Eleven Seminars and Counting

One of the benefits of the Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT is the twice-weekly seminar. Technically a requirement (in the sense that we are required to attend), the seminars are a fantastic opportunity to hear from and talk with experts in their fields. (Plus, we get food.) So far we’e had eleven seminars. Here’s a quick look at them.

The first seminar was with Kenneth Oye, political scientist and director of the MIT Program on Emerging Technologies. Oye focused on the challenges inherent in reporting on scientific studies. How do you know when an outlier is actually correct in challenging the conventional wisdom? When are conflicts of interest actually opportunities to investigate questions that otherwise couldn’t be examined? He cited the example of the rise of margarine as a case study in how conventional wisdom sometimes isn’t so wise. This Vox story summarizes much of it nicely.

Next came Michael Morisy, co-founder of the FOIA tool and news site MuckRock. His presentation was documented by fellowship intern Frankie Schembri, who noted that the site has racked up nearly 40,000 FOIA requests and 1.6 million pages released to the public. But you don’t have to be a FOIA filer to enjoy MuckRock. The site features news articles that rely on FOIA, such one on cops protecting their colleagues. And MuckRock also does its own reporting, such as this piece on the CIA and its ties to Asia Foundation.

The Harvard economist Gernot Wagner was our third speaker. Profiled by T.J. Dimacali, Gernot is co-director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, co-author of “Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet,” and author of “But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World.” His talk focused on the possible need to geo-engineer the planet to address climate change. He argues this may be needed because the risk of significant temperature rise — in excess of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century — is sufficiently high enough to warrant our attention and planning. His idea? Release massive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space and away from the ground. On the one hand, it’s not unlike what volcanoes do (the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines caused global temperatures to drop by half a degree for a brief time). On the other hand…

Our fourth seminar was a field trip to the MIT Media Lab next door and a meeting with Emilie Reiser, project lead at the Center for Civic Media. The Media Lab is an extraordinary place filled with the most creative and innovative projects. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about hardly any of them (patents pending and all), but some of the work that’s come out of the Media Lab include the e-ink technology used in the Kindle, and the Lego Mindstorm. What’s especially interesting to me about the Media Lab is the way its funded. Essentially 80 companies contribute about half a million dollars per year and in return receive free access to the patents developed at the lab, and a pipeline for some of the most brilliant young minds around. The lab’s research isn’t directed by the companies, but rather tends to focus on long-range research (some of which is geared toward the member companies’ long-term goals).

Our next seminar was another field trip to the Broad Institute, where we met with Feng Zhang and two of his graduate students. Zhang is best known for his work on CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing tool that can precisely cut and edit segments of DNA. During our visit, Zhang and his students spoke about forthcoming research to focus CRISPR-Cas9 on poorly understood segments of our DNA. By knocking out certain genes, it may be possibly to identify what the functions of those genes are. A second line of research is in using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit RNA. The benefit of doing so is that while DNA can be passed to offspring, RNA cannot. So rather than treat disease by permanently editing inheritable DNA, it may be wiser to edit RNA to limit the effect of gene editing to the single organism. You can read more about it on Frankie Schembri’s write-up for KSJ.

Due to the Online News Association annual conference in D.C., I missed our seminar with Felice Frankel, a research scientist and photographer. However, anticipating this, I asked Felice if she would meet me for coffee at another time and she generously agreed. So, weeks before her seminar, we grabbed coffee and blueberry muffins at a cozy cafe across from Boston Common. We discussed the lines between art and science (her photographs are as artful as anything in a museum, but she recoils at being called at artist). I was sad to miss her seminar session, but am hoping to take a class with her in the spring.

