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The Many Lives of Academic Dean Rosalyn Berne

Academic Dean Rosalyn Berne works in a common area aboard the MV Explorer.

Semester at Sea has a grand tradition of academic deans. Unfailingly, their bios tell the tale of an impressive and rich life in academia. On the surface, the Short Term 2012 Academic Dean Rosalyn Berne continues this trend, but as the saying goes about books and covers, the whole of Dean Berne is so much more. She is also Headmistress, Science Fiction Novelist, Scientist, Doctor and Horse Whisperer Berne.¬†Rosalyn Berne's diverse life and inherent pleasantness almost violently breaks down any assumptions. “I've lived a lot of lives,” she explains about her many passions.

The Academic

Berne has been affiliated with the University of Virginia one way or another since she earned her undergraduate degree there in the early 1970s. Currently, Berne is an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at U.Va. She holds a bachelor of arts in Speech Communication, a masters in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies/Bio Ethics. She has also been the assistant vice president for administration at U.Va, director of admissions at the U.Va Darden Graduate school of Business Administration and executive director of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at the Darden School. ¬†She is a thought leader in the field of Bio-Ethics, which explores the controversial¬†ethics¬†brought about by advances in¬†biology¬†and¬†medicine.¬†”Basically, do you want your child to be a robot?” she elegantly describes the questions she tackles.

Her Life at Sea

In our short few days with Berne she has rallied from an injury occurred after being thrown from a horse and led a ship-wide interactive, almost meditative, journey of the mind. Rosalyn Berne is not what you expect when you think of your average college administrator.

Prior to this voyage, Berne previously sailed as the executive dean for the 2011 Short Term Semester at Sea voyage. “What I really like about Semester at Sea is that students and faculty are willing to go to that place where you can really get a shift in consciousness. It's rich that way,” she explains. “It's a true academical village. You're all together and learning and creating this bond around a shared experience and it helps facilitate growth.”

The Headmistress

Before becoming a professor and college administrator she took a hiatus to become the headmistress at an alternative private school called Tandem Friends School. Influenced by Quaker values, Berne restructured the school to provide a stronger guiding message and philosophy. She designed the educational program to give students independence to create their own way to learn and it's clear in as she describes this time in her life that the effect she was able to achieve on these young people's lives was tremendous.

Her Role in Bio-Ethics

During her time at Tandem, Berne came upon the idea for her dissertation. She describes noticing that her students sometimes were depressed and seemed to carry the weight of the world in their young minds. “It seemed like we weren't listening to young people very deeply. And they were going through a lot. These are 16 and 17 year olds. Why is life so difficult and heavy? So I started listening.” Berne provided empathy when few others would and discovered an incredible quest for identity and purpose, “We do a lot of telling young people what to do, but we don't really help them find meaning. It turns out they make it up for themselves.”

Her dissertation evolved into the study of Bio-Ethics, a small and emerging field, but one that feels incredibly important in shaping the future of our world. “As we search for meaning about who we are, how does technology influence our sense of self and relationship to each other? We spend so much time staring at these boxes for entertainment. It's becoming an extension of ourselves,” she explains about her concerns regarding people's evolving relationships with technology before touching on topics like the implications of, for example, exo utero pregnancies and nanotechnology.

The Science Fiction Novelist

Berne continues to study and teach Bio-Ethics. She's spoken at conferences and written papers and non-fiction books on the subject. But Berne realized the most effective way for her to talk about these subjects was through science fiction. And being authentically unafraid and undaunted with the task of fitting several lifetimes worth of living into her own life, she became a novelist.

Her novel Waiting in the Silence, an exhaustively researched cautionary tale about the societal implications of the singularity between humans and technology, is set in both the past and the future on Massachusetts' Nantucket Island. As it turns out, not only is writing fiction a passion, but Berne is quite good at it. She received a one-sentence letter from a publisher the week before our voyage began offering her a contract to put her book into publication. Dean Berne will soon become a published science fiction novelist.

Berne's life is thus far is so varied and rich that it seems impossible she could have an entirely different aspect to herself. However, she does and it is quite possibly the most interesting part.

Short Term 2012 Academic Dean Rosalyn Berne

The Horse Whisperer

Two years ago, Berne was crossing a stream on horseback in Costa Rica. Her horse slipped and fell. As she tumbled off the saddle and into the stream she had a moment where she could sense what the horse was thinking. They weren't fully formed sentences, or even words, but the intent of his thought travelling from his brain to hers. He was embarrassed by his fall, shamed that he had let her down. She could even sense his anxieties about his training. Berne passed what she learned about the horse on to the stablehands. Skeptical at first, they were astonished by the specific and correct facts Berne was able to tell them about the horse.

Ever since, Berne has identified herself as a horse whisperer. She continues to communicate with horses, even becoming sought after by other stables. It's easy to be skeptical about something like this but coming so sincerely from this woman of academic rigor and science, it's hard not to believe her. The truth and conviction behind her statements is apparent as she speaks glowingly about how horses have different personalities, not so differently than humans. Which isn't even to mention the proof in the results she has been able to achieve. Berne explained a situation where her work ended up saving a horse's life when she served as a conduit to help with a dangerous equine pregnancy. “It turns out that the information I'm getting is really important for both the well being of the horse and the riders and the people that own them,” Berne explains. There's not even a hint of self-consciousness as she brushes off any criticism of her ability. “Some people think it's weird, but I'm just me,” she explains with a shrug and a smile.

What does the future hold?

In the future, Berne wants to continue to pursue many of these aspects of her life, especially novel writing, but for the time being she is very excited to be the academic dean for Short Term 2012. With a mind like Rosalyn Berne's shaping and guiding our voyage, we're incredibly excited about what the next few weeks hold.

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