Center for the Environment welcomes new cohort of environmental fellows

first_imgHUCE extends a warm welcome to its newest cohort of environmental fellows, who will join a current group of scholars embarking on their second year of the program. Now in its fifth season, the fellows program recruits a diverse group of intellectually-curious, top-achieving scholars to tackle complex environmental challenges in a wide array of disciplines.Each of the six incoming fellows will work closely with a faculty mentor during their two-year stint at Harvard, in addition to attending a variety of group meetings, faculty-led discussions, and the center’s environmental fellows dinner series.Returning for their final year of the program are fellows Daniel Barber, Jacob Krich, Elizabeth Landis, Alexander Stine, and Rich Wildman. For more information on the program.The 2011 environmental fellows are Emily V. Fischer, an atmospheric chemist; Chris Golden, an ecologist and epidemiologist; Francis Ludlow, a historical climatologist; Fabien Paulot, an atmospheric chemist; Jenny Suckale, a geophysicist; and Hillary Young, a community ecologist. Read Full Storylast_img read more

A Boston school turnaround

first_img Signs of the time Nestled in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Greenwood is a happy and successful school. Data, data, data Last month’s MCAS scores delivered powerful evidence of Greenwood’s success. Hall of change “Everything needed to change,” from the internal climate to the instruction to parent engagement to school pride, said Principal Maudlin Wright, who came to Greenwood in 2009. Hugs all around Third-grade teacher Betty Solomon (left) in her class with Greenwood Principal Maudlin Wright and Paula Finklestein, a veteran urban principal and educational consultant. Witness to progress “This school has made incredible gains,” said Paula Finklestein (background), a veteran urban principal and educational consultant. Teachers were encouraged to celebrate and display student work. Ambassadors Student ambassadors Rashad Brown Mitchell (left) and Naia Walter give a tour of their school. Messages to remember The hallways were transformed into vibrant corridors painted with motivational messages from the world’s great leaders. Leading the way Making it happen Teacher Betty Solomon has watched Greenwood’s test scores rise, thanks in part to support provided by the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative. Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer A look inside Principal Maudlin Wright (left) and Paula Finklestein look in on a classroom at the E. Greenwood Leadership Academy. Fourth-grader Rashad Brown Mitchell and third-grader Naia Walter are proud of their school. As its ambassadors, they get to show off the E. Greenwood Leadership Academy to visitors.And they aren’t shy about their roles. The pair confidently point out the indicators of student success that dress up their classroom doorways and halls.“This shows the different classrooms and their attendance, how many kids come to class each day,” said Rashad, pointing to an elaborate grid, one of several progress charts prominently displayed. Student attendance at the Greenwood has risen to 95 percent.The school, nestled in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, is a happy, successful place. But it wasn’t always so.In 2009, Greenwood was counted among the Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) lowest performers. The district was threatening to close the school’s doors because it was failing. Greenwood had not made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) — a measure of student proficiency reported through MCAS scores — in math since 2006. It had also failed to obtain AYP in English language arts.Greenwood Principal Maudlin Wright remembers 2009 well. She had planned to retire from her previous school at the end of her tenure, but was brought in by BPS to turn Greenwood around.“Everything needed to change,” said Wright, from the internal climate to the instruction to parent engagement to school pride.Two years later, the Greenwood is on a solid path to success thanks to strong leadership, the commitment and dedication of teachers, and a network of support from Harvard, its partner university.Last month’s MCAS scores delivered powerful evidence of that success. Gov. Deval Patrick lauded the academy as one of 10 schools in the state with the biggest combined increases in the percent of students scoring “proficient” and “advanced” for all ages combined on the MCAS. In the third-grade classes alone, there was a 19.5 percent increase in student math performance from 2010.“School improvement comes about when schools have the tools they need to improve and their focus on student achievement is front and center,” said BPS Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. “The E. Greenwood Leadership Academy is a great example of that. Harvard has been a critical partner, providing everything from after-school support and homework help to parent engagement, leadership training, and professional development for teachers. It’s partnerships like these that have a huge impact on teaching and learning.”“This school has made incredible gains,” said Paula Finklestein, a veteran urban principal and educational consultant, who has worked with Wright one day a week since she came to Greenwood.“It usually takes three to five years to turn a school around. Ms. Wright was able to do this in two years. That’s fabulous. I feel like a proud grandmother,” said Finklestein.The ‘guide on the side’Wright is one of a handful of BPS principals who serve schools supported by Step UP, the five-university initiative that provides resources for 10 underperforming Boston public schools. Step UP was created by the universities, under the leadership of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, to boost student achievement.At Greenwood, Finklestein offers Wright and her teachers sustained on-site leadership coaching and professional development through the Harvard Achievement Support Initiative (HASI). Greenwood also uses the HASI SmartTalk program, which is designed to improve the quality of academic programming in out-of-school time through the use of hands-on learning materials, coaching support, and ongoing professional development for staff. Harvard also has hosted training sessions for teachers and parents, as well as for City Year members, who support both daytime and after-school efforts.Finklestein, who calls herself the “guide on the side,” draws from nearly 20 years as a principal in a Chelsea school that faced many of the same challenges as the Greenwood.Data is the driverWright’s turn-around plan was rooted in the numbers.“It was data, data, data,” said Wright. “Paula caused me to look at how to use the data to get to the root of the problem at the school. She helped us use the data to drive our daily instruction.”According to Finklestein, principals and teachers get scores back from assessments but don’t necessarily know how to translate that data to see what is working, what is not, and what needs to change.“We use the data to ask the right questions … where are students failing, what are the standards, and are they being taught/not being taught?” said Wright.Then she took what they learned and made pivotal changes to support Greenwood teachers in reaching the children. Wright worked with teachers to put in place interventions for students who were not reaching their potential. She used the data to understand existing strengths and gaps within classrooms to more accurately target support where it was needed.And before she was even walking the halls as principal, she was working to improve the school climate. The summer of 2009, Wright enlisted a group of teachers as part of a leadership team to improve the school culture. She adopted “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, ” inspired by the book by Stephen R. Covey, as part of the school philosophy.Teachers were encouraged to celebrate and display student work. The hallways were transformed into vibrant corridors painted with motivational messages from the world’s great leaders.On the curricular front, the school shifted from a place where teachers worked in isolation, on their own, to a place defined by its atmosphere of sharing and support.“There is a community atmosphere now at the Greenwood,” said Betty Solomon, a third-grade teacher, who also taught there prior to 2009. “We’re a family working together for one goal — and that goal, of course, is for the success of our children.”Today, regular teacher meetings focus on analyzing assessments and sharing strategies and best practices. Teachers submit their lesson plans for review. And teachers at the same grade level are on the same page, teaching the same curricula at the same pace to share challenges and practices together.Partnership to successIn the meantime, the Greenwood has become a celebrity of sorts. Calls of congratulations are rolling in. Just last week, a group of teachers from Iceland visited the school to learn best practices.“I was planning to retire from my other school,” said Wright as her school ambassadors showed off the new playground and outdoor classroom behind the school. “I feel really great about what’s going on in this school, and it needs to continue.”“And when I retire I’m going to work with Paula to build schools,” she added. Then Finklestein chimed in, finishing Wright’s sentence like a partner does, saying, “… schools of excellence together, just like this one.” Wright’s way Greenwood Principal Maudlin Wright remembers 2009 well. She had planned to retire from her previous school at the end of her tenure, but was brought in to turn Greenwood around.last_img read more

