Research Matters! Celebrating New Ideas and Discoveries. A Graduate School Symposium

Research Matters! Celebrating New Ideas and Discoveries. A Graduate School Symposium


Welcome to “Research Matters!” My name’s Vanessa Ryan,
I’m Associate Dean at the graduate school. We’re celebrating 250
years of Brown University. And we’re celebrating 125 years
of graduate study at Brown. Our graduate students,
over 2,000 students are the next generation
of faculty, of leaders, and innovators. Every day, our graduate students
are making new discoveries, building on knowledge,
and inspiring undergraduates in the classroom. Today, we’re celebrating
the power of their ideas. Graduate research is hard. By definition, any master’s
thesis or Ph.D. dissertation offers something new. So each of our students
today is blazing a new path and adding a new voice
to a conversation. Graduate research is technical,
building on years of study, immersion in a discipline,
deep reading, travel, and study in archives and for field work,
challenging hours in a lab. And for almost all of
us, many, many hours in front of a computer. And for every researcher,
there are also moments of failure, when
the experiment doesn’t work or the idea fails. And that’s why the
passion that you’re going to see from our speakers
today is so important. It’s this passion
that keeps them going as they pursue that eureka
moment of their discoveries. We’ve also invited two graduate
school alumni to speak. Their stories show that graduate
research enables and sometimes demands innovative career paths. So if research in graduate
school is hard, it also is fun and it matters. And it matters to us all. Our graduates students are the
cornerstone of this university. So the students we’ve
brought together today are I think a snapshot of
all of our graduate students. And I hope you’ll be
inspired by their passion. It’s my honor to introduce
two special people. First, we’re lucky today to
have as our Master of Ceremonies Heather Bennett. Heather is a sixth-year
graduate student in molecular biology, cell
biology, and biochemistry. Her own research studies
sleep regulation, specifically in C. elegans. That’s a nematode or worm. One of her passions is
bettering the relationship between the research
community, especially the scientific community,
and the general public. That makes her a particularly
apt emcee our event today. And I’d like now to
introduce our dean of the graduate
school, Peter Weber, a professor of chemistry. In his research, he studies
molecular processes, especially energy flow and
reaction dynamics. He knows research matters. One of the first
things he did when I joined his team at
the graduate school was to give me a tour
of his research lab. So welcome. Thank you, Dean Peter Weber. [APPLAUSE] Well, thank you, Vanessa. And thank you for the nice
words and introduction. I’m going to have
to quiz you on how the exact optical setup in my
laser lab are going to work. Well, good afternoon all of you. Welcome to this exciting
showcase of research by graduate students and alumni. The graduate school
is very proud to host “Research
Matters,” an event that puts the ideas and discoveries
of students and alumni front and center. So this year, we celebrate
the 125th anniversary of the first Ph.D. And of
course, the 250th anniversary of Brown University. You notice that it is
exactly half of its lifetime that Brown University
has awarded Ph.Ds. And so it is particularly
meaningful to me and many of us that we are having
this event today where we celebrate the research. Let me give a few
acknowledgements. I would like to very
much thank the Office of Brown’s 250th
Anniversary for funding, as well as the C.M. Culver
Lectureship Fund for support. I would like to thank the
talented and tireless Vanessa Ryan, whom you just heard,
the Associate Dean for Student Development for
bringing this to life. And Beverly Larson, our
Director of Communications, for help in producing
“Research Matters!” With that, I would
like to introduce our provost, our
Brown University provost, Vicki Colvin. And please welcome Vicki. [APPLAUSE] So it’s a real
pleasure to be here, and I really look
forward to the talks. One of the things about choosing
to be a graduate student is that you really have a
special moment in your life to do something
that, really, you don’t do as an undergraduate. And that is to
create new knowledge. And for those of us who have
gone through that ourselves or are in the middle
of it, it’s really an intoxicating
experience to realize that you are, through your
daily work and interactions with your peers, pushing forward
the boundary of a discipline that you love. And it’s quite a privilege. And so I think all
of the folks here who are engaged in that process
understand what that means. And one of the
challenges, of course, is that we all love our
discipline if we’re here. And we have to explain
it to the world outside. And that’s become so
incredibly important. And I think that this
event, “Research Matters!” really captures that. Because in the last
century, and in fact in much of the history
of the university, universities were places apart. They were places where
scholars went to sort of think. And the term “ivory
tower” was perhaps an apt one for many centuries. But certainly in this day
and age, being an ivory tower doesn’t work anymore. If you do that,
people don’t know why they’re finding science and
engineering research if they don’t see a direct
outcome on their lives. Or they might wonder what
the value is of liberal arts and why it is we
need to think deeply about the nature of people
and how they interact. Those are things
that we instinctively understand if we’ve
chosen to participate in graduate education,
but it’s not something that 99.99% of the
world understands. And in this century, we need to
make the university much more of a marketplace, where
people can come in. They can see our ideas. They can perhaps even shape
them in their own ways. And they understand
in a very deep way both our love for
what we do and also the relevance to their lives. It is incredibly
important now when society is facing so many
difficult choices about where it spends its time
and where it’s put its focus to
continually remind people the importance of
charting new territory and never letting explorers
simply sit there and do nothing. So I think it’s incredibly– a
really, really important thing to hear these graduate
students to speak. And it’s incredibly hard to do. We selected them because
they are technical and they are detailed. And they are willing
to spend, let’s hope, only six years of
their lives focused in a very deep way on a
very small set of issues. Because that’s
actually how you push the forefront of knowledge. But then we ask them to do
what they’re doing today, which is to step back
out of that place and to relate what they
do to the broader world. And so it’s an incredibly
important thing to do, an incredibly hard thing
to do, and the people we’re going to
hear from have been through quite a
process to be selected. So I’m looking forward
to hearing from them why their research
matters, and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming
our Master of Ceremonies to help us do that,
Heather Bennett. Thanks so much. [APPLAUSE] Good afternoon. Thank you Dean Weber, Dean
Ryan for the warm and generous introductions. I, too, want to thank you all
for coming out and supporting our graduate student speakers. I have to say thank
you to the organizers for orchestrating this event. Particularly the
“Research Matters!” Selection Committee. They worked very hard to
select diverse research across all disciplines. However, I have to
say, this is meant to provide you
with a taste of all of the research that
is being done here. There is so much research that’s
being done here on campus. So many groundbreaking
discoveries. And I’m very, very excited to
hear from the student speakers today. They are very excited to share
their novel discoveries here with you today. And I also want to say that I’m
excited about the conversations that will transpire from the
talks that you will hear today. So to not delay
the festivities, I will introduce our first
graduate speaker of the day. Please join me in welcoming
Lauren Quattrocchi. She is a Ph.D. candidate in
the Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology Graduate Program
here at Brown University. She is also one of the
