Growing team at Northeastern ready to tackle ethical challenges in biomedicine and technology 

Students work on a paper together at an ethics competition.
Courtesy photo

Should doctors take over the care of an 18-year-old refusing care for anorexia nervosa? What does it mean to keep a sick baby experiencing pain alive on life support? What happens to chimpanzees after the government bans testing on them? Is it OK for the government to track a person’s DNA?

These questions and more were tackled by Northeastern University students over the last semester, leading up to the nationwide spring Bioethics Bowl hosted by the school. 

More than 150 students from colleges across the nation attended to discuss ethical challenges in biomedicine and technology. 

Northeastern’s team ranked fourth out of 22 teams. The team is slowly growing and gaining momentum among students. 

Students from many areas are participating, including pre-med, law, computer science and philosophy. 

“I imagine that what they’re doing with us can be relevant regardless of what they go into,” says Benjamin Yelle, an associate teaching professor of philosophy at Northeastern University. “What we’re doing has relevance to a whole sort of different careers that students might be going into.” 

About six years ago, Yelle, alongside Katy Shorey, an associate teaching professor of philosophy, began recruiting for the Ethics Bowl program, a similar ethics competition that happens every fall. 

Yelle began with a small group of students he recruited through the class he taught called Debating Ethical Controversies. The course used the cases put out by the National Ethics Bowl to discuss contemporary moral issues. 

The team started to grow. Before the pandemic, he had a group of students that were so interested they created and organized their own technology Ethics Bowl at Northeastern University. 

“Then, the pandemic hit, and we had to go into rebuild mode the past couple of years,” says Yelle. “I think we did it.”

Now the group has around 20 people. Northeastern has formed three teams with about 15 people competing in total in the Bioethics Bowl. 

This spring was the first time the national event was held in Boston. Every other semester the team had to travel to the competition to places like Salt Lake City and Indiana. 

“It’s been great to see all the new people joining, especially in their first year and have no experience,” says Liliana McInnis, a second-year student studying politics, philosophy and economics. 

McInnis says the team provides mentorship to new members. 

But McInnis and fellow member Ryan Baylon, a second-year student studying philosophy and environmental studies, say the goal is to place next year. “We want some trophies,” says McInnis. 

At the start of the semester, the students are given a case packet that includes 11 different studies. The student’s project is to figure out what to do with the case in about 10 minutes to discuss policy and the reasoning behind it. The other team will try to poke holes in it or offer ways to better fit the policy or the reasoning. 

Students have to prep for all of the cases. Then when they get to the bowl, it is selected at random. 

It has helped McInnis become confident in thinking through a subject on the spot. 

The ability to work on public speaking in a setting that isn’t comfortable has “absolutely helped me,” she said. 

The team would love to grow a stronger community, says Baylon. 

Baylon added, “I also want to get more trophies on the books.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.