FM chooses the 15 professors you absolutely must meet this year.
FM chooses the 15 professors you absolutely must meet this year. By FM Staff

Fifteen Professors to Meet

Fifteen Minutes presents the groundbreaking, award-winning, thought-provoking, book-publishing minds that are keeping things on campus interesting.
By FM Staff

Roland Fryer

By Emma K. Talkoff

Professor Roland Fryer is a man with little time.

He rose this morning well before the sun—at 3 a.m., in fact—and will work past 11 p.m. this evening, if need be. Our phone interview is conducted in what is apparently a rare moment of rest, a few minutes snatched out of the day as his New York-bound flight sits on the tarmac, preparing to launch.

If Fryer is hard to reach, it’s because he’s been busy with tackling some of the most complex and controversial issues of the day: Fryer studies the economics and roots of racial inequality, a sharp and complex set of issues, which serve as constant background to his his own meteoric rise and success in academia.

“When I first got to Harvard, people would ask me, ‘How does it feel to be here?’” he says. “I always thought that was a silly question, because sometimes it feels great, sometimes it feels terrible, because there’s a lot of people left behind.”

“And the question is not how do I feel, the question is how do we change the odds for the rest of the folks. Everything I’ve been working on has been about leveling the playing field.”

Fryer’s work has sent him criss-crossing the country, conducting studies in low-income schools and proposing solutions to the inequalities in education which he sees as the “key” to racial inequality. In addition to studying student incentives and other factors of achievement, Fryer proposed the seminal theory that African-American students may fall through the achievement gap for fear of “acting white”—the social pressures and the threat of ostracization that can plague African-American students, especially in low income communities.

In April, Fryer recieved the John Bates Clark Medal, a prestigious award bestowed on a top economist under forty by the American Economics Association. He was the first African-American to recieve the honor. Breaking this kind of ground is nothing new for Fryer. In 2008, he became the youngest African-American professor to receive tenure at Harvard and founded Harvard’s EdLabs, a think tank devoted to studying the kinds of problems Fryer has built his career on.

Despite these unquestionably laudable achievements, Fryer’s sensibility is one of overwhelming humbleness. When I ask him what he personally sees as his greatest achievement, he pauses for a long time.

“I don’t think there’s any way to answer that without sounding arrogant,” he finally says. “But I think for me personally, the thing I am most proud of is not losing who I am.”

For Fryer, work on race inequality has a personal dimension, which fuels his intense work ethic. Usually, says Fryer, “there’s a wide gulf” between economists and the disadvantaged communities they study, but Fryer has experienced the inequalities he studies first-hand, something that motivates his work.

“When you really, really care about the problem, you become impatient, you become passionate about making sure kids have opportunities.”

“What I want for kids of all races, but particularly of low income, I want them to have that same opportunity that was afforded to me.”

So what’s next for Fryer?

“I’ve had enough controversy in my life, so I think I’m going to be researching police brutality,” he laughs. Fryer spent the summer embedded in police forces in Austin, Texas and Camden, N.J., and hopes to parse the results of his work in the months to come. Like many of the issues surrounding race equality, Fryer has found a complexity in this field which he hopes to tackle. “The issues are far more subtle than we give them any credit,” he says.

Pardis Sabeti

By Henry S.U. Shah

By Courtesy of Pardis Sabeti

She’s a Time Magazine Person of the Year, earning the honor for her lab’s critical work in sourcing the Ebola virus. Some think she’s hot on the trail of a cure for malaria. She’s a former Rhodes Scholar. She played competitive tennis throughout her childhood and into college. She’s “most looking forward” to taking selfies with the students during one of her “favorite things in the world,” the spring semester of LS1b. She’s developed a network of labs to work on Lassa virus and other infectious diseases in some of the riskiest locations in the world.

Meet Pardis C. Sabeti, associate professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and frontwoman for Thousand Days, a band she and her friends founded in medical school.

No, she’s not a superhero.

FM’s midnight email to Sabeti was met with a prompt automated response that Sabeti had suffered “a vehicular accident.” Nevertheless, she fired back a cheery email eight hours later to set up an interview.

Sabeti spoke to FM from a hospital bed. She hasn’t walked since July 17th, when she was thrown from an ATV, over a cliff and into a boulder, during an excursion at a Montana conference. She is already joking about her injuries—a shattered pelvis and two broken legs.

