Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Today I noticed how full the begonia plant was getting – flush with new burgundy leaves and the plant’s first flower. This was a gift from my friend Julie Zickefoose, who also sent along an Achimenes plant. The salmon-hued flowers on that specimen have been appearing since June and are almost as sensual as the variety name, “Pink Nightie”. One has to love a plant with a name like that!

It was little gifts like this that made my “era of immobilization” tolerable.  Being able to hear -- through the window -- several species of birds visiting the Serviceberry tree in the front yard, receiving encouraging messages from someone who had recuperated from a much worse accident [thank you Brenda], cut flowers from the CSA each week, and colleagues at work and in the field who helped me to adapt, get food from the lunch buffets, and keep my sanity. During the recovery period, I even had time to do silly things like looking up the origin of words like Achimenes. [It may have come from the Greek word for “tender” or “sensitive to cold” or perhaps from the name of a mythical plant in the writings of Pliny the Elder.] All of these were deeply appreciated gifts, including time.

In the words of the very wise Paul Brown: Healing. It can be encouraged, though not rushed. What a colossal job it must be to create new cells and reassemble things as closely as possible to the original. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

Nothing is rushed when you are in a cast and using crutches. So I read a lot, and looked up mythological stories – partly for fun and partly to prepare for my upcoming History of Disease course. When I could start swimming again, the laps were slow, as if I was dragging a brick.

The thing about internal injuries – be it broken bones or a damaged heart – is that you can’t see the healing like you can with a surface wound. You have to assume that the cells are doing what they should to repair the damage. Of course, being a scientist (and having the time), I had to look up all the details of just what is involved in mending bone. It is indeed a pretty amazing process Paul.

I am not one to enjoy sitting around, even though people said I should milk the situation and let others take care of me for once. I do appreciate all that my husband Dave had to do around the house and to take care of me – including being chauffeur. Thanks to him, off to work I went. Setting aside pride, I scooted around the halls at work in a rolling chair, road up the mountain in nifty all-terrain vehicles (thanks so much Trevor Jones), or provided directions to research students or helped to band birds from the back of a Subaru. 

Corey took me “car-birding” to boost my county list for the year. What a surprise on that day in June when we ran into friends Terry, Greg, and Laura along the Delaware River who had just captured two gorgeous Cerulean Warblers for their research project. More gifts.

Today, four months later, I experienced the full splendor of being mostly-back-to-normal (even though the healing will continue for some time in the leg bone). There was an early morning walk with Dave and Revi before the fog lifted, followed by a walk to the quarry to catch the first glimpses of the Fringed Gentians starting to unfurl. These satiny flowers are an indescribable blue – matching the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses from a wedding that I was part of many years ago. Joren and I gathered enough grapes to make juice – the aroma of which is filling the room as I type. There was apple and pear picking and baking. As the late afternoon sun, low in the sky, splashed gold across the mountainside, there was one final walk of the day through the goldenrod and broomsedge-laden field. Glorious moments. Glorious to be healing.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Memorial Day Message That is Missing

This weekend, social media is filled with messages asking us to remember the Americans who have died defending our country and our freedom. Memorial Day, first established in 1866 to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War, is now a day set aside to remember all of the American soldiers who have died in war in the subsequent 15 decades - about 1.2 million in all. This number, while representing a tremendous loss, pales in comparison to the number of war-related deaths globally for the same time period. Estimates run from 60 to 85 million for the number of lives lost during World War II alone. 

Coincidentally, this past week, I finally had the chance to watch the movie The Imitation Game and finished reading Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The film portrays a number of issues, but one in particular still troubles me. [Spoiler alert:] After the German Enigma code was decrypted, the British made "strategic" life and death decisions about their own troops in order to avoid tipping off the Germans that their code had been cracked. In this way, the British could continue gathering key intelligence. While this intelligence is credited with shortening World War II by as much as two years, I find it difficult to understand how those in charge would intentionally ignore information that could have saved the lives of many of their own troops.

