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How I Became Involved in Scientific Ethics

Although most people reading this essay are probably already interested in scientific integrity and the ethical issues involved in research, I have to admit that before entering the research world, I had not given the issue any real consideration. Even as a prospective student applying to graduate schools, my thoughts were of the exciting new ideas I would be introduced to and the amount of work and dedication it would take to get me through this new experience. I had never considered how issues of integrity or ethics impact science.

Like students at many institutions, incoming graduate students here at Meharry Medical College take a predetermined "core" set of courses in their first year. These courses are geared primarily toward introducing students to the basic information and techniques required to progress through their graduate research careers. It was in two of these courses that the idea of ethical issues and scientific integrity in research became evident to me.

My interest in scientific integrity was first piqued in a graduate class called Topics in Human Genetics. In this class, we read some of the literature describing ethical issues in human genetics research. Even before entering graduate school, I knew that I wanted to study human genetics and had anticipated learning about many diverse aspects of the field. But what I did not anticipate were the ways in which ethics and scientific integrity impacted this and all other areas of science. In the Topics in Human Genetics class, I was introduced to ways in which data could be misused. Subject areas, such as genetic discrimination, patient (and research participant) right to privacy, and ownership of genetic material and data, showed both the negative ways scientific information can be used and some of the gray areas that confront researchers every day. These issues and many more have been a repeated theme in every genetics course, meeting, and seminar that I have attended. They are further highlighted by the recent advances of the Human Genome Project, which has made genetics an issue of great concern to the public.

While Topics in Human Genetics focused my attention on the issues involved in one particular area of science, the second course that influenced my appreciation for ethics was appropriately named Bioethics, one of the core courses all students at Meharry must take regardless of department or funding status. This course exposed me to integrity as it pertains to research on a grander scale and touched on all aspects of ethics and integrity in science. From authorship and mentoring to animal and human subject issues, my classmates and I were encouraged to discuss any topic related to the ethics of science. The course put forward subjects that impacted me directly as a graduate student. For instance, the section on mentoring--how to select a mentor and how to deal with problems between students and mentors--was extremely valuable.

This class also revealed to me that I had already been introduced to concerns of integrity and ethics in science, yet had not been aware of the connections. I knew of experiments such as the Tuskegee study, but like many of my classmates, I only thought of it as a government conspiracy or a sign of past racial injustice. I had never thought of the lapses in scientific integrity and research ethics that are clearly present in the case.

The structure of the Bioethics class was also important; not only were we encouraged to participate but it was a requirement for the course. Usually, the professors only acted as facilitators while students discussed various topics of scientific integrity. In certain instances, we were divided into groups and asked to debate the different sides of a topic. In one such debate, held as a departmental journal club, we argued the pros and cons of eradicating the last stores of the smallpox virus. This year's class performed several role-playing skits based on topics of their choosing before the entire graduate school. The open nature of the course and the opportunity for students to actively participate increased my interest in research ethics.

This interest has stayed with me throughout my graduate career. So much so that I was invited, through the recommendation of the Bioethics course coordinator, to speak as a panelist at the "Promoting Responsible Conduct of Research: Policies, Challenges, and Opportunities" conference in Arlington, Virginia, this past May. This conference touched on a broad spectrum of topics encompassing scientific integrity, including gene therapy, guidelines for animal and human subject use, authorship, public health issues, and the involvement of minorities in research. Perhaps the most important set of topics however, was that dealing with teaching scientific integrity and responsible ethics in research.

Improving the teaching of scientific integrity was a major concern at each session of the meeting. One interesting point that surfaced was that although the role of integrity in research is not always clear to students, these ethical dilemmas are almost always present. But when students have not thought about these issues beforehand, they are more prone to have problems identifying and dealing with them. I believe it is imperative for all those working in research to be educated in research ethics and scientific integrity because this gives them the chance to grapple with these complex and often difficult issues before they arise in real life.