PFC Spotlight: Student Fellow Alumnus Matthew Baum image

Petrie-Flom Center, April 13, 2017


Learn more about Matthew Baum

Matthew Baum was a Student Fellow for the 2013-2014 academic year, as a second year MD-PhD student in the Health Science and Technology combined program of Harvard and MIT. Then Academic Fellow W. Nicholson Price II served as his mentor. Currently, Mr. Baum is in the PhD phase (his fifth year overall) of the HST program, working to test a hypothesis that over-exuberant synapse-pruning machinery contributes to the pathogenesis of schizophrenia. He is based jointly in the laboratories of Beth Stevens and Steve McCarroll and part of an incredible community of scientists at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Genetics, Neurobiology, and Immunology. In addition, Mr. Baum's first monograph, "The Neuroethics of Biomarkers: What the Development of Bioprediction Means for Moral Responsibility, Justice, and the Nature of Mental Disorder," was published last spring by Oxford University Press.

When did you first become interested in health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics? 

I first became interested at the end of my undergraduate education (many moons ago) when I became increasingly concerned by the question of how the efforts in neuroscience to unravel the mechanisms of psychiatric disorders should impact the categories themselves (as a lot of the research was pointing to biological risk that cut across existing categories or applied to only a subset within each category). I also took a wonderful class on Neuroscience and Society taught by Marvin Chun (Yale University). Then, all of a sudden, I found myself deferring my enrollment in MD-PhD training to go to Oxford, where I completed a DPhil at the Oxford Center for Neuroethics and ETHOX under the guidance of Julian Savulescu and Mark Sheehan. 

What attracted you to the Student Fellowship program at the Petrie-Flom Center?

When I finally did matriculate in the MD-PhD program, I wanted to continue investigating Neuroethics part-time. I had become increasingly interested in the legal and policy issues raised by neuroscience, but I felt acutely my own ignorance when it came to law and policy. I hoped that Student Fellowship at the Petrie Flom Center would help me develop the vocabulary and colleagues to be able to approach issues of neuroscience and law more competently (i.e. catalyze my conversion to a less-ignorant steady-state).

What was the focus of your Student Fellowship project, and how did your mentor assist you in completing it?

I wanted to further explore the neuroethics of biomarkers, which was the focus of my DPhil studies, specifically areas that I thought I could benefit from mentorship with a legal/policy perspective. I ended up working on a project concerning off-label use of neuroimaging technologies to inform on dementia-risk. My mentor gave me excellent feedback and comments, and helped me think more broadly in the legal sphere; indeed it was through the SF that I became aware of some of the issues of off-label use generally and realized that they could arise in relation to a newly-FDA approved imaging technology.

What were your key takeaways from the Student Fellowship? Have you continued to interact with the Center and/or its affiliates since completing your fellowship?

One thing I learned is that lawyers speak another language. There were several times when we were talking about a bioethics issue that I thought I knew a thing or two about (that is, I knew some of the key terminology and background literature), only to discover that my legal colleagues had different terminology and different background literature for it! It was an experience a bit like I had when I moved to the UK and naively thought that I would be able to understand people there because we both speak English (note, they spoke English, and I spoke American). This was an incredible learning opportunity for me, partly because it helped me understand the extra effort at translation and auxiliary learning one needs to do in order to communicate with an interdisciplinary audience on their own terms.

And yes, I do continue to interact with members and affiliates! Many of us were brought together last year by the cross-institutional efforts to put on a seminar series in Neuroethics and I still make it to Petrie Flom Center talks when I can. I also enjoy seeing members at conferences and talks outside of Harvard.

How has the Student Fellowship influenced your career?

The SF has helped to shape the lens of my thinking; it has made me more aware of how (and when) my own interests intersect with areas of law and policy, and I now have a set of former mentors and colleagues I feel that I can contact for advice or collaboration. This feeling of continued community extends beyond legal-content too. When I was navigating the uncharted waters of a first academic book contract, for example, it was wonderful to be able to reach out to (Faculty Director) I. Glenn Cohen and discuss the process with someone who had been through it many times before. Glenn also generously read and commented on the book when Oxford University Press contacted him for that purpose. I imagine that the SF will continue to influence my career in varied and unexpected ways as I move further down the path of physician-scientist. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I highly recommend the student fellowship to any student grappling with what should we do in relation to developments in the biosciences. If law and policy are not your background (for example, perhaps you are a computer science student interested in the implications of machine learning), I recommend the fellowship all the more. The SF was a wonderful opportunity to get me outside of my “disciplinary comfort-zone” and provided an invaluable window into the legal perspective, a window I will be looking out of for years to come.

Learn more about the Petrie-Flom Center's Student Fellowship program on our website!

bioethics biotechnology health law policy neuroscience research spotlight