Tufts faculty share what inspires and motivates them about the year before us—and what gives them the confidence that positive change is possible
“What gives you hope?” That was the question Tufts Now posed to university faculty members last month as they prepared to turn the page on 2023 and welcome in the new year. We hope that their responses inspire you to consider what you’re most excited and optimistic about as 2024 gets underway.
Deborah Schildkraut, professor of political science, School of Arts and Sciences
Every semester, I find renewed hope and optimism when I start a new set of courses with a new group of students. The topics covered in my classes can be difficult, not only in terms of how much work they require, but also because they touch on issues that people feel strongly about and that have major consequences in people’s lives—issues including immigration, group identities, discrimination, political polarization, political representation, resentment, stalemate, and compromise.
Tufts students always impress me with their ability to approach our course content with a combination of passion, rigor, and thoughtfulness. So, in the new year, I’m hopeful about being a part of helping another group of students navigate challenging topics together.
Kelly Sims Gallagher, F00, F03, professor of energy and environmental policy and dean ad interim, The Fletcher School
As a professor of energy and environmental policy and founding director of Fletcher’s Climate Policy Lab, I honestly find myself daunted by the magnitude of the global environmental challenges we face today: stress on available fresh water, plastics pollution in the oceans, and record-breaking greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures in 2023, to name just a few.
But I have plenty of hope because of the people we have at Tufts and Fletcher who are finding and advancing solutions to these intractable challenges. When I returned from the 28th round of global climate negotiations, I was so heartened to see recent alumni such as Lily Hartzell, A18, F23, sitting in the chair as a U.S. government negotiator, Timothy Afful-Koomsin, FG00, working to mobilize private sector finance in Africa with the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, and Easwaran Narassimhan, F15, FG21, who is launching a new think tank in India called the Sustainable Futures Collaborative. With such talent, energy, and determination, I know that we can collectively make a difference.
Penn Loh, distinguished senior lecturer of urban and environmental policy and planning, School of Arts and Sciences
2024 holds hope for those in the city of Boston who have been struggling for racial and economic justice. The city’s first Participatory Budgeting (PB) process will begin next year. PB was won in 2021 by a community coalition seeking to invest in Black Lives and address structural inequities endured by communities of color. Voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure changing Boston’s city charter (i.e., municipal constitution) to establish an Office of Participatory Budgeting.
Over the past two years, Tufts UEP graduate students and I have helped support the Better Budget Alliance to envision how this process might unfold. PB empowers residents to decide together on how government budgets are spent. First developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, PB has spread to more than 7,000 cities globally.
In our region, the City of Cambridge has held annual PB processes since 2014, and Somerville instituted its first PB cycle this year. Boston’s process will be one of the largest in the U.S. It also dedicates funds from both operating and capital budgets, giving greater flexibility for the projects that can be supported by PB.
Though Mayor Wu has allocated only $4 million towards this process (~0.1% of the annual operating budget), the inaugural year will be a critical window to build the foundation for a robust, democratic PB process.
PB offers an opportunity, but not a guarantee, for residents to learn together, develop solutions, and become more effective citizens. If done well, PB can address historical racial inequities, build the power of marginalized communities, and inspire more trust in government.
Chris Dulla, professor and interim chair of the neuroscience department, School of Medicine
I am very excited for the growth of research around how glial cells, in particular astrocytes, contribute to Alzheimer's disease (AD) and brain aging. Collaborations between my lab and the labs of my colleagues Giuseppina Tesco and Miranda Good are uncovering exciting connections between the vasculature, astrocytes, brain, and AD.
Collaborations between Yongjie Yang, Alexei Degterev, and Larry Feig are showing that astrocytes can affect neurons throughout the body. We’re getting closer to being able to develop novel approaches to treat epilepsy, mood disorders, and more, thanks to collaborations between Steve Moss, Jamie Maguire, and their industry partners. And finally, our work with industry partners to develop gene therapy approaches for epilepsy is making me optimistic about the future.
David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor and Distinguished University Professor, School of Engineering
In the last decade, cultivated meat has gone from a fringe idea to a commercial product regulated by governments around the world. However, the industry is still in its infancy with many questions to answer and challenges to overcome if we are to bring cellular agriculture to consumers at scale.
