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Jennifer M. Gumer: Discovering Bioethics at the Intersection of Science and the Law

Jennifer M. Gumer always knew she wanted to study science—she just didn’t want to be a scientist. While studying biology, with a focus on genetics, at the University of California San Diego, she learned "pretty quickly" that she didn’t like lab work, she said. “And I faint whenever I get my blood taken, so I wasn’t going to be a doctor." Her interest in exploring the social effects of science led her to law school and later to the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, where she represented clients in the pharmaceutical, medical device, and health insurance industries. But it wasn’t until she encountered the M.S. in Bioethics program at Columbia that she found what she had been looking for all along.

What led you to pursue a master’s in bioethics?

I was trying to figure out how to put together all my interests and experiences, and I ended up stumbling on the field of bioethics. I had never heard of bioethics as a field, to be honest, and as I learned about it, I realized this was the thing I’d been circling around without even knowing what it was—this intersection of policy and science and biotechnology. The first program I found was the certificate program at Columbia, so I enrolled while still working at the law firm, and when I completed it, I remember thinking, Well, maybe this is really my exit strategy. Maybe I’ll go on and pursue a master’s and see where it takes me. So, that’s what I did. I quit my job to focus on it full-time, It was great to be back in school after six years of practicing law. I loved being on campus and to be part of the community.

What did you find most gratifying or impactful about your experience?

Professor Arthur Kuflik’s courses were really impactful for me. I took his Philosophy of Bioethics class as a certificate student, and his Reproductive Ethics class had a huge impact on me when I started as a full-time student. That definitely solidified my current interest in reproductive technologies, in particular, CRISPR and human gene editing. I’ve been really grateful to Prof. Kuflik as a teacher and a mentor. He was my thesis advisor, and I actually now teach a section of his Philosophy and Bioethics class for the nursing students that are required to take it.  

One of the most interesting things about the program is that everybody has different professional experiences or focused on a unique facet of bioethics, so there’s a lot to be learned from each other.

Jennifer M. Gumer (M.S. in Bioethics '17)

Sameer Ladha (the deputy academic director of the program) has been really wonderful, as well. He’s a lawyer, so we share a similar background, and he’s been a really great resource. 

And I would say that my fellow students had a big impact on me. One of the most interesting things about the program is that everybody’s coming in with a different background and a different interest. Everybody has different professional experiences or has focused on a unique facet of bioethics, so there’s a lot to be learned from each other, which I really appreciated.

How did the experience impact how you see the intersection of bioethics and law? 

I find that having gone to law school helped me in the bioethics program because being able to logically assess arguments, to read in a way that law school basically trains you to do, and then to write in a clear manner was extraordinarily helpful to my success as a bioethics student. And I‘ve actually found in teaching that some of the best students have been lawyers. 

Do you think the bioethics program might help someone who’s interested in going to law school?

For anyone who doesn’t have a background in logic or philosophy, Prof. Kuflik’s class is especially good for learning how to assess the kinds of arguments one would encounter in studying law. For anyone who might be considering law school, a program like bioethics can help provide more direction. A J.D. is a really broad degree; people often come into it very agnostic, not really sure what they want to do, and it can be harder to tailor the law school experience in a way that can really serve you in a career. Focusing first on a field like bioethics can help provide some direction, and I think you can get more out of law school that way. And I think generally in terms of admissions, certainly the more things you’re coming in with on your resume, the better. If you’re coming in with a master’s from Columbia, it doesn’t hurt in the very competitive environment of law school admissions.

How has your experience at Columbia impacted your career since graduating?

It definitely sent me on a trajectory of pursuing my interests and passions, particularly in the field of reproductive technology. I was grateful to get the opportunity to teach at Columbia, and I also now teach Law and Bioethics at Loyola Marymount University’s bioethics program, here in Los Angeles, which has been extremely rewarding. I was a bioethics research fellow at The Hastings Center last summer, and I’ve also been working on my own scholarship, including a paper that was based on my thesis and some other articles. 

I think you have to be really creative in figuring out what a career in law and bioethics looks like and someone who is open to creating their own adventure and shaping something for themselves, because there isn’t a well-worn path for someone who’s interested in law and bioethics. I am, by day, still a practicing attorney as a partner at a law firm founded by two women, and a lot of what I do isn’t focused on bioethics. But they’ve been really supportive of me following my academic passions in bioethics. 

Where do you see the field of bioethics going, and how do you hope to make an impact on it?

Right now, it’s kind of a Wild West in terms of the new technologies that are coming online, like the potential for human germline editing and neuro-enhancement technologies. Things like brain-computer interfaces, which Elon Musk and Facebook have announced that they’re actively working on. To the extent that those are developed for non-therapeutic purposes, there’s absolutely no regulation applicable to those types of technologies. There’s cognitive and privacy and security issues related directly to the contents of your brain, which traditionally have been among the most sacred and private things. That kind of safe space is becoming less and less safe, and there’s been little movement on the side of policymakers to actually contemplate the potential dangers and develop a policy framework that could be applied. 

So, I think there’s a real need to guide technology with policy rather than do what was done in the past, which was let the technologies develop and then, once something goes wrong, retroactively design a policy to prevent that thing from happening again. The stakes are getting too high with the technologies that we’re creating, and I would love to be part of an effort to be more proactive about the potential risks and design policies that can minimize the risks and maximize the benefits.