co-founding members of the Graduate Women in Science
and Engineering organization. Today, she will be speaking on
“Long Flights, Bright Lights, and the Cells that
Tuck You in at Night.” Please join me in
welcoming Lauren. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Heather, for
that lovely introduction. So for my talk, I’m
going to start out with a bold statement. And that is Star Trek is wrong. Neuroscience is
the final frontier. You have cells and circuits
within your nervous system that we still cannot define
or assign a function. Even entire nuclei of your
brain that remain an enigma. My research attempts to
combat those unknowns. Alongside my advisor,
Professor David Berson, we study retinal ganglion
cells, or the conduits connecting your
eyes to your brain. If you’ve ever
seen a scary movie where the eyeball pops out
and is hanging by a thread, that thread is
composed of 1 to 1 and 1/2 million
retinal ganglion cells. And of those cells, there are
over 20 different types each paying attention to a
different piece of information about your visual
scene and relaying that back to specialized
centers within your brain. This also means that in our
line of research, each type we assume has a
different function. So where one may
be keen on color, another may be interpreting
information about motion. In fact, you have cells that are
so sensitive within your eyes that they can track the movement
of the stars across the sky, assuming we had
the attention span to stare into space that long. Our laboratory focuses
on one type in particular and it’s called a ganglion
cell photoreceptor. It has a really
specialized protein that’s light sensitive called
melanopsin, which was first discovered in the skin of frogs. And what it does is
it enables this cell to respond to light independent
of any other cell around them. Moreover, these cells
can integrate light over long periods of time–
upwards of 10 hours– making them excellent candidates
as light intensity detectors. Now, these cells were first
discovered just over a decade ago here at Brown,
though since then countless other researchers
have contributed to discerning the functions
of these light intensity detectors. And what they’ve
found is that they’re pivotal in these
reflexive, unconscious behavioral movements that
are elicited from light. So for example,
pupillary constriction, regulating your
wake-sleep cycle, hormone regulation, and perhaps
even light-induced migraines. All of these seemingly
disparate functions have implications
within our daily lives. One such implication may
be a piece of technology, called Flux, which is a free app
you can download that actually changes the spectral composition
emitted by your computer monitor over the
course of the day so you can fall asleep at night. Another one is something
called the Happy Blue Light from Brookstone, which
is meant to ameliorate seasonal affective disorder. Imagine, if you will,
if we could identify, characterize, and
control these cells, we would no longer have
ailments like seasonal affective disorder, jet lag,
certain forms of insomnia, and perhaps even
light-induced pain. Moreover, these cells
have been proven to be the most resilient
cells within your eye. So because we know that
some blind patients share in these ailments
with us, we know these cells are
active within them, which means researchers can
now leverage these cells innate ability to survive disease
states such as glaucoma to create novel
sight-sparing therapeutics. For my thesis, I’ve discovered
a novel sixth subtype of the ganglion cell
photoreceptor called the M6. It has an absolutely
beautiful structure and incredibly
refined brain targets. However, its main
function still evades us. When I was in high
school, or even college, I believed that every
cell in the human body had already been identified
and well characterized. Or so textbooks have
led us all to believe. However, in reality
we are on the verge of discovering completely
new cells within you and me using breakthrough
technologies. It always boggled my mind
how Jean-Luc Picard could communicate with aliens, yet
here now in the 21st Century, we scientists don’t even
know how we see what we see. However, it’s discoveries like
these novel cell types where we can begin to understand how
light influences our health and behavior. And to that I stand
resolute that neuroscience is the final frontier. Live long and prosper. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Lauren. That was an enlightening talk. [LAUGHTER] I’m glad that you got that. But I will not be launching
my comedy career anytime soon. Our next speaker
is Matthew Lyddon. Matthew is a Ph.D. candidate
in the Political Science Department and Former President
of the Graduate Student Council. Today, Matt will speak about
“Crafting Citizens– Facing controversy and
Teaching Citizenship.” With that, please
welcome Matthew. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. Thank you. So I’m going to start
with a confession. I am not actually a
political scientist. So I haven’t come today equipped
with some wonderful charts and graphs. And don’t ask me
who’s going to win the midterms on the next
presidential election. I’m a political theorist. And that means that I study
the fundamental ideas, values, and assumptions that
underpin our political life and our political institutions. How do political
theorists do this? Well, we deeply read and analyze
the works of great thinkers. We try out new ideas
and interpretations at papers and conferences. We teach. We take long walks. We drink a lot of
tea and coffee. And we look to current court
cases and public controversies and try and figure
out what’s really at stake in terms of the
values in those debates. So let’s start by
looking at one of those. I’m going to talk
today about what’s at stake when we
educate citizens. Let me ask for a
quick show of hands. How many of you are familiar
with the 2010 Texas textbook controversy? OK, quite a few. So the State Board
of Education in Texas is responsible for setting
guidelines and standards which publishers have to
follow if they wish to have their
textbooks published. And since the market size
of Texas is so large, quite often as goes Texas, so
goes the rest of the nation. In 2010, the
conservative majority on the Texas Board
of Education wished to “rebalance” the
curriculum by emphasizing more conservative ideas,
figures, and movements. Now you might think,
OK, balance is good. People disagree over
moral matters and values, and students should be
exposed to a mixture. But there’s a problem. When the sole Hispanic
representative on the board proposed that more Hispanic and
Latino role models be included in the curriculum– hardly an
outlandish thing for Texas– she was voted down by the
conservative majority. So is this really
balance being sought, or are we simply looking at
yet another partisan struggle over civic education? Now, as a political theorist,
I try and make sense of this by looking to the fundamental
values of liberal democracy. Now, a quick note. That’s not big L Liberal
as in tax and spend and big government. A liberal democracy–
small l, small d– means a society which
encodes certain basic values into its institutions. Values like core basic
rights, like equal respect for all citizens, and like the
accountability of government to citizens. In a well-functioning
liberal democracy, citizens are taught to
respect a plurality of world views, moral and
religious beliefs. The state doesn’t
just enforce one. And they’re also taught
to uphold basic rights. That’s good liberal
democratic citizenship. But it’s a hard
balance to strike. You push too hard on the
promotion of liberal values and you risk endangering
the wide variety of moral traditions that
liberal democracy protects. You don’t push hard enough and
you undermine the commitment to liberal democratic values. So what do we do? Do we prize teaching liberal
democratic civic values or do we prize protecting
moral traditions from potential
educational overreach? It’s a really tough choice. And my research has shown
me that political theorists, although we might want to
do both of those things, usually end up having to
pick one over the other. People who design
citizenship programs usually have to try and avoid
controversy or deal with it very lightly. And civic education
ends at the subject of an uncomfortable balance
of power between parents, the schools, and the state. Think about that for a
