New Staff Q&A with Lucas J. Matthews, PhD

April 26, 2024

Welcome Lucas J. Matthews, who are you? 

I am a newly appointed Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities & Ethics in the Columbia University Division of Ethics and a Presidential Scholar at The Hastings Center. 

What research questions interest you? 

  • What is the nature of the relationship between DNA and complex human behavioral traits and outcomes, such as ‘Educational Attainment’?

  • What are the potential risks and harms of misinterpreting or misusing genetic information related to education?

  • How can we ensure that future applications of education-related genomics mitigate potential harms and maximize benefits for all of us?

What led you to this position, what has been your academic/career trajectory? 

I started in philosophy because I have always been drawn to the really hard questions about human existence and the nature of reality – I received a BA and an MA in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. As a PhD student at the University of Utah, my research focused on philosophy of science: what kinds of methods and evidence do geneticists use to justify and support scientific claims about evolutionary processes?

After the PhD, I wanted to get my hands dirty: I landed a job as a postdoc in a human behavior genetics laboratory in the Dept. of Psychology at the University of Virginia. That’s where I got deeply familiar with the strengths and limitations of recent scientific efforts to predict educational outcomes from DNA.

It was that understanding of scientific strengths and (particularly) limitations that led me – full circle – all the way back to really hard questions, this time ethical: what are the potentially harmful downstream social and psychological implications of new genetic technologies, such as polygenic scores for ‘math ability’? I began to address those questions during a second postdoc, this time in the Columbia University Center for ELSI Research. Today I still write philosophy papers, but now I also write 'bioethics-y' papers, grants, and design and conduct scientific experiments. I still haven’t answered any of the hard questions… 

What are you most excited about in joining the Division of Ethics? 

Firstly: new colleagues! My new mentors and colleagues are some of the most impressive and prolific research scholars – and they, like me, tackle the really hard ELSI questions from an inspiring range of academic disciplines and backgrounds. I’m very excited about future research collaborations.

But also: new students! Medical Humanities & Ethics offers courses for Columbia students, courses that I am so happy are available to today. I’m really excited about the opportunity to work with students who are motivated by the same questions as me and my colleagues. With that in mind: I want to start a lab and I am looking to recruit young hungry minds to help me design experiments and analyze data. I will also be hiring a Research Assistant in due course – if you know anyone who might be interested, have them reach out to me at

Outside of work, what is something you are passionate about?

Three things: 

i) Chess: I am president of a local chess club in Beacon, NY

ii) Martial arts: I have been training my whole life, everything from boxing and wrestling to judo and jiu-jitsu; 

iii) The Great Outdoors: I once started a friction fire with four pieces of wood and a shoe-string.