Nancy Kanwisher Shares 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today announced the 2024 Kavli Prize Laureates in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience honors Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT and an investigator at the McGovern Institute, along with UC Berkeley neurobiologist Doris Tsao, and Rockefeller University neuroscientist Winrich Freiwald for their discovery of a highly localized and specialized system for representation of faces in human and non-human primate neocortex. The neuroscience laureates will share $1 million USD.

“Kanwisher, Freiwald, and Tsao together discovered a localized and specialized neocortical system for face recognition,” says Kristine Walhovd, Chair of the Kavli Neuroscience Committee. “Their outstanding research will ultimately further our understanding of recognition not only of faces, but objects and scenes.”

Overcoming failure

As a graduate student at MIT in the early days of functional brain imaging, Kanwisher was fascinated by the potential of the emerging technology to answer a suite of questions about the human mind. But a lack of brain imaging resources and a series of failed experiments led Kanwisher consider leaving the field for good. She credits her advisor, MIT Professor of Psychology Molly Potter, for supporting her through this challenging time and for teaching her how to make powerful inferences about the inner workings of the mind from behavioral data alone.

After receiving her PhD from MIT, Kanwisher spent a year studying nuclear strategy with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in Peace and International Security, but eventually returned to science by accepting a faculty position at Harvard University where she could use the latest brain imaging technology to pursue the scientific questions that had always fascinated her.

Zeroing in on faces

Recognizing faces is important for social interaction in many animals. Previous work in human psychology and animal research had suggested the existence of a functionally specialized system for face recognition, but this system had not clearly been identified with brain imaging technology. It is here that Kanwisher saw her opportunity.

Using a new method at the time, called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, Kanwisher’s team scanned people while they looked at faces and while they looked at objects, and searched for brain regions that responded more to one than the other. They found a small patch of neocortex, now called the fusiform face area (FFA), that is dedicated specifically to the task of face recognition. She found individual differences in the location of this area and devised an analysis technique to effectively localize specialized functional regions in the brain. This technique is now widely used and applied to domains beyond the face recognition system. Notably, Kanwisher’s first FFA paper was co-authored with Josh McDermott, who was an undergrad at Harvard University at the time, and is now an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute and holds a faculty position alongside Kanwisher in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

A group of five scientists standing and smiling in front of a whiteboard.
The Kanwisher lab at Harvard University circa 1996. From left to right: Nancy Kanwisher, Josh McDermott (then an undergrad), Marvin Chun (postdoc), Ewa Wojciulik (postdoc), and Jody Culham (grad student). Photo: Nancy Kanwisher

From humans to monkeys

Inspired by Kanwisher´s findings, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Tsao together used fMRI to localize similar face patches in macaque monkeys. They mapped out six distinct brain regions, known as the face patch system, including these regions’ functional specialization and how they are connected. By recording the activity of individual brain cells, they revealed how cells in some face patches specialize in faces with particular views.

Tsao proceeded to identify how the face patches work together to identify a face, through a specific code that enables single cells to identify faces by assembling information of facial features. For example, some cells respond to the presence of hair, others to the distance between the eyes. Freiwald uncovered that a separate brain region, called the temporal pole, accelerates our recognition of familiar faces, and that some cells are selectively responsive to familiar faces.

“It was a special thrill for me when Doris and Winrich found face patches in monkeys using fMRI,” says Kanwisher, whose lab at MIT’s McGovern Institute has gone on to uncover many other regions of the human brain that engage in specific aspects of perception and cognition. “They are scientific heroes to me, and it is a thrill to receive the Kavli Prize in neuroscience jointly with them.”

“Nancy and her students have identified neocortical subregions that differentially engage in the perception of faces, places, music and even what others think,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “We are delighted that her groundbreaking work into the functional organization of the human brain is being honored this year with the Kavli Prize.”

Together, the laureates, with their work on neocortical specialization for face recognition, have provided basic principles of neural organization which will further our understanding of how we perceive the world around us.

About the Kavli Prize

The Kavli Prize is a partnership among The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and The Kavli Foundation (USA). The Kavli Prize honors scientists for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience that transform our understanding of the big, the small and the complex. Three one-million-dollar prizes are awarded every other year in each of the three fields. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters selects the laureates based on recommendations from three independent prize committees whose members are nominated by The Chinese Academy of Sciences, The French Academy of Sciences, The Max Planck Society of Germany, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and The Royal Society, UK.

Margaret Livingstone awarded the 2024 Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience

Today the McGovern Institute at MIT announces that the 2024 Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience will be awarded to Margaret Livingstone, Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. The Scolnick Prize is awarded annually by the McGovern Institute, for outstanding achievements in neuroscience.

“Margaret Livingstone’s driven curiosity and original experimental approaches have led to fundamental advances in our understanding of visual perception,” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute and chair of the selection committee. “In particular, she has made major advances in resolving a long-standing debate over whether the brain domains and neurons that are specifically tuned to detect facial features are present from birth or arise from experience. Her developmental research shows that the cerebral cortex already contains topographic sensory maps at birth but that domain-specific maps, for example to recognize facial-features, require experience and sensory input to develop normally.”

“Margaret Livingstone’s driven curiosity and original experimental approaches have led to fundamental advances in our understanding of visual perception.” — Robert Desimone

Livingstone received a BS from MIT in 1972 and, under the mentorship of Edward Kravitz, a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard University in 1981. Her doctoral research in lobsters showed that the biogenic amines serotonin and octopamine control context-dependent behaviors such as offensive versus defensive postures. She followed up on this discovery as a postdoctoral fellow by researching biogenic amine signaling in learning and memory, with Prof. William Quinn at Princeton University. Using learning and memory mutants created in the fruit fly model she identified defects in dopamine-synthesizing enzymes and calcium-dependent enzymes that produce cAMP. Her results supported the then burgeoning idea that biogenic amines signal through second messengers enable behavioral plasticity.

To test whether biogenic amines also control neuronal function in mammals, Livingstone moved back to Harvard Medical School in 1983 to study the effects of sleep on visual processing with David Hubel, who was studying neuronal activity in the nonhuman primate visual cortex. Over the course of a 20-year collaboration, Livingstone and Hubel showed that the visual system is functionally and anatomically divided into parallel pathways that detect and process the distinct visual features of color, motion, and orientation.

