Enhancing Life Project links scholars across diverse fields of study

With the advancement of technology and biological breakthroughs, life expectancy for human beings has dramatically increased in the 20th and 21st centuries. But for researchers taking part in The Enhancing Life Project, the question isn’t how long we might live, but how well.

The Enhancing Life Project is a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. Thanks to a $4.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, 35 scholars from diverse academic backgrounds have spent two years researching issues ranging from urban nature to Islam to medicine.   

The results of the project will be presented Aug. 4-6 during a public capstone conference at the Gleacher Center. 

“One of the reasons this project got off the ground is we live in a culture constantly trying to make things better,” said William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics and one of the principal investigators of the project. “Faster communications, curing disease, there is even a movement called ‘post-humanism’ meant to escape the limits of human existence—all these forms claim to enhance life, but as a culture we have no clear definition.” 

Over the course of three two-week summer residency seminars, researchers met to discuss their individual work in order to discover overlap and areas for collaboration. The final conference in August will be a chance to both reflect and look ahead.

“Too often the humanities look backwards,” Schweiker said. “So this project, linking all these disciplines, has asked in what ways does humanist discourse lead to future discoveries.”

In addition to keynote lectures and research discussions, those attending the conference will have a chance to have an open dialogue with researchers on topics of public relevance as well as how other disciplines can become involved in enhancing life.

An evening session with graduate students from around the world will look at the future of enhancing life as an academic field of study. 

“The hope is that the research of The Enhancing Life Project will lay the groundwork for enhancing life studies, providing a framework to scholars throughout the academy to test, analyze and assess what enhances life,” said Sara Bigger, associate director of the Enhancing Life Project.

Diverse project areas 

In her project, Lea Schweitz, PhD’08, an associate professor of systematic theology and religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, looked at the ways to revitalize how city dwellers can interact with urban nature.

“I’m really trying to tell the stories of nature spaces in the city,” Schweitz said. “The project focuses on case studies, including a repurposed meatpacking plant and an urban prairie preserve, and it culminates in a proposal for an alternate taxonomy of urban space and an outline of a new theology of urban nature.”

Aasim Padela, associate professor of medicine and director for the Initiative on Islam and Medicine at the UChicago Pritzker School of Medicine, has used his time with the project to work on creating a new model of discourse between Islamic theology and biomedicine.

Padela said his project has benefited greatly from working alongside those from other fields of study.

“The ties that bind me are religious studies, medicine and ethics,” Padela said. “But the benefit of the project is there have been many different disciplines of scholars coming together to bounce ideas off each other. It’s been a fruitful forum for thinking about ways to approach your own subject but also sensitizing you to other fields.”

After two years of deep thinking and research, the residents are excited to share their findings during August’s conference.

“It’s kind of like a fireworks display, all these projects that have been culminating for the past two years,” Schweitz said. “I’m really excited to see how they have all come together.”

Learn more and register for the 2017 capstone conference here