The Seminar Stretch

This past week marked the last seminars of our fellowship. Cue the sad music. So, to ward off the feelings of loss and abandonment, here’s a look back at our most recent, and final, seminar subjects.

We returned from spring break to welcome Vance Crowe, director of millennial engagement at Monsanto. Young, handsome and charismatic, I’m guessing Crowe could made a successful career in Hollywood. Early in his career, he spent time in the Peace Corps and worked for public radio. So what’s he doing at one of the world’s most-loathed companies? And with a ridiculous title no less? Public relations, of course. And he’s very good at it. Disarmingly charming, he says it’s his job is to bridge the science and the public, and that his silly title (which he initially wanted to change) actually helps break the ice, since people always ask about it. Part of Crowe’s story is that he took the job in order to discover the real Monsanto, expecting to discover it’s even worse than people thought. Instead, he says he found just the opposite and has become a true believer. He certainly sells it.

We then brought in Sheila Jasanoff, founder and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society. A prolific writer, her soft-spoken manner barely disguises her intensity and passion for drawing the connections between science and society. Among her current frustrations: her view that much of the American public seemed relatively unconcerned with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s official actions to roll back environmental regulations, but became far more engaged when ethical and financial shenanigans became apparent. Her point well-taken, I’m not sure I agree with her perception that many were unconcerned with his official acts. But, I do think there is a valid journalistic critique that the news media (especially TV) play up supposed scandals at the expense of examining the impact of policy.

Former fellow Angela Saini returned to the KSJ seminar room to discuss her book, “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.” Of course we know the sexism we deal with today has a long history. Saini documents just how deep that history reaches, and what that means for today’s generations. Bottom line: it takes a concerted and thoughtful effort from everyone to overturn centuries of problematic behavior.

Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, was the next up. Perhaps best known for her 2012 TED talk, “The Optimism Bias,” she spoke to us about how people are able (or unable) to update their beliefs when they get new knowledge. In short, people are far more willing to update their beliefs when the new knowledge confirms what they already think. But if new knowledge runs counter to their strongly held beliefs, they are reluctant to move. It’s hard to escape these findings without being in utter despair. Which is ironic, given that she’s best known for her talk on optimism.

After a break for the Patriots Day holiday (only in New England!), we welcomed theoretical physicist Tasneem Zehra Husain. She spoke about her lifelong frustration that science and the humanities are thought of distinct, when for much of human history, they were not. As a professor, she works to bring an end to dry and, dare I say, inhumane writing that pervades scientific literature, and reassert the value of clear, dynamic and inspiring prose. Good luck with that!

Former journalist William Powers spoke about his Media Lab project, The Electome, which used Twitter data to see how connected — or separated — various groups of voters were from each other, and the journalists covering the 2016 election. It’s an interesting project that certainly reinforces the idea of divergent societies in America. Very briefly, the video clip below shows a data visualization of the Twitter connectedness of Trump supporters in red and Clinton supporters in blue. The blinking white shows journalists.

 

I think some of the conclusions made from these data are overly simplified and lack historical context (America has always been a deeply divided country), but these do add more data points, and maybe that will help us figure out a way to find more common ground. Unrelated, Powers also spoke about the internet sabbaths he used to share with his family. I floated the idea of that in my house. Nobody bothered to look up from their devices in acknowledgment.

Next on the schedule was a triumvirate of New York Times journalists. Unfortunately, the kickoff speaker, Jill Abramson, had to cancel due to a funeral.

No worries, it just gave us extra time to prepare to be wowed by Hannah Fairfield, the Times’ climate editor. A longtime New York Times journalist (with a stint at the Washington Post), Fairfield’s background in graphics has allowed her to push the Climate Desk to dizzying digital heights with projects like:

And so much more. When you’ve got 9 top-notch journalists, the resources of the Times and a brilliant editor, turns out you can do some pretty great work.

