This Year's Nobel Conference explores inequality's impact on young people's mental health

A poster introduces a mental health event
The poster for the 2022 Nobel conference at Gustavus Aldolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.
Courtesy photo

The annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter happens Sept. 28 and 29. The festival director, Lisa Heldke, talks with guest host Tim Nelson about why the committee chose this topic and how the seven speakers at the conference will address it.

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Audio transcript

TIM NELSON: There's been more talk in recent years about the mental health of young people, how that's impacted by social media, for example, or by the pandemic. This Wednesday and Thursday, September 28th and 29th, you can attend in-person or virtually an entire conference devoted to the topic.

With us now is Lisa Heldke, director of the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, where she also teaches philosophy. This year's conference explores mental health inequity and young people.

Professor Heldke-- Lisa, I'll call you. We go back for years now at Gustavus, my alma mater. Welcome to Minnesota Now.

LISA HELDKE: Well, thanks for welcoming me, Tim.

TIM NELSON: So let's start with the basics. For those who aren't familiar with the Nobel Conference, what is it?

LISA HELDKE: We are in our 58th year, I'm proud to report. And the Nobel Conference started when Gustavus asked the Nobel Foundation in Sweden for permission to name our brand new science hall the Nobel Hall of Science. That was back in the early '60s.

At that time, we had a-- we, they-- had a gathering. They invited every living Nobel laureate. And something like 28 people made their way, their difficult way, to the south part of the state to join in a big symposium. People had so much fun that they said, let's make this an annual event.

The college went to the Nobel Foundation in Sweden and said would it be OK if we call this the Nobel Conference? And at the time, they said, sure. This is an honor that they continue to grant to us. We hold this very, very close to our heart. Because it's not something that the Nobel Foundation hands out on a regular basis. In fact, we're the only thing in the United States that has that honor.

So every year, it is a science and ethics conference. One of our past presenters called it the Lollapalooza of Science.

TIM NELSON: Now, you've had a lot of different subjects, a really wide range of topics down there. The Aesthetic Dimension of Space in 1980, Virus, the Human Connection in 1998. I know you're a food philosopher in part. Making good food was the topic in 2010.

This year it's mental health and equity and young people. Why tackle this subject now?

LISA HELDKE: Right. Well, we had no idea, Tim, when we chose this topic how incredibly timely it was going to be. We start planning for the conference at least two years in advance. And this topic began as an exploration of autism spectrum conditions about four or maybe even five years ago.

And as the topic got closer to being up in the queue, when we knew two-plus years ago that it was going to be the topic, it started morphing. And people started saying, you know, there's a whole range of mental health challenges that-- mental health challenges that young people face. And we ought to focus on them.

But we had most of our speakers chosen, believe it or not, by January of 2020. And then a couple of months later, of course, everything blew up. And we started realizing that this topic was way more timely than we realized, culminating perhaps in the December '21 report by the US Surgeon General, saying that mental health of young people is a crisis.

TIM NELSON: Now, you're going to have seven presenters at this year's conference. Tell us a little bit about who they are and the different perspectives they're bringing to the question of mental health and young people.

LISA HELDKE: Right. We have a range of people. Primarily their degrees are in some aspect of psychology, although in addition, we have one person who's actually an economist by training.

They include someone who was part of something called the Loneliness Experiment, which was sponsored by the BBC and three universities. They explored the question-- they did this giant world-wide survey-- of who's lonely and why? And the startling discovery was young people were among the most lonely.

We have a couple of presenters who are really exploring the question of online racism, online racist discrimination, including Brendesha Tynes, who's been doing this work for more than 25 years. Really, since people started communicating with each other on the internet, she's been exploring the ways in which racist images and racist language shape the lives of young people, particularly African-American young people.

Also Priscilla Lui, who's looking at the ways in which, for instance-- let's see, being inside of a community, a supportive community, if you are, say, an immigrant or a member of a minority community, can actually serve as a kind of inoculation when you confront racist language microaggressions and other forms of racist discrimination.

Right from the university of Minnesota is our G Nic Rider, who is going to explore the ways in which positive communities that accept you for who you are transformatively important for trans youth, for gender nonbinary youth, for gender nonconforming youth.

I haven't hit everyone. But that's a good sampling.

TIM NELSON: Great. And how do you pick these people? I mean, working under the under the Nobel name, obviously you have to have some high standards.

LISA HELDKE: Right. And every year, we have a committee that meets. And that committee includes people who are really experts in the field from Gustavus, and then other people who-- you know, usually I'm in this category, people who are just interested in a topic and want to learn more.

We set up a set of criteria. And those usually include things like having earned national or international recognition for their work. Oftentimes, we love to get a Nobel laureate in our mix or someone who has received some similar kind of prize, the Right Livelihood Award, the Field Medal in Mathematics, that sort of thing. This year, Joe Gone, Joseph Gone, who is at Harvard University, is a Guggenheim Fellow, for instance.

This group is-- honestly, it trends a little bit younger than some years' Nobel Conference presenters. They are people who have received the awards for being the outstanding young scholars in their field, the outstanding graduate students. We have a couple of people who are assistants, just sliding into the associate professor level.

And this was intentional on the part of the of the committee because they realized that these were the folks that were doing the kinds of research that they wanted showcased at this conference. These are the people that are asking about, how do identity and technology, identity and social media come into connection with each other? How do they clash? How do they collide? How do they support each other?

So yeah, as I said, this year's group is perhaps a little bit newer in their career. So let's put it that way.

TIM NELSON: Now, there's an online version of this and an in-person version of this.

LISA HELDKE: Yes.

TIM NELSON: And a podcast version of this as well. You host a podcast. What's that about?

LISA HELDKE: I do. It's called Science-Wise Questions at the Confluence of Science and Ethics. And we started it, really, as a way to have an opportunity to have a longer conversation with our presenters for a few reasons, one of which was really to dig into that question of how do they see the relationship between science and ethics in their work? Something that's, again, the heartbeat of the Nobel Conference.

But also, we wanted our students and high school students who might tune into this to learn about how did these folks come to be the people that they are? Their paths are anything but straight and direct. Right?

So one of our presenters, for instance, spent some time as a high fashion model, spent time in Paris as a model-- not something you necessarily think of when you learn that someone has a PhD in psychology. Somebody else, Joe Gone, hopped through a couple of different institutions before he finally found a home where he wanted to study.

So for me, a part of the joy of that podcast is really to dig in to say how did you become the you that you now are? And then also just a great opportunity for me, the philosopher, to say, so how do you understand the ethical implications of your scientific research?

TIM NELSON: And of course, I want to ask real quick-- we've got about 30 seconds here-- what's next year's conference going to be on?

LISA HELDKE: Insects, Little Body, Big Impact. And we're really excited about that one. And by the way, there will be a Nobel Laureate, Michael Young, who received the PhD in Physiology or Medicine for his work on circadian rhythms in fruit flies. Fruit flies, as I'm sure you know, Tim, are the most winningest Nobel Laureates ever. They've won it five times.

TIM NELSON: Fantastic. Lisa Heldke is a professor of philosophy and director of the Nobel Conference, Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter. More information on the conference can be found at gustavus.edu/event.

And later today on All Things Considered, we'll hear more about the conference from G. Nic Rider, a professor at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota.

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