Storytelling brings MIT neuroscience community together

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices, labs, and classrooms across the MIT campus last spring, many members of the MIT community found it challenging to remain connected to one another in meaningful ways. Motivated by a desire to bring the neuroscience community back together, the McGovern Institute hosted a virtual storytelling competition featuring a selection of postdocs, grad students, and staff from across the institute.

“This has been an unprecedented year for us all,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “It has been twenty years since Pat and Lore McGovern founded the McGovern Institute, and despite the challenges this anniversary year has brought to our community, I have been inspired by the strength and perseverance demonstrated by our faculty, postdocs, students and staff. The resilience of this neuroscience community – and MIT as a whole – is indeed something to celebrate.”

The McGovern Institute had initially planned to hold a large 20th anniversary celebration in the atrium of Building 46 in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic made a gathering of this size impossible. The institute instead held a series of virtual events, including the November 12 story slam on the theme of resilience.

Turning lemons into lemonade

When it was announced that all non-research staff were to work from home I think we were all in shock – well, I was in shock.

I always envisioned my role as being tied to actually being on campus in our building.  That said, our headquarters packed up in record time and in one day we were all working from home.  I thrive on a lot of structure in my day, so coordinated a daily check-in meeting with our HQ team. I think that has made a big difference in how we have all acclimated to working at home.

We are still connected, troubleshooting issues, and being incredibly productive.

I spent the first month basically coordinating the ramp-down of the building, so many lists!  Now thankfully, we are looking to the future, and to one day re-engaging with the building.

I see myself as a conduit for information from senior leadership at MIT to our group in MIBR HQ and I continue to brainstorm with staff, gather each morning for coffee, and put forth a glass half-full mentality.  The team I work with is amazing and I feel we keep each other focused and committed to supporting our researchers and faculty, and keeping our cool under challenging circumstances. I’ve also kept up with my workout routine and have started experimenting with different recipes for my family.  I continue to try to turn lemons into lemonade, both at work and home.

Gayle Lutchen has been the Assistant Director for Administration at the McGovern Institute for twenty years. 


Family members unite to fight COVID-19

Even before MIT sent out its first official announcement about the COVID-19 crisis, I had already asked permission from my supervisor and taken my computer home so that I could start working from home.

My first and foremost concern was my family and friends. I was born and brought up in India, and then immigrated to Canada, so I have a big and wonderful family spread across both those countries. These countries had a lower number of COVID-19 cases at the time, but I could see what would be coming their way. I was anxious, very anxious. In India, my dad being an anesthetist could be exposed while working in the hospital. In Canada, my uncle who is a physician could be exposed, and on top of that he lives in the same house as my grandparents who are even more vulnerable due to their age. I knew I had to do something.

We started having regular video calls as a family. My mom even led daily online yoga sessions, and the discussions that followed those sessions ensured that we didn’t feel lonely and gave us a sense of purpose. Together, we looked at the statistics in the data from China and Italy, and learned that we needed to flatten the curve due to the lack of medical resources required to meet the need of the hour. We could foresee that more infections would lead to more patients, thus raising the demand for medical resources beyond the amount we had available.

We had several discussions around developing products for helping medical professionals and the general public during this pandemic.

We learned that since no government has enough resources to cope at the time of pandemics, we have to be innovative in trying to make the best use of the limited resources available to us.

Through our discussions and experiences of some of us in the field, we came to the conclusion that the only way to effectively fight COVID-19 is prevention at source. Hence, we started working on a mobile app that uses AI and advanced data analytics to trace contact, determine the risk of infection, and thereby suggest precautions. Luckily we have engineers and computer scientists in our family (my own background is in electrical engineering), so it was easy for us to divide the work.  In our prototype, when people sign-up, they are asked to fill out a short self-assessment form that can be used to identify any symptoms of COVID-19. This data is then used to predict vulnerable areas and to give recommendations to people who might have taken a certain route as shown below.

Sharma’s mobile app showing heatmap of the vulnerable areas in a locality in Toronto, ON (left) and personalized recommendations based on the most recent route taken by an individual (right).

We ended up submitting our proposal and prototype to the COVID-19 challenge launched by Vale (a global mining company) and the winners will be announced in May.

Personally, to be completely honest, I had my times when I broke down due to everything that was going on in the world around me. It’s not easy to see people dying, and losing jobs. My way of staying strong was to make sure that I was doing my best to contribute.

