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Achievement of Paris climate goals unlikely due to time lags in the land system

Nature Climate Change - 13 hours 21 min ago

Achievement of Paris climate goals unlikely due to time lags in the land system

Achievement of Paris climate goals unlikely due to time lags in the land system, Published online: 18 February 2019; doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0400-5

The Paris Agreement requires substantial changes in the land system. However, national implementation plans are vague, largely insufficient and unlikely to be fully achieved. Realistic policies require proper consideration of land-system lags.

Training technicians in developing technologies

MIT Latest News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 3:00pm

Headquartered at MIT, AIM Photonics Academy is embarking on an ambitious plan to develop a technician-training program in emerging technologies, attempting to answer the question of whether an institute known for educating world-leading scientists and engineers can play a role in helping train an outstanding technician workforce.

AIM Academy is part of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), focused on integrated photonics. The Office of Naval Research recently awarded a $1.8 million Manufacturing Engineering Education Program grant for AIM Academy to create a technician-certification program in collaboration with Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM). AIM Photonics and ARM are two of 14 public-private manufacturing innovation institutes created as part of a federal program to revitalize American manufacturing, collectively known as Manufacturing USA.

Until now, AIM Academy has focused on training master’s and PhD engineers, which is what companies said they needed, through summer and winter boot camps and online courses. Integrated photonics — putting light-based technology on computer chips — has diverse applications including LIDAR for driverless cars, sensors, data centers, and the internet of things. As the technology moves from the lab to production, companies will not only need highly trained PhDs to compete, they will also need a workforce of skilled technicians to fill their manufacturing lines.

Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, leads the AIM Academy program for AIM Photonics. 

“Integrated photonics has enormous potential,” said Kimerling. “AIM Academy is developing programs now that will train workers for the jobs that are coming.” Since the integrated photonics industry is emerging, Kimerling said that the technician-training program would prepare students for the manufacturing positions that are open now, as well as jobs in photonics that will emerge in the years to come.

Both AIM Photonics and ARM have partnered with schools eager to roll out photonics-based certification programs. Pittsburgh-based ARM’s education and workforce development program will work with Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania. As AIM Photonics’ education and workforce development program AIM Academy, will work with Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts to develop a program specific to photonics technicians. Currently, both Stonehill and Bridgewater offer four-year degrees, but lack tracks for associate degrees or certification in the field.  

The territory is new for both schools. Officials say they are responsible for preparing the future workforce, and are ready to attract a new kind of student and offer their current students access to a certification program that they believe will lead directly to jobs.  

“This effort is part of a larger strategic priority to increase Bridgewater State’s ongoing expansion of educational opportunities and research in the areas of optics and photonics,” said Kristen Porter-Utley, dean of Bridgewater State University’s Bartlett College of Science and Mathematics.

Said Stonehill physics Professor Guiru “Ruby”  Gu: “We envision an innovative work-learn certificate program that brings together industry, higher education and government, and creates a hub for integrated photonics in southeastern Massachusetts.” 

Both Stonehill and Bridgewater officials say that the success of the certification programs begins with more hands-on lab work opportunities for students. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has committed $28 million in capital equipment grants to AIM Photonics through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2) projects, and has already funded LEAPs (Labs for Education and Application Prototypes) at MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which will share the facilities with Quinsigamond Community College. Those LEAPs will be open to students who go through the technician-training program.

The 15-month certification program will end in student apprenticeships at local companies.  

“At MIT, we are interested in deploying new technologies. We also have contacts with the companies that will use these technologies,” said Kimerling. “Because of this, we can help train the future workforce.”

Predicting sequence from structure

MIT Latest News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 11:00am

One way to probe intricate biological systems is to block their components from interacting and see what happens. This method allows researchers to better understand cellular processes and functions, augmenting everyday laboratory experiments, diagnostic assays, and therapeutic interventions. As a result, reagents that impede interactions between proteins are in high demand. But before scientists can rapidly generate their own custom molecules capable of doing so, they must first parse the complicated relationship between sequence and structure.

Small molecules can enter cells easily, but the interface where two proteins bind to one another is often too large or lacks the tiny cavities required for these molecules to target. Antibodies and nanobodies bind to longer stretches of protein, which makes them better suited to hinder protein-protein interactions, but their large size and complex structure render them difficult to deliver and unstable in the cytoplasm. By contrast, short stretches of amino acids, known as peptides, are large enough to bind long stretches of protein while still being small enough to enter cells.

The Keating lab at the MIT Department of Biology is hard at work developing ways to quickly design peptides that can disrupt protein-protein interactions involving Bcl-2 proteins, which promote cancer growth. Their most recent approach utilizes a computer program called dTERMen, developed by Keating lab alumnus, Gevorg Grigoryan PhD ’07, currently an associate professor of computer science and adjunct associate professor of biological sciences and chemistry at Dartmouth College. Researchers simply feed the program their desired structures, and it spits out amino acid sequences for peptides capable of disrupting specific protein-protein interactions.

