Breaking barriers to get to breakthroughs – Harvard Gazette

“We’re going to have to teach computational science to neurologists and math to biologists,” said Bernardo Sabatini, co-director of the Kempner Institute and Alice and Rodman W. Moorhead III Professor of Biology at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. “These are all young, nascent fields — a student can go from fundamental study to fundamental discovery in less than a year.”

“We are witnessing a new phase of scientific discovery,” added Sharm M. Kakade, co-director of the Kempner, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, and professor of statistics. The institute, he said, aims to “bring together a community with different lived-in experiences, bring together a community with different perspectives.

“We want to train the next generation of leaders,” said Kakade, noting that “we can speculate on some of the progress we might make and some of the challenges we might address.”

Several panel discussions explored how such interdisciplinary studies — in particular the interaction between AI and biological studies — are already spurring breakthroughs.

Speaking on the convergence of these fields, Sandeep Robert Datta, professor of neurobiology at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, recalled the chaos as COVID hit in March 2020. As he was shutting down his lab, which had been collecting data mapping sensory responses in mice, he began hearing how this new virus was causing people to lose their sense of smell.

Although the pandemic-mandated shutdown meant his usual research was indefinitely curtailed, “We realized if we used the tools of machine learning we might learn how this happened and what the virus is doing to the brain,” said Datta. “On the fly we were able to parse this incredibly complex data with AI.” The ultimate discovery, that “this virus was attacking the support cells that let the neurons actually function,” was far from his initial hypothesis — and from his original research — but enabled by AI, he had already broken new ground.

A series of luminaries offered other presentations over the course of the afternoon, including CZI head of science Stephen Quake, and prerecorded remarks from Microsoft founder Bill Gates ’77, LL.D. ’07; former Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt; and Amazon president and CEO Andy Jassy ’90, MBA ’97.

A unique approach — and a special history

Introducing the institute, named for Zuckerberg’s psychiatrist mother, Karen Kempner, and his maternal grandparents, Gertrude and Sidney Kempner, Zuckerberg said, “My grandparents always emphasized the importance of hard work and intellectual rigor.” (Gertrude Kempner, a former teacher, was in attendance.) His mother “poured her heart into empowering all her kids,” said Zuckerberg. “Supporting us and teaching us that anything that was worth doing was worth doing well.” He said his goal is that their namesake institute “will fuel discoveries about the mind and intelligence.”

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