I have set up a beautiful home office for myself and I am focusing on my PhD research, being grateful that I can still continue to do it from home. I have also restarted the joint MIT-Harvard computational neuroscience journal club meetings online, so that members can get access to this wonderful community once again! It was amazing to see from a poll we conducted that 92% of the members of the club wanted the meetings to be re-started online.

These times are unprecedented for my generation, my mom’s generation and even for my grandmother’s generation. I have never seen the world come together in a way I have seen during this pandemic. The kind of response we have seen from our societies and governments across the globe shows that we can make intelligent decisions for the collective good of humanity. For once, we’re all on the same side!

Sugandha (Su) Sharma is a graduate student in the labs of Ila Fiete and Josh Tenenbaum. When she’s not developing a mobile app to fight COVID-19, Su explores the computational and theoretical principles underlying higher level cognition and intelligence in the human brain.


Learning from social isolation

“Livia Tomova, a postdoc in the Saxe Lab, recently completed a study about social isolation and its impact on the brain. Michelle Hung and I had a lot of exposure to her research in the lab. When “social distancing” measures hit MIT, we tried to process how the implementation of these policies would impact the landscape of our social lives.

We came up with some hypotheses and agreed that the coronavirus pandemic would fundamentally change life as we know it.

So we developed a survey to measure how the social behavior of MIT students, postdocs, and staff changes over the course of the pandemic. Our study is still in its very early stages, but it has been an incredibly fulfilling experience to be a part of Michelle’s development as a scientist.

Heather Kosakowski’s daughter in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo: Heather Kosakowski

After the undergraduates left, graduate students were also strongly urged to leave graduate student housing. My daughter (age 11) and I live in a 28th-floor apartment and her school was canceled. One of my advisors, Nancy Kanwisher, had a vacant apartment in Woods Hole that she offered to let lab members stay in. As more and more resources for children were being closed or shut down, I decided to take her up on the offer. Wood’s Hole is my daughter’s absolute favorite place and I feel extremely lucky to have such a generous option. My daughter has been coping really well with all of these changes.

While my research is at an exciting stage, I miss being on campus with the students from my cohort and my lab mates and my weekly in-person meetings with my advisors. One way I’ve been coping with this reality is by listening to stories of other people’s experiences. We are all human and we are all in the midst of a pandemic but, we are all experiencing the pandemic in different ways. I find the diversity of our experience intriguing. I have been fortunate to have friends write stories about their experiences, so that I can post them on my blog. I only have a handful of stories right now but, it has been really fun for me to listen, and humbling for me to share each individual’s unique experience.”

Heather Kosakowski is a graduate student in the labs of Rebecca Saxe and Nancy Kanwisher where she studies the infant brain and the developmental origins of object recognition, language, and music. Heather is also a Marine Corps veteran and single mom who manages a blog that “ties together different aspects of my experience, past and present, with the hopes that it might make someone else out there feel less alone.”


Perspectives from a COVID-19 “essential worker”

“Overall, a big portion of my job has been to support our fantastic researchers during the rampdown period, so the transition has been tough. We supported the wind-down period and ensured those who did scan before the shutdown, were taking every precaution to keep all researchers and study participants safe.

I was out of the office during the first week of rampdown with an oscillating fever I kept wondering, do I have the coronavirus? I also played the “is it allergies or coronavirus” game. I struggled with my mood and motivation. My son is a nurse at the Montreal Children’s Hospital emergency room so I have also been deeply concerned about his well-being.

“I am one of the few people permitted to enter Building 46 to check on our imaging center equipment – and the experience has been surreal.”

Knowing that the McGovern Institute and MIT is doing so much to assist us with our mental well-being is comforting and very much appreciated.

Now, I am just trying to keep to a regular routine. I am one of the few people permitted to enter Building 46 to do equipment checks. Recently, our original magnet (MRI scanner) had a spontaneous quench, or loss of liquid helium, so I am working with engineers to get current flowing back to the magnet.

I have entered the building three times in two weeks, and each time there has been zero traffic. The parking garage is almost empty and there is parking available on the street – which never happens in Cambridge! When I see someone on the street, we look at each other in disbelief and shock. Our building is clearly in lockdown; all the doors are locked and I rarely see another person.