“It’s such a simple approach to use,” says Keating, an MIT professor of biology and senior author on the study. “In theory, you could put in any structure and solve for a sequence. In our study, the program came up with new sequence combinations that aren’t like anything found in nature — it deduced a completely unique way to solve the problem. It’s exciting to be uncovering new territories of the sequence universe.”

Former postdoc Vincent Frappier and Justin Jenson PhD ’18 are co-first authors on the study, which appears in the latest issue of Structure.

Same problem, different approach

Jenson, for his part, has tackled the challenge of designing peptides that bind to Bcl-2 proteins using three distinct approaches. The dTERMen-based method, he says, is by far the most efficient and general one he’s tried yet.

Standard approaches for discovering peptide inhibitors often involve modeling entire molecules down to the physics and chemistry behind individual atoms and their forces. Other methods require time-consuming screens for the best binding candidates. In both cases, the process is arduous and the success rate is low.

dTERMen, by contrast, necessitates neither physics nor experimental screening, and leverages common units of known protein structures, like alpha helices and beta strands — called tertiary structural motifs or “TERMs” — which are compiled in collections like the Protein Data Bank. dTERMen extracts these structural elements from the data bank and uses them to calculate which amino acid sequences can adopt a structure capable of binding to and interrupting specific protein-protein interactions. It takes a single day to build the model, and mere seconds to evaluate a thousand sequences or design a new peptide.

“dTERMen allows us to find sequences that are likely to have the binding properties we're looking for, in a robust, efficient, and general manner with a high rate of success,” Jenson says. “Past approaches have taken years. But using dTERMen, we went from structures to validated designs in a matter of weeks.”

Of the 17 peptides they built using the designed sequences, 15 bound with native-like affinity, disrupting Bcl-2 protein-protein interactions that are notoriously difficult to target. In some cases, their designs were surprisingly selective and bound to a single Bcl-2 family member over the others. The designed sequences deviated from known sequences found in nature, which greatly increases the number of possible peptides.

“This method permits a certain level of flexibility,” Frappier says. “dTERMen is more robust to structural change, which allows us to explore new types of structures and diversify our portfolio of potential binding candidates.”

Probing the sequence universe

Given the therapeutic benefits of inhibiting Bcl-2 function and slowing tumor growth, the Keating lab has already begun extending their design calculations to other members of the Bcl-2 family. They intend to eventually develop new proteins that adopt structures that have never been seen before.

“We have now seen enough examples of various local protein structures that computational models of sequence-structure relationships can be inferred directly from structural data, rather than having to be rediscovered each time from atomistic interaction principles,” says Grigoryan, dTERMen’s creator. “It’s immensely exciting that such structure-based inference works and is accurate enough to enable robust protein design. It provides a fundamentally different tool to help tackle the key problems of structural biology — from protein design to structure prediction.”

Frappier hopes one day to be able to screen the entire human proteome computationally, using methods like dTERMen to generate candidate binding peptides. Jenson suggests that using dTERMen in combination with more traditional approaches to sequence redesign could amplify an already powerful tool, empowering researchers to produce these targeted peptides. Ideally, he says, one day developing peptides that bind and inhibit your favorite protein could be as easy as running a computer program, or as routine as designing a DNA primer.

According to Keating, although that time is still in the future, “our study is the first step towards demonstrating this capacity on a problem of modest scope.”

This research was funded the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Science Foundation, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Fonds de Recherche du Québec.

MLK Luncheon: America’s bank of justice is overdrawn but not bankrupt

MIT Latest News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 10:40am

In one of the less-remembered passages of Martin Luther King Jr.’s celebrated “I have a dream” speech in 1963, he spoke eloquently about the large debt owed by this country to its black citizens after centuries of oppression — which he described as a bad check that was being returned from the bank of justice, marked “insufficient funds.”

That passage formed the theme for this year’s 45th annual MIT Martin Luther King Jr. celebration luncheon, which featured a keynote address by Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt,” the event’s program proclaimed.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, referring to King’s words, said that “he spoke at a moment when the nation was rocked by painful inequality and violent suppression. Yet somehow, even in the face of so much turmoil, he was hopeful.”

Reif continued, “He made it clear that, to remain true to its ideals, America’s ‘bank of justice’ owes everyone the same essential guarantee of freedom and equality. Today, we obviously have not conquered discrimination, inequality, and violence. But I believe we can see some signs that the story is changing. And we can certainly see opportunities for each of us to help accelerate that change.”

As one clear example of that progress, he said, “Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that the U.S. Congress is now the most diverse in our nation’s history!” And, he said, despite the disturbing stories about political leaders in Virginia who were found to have worn blackface, “even in this discouraging story, I believe there is an important thread of hope.” In King’s time, he said, such activities would have been considered routine, but that’s no longer true. “Today — fortunately, finally! — it is a public outrage.”

