Harvard Gazette
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What to make? Let the wheels decide.

‘Randomizer’ gets creative gears spinning in ceramic studio

Arts & Culture

What to make? Let the wheels decide.

Tom Hubbard and Forrest Sincoff Gard co-teach a class called “The Randomizer” that features six spinning wheels to influence student work — mixing up their clay, tools, and techniques.

Photos and video by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

5 min read

‘Randomizer’ gets creative gears spinning in ceramic studio

Working with clay requires taking risks. A roulette-style game called The Randomizer is helping students avoid the kind of overthinking that can stifle creativity.

Decorated with a rainbow and LED lights, the new apparatus, whose home this summer is the entrance to the Harvard Ceramics Program, is not a tool for physically shaping clay, but more a tool for the mind. “Where all your clay dreams come true,” said ceramics instructor Tom Hubbard, laughing.

The idea for The Randomizer, part game show, part improv comedy, came to Hubbard after seeing a slot machine-inspired contraption on the Food Network’s “Tournament of Champions.” He immediately saw how the tool could be applied to the ceramic studio, and enlisted fellow ceramicist Forrest Sincoff Gard, whose work centers around games and play. The two set out to design a co-taught class where the wheels took control, turning out random assignments.

Suzanne Osorio and fellow students reacts after The Randomizer is spun at the Harvard Ceramics Program.
Suzanne Osorio (center) and classmates react to a spin revealing the week’s challenge, which includes a wild card “one tool” restriction.
Hubbard speaks to the class.
Hubbard speaks to the class.
The Randomizer Week 4 directives - brown stone, wheel, vessel, industrial, texture, one tool - are outlined on a whiteboard.
Directives are outlined on a whiteboard.
Gard demonstrates at the wheel using his chosen one tool – a throwing rib.
Gard demonstrates at the wheel using his one tool, a throwing rib.

Hubbard constructed the Randomizer — “it’s a total DIY job” — with Sonotubes used for pouring cement footings, bearings, wooden dowls, and critically, flappers to create the characteristic clicking noise of a roulette wheel. He and Gard next set out to define the six categories — clay, method, object, style, surface, and wildcard — and compiled long lists for each category including such parameters as terra cotta, coil, sculpture, playful, underglaze transfer, and “add a spout.”

The first class broke the ice with a speed challenge featuring four randomized factors to complete during a two-hour block. That allowed the students “to come up with an idea and act on it and not overthink it,” said Hubbard. The spin produced a doozy of a challenge — porcelain, slab construction, sculpture, historic. “And there were no tears, there was no moaning or groaning. People just got on with it.” The initial class was so popular, Hubbard and Gard scrapped the plan for longer-term projects, and the speed challenge became the norm for every class.

The Randomizer leads the way, and the co-teachers pull on their collective knowledge to guide the students through each challenge with advice and demonstrations. The summer class, conceived as a trial to be offered again during the fall semester (registration opens at 2 p.m. on July 24), has 13 participants, a mix of Harvard affiliates that includes staff, retired faculty/staff, a graduate student, and members of the Boston area community.

“I was excited … to get people out of their comfort zones and really get people to try new things they wouldn’t normally do,” Gard said.

Gard (left) and Hubbard check in at the wheel during class.
Gard (left) and Hubbard check in during class.
Badriyyah Alsabah works at the wheel trying out a sponge as the only tool.
Badriyyah Alsabah tries out a sponge as the only tool.
Suzana Lisanti throws an impressively large vessel with only a wooden rib.
Suzana Lisanti throws an impressively large vessel with only a wooden rib.
Osorio attaches a handle to a bottle form.
Osorio attaches a handle to a bottle form.

The Randomizer seeks to elicit the kind of bravery exhibited by students new to the art. As Hubbard put it: “I’ve seen people in beginning classes who are touching clay for the first time, to see the fearlessness that they have, and I think we sometimes lose that. Hopefully, this brings a little bit of that back.”

With more than 20 years at the program, Suzana Lisanti, a student and instructor (she teaches wood-firing workshops), enjoys the spontaneity. “I had to get over the concept that I had to have finished products all the time.” For the first challenge, she made a whale that led her down a new path. “I discovered I’m interested in doing whales. It wasn’t a passion before, and then after class, I remade it.”

Gard’s wheel thrown vessels are on display.
Gard’s wheel-thrown vessels are on display.
A student wedges brown stoneware before hitting the wheel.
A student wedges brown stoneware.
Detail of wheel work.
Detail of wheel work.
Jennifer Engel throws at the wheel.
Jennifer Engel throws at the wheel.
Gard (left) and Lori Moreau work at the wheel.
Gard (left) and Lori Moreau work at the wheel.
Megan Christian comments about the week’s challenge and the work produced.
During the final review, Megan Christian comments about the week’s challenge and the work produced.
Thrown pots by the entire class are placed on the worktable to review.
Thrown pots by the entire class are placed on the worktable to review.
Engel jokes around while speaking about the week’s challenge.
Engel jokes around while speaking about the week’s challenge.
Christine Kyl talks about the completed work alongside the rainbow-decorated Randomizer.
Christine Kyl talks about the completed work alongside the rainbow-decorated Randomizer.

On a recent visit to the class, The Randomizer spun “brown stoneware,” “potter’s wheel,” “vessel or utilitarian,” “industrial style,” “surface texture,” and a challenging wild card — to use only one tool. Student Badriyyah Alsabah said, “One of my favorite parts is the immediate moment after all the choices are revealed, and everyone’s looking at each other, ‘What do we do now?’”

For this particular challenge, the wild card “one tool” instruction was the topic of discussion, and students were divided between selecting a sponge or a throwing rib. The constraint sent the potters into creative spaces, solving problems, changing techniques, and adapting tools.

“I’m just grateful to have the ability to explore with clay and have a really good laugh,” Alsabah said. “It’s the class I’ve loved the most.”

Between bright light and a good mood, plenty of sleep

Researchers outline path to lower risk of depression


Between bright light and a good mood, plenty of sleep

Woman sleeping in bed.
2 min read

Researchers outline path to lower risk of depression

Why might more time in the sun boost a person’s mood? A new study led by investigators at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital suggests that sleep may hold the key. The study, which included more than 6,600 participants, found that participants who spent more time in bright light had more regular sleep, and that more regular sleep was associated with lower depression symptoms and lower odds of mild or severe depression. Results are published in JAMA Network Open.

“Getting consistent, regular sleep has wide-ranging effects on our health,” said co-author Susan Redline, the Peter C. Farrell Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a senior physician in the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “Future studies examining bright light therapy should not overlook the role sleep regularity may be playing in influencing mood and depression symptoms.”

The study, which was led by first author Danielle A. Wallace, also of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, used data collected from 2011 to 2014 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The team investigated whether bright light exposure (at a level generally equivalent to daylight exposure) was associated with depression symptoms, and, if so, whether the sleep-regularity index (a measure of the consistency of day-to-day sleep schedules) explained this association. Bright light and sleep regularity were measured using a wrist-worn device.

“We found that greater time spent in bright light was modestly associated with lower depression symptoms and that sleep regularity partly explained this association,” said Wallace. “Higher Vitamin D was also associated with greater bright-light exposure and greater sleep regularity, but not with depression symptoms.”

The authors noted that the findings are limited by the cross-sectional nature of the data, and therefore causality cannot be determined. For example, depression symptoms may influence time spent outdoors and bright-light exposure. Future research should follow participants over time to evaluate the role of sleep regularity in the relationship between light exposure and mood.The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health.

What the judge was thinking and what’s next in Trump documents case

Obama-era White House counsel says key point in Nixon decision should have ended inquiry

Clockwise from left, former President Donald Trump, U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon, and Special Counsel Jack Smith.

Photos via AP; photo illustration by Liz Zonarich/Harvard Staff

Nation & World

What the judge was thinking and what’s next in Trump documents case

Obama-era White House counsel says key point in Nixon decision should have ended inquiry

7 min read

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon dismissed the classified documents case against former President Donald Trump, ruling that Special Counsel Jack Smith was improperly appointed.

Smith’s team charged Trump with illegally retaining classified material after leaving the White House, including national security documents, and obstructing efforts by the government to retrieve them. The case was seen by many as the strongest of the major criminal cases against the ex-president, who appointed Cannon. Smith plans to appeal the ruling.

W. Neil Eggleston served as counsel to President Obama and is now a lecturer at the Law School. He offered his analysis of the Cannon ruling and weighed what’s next in the case in a conversation that has been edited for clarity and length.

Cannon ruled that the special counsel was appointed improperly. What was her legal reasoning?

It’s a mashup of statutory analysis and two constitutional principles — the Appointments Clause and the Appropriations Clause. She looks at the provisions in the order appointing Smith that set forth the statutory basis for that appointment. She also looks at the statutes and concludes that the statutes do not authorize the attorney general to appoint a special counsel. She focuses on the fact that Smith was not a Department of Justice employee or officer at the time of the appointment — he was working at The Hague. It’s not clear to me why that matters, because today he’s a Department of Justice official. She infuses the analysis with lengthy discussions of the Appointments Clause and the Appropriations Clause.

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How would you characterize the decision?

In my view, her reading of the statutory provisions is quite stingy. Two other district courts and the D.C. Circuit have considered this issue — the legality of the special counsel — and they have all rejected it. Cannon is the only judge to find the appointment invalid. The D.C. Circuit has twice rejected a challenge to the use of special counsels — during the Iran-Contra investigation and during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Trump. Judge Dabney Friedrich of the District Court in D.C., who is a Trump appointee, tossed aside a similar challenge without a lot of effort in a fairly short opinion in a case involving Mueller, who oversaw the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Judge T.S. Ellis of the Eastern District of Virginia similarly tossed this issue aside in a case that also involved Mueller. So, the other courts that have looked at this issue have had no trouble with it and have ruled contrary to Cannon.

“I’ve never seen a district court conclude that a portion of a Supreme Court opinion is not binding; that was a first for me.”

What are the regulations under which special counsels are appointed?

Special counsels have been around for decades. From the 1970s until the late ’90s there was the independent counsel statute, which provided for a much more independent special prosecutor than what Attorney General [Merrick] Garland authorized in this matter. The Supreme Court upheld the statute in Morrison v. Olson, but it expired in 1999. After its expiration, DOJ implemented its own regulations providing for the appointment of special counsels who possess functions similar to U.S. attorneys. In 2020, in an Appointments Clause case involving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Supreme Court essentially reaffirmed Morrison v. Olson as a valid exception to a general rule about appointments.

What surprised you most about the decision?

One very surprising thing is how Cannon deals with the Supreme Court precedent in United States v. Nixon. There’s a sentence in that 9-0 opinion which resolves this issue entirely. The sentence says that Archibald Cox, who was one of the prosecutors of Nixon, was appropriately appointed pursuant to the statute. And you would have thought that would have ended this inquiry. Cannon does something I think I’ve never seen a district judge do before, which is that she looks into the history of the Nixon case, decides the issue wasn’t particularly briefed, and as a result determines that a sentence in a Supreme Court opinion that was decided 9-0 was, in fact, “dicta,” which means that it is not binding in subsequent cases as legal precedent. And as a result, she as a district judge was entitled to disregard it. I’ve never seen a district court conclude that a portion of a Supreme Court opinion is not binding; that was a first for me.

In my seminar at Harvard Law School, I teach that portion of the Nixon opinion, and the beginning of it is essentially whether the matter is justiciable and whether the case is properly in the court, partially because it’s an intra-branch fight — it’s two parts of the executive branch that are litigating against each other. It was important to the court to point out that the special counsel was validly appointed and validly in the court, because if they thought he had not been, then the matter would not have been justiciable. The entire first part of the Nixon opinion is really about justiciability.

Cannon was appointed by Trump in 2020. Some observers say that judges shouldn’t be allowed to rule on the person who appointed them. What is your opinion?

That does not trouble me at all. Presidents appoint a lot of judges who then go off and make all sorts of decisions. This comes up in the administrative law context all the time, where district judges and appeals judges must rule on presidential policies. I don’t think most people think that the fact that they’ve been nominated by the person whose policy they’re now reviewing creates an appearance of impropriety. There is a lot of criticism about the way Cannon was handling the matter. I would not go so far as to say that she should not have taken the matter due to an appearance of impropriety.

Smith has said that he’s going to appeal. Can you talk about his likely strategy and whether the case might end up before the Supreme Court?

Smith’s appeal is going to be based on the issues we’re talking about. He’ll say that the judge’s reading of the authorizing statutes is wrong, and that in fact, the attorney general is entitled to appoint non-DOJ personnel to be special counsel. That’ll be the principal argument. Smith will also argue that the infused atmosphere of the Appointments Clause and the Appropriations Clause really has no place in the discussion. It’s a question of whether the statute permits it or doesn’t permit it. He’ll also raise the notion that essentially Nixon has already decided this case.

An appeal in the 11th Circuit would take roughly a year to decide. If Trump is elected president, after his inauguration he will certainly order the Department of Justice to dismiss the federal cases against him. The Department of Justice would then dismiss those cases and there would not be an appeal.

If Trump is not elected, there’s a strong chance that the 11th Circuit will reverse Cannon’s decision. Whichever way the 11th Circuit ruled, I suspect the issues would then be decided in the Supreme Court. I’m not going to predict what the Supreme Court would do.

Brian Lee to step down as VP for alumni affairs and development

‘Champion of Harvard and our mission’ will depart at end of calendar year

Campus & Community

Brian Lee to step down as VP for alumni affairs and development

Brian Lee. (Photo by Rob Greer)

Photo by Rob Greer

6 min read

‘Champion of Harvard and our mission’ will depart at end of calendar year

Brian K. Lee, who has served as vice president for alumni affairs and development since 2018, will retire at the end of the calendar year, Harvard announced on Wednesday.

“For the past 25 years, I have been privileged to lead alumni affairs and fund-raising efforts of three outstanding institutions, and serving Harvard has been the high point of a deeply gratifying and rewarding career,” Lee said in a message to alumni affairs and development staff. “[N]ow is the time for me to make room for other goals and to be more present and available to my family and friends, whose patience, understanding, and unwavering support have made my life’s work possible.”

Interim President Alan Garber praised Lee’s ability to put connection — to people and to Harvard’s mission — at the heart of his work. “Brian is a champion of Harvard and our mission,” Garber said in a message to University colleagues. “Since 2018, our community has benefited tremendously from his ability to connect individuals and their interests to our institution and our aspirations, even in the face of unprecedented challenges. There are, of course, the outstanding acts of generosity enabled by Brian’s leadership, but what I most admire is his commitment to articulating our values and how they guide our efforts to seek support of our teaching and research.”

Lee brought significant fundraising and alumni relations experience to his role, having previously led advancement functions for Tufts and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In announcing Lee’s appointment at Harvard, then-President Larry Bacow noted his “extraordinary ability to bring together people in support of higher education,” and his “especially strong record of supporting and advancing institutional goals with a combination of creativity, insight, and thoughtfulness.”

“Brian is a champion of Harvard and our mission. Since 2018, our community has benefited tremendously from his ability to connect individuals and their interests to our institution and our aspirations, even in the face of unprecedented challenges.”

Interim President Alan M. Garber

During Lee’s tenure, Harvard saw significant increases in annual fundraising and increased engagement among alumni. The University also established major initiatives — including efforts focused on financial aid, life sciences, climate, as well as artificial and natural intelligence — fueled by philanthropy from Harvard alumni and friends.

Lee took office as vice president at the conclusion of a five-year capital campaign that raised $9.62 billion, including $1.3 billion to support and expand financial aid. With increased engagement from supporters and alumni, he built a fundraising program that would yield four of Harvard’s top six fundraising years of all time.

Under Lee’s management, Harvard’s alumni affairs and development office also added focus to improving collaboration to enable greater impact for cross-School and University-wide initiatives. Working with then-Provost Garber to strengthen and communicate the University’s gift policies, he also streamlined processes in Harvard’s development organization and convened and chaired the Council of Fundraising Deans to boost support for University-wide priorities.

“Through our work together on the Gift Policy Committee, I gained a greater appreciation for the judicious perspective Brian brings to all he does, not focused on any one path but on the horizon — and what may lie just beyond it,” said Garber. “These instincts are complemented by a seemingly unlimited capacity to listen closely and generously, with his many interactions rooted in a genuine interest in people and what matters to them.”

In 2022, Lee played a pivotal role in advancing philanthropic gifts to support the creation of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural & Artificial Intelligence and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. Each of these University-wide institutes draws expertise from across Harvard’s diverse fields to create space for innovation and practical solutions. Additionally, Lee helped to develop a gift made in 2019 to enable the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance, a research and performance center now under construction that will become the new home for the American Repertory Theater in Allston.  

Engagement from alumni and participation in Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) events and activities also increased and evolved under Lee’s leadership. In the past year, the HAA saw record numbers of alumni participating in programs ranging from Harvard Alumni Day and Harvard and Radcliffe College reunions to events around the globe, such as Global Networking Night and conversations with Garber in London, Washington, and Miami. Alumni also joined virtual events on topics ranging from happiness to democracy to climate change to civil discourse on campus.

“Brian has been wonderful to work with,” said Moitri Chowdhury Savard ’93, current president of the Harvard Alumni Association. “He is thoughtful and dedicated to higher education and to working with the wide Harvard alumni community wherever we are around the world. I look forward to our collaboration over the next six months. I wish him and his family the best in their future adventures.”

Before Harvard, Lee was vice president for development and institute relations at Caltech, where he played a key role in launching the Breakthrough Campaign, the largest in the institution’s history, which raised more than $3 billion. Prior to his time at Caltech, Lee spent 26 years at Tufts University, ultimately serving as senior vice president for university advancement, where he developed a comprehensive alumni relations and engagement program and worked closely with the Tufts alumni association.

Lee has also served as the chairman of the board for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a global nonprofit dedicated to educational advancement through work in alumni relations, communications, development, marketing, and advancement services. He was selected by peers to serve on the international CASE Europe board.

“With attention and care, Brian has shaped the careers of countless colleagues, expanding his circle of influence to institutions across the country and around the world,” said Garber. “I have enjoyed getting to know and collaborating with someone who is so perfectly suited for his chosen profession, doing his very important part to advance the University’s mission.” As Lee departs at the end of the calendar year, Garber shared that the search for the next vice president of alumni affairs and development will begin soon, and that advice and nominations regarding the search may be sent, in confidence, to vpaadsearch@harvard.edu.

Fiona Coffey named director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard

Innovative and accomplished leader, believes in integrating arts into nontraditional spaces, disciplines

Fiona Coffey portrait.

Fiona Coffey.

Sandy Aldieri/Perceptions Photography

Campus & Community

Fiona Coffey named director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard

Innovative and accomplished leader, believes in integrating arts into nontraditional spaces, disciplines

4 min read

Fiona Coffey, a creative producer, global theater historian, and accomplished administrator dedicated to making the arts accessible, will become the new director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, Danoff Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana announced Wednesday.

Coffey will take the directorial helm Aug. 5, succeeding Jack Megan, who stepped down in June after 23 years as director.

“With Fiona’s track record of innovative leadership, we can look forward to a future where the arts continue to be a central and transformative element of the Harvard experience. Her leadership will sustain current efforts and drive new initiatives, fostering creative expression and engagement across the College, University, and beyond. I am eager to see her impact on the next generation of College students,” Khurana said.

Coffey comes to Harvard from Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, where she has been associate director and curator for performing arts since 2018 as well as a visiting assistant professor in the theater department. 

“I am so excited and energized, ready to get to work,” Coffey said. “I’m thrilled to help continue the OFA’s legacy and to lead the team forward, building on all of the incredible work they are already doing.”

Coffey holds an B.A. from Stanford University, a master’s degree in Irish Drama and Film from Trinity College in Dublin, and a Ph.D. in theater and performance from Tufts University. Her scholarship centers around Irish drama, specifically women dramatists and theatrical responses to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. She is the author of “Political Acts: Women in Northern Irish Theatre, 1921-2012” (2016).

At Wesleyan, Coffey’s responsibilities included producing the visiting guest artist series and a season of public shows in music, dance, theater, and interdisciplinary arts. She also produced and curated long-term residencies, bringing artists to campus to collaborate with faculty and students. Her teaching repertoire included courses on theater history and arts administration.

“I don’t see art as being on the periphery or as supplemental to higher education, I really view it as essential to a holistic liberal arts and science experience,” Coffey said. “Creative research and arts practice are rigorous forms of scholarship and knowledge-production and are on par with the research and learning that is happening in some of our traditional classroom spaces.”

Hopi Hoekstra, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “Whether in the art studio or at the lab bench, creativity drives our academic mission forward. I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Fiona to the vibrant, interdisciplinary environment of Harvard, of which artists and art-making are an essential part.”

Coffey currently serves as co-president of New England Presenters, a regional membership organization providing support to arts organizers. In recent years she also helped produce touring projects for several dance organizations, including Chicago-based Era Footwork Collective and Toronto-based inDANCE.

A priority for Coffey is ensuring that arts are accessible to students regardless of their prior experience or chosen area of study, and she believes in integrating arts into nontraditional spaces and disciplines.

“The arts are often on the forefront of important political and social change, and when we bring artists into conversation and into research with non-arts disciplines, we’re able to address the most complex, challenging problems in new ways that can shift people’s thinking around an issue,” Coffey said. “Artists have an essential role to play in helping humanity move toward a more just and equitable world, and I believe artists’ ability to vision a different reality than the one we live in now is necessary for human progress.”

Books that pay off

Recommendations from three Harvard economists, including Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin

Collage of book covers about money.

Illustration by Liz Zonarich/Harvard Staff

Work & Economy

Books that pay off

Recommendations from three Harvard economists, including Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin

4 min read

The power of money is lost on no one but still a universal source of frustration, folly, and confusion — at kitchen tables, in boardrooms, among voters and the leaders who want their votes. To help make sense of dollars and cents, we asked three Harvard economists to recommend some favorite books on the subject.

Jason Furman.
Harvard file photo

Jason Furman

Aetna Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy, Harvard Kennedy School/Department of Economics

Book cover: "Money."

Jacob Goldstein

“An entertaining history of what money is — and what aspired to be money but turned out not to be, often at a great loss to those who bet on it.”

Book cover: "The Future of Money."

“The Future of Money”
Eswar S. Prasad

“The most reliable economic account of cryptocurrencies, providing a particularly balanced account of the pros and cons of central banks’ developing digital currencies to replace or complement traditional money.”

Book cover: "Money Mischief."

“Money Mischief”
Milton Friedman

“The leading postwar proponent of monetarism wrote scholarly books about money that were more important but probably not more entertaining.”

Book cover: "The Price of Peace."

“The Price of Peace”
Zachary D. Carter

“Two-thirds of this book is a magnificent biography of John Maynard Keynes that does a good job explaining his important and wide-ranging thinking on how money affects the economy more broadly — not to mention issues of war and peace. The last third is about economic policy after the death of Keynes and is less reliable and nuanced.”

Kenneth Rogoff.
File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Kenneth S. Rogoff

Professor of Economics and Maurits C. Boas Chair of International Economics

Book cover: "The Ascent of Money."

The Ascent of Money
Niall Ferguson

“Ferguson weaves the development of debt and finance through history and people, from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern global financial bank. As entertaining and eloquent as it is insightful, Ferguson’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines is remarkable, and the writing has wit and humor that is often sorely lacking in this space.”

Book cover: "The Only Game in Town."

The Only Game in Town
Mohamed A. El-Erian

“For those who find central banking mysterious, El-Erian’s book gives an in-depth look at how, during the extended period of political paralysis that set in after the global financial crisis, central banks engaged not only in monetary policy but quasi-fiscal policy. With hindsight, it is clear that the effects of these efforts were often wildly overblown — so-called quantitative easing now appears to be largely smoke and mirrors — but nevertheless a very concise and eloquent exposition of the challenges and issues.”

Book cover: "Ben Franklin."

Ben Franklin: An American Life
Walter Isaacson

“A sweeping view of Franklin’s life, it also explains how he was way ahead of his time in bringing the newfangled invention of paper currency to the colonies, earning a living as the official money printer for both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Money has always been at the cutting edge of technology, just as it is with digital currencies today. Among his many other skills, Franklin was also, by all accounts, the best chess player in North America in his day.”

Book cover: "The Curse of Cash."

The Curse of Cash
Kenneth S. Rogoff

“I would be remiss not to mention my own book on the past, present, and future of coinage, currency, and digital currencies. A guiding theme is how— although innovation in transactions technologies almost invariably emanates from the private sector — in due time the government invariably regulates and often appropriates, whether it be the electrum coins of ancient Lydia or the flying money of ancient China that eventually morphed into the tree-bark money Marco Polo discovered upon arriving in the Yuan dynasty. The book suggests that the same trajectory awaits today’s digital currencies.”

Claudia Goldin.
File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photograher

Claudia Goldin

Henry Lee Professor of Economics; Lee and Ezpeleta Professorship of Arts & Sciences

Book cover: The Forgotten Financiers of the Louisiana Purchase.

The Forgotten Financiers of the Louisiana Purchase
Larry Neal

“Lots of intrigue, fascinating finance — should be a PBS special. We think of a land purchase of that scale as a diplomatic issue, but the United States had to pay for it. How did they do it? Through the Barings, a banking family that, for a while, was more powerful than the Rothschilds.”

Book cover: "Career and Family."

Career and Family
Claudia Goldin

“The book concerns the increased desire of college-graduate women across the past 120 years to achieve both family and career — the great strides that have been made, but also how the quest has often been stymied by the economic marketplace.”

The answer to your search may depend on where you live

Researchers find ‘language bias’ in various site algorithms, raising concerns about fallout for social divisions among nations

Illustration by Liz Zonarich/Harvard Staff

Science & Tech

The answer to your search may depend on where you live

Researchers find ‘language bias’ in various site algorithms, raising concerns about fallout for social divisions among nations

long read

Headshot in Michael Puett, Queenie Luo, and Michael D. Smith.

Michael Puett (left), Queenie Luo, and Michael D. Smith.

Photo by Grace DuVal

A Chinese-language Google user types in “Buddhism” and launches a search. A French-language user searches the same term, as does an English-language user. Will all three get the same results? New Harvard research says not necessarily, finding online search responses can vary significantly and even conflict depending on the topic and language of the query.

The variation is a result of a hidden “language bias” embedded in the search algorithms of Google, ChatGPT, YouTube, and Wikipedia, says Queenie Luo, who studies artificial intelligence ethics and early Chinese history and is co-author of a paper with her Ph.D. adviser, Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, and Michael D. Smith, former dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences who now teaches at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). 

That bias, they contend, distorts users’ understanding of search topics by limiting their exposure to a full range of information and viewpoints and raises questions about larger implications for relations between nations and peoples.

The Gazette spoke with Luo, who earned a master’s degree from SEAS in data science in 2023, about language bias in searches and the potential social and political harms that can arise from this hidden filter in major search platforms. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

You tested a number of search terms, but the paper focuses on two that are extremely complex and abstract, Buddhism and liberalism. What did you find on Google? 

Buddhism is a global religion that has developed distinct cultural traditions in different language communities worldwide. Chinese Buddhism is very different than Japanese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, and Vietnamese Buddhism. Essentially, Western Buddhism has evolved into another branch of Buddhism over the past two centuries.

Our research found that when searching for Buddhism-related phrases on Google using different languages, the top-ranked websites tend to reflect the dominant Buddhist tradition of the query’s language community. 

“Our research found that as Google and most online platforms use search language as a significant filter, different language users end up reading highly distinct information online.” 

The general assumption among internet users is that they can access global information through search engines, with Google often perceived as providing objective, unfiltered results. However, our research found that as Google and most online platforms use search language as a significant filter, different language users end up reading highly distinct information online. 

Such problems aren’t just limited to Buddhism-related queries, but extend to a wide range of topics, such as liberalism and international trade policy. For example, if you search liberalism using English on Google, you tend to get very positive views about liberalism and nearly no references to neoliberalism. The concepts of free market, human rights, and equality tend to be strongly emphasized in English-language search results.

However, if you switch your search language to Chinese, Google’s top-ranked search results on liberalism tend to benegative and frequently connect it to neoliberalism. Similarly, when you ask Google, “What constitutes good economic policy” using a European language like Italian or French, the top-ranked websites tend to emphasize aspects such as protective market economy, but the top-ranked websites would instead focus on “free market economy” or “limited government intervention” when you search using English. 

These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive but can be contradictory based on context.  

What about other platforms people use to search, like ChatGPT?

Things changed with ChatGPT. As ChatGPT is predominantly trained on English-language data, it always presents the Anglo-American perspectives by default. The version integrated with Bing behaves similarly to Google in that it searches into websites in the query’s language and summarizes the main content for you. 

Wikipedia and YouTube are two major platforms featured prominently on Google. We found that language bias also exists on these two platforms. For example, if you search on Wikipedia using English about Buddhist meditation, the English article gives you an overview of world traditions of Buddhist meditation. 

But if you switch to the French article, it includes a section of “neuroscience and Buddhism” that does not exist in articles in other languages. This difference could be partly due to the influence of the French monk Matthieu Ricard, who has participated in a series of neuroscience experiments to demonstrate the benefits of meditation and attracted a lot of attention in the French-speaking community.

Language bias becomes more dramatic on YouTube because YouTube videos tend to provide highly concentrated and focused information on one narrow aspect. For example, when searched using Japanese, the top-ranked videos include Buddhist music performed by a Japanese monk, whereas the English videos teach users about the wisdom of the Buddha. The impressions that different linguistic users get from watching these videos are very different.

So users are steered to different information and only shown the prevailing views of the search language, and not getting a global picture of the query topic? 

“We use the fable of the blind men and the elephant to describe this phenomenon, that each language community is like a blind person touching a small portion of the elephant while believing they have seen the whole.”

Exactly. Such filtering effect can be neutral or useful for utility-based questions, such as visa requirements. However, it can pose a significant threat to our society on sensitive and complex topics like liberalism and international trade policy. Unlike math or computer science, which have definitive answers, complex topics demand diversity and mutual debate. 

We use the fable of the blind men and the elephant to describe this phenomenon, that each language community is like a blind person touching a small portion of the elephant while believing they have seen the whole. 

As Google’s ranking algorithm is designed to capture the “common case” and majority’s interests while also filtered by language, English-language users typically get positive views about liberalism while Chinese-language users get criticisms of it through Google.

Over time, such technology serves as a facilitator for social division. Mutual engagement is no longer possible because each language community sees different facts. 

What factors are driving this?  

There are many factors that contribute to the existing pattern. First, using the language filter is an algorithmic choice. Without a good translation system, users cannot read information written in other languages, so the language filter serves a practical function. However, now with machine translation, the language filter might not be necessary. 

