Vince LiCata is basically a mad scientist.
A bespectacled biochemist and professor who runs his own lab, LiCata has researched proteins related to anti-HIV drugs, transformed his PhD dissertation on hemoglobin molecule interaction into an award-winning interpretive dance, and published plays that have been produced in several US cities.
Maybe “mad” is a bit too strong of a word, but he’s certainly unconventional. And his creative teaching methods, along with his outstanding academic credentials and ethical character, have led him to be chosen as the 2012 recipient of the Honors College Sternberg Professorship.
Named in Honor of Lea Sternberg, the Sternberg Professorship is the most prestigious award given to faculty by the Honors College. It was established in 1995 by Mrs. Lea K. Sternberg to honor the memory of her late husband Erich, with whom she fled from Nazi Germany in the mid 1930s before moving to Baton Rouge and founding what became the country's largest family-owned department store.
“It’s awesome — I mean I didn’t even know I was in contention for it,” Licata said of the award. “You hear about the Sternbergs all the time on NPR, because they support a lot of things publicly ... it’s a great honor.”
LiCata, LSU’s Louis S. Flowers Professor of Biological Sciences, has been teaching Honors courses for five years on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to the portrayal of science in film and theatre.
“[The Honors College] is just such a fun environment to teach in,” he said. “It’s because you get to teach people who really are interested in what you’re talking about and they’re also super intelligent … You go into the classroom and you’re suddenly in this higher-level environment that you can’t get in a standard course.”
Through his Honors classes, LiCata has had the opportunity to do what he loves most — discover the intersections between science and the arts and explore the connections between the two fields.
“I think that C.P. Snow’s concept of ‘The Two Cultures’ has really hurt the way people in the intelligentsia think — it has gotten locked in that there’s a culture of science and a culture of art and they don’t cross-communicate very well,” he said. “[But] once you break it down, you realize there wasn’t much of a barrier there to begin with.”
LiCata has certainly done a lot to break down the barrier. Last year, he co-founded the Theater Department’s Sci-Art Conversation Series, which he describes as “an experiment in getting an artist and a scientist onstage at the same time on a related subject and seeing what happens.” The first installation, entitled “Silk,” featured an entomologist talking about the evolution of spiders while two dancers performed on aerial silks.
Similarly, LiCata’s Honors courses seek to fuse science with the humanities.
“HIV/AIDS was a class that was about sixty percent science and forty percent culture of AIDS,” he said. “So for the science, we’d go over the way the virus works, the way the drugs work, the epidemiology of it, and then for the forty percent we’d go over things like HIV in popular culture and other artistic responses to it, because it’s a disease that really has created its own subculture within the artistic community.”
More recently, LiCata taught an Honors class on science in theatre and film, which explored fictional films or creative nonfiction plays in which science played an integral part of the plot.
“We were asking, how realistically is the science portrayed? Do you learn anything from it? There’s some plays like Proof, and people say it’s a math play, but when you get done with it you haven’t learned any math,” he said. “Whereas when you read a play like Background, you can actually take a quiz on background radiation and get most of the questions right. So we were discussing, is one of these things better than the other? What is a real science play?”
Although the many people view art and science as completely disparate fields, LiCata plans to keep finding new ways to blend the two, both in his own work and in his classes.
“That’s what all of this is about,” he said. “It’s easy for people to say, they can’t understand science or for a scientist to say, the arts are just so bizarre. So it’s kind of a constant fight.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831