Letter from the Dean
My dear fellow alumni and friends,
The Summer 2022 issue of Science@MIT is dedicated to highlighting some—but by no means all—of the important researchers working on climate science at MIT. You may have seen last month’s announcement about the flagship projects funded through MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges.
You can take an in-depth look at two of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects: “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes” and “Bringing computation to the climate challenge.” These research projects are led by science faculty—and not surprisingly, their main departmental affiliation is the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). EAPS professors Kerry Emanuel, Raffaele Ferrari, Paul O’Gorman, and Noelle Selin, are all prominent researchers in climate science research and modeling.
The other three Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects (which you can read about on MIT News) may not be led by science-affiliated faculty, but each has representation from science researchers including biology professors Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng; chemistry professors Yogesh Surendranath and Timothy Swager; mathematics professor Alan Edelman; as well as impressive cadre of science faculty and research staff from the MIT’s Center for Global Change Science and, of course, EAPS.
Two themes are common among all the flagship projects: science is foundational to progress in combatting climate change; and science alone is not enough. Collaboration, grounded in science, is key to progress.
In launching the MIT Climate Action Plan, President L. Rafael Reif declared that “we must go as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now … as well as invest in, invent, and deploy new tools. Current tools alone will not get us to the target.”
I espouse this bold action plan of which the Climate Grand Challenge flagships are a part. And while the pace of science can at times feel painstakingly slow and requires significant investment, science without immediately known applications — for the purpose of answering Why? or How? — is, itself, incredibly valuable.
You can read about biology graduate student Giselle Valdes, one of our fellowship recipients supported by the Fund for the Future of Science (in turn supported by gifts our friends and alumni). In Professor Peter Reddien’s lab, Valdes studies how the dynamics and regulation of gene expression in flatworm stem cells drive their resolution to a specific fate. Reddien, Valdes, and others in the lab group are studying the molecular and cellular mechanisms that control cell regeneration. One can see the long-term value in regrowing cells—even body parts!—but understanding the underlying mechanisms is the primary goal.
Chemistry graduate student, Amanuella Mengiste, our other Future of Science fellowship holder, works in the lab of Associate Professor Matthew Shoulders. One of Mengiste’s projects is to better understand a class of proteins known as G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs are the conduits by which cells detect external stimuli — be they photons, small molecules, or proteins. Mengiste’s goal is to create GPCRs that are activated by pharmacologically inert small molecules and capable of activating different signaling pathways in a controlled manner. (You can read more about Mengiste’s research in our winter 2020 issue of Science@MIT.) Like Valdes, Mengiste has a goal of understanding cellular mechanisms that could—perhaps, someday—lead to a pharmacological intervention or direct therapeutics. Or their research projects might not lead to any known practical applications.
Or, perhaps in 50 years’ time, the processes studied now might lead to a life-saving vaccine, as in the story of the development of the RNA vaccines and our subsequent understanding of how to identify the Covid virus. You can read about how biology postdoc Digbijay Mahat brought life-saving detection and prevention technologies to his home country of Nepal where, due in part to Mahat’s efforts, more than 40 percent of the population is now vaccinated.
The truth is, we don’t always know the practical impact of the research done today. As scientists, we know how to ask important questions, and answering them often leads to new questions. I have no doubt that this innate curiosity, coupled with technological advances and ingenuity of our MIT researchers, will lead to life-saving and earth-preserving results.
I hope you’ll join me supporting these innately curious scientists — especially our graduate students like Valdes and Mengiste or early-career scientists such as Mahat — who are beginning on their research path with possibilities and questions ahead of them.
With my very best wishes,
Dean Nergis Mavalvala PhD ‘97