Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern

More than half a century ago in a small gray house in Newton, Massachusetts, Patrick McGovern ’59 started what would eventually become the global publishing, research and technology investment powerhouse IDG. In the year 2000, he became a world-renowned philanthropist with his establishment of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, one of the top neuroscience institutes in the world.

In the new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire, author Glenn Rifkin details the legendary principles that McGovern relied on to drive the success of both IDG and the McGovern Institute: forge a clear mission that brings together everyone at all levels in an organization; empower employees to make decisions and propose new ideas; and create invigorating, positive atmospheres that bring out the best in people.

These lessons and more are detailed in Future Forward, available now at bookstores everywhere.

Meeting of the minds

In the summer of 2006, before their teenage years began, Mahdi Ramadan and Alexi Choueiri were spirited from their homes amid political unrest in Lebanon. Evacuated on short notice by the U.S. Marines, they were among 2,000 refugees transported to the U.S. on the aircraft carrier USS Nashville.

The two never met in their homeland, nor on the transatlantic journey, and after arriving in the U.S. they went their separate ways. Ramadan and his family moved to Seattle, Washington. Choueiri’s family settled in Chandler, Arizona, where they already had some extended family.

Yet their paths converged 11 years later as graduate students in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS). One day last fall, on a walk across campus, Ramadan and Choueiri slowly unraveled their connection. With increasing excitement, they narrowed it down by year, by month, and eventually, by boat, to discover just how closely their lives had once come to one another.

Lebanon, the only Middle Eastern country without a desert, enjoys a lush, Mediterranean climate. Amid this natural beauty, though, the country struggles under the weight of deep political and cultural divides that sometimes erupt into conflict.

Despite different Lebanese cultural backgrounds — Ramadan’s family is Muslim and Choueiri’s Christian — they have had remarkably similar experiences as refugees from Lebanon. Both credit those experiences with motivating their interest in neuroscience. Questions about human behavior — How do people form beliefs about the world? Can those beliefs really change? — led them to graduate work at MIT.

In pursuit of knowledge

When they first immigrated to the U.S., school symbolized survival for Ramadan and Choueiri. Not only was education a mode of improving their lives and supporting their families, it was a search for objectivity in their recently upended worlds.

As the family’s primary English speaker, Ramadan became a bulwark for his family in their new country, especially in medical matters; his little sister, Ghida, has cerebral palsy. Though his family has limited financial resources, he emphasizes that both he and his sister have been constantly supported by their parents in pursuit of their educations.

In fact, Ramadan feels motivated by Ghida’s determination to complete her degree in occupational therapy: “That to me is really inspirational, her resilience in the face of her disability and in the face of assumptions that people make about capability. She’s really sassy, she’s really witty, she’s really funny, she’s really intelligent, and she doesn’t see her disability as a disability. She actually thinks it’s an advantage — it actually motivated her to pursue [her education] even more.”

Ramadan hopes his own educational journey, from a low-income evacuee to a neuroscience PhD, can show others like him that success is possible.

Choueiri also relied on academics to adapt to his new world in Arizona. Even in Lebanon, he remembers taking solace from a chaotic world in his education, and once in the U.S., he dove headfirst into his studies.

Choueiri’s hometown in Arizona sometimes felt homogenous, so coming to MIT has been a staggering — and welcome — experience. “The diversity here is phenomenal: meeting people from different cultures, upbringings, countries,” he says. “I love making friends from all over and learning their stories. Being a neuroscientist, I like to know how they were brought up and how their ideas were formed. … It’s like Disneyland for me. I feel like I’m coming to Disneyland every day and high-fiving Mickey Mouse.”

At home at MIT

Ramadan and Choueiri revel in the freedom of thought they have found in their academic home here. They say they feel taken seriously as students and, more importantly, as thinkers. The BCS department values interdisciplinary thought, and cultivates extracurricular student activities like philosophy discussion groups, the development of neuroscience podcasts, and independent, student-led lectures on myriad neuroscience-adjacent topics.

Both students were drawn to neuroscience not only by their experiences as Lebanese-Americans, but by trying to make sense of what happened to them at a young age.

Ramadan became interested in neuroplasticity through self-observation. “You know that feeling of childhood you have where everything is magical and you’re not really aware of things around you? I feel like when I immigrated to the U.S., that feeling went away and I had to become extra-aware of everything because I had to adapt so quickly. So, something that intrigued me about neuroscience is how the brain is able to adapt so quickly and how different experiences can shape and rewire your brain.”

Now in his second year, Ramadan plans to pursue his interest in neuroplasticity in Professor Mehrdad Jazayeri’s lab at the McGovern Institute by investigating how learning changes the brain’s underlying neural circuits; understanding the physical mechanism of plasticity has application to both disease states and artificial intelligence.

