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Honors Students Explore Possible Futures During Conference Day

April 29, 2019
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Students in the Juniors Honor Colloquium had the opportunity to showcase their projects during Honors Conference Day on Thursday, April 25. With this year’s theme “Tomorrow’s Yesterday: Futures Past and Present,” projects ranged from the genetic analysis of neurogenesis in spinal cords to the architectural adaptations required by climate change to a study of predictive analytics.

The course theme was inspired by CNR English professor Dr. Nick Smart’s similarly themed Honors Colloquium offered in 2016. “The world we live in is not the world we grew up in, and it has long been my mission to give students the tools to imagine their lives in 20 or 30 years. Tomorrow’s Yesterday gave the class free reign to explore many of these possible futures,” says CNR communications professor Dr. Michael Quinn, who served as mentor to the students in the colloquium.

“In the colloquium, students were first asked to interrogate the notion of progress itself, not as a neutral descriptive term but as a concept based on teleological ideologies of necessary, inevitable development in every realm of culture and society,” he continued. "At the end of many humanities courses, professors hope that their students have rethought earlier preconceptions about the subject matter; Tomorrow’s Yesterday asked students to do this on Day 1.”

Fernando Santos SAS’20 explored significant changes at Disney in the future, predicting that stereotypes of princesses would be eliminated to illustrate them as more independent and powerful.

“Why in all the Disney films is there a happy ending where the princess marries the prince,” asked Santos. “I’ve always wondered why a happy ending can’t be the princess resolving her problems and being happy around her family and loved ones.

Zebuniso Yusupova SAS’20, who is originally from Uzbekistan and worked as a nurse in Germany before coming to the United States, sought to realize her passion for neuroscience when she chose to investigate the pathways that allowed neuro-regeneration in adults after a spinal cord injury.

“Until recently, it was believed that human adults do not have the capacity to regenerate and that the ability to regenerate was lost at some point during embryonic development,” said Yusopova. “But the research studies I chose to analyze, which investigated the role of the Sox-2 gene and Wnt pathways in amphibians and fishes, conclude that spinal cord regeneration is possible.”

Some students in the colloquium chose to do an artistic project over a research paper, including Felicia Moholland SAS’20. “Throughout history, art has been used to capture the world around us in idiosyncratic and potentially abstract ways,” said Moholland. So, she asked, if the world was to go through an apocalypse what would art look like.

“This era of art would capture a progression of art as well as a regression of art in a sense that our subject matter and styles would continue to progress, but we as artists would be forced to regress back to ancient years by using whatever materials we could find.”

For her project, Surya Merrill SAS’20 used sculpture to create a cumulative representation of scientific speculation regarding the future evolution of the human body. “Science speculates that humans have come to a point in their evolutionary existence where our innovations and intelligence has halted our natural process of evolution,” she said. We no longer evolve just to solve a need or survive; we just create a gadget to fill that need for us. Scientists believe the next stage of evolution will be the marriage between the natural body and technology – transhumanism.”

Merrill’s sculpture shows a possible future where humans begin to voluntarily amputate limbs and replace them with robotic limbs with greater functionality. “These robotic prosthetics would open a new realm of possibilities,” said Merrill. “Women could amputate arms and replace them with robotic ones that have protective capabilities. Surgeons could have eyes replaced for ones that can do x-rays and have other functions to allow them to see details that make surgery more successful.”

In closing, said Quinn, “One of the major themes of Tomorrow’s Yesterday concerns a paradox inherent in future studies. It is literally impossible to foresee the future, but given the rapid technological and social changes we all face, prediction is more crucial than ever.” Students exploring these creative approaches to the topic against the backdrop of CNR’s impending closure and grappling with questions about their own futures was as ironic as it was heartbreaking he said.

“Under this context, I view the 2019 Honors Conference Day with immense pride at the work that has been accomplished. This is CNR at its best.”

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Honors Conference Day