2014 Bostonians of the Year: Honorable mentions
Nine more of 2014’s most remarkable citizens.
Pardis Sabeti, Stephen Gire, and teammates shed light on Ebola
The team at the Broad Institute and Harvard sequenced the deadly virus’s genome, providing rapid yet accurate facts and analysis.
In a year when the twin forces of hysteria and misinformation made the deadly Ebola virus even more ferocious, Harvard computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti, research scientist Stephen Gire, and the other members of Sabeti’s team at the Broad Institute and Harvard worked heroically to provide a potent antidote: rapid yet accurate facts and analysis.
In late May, well before Ebola became the panic flavor of the moment for cable news, the Sabeti team grasped how serious the threat had become and mobilized to lessen the devastation. That’s when their colleagues on the front lines in Sierra Leone e-mailed them the image of a cell, asking for a confirmation that it was Ebola.
The outbreak had begun in Guinea in December 2013, though it wasn’t confirmed until March of this year, by which point it had already spread to Liberia. Sabeti’s team had hoped the outbreak might be contained there. But when Gire looked at the slide in May, his heart sank. It had spread to Sierra Leone as well.
Members of the Sabeti lab had been working in West Africa for years, refining their techniques for using computational genetics and other cutting-edge tools to confront the lethal threat of Lassa fever, Ebola, and other viral hemorrhagic fevers.
Sabeti, a 38-year-old Boston resident, knew her team could best help by using its brainpower to deliver fast and scientifically rigorous answers. In June, they began work to provide nearly 100 complete sequences of the Ebola genome, using samples that had been collected from 78 patients in Sierra Leone. “It took us three years to sequence 100 Lassa fever genomes,” Sabeti says. “And it took us seven days to sequence 100 Ebola genomes.” Members of her 22-member team in Cambridge worked round-the-clock to do the sequencing and analysis.
In July, when the outbreak was galloping throughout West Africa, 32-year-old Gire and colleague Nathan Yozwiak headed to Sierra Leone. They helped the team there improve existing laboratory protocols while also transmitting real-time analysis from the group back in Cambridge to give government and medical officials the equivalent of “actionable intelligence.”
By the end of the summer, co-first author Gire and co-senior author Sabeti, joined by about 50 coauthors, published a remarkable paper in Science . Their findings pinpointed the origins of the latest incarnation of Ebola and gave valuable insights into how quickly it is mutating. This information is being used to improve the effectiveness of treatment approaches for the virus and to advance the hunt for a reliable vaccine and the development of a rapid diagnostic tool along the lines of a pregnancy stick test.
The urgency of the crisis showcased an expertise that Boston’s research community in general, and Kendall Square’s Broad Institute in particular, is leading the way in: team science. The theory behind this approach is that, with coordination, collaboration, and transparent data-sharing, researchers can move so much faster and accomplish so much more than would ever be possible in the silo-dominated world of traditional science. The performance of Sabeti’s team on Ebola turned into a demonstration project of that theory.
Late this fall, the team began another round of marathon sequencing and analysis, working with hundreds more samples to discern how and where the virus has continued to mutate.
The team’s paper in Science provided a crucial baseline that will be the foundation for future Ebola research. As a tragic symbol of the virus’s indiscriminate power, however, by the time the paper was published, Ebola had claimed the lives of five of its African coauthors.
Gire admits that he wondered what he was getting himself into when he headed into the hot zone last summer. Still, the Bostonian says, “it’s rare that you get a moment where you can actually utilize your skills for something that matters so much. I really had no choice.”
— Neil Swidey
Pete Frates’s Ice Bucket Challenge did the trick
The former Boston College baseball captain raised massive amounts of money and awareness.
This is how hideous and hopeless a disease ALS has been ever since Lou Gehrig put it on the map 75 years ago. Pete Frates’s mother, Nancy, says that as she drove to Massachusetts General Hospital in March 2012 for a follow-up day of testing, knowing that the incurable neurodegenerative disease was the more likely of two possible diagnoses for her son, “I was saying Hail Marys, praying that Pete had spinal cancer.”
With spinal cancer, there’s at least some hope of effective treatment. With ALS, says Pete’s dad, John, “the batting average is zero.”
ALS patients see their body wither in the cruelest way. Typically, they disappear from their public lives and are dead in two to five years. Yet this past summer, even as ALS had robbed him of his ability to walk and speak, Pete Frates went public in a dramatic and courageous manner. The Beverly resident took a friend and fellow patient’s clever idea for using a bucket of ice water to raise awareness about ALS and he sparked a global movement.
