Archive for the ‘profile’ Category

The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch: Not Just for the Holidays


A scene from the glass pumpkin patch at MIT (Credit: MIT Glass Lab)

— by Jennifer Berglund

Deep in MIT’s labyrinthine innards, a small team of goggled MIT professors and students busy themselves around glowing furnaces and flesh-frying ovens.  It is the epicenter of the MIT Glass Program, and from its fiery furnaces glow its bread and butter, the great glass pumpkins.

Throughout the year, a group of volunteers comprised of students, professors and local glass blowers donate their free time to produce a colorful cocktail of pumpkins.  Come fall, the crop is gathered to sell in a peculiar fall market called The Great Glass Pumpkin Patch. This year is the seventh anniversary of this quirky MIT tradition. During the last weekends in September, students, faculty and the Boston community alike gathered at MIT’s Kresge Oval to pick over the harvest of the thousand or so pumpkins that were made.  Each pumpkin was unique, crafted by hand in varying shapes, sizes and colors, and created to generate funding for the MIT Glass Program.

Peter Houk, Vulcan of the glass studio, is the mastermind behind the event.  Serving his eleventh year as the program’s director and his sixteenth as an instructor, Houk has watched an interest in glass blowing blossom at MIT.  The two classes offered, Beginning and Intermediate Glass Blowing, are the two most popular extracurricular classes at MIT.  They have become so popular that admittance into them is decided according to a lottery.  For the 16 available spots in the beginners class, 120 students showed to sign up, “that means only one in every 8.56 students are admitted into the class – it works out to be almost exactly the percentage of applicants accepted into MIT,” said Houk in a very stereotypical MIT professor moment.

Although incredible numbers of pumpkins are made each year, the program itself doesn’t focus on the production of the Pumpkin Patch.  “I want to make it clear that the object of the program is not to make pumpkins,” Houk says, “that is strictly voluntary.” Once a student has participated in the beginner’s class, mastering the sequences of coordinated movements necessary to blow glass, or “the dance,” as Houk calls it, he or she can participate in pumpkin making, and, for this, there is no shortage of volunteers.

With the proceeds, Houk intends to one day move the program to a bigger and better lab, but it will take several more pumpkin patches to do so.  For now, most of the money earned pays for necessary equipment and materials, allowing for only a small fraction to be saved for expanding the lab.  Until then, the lab will remain buried in MIT’s basement – a not so secret secret that displays its bounty every fall at a most unnatural market.

Posted by Joseph, under profile  |  Date: October 13, 2008

Psychologist Finds Therapeutic Role for Family Dinners


Anne Fishel

Psychologist Anne Fishel prepares dinner. Credit: Ginger Chappell

It’s Saturday evening and the smell of roast turkey fills Anne Fishel’s kitchen. Her husband Chris removes the turkey from the oven while Fishel prepares the traditional Passover matzoh ball soup. She dips her hand in water and then places it in a bowl with the sticky matzoh dough. She takes a handful of dough, molds it into the shape of ping pong balls, then boils them in chicken broth. Finally, Fishel serves her family, gathered around the dining room table.

Dinners are more than a Saturday family gathering for Fishel, a clinical psychologist, professor and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She studies how family dinners contribute to children’s cognitive and personal development, as well as how they strengthen the bond between children and parents. As dinner is typically a daily routine, Fishel can observe a family’s dynamic and propose solutions tailored to their needs. “Dr. Fishel’s work outlines how the family dinner can serve as an invaluable tool in the assessment and treatment of families in any school of family therapy,” says David Rubin, a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical Center in New York.

For the past 25 years, Fishel has been treating couples and families as a clinical psychologist at her office in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. She recently began taking a close look at dinner rituals, because meals are family routines that help a therapist understand important aspects of families and make interventions easier. “Patients feel more comfortable answering questions about their dinner than about their sex life or the family roles,” she says.

“Food experiences function not only as a means of physically nourishing a child, but also as a form of emotional nourishment,” says Laura Weisberg, a psychologist at Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina and an expert in eating disorders. Family dinners, according to several psychological studies, show fascinating positive behavioral impacts on children of all ages. Lower rates of substance abuse, depression, pregnancy, alcoholism and eating disorders are just some examples of the long list of positive effects of family dinners. For vulnerable children, not having family meals on a regular basis “makes it easier to begin a pattern of skipping meals, or eating in unhealthy ways, which can then get out of control before the family has an opportunity to recognize it,” says Weisberg. This body of research is so impressive that Fishel almost wants to tell her patients, “Don’t waste your time in therapy-go home right now and cook a meal and eat it together. Here are some recipes, now go!”

