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Home / 2014 Women in the Law / UW Law professor makes a difference

UW Law professor makes a difference

R-Alta-CharoEven as a girl, R. Alta Charo knew: “I want to change the world.”

A lofty goal, perhaps, for the daughter of a math teacher and a TV repairman, who cut her intellectual teeth on her brothers’ word problems and explosive science experiments, then cleaned bathrooms 10 hours a week to put herself through college. Throughout college and law school, she worked 15 to 20 hours a week to support herself.

But, after years of combining her skills as a biologist and attorney, and serving two United States presidents along the way, it’s probably safe to say the University of Wisconsin Law School professor has accomplished her goal.

For Charo, whose father fled the Holocaust, there never was any doubt that she would at least try.

“All my life, I would hear him talk about how grateful he was to have gotten here,” Charo said of her father. “It’s a really corny, tearing up at the national anthem kind of childhood. But it does give me a feeling that my goal in life is contributing. I’ve found that public service was the easiest route to that goal.”

Early on, Charo thought that would mean working as an environmental advocate. But, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, the Brooklyn-born biologist decided to ditch the lab and head to law school.

The decision put her on a path to take assignments with President Bill Clinton’s bioethics advisory commission and President Barack Obama’s transition team, as well as with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In her work with the Institute of Medicine, she served on a committee that reviewed (and confirmed) an embattled study about drugs that claimed to inhibit the transmission of HIV from mother to child.

“I think that our committee, in its own small way, helped to save the lives of kids,” Charo said.

Today, as UW Law’s Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics and a faculty member at the university’s medical school, Charo is inspiring a new generation of hyphenates, lawyers with their own grasp on the sciences.
It’s an inspiring assignment, given the growing nexus between the law and the lab.

“Science and technology continue changing the world,” Charo said, “in a way that makes us keep re-examining the ground rules.”

With so much experience, UW Law Dean Margaret Raymond said, the law school is lucky to have her.

“She’s creative, engaged and endlessly curious about and interested in her world,” Raymond said. “She brings that to her teaching, her scholarly work and her service. And she’s always excited to put those things together.”


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