Students and faculty spent the day taking a class on either documentary theatre or the ethics of genome editing
Ursinus’ Sesquicentennial celebration was revived on Sunday, April 14 with the first ever Minerva Term, an immersive day-long learning experience in which students, alumni, and faculty could attend classes, eat a free lunch, and mingle at the Berman Museum. The classes offered were “The Promise and Peril of Genome Editing,” taught by Professor of Biology, Dr. Rebecca Lyczak, and Professor of Politics, Dr. Paul Stern, and “The Word Becomes You: Documentary Theater,” taught by Professor Domenick Scudera of the Theater Department.
Prof. Scudera expressed his excitement about having his class chosen as an offering in the Minerva Term. “The Minerva Term is a wonderful opportunity to focus on a particular topic in depth,” Scudera explained. “The day-long immersion in documentary theater allowed the participants and I to understand both the theory and practice of the art form.”
Lyczak also found the experience enjoyable. Discussing the crowd present for the workshop, Lyczak said, “It was wonderful to spend the day with a diverse set of people who were engaged in a day of learning for learn- ing’s sake. We had a mix of students, faculty, staff, community members, and Ursinus graduates. About half the participants had a science background and half were trained in other disciplines.”
Getting to co-teach with Stern was another one of the many highlights for Lyczak. “We like to challenge and push back against each other’s ideas and that made for an engaging and insightful day,” Lyczak explained. “We were both able to bring our disciplinary expertise to help each other and the participants in the class consider the benefits and concerns of genome editing from multiple perspectives.”
Both course options at Minerva Term allowed participants to learn and interact with different topics important to each field. Lyczak touched on the significance of genome editing, saying, “With the advent of CRISPR technology, the genomes of every living thing can now be edited to produce desired effects. In this workshop, participants grappled with the implications of these recent scientific advances. Participants learned the science behind this technology, explored the ethics of its use, and dis- cussed the philosophic roots of modern science that led us to this moment.”
“The day involved short readings, video, small and whole group discussion, lecture, panel discussion, and debate,” Lyczak continued. “Each participant worked to draw a line to designate acceptable and unacceptable use of genome editing in humans and to clearly articulate the rationale for their decisions of how this technology should be regulated.”
The Minerva Term is all about learning, and even the professors were able to learn something new. Scudera was able to realize the importance of community within documentary theatre. “As we moved through the day from studying about documentary theater to practicing it by creating short performance pieces, it became clear that the art form is less about performance and more about building community,” explained Scudera. “It is theater at its best – where empathy is sought and achieved, connections are made, and dialogue is started. At a time when our country is becoming increasingly polarized, this art form strives to bring us together.”
Similarly, Lyczak was able to learn something about genome editing, technology, and the reasoning behind it. “I learned that while most of us found it easy to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable use of genome editing, we struggled to articulate the rationale for our thinking,” Lyczak stated. “I found this day-long experience helpful in allowing us to start making progress on understanding our reasoning. I think there is no better way to understand our own positions than to discuss ideas with others.”
Lyczak also found the Minerva Term to be important, not only because of the way it brought together an array of people willing to learn something new, but also because of the dialogue it opened on science. She said, “I think discussions like the ones we were able to have during the Minerva Term could be a way these bodies can solicit feedback and better inform the public on the science and ethics at play.”
After the Minerva Term, Lyczak reflected on her own feelings about genome editing and realized that “as a result of this experience, I feel more comfortable with my discomfort with the technology for editing human embryos…. As a scientist, I am comfortable acknowledging that there are things we cannot know. I believe the impacts of genome editing fall into this category and that makes me hesitant to move forward and make changes
that will last for generations to come.”
The Minerva Term was named after Minerva Weinberger, Ursinus’ first admitted fe- male student and valedictorian. It is a testament to the pursuit of education and Ursinus’ commitment to promoting lifelong learning. After its successful first run, hopefully the Minerva Term will become an annual staple on campus.