Posts Tagged ‘media’

Remembering Markoff

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

BU’s public relations team may be loathe to acknowledge it, but the most visible news coverage the university has received lately is the suicide of former student Philip Markoff. Markoff was the BU medical student accused of stalking and killing women he met on Craigslist. He was in jail awaiting trial when he killed himself.

Like a lot of sensationalized news stories, this one attracted extra attention because it involved a middle-class, blond suspect. It seemed especially incongruous that a medical student, pledged to do no harm, would engage in murderous acts.

At the time he was arrested, I heard questions about the rigor of BU School of Medicine’s admissions process. Those seem misplaced to me. No admissions committee can delve into an applicant’s psyche, particularly when Markoff was so skilled at deceiving everyone, including the people closest to him.

If anything, Markoff’s case illustrates the need to look beyond standardized test scores in medical school admissions. At the same time, his example shows how no admissions process is infallible.

Poisonous Plastics

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

This weekend 60 Minutes broadcast a report about the dangers posed by phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals found in flexible plastic consumer items like shower curtains, vinyl raincoats, and even rubber duckies. Research by University of Rochester professor Shanna Swan has shown that exposure to phthalates interrupts the production of testosterone in young boys, leading to misshapen sexual organs.

Dr. Swan’s research is a good example of the power of medical research. It has led to a federal law banning the use of phthalates in the manufacture of toys.

At the same time, the 60 Minutes piece demonstrates the dangers of scientists bringing their findings to the public. Lesley Stahl follows the media rule of showing both sides to every argument whether they are balanced or not. She interviews a businessman who must spend $8,000 to test a toy microscope for the outlawed toxin. She also talks to a scientist who says that experiments done in rats do not necessarily apply to humans.

When biomedical scientists communicate their conclusions more broadly, they have to be aware that not everyone understands what proof means in a research setting. They have to be particularly careful to specify what their findings can mean and to educate reporters about the tentative nature of scientific knowledge.