As 2016 approaches its end, many are reflecting back on a socio-politically momentous year, and wondering what it may be prologue to in 2017. Bioethics scholars are no different, considering how their areas of research may evolve in response to new policies or shifting priorities, and what novel methods they can use to contribute to a healthy national dialogue. Some progress began on these points at a recent reunion of past and present participants in the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics fellowship programs , as they joined in discussion with established thought leaders in the field of bioethics, as well as documentary filmmakers and other innovative communications professionals.
“It was inspiring to see the energy and passion evident among these scholars and filmmakers, coming at issues with different methods but similar understanding of their importance, and what could be gained from working with each other,” said Gail Geller , Director of Educational Initiatives at the Berman Institute and organizer of the reunion.
The interdisciplinary group gathered at the Inn at Henderson’s Wharf in Baltimore on December 6. Former participants in the Greenwall Fellowship  program and past and present Hecht-Levi Fellows  began by taking a turn describing where their career and the fellowship program has brought them thus far, and what they consider the most important bioethics issues for the future. While the concerns cited were as diverse as the field of bioethics and its practitioners, many expressed their desire to leave abstraction and the so-called ivory tower behind and contribute practically to society.
Senior bioethicists Margaret Battin , Joseph Fins , Jeffrey Kahn , and Ruth Macklin , and expert public health practitioner Joshua Sharfstein  then shared their experiences, both positive and negative, with public outreach and working to affect policy change. Prof. Macklin spoke about her experiences working in South America, and shared that she had not been prepared for the negative reaction there to her secular, pro-choice perspectives. Prof. Kahn discussed his experiences working through polarizing issues in the context of university and federal bureaucracies.
The expert panel – moderated by the Berman Institute’s Ruth Faden , a co-organizer of the event – was followed by a brief commentary by Andy Burness , the founder and president of a global communications firm serving non-profits. He referred to the panelists as “a sort of Hall of Fame in one room at the same time,” and emphasized the importance of learning how to describe one’s work as a story. It was evident from the panelists’ comments, and from Burness’ that bioethicists have natural stories to tell.
Filmmakers then shared their perspectives on storytelling, and its effectiveness for communicating important and controversial issues. The panel included Academy Award nominee Scott Kennedy , documentarians Daniele Anastasion , Yoruba Richen , Ana Salceda , and Cate Adams, a production executive at Warner Bros Pictures.
The panel was moderated by Rick Loverd, Program Director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange , an initiative of the National Academy of Sciences that connects Hollywood entertainment industry professionals with scientists, engineers, and academics to facilitate accurate science and engaging stories in movies and TV.
Hecht-Levi Fellow Janet Childerhose  appreciated the opportunity to think outside the box. “I loved having non-academics challenge us to think about the stories that we want to tell—and to remind us why storytelling matters.”
Yoram Unguru , a former Greenwall Fellow and now a pediatric oncologist at Sinai Hospital Children’s Center in Baltimore and a core member of the Berman Institute faculty, agreed, saying “It is exciting to think about how documentary filmakers’ work might intersect with the work of bioethics scholars, though they are so very different I could envision that there is room for collaboration.”
Mr. Kennedy reflected on the importance of such partnerships. “At a time when evidence based news/journalism/art is struggling to be heard and even survive, collaborations between artists and academics could not be more needed. I was glad to be included, and hope to invited again and often.”
“Our world is changing in unfathomable ways, and the fellows’ reunion showed how science and ethics have become inseparable,” observed Ms. Anastasion. “It was encouraging to see so many brilliant people engaged in vital and thoughtful work. It was an honor to be able to explore some of the bioethics issues that the fellows are tackling, and to think through how we can bring these stories to a broader audience. I hope we’ll have the chance to collaborate together in the future.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to share time with kindred spirits. It was an exhilarating day that ended at 1:30am drinking hot chocolate while discussing animal rights,” Ms. Salceda  said of her discussion with Hecht-Levi Fellow David Pena-Guzman .
“I can’t recall ever having felt so energized at the end of a 14 hour day!” agreed former Greenwall Fellow Jonathan Marks , now the director of the Bioethics Program at the University Park Campus of Penn State University.
Reflecting on the day’s conversations and connections, Prof. Battin said that it was “surely the most inventive conference ever!”
Prof. Macklin agreed. “One of the best meetings I’ve been to in ages,” she said.
“It was an extraordinary day that left many of us, perhaps surprisingly, optimistic about the future,” said Prof. Faden. “With so much talent, so open to creative new ideas and ways to engage, the prospects for bioethics to contribute to a better tomorrow seem brighter than ever.”