Class investigated funding of controversial state lab

Students lobbied in support of a broad range of testing programs

Bayleigh Ruhm

Students from last spring’s “Advocacy for Policy Change” class were taken aback recently when the state lab they were lobbying for was thrust into a maelstrom of controversy after an employee allegedly falsified criminal drug tests.

Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute, was arrested last month and accused of tampering with drug samples, test results and altering paperwork, potentially affecting criminal convictions of approximately 1,140 inmates during her nine years working at the lab.

Was this the disaster the students were predicting could result from insufficient funding, which they had been working to change, or the sole responsibility of a rogue lab technician?

The students don’t really know the motive for the crimes she allegedly committed; their emphasis was on the great damage that could occur by continued across-the-board under-funding of the lab’s numerous testing programs.

Advocacy for Policy Change, a four-credit experiential learning course, combines an investigation of the ethical dilemmas that arise in the process of lawmaking with hands-on advocacy work with entities seeking to reform laws or to propose new ones. Students choose existing laws they feel could be credibly challenged on ethical or moral grounds, or proposed laws being promoted to redress perceived wrongs. The course requires that students lobby for both a bill and a line item.

“To me, students thrive when they can apply what they learn in the classroom on real controversy and things they can feel passionate about outside of the classroom,” says course founder Melissa Stimell, associate professor of the Practice in Legal Studies and internship director for the Legal Studies Program. “This was a natural extension of what I’d been doing at Brandeis."

Bills and line items are chosen after a set of issues is presented to the students who then decide what they want to focus on. They are then divided into small groups to work on that issue and different legislative actions throughout the semester.

“Generally this interest manifests when the students are connected with an organization that’s working around a particular issue of interest,” says Cynthia Tschampl, lecturer and internship instructor for Health: Science, Society and Policy Change.

Bayleigh Ruhm and her classmates worked to maintain funding for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and care. If testing related to these ailments were cut, Ruhm says, the impact of Massachusetts’s residents would be great.

The Hinton Lab investigates 80 diseases, such as Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), West Nile Virus, and fingerprinting for Listeria. The extent of testing is dependent on state funding.

“Most people don’t know that in that building, there are 18 separate labs that work on the various issues,” says Tschampl. “The illegal drug crime lab [in which the accused chemist was working] was just one of the 18.”

Ruhm describes the lab as a kind of command center for detection, prevention and rapid response for infectious diseases, toxins, epidemics, biological terrorism, food poisoning, water contamination and chemical hazards.

“The Hinton lab is the go-to guy,” says Ruhm. “A cut to their funding would mean that integral programs would suffer and would risk the health and safety of Massachusetts residents.”

Ruhm says she feels that one chemist’s falsification of test results could have been a personal response to budget issues or related to deep-rooted emotional struggles.

“It’s a real tragedy that the other terrific work in the lab is not only not being acknowledged, but damaged because of this scandal,” says Ruhm. "I would say this was my best class at Brandeis if it wouldn’t risk insulting my other professors. It was very hands-on and helped me personally feel the impact of the work on the people that I was working for.”

Ruhm says that there were many great projects and topics in the class, such as lobbying on foreclosure legislation, in-state tuition for illegal residents, domestic violence legislation and human trafficking all tied to bills that were hoping to be passed.

“When you get in there and begin lobbying, this class is very exciting and has almost a cinematic quality,” says Ruhm. “You feel like you’re fighting for the little guy.”

View September 2011 class projects
View October 2012 class projects

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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