Pain relief for patients in Uganda

first_imgWith just 25 anesthesiologists in all of Uganda, anesthesia is typically provided during surgery, but little is provided during the first hours of recovery, when the pain is most intense.Stephen Ttendo, head of anesthesia at Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, one of Uganda’s three major teaching hospitals, says anesthesiologists are simply too busy with surgeries to visit the recovery wards. Nurses, too, are in short supply. That means that as the surgical anesthesia wears off, patients’ only recourse is to “groan in pain,” Ttendo said.Last fall, Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Department of Anesthesia Critical Care and Pain Medicine began an anesthesia partnership with Mbarara, providing equipment and training so local doctors can use a pain-blocking technique at the end of a surgical procedure that will provide relief for 12 hours after surgery.Paul Firth, assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and an anesthesiologist at MGH, helped to organize the partnership. The partnership resulted from a growing realization of the dire need for surgical services in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Firth said. About 10 percent of all deaths globally are caused by injuries or disease that can be treated surgically, ranging from unrepaired trauma to untreated cancer to needed cesarean sections in childbirth that can’t be provided.“It’s complex to perform surgery. You need people to provide anesthesia, nursing, and surgery. Pain control is one of the major issues before and after an operation,” Firth said. “You can’t treat surgical disease without safe anesthesia. Pain control is one of the major issues before and after an operation.”Major hospitals such as MGH, Firth said, have a public mission to help. Firth, together with Instructors in Anesthesia Vicki Modest and Peter Stefanovich, both at MGH, traveled to Mbarara last November for a week. They trained the three anesthesiologists on staff there, as well as 14 anesthesia residents in the nerve-block technique.The technique is designed to take the greatest advantage of limited resources, Firth said. Here in the United States, post-surgical patients are typically provided with a morphine infusion pump: They push a button and get a dose of painkiller.  While the pumps allow patients to control their own pain medication, Ugandan hospitals don’t have the nursing staff that would be needed to maintain intravenous lines, change bags of saline solution, and monitor the machines.Instead, the visitors taught the anesthesiologists how to do ultrasound-guided nerve blocks. In this technique, physicians use an ultrasound machine to identify the major nerves affected by the operation and then inject a local anesthesia next to the nerves. This procedure provides about 12 hours of pain relief, Firth said. When patients are sent to crowded wards, a single shot in the operating room, which can provide hours of relief, is a very attractive option. The ultrasound machines were bought by the Ugandan government.The technique has been put to good use, Ttendo said, with a large number of blocks successfully administered since the MGH physicians left. The technique is mainly being handled by the residents, Ttendo said, freeing him up to handle anesthesia for the actual surgeries.Ttendo said there is broad interest in improving Uganda’s medical services. Today, half of all doctors trained there go elsewhere to practice, to countries like South Africa where the pay is better. So a major priority is to retain more homegrown medical talent. At Mbarara, he said, officials have also embarked on a 10-year program that will increase the hospital’s 250 beds to 1,500, which of course also will require more staff.Ttendo said the model utilized in the anesthesia program, where MGH provides the training and the hospital provides the equipment and students, could work for other procedures. One could prevent pregnant women with severe pre-eclampsia from dying from renal failure. Ttendo said the hospital is building a new intensive care unit and would like to equip it with a dialysis machine that can get women through the critical days before the kidneys resume functioning. If authorities can get the machine, he said, a similar partnership would be helpful.last_img read more

