Thomas Jefferson University

Humanities Forum

Announcing the 2021-2022 Forum Theme: Origins

Each academic year, Jefferson Humanities & Health explores a thought-provoking theme from a wide range of perspectives, inviting reflection and action around how we improve lives. During 2021-2022, the Jefferson Humanities Forum speaker series will bring a handful of multidisciplinary scholars and thinkers to investigate the theme Origins, as it relates to:

  • Personal origins, family lineage, and identity
  • Origin of the human species, behavior, and society
  • National and constitutional origins
  • Origins and the universe

New this year, each Forum event will have an accompanying Forum Scholar, a Jefferson faculty member with a relevant focus of academic inquiry, who will generate resources to contextualize and complement the Forum speaker. 

Amie Shao


Expecting More: Designing for Birth 
Monday, March 21, 6-7 p.m., Zoom
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Amie Shao is a Principal with MASS Design Group, where she oversees research focusing on health infrastructure planning, design, and evaluation. Amie also leads the MASS.Made team in interior design, including space planning, testing and fabrication, and furniture design for office and healthcare spaces. Her work is aimed at engaging and empowering stakeholders in the design process; creating human-centered environments that are functional, adaptable, and mission-driven; supporting and substantiating the impact of design on health, social, and environmental outcomes; and and translating research into guidelines that can be used to advocate for policy change.

Currently, Amie is supporting the firm’s COVID-19 research and leading Maternal Health projects with IHI and PATH in Africa and South Asia. Blending human-centered design practices with evidence-based research, Amie has collaborated with Ariadne Labs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to investigate the Impact of Design on Clinical Care in Childbirth, worked with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to design for the spatial needs of children with Cerebral Palsy, and coordinated the production of National Health Infrastructure Standards for the Liberian Ministry of Health.

Forum Scholar: Christopher Harnish, MArch, Associate Professor, College of Architecture and the Built Environment

Co-presented with the College of Architecture and the Built Environment.

Robin Wall Kimmerer


Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Monday, February 28, 5:30-6:30 p.m., Zoom
Register at

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, which has earned Kimmerer wide acclaim. Her first book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing, and her other work has appeared in Orion, Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She tours widely and has been featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett and in 2015 addressed the general assembly of the United Nations on the topic of “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” Kimmerer lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability.

Forum Scholar: Anne Bower, PhD, Professor of Biology, College of Life Sciences, Thomas Jefferson University

Co-presented with the Jefferson College of Life Sciences

Antonio Lazcano


A Conversation on the Origins of Life
Wednesday, December 8, 2021, 6-7:30 p.m.
Online via Zoom

Where, when and how did life on Earth begin? Join us for a conversation with Antonio Lazcano, PhD, that looks back on his more than 35 years of research into the origin and early evolution of life, and surveys recent developments in the field. Dr. Lazcano will be in conversation with Isidore Rigoutsos, PhD, Richard W. Hevner Professor in Computational Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University. 

Dr. Lazcano is a Mexican biology researcher and professor of the School of Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. He pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies at UNAM, where he focused on the study of prebiotic evolution and the emergence of life. Dr. Lazcano's professional work has taken him internationally—he has been professor-in-residence or visiting scientist in France, Spain, Cuba, Switzerland, Russia, and the United States. He has written several books in Spanish, including the bestseller, The Origin of Life (1984). Dr. Lazcano has also been a member of several advisory and review boards of scientific organizations, such as the NASA Astrobiology Institute. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) for two terms, and is the first Latin American scientist to occupy this position. Dr. Lazcano is committed to promoting scientific journalism, teaching, and the study of the origins of life all over the globe.

Forum Scholar: Isidore Rigoutsos, PhD, Richard W. Hevner Professor in Computational Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University. 

Contextual resources provided by Dr. Lazcano:

Akhil Reed Amar


Three Slices of Jefferson: 1776, 1801, and 1826
Wednesday, November 3, 2021, 5-6:30 p.m.

In-person at the Kanbar Performance Center, East Falls (Open to Jefferson students, faculty, and staff.)
Livestream on Zoom (Open to Jefferson and the public.)

Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, joins the Jefferson Humanities Forum to explore three critical moments in the life of Thomas Jefferson, based on excerpts from his new book The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840. Professor Amar teaches constitutional law in both Yale College and Yale Law School. After graduating from Yale College, summa cum laude, in 1980 and from Yale Law School in 1984, and clerking for then Judge (now Justice) Stephen Breyer, Amar joined the Yale faculty in 1985 at the age of 26. He is the author of more than a hundred law review articles and several books, most notably The Bill of Rights (1998, winner of the Yale University Press Governors’ Award), America’s Constitution (2005, winner of the ABA’s Silver Gavel Award), America’s Unwritten Constitution (2012, named one of the year’s 100 best nonfiction books by The Washington Post), and The Constitution Today (2016, named one of the year’s top ten nonfiction books by Time magazine).

Forum Scholar: Evan Laine, JD, MA, Director, Associate Professor, Law & Society Program, College of Humanities & Sciences and Faculty Director, Arlen Specter Center.

This event is co-sponsored by Jefferson Humanities & Health and the College of Humanities & Sciences as part of their Dietrich V. Asten Lecture Series.

Explore the contextual resources below, compiled by Forum Scholar Professor Evan Laine.

Yaa Gyasi


Tuesday, October 12, 2021, 7-8 p.m.
Online via Zoom

Yaa Gyasi is the author of Homegoing, one of the most celebrated debuts of 2016. A riveting, kaleidoscopic novel, Homegoing is a story of race, history, ancestry, love, and time that traces the descendants of two sisters torn apart in eighteenth-century Africa across three hundred years in Ghana and America. Her follow-up novel, Transcendent Kingdom, is a raw and intimate novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama that layers themes of loss, mental illness, and representation in STEM fields—challenging our notions of who or what a scientist is, and how they might look or think. Born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Berkeley, California. She is the winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

Forum Scholar: Marcella McCoy-Deh, PhD, Associate Professor, College of Humanities and Sciences, Director, Philadelphia University Honors Institute at Thomas Jefferson University.

Co-presented with the Philadelphia University Honors Institute at Thomas Jefferson University.

Explore the contextual resources below, compiled by Forum Scholar Dr. Marcella McCoy-Deh. Further reading can be found in the Humanities & Health Canvas course, on the Forum Scholar Resources page.

2020-2021: Creativity

During 2020-2021, the Jefferson Humanities Forum speaker series will bring a handful of multidisciplinary scholars and thinkers to investigate the theme Creativity, as it relates to:

  • Breaking with past paradigms and reinterpreting established problems and histories
  • Imagining and working toward more just and equitable futures
  • Developing new ways to build relationships, connections and provide care 
  • Achieving cross-disciplinary thinking and practice through collaboration 
  • Cultivating creative process in the face of difficulty and failure 

Scroll down to see who joined us in the 2020-2021 season. Note: Recordings of past lectures are housed in the Jefferson Humanities & Health Canvas course and available to Jefferson students, faculty, and staff. To access these recordings, you may self-enroll in the Jefferson Humanities & Health organization on Canvas, or email Humanities Program Coordinator Matilda Ostow.

Dave Isay


The History of StoryCorps & the Power of Listening
Wednesday, September 16, 2020, 12-1 p.m.
Online via Zoom

The Jefferson Humanities Forum presents Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and one of the most trusted and respected broadcasters working today. The recipient of six Peabody Awards, a MacArthur Fellow, and the $1 Million TED prize, Isay taps into the heart and soul of the human experience through his work as an author, documentarian and founder of StoryCorps. Since its inception in 2003, StoryCorps has given nearly half a million Americans the chance to record interviews about their lives, pass wisdom from one generation to the next, and leave a legacy for the future. It is the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. Weekly, millions of listeners experience these stories on NPR’s Morning Edition. Dave has numerous books lauded as best-sellers by The New York Times, including Listening is an Act of Love, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, and Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. 