When this crisis is over, I most look forward to seeing people smile again — or maybe I just look forward to seeing people!

Steve Shannon has been working at the McGovern Institute since 2006, serving as operations manager of the Martinos Imaging Center for more than fourteen years.


Finding connections during social isolation

“It’s been really heartening to see the compassion that’s emerged during this situation. People are looking out for each other, and thinking about each other, and checking in with each other.

Usually our social interactions are just built into the day, and now we need to be more deliberate.

The need for human connection has become so apparent these last few weeks as we’ve all been physically distancing. Usually our social interactions are just built into the day, and now we need to be more deliberate.

I’ve started writing a letter to a different person every day – something that I never took the time to do before! Especially as scientists, communication and collaboration are central to what we do. I’ve been amazed at how quickly we’re adapting to this situation and finding ways to keep connecting with each other – whether it’s virtual conferences or Zoom lab meetings or Slack channels. Plus seeing other people’s pets has been a bonus!

Overall I’ve just been really grateful and awed to see people come together, and support each other, and keep things moving forward during a tough time.”

Halie Olson, a graduate student in the labs of John Gabrieli and Rebecca Saxe, studies how early life experiences and environments impact brain development.


Bridging the gap between clinicians and engineers

“Two weeks ago I joined the Greater Boston Pandemic Fabrication group (PanFab) which is coordinated by the Harvard MIT Center for Regulatory Science and has close connections with Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

My motivation for joining the PanFab group stemmed from my growing frustration with not being able to help with the current pandemic.

While following the various volunteers’ initiatives that aim to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), I felt that my training in medical engineering and medical physics in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology would be useful for interfacing clinicians at the hospital and engineers and hobbyists designing replacement solutions.

PanFab was established to meet urgent demands for medical supplies and equipment arising from the COVID19 pandemic. We have several initiatives ongoing such as 3d-printed nasopharyngeal swabs, face-shield for healthcare workers, and investigation of multiple PPE sterilization methods.

Personally, I focus on the face-shield project and am leading its production scale-up, and dissemination to local hospitals.

If anyone would like to volunteer their skills with us, send an email to, we are always looking for new volunteers!”

McGovern Graduate Fellow MJ Antonini works on the improvement of polymer fibers for neural recording and stimulation in the lab of Polina Anikeeva


Finding balance with physical exercise

“I was never good at working out. Every time I was about to go to the gym, I would always come up with an excuse to postpone the workout. Last winter break, however, my sister introduced me to some YouTube fitness classes, and I actually had fun doing them with her. I realized that, to me, working out in my living room was much more enjoyable that dragging my feet to the gym.

Just like in the lab, [my advisor] encourages us to do our very best but is always respectful of our limits.

When COVID hit, I knew I had to do something to keep me in shape, now that I was spending all my days on the couch. I signed up for Wellbeats,  an online class platform that MIT offers [as part of its virtual fitness offerings]. Soon, I was doing their online workouts almost every day. Some of the time, I am joined by my roommates. The workouts provide a great way for us to bond, take a break from work, and relieve some of the stress that tends to build up so quickly these days.

More recently, my advisor Ev Fedorenko has started to lead her own workouts for the lab over Zoom. She carefully walks us through every exercise, showing how to do it correctly. Just like in the lab, she encourages us to do our very best but is always respectful of our limits. So, not only am I the most fit I’ve ever been in my life, but I’ve also been able to connect with my lab in a new and meaningful way.”

Anna Ivanova is a graduate student who studies how the brain processes language in the labs of Evelina Fedorenko and Nancy Kanwisher. She is also an editor and regular contributor to the MIT Grad Blog.


3 Questions: Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg on COVID-19 tests

One key to stopping the spread of COVID-19 is knowing who has it. A delay in reliable tests and COVID-19 diagnostics in the US has unfortunately painted an unreliable picture of just how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving. But new testing options are now becoming available and the information from these diagnostics will help guide decisions and actions important for public health.

To find out more about the current state of COVID-19 testing, we contacted McGovern Institute Fellows, Omar Abuddayeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, who have been developing CRISPR technologies to rapidly diagnose COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

Q: How do COVID-19 tests work?

