Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898


Advancing Fields of Knowledge


"Discovering Solutions" panelist David Mooney

"Discovering Solutions" panelist David Mooney

Photograph by Scott Eisen/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

"Big Data" panelists (from left) Efthimios (Tim) Kaxiras, Stephen Ansolabehere, Gary King, and Alyssa Goodman

"Big Data" panelists (from left) Efthimios (Tim) Kaxiras, Stephen Ansolabehere, Gary King, and Alyssa Goodman

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

At the “Discovering Solutions” panel (from left): David Mooney, Joanna Aizenberg, Adam Cohen, and Conor Walsh

At the “Discovering Solutions” panel (from left): David Mooney, Joanna Aizenberg, Adam Cohen, and Conor Walsh

Photograph by Scott Eisen/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

“Animals to Humans” panel moderator David I. Laibson

“Animals to Humans” panel moderator David I. Laibson

Photograph by Scott Eisen/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

“Creative Spark” panel participant Homi Bhabha

“Creative Spark” panel participant Homi Bhabha

Photograph by Scott Eisen/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) intellectual prowess was on display following its capital-campaign launch in Sanders Theatre on Saturday morning, October 26. After campaign addresses by President Drew Faust and FAS dean Michael D. Smith, six faculty symposia—plus panels on House renewal (the subject of the current Harvard Magazine feature “Learning, and Life, in the Houses”) and financial aid—highlighted promising areas of research and teaching innovation, programs that the campaign is intended to advance. The eight sessions were:

  • Big Data: Surprising Solutions to Big Questions
  • The Creative Spark: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Society
  • Reaching Beyond the Laboratory: The Broad Impact of Basic Research
  • Animals to Humans: Understanding Influences on Our Behavior
  • Discovering Solutions: Fundamental to Applied Science
  • Leading in Learning: Teaching the Twenty-First-Century Student
  • Community and Values: Residential Education in an Online World
  • Excellence and Opportunity: Financial Aid at Harvard

Summaries of the six academic panels, with background on the faculty participants, follow.

Big Data: Surprising Solutions to Big Questions 

Panelists considered how the ability to compile vast quantities of information, through improved technology and new tools for data collection, may help answer questions about everything from health and medicine to the formation of the galaxy.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Gary King

Moderator Gary King, Weatherhead University Professor, develops and applies empirical methods for use in social-science research. The director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, his work on using data to predict when nations will fail was described in a 2001 Harvard Magazine article. Coverage of his recent study of Chinese censorship of social media appeared on the magazine’s website.

Panelist Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government, is an expert on public opinion and elections who is principal investigator of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a collaborative effort among more than 60 universities and colleges in the United States. Professor of astronomy Alyssa Goodman, founding director of the Initiative in Innovative Computing—described in “Science’s ‘Third Branch’,” a 2007 Harvard Magazine article—studies the formation of stars from interstellar gas, described in this 2009 article, which includes an online, interactive 3-D visualization. In a Harvard Portrait, Goodman said, “I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau,” but she obviously shifted her gaze upward. Van Vleck professor of pure and applied physics Efthimios (Tim) Kaxiras, who studies materials science and its applications, is founding director of Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science (IACS),  dedicated to teaching computational methods for solving research problems.

Paul A. Maeder, M.B.A. ’84, a co-founder of Highland Capital Partners, a Cambridge-based venture-capital group, and co-chair of the campaign for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, introduced the session, noting that 90 percent of the data that has been captured in the history of humanity is from the last two years—a zetabyte of information, which would fill enough 16 gigabyte iPads to fill Wembley Stadium from top to bottom, 41 times over. That information is being stored, as Maeder put it, “for good, for bad, for advertising.” Brick and mortar retailers are terrified of, which knows everything from a consumer’s shoe size to how long they looked at the blue Crocs before buying the black ones. Other retailers don’t even know when a customer has been in their store.

King spoke first, delivering a message he has often shared with students: that big data is not about the data, but about analysis. He noted that every business generates more and more data every year, even if it is ignored. It becomes useful only when analyzed, however. One of his colleagues, faced with a mountain of data, figured out that to analyze it, he would need a $2-million computer. King and his graduate students, in two hours, instead came up with an algorithm that would do the same thing in 20 minutes, running on the colleague’s laptop. Modern data analytics, he said, has the power to change the world. He pointed to two examples in particular: an analysis of what members of Congress do with their time (27 percent of their press releases are purely partisan, for example); and a recent study of Chinese censorship of social media that revealed that the censors tolerate criticism of the government, but expunge even the most benign-seeming calls to collective action.

