Nov. 15, 2023 — University of Houston Law Center alumnus Kayhan Parsi (J.D. ‘93), influenced by his parents' healthcare background, found health law and bioethics to be his forte while he attended UHLC.
Parsi, who is the immediate past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, sheds light on his unique journey, and how his experience at UHLC led him to a career as an academic bioethicist.
What led you to pursue legal education at UHLC?
To be honest, I was an ambivalent law student when I started back in 1990. I had a number of intellectual and creative interests. After I graduated from Rice in the late 1980s, I worked in Washington, D.C. for a few years, where I edited for a publisher, interned at a film magazine, and worked at a law firm. I even worked at a wonderful independent bookstore in Georgetown that had a number of leading scholars and writers present their work through readings and book signings. I considered going to graduate school to study history and even toyed with the idea of film school, but I eventually decided to apply to law school. Being in a major city like Houston was important to me, so the only law school I applied to in Texas was UHLC. Being a state-supported law school, UHLC was incredibly affordable. So, I was fortunate that I did not accrue any debt. Despite my initial ambivalence, I learned that UHLC had an excellent health law program. And although I was not interested in a traditional legal career, I was open to new opportunities.
What about health law interests you?
My father was a physician, and my mother was a nurse. So, growing up, I was exposed to a number of healthcare issues. During my second and third year as a law student, I started taking more health law courses and seminars. Health law seemed to touch on so many aspects of life. At the time, UHLC offered two-week intersession courses where visiting faculty would come and teach courses on a variety of topics, such as genetics and the law, children's health law, and comparative health law. I found these courses to be incredibly interesting. Then, finally in my third year of law school, I took a law and bioethics course from Dr. William Winslade. Dr. Winslade’s course re-awakened my intellectual interest in bioethics (I had taken a couple of bioethics courses when I was a student at Rice). I found the field to be endlessly fascinating. Dr. Winslade (who recently retired from the Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities at
UTMB-Galveston) became an invaluable mentor to me and encouraged me to apply to the PhD program in medical humanities at UTMB. My experience in that program was overwhelmingly positive and laid the foundation for my career as an academic bioethicist.
What does educating students on bioethics mean to you?
I have been a bioethics professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine for nearly 22 years. My focus as an academic bioethicist is teaching bioethics to graduate students and medical students. I direct a large and well-established graduate program in bioethics. It is mostly online for our students who come from all over the country and outside the U.S. Our students are typically working healthcare professionals. They are very passionate about bioethics and want to acquire a foundation of ethics knowledge in our courses. They are often looking for a new set of skills and to transition to a new role as an ethicist. My primary goal is to help equip them with the knowledge, skills and understanding to become very effective ethicists in a variety of settings. We have students who are certificate students, master’s students, or doctoral students. My job is to support them, teach them, mentor them, help them identify job opportunities in the field, and encourage participation in our academic literature and conferences. It is the focus of what I do every day.
In what ways did becoming president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) help you in your career?
Being president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities has helped me in several ways. It gave me a much more national profile as an academic ethicist. Serving as president has also helped me have a better understanding of how a professional society works. I worked in professional associations earlier in my career before I joined the faculty of Loyola. For instance, in the late 90s, I spent a few years at the American Medical Association’s Institute for Ethics. That was my first exposure to a large professional association where I got to see what it does and how it serves its members. Of course, serving as president of ASBH is a very different role. We are a much smaller organization; we have about 2,000 members throughout the United States. As president, I worked closely with the board on a number of strategic goals and strategic initiatives, such as helping support the society and its growth, recruiting younger and new members into the field, making sure we have an excellent annual meeting, and working on issues related to DEI, ethics consultation, and health humanities. I’m particularly proud that our board was able to issue a statement on academic freedom this past summer. Serving as president gave me a deeper understanding of how our professional society works. It also gave me connections to a number of amazing people in our field that I may not have encountered if I did not have this role as president.
What is one valuable lesson you learned at UHLC?
I learned to be open to new opportunities. Many people go to law school without a clear career pathway. While some may have known since they were young that they want to become lawyers, others go to law school because it’s seen as a stable career option. Personally, law school helped me focus on my career and think creatively about its possibilities, beyond just becoming a practicing attorney in a law firm. During law school, I learned to gravitate to what I enjoyed because if you enjoy something, you are going to work harder at it. I learned to follow my own intellectual interests and avoid courses that I thought I “had” to take. Instead, I chose courses that I connected with and enjoy. I also greatly benefited from having supportive mentors like Bill Winslade. When you find joy in your coursework or career, you will flourish. You might also uncover new opportunities.
What advice would you have for individuals who are considering law school as their career path?
Law school is a serious commitment of one’s time, money and energy. Make sure it’s something you really want to do. Savvy prospective law students should check out alternative law school rankings which focus on outcomes and job placements. Connect with law graduates and talk to them about their law school experiences and what they’re doing with their careers (for instance, several of my colleagues in bioethics have legal backgrounds). Personally, UHLC was a great investment because I graduated without any law school debt, which allowed me to pursue a Ph.D. in medical humanities. That opened numerous opportunities for me.
Now, if you absolutely know you want a law firm career, law school is necessary. But if you have other interests, seek advice from people in those fields. Inquire about job satisfaction, educational requirements, and alternative paths. For specialized areas such as health law or immigration law, look for those law schools that excel in those fields. That information is easily available online now. Consider the location as well. Fit matters, as I have learned with my younger son who is applying to college. Lastly, don’t be afraid to think creatively and imaginatively about your career. Law school is only the first step.
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