Notes from the North: Review of Online Course “Scientists Teaching Science”

Scientific graduate programs all over the country do a wonderful job training their students to become critical thinkers able to design experiments, write fellowship grants, write peer reviewed papers, and grasp complex scientific systems. Nearly all programs, however, struggle to provide career training. Traditionally, skills such as mentoring, teaching, and leadership have been learned by observing others. This has generated many excellent scientists, mentors, teachers, and leaders, but how many more could we have developed had students received directed training? And how much better would our current scientific leaders be had they not had to reinvent the wheel for themselves?

One of the dangers of requiring students to learn through osmosis is that we tend to recapitulate what we see, even if it is not the most effective method. Partly this is because many of us do find this an effective way of gaining skills and knowledge, but there is also a mentality of initiation: we had to struggle, the next generation should experience this too. There are many answers to this paucity of career development training, however, in the form of business clubs, student and postdoc association lead career workshops, and online extracurricular courses.

Some of us at Sackler interested in a teaching career have taken advantage of a short course entitled “Scientists Teaching Science” which teaches best practices in science education, based on the latest research on teaching and STEM ed sol logolearning by STEM Education Solutions ( This is a completely online course that runs about nine weeks with a different module every week. Depending on the week, the time commitment is about 3 hours per week for light weeks and as much as 8 hours per week on heavy weeks (depending on how assiduous a note taker you are when doing readings and how detailed you are in written assignments).

I found the intro to the course very illustrative and memorable. We were asked to read several articles on how science has traditionally been taught and how active learning has repeatedly been shown to improve learning outcomes, then Barbara Houtz started her own narrated lecture in the traditional “Sage on the Stage” style. My heart immediately sank as I envisioned the next nine weeks writing dense, jargon filled notes on topics that seemed esoteric and non-practical. This was not what I thought I was signing up for! Then she paused and asked the question, “what are you thinking?”

That’s when the real lecture began. The narrated lectures were fantastic! Available 24/7 and provided as both narration and transcript. Methods that make participants stop to think about what they are being told were used liberally to retain participant attention. This meant that we were being shown how to effectively employ all the skills we were being taught as they were being taught to us. The modules covered learning/teaching styles, generating effective assessments, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, writing your teaching philosophy (a part of faculty application materials that I only learned about last year despite years of aspiration to teach), cultural awareness, active learning and inquiry based teaching, writing course objectives, teaching online, course development, and syllabus compilation. Each module was comprised of a narrated lecture, readings, and a written assignment or discussion board post requirement. Additional resources were also provided on the Virtual Learning Environment and Barbara Houtz frequently sent out class announcements about recent articles on STEM education and careers for PhDs.STEM

I embarked on this online only course with a great deal of trepidation. Would I have the self-discipline to keep up with the material? Would I feel comfortable reaching out to the instructor with questions and comments? The answer is that with the help of an instructor devoted to keeping her participants involved and getting the most out of her course I was able to gain practical teaching skills in a remarkably short time.

On the Shelf…

For Work


Enjoy Writing your Science Dissertation or Thesis!, Elizabeth Fisher & Richard Thompson

Location: HHSL Book Stacks, Sackler 5, WZ 345 F533e 2014

I am not quite sure whether the title of this book (and exclamatory punctuation) is a command or a promise, but the book does provide advice on all aspects of thesis writing.

For Leisure


Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant

Location: HHSL Book Stacks, Sackler 5, WB885 M315 2016

Science writer Jo Marchant explores stories and research about the mind-body connection.

ICYMI: New DMCB/MORI Seminar Series Kickoff

This month I’ll be giving you the low-down on a seminar that kicked off a new weekly meeting, hosted by by MORI (Molecular Oncology Research Institute) and the DMCB (Developmental, Molecular, & Chemical Biology) department. The inaugural meeting took place on Thursday, January 26, 2017, with talks presented by Jerrica Breindel, Ph.D. and Thomas Ni, Ph.D., both postdoctoral researchers in the Kuperwasser lab, which focuses on breast development and cancer research.

Before the realization of this new series, MORI hosted a pizza-catered weekly seminar on Friday afternoons at 75 Kneeland. Graduate students and postdocs from the Hinds, Kuperwasser, Hu, Tsichlis, Kuliopulos and other members of the institute would participate in the meetings for the opportunity to share their work and receive feedback from other scientists working in the cancer field. Thanks to the initiative of several professors, the once exclusively-MORI meeting has now joined forces with interested labs in the DMCB department to bring together more scientists on a weekly basis.

