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Fifteen undergraduate students from the University of Connecticut McNair Scholars program engaged with Northeastern University over Zoom to learn more about Northeastern’s Master’s and PhD programs. The students had the opportunity to speak with students, faculty, and staff representing various STEM disciplines including biology, computer science, mechanical & industrial engineering, chemical engineering, psychology, bioinformatics, biotechnology, cybersecurity, civil & environmental engineering, and marine & environmental sciences.
The McNair Scholars program is one of eight of the US Department of Education-funded TRIO programs. The program is named after Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986. Prior to his death, he was the second African American to fly in space when he flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B in 1984. TRIO programs are open to low-income, first-generation undergraduate students, and individuals from underrepresented populations. At UConn, McNair Scholars have a faculty mentor, conduct and present research, and participate in workshops, seminars, and conferences to help them achieve an advanced degree.
The students were able to seek advice on the admissions process, interview weekend, research funding, life on campus and in Boston, and the University’s diversity initiatives and support systems. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were unable to tour research facilities and the campus in person as previous cohorts of McNair Scholars have been able to do in the past, but Northeastern hopes to welcome McNair Scholars from UConn and across the country as visitors and incoming Master’s and PhD students in the future.
Today, June 19, 2020, we observe Juneteenth. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending to slavery in the United States. From its origin in Galveston, Texas in 1865, this is a deeply important observance as the African American Emancipation Day.
We retain a deep sadness that this end to the abhorrent acts of slavery, is yet to result in equality and justice for African American people. The College of Science stands against racial violence and systemic injustice against Black people. We stand for equality and justice within our College, and within Northeastern University. We stand for a culture where each person is respected and valued, with action towards racial equality and justice.
Our College marks this important day with a letter from the College of Science Student Diversity Advisory Council (COS SDAC), that discusses the abhorrent way Black people have been treated in the name of Science. Disrespect and exclusion of Black people from the best medical research and health care continues. Our students encourage accountability and an ethical framework. I fully support these sentiments, and I am proud to have such thoughtful students in the College of Science. Together, we can move our College forward in respectful and productive ways.
We suggest the following readings and visual materials, that will further help you mark Juneteenth.
Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, Ms Morrison’s writing is like music. This book drew me into a world wrought with the horror of slavery, and the love of a mother. It is ranked as the best American work of fiction between 1981 and 2006.
This 2016 Netflix documentary by director Ava DuVernay, is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865. This duplicitous amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for conviction of a crime. DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated since then, through criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest and incarcerate African American people.
This 2017 movie relates to our COS SDAC students’ letter (attached) that discusses the harvesting and use of Ms Lacks cells without permission, for medical and experimental purposes. My Ph.D. thesis work was based on HeLa cells, but there was no discussion in my training as to the ethics surrounding these.
Yesterday, I announced appointment of Prof. Randall Hughes as the first Associate Dean for Equity in our College. I am thrilled to have Prof. Hughes’ leadership, that will help us move toward an Action Plan for Racial Equity. We must map out strategies to promote a culture of respect; to increase representation of Black students, faculty and staff in the College; and to ensure equal opportunities for employment, training and promotion.
Dear COS community,
As we celebrate this year’s Juneteenth, it is imperative that we reflect on its history and origin. Juneteenth marks the day that the last slaves in Texas were freed on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Although slave owners were aware of the Emancipation Proclamation, many chose to withhold this information from black people to continue to further their own wealth. This cycle of withholding information from black people to profit off of them is an ongoing issue today, and the scientific community is no exception. Some of the greatest advancements in science were achieved with no regard to the injustice it caused to black people.
The founder of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, developed his practice at the expense of enslaved black women. He believed that black people had a higher pain tolerance than white people, leading him to perform human experiments on black women, without consent and without the use of anesthesia. It was not until he perfected his surgeries on enslaved black women such as Anarcha, who alone received 30 surgeries, did he begin using anesthesia on his white patients.
