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Virtually Brilliant

Online Alumni Day connects graduates with new knowledge, thought leaders

“Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done,” wrote the American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in 1952. He might have been talking about the logistics of creating a campus-like experience via Zoom during a pandemic in 2021. Despite the challenges and complications, however, GSAS’s annual Alumni Day went off without a hitch on April 9 and 10, 2021, and was attended by more than 400 alumni worldwide. The event was the occasion for a fascinating series of virtual discussions on a wide range of topics in education, sociology, natural history, ethics, and the arts. The first session was one Heinlein himself might have appreciated.

Signs of Intelligent Life

“When you are not ready to find exceptional things you will never discover them,” said Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science Abraham “Avi” Loeb, who kicked off the weekend’s activities on Friday, with his lecture, “Extraterrestrial Life: Are We the Sharpest Cookies in the Jar?” With these words, Loeb introduced his theory that not only are humans not the only intelligent life in the universe but also that in fall 2017 evidence of that arrived in the form of an interstellar object called Oumuamua. Loeb, whose book about the astronomical event, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, was released in January, detailed properties of the object, fleetingly detected at an observatory in Hawaii, that led scientists to conclude it was from outside our solar system and Loeb to conclude it was a light sail released by another world to explore the universe.

It is unlikely, Loeb noted, that Oumuamua was sent to visit humans in particular. “Why do we presume that we are of interest to anyone?” he asked. With as many potentially habitable planets in the universe as there are grains of sand on Earth, “we are probably as insignificant as ants on a sidewalk.” 

 Why do we presume that we are of interest to anyone? [With as many potentially habitable planets in the universe as there are grains of sand on Earth] we are probably as insignificant as ants on a sidewalk.

Loeb emphasized that we should at least be open to the possibility that Oumuamua was a harbinger of another intelligent life form, pointing out that with interstellar archaeology, we may be able to discover civilizations that have already died, spurring us to “get our act together and avoid a similar fate.”

Looking Beyond “The Privileged Poor”

The second Friday-night session brought attendees back down to Earth and to the current moment when moderator Matthew Clair, PhD ’18, sociology, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, interviewed Anthony Abraham Jack, PhD ’16, sociology, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Jack’s 2019 book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, posits that while changes in admission and financial aid policies are opening elite universities to more low-income students, they don’t go far enough. As Jack concisely noted, “Access ain’t inclusion.”

About half of the disadvantaged Black and Latinx students entering elite schools come from boarding, day, and prep high schools, he said, where they learn to navigate the system and the social norms of wealth and privilege. So, for those students, whom he calls the privileged poor, college is “like deja vu.” But those he dubs the “doubly disadvantaged”—graduates of distressed public high schools—“can’t find their footing” on private college campuses.

Access ain’t inclusion.

The culture shock isn’t just social, Jack said; it’s also academic. “We always say when office hours are but never what they are,” he noted as an example. “By doing that we are assuming a foundation of knowledge” that most of these students just don’t have.

He offered several fixes for this dilemma, including involving alumni mentors. Because, he concluded, “if we are truly to have answers to today’s problems and tomorrow’s complex issues, we need a diverse, educated citizenry.”

Dean’s Dialogue: A Challenging Year

Saturday’s five back-to-back sessions were held in an engaging mix of formats and were well attended by alumni who showed their interest by keeping up a constant stream of comments and questions in the Zoom chat window. In the first, GSAS Dean Emma Dench, McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History and of the Classics, spoke with Marianne Steiner, SM ’78, applied mathematics, chair of the Graduate School Alumni Association Council and founder and principal of Larkspur Marketing and Larkspur Energy in Alberta, Canada, about the efforts that have been made to help students through the pandemic and the role alumni can play.

Dench called working out ways to support students a “heavy both building and driving a juggernaut at the same time.” She mentioned that the University was able to provide some students with health insurance and assist others in overcoming academic disruptions like not being able to access archives, libraries, and printers, do in-person interviews, or find a quiet place to work while stuck at home. GSAS has also been addressing student trauma caused not only by the pandemic but by the recent spate of violence against people of color and, for international students, the possibility of being deported if they stayed in the US to study virtually.

Students need a boost, and to see ... all the fantastic things you can do with a graduate degree is very, very inspiring.

Students continued churning out “phenomenal work,” Dench said, despite the challenges they faced this year. “Every day I hear about inspiring work that reminds all of us that it’s more than worth it and we are really fortunate,” she said. She urged alumni to volunteer by connecting with students directly, through the virtual coffee chats being started this spring, by posting job and internship opportunities, and simply by sending their stories. “Students need a boost,” Dench said, “and to see...all the fantastic things you can do with a graduate degree is very, very inspiring.”

Creating Technology with Conscience

The next session featured two professors and two post-doctoral fellows talking about Embedded EthiCS, a collaborative program started in 2017 that, according to its website, “embeds philosophers directly into computer science courses to teach students how to think through the ethical and social implications of their work.”

It came about when Barbara J. Grosz, Higgins Research Professor of Natural Sciences, discussed with her class the ethical implications of social media platforms gathering user information for advertising purposes, and later that week assigned a task on the same topic. Afterward, she asked the students how many of them had thought about the ethical implications of what they were doing during the task. “Zero,” said Alison Simmons, Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy. “Zero. This is a group that had just been talking about this stuff two days earlier and was motivated. Barbara was understandably horrified.” She called Simmons and said, according to Simmons, “I’m sending students to Facebook and Google, and they do not know how to think about the ethical implications of what they’re doing.” 