second– parents, the schools, and the state. What’s missing? Well, you might ask, where are
the students in all of this? In fact, only this week
groups of high school students in Colorado staged
walkouts in protest at the re-definition of
their citizenship education to define good
citizenship as excluding protests and civil disobedience. This, along with
my own experience from teaching citizenship
to pre-college kids, tells me that students
themselves are engaged and want to be involved in their own
development as citizens. So how can we help them make
sense of being a good citizen while also upholding
their own tradition? I’m working on a new approach,
which I call value integrity. It’s still in the
blueprint stage, but basically it means including
a lot of different voices from communities, from parents,
from teachers, and allowing the students and
supporting the students to be able to make
sense of the connections between basic rights and
civil values on the one hand and their moral
traditions on the other. Why does this matter? And why is it important
for education? Well, if we teach students
in this way to build the connections for themselves
between political values and their traditions, we avoid
allowing the state to impose a one-size-fits-all solution
to this problem on citizens. We also teach them to respect
both sources of value, political and moral. And finally, when
we teach students to engage with this problem
of disagreement in this way, then we give them each a
stake in their own development as citizens. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you very much, Matthew,
for that very important civics lesson. I know that I will not
mix up political theorists and political scientists again. And FYI, I like long
walks and coffee. That works for me, too. Please, let me introduce
you to our third speaker. Our third speaker
is Tara Mulder. Tara is a Ph.D. candidate
in the Classics Department. And Tara will be speaking on
“Fetal Actors, Female Bodies– Ancient Texts and
Modern Debates.” Please join me in
welcoming Tara. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Heather. On April 30, 1965, Life
magazine rant his cover photo that you see here. The title reads, “Drama
of Life Before Birth.” And the subtitle explains
“Living 18-week-old fetus shown inside its amniotic sac.” It’s a beautiful picture,
absolutely groundbreaking for the time. But something is missing. Surely that umbilical cord
is leading off somewhere. Where in all of this is
the pregnant female body? I’m a classics scholar. And as such, I study the
language, literature, history, and culture of ancient
Greece and Rome. In particular in
my dissertation, I am focusing on
childbirth and reproduction in the Roman Empire in the First
through Fourth Centuries CE. When I first started
researching for my dissertation, I was looking for pregnant
women and childbirth within the literary and material
culture of ancient Rome. And I kept coming
up empty-handed. I was finding some
evidence, but not as much as you might think given how
important these things are to the reproduction and
continuation of the human race. So feeling
frustrated, I did what I do when I feel frustrated. I started reading around
in feminist theory and blog entries about
reproductive justice. And I realized something. I realized that I was
asking the wrong questions. And as every historian
knows, what’s most important when
you’re studying history is the questions that you ask. Here I was looking
for pregnant women when what I really
needed to be looking for was fetuses, which takes
us back to this image here. Scholars have seen this as
an important turning point in our sociocultural
conceptions of the fetus. Certainly, before this
time, before 1965, we couldn’t image the fetus
in quite this same way with this degree of
coloring and detail. But the idea of the fetus as an
independent, disembodied actor is not a phenomenon
of the last 50 years. The disassociation
between a fetus and its pregnant
female mother has been going on for a long time. So when I turned
back to my research, I was looking into Galen. Now, Galen is probably the
second most famous doctor of all time next to Hippocrates. And he wrote this absolutely
enormous collection of medical texts around
the Second Century CE. In fact, more than 10% of
our extant Greek literature was written by Galen. And sure enough, he
doesn’t have very much to say about pregnant women
or even about childbirth, but he was obsessed
with the fetus. He wanted to know,
what is the fetus? How does it form and develop? Is it alive? When does it first
start being alive? And he wasn’t alone, either. Many other doctors and
philosophers of the time period had similar questions. They wanted to know, does
the fetus have a soul? When does the soul
first enter the fetus? At conception? When it’s born and
takes its first breath? Porphyry, who was a
neo-Platonist in the Third Century, considered
very carefully and came to the conclusion
that the fetus was probably most similar to a plant. Which makes a lot of sense if
you consider that it’s attached by a stalk to a dense
bed of nutrients, cannot live if untethered
from that stalk, needs oxygen but
does not breathe, and has limited
movement capabilities. So these sorts of
questions were in the air. So what? People 2,000 years
ago had the same sorts of questions about fetal
life, or lack thereof, that we do now. Why does that matter? Well, doesn’t it seem
suspicious that we are still asking the same questions? Maybe instead of asking if
and when the fetus is alive, we should be asking what the
sociocultural political impact of childbearing is on
women and their bodies. Let me give you
one more example. There’s a portion of the
Hippocratic oath that reads, “I will not give a
woman an abortive pessary.” And when the court
case Roe v. Wade was being decided in
the United States, to determine whether or not
women should have access to abortion, people said,
well, we can’t give women access to abortion because the
Hippocratic oath explicitly forbids it. And so they consulted a
classics scholar who said, we should not take into
account the Hippocratic oath because this view
right here was probably a minority viewpoint at the
time that it was written. And I say, that’s great
because women have access to reproductive services
in this country, but why is that the
foundation for those services? Why not instead saying
we shouldn’t even consider the Hippocratic
oath and its view on abortion because
it was created within a cultural
context that did not value women, their bodies,
and their reproductive labor. As a classicist, I
am able to look over a span of 2,000 years. And I am able to see that we
are asking the same questions and having the same debates. And that if we ever want to
come to different answers, we need to start asking
different questions. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Tara. Fascinating that we’re still
asking the same questions over 2,000 years, and we should
continue to discuss this. Let me introduce you
to our fourth speaker. Our fourth speaker is
Vale Cofer-Shabica. Vale is a Ph.D. candidate
in the Chemistry Department. And I just recently
found out that Vale has five chickens and
40,000 bees in his backyard. Interesting, Vale. But not nearly as interesting as
what he will talk about today. The title of his talk
is “Wandering Molecules, the Mysteries That Matter.” With that, please join
me in welcoming Vale. [APPLAUSE] Thanks for that introduction. It’s actually 40,000
bees give or take 20,000. I’m not really sure. So on a Saturday 15 years
ago, I was falling in love with chemistry by
blowing things up in my parents’
suburban backyard. Now, on a Saturday like
today, the greatest hazard that chemistry poses to
me as a theorist probably comes from carpal tunnel. I get to use a
wrist brace, though. It’s OK. Chemistry is the study
of chemical systems, how one or more things turns
into something else. As chemists, we’d like to
be able to understand, maybe control, or at
least take advantage of these transformations. And you care a lot about how
they happen if you’re trying to synthesize a new drug, or if
you’re trying to understand how something like protein
misfolding leads to something like Alzheimer’s. Precise descriptions of
how these reactions occur are called chemical
reaction mechanisms, which are what I study. A chemical reaction
mechanism tells us how, on an atomic level,
what happens when one thing turns
into something else. Now, for simple
systems containing only a few molecules, we
thought we’d seen it all. Well-established theories backed
by ample experimental evidence gave us a tidy picture
of what happens when a chemical reaction occurs. Now, formaldehyde,
or embalming fluid, is one such simple system. It’s made up of just
four atoms– a carbon and an oxygen and two hydrogens. And we knew that
because formaldehyde’s such a simple system, it makes a
great case for the study of how light interacts with
chemical reactions. In fact, it’s such a good
system that theoreticians and experimentalists
alike have beaten it to death for the last 40 years. We knew that if you shone
a particular color of light under formaldehyde,
it would fall in half, turning into carbon
monoxide and hydrogen gas. And we had a pretty good
idea of how it happened. The hydrogens would
wander around– go ahead and play, Shane. The hydrogens would
wander around. I’m going to do this by hand. There we go. The hydrogens wander around. Eventually, they would
bump into each other and head off on their way. Now, that’s nice. But a decade ago,
scientists noticed formaldehyde do something
they’d never before seen or imagined anything to do. Instead of just falling apart
the way we expected it would, something strange happened. Instead, the hydrogen popped
off and did a full orbit around the molecule before
coming back through and falling off with its partner. This is really strange. In fact, it’s so
weird that it left a lot of people really
puzzled about it. This is like driving
from Providence to Boston but taking a pit
stop in Chicago. Really. It was so weird that
people said, oh, it’s an isolated oddity. This doesn’t really
happen very much. It turns out they were wrong. Roaming happens in
all kinds of systems and represents a totally new
class of chemical reaction mechanisms. And 10 years out,
we don’t really have a good understanding
of why it’s happening or how to explain it. And that’s where Rich and
I come in, my advisor. Strange experimental results
are nature’s invitation to new ways of looking at
the world and at a problem. For roaming, we’re
using a strange new lens to try and come up with a way to
give us insight and unlock this riddle that we have before us. Here’s the idea. One of the ways that you can
consider chemical reactions is by imagining a landscape
or with a map for it. The landscape has mountain
passes and peaks and plateaus and other things. And these features determine
how the system evolves in time. Once we have such a map, which
we can create for formaldehyde using something like quantum
chemical calculations, we can ask the map questions. One of the questions we might
ask is, what’s the mechanism? We want to understand
how roaming works. Finding the mechanism is
as simple as saying, OK, here’s the reactants area. Here’s the products area. I want to get between
the two of them. If we find the route, then
we’ve found the mechanism. For formaldehyde,
this problem is akin to choosing the route
from an infinity of options between two cities separated
by a wide range of mountains. Now, it is possible
using molecular dynamics to find such a path
for formaldehyde. Unfortunately, when
we do, the paths are tangled like a
bird’s nest of wires. They go all over the place. We can’t really see
what’s going on. Now, what we really want
somehow is a filtered version of this path. We want something to show us
the well-worn and well-traveled paths of the map,
to show us what the true mechanism
behind roaming is. So our idea is this. We say, OK, we’ll
look for the shortest paths or the optimal
paths on this map. Maybe once we find
those, that’ll work out. Well, some of our
previous research suggested that these paths might
be the filtered version we were looking for, the routes
without all the tangles. For the last year,
my work has been to look for these
particular routes, and then to understand
what makes them special. In this first part,
I’ve had great success. I’ve managed to
write a program that can start in the
reactants area, make it to the products area
of formaldehyde. And we know that it’s short. Or, we hope that it’s
short at any rate. But when we look
at the paths, we see that they’re
smooth and clear. They’re free of tangles, which
means this filter is working. That’s really great
and new all on its own. But the next step
is to figure out what makes these paths special. Perhaps there’s a
particular mountain pass or valley overlook
that they all go by. I’m not sure what I
will find, or even if there is anything
to be found. But that’s the
excitement of science and I’m excited to wade in. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Vale. Who knew that formaldehyde
could be so fascinating, dynamic, and can roam? So with that, let me at this
time introduce our first alumni speaker of the afternoon. Sophie Lebrecht received
her Ph.D. in 2012 in Cognitive Sciences. She is the co-founder and
CEO of Neon Labs, a software technology company
located in Silicon Valley. Please join me in welcoming
Sophie, whose talk is entitled “Discovering the
World Through Images.” [APPLAUSE] Thanks. And it’s really great
to be back at Brown. So the world was a
pretty different place when I started at Brown. The iPhone hadn’t been invented. And so we had never seen
touchscreen technology. People typically
weren’t walking around with an eight megapixel
camera in their back pocket. Twitter was not
yet founded, so we had no sense of the
importance of 140 characters. And people actually
watched television on a TV. Or if they were pretty advanced,
Netflix mailed them a DVD. And now, things are a little
bit different and content is everywhere. And images are really
the central part of exploring that content,
which is a really exciting time for me because I’ve been trying
to understand how humans see and respond to images for
the best part of my career. I came to Brown to study
the human visual system. I started my work with
Professor Michael Tarr and Professor David Sheinberg. And we were looking at
how humans see faces. And not just regular faces. We were interested
in understanding how you see other race faces. So some of you may be
familiar with an effect known as the other race effect,
where if you are born into a community where you
see just one predominant race, you can effortlessly
basically distinguish between those faces. But then in fact,
faces of other races can be hard to tell apart. And we were interested
in, how does this well-known
perceptual bias impact our social and
emotional decisions? So we set about to
train so that people could tell the difference
between these faces. And what we were
able to discover is actually when people
can see the difference between other race faces,
it removes their social bias or it ameliorates
it to some degree. And for me, that opened up a
new question, which is maybe everything we see
in the world has an emotional response
associated with it. And maybe even objects
and images of the everyday that we might think
of as being neutral actually generate a very
subtle emotional response. And so in my thesis
I asked the question, is anything in our visual
world ever neutral? And we started to look
into behavioral response. We used functional MRI. And we figured out
that, in fact, yes. Like even objects that
you would typically think of as neutral–
chairs, watches– actually possess a small
affective response that we called valence. And knowing this valence, you
could predict the likelihood that people would
choose an image. And so as I was
finishing my Ph.D., I really thought,
maybe this is useful. Maybe there is someone
somewhere in the world that would want to know
the type of images that people would choose. And I’m going to
share a story with you now that I don’t typically talk
about when I tell this story. But I want to go
back to the time, how I was feeling at that time. So I was excited
about the science. I knew that there was
someone, somewhere that would want to use it. That it could have a big impact. But I was really shy and
kind of almost embarrassed to say to my
colleagues, maybe we could start a business on this. Or, maybe we could take
this out of the university. And so I turned up on
Dean Weber’s doorstep. I had never met him,
but I was finishing up and I said, you know, I want
to talk to someone about this. I’ve had an amazing
time at Brown. I’ve loved my Ph.D.