Choueiri, a third-year student in the program, is a member of Professor Ed Boyden’s lab at the McGovern Institute. While his interest in neuroscience was similarly driven by his experience as an evacuee, his approach is outward-looking, focused on making sense of people’s choices. Ultimately, the brain controls human ability to perceive, learn, and choose through physiological changes; Choueiri wants to understand not just the human brain, but also the human condition — and to use that understanding to alleviate pain and suffering.

“Growing up in Lebanon, with different religions and war … I became fundamentally interested in human behavior, irrationality, and conflict, and how can we resolve those things … and maybe there’s an objective way to really make sense of where these differences are coming from,” he says. In the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, Choueiri’s research involves developing neurotechnologies to map the molecular interactions of the brain, to reveal the fundamental mechanisms of brain function and repair dysfunction.

Shared identities

As evacuees, Ramadan and Choueiri left their country without notice and without saying goodbye. However, in other ways, their experience was not unlike an immigrant experience. This sometimes makes identifying as a refugee in the current political climate complex, as refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged regions struggle to make a home in the U.S. Still, both believe that sharing their personal experience may help others in difficult positions to see that they do belong in the U.S., and at MIT.

Despite their American identity, Ramadan and Choueiri also share a palpable love for Lebanese culture. They extol the diversity of Lebanese cuisine, which is served mezze-style, making meals an experience full of variety, grilled food, and yogurt dishes. The Lebanese diaspora is another source of great pride for them. Though the population of Lebanon is less than 5 million, as many as 14 million live abroad.

It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Ramadan and Choueiri intersected at MIT, some 6,000 miles from their homeland. The bond they have forged since, through their common heritage, experiences, and interests, is deeply meaningful to both of them.

“I was so happy to find another student who has this story because it allows me to reflect back on those experiences and how they changed me,” says Ramadan. “It’s like a mirror image. … Was it a coincidence, or were our lives so similar that they led to this point?”

This story was written by Bridget E. Begg at MIT’s Office of Graduate Education.

Chronic neural implants modulate microstructures in the brain with pinpoint accuracy

Post by Windy Pham

The diversity of structures and functions of the brain is becoming increasingly realized in research today. Key structures exist in the brain that regulate emotion, anxiety, happiness, memory, and mobility. These structures can come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and can all be physically near one another. Dysfunction of these structures and circuits linking them are common causes of many neurologic and neuropsychiatric diseases. For example, the substantia nigra is only a few millimeters in size yet is crucial for movement and coordination. Destruction of substantia nigra neurons is what causes motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.

New technologies such as optogenetics have allowed us to identify similar microstructures in the brain. However, these techniques rely on liquid infusions into the brain, which prepare the regions to be studied to respond to light. These infusions are done with large needles, which do not have the fine control to target specific regions. Clinical therapy has also lagged behind. New drug therapies aimed at treating these conditions are delivered orally, which results in drug distribution throughout the brain, or through large needle-cannulas, which do not have the fine control to accurately dose specific regions. As a result, patients of neurologic and psychiatric disorders frequently fail to respond to therapies due to poor drug delivery to diseased regions.

A new study addressing this problem has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author is Khalil Ramadi, a medical engineering and medical physics (MEMP) PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). For this study, Khalil and his thesis advisor, Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and associate dean of innovation in the School of Engineering, collaborated with Institute Professors Robert Langer and Ann Graybiel, an Investigator at the McGovern Institute of Brain Research to tackle this issue.

The team developed tools to enable targeted delivery of nanoliters of drugs to deep brain structures through chronically implanted microprobes. They also developed nuclear imaging techniques using positron emission tomography (PET) to measure the volume of the brain region targeted with each infusion. “Drugs for disorders of the central nervous system are nonspecific and get distributed throughout the brain,” Cima says. “Our animal studies show that volume is a critical factor when delivering drugs to the brain, as important as the total dose delivered. Using microcannulas and microPET imaging, we can control the area of brain exposed to these drugs, improving targeting accuracy double time comparing to the traditional methods used today.”

The researchers were also able to design cannulas that are MRI-compatible and implanted up to one year in rats. Implanting these cannulas with micropumps allowed the researchers to remotely control the behavior of animals. Significantly, they found that varying the volume infused alone had a profound effect on behavior induced, even if the total drug dose delivered stayed constant. These results show that regulation of volume delivery to brain region is extremely important in influencing brain activity. This technology could potentially enable precise investigation of neurological disease pathology in preclinical models, and more effective treatment in human patients.




