Professors discuss innovation in research at Dirks’ inauguration symposium

Professors and scholars spoke in a symposium tackling the issue of reinvigorating research in universities and in UC Berkeley.
Katherine Chen/Staff
Professors and scholars spoke in a symposium tackling the issue of reinvigorating research in universities and in UC Berkeley.

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Editor’s note: This is part of our wider coverage of the inauguration of Nicholas Dirks as UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor on Nov. 8, 2013. Click here to see our page documenting the day.

At a panel Friday morning, distinguished professors from UC Berkeley and Columbia University called for a reinvigoration of innovation on campus, discussing the need to harness raw undergraduate energy to reimagine age-old problems, among other things.

The professors, who hailed from a range of fields and research areas, discussed UC Berkeley’s role in tackling today’s most pressing issues.

“In the sciences, we’re falling short with our undergraduates, and part of that is because, the way we’ve developed things, we only ask them things that have direct answers,” said Paul Alivisatos, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The question is, how can we capture imagination, commitment of young people and put it to work in exciting ways.”

The discussion, entitled “Innovation: Basic and Applied Research,” was one of three panels hosted by the campus as part of the Inaugural Symposia Program on Friday. The symposiums were just one part of a daylong celebration in honor of Nicholas Dirks’ inauguration as the 10th chancellor of UC Berkeley.

In addition to undergraduate education, the panelists emphasized the need to rethink the standard research process and adopt a more multidisciplinary approach to tackling scientific questions.

Or, as Peter Bearman, a professor of social sciences at Columbia University, called it, “traveling through a single lens with a thousand eyes.”

“It’s very difficult to drive disciplines to try something very different, to collaborate rather than police ideas,” Bearman said. “But if that can happen anywhere, it can happen at Berkeley.”

Other speakers included Carol Becker, a professor in the School of Arts at Columbia University, and Tsu-Jae King Liu, associate chair of the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley.

Alivisatos, who opened the panel, said the two most pressing challenges facing humanity today are climate change and global access to energy. He said issues such as these cannot be solved without bridging “basic and applied research” — or hard science and public comprehension.

To illustrate the direct connection between science and the humanities, Becker unveiled a small yellow flashlight featuring a solar panel on its reverse side. Four hours of solar charge would power five hours of light on the device, she said.

She said, however, that the innovation derived not from scientific inquiry but rather from the poetic question of “how do you keep a light from fading?”

“Artists’ research helps us contemplate where ideas come from — a work of art is a type of irreverent research that refuses external quantification,” she said, adding that in her passion for risk and failure, the artist is also an experimenter.

Alivisatos said that in his research on the fundamentals of material science, he strives to achieve this balance by facilitating dialogue among his students about both the core principles of nanoscience and how that science can improve society.

“There is a Berkeley style that imbues scholarship; it’s about being at a place where people think hard about the problems that are challenging society,” he said. “We are looking to create a common good for humanity.

Virgie Hoban is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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