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The Harvard men’s basketball team gets an off-court education

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 09:18 AM PST

When Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker saw his team's schedule over the semester break and realized they had a day off in Atlanta, he quickly decided to make it count.

That's how, after a hard-fought win, Crimson basketball players found themselves shaking hands with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and touring some of Atlanta's historic Civil Rights sites, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. was co-pastor with his father.

The experience, while exciting and humbling for players, is part of a larger, more important effort by their coach to educate them beyond the basketball court.

"That's what it's all about," said Amaker, Harvard's winningest coach in program history. "It's more meaningful to call myself a teacher and a leader than a coach. I know 'coach' encompasses those things, but it's bigger than me coaching basketball. We're always trying to connect different pieces that can have our kids embrace different parts of the world or what's happening."

Layovers between away games provide an almost perfect opportunity for that.

"We are consistently trying to maximize any trip that we take," Amaker said. "Wherever we go, [we always think about] what are some of the things that we can do around the game, around our basketball responsibilities, that could be educational for players and our team."

Tommy Amaker.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

In Atlanta, that meant: attending Sunday service at Ebenezer, a National Historic Landmark; touring the gravesite of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change; and visiting Paschal's Restaurant, a key meeting place for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, who is an adviser to the team, organized the trip and acted as tour guide. His notes helped the players appreciate the visit and connect it with a bigger message, team members said.

"Knowing the history behind it all … and realizing what it meant for our country at the time" was one of the biggest takeaways, said captain Weisner Perez '19. "One thing that resonates with our team as I try to relate it all is the word sacrifice. To be there and to know how much these people sacrificed of their lives, of their time — time with their loved ones — to have an impact on our lives and our society today. I think with us as a team that's a word that coach has really told us about. You have to be able to sacrifice … and that's what those people did."

The lesson was fitting, because the team's theme for the year is sacrifice on and off the court, especially in how it's led to the opportunities many more people now have.

The team, Perez said, also appreciated the church's welcome to players of different religions, the beauty of the Kings' grave site, and the excitement of meeting a former president. Although not originally planned, the meeting with Carter came together smoothly a few weeks before the trip. Harvard Kennedy School Public Service Professor David Gergen, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership, helped organize the get-together when the team learned that Carter would attend the service at Ebenezer.

Jimmy Carter at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Harvard's men's basketball team visits The King Center in Atlanta.

Former President Jimmy Carter speaks during Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the team visits The King Center.

Photos by Rich von Biberstein

For Georgia native Robert Baker '20, the meeting was especially meaningful. "Being from Atlanta, meeting Jimmy Carter is a big deal," he said. Carter was governor of Georgia before becoming president, and his presidential library is in Atlanta. He has spent decades working with various charities, helping build bridges between people. "During the church service, the pastor actually talked about some of [Carter's] accomplishments, especially his impact on the black community, so that was great to hear, knowing that someone from my state did that and made such a great impression on this nation."

Baker also appreciated bonding with the team off the court.

"Probably 95 percent of the time when we are all together, all 20 of us, it's on the court, in the weight room, on the track, or something like that, so being outside in such a unique place like Ebenezer Baptist Church or Martin Luther King Jr.'s memorial site, it was very special — different," he said. "It was great to share some of the history of where I'm from with my teammates. It meant a lot to me."

That kind of experience plays right into Amaker's philosophy. He wants his players to be well-rounded and leave Harvard with experiences that bring them closer together while helping them branch out to understand the world.

"We try to have an impact with them to see how, with the educational opportunity they are getting from [Harvard], they can go and do some amazing things for themselves and for others," Amaker said.

It's why he has organized previous visits and is planning future ones. While in Memphis a few years ago, for instance, his team visited the National Civil Rights Museum. On an upcoming trip, he hopes to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Amaker also helps his players network with local and national leaders from the business, political, sports, and academic communities, whom he hopes help educate and inspire the team. In Atlanta, the players met NBA coach Mike Woodson. In the past, they have connected with influencers such as former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who spoke to them about issues of race, and Civil Rights activists including Harry Edwards, who talked about athlete activism. Amaker also invites his players to his monthly "Breakfast Club" gatherings, which can include guests such as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh or Harvard philosopher Cornel West.

Amaker believes that the Crimson's success on the court — he has lead the team to six Ivy League titles and four trips to the NCAA tournament — has come in part from helping his players become well-rounded citizens as well as student athletes.