Livingstone quickly rose through the academic ranks at Harvard to be appointed as an instructor and then assistant professor in 1983, associate professor in 1986 and full professor in 1988. With her own laboratory, Livingstone began to explore the organization of face-perception domains in the inferotemporal cortex of nonhuman primates. By combining single-cell recording and fMRI brain imaging data from the same animal, her then graduate student Doris Tsao, in collaboration with Winrich Freiwald, showed that an abundance of individual neurons within the face-recognition domain are tuned to a combination of facial features. These results helped to explain the long-standing question of how individual neurons show such exquisite selectivity to specific faces.

Three images of Mona Lisa, side by side, each with a different filter slightly obscuring the face.
Mona Lisa’s smile has been described as mysterious and fleeting because it seems to disappear when viewers look directly at it. Livingstone showed that Mona Lisa’s smile is more apparent in our peripheral vision than our central (or foveal) vision because our peripheral vision is more sensitive to low spatial frequencies, or shadows and shadings of black and white. These shadows make her lips seem to turn upward into a subtle smile. The three images above show the painting filtered to reveal very low spatial frequency features (left, with the smile more apparent) to high spatial frequency features (right, with the smile being less visible). Image: Margaret Livingstone

In researching face patches, Livingstone became fascinated with the question of whether face-perception domains are present from birth, as many scientists thought at the time. Livingstone and her postdoc Michael Arcaro carried out experiments that showed that the development of face patches requires visual exposure to faces in the early postnatal period. Moreover, they showed that entirely unnatural symbol-specific domains can form in animals that experienced intensive visual exposure to symbols early in development. Thus, experience is both necessary and sufficient for the formation of feature-specific domains in the inferotemporal cortex. Livingtone’s results support a consistent principle for the development of higher-level cortex, from a hard-wired sensory topographic map present at birth to the formation of experience-dependent domains that detect combined, stimulus-specific features.

Livingstone is also known for her scientifically based exploration of the visual arts. Her book “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing,” which has sold more than 40,000 copies to date, explores how both the techniques artists use and our anatomy and physiology influence our perception of art. Livingstone has presented this work to audiences around the country, from Pixar Studios, MicroSoft and IBM to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery and The Hirshhorn Museum.

In 2014, Livingstone was awarded the Takeda Professorship of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. She was awarded the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Neuroscience in 2011, the Grossman Award from the Society of Neurological Surgeons in 2013 and the Roberts Prize for Best Paper in Physics in Medicine and Biology in 2013 and 2016. Livingstone was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018 and of the National Academy of Science in 2020. She will be awarded the Scolnick Prize in the spring of 2024.

Ariel Furst and Fan Wang receive 2023 National Institutes of Health awards

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to MIT’s Ariel Furst and Fan Wang, through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. The NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program awarded 85 new research grants to support exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative behavioral and biomedical research projects.

Ariel Furst was selected as the recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which has supported unusually innovative research since 2007. Recipients are early-career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, invents technologies to improve human and environmental health by increasing equitable access to resources. Her lab develops transformative technologies to solve problems related to health care and sustainability by harnessing the inherent capabilities of biological molecules and cells. She is passionate about STEM outreach and increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering.

After completing her PhD at Caltech, where she developed noninvasive diagnostics for colorectal cancer, Furst became an A. O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. There she developed sensors to monitor environmental pollutants. In 2022, Furst was awarded the MIT UROP Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award for her work with undergraduate researchers. She is a now a 2023 Marion Milligan Mason Awardee, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar for Bio-Inspired Solar Energy, and an ARO Early Career Grantee. She is also a co-founder of the regenerative agriculture company, Seia Bio.

Fan Wang received the Pioneer Award, which has been challenging researchers at all career levels to pursue new directions and develop groundbreaking, high impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical and behavioral sciences since 2004.

Wang, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is uncovering the neural circuit mechanisms that govern bodily sensations, like touch, pain, and posture, as well as the mechanisms that control sensorimotor behaviors. Researchers in the Wang lab aim to generate an integrated understanding of the sensation-perception-action process, hoping to find better treatments for diseases like chronic pain, addiction, and movement disorders. Wang’s lab uses genetic, viral, in vivo large-scale electrophysiology and imaging techniques to gain traction in these pursuits.

Wang obtained her PhD at Columbia University, working with Professor Richard Axel. She conducted her postdoctoral work at Stanford University with Mark Tessier-Lavigne, and then subsequently joined Duke University as faculty in 2003. Wang was later appointed as the Morris N. Broad Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. In January 2023, she joined the faculty of the MIT School of Science and the McGovern Institute.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program is funded through the NIH Common Fund, which supports a series of exceptionally high-impact programs that cross NIH Institutes and Centers.

“The HRHR program is a pillar for innovation here at NIH, providing support to transformational research, with advances in biomedical and behavioral science,” says Robert W. Eisinger, acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “These awards align with the Common Fund’s mandate to support science expected to have exceptionally high and broadly applicable impact.”

NIH issued eight Pioneer Awards, 58 New Innovator Awards, six Transformative Research Awards, and 13 Early Independence Awards in 2023. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund; the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Library of Medicine; the National Institute on Aging; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and the Office of Dietary Supplements.

Twelve with MIT ties elected to the National Academy of Medicine for 2023

The National Academy of Medicine announced the election of 100 new members to join their esteemed ranks in 2023, among them five MIT faculty members and seven additional affiliates.

MIT professors Daniel Anderson, Regina Barzilay, Guoping Feng, Darrell Irvine, and Morgen Shen were among the new members. Justin Hanes PhD ’96, Said Ibrahim MBA ’16, and Jennifer West ’92, along with three former students in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) — Michael Chiang, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Robert Vonderheide — were also elected, as was Yi Zhang, an associate member of The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service, the academy noted in announcing the election of its new members.

MIT faculty

Daniel G. Anderson, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, was elected “for pioneering the area of non-viral gene therapy and cellular delivery. His work has resulted in fundamental scientific advances; over 500 papers, patents, and patent applications; and the creation of companies, products, and technologies that are now in the clinic.” Anderson is an affiliate of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and of the Ragon Institute at MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Regina Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health within the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, was elected “for the development of machine learning tools that have been transformational for breast cancer screening and risk assessment, and for the development of molecular design tools broadly utilized for drug discovery.” Barzilay is the AI faculty lead within the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health and an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

Guoping Feng, the associate director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and an affiliate of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was elected “for his breakthrough discoveries regarding the pathological mechanisms of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, providing foundational knowledges and molecular targets for developing effective therapeutics for mental illness such as OCD, ASD, and ADHD.”

