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No Better Place for Research
Penn has the capacity to lead the world. By Judith Rodin

 

The entire Penn community was thrilled to see one of our own share the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering and developing conductive polymers.
   
No one who has known Dr. Alan MacDiarmid, or who knew about the revolutionary breakthrough he and his fellow Nobel recipients made at Penn during the 1970s, should have been the least bit surprised by the news. He is a great scholar, a great teacher and a great man in the mold of our founder, Benjamin Franklin, who also knew a thing or two about electricity.
   
In the tumult of news conferences and receptions that followed, MacDiarmid electrified audiences by describing how Penn’s unique environment nourished his teaching and research. He said: “You can be the most brilliant scientist in all the world; put you on a desert island with the very best scientific equipment and the very best library and you’ll do uninteresting research. You must have interaction. You must have discussion. What place could be better than Penn?”
   
When it comes to fostering the kinds of interactions and discussions that lead to breakthroughs that literally change the world for the better, I would have to agree: There is no better place than Penn.
   
Right now, Penn researchers in revolutionary new fields like genomics and nanotechnology are making strides and discoveries that will, in time, dramatically expand our understanding of human nature and promote healthier—and happier—lives for more and more people.
   
To succeed, these new enterprises demand an unprecedented degree of collaboration across a wide range of disciplines. While other elite universities jockey for the inside track, Penn enjoys a rare advantage that is already leading us to the winners’ circle: Interdisciplinary study and research are woven ineluctably into Penn’s genetic material. You see it in our intellectual muscle, in our infrastructure and in our culture.
   
Take the advances Penn is seeking in genomics following the dramatic completion of the human-genome project. Researchers now have a powerful, comprehensive biological data base with which to study the involvement of specific genes in growth, health, behavior and disease—and Penn scientists hope to make the most of it.
   
The diagnostic and life-saving potential is enormous. At the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at Penn, Dr. Barbara Weber is leading an international effort to move beyond early detection of breast cancer to early identification of women who genetically run a higher risk of developing the disease.
   
While encompassing biomedical research in all life sciences, the genomics revolution will draw critical strength from engineering and computer science. Other schools and departments at Penn are also pursuing genomics research as we move forward on plans to integrate and coordinate these efforts into a major University-wide initiative.
   
Meanwhile, Penn and neighboring Drexel University have taken the wheel of another revolution, thanks to a $10.5 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to launch a Regional Nanotechnology Center. Leveraging research in the life sciences, chemistry, physics and engineering, nanotechnology could bring us both life-saving products, such as microscopic capsules that selectively deliver drugs to tumors, and a wide array of molecular devices that could make computers much faster and manufacturing much cleaner and less expensive.
   
If you’re looking to ignite a high-tech revolution, you need an environment that encourages engineers, physicists, chemists and biomedical researchers to collaborate as a matter of habit. Again, there is no better place than Penn.
   
Nor is there a place that does a better job turning creative discussions and interactions into practical solutions to social problems. Take the creation of the Center for Children’s Policy Practice and Research.
   
What started out a couple of years ago as a series of brainstorming sessions among a professor of Social Work (Richard Gelles), a pediatrician and child psychiatrist (Annie Steinberg), a law professor (Barbara Bennett Woodhouse), and members of Philadelphia’s child-advocacy community on how to make child welfare more child-centered, grew into a collaborative research center dedicated to helping and protecting abused and neglected children [“The Children’s Crusaders,” May/June 1999].
   
In these and other areas of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, Penn has the capacity to lead the world. I could easily highlight literally hundreds of other collaborative research efforts to illustrate Penn’s powerful impact—in Philadelphia and around the globe. Or I could catalogue the $546 million in sponsored research at Penn to make the same point.
   
Suffice it to say that among the leading institutions of higher education that will play key roles in a new age of experiments and discoveries in the 21st century, no other university can surpass Penn’s strength of faculty, tradition of collaboration and productive climate. Like Alan MacDiarmid, I simply cannot imagine a better place than Penn.



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