Fountain's book is also about war - the one in Iraq, post 9/11. Without going into the details of the plot, the story vividly portrays the sharply divergent worlds of those who glorify war and those who are actually sent into combat. A particularly poignant passage comes when Billy Lynn's sister is trying to convince him not to return to Iraq after completing a somewhat farcical nationwide tour that both celebrated and exploited the heroes of his squad. She gives a long list of leaders and pundits who were promoting the war (including the President and Vice-president) and noted that all of them had somehow managed to avoid serving in Vietnam.

Admittedly, I am a pacifist and don't understand the reasons for our involvement in most conflicts since World War II. But this Memorial Day weekend, I wonder why instead of just remembering those lost in war, that we don't also start finding ways to avoid further deadly conflict in the future.

In his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, author Christian Parenti refers to the "catastrophic convergence" of poverty, violence, and climate change. The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) completed a study in 2007 on climate change and national security, and a year ago this month, the CNA published a follow-up report entitled National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change. The Pentagon and State Department have also published detailed strategic reports regarding the impact of climate change on national security. Headlines from the past year include "Climate change threatens national security, Pentagon says", "Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers", and "Obama: Climate Change a Growing National Security Threat" (a claim that the President reiterated this past week). After Obama's comments in February this year, The New Republic followed with a piece entitled "Obama is Right: Climate Change Kills More People than Terrorism." In this, Rebecca Leber makes a case that around 5 million died due to climate-related factors or carbon pollution in 2010 and that this number will increase to close to 6 million by 2030. But I suppose this is irrelevant to military strategists since reports about war casualty numbers don't include the loss of life due to things like environmental pollution or natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, or other types of extreme storms.

The significance seems clear to me, however, when we overlay the impacts of climate change on top of a widening gap between the have's and have-not's, especially with respect to food and water security, and consider the disparate impacts of climate change on certain regions of the world that have a long history of conflict. To decode: we are looking at a rapidly growing risk for more global conflict. Ironically, the U.S. military is a huge consumer of fossil fuels - one of the major sources of greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the climate. And following up on a 2001 report on Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, the military is preparing for a joint training exercise (the "Northern Edge 2015") in June of this year in the Gulf of Alaska. Why do I get the sense that our national leadership, like the British in WWII, is choosing to deliberately disregard certain critical intelligence, risking some lives, in order to "succeed" in some larger goal?

During a commencement address at Rutgers University last weekend, Bill Nye said that the "oncoming trouble" of climate change will affect the graduates in "the same way the Second World War consumed people of [his] parent's generation." As we await the release of the Pope's Encyclical on climate change, Cardinal Peter Turkson recently spoke at an international conference on climate change hosted at the Vatican, calling on the wealthiest countries who have long benefited from fossil fuels, to be the ones to find solutions to deal with climate change:
[Wealthy nations] are obliged both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization. Cardinal Peter Turkson
Last week, I was left troubled by both a movie and book about war. I remain disillusioned by war in general. Perhaps if the U.S. started exerting leadership in addressing climate change, and thus, working to lessen the chances for additional future conflict in the world, I would feel better listening to the all the messages - especially from politicians - honoring the dead over this holiday weekend.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Let’s Bridge the Two Cultures

Following a recent campus email sharing a blog post by Jack Miles entitled Why Are We Losing in the Middle East? Too Much STEM, Not Enough Humanities,[1] there were two semi-defensive email responses, but no genuine debate or face-to-face conversation.  The author of the opinion piece, speaking about America's response to Islamist terrorism since 9/11, noted that
American leaders might have avoided a series of horrific mistakes if they had relied a bit more on the humanities and a bit less on the STEM.
I must admit that this post offended me.  But mostly, I was disappointed that there wasn’t time for dialog.