Second, language is intrinsically tied to culture, history, and group identity, so any concept that is expressed through a certain linguistic system is inseparable from its cultural roots. On concepts surrounding Buddhism and liberalism, different language corpora do exhibit very different opinions and perspectives. 

And thirdly, the extent of discrepancy across different language searches varies depending on the topic you’re searching. For example, on topics like “Jacobean matrix,” we did not observe precipitable differences across languages. “Jacobean matrix” is a relatively new and very technical term, and has a well-defined mathematical definition, so when you’re searching this term across different languages, you don’t see much difference. 

Scientific, mathematical, and technical terms, especially recent technical terms, as they have well-defined definitions, tend to have consistent interpretations. However, for terms that have a longer history, like Newton’s First Law, the top-ranked websites often include a lot of historical narratives surrounding these topics

Why is language bias showing up in AI-powered searches?

As mentioned earlier, current large language models are mainly trained on English-language data and always follow the Anglo-American perspectives by default. 

There are many layers of technical issues that contribute to such problems. The first layer is with the imbalanced training data. The second layer has to do with debiasing techniques, “alignment,” and human review. Biases in existing training data are unavoidable — issues with gender bias and racial bias are very common in AI models. 

However, as biases embedded in complex topics like liberalism and Buddhism haven’t caught much attention within the AI community, people haven’t started testing and working on such issues. So, most large language models currently follow the dominant and most popular perspectives in their training data, which happen to be the Anglo-American views. Fortunately, these issues can be mitigated in ways similar to how gender and racial biases are addressed.  

In the paper, you warn that such language bias creates “a strong, invisible cultural barrier that has important sociopolitical implications for bridging divides.” Can you explain?

“As people continue being reinforced by the dominant views in their own language community while believing they have seen the whole, this technology is not serving us well as a communication mediator. “

The general internet user tends to attribute authority to Google and believe Google’s search results are neutral and objective, especially compared with social media platforms. They are not aware of the skewed perspectives they get from Google. 

As people continue being reinforced by the dominant views in their own language community while believing they have seen the whole, this technology is not serving us well as a communication mediator. 

The danger lies in the long term. On sensitive and complex topics like what constitutes a good market economy, if one side is reinforced with the idea that a free-market economy is good while the other side is constantly fed with the advantages of a protective market economy, it can be quite challenging for both sides to reach consensus. 

The language filter on the internet sets a strong barrier that prevents us from mutually understanding each other while reinforcing our existing beliefs without hearing the other side.

What can users or even the tech companies do to minimize the effects of language bias in online search?

From a user perspective, you can use Google Translate and translate your search phrase into different languages and then use the translated phrases to search and translate them back to your own language. However, these actions can be so costly to the user. 

From the technical aspect, there are many ways to minimize language bias if the goal is to help users to access information from different language corpora. First, adopting a recommendation system — [that would work] like Amazon’s shopping recommendation — can help users get exposed to alternative opinions out there. Right now, the“related search” in Google search is not helping because those related search suggestions are suggesting the majority’s view within the same language.

Second, the recently rolled-out Google AI Overview has the potential to overcome language barriers. As it is searching and summarizing content for users, it can identify a spectrum of viewpoints from their entire repository, regardless of language, and then summarize and translate the main points back to users, helping users to break down the language barrier. 

How an artist discovered a shining star

Exhibit on MBTA Red Line honors work of woman astronomer whose work paved path for modern astrophysics but remained hidden in her lifetime 

Campus & Community

How an artist discovered a shining star

Red Line travelers walking by the installation.

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

5 min read

Exhibit on MBTA Red Line honors work of woman astronomer whose work paved path for modern astrophysics but remained hidden in her lifetime 

Artist Ligia Bouton first learned about astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt during a 2019 tour of the University’s famed Plate Stacks, which house more than half a million historical glass-plate negatives and spectral images of the night sky.  

Leavitt was among the nearly 150 female scientists who catalogued the images during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, working as “astronomical computers” at the Harvard College Observatory. She became the first to devise a way to effectively measure distances to remote galaxies after noting specific star luminosity patterns. Leavitt’s contributions, which paved a path to modern astrophysics, went largely unsung during her lifetime, due to her gender as well as her untimely death from cancer at 53.   

Leavitt’s story stirred Bouton, who seeks to infuse appropriated historical narratives, particularly forgotten histories of women, into her sculpture and photography. And it resulted in a new exhibition that pays homage to the researcher whose work has proved crucial to scientists seeking to determine the size and scope of our universe.

“I think about how different time periods affected women’s ability to do their work, and what kinds of obstacles they faced.”

Ligia Bouton

“I think about how different time periods affected women’s ability to do their work, and what kinds of obstacles they faced,” said the Mount Holyoke College professor.

25 Variable Stars: A Temporary Monument for Henrietta Swan Leavitt,” opened this summer at the temporary entrance to the northbound Red Line MBTA station at Kendall/MIT in Cambridge. The dynamic, lenticular photographs depict the periodic luminosity of 25 Cepheid variable stars that Leavitt first used to ascertain galactic distances. 

Writing in a 1912 publication, Leavitt detailed her discovery that Cepheid stars ­— captured on glass plate photographs still housed at the Harvard College Observatory — pulsed in a predictable way. She documented a relationship between the size of each star and how quickly it pulsed, leading to the first system for measuring far distances in the universe. 

The legacy of Leavitt’s discovery is immense, according to the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “Leavitt’s Law,” as her findings became known, were ultimately used by Edwin Hubble to prove that the universe is made of multiple galaxies. It is still used today to track the expansion of the universe and to establish relative distances to new galaxies, black holes, and supernovae. 

Thom Burns, curator of astronomical photographs at the Plate Stacks, worked with Bouton and colleagues at the Center for Astrophysics on supporting materials and is organizing a free artist’s talk with Bouton on July 24. Center for Astrophysics Director Lisa Kewley wrote accompanying text that now hangs alongside the pieces.  

“This installation has not only given an opportunity to share the amazing story of Leavitt, but also showcases the wonderful artistic skill and vision that Ligia Bouton has,” Burns said in an email. “She has created a series of these changing stars that captivate the public, create wonder, and even gets the busy commuter to take a moment to appreciate a pioneering woman of the past and to imagine what other secrets the universe holds.”

The “25 Stars” exhibition made its debut in Copenhagen in 2023. Bouton later proposed it to the MBTA, she said, because she wanted it shown in the city where Leavitt had lived and worked. The sense of motion in the portraits also felt in line with the bustle of commuter traffic, Bouton said. 

Each piece now hanging at the busy T stop was created by layering multiple photographs of hand-blown glass objects. In lenticular printing, a lens is applied to the surface of a digitally manipulated photograph to produce the illusion of movement when it is viewed from different angles.

The star “portraits” contain images ranging from body parts to insects to plants, representing aspects of Earthly life. Bouton honored Leavitt’s research in each individual work by incorporating the number of photographs corresponding to the number of days it takes a particular Cepheid variable star to dim from brightest to smallest. The largest pieces contain 30 photographs, for 30 days. 

Bouton hopes her art will bring exposure to the extraordinary legacy of scientific discovery Leavitt left behind.

“I hope it’s just sort of weird and wonderful enough that it either catches people in a different way, or maybe they will become a little bit interested and find out about her,” Bouton said. 

The installation will be on display for about 18 months. Project sponsors included the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, BXP, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Mount Holyoke College, Visual Studies Workshop, Cambridge Arts, Mass Cultural Council, and the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. 

What’s the point of kids?

New book explores history, philosophy of having children and shifting attitudes in 21st century

Anastasia Berg posing next to a bookcase.

Anastasia Berg.

Photo by Rory O’Connell

Nation & World

What’s the point of kids?

New book explores history, philosophy of having children and shifting attitudes in 21st century

long read

Birth rates in the U.S. have been on a downward trajectory since the 1970s. And in the past decade, growing numbers of women, prioritizing education and careers, have been delaying decisions on childbearing.

Anastasia Berg ’09 and Rachel Wiseman say many women in the 21st century increasingly are asking themselves: Do I even want children? That is the main question at the heart of their new book “What Are Children For? On Ambivalence and Choice.” The book seeks to explore all of the factors — historical, societal, and financial — that have led to the present moment.

The Gazette spoke with Berg, now an assistant professor of philosophy at University of California, Irvine, and an editor for The Point magazine, to share her insights into the history and philosophy of this question. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You write that “the age of maternal optimism has ended.” What do you mean by that?

In the book, we’re interested in addressing the kinds of concerns, anxieties, and lines of reasoning people encounter when they’re considering whether or not they should have children.

We look at material concerns, like the difficulty of finding romantic partners with whom to start a family. We look at ethical concerns, like climate change. But we also look at concerns that women (in particular) feel, which are often the types of feminist concerns reconciling the demands of motherhood with female empowerment and a woman’s desire to lead a fulfilling life.

 “But one thing that everyone could really agree on was that ultimately, the choice of whether to have children was something women should make completely on their own.”

There’s a history of very lively debates within feminist theory and practice about the role of motherhood in women’s lives. We see that in the ’60s and up to the ’80s we had a real contest of divisions — with anti-motherhood camps on one side and on the other camps who wanted to reform the institution and practices of motherhood so they could once again be a legitimate source of meaning and value in life.

But one thing that everyone could really agree on was that ultimately, the choice of whether to have children was something women should make completely on their own. So they said, “We’re going to stop arguing about this in public,” and that’s where that line comes in: In a feminist context, celebrating the virtues of motherhood became no longer possible and no longer welcome.

Book cover :"What Are Children For?"

It seems in the last few decades we’ve gone from a situation where women felt compelled to want and have children to one where they now feel some pressure to consider not having children at all. What are some of the factors in that transition?

Many people today say things like, well, the opportunity costs of having children have risen. But children didn’t use to be seen through the lens of opportunity cost at all. Children were understood as part of the very framework of human life, which was understood as essentially generational; a person understood that they have a past, and they will have a future, and they will (probably) take direct part in creating the next generation.

It was the kind of thing that you did, no matter the risk or the cost. And so the radical change today is that we look at having children as a project among many projects. We can ask questions about it the same way we ask about career choice or travel plans.

And it’s not just a choice among choices. In our more recent imagination it is very much a life-ending choice. There’s a narrative that for parents, especially for women, parenthood is something that is completely shattering of their identity. It will transform you, and you will become a completely different person than you were before, losing everything that you held dear, and that you won’t be able to do anything that you care about ever again. Part of that has to do with the fact that we’re having children later, when we’re much more established in our identities.

Do you think this transition of viewing children as a “project” is a positive or a negative development?

Great question. I don’t think we can simply go back to a time where the choice to have children is one that’s kind of obvious. But what I see today, and what we try to diagnose in the book, is that it’s very hard to make this choice because there are all sorts of social issues that are contributing to that choice being made for us.

Some people have the tendency to say, “Oh, well, people used to feel like everyone was doing it, so they had to, so they weren’t free. But today is different, we have choice, and we use it freely.” But there’s so much about the way that we go about thinking about having kids that makes us unfree.

I’ll give an example. We take it for granted that in every arena of our lives, there are milestones and standards of readiness that we have to hit and achieve. We have to spend our entire 20s chasing fulfillment and self-accomplishment. We have to establish ourselves professionally, in our careers and financially.

Romantically, we have to not just find somebody who we think would be a good fit to have a family with, but also test the waters through long dating, moving in together, then we get married, then we spend some time “just us,” and only then can we even start thinking about having kids.

And so what happens today is that it’s not just that people are having children later, it’s that they’re thinking about children so late that for many people, especially women, the choice is made for them. Because if you’re only authorized or legitimized to think about kids when you’re in your early 30s, it can take years. By the time you’re trying to have a child, you may find that you’re having fewer kids than you would have wished or not having any at all.

That “standard of readiness,” as you put it, seems to be a moving target. Is that contributing to the complexity of conversations around parenthood?

Oftentimes when people describe us millennials, they tend to say we’re immature. They’re looking for us to grow up; we’re dithering.

And there’s a perspective from which millennials can actually be viewed as too mature. Because when you look at what it means for millennials to be ready to have a family, you see that they have incredibly high standards regarding what it means to be sufficiently ready.

From that perspective, they refuse to be frivolous; they refuse to take the risk. What we’ve seen by talking to hundreds of millennials is they believe they must guarantee a standard of living that is equal or higher for their children than what they had. They must first meet their own independent standards of success.

And personally, there’s this narrative of, “I don’t even know who I am. How can I have kids?” Something that’s forgotten a lot of times in these conversations is that you will change a lot whether or not you have kids.

You mentioned the common conception that when people have kids, they will lose themselves. Why is that a scarier reality to face today than for previous generations?

I don’t think it’s a reality at all. Here’s something that we can certainly learn from the past: Having children was understood as much more continuous with your life. I think today we are tempted to frame the vast changes that having children no doubt introduces to our lives as an identity break, or as a kind of rupture.

Now, the reasons for this are multifaceted. We tend to think about the things that matter to us in terms of identity, and we’ve lost other conceptual frameworks for doing that. I think we also want to see women’s experiences for all their challenges and obstacles, so we find ourselves affirming a script of saying motherhood is a complete transformation. Oftentimes that makes the decision to have children much more anxiety-producing.

In the conclusion of the book, I talk about how the script of a motherhood being a transformative experience, particularly in the sense of it annihilating your identity, didn’t apply to me. And what’s amazing to me was how many women felt liberated by having somebody say that they were happy to see this perspective represented.

People are really wrestling with this paradox of parenthood, which is that it can be both wonderful and terrible. What advice do you have for people who are currently asking themselves these big questions?

I would say I have two bits of advice. The first is to free people to be asking the question of children all the time and in the kind of setting that would allow them to really take hold of their destinies.

I think the question of whether we should have children raises a profound philosophical human question of the value of human life. This is not a book that’s trying to get you to have kids. It is a book that hopes to encourage you to think about it a little earlier than you would otherwise think about it.

And it also encourages conversations with others. So many people who we talked to said that when they’re dating, they’d bring up the question of children a few years into the relationship. That’s a recipe for disappointment for a lot of people, because at this point, you’re very much committed.

The second piece of advice is to not approach the question of whether to have children by coming up with a pros and cons list. And let me say something that I find freeing: There’s more pain and difficulty and challenge and obstacles than there is fun. Start from that perspective. There’s something liberating about it.

Once we put aside the pros and cons list, we can ask the question of the shape we want our lives to take, and what kind of contribution we want to make to this project of human life. We could be great uncles and aunts and godparents; we could be teachers; we could be artists; we could be pursuing intellectual life.

And we can also choose to take a direct part in ushering in the next generation, bringing light into the world, nurturing and educating it. For me, that is what I would encourage people to consider when they’re asking this question, should I or shouldn’t I have children?

You won’t even know you’re exercising, but your body will

Real surfing is better than channel surfing, says research focused on healthy aging. But housework is better than nothing.


You won’t even know you’re exercising, but your body will

If you can’t replace channel surfing with real surfing, housework will do, says study focused on healthy aging

3 min read
A person vacuums the floor of a home.

Put down the clicker. Pick up a broom.

New findings, the latest to emerge from the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, show that even light physical activity, including housework, increases one’s odds of healthy aging, defined as reaching 70 free of mental health issues, memory issues, physical impairments, and chronic disease.

The research team, made up of investigators from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and institutions in China and Austria, studied 45,176 people over 20 years, using TV watching as a proxy for sedentary behavior. They found that every increase of two hours of daily TV cut the chance of healthy aging by 12 percent. By contrast, two hours of light physical activity led to a 6 percent increase.

6% Boost in chance of healthy aging for every two hours of light physical activity

It’s well-established that physical activity reduces the likelihood of early death and that vigorous exercise boosts the odds of healthy aging. Researchers behind the new study wanted to explore the impact of light physical activity.

The team cited several potential mechanisms for TV’s negative effects. Prolonged sitting, they say, causes cellular and molecular responses that impair skeletal muscle function and mitochondrial activity. Skeletal muscles, in turn, play important roles in glucose metabolism, while excess sitting has been shown to reduce insulin sensitivity, disrupt sugar and fat metabolism after meals, increase inflammation, and affect blood flow to the brain.

The work is particularly important today, the team says, because technology has changed the nature of both work and leisure for many Americans. People are less active than previous generations throughout the lifespan and tend to move even less as they age. Data from the study highlighted the extent of the problem, with just 8.6 percent of participants achieving healthy aging by the end of the 20-year follow-up period.

The research also confirms earlier findings indicating that watching TV is particularly damaging to health. The research showed that even substituting other sedentary behaviors like a sedentary job, driving, or a home-based sedentary activity improved the odds of aging healthfully over TV watching. Even substituting sleep, for those who get seven hours or less per night, increased the odds of healthy aging.

The good news is that improving one’s odds of aging healthfully doesn’t have to involve an exercise plan, as almost any light activity helps.

“These findings indicate that physical activity need not be high-intensity to potentially benefit various aspects of health, which has especially important public health implications, as older people tend to have limited physical ability to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity,” the authors wrote. “Given the strong association observed between sedentary lifestyle and healthy aging, public health campaigns to promote health should not only promote increasing physical activities, but also decreasing sedentary behaviors, especially prolonged TV watching.”

The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Writing to the beat of your inner Miles Davis

Jesse McCarthy sees Black authors during Cold War philosophically opting for none of the above, and improvising their own way

Jesse McCarthy portrait.

Jesse McCarthy.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Writing to the beat of your inner Miles Davis

Jesse McCarthy sees Black authors during Cold War philosophically opting for none of the above, and improvising their own way

5 min read

Legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, who brought introspection to the more frenetic bebop style, was known for turning his back to the audience while playing, as if pulling into his own world to work out his musical ideas.

Jesse McCarthy noted a similar inward turn in Black writing during this same period. It was an observation that gave the associate professor of English and African and African American Studies a “logical touchstone” for his new book, “The Blue Period: Black Writing in the Early Cold War” — its title inspired by Davis, whose records include “Blue Period” (1953), “Blue Moods” (1955), and “Kind of Blue” (1959).

“There is a long tradition of binding Black literary expression to its musical counterpart,” he wrote.

McCarthy saw in the writing from 1945 to 1965 a marked shift as Black authors battled contradicting political ideologies — American liberalism versus Soviet communism — neither of which represented or served their needs.

This is particularly evident in Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953 novel “Maud Martha,” according to McCarthy. The tale traces the coming of age of its titular heroine, a Black working-class girl growing up in Depression-era Chicago with its day-to-day racial, class, and gender prejudices and limitations.

“Yet Maud is principally characterized by the qualities of her imagination and the independence of her intellectual life,” McCarthy explained. “That doesn’t mean that Brooks is inattentive to the social realist elements that condition her existence. She is, but Brooks does not allow those aspects to upstage our interest in the avowed autonomy of Maud’s interior life, her imagination, and her intellectual ambition.”

“There is a long tradition of binding Black literary expression to its musical counterpart.”

Jesse McCarthy

He said, “The emphasis that novel places on Maud’s subjectivity, the intensity with which it’s committed to it, but also in which it seems to believe in it as a source of resistance, is a characteristic quality of Black writing in this era, which is reimagining a form of political resistance, and trying to capture certain kinds of consciousness, affects, and attitudes, that have emerged precisely from those elements of lived experience that the political ideologies on offer could not account for.”

“The Blue Period” emerged from McCarthy’s dissertation work as a graduate student at Princeton University. While there, he noticed that accounts of African American literary history — including the Harlem Renaissance, Popular Front, and Black Arts Movement — fail to account for what was going on during a crucial period following the end of World War II.

“When we turn to this era and look for representative Black writers, we always turn to the same one or two figures,” McCarthy said, noting that Ralph Ellison’s writing dominates the area of study. “I really wanted the book to allow us to see how rich and varied this period is with your lesser-known writers, who nonetheless produced really interesting and, in many cases, unjustly neglected work.”

The 1930s saw a surge of global interest in communism, including among Black writers. Many of them, such as Édouard Glissant, Vincent O. Carter, and Paule Marshall, were nurtured or at least inspired by the organized left and by the ideals of the Communist Revolution, he noted.

“Many people saw it as the only alternative to fascism, which was on the rise in Europe. That meant that you had an entire generation of Black writers who were cultivated on the left socially,” McCarthy said. “They also were drawn to the ideology of the left because it offered a way to think about racism, primarily through the lens of class.”

The popularity of communism in the United States crumbled following World War II amid the rise of communist states across Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba. During the Cold War, Americans on the left felt obliged to either align themselves with the nation’s brand of liberalism or Soviet communism, a choice many Black writers found impossible.

Writer Richard Wright became deeply disillusioned with the Stalinist drift of the Communist Party. However, the “Native Son” author felt he couldn’t fall back on the American liberal position, “especially as a Black writer with a social and militant consciousness, from his point of view, America doesn’t represent freedom any more than the tyrannical Soviet Union,” according to McCarthy.

Increasingly, Black writers found themselves “interested in trying to think about what it would mean to write from a position that sees both of these alternatives as radically insufficient,” McCarthy noted.

This led them to experimentation with tropes of “retreat, themes of alienation, and an emphasis on the exploration of states of interiority and dissident consciousness” as they sought to reimagine what a relationship to radical politics might look like.

McCarthy concludes “The Blue Period” by asking what it means to write for a future world, a question McCarthy suggested could find echoes in aspects of the current political atmosphere in the U.S.

“One of the structuring principles at play here for these writers is what it means to write in a time that feels like a historical impasse,” he said. “When none of the politics that are available to you match your aspirations and don’t fit into your conceptions of who you are, to live and write from a position without any horizon of hope — something of that is with us again.”

Jennifer O’Connor appointed vice president and general counsel

Distinguished legal practitioner, whose career includes public service at White House and with federal agencies, to join Harvard on July 29

Portrait of Jennifer O'Connor.

Jennifer O’Connor.

Photo by Noah Willman

Campus & Community

Jennifer O’Connor appointed vice president and general counsel

Distinguished legal practitioner, whose career includes public service at White House and with federal agencies, to join Harvard on July 29

5 min read

Jennifer O’Connor, whose career includes service as legal and strategic counsel inside the White House and with several federal agencies, will become the University’s new vice president and general counsel on July 29, interim President Alan M. Garber announced on Wednesday.

O’Connor, a 1987 graduate of Harvard College who was born in Cambridge, is currently Northrop Grumman’s vice president of technology and information law and policy, a group she helped create within the company. In this role, she leads and advises on complex legal issues related to AI, cybersecurity, emerging technologies, data access and protection, and more.

“Widely admired among her colleagues for her collaborative style, strategic insight, and dedication to public service, [O’Connor] brings with her an abiding commitment to Harvard and its mission,” Garber said in a message to the Harvard community announcing the appointment. “I am confident that her unique combination of talent and experience will serve the University well at a pivotal moment for higher education.”

As vice president and general counsel, O’Connor will lead the Office of General Counsel, which provides support to the University’s Schools, divisions, and departments on an extensive array of legal matters.

“Widely admired among her colleagues for her collaborative style, strategic insight, and dedication to public service, [O’Connor] brings with her an abiding commitment to Harvard and its mission.”

interim President Alan M. Garber

“I am thrilled to be returning to Harvard, a place that has had such a profound influence on my life since I arrived as an undergraduate,” O’Connor said. “I am grateful to [interim] President Garber for his confidence and to have this opportunity, along with the amazing team in the Office of General Counsel, to support and advance the vital mission of this University and the groundbreaking work being done by students, faculty, and researchers across so many areas that will have a meaningful impact in our world today and long into the future.”

O’Connor has held legal and strategic counsel roles in various federal government offices and agencies. In 2016, she was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate as general counsel for the Department of Defense. She held that post through the end of the administration. Before joining the Defense Department, she served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy White House counsel. In that role she managed litigation strategy and congressional investigations and risk management. Her work also included a focus on national security, immigration, and foreign policy.

Prior to joining the White House staff, she served as special counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, managing investigations focused on the launch of Healthcare.gov. She worked previously as counselor to the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, where she provided strategic advice to the commissioner during a period of critical challenges and transitions.

In the private sector, O’Connor was a partner from 2006 to 2013 at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where she was also an associate from 2002 to 2006. Prior to this position, she served as a litigation associate at Miller Cassidy Larroca & Lewin and Baker Botts, and was a law clerk for the Honorable Judith Rogers in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

O’Connor served in various appointed positions in the federal government before joining the private sector, including as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor and in the White House as special assistant to the president in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff and Office of Cabinet Affairs. She also served as a deputy director in the Office of Management and Administration.

O’Connor received her A.B. from Harvard College in 1987 and an M.P.A from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in 1993. In 1997, she earned her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, where she was on the editorial board of the American Criminal Law Review and served as a teaching fellow in legal writing. She is a member of the Law and National Security Advisory Committee for the American Bar Association, a member of the Department of Defense Advisory Committee on the Investigation, Prosecution and Defense of Sexual Assaults in the Armed Forces, and is part of the board of directors for Blue Star Families.

In announcing O’Connor’s appointment, Garber expressed his appreciation to Eileen Finan for her work as interim general counsel since March 1. “I am immensely grateful for Eileen’s counsel, dedication, and wisdom over these past months, which we will continue to benefit from as she resumes her role as a University attorney.”

O’Connor is succeeding Diane Lopez, who retired at the end of February after serving as vice president and general counsel since 2019 and completing 30 years of overall service to the University.

Why do I like what I like? 

Your preferences aren’t as original as you may think, says behavior scientist 

woman walking away from lipstick, milk, coffee, pizza box, bananas, a martini, an apple, lotion, and Chinese food.

Illustration by Tim Bouckley / Ikon Images

Work & Economy

Why you like what you like

Your preferences aren’t as original as you may think, says behavioral scientist 

5 min read

A series of random questions answered by Harvard experts.

The Business School’s Michael I. Norton has explored the influence of social norms on individual choices in his research and in the books “Happy Money” and “The Ritual Effect.” We asked him about the process behind personal preferences.

Our preferences vary from category to category. Music preferences are developed in the teen years. Typically, people think whatever music they were listening to from age 16 to 20 is the best music automatically, because that’s when they were forming their identity. But your favorite car brand doesn’t develop until you’re out there shopping for cars. So when the thing hits you that you need in your life, you start to develop preferences at that time. At the same time, your parents’ preferences massively influence your own, like the brand of spaghetti sauce you use is highly correlated with the one your parents used.

We like to think that our attitudes lead to our product choices, which is true sometimes, but it’s also the case sometimes that the product choices lead to the attitudes after the fact. And we’re not really aware of when that’s happening to us. For example, everyone in Manhattan has their opinion about the best pizza place. And it turns out that it’s almost always within walking distance of where they live. So is it the best pizza place? Or did they randomly end up in that spot?

We like to think that our attitudes lead to our product choices, which is true sometimes, but it’s also the case sometimes that the product choices lead to the attitudes after the fact.

It’s totally clear that it’s pretty random, but that’s not how we think about what we like, because we think we like what we like, and we come up with reasons after the fact. 

Wine connoisseurs, for example, will try to drink every wine to develop their palate. So you could say, well, if you develop expertise, then you’re more likely to have it be your true preference. But it’s still out of a set. And things like the price of a wine dramatically influence your views. So even with drinking all the wines, you’re still getting all these signals about how good it is. 

Online, it’s easier than it used to be for companies to figure out our personalities and target consumers based on that. We tend to think of our social media as reflecting who we are, which means it’s very different if a brand pops up on your Facebook or Instagram page, because you are more likely to think, “Oh, I like this part of who I am.” Whereas if I just throw something randomly at you on the radio, well, “Hold on a second, maybe that’s not something I like, it’s just because I happen to be listening right now.”

One of the things that AI can do is pull out associations that you wouldn’t otherwise pull out. Marketers already knew that if you were buying hot dog buns, you were probably also interested in hot dogs. But there are things that are correlated with each other for a reason we can’t necessarily put our finger on, but that can be pulled out of the data. And that means that we’re getting more and more personalized ads and brands thrown at us. 

To like something organically, without influence from companies or your social network, is really hard to do. You’re going to see what your friends wear — they don’t have to say, “Buy this brand,” but you’re going to see it and you’re exposed to it. The fact that fashion differs from country to country is because you look locally and you pick something out of the set that’s there.

We are able to segment down to very specific preferences and it’s much easier to have subcultures than it used to be, but that’s still a community and we reinforce each other. Even with something like “normcore,” dressing normal and boring is an aesthetic. You’re still choosing pants from a retailer and in the end, you are reflecting your preferences and something about yourself.

At the same time, so many categories are different group to group. We share this one with our parents, and we share this one with this other set of people, and then everybody’s still drinking bottled water from the same three brands. So it’s not types of people who all buy the same things. It’s really across product categories and across people. We have all these different identities that we’re expressing in all sorts of different ways. 

As for how our tastes might change, economists would think of it in terms of switching costs. So is it easy or hard to change the preference. For example, going from a PC to a Mac, you can do it obviously, they’re both computers, but there’s some switching costs, because it’s a different interface and you have to relearn something. Whereas with shirts, I know how to put all the shirts on. So switching costs to another brand are very, very low. I might as well jump over to another brand, or pizza, or whatever it might be. But things where it’s hard to move from one to the other are where people are more likely to stay where they are.

As told to Anna Lamb, Harvard Staff Writer

An evening of stars, solar flares, and agujeros negros

Harvard College Observatory hosts inaugural Spanish-language night

Campus & Community

An evening of stars, solar flares, and agujeros negros

A girl looking up at the sky on the roof of the observatory.

Photos by Scott Eisen

4 min read

Harvard College Observatory hosts inaugural Spanish-language night

Ten-year-old David Castro really enjoyed it all, but his very favorite part was when Center for Astrophysics researcher Ernesto Camacho Iniguez talked about gravitational waves and agujeros negros — black holes.

“I like space so much, that I decided to come here to learn a lot more about space,” the bespectacled fifth grader said solemnly about Harvard College Observatory’s inaugural Spanish-Speaking Public Observatory Night.

About 50 people of all ages participated in the night of celestial education and group stargazing on June 27 at the observatory, which is part of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

The observatory has begun offering public observation nights through its array of professional-grade telescopes after a yearslong, pandemic-related hiatus, said Philippe Reekie, communication and outreach specialist at the Center for Astrophysics.

The crowd heard talks by Camacho Iniguez and Tatiana Niembro Hernández, a Center for Astrophysics solar physicist, before heading to the roof after sunset.

Along the way, participants passed the towering Great Refractor, Harvard’s historic 15-inch refracting telescope installed in 1847 that was once the largest in the world. (The telescope still functions, but its dome does not, precluding its use.)

