MODERATOR: Josh Tenenbaum
PARTICIPANTS: Eric Lander, Mary-Claire King
PROGRAM DATE: Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pioneers in Science is an annual program that gives middle and high school students the rare opportunity to interact with world-renowned scientists. In this installment, groundbreaking geneticists and humanitarians Eric Lander and Mary-Claire King met live and online with local New York City high school students and others from around the globe. During the weeks leading up to the event, invited students from various schools immersed themselves in the work of these pioneering scientists. In partnership with the Global Nomads Group, the program offered students the unique opportunity to learn about the lives and follow in the footsteps of trailblazing scientists.

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Cognitive Scientist

Josh Tenenbaum is a professor of Computational Cognitive Science in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He studies learning, reasoning and perception in humans and machines, with the twin goals of understanding human intelligence in computational terms and bringing computers closer to human capacities.

He and his collaborators have pioneered accounts of human intelligence based on inference in sophisticated probabilistic models. His current work focuses on understanding how people come to be able to learn new concepts from very sparse data—how we “learn to learn”—and on characterizing the nature and origins of people’s intuitive theories about the physical and social worlds.

Tenenbaum received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1999, and was a member of the Stanford University faculty in Psychology and (by courtesy) Computer Science from 1999 to 2002. Several of his papers have received outstanding paper awards or best student paper awards at the IEEE Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), NIPS, and Cognitive Science conferences. He is the recipient of the New Investigator Award from the Society for Mathematical Psychology (2005), the Early Investigator Award from the Society of Experimental Psychologists (2007), the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association (2008), and the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences (2011).

Photo Credit – Donna Coveney


Biologist, Mathematician, and Geneticist

Eric Lander was one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project, which from 1990-2003 mapped the human genetic code. He has pioneered the application of genomics to the understanding human disease.

Lander serves as President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute, a new kind of collaborative research institution founded in 2004 that brings together more than 1500 scientists from across Harvard, MIT and the Harvard hospitals to tackle important challenges in biomedicine. The Broad Institute has been a flagship for many international projects in genomics. Lander is also the professor of biology at MIT and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Lander’s own scientific work has spanned genome analysis, population genetics, cancer, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and evolutionary biology.

A graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Princeton University in New Jersey, and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, Lander was trained as a mathematician. In the early 1980s, he began to learn biology and genetics. In 1990, he launched one of the first genome centers in the world at MIT.

In 2008, Lander was appointed by President Obama to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). PCAST is a council of 20 of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, charged with providing direct advice to the president on matters of science and technology.

Lander has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, including the MacArthur Prize Fellowship, Canada’s Gairdner Prize and the Albany Prize in Medicine. He is particularly proud of winning MIT’s award for undergraduate teaching, and continues to teach introductory biology to MIT freshman.

Photo credit – Len Rubenstein

Human Geneticist, Humanitarian

Mary-Claire King, PhD, is American Cancer Society Professor in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. She was the first to show that breast cancer is inherited in some families, as the result of mutations in the gene that she named BRCA1. In addition to inherited breast and ovarian cancer, her research interests include the genetic bases of schizophrenia, the genetic causes of congenital Mendelian disorders, and human genetic diversity and evolution. She pioneered the use of DNA sequencing for human rights investigations, developing the approach of sequencing mitochondrial DNA preserved in human remains, then applying this method to the identification of kidnapped children in Argentina and subsequently to cases of human rights violations on six continents.

Dr. King grew up in Chicago. She received her BA cum laude in Mathematics from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; her PhD in Genetics from the University of California at Berkeley; and her postdoctoral training at UC San Francisco. Her PhD dissertation with Allan Wilson in 1973 was the demonstration that protein coding sequences of humans and chimpanzees are 99% identical. She was professor at UC Berkeley from 1976-1995 and at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1995.

Dr. King has served on the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH; the National Commission on Breast Cancer of the President’s Cancer Panel; the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP); and multiple councils and study sections of the NIH and the National Academy of Sciences. She was consultant to the Commission on the Disappearance of Persons of the Republic of Argentina and carried out DNA identifications for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunals. She is past president of the American Society of Human Genetics and currently a member of the Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. King has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to the Institute of Medicine, to the American Philosophical Society, and as a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences. She received the Clowes Award in Basic Research from the American Association for Cancer Research, the Genetics Award from the Gruber Foundation, the Weizmann Award for Women and Science, the Heineken Prize for Medicine from the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor for Clinical Research, the American Society of Clinical Oncology Award for Basic Science, and the University of California Medal. She has received 13 honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Leuven (Belgium) Tel Aviv (Israel), and Ben Gurion (Israel) Universities; the State University of New York; and Carleton, Smith, Bard, and Dartmouth Colleges.