Super gel

first_imgA team of experts in mechanics, materials science, and tissue engineering at Harvard has created an extremely stretchy and tough gel that has potential as a replacement for damaged cartilage in human joints.The new material, a hydrogel, is a strong hybrid of two weak gels. Not only can it stretch to 21 times its original length, but it is also tough, self-healing, and biocompatible — attributes that open up new opportunities in medicine and tissue engineering.The material, its properties, and a simple method of synthesis are described in the Sept. 6 issue of Nature.“Conventional hydrogels are very weak and brittle — imagine a spoon breaking through jelly,” said lead author Jeong-Yun Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “But because [these gels] are water-based and biocompatible, people would like to use them for some very challenging applications like artificial cartilage or spinal disks. For a gel to work in those settings, it has to be able to stretch and expand under compression and tension without breaking.”The researchers used a razor blade to cut a 2-cm notch across the gel. In the image above (left), the gel has been stretched very slightly so that the notch is visible. This damaged gel was still able to stretch to 17 times its initial length without breaking. Photo courtesy of Jeong-Yun SunSun and his co-authors were led by Professors Zhigang Suo, Joost J. Vlassak, and David J. Mooney.To create the new hydrogel, the researchers combined two common polymers. The primary component is polyacrylamide, known for its use in soft contact lenses and as the electrophoresis gel that separates DNA fragments in biology labs; the second component is alginate, a seaweed extract that is commonly used to thicken food.Separately, these gels are both quite weak — alginate, for instance, can stretch to only 1.2 times its length before it breaks. Combined in an 8-to-1 ratio, however, the two polymers form a complex network of cross-linked chains that reinforce one another. The chemical structure of this network allows the molecules to pull apart very slightly over a large area instead of permitting the gel to crack.The alginate portion of the gel consists of polymer chains that form weak ionic bonds with one another, capturing calcium ions (added to the water) in the process. When the gel is stretched, some of the bonds between chains break — or “unzip,” as the researchers put it — releasing the calcium. As a result, the gel expands slightly, but the polymer chains themselves remain intact. Meanwhile, the polyacrylamide chains form a gridlike structure that bonds tightly with the alginate chains.If the gel acquires a tiny crack as it stretches, the polyacrylamide grid helps to spread the pulling force over a large area, tugging on the alginate’s ionic bonds and unzipping them here and there. The research team showed that even with a huge crack, the hybrid gel can still stretch to 17 times its initial length.The researchers pinned both ends of the new gel in clamps and stretched it to 21 times its initial length before it broke. Photo courtesy of Jeong-Yun SunImportantly, the new hydrogel is capable of maintaining its elasticity and toughness over multiple stretches. Provided the gel has time to relax between stretches, the ionic bonds between the alginate and the calcium can “re-zip.” The researchers have shown that raising the ambient temperature can accelerate this process.The researchers’ combined expertise in mechanics, materials science, and bioengineering enabled them to apply two concepts from mechanics — crack bridging and energy dissipation — to a new problem.“The unusually high stretchability and toughness of this gel, along with recovery, are exciting,” said Suo. “Now that we’ve demonstrated that this is possible, we can use it as a model system for studying the mechanics of hydrogels further, and explore various applications.”Beyond artificial cartilage, the researchers see potential for the new hydrogel in soft robotics, in optics, in artificial muscle, and as a protective covering for wounds.last_img read more

