The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Member Spotlight: Barbara Atkinson

barbara-atkinson_portraitPresident Obama appointed Barbara Atkinson, M.D., to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) in April 2010. Atkinson is Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus at the University of Kansas Medical Center and Professor Emeritus of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. She was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1997.

As a cytopathologist, a physician who studies diseases at the cellular level, Atkinson brings both medical and institutional perspectives to the issues before the Bioethics Commission. However, Atkinson did not always know she wanted to work in bioethics. She was first introduced to this emerging field when she began teaching general ethics to her medical students. In its infancy, bioethics was not formally taught in the classroom, but learned and picked up through practice, Atkinson said. It was through her experience in patient care and research that Atkinson became more and more interested in bioethics. Upon accepting the position Executive Vice Chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, Atkinson became responsible for addressing many ethical issues arising from the research and clinical activities of the school. As her work progressed, Atkinson’s professional interests began to shift to bioethical issues such as health disparities and potential conflicts of interest, and later to end of life care and research issues related to the human genome.

Atkinson is also a proponent of mentorship in her field through programs like the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) for women. When Atkinson graduated from medical school, only 10% of medical students were women, and even fewer of them were leaders in academic medicine. “As I moved through my career, I made it a point to mentor other women,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson particularly values the opportunity to contribute to national discussions on new, significant issues like pediatric medical countermeasure research, implications of research on the human genome, and neuroscience. “The ethics piece is an integral piece of the whole discussion and to be able to have an impact on those studies is incredibly meaningful,” she said. The Bioethics Commission’s first report, New Directions in Synthetic Biology, remains Atkinson’s favorite report to date because she found the process of putting forth recommendations on cutting edge technology fascinating, and she appreciates that it was widely read by diverse audiences.

Like so many of her peers, Atkinson said that the best part of working with the Bioethics Commission is the company of fellow members and distinguished speakers who come to publicly present at Bioethics Commission meetings. “At meetings, each person is able to offer different perspectives and different views. To be a part of a discussion with them on those issues is what I really enjoy.”

When she is not deliberating challenging bioethical issues, Atkinson enjoys birding. She and her husband have identified 565 species in the United States and Canada.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Learn more about the 2009 - 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.