Inquiring Minds

Alumnae in STEM fields discuss the questions at the heart of their work

Colorful illustration of a hand holding a piece of RNA, a petri dish, and a planet with an asteroid ring

Nergis Mavalvala ’90, professor of astrophysics and the first woman to serve as dean of MIT’s School of Science, describes scientific inquiry this way: “We think that when we make a discovery, we’ve answered a question, but almost always what we’ve done is pose a new question.”

Wellesley alumnae love to ask questions. As the College celebrates the opening of its new Science Complex, Wellesley magazine reached out to 15 alums whose enthusiasm for the sciences was kindled during their time at the College. They conducted experiments in labs, did research alongside faculty, and, yes, asked a lot of questions in class. Today, they are educators, academics, entrepreneurs, technologists, physicians, and public servants, and the questions they’re asking relate to finding new ways to screen for cancer, figuring out how to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and helping children get the support they need during the pandemic. And after they answer those pressing questions, they will almost certainly have more.

What does the next generation of scientists need to thrive?

Nergis Mavalvala ’90
Majors: Astronomy and Physics

In 2016, scientist and researcher Nergis Mavalvala ’90 was part of a monumental discovery. She and a team of scientists announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves.

Albert Einstein had predicted the waves’ existence in 1916, but the technologies to detect them didn’t exist—until Mavalvala and her colleagues at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) built them. Detecting gravitational waves is important because it’s a way to see and learn about objects in space that don’t give off light, like black holes.

“These objects are some of the very important building blocks of the universe,” Mavalvala says. “By studying them, we’re piecing together the puzzle of who we are and where we came from. Our discovery was the birth of a new field.”

Scientists have now seen hundreds of these objects thanks to Mavalvala and her colleagues. In 2017, her MIT doctoral adviser, Rainer Weiss, received a Nobel Prize in physics for the LIGO team’s work.

In recent years, Mavalvala has taken on administrative roles at MIT as a way to give back, honor those who guided her in her career, and support future scientists and their endeavors.

In the fall of 2020, she became dean of MIT’s School of Science, the first woman to hold the position. “My first goal was, don’t break anything,” Mavalvala says, “and then, also to create something better than I started off with.”

Mavalvala has ambitious plans as dean, including moving the needle on the school’s response to climate change. Part of scientists’ jobs is to continue to push for policy change, she says. “Also, we need to continue to develop the science and the technology so it becomes harder and harder for there to be political inaction.”

She’s focused as well on dismantling silos and encouraging more MIT departments to work together. For example, the School of Science is participating in a larger MIT climate action plan in which multiple departments are collaborating on climate solutions. The intent, she says, is “to try to break down barriers and get people working together to target very special problems that needed solving yesterday.”

Mavalvala, an immigrant born and raised in Pakistan, a mother of two, and a self-described “out, queer person of color,” is also committed to creating an environment in which all scientists can thrive. Her approach to diversity and inclusion is a scientific one. “I can’t meet my other priorities without addressing this,” she says, “and we as a society can’t, either. We can’t be as excellent as we’re capable of until we take care of this broad, complex issue. We have to experiment until we find a solution that works.”

She’s thrilled with her role supporting the next generation of scientists at MIT and the big, unanswered questions they’re trying to answer. A physicist is using powerful computers to understand the structure of a nucleus. A biologist is investigating why some cells regenerate and others don’t. An Earth scientist discovered that hurricanes can develop without moisture. “I could go on for hours about the amazing questions people here are asking,” Mavalvala says. “Many times a day, my mind is blown.”

Mavalvala has been selected as the commencement speaker for the class of 2022; coverage will appear in the summer issue.

How can we harness carbon-capture technologies to slow climate change?

Jennifer Wilcox ’98
Major: Mathematics

Carbon-capture expert Jennifer Wilcox ’98 is charged with the daunting task of disbursing billions of dollars to support technologies that can keep carbon dioxide from escaping power plants and factories, pull it from the atmosphere, and even convert it into new products, as part of a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initiative.

Wilcox took leave from her role at the University of Pennsylvania as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy to join the Biden administration in January 2021 as principal deputy assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. Now, she spends her days scrutinizing technology under development, planning early tech demonstrations, and mapping out the infrastructure needed to use these new technologies to decarbonize and help halt climate change.

Many of the new technologies will be able to capture carbon dioxide at the source, preventing it from entering the atmosphere in the first place. For example, a cement or steel plant could be retrofitted with new technology to capture carbon dioxide and then inject and store it deep underground in spaces once occupied by oil and gas. “That’s really the biggest opportunity,” she says.

