New Staff Q and A with Shawna Benston, JD, MBE, Director of Programs

July 25, 2022

What attracted you to this position? What are you most excited about in joining the Division of Ethics? 

Sjawna Benstoin Headshot

There's so much! But let me start by saying that I've long valued the multi- and interdisciplinarity of bioethics, and of ELSI in particular, both as an interpretive lens and as in itself an ethical commitment. I see the Division of Ethics, with its multi-pronged mission and extensive and growing programming, as embodying the best bioethics can achieve, both intellectually and culturally. So I’m eager to join this excellent team in providing higher-education opportunities in the field, contributing to relevant policies and innovative research and events, and promoting justice and equity. More specifically, the position of Director of Programs will allow me to synthesize my academic backgrounds of bioethics (with a primary focus on ELSI), law, and humanities with my experience as an administrative leader and program developer. I'm really excited about working at that intersection.

What has been your trajectory (education, work experience) that has brought you to the Division of Ethics?

My own academic and career trajectories seemed initially circuitous, but in hindsight I see them as mirroring the very multi- and interdisciplinary nature of bioethics that I just referenced. I started off as a humanist, double-majoring in English and Classics and then earning my masters in Classics. Thereafter, I began learning about the field of bioethics; my interest in and, ultimately, passion for this field was solidified while I completed the intensive program at the Yale Summer Institute In Bioethics (YSIB). It was there that I learned in depth about how to build a meaningful career that gives back to critically important areas of our world by studying and contributing to policies in the areas of human biomedicine, the environment, and human-animal relations. You might say that I started at YSIB to link what I learned from literature to the disciplines of bioethics, coming to perceive that the "human" arises in a network of relations––ecological, inter-species, social, and personal (including the person's relation to their own genetic composition). I was also so fortunate to teach in that program for six summers and work with everyone from the program director to alumni to, of course, the wonderful students.

Right after completing that intensive program, I went on to earn my masters of bioethics and my JD to ready myself for a career in bioethics. As Editor-in-Chief of my law journal, the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, I focused on the intersection of law and bioethics, with a sub-focus on bioethics mediation. Following a short stint as a disability lawyer, I completed my postdoctoral fellowship in ELSI at Columbia, during which my research centered on CRISPR gene-editing technology. Throughout this time of education and practice, I focused my research more generally on ethical concerns at the beginning and end of life, as well as on bioethics mediation, narrative medicine, and patient autonomy.

After I completed my fellowship, I joined Columbia’s Office of Research Compliance & Training, where I concentrated on educational programming in the areas of research compliance and research ethics. I was fortunate to enjoy the opportunity of starting two speaker series––one that uses documentary and science fiction films as tools for discussion of research ethics and compliance, and one centering on the responsible and ethical conduct of research.

Now, joining the Division of Ethics as Director of Programs, I’m really enthusiastic about bringing together my experience in program development and academic event planning with my long-running dedication to the field of bioethics, in order to serve this dynamic and growing Division.

What makes this work meaningful to you?

Well, I think commitments to ethical concerns always derive from personal experience and perception, the way we've encountered the world and the mixed potential for good and harm we see in it. But like everyone who works in this Division, I'm inspired by the ways that work at the intersection of research and shared learning can generate fresh insights that improve both science and the broader society. To work with a team fully dedicated to those kinds of values is a rare privilege.

What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?

I love working with and supporting members of the community at all points in the career trajectory: undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, early career and seasoned faculty, and staff and administration working to create valuable educational programming and events. I've seen how these folks are links in developmental story that improves all of us in common cause.

Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?

The well-being of critters, from those in my household (including my newly adopted cat, Dandelion) to those I'll never see or meet but who need our help.