Category Archives: Brown Bag Lunch Recaps

Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”

The Talk:

Killing a Midwest Generation

In Plain English:

How a Chicago non-profit from a low-income neighborhood got an asthma-inducing coal plant shut down

The Speaker:

Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

The Sponsor:

Fossil Free MIT

What it covered:

When Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) took the podium at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and Management, she didn’t fawn; she was direct: “We never stop our community members from asking questions during our presentations,” she said. “And this isn’t that different.”

Bold move from someone who was just introduced to an MIT audience as “a community college graduate” and “an example of how you don’t need a degree to make a difference.” Wasserman is a community organizer with LVEJO, a community-based organization out of Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Continue reading “Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”” »

BICEP2 & Gravitational Waves 101: Recap of Panel Discussion ft. Alan Guth, John Kovac, Scott Hughes, & Max Tegmark

The Talk:

The BICEP2 Results and What They Mean: The First Observation of Gravitational Waves from the Early Universe

In Plain English:

The guys who came up with gravitational wave theory explain the gravitational wave story that’s been blowing up everybody’s Facebook feed in terms undergrads can understand

The Speakers:

Alan Guth of MIT (the guy who came up with repulsive gravity theory), Scott Hughes of MIT, Max Tegmark of MIT, and John Kovac of Harvard (the Primary Investigator on the telescope in question)

The Sponsor:

MIT Physics Department

What it covered:

When the BICEP2 team announced that they had found b-mode-style (aka “swirly pattern”) gravitational waves that confirmed inflation model of universe-formation, the internet exploded. The video feed for the press conference crashed. When the team posted their paper on arXiv, the it got 3.5 million hits in the first 11 hours.

That’s for the formal academic research write-up (and the average academic research write-up is lucky if 35 people read it all the way through). In the first 11 hours. Continue reading “BICEP2 & Gravitational Waves 101: Recap of Panel Discussion ft. Alan Guth, John Kovac, Scott Hughes, & Max Tegmark” »

Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin

The Talk:

People’s Science: Bodies & Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier

In Plain English:

Sociologist investigates the tensions between the stem cell research community and racial minorities and/or low-income communities

The Speaker:

Ruha Benjamin of Boston University

The Sponsor:

BU Discoveries Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist who studies scientists and the way they interact with marginalized communities, opened her talk with a story about a bench.

Not a lab bench. A park bench. In Berkeley.

It was a nice day, and she had a few minutes to spare after giving a talk at UC-Berkeley, so she decided to try and take a nap on the park bench. She found that she couldn’t. “Tell me why,” she said, clicking to a slide with a picture of a metal park bench with three sets of arm-rest-style dividers.

“…It has bars on it?” one audience member said tentatively.

“Right. But why do you think those bars are there?” Continue reading “Do stem cell researchers ignore social inequalities? – Recap of talk by Dr. Ruha Benjamin” »

Stem Cell Science Double Feature: Reprogramming Cardiac Fibroblasts – Recap of talk by Dr. Deepak Srivastava

The Talk:

Cardiac Reprogramming: From Developmental Biology to Regeneration

In Plain English:

How to turn the heart-dwelling cells that build connective tissues into replacements for damaged heart muscle cells

The Speaker:

Dr. Deepak Srivastava, MD of UC-SF‘s Gladstone Institutes

The Sponsor:

MIT Biology Colloquium

What it covered:

Dr. Deepak Srivastava is a cardiologist who experiments with using stem cells to create replacement cells for damaged heart muscle tissue. However, while most labs try to grow replacements in petri dishes, Dr. Srivastava’s lab is working on finding a way to transform the cells that build scar tissue in the heart (the cardiac fibroblasts) into fully functional heart muscle cells.

A typical fibroblast’s job is to secrete collagen and other chemicals that help the cells in muscle and skeletal tissues stick together. If they weren’t there, your muscle cells might slide around or come apart whenever you moved. Luckily, muscle cells like to form stringy structures called sarcomeres that can contract and release. When you’re flexing your muscles, you’re actually contracting the sarcomeres and that contractile force is what causes your arm to tense up. Without the fibroblasts, the muscle cells would have a hard time aligning themselves correctly (and if one cell is even slightly out of line with its neighbor cells, the rogue cell can throw everything off), so they’re a pretty important cell group. Continue reading “Stem Cell Science Double Feature: Reprogramming Cardiac Fibroblasts – Recap of talk by Dr. Deepak Srivastava” »

Polymerase Pausing: It’s like propping open a molecular door – Recap of talk Dr. Karen Adelman

The Talk:

Regulating signaling networks through pausing of RNA polymerase II

In Plain English:

Cells sometimes keep the RNA-builder enzyme “paused” at the first few base pairs in the gene, which leaves the gene somewhere between “on” and “off”. (It’s kind of like propping a door to avoid getting locked out, except more complicated.)

The Speaker:

Karen Adelman of the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Science)

The Sponsor:

MIT Biology Colloquium Series

What it covered:

Dr. Karen Adelman is a molecular biologist who studies the behavior of a RNA-building protein called polymerase (RNA Polymerase II, to be exact. It also goes by the nickname “Pol II”) and how it reacts to stress signals that come from outside the cell. Her research is helping to fill a major knowledge gap:

We know quite a bit about how cells regulate their gene expression and about how they sense changes in the surrounding environment.

But we don’t know very much about the chemicals that allow cells to change their gene expression in response to signals they’re getting from outside the cell, which makes it very hard to predict how outside chemicals (like medications and the particles found in smog) will affect cellular health.

