In her inaugural address on Oct. 17, NYU President Linda G. Mills highlighted the importance of risk-taking and cross-disciplinary research and pledged to be the conduit that brought schools and departments together to address the world’s big questions.

So the next morning, she gathered four NYU giants in the fields of medicine, journalism, visual arts, and astrophysics to offer first-hand accounts of groundbreaking scholarship and innovation.

NYU Faculty on the Power and Practice of Transformation continued the Inauguration Week’s emphasis on innovation and progress by spotlighting faculty. In a thought-provoking conversation, Tisch School of the Arts photography professor Deborah Willis, NYU Langone Transplant Institute Director and Chair of the Department of Surgery Robert Montgomery, Arts & Science journalism professor Rachel Swarns, and research professor Shirley Ho from Arts & Science's Department of Physics, shared stories of how creativity, curiosity, and determination helped them become leaders in their respective fields.

“NYU is an incredibly creative place. So many people are ready to bring together the disciplines to answer a big question,” Mills said at the start of the hour-long forum at the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. “This is where our size works in our favor. Someone will have the expertise.”

Moderated by Stephanie Mehta, the CEO of Mansueto Ventures, publisher of Fast Company and Inc., the conversation touched on their careers, how failure can be a critical ingredient for success, the need for confidence to challenge gatekeepers and naysayers, how personal experiences inspire areas of inquiry, and the resilience to withstand rejection.

In response to Mehta’s question about a moment when they defied conventional wisdom, Willis recalled a being in college and asking her professors about the photographers they were studying. “I asked ‘Where are the Black photographers?’ I had professors who said, ‘Oh, we don’t know any,’ and I had one professor who said, ‘Why don’t you do the research?’ I found the gap. I knew there was a different history.”

Willis spent the next 50 years researching and writing about the history of Black photography and photographers. The University Professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, Willis has written books and curated exhibitions, including Rest is Power at NYU’s Center for Black Visual Culture. She was a MacArthur fellow in 2000.

Stephanie Mehta, left, addresses the panel of distinguished NYU faculty. © Hollenshead, Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

Montgomery’s own eureka moment came later in his career. The surgeon, who was the recipient of a heart transplant five years ago, is a pioneer in xenotransplantation—the transplantation of living cells, tissues, or organs from one species to another. Montgomery explained that most patients in need of an organ transplant die before getting on a list for organ donations, and those who are on a list have only a 30-percent chance of receiving a transplant because there are not enough donors. Xenotransplantation represents the future because it relies on a renewable and sustainable source of organs, he said.

His transformational contribution resulted from thinking about transplant donors in a different way. Organ donors consent to the transplantation of their organs after brain-death declaration, but some willing donors’ organs or tissues are not suitable for transplant. Montgomery wondered if such a donor could be the recipient of an organ from a genetically modified pig. In 2021, Montgomery and a team transplanted the kidney of a genetically modified pig into a deceased donor and studied it for 61 days, yielding new insights and novel findings.

“It has really propelled the field forward,” he said.

Shirley Ho was an early adopter of artificial intelligence in astrophysics who said she kept her early use of machine learning from her colleagues because she was a junior faculty and she worried about what they would think of this unconventional academic pursuit. Ho, who is also  the leader of the Simons Foundation’s Cosmology X Data Science group at the Center for Computational Astrophysics, aims to understand the beginning and evolution of the universe.

“We weren’t sure it would work,” she said, noting that she learned valuable lessons even if they were done in secret. “You might fail, but it’s OK. You have to take risks. NYU takes a lot of risks.”

In addition to risking failure, transformers challenge authority. Swarns’s groundbreaking investigation into Georgetown University’s connections to slavery started when she was a journalist, but has led to ongoing research into the connections between slavery and contemporary institutions. Swarns’s book, The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, was published earlier this year. It forms the foundation for her initiative, “Hidden Legacies: Slavery, Race, and the Making of 21st Century America,” to help journalists, scholars, and students research and document America’s history of enslavement.

“It felt urgent, but persuading folks that investigating slavery’s legacies was a line of coverage for the New York Times and that it was worth me spending a year diving into that history took some doing,” she said. “It was something completely different and it sent me on the path I’m on today.”

Swarns, an associate professor in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, wants to foster that sense of urgency and curiosity in her students.

“We think the history book that lands on our desks is true; it’s history. What’s to question?” she said. “I encourage them to ask who wrote it? Whose voices are we hearing? Whose voices are we not hearing?”

Finally, the panelists spoke about the resilience needed to withstand rejection. Transformation comes from defying conventional wisdom and forging new paths, requiring confidence and the ability to withstand adversity.

“You are going to be rejected many, many times,” Montgomery said, noting that he shares these experiences with  students. “This is the story of my first rejection, and this is the one that happened last week.”

“If you are trying to do something transformative, you will get a tremendous amount of head wind,” he said. “If you’re not resilient, that will stop you.”

The conversation ended with a question from the audience about how universities like NYU can disrupt the academic systems that may inadvertently inhibit innovation and transformation.

Willis said expanding the definition of research in the arts to include acting or design work would be more equitable for artists. Montgomery suggested helping researchers realize failure is not only okay, but great. Ho added that including students and junior faculty—who often are doing the most cutting-edge work—on tenure and promotion committees would inject “new blood” into the process.

Inauguration Week continues Thursday, Oct. 19 with Flourishing Together: Meditation and Mindful Connections at 3 p.m. at Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South. The program features author Dan Harris. Time to Grow: Planting Violets in Schwartz Plaza—An Event for Kids and NYU Families is set for Friday, Oct. 20 at 4 p.m.

 A woman in the audience with dark hair and glasses stands and uses a microphone to ask a question.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, dean of the School of Global Public Health, asked a question of the panel. © Hollenshead, Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau.