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Highlights from MCB BIOpalooza 2020

Highlights from MCB BIOpalooza 2020

Last week, MCB students, staff, postdocs, and faculty convened in Zoom sessions to swap ideas and bond as a community through MCB BIOpalooza 2020, the department’s first-ever virtual retreat.

MCB BIOpalooza attendees listened to talks, introduced themselves to new colleagues, tried their hands at a few online team-building games, and celebrated this year’s MCB Retreat Award winners.

The BIOpalooza planning committee put many hours into brainstorming activities, finding times that wouldn’t conflict with classes, organizing events, and writing trivia questions.

The committee included: Nick Bellono (faculty), Jenny Chen (postdoc), Oscar Hernandez Murillo (MCO G4), Renate Hellmiss (Director of Scientific Graphics and Communications), Craig Hunter (faculty and committee chair), Polina Kehayova (Scientific Director), Jessica Manning (Executive Director), Camila Ossa (Events Coordinator), Max Prigozhin (faculty), Anastasia Repouliou (MCO G3), Amanda Whipple (faculty), and Pu Zheng (MCO G5).

A huge thank you to everyone on the MCB BIOpalooza planning committee!

Below are a few of the highlights from three days of online activities.

Keynote Panel

MCB BIOpalooza opened with a keynote panel discussing the new documentary Picture a Scientist and issues faced by women in STEM on Wednesday afternoon. The panel highlighted both barriers that continue to frustrate and reasons for optimism.

The panel consisted of MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, History of Science department chair Evelynn Hammonds, History of Science professor Sarah Richardson, and psychology graduate student Tessa Charlesworth of the Banaji Lab as panelists and GSAS Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Sheila Thomas and MCO student Paula Pelayo (G3) of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Task Force as co-moderators. A recording of the panel can be accessed here.

Prior to the event, attendees were asked to stream the film Picture a Scientist, directed by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney. The film follows three women in science: Raychelle Burks, a chemist and celebrated science communicator; Jane Willenbring, a geoscientist who led a high-profile Title IX complaint against a BU professor; and Hopkins, who organized and led a committee that produced the enormously influential “MIT Report” examining gendered discrimination against MIT faculty in the mid-1990s.

The panelists noted that while many parts of the film seem bleak, a great deal of progress has been made in recent decades. Hopkins recalled that when she was starting out in Jim Watson’s lab, her labmates would speculate about whether women were even capable of being great scientists. Now, there are so many high-achieving women across the sciences that conversation has shifted to “women prefer not to pursue STEM,” and even that argument has widely fallen out of favor.

Charlesworth mentioned a recent analysis where the Banaji Lab found that implicit bias against women in science has been decreasing over time and, at the current rate, would reach neutrality in associating genders with STEM in about 138 years. At the same time, this implicit bias has been decreasing much faster in women than in men, and it doesn’t address the problems of individuals’ abusive behavior.

“If you’re going to wait for individuals to change their behavior, you’re going to be waiting a lot longer than 138 years,” Hopkins quipped.

Richardson said that she was struck by a comment that Burks, who is Black, made in the documentary about how being a successful woman of color in STEM causes both hypervisibility and invisibility. Hammonds, who is also Black, further noted that the film actively named the men who committed the most egregious harassment against Hopkins and Willenbring, but many of the stories shared by Burks did not name names, as the hostility was more casual.

Hopkins wished the film had placed more emphasis on rewarding people who make structural changes. Hammonds also remarked the importance of new administrative norms. To some academics, these changes seem like “deadly dull plumbing things,” but they are structural changes that give women and BIPOC a chance to thrive in STEM.

When search committees are obligated to advertise positions widely and recruit diverse candidates from many different institutions, the committees rely less on informal “boys’ club” social networks that exclude many candidates. Other changes, such as increasing the frequency of grant reviews and the shift toward thesis committees, lessen the unilateral power that professors frequently have over trainees, reducing the number of opportunities for abuse of power, the panelists said.

Richardson appreciated that the film included interviews from women who were pushed out of STEM, because most initiatives focus on the “survivors” who “made it’ in their field.

Hammonds said she prefers to use the metaphor of forking pathways, instead of a “pipeline,” because careers in STEM don’t have fixed end points. Hammonds herself became a historian of science because she wanted to understand the culture she was embedded in as a physics graduate student, but her professor kept telling her, “That’s not a science question.”

Pelayo relayed a question from the audience about the inclusion of transgender and nonbinary people in science. The issue of trans and nonbinary representation in STEM is severely under-studied, Richardson responded. But, she noted, the numbers of trans and nonbinary people in academia is growing, which will make it easier to form advocacy groups and exert pressure for change.