Developed in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, StoryCorps Connect is a first-of-its kind platform that enables you to record a StoryCorps interview with a loved one remotely using video conference technology.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

A Conversation on Racial Equity, Health, and Reframing the Legacy of Slavery
Wednesday, October 14, 2020, 12-1 p.m.
Online via Zoom

The Jefferson Humanities Forum and the Enterprise Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement present 2017 MacArthur Fellow and 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones created and spearheaded The 1619 Project, a multimedia initiative through The New York Times Magazine that explores slavery’s omnipresent and foundational legacy in American life. Her extensive reporting for The New York Times and other publications reveals how public policy establishes, and maintains, racial segregation in housing and schools. With The 1619 Project, and her work more broadly, Hannah-Jones seeks to reframe historical narratives that overlook the contributions of Black Americans and disregard the present-day impact of structural racism. Her introductory essay for the project earned her this year’s Pulitzer Prize for commentary. In 2015, Hannah-Jones co-founded The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting with the goal of increasing the number of reporters and editors of color.

For this event, Ms. Hannah-Jones will be in conversation with Traci R. Trice, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Student Diversity Programs, Office of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives, Sidney Kimmel Medical College. 

Stephon Alexander


The Jazz of Physics
Wednesday, November 11, 2020, 12-1 p.m.
Online via Zoom

The Jefferson Humanities Forum presents Stephon Alexander, theoretical physicist, musician, and author. In his critically acclaimed book The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Alexander parses his twin passions to explore the ways in which jazz music mirrors elements of modern physics, such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, and the physics of the early universe. A lifelong music-lover and professional touring jazz musician, Alexander is interested in how innovations in physics have been and can be inspired by the "improvisational logic" exemplified in jazz performance and practice. Using analogous thinking, Alexander has enhanced not only his physics research, but also his relationship to music and understanding of improvisation, both musically and structurally. Alexander currently serves as Professor of Physics at Brown University and President of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSPB) and is a vocal advocate for the importance of research, mentoring, and employment opportunities for people of color pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field.

Julia Watson


Design by Radical Indigenism
Monday, February 22, 2021, 6-7 p.m.
Online via Zoom

Landscape designer and educator Julia Watson has conducted extensive research on indigenous ecological knowledges and innovations to reimagine technology towards a sustainable, climate-resilient design future. Her bestselling book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, a global exploration of nature-based technology spanning 18 countries, has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, Architectural Digest, and more. Regularly teaching at Harvard and Columbia University, Watson’s studio work involves landscape and urban design, along with public speaking and consulting with brands on sustainability. In her studio, she collaborates with a horticulturist as Watson Salembier, with a focus on rewilding, and has just completed the summer gardens for Rockefeller Center using a native plant palette inspired by the American meadow. Watson’s writing has been published widely and she has co-authored A Spiritual Guide to Bali’s UNESCO World Heritage. She’s a 2020 TED speaker, and a fellow of Summit REALITY, Pop!tech, & The Christensen Fund. Born in Australia, she regularly treks across the globe.

For this event, Watson will be in conversation with Christopher Harnish, MArch, Associate Professor, College of Architecture and the Built Environment.

This event is co-sponsored by Jefferson Humanities & Health and the Jefferson College of Architecture & the Built Environment.

Michael Chabon


Wednesday, March 17, 2021, 12-1 p.m.
Online via Zoom

Novelist, short story author, and screenwriter Michael Chabon joins the Jefferson Humanities Forum to discuss the relationship between creativity, writing, memoir, fiction, and family. Chabon is the author of numerous bestselling and award-receiving books, including his 2016 novel Moonglow, a fictionalized chronicle of his grandfather’s life, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His works often explore themes of fatherhood, nostalgia, and Jewish identity. Off the page, Chabon has lectured widely on topics including the art and craft of writing and the tradition of Jewish fiction. Most recently, he co-wrote the Netflix mini-series Unbelievable, and helped develop the script for Star Trek: Picard, for which he is also an executive producer.

This event is co-sponsored by Jefferson Humanities & Health and the College of Humanities & Sciences as part of their Dietrich V. Asten Lecture Series.