SCIENTIA, 2016 by Itinerant Pictures

Documentary video on the making of SCIENTIA, a sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard located at the entrance to MIT’s McGovern Institute. The monumental sculpture was commissioned by Lore Harp McGovern for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the public art collection of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Faculty at MIT and beyond respond forcefully to an article critical of Suzanne Corkin

On August 7, 2016, the New York Times Magazine published “The Brain That Couldn’t Remember,” an article adapted from the forthcoming book “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets,” by Luke Dittrich. The article is highly critical of the late Suzanne Corkin, who was a professor emerita of neuroscience until her death on May 24.

In response to the article, more than 200 members of the international scientific community — most from outside MIT — have signed a letter in support of Corkin and her research with the amnesic patient Henry Molaison.

What follows is a statement by James DiCarlo, the Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.


In “The Brain That Couldn’t Remember,” three allegations are made against Professor Suzanne Corkin, who died on May 24. Professors John Gabrieli and Nancy Kanwisher at MIT have examined evidence in relation to each allegation, and, as detailed below, have found significant evidence that contradicts each allegation. In our judgment, the evidence below rebuts each claim.

1. Allegation that research records were or would be destroyed or shredded.

We believe that no records were destroyed and, to the contrary, that Professor Corkin worked in her final days to organize and preserve all records. Even as her health failed (she had advanced cancer and was receiving chemotherapy), she instructed her assistant to continue to organize, label, and maintain all records related to Henry Molaison. The records currently remain within our department.

Assuming that the interview is accurately and fully reported by Mr. Dittrich, we cannot explain why Professor Corkin made the comments reported in the article. This may have been related to tensions between the author and Professor Corkin because she had turned down his request to examine Mr. Molaison’s confidential medical and research records.

Regardless, the critical point is not what was said in an interview, but rather what actions were actually taken by Professor Corkin. The actions were to preserve the records.

2. Allegation that the finding of an additional lesion in left orbitofrontal cortex was suppressed.

The public record is clear that Professor Corkin communicated this discovery of an additional lesion in Mr. Molaison to both scientific and public audiences. This factual evidence is contradictory to any allegation of the suppression of a finding.

The original scientific report (Nature Communications, 2014) of the post-mortem examination of Mr. Molaison’s brain included this information in the most prominent and widely read portion of the report, the abstract.

In addition, Professor Corkin herself disseminated this information in public forums, including a 2014 interview, posted on MIT News and subsequently elsewhere online, in which she said: “We discovered a new lesion in the lateral orbital gyrus of the left frontal lobe. This damage was also visible in the postmortem MRI scans. The etiology of this lesion is presently unknown; future histological studies will clarify the cause and timeframe of this damage. Currently, it is unclear whether this lesion had any consequence for H.M.’s behavior.”

3. Allegation that there was something inappropriate in the selection of Tom Mooney as Mr. Molaison’s guardian.

In her book “Permanent Present Tense” (2013), Professor Corkin describes precisely the provenance of Mr. Molaison’s guardianship (page 201).

Briefly, in 1974 Mr. Molaison and his mother (who was in failing health; his father was deceased) moved in with Lillian Herrick, whose first husband was related to Mr. Molaison’s mother. Mrs. Herrick is described as caring for Mr. Molaison until 1980, when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and Mr. Molaison was admitted to a nursing home founded by her brother.

In 1991, the Probate Court in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, appointed Mrs. Herrick’s son, Tom Mooney, as Mr. Molaison’s conservator. (Mr. Mooney is referred to as “Mr. M” in the book because of his desire for privacy.) This family took an active interest in helping Mr. Molaison and his mother, and was able to help place him in the nursing home that took care of him.

Mr. Dittrich provides no evidence that anything untoward occurred, and we are not aware of anything untoward in this process. Mr. Dittrich identifies some individuals who were genetically closer to Mr. Molaison than Mrs. Herrick or her son, but it is our understanding that this family took in Mr. Molaison and his mother, and took care of Mr. Molaison for many years. Mr. Mooney was appointed conservator by the local court after a valid legal process, which included providing notice of a hearing and appointment of counsel to Mr. Molaison.

Journalists are absolutely correct to hold scientists to very high standards. I — and over 200 scientists who have signed a letter to the editor in support of Professor Corkin — believe she more than achieved those high standards. However, the author (and, implicitly, the Times) has failed to do so.

James J. DiCarlo MD, PhD
Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience
Head, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Investigator, McGovern Institute for Brain Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

NIH awards initial $46 million for BRAIN Initiative research

The National Institutes of Health announced today its first wave of investments totaling $46 million in fiscal year 14 funds to support the goals of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. More than 100 investigators in 15 states and several countries will work to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. These new tools and this deeper understanding will ultimately catalyze new treatments and cures for devastating brain disorders and diseases that are estimated by the World Health Organization to affect more than one billion people worldwide. Six MIT projects were funded, including four projects led by McGovern Institute researchers.

