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Four years after Amy Gutmann set out to reinvigorate the interdisciplinary ethos at Penn, a new kind of professorship is on the ascendant.

By Trey Popp | Illustration by Daniel Chang

Sidebar | Two More PIK Profs Named

When she was inducted as the University of Pennsylvania’s eighth president in October 2004, Amy Gutmann devoted part of her inaugural address to a critique of the academy in its contemporary form.

“Universities have a natural tendency to relegate each problem to the province of one or another academic discipline or profession,” she began. But the most challenging problems, she continued, cut across multiple branches of learning. “We cannot understand the AIDS epidemic, for example, without joining the perspectives of medicine, nursing, and finance with those of biochemistry, psychology, sociology, political science, history, and increasingly literature as well.”

And yet the academy remains in some respects a balkanized realm. Economic pressures and the ever-intensifying urge toward specialization have led many American universities to focus on professional education, reinforcing the barriers between disciplinary enclaves.

“The casualty of this growing divide has not been the arts and sciences—they are as important as ever,” Gutmann declared. “The loss has been the knowledge that we can gain by better integrating liberal arts and the professions.”

To that end, Penn’s new president outlined one of the main pillars of her leadership agenda. Through the Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) initiative, she would seek to renew the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching by way of 18 endowed professorships that would each straddle the boundaries of two of Penn’s 12 schools.

Four years later, six PIK professors have arrived on campus (a seventh and eighth were announced shortly before the Gazette went to press) and enough money has been raised to sponsor another two. The scholars profiled in the subsequent pages range from Sarah Tishkoff, whose genetics-based research in Africa has earned her the label “molecular anthropologist,” to Philippe Bourgois, an ethnographer specializing in the underground economy who must be the first-ever member of Penn Medicine’s department of family practice and community medicine to make his office in the archaeology museum.  

“I don’t think that having a joint appointment between two schools is right for most people,” Gutmann reflected in a recent conversation. “It takes a very special kind of person to want such a joint appointment and to thrive in it.” But among that rarefied group are some of the most accomplished and unique scholars in the world, she contends, and the PIK program has been a deciding factor in attracting them to Penn.

“The biggest success is evidenced by the quality of the seven PIK professors we’ve recruited, and their enthusiasm for coming,” she said shortly before stem-cell pioneer John Gearhart became the eighth. “Every one turned down other great offers from great institutions. Every one, their home institution tried mighty hard to keep them. And every one of them has been not only embraced by the faculty here, but has been able to multiply what our existing wonderful faculty are able to do in the fields that are represented.”

PIK professorships are more expensive than the traditional variety at Penn. To underwrite the first six, Richard Perry W’77 and Lyn and David Silfen C’66 donated $5 million per position, nearly twice the cost of a conventional appointment in the School of Arts and Sciences. This is partly because joint appointments tend to be resource-intensive and can involve hefty start-up costs—like the University’s commitment to building new nanotech labs, which helped to lure leading materials scientist Christopher Murray away from IBM’s research division.

Gutmann adds that the PIK program aims to emphasize classroom teaching as much as academic research. “We look for scholars and teachers who are role models—and role models for students,” she says. Her first PIK hire, anthropologist and filmmaker John Jackson, jumped at the opportunity to chair the Annenberg School’s undergraduate department. The seventh recruit, mathematician Rob Ghrist—a soon-to-be Andrea Mitchell University Professor who will also be affiliated with the department of electrical and systems engineering—is a natural in the classroom, she says. “Not only is he one of the preeminent applied mathematicians of our time, but he is also known at the University of Illinois as a star teacher of calculus. And he loves to teach calculus. Calculus is not an easy subject to turn students on to, and Ghrist has shown over and over again that he can do that. Students love his calculus course.”

The PIK initiative has also served to lure respected public intellectuals to campus. Jonathan Moreno, whose appointments are in medical ethics in the School of Medicine and the history and sociology of science in the School of Arts and Sciences, also serves as editor-in-chief of the new online publication Science Progress, through which he hopes to shape national discourse on science policy at the highest levels of government. Criminologist Adrian Raine’s exploration of the genetic and brain basis of crime places him among that rare group of thinkers who can render both left- and right-wingers apoplectic with a single hypothesis.

In conversation, every one of these new dual professors echoes Gutmann’s contention that the PIK program is a logical extension of Penn’s core competitive advantage as an institution of higher learning. The presence of so many distinct schools, centers, and institutes on a compact, contiguous campus has enabled each of the new professors to form partnerships with faculty members in departments that are sometimes separated by miles at other universities.

“In brief, the PIK professors are proof of concept,” Gutmann says. “They are proof that Penn is a uniquely conducive environment for the highest level of interdisciplinary research and teaching.”

Here are introductions to the first six who have begun making their presence felt on campus.

John Jackson is Anthroman

Anthropology is at a crossroads, and from where John Jackson is standing, there’s no direction one can turn that doesn’t lead to some sort of existential crisis.

For one thing, says the Richard Perry University Associate Professor, “The completely undiscovered territory that anthropologists prided themselves on finding in the past is gone.”

For another, “All the stuff anthropologists have done to gain their authority, other folks are doing now.” Journalists frequently beat them to the scene, and sometimes stay longer. Video cameras enable end-runs around written description and analysis, raising the question of whether traditional ethnographers are vital interlocutors or redundant middlemen. And anyone with an Internet connection knows that the kind of cultural access that used to make anthropology unique is now often available in the next chatroom.

