Harvard’s 8 Hottest Brainiacs

Debra T. Auguste

Although Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Debra T. Auguste was not directly involved with the creation of the new Life Sciences curriculum at Harvard, she is in many ways a living example of breakthroughs that can be gained from multidisciplinary research. Auguste’s research focuses on better understanding the biology of stem cells and interfacing this knowledge with tissue engineering to improve drug delivery and to better understand diseases.

“A lot of our research is at the cusp of a lot of types of modern disciplines,” Auguste says, mentioning that her research integrates fields like cellular and molecular biology, polymer chemistry, material science, and molecular modeling.

Auguste creates micro-environments in her lab that simulate bodily conditions in an attempt to better grasp the way that diseases such as cancer and diabetes affect human cells and tissue. Her work is focused on two specific areas—drug delivery and stem cell differentiation.

As the only engineer who works on using stem cells for clinical approaches at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Auguste’s expertise in biomaterials is often in high demand since what she does is new to the engineering division at Harvard.

Although there has been much controversy surrounding the use of human embryonic stem cells for research, Auguste maintains that the cells are only being used for medically relevant approaches to find cures for diseases, and that the cells are used “respectfully.”

Auguste was trained as a chemical engineer at MIT. But after she completed her doctoral research in drug delivery she began to see the way that engineering could lend important insights into stem cell research.

“I found there was a synergy between drug delivery and stem cell differentiation because a lot of differentiation has to do with cycling and spatial cues,” Auguste recalls.

A native of south Florida, Auguste says she misses the warm beaches of home but still finds beauty in Boston and considers Harvard an especially stimulating place to conduct her research.

“Harvard has so many resources. There really is no other limit to research here other than time,” Auguste says. She hopes to continue working on these projects for a modest 30 to 40 years.

David Charbonneau

Assistant Professor of Astronomy David Charbonneau’s personal Web site features a quote from Vincent Van Gogh and a list of bands named after stars.

Although the popular professor of the core class Science A-47, “Cosmic Connections,” has a sense of humor about his chosen field of expertise, he is nothing but serious when it comes to discussing his work.

“What we’re trying to do is find planets around stars. The idea is that we really are the first generation that’s going to have the ability to go and search for whether or not life is common throughout the galaxy,” Charbonneau explains in a phone interview from Hawaii, where he is attending an astronomy conference.

He acknowledges that one of the perks of his area of expertise is the traveling. “Our labs tend to be these rather dramatic locations on tops of mountains that are far away from people,” he says.

Charbonneau searches for extrasolar planets by looking for signs of planets crossing in front of stars outside our solar system. Through a series of NASA-funded telescopes located in southern California that monitor 10,000 stars at a time, Charbonneau and his researchers scour the data, measuring the brightness of the stars. If a star is dark, it could be due to an eclipse from a planet in orbit around it.

In 2001, Charbonneau and his team studied one such transiting planet with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and detected its atmosphere, marking the first discovery of the kind.

Charbonneau hopes to continue to expand upon his discoveries by studying the atmosphere of other newly discovered planets and by building an array of telescopes in southern Arizona that would survey dwarf stars that may have Earth-like planets orbiting around them.

He remains optimistic about future findings.

“If it was easy it probably wouldn’t be as exciting when it does happen,” he says.

Roland G. Fryer

“I thought if we made you a nice offer you’d come,” said former University President Lawrence H. Summers. Roland G. Fryer, then a 25-year-old then-graduate student, says he was still considering the offer when Summers, in his trademark gruff style, barked, “Well, what are you waiting for?” Fryer decided to take the offer.

At Harvard, Fryer, who is an associate professor of economics, has set up what he calls the “American Inequality Lab,” which is “a place to pull together all of the stuff I’ve done since graduate school.” He explains that while many academics study conditions in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and around the world, few scholars devote their time to studying poverty issues in America.

“We don’t have that many people in the academy that realize that we have developing country conditions in our own backyard. Have you been to Detroit lately? It’s not nice.”

To that end, Fryer’s lab has been studying problems as varied as whether or not names associated with African-Americans put black employees at a disadvantage in the workplace and how to give incentives for kids in poor schools to do well on achievement tests.

Many of these experiments are actually being performed in Boston, which Fryer says gives the projects a special relevance to Harvard. The main goal in every project is to focus on inequality in a scientific way, divorcing the data from its controversial racial implications in order to objectively analyze it.

Right now, Fryer is working on a project where students from disadvantaged backgrounds are randomly selected to receive SAT classes in order to determine to what extent high standardized test scores are correlated with preparation opportunities.

Fryer’s lab has garnered a lot of press in publications like Esquire, BusinessWeek, and The New York Times, but he maintains that the project would not be as successful if it weren’t for the graduate and undergraduate students who help him.