In 1932, Tuskegee University began a study on syphilis involving 600 black men. The men were told only that they would receive free healthcare for the treatment of a “bad blood”, latent illness. In reality, this study was to track the full progression of untreated syphilis. Not only were 399 black men purposely infected with the disease and misinformed, but they were also left untreated, despite the discovery of penicillin as a treatment in 1945. Researchers allowed the disease to ravage the men, their families, and entire generations. It was not until the media exposed the true intentions of the heinous and immoral study that it was finally put to an end in 1973. For 40 years, black people were treated as disposable test subjects left to die.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black woman, went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to be treated for cervical cancer. Her biopsied tissue was taken to a lab, without her consent to study cervical cancer. Lacks’ cells were unique at the time because they evaded normal cell division patterns (or cellular senescence). Due to a mutation affecting cell proliferation, Lacks’ cells were able to continuously divide, achieving an immortality not known to scientists at the time. Her cells became the first immortalized human cell line, as we know it. Research on these cells contributed to several Nobel prizes, and a multitude of developments in biomedical research. Henrietta Lacks succumbed to her condition later that year, but she continues to live on as HeLa cells. Her cells have allowed scientists to gain a better understanding of cancer, genetics, and other aspects of medical research, contributing immensely to the scientific community. However, neither she nor her family were ever compensated for the use of her cells.
In fact, her descendants continue to live in poverty with little access to health insurance, despite all Henrietta has contributed to science.
The continued use of Black people’s bodies to advance science while failing to support them has created a distrust between the black community and the scientific community. The failure to address disparities black people face because of the years of scientific neglect only further serves to hurt the black community.
This injustice continues to manifest in the way African countries are targeted for developmental research (such as vaccines), how black people are maltreated in hospitals, and how misrepresentative research causes the disproportionate socioeconomic factors found to negatively affect black people today. Black people are less likely to participate in clinical trials and are underrepresented in genome wide association studies which result in reduced efficacy of treatments when used in the black population. The black maternal death rate is three times that of white counterparts due to the same biases that J. Marion Sims based his surgeries on. These injustices seemed to have happened long ago, but they still remain ingrained in science, medicine and health today.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect black and brown communities, it is likely that clinical trials for treatments will have fewer black participants due to the fear of being subject to malpractice, as shown by the examples mentioned. It is important for the science community to build back trust with the black community. It is imperative that we, the next generation of scientists, doctors, and professionals in the field of science understand how our research impacts people and that we properly strive to ensure equality. As we look back on history and see how the scientific community committed inhumane, racist acts on black people for the advancement of science, we challenge you to do better and make it your mission to be the change. Science requires accountability, and as a generation with better insight, we can hold those who contribute to bad science accountable. We have the power to mend this relationship and ensure that injustice has no place in science.
We want to leave you all with an important quote from Jurassic Park: “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Alumna Delia Mocanu is a double husky and 2014 PhD recipient in Physics. During her time at Northeastern, she developed a passion for network science, working on data projects with incredible scale. Now at Facebook, she finds herself working on one of the largest data systems in history— News Feed.
She participated in a written engagement with the Northeastern COS on going industry, why epidemiology works better in the dark, and the most important skill to succeed in data science.
Growing up, did you find that you were interested in physics? Or did that interest develop later in life?
I grew up in Romania and I did not like Physics much at the time because it was too formulaic. In a weird twist of events, as a freshman in college here in the US, I actually switched from Chemical Engineering to Physics/Math double major..
At some point I realized that Physics made a lot of sense for me and I just enjoyed pure science more than engineering. I liked the rush of solving problems from scratch.
I jumped around a bit until I landed on what I wanted to do. I was originally curious about Astroparticle Physics and I wanted to know everything about how the universe worked. During my first year at NEU, it became clear that I was seeking something more fast-paced. [The irony is not lost on me, this was very antithetical to why I switched from Engineering to Physics four years earlier.]
