On May 12, Penn alumni, parents, and friends filled the Union Club in New York City to experience the premiere of BEN Talks, a Penn Arts and Sciences event modeled after the popular TED Talks. Bookended by welcome and dessert receptions during which friends, old and new, chatted and networked, the BEN Talks program featured four 10-minute presentations from acclaimed Penn Arts and Sciences faculty members. The presentations selected to illustrate, as event emcee Dr. Steven J. Fluharty, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, characterized, “the work that faculty are doing in some of today’s most compelling frontiers of knowledge”―proof that a Penn education brings with it cutting-edge ideas and opens the doors to lifelong education.
“Tonight, we’ll get a glimpse into the vastness that is the Arts and Sciences,” said Penn Arts and Sciences Overseer Dhan Pai, W’83, who generously hosted the event with his wife, Heena Pai, both PAR’12, PAR’15. Serving as host committee volunteers were Max Dewez, C’11, W’11; Bradley Feingerts, C’06 ; Jackie Friedland, C’99, L’00; Rachel Gogel, C'09; Jing Jin, C’09; Anastasia Kouriatova, C’09; Hillary Reinsberg, C’11; Josephine Shin, C’01; Desiree Tunstall, C’06; and Danny Urgelles, C’11, W’11.
“Back in January, Penn Arts and Sciences released a new strategic plan, called Our Foundations and Frontiers,” said Dean Fluharty. “It provides a blueprint to help us achieve our highest priorities, and ensure that we maintain a strong liberal arts core to support academic excellence and interdisciplinary pursuits across the University. It also identifies a number of priority areas, including four new frontiers for advancing integrated knowledge. These represent our most compelling and far-reaching opportunities to accelerate the pace of discovery and promote innovation in teaching, learning, and in scholarship. Each of the speakers this evening represents one of these four themes.”
Sharon Thompson-Schill, PhD
Representing the theme of “mapping the mind,” Sharon Thompson-Schill, PhD, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Department Chair, presented Advantaged of Being Uninhibited, during which she discussed the pros and cons of cognitive control―the ability to control one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
“William James, the father of American psychology, described the mind of an infant as ‘one great blooming, buzzing confusion,’” said Dr. Thompson-Schill, referencing the fact that toddlers have no cognitive control because their brains are not yet fully developed. “Cognitive control has its uses,” said Dr. Thompson-Schill, “but what my laboratory is showing is that it also has its drawbacks. Cognitive control might be bad for creativity, it might be bad for learning, it might be bad for noticing that airplane flying in the sky overhead. If you’ve got a blooming, buzzing confusion, the blooming part―that’s not so bad.”
To see Dr. Thompson-Schill's BEN Talk, Advantages of Being Uninhibited, please go to 4:30 in the video or watch the clip below.
Dan Mindiola, PhD
Representing the theme of “energy, sustainability, and the environment,” Dan Mindiola, PhD, Presidential Professor of Chemistry, presented Natural Gas: Can We Do More Than Just Burn It?, during which he discussed the economic and environmental impact of natural gas consumption.
“When pure, methane―one of the most abundant hydrocarbons, it accounts for 95 percent present in natural gas―burns with a high amount of energy per gram,” said Dr. Mindiola. But in addition to being difficult to store, methane burns uncontrollably and wastes a lot of energy in the process. Using ethane gas, however, and less expensive materials, Dr. Mindiola’s team found a way to generate a reaction at room temperature, saving a huge amount of energy.
“Rather than storing methane and hydrocarbons and then burning these, wasting a lot of resources that this wonderful world has given us, why can’t we generate fuel such as hydrogen through a process called oxidation?”
To see Dr. Mindiola's BEN Talk, Natural Gas: Can We Do More Than Just Burn It?, please go to 19:12 in the video or watch the clip below.
Martha Farah, PhD
Representing the theme of “human diversity and its relationship with inequality and well-being,” Martha Farah, PhD, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Psychology, presented Poverty and the Brain, during which she discussed her findings demonstrating the differences on brain development between children born into low-income families and those born into higher-income families.
Her research began with reading the existing literature on socioeconomic status and child development: “The literature showed that there is much lower school achievement among low socioeconomic status kids, they score lower on IQ tests, they score lower on just about any cognitive test that you can give them, but the literature didn’t explain why,” said Dr. Farah. “If I could understand what’s developing differently in the context of poverty, then maybe I could figure out if there were interventions that could target specific systems that are being affected.”
Her team determined that poverty does not lower all abilities evenly, but affects certain neurocognitive systems more than others, namely language, memory, and executive function, which is, essentially, cognitive control. Their findings further inferred that the stressful situation of poverty affects the hippocampus, and that, in particular, the availability of a nurturing parent had a profound impact on neurocognitive systems. “I’m optimistic that, by harboring neuroscience, we can begin to understand and design interventions and preventive programs for the effect of childhood poverty,” said Dr. Farah.
To see Dr. Farah's BEN Talk, Poverty and the Brain, please go to 34:30 in the video or watch the clip below.
Justin McDaniel, PhD
Representing the theme “humanities in the digital age,” Justin McDaniel, PhD, Professor of Religious Studies, Department Chair, and Undergraduate Studies Chair, presented Leaf, Scroll, Paper, Drive, during which he discussed the Thai Digital Monastery, a website project he founded that is designed to immerse users in the experience of visiting an actual monastery through images, film, texts, maps, and more.
Once a Buddhist monk, Dr. McDaniel, upon entering graduate school to study Buddhism, determined the system was lacking. “I started learning about Buddhist texts, and I started learning about Buddhist history and facts, and it didn’t seem like what I’d experienced as an actual practicing Buddhist in a monastery,” said Dr. McDaniel. “This used to be quite interesting to me, and now it’s terribly boring.
“As a teacher, I didn’t want to rob my students: I didn’t want to take the joy of learning from a religion and turn it into learning about a religion. The great thing about the humanities is that we get to learn from things.”
Returning to Asia, Dr. McDaniel spent time documenting monasteries for the Thai Digital Monastery, his answer to immersing his students in Buddhist life without actually going to Asia and becoming a Buddhist.
To see Dr. McDaniel's BEN Talk, Leaf, Scroll, Paper, Drive, please go to 49:10 in the video or watch the clip below.
For more from BEN Talks, please watch the video.