I have sensed a growing tension between the humanities and the sciences on campus for some time.  I suspect that this is due, at least in part, to all the attention and money directed at the sciences (renovations to Collier Hall of Science, the new Health Science programs, the launch of planning for a new Health Science academic building, perceived inequities in the SOAR* endowment distribution of research support, etc.).  Couple this with Congressional attacks on funding for the Arts and the dropping of these disciplines in K-12 public schools, I can understand the growing sense of frustration.  It is part of the reason that we are having the CAT-LinC* workshop entitled Reshaping the LinC Curriculum-Revitalizing the Liberal Arts; one of the discussion questions in the workshop announcement makes this clear:
How might the current LinC curriculum help to alleviate concerns regarding the current push to add profession-oriented programs to our curriculum?  If the current LinC curriculum cannot achieve this goal, how might that curriculum need to be re-shaped to alleviate those concerns? 
Implicit in this question (to me, at least) is a concern that profession-oriented programs cannot embody a liberal education.  Furthermore, since most of these new academic programs have direct ties to the natural and physical sciences, it seems that some on campus view the liberal arts as separate from the sciences, rather than the liberal arts being inclusive of them, as was the case historically for the Artes Liberales.

Personally, I like the definition of a liberal education in the 21st century provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
Liberal Education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.[2]
Note the inclusion of science and an expectation that the broad knowledge and skills gained during a student’s education actually get applied.  The essential learning outcomes of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) project includes “Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World through [the] study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts.”[3]  In other words, it isn’t liberal arts and the sciences, but rather a true integration that characterizes liberal education today.

A few years ago, Joyce Hinnefeld (a colleague from the English Department) and I proposed and organized the first Arts and Lectures series on the Intersections between Art, Science, and Nature for which we brought in speakers whose work exemplified the bridging of disciplines.  We concluded another such successful series this year.  Along the way, I have been exploring such bridges in my own teaching and scholarship and have found that historically, there were many connections between the arts and sciences, especially in the “fields” of natural history and medicine.  But over time, the collaborations faded and once symbiotic disciplines have, for the most part, gone their separate ways. 

The Romantic period of the first half of the 19th century has been characterized as an intellectual movement that integrated the arts and humanities and that was heavily influenced by science and nature.  The period also coincided with the Industrial Revolution, and thus, this has been described as an era of discovery of both the beauty and the terror of science.  Mary Shelley wrote of her concerns of human manipulation of nature in Frankenstein (1818).  In his 1829 Sonnet - To Science, Edgar Allen Poe says that science is the enemy of the poet because it takes away the mysteries of the world. He was concerned about the influx of modern science and social science of the times and how it potentially undermined spiritual beliefs.  The world had entered a period where science was no longer simply trying to understand and describe nature, but was now aiming to improve upon it.  And with 21st century technological advances in genetic engineering, biomedicine, and even conservation (for instance, the new efforts in de-extinction and re-wilding), the attempts to improve upon nature continue.

Towards the late 1800’s and through the turn of the century, scientists were discovering things at a record pace, unraveling nature’s secrets at the both the scale of the atom and the universe.  As they solved these mysteries, some of the world’ most prominent of scientists of all time remained ever cognizant of the beauty of what they were studying.  Albert Einstein once said
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science. 
Another nuclear physicist, Marie Curie, noted that
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
Perhaps ironically, both of these individuals were uncovering the fundamental mysteries of atoms and energy that would be used to create the most destructive weapon of mass destruction that has ever been used by humans.  But it was also scientists like Linus Pauling (a Nobel Laureate winner of both the Chemistry and Peace prizes) who in 1958, presented to the United Nations a petition signed by 9,235 scientists from around the world protesting further nuclear testing and published the book entitled No More War!  And today, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a major initiative and journal on Science Diplomacy aimed at building bridges for peace.[4]

There have been several points in history where scientists have realized the social and ethical implications of their research, and consequently brought their concerns to the attention of the public as well as worked to establish ethical boundaries for the applications of the new knowledge.  The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 is an important example.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, heralded as a great literary piece, was also a critical social commentary and strong warning about the use of synthetic pesticides (a product of science during World War II).  Not surprisingly, some in the scientific community did not welcome the book’s publication, but it led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some of the first pieces of environmental legislation.  The former director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and a renown climate scientist on the faculty of Columbia University, James Hansen, has become a leading climate change activist and authored a book entitled Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  There are many more examples.