I am optimistic that we will achieve this goal, as the technology required to generate food via tissue engineering exists, and more importantly, an amazing team of students is driving progress in the field.
The students studying cellular agriculture are passionate about growing this new technology to have a positive impact in the world, and many have pivoted their careers after seeing how impactful this research can be. The next generation of scientists are seeking creative ways to use their expertise to make the world a better place. Cultivated meat offers a new path for these mission-driven researchers, providing an important alternative to intensive livestock farming.
Last fall, Tufts launched the world’s first undergraduate degree in cellular agriculture, which trains students with the specific set of skills they need to be leaders in this emerging field. The degree is an inflection point, signaling to the next generation that cellular agriculture is a viable career path. I expect other universities will follow suit, developing a workforce of informed citizens intent on building a brighter future.
Leslie Sharkey, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVP, professor and chair of clinical sciences, Cummings School
I’m excited about all the new faculty we have in the department to work on new initiatives and challenges, because they come from a lot of different places, including private practice and academia, and some are international. Even though the search for each job candidate can be hard, and each new person brings the responsibility for Cummings School to take good care of them, it’s an exciting time for us to feel like we’re growing.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Newhouse Director, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life
As a scholar of youth civic and political engagement, I feel hopeful about a new generation that has been finding their voice and wielding their power as leaders in our shared democracy.
In recent years, we have tracked historic levels of youth voter turnout, witnessed young people lead social movements, and seen youth step into local and national leadership by running for office. CIRCLE’s recent survey of young people reveals those trends could continue: a majority of youth say they’re extremely likely to vote in 2024, and most young people feel like they have the power to take action on issues they care about.
I often have the privilege of seeing young people’s passion, commitment, and expertise firsthand. For example, in partnership with Annie E. Casey Foundation, my colleagues and I get to support youth who contribute their communities’ lived experiences into the design of high-impact research.
Recently, one young person described the adults whom they work with in this initiative as “co-conspirators” in these efforts to change how youth input is incorporated into decision-making. That’s what I want to be, alongside the older adults who also inspire me by being positive co-conspirators: teachers, parents, and community leaders.
The efforts of youth should make us all feel hopeful. But I hope they also serve as a call to action: a reminder of how far we still have to go to have a representative, equitable democracy, and of the work each of us can do to get there.
Jake Jinkun Chen, professor of periodontology and director, division of oral biology, School of Dental Medicine
Investigating the connections between oral/dental disorders and systemic diseases is a crucial area of study, with far-reaching implications for human health. Understanding these mechanisms could pave the way for innovative prevention and treatment strategies.
Among the promising avenues my lab is exploring is the role of epigenetics—how environment and human behavior affect the way genes work—in the development and progression of diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disease.
In 2022, we documented how bacteria that cause periodontal disease can also infiltrate the nervous system tissues and exacerbate signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. We are now investigating the role of a novel non-coding RNA molecule that can possibly act as a “sponge” or “decoy” to alter the expression of genes or proteins associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. We hope insights from this work will open up new possibilities for targeted therapies and interventions.
Hellen Amuguni, STOP Spillover project director and associate professor, Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
As we start 2024 with a new leadership team in place for Strategies to Prevent Spillover (STOP Spillover), we are excited about our vision to help avert epidemics and pandemics.
With the help of our consortium partners around the world, we are preparing countries to identify places where viruses are likely to make the jump from animals to humans, control zoonotic diseases at their source, and develop interventions that reduce risks of exposure in human populations.
Many of the high-risk interfaces for spillover are hiding in plain sight. Live bird markets in Bangladesh, wild meat markets in Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, wildlife farms in Vietnam—all are environments that create opportunity for cross-species transmission and spillover of pathogen.
Working closely with amazing country teams and government counterparts, we are making progress. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, through a partnership with poultry industry executives and in consultation with stakeholders, we have successfully rehabilitated a poultry shop through biosafety improvements. The site will be used to demonstrate to consumers how increased biosafety can mean a higher quality and more hygienic product.
In Cote d’Ivoire, we have been sampling open sewage streams for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to show that such monitoring is possible even in places without piped sewage infrastructure. Systematic waste-stream surveillance in the future will provide an early warning system for detecting case increases in communities.
In this way, continuing Tufts’ long-standing tradition of addressing complex global health challenges gives me hope.