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March 2014

Brave work

A darkened theater. Spotlights shine on five people—a scientist, a dancer, a performance artist, a provost, a director. The topic under consideration: risk.

Part of the Brave New Works festival produced by the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory, this February forum honed in on the risks involved in the creative process, whether making a scientific discovery or exploring gender through art.

Emory chemist Dennis Liotta (pictured above) took such a risk when he departed from his comfortable niche in organic chemistry to try his hand at drug discovery. “I didn’t have the baggage of knowing how things were traditionally done, so I tried new things,” he says. That risk paid off with the development of Emtriva, the drug that took HIV/AIDS from being a certain death sentence to a chronic condition.

As a student in her native Amsterdam, Provost Claire Sterk was so curious about the lives of women in the Red Light District that she eventually pursued qualitative research on the relationship of prostitution and drug use. Her observations established for the first time the connections between female prostitution, the use of crack cocaine, and the AIDS epidemic—and they so unsettled some in public health that the findings were aggressively challenged. “It is risky when you work outside of the mainstream,” Sterk says, “but it does instill passion.”

Choreographer and dancer Blake Beckham 01C regularly pushes herself “to inhabit the unknown, to stay with something and contend with it.” One such contention is the critically acclaimed project, Threshold, in which dancers erect a two-story house made of cardboard, building tension between stability and fragility, juxtaposing the security of home with the material regularly used to pack lives and move.

Chi-Wang Yang, an integrated media artist at the California Institute of the Arts, defined risk as working outside his comfort zone by putting himself in collaboration with others whose ideas may be better than his own and by bringing together two disparate forms or ideas to intersect at a new creation.

Performance artist Scott Turner Schofield 02C spoke about the overwhelming need to tell his story. He pulls audiences into solo performances that explore transgender issues and difficult truths. In his Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps, he bares all literally, drawing on his body parts with lipstick, to talk about his decision to embrace a male identity. “Is it a risk when you don’t have any other choice?” he asks.

The power of stories

To Salman Rushdie, storytelling matters. During his public lecture at Emory in February, the University Distinguished Professor made his case: that stories help us to feel and know truths beyond what truth can tell us.

Through a whirling dervish of activity, Rushdie lifted stories off the written page to make them as relevant to current world affairs as to Shakespearean studies. At Emory’s India Summit, he discussed the controversial decision of a publisher to recall and destroy a book on Hinduism by an American scholar, worrying that this silencing of stories is indicative of a “cultural emergency” in his native country. To Emory College, his intellectual home on campus, he brought energy and insights on storytelling to classes in literature, film studies, and cross-cultural communication.

Storytelling also informed Rushdie’s conversations with campus leaders. In a meeting with Robyn Fivush, who leads Emory’s Commission on the Liberal Arts, and Philip Wainwright, vice provost of international affairs, the talk led to the intersection of liberal arts and globalization. How storytelling can bridge disciplines and countries. How it allows us to see through others’ eyes. How it can affirm what is universal in our experience and give us deeper insights into our differences. This discussion comes at a particularly important time at Emory, when leaders are pursuing strategies to strengthen the liberal arts and globalization at the university.

“I so enjoyed Salman Rushdie’s time on campus this semester,” says Provost Claire Sterk. “He sees the power of uniting scientific and humanistic perceptions to help us answer the big questions. Plus, he tells a good story.”

70 is the new 50

Much like our evolving perceptions of retirement, the Emory University Emeritus College (EUEC) is evolving to offer a dynamic portfolio for retired faculty and staff. “We take seriously our charge to nurture the intellectual life of retirees,” says Director Nan Partlett.

Consider the recent lunch colloquium by Oxford College history professor Susan Ashmore, which explored the impact of important civil rights activism in Lowndes County, Alabama, or anthropologist Bradd Shore’s upcoming presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through the lens of love. Likewise, the annual Sheth Distinguished Lecture and accompanying luncheon feed both body and mind. Established with a gift from marketing professor Jagdish Sheth and wife, Madhuri, the lecture brings speakers who contemplate creativity in later life.

Continuing scholarly inquiry is another priority, as demonstrated by Emeritus Excellence Fund’s Bianchi Award—named in honor of EUEC founder Eugene Bianchi—which covers faculty expenses associated with research and writing, training, and academic conferences. The Heilbrun Fellowships—administered by Emory College and funded by the family of psychology professor emeritus Alfred Heilbrun—support two-year research projects of emeritus faculty in the arts and sciences, including 2013–2014 recipients David Eltis (history) and Sidney Kasfir (art history). Presented at the end of February, this year’s Distinguished Emeritus and Service Award recipients were John Bugge (English), Brenda Bynum (theater), Albert Padwa (chemistry), and Patricia Douglass (human resources).

For details about the EUEC, visit

Worth Repeating

“In the recent budget hearings, we got a snapshot of all the units of the university, and we saw areas where interests and programs overlapped. That presents an opportunity to bring our people together to partner on priorities, but first we need to decide what those priorities are. We need to set, know, and claim our priorities.”

—Provost Claire Sterk talking to ECAS faculty

On our radar: News from units in the Office of the Provost

Becoming Brazilian: “To be an immigrant is to be a better Brazilian,” says Jeffrey Lesser. The Samuel Candler Dobbs professor and chair of Emory’s history department discussed his new book, Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, with Provost Claire Sterk at a Life of the Mind event last month. “In the United States, immigrants often are viewed as being saved by the greatness of the country,” Lesser says. “By contrast, Brazilians tend to perceive immigrants as improving Brazil and fixing problems caused by its native population. In fact, politicians in Brazil seem to be more successful and popular if they are foreign or take on a foreign identity.” To hear the conversation in full, visit

Reducing costs and waistlines: At his annual State of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center (WHSC) address, Wright Caughman, executive vice president for health affairs, delivered some good news and some bad. The good: WHSC is succeeding in its goal to increase efficiency and effectiveness and reduce expenses, and cost-savings ideas have poured in from more than 700 faculty, staff, and students. The Emory Healthcare Value Acceleration Team, for example, has targeted cost reductions of more than $200M during the next five years, and the School of Medicine ExCEL Team has identified innovative approaches to save more than $84,000 in capital and operating costs. Now for the bad: biometric screenings of 3,700 Emory employees show that 59 percent are overweight, 40 percent have high blood pressure, and 85 percent don’t eat enough fruits and veggies. Caughman took his audience to task: “If we are to lead in discovery, education, and care delivery all aimed at making people healthy, are we walking the talk?” he asked.