Letter to the editor

Dear Ms. Swenson,

As a UC Berkeley alumnus (now at the U of A for graduate school), I have to

say that the alarmist tone of your article does the issue a bit of a

disservice. While I agree that the program should be scrapped on financial

grounds – the University is desperate for money following years of recession

and California’s budget chaos – better arguments could have been made for

and against the program.

For example: screening for genes relating to alcohol breakdown could

potentially encourage irresponsible and excessive risk-taking among students

who discover they have “”better”” or more active alcohol dehydrogenases. The

context in which the results are presented is therefore extremely important,

although from my experience there I can say that many students outside of

the biological sciences probably can’t be bothered to take the issue

seriously even if it is presented properly. However, your argument that

reading books is more scholarly than a cheek swab is something of a straw

man; reading a book without thinking critically about it is about as useful

(and far more time consuming!) as getting a genetic screen. The important

part is what students *do* with the information they’ve acquired. Debate is

an ancient art that seems lost in modern America; encouraging students to

talk about the usefulness of these tests, the implications of having them

done on a broad scale, and how to interpret and use the results is the aim

of the program. In this respect, it seems to have worked far better than

its creators intended, given the fact that people at other universities are

writing editorials to discuss the issue.

The idea behind the program – that rapid technological advancements come

with a host of moral and ethical quandaries which need to be discussed – is

actually quite sound. However, if this program is anything like the book

lists we were faced with, its biggest failing will be the lack of a

framework in which students can actually discuss it. Many students will

probably forget all of the results but the alcohol ones and fail to actually

discuss any of the issues raised by personalized medicine: what are the

limitations of genetic information in treatment settings? How are genetic

risk factors influenced by environment? How will easy access to genetic

screens influence decision-making by patients with little to no background

in biology and only limited ability to interpret their results? And so on.

Indeed, one could (rightly) point out that these questions could be raised

and discussed without the need to swab students’ cheeks, though it is true

that having such tests performed gives them a personal stake in the matter.

The fact that the program is completely voluntary is something you don’t

give it enough credit for. There was never any follow-through for the

summer readings lists as far as I know (I only read two books off of mine,

since the rest didn’t interest me), and no incentive to participate. If UC

Berkeley is pressuring students to participate in the program and punishing

them for failing to do so, then legal actions should be taken to block it.

After all, in a world of personalized medicine, it is important for a

patient to have some idea of who has access to his or her genetic

information and what those people can do with it. Would you really want an

insurance company to know that you carry genes that predispose you to

developing Alzheimer’s or lung cancer? If presented in that light, I think

these tests could encourage students to consider the drawbacks of such

information being available and take a more active role in determining who

has access to it.

Of course, regardless of the high-minded aims of this program (or the

failings in its execution), I think most students will just end up being in

it to see how wasted they can get.

Thanks for your time,

– Andrew Brennan