The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) intellectual prowess was on display following
its capital-campaign launch in Sanders Theatre on Saturday morning, October 26. After campaign addresses by
President Drew Faust and FAS dean Michael D. Smith, six faculty symposia—plus
panels on House renewal (the subject of the current Harvard Magazine feature “Learning, and Life, in the Houses”) and
financial aid—highlighted promising areas of research and teaching innovation,
programs that the campaign is intended to advance. The eight sessions were:

Big Data: Surprising Solutions to Big Questions

The Creative Spark: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Society

Reaching Beyond the Laboratory: The Broad Impact of Basic

Animals to Humans: Understanding Influences on Our Behavior

Discovering Solutions: Fundamental to Applied Science

Leading in Learning: Teaching the Twenty-First-Century Student

Community and Values: Residential Education in an Online World

Excellence and Opportunity: Financial Aid at Harvard

Summaries of the six academic panels, with background on the
faculty participants, follow.

Data: Surprising Solutions to Big Questions 

considered how the
ability to compile vast quantities of information, through improved technology
and new tools for data collection, may help answer questions about everything
from health and medicine to the formation of the galaxy.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Gary King

Gary King, Weatherhead University Professor, develops and applies empirical methods for use in
social-science research. The director of the Institute for Quantitative Social
Science, his work on using data to predict when nations will fail was described
in a 2001 Harvard
Magazine article. Coverage of his recent study of Chinese censorship of social media appeared on the magazine’s

Panelist Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government, is an expert on public opinion
and elections who is principal investigator of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a collaborative effort among
more than 60 universities and colleges in the United States. Professor of astronomy Alyssa Goodman, founding director of the Initiative
in Innovative Computing—described in “Science’s ‘Third Branch’,” a 2007 Harvard Magazine article—studies the formation of stars from interstellar gas, described in this 2009 article,
which includes an online, interactive 3-D visualization. In a Harvard Portrait, Goodman said, “I
wanted to be Jacques Cousteau,” but she obviously shifted her gaze upward. Van Vleck professor of pure and applied
physics Efthimios (Tim) Kaxiras, who studies materials
science and its applications, is founding director of Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational
Science (IACS),
 dedicated to teaching computational
methods for solving research problems.

Paul A. Maeder, M.B.A. ’84, a co-founder of
Highland Capital Partners, a Cambridge-based venture-capital group, and co-chair of the campaign
for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, introduced the session,
noting that 90 percent of the data that has been captured in the history of
humanity is from the last two years—a zetabyte of information, which would fill
enough 16 gigabyte iPads to fill Wembley Stadium from top to bottom, 41 times
over. That information is being stored, as Maeder put it, “for good, for bad, for
advertising.” Brick and mortar retailers are terrified of Amazon.com, which
knows everything from a consumer’s shoe size to how long they looked at the
blue Crocs before buying the black ones. Other retailers don’t even know when
a customer has been in their store.

spoke first, delivering a message he has often shared with students: that big
data is not about the data, but about analysis. He noted that every business
generates more and more data every year, even if it is ignored. It becomes
useful only when analyzed, however. One of his colleagues, faced with a
mountain of data, figured out that to analyze it, he would need a $2-million
computer. King and his graduate students, in two hours, instead came up with an
algorithm that would do the same thing in 20 minutes, running on the
colleague’s laptop. Modern data analytics, he said, has the power to change the
world. He pointed to two examples in particular: an analysis of what members of
Congress do with their time (27 percent of their press releases are purely
partisan, for example); and a recent study of Chinese
censorship of social media
that revealed that the censors tolerate criticism of the government, but expunge
even the most benign-seeming calls to collective action.

described how doctors are taming big data by using computation to diagnose and
predict heart disease, the leading cause of death in the Western world, which
in 50 percent of cases can appear without prior symptoms. He first showed a
“Hollywood” version of blood flowing through an artery, a movie based on an
artist’s conception. Then he described what was required to make a movie that
used real data as its basis, taking into account a billion fluid points and 100
million blood cells. The resulting movie showed platelets recirculating and
bouncing back at arterial branches; this kind of blood flow leads to the
formation of plaque. The goal now is to start with data from an individual
patient, to process it and feed it into a big computer (one with 300,000
processors) to create a visualization that will tell doctors where the issues

noted that solving a big data visualization problem in one realm, like the medical one described by Kaxiras, could lead to solutions in other disciplines, like
her field of astronomy, and vice versa. While machines are much better at
computation, “Humans are much better at pattern recognition,” which is one
reason why data visualizations can lead to new insights. She showed how a
three-dimensional visualization of a cloud of gas in interstellar space had led
to the discovery of a previously unknown cloud structure. And a NASA-funded
project (GLUE) that brings telescope data together, for example, will find
applications not only as new telescopes are deployed, but also in

described how social-science surveys have been completely transformed by new
“big data” methods for analyzing voter behavior. Surveys now are much more
nimble, less expensive to run, and can be more easily customized, even in
large-scale collaborations with other researchers and institutions.