The event was created to serve the large Spanish-speaking community of Cambridge and Boston. While most observation nights are conducted in English, Reekie also aspires to offer future events in other languages besides Spanish.

A man looks through a telescope.
Although no planets were visible during the gathering at the observatory, viewers did locate stars Vega and Arcturus.

The observatory has “a very rich and proud history of diversity,” Reekie continued. “Part of our mission is public engagement, and to highlight people who are underrepresented, particularly in science.”

Though the weather held up and the night was mostly clear, the sky didn’t quite cooperate; no planets were visible during the gathering. Viewers did get help training telescopes on the Ring Nebula, and stars like Vega and Arcturus. The latter appeared as a bright snowball when viewed through the Clark Telescope, Harvard’s largest fully operating rooftop instrument.

The night kicked off with a talk by Niembro Hernández describing her research in coronal mass ejections — large expulsions of plasma from the sun. In an interview after her talk, Niembro Hernández said she immediately replied “yes” to Reekie’s email seeking Spanish-speaking astronomers for the event.

A graduate of National Autonomous University of Mexico, Niembro Hernández said introducing nonscientists to astrophysics is a way of expressing gratitude for her past opportunities. “I want to share what I’ve learned. I love science a lot. If you have a bad professor, you will hate science. So I just want to give back.”

Niembro Hernández was followed by Camacho Iniguez, who offered a crash course in black hole characteristics and detection, complete with a tabletop demonstration of how the extraordinary mass of a black hole bends the “fabric” of space and time. He shared why his field of study gives him a thrill:

“Para mí, la astronomía es muy importante por algunos hechos — entre ellos, que somos polvo de estrellas. Este hecho me parece fascinante. Porque todos los átomos de nuestro cuerpo … todo fue cocinado en el interior de una estrella hace miles de millónes de años.”

[“To me, astronomy is so important for a number of reasons — among them, that we are stardust. This fact is fascinating to me. All the atoms in our bodies … we were all created in the interior of a star, thousands of millions of years ago.”] 

Guatemala native Madelin Nova works at the observatory and encouraged friends to attend. “As someone with no prior knowledge of astrophysics or scientific terms, it was very easy to understand,” Nova said. “The best part was just how interactive it was, and how willing everyone was to ask questions.”

The revival of observatory nights is only the start. Reekie and others are hard at work on plans to increase regional K-12 school visits and to engage with other, local astronomy groups. Other possibilities for outreach include bringing telescopes into rural schools.

For HCO executive director Purvang Patel, it’s all good. He said creating a welcoming environment for scientists and casual enthusiasts alike is a key goal.

“We are not only preserving the legacy of the [observatory], but also ensuring its relevance and accessibility for future generations,” Patel said.

What’s another word for ‘neuronal map-maker’?

Researchers discover microscopic ‘brain thesaurus’ that lets neurons derive meaning from spoken words

Illustration of man with letters flowing into his brain.

What’s another word for ‘neuronal map-maker’?

Researchers discover microscopic ‘brain thesaurus’ that lets neurons derive meaning from spoken words

4 min read

Using a novel technology for obtaining recordings from single neurons, a team of investigators at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital has discovered a microscopic “thesaurus” that reflects how word meanings are represented in the human brain.

The research, which is published in Nature, opens the door to understanding how humans comprehend language and provides insights that could be used to help individuals with medical conditions that affect speech.

“Humans possess an exceptional ability to extract nuanced meaning through language — when we listen to speech, we can comprehend the meanings of up to tens of thousands of words and do so seamlessly across remarkably diverse concepts and themes,” said senior author Ziv Williams, a physician-investigator in the Department of Neurosurgery at MGH and an associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. “Yet, how the human brain processes language at the basic computational level of individual neurons has remained a challenge to understand.”

Williams and his colleagues set out to construct a detailed map of how neurons in the human brain represent word meanings — for example, how we represent the concept of animal when we hear the word cat and dog, and how we distinguish between the concepts of a dog and a car.

“We also wanted to find out how humans are able to process such diverse meanings during natural speech and through which we are able to rapidly comprehend the meanings of words across a wide array of sentences, stories, and narratives,” Williams said.

Using this new technique, the investigators discovered how neurons in the brain map words to meanings and how they distinguish certain meanings from others.

To start addressing these questions, the scientists used a novel technology that allowed them to simultaneously record the activities of up to a hundred neurons from the brain while people listened to sentences (such as, “The child bent down to smell the rose”) and short stories (for example, about the life and times of Elvis Presley).

Using this new technique, the investigators discovered how neurons in the brain map words to meanings and how they distinguish certain meanings from others.

“For example, we found that while certain neurons preferentially activated when people heard words such as ‘ran’ or ‘jumped,’ which reflect actions, other neurons preferentially activated when hearing words that have emotional connotations, such as ‘happy’ or ‘sad,’” said Williams. “Moreover, when looking at all of the neurons together, we could start building a detailed picture of how word meanings are represented in the brain.”

To comprehend language, though, it is not enough to only understand the meaning of words; one must also accurately follow their meanings within sentences. For example, most people can rapidly differentiate between words such as “sun” and “son” or “see” and “sea” when used in a sentence, even though the words sound exactly the same.

“We found that certain neurons in the brain are able to reliably distinguish between such words, and they continuously anticipate the most likely meaning of the words based on the sentence contexts in which they are heard,” said Williams.

Lastly, and perhaps most excitingly, the researchers found that by recording a relatively small number of brain neurons, they could reliably predict the meanings of words as they were heard in real time during speech. That is, based on the activities of the neurons, the team could determine the general ideas and concepts experienced by an individual as they were being comprehended during speech.

“By being able to decode word meaning from the activities of small numbers of brain cells, it may be possible to predict, with a certain degree of granularity, what someone is listening to or thinking,” said Williams. “It could also potentially allow us to develop brain-machine interfaces in the future that can enable individuals with conditions such as motor paralysis or stroke to communicate more effectively.”

Paper authors Mohsen Jamali is supported by CIHR, NARSAD Young Investigator Grant, and Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative, Benjamin Grannan is supported by NREF and NIH NRSA, Arjun Khanna and William Muñoz are supported by NIH R25NS065743, Angelique Paulk is supported by UG3NS123723, Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, and P50MH119467, Sydney Cash is supported by R44MH125700 and Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, Evelina Fedorenko is supported by U01NS121471 and R01 DC016950, and Ziv Wiliams is supported by NIH R01DC019653 and U01NS121616.

How leaders find happiness — and teach it

Symposium examines science, outlines opportunities to tackle mental health crisis

Arthur Brooks speaking at symposium.

Arthur Brooks.

Photos by Ansel Dickey + Ovrlnd Studios


How leaders find happiness — and teach it

Symposium examines science, outlines opportunities to tackle mental health crisis

6 min read

Arthur Brooks likes to give students in his popular Harvard Business School class on happiness a quiz: Why are you alive? For what would you be willing to die?

“I tell students that the way to pass the following quiz is to have answers; the way to fail the following quiz is to not have answers. I’m not going to tell you what the right answers are. They’re your answers,” said Brooks, professor of management practice at HBS, as he opened a recent symposium on happiness and leadership.

Brooks’ query on core values reflects widely accepted happiness research, which finds that meaning and purpose are hallmarks of a happy life, one filled with a sense of well-being. The principle dates back to Aristotle’s reference to eudaimonia, or having a “good spirit,” and was one of the theories discussed at the event hosted by Brooks’ Leadership and Happiness Laboratory.

The June 20-21 symposium drew 200 in-person attendees, with another 1,000 online, and included administrators, business leaders, military personnel, elected officials, and students. The purpose was as direct as the mission of the lab, which “believes that all great leaders should be happiness teachers.”

Brooks, who is also the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, said many of the speakers had inspired and mentored him in his own work, notably psychologist Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology.

Another influential figure was Tal Ben-Shahar ’96, Ph.D. ’04, a co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, who taught two of the largest classes in Harvard’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership. Ben-Shahar discussed the genesis of developing a curriculum on happiness and his work designing the first master’s degree in happiness science for Centenary University in 2022.

Laurie Santos standing and talking.
Yale professor Laurie Santos’ course on happiness is considered the university’s most popular course.

The popularity of such university courses, which have been made freely available through platforms such as HarvardX and Coursera, has skyrocketed in recent years, as symposium speaker Laurie Santos ’97, A.M. ’01, Ph.D. ’03, Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon Professor of Psychology at Yale, discovered. Her course on happiness, launched in 2018, became the university’s most popular course in more than 300 years, with almost one in four students at Yale enrolled. The goal of her classes is to reduce unhappiness and increase happiness, which was inspired during her time as Stillman Head of College.

In this role, Santos learned firsthand about mental health issues plaguing college students, including academic stress, depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Yale students reported that they “put on a happy persona to hold things in until they crack and break” and that “it takes a real crisis for us to actually admit something is wrong,” Santos said.

Debunking the myth that happiness science is about enforced positivity is one of the goals of her course. “I think students expect all positive psychology to be akin to what they these days call ‘toxic positivity’ — the idea of ‘happy all the time, stay positive, think happy thoughts.’ I think this is what a lot of Yale students fall prey to unnecessarily.”

Other speakers included Lisa Miller, whose work and research as a Columbia psychology and education professor focuses on the value of a spiritual life. She detailed findings on the role of spirituality as protective against a number of deleterious conditions: 80 percent protective against substance dependence and abuse, 60 percent against major depressive disorder, and 50 percent to 80 percent against suicidality.

Financially, those who make $75,000-$96,000 in the U.S. are happiest, but “once you get beyond having your basic needs met, you can make millions, and you’re not much happier.”

Robert Waldinger headshot.
Robert Waldinger, Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Robert Waldinger, who directs the 86-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, shared study findings that having basic needs met — food, shelter, healthcare — is critical for happiness.

Financially, those who make $75,000-$96,000 in the U.S. are happiest, but “once you get beyond having your basic needs met, you can make millions, and you’re not much happier,” he noted.

Waldinger, who is also a Zen priest, addressed the epidemic of loneliness, which impacts one in three or four people in the U.S. and other developed countries, with a trend upward in developing countries as well, according to a Meta-Gallup survey.

Integrating lessons learned from Eastern spiritual traditions and Western scholarship in leadership, Hitendra Wadhwa, professor of practice at Columbia Business School, spoke about the importance of accessing one’s core self.

Wadhwa, guided by the teachings of Yogananda, the Indian mystic and spiritual teacher, emphasized that the wisdom of good leadership can be found from within.

“Your inner core is that space within you from where your best self arises, where your highest potential resides,” he said. “When you’re at your core, you’re beyond ego, beyond attachment, insecurities — and you get your life’s most beautiful work done.”

The symposium’s final presentation turned toward criticism of the discourse on happiness, highlighting research that investigates the limits of happiness measurements and definitions as outlined in positive psychology.

Owen Flanagan, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Duke University, outlined other ways for measuring happiness, including objective well-being, pointing to many important leaders who lived lives of service and meaning that were not necessarily focused on happiness.

“Happiness can’t be everything,” he said. “It’s not the summum bonum,” or singular good.

Flanagan pointed to luminaries and change leaders such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi. He noted: “The first thing that would come to our minds is not that they were happy; it’s that they were good people. They lived really important, purposeful, and meaningful lives.”

And when it comes to public policy, Flanagan said the focus “is on human rights and sustainable development, so that everyone can live the kind of life Aristotle thought was possible for us: a life in which we can discover our talents — and then you can worry about other things, such as people’s psychological states.”

Alzheimer’s study finds diet, lifestyle changes yield improvements 

Can diet and lifestyle reverse early Alzheimer’s? A pilot study raises hopes.


Alzheimer’s study finds diet, lifestyle changes yield improvements 

7 min read

New intensive regimen upends prior results, but researchers say larger, longer trials needed  

Tantalizing new research suggests intensive diet and lifestyle changes may not only forestall cognitive decline related to Alzheimer’s disease but possibly bring some improvement to those in early stages.

The small, limited study varied from earlier findings, which concluded a healthy lifestyle could lower risk but showed little promise in reversing damage. That result had co-authors on the paper, published in June in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, tempering excitement with caution. 

“To get significant results on these cognitive tests in just 20 weeks, in just 50 patients, only altering lifestyle, to be very honest was just shocking to me, but shocking because it says maybe this matters,” said senior author Rudolph TanziHarvard Medical School’s Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Child Neurology and Mental Retardation, and co-director of the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease. “But I’m the first to say that it’s a small study. It was only 20 weeks, so let’s not jump to any conclusions. But boy, what a great start.”

Steven Arnold, professor of neurology at HMS, Massachusetts General Hospital’s E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Science, and senior author on the paper, said the findings showed promising results but cautioned against “overinterpreting” them and advised against making wholesale diet and lifestyle changes based on this study alone.

“I think this is a well-done study. It needs to be bigger. It needs to be longer,” Arnold said. “I want people to be intrigued and enthused by its findings, but not overinterpret them because more data is needed.” 

The trial took an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease, pulling together an array of interventions that individually have been seen to lower risk. In addition to their comprehensiveness, researchers said the interventions were also intensive. That is a possible reason, they suggested, their results varied from earlier studies that employed more moderate interventions.

The study’s 51 subjects, whose average age was 73.5, were in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. and all had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or early dementia. Twenty-six were randomly assigned to the intervention group and 25 to the control group.


Lifestyle followed by study participants in the intervention group

Over 20 weeks, those in the intervention group were asked to eat a strict vegan diet, with all meals plus snacks for subjects and their spouses delivered to their homes. The regimen, which was not calorie-restricted, was augmented by supplements believed to support cognition, including omega 3 fatty acids, curcumin, a multivitamin, vitamins C and B12, magnesium L-threonate, coenzyme Q, a probiotic, and lion’s mane.

Those interventions were coupled with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily and strength training three times a week. For stress reduction, subjects meditated, did yoga poses, stretching, and breathing exercises in a daily hour led by a stress management specialist.

To boost social support, subjects and spouses participated in an hourlong support group three times a week led by a mental health professional. In all, subjects received 12 hours per week of professional support — delivered via Zoom — for the lifestyle interventions.

“In my heart of hearts, I think there is something real here.”

Steven Arnold

“In my heart of hearts, I think there is something real here,” said Arnold, who is also MGH’s head of translational neurology and managing director of its Interdisciplinary Brain Center. “If you do significantly change the metabolic, inflammatory, vascular milieu of the body and the brain, that is good for our brain function. And this diet, exercise, stress reduction/socialization intervention may work as well or better than some of the drugs we use for Alzheimer’s disease.”

To establish a baseline and gauge progress, participants took four standard tests used to measure cognitive performance in FDA drug trials. The results varied by test but generally showed the intervention group improved or stayed the same while the control group stayed the same or worsened. On the Clinical Global Impression of Change, for example, 10 — more than 40 percent — improved after 20 weeks, seven were unchanged, seven worsened slightly, and none worsened moderately. Among the controls, by comparison, none improved, eight were unchanged, and 17 worsened slightly or moderately. Two other tests showed that the intervention group improved on average, while the control group worsened. The fourth test showed both groups doing worse, with the control group worsening significantly more.

Researchers, who hailed from institutions in the U.S., U.K., Finland, and Sweden, also examined participants’ blood and microbiomes. One biomarker, called pTau 181, showed little change between the controls and the intervention group, but researchers found improvements in another marker, which measures the ratio of two forms of the amyloid beta protein, which forms plaques in the brain that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers found improvements in another marker, which measures the ratio of two forms of the amyloid beta protein, which forms plaques in the brain that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Measures associated with cardiac and metabolic health like cholesterol, A1c, hemoglobin, and others also improved. The intervention group’s microbiome shifted, with populations of beneficial bacteria increasing and those thought to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease decreasing. In addition, there was a dose-response effect in both biomarkers and cognitive tests, with the degree of change positively associated with adherence to the lifestyle interventions. 

The work received financial support from more than two dozen private foundations and charitable funds and comes at a moment of optimism about Alzheimer’s disease. After years of failed drug trials that had researchers questioning whether they really understood the disease, a drug called lecanemab gained FDA approval last year after a study of 1,800 people over 18 months showed it to be the first treatment to slow progression in those in early stages of the disease. 

Tanzi and Arnold acknowledged their study’s relatively small sample size was a shortcoming but said the its design as a randomized controlled trial, considered a scientific gold standard, was a strength. The trial was designed to be multimodal, but the fact that so many different lifestyle factors were at play made it difficult to tease out the effect of each, said Tanzi, who is also the director of MGH’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit and its Henry and Allison McCance Center for Brain Health. 

The next step, he and Arnold said, would be a larger study to see whether the results are replicated. Arnold said that among questions such a trial would answer is whether subjects would stick with such an intensive intervention over the long term.

Conduct of the trial was significantly affected by the pandemic. Enrollment, which occurred between 2018 and 2022, was still underway when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, curtailing enrollment, which originally had targeted 100 participants. The need for distancing forced researchers to shift sessions to online, which may have altered the effect of the social support sessions. It did, however, allow expansion of the study population from a single site in San Francisco to others around the country, including Massachusetts General Hospital.

“This should be looked at as a pilot study, but the pilot data are significant and strongly suggest that lifestyle intervention was effective,” Tanzi said.

A modern approach to teaching classics

Martin Puchner is using chatbots to bring to life Socrates, Shakespeare, and Thoreau

Martin Puchner sitting next to a flower bed.

Martin Puchner.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

A modern approach to teaching classics

Martin Puchner is using chatbots to bring to life Socrates, Shakespeare, and Thoreau

6 min read

Making education accessible to a wider range of students is the driving force behind many of Martin Puchner’s projects.

It’s why, in the mid-2000s, he took on the daunting task of editing the vast “Norton Anthology of World Literature,” which is used to introduce college students in classrooms around the country to classic texts.

It’s also the reason he now experiments with building customized AI chatbots, allowing students to speak directly with famous figures from history, such as Socrates, Shakespeare, and Thoreau.

“I just think there’s so many barriers to education, that wherever I find an opportunity to lower them, through technology or pedagogical devices like an anthology, I’m game,” said Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature.

Puchner sat down with the Gazette to talk about the anthology, which published its fifth edition this month with a new feature that provides different translations of text for students to compare — including one done by AI technology. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like to edit an anthology that encompasses such a vast range of global literature?

No one is trained in literature on that scale. In retrospect I’m amazed how little emphasis on that big picture is placed in education. But it allows you to see patterns and developments that you’re not able to see if you look at literature, culture, history in chunks of 100 or 200 years. For me it’s just been completely life-transforming. Everyone who first encounters such an anthology, including teachers, will say, “There’s so much in here I didn’t even know existed.” Since this is for American students, it’s a way of learning about the rest of the world. There is some American literature in here too, and some English literature, but the emphasis is on everything else.

“I thought, ‘I wonder what happens if I can use the dialogic form of the chat to access dialogic philosophers like Socrates?’”

Illustrations of famous authors in grid format.

Customized AI chatbots allow you to converse with historical figures, based on their words and ideas.

This anthology includes more material from oral storytelling traditions from Africa and the early Americas, tell me about that.

We started to think more intentionally about how to include oral literature, including Native American literary traditions, African literary traditions. We’d always had texts in the anthology that had been transmitted orally before they were written down (for example, the West African “Epic of Sunjata”), and we always had a cluster of fairy tales and folktales that were written down in the 19th century. But we didn’t really think systematically about it — we tried to do that this time, especially with respect to chronology. An anthology is organized mostly chronologically by when something was written down, but that doesn’t work very well when something has been transmitted for centuries and may be written down as an afterthought or by an anthropologist. We decided, at least in the thematic clusters, to mash up the texts that were written down in a given period with others that were written down later but that had an interesting thematic connection.

Tell me about the new “Translation Lab” feature in this edition.

Translation is a fascinating topic, because that’s what makes world literature flow. No one knows all these languages. That means if you want to do big-picture or cross-cultural reading, you have to do it in translation. Sometimes that’s treated as an embarrassment — scholars in comparative literature can be very snooty about that — but there’s an amazing amount of insight you can get out of good translations. It’s also cool to see how different translators approach that from different angles. Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is a modernist poem, it’s extremely obscure, it’s very difficult, including in the original German. We have a bunch of translations: One of the translations is by the wife and co-founder of Norton, our publisher, another is by myself, one is by Google Translate. I thought that would encourage students to think about what goes into translation. We encourage students to try out their latest translation software and see how these different machine translations handle difficult metaphors.

You have been creating customized AI chatbots that personify historical figures like Socrates, Aristotle, and Confucius. What inspired you to create these?

We interact with AI through dialogue. Thinkers in antiquity, Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha, lived in literate societies, but none of them wrote a single word — they insisted on live dialogue, particular styles of question and answers. When they died, their students wrote down their words and invented these philosophical dialogues. I thought, “Interesting that there’s a new form of dialogue that’s emerging through these chat bots, I wonder what happens if I can use the dialogic form of the chat to access dialogic philosophers like Socrates?” You upload a defined data set — let’s say the Platonic Dialogues — and then you generate instructions. Through trial and error, I figured out how to shape that combination of data set and instructions so that you can talk to Socrates. In the instructions, there’s a lot of, you know, “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that.” You basically have to define what it means to be Socrates and speak. Because Socrates hadn’t written down his dialogues, I had to say, “Refer to the dialogues,” but say, “In a conversation later recorded by my student Plato, I observed …” I wanted it to be concrete and give actual quotations from the text and their answers. It’s fun to chat with these figures. I think you actually really learn something from them.

So how worried or optimistic are you about AI’s potential to impact the humanities?

Silicon Valley is so futurist in its predictions, I admit to being sometimes susceptible to that, just because almost everyone else in the arts and humanities is so knee-jerk against all of that. But I am aware that the utopian promises have not always come to pass and that’s certainly going to be the case with AI as well. Technologies are tools and it’s good to learn how to use them well. They have their possibilities, and they have limitations. I think people feel a lot of fear; we have all these science fiction scenarios in our minds that are often paired with a kind of contempt. “This is all it can do?” “This is not real art.” I think we need to move beyond that, I really do.

There’s much to be grateful for in giving thanks

Elderly may harvest benefits from the attitude alone


There’s much to be grateful for in giving thanks

Elderly may harvest benefits from the attitude alone

3 min read
Thank you written in various languages on a chalkboard.

Don’t limit it to Thanksgiving. Conscious gratitude may help older adults live longer, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Prior research has shown an association between gratitude and lower risk of mental distress and greater emotional and social well-being. However, its association with physical health is less understood,” said lead author Ying Chen, research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology. “Our study provides the first empirical evidence on this topic, suggesting that experiencing grateful affect may increase longevity among older adults.”

The study was published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study to assess levels of gratitude and mortality among 49,275 older women. In 2016, participants, whose average age was 79, completed a six-item Gratitude Questionnaire in which they provided scores to agree or disagree with statements such as “I have so much in life to be thankful for” and “If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.” In 2019, the researchers followed up to identify deaths among the study population, noting all-cause mortality as well as specific causes such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, neurodegenerative disease, infection, and injury. They observed 4,608 deaths over the course of the study period; of the specific causes studied, cardiovascular disease was most common.

The study found that participants whose Gratitude Questionnaire scores were in the highest tertile had a 9 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality over the following four years than those who scored in the bottom tertile. Gratitude appeared protective against every specific cause of mortality studied, most significantly against cardiovascular disease.

According to the researchers, to most accurately quantify gratitude’s impact on mortality, the study took a “conservative approach” in controlling for sociodemographic data, health history, and lifestyle factors, including things such as social participation, religious involvement, and optimism, which often overlap with gratitude.

“Prior research indicates that there are ways of intentionally fostering gratitude, such as writing down or discussing what you are grateful for a few times a week,” said Chen. “Promoting healthy aging is a public health priority, and we hope further studies will improve our understanding of gratitude as psychological resource for enhancing longevity.” 

Other Harvard Chan authors were Olivia Okereke, Henning Tiemeier, Laura Kubzansky, and Tyler VanderWeele.

The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation (grant 61075) and the National Institutes of Health (grant CA222147).

Stumbling through fog, disillusionment of 1970s

Francine Prose’s memoir trails fleeing 26-year-old novelist to S.F., her attraction to deeply troubled, fading counterculture hero

Francine Prose in the 1970s

Francine Prose in the 1970s.

Courtesy of Francine Prose

Arts & Culture

Stumbling through fog, disillusionment of 1970s

Francine Prose’s memoir trails fleeing 26-year-old novelist to S.F., her attraction to deeply troubled, fading counterculture hero

5 min read

One rainy night in the winter of 1974, Francine Prose found herself in a Buick speeding through the dark streets of San Francisco. Driving was Tony J. Russo, a troubled anti-war activist who, about two years earlier, had been indicted and tried for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Prose, then 26, recalled Russo always drove with manic intensity, making sharp U-turns and checking his rearview mirror, as if monitoring whether he was being followed.

Prose, who met the whistleblower at a friend’s poker game, would spend many nights careening with Russo around the hilly city, listening to his stories about injustices he had witnessed in Vietnam and at RAND Corporation, where he’d once worked. The pair were mismatched in many ways (he was 10 years older), but he exuded charisma and was “antiwar royalty.”

Prose, a graduate of Radcliffe ’68 and Harvard A.M. ’69, wrote about her strange, ultimately disastrous semi-romantic relationship with Russo in the just-published “1974: A Personal History,” covering a transitional period for the nation and herself.

“He could have had this amazing career as an aeronautical space engineer or analyst and completely gave it up because he’d gone to Vietnam and seen what was going on over there,” recalled Prose, now 77. “I was very drawn to people who were willing to risk something for something they believed in.”

“One of the reasons that a person winds up writing a book is because there’s something that they can’t get out of their heads.”

Francine Prose sitting on a bench.

Francine Prose.

Credit: Frances F. Denny

Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College, Prose has written more than 20 works of fiction, including “A Changed Man” and National Book Award finalist “Blue Angel,” as well as scores of nonfiction books and essays. The new book is her first memoir. Surprisingly, Prose says it only occurred to her to write about her experience with Russo about three years ago, at a friend’s suggestion.

“One of the reasons that a person winds up writing a book is because there’s something that they can’t get out of their heads,” Prose said. “One detail of him going to this cafeteria and eating breakfast sausage and berry pie was completely engraved on my memory. I started thinking, ‘If it’s so real to me and so clear to me, maybe it’s something that I should write about. And maybe it’s about something that’s bigger than what happened to me.’”

Prose’s book includes flashbacks to gritty 1960s Cambridge, where she lived with her first husband after graduating from Radcliffe College. An English major, she remembers her undergraduate years fondly. “You can spend four years reading Victorian novels, hanging out with your friends, and smoking weed, and you’ll do pretty well,” she recalled wryly.

She was politically active, making antiwar posters and attending demonstrations at the State House. In 1969, her peers occupied University Hall to protest the war in Vietnam. 

But post-graduation, her marriage quickly unraveled and her graduate studies in medieval English literature at Harvard proved the wrong fit. Subsequently, her mental health took a downturn, and she escaped to San Francisco.

“I’m very sympathetic to my students who are about to graduate,” Prose said. “You’re about to have a life — then maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.”

Prose’s personal story is inextricable from its backdrop of the early ’70s, a time when young Americans, in Prose’s words, “realized that the changes that seemed possible in the ’60s weren’t going to happen.” Events like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the first moon landing, and Nixon’s resignation help set the scene.

“We really believed that things could change for the better,” Prose said. “We believed that we could end the war in Vietnam. The [Black] Panthers were very present and visible so we believed that there could be some end to institutional racism. We believed that there could be something closer to income equality. And then it changed.”

The Pentagon Papers, published in The New York Times in 1971, revealed the U.S. government’s deception about its involvement in Vietnam. Russo’s friend and former colleague Daniel Ellsberg ’52 stole the papers, and the two men copied them using a Xerox machine at Russo’s then-girlfriend’s workplace.

Prose said motivation for the memoir came partly from wanting to correct the record on Russo, once renowned as a heroic activist but now remembered more as a secondary Xeroxer. Even his 2008 obituary in the New York Times called him “a shaggy-haired, countercultural, unemployed policy wonk.”

“He talked Ellsberg into or gave him the nerve to leak the Pentagon Papers. He found the photocopy machine. He made this thing happen,” Prose said. “You can imagine him shaking Ellsberg out of whatever sensible doubts he might have had and pumping energy into their situation. But Ellsberg was very commodifiable. He had beautiful suits, and he had a great haircut, and he was handsome. Tony was much, much more politically radical, so he became a drag on the defense.”

In a scene toward the end of the book, their relationship careening toward collapse, young Prose fled as Russo spiraled into a public mental breakdown in front of news media. Prose said she only realized the full depth of her guilt, about not staying to help Russo, as she tried to write the scene. 

“I wasn’t quite as nice a person as I had remembered myself being,” Prose said.

Prose says she feels far removed from the girl she was then, who she writes was “at once so uncertain and so sure of herself, so terrified and so brave.”

“I keep telling myself so much of the book is about being young,” she said, “and how different it is.”

Should colon cancer screening start at 40? 

Amid surging early onset rates, Harvard experts say cost, effectiveness, equity must be considered, along with other ways to evaluate

Portraits of Ted Hong (clockwise from top left), Tyler Berzin, Shuji Ogino, Marios Giannakis, Aparna Parikh, and Andrew Chan.

Ted Hong (clockwise from top left), Tyler Berzin, Shuji Ogino, Marios Giannakis, Aparna Parikh, and Andrew Chan.


Should colon cancer screening start at 40? 

Amid surging early onset rates, Harvard experts say cost, effectiveness, equity must be considered, along with other ways to evaluate

8 min read

Medical and public health professionals are seeing a worrisome trend of rising early onset rates for certain cancers and wrestling with what the most appropriate response might be.

In April, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended age to start breast cancer screening to 40 from 50, citing high mortality and a rising incidence among U.S. women age 40 to 49 for the change. Data showed a 2 percent annual increase in diagnoses from 2015 to 2019.

Colorectal cancer has tracked a similar, perhaps even more worrisome, trajectory in recent years. It has seen an even steeper rise of early onset cases, up 15 percent among those age 40 to 49 between 2000 and 2016. The second deadliest after lung cancer, it kills more people than breast cancer — an estimated 52,550 in 2023.

