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The Ethics of Bioengineering

At Santa Clara, we strive to educate the "whole person" to be of service in the world. Achieving this goal entails training our students to think and act mindfully and ethically. This is particularly imperative in the field of bioengineering.

Students share the ethics of bioengineering with their peers.
Photo: Charles Barry

From the very beginning of the bioengineering program at SCU, department chair Yuling Yan has stressed the importance of an ethical perspective within its study. Each year, Margaret McLean, director of bioethics for SCU's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, senior lecturer in the religious studies department, and affiliate faculty member in bioengineering, teaches one class within the Introduction to Bioengineering (BIOE 10) course. And each spring, she co-teaches Social and Ethical Dimensions of Biotechnology (BIOL 171) with Leilani Miller, associate professor of biology. McLean reports that "while examining technologies, including those related to genetic testing, gene therapy, and global health, students explore the basic ethics questions concerning efficacy, safety, and impact on the end user. From there, we build a much more nuanced ethical infrastructure for them to draw upon as they approach their final project."

This year, bioengineering students Nick Wolfe '14, Tess Cauvel '14, and biochemistry major Emily Robinson '14 were intrigued by an article they read in Nature about a new gene therapy for reducing or eliminating mitochondrial disease in humans. They presented a consideration of the underlying science—addressing the medical problem, potential benefits, and ethical concerns—as fellow teams covered other cutting-edge issues at a Biotechnology Ethics Poster Session.

Prashanth Asuri, bioengineering assistant professor, brought his freshman students to a private viewing of the poster session for some peer-to-peer teaching. In small groups, the juniors and seniors shared their research with the younger students, most of whom hadn't taken an ethics course yet.

''Bioengineering is evolving at an incredibly rapid pace,'' said Asuri. ''As the young engineers are preparing to contribute to the advancement of the field, they should also understand the ethical complexities involved. We want to develop technically competent and ethically responsible bioengineers.'' To keep pace with the changing landscape, department chair Yan is expanding SCU’s bioengineering course offerings. "We are planning to offer BIOE 180, Clinical Trials—Design, Analysis, and Ethical Issues, next spring," she said. "This course fulfills both the bioethics requirement and counts as a technical elective, giving students more choice while also weaving ethics more tightly into the engineering curriculum."

For his part, Nick Wolfe said the ethics course will help him as he begins his career. "The future relies on technologies, and engineers need to thoroughly understand the concerns, consequences, and implications involved," he said. Classmate William Truong '13 added, "As engineers, we tend to think that any new technology must be good. This class made me think more deeply about the development of products and treatments and how they could help or hurt humanity."