At this first meeting, Jerrica presented to talk about her work on elucidating whether certain oncogenes drive the formation of specific subtypes of breast cancer. Her approach involves breeding mice with mammary gland driven oncogenes and observing the phenotypes of their mammary epithelial development and tumorigenesis. In collaboration with Piyush Gupta’s lab at MIT, she is also experimenting with growing human primary mammary organoids that are infected with viruses that cause the expression of various oncogenes of interest in 3D hydrogels. The structures generated in these gels look incredible as they grow into biologically relevant ductal networks that can be assessed with immunofluorescence. Pro tip: if you happen to be in Kendall Square, walk by the Koch Institute’s first floor where you can see a picture of one of these beautiful structures on display!

Next up, Tom presented his unique and innovative quest to define a novel method for identifying putative tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes. Following up on a hit from a screen he conducted as a graduate student at Yale University, he identified that an alternative isoform of a protein called MAGI3 acts as an oncogene that can promote breast cancer by permitting Hippo signaling that causes malignant transformation of mammary epithelial cells. After uncovering that premature poladenylation is responsible for the production of this alternative isoform, he started to investigate whether other cancer-related genes have the same premature poladenylation signal. Intriguingly, it appears that the mechanism behind MAGI3’s alternative isoform is not a one-off event, but something that might be behind the formation of many known (and very likely unknown) genes that are involved in tumorigenesis!

Overall, this first meeting was a great success: we drank, we snacked, and we learned about some truly exciting work from the members of the Kuperwasser lab. Everyone is welcome to attend these series, held every Thursday at 4PM in M&V412. Emily Michael of the Kuliopulos Lab spoke at the subsequent meeting on February 2nd and we are all looking forward to hearing from other members of MORI and DMCB in these upcoming months!


Opposites Attract: The Unlikely Marriage of Science & Fiction

Science, as a subject of study, often comes into conflict with other ways of thinking about the world. Religion. Philosophy. Art. The caricature of science as an opponent to these ‘humanitarian’ endeavors obscures the real relationship: symbiotic. In the case of science and literature, science provides fiction with an intriguing playground to muck around in, while fiction gives science a more human voice. This give-and-take between the two is what makes the genre of science fiction so rich, so enduring, and above all, so entertaining.

Science fiction more often than not uses science as a tool to explore other subject areas versus the science itself. It is not the engineering of the 20,000 Leagues submarine or the bioelectricity behind the monster in Frankenstein that makes these books long-standing members of high school reading lists. Readers are not likely spellbound by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series mainly because of the intricacies of the genetic engineering catastrophe that ended her version of our world. No one likes Star Wars because of its explanations of the physics behind inter-galaxy travel. Fiction is not a mirror that reflects science to readers so that they can understand its most basic aspects. Instead, fiction is a prism that refracts science, fractioning and expanding it into its ripple effects and societal implications. It bends the bleached starkness of the discipline into a million different shades, spattering dark implications and bright hope for humanity in equal measure.

It is not always a fair coloring. Dystopia walks hand-in-hand with science fiction more times than not. Those stories do speak well of the perseverance of the human condition but often at the cost of vilifying some aspect of science. (Everything becomes a villain if left unchecked long enough, after all.) Still, fiction doesn’t just take from science; it gives as well. Science fiction is always ahead of its time, more audacious in imagining what human hands are capable of creating than what we believe is achievable at the time. With that creative inspiration, our history has shown it is inevitable that science fiction becomes science fact, from endeavours as incredible as space travel to tools as mundane as credit cards. And as such, science fiction has the privilege of not just asking can we, but also should we, and it has the added advantage of most times asking it first.

The audacious pushing of boundaries beyond the confines of the contemporary scientific knowledge within science fiction also creates a unique and rich environment for rebellion. Because in that type of story, in an imagined world that both is and is not this real one, what else could be different? Who else could become something more than what they are, or what society tells them they are?