“The undergraduates are just a special breed of something—smart, hardworking, Red Bull-popping,” Fryer jokes. “I don’t like to admit how much I learn from my undergraduates. My discoveries are at chalkboards with undergraduates.”

Fryer’s work ethic has impressed his colleagues, and he remains unfailingly modest about the wide scope of his research, saying he only wants to do this job well.

But there is one area where Fryer’s modesty breaks down.

“In my spare time I’m beating my undergraduates in X-box,” he says. “I have a storied reputation around campus.”

Bret A. Johnson

It could be a worrisome thing, winning too many awards as a young writer.

Yet Bret A. Johnston, Briggs Copeland lecturer on English and American literature and language and the director of the creative writing program, says he was not too concerned when he won a 2006 National Book Foundation award for writers under 35. Johnston says that he was only worried that the committee would realize they made a mistake and retract the award.

“I still worry about this, so I’ve preemptively buried the award itself somewhere in Harvard Yard. If they want to take it back, they’ll have to find it, and I’m not talking,” he writes in an e-mail.

Johnston is the author of the acclaimed short fiction collection “Corpus Christi.” He has another book to be published shortly by Random House that he says deals partly with a violin prodigy who has lost his gift and partly with a single mother who is helping to raise a stranded baby whale.

Before becoming an author, Johnston was a professional skateboarder.

“I was more interested in poetry when I was seriously skateboarding but it turned out I’m a really horrible poet,” Johnston recalls.

Once he quit the circuit, he turned to fiction writing and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“My best experience [at the workshop] is the experience that I kind of try to replicate for my students, which is to have my work taken seriously. Ours is not a culture where writing and literature is taken very seriously,” he says. “So for three or four hours a week to have 10 or 12 people to talk about fictitious characters you’ve created is great.”

Johnston teaches advanced fiction writing courses and says that he continues to draw inspiration from the students he teaches due to their passion and their bravery in sharing their work in class. He works to create an environment where students feel comfortable sharing their pieces and offering up their suggestions, although he says he refrains from sharing his work with students.

Johnston says he plans on staying at Harvard as long as he is allowed to be here, citing the students as his favorite part of the experience.

“Teaching isn’t something that utterly exhausts me,” he says. “It makes me want to go home and write and go home and read.”

Robin E. Kelsey

“I’m a lousy photographer. My wife tends to take most of the photographs of the kids,” Robin E. Kelsey, who specializes in the history of photography and American art, says with a laugh. Kelsey, the Loeb associate professor of the humanities, admits that he’s had to try his hand at photography recently though—his wife just gave birth to their second daughter and couldn’t be bothered to point and click.

Despite his professed inability to get a good shot, Kelsey’s academic career has focused on the history of photography and the myriad problems of reading and understanding photographs throughout history.

He recently finished a book that will be out in a few weeks on the geographical survey photographs of legendary Civil War photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, arguing that the experimental nature of these surveys influenced O’Sullivan’s surprising modernist aesthetic. Currently, he is focusing on a book about the role that chance has historically played in photography.

“When photography was invented it was recognized that chance played a role in the production of photographs that it did not play in the role of other pictures,” Kelsey says. He adds that this issue raises complications about where credit is due for a beautiful photo.

“When one produces a good photograph do you receive credit for that or is it a matter of chance?” he says.

Kelsey, in fact, partially credits chance with his decision to specialize in photography. Although an art history major at Yale, he decided to attend Yale Law School and practiced law in San Francisco for a couple years before pursuing a doctorate in art history at Harvard. As a Ph.D. student, Kelsey originally focused on painting before a conference inspired him to change his field of study to photographic history.

Kelsey says that he is also fascinated by the way photographs have been embedded in American culture. He says that photography “affects lives in a broader range of ways, not only in terms of interest but also the different kinds of values that attach to photographs by virtue of the use of photographs as evidence.”

Kelsey, who won the Roslyn Abramson Award for outstanding undergraduate teaching in 2006, plans to teach a course in the fall on labor and photography and hopes to bring his students to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also hopes to have some good pictures of his new daughter to show by then.

David C. Parkes

For some, “artificial intelligence” calls up images of little green men or a painfully long Steven Spielberg movie. For David C. Parkes, Loeb associate professor of the natural sciences and associate professor of computer science, artificial intelligence has more to do with developing creative solutions to real-world problems than with outer space.

Parkes studies the interplay between economic and computational thinking, specializing in areas like e-commerce.

In actual practice, this means that Parkes and his research group try to figure out ways to simulate real-world situations, such as matching the appropriate advertisements to people who are typing search terms into Google in an attempt to better match supply and demand.

“I’m interested in coordination in systems with self-interest and private information,” Parkes says.

