Harnessing PIK Power to Engage Alumni

In our Sept|Oct 2008 issue, the Gazette ran a cover story on the first six Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professors—scholars in a wide range of fields who are uniquely representative of the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching. Each PIK professor holds appointments in two separate schools of the University, and 10 of these academic double threats have been appointed so far.

As it turns out, the PIKs are actually triple threats—in that, besides excelling in their area(s) of study, they also have a gift for communicating the substance and impact of their research. The University administration and Penn Alumni have been taking advantage of this ability with a series of live presentations to alumni around the country under the banner, “Engaging Minds.”

The format of these presentations is simple, even plain vanilla: Three PIK professors each discuss a topic related to their research for about a half-hour, with time for questions afterward. Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vince Price handle the introductions and moderate the discussions.

But the material covered is anything but. To get an idea of the intellectual ground traversed, anthropologist and documentary film-maker John L. Jackson Jr., the first PIK professor to be named, with appointments in anthropology and communications, spoke on “All Yah’s Children: An Introduction to Black Hebrewism”; while PIK #9, public-health scholar Karen Glanz (nursing and medicine), took as her topic, “Obesity and the Built Environment.” Their fellows have shared cutting edge insights on the future of nanotechnology and stem-cell research, and on the creation of a genetic map of Africa that sheds light on early human migration and development, among other topics.

The series kicked off in September 2008 with a sold-out event in New York, attended by more than 300 people, followed by a production in Washington, D.C. in April 2009 that drew 200 alumni. Four PIK professors—Jackson, Jonathan Moreno (medical ethics and history and sociology of science), Adrian Raine (criminology and psychiatry), and Sarah Tishkoff (genetics and biology)—participated in those presentations.

For its second season, “Engaging Minds” returned to New York last December for a program that attracted an even larger crowd of more than 370 people, then headed for the West Coast for successful presentations in San Francisco and Los Angeles with Tishkoff, Glanz, John Gearhart (cell and developmental biology and animal biology), and Christopher Murray (chemistry and materials science and engineering).

“Engaging Minds has proven to be a remarkable program to showcase Penn’s focus on teaching and research that bridges the gaps between traditional academic boundaries,” says F. Hoopes Wampler, assistant vice president for alumni relations. “In addition to hearing from signature Penn faculty, the program provides a unique opportunity for alumni to interact with the president and provost in a sophisticated academic setting—truly something of value that is not otherwise regularly available.” 

Videos from the Washington, D.C. event can be seen on YouTube, and more will be posted as they become available. Further information—including alumni reviews—can also be found at the Engaging Minds website.

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