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Photo courtesy of Mike Siegel

This article first appeared in 2009 when I was writing for the MIT graduate student run news magazine The Graduate. However the website is no longer available and as far as I can tell The Graduate does not currently exist (perhaps it will be revived in another form someday as it has in the past). I really enjoyed working on these articles so I will be posting them on my blog over the next month. They mostly focus on groundbreaking work of graduate students at MIT.

At only 33 years of age, Neri Oxman’s list of accomplishments and accolades is exhaustive. The graduate student in the School of Architecture was most recently commissioned for an exhibit, Neri Oxman: At the frontier of ecological design, currently on display at the Museum of Science here in Boston, that highlights the unique biological influence in her design. She has been variously described as an architect, engineer, biologist, and computer scientist for her work that melds these myriad disciplines. She is intelligent and thoughtful, gracious and warm, and highly photogenic as a quick google image search of her name will prove.

Although an architecture student, Oxman’s work is a thing of art.  Taking inspiration from the natural world, she transforms nature, using computer algorithms, into impossibly complex, organic, three dimensional forms.  Her models are based on the fine structure of butterfly wings, bones, cells, informed perhaps by her earlier pursuits in the field of medicine. Read the rest of this entry »

Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).

As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Mooney, currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, gave a talk this evening that focused on science and society.  He started by giving some rather depressing stats about the American public’s relationship with science.  Only 18% of Americans know a scientist personally, only 13% follow science and technology news closely, and only 44% can name a scientific role model.  Of those that do name a role model – the top three named are Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates.  As Mooney points out, they’re either dead, or not actually scientists.

But why should we care about the public’s scientific literacy?  Well, Mooney has answers for you.  He outlined four reasons: 1) knowledge is generally good in and of itself, 2) it empowers people, 3) it leads to good citizenship, 4) it also leads to good policy. Read the rest of this entry »

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