“It’s a piece of art; I have 30 rods in my pelvis,” she told FM, later sending an x-ray to prove it. Sabeti is busy rehabbing and is dead-set on teaching in the spring.

“Part of the reason I gotta rehab is so I can run around like a crazy person with those freshmen. Or roll around like a crazy person.”

Stephen Burt

By Ramsey C. Fahs

The nameplates of the Barker Center offices are nothing if not tasteful. Elegant serif eggshell-white script on a crimson background traces out the names of the distinguished professors: “Amanda Claybaugh,” “Louis Menand,” “Stephen Greenblatt.”

Stephen L. Burt ’94 opted for something a little different. A piece of printer paper taped over the office tag has “Stephen Burt” scrawled in what I can only assume was Magic Marker. I couldn’t tell if it was written by him or one of his children.

His office’s interior is similarly non-traditional. Burt works in a post-avalanche snowdrift of books poking out from under the couch and lying in stacks on shelves. Posters from conferences, more artwork from his children (my favorite piece was a poster for the “National Symphony Orchestra of SLUGS and SNAILS”), and some stuffed animals reflect the many hats he wears: Professor, Poet, Critic, and Parent.

For all the stereotypes of poetry professors, he’s refreshingly unequivocal. On the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet who recently submitted a previously unsuccessful poem under the name Yi-Fen Chou and was subsequently published, Burt said: “When somebody does something dick-ish and gets a lot of’s a little depressing because you want people who didn’t do anything dick-ish and made interesting art to get attention and instead it’s going to this dude. But, if you ask, ‘Why did that get a lot of attention? Why did people care so much?’ The answers can tell you something interesting about the art form.”

An avid user of Twitter, Burt enjoys it for its low barriers to entry into poetry discussions.

Burt, who regularly wears traditionally female clothing at poetry readings and as often as not will introduce himself as “Stephanie,” also uses Twitter to keep up with BGLTQ activism, especially concerning gender issues.

His semi-obsessive energy is infectious, and he’s a champion of the cause of literary forms traditionally ignored by academia (another thing he loves using Twitter for), having taught a graphic novel course over the summer. While we talked he periodically checked how enrollment for his Science Fiction course was shaping up.

Yet, for all his stylistic eccentricities, he’s surprisingly traditional. He believes there is a canon of “World Masterworks” that everyone should read (“Middlemarch is great, everybody ought to read it…and I wouldn’t say that about just any 800-page novel”), and his ultimate feeling about what the study of literature should be could’ve come from the mouth of a Claybaugh or a Menand:

“I really strongly believe in the exercise of aesthetic judgment. I...think we should be able to give reasons we think something is good and reasons we think something is bad. And that’s part of what English should do.”

Ultimately, he’s a lot like his own office’s name card: a spiky aquamarine script taped over a classic crimson and white typeface.

Alison Frank Johnson

By Nathan A. Cummings

Growing up as a teenager in Washington, D.C., History professor Alison Frank Johnson recalled finding inspiration for her studies from an unorthodox source: The Police. Or rather, Sting’s first solo album, namely the anti-Cold War track “Russians,” which advocated for understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“It is so pathetic to cite this,” she laughs, “but when you’re 13 and Sting is singing to you ‘Don’t the Russians love their children too?’ I was like, of course they do.”

It may sound silly to Johnson, but I think she’s on to something. History, after all, involves the study of faraway cultures and people—in her case, branching out from Central Europe and encompassing subjects from the Habsburg Empire to the global exchange of commodities in the 19th century.

“When you’re teaching history,” she explains, “you’re trying to help people think about a world that is profoundly different from their own. And to develop a sense of empathy, even, for people who are not obviously like they are.”

For Johnson, this need for empathy extends outside the classroom. In 2014, amidst intense criticism directed toward Harvard’s Title IX policies on campus sexual assault, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith asked her to serve as chair of a new committee to address these issues.

As part of her job, Johnson served as a liaison to the student body, engaging with students through panel discussions. Many of these brought her face to face with students angry and disappointed by Harvard’s prior policies on sexual harassment.

“The first graduate student meeting was really hard,” she says. “You can’t just say to somebody, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got a really good policy and we’ve got really good people to implement it, if they believe that we don’t mean it.”

She leans forward. “It’s not enough to have resources. You also have to establish trust. Which is hard in cases where you have lost it.”

Despite this early challenge, Johnson describes her overall experience on the committee as profoundly positive.