This type of rebellion is what led to the existence of the genre itself. In 1666, the English duchess Margaret Cavendish published The Blazing World, a prose piece often considered one of the first utopian fictions and the precursor to ‘science fiction’ (a term not officially coined until 1926) as we know it today. Cavendish was an anomaly of her time, publishing plays, essays, and prose that tackled philosophy, rhetoric, and fiction, all under her own name instead of anonymously. She also was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, despite fierce protest, and did not hold back in commenting on and even criticizing the scientific presentations and practices she observed. Her novel dove into discussions tackled by male authors of the time period–the conflict between imagination and reason or philosophy and fiction–but also was groundbreaking in two ways. First, she explored these topical areas within an alternate universe entirely of her own making but one that still used contemporary science of the era; second, her story strikingly centered on herself as the main character, where she traveled in between the two worlds. In a time where women were not considered capable of studying complex topics such as science, the Duchess of Newcastle used her writing to boldly carve herself a space in which she could defy that notion. In the process, she wrote into existence the first examples of many science fiction tropes still widely used today.

Her actions paved the way for other rebels, such as Mary Shelley, the mother of the first science fiction horror novel, Frankenstein. While a grey, depressing summer and a writing challenge born out of boredom provided an opportunity to craft her terror-filled story, her imagination was ultimately sparked after a firelit evening conversation with the controversial Lord Byron about what life is and how to create it. Despite being supported in her endeavours by her companions and her husband, Shelley ran into criticism upon publishing her work–incidentally most strongly from the specific publishers who knew the author was a woman–because it challenged the entrenched ideology of God being the only conceivable creator, not Man (or, in her case, Woman). In the deeply religious society of Victorian England, this was a revolutionary act.

Cavendish and Shelley may have been the some of the first authors to use sciene in fiction to challenge the social and moral status quo, but it was a tradition that persisted in the genre throughout the twentieth century. Starting in the 1960s, female authors were among the first to interrogate the definitions, implications, and biases associated with gender, class, and race. Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness–with its gender-fluid alien race dissecting what exactly gender and sex means outside of its Western civilization confines–led the charge. This breakthrough was followed by Joanna Russ’ 1975 matriarchal parallel-universes utopian novel The Female Man, then by Octavia Butler (who was the only African-American woman publishing in the genre at the time) and her late-1980s space trilogy Xenogenesis which explored race in addition to sexuality.

These revolutionary works also represent a broader theme within the genre: the influence of contemporary events of the era in which they were written. Science fiction is as much a reflection on the scientific knowledge of the day–and what could come of it–as it is on the historical and political backdrop of the time. Many early science fiction novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focus on stories of exploration and the technology that allows journeys into lands unknown. Most notable of these are Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, 1870), and The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895). Historically, these centuries were flooded with exploration expeditions by European countries, and later the United States and Russia. While discovery for political and economic gain was the main purpose of most 18th century explorations, those carried out in the 19th century were more focused on deepening knowledge of the world, often through scientific observation and analysis. So, it is little wonder that the science fiction of the era reflected that desire to know more about the surrounding environments.

In the early 20th century, the domination of exploration themes in science fiction gave way to playing around in other subject matters–such as technology, biology, and medicine–which would later become genre staples. The early half of the century was one of rapid scientific advancement as much as it was political upheaval, and the collision of these two jarring phenomenons is reflected in the science fiction of the day. It was during this era that some of the seminal works of the genre were produced, including the post-Bolshevik revolution novel We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924) and the science fiction classics Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) and 1984 (George Orwell, 1949). These novels each address how uncurbed scientific advances lead to a dystopian political society, and their thematic commonality clearly demonstrates the lasting impact several world wars and fast-paced science had on the public psyche of the time.

While dystopia strongly persisted within science fiction in the middle of the 20th century, the worlds crafted within genre novels did begin to grow a little less dire. As technological development continued to accelerate and started infiltrating daily life in the Western world–thus ‘normalizing’ it–likewise did the role of technology grow in fiction as androids and robots appeared on the genre scene. Authors of the time such as Isaac Asimov and Philip Dick couldn’t help but ask–and then answer through their writing–questions pertaining to the human condition in relation to the (imagined) creation and existence of non-human life. This philosophical bent echoed the early origins of the genre, going all the way back to Cavendish’s precursor work, demonstrating how far the genre had progressed.

