Campus & Community

Pushing (through) the envelope

6 min read
Judah Folkman, Dudley R. Herschbach, Barbara J. Grosz, Lene Hau, Andrew Murray and Edward O.
Scientists from a variety of disciplines with one thing in common – brilliant, cutting-edge work in their fields – gathered to discuss their latest research. Judah Folkman (standing) addresses his colleagues (front to back) Dudley R. Herschbach, Barbara J. Grosz, Lene Hau, Andrew Murray and Edward O. Wilson. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

At an Oct. 12 symposium honoring the inauguration of Lawrence H. Summers as Harvard’s 27th president, five of Harvard’s top scientists described their cutting-edge research and sought to envision the ways that that research might affect our future.

Moderator Dudley R. Herschbach, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, said the panel would emphasize “big questions and opportunities, major puzzles and challenges that we would encourage young scientists to pursue.”

Judah Folkman, the Julia Dyckman Andrus Professor of Pediatric Surgery, and professor of anatomy and cellular biology at the Medical School, is renowned for founding the field of angiogenesis research. His seminal work led to the development of a new class of drugs – angiogenesis inhibitors – 24 of which are now in clinical trials to treat cancers and other diseases.

The first of the drugs, one which treats macular degeneration, is likely to complete Phase III clinical trials and be approved for use some time next year, Folkman said.

The process of angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels) as Folkman explained to a rapt audience at Sever Hall, is now well understood. It has been designed by evolution as a standby system for wound healing and for female reproduction, and can turn on and off very quickly. But persistent, unabated capillary blood vessel growth – “pathologic angiogenesis” – is responsible for more than 50 different diseases, including all cancers, which must recruit a private blood supply before they even can be detected with current methods.

Recent research has established that most people over the age of 30 have dormant, pinpoint cancers throughout their bodies, but only a small percentage of these become angiogenic. None are visible and therefore cannot be treated with current methods, Folkman noted, but newer drugs may allow treatment based on blood tests, much as doctors now treat infections based on blood tests, regardless of where the infection is located or whether its source is visible.

From interactions inside the body, the symposium moved to the subject of the interaction of humans and machines. For Barbara J. Grosz, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences and Dean of Science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, “no computer is an island, entire of itself.” Her work focuses on how networks of computers and humans can work more collaboratively, not just interactively. Instead of computers that repeatedly break down and bark back at users, Grosz’s research in artificial intelligence and computer science is showing how computers can become reliable partners in human endeavors.

Computers should become “not just screens we talk at, but systems we talk with,” she said.

Grosz outlined four challenges for computer scientists in the coming decades: 1) developing systems that communicate naturally, including speech recognition and use of different languages for different purposes, such as charts and maps; 2) creating large-scale repositories of information – not just data, but information – and sophisticated retrieval systems; 3) providing support for rational decision-making; and, 4) security.

Lene V. Hau, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics and professor of physics, never met a challenge she didn’t like. She recently overcame one that most people hadn’t even considered: She stopped light in its tracks. With the pedagogic flair of a magician, she explained how.

Hau works with sodium atoms cooled to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero to create Bose-Einstein condensates (a condensate is an atom cloud just 8/1,000-inch long and 2/1,000-inch wide). Hau uses laser beams to illuminate a light pulse, then to trap and turn off a pulse in the middle of a condensate. The information from the pulse gets stored in the cloud, Hau explained, so “it’s like we’re writing a hologram into the atom cloud,” And, when the lasers are turned back on, the light pulse revives, and goes on its way with the same intensity, shape, and wavelength.

Hau’s work is resulting in new paths for optics and nonlinear optics. The atom clouds she has created provide a completely new optical medium “with very interesting and bizarre properties.” For example, by illuminating the cloud with a coupling laser beam, she has changed its optical properties from completely opaque to completely transparent.

Transparency, or at least clarity, is what genomics research is attempting to achieve. Andrew Murray, professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of the Harvard’s new Bauer Center for Genomics Research, explained that, although traditional biological research has yielded enormous advances, it is a very slow process of study and application.

Using a vivid visual example, Murray explained how the process of understanding the structure of the human genome provides a daunting challenge to scientists seeking clarity. Murray showed the audience an apparently meaningless jumble of letters on an overhead projector. It had none of the usual cues we use for understanding text: no spaces between letters, no punctuation, no capital letters. The letters turned out to be one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a fact that could be gleaned eventually by the careful reader.

Murray then showed the group a series of letters describing a gene of a sea urchin. The problem for scientists in understanding its function and meaning is similar to understanding the sonnet, with one major difference: The detective figuring out the Shakespeare text has an enormous amount of cultural knowledge to come to a conclusion. This knowledge includes a familiarity with the English language, an understanding of Elizabethan literary conventions, and thousands of other accumulated facts and skills. Scientists interpreting genetic material have a similar task but far less “background data.”

Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor and renowned entomologist and author, spoke just three days before he was to help launch a project that may help define environmental science in the first part of the 21st century. Paralleling the human genome project, Wilson is helping to lead the Biodiversity Project, with the goal of developing a complete map of the planet’s biodiversity.

“What genomics is to individual health, biodiversity is to planetary health,” Wilson said. But that biodiversity is now severely threatened because the rate of species extinction is far exceeding the rate at which new species are being born. And yet, “we don’t even know to the nearest order of magnitude how many species of plants, animals, and microorganisms there are on this planet” beyond the 1.5 million to 1.8 million that have been identified, Wilson said.

The Biodiversity Project is beginning as biology enters an age of synthesis, Wilson said. “Increasingly in biology, we know what the parts are. Now, we are starting to figure out how to put them back together again” and moving toward a unified biology.