Science and Society on the Vineyard

A new speaker series at the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

MIT professor Kevin Esvelt in his lab. —MIT Media Lab

Updated August 23—

Betty Burton is the coordinator of the Adult Lecture Series at the VHPL.

Martha’s Vineyard is proud of how it preserves tradition: We cherish “life in the slow lane.” But this is 2017 and we are part of the modern world, and the latest scientific advancements affect us as much as they do anyone.

To explore how science touches all of us in our everyday lives, the Vineyard Haven Public Library, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is in the middle of an ambitious summer program on the themes of science and society, science, and everyday life. The grant, administered by a program called “Rural Gateways,” with the theme of Pushing the Limits, also funds similar programs in 110 other rural libraries. It allows us to participate in a nationwide reading, viewing, and discussion series. Since the beginning of time, humans have imagined and achieved ways to push the boundaries of the physical world. We want to be stronger, smarter, more aware; with great new advances in science and technology, we are finding ways in which all of us are able to push the limits every day. The Pushing the Limits program will explore these ideas in discussions that will include recommended popular books and feature film-quality videos with authors, scientists, and everyday people who thrive on exploring the natural world. Rural Gateways, Pushing the Limits, is funded not only by NSF but also was created through a collaboration of Dartmouth College, the Califa Library Group, the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, Dawson Media Group, and the Institute for Learning Innovation. The speaker series sponsored by this grant will feature programs both this summer and next winter. A science reading group is also meeting on Mondays at 3 pm every three weeks until Sept. 11.

Some of the programs so far:
Jonathan White presented our very first program, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean.” Mr. White — a lifelong mariner — traveled the globe for 20 years to examine one of the most primal forces on the planet. The result is a gorgeous exploration of the science, mystery, and history of earth’s oceanic tides.

In July, Dr. Daniel Goleman presented “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Transforms Mind, Body, and Brain.Dr. Goleman is an author, psychologist, and science journalist. For 12 years, he wrote for the New York Times, reporting on the brain and behavioral sciences. He is probably best known for his books on emotional intelligence. He has recently written a book with the Dalai Lama, “A Force for Good.”  

On August 10, award-winning science journalist Peter Brannen, presented his new book, “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions.” As new, groundbreaking research suggests that climate change played a major role in the most extreme catastrophes in the planet’s history, Peter took us on a wild ride through the planet’s five mass extinctions and, in the process, offered us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future. 

On August 17, Donald Berwick, MD, MPP FRCP, president emeritus and senior fellow, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, spoke about “Health Care as it Should Be.” A pediatrician, Dr. Berwick has served on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, and on the staff of Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

On Thursday, August 24, at 7 pm, Dr. Henry Kriegstein’s subject will be “Digging for Dinosaurs in the Badlands.” Dr. Kriegstein will describe his passion for paleontology, organizing private digs in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana, and collecting dinosaur fossils. One fossil, which Dr. Kriegstein bought from a collector in Tucson, turned out to be a completely new, previously undiscovered mini T.rex, now named Raptorex kriegsteini. Every summer, Dr. Kriegstein returns to the Badlands and continues his search for fossils. He considers it a philosophical perspective on the mystery of life and the beauty of the mineral-laced fossils.


On Wednesday, August 30, at 6 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, the library will host a panel “CRISPR and Genetic Editing: Uncharted Waters.” Leading scientists and bioethicists from Harvard, MIT, Harvard Kennedy School, Stanford and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will discuss the astounding new techniques that make editing DNA nearly as easy as editing an email (well, that is if you have a degree in molecular genetics). Along with vast potential for curing disease, feeding the world, and eliminating pollution come vexing issues of fairness, safety and morality.


Included on this panel will be Dr. Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard’s Kennedy School. She is one of the world’s leading bioethicists. Simply put, her job is to think and talk about the ethics of the work being done with gene editing. Professor Kevin Esvelt from the MIT Media Lab is director of the Sculpting Evolution group, which invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. Scientists in Dr. Esvelt’s lab are working to engineer tick-borne disease resistant white-footed mice that may one day help prevent these diseases on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Professor Neel Aluru, of the Biological Labs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is in the field of “environmental epigenetics,” which involves studying how environmental factors interact with DNA, “turning genes on or off.” WHOI is one of the premiere institutions in the world for this kind of research. Professor Jeantine Lunshof, is an assistant professor at the Department of Genetics, University Medical Center Groningen, the Netherlands, and currently a visiting professor at Harvard. She is a philosopher and bioethicist, based in the synthetic biology laboratory of Dr. George Church. As an “embedded” ethicist, Dr. Lunshof works with scientists at all stages of their research to help identify potential areas of concern. MV Times science columnist, Professor Emeritus Paul Levine from Stanford, will open with introductory remarks about the short history of genetic engineering from the ’70s. John Sundman will moderate the panel. His background includes writing and speaking at various institutions about CRISPR. This presentation is funded in part by a grant from National Science Foundation and Califa Library Groups.

As part of this grant, we have started a Science Book Club. So far we have read “When the Killing’s Done” by T. C. Boyle and “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson. For each meeting we have viewed interviews by the authors, who discuss their take on the science in their stories. On Monday, August 28, at 3 pm we will discuss “Arctic Drift” by Clive Cussler. The topic of this section is “Survival” and how it fits into our worlds of science. On Monday, Sept. 11, at 3 pm we will discuss “Land of the Painted Caves” by Jean Auel and our subject will be “Knowledge.”

The series will continue into 2018 with more books and speakers to come.


I’m happy to say that getting this grant has prompted me to re-establish our connection to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, both world-class research institutions that you can almost see with the naked eye from Vineyard Haven.

This series has special importance to me. Long before moving to the Vineyard I was a research scientist in molecular biology labs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Boston. A lot of the work I did was pure research on viral DNA, with no immediate real-world impact. But in North Carolina I was part of a research team that worked on a vaccine for Haemophilus influenza Type B. Before the vaccine, it was the leading cause of meningitis and other invasive bacterial diseases among children younger than 5. But my biggest thrill came when I was a graduate student. I was invited to present my research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1978. That was the mecca for all DNA researchers then. I was in the middle of giving my talk when I looked up and saw Francis Crick at the back of the room, standing next to James Watson [geneticists who won the Nobel Prize for solving the structure of DNA], both of them looking right at me. I nearly fainted.

For more information and schedules in one place, visit

Update: The panel on August 30 is at 6pm not 7pm.