Glancing back and paying homage is all well and good, but science fiction also found new ways to move forward at the end of the 20th century. In 1979, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy added a little laughter and good humor to the genre, breaking ground for many others to follow across even until today. The gloom of the war-torn early decades also seemed to have worn off, with a revitalization of the previously ‘tired’ utopian sci-fi tradition by Kim Stanley’s Mars trilogy in the 1990s. This trend of revitalizing and redefining the genre has persisted into recent years, with the semantic alteration by Margaret Atwood, who calls her novels not ‘science’ fiction, but speculative fiction. In her MaddAddam series, she reaches for what might be just possible in the realm of science and society, instead of the complete impossible. In some ways, this approach brings about an even more imaginative (and frightening, and wonderful) vision of what the human mind can create when challenged in the perfectly right and wrong ways.

Ultimately, the fiction of science is as elusive and ever-changing as the real thing. It circles itself: thought and action, can and should, might and will and have done. Whether we as scientists today use science fiction as inspiration–or as a warning–only time will tell.

Notes from the Library…Approaching the Literature Review

Whether you are preparing a literature review for your thesis, a journal article, or grant application here are a few tips to help you get started and stay organized:

  1. Determine what information you need.

Why are you searching the literature?  Are you developing a research project and want to know what has been published about your topic?  Are you interested in literature on a particular method?  Are you preparing a grant application or manuscript to submit to a journal?  The answers to these questions will help you decide where to search, and whether or not the information that you find is what you need.

  1. Develop a focused question.

If you enter a few words, or a phrase, into a database, then you are likely to retrieve either a very large or very small number of results.  Developing a focused research question helps you construct a search strategy that will retrieve a precise set of results.  If you have a complex topic, then you may have multiple questions (and searches).

  1. Choose your resources.

Once you have determined what information you need and developed a focused question, then you are ready to choose your resources.  Choosing which resources to search can be overwhelming.  While PubMed is often a good place to start, think about where, and by whom, information about your topic is likely to be published, and what type of information you need (e.g. journal articles, conference proceedings, patents).  What disciplines might have a perspective on your topic?  What organizations, associations, institutes, companies or agencies investigate issues related to your topic?

Bibliographic databases, such as PubMed and Web of Science Core Collection, are organized collections of references to published literature (e.g. journal articles, conference abstracts, books).  When you are deciding which database(s) to search, consider the subjects, dates, and types of literature the database covers, as well as the search platform.  For example, MEDLINE, the database that is the principal component of PubMed, is also available through the Ovid search platform.  While PubMed and Ovid MEDLINE are similar, small differences in the content and search features of these two databases means that you will retrieve different results.  See the Sackler School Biomedical Sciences Research Guide for a list of biomedical database, or ask me!

  1. Create personal accounts.

You may think that you are finally ready to start searching.  Not quite.  Create a personal account with the databases, or platforms (e.g. Ovid, Web of Science), that you plan to search.  A personal account allows you to save searches and sets of results, and receive email notifications when new results matching your search criteria become available.  Unfortunately, you have to create a separate accounts for each database or platform, but it is a good idea to do so for the resources that you use frequently.  At the very least, I suggest that you create a My NCBI account, which is the personal account associated with PubMed and other National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) databases, such as Gene and Protein.  See the March 2016, May 2016, summer 2016 and December 2016 PubMed Tip of the Month posts for more information on creating and using a My NCBI account.

  1. Use a citation manager.

Choose a citation manager before you embark on a literature review.  Citation managers allow you to organize and store your own collection of references, and insert formatted citations and bibliographies into documents.  Contact me ( if you need assistance selecting or using a citation manager.

  1. Document your search methods.

Get into the habit of documenting the parameters of your search, including: the databases that you searched; the platform on which you searched (e.g. Ovid, Web of Science, etc.); years covered by the database; complete search strategies; any limits applied, such as year, age, language; and the date on which you ran the searches.  While this information is not typically required for a manuscript (unless, of course, you are doing a systematic review, meta-analysis or scoping review), or grant application, a literature search is part of your research and should be recorded as you would any other experiment.  Doing so saves you considerable time and effort if you need to replicate the search in the future.

PubMed Tip of the Month: Single Citation Matcher

If you have limited information about a journal article (e.g. author name and year of publication), then PubMed’s Single Citation Matcher may help you locate the article.  Accessible from the PubMed homepage, this tool does exactly what its name implies: it matches citation information to PubMed records.  Single Citation Matcher can quickly narrow your search to records that match the information you have.

Single Citation Matcher in PubMed
Single Citation Matcher in PubMed


21st Century Cures Act: Boosting biomedical research, but at what cost?

