Across disciplines, research is a thriving art at Penn.
By Amy Gutmann | Mystery and intrigue. Plot twists and playwrights. A centuries’ old secret and … engineers?
The grand opening of our new Pennovation Center in October got me thinking about the many surprising ways innovation manifests itself at Penn. And no wonder: during the dedication event, I had the opportunity to sit down for a fascinating conversation with Warby Parker co-founders and Wharton alums Neil Blumenthal WG’10 and David Gilboa GEng’10 WG’10 before a full house of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and special guests. That conversation touched on Warby Parker’s unique business model that has upturned the sales of eyewear, and also delved deeper into what it takes to come up with a new idea, champion it to others who may be skeptical, and nurture it to success.
Penn’s rapidly evolving Pennovation Works site on the east bank of the Schuylkill River was the perfect location for our conversation. An enthusiastic Philadelphia Inquirer review of the newly renovated building said it best: “Pennovation announces the future.” That future shone brilliantly at the grand opening. Guests enjoyed tours, demonstrations of working dogs and advanced robotics, and heard from a selection of the 20 companies and more than 100 individuals currently at work in this dynamic incubation space.
The festivities culminated both whimsically and prophetically, with a surprise robotic presentation of 3-D printed scissors that we then used to cut the ceremonial ribbon. From its spaceship-like nosecone to the buzz of excited activity everywhere, the future is ever-present at the Pennovation Center. Our overriding goal is to speed discoveries and technologies from the drawing board to the real world. Doing so requires a special space where academia and industry meet. Sophisticated, sleek and surprising, modern yet messy, flexible and fun—the Pennovation Center highlights how often innovation is not like an arrow homing true to a known target. Rather, innovation like a river flows—speedy at points, slow at others, and sometimes overflowing its banks to set a new course entirely—on a sure path to the sea. The flight of an arrow is predictable. The flow of a river is full of twists, turns, and unexpected vistas. It is a journey of surprises.
Understanding innovation in this way helps explain why a recent notable academic paper describing cutting-edge research conducted at our School of Engineering and Applied Science appears not in Science but in December’s volume of Shakespeare Quarterly. The article cites work by Penn faculty member Alejandro Ribeiro, Rosenbluth Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and lab team members Santiago Segarra and Mark Eisen, who devised an innovative mathematical modeling technique to make a startling discovery. Their research indicates that all three of William Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays (parts I, II, and III) were in fact co-authored by none other than the Bard’s contemporary—and it has always been assumed, archrival—Christopher Marlowe. The evidence they unveiled changes not only the way the world thinks about the works of the most famous writer of the English language. It just as surely advances the techniques and technology we can use to identify individuals simply by how they employ words.
For years, scholars have known that Shakespeare wrote at least some of his plays in collaboration with others. Up until now, most scholars have attempted to use each author’s preferred vocabulary to decide who wrote what. Professor Ribeiro and his team saw the flaws in determining authorship by relying solely on the use of complex words that often say more about the subject of the work than its author. Instead, why not look at the more humdrum functional words, such as the or to, and how each writer typically employed them—how close or far apart they are? Using sophisticated new computing techniques, the Penn researchers explored what they call “word adjacency networks” to arrive at a remarkably consistent stylistic fingerprint for each author.
Penn engineers sift through lines of text more than 400 years old. Algorithms uncover whose ink-stained fingers held the quill pen. New knowledge rises to answer old questions. This is the everyday drama of Penn research in three acts.
Across the arts and humanities, sciences and medicine, social sciences and law, Penn faculty bridge disciplines every day to make profound discoveries and educate our students, making Penn a leading player upon the world’s stage. We pursue innovative research of all kinds for its own sake. The results provide discernible benefits to people around the globe. Penn research unlocks understanding about the natural world around us and the infinitely complex world within us. It informs public policy and international cooperation. It changes how we look at teaching and communication, economic systems and weather patterns, and how best to counsel and care for those in distress. Sometimes, the flow of these efforts sweeps discovery in unexpected directions, to outcomes that will not be apparent for many years to come. From using sophisticated analytic techniques to identify disputed authorship to discovering novel means of killing cancer cells that save a little girl’s life, Penn research runs in countless different channels, each moving toward a future of greater understanding.
Our commitment to furthering discovery takes many forms. Faculty support is especially critical, with endowed professorships such as our Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professorships providing resources for eminent faculty teaching and groundbreaking research. Supporting our entire faculty are research grants and strategic initiatives, designed to strengthen ongoing collaborations and foster new ones.
A prime example of opening transformative new pathways to creative discovery was the $15 million gift by Penn leaders Keith and Kathy Sachs, establishing the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. Keith and Kathy are among the undisputed patron saints of the arts at Penn, understanding that if creativity is the very soul of innovation, then art is surely creativity made manifest. Their latest extraordinary generosity promises to transform how our students and faculty understand, experience, and break new ground in the arts. Along with a new Sachs Arts Innovation Hub in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Sachs Program will include grants to develop courses, workshops, and other opportunities for faculty, students, and countless members of our community. The Sachs Program will bolster collaboration across campus, bringing together our arts centers with academic programs. It will attract artists in residence and serve as a tool in faculty recruitment and retention. This is a stellar addition to Penn’s research innovation ecosystem, reaching into every school, center, and department on our campus.
While the scope of our innovation enterprise at Penn is as inspiring as it is impressive, the contributions these efforts make to the greater good matter most. If we do not undertake this work, few others can or will. Rigorous research, unbiased fact-finding and sharing, bold and visionary work informed by acute inquiry and academic ingenuity are necessities of modern society—everything from good governance to life-saving medicine depend on it. There is simply no current institution better equipped with the collective brainpower, the centuries of expertise, and the will to discover than a world-class research university such as Penn. To borrow from the Bard’s Antony and Cleopatra, where he is indeed assumed sole author: “To business that we love, we rise betimes and go to it with delight.”