From Harvard Gazette (US) : Women in STEM-Sophie Helaine; Ya-Chieh Hsu; Julia Mundy “Backing high-risk, high-reward”

From Harvard Gazette (US)


Harvard University (US)

June 11, 2021
Leigh Carlisle

Predicting COVID-19 variants. Forecasting earthquakes. Promoting regeneration in mammals. These are the kinds of high-risk, high-impact quests Harvard researchers are taking on, with help from the Star-Friedman Challenge for Promising Scientific Research. Established in 2013 with a gift from James A. Star ’83 and expanded funding from Josh Friedman ’76, M.B.A. ’80, J.D. ’82, and Beth Friedman, the challenge provides generous, critical seed funding for ambitious projects in the life, physical, and social sciences that might not otherwise receive grants.

“This year again we received a large number of exciting proposals to the Star Friedman Challenge from various Schools across the campus,” said Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and chairman of the faculty review committee awarding this year’s winners, which she called “inspiring and cutting-edge projects that address a great diversity of scientific questions.”

On Wednesday, faculty members leading the seven projects selected for funding this year — Jonathan Abraham, Andrew Davies, Roger Fu, Sophie Helaine, Ya-Chieh Hsu, Kaighin McColl, and Julia Mundy — will speak about their research in a virtual event open to the Harvard community.

The researchers provided the Gazette with a glimpse into their work, its potential impact, and why funding “challenges” like this are so crucial for research.

Profiling the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

Jonathan Abraham is examining the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence to better predict mutations most poised to emerge among circulating variants.

Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology, and his Harvard Medical School research team will use Challenge funds to predict the COVID-19 mutations that may be the likeliest of the existing variants to emerge.

“The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be turning a corner, and thankfully, most vaccines seem to working against variants that are circulating across the globe. We have to be proactive and do our best to anticipate what might be coming next in terms of mutations that might make drugs and vaccines ineffective,” said Abraham. “This award comes at a critical time for our lab and will allow us to carry out an ambitious, high-risk project in which we try to better predict how SARS-CoV-2 can mutate to escape antibodies either used in the clinic or elicited by vaccines. This means we would be better prepared with next-generation countermeasures if such changes in the virus happen.”

Assessing the future of human; wildlife; and livestock in African savannas.

Using drone-based remote sensing, Andrew Davies is tracking how shifts in herbivore communities affect African savannas and impact the biodiversity of its plants. Credit: Anina Apablaza.

Is it environmentally sustainable for wildlife and livestock to live together on the African savannas? Davies, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and his group are investigating how competition with livestock, habitat loss, and overharvesting are impacting the large herbivores native to the area. His group will collect drone-based remote sensing data in Kenya to measure how the introduction of domesticated livestock affects plant and vegetation diversity, key predictors of whether humans, wildlife, and livestock can coexist without significant consequences for the ecosystem.

“African savannas hold some of the last remaining megafauna communities on earth. These iconic species have been thrown into an unprecedented state of flux. These data will enable some of the first insights into how these new assemblages will affect the way ecosystems function and the future of African savannas,” said Davies. “I believe that this award will open the door to many new and exciting discoveries highly relevant to understanding and mitigating the rapidly ongoing changes in African savannas and other ecosystems worldwide.”

Probing seismic hazards and earthquake physics.

Using magnetic imaging on faults in California and Nevada, Roger Fu is measuring the magnitude of ancient earthquakes to more accurately evaluate seismic hazards in a given area.

The most destructive earthquakes occur on faults that rupture at intervals of hundreds or thousands of years. Fu, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences in FAS, and graduate student Sammy Paiscik are looking at long-dormant fault systems to better estimate the magnitude of ancient earthquakes and understand the physics behind them. Using samples and investigating faults in Nevada and California, the team is using high-resolution magnetic imaging to quantify the intensity of past ruptures and create heat profiles that measure the friction on the fault during the event.

This level of accuracy is currently unavailable for most fault systems that host strong earthquakes and would provide critical seismic hazard information for regions such as southernmost California, where the next devastating earthquake has no historic precedent, Fu wrote. “This usage can have direct applications in protecting communities in earthquake-prone areas,” he says.

Tackling antibiotic persistence during infection.

Sophie Helaine is developing a model that characterizes bacterial persisters, hoping this unprecedented lens can be used to improve therapeutics and counteract antibiotic resistance.

In her work tackling microbial infections and resistance to antibiotics, Helaine, assistant professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, is researching the physiology and survival of stubborn infections, called “persisters,” and better ways to control them. Her group has developed systems to study antibiotic persistence in vivo, similar to the conditions that bacteria encounter in an infected host. They hope what they learn can be used to create improved treatments.

“We have experienced over the last year or so the terrible consequences of a pandemic; this is only a taste of what life will be in the coming years if we do not develop new antibacterials to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance,” Helaine said. “This provides us with a fantastic opportunity to dive right into a risky and exciting research avenue that we think will ultimately contribute to improving human health by increasing our arsenal against difficult-to-treat infections. It is also a formidable recognition of our boldest ideas and encouragement to continue exploring without limits.”

Can mammals regenerate? Lessons from the skin.

Studying the mysteries of regeneration in animals, Ya-Chieh Hsu is hoping his research could unlock its potential in people, fundamentally changing how we treat injury and chronic wounds. Credit: Jon Chase/Harvard file photo.

Hsu, the Alvin and Esta Star Associate Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology in FAS, and her colleague Jason Buenrostro, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, are unwinding the mysteries of regeneration in mammals. Their work in skin has suggested that some mammals may carry the innate ability to regenerate organs, but that this ability is blocked in fetal development. The research group seeks to study the transition from regeneration to scarring, which happens within days of birth, and the mechanics behind it. Their research could help lay the foundation for breakthroughs in treatments of wounds, like critical burns.

“This award is enabling us to pursue novel and creative approaches to identify new strategies that change how severe injury is treated,” said Hsu.

Tracking wildfires in a warming world.

Kaighin McColl is researching how climate change impacts dry lightning and the risk of wildfires, one of the most pressing environmental threats in the western United States. Photo by Alex Griswold/Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Lightning without rainfall is the primary cause of natural wildfires in the U.S. McColl, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences and of environmental science and engineering in FAS and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is measuring whether dry lightning will become more frequent with global warming, a dramatic implication for fire risk and management. California saw this in 2020, when an unusual episode of dry thunderstorms across the state ignited several hundred new wildfires.

“Funding from the Star-Friedman Challenge will allow us to pursue a high-risk project that would be unlikely to get funded through conventional channels,” said McColl. His team will track the larger-scale, land-atmosphere conditions that foster dry thunderstorms and use climate models to project how those conditions will respond to climate change. They aim to provide the first analysis of the impact of global warming on dry lightning, including tracking potential trends in recent decades and crucial data for local and federal agencies combating wildfires.

Building a platform for faultless quantum computing.

Julia Mundy is constructing a superconductor that could form a platform for faultless quantum computing, leading to breakthroughs in everything from biochemistry to astronomy.

Assistant Physics Professor Mundy her group are seeking to advance their construction of a novel topological superconductor that could serve as the foundation for faultless quantum computing. They are building on their recent advances in thin-film synthesis to create new superconductor technology and potentially lay the groundwork for a new computing paradigm with insights on everything from understanding the complex biochemical reactions that underpin life to the detection of dark matter and dark energy.

“We are particularly excited to have the opportunity to engage a postdoctoral fellow, graduate student and undergraduate researcher in this direction,” says Mundy. “My group is very excited to pursue our proposed research.

Hear from the winning faculty members as they discuss their projects during an online panel on Wednesday, 3:30–4:45 p.m. (ET).

See the full article here .


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Harvard University campus

Harvard University (US) is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s bestknown landmark.

Harvard University (US) has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

The Massachusetts colonial legislature, the General Court, authorized Harvard University (US)’s founding. In its early years, Harvard College primarily trained Congregational and Unitarian clergy, although it has never been formally affiliated with any denomination. Its curriculum and student body were gradually secularized during the 18th century, and by the 19th century, Harvard University (US) had emerged as the central cultural establishment among the Boston elite. Following the American Civil War, President Charles William Eliot’s long tenure (1869–1909) transformed the college and affiliated professional schools into a modern research university; Harvard became a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. James B. Conant led the university through the Great Depression and World War II; he liberalized admissions after the war.