“I wanted to come as close as possible to meeting every person at Harvard in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” she says. “The more people knew, the less our conversations were colored by anxiety and fear, and the more we could focus on the really difficult questions we had to answer.”

Having stepped back from her efforts as committee chair, Johnson is still awaiting the long-term results of her work with Harvard’s Title IX policy.

“It’s like publishing a book,” she says. “You don’t get to decide what it says after it gets published.”

When asked if she would serve on a committee like this again, however, she does not hesitate.

“Of course I would,” she says. “A community only functions when people do community service. Deans don’t make committees for fun; they make them because there’s a pressing need. And if there’s a pressing need, and the dean asks me to serve, then I’ll serve.”

Stephen J. Elledge

By Laura E. Hatt

“I’m interested in lots of different aspects of biology. I’ll study anything,” says Stephen J. Elledge, leaning slightly forward in his chair.

It’s a gray Sunday afternoon on Harvard Medical School’s Longwood campus, and Elledge’s sleek genetics lab is appropriately deserted. The exception is a lone geneticist, a serious bearded man in his late 50s, who looks patient and teacherly as he explains a series of complicated scientific concepts.

In the last several decades, Elledge has tried his hand in a variety of fields. “When I started my career, I was doing much more basic research. I worked on yeast; I worked on e. coli,” he says. “I decided when I went to Harvard that I would do things that were more translational, that might have an impact on human health.”

In that spirit, much of the work Elledge has done since his move to the Harvard Medical School in 2003 has targeted sources of human suffering–and much of that research has been rooted in DNA. “The thing that I’m most known for is understanding…when cells have a problem replicating chromosomes, and what they do about it,” he summarizes.

In particular, he has spent a great deal of time studying the genetics of cancer. “Everyone focuses on [genes called driver mutations], because you can understand when a single gene drives cancer,” he explains. “But, there are a lot of other changes. They have the wrong number of chromosomes, and the wrong number of chromosome arms. We were able to build a mathematical model that predicts how frequently you would see certain types of chromosome changes, based on the genes that are on those chromosomes. And that’s been a really decisive conceptual breakthrough.”

In addition to cancer research, Elledge has spent time studying a number of viruses, including HIV, Hepatitis C, and influenza. He’s also explored immunology. “I don’t know that much about immunology. It’s a very complicated field, but I’ll work in it. I think sometimes it helps if you come in with a completely different angle. You don’t have all the preconceived notions.”

Of course, despite the modesty, Elledge is anything but new to science. Earlier this month, he received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for his work in DNA repair. The Lasker Award is one of the world’s most prestigious science honors, and its honorees so often go on to Nobel recognition that it has become known as “America’s Nobel.”

When asked about next steps, Elledge is energetic. “I’m going to work on a lot of things. I’ll be working on cancer, and autoimmunity, and ageing.” He does not see recent success as an excuse to slow down. “I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I want to keep doing science. Pedal to the metal.”

Jill Abramson

By Emily B. Zauzmer

It must be a little intimidating to be a student in “Introduction to Journalism.” When pupils submit their narrative articles, they are not handing over their work to just any old professor. They are opening themselves up to critique from Jill Abramson ’76.

That sounds just about as daunting—but also as exciting—as asking Claude Monet to give you pointers on your painting or bugging Henry Ford to tune up your car. After all, Abramson is a master of the craft that she teaches at Harvard.

After rising through the journalism ranks at TIME, The American Lawyer, Legal Times, and The Wall Street Journal, Abramson arrived at the New York Times in 1997. Over the subsequent 17 years, she ascended from Washington bureau chief to managing editor to executive editor. Along the way, she broke down gender barriers as the first woman to hold each of those positions.

Though she was controversially ousted as executive editor in 2014, Abramson has many fond memories of the triumphs and challenges that she experienced at the New York Times. “Every day that I worked at the Times I loved,” Abramson says. “It was an opportunity to work with the best journalists in the world and to brainstorm with them about the ways to approach stories and cover major events in the world.”

She cites the 2000 presidential election, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the 2008 presidential election as news stories that stand out from her time in the newsroom. In her office at the Barker Center, Abramson has framed a picture of New Yorkers waiting in line to buy a copy of the edition touting President Barack Obama’s first victory.

During her tenure at the New York Times, Abramson presided over not only hard-hitting news coverage, but also a rapidly changing industry.

