Professior of BioMedical Ethics, KU Leuven
‘You don’t just become a researcher behind your desk.’
‘In our spare time we are too often also a researcher. That is not my aim. It is important that there is a good balance between the different worlds; the different roles that people play in their lives.’
There is something pleasant about not-knowing something with the prospect of knowing something. Being curious is maybe the most interesting way to live your life. Recently our curiosity about the man behind the fascinating scientist Kris Dierickx was satisfied. In the framework of the personal development program BeyondU for OrganoVIR consortium partners are interviewed to create a mutual connection between people, teams, and generations within the ETN-project OrganoVIR.
Kris Dierickx (1964) is full professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Leuven. He serves as an ethicist in several ethics committees. He published articles in international journals and books on ethics in genetics, research ethics, regenerative medicine, research integrity, biobanks and reproductive medicine. He is partner in several national and international research consortia, like OrganoVIR. Last but not least there is a long list with names of PHD-Candidates he has guided and still is guiding with their doctoral research.
OrganoVIR is a European consortium of European universities, government agencies and commercial organizations jointly conducting research into virus infections with the help of human organoids. PHD-candidates from around the world have been selected for this project and are not only trained to become top scientists but are also offered a personal development program, BeyondU by the power of time off, to strengthen human capital, employability and competitiveness.
How does ethics impact (y)our personality and professional development?
‘That’s not an easy question, because you’re looking for a balance between your personal ethics, your personal development and your professional ethics. These do not always coincide. In my personal ethics I try to practice what I preach. You can set your goals as high or as low as you want based on your personal inspiration. In professional ethics you always have to consider the culture, the laws and unwritten rules of a particular profession, and you need to make compromises sometimes, which is something that you also have to do in your personal life by the way.
As a professional ethicist you look at what is achievable within a certain group; what is the ethos, how are things typically done? In that sense I find it a difficult task as an ethicist to come up with normative statements; that means to say how things should happen. To present certain expectations or criteria to a group of professionals. Of course this always happens in consultation with others, you never do this alone. This is based on extensive and carefully executed research. However, sometimes I wonder ‘who am I, who are we to be able to do that.’ I always find that to be a very delicate exercise because you’re actually asking or even demanding something from other people.
I still find it amazing when you take certain decisions within an ethics commission, for example in a hospital, and that everybody then follows this decision. I always find that a miracle. Half of an ethics commission in a hospital is made up of doctors and nurses, but in that sense you still have to be careful when you prohibit or prescribe certain things, or project your expectations, or set a certain goal. I always find that very difficult. That is sometimes a question that you’re asked: ‘where do you get the authority as ethics commission to do that?’ The answer is that the authority is always given as a sign of trust from a certain group. This is not because you are morally superior. It is always the same commission that can undo its previous decisions two years later in a different composition. It is not easy, also because you sometimes ask yourself ‘would I be happy with this decision if it impacted me personally? These decisions can be about life and death, sickness and health, wouldn’t I want to make an exemption for myself then?’.
With personal ethics the person, the ethics, and their life are very much intertwined. Personal ethics coincides much more with your identity, it is more about authenticity. With your personal ethics you say ‘for me these are important tools to help me make decisions in my personal life, but also in my professional dealing with other people. For this reason it is important that your personal ethics and your actions coincide as to not find yourself stuck in the middle.
In my own activities as a professional ethicist I do not find this to be the case because very often the choices that we make as a commission or as researcher do not impact ourselves directly. Imagine for example, when I’m writing advice about the beginning of life or about euthanasia – I will never give birth or get pregnant and when it comes to euthanasia I don’t have to ask myself that question, so it is very different from my personal decision-making. What makes professional ethics ‘professional’ is the fact that you always have to justify your decisions. You need to be able to rationalize and convince people. This is vastly different from personal ethics, where someone can for example decide that they will blindly live as a different person (for example when they start to follow an influencer). They don’t have to justify their personal choices.’
How can we relate this ethical dilemma to OrganoVIR?
‘When I apply ethics to our OrganoVIR project where we work on organoids you will see that there is currently an important discussion about the use of embryos for the production of organoids. Andrew Barnhart is also researching this. In Amsterdam they found a number of good reasons to work with embryos. It is possible that an ethics commission with members from different countries with different cultures would not allow the use of embryos. Imagine that you’re in such a commission and that you’re saying that the use of embryos in country A should be allowed, but the rest of the commission doesn’t agree. In that case you will have to set aside a part of your personal vision in order to stay loyal to the commission.’
Can you totally neglect your personality ethics in a professional ethical process?
‘You can never completely discount your personal ethics. The personal development program in the OrganoVIR project is valuable because it is an invitation to investigate and discover your personality ethics. The impact of ethics in nurturing your personality is immensely vast.
