‘Pushing knowledge to new frontiers’

Penn’s annual Engaging Minds event featured three faculty experts whose innovative research is changing the way we think and talk about policing, immigration, and suicides.

Winkelstein and Gutmann
Penn President Amy Gutmann opened this year’s event, which was moderated by Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein. 

On Saturday, Dec. 11, Engaging Minds returned virtually, with hundreds of households tuning in live to the always-anticipated alumni event. Three renowned Penn professors—Dean Knox, Roberto Gonzales, and Maria Oquendo—provided a crash course on their pioneering research topics touching on police reform, immigration, and the biological basis of suicidal behavior, respectively.

“Innovation has become core to Penn’s global impact,” said Amy Gutmann, opening her last Engaging Minds as president of Penn. “Engaging Minds is a showcase and a celebration of that innovation, that unique brand of Penn genius and experimentation that pushes knowledge to new frontiers.”

This year’s event was moderated by Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, who relayed questions from the audience directly to the faculty members. In praising the creativity and resilience of the Penn community throughout the pandemic, Winkelstein explained that the University’s “teaching and research enterprises are flourishing” and Penn innovation is not just changing but “is dramatically improving our world.” 

One pressing subject in society today is that of racial bias in policing, an old problem brought to the forefront with the devastating killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Walter Wallace last year. The Wharton School’s Dean Knox, an assistant professor of operations, information, and decisions, who leads the multidisciplinary, multi-institutional group Research on Policing Reform and Accountability, began his lecture by giving a glimpse into what drives his team’s work.

Dean Knox
The Wharton School’s Dean Knox, an assistant professor of operations, information, and decisions.

“To many, these killings were seen as a call for reform and a symbol of police racial bias, but to many others, including officers, including segments of the media, and even many Congress people, there was a pushback against this narrative,” he explained. “With some going as far as to call this idea of racial bias in policing a myth.”

This standstill—an inability to agree on whether there is a problem—is a massive impediment to reform, Knox added, and has deep roots in thorny statistical problems that keep under the radar huge swaths of policing where there is no data.

By ignoring what Knox called “dark data,” we are “understating the scope of the problem by a massive factor,” he said.

That’s why he and his team have developed new methods to improve statistical practice around policing, while also debunking research based on bad science before it has time to take off, and working with civil rights organizations locally and nationally to improve the use of data science and analytics in their mission. 

Knox touched on a wide variety of studies his group has already conducted, including one that suggests with new, telling data that diversity reforms can improve police treatment in minority communities. He also hinted at the broader, innovative tools and research to come from his team, including their work building a national inventory of civilian oversight organizations; creating new methods for incorporating traffic sensors and red-light cameras to improve upon dark data; and the formation of a system that transforms body camera footage into structured data used to increase accountability.

Also producing innovative, crucial research with his team is Richard Perry University Professor of Sociology and Education Roberto Gonzales, an expert on the immigrant experience and founding director of the Penn Migration Initiative. During the event, Gonzales discussed his book that’s in progress, which attempts to dissect the effects of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. For this research, he and his team used an ambitious mixed methods process to survey and interview thousands of DACA recipients, as they built off the 12-year study that led to his 2015 book “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.”

DACA, considered a success by most Americans, has proven enormously useful for its beneficiaries, noted Gonzales, but at the same time it has caused a “dichotomous duality of both security and vulnerability.”

Roberto Gonzales
Richard Perry University Professor of Sociology and Education Roberto Gonzales, of the School of Arts & Sciences and the Graduate School of Education.

“Because DACA was achieved through administrative rather than legislative means, beneficiaries remained ineligible for federal financial aid for college, their DACA status did not offer them a pathway to legalization, and they risk having their status rescinded leaving them deportable,” Gonzales explained. 

Gonzales also provided the audience a glimpse into the writing process, which had been an admitted struggle during the pandemic. He turned to books—creating a reading goal for the year—to act as a helpful anchor in his life “amidst the chaos of COVID-19,” he said. It provided some much-needed inspiration, too: It was after he read his 43rd book of the year, “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright, where Gonzales said he had a lightbulb go off, recognizing this idea of duality, which he has since run with. 

Closing out the Engaging Minds program was Maria Oquendo, the Ruth Meltzer Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, who studies mental health, and particularly suicide, a devastatingly common phenomenon. Opening her presentation, Oquendo noted that about 800,000 individuals die by suicide worldwide each year and $1.8 billion in U.S. income is lost every year due to these deaths. Also, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth. 

Oquendo provided a snapshot into her in-depth, decades-long research, which helped develop the stress-diathesis model—a model for understanding the process toward suicidal ideation someone with a major affective disorder might experience. The presence of aggressive behavior, childhood maltreatment, or substance abuse are markers of the diathesis, or the propensity to developing suicidal ideation, which can lead to a plan or action. The groundbreaking model helps explain why not everyone with an affective disorder thinks about suicide, Oquendo said, and also helps clinicians identify ways of preventing suicidal behavior.

Following this finding, Oquendo and her team spent years researching and analyzing additional data that led them to determine, most recently, at least two separate suicidal phenotypes with distinct biomarkers—an intriguing new area of investigation. The first occurs in individuals who typically have suffered childhood adversity and are sensitive to stress.  For these persons, a life event can trigger an impulsive suicide attempt. The second type generally is observed in those with good cognitive control, and in the context of a depressive episode can develop persistent suicidal ideation that can lead to planned (and often more lethal) suicide attempts. 

Maria Oquendo, the Ruth Meltzer Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Questions from the audience took Oquendo’s research up another notch, with one person asking what theory may determine why the U.S. suicide rate dropped during the pandemic. Observed by suicidologists for decades, she explained, in the context of acute trauma to the community, suicide rates typically go down.

No one really knows why, Oquendo said, but she noted a hypothesis that determines that such a clear, external stressor or pain makes an individual feel less alone or disturbed. The individual also might be more inclined to join with the community, which is also distressed, instead of turning inward, she said. 

Winkelstein and Gutmann brought the knowledge-packed hour and a half program to an end by thanking the speakers and the extraordinarily engaged audience.

“That’s just a glimpse of the absolutely amazing, innovative work being done at Penn,” said Gutmann. “It’s no wonder that Reuters has consistently ranked Penn among the Top 4 most innovative universities in the world. And I submit to you that that ranking is only going to go up to No. 1.”

To view a recording of the event in full, visit the Penn Alumni website.