When Daniel Kennedy-Moore reflected on his time at Penn, he couldn’t help but note the inspiration he garnered, sitting in a classroom each day, learning from the very best. A 2017 graduate from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, now living in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, he was eager to attend this year’s Engaging Minds symposium.
“It’s really bringing my favorite parts of Penn to New York,” Kennedy-Moore said.
Engaging Minds, an annual Penn Alumni initiative that held its 12th event on Dec. 14 at Cipriani 42nd Street, showcases three Penn faculty members who discuss their innovative and impactful research. This year, nearly 700 New York-area Penn alumni and family members showed up on a rainy, busy Saturday just before the holidays to hear from Sarah J. Jackson, a Presidential Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication; Duncan Watts, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in Penn Engineering, the Annenberg School, and Wharton; and Michael Weisberg, a professor and the chair of philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“Our power ultimately and our reputation ultimately generates from the amazing faculty who choose Penn among all the great universities in this country and the world,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann, welcoming attendees, who filled every seat in the room. “They exemplify the bold thinking that’s transforming our world for the better.”
Kicking the morning off, Jackson, who studies the importance of media created by black Americans, women, and other historically disenfranchised populations, dove into her work that has evolved to explore counterpublic sphere theory and network counterpublics in the digital age.
“Sorry,” Jackson said, “for starting at 10 a.m. with theory.”
But the folks in the audience didn’t budge. For a half hour, Jackson explained how Twitter, over the past few years, has served as an outlet for people with little political strength to build power and influence. Telling stories about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, she showcased the ways people concerned about racial justice did or did not succeed in affecting—through social media—how stories were being told in the mainstream.
“We really wanted to know, ‘Is this a useful strategy, for counterpublics to intervene?’” she said. “Can everyday people tell these stories and make a difference in how we understand things in the world?”
Five years of this research, which also includes an analysis of #MeToo and other feminist hashtags, culminated in a book “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice,” which Jackson wrote with colleagues Moya Bailey and Brooke Foucault Welles, and will be available from MIT Press this spring.
Various in-depth and detailed questions, touching on “fake news” to built-in-bias on Twitter, and much, much more, were asked. Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett, who moderated the question-and-answer sessions that took place after each speaker, noted, earning laughs: “This is a high-level discussion for a Saturday morning. You can tell you all went to bed early and ate a good breakfast” (an undoubted nod to Cipriani’s spread provided in the side room).
Introducing Watts, the next speaker, Pritchett asked the group: “Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting ever? Why has JK Rowling sold more than 300 million books? Why is Madonna the most successful musician of all time? These are all questions you’ve been wondering about, I know.”
Common sense tells us the answers are obvious,” he added. “But as [Watts] points out, common sense is often very wrong.”
Watts, a pioneer in the use of digital data and online experiments to study social networks, has a background in physics, sociology, computer science, academia, and industry—all leading to his unusual perspective on social science. He believes, as a society, we don’t treat the problems that social scientists think about with the same deference or respect, as, say, the problems physicists, engineers, and biologists think about.
“Why is rocket science hard and social science just a matter of common sense?” he asked, noting how good the U.S. is at rocket science.
Watts had the audience chuckling with cartoons and other ironic depictions embedded within his presentation slides. He talked about his 2012 book, “Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us,” and even offered several free copies to attendees.
When it comes to everyday situations, it’s normal to use common sense: What to wear when it is snowing, where to stand on the subway, or to leave a tip at an American restaurant. But, the problem, Watts argued, is that people are tempted to use common sense in environments that are not concrete, are not every day.
Take health care or advertising, or even assembling teams, for instance. “There’s no reason to think that a type of intelligence that has been optimized for the concrete and the everyday should be any good at dealing with these kinds of scenarios,” Watts said, adding later how taking a more scientific and systematic approach to problems could only be beneficial.
Today, from a data perspective, he said, the internet changes everything for social scientists. “The revolution in astronomy that led to the revolution in physics … was really precipitated by the innovation of the telescope,” Watts said. “So we can ask, ‘Is digital technology the telescope for the social sciences?’”
Weisberg, whose research focuses on the philosophy of science, was the third and final presenter, discussing specifically his work on what he called “community science” in remote regions. In the Galápagos Islands, particularly San Cristóbal, he has formed a partnership—the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance—connecting multidisciplinary Penn faculty, staff, and students with high school students in the area, who spread awareness and understanding to family and friends about preservation of their precious home.
A specific project Weisberg explored touched on the island’s endangered sea lions, and the complications posed with a dramatically increasing human population. A Penn team worked with the high schoolers to study the sea lions and their behavior, and, with time, a new appreciation for conservation formed.
When it comes to resilience, adaptation to a changing climate, and biodiversity preservation, Weisberg said, much of the most important work happens from the bottom-up, on smaller scales.
“I hope that we can continue to find, as a university, ways that Penn faculty and staff and students can work responsibly with local communities to keep Galápagos as this inspiration and laboratory, not just for evolution and ecology, but for education, for policy, for water management,” said Weisberg, to the crowd, “and for all of you as well.”
Gutmann took to the stage afterward, summing up the three lectures. “I don’t know about you, but my mind was certainly stimulated,” she said. Reflecting on the conversations, three words came to her mind: communication, open-mindedness, and engagement.
What these three words represent to Gutmann, she said, is none other than the “power of Penn.” “We really take to heart the idea of [using] knowledge to do good in the world,” said Gutmann.
Marc Lener, a 2000 graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences, who lives in Manhattan, said he first came to an Engaging Minds event in New York five years ago.
“I don’t mean to play the pun here, but I love the idea of continuing to engage minds,” Lener said. “It’s an academic atmosphere that is really capturing all walks of life. One of the most rewarding things about Penn is it is a place where you get to learn new concepts and theories about how the world works.”
Lener, a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and CEO and founder of mental health organization Singula Institute, said he was particularly drawn to Jackson and Watts’ discussions, as he and his research team are actively trying to use data-driven approaches and technology to understand individuals’ risk for depression and anxiety, and develop more individualized medical and psychological treatments.
Elaine Hay, who lives outside the city in Easton, Connecticut, said she was drawn to Weisberg’s talk on the Galápagos. A lover of travel, Hay, a 1979 Wharton MBA graduate and a proud Penn parent, said she hopes to join Penn Alumni and Weisberg on their joint trip in the fall.
“I’m a lifelong learner, I always want to just keep learning and growing and expanding my horizons,” Hay said.
Hay, who was attending her first Engaging Minds, said she was overwhelmed—in the best way—of how many people attended. “I thought there’d be about 50 people,” she said, adding how honored she is to be part of the Penn community.
“It’s a group of interesting, brilliant people,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to be part of it?”
Photos by Ben Asen.