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Ethnography of Epigenetics - Clémence Pinel


Clémence Pinel

Clémence  Pinel  is  a  sociologist  by  background.  After  studying  Political  Sciences  in  Sciences  Po  in France for her undergraduate, she moved to London to study Social Sciences of Health and Medicine at  the  Department  of  Global  Health  &  Social  Medicine,  King’s  College  London,  earning  an  MSc  in 2013. Her main research interest lies in the ways scientific knowledge is produced, exploring the cultural, historical and social contexts surrounding knowledge production.

She  is  now  a  PhD  student  in  the  Division  of  Health  and  Social  Care  Research  and  Department  of Global Health & Social Medicine, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Clémence's  PhD  is  a  social  science  study  of  epigenetics  research.  The  overall  aim of  her  PhD  is  to examine  how  the  notion  of  environment  is  conceptualised  and  enacted  in  epigenetics.  Clémence uses   ethnography   (including   participant   observation   and   interviews)   to   better   understand epigenetics research in the making. 



Hello, I'm Nigel Warburton. Joining me today is Clémence Pinel, Wellcome Trust sponsored PhD student in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, and in the Division of Health and Social Care Research at King's College London. The topic we are going to talk about is Ethnography of Epigenetics. Let's begin by getting clear what epigenetics is.   

Epigenetics is the study of processes that influence the way genes are expressed and regulated. Epigenetics today has become quite a large field in genetics science, and one of the selling points in some ways of epigenetics research is the fact that now we can study, with epigenetics, the way environment can influence gene and gene expression, and therefore the development of pathologies. So with epigenetics, some people say that we entered the postgenomic era, it's not just about genes that influence our health, but it's also about how the environment also has an impact on our health.    

And you've studied this as an ethnographer. You've immersed yourself in the culture of epigenetics research. How did you go about that?   

So, traditionally ethnography has been used by anthropologists studying non-Western cultures, and they've done this by immersing themselves in the cultures they were interested in. So myself, I'm doing the same thing, I'm immersing myself in the epigenetic culture by becoming a member of a research team working on epigenetics. So I have now been working with this particular epigenetic lab for the past six months, and I've spent two hundred hours in this lab, just doing what the epigenetics researchers do, participating in their social life, in their work life, and trying to become an epigenetic researcher in some ways myself.   

But you're not a scientist in that sense, you haven't trained as a genetic researcher. So it must be quite strange entering that world.   

Definitely. I'm a sociologist by background and I know nothing about biology or genetics, as they do themselves. It is quite strange because I'm also learning a vocabulary, I'm learning about practices in the lab as they develop their experiments. In some ways, I'm bringing my own perspective, I'm offering this sociological perspective in trying to explore those social and political aspects that do influence science and the production of science.    

And you're not undercover here, you're completely open about being a sociologist, being an observer of what's going.   

Everybody knows that I'm this "strange" sociologist in the team. I first met all the researchers in the team a few months ago, and I presented my work. I was very clear about the methods I would be using and I explained what is ethnography, how would I collect my data. And we had lots of discussions actually about these methods and how at the end of the day I can come up with some results. And actually, these were really interesting discussions I had with some of the epigenetics researchers, they were quite keen on understanding how, from all this qualitative data, I end up with a scientific result.   

Roughly how many people are in this laboratory.   

So there are about thirty researchers in this lab, but about ten of them do mostly epigenetics research. Other researchers in this team do genetics research, but it is not strictly epigenetics.   

So it's a small enough group to build up a relationship of trust with.    

Yeah, definitely. And I have become friends with some of them. With a few of them, I've spent days working on one experiment together. And I followed the life of a research project, from the very beginning - building a hypothesis - to now they are presenting at conferences their results. So following the life of the research cycle in some ways.   

Now, I can imagine there are many different angles you could take on this. So much goes in a laboratory. Are there particular areas you focused on?   

One of the things that I'm interested in is exploring this social and political context that influence science and the production of knowledge. So one of the things that I have noticed in the lab is that epigenetics is not just about revealing nature, but the scientists involved in epigenetics do a lot of work to construct epigenetics facts, to construct knowledge. So they collect data using specific technologies, and they will pick certain methods to collect their data, they will also, as they say "play with the data" with some statistical tools to analyse the data in the ways that they want to, and reach a result that is positive and significant, and they can actually show to the research community "this is what I found in my data". So all these small processes are really important in science, so those technological aspects, but also some negotiations with other members in the team. So there are also important micro-processes socially that take place a research project.   

I am not completely clear how this is constructing a picture of reality rather than picturing reality.   

Well you could say that in some ways they picture the result they want to reach during the process of carrying out their research.   

If that was strictly true, then would epigenetics interventions work?   

The key argument that I base my project on is that scientific facts are not just about nature, or about technology. But it's about how the world is, it's about how it works socially and politically. Those contextual elements play a big role in how we see the world and how we construct it as scientific facts.    

Just to get clear, when you're talking about scientists constructing reality, you don't mean that their activities are just a fabrication that doesn't connect with the real world, do you?   

No, this is all about how there are some contextual factors, that can be political, that can be social or technological, that do influence the creation of science, the knowledge production. But obviously, a blood sample is a blood sample. This data cannot be created in any other way than from blood from humans. So my work is about underlining those social and political processes. As a sociologist, this is my job to uncover those elements and understand how scientists use technology to get to their results, how there are some processes of negotiations in a team, so those social elements that do influence science, how the system of publications in academia does influence the creation of certain findings and encourages the publication of certain papers and not others. So these elements are the ones that I am most interested in in my project.   

