“Undisciplined” discussions aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of higher learning. But for Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science, crossing traditional academic lines is exactly the goal.
Beyond Disciplines, a new series of public events, brings together a variety of researchers to discuss a challenging issue.
“I wanted to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of our Faculty, which I think is one of our greatest strengths,” says Dean André Roy.
“Very few universities in Canada have a faculty like ours, which crosses so many disciplines, from the natural sciences to the social sciences to the humanities,” he says. “That is what makes us so lucky, and that’s what the Beyond Disciplines events are going to highlight.”
Kim Sawchuk, associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies, agrees. “We need dialogues on timely topics in our society to tackle the problems and challenges that need to be addressed through different perspectives, methods and approaches,” she says.
“We have an incredible talent pool of engaged, committed and curious researchers to draw upon, who want to meet each other and engage in these conversations for the common good.”
Playing with DNA
The first event, Editing Genes? The Science and Ethics of the New Biotechnology, will take place on Wednesday, February 10.
Concordia experts will discuss a new tool called CRISPR, or "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats," that’s made it easier than ever to edit DNA.
Needless to say, CRISPR technology is not without controversy, much of which focuses on its potential for abuse.
“This technology could move quickly from the lab to the community, and people should think about it before it does,” says Paul Joyce, associate dean of Academic Programs, and a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who has been working with Sawchuk to organize the event.
“Legislation may have to follow,” he adds.
“I hope we can help drive discussion on how ethics and science can interface over how CRISPR is used,” he says “I’m very excited to see what our diverse faculty can bring to this event.”
“One of my research areas is science and technology policy and the politics of expertise that often shape who does or does not have a say in the governance of science,” she says. “At the panel, I’ll be talking about why and how citizens can participate in the debate on CRISPR.”
One important topic that’s bound to come up during the conversation is the recent scandal in the scientific community surrounding whether a team of female scientists is being denied credit for their role in creating CRISPR.
“I think gender bias is an ongoing problem in science and technology,” says Alisa Piekny, associate professor in the Department of Biology, who will be participating in the event. “The older generation is especially male dominant and some, or many, may not have open biases per se, but simply favour their colleagues and friends, many of whom happen to be male — and white.”
But Piekny is hopeful change will come to the field. “As more men and women are less tolerant and call out their colleagues, especially for blatant bias, then this could change with time.”
Storytelling, diversity and online learning
Beyond Disciplines is set to grow over the months to come. A March event is planned on how storytelling and narrative can be integral to research in a variety of disciplines.
“Storytelling is important in so many ways — I don’t see it in opposition to factual knowledge,” says Sawchuk.
“I would argue that numbers and data tell a kind of story, as they need interpretation. How, in the faculty, can we understand what constitutes a fact, or evidence, from different disciplinary perspectives?”
Other events in the works include a spring research showcase on the theme of diversity, and a fall discussion on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
“We are embracing experimentation and imperfection with Beyond Disciplines,” says Roy, adding that the series will allow the faculty to embody the spirit of Concordia’s strategic directions.
“These events are absolutely in line with the Faculty’s and university’s goals,” says Roy. “They will allow our faculty to experiment boldly, to mix it up, and of course to get our hands dirty! But, most of all, they will allow us to go beyond.”
While Sawchuk acknowledges the Faculty’s experts may not always be in agreement on the topics at hand, she says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Argumentation and disagreement can be healthy if we do it well in our Faculty, and learn how to discuss and debate beyond our disciplines,” she says. “What a beautiful challenge for us as a Faculty!”
The first Beyond Disciplines event takes place on Wednesday, February 10, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics in Room GE-110, on Concordia’s Loyola Campus (7141 Sherbrooke St. W.).
The event is free and open to the public. Reception to follow. Please reserve your spot by emailing RSVP.firstname.lastname@example.org.