“The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works — or, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work when disorders and disease occur,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “There’s a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible. These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey and we’re excited about the possibilities.”

Creating a wearable scanner to image the human brain in motion, using lasers to guide nerve cell firing, recording the entire nervous system in action, stimulating specific circuits with radio waves, and identifying complex circuits with DNA barcodes are among the 58 projects announced today. The majority of the grants focus on developing transformative technologies that will accelerate fundamental neuroscience research and include:

• classifying the myriad cell types in the brain
• producing tools and techniques for analyzing brain cells and circuits
• creating next-generation human brain imaging technology
• developing methods for large-scale recordings of brain activity
• integrating experiments with theories and models to understand the functions of specific brain circuits

“How do the billions of cells in our brain control our thoughts, feelings, and movements? That’s ultimately what the BRAIN Initiative is about,” said Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health. “Understanding this will greatly help us meet the rising challenges that brain disorders pose for the future health of the nation.”

Last year, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative as a large-scale effort to equip researchers with fundamental insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. Four federal agencies — NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — stepped up to the “grand challenge” and committed more than $110 million to the Initiative for fiscal year 2014. Planning for the NIH component of the BRAIN initiative is guided by the long-term scientific plan, “BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision” that details seven high-priority research areas.

Later today, the White House is hosting a conference on the BRAIN Initiative where new Federal and private sector commitments will be unveiled in support of this ambitious and important effort.

“We are at a critical juncture for brain research, and these audacious projects are from some of the brightest researchers in neuroscience collaborating with physicists and engineers,” said Story Landis, Ph.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

For a list of all the projects, please visit: http://braininitiative.nih.gov/nih-brain-awards.htm

For more information about the BRAIN Initiative, please visit: http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

Feng Zhang wins NSF’s Alan T. Waterman Award

The National Science Foundation (NSF) named Feng Zhang the 2014 recipient of its Alan T. Waterman Award. This award is NSF’s highest honor that annually recognizes an outstanding researcher under the age of 35 and funds his or her research in any field of science or engineering. Zhang’s research focuses on understanding how the brain works.

“It is a great pleasure to honor Feng Zhang with this award for his young, impressive career,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “It is exciting to support his continued fundamental research, which is certain to impact the field of brain research. Imagine a future free of schizophrenia, autism and other brain disorders that wreak havoc on individuals, families and society. Feng’s research moves us in that direction.”

Zhang seeks to understand the molecular machinery of brain cells through the development and application of innovative technologies. He created and is continuing to perfect tools that afford researchers precise control over biological activities occurring inside the cell. With these tools, researchers can deepen their understanding of how the genome works, and how it influences the development and function of the brain. Zhang also examines failures within the systems that cause disease.

Two different lines of fundamental research and technology development are helping him do that: optogenetics and genome engineering. With Edward Boyden and Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University, he developed optogenetics to study brain circuits, a technique in which light is used to affect signaling and gene expression of neurons involved in complex behaviors. Zhang also developed the CRISPR system to enable new, cheaper, more effective ways to “edit” animal genomes–that is, to identify and cut a short DNA sequence underlying a disorder so that it may be deleted or substituted out for other genetic material. Although Zhang’s main area of focus is the brain, the potential applications of CRISPR technology extend well beyond neuroscience.

“This is an immensely exciting time for the field because of the tremendous potential of tools like CRISPR, which allows us to modify the genomes of mammalian cells,” Zhang said. “One of my long-term goals is to better understand the molecular mechanisms of brain function and identify new ways to treat devastating neurological disorders.”

Since high school, Zhang has devoted his time, energy and intellectual prowess to developing ways to study and repair the nervous system. Today, he is one of 11 core faculty members at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and the W. M. Keck Career Development Professor with a joint appointment in MIT’s Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Zhang is widely recognized for his pioneering work in optogenetics and genome editing. He shared the Perl/UNC Neuroscience Prize with Karl Deisseroth and Edward Boyden in 2012. In 2013, MIT Technology Review recognized him as a “pioneer” and one of its 35 Innovators Under 35; Popular Science magazine placed Zhang on its Brilliant 10, an annual list of the most promising scientific innovators. Nature also named him as one of the “ten people who mattered” in 2013 for his work on developing the CRISPR system for genome editing in mammalian cells.

The Waterman award will be presented to Zhang at an evening ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 6. At that event, the National Science Board will also present its 2014 Vannevar Bush award to mathematician Richard Tapia and Public Service awards to bioethicist Arthur Caplan and to the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships Program.

Plans are underway for Zhang to deliver a lecture at a meeting of the National Science Board at NSF and to meet with students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology during his visit this spring.