Continue reading “Polymerase Pausing: It’s like propping open a molecular door – Recap of talk Dr. Karen Adelman” »

Investigating neural patterns in the younger siblings of autistic children – Recap of talk by Dr. Charles Nelson

The Talk:

A Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to the Early Identification of Autism

In Plain English:

A scientist investigates the patterns of neural wiring in infants whose older siblings have autism

The Speaker:

Charles Nelson of Boston Children’s Hospital

The Sponsor:

Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT

What it covered:

Dr. Charles “Chuck” Nelson is one of the best known (and judging from the way he was introduced and addressed at this colloquium, he’s also one of the best-liked and most-respected) researchers in the field of neurological development. Before coming to Boston Children’s Hospital, he made a name for himself by working on face recognition in infants.

He stopped by the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain colloquium to tell other researchers about his team’s latest findings in  neurological development in autistic infants (and their siblings).

He prefaced his talk by saying that he was really torn about whether this talk should focus on the more mechanistic aspects of his work (“Which neurons are firing?” & “What neurotransmitters are making them do that?” type questions) or the more descriptive aspects (questions about overall statistical trends in “at-risk” populations) of his work. Continue reading “Investigating neural patterns in the younger siblings of autistic children – Recap of talk by Dr. Charles Nelson” »

How to find a planet that could hold life – Recap of talk by Dr. Sara Seager

The Talk:

Exoplanets and the Real Search for Alien Life

In Plain English:

Astrophysicist on the Search for Planets that Could Harbor Earth-like Life

The Speaker:

Sara Seager of the MIT Physics Department

The Sponsor:

MIT Presidential Fellows/Sidney-Pacific Distinguished Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and MacArthur Foundation Fellow who is looking for signs of life on other planets. She doesn’t listen for alien radio signals; she looks at sizes, colors, and behaviors of visible exoplanets and tries to figure out what chemicals are in those planets’ atmospheres.

The presence of small-molecule compounds that are easily broken apart (like O2) could indicate that there are life forms on the planet that are constantly producing said compounds. Without the organisms that keep adding O2 to our atmosphere, we would run out of it pretty quickly. Even if we weren’t breathing it in, other molecules would still cozy up to the oxygen atoms and break them apart. So it’s a good thing our biosphere is home to an awesome team of leafy green autotrophs who excel at producing O2.

So Sara Seager and others in her field are brainstorming ways look for chemicals that could indicate the presence of life. In most cases, the first step is just finding a way see the planet better. Continue reading “How to find a planet that could hold life – Recap of talk by Dr. Sara Seager” »

Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman

The Talk:

“Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability Rights: Then and Now”

In Plain English:

Disability advocates are in the middle of an ongoing struggle to ensure civil rights for autistic individuals, and hardly anyone has seemed to notice.

The Speaker:

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

The Location:

Harvard Law School Project on Disability

What it covered:

This event was less of a lecture and more of a roundtable discussion about Disability Rights and Neurodiversity (a term so obscure that the Harvard Gazette mistakenly listed the title of the talk as “Autism, Neodiversity, and Disability Rights”). There were barely a dozen of us in the room, which made for one of the most intense academic conversations I’ve ever witnessed.

Ari Ne’eman began by giving an overview of the history of discrimination against and institutionalization of autistic individuals. Our culture has a long tradition of imprisoning people who are physically and/or mentally disabled, but “medical” institutionalization didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1800s, when the eugenics movement took hold. Ne’eman cited Alexander Graham Bell as one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement.

Bell and his eugenicist compatriots wanted a way to contain “different & defective members of the human race.” So they built massive institutions to house anyone who was considered a threat to mainstream society. Ne’eman emphasized the point that these early institutions were not specifically designed for autistic individuals* but rather anyone who was socially undesirable or difficult to manage. Continue reading “Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman” »

Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells

The Talk:

The Space of Autonomy: Cyberspace and Urban Space in Networked Movements

In Plain English:

One of the world’s most honored sociologists discusses the relationship between online social activism and grassroots protests in urban centers

The Speaker:

Manuel Castells of University of Catalonia (UOC)’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute

The Location:

Harvard Graduate School of Design

What it covered:

Manuel Castells been exploring the relationship between urban spaces and social movements for decades, but in recent years, he’s turned his attention toward social movements as they mobilize through social media. In this talk, he was summarizing/expanding on ideas that he wrote about in his most recent book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.

He began by arguing that the internet is not the birthplace of networked social movements but that modern communication technology has allowed the emotionally-charged conversations that coalesce into social movements to happen over a global network in real time. The overall effect is that more people are speaking more often and responding to issues raised by people in adjacent communities more quickly than ever. Continue reading “Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells” »

Viruses can shut down our anti-viral proteins – Recap of talk by Dr. Ileana Cristea

The Talk:

Host Defense and Viral Immune Evasion: A Proteomics Perspective

In Plain English:

Human cells and viruses are locked in a protein-based arms race for global domination: Will the cell’s defensive proteins successfully recognize viral DNA and alert the immune system? Or will the virus counter with proteins that stop the defensive proteins in their tracks? The answer is that both of these processes are happening all the time.

The Speaker:

Ileana Cristea of Princeton University’s Molecular Biology Department

The Location:

Harvard Medical School’s Microbiology & Immunobiology department

What it covered:

Full disclosure: I got to the talk about 10 minutes late after being stopped by a security guard (who wasn’t sure how to react to a 22-year-old with a backpack who could speak proteomics-babble but couldn’t produce a student ID). So I missed the first few slides of the talk, but when I arrived, Dr. Cristea was introducing the HMS research crowd to Gamma-Interferon-Inducible Protein 16 (IFI-16) and its role in the innate immune system. Continue reading “Viruses can shut down our anti-viral proteins – Recap of talk by Dr. Ileana Cristea” »