Machteld van Egmond LL.M. ’20: A physician-researcher with a curious mind turns to the practice of law

For Machteld van Egmond LL.M. ’20, “one of the best things about HLS is that everybody here is so interested, motivated, and passionate. And the energy that you get inside the classroom when that happens, that’s just amazing.”

When she talks about the courses that she took this year, and her work in the law school’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, her enthusiasm is infectious. In one session of the Health Law, Policy, Bioethics and Biotechnology Workshop, with Professor Glenn Cohen ’03, for example, the discussion focused on the possibility that a patient’s participation in a study might expose their family or their neighbors to risk. Even though the participant might agree to be exposed to a disease, and give informed consent, these “bystanders” might not be asked to do so. “It becomes more urgent when the patient decides to drop out of the trial or not follow up for some reason,” van Egmond explains. “Would it be possible legally or ethically to force [that participant] to continue with the trial and get the proper treatment? It’s an excellent question, and I had never thought of it before.”

Or there’s the course on Behavioral Economics, Law and Public Policy, with Professor Cass Sunstein, offered in conjunction with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Kennedy School. “It was clear to me that there were [students] with a lot of different backgrounds and perspectives. And that’s what I like best, because it challenges your ideas,” she notes.

After high school, when many students in the Netherlands begin pursuing professional degrees, van Egmond chose to study medicine at Radboud University. “It’s as much about the mind as it is about the body, and the way the mind and body work is so beautiful,” she observes. “I continue to be amazed by it.”

As she explored different specialties, she was drawn to ear, nose, and throat surgery, because she could work with patients of all ages and treat many different ailments, and a clinical study that she encountered during medical school inspired her to begin her career as a physician-researcher, examining the efficacy of surgery in treating a deviated nasal septum. In the Netherlands, she explains, focusing on research first, and completing a residency later, “is a very common path, but it was also a great fit for my personality, because I like going into details and just getting to the bottom of something.”

It was this love of learning that led to van Egmond’s first studies in law. As she pursued her medical research, her supervisors encouraged her to undertake a master’s in epidemiology. “That was really helpful for me, because it gave me a more theoretical basis in statistics, data analysis, and study design,” she recalls. “And when that finished, I felt like, well, why stop learning now?” When her university opened two introductory law courses to students who had already obtained a graduate degree in a different field, she decided to enroll. “What struck me most was the way lawyers think, and how different this was from the way in which I was used to thinking,” she recalls. “For example, the concept of causation is known in epidemiology as well as in law, but it refers to somewhat different things. Because I was so fascinated by that, it got me hooked.”

Van Egmond came to HLS to continue exploring the intersections among empirical science, law, and medicine. For her LL.M. paper, she examined the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food, under Sunstein’s supervision.  “It’s a very timely topic,” she explains. In the U.S., some foods with GMO ingredients are now packaged with a label reading “bioengineered,” but the government’s label looks very similar to a food industry label promoting non-GMO products.  “The non-GMO label has a butterfly and a little plant, and the bioengineered label has a little plant and the sun. That made me wonder, what does that signal to consumers?” Her research involved an empirical survey comparing the two labels, as well as control labels that van Egmond designed herself. Among other conclusions, she found that respondents who viewed a “more explicit” GMO label that she created expressed more “stereotypical” concerns about environmental and health risks and less awareness of benefits, such as affordability.

Looking back at her time at HLS, “even knowing what I know now about the pandemic, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I just know I will take this with me for the rest of my life,” van Egmond says. “Once you find your niche, it really does feel like a family.” That sense of community was even more pronounced when the campus began to close due to Covid 19. “As much uncertainty as there was, people really did come together and show their best selves.”

After graduation, van Egmond will join Covington & Burling, working with pharmaceutical, food, and health care companies as a member of the life sciences team in the firm’s Brussels office. When she spoke to the lawyers she will be working with, “they told me a lot about what cases can look like, and the work is so intricate, so complicated. There is a lot of opportunity there to delve deep, just how I like it.”

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