Co-authored by Andrew Hooper & Nafis Hasan

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the Senate passed HR 34 and President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law on Dec. 13, 2016. The original bill was introduced and sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) on Jan 2015 and garnered co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including the support of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology. The House approved the original bill in Oct 2015 and after a year on the Senate floor where the bill underwent several amendments proposed by both Democrats and Republicans, the Senate approved the bill on Dec 6 2016 and passed the bill on to President Obama to be signed into law.

This law is meant to accelerate drug development and bring cutting edge treatment to patients, revise the current status of mental health research and treatment for disorders, with a strong focus on the current opioid crisis sweeping across the nation. The law is also of significant importance to biomedical scientists as it will expand funding  for certain fields, keeping in line with the Precision Medicine Initiative launched in 2015. More specifically, the Cures act will provide funding for specific NIH innovation projects such as the Precision Medicine Initiative ($4.5 billion through FY 2026), the BRAIN initiative ($1.51 billion through FY 2026), the Cancer Moonshot project ($1.8 billion through FY 2023) and the Regenerative Medicine (stem cells) program (30$ mn through FY 2026). In addition, this law will stimulate innovative research by awarding investigators with the Eureka Prize for “significant advances” or “improving health outcomes”. The law also seeks to promote new researchers through its Next Generation of Researchers Initiative, an attempt to solve the postdoc crisis in academia. As a response to the lack of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, the law also contains provisions that will attract and retain such scientists in “priority research areas”.  Finally, to further encourage early-stage researchers, the law authorizes the establishment of programs to help in the repayment of student loans and raises the cap on the repayment assistance available to the researchers.

Besides ensuring funding for biomedical research, this law aims to address privacy concerns brought up by experts regarding patient information in the era of precision medicine (for more details, check out our analysis of the precision medicine initiative). Under this law, certificates of confidentiality will be provided to all NIH-funded researchers whose studies involve collection of sensitive patient information. This information will be withheld by the NIH, but can be accessed upon requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. On the other hand, in order to make sure data sharing is made easier for scientists, this law will allow NIH to break out of red tape and regulations that obstruct scientists from attending scientific meetings and sharing data.

Despite the generally positive reception of the Cures Act by NIH officials and research scientists, the bill was not without its critics. The principal criticism of the final product is that it constitutes a handout to pharmaceutical and medical device companies by substantially weakening the FDA’s regulatory check on bringing new treatments into the clinic.

For example, Sydney Lupkin and Steven Findlay point to the $192 million worth of lobbying collectively expended by over a hundred pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotech companies on this and related pieces of legislation. The goal of this lobbying, Lupkin and Findlay assert, was to give the FDA “more discretion” in deciding how new drugs and other treatments gain approval for clinical use – presumably saving a great deal of money for the companies that develop them. Adding weight to their assertion is the fact that President Trump is reportedly considering venture capitalist Jim O’Neill for FDA commissioner. Mr. O’Neill is strongly supported by libertarian conservatives who see FDA regulations as inordinately expensive and cumbersome, so it seems reasonable to worry about how Mr. O’Neill would weigh safety against profit in applying his “discretion” as head of the FDA. On the other hand, under a wise and appropriately cautious commissioner with a healthy respect for scientific evidence, we might hope that maintaining high safety standards and reducing the current staggering cost of drug development are not mutually exclusive.

Additionally, Dr. David Gorski writes of one provision of the Cures Act that appears to specifically benefit a stem-cell entrepreneur who invested significantly in a lobbying firm pushing for looser approval standards at the FDA. Once again, it is not unreasonable to suspect that there is room to reduce cost and bureaucratic red tape without adversely impacting safety. And in fairness to the eventual nominee for FDA commissioners, previous commissioners have not been universally praised for their alacrity in getting promising treatments approved efficiently… at least, not within the financial sector. Still, the concerns expressed by medical professionals and regulatory experts over the FDA’s continued intellectual autonomy and ability to uphold rigorous safety standards are quite understandable, given the new administration’s enthusiasm for deregulation.

It appears that this law will also allow pharmaceutical companies to promote off-label use of their products to insurance companies without holding clinical trials. Additionally, pharma companies can utilize “data summaries” instead of detailed clinical trial data for using products for “new avenues”. It is possible that these provisions were created with the NIH basket trials in mind (details here). However, as Dr. Gorski argues, without clinical trial data, off label use of drugs will be based on “uncontrolled observational studies”, which, while beneficial for pharma companies, are risky for patients from the perspective of patient advocacy groups. These fears are not without evidence – a recent article from STAT describes how the off-label use of Lupron, a sex hormone suppressor used to treat endometriosis in women and prostate cancer in men, is resulting in a diverse array of health problems in 20-year olds who received the drug in their puberty.

