Q&A with CSE alumnus Anthony Tabet

CSE alumnus starts science policy journal at MIT

October 14, 2020

As an advocate for policy change with an extensive science-based education, Anthony Tabet saw an opportunity to combine his interests and fulfill a need at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Tabet, a recent University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering graduate and current Ph.D. student at MIT, created the MIT Science Policy Review, a free journal that seeks to provide accessible, educated discussion on critical scientific topics and how they relate to public policy. Tabet says it is the very first-of-its-kind and, hopefully, not the last. The first volume, available online, was released on Aug. 20, 2020, sparking engagement from the MIT community and beyond. 

Tabet earned his B.S. in Chemical Engineering in 2017. During his years at CSE, Tabet received the college’s Vahhaji Family Scholarship and the Lee S. Whitson Scholarship. Plus, two competitive nationwide awards: the Astronaut Scholarship and the Churchill Scholarship. The latter led him to the University of Cambridge in England, where he obtained his M.Phil in Chemistry.

In this Q&A, Tabet discusses his educational background and why he founded the MIT Science Policy Review.

What are you studying now?

My research interest is in making new electronic and optical tools that can be implanted into the brain and can be used to study and control the nervous and immune system in the brain in health and disease. In my Ph.D., I will be honing in on glioblastoma. It’s a death sentence, an incurable cancer with abysmal patient outcomes. Instead of trying to cure it with slight modifications to approaches we know don't really work, I’m interested in using engineering tools to study the disease. I'm making new tools to study how the nervous and immune systems in the brain can be hijacked by the cancer to promote its growth.

It builds quite nicely on my training at the University of Minnesota and Cambridge.

At the University of Minnesota, I learned about how to make polymeric materials and use chemical tricks to give them certain properties. When I went to Cambridge, I utilized a lot of that materials training to make brain-mimetic materials. At MIT, I’m really focused on the biology and I’m using a lot of what I learned on gels from Minnesota and Cambridge to support this biological research.

What inspired you to create the MIT Science Policy Review? 

Before I did science, my first career was in politics. My first job was an internship with Keith Ellison, who at the time was the Minnesota congressman of the fifth congressional district that Ilhan Omar now represents. That really sparked my interest in policy. At MIT, I became involved with the MIT Science Policy Initiative, which is a group that teaches graduate students how to interface with policy, helps set people up for a career in science policy, and does this really fun activity in the spring semester called Congressional Visit Day where they send graduate students to the U.S. Congress to meet with members of Congress or their staff.

Later that summer, I was at the Massachusetts state capitol meeting with staff of the state senator about creating a connection with the MIT Science Policy Initiative and the state house. Outside the building, I was just chatting with a friend who was with me for that meeting, and I said, “I really wish there was a Harvard Law Review for science policy at MIT.” His immediate next statement was, “So you want to start a science policy review?” I went home that day and bought all the domains, got the Twitter handle, started working on the website, and sent an email out to some folks asking if they wanted to be involved. That email was forwarded to hundreds of people and within a few days a couple hundred people emailed me asking how to get involved.

Why did you see a need for the journal? How does it impact dialogue between scientists and policymakers? 

I think COVID-19 put a spotlight on something that’s already been true for a while, which is that the challenges of the 21st century are so deeply technical and convoluted that scientists need to play a more thoughtful and proactive role in shaping policy and discussion around policy.

COVID and vaccine development and how you reduce the spread of the virus via masks and social distancing is just one example.

There are hundreds of articles you can write about climate change, such as how it's affecting our food supplies or people's homes with rising sea levels. There’s commercialized artificial intelligence and how it interfaces with medical privacy. There are autonomous vehicles and how you program those cars to make very specific ethical choices. There’s gender and racial discrimination, both in the United States more broadly, and specifically in academia.

These are just a few examples of many, many topics where it is both so urgent and complex. You can't solve the problem in 10 minutes. You really need to get data, think about the problem holistically and have an approach that’s driven by science to solve it. This is especially true in problems where “conventional wisdom” or intuition do not align with reality, sometimes because our intuition or our intuitions have inherent bias that must be weeded out.

Where do you see the future of the journal going? 

I've stepped down from my editor-in-chief role and passed it on to a superbly qualified MIT individual graduate student Yana Petri. I see my role now shifting to an emeritus position that finds what new direction we could take the journal. We just published an article about how universities can specifically curtail climate change by limiting the use of a very specific chemical called a halocarbon. I could see the organization having a role in pushing MIT or other universities to adopt policies to cut down the use of that chemical.

Where I see the journal now is a place where people can go for a definitive, authoritative, yet jargon-free review on a specific topic, and they can now see their policy options and engage with the authors on how to address that issue if they want to.

How has your education at the University of Minnesota prepared you for what you’re working on now?

I’m an immigrant from the Middle East. I came to Minnesota when I was a kid, and I could not have asked for more personally from the University. I took my first college classes when I was 16. I was a full-time student at the University of Minnesota through the PSEO program, and that led me to my internship with Keith Ellison and really planted the seed of my interest in policy.

That program also let me start working in a University lab when I was 17—in Aaron Massari’s lab, where I learned about polymers in chemistry and how you study the natural world and make new chemicals to tune that interaction. That led me to another research experience with biomedical engineering professor Chun Wang, and that was when I really sunk my teeth into biomedical science.

All of those things are possible because the University of Minnesota invested in my education early on during PSEO, which led to all these opportunities that they provided.

On top of it, my chemical engineering bachelor's degree from the University is world-class. I could really tell when I came to MIT that they trained me well. The education, the opportunities, the community, and the diverse student body all make it a fantastic environment to just grow up in and find your passions in.

For more on Anthony Tabet’s time at the University of Minnesota, read CSE News.

Story by Kathryn Richner