This summer, two of our PhD students, Elizabeth Dietz and Sanghamitra Das, travelled to Umbria, Italy to participate in Todi week. Todi week is an experience where graduate students from all over the world meet various interdisciplinary professionals, such as artists, politicians, professors, managers, and medical specialists. Together, they have roundtable discussions, lectures, workshops and seminars to expand horizons and better understand the world as a series of connected and ever-changing parts. This is a unique experience, as many academic disciplines are strongly separated from one another and connecting those different parts can be a challenge.
Here is what Elizabeth had to say about Todi Week:
“There was only one possible answer to my advisor’s email asking if I’d like to spend a week in Italy the summer after my first year of graduate school at a ‘retreat for intellectuals, scientists, artists, and sundry others.’ That answer was “absolutely!!!” It turns out, however, that such a description – and any attempt that I may offer – could not possibly capture the experience I had that week.
Todi Week, a program of the Cortona Friends Association, consisted of a pair of lectures each morning, small breakout discussion groups, and afternoons of contemplative, artistic, and (among others) psychoanalytic practices. This left plenty of time for discussions amongst the participants, and leisurely meals that stretched late into the evening. Meandering dinners were punctuated by moments of reflective silence and sometimes accompanied by the resplendent melodies of Barbara Bogatin, a cellist in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra who attended the week and led a workshop with her husband neuroscientist Cliff Saron called “The Buddha, The Brain, and Bach.”
Was it a retreat or a workshop? It certainly was not a conference.
Todi Week evoked many questions that animate my work and the thinking that I do with my advisor, Ben Hurlbut. What does it mean to question the role of consciousness in theorizing about which entities deserve which rights? What kind of evidence can legitimate difficult-to-quantify things like spiritual and meditative practices – and is that the right way to go about theorizing the value of practices that people find useful? What kinds of relationships between humans and machines ought we to imagine into existence?
However, Todi Week was – as it ought to be in life and in academia – really about the friends you make along the way. The graduate students in attendance, each brought by mentors in vastly disparate fields (neuroscience, contemplative educational research, self-compassion research) turned a week of interesting talks and space for creativity into a challenging, provocative, and durable (the trip produced lavish networks of pen pals and still-active group chats) assortment of friends.”
Sanghamitra pointed to additional features:
“It can be safely assumed that any trip to bella Italia is bound to be a wonderful experience. But as a young scholar working at the intersection of science, technology and society, visiting the beautiful country for academic purposes added a whole new perspective to the experience for me. Italy appeared to me to be much like my home country India with art, history and culture sprinkled around almost every corner, and the boisterous vivacity of the people. The Cortona Friends’ generosity and support from the Center for Biology and Society in terms of funding made this experience possible for me and I learned valuable lessons, both academic and about life in general. The Todi Week fostered a diverse pool of participants, from Virginia in the United States to the Xinjiang province of China.
Getting to know fellow graduate students from across the world and having a chance to interact with and international collection of eminent academics from across the world working in the area of ‘mindfulness’ exposed me to a discipline I was largely unaware of. It has taught me the value of recognizing the diversity of perspectives in intellectual inquiries about how best to live as a human in this rapidly changing and increasingly technological world.
For me, the best feature of Todi Week was the opportunity to explore the fine arts. I learned sculpting and calligraphy in specialized workshops organized during the conference. Towards the end, when I reflected on what I had learned in the lectures, and observed what I had created in the workshops, I realized that what we produce as academics is intricately and inextricably linked with how we live as human beings.”-Sanghamitra Das
Overall, Elizabeth and Sanghamitra had a great experience in Italy, which gave them a chance to think about important philosophical questions, as well as recharge and learn new skills. The students thank the Center for Biology and Society for funding this opportunity and look forward to applying the new skills to their lives and research here at ASU!