Yet the fears expressed by Shelley and Poe around two centuries ago have magnified with each technological advance.  In 1959, Charles Percy Snow (or CP Snow) – a scientist and author -- delivered a lecture in the UK Senate House entitled The Two Cultures and subsequently published a book elaborating on his ideas entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  The thesis of both was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two cultures – namely the sciences and the humanities – and that this division was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included the book in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.  One particular excerpt, despite being written about 56 years ago, seems so relevant to the discussions and divisiveness on campus now:
The separation between the two cultures has been getting deeper under our eyes; there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike. 
Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment, which the traditional culture feels for the scientific, is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation.
Stefan Collini writing in The Guardian in August in 2013[5] observed that
Snow had presented the contrast between the scientific and literary cultures as being in part about different responses to the industrial and technological revolutions.
This contrast was also described by Peter Dizikes writing in the New York Times in 2009[6] on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Snow’s lecture:
Scientists, he asserts, have “the future in their bones,” while “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”
I hear this idea reflected often: scientists have a tendency to think that science and technology can fix all of the world’s problems.  In contrast, many in the humanities believe that technology has caused many of those problems.

In one additional 2009 essay written by Lawrence Krauss,[7] it was noted that
Snow argued that practitioners in both areas [the humanities or "cultures" and the sciences] should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.
Krauss goes on to say that Snow did not rail against religion, or any of the humanities, but rather against ignorance.
Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.
Reading the reflections of others about C.P. Snow and the “two cultures” has only strengthened my belief that we need to find ways to reconnect these disciplines, to find ways to cross the vocabulary differences and ideological divides, to have dialog in order to better understand each other and address the critical issues of our time.  The STEM disciplines are integral to a liberal education and facets of the humanities must be woven into how we teach in STEM disciplines. Given the role that science and technology must play in addressing the global challenges of the 21st century (climate change, food and water security, emerging diseases, and biosecurity are just a few examples) and the growing public distrust or denial of science (think climate change, GMOs, and vaccines), it is critically important for all students to be cognizant of the role that they may play – individually and collectively – in these future debates and solutions.  How do we get students to not only think across disciplinary boundaries, but to also gain experience in debating and developing policy, translating technical information to policymakers and the public, and to think about science, not just as something hard or scary, but perhaps as a means of diplomacy?  And how do ensure that future scientists continue to be aware of the moral and societal implications of their discoveries?  These are the curricular discussions about liberal education at Moravian College that I think we should be having.[8]

I leave you with two other random thoughts on why we need to once again integrate the disciplines in a liberal education:

In a study published last year from Michigan State University, researchers found a positive link between childhood participation in arts – especially music – to patents generated and businesses launched as adults. They studied a group of college graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics – theSTEM disciplines – and found that exposure to the arts as children increased the chances of ownership of patents or new businesses by over eight times compared to the general public. Furthermore, in their surveys, “80% of STEM professionals report that arts and crafts deliver skills necessary for innovative work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
“Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.”
  Edward O. Wilson
from Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge [1999]
What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic.
—  Alison Hawthorne Deming  Writing the Sacred into the Real
In much of the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming’s work, she argues that the farther we remove ourselves from wild settings, the farther we are removed from our spiritual center. She believes the arts allow us to fall again “into harmony with place and each other.” We live in a world that is out of balance (environmentally, and socio-economically).  Artists sense this emotionally.  Scientists know this through data, but need to find ways to express this that doesn’t turn the public off through fear or distrust.  Working together, humanists and scientists can find those words and the rebalancing that we need in our personal and collective lives.

*SOAR = Student Opportunities for Academic Research (an endowment for undergraduate research)
CAT = Center for the Advancement of Teaching
LinC = Learning in Common, the general education program at Moravian College

[4] See; accessed May 15, 2015.
[5] Collini, S.,  “Leavis v Snow: the two-cultures bust-up 50 years on”, The Guardian (8/16/13); available at;; accessed May 15, 2015.
[6] Dizikes, P. Our Two Cultures, The New York Times (3/19/09); available at; accessed May 15, 2015.
[7] Krauss, L.M. “An Update on C. P. Snow's ‘Two Cultures’ " Scientific American (8/17/09); available at; accessed on May 15, 2015.
[8] I have written on these ideas before in a 2004 blog post ( and excerpt of which was published by AAC&U in their magazine Liberal Education:
[9]Michigan State University ArtSmarts Among Innovatorsin Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) March, 2001; available at; accessed on May 15, 2015.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Weeping for Kenya

