Feb. 24, 2020 — Kärt Pormeister, an Estonian Fulbright scholar at the University of Houston Law Center who graduated with a Health Law LL.M. in 2015, recently defended her dissertation and secured a doctorate degree.
“I feel great about completing the program and holding the printed version of my thesis in my hands,” she said.
Pormeister completed her Ph.D. in Estonia at the University of Tartu. Her work focused on personal data use, genetic data specifically, in the European Union under the General Data Protection Regulation law, which regulates data protection and privacy.
“I used Estonian law as an example to reference the national law of one member state of the EU, because the GDPR does not regulate everything regarding the use of genetic data in research, and some matters are left for national laws to regulate,” Pormeister said.
“Since Estonia does not have general research regulations, like the Common Rule in the U.S. or anything analogous, and we only have special regulations for clinical trials and our national biobank, most research activities are governed mainly by data protection law and the GDPR.”
As part of the requirements for finishing her thesis, which was a series of publications, Pormeister had to publish at least three papers in internationally peer-reviewed publications. She ultimately included five papers in her thesis and published others during her studies.
Pormeister was inspired by her time at the Law Center to pursue a Ph.D. Additionally, winning the Robert S. Toth LL.M. writing award encouraged Pormeister to write her thesis in English and approach it as a series of publications.
“Professor Jessica Roberts’ course in genetics and the law and Professor Barbara Evans’ course on biotechnology and law got me interested in how everything that I learned in their courses is approached and regulated in the EU and in Estonia,” she said.
Impressed by Pormeister, Evans supported her throughout her thesis and served on her dissertation committee.
"When Kärt was here as a Fulbright scholar, she worked incredibly hard to master the details of U.S. law,” Evans said. “She was really determined to master every detail she could about U.S. law, in the same way you would if you planned to practice law here in the United States for the rest of your life."
Evans said that Pormeister’s work will have significant effects on evolving American privacy laws, especially concerning health data.
“Kärt's work is extremely helpful to U.S. scholars because it explores how Europe's integrated approach works. She gets past the hype and gives a very clear analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of GDPR,” she said. “Pormeister's work offers an account of Europe's privacy framework that is accessible to researchers as well as law scholars.”
Pormeister emphasizes that genetic data is unique to individuals, meaning that it can never be anonymous and can come back to impact people on personal levels.
“Genetic data is not just another category of personal data like your name or address, both of which you could change,” Pormeister said. “It is not just any data about you, it is you.”
Pormeister now has several options as she looks to begin a new chapter in her career.
“I feel great about achieving a goal that I set for myself,” she said. “Professionally, it puts me at a crossroads. The question now is whether to pursue a career in academia or not.”
Due to a lack of funding for academics, taking a scholarly job in Estonia is not always fruitful. However, her higher education creates opportunities in other job markets for Pormeister.
“The Ph.D. does give me certain professional advantages in the private sector as well – I am now able to take the second bar exam,” she said.
Estonians pursuing careers in law are required to take two bar exams. The first one immediately follows law school and permits them to work in junior positions at law firms for three years, after which they take the second bar exam and are granted the agency to move up in the legal field.
“Passing the second bar exam would give me an advantage in negotiating employment options at law firms, but it would also allow me to work independently as an attorney at law,” she said.