Kaxiras described how doctors are taming big data by using computation to diagnose and predict heart disease, the leading cause of death in the Western world, which in 50 percent of cases can appear without prior symptoms. He first showed a “Hollywood” version of blood flowing through an artery, a movie based on an artist’s conception. Then he described what was required to make a movie that used real data as its basis, taking into account a billion fluid points and 100 million blood cells. The resulting movie showed platelets recirculating and bouncing back at arterial branches; this kind of blood flow leads to the formation of plaque. The goal now is to start with data from an individual patient, to process it and feed it into a big computer (one with 300,000 processors) to create a visualization that will tell doctors where the issues are.

Goodman noted that solving a big data visualization problem in one realm, like the medical one described by Kaxiras, could lead to solutions in other disciplines, like her field of astronomy, and vice versa. While machines are much better at computation, “Humans are much better at pattern recognition,” which is one reason why data visualizations can lead to new insights. She showed how a three-dimensional visualization of a cloud of gas in interstellar space had led to the discovery of a previously unknown cloud structure. And a NASA-funded project (GLUE) that brings telescope data together, for example, will find applications not only as new telescopes are deployed, but also in medicine. 

Ansolabehere described how social-science surveys have been completely transformed by new “big data” methods for analyzing voter behavior. Surveys now are much more nimble, less expensive to run, and can be more easily customized, even in large-scale collaborations with other researchers and institutions.

King concluded the session. Big data “has transformed Fortune 500 companies, established new industries, altered friendship patterns, and through social media has massively increased the expressive capacity of the human race,” he said. “It has changed political campaigns, transformed public health…impacted crime and policing, it has reinvented economics, it’s transformed sports. Have you seen Moneyball?” he asked. “[Big data] has set standards for evaluating public policy and producing better public policies. We basically now understand that most government policy is one giant experiment with no control group to see whether it works….Improvements at this deep infrastructural level have the potential…to change every aspect of daily life….”

The Creative Spark: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Society

Five faculty members took varied approaches to describing how the arts and humanities function in society.

Justin Ide/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Dianna Sorensen

Moderator Diana Sorensen, FAS dean of arts and humanities, has worked to encourage art-making within classes, and led the faculty’s recent review of the state of the humanities.

Panelist Homi Bhabha  directs the Mahindra Humanities Center. A scholar of literary theory and cultural criticism, Bhabha is known for work on cosmopolitanism, postcolonialism, and the intersection of cultures; in a Harvard Magazine profile, he illuminated such topics by referring to the commerce in corn flakes. Emma Dench, professor of the classics and of history, studies identity and historiography in ancient Rome.  (In a Harvard Portrait, she confessed, “I hate the Romans—they were violent, sexist, racist, arrogant, and not very nice to anybody who got in their way. But I love to hate the Romans.”) Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt is a pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar—and no mean writer himself. The Swerve, his acclaimed account of Lucretius and the origins of the Renaissance, won a Pulitzer Prize. He directed President Faust’s task force on the arts; its work informs current campaign-funded arts initiatives. Karen Thornber, professor of comparative literature, chairs her department; she teaches world literature and studies the literature of modern China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. She was awarded FAS’s Cabot Fellowship for her 2012 book, Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures. 

“We’re ready for a new Renaissance, a new Enlightenment,” said Sorenson, referring to recent initiatives in the arts and humanities at Harvard that aim to re-energize these fields. “We’ve been working on it for more than a year.”

Bhabha asserted that the humanities “build communities, not models.” “Confronting what you don’t know, and who you don’t know,” he said, creates “this kind of ethical reach to the other.” Bhabha illustrated that reach through W. H. Auden’s 1938 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with a slide of Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, which it references. The painting shows surrounding life going on, oblivious to Icarus’s fall into the sea; that led Auden, and Bhabha, to remark on “the indifference to the suffering of our neighbors” which is part of the human condition. “The day is short and life is short,” Bhabha said, “but the plow will not stop for a dying man.”

Dench gave a rousing declamation in Latin from The Aeneid, hailing “The Romans, masters of the world, the toga-clad race.” For Emperor Augustus, she said, togas were the glue that could unify the Roman race, dressing them in the same clothing to go with their common language. Lines from Virgil “popped into the head of Romans” across the empire, even on battlefields. “As I say to my students, every book you read in class is with you for life,” Dench said, “not just the midterm.”

