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Bostonians Changing the World

From Paul Revere to Mary Baker Eddy to John F. Kennedy to Paul Farmer, this city has a long, rich history of producing smart folks whose reach has been felt around the globe. On the following pages, we prove the tradition is still in good hands.

By Michael Blanding
April 30, 2006

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The Healer

Pregnant African women come to me prepared to follow the tradition of female circumcision for their baby girls. My life's mission is to change their minds before it's too late.

Nawal Nour
(Photo / Tanit Sakakini)

By Dr. Nawal Nour

'I will definitely circumcise my daughter," Samiha told me, conviction in her voice. I have heard those words often, and each time I do, my heart sinks. Samiha (not her real name), a new Somali patient of mine, was in her first trimester when I broached the subject of female circumcision. She had recently arrived from a Kenyan refugee camp and was complaining about the bitter winter in Mission Hill. The radiance in her hazelnut eyes complemented her soft brown skin. The tresses of her thick, curly black hair that draped over her shoulders during the medical examination were swiftly gathered and hidden behind a brilliant yellow scarf. Although she was petite, she exuded a confidence and determination that surpassed her 23 years of life. We didn't know her baby's sex, but I always ask my patients, "If you deliver a girl, will you circumcise her?" To my dismay, I got the wrong answer this time, and my long battle against Samiha's traditional beliefs had begun.

The majority of my patients have undergone the most severe form of female genital cutting, the complete removal of the external genitalia and subsequent sewing together of the remaining tissue, leaving a small hole for urination and menstruation. Some consider it a rite of passage; others denounce it as a human chastity belt. Some call it circumcision; others declare it to be mutilation. My patients cringe from the label "mutilation." They consider themselves circumcised, so that is the term I use with them.

I founded the African Women's Health Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in 1999. We take care of women with complications from genital cutting, and we perform reconstructive surgery to improve their lives. Being Sudanese-American enables me to traverse two cultures, to understand the needs of my African patients easily, without judgment or discrimination. Being an obstetrician-gynecologist grants me their respect and the freedom to delve into sensitive subjects like circumcision and sexuality. Africans who practice female genital cutting believe they are upholding a noble tradition.

I have heard all of the arguments for continuing this practice, and I have challenged them all. Some days I win, some days I lose. Changing a woman's lifelong belief isn't easy, especially with a daily reminder of the tradition literally cut into her body. I have developed counter arguments instead: No, it is not more hygienic to be circumcised. No, Islam does not condone it. No, it does not improve fertility. No, the clitoris is not toxic. Yes, the practice used to ensure marriage ability, but studies show that men now prefer uncircumcised women. Yes, virginity is important, but studies show that even circumcised girls do what they wish. And yes, I understand that circumcision can be considered a means of beautification, but the health hazards outweigh the concerns of vanity.

Female genital cutting has lasted more than 3,000 years and seems more resistant to change than either foot binding or facial scarification. But I have always felt driven to play a part in eradicating it. As a child growing up in Sudan, friends and family gleefully told me about their circumcisions. And even though they seemed unharmed by their experience, I grew uncomfortably restless. There was something terribly wrong, but at that young age, I couldn't recognize what it was. Now, as an adult, an African woman, and a physician, it has become clear that female genital cutting is a health and human rights issue and must be stopped.

Am I changing the world? Like Sisyphus, the boulder I urge up the hill too often seems to roll right back down. Sometimes, showing these women pictures of normal anatomy and explaining how much damage has been done shocks them into questioning the practice. Detecting the seeds of doubt in my patients' eyes is immensely satisfying. Some days, I become hopeful, like when they bring their husbands with them to learn.

I feel elated when a patient like Samiha, after many discussions - indeed, debates - thanks me with a genuine smile and says: "You have changed my mind. I will never circumcise my daughter."

Obstetrician-gynecologist Nawal Nour, 40, was born in Sudan. She came to the United States to attend Brown University and is a 1994 graduate of Harvard Medical School, where she is an assistant professor.

One-year Wonders

Michael Brown and Alan Khazei
(Illustrations / Monica Hellstrom)

Michael Brown and Alan Khazei
President and CEO, respectively, City Year Inc.

The red jackets and khaki pants of City Year volunteers are now a fixture - and a symbol of hope - in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the country. But when Harvard roommates Alan Khazei and Michael Brown first came up with the idea for a youth service program, their plans were significantly more modest. "We didn't know if it was going to last for 10 weeks or 10 days," says Khazei. Now, almost two decades later, the plan they hatched in a dorm room has helped inspire the national AmeriCorps program and enlisted 10,000 young people in 16 cities - Boston is the headquarters - to spend a year of their lives giving back. Far from resting on formula, the pair has in the last year broken ground on their first international site, in South Africa (at the request of Nelson Mandela, no less) and started a program in Louisiana in response to Hurricane Katrina. "Like the rest of the country, we were in shock watching the biggest natural disaster in American history," says Brown. "We reached out to alumni and asked if any of them would be willing to put on their red jackets and rejoin the corps." Within a day, they had 100 responses; eventually they put 50 recruits to work rebuilding schools in New Orleans and running an after-school program in the giant FEMA trailer park in Baton Rouge. "We as a society underestimate our young people," says Khazei. "We always have to label our young generation negatively, when they've actually always been at the forefront of change." The key to the program's success, says Brown, is playing to teenagers' strengths. "Young people, no matter what their background, are craving two things - meaning and adventure," he says. "If you provide young people with that structure and ask them if they want to serve, then they want to do it."