"Those are the things that matter to me," he said. "That we can connect, broaden their horizons, educate, and teach our players — along with don't forget to box out and take a shot. If we continue to connect our players to the right people through Harvard, so many things are possible."

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Talking Patriots with Harvard political scientist and superfan Theda Skocpol

Posted: 17 Jan 2019 08:13 AM PST

This is the first in a series that explores how Harvard professors spend their down time.

The New England Patriots didn't have much chance of winning their playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday, many analysts said. But a group of supporters at Andy's Diner in Cambridge had all put their faith in the home team — and wrote their projected winning scores on a paper napkin the week before. The betting was hot, with a free breakfast on the line.

Among those diehard fans was Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol. For years, the Cambridge resident has been a regular at the diner, along with her husband, Bill, a physicist and Boston University professor emeritus. It was Bill who won a plate of raisin French toast and bacon Monday morning for his prediction of a 36‒14 Pats win, which came closest to the 41‒28 score.

Despite her losing bet (she had the Patriots at 21‒20), Skocpol was thrilled with the team's win. Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociologyat Harvard and the author of 21 books, and her professional passion is comparative and American politics and social policy. But her other passion is the gridiron.

Over coffee and a bagel at the diner, Skocpol explained how her love affair with football began 18 years ago when she was searching for a way to relate better to her then-teenage son, Michael. "I went out and bought a bunch of books, including 'Football for Dummies.' I didn't realize how intellectual this game is, as well as of course enjoyably physical," she said. "The gladiator part, I liked too."

Eventually, Michael protested that his mother's interest had become "too much," joked Bill, who sat across from his wife in a booth beneath a picture of former Patriot nose tackle Vince Wilfork. But Michael was too late. Skocpol was hooked.

Her son, now a clerk for Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, had unwittingly "created a monster," teased Jimmy Dres, who runs the old-school breakfast-and-lunch place just outside Porter Square. His restaurant is a gathering spot for a few early rising fans who love talking politics, life, and football with Dres and Kelly Butler Pinksen, longtime Andy's waitress and a Patriots convert.

Skocpol is no casual fan. "She breaks down the game as good as anybody," said Dres. "She sees it all."

Skocpol holds up the group's predictions for the New England Patriots game against the San Diego Chargers.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Last Sunday, the Harvard professor who's an expert at analyzing the American political landscape analyzed the game instead. She praised the blocking of Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski and reflected on his possible retirement. She said the playoff game hadn't been as close as the score, and credited the final Chargers touchdown to the skill of tight end Antonio Gates. Looking ahead, Skocpol said New England has a chance against Kansas City because Patriots head coach Bill Belichick "will come up with something that fits the circumstances."

Monday-morning quarterbacking at the diner is a weekly ritual for Skocpol when she's in town. Win or lose, she greets the diner's faithful at 6 a.m. sharp for breakfast and a game recap before work. If the Pats win, she wears her dark blue Tom Brady jersey — and keeps it on to teach her classes that day if it’s a playoff win.

Tom Cunningham, building manager at the Harvard University Press, first encountered Skocpol about 10 years ago when she corrected a statistic. "We were talking football, and she piped in, and that was it. A friendship was born," said Cunningham, who cheered for the Patriots even during their leaner, non-trophy years. "Theda's a bigger fan than I am," he said, "and I have been watching football for a lot longer."

Skocpol ventured to a game in Foxboro only once. After retiring as dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2007, she received tickets as a parting gift. Stuck in traffic on a cold and wintry day, she, her husband, and her son didn't arrive until halftime. For the remainder of the game, they were "sitting in icy water."

"I decided after that I'm for TV," she recalled.

Skocpol watches a number of games on weekends and takes note of trades, stats, injuries, and even weather reports for the cities where the Patriots are scheduled to play. When the Pats make the postseason, she transforms her home into an after-Christmas football shrine. The wreath on the front door is replaced by a Patriots hat; the decorations on the tree become Patriots-themed; out wobble the bobble heads; other Patriot memorabilia covers the Harvard chair in the corner.

Skocpol's NFL knowledge has even come in handy during her research. Working on a current project that tracks the local effects of federal policy changes in non-metropolitan sections of North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, she said her ability to talk football has helped smooth her way in conservative areas that might otherwise view an East Coast scholar with suspicion. It creates a common interest.

