This is the second of my interview articles, this time with Professor Alan McHughen, who has recently published a fascinating book, “DNA Demystified.” As the title suggests, the book delves into what is DNA and how it became a part of the technology of our modern world.
I have had a chance to meet Alan McHughen at a Taco Tuesday science gathering, just before COVID-19 stopped all social interactions. Because of his new book and because he has a fascinating background, I asked Dr. McHughen to do a quick interview with your not-so-humble, ancient, anti-quack raptor.
Who is Alan McHughen?
I’m a public academic scientist at the University of California – Riverside with an interest in DNA and genetics.
You once worked for Barack Obama? That’s fascinating, tell us something about that. What did you do?
I was recruited and hired as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in President Barack Obama’s White House. Although it was a temporary position (almost everyone employed in the WH is temporary, remember. Even the President), I had a nice office in the Old Executive Office Building (Now called EEOB, aka Eisenhower Bldg.), reviewing policy documents for scientific rigor before they went to the Oval Office for the President’s signature.
I found out they hired me because I had published a paper severely criticizing some US science policies as being devoid of scientific sense. Instead of being angry or defensive, OSTP agreed with my arguments and wanted me to join them.
So, you’re a Canadian by birth, I believe from Halifax, and you eventually got to Riverside, CA? What were you thinking? How did you get from there to there?
I attended Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia for my undergrad degree and, when I was nearing completion and preparing my documents to apply to grad school, I sent the first draft to the University of Oxford as a joke, because I was not a great student, before applying to schools more likely to accept me.
Oxford fooled me by letting me in. Once I got my doctorate, I was offered a fellowship at Yale, where I continued my research and also had a non-tenure track Lecturer position. Yale itself was great, but the community was oppressively depressing. I’d never before encountered such insidious, overt racism. Not that racism didn’t exist in Canada or England – it did and still does– but this was a whole new ballgame.
So, to escape, I took the first job offer, and that was from the University of Saskatchewan, a place I’d never been before taking the job. I endured 20 winters there, building my family and career before getting the chance to move to the University of California– Riverside.
I was hesitant about moving back to the States, fearing the racist environment would be as stultifying in California as it was in New England. But it wasn’t. UCR was and is a wonderful place, with the most helpful, supportive, and congenial colleagues anywhere. And little evident racism.
(Ed. note – Professor Alan McHughen has not indicated whether he misses poutine or not. I have heard he loves it, so Canadians should send truckloads of that nasty food to his office.)
You’re probably a Maple Leafs ice hockey fan. Do you realize that the Stanley Cup hasn’t been to Canada in like 25 years?
No, I’m a Ducks and Kings fan. The Maple Leafs haven‘t won the Stanley Cup since they decided to save money by employing cheap, predominantly European players half a century ago. (Ed. note – for those interested in hockey that’s some tough criticism of the Leafs. They deserved it.)
The leading US-based teams who regularly win the Cup, including the Ducks and Kings, still build their teams around the top (but expensive), Canadian players.
You recently published a book, DNA Demystified. What is it about?
DNA is a hot topic in social media, news reports, and TV shows. People hear about how DNA applications are doing amazing things, from identifying cold case criminals to solving historical mysteries to overcoming dreaded diseases. But while this coverage is exciting, it’s also necessarily shallow, with few details of how DNA was used to address these issues.
So those aspects remain mysterious. DNA Demystified reveals, in layman’s terms, what DNA is and how it is used to solve crimes, link distant cousins, and produce life-saving medicines, among other diverse applications. I also make an effort to provide citations and links for those wishing more information, including technical references to the scientific literature, as well as popular press links for those not ready or not interested in the technical details.
Who might be interested in your book?
Over my career, I’ve gained a reputation for being able to explain complex science to non-experts in a way they could understand while remaining scientifically accurate. So I wrote the book mainly for non-scientists interested in learning more about DNA, with language not too technical, but still scientifically valid.
But I was surprised to learn a second group included people who already know something about DNA, perhaps they even work with DNA – for example in forensics or genealogy, but have not had the basic foundation to understand what they were doing, and are now too embarrassed to ask those ‘simple’ questions. For these folks, it’s like a broadly based DNA and genetics refresher course.