With radiation, worries about food

first_imgThis is another part in a series about Harvard’s deep ties to Asia.TOKYO — Perched on the Tokyo waterfront is one of the world’s largest fish markets, featuring a daily frenzy of buying and selling that starts well before dawn and wraps up by midmorning, with the early start guaranteeing that seafood gets to consumers while it’s still fresh.The market is an urban wonder, drawing buyers and tourists alike to see its dazzling array of sea life, from crabs to clams to tuna to eel and more. Nearby is a similar fruit and vegetable market, where visitors wind through alleys of stacked boxes packed with lettuce, asparagus, oranges, lemons, and other produce, destined for the table and ready to be loaded into waiting vans and trucks as soon as they’re sold.The mammoth market generates a frenetic energy, driven by the need for speed to deliver the perishables at their freshest. But the problem of feeding one of the world’s largest cities is not just one of commerce and logistics. In the wake of the nuclear disasters at Fukushima two years ago today, many Japanese are worried about radiation in the food they serve to their families.Nicolas Sternsdorff Cisterna, a doctoral student in social anthropology at Harvard, has been living in Japan since 2011, trying to better understand people’s perceptions of food safety.Following a titanic earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11, 2011, cooling systems for the Fukushima nuclear plant were knocked offline and the reactor melted, spreading a plume of radiation across the countryside that reached as far as Tokyo, more than 100 miles south.In Cambridge, Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, together with several other Japanese-oriented programs and student groups, played a key role in coordinating the University’s response to the disaster. The institute provided resources for students and other affiliates with family members in harm’s way and acted as a coordinating center for local response, which included benefit concerts, a program of seminars and discussions about the disasters and Japanese society’s response, and supporting students planning reconstruction in the fishing port of Minami Sanriku-cho.The institute is also supporting several major research initiatives, including creation of the Japan Disasters of 2011 Digital Archives, under the direction of Andrew Gordon, Folger Fund Professor of History. The archives benefited from close collaboration with Japanese libraries and research institutes to create an easily accessible collection of digital media documenting the events of March 11 and beyond.When the quake and tsunami struck, Sternsdorff Cisterna was on Harvard’s Cambridge campus. He had just handed in the prospectus for his doctoral work on food safety in Japan. At the time, it didn’t include anything about radiation.Sternsdorff Cisterna and his doctoral adviser, Theodore Bestor, the Reischauer Institute Professor of Social Anthropology and director of the Reischauer Institute, immediately realized that the accident made food safety an enormous issue, and shifted his research plan to focus on radiation before he went to Japan several months later.“I had to start a little bit from scratch,” Sternsdorff Cisterna said. “It took a while for me to find contacts in Fukushima.”Bestor, himself an expert on Japanese food and culture and the author of “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World,” said Sternsdorff Cisterna’s research is important not just in Japan, but worldwide, because it addresses such complex problems.“He had a project all ready to go on food and perceptions of the environment in Japan, and then on March 11, the environment abruptly changed for the northern half of Japan, including the Tokyo area,” Bestor said. “His research on food and trust is incredibly important, not only for understanding Japan, but for informing ongoing debates about food safety and nuclear issues around the world.”As a social anthropologist, Sternsdorff Cisterna isn’t directly studying whether scientists believe that the food is safe to eat. (That task is being handled by scientists and public health officials.)Rather, he’s interested in a different aspect of food safety, just as crucial in determining what people put in their mouths and those of their loved ones: trust.The food not only has to be safe to eat, Sternsdorff Cisterna said, people have to believe it’s safe. That problem has been highlighted in a dramatic way for the farmers Sternsdorff Cisterna has met near Fukushima. They say that consumers avoid their produce, even after testing that shows the crops are safe. Farmers from nearby areas, whose produce came under the radiation plume but doesn’t bear the Fukushima name, don’t bear the same stigma.Lost 80 percent of his businessOne Fukushima farmer told Sternsdorff Cisterna that even though his produce has been shown to have no detectable levels of radiation, he still has lost 80 percent of his business. Many farms have shut down, some because they’re within the 12-mile exclusion zone the government placed around the plant, and some because of economic pressures.“I know some farmers have just given up and gotten out of the business,” Sternsdorff Cisterna said.Sternsdorff Cisterna has talked to farmers, politicians, Ministry of Health officials, members of a food co-operative, the public, and nonprofit groups such as The Society to Protect Children from Radiation. He has attended 60 to 70 “study sessions,” events common in Japan that are held to educate the public about specific topics. Because he started covering radiation issues late, Sternsdorff Cisterna said he was not only paying close attention to what people said in order to gauge their knowledge and attitudes, he was learning about radiation, too.“I was learning with them and paying attention to the kinds of questions people asked,” he said.Along the way, he began to understand the plight of the public. Every day, people had to decide what to eat based on information gleaned from authoritative sources that did not agree, with some saying there wasn’t a very large danger to the public from radiation and others saying that even a little radiation was harmful. The government, meanwhile, lowered the acceptable level of radiation in food, while at least one large grocery chain began testing food for radiation levels, Sternsdorff Cisterna said.“Safety is not a scientific question alone. There’s trust, confidence. There’s a very subjective and emotional aspect to safety,” he said. “How do people take in scientific knowledge and decide what to eat?”To be sure, many people do not appear too concerned about the issue, Sternsdorff Cisterna said, but he’s focusing his efforts on those who do.In downtown Tokyo, not far from the clamor of the Tsukiji Market, is an upscale home goods store called Catalog House, which after the nuclear disaster began selling produce for the first time, trucking it in from Fukushima to help the farmers there. The store installed a radiation detector with which consumers can test their food for radioactive iodine and two radioactive cesium isotopes to be sure that it’s safe to eat. The store even imposed stricter standards than the government did to ensure the produce was safe to eat.Assistant manager Toru Sato said in an interview that the detector isn’t just used by customers. Some store employees who grow their own vegetables bring them in for testing. He too is worried about his home, because it is in a radiation hotspot created by one of the plumes from the plant. Some of his neighbors have relocated, with one moving to the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.“It’s still scary,” Sato said.Sternsdorff Cisterna said he has zeroed in on the Japanese words anzen, which means scientifically safe, and anshin, which means peace of mind. The words are linked often in communications concerning food safety. To Sternsdorff Cisterna, what’s interesting is the choices that consumers make in searching for safety and confidence in their food supply.“How do their shopping habits change? Are they buying different kinds of food? Are they cooking it in different ways? Are they avoiding certain products or not?” he asked. “How is it made to be safe again? You need to feel somewhat reassured in what you’re eating.”last_img read more

“Science and Cooking” comes to edX (and your own kitchen)

first_img Read Full Story Through edX/HarvardX, the famed Harvard College General Education course, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science,” is coming to a kitchen near you.Led by David Wetiz and Michael Brenner at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the class will explore how everyday cooking and haute cuisine can illuminate basic principles in physics and engineering, and vice versa.During each week of the course, students will watch as chefs reveal the secrets behind some of their most famous culinary creations — often right in their own restaurants. Inspired by such cooking mastery, the Harvard team will then explain, in simple and sophisticated ways, the science behind the recipe.Topics will include: soft matter materials, such as emulsions, illustrated by aioli; elasticity, exemplified by the done-ness of a steak; and diffusion, revealed by the phenomenon of spherification, the culinary technique pioneered by Ferran Adrià.To help make the link between cooking and science, an “equation of the week” will capture the core scientific concept being explored and participants will also have the opportunity to be experimental scientists in their very own laboratories — their kitchens. By following along with the engaging recipe of the week, taking measurements, and making observations, the aim is to convey how to think both like a cook and a scientist.Registration for the course is open now. The start date is October 2013.last_img read more