The Gazette asked colorectal cancer experts at Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospitals whether the colorectal cancer screening age should be lowered to 40 from the current 45

‘Many of the younger patients are being diagnosed in their late 20s to 30s’

Ted Hong, professor of radiation oncology, HMS; director of the Gastrointestinal Service, Radiation Oncology Department, Mass General Cancer Center 

This is a complicated issue. While there is clearly a dramatic rise in colorectal cancer in young patients, it’s not clear that 40 is the correct age. Many of the younger patients are being diagnosed in their late 20s to 30s and moving the screening to 40 may not capture this group of patients, while dramatically increasing cost and utilization. Ultimately, other tests, be it blood-based or stool-based, to direct younger patients at risk to earlier colonoscopy are needed.

‘Early screening involves risks and additional upfront costs’

Tyler Berzin, associate professor of medicine, HMS; director of the Advanced Endoscopy Fellowship program, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

It would be a “not yet” for me right now. In the last couple of decades there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in colorectal cancer diagnoses in individuals under the age of 50. An increase like this can’t be due to genetic factors, which don’t change in the population over that period of time, so the rise in early onset colon cancer is likely related to various environmental and lifestyle risk factors: the types of foods we consume, alcohol use, and obesity, among many other considerations.  

Colorectal cancer is now the top cause of cancer death in men under 50 and the second-leading cause in women under 50. Compared to most other types of cancer screening, where the aim is to catch cancers at an early stage, we have a unique advantage in colon cancer screening because we can identify and remove theprecursor lesions — colon polyps — many years before they actually turn cancerous. For this reason, it does make sense to ask the question of whether to recommend earlier screening to identify and remove precancerous polyps before the currently recommended screening age of 45 (for average risk individuals). 

There is no doubt that moving the colon cancer screening age to 40 would catch and prevent a few more cancers. But early screening involves risks and additional upfront costs and may shift how we allocate resources. For instance, in some areas of the country with relatively few gastroenterologists, there are already long waits to get in for colonoscopy screening.

The reality is we’re still not doing nearly a good enough job getting most 45-year-olds or even 50-year-olds, screened for colon cancer, and we do a particularly poor job for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups — including the uninsured and underinsured. So changing the colon cancer screening age to 40 can’t be considered in isolation. We have to balance a variety of health care access and cost considerations to determine if it’s the right move for average risk individuals in the U.S.

‘If there was a biomarker to identify risk, this would help us understand who to screen early’

Aparna Parikh, associate professor of medicine, HMS; medical director, Center for Young Adult Colorectal Cancer at Mass General Cancer Center

As an oncologist who sees largely young patients, my bias is to screen earlier. But we have to be mindful of the population-level implications of continuing to lower the screening age. Ideally, we start to understand the drivers and which younger individuals may be prone to develop CRC in order to offer early screening to the right patients. If there was a biomarker to identify risk, this would help us understand who to screen early. Many of my patients are in their 20s and 30s. Expanding the screening eligible age may be a good space for stool- and blood-based screening and risk stratification to get the right people to colonoscopies efficiently.

‘Adherence to screening remains low in the U.S.’

Marios Giannakis, associate professor of medicine, HMS; gastrointestinal oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Early onset colorectal cancer, defined as colorectal cancer diagnosed in individuals younger than 50 years old, is a rising epidemic. In recognition of this, several major organizations and societies have adjusted the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer. For example, the [Preventative Services Task Force] now gives a Grade B recommendation for screening individuals ages 45 to 50 versus a Grade A recommendation for those ages 50-75, and the American Cancer Society (ACS) a qualified recommendation versus a strong recommendation for older individuals. These guidelines instruct physicians to recommend screening to their eligible patients.

It is also true that early onset colorectal cancer affects numerous individuals younger — and sometimes much younger — than age 45. Whether to further reduce the screening age for the general population is a complex decision that these bodies and societies think carefully over, examining not only the incidence of early onset colorectal cancer, but the available resources and cost to society and patients of a more expanded screening program.

It would be a little presumptuous for one — including an expert — physician to assume this role. What has become as clear as the rise in early onset colorectal cancer is that adherence to screening remains low in the U.S. and that underserved populations are particularly vulnerable. Thus, thinking about equitable access to the currently recommended care and advancing the scientific mission of understanding the etiology of early onset colorectal cancer in order to identify those at the highest risk and tailor prevention and screening may well be a more sustainable long-term solution.

‘Only those with the means to afford it would take part’

Shuji Ogino, professor of pathology, HMS; professor of epidemiology, chief of molecular pathological epidemiology in the Department of Pathology, Brigham & Women’s Hospital

It depends. First, we need to have and evaluate more data on comparative effectiveness analyses of costs and benefits of setting universal screening start age at 40 versus 45 years. It is unlikely that a universal colonoscopy start age of 40 years will be cost-effective. Fecal occult blood testing may be more cost-effective, but it has some degree of false-positive findings, which necessitates additional tests (that may be unnecessary to begin with). Thus, we need more research in this area.

It can be possible that, based on genetic and life-course risk factor profiles, screening start age could/should be tailored. However, we lack comprehensive information on effects of various genetic, life-course risk factors and their interactions at this time. Ideally, one can start colonoscopy screening at age 40 years or even younger. However, such a practice will increase health disparities and inequities, as only those with the means to afford it would take part. We could not rely on financially unsustainable universal insurance coverage for universal screening starting at a young age. 

‘Focus more on identifying the underlying causes’

Andrew Chan, Daniel K. Podolsky Professor of Medicine, HMS; professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; director of cancer epidemiology, Mass General Cancer Center

To address the unprecedented increase in incidence in colorectal cancer diagnosed before the age of 50, it would be tempting to simply lower the age at which we begin screening to 40 years. However, we must also consider the tremendous resources that would need to be devoted to such an effort. Such a major broadening of the eligibility for screening would likely be an insurmountable cost to the healthcare system and divert attention from other important needs. Instead, I would argue that we should focus more on identifying the underlying causes of this rise in early onset cases so that we can focus on efforts to eliminate or reverse them. 

Finding new art in unexpected places

Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies loaning pieces from collection to areas around campus to widen exposure, spark reconsideration

Arts & Culture

Finding new art in unexpected places

One of the DRCLAS art loans, “Entrance to Women’s Bathroom” by Boston photographer Jim Dow, is on display at the Mahindra Humanities Center.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

4 min read

Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies loaning pieces from collection to areas around campus to widen exposure, spark reconsideration

The Mahindra Humanities Center’s Plimpton Room — a classic Harvard space with an ornate fireplace, beautiful wood detail, and imposing large table — is now home to two striking photographs of bathrooms in Argentina.

The brightly colored, modern images by Boston photographer Jim Dow stand out amid the muted Colonial Revival design of the room.

“You have those pieces in a very formal room, these two super contemporary pieces showing public bathrooms in Latin America. There’s a contradiction, a very interesting tension in the room now with those pieces,” said Marcela Ramos, arts program manager at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, which acquired the pieces following a special exhibition.

The display in Plimpton is part of a three-year art-loan program launched by the DRCLAS in May. A dozen pieces from its collection of Latin American artwork, including sculptures, photos, and paintings, have found new homes across campus, introducing them to new audiences and possibly inspiring viewers to see the works, their new contexts — and themselves — in a fresh light.

“Artwork from Latin America is as rich and vibrant as any,” said Bruno Carvalho, interim director of the Mahindra Center. “Artists working in Latin America draw from local realities as well as traditions far afield.”

Carvalho and his team at the Mahindra chose four pieces, including a bronze sculpture by California-born Colombian artist James Amaral and the Dow photos.

Other DRCLAS artwork has been loaned to the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the faculty offices in the Department of the Classics and the Science Center, Harvard Art Museums, and the History of Art and Architecture Department.

“Loan programs allow art to circulate and to come alive in different spaces, and through interactions with a wide range of people,” Carvalho said.

Ramos said that the inaugural year of the art-loan program aligns perfectly with DRCLAS’ mission to promote the work of Latin American artists, thinkers, and creatives. For years the center amassed artwork from exhibitions, collectors’ donations, and acquisitions. “This was a way of having our permanent collection on view permanently outside [of DRCLAS] and not having it in storage,” Ramos said, noting that similar issues happen at a bigger scale at museums.

The collection includes Peruvian Fernando de Szyszlo’s mixed media “Mesa Ritual,” Chilean Mario Navarro’s Chromogenic print “Engine,” Mexican American Jesus Leuus’ acrylic “La Familia,” and other Latin American artists. While this is the first time the center is loaning a significant portion of its artwork, it previously donated 14 pieces to the Harvard Art Museums.

Three mixed-media portraits of Mao Zedong by Peruvian artist Alfredo Márquez are reminders of both the power and danger during periods of authoritarian rule.

Márquez was sentenced to 20 years in prison during the administration of President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s after creating a silk-screen pop print of the Chinese communist dictator. Fujimori, who was locked in an armed conflict with the Maoist Shining Path insurgents, dissolved congress and took over the judiciary to consolidate authority against opposition.

Márquez was pardoned in 1998 after serving three years in jail. His artwork now hangs in the Weatherhead and the History of Art and Architecture Department.

“I hope the art makes people slow down, perhaps noticing something they hadn’t seen, or enabling their minds to wander in unforeseen directions,” Carvalho said. In addition to loaning the art, DRCLAS will also include QR codes that will take visitors to a website highlighting the center’s programming.

Ramos hopes that the loan program will allow wider audiences to appreciate Latin American art, while also encouraging other centers to do the same. “I would love to be somewhere on campus and see works from another center, so there’s a multicultural exchange through the arts,” she said.

Construction begins on A.R.T.’s new home in Allston

David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance to include interconnected, adaptable multiuse spaces 

Campus & Community

Construction begins on A.R.T.’s new home in Allston

Rendering of new A.R.T.

Credit: Dematerial

6 min read

David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance to include interconnected, adaptable multiuse spaces 

Construction has begun in the Allston neighborhood of Boston on the new home of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.

A building to foster groundbreaking performance, public gathering, teaching, and international research, the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance was designed by Haworth Tompkins (architect and design lead) and ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge (architect of record) in collaboration with theater and acoustic consultant Charcoalblue. Shawmut Design and Construction is the project’s construction manager. 

“It is thrilling to see the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Performance & Creativity begin to rise at 175 N. Harvard Street,” said Diane Paulus, the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the A.R.T. “Our new home will provide many exciting new opportunities for the A.R.T. to use the galvanizing power of theater to bring people together and build community. I’m grateful to our generous supporters, our brilliant, innovative partners, and to Harvard University for helping us reach this milestone.”  

The Goel Center will contain interconnected, adaptable multiuse spaces designed to support creativity and embrace future change. It will include two flexible performance venues — the West Stage, where large-scale productions will be produced, and the versatile and intimate East Stage.

In addition, the center will house light-filled, state-of-the-art rehearsal studios and teaching spaces, a spacious public lobby, and an outdoor performance yard to host ticketed and free programming. The facility will also include dressing rooms, technical shops, and administrative offices for the organization, as well as a café.  

The A.R.T.’s new home has been conceived and will be programmed to center community. It will be open to all during designated hours of operation, offering free Wi-Fi, food and beverage service, public restrooms, gathering spaces, indoor and outdoor public art and performances, and room rentals.  

Designed with a blend of environmental and social strategies to minimize embodied and operational carbon, maximize well-being, boost biodiversity, and enhance resiliency, the Goel Center will embrace the University’s ambitious sustainability priorities.

The building is designed to achieve the Living Building Challenge core accreditation from the International Living Future Institute in recognition that it will give more to its environment than it takes. Conceived through core principles of openness, artistic flexibility, collaboration, sustainability, and regenerative design, it will be constructed with laminate mass timber, reclaimed brick, and cedar cladding to minimize its lifetime carbon budget.

The building’s chilled water, hot water, and electric utilities will come from Harvard’s new lower-carbon District Energy Facility. It will capture additional clean energy from rooftop solar panels and leverage natural ventilation to reduce energy usage and enhance occupant comfort. Additionally, a green roof and extensive plantings will aid stormwater attenuation while increasing biodiversity and occupant well-being. 

The center is the first building in the U.S. to be designed by U.K.-based Haworth Tompkins, Architects’ Journal 2022 and 2020 AJ100 Practice of the Year and winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects 2014 Stirling Prize for its design of Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, England. The award is presented to the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year.

The A.R.T. selected Haworth Tompkins for its experience with sustainable design and urban development, as well as approaches to democratizing the theatergoing experience and the role that theaters can play within their communities. 

“Theater is about exploring our shared humanity in a space where people of all backgrounds come together and are invited to open their hearts,” said Haworth Tompkins Director Roger Watts. “Through an inspiring and collaborative design process, our building aims to extend that open invitation to Allston and the wider world, and to provide a framework that supports the expansion of creative practices within a radical yet simple architecture of adaptable space, natural tactile materials, fresh air, and light.” 

“From our earliest meetings, we have collaborated to create a series of spaces that are flexible, scalable, technically sophisticated, and, most importantly, welcoming and democratic to the audiences and artists who will inhabit them,” said Owen Hughes, director of theater and acoustic consultant Charcoalblue. 

“Working with Harvard, the A.R.T., and our design partners on this important community space draws on two of ARC’s core values: our passion for arts and culture and our commitment to providing carbon-neutral design. We look forward to opening night of the new center, and to continuing our creative collaboration with all those involved in bringing this inclusive new space to life,” said Philip Laird, principal at ARC. 

“We are honored to be leading the construction of the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance,” said Kevin Sullivan, executive vice president of Shawmut Design and Construction’s New England region. “This project exemplifies our deep commitment to the community. By prioritizing environmental sustainability and adaptable design, we are building a vibrant hub for creativity and connection that will serve the local area for years to come. Our shared goal of minimizing embodied and operational carbon, maximizing well-being, and enhancing resiliency ensures that this center will not only be a beacon for the arts but also a pioneering global model for sustainable construction.” 

“This state-of-the-art building will bring us into a future full of creative potential,” said Interim Harvard President Alan Garber. “David and Stacey stepped forward at an important moment for the A.R.T., giving generously not because of the strong foundation that already exists but because they see what is possible. The incredible community their vision sustains and expands will have a profound effect on arts and culture throughout our region.” 

“The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance will be a leading model for the next generation of cultural architecture through its adaptability and responsiveness to our goals for sustainability,” said A.R.T. Executive Director Kelvin Dinkins Jr. “We look forward to audiences accompanying us on this journey to completion, and we are excited to welcome them to our new home pulsing with creative energy and community as we launch A.R.T.’s next chapter.”

Construction of the David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Creativity & Performance will continue into 2026. Audiences are invited to follow the process on A.R.T.’s social media channels and its website

AI, new technologies, and ‘courage to fail’ mark IT Summit

Tech leaders encourage culture of innovation

Sarah Lewis and Klara Jelinkova talking on stage

Sarah Lewis (left) and Klara Jelinkova at Sanders Theatre for the 11th annual Harvard IT Summit. Photos by Neal Adolph Akatsuka/HUIT

Photos by Neal Adolph Akatsuka

Campus & Community

AI, new technologies, and ‘courage to fail’ mark IT Summit

Tech leaders encourage culture of innovation 

5 min read

The “relentless” pace of technological change and how Harvard’s IT workforce can embrace both creativity and failure to foster a culture of innovation loom large for those in the field, so they were the primary themes of the University’s 11th annual IT Summit, hosted by its CIO Council on June 6.

More than 1,000 Harvard staff and faculty gathered for a day of panels, networking events, and an afternoon keynote address from Sarah Lewis, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and associate professor of African and African American studies. The event also featured more than 40 staff-led breakout sessions showcasing the breadth of new technologies being explored and implemented across Schools and disciplines at Harvard.

A group of panelists on stage
Stu Snydman, associate University librarian and managing director, library technology, HUIT (from left); Beth Clark, CIO, Harvard Business School; Dan Hawkins, CIO, Harvard Divinity School; Emily Bottis, managing director, academic technology, HUIT; Meena Lakhavani, CIO, Harvard Kennedy School.

Unsurprisingly, given its near ubiquity in technology discourse over the past year, generative AI was a frequent topic. In her opening remarks, Klara Jelinkova, vice president and Harvard’s chief information officer, praised University IT staff for “rising to the occasion” to quickly provide tools and support for community experimentation with generative AI. Referencing Lewis’ 2015 book, “The Rise,” Jelinkova characterized this era of rapid technological development as one of “uncertainty” in which “the willingness and the courage to fail, to be wrong, to shift gears and to engage in dialogue and disagreement” will be key to Harvard continuing to lead in the successful adoption of new technologies.

In a morning panel, technology leaders discussed the balance between innovation and operations while spotlighting how Harvard’s CIO Council supports the missions of both individual Schools and the University at large. Emily Bottis, managing director for Academic Technology at HUIT, said Harvard’s IT structure enables innovative uses of technology to be trialed in disparate fields before being brought to the center and distributed widely. She cited Teachly — a software tool developed within Harvard to help faculty teach more inclusively using data — as an example.  

Kennedy School CIO Meena Lakhavani highlighted the University’s AI working groups and “sandbox” environment as an example of central coordination providing frameworks and tools in which Schools can innovate. Beth Clark, CIO for Harvard Business School, mentioned “tutorbots” — AI chatbots trained to give students information on specific classes or course materials — as a way different pedagogical styles can be exchanged between IT teams to assess scalability.

Tutorbots were among the many AI-related topics featured in the breakout sessions, alongside presentations on how AI might be used to enhance campus sustainability, workplace productivity, course evaluations, IT service desk support, and many other facets of higher education. Staff assembled in classrooms across the Cambridge campus to hear updates on new systems such as Harvard’s Learning Experience Platform (LXP), a platform for delivering asynchronous and blended learning that emerged from a 2022 report from the Future of Teaching and Learning Taskforce, and the new HarvardSites website publishing service. And IT teams shared their expertise in tutorials on topics encompassing digital accessibility, using design and data to enhance user experiences, navigating compliance and resourcing discussions, exploring open-source solutions, and many more.

Along with excitement about the potential of AI, its rapid emergence has also raised significant concerns about cybersecurity. In a “speculative voyage into the future,” Michael Tran Duff, University chief information security group and data privacy officer, predicted that while it’s likely we will see a rise in cybercriminal activity aided by the use of generative AI, the eventual deployment of AI-enabled vulnerability assessment and “personal AI assistants” to block social engineering attacks, coupled with cybersecurity measures such as a transition to passwordless logins, could lead to significantly fewer incidents.

Concluding the day’s events in Sanders Theatre, Lewis encouraged the audience to reconsider their definition of failure as they strive for innovation. Drawing on themes and research from “The Rise,” she shared examples of celebrated innovators throughout history whose progress was frequently halted by failure. Rather than seeing failure as a negative comment on themselves, their abilities, and their identities, said failure can be used as feedback: valuable information that’s part of the process of finding solutions.

Lewis also offered advice on how organizations can create environments in which failure and risk-taking is made safer, such as creating time and space for employees to experiment, and reducing the stigma of seemingly outlandish ideas (which may later be hailed as innovations). Responding to an audience question, Lewis likened failure to a New England winter: It may feel interminable as it happens, but, “Just as the seasons change, there is always the possibility for spring.”

Presidential task forces deliver preliminary recommendations to Garber

Co-chairs of initiatives to combat anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian bias and antisemitism outline recommendations for near-term action — with final reports expected in the fall

Campus & Community

Presidential task forces deliver preliminary recommendations to Garber

Co-chairs of initiatives to combat anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian bias and antisemitism outline recommendations for near-term action — with final reports expected in the fall

long read
Aerial view of Harvard's campus from Eliot House tower.

From the Eliot House tower, a canopy of foliage frames the Mac quad and Lowell house. On the left is Kirkland House and the Malkin Athletic Center. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

File photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The two presidential task forces focused on combating anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian bias and antisemitism have delivered their preliminary recommendations to Harvard’s interim president, Alan M. Garber. The recommendations focus on 13 thematic areas where the University can act soon.

In a message sharing the preliminary recommendations with the Harvard community, Garber wrote: “We must strengthen our ties with a sustained commitment to engaging each other with tact, decency, and compassion. Our learning cannot be limited to purely academic pursuits if we hope to fulfill our responsibilities to one another and to the institution that is our intellectual home.”

“I am profoundly grateful to [the co-chairs of the task forces] Ali Asani, Jared Ellias, Wafaie Fawzi, Asim Ijaz Khwaja, and Derek Penslar for their candor, thoughtfulness, and, most important, their optimism. The work ahead of us will require a concerted effort. As both task forces work toward final recommendations, their preliminary recommendations offer a path forward. We will commence detailed review and implementation of the shorter-term recommendations over the summer. Those that are longer-term will be developed, refined, and implemented in due course.”

The Gazette sat down with the five co-chairs of the task forces to learn more about the recommendations and what the co-chairs learned in a combined 85 listening sessions with close to 900 members of the Harvard community this spring.

Each co-chair spoke about the immense responsibility they felt while navigating the collective grief and pain on campus after the attack of Oct. 7; the ways that different communities experienced bias, hatred, exclusion, and fear; the values Harvard community members shared; and their joint effort to model collaboration and dialogue across the two task forces.

The preliminary recommendations “provide an opportunity to share with the community what the effort has been up to, regain some trust, and show that these task forces are actually acting in a way that the community expects,” said Fawzi, co-chair of the Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias and Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences and professor of nutrition, epidemiology, and global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Memos from each task force outline the preliminary recommendations and serve as a prelude to the final reports from the task forces, which are expected to be delivered to Garber in the fall semester. The co-chairs have shared the preliminary recommendations with the deans and with the Corporation. The University administration is working with the Schools to implement the recommendations throughout campus.

The task forces will work through the summer to further refine some of the recommendations, assist in the development of programs, and position the University for a better fall semester.

“The situation over the past year has been quite grave, and unless we take significant steps forward by the beginning of the coming academic year, we could be in a position similar to last year, which we want to prevent,” said Derek Penslar, co-chair of the Task Force on Combating Antisemitism and William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Common themes

While each task force reported hearing very different experiences from community members, some common themes emerged. These included the feeling that the University has fallen short of its stated values, specifically those that celebrate diversity while respecting differences.

Asani, co-chair of the Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias and Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that seeking to understand different identities and perspectives is not just core to Harvard’s values, it is core to what a university education is supposed to provide.

“Intentional engagement with diversity is a very important skill that all our students should have, regardless of what School they attend. Not having those skills and the tools to engage has serious consequences for our world as it leads to polarization,” Asani said. “It’s recognizing difference and respecting it, but at the same time acknowledging that there are shared values that we as a community hold.”

Time and again, the co-chairs returned to the idea that a university should provide its students with the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complex world and that this is the very mission of Harvard — to bring together a diverse community whose members challenge and teach one another about new and sometimes conflicting ideas.

“We have to return to our foundational principles as an educational institution and recognize both the potential that we have, but also the inherent limitations as a university that’s in the business of admitting students, teaching them, and giving them a degree,” said Jared Ellias, co-chair of the Task Force on Combating Antisemitism and Scott C. Collins Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “We must also appreciate that the global ambitions of the University mean that we’re going to bring together a gigantically different group of people where what they have in common is their excellence. And we’re going to, hopefully, let them meet each other, form meaningful friendships and relationships, and then help them become leaders in the world that they’re going to graduate into.”

Teaching students doesn’t mean sugarcoating conflict among current peers and instructors, and future colleagues, neighbors, and friends, Ellias said. “I think we have to start being more intentional in saying that we aren’t going to agree with every idea that everybody has, and we’re not going to agree with every version of the world that people might want to create.”

For the co-chairs, this focus on thoughtful and constructive debate felt like a natural and first-order recommendation from a group of faculty focused on educating future world leaders.

“As a university, we should be focusing on what we do best. We do research. We teach. We enable each other to have serious, substantive, and constructive conversations on all issues,” said Khwaja, co-chair, Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias and Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development at Harvard Kennedy School. “In many ways, what we’re responding to is both what we’re hearing our community say, but also what we feel the University can and should actually effectively deliver on as well — which is to create a safe and supportive space to learn, educate, and grow.”

The co-chairs from both task forces said they meet regularly to coordinate efforts and share what they’re hearing from Harvard students, staff, and faculty. While they see commonalities, they also recognize that the communities they represent have some very distinct needs.

Recommendation highlights: Combating Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias

The recommendations of the Task Force to Combat Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias focus on seven core areas:

  • Safety and security
  • Recognition and representation
  • Institutional response
  • Freedom of expression
  • Transparency and trust
  • Relationships among affinity groups
  • Intellectual excellence
Ali Asani.

Ali Asani.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Wafaie Fawzi.

Wafaie Fawzi.

Photo by Harvard Chan School Communications

Asim Ijaz Khwaja.

Photo by Martha Stewart

The recommendations emphasize the need to create a safe environment for community members by expanding protective and counseling services and publicly denouncing and helping mitigate the consequences of various forms of harassment, including doxxing.

The task force also made recommendations to address the perceived lack of recognition felt by members of the community on issues they care about. This includes an expansion of the name of the task force itself to add a focus on anti-Palestinian bias experienced both by Palestinian members of the Harvard community and by those who ally with Palestine. The suggestion to rename it the Presidential Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim, Anti-Arab, and Anti-Palestinian Bias was made in response to numerous reports from these individuals on campus about how the Palestinian identity has often felt “erased” or unrecognized.

“While Palestinians face Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism like other groups, they hail from a variety of religious backgrounds and also encounter unique challenges stemming from their status as Palestinians seeking national rights,” Fawzi said. “Highlighting anti-Palestinian bias would also promote inclusiveness of the voice of a large segment of our community that considers themselves allies of Palestinian aspirations, including South Asians, African Americans, whites, and other groups.”

The task force also recommended a Harvard-wide audit of academic resources related to Islam, the Middle East, and Palestine studies, as well as Arab, Middle Eastern, and Islamic studies across the University’s faculties.

“Teaching and research in these areas are critical to understanding the historical and contemporary challenges and opportunities facing these communities and to enabling constructive dialogue on the problems and on potential solutions,” Fawzi said. “We have consistently heard an immediate need for expanding curricular offerings related to Palestinian studies and seeking to recruit tenure-track faculty to enable this effort.”

According to the task force, many Muslim, Arab, Palestinian, and pro-Palestinian Harvard affiliates also said they felt unsafe physically and in terms of their careers as students, faculty, and staff in expressing their opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“It’s clear that the issues and constraints around free speech have weighed heavily and directly impacted many in the community. They feel not only have the University and Schools often fallen short in protecting these values, but have also sent mixed messages about upholding them,” said Khwaja. “We are looking forward to the efforts of the Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group and hope that they will be supported by our findings about how consequential these values are to the sense of safety, well-being, and effective discourse an academic community should have.” 

The task force called on the University and the Schools to reaffirm their commitment to free expression and open debate while also ensuring that their policies on protest and dissent are clear to students upon their return in the fall.

“The University and Schools need to clearly communicate their policies on protest and dissent and clarify any ambiguity about them. Doing so will also allow us to collectively and constructively deliberate on what should be considered as legitimate and permissible protest and what is not. It will also help clarify procedural fairness and perceptions of equity, especially if such policies are seen to disproportionately apply to some groups or differ from past practice,” Khwaja said.

Recommendation highlights: Combating Antisemitism

The task force on combating antisemitism focused their memo on six areas for immediate action:

  • Clarify Harvard’s values
  • Act against discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hate
  • Improve disciplinary processes
  • Implement education and training
  • Foster constructive dialogue
  • Support Jewish life on campus
Jared Ellias.

Jared Ellias.

Photo by Jessica Scranton

Derek Penslar.

Photo by Robin Levin Penslar

The memo asks the University to take action against the derision, social exclusion, and hostility that Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel community members have experienced. Penslar said that the administration, faculty, and staff need to establish norms of civil engagement, communicate those norms to students, and practice them themselves.

“Training for instructional staff and at student orientation programs must clarify the difference between a challenging classroom atmosphere, which is healthy and constructive, and a threatening one, which is toxic,” Penslar said. “Guidelines for co-curricular organizations and residences should stress the importance of inclusivity, however contentious conversations within them may be.”

The task force also calls for greater antisemitism awareness training as part of the University’s efforts to promote diversity, inclusion, and belonging. For example, the task force suggests offering anti-harassment training for students that includes examples of antisemitism and ensuring that orientation programs for new students include antisemitism and anti-Israeli bias in broader discussions of oppression and injustice.

“Our students are certain to encounter peers from backgrounds that they know little about,” Ellias said. “We want Harvard to tell our new students from day one, you are here to be with each other. We do not expect you to recognize all the ways you might offend each other, but we do expect you to be generous with each other, assume good intentions, and listen to what your fellow students say to you.”

What’s next

Some common recommendations emerged from both task forces related to everyday activities that many Harvard affiliates might take for granted. These include creating new calendars with information about Jewish and Muslim religious holidays (and those of other groups), reviewing accommodation policies, and improving kosher and halal food offerings in the dining halls.

“All of our students deserve convenient access to tasty and nutritious food. Depriving religiously observant students of that access is a violation of the most basic standards of equity. The same is true for denying students reasonable accommodation for religious holidays,” Penslar said. “So long as Harvard does not provide these forms of accommodation, it is signaling that religiously observant Jewish and Muslim students are not welcome here. That is a terrible message, and I am confident that it is not one that this University would ever endorse.”

And, finally, in an atmosphere rife with offensive and hateful social media posts and doxxing trucks circling campus, both task forces endorsed more deliberate — albeit more challenging — formal dialogues, such as high-profile talks and even in-classroom discussions between individuals who disagree respectfully and productively.

It’s these kinds of efforts that the co-chairs hope the University will pursue long after their final reports are delivered in the fall.

“One of the main reasons for conflict around the world is the inability to engage with and understand difference,” Asani said. “We should aspire to provide every student who is graduating from Harvard with the tools to engage with and understand all kinds of difference and in so doing enable them to make a positive difference in the world.”

Could high office-vacancy rates damage economy this year?

Kenneth Rogoff sees tough road for some banks as surge of real estate loans come due by 2025, but doesn’t expect wider meltdown

Work & Economy

Could high office-vacancy rates damage economy this year?

An office full of empty chairs and desks

Getty Images

7 min read

Kenneth Rogoff sees tough road for some banks as surge of real estate loans come due by 2025, but doesn’t expect wider meltdown

Demand for downtown office space has plunged since the pandemic. Even now, as many businesses have ended or cut remote or hybrid work, office building vacancy rates are high, ranging from 12 percent to 23 percent in Boston and other major U.S. cities, depressing property values.

That downturn coupled with the Federal Reserve’s hesitation to reduce interest rates has a growing chorus of financial experts and market watchers alarmed about the potential for widespread bank losses (or even failures) if there are significant delinquencies among the surge of commercial real estate loans expected to mature by 2025. Such problems could, they fear, have a domino effect, rattling the wider economy.

