My fellow alumni and friends,

The summer 2023 issue of Science@MIT brings us back to basic, fundamental research. As scientists, this is what we do: We ask questions about the fundamental nature of the world around us. And each question leads to another question. This inquisitiveness is the hallmark of the scientific enterprise.

Our feature story exemplifies where that curiosity can lead. Professor Mriganka Sur in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is interested in how our brain develops and changes. How does our brain respond to inputs from other parts of our body and vice versa? When someone loses their sight, how do circuits rewire to compensate for that loss of information coming into the brain through the eyes? What changes at a molecular level? Is there a difference early on in development? Can this plasticity of neuronal circuits last through later stages of brain development?

These are long-standing questions that underpin our ability to learn and make decisions. The answers have impact ranging from understanding brain disorders to developing architectures for next-generation artificial intelligence. And we often don’t know the impact that answering one of these questions will have in the future.

In this case, Mriganka’s fundamental discovery — what he calls “ocular dominance plasticity” — became the rationale for others outside of MIT to develop clinical trials to test a potential therapeutic for the devastating disease known as Rett syndrome. Less than 15 years after his research was published in a 2009 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper, a drug called Trofinetide is now available to treat Rett syndrome.

“It is the dream of every neuroscientist to have an impact on the world in some way,” he says — truly an amazing outcome of the sometimes long and unpredictable arc of scientific inquiry.

These types of questions — as well as the desire to impact the world — also drive scientists in other fields; and this issue of Science@MIT presents profiles of the faculty and graduate students who ask them. In the realm of cosmology, which encompasses my own field of astrophysics, Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar Brian Nord models galaxy clusters and their effect on distorting light traveling through the cosmos. His statistical models allow him to understand both dark matter that pulls the universe together, as well as dark energy, the mysterious force driving the universe’s expansion.

Physics faculty member Phiala Shanahan is attempting to ask new questions about the Standard Model of Physics and dark matter from the other end of the scale. How do the interactions between elementary particles in one proton relate to the behavior of interactions between multiple protons? Turns out, this question isn’t answered yet but will form the bridge to help us get from quarks and gluons within one proton to the protons within atoms that make up the visible matter of our world — as well as their interactions with the universe’s invisible dark matter.

In between the universe-scale and the elementary-particle scale, Gabriela Schlau-Cohen in the Department of Chemistry began with questions about plants and their ability to photosynthesize. How do these photosynthetic light-harvesting proteins work both individually and as part of the larger protein complexes and networks? How do they change in response to different amounts of sunlight? In her current work, Gabriela uses answers from those previous questions to engineer nanostructures that can be even more efficient than plants at harvesting light.

Energy and climate science underpin the questions asked by Timur Cinay, our current holder of the E. Alan Phillips Fellowship for Environmental Sustainability supported by a generous gift from alumna Audrey Buyrn. Timur will help to set up an experimental device in the ocean off of the Galápagos Islands to study the dynamics of marine microbes and their emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

In the rest of the issue, we offer the stories of other great questions and answers from some of the top minds within the MIT School of Science. Applied mathematician Peter Shor gives his account of the development of his eponymous algorithm. Biologist and emerita professor Nancy Hopkins tells of the gender-based roadblocks on the way to her discoveries in a presentation for International Women’s History Day about the book The Exceptions.

Like Nancy and Peter, Brian and Phiala, Gabriela and Timur, I hope you, too, will stay curious and support our scientists in our quest for answers — and more questions — here at MIT Science.

With my very best wishes,
Dean Nergis Mavalvala PhD ’97