The nature of her work means that Güneş is fascinated with what she describes as “the emotional, ideological and intellectual relationship” that we have with our genomes. The intellectual relationship recognises that the genome is a collection of molecules, that it’s inheritable, and so on. “But the significance of a genome to a person doesn’t come from those molecules, it’s to do with what we associate with them. What does that mean for us as people, and what does that mean about family? That’s where we really interact with the concept of the genome.”
This is what she recognises as the emotional relationship. “How do people feel when you tell them that a large proportion of their being can be attributed to something that was there from the second they were one cell? How do we process that kind of thing?” The ideological relationship has more political and philosophical implications and emerges from the emotional and intellectual. “What does this actually mean about me in relation to society and everything else? And how do I choose to intellectualise that in terms of politics?” It’s clear from early on in our conversation that science, for Güneş anyway, doesn’t just belong in a lab but rather collides loudly with our understanding (or lack thereof) of what it means to be human.
She describes science, in its truest form, as a methodology of thinking. “A lot of people are scientists, not just the people in research laboratories. You can be a scientist if you employed a scientific method to address a question.” For Güneş, science is also freedom and fun and it’s completely changed her life. She was fifteen when she decided to be a scientist and leave her home in Turkey to live with her step-grandparents near Bristol. “I decided I was going to pursue this. And I went to university, did human genetics, I did a PhD and I’m the postdoc I always wanted to be now.” She describes how science has shaped over half her life. “Pursuing this has made me far more resilient, gritty and focused. I’ve had to become much stronger than I was before, in a good way. Rising to that challenge every day is something that can be exhausting and tiring, but it is also incredibly rewarding.”
As a journalist working from home, whose experiments begin and end with what I’m going to rescue from the fridge for lunch, I want to know what a typical (if it can even be called that) day in the life of a postdoctoral training fellow at the Francis Crick Institute looks like. “I have the best job in the world,” she grins, “because I get to answer questions that I think are interesting and our days are very varied.”
At the moment, Güneş is working on finding a molecular mechanism that is crucial for the cells that make up the ovary to make that decision. “It’s really relevant to humans as well. There’s a human syndrome that causes super premature ovarian failure associated with one of these genes that I’m studying. I’m honing in on what it’s doing. If I crack that I might be able to shed some light on what happens in terms of that condition, which also tells us something about how normal ovarian depletion happens in everybody else. It’s quite an applicable piece of information, or at least I hope it’s going to be.”
There is some speculation, predominantly from non-scientists, that gene editing and modification have dangerous societal implications. Has anyone ever asked her if she’s playing God? “No, no one’s ever said that to me. I’m not sure my inner megalomaniac could handle it too well if they did!”
What does Güneş have to say about the technology? “I’m completely partisan, I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to science. Does it sometimes get used inappropriately? Yes, that’s the same with any tool. I think what’s often forgotten, and this is my little drum that I bang, is that genome editing has improved the precision with which scientists can do experiments. So, the clarity of answers that scientists can derive, at least in terms of biology, and development especially, has improved. If you have improved information about how human beings develop, for example, you’ll be in a much better place to make educated guesses and experiments for conditions that we care about. It’s for the science that the benefits are the most obvious and tangible and real.”
I ask Güneş what she thinks the future of reproduction looks like. “How long have you got?” She pauses. “Modern society as we know it is premised on the advancement of contraceptives. Without contraceptives, women aren’t free to be part of the labour market. That’s basically what stops women from being pregnant all the time. We already live in a world that’s shaped by that.” Along with the development of contraceptives, women are increasingly choosing to become mothers later in life. “There are certain limits, currently anyway, to how ovaries function and how long they are able to do what they need to do. The future of how we reproduce and the conditions under which we do that is going to shape how our society unfolds.”