Another option is to transform carbon dioxide through a chemical reaction into something else, such as a synthetic fuel. It’s a technique that’s been used in the past. South Africa, for example, converted coal into gas and other liquid fuels in the 1970s. Carbon dioxide can also be converted into a synthetic material that can be used to build roads. A combination of approaches will be necessary to have the greatest impact, Wilcox says.

Wilcox’s work is critical to the U.S. achieving its goal to cut emissions in half by 2030, reach 100% clean electricity by 2035, and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. “What we’re doing is really planting the seeds,” she says. “These first-of-a-kind demonstrations are costly and not practical for the private sector to do, so the government is stepping in. This is that first layer of investment toward the climate goals in the U.S.”

A self-professed teacher at heart, Wilcox wrote the first textbook on carbon capture, and she’s most excited about the human capital aspect of solving climate change. It’s both one of the biggest gaps and challenges as well as an opportunity, she says. Much more investment is needed in education, especially at the high school level, Wilcox says, to prompt young people to think about how they can contribute to solving the problem.

“There’s even a sense of depression in students that this problem is so overwhelming,” she says. “Kids are wondering, ‘How can I play a role?’ I want them to wake up every day and feel like they’re a part of the solution.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Wilcox’s team will be getting their scientists and engineers to translate the work to community engagement. “It’s really clear to me that it’s going to take all skill sets and not just STEM,” she says.

Wilcox developed an appreciation for nature and respecting Earth’s resources growing up in Maine, where her parents grew their own food. It’s her hope that these new technologies to capture carbon will help to create a healthier planet. They’re one part of the solution in a comprehensive climate change strategy.

“At the end of the day, we will need both carbon capture and carbon dioxide removal—and they will have to be done in parallel to help tackle the climate crisis,” she says.

Can small-molecule drugs correct the underlying genetics of intractable diseases?

Kathleen McCarthy ’08
Major: Environmental Chemistry

In 2010, as a project manager at the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation, Kathleen McCarthy ’08 and a team of scientists screened a library of more than 200,000 small molecules—low-molecular-weight compounds that represent the majority of drugs on the market—looking for one that could alter broken RNA code in people with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

The genetic disorder leads to muscle weakness and wasting. Children who have its most severe form usually don’t live past their second birthday. Ultimately, McCarthy and her team at the foundation—where Loren Eng ’90 is president—zeroed in on one molecule that looked promising.

When the molecule was tested on mice, it restored production of a protein typically missing in people with SMA. It was an unprecedented achievement since, at the time, the prevailing notion was that small molecules couldn’t target RNA. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche took an interest in developing the drug.

McCarthy joined Roche’s rare disease unit as a nonclinical pharmacologist to help in the effort, and in August 2020, the FDA approved the drug Evrysdi.

“The big discovery was that we could change the SMA RNA selectively,” McCarthy says. “Now, lots of infants are taking this drug, and it’s changing the course of their disease.” Kids with SMA who would have had to use a wheelchair are able to walk and don’t need a tube to breathe.

The finding got McCarthy thinking about how the approach might apply to other difficult-to-cure diseases. “I thought, it can’t just be a one-off for SMA,” she says. So, in 2017, she took the entrepreneurial leap and started her own company to investigate just that.

McCarthy began with a $150,000 angel investment, then steadily worked to raise more than $500 million to start Skyhawk Therapeutics in Waltham, Mass. As the company’s co-founder and chief scientific officer, she’s grown her employee base from just a handful in mid-2018 to its current 100 and opened a second location in Switzerland.

Her goal is to continue working with small molecules to change and correct the RNA of people with a whole host of disorders. “This could have a huge impact on our ability to go after these really challenging diseases that have escaped our ability to drug them for a long time,” she says. “We’re interested in, how broad is that landscape?”

McCarthy says she built the base for her current work at Wellesley, where she was pre-med and created her own major of environmental chemistry. She relished working on applied science projects in the lab of Daniel Brabander, Frost Professor in Environmental Science and professor of geosciences.

“It was a very multidisciplinary approach,” she says, “and I loved that, because it was how I thought. Dan had a very big impact on my trajectory as a scientist.” For example, he would use tools from chemistry, geology, and math, as well as social justice concepts, to address a problem like lead in drinking water. “This taught me to think about how to truly solve problems in the world, not just in the lab,” she says.

