A minute or two on...

After taking last summer off for the Republican Convention, Summer Programs’ popular 60-Second Lecture Series returned to campus this summer, featuring some of Penn’s best faculty speaking — briefly — on subjects of interest. Excerpts from the best of this summer’s lectures appear below.

“Stem Cell Research,” Provost Robert Barchi, July 25:

This month, President Bush is expected to decide whether our government will fund research on stem cells taken from four-day-old frozen human embryos. These are surplus embryos, prepared for in vitro fertilization but no longer needed and scheduled to be discarded by fertility clinics. The president’s decision will have a profound impact on future research at our institution and at other research institutions around the country.

To its proponents, stem cell research holds out hope for the treatment and even the cure of a variety of debilitating and often fatal disorders ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease. To its opponents, this research further erodes our respect for life.

So what are stem cells, anyway? Four days after an egg is fertilized, the dividing cells have formed a tiny, hollow ball. Although most cells in this ball are destined to form the placenta, one special clump of cells will eventually become the fetus. These are the stem cells. At this stage, these stem cells have not yet determined their ultimate role, and each still has the potential to become one of the more than 200 tissue types that make up the body.

Scientists can now isolate these stem cells, induce them to multiply, and then preferentially direct them to become, for example, skin cells, nerve cells or heart cells. This extraordinary scientific advance opens the door to replacing damaged adult cells that are not able to regenerate themselves in the brain, in the spinal cord or in the heart, and it may ultimately allow us to grow replacement organs for those in need of a new heart, new lungs or a new liver.

The issue being discussed now is not the potential for scientific value of stem cell research, but rather the ethical, moral and political questions that it raises. … Does a four-day embryo that has existed only in a Petri dish, that will never be nurtured by a human uterus and that will soon be discarded have the same status as a six-month fetus already capable of life outside the womb? This heated discussion does not divide neatly among pro-life and pro-choice lines, and many staunch pro-life advocates in and out of government have publicly declared their support for stem-cell research.

…There has rarely been a more important intersection between academic research and public policy. Don’t let their size fool you – stem cells are the biggest things we’ve seen in a long time.

“Serious Popular Culture,” Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Jacqueline Sadashige, Aug. 1:

I’m not only a Latin professor, I’m also a freelance film critic. But while my fellow critics are dismissing summer blockbusters, I’m reveling in them. You see, I believe in the truth and the power of popular culture, and I want you to believe too.

…If you want to catch a glimpse not only of who we are but of what we hope and fear, …go straight to science fiction.

Seated in a dark theater, barraged with huge and terrifying shapes, you enter into the collective dream of the American psyche. And this summer’s dream is positively simian.

Now we all know that “Planet of the Apes” is at one level about race. But when moviemakers offer up apes that move like real apes, when the audience is alive to issues of animal cruelty and environmentalism, the barriers between racialization and speciation become more than a little confused.

But I don’t have time to get into that.

So let me leave you with this: Go. Go and take your children, your neighbors and their children. And on the way out, tell them this: The most important thing about this film is that for once, the homely but brainy dark-haired girl does not turn out to be a real beauty and she still gets the guy. Where was Tim Burton when I was in high school?

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Originally published on August 30, 2001