Research in Biology takes on real-world case

Closing statements are given as students take on a real-world case in Research in Biology.

By Emma Garval ’17

After spending a year designing and conducting their own research projects, Research in Biology (RBio) seniors take on a new role in the fourth trimester of the RBio class, serving as mentors to the new juniors, who are just beginning their research journey. “The first trimester of RBio is all about building the foundation upon which students can build skills, initiative, and drive that is necessary for the eventual development of their research projects,” explains RBio senior Chiamaka Okonkwo.

One favorite activity is the scientific fraud lesson, where students have to role-play an actual scientific fraud trial, debating what constitutes fraud, and discovering the pressures scientists face. Building upon this activity, RBio instructor, Dr. Amy Sheck, suggested that it would be interesting to explore a particularly relevant case: the Flint Michigan water crisis. The RBio seniors were tasked with designing an interactive lesson centered on the Flint water crisis, but were given minimal further direction.

In order to gain a full understanding of the crisis, the seniors first read many articles about Flint. While many of the seniors had some background in the water crisis, they were surprised to learn about the complex interactions between science, politics, and law that intertwined to worsen the disaster. In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The water in the Flint River is more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water, which caused lead from the lead pipes to leach into the water supply. This led many citizens, particularly children, to have dangerously high blood-lead levels, causing them to suffer serious health consequences. The water crisis was aggravated by the inaction and mistakes of both local and federal government officials, and was brought to the public eye by scientists, who risked their careers to advocate for the citizens of Flint.

Once they had an awareness of all the roles involved in the water crisis, the seniors had to decide how they would design the interactive lesson. They came to a consensus that the lesson should be structured like a lawsuit, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serving as the plaintiff and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) serving as the defendant. After assigning two of the RBio juniors to be lawyers for the EPA and MDEQ, they assigned the remaining four RBio juniors to play key witnesses. The witness roles for the EPA were Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a doctor who conducted a study exposing the high blood-lead levels of children in Flint, and Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from Virginia Tech who served as the “whistleblower” scientist in the Flint case. The witness roles for MDEQ were Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and May Hecks, a mother of a child who died from Legionnaires’ Disease due to the water crisis.

After assigning these roles, the seniors compiled articles for each of the juniors to read, to prepare them for their role as either an attorney or witness in the trial. Wanting to be involved in role-playing the trial, the eight seniors decided to make the trial a Supreme Court case, where they could serve as the Supreme Court justices. Not having a strong legal background, the RBio students brought in an expert, Professor Don Hornstein, to advise them on the case and to serve as the Chief Justice. Professor Hornstein is the Aubrey L. Brooks Distinguished Professor of Law at the UNC School of Law, and was a former appellate attorney at the US Department of Justice. In addition, Professor Hornstein has a background in environmental law, serving as a member of UNC’s Institute for the Environment and UNC’s Curriculum in Environment and Ecology.

When the day of the Flint trial finally came, the RBio students gathered in the library, dressed to fit their assigned roles. They rearranged the chairs and tables to resemble a courtroom, and with instructions from bailiff Dr. Sheck, and a strike of the gavel from Chief Justice Hornstein, the case began. Both attorneys had prepared eloquent opening and closing statements, and the witnesses were prepared to answer difficult questions from the attorneys and justices — even Chief Justice Hornstein’s rapid fire ones.

Professor Hornstein was impressed with the activity, saying that, “the students in this class — both as attorneys and as witnesses — had truly mastered not only the scientific evidence about the lead problem in Flint, but also the nuanced institutional differences among federal, state, and local officials.” RBio junior Madeline Paoletti, who served as the witness Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, says she learned that “court decisions leave us with more questions than answers.” The Flint trial brought up questions about what role scientists should play in politics, and about who is ultimately responsible for protecting the water supply.

After the case, the justices met in private to discuss the court decision. “What the students found is that there is plenty of blame to go around, but certainly there was more than enough evidence to put a fair share of the blame on the local officials in MDEQ who, without adequate foresight, made the decision to change water systems without adequately analyzing the risks and without adequately safeguarding the health of the Flint citizenry,” explained Professor Hornstein. RBio junior Tony Zhang, who served as the attorney for MDEQ, observed, “true clarity comes from understanding all perspectives of a conflict.”

Dr. Sheck was thrilled with the outcome of the lesson, declaring, “Role-playing characters in the Flint Water crisis helped the students to learn about a current event and to view it from the biological, environmental, legal, and political perspectives. The Flint Water Crisis Role-Play will become one of the classic RBio lessons that is repeated, re-lived, and cherished each year.”