Colgate Tackles Complex Issues Through Alumni Panels and Programming

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Colgate University hosted a series of alumni and faculty-led panel discussions and keynotes, Mar. 25–26, addressing the intersection of technology, brain research, the arts, media, science, and behavior. The events — co-sponsored by the Robert H.N. Ho Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative alongside Career Services and the Colgate Professional Networks — centered around such complex issues as mental health, “big data,” and the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the goals of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative is to bring together experts with a breadth of experiences and backgrounds, and to facilitate conversations and exchanges of ideas that lead in new, interesting directions,” says Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Biology Ken Belanger, who helped organize the event. “Our alumni and faculty panelists, and the conference attendees, really modeled that sort of engagement and flow of new ideas.”

Beginning the series of events was a panel titled “Mental Health: What have we learned over the last two years?” discussing how the various stressors of the pandemic have not only impacted mental health but also how we think about it.

Psychologist Brad Bennett ’78 kicked off this panel with a discussion of recent experimentation involving rats and a lever. Early on in the experiment, the rats are conditioned to know that, if they push the lever, they will not get shocked. However, as the trials go on, the lever stops working and the rats realize that they will be shocked regardless.

“The experiences of the rats and the lever is similar to the experience of many of my patients during this pandemic,” explained Bennett. “My patients work so hard in their jobs to find solutions only to be told that the company is going in another direction due to COVID-19. Ultimately, they must learn to accept what the rats cannot: they must accept that it is not their responsibility to find the ultimate solution. This is something we must all accept.”

A second panel, titled “Harnessing the Power of Big Data Analytics (for Good),” followed immediately after and delved into both the dangers of using big data and the promising new ways that it can be used for good. Alumni panelist Kelly Tschantz ’01 explained the vital role that big data plays in her work as the executive director of the biotech company Genentech.

“By ethically utilizing data from thousands of cancer patients, we can begin to identify common reactions and successes in treatment. Using these trends as our guide, we can then create more personalized and effective care for cancer patients.”

By far the most highly attended program was a keynote presentation from Dr. Emily Damuth ’04, titled “Bearing Witness to Suffering,” discussing the challenges that she and other front-line healthcare professionals faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Damuth remarked on how well the skills she developed as a student-athlete at Colgate translated into her work in the intensive care unit during the pandemic.

“As both a student and an athlete at Colgate, I learned how to work on a team, make decisions on the spot, and find ways to give some semblance of order to my life, both academic and athletic. As I began working in the intensive care unit, I discovered that all of these skills are essential.”

One of the greatest challenges that Damuth shared was the way that the pandemic forced healthcare workers to enforce visitor restrictions: a policy of denying visitors to hospitalized individuals in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

“The emotional anguish of visitor restriction was something we had never encountered before,” Damuth said. “In medicine, in every decision we make, we must weigh out the harms and benefits. This is often difficult to do, but during the pandemic, it was another level of challenge. Often, it seemed like it was all harm and no benefit no matter what decisions we made.”

Transitioning to a brief Q&A session, multiple audience members thanked Damuth for her candor and shared personal connections to the visitor restriction policies or the experiences of frontline workers.

To wrap up the weekend of events, a panel on leadership in 2022 was held and featured both Colgate alumni and professors. This panel focused on current methods of leadership as well as predictions for how leadership will change and how Colgate students of today can become the leaders of tomorrow.