The 29-year-old former captain of the Boston College baseball team would refer to so many sports notables as his friends that his sister used to joke: “Pete is such a name-dropper.” Only after his Ice Bucket Challenge had inspired big names from the Patriots, the Bruins, the Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves, and beyond did his family realize just how vast and passionate his network was.
When his campaign was done, it had reshaped the profile of an orphan disease. It raised $115 million for the ALS Association, enabling the organization to triple its research budget and energizing the wider scientific community. “The impact Pete has made is unprecedented,” says Lucie Bruijn, the association’s chief scientist. “I travel all over the world, and now everyone knows of ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge.” The thirst for knowledge about the disease rose as dramatically as the charitable giving. In August, the number of monthly hits to the ALS page of Wikipedia surged from its usual average of 163,000 to nearly 3 million.
Frates and his wife, Julie, welcomed their first child, Lucy, into the world at the end of the summer. He knows that none of the research advances will come in time to stop his slide. Still, his inspired leadership should help improve the fates of future patients. “Lou Gehrig has been the face of the disease,” Pete’s father says. “But someday, when there is a treatment and even a cure, maybe Pete will be the face of that.”
— Neil Swidey
Harvard Lampoon editor Alexis Wilkinson cemented her funny status
The comic and Harvard senior had a roller coaster year.
Alexis Wilkinson is just starting to get her head around her roller coaster year. Last December, she became the first black female to be elected editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the 138-year-old Harvard University humor publication whose alums include George Plimpton, John Updike, Conan O’Brien, and B.J. Novak. “The media attention was not expected,” 22-year-old Wilkinson says of the spotlight that came with the job. “It’s been a lot of high highs.”
Yet just as she was becoming a national name in comedy, Wilkinson experienced great loss. In February, her roommate and friend Angela Mathew died in a car accident on the way back from a mock trial competition. “How am I supposed to lead a comedy organization and take interviews and go to class and function like a normal person without her?” Wilkinson wrote in the online magazine xoJane.com. But she was determined to go on, fueled by one of Mathew’s last texts, which said, “I love you so much Alexis. Now go out there and be funny.”
So that’s what Wilkinson did. She spent the year being her subversive, sarcastic, ambitious self. She pushed the Lampoon into the digital age (finally) with a Huffington Post spoof that ran for a few weeks. She wrote for Cosmo . Just this month she was onstage at Harvard with Seth Rogen and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead talking about comedy and politics; it was one of her last gigs as Lampoon editor, a title she’ll pass down at the end of this month. “I’m excited and scared to be a real adult,” she says of graduation in May. “I want to write. I think I’m going to move to New York.”
— Meredith Goldstein
HubSpot’s Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan nurtured innovation
The founders of the Cambridge marketing software company are happy to support other entrepreneurs.
HubSpot cofounder Dharmesh Shah made a confession on his blog last month: Neither he nor his cofounder, Brian Halligan, had any decent pants to wear for their Cambridge company’s debut day on the New York Stock Exchange in October. “I wear jeans every day,” wrote Shah, 47, but the stock exchange’s dress code prohibits them. A clothing crisis was averted with a quick shopping stop in San Francisco, and on IPO day the founders were properly attired — and the stock offering raised $125 million from investors.
Jeans in the office, craft beer on tap, and a tropical-themed nap room are just a few of the things that create a unique corporate culture at HubSpot, which sells software that tries to bring more visitors to a company’s website — and then get them to buy. But the company’s founders are focused on more than just workplace perks that will lure top talent. From the company’s start in 2006, shortly after the duo graduated from MIT Sloan School of Management, “we had this implicit founders’ agreement that this would be our big swing,” says Shah. “We didn’t want a modest outcome. We made the agreement that if we go down, we’ll go down in burning flames.”
“There’s tons of startups in Boston,” says the 47-year-old Halligan, “but there are very few anchor companies. We want to build one of those.” HubSpot now has 767 employees and outposts in Dublin and Sydney.
Yet perhaps most commendable is that the founders of a company still very much in its growth phase are happy to support HubSpotters who want to go off and pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams. Shah has made about 60 “angel” investments in startup companies — six of them founded by former HubSpot employees in Boston. HubSpot’s success, he says, gives those founders “the opportunity to point at us and say, ‘You can build something big in Boston.’ ”
— Scott Kirsner
Salem mayor Kim Driscoll gave the gift of acceptance
The leader voided Gordon College’s city contract after the school’s policy on homosexuals came to light.