Parkes—who was educated at Oxford—says he was always interested in economics, although as an undergraduate he was extremely restricted in what classes he could take.

It was not until he was at graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania (after turning down Harvard—he says he still has the acceptance letter) that he really was exposed to problems of economics and artificial intelligence.

“That was back in 1995-1996 and then e-commerce exploded and then all of a sudden there were all these real-world applications,” Parkes says. “All of a sudden you had the need for the optimization that we perform in computer science.”

He eventually made it to Harvard despite his earlier rejection of the institution. Parkes says he is constantly amazed at the research that his students do in his classes—he teaches a freshman seminar on electronic transactions, as well as Computer Science 182, “Intelligent Machines: Reasoning, Actions, and Plans” on artificial intelligence, among others. He also advised two senior theses that won Hoopes prizes this year.

When not making it safe for airplanes to land (an optimization problem that Parkes worked on with the Federal Aviation Administration), Parkes admits he is a bit of a “foodie,” noting he loves Indian food.

Parkes is up for tenure in the fall, and if all goes well, he says, he will continue to work on his current research, arguing that it is the real-world applicability of his work that makes the merger between computer science and economics so necessary.

“Most of the work I do is really driven by trying to make the world better,” Parkes says.

Parimal Patil

Parimal G. Patil is committed to looking for religion in “all the wrong places.” Patil, assistant professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies and of the study of religion, studies stylized poetry and logic texts in his quest to uncover the intellectual, philosophical, and religious roots of contemporary South Asian religions.

“One of the motivating factors is that I think that we’ve pretty much got the history of religion in South Asia wrong,” Patil says.

His goal is to take classical Sanskrit literary and religious texts and place them back in their historical contexts. In analyzing these works using rigorous theoretical frameworks, Patil hopes that the materials will come alive, existing as more than just artifacts from someone else’s intellectual past.

Patil says he didn’t have the “guts” to pursue a career in the humanities, so he first majored in biochemistry and philosophy as an undergraduate. It was only a few years after he graduated college, and after he took a Sanskrit course at Harvard, that he decided he really ought to pursue his first choice.

Once he made his decision, Patil studied Sanskrit at Harvard until he exhausted all of the courses available to him. He then went to the University of Chicago to finish his doctorate. In addition to his university studies, Patil spent summers traveling to India to learn the classical texts in the traditional way. This meant going to the house of a trained teacher each day and examining a text in depth, line by line. Many of his teachers only spoke to him in Sanskrit.

“It’s an amazing thing to see people who just knew the material so well. They were scholars on the one hand yet they also lived with this material and lived for this material. And that made it come alive for me in a way that it just hadn’t before,” he says.

Now at Harvard, Patil has made it his mission to research both on small and large scales. He studies the last two Buddhist scholars who wrote in Sanskrit in India, and also attempts to recover large parts of ignored South Asian intellectual history.

Patil says that most people in South Asia, including university professors, have not heard of the classical intellectuals who wrote in ancient Sanskrit.

“Part of the challenge is to recover these intellectual resources with the expectation that if this kind of work was important to them for almost two millennium, surely there’s something that ought to be of value for us in it, too,” he says.

Jeremy Rau

Assistant Professor of the Classics and Linguistics Jeremy Rau has a hard time remembering his hobbies.

Not that he doesn’t have them—in an interview he confesses to an interest in art history and says he plans to run a marathon in the fall. He just finds it hard to recall how he spends his spare time, since he does not have much of it.

He is too busy traveling around the globe (with trips to Oslo, Berlin, and Kyoto on the schedule for this summer) discussing the minutiae of languages that haven’t been spoken in over four thousand years.

Rau bridges the gap between classics and linguistics at Harvard with a joint appointment in both departments. He breaks his academic interests into three areas, although he says it’s “hard to explain” his abstract field of study.

His primary interest is in comparative historical linguistics with a focus on the Proto-Indo-European language. The language was probably spoken somewhere in central Asia around 4000 B.C. and there is no proof of it in the written record, although linguists have reconstructed all aspects of its grammar by looking at languages that descended from this proto-language. Rau then uses this knowledge to study the history of the Greek and Latin languages, which are just two of the languages that descend from the Indo-European. He is the only faculty member with a core interest in this area, which he describes as “wonderful stuff, but highly obscure!”

Rau’s more accessible work centers around analyzing Homeric language in an attempt to better date the oral histories that are recorded in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

Despite the remoteness of Rau’s studies from the mainstream, he insists that the study of ancient languages yields more than just insight on morphological changes over time.

“It’s a wonderful thing to do because to do it you have to learn all of these ancient and modern languages and when you do that you have to learn things about the cultures that go along with the languages,” Rau says.

-Staff writer Kimberly E. Gittleson can be reached at

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