Bioethics doctoral program provides novel educational opportunities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State is now offering a unique dual-title doctoral program that allows students to combine the study of bioethics with another academic discipline.

Graduate students in a variety of fields across the University can study the increasingly complex ethical issues presented by the practice of medicine, public health crises, access to health care, the latest developments in the biosciences, and the ways that biomedical research is funded and conducted.

“Although bioethics was broadly conceived in the early 1970s, much work in the field has focused narrowly on communications and relationships between physicians, their patients, and the patients’ families, or issues facing scientific researchers and their human subjects,” said Jonathan Marks, associate professor of bioethics, humanities and law, and associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “Many leading scholars now recognize that bioethics should address broader questions of health policy such as access to health care in the U.S. and abroad, or the impact of the pharmaceutical industry on the delivery of health care and the conduct of scientific research. These are the kinds of issues we are addressing at Penn State.”

As the first program of its kind in the U.S., this dual-title doctoral program will produce interdisciplinary scholars, educators and professional practitioners who will have a deeper understanding of the most pressing problems in medicine, public health and the environment, and will be better equipped to address the social and ethical implications of the proposed solutions.

Three academic departments are collaborating to launch the program: Anthropology, and Communication Arts and Sciences, both in the College of the Liberal Arts; and Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development. Other academic units cross the University have expressed interest in being part of the program in the near future.

Marks directs the Bioethics and Medical Humanities Program at the University Park campus, as well as the bioethics initiative of the Rock Ethics Institute. Bioethics has been a focus of the Institute and, in addition to its role in initiating and promoting this new degree, has coordinated several bioethics events in the last decade, including lecture series, workshops and conferences on a variety of topics including health and human rights, the ethics of genetics and genomics, Islam and bioethics, neuroethics, the legacy of the Nazi doctors and “bioethics without borders.”

This coming year, the Rock Ethics Institute will host eight lectures on food ethics, addressing a wide range of topics from industrial farming to food safety and food security. Another accomplishment of the Institute was the establishment of an intercollege undergraduate minor in bioethics and medical humanities in 2005.

The new bioethics curriculum for doctoral candidates will train students in essential theoretical and methodological approaches and explore pressing issues related to clinical ethics, research ethics, health policy, food and drug policy, the environment and health, nano- and bio-technology, and global health, among others. Graduates of the dual-title doctoral program should be highly sought after by private and public employers alike. In particular, their novel interdisciplinary training should allow them to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Major funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation increasingly require that grant applicants address the social and ethical implications of their proposed research project, and the graduates of this Program should be better prepared to do so than many of their peers.

Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, which houses the interdisciplinary graduate program, said, “Penn State possesses the depth of expertise in the historical, legal, scientific and social aspects of science, technology and medicine necessary to incorporate this broader approach to bioethics. Nationwide, there are more than 20 master’s programs in bioethics, sometimes linked to a medical or law degree, but the Penn State dual-title Ph.D. program will be the first of its kind to reach across several academic disciplines. The program is aimed at attracting some of the top talented Ph.D. candidates to the University because of the rich intellectual opportunities and the enhanced employment prospects.”

For more information, go to or contact Jonathan Marks, the director of the program, at

Last Updated May 19, 2016