Furthermore, Jackson argues, we are living in a “hyperscientific moment” when “human genomics and the statistical analysis of massive data sets are privileged as holy grails in the search for contemporary solutions to social problems.” Which begs the question: What can an ethnographer possibly hope to contribute?

The 21st century is not the first time anthropology has been in crisis, but the challenges it faces now may transform the discipline as thoroughly as the conceptual upheavals of the late 1960s, or the rise of postmodernism in the 1980s. Social anthropologists have long viewed culture in terms of ritual and performance, but the Internet is changing the context in which those things play out even more radically than older forms of mass media have. With one leg planted in the Annenberg School for Communication and the other in the anthropology department—not to mention his affiliation with the Center for Africana Studies—Jackson is right in the middle of these changes. He’s a filmmaker, an academic, and a playful commentator who uses a bespoke superhero figurine as the banner for his blog, From the Annals of Anthroman. And Anthroman is decidedly not a khaki-shorts-and-canvas-tent kind of dude.

“That we reproduce sociality through these ritualized forms of performance, that’s kind of quintessential anthropology,” Jackson says. “I think what’s new is that these aren’t just rituals that you see in a hut-community somewhere—these are rituals that once they go up on YouTube, you can see them almost immediately, halfway around the world. And people can then duplicate it in places where they would have otherwise never had access.”

In other words, communities no longer adhere within strict spatial boundaries, and sometimes a single physical place can represent very different things to different people. Both of those realities loom large in Jackson’s first major work of ethnography, Harlemworld.

“Harlem first suggested itself to me as a full-fledged field site in Jamaica, West Indies,” Jackson wrote in the beginning of that 2003 book. “It was there that Harlem jumped out at me in all of its imaginative grandeur—and not just through BET broadcasts of hip-hop music videos on local television sets or through cotton T-shirts emblazoned with Harlem’s name neatly displayed in local tourist shops … Harlem congealed for me against the heat and sand of the Jamaican coastline because of how often and matter-of-factly many Jamaicans I met there purported to possess knowledge of that not-so-distant place. Some of them had actually been to Harlem. Many constantly wrote and telephoned relatives and friends who were still there. Others had never set foot in Harlem but spoke of its symbolic import for the black diaspora in seemingly heartfelt ways.”

Sitting in his office on the second floor of the Annenberg School, Jackson muses, “There’s a way in which when you say Harlem, almost no matter where you are on the planet, thought-bubbles pop up in people’s heads about what that actually means. But at the same time, it’s in northern Manhattan in New York City, folks go through it every day, and there’s a kind of straightforwardness and connectedness to the place that some people would imagine means that it isn’t that exotic at all.

“What I like is that contradiction, or that paradox,” he continues. “That it can be both this kind of fanciful mythological space for people, and also a real, hard, tangible and inhabitable place in New York City. And I think what anthropology is trying to do as a field is figure out places like that, especially if more and more places become just that.”

That “if” could just as well be an “as”—and what Jackson describes is hardly limited to Harlem. When Bronislaw Malinowski pitched his tent among the Trobriand islanders in 1915, for example, their world of garden magicians and adolescent free love represented a tightly confined realm of knowledge that only a social anthropologist could claim to penetrate. Today it would be hard to find an ethnographer bold enough to make that assertion. Package tours started visiting Malinowski’s old field site in 1962, and today Papua New Guinea’s government maintains a Web page plugging the annual Yam Festival, among the islands’ other tourist attractions. 

Jackson’s current project delves still more deeply into that busy intersection of culture and mass media. After pausing to write Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness—an unusually entertaining volume whose take on contemporary racial divisions and conspiracy theories proved prescient when coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was hijacked last spring by the sensation that was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—Jackson has returned to his work on what is probably the most fascinating community you’ve never heard of in the Middle East: the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.

In a lecture at the Penn Museum in March, he shared some of his research on the African Hebrews, which has ranged from public-access television channels in the United States, to soapbox evangelists on big-city street corners, to the Negev Desert in Israel.

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem can be traced to Chicago, where an African-American named Ben Carter founded the group in 1966 after renaming himself Ben Ammi Ben-Israel. Ben Ammi regarded himself and his followers as descendants of “ancient Hebrew Israelites” held captive in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon during biblical times. In 1969, after a two-year spell in Liberia, he led a group of about 100 of these Black Hebrews, who addressed one another as “saint,” to Israel, which issued them temporary visitors’ visas. They installed themselves in the Negev, instituted a purely vegan diet as a means to biological immortality, and never left.

“The first time I visited them in the quaint and quiet desert town of Dimona” in 2005, Jackson says, “I was surprised to confirm that the initial 100 people had ballooned to thousands—between 2,500 and 3,500—and that these African-American immigrants, who evoked the Right of Return to justify their presence in the Holy Land, have established themselves as a recognizable if quirky segment of contemporary Israel’s multicultural landscape. They have become a little-known satellite community of contemporary black America—an intentional community that lives on its own relatively self-contained village compound. But not just there. Saints live and reside all around the world.

“This is a community based in Israel, but that is decidedly global,” Jackson emphasizes. “Right now, if you were to open up your computer and go online, they have a very sophisticated Internet presence. You can listen to the community radio station 24 hours a day. You can buy all the items they sell. You can visit various parts of the community virtually.”

The African Hebrew Israelites are themselves scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere, with satellite branches in the Caribbean, brethren in the United States, and community-development projects that they underwrite in countries like Ghana and Benin. In 1998, Vanderbilt University medical researchers found that the Israel-based contingent has dramatically lower levels of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension than African-Americans in the United States, despite their common genetic heritage. Forty years after their exodus—an event they commemorate annually in a New World Passover ceremony—the African Hebrews continue to proselytize those they left behind.

