By: Nike Izmaylov '19
While consuming ramen straight from the cup at 3am in the traditional ritual of the college student preparing for exams, I glanced at the list of ingredients. Amid the long and complex names that I would need a PhD in chemistry to unravel, I noticed two tiny words almost tucked away: palm oil. Only a few days ago, I had seen an advertisement for ridiculously expensive palm oil-free ramen. Somewhere in my tiny reptilian college student brain I put two and two together.
What’s so significant about palm oil?
Palm oil, harvested from the African palm oil tree, has spread from its native land to the North and South Americas and Asia as a busy market has sprang up around its use. Over 30% of the vegetable oil used in the world comes from palm oil. Palm oil has a variety of uses, from toothpaste to shampoo, detergent to make-up, sweets to baked goods. Look around what you use in your house: chances are, about half will contain palm oil.
With the rising need for alternatives to fossil fuels, some countries have even invested in palm oil plants, converting the vegetable oil to biodiesel. Looking to human health, palm oil, while not as healthy as other vegetable oils, does seem to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood in comparison to animal fats or other popular saturated oils such as coconut oil. While not ideal, palm oil does bring many benefits to the table. Or does it?
Unfortunately, most of the palm oil produced today is not grown sustainably. The production of palm oil involves razing rainforest worldwide to make room for fertile farms. Due to a combination of intensive farming exhausting the soil rapidly and ever-rising demand, the palm oil industry constantly carves into forests. Farms are frequently built on existing carbon sinks such as peat bogs, which causes massive release of greenhouse emissions. Palm oil production threatens the habitats of endangered animals, from the Sumatran tiger to the orangutan.
Worse yet, the palm oil industry thrives on human rights violations. Harvesting palm oil, especially in countries such as Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo, comes at the expense of indigenous people, as corporations—which governments are often powerless to stop, or with which the governments actively work—destroy the lands on which indigenous people live, leaving them with a choice between forced employment on palm oil plantations or starvation. The industry runs on horrific widespread child labour, and the workers, both those whose land has forcibly been taken and imported illegal immigrants, have little to no rights. Since the alternative is death, people work for hours on end in terrible conditions; many end up disabled for life or deceased. Once an area has been cleared out and exhausted, the corporations move on. The ‘employment and development opportunities’ vanish as the indigenous people are left with nothing but a wasteland of desolation.
Palm oil seems to be in everything we use, and the alternatives can be expensive. But steps can be taken in the right direction. From seeking products without palm oil, to contacting your representatives in support of sustainable palm oil growth. At least now you and I know, and knowing is half the battle.
By: Anna Laws
Oil and gas are key components in the machinery of modern life. You can sit in a car consuming oil-derived fuel, steering with a wheel made of oil-derived vinyl and plastics, all while trundling along over the road paved with oil-derived bitumen. Does your house have gas heating or cooking facilities? Do you work in a laboratory with gas-powered Bunsen burners? Regardless, the electricity you use is likely produced using gas turbines.
Currently the USA imports most of its oil and gas. It has only the 10th highest amount of proven oil reserves in the world, under 10% of the record amount in Venezuela and far behind the abundance in Saudi Arabia. Gas fares somewhat better; the USA ranks 5th, but with only 5% the amount of Russia.
However, the outlook is changing. As technology improves, so does the potential for reaching new untapped oil and gas wells. In addition, the currently known areas can be mined progressively more efficiently. Even as known reserves are drained and closed off, more can be done to squeeze out every last drop.
In comes Trump. Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump gave vague notions of changing the attitude of the USA towards oil and gas drilling. He hints that regulations on drilling will be relaxed: new methods, such as hydraulic fracking, will become more widespread; and continuing work will be more intense, with fewer restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from the processes.
Fracking has a controversial recent history in the UK. The process requires vast quantities of water to be shipped across the country, resulting in a high carbon footprint. Tests of the process even produced small earthquakes in 2011. On the plus side, the subsequent electricity production using this gas has reduced greenhouse gases compared with coal-based production.
