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Nicolle Strand L’13 delves into bioethics for presidential commission

September 21, 2015

Nicolle Strand L’13 always knew she wanted to work in bioethics. It was her major at Wellesley College, where she graduated in 2010, and she came to Penn Law to specifically to pursue a joint JD/MBE in bioethics.

Now, after graduating with her JD/MBE, Strand is a research analyst at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which is made up of senior experts in the field of bioethics, coming from a variety of disciplines.

And Strand isn’t the only person with a Penn connection at the commission. University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann serves as the commission’s chair and Anita L. Allen, professor at Penn Law and Vice Provost for Faculty at Penn, is also a commission member.

The commission meets four times per year to publicly talk about important bioethical issues, and as an analyst, Strand does research and puts together briefing books to prepare the commission members for their meetings.

She also conducts research and prepares reports issued by the commission, which are sent to federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the White House, with hope that those agencies will take up the commission’s recommendations.

Strand has worked full time at the commission since graduating from Penn Law, and while she was a Law School student, she interned there during her 2L summer.

The commission is interdisciplinary, including doctors, nurses, lawyers, political scientists, and theologians, said Strand, and the commission’s staff also includes members from a variety of fields: public health experts, lawyers, educators, philosophers, and others.

The most recent report published by the commission is called Gray Matters, and it delves into the intersection of neuroscience and ethics.

One chapter in the report specifically addresses neuroscience and the legal system, examining issues such as how neuroscience evidence should be used in the courtroom, if MRI technology should be used for lie detection, and if evidence from neuroscience can be used to determine a person’s mental state.

“I drew really heavily on my experience at Penn Law,” said Strand about her work researching and writing that particular chapter on neuroscience and the legal system.

During her time as a student, she took Professor Stephen J. Morse’s class on mental health law, she noted, and her Law School writing and research skills have been critical to her work for the commission.

Penn Law has been at the forefront of scholarship on neuroscience at the law. The Law School even offers a certificate of study in social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience (SCAN).

Morse, who is the associate director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at Penn, co-taught a class with Professor Amy Wax last spring specifically on neuroscience and the law. Strand noted that the commission has drawn extensively on Morse’s work for their reports.

In addition to her work on the commission’s neuroscience report, Strand has done writing and research for other projects, such as a report on privacy and whole genome sequencing. For that publication, Strand researched the legal landscape of U.S. privacy laws on genetics and compiled information detailing those laws in each of the 50 states.

Along with her work on specific reports, as a researcher for the commission, Strand has the opportunity to conduct her own scholarship. Currently, she is studying issues related to genetics and genomics, specifically the regulations related to private genetic testing companies.

Strand noted that Penn Law’s cross-disciplinary focus was what drew her to the school. “Penn Law was absolutely my first choice because of the interdisciplinary nature of the school and how easy they made it to take classes in other departments and get dual degrees,” she said.

She added that the fully integrated program made combining the study of bioethics and law a straightforward endeavor. “I had a really easy time being able to parlay work I did with the Journal of Constitutional Law with work I did on my master’s thesis in bioethics,” she said.

With her joint degree and cross-disciplinary experience, she said, she was able to pursue the career she had hoped for since she her days as an undergraduate.

“I always wanted to work at this commission,” said Strand. “This is my dream job.”