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for expressing heretical views, reported Greenblatt.  Many of these views derived from the poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius that lies at the core of Greenblatt’s The Swerve. Lucretius’s heterodox notions—“the universe consists of atoms and nothing else,” for example, and “all organized religions are superstitious religions”—were, Greenblatt drily observed, “ideas that were, shall we say, not accepted.” Nonetheless, the great poem survived through the centuries partly because “these are unbelievably beautiful verses. It’s Latin at its most pleasing.” “Art enabled this poem to enter the bloodstream of the world,” he said. “Art has cognitive power.”

Thornber used the example of environmental mercury poisoning that devastated a Japanese community during the 1950s and 1960s to illustrate the relevance of art to health and environmental issues. Michiko Ishimura’s 1972 “nonfiction novel” Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow brought alive the miseries of these victims of pollution. The novel inspired social activism in ways that medical accounts of the tragedy could not: “The characters in the novel are more real to me than the actual victims,” said one Japanese reader. Furthermore, documentary photographs of the victims by W. Eugene Smith, which appeared in Life magazine in 1972 and elsewhere, moved viewers. One, of Tomoko, a woman severely deformed by mercury poisoning in utero, being bathed by her mother, was especially poignant. “The photograph did not save Tomoko’s life,” Thornber said, “but it prevented countless numbers of other individuals from having to face a similar fate.”

Reaching Beyond the Laboratory: The Broad Impact of Basic Research

The panel’s scholars investigate aspects of some of the biggest questions of our time: Are we alone? How will we solve the impending energy crisis? Can we be better stewards of our planet’s natural resources? What secrets do our genes hold? In addition to moderator Jeremy Bloxham—FAS dean of science and Mallinckrodt professor of geophysics, they were:

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Jeremy Bloxham

Bloxham said he and his colleagues wanted to provide a sense of how fundamental, basic research feeds a pipeline that leads to significant discoveries far outside the laboratory. In the course of their fast-paced, flowing discussion, the audience learned:

  • that proton-coupled electron transfer can lead to the development of an artificial leaf that generates energy;
  • that studying the different time-scales of methane and carbon dioxide can affect climate policy;
  • that the human genome is “loaded” with signals indicating critical events in human history—for example, the discovery only 20 months ago that modern humans have Neanderthal DNA, which may help defeat certain diseases; and
  • that it appears to take a planet to create life, and perhaps to preserve it—studying exoplanets at different stages of development may help researchers better understand, and devise strategies to combat, climate change here on Earth.

In their initial presentations, and in response to questions from the audience, the panelists also touched on larger issues.

Where do ideas come from? From communication and collaboration at all levels, came the reply. McCormick noted that Harvard brings professors together with students who become excited by their research and, “unfettered by prior knowledge,” ask questions “that I’ve never thought of before”—which makes the faculty smarter. Sabeti told of working with a student who took a course with computer scientist Michael Mitzenmacher; that brought the two faculty members together on a research project that led to one of her finest discoveries. Schrag, as head of the Center for the Environment, said part of his job “is to increase the frequency of collisions” among faculty and students, faculty colleagues from different departments and schools, and outside actors, such as energy company CEOs—all engaging around the big issues of the day. Nocera said he came to Harvard because it offers colleagues at the Kennedy, Business, and Divinity Schools who can help his efforts to turn that artificial leaf into an inexpensive energy source for six billion poor people around the globe.

How can ideas prosper? With education—and funding. Bloxham suggested the answer is supporting people in science, not just projects. (He mentioned a friend working in a government lab who was asked to list the three discoveries he planned to make in the coming year.) Nocera said Harvard is one of the few universities that can afford to support the kind of basic research that enables scholars to step back and think about larger questions, thanks to its alumni. Faculty at the University, he added, have the opportunity to educate young people who may be leaders in many different fields about what scientific evidence is, and means—in contrast to the many individuals who demand certainty in the face of societal and other global problems far too complicated for simple solutions. Scientists, Sabeti added, need to communicate better to others the sense of wonder they feel about the world, the same sense of wonder that religion conveys. Science and religion, she said, are both trying to understand where we come from.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

David Laibson

Animals to Humans: Understanding Influences on Our Behavior

David Laibson, Goldman professor of economics and leader of the University’s Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative, moderated a discussion exploring research in the biological, computational, and social sciences that helps explain what really makes individuals and groups behave the way they do.

“This is an amazing moment for the behavioral sciences—the insights, the interdisciplinary scholarship, the collaboration, the breakdown of initial silos, the incorporation of genomics, biology, neuroscience,” Laibson said. “It is transformative in the classroom, it is transformative in the workplace, and it is changing the world. Policymaking around the globe is influenced by these ideas now in ways that are rewriting the rules of regulation and the way policymakers conduct their affairs.”