In the USA, increased fracking could open up more opportunities for natural gas retrieval. Along with other methods, local oil would become readily available and would likely slash fuel prices. And Trump promises that an abundance of jobs will be created from this endeavor.
The key debate in future months will likely revolve around this simple question: is the environmental impact worth it? Being so keen to radically increase greenhouse gases seems ludicrous in these times of climate change awareness. Further complicating matters, oil retrieval has left a sour taste in the mouths of America with the enormous oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010.
A distant solution? Sustainable energy! Now is the time to improve the current technology and harness clean, less politically-encumbered power for a brighter future.
By: Suruchi Ramanujan '20
Medical professional and feminist Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American university. Although initially opposed to studying medicine, Blackwell turned to the physician profession after hearing about the mistreatment of women in the hospital from a close friend who while dying claimed that she would have had a greater chance of survival if her physician were a woman. Following this encounter, Blackwell abandoned her “feminine” job as a teacher and pursued her studies to become a physician. With the help of two physician friends, she was accepted into Geneva Medical College, an all-male school as a joke, where she pursued her M.D. until completion two years later. While this entrance could easily be deemed a success, she pursued further in the medical field, combatting the inherent sexism within the student body and teaching staff. Blackwell was forced to sit separate from her male counterparts and was frequently excluded from labs. Physicians often shunned her, but ultimately she completed her degree, ranking first in the class. Even following this success, patients and doctors felt uncomfortable with Blackwell treating them, regardless of her superiority as a physician. With much resistance from the global community, Blackwell created a hygiene initiative for those in poverty, opening a small clinic to treat the poor and educate women about the importance of feminine hygiene. At the same time, she combined her interests of medicine and educating the public to become a proponent of women pursuing medicine, demanding equality in the career world.
By: Nike Izmaylov '19
Anyone who has used a computer program has encountered a bug—an error in the program, a ghost in the machine. Though the term debugging had been in use long before a certain incident, perhaps the first literal case of debugging arrived at the wings of a moth trapped in a Mark II relay. After being unable to determine the computer’s malfunction for some time, the researchers at the Virginia laboratory were quite surprised to remove an actual bug from the computer; among them was Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, computer scientist extraordinaire.
An intelligent woman and incredible programmer, Grace Hopper created the first compiler for any computer programming language, introducing the very idea of compilers upon which programming now depends. Here at Harvard University, she gained a position as one of the original researchers on the Mark I computer, where she was the only woman on the team. A prominent figure in the computer world during the entirety of her career, Grace Hopper invented the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which she and her associates later refined into the Common Business-Orientated Language. “Grandma COBOL” helped the language become the most widely-used programming language in business even today. While many still coded in machine or assembly at the time, Grace Hopper believed that computer languages should be written more closely to plain English to assist in coding and in teaching new programmers. This philosophy permeated through the computer world and has inspired—and continues to inspire—the development of higher-level programming languages and tools that make the process less daunting than ever before.
Her accomplishments do not end at the computer. Over the course of her lifetime, Grace Hopper received nearly fifty degrees or honorary degrees from a variety of institutions worldwide. Her dedication and flawless service in the United States Navy led to her promotion to the prestigious position of rear admiral. Grace Hopper additionally received a full gamut of awards, from the Legion of Merit to the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1969, she was the first woman awarded the Data Processing Management Association Man of the Year award, and in 1973, she became the first female Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. 1987 saw her receive the very first Computer History Museum Fellow Award in American history. Many institutions in the United States and beyond have computer labs, streets, and even supercomputers—a Cray XC-30 model at the University of Maryland-College Park—named after this amazing woman.
A lasting testament to the ability of woman to contribute to computer science, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing assists aspiring computer scientists and showcases the research and endeavours of women in computing. Without Grace Hopper to break down the doors, spearhead efforts like this one and others may not exist at all.
