Spotlight Series: National Leadership Council Member, Nevin Summers

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Society for Science

Last name: Nevin Summers (STS 1967; ISEF 1965-1967)
Job title: Executive Director of the MIT Center for Synthetic Biology
About Nevin: Nevin is currently Executive Director of the MIT Synthetic Biology Center, where he is responsible for creating collaborations between academia and industry, including startups and corporate-sponsored research. He works closely with multidisciplinary synthetic biologists who combine knowledge of computer science, DNA engineering, gene editing and directed evolution to iteratively design, build, test and improve beneficial biomolecules, viruses, cells, organisms and ecologies that can offer transformative, renewable, sustainable and socially equitable solutions to critical unaddressed global societal challenges
Education: BS in Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins University, M.Arch. from Harvard University and SM in Technology Management from MIT.

What does leadership mean to you?

A leader faces a particularly formidable challenge. To motivate others to take a risk in doing anything with you, you must first convince them of your integrity, competence, reliability, mastery of facts and analysis relevant to your proposal. and, above all, your demonstrated passion and commitment to delivering a major project. goal that resonates with their values ​​and aspirations. For me, learning to be a leader was happening. My background as an architect and project manager, and the economy of a Boston building boom, gave me the chance to jump into the bottom of the pool and learn to swim. I had to train myself on how to complete one project while marketing the next.

As the world faces a pandemic, climate catastrophe and many other scientific challenges, what do you think the Society can do to address science literacy and support for science?

The validity of modern science itself is questioned, even as the benefits of modern technology are taken for granted without any reflection on the many scientific principles that underlie their existence and operation. Everyone expects their iPhone to work. The fact that centuries of science preceded it is ignored.

The Society for Science, through its 100 years of distinguished history, its mission and achievements in science journalism, competitions and other educational outreach programs, stands in stark contrast to these untenable positions. What more could the Society do to defend science?

I wish we had more STEM-educated politicians in government. This would greatly increase the level of speech. For example, ISEF could have a new category: “Science and Technology Policy”. There are many important political issues (and future career opportunities) that students can research – these are often covered in Society publications. Scientific news magazine.

The 75th anniversary of STS. From left to right: Wei-Lun Alterovitz, Nevin Summers (STS 1967), Wally Gilbert (STS 1949) and Gil Alterovitz

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I’ll move the world.” The place where I chose to stand and dare to make the world a better place is in a synthetic biology lab at MIT, and the lever I chose is the ability to read and write genetic code in DNA and then putting that DNA into the genome of a living cell to program a new and useful biological function. As a registered architect in Massachusetts, I focus on organic design. Instead of choosing concrete, steel and glass to build non-living structures like skyscrapers, I chose DNA, RNA and proteins to build living structures like cells genetically modified to transplantation therapy or for the production of antibodies and other therapeutic proteins. The basic engineering principles of abstraction, standardization, modularity, and systems analysis apply to both inanimate and animate design domains.

The most rewarding aspects of my job, now that the MIT buildings are open again, are in-person lab meetings and just sitting at my desk in a large cubicle farm and talking with graduate students and post-docs. close to the experiments they are doing in the lab down the hall. It is very gratifying to witness their development as scientists and engineers, and to help them whenever I can.

Nevin Summers Jr., 1967 first-place winner, with Vice President Humphrey, Dr. Seaborg and George Wlicox of Westinghouse (1)
In 1967, Nevin won first place in STS. Pictured with Vice President Humphrey, Glenn Seaborg and George Wilcox of Westinghouse.

Is there a book that has marked your life? What is the name of the book and what impact did it have?

Many books have marked my life. I will name two: one that kept me optimistic during the pandemic and another that convinced me fifty years ago to completely change my career from molecular biology to architecture.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker (2018):

I started reading this book shortly before the pandemic started. Steven Pinker argues that the existential state of humanity has improved dramatically over the past 300 years. Reading the “long-term vision” presented in this book was, and still is, very comforting to me, especially at the start of COVID-19, when the number of deaths was increasing exponentially and we had no no diagnostics, prophylactic vaccines or therapies available. All we had were face masks, hand washing and social distancing – the same approaches used during the 1918 flu pandemic, when more than 50 million people died worldwide.

Are we better now?

I don’t think there is any doubt that we are. We have PCR and immunodiagnostics, several forms of vaccines, including those based on mRNA as well as antibodies and small molecule therapeutics. Governments are more responsive to the needs of their citizens. Nothing will ever be perfect, but the quality of life keeps improving. We will discover and implement solutions to the many challenges ahead. STEM-literate citizens will lead the way.

The second book I mentioned is Scope of the total architecture by Walter Gropius (1943). In the book, the author presents his philosophy of architecture at the service of society. The architect is a co-ordinator, a person of vision and professional competence “whose business is to unify the many social, technical, economic and artistic problems which arise in connection with construction”.

At 23, I was at a turning point in my career. I had my BS in Molecular Biology, worked in a lab at Stanford Medical School, and had been accepted for Ph.D. Program at Stanford Biology. The Vietnam War was raging. I had been doing science since I was 14 and felt exhausted.

This book sparked my interest in training to become an architect. The more I explored the career, the more I realized I could leverage my STEM skills and develop that personal humanistic foundation I was looking for. I moved to Boston and enrolled in night school at the Boston Architectural Center, but eventually had trouble finding work during the 1974 recession. By chance, I met the widow of Walter Gropius, Ise, who hired me as a part-time gardener and eventually as an assistant organizing all of Walter’s architectural photographs, letters, publications and clippings. I did this for nine years until her death in 1983. She was an amazing person and a mentor to me.

Did you have a favorite mentor when you were young? What difference has this person made in your life and your approach to problem solving?

There are way too many to name, so I’ll just mention the first one that got me addicted to research. My first science class was in 1962 in eighth grade and was taught by Mrs. Nelle Norman. One day, she introduced us to the scientific method. This got me excited! Growing up in Florida with its diverse flora and fauna, I was always curious about what crawling creatures I could find when turning over a rotting log in the woods near my home. Other than just looking at live specimens in the wild, I knew nothing about it except what I could find in an encyclopedia. Suddenly, I was empowered to actively harness my curiosity by creating hypotheses, designing experiments/controls, and generating data on my own. My perspective of passive observation was totally changed forever when Ms. Norman lectured on the scientific method as an essential tool for humanity to better understand the universe and, as I would later discover, to illuminate the many personal decisions we make in life.

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