The discussion also touched on recent publications, such as the finding that people tend to perceive brilliance as a male trait and #ShutDownSTEM.

Chair’s Remarks

MCB Chair Sean Eddy kicked off the Thursday morning Slam session with a few remarks about efforts to bolster Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging in the department. Some of these measures are simple steps, like encouraging people to join the departmental Slack and providing a channel for sending anonymous feedback to Eddy and MCB Executive Director Jessica Manning.

The department has launched a peer mentorship program for postdocs, and students from the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging task force have joined five key departmental committees, in order to ensure that students have a voice in departmental operations.

Eddy also highlighted a plan to raise the salary of MCB postdocs to be commensurate with the NIH NRSA pay scale but emphasized that establishing new baseline salaries will take time

SLAM Talks

On Thursday and Friday, over a dozen MCB researchers gave 3-minute “Slam” talks over Zoom, accompanied by only a single slide. The presenter lineup gave undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, staff scientists and faculty an opportunity to present their research to a wide swath of the MCB community.

The Slam talks offered a broad sampling of research being conducted in MCB. It included both timely subjects, such as reading frames in coronaviruses and the biology of loneliness, and perennial biological questions, such as the evolution of infant cries, the role of glial cells, and how bacteria transport metal molecules.

Over 115 MCB community members tuned in for the Thursday morning session. “You should advertise more widely that MCB is the scientific home of hugs and rainbows,” one attendee wrote in the chat after back-to-back presentations with slides featuring illustrations of hugs and rainbows.

Friday’s line-up likewise included talks by undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff. The topics covered ranged from microbes with unusual genetic codes to chromatin dynamics within cell nuclei.

After each set of Slam talks, attendees reconvened in smaller “breakout” Q&A calls for more free-wheeling discussions about methodology, next steps for the research, and a recent study where researchers fed ecstasy to octopuses.

Trivia, Pictionary, and the G3 Skit

The virtual retreat also included fun and games. On Thursday afternoon, members of the MCB community tuned in for a trivia challenge that featured questions about the history of science, sci-fi literature and TV, and “the secret lives of MCB professors.” Winning teams from each of the four rounds received travel mugs with the MCB BIOpalooza logo printed on them as prizes.

On Friday afternoon, the G3 students premiered a series of filmed skits, spoofing the quarantine-era lives of graduate students, as well as professors’ email habits and awkward virtual interactions.

The skit reel’s finale was a reenactment of a Zoom call where Professor Murray tried to show his students his home, which included a full-on chase sequence up and down multiple floors. MCB faculty Venki Murthy compared the antics to Laurel and Hardy.

Later on Friday, MCB community members tuned in to play a distanced game of Pictionary via the website Drawsaurus. Winners of each Pictionary breakout group also received travel mugs.

Awards Night

MCB BIOpalooza culminated with a virtual ceremony celebrating the annual MCB Retreat Awards. Just two prizes were awarded this year.

Associate Director for Faculty Services Michelle Cicerano was chosen to receive the Doty-Losick Prize for Exceptional Service, which honors individuals who contribute enormously to community-building activities in MCB.

Cicerano’s recent efforts include spearheading the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging task force. “I don’t know what to say; I wish I was next to you guys!” Cicerano said, as she accepted the award over Zoom.

The Björkman, Wiley, and Strominger Prize for Collaboration, which honors productive collaborations between MCB labs and other Harvard labs, went to Catherine Dulac and Xiaowei Zhuang of CCB.

Recent past recipients of the award include a collaboration between the Uchida Lab and the Gershman Lab in the psychology department, which recently produced a paper that was accepted to Cell.

For years, the two labs have leveraged each other’s expertises to develop new ways to image the brain and draw connections from the molecular level to the behavioral level. The Award committee’s citation called the Dulac-Zhuang collaboration “a tour de force,” which has yielded invaluable advances in techniques such as MERFISH.

At the Awards Zoom, Dulac pointed that the award was the product of group effort by everyone in the Dulac and Zhuang Labs and thanked everyone who had made contributions to the effort over the years.

Wrapping Up

This year marked the conclusion of MCB Faculty Craig Hunter’s time as chair of the Retreat Planning Committee. When MCB Event Coordinator Camila Ossa thanked Hunter for his efforts as the committee’s chair, he responded, “And thank you, [Camila], for doing all of the real work!”

Professor Murthy will step into the role for next year’s departmental retreat, which will take place in-person in September 2021.

Until then, a huge thank you to everyone on the Retreat Planning Committee and everyone who participated in MCB BIOpalooza!


by Diana Crow