As for the moth that bugged her computer? It resides, preserved, in the National Museum of American History alongside a note from the Mark II research team about the first case of literal debugging. Next time your compiler chokes, perhaps you can blame Grace Hopper’s fluttery friends instead.
By: Anna Laws
The South Pole was discovered in 1911. The first female scientists arrived in 1969. For the almost six decades in between, it was preposterous to consider women making the arduous journey to the Pole. The US navy refused to even transport women to the continent, citing concerns for their hygiene and safety. Although a few ladies from other nations had stepped foot on Antarctica, certainly none had travelled the almost one thousand miles between the two key US stations linking the coast with the South Pole itself.
Women making such a journey just wasn't the done thing. The men already present on the continent were quite content to retain a boys' club. Popular opinion held that women simply couldn't handle the harsh climate. Icy winds complement temperatures that never rise above a frigid +7.5F. The entire winter is cast into darkness, and even the perpetual daytime of summer can bring danger. Any sunlight that doesn't hit the travellers directly can still reflect off the white plains for a second attack. This brightness can cause blindness. Despite this, Antarctica is a valuable research area and well worth the journey.
In the late sixties, two major changes cleared the way for women to finally travel to the South Pole. Firstly, the US navy lifted its transport restrictions in the face of increased women's rights awareness. Soon after, the NSF welcomed proposals from female science teams wishing to research the area. Immediately an all-female group of geologists led by Dr. Lois Jones seized the opportunity. Along with a biologist and a journalist already present on the ice, they were flown out to the Pole. The six women chose to march together from the plane to share the historical significance of being the first woman to walk on the South Pole.
Today researchers live and work on the continent, using the unique location to their advantage. For instance the grim isolation is perfectly suited for the BICEP2 experiment, poised to feel the tiniest tremors caused by gravitational waves yet escaping false signals arising from the rumble of nearby traffic and other urban difficulties. The long nights are ideal for observing the skies, with the South Pole Telescope and Keck Array currently scanning the Cosmic Microwave Background (the fingerprints of the Big Bang). And where else could we watch emperor penguins going about their daily business?
This summer an expedition of seventy-eight female scientists lived on Antarctica to research the impact of climate change, with a broad range of represented disciplines including astronomers, engineers, and doctors. Connecting these disciplines shows that part of the magic of Antarctica is in its power of unification. May the legacy of those first six women continue!
By: Soumyaa Mazumder '19
Since “Genetics” is the theme of this month’s Scientista newsletter, we thought it no better than to speak with two of the most amazing female scientists in this field: Life Sciences 1b Preceptors Amy Hansen and Casey Roehrig! While LS1b students have already quickly come to admire Amy and Casey as incredible teachers through their office hours and Friday Problem Solving Lectures, Scientista was fortunate to have a chance to learn more about the preceptors’ love for science and teaching, early experiences with research, thoughts about the advancement of women in academia and the improvements that still must be made, and much more:
Could you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in science? Were you always interested in biology or was this something you explored more as an undergraduate?
[Amy Hansen]: It was definitely something I was always interested. Especially because I went through the Scottish school system...you kind of define your interests a bit earlier. I went to university at 17 and I knew I was going to do biology. You apply for a particular subject and in the first year and second year, you get exposed to everything in biology. By the end of the second year, you start to narrow down your interests, and that’s when I started to get interested in genetics. I liked the problem-solving nature of the field.
[Casey Roehrig]: When I was in high school, I was actually more focused on studying music. I played mostly the flute and the piccolo but a few other wind instruments. And I thought that I wanted to go to college to become a music teacher. My senior year of high school I did the whole applying and auditioning process and when it came time to actually make a decision of where I wanted to go, I started taking a closer look at the music teachers I worked with and loved, and began recognizing that they weren’t as thrilled with their job as I wanted to be with mine.
