- Harvard conference probes possible paths to gender equality
- Harvard library displays historic documents of freedom
- New Yorker’s Alex Ross speaks at Harvard on Wagner and Nazism
- Bridging research between stem cell biology and health disparities
- Scientists mentor local teens in space research at CfA
- Provost Garber discusses efforts to deepen community in neuroscience
Posted: 23 Apr 2018 02:15 PM PDT
The problem is obvious: The U.S. lags far behind other countries in terms of maternal and parental leave. But the remedies are complex.
No single evidence-based solution presented itself as the "Gender Equality: It's About Time" conference on Friday turned toward public policy. However, on the second day of a two-day conference presented by the Weatherhead Initiative on Gender Inequality, a number of intriguing suggestions were raised, all posing possible ways forward.
Bringing together scholars from Europe as well as the U.S., the conference focused on different national contexts and state policies, with the goal of comparing methods and results.
As conference organizer and initiative co-director Mary Brinton, Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology, noted beforehand, maternal or parental leave is key to solving gender inequality: "There's a well-established wage penalty that women face when they become mothers, or they are more or less forced out of the workplace because they can't convert their jobs to a part-time job. What are the possibilities and how can we think about pushing the implementation of policies at the level of the workplace that lessen gender inequality?"
To open the discussion, Monika Queisser, head of the division for social policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in France, spoke about parental leave policies in OECD countries. Outlining the stark comparison between most of Europe, where leave is measured in months, and the U.S., where only five states have mandated leave to supplement temporary disability insurance and the Family Medical Leave Act, Queisser discussed the implications of that predicament. While the effects on the parents — and on a nation's overall labor participation — may be obvious, study has now progressed to the implications on the well-being of children, said Queisser.
"We need to think about child development and the way nations think about their children," she said, noting that children benefit when their mothers have less stress and more financial stability. "We would argue that it is not acceptable for nations not to think of children as their responsibility."
Maya Rossin-Slater, assistant professor of health research at Stanford University School of Medicine, looked at existing policies in the U.S. Because of restrictions on the Family Medical Leave Act, she said, many private-sector employees aren't covered. Therefore, many single mothers and those in otherwise financially challenged situations cannot afford to take leave.
In states where paid leave is mandated, such as California, the rate of leave-taking is doubled for mothers with infants under the age of 1, from three weeks on average to six weeks, with the largest estimated effects for economically disadvantaged families. For mothers, she continued, this means a higher employment rate nine to 12 months after childbirth and more work hours and higher wages in the child's second year.
Rossin-Slater compared these policies to Norway's, where paid maternity leave was introduced in 1979, resulting in improved outcomes for children. The largest implications were for the least advantaged children, a result that she concluded has "the most implications for the U.S. as we consider such policies."
Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, discussed the differences between the European and U.S. markets. "If we were to put in a six-month parental leave policy here, we don't have a clue what would happen," he said. "We need to be careful."
For example, he said, in Europe and Asia, increased fertility is a major goal since birth rates decline and can threaten national productivity. In the U.S., fertility is not an issue, although basic concerns of gender equity, family well-being, and child and maternal health are.
This has implications as the country wrestles with the costs of new policies and fiscal responsibility. Ruhm said that the current U.S. political climate has resulted in some odd dichotomies. For example, although business coalitions tend to fight the idea of paid leave, studies show that individual employers actually favor it. "People like these policies," he said. "They think they're important, and they might be willing to pay for them."
In a Q&A session led by Claudia Olivetti, economics professor at Boston College, more unexpected results were discussed. For academics, prolonging the "tenure clock," for example, was first introduced as a parental benefit to allow additional time for childcare and bonding. The benefit has been most often utilized by women. However, as men increasingly take advantage of this extra time, ostensibly for parenting, their productivity has increased. "Men are publishing more," said Rossin-Slater. "While the women are actually taking that extra year for childcare, they are being judged against the standards of men — so the gender-equality policy backfires."
Noting the "complexity of these issues and how they interact," Olivetti concluded: "It's about time to talk about this."
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Posted: 23 Apr 2018 02:00 PM PDT
Drafted and signed more than 150 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves held in Confederate states free, and made their liberty central to the Civil War's goals. President Abraham Lincoln, who authored and signed the Proclamation in 1863, called it "an act of justice."
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 formally outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in all states, ending a shameful period with which America has yet to fully reckon.
