February 9, 2012

From I-80 to the Information Superhighway

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In one of my classes the other day, we were talking about where we thought the next hypothetical veterinary college should be located. One of the things that we discussed was whether it should be affiliated with and in close proximity to a public health or medical school. One Health is a current popular movement in veterinary medicine and is the idea that we can only create and maintain a sustainable planet if we integrate various medical and scientific fields, such as veterinary medicine, human medicine and environmental science. In the natural world, organisms and ecosystems coexist and interact with each other, and this is how we should approach the various sciences that are working to improve the health of the planet. If a veterinary school were closely affiliated with a medical school, we could easily put the idea of One Health into practice — collaborations between the two fields would require just walking into the building across the street.

Currently, out of the top seven ranked vet schools in the U.S. only two of them — Penn and Cornell — have medical schools that are ranked in the top 20 for research. Though looking at rankings to evaluate schools is fraught with problems, it at least gives us some statistics we can use. Out of these two universities, only Penn’s two schools are on the same campus. Does the fact that Cornell’s aren’t hinder us from fully embracing One Health? Initially, I thought that in our Internet generation, the importance of physical proximity had faded. For example, a friend and I used to watch Bones together in college, and now that she’s left Ithaca we stream the show simultaneously and Gchat about it on the side. I’ve had friends in long distance relationships who have actual dates on Skype where they decide to do something fun together (dinner, board game, etc.). And haven’t you ever messaged your roommate on the computer because it was easier than getting up and walking into the next room? If we can digitize our social lives, shouldn’t it be even easier to do the same with our professional ones?

There are a handful of things that made me think twice about this, however. First of all, although the Internet has made it possible to maintain much more intimate long-distance relationships, it still doesn’t compare to the real thing. Watching Bones with my friend in person is infinitely better than via the Internet. Second, an article by Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker referenced several studies indicating that the most productive interdepartmental work is done when people of different departments bump into each other randomly. Two notable references were MIT’s “Building 20” and the Pixar headquarters.

MIT constructed Building 20 for temporary use during World War II, and over the years it came to house a hodge-podge of misplaced departments that had free reign to do whatever they wanted because it wasn’t supposed to be permanent. The layout of the building and the variety of people that were in it meant that people often encountered others who were in completely different fields which resulted in an incredible overall creative output. According to Lehrer, Noam Chomksy pioneered revolutions in the field of linguistics in Building 20, and Amar Bose developed revolutionary speakers and later started the Bose Corporation as a result of time he spent in the building. It was finally torn down a little over a decade ago, but people have such fond memories of it that MIT has a website full of anecdotal stories about Building 20.

Similarly, Lehrer discussed how when Steve Jobs was designing Pixar headquarters, he tried to make the Atrium the central location that everyone had to go through several times a day so that all of the people in the different departments would run into each other and be able to randomly exchange ideas. As the article explains, studies support the idea that chance encounters result in the most collaborative success. All of this indicates that no matter how good Cornell’s vet and med schools are on their own, because they’re four hours apart from each other they won’t be able to achieve the level of collaborative success that they would otherwise.

That being said, Weill is not moving to Ithaca and the vet school is not moving to New York, but I think we still have the potential to embrace One Health while at the same time quietly tweaking the creative process. If it’s been shown that chance encounters are important in maximizing creativity, then we should make those chance encounters happen.

What if the Campus to Campus bus fare were free for med and vet school students and faculty, and each school hosted events that were interesting and relevant to members of the other school on a regular basis? This would mean that people across fields would meet and be able to maintain relationships through the Internet  — an option that people didn’t have in the World War II era. Or, to embrace technology even further, we could have chat rooms where procrastinating students and faculty from both schools could log in and strike up conversations, or even have to pass through to access email.

I’m not talking about an Isaac Asimovian future — in his novel The Naked Sun he writes about a world where people fear and hate human contact and interact solely through technology — but I do think that Cornell’s potential for the complete integration and furthering of the One Health initiative should not be discounted. As older faculty retire and younger faculty who are more fluent with technology take their place, and as each field begins to realize the importance of the other in preserving our planet, the four-hour distance between Cornell’s two campuses might become even more insignificant than the four-minute distance between Penn’s.

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at nparandekar@cornellsun.com. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar