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UNC Students Finish Medical Ethics Course

Course is required for students funded by NIH research grants

About 120 first-year graduate students participated in the new class designed to fulfill National Institutes of Health requirements that any student trained with NIH financial support undergo a well-developed course in ethics.

Susan Lord, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, said that specific requirements for what qualifies as a "well-developed course" are always evolving and that professors submit their class plans to the NIH for approval every year.

Although speakers and students discussed allegations of animal mistreatment made last April by an undercover investigator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who secretly videotaped her work at a UNC laboratory, officials said this new course was not a response to that event.

Lord said changes to the program already were in the works when the incident occurred.

David Lee, head of UNC's Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, said the class is a collaboration between departments in the medical school. Until this year, there were 11 separate programs in the medical school for graduate students required to take an ethics course.

Lee said that the individual courses were not as well-organized as the new combined program and that the material covered in them varied.

This year, stepped-up requirements from the NIH led officials in the graduate school to create a program that was more comprehensive, he said.

But ethics is something every student should learn about early, even without the requirement from the NIH, Lee said.

"We need to think ahead of time so that when we face these issues in the laboratory we know what our ethics are," he said.

The class meets eight times in two weeks, and each class consists of a 45-minute lecture and smaller discussion groups led by faculty members.

"Hopefully they want to (take an ethics course), but we make sure that they do," he said.

Students do not receive academic credit for taking the course, but it fulfills a graduation requirement. All graduate students in the medical school are required to take the class their first semester because it is a good introduction to the school and gives them information they need before beginning research, Lee said.

Lee said it is more practical to train all graduate students in their first semesters rather than just those receiving NIH funding because in the past many students who were not trained changed programs and then had to take the course in the middle of their schooling. Also, the training gives all students -- not just those in NIH-funded programs -- valuable information, he said.

The program gives students an overview of how to write and submit manuscripts and grants and how to interview.

"Students often come in not understanding how these processes work," Lee said.

It also clearly outlines what students should do if they have an ethical issue with an adviser or another student.

Lee said that because this was the first year for the program, changes are inevitable. Officials hope to bring in new speakers next year -- including an NIH representative -- and to break the session on animal and human research into two sections.

But Lee said he thinks the class was a success overall and that students have a better idea of how to address ethical issues they might encounter.

"One thing we're proud of is that the University has well-established policies for how concerns get expressed, evaluated and taken seriously," he said.

The University Editor can be reached at udesk@unc.edu.

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