Linkage 7/30: Our New Dean, Food’s Future

uch_024121-1Welcome to Dr. Polonsky

Today’s big news on campus is the announcement of Kenneth S. Polonsky, our new dean and executive vice president of medical affairs. The position puts Polonsky, an endocrinologist and diabetes researcher, at the helm of our Biological Sciences Division, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the University of Chicago Medical Center. Polonsky was most recently chair of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, but before that he was a faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1981 to 1999.

As such, Friday morning’s announcement event felt more like a homecoming than an introduction, with many faculty members cheerfully reuniting with Polonsky and his wife Lydia, a former math teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. In his first remarks to the University community, Polonsky admitted to feeling a little “intimidated and nervous,” but excited about the future of the Medical Center and BSD.

“It really does feel right,” Polonsky said. “I do really think that we have an opportunity to continue a spectacular tradition. I have retained the utmost respect for the University of Chicago broadly, but particularly for the medical school and the biological sciences division. When I walk around this campus, I see all these buildings, including the new hospital, that weren’t here in 1999. I thought we were pretty great then, so I think that we have an enormous potential to be even better, and I hope to facilitate that.”

Polonsky will begin his new duties on October 1st, when our current interim dean and CEO, Everett Vokes, will step back to his prior role as chair of medicine. University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer also had kind words for Vokes, saying that he “took on this role at a challenging moment for this enterprise, and I think everybody recognizes the absolutely extraordinary job that he’s done.”

You can watch video of today’s ceremony here.

Feed the World with Science

In the year 2050, the world population is estimated to pass 9 billion people, nearly a 50 percent increase over today’s number. Among many concerns with that growing population is whether all those new people will be able to be fed; after all, an estimated 1 billion people today do not get enough food for minimum energy requirements. The journal Nature devotes a big chunk of this week’s issue to the question of food’s future, and perhaps surprisingly, there’s no panic amid the fancy graphics and editorials. The percentage of hungry people has dropped over the last few decades (with a slight rebound due to the current economic crisis), food production is growing at a faster pace than the population, and productivity can be lifted even further through the spread of existing technology.

Of course, the package has more to say beyond “don’t worry, nothing to see here.” Merely scaling up current agricultural practices would mean converting more of the Earth’s increasingly scarce wild areas into farmland, while spreading the consequences of pesticides and fertilizers farther afield. Improving the sustainability of agriculture should be the paramount goal, Nature’s editorial argues – whether via improving low-tech tools such as crop rotation or fulfilling the promise of genetically modified crops. The Nature package looks inside Monsanto’s greenhouse laboratory to witness the search for drought-resistant corn, describes the role of root research in creating crops that don’t deplete their soil of nitrogen, and talks about the growing agricultural powerhouse of Brazil. My favorite detail: Brazil farmers got around bans on GM crops by illegally importing seeds from Argentina, and named the illegal seeds for Diego Maradona.

Elsewhere…

Two studies out of Harvard aim to create computer tests with a strange function: predicting a person’s risk of attempting suicide. An interesting intersection of psychiatry and the types of cognitive psychology tasks many college students have volunteered to do.

But will there be drugs to treat those suicidal individuals? The head of drug discovery research at pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca tells ScienceInsider that they’re pulling out of the psychiatric drug market until research improves.

Bad news for me: a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology finds that listening to background music impairs people’s memorization and recall abilities. Found via Lia Steakley at Stanford’s SCOPE blog, who shares my dismay.

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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