When she was inducted as the University of Pennsylvania’s eighth president in October 2004, Amy Gutmann devoted part of her inaugural address to a critique of the academy in its contemporary form.

“Universities have a natural tendency to relegate each problem to the province of one or another academic discipline or profession,” she began. But the most challenging problems, she continued, cut across multiple branches of learning. “We cannot understand the AIDS epidemic, for example, without joining the perspectives of medicine, nursing, and finance with those of biochemistry, psychology, sociology, political science, history, and increasingly literature as well.”

And yet the academy remains in some respects a balkanized realm. Economic pressures and the ever-intensifying urge toward specialization have led many American universities to focus on professional education, reinforcing the barriers between disciplinary enclaves.

“The casualty of this growing divide has not been the arts and sciences—they are as important as ever,” Gutmann declared. “The loss has been the knowledge that we can gain by better integrating liberal arts and the professions.”

To that end, Penn’s new president outlined one of the main pillars of her leadership agenda. Through the Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) initiative, she would seek to renew the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching by way of 18 endowed professorships that would each straddle the boundaries of two of Penn’s 12 schools.

Four years later, six PIK professors have arrived on campus (a seventh and eighth were announced shortly before the Gazette went to press) and enough money has been raised to sponsor another two. The scholars profiled in the subsequent pages range from Sarah Tishkoff, whose genetics-based research in Africa has earned her the label “molecular anthropologist,” to Philippe Bourgois, an ethnographer specializing in the underground economy who must be the first-ever member of Penn Medicine’s department of family practice and community medicine to make his office in the archaeology museum.  

“I don’t think that having a joint appointment between two schools is right for most people,” Gutmann reflected in a recent conversation. “It takes a very special kind of person to want such a joint appointment and to thrive in it.” But among that rarefied group are some of the most accomplished and unique scholars in the world, she contends, and the PIK program has been a deciding factor in attracting them to Penn.

“The biggest success is evidenced by the quality of the seven PIK professors we’ve recruited, and their enthusiasm for coming,” she said shortly before stem-cell pioneer John Gearhart became the eighth. “Every one turned down other great offers from great institutions. Every one, their home institution tried mighty hard to keep them. And every one of them has been not only embraced by the faculty here, but has been able to multiply what our existing wonderful faculty are able to do in the fields that are represented.”

PIK professorships are more expensive than the traditional variety at Penn. To underwrite the first six, Richard Perry W’77 and Lyn and David Silfen C’66 donated $5 million per position, nearly twice the cost of a conventional appointment in the School of Arts and Sciences. This is partly because joint appointments tend to be resource-intensive and can involve hefty start-up costs—like the University’s commitment to building new nanotech labs, which helped to lure leading materials scientist Christopher Murray away from IBM’s research division.

Gutmann adds that the PIK program aims to emphasize classroom teaching as much as academic research. “We look for scholars and teachers who are role models—and role models for students,” she says. Her first PIK hire, anthropologist and filmmaker John Jackson, jumped at the opportunity to chair the Annenberg School’s undergraduate department. The seventh recruit, mathematician Rob Ghrist—a soon-to-be Andrea Mitchell University Professor who will also be affiliated with the department of electrical and systems engineering—is a natural in the classroom, she says. “Not only is he one of the preeminent applied mathematicians of our time, but he is also known at the University of Illinois as a star teacher of calculus. And he loves to teach calculus. Calculus is not an easy subject to turn students on to, and Ghrist has shown over and over again that he can do that. Students love his calculus course.”

The PIK initiative has also served to lure respected public intellectuals to campus. Jonathan Moreno, whose appointments are in medical ethics in the School of Medicine and the history and sociology of science in the School of Arts and Sciences, also serves as editor-in-chief of the new online publication Science Progress, through which he hopes to shape national discourse on science policy at the highest levels of government. Criminologist Adrian Raine’s exploration of the genetic and brain basis of crime places him among that rare group of thinkers who can render both left- and right-wingers apoplectic with a single hypothesis.

In conversation, every one of these new dual professors echoes Gutmann’s contention that the PIK program is a logical extension of Penn’s core competitive advantage as an institution of higher learning. The presence of so many distinct schools, centers, and institutes on a compact, contiguous campus has enabled each of the new professors to form partnerships with faculty members in departments that are sometimes separated by miles at other universities.

“In brief, the PIK professors are proof of concept,” Gutmann says. “They are proof that Penn is a uniquely conducive environment for the highest level of interdisciplinary research and teaching.”

Here are introductions to the first six who have begun making their presence felt on campus.

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Two More PIK Profs Named

During the summer, University officials announced the appointment of the seventh and eighth PIK professors.

Mathematician Robert Ghrist, who is renowned for his work in theoretical and applied topology, will be an Andrea Mitchell University Professor with appointments in mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences and electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Stem-cell pioneer John Gearhart will be the James W. Effron University Professor. His appointment will be shared by the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Animal Biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Ghrist, an armchair medievalist who fills his spare time reading Dante and making things out of wood, got into applied mathematics by way of mechanical engineering. His research interests run from knot theory and braid theory to robotics and fluid dynamics. He is also the lead investigator for SToMP: Sensor Topology & Minimal Planning, a $7.98 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency whose charges include multi-agent robot coordination and pursuit-evasion scenarios. (Four of his new colleagues in Penn Engineering are also involved.)

If there has ever been a lovelier and more whimsical set of calculus lecture notes than the multicolored corpus of dashing penmanship Ghrist keeps available on his personal website, the Gazette would like to frame them. Check them out at http://www.math.uiuc.edu/~ghrist/.

John Gearhart, most recently of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led the research team that first identified and isolated human embryonic stem cells. He is also recognized for his work on the genetic regulation of tissue and embryo formation, particularly with regard to mental retardation, Down syndrome, and congenital birth defects. At Penn, he will be director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine.—T.P.

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