be impossible. It is even necessary for synthetic biology to develop the ground-breaking tools that I think humanity need. 

But there is also a clear downside to this hubris, where researchers don't stop and think about the implications of there research or might dismiss concerns from the public or from researchers in other fields. Something that might lead to enormous problems.

So the biggest challenge is finding a way to harness that hubris and avoiding at least some of the drawbacks, in my opinion. 

KV: Do you think synthetic biology is inclusive enough? If not, how can this be improved?

TK:There are many ways to think about inclusivity; gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic background, and so on. All of these are extremely important, and since synthetic biology is a relatively young science, there is a real opportunity to try and make it more inclusive than other fields. One way might be to really emphasize that all people - independent of their background - create better results in diverse groups. Diversity is a strength that will make the science produced better, and having different perspectives will create more interesting research questions. In a group where everybody is the same, nobody will have any new ideas.

Torill Kornfeldt is a science journalist, author and lecturer with a focus on biology and biotechnology. Read more on her on her website or follow her on Twitter.