We’ve published papers. I could do a
traditional post-doc, but I’m thinking
about this other path. And he said something
that has really stayed with me to this day. He said, Sophie, if you’ve
discovered something that can disseminate
knowledge and create jobs, then you’ve done everything
that Brown trains in you. And you should hold your head up
high and go out into the world and figure it out. So I was like, OK, how am
I going to figure it out? And at that time, the
National Science Foundation had launched a program
called Innovation Core. And the Innovation
Core program is designed for scientists
or engineers who have NSF-funded
research that they think has a commercial
potential, but they don’t know what they’re doing. And it’s, of course,
different from a lot of the NSF’s typical programs. It’s taught by entrepreneurs
and venture capitalists. And they put you through this
grueling three-month program where you try to figure out, is
there a commercial potential? Is there a product
in my science? And through that program,
we realized, actually, there is a need. And that need at the moment
is in the video space. So online video was
really gaining momentum. And there were a
lot of companies out there that
needed to get more views on their video content. And they asked us, well, if you
know what image people like, will you be able to pick
the frame from the video to represent it? And I thought, yeah, that’s
actually a really interesting problem to solve
and we can do that. And so we set about
forming a team. So I had an expertise in
cognitive neuroscientist, but I brought together
a group of people from machine learning, computer
vision, large-scale system architectures, software
engineering design. And together, we
built a product that can take in any amount of
video and select the frame to represent that video or the
thumbnail to drive video views. People often ask,
how is it different? How is it different
doing research in a startup as opposed
to doing it in academia? And I think one of the things
that’s particularly interesting is the scale. So I remember when I was in
the lab, if we had brought 30 people in for a week,
that was a big week. And we’d collected
a lot of data. Today, Neon serves over
a billion thumbnails. People are seeing and responding
to our images 24 hours a day globally. Our images have told a story
around events like the Winter Olympics through to
the Syrian conflicts, to today we’re representing
the coverage of the Ryder Cup. And so by working with these
large-scale media publishers, we suddenly have
so much data to be able to solve the problem of
how people see and respond to images. And I think another question
that people often ask is, but is it fun? What is the most
fun part of being part of an early-stage
company out in the Valley? And it’s interesting. I would be lying if
I said there’s not a lot of fun in meeting
people, finding yourself in these unpredictable
situations. But I think one of the
most special moments for me was when we were all
sitting in the office and the first thumbnail went
live on a newspaper’s website. And I realized that
the algorithms that selected that image
had come from science that we had worked
on here at Brown. And to see that translated
and to see that image live in the wild driving views was
an incredibly powerful moment for me. So as I look to
the future, I think that I’m still in a
very privileged position to be conducting research within
a slightly different format than I was before. But myself and my team are
still very much interested in understanding how we
see and respond to images. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Sophie,
for your transparency. and encouraging us to take
in the images around us as it may change the
way we see the world. And perhaps, how
we see our Ph.D.’s I will introduce
our first speaker of the second session,
Ashley Bowen-Murphy. Ashley is a Ph.D. candidate
in American studies. I also learned
yesterday that she’s training for the New
York City Marathon. So not only is she a
diligent researcher, but she’s also a
dedicated athlete. So today, Ashley’s talk is
entitled “Irritable Heart, Soldier’s Heart– How Civil
War Veterans and their widows Mended Broken Hearts.” Please join me in
welcoming Ashley. [APPLAUSE] So I ran 18 miles this
morning and I’m wearing heels, so I want lots of
applause at the end. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] I’m in the American
Studies Department, which is something of– it’s a
very interdisciplinary field. And I use the kinds of insights
from history, from literature, and from medical
science to think about a particular
diagnosis that was in use from,
roughly, the Civil War until World War I. It’s
called irritable heart. And the way that I find
out about this illness, the way I learned about not
just the way physicians talked about it, but what patients
understood about it is by using pension records. These records come from
the National Archives and they tell incredible stories
about Civil War soldiers. Some of whom were at the
front for only a few weeks, others who were at the front
for the duration of the war and then went West afterwards. These records include everything
from individual medical care, to pulses, to
family stories that can tell us something
about what it was like to be a veteran
of the American Civil War. After the war, we saw
lots of men come back to the United States–
come back to the North who had what we might now think
of as something of a panic disorder. So they had things that
were like high heart rate. They had irregular heart rates. They had incredibly
intense chest pain that they would complain about. And this was something that
was called irritable heart. It was identified by a man
named Jacob Da Costa in 1862 at Turner’s Lane Hospital
outside of Philadelphia. What he found among
Civil War soldiers were an incredible
kind of heart disease that he thought was fairly
new to the American Civil War. He sent a letter to the
Surgeon General in 1862 explaining that
an over-excitement of nervous energy–
and keep in mind that in the 19th
Century, nervous energy, it’s not quite the same thing
that we think of today when we think of nerves. It really was more nerves–
combined with exposure to battlefield conditions
and poor nutrition were the kinds of things
that would generate this sort of physical
feeling in someone. At the same time, we know
that today soldiers continue to suffer from heart problems
at a higher rate and earlier than we might expect. So just this past year,
the VA hospital system released a report
in which they found that even men who have been to
combat, even if they don’t end up with post traumatic
stress disorder or an anxiety disorder that’s sort of
clinically recognizable, they do you have heart problems
at an earlier age than we might imagine and in higher
numbers than we might expect. Jacob Da Costa
totally knew this. Like my guy, he knew. So what my research
does is try and think through the ways in which
medical history can tell us something about what we’re
still seeing in the present. My research also looks at
how individual soldiers made sense of their illnesses. So we have soldiers
who would say things like, it felt like
my heart stopped. But his heart rate was
measured at 104 beats a minute in this case. So this isn’t just a question
of how physicians understood illness, but how individual
patients understood that illness as well. So that’s one half of
my work– patients, physicians, the people who
either have the illness or study it. But I’m also interested in
all the irritable hearts around these soldiers. The people who
ended up caretaking. The people whose
lives were impacted because the men in
their lives came home from the war different. So the story I like
to tell on this front is about a woman
named Sofia Fife. In the years after the war,
she told the pension office that she noticed the change
in her husband immediately. When he came back from
the war, his hands shook so much that he
couldn’t hold a coffee cup. It would shake whenever
she handed it to him. She also told the
pension officer that she would shave
him before the war, but not because he
couldn’t do it himself. It was common. That was a form of affection. It was a way to demonstrate
care for a male family member. But after the war, she was
afraid to let him do it. Keep in mind this is a
man diagnosed with a heart condition, but the
shaking of his hands was indicative of
so much more and it changed their entire
family dynamic. Eventually, the pension
office decided that the Fifes weren’t– they weren’t
eligible for pensions. There were some irregularities
in his family history. There were some concern about
drinking, about loose women. It was the 19th
Century, so your value as a person that the
government was going to pay was determined by those things. But after Jacob died, Sofia
did receive a pension. And in the documents,
the pension officers talk about how her
