Dr Michelle Rourke is a CSIRO Synthetic Biology Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Law Futures Centre. We asked Michelle about her academic career so far, upcoming projects and how the disciplines of science and law intersect. 

Tell us about your journey into academia, and what first sparked your interest in biology and genetics?

I always worry that when we tell stories about career journeys we tend to leave out the missteps, the jobs we didn’t get and the jobs we were bad at. It makes it sound more deliberate than it ever was. In a lot of ways, I just followed my interests and opportunities as they arose, tried to pivot when circumstances changed, and there was a lot of luck thrown in the mix. 

My interest in genetics grew out of the fact that I was a ginger kid born to two dark-haired parents. Learning Mendelian genetics and working through Punnett squares in high school helped me work that one out. I studied microbiology and immunology at the ANU, joined the Army as a research scientist, did my doctorate on science and international law at Griffith Law School and I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow for the CSIRO and Griffith. That’s the version of events that makes it seem like I might have planned it that way! 

‘In a lot of ways, I just followed my interests and opportunities as they arose…there was a lot of luck thrown in the mix’

Can you explain a little about how the regulation of access to genetic resources impacts the synthetic biology community?

Biologists use all sorts of genetic resources in their research. This includes genes and proteins from different organisms, cells from plants and animals, and microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and viruses.  

Under international law, countries have “sovereign rights” (essentially a type of ownership) over their genetic resources. This means that scientists need permission from the country of origin to access and use sovereign genetic resources, and in return, the scientists may need to share the benefits of their research with the country of origin. This is known as “access and benefit sharing” and every country implements their access laws in different ways. That means if scientists want to use multiple genetic resources from different countries, they’ll need to follow the various laws. It can get pretty complicated! 

Then there is synthetic biology – this is about making biology more like an engineering discipline. Synthetic biologists can modify the genetic resources found in nature to make novel genetic parts and build new biological devices and systems using those parts. They can use genetic sequence data and artificial intelligence to come up with entirely new biological parts and devices that aren’t found in nature. Because synthetic biologists use genetic resources in fragmented and abstract ways, it’s not yet clear how international access and benefit sharing laws apply to their research.

Photo of Dr Michelle Rourke standing in front of a United Nations building

Image courtesy of Dr Michelle Rourke

As a scientist who has completed a PhD through Griffith Law School and is now working within the Law Futures Centre, what is it like working across the disciplines of science and law? Are there ways that the study of law and science complement each other? 

Moving from the sciences into law was a learning curve for me. Not only do the two worlds speak different languages, they also think differently. I came from a Western scientific perspective that sees science as a means of determining empirical truth. The law is very much a social construct, and learning about the law has forced me to think differently about objectivity and subjectivity (and positivism and constructivism). These different worldviews are usually framed in opposition to each other, but they can definitely be complementary if you keep an open mind.  

The interdisciplinary research environment is what attracted me to Griffith University in the first place. I wanted to do my PhD with specialist in law and biotechnology. But it’s not just biotechnology—the Law Futures Centre also has a broad interest in how the law interacts with science and technology and what that means for the future. 

Do you have any advice for how researchers from one discipline can communicate effectively with peers from another?

‘…different disciplines take different concepts for granted…you’re not always going to be able to deliver (the key message) in the same way.’

I know it’s a total cliché, but knowing your audience and adjusting the message for your audience is so important. The different disciplines take different concepts for granted, so even if you have the same key message to deliver, you’re not always going to be able to deliver it in the same way. You’ve got to have a good sense of what details to skip over, and when to go deep on certain concepts. I’m not going to spend five minutes explaining what a gene is to a group of scientists, but it’s worth putting in that extra time when talking to lawyers and legal scholars. By the same token, I usually go deep on the meaning of sovereign rights when I’m talking to scientists, but that’s not necessary with lawyers.  

What are some of the projects you are currently working on?

 I’m currently keeping an eye on developments on the regulation of virus samples under the new Pandemic Treaty with Dr Mark Eccleston-Turner from King’s College London and Dr Stephanie Switzer from the University of Strathclyde. And I’m working with Professor Charles Lawson (Griffith Law School) and Dr Frances Humphries (QUT) on international environmental law, biodiversity management and the regulation of the biosciences. We just published an edited collection with contributions from experts around the world that explores some of the big issues in access and benefit sharing. It’s a field that’s in flux at the moment and there are a lot of issues left to unpack!