How did you get interested in DNA, genetics, and genetically modified foods?
I became fascinated by DNA when I was in high school and never wavered. Learning recombinant DNA and other molecular genetics techniques in University, many of my fellow students were headed for careers in the medical field.
At the time (late 70s early 80s), we knew that genetic engineering would have a great impact on medicine and in agriculture. I thought that if we all went into medical careers, agriculture would be left out, and there are still too many hungry and malnourished people around the world suffering needlessly.
So, even though I was a city kid with no farm background, I chose to apply DNA technologies to making higher-quality foods, safer foods and produced in a more sustainable manner. Was that the right decision?
You seem to have a nuanced and reasonable stance about GMO crops while also helping develop policy on it. Can you briefly discuss your thoughts about the risks and benefits of GMOs?
I’ve taken my job as a public scientist and educator, responsible for protecting the public good, seriously. That means critically assessing products of policies, weighing both the risks and the benefits, before reaching a recommendation or conclusion. Like everything else, GMO crops have both risks and benefits, but there are no documented risks unique to GMOs (i.e., risks that are not also seen in conventional or organic versions of the same crop).
Science cannot and does not categorically state GMOs are absolutely safe or entirely risky. Weighing risks and benefits requires evaluating the features of each one separately in comparison with the non-GMO version it will compete against in the market. GMO crops and foods have been grown since 1988 and eaten since 1995, and in that time, there is not a single documented case of harm attributed to any GMO.
So, do you choose foods in a store if they’re GMO-free?
The only foods that have not been genetically modified by human hands are growing in the wild; they are generally not available in stores. Even corn was genetically modified by native Americans over thousands of years. I avoid any foods labeled as GMO-free, as that claim is a simple marketing scam. I also avoid overpriced foods, and they tend to have, coincidentally or not coincidentally, meaningless labels including ‘GMO-free’.
What do you think about organic foods?
I support farmers seeking to serve specialty markets and consumers seeking specialty products. The organic segment can, if chosen carefully, fit well into serving both.
Where the organic industry went off the rails was when they started to lie about their competition, conventional farmers, and foods. Rigorous scientific studies consistently show organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional, are not safer or better for the environment, and organic crops are sprayed with chemicals including pesticides.
But the organic industry can play an important – and lucrative– role in the world food supply. That is, organic food is best placed to provide specialty varieties unsuitable for mainstream products, like unusual apples or distinctive tomatoes that do not perform well enough for mass cultivation.
Just tell us one more story about working for President Obama. Please.
The White House campus is actually several buildings interconnected underground. And most White House employees work late hours. In spite of rumors otherwise, President Obama was well-liked by the nonpartisan staff, and one of the perks of the job was seeing President Obama wandering the halls of EEOB and stopping to chat, however casually and briefly, with the night owl workers.
I’m not sure the current occupant follows that practice, but it sure helped raise morale in the Obama administration.
So, Professor Alan McHughen, what other scientific issues of the day are of concern to you? Vaccines? COVID-19?
Science illiteracy is dividing our society into those who understand scientific thinking and principles, and those who don’t. You don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate and employ scientific, aka critical, thinking skills, and, as a consumer advocate, I enjoy helping non-scientists understand how to avoid being tricked.
I’ve seen too many people scammed into voting against their personal best interests, only because they didn’t evaluate arguments critically. The topics range from vaccines to climate change to genetic engineering and GMOs. The quality of the public side of the debate on all of these issues is terrible, due to misinformation and disinformation doled out by those with a political agenda and who (often) know the truth, but that truth is inconvenient to their agenda, so they conceal and distort it to garner support from those who do not think critically.
I’m not advocating turning everyone into a scientist, but rather I encourage critical thinking skills, so people will be better able to evaluate information and withstand the scammers trying to sell them on an agenda contrary to their best interests.
I want to thank Professor Alan McHughen for the time he took to answer my questions, which were both scientifically serious and hockey.
If you are interested in Dr. McHughen’s book, you can find it on Amazon, either dead-tree or Kindle versions.