A machine-learning approach to finding treatment options for Covid-19

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, doctors and researchers rushed to find effective treatments. There was little time to spare. “Making new drugs takes forever,” says Caroline Uhler, a computational biologist in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society, and an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “Really, the only expedient option is to repurpose existing drugs.”

Uhler’s team has now developed a machine learning-based approach to identify drugs already on the market that could potentially be repurposed to fight Covid-19, particularly in the elderly. The system accounts for changes in gene expression in lung cells caused by both the disease and aging. That combination could allow medical experts to more quickly seek drugs for clinical testing in elderly patients, who tend to experience more severe symptoms. The researchers pinpointed the protein RIPK1 as a promising target for Covid-19 drugs, and they identified three approved drugs that act on the expression of RIPK1.

The research appears today in the journal Nature Communications. Co-authors include MIT PhD students Anastasiya Belyaeva, Adityanarayanan Radhakrishnan, Chandler Squires, and Karren Dai Yang, as well as PhD student Louis Cammarata of Harvard University and long-term collaborator G.V. Shivashankar of ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Early in the pandemic, it grew clear that Covid-19 harmed older patients more than younger ones, on average. Uhler’s team wondered why. “The prevalent hypothesis is the aging immune system,” she says. But Uhler and Shivashankar suggested an additional factor: “One of the main changes in the lung that happens through aging is that it becomes stiffer.”

The stiffening lung tissue shows different patterns of gene expression than in younger people, even in response to the same signal. “Earlier work by the Shivashankar lab showed that if you stimulate cells on a stiffer substrate with a cytokine, similar to what the virus does, they actually turn on different genes,” says Uhler. “So, that motivated this hypothesis. We need to look at aging together with SARS-CoV-2 — what are the genes at the intersection of these two pathways?” To select approved drugs that might act on these pathways, the team turned to big data and artificial intelligence.

The researchers zeroed in on the most promising drug repurposing candidates in three broad steps. First, they generated a large list of possible drugs using a machine-learning technique called an autoencoder. Next, they mapped the network of genes and proteins involved in both aging and SARS-CoV-2 infection. Finally, they used statistical algorithms to understand causality in that network, allowing them to pinpoint “upstream” genes that caused cascading effects throughout the network. In principle, drugs targeting those upstream genes and proteins should be promising candidates for clinical trials.

To generate an initial list of potential drugs, the team’s autoencoder relied on two key datasets of gene expression patterns. One dataset showed how expression in various cell types responded to a range of drugs already on the market, and the other showed how expression responded to infection with SARS-CoV-2. The autoencoder scoured the datasets to highlight drugs whose impacts on gene expression appeared to counteract the effects of SARS-CoV-2. “This application of autoencoders was challenging and required foundational insights into the working of these neural networks, which we developed in a paper recently published in PNAS,” notes Radhakrishnan.

Next, the researchers narrowed the list of potential drugs by homing in on key genetic pathways. They mapped the interactions of proteins involved in the aging and Sars-CoV-2 infection pathways. Then they identified areas of overlap among the two maps. That effort pinpointed the precise gene expression network that a drug would need to target to combat Covid-19 in elderly patients.

“At this point, we had an undirected network,” says Belyaeva, meaning the researchers had yet to identify which genes and proteins were “upstream” (i.e. they have cascading effects on the expression of other genes) and which were “downstream” (i.e. their expression is altered by prior changes in the network). An ideal drug candidate would target the genes at the upstream end of the network to minimize the impacts of infection.

“We want to identify a drug that has an effect on all of these differentially expressed genes downstream,” says Belyaeva. So the team used algorithms that infer causality in interacting systems to turn their undirected network into a causal network. The final causal network identified RIPK1 as a target gene/protein for potential Covid-19 drugs, since it has numerous downstream effects. The researchers identified a list of the approved drugs that act on RIPK1 and may have potential to treat Covid-19. Previously these drugs have been approved for the use in cancer. Other drugs that were also identified, including ribavirin and quinapril, are already in clinical trials for Covid-19.

