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Celia Fisher Installed as Marie Ward Doty Chair


NEW YORK- As a freshman at Cornell University, Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D., enthusiastically
agreed to participate in a psychological study, only to be humiliated when she
was told that another participant quit the study because she disliked Fisher. As
it turns out, it was all part of the plan—the purpose of the “deception” study
was to measure the effects of humiliation.

Even though the researcher later explained this to Fisher, it would be
years before she fully understood this research method and got over the
embarrassment it caused her.

This experience, along with her early research with children, drove
Fisher to investigate ethical issues in psychological research, she told an
audience in the William D. Walsh Family Library’s Flom Auditorium on Nov. 12.
Her lecture, “Wisdom, Learning and Justice in Health Care Research,” was part of
the Sapientia et Doctrina lecture series and marked Fisher’s installation as the
Marie Ward Doty Professor of Psychology. She was awarded the Sapientia et
Doctrina medallion for her distinguished scholarship and contributions to ethics
policies for health research and practice.

During her lecture, Fisher said that she entered the field of psychology as “a
warrior in the scientific quest for knowledge,” however, “motherhood stopped me
dead in my Donna Quixote tracks.” While testing infants in studies on visual
perception, she started to wonder if exposing babies to even mild discomforts
was worth the benefits of the research.

“These experiences and other fortuitous professional circumstances drew me
into the field of ethics,” said Fisher, who is also the director of Fordham’s
Center for Ethics Education. She added, “I approached my newfound cause with the
same formalism with which I had pursued scientific knowledge years earlier. I
hoped that through an ethicist’s armory of moral principles and moral
frameworks, one could construct a universal code of research ethics free of
subjective bias.”

Fisher quickly learned that her mission would be fraught with
philosophical dilemmas. She realized that traditional approaches to ethical
decision-making were problematic because they prioritized the reasoning ability
of scientists while ignoring and devaluing the perspectives of research

“I realized that the best way to truly care for research participants is
to understand their point of view,” she said. “And the best way to understand
their point of view is to ask them.”

Fisher has spent years learning from and providing ethical guidance to
vulnerable communities, such as children, ethnic minorities and adults with
developmental disabilities. Through her research, she has been faced with
questions of moral obligation, including researchers’ responsibility to help
teenagers in trouble and to ensure that their research does not stigmatize a

“I have learned so much from these communities,” she said, referring to
ethnic minorities. “Their views have forced me to question the validity of my
own worldviews and the extent to which my cultural lens may unintentionally harm
or disenfranchise ethnic minority participants.”

Two years ago, Fisher chaired a Fordham Ethics Center-sponsored
conference that, with support from the National Institute of Mental Health and
the American Psychological Association (APA), developed the first published
guidelines for ethical conduct in mental health research involving ethnic
minority children and youth. She has also helped to develop educational tools to
make sure that adults with developmental disabilities understand and can give
informed consent for research and treatment. For five years, Fisher chaired the
APA’S Ethics Code Task Force, which was responsible for revising the Ethical
Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. The code took effect on June 1,
2003. Fisher is currently a member of the Secretary of Health and Human
Services’ Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections.

As the occupant of the Marie Ward Doty Chair, Fisher will continue to lead the
much-needed academic inquiry into the area of ethical research involving a wide
variety of vulnerable populations. The Doty Chair was established in 1980
through a generous endowment by George E. Doty (FCO ’38) in honor of his wife,

Fordham University’s motto, Sapientia et Doctrina (Wisdom and Learning),
emphasizes rigorous scholarship and embraces a community of men and women
committed to exploring the life of the mind.  In this spirit, a lecture series
celebrating the inauguration of the 32nd president of Fordham University, Joseph
M. McShane, S.J., was established.

The Sapientia et Doctrina medallion is bestowed upon individuals of
national and international renown who have made substantial contributions to the
advancement of their disciplines and to an understanding of the ideals to which
a Jesuit education summons us.


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