Expanding Impact of Rivers Bioethics Program

Recent graduates Aliza Bloostein ’17 and Michelle Ryder ’17 were pleased to learn that the impact of their bioethics research papers now extends far beyond the Rivers campus. Harvard Medical School’s bioethics writer Paul McLean, with thousands of followers in the medical community, recently tweeted links to their papers with the question “What can high school students teach #bioethics about #gene editing and #patient noncompliance?” Have a look at these impressive papers on the medicalethicsandme.org website.
“These students are making a real impact, and it’s hard not to think the future lies in this direction,” said Dr. Julian Willard, who initiated Rivers’ bioethics independent study program last year in collaboration with Harvard’s Center for Bioethics (HCB), for students with an interest in medicine and other biomedical fields. Dr. Willard oversees Rivers’ Interdisciplinary Program and chairs the Interdisciplinary Studies Department.
“I’m very interested in the educational potential of ethical questions and believe it is important to promote bioethical thinking and research skills in high school students,” Dr. Willard commented at the time. “Our hope is that this program will lead to the students’ own ethical engagement in the community and wider world.”
As rising seniors, both Aliza and Michelle held summer internships that were facilitated by the Rivers Science Department. Aliza shadowed a primary care physician who specializes in endocrinology and Michelle participated in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Simulation Center. The internships gave them first-hand exposure to situations involving possible ethical dilemmas and spurred their interest in bioethics.  
The year-long bioethics program provided them with a foundation in bioethical concepts so that they could then work with a mentor from the Harvard academic bioethics community on a research topic of mutual interest. Michelle chose to write about gene editing and CRISPR technology, while Aliza studied the ethical issues that confront a physician in caring for a non-compliant patient. The students met regularly with Dr. Willard and their mentors as they conducted literature reviews and developed their own theses. After completing first drafts of their research papers, they received feedback from the Harvard bioethicists.
They also served as interns on Boston’s Community Ethics Committee (CEC), a diverse group of citizens who meet monthly to provide feedback on medical ethics policies to the Harvard teaching hospitals. They attended several of the committee meetings, gaining insight into the goals of the CEC and principles of community engagement. To conclude their projects, Aliza and Michelle presented their bioethics projects to the CEC at a meeting in the Harvard Medical School Library, as well as to Upper School students at an assembly in April.
This year four seniors are participating in the program which meets weekly during club block and which carries one IDS credit. Louise Ambler, Emma Chowdhury, Emily Shen, and Julia Slayne are currently being introduced to the field of bioethics with a focus on issues surrounding vaccination, organ transplantation, and end-of-life care. They will work with Harvard Bioethics mentors to develop topics to research and will attend CEC meetings to observe bioethics discussions with real-world implications.
Dr. Willard, who is a Fellow in Bioethics at Harvard’s Center for Bioethics, is hoping to be on the faculty for a summer teachers’ workshop on teaching the bioethics of gene editing, working with his own Harvard mentor Professor Mildred Solomon, President of the Hastings Center. Dr. Willard was a Yale-Hastings Scholar in 2013-14.
For the past several years, Dr. Willard has also been teaching a Rivers IDS course on Ethics, and has posted some of his students’ final projects on the CEC website, Medicalethicsandme.org.  Click here to view some of the ways Rivers students have sought to engage the larger community in reflection about an ethical issue they consider important.