Another “Easter egg”, albeit unpleasant, awaits scientists and policy-makers alike. Buried in Title V of the law is a $3.5 bn cut on Human and Health Services’ Prevention and Public Health fund, without a proper explanation added to such an act. Given the outcry on the lack of public health initiatives in the Precision Medicine Initiative, one is again left to wonder why 21st century cures are focusing only on treatment and drug development and not on policies directed towards promoting public health and prevention of diseases.

In conclusion, the implementation of this law will largely depend on the current administration. With the NIH budget for FY2017 still up in the air, the confirmation of nominees still hanging in balance, this law is far from being implemented. Based on the provisions, it appears that overall biomedical funding will be boosted in particular fields, designated “priority research areas”. However, it shouldn’t fail an observant reader that this bill also seems to allow pharma companies a higher chance to exploit the consumers. It, therefore, still remains a question of whose priorities (consumers/patients vs. investors/corporations) are being put forward first and the answer, in our humble opinion, will be determined by a dialogue between the people and the government.

Sources/Further Reading –

Humans of Sackler: Nafis Hasan, “I Refused Determinism”

Humans of Sackler, 30 January 2017

Nafis Hasan, Cell, Molecular & Developmental Biology, Fourth-Year Student: “I Refused Determinism”

This month I present, for your reading pleasure, excerpts from my interview with Nafis Hasan from CMDB. Nafis and I had a remarkably wide-ranging conversation covering existential philosophy, cultural differences between Bangladesh and the US, the exquisite symmetry between ecology and cell biology, and current controversies in carcinogenesis research. I can only hope to capture in the space below a mere whisper of his deeply-considered intellectual convictions and passion for social justice. Fortunately, Nafis has also authored an editorial on Science Activism in this very issue, and I strongly urge you, dear reader, to check that out next!


Having a grand time in Dhaka
Having a grand time in Dhaka

AH: Where did you grow up?

NH: I grew up in the house that my father and his brothers built in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and moved to the U.S. when I was 18. Most of my dad’s siblings and their families lived with us in Dhaka. As kids, we didn’t really have the notion of “privacy” for the longest time: the elders would each get a room and the kids would sleep in the living room on a big mattress. My cousins and I would all get into trouble at the same time… it was fun!


On the road with college friends
On the road with college friends

AH: Have you had any opportunities to travel around the States?

NH: For F1 visa (student visa) holders, you have a 3-month window where you have to find a job or get into school. After graduating from Lafayette College [in Easton, Pennsylvania], I thought, “If I have to leave the country, I might as well see it.” So when one of my friends said, “Let’s do a road trip,” I said “Let’s do it!” We started from Pennsylvania, went down to Virginia, our first stop was Shenandoah – I had actually never been camping before that, it was all a very new experience. We had two American kids, a Colombian kid, and a kid from South Africa… It was very liberating, and I started to see the country as it really is. At the same time, on the road, I was interviewing for jobs. I remember doing a job interview [by video phone] at a McDonalds in Idaho. I borrowed a shirt from one of my friends who dresses nicer than I do, since the interviewer could only see the top half of me… Over the course of two months, I think I applied to 200 jobs. Finally, I ended up getting a research tech job at Thomas Jefferson University in Philly.


Basking in the beauty of nature at Yellowstone
Basking in the beauty of nature at Yellowstone

AH: What was it like adjusting to American culture?

NH: When I came to America, I had no idea what to expect, I had only heard things from my cousins who came here for college and what was on TV. One thing that I had in my mind was that I was going to try and meet as many people of different nationalities as I can. But there was a big cultural divide, how they grew up versus how I grew up. I think the road trip really helped me to understand the diversity of American people and especially during these times when people are so polarized, I reach out to that experience. We grew up seeing this version of America as the land of opportunity, the land of freedom, but America is not the government, is not their foreign policy, is not the consumerism that has taken over the world… America is more about the people that you meet here, and that’s how I see the country. America encapsulates the dichotomy of homogeneity versus heterogeneity, and I think that’s so beautiful.


The scholar/activist as a young man
The scholar/activist as a young man

AH: When did you begin to discover your interest in biology research?

