Leaps of Understanding

This spring, the university, as it does habitually, awarded some of its most accomplished researchers and teachers the standing of distinguished professors—a number of whom reflect here on transformations in their particular fields.
July 25, 2013

MEDICINE

The major event in medical mycology has been the growing immune-compromised patient populations—human petri dishes—over the last several decades. These patients develop invasive fungal infections as collateral damage from the underlying diseases and their treatments. The infections cover a great range: from the appearance of more than a million cases of cryptococcosis per year worldwide (associated with pandemic AIDS) to the weekly occurrence of a life-threatening candida or aspergillus infection in a severely immune-suppressed patient in our medical center. The continuing battle with these invaders is costly both in lives and resources expended, with no end in sight for the scourge. —John Perfect H.S. ’80, James B. Duke Professor of medicine

LAW

The practice of law appears to be undergoing an enormous transformation right now. Financial pressures are forcing work traditionally done by lawyers to instead go to non-attorneys or be outsourced to service providers overseas. —Barak Richman, Edgar P. and Elizabeth Bartlett Professor of law

BIOLOGY

The single most transformative development in evolutionary biology has been the application of gene sequencing to understanding how genes and genomes evolve. This development has allowed evolutionary biologists to detect the operation of natural selection on individual genes and to decipher which mutations have functional effects. It also has allowed us to construct more accurate phylogenies and gene trees, from which we can determine the evolutionary relationships among species and genes. —Mark Rausher, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of biology

MEDICINE

The manipulation of adult differentiated cells into embryonic-like stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) has just begun to transform the discipline of regenerative medicine. Following this breakthrough, the study of stem-cell biology has exploded with research that is sure to advance therapeutic uses of stem cells for repairing genes, delivering drugs, repairing tissues, and arresting cancer. —Lori Setton, William Bevan Professor of biomedical engineering

THEOLOGY

One major transformation within theological ethics has been the recognition of the significance of historical and social location. It has prompted suspicion of efforts to speak in what Princeton scholar Jeffrey Stout called “moral Esperanto,” the universal language that (as the sad little joke runs) hardly anyone speaks. It has invited Christian moral theologians to speak as members of the Church rather than as members of that fictive community of all rational persons. Within Christian ethics it has allowed the flourishing of “contextual theologies.” The challenge has been—and remains—to resist moral relativism. That resistance requires of us a tradition of continuing inquiry and a readiness to be in conversation with those who speak from another perspective. —Allen Verhey, Robert Earl Cushman Professor of Christian theology

SOCIOLOGY

An important development in sociology over the past ten to fifteen years has involved the empirical explanation of novelty—how new ideas, networks, organizations, social movements, and institutions arise. This burgeoning domain of research has enriched not only our understanding of entrepreneurs—viewed in a purposive, individualistic sense—but also of societal change that may be initiated by happenstance or by combinations of individual actions. —Martin Ruef, Egan Family Professor of sociology

BUSINESS

In 1994, the Federal Communications Commission switched to auctioning spectrum licenses to mobile-phone service providers (rather than giving the licenses away). That step ignited and transformed economic research on auction design. as a result of spectrum-license auctions, the FCC has raised more than $50 billion for the U.S. Treasury, and it has dramatically improved the efficiency with which it assigns licenses to wireless providers. —Leslie Marx ’89, Robert A. Bandeen Professor of business administration

MATHEMATICS

The most transformative development in applied mathematics in recent decades is arguably the explosive synergy between biology and mathematics. Some have called mathematics “the new microscope in biology.” Conversely, mathematics will benefit from its application in biology: new mathematics will emerge to handle the complex properties that one frequently finds in biological systems, such as the large number of biological species found on Earth and the enormous evolutionary importance of individual variability within species. —Anita Layton ’94, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Associate Professor of mathematics

ARCHAEOLOGY

The introduction and systematic use of digital technologies in archaeology was (and still is) transformative. The data recording, documentation, archiving, and communication all are managed by computers, remote sensing devices, laser scanners, and 3D and virtual-reality systems. This digital workflow is able to generate a new digital hermeneutics and very complex data and models. all this process creates new knowledge and more advanced interpretations for the simulation of the past. —Maurizio Forte, William and Sue Gross Professor of classical studies

NURSING

The current health-reform initiatives will increase access to innovative health services that focus on keeping individuals, families, and communities healthy and preventing health-care problems rather than waiting for people to get sick. Expanding roles for nurses and for nursing education to develop, evaluate, and implement innovative models of care will result in improved health status and better health outcomes and will reduce persistent health disparities in underserved populations. —Elizabeth Merwin, Ann Henshaw Gardiner Professor of nursing

CHEMISTRY

It is hard to underestimate the impact of spectroscopy, particularly nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, becoming a rapid, routine, and reliable tool for determining the atomic structures of molecules, even very complex ones. The ability to form a mental picture of something that can’t otherwise be seen has fueled a torrent of insight and creativity that continues to spur innovations and discoveries, from new medicines to new materials. —Stephen Craig ’91, William T. Miller Professor of chemistry

ENGINEERING

The most transformative development in my field is the use of image-guided focused ultrasound and shock waves for noninvasive surgery and therapies. Examples include disintegration of kidney stones and thermal ablation of solid tumors in the uterus, breast, prostate, liver, and brain; site-specific and targeted drug delivery, in particular across the blood-brain barrier; and tissue stimulation and regeneration, such as wound healing and fracture healing of bones, all using various forms of acoustic waves. —Pei Zhong, Anderson-Rupp Professor of mechanical engineering and material science

LAW 

Time travel would be the most transformative. In constitutional law, we often view many of the Americans who came before us in ways they did not view themselves. and so future americans will judge us—and judge many of us harshly. —Neil Siegel ’94, A.M. ’95, David W. Ichel Professor of law