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Harvard Northwest Labs Director Alain Viel Appointed UNESCO Chair on Life Sciences and Innovation

The Harvard Northwest Building, located at 52 Oxford St., houses classrooms, labs, and offices.
The Harvard Northwest Building, located at 52 Oxford St., houses classrooms, labs, and offices. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Jasmine Palma and Austin H. Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

Alain Viel, director of the Northwest Undergraduate Laboratories and a Harvard senior lecturer in Molecular and Cellular Biology, has assumed the role of chair on life sciences and social innovation for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Viel joins a network of individuals from different institutions around the world who are committed to addressing global educational challenges and expanding access to education.

“Now that I am part of this network, I can start to establish contact with other UNESCO chairs to see what we can do,” Viel said in an interview.

The previous UNESCO chair on life sciences and social innovation was the late Robert Lue, a former professor of the practice in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Viel’s husband. Harvard joined the initiative in 2019 as part of a proposal put forward by Lue.

One of Viel’s focuses is LabXchange, an online science educational platform founded by Lue and for which Viel serves as the faculty co-director. LabXchange is composed of what he calls “assets,” videos that instructors can compile into playlists called “pathways.” K-12 content and some college-level resources currently comprise the majority of assets, which are free to access for anyone with an internet connection.

Viel hopes LabXchange will create more flexibility for educators and a wider range of educational material for students. For example, Viel said instructors can easily customize assets to adapt to the level of their students.

Another goal for LabXchange is global access. According to Viel, LabXchange now has around 30 million users, 80 percent of whom are from outside the United States. Recently, LabXchange adapted its content because of the war in Ukraine.

“Through the UN, there was a call for producing online material for high school students in Ukraine that couldn’t go to school due to the war, and so we translated a certain number of assets into Ukrainian to serve that population,” Viel said. “Overall, what we want to do is to do that for everybody, globally.”

Viel also created many of his own assets during the pandemic, which he continues to use for the courses he teaches at Harvard.

“Instead of doing readings in an expensive textbook, you go and watch videos on the LabXchange pathway before you come to class so you get prepared, and I can focus my teaching that builds upon the material in LabXchange,” Viel said.

Viel also spoke about the ways that mixing science and art can enhance learning, and he envisioned a possible partnership between LabXchange and LANIA, a new nonprofit that provides an open-source platform for educational outreach in the arts. LANIA is a collaboration between Harvard, the Juilliard School, Fordham University, and the UN Chamber Music Society.

“If there is a decrease in the budget in the school system, the first thing to go is art,” Viel said. “So if we can provide high schools with art programs that are free, then it can supplement whatever they do in class.”

LabXchange is partnering with organizations including Khan Academy and Howard Hughes Medical Institute to provide educational material, according to Viel. He said LabXchange is also working with the South African company Learning Sandbox to create lab simulations.

Viel and Lue collaborated on several educational projects, including LabXchange and the renowned “Inner Life of the Cell” 3D graphics animation showing the molecular machines inside a white blood cell.

They also started the Lemann Program for Creativity and Entrepreneurship at Harvard, which is “well aligned with the mission of UNESCO.” The LPCE now includes public events and two courses to promote student projects with positive social impacts. The public health startup accelerator Harvard HealthLab, an LPCE “brainchild,” is expanding to include groups in Boston, Brazil, and Africa.

Viel hopes to continue expanding educational opportunities, citing the improved quality of life and life expectancy that comes from education.

“I feel that often enough, education is a possibility, not a right,” he said. “What we can do to overcome this issue, to bypass the issue, is to provide tools that can help people that would normally not receive a good level of education.”

Clarification: November 7, 2023

This article has been updated to clarify that Viel is interested in a partnership between LabXchange and LANIA, rather than a merger.

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @jasmine_palma_.

—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at austin.wang@thecrimson.com.

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