With the exception of our annual photo essay on Alumni Weekend, it so happened that this issue’s feature articles all focus on the work of Penn faculty members—which makes for much more stimulating summer reading than your average “Best Beach Books” list.
First up, in “The New Biology,” associate editor Trey Popp notes the “explosive” growth in research and teaching in the life sciences and highlights the leading-edge work being done by three younger faculty members who come from a variety of departments but whose work is linked by a focus on bioscience.
Dongeun (Dan) Huh, the Wilf Family Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, appears on our cover holding up his “eye on a chip”—one of several miniature organs he’s been involved in creating that could provide a new and better platform for pre-clinical drug testing than traditional in vitro and animal models. The eye can cry and blink, and Huh has set up a lung on a chip to study response to infection and the effects of smoking. Eventually, Huh told Trey, the hope is to get to a “human-body-on-a-chip system.”
Also featured are self-described “biological game theorist” Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology whose work challenges established theories about the role of competition in evolution, proposing that cooperation may be at least as important; and evolutionary biologist Alison Sweeney, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy. Sweeney’s work with iridescent giant clams could help solve problems in alternative-energy conversion and storage.
While such research shows the promise of new ideas in biology, PIK Professor Dorothy Roberts’ work focuses on the damage done by the old—and false—idea of racial differences rooted in biology.
In her scholarship and advocacy, Roberts has championed the rights of black women and shown how stereotypes created in the era of colonialism and slavery continue to oppress them with particular force. Her 2011 book Fatal Invention traces the development of biological racial hierarchies over the centuries and illuminates the ways they continue to play out in the present.
In “Dangerous Ideas,” freelancer Melissa Jacobs C’92 reports on Roberts’ thinking as expressed in her writings and recent public lectures, and talks with her about her current project—an excavation of 30 years’ worth of interviews that her anthropologist-parents conducted about their own interracial marriage and those of other couples.
“Imagination Man” Scott Barry Kaufman comes highly recommended. Positive psychology founding figure Martin Seligman considers him the top creativity-researcher of his generation, and departmental colleague Angela Duckworth touts him as an outstanding example of her concept of “grit.”
As a child, problems with language comprehension caused by repeated ear infections resulted in Kaufman being relegated to special-education classes. Freelancer JoAnn Greco details his progress from there to his current position as scientific director of the Positive Psychology Center’s Science of Imagination Project. She also covers his new book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind; his continuing battles with anxiety; and his plans for the future, which he says will focus on efforts to unlock the potential of “all the kids that are falling through the cracks in some way.” And may also include stand-up comedy.
Finally, we heard from several readers who were unhappy about the editor’s note I appended to a pair of letters published in May|June in response to our story on Penn’s Islamic chaplain. I’ve said my piece on this subject and won’t be commenting any further, but you can read their comments—and also see what other readers thought about Julian Wasser’s “unsuitable” photos, among other topics—in “Letters.”
And we’re always happy to hear what you think!
—John Prendergast C’80