The PHD-candidates may or may not research embryos to construct organoids. Therefore it is an important step in the ethical decision-making process to make sure that the PHD-candidates are ready to state ‘this is where I stand personally on this matter’ after information has been shared.
Moral intuition is very strong. When it comes to ethical decision-making people follow their ethical intuition. That is something very personal, it has nothing to do with argumentation. Imagine that you’re absolutely in favor of abortion, and you are presented with 100 reasons for why abortion is bad for your psychological development. Despite all the arguments only a few people will change their mind on this matter. This shows that moral intuition, your gut feeling, is super important and in that sense it is also very important in the decision-making process of professional ethics, because then you know everyone’s opinion on the matter. It is possible that some particular information can make people change their mind. It is the art of a commission to find a set of coherent arguments. After all, waiting is not an option because in ethics not making a choice is also making a choice.
Take for example people who work with laboratory animals. There are many of these people who are concerned about the wellbeing of animals but are still willing to overrule their personal intuition because they know that there is a greater good, for example the health of humanity. However, this has its limitations. If the gap between your personal and professional ethics is too big and you’re confronted with this discrepancy on a daily basis then it is almost impossible. The tension must remain feasible, the tension between your personal beliefs and your professional work. In that sense, they are always inextricably linked, but they do not necessarily have to coincide. You can have a certain degree of dilemma there, but that cannot go on for too long.’
How did you become engaged in the OrganoVIR consortium?
‘Because of my research activities in the past, for example as a medical ethicist, I have been involved in tissue engineering and stem cell research, which are all the precursors of organoids. Via Johan Neyts and Dirk Jochmans I got in contact with Dasja Pajkrt and Katja Wolthers and the OrganoVIR consortium. I also thought that how the contact went was very characteristic of Katja and Dasja. I had never met them myself, but they just came to Leuven from Amsterdam for an afternoon to get to know me. They thought it was very important not only to see and discuss my CV, but also to know who they would be working with. What kind of person am I, do I fit in with the rest of the consortium and would they be happy to work with me? In my opinion that was a very important conversation.’
Does someone’s personality matter in a professional environment?
‘I personally value job interviews a lot. I am much more interested in who that person is and how they will behave within the research group than whether that person is a genius. All people who apply are often on the same level and then you really look at the persons themselves. That is why I think it is very important that within OrganoVIR they pay attention to the personal development of the ESRs, because then you develop better scientists. After all we are human and scientist.
We also know that within our university less than 10% of the people who start in the academia actually stay in the academia. The majority of people go to the private sector, to other places and therefore do not become full-time scientists. I think that out of respect for the ESRs, we should prepare them as well as we can during their 4-year training. In addition to being scientists, they must also have time to develop as human beings and to develop other skills.
What is it like to take a leadership role at a university?
‘As a supervisor you must be aware of the asymmetry in a research group or organization. As a supervisor you can say a little bit more than someone else, but you don’t look at “what do I think” but rather at “what is the right thing to do for the whole and for that person”.
I don’t know if I’m a good leader, because you can never do everyone justice. As a leader you always fall short and I don’t find that easy. Within a university I don’t think you can be a leader by shouting loudly or by punishing people and making demands. I think in universities, leaders should be more like “people whisperers” – I’d like to be more so.
In my first years as a promoter, I probably was more focusing on the maximum outcome of research., I wanted PHD researchers to do the best they could, for both the welfare of the project and the welfare of the PHD student. Sure, the supervisor also has his/her responsibility, but the PHD student has his/her own responsibility. – I think that’s a delicate balance. It is also strongly personal. Some people like to have a slightly stronger hand, others you have to give space and I always think that is a quest. Sometimes, only after 4 years, when they are finished, I see how they really work.’
Which experience has had a big impact on your life?
It has a lot to do with luck. I don’t know if you know the comics of Asterix and Obelix, they have a magic potion that makes you very strong. And Obelix fell into that pot of potion as a baby, so he never had to drink it again. All other villagers have to drink that drink when they fight, but not Obelix. I feel like I have fallen in a magic potion that gives me luck. I have been very lucky in my life and of course you have to work and be ready to receive luck – or surrender to the luck. But if you are ready and there is no vacancy, you can be as ready as you want, but you will not get that job. When I look back in my life, I am grateful that I was so lucky. For example, I am always lucky with the weather when I go on vacation. My wife and I always say to people, “If you want good weather when you travel, take us with you.”
I am also very lucky that I come from a warm nest so to speak. I have been very lucky with my wife Sabine. I think she is my main factor of luck. She also ensures that the balance I talked about in the beginning, between private and professional life, is maintained. She also gives me many opportunities and she makes me feel loved, which gives me confidence. I was also lucky that I could study easily.
