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Ideas to improve the everyday

Article / Review by on February 10, 2012 – 8:19 pmNo Comments

Ideas to improve the everyday
Third ‘Harvard Thinks Big’ event spotlights eight game-changing concepts

For the third straight year, a procession of all-star Harvard faculty members dazzled and provoked their audience in 10-minute talks Thursday night that framed big questions about happiness, stem cell growth, runaway obesity, and the exploding American prison population.

The student-organized event that aims “to bring big ideas back to the center,” according to co-founder Peter Davis ’12, took on the trappings of permanence with T-shirt sales, live-streaming online, a big-screen Tweet display, and on-stage interludes by The Nostalgics, a student band. Although students were not queued up in the cold like last year, thanks to a better ticketing process, members of the Harvard University Band played outside Sanders Theatre before the show, lending a festive air.

The short-course format harks to the example of the TED talks, the online sensation created 28 years ago by a nonprofit to foster exchange of the latest thinking on technology, engineering, and design by cutting-edge thinkers.

“We genetically modify foods. Why not stimulate muscle cells and inhibit fat stem cells and brain stem cells?” asked Douglas A. Melton, a leading light in stem cell research.“We genetically modify foods. Why not stimulate muscle cells and inhibit fat stem cells and brain stem cells?” asked Douglas A. Melton, a leading light in stem cell research.

While many of the eight faculty speakers in the third “Harvard Thinks Big” prodded the student audience to think deeply about how to solve major national and global issues, Kaia Stern, a lecturer in ethics at Harvard Divinity School, implored them to “act big.”

She urged students to think of the one in 31 Americans behind bars or on parole or probation, according to a Pew Center study, and to tackle the accelerating rate of imprisonment in the United States, which she said has a higher incarceration rate than Russia, Iran, Iraq, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico combined.

Stern, who also is affiliated with the African and African American Studies Department and teaches sociology to inmates at the Norfolk and Framingham state prisons, said the surge in mass imprisonment in America is everyone’s problem.

“For as long as we tolerate poverty and live in fear, Americans are complicit in the cycle of crime,” she said.

Douglas A. Melton, a leading light in stem cell research, urged the audience to consider a different context for what it means to be human. He offered a clear, concise explanation of stem cells and how they are important because they can self-renew, make exact copies of themselves, and specialize.

Melton, who is co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, was inspired decades ago to focus on stem cell research for the pancreas following the diagnosis of two children with type I diabetes. He said the goal is to find the switch that inhibits stem cell growth. He showed a slide of a heavily muscled bull that had just kept growing muscle because the inhibitors to muscle cell growth had been turned off.

Medical Sociology Professor Nicholas Christakis’ research has been the topic of two TED talks and earned him a place as one of the most influential thinkers in Time 100.Medical Sociology Professor Nicholas Christakis’ research has been the topic of two TED talks and earned him a place as one of the most influential thinkers in Time 100.

Melton proposed using modern recombinant DNA biology — which is being applied to crops to make them disease- and insect-resistant — to grow foods that stimulate the growth of desirable stem cells.

“We genetically modify foods. Why not stimulate muscle cells and inhibit fat stem cells and brain stem cells?”

Evolutionary Biology Professor Daniel Lieberman zeroed in on the problem at the core of many diseases: runaway obesity. By 2015, he said, there will be 3 billion obese adults, largely because we have evolved over a relatively short period of industrialization to crave sugar, fat, and salt.

“The message of Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ program is drowned out by the $2 billion spent to market unhealthy food to children,” he said.

Lieberman, who chairs the Human Evolutionary Biology Department, said the cascading effects on human health and medical costs are so catastrophic that government should require exercise just as it mandates vaccinations and other public health measures.

The trend has been negative even at Harvard, which had a physical education requirement of four hours a week from 1920 to 1970.

“Instead of thinking big, maybe we should think small and require physical education again,” Lieberman said to hearty applause.

Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, discussed "broken symmetry" in music, art, aesthetics, and society.Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, discussed “broken symmetry” in music, art, aesthetics, and society.

Medical Sociology Professor Nicholas Christakis told the Web-savvy students that actually social networks have been vibrant and important to human happiness for thousands of years. Christakis’ research has been the topic of two TED talks and earned him a place as one of the most influential thinkers in Time 100. He talked about how happiness has been mapped as something that travels among associates in a network.

“It is the ties between people that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” said Christakis.

Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, discussed “broken symmetry” in music, art, aesthetics, and society.  Cogan University Professor of the Humanities Stephen Greenblatt described how Shakespeare built audiences and changed societal thought as he introduced new words and changed thinking about life and death with each play performance.

History professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore described how the goals of life changed in iterations of the board game of “Life” from the time that Harvard dropout Milton Bradley developed “The Checkered Game of Life” in 1860 to present-day products. And Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Eleanor Duckworth discussed how teaching is best when it’s about “helping people learn rather than telling people what you know.”

Teaching is best when it’s about “helping people learn rather than telling people what you know," Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Eleanor Duckworth told the audience.Teaching is best when it’s about “helping people learn rather than telling people what you know,” Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Eleanor Duckworth told the audience.

By Judy Rakowsky
Harvard Correspondent

Photos by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

 

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About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History.

“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

More at Harvard Medical School & Harvard Medical School. Generations of Leaders.

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About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

More at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) & Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). History.

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About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

More About Harvard University & About Harvard University. Information.

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* The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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