Wind Man

Greg Watson
(Photo / Tanit Sakakini)

Greg Watson

Vice president for sustainable development and renewable energy, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative

We all know we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels - if not because of climate change or drilling in Alaska, then because of war in the Middle East. But it's one thing to want to end our addiction to oil, another to figure out how. That's where thinkers like Greg Watson come in. As coordinator of the Offshore Wind Collaborative, which includes representatives from General Electric, the US Department of Energy, and academia, he has spearheaded a plan to put wind turbines far off the coasts of the United States and harvest a source of power that could be as crucial to this century as oil was to the last. "We are putting ourselves in an `American-on-the-moon' mentality," says Watson, who is a former director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and a past state agriculture commissioner. "We recognize that there is a resource out there that can meet our needs, and we've gathered the best minds in the country to pursue this." There is potentially some 900,000 megawatts of wind energy a year to be tapped off the coasts of the United States - which could meet the country's total annual electricity demand. "If we approach getting just 20 percent of our electricity from a resource like that, that would do a lot," says Watson. Unlike projects such as the controversial Cape Wind plan for Nantucket Sound, the approach championed by Watson's group looks literally beyond the horizon to deep water (around 100 feet), where the wind is stronger but where windmills are more difficult to situate. So far, he says, Europe has taken the lead, pioneering the use of wind power in shallow water. But Watson's group may soon be blazing a trail for the rest of the world to follow. As Watson says, "It's going to require a whole new generation of technology."

Sound Adviser

Suzanne Hanser
(Illustration / Monica Hellstrom)

Suzanne Hanser
Chairwoman of the music therapy department, Berklee College of Music

Music, it's been said, can "soothe a savage breast." But that is just the beginning of its power. The nascent field of music therapy uses the art to treat chronic pain, heal emotional scars in children, and even give patients back memories thought lost. The key to music's effectiveness, says practitioner Suzanne Hanser, is its ability to tap into the primitive parts of our brain and call up memories of everything from the lullaby your mother sang you to sleep with to the song you danced to at the prom. "I can't write you a prescription that says, `Listen to Mozart and you'll feel better,' " she says. "The music that is meaningful to us creates a real visceral response." Author of The New Music Therapist's Handbook and past president of the National Association for Music Therapy, Hanser has helped create music-therapy positions at area hospitals, including Massachusetts General, McLean, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her specialty is working with patients with Alzheimer's disease. "People might not know who they are or recognize a spouse or a loved one," says Hanser, "but if you play the songs they enjoyed in their youth, they can sing along and remember the words." What's more, the musical key can help unlock other doors. "They can reminisce about that time in their lives and have a real conversation," says Hanser. For families struggling with the dementia of a loved one, that can be a gift.

Dr. Mom

Helen Reinherz
(Illustration / Monica Hellstrom)

Helen Reinherz
Principal investigator, Simmons Longitudinal Study

When Helen Reinherz first sat down in 1976 to study a group of 700 kindergartners in a southeastern Massachusetts town, she figured it would be a short-term thing. "I thought maybe I would follow them into the third grade," she says. Now the 82-year-old social work professor at Simmons College is still following them and is head of the country's longest-running psychological study, which has provided revelations about the early signs that a child will become happy and successful - or depressed and troubled. Among the study's surprises: Children of divorced parents tend to be no worse off in the long run than children of so-called intact families; ditto children of working mothers versus ones with stay-at-home moms. The study has also found that the importance of a strong family - even a nontraditional one - cannot be overestimated and that family violence can be more damaging than might be expected. Newspapers from Chile to Israel have carried Reinherz's findings, which she says has helped get the message out that early intervention can make a big difference in children's mental health outcomes. "I had a harder time seeing them grow up than my own son," she says of her subjects. "If people are doing poorly, I feel sad. But then I think of why this person has taken this downward path, and if there was anything that could have been done to change it."

Sex Detective

Dr. David Page
(Illustration / Monica Hellstrom)

Dr. David Page
Director, Whitehead Institute for biomedical research, MIT

In scientific terms, you might call Dr. David Page a real guy's guy. His work mapping out the Y chromosome - which determines maleness - has put him at the forefront of modern genetics and earned him a bit of mockery as well. "We scientists love to reduce each other to sound bites, and if you are lucky, you get a one-sentence description," he says. "I'm often introduced with one letter." But "Mr. Y" will take it. The biomedical researcher has done nothing less than redeem the black sheep of the genetic code. For decades, geneticists have dismissed the Y chromosome as an after-thought and even predicted that it would gradually become extinct (and men with it). On the contrary, Page and his lab have shown that it is extremely complex, a vast "genetic hall of mirrors" with palindromic repetitions of DNA sequences as long as 3 million letters. Hardly an apologist for Y, however, Page has shown that it's the Y chromosome that's often to blame for low sperm count, caused when one of the chromosome's mirrors is cracked or even missing. Now he is studying what makes an embryo male or female and has begun overturning another long-held belief - that embryos are female by default and male if the Y chromosome is present. His work with embryos and gender is breaking new ground. "What's most fun for me," he says, "is when I start to get a glimmer that the way we've been thinking about things for a half-century is in need of changing."