concluded the session. Big data “has transformed Fortune 500 companies,
established new industries, altered friendship patterns, and through social
media has massively increased the expressive capacity of the human race,” he
said. “It has changed political campaigns, transformed public health…impacted
crime and policing, it has reinvented economics, it’s transformed sports. Have
you seen Moneyball?” he asked. “[Big
data] has set standards for evaluating public policy and producing better
public policies. We basically now understand that most government policy is one
giant experiment with no control group to see whether it works….Improvements at
this deep infrastructural level have the potential…to change every aspect of
daily life….”

The Creative Spark: The Role of the
Arts and Humanities in Society

Five faculty members took varied approaches to describing how
the arts and humanities function in society.

Justin Ide/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Dianna Sorensen

Moderator Diana Sorensen, FAS dean of arts and humanities, has worked to encourage art-making within classes, and led the faculty’s recent review of the state of the humanities.

Panelist Homi Bhabha  directs the Mahindra Humanities Center. A
scholar of literary theory and cultural criticism, Bhabha is known for work on
cosmopolitanism, postcolonialism, and the intersection of cultures; in a Harvard Magazine profile, he illuminated such topics by
referring to the commerce in corn flakes. Emma Dench, professor of the classics and of history, studies identity and historiography in ancient
Rome.  (In a Harvard
Portrait, she confessed, “I hate
the Romans—they were violent, sexist, racist, arrogant, and not very nice to
anybody who got in their way. But I love to hate the Romans.”) Cogan
University Professor Stephen Greenblatt is a pre-eminent
Shakespeare scholar—and no mean writer himself. The Swerve, his acclaimed account of Lucretius and the
origins of the Renaissance, won a Pulitzer Prize. He directed President
Faust’s task force on the arts; its work informs current
campaign-funded arts initiatives. Karen Thornber, professor of
comparative literature, chairs her department; she
teaches world literature and studies the literature of modern China, Japan,
Korea, and Taiwan. She was awarded
FAS’s Cabot Fellowship for her 2012 book, Ecoambiguity:
Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures. 

“We’re ready for a new Renaissance, a new Enlightenment,” said Sorenson,
referring to recent initiatives in the arts and humanities at Harvard that aim
to re-energize these fields. “We’ve been working on it for more than a year.”

Bhabha asserted that the humanities “build communities, not models.” “Confronting
what you don’t know, and who you
don’t know,” he said, creates “this kind of ethical reach to the other.” Bhabha illustrated that reach through W. H. Auden’s
1938 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with a slide of Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, which it references.
The painting shows surrounding life going on, oblivious to Icarus’s fall into
the sea; that led Auden, and Bhabha, to remark on “the indifference to the
suffering of our neighbors” which is part of the human condition. “The day is
short and life is short,” Bhabha said, “but the plow will not stop for a dying

Dench gave a rousing declamation in Latin from The Aeneid, hailing “The Romans, masters of the world, the
toga-clad race.” For Emperor Augustus, she said, togas were the glue that could unify
the Roman race, dressing them in the same clothing to go with their common language.
Lines from Virgil “popped into the head of Romans” across the empire, even on
battlefields. “As I say to my students, every book you read in class is with
you for life,” Dench said, “not just the midterm.”

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for expressing heretical
views, reported Greenblatt.  Many of
these views derived from the poem De
Rerum Natura by Lucretius that lies at the core of Greenblatt’s The Swerve. Lucretius’s heterodox
notions—“the universe consists of atoms and nothing else,” for example, and
“all organized religions are superstitious religions”—were, Greenblatt drily observed,
“ideas that were, shall we say, not accepted.” Nonetheless, the great poem
survived through the centuries partly because “these are unbelievably beautiful
verses. It’s Latin at its most pleasing.” “Art enabled this poem to enter the
bloodstream of the world,” he said. “Art has cognitive power.”

