In a white building atop a windswept mount overlooking Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., Franklin & Marshall senior Shannon Johnson-Finn sat with fellow students, professors and distinguished scholars at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
The classical languages and literatures major discussed her research on the use of animals in ancient medical research, and how Aristotle’s scientific dispassion toward animal dissections led to human dissection in Alexandria, Egypt.
“Aristotle himself said animal experimentation should be approached without shame,” Johnson-Finn said, before scholars from Harvard, Rutgers University, The University of the Sciences and a professor from Spelman College peppered her with questions and suggestions on how to improve her paper.
She was joined that blustery March Saturday by four other F&M students and accompanied by Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, Ryan Fowler. The students all presented papers on various aspects of ancient medicine. Two students from other institutions joined them at the conference.
“We had the most submissions from F&M because of Professor Fowler’s encouragement of students,” said Professor Lindsay Samson, who teaches Latin at Spelman College. She was one of the professors on the panel and is a Sunoikisis fellow of curricular development at the center.
Fowler is a former residential fellow of the center as well as Sunoikisis, a national consortium of programs sponsored by the center to advance teaching, course development and scholarship in classical studies. The last F&M student to present at the center was in 2015, when senior Jacob Lichtblau discussed rare ancient coins.
Last autumn, Fowler organized his ancient medicine course with assignments that gave the students the opportunity to prepare papers for the conference.
“It was built into the fall course. Assignments were structured in such a way that they would have something with which to apply and present,” he said. “They all wrote papers on whatever they wanted to write. It was an interesting variety of topics on ancient medicine.”
The students applied before the Thanksgiving deadline. Their accepted papers were posted on a website for the panel’s scholars to comment and offer suggestions. Students used those, as well as their own updates, to rework their papers before their presentations.
At the conference, situated in a compound with a half dozen white buildings used for seminars, a library and residences for center fellows, each student gave a brief summary, then discussed his or her paper with the scholars, professors and students in a roundtable workshop.
“This format is more engaging for the students and differs from past conferences, where students presented and then took questions from professors,” Fowler said. “It’s really a workshopping opportunity, not just a presentation, to help students develop the very best papers they can.”
After the conference, the students will have another opportunity to rework their papers before they submit a final draft due in June. All the papers presented and workshopped appear in an e-journal published by the center.
“This experience has really helped hone my research and revision skills – I've never returned to a paper a semester after I had written it before,” said junior Maya Locker, a classical society major who wrote about mental illness in antiquity. “I want to pursue a career in the art market and it will definitely be beneficial and exciting to have a paper published in a Harvard journal.”
The other three F&M students who presented papers were sophomore Yiting Liu, a biology and classical languages and literatures major, on ancient pediatrics; sophomore Triet Nguyen, a biochemistry and microbiology major, on ancient eugenics and Hippocratic heredity; and sophomore Marian Pinsk on Hippocratic heredity and ancient genetics.
“I felt like the luckiest person in the world. I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion with some of the most renowned classicists and present a paper,” said Pinsk, a classical languages and literatures major. “I want to develop and expand on my education in classics. I’m interested in law and in teaching and government–all fields in which the classics could be prevalent.”
"Because I am double majoring in biology and classical languages, I always wonder what my future path would be. This conference showed me how humanities and sciences intersect to generate new understandings and motivated me to think more openly than merely choosing one way instead of the other."