Big Minds, Big Thoughts



Harvard Thinks Big inspires once again.

(Courtesy of Harvard University)
(Courtesy of Harvard University)

Each year, the Harvard College Events Board organizes an evening event where
six faculty members are invited to share their ideas and research with the Harvard
undergraduate community in only ten short minutes. This annual event occurred on
Wednesday February 5th – a night of heavy snowfall, which could have explained the
fewer than usual members in attendance.

But despite the slightly sparser numbers in attendance, this year’s Harvard Thinks
Big event was just as action-packed and inspiring as the years past. With a lineup of
professors and lecturers ranging from the sciences and economics departments to the
African American studies and Graduate schools, undergraduate students were treated to
various insightful topics and ideas that spanned numerous disciplines.
Rob Lue, Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular biology, began the
evening by introducing his work as the faculty director of HarvardX, Harvard’s online
education initiative. With the current rise of online institutions and the opportunity for
students to learn sitting right at home, he posed the intriguing question: “What does it
mean for brick and mortar institutions like Harvard?”

There are many instances in the past where new developments and inventions
have by and large supplanted the old. Emails have greatly reduced the use of snail mail,
and cars and airplanes have crowded out the once booming railroad industry. The Internet
and expansion of online learning, he stated, allows us to engage the world more closely
than ever before.

“This is a moment of inflection and ultimately, a moment of transformation,” he
said. “We are in a moment of evolution.”

In this much more connected world, he argued that the flow of knowledge has
become a bidirectional cycle, which provides the opportunity for institutions to connect
with the world all around us. Therefore, the expansion of online institutions does not
necessarily mean a complete replacement of brick and mortar institutions in the future,
and may instead, provide various benefits.

Jeff Lichtman, Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology,
followed that presentation with a look into the human brain. Lichtman began his talk by
declaring, with some humor, “I am somewhat of a savant when it comes to brain wires.”
He has an M.D. and Ph.D. from Washington University and is a member of the Center for
Brain Science. To preface his ideas, he first showed the undergraduate audience images
of neurons, one displayed using a technique “Rainbow” where each neuron is shown in a
different color, and another using serial electron microscopy, where every synapse and
packets of neurotransmitters can be seen.

The focus of his presentation? Humans are special.
“Not just because humans are Homo Sapiens chauvinists,” he reasoned. “It’s a
mystery why our brain is special.”

We are able to demonstrate more behaviors than any other animal, and the most
remarkable aspect is that these behaviors don’t arise from our genes, but rather from the
environment. Many animals are born into this world knowing certain behaviors necessary
for survival, such as walking. Humans, on the other hand, are mostly defenseless at birth.But that, according to Lichtman, is an advantage. The fact that we come into this world knowing less about it than any other animal means that we need to learn for much
longer. And we are continuously learning even past our college ages. He likened the
process to attaining professorship. “By the time you’re finally a professor, you’re certifiably old and don’t care
anymore,” he joked.

While this process of learning and acquiring skills is beneficial, Lichtman
revealed that it actually destroys neural circuits in our brains. When we are born, our
brains have the potential to make vast amount of connections, but as we learn, certain
pathways are reinforced and others are lost. In a sense, our brains are pruning away and
we end up with a small subset of what it could have been — quite depressing thought.
But Lichtman quickly dispelled away the gloom by ending of with the idea that, of
course, he could be wrong about that.

Nicco Mele, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School led
a very interesting analysis on the 2008 elections. He premised this talk with a discussion
of the transition from power within institutions to power in individuals.
“I think the world changed in 1984,” he declared. That was the year Chuck Hull
invented stereolithography, the personal 3D printer. Mele used this printer to create shoes
for his children one summer after downloading blueprints off the Internet and saved
himself a trip to the store. But what would happen, he asked, if someone uploaded the
blueprints for a gun and someone were to print that?
“There are ways technology has unintended consequences,” he stated.

Along with technology is this push of power out of institutions and into
individuals, he observed: “It’s not an accident that this is happening,”
According to Mele, the Clinton’s basically built the modern political system. And
so how did Hilary Clinton lose the race against Barack Obama within the party, one that
she had incredible influence in? The key, Mele said, was Obama’s ability to combine
top-down with distributive power. Many candidate parties in the past reached out to
citizens, but the Obama party did something slightly different — instead of just giving
out simple tasks, they invested much more power into the citizens and allowed them to
take on much larger initiatives of their own creation. It was this, he argued, that
catapulted Obama into victory.

Marcyliena Morgan, Professor in the Department of African and African
American Studies took the audience into an entirely different direction with her talk on
hip-hop. She is a linguistic anthropologist and first got into hip-pop by studying African
American women in Mississippi, who only agreed to work with her if she worked with
their sons. And their sons were into hip-hop.
“Hip-hop itself was built on dreams,” she said.
Her passion for hip-hop has led her to become the founding director of The
Hip-hop Archive and Research Institute (HARI) at the Hutchins Center for African and
American Research.

Jeffery Miron, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the
Department of Economics, discussed the issue of legalizing drugs. “My message is about
the policy,” he stated. He clarifies that he does not advocate drug use, but rather
advocates abolishing the policy that deems drug use as illegal. The reasons? It just
doesn’t work as well as we might hope. Countries around the world spend a lot of resources to enforce prohibition, which is very expensive. However, Miron argues, this expense would be justified if one: drug use is bad, and if two: prohibition actually
reduces drug use.

Prohibition is set in place in a sense to protect the people from themselves. But,
the media routinely exaggerates the harms of drug use, Miron revealed. There are certain
benefits that people can derive from drugs, such as medicinal properties. In fact, he feels
that there is nothing to distinguish harm caused by drugs from harm caused by alcohol,
eating too much ice cream, or skiing off a black diamond ski hill.
Most importantly, though, Miron believes that prohibition doesn’t drastically
reduce drug use, and that it only has modest effects at first. After all, it’s not as we would
be a nation of addicts if drugs were legal, he stated. And there are numerous
consequences that arise from prohibiting drugs. This policy generates violence, as
disputes are often resolved with guns as there are no courts in the underground markets.
There is also no quality control available for black-market goods, which can lead to
greater numbers of death amongst users.

Katherine Merseth, Senior Lectuer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School
of Education, rounded up the evening with a motivating talk on education.
“I’m here to convince you of something,” she started off by saying. “I want you, every
person in this room, to consider teaching.”

Teaching, she said, has the potential to touch lives. After all, every kid is one
caring adult away from being a success story, she quoted. And why should we care about
children, other than the fact that they are the future leaders? “They are 100% of my social
security,” she joked.

Merseth asked the audience to imagine an elementary school, where it is a young
child’s first day at school. The parent and child are nervously making their way up the
stairs and into the building, where the parent will then entrust the child to the teacher.
“Hope, aspiration, desperate feeling that schools will do well by our children,”
she said, are what the parents are feeling at that moment. “America has tremendous faith
in schooling”.

And we should not squander that faith. To attract more students to the field of
teaching, she helped to create the School Leadership Program and the Teacher Education
Program. She introduced a competitive fellowship program for undergraduate students
that will aid them in developing skills and entering the field of teaching.
At the end of her talk, she asked, “Is there anyone who would take a stand for
teaching?” Many stood.

Milly Wang ’16 ([email protected]) is thinking big herself after listening to such
inspirational talks.