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Global Dispatches: Summer 2021

Redefining Vulnerability

by Rachel McMahon

According to the Fall 2020 NCAA Well-Being Study, mental health concerns in student-athletes have doubled over the course of the pandemic. Athletes were already an at risk population. Female athletes are three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-athletes and athletes experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at more than twice the rate of the general population. Despite these challenges, mental health concerns are underreported in the athlete community. The culture of toughness undermines healing and discourages athletes from seeking support.

Over the past year, professional athletes, often icons of resilience and superhuman strength, have opened up about their mental health struggles. These acts of vulnerability have encouraged prioritizing mental health support in the athlete community and beyond. In a time of global grief, efforts to collapse the categories of strength and weakness can help pave the way toward healing. Galea, a platform founded by college athletes, connects athletes with therapists who understand the athlete experience. The platform offers athletes a space to share stories that nuance the narrative of mental health in athletics. Through empathy, therapy, and storytelling, Galea hopes to continue to blur the line between vulnerability and strength.

A dispatch from the MIT MSEAS lab working on predictive models to treat an aggressive cancer

by Ali Daher

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and aggressive form of primary brain tumour. The characterisation of these tumours is challenging due to their stochastic behaviour, a term scientists use to account for the tumours’ complex, variable activity. With less than 5% of patients surviving five years following diagnosis, these tumours present unique treatment challenges. Hence, a predictive, mathematical model of the tumour growth could be very useful in a clinical setting, whether used for coming up with a patient-specific treatment plan such as a chemotherapy schedule, or for the timing of surgery. These simulations would allow clinicians to better estimate ‘safety margins’ during surgery, preventing cases where cancerous tissue is left in the patient post-surgery.

A deterministic model would give the same result every time it is run, as long as the algorithm inputs are the same. However, the biological dynamics of tumour evolution are not fully documented, which lends itself to a large amount of model error. Previous methods have aimed to create stochastic models of GBM using ensemble forecasting for uncertainty quantification. However, high-dimensional systems require a large number of realisations to accurately evolve the uncertainty, which becomes quickly intractable for such systems, such as spatiotemporal modelling of GBM growth. One solution: dynamically orthogonal (DO) evolution equations corresponding to the model, which allow for effective reduction of the model when solving high-dimensional systems. The DO methodology has been applied to several other systems including the Navier–Stokes flows and energy transfers, but has never been applied in a biological context.

We’ve implemented a deterministic model for GBM within MIT’s MSEAS lab, and have modified the algorithm to accommodate the effects of chemotherapy. In addition, we have derived a set of DO equations that allow for effective order reduction of the stochastic tumour growth equation within an uncertain environment. We have incorporated the derived equations into the deterministic algorithm, and plan to evaluate and improve the model by comparing brain plot simulations to real MRI data.

A Street in Saigon

by Khanh Vu

Bàn Cờ Street in Saigon has its name because, when the street was founded, all the houses were built to the same height and size. From above, they looked like identical squares on a chessboard. Behind the street, an open-air market sprouted, taking after the street’s name. It is now one of the biggest markets in the city.

I grew up in a house by one of its entrances. I grew up on the freshly-caught fish sold there in buckets filled halfway with water. I grew up on the mangoes and rambutans and longans displayed on bare tarps spread on the ground, dirt still clinging to them. The market is one of the only places left open to vendors without selling permits, the kind who only had the few onions and garlic their uncles had grown.

Every day, more and more vendors arrive. There is no space to fit anything more than tarps – certainly no carts or trolleys. Everyone only gets a tiny square that seats exactly one person

if they hug their knees, and their fruits, if they are neatly organized.

I grew up with the noises of the market – the calls to passing customers, the claims of the best watercress in the city, the bickering back and forth of a bargain. Harsh words are thrown around with ease, swear words my mother said were dirty like the fishy mud sprayed on the back of my legs after walking through those crowded aisles. But sometimes, if I waited long enough, I would see the pork woman, having just sworn at the vegetable lady, stomp across the aisle, slam a bag of fresh ground meat down next to the carrots, and leave without a word.

Nowadays, when you say Bàn Cờ, most people only think of the market. The little street that gave it its name has been forgotten, now only a row of shabby houses in a modern city. But the market itself, no matter how roofless and exposed to rain and shine, muddy and loud, will never be forgotten, never to be replaced by those clean air-conditioned supermarkets bearing English names. Even in the past year, when the government shut down so many operations for weeks at a time to fight COVID, these open-air markets quickly rebounded to normalcy. They are a source of cheap but fresh food for Vietnamese households of all socio-economic classes.

Translating an Overlooked Romanian Author

by Andreea Iulia Scridon

During my MSt in Creative Writing at St Anne’s, I began translating short stories by Romanian author Ion D Sîrbu, a mid-twentieth century novelist, philosopher, essayist and journalist who left behind an enormous corpus despite being hounded by communist authorities his entire life.

Mouse B and other stories represents a series of absurd anecdotes riffing off of Sîrbu’s own experiences with this regime: an apartment is invaded by cockroaches representing communist dignitaries, depicted astutely; an actor has a nervous breakdown during an interrogation; two university professors suspect each of being peeping toms in the public washroom; a cat throws itself from a tree to induce a miscarriage – a bitter nod to the abortion ban in communist Romania. In short, Sîrbu seems to adhere to what Leo Strauss highlights in the Persecution and the Art of Writing, investigating politics and society in an infinitely clever way.

At the same time, it’s not all political: Sîrbu is uproariously funny in his bawdiness. He pairs this verve with a serious philosophical background – in fact, the main challenge I faced was the absence of such previous knowledge, which I ended up gaining partially in my research for this translation. As a developing writer, I learned a great deal from engaging with the text so closely, especially given my interest in writing dark humour.


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