Changing the Culture

Harvard's new and innovative stem cell concentration focuses on the humanity behind the research to create classes that are anything but standard.

Travis Roy was 20 years old when he started at his first college game, sporting number 24 in the red and white of Boston University. In October of 1995, they were facing off against the University of North Dakota. After a lifetime of preparation,  Roy was ready to play Division I hockey.

Since the tender age of three, Roy had been pushing himself on the ice. His dream was to play college hockey, followed by a career in the NHL and even the Olympics. These were lofty goals, but Roy remained optimistic about his abilities. He referred to playing hockey as his “sixth sense,” something that came to him as naturally as sight and sound. Despite also excelling at tennis, soccer, and lacrosse, Roy considered hockey his game.

His drive and talent didn’t go unnoticed. A nationally-ranked athlete, Roy had been heavily recruited during his senior year and won a scholarship to join the BU Terriers, the defending NCAA champions. But a mere 11 seconds after the referee dropped the puck onto the ice, Roy’s career as an athlete was over.

Lee J. Roy watched from the sidelines as his son’s body flew headfirst into the sideboards of the rink, thrown off balance after another player dodged his body check.  Lee knew he’d raised a resilient kid who picked himself up after falling down, but he realized that something was seriously wrong when the same boy who always kept playing made no attempt to get up after this fall. Travis tried to move, but after cracking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebra during the collision, he was paralyzed from the neck down.

His father ran down to the ice from the stands to see his son. “I’m in big trouble,” Travis managed to say. “I can’t feel anything and my neck is hurting...but Dad, I made it.”

Fifteen years have passed since the accident at BU. Through physical therapy, Roy has recovered the ability to use his right arm. Yet he hasn’t allowed his disability to impede an active lifestyle. He travels the country as an inspirational speaker, promoting the potential rather than the limitations of life. In 1997, he wrote “Eleven Seconds,” an autobiography that documents his journey from the tragic moment on the ice to his new, very different life as a quadriplegic. That same year, he started a foundation that funds research on treating spinal cord injuries and supports patients who don’t have the money to cover medical costs. Since then, he has supported stem cell technology, a promising cure for not only spinal cord injuries, but a wide array of problems ranging from cancer to heart disease.


This year, Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (HDRB) attracted just under 50 sophomores for its inaugural class of concentrators. The emergence of this concentration is the latest in a wider effort by the University to bring stem cell research to the forefront. It began six years ago when Professor Douglas A. Melton, while surveying the field of stem cell research, realized that bringing together some of the best minds in the subject would remove many of the barriers to collaboration. Thus, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) was founded. What began as committee meetings in the Holyoke Center evolved into a comprehensive team of scientists, now established at local research insitutions such as Massachusetts General Hospital and Joslin Diabetes Center.

A few years later, Melton helped form the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology another angle to studying the life sciences. Classes were offered that focused on the growth of human beings and the role that stem cells could play in helping treat diseases and injuries. It was during this time that talk began of a new concentration.

There was interest from the students in SCRB classes as well as the HSCI researchers who were teaching the SCRB classes. Melton and his colleague Kevin C. Eggan, a recent Biology Ph.D. from MIT, started laying the groundwork. After a proposal submission and several rounds of administrative examination, the HDRB concentration was born—the eighth to be added to a growing number of specialized fields in studying biology.

Melton, now a concentration advisor with Eggan, says one crucial principle guided the decisions when crafting a curriculum that was unique to HDRB. “There was an increasing recognition that students are quite interested in the human being, less interested in just studying model organisms,” he says.


Early on in the new fall course SCRB 180: “Repair and Regeneration in the Mammalian Brain,” Travis Roy came to the Biolabs to talk about hockey, his accident, and coping with the aftermath. As one of 250,000 Americans living with spinal cord injuries, Roy told the students that he could someday be treated by developments in the same field studied in the course.

Professor Jeffrey D. Macklis, who co-teaches SCRB 180 with Professor Paola Arlotta has been working for the past 15 years on the development and regeneration of neurons and brain circuitry in mice. He has also received significant grant money from the Travis Roy Foundation for his research (the two have become good friends).

His lab studies the molecular controls over the development of different kinds of neurons—cells that comprise the nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord—and figures out how to stimulate the growth of these neurons in the brain with already-present progenitor (“stem”) cells.  In specifically examining motor neurons that connect the brain to the spinal cord, Macklis aims to grow new neurons in damaged or malfunctioning parts of the brain and reactivating the controls and skills those parts once had. But despite their own expertise, Macklis and Arlotta invited Roy as a speaker to demonstrate the human side of stem cell science, while allowing Macklis to derive with the class what cells and circuits are injured and in need of repair.