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At Harvard, microbes by the mile

Posted: 26 Mar 2018 09:00 AM PDT

The expressions "Wash your hands" and "Home, sweet home" have more in common than you'd think. A whole universe more.

The value of using soap and clean, hot water to prevent the spread of disease-causing bacteria was discovered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harvard Medical School's eighth dean, and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian-born physician, more than a century ago.

But it was only in the last 15 years that scientists identified how our homes also contain a remarkable unseen realm, a moving, growing, thriving, changing, diverse microbial ecosystem that lives on our skin, in our bodies, and everywhere around us. Our homes are our "microbial castles."

We can't see this microscopic universe with the naked eye, or feel it on our skin. Though we may fear the very thought of these organisms, they essentially keep us and our world alive.

Two Harvard scientists are leading a mission to increase the understanding that microbes not only were the evolutionary engineers of life on this planet billions of years ago, but are still our allies today.

Roberto Kolter, professor of microbiology and immunobiology emeritus at HMS and director of Harvard's Microbial Sciences Initiative, and Scott Chimileski, a research fellow and microbiology photographer at the Medical School, teamed up to share discoveries from across the field in the new exhibition "Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight."

A community of cheese mites (Tyrophagus casei) grazing on fungi scamper across the rind of an aged cheddar cheese.

Video by Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter/Harvard Medical School

On display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through September 2019, "Microbial Life" demonstrates how this essential and powerful life force is responsible for helping all animals digest their food, maintaining the natural habitat, producing oxygen, and even fighting off dangerous pathogens.

"It is important to recognize that we are in the midst of a major change in world view. For nearly a century, we lived thinking that our relationships with microbes were largely antagonistic. Microbes were seen primarily as agents of disease," said Kolter. "Now we recognize that we live constantly surrounded by our own microbial cloud that is largely beneficial. We live every day as an ecosystem where microbes play a foundational role in keeping us healthy."

Every animal carries a unique collection of trillions of microbes. In the womb, humans are free of microbes. But during birth a baby is coated with them, and they immediately begin colonizing in his or her gut and on the skin. More are ingested through the mother's milk. Microbes continue to grow in the baby for one to two years, until they are fully established.

This timelapse shows a few days of growth in an incubator after making a handprint. Each colony that grows contains millions of individual bacteria and originated from invisible cells present on the hand.

Video by Scott Chimileski and Michael Baym/Harvard Medical School

People shed microbes from their skin and spray them when they speak. In nature and in buildings and even miles up in the atmosphere, these invisible clouds are everywhere.

"We know now that microbes make up most of the biodiversity on Earth, and control most of the essential processes upon which all life depends," said Chimileski, who travels around the world photographing microorganisms to understand and share their scientific relevance and who produced the images in the show.

Kolter and Chimileski refer to the realm of microbes as the "Earth's pulse."

"Your pulse is a good sign because it means you are alive. It's important to recognize the Earth's microbial pulse," Kolter said. "We are at a moment in history that we can think about how to maintain this life-sustaining vital sign, and connecting with it is easier than you think."

In fact, it can start right at home, where microbes are at work in every room.

Microbe factbox.

Source: Harvard Museum of Natural History

Graphic by Rebecca Coleman/Harvard Staff

In the kitchen, microbial ecosystems live on countertops, sponges, dishtowels, in sinks, on floors, in refrigerators, and on food. Bread, cheese, olives, beer, wine, coffee, chocolate, and yogurt are completed by microbes. Even rotting food, Kolter said, is nature's wonderful way of recycling organic matter.

"Most of the products in our kitchens, including what we eat, cook, enjoy, and even recycle has a microbial signature on it," he said. "Our home is dominated by microbial life, and it's because we seeded it there."

A full-scale model kitchen stands in the center of "Microbial Life," showing where microbes live and explaining how they operate. The interactive exhibit shares helpful hints and tips on everything from the often-disputed five-second rule of food hygiene, to fermentation, to the impact of chemical cleaners on both bad and good bacteria.

Outside the model kitchen, displays answer questions about pets, and provide information about what lurks on computer keyboards and toilet seats. A 5-foot-high mud microcosm containing growing microbial colonies is on display, along with stunning images of microbes that blend Chimileski's innovative art with science.

Winogradsky column.

Colorful patterns develop within the mud microcosm as colonies of various microbial species interact with one another.

Image by Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter/Harvard Medical School

Roberto Kolter, (from left) Jane Pickering, executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC) and Scott Chimileski.

Jane Pickering, executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, eyes the exhibit's 5-foot-high mud microcosm containing growing microbial colonies with Roberto Kolter (left) and Scott Chimileski.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard's efforts to share the cutting-edge science with the public is exciting for Harvard Museums of Science & Culture Director Jane Pickering.

