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Students Teach Each Other about Bioethics by "Cloning" National Council

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

May 24, 2002

Students Teach Each Other about Bioethics by "Cloning" National Council

Each February, students in How Organisms Develop, MHC's introductory biology class, have the opportunity to fertilize sea urchin eggs in a petri dish, learning about the complex biochemical dance that occurs between egg and sperm. Helping students to understand the molecular processes involved comes naturally to Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Rachel Fink, who coteaches the popular course. Getting students to think about the societal and ethical aspects of such basic biological research presents more of a challenge. This spring Fink tried something new, again using the interactions between members of a species—this time, humans serving on President George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics—to drive home her points about bioethics.

In January, Bush announced the creation of the council, which has been charged with studying the human and moral ramifications of developments in biomedical science such as embryo and stem cell research, assisted reproduction, cloning, genetic screening, gene therapy, euthanasia, psychoactive drugs, and brain implants. Fink followed the establishment of the council with interest. Who were these eighteen scientists? And how could she and her students learn more about their backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives on these complex issues? Fink decided to have each of the twelve students in her 300-level seminar Cloning, Stem Cells, and Bioethics learn as much as she could about one of the eighteen council members, with the goal of having students adopt their council member's identity and perspective during a mock debate. Then she had a brainstorm: that discussion could take place in front of the students taking How Organisms Develop. The idea was to introduce ways of thinking "about the societal implications of the science that they're doing," Fink says.

Members of the seminar spent the first part of the semester learning the historical and current state of research. Then each student set about finding out more about the panel member she had been assigned. Each student wrote directly to her counterpart, and four received responses; all digested the online transcripts of the council's monthly meetings and scoured the mainstream media for mentions of their counterpart's name. "Once you started to look for them, they were in the news in really interesting ways," Fink says.

"Our research and discussions were marked by the immediacy of startling and exciting news developments that guided our discussions on a weekly basis," said Devaki Nambiar '02, who portrayed panelist Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor. Such events as legislation in Great Britain allowing human theraputic cloning, the birth of the first cloned cat, and President Bush's declaration of opposition to any kind of cloning "brought a sense of urgency and depth to our discussions that was extremely valuable to us, both as engaged citizens and curious biologists."

The culmination of their work, the mock debate, was held April 30 in Hooker Auditorium in front of the 130 introductory biology students. Erica Sneider '02 portrayed Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the bioethics council, and moderated the debate. At each seminar, each student introduced herself as the panelist she had studied, and made a statement about her perspective and the actual panelist's position on cloning issues. At the end of the presentations, members of the audience asked questions. "It was riveting. There must have been twenty hands up when we had to end. I was really proud. They did a great job answering all the questions, and stayed in character as they did so. It was one of the all-time teaching highs that I've had, and I've had a lot of teaching highs," said Fink, winner of the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Prize for Teaching last year.

"It was extremely interesting for me personally, to be put in the position where I had to understand another person's opinions about cloning that are different from mine," said Sneider, whose counterpart, Kass, is an opponent of both theraputic and reproductive cloning. "Through becoming Dr. Kass, a bioethicist with a medical degree, and chairing the council, I have learned about the many complex issues surrounding the topic of human cloning, because there are so many minute details involved affecting so many people, each of whom has different beliefs, values, and religious backgrounds," she said.

"I thought it was very interesting," said Clarissa Sabella '05, a student in the introductory class. "I came in with a certain viewpoint and started questioning it, but came back to it with more supported details, and more reasons why." Nambiar said, "I am deeply satisfied with our work this semester," expressing envy that she will not be on campus next spring for an interdepartmental lecture series on human reproduction in the twenty-first century sponsored by the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Center for Leadership. "I am certain that the series will produce constructive dialogue and debate on the topic of human cloning—an issue of great importance and consequence to the students at Mount Holyoke and around the world."

Fink says "I think it is wonderful that the upperclass panel members brought the current national debate to the introductory students. As the country watches to see what the U.S. Senate will decide next month about research on human embryonic stem cells, I am quite pleased that Mount Holyoke students will be among the best-informed in the audience."

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