“They would argue that everything coming out of contemporary black America is pathological to its core,” Jackson says. “You name it. The music—hip-hop especially—they demonize … The food is clearly pathological, clearly destructive to the body, all the sort-of-traditional black food. African-American notions of intellectuality, African-American versions of community—everything, go down the line, they would demonize … And all of that pathology, they would argue, is a function of Israelites—Hebrews—not abiding by what they committed to vis-à-vis God’s covenant.”

Several years into his field work—which may occur in Israel one month and on his Web browser the next—it’s evident that Jackson’s tool kit has to run the gamut from religious studies to biology to media-analysis as well as the classical ethnographic method he likes to euphemize as “deep, deep hanging out.” In his view, the most compelling questions about the African Hebrew Israelites can’t be answered by human genomics or statistical analysis.

“I’m interested in trying to figure out how they created this multinational, transnational, global diaspora community—this almost empire of veganism and everlasting living—that is so completely under the radar,” Jackson says. If that means recalibrating social anthropology for an era dominated by globalization and mass media—“things ethnography was decidedly not concocted to study,” he points out—so be it. What better mission could there be for Anthroman?

Applied Philosopher: Bioethicist and historian of science Jonathan Moreno

Even for someone in bioethics, a discipline that has lately begun grappling with the kinds of quandaries once confined to science-fiction plots, Jonathan Moreno attracts more than his fair share of left-field queries.

“Almost every day, I get an e-mail or a call from somebody who is sure that their brain is being controlled by the CIA,” he says. “And very smart people, too.” Most recently it was a Californian who identified himself as a practicing neurologist. But if the past couple years are any guide, that caller won’t be the last.

Ever since Moreno investigated the intersection of neuroscience and warfare in his 2006 book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists have been wearing out the ringer on his phone. The former hospital ethicist doesn’t count himself as one of them, but he knows enough not to discount the concerns that underlie their fears.

“The big turning point for me was in the mid ’90s, when I was asked to work for a presidential advisory committee on decades of rumors of human radiation experiments done secretly by the federal government. So for a year and a half, I worked with a security clearance.” That’s when Moreno saw that bioethics had a public-policy dimension every bit as important as its clinical one. “Most people in bioethics,” he says, “don’t think about the Defense Department, or the Department of Energy, or the CIA and other parts of the intelligence community. But I saw that that was a mistake. I realized that there’s a huge, uncharted history of ethics in medicine in the national-security world.”

As a David and Lyn Silfen University Professor with appointments in the College’s department of history and sociology of science as well as the medical school, where he is a professor of medical ethics, Moreno has the intellectual space to delve into such under-explored realms.

Before coming to Penn, Moreno taught biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia. “I was perfectly happy in Charlottesville, but I always felt a little odd about putting so much of an emphasis on history and political considerations,” he says. “Yet I thought it was absolutely necessary to do that. So what attracted me to this job was being able to get the license to do both—history of science and bioethics was the perfect combination.”

Yet like many of his colleagues at Penn’s Center for Bioethics, where he is a senior fellow, Moreno also has one eye trained on the future. The developments he explored in Mind Wars—the $100 million in grants being spent with the aim of creating “sleepless soldiers,” for instance, or the push to augment the memories of fighter pilots with microchips—have the potential to change civilian life no less radically than military practice.

“Deliberate personal enhancement using biotechnology, neurotechnology, genetics, neuropharmacology—this is all going to be part of the biggest question of the 21st century,” he says. “What is it to be a human being? That’s what’s at stake. And how much control ought we to exercise over what it is to be a human being?”

Part of what distinguishes Moreno’s approach to these questions is an academic background marked by a frank lack of interest in ethical theory. As a graduate student in philosophy in the mid 1970s, Moreno saw ethics as an “intellectual dead end,” or worse, “a vast wasteland.”

“Much of my generation saw little point in worrying about moral theory when other young Americans and Vietnamese peasants of all ages were being killed and maimed without any sound explanation,” he has written. “As the country was being torn apart by an actual moral crisis, analytic philosophy seemed to offer at best a witty parlor game.”

Bioethics was a different story, especially for someone who wanted to become a public intellectual at a time when public intellectuals seemed to be vanishing from view. A philosophical pragmatist in the mold of John Dewey, Moreno was attracted to a discipline that dealt in the currency of real-life conundrums. And the medical community, which was then confronting challenges ranging from rising litigation to the advent of HMOs, had plenty of them.

“They were looking for help in unusual places, including even philosophers,” Moreno quips. “At eight in the morning as a junior professor, I’d go teach introductory philosophy and the kids would be falling asleep. Then later that day I’d go over to the medical school and the docs would be hanging on every word. It was totally bizarre. So it was obviously a real forum for philosophical ideas.”

Over the next quarter century, that forum grew far beyond anyone’s expectations. Advances in genetics and neurobiology are now starting to exert revolutionary pressures on the traditional model of medical care—turning bioethics into an increasingly political endeavor. From stem-cell research to the social-justice implications of “personalized medicine,” contemporary topics in bioethics are deeply enmeshed with debates about public policy. How aggressively should we pursue medical technologies that aim to enhance people who are already healthy? In a world of limited resources, is it appropriate to spend healthcare dollars on things like silicon-based brain enhancement when millions of citizens can’t afford basic primary care?

On one side of this debate over human enhancement are the so-called “transhumanists,” who essentially advocate using biotechnology to transform the evolution of the species into a self-directed endeavor. Opposite them are the “bio-conservatives,” whose voices have dominated the current President’s Council on Bioethics, and whose opposition to stem-cell and cloning research is rooted in the abstract notion of preserving human dignity.

Moreno sees himself somewhere in the middle—an intellectual space he is trying to expand as the editor-in-chief of Science Progress, an online publication launched last year by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank with a moderately left-leaning bent. “One common criticism of progressive science policy is that it uncritically adopts an instrumental view of science without reflection on the goals of innovation,” he wrote in his inaugural editor’s statement. “Although we reject the notion that a philosophy of innovation must be dumb to moral values, we appreciate that progressives have too often appeared to worship at the altar of change. Science Progresswill therefore seek to compass consideration of ends as well as means.”

More broadly, Moreno’s mission is to wrest science policy out of the realm of ideological abstraction and bring it back to pragmatic concerns.

“We make a big mistake when we don’t take people’s ability to entertain real cases seriously,” he explains. For instance, when Republican presidential candidates were asked in a 2007 debate to raise their hands if they didn’t “believe in evolution,” part of the problem was the question itself. It would have been better, Moreno says, to ask them if they believed in getting the latest flu vaccination—which changes every year to keep pace with the mutating virus.

“If you’ve got an old parent who’s at risk for flu, do you say, I don’t believe in evolution and therefore I’m not going to take dad to have his flu shot? I don’t think so,” he says. “It’s only when we’re in these abstract or posturing situations—like candidates raising their hands—that we lose sight of the concrete … So I think it’s very important to translate these sorts of moral questions into actual cases and findings and consequences.”

Indeed, whether the field of inquiry is national defense or genetic engineering or science education, Moreno insists that concrete cases are what shape our moral imagination to begin with. He rejects the proposition that values are somehow disconnected from circumstance, and that ethical decision-making is just a matter of applying yesterday’s codes to today’s realities. “I think that we learn about the moral life by experiencing, by trying things out,” he says. “So through experience you have these emergent properties, including values. And as the facts on the ground change—as the cliché goes these days—our values actually change. That’s why we’ve been so successful as a species, because we’ve been responsive to that.

“But it’s not written in stone that we’ll continue to be so successful,” he adds, “unless we retain a level of openness to what’s happening around us.”

Christopher Murray and the Modular Assembly of Matter

There are applied scientists, there are theoretical scientists, and then there’s Christopher Murray.

At IBM, where he was a “master inventor” in the research division and managed the nanoscale materials and devices department, Murray helped to develop intricately structured thin magnetic films that pushed the limit for how small conventional computer memory can be. He was also a patent evaluator known for making some pretty novel things himself—self-assembling artificial atoms, for instance.

Since coming to Penn, one of his most exciting encounters was meeting his new colleague Nader Engheta, the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor of electrical and systems engineering, who was, as Murray enthusiastically recalls, “using these computational methods to think about materials that did not exist.”

That was just the kind of thing that fired Murray up about research the way it’s conducted in academia. In short order, he was collaborating with a small group that had cohered around Engheta’s speculations. Their project: bringing his nonexistent materials into being.

“The part that’s so exciting,” says the Richard Perry University Professor, whose appointments are in chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences and materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, “is that even before he knew it could be made, [Engheta] said it would be fascinating if someone could produce this arrangement of materials with these set properties. There was no obvious route at that time in terms of how that might be achieved, but he had the vision to think about what would be the interesting combinations and not to worry about the fabrication side too much. And once we saw what he was doing, it became clear that some of the assembly methods that were being used might actually allow you to make the kind of spatial arrangements he was targeting!

“It’s a really good example of where theory can actually help lead and motivate the experimental side.”

If you had to pick just one poster prof for the PIK initiative, Murray would be hard to pass up. In less than two years on campus, he has tuned his intellectual antennae to seemingly every frequency on the academic dial.

The students in his lab build systems from simple chemical precursors, characterize their physical properties using electromicroscopy and x-ray techniques, and then work on integrating them into new devices. Meanwhile, their professor has networked with Penn’s computing community, hooked up with chemistry department colleague Andrew Rappe to explore novelties in theoretical ferroelectrics, and started delving into life-sciences applications by way of Penn’s Nano/Bio Interface Center.

On top of that, he says, “You have people like Jonathan Moreno [see page 36], who’s been thinking about aspects of bioethics … so there’ll be a community of people who take up the challenge of what this technology is going to bring. Each time you have the ability to manipulate materials in a more diverse set of arrays, you have to ask the question, Where are we headed with all this?

“And you know in the Wharton School, there’s already a number of researchers who’ve been tracking the early stages of how the extension of our fabrication and scientific capabilities are beginning to impact small start-ups and larger industries as well,” he goes on. “So that’s also something that I think, campus-wide, leads to some very interesting exchanges.”

Murray’s research agenda is also an integrative enterprise in the most literal way. He is trying to figure out how to combine structures at the atomic level in order to capture the physics of multiple systems within a single material.

“So by taking two nanometer-scale building blocks, if you will, and connecting them at dimensions where they begin to talk to each other and there’s a mixing of properties, you can produce assemblies, for example, that have both magnetic and optical responses, and each is tunable independently,” he explains. “It’s this idea of not just building the individual building blocks, but to push on in this direction where we can do a modular assembly of matter, and really begin to mix and match the best properties of many different classes of material.”

As with much leading-edge research in science and engineering, it’s anyone’s guess where these explorations will lead. From Murray’s perspective, that means now is the time to maximize the potential of nanotechnology research at Penn.

“What we hope will be a good opportunity is that as we plan and develop facilities for nanoscale characterization, we continue to build in the kinds of capabilities that are attractive to the life-sciences communities, because that’s the kind of mixing that we really want to have,” he says. “Things in terms of microfluidics, or the ability to integrate some biological systems into fabricated devices—sensors and so on.”

Spend an hour chatting with him, and it’s easy to see why MIT’s Technology Review magazine named Murray in its inaugural list of the top innovators under 35 back in 1999. If anything, the shift from industry to the ivory tower has charged him up with even more enthusiasm. And his recruitment to Penn, says Amy Gutmann, is an example of how the PIK program has allowed the University to respond to the changing academic marketplace.

“If you ask, Is Chris Murray one of the foremost scholars in nanoscience and technology?, the answer is yes,” Penn’s president says. “ But where did we find Chris Murray? We found him outside of the university context.”

These days, he could hardly be more ensconced—or more optimistic about the interdisciplinary ethos whose contagion he is doing everything within his power to spread.

“Within the School of Arts and Sciences, and the leadership in the School of Engineering, there’s a recognition now that science and technology is one of the areas where, with proper investments and tooling, we can enable projects that cross many, many departments,” he enthuses. 

“We need to support this work and use it as a way to draw in talent and get people really working together. At a place like Penn—with its diverse programs, from life sciences to very hardcore engineering and basic science, through to even the social implications of nanotechnology and all of those other dimensions—we have a unique opportunity to bring all of those different talents together to really make a difference.”

Adrian Raine and the Biology of Crime

If you climb the narrow, timeworn staircase to Adrian Raine’s office in the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, one of the first things you’ll encounter is a framed triptych of PET scans representing the metabolic activity of three adult brains.

In the left-hand image, spots of deep orange glow against frontal lobes awash in a healthy-looking yellow. The colors boil down to a fairly straightforward message: Plenty going on up here. It’s just what you’d expect from a normal control subject.

The brain on the right tells a different story. Orange is absent from front of this scan, and there’s not much yellow either. Black predominates. The prefrontal cortex has a particularly different look; Engine stalled would seem an apt description. This picture is not at all like the first, but it does bear a resemblance to 40 others Raine has produced—each culled from the brain of a convicted murderer.

The image in the middle of the triptych is another thing entirely. There’s yellow and orange and red all over the place, frontal lobes and rear brain alike. This image is not unlike the scan of Raine’s own brain, which hangs nearby. If one were to abandon science in favor of just-so stories, the patterns of glucose uptake on display here might be marshaled as evidence of the intellectual rigor, self-control, and contingency planning that would serve any professor well. But the middle brain image does not belong to Raine. It belongs to a man who meticulously killed 64 people while successfully covering his tracks for a dozen years.

“And that’s the exception that proves the rule!” Raine exclaims, pointing at the serial murderer’s PET scan. “Here’s a man who was able to regulate and plan and control his behavior—and escaped detection for 12 years.” Behavioral control is exactly what most murderers lack, he says. “And essentially it’s the murderer who is impulsive and emotional who has the poor frontal functioning—which fits somewhat with what we know about the frontal cortex. It’s involved in planning, regulation, executive functions, thinking ahead, regulating people, and also controlling regulation over more basic primitive emotions generated by deeper brain structures, like the amygdala, which gives rise to fearful reactivity.”

As a Richard Perry University Professor with appointments in the criminology department within the School of Arts and Sciences and the department of psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Raine studies crime from an unusual perspective. His colleagues at the Jerry Lee Center come at it by way of sociology, legal studies, public policy, emergency medicine, and the like. Raine focuses on the body and the brain.

Why do some children grow up to be psychopathic criminals? Social and economic circumstances play a big role, as do familial influences and peer groups. But as Raine has demonstrated through experimental research, there are also biological factors at play. A low resting heart rate correlates with antisocial and aggressive behavior among children. As those framed PET scans illustrate, murderers seem unusually likely to have prefrontal brain impairment. In a recent comparison of 23 psychopaths with 22 normal control subjects, Raine revealed that two of the amygdala’s 13 distinct nuclei were structurally compromised in the former group.

This does not mean that biology is destiny. Just because a kid has a low resting heart rate doesn’t mean his parents should start packing for the nearest juvenile detention unit. “Look,” says the animated Brit, who worked as an airline accountant and a prison psychologist before becoming a professor. “If you’re in an urban, negative home environment and you’re a stimulation seeker with a low physiological arousal, you look out the window and what do you see? You see drug trading, you see drive-by shooting, you see guns, and you say, Hey, that’s fun! But if you’re brought up in a middle-class environment, you go skiing, you go bungee-jumping … Depending on the environment, there will be different outcomes.”

Furthermore, nature and nurture are not the mutually exclusive categories they once seemed to be. The last decade or two of brain research and genetic science argue strongly for a model better characterized as nature via nurture. For example, the criminology literature has long pegged poor nutrition as a risk factor for antisocial behavior. “But poor nutrition is going to actually affect the brain structure and brain function,” Raine says. “And that fits into our model, which is that poor brain function predisposes people to antisocial behavior.”

Identify kids who display the relevant traits, the idea goes, and it might be possible to intervene with extra support before they break into the neighbor’s house. Yet that prospect raises the kinds of questions that infuriate conservatives and liberals alike. The former abhor the idea of reclassifying criminals as victims. The latter worry that singling out at-risk individuals based on anatomical characteristics could amount to the 21st-century equivalent of the mark of Cain. For his part, Raine isn’t proposing amnesty for gangsters and goons, but he does think his research ought to have some bearing on the way society punishes those who break its laws.

“To what extent do we forgive or excuse people who commit homicide because they have brain dysfunction?” he asks. “The law tends to look at free will and the question of responsibility in black and white. You’re responsible or you’re not. But frankly, it’s like any trait—there are individual differences in degree of responsibility or degree in freedom of will … The question is now becoming whether or not neuroscience research should inform, alter, and titrate our laws to better take into account people who have broken brains.”

His answer is yes on all counts. Many American states already make special allowances for “mentally incompetent” offenders—exempting those with IQs under 70 from the death penalty, for instance. Shouldn’t sentencing guidelines also take into account deficits in the prefrontal cortex that may compromise moral decision-making?

But the deeper question is whether criminal behavior in and of itself constitutes a psychiatric disorder, akin to depression or schizophrenia. Raine argues that there’s enough evidence to answer in the affirmative—even if it means pulling down one of the central pillars of Enlightenment egalitarianism.

“Are we all equal?” Raine asks. “The law views us as all knowing right from wrong unless we can demonstrate it, and therefore if you know right from wrong, we are all equal. Well, we’re not, frankly. We’re simply not all equal. That’s what’s missing in the law … Some people are compromised. Isn’t it morally reprehensible of us to be punishing everyone equally when we’re not equal?”

A century ago, Western society viewed schizophrenics as wild and dangerous, best kept in shackles. Today we treat their condition as a disease with biological and genetic causes. “Prisoners were left behind then, but I think they’re no different than mentally ill people,” Raine says. “Is it the criminals’ fault that scientists have not come up with an effective intervention?”

There is certainly no shortage of professors who float such lofty opinions within the safe and abstract realm of academe. Raine may be the only one to have had his throat cut by a Turkish outlaw.

In a hotel room not far from the Aegean Sea in 1989, he awoke in the middle of the nisght aware of someone standing above him.

“Without any thought in my mind, I leap out of that bed like a tiger and put my hands around this guy’s throat,” he recalls. “And we fight. He’s hitting me, banging me. I see white light. He hits me hard against the wall. I hear my girlfriend screaming, screaming there … I’m able to push him out the window, turn on the light, and then I see blood all down my chest. I didn’t realize that when he was punching me in the throat and the head, he was punching me with a knife.”

Fortunately the blade had snapped off earlier in the scuffle, leaving only a couple millimeters of metal sticking out from the handle. After getting stitched up, Raine identified his assailant in a police lineup and the two men appeared in court.

“You know, I wanted a pound of flesh,” he says. “I wanted him to go through exactly what I did. I wanted his throat to be cut, too. I wanted him to be beaten up the way I’d been beaten up. That changed my perspective, so frankly, I can see very clearly both sides of the coin.”

True to form, the professor has even translated his own brush with life-threatening violence into biological terms—suggesting an evolutionary rationale for supporting the death penalty.

“Feelings of vengeance, indignation at offenses—these are deep-seated evolutionary emotions which have evolved to protect us as a species. It’s served us very well so far. Why abandon a tried and tested formula which stands up to the test of time?”

When it comes to the analytical formulas that have long dominated criminology, on the other hand, the psychologist in Raine sees plenty of room for refinement and addition. “In the past, we could look around us and see poverty, and witness discrimination,” and other determinants of criminal behavior, he says, “but we’ve never been able to see the inside of a person’s brain.”

Philippe Bourgois: Ethnography and Medicine

Philippe Bourgois has a problem with the law. Not long after becoming a Richard Perry University Professor last year, the renowned medical anthropologist ventured into North Philadelphia. He was looking for drug dealers who could give him entrée into a community that is chronically underserved by healthcare institutions and overserved by gun merchants. The Philadelphia police were not happy to find him there.

“I’ve managed to make friends with a bunch of dealers who were thrilled to let me hang out with them and see what’s going on,” says Bourgois, whose tall, lanky body seems at times to vibrate with spare energy—at least when he’s pent up in his Penn Museum office. “The trouble is that whenever I show up, the cops keep coming and beating everyone up, and threatening to beat me up. So far they haven’t, thank god. I tell them I’m a Penn professor and beg them to Google me.”

That claim is not always persuasive. At midnight on a drug-copping corner, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to mistake Bourgois for a junkie. Plenty of people pegged him as one in East Harlem, where he spent the latter half of the 1980s living in a tenement to research his much-praised ethnographical study of Puerto Rican crack dealers. So perhaps because North Philly beat cops don’t exactly while away their shifts doing Web searches, one squad hit the self-declared professor with a sarcastic pop quiz instead.

“They actually asked me what the name of the president of Penn was,” Bourgois recalls. “Thank god she’s famous and hired me personally, so I could remember her name! I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what the name of UCSF’s president is—my previous university.”

At the University of California, San Francisco, Bourgois was a professor in the medical school as well as vice chair of the department of anthropology, history, and social medicine. His appointments at Penn are in the anthropology department in the School of Arts and Sciences and the department of family practice and community medicine in the School of Medicine. But the trilingual professor is hardly the ivory-tower type. The company he kept during his five-year immersion in East Harlem would have had most academics cowering in the nearest faculty club.

“What’s the matter, Felipe?” one of his informants asked him at a particularly dispiriting moment in his fieldwork there. “You never murdered an animal, or try to throw a cat off a high building to see it smack down hard on its feet?”

