We’ve been away from our blog for a bit while we adjusted to the current realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, issues of science, technology, and society have not been pushed aside during the pandemic. On the contrary, new and critically important STEM-related ethics issues have arisen. Should governments or private industry be able to use GPS technology to track individuals based on COVID-19 status? “Zoombombing”—uninvited attendees breaking into and interrupting videoconferences, often with hate messages—was unknown to most of us until recently. What other, more serious risks do we face by shifting business, education, and other sectors of our society to primarily online platforms, and whose responsibility is it to ensure that bad actors don’t further disrupt our pandemic-disrupted society?
Our guest blogger this week is Dr. Rachel Fink of Mount Holyoke College, an institution that receives Clare Boothe Luce Program funds in perpetuity. Dr. Fink shares how she inspires students at the College to learn about ethics in STEM in an innovative and intriguing way: by “becoming” world leaders and scientific experts themselves!
If you could bring a group of world experts to a college campus to discuss issues of bioethics, who would you invite? This is the question I pose each spring semester to upper-level students in a seminar course titled “Regenerative Medicine: Biology and Bioethics.” The kicker is that we are not organizing a professional meeting. Instead, each student takes on the persona of a world leader, spending the semester getting ready to stage a mock debate in front of a large introductory biology course. This reframes the question in interesting ways, as students realize that someone else’s views will take over their lives for a few months. By the time a student sits at the front of the lecture hall behind a name card reading “Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health” or “R. Alta Charo, Bioethicist,” they are ready to present sophisticated ideas.
The first month of the course focuses on the science of stem-cell biology, germline editing, and assisted reproductive technologies. Students read an old classic: A Matter of Life, co-written by the two founders of in vitro fertilization, Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. This book does a lovely job of showing the intersections of medicine, basic research, and changing societal norms. It also shocks modern students who have any laboratory experience or who have any awareness of current events. They note the lack of institutional oversight during a time preceding the complexities of informed consent, and they find much of what was done “back then” to be rogue and unethical. So when I ask, “How would you construct a panel to debate the big questions in modern bioethics?” they are up for the challenge. The only rule I set for the exercise is that the proposed panel should be diverse enough to present a wide range of views.
Sitting around a big table last spring, my nine students first focused on the kind of experts they wanted to represent. Without naming specific people, they went for broad categories:
“There should be at least 2 scientists and 2 bioethicists.”
“A politician would be good.”
“What about someone in industry?”
They jumped up to use the blackboard, and colored chalk helped them keep track. They brought up current events that were swirling in the news, looking for ways to make the panel timely. As students at a historically women’s college, they quickly brought up questions of diversity, vowing to have wide representation based on race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. Some quickly committed to a specific person, while others headed off to do research, and it took a few iterations before the entire class chose their new identities.
Students dive into the world of their expert using books, articles, YouTube interviews, blogs, and tweets. They are encouraged to contact the expert, who can provide first-hand quotes and new insight. The actual presentations to the introductory biology class are limited to six minutes each, which can be quite a challenge. Those playing scientists such as Shinya Yamanaka (who created the first induced pluripotent stem cells) or Jennifer Doudna (who helped discover CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing) have to give technical information about their research, in addition to the bioethical implications of new discoveries. Which examples would the bioethicist Arthur Caplan use when discussing end-of-life decisions?
The students carefully choreograph the hour-long presentation, tailored to the introductory biology audience, and this leaves another 15 minutes for questions. The panelists stay in character when answering questions, and this is where the real power of the exercise comes into play. The students’ own views aren’t being challenged when asked to defend a position; they have so inhabited their expert that they are using arguments honed by a lifetime of such interactions. And the audience? They are amazed at the authority and complexity offered by their peers.
My inbox was filled this past November with emails requesting a spot in the seminar course this spring. Without even opening the notes, I knew that almost every request would begin, “I remember sitting in the auditorium in introductory biology when the seniors talked about bioethics. Now it’s my turn.”
UPDATE, in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic: I wrote this piece a few months ago, when the world looked to keep turning in familiar arcs. In this last month, I have moved my classes online, and the eight students currently enrolled in the course are adjusting to new realities. Logistics prevent offering a panel debate in front of the Intro class, and I am sorry that neither set of students will have this experience. Instead, we will finish the semester by recording a Zoom meeting of experts, as “George Church,” “Rebecca Dresser,” and “Hi Jiankui” talk with each other about corona virus challenges.
Yesterday the class video-conferenced with Katie Kraschel, Executive Director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School. Katie was a student in the first iteration of this bioethics course many years ago, and we have stayed in close touch ever since. As a student at Mount Holyoke, she played Leon Kass in the panel described above. That year, I took the class to Washington D.C. to attend a meeting of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, where most of the student panelists met with their experts.
It has been rewarding to follow the trajectories of students who have come through the class, many of whom credit the experience of getting into an expert’s head for giving them new interests and ideas for career paths. Once she began working toward life as a bench scientist, Katie found bioethical questions more fulfilling. It has indeed come full circle to have, during a time of great upheaval, the current class able to see the breadth of options that students who once sat in their place have taken.
Rachel Fink, Ph.D.
Professor of Biological Sciences
Chair of Biological Sciences
Mount Holyoke College
Rachel Fink is the Ida and Marian Van Natta Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College. A developmental biologist, her work focuses on the dynamics of cell rearrangements in early embryos. Her teaching includes a large introductory course, upper-level Experimental Developmental Biology, and a seminar on Regenerative Medicine: Biology and Bioethics. She runs a Science Buddies program bringing college students into local elementary classrooms, and was the MHC faculty mentor for a cohort of Posse Foundation scholars.