Conveniently, I had applied to the wrong school at NYU. If you want to study music, you’re supposed to apply to the school of education; I had applied to the college of arts and sciences. And I ended up going to NYU as opposed to a music school, purely because I had filled up the wrong application! My freshman year of college I took introductory biology and I really liked it. I had always liked biology in high school, and I kept taking biology classes.
And you eventually decided to go to graduate school? Were you always sure about research, or did you ever consider going into other fields, such as medicine?
[Amy]: Yes! I really enjoyed research and ended up moving to London to complete my PhD at the University College London. I did deliberate doing medicine at one point. In your PhD, it’s common to do rotations during the first year, and I did a rotation in an ovarian cancer lab. I spent a lot of time in the hospital collecting samples, and I think it was really there that I realized that that wasn’t the environment I wanted to work in. While I was inspired by the doctors, it was really the research setting that got me the most excited.
[Casey]: Yes, I thought about medicine and even considered becoming a high school biology teacher. But then my freshman year, as I was looking for a job as many college students do, my lab TA got in touch with me to let me know that one of the postdocs in his lab was looking for an undergraduate research assistant. And so I decided to interview, just to see what this research setting would look like. I ended up getting hired, and I really liked the people I was working with in the lab and that everybody was working on different projects that related to some common goal. And on a day-to-day level I liked that I got to do different things every day that I came in. So I kept working in that lab for two and a half years. The professor actually ended up moving down to Duke my senior year, so I had to find a new lab to work in. One of the postdocs in the old lab switched to a new lab, and I sort of followed her there. I actually had my own project, which was a lot of fun, and I decided to stick with research and went to grad school!
Could you tell us about about the research you completed during your PhD?
[Amy]: I continued to explore the field of genetics during graduate school, but this time in a cancer setting. I was investigating a virus that causes cancer in people with HIV. So people with HIV have a depressed immune system, they get infected with viruses that you and I could fight off, and the viruses take hold of the patients and cause cancer, which can be a leading cause of death in people with HIV. It was a great problem to research, and I had the chance to learn about cell biology as well as genetics.
[Casey]: I worked in Craig Hunter’s lab, studying developmental biology, specifically of the nematode C. elegans. I was looking at the genes responsible for cell fate determination in early embryogenesis. In particular, I was looking at a small network of genes that are responsible for deciding between skin and muscle cell fates.
But you eventually decided to transition into teaching?
[Amy]: Since my time in London and even when I first moved to the States, I always liked teaching. As I was getting towards the end of my postdoc, I felt more excited by teaching and that I could give more to the world of teaching. But obviously, when you’re teaching, you’re constantly surrounded by the world of science and you have to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest research.
[Casey]: One of the things that I discovered in graduate school is that there are elements of research that I did not like as much. I’m not such a fan of the more competitive aspects of scientific research. And some of things that I was working on, I felt a bit isolated. I wasn’t motivated to continue with research as I neared the end of graduate school. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to teach for a bit, and I really, really liked that, so I decided to pursue that instead. I found teaching more rewarding than the experimental aspects of bench research.
Was it a difficult choice to leave the research world?
[Amy]: Yes, I really like research, and it’s always difficult to leave one path because you know you’re closing certain doors. You open up new ones of course! But it’s hard. And I think that’s actually a common problem for women in science. Because when you’re a postdoc and you go on to be an assistant professor, it’s usually in your early 30s. And that’s also when women are starting to think about having families, and the life of an assistant professor is very tough and very demanding. People talk about the STEM pipeline being a leaky pipeline and there’s a big hole between postdoc and professorship for women. I definitely had those feelings of “I’m going to be in the lab for several hours of day and my partner’s not a scientist, how is this going to work?” This of course wasn’t the deciding factor because I felt more passionate about teaching, but I did think about it a bit.
