Introduction to Bioinformatics: A New Computer Science Elective; Contextual Ethicality: A Duty Ethics Analysis of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool

Johnson, Katherine, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Laugelli, Benjamin, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Wang, Hongning, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Marathe, Madhav, PV-Biocomplexity Initiative, University of Virginia

Over the past year, I have explored ways in which computer science thinking can be applied to non-computer science fields through two projects: my technical capstone project and my STS research paper. Both projects revolved around data analysis techniques, one for advancing the field of biology and the other for advancing the field social work. While at a detailed level the projects were very different, they complimented each other in many useful ways. In what follows, I describe each project in more detail and reflect on the benefits of having completed them within the same year.
My technical project was the development of a new bioinformatics course. The curriculum was designed for use by the University of Virginia’s computer science department as a new undergraduate elective. The course includes lectures on databases, bioinformatics algorithms, and computational modeling. The overall goal of the course is to introduce more students to the rapidly growing field of bioinformatics and to cultivate an appreciation of what computer science has contributed to the field of biology.
My STS research paper explored the ethical nature of the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), a predictive risk model designed for use at screening centers for child maltreatment hotlines. The tool uses existing data to produce a risk score that corresponds to the probability of future maltreatment and serves as a supplement to the judgement of trained social workers. After analyzing the tool using Immanuel Kant’s theory of Duty Ethics, I determined that the AFST was an ethical investment for the county. The ethicality of the tool was dependent on the limiting use policies the call screening centers adopted to control its use.
By working on these two projects within the same year, I broadened my view of computer science. They showed me that computer scientists do not have to work with just computers. Computer science is a way of thinking that can be applied to almost any field that involves data or decision making. It can help enrich people's lives even when they are away from a computer screen. Whether it be at a doctor’s office or at a critical moment in a child’s life, using data to our advantage can greatly increase our well-being.
Working on my STS research paper also helped to shed light on the importance of how we integrate computer science into other fields. It is not always a simple task. If it were not for the use policies in place to limit the power of the AFST, for example, it would not have been an ethical addition to the call centers. This lesson can be applied to any integration of a computational or automatized element into an existing system; in order for the computers to do good, we must be able to keep them in check. This realization is reflected in my bioinformatics course with the addition of a limitations discussion for all algorithmic lectures.
Overall, by completing a technical and an ethical project within the same year, I was able to produce more robust works and gain valuable new perspectives. As I move forward with my career, I now have the tools needed to not only produce technically good work, but to also know the impact and importance of how and where it is used.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
bioinformatics, allegheny family screening tool, AFST, predictive risk model, duty ethics

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Computer Science

Technical Advisors: Madhav Marathe, Hongning Wang

STS Advisor: Benjamin Laugelli

Issued Date: