The Way We Choose Now

Should a given vaccination be mandated? Or administered at all? Can human embryos be used in research? If so, by whom and under what circumstances? Who should get certain medical treatments? And how do we judge their efficacy? For these questions and many other matters related to science and society, bioethics—a discipline that barely existed a few decades ago—guides how we arrive at answers.

In associate editor Trey Popp’s cover story, “The Rise of the Biocrats,”  Jonathan Moreno, the bioethicist and PIK Professor whose latest book is The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, points out that bioethical issues are increasingly central to, well, just about everything. They can roil presidential campaigns (remember how Rick Perry was hammered over HPV vaccinations in the GOP debates?) and even affect the economy (restrict biotechnology, for example, and those new jobs may go elsewhere).

Trey’s piece traces the distinguished history of bioethics at Penn, and lays out the University’s ambitious plans to take scholarship and training in the discipline to the next level. In addition to Moreno, he spoke with fellow PIK Professor Ezekiel Emanuel—the former healthcare adviser to President Obama who joined Penn’s faculty last fall [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2011]. Emanuel’s several administrative hats include heading the medical school’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, where he plans to double the size of the faculty, and meanwhile launch a new master’s program in bioethics.

Trey also interviewed Art Caplan. This was shortly before the longtime director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics announced he was heading to New York to take a new job at NYU, but he was already in something of a backward-looking mood, recalling the bygone days when bioethics was “an amateur’s delight.”

Among the many delights of “The Artful Rebel,” senior editor Samuel Hughes’ feature profile of Francis Hopkinson C1757 G1760 Hon1790—staunch patriot, prolific satirist, composer of the nation’s first works of secular music, and the designer of the American flag, among other accomplishments—is the way it reminds us that joining the Revolution was a real and difficult choice, fraught with uncertainty and profound potential consequences.

Hopkinson’s brother-in-law—and fellow alumnus—Jacob Duché got cold feet when things didn’t go well for the Continental Army at first, penning a treasonous letter to General Washington counseling surrender. Duché later fled to England, but Hopkinson stuck with the rebels, served the cause in a variety of capacities in the war and after, and ultimately got to stage—and serve as Grand Marshall in—Philadelphia’s “Grand Federal Procession” celebrating the ratification of the Constitution.

The ability to persevere in a task is a critical element in the constellation of behaviors that Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth has dubbed “grit.” And she contends that making students more “gritty” is the key to improving academic achievement, more so than factors like income level, class size, and teacher quality. In “Character’s Content,” freelancer Kevin Hartnett profiles Duckworth and the influence her ideas are having in education-reform circles, while also exploring some of the methodological challenges posed by her research.

Of course none of this may matter as of  next December—as you may have heard, that’s when the world is ending, according to the ancient Maya calendar. 

Well, no. But the associated hype has provided an attention-grabbing tie-in for MAYA 2012 Lords of Time, the just-opened exhibit at the Penn Museum. As frequent contributor Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 details in “Time for the Maya,” the show debunks the apocalyptic myths and replaces them with a compelling true portrait of the 3,000-years-old (and counting) Maya civilization.

—John Prendergast C’80

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