So people's expectations about what they are going to find colours the kind of tests and experimental setups that they create. They have social pressures - "publish or perish" - that may actually make them more prone to publish a certain kind of research and possibly this is something that a lot of people have talked about, that it is heavily biased towards positive discoveries rather than negative results.   

There is a difficulty in publishing negative results, and it's widely known. So obviously one of the problems here is that people will replicate studies that have reached negative results, but they are not aware that other teams have reached those negative results before. So they will replicate those things because the scientific community doesn't accept publications with negative results, yeah...   

Do you see that as a fault of the norms of science?  

Of today's science, probably yes, yeah.   

So your research isn't completely a neutral observation. You're not simply describing the world you find. You, like the researchers that you are watching, have particular sorts of framework you are imposing, have particular sorts of results that you would like to find.   

Yes obviously, I am coming from somewhere with some background and my discipline also imposes some theoretical background. So when I am carrying out this ethnographic work, I try to be reflective about this. And the way I take notes, so I also takes notes about my own feelings, I'm trying to separate what I observe, so being really scientific observations about what I see in the lab, to also more my personal judgements of what is happening here, and how critically I can assess those things. So there are two stages here: observation, and then more about an interpretation of those things.    

So once you got your observations and your own interpretations into a form where you can articulate them, do you play these back to the people you observed.   

At the moment, I'm not yet doing this. But the plan is to go back to the team that I spent some much time with and present some sort of analysis, discuss this with them. And here, in some ways this is a way of "validating" my results, and reaching another level of interpretation and analysis.   

Interesting you say "validating". Because I could imagine you could give a very accurate detailed description of the patterns of behaviour that you have observed as an outsider participating in these tribes' activities. And yet members of the tribe really wouldn't want to hear that description.    

That might happen. And from previous experiences, when I did this before, I presented results from another project, some people actually didn't really like it, this discussion afterwards. Because it didn't represent what they were doing in their own perspective. I saw it in a particular way and they saw it in another way.    

So how do you deal with that mismatch between your perception and theirs?   

I think it's just about discussing those perspectives and coming to an agreement. I think this is just a matter of different disciplines, and at the end of the day I want to reach a conclusion that they are happy with, because I'm building this project together with them. And the expectation is that it will also contribute to their own way of carrying out science.   

I imagine the researchers that you are watching have a clear idea of what they're doing. They're presumably investigating environmental factors and expression of genes for instance. What is your justification of what you're doing, what are you doing when you go into that situation and record meticulously the interactions and patterns of behaviour.   

The main focus of this project is to examine what we mean by 'environment' in epigenetics. But this relates to larger debates in our society today. There has been a strong focus recently on how individuals can change their health by changing their own behaviours, so improving their health status by having a better diet or exercising more. So there has been this focus on individuals' responsibility for their own health by playing on these environmental factors. So this is one of the motivations here in the project, it's to see how, in the field of epigenetics, scientists interrogate the notion of environment and see how they conceptualise it and see how those two speak. So how can we inform the debate on responsibility of individuals for their own health, and how can we think of a way where science can contribute to this debate but also social scientists can actually bring something here as well.    

So, so far have you uncovered patterns about the way that epigeneticists think about the environment? Is there something interesting that has been revealed about this?    

From my experience in the lab, I noticed that there are, let's say standard environmental factors that are explored, that are not actually specific to epigenetics research. We hear them all the time: it's all about smoking, all about diet, alcohol. You know those factors that are here in our everyday life that we hear constantly about as citizens, healthy people and not healthy people. So this is what I noticed, that you know, those factors are in the lab as much as they are in our everyday life. So there is a merging of those scientific and non-scientific worlds.  

That idea that the scientific and unscientific world could be problematic, couldn't it? Because surely the reason why diet and smoking and alcohol consumption are considered relevant factors by a lot of people is that the media have filtered through from scientific research findings that are maybe mangle but which are of relevance to people's everyday lives. There is a sense in which the media are trying to explain science to a wider public and we change our behaviour accordingly.   

I think there's two things here. First we can consider why scientists choose to study what they study. So it can be because some things are easier to measure than others, and get data on. But I think the other debate here is what those results that are disseminated to the public from the scientific world to the general public, how this dissemination is being done and also what does it mean for individuals who receive this information. Can they actually do something about their diet? Is it their responsibility to do something about it? Or should we, as a society, consider that actually it's everybody's job to improve our neighbours' health. So the way science is translated and motivated in the first place is an interesting question, and then you know, what do we do about it?   

You spent something like two hundred hours, more than two hundred hours in this laboratory. Now that you've had that experience, would you have done your research in a different way if you'd known what you know now?  

I think I would do even more. I might want to do it in another lab, maybe in a lab with a slightly different focus. On a personal experience, I think those hours that I spent in this lab were extraordinary. I learnt so much and I also created those relationships with the researchers that are really valuable, not only friendships but also working relationships, and creating those interdisciplinary links are really interesting. And I think that's how we can maybe think forward in science. I think I would like to do it in another lab and pursue this question of environment even further.  

Clémence Pinel, thank you very much.   

Thank you. 

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