Panelist Hopi Hoekstra, Agassiz professor of zoology and professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology, discussed the nature vs. nurture debate—specifically the genetic foundations of behavior at the animal level—using the mouse as a model to understand the genetic pathways that lead to certain patterns of conduct. Hoekstra has recently published pioneering research on the genetic determinants of behavior and was a faculty panelist for the launch of The Harvard Campaign on September 21.

Randy Buckner, professor of psychology and of neuroscience, explained the differences between inherited biology and the modern world and the ways in which these two systems sometimes conflict. Buckner, who applies neuroimaging techniques to explore brain areas involved in the formation and retrieval of memory, pointed out that the blue light emitted by iPhones and iPads offsets the human sleep cycle that was once largely determined by the sun. “The average high-school student in the United States goes to sleep by 11:30 P.M., and over 45 percent of adolescents are getting inadequate sleep—they can’t remember as well as teens of the past before noon,” he said. “What we’re interested in is learning about all of these mismatches that have crept in to change our environment and the biology of the brain.”

Panelist Mahzarin Banaji, Cabot professor of social ethics, studies unconscious thinking and feeling as they unfold in social context—a phenomenon commonly called “implicit bias.” Banaji spoke on biases that ranged from amusing and fun (such as a test she gave to audience members to test their loyalty to Harvard vs. Yale) to sometimes devastating (such as doctors treating patients differently based on their skin color).

Laibson talked about self-regulation—the struggle humans have with themselves to act on their intentions instead of giving in to temptations—and the way humans sometimes fail to build good social institutions that help society achieve certain goals. 

Discovering Solutions: Fundamental to Applied Science

From robotic gloves for physical therapy to slippery surfaces for self-cleaning windows, Harvard researchers work to convert findings from basic research into applications that improve people’s lives. A panel discussion titled “Discovering Solutions: Fundamental to Applied Science” examined the connections between basic and applied research and asked how to structure a modern university to solve societal problems.

Jim Harrison

George Whitesides

Moderator George Whitesides is Flowers University Professor; his lab has engineered inexpensive, “lab-on-a-chip” medical diagnostic devices, used oscillating electric fields to snuff flames, and built soft-bodied robots inspired by sea creatures in the course of nearly 1,200 scientific publications, more than 100 patents, and more than a dozen startups. As he told Harvard Magazine in 2008, “Society pays us not to write papers, but ultimately to solve societal problems.”

Panelist Joanna Aizenberg is Berylson professor of materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and professor of chemistry and chemical biology; in Harvard Magazine’s portrait, Aizenberg described how her work borrows design principles from biology: “Almost every construction principle that we use is used by nature here, but on a scale 1,000 times smaller.” Adam Cohen, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and professor of physics, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator this past spring. The lab of David Mooney, Pinkas family professor of bioengineering in SEAS, and founding core faculty member at the Wyss Institute, whose academic vision he helped design, creates new biomaterials for tissue engineering. Conor Walsh, SEAS assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, founded the Harvard Biodesign Lab.

Whitesides opened the panel by outlining a division between two modes of research. “The historical model for a liberal-arts university,” he said, “has been…driven by scholarship and curiosity” that might later produce societally relevant applications. A second model “[starts] with problems, and then [asks] what is the science that will contribute to that?”

In short presentations, the four panelists gave examples of their own research approaches. Cohen described how his lab engineered a light-sensitive protein to flash in response to changes in a cell’s voltage; scientists can now track the firing of individual neurons, and his lab is using the system to study neurological disorders. He pointed out that components of the engineered protein drew on existing examples from nature, from jellyfish to bacteria that live in the Dead Sea: “We could only do this because we’re standing on the shoulders of decades of research by marine microbiologists and ecologists.”

Aizenberg portrayed a similar trajectory beginning in basic science. Drawing inspiration from the super-slippery surfaces of carnivorous pitcher plants, her lab recently developed a synthetic coating that solves what she termed “sticky problems”: once applied to solid surfaces, the coating repels both water- and oil-based liquids and prevents the formation of bacterial biofilms. She argued that innovation requires a “completely new type of environment” that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration.

