“Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists”

Brit Shields, Ph.D.

Brit Shields, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering, has brought her expertise in the history and sociology of science to her leading role in developing and improving the ethics curriculum for all students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Most recently, this includes adapting the core ethics engineering ethics course “Technological Innovation and Civil Discourse in a Dynamic World” (EAS 204) for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program. SNF Paideia courses, open to all Penn undergraduates, “integrate students’ personal, professional, and civic development […] focus[ing] on dialogue, wellness, service, and citizenship from different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.” A recent SNF Paideia blog post goes into detail about the changes made by Shields and co-instructor Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science, to suit the SNF Paideia Program, including its “explicit focus on civil discourse and technology.” According to Shields:

“I really wanted to break down the false dichotomy between technological expertise or humanities training for the students and open up the opportunity for Engineering students to consider themselves to have an important role, not just creating technological systems but also being important participants in civil discourse.”

Michelle Johnson, Ph.D.

The course also includes guest lectures by Penn faculty, including Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and students learn to analyze how guest lecturers communicate their research to the public, for example, in the case of Johnson, in the form of a TED Talk and scholarly articles: “Through her TedTalk, journal articles and visit to the class, Michelle Johnson demonstrates how researchers are attuned to the specific preferences of the rehabilitative robots they are creating for patients…engaged scholarship at its finest.”

Read “Educating the Next Generation of Civically Engaged Technologists” in SNF Paideia Perspectives.

Brit Shields Promoted to Senior Lecturer

by Sophie Burkholder

Brit Shields, Ph.D.

We would like to congratulate Brit Shields, Ph.D., of the Penn Department of Bioengineering, on her recent promotion to Senior Lecturer. Shields got her start at Penn by completing her Ph.D. here in 2015 in History and Sociology of Science, with a dissertation on scientific diplomacy through the example of Richard Courant and New York University, where Shields completed an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought: Science Studies. Following the conclusion of her doctorate, Shields immediately joined Penn as a lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering, teaching core undergraduate classes like the Senior Thesis course for B.A.S. degree candidates, and Engineering Ethics, one of the courses that fulfills the ethics requirement for all Penn engineering students. Furthermore, Shields has served as an advisor for undergraduate students on senior thesis in the History and Sociology of Science as well as Bioengineering.

In her new position, Shields will have the chance to further develop the engineering ethics curriculum for SEAS students. She will also take on a direct role with freshman bioengineering students as one of two bioengineering faculty members in charge of advising the incoming classes. Through these opportunities to better connect with students, Shields will be able to continue improving the ethics curriculum for all engineering majors, and increase its efficacy in imparting lessons that all engineers should take to the workforce with them. Beyond her roles in the classroom and as an advisor, Shields will also continue her research in the history and sociology of science and technology focusing on both scientific diplomacy and educational programs for engineers. She says that she “look[s] forward to collaborating with the school’s administration, faculty and students to further develop the engineering ethics curriculum.  Being able to innovate in this field with such talented students is incredibly rewarding.”

Week in BioE (August 3, 2017)

There’s news in bioengineering every week, to be sure, but the big story this past week is one that’s sure to continue appearing in headlines for days, weeks, and months — if not years — to come. This story is CRISPR-Cas9, or CRISPR for short, the gene-editing technology that many geneticists are viewing as the wave of the future in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of genetic disorders.

Standing for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR offers the ability to cut a cell’s genome at a predetermined location and remove and replace genes at this location. As a result, if the location is one at which the genes code for a particular disease, these genes can be edited out and replaced with healthy ones. Obviously, the implCRISPRications for this technology are enormous.

This week, it was reported that, for the first time, CRISPR was successfully used by scientists to edit the genomes of human embryos. As detailed in a paper published in Nature, these scientists edited the genomes of 50 single-cell embryos, which were subsequently allowed to undergo division until the three-day mark, at which point the multiple cells in the embryos were assessed to see whether the edits had been replicated in the new cells.  In 72% of them, they had been.

In this particular case, the gene edited out was one for a type of congenital heart defect, and the embryos were created from the eggs of healthy women and the sperm of men carrying the gene for the defect. However, the experiments prove that the technology could now be applied in other disorders.

Needless to say, the coverage of this science story has been enormous, so here is a collection of links to coverage on the topic. Enjoy!

Mind Control and an Ethical Appeal

mind control brain
A “wiring diagram of the human brain,” produced using diffusion MRI scans of the brain.

A group of four scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, including Bioengineering professor Danielle Bassett, have issued a call in the journal Nature Human Behaviour for greater safeguards for patients as treatments in the field of neuroscience evolve and come ever closer to resembling “mind control.”

“While we don’t believe,” Bassett said, “that the science-fiction idea of mind control, totally overriding a person’s autonomy, will ever be possible, new brain-focused therapies are becoming more specific, targeted and effective at manipulating individuals’ mental states. As these techniques and technologies mature, we need systems in place to make sure they are applied such that they maximize beneficial effects and minimize unwanted side effects.”

Read more at the Penn News Web Site.

Henrietta Lacks Film Addresses Ethical Issues

by Andrew E. Mathis

henrietta lacks hela cells
HeLa cells after staining

In January 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year-old African-American woman from Baltimore, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center. She was treated with radium brachytherapy, the standard of care at the time, but her condition worsened. In August, a week after she turned 31, she was admitted to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Less than three months later, she died. An autopsy showed widespread metastasis of the original cancer.

Henrietta Lacks had died, but strangely, her cancer cells have lived on. Unbeknownst to her and her family, Henrietta’s doctors had sampled her cancer cells for research — a common practice at the time, particularly from patients treated in wards. Those cells were given to George Gey, a JHU biologist who had been trying for years to establish a cancer cell line that could be grown outside the body. Henrietta Lacks’s cells ended up being the first cell line so established.

The cell line was named “HeLa” by Gey’s laboratory assistant, who coded cell samples using the first two letters of the donor’s first and last names. With Henrietta Lacks’s cells, Gey was able to establish an immortal cell line, i.e., a line of cells that would continue to divide indefinitely. The ability of these cells to divide like this lent itself to the line being used in numerous scientific studies since the 1950s, including Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine.

Notwithstanding the tremendous accomplishments achieved using the HeLa cell line, the case nevertheless evokes serious ethical issues regarding the consent of patients to having their tissue used for research. In recent years, the case has attracted significant attention, with a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published by Rebecca Skloot in 2010 and now an HBO feature film of the same title produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’s daughter. The film debuted on April 22.

Brittany Shields, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed some of the issue raised by Lacks’s story. “Henrietta Lacks’s story has brought public attention to a number of ethical issues in biomedical research, including the role of informed consent, privacy, and commercialization in the collection, use and dissemination of biospecimens,” Dr. Shields says.

“In the United States, biomedical research at federally-funded institutions must follow the policy set by the Department of Health and Human Services. The current policy, known as the ‘Common Rule,’ calls for informed consent and oversight through Institutional Review Boards for research conducted with human beings,” she explains.

However, she continues, “these regulations may or may not apply in different situations related to biospecimens. If an anonymous biospecimen had already been collected for another purpose, informed consent is generally not required.”

In the case of Henrietta Lacks, or more precisely her descendants, an agreement was reached between the family and the National Institute of Health stipulating that the family must give consent when certain genetic information gleaned from the cell line is used. However, controversy between the family and the medical research community has persisted.