Message from the Chair

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October 29th, 2020

Dear Cell Biology community,

As the 2020 academic year begins in earnest, I find myself assessing where we are as a department and a community, and where we hope to go in the future. The previous eight months have been unlike any period in history that I can remember. A very robust research enterprise at HMS came to an abrupt halt mid-March with lab shut-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was immediately followed by a period of heightened uncertainty, anxiety, and acknowledgement of the widespread social inequities and injustices that exist in our country. We re-entered our laboratories in early June and began to re-activate our research enterprise under a new normal, much to everyone’s relief. At the same time, we remained very aware of the significant work needed to address the many challenges that we face as scientists and citizens. An important consequence of the pandemic is that many of us were able to think deeply about a broad range of issues, and from this period of reflection, I feel confident that we as a community will rise to meet the challenges ahead.

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. It has been a sobering experience to witness how our sense of community has been challenged by social distancing and mask wearing, which allow us to conduct our research safely but hamper our ability to have spontaneous discussions in a hallway or brainstorming sessions over coffee. We miss our in-person, community-building events, such as our annual retreat to Cape Cod and convivial Friday happy hours, which help create social and scientific relationships. Nevertheless, we have pushed onward, adapting to Zoom as best as we can. While Zoom cannot fully replace what we have lost, it has allowed us to achieve some semblance of research normality. We have a full slate of excellent seminar speakers invited from around the country and world. And our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows continue to showcase their research in short-format Pizza Talks (but it’s now make-your-own pizza).

Importantly, our science still moves forward despite our drastically changed world. Indeed, there are many research highlights from the last several months, far too many to describe here, but they include: how cells generate massive chromosome damage (“chromothripsis”) as a result of a single error in cell division (Pellman Lab); a novel mechanism for quality control of membrane proteins inappropriately inserted into the ER membrane (Shao Lab); linkage of pH-regulated succinate secretion to muscle remodeling during exercise (Chouchani Lab); the structure of the Hrd1 ubiquitin ligase involved in ERAD (Rapoport Lab); and the identification of new targets for anti-COVID therapeutics (Kirchhausen Lab and Yuan Lab). Our efforts continue to be driven by ongoing technological innovations includes those in cryo-electron microscopy, live-cell imaging, and mass spectrometry--tools used by a wide cross-section of our department.

I am also excited to welcome two new Assistant Professors to our community – Dr. Amy Lee, previously at Brandeis University, will arrive at DFCI and HMS on December 1, 2020, while Dr. Lucas Farnung will join us in early 2021 from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics in Germany. Amy works on the regulation of protein translation initiation while Lucas studies the structural biology and biochemistry of chromatin remodeling and transcription. We also welcome two new Affiliate faculty members to our community: Dr. Radhika Subramanian (MGH) and Dr. Brendan Manning (HCSPH). We are extremely excited to welcome them all to our community. Recently, we also named our first Fred and Joan Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellows – Dr. Alison Ringel (Haigis Lab) and Dr. Miguel Prado (Finley Lab). This generous gift from the Goldbergs serves as a lasting reminder of their commitment to the department and our shared scientific mission and dedication to training the next generation of scientists.

Education

Due to the stringent safety measures installed by HMS, we are grateful that incoming graduate students have been able to participate in in-person laboratory rotations so that they can find a good environment for their research interests. Like many others, our core cell biology graduate course, had to quickly pivot to an all-digital classroom environment back in March, and we commend Dr. Adrian Salic, course director, and Dr. Saoirse McSharry, CB201 currriculum fellow, for their amazing execution of this challenging endeavor. Amazingly, Adrian, Saoirse, and all the course instructors and discussion leaders quickly redirected the course from Spring 2021 to Fall 2020. This switch, spurred by the pandemic, took a lot of time and effort, and we applaud everyone involved and thank Saoirse and Dr. Davie Van Vactor for work in re-imagining a wholly digital course. Davie is also now the Director of the BBS graduate program at HMS, where he is invigorating efforts to increase outreach to undergraduate institutions, with the goal of increasing the diversity of applicants interested in basic science who apply our graduate programs.

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 current pandemic on certain members of society, numerous incidents of anti-Black violence, and other painful reminders of systemic racism and social inequities.

We recognize with heightened awareness that we as a department must reaffirm our commitment to Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging and take concrete action to affect positive change both within our department and outside of it, as members of a broader community. Towards this end, a dedicated group of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and faculty has formed the Cell Biology Equity Initiative (CBEI) task force. This group will focus on outreach, resource development, and cultural activities that seek to educate our community on social justice issues and provide mechanisms for direct involvement in creating change. Analogous groups across HMS have also formed in response to ongoing social turmoil, and by working with each other, we can make improvements in the culture of our community. So be on the lookout for opportunities that emerge from the CBEI, and we encourage everyone who is able to get involved and be a catalyst for positive change. 

Although our challenges are many, 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 Biiology