Sunday, June 16, 2024

As an MIT alum and Cambridge resident, I have been in the orbit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than 20 years, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Iraq War, and never have I seen the campus so divided. I also come from a land of tribes: As a Lebanese-American born in Beirut and who grew up around Boston, I have a foot in both worlds – the global center of bloody feuds on one hand and beacon of scientific discovery on the other. The tribalism of the Middle East has come to my alma mater, and yet, it has always been there among its scientific community, only in a more productive form that can perhaps help illuminate this moment of darkness.

When I arrived at the school as an overwhelmed first-year students, I gravitated to a brilliant and caring young professor in neuroscience named Pawan Sinha, an Indian-American immigrant who grew up on the campus of IIT Delhi and himself dreamed of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the temple of science. At the time, Pawan saw potential in me that I didn’t and pointed me to opportunities I didn’t even know existed. He is now a friend and tenured professor whose groundbreaking work at the intersection of neuroscience, AI and public health has attracted an eclectic community of scientists to his lab over the past couple of decades.

What I came to also appreciate by observing Pawan’s own trajectory is that being successful in science often requires competition and struggle, not just between charismatic leaders and their theories but the scientific masses who subscribe to their worldviews with a passion that can be likened to its own kind of tribal identity. One of the most devoted members of the Sinha lab in recent years is a 98-year-old neurophysiologist and Jewish-American named Sid Diamond; he came out of retirement to work with Pawan after a distinguished career as an academic neurologist at Mount Sinai. One recent Veterans Day when I was visiting Pawan in his lab, I bumped into Sid with a “WWII Veteran” hat, which gave me an opening to ask more about his story. I saw the potential for a profile of his remarkable life from Depression-era New York to the school, but instead found unexpected friendship.

Sid is a scientist who wakes up excited to go to MIT every day to “think big thoughts.” It reminded me of the childlike wonder that other academics I had met over the years exuded when you get them talking about their fields of interest. He also shared a deep respect for the abilities and character of our leader, Pawan, who launched a unique scientific-humanitarian program called Project Prakash 20 years ago that has yielded cutting-edge research about neural plasticity while bringing sight to hundreds of children in the developing world.

Sid is no sheltered elite: He grew up in a state of chronic housing insecurity as a child and witnessed the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as a young paratrooper. And he and others in the Sinha Lab form a tight-knit group that cares as deeply about the children they reach in places such as rural India as much as the scientific discoveries their treatment helps uncover.

So why classify this kind of community as a tribe as opposed to a collection of curious people? Because what motivates these scientists is not cold reason but an insatiable need to understand the world and, in this case, the brain. It is insatiable because the frontiers of science are receding constantly with new breakthroughs, and those making these discoveries vie with each other’s camps for territory in terms of prestigious publications and finite grants.

Unlike tribal identities in the world of politics, however, the boundaries of the group are not guarded. Someone like me can leave academia and still be welcome back into its circles. All I have to demonstrate is a respect for the value of science and service and within a few months, Sid and I are fast friends – something unimaginable back in the Middle East or sadly now, even in U.S. political circles.

This spring, the Sinha Lab boasts another contribution to a leading journal in Science drawing on the findings of Project Prakash, with Sid as the oldest contributor in its history and a group of authors from three continents. It speaks to the power of diverse, passionate and open scientists to help lead us out of this moment of strife.

Izzat Jarudi is co-founder and chief executive of Edifii and has advanced degrees in brain and behavioral science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale. He has lived in Cambridge for more than 15 years.