Uhler plans to share the team’s findings with pharmaceutical companies. She emphasizes that before any of the drugs they identified can be approved for repurposed use in elderly Covid-19 patients, clinical testing is needed to determine efficacy. While this particular study focused on Covid-19, the researchers say their framework is extendable. “I’m really excited that this platform can be more generally applied to other infections or diseases,” says Belyaeva. Radhakrishnan emphasizes the importance of gathering information on how various diseases impact gene expression. “The more data we have in this space, the better this could work,” he says.

This research was supported, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the Simons Foundation, IBM, and the MIT Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning and Health.

How shared partisanship leads to social media connections

It is no secret that U.S. politics is polarized. An experiment conducted by MIT researchers now shows just how deeply political partisanship directly influences people’s behavior within online social networks.

Deploying Twitter bots to help examine the online behavior of real people, the researchers found that the likelihood that individuals will follow other accounts on Twitter triples when there appears to be a common partisan bond involved.

“When partisanship is matched, people are three times more likely to follow other accounts back,” says MIT professor David Rand, co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s results. “That’s a really big effect, and clear evidence of how important a role partisanship plays.”

The finding helps reveal how likely people are to self-select into partisan “echo chambers” online, long discussed as a basic civic problem exacerbated by social media. But methodologically, the experiment also tackles a basic challenge regarding the study of partisanship and social behavior: Do people who share partisan views associate with each other because of those views, or do they primarily associate for other reasons, with similar political preferences merely being incidental in the process?

The new experiment demonstrates the extent to which political preferences themselves can drive social connectivity.

“This pattern is not based on any preexisting relationships or any other common interests — the only thing people think they know about these accounts is that they share partisanship, and they were much more likely to want to form relationships with those accounts,” says first author Mohsen Mosleh, who is a lecturer at the University of Exeter Business School and a research affiliate at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The paper, “Shared Partisanship Dramatically Increases Social Tie Formation in a Twitter Field Experiment,” appears this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In additional to Rand, who is the Erwin H. Schell Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT Sloan’s Human Cooperation Laboratory and Applied Cooperation Team, the authors are Mosleh; Cameron Martel, a PhD student at MIT Sloan; and Dean Eckles, the Mitsubishi Career Development Professor and an associate professor of marketing at MIT Sloan.

To conduct the experiment, the researchers collected a list of Twitter users who had retweeted either MSNBC or Fox News tweets, and then examined their last 3,200 tweets to see how much information those people shared from left-leaning or right-leaning websites. From the initial list, the scholars then constructed a final roster of

842 Twitter accounts, evenly distributed across the two major parties.

At the same time, the researchers created a set of eight clearly partisan bots — fake accounts with the appearance of being politically minded individuals. The bots were split by party and varied in intensity of political expression. The researchers randomly selected one of the bots to follow each of the 842 real users on Twitter. Then they examined which real-life Twitter users followed the politically aligned bots back, and observed the distinctly partisan pattern that emerged.

Overall, the real Twitter users in the experiment would follow back about 15 percent of Twitter bots with whom they shared partisan views, regardless of the intensity of political expression in the bot accounts. By contrast, the real-life Twitter users would only follow back about 5 percent of accounts that appeared to support the opposing party.

Among other things, the study found a partisan symmetry in the user behavior they observed: People from the two major U.S. parties were equally likely to follow accounts back on the basis of partisan identification.

“There was no difference between Democrats and Republicans in this, in that Democrats were just as likely to have preferential tie formation as Republicans,” says Rand.

The bot accounts used in this experiment were not recommended by Twitter as accounts that users might want to follow, indicating that the tendency to follow other partisans happens independently of the account-recommendation algorithms that social networks use.

“What this suggests is the lack of cross-partisan relationships on social media isn’t only the consequence of algorithms,” Rand says. “There are basic psychological predispositions involved.”

At the same time, Rand notes, the findings do suggest that if social media companies want to increase cross-partisan civic interaction, they could try to engineer more of those kinds of interactions.