Darrell J. Irvine ’00, the Underwood-Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, was elected “for the development of novel methods for delivery of immunotherapies and vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases.”

Morgan Sheng, professor of neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, with affiliations in the McGovern Institute and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, as well as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was elected “for transforming the understanding of excitatory synapses. He revealed the postsynaptic density as a protein network controlling synaptic signaling and morphology; established the paradigm of signaling complexes organized by PDZ scaffolds; and pioneered the concept of localized regulation of mitochondria, apoptosis, and complement for targeted synapse elimination.”

Additional MIT affiliates

Michael F. Chiang, a former student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) who is now director of the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, was honored “for pioneering applications of biomedical informatics to ophthalmology in artificial intelligence, telehealth, pediatric retinal disease, electronic health records, and data science, including methodological and diagnostic advances in AI for pediatric retinopathy of prematurity, and for contributions to developing and implementing the largest ambulatory care registry in the United States.”

Justin Hanes PhD ’96, who earned his PhD from the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, was honored “for pioneering discoveries and inventions of innovative drug delivery technologies, especially mucosal, ocular, and central nervous system drug delivery systems; and for international leadership in research and education at the interface of engineering, medicine, and entrepreneurship, leading to clinical translation of drug delivery technologies.”

Said Ibrahim MBA ’16, a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management who is now a senior vice president and chair, department of medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, was honored for influential “health services research on racial disparities in elective joint replacement that has provided a national model for advancing health equity research beyond the identification of inequities and toward their remediation, and for his research that has been leveraged to engage diverse and innovative emerging scholars.”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a former student in HST who is now an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine, was honored “for contributing important research in the immunotherapy of myeloid malignancies, such as acute myeloid leukemia, for establishing international centers for immunotherapy for childhood cancers, and for the discovery of tissue-resident stem cells.”

Robert H. Vonderheide, a former student in HST who is now a professor and vice dean at the Perelman School of Medicine and vice president of cancer programs at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, was honored “for developing immune combination therapies for patients with pancreatic cancer by driving proof-of-concept from lab to clinic, then leading national, randomized clinical trials for therapy, maintenance, and interception; and for improving access of minority individuals to clinical trials while directing an NCI comprehensive cancer center.”

Jennifer West ’92, a graduate of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering who is now a professor of biomedical engineering and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, was honored “for the invention, development, and translation of novel biomaterials including bioactive, photopolymerizable hydrogels and theranostic nanoparticles.”

Yi Zhang, associate member of the Broad Institute, was honored “for making fundamental contributions to the epigenetics field through systematic identification and characterization of chromatin modifying enzymes, including EZH2, JmjC, and Tet. His proof-of-principle work on EZH2 inhibitors led to the founding of Epizyme and eventual making of tazemetostat, a drug approved for epithelioid sarcoma and follicular lymphoma.”

“It is my honor to welcome this truly exceptional class of new members to the National Academy of Medicine,” said NAM President Victor J. Dzau. “Their contributions to health and medicine are unparalleled, and their leadership and expertise will be essential to helping the NAM tackle today’s urgent health challenges, inform the future of health care, and ensure health equity for the benefit of all around the globe.”

Four McGovern Investigators receive NIH BRAIN Initiative grants

In the human brain, 86 billion neurons form more than 100 trillion connections with other neurons at junctions called synapses. Scientists at the McGovern Institute are working with their collaborators to develop technologies to map these connections across the brain, from mice to humans.

Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a new program to support research projects that have the potential to reveal an unprecedented and dynamic picture of the connected networks in the brain. Four of these NIH-funded research projects will take place in McGovern labs.

BRAIN Initiative

In 2013, the Obama administration announced the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, a public-private research effort to support the development and application of new technologies to understand brain function.

Today, the NIH announced its third project supported by the BRAIN Initiative, called BRAIN Initiative Connectivity Across Scales (BRAIN CONNECTS). The new project complements two previous large-scale projects, which together aim to transform neuroscience research by generating wiring diagrams that can span entire brains across multiple species. These detailed wiring diagrams can help uncover the logic of the brain’s neural code, leading to a better understanding of how this circuitry makes us who we are and how it could be rewired to treat brain diseases.

BRAIN CONNECTS at McGovern

The initial round of BRAIN CONNECTS awards will support researchers at more than 40 university and research institutions across the globe with 11 grants totaling $150 million over five years. Four of these grants have been awarded to McGovern researchers Guoping Feng, Ila Fiete, Satra Ghosh, and Ian Wickersham, whose projects are outlined below:

BRAIN CONNECTS: Comprehensive regional projection map of marmoset with single axon and cell type resolution
Team: Guoping Feng (McGovern Institute, MIT), Partha Mitra (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), Xiao Wang (Broad Institute), Ian Wickersham (McGovern Institute, MIT)

Summary: This project will establish an integrated experimental-computational platform to create the first comprehensive brain-wide mesoscale connectivity map in a non-human primate (NHP), the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus). It will do so by tracing axonal projections of RNA barcode-identified neurons brain-wide in the marmoset, utilizing a sequencing-based imaging method that also permits simultaneous transcriptomic cell typing of the identified neurons. This work will help bridge the gap between brain-wide mesoscale connectivity data available for the mouse from a decade of mapping efforts using modern techniques and the absence of comparable data in humans and NHPs.

BRAIN CONNECTS: A center for high-throughput integrative mouse connectomics
Team: Jeff Lichtman (Harvard University), Ila Fiete (McGovern Institute, MIT), Sebastian Seung (Princeton University), David Tank (Princeton University), Hongkui Zeng (Allen Institute), Viren Jain (Google), Greg Jeffries (Oxford University)

Summary: This project aims to produce a large-scale synapse-level brain map (connectome) that includes all the main areas of the mouse hippocampus. This region is of clinical interest because it is an essential part of the circuit underlying spatial navigation and memory and the earliest impairments and degeneration related to Alzheimer’s disease.