Destination space

first_imgWhen Jessica Meir was in first grade, her teacher asked the students to draw pictures of what they wanted to be when they grew up.Meir drew an astronaut.Three decades later, Meir has stepped into that picture. In June, she was selected from more than 6,100 applicants to be one of eight in NASA’s latest astronaut class, the first selected in four years. This summer, she took a leave from her post as assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to head to Houston for two years of astronaut training.Those who know Meir say the leap into space is not much of a stretch.She’s a scientist who spent 10 years investigating how animals survive in extreme environments, going to extremes herself to find out. She’s an accomplished scuba diver, a pilot, a backcountry skier, and a researcher dedicated enough to spend months with newly hatched goslings to make them willing partners in an investigation of oxygen consumption during flight.“Does she have the right stuff? Of course she does,” said Warren Zapol, the Reginald Jenney Professor of Anaesthesia at HMS and MGH, who recruited her to the hospital.“Does she have the right stuff? Of course she does,” said Warren Zapol, the Reginald Jenney Professor of Anaesthesia at HMS and MGH, who recruited Meir to the hospital. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff PhotographerHer selection makes Meir just the newest member of the Harvard community to tread the path toward space. Stephanie Wilson, an engineer who graduated from Harvard College in 1988, flew three trips to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle, in 2006, 2007, and 2010, and served as the chief marshal of last spring’s Commencement ceremonies. Other members of the Harvard community have walked on the moon, flown space shuttle missions, and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope (which was launched with a mirror aberration that, uncorrected, would have short-circuited what has since become one of NASA’s most successful orbiting telescopes).Those who know Meir think “of course” when hearing about the NASA selection, but the news was something of a shock to her. It was the jolting, life-altering return of a long-held dream of which she had reluctantly begun to let go.Meir had worked for many years on the goal, from space camp as a high school student to space-focused experiments while an undergraduate at Brown University. There was a master’s degree in space science from the International Space University in France, and three years of working at NASA itself, providing scientific support for astronauts performing experiments in space.But with the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet and NASA’s reduction of its astronaut classes, Meir began to realize that there were so few slots available that even many more years of dedication, focus, and hard work could still leave her earthbound.It was at about this time that Meir was asked to join a NASA program aboard Aquarius, a permanent undersea outpost operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). To NASA managers, Aquarius offered the opportunity to simulate some important aspects of space flight: a small team, close confinement, isolation, and the need for life-support equipment in order to venture outside.The undersea experience got Meir, who had become a certified scuba diver in college, thinking of career paths that might not lead to space. The journey on which she subsequently embarked led her away from NASA in 2003 and back again, through MGH, a wind tunnel at the University of British Columbia, and the frozen, glaring landscape of a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research camp far out on the Antarctic sea ice.The girl from CaribouMeir grew up in Caribou, Maine, a community then numbering roughly 10,000 in a rural corner of the state whose claim to fame, according to the city website, is that it is “the Most Northeastern City in the United States.”Meir’s father was a general surgeon in town, and her mother was a former nurse with plenty to do raising the family’s five children. Meir, the youngest, recalls an active childhood that had her on cross-country skis by the time she was 2.“I think maybe it was because of where I grew up, but I feel really content and relaxed when I’m in the woods,” Meir said.Meir recalls being enamored with space from an early age, though she disputes her brother Jonathan’s joking claims that he was the one who gave her the idea.“He said, ‘It was my space-themed Lego set,’” Meir said, “but I don’t think that that’s true.”After high school, Meir went to Brown, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1999. By then she had already begun space-related scientific investigations, and was part of a team that won a student competition to fly on NASA’s “vomit comet,” a plane that simulates weightlessness through a series of climbs and dives that, at their peak, suspend passengers in the air. She and her teammates devised an experiment — using pigs’ feet as an analog for human flesh — to test surgical glue against sutures for closing wounds in space.After graduating, Meir spent a year at the International Space University, studying policy, law, orbital mechanics, biomedical physics, and other space-related topics.After earning a master’s degree in 2000, Meir got a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She worked in the human research facility, acting as a liaison between scientists on Earth and the astronauts who would conduct experiments on the shuttle or the International Space Station. During flights, she and colleagues sat in the control room and worked with astronauts to ensure that experiments were conducted properly. She also took advantage of her time in Houston — and the steady paycheck — to earn her pilot’s license.Wrangling at the penguin ranchIn 2003, Meir applied to a doctoral program at Scripps at the University of California, San Diego. She was interested in the research of Paul Ponganis and Gerald Kooyman, who had pioneered techniques to study the physiology of animals that had adapted to a most extreme environment: Antarctica’s emperor penguins.Meir’s project examined physiological adaptations to extreme oxygen deprivation, focusing on both the penguins and elephant seals. The work involved sedating napping elephant seals on California’s beaches so they could be equipped with monitoring instruments, and several long trips to Antarctica to study penguins.The Antarctic research site, dubbed the “penguin ranch,” was miles out on the ice, in an area with no cracks or holes. Researchers set up camp, fenced in an area, and then drilled a hole through the 9-foot-thick ice. The hole would give penguins access to the water and the fish they feed on but would force them to return to the ranch to climb onto the ice. That setup, Ponganis said, would allow researchers to outfit the birds with instruments to monitor their physiology while diving and retrieve the data on the birds’ return.Of course, once the ranch was set up, the researchers still needed penguins.Researchers took helicopters to visit groups of non-breeding penguins on the ice’s edge. The birds’ curiosity worked in the humans’ favor, as the penguins would sometimes approach on their own. When the researchers edged closer, though, the birds turned to walk or toboggan away. That’s when researchers wrapped them in a bear hug from behind, out of reach of their sharp beaks, though not entirely safe from the bruising slaps their wings can deliver.