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Bioethics Students Visit Georgetown University

Bioethics Project students visit Georgetown.

Earlier this week, 12 Upper Schoolers were hard at work at Georgetown University. No, they were not exploring the school as part of their college search (though that was a convenient secondary gain). 

The group — all of whom were selected to participate in Kent Place’s innovative, year-long, student-led research course known as The Bioethics Project — were, in fact, visiting scholars. 

A one-of-a-kind program among secondary schools, The Bioethics Project invites a new cohort of students each year to engage in scholarly research in the field of bioethics, pairing them with mentors from Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics

Following this year’s theme — Beyond the Medical Industrial Complex: Reimagining Healthcare — the students (three sophomores, eight juniors, and one senior) spent the fall semester engaged in a bioethics deep dive. Recently, they each honed in on a research topic. They had also begun preliminary research and met virtually with their mentors. 

Their on-site visit to Georgetown was a much-anticipated chance to meet with their mentors in person for the first time, present their initial findings, and receive expert guidance on their progress. 

But first, following a Monday morning Amtrak ride to Washington, D.C., students were warmly welcomed to campus by Dr. Laura Bishop, Kent Place’s longtime program collaborator and associate teaching professor at the Institute of Ethics, who presented on the institution’s history. Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, the institute’s director and a renowned scholar and clinician in bioethics, also spoke to the group, sharing his background and career path. 

A particular treat for students was a presentation by the Institute’s library specialists. (The Bioethics Research Library on Georgetown’s campus houses one of the largest, most comprehensive collections of bioethics-related resources worldwide). After learning some important research tips and techniques, students were allowed special access Tuesday morning to the library, which was temporarily closed to all other visitors so they could roll up their sleeves and dig into their research. 

For Bridget Smallman ’25, who is examining the ethics of opioid addiction treatment in America, visiting the library was eye-opening, underscoring the importance of research and taking advantage of available resources. 

“We were able to meet with library specialists and Georgetown students who provided personal assistance in finding valuable resources and enhancing our ideas and writing,” she says. “The experience particularly motivated me to narrow the focus of my topic, allowing me to conduct more productive research.”

Perhaps the most memorable part of the trip came next. For the rest of Tuesday morning and into the afternoon, students met individually with their mentors to discuss their projects (four professors and graduate students from the Institute served as mentors).

Bridget calls it a “critical moment” of their visit. “My mentor—doctoral student Julien Spurling—urged me to contemplate additional ethical dilemmas related to my topic, including society's perception of a ‘successful’ treatment outcome and how we define ‘addiction,’” she shares. “The encounter significantly increased my interest in my topic and opened my eyes to many different perspectives.” 

For the last seven years, getting to travel to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics has been a highlight feature of The Bioethics Project, which Kent Place launched in 2012. Maura Crowe, STEM Coordinator and one of The Bioethics Project teachers, who accompanied the students on the trip, has witnessed its value to students.

“To be able to visit the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, a world-renowned institution that helped to create the field of bioethics, is a remarkable opportunity and marks a crucial step in the research process for our students,” says Ms. Crowe. “In addition to exploring the vast and unique collection of resources available at the Bioethics Research Library, the students have the chance to meet one-on-one with their mentors and the library specialists, whose wealth of knowledge is invaluable and helps to direct and refine the students' research as they continue in the process.”

Bridget agrees. “The trip not only emphasized the importance of bioethics in society and its potential to provide equitable solutions to various complex issues,” she says. “It really highlighted for me the rewarding aspect of consistent work and research.” 

In addition to Bridget’s research, other KPS bioethics scholars are examining the ethical implications of organ donation, the use of AI in psychiatric care, and systemic racism in healthcare.

Next up for the group: A presentation to Kent Place faculty, their mentors, and past guest speakers from the Institute of their preliminary research findings at the day-long Project Meeting, held in February. And in May, their research will culminate in the annual Bioethics and Academic Symposium, held on campus and open to the public.