Examining Science Policy with Policy Makers

Monday, April 4, 2011 - 13:42

For students in biology professor Rachel Fink’s seminar on stem cells and bioethics, the educational experience extends well beyond the academic ivory tower and reaches all the way to the halls of government in Washington, D.C.

Early this semester, Fink (far right in picture) took six students (l to r: Nagina Khudaynazar '11, Nickesha Anderson '11, Catherine Braine' 11, Maria Park '11, Nicole Moulinie '12, and Lorencia Chigweshe '11) to attend a meeting of President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and arranged for the group to meet with various scientists and other professionals working within the bioethical policy-making process.

“The trip to Washington, D.C. was a great opportunity to learn about the newest advancements in science that pose significant ethical concerns as they become more widely used in various biomedical applications,” said Nickesha Anderson ‘11. “In addition, the conference allowed me to think about how individuals from many different disciplines can come together to advance scientific knowledge in a way that is most beneficial for patients.”

The commission meeting focused on the explosion of information coming from genetic analysis and neuroimaging. Students heard experts tackle challenging questions regarding the balance of patient rights and the goals of scientific research, such as defining “informed consent,” and determining how a global medical community can assure patients are given respect. 

Beyond the day-and-a-half meeting, Fink and her students also did some sightseeing.

“This group of students was the most international of any I have taken to Washington,” said Fink. “We had a private tour of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and as we went through the White House checkpoint, I loved the fact that the passports we used for identification purposes were from Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Korea, and the United States.” 

While the capital attractions may have been new to her students, this was the third time Fink has taken her seminar students to a bioethics council meeting in D.C.

“By the time our students have taken years of biology courses, they are experts at what goes on in a laboratory,” she said. “This kind of adventure allows them to question how science fits into a larger context. If I could solve the logistics to take my 150 Introductory Biology students to D.C., I would do it in a heartbeat!”

On their last afternoon, the group visited the headquarters of the American Society for Cell Biology and met with Kevin Wilson, the organization’s director of public policy, who talked about stem cell research and the current legal battle over the federal government’s financial support of it. Wilson is helping to fight an injunction that would not only bar federal funding of stem cell research, but make it illegal to work with embryonic stem cells.

“Wilson’s attempts to bridge the divide between the Washington political scene and the scientific community are admirable,” said Catherine Braine ‘11. “This meeting served to reinforce for me that science does not exist within a bubble, but really is a social enterprise.”

The scientifically minded students also spent some time with representatives from the National Science Foundation and USAID--the government agency that provides U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide--giving them a glimpse into some of the policy-related career paths that are available to them outside of the lab.

“I am interested in public health and, as a chemistry major, I was inspired to talk to other people who started as science majors and are now working in public health,” said Lorencia Chigweshe ‘11. “As science continues to advance, it is important to address the ethics that come up with integration of new technologies into society.”

“It was definitely good to look at science from different angles, be it from a political, ethical, or funding spectrum,” said Nagina Khudaynazar ‘11. “What I liked most about the trip was becoming aware of how much the science field is progressing and how in the future I can contribute or be part of it.”