Twenty percent of the $4.7 trillion in commercial mortgage debt held by lenders and investors comes due this year. On average, commercial real estate loans comprise about a quarter of lenders’ assets, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Kenneth Rogoff is a professor of economics and the Maurits C. Boas Chair of International Economics at Harvard. An expert on financial crises, Rogoff spoke to the Gazette about whether the wave of debt coming due poses real risks for U.S. banks and the economy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Are the fears of widespread bank failures and forced consolidations warranted?

Yes, and no. There are definitely going to be a lot of firms that invest in commercial real estate who are going to see their equity wiped out, and the losses will be so big — with many buildings selling for half of what investors paid for them — that debt will get hit hard also. On its own, though, this will not cause a full-blown financial crisis, especially in the context of a still-solid global economic outlook.

This is not to say that the losses won’t hurt. Many pension funds are big holders of commercial real estate funds, as are insurance companies. Certainly, some of this will spill over into the banking system. There are hedge funds and private equity firms that have a lot of loans from banks. But banks, particularly the large banks, were given very strict financial regulation after the [2008 financial]crisis. They weathered the pandemic, obviously. Small and medium-sized banks, who have been more lightly regulated, could get hit harder, and some may go under.

But for better or worse, the Fed has shown a willingness to bail out most out, if needed. Commercial real estate is absolutely a slow-moving train wreck, but it’s not necessarily a replay of 2008-2009. Two other shoes would have to drop before we could be talking anything like that.

Many of the people who invest in commercial real estate are optimists who believe that long-term interest rates are going to come down, and they’ll end up being OK. A popular phrase has been “Stay alive till ’25,” on the view long rates will ultimately come down.

My recent research has looked at seven centuries of real interest data and reaches the conclusion that interest rates over the next decade are likely to remain, on average, not far from where they are today, with the new normal looking a lot like the old pre-global-financial-crisis normal. 

Kenneth Rogoff

Kenneth Rogoff, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy from Harvard University’s Economics Department, is pictured in Littauer Center. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

What’s to blame for this looming crisis? 

When interest rates were low, too many investors thought they would be low forever. Commercial real estate became over-leveraged, over-borrowed, and unprepared for having interest rates go up.

At the same time, the pandemic crushed demand for office buildings, especially in the U.S., where current occupancy rates (on average over the week) still hover around 50 percent in major cities. And it’s not going away quickly. Internationally, the situation is less severe. In Europe, people have much smaller homes and shorter average commuting distances, and therefore, have been more willing to come back to the office.

Some parts of the commercial real estate market in the U.S. are still doing well. For example, the so-called super-premium buildings that have amenities such as air filtration. You would think that with the shortage of housing, cities would be turning some of the unoccupied office buildings into apartments. Unfortunately, that turns out to be complicated not only from a zoning point of view, but also from an engineering point of view. These buildings, with a lack of interior windows, low ceilings, not to mention the placement of elevator shafts and electric lines, were just not designed to be turned into apartments.

Can anything be done to head off the “slow-moving train wreck”?

It would help a lot if long-term interest rates collapsed because then they can start refinancing. As noted, I consider that unlikely outside of a period of deep recession, though, of course, it is possible. No doubt part of the adjustment process will involve a lot of bankruptcies. But, in real estate, people go through bankruptcies all the time (as Americans realize better than ever). It’s part of their business model.

How might this scenario harm consumers or the U.S. economy?

Aside from losses through pension funds, there will be pockets of deep pain in regional banks, and that could well impact those areas more broadly, both in terms of lower consumption and tougher lending terms.

But let’s remember that so far, this is happening in the context of a solid job market and a booming stock market. In a way, we are looking at a part of the economy that’s particularly suffering, when, on the whole, the paradox is that the economy hasn’t been suffering more with the high interest rates.

So, for example, while some of the losses in commercial real estate will ultimately hit some consumers, many have also gained (for example through their pension funds) on the booming stock market. That’s why I mentioned you need another shoe (or two) to drop. Of course, if we have a giant recession, it will create many other problems and greatly amplify the commercial real estate crisis.

Earlier this month, a top executive at Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO), one of the world’s largest asset managers, warned that regional banks could be the hardest hit. What impact could a huge wave of delinquent commercial real estate loans in that sector have on the U.S. banking system?

As discussed above, some regional banks went big into commercial real estate and are vulnerable today. This is particularly problematic for the smaller banks that were not required to abide by the same capital requirements as the larger banks. The small and medium-size banks had a problem just over a year ago when rising interest rates reduced the value of long-term loans banks had made at low interest rates.

After a couple went under, however, the Fed came in and bailed the rest out through a lending program where taxpayers took on a fair bit of risky loans to these banks. That definitely could be a problem down the road, but for now, having a few regional banks go under is not the same thing as having a giant such as Citi, Bank of America, or J.P. Morgan get into trouble. That would be a different order of magnitude.

Are the six largest banks — Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo — sufficiently prepared to withstand a possible cascade of bad commercial real estate debt?

The big banks are more diversified, and they’re making money in other areas. High interest rates have been an incredible money machine for the banks because they have gotten away with not fully passing the higher rates on to their depositors. And so far, the depositors haven’t moved their money out into higher-paying assets.

All in all, commercial real estate is definitely a major problem are in the economy, but it’s more on the order of having a major emerging market such as Turkey or Mexico default. It would be a terrible problem, but not on its own bring down the global economy.

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Stroke risk higher for the chronically lonely

Study of adults over 50 examines how feelings boost threat over time

Lonely person sits alone on a bench looking at the ocean.

Stroke risk higher for chronically lonely

Study of adults over 50 examines how feelings boost threat over time

4 min read

Chronic loneliness may significantly raise older adults’ risk of stroke, according to a new study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

“Loneliness is increasingly considered a major public health issue. Our findings further highlight why that is,” said lead author Yenee Soh, a research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Especially when experienced chronically, our study suggests loneliness may play an important role in stroke incidence, which is already one of the leading causes of long-term disability and mortality worldwide.”

The study was published Monday in eClinicalMedicine.

While previous research has linked loneliness to higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, few have examined the impact on stroke risk specifically. This study is one of the first to examine the association between loneliness changes and stroke risk over time.

56% Greater stroke risk for study participants who experienced chronic loneliness than for those who consistently reported not being lonely

Using 2006-2018 data from the Health and Retirement Study, the researchers assessed the association between changes in loneliness and stroke incidence over time. During 2006-2008, 12,161 participants — all adults ages 50 and older who had never had a stroke — responded to questions on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale, from which the researchers created summary loneliness scores. Four years later (2010-2012), 8,936 participants who remained in the study responded to the same questions again. The researchers then placed the participants into one of four groups according to their scores across the two time points: consistently low (those who scored low on the loneliness scale at both baseline and follow-up); remitting (those who scored high at baseline and low at follow-up); recent onset (those who scored low at baseline and high at follow-up); and consistently high (those who scored high at both baseline and follow-up).

Among the participants whose loneliness was measured at baseline only, 1,237 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2006-2018). Among the participants who provided two assessments of loneliness over time, 601 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2010-2018). The researchers analyzed each group’s risk of stroke over the follow-up period in the context of their experiences with loneliness, controlling for other health and behavioral risk factors. These included social isolation and depressive symptoms, which are closely related to but distinct from loneliness.

The findings showed a link between loneliness and higher risk of stroke and found that chronic loneliness heightened risk the most. When loneliness was assessed at baseline only, the participants considered lonely had a 25 percent higher risk of stroke than those not considered lonely. Among the participants who reported loneliness at two time points, those in the consistently high group had a 56 percent higher risk of stroke than those in the consistently low group, even after accounting for a broad range of other known risk factors. While the baseline analyses suggest loneliness at one time point was associated with higher risk, those who experienced remitting or recent-onset loneliness did not show a clear pattern of increased risk of stroke — suggesting that loneliness’ impact on stroke risk occurs over the longer term.

“Repeat assessments of loneliness may help identify those who are chronically lonely and are therefore at a higher risk for stroke. If we fail to address their feelings of loneliness, on a micro and macro scale, there could be profound health consequences,” said Soh. “Importantly, these interventions must specifically target loneliness, which is a subjective perception and should not be conflated with social isolation.”

The authors noted that further research examining both nuanced changes in loneliness over the short-term and patterns over a longer period of time may help shed additional light on the loneliness-stroke association. They also noted that more research is needed to understand the potential underlying mechanisms, and that the study findings were limited to middle-aged and older adults and may not be generalizable to younger individuals.

Other Harvard Chan School authors included Ichiro Kawachi, Laura Kubzansky, Lisa Berkman, and Henning Tiemeier.

When baby falcon fell, he swooped in to help 

Peregrine enthusiast Brian Farrell has kept eye on Memorial Hall nesting box since 2015

Brian Farrell holding a baby falcon

Photos courtesy of Brian Farrell

Campus & Community

When baby falcon fell, he swooped in to help 

Peregrine enthusiast Brian Farrell has kept eye on Memorial Hall nesting box since 2015

7 min read

Brian Farrell has been fascinated with peregrine falcons since childhood. He even spent a summer as an undergrad in the 1970s raising and releasing the then-endangered birds. So the Museum of Comparative Zoology entomologist and Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America watched with interest in 2015 when state wildlife officials installed a peregrine falcon nesting box high above Harvard’s Cambridge campus, in Memorial Hall’s tower. 

Late last month, he was walking by the tower hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the birds when he spotted a still-downy chick flutter to the ground. Farrell knew just what to do. Then one rescue led to another.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

How did you wind up saving one of Memorial Hall’s peregrines?

I was meeting a friend in the Square. I swung by Memorial Hall to see if I could see any peregrines and just as I was crossing the street, I got a glimpse of a bird a few feet off the ground, gliding. I thought, “That’s weird, that looks like a peregrine but it’s so close to the ground. They’re never near the ground.” 

I found it at the base of the stairs, trying to fly. It could fly well enough to control its descent but couldn’t fly up to the nest. This is a threatened species, and it would be illegal for me to touch it without permission, so I called the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and spoke to the crew that installed the nest box. I said, “It looks healthy enough, I think I can find the building manager to let me in.” So, once we had a plan in mind — I know how to handle the birds — I grabbed it, which got me a few scratches, but I knew it would. 

And you brought it all the way back up to the nest on the tower?

Yes, I found the Memorial Hall production manager Tina Bowen and then did a one-handed climb up the steep ladder. During the actual release — we got the video — I could hear the female screaming protectively. So all was well. The former Memorial Hall Director Ray Traietti went up with Dean Hopi Hoekstra after this bird was returned. They didn’t see the chick, but you have to be at the right spot, and they could hear the parents yelling their heads off. They were clearly protecting something. So that chick was no doubt still there.

And two days later, you had another encounter?

Yes, I heard a report that there was another bird on the ground so I came back. I looked up and the adult was folding its wings and zooming down from Memorial Hall directly for Busch Hall. It perched right on that red tile roof, and I thought, “That’s too low for a peregrine. It’s looking at something.” I knew it must be a chick below. The building was locked, so I rattled the doors. Someone was inside so they let me in. The chick was in the courtyard and had been there all day. This is chick number two. The adult was there, and it was safe. I was in touch with a local volunteer and peregrine fan, Susan Moses, who called Fish and Wildlife, and it was picked up and brought to the clinic, just to check it out, before they returned it.

A baby falcon looking disheveled

Do we know how many chicks are up there?

I took photos of three. The one that I picked up was the youngest of the three. You can see in the photos that it was covered with down. Turns out there may even be a fourth chick too, so this was a very successful year. 

It almost looked sick in the photos.

No, it’s just growing out its flight feathers. That’s how they look before it sheds them. The second bird had much less down — it was losing it in the courtyard. The third bird had very little down. 

What happens is that the birds lay their eggs, one at a time, every few days. If they start incubating with the first egg, then that’s the first one to hatch, and it’s a little bit further along than the second, and then further still from the third. It also tends to get more food since the first is the biggest one.

Is it unusual for them to take these kinds of test flights?

It’s hard to know, but it seemed like they were a little early for test flights, since they couldn’t return to the nest. But on the tower, they don’t stay in the nest box. They’re running around and jostling for food above the gargoyles that surround the tower. They’re jumping up and down. And if one jumps off, another will see that and get the idea. They’re just antsy and right at the edge of being able to fly. 

At this stage, does a day or two make a big difference? 

Yes, and they were within a few days of being able to do it, so our goal was to get them back up high. The birds are very robust and the young are pretty robust, which is why there was a successful reintroduction program here. 

Why did they have to be reintroduced?

They went extinct in Massachusetts because of the pesticide DDT. They disappeared in the East by the early 1960s. There were still a few populations hanging on in other parts of the world, in the Western U.S., in Alaska, and up in Canada. But they were extinct in the East where pesticide use was very intense.

You worked with peregrines as a student at University of Vermont?

I was contracted by Cornell in 1978 to work in the summer reintroducing them into New Hampshire. They bred for the first time in the East nearby in 1984. It was possibly our birds.

What is the history of peregrines at Harvard?

They nested the year before the nest box went up in 2015 but it was unsuccessful. There was a gap for a few years when they moved over to Boston University, but they did successfully nest here last year and raised three young, which were fun to watch all summer. I think these are younger birds since there isn’t a long nesting tradition at Harvard, and the birds tend to return to the same place. Ed Wilson had told me in 2014 that he remembered they last nested on Memorial Hall in 1955 when he was still a grad student in the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

What makes Harvard’s Cambridge campus attractive to peregrines?

They’re the fastest creatures to ever fly on the planet — they’re just spectacular in the air — yet they’ve always nested in cities. Cities are canyon-like, with tall buildings. They need wide-open space with a high perch so they can dive-bomb on birds, because that’s what they do. Cities are filled with pigeons, so they have room and board. One wonderful thing about Harvard is that there are folks who care — and who are watching — if they fall to the ground.

What Harriet Tubman did with the rest of her life

Tiya Miles’ new biography looks at development of ‘eco-spiritual’ worldview, how it served her with Underground Railroad, later missions

Harriet Tubman at around the age of 65. Photo by Seymour Squyer, Auburn, New York, circa 1885.
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Harriet Tubman at around the age of 65, Auburn, New York, circa 1885.

Photo by Seymour Squyer via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Arts & Culture

What Harriet Tubman did with rest of her life

Tiya Miles’ new biography looks at development of ‘eco-spiritual’ worldview, how it served her with Underground Railroad, later missions

9 min read

Many Americans today have a singular view of Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century hero who rescued herself and at least 70 others from slavery before the outbreak of the Civil War.

“We’re really focused on segments of her life that match up with a cinematic adventure story,” said Tiya Miles, the Michael Garvey Professor of History. “But Tubman lived a long life, and she was involved with the Underground Railroad for only about a decade. What did she do with the rest of her years?”

Miles provides an answer in her new book, “Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People,” with its focus on the “eco-spiritual” worldview that made Tubman’s heroism possible. The biography begins with Tubman’s early days as a tenacious child who endures slavery’s abuses while acquiring deep knowledge of the natural world. It also gets to the root of Tubman’s abiding faith in God, a source of solace and strength from early girlhood.

The book’s June 18 release marks the debut of Penguin Press’ Significations series, featuring top thinkers on major Black cultural figures, curated and edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. Coming next month is a biography on Mary McLeod Bethune, the turn-of-the-20th-century educator and activist, authored by Brown University’s Noliwe Rooks.

We caught up with Miles, winner of the 2021 National Book Award for “All That She Carried,” to learn more about “Night Flyer.” The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Tiya Miles.

Tiya Miles.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

This book explores the development of Tubman’s worldview. Where did you get the idea for this approach?

Like many kids growing up in the U.S., I saw Harriet Tubman on posters in my elementary school classrooms and heard about her every year during Black History Month. When I became a scholar of slavery studies, I saw Tubman all across the literature. It wasn’t until I became conscious of environmental issues, and turned my attention toward environmental history, that I realized Tubman was an important figure for the ways she interacted with the natural world.

Around the time of Hurricane Katrina, when the exposure of African American people to environmental harms became much clearer, I realized I wanted to write about Tubman and the ways she navigated her environment toward the ends of freeing herself and many others from slavery.

I’m immediately struck by the similarities to your previous title, Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation” (2023).

“Wild Girls” was really inspired by my interest in Harriet Tubman. Thinking about Tubman and the outdoors for a book about the history of girls in the outdoors, writ large, led me back to seeing her as a child — and to seeing her experiences in entirely new light. I realized how much being in nature shaped her understanding of who she was and what she was capable of.

I then turned to other female figures in the 19th century and asked if the same applied to them. And it did! So with the help of Tubman, I really found my way to an interpretation about girls and the outdoors in the U.S.

Why did you return to Tubman so quickly for your very next book?

“Wild Girls” was part of a series called Norton Shorts, and I found there just wasn’t enough room for all I wanted to say. Working on “Night Flyer” allowed me to reopen the question of Harriet Tubman and nature — to revisit primary materials, to bring in a whole host of secondary materials, and to fit this exploration with the new series edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

What I really saw was that, yes, nature was prominent, but so was something else. And that was Tubman’s very full, very rich, very real spiritual and religious life.

Water, sky, land, and loblolly pine trees in the Maryland county where Tubman was born.

Photo by Perri Meldon, 2022

How did Tubman acquire her deep ecological knowledge?

From around the age of 4, Harriet Tubman — who at that time was known as Araminta Ross, or Minty — was leased out by her owners to other enslavers with farms near the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. She was often forced to do work that was terrible for a child, like collecting muskrats from traps. As an adolescent, she was leased out for outdoor manual labor, and then she got permission to hire herself out to work in the local timber industry.

Her education, as far as we can tell, was influenced by what she could see and hear and touch, but also by the fact that her father worked in the same woods. He was a foreman of a group of people, both free and enslaved, who were doing timbering work. Tubman probably learned from her father about the differences between tree species, how to identify stars in the night sky, and what would have been edible in those woods.

How did this knowledge serve her Underground Railroad mission?

It’s really hard for us now to understand how difficult and even impossible it was for enslaved people to escape captivity. As a result, the mass number of African Americans who were enslaved had to wait until the Civil War to obtain their freedom.

Many were living in isolated locations where roads were unmarked and unmapped. There were thick forests, wide waterways, and deep swamps, all of which were filled with wildlife that could be hazardous.

Those who did make the attempt had to cover great distances to get from southern states to the north. And they would do this knowing there were people on the lookout to identify them; there were hunters on their trail. That meant knowing how to sustain your own life and the lives of those making the journey with you. It meant being able to access water, food, and shelter. It meant knowing what path led through which woods, which waterways were nearby, which animals were dangerous.

“She spent the rest of her life taking people in, aiding them, and showing them the kind of love she always received from her family, but never received from enslavers as a child.”

When did Tubman’s religious education begin?

Harriet Tubman — little Minty Ross — was raised by parents who were themselves very religious. Although we don’t have a great deal of direct reportage, it seems she grew up ensconced in a broader Black enslaved community — with some free people mixed in — who were devout, practicing Christians.

When Tubman was leased out by her owner, she was distraught. She loved her mother and father — this is evident in the primary materials. Being separated from them was very painful. One thing she did to survive was to pray. Apparently, she wouldn’t pray in proximity to the people who were renting her. Instead, she would go off to be alone with her prayers.

And as she grew older, her prayer life became much more intense. She began to feel she was in direct communication with God.

Tubman famously sustained a brain injury around the age of 12. How did that impact her spiritual life?

The story takes place in Dorchester County, Maryland, in a little general store that still exists today and was close to a plantation where Tubman was leased out. She noticed someone described in the original materials as a “young slave” running from an overseer toward the store. According to descriptions, Tubman threw herself in between when the overseer hurled a very heavy metal weight toward the boy. The weight hit Tubman in the head, and she was knocked to the floor. She says in the first accounts of her life that it cut into her skull. Nevertheless, she was sent right back to work in the fields the next day. She talks about how her head was bleeding as she was forced to work.

After this, Tubman experienced a dramatic change. Scholars today assess her resulting condition as temporal lobe epilepsy. She had terrible headaches. She had seizures that left her unconscious. But she also had an enriched sense of spiritual intuition and understanding, which she felt guided her actions for the rest of her life.

This story is often told as the moment when Tubman became a hero. But one of the things I write about in “Night Flyer” is that Tubman already had an active religious sense. She already had an extremely strong will. She was already resisting slavery in the limited ways that she could as a child.

I would say this moment expanded and intensified these qualities. But it did not initiate all the characteristics we associate today with Tubman’s bravery.

I want to end with her role as a caregiver, because I love how prominently you feature this aspect of her life.

Harriet Tubman lived according to an ethos of caregiving. I think it stemmed from her love of family, from her observations of how well her mother had cared for her and her siblings, and also from her belief in God. And she did something remarkable in the later decades of life. She got ahold of a piece of land and made space for people who needed a place to live. There were a number of Black people who were impoverished, who were ill, or who had disabilities squeezed into Tubman’s very small house on a farm in upstate New York.

While keeping this wide-open home, she even expanded her dream to include a facility on the grounds where she could care for Black people who were older or in need of an additional degree of care. Basically, Tubman wanted to build a healthcare facility. And she did it! She spent the rest of her life taking people in, aiding them, and showing them the kind of love she always received from her family, but never received from enslavers as a child. Actually, I think this is her greatest lesson for us today.

How Ragon Institute’s new building aids its mission

Immunology focus expands to neurodegenerative diseases and other areas as collaboration between Harvard, MIT, and Mass. General Hospital turns 15

Director Bruce Walker at the opening of the Ragon Institute’s new building.

Campus & Community

How Ragon Institute’s new home aids mission

Immunology focus expands to neurodegenerative diseases and other areas as collaboration between Harvard, MIT, and Mass. General Hospital turns 15

6 min read

On its 15th anniversary, the Ragon Institute celebrates the opening of a 300,000-square-foot building to house its engineers, scientists, and doctors. The Cambridge-based Ragon — a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard — enables cross-disciplinary biomedical research aimed at solving global health problems. We spoke with Ragon Director Bruce Walker about the Institute’s next steps.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

The Ragon Institute was founded to bring about collaboration between scientists, doctors, and engineers. How does the new building facilitate this?

Traditionally, these scientific disciplines have been siloed. So one objective is to bring these different disciplines together, but unless they’re interacting you haven’t accomplished much. What we’ve done is to create an environment where the incentive is to leave your office and go to common spaces that we refer to as collaboration spaces where you have those chance encounters, where the scientists are visible. The Institute is built so that you can see people. It’s got a very large central atrium and catwalks on each level and a spiral staircase, so you know who else is in the building. In my experience, those random encounters are where innovation and creativity are spawned.

“You can work really hard to create something through the application of science and engineering, but if you can’t deliver it to people you haven’t accomplished much.”

Do you see any new disciplines or technologies being added to this collaboration?

We’re all studying how the immune system functions and how it malfunctions. Whether you’re a physicist or a computational biologist or an immunologist, we’re all working toward a common goal of understanding those processes. The immune system is beyond the capacity of the human brain to understand that whole complex system, but it’s not beyond the ability with AI and machine learning. In the new building there will be multiple spaces for computational biologists, AI, and machine learning.

As you celebrate the Ragon’s 15th anniversary, do you see its focus changing?

We have three major programmatic areas now going forward. We have just the beginning of an understanding of how the immune system works, but we know that that the immune system is in every nook and cranny in our bodies and keeping us healthy. In fact, it’s eliminating cancerous cells as they arise. The more we can understand about it, the better we can come up with therapies. So trying to understand the physiology of the immune system is one focus.

Immune engineering is another, and the third is patient-centered immunology. You can work really hard to create something through the application of science and engineering, but if you can’t deliver it to people you haven’t accomplished much. One of the things that we have in the new building is a clinical center. We’ll be able to do patient follow-up right in the institute.

What new challenges will the Institute take on?

A major challenge looking forward is the family of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that those are inflammatory in nature, in other words, mediated in some way or modulated in some way by the immune system. And so neuroimmunology is one of the areas that we’re specifically trying to extend into. We started out 15 years ago as an HIV institute, we rapidly expanded as Ebola and then Zika came along, and COVID-19, influenza, malaria, and in addition to that, autoimmunity and cancer. It’s all under the umbrella of how the immune system functions and malfunctions.

What has the partnership between Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital made possible?

It has enabled us to implement our strategy, which was to bring together scientists from different disciplines and give them the flexibility to take innovative ideas forward with flexible funding. Traditional funding sources are loath to fund things if they haven’t been shown to already work, and our view is that if we aren’t failing in some projects, we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. The flexible funding is really critical because it enables us to take an idea and immediately sprint with it, taking high-risk, high-impact ideas forward.

For years when I was working at Mass General, I would have conversations with different people outside of the HIV field and we’d talk about, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to apply your skills to this HIV problem?” And it never went anywhere because we never had funding. We’re enabling those connections to happen by catalyzing them with flexible funding.

How do you see this partnership growing?

We are MGH, MIT, and Harvard, but we welcome people from all the other affiliated hospitals. We collaborate with UMass and Tufts and Boston University.

Our educational mission is not just local, it extends out to other places in the world, particularly South Africa, which has the greatest burden of TB and HIV infection in the world. We partner closely with two research institutes there, and our goal is to transfer the knowledge and technologies that we’re developing to the African continent and to help in training the next generation of African scientists.

We’re in the process of establishing new collaborations in South America and others in Africa. And we are establishing a formal collaboration with a new institute in Australia. Again, we really want to take down the walls.

What difference will this new facility make?

The expanded facilities allow us to cover more dimensions of immunology, recruit more faculty, and provide an expanded number of better-equipped labs to support the scientists. It was built for collaboration, which is the reason that the Ragon Institute was built: to bring together scientists and engineers and medical doctors from multiple disciplines and use their creativity and knowledge in a pooled way to solve some of the biggest global health problems of our generation and future generations.

The Institute also has a childcare center, to support young faculty with families, and educational spaces to teach the next generation of scientists and engineers and medical doctors. We actually overbuilt things, so it’s got a very large biosafety Level 3 facility, which will service people in this incredible square mile of scientific innovation that’s unmatched anywhere in the world.

Uncovering ‘hidden curriculum’ for those historically on outside

Quantum Noir fosters sense of community among individuals of color interested or involved in quantum science, nanoscience, engineering

Campus & Community

Uncovering ‘hidden curriculum’ for those historically on outside

Quantum Noir fosters sense of community among individuals of color interested or involved in quantum science, nanoscience, engineering

4 min read

Howard computer engineering major Malcolm Bogroff asks a question at the Quantum Noir conference held earlier this month at Harvard.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Jada Emodogo arrived at the recent Quantum Noir conference knowing no one.

The incoming Harvard Quantum Initiative graduate student already knew she had an interest in the field. But that wasn’t the same as feeling there may be a place for her in it.

“Being able to congregate with different professionals in the field gives me hope for the future, and it really affirms that what I want to do, and what I’m able to do, is right here,” she said.

Emodogo, a recent Jackson State University graduate, was among more than 100 attendees of the inaugural Quantum Noir conference at Harvard on June 11-14, a quantum science and engineering event aimed at students and scientists of color. Faculty at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Dartmouth, and many other colleges led sessions that blended overviews of the latest advances in quantum science with non-technical subjects such as entrepreneurship, venture capital, and how to navigate spaces in the field as an underrepresented minority.

The initiative was the brainchild of William Wilson, executive director of Harvard’s Center for Nanoscale Systems. A longtime supporter of the Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, Wilson dreamt for years of creating a similar event for nanoscale and quantum physics.

“This really was a missing link, in the sense that we’re not educating students in this space … and we’re letting that talent go do something else. We’re letting that talent go work on satellites, as opposed to working on semiconductors,” Wilson said.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Wilson and colleagues launched Quantum Noir to create a community of researchers, innovators, and students of color interested or involved in quantum science, nanoscience, and engineering. Organizers hope to create a “more inclusive future” for the field by training the best and most diverse set of minds to conquer its hardest problems — from networking hardware to algorithm development.

A number of attendees hailed from historically Black colleges and universities, including undergraduates, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty from Howard University and Morehouse College. Preconference tutorials introduced the basics of quantum computing and quantum networks, and subsequent technical sessions were designed to be accessible to students or researchers without a deep background in any particular field.

Howard computer engineering major Malcolm Bogroff was one such undergraduate, with designs on graduate school but open to different directions. The rising sophomore appreciated the conference’s approach. “I think the sessions toe the line, where you can have people at the graduate student, and maybe higher undergraduate level, able to understand and ask questions,” he said.

Harvard College alumnus Makinde Ogunnaike ’17 was among those who helped students such as Bogroff get the most out of the conference. A recent Ph.D. graduate of MIT, Ogunnaike served as a student ambassador of the conference and helped co-organize networking events. Gatherings like Quantum Noir are critical to promoting exposure and community, he said.

“This conference is one of the few venues that supports Black and other underrepresented researchers both professionally and personally,” said Ogunnaike, who credited mentorship he received at the National Society of Black Physicists as an undergrad with helping him pivot from experimental particle physics to theoretical condensed matter physics.

“Just as there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ in school, where best practices and institutional resources can be hidden to people who are not familiar with elite institutions or higher education, the world of scientific research has many hidden disparities,” he said.

Americans hate inflation, full stop

No traction for more positive economic developments, research says

Stefanie Stantcheva.

Two recent papers by Stefanie Stantcheva explore Americans’ perceptions of inflation.

Photo courtesy of Stefanie Stantcheva

Work & Economy

Americans hate inflation, full stop

No traction for more positive economic developments, research says

3 min read

Say “inflation” these days and the minds of most Americans jump to steep grocery bills and high interest rates.

As highlighted by two recent papers by Stefanie Stantcheva, the Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy, the majority are much less likely to focus on the more positive economic trends of the past few years, including wage growth and strong employment prospects. What’s more, Americans overwhelmingly oppose the tools that policymakers use to mitigate inflation’s worst effects. In fact, many see inflation as only getting worse when the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, as it did 11 times between spring 2022 and last summer.

“There hasn’t been enough work to see how people understand inflation, what policies they want to support in order to fight inflation, and also how inflation actually impacts them,” Stantcheva said.

For a paper titled “People’s Understanding of Inflation,” Stantcheva and graduate student co-authors Francesco Nuzzi (Harvard) and Alberto Binetti (Princeton) conducted a large-scale survey through which they found that most Americans believe inflation has been caused by government action, trailed by supply-chain disruptions and other COVID-related issues. Respondents expressed skepticism about rate hikes as an effective countermeasure.

