Year in review, science style

Pre­tending to be a stu­dent at the Humic Acid Con­fer­ence back in March. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Someone once told me that being a sci­ence writer is like being in school for­ever. Over the past year, my first at North­eastern, I have found that to be absolutely true. I have learned about the Higgs Boson from a par­ticle physi­cist and the neu­rology of emo­tion from a psy­chol­o­gist. I have played video games designed to help arthritis patients and lis­tened to a chemist play the viola in front of a nitrogen tank. I have gone to count­less talks on every­thing from drug abuse research to the soci­etal impli­ca­tions of lan­guage. Between vis­iting labs and hanging out with lob­sters, this year has undoubt­edly been one of the most edu­ca­tional of my life.

Before I decided to become a sci­ence writer, I toyed around with the idea of chem­istry grad­uate school and vis­ited labs all over town to see if any intrigued me enough to devote sev­eral years of my life to it. One researcher, who was at BU at the time, was looking for bac­te­rial corol­laries to human drug tar­gets in order to repur­pose shelved phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals for neglected dis­eases. I thought this was pretty cool. Mike Pollastri’s work had been stuck in my head for years by the time I dis­cov­ered he was now at North­eastern. His was first on my list of labs to visit.

It was also in the early part of the year that I first heard the term “net­work sci­ence,” which has since become a big part of my life. In Jan­uary, Alessandro Vespig­nani deliv­ered a lec­ture describing how he uses human mobility net­works to map the spread of epi­demic dis­eases across the globe and pretty much blew my mind. I later spoke to other researchers like Albert-​​László Barabási and David Lazer about how they look at net­works to under­stand every­thing from cel­lular behavior to polit­ical memes. Bringing together physics, com­puter sci­ence, biology, epi­demi­ology, social sci­ence and the human­i­ties, this emerging field tops the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary charts. Northeastern’s inter­na­tion­ally renowned team believes that by under­standing net­works we will be better equipped to address the com­plex chal­lenges facing the globe today.

My second ever inter­view at North­eastern took place on Jan­uary 13 and was with a fellow North­eastern newbie, Derek Isaa­cowitz. He was the first to intro­duce me to eye tracking, which North­eastern researchers from stu­dents to tenured fac­ulty are using in a variety of ways. Issakowitz uses it to mon­itor looking pat­terns of older and younger adults, with the hope of teasing out dif­fer­ences in the hap­pi­ness levels of these two pop­u­la­tions. He was also the first researcher I met from the Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute, which  includes people like Dave DeSteno and Lisa Feldman Bar­rett who have opened my mind to entirely new ways of thinking about emotion.

A bit later, I met Matthew Goodwin who also com­pletely changed my per­spec­tive on the world and on how sci­ence and tech­nology are affecting it. Goodwin’s research is par­tic­u­larly focused on autism spec­trum dis­or­ders, but he approaches the field with unique insights from com­puter sci­ences. He develops sen­sors and ana­lyt­ical tools aimed at under­standing autistic children’s behav­iors. By using ubiq­ui­tous com­puting, he told me, he and his col­leagues are able to carry out research in the child’s own envi­ron­ment. His approach is part of a larger emerging field, in which North­eastern estab­lished the first ever doc­toral pro­gram this year. It’s called per­sonal health infor­matics and it looks at ways we can improve health­care by putting valu­able and empow­ering tech­nolo­gies in the hands of patients and individuals.

In the national con­text, this year also saw a flurry of debate sur­rounding the health­care spending crisis. So when I met Jim Ben­neyan who applies indus­trial engi­neering prac­tices to the health­care industry, I was beyond excited. Ben­neyan says that by stream­lining hos­pital prac­tices and elim­i­nating waste, we can cut a tril­lion dol­lars from annual health­care spending. Why more people aren’t talking about this is totally beyond me.

Of course, the health­care crisis is just one of sev­eral big scary chal­lenges facing our com­mu­ni­ties today. Cli­mate change is another one. I spoke to dozens of bril­liant people tack­ling this area from myriad varying per­spec­tives over the last year. For example, Auroop Ganguly’s cli­mate change mod­eling tools fore­cast the chal­lenges we should expect to see down the road.

I was par­tic­u­larly struck by Matthew Eckelman’s approach to assessing the sus­tain­ability of var­ious prac­tices and prod­ucts. It’s not enough, he told me, to look at the imme­diate impacts of, say, one type of light bulb over another. Rather we need to look at the entire life cycle, from the resources that go into pro­ducing the mate­rials for the light bulb to how it is even­tu­ally dis­posed of. Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary char­ac­ters like Matthias Ruth and Brian Hel­muth showed me that it is like­wise impos­sible to come up with indi­vidual sus­tain­ability solu­tions without looking at the broader pic­ture and how it all fits together.

Prob­ably the most dif­fi­cult areas for me to wrap my brain around this year were the com­puter sci­ences and math­e­matics. But people like Valerio Toledano Laredo and Matthias Felleisen were so gen­erous with their time, answering all my crazy ques­tions and helping me get to the heart of their respec­tive matters.

In one of my last inter­views of the year, I spoke for two hours with a math­e­matics pro­fessor about knot theory. When asked why I spent so much time with him, I told a friend that I kept asking ques­tions and the pro­fessor kept answering. This is exactly how my year has gone. I keep get­ting to ask more ques­tions and researchers keep telling me more amazing stuff. So, in keeping with the hol­iday tra­di­tion of expressing one’s grat­i­tude: thank you to everyone who answered my ques­tions this year. And here’s to the next one!