John P. Doucet, PhD, is a member of the GENE Network and member of the ASHG Public Education & Awareness Committee. He is a genetics professor and Dean of Sciences and Technology at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. He is also a technical writer and educator, having created scientific writing courses for undergraduates and graduates, as well as a creative writer. His major area of interest is genetic anthropology and genomic bases of genetic traits in Louisiana populations, particularly the Acadian, which is his ancestry.
ASHG: How have you brought your work in genetics and the humanities to your community?
Dr. Doucet: For the past 25 years I’ve travelled around Louisiana delivering lectures and workshops about genetics, including those on the importance of the Acadian people to genetics studies, to a variety of audiences. I began as a postdoc at LSU Medical Center when the genetics department received a grant to conduct outreach with the Acadian population. Because of my Acadian last name, I was put on a team that held field clinics for communities where segregation of genetic disorders were suspected. An important seed was planted during this time, and after Hurricane Katrina our talks became spontaneous and grew because of our good track record. I’ve delivered close to 250 events since then.
Another side of my genetics life is in creative arts. I’ve written 13 plays with their subjects and settings typically involving Acadian history and the culture of wetlands Louisiana, and Every now and then infused with genetics concepts. For instance, one of my plays, Torn Pages is about a genetic disorder which appears in a small community and impacts the main characters’ lives in unexpected ways. In other plays, I infuse innocuous genetics scenarios, like: “You must get that from your momma”. I’ve also been writing a magazine column and I also write poetry with true scientific content in the correct context. One I’m particularly fond of, called “A Night or Two in Neander”, came about when reports of the Neanderthal content of the modern human genome first came out. The last two lines are written as: “With food and furs and all those deals / To grant my children new alleles”. That may be the first accurate use of the term “allele” in a modern English poem!
ASHG: What’s something you’d like to see more of and something you’d like to see less of in genetics education and engagement?
Dr. Doucet: A little genetics education sometimes is not enough. It’s rare to visit the same group for a follow-up, and so an educator or outreacher really needs to anticipate what an audience might presume or misconceive. I try to never leave a talk without correcting potential misconceptions. For instance, I’ll remind people that not everything genetic is a disease, and that when we speak of diseases in specific populations those incidences are still rare and not “rampant”, as one audience member once put it. And so, I’d like to see more emphases on addressing possible misconceptions and presumptions a priori—before the audience leaves the venue.
Something on the other hand I’d like to see less in outreach is what I would call lecturer-driven content. I remember as freshly-minted postdoc, trying to explain concepts to a community with my fancy slides only to watch eyes gloss over and eyelids fall. I realized soon that I was being true to my training and textbooks and not to their needs. Over time, I created carefully crafted originals based on my experiences of audience reaction. When speaking to a non-school audience, you really need to carefully weigh how deeply to go into a subject while sufficiently covering a concept. Remember, the audience will not go back to a textbook for further study. It’s an art, outreach is. It’s a craft. It takes some chiseling and sanding to make it appealing. And when you can walk away knowing you made the proper impact; it has its reward.
ASHG: What’s your best piece of advice for other people in genetics engagement?
Dr. Doucet: Embrace the diversity and background of the science of genetics. The more we understand those aspects the more we understand an audience’s background. And that allows us to explain things to them and engage them to a greater depth. When I applied to serve as a university administrator, I had to win-over the humanist faculty who were apprehensive of having a scientist in such a position. I explained that genetics is not just science. If a person studies the DNA of populations and individuals, he or she must eventually understand population history by considering sociology, anthropology, and geography. Likewise, endear a community by learning a bit of their history and culture.
ASHG: What’s the best memory you have of one of your educators when you were a student?
Dr. Doucet: I’ll offer two. First, was when one of my postdoctoral advisors invited me to be part of the team because she felt audiences of Louisiana would trust me to communicate with the Acadian people because my last name is Acadian. That was very impactful personally. It gave me an avenue not only to be a bench scientist–which for some can be a lonely profession–but also to engage with people whom our work was meant to help.
The second was when I was a brand-new graduate student and I was trying to share all my great ideas with my new major professor. Eventually, he said, “John, ideas are cheap.” Wow. That shut-off the pipeline immediately. He went on: “We all have bright ideas in this profession. The way to succeed is to make one or a few of those ideas come to life.” That comment was instructive and impactful and has stayed with me all these years. Whenever I engage a student who has wild ideas or is having trouble finishing his or her thesis or dissertation, that’s exactly what I tell them: Ideas are cheap. Make this happen.
ASHG: What’s the one thing you want the public to know about human genetics?
Dr. Doucet: After years of lecture tours in rural Louisiana, I found that all people have a very basic understanding of genetics. Difficulty in understanding starts when conditions and concepts have scientific names–almost as if a scientific term, no matter how logical, shuts understanding down. That’s a problem for us in education. We have to listen for understanding while appealing to be listened to. It’s crucial for the public to understand how important the study of genetics is to their health. Genetics is a long term proposition. It’s what we’re born with. It’s inside of cells. It’s obscure. You can’t take a pill to fix it. But it’s also not anything to be frightened of or shameful of or apprehensive to understand. So, public, know that we can’t progress in our studies without your help. So, let’s be friends. Let’s hear and thereby help one another.