“She never balked,” Ponganis said of Meir’s penguin-catching skills. “She always wanted to do it, whether scuba diving down there or catching birds. Whatever we were doing, she was … very interested in it, and wanted hands-on experience doing it.”Back at the ranch, the penguins were equipped with small backpack monitors to correlate variables like heart rate and blood oxygen levels with time and depth of dive.“How can they dive so deep and for so long?” Meir summed up the research question. “They’re air-breathing, breath-hold divers just like us, but an emperor penguin can dive for almost 30 minutes. An elephant seal can dive for two hours on a single breath.”Researchers have known for some time that diving animals have enhanced oxygen storage in their blood, through both higher blood volume and higher concentration of the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin. They also store more oxygen in their muscles, through high levels of a molecule called myoglobin.Meir’s work showed that the animals’ bodies also use what oxygen they have very efficiently and that the animals can tolerate far lower blood oxygen levels than humans can.“We’d be unconscious, and they’re still down there catching fish. They’re totally fine, and they do it all the time,” Meir said.Meir said she enjoyed working in an environment that tested her physically as well as mentally. A day spent digging out from a storm was repaid times over with the view of a 13,000-foot volcano smoking in the distance, dives under the ice, and time spent in the ranch’s observation tube thrust through the ice, she said.“You could stay down there for hours. The penguins are putting on an underwater ballet,” Meir said. “It’s crazy how graceful and agile they are.”Meir received her Ph.D. in 2009 and signed up for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, where zoology professor William Milsom was also researching physiological adaptations to low-oxygen environments.Meir focused her postdoctoral work on the world’s highest-flying birds: bar-headed geese. During their twice-a-year migrations, the geese use the costliest form of animal locomotion — flight — to cross the planet’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, where oxygen levels are between a third and half that at sea level.While bar-headed geese had been studied before, they hadn’t been examined while flying in-low oxygen conditions, an omission Meir wanted to remedy by using UBC’s wind tunnel.Imprinting on a flock of geeseSince wild geese wouldn’t cooperate with such an experiment, Meir decided the best course was to imprint a clutch of goslings on herself to create study subjects that would be easier to train.She contacted a breeder in North Carolina and went though the slow process of becoming mother goose. Meir made sure she was the first thing the goslings saw when they hatched and spent hours each day with them as they grew. When she moved, the goslings moved, following her obediently and piling onto her lap when she sat down.“They grow up so fast,” Meir said. “That’s what all mothers say, but in this case it’s true.”When the geese had grown enough for the experiments to begin, she brought them to Vancouver, only to find the wind tunnel broken. So she began their training outside, riding on a bicycle as they flew along behind. They soon outraced her and she had to borrow a scooter to stay ahead.“They’d fly so close that the wingtip is brushing your shoulder, and you’re looking in the eye of a flying bird,” Meir said. “That was really amazing.”As with the penguins, Meir trained them to fly with small backpacks containing instruments to measure physiological variables. She also trained them to fly with facemasks that allowed her to monitor the air breathed in and out and to alter its composition, adding extra nitrogen to simulate the thin air at high altitudes.Though Zapol was thousands of miles away at MGH, Meir’s work caught his attention. Zapol, the hospital’s former anesthetist-in-chief, had long been interested in how animals adapt to low oxygen environments because of potential applications to anesthetized patients. One possible future use, he said, would be to minimize intubation, a risky, invasive procedure used to keep airways open. The need to intubate might be lessened if insights gleaned from diving animals, for example, allowed patients to hold their breath for extended periods.Zapol has conducted research on deep-diving Weddell seals, which live in the Antarctic and can stay under for as long as 90 minutes. He is collaborating with scientists at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT to decode the Weddell seal genome, a development that will help in understanding the animal’s physiological adaptations. He recruited Meir to MGH in the fall of 2012 for a new study on the animals.“When I heard about Jessica, I was thrilled to see someone else interested in deep diving,” Zapol said. “Now would be the time to focus on the adaptations the seals have.”Zapol described Meir as “attractive” in a way that makes people interested in what she’s thinking and that naturally draws people to her. “NASA has made a very good choice,” he said. “She’s going to be a great ambassador for science.”Meir worked on the seal project with Emmanuel Buys, assistant professor of anesthesia at HMS, who was struck not only by Meir’s research skills, but also by her infectious enthusiasm and ability to communicate complex topics.“We recently pitched one of our projects to a potential collaborator who seemed rather unenthusiastic when we walked in,” Buys said. “Jessica’s enthusiasm and knowledge quickly turned the tide, resulting in what is currently developing into a very interesting collaboration.”Meir talked about her acceptance as an astronaut candidate almost nonstop in the weeks after it was announced, and gave numerous interviews to the media. Still, the reality of it was slow to sink in.“It’s just so surreal that this could come true, that this childhood dream could actually happen,” Meir said. “It sounds trite, but hopefully it will inspire people that your dreams actually can come true.”Meir moved to Houston in August and is now amid astronaut training, which includes, among many other things, Russian language lessons, a land survival course, and additional training at the U.S. Navy flight school in Florida.“The vision I’ve always had, the thing I’ve always wanted, was that feeling of looking back at the Earth, with the entirety of everything you ever knew below you,” Meir said. “I can’t imagine how that would feel.”last_img read more