75% Of Republican voters surveyed blamed inflation on the government vs. 60% of Democrats

Clear partisan differences surfaced in the findings. Republicans were more likely to blame inflation on the government (more than 75 percent of GOP voters vs. 60 percent of Democrats) and less likely to blame private companies. All respondents saw inflation as more harmful to lower-income people, but Republicans were less likely to support policies that might help these households, such as expanding access to food stamps (supported by 80 percent of Democrats vs. 50 percent of Republicans) or boosting the minimum wage (80 percent for Democrats vs. 50 percent of Republicans).

The most cited burden of inflation was the impact on family budgets, notably the way it raises the stakes on household purchases and standard of living.

Among the details that caught Nuzzi’s attention was the lack of ambiguity in survey responses. “People perceive inflation as unequivocally negative, rarely associating it with positive economic developments or with a good economy,” he said.

Discussing the second paper, “Why Do We Dislike Inflation?,” Stantcheva noted that inflation typically plays out in one of two ways. The first is a product of a booming economy: “There’s high demand, things are going well, and that can actually generate inflation.” The other possibility, “stagflation,” is associated with high unemployment and stagnant demand.

Most respondents viewed all inflationary episodes as “stagflation,” Stantcheva said. “There is a perception that inflation is unambiguously a bad thing.”

Views on the tools policymakers use in attempts to control inflation echoed findings from “People’s Understanding of Inflation.”

“People tend to think that policymakers do not face harsh trade-offs when it comes to fighting inflation,” she said.

This is important, she added, because “when you ask people what type of policies they support to fight inflation … contractionary monetary policies like increasing interest rates or reducing money supply have very low support.”

Putting human past on the MAPS

Harvard digital atlas plots patterns from history ancient and modern

Credit: MAPS

Science & Tech

Putting human past on the MAPS

Harvard digital atlas plots patterns from history ancient and modern

6 min read

A network of ancient Roman roads converges neatly with satellite images of the Earth at night. A heat map of 15th-century bubonic plague outbreaks bears an eerie resemblance to Europe’s early COVID-19 hot spots. Mapping Past Societies, a free digital atlas hosted by the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard, illuminates just a few of these patterns.

“It has a rich dataset of historic, economic, archaeological, environmental, and health information as well as climate data going back much further,” said Santiago Pardo Sánchez ’16, the project’s co-managing editor. “Someone who’s interested in modern transportation could look at how it worked in the past. Someone who’s looking at the plague in Central Asia could also get data from the Middle East.”

Mapping Past Societies, or MAPS, is powered by vast spreadsheets that geo-locate everything from historic rat populations to medieval marketplaces and Roman military structures. Its user-friendly interface, which runs on ArcGIS software, invites discovery by layering multiple phenomena across a single map — or by animating how one dataset plays out over time.

“The shipwreck data have been important to me and other economic historians,” said MAPS founder and general editor Michael McCormick, the Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History and chair of the Science of the Human Past initiative. “They offer a rather crude but nevertheless rich indicator of economic activity for the period between about 500 B.C.E. and 1500 C.E.”

For much of his career, McCormick focused on the history and archaeology of the fall of the Roman Empire. He was once in the habit of hand-drawing maps for his classes. Then a thought occurred one evening in the 1990s while he was outlining the Roman Empire for an exam: “At this very moment, around the globe, there are probably 100 other professors drawing exactly the same map,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Wait! This is not a good use of our time. There should be one map!’”

Soon he was experimenting with geographic information systems to design his own digital maps, with several appearing in “Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900” (2002). That led to partnering with the Center for Geographic Analysis to launch the free Digital Atlas of Roman Empire and Medieval Civilizations in the mid ’00s. Over the years, DARMC was slowly expanded to incorporate new datasets. Information on the ancient and medieval worlds remains most robust, but more recent additions cover Colonial Latin America, 18th-century France, and more.

Michael McCormick (from left), Santiago Pardo Sánchez, and Alexander More.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The pandemic inspired the team to refresh the project’s branding and interface, relaunching DARMC earlier this year as MAPS. The site’s new dashboard will be familiar to anybody who recalls tracking COVID cases on the Johns Hopkins website. At the same time, recent software updates enabled the addition of that showstopping layering feature.

“Before you could just turn on and off one layer,” Pardo Sánchez noted. “But now, you can do much more. You can change the visualizations with overlays and transparencies. You can share it more easily. You can switch the basemap, or background, to satellite imagery of the Earth at night.”

From the start, students have been key to the project’s success. Undergraduates bring a natural fascination with Roman and medieval history, McCormick said, but many struggle to make meaningful early academic contributions in the field, given the need for proficiency in multiple languages including Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Syriac — not to mention all the must-read secondary literatures in German, Italian, French, and Spanish.

To work on MAPS, however, all they need is curiosity, attention to detail, and facility with spreadsheets. “This is a real intellectual contribution to our understanding of the human past which they can, should, and do cite among their publications,” McCormick said.

“My litmus test has been: Could a nerdy 12-year-old use it? Because if a nerdy 12-year-old can use it, then anybody can.”

Anika Liv Christensen, MAPS research assistant

“The undergrads working on the project now are younger than the project,” quipped Pardo Sánchez, who made his first MAPS contributions as an undergraduate, cataloguing findings from McCormick’s “Origins of the European Economy.” As an undergraduate concentrating in history, Pardo Sánchez later contributed to one of the site’s biggest datasets, nearly 60,000 records of climate events over the past 2,000 years.

Today, Anika Liv Christensen ’26, a research assistant currently working on MAPS, says, “It was the perfect job for a 19-year-old with no experience. Originally, my job was to check databases for errors. With so many entries, there are bound to be misspellings and formatting problems.”

Christensen, a joint concentrator in music and human evolutionary biology, recently worked on inventorying atypical burial sites in medieval France, currently with about 300 entries (each with up to five individuals per site).

“My litmus test has been: Could a nerdy 12-year-old use it?” Christensen said. “Because if a nerdy 12-year-old can use it, then anybody can.”

The enormous spreadsheets that populate the site’s map are freely available for download to anybody with an internet connection. The information on Roman roads has proved especially popular, McCormick shared. “There was a whole series of economic studies on 21st-century Europe showing that proximity to Roman roads helped predict economic vibrancy today.”

At a recent MAPS kickoff event, co-managing editor Alexander More, M.A ’07, Ph.D. ’14, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts, demonstrated what it looks like to plot the Roman roads alongside information on bubonic plague outbreaks from the 14th century.

“You can really see the data come alive,” he marveled. “For the first time, you can see the progression of this pandemic throughout Europe, with these hotspots emerging at nexuses of Roman roads.”

As bursts of yellow covered Italy and France, yet another historical intersection came into view. “These nexuses are in fact also the same places where COVID emerged in full force in 2020,” More said.

College sees strong yield for students accepted to Class of 2028  

Financial aid was a critical factor, dean says

Photo by Dylan Goodman

Campus & Community

College sees strong yield for students accepted to Class of 2028  

Financial aid was a critical factor, dean says

3 min read

Eighty-four percent of students accepted to the Class of 2028 have decided to attend Harvard College this fall, a slight increase from last year. The strong yield indicates that Harvard continues to be a top choice for many of the world’s most promising students.

Financial aid was a critical factor. Approximately 55 percent of the class will receive need-based aid, and the average parent contribution for students receiving aid is $15,500. Nearly one-quarter (23.4 percent) of the admitted class will attend Harvard with no parent contribution.

“It’s exciting to hear from so many incoming students and their families about the importance of our generous financial aid in their decisions to come to Harvard,” said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons.

A new launch grant program, announced last fall, has expanded support for students with family incomes below $85,000, providing $2,000 during junior year as students prepare for life after graduation.

“The launch grant complements a $2,000 start-up grant that ensures students have a smooth transition to life at Harvard,” said Griffin Director of Financial Aid Jake Kaufmann. 

First-generation students make up 20.3 percent of the class. Pell recipients make up 20.4 percent, and students requesting an application fee waiver make up 29.4 percent.

The Class of 2028 is made up of 53.2 percent women and 46.8 percent men. Additionally, 13 transfer students will join the College this fall. Harvard continues to successfully recruit from the military, enrolling 19 veterans for the Class of 2028. The class also includes 23 students who received ROTC scholarships.  

A robust recruitment effort by faculty, staff, alumni, and students supported the application cycle. Thousands of volunteers helped interview applicants and recruit students through college fairs. Admissions officers visited some 150 cities in the U.S.

“Our recruitment efforts are only as good as the staff and volunteers who are committed to seeking out our most promising students. The Class of 2028 represents the best of these kinds of efforts,” said Director of Admissions Joy St. John. 

The incoming class includes students from all 50 states and the U.S. territories: New England (17 percent); Mid-Atlantic (20.2 percent); South (16.1 percent); Midwest (9 percent); Mountain (2.5 percent); Pacific (14.9 percent); Central (1.6 percent); and U.S. territories (.4 percent). International citizens, representing 94 countries, comprise 16.7 percent of the class.  

Prospective social science concentrators make up 36.9 percent of the incoming first-years while 12 percent of students expressed interest in the humanities. More than 25 percent of students expressed interest in the sciences (15.5 in the life sciences, 10 percent in the physical sciences) and 22.9 percent in studying computer science and engineering. Only 1.7 percent declared themselves undecided.

A record number of admitted students (1,304) attended Visitas in April. Expanded programming included opportunities to attend actual or sample sessions of four iconic Harvard courses (CS50, Econ10B, Human10B, and LifeSci1A) and engage with faculty; there was also an option to attend virtually as well. Many students reported that their decision to come to Harvard was influenced by Visitas and other outreach conducted during the month of April by faculty, students, and alumni. 

Boston busing in 1974 was about race. Now the issue is class.

School-reform specialist examines mixed legacy of landmark decision, changes in demography, hurdles to equity in opportunity

Police escort Black students to South Boston High School on the first day of court-ordered busing in 1974.

Spencer Grant/Getty Images

Nation & World

Boston busing in 1974 was about race. Now the issue is class.

School-reform specialist examines mixed legacy of landmark decision, changes in demography, hurdles to equity in opportunity

9 min read

Nearly 50 years ago, a landmark federal court decision found the Boston School Committee had illegally perpetuated segregation and allocated lower funding in predominantly Black neighborhoods. It ordered racial rebalancing of white and Black students through busing.

The ruling by Judge W. Arthur Garrity on June 21, 1974, ignited racial violence and bitter protests from mostly working-class whites who resisted complying and sparked fears in both white and Black neighborhoods over the safety of their children. The tumultuous era tore apart Boston and left an indelible stain on the city’s reputation.

There is widespread agreement that the results of this attempt to achieve more equal educational opportunity were mixed at best. And a new report by a state education oversight panel finds that a majority of public schools in Massachusetts remain segregated.

The Gazette spoke with Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Paul Reville about Boston’s busing crisis and what has improved — and what hasn’t — over the past half-century. An expert on school reform, Reville was secretary of education in Massachusetts from 2008-2013 and is now the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at HGSE. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

While well-intentioned, busing didn’t yield the kind of student gains Judge Garrity and others likely thought it would. Was this experiment doomed to fail from the start, or an idea with potential that was derailed by racial and class politics?

The decision Judge Garrity made to bus students in Boston was his answer to the blatant discrimination against racial minorities promulgated by the Boston School Committee. When that school board failed to come up with an acceptable plan for integration, Garrity imposed a court-designed plan on the school system.

People in Boston, then as now, felt like they were entitled to have good, safe, nearby schools in their neighborhoods. For many parents, Black and white, the idea of busing their children to a far-away, possibly unsafe school was outrageous.

The court order was seen by many as not only a misguided technical solution to a much larger problem, but also as an imposition by affluent, white liberals on vulnerable urban neighborhoods. Many Black parents in Boston had painfully endured decades of discrimination by the school system, and they wanted a remedy. At the same time, they feared for the safety of their children who were being bused into sometimes hostile neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs had sought a ruling that would prevent the discrimination against and isolation of racial minorities. The court concluded that the only way to accomplish this was to force the integration of each school so that no particular school could be identified for discrimination. If there were Black and white children in every school, then the system would be forced to treat them all equally in terms of policy and budget.

That was a logical and well-intentioned strategy, but the court did not anticipate the degree of resistance forced busing would generate, nor the degree to which forced busing would trigger white and middle-class flight from Boston’s public schools.

What has changed for the better and what hasn’t since 1974?

The demographics in the U.S. and in public education, in particular, have changed dramatically. Students left the Boston Public Schools in droves. While initial enrollment declines were attributable to the court decision, larger demographic and societal changes compounded the effect.

85% Of those attending Boston Public Schools today are students of color

Current enrollment is now roughly half of what it was in the early 1970s. Students of color are now more racially isolated in Boston public schools than ever before. Currently, BPS has roughly 85 percent students of color, whereas white students were in the majority [57 percent] when busing began. To have an integrated student body in every school, given current demographics, is virtually impossible. On the other hand, we now have a more equitable distribution of budget and resources between schools.

Many factors at play during this era have changed: People of color are now the majority population in Boston; the school committee is not as politically powerful as it once was; and the last two mayors and the current Massachusetts secretary of education are people of color. And yet, Boston’s public schools are about average compared to other large U.S. cities. Should we be seeing better results?

Boston has strong leadership now, an effective mayor and an experienced superintendent presiding over a challenged school system. The challenges are huge: You’ve got declining enrollment, increased absenteeism, and spiraling mental health and behavioral problems.

Although student attendance appears to be increasing somewhat, you still have something like a quarter of students chronically absent. No amount of school improvement is going to raise your scores if high percentages of young people are absent from school on a regular basis.

It’s much more a matter of socioeconomics than race. Educational achievement and attainment are closely associated with class. Boston is now a much less socio-economically diverse school district than it was before.

Socioeconomic flight from the district to private, parochial, and suburban schools, even to charter schools, has drawn down enrollment and left the system with much more concentrated poverty.

The cost of housing has driven a lot of middle-class people out of the city. The hollowing out of that middle means that the school system is now serving many more children with profound special needs, more multilingual learners, and students from low-income backgrounds. These factors make it much more complicated and difficult to educate all children to higher levels.

Boston, like a lot of cities, has got major challenges in dealing with the circumstances in children’s lives outside of school. Children are in school for only 20 percent of their waking hours between kindergarten and grade 12. So, school is a fairly weak intervention in terms of changing the prospects and opportunities available to young people.

“The school-choice system sometimes seems to amount to little more than an expensive game of musical chairs. Somebody always loses out.”

Whenever you have concentrated poverty, irrespective of race, it diminishes the chances for young people moving forward. Folks like Harvard economist Raj Chetty have done a lot of research on the importance of social class and social class interaction for social and economic mobility. That matters a lot.

What still needs to be done?

The school-choice system has not worked very effectively. It sometimes seems to amount to little more than an expensive game of musical chairs with a limited number of high-quality educational opportunities. Somebody always loses out in that kind of a game.

I think we should move back to neighborhood schools. Until recently, you could barely mention the idea of having a “neighborhood school” because that term became so fraught during the busing days. But the concept is worth reviving.

We desperately need high school reform. There must be school-to-career pathways and early college options in all those high schools. There’s some good work going on in Boston on “hub schools” — full-service community schools — which I applaud. This movement addresses some of the out-of-school factors that become impediments for many children. We need a “children’s cabinet” to oversee and expand this work.

We desperately need, and are now beginning to see, improvements in Boston’s school buildings. This administration has committed significant capital funding and is moving ahead in spite of some predictable setbacks and controversies.

We are stuck with a framework where school lines are drawn along municipal lines. Increasingly, in the U.S., people are segregating on the basis of income. That sort of segregation is as difficult to overcome as racial segregation has been in the past. Students in schools with high concentrations of poverty have a much more difficult time achieving and moving up than students in more integrated schools. To the degree that we can get affordable, mixed-income housing, Boston will have a more integrated school system. But that takes time.

What did school administrators, policymakers, and scholars learn from this period? Has anything positive come from it?

Yes, I think a couple of things. On the one hand, it was obviously right for the court to demand that the Boston School Committee treat all of its students equitably. That had to happen. On the other hand, we learned that you can’t have a successful, externally imposed remedy if people who are on the receiving end had no role in designing the remedy.

“Ultimately, we should be striving to have a quality school in every neighborhood.”

Those who bear the full brunt of the strategy are going to demand changes when the remedy threatens their children’s safety. If those changes are not forthcoming, those who can will leave. In the end, busing was not a successful remedy for racial segregation even if it did fix some aspects of a biased system.

We still have a long way to go. The school-choice program we have now is another well-intentioned attempt to achieve integration on a voluntary basis. That is a step in the right direction, but one with serious problems. We should be worrying less about achieving the perfect balance in all schools based on racial or ethnic demographics and be more concerned about socioeconomic integration.

Ultimately, we should be striving to have a quality school in every neighborhood, a school tailored to meet the needs of those particular children, giving them what they require to be successful both inside and outside of school. This should be part of a much larger city-wide social contract which guarantees every neighborhood the preconditions which will allow residents to flourish.

This is no simple matter given demographic trends, the history and politics of achieving equity, and the cost of housing in Boston, but it’s the best way forward.

Outstanding FAS staff honored at Dean’s Distinction celebration

Awards recognize citizenship, collaboration, exceptional contributions

Dean’s Distinction honoree Francisco Arellano, center, celebrates with colleagues in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Outstanding FAS staff honored at Dean’s Distinction celebration

4 min read

Awards recognize citizenship, collaboration, exceptional contributions

An “incredible advocate for students.” An “administrative MacGyver.” A revitalizer and re-energizer of promoting gender equity, with a “warm, human-centered approach.”

Those words and more described winners of the 2024 Dean’s Distinction awards, which annually recognize exceptional work of Faculty of Arts and Sciences staff. Sunny skies befitted a festive awards ceremony earlier this month, where 12 individuals and two teams were feted for their dedication and expertise over the past year.  

The annual FAS celebration took place in the Dunster House courtyard among throngs of cheering colleagues who came to support their peers and celebrate the academic year’s end.

“You shine as leaders within your individual departments and across the FAS as a whole,” said Hopi Hoekstra, Edgerley Family Dean of the FAS, before bestowing the awards. “You collaborate, you tackle problems with enthusiasm and energy, and you have a positive impact both here and in the world.”

Honorees hailed from across departments and centers, from the Dean of Students Office and the Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to the Harvard Forest. Cheers erupted as Hoekstra read each name.

Francisco Arellano, events manager in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, accepted his award onstage before a lively group from MCB wearing matching sunglasses and waving balloons that spelled out his name in his favorite color, orange.

Arellano said he was “thrilled and humbled” to receive the award. “It’s an extraordinary feeling to be recognized in such a meaningful way. The best part of this experience has been how my team, who have been instrumental in my success, celebrated with me.”

Hopi Hoekstra.
“You shine as leaders within your individual departments and across the FAS as a whole,” said Dean Hopi Hoekstra.

Fellow awardee Genesee Johnson, director of financial administration and operations in Arts and Humanities, was likewise deeply touched by her team’s outpouring of support. “It’s one thing to receive recognition from a formal body or committee, but it’s another thing entirely to be uplifted by those you work alongside every day,” she said.

Boisterous supporters hoisted glittery signs for awardee Dell Marie Hamilton, Acting Director of the Cooper Gallery for African and African American Art at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. In her nomination, Executive Director Abby Wolf highlighted Hamilton’s curatorial experience and “tenacious attention to detail” that has brought the organization through “many difficult spots.”

“She went far above and beyond what was anticipated, driven always by our mission to educate and fill in gaps of traditional histories and institutions,” Wolf said.

Awardees were lauded for a range of qualities, Hoekstra said: cultivating a strong sense of community and connection across the FAS; creating humane and supportive work environments; exceeding regular responsibilities and expectations; fostering diversity, inclusion, and belonging; collaborating with the University’s best interests and mission in mind; and demonstrating ingenuity and creativity in their roles.

Two staff teams were honored: The Crimson Summer Academy, an academic program serving local public schools that hosts 30-40 students on campus each year; and the Research Administration Team that supports the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, managing faculty research portfolios in financial planning, sponsor requirements, and other areas.

In opening remarks, Dean of Administration and Finance Scott Jordan said, “It is worth taking a moment to be happy to be together.” 

“I want to acknowledge ­— and this is heartfelt — that we are all winners today,” Jordan said. “We have gotten through the 2024 academic year.”

The 2024 Dean’s Distinction awardees:  

Francisco Arellano, Molecular and Cellular Biology
Marvin Glenn Arenzana Baclig, Dean of Students Office
Raul Figueroa, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Meg Fuchs, Harvard Forest
Andrew Gitchel, Theatre, Dance & Media
Dell Marie Hamilton, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research
Genesee Johnson, Arts and Humanities Administrative Services
Sol Kim-Bentley, English
Helen Lewis, Linguistics
Patricie Niyitegeka, Science Division
Daniel Oliver, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
Alejandra Rincon, Dean of Students Office

Team awardees:

Crimson Summer Academy, in the Division of Continuing Education
Joseph Lewis
Kimberly Parker
Jamie Shushan
Melissa Trottier

Human Evolutionary Biology-Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Research Administration Team
Diana Gjino
Jenna Legault
Kristin Pennarun
Emily Reynolds
Liliana Teixeira-Davis

Everyone knows their name

65 staff members honored as Harvard Heroes for leadership, teamwork, willingness to go extra mile to make University better

Campus & Community

Everyone knows their name

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

4 min read

65 staff members honored as Harvard Heroes for leadership, teamwork, willingness to go extra mile to make University better

Go into any office or department, and everyone knows who they are.

Take Flora Chan. The special proctor for BGLTQ and financial aid and admissions officer stands out for her calming presence, generous spirit, and for welcoming students to be themselves.

Then there’s Leo Gomez. As director for active learning in electrical engineering at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he overperforms in creating student learning modules with his positive attitude and commitment to education.

Meghan Kerr exceeds expectations with her meticulous work involving research data. In addition, the records manager and archivist at Countway Library has earned a reputation for helping faculty and staff crack complex policies and survey records to reduce storage costs.  

The three were among the 65 recognized for their contributions at this year’s Harvard Heroes, a program that honors high-performing staff members from across campus. The honorees are nominated by their peers for their leadership, teamwork, and willingness to go the extra mile to make the University better.

Interim President Alan Garber hosted the awards ceremony on Thursday at Sanders Theatre, which was packed with Harvard employees, who clapped and cheered every time as each of the 65 names was announced.

“Today we celebrate you and we recognize all of the outstanding ways you make the University better,” said Garber. “You are heroes because you never forget the greater significance of your work. You are heroes because your to-do lists are also how-to-do lists: How can I keep learning and growing? How can I be welcoming, helpful, and supportive? How can I aim for excellence and enable excellence in others? Your commitment to asking these kinds of questions helps steer the University through challenge and through change. With attention, care, and skill you keep Harvard moving forward, and for that we are all grateful.”

Among other staff members recognized were Norma Rodriguez, communications center supervisor with the Harvard Police Department, for going above and beyond to help students in crisis, as well as dining services worker Adilson Lopes; campus driver Jack Benson; building maintenance worker Manny Aguiar; and four other campus services employees.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences nominated 14 employees; the Harvard Medical School, seven; and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, four. Workers from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Office of the President and Provost, the Harvard Library, Alumni Affairs and Development, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University Information Technology, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Human Resources, Financial Administration, and the Harvard Public Affairs and Communications were among the honorees.

A special award was given to Sasha, the Harvard University Police Department’s community engagement dog. The black Labrador retriever made a special appearance during the ceremony, and her presence almost brought down the house.

In a prerecorded video shown during the ceremony, honorees described how they view their work. Their answers ranged from “rewarding” to “unpredictable” to “exciting” to “busy, really busy.” They were also asked what they liked best about their jobs. Some talked about the challenging nature of their work and their sense of accomplishment, but for most it came down to one thing: the people.

“I couldn’t do it without my fantastic office community,” said Chan, in an interview at a reception after the ceremonies. “I’m just really honored. I really love this place. I live on campus with my wife and 32 first-year students. That’s my night job and my day job is working in admissions and financial aid. We feel part of the Harvard community.”

Gomez agreed.

“There’s just so many people that are deserving of a recognition like this,” he said. “There are thousands and thousands of people that support Harvard and try to do their best, day in and day out, but it’s nice to be recognized for your efforts.”

Another honoree, Kendra Barber, assistant dean for faculty affairs for arts and humanities, said her favorite part of work is the whole thing.

“The job is interesting, the people are nice, and it’s fun!” said Barber in one of the videos shown during the ceremony. “Even on the busiest, hardest day, it’s still fun.”

History of Chichén Itzá written in DNA

Research using new method upends narrative on ritual sacrifices, yields discovery on resistance built to colonial-era epidemics

Nation & World

History of Chichén Itzá written in DNA

Research using new method upends narrative on ritual sacrifices, yields discovery on resistance built to colonial-era epidemics

long read

Photo by Johannes Krause

For more than 100 years, the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá has been a source of archaeological fascination. 

Human remains discovered early in the 20th century inspired what biomolecular archaeologist Christina Warinner called “lurid accounts” of ritual sacrifices of female virgins. Not until the early 21st century did researchers piece together enough skeletal evidence to cast doubt on the narrative. 

Chichén Itzá rose to prominence around 800 A.D., remaining powerful and populous for more than two centuries and serving as a destination for pilgrimages through and after the Spanish colonial period. 

Now Warinner, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, and an international team of genetic scientists have turned that story on its head. Their state-of-the-art research, published this week in Nature, reveals that boys — especially twins — were the focus of sacrifices in the legendary city-state. The investigation also yielded broader insights into the victims’ familial ties and diets, colonial-era epidemics, and the whereabouts of Chichén Itzá’s descendants today. 

“This is the first study that uses ancient DNA, isotopes, and bioarchaeology to draw a better picture of what was going on there,” said lead author Rodrigo Barquera, an immunogeneticist and postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institutes for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, where Warinner is also a group leader. 

Chichén Itzá rose to prominence around 800 A.D., remaining powerful and populous for more than two centuries and serving as a destination for pilgrimages through and after the Spanish colonial period. 

The regional capital’s architecture reflects a number of styles and evolved as Chichén Itzáns built political, cultural, and religious alliances near and far. For instance, El Castillo, the site’s 75-foot temple, was constructed in the style of the Toltecs, who ruled an area hundreds of miles away near present-day Mexico City. Those connections piqued Barquera’s curiosity about the provenance of individuals put to rest in or near the Sacred Cenote, a watery sinkhole where ritual offerings of gold, jade, and human lives were made. 

El Castillo.

Photo by Johannes Krause

“We really wanted a better picture of the people who lived and died there,” Barquera said. “Were they from the Maya region? Somewhere else in Mesoamerica? Or even farther away?” 

To find out, the research team embarked upon in-depth genetic analysis of children ritually buried in a chultún, or man-made cistern, not far from the Sacred Cenote. Warinner, who is also the Sally Starling Seaver Associate Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, noted that chultúns and caves have long been depicted in ancient Maya art and myths as portals to the underworld. “There’s a repeating pattern between these subterranean structures, water, and child burials,” she said.

The Yucatan Peninsula’s hot, humid weather has been a complicating factor in ancient DNA research until now. Recent technological advances as well as the chultún’s relatively temperature-stable setting, which helped preserve the victims’ skeletons, enabled Barquera’s analysis. He chose to focus on bone from the petrous portion of the inner ear. 

“It’s the best site to find DNA,” he explained, adding that focusing on the left side enabled researchers to avoid duplicates. “We were lucky that out of the more than 100 individuals thought to have been buried there, we were able to collect the left petrous bone for 64 of them.”

Killed around the ages of 3 or 4, these children were mostly interred between the years 800 and 1,050 A.D., which was the era of Chichén Itzá’s political apex. All originated from local Maya populations. They also all proved to be male, with two sets of identical twins in the sample. 

Further analysis revealed that at least a quarter of the boys were closely related otherwise. But DNA wasn’t all they had in common. Stable isotope research — or using the chemistry of bones and teeth to investigate ancient foods — showed their diets were extremely similar, as if they lived in the same household. “This was true not only for the twins but for each set of related individuals,” Barquera noted. 

“They seemed to have been selected in pairs,” added Warinner, who also pointed to the importance of twins in Maya sacred texts like the Popol Vuh. “It suggests a very specific ritual activity.”

The researchers also studied people living today in Tixcacaltuyub, located about an hour by car from the ruins. Residents of this local Maya community were already working on various initiatives with researchers from the Autonomous University of Yucatán. Scientists hoped to compare the population’s DNA with that of the ancient children.

Tixcacaltuyub community members.

Photo by Pilar Márquez Vega

Partnering with local academics proved vital, according to Barquera. These Yucatán-based healthcare professionals and anthropology experts helped him travel to the town and explained what the ancient DNA study hoped to accomplish. Also helpful were copies of “Adventures in Archaeological Science,” a coloring book Warinner created with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, now translated into Yucatec Maya as well as Spanish. 

The community was thrilled by these findings, he added, given the prevalence of racism against Indigenous populations in Mexico today. Now they can claim ancestral ties to the people who built the great city of Chichén Itzá.

“The books were intended for kids, but they work for everyone,” Barquera offered. “They show what we do in an accessible way.”

Genetic sampling revealed that Tixcacaltuyub residents are, in fact, “close living relatives to the people buried at Chichén Itzá,” Barquera explained. The community was thrilled by these findings, he added, given the prevalence of racism against Indigenous populations in Mexico today. Now they can claim ancestral ties to the people who built the great city of Chichén Itzá.

“We have seen researchers go into communities or archaeological sites in the past to take samples or data for their papers without returning anything,” said Barquera, who grew up in Mexico and worked in various Mexico City clinics and immunology labs before pursuing his Ph.D. in Europe. “What we wanted to do was give back.”

The study’s final discovery concerns the genetic legacies of colonial-era epidemics, which exacted a devastating toll on the Maya and other Indigenous peoples. The story begins in 2006 with Warinner’s Ph.D. dissertation research on Teposcolula-Yucundaa, a cemetery in Mexico’s Oaxaca region associated with the 1545 outbreak of a mysterious illness the Aztecs termed cocoliztli, or pestilence. The infection killed an estimated 5 million to 15 million, or up to 80 percent of Mexico’s Indigenous population. 

“It fundamentally changed the population of Mexico,” Warinner said. “But nobody knew what it was.”

Warinner returned in 2018 for an ancient DNA study that identified a form of Salmonella enterica in individuals buried at the cemetery. “Today it’s a very rare strain,” Warinner said. “But we now know it was quite widespread in Europe at the time of colonialism and was likely introduced during the Spanish conquest.”

For his part, Barquera was still working in Mexico City in the early 2000s when he started noticing a recurring allele, or genetic variant arising from a mutation, while conducting tests on donors and patients prior to organ transplantation. He remembers bringing the matter to his supervisor. 