What can molecules in fossils reveal about life on ancient Earth?

Katherine “Kate” Freeman ’84
Majors: Geology and Classical Civilization

As the Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, Kate Freeman ’84 analyzes fossil molecules to learn more about Earth’s history, past organisms that lived here, and the environments in which these ancient organisms lived. Her team of scientists uses water or solvents to extract ancient soils and sediments and pull out the compounds from plants, algae, or bacteria that they want to study. The National Academy of Sciences member likens her work to “unlocking life’s fingerprints,” or patterns of isotopes inside organic molecules that reflect how a compound was made. “Our latest work decoding molecules in meteorites will help us understand how life came to be on Earth and its potential to arise elsewhere,” Freeman says.

How has the pandemic affected children and adolescents who have developmental issues?

Molly Colvin ’98
Major: Psychobiology

The last two years have been challenging for young people, especially those with preexisting developmental or emotional issues who lost access to services. For example, the pandemic postponed evaluations of children with developmental concerns, delaying interventions. Developmental neuropsychologist Molly Colvin ’98, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, studies how to identify and intervene on behalf of children lost in the system during the pandemic. Recent research looks at diagnosing learning disorders during COVID. “It’s hard to know whether kids are behind in reading because school was disrupted, or because there is a latent learning disorder, so we’re proposing changes to the diagnostic criteria. These are questions with short- and long-term implications for society,” says Colvin, who is also an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

How can understanding what human faces convey help us battle biases?

Carlota Batres ’09
Majors: Psychology and Economics

Our brains take just milliseconds to process someone’s face, and we use facial cues to make unconscious judgments, like about how trustworthy someone is. “Those judgments influence a wide array of social outcomes, from election results to jury decisions,” says Carlota Batres ’09, assistant professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall College and director of its Preferences Lab. “We cannot fight biases we do not know exist.” In her studies, Batres asks participants to evaluate photos of faces, hoping to uncover the mechanisms underpinning our perceptions. In a recent study on disgust, she and her colleagues found that people feel physical disgust—which tends to lead to withdrawal and avoidance—when looking at faces of people from the opposing political party. The finding provides insight into the increasing division between Republicans and Democrats.

Which nearby stars might be hospitable to life-bearing planets?

Allison Youngblood ’10
Major: Astrophysics

Allison Youngblood ’10, a research astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is one of the scientists working toward a major NASA goal: to find other planets that can support life. Youngblood’s research explores which type of stars might offer the right conditions for a life-bearing planet. She’s helping develop a telescope that can detect water and oxygen on planets outside the solar system. Her work also pinpoints which star systems should take priority once the more advanced telescope is ready. “It’s going to take about 20 years to develop, design, and build,” she says. But, “it’s important to make these lists now, because we need to design the telescope to be able to observe these systems successfully.

How do we motivate the public to act on climate change?

Caroly Shumway ’81
Major: Biological Sciences

Granddaughter of oceanographer Roger Revelle, known as the “father of global warming,” Caroly Shumway ’81 uses behavioral science to help solve major environmental problems such as stormwater pollution. A marine biologist and behavioral neuroscientist by training, she is now director of the Center for Behavior and Climate, where she develops behavioral-science-backed climate solutions curricula and tools she hopes will spur lasting change. “Unfortunately, politicians and corporations generally follow societal demand for change; they don’t lead,” she says. “And they won’t act unless there is public demand to do so. What we must do is motivate everyone to act. Significant climate action needs to take place this decade to prevent a climate catastrophe.”

How do we prepare children for an unpredictable world?

Lee Hanae Ung ’10
Major: Biological Sciences

As founder and lead instructor at Learning Lab Kobe, a learning center in Kobe, Japan, Lee Hanae Ung ’10 teaches project-based lessons to Japanese and international learners in grades K–12 in a way that places the student in an active role in the classroom. She founded the center conscious that today’s children are more aware of the challenges humankind faces than any prior generation. Young people will bear the brunt of the responsibility for solving climate change, overpopulation, and resource management. In education, there’s a certain anxiety around how to handle these topics, she says. “I’ve shaped my teaching practice around how to empower kids in a world that can feel too broken sometimes.”

Can we develop greener semiconductors?