Thornber used the example of environmental mercury poisoning that
devastated a Japanese community during the 1950s and 1960s to illustrate the
relevance of art to health and environmental issues. Michiko Ishimura’s 1972
“nonfiction novel” Paradise in the Sea of
Sorrow brought alive the miseries of these victims of pollution. The novel
inspired social activism in ways that medical accounts of the tragedy could not:
“The characters in the novel are more real to me than the actual victims,” said
one Japanese reader. Furthermore, documentary photographs of the victims by W.
Eugene Smith, which appeared in Life
magazine in 1972 and elsewhere, moved viewers. One, of Tomoko, a woman severely
deformed by mercury poisoning in utero, being bathed by her mother, was
especially poignant. “The photograph did not save Tomoko’s life,” Thornber
said, “but it prevented countless numbers of other individuals from having to
face a similar fate.”

Reaching Beyond the Laboratory: The
Broad Impact of Basic Research

The panel’s scholars
investigate aspects of some of the biggest questions of our time: Are we
alone? How will we solve the impending energy crisis? Can we be better stewards
of our planet’s natural resources? What secrets do our genes hold? In addition
to moderator Jeremy
Bloxham—FAS dean of science and Mallinckrodt
professor of geophysics, they

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Jeremy Bloxham

Michael McCormick, Goelet professor of medieval history, who directs the Harvard Initiative for
the Science of the Human Past, which seeks new historical data by using
new natural-science approaches to biomolecular evidence and evidence of climate
change, for example;

Daniel Nocera, Rockwood
professor of energy, who focuses on the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology
and chemistry, most recently in connection with the generation of solar

Pardis Sabeti, associate professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, a computational geneticist with expertise studying genetic diversity, who has
developed algorithms to detect genetic signatures of natural selection, and has
collaborated with other
scientists to trace human diversity;

professor of astronomy, and a pioneer in
discovering extrasolar planets, who directs Harvard’s Origins of Life Initiative  (covered in a recent Harvard Magazine feature); and

Hooper professor of geology and professor of environmental science and
engineering and director of the Harvard University
Center for the Environment, who investigates climate, climate
change, and changes in energy technology and research to mitigate
the effects of carbon dioxide.

Bloxham said he and his colleagues wanted
to provide a sense of how fundamental, basic research feeds a pipeline that
leads to significant discoveries far outside the laboratory. In the course of
their fast-paced, flowing discussion, the audience learned:

proton-coupled electron transfer can lead to the development of an artificial
leaf that generates energy;

studying the different time-scales of methane and carbon dioxide can affect
climate policy;

the human genome is “loaded” with signals indicating critical events in human
history—for example, the discovery only 20 months ago that modern humans have
Neanderthal DNA, which may help defeat certain diseases; and

it appears to take a planet to create life, and perhaps to preserve it—studying
exoplanets at different stages of development may help researchers better
understand, and devise strategies to combat, climate change here on Earth.

In their initial presentations, and in
response to questions from the audience, the panelists also touched on larger

Where do ideas come from? From communication
and collaboration at all levels, came the reply. McCormick noted that
Harvard brings professors together with students who
become excited by their research and, “unfettered by prior knowledge,” ask
questions “that I’ve never thought of before”—which makes the faculty smarter. Sabeti told of working with a student who took a course with computer scientist
Michael Mitzenmacher; that brought the two faculty members together on a
research project that led to one of her finest discoveries. Schrag, as
head of the Center for the Environment, said part of his job “is to increase
the frequency of collisions” among faculty and students, faculty colleagues
from different departments and schools, and outside actors, such as energy
company CEOs—all engaging around the big issues of the day. Nocera said
he came to Harvard because it offers colleagues at the Kennedy, Business, and
Divinity Schools who can help his efforts to turn that artificial leaf into an
inexpensive energy source for six billion poor people around the globe.

How can ideas prosper? With education—and
funding. Bloxham suggested the answer is supporting people in science, not just projects.
(He mentioned a friend working in a government lab who was asked to list the
three discoveries he planned to make in the coming year.) Nocera said Harvard
is one of the few universities that can afford to support the kind of basic
research that enables scholars to step back and think about larger questions,
thanks to its alumni. Faculty at the University, he added, have the opportunity to
educate young people who may be leaders in many different fields about what
scientific evidence is, and means—in contrast to the many individuals who
demand certainty in the face of societal and other global problems far too
complicated for simple solutions. Scientists, Sabeti added, need to communicate
better to others the sense of wonder they feel about the world, the same sense
of wonder that religion conveys. Science and religion, she said, are both
trying to understand where we come from.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

David Laibson

to Humans: Understanding Influences on Our Behavior

David Laibson, Goldman professor of
economics and leader of the
University’s Foundations
of Human Behavior Initiative, moderated a discussion exploring research in
the biological, computational, and social sciences that helps explain what
really makes individuals and groups behave the way they do.

