WPI Senior Contributes to International Discussion on Gene Mapping

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

WORCESTER, Mass. - Eric Tapley is one of those people who seem able to do anything, and do it well. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute senior, who hails from Jaffrey, N.H., attended an international conference this summer, participating in discussions about bioethics. This spring he designed a Web site for the Worcester Art Museum, an accomplishment featured on Apple Computer's Web site. In addition, the 22-year-old works 30 hours a week at Pagano Media, a Worcester video production company.

"The firm is expanding into print and Web publishing, and they hired me to build their Web department," Tapley explained. On the side, this student runs a free-lance business in Web design and consulting. Meanwhile, he's taking two full-time courses at WPI (only one less than the norm for most students) and is finishing a required major project on the correlation between cognitive styles and standardized tests.

Tapley is majoring in policy studies through WPI's department of social science with a minor in system dynamics. Among his other accomplishments, he also has served for two years as president of the WPI chapter of the international educational organization called Student Pugwash. This month, from Oct. 28-31, he will serve as moderator of a discussion group on "Access, Education and the Future of Science" at the Student Pugwash National Conference in Washington, D.C. Last summer he was invited to attend the Student Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs June 28-July 4 in San Diego, Calif.

Student Pugwash is an offshoot of the Pugwash conferences started in the 1950s by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. These conferences tackle major concerns facing humanity.

"As an organization, we don't actually advocate one point of view," Tapley explained. "We try to bring together people with diverse points of view so that they can share and learn from one another."

Taken from an informal interview held recently with Tapley, here's a report on the summer Pugwash conference in his words:

"Regarding human genetics and bioethics, as students, we may not be knowledgeable enough to take a stand on these issues. But we try and talk about these kind of hot topics that have aspects of science and social responsibility. Pugwash members are known for asking tough questions of other people and ourselves.

"One of the big topics we discussed in San Diego was the Human Genome Project. This is the scientific project underway to catalog the entire human genetic system. Scientists are currently going through the process of making a genetic map of the human body. The gist of the problem of the human genome is the concern that this knowledge could be used for malicious purposes. It might mean there will be discrimination against people because they have a genetic disease - or just the genetic predisposition to develop a disease.

"Once scientists have that kind of information, the question arises, 'Who has access to the information?' Should it be available to everyone, everywhere?

"Another issue involves the ability to make modifications to the human species. Do we want to allow people to increase or influence the intelligence or stamina of their children?

"There are two types of genes - those that are passed on to your children and those that are not. The general scientific consensus is to allow some modification of those genes that are not passed on. We don't want some madman creating a super species, nor do we want to try to cure a genetic disease and somehow make it worse when these altered genes are passed onto the next generation.

"The way that scientists are mapping the human genome is by an analysis of the genes of 500 to 600 people who are all anonymous. Scientists are collecting this genetic information and putting it into a database.

"Every person has five to 50 genetic diseases, some or all of which may not be obvious. But once we have determined them, what happens to that information? What if health insurance companies know about them? What happens if they decide to raise your rates with that knowledge? And just because you have the gene for some disease, doesn't necessarily mean you will get it. It just means you're more predisposed to it than the average person. It may be you are 5 percent or 95 percent more likely to develop that disease. But, for insurance companies, they may not care what your chances are. It's easier to go across the board and just raise rates.

"As with any knowledge, it's really how you use it that gives it value. Part of what I'm trying to do, and what Pugwash is trying to do, is to educate people about how they can use this knowledge by bringing together students with scientists who are actually using this research.

"There are concerns about mapping the human genome, but there are also benefits. If you can get genetic tests done before your child is born, you may be able to fix problems earlier on.

"Biotechnology and genetics will change the world as much in the next century as computers have changed the world in this century. And because it is so applicable to each individual, we need to be proactive. We are trying to set out guidelines about what we think is - and is not - acceptable. We are not talking about just changing the environment around us anymore. We are talking about manipulating ourselves on the genetic level. That can be very frightening thought. If we do that without guidance, guidelines and forethought, we might stumble into problems that we otherwise might never have encountered.

"There will probably be an international referendum on this because it comes down to making a personal choice about this for yourself."

Tapley worked with a diverse, interdisciplinary group, including scientists and philosophers, in the human genetics discussions. He raised eyebrows - and consciousness - by noting that debates on this topic, which certainly will change the world as we know it, are taking place before the changes really occur. That's different from earlier major technological changes.

"We are reading about it before we are able to do it," Tapley said. "We aren't yet able to get down to the genetic level and alter our children. But we are already discussing it and are able to learn about it. That didn't happen before the nuclear age or the computer age. But now we really do have a societal movement and a level of concern about a technology that hasn't been fully developed. I think it's great we've reached the point where we are starting to look at this issue before it's a problem.

"When I mentioned this at the conference, everyone said, 'Wow, I never thought of that.' It was kind of great to have an original thought around Nobel laureates and scientists - people I have tremendous respect for. It underscored for me that even if you are an average guy like myself, you can bring something to these discussions."

To see the Human Genetics working group report from the international conference, go online to http://www.igc.org/pugwash/99_reunionconf/WG6report.html.

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.