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Gift to bioethics center will make a real-world difference

A bequest from the late Ann Salovich will help the Center for Bioethics attract top students to its new graduate program. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Bioethics)

As the second wave of the H1N1 flu pandemic hit this fall and health-care providers awaited a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus, questions about rationing loomed large. “Who gets to go to the front of the line, who should be vaccinated first?” asks Debra DeBruin, Ph.D., director of Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics.

“You start with basic, core principles and work down to goals and then to strategies,” explains DeBruin, who has spent three years working with the Minnesota Department of Health to create guidelines for allocating scarce resources during a pandemic.

Such vexing dilemmas keep faculty at the Center for Bioethics exceedingly busy and would likely have intrigued the late Ann Salovich, a Twin Cities volunteer, philanthropist, and ardent University supporter who was passionate about ethics, public policy, and public engagement.

So it’s fitting that an estimated $500,000 philanthropic bequest she left to the University will benefit the center as it engages the public in this crucial debate and others like it.

Building a new graduate program

“This is a wonderful gift,” says center director Jeffrey Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H. “We’re all working to make a difference in our teaching, research, and outreach. This gift will help us reach more people in support of our mission and is a testament to the impact an individual can make.”

Together, faculty members agreed that the money will help support the center’s brandnew master’s degree program through graduate student fellowships. This year, eight students from wide-ranging backgrounds — medicine, law, public health, and divinity — are pursuing master’s degrees in bioethics.

That diversity is by design, DeBruin says, and the center will use a significant portion of Ann Salovich’s gift to support fellowships so that it can continue to attract top graduate students who have varied résumés and come from throughout the United States and beyond.

Guiding public policy

Much of the work done by center faculty helps to shape public policy — one of Salovich’s lifelong interests. Faculty serve on numerous University, state, and federal bodies that make important decisions about medical science and health care. For instance, Kahn currently serves on the National Institute of Health’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which oversees gene transfer research. “The science doesn’t go forward until that body has made its recommendations,” Kahn says.

“There are parts of the University that never leave the ivory tower. And there is a value in the work that goes on in those areas,” he says. “But much of our work at the center is in the real world. I feel like we make a difference in a very real way.”

Engaging the public

In fact, engaging the public in ethical discussions with real-life consequences is one of the center’s key missions, and Kahn hopes the Salovich gift will allow the center to use new media and other technology to foster that involvement.

“It’s hard for us to deal with late-breaking issues,” Kahn says. “We’re a relatively small faculty. How can we get this kind of information out to a wider public more effectively? How can we use developing information technologies to do a better job of making what we do publicly accessible?”

One possible answer may emerge from the recently launched Ethicshare.org, an online resource for bioethics scholars. Kahn hopes that this joint project of the Center for Bioethics, the University of Minnesota Libraries, and the Department of Computer Science eventually will be accessible to the public.

“We try to be a clearinghouse for information around the ethical aspects of issues and to help provide the highest quality analysis of those issues. It’s not our job to tell people what to think. We should never do that,” Kahn explains. “In fact, we don’t even try to reach conclusions collectively, because we know that a diverse group of thinkers should challenge each other rather than all agree with each other. We’re here to help people analyze the issues.”

Promoting enlightened discourse to advance the common good is exactly what Ann Salovich was committed to, Kahn says. “That’s what she was about and what she wanted her legacy to be.”

To make a gift to the Center for Bioethics, contact Holly McDonough Gulden at 612-625-8758 or h.mcdonough@mmf.umn.edu.

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