Big data, mental illness, film animation find a spot in lectures lineup

The lectures program kicks off its 61st year next week with just its third director, and Amanda Knief is keenly aware of the strength of this well-oiled machine. She said she inherited a partially stocked fall calendar from retired director Pat Miller and a staff (Molly Helmers, Joyce Knutson) who generously are "teaching me and helping move forward." There shouldn't be any hiccups in developing the lectures schedule, which averages around 120 events each academic year.

"I'm personally thrilled to be here and working in an excellent program," Knief said.

She said a priority for her will be to expand the lectures program's social media profile to reach more students and make the program work better for them.

Getting started

Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor (1999-2007) and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (2009-17), launches the lectures season next week in a talk about trade relations and U.S. agriculture. Vilsack serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. His lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, in the Memorial Union Great Hall.

Below are a few other highlights from the current fall lineup. But this time of year especially, speakers confirm lecture dates almost daily. Check the lectures program site frequently for updates, Knief suggested.

Events begin at 7 p.m. in the MU Great Hall, unless noted

  • Sept. 6, "The Art of Science: Bringing Imagined Worlds to Life," Danielle Feinberg, director of photography for lighting, Pixar Animation Studio.
    Go behind the scenes of "Coco," "Finding Nemo," "Toy Story," "Brave" and other Pixar films to discover how the studio interweaves art with math, science and code to create fantastical worlds. Feinberg completed a bachelor's degree in computer science at Harvard University.
  • Sept. 11, "The Dark Side of Big Data," Cathy O'Neil, mathematician, data scientist and the author of "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy."
    Learn about the unintended negative consequences of using big data, including how "objective" black-box algorithms have the potential to reinforce human bias in everything from sentencing to hiring. Last year, O'Neil founded a consulting firm to audit algorithms for racial, gender and economic inequality.
  • Sept. 24, MU Sun Room, "The Symbolism of the Sand Mandala," monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet.
    From Monday through Friday, Sept. 24-28, in the MU lobby (adjacent to the postal counter), the monks will create -- and dismantle -- a mandala sand painting, a tool for reconsecrating the earth and its inhabitants. They'll pour millions of grains of painted sand from traditional metal funnels to create a mandala approximately five by five feet.
  • Sept. 25, "Mental Illness, Tragedy and Transformation: The Mark Becker Story," Joan and David Becker, parents of Mark Becker, who shot and killed Aplington-Parkersburg teacher and coach Ed Thomas in 2009.
    The Beckers share their experiences coping with their son's mental illness and the mental health system. They spent years visiting doctors, pleading with state mental health services and trying to get their son help for what finally was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia three days before Thomas' death.
    The Story County Mental Health Resource Fair will precede the lecture (6-7 p.m., MU South Ballroom).
  • Oct. 9, Stephens Auditorium, "A Hollywood Career in Costume Design," Ruth Carter, Oscar-nominated costume designer for Marvel's "Black Panther," for which she created more than a thousand costumes.
    Carter has worked in the industry for more than three decades, with credits in more than 40 films. She received earlier Academy Award nominations in costume design for "Malcolm X" and "Amistad" and a 2016 Emmy nomination for "Roots." She also is known for her work on period ensemble films such as "The Butler" and "Selma."