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Northwestern University

What's the Big Idea?

If you had unlimited time, money and resources, what's the big question you would pursue? Weinberg College faculty take up the challenge

There's no question that many of our days are filled with the mundane conversations and humdrum activities of everyday life.

But every once in a while, we —  as individuals and as a society — raise our eyes toward loftier goals and work to achieve them. It's what led us to put a person on the moon, map the human genome and enact human rights policies that make the world a more compassionate place. And we just might benefit from more of that big thinking today.

For this story, we turned to Weinberg College faculty to help us think about life in a world driven by big ideas — ideas that have the potential to change the world and how we see our place in it. We asked them to look at the work they're doing in their own field and imagine how they would expand it immeasurably.

If they had all the time, money and resources they needed, what's the big idea they'd like to see come to fruition? What question would they love to answer?

Their ideas are energizing and often unexpected. And we hope they will inspire bigger thinking in your life, too. 

Could we create memories that last beyond our lifetime?

Portrait of Daniel DombeckDaniel Dombeck, an associate professor of neurobiology, studies spatial navigation in mammals.

The starting point:

Our brain’s navigation systems — the processes that help us remember how to get from our house to the grocery store parking lot — are remarkably complex. To understand how our brain’s neurons store and retrieve such memories, associate professor of neurobiology Daniel Dombeck sends mice through virtual reality mazes, using laser-scanning microscopes to zoom into the areas of the brain that are activated during these exercises. “We’re looking at the neurons that are encoding those memories, as well as the synapses — the connections between the neurons — where we think these memories are stored.

Researchers once believed that a large fraction of a neuron’s 10,000 synapses had to react to form a new memory, but Dombeck’s research has shown otherwise. “We’re learning that just a tiny fraction of those synapses — maybe just a few percent — change to form a new memory.”

The big idea:

As scientists learn more about how our memories are stored and recalled, Dombeck sees a future in which memories can be downloaded, uploaded and minimized.

The implications:

Someday, the knowledge that Dombeck and his colleagues are discovering could lead to a computer chip for our brains to expand our memory. That could make it easier to remember the names of people we meet or build essential skills more quickly. He imagines technology that could allow people who are experiencing mental decline to download their memories for themselves and for their families. For those suffering from PTSD, advances could help them minimize traumatic memories to prevent them from overtaking their everyday lives.

“These kinds of ideas were unfathomable even 10 years ago, but as technology progresses, they seem less like science fiction,” he says. “In many ways, our brains are still a black box, but our understanding is advancing very rapidly.”

Could We Breathe New Life Into Our Past?

Kelly Wisecup in front of wall of bookshelvesKelly Wisecup, an associate professor of English, is developing Archive Chicagoua, a collaborative digital research project that tells Chicago's Indigenous stories.

The starting point:

When we think about important literature, we often think of autobiographies, sermons, novels and poetry. But this narrow focus on just a few creative forms may be leaving out entire genres, says Kelly Wisecup, an associate professor of English.

For example, Wisecup has studied the work of Native American leader Joseph Laurent, who led an Abenaki tribe in Quebec. In 1884, Laurent published a vocabulary book, New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogue, to help Abenaki children learn English and to teach English readers about the Abenaki language. The book features lists of words in both Abenaki and English. Although the lists appear utilitarian and the words randomly arranged, there is power in their deliberate sequencing.

"Through the arrangement of the words, Laurent retold Abenaki stories about the arrival of English colonists in America," Wisecup says. "As people used the book — as they said the words out loud and practiced speaking them with others — they were retelling the story. That ensured the survival and circulation of Abenaki histories and language for future generations."

At a time when U.S. colonists were obsessed with placing Native stories, bodies and languages in museums and libraries, Native writers like Laurent created their own repositories for safekeeping their histories and languages.

Wisecup notes that the failure to widely recognize this and other types of creative work is just one exampleillustration of a head in the cloudsof how numerous forms of Native American creative expression become unnecessarily sidelined, separated from meaningful context or discarded.

The big idea:

It's time to reimagine what counts as literature in America.

The implications:

Broadening our scope changes what we read and how we read it, Wisecup says. The creative storytelling that we find in unexpected places, for example, complicates our view of the past as a time of removal and loss for Native Americans. How might we interact with those ideas if we knew more about the long history of Native literary opposition to being erased and removed? How might we be able to see the places where we live and work as shaped by Native people? Reimagining what we think of as literature changes our perception of the stories we tell about the United States and colonialism. It also inspires us to look at our narratives about immigrants and other marginalized groups with new eyes. 

Could We Turbocharge the Pace of Social Change?

Celeste Watkins-Hayes smiling in a black turtleneck

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a professor of sociology and African American studies, studies urban poverty, social policy, HIV/AIDS, nonprofit and government organizations, and race, class and gender.

The starting point:

While working on a book about the transformation of HIV/AIDS over the past 35 years from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness, Celeste Watkins-Hayes had a surprising insight. The professor of sociology and African American studies had long known that improved HIV/AIDS treatment options and services were the result of an enormous influx of private and government resources. But it wasn't just money that spurred  the support — widespread public empathy was an equally important factor. "Gay white men might have been at the forefront [of the disease], but we also saw lots of other people with HIV/AIDS speak up, including Ryan White, Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe," she explains. "There were many different cultural touchpoints."