“The Times went from being very focused on the print newspaper…to becoming really a digital-first operation by the time I was executive editor,” Abramson recalls. The role of women at the Times also shifted during the employment of—and perhaps because of—Abramson. Referencing a Neiman Foundation article, Abramson comments, “There’s still a lot of work to be done to see women particularly at the very top of news organizations. There are some but not many.”

In 2014, Abramson packed her bags and came to Harvard. Each semester, she accepts a dozen students from a pool of applicants to take “Introduction to Journalism.”

“I hope [my students] become more acute readers of journalism,” Abramson reflects,

“and are more aware of what standards of quality journalism should be and why sometimes journalism runs afoul of those high quality standards.”

Outside of class, Abramson maintains a busy schedule. “I’m actually working on a book about all of the changes in the news industry and what it means for quality journalism,” she shares. In addition, Abramson serves on the advisory board of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, speaks at journalism conferences, and writes book reviews. Her daughter and son-in-law, Cornelia Griggs ’05 and Robert Goldstone, are expecting a baby—Abramson’s first grandchild—very soon.

As she settles in for her second year as a Harvard teacher, Abramson feels happy about her return to the institution that she first entered in 1972. “It’s like a dream for me to be back here teaching and trying to share with such bright students and such great student writers my passion for well-told stories,” she says. “I look forward to my class every week. Today I’m a little nervous because it’s the first one.”

Robert Lue

By Lauren E. Grobaty

Bold, bright letters posted opposite Robert A. Lue’s desk read,“Hell Yeah!” Lue, a molecular and cellular biology professor, says that they’re meant as inspiration. “That’s my approach to life,” Lue explains.

Lue says that he approaches pedagogy with a willingness to experiment. “If you have an idea, try it out and see what happens,” he says. Lue teaches Life Science 1a, Molecular and Cellular Biology 64: “Exploring the Brain,” and a Harvard Summer School in Paris course called “Biology and the Evolution of Paris as a Smart City.” In those classes, he attempts to combine interdisciplinary learning with hands-on teaching.

His courses, he says “are tremendous experiments.”

Designing MCB 64, Lue hoped that his students could examine the individual human experience from a hard-sciences perspective. The course centers around “different stages of someone’s life as a way of understanding how biology impacts them, almost as a human-life-history-case study,” he says.

In Lue’s Harvard Summer School course, guest lecturers from Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of Design discussed how students might apply biological principles to urban design and political problems.

A self-described movie buff, Lue often plays remixed movie trailers to introduce new concepts in lecture. “I love the emotion and ‘oomph’ that [trailers] create, so I wanted to remix them in funny ways,” he explains. “They came from a combination of an interest in having punctuation in the course in a particular lecture session, but also just having fun. I love making them.”

Lue’s LS1a study playlist includes Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars,” Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” and Owl City’s “Fireflies.”

Lue first earned teaching experience while completing his Ph.D. in cellular biology at Harvard. As a graduate student, he began to see his role as a teacher as central to his academic career.

“I paralleled my development as a scientist with my development as a teacher,” Lue says. “The same spirit of exploration, experimentation, and discovery that you think about in science is the same that I have in teaching and learning.”

Lue also praised the rise of interdisciplinary, experimental courses elsewhere in Harvard’s undergraduate program. “The Harvard curriculum is really becoming one that is increasingly adventurous and experimental.”

Sven Beckert

By Lena K. Felton

Laird Bell Professor of History Sven Beckert is a tall man—so tall that he makes the ceiling look two feet too low, so tall that he can reach his office’s highest bookshelves, which are overflowing with colorful hard covers and loose white papers.

Today, he is a little frazzled because he has a class to teach on global capitalism at Harvard Business School in 30 minutes. He ushers me into his Robinson Hall office and starts speaking loudly and excitedly and in a German accent. He’s honored to be one of FM’s 15 featured professors, he assures me.

When we sit down to talk, he begins at the very beginning. “This sounds very strange,” he says, “But I’ve been interested in history forever.”

His interest sprouted from an early skepticism of his history teachers—he didn’t think they were “telling [him] the truth.” So he went to the library, read “a lot of history,” and fell in love with the subject on his own terms. The first history book he ever wrote, one about Nazi Germany, was published before he went off to university.

But Beckert isn’t internationally renowned for his height or his animated manner of speaking or even for that book he wrote in high school. He’s known for another book, one published in 2014. It’s called “The Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” and it is quite a big deal—it recently won the Bancroft Prize, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and is being translated into 10 different languages.

