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Exploring our most fundamental resource – 54th annual Nobel Conference to focus on Soil: A Universe Underfoot | The Gustavian Weekly

By Emily VanGorder - News Writer | September 28, 2018 | News

The 54th annual Nobel Conference, held October 2 and 3, “invites participants to consider the vast diversity and complexity of soil, and to ponder the challenges we face in protecting this most fundamental resource,” the conference website said. 

The two-day conference includes lecturers, panel discussions, musical interludes, and interactive activities such as going to Big Hill Farm and the Linnaeus Arboretum, and events centered around learning about our connection to the Earth. 

Nobel Conference topics are debated and prepared for long in advance–this year’s topic, Living Soil: A Universe Underfoot, was discussed and planned for almost two academic years by a committee comprised of students, staff, and faculty members. 

Topics are chosen through “conversation…learning is happening then and there… we teach and learn together,” Professor and Conference Director Lisa Heldke said. 

Once the conference theme was chosen, the committee’s first task was to identify and invite speakers.

Speakers were found through research of individuals who could speak to the Conference topic, as well as members who “made recommendations, based on their research… disciplinary knowledge… and thoughts about how the person would do,” Heldke said. 

Heldke is a self-professed instigator of this year’s theme, saying, “I was really excited… and I was joined in my enthusiasm by Jim (James Dontje, Conference co-Chair) and Laura (Laura Triplett, Conference co-Chair).”

Speakers were chosen on much more than just their general knowledge about soil. 

The speakers chosen “represented a great variety of disciplines… people with experience in different parts of the world… women and men,” Heldke said. 

This year’s guest speakers range in professions from soil science to surgery and microbiology to environmental humanities. 

They come from a wide variety of institutions, including national universities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which operates under the United States Department of Agriculture, and AgroParis Tech. 

Another important aspect in selecting guest speakers was in choosing “speakers who took ethical questions to be a part of their work… [because] the Nobel Conference is about science and its ethical implications and complications,” Heldke said.  

The Nobel Conference overview page states that “Human understanding that soil is a vital topic is as old as our civilization. But human history also shows our struggle to understand what is going on at our feet… humans were distracted from seeing soil as a living system. The windows of chemistry and physics have restored our understanding that there is indeed life in the soil.”

The Reading in Common program plays a large role in establishing the Conference theme among students. 

There are many goals of the Reading in Common program, among which are to “encourage intellectual interaction among students in conjunction with faculty… facilitate a shared academic experience for all students… [and] connect to the Nobel Conference theme,” according to the Reading in Common website. 

This year, all incoming First-year students were to read The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen. 

Students were also asked to bring a sample or picture of soil from their hometown with them to orientation, and met with their FTS groups to discuss the book. 

The Reading in Common program only just recently came under the management of the First Term Seminar Director, when the previous director realized that the Reading in Common book could relate to the Nobel Conference theme. 

The previous director “then convened a meeting with members of CAB and the Nobel planning committee,” said current First-Term Seminar Director and Professor Lauren Hecht. 

Last year, they “ran a number of events, such as a book reading, showing Young Frankenstein, and watching the original Frankenstein film with a faculty-led discussion,” Hecht said.

For this year’s conference, the director, members of CAB and the Nobel Planning Committee met and agreed upon a similar “film festival” for this year, which includes watching and discussing Symphony of the Soil, a documentary about soil’s interactions with and importance to the environment and mankind, as well as the popular 2014 movie Interstellar. 

These films were chosen to “keep awareness of the topics in both the Reading in Common text and that will be upcoming in the Nobel Conference,” Hecht said.

This conference is one that Heldke is particularly passionate about. “I have always thought we should do a Nobel Conference about one of the most extraordinary natural resources this college is in the midst of. We are perched atop some of the most agriculturally viable topsoil in the world. What should we know about it? Why is it so dark and beautiful? How do we protect it?” Heldke said.

The Nobel Conference would not be possible without the efforts of students, staff, and faculty. 

The leadership of Conference Director Lisa Heldke, Conference co-Chairs James Dontje and Laura Triplett, and First-Term Seminar Director Lauren Hecht were key in the planning and execution of the 54th Nobel Conference. 

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