Skip Navigation

International Health

Assistant Professor Maria Merritt
Advancing the Study of Community-Based
Research Ethics

What can or should researchers do if a child enrolled in a study is severely malnourished? Beyond providing for the safety of a subject, what obligation does a community-based researcher have? Assistant Professor Maria Merritt was recently named a Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics for her innovative work in this area. The Greenwall Faculty Scholars Program supports original research and is open to those in a variety of fields—including medicine, law, humanities, and public health—who study ethical issues related to the life sciences. The Program is highly competitive, and Dr. Merritt first had to pass through an internal selection process to become the single Johns Hopkins University nominee allowed by the Greenwall Foundation for later stages of nationwide competition.

Maria MerrittDr. Merritt joined the Health Systems Program in 2006 and is a core faculty member of the Berman Institute of Bioethics. She is also one the first bioethicists to systematically address the obligations of community-based public health researchers. As a Greenwall Faculty Scholar, Merritt will be able to continue her pioneering work exploring the ethical dilemmas that can arise in international settings. She also seeks to contribute to the development of practical ethical guidelines through a collaborative process with researchers, sponsors, and other experts in bioethics. 

While extensive bioethical scholarship exists for clinic-based research, much public health research in developing countries takes place in homes and communities, where non-medical study staff often work directly with research subjects. This creates situations very distinct from clinic-based research. Merritt’s winning proposal entitled, Researchers’ Obligations in Community-Based Research: Resolving Dilemmas of Care, focuses on these community-based settings that are familiar to faculty and students in the Department.

As both a faculty member of International Health and the Berman Institute, Merritt is uniquely positioned to explore this relatively uncharted territory. She has already made significant progress in articulating some of the special issues faced by global health researchers. For instance, her commentary, “Ancillary Care for Public Health Research in Developing Countries,” co-authored with Associate Professor Adnan Hyder, appears in the July 22 issue of JAMA (2009;302(4):429-431). And her paper, “Ancillary Care in Community-Based Public Health Intervention Research,” with Assistant Professors Luke Mullany and Holly Taylor, has been accepted for publication in American Journal of Public Health. 

While her training is in moral philosophy, Merritt is especially concerned with helping to develop guidelines that are relevant in real-world settings. Currently, she sits on the School’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) where many community-based international research protocols are reviewed. She also teaches the course “Ethics of Public Health Practice in Developing Countries.” Merritt locates her work at the intersection of bioethics, moral philosophy, and public health research, and believes her ties to public health research bring an added dimension to fields of scholarship that tend to be abstract. 

The study of community-based research ethics is truly in its infancy, which makes it both an exciting and daunting venture for Dr. Merritt. Past and ongoing collaborations with faculty in the Department have been invaluable to her work. She looks forward to continuing that dialogue with researchers, whose input will be essential to the development of practical guidelines for addressing ethical concerns in the field.

--Brandon Howard, September 2009