"Doors in the research open especially when I meet business group leaders. They are usually guys who care about the Steelers, Packers, etc. They rib me for being a Patriots fan, we talk a little football, and then get on with it," wrote Skocpol in an email from Ohio. "Football is a broad American language, and it is good to speak it."

Warren Jaworowicz (left), senior director of Technical Operations at Editas Medicine, dropped by the diner on Monday to talk about the Patriots before heading to work. Dres (right) and the diner's longtime waitress Kelly Butler Pinksen wear their Patriots pride.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

She also talks football when at Harvard with faculty members who are Pats fans, including Robert Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy emeritus at Harvard Kennedy School, whom she emails regularly. "I just got one from him today giving the statistical odds of going to the AFC conference game eight years in a row," she said. "He says it's one in 100 million."

Despite those odds, she is hopeful for the conference championship against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team the Patriots edged earlier in the season. She thinks the keys will be similar to the Chargers game. "[They had] Gronk blocking along with the linemen, and they opened up the lanes for the runners and just really pushed San Diego back," said Skocpol. "The thing about football is that the visible part is the passes down the field, but the part that may count the most is which line is able to push the other one off."

She is wary of the Chiefs' nimble young quarterback and likely league MVP, Patrick Mahomes, "who runs and throws across his body, so he is totally dynamic. He is the Tom Brady of the future … so it's going to be hard for the Patriots to keep up with that."

And then there are those stadium acoustics. "The other problem with Kansas City is you can't hear yourself think," said Skocpol.

According to Guinness World Records, the loudest sports stadium roar ever recorded happened in 2014 at Arrowhead Stadium during a 41‒14 Chiefs victory over … New England

To neutralize the noise the Patriots "are going to have to come up with silent counts," she said, "and they are going to have to be disciplined on the line."

Her research travels over the next week mean Skocpol will watch the game at her sister's home in West Virginia. But as she headed to the airport on Monday, she assured her diner friends that she will represent their team on the road.

"I am taking along the jersey," she said.

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Arnold Arboretum’s role as a living lab grows as environmental issues mount

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:54 AM PST

Andrew Groover celebrates the complexity of trees, and makes it his life's work to unlock how they adapt to their environments. It's knowledge that's critical for the U.S. Forest Service research geneticist — he works in California, where concerns about climate change have grown as wildfires there have increased in frequency and intensity.

A practical problem for Groover, who is a University of California, Davis, adjunct professor of plant biology, is efficient access to the variety of trees he studies. His research requires a ready supply of species diversity, a tall order without laborious travel. But in 2012 his search for the perfect resource brought him to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University — a 281-acre living museum holding more than 2,100 woody plant species from around the world.

"Trees are fascinating for biology and research, but one of the greatest challenges in this research is finding trees tractable for study," Groover said. "If you have a list of a dozen or two different species, where do you get all those? The Arnold Arboretum has all of the species we would ever want to look at, and then some."

Andrew Groover, U.S. Forest Service research geneticist uses a pole pruner at the Arnold Arboretum to collect small samples of genetic material from the willows (Salix) collection
Andrew Groover, U.S. Forest Service research geneticist, uses a pole pruner at the Arboretum to collect small samples of genetic material from the willows (Salix) collection. Photo by Suzanne Gerttula

The Arboretum also contains one of the most extensive collections of Asian trees in the world, which Groover said is advantageous to his research. Typically a researcher has to travel to various locations throughout the world, determine whether the trees are on public or private property, obtain permission to study and transport samples, overcome language and other barriers, and potentially return to the same site later to complete research, which can be challenging.

"The Arnold Arboretum plays a crucial role in research and science and educating the public, connecting them with trees and forests. But it's also a living laboratory and repository of hard-to-source species for research and is renowned for its collection of Asian disjuncts," he said. "We can actually study these species pairs found in both Asia and the U.S. directly in the Arboretum. We didn't need to go anywhere else."

Director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology William (Ned) Friedman emphasized the extraordinary efforts that go into creating such a high-impact research destination.

"Importantly, beyond the more than 16,000 accessioned woody plants at the Arnold Arboretum, we have a staff of world-class horticulturists, propagators, IT professionals, curators, and archivists, all of whom are devoted to ensuring that the living collections are what I call a 'working collection' of plants," he said. "The plants of the Arboretum may look great in flower, or at the peak of fall colors, but these plants are here primarily to be studied by scholars at Harvard and from around the world. In 2018 alone, there were 79 different research projects using the living collections and landscape of the Arnold Arboretum."