2019-2020: Memory

During 2019-2020, the Jefferson Humanities Forum investigated the theme Memory, focusing on:  

  • Dementia and the neuroscience of memory
  • Memory and its presence or erasure in the built environment
  • Memoir and writing from memory
  • Genealogy, genetics and social justice

Tia Powell


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Tia Powell, MD, joins the Jefferson Humanities Forum to discuss her new book, Dementia Reimagined: Building a Life of Joy and Dignity from Beginning to End. Dr. Powell is the Director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for Bioethics and Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She is a leading voice in bioethics education, end of life care and public policy. Dr. Powell applies her personal, clinical and academic experience to Dementia Reimagined, exploring the untold history of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Combining medicine and memoir, she helps us to understand how—by valuing care as much as cure—we can keep life with dementia meaningful and joyful. 

Deirdre Cooper Owens in Conversation with Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young


Friday, October 25, 2019

Deirdre Cooper Owens, PhD, is the Linda and Charles Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also serves as the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia. A popular public speaker, she has published articles, essays and book chapters on a number of issues that concern African American experiences and reproductive justice. Following a talk about her research, Professor Cooper Owens will engage in a conversation with Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young, the creators of Back and Song. Produced by Philadelphia Contemporary and Thomas Jefferson University, Back and Song is a film and art installation that reflects on the complex connections between health, wellness and the Black experience in America.

2018-2019: Fusion

During 2018-2019, the Jefferson Humanities Forum investigated the theme Fusion, focusing on:  

  • Collaborations across disciplines resulting in new knowledge, methods and ways of knowing
  • Creative thinking at the intersection of broadly different fields and industries
  • Unexpected combinations of technique, style and perspective

Jonathan Metzl: Dying of Whiteness


Thursday, April 18, 2019

Jonathan Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, at Vanderbilt University. He received his MD from the University of Missouri and a PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan. A 2008 Guggenheim fellow, Metzl’s books include The Protest Psychosis, Prozac on the Couch, and Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (Basic Books, 2019). Learn More.

Co-sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives.

Vijay Gupta: The Medicine of Music


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Vijay Gupta is a violinist whose interest in neurobiology and mental health issues has made him a world-renowned advocate for the regenerative power of music. Gupta joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 at age 19, after completing a master’s degree in violin performance from the Yale School of Music. As a 2011 TED Senior Fellow, Gupta founded Street Symphony, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging underserved communities experiencing mental illness, homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles through musical performance and dialogue. Learn More.

Kerry Brodie: Food Fight - Equality, Opportunity and the Pursuit of Independence


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Kerry Brodie is founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, a New York-based non-profit providing culinary training for refugees as a path to employment that affirms their cultural heritage and cuisine. Brodie began cooking at age five, under the watchful eyes of her grandmother. She is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, where she won the Wusthof Award for Leadership, and holds degrees in Government from Johns Hopkins University and Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. Learn More.

Alan Lightman: The Physicist as Novelist


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Alan Lightman, who worked for many years as a theoretical physicist, is the author of six novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams, as well as The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2018, he published two new books: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, about science, religion, and their different ways of knowing the world, and In Praise of Wasting Time. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, an organization devoted to the advancement of women in Southeast Asia. Learn More.

Anne Basting: Aging, Dementia & the Cultural Cure


Friday, October 19, 2018
Hamilton Building, Room 505, 1001 Locust Street

Anne Basting is a theater artist and educator demonstrating the potential of storytelling and creative expression to improve the lives of elders experiencing cognitive impairment. Across a variety of platforms, including collaborative public performance and academic research, Basting has developed an alternative concept of aging that focuses on its possibilities as well as its challenges. Basting is Professor of Theater in the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, founder and president of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow.  LEARN MORE

Willie Baronet: Signs of Humanity


Thursday, September 20, 2018
Hamilton 4th Floor Lobby

Willie Baronet is an award-winning graphic designer and Stan Richards Professor in Creative Advertising at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Since 1993, Baronet has been buying and collecting signs from people soliciting support on the street as a response to his own discomfort witnessing poverty. In 2014, Baronet and three filmmakers drove across the U.S., interviewing more than 100 people on the streets and purchasing over 280 signs while producing the documentary film, Signs of HumanityLEARN MORE

Co-sponsored by the Jefferson College of Population Health