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It’s time to take advantage of Penn State offerings: Susannah Gal

Posted 8/15/18

I saw with joy the sign across Main Street at North Union — “Welcome Back Students.”

What a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of the new term at Penn State Harrisburg …

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It’s time to take advantage of Penn State offerings: Susannah Gal

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I saw with joy the sign across Main Street at North Union — “Welcome Back Students.”

What a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of the new term at Penn State Harrisburg — with a welcome to them.

As I have written before, these are a group of talented and eager students from all over the United States and the world coming to Middletown to learn what they can from our talented faculty and staff.

I’ve also talked about research of the faculty and staff on the campus and how it’s important for the understanding of our world. As I’ve said before, these people are a resource that you are welcome to learn from as well.

I might not have talked about why faculty research is important to students’ learning, so let me give you some insight into that. It may seem that we always knew that DNA (or genes) was what transferred information between parent and child. But it was hardly more than 50 years ago that research by biomedical scientists at the National Institutes of Health, at universities in England, California and elsewhere, showed the relatively simple molecule, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was responsible for the heredity that allows us to look like our parents and siblings.

As part of my first class on molecular biology, I “pretend” that we don’t know that DNA is the hereditary molecule and help the students walk through research results that led toward that fundamental finding. I hope the students realize that much of what we consider to be scientific fact is not something we’ve always known; knowledge about nature is something people discover as part of their analysis of the world around us.

I also want to convey in that lecture that they, the students, can contribute to the vast numbers of future questions to help us make the next discoveries about drugs to cure diseases, about materials that are stronger and more resilient, and about instruments that can better evaluate information from our world and beyond. Research involves all of that and much more.

I find that teaching the discovery process of research is fascinating and an important part of what college teaching should be. While we need to learn facts, equations and standard methods in order to understand how these fundamental insights were derived, it should always be couched, I think, as ways for students to take their learning further once they graduate. Problem-solving in the workplace requires an ability to analyze what we know and what we need to learn so that an appropriate solution can be identified. Research is all about that in a wide variety of disciplines.

This year, one thing the campus is working on is a larger discussion of a single book that can inform a number of disciplines and areas, as part of the Student Affairs “Discovery” theme this year.

The book being discussed this year is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot published in 2010. This is a fascinating nonfiction book about how scientists in the 1950s used the cancerous cells from a black woman in Baltimore to create a human cell line that could be grown in the laboratory. Over the years, these cells have become a phenomenal resource to the biomedical community, assisting in the production of vaccines and development of cancer drugs. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with these “HeLa cells,” as they are called.

The other theme of the book is the miscommunication between the doctors at Johns Hopkins and Henrietta and her family, and how that lack of respect for patient rights has since informed the field of medical ethics.

There will be a number of events about the book and the various interesting insights that come from it over the course of the academic year, many of which will be open to the public.

Also, we have the theater on campus, newly named the Mukund S. Kulkarni Theatre, in honor of our recent chancellor. Events and programming at the theatre this fall, open to the public, include performances by Namaste India, showcasing the folk and classical dance of India, on Thursday, Sept. 20; and Nobuntu, a female a cappella quintet from Zimbabwe, on Thursday, Nov. 15. These are part of the 2018-19 Mukund S. Kulkarni Cultural Series.

The theater program will perform the play “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen from Oct. 31 to Nov. 10, and the music programs have concerts usually in December including several choirs and different bands. All of these events are open to the community.

There will also be a number of public lectures by our faculty, as well as visitors to our campus to which you are cordially invited. My Office of Research and Outreach will play host to Dr. Grady Mathews on Sept. 12 to talk about his use of recycled materials in concrete. Dr. Jonathan Lee on Oct. 31 will present his research using data to predict and understand crime perpetrators. Dr. Matthew Lawrence from the Penn State Dickinson School of Law on Nov. 28 will discuss how families can be deputized to support families dealing with addiction issues.

Thus, you should consider that our public campus, member of a land grant university, is a vast resource for you. The Penn State Harrisburg campus should have a sign — “Welcome Community” — so that you and others know that we are a place for you, the state and the world. Check out the campus calendar at the Press & Journal page or at the Penn State Harrisburg calendar of events.  I look forward to seeing you on campus!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.