Two Harvard faculty members are among 27 scientists nationwide to be appointed as new investigators by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).Adam Cohen, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics, and Hopi Hoekstra, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and molecular and cellular biology, were selected for their individual scientific excellence from more than 1,100 applicants from institutions throughout the United States. As part of the appointments, each will receive flexible support necessary to move their research in creative directions.“HHMI has a very simple mission,” said its president, Robert Tjian. “We find the best original-thinking scientists and give them the resources to follow their instincts in discovering basic biological processes that may one day lead to better medical outcomes. This is a very talented group of scientists. And while we cannot predict where their research will take them, we’re eager to help them move science forward.”Hoekstra, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and molecular and cellular biology, said she plans to use her role at HHMI to focus her lab’s efforts on investigating the link between genes and behavioral variation. Photo by Rick FriedmanHHMI will provide each investigator with his or her full salary, benefits, and a research budget over their initial five-year appointment. The institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. The appointments may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent on a successful scientific review.Jeremy Bloxham, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean of science, hailed the selection of Hoekstra and Cohen.“Hopi’s and Adam’s appointments speak to the exceptional quality of the science performed in these labs,” Bloxham said. “As HHMI investigators, Hopi and Adam will have the freedom to undertake novel and creative lines of inquiry. I look forward to the exciting work that will undoubtedly emerge from their labs as a result of this freedom over the coming years.”Going forward, Hoekstra said she plans to use the award to focus her lab’s efforts on investigating the link between genes and behavioral variation.“In my mind, this is a next great frontier in biology,” she said. “This award will give us the freedom to follow our research where it leads us, to move quickly, and to take risks.”Given the current atmosphere for research funding, she added, being named an HHMI investigator is particularly important, as it will free her up to focus on research.“Federal funding is more and more difficult to secure, so many researchers are spending more and more time writing grant proposals and less and less time doing research,” she said. “Also complicating things is the fact that our work is highly interdisciplinary, which means our research proposals often fall between different funding agencies.“This award will allow us to pursue our most novel and innovative work while maintaining our strength in integrating approaches from across traditional disciplinary boundaries,” she added. “The support of the HHMI will mean I can focus more on the part of my job I love best: thinking creatively about science.”Cohen’s proposal to the HHMI outlined a project whose goal is to take an instantaneous snapshot of the activity state — firing or not firing — of every neuron in the brain of a mouse. The challenge, he said, is that a mouse’s brain consists of about 100 million neurons.“This project has some technical challenges, but I think we can succeed,” Cohen said. “The financial security provided by HHMI is great. Not only does it largely free me from the tedium and terror of applying for federal funds, but it also allows me to adopt a more long-term view of my research. With HHMI support, it becomes possible to tackle really big challenges that might take a few years to yield results.”Of equal importance, Cohen said, is the fact that being an HHMI investigator gives researchers access to a nationwide community of exceptional colleagues, all of whom are working at the cutting edge of their respective fields.“Funding and support are great, but many people have told me that HHMI also provides a unique community,” Cohen said. “They sponsor annual meetings where people at the very forefront of all areas of biological and biomedical research describe their ongoing projects and future dreams. I think it will be incredibly inspiring to participate in these discussions.”In addition to Cohen and Hoekstra, four Harvard Medical School (HMS) faculty members were named HHMI investigators. To learn more about HMS faculty, visit the Harvard Medical School site.
Sports, science and games are three fields often considered to be “boys’ clubs,” but not at USC, where the gender split in the game design program is equal.Although there has been a noticeable increase in female gamers, the majority of game designers remain male, leading to overwhelmingly male characters in games. Many believe that the gaming industry is not female-friendly, but the game design programs at USC are shattering this misconception one student at a time.“In recent years, all the incoming classes have improved in terms of gender split, most notably the B.A. and M.F.A. in the Interactive Media and Games Division, which are 50-50 men and women at both the graduate and undergraduate level,” said Tracy Fullerton, the Chair of the Interactive Media and Games Division at the School of Cinematic Arts.Fullerton has been a game designer for 25 years. Other than chairing the game design program, she is the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair of Interactive Entertainment, director of the USC Game Innovation Lab and director of USC Games. She also teaches in the School of Cinematic Arts.The USC Games program is made up of four degree programs — a bachelor of arts in interactive media and games, a bachelor of science in computer science with an emphasis in games, a master of fine arts and master of science in the same fields.According to Todd Marten’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times, USC admitted 15 men into its graduate track and five women in 2011. In 2015, however, USC admitted 12 women and seven men. In the undergraduate program, seven out of the program’s 27 freshmen were women in 2012. But in 2014, freshmen women outnumbered men 14 to 7, and in 2015 there were equal numbers of men and women.In 2015, USC also retained its number one spot in the Princeton Review’s “Top 25 Undergraduate Schools to Study Game Design,” followed by University of Utah and Digipen Institute of Technology.