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A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist: David Lawrence

Dr. David Lawrence is a research fellow in The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Biomedicine, Self, and Society. He previously held a research post as part of Newcastle University Law School, developing projects around novel forms of consciousness.

1. What’s the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?

Cognitive enhancement. Well, coffee. It’s a cliche but it’s all ritual, really. I work away from the office a lot, so it’s important to have some similar behaviours to get you into the right mindset. I’ll usually try and triage email, first, but if I’ve been writing something I’ll try to ignore everything else and go straight into that for as long as my attention holds before I break into small jobs- they have a tendency to take over if you let them.

2. What’s your work routine like?

I currently have a primarily research-focussed contract, so the structure of my day is fairly loose as a rule. I tend to divide my time between writing either papers or grant applications, and indulging the great luxury of academia which is talking to fascinating people. I’m lucky to have the freedom to follow up interesting things that come out of those conversations.

3. Are you involved in the theoretical, investigative, or the practical/translational aspect of neuroethics? Describe your research area briefly.

I’m chiefly a theorist, somewhere between bioethics and neurolaw. At the moment, I mostly work on the relationship between neuroscience and moral status- what makes us who we are, and why we consider ourselves valuable beings. We can learn an awful lot about that by exploring things like elements of what we call consciousness, in humans and in animals, and seeing what biological mechanisms actually contribute to ‘personhood’.

4. What’s a challenge that you face on a daily basis as a neuroethicist?

It’s a strange and ill-defined field. It really depends who I’m talking to as to whether I would even introduce myself as one, because it could mean so many things to so many people. That brings a problem- where do the bounds of the field stop? At what point are you really working in a different area, where you might be replicating work considered canon? It keeps you on your toes, if nothing else.

5. How do you determine what questions deserve the most focus and attention in your work?

With my previous answer in mind, I tend to just go with what seems the most interesting. You could rationalise forever, and it would be hard to argue in favour of doing work that doesn’t bring some immediate good to, for instance, a certain class of patient. Frankly, there are people much more qualified to do that kind of work than I am. I’m very lucky to be in a position to indulge research whims to some extent- the trick is not going too far down the rabbit hole.

6. What do you wish more people understood about being a neuroethicist? Whether it be from a schooling, interest, or day-in-the-life point of view? Describe neuroethics in your own words.

That despite appearances, it isn’t all abstract and far removed from daily life. Take my current focus, for instance. It’s easy to say ‘well, it doesn’t ultimately matter why we consider ourselves morally valuable, as long as we treat each other as such’. But if we understand that, maybe we can understand animals better; and whether they deserve rights more similar to our own. However you might feel about that issue, it’s a non-trivial legal problem- we’ve seen cases in the US and Argentina with different outcomes in great apes. The fact is, even the most abstract neuroethics work can have solid real-world implications.

7. What skills or training do you most frequently use in your work and how do you suggest more people gain these skills if they want to contribute to the field?

 In a former life I studied medical neuroscience, which has been incredibly useful because I at least have the basis to understand scientific papers and be able to keep up (however nominally) with some amazing neuroscientists doing cutting-edge work. I’d recommend it- it’s less common than you’d think. It’s far from necessary, but it will certainly give you a perspective many peers lack. It is enormously helpful when you’re navigating what is fundamentally interdisciplinary field.

8. What do you love most about your work? What keeps you motivated?

I’ve mentioned neuroethics being so loosely defined as a problem- but it’s also it’s greatest benefit. You can do anything you want, and bring it into the fold. There really are few limits, and that gives this amazing sense of freedom. 

9. What’s one thing you wished you did differently in your career trajectory?

I’d teach more. I love being primarily a researcher, but I always felt a bit shy to try and teach anyone. There aren’t really all that many neuroethics courses around yet, and the small amount I have done has been incredibly rewarding. It’s something I’m going to work on- it’s never too late. As for getting to where I am, all I’d say is you can’t plan an academic career. There’s a lot of luck involved, and I have no idea how I could have steered it any differently. I certainly didn’t set out with what I do now in mind!

10. What’s one thing you could advice the next generation of neuroethicists?

Follow your nose. You’ll enjoy what you’re doing far more if it’s your work, your interest, your idea. Even if it seems pretty out there- have faith in yourself, and keep following the thread you’ve found. Our field is so open, you will almost certainly be able to create your own niche. 

11. What’s the last thing you do when you leave work in the evening?

If I’ve been writing in the evening, wherever I am, I fill out a post-it (or leave a note in the file) telling me what to start with and what the next part was supposed to be. I’ve lost a lot of (what could have been) good ideas by not doing that! The other thing is to just take stock of what you’ve done. It’s probably far more than you think.


This post is part of the Neuroethics Today blog series 'A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist' where we bring you answers to questions by junior and senior neuroethicists about a day in their life to give you a better idea of what neuroethicists do, what have they learned throughout their trajectory, and ways that you can do it too.

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