In other words, the public seemed to be much more likely to support research and services when the disease affected people they admired or to whom they could relate.

The big idea:

Social change can be driven by encouraging people with vastly different experiences and platforms to band together to illuminate important social issues.

The implications:

It's possible to see the beginnings of such broad-based coalitions already: advocates for transgender rights, for example, now span the racial and political spectrum, from Laverne Cox to Chaz Bono to Caitlyn Jenner. "The strategies that the AIDS community used successfully to shed light on issues that disadvantaged people experience can be replicated today," Watkins-Hayes says. "When we can see the common ground that unites us, it's easier to push through challenges." 

Could We Literally Create An Alternative Reality?

Krista Thompson smiling

Krista Thompson, a professor of art history, studies art and photography of the African diaspora.

The starting point:

For researchers studying Jamaica's past, the process can be an exercise in frustration, says art history professor Krista Thompson. " There's a history of not saving documents related to black populations in Jamaica," she notes. But what fascinates Thompson are the things that emerge to represent those missing documents and objects. For example, historians would love to get their hands on the original mugshot of Ivanhoe Martin, a Jamaican fugitive in the 1940s. The image appears to be gone for good, but Thompson is fascinated by all the material that has filled in that gap: oral histories of its existence and loss, references to it in classic Jamaican movies and mentions in barely legible newspaper reprints. "The point is not to lament the disappearance, but to understand what stories fill the space of those absences," she says.

The big idea:

Using written and oral accounts and partial fragments, we could open a "speculative archive" that recreates lost, incomplete or unarchived documents. The archive could also examine the factors that led to the disappearance of certain materials.

The implications:

In addition to helping us see what certain objects may have looked like, we could envision the alternative futures that might have arisen from art, literature and inventions. What would an alternate history of art look like if certain unsung artists had been able to show their work? Perhaps we have fragments of work that artists wanted to create, but never got funding to complete. Speculative archives would call attention to things that we have allowed to disappear and help us see what important things the world might be missing or have disavowed. 

Could We Predict the Effects of Climate Change with Pinpoint Precision?

Yarrow Axford smiling in a portrait

Yarrow Axford, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, studies climate and environmental change through lake sediments and past lake environments.illustration of a push pin

The starting point:

The polar ice sheet in Greenland is one of just two ice sheets on Earth, and it may help us understand some of the secrets of climate change, including a potential 20-foot rise in sea levels. Yarrow Axford, an associate professor in the Depart­ment of Earth and Planetary Sciences, uses lake sediment records from Greenland to investigate how the area's glaciers responded to climate warming between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. It's no easy feat, since ice sheets have many interlocking parts that influence the whole. "Ice sheets don't melt like an ice cube," she says. "They're the size of continents; they make their own weather. Our work is to develop records from an older time period that can show us how this complicated system works."

The big idea:

It's time to aggressively pursue new and more collaborative methods to understand the previous impact of climate change, so that we can better predict what may lie ahead for humanity.

The implications:

Thanks to rising sea levels and other environmental changes, life 20 years from now may look dramatically different than it does today. Science is a necessarily slow and methodical process, Axford notes, but significantly increasing the support for bold, innovative and collaborative research could help us keep pace with the changes. The more that researchers know about climate shifts in the planet's history — not just in temperature, but also rainfall and snowfall, for example — the better models they can create to more accurately forecast the future. "For a challenge that is as urgent as climate change, we need to accelerate the pace of discovery and understanding," says Axford. 

Could We All See the World Like the Smartest Experts Do?

Steven Franconeri, a professor of psychology, studies visual thinking and communication.

Portrait of Steven Franconeri

The starting point:

When an organic chemistry professor sketches out a diagram of a complex molecule on a whiteboard, it makes perfect sense to her: it's a series of meaningful lines and letters, organized in a coherent way. But to her students, that same drawing may seem more tangled than the yarns in A Beautiful Mind. Teasing out the visual patterns that help experts grasp the deeper meaning of an image is the work of psychology professor Steven Franconeri. Using eye-tracking, electrophysiology and interviews, he probes how pros literally see the world in a different way than amateurs do — when they look at charts, for example, they move their eyes across important patterns while ignoring the irrelevant. Learning how to see can multiply your abilities in any domain, he says. "As researchers learn how experts cut images into different pieces, we try to find the best ways to teach those concepts to non-experts — from adults down to six-year-olds," he says.

The big idea:

Build the library of visual thinking techniques and tools to open up more opportunities to create the "visual Velcro" that makes nearly every topic easier to learn and recall.

The implications:

The wider use of visual cognition techniques could transform teaching at every level, from kindergarten through graduate school, as teachers apply the most effective visual methods to communicate concepts. Researchers looking to inform the public on complicated but essential topics like global warming or public health would have more tools to make sure they get their messages across effectively. These tools would also be available to anyone who interacts with the public — business leaders, scientists and politicians — who could use them to persuade their audiences to see the world from their point of view. "We need more effective ways to transfer expertise and perspectives from your head into somebody else's head," Franconeri says.

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