“If you want to foster cross-partisan social relationships, you don’t just need the friend suggestion algorithm to be neutral. You would need the friend suggestion algorithms to actively counter these psychological predispositions,” Rand says, although he also notes that whether cross-partisan social ties actually reduce political polarization is unclear based on current research.

Therefore, the behavior of social media users who form connections across party lines is an important subject for future studies and experiments, Mosleh suggests. He also points out that this experimental approach could be used to study a wide range of biases in the formation of social relationships beyond partisanship, such as race, gender, or age.

Support for the project was provided, in part, by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Reset project of Luminate, and the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scene at MIT: A Black computing pioneer takes his place in technology history

The caption on a black-and-white photo reads, in part: “In 1951, high school graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the earliest high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the start of his decades-long career in computing. With help from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time with the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computing industry.

“They at MIT were looking for bright, young kids who were not going to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I guess it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they’re doing.”

Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication from the Computer History Museum, “It had been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key to bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demands for skilled staff by recruiting from local high schools those students who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reasons, college was inaccessible.”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred to California with the company, and his group eventually spun off into the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computing research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own firm and spending the rest of his career in the computing industry. He died in 2015.

Have a creative photo of campus life you’d like to share? Submit it to Scene at MIT.

Scientists as engaged citizens

The classroom in fall 2020 looked very different than it did when WGS.160/STS.021 (Science Activism: Gender, Race, and Power) ran for the first time in 2019. Zoom and virtual breakout rooms had replaced circles of chairs, but the shifts made the class no less immersive and urgent for its students.

In fact, the pandemic context made the core questions of this new survey class all the more vivid: What roles have U.S. scientists and technologists played as activists in crucial social issues and movements following WWII? What are their motivations, responsibilities, and strategies for organizing? What is their impact?

Scientists have been on the front lines of active citizenship and policy engagement in recent years in very visible ways — in the People’s Climate Movement, in controlling the global Covid-19 pandemic, and in testimony about biases in facial recognition in Congress, to name just a few.

As students in the Science Activism class have learned, this engagement isn’t a new phenomenon. There is a long history of scientists championing important issues, policy positions, and public education by contributing their scientific knowledge and perspectives. Case studies in this course include the civil rights movement, the nuclear freeze campaign, climate science and action, environmental justice, Vietnam War protests, the March 4 Movement at MIT, and advocating for gender equality in STEM fields.

Reflecting the layered and intersecting issues this class explores, it is listed in both the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) and in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society. 

From the research bench to the policy table

Scientific knowledge is now critical for public understanding and sound policy for most of today’s most critical issues — from climate to human health to food security — and MIT students are eager to understand how their works interact with social realities and how they can lend their expertise to advancing better conditions and policies.

“The class was informed by the increasing efforts by scientists to engage in public policy not only at the ballot box, or by providing testimony,” says Ed Bertschinger, professor of physics, who led the initial class in 2019 as well as the 2020 class. “More scientists are also taking up causes of activism. That’s been true at MIT and around the country.”

As a faculty affiliate of the WGS program, Bertschinger notes that science has never been purely objective or detached from society. “Activism is a way for groups with less power in democratic societies to have their voices heard in order to effect change,” he observes. “Scientists can no longer take for granted that their results speak for themselves.”

Bertschinger recalls that his first experience with activism was in graduate school, in the 1980s, when he served as an organizer for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. “I was following the lead of an MIT group,” reflects Bertschinger, “including scholars such as the late Randall Forsberg and Philip Morrison, who were leaders in the nuclear disarmament effort in the U.S.”

Bridging the gap

His students now are similarly broadening their areas of academic interest into awareness of the context, impact, and influence their respective fields have in society.

For Eleane Lema, a senior majoring in chemistry/biology and minoring in anthropology, the draw of Science Activism came from a sense of disconnection between her academic life as a scientist and her drive to make a positive social impact. The class subjects dovetail with her explorations of environmental justice and the unequal benefits and harms scientific change has for different communities.