One of the insights in Bourgois’ resulting book, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, which won the 1997 Margaret Mead Award, was that this kind of behavior and bravado made good business sense for the thousands of petty entrepreneurs who took part in the drug trade. “Indeed, upward mobility in the underground economy of the street-dealing world requires a systematic and effective use of violence against one’s colleagues, one’s neighbors, and, to a certain extent, oneself,” he observed. “Behavior that appears irrationally violent, ‘barbaric,’ and ultimately self-destructive to the outsider, can be reinterpreted according to the logic of the underground economy as judicious public relations and long-term investment in one’s ‘human capital development.’”

When his informants grew to trust Bourgois deeply enough to confide their accounts of gang rape, he found himself confronting a “Pandora’s box of gender-based brutality that the cultural relativism of my anthropological training was, once again, incapable of accommodating.”

Yet these men were not “‘exotic others’ operating in an irrational netherworld,” Bourgois insisted. “Highly motivated, ambitious inner-city youths have been attracted to the rapidly expanding, multibillion-dollar drug economy during the 1980s and 1990s precisely because they believe in Horatio Alger’s version of the American Dream.” That they resorted to criminal violence to achieve it was testament that “[t]he private sector and the free market over the past several generations have proven themselves incapable of generating materially and emotionally rewarding entry-level jobs.” The only way to change the dynamics of substance abuse and criminal entrepreneurship in urban America, he argued, is to address the structural roots of economic inequality and social marginalization.

As his career has progressed, Bourgois has become increasingly committed to developing a less restricted sort of human capital than the variety prized on the mean streets—one rooted in health and wellness. In fact it was his time in the shooting galleries of East Harlem that first spurred him in this direction. In the midst of his ethnographical research, a mysterious autoimmune disease began to emerge virtually before his eyes.

“I was dragged into AIDS before we knew what AIDS was,” he recalls. Bodies were piling up and the young academic felt like he needed to snap to attention. He was in the right place. “All of a sudden, funding opened up for exploring the social context of this disease. And so that brought a lot of people like me, anthropologists—primarily, actually, anthropologists and medical anthropologists—into the field of substance abuse and public-health studies.”

The political analysis that features in Bourgois’ ethnographic writings also informs his approach to public-health issues.

“Most of public health has been driven primarily by behavioral research that focuses on individuals and individual behavior change,” he says. “But there’s a growing—and hopefully rapidly growing—awareness of structural forces, and social and cultural forces. Part of it is just frustration at the traditional model. It’s very hard to get people to change their individual behaviors. It’s much easier to give them clean running water.”

That was the lesson of the 19th century, Bourgois points out, when a misguided theory of infectious disease prompted governments to invest in ambitious public-works schemes that nevertheless paid huge social dividends. “We thought [disease arose] from miasma,” he says. “So as a result they poured huge amounts of money into draining swamps and providing sewers and potable water. And that’s what created the health revolution. It wasn’t the discovery of germs. And it’s something that we often forget. That was a structural intervention that transformed the massive levels of dying that were taking place in the newly industrialized world. And ironically, with the scientific discovery of germ theory, that whole social, epidemiological foundation of public health just disappeared. And so that’s what I want to bring back, in a sense.”

Among other projects, Bourgois is currently trying to bring together anthropology and public health in a program that will seek to boost HIV-medication adherence among poor AIDS patients in Philadelphia. The city has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the country, and it mirrors global patterns in that the disease is identified with heterosexuality and disproportionately affects the poor. 

“One of the tragedies of the HIV epidemic is that we’ve got these extraordinarily powerful medications that can keep you alive pretty much forever, at this point. But they’re unbelievably expensive,” he says. “And they’re hard to take. You need a good doctor prescribing them, to figure it out, because you develop resistances and so forth. And they’re uncomfortable to take, often. So what’s happened is that the very poorest of the poor, their death rate hasn’t gone down. Rich people are basically not dying of HIV anymore, in wealthy countries and the United States. But the very poor are still dying at the same rates.”

Despite the presence of dozens of free clinics that specifically target HIV patients in Philadelphia, and subsidy funding for antiretroviral medications, treatment for the very poor remains fraught by problems of access and patient adherence to drug regimens. That is the pressure point Bourgois has targeted. “Basically, it’ll be a collaboration with clinicians and epidemiologists, and then, me and my team doing personal observation with the people who aren’t able to adhere, to try to figure out what’s going on.”

And if he runs afoul of Philly’s finest as he makes his rounds, one can only hope he’ll be able to name a few deans and the provost in case the president’s name alone doesn’t cut it.

Molecular Anthropologist Sarah Tishkoff

Geneticists do tricky work, but ordinarily it does not threaten their lives. Keep your hands out of the centrifuge. Don’t add water to acid. Wear gloves. The life sciences aren’t risk-free, but they usually can’t kill you.

Sarah Tishkoff might beg to differ. In her quest to collect DNA samples from thousands of men and women in Africa, she has beat her way through the kinds of bushlands that keep infectious-disease specialists in business. Tsetse flies, one learns in this kind of workplace environment, are not thwarted by bug spray. Animals really do attack. Soon after arriving in her empty new lab in the Clinical Research Building in March—an upright suitcase still unpacked in an office corner—she opened her laptop and pulled up a picture snapped in Cameroon. In it, Tishkoff’s sunglasses are pushed back over her shoulder-length auburn hair and she is gripping an eight-foot-long, freshly beheaded black mamba snake, which is thought to be one of the fastest on earth and carries enough venom to put 20 men in their graves.

A David and Lyn Silfen University Associate Professor with appointments in the School of Medicine’s genetics department and the biology department in the School of Arts and Sciences, Penn’s sixth PIK professor places herself in the way of such occupational hazards in the service of a third discipline: anthropology. Using present-day gene markers in place of fossilized bones, she is trying to unravel the deep history of humanity’s beginnings.