Speaking of great work, Carl Zimmer, science writer for a wide variety of outlets including the Times, STAT, and elsewhere, came to talk about his upcoming book, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity.” The talk centered on his biography and writing process, which ended with a free advertisement for Scrivener. But he also managed to talk genetics. His seminar came just days after the Golden State killer was caught thanks to detectives sending 23andme.com a sample of his DNA to find potential familial matches. A great story, to be sure, but Zimmer cautions not to read too much into online DNA sequencers. You could send the same DNA to several services and get significantly varied results. We’re still in the very early stages when it comes to making sense of our Gs, Ts, Cs, and As.

Although not part of the schedule series, fellow Teresa Carr wrangled two extra, and very special, speakers on to our calendar.

The first was Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA administrator from 2013 to 2017 and the driving force behind the Clean Power Plan. Now the Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard, McCarthy discussed her work at EPA and her ongoing efforts to bring environmental issues to the public health arena. Born and raised in Boston, McCarthy is funny and engaging, giving a full-throated laugh when jokes about teaching EPA colleagues to pronounce cahbon properly. At the same time, it’s clear she finds nothing amusing about her EPA successor. After an intense, sometimes profane, and laughter-filled 90-minute chat, I left wishing more people could see our government officials like this. That, and a deep desire to take in a game at Fenway with McCarthy. That would be fun.

Also fun was an entire seminar devoted to eating chocolate. Carla Martin, a lecturer on African and African American Studies, taught a class on chocolate, which several fellows took. They convinced her to stop by the KSJ office for a two-hour version of her course. And it was delicious.

Martin detailed the history of chocolate, its role in the French and American revolutions (and here you thought it was all about tea), and how it so deeply parallels global economic trade. I could give you a bunch of interesting facts and figures, but instead I’ll cut to the good stuff: the chocolate tasting.

We tried a half-dozen different chocolates, starting with bitter cacao nibs and Hershey’s milk chocolate (broadly derided as muddy and tasting like vomit). Eventually we worked through a variety of milk and dark chocolate bars that included a spectacular fruity chocolate from Madagascar and a smooth, luxury Porcelana chocolate that costs more than $20 a bar. The only downside of the event: not enough milk to wash down the chocolatey goodness.

For our penultimate seminar, we ventured back to the Broad Institute to hear Aviv Regev, director of the (appropriately named) Regev Lab. Regev is the leader of the Human Cell Atlas project, which is trying to create a comprehensive list of every type of human cell. I must admit, I would have guessed that scientists already knew all the human cells. But, I would have been wrong. We have something like 30 trillion individual cells at any given point, and there are many hundreds of distinct cell types. It used to be that scientists would have to identify cells one at a time. (For context, 30 trillion seconds is just shy of a million years.) Regev described a new technique that allows scientists to essentially see a molecular fingerprint for each type of cell at a rate of 5,000 cells a second. You know, fast. Already Regev’s team has discovered many new cell types and that could lead to new and better medicines. Yay science!

Finally, the seminar series wrapped up with Bina Venkataraman, a former journalist who served as senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House, and now is an MIT professor. We bonded over our shared Ohio roots before she shared her path to and her experience in the White House. Venkataraman is nothing if not careful, thoughtful, smart, and professional. But reading between the lines, you definitely get the sense that Washington is far more Veep than West Wing.

Though the seminars are for the fellows, but many others also join in the fun. (See more on our fall and winter seminars.) We’ve had high school students, family members, friends of fellows, and others from MIT and Harvard. Among the regulars was an Air Force pilot who is also on fellowship at MIT. He asked terrific questions and often connected the topics to his experience in the military. I wish even more people from the MIT community would join the seminars, as their perspectives provide unique insights that otherwise get missed.

Maybe that will happen, but sadly, I won’t be around to see it. At least not on any regular basis. But I am hopeful that when I find myself in Boston again, I’ll be able to time it just right for a KSJ seminar.

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