Approaching Bioethics

Harvard is at the center of the field of stem cell research.

When he was a high school junior, Matthew J. Devino ’13 saw a documentary that showed beating human heart tissue, derived from human stem cells, in a petri dish. The image captivated him. Three years later, during his sopohomore year at Harvard, Devino made living human heart tissue himself using human RNA-induced pluripotent stem cells. “It was the fulfillment of a huge dream,” remembers Devino.

Devino graduated from high school in the spring of 2009, around the time that Harvard announced a new concentration in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology that would allow students to pursue stem cell research during their undergraduate years. The HDRB concentration was the main reason why he chose to attend.

Harvard is at the center of the field of stem cell research. “You have a scale and a depth and breadth of expertise in one small geography that literally is unparalleled elsewhere,” says Brock C. Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute—a collaboration of Harvard-affiliated scientists and clinicians, and the largest of its kind.

In designing the concentration, particular attention was paid to the way stem cell research and its applications could best be taught to undergraduates. Recent years have witnessed new attention being given to the subject within disciplines ranging from ethics to the history of science.


Harvard Medical School professors David T. Scadden and Douglas A. Melton are the co-directors of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which they helped launch in 2004.Scadden explains that, with his background as a practicing physician and Melton’s as a molecular embryologist, their partnership combined two important components of the study of stem cells. “That spans the whole spectrum represented by our Harvard community,” says Scadden, proceeding to explain that the program aimed to help people work together to accelerate advances in the field.

In 2007, students from across the University were first able to take classes in a newly founded department, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. Scadden and Melton co-founded SCRB, as well as the HDRB concentration, which examines the science of stem cells as well as human development more generally. According to Harvard College Facebook, 54 sophomores enrolled in the concentration this year.

Scadden explains that HDRB emphasizes a different way of teaching science. “Science is often perceived as a set of facts learned by others,” says Scadden. “We thought [SCRB] was a great way to get people engaged in what are very real problems that they could relate to, with the new technology of stem cells and lots of opportunities for learning new things that are specific to it, and yet be teaching basic principles of biology.”

SCRB faculty members incorporate classroom learning, research, and clinical applications in their courses. Working in a lab is a requirement for HDRB concentrators.


Departments are also interested in approaching advancements in biotechnologies through an ethical lens. Widely referred to as bioethics, this sort of teaching encompasses two main methodologies: a broader philosophical approach and a more specific look at relevant case studies, a methodology called science and technology studies.

Undergraduates can explore the philosophical side of bioethics by taking Life Sciences 60: “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature,” a course taught by Melton and Michael J. Sandel, best known for his course Ethical Reasoning 22: “Justice” and leader of the Program in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. By combining Melton’s expertise as a scientist with Sandel’s political philosophy background, the course examines the ethical implications of scientific developments.

“Professor Melton presents the scientific background to current bioethics controversies, and I lead discussion of the ethical questions raised by new biotechnologies—including stem cell research, genetic engineering, and neuroethics,” writes Sandel in an email.

“We want students to understand the reasons for their moral assessments and encourage students to think through their own positions,” says Kerstin Haase, head Teaching Fellow of the course. Haase mentions performance-enhancing drugs and embryo screening as examples of the kinds of morally ambiguous topics the course addresses.

A smaller course called History of Science 253: “Bioethics, Law, and the Life Sciences,” taught by Sheila Jasanoff, provides an alternative approach to bioethics. Sandel and Melton’s class begins with the science and uses knowledge of that science to help students define their own moral views. Jasanoff’s course, a seminar offered jointly by the College and the Kennedy School, is grounded in science and technology studies. It consists of case studies that allow students to examine specific scientific and policy situations and then build theories from their observations.

“We are quite deficient as a society and as an establishment if we’re not also paying attention to how things work out in practice and on the whole,” Jasanoff says. Because of this, her work aims to “not just look at what people say bioethics is, [but] look at what people are doing when they perform bioethics.”

S. Alison Kraemer ’12 is taking Jasanoff’s course as well as Sandel and Melton’s. “With the Sandel class, I get to figure out how to morally reason my own ideas of right and wrong,” she says. “[Jasanoff] focuses on how institutions and bodies within society help make decisions that bring into question our way of deciding right and wrong.”

Jasanoff thinks that students are often unaware that there are two different approaches to understanding bioethics, both of them vital. “We don’t have a place where we can discuss what the differences in approaches are and why those differences matter and what training one should have in order to understand bioethics as a whole,” she says. “There is a deeper question about how we should think about ethics at the changing frontiers of science and technology writ large.”


Kraemer believes that all HDRB students should be interested in bioethics. “I don’t think you should go into the concentration being blind to them, and I don’t think anyone is,” she says.

Kraemer is taking a supervised research course that relates HDRB to the history of science and bioethics in order to study the ways in which public policy pressures have influenced the shift in focus from embryonic stem cells to non-embryonic stem cells. This type of interdisciplinary work reflects the way in which Harvard prepares undergraduates to grapple with the complexity of stem cell research from a variety of angles. From labs to clinics and discussions to lectures, Harvard continues to expand conceptions of what research can accomplish and how its implications can be examined in academic circles.