Looking Back, Moving Forward

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Dave Zeitlin C’03’s cover story marking the 250th anniversary of what is now called the Perelman School of Medicine includes plenty of material on the institution’s rich history since its founding as the nation’s first medical school, the many achievements of its graduates and faculty, and the benefits of Penn’s uniquely collaborative environment to its educational and research efforts. But in keeping with the article’s title, “The Link,” a major focus is the sense of connection between generations of alumni, symbolized by an annual Commencement ritual in which the 50th Reunion Class figuratively welcomes the new graduates into the practice of medicine.

When this year’s 50th Reunion Class graduated back in 1965, it was of course the school’s bicentennial—an occasion recognized in the Gazette of that era with articles highlighting a number of leading faculty and alumni [“Men of Medicine,” November 1965]. Vivid artifacts of their time, they put me in mind of the many changes in medicine and society in the intervening half-century.

The mostly heroic poses in the photos call up a time when technological hubris was at its height in many fields. Even as remarkable medical progress continues to be made, new epidemics and developments like antibiotic-resistance have made today’s researchers humbler about the complex challenges of combating disease.

Another striking change: Now not everyone is male, not everyone is white. That was already beginning to happen by 1965, as one alumna from the year before—Arlene Bennett Ed’60 M’64, the first African American woman to graduate from the medical school—eloquently recalls in Dave’s story.

Since taking his first job with AOL fresh out of the Wharton MBA program, James Bankoff WG’96 has been a player in many of the developments that have shaped the online industry, from Web 1.0 to whatever version we’re up to now. As much as he is steeped in the internet, though, as the CEO of Vox Media, Inc., Bankoff harks back to the kind of publishing pioneered by Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce back in the 1920s.

But the flood of subscription and advertising dollars that fueled Luce’s stable of magazines is long gone, and no one seems to have come up with a model that can replace it and also support high-quality journalism in the Digital Age. In “Bankoff’s Time,” Alyson Krueger C’07 describes how Bankoff has gone about building his modern-day publishing empire, his conviction that quality will win out and “substance goes viral,” and the many challenges to sustained success he faces in today’s uncertain media landscape.

Toward the end of “Pure to Applied,” Kevin Hartnett’s profile of PIK Professor Robert Ghrist, the noted mathematician talks about his ambition to bring apparently abstract theories from the past “kicking and screaming” into practical, real-world use. Ghrist’s own specialty is algebraic topology, which he describes as “the mathematics of the qualitative as opposed to the quantitative.” If that sounds encouragingly simpler than regular math to my fellow innumerates, this conclusion—as with so much about the subject with us—is wrong.

One of the applications to which Ghrist’s work has been put is to improve the performance of the quadrotor flying robots developed in Penn Engineering’s GRASP lab by making them less reliant on GPS data, meaning that they can be smaller and their batteries will last longer. (The robots’ limited battery life was proposed as the fatal weakness stopping them from conquering the world when we wrote about them in “Drone’s Day Scenarios” [Nov|Dec 2012], so I guess we can go back to worrying about that.)

Finally, this issue also includes our coverage of those quintessential ceremonies of moving forward and looking back, Commencement and Alumni Weekend.

—John Prendergast C’80
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