Harvard University COVID-19 updates

Department Message from the Chair

Message from the Chair

July 3rd, 2021

Happy New Year!

A university marks its time by more than one calendar. Those of us close to MCB’s finances mark the new fiscal year (July 1), and I hope all of us have a well-deserved summer break before we return to a new academic year (September 1). For over a year now we have also been marking our time from the beginning of a pandemic, and a new year seems to be dawning in that reckoning too.

It’s good to see some light, because the pandemic has been hard. We mourn the deaths of Rob Lue, Peter Arvidson, and Guido Guidotti. Several colleagues retired after many years of service, a bittersweet sort of loss: Andy Banadyga, Jack Conlin, Nancy Hegarty, and Carol Sutherland (Admin/Lab Services); Mary Branco, Jack Howard, Steven Keirstead, and Lansing Wagner (Biology Teaching Laboratories); Karen Fahrner (Berg lab); Eileen Snow, Chuck Bilikas, and Les Takacs (Biolabs building operations); and Sid Paula (Environmental Health & Safety). We couldn’t offer proper goodbyes or thanks in person. The pandemic has separated us, threatened friends and family, and set back the aspirations of students and postdocs. The department we return to this fall will be different.

We look forward to that return nonetheless. Most of the restrictions on building occupancy have lifted, and more should lift soon. MCB administration staff will return to campus in August. Fall classes will be in person. We will welcome our new first-year undergraduates and PhD students to campus – though with some still-lingering red tape for international students and their visas. With vaccination rates looking near-100% in the Harvard community, our “new normal” might even look passably like the old normal, albeit with regular PCR testing (now processed in our own Northwest building, as Harvard spins up its own testing operation, independent of the Broad).

Actual in-person events are starting to happen again. The department retreat is Friday 9/24 – Saturday 9/25 at the Seacrest Beach Hotel in Falmouth. In the fall we’ll launch a new Friday afternoon MCB internal seminar series in place of Cellular Dynamics, with two short talks each week from students and postdocs, followed by a TGIF in the Biolabs courtyard and lounge. The Rhino Cup has returned to the Biolabs courtyard, and I hope to see (and compete against) many of you on the volleyball court this summer.

MCB aspires not only to excellence in volleyball, but also in science. MCB’s science was recognized this past year in numerous awards to our students, postdocs, and faculty, including a Breakthrough Prize to Catherine Dulac, who may yet be able to collect her prize in person this fall. We will launch a search for a new assistant faculty member in the fall, and with FAS’s support, we expect to launch new searches each year for the foreseeable future.

Scientific excellence has stayed at the center of my thoughts through this first year of serving as MCB’s chair, even with all our other challenges. I believe in an idealistic vision of science, that original and rigorous science is one of the highest human callings, like art and literature.  Of the books I’ve read this year (or rather, listened to on my runs along the Charles), one that especially resonated with me was Samantha Powers’ memoir, The Education of an Idealist. Powers writes about her transformation from an activist outsider to a political insider, and how hard it is to keep being an idealist while compromising with messy reality.  I’m learning that Harvard’s reality is plenty messy. Many conversations have highlighted for me the tensions between striving for groundbreaking scientific discovery, while also enabling a supportive environment where we can all do our best work. Science isn’t always going to be comfortable – it takes discipline, hard work, and long hours to advance frontiers, and original work is full of failures and frustration. But it should be fun and rewarding, and it should be fair, and everyone should be supported and stretched to become even better at doing these remarkable and difficult things we are trying to do. Here’s to a new year where things are looking up for all of us, where together we figure out some more of the mysteries of how life works.

Sean Eddy