Five prominent Harvard scientists illuminated the cutting edge of Harvard science, predicting new treatments for old diseases, describing new ways to think about the universe, and hailing advances in our understanding of humanity and the human body.
The symposium featured faculty studying everything from theoretical physics to the human genome, also touching on stem cell research, tissue engineering, and the battle against malaria.
Called “Innovation and Impact: Science and Engineering Today and Tomorrow,” the event featured Associate Professor of Genetics and Associate Professor of Medicine David Altshuler; Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas Melton; Physics Professor Lisa Randall; Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Disease Dyann Wirth; and Gordon McKay Professor of Bioengineering David Mooney. Vicki L. Sato, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology and professor of management practice, was the moderator.
The speakers described their research and took questions from moderator Sato and the audience. Melton, who heads the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said his work is an effort to understand how the body’s cells become the cells they do, or “how did your cells know how to make a brain at one end and toes at the other?”
Melton predicted that the first fruits of stem cell research will come from stem cells’ ability to create models of diseases from which new drugs can be discovered.
Wirth said the stage is set for new drugs to treat malaria, which infects 300 million to 500 million people annually, killing 1 million children a year.
“In many African countries,” Wirth said, “this is the largest cause of death for children.”
Knowledge about the parasite and its effect on its human hosts has multiplied immensely since 1950, when the last malaria drug was discovered, Wirth said.
When it comes to tissue engineering, the future, according to Mooney, is now. As scientists understand better how living systems work, they’re better able to mimic that activity mechanically. Skin produced through tissue engineering is already being used on patients, as are engineered proteins that spur bone growth that wouldn’t otherwise occur, he said.
Harvard scientists are looking deeper than tissues and cells to understand humanity and its diseases. Altshuler described work today that looks at multiple individuals’ genomes, comparing them side-by-side to sort out how the differences in DNA translate to differences in traits and disease susceptibility.
The discussions went beyond the human. Theoretical physicist Randall said physicists are trying to figure out why gravity is so much weaker than the universe’s other three fundamental forces. Electromagnetism, for example, is much stronger, evidenced by a magnet’s ability to pick up a paper clip despite the force of gravity pulling it down. The other two forces, which operate inside the atom, are also stronger than gravity.
“[Gravity’s weakness] may be OK to you, but to particle physicists, it’s very disturbing,” Randall said.
One possible explanation, Randall said, is that the universe contains more than three dimensions, and gravity’s force is diluted across the other dimensions.
Changes in science are happening in the classroom as well. New life sciences and physical sciences curricula are being implemented to engage students.
Former Vice President Al Gore’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming illustrates the importance of engaging students, Melton said. Gore first became aware of global warming while a Harvard undergraduate.
“I think it’s just delightful that stuck with him,” Melton said. “We don’t have students who just want to be doctors or who just want to be particle physicists, they want to be world leaders.”