Malika Jeffries-EL ’96
Majors: Chemistry and Africana Studies

A professor in Boston University’s Department of Chemistry and Division of Materials Science and Engineering, Malika Jeffries-EL ’96 and her team are developing new carbon-based materials with semiconducting properties as alternatives to traditional semiconductors—crucial components of ubiquitous electronic devices like cell phones, laptops, tablets, and televisions. “Organic materials can easily be modified to optimize their properties for use in specific applications,” she says. “We have an opportunity to improve many technologies.” One aspect of semiconductors that could be enhanced is their power consumption. “Reducing it is beneficial because we only have a limited amount of energy available,” says Jeffries-EL, who is also associate dean of BU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

What types of policies can protect users’ privacy on social media?

Heather West ’07
Majors: Cognitive & Linguistic Sciences and Computer Science

As a director of privacy policy at Meta, the social media giant formerly known as Facebook, Heather West ’07 works to enhance the company’s products with privacy protection in mind. “I get to help shape the products people love through policy work, particularly in areas that are sensitive or lack consensus, in a way that focuses on finding the ‘right’ answer, not just the ‘compliant’ answer,” she says. Recently, she’s been helping Meta colleagues think through the best way to build privacy tools that are easy for people to understand and use. West is fascinated by the interaction between how we use technology, how technology shapes society, and how society shapes technology. “Those interactions have only become clearer over my time in the field,” she says, “and I thrive serving as a translator between people and platforms.”

How can engineers help journalists tell stories with data?

Tiff Fehr ’00
Majors: Studio Art and Media Arts & Science

A staff engineer on the New York Times’ Interactive News Team, Tiff Fehr ’00 was part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team for its COVID-19 coverage, including its iconic COVID graph. What started as a single spreadsheet documenting cases ballooned into a massive effort using a combination of manual data collection and programmatic data scrapers. “The pandemic has shown that instead of newsrooms waiting for the government or academics to pull data together, we can collect it ourselves,” she says. Now, Fehr and colleagues are finding ways to make news more compelling and relevant to people’s lives. For example, as readers engage with health stories online, their local COVID rates can be automatically displayed. Targeted quizzes and forms also connect readers with relevant content and create new sources and story ideas for reporters.

Is it possible to screen for blood cancers like acute leukemia?

Lachelle Dawn Weeks ’06
Majors: Chemistry and French

Screenings like mammograms can detect early, asymptomatic cancers and enable interventions to stop them from progressing. But thus far, there’s no similar widespread screening for people who will go on to develop a blood cancer. Around 2014, scientists realized they could detect abnormalities in blood cells, which for some people evolve into blood cancers like acute myeloid leukemia (AML). “With our best therapies, the five-year survival rate for adults with AML is under 30%,” says Lachelle Dawn Weeks ’06, a physician and scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She’s using large patient databases to uncover patterns of genetic mutations and understand why some people with these abnormalities develop leukemia and others don’t. It’s work that could inform an eventual screening for the early detection of blood cancers.

How do genes associated with neurodevelopmental Conditions affect brain development?

Amanda Kedaigle ’12
Major: Bioinformatics

The most important parts of our brains don’t have easy comparisons in model organisms, like mice. Instead, Amanda Kedaigle ’12 uses organoids—raisin-sized clusters of cultured cells—to shed light on how the human brain develops in people with conditions like autism or bipolar disorder. “It’s a fascinating question because we know so little about it—and until recently, it was really hard to study,” says Kedaigle, a computational biologist in the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at Broad Institute. In a recent study, she and her co-authors looked at how three genes associated with autism affect brain development. They found that the genes influence the speed at which specific cell types appear, which could later impact brain circuit function. She’s also interested in how to best analyze data from tissues that develop over time, work that’s relevant for many conditions and processes, including aging and cancer metastasis.

How can technology improve health care for India’s women and children?

Saachi Dalal ’19
Major: Neuroscience

As strategy and research lead at the nonprofit Khushi Baby, Saachi Dalal ’19 is developing digital solutions to improve access to high-quality health care in rural Rajasthan, India. In Rajasthan each year, some 420,000 pregnant women have high-risk deliveries, and 40% of children are underweight. Khushi Baby’s goal is “to bridge India’s public health gap, especially for women and children, which has been exacerbated during the pandemic,” says Dalal, who is a first-year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University. In 2019, Khushi Baby partnered with Rajasthan’s department of health to establish IT-enabled clinics in Jaipur’s urban slum areas and implement a COVID-19 tracking platform, used by 70,000 health workers to track over 15 million beneficiaries across the state.

Deborah Lynn Blumberg ’00 is a Houston-based freelance writer who has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Houston Chronicle.

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