As another school year has come to a close, I reflect on the great advances we’ve made in discovery science just this year—from understanding the biology of ourselves to discovering our place in the universe.
Thank you to everyone who joined us at our biennial “Brains on Brains” event this past month where we heard about the most recent research coming out of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, as well as an update on the work of the Aging Brain Initiative. If you haven’t yet read about Li-Huei Tsai Laboratory’s remarkable non-invasive techniques for reducing Alzheimer’s-related plaques in mouse models, I strongly encourage you to do so as part of our research highlight on page 3.
I am pleased to announce the establishment of the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research, to be housed at the McGovern Institute. Through their gift, Tan and Yang have pledged to support research on the genetic, biological, and neural bases of autism spectrum disorders, estimated to affect 1 in 68 individuals in the United States. Using revolutionary new tools, such as CRISPR and optogenetics, the center’s researchers may not only identify new targets for medicines, but also develop novel treatments not based on standard pharmacological approaches. You can read more about Tan and Yang’s personal motivations to establish this center in our donor profile on page 8.
In other brain-related news, Michale Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, will receive the inaugural Fundamental Science Investigator Award. This award, established through the generous support of John S. Reed ’61 SM ’65, life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation, is given to those researchers working on fundamental discovery science. Fee investigates neural circuitry in the brains of birds with potential applications to the study of brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases in humans.
From brains and birds to the world beyond our universe, I am also pleased to announce that Tracy Slatyer, the Jerrold R. Zacharias Career Development Assistant Professor of Physics, will be the first recipient of the School of Science’s Future of Science award. As part of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, Slayter is motivated by questions in fundamental particle physics about the nature of dark matter. The Future of Science Fund, generously seeded by alumni Jake Xia, PhD ’92, Jen Lu ’90 SM ’91, Amy Wong ’90, Brad Hu ’84, Senad Prusac ’90, Bill Park ’93, and parents and donors Marina Chen and Chi-fu Huang, will provide supplemental research funds for our stellar faculty and students.
This issue of Science@MIT also highlights some amazing discoveries with TRAPPIST, TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope, a 60-centimeter telescope based in Chile. In February, the TRAPPIST project group, including Julien de Wit, a postdoc in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Sara Seager, the 1941 Professor of Planetary Sciences, announced the discovery of seven temperate, nearby planets—only 40 light years away. See the image on this issue’s back cover. Those lucky seven were then joined by an eighth, potentially habitable exoplanet reported this past April in Nature. Researchers may be able to infer the signatures for supporting life on other planets by studying the spectrum of light filtered through the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
In April, we also heard from MIT Corporation member Neil Rasmussen ’76, SM ’80 and Anna Winter Rasmussen about the importance of understanding the atmosphere of our own planet. The Rasmussens have underwritten graduate fellowships in climate science, and at the EAPS Patrons Circle dinner, Neil Rasmussen presented the case for the importance of basic, unbiased scientific research.
It is this call for renewed focus on and funding for fundamental discovery science that was the basis for the marches for science taking place in our country and around the world. Everyone, regardless of political affiliation or sentiment, benefits from curiosity-driven, fundamental research—even if the returns from this research aren’t gained immediately.
Through the words of the next generation of scientists found on pages 6 and 22, to the findings of established research programs of faculty such as Professor Bonnie Berger in my home Department of Mathematics, our researchers are addressing fundamental scientific questions that will aid MIT and us all, in our Campaign for a Better World.
I invite you to read about these stories and more in this issue of Science@MIT.