Opening the Teach-in by breaking down barriers

Colorful chalk drawings and informative displays along Locust Walk engaged passersby in learning about 4 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth.

Aimed at breaking down the walls between the academy and the community, the Penn Teach-in launched its first full day on Monday, after a successful kick-off event Sunday at the Penn Museum with free access and activities. The five-day event, inspired by a similar one held on campus in 1969, is brimming with opportunities to engage, and isn’t shying away from contentious subjects.

One of the first panel discussions took on vaccines and vaccine denial, with five panelists speaking to a full auditorium in the Smilow Translational Research Center about the history of vaccine denial, emerging technologies, and the best ways to communicate the science surrounding them.

Vaccine denial was the subject of the Penn Teach-in’s first panel discussion, featuring, from left, moderator Maiken Scott of WHYY and Penn experts Damon Centola, Justin Bernstein, David Weiner, Paul Offit, and Joseph Cappella.

Pathologist David Weiner of Penn Medicine and the Wistar Institute began with a pseudo history lesson: Since their start, vaccines have prevented some 3 billion infections, and from 2011 through 2020, are predicted to avert 25 million deaths and 21 times as many hospitalizations. Far fewer companies today are in the vaccine space, yet there are greater challenges than ever—more diverse populations, more outbreaks, more diseases to consider.

That’s where innovation comes in, he said. “The number of people who have a new concern for the way we develop vaccines has grown, and we’ll need new technologies as part of our pathway going forward.”

From there, Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Penn Medicine, well-known for his contribution to a rotavirus vaccine, discussed the origin of what he called the vaccine wars. They began in the late-1700s with the cowpox vaccine. Round two struck in the 1980s around pertussis prevention, and the most recent took place in the 1990s, when now-disgraced physician Andrew Wakefield published in The Lancet about a supposed link between vaccines and autism—which has been since debunked countless times over.

Annenberg researchers Joseph Cappella, who studies communication, and Damon Centola, who studies network dynamics, spent time discussing why such misinformation sticks and how people’s behavior, in this case not vaccinating their children, spreads throughout a population. Rounding out the panel was Justin Bernstein, a doctoral candidate in philosophy, who explained the relationship between some racial minority groups and a distrust for government and the medical establishment. The presentations lead to a lively Q&A session moderated by journalist Maiken Scott, host of WHYY’s science program, “The Pulse.”  

Later in the day, a session on firearm violence packed the Terrace Room in Claudia Cohen Hall. Moderated by Nursing’s Therese Richmond, whose research focuses on injury and violence, the conversation touched on the intersection of politics and science, the media’s influence on gun violence, the public health burden, and the state of evidence today.

Daniel Holena, a Penn trauma surgeon and epidemiologist, told a chilling story of a single shift this past Valentine’s Day: Within a 36-hour window, six gunshot wound victims were treated in the Emergency Department. What was eye-opening, he added, was just how common that story actually was and how little attention most such shootings receive.

Richmond then described how funding for this research has changed during the past 25 years, with several roadblocks including a loss of $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget in 1995, then a broader elimination of backing toward such work across the whole of Health and Human Services a decade later.

“The message that was received,” Richmond said, “was that we should not be doing research on the topic of gun violence.” Despite studies and outcomes moving forward the field, she added, “we are still in the same place [today]—I think—in terms of the intersection of policy and science.”   

Dan Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center then spoke about the media, and the conversation ended with powerful statistics from epidemiologist Douglas Wiebe of Penn Medicine.

Adults who possessed guns were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those who didn’t have one, he noted, and once adolescents and young adults acquired a gun, they were 1.4 times more likely to be shot in an assault than earlier on the same day.

“Are guns perilous or protective? That has been the question over the last 20-plus years,” Wiebe said. “I’ll give it away. More guns, more gun deaths … it’s that simple.”

Richmond summed up the discussion poignantly. “We’ve chosen to live in a world with guns,” she said. “We need to learn how to do it more safely.”

