Rosalyn Wiggins Berne, who graduated from Greene Street Friends School in 1969, is an ethicist, futurist, author, professor and innovator. (Photo by Kaya Berne)

by J.B. Hyppolite

Rosalyn Wiggins Berne, 55, is surely one of the graduates of Greene Street Friends School of whom the schools is most proud. Now a science professor at the University of Virginia, she is also the author of “Nanotalk: Conversation with Scientists and Engineers about Ethics, Meaning and Belief in the Development of Nanotechnology” as well as the novel, “Waiting in the Silence.”

For “Nanotalk” Berne, who has a doctorate degree in bioethics, interviewed 35 scientists over the course of five years. Berne’s study of bioethics began with a tragedy following a dream she had when she was 38 weeks pregnant. The outcome has led her on a journey of science and self-discovery that continues to this day.

“It’s been 27 years since I had that dream,” she told us in an interview last month. “I don’t remember any details. Even then, I am not sure how much I remembered when I awoke in the morning. What I remember clearly, though, is opening my eyes with the clear sense that something was very wrong with my child.” Rosalyn went to her obstetrician the same day, but by the end of the day her child, Zoe, was diagnosed with an anencephalic condition (being without a brain). Her birth was induced a few weeks later, but the newborn died after three days.

Rosalyn wanted to donate her child’s organs, but it was deemed as being “morally complex” due to the determination of death after a meeting with the University of Virginia Hospital Ethics Committee. Rosalyn explained that heart values and corneas can be donated after death without compromising the health of the tissue. The heart itself and other organs must be harvested immediately. The time of death is determined by brain wave activity, but since Zoe had no brain wave activity, that made the process difficult back then. This led to Rosalyn’s debating the thought-provoking topic on NBC’s Today Show in May of 1992.

“A few years after Zoe’s birth and death, a similar case was popularized in Florida. Baby Teresa had been born with anencephaly, like Zoe. As with us, her parents sought to donate her organs at death. The case went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court,” said Rosalyn, whose debate was also aired on CNN’s “Headline News” the day after the Today Show.

According to Rosalyn, with relatively recent developments in technology and the ability of high-tech devices, one should be able to donate some organs after “circulatory death (the irreversible loss of function of the heart and lungs).”

The birth and subsequent death of Rosalyn’s child led to questions about human responsibilities. Rosalyn ended up researching and writing “Nanotalk: Conversation with Scientists and Engineers about Ethics, Meaning and Belief in the Development of Nanotechnology.” She traveled around the country interviewing many scientists about the benefits and effects of the work they were doing in biotechnology, computer science, bioengineering and nanotechnology.

“Waiting in the Silence,” a novel, was written by Berne, who has a doctorate degree in bioethics.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Its impact has been felt in the realms of manufacturing, physical enhancement, food production and much more. “My own thinking,” said Rosalyn, “is that it will mean many more human-machine interfaces, including internal to the human body, and a very different understanding of what it means to be human. Our capacity to penetrate and manipulate our physical beings from the genetic to the grey matter of the brain are on the horizon.” Rosalyn’s thoughts reveal ethical questions about synthetic biology, the ability to design and construct biological parts, which Rosalyn’s suggests could lead to an extended life. “Our values are embedded in the things we create. It’s imperative that we recognize what is of value when we seek to manipulate and control the material world, including ourselves,” she said.

As a child, Rosalyn Berne attended Greene Street Friends School at 5511 Greene St. in Germantown, and she attended the weekly practice of Meeting for Worship, which left a lasting impression. “For me much of Quakerism has appeal, but it’s the use of silence in a community setting which drew me back in as an adult,” said Rosalyn, who reconnected with Quakerism after she attended a Charlottesville Friends Meeting as an undergrad at the University of Virginia. She joined 15 years ago and continues to participate.

Rosalyn has a son, Ari, 23, and a daughter, Kaya, and a partner named Bill. Rosalyn teaches at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at University of Virginia. After graduating from Greene Street Friends, her family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where she attended high school. She earned a B.A in Rhetoric and Communications, an M.A in Religious Studies and a PhD in Bioethics. Her novel, “Waiting in the Silence,” is a science fiction story that merges her Quaker background with the threat of artificial intelligence.

For more information, email rwb@virginia.edu.