“Students come to USC Games to learn the fundamental design and development skills that it takes to become a world class designer of games,” Fullerton said.She also said that students learn basic skills such as programming, visual design, interactive design, narrative design, creative and technical direction, audio design, production management and entrepreneurial skills, usability and quality assurance.USC is number one primarily because of the type of games the students produce. Unlike the games currently available in stores, the USC program’s focus lies in innovation.“In terms of our student games specifically, there is a real range,” Fullerton said. “Many of them use cutting edge technologies or techniques, others take on innovative ideas and mechanics.”Part of the reason why students are able to innovate is because, according to Fullerton, they are more willing to take risks.“We are always working with the students to get them to innovate, to express ideas, and to take risks,” Fullerton said. “Because they are in school and not out in the commercial world, these risks can produce quite imaginative and interesting results that make the games very different from those available commercially.”Martzi Campos, a masters student in the game design program, echoed Fullerton’s sentiments.“There’s a big emphasis in the program to push the boundaries of what’s out there,” Campos said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Even the more traditional video-game projects can and do explore new game mechanics and subvert known themes and genres.”In Campos’ experience, students are encouraged to pursue creative solutions.“I have never heard ‘no’ when it comes to an out-of-the-box idea,” she said. “My own thesis is focused around entirely physical puzzles, not digital ones, and while most of the work in the program is digital, I never felt like I was out of bounds for perusing work outside that scope.”Campos earned a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied painting and installation art. Prior to enrolling at USC, she taught preschool art for several years.Currently, Campos is working on her thesis project, “Beautiful Corner.”“It is a physical installation built out of two stage walls and a partial ceiling,” Campos said. “Inside of the space are interactive sculpture puzzles, which, as the player solves them, reveal a story about childhood and magic. As the player explores and solves the mysteries of the room, the room itself reacts though sound and lighting.”Campos drew inspirations for “Beautiful Corner” from room escape games and interactive theater.“I wanted to create a tangible, reactive, magical world that gives the player a chance to not only observe it, but to become a character in it,” Campos said.As is the case with many historically male-dominated fields, gender is a major factor in video game development. The USC program had more female students than males in previous years and currently boasts even numbers of both genders.In recent years, male gamers have often acted as gatekeepers to the gaming world, often perpetuating the harmful stereotype of the “fake geek/gamer girl.” Additionally, the recent incident of Gamergate, where Twitter users harassed prominent female figures in the gaming world, left the gaming community at odds regarding sexism.“I think that Gamergate was a tragic aberration in the development of the industry towards a more inclusive culture,” Fullerton said. “It’s important to note that this was not coming from inside the industry but from a very small, misguided group of people on the Internet who have no real involvement in the industry at all. The less attention paid to them at this point, the better.”Women and other student minorities will be able to be agents of change in the future, Fullerton hopes.“Our environment is extremely open and respectful, so the students are learning in an environment that we hope is how the industry will eventually become,” Fullerton said. “Of course, everyone has worries about their future. I think that our young women and otherwise diverse students hope to be agents of change. They realize that where there is change, there is opportunity.”Campos also felt that such a bias did not exist in USC’s program.“I have been lucky enough to never have to face such attitudes in person — I think that means I must keep good company!” Campos said. “The stereotype of a fake gamer girl is still a bit of a specter that can haunt you.”Campos said that there is an outside societal pressure for women to understand games they are not interested in.“I think I put pressure on myself sometimes to understand games I am not terribly interested in, just to make sure I can’t get called out for not knowing something,” Campos said. “No one’s putting that pressure on me, but I feel it all the same. It’s more than just the desire to be up-to-date or simply knowledgeable in my field. There is a self-inflicted social pressure to make sure I don’t ‘embarrass’ myself, which is ridiculous, but there it is.”For Campos, USC’s inclusive program is working to dispel the stereotype of women in the industry.“As a student you can feel that the program is focused and committed to not only fostering new women into the field but also bringing in inspirational women in the industry to share and learn from,” Campos said.The program is also groundbreaking in that, soon, USC Games will be publishing the games that students create.“This first-ever academic publishing label will curate important independent and experimental titles,” Fullerton said.These games will then be published by USC students on consoles, PC/Mac and mobile.“USC Games is already known for turning out the highest quality of young game developers and innovative projects, and now we are taking that reputation and extending to the realm of publishing,” Fullerton added.USC Games will facilitate the launch of student-developed games.“The publishing process will be independently funded by their developers, and USC Games will offer guidance and quality assurance in getting the projects onto consoles, PR around the launch and a relationship with players built on our existing reputation,” Fullerton said.Similarly, for Campos, the best aspects of the program are the faculty and staff, a sentiment she believes is shared by her fellow classmates.“[The faculty and staff] are so talented and truly care about the students the work that they create,” Campos said. “I have had such inspiring and encouraging mentors in my three years in the program.”