[Casey]: A bit. I very much liked working in a research lab. I liked the questions that I got to ask and answer in biology. But, I found teaching to be a lot more fun than doing experiments. It was always great when your experiment worked out and you got a great result, but those moments were few and far between. I feel like I far more often have a good conversation with a student that leaves me with a great, awesome feeling than I got out of bench research.
While biology does not seem to have as much problems with gender representation as male-dominated fields such as physics or math, did you ever have experiences where you felt isolated or alone, especially as you headed towards graduate school?
[Amy]: Biology majors actually have a 50/50 gender split, or a greater number of women. But there are still far fewer female deans, heads of departments, lab heads, and professors. Some people might say there’s a latency effect, especially as biology only experienced gender parity in the 1990s. But the latency is not enough to explain the disparity that we see in high-level positions. And it’s almost even more frustrating that we have managed gender parity in the classroom and that we are not seeing that reflected in higher level positions. In fact, there have even been studies that have found that new female professors receive significantly less lab startup money compared to their male counterparts.
[Casey]: I think that when you look at tenured faculty members, it still skews quite male. And a lot of that is for historical reasons. But I think that also the process of becoming a tenured track and then a tenured faculty member is especially difficult for women given issues of family. It’s just very very challenging. It isn’t to say that there aren’t women out there who aren’t succeeding. It’s just that it’s difficult. In graduate school, it was quite even for me; we might have even had more women in my class than men. And so in that sense, I always felt that there were other people who understood what I was going through. But for me though, the challenges were just going through school as a graduate student and not specific to being a woman.
Did you have any mentors or role models that shaped your path in science?
[Amy]: From a very young age, both my parents, particularly my dad, set a great example. He always emphasized that his children could do anything that they wanted. They always said that if you want something, you work at it, and you can get it. What matters is your perseverance. And that was a great equalizing message. I was raised with a very strong sense of everyone should have access to the opportunities to do things that they want to do.
I also had a great group of friends in university, all of whom were very motivated and enthusiastic. And that was really inspiring, because when you looked around you saw people with big goals and big dreams.
In terms of research, in my PhD lab, there was a postdoc who was an excellent mentor and he had a very good approach to science. He was always very patient with me!
[Casey]: For science, the best role models I had were the postdocs in the labs that I worked in. And there were some really excellent women scientists as well as male scientists. One of the things that I did see was that women who did get pregnant as postdocs had a hard time balancing the maintenance of a research project with having a baby. But there were always women who powered through it! But it was really the postdocs who encouraged me to keep doing science and also gave me great advice about going to grad school and picking labs.
Do you have any advice for young female students (and undergraduates in general) interested in science?
[Amy]: I think that it’s very important to listen to yourself and think about what makes you most excited. Often times, there’s a sense of what one “should do” or what the “prestigious” path is, but I think you’re able to give more to the world and get more out of your life if you do things that fire you up. And that’s what I’ve always used as my guiding principle when making difficult decisions.
One thing that I struggled a lot with as well was ridding myself of this notion that your value somehow comes from the success of your experiment. Now, it’s very hard to do that and maybe impossible, but you can have a healthy relationship with that instinct.
[Casey]: Stick up for yourself and when something is going on that you think probably shouldn’t be going on, say something early and try to resolve any issues that come up than letting them weigh you down. Don’t get discouraged by things that other people say. Be confident and recognize that you are valuable and that you have things to contribute, and be comfortable letting other people know that.
I found out after the fact that the reason I got hired for my first assistant position during undergrad instead of the other people was that during the interview, the postdoc who was interviewing me mentioned something about cDNAs, and I asked him what they were because I wanted to understand what the research was about. It turned out that I was actually the only person during the course of the interview that asked a question.
So in that sense, acknowledging the limits of your knowledge and being willing to ask questions-- that’s what it is to be a scientist.