Think about fake news and disinformation. [If big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter had] been thinking about these problems early as opposed to in the middle, which is where we are right now, things might have been much, much different.

The two professors started by embedding the teaching of ethical reasoning skills into four existing computer science courses. Today the program has 84 modules and 37 distinct courses. After the two postdocs, Meica Magnani and Susan Kennedy, took Alumni Day participants through a 30-minute mini-module focused on nudge theory, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science James Mickens summarized just how important this work is. “Think about fake news and disinformation,” he said. If big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter had “been thinking about these problems early as opposed to in the middle, which is where we are right now, things might have been much, much different.”

Evolution Takes Flight

The two early afternoon sessions focused on the Harvard Museums. In the first, Scott V. Edwards, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and curator of ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and organismic and evolutionary biology PhD candidate Jonathan Schmitt discussed “Museum Collections and Genomics: Complementary Tools to Understand the Evolution of Birds.”

Edwards began by introducing Alumni Day attendees to the museum’s collection of bird specimens, showing slides of hundreds of birds packed away in drawers. “The collection at Harvard is famous not only for its size and historical breadth,” he said, “but for these large series of individual species,” which allow curators to understand how the animals vary “through time and through space.” He acknowledged the colonial backdrop to a lot of collections and noted that museums today are thinking of ways they can make reparations, but pointed out that those collections are the key to the tree of life.  

I see our role as showing that yes, climate change is having negative impacts on bird populations. As far as how to reduce that, we’ve got to embrace this green economy.

After Schmitt presented a summary of his dissertation on the evolution of the Andean tanager, a lively question and answer session raised topics such as the current threats to birds, including windmills and feral cats, and why, according to one commenter, “research is worth taking all these specimens.” Edwards noticed that last question scrolling by in the chat and said he thought it was worth addressing. “The number of birds sacrificed for science is minuscule compared to the lives wasted every day to predation and habitat loss,” he said, pointing out that collections are important for “everything from our national security to our social welfare” and referring participants to resources explaining how they teach us about biodiversity, the spread of pathogens, and the history of life on Earth.

Such scientific research also supports efforts to increase food security and advance biomedical research, as well as research on pharmaceuticals, biocontrol agents, and, of course, climate change. “I see our role as showing that yes, climate change is having negative impacts on bird populations,” said Edwards. “As far as how to reduce that, we’ve got to embrace this green economy.”

The Art of Looking

The second museum-centric session of the day was an interactive workshop showing how collections can be used in teaching across disciplines. Rebecca Miller Brown, PhD ’15, classics, assistant director of graduate student programming at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and Jennifer Thum, assistant director of academic engagement and assistant research curator at the Harvard Art Museums, led attendees through an exercise called close (or slow) looking that encourages viewers to engage with works by uncovering their layers and personal meanings. They showed three works in succession, analyzing the pieces with participants before revealing the artist, title, and circumstances of their creation.

Approximately 60 to 70 different courses from across the university have worked with our collections in some way.

For example, the first work showed a tiny figure waving its arms inside what many participants took to be a cave against a backdrop of fire. Thum asked questions like, “How would you describe this structure? If you were to walk on this ground, what do you think it would feel like? What sound would it make? What is the figure doing and how does he relate to what’s going on here?” Meeting participants answered enthusiastically and after working through the resulting deep analysis Thum revealed the painting to be El Fin del Mundo, completed in 1936 by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros with World War I in mind. She briefly discussed the artist and his life, along with the building shown in the painting and why it might have appealed to him, mentioning that such an exercise helps students in many disciplines to develop analytical and observational skills. “Approximately 60 to 70 different courses from across the university have worked with our collections in some way,” she said. “That level of engagement is pretty remarkable.”

Focus on Students

The final session, appropriately, brought alumni and students together when Sam Bersola, dean of students, asked a panel of five PhD and master’s candidates a series of questions, many of which focused on how the pandemic affected their academic experience. The students, whose concentrations are in Germanic languages and literatures, the history of art and architecture, biological sciences in public health, Middle Eastern studies, and psychology, talked about challenges they faced, such as having to change dissertation topics due to shutdowns, leaving friends behind to return home, and, for those who stayed on campus, limited social interaction, but also about the silver linings, including getting time away from the lab bench to practice writing for exams, starting a podcast, getting creative about how they teach online, and, according to panel participant Destiny Crowley, the opportunity “for so many discover so many wonderful outdoor spaces within the Cambridge and Boston area that they had never visited before.”

When asked how alumni could help them, the students mentioned networking, mentoring, and being open to the changes happening in a variety of fields. “You’re uniquely positioned sometimes to influence others,” said panelist Osiris Rankin, so encouraging students with new and perhaps iconoclastic ideas is important. “What I would really love to have is somebody on the inside [of their field] who’s like, Why not? We can make room.”

What I would really love to have is somebody on the inside [of their field] who’s like, Why not [entertain new ideas]? We can make room.

The day ended with a virtual toast from Marianne Steiner. “Over the past 24 hours you’ve taken us on a truly inspiring journey,” she said to the meeting’s organizers and participants, “from contemplating the possibilities of life beyond Earth to an immersive experience into the beauty and challenges of various forms of life on campus.” She noted that the Graduate School Alumni Association Council welcomes the ideas and feedback of alumni and “is committed to expanding these opportunities to enjoy your relationship with GSAS and Harvard, with our students, and with each other.”

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