BRAIN CONNECTS: The center for Large-scale Imaging of Neural Circuits (LINC)
Team: Anastasia Yendiki (MGH), Satra Ghosh (McGovern, MIT), Suzanne Haber (University of Rochester), Elizabeth Hillman (Columbia University)

Summary: This project will generate connectional diagrams of the monkey and human brain at unprecedented resolutions. These diagrams will be linked both to the neuroanatomic literature and to in vivo neuroimaging techniques, bridging between the rigor of the former and the clinical relevance of the latter. The data to be generated by this project will advance our understanding of brain circuits that are implicated in motor and psychiatric disorders, and that are targeted by deep-brain stimulation to treat these disorders.

BRAIN CONNECTS: Mapping brain-wide connectivity of neuronal types using barcoded connectomics
Team: Xiaoyin Chen (Allen Institute), Ian Wickersham (McGovern Institute, MIT), and Justus Kebschull of JHU

Summary: This project aims to optimize and develop barcode sequencing-based neuroanatomical techniques to achieve brain-wide, high-throughput, highly multiplexed mapping of axonal projections and synaptic connectivity of neuronal types at cellular resolution in primate brains. The team will work together to apply these techniques to generate an unprecedented multi-resolution map of brain-wide projections and synaptic inputs of neurons in the macaque visual cortex at cellular resolution.

 

One scientist’s journey from the Middle East to MIT

Smiling man holidng paper in a room.
Ubadah Sabbagh, soon after receiving his US citizenship papers, in April 2023. Photo: Ubadah Sabbagh

“I recently exhaled a breath I’ve been holding in for nearly half my life. After applying over a decade ago, I’m finally an American. This means so many things to me. Foremost, it means I can go back to the the Middle East, and see my mama and the family, for the first time in 14 years.” — McGovern Institute Postdoctoral Associate Ubadah Sabbagh, X (formerly Twitter) post, April 27, 2023

The words sit atop a photo of Ubadah Sabbagh, who joined the lab of Guoping Feng, James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor at MIT, as a postdoctoral associate in 2021. Sabbagh, a Syrian national, is dressed in a charcoal grey jacket, a keffiyeh loose around his neck, and holding his US citizenship papers, which he began applying for when he was 19 and an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) studying biology and bioinformatics.

In the photo he is 29.

A clarity of vision

Sabbagh’s journey from the Middle East to his research position at MIT has been marked by determination and courage, a multifaceted curiosity, and a role as a scientist-writer/scientist-advocate.  He is particularly committed to the importance of humanity in science.

“For me, a scientist is a person who is not only in the lab but also has a unique perspective to contribute to society,” he says. “The scientific method is an idea, and that can be objective. But the process of doing science is a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, it is inherently both social and political.”

At just 30 years of age, some of Sabbagh’s ideas have disrupted conventional thinking about how science is done in the United States. He believes nations should do science not primarily to compete, for example, but to be aspirational.

“It is our job to make our work accessible to the public, to educate and inform, and to help ground policy,” he says. “In our technologically advanced society, we need to raise the baseline for public scientific intuition so that people are empowered and better equipped to separate truth from myth.”

Two men sitting at a booth wearing headphones.
Ubadah Sabbagh is interviewed for Max Planck Forida’s Neurotransmissions podcast at the 2023 Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. Photo: Max Planck Florida

His research and advocacy work have won him accolades, including the 2023 Young Arab Pioneers Award from the Arab Youth Center and the 2020 Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Neurochemistry. He was also named to the 2021 Forbes “30 under 30” list, the first Syrian to be selected in the Science category.

A path to knowledge

Sabbagh’s path to that knowledge began when, living on his own at age 16, he attended Longview Community College, in Kansas City, often juggling multiple jobs. It continued at UMKC, where he fell in love with biology and had his first research experience with bioinformatician Gerald Wyckoff at the same time the civil war in Syria escalated, with his family still in the Middle East. “That was a rough time for me,” he says. “I had a lot of survivor’s guilt: I am here, I have all of this stability and security compared to what they have, and while they had suffocation, I had opportunity. I need to make this mean something positive, not just for me, but in as broad a way as possible for other people.”

Child smiles in front of scientific poster.
Ubadah Sabbagh, age 9, presents his first scientific poster. Photo: Ubadah Sabbagh

The war also sparked Sabbagh’s interest in human behavior—“where it originates, what motivates people to do things, but in a biological, not a psychological way,” he says. “What circuitry is engaged? What is the infrastructure of the brain that leads to X, Y, Z?”

His passion for neuroscience blossomed as a graduate student at Virginia Tech, where he earned his PhD in translational biology, medicine, and health. There, he received a six-year NIH F99/K00 Award, and under the mentorship of neuroscientist at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute he researched the connections between the eye and the brain, specifically, mapping the architecture of the principle neurons in a region of the thalamus essential to visual processing.

“The retina, and the entire visual system, struck me as elegant, with beautiful layers of diverse cells found at every node,” says Sabbagh, his own eyes lighting up.

His research earned him a coveted spot on the Forbes “30 under 30” list, generating enormous visibility, including in the Arab world, adding visitors to his already robust X (formerly Twitter) account, which has more than 9,200 followers. “The increased visibility lets me use my voice to advocate for the things I care about,” he says.

“I need to make this mean something positive, not just for me, but in as broad a way as possible for other people.” — Ubadah Sabbagh

Those causes range from promoting equity and inclusion in science to transforming the American system of doing science for the betterment of science and the scientists themselves. He cofounded the nonprofit Black in Neuro to celebrate and empower Black scholars in neuroscience, and he continues to serve on the board. He is the chair of an advisory committee for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), recommending ways SfN can better address the needs of its young members, and a member of the Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director working group charged with re-envisioning postdoctoral training. He serves on the advisory board of Community for Rigor, a new NIH initiative that aims to teach scientific rigor at national scale and, in his spare time, he writes articles about the relationship of science and policy for publications including Scientific American and the Washington Post.

Still, there have been obstacles. The same year Sabbagh received the NIH F99/K00 Award, he faced major setbacks in his application to become a citizen. He would not try again until 2021, when he had his PhD in hand and had joined the McGovern Institute.

An MIT postdoc and citizenship

Sabbagh dove into his research in Guoping Feng’s lab with the same vigor and outside-the-box thinking that characterized his previous work. He continues to investigate the thalamus, but in a region that is less involved in processing pure sensory signals, such as light and sound, and more focused on cognitive functions of the brain. He aims to understand how thalamic brain areas orchestrate complex functions we carry out every day, including working memory and cognitive flexibility.