Both of these historic treasures, along with a handwritten notecard from Frederick Douglass, the famed 19th-century abolitionist and orator, were on display at Harvard Business School's (HBS) Baker Library late last week, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous HBS alumnus. The documents were on campus briefly as part of "Agents of Change," the library's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African-American Student Union at HBS and a related conference.
The student union was formed by four African-American M.B.A. students, including the first woman to graduate from the two-year M.B.A. program, at the height of social and political turmoil in America. The organizers pushed administrators for a number of changes to the Business School curriculum, climate, and culture, including a demand for more black faculty and expanded African-American student enrollment in the M.B.A. program; courses that focused on non-white business topics, such as black entrepreneurship; and greater financial assistance to black students.
The library exhibit also highlights the important scholarship and thought leadership on race and business by HBS' African-American faculty and alumni as "agents of change" since the early 20th century.
Posted: 23 Apr 2018 01:40 PM PDT
Can you love the art but hate the artist? That vexing question, a thorn in the side of critics and connoisseurs for generations, has resurfaced repeatedly in recent months in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross '90 waded into the discussion on Thursday at Harvard's Paine Hall, an airy performance space where a frieze spells out the names of some history's most revered men of music. Delivering the Music Department's 2018 Louis C. Elson Lecture, Ross homed in on one of those men, German composer Richard Wagner, a titan of 19th-century culture whose creative genius has long been complicated, and often overshadowed, by his anti-Semitism.
For 10 years, Ross has been at work on "Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music," a book that explores the composer's influence on artistic, intellectual, and political life.
"It's a massive subject because Wagner may be, for better or worse, the most widely influential figure in the history of music," said Ross, who counts Baudelaire, Du Bois, Eliot, Kandinsky, and Mann among the artists and writers who fell under the composer's spell.
"Wagnerian" has become a synonym for "grandiose, bombastic, overbearing, or simply very long," added Ross, noting that the term has been applied to everything from monsoons to "Fight Club" to "the tantrums of Tennessee Williams, according to Tennessee Williams himself."
"Yet of the various Wagnerisms, the one with which most people are familiar is the Nazi version," said Ross, referring to Hitler's embrace of the composer's work.
If that idea is indisputable, Ross thinks it is less clear whether Wagner's anti-Semitism laid the foundation for Hitler's hate. He also questioned the depth of Wagner's presence in Nazi culture.
Hitler was introduced to Wagner early in his life, but his radicalism didn't begin to take shape until years later, during his service as a German soldier in World War I. And though his rhetoric may have echoed Wagnerian ideas, there's little evidence that the Nazi leader "absorbed Wagner's more challenging themes," said Ross, who sees the composer's political influence as "greatly overstated."
Instead of dwelling on this disconnect, the author is most interested in "how the cult of art resonates into our own time and how we might learn from its persistence."
The prevalence of Wagner's music in popular culture, including its use in films such as the racist epic "Birth of a Nation" and the Vietnam saga "Apocalypse Now," has "a jolting effect," said Ross, and makes us "think about the ways in which the darker side of the American genius employs its own art, a cult of popular art, to exercise its power."
The reality of Wagner's ugly political views means he can no longer be idealized, said Ross. Yet, "to equate him with Hitler ignores the complexity of his achievement and in the end does little more than grant Hitler a posthumous victory. The necessary ambivalence of Wagnerism today can play a constructive role: It can teach us to be generally more honest about the role that art plays in the world.
"In Wagner's vicinity, we cannot claim to fantasies of the pure, autonomous work of art. We cannot forget how art unfolds in time and unravels in history. And so Wagner is liberated from the mystification of great art. He becomes something more unstable, perishable, and mutable. Incomplete in himself, he requires the most active and critical kind of listening."
One audience member wondered how Ross can continue to enjoy the composer's work in light of his anti-Semitism. Ross said he is haunted by the same question "every time I see Wagner."
Whether it's a "Heil" heard onstage or some particularly disturbing language in a libretto, all of Wagner's operas contain a moment that "jolts me out of whatever kind of dreamlike immersion in the drama and the music I have achieved."
Even so, while it may be a loss not to be able to experience Wagner today as a 19th-century listener did — with a "kind of total bewitchment" — current and future generations have a chance to approach the music with a deeper, more nuanced understanding, Ross said.
"I think this disturbing kind of intervention of reality and history might make for almost a deeper experience, certainly a more complex one. And so we shift from a kind of adoration and immersion to an experience that has this critical dimension to it. So we are always aware, we are always a little wary of Wagner. We should be."
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Posted: 23 Apr 2018 01:00 PM PDT
This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard's stellar graduates.