Taking MIT’s mission “for the betterment of humankind” to heart since her first year at the Institute, Lema seeks ways to combine her technical education and her wish to engage in meaningful social work. This past summer, for instance, she had a health policy internship through MIT’s Washington Internship program, a longstanding initiative led by Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and founding director of the nonpartisan MIT Election Data and Science Lab.

“WGS.160 is an opportunity to learn about the positive influences scientists have made in addressing the world’s biggest challenges,” says Lema. “By bridging science and social issues, this class shows us real, practical ways to embody MIT’s mission to serve humankind.”
 
A duty to learn

Emily Condon, another senior in the class this fall, also sees WGS.160 as an opportunity to understand her own social responsibilities as a scientist. “With the recent Black Lives Matter movement events and the current political climate, I felt a responsibility to educate myself on what I, as a student of science and engineering, could contribute to ending violence and discrimination against Black communities.”

“The most profound idea that I’ve learned in this class is that science is not entirely objective,” reflects Condon. “There are always biases about what science implies or what scientific problems are important to study. Providing more spaces for BIPOC scientists to direct the course of research is essential to diversifying perspectives and approaches to science.”

Condon followed the tangible effects of such biases as she studied the material impacts of climate change and its roots as a social, as well as a scientific, problem. “Underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change, and recognizing that can help scientists and engineers direct efforts to aid the people in those communities.”

For senior Kate Pearce, who is majoring in computer science and biology with a minor in math, the class is a chance to connect her longtime interest in science and activism. It has also given her a greater sense of continued agency over her own technical projects by learning how scientists have been able to anticipate and influence how their innovations will impact people, rather than simply allowing political and economic systems to determine how their work will be used.

The class, in both runs to date, has been composed primarily of MIT undergraduates focused on technical fields.

Like their professor, the students come to the WGS program as interdisciplinary thinkers, pursuing a fuller and more nuanced sense of their work’s place in a volatile world. The program is designed to enable just that understanding — drawing on expertise across the Institute, from physicists to philosophers to poets, to provide analytical frameworks for the examination of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality — and how these aspects of human identity intersect with the life and issues of society.

“The feminist lens of Science Activism really intrigued me,” Pearce adds, “especially as applied to how science and social change are motivated and executed.”
 
An active MIT history

Topics in Science Activism take a broad view of recent decades, examining Vietnam War protests by scientists, genetic engineering, and the birth of modern environmentalism in the United States. There is a special focus on activism at MIT in particular, from the 1960s to present, including the March 4 Movement.

That movement began in 1969, when research and regular teaching at MIT slowed as students, faculty, and staff paused to protest the war in Vietnam and the Institute’s links to the military. Similar themes echo to the present day, with students, faculty, and staff opposing military solutions to international conflicts and broadening MIT’s engagement into social and economic justice.

For Lema, the course has also provided insight into what successful activism looks like in projects like bringing awareness to the climate crisis. “MIT has played an integral role in the history of science activism, and I hope every MIT student gets the opportunity to learn about this history and discover how they can become activists for causes they are passionate about.”

Joining the conversation

Like many of MIT’s humanistic courses, Science Activism is discussion-based: students build a foundational understanding from assigned readings and come to the classroom (live or virtual) prepared to debate and discuss. Guest speakers, such as Harvard Medical School Professor Jon Beckwith, who has led a Harvard University course focused on activism and the life sciences, broadened and deepened the conversation in the class’s first iteration by adding the perspectives of specialists in different disciplines.

This year the class welcomed via Zoom a number of new guest speakers, including Jin In, an advocate for women’s empowerment; Arwa Mboya, a former research assistant at the MIT Media Lab; and Steve Penn, a prominent MIT activist of the 1980s and ’90s. As a discussion-based class, the students’ insights are the engine of the class experience, and Bertschinger dedicates the majority of class time to breakout rooms so each student has a chance to thoroughly engage with ideas and questions.  

“I have been so impressed by the passion and insight that my peers in this class provide,” says Pearce. “Since people are so engaged and passionate about these topics, the breakout rooms always lead to wonderful discussions, and we must struggle to end as the timer ticks down.”

