Instructor biographies

Andrew Murray

I grew up in England as the child of expatriate, American parents. When I was six, I used to orbit the back yard, pretending to be Yuri Gagarin, and when I was twelve I wanted to be a race car driver. No coordination and slow reflexes persuaded me that studying might be a useful back up plan and by the end of high school I’d decided that I might want to be a scientist, even though I’d stopped studying math when I was sixteen and had remarkably little idea of what scientists actually do. Through a series of lucky accidents, I spent six months as a volunteer in a lab at MIT between high school and college. The experience changed my life. Scientists were no longer distant and inaccessible. They talked, they laughed, they swore, they got mad, and even though 95% of their experiments failed, they kept going because of their passion for discovering how things worked and their pride in figuring out how to build clever experiments. Many years later, I’m still hooked on doing and talking about science. Our goal is to give you the same sense of excitement and possibility by showing you that science is an indivisible whole and giving you the weapons that you will be able to use to attack problems you choose.

Ben de Bivort

When I was eight years old, my scientific curiosity began to diverge from the ubiquitous interest in dinosaurs of my peer group. I developed a particular fondness for rocks and minerals, and began punctuating family trips by making my parents lug heavy bags of specimens back home. When I was eleven, a couple months before the dissolution of the USSR, we visited Kiev, Ukraine. Drawn by my geophilia, we went to an exhibit on oil extraction technology at the science museum, by chance meeting there three elder statesmen of the Kiev Geological Institute. I was given an honorary membership in the KGI when I put on a great show producing generally correct identifications of minerals pulled from their vaults. Soon however, my interests drifted in a more biological direction, to mycology. From 1992 to 1998, I was an artist-in-residence at the Telluride Mushroom Festival under the tutelage of Art Goodtimes (currently the Green Party member holding the highest elected office in the country). From there, my scientific career flowed naturally to majors in math and biology at Duke, grad school in neuroscience at Harvard, an independent fellowship, and now a professorship investigating the genetic and neuronal basis of behavioral differences between fruit flies, yada yada. If this job permitted more substantial hobbies, I would take up sailboat racing and backpack more often. I love all branches of science except biochemistry and can’t wait to integrate science with you in LS 50.

Michael Desai

I grew up in a small town in southern Illinois – my high school had some of the top-ranked football and basketball programs (but worst-ranked academics) in the state. So while I liked reading about science as a kid, and always said I wanted to be a biologist when I grew up, I really had no idea what I was talking about. When I got to college I signed up for the freshman science courses and realized within the first few days that I was totally out of my depth. But I also really enjoyed them, and managed to hang in long enough to catch up. I particularly loved the simplicity and elegance of physics, the clarity of thought it required, and I just enjoyed solving all the puzzles. So eventually I wound up in graduate school in physics, at which point I started getting fed up with the current state of theoretical physics (at the time it was almost pure math). I switched back to biology and it’s been fantastic – the problems are exciting and ripe for attack with the kind of quantitative background I built up. I’m hoping to convey some of that background and excitement to you in this course.

Cassandra Extavour - on Sabbatical Leave

I always planned to be a professional musician, but ended up becoming a scientist almost at random! I didn’t really pay much attention to math or science classes until the very end of high school, but I was still able to catch up well enough  to do an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and math. It turns out that once you discover something that is fascinating to you about math and science, it’s not that hard to learn, especially if you are learning and studying with a group of cool and motivated people, so you can all help each other to understand the material and what is amazing about it. Even though it was not a career path I was even aware of as an undergraduate, it turns out that being a scientist is a perfect job for me, because doing science has a lot of the same elements that I always liked about doing music: it requires creativity, hard work, problem solving, working in teams, being flexible, open-minded and adaptable, and presenting your work to people on a regular basis. Even if you have not usually thought of yourself as a “science/math person,” if you like puzzles and have a lot of curiosity about how the natural world works and how it got to be the way it is, I encourage you to take this course!

Aravi Samuel

I grew up in rural Upstate New York. Most kids from my high school didn’t go to college, and no one had ever gone to Harvard. But my little high school in the Catskills nevertheless had the most remarkable and dedicated teachers. And Main Street had a wonderful bookstore and public library. My parents made sure I knew about the world outside the town, and my math teachers, who picked up on my liking math, were particularly encouraging. My teachers would drive me to local math competitions, and found ways to stimulate my interest in solving puzzles beyond the standard New York State curriculum. I learned about Harvard when I randomly got an application to Harvard Summer School in the mail. I applied, got in, and took Physics 1ab because I had already taken high school biology (which I liked) and chemistry (which I didn’t). I liked Harvard and so I came here for college. I thought I would eventually go to medical school like my brother and dad. I didn’t really know about other careers. I also didn’t think much about my own ability. My high school didn’t have Advanced Placement courses, and so I was a bit behind many of my friends who skipped ahead of introductory courses. But when I started working in a lab on the biophysics of bacterial behavior, I got hooked. I realized that one could make a living thinking about science full time. I stayed at Harvard to get my PhD and start my own lab. I am still thinking about organism behavior using physics and math, but now I think about worms and flies. 

Emma Nagy

I don’t have that classic story where I can say I fell in love with science at a young age, discovered the beauty of research early and marched towards the goal of being a scientist – my path here is much more circuitous.  I always loved school and the natural world, but most of my free time was spent at the barn with horses.  I was lucky enough to have many fantastic teachers in school that were willing to feed and indulge my curiosity in many different areas.  Heading off to college was overwhelming because I felt that I had to choose one topic for a major when I enjoyed so many.  I had always loved math, but despite doing well in courses, in my mind I wasn’t very good at it.  So, I told myself that in college I would take math classes until I couldn’t do the work anymore, at which point I would stop.  Funnily enough, one math course turned into two and then three and eventually enough for a math major.  Despite also majoring in biology, I did not begin to explore research until the end of my undergraduate time and though I enjoyed it, I felt like I never had any idea what I was doing and was always confused about my project.  Unsure about graduate school, I spent three years working in a synthetic chemistry lab.  There I realized that being confused is pretty much standard for research, but that the unknown is a lot more fun when it is your own project and you can work on it all day, every day.  I moved on to graduate school, shifting gears back into biology, where I fell in love with bacteria and thinking about how they work.  This course integrates research with many of the topics that I love, and I look forward to sharing them with you.  

Cara Weisman

I grew up in sunny Houston, TX with a penchant for the humanities. Torn between my love of John Dewey and Oscar Wilde, I came to college agonizing about whether to study philosophy or English. But, as the child of two scientists, I decided that, if only to hold up my end of dinner table conversation, some education about the natural world was compulsory, and so I took introductory biology and psychology. Much to my bafflement, I liked it. Slowly but surely, in a way that in retrospect I can clearly see as governed by an incrementally-decreasing fear of the quantitative, my area of focus shifted: from freshman summer in a psychology lab, to my own research project in a neurobiology lab from sophomore to senior year, to graduating with a degree in MCB (with a minor in philosophy: a love not overwritten, even now!). I'm now finishing my PhD in Biophysics, having worked mostly in computational biology. If you'd told me at 18 that this is where I'd be now, I'd never have believed you! I love teaching LS50 for lots of reasons, but one of them is that it lets me try to pass on some lessons from this somewhat winding path. First: that math, computer science, and statistics, though they may at first seem impenetrable and scary, are powerful and amazingly satisfying tools with which to understand the world and should make sense if taught right. Second: that the practice of science is as radically and satisfyingly creative and personal as the practice of philosophy or of writing. I hope that you'll join us this year, that you'll see these themes in my lectures, and that you'll chat with me about these and any other questions that you have as you contemplate stepping into science.