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A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist: Laura Specker Sullivan

Laura Specker Sullivan is an interdisciplinary ethicist and an assistant professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. Her research interests focus on cross-cultural ethics and neuroscience, for instance she investigated the ethics of brain death and organ transplantation in Tokyo. She is currently a member of the program committee at the International Neuroethics Society.

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

I write best in the morning, so I try to work on big projects first thing in the day. This means ignoring email until the afternoon - which is hard, and which I rarely accomplish!

2. What’s your work routine like?

I focus on writing in the morning, and I try to save emails, meetings, and other administrative work until the afternoon. I tend to work on writing projects in spurts - it takes me a couple days to read and reacquaint myself with a project, but once I find a flow I like to work uninterrupted for a few days. Then I’ll take a break, before starting the cycle again. I’m a former triathlete and current ultra runner, and I’ve learned a lot from athletic training that I use in my professional life. Chief among these lessons is to embrace cyclical peaks of productivity followed by necessary rest periods - we’re not machines, after all!

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

I work a little bit in all areas. My PhD is in philosophy and I have a certificate in Japanese studies, which is how I learned qualitative research methods. This was helpful for my dissertation research in Japan, where I interviewed medical professionals about informed consent practices. My theoretical work focuses on autonomy and trust, and I use Japanese, Buddhist, and feminist theories to address ethical questions in science and medicine. I also conduct empirical research on neuroethics issues, such as a recent project with Tibetan Buddhist monastics in India. Finally, I think a lot about how to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Most recently, I’ve been working with the IEEE to create a framework of ethical issues with neurotechnologies that will hopefully be useful for engineers.

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

I don’t think this is unique to neuroethics, but I find it challenging to curb my enthusiasm and not spread myself too thin. I enjoy collaboration and interdisciplinary work, but if I do too much of it I lose the full work days I need to focus on more technical projects. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and I’m learning to turn down invitations that I can’t commit myself fully to. This is actually something I learned from the philosopher Katherine Hawley’s commitment account of trust.

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

This is a hard one - I think the key is finding the sweet spot between the work that you think has value, the work that you enjoy, and the work that you are good at. As someone early in my career, I’m still working this out, and I imagine it will always be a work in progress. I try to be honest with myself about my reasons for pursuing different projects, asking “why do you want to work on this question now?”

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.

I wish more students knew that neuroethics is a relatively recent and novel way to combine research interests in the brain, the mind, and ethics in one field. When I was an undergraduate, I loved neuroscience and philosophy, and the only way to combine them was through cognitive science (which is also very interesting, but in my experience doesn't include normative questions). I teach a neuroethics class at Fordham now, and my students seem excited to find that they can combine their interests in this one field.

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?

Critical thinking and conceptual analysis, two skills that I think are frequently gained through philosophy classes. Of course I’m a philosophy professor, but I do think it’s important in ethics to endeavor not to take ethical claims or concepts at face value. For example, while it’s often taken for granted that people’s autonomy must be respected, it’s important for ethicists to ask what autonomy is, why it must be respected, and how we respect it. The same goes for other commonly used ethical terms such as well-being. Critical thinking is also important for considering why ethical debates are framed in certain ways, and whether there are concepts or perspectives left out of the discussion.

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

I love the opportunity to think about science, medicine, and ethics together through the lens of neuroethics. I’m a very curious person and I enjoy learning new things, so a rich field with somewhat fuzzy boundaries like neuroethics is a playground for me. But it’s not all about how much fun I’m having - what keeps me motivated in neuroethics is the ever-present goal of making the world a better place through my work. I love doing it, sure, but I also think it’s important to have a field dedicated to asking these critical questions.

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

That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a number of unique opportunities in my career. I’ve worn a lot of different professional “hats,” from being an embedded ethicist in a neurotechnology center, to a mentor in a bioethics graduate program, to a director of ethics at an academic medical center, to a clinical ethicist, to a philosophy professor. I don’t regret any of those experiences. I suppose what I do regret is that I had to make some critical decisions early in my career; accepting some opportunities meant turning down others, and I wonder what would have happened if I had followed those alternative trajectories.

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

I imagine some academics may advise students to pick a specialization and identify their niche early on. This might be good advice for some people, but in contrast, my advice would be to read widely and gain as much diverse experience as they can, so as to better identify their unique abilities and their passions. This way you can find the intersection between what you love and what you’re good at, rather than just pursuing what you think you’re supposed to do. Seek out mentors who will support you in this endeavor. If no one’s doing something yet but you’re really excited about it, then go for it!

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

As with many of us, right now I work from home, and I drape a scarf over my computer at the end of the day as a signal to myself that I’m done. I keep boundaries between my personal and professional life - I generally don’t work evenings or weekends - and I think it helps keep me fresh and excited about my work. I have training as a creative writer, and many writers will keep strict writing habits, sometimes even stopping their daily writing mid-sentence, to ensure that they don’t burn out on a project, but come back hungry to work day after day. I find this to be a valuable approach to my professional life.


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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