For instance, the climate crisis — one of the foremost issues of the students’ lives — inspires intense, far-ranging conversations as class members trace the roots of environmentalism and think together about how best to respond to the multi-faceted crisis. The students’ experience gives the course an ever-expanding horizon as students’ insights widen discussions around intersectional equality in the sciences and in society.

“It was a great pleasure to teach the class last year; I learned a lot from working with the students and from developing case studies,” reflects Bertschinger. “It’s important for the MIT community to pay attention to the activism on campus — and to help our students develop the wisdom and the capacity to use their voices to the fullest effect in the world.”

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Alison Lanier and Emily Hiestand

Scientists as engaged citizens

The classroom in fall 2020 looked very different than it did when WGS.160/STS.021 (Science Activism: Gender, Race, and Power) ran for the first time in 2019. Zoom and virtual breakout rooms had replaced circles of chairs, but the shifts made the class no less immersive and urgent for its students.

In fact, the pandemic context made the core questions of this new survey class all the more vivid: What roles have U.S. scientists and technologists played as activists in crucial social issues and movements following WWII? What are their motivations, responsibilities, and strategies for organizing? What is their impact?

Scientists have been on the front lines of active citizenship and policy engagement in recent years in very visible ways — in the People’s Climate Movement, in controlling the global Covid-19 pandemic, and in testimony about biases in facial recognition in Congress, to name just a few.

As students in the Science Activism class have learned, this engagement isn’t a new phenomenon. There is a long history of scientists championing important issues, policy positions, and public education by contributing their scientific knowledge and perspectives. Case studies in this course include the civil rights movement, the nuclear freeze campaign, climate science and action, environmental justice, Vietnam War protests, the March 4 Movement at MIT, and advocating for gender equality in STEM fields.

Reflecting the layered and intersecting issues this class explores, it is listed in both the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) and in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society. 

From the research bench to the policy table

Scientific knowledge is now critical for public understanding and sound policy for most of today’s most critical issues — from climate to human health to food security — and MIT students are eager to understand how their works interact with social realities and how they can lend their expertise to advancing better conditions and policies.

“The class was informed by the increasing efforts by scientists to engage in public policy not only at the ballot box, or by providing testimony,” says Ed Bertschinger, professor of physics, who led the initial class in 2019 as well as the 2020 class. “More scientists are also taking up causes of activism. That’s been true at MIT and around the country.”

As a faculty affiliate of the WGS program, Bertschinger notes that science has never been purely objective or detached from society. “Activism is a way for groups with less power in democratic societies to have their voices heard in order to effect change,” he observes. “Scientists can no longer take for granted that their results speak for themselves.”

Bertschinger recalls that his first experience with activism was in graduate school, in the 1980s, when he served as an organizer for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. “I was following the lead of an MIT group,” reflects Bertschinger, “including scholars such as the late Randall Forsberg and Philip Morrison, who were leaders in the nuclear disarmament effort in the U.S.”

Bridging the gap

His students now are similarly broadening their areas of academic interest into awareness of the context, impact, and influence their respective fields have in society.

For Eleane Lema, a senior majoring in chemistry/biology and minoring in anthropology, the draw of Science Activism came from a sense of disconnection between her academic life as a scientist and her drive to make a positive social impact. The class subjects dovetail with her explorations of environmental justice and the unequal benefits and harms scientific change has for different communities.

Taking MIT’s mission “for the betterment of humankind” to heart since her first year at the Institute, Lema seeks ways to combine her technical education and her wish to engage in meaningful social work. This past summer, for instance, she had a health policy internship through MIT’s Washington Internship program, a longstanding initiative led by Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and founding director of the nonpartisan MIT Election Data and Science Lab.

“WGS.160 is an opportunity to learn about the positive influences scientists have made in addressing the world’s biggest challenges,” says Lema. “By bridging science and social issues, this class shows us real, practical ways to embody MIT’s mission to serve humankind.”
 
