Key Conversations Past Episodes

Episode #1: Harold Hongju Koh

In our first episode, Fred Lawrence chats with his longtime friend, Professor Harold Hongju Koh from Yale Law School. Their intimate and revealing conversation covers Koh’s expansive knowledge of foreign affairs, his views on the state of our nation, and the lasting influence of a father whose curiosity and capacious mind still inspire him.

Read the transcript Here

Episode #2: Ayanna Thompson

In our second episode, Fred Lawrence welcomes professor Ayanna Thompson. She specializes in Renaissance drama and issues of race in performance. She discusses the universality of Shakespeare while homing in on how he would have reacted to racialized readings of his work. Would he recognize that race plays a role in his plays? Would he agree with Thompson that one of his characters delivers “the first Black-Power speech in English”? What would he think of “Hamilton” and its non-traditional casting? These and other fascinating questions make for a memorable conversation with one of the country’s premiere Shakespeare scholars.

Read the Transcript Here

Episode #3: Amy Cheng Vollmer

In this episode, Fred Lawrence welcomes professor Amy Cheng Vollmer from Swarthmore College. A microbiologist whose research centers on how bacteria react to different types of stresses, discusses her ongoing fascination with bacteria, why failure is important in her field, the need for STEAM, not just STEM, and what it means to her to be a Chinese-American woman in the sciences.


Episode #4:  Paula Stephan

As a college student, Professor Paula Stephan fell in love with economics as a way to understand and influence systems that impacted many people's lives. Years of documenting and analyzing the role of gender in academic performance and the impact of monetary and status incentives on scholars and universities have led her to startling conclusions. In this episode, PBK's Fred Lawrence asks the Georgia State University Professor to go beyond the research.


Episode #5:  Ed Larson

Jefferson, Adams, Washington. Their names are synonymous with the bold experiment that was the United States in the late 1700s. But there is so much more to these men who wrestled with the notion of building a nation and battled one another politically. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Larson tears into the pages of history to offer insight into what made these presidents tick. And what today's leaders can learn from them.


Episode #6: What Should We Make of the College Admissions Scandal?

In this special extended episode, Phi Beta Kappa Secretary and CEO Fred Lawrence invites two experienced colleagues to a frank discussion about the unfolding college admission scandal that has rocked higher education. There are no easy answers, and responsibility is spread around generously, but the exchange is one that will certainly spark discussions at home, in the classroom, and in vaulted academic halls around the country.


Episode #7: Lisa Anderson 

Her passion for Middle East studies was ignited during a college course with an intense teacher. She immersed herself in the region’s history and language--and has never looked back. For this episode, Professor Anderson retraces her growing enthusiasm for and deepening knowledge of the Arab world, which saw her break scholarly ground in Libya, take up residence as a professor at The American University in Cairo, and eventually landed her in the president’s office mere weeks before the upheaval of the Arab Spring.


Episode #8: Susan Birren

The human brain has 100 billion cells, and there’s still so much to discover about it. Brandeis University neuroscientist Susan Birren has dedicated her distinguished career to decoding the mysteries of how the brain functions and how it communicates with the rest of the body. In this episode, she talks to Fred Lawrence about the challenges and triumphs of such a singular pursuit.


Episode #9: Edwidge Danticat


While promoting her new book, an accomplished short story collection called Everything Inside, the PBK member and noted writer talks about her formative experiences, like imagining herself not as Madeline but the classic’s author, and writing for a high school paper in New York City a mere year after immigrating to the US from Haiti. She opens up about “borrowed memories” in her life and her work, about the role of death and ritual in healing, and the continuity of purpose in her writing.


Episode #10: Lebowitz Prize Winners

Philosophers Michael E. Bratman, from Stanford University, and Margaret P. Gilbert, from UC Irvine, are this year’s recipients of the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution, presented by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the American Philosophical Association. In their respective work, each has expanded on the question of “What is it to act together?” based on sometimes divergent philosophical underpinnings of how two or more individuals interact in a collaborative effort.

This podcast was edited for form and length by the Key Connections production staff from the full interview/discussion.


Episode #11: Dava Newman

Dava Newman has spent her career figuring out how to get humans to space, and helping them not only to survive there, but also to thrive. She is the Apollo Program Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and the former NASA Deputy Administrator. Her multidisciplinary work combines aerospace biomedical engineering, control modeling, biomechanics, and human interface technology, and she is a leader in advanced spacesuit design. In this episode, she talks about her journey from her childhood in Montana to college at Notre Dame to her research at MIT to a leading role at NASA, in addition to how close she thinks we are to getting humans to set foot on Mars.


Episode #12: 2019 Book Awards Dinner Keynote Roundtable

The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are given annually to three outstanding scholarly books published in the United States. 2019’s winners are Imani Perry for Looking for Lorraine: the Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry; Adam Frank, for Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth; and Sarah Igo for The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America. They revealed their thinking behind the works we celebrated and shared stories of unmatched discovery, spoke of love beyond adversity, and fueled our collective imagination with examples of unbound human curiosity.


Episode #13: Alfred Spector: Envisioning the Synergies between the Liberal Arts and Computer Science

In this episode, Dr. Alfred Spector offers an optimistic take on the evolving relationship between the liberal arts and computer science. Reflecting on his career experiences in creating a company, working for Google and IBM, and now diving into economic modeling, Spector provides a fascinating account of the evolution of computer science both inside and beyond the academy.


Episode #14: Laura Brown Traces Our Love of Animals Through Literature

Professor Laura Brown’s endeavors as a literature reader and critical writer have provided a window into humans’ relationships with various species throughout history. She reveals to host Fred Lawrence what alterity, monkeys, feminist portrayal, and imperialism have to do with each other and what she considers to be the status of the humanities in academia.


Our Host

Our Host

Frederick M. Lawrence is the 10th Secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. An accomplished scholar, teacher and attorney, he is one of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights, free expression, and bias crimes. Learn More.

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