Q&A with Judy Illes, Ph.D.

Get to Know the Brain Awareness Week Partners
March 20, 2011

Judy-Illes-2011Judy Illes, Ph.D.
Professor of Neurology
Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics
University of British Columbia

Dana Foundation: Many of the Brain Awareness Week (BAW) events that you’ve organized have focused on the field of neuroethics. How has interest in neuroethics grown since your first BAW event in 2007?

Judy Illes: The first BAW neuroethics event at the University of British Columbia (UBC), made possible by the Dana Foundation, featured Professor Hank Greely from Stanford University. At the time, we were relatively unknown to the local community.

That first series of lectures brought contemporary issues in legal neuroethics to our neuroscience, humanities, and law communities. Yale Professor Bruce Wexler’s lecture on neuroplasticity reached the UBC basic neuroscience and clinical neurology communities, as well as other disciplines, such as public health and anthropology, and the broader public. Professor Patricia Churchland, UC San Diego, who spoke about the brain and moral behavior, delivered the third UBC BAW Neuroethics Lecture to a standing-room-only audience.

This year, we fully expect to need an overflow room for our fourth distinguished speaker, Dana Alliance member Remi Quirion, McGill University. He will speak on the implications of novel gene interactions and Alzheimer’s Disease on March 16.

How do you decide what topic(s) to address each year?

The priorities are (with flexibility): science and neuroethics relevance; dynamism of the speaker and an ability to relate to both a professional and lay audience; speaker gender, cultural, and geographic diversity.

Who will be presenting at the University of British Columbia events this year and on what subject(s)?

In two separate lectures on March 16, Professor Remi Quirion will speak on the implications of novel gene interactions and Alzheimer’s Disease. A clinically-oriented presentation will be held at Vancouver General Hospital as part of Neurology and Neurosurgery Grand Rounds. The feature BAW Distinguished Neuroethics Lecture will be held in the large conference room at the Brain Research Center on UBC campus and will be open to the public. In a third BAW event that day, Dr. Quirion will lead an open seminar at the National Core for Neuroethics on the international future of neuroethics.

Why do you feel it’s important for scientists to communicate their research to the lay public and not only the academic and medical communities?

We are deeply committed to promoting the voice of stakeholders in the progress of neuroscience research and its ethical, social, legal, and cultural acceptance. All our empirical data–from our neuroimaging studies with patients with mental illness, their families, and health care providers; individuals with spinal cord injuries; Canadian Aboriginal people on neurogenetic testing; and even neuroscientists themselves–speak to this culture shift that supports the proactive pursuit of the opinions of the end-beneficiaries and the incorporation of those views into the research development process.

How do you build interest in neuroethics year-round? What other events/campaigns do you participate in?

Building interest in neuroethics is a significant part of our daily work. We are constantly seeking new research funding to build our programs and cross-disciplinary collaborations and to train new students, fellows, and junior and senior scholars. One of our senior research fellows called the Neuroethics Core at UBC “a garden of opportunity.” We love to grow the garden.

All the members of our team travel to national and international meetings to present neuroethics work. At the recent Neuroethics Society meeting, we represented about 25% of the posters. Personally, I am deeply committed to growing neuroethics on a global scale. I travel a great deal abroad to share in the exchange of the neuroethics mission, messages, and methods and to engage the Canadian and international communities in building neuroethics programs of their own and becoming members of the Society. In the past year alone, I have had the privilege to visit, give lectures, or participate in conferences across Canada, including regions of the northern boundaries of British Columbia, and abroad in Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and Portugal. The USA always draws me back “down south” as well.

You’re a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which is committed to public outreach about the brain and brain research. What advice would you give to other Alliance members looking for ways to get involved in BAW?

Imparting to others a passion for brain research and the ethics of brain research should be a passion itself. The BAW framework makes this imperative easy and visible, and the rewards of outreach are immense.