Welcome to College! Your First Assignment Is to Submit a DNA Sample!

The University of California at Berkeley prides itself on encouraging stimulating conversation about controversial topics among its incoming freshman.  As part of Berkeley’s On the Same Page Program, the college tries to create a common bonding experience for all new students that will help generate discussions later on while they are on the Berkeley campus.  For example, last year, it sent out the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” about the nation’s food industry for some light summer reading.  This year’s class class received a cotton swab to insert in their cheek and to send back to the University for a DNA test.  The college plans to test the DNA for the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folate.  Their aim is to help students lead healthier lives by informing them if it would be better to drink less alcohol, eat less dairy or eat more vegetables.  This is the first mass genetic testing done by a university.  The DNA testing is voluntary and they plan to keep the results confidential by issuing bar codes to each student so only the person who took the test can access the information by inputting their bar code.  It is expected to cost the university $50,000 to complete the tests.

My first impression after hearing this news was : Really?  Everyone, even an 18 year old, already knows it is healthier to drink less alcohol and eat more vegetables!  Please!  There is really no good reason to perform this genetic testing outside of a medical setting under the disguise of forming “a common bonding experience”. Freshman will bond, quite nicely, on their own over a pizza. (Oops!  Watch out for that dairy and add more vegetables!)  What about the student who gets the results back and has further questions?  Is there going to be any real follow up here?    And the legal ramifications are endless:  Will the university be liable for giving a student a false negative on the alcohol test – thereby allowing him to conclude that he can drink MORE?  Are any of these freshman under the age of consent?  If so, will their parents have a right to access this information?    What possible problems will this DNA test cause for future employment for these students?  Although the college vows to destroy the DNA after testing, there is always a chance that there will be a leak of information, that the bar code website will be hacked – and that the DNA information may be used to bar health insurance or employment later on.  Worse, what if the college uses this information against the student to prevent enrollment because their DNA now shows they may be prone to certain (unacceptable) behaviors, like alcohol abuse?   These young people, eager to step into the world and explore their new independence as a college freshman away from home, do not understand the possible legal ramifications down the road of participating in this seemingly harmless “common bonding”. One thing is for certain:  these students now have something they can all talk about over pizza!

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One thought on “Welcome to College! Your First Assignment Is to Submit a DNA Sample!

  1. I remember reading about this situation. While, as you point out, there are several areas of concern that are raised by the scenario, I wonder if this summer homework provides some teaching opportunities that are not as easily available or accessible by having students simply read a book. I am not sure what information was provided to the students submitting samples and what they actually consented to (or had their parents consent to), but I imagine that consent forms were quite protective, at least on their faces, of the University. It would also be interesting to know what the follow-up conversation involved and whether they raised these interesting legal issues that you highlighted.

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