“This is important to understand because when this orchestra goes out of tune it can lead to a range of neurological disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia,” he says. He is also developing new tools for studying the brain using genome editing and viral engineering to expand the toolkit available to neuroscientists.

Microscopic image of mouse brain
Neurons in a transgenic mouse brain labeled by Sabbagh using genome editing technology in the Feng lab. Image: Ubadah Sabbagh

The environment at the McGovern Institute is also a source of inspiration for Sabbagh’s research. “The scale and scope of work being done at McGovern is remarkable. It’s an exciting place for me to be as a neuroscientist,” said Sabbagh. “Besides being intellectually enriching, I’ve found great community here – something that’s important to me wherever I work.”

Returning to the Middle East

Profile of scientist Ubadah Sabbagh speaking at a table.
McGovern postdoc Ubadah Sabbagh at the 2023 Young Arab Pioneers Award ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Arab Youth Center

While at an advisory meeting at the NIH, Sabbagh learned he had been selected as a Young Arab Pioneer by the Arab Youth Center and was flown the next day to Abu Dhabi for a ceremony overseen by Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Cabinet Member and Minister of Community Development in the United Arab Emirates. The ceremony recognized 20 Arab youth from around the world in sectors ranging from scientific research to entrepreneurship and community development. Sabbagh’s research “presented a unique portrayal of creative Arab youth and an admirable representation of the values of youth beyond the Arab world,” said Sadeq Jarrar, executive director of the center.

“There I was, among other young Arab leaders, learning firsthand about their efforts, aspirations, and their outlook for the future,” says Sabbagh, who was deeply inspired by the experience.

Just a month earlier, his passport finally secured, Sabbagh had reunited with his family in the Middle East after more than a decade in the United States. “I had been away for so long,” he said, describing the experience as a “cultural reawakening.”

Woman hands man an award on stage.
Ubadah Sabbagh receives a Young Arab Pioneer Award by Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Cabinet Member and Minister of Community Development in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Arab Youth Center

Sabbagh saw a gaping need he had not been aware of when he left 14 years earlier, as a teen. “The Middle East had such a glorious intellectual past,” he says. “But for years people have been leaving to get their advanced scientific training, and there is no adequate infrastructure to support them if they want to go back.” He wondered: What if there were a scientific renaissance in the region? How would we build infrastructure to cultivate local minds and local talent? What if the next chapter of the Middle East included being a new nexus of global scientific advancements?

“I felt so inspired,” he says. “I have a longing, someday, to meaningfully give back.”

Fourteen MIT School of Science professors receive tenure for 2022 and 2023

In 2022, nine MIT faculty were granted tenure in the School of Science:

Gloria Choi examines the interaction of the immune system with the brain and the effects of that interaction on neurodevelopment, behavior, and mood. She also studies how social behaviors are regulated according to sensory stimuli, context, internal state, and physiological status, and how these factors modulate neural circuit function via a combinatorial code of classic neuromodulators and immune-derived cytokines. Choi joined the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences after a postdoc at Columbia University. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and her PhD from Caltech. Choi is also an investigator in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Nikta Fakhri develops experimental tools and conceptual frameworks to uncover laws governing fluctuations, order, and self-organization in active systems. Such frameworks provide powerful insight into dynamics of nonequilibrium living systems across scales, from the emergence of thermodynamic arrow of time to spatiotemporal organization of signaling protein patterns and discovery of odd elasticity. Fakhri joined the Department of Physics in 2015 following a postdoc at University of Göttingen. She completed her undergraduate degree at Sharif University of Technology and her PhD at Rice University.

Geobiologist Greg Fournier uses a combination of molecular phylogeny insights and geologic records to study major events in planetary history, with the hope of furthering our understanding of the co-evolution of life and environment. Recently, his team developed a new technique to analyze multiple gene evolutionary histories and estimated that photosynthesis evolved between 3.4 and 2.9 billion years ago. Fournier joined the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences in 2014 after working as a postdoc at the University of Connecticut and as a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He earned his BA from Dartmouth College in 2001 and his PhD in genetics and genomics from the University of Connecticut in 2009.

Daniel Harlow researches black holes and cosmology, viewed through the lens of quantum gravity and quantum field theory. His work generates new insights into quantum information, quantum field theory, and gravity. Harlow joined the Department of Physics in 2017 following postdocs at Princeton University and Harvard University. He obtained a BA in physics and mathematics from Columbia University in 2006 and a PhD in physics from Stanford University in 2012. He is also a researcher in the Center for Theoretical Physics.

A biophysicist, Gene-Wei Li studies how bacteria optimize the levels of proteins they produce at both mechanistic and systems levels. His lab focuses on design principles of transcription, translation, and RNA maturation. Li joined the Department of Biology in 2015 after completing a postdoc at the University of California at San Francisco. He earned an BS in physics from National Tsinghua University in 2004 and a PhD in physics from Harvard University in 2010.

Michael McDonald focuses on the evolution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and the role that environment plays in dictating this evolution. This research involves the discovery and study of the most distant assemblies of galaxies alongside analyses of the complex interplay between gas, galaxies, and black holes in the closest, most massive systems. McDonald joined the Department of Physics and the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in 2015 after three years as a Hubble Fellow, also at MIT. He obtained his BS and MS degrees in physics at Queen’s University, and his PhD in astronomy at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen combines tools from chemistry, optics, biology, and microscopy to develop new approaches to probe dynamics. Her group focuses on dynamics in membrane proteins, particularly photosynthetic light-harvesting systems that are of interest for sustainable energy applications. Following a postdoc at Stanford University, Schlau-Cohen joined the Department of Chemistry faculty in 2015. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical physics from Brown University in 2003 followed by a PhD in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley.

Phiala Shanahan’s research interests are focused around theoretical nuclear and particle physics. In particular, she works to understand the structure and interactions of hadrons and nuclei from the fundamental degrees of freedom encoded in the Standard Model of particle physics. After a postdoc at MIT and a joint position as an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary and senior staff scientist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Shanahan returned to the Department of Physics as faculty in 2018. She obtained her BS from the University of Adelaide in 2012 and her PhD, also from the University of Adelaide, in 2015.