Walsh and Mooney gave examples of the opposite approach. Walsh’s lab builds soft robots that mimic the movement of human muscles; when integrated in the fabric of pants or gloves, the resulting “exosuits” can help patients with motor disabilities. Robots were traditionally designed to replace people rather than work with them, said Walsh, and it was with medical applications in mind that his lab rethought what robots could accomplish. The medical problem of cancer prompted Mooney’s lab to design a new biomaterial in the form of small disks that, once implanted under the skin, attract and reprogram immune cells to attack tumors. In collaboration with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the team recently initiated a phase I clinical trial, and Mooney argued that collaborations between academics and clinical researchers are becoming more important. “In this area…the key experiments are the studies that we do in people,” he said, “and we’re going to have to do more and more of those key studies ourselves.”

Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Cherry Murray spoke informally in the later question-and-answer session about the need for internal funding, arguing that the school needs the “flexibility” to fund “high-risk research” and to fund undergraduates to pursue research opportunities. “Industry no longer does basic research,” Whitesides closed by observing, “so the solutions to long-range problems…must start here.”

Katherine Taylor/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Robert Lue

Leading in Learning: Teaching the Twenty-First-Century Student

The panel explored the almost infinite reach of creativity and innovation in online education. Read about HarvardX (the University’s online-learning initiative). (Read about HarvardX and the edX online-education partnershipcoverage of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching [HILT]; and this current feature on an approach to “patient” learning from a recent HILT conference.) 

Moderator  Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX and Menschel faculty director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (FAS's center for teacher training and pedagogical scholarship), is professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology and director of life-sciences education.

Panelist Peter Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilization, was recently appointed vice provost for advances in learning, overseeing HarvardX and HILT. He is co-teacher of Societies of the World 12, “China,” the HarvardX version of which goes live worldwide on October 31David Malan, senior lecturer on computer science, teaches a variety of courses, including the introductory Computer Science 50—among the largest courses by enrollment on campus and online, through its HarvardX versionElisa New, Cabot professor of American literature, is a scholar of American poetry, the subject of her new HarvardX modules (short courses), including units focusing on the poetry of early New England (debuting October 31) and Walt WhitmanDoris Sommer, Williams professor of Romance languages and literatures, professor of African and African American studies, and director of graduate studies in Spanish, is also director of Cultural Agents, which fosters the relationship between academic learning and civic engagement.

The traditional mission of teaching students “to lead through having meaningful, substantial impact on the world” has not changed, said Lue. What is new is Harvard’s ability to “open its walls up in the world and become a more significant player in what we all agree is a far more complex landscape of knowledge.”

A prime example is Malan’s fast-paced introductory course. Once appealing only to concentrators in the field, it now draws about 700 students on campus—and another 150,000 registrants from across the country and around the world who sampled the edX online version. Even those on campus have the option of watching classroom happenings streamed live via video while sitting “in their pajamas in their dorm rooms,” noted Malan—and about 40 percent do just that, while the rest—presumably more motivated by face-to-face interactions—physically show up for class. Students also learn material once taught through 75-minute podium lectures using tools like social media, interactive study groups, and a series of 3- to 12-minute video lessons. They can speed up, slow down, and even “print transcripts of every word I say,” said Malan, which means the course caters better to a wide variety of learning styles—as well as schedules.

The University’s foray into online learning was prompted not only by recognition of the rapidly growing online education marketplace, explained Bol, but by the dramatic opportunity to use technology and other pedagogical innovations to radically rethink teaching methods and “to make education at Harvard better.” In some cases students watch “crisp, edited” versions of lectures online, before class, he said, “so we can spend the whole hour discussing the material….As a teacher it’s been a wonderfully renewing experience.” New, in creating her own online modules on American poetry, has taken advantage of videotaping the Cape Cod marshlands and other locales “that allow you to encounter the poems and manuscripts in original places and contexts,” she said. “Field trips do matter.”

The need for access to high-quality education and interconnected, contextualized information “is more urgent than ever,” Lue concluded: for individuals, teachers, corporations, or even entire populations and countries. The majority of online courses are those taken from decades ago and put on video, he added. “What Harvard is doing is rethinking education in broad terms and looking at what we deliver through the Internet and how it transforms what we do in person…and how we can take our students higher than ever before.”

You Might Also Like:

Court document in the foreground with UNC Chapel Hill bell tower in the background

Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, and the opinion in the SFFA case 

Photograph of UNC by Unsplash, collage by Niko Yaitanes/Harvard Magazine

SFFA Loses UNC Case Appealing Harvard Decision

You Might Also Like:

Court document in the foreground with UNC Chapel Hill bell tower in the background

Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower, and the opinion in the SFFA case 

Photograph of UNC by Unsplash, collage by Niko Yaitanes/Harvard Magazine

SFFA Loses UNC Case Appealing Harvard Decision