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'You wouldn’t normally experience this, as a scientist'

Published on
February 5, 2024

A few times a year, PhD candidate Sophie van der Vlugt swaps the laboratory for the theatre. On stage, she talks enthusiastically about her DNA research and engages the audience in a conversation about the ethical aspects of her work. How should society deal with creating new life in the lab?

Van der Vlugt will be on stage five times in 2023 and 2024, as part of a lecture series about science. Each performance consists of interactive lectures in which scientists from different universities talk about their research field in an accessible way. With this series, the Universiteit van Nederland foundation wants to bring science closer to the public.

Tough dilemmas

In her research, Van der Vlugt incorporates new building blocks into the genetic code. These molecules are introduced into a cell through a virus, to see how that cell responds to them. The molecules do not occur in nature, but are chemically produced in a laboratory. ‘It is very interesting as fundamental research, to better understand how life works,' explains Van der Vlugt. 'And in the future, we can do all kinds of things with it. We are adding new letters to the alphabet of DNA, so to speak, which could potentially allow us to make new life functions. With that, we could develop drugs and materials, for example.'

Creating new life forms, as Van der Vlugt does, raises all sorts of tricky questions. 'Such a semi-synthetic organism, is that life? Who does that life belong to then? And when is it safe enough? Those are complicated dilemmas. I don't have the answers to them either, but I think it's important that we think about them at a societal level.' As a scientist, she realises that her research could have big implications. 'It's just like with AI: if a technology develops fast enough, regulations cannot keep up.'

It is precisely these kinds of ethical issues that Van der Vlugt wants to discuss with the audience. Not only during the lecture, but also afterwards: 'After the lecture, I stand in the foyer with an ideas box. I often get very nice reactions. Some people have crazy ideas that are biologically or chemically impossible,' she laughs. 'Others have reservations about research, or think we are playing God. Someone wondered whether continuing to develop techniques to extend human life is desirable at all. I hadn't looked at it that way myself.'

Tension and enthusiasm

Van der Vlugt thoroughly enjoys her performances. 'When I walk on stage, I feel tension, but also a lot of enthusiasm. It's a cool challenge to make such a complex subject matter understandable to everyone. And it's socially important.' Van der Vlugt isn’t quite sure what she’ll do after her PhD. But science communication continues to fascinate her: 'I find it a privilege to share knowledge.'