A. There are three main types of tests:

1) Detection of nucleic acid. These tests directly test for the RNA genome of the virus in a variety of sample types, such as nasopharyngeal swabs or sputum. These tests are most commonly performed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which can amplify a small part of the virus RNA sequence billions of fold higher to allow detection with a fluorescence measuring instrument. These types of tests are highly sensitive, allowing for early detection of the virus days after infection. PCR tests require complex instrumentation and are usually performed by skilled personnel in an advanced laboratory setting. An alternative method is SHERLOCK, a nucleic acid based test that does not need complex instrumentation and can be read out using a paper strip akin to a pregnancy test, without any loss of sensitivity or specificity. The test is also low cost and can be performed in less than an hour. Because of these features, we are hoping to gain FDA approval that allows deployment at the point of care or at home testing with our COVID-19 SHERLOCK test kit.

2) Detection of viral proteins. Some tests use a paper strip that have antibodies against COVID-19 proteins. These allow for easy detection of the virus in less than an hour but are at least a million-fold less sensitive than nucleic acid based tests because there is no amplification step. This makes them less ideal for screening purposes as many patients will not have enough viral load in sputum or swabs and will receive false negative results.

3) Serology tests detecting antibodies against the virus. These tests can also be used as a paper strip with antibodies that detect other antibodies that develop in someone’s blood in response to COVID-19 infection. Antibodies do not show up in blood until 1-2 weeks after symptoms present, so these tests are not great for catching infection at early stages. Serology tests are more useful for determining if someone has had the infection, recovered, and developed immunity. They may serve a purpose for finding immune people and deciding whether they can go back to work, or for developing antibody-based therapies.

Q. Why aren’t there more COVID-19 tests available?

A. The difficulties in getting nucleic acid detection tests stem from a confluence of multiple factors, including limited supplies of tests, limited supplies of other consumables needed for testing (such as nasal swabs or RNA purification kits), insufficient testing bandwidth at sites that can perform tests (often due to bottlenecks in labor or instruments), and complications behind the logistics of assigning tests or reporting back results. Therefore, just producing more testing material would not solve the issue outright, and either more instrumentation and labor is required, or newer, more rapid tests need to be developed that can be performed in a more distributed manner with reduced dependence on equipment, centralized labs, or RNA purification kits.

Q. What kind of COVID-19 test are you developing now?

A. We are working on a nucleic acid-based test that does not require complex instrumentation, rapidly returns results (with a goal of under one hour), and can be performed at a point-of-care location without trained professionals. We hope to accomplish this using a combination of techniques. First we are incorporating isothermal amplification technologies, which, unlike current PCR-based tests, do not require intricate heating and cooling to operate. We are combining this with our CRISPR-based diagnostics, allowing for sensitive detection and readout in a simple visual format, akin to a pregnancy test. We hope that this test will significantly lower the barrier for accurate diagnosis and provide another approach for COVID-19 surveillance.

Adapting CRISPR to detect COVID-19

“I’ve had the unique opportunity to help my PI, Feng Zhang, and McGovern Fellows, Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, develop SHERLOCK as a diagnostic tool for COVID-19.

SHERLOCK is a relatively new tool from the Zhang lab that uses unique properties of CRISPR enzymes to turn them into easily reprogrammable diagnostics. The technology really shines in this particular situation because it contains the plug-and-play features that makes all CRISPR technologies so transformative while also being amenable to low-resource settings. This allowed Feng to develop a test in a matter of days and send it out for testing by collaborators across the globe. We’ve already seen promising results from these collaborations that demonstrates the test is effective and we are excited to see how it may be adopted in countries that do not have the resources to expand PCR-based testing.

Our dream is to see someone who has never used a pipette before perform a SHERLOCK test in the comfort of their own kitchen.

In the US, appropriate testing has remained a significant barrier to proper control of this pandemic, regardless of the available resources. The bulk of the remaining work for this technology is aimed at tackling that problem. We want to turn SHERLOCK into an at-home test, allowing for widespread and scalable testing while maintaining the sensitivity of the gold-standard PCR test.

Our dream is to see someone who has never used a pipette before perform a SHERLOCK test in the comfort of their own kitchen. Thanks to all of the amazing support we have received, this dream has the very real opportunity to become a reality.”

Alim Ladha is a graduate student in Feng Zhang‘s lab and the 2019-2020 Tan-Yang Center for Autism Research Fellow.  In the Zhang lab, Alim tinkers with CRISPR gene-editing tools to make them work efficiently in cells.