Bioethics and Science Policy Welcomes First Class of Master’s Candidates

Nine students seek unique combination of bioethics and science policy

Bioethics and Science Policy masters degree candidate Nana Young (left) chats with faculty member Phil Rosoff M.D., director of clinical ethics at Duke Hospital, during an introductory mixer for the program. Science & Society director Nita Farahany stand
Bioethics and Science Policy masters degree candidate Nana Young (left) chats with faculty member Phil Rosoff M.D., director of clinical ethics at Duke Hospital, during an introductory mixer for the program. Science & Society director Nita Farahany stand

Natalie Salmanowitz is somewhat of a pioneer.

One of nine students in the new Bioethics & Science Policy masters degree program starting this fall , Salmanowitz recently graduated from Dartmouth College as the co-valedictorian with a degree in neuroscience. She says she was attracted to Duke's new program by its unique focus.

“I am interested in the intersection of neuroscience and law," she says. "There are other master’s programs that focus on bioethics, but this program is the only one that includes science policy and law. The interdisciplinary aspect of this program was a big pull for me.”

The new degree program, which was launched by Duke Science & Society, is believed to be the only master’s program in the country that combines bioethics and science policy.

"Bioethics and science policy are increasingly intertwined in society, and our students are developing expertise in both domains," says Nita Farahany, the director of Science & Society and a professor of law and philosophy at Duke.

For example, while dealing with the practical public health concerns raised by the crisis of West Africa's current Ebola outbreak, policymakers and health leaders have also been forced into an ethical debate about using untested drugs on human patients, and how to most fairly distribute limited supplies of such drugs.

The core faculty for the Bioethics & Science Policy program come from disciplines including law, medicine, philosophy, policy and business, and electives are offered through numerous schools. The one-year degree includes five core courses, four electives and one capstone project.

Lauren Dame, associate director of Graduate Studies for the M.A. in Bioethics & Science Policy, says that the interdisciplinary design of the program creates a unique opportunity for students to develop both broad and deep experience by exposing them to many ways of viewing an issue.

Dame says the students may go on to pursue several careers, including law, medicine, policymaking, pharmaceuticals, medical research or hospital administration. The program offers three concentrations as well as the opportunity for students to design their own concentration.

"By also concentrating their studies in neuroethics, genome ethics, public impact and engagement, or self-designed tracks, our graduates will bring novel and tailored skills to society in their future endeavors," Farahany says.

To help students navigate these options and design a customized experience, each student is paired with a faculty member to advise them throughout the program. Students are also paired with a mentor to support their capstone project.

Salmanowitz has found this structure appealing. “You can design the program to be whatever you want it to be. It’s tailored to you but with structure and support.”

Another pioneer, Kirk Willmarth, graduated from Duke in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in biology and went on to receive a masters' degree in developmental biology from Stanford. For him, this program is a great opportunity to complement his scientific training with a background in policy, developing skills that he hopes to use helping companies develop regulations for new biotech innovations.

"It’s atypical for a graduate-level program to be so intersectional --  we all come from different backgrounds and plan to go in different directions after the program," Willmarth says. "But it’s fantastic to be part of a cohort where we all bring different expertise to the table and can learn from one another.”

Dame says the program hopes to enroll approximately 20 students next year. Long-term, the goal is to keep the program under 45 students to ensure that each student continues to receive the same level of individualized support.

“I’ve been really impressed by how much they care about each student,” Salmanowitz says.