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Susan M. Wolf


Susan M. Wolf
McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre & Benson Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine; Center for Bioethics faculty member

Susan M. Wolf has law in her genes: Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather built Wolf & Wolf, the family's law practice in Washington, D.C. Yet already by grade school, she was deeply attracted to medicine and was voraciously reading books on the practice of medicine and the history of surgery. Among her most treasured possessions is a card from Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning physician and philosopher, that 11-year-old Wolf received back after writing him on his 90th birthday.

What engaged her most were medicine's ethical and societal issues, but she wasn't sure how to pursue them since the field of modern bioethics didn't yet exist. Wolf says she struggled for a long time over whether to go to medical school but found that "what I was really good at was talking and thinking about medicine." Today, bioethics is an advancing field and she is one of its leading scholars, plus a national expert on law and medicine and law and science. She has worked on the societal issues raised by genomics, nanobiotechnology, neuroscience, reproductive technology, and clinical medicine for more 25 years, and her excitement is still infectious.

Wolf came to the Law School in 1993 from a fellowship in ethics and the professions at Harvard. While her tenure home is the Law School, she is also a professor of medicine and a faculty member in the University's Center for Bioethics, as well as McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy. Ten years ago, she led the founding of two cross-University programs designed to address the legal, social, and ethical issues posed by biomedicine and the life sciences: the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences and the Joint Degree Program in Law, Health & Life Sciences.

The Consortium (www.lifesci.consortium.umn.edu), designated a Presidential Initiative in 2003 and then a University-wide center, links 19 top University centers and programs dealing with the societal dimensions of medicine and the life sciences and was conceived to address societal and legal issues raised by progress in the fields. "As a public university, we have an obligation to lead, not only on the science, but also on the societal challenges posed by the science," Wolf says.

The Consortium has conducted a number of groundbreaking research projects, funded by over $4 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Wolf is currently leading projects on protecting human subjects in nanomedicine research, oversight of nanobiotechnology, and returning individual findings to participants in genomic biobank research. The Consortium also publishes the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, sponsors a highly regarded annual lecture series and other events, and has awarded nearly $1 million campus-wide to support faculty and student research on the societal implications of biomedicine and the life sciences.

The Joint Degree Program (www.jointdegree.umn.edu) offers 23 degree combinations (including J.D./M.D., J.D./M.P.H., and J.D./Ph.D.), enabling students to complete both a J.D. and an advanced degree in health or a life science. The program currently has 34 students, and has graduated 33 alumni who have attained positions in state and federal government, law firms, private industry, nonprofits, and academia.

"Our Joint Degree Program," says Wolf, who serves as its director, "is the broadest and most intensive program of its kind, training students deeply in both law and science and preparing them to lead on some of the most challenging issues of the 21st century."

Wolf received her undergraduate degree summa cum laude from Princeton and her J.D. in 1980 from Yale. There she met a pivotal mentor, Professor Jay Katz. "He was a remarkable professor, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, not a lawyer," she says. "He was one of the founding fathers of the field of law and medicine, and I am deeply indebted to his influence."

After graduating and clerking for a judge in New York, Wolf served as a litigation associate at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Wolf began publishing with a partner in the firm, who was chairing the President's Commission on bioethics. He introduced Wolf to one of the country's senior think-tanks on bioethics, The Hastings Center. She ended up working there for nine years. Among other projects, she served as lead writer of Guidelines on the Termination of Life-Sustaining Treatment and the Care of the Dying (1987), the first detailed set of ethics guidelines on end-of-life decisions. Wolf is currently collaborating with Hastings colleagues on an update (expected for release in 2011).

Wolf is an elected Fellow of The Hastings Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2009, she received one of the nation's highest honors in the fields of medicine and public health: election to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

Breakthroughs in the life sciences continue to spawn new legal and ethical questions, Wolf says. "Practically every day, a new case or issue erupts in the news. The breakneck speed of scientific advance deeply challenges the law." Wolf thrives on those challenges. "The constant change is part of what's so exciting. As a scholar in this field, you have an opportunity to make fundamental contributions, to be part of figuring out what we're going to do about all these issues. The work is riveting."