As a young female student interested in biology and research, I’m excited to begin my career in science and thrilled to see the advancements that women have made in STEM in the past few decades or so. But there is a part of me that does worry about some of the challenges that women still face, particularly in academia. As Amy and Casey mentioned, perhaps part of these issues are ones that need to be addressed at an early age. There was a popular TED talk given by Reshma Saujani, who argues that young girls, unlike boys, are taught to be perfect, not brave and that this contributes with the underrepresentation of women in STEM. And I partly have to agree with this; in a setting such as that of science and research, in which failure is commonplace, all students should be reminded to not be afraid of mistakes they will inevitably make and to take risks sometimes.
But while there are still improvements that can be made, I have to say I feel pretty lucky, not just to live in a time in which so much progress has already occurred, but to also have so many amazing role models to look up to, such as these two amazing preceptors. Although there might not be as many female professors as there should be yet, Amy and Casey serve as wonderful mentors to my generation, and I am inspired by their success, thrilled to see how women can excel in STEM, and honored to learn from them everyday.
By: Nike Izmaylov '19
Picture a modest doctor’s office at a routine visit. Picture someone suffering from schizophrenia asking about treatment options. Picture the doctor explaining that the disease can be nearly cured in as little as a few months with the help of a certain advanced gene therapy treatment.
Although that sounds like science fiction, and may likely remain in the fantasies of scientists and doctors for quite some time, researchers today are already laying the groundworks for being able to cure or lessen the impacts of illnesses such as schizophrenia. Several of these projects are on-going on Harvard campus today.
At the Schier lab, hundreds if not thousands of zebrafish swim about their tanks lined up against in neat rows in a slightly too-warm room. In the room over, newborns swim frantically around their petri dishes. These fish may hold the key to unravelling some of the secrets of schizophrenia, at least on a genetic level. Prior studies have identified several hundred genes that appear more frequently in people with schizophrenia than in the general population, but the next challenge involves determining which genes have significant effect, if any, and the size of that effect.
Part of the difficulty involves creating an assay to diagnose fish with schizophrenia. Imaging the brain after death assists in assessing which genetic mutants have significant mental impacts, by snapshotting the activity of different key molecules at the time of death. To normalise these patterns across different brain states, the images of several zebrafish with the same mutation are merged together to form a colourful map of brain activity. The Schier lab is still in the process of screening and analysing the mutants but have begun to prepare for the next step.
Behavioural assays of relevant mutants For example, most people without schizophrenia become accustomed to surprise. If Alice, who does not have schizophrenia, were tapped on the shoulder once, she might be surprised at the sudden touch. Yet, if the same person then tapped her again, she would get used to it (if annoyed that someone keeps tapping her). However, Bob, who has schizophrenia, would be surprised every time. A similar proposed for zebrafish involves turning on bright lights: A wild-type zebrafish becomes used to the lights flicking on and off and ceases to swim frantically about, while a zebrafish with schizophrenia will swim frantically every time.
Assuming these early experiments are successful, the research will focus on trying to rescue the zebrafish from these behaviours. Those rescues will constitute the basis of any genetic “cure” for schizophrenia.
Even if the genetics of schizophrenia can be unravelled, it’s possible that its overall impact is much smaller than anticipated. Gene therapy then might be wasteful or only help a tiny portion of the population. However, if genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia plays a major role in its development and continuation, cutting out those genes through mechanisms like CRISPR-Cas9 could lessen the probability of developing schizophrenia in the first place. For those already suffering from the illness, this gene therapy could lessen symptoms or possibly cure it entirely. That’s many years of research off, however. What we have so far is a fine kettle of zebrafish.
Saloni Vishwakarma '19
Entering college, the constant stream of repetitive questions followed me to every introduction. What’s your name? Where are you from? And the most thought provoking one: what are you planning to concentrate in? Every time I responded, I would say “Neurobiology, secondary in physics and I’m pre-med of course.” I expected my fellow pre-med students to also respond with something in the sciences, but more and more often, I received responses like “English”, “Economics”, or “Government.” All these students were hoping to pursue medical school, but weren’t going to concentrate in the sciences.