Beckert’s research focuses on American economic history, but “The Empire of Cotton,” which took 10 years to write, became a global story. He started by looking at the historical implications of this 18th century American commodity—cotton—and followed it. It led him to all over the world, from Argentina to Senegal to India.

“It became so much bigger and so much more complicated than I had envisioned in the beginning,” Beckert tells me. But once he started stringing together a story, it seemed “totally impossible” to keep his research within the borders of the United States.

Beckert explains that history is usually taught in a nation-centric way—American history, Chinese history, French history. Global history is a relatively new approach. “Often in academia, people have these debates about what’s the best way to do something, but I didn’t really want to participate in that debate,” he says. “I wanted to do it.”

At the College, Beckert teaches classes that similarly look at the bigger picture. “History of American Capitalism” is his favorite to teach, partly because it is so interdisciplinary. And although Beckert’s been getting lots of airtime for “The Empire of Cotton,” he “really love[s] to teach,” he says, and allows his teaching to shape his research and vice versa.

“You know, if I weren’t teaching, I might’ve written the book in half the time,” he admits. “But maybe then it wouldn’t have been as good of a book.”

Joshua Greene

By Yehong Zhu

Joshua Greene ’97 greets me in his office on the 14th floor of William James Hall, home to a standing desk, a stack of books, and a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Cambridge. He is warm and inviting, with sharp bluish-green eyes, a calico beard, a mop of curly brown hair, and a penchant for good conversation.

I catch Greene right before he’s about to leave for sabbatical. He’s traveling to Utrecht and bringing with him a stack of books about four feet high—his reading list, he tells me. “There’s no grand agenda. I’m mostly looking to do some more reading and thinking about new topics.”

Greene is fascinated by the intersection of philosophy and science. “In some ways, the divisions are artificial,” he says, describing the unique humanistic perspective from which he sees the world. “What we now call science used to be a branch of natural philosophy, and that kind of captures what I’m trying to do—I’m starting with questions that come from philosophy’s long history, but trying to use scientific tools to answer them.”

Greene is unusual in the Psychology department because of his background. He was an undergraduate philosophy concentrator at Harvard before he went to Princeton for his Ph.D. in philosophy. Wanting to combine his interests in philosophy and neuroscience, he pitched an idea of using brain imaging to try to understand moral dilemmas—and subsequently launched a groundbreaking study into the underlying causes of human motivation, all without a formal scientific degree. He eventually synthesized his ideas in a book called “Moral Tribes,” which “summarizes most of what I’ve been doing for the last 10-15 years.”

As a raved-about professor who has taught SLS20 and “Social Psychology”—and will be teaching a new seminar in the spring—he describes his passion for teaching as a pursuit of that “Eureka” moment. “With teaching, there are moments when you are building up to make a point, and you finally make that point, and you see everyone in the room go ‘ahhhhh.’ I just helped 200 people get something all at once! There’s nothing else like that in ordinary life.”

Greene’s philosophy for life is intertwined with his natural curiosity for the world: “What are the biggest, most interesting questions that there are? Of those, which have already been answered, which can never be answered, which seem answerable, and which could I, with all the tools at my disposal, make progress on?”

Noam D. Elkies

By Maia R. Silber

When math professor Noam D. Elkies explains Chebyshev’s theorem, he turns away from the chalkboard. His hands have skidded over its black surface for the past half hour, filling it, from left to right, with variables, terms, and formulas. This one, he says, might look familiar.

“You’ve dealt with this if you’ve ever been in a math contest,” Elkies explains. The Mathematical Olympiad and other high school competitions often ask students to calculate the number of zeros at the end of a large factorial. The formula for solving that problem also held the key to Chebyshev’s work.

“But they didn’t have those contests back then,” Elkies says, drawing chuckles from the dozen or so students in his upper-level course on analytic number theory. Elkies, who has taught at Harvard since 1990, knows his students well. He also speaks from personal experience. Elkies first earned recognition as the youngest-ever gold-medalist to earn a perfect score at the International Math Olympiads.

By high school, Elkies had long known that he had an affinity for numbers. “Math and music were the languages that I grew up speaking,” he says over lunch in Lowell House. Elkies’s father worked as an engineer and his mother taught piano lessons at their house. He read Euclid at the local library, and began composing music at a young age.

Elkies completed a dual degree in mathematics and music at Columbia, studying the former with a faculty member at the Juilliard School. After seeking advice from Milton Babbitt, a mathematically-trained composer of serial music. Elkies decided to continue his studies in math. He entered Harvard’s Ph.D. program at the age of 19.