Omer Yilmaz explores the impact of dietary interventions on stem cells, the immune system, and cancer within the intestine. By better understanding how intestinal stem cells adapt to diverse diets, his group hopes to identify and develop new strategies that prevent and reduce the growth of cancers involving the intestinal tract. Yilmaz joined the Department of Biology in 2014 and is now also a member of Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. After receiving his BS from the University of Michigan in 1999 and his PhD and MD from University of Michigan Medical School in 2008, he was a resident in anatomic pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School until 2013.

In 2023, five MIT faculty were granted tenure in the School of Science:

Physicist Riccardo Comin explores the novel phases of matter that can be found in electronic solids with strong interactions, also known as quantum materials. His group employs a combination of synthesis, scattering, and spectroscopy to obtain a comprehensive picture of these emergent phenomena, including superconductivity, (anti)ferromagnetism, spin-density-waves, charge order, ferroelectricity, and orbital order. Comin joined the Department of Physics in 2016 after postdoctoral work at the University of Toronto. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Universita’ degli Studi di Trieste in Italy, where he also obtained a MS in physics in 2009. Later, he pursued doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada, earning a PhD in 2013.

Netta Engelhardt researches the dynamics of black holes in quantum gravity and uses holography to study the interplay between gravity and quantum information. Her primary focus is on the black hole information paradox, that black holes seem to be destroying information that, according to quantum physics, cannot be destroyed. Engelhardt was a postdoc at Princeton University and a member of the Princeton Gravity Initiative prior to joining the Department of Physics in 2019. She received her BS in physics and mathematics from Brandeis University and her PhD in physics from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Engelhardt is a researcher in the Center for Theoretical Physics and the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University.

Mark Harnett studies how the biophysical features of individual neurons endow neural circuits with the ability to process information and perform the complex computations that underlie behavior. As part of this work, his lab was the first to describe the physiological properties of human dendrites. He joined the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research in 2015. Prior, he was a postdoc at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus. He received his BA in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon and his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Texas at Austin.

Or Hen investigates quantum chromodynamic effects in the nuclear medium and the interplay between partonic and nucleonic degrees of freedom in nuclei. Specifically, Hen utilizes high-energy scattering of electron, neutrino, photon, proton and ion off atomic nuclei to study short-range correlations: temporal fluctuations of high-density, high-momentum, nucleon clusters in nuclei with important implications for nuclear, particle, atomic, and astrophysics. Hen was an MIT Pappalardo Fellow in the Department of Physics from 2015 to 2017 before joining the faculty in 2017. He received his undergraduate degree in physics and computer engineering from the Hebrew University and earned his PhD in experimental physics at Tel Aviv University.

Sebastian Lourido is interested in learning about the vulnerabilities of parasites in order to develop treatments for infectious diseases and expand our understanding of eukaryotic diversity. His lab studies many important human pathogens, including Toxoplasma gondii, to model features conserved throughout the phylum. Lourido was a Whitehead Fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research until 2017, when he joined the Department of Biology and became a Whitehead Member. He earned his BS from Tulane University in 2004 and his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 2012.

Thirty-four community members receive 2023 MIT Excellence Awards, Collier Medal, and Staff Award for Distinction in Service

Twenty-four individuals and one team were awarded MIT Excellence Awards — the highest awards for staff at the Institute — at a well-attended and energetic ceremony the afternoon of June 8 in Kresge Auditorium. In addition to the Excellence Awards, two community members were honored with the Collier Medal and Staff Award for Distinction in Service.

The Excellence Awards, Collier Medal, and Staff Award for Distinction in Service recognize the extraordinary dedication of staff and community members who represent all areas of the Institute, both on campus and at the Lincoln Laboratory.

The Collier Medal honors the memory of Officer Sean Collier, who gave his life protecting and serving the MIT community, and celebrates an individual or group whose actions demonstrate the importance of community. The Staff Award for Distinction in Service, now in its second year, is presented to a staff member whose service to the Institute results in a positive lasting impact on the community.

The 2023 MIT Excellence Award recipients and their award categories are:

  • Sustaining MIT: Erin Genereux; Rachida Kernis; J. Bradley Morrison, and the Tip Box Recycling Team (John R. Collins, Michael A. DeBerio, Normand J. Desrochers III, Mitchell S. Galanek, David M. Pavone, Ryan Samz, Rosario Silvestri, and Lu Zhong);
  • Innovative Solutions: Abram Barrett, Nicole H. W. Henning
  • Bringing Out the Best: Patty Eames, Suzy Maholchic Nelson
  • Serving Our Community: Mahnaz El-Kouedi, Kara Flyg, Timothy J. Meunier, Marie A. Stuppard, Roslyn R. Wesley
  • Embracing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Farrah A. Belizaire
  • Outstanding Contributor: Diane Ballestas, Robert J. Bicchieri, Lindsey Megan Charles, Benoit Desbiolles, Dennis C. Hamel, Heather Anne Holland, Gregory L. Long, Linda Mar, Mary Ellen Sinkus, Sarah E. Willis, and Phyl A. Winn
  • The 2023 Collier Medal recipient was Martin Eric William Nisser, a graduate student fellow in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science/Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the School of Engineering/MIT Schwarzman College of Computing.
  • The 2023 recipient of the Staff Award for Distinction in Service was Kimberly A. Haberlin, chief of staff in the Chancellor’s Office.

Presenters included President Sally Kornbluth; Vice President for Human Resources Ramona Allen; Provost Cynthia Barnhart; School of Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan; MIT Police Chief John DiFava and MIT Police Captain Andrew Turco; Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier; Lincoln Laboratory Director Eric Evans; and Chancellor Melissa Nobles. As always, an animated and supportive audience with signs, pompoms, and glow bracelets filled the auditorium with cheers for the honorees.

Visit the MIT Human Resources website for more information about the award categories, selection process, recipients, and to view the archive video of the event.

Eight from MIT elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 2023

Eight MIT faculty members are among more than 250 leaders from academia, the arts, industry, public policy, and research elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced April 19.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT in 2023 are:

  • Arnaud Costinot, professor of economics;
  • James J. DiCarlo, Peter de Florez Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, director of the MIT Quest for Intelligence, and McGovern Institute Investigator;
  • Piotr Indyk, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science;
  • Senthil Todadri, professor of physics;
  • Evelyn N. Wang, Ford Professor of Engineering (on leave) and director of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy;
  • Boleslaw Wyslouch, professor of physics and director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Bates Research and Engineering Center;
  • Yukiko Yamashita, professor of biology and core member of the Whitehead Institute; and
  • Wei Zhang, professor of mathematics.

