First Class

The inaugural gathering of the Center for Bioethics’ Master’s Program
Program Director Rebecca Weintraub Brendel, MD, JD poses with Master of Bioethics student Busi Mombaur, MD, MPH

By Francesca McCaffrey

It is mid-September at Harvard, and that means that all over campus departments and programs are busy welcoming their newest classes into the fold, heralding the arrival of fresh faces to carry on longstanding traditions. In the hall of Loeb House on the evening of September 17, however, the group of students gathered there was not simply the newest, but the first. The tradition is theirs to begin.

They are the inaugural class of the Harvard Center for Bioethics’ Master’s Program. The program’s core tenet is the desire to “ensure that values and ethics are always part of medical training, laboratory and clinical research, and ongoing professional education.” In the words of program director Rebecca Weintraub Brendel in her letter to the incoming class, “the pace of change in the life sciences is driving up the complexity of bioethical decisions and the need for professionals with the knowledge and skills to assess the ethical, legal, and social implications of the choices at hand and to champion the right courses of action.”

This need is felt deeply by the incoming Master’s students. Even amidst the warm chatter and welcoming smiles that filled the hall before dinner, it was clear that everyone there shares a certain seriousness, a deeply thought-out commitment to the study of bioethics.

For some, the commitment is personal. Traci Cucinotta, a clinical social worker at North Shore Medical Center and a member of the North Shore Medical Center Ethics Advisory Committee, draws a line from her interest in bioethics to the death of her father. After experiencing a number of ethical issues surrounding his passing, Cucinotta says, “I came away knowing that I had to help other families with the decisions that we had to make.”

Others are drawn by the nuanced look at the life sciences that a program in bioethics promises. Juan Carmona, a researcher with both a PhD and an MPH from Harvard, thanks recent scientific breakthroughs in genomics and molecular science for piquing his interest in bioethics. “These innovations open up new ethics questions. I want to appreciate and understand those questions as well as the science behind them, and channel that into better thinking and problem-solving.”

The host of students gathered have backgrounds as varied as their reasons for choosing ethics. While many come to the program in the midst of their careers, a few of the students have only just begun on their paths.

Sarah Bates, a graduate of the class of 2014 at Middlebury College, cites a love of philosophy, which she studied as an undergraduate, as what drew her to bioethics. “It’s a way to apply philosophy,” she says, “and it’s a concrete way to help better the world.” Fellow classmate Jasmine Panton, who graduated from Harvard College this year, also hails from the humanities. She focused on history and literature as an undergrad, with a special interest in racial disparities in healthcare. Panton views her background in the liberal arts as an asset in the field. “I want to assess medicine and treatment from a narrative point of view,” she says, “not just from an anatomical or physiological one.”

They come from different areas of study, different parts of the world, different stages of life. Whatever each of these students hopes to learn from the Center for Bioethics’ new Master’s Program, they will certainly learn from each other.

Director of the Center Robert Truog expressed his own certainty in the class’s ultimate success as he addressed the diners at Loeb House:

“As I look around the group here this evening, I am one hundred percent convinced that we are well on our way to having an educational program that is second to none, and that will form a solid foundation for all of our academic and scholarly research.”