Academic Harvard: The Inaugural Symposiums

Eight symposiums highlight faculty research across Harvard’s schools and realms of discovery.

Bruce Walker, Dyann Wirth, moderator George Q. Daley, Angela DePace, and Samir Mitragotri at a symposium titled “Life Sciences Innovation and the Future of Medicine.”
Bruce Walker, Dyann Wirth, moderator George Q. Daley, Angela DePace, and Samir Mitragotri at a symposium on “Life Sciences Innovation and the Future of Medicine.”
Photograph by Harvard Magazine

Visiting dignitaries from other colleges and universities, and friends of Harvard present for the occasion, were served a continental breakfast-cum-edification at “A Taste of Harvard,” under the tent on the Science Center Plaza: fuel plus exhibitions on projects, programs, and partnerships from across the University, including the student-run Crimson EMS, the research assets of the Harvard Forest, Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic and Food Law and Policy Clinic, and more. As is their wont—as the community is coming to understand—President Lawrence S. Bacow, coffee cup in hand, and Adele Fleet Bacow appeared to visit each exhibit, greet guests for casual conversation, and seemingly just generally enjoy themselves on an increasingly brilliant autumn morning.

At 10:30, eight simultaneous academic symposiums provided a deeper dive into Harvard scholarship and research, while showcasing the responsible faculty talent. Highlights follow.

•“A Look across Harvard,” moderated by Provost Alan M. Garber, presented established and emerging professors from the 10 faculties offering seven-minute talks on their research: an overview, he said, of “the different ways we pursue knowledge across the University.” Among the subjects covered in this olio were topics in machine learning, the melding of Aztec and Catholic religious experience in Mexico, and the gap between scientific understanding of children’s literacy skills and the design of early-education experiences to most effectively boost their learning.

Winthrop professor of genetics George Church, a pioneer in genomics, described not one but seven revolutions in genetics—among them the change in thinking from interpreting the human genome to understanding that there are billions of genomes, and that scientists could proceed from “reading of genomes” to “writing of genomes.” The science, he said, is already pointing beyond research on stem cells to creating synthetic organs, and from tools to edit genes to those that could, say, make all plant species resistant to all viruses.

D’Arbeloff-MBA Class of 1955 professor of business administration William Kerr, author of The Gift of Global Talent, talked about tracking talent and inventiveness—not just goods—around the world. In 1975, he said, one-twelfth of the patents issued in the United States were filed by foreign-born investors; today, the ratio is 1:3.5. This country, he said, receives half or more of the migrating inventors who leave their home countries. At the same time, he said, businesses that depend on this talent have to recognize that the benefits it yields are not evenly distributed (“some boats get sunk in this process”)–resulting in sociopolitical problems that have to be addressed.

The final speaker, Frankfurter professor of law Noah Feldman, worried about “free speech under attack.” The case usually made for free speech, he said, is based on faith (as in John Milton’s “let truth and falsehood grapple”) or some notion of a marketplace of contending ideas in which truth will out. The first is not an empirical claim; the second is. But neither fares well when people deliberately set out to spread falsehoods for political or other reasons, using social media or other channels. Nor can these claims withstand systems whose people have chosen an alternative to liberal democracy: reverting to military dictatorship in Egypt, or the apparent willingness of many citizens of the People’s Republic of China to prioritize a good life over a liberal democratic one. In an institution given over to veritas—the nine prior presentations had showed the search for knowledge in a climate of free speech—Feldman said, the case for free speech would have to be made much more rigorously and upheld explicitly: notions President Lawrence Bacow would raise in his inaugural address later that afternoon. 

• “Economists, about 30 years ago, had a really narrow view of good science,” David Laibson, Goldman professor of economics, said at the symposium on “Behavioral Economics and the Science of Behavior,” a wide-ranging session about the foundations of human behavior and how to design systems to help people make better choices. In the last few decades, Laibson continued, dialogue between economists and social scientists in other fields—psychology, anthropology, legal law—has created a new, transformative science of human behavior. At Harvard, he added, “there are about 100 faculty working in this area.” 

After the introductory remarks, each scholar briefly presented a snapshot of personal research—from Pershing Square professor of human neuroscience Elizabeth Phelps’s work on the role of emotion in decisionmaking, even when a risk is likely to benefit them, to Walmsley University Professor Cass Sunstein’s influential idea of “nudges”: “simple, low-cost, freedom-preserving” changes in the way that systems are designed to push people to make better choices. One example implemented while Sunstein was working for the Obama administration: automatically signing up children who are eligible for free lunch, rather than requiring their families to opt in, has extended the program to 13 million more children. 