Today, I weep not only for Kenya, but all of humanity.  A senseless attack has left 147 – maybe more – young adults dead, and the innocence of countless others shattered.  I interact with college age students every day, and sometimes even wonder if a school shooting could happen on our campus.  But who could envision the magnitude of the barbaric act carried out today at Garissa University.  As I watched my students in lab this afternoon, I wanted to weep for them.  They innocently carried out the experiment, oblivious to the fact that some of their peers half-way around the world are no longer able to fret about tests or grades.  Sadly, my students will soon leave campus to enter a world where hatred and intolerance lead people to slaughter bright young people, students who might just have been the ones to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.  But my students will get to graduate and celebrate with their families.  In Kenya, families will be burying their children.

My fascination with the continent of Africa began at an early age.  This made no sense for a relatively sheltered blonde Finnish kid from a region where the population was 99+% white and few people left their home county, much less dreamed of going to another continent.  But when I was in second grade, I declared to my mother that I was going to join the Peace Corps, go to Africa, and find a cure for cancer.  I didn’t join the Peace Corps; I did cancer research for awhile, but didn’t find a cure.  But I have had the good fortunate to travel to Africa three times.  My brother is really the lucky one. He lived in Ghana for a full year, toured much of Western Africa, and even got married in Timbuktu. 

I don’t know what triggered my early interest in Africa, but I think it might have been cheetahs. And I can still hum the music of Born Free. But the allure for me has become the stories of the continent and the people.  Oh to have the experiences of Elspeth Huxley as told in The Flame Trees of Thika, which is quite a different portrayal of life on the continent than that of Karen von Blixen-Finecke in Out of Africa. Many girls my age daydreamed about following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall.  But I am equally captivated by the tragic stories.  Oh how I cried watching Hotel Rwanda, Out of Africa, and Blood Diamond.  Or while reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness – about the truth and reconciliation trials – and Lisa Shannon’s A Thousand Sisters – about the atrocities women suffer in the Congo.  I have seen the quarry at Robben Island, and stood at the door of cell #4, prison B, peered down the Rift Valley, and explored the Great Pyramids.  Those are experiences that connect you to all of humanity in ways that are difficult to put into words.  Perhaps that is why I feel such loss, even though I did not know today’s victims.

I have friends from Kenya:  Ray Ray who is studying at the School of Forestry at Yale, Samwel, a Maasai I met through the U.N. climate meetings, and dear Christine – one of my students when I was a new faculty member.  I still remember her arriving in northeastern PA with no prior experience with cold and snow.  We have remained close for two decades.  Today, I weep with them, for them, for their homeland.

In one of my classes, I have students read Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. The author, Christian Parenti, argues that we are witnessing the first of the climate wars.  He overlays the impacts of climate change in regions that have a long history of conflict and the result is banditry, violence, and state failure.  The book begins with the question of “Who killed Ekaru Loruman?”  Ekaru was a pastoralist from northwestern Kenya brutally murdered as he tried to defend his few head of cattle.  Samwel has told me that cattle are not only a measure of wealth, but also of how much of a man one is. 
When you think of all the conflicts we have - whether those conflicts are local, whether they are regional or global - these conflicts are often over the management, the distribution of resources. If these resources are very valuable, if these resources are scarce, if these resources are degraded, there is going to be competition. Wangari Maathai
Does any of this explain the violence of the day?  Can there be any explanation?

I dislike the overuse of the term “hero”, but one woman from Kenya is a hero and inspiration to me – Wangari Maathai.  If you don’t know the story of this Nobel Peace Prize winner, you should.  I had the good fortune to get to know her a little in 2009; but cancer took her too soon after.  So many of her words seem relevant at this moment: 

I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.

All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.
If that last statement is true, how can we take the lives of others?  How can we harbor so much hatred and violence?  If Wangari was still with us, a woman whose life was transformed by the chance for a college education in the U.S., she too would be crying today.