NH: In Bangladesh I went to a private school that taught everything in English. The division of sciences starts in 7th grade, and biology was definitely the most interesting to me. At the same time, I was caught up in the process of deconstructing my religious identity, because I was reading biology which has hard facts about how your body works, which calls into question how life was created… I found that more fascinating than having a set answer imposed by some superior being.


Positive work environment!
Positive work environment!

AH: How did you choose your field of study for grad school, and why is it so interesting?

NH: I started reading a lot of scientific nonfiction, presenting cancer as a very complex biological phenomenon, which was fascinating to me. I also had a solid foundation in breast cancer by the time I applied for grad school and I wanted to pursue that… I had seen lots of tumors, but no mammary glands. The more I learn about the mammary gland, the more I am fascinated by it. It develops throughout life: initially it’s just a branched structure that looks like sticks; when you get pregnant, it almost flowers, with grape-like clusters that come up through alveologenesis and these alveoli then revert back to the branched structure after weaning. It’s comparable to how trees shed leaves in the Fall, except in reverse: this course of nature – the seasons that you see – the same dynamic is there in animal tissue. And all of this is happening through the lifetime, after the majority of the organs are already fully developed!


100 miles?!
First Century – Repping Sackler at 2015 Tufts Century Ride

AH: What is one of the big challenges or controversies in your field at the moment?

NH: Traditionally, cell culture is done in two dimensions, on plates that are usually plastic – and plastic is not a natural substrate for cells to grow on, so you can’t recapitulate the same 3D environment where the cells are growing inside an organism. You can either try to mimic the natural environment as much as possible, or try to make a scaffold that is biocompatible… Cells need to be able to manipulate their environment, just as the environment should be able to provide them with physical or chemical cues to make them grow or organize in certain ways. Our lab has a very organic approach to it: we do 3D cultures in type 1 collagen, the predominant structural protein found in the mammary gland stroma. We believe that “organicism is greater than reductionism.” This is where we’re at odds with a lot of others in the cancer field, where reductionism is still the predominant philosophy. And we’re not saying it’s bad! It’s just insufficient to explain carcinogenesis.

Educate & Communicate: A Science Activism Manifesto

Science is often thought of as a monolithic entity, but it is actually a complex composition of a discipline, an institution, and a community, all focused on finding truth and knowledge in data and the natural world. Science as a community consists of people of all ethnicities and from all socioeconomic classes; talent is found everywhere, and we as scientists do not and should not limit our number to those with a privileged pedigree. Science as an institution is a pillar of modern society, supporting and enabling growth and progress previously impossible to achieve. Science as a discipline is an investigative practice that demands rigor, critical analysis, and substantive evidence to support the conclusions that we draw from the data. Science as a discipline to formulate theory may be apolitical, but as an institution and a community that is an integral part of modern civic society, science cannot simply be an idle observer. Atrocities have been committed in the name of science when the idea of the pure monolith prevails and is exploited by political regimes to suppress minorities, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and Nazi human trials. However, science has also been used to fight for the welfare of all people and to resist such regimes: Rachel Carson, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Max von Laue all used their privilege as scientists to fight for justice and the greater good. While the scientific discipline provides a path for pure theory, we are human, each with our own biases that guide our investigation, influence our analysis, and may even blind us to the truth. Ultimately, the application of scientific theory to society bears the imprint of our ideas and our biases, and we as a community bear responsibility for the results. It is therefore imperative that we distinguish the apolitical discipline of science from the institution and community of science, which are a part of civic society and inherently political. We currently hold privileged positions in society that are at risk in the contemporary political climate. The defense of science is our moral and civic duty. Furthermore, in defending ourselves, we should also take a stand to give a voice to those who cannot do so for themselves.