"As we realize the importance of microbial life to our own lives and the life of the planet, the exhibit is a wonderful bridge between Harvard bench scientists who are actively studying microbial life, and the wider community who will be positively impacted by the amazing discoveries being made in our labs," she said. "Two of the most significant aspects of the exhibit are the regular demonstrations in the gallery by microbial scientists, and the conversations visitors can have with the researchers in this field."

Postdoctoral researcher Lori Shapiro is part of this volunteer team of scientists, organized through a collaboration between the museum's education department and Harvard's Microbial Sciences Initiative. "It is especially rewarding to engage visitors with concrete and relatable examples of microbial diversity, like soil and food microbes," she said.

Roody Herold of Brockton and his two sons, ages 9 and 12, recently watched a demonstration showing microbes in the process of fermenting tea to make kombucha.

"It's fun to see the science behind everyday things, like how long it takes for bacteria to multiply in tea, or in your kitchen on your wet sponge, and take over," Herold said. "This is my first time seeing microbes in depth, and when you look at them in their complex form, they look like art. It's fascinating."

Kolter and Chimileski, who guest-curated the exhibition, agree that the invention of the microscope and the discovery of microbes in the late 1600s both amazed and baffled scientists. Today's modern genomic-sequencing techniques, and initiatives such as the Sloan Foundation's MoBE (microbiology of the built environment), are continuing to change the course of scientific discovery.

Averie St. Germaine, a University of Massachusetts sophomore studying biology, said the exhibit gave her a better understanding of microbes' deep relevance.

"Nobody ever thinks about all the good stuff these tiny guys do, or considers microbial evolution and the impact these lifeforms play on all things," she said.

The goal, Chimileski said, is to continue to learn how to comfortably coexist with these ecosystems.

"That's what is making the microbial world so exciting," Kolter said. "It's really a universe to be discovered."

"Microbial Life: A Universe at the Edge of Sight" is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through Sept. 2, 2019.

 The book "Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World," by Scott Chimileski and Roberto Kolter, chronicles the history and significance of microbes through remarkable photographs of bacteria, archaea, fungi, and other microscopic life forms.

 

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Harvard program, students grapple with problems facing tribal communities

Posted: 26 Mar 2018 09:00 AM PDT

When Brandon Stephens and Jennifer Lowell '19 traveled north to visit Presque Isle, Maine, they were struck by the cold and isolation that envelop the small Native American community there.

With 1,250 members, nearly 80 percent of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs live in poverty, and 90 percent are unemployed. Yet they have hope. On a winter morning, a dozen tribal officials met with Stephens and Lowell at the community center to talk about their wishes for a better future.

Stephens and Lowell are among 24 students taking "Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II," a class that pairs students with indigenous and tribal organizations to work on projects requested by the communities.

In the past, tribes have sought assistance drafting businesses plans and models of sustainable economic development, creating initiatives to preserve their languages, or designing educational curricula and health and social welfare programs. The Micmacs wanted help with two projects they see as key to their well-being: a blueprint to improve their operations management, and a plan to start a solar farm.

For Stephens and Lowell, the meeting with the tribal leaders was more than homework.

"It's a huge change of pace from the typical College class," said Lowell, a premed student with a double concentration in classics and philosophy. "I love all my courses, but I feel honored to be doing a project out in the world that could change people's lives."

Over the past eight years, students have worked on more than 90 projects addressing topics from economic development to health and social welfare to land and water rights. Some projects have been brought to life by the communities themselves, such as a daycare center managed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, a school health program that benefits young Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux in Poplar, Mont., and a school program for gifted indigenous youth in Ontario, Canada.

The students take the class during the January term. First they become familiar with the inequities in economic development, education, health outcomes, and other factors that make Native Americans likelier to experience poverty and unemployment than other Americans. In the spring, the students get hands-on experience by visiting communities that have asked the Harvard University Native American Program for help with their projects.

For Stephens, who is pursuing a mid-career master's degree in public administration at the Kennedy School of Government and is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Indiana, the course is a chance to improve the lot of communities that have long been exploited and forgotten.

"In the past, people would tell Indian tribes how to govern themselves in exchange for funding aid," said Stephens, who works as development director for the United South and Eastern Tribes, which includes 27 federally recognized tribes.

"Instead, with this course, we want to help tribal nations build their capabilities to govern themselves," he said.

The course is offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and is taught by Dennis Norman, chair of the Native American Program. Each year, tribal and indigenous organizations submit their project proposals to the program. Students conduct research, identify resources to help execute the projects, and prepare professional final reports. Throughout, they respect the tribes' rights to self-governance and sovereignty.

"It makes a huge difference for the communities, because the history of universities working with native communities is one of exploitation," said Norman said. "It used to be people doing their dissertations or writing papers for their careers, but not giving anything back to the community."