Research about the impact of family meals to children’s language and literacy development also caught Fishel’s attention. Although both parents and pediatricians believe that reading is the best way to teach children new vocabulary words, a new study by Catherine Snow of the Harvard Education School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows that the best way to build a child’s vocabulary is through regular family meals. “The use of relatively sophisticated vocabulary at family mealtimes predicted children’s later vocabulary knowledge better than in other settings -book reading, toy play, or story telling,” says Snow, an expert on children’s language and literacy development.

To keep children at the table, Fishel proposes maximizing the pleasure of dinner time. Parents can engage younger kids by playing word games or guessing what ingredients are in a meal. In dealing with teenagers, Fishel suggests avoiding discussions that would bring conflict to dinner. Instead she encourages parents to discuss their daily experiences in an honest and self-disclosing way, inviting children to participate in the conversation. After all, dinners are family rituals, whose purpose is to “create a feeling of warm connection among its members,” Fishel says.

Fishel’s family meals are a synonym of joy and creativity, “something that connects everybody up,” she says. Her two college age sons are very demanding eaters, but “I like the way they push me to be creative and adventurous,” she says. Her favorite meals to prepare are those made with a lot of ingredients cooked together in a pot. She loves making soups, such as squash-apple-onion or swordfish stew with pine nuts, tomatoes and raisins. “These foods are very cozy and connected; the flavors are distinct like the different members of the family.” But, both the ingredients in the soup and the members of the family “are made better by being together,” she adds.

To read the full story by Staff Writer Aspasia Daskalopoulou, visit the Contributions page.

Posted by Joseph, under health (mental), profile  |  Date: July 7, 2008

Can Math Solve an Environmental Health Mystery?


In November 1987, Dr. Dave Ozonoff, an expert in public health, decided to return to the passion of his youth.

After reading a book about chaos theory, he pulled his old multivariable calculus text book off the shelf and solved every end-of-the-chapter problem set. That day Ozonoff, who hadn’t touched a math book since he was in college, determined he would get his skills back by doing one hour of math every day. “I said, ‘Wow, I gotta learn this stuff, this is going to be important in biology’,” he recalls.

Despite a busy schedule as Chair Emeritus of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University (BU), and his intense involvement in research, he has not missed his math exercises for a single day. “Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgivings, birthdays, anniversaries… I had kidney stones, I was operated on twice, and even then I managed to somehow do it,” says Ozonoff, 65.

A great part of Ozonoff’s work has focused on cancer in small communities of Upper Cape Cod, where cancer rates are 25% higher than the rest of Massachusetts. With 20 years of research, his team proved that a product known as perchloroethylene (PCE), once used to line the interior of the water pipes, raised the risk of breast cancer in the area. But exposure to PCE did not account for all cancers. There had to be something else.

Now, Ozonoff thinks his mathematical training could help him solve the problem. He is using a part of mathematics called lattice theory to scan his data for new connections between cancer and environmental exposures. Lattice theory had been used in marketing to figure out if people buying chips tend to also buy beer, for instance. Ozonoff thinks he can use these data mining techniques to figure out which health symptoms go together when people are exposed to a toxic substance.

“It is a very new way of thinking of a very old idea,” says 31-year-old Al Ozonoff, assistant professor of biostatistics at BU and Dave Ozonoffs’s son. While his dad works on his mathematical models in an office on Albany Street, Al is two blocks away working on how statistics can be used to forecast pandemic outbreaks. Also a mathematics major in college, part of his work involves studying small clusters of disease similar to the ones his father researches. “We need as many different ways of thinking about it as possible,” he says.

The elder Ozonoff’s work on water contaminated with PCE and other chemicals has sparked action from federal and state governments to reduce people’s exposure to chemicals. His work on PCE in Cape Cod “has been an important contribution,” says Perry Cohn, a research scientist at the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Cohn says the evidence that PCE was related with cancer in Cape Cod helped his Department set appropriate levels of PCE in drinking water in New Jersey.

But PCE is only one piece of the puzzle in Cape Cod and Ozonoff is now trying to find new connections between disease and the environment. To do that, he is going through his data all over again, this time using his new mathematical tools. “What these new methods allow you to do is find the hidden pattern in the data,” says Ozonoff, who has included lattice theory exercises in his daily mathematical training. “I don’t have the discipline to do what he does,” says his son, who was seven years old when his father started his math routine. But despite his admiration, he thinks it is going to be a long way until his dad’s math produces results. “The challenging part is translating theory into practice.”

– Story by Nuño Dominguez

Posted by Joseph, under environment, mathematics, profile  |  Date: May 6, 2008