Something that marked me very strongly… ..in my early years we had mandatory military service in Belgium. And then you could choose between 10 months in the army in Germany, 12 months in the army in Belgium or two years in the peace corps. I chose the peace corps and worked in Congo and I am always happy that I did. It has broadened my view of the world. I came from a warm, protected family and that was suddenly a whole different world. At home we had no material problems and then you enter a completely different world where people lead completely different lives. And yet the people in Congo also had a very joyful life. For my preparation I had to follow a compulsory education and there we were told that as a young 20-year-old you thought you were going to change the world, but that you would ultimately do this job for yourself. In Congo I did two things: on the one hand I taught in some kind of college and on the other hand I was busy with developmental projects that were already underway. I was involved in rice projects, raising pigs and weighing children. I have only shifted a little pebble in that river, especially in my own life, probably not so much in the lives of the people there, but it has given me an enduring sense of solidarity with those people from the south, the lower income countries.
Something that also really marked me is my family, my children. They are a gift that help you to be human – that there is someone who is concerned about your well-being and the wider well-being of the children, but also of the local community that you live in.
I was diagnosed with melanoma cancer five years ago. It was grade IV, the highest grade and more than 90% of the people who received that diagnosis at that time died within that year. I was terrified of dying – then I realized how badly I wanted to live, because I absolutely did not want to die. And then I was also very lucky that people worked for me to gain access to experimental medication that was not approved at the time. The therapy I received then worked very well with me. I was 51 years old at the time and I realized that I loved to live so much. You especially don’t want to let go of your loved ones, two of our boys were still in high school back then and the oldest was just in university, and you don’t want to miss it all. With such a diagnosis you also list your own priorities – what do you want to do in the number of months you still have? I was then able to determine that I no longer had to do anything per se – I had lived the life I had dreamed of. Of course, you always have small things that you would like to have done differently, but my bucket list was actually empty. It ended well in the end, but I felt incredibly grateful, I felt privileged to have been able to lead such a life. What I have left is that I feel lucky that I have gained days, months and years again. It has marked me enormously as a person and also as a scientist.
Another thing that has marked me is the loss of loved ones in our lives. My mother-in-law passed away 25 years ago. She was just under 70 and that was my wife and mine first encounter with mortality. Then my wife Sabine and I said “Yes OK, apparently things can go fast”. We then said “what do we not want to postpone until we retire? What do we actually want to do? “And we then decided on 2 priorities, in addition to our responsibility as parents and as professionals.
The first was to draw attention to people in the south, which had to do with my previous experience in Congo. So I always try to have 1 or 2 people in my research group who get fewer opportunities than the people here. I also try, if I have to choose between a conference in hip city A or a training in Morocco, to choose that training. Those are small things, that’s how I try to support things financially. The second choice has to do with my PHD. My PHD was about genetic testing and screening and its ethical aspects. There I was first confronted with parents who received news that their child had a disability. My wife had also worked regularly for the disabled community during her college years.
Then we took a bold step and went to Jean Vanier’s Ark community. In an Ark community, people with disabilities live together with their care-takers, but the care-takers are more like friends. We then indicated that we wanted to help and they indicated that they wanted to relieve all their employees once a month so they were looking for a day care for all their residents. We were then introduced to Chris, a young man who has the mental age of a 4 year old. Chris cannot speak, he is autistic, he has a set of limitations. The question was whether we could take Kris home one weekend a month. We are a very verbal family at home and we thought, “How’s that going to work? Someone who cannot speak at our house? “We said yes, of course, but more out of good will than out of conviction that things would go well. However, in the end it is a huge blessing. After 20 years, Chris still comes to us 1 weekend a month, from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. He has his own room with us and as a family we actually find that we interact in a nicer way when Chris is around than when he is not there. So Chris has contributed enormously to the culture of our family. That is also the philosophy of the Ark: “you give to them but they also give to you”.
That arrangement every month is very nice. That was not possible during the corona lock down – we really missed him then. Chris has become our fourth son. He no longer has a family to take care of him – he still has a mother, but she never sees him and she really can’t take care of herself. That monthly reminder that you have to interact in a very pleasant way, because Chris feels the atmosphere within a family very well. He is happy when it is fun, but he curses when he feels that there are tensions. In that sense, Chris is also a kind of barometer of our family.’
Wisdom to share with us?
‘Count your blessings and look at the bright side of life. You can always look at all the things that you don’t have yet, but you should focus on the things that you do have.’
With many thanks to Kris Dierickx, Amsterdam/Leuven, September 2020
By Angelica Reitsma, OrganoVIR and Ingrid Valks, the power of time off.
BeyondU is a state-of-the-art personal development program with a strong focus on developing new human skills. Upskilling people, teams and organizations to live and work healthy and happy, to be better prepared for 21st century challenges and to unleash potential. The program strengthens human capital, employability and competitiveness.
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