“This is an amazing moment for the behavioral sciences—the
insights, the interdisciplinary scholarship, the collaboration, the breakdown
of initial silos, the incorporation of genomics, biology, neuroscience,” Laibson
said. “It is transformative in the classroom, it is transformative in the workplace,
and it is changing the world. Policymaking around the globe is influenced by
these ideas now in ways that are rewriting the rules of regulation and the way
policymakers conduct their affairs.”

Panelist Hopi Hoekstra, Agassiz professor of zoology
and professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and
cellular biology, discussed the nature vs. nurture debate—specifically the
genetic foundations of behavior at the animal level—using the mouse as a model
to understand the genetic pathways that lead to certain patterns of conduct. Hoekstra
has recently published pioneering
research on the genetic determinants of behavior and was a faculty panelist
for the launch of The Harvard Campaign on September 21.

Randy Buckner, professor of psychology
and of neuroscience, explained the differences between inherited biology
and the modern world and the ways in which these two systems sometimes conflict.
Buckner, who applies neuroimaging techniques to explore brain areas involved in
the formation and retrieval of memory, pointed out that the blue light emitted
by iPhones and iPads offsets the human sleep cycle that was once largely
determined by the sun. “The average high-school student in the United States
goes to sleep by 11:30 P.M., and over 45 percent of adolescents are getting
inadequate sleep—they can’t remember as well as teens of the past before noon,”
he said. “What we’re interested in is learning about all of these mismatches
that have crept in to change our environment and the biology of the brain.”

Panelist Mahzarin Banaji, Cabot professor of
social ethics, studies unconscious thinking and feeling as they unfold in
social context—a phenomenon commonly called “implicit bias.” Banaji spoke on
biases that ranged from amusing and fun (such as a test she gave to audience
members to test their loyalty to Harvard vs. Yale) to sometimes devastating
(such as doctors treating patients differently based on their skin

Laibson talked about self-regulation—the struggle humans
have with themselves to act on their intentions instead of giving in to
temptations—and the way humans sometimes fail to build good social institutions
that help society achieve certain goals. 

Solutions: Fundamental to Applied Science

robotic gloves for physical therapy to slippery surfaces for self-cleaning
windows, Harvard researchers work to convert findings from basic research into applications
that improve people’s lives. A panel discussion titled “Discovering Solutions:
Fundamental to Applied Science” examined the connections between basic and
applied research and asked how to structure a modern university to solve
societal problems.

Jim Harrison

George Whitesides

George Whitesides is Flowers University Professor; his lab
has engineered
inexpensive, “lab-on-a-chip” medical diagnostic devices, used
oscillating electric fields to snuff flames, and built
soft-bodied robots inspired by sea creatures in the course of nearly 1,200
scientific publications, more
than 100 patents, and more
than a dozen startups. As he
told Harvard Magazine in 2008,
“Society pays us not to write papers, but ultimately to solve societal

Joanna Aizenberg is Berylson professor of
materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)
and professor of
chemistry and chemical biology; in Harvard Magazine’s portrait,
Aizenberg described how her work borrows design
principles from biology: “Almost every construction principle that we use
is used by nature here, but on a scale 1,000 times smaller.” Adam Cohen, professor of chemistry
and chemical biology and professor of
physics, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator this past
spring. The lab of David Mooney, Pinkas family professor of
bioengineering in SEAS, and founding core
faculty member at the Wyss Institute, whose academic
vision he helped design, creates new
biomaterials for tissue engineering. Conor
Walsh, SEAS assistant
professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, founded the Harvard
Biodesign Lab.

opened the panel by outlining a division between two modes of research. “The
historical model for a liberal-arts university,” he said, “has been…driven by
scholarship and curiosity” that might later produce societally relevant
applications. A second model “[starts] with problems, and then [asks] what is
the science that will contribute to that?”

short presentations, the four panelists gave examples of their own research
approaches. Cohen described how his lab engineered a light-sensitive protein to
flash in response to changes in a cell’s voltage; scientists can now track the firing of
individual neurons, and his lab is using the system to study neurological
disorders. He pointed out that components of the engineered protein drew on
existing examples from nature, from jellyfish to bacteria that live in the Dead
Sea: “We could only do this because we’re standing on the shoulders of decades
of research by marine microbiologists and ecologists.”

portrayed a similar trajectory beginning in basic science. Drawing inspiration
from the super-slippery surfaces of carnivorous pitcher plants, her lab recently
developed a synthetic coating that solves what she termed “sticky
problems”: once applied to solid surfaces, the coating repels both water- and
oil-based liquids and prevents the formation of bacterial biofilms. She argued
that innovation requires a “completely new type of environment” that promotes
interdisciplinary collaboration.

