Alumni Magazine Fall 2016 - page 4-5

Fall 2016
Fall 2016
time focused exclusively on clinical ethics. In
2006, he graduated from the program. Three
years later, in 2009, after working for a nonprofit
focused on global health, he got a call from Bob
Baker, founding director of the bioethics program.
Philpott-Jones joined the Department of Bioethics
as a full-time faculty member. Two years later he
was named interim, and then director of
the program.
His reputation in the field of research ethics
is firmly established. He has served on numerous
national and international review boards, including
as chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s
Human Studies Review Board. He has published
widely on issues ranging from the ethics related to
pesticide testing on human subjects and access to care
issues raised in HIV prevention trials, to the illegal
distribution of painkillers and other addictive drugs.
Most recently, Philpott-Jones has raised
concern over the serious threats to human health
posed by the Zika virus and a probable increase in
its global distribution and transmission rates as a
result of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
A Program Not Limited by Geography
Today, the Department of Bioethics offers both a
master’s degree and a certificate program in the
field. While it maintains a clinical focus, it is now
the only program in the nation that also offers a
specific focus in research ethics. In addition, the
department administers two NIH-funded Fogarty
International Center grants to teach Research Ethics
to physicians, educators and scientists in Central
and Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin.
For both the students and the faculty, one of the
strengths of the program is
its hybrid format.
Designed primarily
for online delivery, (and
the first of its kind to
be approved by a state
educational department),
the program also requires
students to participate in
three on-site practicums,
two on the Schenectady
campus, as well as a
clinical practicum at the
Icahn School of Medicine
at Mt. Sinai.
oday’s breakthroughs in science and technology are
improving and extending life for millions of people
throughout the world. New approaches to disease
monitoring andmanagement are enhancing the quality
of life for individuals suffering from chronic illnesses
while developments in bioengineering promise to
improve outcomes for transplant recipients, premature
infants and other fragile patients.
But the very research and technology that can
improve outcomes and extend life can also raise
troubling ethical questions. How do we decide
which transplant candidates receive organs, and
which do not, since the demand exceeds the supply?
How should we think about prenatal testing for
Professor Sean Philpott-Jones, an expert in research ethics and
public health, is head of Clarkson’s graduate program in Bioethics,
an emerging field that lies at the crossroads of applied philosophy,
medicine and science.
Down Syndrome, which often leads to selective
termination of pregnancy, at a time when people with
the condition are living longer, healthier and more
productive lives? Are pharmaceutical companies
preying on economically disadvantaged populations
when they go to developing countries to test
“That’s where bioethicists come in,” says Sean
Philpott-Jones, associate professor of bioethics
and director of the Clarkson-Mt. Sinai Bioethics
Program. “Bioethicists look at the broader,
sometimes competing, interests that can surround
an ethical dilemma. We help people who are
struggling with an ethical problem to use their own
moral framework to develop a solution. We don’t
tell people what to do; our goal is to get people to
ask the right questions, consider the bigger picture
and, hopefully, find a patient-centered solution.”
Ethical dilemmas in healthcare settings are
often related to end-of-life issues, such as when,
or if, to suspend treatment.
“One example is a hospital team dealing with
an older patient who has run out of medical options.
Everyone wants to do what is best for the patient but
they disagree about what that looks like. There are
medical personnel weighing in on quality of life issues,
while the family is looking at it another way, and
religious beliefs and cultural values come into play. In a
situation like this, our job is often to be a mediator and
to help these individuals find points of commonality.”
A Growing Need
The need for healthcare and medical professionals,
as well as social scientists, lawyers and policymakers,
who are trained in bioethics is growing.
Moral precepts have guided the medical
profession from its beginnings. But it was after
World War II, with the widespread introduction of
technology into medicine and revelations of human
rights violations in medical research in the 1960s,
that the field of bioethics was born.
Philpott-Jones never planned to be an ethicist.
“I wanted to be an ethno-botonist — the guy who
goes into the rain forest and interacts with traditional
cultures and finds the next great drug,” he says. “But
that didn’t really turn out to be plausible.”
Instead, after graduating from college, he worked
in international aid and development, then left for
graduate school. After getting a Ph.D. in infectious
disease microbiology in 1996, he moved to Albany
for a post-doctoral position with the N.Y. State
Department of Health doing laboratory work in HIV
transmission and pathogenesis.
“As a research scientist, I began working with
human subjects, HIV-infected or high-risk women —
sex workers in Nairobi, HIV-infected people in The
Gambia, and injection drug users in Thailand,” he
recalls. “And as I worked with these groups, I became
concerned about ethical issues. How did we recruit
them? What were we promising them? How did the
stigma of participating in the research affect them?”
Philpott-Jones saw an article in the newspaper
about the Bioethics graduate program at Union
Graduate College (now Clarkson), which at the
“We don’t tell people what to do; our goal is to get people to ask
the right questions, consider the bigger picture and, hopefully, find
a patient-centered solution.”
— Sean Philpott-Jones
By Suzanne F. Smith
Professor Sean Philpott-Jones
Thinking Ethically
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