In one cleverly designed study, Phelps, who joined the psychology department this year, gave participants a series of gambles: in one, they had a 50 percent chance of gaining $10 and a 50 percent chance of losing $12; in the other, a 50 percent chance of gaining $10 and a 50 percent chance of losing $7.50. Because the second gamble would result in a profit for the participants after multiple rounds, accepting it would be the rational choice. Phelps found that participants who didn’t accept that gamble were more “loss averse,” and had a more pronounced fight-or-flight response in their brains. Giving participants beta-blockers that reduced that response encouraged more rational decisions—obviously not a practical application of the research, she joked, but it suggests that training people to understand and manage emotions is essential to better decisionmaking. 

The talks were followed by a spirited question-and-answer session. Laibson said that research on the effectiveness of nudges is mixed; nudges that involve giving people information about the consequences of their choices, such as clearly printing fees and interest rates on credit card statements, “have a terrible track-record in terms of actually changing behavior,” he reported. Why is that? Sunstein disputed that information disclosure had a poor track record, pointing out, for example, that posting calorie counts at restaurants has reduced consumption by 2 to 3 percent. Straus professor of business administration Max Bazerman argued that nudges are no substitute for regulation: “Disclosure, in too many contexts...ends up being what the people who might get regulated agree to, to keep the government from taking stronger action.”   

• In “Confronting Inequality: Dimensions, Dilemmas, and New Directions,” Black professor of political economy and former Kennedy School dean David Ellwood, Cabot professor of public policy, epidemiology, global health, and population Lisa Berkman, professor of education Roberto Gonzales, and professor of sociology Alexandra Killewald painted a picture of American inequality through social and economic lenses.

After brief introductions by Du Bois professor of social sciences Lawrence Bobo, the speakers, in a series of 15-minute presentations, addressed modern-day challenges to the American Dream, in addition to unpacking the increasing lack of mobility among marginalized groups such as women and immigrants. “Parenthood is an amplifier of the gender gap,” Killewald said, referencing data depicting the time and wage consequences of parenthood for women versus men. Gonzales focused on the negative implications of uncertain legal status for immigrants, particularly adolescents. “It’s as common today for children to be in a classroom with a peer who has an undocumented parent as it is to have a peer with divorced parents,” he said. He also described how his research showed that undocumented young people often encounter prohibitive barriers in education and employment, further contributing to inequality in these segments of the population. To conclude the presentations, Berkman focused on the implications of inequality in healthcare. “People [in the United States] are not living as long as in many, many other wealthy industrialized countries,” she said. “Our healthcare investments are not buying us health.”

Throughout the presentations, each speaker offered a number of different solutions for lessening inequality; some ranged from expanding existing policies, like “use it or lose it” paternity leave—to encourage men to take on more of the unpaid labor associated with child-rearing; others included broader ideological reevaluations, like reconsidering what we call “bad” versus “good” jobs (and who holds them), given the inextricable ties between labor and inequality. 

• Who or what is worthy of respect? In “Dignity: The Travails of Democracy,” a political philosopher, a political scientist, a criminal-justice expert, and a naturalist discussed the fraying of individual and societal connections, and possible ways to repair them in an era when, as moderator Homi Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, noted, a presidential candidate’s adviser suggested in effect that the country was thirsting for change that hadn’t been delivered, so “we’re going to go barbarian, and we will win.”

Archon Fung, the Kennedy School’s McCormack professor of citizenship and self-government, pointed to a “big democratic dignity gap”: in terms of government for and by the people, he said, statistical studies show Americans today have government for the benefit of the top 20 percent by the top 20 percent. He stressed the need for everyone to become much better at “listening to those we don’t usually listen to,” in part by moving away from a “zero-sum dignity” mindset in which according any attention to an opponent means diminishing your own dignity.

Friendly professor of law Carol S. Steiker, whose field is criminal justice and capital punishment in particular, focused on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments as “the place to start to build the dignity of man into our jurisprudence.” Former Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, LL.B. ’61, took this tack, she noted, in the Court’s 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of crimes committed by perpetrators under the age of 18. Steiker offers a freshman seminar on the death penalty and takes her students to visit prisons, mindful of Justice Kennedy quoting Dostoevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Some students, she said, have been motivated to educate their peers about what they’ve learned.

Divinity School writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams, a voice for ecological consciousness, widened the discussion.  As stewards of public lands, she asked, can we recognize the dignity of all species, beyond ourselves? The Utah native praised the country’s national parks as among the increasingly rare places where people from all walks of life meet and mingle, in settings that foster empathy for the natural world as well. She also contrasted media simplicity with local complexity, noting that national news sources have focused largely on the destructiveness of recent fires out West, whereas local residents have begun to recognize the many natural and man-made details underlying those disasters.