and Mooney gave examples of the opposite approach. Walsh’s lab builds soft
robots that mimic the movement of human muscles; when integrated in the fabric
of pants or gloves, the resulting “exosuits” can help patients with motor
disabilities. Robots were traditionally designed to replace people rather than work
with them, said Walsh, and it was with medical applications in mind that his
lab rethought what robots could accomplish. The medical problem of cancer
prompted Mooney’s lab to design a new biomaterial in the form of small disks
that, once implanted under the skin, attract and
reprogram immune cells to attack tumors. In collaboration with Dana-Farber
Cancer Institute, the team recently initiated a phase I clinical trial,
and Mooney argued that collaborations between academics and clinical
researchers are becoming more important. “In this area…the key experiments are
the studies that we do in people,” he said, “and we’re going to have to do more
and more of those key studies ourselves.”

of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Cherry Murray spoke
informally in the later question-and-answer session about the need for internal
funding, arguing that the school needs the “flexibility” to fund “high-risk
research” and to fund undergraduates to pursue research opportunities. “Industry
no longer does basic research,” Whitesides closed by observing, “so the
solutions to long-range problems…must start here.”

Katherine Taylor/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Robert Lue

Leading in Learning: Teaching the
Twenty-First-Century Student

The panel explored the almost infinite reach of creativity and innovation in online
education. Read about HarvardX (the University’s online-learning initiative). (Read about HarvardX and the edX online-education partnership; coverage of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching [HILT]; and this current feature on an approach to “patient” learning from a recent HILT conference.) 

Moderator  Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX and Menschel faculty director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (FAS’s center for teacher training and pedagogical scholarship), is professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology and director of life-sciences education.

Panelist Peter Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilization, was recently appointed vice provost for advances in learning, overseeing HarvardX and HILT. He is co-teacher of Societies of the World 12, “China,” the HarvardX version of which goes live worldwide on October 31. David Malan, senior lecturer on computer science, teaches a variety of courses, including the introductory Computer Science 50—among the largest courses by enrollment on campus and online, through its HarvardX version. Elisa New, Cabot professor of American literature, is a scholar of American poetry, the subject of her new HarvardX modules (short courses), including units focusing on the poetry of early New England (debuting October 31) and Walt Whitman. Doris Sommer, Williams professor of Romance languages and literatures, professor of African and African American studies, and director of graduate studies in Spanish, is also director of Cultural Agents, which fosters the relationship between academic learning and civic engagement.

traditional mission of teaching students “to lead through having meaningful,
substantial impact on the world” has not changed, said Lue. What is new is Harvard’s ability to “open its
walls up in the world and become a more significant player in what we all agree
is a far more complex landscape of knowledge.”

A prime example is Malan’s fast-paced introductory course. Once appealing
only to concentrators in the field, it now draws about 700 students on
campus—and another 150,000 registrants from across the country and around the
world who sampled the edX online version. Even those on campus have the option
of watching classroom happenings streamed live via video while sitting “in their
pajamas in their dorm rooms,” noted Malan—and about 40 percent do just that,
while the rest—presumably more motivated by face-to-face interactions—physically
show up for class. Students also learn material once taught through 75-minute
podium lectures using tools like social media, interactive study groups, and a
series of 3- to 12-minute video lessons. They can speed up, slow down, and even
“print transcripts of every word I say,” said Malan, which means the course
caters better to a wide variety of learning styles—as well as schedules.

The University’s foray into online learning was prompted not only by
recognition of the rapidly growing online education marketplace, explained Bol,
but by the dramatic opportunity to use technology and other pedagogical innovations
to radically rethink teaching methods and “to make education at Harvard
better.” In some cases students watch “crisp, edited” versions of lectures online,
before class, he said, “so we can
spend the whole hour discussing the material….As a teacher it’s been a
wonderfully renewing experience.” New, in creating her own online modules on
American poetry, has taken advantage of videotaping the Cape Cod marshlands
and other locales “that allow you to encounter the poems and manuscripts in original
places and contexts,” she said. “Field trips do matter.”

The need for access to high-quality education and interconnected,
contextualized information “is more urgent than ever,” Lue concluded: for
individuals, teachers, corporations, or even entire populations and countries. The
majority of online courses are those taken from decades ago and put on video,
he added. “What Harvard is doing is rethinking education in broad terms and
looking at what we deliver through the Internet and how it transforms what we
do in person…and how we can take our students higher than ever before.”

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