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Science devotee, judge earns LL.M. degree


June 23, 2009

Susan Ehrlich can't remember a time in her life when she was not keen on science.

One of the things she recalls most about being a 4-year-old is not some lonely moment in nursery school or having her tonsils removed, but the groundbreaking discovery of the double helix that year. And when other girls her age were out selling Girl Scout cookies, Ehrlich, at 11, was also breeding fruit flies in jars in her family's backyard, an experiment that was halted when she brought a jar with a loose lid into the house.

"I have always been fascinated by genetics," said Ehrlich, whose interest in science is perhaps best explained by genetics, as her father, Lee, is a long-time Valley cardiologist.

Ehrlich, a former Arizona Court of Appeals judge and 1974 alumna of the College of Law, recently went one step further in her exploration of the scientific frontier, earning a Master of Laws in Biotechnology and Genomics at the College's May 15 convocation.

"To quote Michelangelo, `I am still learning'," she said, "and I never want to stop. It adds to the richness of life and it opens doors to other pursuits."

In her lifetime, Ehrlich has passed through many such doors. Because women were not yet being encouraged to study science, she chose political science as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. Following her graduation from law school, she clerked for Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Jack D.H. Hays and later worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona as the first appellate chief. In 1989, Ehrlich was appointed by then-Gov. Rose Mofford to the appeals court, a post she held until retiring in 2008.

Along the way, Ehrlich pursued her passion in science, working as a grant-application reviewer on the Human Genome Project for the Department of Energy, where she began learning about the ethical, legal and social implications of genetic research. In 2005, Ehrlich was appointed as the public member to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

At about that same time, she spoke with Gary Marchant, the Executive Director of ASU's Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology, about an exciting new graduate program for attorneys that was being launched at the College of Law, the first in the nation. Ehrlich was persuaded to enroll in the LL.M. Biotechnology and Genomics program, and in January 2006, she stepped into a classroom for the first time in 32 years.

"It was refreshing, invigorating, exciting, fun!" Ehrlich said. "Every member of the faculty was just so open to me being there, which was very important in making me feel comfortable. And Gary (Marchant) was very open to my doing an independent study as a lab rat at the Arizona Department of Health Services."

Marchant described Ehrlich as a "rare student who brought more to the law school than she received. Her experience and knowledge as a judge and as the only lawyer on the federal government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity makes her a unique and valuable member of the law school community."

One of her professors, Michael Saks, said Ehrlich's presence in the classroom was a wonderful opportunity for both law students and faculty.

"She not only brought a wealth of legal knowledge and experience, she was engaged, curious, and eager to learn more," Saks said. "Her presence and her enthusiasm taught the students that education is a lifetime endeavor."

Ehrlich's devotion to her own education is benefiting others: she has joined Barrett, The Honors College at ASU as a pre-law advisor and recently taught a Current Legal Issues course to Barrett students. Other doors are sure to open.

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law