MAXWELL:  Genetic issues in the curriculum

3/13/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Meet Dr. Nathaniel Wu, a brilliant, 30-year-old microbiologist. He desperately wants a full-time job because his wife has just given birth. When Wu learns that a pharmaceutical company is hiring for a special project, he applies for a position. Impressed by his credentials, the hiring panel calls Wu in and gives him a blood test to establish his genetic profile as part of company policy.

The test reveals that Wu carries the gene for a deadly neurological disease he was unware of. Now, company officials face a dilemma: Should they hire Wu or not?

Wu is fictitious. But his case _ because of ground-breaking biological research _ has salience in several academic disciplines and other areas vital to human life. Most surprisingly, as reported in the New York Times, today’s high school biology students, instead of simply memorizing lists of phyla or cell parts, dissecting formaldehyde-soaked frogs or drawing pictures of Mendel’s sweet peas, are grappling with the legal and ethical issues raised by society’s increasing use of molecular genetic findings and DNA applications.

Members of the Human Genome Project, a national leader in genetic research, say that students, because of the new wealth of information on how the human body works, are asking questions about how environments, organisms, genes and cells relate.

Unaffected by political correctness, students sampled by genomic researchers eagerly seek answers to questions about the relationship, say, between athletic ability and race. They want to know, too, if human genes play a role in areas such as obesity, alcoholism, homosexuality, violence and diseases like Down’s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, cancer and muscular dystrophy.

These students also worry about the legal and ethical implications of society’s use of this new storehouse of knowledge. They want to know _ and such concern bodes well for our future _ if employers have the right to deny people jobs because a test indicates that they have a gene that carries a fatal disease. Today’s students recognize the troubling privacy issues resulting from disclosing information to prospective employers and insurance companies about people’s genetic blueprints.

Biology curricula nationwide are moving toward challenging students to think critically. The goal of this new approach is summed up by Ken Bingman, a biology teacher at Shawnee Mission West High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan., who uses the new approach: “We encourage kids to make up their own minds. There is not a right or wrong decision. What we really try to do is give kids a mechanism for making decisions based on good science.”

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist and editorial writer.