“With the election of these members, the academy is honoring excellence, innovation, and leadership and recognizing a broad array of stellar accomplishments. We hope every new member celebrates this achievement and joins our work advancing the common good,” says David W. Oxtoby, president of the academy.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading thinkers from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

2023 MacVicar Faculty Fellows named

The Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Registrar’s Office have announced this year’s Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows: professor of brain and cognitive sciences John Gabrieli, associate professor of literature Marah Gubar, professor of biology Adam C. Martin, and associate professor of architecture Lawrence “Larry” Sass.

For more than 30 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has recognized exemplary and sustained contributions to undergraduate education at MIT. The program is named in honor of Margaret MacVicar, the first dean for undergraduate education and founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). New fellows are chosen every year through a competitive nomination process that includes submission of letters of support from colleagues, students, and alumni; review by an advisory committee led by the vice chancellor; and a final selection by the provost. Fellows are appointed to a 10-year term and receive $10,000 per year of discretionary funds.

Gabrieli, Gubar, Martin, and Sass join an elite group of more than 130 scholars from across the Institute who are committed to curricular innovation, excellence in teaching, and supporting students both in and out of the classroom.

John Gabrieli

“When I learned of this wonderful honor, I felt gratitude — for how MIT values teaching and learning, how my faculty colleagues bring such passion to their teaching, and how the students have such great curiosity for learning,” says new MacVicar Fellow John Gabrieli.

Gabrieli PhD ’87 received a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University and his PhD in behavioral neuroscience from MIT. He is the Grover M. Hermann Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive sciences. Gabrieli is also an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the founding director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili). He holds appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and studies the organization of memory, thought, and emotion in the human brain.

He joined Course 9 as a professor in 2005 and since then, he has taught over 3,000 undergraduates through the department’s introductory course, 9.00 (Introduction to Psychological Science). Gabrieli was recognized with departmental awards for excellence in teaching in 2009, 2012, and 2015. Highly sought after by undergraduate researchers, the Gabrieli Laboratory (GabLab) hosts five to 10 UROPs each year.

A unique element of Gabrieli’s classes is his passionate, hands-on teaching style and his use of interactive demonstrations, such as optical illusions and personality tests, to help students grasp some of the most fundamental topics in psychology.

His former teaching assistant Daniel Montgomery ’22 writes, “I was impressed by his enthusiasm and ability to keep students engaged throughout the lectures … John clearly has a desire to help students become excited about the material he’s teaching.”

Senior Elizabeth Carbonell agrees: “The excitement professor Gabrieli brought to lectures by starting with music every time made the classroom an enjoyable atmosphere conducive to learning … he always found a way to make every lecture relatable to the students, teaching psychological concepts that would shine a light on our own human emotions.”

Lecturer and 9.00 course coordinator Laura Frawley says, “John constantly innovates … He uses research-based learning techniques in his class, including blended learning, active learning, and retrieval practice.” His findings on blended learning resulted in two MITx offerings including 9.00x (Learning and Memory), which utilizes a nontraditional approach to assignments and exams to improve how students retrieve and remember information.

In addition, he is known for being a devoted teacher who believes in caring for the student as a whole. Through MITili’s Mental Wellness Initiative, Gabrieli, along with a compassionate team of faculty and staff, are working to better understand how mental health conditions impact learning.

Associate department head and associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences Josh McDermott calls him “an exceptional educator who has left his mark on generations of MIT undergraduate students with his captivating, innovative, and thoughtful approach to teaching.”

Mariana Gomez de Campo ’20 concurs: “There are certain professors that make their mark on students’ lives; professor Gabrieli permanently altered the course of mine.”

Laura Schulz, MacVicar Fellow and associate department head of brain and cognitive sciences, remarks, “His approach is visionary … John’s manner with students is unfailingly gracious … he hastens to remind them that they are as good as it gets, the smartest and brightest of their generation … it is the kind of warm, welcoming, inclusive approach to teaching that subtly but effectively reminds students that they belong here at MIT … It is little wonder that they love him.”

Marah Gubar

Marah Gubar joined MIT as an associate professor of literature in 2014. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a PhD from Princeton University. Gubar taught in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh and served as director of the Children’s Literature Program. She received MIT’s James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Award in 2019 and the Teaching with Digital Technology Award in 2020.

Gubar’s research focuses on children’s literature, history of children’s theater, performance, and 19th- and 20th-century representations of childhood. Her research and pedagogies underscore the importance of integrated learning.

Colleagues at MIT note her efficacy in introducing new concepts and new subjects into the literature curriculum during her tenure as curricular chair. Gubar set the stage for wide-ranging curricular improvements, resulting in a host of literature subjects on interrelated topics within and across disciplines.

Gubar teaches several classes, including 21L.452 (Literature and Philosophy) and 21L.500 (How We Got to Hamilton). Her lectures provide uniquely enriching learning experiences in which her students are encouraged to dive into literary texts; craft thoughtful, persuasive arguments; and engage in lively intellectual debate.

Gubar encourages others to bring fresh ideas and think outside the box. For example, her seminar on “Hamilton” challenges students to recontextualize the hip-hop musical in several intellectual traditions. Professor Eric Klopfer, head of the Comparative Media Studies Program/Writing and interim head of literature, calls Gubar “a thoughtful, caring instructor, and course designer … She thinks critically about whose story is being told and by whom.”

MacVicar Fellow and professor of literature Stephen Tapscott praises her experimentation, abstract thinking, and storytelling: “Professor Gubar’s ability to frame intellectual questions in terms of problems, developments, and performance is an important dimension of the genius of her teaching.”

“Marah is hands-down the most enthusiastic, effective, and engaged professor I had the pleasure of learning from at MIT,” writes one student. “She’s one of the few instructors I’ve had who never feels the need to reassert her place in the didactic hierarchy, but approaches her students as intellectual equals.”

Tapscott continues, “She welcomes participation in ways that enrich the conversation, open new modes of communication, and empower students as autonomous literary critics. In professor Gubar’s classroom we learn by doing … and that progress also includes ‘doing’ textual analysis, cultural history, and abstract literary theory.”