Chronicler of poverty

first_imgWhat can a writer teach a designer of the built environment? Perhaps a lot, such as a few basic principles of fieldwork: Learn from both the sky view of data and the ground view of reality. Don’t talk just to the powerful. And stay awhile.Katherine Boo came bearing these and other insights for a week as a senior Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Boo is a long-form journalist who specializes in poverty and what she calls that socio-economic state’s “tropes of hope and innovation.”She also arrived bearing recognition and status, with the chops to offer a lesson or two. Boo, after all, has already hit the trifecta for nonfiction writers: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a coveted gig as a staff writer at The New Yorker. She also won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the “genius” award.To understand Boo’s reporting methods (immersion is best) and her worldview (hope abides), start with “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” her brutally factual and vividly novelistic study of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum. That effort won a National Book Award in 2012.Annawadi, which was settled in 1991 on land owned by the nearby international airport, is within sight of five luxury hotels. At one edge is a trash-rimmed lake of sewage. Of its 3,000 residents, only six have permanent jobs. Annawadi models the extremes of capitalism: the flexible, innovative poor struggle against the barriers of education and caste with such energy that there is little of it left over for collective action or the pursuit of justice.The capstone event during Boo’s visit was a lecture in jam-packed Piper Auditorium on Feb. 20. Its fancy title was “Exploitation, Innovation, and Documentation in 21st-Century Slums,” but its lessons — from a writer to designers — pivoted on a single word, one of Boo’s favorites: “granular.” That is, when you research places, get down to the smallest details.With Boo on last week’s GSD visit was another 2014 senior Loeb Fellow: her husband, Sunil Khilnani, an author and a professor of international politics at King’s College, London. He introduced her to Mumbai, where he was convinced her immersive techniques would work.James Stockard, GSD’s curator of the Loeb Fellowship and a former fellow himself (1978), introduced Boo. He got the point of her presence at GSD right away. “The best journalists challenge us to create our own best work,” he said. And reading journalism as pointed as hers “is how we stimulate our best creative gifts.”Stockard read a passage from the Mumbai book. With Dickensian power, Boo described an open lot as “a kind of beachfront for a vast pool of sewage that marked the slum’s eastern border. [It was] bedlam most nights: people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut two doors down. …”For her audience, Boo set out to explain how she approached the Annawadi project — reporting for months at a time, over four years starting in 2007 — and what she learned from it. Her field guide of advice, buttressed by 15 years of reporting on poverty in the United States, seemed applicable to designers, to other scholars, and to ordinary visitors. “Empathy is a muscle,” Boo observed, and training to see things as they are is one way to exercise it.Boo included imperatives of attention: stay independent, outside the ken of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), for instance. Listen more than talk. Document everything, using notebooks, audio, and video. Read official documents. (Gathering accepted facts adds “conviction to the writing,” she said, “and keeps me out of libel jail.”)Be frank about why you are suddenly in a place you are not from. (“I don’t play poor,” said Boo, who engages people head-on. “I just try my best to do justice to their reality.”) Meet a variety of people, not just the informal leaders. And stick around for a while. Sheer duration is a strategy that trumps “a five-day studio visit,” she said. “I enter a community knowing I’m going to be there a very long time.”Lastly, know the big data, what Boo called “the God shot” of reality that official statistics represent. But be ready for reality on the ground, too. Her reporting in Annawadi reinforced an idea she had acquired as a young reporter: Small stories can have big power. They can move donors, inform NGOs, and clue in lawmakers. “Better policies might get made,” said Boo, “if we understand individual lives.”In her book, Boo told the small story of Asha, who had a gift for solving problems, but over time used it to exercise political corruption. Asha became Annawadi’s informal ward boss, landlord, and banker.Boo also told the small story of Abdul, a teenager from the slum’s Muslim minority who at age 6 set out to exercise his own gift: mining value from trash. Before long, “what people threw away,” said Boo, created a slum-scale recycling empire that was enough for Abdul “to lift a family of 11 well beyond subsistence.”Abdul’s story was also a point of entry into what Boo called “serial survival entrepreneurship,” the ever-fluid technique of extracting value from circumstances. With admiration, she recalled the ad hoc team of thieves who devised a tool for removing wheel boots from airport taxis when they could no longer disassemble new construction “screw by screw.” Either way, the metal was worth cash. It was a story, said Boo, that explained “the nature of work” at the fringes of the global economy: flexible, clever, independent, and often extra-legal.This same kind of enterprising but solitary work has a dark side, she said. Factory work, which is disappearing fast, offered opportunities for collective effort and provided workers with an informal sense of commonweal. The person you worked next to could lend you a bit of money, or help you care for a child. If you are on your own, earning informal wages, you fear taking time for others. “The conditions of collective action are sabotaged,” she said.Individual initiative — the soul of capitalism — has another dark side. “People up the ladder innovate too, sometimes to improve exploitation,” she said, setting off a dynamic of power that crushes those with the least. “Hope is a double-edged thing.”But there is always hope in the act of investigation. Over time, Boo saw that the people she was writing about became her “active co-investigators” in documenting how conditions really were. When homeless teenagers took over her video camera, she said, they used it for fun for a while, but then they used it to record their lives. (Boo’s lecture was illustrated by a looping slideshow of images taken by slum children.)The same teenagers even joined in an investigation into the murder of a friend. In the end, said Boo, “they saw this random journalist standing in front of them as the only hope they had.”last_img read more