This semester, some projects are taking students to Phoenix to work with the White Mountain Apache Tribe developing business plans for a museum store, and to Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M., to design policies and infrastructure to create higher learning opportunities for young tribe members. Students also travel abroad to work with indigenous communities.

The Native American Program funds the students' travels through its budget and donations. A $2,000 gift from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, southwest of Minneapolis, helped pay for Stephens and Lowell's trip to Maine.

Stephens and Lowell both said they were impressed by the resourcefulness and candor of the tribal leaders who told them of their challenges, frustrations, and hopes. The two projects, Micmac officials wrote in their proposal, represent an opportunity for their community to overcome the "historic poverty it has endured for many generations."

While Stephens and Lowell know that turning people's lives around is a formidable task, they're confident they can make a lasting contribution.

"We're not going to change generation upon generation of historic trauma and disparities with a semester-long project," said Stephens, "but we're hopeful we can give them a roadmap to start dealing with some of the problems they face."

"We want to build on what they already done with their ingenuity," said Lowell.

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The personal dimension of Harvard financial aid

Posted: 25 Mar 2018 03:00 PM PDT

Since the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) launched in 2005, the College has awarded more than $1.8 billion in need-based grants, making a Harvard education available to all admitted students regardless of financial circumstances. While that's a striking statistic, the stories shared by the students behind the stats are even more impressive.

For Waltham native Haley Catherine Curtin '18, acceptance into Harvard College was a lifelong dream. Her father used to take her to the Hockey East Tournament when she was a child. She recalls him teasing her one year as they watched the Harvard women's hockey team compete.

"Which team am I going to be watching you play for?" he said.

Curtin did not hesitate. "Harvard, obviously!"

"Getting in is not as simple as my first-grade self thought it was," Curtin, who now participates in Harvard Club Hockey, said with a laugh. "But I kept it as my goal, and in high school I was motivated."

While Curtin was pressed in high school to work hard, study, and focus on getting into Harvard, no one, including her counselors, ever talked about college affordability or financial aid opportunities. It was only after she applied that she learned about Harvard's generous need-based financial aid program.

"As seniors we were never expected or encouraged to think about the cost of a higher education, and in retrospect, that is something of a missed opportunity," she said. "Harvard is so unique in providing the financial aid that it does, but we need to further open up the doors to have the important conversation about how much a college education costs."

At Harvard, more than half of students receive financial aid, and for 70 percent of supported students, the grant covers the full cost of tuition. For the 2018‒2019 academic year, the cost to attend the College will be $67,580, including $46,340 for tuition, a 3 percent increase from 2017‒2018, maintaining Harvard's standing as one of the least expensive schools in the Ivy League. Harvard continues to meet the full need for undergraduates and expects that it will spend more than $195 million on aid next year. Need-based scholarship aid has increased by 80 percent over the past decade, reinforcing Harvard's commitment to affordable education.

"Harvard's industry-leading financial aid program makes it possible for admitted students from across the globe to take full advantage of the vast array of academic and extracurricular opportunities here on campus," said Sally C. Donahue, Griffin Director of Financial Aid for Harvard College. "Keeping our doors open to all talented students, regardless of their economic backgrounds, is the foundation of Harvard's excellence."

The majority of undergrads receiving financial aid pay just 10 percent of the family's annual income, with the average net cost to parents about $12,000 a year. One in five Harvard undergraduates comes from a family earning less than $65,000 a year, and their families pay nothing toward the cost of their education.

These students also receive a $2,000 start-up grant that helps with move-in costs and other expenses related to the College transition. Since the start-up program launched in 2016, Harvard has awarded nearly $690,000 in grants. The funding can be used in a number of different ways, including for book and computer purchases and setting up dorm rooms.

Harvard's far-reaching commitment to ensuring that all students can take full advantage of their College experience includes more than $6 million in additional funding annually to financial-aid students, supporting everything from new winter coats to music lessons to studying abroad to public service internships to research experiences in a lab.

Curtin, a religion concentrator, has made the most of her experience at Harvard. She spent a year working for Nazareth Farm, a Catholic community in rural West Virginia that transforms lives through a service-retreat experience. There, she spent her time helping raise crops, talking to neighbors about food sustainability, and addressing substandard housing by helping with repairs. After graduation she'll join AmeriCorps, with a post at a high school in South Dakota.

While her time at Harvard has been thoroughly enriched by academics and sports, it's been equally affected by financial aid — and the office charged with providing it.

"A huge part of my experience at Harvard has been the strong relationship I have built with my financial aid officer," said Curtin. "We are on a first-name basis — and they have been there through it all. The personal dimension of my financial aid experience is the biggest impact and something I am super grateful for."

 

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