Gubar is also a committed mentor and student testimonials highlight her supportive approach. One of her former students remarked that Gubar “has a strong drive to be inclusive, and truly cares about ‘getting it right’ … her passion for literature and teaching, together with her drive for inclusivity, her ability to take accountability, and her compassion and empathy for her students, make [her] a truly remarkable teacher.”

On receiving this award Marah Gubar writes, “The best word I can think of to describe how I reacted to hearing that I had received this very overwhelming honor is ‘plotzing.’ The Yiddish verb ‘to plotz’ literally means to crack, burst, or collapse, so that captures how undone I was. I started to cry, because it suddenly struck me how much joy my father, Edward Gubar, would have taken in this amazing news. He was a teacher, too, and he died during the first phase of this terrible pandemic that we’re still struggling to get through.”

Adam C. Martin

Adam C. Martin is a professor and undergraduate officer in the Department of Biology. He studies the molecular mechanisms that underlie tissue form and function. His research interests include gastrulation, embryotic development, cytoskeletal dynamics, and the coordination of cellular behavior. Martin received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and his BS in biology (genetics) from Cornell University. Martin joined the Course 7 faculty in 2011.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude knowing that this has come from our students. The fact that they spent time to contribute to a nomination is incredibly meaningful to me,” says Martin. “I want to also thank all of my faculty colleagues with whom I have taught, appreciate, and learned immensely from over the past 12 years. I am a better teacher because of them and inspired by their dedication.”

He is committed to undergraduate education, teaching several key department offerings including 7.06 (Cell Biology), 7.016 (Introductory Biology), 7.002 (Fundamentals of Experimental Molecular Biology), and 7.102 (Introduction to Molecular Biology Techniques).

Martin’s style combines academic and scientific expertise with creative elements like props and demonstrations. His “energy and passion for the material” is obvious, writes Iain Cheeseman, associate department head and the Herman and Margaret Sokol Professor of Biology. “In addition to creating engaging lectures, Adam went beyond the standard classroom requirements to develop videos and animations (in collaboration with the Biology MITx team) to illustrate core cell biological approaches and concepts.”

What sets Martin apart is his connection with students, his positive spirit, and his welcoming demeanor. Apolonia Gardner ’22 reflects on the way he helped her outside of class through his running group, which connects younger students with seniors in his lab. “Professor Martin was literally committed to ‘going the extra mile’ by inviting his students to join him on runs around the Charles River on Friday afternoons,” she says.

Amy Keating, department head and Jay A. Stein professor of biology, and professor of biological engineering, goes on to praise Martin’s ability to attract students to Course 7 and guide them through their educational experience in his role as the director of undergraduate studies. “He hosts social events, presides at our undergraduate research symposium and the department’s undergraduate graduation and awards banquet, and works with the Biology Undergraduate Student Association,” she says.

As undergraduate officer, Martin is involved in both advising and curriculum building. He mentors UROP students, serves as a first-year advisor, and is a current member of MIT’s Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP).

Martin also brings a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as evidenced by his creation of a DEI journal club in his lab so that students have a dedicated space to discuss issues and challenges. Course 7 DEI officer Hallie Dowling-Huppert writes that Martin “thinks deeply about how DEI efforts are created to ensure that department members receive the maximum benefit. Adam considers all perspectives when making decisions, and is extremely empathetic and caring towards his students.”

“He makes our world so much better,” Keating observes. “Adam is a gem.”

Lawrence “Larry” Sass

Larry Sass SM ’94, PhD ’00 is an associate professor in the Department of Architecture. He earned his PhD and SM in architecture at MIT, and has a BArch from Pratt Institute in New York City. Sass joined the faculty in the Department of Architecture in 2002. His work focuses on the delivery of affordable housing for low-income families. He was included in an exhibit titled “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Sass’s teaching blends computation with design. His two signature courses, 4.500 (Design Computation: Art, Objects and Space) and 4.501 (Tiny Fab: Advancements in Rapid Design and Fabrication of Small Homes), reflect his specialization in digitally fabricating buildings and furniture from machines.

Professor and head of architecture Nicholas de Monchaux writes, “his classes provide crucial instruction and practice with 3D modeling and computer-generated rendering and animation …  [He] links digital design to fabrication, in a process that invites students to define desirable design attributes of an object, develop a digital model, prototype it, and construct it at full scale.”

More generally, Sass’ approach is to help students build confidence in their own design process through hands-on projects. MIT Class of 1942 Professor John Ochsendorf, MacVicar Fellow, and founding director of the Morningside Academy for Design with appointments in the departments of architecture and civil and environmental engineering, confirms, “Larry’s teaching is a perfect embodiment of the ‘mens et manus’ spirit … [he] requires his students to go back and forth from mind and hand throughout each design project.”

Students say that his classes are a journey of self-discovery, allowing them to learn more about themselves and their own abilities. Senior Natasha Hirt notes, “What I learned from Larry was not something one can glean from a textbook, but a new way of seeing space … he tectonically shifted my perspective on buildings. He also shifted my perspective on myself. I’m a better designer for his teachings, and perhaps more importantly, I better understand how I design.”

Senior Izzi Waitz echoes this sentiment: “Larry emphasizes the importance of intentionally thinking through your designs and being confident in your choices … he challenges, questions, and prompts you so that you learn to defend and support yourself on your own.”

As a UROP coordinator, Sass assures students that the “sky is the limit” and all ideas are welcome. Postgraduate teaching fellow and research associate Myles Sampson says, “During the last year of my SM program, I assisted Larry in conducting a year-long UROP project … He structured the learning experience in a way that allowed the students to freely flex their design muscles: no idea was too outrageous.”

Sass is equally devoted to his students outside the classroom. In his role as head of house at MacGregor House, he lives in community with more than 300 undergraduates each year, providing academic guidance, creating residential programs and recreational activities, and ensuring that student wellness and mental health is a No. 1 priority.

Professor of architecture and MacVicar Fellow Les Norford says, “In two significant ways, Larry has been ahead of his time: combining digital representation and design with making and being alert to the well-being of his students.”

“In his kindness, he honors the memory of Margaret MacVicar, as well as the spirit of MIT itself,” Hirt concludes. “He is a designer, a craftsman, and an innovator. He is an inspiration and a compass.”

On receiving this award, Sass is full of excitement: “I love teaching and being part of the MIT community. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the MacVicar family of fellows.”