In 1692, Puritan leaders presiding over the Salem witch trials sent 20 men and women to their deaths. This shameful chapter in the city’s history has become, more than three centuries later, the stuff of spectral kitsch, especially come Halloween. For Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, though, the purge holds real lessons about intolerance.
Driscoll learned in early July that Gordon College, a Christian school in nearby Wenham, explicitly prohibited students, staff, and faculty from “homosexual practice.” The policy came to light after Gordon’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, signed a letter asking President Obama to exempt religious organizations from a federal order banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Salem had made a point of welcoming the LGBT community, hosting the North Shore’s first gay pride parade in 2012, for example. In March 2014, the city adopted a fully inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance. Gordon had, since 2008, held a city contract to operate Salem’s Old Town Hall. It became clear to Driscoll that the agreement, given the college’s gay-unfriendly language, didn’t conform to the new city law. So she voided it.
The action was largely symbolic — the city was weeks away from resuming control of the building anyway. But Driscoll’s move, publicized on theblaze.com, the website of former Fox News host Glenn Beck, invited a flood of conservative protest, much of it from out of state. As calls and e-mails poured in, Driscoll got an idea. For every nasty or negative comment, she would give $5 to the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth.
In the end, she won more praise than scorn — and Gordon officials say they bear Salem no ill will. But the scorn paid dividends: Driscoll, a 48-year-old considered an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party, donated $815 in campaign funds and attracted another $13,000 or so from others. The true gift was even bigger. “These kids who feel so disenfranchised at times saw that there’s like all this love and hope and admiration and acceptance,” she says. “That was a really good feeling.”
— Scott Helman
New BSO music director Andris Nelsons delivered excitement
The conductor has connected with Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences and musicians.
“I am depriving Europe of my art in order to give your town the best of my artistry,” Serge Koussevitzky, the ninth music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, once said. Maybe soon we’ll say the quote could just as well belong to Andris Nelsons, the 15th, who twisted and crouched and thrust his baton into the air as he conducted the orchestra and the 130-voice Tanglewood Festival Chorus in John Harbison’s “Koussevitzky Said:” at Symphony Hall in late November.
Latvian conductor Nelsons assumed the post formally in September amid high expectations. After the gradual unraveling of the James Levine era amid health problems and cancellations, followed by three years without a music director, the BSO needed a young and vigorous leader who could connect with audiences and musicians alike and provide a focus missing during many months of guest conductors. The 36-year-old Nelsons is also hoped to become the public face of the institution in ways that the brilliant but remote Levine never was.
It’s early days, but many critics have noted Nelsons’s unmistakable chemistry with the orchestra and its public. “It’s also never a bad sign when audience members can be spotted afterward, singing on the sidewalks,” Globe critic Jeremy Eichler wrote after one November performance. The BSO says it has reached its subscription goal for the year, after modest sales declines the past three seasons, and concerts with Nelsons on the podium have been 87 percent sold. The orchestra is already releasing its first CD and digital download of Nelsons-led performances on in-house label BSO Classics this month.
Nelsons is in his final season conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, but he isn’t exactly depriving Europe. Next summer, after presiding over the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center, he’ll lead the BSO on an eight-city European tour.
— Joel Brown
Coach Derek Herber proved to be a true sportsman
The history teacher who oversaw boys varsity track at North Attleborough High School did the right thing and cost his team the win.
If, as legendary coach John Wooden once said, the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching, Derek Herber’s pop quiz came during a Monday morning study period. The history teacher and then boys varsity track coach at North Attleborough High School was using the down time to enter results into his record book from the previous day’s meet.
That Sunday contest in June had been a momentous one for him and his track team, making them Division 2 state champions. But as Herber sat as his desk entering the individual scores, he felt a pit in his gut. “Holy crap,” the 41-year-old mumbled to himself. He noticed that in one race, the official scorers had recorded one of his athletes in second rather than seventh place. Correcting that error would be enough to strip his team of the title.
Herber didn’t hesitate. He informed the state that the trophy should go instead to the team from Central Catholic in Lawrence. “It’s hard to tell your kids you left as champions on Sunday but on Monday you’re not,” he says.
Understandably, his guys were crushed. But then something unexpected happened. Herber and his boys found themselves being heralded. “When we won the state title the previous year, I did one interview,” he says. “Since we lost the title this year, I’ve done 34.” Last month, the St. Louis Sports Commission flew him and his wife to Missouri so he could collect a sportsmanship award named after baseball great Stan Musial.
It may be a sad commentary on our winning-is-everything sports culture that one high school coach’s decision to do the right thing should seem so noteworthy. Still, there’s no better remedy for that corrosive culture than honorable acts like his.
— Neil Swidey
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