life changed because of his experience in combat. And that itself was
worth pensioning. So what I think that we
can get from these records is not just the story
of a particular illness, but about the way illness
is experienced and made sense of by all of the
people around them. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Ashley, for giving
us a valuable lesson of how history can influence
what we know today, and how it’s important for how
we treat our patients today. Our second speaker
is Eric James. Eric is a Ph.D. candidate in the
Neuroscience Graduate Program. Eric is also the president of
an organization near and dear to my heart, SACNAS, the
Society for the Advancement of Chicanos, Hispanics, and
Native Americans in Science. And today, Eric will speak
on “What Can Tadpoles Teach Us About Autism?” With that, please join
me in welcoming Eric. [APPLAUSE] Thanks That’s our
national liaison there for the SACNAS Office. So what can tadpoles
teach us about autism? Well, our brains–
indeed, all brains– are made up of specialized–
well, highly specialized brain cells. And they’re called neurons. And neurons have
this amazing ability to self-assemble into highly
organized neural circuits. Now, these neural circuits, they
give rise to our perceptions and they dictate how we
experience the world. Now, when abnormalities occur
in this circuit function or in circuit form,
well, that can profoundly affect how we experience,
perceive, and interact with the world around us. Oftentimes, these circuit
abnormalities– well, they present in the
form of the behaviors that we ascribe to neural
developmental disorders like epilepsy, or
schizophrenia, or even autism. Animal models that
lend themselves to the study of the brain,
both developmentally and functionally,
from different levels and different
perspectives– well, they can provide us
insights into how human brain disorders arise. One specific example of
this is valproic acid. The world over,
valproic acid is one of the most commonly prescribed
anti-seizure medications. It’s also often prescribed
as a mood stabilizing drug for bipolars as
well as schizophrenics. However, despite its
utility as a medication, it has known
deleterious effects. If a developing fetus is
exposed to valproic acid, because the mother has
to take valproic acid to control her seizure history,
this causes some 12% to 15% increase in the
risk that that child will be diagnosed with a
neurodevelopmental disorder. Even more surprising is
that of these children that are prenatally exposed
to valproic acid and diagnosed with a
neurodevelopmental disorder– well, they’re ultimately
diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Now, autism spectrum disorder,
if you’re not familiar, is made up of what’s known
as the triad of impairments. This is a decrease
of socialization, a decrease in communication,
however, an increased propensity for repetitive
or stereotype behaviors. Now thus far, we,
as scientists, we have been unable to understand
how valproic acid is causing these neurodevelopmental
disorders. And that’s in part
due to the fact that we don’t have an ethical
way of accessing the developing functional brain
during pregnancy. Now in Aizenman Lab here
at Brown University, we use tadpoles to study brain
development, brain function, and brain disorders. Now, what makes this model
organism such a useful model system, particularly
within this case, is that tadpole embryos
develop very similarly to human embryos. Moreover, their brains
or nervous systems develop very similarly
to human embryos as well. Or, human brains as well. This means that we can access
the developing functional circuits and we
can look and test how changes in circuit
formation and circuit function ultimately dictate
changes in behavior. So when we expose these
developing tadpoles to valproic acid, we find
that the neural circuits have significantly changed. They become hyper-connected. They become hyper-excitable. And somehow, the individual
neurons that make up those circuits– well,
they become less excitable. Now, how do we test for
socialization in tadpoles? Well, tadpoles school very
similarly to how fish school. And this is a social behavior. So again when we expose these
tadpoles to valproic acid and we measure their
ability to school, we find that they
school abnormally. Meaning they have decreased
ability to socialize. So what can we learn from
tadpoles, particularly about autism? Well, we can learn three things. One, we can use
this animal model to understand how
valproic acid is causing these neurodevelopmental
disorders. Two, we can use it to identify
potential therapeutic targets that we can manipulate in
order to reverse and/or– well, reverse the effects and/or
protect the developing fetus against the deleterious
effects of valproic acid. And three, and most
importantly, is that we can use these quote,
unquote “autistic” tadpoles to identify whether
neurodevelopmental disorder that arise from genetic or
environmental risk factors have the same sort of mechanisms
as valproic acid-induced neurodevelopmental disorders. And if we can find these
conserved biological targets– well, that may be the key to
unlocking the mystery that is human brain disorders. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Eric. Who knew that tadpoles
could be autistic? And secondly, thank you, Eric,
for telling us and explaining to us why less complex model
organisms are just as valuable. So let me introduce you to our
next speaker, Jessica Tabak. Jessica Tabak is
a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department. The title of her talk is,
“When Stories are Difficult.” Please join me in
welcoming Jessica. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Heather. Illnesses don’t make sense. They’re sudden,
unpredictable, and arbitrary. This senselessness
compounds the pain that illness
sufferers experience. In addition to their
physical symptoms, they have the painful
confusion of not understanding what is happening to
their bodies or why. In order to ease this painful
confusion, we turn to stories. Doctors, social workers,
families, friends encourage illness sufferers
to re-imagine their suffering along pre-scripted
optimistic storylines. And one that many of
us are familiar with is the overcoming
storyline in which someone is encouraged to
think about their illness as an obstacle that they’ll
both tactical and be a stronger person for having overcome. But different cultures use
different illness stories. And today, I’d like
to share with you an example from the
culture that I study, which is the culture
of Renaissance England. Back then, medicine
wasn’t what it is today. So it was impossible
for sufferers to have the same
sort of optimism that they would, in fact,
overcome their illnesses. And so what they did was they
imagined that their illnesses themselves had positive meaning
that was given to them by God. They saw their physical
symptoms and suffering as steps along a path
to spiritual salvation. Now, during this time,
there were a number of very popular spiritual
guidebooks published. And these guidebooks were
designed to teach sufferers how they, too, could fit their
illnesses along this salvation story. And in 1624, one of the great
English Renaissance writers made his own contribution
to this literary field. His name was John
Donne, and his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
described his own experiences with an illness that
almost killed him. The Devotions is a
notoriously difficult text to read for a number of reasons. But the one that I
find most interesting is that its twisting,
turning plot often resists this very
salvation story that we, as readers,
expect it to follow. I examined this twisting,
turning plot in my dissertation and I’d like for us to think
about it together today. So oftentimes on
the Devotions, Donne does exactly what you
would expect him to do. He describes his physical
symptoms as blessings from God and he praises God for them. But here’s the trick. For every moment when Donne
praises god and piously accepts his suffering, there’s a
moment in which he doesn’t. A new, unexpected
symptom will emerge or a treatment will hurt
instead of making him hurt less. Donne struggles to
understand these moments. And in doing so,
he questions god. He challenges god
instead of offering him the praise that the salvation
story tells him that he should. I think that these difficult
experiences are important in and of themselves. But what makes the devotion
such an extraordinary book is what Donne does
with these moments. Instead of ignoring them,
pretending to his readers that his experiences fit
the script he’s been given, Donne records his difficulties. And in doing so, he allows each
and every one of his readers to see exactly when and where
this salvation story fails to provide him the comfort
it’s been designed to give. This is why I think
the Devotions is such an important book for
us to read, even today. It reminds us how hard it
