Faculty Spotlight: Laura Beskow, PhD, MPH


This week’s faculty spotlight shines on Dr. Laura M. Beskow, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Division of Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

How long have you been at Duke? How long have you been at the Division of General Internal Medicine?
I have been at Duke for nearly 8 years, but I just joined the Division in the last year. Before coming to Duke, I was at UNC-Chapel Hill getting my PhD in Health Policy with a minor in Epidemiology. Prior to that, I worked at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University and then had a Career Development Award with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

You do work on ethical issues relating to human subjects research. Can you tell me more about that research? Has that research affected your daily practice?
My research focuses on ethical and policy issues in biomedical research. Examples include studies on research recruitment through cancer registries, genotype-driven research recruitment, research participants’ understanding and opinions about informed consent for biobanking, and Certificates of Confidentiality. For these kinds of studies, we try to make creative use of both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to gather empirical data from a range of stakeholders, with the goal of informing research policy and practice.

In terms of the effect, my favorite research arises out of challenges that researchers actually face. On several occasions, I’ve been asked for advice about a particular situation that’s come up, worked with that research team to help devise a potential solution, and then gone on to obtain funding to further study that issue. It is always gratifying to find opportunities to put the results to use, and to feel like they might be of practical benefit when others face a similar situation.

In addition to working at the Division, you also work at the Duke Translational Medicine Institute and the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine. What does that work entail? How does it fit with your work within the Division?
Both the DTMI and the Trent Center bring together scholars interested in bioethics. The DTMI, for example, first got CTSA funding about the same time I started at Duke and included a Research Ethics Core. Being part of it has been a wonderful way for me to meet lots of people and learn about research all across Duke, in addition to supporting part of my work.

To me, research ethics and bioethics are a great fit with the Division. I think of the Division as having a strong focus on applied research and practice, and significant hands-on work out in the community and with patients to improve health and well-being. This is where the rubber often meets the road on ethical issues, so there are great possibilities for collaboration.

What research projects are you working on at the moment?

I have an R01 (with co-PI Kevin Weinfurt) about simplifying consent forms and ways to assess and improve consent comprehension. I’m also part of a team working on a study for the NIH Collaboratory to understand stakeholders’ attitudes and opinions about research on interventions that are considered standard of care. I am a member of a Working Group for an R01 based at Mayo Clinic about return of individual genetic research results to participants and families. I also serve on the Federal Advisory Committee for the National Children’s Study; at Duke, I chair an Ad Hoc Human Genetics Review Committee that helps with ethical issues that arise that aren’t fully addressed by existing policies.

Kevin and I are also building an Empirical Bioethics Program, housed at the DCRI. One thing we are doing, with funding from the School of Medicine’s Interdisciplinary Colloquia Initiative, is holding a series of informal gatherings to discuss emerging ethical issues in different research areas. The idea is to build relationships and identify issues potentially amendable to empirical research. We’ve had lively discussions about challenges in pediatric, stem cell, and addictions research, and have several more planned. If anyone has ideas for topics for future gatherings, please contact me—suggestions are welcome!