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JMU senior chosen to study at Yale summer bioethics institute

john gardner yale bioethics institute
John Gardner inside the Yale University Art Gallery

John Gardner, a fifth-year senior at James Madison University, recently completed a two-month intensive summer program at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

“I always like to challenge myself, even during the summer months,” said Gardner, who is double majoring in philosophy and religion. “It was a little intimidating at first, being at Yale and in group discussions with people from around the world who are experts in their fields, but I feel like I held my own intellectually.”

Gardner was one of 75 American and international students from a variety of disciplines who were chosen to participate in the summer institute, which consists of lectures and seminars on bioethical issues presented by scholars from Yale and other institutions, as well as group discussions, field trips and a research “mini-conference” during which participants are required to present a paper on a topic of their choice.

"It was a little intimidating at first, being at Yale and in group discussions with people from around the world who are experts in their fields, but I feel like I held my own intellectually." 

The institute defines bioethics broadly to include medical, biological and environmental ethics. Gardner focused his studies on respecting patients’ autonomy within controversial debates surrounding issues such as stem cell research, abortion and genetic screening. His final paper concerned the ethics of placebo use in clinical practice. “Studies have shown that as much as 50 percent of general practitioners prescribe placebo on a regular basis,” he said.

Gardner, who is using his final year at JMU to prepare for graduate school, has completed independent studies with Dr. Mark Piper and Dr. Alan Levinovitz, both assistant professors in the philosophy and religion department. Gardner will assist Piper in the teaching of a course in bioethics in the spring semester.

“John is very sharp, an excellent listener, and asks superb questions,” Piper said. “He also has considerable intellectual range and curiosity, having worked in logic, ancient Greek philosophy, religious studies and normative ethics. … John is a natural leader who has shown great foresight and maturity in his earnest and responsible approach to his future.”

Gardner said one of his more memorable experiences with the institute was visiting Connecticut Hospice in Branford. “It’s remarkable how well those workers do their jobs,” he said. “You would expect when you’re dealing with death the mood would be somber. But the rooms were filled with laughter and joy. The people were so enthusiastic. I didn’t think that was possible.”

For Gardner, who became interested in perceptions of death and dying while helping care for his ailing father in high school, another highlight was getting to chat at length with Yale professor Dr. Shelly Kagan, one of the foremost scholars in the field. “I was star-struck,” he said.

Gardner will give a presentation at JMU this fall in conjunction with The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action. After graduation in May, he hopes to go on to Yale Divinity School.

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