“Jamie Star challenges and enables us to do something important, without being prescriptive about how it’s done,” Douglas Melton, the Xander University Professor and Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences, said Tuesday about the Star Family Challenge for Promising Scientific Research.At the inaugural awards ceremony for the challenge, Melton, who chairs the committee behind it, related an important dinner conversation with its founder, James A. Star ’83. Melton said the two discussed the need to fund interdisciplinary research, and the result was a clear target.“We want to fund research which would not otherwise be funded, research that would be new, and that would have large potential impact,” Melton said. “This kind of research often happens when you look between fields.”The challenge was established by Star and funded at his direction with a $10 million grant. Given biannually to Harvard faculty members, the awards range from $20,000 to $200,000 and are determined by a committee of senior FAS members.At the ceremony in a packed University Hall, this year’s four winners presented research with jaw-dropping potential. Charles Lieber, the Mark Hyman Jr. Professor of Chemistry at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is researching ways to use nanoscale technology to create electronics that could be injected into the brain and become fully integrated with neural networks. The results could someday be used to treat diseases and traumatic injuries, Lieber said, citing epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Such “injectable electronics” would be much less invasive than surgery.Lieber also described his “ultimate dream”: “injectable closed-loop systems for the detection, monitoring, and treatment of diseases.”Richard Lee, a professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said a simple question lay at the heart of his research: “Can DNA tell time?” He followed with another: “Why is it that a dog keeps track of time seven times longer than we humans do?” The mechanism by which DNA tracks time is “one of the great unsolved mysteries of science,” said Lee, and the answers could help fight disease.Lee noted that people with muscular dystrophy die at about age 20, and those with cystic fibrosis die at about 30. “We’d like to extend this time,” he said. “Could we slow down time within the muscles of MD patients or within the lungs of CF patients?” He added in a later interview, “I am a physician, so thinking about patients with diseases is all that I do. I dream about being able to slow down diseases, or delay their onset.”Conor Walsh, an assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at SEAS, is developing wearable technology — “soft wearable robots” that could someday help people with limited mobility walk with their normal gait. His interdisciplinary research combines robotics, engineering, and biomechanics.Bernardo Lemos, assistant professor of environmental epigenetics at Harvard School of Public Health, studies the extraordinary resilience of microanimals called tardigrades. “These organisms can be boiled, frozen, desiccated, sent into space, subjected to radiation, and yet still remain alive,” Lemos said. His research has potential in biotechnology, materials science, and public health. “Those of us in public health worry about pollution, lead paint, heavy metals, and how all the toxicity they spread impacts us. Well, tardigrades are barely impacted at all by these things,” and knowing why could advance research, he said.After hearing from the four winners — selected from more than 60 submissions — Star said, “These were phenomenal presentations. I’m so glad to be supporting such cutting-edge research.”The challenge will continue to encourage submissions from both the natural and social sciences at Harvard, and work to help close the funding gap faced by researchers.
Celine Song, whose “Endlings” begins previews tonight at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), knows how to create Korean characters. The playwright, a Korean Canadian, emigrated from South Korea with her parents at age 12, and her 91-year-old grandmother still lives in Seoul.The greater challenge for Song — the key to writing what she considers her “impossible” play — was finding her own multifaceted voice, as an immigrant, a contemporary woman, and, she said, an “Asian Canadian married to a white American,” while striving to excel in a form defined largely by European-American men. That, she says, is what writing her new play, which is having its world premiere at the A.R.T. , taught her.Not that the three elderly Korean women at the heart of “Endlings” are simple. Haenyeos — “sea women” — they are heirs to a centuries-old tradition of diving to harvest seafood off the Korean island of Man-Jae. Overtaken by technology, mechanization, fish farming, and the globalization of the food market, these women persevere despite knowing that they will likely be the last generation to practice their dangerous trade.(The script calls for the haenyeo to perform both on land and under water. So the A.R.T. production features an onstage pool to bring that second environment to life as well.),These women may seem a world — if not a century — apart from Song. However, while watching a documentary on the haenyeo, Song was struck by one diver’s similarities to her own family. At 97 years old, the woman “couldn’t really walk on land but could dive like a mermaid,” said Song. With the abalone and other seafood she harvested, she made about $3,000 each year, of which she sent $1,000 to her son, who had, like Song’s family, immigrated to Canada.“I was thinking about how absolutely different we are but how tied I am — by ethnicity, by nationality,” said Song. At the same time, she added, “I have so much more in common with my husband, who is a white man who grew up in L.A.”For Song, this is a story of time as well as place. “I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot,” Song said, especially about how the technology that brings people closer also emphasizes the differences between generations. “For me, a smartphone is a way of life,” said the playwright, while her grandmother “has trouble taking a photo.” The result is a temporal disconnect.,“I exist in my grandmother’s life as actively as I exist in New York City or L.A., in the writer’s room for a TV show,” Song said. “My grandmother and I are actively related to each other, but it doesn’t feel like we’re the same species.”Song’s chosen media only complicates the issue of identity. “If you fall in love with theater, what that means is you’re going to fall in love with a lot of white men — Berthold Brecht, [Samuel] Beckett, Edward Albee, Wallace Shawn. And for a long time I didn’t want people to notice that I am an Asian woman. I wanted to be treated like and have the same privileges as the people I admire,” she said.Prior to “Endlings,” Song had success. A semifinalist for the American Playwriting Foundation’s 2016 Relentless Award for her “Tom & Eliza,” Song has also been a Playwrights Realm writing fellow and a member of the Public Theater’s 2016–17 Emerging Writers Group. However, she often felt she was trying to “take on the white male voice.”Celine Song, “Endlings” playwright. Photo courtesy of Celine Song“I don’t think that I ever succeeded,” she said. “My voice was always there. But there was a way in which I was very afraid to open myself up.”The problem, she concluded, is not specifically that she is Korean Canadian. But the many layers of experience — of place, heritage, and time — that make up her (and perhaps everyone’s) identity. “I wish I was authentically Korean in a way that was convenient to white viewers,” Song said. She mimicked a well-intentioned friend saying, “‘Hey Celine, you’re Korean, right?’”“There’s a very small box that people want to put people in,” she continued. “Anybody, but specifically someone like me. … This play taught me the authenticity that I am seeking is not as neat and clean and one-thing as I feel pressured to be.”,“Endlings,” in previews at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, formally opens on Friday, March 1, and closes Sunday, March 17. Tickets are available online at americanrepertorytheater.org, by phone at 617-547-8300, and in person at the ticket services offices, 64 Brattle St. Coed Hasty Pudding makes its debut Related Women perform alongside male counterparts for first time in group’s 171-year history