At Northeastern, seeing the kind of work Barabasi and Vespignani were doing, I immediately recognized that this interdisciplinary field (Network Science/Complex Systems) was more aligned to my existing interests and personal values.
Is there anything that stands out about your graduate/Phd experience?
My advisor really emphasized the idea of ownership, and I liked that we were held to very high standards. Looking back at it now, I always felt like what I was putting my time in truly mattered. Prof. Vespignani was very good at instilling energy to the group.
Did your experience working in Professor Vespignani’s MOBS Lab and other research facilities shape your career decisions?
Absolutely. What I cherish about this PhD experience is that we felt very plugged in; we had well funded projects that were designed to solve real problems, in real time.
We loved doing something that mattered. I was simultaneously learning something and solving a problem involving millions of people. Little did I know I was going to reach billions later.
You’re currently working at Facebook as a Data Scientist. What does your current role entail?
I work in News Feed, and I’ve been here since I started at Facebook. What makes this role especially stimulating is building solutions that work at scale. I still very much rely on the thought processes and models of the world that I adopted during my PhD. Right now, I couldn’t imagine a better place to apply these.
However, my favorite part of my job is actually identifying opportunities. When I find something worth investing in, I put all my energy into making it a reality. That last part is the most rewarding and it is really more about general problem solving than it is about any specific math/engineering skill.
Have you spoken to friends or colleagues about Professor Vespignani’s COVID-19 models and what they are trying to accomplish? Has it been a source of pride, frustration, or a little of both?
To my friends mostly, yes. I touched epidemiology models a bit during grad school. At the time I remember thinking ‘I hope this software makes a difference someday,’ but I never thought we’d see something like this. Healthy skepticism is good, but I’m quite surprised to see the amount of pushback against these predictions at large, so I would say this has caused a bit of frustration.
Frankly, epidemiology is best when you don’t know that it exists and when the predictions don’t come true. Otherwise, it is not too dissimilar from weather forecasting; every modeling exercise comes with error bars, but one can tell the difference between a major hurricane and a light summer rain. However, in epidemiology you ‘can’ actually turn the would-be hurricane into a light summer rain. Taking action invalidates the original prediction, that’s really the goal. Whereas if your predictions come true, you have failed; that’s the curse of this field.
Computational epidemiology has advanced so much in the past two decades, that it’s quite challenging to establish a common language even with other highly technical folks.
What do you find most rewarding about data science?
It’s the most rewarding job you can possibly imagine. It’s always changing and you are constantly learning new things or building new tools so that you can iterate faster.
It’s not just about the act of doing the analysis, but more about where the data fits. A lot of data science is problem solving, which is what I liked about Physics in the first place. You don’t have a solution and no one has ever solved this problem before. There are no instructions and every single day feels like a journey. That dynamic aspect is very important to me.
What was the most important thing you learned at Northeastern?
Professor Vespignani wanted nothing short of perfection. He would sometimes ask you to iterate on the same chart a dozen times before it felt right. It’s about communicating this data in the best way possible. If I have to repeat the same steps several times before I get it right, then I do it, and I think it’s worth it. As a result, I do notice when others take shortcuts.
I can’t stress this enough: the analysis is not an end in itself.
Is there advice you would give to students who are interested in this field or the type of work you’re doing now?
Don’t be afraid of change, your interests will continue to evolve over time. Look at your PhD program as a time in your life to discover what you like doing and work with your advisor through that process, as they should guide you in making the most out of your career.
Your goal in academia is to publish papers and advance knowledge, while you may not necessarily implement them right away, and that’s ok. If you choose the industry path, your focus will be on the application itself. The optimal mathematical solution may need a 20-fold simplification so that you can enable the rest of the team to be part of it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I do want to acknowledge the fact that Northeastern did an incredible job bringing professors from other universities and building great research programs, and not just in network science.
It’s incredible. I do think that I was very lucky to be part of Northeastern because that sort of environment so focused on research is very, very important. I really loved it.