Tania Fabo '18 started at Harvard University with clear scientific goals: pre-med with a focus on stem cell and cancer biology. Then, along the way, she discovered public health and sociology. Each one of these fields gave Fabo a different tool for investigating a burning question: Why should health outcomes in the United States be any different for racial minorities than for majority groups?
Now, as a graduate in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (HDRB) and a 2018 Rhodes Scholar, Fabo will take all her diverse expertise to the University of Oxford.
Potential and possibility
Since arriving at Harvard, Fabo has felt at home in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology with the HDRB concentration.
"I related to stem cells, and the idea of open potential," she said.
Fabo's family story echoes the nature of stem cells.
Unlike the specialized skin cells on the surface of your hand, for example, which never become another type of cell, stem cells have the potential to renew themselves and generate specialized cells found in the tissues of our body. It is the potential of different types of stem cells that allows tissues to grow and repair themselves. Stem cells are giving scientists radically new ways of understanding biology and medicine, and new approaches to treating disease.
Fabo's parents, originally from Cameroon, immigrated to Massachusetts by way of Germany when she was 7 years old.
"My parents sacrificed everything to come to the U.S.," she said. "They did it for me and my siblings, and for our ability to see any future for ourselves that we could imagine. Going to Harvard, a top-notch institution, meant having all those doors open."
Downside of a powerful cell
Fabo found herself knocking at the door to cancer stem cell biology, completing her senior research thesis in the laboratory of Leonard Zon, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard, and Grousbeck Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital.
"The negative side of stem cell potential is that it can be co-opted by cancers to cause more damage," explained Fabo. "I'm interested in the idea that cancer 'stem-ness' is related to more aggressive cancers."
"Tania is an extremely dedicated scientist," said Zon. "She will be a force for change in medicine in the future."
Fabo began her undergraduate studies with a focused interest in biology. But a sociology course — a pre-med elective — in her junior year was the catalyst that changed her direction and career goals. In that course, Fabo learned that minority groups face inequalities in the incidence, treatment, and outcomes of many diseases.
For example, black women are affected disproportionately by breast cancer. In a study published in 2017, American Cancer Society researchers found that the death rate from breast cancer in 2015 in the U.S. was 39 percent higher in black women compared to white women.
"I was shocked that I didn't know anything about this, especially as a black woman," Fabo said. "I was frustrated that my education hadn't taught me about the disparate health outcomes that people like me are suffering from."
"Black Health Matters"
It was Fabo who organized the first Black Health Matters Conference at Harvard.
"I wanted to give others like me, who don't know a lot about health disparities, the opportunity to learn about the issues," she said.
Over a few short months, Fabo and a group of fellow undergraduate black women planned and held the conference. They identified relevant discussion topics, ranging from reproductive health to health care in prisons. They reached out nationally to panelists and speakers and got them to participate. To make it happen, they gathered financing from groups both at Harvard and across the Boston area, ultimately delivering a conference of international importance.
The Black Health Matters conference attracted the attention of students and professionals across the country — well beyond its original scope. Students who participated wanted to learn about health disparities, and professionals working in the field delved into the history of racism behind the inequalities.
"It was incredible to see the diversity of perspectives that exist," Fabo said.
"Public health is a social movement, and students have always played a special role in social movements," said Michelle A. Williams, dean of faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a keynote speaker at the conference.
"I applaud the initiative that Tania and her fellow students took to organize the Black Health Matters conference," Williams said. "It was a great example of the role students, particularly those whose voices and ideas have been underrepresented, can play in reducing racial disparities."
Building bridges: From research to care
Fabo's ambition is to bridge the gap between biomedical research in the laboratory and public health efforts to reduce care inequalities.
"I want to reconcile my desire to go into the sciences with my desire to help communities that are disproportionately suffering from disease," she said.
At Oxford, Fabo plans to study how race-based social policies might influence disease incidence. She will also try to unpick the biological mechanisms that might act as an intermediary between social policies and disparate health outcomes. For example, researchers have found that cancer outcomes can be affected by environmental stressors — perhaps those experienced by different racial groups.
At home in science
Fabo came to Harvard to study biology and medicine. She leaves having accomplished that and more:
"When I came to Harvard, I saw this diversity of academically excellent black people," she said. "Since I was the only black person in my science classes in high school, it was a beautiful thing to be introduced to for the first time. Because of my experience, I am comfortable being a black woman in science."