Bass professor of government Michael Sandel, himself an academic “star” as the creator of the undergraduate course “Justice,” stressed the academic aspect to the dignity gap Fung described: “Credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.” He suggested “meritocratic hubris”—“We are not without some share” of the blame, he added—as a reason higher education has become a partisan issue. Universities have always both educated and credentialized their students, he said, but increasingly, the latter aspect has begun to swamp the educational mission. The competitiveness involved in the way colleges admit applicants and organize undergraduate life can lead students to overestimate the extent to which success or failure is due solely to the action of the individual. The resulting corrosion of character, he added, suggests a common thread between dismissal of other people and injuries inflicted on nature. He warned in general against the view that local and national communities are things that must be overcome in a search for global community, and advocated more specifically “a reversal of the secession of the affluent from public spaces.” Democracy, he said, needs people from different backgrounds “to bump up against each other.” 

• “From Cells to Cell Phones: Transformative Data in a Changing World,” hosted by vice provost for research Richard D. McCullough and moderated by the co-directors of the Data Science Initiative, professor of biostatistics Francesca Dominici and Colony professor of computer science, David Parkes, brought together five scholars from across the University to discuss the ways “big data” is transforming the way we understand the world. 

“At Harvard,” Dominici said, “we have the potential to do nothing short of launching a new area of discovery by uniting advances in data-science methodology with fields as distant as astronomy and medicine, government and biology, history and epidemiology. The promise of data science lies in its potential to open up new avenues of inquiry in existing disciplines, to shed new light on age-old questions, and to advance knowledge in ways that were previously unimaginable.”

Each of the scholars presented examples of how big data has revolutionized their work–from tracking the spread of disease, to building new tools to see inside the body, to probing the origin of political opinions. The presentations were followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session. 

From left to right: David Parkes, Caroline Buckee, Hanspeter Pfister, Bruce Rosen, Maya Sen, and Samuel Kou
Photograph by Harvard Magazine

One participant, associate professor of epidemiology Caroline Buckee, who uses mobile phones, satellites, and other data streams to track the spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever, praised the data-science revolution for helping researchers “target resources effectively, gather data efficiently, and really engage with communities to help them improve their health.” Wang professor of computer science Hanspeter Pfister described changes in the way scientists can deal with data. He helps build the tools that allow researchers to visually look at and understand large data, and shared the news that his collaborator had recently scanned brain tissue from a living patient. “We believe,” he said, that such advances “will help us to understand…the cause for many diseases, including schizophrenia, MS, and other types of brain diseases.”

Parkes closed the symposium by asking the participants to look to the future. They agreed that the next big step—no matter the field of study—is to turn the immense amount of data being gathered into useful information. Harvard, Parkes suggested, is the best place to do this: its researchers “are developing the theory, the algorithms, and the system that will allow us to draw meaning from these data…and also complete the loop from methodology to application.” 

 • At “Life Sciences Innovation and the Future of Medicine,” moderated by Harvard Medical School dean George Daley, panelists discussed topics ranging from scientific breakthroughs in biomedicine to efforts to improve physician-researchers’ social responsiveness and responsibility in their work. But first—given the focus of the day’s celebrations—Daley described how he got to know President Lawrence S. Bacow, who as a member of the Harvard Corporation (with a great deal of experience in academic administration) mentored him from the beginning of his deanship. When he learned by telephone that Bacow had been named president, Daley said, he was waiting quietly for his son to finish the SAT exam. His exultant whoop at the news brought a proctor out of the exam room who promptly ejected him from the premises.

Rachel Wilson, Martin Family professor of basic research in the field of neurobiology, described her study of the brains of fruit flies, and experiments involving the use of sensory deprivation to see how these insects navigate. The goal of her research is to understand how sensory information is processed by neural circuits. Panelist David Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology, described base-editing, a genomic tool that allows precise, unprecedentedly targeted edits to individual base pairs in genes through chemical alterations. Though he invented the technique just two and half years ago, already more than a hundred labs have published papers using the tool, which he has made freely available.

Hiller professor of bioengineering and Wyss professor of biologically inspired engineering Samir Mitragotri described his work at the intersection of medicine and engineering to develop new ways to deliver protein-based drugs (such as insulin, used to manage diabetes). To be effective, medicines need to be delivered to the right place at the right time, and that sometimes involves overcoming biological barriers. He is currently at work on a method to deliver insulin orally. Associate professor of systems biology Angela DePace, who studies the evolution of protein-coding genes in animals, described her work on the scientific-citizenship initiative, which trains scientists for socially responsive and responsible work with the communities they serve: “Socially responsive means that all stakeholders, especially people from underrepresented groups, are at the table at the start,” she explained. “Socially responsible means understanding the social context of our work” at scales ranging from the local to the global. Dyann Wirth, Strong professor of infectious diseases, studies the biology of protozoan parasites (such as the one that causes malaria), with a focus on drug resistance. Infectious diseases that don’t lead to immunity are particularly hard to defeat—especially in vector-borne diseases that primarily afflict poor populations—but academic institutions can make important contributions in such areas, where there is no profit-motive driving research toward cures. And Bruce Walker, professor of medicine and director of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, described his work on HIV, with a particular focus on the tiny fraction of patients whose immune systems have managed to control the disease.