It felt so natural to assume that someone interested in medicine would concentrate in the sciences, but I quickly learned that there were so many students interested in concentrating in non-science fields, but were just as passionate about the medical field and health care as the next pre-med student. Furthermore, I attended a Health 101 panel at the Harvard OCS and remember talking to more upperclassmen who were concentrating in “History and Literature” and “Mathematics” and would be applying to medical school in the upcoming few weeks. In addition to not concentrating in the sciences, these upperclassmen were taking gap years to work at hedge funds in New York or travel abroad to learn new languages before diving into more years of schooling.
Flipping through Harvard’s 49 Concentrations guide, I began to question the “pre-medicine path.” What does it mean to be pre-medicine? What do medical schools look for? Do they prefer a certain concentration over another? I imagined that most pre-medicine students had a routine: concentration in the sciences, research in a prestigious laboratory, gap year working at a medical clinic of some sort, and studying for the MCATs during the summers. Coming into college, I quickly realized how welcoming the pre-medicine society was at Harvard and was especially surprised by how diverse the community was. There are a handful of humanities and social sciences concentrators, many students who wish to go into banking before medical school, a good number of students who want to take multiple gap years, and so many more combinations.
Recently, Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City reported that “Applicants — and, consequently, medical students — were too single-minded” (Rovner, 2015). The dean of the medical school has a quote on his wall that says, “Science is the foundation of an excellent medical education, but a well-rounded humanist is best suited to make the most of that education”(Rovner, 2015). Although medical schools want great scientists and students who have flawless grades, those students who show skill in the other fields, such as the humanities, make even better doctors. In a US News report, Chang reports, “According to their [The Association of American Medical Colleges] data, only 51 percent of students who enrolled in medical school in 2012 majored in biological sciences” (Chang, 2013). This recent trend in medical school acceptances is encouraging more students to break away from the traditional medical school “path” and concentrate in fields other than the sciences. Alison Garber, a freshman at Harvard College, says, “The quality I find most inspiring about doctors is not their technical know-how, but their incredible ability to connect to their patients. And that, for me, is exactly what humanities can provide for me: a way to broaden my understanding of how humans interact and think” (Garber, 2016).
So, don’t feel limited by the traditional medical school path. Embrace the pre-medicine society at Harvard and consider concentrations in the humanities and social sciences if that interests you! Who knows, it might even boost your chances of getting into medical school!
By: Nike Izmaylov
Disclaimer: The author does not have any conflicting interests with regards to the labs referenced in this article.
Researching places to research? Scrambling to find a place after you failed to keep your eyes on the PRISE? If you still haven’t arranged what you’ll be doing over the summer and are interested in pursuing research opportunities, consider an internship at one of the following labs right here on campus, which are accepting undergraduates including freshmen. These don’t represent the full body of undergrad-accepting labs on campus, but take this as a smattering of the diverse smorgasbord of cutting-edge science development happening on campus—science development that you can help out with.
Have you ever wondered about the neurobiological basis for behaviour? Ever considered how behaviours could have evolved over time from the seemingly simple to the overwhelmingly complex? At the de Bivort lab, headed by Dr. Ben de Bivort, study the behaviour of Drosophila fruit flies through comparative genomics and circuit neuroscience to untangle the mysteries of how behaviour evolution can cause speciation and individual preferences.
Curious to learn—and help to discover more—about how animal embryos differentiate cells early in development? Want to develop skill and experience with about high-throughput gene expression and next-generation genetic sequencing? The Extavour lab, headed by Dr. Cassandra Extavour, is looking for motivated undergrads to assist in screening for gene controls to uncover how both model and non-model organisms become organisms in the first place.
Enjoy dabbling in computation and software? Interested in discovering new functions of RNA and strengthening evolutionary models? Working under Elena Rivas, a senior research fellow at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, help to develop new algorithms and models through statistical inference to solve the enigma of long coding RNAs.