It has been three weeks since President Trump has entered office. It has been three weeks of chaos and confusion. In these three weeks, President Trump’s actions have threatened to tear apart the fabric of American society, wrought and held together for so long by people of all ethnicities, sexual, religious and political orientations. However, whereas his actions have largely focused on promoting protectionist values, it also appears that he and his cabinet nominees are determined on ignoring scientific evidence and denying the real dangers of climate change, as well as showing utter disregard for environmental protection. Their plans to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, with the help of the Republican Party, and the threat to abolish the Endangered Species Act all point to their contempt towards protecting biodiversity, the very proof of evolution. Their intention to deregulate the pharmaceutical industry, under the illusion of lowering drug prices, will risk the lives of patients. Their attempts to champion creationism and intelligent design over evolution in public education will risk the credibility of scientific facts. Meanwhile, the House committee on science, space and technology appears more eager to accept the President’s words despite what multiple media outlets have to say in their defense, even as President Trump proclaims any media outlet as “fake news” if they fail to agree with him. In addition, Trump’s hobnobbing with the most prominent anti-vaxxer, Andrew Wakefield, should already raise concerns about how decades of public health work to minimize infectious diseases and maintain public support will be undermined because of his ideology, especially when the anti-vax movement is gaining momentum. Even further, his claims to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, the law that upholds the separation of Church and State, also pose a major threat to the scientific endeavor.

The U.S.A, the country that still puts the highest amount of taxpayer money into scientific research compared to other Western nations, is currently being ruled by an administration that would rather shape policy based on pre-existing ideologies than hard evidence. Since this administration ignores scientific data regarding the dangers posed by climate change, restricts dissemination of scientific data to the populace who funded the research, subjects its doctors and scientists to a travel ban in the guise of “protectionism” when data clearly show that homegrown terrorists have caused far more deaths in the U.S. than immigrants from any of the seven countries on the ban list, it is our duty as scientists to stand up and take a stance. We can no longer afford to look away. We can no longer afford to remain in our comfortable positions as biomedical scientists whose careers are not currently threatened. We should use our privilege to stand up for those whose voices have been muted.

In these times when the foundations of the scientific community are threatened and evidence-based policies disregarded, the outpouring of support has solidified our unity. Already, scientists are taking action – a nation-wide and possibly global March for Science rally has been planned for April 22 (Earth Day). Prominent scientists across the U.S. have petitioned against the travel ban, and European scientists have offered laboratory space to scientists stranded due to the travel ban. Scientists from all walks of life are organizing to protect their communities; scientists are actively thinking about running for office and other positions to influence policy-making. These are all very encouraging, however, these actions are missing a key point – this is a battle of ideology, not policy or scientific literacy. As a recent study has shown, the public does not consider scientific questions that raise moral or ethical concerns as “science” questions. Another recent excellent article on how science journalism can combat this issue reports that science journalists should “listen, be curious and consider the non-science factors that shape people’s beliefs – because people’s beliefs shape policy, our society, and the world”. One may imagine that increasing scientific literacy should take care of such issues, however, that has not been the case. All too often, scientists  fail to properly communicate with the masses and are  unable to get the message across because they were too focused on explaining the basic science without taking into consideration the presentation of  facts.

This is not a temporary issue. Trump is not the only President who has or will challenge evidence-based policy and threaten the scientific community. However, it is crucial that we take action now because the dangers of climate change are imminent and we cannot afford to deny it anymore. Therefore, it is imperative that scientists come forward to educate and communicate with the public in a language and tone sufficient to start a dialogue. We start by communicating with each other, educating each other about our work. From there, we communicate and educate our family members and relatives, our friends, our communities and beyond. This has to be a grassroots movement – no top-down policy will fix the scientific literacy issue and lead American society toward a future where policies are based on hard evidence as  opposed to blind faith. This is how we can give back to the public, who provide the majority of funding for our work, and ensure that science does not belong to an elite population, but in the hands and minds of the people.

This is why we are calling on you, each and every scientist, ranging from technicians to postdocs, graduate students to faculty, to action. Educate and communicate with your science. Explain why it is necessary. Even if you talk to just one person a day, that can make a difference. That is where we start. If you want to do more, organize. Rally behind policymakers who heed scientific evidence and will champion such causes. Volunteer at high schools and colleges. Take part in science festivals. Celebrate science and its achievements sans the elitism. It is not about funding, or whose research is more important. It is about making science accessible to the masses, who have tirelessly supported and benefited from our work for decades and will continue to do so. It is about rescuing science from the clutches of political partisanship. It is about freedom to communicate our science, the protection of our community, and the advancement of our society.

For too long academics have been cooped up in their self-imposed exclusive isolation from the masses. For too long we have assumed that Science exists in a vacuum. We cannot afford this axiom anymore. We have to consider the social, political, and economic forces that affect the direction of scientific research. We have a moral and civic duty to fight for what is right and to prevent the use of science to advance fascist ideology. The time to take action is now. 

Here are some resources to help you take action in the short term –


The Sackler Insight Team