The university is composed of ten academic faculties plus the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Arts and Sciences offers study in a wide range of academic disciplines for undergraduates and for graduates, while the other faculties offer only graduate degrees, mostly professional. Harvard has three main campuses: the 209-acre (85 ha) Cambridge campus centered on Harvard Yard; an adjoining campus immediately across the Charles River in the Allston neighborhood of Boston; and the medical campus in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. Harvard University (US)’s endowment is valued at $41.9 billion, making it the largest of any academic institution. Endowment income helps enable the undergraduate college to admit students regardless of financial need and provide generous financial aid with no loans The Harvard Library is the world’s largest academic library system, comprising 79 individual libraries holding about 20.4 million items.

Harvard University (US) has more alumni, faculty, and researchers who have won Nobel Prizes (161) and Fields Medals (18) than any other university in the world and more alumni who have been members of the U.S. Congress, MacArthur Fellows, Rhodes Scholars (375), and Marshall Scholars (255) than any other university in the United States. Its alumni also include eight U.S. presidents and 188 living billionaires, the most of any university. Fourteen Turing Award laureates have been Harvard affiliates. Students and alumni have also won 10 Academy Awards, 48 Pulitzer Prizes, and 108 Olympic medals (46 gold), and they have founded many notable companies.


Harvard University (US) was established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1638, it acquired British North America’s first known printing press. In 1639, it was named Harvard College after deceased clergyman John Harvard, an alumnus of the University of Cambridge(UK) who had left the school £779 and his library of some 400 volumes. The charter creating the Harvard Corporation was granted in 1650.

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” It trained many Puritan ministers in its early years and offered a classic curriculum based on the English university model—many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge—but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. Harvard University (US) has never affiliated with any particular denomination, though many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

Increase Mather served as president from 1681 to 1701. In 1708, John Leverett became the first president who was not also a clergyman, marking a turning of the college away from Puritanism and toward intellectual independence.

19th century

In the 19th century, Enlightenment ideas of reason and free will were widespread among Congregational ministers, putting those ministers and their congregations in tension with more traditionalist, Calvinist parties. When Hollis Professor of Divinity David Tappan died in 1803 and President Joseph Willard died a year later, a struggle broke out over their replacements. Henry Ware was elected to the Hollis chair in 1805, and the liberal Samuel Webber was appointed to the presidency two years later, signaling the shift from the dominance of traditional ideas at Harvard to the dominance of liberal, Arminian ideas.

Charles William Eliot, president 1869–1909, eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum while opening it to student self-direction. Though Eliot was the crucial figure in the secularization of American higher education, he was motivated not by a desire to secularize education but by Transcendentalist Unitarian convictions influenced by William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

20th century

In the 20th century, Harvard University (US)’s reputation grew as a burgeoning endowment and prominent professors expanded the university’s scope. Rapid enrollment growth continued as new graduate schools were begun and the undergraduate college expanded. Radcliffe College, established in 1879 as the female counterpart of Harvard College, became one of the most prominent schools for women in the United States. Harvard University (US) became a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900.

The student body in the early decades of the century was predominantly “old-stock, high-status Protestants, especially Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.” A 1923 proposal by President A. Lawrence Lowell that Jews be limited to 15% of undergraduates was rejected, but Lowell did ban blacks from freshman dormitories.

President James B. Conant reinvigorated creative scholarship to guarantee Harvard University (US)’s preeminence among research institutions. He saw higher education as a vehicle of opportunity for the talented rather than an entitlement for the wealthy, so Conant devised programs to identify, recruit, and support talented youth. In 1943, he asked the faculty to make a definitive statement about what general education ought to be, at the secondary as well as at the college level. The resulting Report, published in 1945, was one of the most influential manifestos in 20th century American education.

Between 1945 and 1960, admissions were opened up to bring in a more diverse group of students. No longer drawing mostly from select New England prep schools, the undergraduate college became accessible to striving middle class students from public schools; many more Jews and Catholics were admitted, but few blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, Harvard became more diverse.

Harvard University (US)’s graduate schools began admitting women in small numbers in the late 19th century. During World War II, students at Radcliffe College (which since 1879 had been paying Harvard University (US) professors to repeat their lectures for women) began attending Harvard University (US) classes alongside men. Women were first admitted to the medical school in 1945. Since 1971, Harvard University (US) has controlled essentially all aspects of undergraduate admission, instruction, and housing for Radcliffe women. In 1999, Radcliffe was formally merged into Harvard University (US).

21st century

Drew Gilpin Faust, previously the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, became Harvard University (US)’s first woman president on July 1, 2007. She was succeeded by Lawrence Bacow on July 1, 2018.