A mindful McGovern community

Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a state of complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. McGovern researchers have shown that practicing mindfulness reduces anxiety and supports emotional resilience.

In a survey distributed to the McGovern Institute community, 57% of the 74 researchers, faculty, and staff who responded, said that they practice mindfulness as a way to reduce anxiety and stress.

Here are a few of their stories.

Fernanda De La Torre

Portrait of a smiling woman leaning back against a railing.
MIT graduate student Fernanda De La Torre. Photo: Steph Stevens

Fernanda De La Torre is a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, where she is advised by Josh McDermott.

Originally from Mexico, De La Torre took an unconventional path to her education in the United States, where she completed her undergraduate studies in computer science and math at Kansas State University. In 2019, she came to MIT as a postbaccalaureate student in the lab of Tomaso Poggio where she began working on deep-learning theory, an area of machine learning focused on how artificial neural networks modeled on the brain can learn to recognize patterns and learn.

A recent recipient of the prestigious Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, De La Torre now studies multisensory integration during speech perception using deep learning models in Josh McDermott’s lab.

What kind of mindfulness do you practice, how often, and why?

Metta meditation is the type of meditation I come back to the most. I practice 2-3 times per week. Sometimes by joining Nikki Mirghafori’s Zoom calls or listening to her and other teachers’ recordings on AudioDharma. I practice because when I observe the patterns of my thoughts, I remember the importance of compassion, including self-compassion. In my experience, I find metta meditation is a wonderful way to cultivate the two: observation and compassion. 

When and why did you start practicing mindfulness?

My first meditation practice was as a first-year post-baccalaureate student here at BCS. Gal Raz (also pictured above) carried a lot of peace and attributed it to meditation; this sparked my curiosity. I started practicing more frequently last summer, after realizing my mental health was not in a good place.

How does mindfulness benefit your research at MIT?

This is hard to answer because I think the benefits of meditation are hard to measure. I find that meditation helps me stay centered and healthy, which can indirectly help the research I do. More directly, some of my initial grad school pursuits were fueled by thoughts during meditation but I ended up feeling that a lot of these concepts are hard to explore using non-philosophical approaches. So I think meditation is mainly a practice that helps my health, my relationships with others, and my relationship with work (this last one I find most challenging and personally unresolved). 

Adam Eisen

MIT graduate student Adam Eisen.

Adam Eisen is a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, where he is co-advised by Ila Fiete (McGovern Institute) and Earl Miller (Picower Institute).

Eisen completed his undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics & Computer Engineering at Queen’s University in Toronto, Canada. Prior to joining MIT, Eisen built computer vision algorithms at the solar aerial inspection company Heliolytics and worked on developing machine learning tools to predict disease outcomes from genetics at The Hospital for Sick Children.

Today, in the Fiete and Miller labs, Eisen develops tools for analyzing the flow of neural activity, and applies them to understand changes in neural states (such as from consciousness to anesthetic-induced unconsciousness).

What kind of mindfulness do you practice, how often, and why?

I mostly practice simple sitting meditation centered on awareness of senses and breathing. On a good week, I meditate about 3-5 times. The reason I practice are the benefits to my general experience of living. Whenever I’m in a prolonged period of consistent meditation, I’m shocked by how much more awareness I have about thoughts, feelings and sensations that are arising in my mind throughout the day. I’m also amazed by how much easier it is to watch my mind and body react to the context around me, without slipping into the usual patterns and habits. I also find mindful benefits in doing yoga, running and playing music, but the core is really centered on meditation practice.

When and why did you start practicing mindfulness?

I’ve been interested in mindfulness and meditation since undergrad as a path to investigating the nature of mind and thought – an interest which also led me into my PhD. I started practicing meditation more seriously at the start of the pandemic to get more first hand experience with what I had been learning about. I find meditation is one of those things where knowledge and theory can support the practice, but without the experiential component it’s very hard to really start to build an understanding of the core concepts at play.

How does mindfulness benefit your research at MIT?

Mindfulness has definitely informed the kinds of things I’m interested in studying and the questions I’d like to ask – largely in relation to the nature of conscious awareness and the flow of thoughts. Outside of that, I’d like to think that mindfulness benefits my general well-being and spiritual balance, which enables me to do better research.


Sugandha Sharma

Woman clasping hands in a yoga pose, looking directly into the camera.
MIT graduate student Sugandha Sharma. Photo: Steph Stevens

Sugandha (Su) Sharma is a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), where she is co-advised by Ila Fiete (McGovern Institute) and Josh Tenenbaum (BCS).

Prior to joining MIT, she studied theoretical neuroscience at the University of Waterloo where she built neural models of context dependent decision making in the prefrontal cortex and spiking neuron models of bayesian inference, based on online learning of priors from life experience.

Today, in the Fiete and Tenenbaum labs, she studies the computational and theoretical principles underlying cognition and intelligence in the human brain.  She is currently exploring the coding principles in the hippocampal circuits implicated in spatial navigation, and their role in cognitive computations like structure learning and relational reasoning.

When did you start practicing mindfulness?

When I first learned to meditate, I was challenged to practice it every day for at least 3 months in a row. I took up the challenge, and by the end of it, the results were profound. My whole perspective towards life changed. It made me more empathetic — I could step in other people’s shoes and be mindful of their situations and feelings;  my focus shifted from myself to the big picture — it made me realize how insignificant my life was on the grand scale of the universe, and how it was worthless to be caught up in small things that I was usually worrying about. It somehow also brought selflessness to me. This experience hooked me to meditation and mindfulness for life!

What kind of mindfulness do you practice and why?

I practice mindfulness because it brings awareness. It helps me to be aware of myself, my thoughts, my actions, and my surroundings at each moment in my life, thus helping me stay in and enjoy the present moment. Awareness is of utmost importance since an aware mind always does the right thing. Imagine that you are angry, in that moment you have lost awareness of yourself. The moment you become aware of yourself; anger goes away. This is why sometimes counting helps to combat anger. If you start counting, that gives you time to think and become aware of yourself and your actions.

Meditating — sitting with my eyes closed and just observing (being aware of) my thoughts — is a yogic technique that helps me clear the noise in my mind and calm it down making it easier for me to be mindful not only while meditating, but also in general after I am done meditating. Over time, the thoughts vanish, and the mind becomes blank (noiseless). For this reason, practicing meditation regularly makes it easier for me to be mindful all the time.

An added advantage of yoga and meditation is that it helps combat stress by relaxing the mind and body. Many people don’t know what to do when they are stressed, but I am grateful to have this toolkit of yoga and meditation to deal with stressful situations in my life. They help me calm my mind in stressful situations and ensure that instead of reacting to a situation, I instead act mindfully and appropriately to make it right.

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 panfabteam@gmail.com, 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.