Associate Dean and LABS Director Teneille Brown shares passion for researching and expanding student opportunities

May 21, 2024 | Faculty

by Lindsay Wilcox

Professor Teneille Brown, a white woman with long, light-brown hairTeneille Brown, associate dean for research and faculty development and the director of the Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences (LABS), recalls first becoming interested in healthcare law when she was seven and her sister had several open-heart surgeries for a congenital heart defect.

"I remember that her cardiologist recommended that our family 'get a lawyer' in case she needed to be listed for an organ donation. Thankfully, she did not, and she is thriving. But that suggestion was wild to my little brain. How could a lawyer assist this medical situation?" Brown says. "I’ve been fascinated by the role of law, regulation and advocacy in healthcare ever since."

After studying bioethics and the history of medicine as an undergraduate, Brown worked in a pediatric HIV clinic and took every medicine and law course she could at the University of Michigan Law School.

"One involved medical students teaching us about medicine while we taught them about how to construct oral arguments," Brown recalls. "I also dabbled in FDA law after law school at [global law firm] Latham & Watkins, representing early-stage device manufacturers. It was fun to see the parties cooperating toward the same goal."

Brown also completed three post-doctoral fellowships at Stanford, which she says opened her eyes to how bioethics could be a practice and not just an academic pursuit.

"I sat on the ethics committee at Stanford Hospital and was able to listen as ethicists helped resolve incredibly complex patient problems, ranging from how to honor the autonomy of a patient with dissociative personality disorder to how to change the transplant policy so it does not replicate social biases," she says. "At the law school, I learned what it is that law professors actually do (answer: read and let their brain run in circles before trying to address a problem—perfect for me!)."

Stanford was also the epicenter of the Law and Neuroscience Project, which was just beginning while Brown was there, so it was an exciting time to be in the Bay Area.

"I was able to sit in rooms while giants in neuroscience, philosophy and law debated topics such as free will, the punishment of psychopaths, and whether the rules of evidence were out of step with cognitive psychology. My mentor, Hank Greely, has built a lovely national community around law and the biosciences. I hope to continue that at S.J. Quinney College of Law," Brown says.

Today, Brown's research draws on social psychology to inform evidence and tort law.

"It has been incredibly rewarding to identify interesting research questions and then collaborate with psychology, philosophy and neuroscience experts (with very different skill sets from mine) from all over the world. In this way, I keep learning new content areas and methodologies, and I think it makes all of our work more relevant and stronger," she says. "I also do work on the use of genetics in criminal trials, the under-regulation of genetic technologies, and some stuff on reproductive rights and informed consent."

Since Brown digs deep in her literature reviews, she approaches her research from multiple angles and disciplines.

"I can almost never say 'This is the first paper of its kind to do X,' but rather than going for novelty, I go for depth and nuance. I try not to chase hot topics that might place well and instead focus on the questions that matter deeply to me and that seem like the most difficult puzzles to solve," Brown explains.

She notes that the law review publication process is the most challenging part of her job, because it incentivizes scholars to write for areas covered by the 1L curriculum.

"It’s very unintellectual and game-y. I think when most law students see 'genetics' or 'neuroscience' in one of my abstracts, they run far, far away," Brown says. "So getting over that hurdle is tricky, especially given my target audience. It has pushed me in many cases to not write law review articles, but instead write in peer-reviewed journals. That said, it feels really good to have the space in a law review article to be exceptionally thorough in your treatment of a topic."

With her administrative roles as dean and LABS director, Brown now has less time for teaching and is missing that, but she is enjoying mentoring LABS fellows.

" This year, [recent graduate] Sarah Duensing presented our research on laypeople’s attitudes toward the use of biobanks in criminal investigations at our law review symposium, and she will also be presenting at Columbia in June," Brown says. "Our students are amazing. They keep me on my toes and inspire me."

With a focus on securing funding to have either post-doctoral fellows or student fellows in the LABS program, Brown has been applying for grants from SAGE and The Greenwall Foundation Brown and is also working on alternative methods of growing the center.

"We host talks periodically throughout the year, and students should sign up for the LABS Colloquium in the spring," she says. "One of the projects I’m really excited about is using some insights from social psychology to reform jury selection—to make jury pools more diverse. I am also on a Brain Initiative grant where we are researching the ethical and legal implications of having brain-implanted devices that record the formation of memories in real time. I’m working more on the psychology of racialized trait inferences with two social psychologists, and a follow-up study on when children might be capable of the kind of foresight that is expected in negligence/tort law."

Brown also enjoys being part of the LABS community, which she calls "incredible."

"There are very few places in the world where you can be surrounded by exceptional law students, compassionate colleagues, a top-notch research hospital, a strong neuroscience, philosophy and psychology department, and a judiciary that cares deeply about legal reform," she says. "I feel like there are not many places in the world where I could do this work with such supportive people."

Learn more about the Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences.