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Harvard Thinks Big About Drugs, Brains, and Hip-Hop

Nicco Mele speaks at the fifth annual rendition of Harvard Thinks Big on Wednesday evening. Six University professors spoke in the TED-styled event, with topics ranging from neurobiology to the implications of HarvardX.
Nicco Mele speaks at the fifth annual rendition of Harvard Thinks Big on Wednesday evening. Six University professors spoke in the TED-styled event, with topics ranging from neurobiology to the implications of HarvardX.
By Mariel A. Klein, Crimson Staff Writer

Nicco Mele speaks at the fifth annual rendition of Harvard Thinks Big on Wednesday evening. Six University professors spoke in the TED-styled event, with topics ranging from neurobiology to the implications of HarvardX.
Nicco Mele speaks at the fifth annual rendition of Harvard Thinks Big on Wednesday evening. Six University professors spoke in the TED-styled event, with topics ranging from neurobiology to the implications of HarvardX. By Y. Kit Wu

On Wednesday night, students filled Sanders Theatre for the fifth annual Harvard Thinks Big, a collection of short presentations from six professors speaking about academic ventures ranging from online classes to hip-hop.

“It was really inspiring,” Elaine Y. Dai ’17 said. “I was always wondering why Harvard doesn’t have TED talks, so I thought this was a really great version of that.”

The program, featuring ten-minute presentations by each professor, began with an introduction by Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister, who praised the initiative for bringing to the forefront “some of the innovation and thinking that is going on around us.”

In a presentation that elicited both laughs and murmurs of surprise from the audience, Economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron advocated the legalization of all drugs.

“I thought it was provocative, well thought-out, and a bit unrealistic,” Eric J. Hollenberg ’17 said.

Miron challenged the view that it makes sense to systematically eliminate drug use and argued that the current U.S. policy of prohibiting drug use is both costly and ineffective, estimating that the government spends $50 billion on drug prohibition and that the U.S. government is missing out on another $50 billion because it does not tax the underground drug trade.

“People go to great lengths despite all of the risk to use drugs because they seem to think it makes them better off,” Miron said. “In my opinion policy should accept that.”

In another presentation, education professor Katherine K. Merseth encouraged students to consider a career in teaching.

“The main influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher and the teaching,” Merseth said. “It’s not just the academic achievement, it’s the well-being of human beings.”

At the end of her speech, nearly half of the audience stood up when Merseth asked which students plan to teach later in life, a moment student emcee Pilar I. Fitzgerald ’15 called “inspiring."

Other presenters included biology professor Robert A. Lue who facilitates HarvardX, Harvard’s division of edX, a web platform that offers free interactive classes from top universities. Lue emphasized the ways in which online education can have a broader impact on the world by transforming publishing, cities and communities, private enterprise, public media, and more.

We have the opportunity to take what Harvard does and share it more broadly with the world,” Lue said.

Public policy professor Nicco Mele discussed the ways in which evolving technology is creating a generation of “people with all of this power in their pockets” by pushing power from institutions to individuals.

“[Mele’s speech] makes us think hard about the impact of our technological advances,” Dai said.

Biology professor Jeff W. Lichtman, a self-proclaimed “savant” who has studied the wiring of the brain for over 30 years, enlightened the audience about “brain pruning”—the process in which human infants gradually lose brain synapses as their brains become more specialized.

“The way you get to be a very smart adult is by changing the wiring in your brain,” Lichtman said.

Linguistic anthropologist and and hip-hop expert Marcyliena Morgan reflected on the journey that led her to study hip-hop and explained common themes in the genre, including dreams and imagination.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at marielklein@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.

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