“I told him, ‘This is weird! How can it be that all over Mexico we see this allele in such high frequency?’ We knew it had to come from somewhere. We thought maybe it had to do with resistance to something. But back then, we never came to a conclusion, because we didn’t have the analytical tools to prove anything.” 

In the Chichén Itzá study, the research team identified a shift in the very allele Barquera flagged years before. Today, he said, the genetic variant is “one of the most prominent — if not the most prominent — in Mexico and Central America,” but its prevalence proved low in the Maya of Chichén Itzá.

Subsequent analyses showed the variant was protective against Salmonella, which Warinner and colleagues had linked to the epidemics of 16th-century Mexico. “This is where things really come together,” Warinner said.

Cocoliztli is known to have reappeared in 1576, killing another 2 million people. “The mortality rate was so high,” Warinner said, “scientists have long speculated as to whether it shifted the immune profiles of Indigenous peoples of the Americas.” 

And now, she said, studying individuals buried at Chichén Itzá has revealed the immunological response to the bacteria’s deadly spread across colonial Mexico. 

After all these years, it remains written in the nation’s DNA. 

Does AI help humans make better decisions?

One judge’s track record — with and without algorithm — surprises researchers

Kosuke Imai and James Greiner.

Study co-authors Kosuke Imai (left) and James Greiner.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

Does AI help humans make better decisions?

One judge’s track record — with and without algorithm — surprises researchers

4 min read

Should artificial intelligence be used to improve decision-making in the court of law? According to a new working paper, not only does one example of an AI algorithm fail to improve the accuracy of judicial calls, on its own the technology fares worse than humans.

“A lot of researchers have focused on whether the algorithm has a bias or AI has a bias,” noted co-author Kosuke Imai, professor of government and statistics. “What they haven’t really looked at is how the use of AI affects the human decision.”

While several sectors, including criminal justice, medicine, and even business, use AI recommendations, humans are typically the final decision-makers. The researchers took this into account by comparing criminal bail decisions made by a single judge with recommendations generated by an AI system. Specifically analyzed was AI’s influence on whether cash bail should be imposed.

30% — percentage of cases in which the judge rejected AI recommendations

The randomized controlled trial was conducted in Dane County, Wisconsin, focusing on whether arrestees were released on their own recognizance or subjected to cash bail. The researchers — led by Imai and Jim Greiner, the Honorable S. William Green Professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School — set their sights on hearings held by a single judge over a 30-month period, between the middle of 2017 and the end of 2019. Also analyzed were arrest data on defendants for up to 24 months later.

Results showed that AI alone performed worse than the judge in predicting reoffenders — in this case, by imposing the tighter restriction of cash bail. At the same time, little to no difference was found between the accuracy of human-alone and AI-assisted decision-making. The judge went against AI recommendations in slightly more than 30 percent of cases.

“I was surprised by this,” Greiner said. “Given the evidence that we’ve cited that algorithms can sometimes outperform human decisions, it looked as though what happened is that this algorithm had been set to be too harsh. It was over-predicting that the arrestees would misbehave, predicting that they would do so too often, and, therefore, recommending measures that were too harsh.”

This issue could be fixed by recalibrating the algorithm, the professors argued.

“It’s a lot easier to understand and then fix the algorithm or AI than the human,” Imai said. “It’s a lot harder to change the human or understand why humans make their decisions.” 

“The advantage of AI or an algorithm is that it can be made transparent.”

Kosuke Imai

The AI studied here did not specifically account for race, instead focusing on age and nine factors related to past criminal experience. Imai, an expert on deploying statistical modeling to call out racial gerrymandering, attributed inequities concerning cash bail to a variety of societal factors, particularly relating to criminal history.

He acknowledged that the study’s findings may be cause for concern, but he noted that people are biased as well. “The advantage of AI or an algorithm is that it can be made transparent,” he said. The key is to have open-source AI that is readily available for empirical evaluation and analysis.

The way the criminal justice system is currently using AI as well as unguided human decisions should be studied with an eye to making improvements, Greiner added. “I don’t know whether this is comforting,” he offered, “but my reaction for folks who are afraid or skeptical of AI is to be afraid and skeptical of AI, but to be potentially more afraid or skeptical of unguided human decisions.” He added that the way the criminal justice system is currently using AI as well as unguided human decisions should be studied to make improvements.

The paper’s other co-authors were Eli Ben-Michael, assistant professor of statistics and data science at Carnegie Mellon University; Zhichao Jiang, professor of mathematics at Sun Tay-sen University in China; Melody Huang, a postdoctoral researcher at the Wojcicki Troper Harvard Data Science Institute, and Sooahn Shin, a Ph.D. candidate in government at the Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Testing fitness of aging brain

Most voters back cognitive exams for older politicians. What do they measure?


Testing fitness of aging brain

8 min read

An example of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test.

AP Photo/Allen G. Breed

Most voters back cognitive exams for older politicians. What do they measure?

Amid concerns about the mental fitness of the U.S. presidential candidates — Joe Biden is 81 and Donald Trump is 77 — some have called for mandatory cognitive tests for aging politicians. A recent poll showed 75 percent of voters favor such measures with support highest among the oldest cohort of Americans surveyed.

The Gazette asked clinical neuropsychologist Julie Brody Magid, Psy.D., clinical director of the McLean Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, what functions cognitive tests measure, warning signs of mental decline, and how to maintain brain health. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do cognitive tests assess?

Overall, cognitive tests assess a range of functions including memory, attention and concentration, language, spatial skills, orientation, and executive functioning. There are cognitive screening measures that offer a quick overview of different cognitive functions.

Currently, the most used cognitive screening test is the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, MoCA. In the past, the Folstein Mini Mental State Exam was frequently used by physicians. These are abbreviated cognitive screening measures that take five or 10 minutes to administer and score.

What does the MoCA test involve?

The MoCA test includes tasks that assess attention, orientation, naming of objects, learning a short list of words, and verbal reasoning tasks like analogies. It has a total score of 30 points. It’s a standardized test, given the same way every time. You earn a raw score based on your performance, which determines if your skills are within a normal expected range for your age and for your background. For example, given a person’s education and achievement, is their functioning where we would expect it to be? Or does the screening test show suggestions of a decline?

Julie Brody-Magid.

Sleep, exercise, and diet play key role in maintaining cognitive health, says Julie Brody-Magid.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Who can perform well on the MoCA test?

There are very accomplished, smart people who can perform relatively well on a cognitive screening test like the MoCA even if they have had some changes in their day-to-day abilities. If you think of lawyers, doctors, or professors, it’s clear that they have strong intellectual ability, and what we call cognitive reserve, which is your cognitive savings account from being intelligent, educated, and enriched. Some people can “cruise” on their reserve even when they’re having subtle difficulties since their baseline abilities were so strong. Sometimes we might flag a patient who’s very high-functioning and who’s still performing relatively well on a MoCA test but may have subjective cognitive complaints. Some people come into my memory clinic saying, “Something’s not right, I’m not remembering well, I feel I’m declining.” They may notice themselves or the family may be observing changes. Those screening tests by themselves have some utility, but they don’t tell the whole story. The clinical information provided by the patient or family on interview about the course of change compared to who that person was at their highest level of functioning is very important. We need both sets of information to make distinctions about what a cognitive screening score means, and when further workup is needed.

What are the red flags that could warn of cognitive changes?

One red flag is if people are showing signs of rapid forgetting, such as if they are having a conversation, and something is discussed or planned, and minutes or hours later, they forget, and after being told again, they still forget. Rapid forgetting with repetitive questions is not usually an age-appropriate memory change. That type of memory change connotes Alzheimer’s disease, which is a disorder of memory storage or retention. Sometimes short-term memory loss can be accompanied by subtle language changes, where people can’t find words, especially when naming objects, they often will start to use generic words, such as “the thing,” “the whatchamacallit,” or they might describe the object, but they can’t name it. Those are some of the signs that we look out for.

“Rapid forgetting with repetitive questions is not usually an age-appropriate memory change.”

In vascular dementia, which is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, we see more executive functioning issues, such as problems with organization, with keeping their paperwork in order; people lose track of the bills because they put them down somewhere or they don’t address them. We see people with vascular risk factors who have difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving. For example, they have a minor motor vehicle accident due to poor judgment and then don’t know how to handle it. Some people have reduced initiation and motivation; they stop doing things they always had passion for and cannot explain why. Slowed processing speed is often reported in daily functioning; everything takes much longer to work through and complete. 

Is cognitive decline part of normal aging?

There are age-related changes that occur throughout our lifespan. As we age, there are some brain changes that occur as part of the normal aging process; white matter changes are the result of arteries that get narrowed or blocked by atherosclerotic plaque, this can begin around age 60. As that happens, there’s some associated slowing of processing, difficulty with being able to access information, pulling up that memory crisply, and efficiently finding words; some people identify those experiences as “senior moments.” We also have some cell loss and atrophy in the brain that occurs with normal aging. On neuroimaging, we see age-commensurate loss of volume in the cortex or gray matter, which plays a significant role in many functions including memory/learning and language. All of these changes are part of normal aging.

When is the right time to take a cognitive test?

What we typically suggest is that if a patient has what we call subjective cognitive complaints because they are noticing change, a cognitive screening should be done. However, one of the tricky parts of dementia, especially certain types like Alzheimer’s, is that the illness can affect the awareness center of the brain, and people don’t notice changes in themselves, but the family, spouse, or doctor notices change. If there’s any indication of subjective cognitive complaint or objective observation that that person is showing signs of early decline, that’s the time to pursue a neurocognitive screening test at minimum. That is often the beginning of the workup process, which can also include neuroimaging and bloodwork because other medical issues besides dementia can cause people to have cognitive problems.

Cognitive changes may be the result of hypothyroidism, anemia, a vitamin deficiency, sleep apnea, low blood pressure, unstable blood sugar, and a range of medical issues that can be reversible and allow the person to stabilize. Correction of vision and hearing problems can improve cognition too. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety can also affect cognition, but with appropriate targeted treatment, cognition can return to baseline. We must think holistically about all the factors that could contribute to somebody having cognitive issues to see which are treatable and potentially reversible.

What are the key steps to maintain our cognitive health?

There’s good research to support the Mediterranean diet for promoting successful aging and brain health. Exercise is very important because you are exercising the heart muscle and maintaining cardiovascular health. There are studies that show that exercise perfuses the brain with blood, which can cause neural growth and protection of key areas like the hippocampus. Exercise may delay the onset of cognitive symptoms or help prevent dementia. Studies of people with cognitive disorders have found that those who exercise perform better on average on cognitive tests and often do better in function than those who don’t exercise. Sleep is also very important for maintenance of cognitive health; at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night is necessary to clear debris out of the brain.

It is crucial to manage medical comorbidities like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, sleep apnea, sedentary lifestyle, hearing/vision impairment, and depression. We also recommend limiting alcohol and marijuana use. We often see elderly people using excessive amounts of alcohol, which confers risk of cognitive decline and falls. There is literature to support that meditation and stress reduction promote brain health and cognitive functioning.

Other factors that promote brain health are engaging in activities that are stimulating to your brain such as doing crossword puzzles, learning a language, playing an instrument, discussing current events, and playing interactive games. Maintaining social connections and support is critical for mood stability and cognitive functioning.

Finally, it is very important to overcome the stigma associated with potentially losing your cognitive skills and reach out to get an assessment when you see the first red flags. If you let these problems go for too long, there are fewer modes of effective intervention. We have some good tools and resources available to support people’s functioning and manage symptoms and many more interventions are in the pipeline as we speak.

DNR orders for Down syndrome patients far exceeded pandemic norm

Co-author sees need for additional research and earlier, deeper conversations around care


DNR orders for Down syndrome patients far exceeded pandemic norm

Co-author sees need for additional research and earlier, deeper conversations around care

6 min read

The first year of the pandemic was marked by a sustained surge in hospital visits, forcing providers to stretch resources to meet needs. Discussions about triaging patients and rationing care were of great concern to Down syndrome advocates at the time, says Stephanie Santoro, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and co-author of a recent study on do-not-resuscitate orders that suggests those concerns were justified.

A DNR order directs medical personnel not to provide CPR — cardiopulmonary resuscitation — to a patient if their breathing stops or heart stops beating. The order is determined by the patient, or if they’re unable to do so, by their family or guardian, typically in consultation with a healthcare provider. Santoro, also director of quality improvement research for the Down Syndrome Program at Mass General, worked with fellow investigators to examine billing codes and claims data for 1.7 million patients at 825 U.S. hospitals between January 2019 and June 2022, and then examined diagnoses and DNR status for people with and without Down Syndrome. The team found that people with Down syndrome and a diagnosis of COVID-19 or COVID pneumonia were six times more likely to have do-not-resuscitate orders than similar patients without Down syndrome. We talked to Santoro about the findings in a conversation that has been edited for clarity and length.

Stephanie Santoro.
Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Why did you do this study?

It seems like a lifetime ago, but early in the pandemic, extreme steps like rationing ventilators were being discussed. In the Down syndrome community there was a lot of worry, of wanting to protect the rights of people with Down syndrome. We also began this study because there’s very little about DNR orders in the Down syndrome literature, and our first author, Jennifer Jett, had a real interest in the topic.

“Someone with a diagnosis of Down syndrome and COVID pneumonia had six times the odds of having DNR status.”

What was the main takeaway?

Someone with a diagnosis of Down syndrome and COVID pneumonia had six times the odds of having DNR status ordered on admission to the hospital as someone with the same diagnosis without Down syndrome. That was the main finding. I should say that the nature of the study means that these were associations, meaning we can’t directly determine causality.

Was that surprising?

Yes and no. When we first saw this, we wondered if there were physiologic reasons behind it. In the literature, there are many studies that show that people with Down syndrome do get sicker, have longer admissions, and need more support if they have respiratory infections. So our first thought was that perhaps the folks with Down syndrome were more sick with COVID pneumonia than the people without Down syndrome. We tried to compare some comorbidities — like intubation rates, if they had been in the ICU, or if they had come from acute care — but it didn’t pan out to have a similarly high odds ratio as the diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Your reasoning was that if someone comes into the hospital sicker, it would be more likely that they had a DNR status?

That’s what we wondered: Might people or their families be choosing DNR status when admitted with high acuity, life-threatening disease? We also wondered whether the folks with Down syndrome were older or if there was some other intervening covariable that would explain the high odds ratio of DNR status. But we couldn’t find anything that explained it.

When you reached that point, what did you think?

We were all a bit surprised — and concerned — that we had found a difference in care for people with Down syndrome. There’s not much literature around this and there are not many people who are studying end-of-life care for people with Down syndrome, so it would be great to replicate this finding in a future study.

Is there any reason that the DNR status of people with Down syndrome shouldn’t mirror that of the general population?

I don’t think anything has been done — apart from our study — that assesses the rate of DNR status in people with Down syndrome, so I would just be guessing. I can say that there are a number of medical conditions that can go along with Down syndrome. But in general, people with Down syndrome are leading healthy, happy, productive lives. I think the DNR status rate should likely be the same as for people without Down syndrome.

And six times greater is a really big number.


“This whole topic of end-of-life care and how you talk about that with someone with an intellectual disability is important to think about and to research.”

You work with a Down syndrome population. Are there other areas where patients may face unequal access to healthcare or unequal treatment?

The first thing I think of is life expectancy in general. Decades ago, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was in their 20s or 30s. Now it’s improved to the 60s. That difference in life expectancy is related to better medical care and better access to care, but there are still gaps.

Are we talking about preventive care? Can you give some examples?

I did a study here at MGH and one in the past in Ohio that show that there are recommendations that are not being met. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every person with Down syndrome have their thyroid checked once a year with a TSH blood test. Only about two-thirds were getting that test done. When we looked at overall guidelines, only about 13 percent of kids with Down syndrome were up to date on all the guidelines — basic blood tests and evaluations, hearing tests.

In the new paper, the team recommends starting conversations around this issue. What would be the nature of those conversations?

In our clinic, we’re trying to provide more multidisciplinary end-of-life support as our patients get older. It’s difficult for people with Down syndrome because there’s such a range of different abilities and communication levels, and many of our patients have guardians who are helping with their medical decision-making. The time of admission is a busy, acute moment, so it would be nice if a trusted medical provider could have these broader end-of-life discussions with families and patients earlier to give them time to think about their decisions and what they want.

Is there any way to know how much input the person with Down syndrome has in this decision?

There’s not much in the literature, but including people with Down syndrome in healthcare discussions is a real area of passion for me. I’m trying to do more studies to collect information directly from people with Down syndrome because studies often default to the caregiver or the guardian. In a few years, we could do a follow-up and look at the claims data again to see if things have changed. But we believe this whole topic of end-of-life care and how you talk about that with someone with an intellectual disability is important to think about and to research.

Sarah Ganz Blythe appointed director of Harvard Art Museums

Curator, educator, and scholar, now at RISD Museum, will start in new post Aug. 12

Photo by Josephine Sittenfeld

Campus & Community

Sarah Ganz Blythe appointed director of Harvard Art Museums

Curator, educator, and scholar, now at RISD Museum, will start in new post Aug. 12

5 min read

Sarah Ganz Blythe, a highly respected curator, educator, and scholar with more than 25 years of museum experience, will be the new Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums, interim Provost John Manning announced Wednesday. Ganz Blythe is joining Harvard from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, where she is currently deputy director, exhibitions, education, and programs. She will take her post as director on Aug. 12.

“We are delighted that Sarah Ganz Blythe has agreed to become the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums beginning this summer,” Manning said. “Sarah brings to her role not only great knowledge, creativity, judgment, and leadership experience, but also a deep commitment to teaching, learning, collaboration, and engagement with our museums’ extraordinary communities. Especially with the opportunities presented by the vast increase in public attendance since the Harvard Art Museums began offering free admission last June, Sarah’s experience and leadership perspective will serve Harvard and the museums well in this exciting time in their history.”

Ganz Blythe has held leadership positions at the RISD Museum for the past 15 years, including serving as its interim director from 2020 to 2023. In this role, she led the institution through the pandemic to its current state, with rebounded attendance, expanded board participation, a balanced budget, a robust traveling exhibition program, an increase in acquisitions by underrepresented artists, and refurbished galleries.

In addition to the RISD Museum, she has worked in curatorial and educational positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. During her time as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, she was a conservation intern at the Harvard Art Museums. She has maintained deep connections to the Museums throughout her career, including as a visiting committee member in both 2017 and 2020.

“As a student, my experiences with the Harvard Art Museums revealed the profound rewards of engaging deeply with and thinking expansively about art,” Ganz Blythe said. “I am thrilled to return and have the opportunity to guide this dynamic institution as it collaborates with students, faculty, staff, artists, and community partners.”

“Sarah’s experience and leadership perspective will serve Harvard and the museums well in this exciting time in their history.”

Interim Provost John Manning

Ganz Blythe holds a B.A. in art history from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in modern art from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She has taught at Brown University, Wellesley College, and RISD, and has published widely throughout her career on the complicated histories of museums, art pedagogy, and underrepresented women artists.

“Sarah brings a breadth of perspective, built throughout an impressive career, to this important role at Harvard,” said interim President Alan M. Garber. “Among her many strengths, her creativity in engaging students and her passion for teaching ensure that the Museums will extend their excellence as an academic and cultural resource as they enter a new era.” 

Ganz Blythe’s publications include “Why Art Museums? The Unfinished Work of Alexander Dorner,” with Andrew Martinez, and “Nancy Elizabeth Prophet: I Will Not Bend an Inch,” with Dominic Molon and Kajette Solomon. She has received numerous awards and fellowships including, this year, the Kress Foundation/Association of Art Museum Curators Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

“As an institutional leader, Sarah listens with care and embraces differences of perspective, all the while seeking opportunities for integration and mutual regard,” said Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities in the FAS and a member of the search committee. “In this moment, I can think of no better person to lead the Harvard Art Museums, an institution dear to so many on this campus and beyond.”

Ganz Blythe’s appointment is the culmination of a nationwide search that included outreach to hundreds of stakeholders in collaboration with a University-wide search advisory committee. She will succeed Martha Tedeschi, who is retiring from her post on June 30 after leading Harvard Art Museums since July 2016.  

“I look forward to building on Martha Tedeschi’s achievements and joining the remarkable staff engaged in original research, generative learning, and open engagement,” Ganz Blythe said.

The Harvard Art Museums — the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum — are dedicated to advancing and supporting learning at Harvard University, in the community, and around the world. The Museums have played a leading role in the development of art history, conservation, and conservation science, and in the evolution of the art museum as an institution.

The museums’ collections comprise a quarter-million works that span from ancient times to the present, with art from the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and Asia. The Special Exhibitions Gallery presents important new research on artists and artistic practice, and the University Galleries are programmed in consultation with Harvard faculty to support coursework.

Tracking entwined histories of malaria, humans

New study of ancient genomes tracks disease over 5,500 years, factors in spread, including trade, warfare, colonialism, and slavery

Science & Tech

Tracking entwined histories of malaria, humans

Upper Mustang region of Nepal.

Photo by Christina Warinner

7 min read

New study of ancient genomes tracks disease over 5,500 years, factors in spread, including trade, warfare, colonialism, and slavery

Today, Malaria represents a major public health problem across much of the globe, killing more than 600,000 people annually and infecting another 250 million. It is a disease that has been around for millions of years and is undeniably entwined with human history. 

“Malaria has actually shaped the human genome,” said Megan Michel, a Ph.D. candidate in human evolutionary biology at the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She pointed out that certain inherited blood disorders, like sickle cell disease, rose in prevalence because they provide a measure of resistance to the mosquito-borne infection. 

Now a new study led by Michel reconstructs the ancient genomes of the two deadliest malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, with an eye to understanding the pathogen’s past. The research, published this week in Nature, tracks the disease over 5,500 years, with trade, warfare, colonialism, and slavery identified as major factors in its global spread. 

The findings represent a feat of collaboration and data-sharing, with 94 co-authors representing 80 institutions and 21 countries. The DNA itself was plucked from genetic sequences collected from more than 10,000 ancient humans, with Michel identifying 36 malaria-infected individuals from 26 archaeological sites on five continents.

“For a graduate student to be coordinating all of this is really, really impressive,” said co-author Christina Warinner, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and one of Michel’s three advisers. “By reconstructing these ancient Plasmodium genomes and comparing the genetic relationships between ancient and modern parasites, we’re finally able to place malaria in its evolutionary and human history context.”

“By reconstructing these ancient Plasmodium genomes and comparing the genetic relationships between ancient and modern parasites, we’re finally able to place malaria in its evolutionary and human history context.”

Christina Warinner, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences

Malaria is marked by cyclical fevers that repeat every 48 or 72 hours. Until recently, written records were the only way researchers could track the disease’s progression across time and space. “There are descriptions in Greek and Roman texts that point to the presence of malaria,” Michel said. “But we were able to go back even further than that to show that malaria has been present in Europe for a very, very long time.”

The disease was also common in the U.S. until the arrival of modern drainage and insecticides in the 20th century. Warinner, a biomolecular archaeologist, pointed to the high number of U.S. presidents to suffer from malaria, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. “Teddy Roosevelt and JFK became infected while traveling,” she said, “but earlier presidents contracted it in their hometowns or in the Washington, D.C., area” — which was notoriously swampy. 

The new paper features three compelling case studies, each illustrating the role of mobility in circulating malaria. The first concerns a Belgian cemeteryexcavated between 2009 and 2011 and adjacent to the first permanent military hospital in early modern Europe. Historical records document that the Habsburg Army of Flanders recruited its soldiers from the Mediterranean region for its 80 Years’ War against Spain (1568-1648). 

Malaria leaves no visible trace in human skeletal remains, but recent technological advances have enabled scientists to extract DNA from scraps of the pathogen found in teeth. Researchers were able to sequence malaria DNA from 10 individuals buried at the cemetery while also analyzing the genomes of soldiers who had been infected.

“We found that individuals buried at the cemetery have diverse ancestry profiles,” explained Michel, whose Ph.D. research is supported by the Max Planck - Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean. “They’re not just from Belgium. They seem to also be coming from northern Spain and from Italy.”

The two most prevalent malaria parasites in humans are P. vivax and P. falciparum, with the latter limited to warm climates and causing a more severe form of the disease. Analyses of pathogen DNA turned up a couple of P. vivax cases in the Belgian site’s local population, buried at the cemetery prior to the hospital’s construction in the mid-16th century. 

Six cases, including several of the more virulent P. falciparum, were found in non-local individuals, all interred following the military hospital’s construction. Malaria cannot be transmitted through human contact, but mosquitos may have picked up these infections — and kept up the spread from there. “It’s even possible they ignited a local outbreak,” Michel said.

Another case study came from Peru, where a single P. vivax case was found in a person who lived at high altitude (more than 9,300 feet) in the Central Andes. “This individual was associated with the Chachapoya culture,” Michel said, “and the site we were working with spanned the period of European contact.”

For years, scientists have debated how the disease arrived in the Americas, where Indigenous populations lack genetic resistance to malaria. Reconstructing the genome of the Peruvian parasite revealed striking similarities to P. vivax strains found throughout South America today. It also resembled strains circulating in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.

“We think this is evidence that the species was transmitted by European colonizers to the Americas,” Michel said.

No ancient P. falciparum was found in the Americas, Michel noted, and P. falciparum strains circulating there today bear little resemblance to the ancient European P. falciparum parasites recovered by Michel and her co-authors. “Instead, American strains today look very similar to strains in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Michel said. “It seems likely that P. vivax was transmitted from Europe, whereas P. falciparum was probably transmitted from Sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Michel got her biggest surprise from the paper’s third case study. The Himalayan site of Chokhopani, situated more than 9,100 feet above sea level in Nepal’s Mustang region, yielded the earliest known case of P. falciparum

“It’s the last place on Earth I would expect to find a malaria infection,” Michel shared. “It’s rocky and dry and too cold for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes to survive.”

The infected individual lived 2,800 years ago. “We know from the archaeological record that there was extensive long-distance trade in the region,” explained Michel, who partnered with co-author Mark Aldenderfer — an archaeologist working in the Mustang region for many years — to analyze the findings. “We think this was probably an individual who moved from low to high altitude, possibly for trade. They must have acquired this infection at a lower altitude where the parasite can be transmitted.”

“The site of Chokhopani is near the Kora La pass, the lowest crossing point through the Himalayas and a key trade route connecting South Asia with the Tibetan Plateau,” added Warinner, who traveled with Michel to the region last spring to share results and solicit feedback from descendent communities. “Fortunately, Nepal has been really successful in eradicating malaria in the last few years. But even as recently as 10 years ago, malaria was endemic in Nepal’s lower elevation regions.”

Making these revelations possible are the emerging tools of metagenomics, which rely on recovering and sharing as much genetic data as possible with different specialists. “When we analyze an ancient sample, we, by its nature, destroy it in order to retrieve the DNA,” Warinner explained. “We want to get as much information as possible. We really do recover total DNA.”

“Metagenomics and data-sharing allow us to find things we’re not really looking for,” Michel added. “It lets us find disease in unexpected places. I never would have screened samples from Chokhopani for malaria if they hadn’t already been sequenced by Dr. Warinner for another ancient DNA study.”

The research described in this report received funding from the National Science Foundation

Researchers reverse hair loss caused by alopecia

Treatment holds promise for painlessly targeting affected areas without weakening immune system

Getty Images


Researchers reverse hair loss caused by alopecia

Treatment holds promise for painlessly targeting affected areas without weakening immune system

4 min read

Researchers have developed a novel treatment to reverse hair loss caused by the autoimmune disease alopecia areata, using a microneedle patch to painlessly target affected areas of the skin.

Alopecia areata causes hair loss when T cells mistakenly attack follicles. To restore control over hyperactive immune cells, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT delivered T cell regulators directly to sites of hair loss to halt autoimmune activity. Findings, published in Advanced Materials, demonstrated marked and lasting increases in hair regrowth in mice models of the disease.

Our immune system evolved to safeguard against the overactivation that occurs in autoimmune conditions. In alopecia areata, the specialized cells known as Regulatory T cells (T-regs) fall short in protecting hair follicles. Current immunosuppressants used to treat alopecia areata target both T cells and T-regs, failing to address the core issue and increasing the risk of disease recurrence once treatment stops. By suppressing the entire immune system, they leave patients vulnerable to infections.

Rather than globally suppressing the immune system, the approach tested in this study locally restores immune activity directly at sites of hair loss by increasing levels of T-regs. This targeted approach was achieved with a microneedle patch, which delivers drugs across the tough outer layer of skin more effectively than topical creams and avoids stimulation of pain receptors located deeper within the skin.

“Our strategy tackles two major challenges in treating autoimmune skin diseases,” said co-corresponding author Natalie Artzi of the Brigham’s Engineering in Medicine Division in the Department of Medicine. “Our patches enable local delivery of biologics, which, instead of suppressing the immune system, promote regulatory T cells in the skin. This restores immune balance and resolves the T cell attack on hair follicles, offering a potential long-term solution without compromising the immune system’s ability to defend against infections and malignancies.”

“When it comes to autoimmune-mediated skin diseases, where we have direct access to the skin, we must surpass the use of systemic immunosuppressants that shut down the entire immune system,” said co-corresponding author Jamil Azzi, an immunologist in the Brigham’s Renal Division in the Department of Medicine. “While topical therapy often fails to penetrate the skin’s outer layer, our patches improve the local delivery of biologics to the deeper layers of diseased skin and reprogram the immune system to generate tolerance at the site of antigen encounter.”

“Our strategy tackles two major challenges in treating autoimmune skin diseases.”

Natalie Artzi

The researchers, including co-first authors Nour Younis and Núria Puigmal, both of Brigham’s Department of Medicine, observed with RNA sequencing that in alopecia tissues, there were changes in the STAT-5/Interleukin-2 (IL-2), a signaling pathway that promotes T-reg proliferation. IL-2 and CCL22, which the researchers had previously shown attract and expand the presence of T-regs in a specific area, were loaded into the microneedle patch. The patches were applied to mice models of alopecia 10 times over a course of three weeks, with more than eight weeks of observation. Hair regrowth was observed as early as three weeks after the initiation of treatment. The researchers also tested microneedle patches loaded with baricitinib, a drug approved for severe alopecia areata, but found that T-reg recruitment was inferior to that associated with the IL-2/CCL22 patch.

The microneedle patch also was found to have good shelf-life stability, improving prospects of its clinical translation. While the therapy is not ready for clinical use, the researchers are pursuing further development and testing. Additionally, they are exploring the possibility of applying their approach to other immune-mediated skin diseases, such as vitiligo and psoriasis.