Sometimes former fellows are our featured speakers, and that was the case with Annalee Newitz, who just published her first novel, Autonomous. Set in the relatively near future, her book is the story of a pharmaceutical pirate being hunted by a pair of international cops, one of whom is a sentient robot. The book certainly takes much of what one can see in the MIT labs to their natural (or, in some cases, unnatural) conclusions. That’s true not just for self-aware robots, but also for autonomous vehicles, bio-engineered pharmaceuticals, and high-tech fabrication labs. But in talking with Newitz, who had been editor-in-chief at io9 and Gizmodo, and is now at Ars Technica, it’s clear that she also drew on her experience talking with scientists over the years. Most interesting to me was her admission that stories she learned as a journalist, but felt unable to tell (often for reasons of privacy and professional ethics), were nevertheless available to her as inspiration for her fiction. If you’re curious to learn more, here’s Undark’s review.

I’m pretty sure I remember Ayanna Thomas, associate professor of psychology and founder of the Cognitive Aging and Memory Laboratory at Tufts University, coming to speak with us. I hesitate only because her topic was on the frailty of memory. All joking aside, it was a fascinating conversation in which she explained how, especially in the criminal justice system, unintentional (and sometimes intentional) behavior caused memories to be changed to created. On the one hand, it raises questions about witness reliability, but on the other, it provides an opportunity to vastly improve the process by which witness are questioned, so that memories are not manipulated. To demonstrate the power of memory manipulation, Thomas ran us through a test in which a series of words were briefly flashed on the screen. Door, window, room, frame, glass, pane… plus dozens more, all grouped around a theme. Then, after a brief diversion, we were asked to write down as many words as we could remember. Did any of us write down “house,” she asked? Hands shot up in the air. Many remembered seeing it. You can see where this story goes. House, of course, was not listed. But, because so many words associated with “house” were shown, our memories added it. We smiled. Point for science.


Because some of the fellows are interested in writing books, the program brought in Mackenzie Brady Watson, a literary agent with the Stuart Krichevsky agency in New York. She walked us through the realities of the book publishing world and I can only say to those who make it through: BRAVO. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone makes a living in the book publishing industry — I guess that’s why so many don’t make a living in the book publishing industry. My takeaway: don’t quit your day job.

Next up was Shannon Brownlee of the Lown Institute, a think tank focused on the health care system’s failures. (She’d prefer we call it the disease system.) In any event, she discussed her career as a health reporter and transformation in to a crusader to make the industry more responsible, accountable and effective. Her 2007 book on over-treatment, which was called the best economics book of the year, focused on the — you guessed it — tendency of our system to over-test and over-treat people without sufficient evidence. As an example, she cited the PSA test and how, despite its unreliability and side effects, was used as a cancer diagnostic tool. What struck me about her talk was that many of the issues she raises are deeply tied to cultural norms and expectations. Changing that is a much bigger challenge than updating guidance to doctors.

Finally, our most recent seminar speaker (as of this writing) was Rosalind W. Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab and faculty chair of MIT’s Mind+Hand+Heart Initiative. Her talk focused on her work on making computers and technology more empathetic. The consequences of this are startling — from relatively benign issues like interacting with virtual assistants, to life-saving interactions where technology can alert epileptics and their loved ones of seizures, or alerting sufferers of depression that a psychological episode may be forthcoming. She demonstrated and discussed technologies that can monitor our vital signs remotely and therefore could be used for everything from less-invasive tracking at the hospital to deeply concerning monitoring of employees or business partners. It’s clear that the power of computer monitoring is going to change our lives and equally clear that we’re going to need legal and ethical frameworks to keep that power in check. Just imagine what Facebook could do if it could read your emotional state via your phone’s camera. It’s clear that’s a lot closer to reality than people may realize.

Although each seminar is distinct, I can’t help but notice my reaction to them has been fairly consistent: awe at what these brilliant minds can do; deep worries about how technology can be misused; fear that our society is no longer able to address complex and sometimes morally confusing challenges; hope that brilliant and passionate people can solve some of our most vexing problems; and excitement for the stories waiting to be told.

(Featured image: Gernot Wagner of Harvard)

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