book review

In addition to a) immersing themselves in the DC Lead Crisis of 2001-2004, and b) researching a second controversial case of their choosing, students in “Engineering Ethics and the Public” read a book about a real-world, current or historical, engineering/science dilemma. Our overall goal is student exposure to at least three different case studies involving engineers/scientists that:

  • Add depth and texture to our course’s four thematic units – learning to listen (L2L), responsible conduct of research (RCR), responsible conduct of practice (RCP), and witnessing wrongdoing and the obligation to prevent harm (WW), and
  • Highlight prevalent phenomena that are morally relevant to the work-world of engineers/scientists (e.g., the power of institutional culture over individual behavior; engineers’/scientists’ vulnerability to self-deception during times of conflict, stress, or great ambition; and the potential technical and moral value of non-engineer/non-scientist perspectives).

Books we use include:

Below is one version of the assignment:


Students are encouraged to engage with the book both intellectually and emotionally by analyzing a moral issue they find compelling using moral theory, drawing on their artistic imagination, and taking a stance that they defend in class. We use this exercise to support students to think and express themselves in ways not normally encouraged in the classroom, push them outside their personal and professional comfort zones, and enable them to begin to see commonalities between their own sensibilities and those of the publics that they might one day affect.

Here are some examples of pictorial images our students created for this assignment:

An Air that Kills

Book description: Told from the perspective of affected residents, this is a history of corporate mining in Libby, Montana that released toxic waves of asbestos dust into the air for several decades and sickened or killed hundreds of unsuspecting miners and their families. The book chronicles a community’s fight for justice and the formidable obstacles it encountered along the way. The protagonist is environmental public health, as it was assaulted, defended, undermined, and negotiated by a corporation, the government, the legal system, and the public.

Pictorial image, example 1:

Student comment:

Among the many lives impacted by, and lost to, asbestos, I chose to focus on the life of Margaret Vatland. This choice was motivated by one very poetic sentence in “An Air That Kills.” To describe how Margaret was now struggling to get out of bed due to her asbestosis, the authors wrote, and I paraphrase, “this woman who had harvested wheat and taught her kids to swim in the creek, was now stuck in her bed like a butterfly pinned to a board.” I found that description to be very powerful, so in my image I wanted to depict the contrast between the vibrant, hard-working life Margaret had lived, and the manner in which she was dying.


The Ghost Map

Book description: This book details the historic events of August 28-September 8, 1854 when the Soho district of London was struck by an acute cholera outbreak that killed hundreds of residents in a matter of days. The identification of the outbreak’s cause was as urgent as it was daunting. The germ theory of disease was still in its infancy and the miasma theory – which claimed that diseases are caused by toxic air – dominated medical thinking. The puzzle was eventually solved and the medical community’s thinking, changed, by the unlikely partnership between John Snow, a local doctor in his 40s, and Henry Whitehead, a local clergyman in his 20s, who worked painstakingly to amass crucial evidence and did not shy away from transgressing the intellectual bounds of their time. This book demonstrates the power of intellectual paradigms that can constrict the vision even of experts, and the multi-layered challenges one has to overcome to shift dominant perspectives in medicine and science, not only in the 1850s, but also today.

Pictorial image, example 2:

Student comment:

The story in this book, for me, is like a duel between the waterborne theory and the miasma theory. In the hand of the waterborne theory (Like John Snow, Whitehead and Farr), the sword has the persistence to achieve the truth. It has the traits of science and respect for people’s lives. It is a tool that protects people. However, in the hand of the miasma theory (Like Chadwick, Hall), the sword is so arrogant and close-minded. It killed people though it has no idea why it killed people. If the power and tools are in the hand of the right people, it really helps to make life better. Otherwise, the catastrophe comes, like the DC lead crisis.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book description: This is a story about the 1951 discovery of the first immortal line of human cells called “HeLa,” a code name that was based on the first and last names of the woman from whom the cells were taken: Henrietta Lacks. For the past six decades, HeLa cells have been mass produced, commercially sold, and used to help achieve numerous biomedical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, the first animal-human hybrid cells, chemotherapy, cloning, and in-vitro fertilization. Skloot’s narrative foregrounds a side of the HeLa revolution that had received little attention prior the publication of her book: the fate of Ms. Lacks and her family, as well as their controversial treatment by the medical establishment. It also raises complex and timely questions about patient rights and the multi-billion dollar human-tissue research industry today.

Pictorial image, example 3:

Student comment:

I was trying to capture the humanity of death and science by looking at what, in Henrietta’s death, the two extremes (the Lacks family and Scientists) in the book were focused on.  In her death, Henrietta left something very important behind that needed a lot of tending to…for scientists, that was her cells to be studied and manipulated for discoveries that contributed to the betterment for the greater good.  A major theme of this class is the dehumanization of people by scientists of their subject – whether it is denying their informed consent, manipulating their perspective on technically complicated issues, or literally never thinking of them as a human.  For the Lacks family (or maybe just specifically Deborah), Henrietta left behind a mottled legacy that she desperately needs to understand to come to terms with her mother’s spirit that she believes is living on, possibly wrongfully, through her cells.  We see this in the humanization of the storms and in the unforeseen turns in the lives of people that are involved in the story, like our author Rebecca Skloot.

This is what the picture represents to me.  For Deborah, a crumpled up picture of her represents a person that is emotionally and [arguably] physically affected by her desire to know about her mother, the empty focus of her frame.  In a way, she is holding onto very specific but limited information about her mother and we see that represented by the tack at the bottom right of the frame that turns the picture of Henrietta upside-down, which is accurate both in a physical and metaphorical sense. For scientists, the focus is very clearly the cells.  I have cropped Dr. Gey’s head over Deborah’s because in the pursuit of the scientific aspect of Henrietta, save a few, most scientists removed the Lacks’ way of thinking about her mother and imposed their own desires in a way that, by today’s standard, is ethically questionable.


Plastic Fantastic

Book description: This is a book about the rise and fall of research scientist Jan Hendrik Schon, a presumed prodigy in physics and nanotechnology and a celebrated employee at Bell Labs between 1997-2002. In his early 30s, Schon both reeled and enthralled the scientific community when he claimed to have built high-performing nano-transistors out of plastics. Schon’s work was published in the most prestigious science journals and inspired researchers in the US and abroad to invest significant amounts of time and money to try and replicate, if not advance, it. Eventually Schon’s discoveries were shown to have been intentional fabrications. This story offers valuable insights into the history of scientific fraud and Schon’s personal journey of deception, but it also raises important questions about the culture of the scientific community – scientists, scientific journals, employers, and awards – which embraced for as long as it did Schon’s lies.

Pictorial image, example 4:

Student comment:

The picture represents Schon jumping from project to project to run away (avoid answering) criticism and expectations on his former projects from other scientists. The tea in his hands represents truth. The faster he has to run, the more likely the truth will be spilled (revealed), which is what happened to him in the end.

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