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College Students Honored for Essays Exploring Science and Human Rights

Malwina Wójcik, Morgan Steelman and Abigail Kleiman
Essays by Malwina Wójcik, Morgan Steelman and Abigail Kleiman were honored by the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. | courtesy of winners

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition has announced three students as the winners of its annual essay contest.

The contest was established in 2014 to encourage undergraduate and graduate students in all fields to explore the connections between human rights and science, engineering and health.

Malwina Wójcik, who is pursuing an master of laws degree at the University of Bologna, is the contest’s graduate winner, and Morgan Steelman, a recent graduate of Princeton University, is the undergraduate winner. Abigail Kleiman, an undergraduate student at Barnard College, earned an honorable mention.

The right to health, Wójcik said in an interview, “is something that I think we should talk about more, because it is a human right. The fact that it is a social right, we might say, not a political right, doesn't make it less of a right.”

In her winning essay, Wójcik looks at a timely problem through a human rights lens in her essay, “The search for a COVID-19 vaccine: Is it time for a human rights approach to scientific development?” She argues for consideration of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, which is laid out in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in guiding COVID-19 vaccine research, testing and distribution.

“In this very well-written essay,” judges wrote about Wójcik’s entry, “the author conveys a sense of concern for the inequitable contributions to vaccine development and ultimate distribution to vulnerable populations with clarity, single-minded reason and sound judgment.”

The essay contest, funded by the AAAS-Andrew M. Sessler Fund for Science, Education, and Human Rights, encourages student involvement in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that have found a role for scientists and engineers in service to human rights. In addition to receiving a year’s membership to AAAS, a subscription to Science and a $1,500 stipend, winners will be recognized at the Coalition’s Science, Technology and Human Rights Conference, which is being held virtually Oct. 22-23.

Judges for the competition, drawn from the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition’s member associations and affiliated individual members, selected the winning essays based on originality and creativity in understanding and addressing human rights and scientific challenges, the strength of the writers’ analysis and reasoning, and the quality and clarity of their writing.

Undergraduate winner Steelman also tackled a timely topic in her essay, “Genetic Surveillance of Uighurs in Xinjiang: Ethnicity, Sovereignty, Crime, and Human Rights,” which judges called an “excellent example of the connection between science and human rights.” Her essay emerged from a college course on modern genetics and public policy, she said.

Kleiman’s essay – “Rectifying the Lack of Protection for Environmental Refugees in International Law: The Escalating Reality of the Climate Crisis” – was also developed in a recent course she took on climate change, global migration and human rights. She credits her college coursework with fostering her interest in human rights; she took an introductory course on human rights her first semester, and she is now majoring in political science and human rights.

Judges credited Kleiman with having “masterfully surveyed significant writing on the subject of climate refugees” and setting forth her recommendations on how best to proceed: defining environmental migrants under international law.

Kleiman said she hopes that readers of her essay, particularly those who might not be exposed to the “real tangible consequences of climate change,” come away with a sense that environmental migration spurred by climate change is a present-day problem that will get worse and that those who have the capacity to take action should not wait to do so.

“The time to act was long ago, but the next best time to do it is now. Especially as a young person right now, we owe it to the world to take that drastic action and protect our futures and the future generations of the world,” she said.

All three honorees intend to pursue further education to study the intersection of science, health and human rights. After she completes her law degree – during which she plans to write about the ethical and privacy considerations of the use of artificial intelligence in health care – Wójcik hopes to pursue either a Ph.D. or, if she attends a university in the United States, an additional LLM degree that explores issues related to health care and law.

Kleiman, currently a junior at Barnard, plans to attend law school after she graduates with degrees political science and human rights. She is interested in law on an international scale “in a way that benefits people and serves human rights,” she said.

Steelman has just begun master’s degree in public health at the University of Cambridge. After she completes that degree, she will begin medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she has already committed through an early-admission program. Being accepted to medical school as a second-year student allowed her to explore coursework in medical ethics and public health, bringing additional layers of understanding that will allow her to be a better doctor, she said.

“Medicine right now is demanding that doctors see patients more holistically now. Instead of just treating physical symptoms, you’re placing your patients in a broader social context,” Steelman said. “Having a broader knowledge of human rights and the social determinants of health will definitely make me more equipped to help patients.”



Andrea Korte

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