Harvard Horizons Spotlights Nine Scholars

Emerging doctoral research on COVID-19, military model villages, children at risk, and more

Photomontage of the nine graduate student presenters at the 2023 Harvard Horizons symposium

Tuesday evening, nine Harvard Ph.D. students shared their research in short, TED-talk-style presentations at the Harvard Horizons annual symposium. Through this highly-selective program, the cohort spent 10 weeks learning how “to share their original, erudite, cutting-edge research… in language we can all understand,” said Harvard Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) dean Emma Dench during her introduction. The Horizons cohort also developed an interdisciplinary academic friend group, whose convivial bonds were evidenced by the row of high fives they gave each other after each presentation.

The event began with a celebration of two anniversaries—the tenth year of Harvard Horizons and the 150th year of GSAS—and acknowledgment of an extraordinary, $300-million gift. Earlier in the day, the University announced that GSAS would be named in honor of Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, who attended the symposium.

Lydia Krasilnikova (organismic and evolutionary biology) began the presentations with an analysis of the first post-vaccination COVID-19 outbreak. The weekend after July 4, 2021, partygoers descended on Provincetown, Massachusetts. Although 74 percent of the revelers were vaccinated, the virus swept through the crowds. Using genomic data from infected partiers, Krasilnikova and her 79 co-authors retroactively simulated and contact-traced the outbreak. They determined for the first time that “vaccinated people can and do spread SARS-CoV-2.” While she praised vaccines for their ability to prevent serious disease and death, Krasilnikova said that in order to “dramatically reduce spread, especially to vulnerable populations, masking remains one of our biggest, most important things.” Concluding her presentation, Krasilnikova asked the audience to share their applause with vaccine developers, contact tracers, and her co-authors.

Adam Longenbach (architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning) analyzed a different type of simulation: military model villages. Since World War II, the U.S. military has enlisted architects and set designers to build replicas of the foreign towns where the nation is fighting. Longenbach linked these models with the proliferation of mass violence. These mock towns were used for deception, propaganda, military science, and troop conditioning. He argued that military model villages support “this underlying assumption that civilians are part of the battle.” He urged the audience to think of the villages as more than empty models. “It is an ongoing case of construction begetting destruction, a simulated hostility enabling real harm,” Longenbach said. “Any building, any city risks being replicated and repurposed by militaries and police to enact violence against it.”

Garry Mitchell (education) kept the focus on domestic institutions, examining college-preparatory programs for middle-school students of color. For one year, Mitchell embedded himself in one of these programs. He interviewed hundreds of students to understand the psychological toll that prep programs take on minority kids. He described the “arc of ethical injury,” a process where black and brown students “feel their racial identities are recognized, and then stripped down, and then monumented for institutional gain.” While these programs help students receive better educations and matriculate to top boarding schools, Mitchell said they can destroy students’ sense of self and community in the process. He left the audience with two charges: to debunk the myth that “mobility journeys” do not harm their subjects, even if their lives seem better, and to help incorporate marginalized people into elite institutions, and not just hold them up as monuments to diversity.

The research of Steven Kasparek (psychology) also seeks to improve outcomes for underserved groups. Hailing from Ferguson, Missouri, Kasparek recalled how he witnessed significant violence throughout his childhood but was not able to step back and reflect on how deeply it affected him until he went away to college. Now he is trying to measure the psychological damage that exposure to violence wreaks. He specifically studied “in-group favoritism,” the ability to quickly trust a group of people with shared interests, which is a critical aspect of social development. Kids raised around violence displayed less in-group favoritism and, in turn, developed depression and anxiety more frequently. Now that he has demonstrated that exposure to violence is a significant risk factor for mental illness, Kasparek plans to partner with other scientists to create treatment and prevention strategies. “My personal dream is that if we succeed in that goal, maybe more kids like me can make it to places like this,” he concluded, gesturing to the grand Sanders Theatre.

Gbemisola Abiola (African and African American studies) turned the audience’s attention to the impacts of violence abroad. Abiola conducted an anthropologic, ethnographic study of Boko Haram-induced displacements in Nigeria. She analyzed a camp, a settlement, and a host community in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State. Abiola emphasized the revolving cycle of displacement, where people continually return to displacement centers across different locations because their home region remains unstable. At the end of her presentation, Abiola asked the audience to not only look at Ukraine and the Western world when thinking about displaced peoples: “Show solidarity for our collective human suffering.”

Ryan Keen (population health sciences) also looked at housing insecurity, but with a domestic focus. He studied youths with insecure housing in Appalachia, close to where he grew up in North Carolina. He wanted to assess the biological impact of uncertain housing situations. “Housing insecurity gets under the skin, it alters the biological processes that make up our health,” he said. His research team tracked the levels of C-reactive protein, which indicates inflammation, in children as they aged, noting when they had experienced housing changes and stresses. Ultimately, he found that inflammation is a reliable marker of the biological impact of housing insecurity. Next, he wants to study whether childhood housing stress can lead to adult cardiovascular conditions—and he hopes to find ways to support these youngsters beyond just housing them.

Once such children are housed, Jinyoung Seo (chemistry and chemical biology) wants to find a way to keep them cool while minimizing the environmental impact of air conditioning. By releasing tons of greenhouse gasses, he noted, “The very technology keeping us cool is now warming the planet.” While researching two-dimensional perovskites for their interesting structure, Seo noticed that some of these compounds change their behavior from solid-like to liquid-like around room temperature. Manipulating these molecules, he realized he could initiate phase changes by altering the pressure. Seo is hopeful that the material could be deployed to cool homes without releasing greenhouse gasses. When he came to Harvard, he had no idea he would pursue environmental research, but “that’s the beauty of fundamental research,” Seo said. “It’s not always clear where my exploration will lead me, but when the right connections are made, it can lead to unexpected turns, with unexpected discoveries.”

Emilio Vavarella (art, film, and visual studies) linked revolutionary scientific changes with changes in the philosophical ways humans perceive themselves. Vavarella brought the audience back to the advent of irrigation: with the development of artificial water channels, he said, humans began to think of their own bodies as irrigation systems. With the mechanical revolution in the seventeenth century, humans began to think of themselves as automatons, a complex system of cogs and gears. Now, we use the language of computation, imagining our brains as supercomputers. Vavarella encouraged the audience members to assess the models through which they understand their existence, and, more broadly, to “pay attention to how every technology shapes our sense of reality.”

Although all the presentations to that point had focused on earthly problems, the final presenter took the audience light years away. Floor Broekgaarden (astronomy) studies massive stars— up to 200 times larger than the sun. She said that these super-stars “live fast and die young,” and play a pivotal role in shaping the universe. Strangely, massive stars tend to form in pairs. When they die, their post-supernova black holes spiral toward each other and eventually collide. In the last decade, scientists have developed instruments capable of measuring these collisions’ gravitational waves. During her doctoral studies, Broekgaarden developed a new machine-learning technique to speed up analysis of these waves. As instrument sensitivity increases, Broekgaarden’s method will help scientists answer overarching questions about the universe: how did the very first stars live, and how were elements created? These newly-accessible waves provide essential clues.

After months of training, these Ph.D. students delivered clear, exciting, insightful presentations about their research. An exhilarated Dean Dench—capping a momentous morning, evening, and anniversary year for graduate education at Harvard—wrapped up the evening by asking the audience, “Don’t you feel super smart?” 

To watch the presentations in full, including the beautiful graphics accompanying the talks, visit the school’s YouTube channel.

Read more articles by Max J. Krupnick

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