Manolis Kellis ’99, MNG ’99, PhD ’03 opened his TEDx Cambridge talk on September 13 with a romantic story.
“In Greece, my grandparents’ chromosomes met and it was love at first sight,” he said. “Three myosis events later, through my dad and through my mom, they gave rise to my chromosomes, a new and unique combination.”
Those in the audience at the Broad Institute auditorium and watching the talk outside in Technology Square on the crisp late-summer night were grateful for Kellis’s genetic journey. After all, it brought them a delightful talk, and more importantly, one of today’s best thinkers on science, genetics, and artificial intelligence.
Kellis, now an associate professor of computer science at MIT, projected his genome on the screen, one which revealed a genetic predisposition to macular degeneration. He then imagined aloud how doctors might treat such a condition in a future guided by genetic sequencing.
“How do we enable personalized genetics, personalized diagnosis?” he asked. “We need a systematic understanding of every single nucleotide in your genome. That’s what the analysis revolution is about. In past 10 years my lab has developed a series of computational techniques, understanding genes now at an unprecedented level of detail.”
Kellis was one of eight speakers at this year’s TEDx Cambridge event, named with an “x” to signify its independently-organized flavor in a community.
Of the eight who spoke, five came from MIT, including planetary scientist and recent MacArthur Award recipient Sara Seager, MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor of Operations Management Zeynep Ton, and Media Lab graduate students Deepak Jagdish and Daniel Smilkov. Watch their talks on the TEDx website.
Professor Ton addressed bad jobs in America and offered a model in her case study of Mercadona, a Spanish supermarket chain that captured a higher market share than Walmart thanks to her four prescribed tactics: operating with slack, offering fewer products, cross-training employees, and standardizing and empowering their work.
To the audience, Ton implored: “Vote with your feet: dine or shop at places that offer good jobs…companies lack long-term thinking. But everyone wins [in this method]–customers, employees and investors. We need more companies to follow it.”
The two explained the serendipity in launching a tool that aggregates and displays one’s entire email inbox in the same month that the NSA email-scandal emerged. Still, they shared some of their great insights on metadata, enormous amounts of which have been collected through the program.
“We leave behind unique digital traces,” Smilkov said. “What we lack are tools that can help us revisit and learn from our own digital trail.”
The last presentation came from Sara Seager, who took audience members on a journey to exoplanets in deep space, ones that her lab, along with Northrup Grummond and Cal Tech, has studied with a unique combination of telescopes and a star shade. Seager displayed a video of the star shade opening and closing before it was launched into space, where it will block out the light from suns to expose the planets orbiting them.
“I believe that in our lifetime, we will be able to take children to a dark sky, and point to a star and say ‘that star has a planet with signs of life in its atmosphere. That star has a planet like earth,’” said Seager. “And I am going to be devoting the rest of my life to make this happen.”