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Posted: 23 Apr 2018 12:48 PM PDT
Twice a week, 10 high school students come to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) for four hours of serious science research that takes them to the outer limits.
With space exploration reaching ever farther frontiers and space tourism attracting increasing attention from investors, these talented teens from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) are witnessing a shift in how science is taught — and much of that is due to the CfA's Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP).
"The root mission of the Science Research Mentoring Program is to provide high school students with real-life research experience, coupled with mentoring by a living scientist," said Or Graur, who started the program in September 2017 and is now its director.
"The students get to work on real data using actual astronomical, mathematical, and statistical techniques. That shows them that they can do the work — it's not rocket science," said Graur, a National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the CfA and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "The program shows them that science is not a distant, impossible profession for them."
From September through May, the students work on independent projects, discovering new ways of learning, researching solutions, designing codes, and unraveling methods to understand and analyze data while examining theories based on scientific findings.
"So far, students have worked on observations of supernovae and planets outside our own Solar System, simulated dynamics around massive black holes, and applied advanced machine-learning techniques to improve the targeting algorithms of an upcoming galaxy survey," Graur said.
Has that made them feel that they're ahead of their high school classmates?
"To put it bluntly, yes, most definitely," said Hansen. "This program provides the bridge between theory and experimentation."
Hansen described his project as "analyzing a white dwarf star (WD 1145+017) in the Virgo constellation about 570 light-years from Earth" — or about 3.35 quadrillion miles away. The idea and the outline for the project came from CfA Hubble Fellow George Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher who is working with the teenagers.
"The idea is based around George's current research, and our work is a method of both teaching us and, in a way, helping George to progress further in his own work," Hansen said. Of special benefit to him and his classmates, he said, has been learning to apply computer programming to real-world research.
Graur said he had worried that, "When you do astronomy, day in and day out, it's easy to become inured to its majesty and charm," but Hansen said that despite the volume of concentrated data and the patience required to work through the researchers' findings, there are plenty of high points to offset the routine.
"Every day has been an adventure," he said. "Every time my code has been successful — such as successfully producing a flux plot — has been a highlight. Getting the opportunity to work with amazing researchers at the CfA has been a highlight as well."
Sonnert's part of the work involves "looking for transiting debris disks." That may not match the grandeur of Graur's description, but it has thoroughly engaged Sonnert.
Debris disks are collections of dust and debris that orbit a star, and can block some of their light when passing in front. Sonnert said she combs through huge amounts of data searching for the disks; her results, she said, will help scientists determine how common, or how rare, debris disks are.
While Sonnert has yet had no tangible find, Zhou said her work is distinctly not kid stuff. It can take four hours to track an object's transit, he pointed out.
Comets can be small objects, too hard to detect. Perhaps it's like looking at a firefly in the vast light, Zhou explained in his analogy.
The students have the use of the Clay Telescope on the roof of the Science Center, where data can be collected. They are also provided laptops, on which they do the majority of their work.
Sonnert had to learn how to code in Python to search for the debris disks, and with it she has tallied the number of stars recorded: "I was able to see 66,000 stars," she said. Athanasopoulos, too, had to learn the programming language, and said that has been the most challenging aspect of the mentoring program.
"I had had very little experience beforehand and I had to pick it up fairly quickly," she said.
Athanasopoulos' part of the work focused on "taking data from a binary star system and making/analyzing graphs of elemental lines" in order to create accurate graphs, which would help support previous findings.
She said she would recommend the mentoring program "to any student who is motivated."
"I enjoy science a lot; however, classes at our high school tend to not be too difficult," she said. "Being submersed in a work environment where I have to learn for myself on topics I am not very familiar with is much harder."
Graur said the program could benefit even students with less motivation.
"Most Americans cannot name a living scientist. Moreover, scientists' portrayal in the media is usually biased toward caricatures, such as those on the 'Big Bang Theory,'" he said. "This turns students, especially women and people of color, away from academia. So it's important for teenagers to meet — and work with — actual, living scientists."
That connection is part of his mandate as an NSF Fellow, for whom the job description includes devoting some time to education and outreach. Graur worked with CRLS astronomy teacher Tal SebellShavit to interview potential students and select the 10 who were accepted, each of whom receives a $1,500 stipend from the city of Cambridge.
Graur said in addition to benefiting the CfA and the students, "For Harvard, this is a way to give back to Cambridge.
"I definitely see this as an ongoing program. My long-term goal is to expand [it] beyond astrophysics," he said. "We like to say that astrophysics is a gateway science — it's easy to get students excited about it.
