Genetic screening: To test or not to test

Researcher Doris Teichler Zallen has dedicated much of her career to educating both student and public audiences on the controversies that emerge from advances in science, medicine, and technololgy with the goal of providing individuals with the intellectual tools to confront these issues.

A professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, her research specifically focuses on the ethical and social concerns raised by the rapidly expanding field of genetic testing.


To Test or Not to Test book "Dr. Zallen has a unique talent for translating complicated scientific and ethical matters around genetic screening into understandable concepts that families and individuals can use to make decisions about risk and testing," noted Abbey S. Meyers, president of the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

To Test or Not to Test

Genetic tests, frequently touted as an approach to informed and targeted treatment, offer hope to those trying to discern their susceptibility to a certain disease and the risks that might entail. It is true that some tests are used to clarify a diagnosis and direct a physician toward appropriate treatment, but these tests also raise medical, ethical, and psychological concerns.

In her book published in 2008, To Test or Not to Test, Zallen arms readers with questions she says should be considered before pursuing genetic screening:

  • Am I a higher risk for a disorder?
  • Can genetic testing give me useful information?
  • Is the timing right for testing?
  • Do the benefits of having the genetic information outweigh the problems that testing can bring?

In the book, Zallen provides a template that can guide readers through the decision-making process and offers sources for additional information. She shares interviews with genetic specialists, doctors, and researchers, as well as the personal stories of nearly 100 individuals who have faced genetic testing decisions.

The book, which essentially provides the consumer with a toolkit for the genetic decision-making process, provides examples that focus on genetic testing for four types of illnesses:

  • Breast and ovarian cancer, which are different but closely connected disorders;
  • Colon cancer;
  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease; and
  • Hereditary hemochromatosis.

Protecting human subjects

Trained as a biologist, Zallen, who received a bachelor of science degree from Brooklyn College and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, served with distinction on the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, commonly known as RAC. While serving on the committee, she helped provide oversight of groundbreaking medical experiments involving human gene therapy. As chair of the committee’s working group on informed consent, Zallen wrote the federal guidelines that protect human subjects in gene therapy experiments.

Zallen is also the author of the critically acclaimed Does It Run in the Family?: A Consumer’s Guide to DNA Testing for Genetic Disorders.

In her undergraduate and graduate teaching, Zallen has introduced bioethical components into science and humanities courses, and created new courses that deepen students’ awareness of bioethical issues. One of those courses, Science and Public, received an Innovation Award from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. It is also one of only a very few service-learning courses that exist at the graduate level.


Choices and Challenges brochures Since 1985, the Choices and Challenges project has been providing forums for discussion of topics related to science and technology that are of pressing public concern. Choices and Challenges events are designed to maximize interaction between experts and laypersons, and among a range of humanistic, social scientific, policy, and technical perspectives.

A faculty member at Virginia Tech for 25 years, Zallen has expanded the consideration of ethical, social, and policy issues to public audiences by founding and directing the award-winning Choices and Challenges forum.

Through 20 years and 22 forums, she has created a unique public classroom for the consideration of such sensitive and demanding issues as end-of-life decision making, global warming, assisted reproduction, genetically modified foods, and designer children. Her forums have reached an on-site audience of 10,000 and, in partnership with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), video audiences at hundreds of sites throughout the country.

Now under the direction of the Department of Science and Technology in Society faculty members Eileen Crist, Daniel Breslau, and Saul Halfon, the Choices and Challenges forum project continues to explore questions arising out of advances in science, medicine, and technology.

Zallen has received awards for her research, teaching, and public-outreach activities. In 2007, she was also the recipient of the commonwealth’s highest academic honor, the Outstanding Faculty Award.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at (540) 231-5915.


Listen to Zallen talk with reporter Paul Lancaster about her new book.

Zallen on "To Test or Not to Test" (MP3 | 2MB)

Department of Science and Technology in Society

The department's undergraduate program offers a major in humanities, science, and environment and a minor

Graduate students in the department come from a wide range of backgrounds including 

  • The natural and physical sciences, 
  • Engineering;
  • Numerous professional disciplines, 
  • Liberal arts and humanities,
  • History,
  • Anthropology,
  • Sociology,
  • Political Science, and
  • Philosophy.

Choices and Challenges Forum

The 2008 forum focuses on political participation in the Internet age. "Taking it to the Web" has an interactive website and is "a place to start learning about, thinking about, and discussing the way our political lives are being transformed through new information and communication technologies."

A day-long series of panels and discussions will be held at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Va., and the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown on the university's main campus.
The forum is open to the public at no charge.

Theatre Workshop in Science and Technology Studies

By combining theatre, music, movement, and discussion, the Theatre Workshop in Science and Technology Studies works to facilitate dialogue about contemporary scientific and technical controversies among student, public, and professional communities.

The workshop uses an innovative, multidisciplinary, and collaborative model that brings together experts with theatre arts practitioners to develop original performance pieces. 

A celebration of Darwin

A celebration of the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection

A university-wide course, an academic conference, the Choices and Challenges forum, and the Theatre Workshop in Science and Technology Studies will be devoted to all things Darwinian.

A world-wide Web-based celebration -- Singing Darwin -- will be hosted on the Virginia Tech campus. 

Singing Darwin is a large scale new-media arts project designed to engage a global, cyber network of science, art, and academic institutions in creating a celebrative, 24-hour cyber event marking the publication of the Origin.

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