is to fit illness inside any one-size-fits-all story. Whether it’s a
story from the East, or the West, or Renaissance
England, or modern America. And in reminding
us of this, I think that this strange old
text in an obscure genre poses a very immediate
challenge to us all. Can we, like Donne, resist the
very understandable temptation to ignore those moments when
our friends or family members, our patients, or even our
own sick bodies experience illness in ways that don’t fit
the stories we’ve been given? When they are messy,
counterproductive, or regressive. By studying the
literature of illness, it is my hope that
we all may become more responsive to hearing other
people’s stories of suffering. Even when those stories
are difficult to hear. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Jessica, for
sharing with us insights on how we can navigate
difficult conversations and doing it in a meaningful
and purposeful way. Our last graduate student talk
of the day is by Steve Zins. Steve is a Ph.D. candidate
in the Pathobiology Graduate Program here at Brown. He is also the Current President
of the Graduate Student Council. Today, he will talk about
his dissertation research, which is entitled, “Are We Safe? Responding to a Global
Persistent Infection.” With that, the stage is yours. [APPLAUSE] Thank you very much, Heather. And thank you all for coming. It’s really an honor to be
able to share with you today why my research matters. I want to start off
with two numbers, 35 million, 36 billion. 35 million people worldwide
are currently living with HIV. And a recent study indicated
that the economic burden of new HIV infections in the
United States alone in 1 year was $36 billion. Hold that thought. I work on viruses. Simple enough. In the Atwood Laboratory
at Brown University, we study human polyomaviruses. And you’ve probably never
heard of these viruses for a very good reason. They don’t do anything
to you if you’re healthy. But it turns out that
these viruses infect up to 70% of the human population. And if you have a severely
weakened immune system, these viruses reactivate,
travel to your brain, and cause a fatal
neurodegenerative disease called PML for short. So here we have
a situation where we have a virus that’s
either really good at hiding from your immune system or your
immune system is really, really good at controlling it. I work on how
polyomaviruses interact with your immune system. And your immune
systems over time have developed really
cool ways at generally dealing with pathogens. One of these cool ways is
that cells in your body have specialized proteins
that recognize patterns in molecules that
shouldn’t be there. And so when one of these
cells and specialized proteins recognizes a pattern that
screams, hey, a virus is here, it signals to other immune
cells to clear the infection. I’m working on how after
polyomavirus infection the virus manipulates
these signals, turning them on or off, up or down, and
the subsequent downstream signals from that. Understanding this
can help us understand why these viruses are
not cleared completely from your body and
they remain persistent. Another really cool way
that your immune system is developed to
deal with pathogens are by producing proteins
called defensins. They’re named that
way for a reason. They provide a very good
first line of defense by either being able to directly
neutralize viruses and bacteria or by signaling just like the
specialized pattern-recognizing proteins. And I am following, using
different microscopes, a polyomavirus infection
throughout the cell after being treated
with defensin and figuring out where the
virus is stuck in the cell. Because the defensin,
indeed, neutralizes infection and I’m trying to figure out
where on the virus’s journey it does this. And by figuring this
out, we can more directly target what
compartment in the cell to use for treating
this virus infection. And it could potentially
have other implications with other persistent pathogens. But let me bring
you back to that thought I told you to hold
onto a little while ago. Why did I start off with HIV
when I work on polyomaviruses? Well, if you didn’t know, HIV
destroys your immune cells. And PML was originally thought
to be an AIDS-defining illness. But I bet many of
you in the audience know somebody with
multiple sclerosis, or Crohn’s, or lupus, or any
other autoimmune conditions. It turns out that the
treatment for these conditions, or turning down
your immune system, or in some cases
turning it off, provide a really ripe environment for
polyomaviruses to reactivate. So with new medicines and new
elegant treatment strategies, we have unforeseen
complications that we may not have been aware of before. So it’s interesting. This summer I taught
with a colleague of mine a summer course for
pre-college kids called “Exploring Infectious
Diseases– Are We Safe?” And I think we have
a pretty good idea on the answer to that question
for better or for worse. For popular infections, such
as flu, Ebola, salmonella. But my research hopes to answer
a more nuanced and difficult question, are we really
safe from these pathogens and persistent infections
that so far we’ve been able to control? With new medicines and new
treatment technologies, some of these
questions are harder to answer because they
open up different problems. So in my mind, at least 35
million people and $36 billion are at stake. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Steve, for
once again reminding us how lucky we are to have a
functional immune system, and why we must
continue to study it. At this time, let
me introduce you to our second and final
speaker of the day. He is a graduate student alumni. He received his Ph.D. in
Political Science in 2006, Shankar Prasad. He is also returning to
us to Brown University. And as a student who is about
to complete the Ph.D. process, the topic of his talk today
is very meaningful to me and strikes a chord. So please welcome
Shankar, as he’s going to talk to us about
“Exploring Non-Traditional Career Options, and Not
Feeling Guilty About It.” With that, please
join me in welcoming. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Heather,
for that introduction. And thank you so much
for having me here today. When Dean Ryan had asked
me to join this panel and to join this event, I
jumped at the opportunity because I wish close
to a decade ago when I graduated somebody had
told me the same thing that I want to talk about
today, which is that it’s OK to explore options outside
of traditional academia. In part because our
training allows us to do so. My journey here, a little
more than a decade ago, started in the Department
of Political Scientist. I came to do my Ph.D. in
a bright hot pink, hideous building on the corner
of Prospect Street and Water– Prospect
and– I’m blanking now. But it’s there. And it’s no longer
pink as it turns, which I thought was wonderful. And I started
because I was really interested in understanding
political behavior and civic engagement. And specifically, mechanisms
that drive political behavior and civic engagement. My research at that time that
translated into a dissertation focused on political learning
among immigrant communities. Understanding how new
people come to this country. They understand the
political process, and then they translate
that specifically into partisan affiliation. And I was really fascinated
with this research topic. I conducted a
national survey, got to travel around the country
and do focus group research as well. And then one day I walked
into my dissertation advisor’s office and I give him
a bit of a heart attack by telling him that I was
going to, upon graduation, go to work at a hedge fund
in mergers and acquisitions as a financial analyst
in New York City. About as opposite or
as far a departure from studying political
science at a place like Brown. And I went there and it was a
really interesting experience. After two grueling, sort of
soul-sucking years in finance, I realized finance
wasn’t for me. But what I did– and this
is right around the time of the financial crisis–
was gathered a couple people that I worked with in the fund. And we started a health
care technology firm. And the goal for us
was to think about how we could use or really harness
the power of technology to think about better ways,
more efficient ways to collect health data, clinical
data, especially in the emerging world. And then, to repurpose that
data in a way that researchers, academics in particular,
administrators could take that data and try to
drive meaningful conclusions. To, in other words,
give them the power to query their data
in more powerful ways. And it was a really
fantastic ride. We started in India. We built it out to the UAE. We then went to South Africa. And now we’re in the
United States as well. And at the moment, it’s
the largest provider of clinical data systems
in India, in particular. While I was doing that though,
that dissertation topic at the back of my mind sort
