Law in Action Profile

Portrait of R. Alta Charo

Charo’s work embodies the Law School's Law in Action
tradition, where classroom instruction meets legal
theory meets policy and practice.

Read the full interview

Professor R. Alta Charo

Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics
Faculty, Department of Medical History and Bioethics

UW Law School students taking Bioethics and the Law have a unique academic opportunity: they will study the relationships between law and medicine with Professor Alta Charo, one of the nation’s leading bioethicists and an expert in federal policy on life sciences research. Charo’s work embodies the Law School's law-in-action tradition, where classroom instruction meets legal theory meets policy and practice.

Early in her career—at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and later with the U.S. Agency for International Development—Charo focused on reproductive technologies and family planning issues.

At the Law School, she has continued her work on emerging technology policy, which occasionally positions her at the center of intense public debate. For example, her appointment to the controversial National Institutes of Health Human Embryo Research Panel in 1994 drew protesters to the Madison campus. It also drew the attention of UW-Madison stem cell researcher James Thomson. Soon to become the first scientist to immortalize human embryonic stem cells, Thomson sought Charo out for conversations about proceeding with his groundbreaking work, while meeting high ethical standards. Thomson’s research made history and put Charo in the national spotlight, too, as a member of the stem cell community.

Charo says the strong backing of the Law School, even in the face of controversy, creates an environment favorable to the kind of action-oriented scholarship she practices. It has also facilitated a chain of opportunities that benefit Charo’s students, the university and the public. Her work on the Embryo Research Panel led to an appointment on President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission and later to President Obama’s Health and Human Services transition team, where she worked not only on stem cell policy but on women’s health initiatives, genetics research policy and the full range of products and research areas overseen by NIH and FDA. This growing combination of skills—in bioethics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, reproductive science, stem cell technology and drug safety—qualified Charo to serve a recently completed two-year term at the Food and Drug Administration as senior advisor on emerging technology issues.

Now back from her FDA leave, Charo offers classes in biotechnology law, bioethics and torts, soon to be supplemented with offerings in public health law and FDA law. Students in her popular courses are challenged to examine the ways law and policy affect Americans every day, based on a better understanding of science.

As she bridges the divide between scholarship and policymaking, Alta Charo is preparing students to become the next generation of problem solvers.

Read more in "An Interview with Professor R. Alta Charo" and in Professor Charo's Faculty Profile.

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