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COUNCIL: State of the University
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October 28, 2008, Volume 55, No. 10

SAS Dean Rebecca Bushnell

The following is a transcript of her presentation.

Thank you, and thanks so much Glen. I’d like to note that I’m joined today by Richard Shultz, the SAS associate dean for natural sciences, who directly oversees our science initiatives in the School. The School of Arts and Sciences is a very enthusiastic partner in this initiative and indeed neuroscience is an area that SAS identified three to four years ago in our strategic plan.  Rather than referring to this initiative as neuroscience, we chose a name that emphasized the highly integrative nature of the science involved: Genes to Brains to Behavior. In other words, that whole field of study involved in how we get from strands of DNA to a neuron, to a brain, to a complex behavior like speaking. Each stage in this progression is a distinctive field of scientific inquiry that’s important for its own sake, like genomics or behavioral psychology. But the critical issue facing science today is to understand how the different pieces link together. For example, what is, or is there a genetic basis for autism, and how can that at the other end, impact clinical treatment? It’s often the case that medical treatments are the end point of the long continuum of basic science, which happens both in the School of Medicine and in School of Arts and Sciences in departments like biology and psychology. 

In SAS we have chosen to make our strategic investments in this area for several reasons.  A core one is that at the heart of our effort are the departments of biology and psychology, where many of our faculty are at the very forefront of several areas of neuroscience. We also benefit tremendously from our proximity to and our collaboration with Penn’s health schools, particularly the Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. We also partner with Engineering faculty in departments like bioengineering and also computer and information science. SAS also has several programs at the undergraduate and graduate level focusing on this area. But I want to emphasize that what we do is something that both contributes to basic science and also has clinical and important applications. 

This has been an area of tremendous emphasis in faculty hiring for the School in the past three to four years, and here are a few examples of recent appointments that we have made along the continuum from genetics to behavior. Their work is highly interdisciplinary. Josh Plotkin, for example, works in computational biology, an area in which Penn is very strong. The interesting thing about Josh is that while he has an appointment in the department of biology, his PhD is in applied mathematics. Joe Kable, in psychology, whom we just recruited this year, studies how people understand the time value of money, so we are hoping that a lot of Wharton students are going to come over and take his courses! Two of these  faculty, Sarah Tishkoff and Adrian Raine, are PIK professors with joint appointments between SAS and Medicine.

Building our faculty and our facilities is, of course, important to us because of the relevance to education in SAS. One important statistic I’d like you to take away from this meeting is that one-quarter of the students in the College major in either biology, psychology or the interdisciplinary major in the biological basis of behavior. That’s a lot of students. So the investment the University is making in this is going to have an important impact on undergraduates.

There is a host of smaller majors that fall within the Genes to Brains to Behavior rubric, including our dual degree bachelor’s program in Life Sciences and Management between the School of Arts and Sciences and Wharton.  There is also biochemistry, biophysics, cognitive science and visual studies. So this is broader than just the impact of those large majors. The students in these programs are not just taking classes; they are doing independent research both with faculty in SAS and in the health schools. The BBB major, for example, typically graduates just over 100 students a year. Thirty to forty percent of those students complete two semesters of independent research and just as many participate for one semester. Just over half of that research is done with medical school faculty. This is another very important example of the impact of this work. 

Graduate education is a key piece of this initiative as well, and for SAS it takes place in several venues and these include our own PhD programs is biology and psychology. But many SAS faculty are also members of the graduate groups in biomedical graduate studies administered through the School of Medicine in subjects like neuroscience, or genomics or computational biology. We also have two professional master’s degrees that support this broader theme: one in biotechnology that’s joint with Engineering and another in applied positive psychology. 

Finally, I’d like to say a word about facilities. It’s always about the labs. Having appropriate research and teaching space for this initiative is a major priority. We are not just concerned with the quality of our facilities, but also the location.  We have particularly been concerned with the idea that our scientists in biology and psychology could readily collaborate with each other and also interact easily with their colleagues in the Medical School. SAS is involved in two efforts to integrate space in support of neuroscience. Glen has already talked about one of them, which is a consolidation of space for the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Center for Functional Neuroimaging in Goddard and Richards. The other one is  more massive in scale: the construction by SAS of a two-phase life sciences complex, the central goal of which has been to unite biology and psychology in the same place. Phase I is the Carolyn Hoff Lynch Laboratory that opened in 2006.

The second phase that we’re working on now is called the Neural and Behavioral Sciences building, and the critical thing that it will do is to bring psychology to the same part of the campus as biology. Biology is located at the far southern end, a great location for biology because it’s near the Medical School and the Vet School. But where is psychology? It’s disbursed across campus and the psychology faculty aren’t even near each other, let alone the biology and medical complex, so our plan is to tear down the Kaplan and Mudd buildings in biology and build the Neural and Behavioral Sciences building on that site, connected to the Lynch lab. When we are successful with this, all of our biology and psychology faculty will be in one place, with the students, with the BBB program, ready to interact.

Most importantly, and I’ll just conclude with this thought, that this will be the next most important step in creating a unified community of Penn neuroscientists who are working together, not just across departmental, but also school boundaries. And together, they will continue to advance the University’s leadership position and in a field that has so many important ramifications for our understanding of human behavior and disease in the years to come. 

 

President Amy Gutmann

Thank you, Dean Bushnell and Dr. Gaulton.

As you know, increasing access to Penn is our sacred trust. We have made dramatic progress toward honoring that trust by making Penn more affordable for students from low- and middle-income families. Our improvements in financial aid and our outreach efforts to hundreds of schools and thousands of students have paid off. Already, the enrollment of undergraduate students from low-income families has doubled.

By next year we will eliminate the need for loans for all undergraduates on financial aid. Put simply, if you are admitted to Penn and come from a family that makes $200,000 or less, you can attend without taking out a loan.

This year, we welcomed the most academically accomplished and the most diverse class in Penn history. I expect to be able to say the same next year. 

I would now like to call on the person on whom I rely to prove me right, Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions. Dean Furda will complete my report by giving us a perspective on the current admissions landscape and Penn’s competitive position.

 

Almanac - October 28, 2008, Volume 55, No. 10