Science, society and the arts unite on campus

This year’s SSA keynote speaker combines paleontology, sculpture and early society


Gary Staab, the keynote speaker for the 2019 SSA, presented “Digital Dinosaurs: Fleshing out the Past” on Saturday afternoon. Photo by Hannah Denham, ‘20.

Hannah Denham

Two years ago, Nick Mauer, ‘20, led a book colloquium with Howard Pickett, professor of poverty and human capability studies, on Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. for Science, Society, and the Arts. 

Flash forward to last weekend during the 2019 SSA event, the conference that occurs every two years that takes over campus with student work and intellectual discussion across academic departments. Mauer said he joined the committee to prepare for this year because he believes the event brings together students and faculty that otherwise wouldn’t normally interact.

“I think it helps unite us as a school and learn from each other,” he said.

The event kicked off on Friday, March 14 in the Lenfest Center with a visual arts display and music department performance in the evening. Saturday’s events began with 19 colloquia for various books, films and albums in the morning. 

One especially popular book colloquium was Becoming, Michelle Obama’s recently released memoir. Rossella Gabriele, ‘19, led the discussion with eight other students.

“Before this book came out, I knew it was going to be a sensation,” Gabriele said. “I wanted to be able to talk about it with my friends in a book club setting, and SSA provided the opportunity to do that for free.”

After participating in the Becoming colloquium, Lorena Hernandez Barcena, ‘19, suggested to the other participants that they continue a book club with the newly formed group during spring term.

This year’s keynote speaker was Gary Staab, a paleontological sculptor whose work has appeared in more than 30 different museums internationally, according to the SSA website.

“I think he really combines science and art in a great way that’s perfect for SSA,” Mauer said.

Staab presented “Digital Dinosaurs: Fleshing out the Past” to a room of nearly 200 people in Evans Dining Hall on Saturday afternoon.

He spoke about the process to build these sculptures, from international archaeological digs that unearth skeletons, to digital design that recreates the original figure, to the foam sculpture and the finishing touches that craft a lifelike sculpture.

“On paper, everything’s easy,” Staab said. “In real life, with this sculpture process, there are some very serious mechanical and engineering challenges to overcome.”

Stephen Fafatas, SSA chair and accounting professor, introduced Staab and reflected on the way the conference solidifies the mission of a liberal arts education.

“Yesterday about this time, I was teaching a class about the creation of the statement cash flows,” he said. “Last night I watched some fantastic student performances. This morning, I got to be part of a spirited discussion about Frederick Douglass’s life.”

The Cherry Orchard, a play directed by theater Professor Jemma Levy, concluded the SSA weekend events on Saturday night.