PIK prof Dorothy Roberts advocates for reproductive rights, race issues


The 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge professor hopes to inspire students to combat injustice




Until a horrifying law case in Washington, D.C., 24 years ago, professor Dorothy Roberts worked as a litigator in a big Manhattan law firm.

On Wednesday, around 40 Penn students gathered to learn about the journey of Roberts, a professor of Law and Sociology and Penn’s newest Penn Integrates Knowledge professor.

This is the sixth Center of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships preceptorial in the PIK series, which involves lectures delivered by current PIK faculty. The Penn Integrates Knowledge program recruits professors who have done unconventional and outstanding interdisciplinary research.

An acclaimed scholar of race, gender and law, Roberts recounted her reaction after hearing about the law case involving a pregnant woman suffering from lung cancer who was forced by authorities to undergo a C-section. The unconsented surgery had a horrible ending: both the mother and the unborn baby died.

“I’ve never read anything that enraged me so much,” said Roberts. With a strong passion kindled to advocate for reproductive rights, she quit her job as litigator to work as a law professor. “Being in academia was the best possible way I could work to advance the social justice issues I was interested in,” she said.

Contrary to the status quo of conservative law schools at that time, Roberts did not write scholarly articles on conventional topics like corporate law. Instead, her articles explored the deprivation of rights of pregnant drug addicts. In midst of incredulity from colleagues, the article shone through as a novel, groundbreaking piece of work that was eventually published in the Harvard Law Review.

One thing Roberts took away was the value of pursuing one’s own passion. “If you are angry about injustice, and if you think you got a new perspective that illuminates a topic, I really encourage you to work on it,” she said.

Fueled by her determination to advocate for reproductive rights and race issues, Roberts continued on to publish numerous influential articles and books on the subject, drawing from both law and sociology.

With her recent appointment as Penn’s 14th PIK professor, Roberts looks to enrich her interdisciplinary work in law and sociology in the University. Through collaboration with geneticists and biologists, she hopes to think about new ways of explaining human genetic diversity.

In this ever-evolving society, the idea of integrating knowledge across different disciplines has indeed gained important standing in research and learning.

Wallace Genser, associate director for Undergraduate Research, hopes that the series will increase students’ “exposure to faculty use of different disciplines to address major pressing problems” in the world.

And some students present at the preceptorial did show keen interest in the field of integrated knowledge research. “I’ve always thought the PIK program was interesting, and I wanted to hear from someone who has done research before,” Nursing freshman Andre Rosario said.

The challenging but rewarding process of weaving knowledge from different fields into a central area of study also appeals to students. “I really enjoy looking for information and piecing together patterns,” College freshman Alison Huang said.

At the end of the lecture, Roberts advised students looking to pursue public interest work to make use of their unique strengths. “There is so much injustice in this world,” she said. “If you have a particular skill set to combat it, do it.”

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