March 29, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 13

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: David Cohen

    David Cohen

    David Cohen, Associate Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility in Obstetrics & Gynecology, is of the opinion . . .

    What book should every person read and why?

    The Origin of Species—Darwin’s theory has implications for nearly every aspect of human behavior and has given man insight into why our world exists as it does. His original thesis described how plants and animals compete for resources, but it has become clear, with the testing of time, that competition promotes the survival of the most robust economic and social systems as well. The book changed the course of scientific inquiry.

    If you could meet any scholar, author, composer, musician or entrepreneur—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

    Albert Einstein. Rarely in human history does a single individual’s awareness of the forces of the universe affect so many others. The significance of Einstein’s wisdom has permeated every human activity, good and bad, in the last half century. His understanding of the fundamental relationships existent in nature has advanced the physical and biological sciences. I would want to meet with the mind of a man who was capable of conjuring these enormous concepts and packaging them into comprehensible and provable facts.

    Among the complex moral and political issues that affect humanity, which do you believe will never be resolved and why?

    Religious fervor. Zealotry can never be removed from the human condition. I believe that it fuels a distrust and disrespect for another view of the world and is immune to logical argument. When zealots, as they frequently do, support their behavior with religious ideology, humanity is faced with the ultimate conundrum: how to destroy the zealotry without attacking religion itself.

    If politicians had to pass an exam before they were allowed to serve in public office, what question would you add to the test?

    It is imperative that every leader recognizes the immensity of the responsibilities he/she undertakes. I would ask them to describe the fundamental principles they would follow when suggesting health and welfare legislative changes. If they can articulate these concepts in an inclusive, non-partisan and realistic manner, I would pass them. They need to convince me that they have a moral compass that will guide their commitments.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    I would tackle water supply issues for drought regions around the globe. I would invite an engineer, an agriculture expert and an economist. I would start with the premise that the problem cannot be solved everywhere at once and that financial constraints exist. I would ask them to devise a plan to transport and store water, to enable these arid communities to grow hearty crops to feed themselves and provide an economic foundation to prosper. The experts are chosen for practical reasons so that the short, one-year sabbatical could be a successful problem-solving venture and not an opportunity to theorize on the possibilities and write a manuscript that only a few in the academic community would appreciate.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    Fuller Albright was an American endocrinologist who had exemplary clinical acumen. He described two clinical conditions that were subsequently determined to have similar types of mutations in proteins critical to intracellular signaling systems. In one disease, there is an increase in a specific protein’s activity; in the other disease there is a decrease in function of a very similar protein. Not only were these proteins not defined when he described these diseases, but DNA itself was yet to be described, and the concept of a mutation leading to an increase or decrease in function was not yet imagined. I believe that he would be stunned by the rate of advancement of our knowledge in the era of molecular genetics, compared to the relatively slow and tedious process of describing disease based solely on observable clinical manifestations.

    What building on campus do you think is the most interesting architecturally and why?

    For this question I must admit I am not qualified to answer. I have been at the University of Chicago since 1996, but I do not know the buildings well. Given that admission, I choose the Chicago Lying-In Hospital on Maryland. It was originally designed and dedicated to provide women with obstetric care and reduce the maternal and infant mortality of the early 20th century. In addition, its designers recognized that inquiry and teaching would provide for future generations. They left a single plaque on the faŤade blank and intended it be affixed with the face of the individual who unraveled the mystery of pre-eclampsia. This disease is still a primary cause of maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality in the world, and the plaque is still empty.

    Will a liberal arts education remain relevant to students in our increasingly technological society? Why or why not?

    I have no doubt it will remain relevant. Technological advances have unquestionably accelerated every function in our daily lives. We can now communicate at lightening speed and lift, transport and buy and sell commodities and services with efficiencies never before imagined in human history. None of these advancements, however, can alter the inherent human desire to acquire a more complex and nuanced view of the environment and behaviors in our world. The absence of individuals dedicated to liberal arts would leave us a very colorless world, a situation I find impossible to believe could happen given our historical need to adorn the environment around us with music, art, and discussions of history and social conscience.

    How will the next generation of scholars—today’s students—change your field in the decades to come?

    There are few fields of study that can match reproductive medicine in the speed with which changes in the laboratory are brought to clinical applications. Only 20 years ago, the idea of forcing fertilization by injecting a single sperm into the cytoplasm of the egg was unthinkable. Now it’s performed on a daily basis around the world. This technology provides a treatment for the majority of male-factor infertility. The next generation will face the hurdles of age-related infertility and fertility preservation for women. They will be assuring that embryos conceived in vitro will have the correct number of chromosomes, and that adults and children facing gonadotoxic therapies are spared the subsequent infertility and hormonal deficiencies they now encounter. In the next generation, subcellular surgery will be a reality.