“But for the program to truly keep going … we need a stable source of funding," Graur explained, adding that the program has received assistance from Harvard, the CfA and its Wolbach Library, the city of Cambridge, members of Rotary Cambridge, and private individuals.
Hansen, Sonnert, and Athanasopoulos will present their projects on May 25, along with their classmates. The other projects are:
Zoe Padilla and Nick Gottschlich Hawthorne — Measuring the light curves (brightness as a function of time) of nearby, very bright supernovae in order to study their explosion mechanisms.
David Inho Lee and Mohammed Shafim — Developing a machine-learning tool to automatically reject artificial contaminants in the upcoming Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument suvey.
William Daniels — Simulating the effects of a black hole on binary and higher-order star systems.
Vanessa Marques Pineda and Cristian Jurado — Digging for hypervelocity stars in astronomical databases.
Applications to be part of next year's SRMP mentoring program are available online and must be submitted by 5 p.m. on May 11 deadline. For more information, contact Or Graur at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Posted: 23 Apr 2018 12:45 PM PDT
The Harvard Provost's Office hosted a symposium last month on neuroscience as part of an effort to create a greater sense of community among faculty members from diverse Schools and affiliated institutions, and let them hear about work that might complement their own.
Provost Alan Garber said that the event, the first of several on life science topics, provided a compelling view of the work on neuroscience happening at Harvard and was well-attended despite the nor'easter that was blowing outside.
Garber, an authority on health care policy who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. in economics, sat down with the Gazette to talk about the symposium, Harvard's evolving scientific landscape, and what broad scientific trends he sees.
GAZETTE: Your office recently sponsored a symposium on neuroscience at Harvard. What was the purpose of that meeting, and who attended?
GARBER: About three years ago we organized a major, University-wide review of the life sciences. That review focused on the laboratory-based life sciences activities of three Schools: FAS [the Faculty of Arts and Sciences], Harvard Medical School (HMS), and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The reviewers, a distinguished group of scientists from outside Harvard, recommended that we create a committee that would help to foster coordination across the University in the life sciences. That committee, which is now called the Life Sciences Steering Committee, suggested that we convene a series of symposia to help create a greater sense of community.
"The Provost's Faculty Symposium: Insights in Neuroscience at Harvard" is the first such event. Neuroscience is truly a University-wide activity. Teaching and research in neuroscience take place in many locations. Our community is spread across hospitals, including Brigham and Woman's Hospital, [Boston] Children's Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. And they're spread across Harvard Medical School and FAS and the [John A. Paulson] School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. At least 100 Harvard faculty members could be identified as primarily neuroscience faculty. Many more faculty, students, and other members of our community have a strong interest in the topic.
With so much activity and researchers spread across so many locations, it isn't easy to keep up with what's going on. We hoped that the symposium would bring together people who don't see each other every day, enabling them to hear about some of the exciting research their colleagues are doing. The Life Sciences Steering Committee was enthusiastic about the topic and so were leaders of neuroscience at Harvard. The attendance at the meeting proved that the enthusiasm was widely shared.
GAZETTE: Was there an overriding message that you hoped participants left with?
GARBER: First of all, we wanted to communicate the sense of excitement about neuroscience at Harvard and to expose attendees to work at the frontiers. It was a complete success from that perspective. We also wanted to give an opportunity for people united by related intellectual interests simply to connect — to strengthen the sense of community. Everyone I heard from told me that they learned a great deal and were excited to see other researchers, some of whom they were meeting for the first time. I believe that they felt proud about the quality of the work that their colleagues do. And I think people also came away inspired about the kinds of problems that they might work on going forward.
GAZETTE: What is the state of neuroscience at Harvard today? What did you hear from the speakers there?
GARBER: You can't help but think that this is an extraordinarily exciting time for neuroscience. The presentations and discussions made it seem as though recent scientific advances, along with increasingly powerful research tools, will drive even more rapid progress in the coming years. It isn't hard to imagine that in 10 or 15 years we'll have a very different understanding of how the mind works.
Imaging was taken up as a topic by both the morning and afternoon keynote speakers, who are pioneers in the field. In the morning, Bruce Rosen [the Laurence Lamsen Robbins Professor of Radiology at HMS and MGH] spoke about cutting-edge advances in imaging the human brain. In the afternoon, Xiaowei Zhuang [the David B. Arnold Jr. Professor of Science] described groundbreaking advances in imaging at the nanoscale. What they've been able to visualize seems almost unimaginable. I'm sure that many people in the audience were thinking about how they could incorporate these advances in their own work.