of was always there, always sort of questioning sort of
the relevance of the research that I had done. And so what I did
was think about, if technology could sort
of re-imagine the way we think about
collecting health data. And if technology could do
such an incredible thing about re-changing or
changing the ways we do so many other
things in our lives, like traveling or
shopping or looking for a variety of services
or traveling, why can’t we think about using
technology and harnessing the power of technology
to repurpose or rethink the way that we engage in
the democratic process? And so I started a little
start-up called Yourlist.org that used a basic NLP algorithm
to go out there and ask citizens to identify what are
the issues that you care about. Tell us what you care about. Tell us what your issues are. Whether it’s the fact that
your school doesn’t have enough supplies for your children. Whether it’s that transportation
locally has broken down. Whether it’s a pothole
sort of in your local area that you want fixing. And the idea is to
take those issues, to identify across a geographic
region, aggregate sort of the most popular
issues based on that, and then use it as
a matching tool. One, to be able to help
to drive the conversation in political institutions. But two, to also use as a
mechanism for accountability. To say, if people care about
these top three things, why is it that our
political institutions are doing these other 3 things? Or 10 things? Or really, nothing as the
case turned out at that time. And it was really fantastic. I loved it. We launched it in New York City. We got 150,000 responses
in our first campaign, which was outstanding. Except that when I looked back
and looked at what the work I was trying to do in terms
of democratic engagement, I saw that we had barely
pushed the needle. We had barely moved
the needle in terms of trying to change
the democratic process and re-engage citizens. Because just asking people
what they care about doesn’t really go anywhere. What you have to do is
to change the culture in political institutions
and make them much more open and accessible to using
this data to actually driving problem solving and
agenda setting and all these other factors. And so at that time, I
had already moved to NYU. I started teaching. And then I joined
two of my colleges and we started something
called the Governance Lab. And the Governance Lab’s
job was to basically rethink institutional
redesign, to use technology, to create more opportunities for
collaborative problem solving in public and
private institutions. We started with a
couple basic clients. We started with the procurement
process at the World Bank. We started with a smaller
series of projects. One with the NYPD at
the time in trying to think about using sentiment
analysis to rethinking how we do community policing. And we basically
branched out our work in a short period
of time to a number of institutions both local
and national in scale. We actually worked with NYU
itself which ended up being a 70,000-person organization to
think about how we can engage the community of people
involved– students, faculty, staff– across decision-making
to rethink things like, what to do with the university
bookstore in an era when bookstores don’t make sense. Or, how do we improve
employee engagement so that we can directly
ask employee experts how we can think about things like
working with retirement benefit plans and a whole
host of other issues? It was an incredible ride. It continues to be so. In a short span, about 8
months, we raised $15 million from basically
foundations primarily and from generous grants from
the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Omidyar,
and a couple of other smaller groups. We also were able to work with
a number of smaller clients. I bring this up, one,
because in political science it’s an unheard of
amount of money. But two, it identifies the
appetite that people had for using technology to
rethink the political process. And that’s what we
continue to do even now. In that time, that
money allowed us to grow our staff
from 3 to 35 people. We now have branches at
MIT, at NYU, obviously. Hopefully at Brown
now that I’m here. And also, in Mexico, and Chile,
and Argentina, Brazil, NHS in the UK. So we’re doing a bunch
of work everywhere. And basic goal of the Governance
Lab is to use technology, test out a bunch of theories
about how we can re-engage the political process, and
then go through the process of testing what works
and what doesn’t. Our basic frame with the
Governance Lab is threefold, is to rethink governance
or sort of decision-making in three different ways. One is in terms of
engaging citizens to collect better
information and really tap into the expertise of the
public when we make decisions. And we’ve done this in pretty
extraordinary ways, I think. Sort of this is a
time now where we’re seeing a lot of this
kind of movement in a very exciting way
across the board from there in terms of work that’s being
done in Iceland, in terms of sort of co-creating
the constitution there. In terms of work that’s
being done in Estonia. In terms of work that’s being
done in Libya, as well, where we’re engaging citizens directly
in the process of identifying what rules and regulations
for these country should be, which is pretty exciting. The second phrase that
we’ve been focusing on is thinking about how
we can push data out in a more efficiently. How we can use public data,
agency data, and basically push it out to spur innovation. We publish something called
the Open Data 500 Report. And it was the first of
its kind, which was great. President Obama has now
put an economic value to open data at $3 trillion. And our goal was
basically to identify what are best
practices for agencies to be able to open up their
data in a way that can then spur this economic innovation. And then finally,
our interest was to think about how we
can harness technology to co-collaborate or collaborate
with citizens in directly solving problems. And some of the work that we’ve
seen in participatory budgeting is a nice example of
this kind of work here. So these are three instances
of work that’s happening. It’s pretty exciting. It continues to grow. And I bring it up
because the work that I was able to do
with the Governance Lab was so significantly
based on the work that I did as a graduate student
here with these questions that I got to ask in our dark
basement in Prospect House sort of during
those lonely hours. And so recognizing that I’m
all that stands between you and what looks like a
very delicious reception, let me end by saying
the following. If your path is not
clear, if you feel lonely and you’re sort of
not quite sure what to do with your research, or
you’re trying to figure out what the next step is with
that master’s or Ph.D. degree that you want to explore
other alternatives, I think it’s really important
to recognize that this program and graduate school,
in particular, trains you to be an entrepreneur
whether you recognize it or not. The seeds for being
an entrepreneur for me were sort of sown so long ago
without me recognizing it. And I was able to continue
to use this training to try and fail, and try
and fail, and try and try in different arenas about things
that I were interested in. There’s no better way to
do that than to start here in your graduate training. So let me end with that. Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Shankar. I am very encouraged
by hearing those words. And it’s OK to navigate
different paths. And I’m reminded of a famous
story that’s entitled, Oh, The Places You Will Go. Have faith, it will lead
you back to the same spot. So this concludes all
our talks for the day. Are you excited? Did you hear something
that you loved? Yes? [CHEERS] I told you, they
would be fantastic. So I’m going to invite
Dean Ryan to come back up for closing remarks. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Heather. That was. Great thank you
all for joining us. What wonderful talks. The passion, I think,
was just evident. I could feel it in
each of those talks. I just also want to thank,
again, our sponsors. We’re grateful for the
support of the Office of Brown’s 250th Anniversary. We’re also grateful for the
C.M. Colver Lectureship Fund. I encourage you to continue
to enjoy the many events that are taking place this weekend. So some of you
may be peeling off from our reception to
tailgating and heading to the football game. I also remind you of Sweeney
Todd that’s happening tonight. So there’s much more in your
program for this weekend. And I hope you take
advantage of these many ways to celebrate Brown’s 250th. Right now, I’d invite you to
join us in the lobby right outside the auditorium
for a reception to celebrate our speakers, and
to celebrate graduate school research because
research matters. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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