The day’s offerings also included poster exhibits at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library providing an inside look at the resources that drive knowledge production, an exhibit in Addams Hall highlighting the public art and history project Monument Lab, a roundtable discussion about teaching race, and an interactive “crawl” down Locust Walk—punctuated by free donuts—through 4 billion years of evolution, complete with chalk drawings, educational exhibits, and robots in a collaboration between Penn Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, PennDesign, and Engineering’s GRASP lab.

At the hands-on kick-off event for the Penn Teach-in, Katherine Moore with Penn Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials introduced guests to a collection of animal bones, and what they can tell us. (Photo by Raffi Berberian)

At the official opening event Monday evening in Golkin Hall’s Fitts Auditorium, Penn Integrates Knowledge professors John Jackson Jr., Dorothy Roberts, and Sarah Tishkoff engaged in a spirited dialogue on the role of the university in the 21st century, moderated by WHYY’s Tracey Matisak.

After a welcome by Provost Wendell Pritchett, Matisak opened with a quote attributable to Penn’s founder, Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

“The aim we have here tonight,” Matisak said, “is to affirm the value of knowledge, and to explore its creation in the 21st century.”

Speaking dynamically of his field of anthropology, Jackson, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, began the panel talk by calling attention to a basic operating principle of anthropologists, “that any human being is a powerful ambassador for their universe,” he said. “If you try to understand where they’re coming from, they can tell you something profound about the world in which they exist.”

Jackson noted that assurances from one field of knowledge do not assuage conflicts in another. He used race as a prime example of an issue in which the science is sound—there is no biological basis of race—and yet cultural investigations of race are still necessary. “Culture has its own force and value,” he said. “It’s the stuff we fight about.”

Next Tishkoff shared how knowledge production in the biological sciences has moved us rapidly from a time when genetic sequences could be obtained at a rate of only 600 nucleotides per year, to today, when the most cutting-edge technology can spit out the full sequence of a human genome, some 3 billion nucleotides, in a single hour.

Tishkoff’s own work has touched issues of race, with a recent study involving 2,500 Africans from 121 populations, along with a similar number of non-Africans, examining the genetic basis of skin color and calling into question old assumptions about what the earliest humans looked like. “Until we did our study, almost every other study on skin color to date had been done on European populations,” she said.

Roberts framed her career as one focused on understanding the structural problems that lead to social inequities, particular those that involve the intersection of gender, class, and race. Exploring the ways in which biological differences produce social inequalities and vice versa—how social inequality can lead to health disparities among populations—Roberts has strived to disseminate the knowledge she has created both to the general public, including her 12,000 Twitter followers or the million viewers that have taken in her TED talk, and within the campus community, through the interdisciplinary Penn Program on Race, Science and Society, which she founded.

At the official launch of the Penn Teach-in, Dorothy Roberts joined fellow Penn Integrates Knowledge professors John Jackson and Sarah Tishkoff in a discussion of how knowledge is created and then communicated and used beyond the “walls” of the academy.

“Bringing together scholars from multiple disciplines, from natural sciences, humanities, and social scientists, we’re focused on understanding human diversity and unity without relying on this biological notion of race,” she said.

The panelists addressed questions submitted from the audience, many around the nature of knowledge, why its important, and the challenges in navigating the “firehose” of information that characterizes today’s knowledge production.

In response to a closing question on why this event is so necessary, all the panelists invoked a moral and ethical imperative in producing and sharing knowledge. “The question of what knowledge is, is, I think, an ethical question,” said Jackson. “What do we care about, what do we value and believe in?”

Tishkoff noted that events like today’s, with interdisciplinary interaction, are particularly critical in a time when “knowledge is under attack.”

And with the final, fitting comment of the evening, Roberts alluded to the loftier goals of academic study: “There is still far too much suffering and injustice in the world. We can use knowledge, if we are critical of the assumptions that we bring to it ... to create a better world.”

Penn’s Teach-in, convened by Penn’s faculty senate, continues with a full roster of events through Thursday.