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Genetics Conference Will Focus on Ethics

By Karen E. Robinson

As part of an ongoing biology conference series, the Harvard and MIT Hippocratic Societies have organized a genetics conference this weekend in Kresge Auditorium and Room 10-250.

The conference will focus on medical ethics, with speakers presenting “the political and sociological aspects of the whole issue” of genetics, as well as pure science, said MIT conference director Kelly V. Brogan ’00.

Panelists include genetics pioneer Ian Wilmut, the researcher who successfully cloned “Dolly” the sheep and U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), chair of the House Science Committee. Twenty other speakers, including Nobel Laureates, politicians, corporate executives, and religious leaders, are scheduled to speak.

While a number of panelists have pioneered new strategies for using genetics to understand and treat human diseases, several others are expected to advise caution against taking genetic technology too far.

Originally, only a small number of potential presenters responded, but more speakers committed to the conference later on.

“There was certainly snowballing in getting speakers,” said Harvard conference director F. Edward Boas.

Student interest forces expansion

The conference was originally scheduled to be held in 10-250, but enough people had registered to fill the room shortly after the original announcement, Boas said.

“These are certainly big people, but we thought students might not be interested” because this is material they encounter in classes and daily lectures, Boas said. “But that wasn’t true at all.”

To meet the unexpected interest, conference coordinators moved Saturday’s events to Kresge Auditorium. Sunday’s events, including the keynote speech by Wilmut, will still take place in 10-250 because of scheduling conflicts with Kresge.

“We may need some crowd control” before and during that speech, Boas said, “but we don’t imagine there will be any problems.”

Of the approximately one thousand people currently registered, the vast majority are MIT and Harvard students. Nonetheless, attendees are expected from throughout Massachusetts, California, and even from Iceland, Boas said.

Conferences to occur annually

The Harvard and MIT Hippocratic societies sponsor annual biology-related conferences, Brogan said. Two conferences have previously taken place at Harvard, concerning euthanasia and alternative medicine.

Harvard student Akil Palanisamy re-established the Harvard Hippocratic society in 1997 as a “forum for discussion on issues relating to medical ethics and other fields,” Brogan said. The Society “branched over to MIT last year,” and the two chapters come together each year to plan the annual conference. MIT students have been actively participating in conference orchestration since last year, and from now on the site will alternate between MIT and Harvard, Boas said.

The conference budget is about $15,000, which comes mostly from MIT and Harvard departments and from corporate sponsors, Boas said.

Additionally, a new chapter was formed at Wellesley six months ago. While Brogan expects that there may be “less collaboration [with Wellesley] because of logistics,” she also noted that “there’s definitely a very strong interest; we can see that from the registration, too.”

Each chapter consists of approximately 50 undergraduate members, Brogan said. Brogan also noted that many students in the MIT chapter do not plan to attend medical school and the majority are not biology majors.

“The approach that we like to take is a holistic viewpoint,” including legal, political, and societal implications of medical issues, Brogan said. 

During the rest of the year the Hippocratic society hosts lecturers and other events related to medical ethics.