Dear Cell Biology Community,

As the 2020-2021 academic year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on all that we endured as a community and individually during the last 18 months. After a nearly complete shut-down of research in the Spring of 2020, we re-initiated research activities while masking, distancing, and limiting laboratory access. Maintaining an active research environment under difficult circumstances requires perseverance and a lot of work behind the scenes. We appreciate the efforts of all of our trainees and staff in keeping our department largely free of COVID. We especially thank staff members Patrick Dennett, Karen Easley, Julie Huang, and Meg Nagle for keeping our departmental operations and activities going. We especially thank Karen, who retired in June after 35 years of service in our department!  

Research

As described in Our Mission, our research seeks to unravel the mysteries of cellular machines and organismal physiology, break down barriers to mechanistic understanding, and create an inclusive environment of learning, scholarship, and collaboration. This year has necessitated changes to our weekly activities, which have affected our ability to interact socially and collaborate scientifically. Due to the recent relaxation of distancing requirements, we are initiating efforts to normalize our departmental activities, including seminars and data club. We are expecting a mixture of in-person and hybrid activities during the year. Unfortunately, we will not be able to have an in-person retreat this fall (but stay tuned for Fall of 2022!)

This has also been a year of re-invigoration for the department. Lucas Farnung – our newest junior faculty member – arrived this past Spring after some delays while trying to enter the U.S. from Germany. His lab is now established and growing. We also welcomed Amy Lee from Brandeis University this year. Amy and her lab joined the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), with her academic home in HMS Cell Bio. In addition, Brad Bernstein – recently recruited to be Chair of the Cancer Cell Biology at the DFCI – also has his academic home here. We are excited to have Brendan Manning (Molecular Metabolism, Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health) and Radhika Subramanian (Molecular Genetics/Mass General Hospital and Genetics/HMS) joining us as affiliate members, as they complement our areas of strength through their work on cell growth control and molecular motors, respectively. We are looking forward to many interactions with our new colleagues. Also this year, Yang Shi – a long-time member of the department – was recruited to the Ludwig Cancer Institute at Oxford University. We will miss Yang and wish him the best. I also want to give a shout out to Junying Yuan, who formally retired from HMS in the Fall of 2020. Junying’s work continues to provide important insights into the links between cell death pathways and neurodegeneration.

Despite limited access to labs, our science has moved forward and exciting discoveries are being made across many areas of cell biology, from the structural biology of molecular machines, to cellular organization and dynamics, to cell-to-cell communication. The list is too long to describe in detail, but for more information and to keep up-to-date with our latest discoveries, check out the “News” section of our website and follow us on Twitter @HarvardCellBio.  

Recently, we also named our second set of Goldberg Fellows: Nao Horio (Liberles Lab) and Valentina Rossio (King Lab). These postdoctoral fellowships are supported by the Cell Biology Education and Fellowship Fund, a generous gift from Fred and Joan Goldberg. These awards serve as a lasting reminder of their commitment to the department and our shared scientific mission, and their dedication to training the next generation of scientists. For a running list of the prestigious fellowships obtained by our trainees and their other achievements, see our website’s News section.

Education

Our flagship course CB201 was taught remotely in the Fall of 2020, immediately after switching to remote in the middle of the Spring 2020 semester. Kudos to faculty course director Adrian Salic and Curriculum Fellow Saoirse McSharry for pulling off a two great courses in quick succession and under very trying circumstances. We also want to acknowledge Saoirse for all her hard work and congratulate her on her next adventure as a teaching faculty member in the Department of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2022, CB201 returns to the Spring semester, with Dan Finley and Susan Shao serving as faculty co-directors and Stephanie Khairallah as our new Curriculum Fellow. Davie Van Vactor, the newly named Program Director of the BBS graduate program, has been busy developing plans for bringing students back to campus this fall, all while mounting a historic effort to reconceive of our long-standing NIH T32 training grant in Molecular Mechanisms and Cellular Dynamics. This T32 grant is the largest at HMS; this was a tremendous undertaking, and we owe Davie much gratitude for his efforts. Finally, Cell Bio faculty Randy King and John Flanagan continue to be heavily involved in medical education, after playing leading roles in revamping HMS’ Pathways curriculum a few years ago. You can read more about their innovative approach here.

 

Community

Looking at our department, our School, our University, and other academic and research institutions, one can see that the demographics of biomedical trainees, staff, and faculty unfortunately do not mirror the world around us. We also have witnessed the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain members of society, numerous incidents of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence, and other painful reminders of systemic racism and social inequities.

Recognizing these realities, a group of trainees, staff, and faculty have come together to generate the Cell Biology Equity Initiative (CBEI). This group has efforts in in-reach, out-reach, and resource gathering to aid our department and the larger community in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. The CBEI has organized several educational activities for the department to address critical issues linked with social justice that are facing communities of learning. They are also working with other HMS departments and Harvard University more broadly to promote our core values.

Although significant challenges remain ahead, I am inspired by the many individuals within our community that are standing up for change, at all levels of our institution. With a set of shared goals and principles, I am confident that we will be able to bring important change to our culture while continuing to do breakthrough science. I thank everyone in the department for making this such a stimulating and satisfying place in which to work, learn, and teach.

Wade Harper

Chair, Department of Cell Biology

September 2021