“Microneedles offer a promising avenue for targeted and localized delivery of therapeutics to the skin,” said Artzi. “Their ability to precisely administer drugs directly to the affected area of the skin enables more effective modulation of the immune response while minimizing systemic side effects. This targeted approach holds great potential for improving treatment outcomes and reducing the burden of autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases on patients’ lives.”

Other co-authors from Brigham include Andrew Badaoui, Dongliang Zhang, Claudia Morales, Anis Saad, Diane Cruz, Nadim Al Rahy, Andrea Daccache, Triana Huerta, Christa Deban, Ahmad Halawi, John Choi, Pere Dosta, Christine Lian, and Abdallah El Kurdi.

Funding: The Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital supported this work through the Ignite Fund Award and the Shark Tank Fund Award.

Binge eating appears more widespread, persistent than thought

New research takes broader, deeper look at common, but poorly understood, disorder

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Binge eating appears more widespread, persistent than thought

New research takes broader, deeper look at common, but poorly understood, disorder

8 min read

Binge eating is one of the world’s most common eating disorders but is poorly understood. Kristin Javaras, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and instructor in epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently shed light on the subject in a study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine. The findings showed that earlier research, which focused on younger women, underestimated how chronic the problem can be for many in the broader population, lasting for years or even decades. Javaras, who is also associated psychologist at McLean Hospital’s Division of Women’s Mental Health, spoke to the Gazette about her recent research.

What is binge eating?

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by binge eating episodes, which have two components, according to the DSM — the reference manual for diagnoses. One is an objectively large amount of food. Second — and most importantly — there’s a sense of loss of control, a feeling that you can’t stop or you can’t avoid starting. Some people feel like they’re driven by a motor, and they can’t stop until either they feel so sick that they have to or the food is gone.

These episodes are often characterized by eating quickly and eating alone and accompanied by a feeling of shame. People have recurrent episodes. So, if the person experiences marked distress around binge eating and isn’t engaged in compensatory behaviors that you see in bulimia nervosa — purging regularly, using laxatives or diuretics, extreme dieting or fasting, or engaging in excessive or compulsive exercise — there would be a diagnosis of binge-eating disorder.

“When people diet and think, ‘I’m going to try to eat as little as possible,’ that sets them up to engage in binge eating.”

When you say “an objectively large amount,” we’re not talking about Thanksgiving dinner or another holiday where we’re socialized to overeat? How do we know the difference?

If it is typical for a circumstance, it is not binge eating. Likewise, if there’s no loss of control it’s not binge eating. For instance, if I want to run a marathon tomorrow and I eat a large amount of pasta intentionally, with a sense of control, that wouldn’t be binge eating.

It can be tricky to evaluate, but the question is whether it’s an objectively large amount for that person in that context. So Thanksgiving typically wouldn’t count unless it was far beyond what other people are eating, and accompanied by a sense of loss of control.

Does it have to be every day? Once a month?

The diagnostic guidelines have changed recently. In DSM-4, it was two days a week, while in DSM-5 it is one episode a week. But there are people for whom it doesn’t happen as frequently, but the binges are very upsetting. They technically don’t meet DSM-5’s definition of binge-eating disorder, but it could still be very clinically significant, even if it’s not happening once a week. It’s important to note that the study we’re talking about was done under DSM-4.

What is the harm if you binge once a week and eat normally the rest of the week? Weight gain? Poor nutrition?

We know that binge eating does have metabolic consequences. There is a study that shows if you eat the same amount of food in a very short period of time, it’s metabolically worse for you than if you ate it over a whole day, particularly the types of foods that are consumed in a binge, which tend to be highly palatable and have metabolic consequences.

But what’s more important are the psychological effects. People are often restricting to some degree: not eating enough, not allowing themselves to eat certain types of foods. They hold beliefs like, “I should never eat X” or “This food is bad.” There’s a lot of binary thinking and people often feel extremely negatively about their bodies.

The binge eating is in the DSM, but for those of us in practice, we see it as one symptom among many in the eating disorder. Addressing restriction — getting people to eat regularly — is one of the most potent interventions. Often people feel that, because they are at a higher weight, they should be dieting all the time. And when people diet and think, “I’m going to try to eat as little as possible,” that sets them up to engage in binge eating.

“A lot of the initial studies on eating disorders were based on treatment-seeking samples, which are, by definition, not representative. Anyone can get an eating disorder.”

What’s the prevalence of binge eating in society?

That’s a tricky question because the research doesn’t entirely agree. The National Comorbidity Survey Replication, which was done in 2007 by my mentor, Jim Hudson, and Ron Kessler, suggested that the prevalence of DSM-4 binge-eating disorder was around 2.6 percent [chance over a] lifetime in the U.S.

DSM-5, because it’s a broader category, would be higher than that. A more recent study by Udo and Grilo in 2018 was just under 1 percent lifetime. There are some methodological reasons why they may differ, so it’s hard to get a clear estimate, but I’d say somewhere between 1 and 3 percent lifetime in the U.S.

So millions of people. Is it the most common eating disorder?

Yes, it is — in the U.S. and globally — though we don’t have good data from some regions of the world.

Let’s talk about your study. You were trying to settle differences in earlier studies about how long binge-eating disorder takes to resolve on its own. What did you find?

My mentors, Jim Hudson and [Harrison] Skip Pope, did a family study of binge-eating disorder in the early aughts. They subsequently followed the study participants forward for five years, re-interviewing them every 2.5 years.

They thus had really unique, valuable data on the disorder’s duration, and I suggested we look at both remission and relapse, and also use machine learning to see if we can predict whether somebody will go into remission. Our analyses showed that although there is improvement over time, the disorder doesn’t just vanish after a few months for most people in our sample.

And the key finding was focused on it resolving naturally, not with treatment?

That’s why this study is so important. We already have very good data on how people respond to treatment. But because they’re getting treatment, it’s not a representative sample of what happens in the real world.

We found that, at 2.5 years, about 15 percent of people had moved into remission, with no binge-eating episodes for three months. At five years, that was a little over 20 percent. And a little less than two-thirds of people still had full DSM-4 binge-eating disorder at 2.5 years. A little under half still had the disorder at five years. The rest were somewhere in the middle: They didn’t meet the DSM-4 criteria for binge-eating disorder, but they weren’t fully in remission.

I should also mention that this was snapshot data at 2.5 and 5 years, but people move around in between. When we looked at the in-between data, based on people’s retrospective report of what had happened over the 2.5 years, we see some people are experiencing remission, but relapse is fairly common, and the median time to remission is over 60 months.

And that is different from the other studies you looked at?

There were a couple of levels. The older prospective studies were small, under 50 people, excluded males, and the participants tended to be younger.

We know that, for younger people with eating disorders, presentations can change more rapidly than someone who’s had binge-eating disorder for 20 years. Those studies suggest that only a minority of people still had a full threshold of binge-eating disorder at two to five years of follow-up.

But also we knew that the individuals in those studies were young, were mostly at lower BMI, and there were no men. Our sample had a much wider age range, was primarily high BMI, as well as being a bigger sample.

Were the samples in these older studies representative of outdated societal perceptions about who is affected by binge-eating disorder?

A lot of the initial studies on eating disorders were based on treatment-seeking samples, which are, by definition, not representative. Anyone can get an eating disorder.

Does this work say anything about treatment?

It does, although it requires making a few assumptions. If you look at the longer-term outcomes seen in high-quality, randomized controlled trials of psychotherapy for binge-eating disorder, the percent of people experiencing remission is higher than in our study. That suggests that people would get better faster with treatment than they would under natural circumstances.

I don’t want people to feel hopeless after seeing our study. There are effective treatments for binge-eating disorder, including one FDA-approved medication, lisdexamfetamine, and multiple evidence-based psychotherapies. Although our treatments are not perfect, they do help many people.

Want to make robots more agile? Take a lesson from a rat.

Scientists create realistic virtual rodent with digital neural network to study how brain controls complex, coordinated movement

Bence Ölveczky.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

Want to make robots more agile? Take a lesson from a rat.

Scientists create realistic virtual rodent with digital neural network to study how brain controls complex, coordinated movement  

4 min read

The effortless agility with which humans and animals move is an evolutionary marvel that no robot has yet been able to closely emulate. To help probe the mystery of how brains control and coordinate it all, Harvard neuroscientists have created a virtual rat with an artificial brain that can move around just like a real rodent.

Bence Ölveczky, professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, led a group of researchers who collaborated with scientists at Google’s DeepMind AI lab to build a biomechanically realistic digital model of a rat. Using high-resolution data recorded from real rats, they trained an artificial neural network — the virtual rat’s “brain” — to control the virtual body in a physics simulator called MuJoco, where gravity and other forces are present. And the results are promising.

Harvard and Google researchers created a virtual rat using movement data recorded from real rats.

Credit: Google DeepMind

Published in Nature, the researchers found that activations in the virtual control network accurately predicted neural activity measured from the brains of real rats producing the same behaviors, said Ölveczky, who is an expert at training (real) rats to learn complex behaviors in order to study their neural circuitry. The feat represents a new approach to studying how the brain controls movement, Ölveczky said, by leveraging advances in deep reinforcement learning and AI, as well as 3D movement-tracking in freely behaving animals.

The collaboration was “fantastic,” Ölveczky said. “DeepMind had developed a pipeline to train biomechanical agents to move around complex environments. We simply didn’t have the resources to run simulations like those, to train these networks.”

Working with the Harvard researchers was, likewise, “a really exciting opportunity for us,” said co-author and Google DeepMind Senior Director of Research Matthew Botvinick. “We’ve learned a huge amount from the challenge of building embodied agents: AI systems that not only have to think intelligently, but also have to translate that thinking into physical action in a complex environment. It seemed plausible that taking this same approach in a neuroscience context might be useful for providing insights in both behavior and brain function.”

Graduate student Diego Aldarondo worked closely with DeepMind researchers to train the artificial neural network to implement what are called inverse dynamics models, which scientists believe our brains use to guide movement. When we reach for a cup of coffee, for example, our brain quickly calculates the trajectory our arm should follow and translates this into motor commands. Similarly, based on data from actual rats, the network was fed a reference trajectory of the desired movement and learned to produce the forces to generate it. This allowed the virtual rat to imitate a diverse range of behaviors, even ones it hadn’t been explicitly trained on.

These simulations may launch an untapped area of virtual neuroscience in which AI-simulated animals, trained to behave like real ones, provide convenient and fully transparent models for studying neural circuits, and even how such circuits are compromised in disease. While Ölveczky’s lab is interested in fundamental questions about how the brain works, the platform could be used, as one example, to engineer better robotic control systems.

A next step might be to give the virtual animal autonomy to solve tasks akin to those encountered by real rats. “From our experiments, we have a lot of ideas about how such tasks are solved, and how the learning algorithms that underlie the acquisition of skilled behaviors are implemented,” Ölveczky continued. “We want to start using the virtual rats to test these ideas and help advance our understanding of how real brains generate complex behavior.”

This research received financial support from the National Institutes of Health.

Alzheimer’s disease indicators track with biological changes in brain, study finds

Researchers see self-reported memory loss may be early, preclinical warning

Portrait of a senior man with spouse's hand on his shoulder.

Alzheimer’s disease indicators track with biological changes in brain, study finds

Researchers see self-reported memory loss may be early, preclinical warning

3 min read

Using imaging reports to back up their findings, researchers have concluded that reports from patients and their partners about cognitive decline can be an early indicator of an accumulation of tau tangles, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

“There is increasing evidence that individuals themselves or a close family member may notice changes in memory, even before a clinical measure picks up evidence of cognitive impairment,” said Rebecca E. Amariglio of the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the senior author of the study. Results are published in Neurologythe medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“We now understand that changes in the brain due to Alzheimer’s disease start well before patients show clinical symptoms detected by a doctor.”

Rebecca E. Amariglio, study senior author

Before any diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, researchers from Mass General Brigham have found changes in the brain when patients and their study partners (those who could answer questions about their daily cognitive function) reported a decline in cognition. “Something as simple as asking about memory complaints can track with disease severity at the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Amariglio, a clinical neuropsychologist at both BWH and Mass General. “We now understand that changes in the brain due to Alzheimer’s disease start well before patients show clinical symptoms detected by a doctor.”

The study, led by first author Michalina F. Jadick, included researchers from across the Brigham and Mass General. The research team designed their study to include participants from the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic AD/Longitudinal Evaluation of Amyloid Risk (A4/LEARN) and Neurodegeneration studies and the Harvard Aging Brain Study and affiliated studies. Participants were at risk but cognitively unimpaired, and not yet diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Each participant and respective study partner completed evaluations of cognitive function for the participant. Each participant also underwent PET imaging to detect levels of tau and amyloid beta.

Across 675 participants, the team found that both amyloid and tau were associated with greater self-reported decline in cognitive function. The team also found that subjective reports from patients and their partners complemented objective tests of cognitive performance. The authors note that the study was limited by the fact that most participants were white and highly educated. Future studies that include more diverse participants and follow participants in the longer term are needed.

Amariglio cautions that noticing a change in cognition does not mean that one should leap to the conclusion that a person has Alzheimer’s disease. However, a patient’s or family member’s concerns should not be dismissed if they are worried about cognition.

More information on funding for individual researchers here.

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This course changed how I see the world

A photographer’s love letter to ‘Vision and Justice’

Arts & Culture

This course changed how I see the world

Students from the class Vision & Justice include Elyse Martin-Smith ’25 (from left), Toussaint Miller ’25, Tenzin Gund-Morrow ’26, Ryan Tierney ’24, Marley Dias ’26, and Anoushka Chander ’25.

Students from the class “Vision and Justice” include Elyse Martin-Smith (from left), Toussaint Miller, Tenzin Gund-Morrow, Ryan Tierney, Marley Dias, and Anoushka Chander.

Photos by Dylan Goodman; photo illustration by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff

7 min read

A photographer’s love letter to ‘Vision and Justice’

How has visual representation both limited and liberated the definition of American citizenship and belonging? That’s a key question that Professor Sarah Lewis’ class “Vision and Justice: The Art of Race and American Citizenship” aims to answer.

I was lucky to be one of the 50 students out of 200 who got a seat in the course through the General Education lottery administered by the College. I had no idea at the beginning of the semester how deeply the class would alter my photographic eye and perception of the world. It challenged me as a photographer to understand history through the lens of my passion.

Lewis is an art and cultural historian. In addition to the “Vision and Justice” course, she is also the founder of the Vision & Justice civic initiative, which she explains focuses on “original research, curricula, and programs to reveal the foundational role visual culture plays in generating equity and justice in America.” However, “the work in the classroom is the heart of it all,” she said, as she loves “seeing transformation in my students before my eyes. The sense of empowerment, heightened awareness, and joy is like nothing else.”

Sarah Lewis.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo by Dylan Goodman

Dylan Goodman.

Dylan Goodman ’25, story author and photographer.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Her primary teaching goal was to “compel” students to understand and see the power of visual culture for justice across disciplines. “How can we define the trajectory of a country founded on the tension between slavery and freedom, liberty and genocide, equality and exclusion?” said Lewis. “We have done it and continue to do it through the work of culture.”

Leaving this course, I find myself thinking of my photographic subjects as collaborators, just as LaToya Ruby Frazier does; I think about how my photographs can be used to create counternarratives and fight for equality, just as Frederick Douglass did. With every click of the shutter, I think about Lewis’ teaching: Visual art matters. 

My classmates came from a variety of concentrations and backgrounds, and they took away just as wide a range of lessons. Below, some of them reflected on their time in the classroom.

Professor and student.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Toussaint Miller ’25

Neurobiology, secondary in music

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“The pedagogy of vision and justice is more applicable than it may explicitly seem… As an aspiring surgeon, I could not help but ask how these ideals — rooted in eugenics and polygenesis — have influenced modern medicine. How do the practices of the 18th and 19th century contribute to the health disparities affecting marginalized communities even still today?”

Toussaint Miller

Miller enrolled in “Vision and Justice” for two primary reasons: He believes in the power of representation in defining who we are and what we will become, and he wanted the opportunity to discuss the legacy of art and culture with his peers.

The course has “armed me with the tools necessary to intellectually consider the underlying meanings and contexts of visual art,” he said, noting that he sees visual art as a way to honor human life and denigrate it. A standout moment from the class was discussing how Confederate monuments have come to be the “new battleground of racial contestation” and help us understand how America’s past affects its future.

Marley Dias ’26

Sociology and data analytics, secondary in African American studies  

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“While I thought that American history could be divided into racial history, Professor Lewis has taught me the way these histories are constantly intertwined and has pushed my thinking toward seeing cultural movements as essential mechanisms for justice in America.”

Marley Dias

Dias enrolled in this course because of her passion for representation in media. As the founder of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, an international movement to collect and donate books with Black girls as the main character, Dias believes capturing the “full spectrum of identity can heal the wounds of our oppressive history.”

Dias said the course changed the way she understands race. She learned how to use visual analysis and historical context to understand how sight plays an integral role in race, especially in how we can challenge oppression.

Ryan Tierney ’24

History and literature, secondary in economics

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“As a second-semester senior, I expected that I would be ‘cruising to the finish line,’ having already experienced all of the perspective-shifting classes of my College career. I was so wrong, and I have been profoundly impacted by this class.”

Ryan Tierney

Tierney said he loved the discussions Lewis led, explaining that “the way in which she amplified everyone’s perspective was really helpful to our overall understanding … When it comes to art and images, perspective matters.”

He defined the course as centering around changing the way individuals view representation in the U.S.

Elyse Martin-Smith ’25

Social studies and African American studies

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“I love that this GenEd brings together people from many different areas at the College. As someone who focuses in Black Artivism (arts and activism), it is enlightening to examine the shared struggle of other marginalized communities, exploring deep parallels and linked fate.”

Elyse Martin-Smith

Martin-Smith enrolled in the class because of her passion for the arts, primarily music, in honoring the traditions of Black people.

Martin-Smith enjoyed the lectures, engaging with guest speakers, materials from the Harvard Art Museums, and the process of hearing classmates grapple with their own opinions on the content. She said she felt inspired to “take action” and “challenge harmful histories” from what she learned.

Tenzin Gund-Morrow ’26

Social studies

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“‘Vision and Justice’ has gifted me the language to more exactingly analyze, understand, and explain the issue of citizenship and race in America. It’s provided me with the critical visual skills that are more useful than ever in our modern digital age.”

Tenzin Gund-Morrow

Gund-Murrow had heard that “Vision and Justice” was “one of those special classes that explodes how you see the world.” It changed the way he saw himself as well. Lewis has “forever altered the trajectory of my studies by elucidating the inextricable tie between visual culture, political identity, and public policy.”

Gund-Morrow, who has a scholarly interest in criminal justice, said the class forced him to question the role media and visual artifacts play in the modern carceral system.

He was most struck by the unit on lynching. He said he learned lessons about the “liberatory potential of Black contemporary artists” in addressing its legacy.

Anoushka Chander ’25

Social studies and African American studies

Photo by Dylan Goodman

“The class asks us to understand that visual culture — through art, photos, and monuments — has created a narrative of who does or does not count in American life.”

Anoushka Chander

In high school, Chander interned with the Smithsonian Institution museums. She had always viewed these artistic spaces as a place for fighting social injustice. “Museums reckon with ugly histories of oppression, celebrate the beauty and resilience of diverse Americans, and challenge racist beliefs,” she said. Additionally, as a singer and performer, she has always been interested in how art can further representation.

Chander connected the course to her concentration, focusing especially on visual representations of Black motherhood. “In my midterm paper, I discussed how Serena Williams’ pregnant cover photo of Vanity Fair presented Black motherhood as powerful and beautiful, challenging racist assumptions.”

More than a planetary fender-bender

New study finds Earth collided with dense interstellar cloud, possibly affecting life on planet

Avi Loeb (left) and Merav Opher used computer models to track the sun’s path back to a potential collision.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

More than a planetary fender-bender

New study finds Earth collided with dense interstellar cloud, possibly affecting life on planet

7 min read

Call it the Milky Way mystery.

Evidence of a long-ago collision involving the Earth was there in the form of specific radioactive isotopes deposited across the Earth and Moon. There were, however, skeptics.

But now researchers have tracked the sun’s path through the Milky Way back to a crash 2 to 3 million years ago with a dense interstellar cloud. The event was so violent it appears to have collapsed the sun’s protective bubble around the solar system and possibly even affected life on Earth.

Merav Opher, a Boston University astronomy professor and director of BU’s SHIELD NASA DRIVE Center, made the discovery in work conducted during a 2021-22 fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and published recently in Nature Astronomy.

Her project explored whether the Earth might have come in contact with the interstellar medium outside of the heliosphere, the protective bubble around the solar system created by the sun’s magnetic field and the solar wind.

Though the Earth is often thought of as a planet circling a stationary star, the sun is constantly in motion. In fact, it travels through the galaxy at about 56,000 miles per hour — bringing with it the planets, asteroids, comets, and other bodies of the solar system.

Researchers believe that during those travels a collision may have happened between 2 million and 3 million years ago, and another around 7 million years ago. The evidence exists in the form of noticeable peaks in the deposition of two radioactive isotopes: iron 60 and plutonium 244. Both are very rare, created when massive stars explode in supernova. Those isotopes are thought to be more plentiful in the interstellar medium.

“It is everywhere, in the deep ocean, on the moon, on ice in Antarctica,” Opher said. “These papers describe a global phenomenon. Something happened. And iron 60 is not produced on Earth. So I knew that somehow this iron 60 got trapped in dust, and somehow, 2 to 3 million years ago, we had more dust delivered to us.”

For the interstellar medium (ISM) to be the source of the deposition spikes, however, something unusual must have happened, because today the ISM is nowhere near Earth. The heliosphere’s outer fringe — where the interstellar medium begins — is 11 billion miles away, well beyond the orbits of the outer planets.

Opher started her exploration of potential Earth-ISM contact by reviewing research on the sun’s galactic neighborhood, the “nearby” space out to 65 light-years away.

She initially found mostly empty space. But when she factored in the sun’s own movement, she realized that the solar system exits its interstellar neighborhood after about 1 million years.

And, as she looked farther down the path that the sun and its planets might have taken, her gaze settled on a string of dense clouds of interstellar dust and hydrogen atoms, called the Local Ribbon of Cold Clouds, 2 to 3 million years away as the sun flies.

“I got so excited,” Opher said. “This will collapse the heliosphere and then the Earth is in interstellar medium, collecting more dust, and that can explain this peak that I’ve seen in iron 60.”

Opher got in touch with Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, who directs Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation, where Opher spent a sabbatical year from 2017 to 2018. The two used computer models to examine the movement of both the solar system and the interstellar dust clouds themselves, which are also in motion.

They tracked the sun’s path back to a potential collision with the densest cloud in the ribbon, called the Local Lynx of Cold Clouds, holding more than half of the ribbon’s total mass.  

“We don’t often discuss the impact of astrophysics on Earth because the astronomical timescales are very long, and the human species emerged on Earth just a few million years ago,” Loeb said. “But a few million years ago there was the potential for us to be passing through a very dense cloud. We didn’t work out the biological implications, but it’s clear that if you shrink the heliosphere to within the orbit of the Earth around the sun, we are not protected anymore. It could have significant implications for life on Earth.”

For confirmation, they turned to Joshua Peek, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Webb and Hubble telescopes. Peek, who had published research on the Local Ribbon of Cold Clouds, cast a dubious eye on their work.

The relative movements of the bodies involved were complex, the statistics required to understand them advanced, and, he thought, the chances were vanishingly small that the sun passed through that Lynx cloud at the same time that the isotope depositions happened on Earth.

“It’s a pretty complicated thing to study,” Peek said. “So I thought, ‘I’m just not going to pay attention to this. This is some crackpot nonsense.’”

But Opher didn’t give up. She repeatedly reached out until Peek, on a pandemic-era trip to California, found himself with time on his hands. He had tested positive for COVID and, though he felt OK, was in self-imposed quarantine, far from home and the daily demands there.

So Peek decided to take a closer look at Opher’s idea. And the more he looked, the more plausible it became.

“It’ll be so easy,” Peek described his thinking. “I’ll just do a quick analysis — in one day — prove that this is impossible, and we can all move on with our lives. But after the very quick analysis, I thought, this is actually possible. I was just flabbergasted. I wrote back and said, ‘I thought I was proving you wrong, but it turned out I proved you right.’”

Interstellar space beyond the solar system is very heterogenous, Peek and Opher said.

In some places, like just outside the heliosphere, it is nearly a vacuum, averaging just 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. By contrast, inside the heliosphere, near Earth, there are between three and 10 particles per cubic centimeter, 30 to 100 times denser. Inside a cold cloud, according to Peek’s prior research, particle density could reach 3,000 particles per cubic centimeter.

A collision with a cloud that dense would have collapsed the heliosphere to about 0.2 astronomical units, or about one-fifth of the distance between the Earth and the sun, Opher said. That would leave the Earth outside the sun’s protective influence as the solar system traversed the cloud.

Recent measurements by Voyager 1 and 2, the only crafts to have crossed from the heliosphere into the ISM, showed that the Earth would have likely experienced a spike in galactic cosmic radiation.

It also would have experienced a rain of particles — some interstellar dust, but mainly hydrogen atoms — through the atmosphere.

The particles would likely have changed the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere, possibly affecting cloud formation, depleting ozone in the middle atmosphere, and cooling the climate.

Though outside the scope of their study, the three authors said the impact on life on Earth might have been substantial and recommended further exploration.

“Our work should trigger more studies into this question,” Loeb said. “It draws attention to our cosmic neighborhood as having potential influence on life on Earth. We usually tend to just look at it and enjoy it, but we are actually moving through interstellar space, and there could be risks along the way.”

Opher’s work is supported by the NASA DRIVE program.

Clear as a bell

New successful, expanded trial of groundbreaking therapy for genetic deafness suggests it may be available relatively soon

Yilai Shu communicates with a young patient at the Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University.

Credit: Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University


Clear as a bell

New successful, expanded trial of groundbreaking therapy for genetic deafness suggests it may be available relatively soon

6 min read

A toddler in a bright yellow shirt stands unsteadily, grasping the arm of a chair with one hand while playing with a toy on the seat with the other. His father calls from behind, but the child doesn’t react. 

Six weeks later, the same child stands holding onto a table. When his grandfather calls, he spins, nearly toppling over, saved by the older man who reaches over to steady him. The dramatic change, highlighted in two video clips, documents the effectiveness of a new gene therapy for a type of inherited deafness, researchers say. 

The advance was first reported in January after a trial of six children deaf since birth. The children received treatment in one ear, with five of the six gaining the ability to hear. Scientists reported Wednesday they’d expanded the trial to five more children, this time delivering treatment in both ears. All five, ranging in age from 1 to 11 years, were able to hear in both ears, researchers reported in the journal Nature Medicine.

The team reported only minor side effects such as fever and higher white blood cell counts and cholesterol. While those side effects were transitory, the children became responsive to family members’ voices and some spoke their first words in what researchers hope is a permanent fix. Two children danced to music — which requires complex sound processing — and all were able to localize sound and recognize speech in noisy environments.

“I think this gene therapy is a game-changer,” said Zheng-Yi Chen, associate professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary’s Eaton-Peabody Laboratories. “I have no doubt it will become the standard therapy down the road.”

That journey, said Chen, one of the study’s senior authors, may not take long. Further studies are needed to refine the therapy, he said, but it could be ready in as soon as three to five years. 

The work was led by researchers at Mass Eye and Ear and at the Eye and ENT Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai, where a team led by Yilai Shu, a former postdoctoral fellow in Chen’s lab, conducted the trial beginning in July 2023. The report provides a snapshot of changes after 13 and 26 weeks, though researchers are continuing to follow the subjects. 

Yilai Shu’s research team.

Credit: Eye & ENT Hospital of Fudan University

“Children’s lives will be profoundly impacted by the therapy,” Shu said. “It provides a paradigm shift in the treatment of hearing impairment.”

More than 5 percent of the global population — 430 million people — have some kind of deafness, a figure that includes 34 million children, according to statistics cited in the paper. About 26 million have been deaf since birth, with about 60 percent of those due to genetic factors. 

The children in both trials suffered from DFNB9, a type of deafness caused by a mutation in the OTOF gene. The mutated gene causes the body to produce a dysfunctional otoferlin protein. Otoferlin is produced by cells in a snail-shaped part of the inner ear called the cochlea, where sound waves are translated into electric signals. 

Those signals are normally transmitted to the nerves and then travel to the brain for interpretation. Otoferlin is important in the handoff of the signal from the cochlea to the nerves. Without it, the signal generated in the ear never makes it to the brain.

Chen said in January that DFNB9 is an attractive target for the therapy because the structures of the ear are intact and the mutated protein can be traced to a single gene that, if repaired, would restore communication between the ear and brain. 

A complication remained, however. The gene that encodes otoferlin is large enough that it doesn’t fit inside the neutered virus that researchers used to transport the corrected gene into the cochlear cells. 

Researchers solved that problem by breaking the gene in two and sending it in two viral packages instead of one. Though the virus inserted the gene into the cochlear cells’ genome in two pieces, it still produced functional versions of the otoferlin protein.

In the current trial involving two ears, Chen said safety of the treatment was an important consideration. Because they used a virus to deliver the therapy, they had to be on guard for the body’s natural immune reaction. To keep that response from derailing the trial, they decided to treat both ears at once. That prevented a situation where, if the injections were given sequentially, an immune response primed by treatment in the first ear could affect the success of the second. Researchers recorded no toxicity and saw no serious adverse reactions.

“This would suggest that maybe there’s some plasticity in the brain in a patient that we could remodel somehow in the future. This opened up a new field for us to explore.”

Zheng-Yi Chen

Shu said he was both relieved and happy when results showed children being able to respond to sound cues and speak their first words. As gratifying, however, was the reaction of the children’s parents, who sometimes cried or expressed disbelief at the changes they saw. 

This second trial also revealed an intriguing wrinkle. One participant was 11, an age considered outside the optimal range for language acquisition, thought to be from birth to around 6 or 7, Chen said. After hearing was restored, however, the 11-year-old did begin to use single words. 

“This would suggest that maybe there’s some plasticity in the brain in a patient that we could remodel somehow in the future,” Chen said. “This opened up a new field for us to explore.”

While hearing impairment stems from an array of causes, Chen said there are 150 genes known to play a role in genetic deafness. The vast majority of those could be treated using a similar regimen, he said. With the success of these trials, he added, it may begin to make sense for children who show difficulty hearing to undergo genetic testing at an early age.

“For us it’s a watershed event,” Chen said. “Personally, I have no doubt we’re going to have a new therapy down the road.”

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