Where did our species originate? How did human populations spread and differentiate? What can genetic mutations tell us about the evolution of diet, culture, and disease? Those are some of the questions Tishkoff is addressing. Her work has taken her from South Africa to Sudan, and has led Popular Science magazine to name her in its annual roundup of scientists dubbed the “Brilliant Ten.”

“Within Africa,” she says, “there’s a lot of linguistic diversity, a lot of ethnic diversity, a lot of morphological variation—you have short-statured Pygmies and really tall Maasai—and people have very diverse diets: hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, agriculturalists.” That makes the continent a rich ground for exploring the genetic basis of human variation, a project many expect will dovetail with next-generation medical research.

“A lot of normal variability, whether it be height, skin color, resistance to infectious disease—these are traits that likely were adaptive in past environments,” Tishkoff explains. “So we’re looking at the evolutionary history of these genes that play a role in environmental response, with a major emphasis on infectious disease.”

To answer questions about how entire populations are related to one another, her research team focuses on random bits of the human genome to measure the degree of drift between, say, the Maasai in Tanzania and the bushmen of Botswana. This has allowed Tishkoff to demonstrate, for example, the common ancestry of geographically separated click-language speakers whose dialects are “as different as English and Chinese.” It has also contributed substantially to our understanding of population movements within Africa and emerging from Africa, from prehistoric times to the present day.  

Another element of her work involves zeroing in on specific genetic mutations that may predispose people to particular diseases, or shed light on why a diet that makes one person healthy can make another sick.

“One of the ones we started with is looking at lactase persistence, or the ability to drink milk,” the professor says. Most West Africans are lactose intolerant, as are, typically, East Asians and Middle Easterners. Most Northern Europeans and some East Africans, on the other hand, can drink milk without a problem. Tishkoff tried to examine this phenomenon by gathering DNA samples from East African pastoralists and then measuring how well they could metabolize the sugar in milk.

The mutation that allows Northern Europeans to do this is thought to have occurred about 8,000 or 9,000 years ago, which lines up with the archeological evidence for the origins of the domestication of cattle. “But cows didn’t make it past the Sahara desert—for climatic reasons or perhaps because of tsetse flies and things like that—until about 5,000 years ago,” Tishkoff says. Her DNA samples suggested that the East African mutation arose and swept speedily through pastoralist groups sometime between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago.

“So this is a great example—one of the few examples—of gene-culture co-evolution!” she says. “You’ve got the development of this new technology, which is the domestication of cattle, and then you have this mutation that happened to be around in the population that was beneficial, and it rapidly increased in frequency.”

The actual work of turning her field samples into scientific papers was even more challenging than that tidy result might lead one to believe—and not just because it involved dodging the occasional pair of venomous fangs.

“When I started to do this, I had never done field work before. I had no idea what to expect. I literally had to bring everything from sleeping bags to all of my lab equipment. I had to figure out, how am I going to isolate DNA with no electricity, in remote regions?” And how could she keep those samples from deteriorating without having access to refrigeration? And what were the odds any of that could happen when her first question upon finding a rural clinic in which to set up shop was typically, “Do you have a table?”

“They say yes, hopefully,” Tishkoff laughs.

Starting with blood samples instead of the more common (but more fragile) cheek swabs, she is able to spin down white blood cells with a centrifuge hooked up to a portable generator. Next, she adds a buffering agent that stabilizes the cells to withstand whatever passes for room temperature in Tanzania or Sudan. Back home, the DNA is extracted. So far, her samples have held up far better than she or anyone else expected. She hopes to continue using them for the rest of her career.

“In the future we want to start looking at the genetic basis of carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in some of the Africans with very distinct diets,” she says. “I want to understand, how are they adapted to these different diets? And how has that affected their metabolism of fat and protein and sugar? That could give us a clue maybe about diabetes, and why it is that diabetes is so prevalent in people of recent African descent in the United States.”

Now that she has landed on campus, Tishkoff is looking forward to joining in programs like Penn Medicine’s partnership with Princess Marina Hospital in Botswana [“Prognosis Botswana,” March|April 2007]. “If you speak to people who do fieldwork in that area, it’s almost an addiction,” she says. “I want to go back so bad. I can hardly wait.”

Assuming that she’s found time to furnish her lab and unpack that suitcase, the molecular anthropologist should be ready to get back to work.


During the summer, University officials announced the appointment of the seventh and eighth PIK professors.

Mathematician Robert Ghrist, who is renowned for his work in theoretical and applied topology, will be an Andrea Mitchell University Professor with appointments in mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences and electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Stem-cell pioneer John Gearhart will be the James W. Effron University Professor. His appointment will be shared by the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Animal Biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Ghrist, an armchair medievalist who fills his spare time reading Dante and making things out of wood, got into applied mathematics by way of mechanical engineering. His research interests run from knot theory and braid theory to robotics and fluid dynamics. He is also the lead investigator for SToMP: Sensor Topology & Minimal Planning, a $7.98 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency whose charges include multi-agent robot coordination and pursuit-evasion scenarios. (Four of his new colleagues in Penn Engineering are also involved.)

If there has ever been a lovelier and more whimsical set of calculus lecture notes than the multicolored corpus of dashing penmanship Ghrist keeps available on his personal website, the Gazette would like to frame them. Check them out at

John Gearhart, most recently of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led the research team that first identified and isolated human embryonic stem cells. He is also recognized for his work on the genetic regulation of tissue and embryo formation, particularly with regard to mental retardation, Down syndrome, and congenital birth defects. At Penn, he will be director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine.


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