Robo Rooters

Helen Greiner and Colin Angle
(Illustrations / Monica Hellstrom)

Helen Greiner and Colin Angle
Cofounders of iRobot Corp.

Of all the stories Helen Greiner has heard about her company's robots since the US military started using them to destroy roadside bombs in Iraq, this is her favorite: "This soldier comes back to his depot carrying a box full of robot parts, and says, `Can you fix this?' " That particular robot had been blown up and was well beyond repair. "But the soldier wanted to keep that one," says Greiner. "They had put marks on it for each mission it had run. It had gone out 17 times instead of his buddies on these missions." She adds, "Two years ago, they would send a soldier in a bomb suit up to a bomb. Now they won't go without a robot." The 50-pound PackBot, made by Burlington-based iRobot, can rumble over steps and rugged terrain, maneuver its arms like a human, and carry a video camera into places soldiers can't safely go. Strange as it sounds, this is the same company that introduced us to those cute robotic vacuums (Roombas) and mops (Scoobas). Some 300 PackBots are deployed around the world, most of them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and just last month the US Navy signed a $26 million contract for 213 more. Greiner and iRobot CEO Colin Angle were part of a triumvirate that founded the company in 1990. While PackBot is getting new technologies, like sniper detection that homes in on a location after a single shot, a bomb-hunting 'bot is in the works that will perform with almost complete autonomy. - Doug Most

God's Lawyer

Mary Ann Glendon
(Photo / Tanit Sakakini)

Mary Ann Glendon
Harvard law professor, adviser to a president and a pope

The Vatican is hardly known for elevating women to influential positions. Don't tell Mary Ann Glendon. The outspoken Harvard legal scholar is an antiabortion advocate and devout Catholic whose views on social policy, bioethics, and human rights have been sought by the highest powers. She helped Mitt Romney draft a bill defining marriage as a heterosexual union. President George W. Bush named her to his Council on Bioethics, which considers questions such as when life begins. Pope John Paul II had turned to her in 1994 when he created the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to advise the Vatican on issues from abortion to gay marriage. Ten years later, he named her president of that panel, making her the Church's highest-ranking female adviser. "I grew up in Western Massachusetts, proud of being associated with the great feminists of the late 19th and 20th century," says Glendon, 67. "Equal rights to women, access to the vote." But when feminism met the sexual revolution in the '70s, she says, a promiscuous, anti-male mind-set resulted, leaving many female-headed families living in poverty. Today's feminism, she says, is different. It's about being attentive to the "needs and desires for women, for whom childbearing and child raising is an important part of their identity." Although she is a practicing Catholic, she's also divorced and remarried (she was a single mom for three years). Critical of cuts to health and welfare programs, she also talks about returning to the days when women embraced their roles as caretakers, though she has pursued a blockbuster career herself. Even her foes admire her. Alan Dershowitz told the Globe in 2004, "If a woman could be made pope, she'd be my candidate." Glendon, however, seems fine with the Church's position on female priests: "Whether our vision of a good society has room in it for institutions that are not unisex, the answer has got to be yes." Her next cause? "How we come to terms with a society of fewer and fewer children and more and more elderly and dependent elderly will be critical." - Doug Most

Professor Insurgent

Richard Schultz
(Illustration / Monica Hellstrom)

Richards Shultz
Director of the international security studies program, Fletcher School at Tufts University

When Richard Shultz telephones White House officials, they take his calls. He helped them get there. "Some of them used to be my students," he says. "They still listen to me." The Tufts professor has been studying how to fight enemy insurgents since before most of us had even heard the term. His book on US attempts at guerrilla warfare in Vietnam changed historians' understanding of how John F. Kennedy tried to fight the war. His new book, co-written with Andrea Dew and due out in August, is called Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias, a reference to the enemies we face in the post-9/11 world. "In wars of the future, you have to understand who it is that you are going to fight," Shultz says. "The problem is that the American way of war is still training for the conventional battlefield, and it has hurt them seriously." He has led research into the best practices for fighting terrorism, interviewing military intelligence and security officers in countries like Israel and England. The concept he has helped pioneer, "intelligence dominance," relies on historians, diplomats, and cultural experts as much as soldiers. "The insurgency in Iraq was predictable," he contends. "If you looked at Iraq history, you would have seen it." Since the start of the war, his has been one of the critical voices heard in briefings with the Pentagon. Among other contributions, his ideas have led to a generally increased role for special operations units. While Shultz is dubious about the way the administration has fought in Iraq so far, he doesn't think it's too late. "I'm for sticking it out," he says, "but doing it smarter."

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain. Send e-mails to bostonian@globe.com.