At Harvard, Elkies focused his work on number theory, the field that continues to interest him most. There, he also found colleagues and mentors with similar interests. Columbia, according to Elkies, saw fewer students pursuing advanced mathematics.

“Here there was a community of peers and time I didn’t have at Columbia when I was wasting time on these purportedly great books,” he jokes. On his first visit to campus, Elkies told a faculty member about a research project he had begun in high school.

“He made some suggestion, why don’t you just look at the standard deviation of the sums you’re calculating?” Elkies remembers. “And what do you know, his suggestion immediately proved what I had been doing with some complicated integrals.”

In his first year at Harvard, Elkies took an elective course with former College Dean Benedict H. Gross ’71. After the semester ended, Elkies looked back at a theorem he had learned from Gross and realized that it held the solution to a difficult problem in elliptical construction. Using this problem, Elkies was able to prove the theorem.

“I had to work with my 10-digit calculator I had at home,” he remembers. “I called and my adviser told me that this could be my thesis and I could graduate in two years.”

Elkies published his findings, and earned a Harvard College Fellowship. That position enabled him to gain teaching experience, and it also allowed him to live in Lowell House until he earned a full professorship. At the age of 26, Elkies became Harvard’s youngest-ever tenured faculty member.

The professor’s current research builds off paper published by his Harvard colleagues Lucia Caporaso, Joseph D. Harris, and Barry C. Mazur, “Uniformity of Rational Points.” According to Elkies, the range of methodologies within number theory means that conclusions constantly lead to new investigations.

“It’s like the heads of the hydra—you think you’ve slain one and two or three pop up,” he says.

Though he now lives in Central Square, Elkies stays heavily involved in Lowell House life. Elkies plays piano for the Lowell House Opera, rings the Lowell House Bells, and participates in semesterly trivia competitions and chess tournaments. (Elkies is a nationally ranked chess master.) Elkies also accompanied student singers in Lowell’s 2013 Housing Day video, based on the song “Get Low.” The rap reminded Elkies of Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, so he played a fugue that punned on that composer’s name.

Elkies sings a few notes to illustrate. “That was a bit of an amusement.”

Laurence A. Ralph

By Lily C. Sugrue

In a deep, measured voice, Professor Laurence A. Ralph describes how he came upon the topic of his 2014 book “Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago.”

“What I encountered in Chicago,” he explains over the phone, “was a lot of young people who were disabled as a result of gunshot injuries…and I kind of got interested in looking at the gang and the community from their perspective because a lot of people would talk around the issue of disability.”

He began the project as an anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago. Originally intending to go abroad to complete his thesis research on criminal and youth violence, he began working with violence prevention groups around the city and shifted his focus. “When I was telling people about my graduate school experience and my interest in going abroad they were questioning me,” he chuckles, “‘Why you would go abroad when we have those same issues here and we have those same problems here?’” Like much of his work, the book is interdisciplinary, touching on the cross section of anthropology, public health, and urban development.

As the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Ralph teaches in two departments: the Department of Anthropology and the Department of African and African American Studies. His current research focus is on “youth activist groups in Chicago who have become frustrated with the law and are going to international bodies like the UN to kind of seek accountability for police violence in the United States.” Many of his contacts for this project are rooted in relationships he made during his previous research in the city.

Ralph currently teaches four courses at Harvard. His favorite, “Gangsters and Troublesome Populations,” is a large lecture-style course with lots of student involvement. Each week, the class focuses on a different population—ranging from gangsters, to criminals, to terrorists. By assigning ethnographies written from the point of view of these groups, Ralph tries to guide students towards a “new perspective on how the law works and…why people become part of the groups that they become part of.”

When Ralph isn’t researching or teaching, he’s working with the Public Services Committee or traveling. He just returned from Cuba a few weeks ago. “All these opportunities for me as a Harvard faculty member to see the world” are some of his favorite parts about working for the University. “I think it’s great, because that’s one of the things I enjoy doing most,” he says. “Just going to different places, particularly outside of the country and getting a different perspective on the world, and seeing how things are done differently. I think it kind of re-energizes me professionally, but also personally.”

Daniel Schrag

By Joshua A. Goldstein

“I think we are doing a huge experiment on the planet that hasn’t been done for millions of years, and our best evidence suggests that the impact is going to be quite severe—both for humans and for natural ecosystems,” says Daniel P. Schrag, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology.

