Leona Samson - Science school for judges
MIT and the Broad Institute open their doors to the judicial community for a workshop at the intersection of science and the law.
Emily Finn, MIT News Office
September 20, 2011
Last week, tucked away in a second-floor teaching
space at the MIT Museum known as “the cell,”
students huddled together in a dark corner of the
room labeled “nucleus,” where they laboriously
snapped together LEGOs — in this case
representing nucleotides — to match a long chain of
genetic material in front of them.
Then, clutching their strands of messenger RNA,
they were ushered toward the center of the room by
their instructor, Kathy Vandiver, who sat them at small tables marked “ribosome” and set them off building proteins
out of additional toy bricks.
But these weren’t primary school students. They were judges from all over the country who had come to MIT for
Judges’ Science School, a crash course in scientific information and methods for legal professionals.
Sponsored by the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center (ASTAR), a professional
organization funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Judges’ Science School convenes six to eight workshops
each year with participants selected by chief justices in 47 U.S. jurisdictions. This session, the first ever held at
MIT, was on “Gene-Environment Interaction in Health and Disease.”
That’s where the LEGO came in. “We wanted to make the session very hands-on,” says Vandiver, the outreach
director for MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), which hosted the event along with the MIT
Museum and the Broad Institute. The activity was intended to help judges visualize DNA’s structure and function,
so they could better understand how mutations in the molecule lead to cancer and other diseases.
The theme is a timely one. Scientists are increasingly answering the decades-old question of “nature versus
nurture” — that is, whether our health and behavior are determined by our genes or our surroundings — with a
resounding “both.” New discoveries show that the risk of everything from criminal activity to skin cancer is
mediated by the complex interplay between a person’s environment and his or her genetic predispositions.
But this interaction makes it difficult to establish true causation, something that’s critical in the courtroom. “If I
experience adverse radiation exposure at a certain site and I develop cancer, whose fault is that? Is anyone to
blame? Who pays?” asks Franklin Zweig, a senior fellow at ASTAR and director of the event.
The ‘X’ factor
The consensus among the CEHS presenters — Leona Samson, the Uncas (1923) and Helen Whitaker Professor
of Toxicology and Biological Engineering and CEHS director; and Bevin Engelward, an associate professor of
biological engineering — was that for any given individual, those questions are very difficult to answer. Radiation
and other environmental toxins cause mutations in DNA, which are known to lead to cancer — sometimes. But
mutations can be caused by a number of other factors we wouldn’t ordinarily consider toxic, and they also occur
spontaneously over the natural lifetime of a cell. On top of that, some individuals are genetically blessed with an increased capacity to repair their DNA, meaning that two people exposed to the same quantity of radiation over
the same period of time may be at different risks of developing cancer.
Over the three-day workshop, the judges gained an appreciation for this tangled web of cause and effect. “It’s
obviously very difficult to say with any degree of certainty that factor ‘X’ was the causative one — that without it,
the disease wouldn’t have happened,” says Paul Kapalko, a civil court judge in New Jersey.
Of course, judges aren’t left to make those calls entirely on their own; most cases that hinge on scientific or
medical evidence invoke the testimony of expert witnesses. But just who qualifies as an expert? Judges need a
basic knowledge of science so they can sniff out testimony that seems based on flawed research, or out of line
with what’s generally accepted by the scientific community. Kapalko describes this role as the “gatekeeper” of
information in the courtroom.
“All we can do is help ensure that something that’s not truly science doesn’t get in front of the jury,” he says. “Our
job here is to understand the science better so we can perform that duty.”
Getting things right
To that end, much of the event was devoted to giving judges tools to evaluate scientists’ methods and
conclusions. Participants toured labs at the Broad Institute and heard from researchers about how they analyze
and interpret data. They got a chance to learn firsthand how scientists correlate genetic mutations with specific
diseases by donning gloves and pipetting samples of DNA into gel for separation in the teaching lab of Megan
Rokop, the Broad’s outreach director. Jane Beckering, a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, called the
program “absolutely fabulous.”
“Science is developing at an incredible rate, and we need to do our best to keep up. This is the kind of evidence
we’re going to see in years to come,” she says, adding that she’d had two recent cases — one involving toxic
mold, the other an overdose of radiation in a cancer patient — in which she felt she would have benefited from a
better understanding of genetics and environmental health factors.
Zweig says the best way for judges to stay current is through direct interaction with scientists themselves, who
appreciate both the complexity of the work and what’s at stake in applying it to real-world cases.
“The justice system depends on the ability of the court to get things right, and the ability to get things right
depends on objective, even-handed information,” Zweig said. “So we go to places that have [that information] and
can dispense it.”
For their part, the MIT and Broad researchers were eager to do just that. “At CEHS, [an event like this] is part of
our will and obligation,” Samson says. Engelward adds that she was impressed with the judges’ receptiveness
and the quality of their questions. She says she also appreciates how this type of training can benefit society as
a whole: “As judges, they have such influence, so this was an efficient way to touch a much larger population.”
Timothy Henderson, a district judge in Wichita, Kan., echoes that sentiment. There were 32 judges at the MIT
session of Science School — very few, considering that 28 million cases were filed in the U.S. legal system last
year alone. But Henderson says the participants will share their new scientific knowledge with their colleagues.
“We don't live in an ivory tower in the courtroom,” he says, adding that he has regular interaction with other
judges, legislators and lawyers through his state bar and his service on various committees.
Building on a concept he’d learned earlier that day — through LEGOs — Henderson offers a metaphor: “Maybe
we are the mutation within the judicial community.”