For the Benefit and Use of Life
by Dean Samuel H. Preston
When future generations assess the achievements of the twentieth century, I suspect they will note, above all, the revolution in the life sciences. At the dawn of this century, life expectancy in the United States was 48 years and in the world as a whole, only 30 years. At the end of the century, these figures are 76 and 64 years, respectively. With a Penn graduate student, Kevin White, I recently calculated that half of Americans alive today owe their existence to the remarkable improvement in health during the twentieth century. Much of this improvement is attributable to a single scientific advance: the germ theory and its implementation in public and private health practices.
Some observers, including the Social Security Administration's actuaries, believe that potential for life-extending discoveries is essentially exhausted. But they fail to account for recent massive advances in our ability to observe and understand life processes. The School of Arts and Sciences is making heavy investments in order to offer students and faculty the opportunity to capitalize on new technologies that will transform life sciences in the twenty-first century as much as they have been transformed in the twentieth.
One of these technologies is brain imaging, which permits new connections to be made between brain physiology and processes of cognition. I am currently serving on a presidential task force charged with exploring how Penn can exploit its resources and expertise to become a leader in the exciting and fast-moving field of cognitive neuroscience. The task force is chaired by our new provost, Bob Barchi, and includes several members of our outstanding psychology department. The effort in cognitive neurosciences complements our world-class efforts in computer modeling of brain function, especially of language acquisition, in the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science. Our new efforts in this area will provide fresh research and learning opportunities for undergraduates in our excellent Biological Basis of Behavior program.
A second new and vital technology involves the mapping of genomes and the identification of how individual genes function. We are at the dawn of a new era of understanding how genes produce the characteristic features and behaviors of organisms, ranging from the simplest to the most complex. Penn must be a leader of these efforts if it is to remain on the cutting edge of biological research. We are currently seeking ways to establish and support a genomics institute that would combine efforts of the School of Arts and Sciences with those of the Medical School, the School of Veterinary Medicine, and the Center for Bioinformatics.
Arts and Sciences' research and teaching in the life sciences extends far beyond the departments of Biology and Psychology. Anthropology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Physics are departments with major foci in the life sciences. Courses offered through the Anthropology, and the Earth and Environmental Sciences departments offer undergraduates the opportunity to apply research in the life sciences to practical issues in West Philadelphia. The two Nobel Prize winners who graduated from the College, Michael Brown, C'62, M'66, Hon'86 and Stanley Prusiner, C'64, M'68, Hon'98, are both physicians who came out of our undergraduate chemistry program and went on to make fundamental discoveries related to the cause and treatment of disease.
With their profound implications for human society, the life sciences have left their mark on the social sciences as well. Charles Rosenberg of our History and Sociology of Science Department is a brilliant medical historian who has been voted by his peers the most influential medical historian of the twentieth century. Charles Bosk of Sociology is one of the leading observers of the medical profession as it faces the recurrent dilemmas of life and death. Bosk and Rosenberg are working to construct a new major for undergraduates in medicine and society.
These are just some of the ways in which the School of Arts and Sciences is advancing Penn's position as a premier teaching and research university in the life sciences. They exemplify Franklin's educational ideals, which derive from Francis Bacon's belief that knowledge is "for the benefit and use of life."