GAZETTE: How does neuroscience fit into the larger science scene here at the University?
GARBER: Neuroscience itself is defined more by a series of questions to be answered than by a specific disciplinary approach or methodology. In fact, neuroscience brings together people with training in many different disciplines. They include physics, chemistry, statistics, computer science, psychology, economics, molecular and cell biology, regenerative medicine — the list goes on and on. The diversity of tools and perspectives is part of its appeal. It is fundamentally integrative.
GAZETTE: So is it representative of the larger science endeavor here at Harvard because it encompasses so much of it?
GARBER: I think that neuroscience as a field has been at the vanguard of bringing together scientists with different disciplinary training. That is a trend that is occurring throughout the sciences at Harvard.
GAZETTE: How important is regional collaboration and work between institutions?
GARBER: Harvard is blessed not only with an incredible scientific community, but also by its proximity to great academic institutions with complementary expertise, as well as related industries and an intellectually and economically vibrant region in Massachusetts.
For example, the Broad Institute [of MIT and Harvard] and the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and Harvard are very successful collaborative ventures, as is the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, in which our partners include BU [Boston University], MIT, Tufts [University], and Harvard-affiliated hospitals. Our affiliated hospitals are themselves research powerhouses.
And, in the area of education, we have edX [the online course platform led by Harvard and MIT that includes partnerships with dozens of other universities]. Many, many more collaborations are directly between faculty across institutions.
GAZETTE: What's the role of the Life Science Strategy Group?
GARBER: It is a committee that includes representation from MIT, the University of Massachusetts, venture capital, industry, the governor's office, and the attorney general's office. It has been tasked with thinking about what steps we need to take today, as a region, to ensure that the life sciences will remain vibrant, healthy, and a magnet for students, researchers, and life sciences businesses in the decades to come.
GAZETTE: Is that a relatively easy task, give our strength here already, or is it something we need to remain vigilant about because other regions would love to knock us off our perch?
GARBER: If you start with the premise that the coming decades have the potential to be a golden era for the life sciences, then you have to ask, "How can we make sure that we remain a vital part of that future?"
We are not the only region asking that question. Many other parts of the world would like to build their capabilities in the life sciences and are making bold investments. Arguably nobody has the depth and breadth that our region has today in life sciences research, but that could change. We need to turn our size into a strength. We need to take better advantage of the range of talent and scope of activity that already exists in Massachusetts. Each of these institutions has something to offer. We need to recognize that we are more successful when we work together. This committee is trying to turn that recognition into specific initiatives.
GAZETTE: What areas of science do you see as most ripe for growth or breakthroughs?
GARBER: That's a really tough one. If you look across the University, it's hard to identify areas of science that are not ripe for growth or breakthroughs. Advances have been widespread. I don't think Harvard is afflicted by stagnation in its scientific endeavors.
GAZETTE: Why is that the case? Is it because data science and new technologies allow us to look at things in new ways? Is it because of things like government funding — though on-again, off-again — are bearing fruit?" Or is it just the way it is during this particular period, that we're capturing lightning in a bottle?
GARBER: The impression I have is that that today, advances in one area are picked up in other areas more quickly than was true in the past.
A lot of the progress is driven by the availability of better data, and much more of it. But all that information does little good if you can't use it effectively. That is why people speak about the importance of statistics, data science, machine learning, or AI [artificial intelligence] to the future of science. Advances in methods tend to go hand-in-hand with the availability of more extensive data. These advances place demands on data storage and computational power. There have been important developments in all these areas.
I believe that the growing connections between life sciences and the physical sciences and engineering will become even more pronounced in the future. Progress is being driven by the development of more powerful tools that often draw upon advances in multiple fields.
GAZETTE: If you could do your training all over again, what area of science would you go into?
GARBER: If you're a provost, it helps to be interested in pretty much every field. And the exposure a provost gets to the range of research at Harvard makes it all the harder to choose. Anyone who attended the symposium would have to agree that the future of neuroscience is bright and the problems it addresses are incredibly important. Neuroscience promises to reveal secrets about consciousness and how the mind works. It also has the potential to lead to breakthroughs in the management of some of the most devastating diseases we confront. So it would certainly be an appealing field to enter.
But I reserve judgment, since this is only the first symposium of this kind that we've held. If we're successful, the next topic will be just as exciting. And so will be the one after that. There is no shortage of great scientific challenges.
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