A duty to learn

Emily Condon, another senior in the class this fall, also sees WGS.160 as an opportunity to understand her own social responsibilities as a scientist. “With the recent Black Lives Matter movement events and the current political climate, I felt a responsibility to educate myself on what I, as a student of science and engineering, could contribute to ending violence and discrimination against Black communities.”

“The most profound idea that I’ve learned in this class is that science is not entirely objective,” reflects Condon. “There are always biases about what science implies or what scientific problems are important to study. Providing more spaces for BIPOC scientists to direct the course of research is essential to diversifying perspectives and approaches to science.”

Condon followed the tangible effects of such biases as she studied the material impacts of climate change and its roots as a social, as well as a scientific, problem. “Underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change, and recognizing that can help scientists and engineers direct efforts to aid the people in those communities.”

For senior Kate Pearce, who is majoring in computer science and biology with a minor in math, the class is a chance to connect her longtime interest in science and activism. It has also given her a greater sense of continued agency over her own technical projects by learning how scientists have been able to anticipate and influence how their innovations will impact people, rather than simply allowing political and economic systems to determine how their work will be used.

The class, in both runs to date, has been composed primarily of MIT undergraduates focused on technical fields.

Like their professor, the students come to the WGS program as interdisciplinary thinkers, pursuing a fuller and more nuanced sense of their work’s place in a volatile world. The program is designed to enable just that understanding — drawing on expertise across the Institute, from physicists to philosophers to poets, to provide analytical frameworks for the examination of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality — and how these aspects of human identity intersect with the life and issues of society.

“The feminist lens of Science Activism really intrigued me,” Pearce adds, “especially as applied to how science and social change are motivated and executed.”
 
An active MIT history

Topics in Science Activism take a broad view of recent decades, examining Vietnam War protests by scientists, genetic engineering, and the birth of modern environmentalism in the United States. There is a special focus on activism at MIT in particular, from the 1960s to present, including the March 4 Movement.

That movement began in 1969, when research and regular teaching at MIT slowed as students, faculty, and staff paused to protest the war in Vietnam and the Institute’s links to the military. Similar themes echo to the present day, with students, faculty, and staff opposing military solutions to international conflicts and broadening MIT’s engagement into social and economic justice.

For Lema, the course has also provided insight into what successful activism looks like in projects like bringing awareness to the climate crisis. “MIT has played an integral role in the history of science activism, and I hope every MIT student gets the opportunity to learn about this history and discover how they can become activists for causes they are passionate about.”

Joining the conversation

Like many of MIT’s humanistic courses, Science Activism is discussion-based: students build a foundational understanding from assigned readings and come to the classroom (live or virtual) prepared to debate and discuss. Guest speakers, such as Harvard Medical School Professor Jon Beckwith, who has led a Harvard University course focused on activism and the life sciences, broadened and deepened the conversation in the class’s first iteration by adding the perspectives of specialists in different disciplines.

This year the class welcomed via Zoom a number of new guest speakers, including Jin In, an advocate for women’s empowerment; Arwa Mboya, a former research assistant at the MIT Media Lab; and Steve Penn, a prominent MIT activist of the 1980s and ’90s. As a discussion-based class, the students’ insights are the engine of the class experience, and Bertschinger dedicates the majority of class time to breakout rooms so each student has a chance to thoroughly engage with ideas and questions.  

“I have been so impressed by the passion and insight that my peers in this class provide,” says Pearce. “Since people are so engaged and passionate about these topics, the breakout rooms always lead to wonderful discussions, and we must struggle to end as the timer ticks down.”

For instance, the climate crisis — one of the foremost issues of the students’ lives — inspires intense, far-ranging conversations as class members trace the roots of environmentalism and think together about how best to respond to the multi-faceted crisis. The students’ experience gives the course an ever-expanding horizon as students’ insights widen discussions around intersectional equality in the sciences and in society.

“It was a great pleasure to teach the class last year; I learned a lot from working with the students and from developing case studies,” reflects Bertschinger. “It’s important for the MIT community to pay attention to the activism on campus — and to help our students develop the wisdom and the capacity to use their voices to the fullest effect in the world.”

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Alison Lanier and Emily Hiestand

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