The answer to the world’s biggest problems doesn’t lie in any one discipline, be it biology or public health, sociology or medicine. Rather, big problems require big thinkers, people who bring the best insights from a wide spectrum of human knowledge.
Bridging disciplines and training a new generation of cross-specialty collaborators are the goals of Johns Hopkins’ new Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships, funded a year ago by alumnus Michael R. Bloomberg, class of 1964. Over the next five years, 50 world-class scholars will be appointed to the professorships; each will be a part of two or more schools and divisions, conduct interdisciplinary research aligned with the university’s signature initiatives, and teach undergraduates as well as other students across the university.
As President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Robert C. Lieberman wrote in a recent campuswide email announcing the first three BDP appointments, “This university is committed, as much or more than any other, to assembling experts from divergent disciplines to attack humanity’s most important problems from every angle.”
Appointing the first three scholars to these prestigious endowed chairs, says Barbara Landau, vice provost for faculty affairs, is the first step “to putting in place very, very distinguished faculty whose passion, their work, their teaching all revolve around problems that can be solved by bringing together a variety of disciplines.”
The first crop of BDPs includes two Nobel laureates at Johns Hopkins, Peter Agre and Carol Greider; and world-renowned sociologist Kathryn Edin, a former Harvard professor who joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in January and has an ongoing Baltimore-based program of research.
As one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers, sociologist Kathryn Edin provides a glimpse into low-income America: How do single mothers survive on welfare, and why don’t more of them work? Where are the fathers, and why do they disengage from their children’s lives? Can their lives change as a result of welfare reform? Edin comes to Johns Hopkins from Harvard University—where she was a professor of public policy and chair of the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy—for a Bloomberg Distinguished Professorship that spans the disciplines of sociology and public health.
The two disciplines may seem disparate, but according to Katherine Newman, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, “the field of public health always involved sociology because it’s looking at antecedent conditions that lead to health issues: households, family structure, race inequalities … all of that contributes to inequality in health outcomes.”
Edin, who moved to Baltimore in August and in February was named a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, has already made a splash in Washington, D.C., anti-poverty policy circles: Since assuming her position at Hopkins on Jan. 1, she’s briefed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, met with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, spoken to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s staff, and had dinner with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to talk about family policy. But despite the time she’s spent in D.C., she’s ready to make her new home in Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins.
She’s already been conducting research here since the 1990s, collaborating with Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology, on a major project to study intergenerational poverty among Baltimore’s African-American young adults. They started two decades ago, following the families of 150 children under the age of 7 as they grew up in the inner city. Now these children are young adults. “Some now fit the stereotype of The Wire. The surprise is that most do not. Many are trying to make it in the way that we want them to make it: get jobs, support families, avoid welfare,” she says. “A striking number strive to be conventional, just like kids in the suburbs. They have very much the same aspirations.”
It’s a neat tie-in to her work at Hopkins, which includes taking a lead role in the university’s Institute for the American City, a new cross-disciplinary initiative designed to tackle the world’s most pressing urban problems. “There’s so much happening at Hopkins,” she says. “The Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships can bring vital new talent to an already world-class university. And Baltimore is a wonderful city for researchers like me, who are committed to finding solutions to some of the most morally urgent social problems of our time. For all these years, I’ve been doing research and getting ideas about what might work to make the lives of the poor better. Baltimore is a great place to put wheels on those ideas and see how they work.