Starting this fall, interested students will be able to take on a new interdisciplinary minor: bioethics.
This minor, which was approved on March 28 last year, is now being offered for the first time this fall. It is the first cross-school minor between the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts and Sciences, according to Autumn Fiester, director of education in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Medical School.
The minor will require not only classes exploring philosophical issues of right and wrong, but also those focused on research, clinical work and allocation of medical resources. Students will be required to take six courses to complete the minor, with no more than three in any one department.
The initiative to create the minor began in the fall of 2011 and was the result of separate student and faculty efforts. Lance Wahlert, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy and director of the master of bioethics program at the Medical School, explained that a student petition for the minor first circulated in 2011 and was followed by a formal proposal submitted that fall by then-College junior Kyle Henson, a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist.
Fiester said Henson’s proposal came just as faculty within the Department of Medical Ethics were trying to create the minor by “work[ing] channels within the School of Arts and Sciences.” She explained that his proposal provided “student movement” which further advanced the process.
Fiester added that Penn is unusually well-equipped to offer its students a bioethics minor. “In peer institutions, there is no bioethics minor for undergrads,” she said. For example, universities like Stanford and Johns Hopkins tend to focus more on research than teaching in this field, whereas Penn already offers classes for graduates and undergraduates in bioethics.
“We are in a unique position to give undergraduates [this] phenomenal opportunity,” Fiester said.
Wahlert also noted that the Penn community had shown significant interest in bioethics even before the push for the creation of the minor. He had “taught a few ethics classes [in the College] to test interest,” and found significant demand in the past.
Wahlert added that Penn already has several “places and pockets of interest” in bioethics, including an undergraduate bioethics magazine, and that the minor was a way of “collating all these [pockets].”
The minor incorporates classes from six departments within SAS including anthropology, sociology and history and sociology of science, among others.
Two academic advisors, Wahlert and Anne Green — a professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science in the College — will help students to navigate the new minor.
Zeke Emanuel, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor at the Wharton School and the Medical School, said that the minor was to incorporate the “spirit of cross-discipline work.”
Emanuel explained that while establishing the bioethics minor will have its challenges, it will create a new academic opportunity for students with a range of interests and experiences. “Because it’s not a minor of a major, [we] want to make sure students in the College even know about it, [and we] want to make sure word gets out.”
He added “that it requires no science background or prerequisites … merely an interest in bioethical inquiry.”
Wahlert echoed, “it’s not just for philosophy students or science and math eggheads … it speaks to everyone.”
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