Mark Schlissel

Mark Schlissel didn’t know what hit him last week. The Dean of Biological Sciences at UC Berkeley says he was “swallowed up” by the media’s reaction to the news that the university planned to ask students to conduct a DNA test over the summer in lieu of the traditional summer reading assigment.

“We did not anticipate the response at all,” he said on Monday morning having weathered a week fielding calls from a broad range of media outlets, including the New York Times and national TV channels.

The frenzy blew up after the university’s College of Letters and Science announced it would be asking this year’s incoming freshman to send in a DNA sample using a cotton swab in their cheek as part of its On The Same Page program where students come to class with a shared experience — last year was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But several groups, including the Berkeley based Center for Genetics and Society and the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, were uncomfortable with the  idea of genetic testing outside a medical setting.

Dean Schissel said the university always takes ethical and privacy concerns seriously and that the program had been through an approval process with the Institutional Review Board for Human Subjects Research.

Schlissel said there were no plans to suspend or modify the program — which will analyse whether students with certain genetic markers may be able to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products or eating more leafy green vegetables. However a plan to award prizes of commercial DNA tests kits to students in a related contest has been dropped. Instead small cash prizes will be awarded. “We don’t want to be overwhelmed or skew the conversation towards the important issue of commercial DNA testing,” he said.

And on Friday, a list of FAQs compiled by Schlissel appeared on the On The Same Page website. Topping the list: “Why did Berkeley decide to tackle the topic of Personalized Medicine?” Dean Schlissel may well be asking himself that one.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...