Unzipping My Genes: How Strong is the Link Between Identity and DNA?


Eugenics—the racist and ableist science of improving the human race—was a powerful influence on the development of genetic medicine, and Melbourne’s elite were among its chief proponents.

The University of Melbourne was a key centre of this movement in Australia, with Richard Berry, the Professor of Anatomy, leading a group of like-minded academics and doctors. One aim of the movement was to introduce a bill that would call for the institutionalisation and sterilisation of “inefficient” groups in society, such as queer people, sex workers, alcoholics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those with physical and mental disabilities. We are still dealing with the implications of this misplaced link between race and identity today.

In Australia, this has particular relevance for First Nations communities, with more people looking to direct to consumer testing to learn about their family history and politicians suggesting that First Nations people should have a DNA tests to prove their ancestry. Genetic counsellors are vital in helping patients navigate the process of genetic testing, and help people untie the ideas of social identity and biology.

The session will explore how we can break free of biological essentialism, and how going forward genetics can be used as a tool to personalise medicine without rigidly-defined labels.


Mr Matt Burgess

Matt Burgess has a Bachelor of Science and Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Melbourne and a Graduate Diploma in Genetic Counselling from the University of Newcastle. Matt is also currently completing further studies in genetics and genomics through Stanford University, San Francisco, USA. He has over 12 years experience as a genetic counsellor in the Australian public health sector and three years lecturing genetic counselling at Charles Stuart University, and created a bespoke private genetics clinic.

Celeste Liddle

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, an opinion writer, a trade unionist and public speaker. Celeste started her blog Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist in June 2012. A mere six weeks after she started it, Celeste had a piece picked up for publication by Daily Life and since then has written for a number of publications. Along with Daily Life (Fairfax), Celeste’s work has been seen in The Guardian, New Matilda, Tracker Magazine, Eureka Street and others, and she has contributed chapters to anthologies such as Pan Macmillan’s Mothers and Others. Celeste has a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in theatre and drama from La Trobe University, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Arts (political sciences mainly) from the University of Melbourne. In her time both writing and speaking, Celeste has gained a certain notoriety and a fair bit of praise for delivering tough topics in concise and accessible ways. Mixing a bit of anecdote and humour as she goes along, Celeste takes her lead from many amazing Indigenous thinkers who have inspired her along the way.