Schrag, best known around the College for his course, SPU20: The Climate-Energy Challenge, has been interested in the issues and intersection of science and public policy for his entire academic career.

At Yale, Schrag earned a B.S. in geology and geophysics and political science. After college, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where he ended up falling in love with science.

After graduate school, Schrag held a faculty position at Princeton from 1994 to 1997. Schrag describes his transition to Harvard with enthusiasm.

“When I moved to Harvard, it was like a big playground,” he says.

It did not take long for Schrag to combine his interests in science and public policy.

“Right away John Holdren, who was at the Kennedy School and also in Earth and Planetary Science at Harvard—and was, at the time, advising President Clinton on climate issues—he asked me for advice and input. I thought, ‘Wow, here I am doing science but I’m kind of doing what I set out to do in the first place.’”

This year, Schrag has come full circle, spending two days a week at the Kennedy School as the director of a program called Climate, Technology, and Public Policy.

“For me, it’s an incredible formalization of something—an interest I’ve had since college. It’s really very satisfying,” Schrag says.

Throughout all of the science projects he has worked on at Harvard, Schrag has never given up his interest in public policy, focusing not just on the climate or history of the oceans and atmosphere, but also “on what to do about climate change.”

Schrag worked with his most recent Ph.D. student on carbon sequestration, energy technologies to eliminate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and technologies to store it in parts of the earth.

When Schrag is not in the classroom or conducting research, he may be found in Washington working to advise President Barack Obama.

For the last six years he has worked on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The group, called PCAST, has produced more than 25 different reports for the resident and met him more than a dozen times since Schrag has been a part.

While Schrag’s research and Washington role may be impressive, there is nothing more important to him than students. “It’s important to remember that there is no impact that I will have—whether it’s advising President Obama or talking to business leaders—there is impact that I will have that is greater than the impact I have through teaching my students.”

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

By Ben G. Cort

“If your office isn’t messy, you aren’t working,” the late husband of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham once said. If that saying holds true, then it appears that Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor History and of African and African American Studies, has been hard at work for years.

A towering bookshelf dominates one wall of her office, overflowing with literature. The others are crammed full of eye-catching artwork of striking African American figures, and her awards have grown numerous enough to cluster haphazardly on top of a filing cabinet. It doesn’t help that I’ve caught her freshly arrived from Washington, D.C., where she’s just received the National Humanities Award from President Obama. When you’re busy illuminating the stories of thousands of lost voices, I imagine there’s little time to clean.

Though Higginbotham recieved the award (given to leaders in the humanities “whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities”) just last week, it seems as if she was destined to recieve the distinction from birth. Higginbotham grew up with famous and influential historians as close family friends. Her father worked closely with Carter J. Woodson, who is “known as the founder of Black History.” Among his work is the foundation of what we now call Black History Month. Her own family was rich with stories. Her great-grandfather was a former slave who served on the jury of Jefferson David, the former Confederate president, and her great-grandmother founded one of the first post-Civil War orphanages for black children. “I knew as a child that I wanted to be a historian,” she remembers categorically of the time.

“One of the things I’ve done is to recognize the importance of biography,” Higginbotham says of her presence in the field. In her work with University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., she has helped assemble more than 6,000 names in the African American National Biography. “It’s important to recognize not only the names we know about in history, but the ones who are forgotten,” she says of the project. The bibliography grows from there, including, among others, the 1993 Righteous Discontent, and her rewrite of the famous “From Slavery to Freedom” by John Hope Franklin.

Perhaps her greatest addition to the study of history has been her recovery of groups forgotten from the American narrative. “I knew how important it was to tell a story of America, with a sense of the role African Americans had played in it. But it wasn’t until I was in grad school that I recognized I had made an oversight, as did these great historians,” she recalls. “They had left out the women.”

Even with her new presidential distinction, Higginbotham continues to be only humbly aware of the pioneering role she has played in bringing this history to light. “I think of myself as a person who helped to bring a new generation of African American women’s history,” she notes. And this was, she considers, the main reason she was honored by the president last week.

Upon further reflection, however, Higginbotham expanded how she defines herself as a historian. “I’d like to think of myself as someone who always looks to the larger American story. Someone who needs the inclusion of everyone. The American people.”