Museum as study subject

first_imgA century ago this July, construction began on a new building for Harvard’s Germanic Museum. It was to be housed in Adolphus Busch Hall, named after the main donor, a St. Louis beer baron.In one way, the museum’s venue on Kirkland Street arrived at a good time. Since 1903, its collection of monumental plaster casts — then America’s most impressive representations of medieval sculpture from northern and central Europe — had languished in cramped Rogers Hall, a former gymnasium.In another way, it came at a very bad time. Less than a month after construction started, so did World War I, sending a tsunami of anti-German sentiment across America. Busch Hall was finished in 1917, and the casts were moved in. But the Germanic Museum’s new venue did not officially open until 1921, purportedly delayed by a lack of coal. (“The odium that attaches to it will, of course, wear off in time,” the Crimson wrote of the new museum.) For the next decade, it remained a sleepy destination compared with the ascendant Fogg Museum, which in 1927 moved to grand new space on Quincy Street.The Germanic — closed again during World War II and renamed the Busch-Reisinger in 1950 — was the subject of a recent daylong discussion of the museum’s identity by way of its history. This “study day,” the third in three years, was intended to mine the past now that the future is so close. By the end of this year, all three of Harvard’s art museums (the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler) will share space at 32 Quincy St., dramatically renovated under the direction of the celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano.“We are at a tremendous moment” as the museums get ready to occupy a common space for the first time, said study-day speaker Joseph Koerner, the author of several books on German art and the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture. He foresaw the sky-lit museum, more accessible than ever, as “a thoroughfare, a piazza, an agora. … It will be possible to see the history of art as not a series of enclaves but as a river.”“This study day comes at an appropriate moment,” said Thomas W. Lentz, A.M. ’81, Ph.D. ’85, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. He introduced the official program, which will include seven lectures followed by discussions, on Feb. 28.“We actively embrace our three separate identities,” Lentz said. “Like a kind of multi-armed Hindu goddess, these three museums … actually give us special abilities and capacities.”The refurbished museums will invite creative dialogue and provide greater access to Harvard collections, he said, as well as encourage continual examination of important issues, including the “evolving nature of the museum identity, the renegotiation with the past, [and] the fundamental nature of the art museum, whether it’s civic, academic, or private.”Discussions also will center on “possible futures for the Busch-Reisinger,” said Lentz, “an institution with an unusually complex history.”That complexity was evident to the study-day audience in Busch Hall. All around was monumental statuary. Behind each speaker loomed the hall’s dramatic replica of the 13th-century Golden Portal from the Church of Our Lady in Freiberg, Germany. The reproduction of the gorgeous medieval art carried a hint of the fateful grandiosity that underlay some 20th-century misinterpretations of the Germanic spirit. Jeffrey F. Hamburger, a study-day lecturer, called such invocations of the medieval past “ideological fantasies.”Hamburger is Harvard’s Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture. His title honors the man credited with conceiving, founding, and directing the Germanic Museum in its earliest years, as a means of introducing America to German culture. After all, said the famed philosopher William James at the 1903 dedication, Harvard, “like most American universities, is Teutomaniac,” owing its ideals of scholarship to German rather than “French or English models.”As for any “ideological fantasies” such as those promoted by Nazi Germany, to the close observer the hall itself offers a sly counterpoint. In the foyer are frescos painted by Lewis W. Rubenstein between 1935 and 1937. They depict scenes from old legends, including the “Song of the Nibelungs” from medieval Germania. The intent was to parody Nazi Germany, as the artist admitted decades later (and as was seen, but ignored, by Harvard in the 1930s). In one panel, a horn-helmeted dwarf, a stand-in for Hitler, lashes a whip at cowering slaves.The Rubenstein murals were among the first modern artworks acquired by the Germanic Museum, a swing away from a focus on the medieval, said study-day organizer Lynette Roth, the Daimler-Benz Associate Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum. Today, she added, the virtual public face of the museum is Max Beckmann’s “Self Portrait in Tuxedo” (1927), which in 1937 was removed from Germany’s Berlin National Gallery by the Nazis as “degenerate art” and sold abroad. (It was purchased by Harvard in 1941, the Germanic’s last acquisition before the World War II.)Behind much of this pivot toward modern art was then-Germanic Museum curator Charles L. Kuhn, according to his daughter, Sally J. Kuhn, Radcliffe ’59. (The elder Kuhn was at the helm from 1930 to 1968; during World War II was part of the “Monuments Men” unit that rescued art stolen by the Nazis; and after the war initiated the museum’s name change.) During the 1930s, he enlisted Rubenstein to do the murals and negotiated the purchase of Beckmann’s iconic self-portrait, along with other works deaccessioned by the Nazis. “Curators can make things happen,” wrote Sally Kuhn in an email, “and students should know this.”By the 1930s, the museum had become “a place of exile from Germany,” said Koerner, “a cosmopolitan Germany [instead of] a Germany of nativism, blood, and soil.”Roth said that Beckmann’s austere painting illustrates the museum’s tortuous history, as well as its struggles with identity over time. She pointed out an earlier work that represented the more imperial sense the museum once had: a 1908 portrait of a sneering, militant Kaiser Wilhelm II by Arthur Kampf, who later became a Nazi functionary. This donation from Hugo Reisinger was the first painting acquired by the Germanic. The museum still retained its teaching role, but the new portrait also explicitly invited Americans to understand German art and its imperial underpinnings.Another study-day speaker was Megan McCarthy, an art history graduate student at Columbia University who is writing a dissertation titled “The Empire on Display: Exhibitions of Germanic Art and Design in America, 1890-1914.” The Germanic is one of her case studies, she said, and its changing identity shows that art museums are “barometers of larger cultural shifts.”Museums are also “a means of cultural diplomacy,” said McCarthy. Study-day speaker Heidi Gearhart, the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow at the Busch-Reisinger and an assistant professor of art history at Assumption College, agreed, calling the pre-war Germanic an example of how  museums provide “space of discourse” on a world stage. “From its earliest days,” she said, “Busch-Reisinger was a site for international exchange.”Franke used the museum’s plaster casts as “a visual medium to supplement his classes,” according to a scholar in a 2005 study. But out of the eight German art historians who took part in academic exchanges with Harvard before World War I, said McCarthy, only one of them used the casts for teaching.Still, Busch Hall and its remnant of the old Germanic Museum has pedagogic utility, said Hamburger. He and his classes regularly visit the hall’s plaster-cast portals, sculptures, and other artifacts. (This semester he is offering “Casts, Construction, and Commemoration: German Gothic in America and Abroad.”) “Teaching this collection opens a world of possibilities,” said Hamburger. “They have the power to make the dead come alive.”The plaster casts, although reproductions, awaken students to the now largely mysterious “basic tenets of Christianity” required to understand art from the European Middle Ages, said Hamburger. The casts are also “a very valuable record of what these original sculptures looked like,” he added. (Many of the real ones have been blurred by a century of air pollution.) The casts also show the modern era’s “newfound interest in materiality,” said Hamburger, and provide a 3-D counterpoint to computer learning. “A collection of reproductions,” he said, “can help students understand what it means to escape the flatness of the screen.”Hamburger is plainly enamored of cavernous and solemn Adolphus Busch Hall and its medieval resonance. Before his lecture there, he looked over the audience and said, “It’s always wonderful to see this space populated as it deserves to be.”The venerable hall is valued for its interpretive materials, agreed Roth, and will again have public hours in the fall, once the renovated main museum is open. The Busch-Reisinger program — “completely new,” she said — will rely on both old Adolphus Busch Hall and on new 32 Quincy St. One will house those plaster casts. The other will display Harvard’s impressive collection of expressionist, Bauhaus, and contemporary art, as well as a range of work dating back to medieval times. Combined, said Roth, the result will be “enlivening and enlightening.”last_img read more