Dr. Leonard White and the Significance of the Bass Connections Initiative

January 3, 2022
Research Archives

Published in our 2016-17 issue.

At first glance, Dr. Leonard White is a man working at a standing desk. Dig a little deeper though, and one might need to sit down from the overwhelming wave of accomplishments. Dr. White has created a massive open online course called Medical Neuroscience on Coursera to astounding popularity, is Associate Director for Education in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, is appointed in the Duke School of Medicine, all while tackling the role of Co-Director of the Brain and Society theme of Duke’s Bass Connections program. It is his involvement in Bass Connections however, that focuses on linking interdisciplinary research into the goal of bringing people together.

Duke’s Bass Connections is an initiative meant to encourage graduate and undergraduate students in interdisciplinary research to tackle societal issues – current themes are Brain & Society, Information, Society & Culture, Global Health, Education & Human Development, and Energy. Dr. White’s own involvement in Bass Connections came quite naturally – when teaching at the Duke Neurohumanities in Paris summer program, White started to collaborate with Dr. David Bell as a project leader on a Bass Connections program focused on the meaning of touch, proprioception, tact, and grace. With time, opportunity to become co-director of the Brain & Society came along.

As co-director, Dr. White is responsible for helping to cultivate new ideas for interdisciplinary research, education, and collaboration. Some ideas morph into actual proposals, while others remain at levels of interesting conversations, something he likes to think of as “dormant seeds that might germinate.” Being co-director entails always looking for new opportunities to bring people together, as it is this creation of a broader network of collaboration that truly defines the co-director position. Indeed, White himself continuously seeks out collaboration with faculty he has not worked with in the past.

When asked about any specific directions he would like Bass Connections or ideas to take, White highlights one certain area: neuroscience and humanities. A deeper and more productive dialogue in this “Neurohumanities” intersection has the potential to bridge the philosophy and policy community more in issues pertaining to what Brain & Society aims to solve, like the use of prescription drugs to modify behavior and potent addictive potential. The questions that Brain & Society take on are all in the realms of ethics, morality, and policy – something that neurohumanities encompasses.

Dr. White views Bass Connections as a valuable opportunity for students to work collaboratively and interdisciplinary in a more intimate setting than the classroom model. Not only does it bring in perspective from different domains of the university, but it is also an opportunity to engage in the broader community around the university. There is also the added bonus of Bass Connections aiming to achieve a resolution or type of deliverable in the timeline that students experience at the university so that students can experience the culmination of their efforts. This can be quite different from the typical independent study in which it is common to not see a final deliverable whether it be a product in market, or breakthrough in scientific enterprise.

White hopes that the greatest lesson that someone can walk away from Bass Connections with is from this profound sense that being part of a collaborative team wrestling with different points of view, one can achieve greater heights of accomplishment and significance than one is likely to achieve by themselves. Students should see Bass Connection as vibrant learning space, a community that is itself a laboratory that allows for experimentation, exploration, and even failure - a place where new ideas can be tried and tested while being codependent upon colleagues and teammates’ efforts. Some problems are simply too big and too complex for one discipline to manage, and we have to have dialogue across disciplines and professions to see any true improvement.

Dr. White commented that sometimes when we create a conventional learning environment like classroom or course, it is almost as if students have to pass through faculty sized filters in order to enter learning space. In this process, the student may be stripped of unique personhood. Faculty may seldom even look for what students might bring to learning community. In contrast, Bass Connections is all about bringing all that you are and all that you have to contribute, finding new ways to exercise those talents, and to contribute to work of the team in ways that faculty probably would not have anticipated. Bass Connections is about creating an intimate, informal space to engage each other on a deeper level. What he really loves about Bass Connections is that it is a way to rethink the meaning of university education, and to really leverage more than just education, more than just research. It is about the capacity for information and to really develop a holistic learning model for young people discovering themselves and discovering how they wish to apply themselves in the world. Bass Connections can do all of that, maybe not for every single person, but that is the aspirational goal

The most important lesson Dr. White has learned from Bass Connections and his other teaching experiences is to never underestimate the passion and creativity of the learner. Bass Connections has challenged him to think beyond the usual parameters that frame up his educational lessons or vocations he has tried to create for students. It has made him take step back and think: there is more that the students can bring, there is more that he can tap into and be shared within the learning community, and that is where the deepest learning happens.

As for any advice he has to encourage young people or anyone in general, he says to

be true to themselves, bring their passions, and bring their interests even if they seem like they do not have much relevance to any project. Bring them and do not be hindered in sharing any talents, insights, or capacities, because it is often from this mix of unique talent and perspective and life experience that new insights are born and new innovations arise.

To get involved in one of Duke’ Bass Connections Project Teams, more information can be found at www.bassconnections.duke.edu. Most projects are one-year engagements, usually starting in the summer. For the 2017-2018 Project Teams, there will be a Bass Connections Fair on January 24, with applications for all five themes being open from January 24 to February 17, 2017. Opportunities within the initiative also range beyond participating in a project team, with possibilities for future publications on the research conducted, continuing to be involved in such research, or even developing educational pathways.

Works Cited

White, Leonard. Personal Interview. 13 Oct. 2016.

“Bass Connections.” Bass Connections. Duke University. Web.

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