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Dean's Blog: Science...At what cost?

Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

Movies, like science, can be a gateway to discovery. They can transport us to other worlds, stretching our imagination and expanding our point of view. Yet, as scientists, we must also frequently weigh our discovery’s ethical impact.

Earlier this month, along with dozens of others, I attended our STEM Accelerator and Women Leaders in STEM organizations co-sponsored College of Visual and Performing Arts screening of the story that some might say, is the foundation of medical science discoveries of the last century.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line, known as HeLa. Told primarily through the eyes of Lacks’ daughter Deborah (played by Oprah Winfrey) and journalist Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne), the film investigates how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, from cancer to polio to radiation to AIDS, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. It also depicts the impact this experience had on Henrietta and many members of her family and community. 

Numerous times, I felt the gut punch of how some scientists are depicted, not to be trusted (and based on their actions, who can blame that characterization?) Yet, I also very much wondered how the events could have happened if those decision makers had ‘done the right thing’ early on.

Over the past year, you might have been one of the hundreds of millions? people who watched Oppenheimer, the 3+ hour blockbuster epic (that just captured 7 Oscars, including one for Best Picture), which depicts the path to create the US atomic bomb. This film, somewhat of a biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, takes us into the physics laboratories while he attended and taught at university, then followed his journey to direct the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Through the film, peppered with his political interactions, viewers come to an understanding of the history of the discovery and the people who made it happen. 

At times, Oppenheimer struggles with whether to bring the science forward to hopefully end global war. Yet, as depicted, he wonders at what price, even asking luminary scientist, Albert Einstein whether the science might bring forth the end of the world as we know it. In addition to the atomic bomb, he is also ethically challenged as to whether the development of the hydrogen bomb should be explored (spoiler alert, he believes and stands by that opinion of ‘not to develop it’ at great cost to his reputation and professional opportunity).

In each film, we are drawn closer to the featured characters, and are also left wondering at times whether the scientists depicted should be admired or resented for their discoveries and their methods for achieving them. They show us how scientists must tap into our ethical core to choose the research paths we navigate as we solve the world's most challenging problems. If you haven’t seen either film (both are excellent and worth the time to watch), I encourage you to explore them, then look at the work you do with the same critical lens you use to review each film’s scenarios and characters.

These films encourage us to critically and deeply examine "who truly benefits from our scientific discoveries?" and ponder an equally important question, "at what cost?"