Groover's work with the Arboretum became a long-term collaboration. In 2014 he won a Sargent fellowship, and, working with Arboretum scientists, collected small samples of genetic material from specific Arboretum trees and propagated them in his own laboratory greenhouses. In 2015 Groover, with Friedman, organized the 35th New Phytologist Symposium held at the Arboretum. He has also given several research talks there, most recently in December on genomic approaches to understanding the development and evolution of forest trees.

"When the Weld Hill Research Building was completed [in 2011], many of us in the research community saw that as a real commitment holding great possibilities for expanding into new areas of research," he said. "We could not only access a broad range of species all in one location, we had a physical facility for research activities."

Groover's work investigates genetic regulation of wood formation — the triggers of gene expression within the wood — which is driven by environment, including light, temperature, wind, water, gravity, even insects and disease. Studying diverse tree species helps him identify the genetic basis of how different species modify their growth and adapt to different environmental conditions.

"Trees in general are very responsive to the environment, and trees can actually make adjustments in their wood anatomy to suit the environment," Groover said. "One thing that is really interesting about trees is that they are perennial and live to decades or even thousands of years in the same place, and they have to be able to cope with all of the variation."

Sue-Arnold: Suzanne Gerttula, research assistant with Andrew Groover, sits on a transport cart with equipment including pole pruners and liquid nitrogen to study a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) tree. Photo by Andrew Groover

Suzanne Gerttula, a research assistant with Andrew Groover, has an interest in the underlying mechanisms of trees' responses to gravity, such as occurs in weeping varieties.

Photo by Andrew Groover

The collaboration with the Arboretum is special because its trees contain valuable provenance.

"The trees are well-cared for, are not likely to disappear or die so you can go back again, and they are all right there next to each other," Groover said.

While his in-depth research is on poplars (Populus spp.), the knowledge obtained may be beneficial in the study of many other tree species.

"If the genetic regulation of a trait is conserved among species, then what we learn in poplar can be transferred to the hundreds of other species we would like to be able to better manage or understand," Groover said. "We can transfer knowledge across different species and potentially use that information in the future for things like reforestation and restoration."

Suzanne Gerttula of the Forest Service began working in developmental plant genetics more than three decades ago and joined Groover's laboratory in 2010. The former staff research associate in plant biology at U.C., Davis, has an interest in the underlying mechanisms of trees' responses to gravity, such as occurs in weeping varieties.

"The Arboretum is an incredible resource for both weeping and upright trees. It's fascinating, fun, and inspiring to me to be able to get at the some of the biochemical bases of how life works," she said.

Groover's enthusiasm for his subject spans sectors from ecological to economic. From understanding Earth cycles and climate change to helping the lumber, paper, fiber, and even biofuel industries, he hopes his research can inform solutions for forest management and conservation and identify new forms of renewable energy.

"I think it's important we have places like the Arnold Arboretum to help provide this sort of basic information that has the potential to help in the conservation and management of forests," he said.

Michael Dosmann, Keeper of the Living Collections at the Arboretum, said it has research potential across a wide swath of disciplines — taxonomic, horticultural, plant conservation, ecology, and developmental biology.

"Our living collection's research potential could never be exhausted; there is a constant need for its use, growth, and development," he said. "[The] dynamic interplay between living collections and scientific research demonstrates the vital importance collections have to science and to society."

Scientists such as Groover enjoy access not only to the living collections, but also to other Arboretum resources, including affiliated collections containing herbarium specimens, archives, images, historical records, on-site greenhouse and laboratory space, centralized expertise, and, frequently, financial assistance in the form of grants and fellowships.

"All too often, the cost both in time and dollars of assembling collections at their own institutions is prohibitive for researchers, making places like the Arboretum a vital resource, especially for those working with limited budgets," Dosmann said.

Evolving technology also plays a critical role, according to Dosmann, giving researchers the ability to access the Arboretum's expansive resources, and making plant species more attainable.

"With the aid of databases and other information systems, it is now much easier to see collections in the multiple dimensions within which they exist and appreciate their unlimited research potential," he said.

Groover said that with forests facing multiple threats, there's never been a more important time to address forest biology and the use of technology.

"In the west especially, we need new insights into how to make forests more resilient to drought and heat, including understanding the biology underlying stress responses in different tree species," he said. "We are learning the complexities of forest trees and hope to ultimately be able to select genotypes or species that might perform better in the future. Working with the Arboretum offers the resources for this important research."

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