Gonzalo Giribet

By Bailey M. Trela

Though the exterior of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories is composed of layered concrete, dark and rucked with shadows, the inside of the fifth floor—where Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology Gonzalo Giribet keeps his office—gets a surprising amount of light.

We sit in plush, black, modern chairs girding a glass table on which sits a large blue coffee cup: Giribet’s. At the moment Giribet is in between meetings; he’s only got a few minutes to talk.

Generally speaking, Giribet’s work focuses on invertebrates, or “things without a spine,” as he puts it for me. To clarify even further, Giribet provides a list of illustrative examples: “…centipedes and spiders or daddy long legs, and many marine animals, octopuses, squids, and clams, sponges and coral.” The examples come as they occur to him, in staggered waves, suggesting a mind ever attuned to classification.

Scientifically speaking, his work embraces phylogenomics and biogeography. He’s interested in “when groups originate through geological time, when they diversified, [and] whether their organs or diversification can be linked to special events in the history of the planet.”

But why, specifically, invertebrates? First off, he explains, they’re everywhere, and have existed for a much longer span of time; they have a greater history of interacting with the planet. Secondly, and “from a practical point of view,” he admits with a laugh, “it’s much easier to get permits to collect invertebrates.”

“But that’s a practical side that I had actually never considered,” he continues, “because I’ve always liked invertebrates, since I was a kid.”

As a child, he was always “collecting a lot of shells at the beach, or collecting insects and butterflies,” spending his time outdoors. “And I never dropped it,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to work on those things, and so that’s what I do nowadays.”

But there’s another holdover from his childhood. For the past 30 years, since the age of 12, Giribet has been an avid and successful windsurfer.

“Every year I normally do a couple of the big competitions, whether it’s the World Championships or the European championships,” he explains. Unfortunately, because of knee surgery and a busy schedule, this year Giribet has only managed to attend two small competitions.

At the moment, some of his best friends are in Spain competing in the European Championship. Meanwhile—when he can remove himself from his taxonomical studies—Giribet maintains a regimen of training. “I do want to prepare myself,” he says, before tacking on the addendum that this preparation must fall “within the limits of my summers.”

Those limits constitute fieldwork, meetings, and international congresses—which, if you happen to be living your childhood dream, can be just as invigorating as speeding along the roof of the sea.

Steven Schlozman

By Nina E. Luo

As a zombie consultant to Hollywood, Steven C. Schlozman gets to answer some questions like, “Why don’t zombies ever poo?”

“There’s obviously some metabolic process going on because they’re eating humans, so one possible explanation is that, like reptiles, they just excrete gaseous wastes through breaths,” says Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry.

As a “nice Jewish boy” growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Dr. Schlozman discovered his passion for horror while watching the “Creature Features” that played during Saturday morning cartoons. He loved the feeling of being scared. Fast forward past the large public high school, the first date with a girl he couldn’t work up the courage to hold hands with, and the late-night calls on the landline, and Schlozman had made it to Stanford. In college, Schlozman studied English and biology.

A few years later, while in his medical school residency, Schlozman tried to charm his wife-to-be with the line “I can hospitalize this guy in 15 minutes.” (She was not charmed; she did not speak to him for six months).

Six years ago, Scholzman’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during one night of worry-induced insomnia, Schlozman walked downstairs to see “Night of the Living Dead” playing on the living room TV.

“I thought to myself, I can’t make her better because I’m not an oncologist, but I can make [the zombies] better,” Schlozman said.

So Schlozman published an article, which prompted a speech invite from a theater. The speech went viral. “The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse,” Dr. Schlozman’s work of fiction, details, with medical accuracy, the attempt to find a cure for the flesh-eating disease. The rights to its film adaptation have already been purchased by George Romero, creator of “Night of the Living Dead.” Max Brooks, author of “World War Z,” adapted the screenplay.

“Zombie movies, they’re always deeply tongue-in-cheek. There’s always a little slapstick comedy,” Schlozman, who now teaches a freshman seminar on horror film and literature, muses. “But these movies, they’re also not about zombies, they’re about people. Watching zombies is like watching snails. It’s really about the people who are left, and whether they can figure out a way to stay alive. These movies are cautionary tales of what not to do.”

Schlozman is currently working on a young adult romance set in a post-zombie apocalypse world. As a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, he frequently advises entertainers on both zombie neuroscience and his other area of expetise, child psychiatry. All this fame has not gone unnoticed by his patients, who nowadays “Google their doctors.”

Some of them have even given him horror films as Christmas presents.

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