Fancy yourself an engineer? Intrigued by the concept of programming biological nano-machines for very real world applications? At the Molecular Systems Lab, headed by Peng Yin, learn how to engineer programmable molecular systems, built with nucleic acids rather than with the typical tools of engineering.
Consider yourself a flower enthusiast? Ever thought about how flowers have evolved—and why? The Kramer lab, headed by Elena Kramer, researches a variety of aspects of evolution and morphology of flower biology, including interactions with pollinators such as bees and birds, how the various parts of a flower—petal, fruit, sepal, and so on—evolved, and the effects of gene duplication.
Ever considered the neuronal background behind instinctive versus learned behaviours? Curious about the mystery of how a few interconnected cells can generate emergent complex behaviour? The Engert lab at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
If something on this list has intrigued you, take a deeper look at what they do, and send off an email with your qualifications—the most that they can say is “no”. Consider asking your professors or TFs for more recommendations; they could even put in a good word for you. Whatever you choose to pursue this summer, whether it’s research or something else, remember that the sooner you contact perspective mentors, the easier it’ll be. Good luck from all of us here at Scientista!
By: Soumyaa Mazumder
It’s about twenty minutes into my PS11 class when Professor Anderson suddenly stops talking. The topic for this morning lecture is energy, and so far we’ve discussed various categories of energy, ranging from electromagnetic to kinetic. But just after Anderson finishes up his discussion of transferring energy from the macroscopic to microscopic realms, he pauses before asking, “I haven’t really defined energy yet, have I?” It’s an amusing revelation at first, until he follows up with a surprising statement: energy itself has no strict definition. As Anderson goes on to explain, even Richard Feynman, one of the most celebrated modern physicists, admitted that energy “is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete,” but somehow always manages to obey some strange fact that it never changes in numerical value no matter through what process nature tries to transform it.
Several months ago, at the start of my freshman year, the discussion such as the one above might have frustrated me. As someone who wants to pursue science and loves learning about why certain phenomena occur the way they do, it can be an unsettling feeling when even a great Harvard scientist tells his class that some of the most fundamental concepts (concepts that we as students often take for granted or do complex analyses and calculations on without fully understanding them) are not entirely understood. Outside of just adjusting to the complex and more fast-paced nature of college science courses, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my classes this year is learning to be comfortable with the unknown. In high school, what with the focus sometimes on perfect AP scores, it was often easy to approach the material in my science classes as a sort of checklist, that by covering x, y, and z topic, you can assume that you understand the content well. Whether it was biology or physics, the standard model for learning was to review lectures, do as many practice problems as you could, take the test, and then move on to the next topic.
And while that model is obviously still similar to that of college science courses, what Harvard, and college in general, has shown me is that paradoxically, the more in-depth you wish to learn a subject, sometimes the more you realize how little you actually know. You realize that for all the difficult calculations that are performed in your physics class, sometimes the seemingly “basic” ideas can be unclear because physicists themselves do not understand them in concrete ways quite yet. You realize that in order to understand how a certain drug precisely works in a biological system requires a deeper understanding of chemical and physical principles and a realization that to understand one field in depth often requires understanding other, related fields in great detail as well. You realize that even your amazing, established professors don’t have all the answers sometimes because the scientific questions are actually a lot more complex than they seem.
And while that can be a slightly unsettling feeling at times, this realization that you’re not going to learn everything there is to know about the subject from just one class, it can be liberating as well. Instead of being frustrated about not knowing every concept in great detail, I’ve learned to approach my classes from the mindset of just taking in as much information as I can and trying to understand it in as much depth as possible given what we know at this time. After all, it’s not the concepts we do know, but rather the realization of how much we don’t understand and of how many unsolved, interesting questions there are still out there that pushes science forward and makes it so exciting in the first place.
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
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