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A Day in the Life of a Neuroethicist: Roland Nadler

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Roland Nadler, JD, is starting a doctorate program in law at the University of British Columbia. He was formerly Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa in the Center for Health, Law, Policy and Ethics.

Image Credit: Marlise Meilan

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

Whether I'm working from the library, a coffee shop, or home, I'll almost always queue up some study-conducive music on YouTube and then review my to-do list app. Because emails are often poorly formatted tasks, I turn as many emails as I can into to-dos. 

2. What’s your work routine like?

The fun of being a PhD student right now is that nothing's ever routine! I of course spend a great deal of time preparing for and participating in seminars — reading, writing, preparing short talks. A real luxury of my situation is how nomadic I can be, working around town most days.

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

Somewhere between theoretical and practical. Because my work focuses on how brain claims mesh with law's current systems of expertise and evidence, I think about fairly concrete rules in everyday application, but the most interesting cases are yet to come. And a lot of what's at stake are big-picture values like equality, procedural justice, and democracy. So there's necessarily a theoretical and (parsimoniously) speculative element.

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

This is a familiar answer, but it's a perennial tightrope walk to make the case that neuroscience poses unique, profound challenges to law and society that require proactive management, while also reining in hype and being careful not to over-promise or over-claim.

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

Maybe this is a scandalous thing to admit, but I try very hard not to over-think it! I've been extremely lucky to just follow where my intuition leads me research-wise and end up with whatever success that brings.

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'd apply this to ethicists generally: we're not a priestly caste keeping some kind of secret authoritative knowledge. Philosophers have argued whether there's such a thing as ethical expertise, and what I'd say on that is ... sure, but more in the way your therapist is an expert — in asking productive questions and promoting reflective, clear, careful thinking. Even in law, where we do mediate between laypersons and some pretty arcane knowledge (dusty tomes and all!), I still view the value of the work as much more inhering in the process than in the answer it produces.

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?

Most on my mind lately is what some scholars have called "interactional expertise" — having enough knowledge about other fields and skillsets to talk the talk, even if you can't walk the walk. Interdisciplinary work demands enough intellectual voracity that you can coordinate usefully with folks from very different silos, while staying humble about the limits of your understanding. Like the old aphorism says, if you want to go far, go together.

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

A thing I've started to really embrace lately is this enormous sense of possibility around neuroethics and neurolaw. Yes, the view from neuroscience can unsettle or upend so much of legal doctrine and ethical understanding, but therein lies the opportunity. We can reorient our practices and our rules so much more toward the service of justice and dignity and human flourishing by stepping into this breach.

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

I don't know what the concrete change would be, but this whole dozen-year journey for me has been kept afloat at every juncture by unbelievable good luck. I've been "out of runway" several times, with no apparent way to continue, only to have the next opportunity fall out of the clear blue sky. In a sense, I wish I knew whether I can "make my own luck," so to speak, because one day I'll have to. But short of knowing, hoping will suffice!

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

You can help us make this big tent even bigger. Self-define as part of the "next generation" even if — especially if — your discipline, methodology, identity, or perspective seems missing or marginal. I expect you won't encounter any gatekeeping (and if you do, I'll personally stick up for you).

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

Whenever possible, attempt to time my exit around sunset. No day is wasted on which I can take in some of that magic-hour light. You have to make a habit of appreciating the things that give you a sense of uplift. For me, a lot of that comes from being in the right place, so I take some time to be in it.

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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