Pity the person who makes the mistake of picking on Kieran O'Doherty. The polite
and seemingly unassuming UBC assistant professor holds a fourth-degree black belt
in karate, a discipline in which he has trained for more than twenty-five years.
Although it focuses on volatile combat techniques, for O'Doherty – a GE3LS researcher
at UBC's Centre for Applied Ethics (CAE) who explores social and ethical issues
associated with emerging biotechnologies such as biobanks and metagenomics – karate
is about much more than just fighting.
"It offers a structured program to continue a life-long process of self-improvement,"
explains O'Doherty, who began training at age 10, shortly after moving from Austria
to South Africa with his Irish father (hence O'Doherty's distinctly Irish name)
and Austrian mother. "Earlier on, I wanted to excel physically. I later became fascinated
with the history of martial arts and learning the subtlety of movement and technique
that has developed over centuries. In more recent years, I've enjoyed the community
that comes with the particular karate association I belong to. I also very much
appreciate the practical part of self-defence that comes with training."
O'Doherty's evolving interest in the art of karate has, in some ways, paralleled
his evolving interest in academia.
Fascinated with the physical world as his main "subject matter", O'Doherty started
out his academic career early on with a double major in chemistry and physics from
the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
"I was young and far less practical than I am now. I was more interested in knowledge
for knowledge's sake. I wanted to understand the physical world around me."
"I was a bit naïve. I had no clue whatsoever what the practical consequences of
studying certain subjects were, and what you could do for work with a basic BSc.
The jobs I could get with my chemistry and physics undergrad degree were not the
kind of jobs I was interested in. It was a bit of a wake-up call."
Over time, O'Doherty became equally interested in the more dynamic, human side of
life. So while working part-time as a karate instructor, he went back to university
part-time, obtaining the equivalent of a major in psychology. This was followed
by a one-year stint teaching English in Korea and travel throughout Europe. After
landing in Australia a few years later, O'Doherty decided it was "time to get serious
This new-found focus propelled O'Doherty to pursue graduate studies in psychology.
As part of his PhD, he conducted qualitative analyses of the language of risk and
uncertainty, using genetic counseling for familial cancer as a main case study.
Through a contact from his karate life, O'Doherty followed up a lead on a post-doctoral
position focused on consumer behaviour research at a telecommunications start-up
in Australia, called "mNet".
"It was unusual to do a post-doc within industry," says O'Doherty, who at that point
had just completed his PhD in psychology at the University of Adelaide, "but we
applied for a 'linkage grant' between academia and industry, which enabled me to
"The company was very progressive. We did a lot of concept testing on new innovative
products. We spoke to people to get their initial reactions. The work involved focus
groups, interviews, surveys."
Although working in industry wasn't quite O'Doherty's cup of tea (following the
one-year post-doc position, he was offered a permanent position, but left the firm
after 8 months to pursue positions in academia), his interest in qualitative research
continues to be a main passion.
"In most places in the world, qualitative research is marginalized. People think
it's not as good as having hard numbers. But, when it comes to science, often the
broader, societal kinds of questions we're looking at have to do with meaning and
value. Numbers are great, but if you want to understand what a technology means
to a community when it's introduced into that community, you need qualitative research."
Currently working with CAE colleagues Mike Burgess, Peter Danielson, Ed Levy and
Dan Weary on a variety of Genome Canada-funded GE3LS projects, including salmon
genomics, biobanking, bioremediation and metagenomics, O'Doherty specializes in
conducting deliberative public engagements to inform policy on the social and ethical
dimensions of emerging biotechnologies.
"I am currently working on bridging the gap between public or community consultation
and actual impact in policy and lived experience. New technologies and the various
policies that surround their implementation have real effects on people's lives.
We need to understand what those effects are, take what people tell us, and integrate
that into practical and sustainable policy decisions."
Although his BSc may seem like an unrelated chapter from his earlier life, it is
the bridge between his past interest in the physical world and his current interest
in the social world that fascinates O'Doherty the most.
"My background in science helps me to connect cutting edge natural science with
an understanding of the human element of that research."
Having crossed many continents in his life journey from Austria to Canada – by way
of South Africa, England and Australia – O'Doherty has a distinct and intriguing
accent that's hard to place. But just like his academic experience, which has crossed
the gulf between several disciplines, it is the sum total of his diverse past experiences
that makes Kieran O'Doherty so very distinct and intriguing.
Dr. Kieran O'Doherty
Areas of expertise and research
Qualitative methods (discourse analysis, discursive psychology), risk communication,
public engagement, consumer behaviour research, and social psychology. Specific
areas of interest include agency; social categorization; theory and methodology
in the social sciences; deliberative democracy; risk, probability, and uncertainty;
and the psychology of health and illness.
O'Doherty, K. (in press). Agency and Choice in Genetic Counseling: Acknowledging
Patient' Concerns. Journal of Genetic Counseling.
O'Doherty, K., & Burgess, M. (2009). Engaging the public on biobanks: Outcomes of
the BC Biobank Deliberation. Public Health Genomics, 12(4), 203-215.
O'Doherty, K., Navarro, D.J., & Crabb, S.H. (2009). A Qualitative Approach to the
Study of Causal Reasoning in Natural Language: The Domain of Genes, Risks and Cancer.
Theory and Psychology, 10(4), 475-500.
O'Doherty, K. & Augoustinos, M. (2008). Protecting the Nation: Nationalist rhetoric
on asylum seekers and the Tampa. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology,
Burgess, M., O'Doherty, K., & Secko, D. (2008). Biobanking in British Columbia:
Discussions of the Future of Personalized Medicine through Deliberative Public Engagement.
Personalized Medicine, 5 (3), 285-296.
O'Doherty, K. (2007). Implications of conflicting definitions of probability to
health risk communication: A case study of familial cancer and genetic counselling.
Australian Health Review, 31(1), 24-33.
O'Doherty, K. & Suthers, G. K. (2007). Risky communication: Pitfalls in counseling
about risk, and how to avoid them. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 16(4), 409-417.
O'Doherty, K. & LeCouteur, A. (2007). 'Asylum Seekers', 'Boat People' & 'Illegal
Immigrants': Social Categorization in the Media. Australian Journal of Psychology,
59 (1), 1-12.
O'Doherty, K. (2006). Risk Communication in Genetic Counselling: A discursive approach
to probability. Theory and Psychology, 16 (2), 225-256.