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COUNCIL: State of the University
November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10

President Amy Gutmann

When I became Penn’s president five years ago, I set out to build more successful partnerships between the arts and sciences and the professions. Today, I’d like to begin my report by updating you on our efforts to better integrate knowledge—a key goal of our Penn Compact.

I say “to better integrate knowledge” because the goal did not materialize out of ether. Penn faculty members have been integrating knowledge—and collaborating across disciplinary boundaries—for quite some time.

In fact, we recently got a nod from one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Economics—Dr. Oliver Williamson. Dr. Williamson began his academic career at Penn in 1965 and was a member of the faculty until 1983. At a press conference to discuss the award, he lauded the interdisciplinary climate at Penn, noting that he “related immediately to the idea that the social sciences should communicate with one another, and that there are boundaries that we ought to be prepared to cross.”

We made quite an impression on Dr. Williamson, but our strength in interdisciplinary inquiry has done more than launch individual careers. It has also supported new and growing fields.

Our Mahoney Institute is the oldest interdisciplinary neuroscience institute in the nation, and it has been bringing together faculty from diverse disciplines since 1953, creating a strong foundation for our new Penn Integrates Knowledge Neuroscience Initiative—a plan to expand our strengths in neuroscience by adding five additional PIK professors and more programmatic funding.

The new neuroscience professors will join our existing cohort of PIK Professors. Since I announced the University-wide initiative in 2005, we have recruited ten exceptional faculty members to Penn. This summer, we welcomed Dr. Shelley Berger, a world-renowned genetics researcher, and Dr. Karen Glanz, a globally influential public health scholar.

Our PIK professors exemplify the integration of knowledge across disciplines. They have been doing some truly transformational work here at Penn.

For example, under the direction of James W. Effron University Professor John Gearhart, our Institute for Regenerative Medicine is translating advances in stem cell and regenerative biology into therapeutic applications and also building capacity in our elementary and secondary schools. The new Bridge to ReBio program introduces high school students in Philadelphia to the field of regenerative medicine through work with research teams led by Penn students.

PIK Professor Sarah Tishkoff continues to make groundbreaking contributions to the field of human genetics. This past spring, an international team led by Dr. Tishkoff published the results of the largest study of African genetic diversity ever completed. The results of the study—and the identification of humanity’s possible location of origin—captured the world’s imagination and primetime news coverage. 

In recognition of her work, Dr. Tishkoff recently received one of the National Institutes of Health’s most prestigious awards—the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which is presented to “scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering—and possibly transforming approaches —to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.”

The list of achievements goes on and on. From Dr. John Jackson’s studies of global Black Hebrewism and Dr. Jonathan Moreno’s thought-provoking new book on the future of technological innovation to Dr. Adrian Raine’s examination of the neurological underpinnings of violent behavior and Dr. Chris Murray’s manipulation of matter at the nanoscale, our PIK professors are doing amazing work.

Those of you keeping count know that I’ve omitted two of the PIK Professors. That’s because I’ve asked them to address Council today.

First, we’ll hear from Dr. Robert Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell University Professor. Dr. Ghrist is an applied mathematician and holds joint appointments in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Department of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Ghrist uses some of the most abstract concepts in math to seek solutions to pressing engineering problems. His research in advanced topological methods has yielded new ways of ensuring coverage in sensor networks and coordinating the communication of multiple robots.

He is not only one of the best applied mathematicians in the world, but also a passionate educator with a knack for making the abstract digestible. Our students rave about his courses, and his handwritten notes are some of the most creative I have ever seen.

Dr. Ghrist is an innovative scholar and dynamic teacher, who is absolutely devoted to mathematics. I call on the Andrea Mitchell University Professor, Dr. Robert Ghrist.


Almanac - November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10