Faculty from graduate and professional schools showcase their work at ‘Inspiring Yale’

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Pictured at “Inspiring Yale” are (from left) Etienne Greenlee, chair of the program, and featured speakers Willie Jennings, Inderpal Grewal, John Geanakoplos, Stephen Coan, Astrid Baumgardner, Akiko Iwasaki, John Pachankis, Lisa Meland, Jean Koh Peters, Trattie Davies, and Chinedum Osuji. The evening’s speakers also included Anjani Jain and Amity Doolittle. (Photo by Sarah Smaga)

Inspiration can be hard to come by in the daily world but not at Yale, where the Graduate & Professional Student Senate (GPSS) had a multitude of nominations to choose from when selecting faculty members to participate in the third annual “Inspiring Yale” program.

GPSS brought together 12 of the most inspiring faculty members — as voted by students in each graduate and professional school — to give an eight-minute lecture that showcased their own work and revealed what inspires them everyday. This year’s program took place on March 29 at the Yale School of Management.

Jean Koh Peters, the Sol Goldman Clinical Professor of Law, discussed “parallel universe” and “camel back” thinking as being essential in dealing with issues for multicultural clients, especially in a time of division and suspicion. Parallel thinking proscribes slow thinking, a preference of facts over conclusions, and consideration before pronouncing judgment; camel back thinking involves remembering all the “straws” of daily annoyances that lead to mistakes, and analyzing and remembering those “straws” before judging too harshly others who make a mistake. Parallel thinking thus enables one to prevent mistakes, and camel back thinking allows understanding of why the mistake occurred, she said.

Amity Doolittle, research scientists and senior lecturer at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, followed with a complementary theme, saying that stories matter but that stories are often told to support a particular policy or point of view. She used examples to demonstrate that, even when given the same scientific facts, narratives can change the interpretation of those facts in order to bring about different outcomes. She urged audience members to seek out and listen to a diversity of stories and warned against the suppression of stories and opinions that differ from their own.

Willie Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at the Yale Divinity School, asked: “If God exists, now what?” She discussed the tight space between faith and issues of race, where there can be a struggle of faith but where faith offers solutions.

Lisa Meland, lecturer at Yale School of Nursing, began her presentation with images of a unicorn, the school’s shield, and a picture of Spiderman. She described herself as a unicorn, noting that as a pharmacist in a school of nursing she is a rarity. Meland said she came to nursing when she realized nurses are more trusted and more directly involved with how drugs are proscribed and delivered. The superhero symbolism, she said, shows how nurses understand the power of drugs but also the risks that come with them. Meland concluded by urging students to celebrate their own uniqueness, their “unicorn,” and understand their powers and responsibilitiy to make a difference in the lives of others.

Trattie Davies, architect and critic at Yale School of Architecture, talked about meeting a Yale physicist, who described his work in quantum computing as understanding that things can be in two places and be two things at oncer. She went on to describe architecture as also understanding that materials and spaces can be multiple things at once, noting that particle boards — like the tiny particles quantum physicists study — are everywhere because they also absorb the energy of the workers, create mounds of dust, and exist in a particular building, they can be many things at once to those who encounter the substance.

John Geanakoplos, the James Tobin Professor of Economics, talked about leverage, debt, and financial crisis. Forgiving debt, he said, is something hard to do politically but is the most mathematically correct solution — noting that forgiving debt on underwater mortgages or enabling borrowers to pay on a lesser amount produces a higher rate of return to lenders than foreclosures. Recalling the quote from “The Merchant of Venice” that the quality of mercy blesses both the giver and receiver, he said that it was Shakespeare who got it right on forgiveness, without using any math.

Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale School of Medicine, talked about humans’ intimate relationship to viruses. Many are harmless, she noted, but those that are dangerous activate our immune system and are ultimately killed off by the body’s own protectors. This is why, she said, vaccines containing viruses that protect can lead to a radical reduction in death and disease.  

Anjani Jain, senior associate dean for the M.B.A. Program and professor in the practice of management at Yale School of Management, told a story about how he was inspired in the classroom to study product proliferation in the context of the automobile industry. This work resulted in learning that “in the presence of organizational and technical flexibility, product variety can be a source of product gains,” he said.

Inderpal Grewal, professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and of American studies, contended that we should rethink our compartmentalized view of the world. She specifically discussed this in terms of migrants and migration, the historical flow of people and goods, and change in depiction of the world.

John Pachankis, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, began by speaking about his own experience with stigma — what he described as a “Nancy Drew” moment. This was the inspiration for his work on studying the relationship between stigma and health. He discussed a 10-week treatment program his team developed to “help LGBT people feel less depressed” and more in control. His research shows that “understanding stigma and its damage on health is the first step in breaking free,” he said. 

Astrid Baumgardner, director of career services at Yale School of Music, asked the audience members to close their eyes and introduced the concept of flow, passion, and purpose. In the end, she asked the audience to come up with their own purpose statement.

Chinedum Osuji, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering in Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, discussed his work with block copolymers and soft materials. (The most prevalent usage of block copolymers is in products like sneakers.) He said he was challenged by his mentors to “control [the materials’] assembly to harness more of their potential,” which would lead to advances in low-cost water purification, such as the removal of dyes and pesticides.

Stephen Coan, president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation, which operates Mystic Aquarium, gave the evening’s keynote address. He began by telling a brief story about Dr. Gerard N.  Burrow ’58 M.D., who was the 14th dean at Yale School of Medicine and later became president of Mystic Aquarium, one of 10 presidents Coan has served with. Coan then described “the three W’s” — water, women, and welfare. These are “three interconnected concepts … where even small steps can make a big difference,” Coan said. He concluded by challenging the audience to “make a difference” and to make the world a better place.

Videos of the presentations will be posted at a later date.

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