Throughout their presentations, and during the question period that followed, the multidisciplinary nature of the problems these scientists are engaged with—the social dimension of biomedical research—was evident. Harvard, Daley emphasized, is particularly well-suited to grappling with such challenges.

• A panel that included a Nobel laureate, professors, and graduate students in such diverse fields as astronomy, genetics, geophysics, and environmental science came together to discuss “Origins of Life: Surprises and Puzzles,” as members of the Origins of Life Initiative.

Phillips professor of astronomy and director of the initiative Dimitar Sasselov has said that it wants to understand exactly what it takes for life to begin spontaneously—rather than just having to say, “Something magic happens.” Panelists spoke individually about the conditions and building blocks that were necessary on earth for life to begin, the chemistry involved in causing those building blocks to come together to form elements of a basic cell, what that “protocell” would look like, and the strides that have been made to recreate that environment and process. Such research is taking place in labs across Harvard and around the world, and the hope, as outlined by Anna Wang, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow in the lab of Jack Szostak, professor of genetics and of chemistry and chemical biology, is to bring it all together: “It’s a hard problem, but with each of these bits coming together, it’s kind of like different parts of an orchestra rehearsing but then coming together as a great symphony,” she said. “And it’s going to be great.”

It was clear that while the panelists are all wrestling with questions about the origin of life on earth, the real question that preoccupies them is what this means for the possibility of life beginning and existing on other planets. As the speakers came together to answer questions from the audience, they were first asked to say whether they thought humans are alone in the universe. The consensus seemed to be cautious optimism: most panelists said they couldn’t say for sure, but their gut feeling was that we are not.  Abraham “Avi” Loeb, Baird professor of science and moderator of the discussion, said that he thinks it shows great hubris to assume that we are alone. He also raised the possibility that as civilizations gain more technology, they become susceptible to wiping themselves out—and said he hoped humanity would find “dead” civilizations on other planets, as a cautionary tale about what can happen if earthlings continue on their current path.

• Opening a panel discussion on “The Stories That Move Us” with a nod to the day’s larger occasion, moderator Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities (who would, a few hours later, offer greetings to Harvard’s new president from the Tercentenary Theatre podium), declared, “In some sense, Larry Bacow is now our storyteller-in-chief for the University.” He added, “It’s incumbent on every president of the University to tell its story anew.” 

From there, the conversation quickly ranged outward, to politics and religion and technology, to what novelist and senior lecturer Claire Messud called the “anxieties of atomization” and narrative disunion among Americans, to the increasingly embattled line between fact and fiction, and to the importance of being able to analyze narratives as they operate on our own lives. “Our culture is full of layers of stories, and to unpack them is important work,” said Wien professor of drama and of English and comparative literature Martin Puchner. And it is work, he added later, that largely falls to institutions like universities, churches, and governments: “filtering stories, or bringing atomized stories together”—and teaching students to do the same.

Looking back across 4,000 years of written stories, he took solace from the litany of disruptive technological changes—the invention of paper, the printing press, the book—that settled into equilibrium. Less optimistically, he added: “I’m struck by how recent the very distinction between fact and fiction is. That’s worrisome, the fact that the idea of fiction is just a few hundred years old, really. And there’s no guarantee that it will stay around.” 

Marla Frederick, professor of African and African American studies and of religion, described the storytelling power of televangelists and proponents of “prosperity theology,” which encourages worshippers to give money in the belief that God will return the blessings exponentially. Those narratives work by reframing the Christian story with a rags-to-riches personal element. Coolidge professor of history Maya Jasanoff cautioned against today’s over-reliance on personal narratives as a means to authority, at the expense of common realities. “We’re increasingly wary of any except the authority of personal experience.” That’s a danger, Kelsey noted a few moments later: “Once you believe that only the individual has authority over their own stories, it’s a crisis for representative democracy—because representative democracy is predicated on someone being able to tell the story of others.” 

Messud offered up the unifying influence and nourishments of fiction, how “squiggles on a piece of paper” can allow readers the experience of being a boy in Tolstoy’s rural Russia, or Chekhov’s forlorn lover. “One thing that preoccupies me greatly: how much of our lives never break the surface”—thoughts, feelings, experiences that people never express outwardly but that occupy them inwardly. “What fiction affords us is the ability to move from inside someone else’s head into our own, to communicate experiences that are otherwise uncommunicated”—but common and shared. 


Harvard Magazine staff members Oset Babür, Jennifer Beaumont, Marina Bolotnikova, Jennifer Carling, Lydialyle Gibson, Jean Martin, John S. Rosenberg, Lydia C. Rosenberg, and Jonathan Shaw contributed reporting to this dispatch.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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