In introducing Hall, Reif cited some of his achievements working with the ACLU: “Through a strategic combination of advocating on Beacon Hill, pursuing targeted lawsuits, and engaging people in their neighborhoods, Rahsaan works to advance racial justice in communities across the state,” he said.

Hall also reflected on King’s famous speech, pointing out that while his uplifting words of hope are well-remembered, and the speech “touches us in a very special way,” sometimes people gloss over the tough critique of American society that he also expressed. King referred to the lives of African-Americans as “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and he went on to say that “it’s obvious today that America has defaulted on its promissory note … instead of honoring its sacred obligations, it has given its Negro citizens a bad check.”

He added that King said “he refused to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. He refused to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, that will give us on demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.”

Hall pointed out that while King spoke of the lofty vision embodied in the U.S. Constitution, its drafters never really imagined that it would apply to all of humanity, including black people, native Americans, and women. “Even though King’s vision was one of hope and of high ideals, the reality is that this [Constitution] is a document that is rooted in a history of white supremacy. Not white supremacy as people think of skinheads and neo-Nazis and alt-right, but white supremacy as a system or structure of beliefs that center and prioritize and lift up and normalize white lives, white values, white beliefs, at the expense of the lives, values, property, behavior, and cultures of people of color.”

He described in detail some of the laws and policies after emancipation that codified a deep level of discrimination and disempowerment, including laws that criminalized not having a job or a permanent residence, and that he said amounted to a new form of state-sanctioned slavery. Discrimination continued to be formalized well into the 20th century, through “separate but equal” policies that enforced segregated housing and education. “Jim Crow did not operate alone. He had an Uncle, and his name was Sam,” Hall said.

Even though there has been much progress, Hall said, recent research has shown a mixed picture, with both advances and setbacks since the Kerner Commission report in the 1960s that found systematic discrimination throughout American society. “I say to you that the bank of justice is not actually bankrupt,” he concluded, “but rather America’s account is overdrawn. There is too much justice for a small segment of society, at the expense of too many others.”

The annual luncheon, as always, included musical selections as well as tributes to this year’s recipients of the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award and to visiting professors and scholars, as well as talks by selected graduate and undergraduate students.

Dasjon Jordan, a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies, said that the promissory note King spoke of “was not just about racial harmony and handholding. But Dr. King’s address was explicitly about racial and economic justice. It was about people of color having their rights as Americans activated and being able to access fair employment opportunities, housing, education, and to simply provide quality lives for their families.”

Jordan asked, “What are we doing as a body to not only make sure that classrooms aren’t just diverse and inclusive by the number of skin tones we count, but by the content of our curriculum and our actions to prioritize equity and racial justice? We must remember that diversity and inclusion are not substitutes for justice and equity. Justice and equity should not be a suggestion here, but our collective mission.

“The world is watching not only what we produce, but the values we championand processes we take to get there,” he said. “These values and processes become the checks we deposit to America’s bank as we work. … Our engagement should bring problems of racial, economic, and social injustice to the heart of our institution and our daily actions. We must all ask ourselves the hard questions and hold ourselves accountable to solving them with fierce urgency.”

Nikayah Etienne, a senior in mechanical engineering, described growing up in a predominantly black, immigrant community and school, and finding that she first really experienced being a racial minority when she began her studies at MIT. She realized that while this made her highly visible, it also made her often overlooked. But she soon found groups of black students and faculty in which she felt included and respected.

“I’m leaving here with significant lessons and experiences,” she said. “I leave here knowing that I have grown as an activist. I leave here knowing that I want to continue to touch the lives of young boys and girls who have come from similar backgrounds to me, reminding them that systematic racism and stereotyping do not define their potential.”

She added, “I challenge everyone sitting here, and all the members of the MIT community, to start making it a vision and a priority of yours, to aid students of color in cashing their own checks. I challenge you to take the necessary action to move MIT toward a more equitable community. Let our voices be heard.”

WEATHER: El Niño is back, but it's late, weak and likely no big deal

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
An El Niño, which can alter weather worldwide, has formed, but it's so weak and late that it shouldn't be a big deal, U.S. forecasters said.

NORTH KOREA: Nation hunts for power source that won't bring sanctions

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
Power-strapped North Korea is exploring two ambitious alternative energy sources — tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels — that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on oil imports and vulnerability to sanctions.

NORWAY: Central bank governor: Don't quit oil age early

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
The central bank chief in western Europe's largest producer of oil and natural gas is warning his fellow Norwegians not to prematurely kill the nation's main economic engine and source of wealth.

ELECTRIC VEHICLES: France to boost investment in battery cells

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
France is planning to invest €700 million ($790 million) over the next five years to boost its production of battery cells for electric cars.

COURTS: Industry throws weight behind Big Oil in NYC climate brawl

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
Industry groups and red states are urging an appellate court to throw out New York City's climate claims against the world's biggest oil producers.

EMISSIONS: Cars are an 'intractable' source of carbon — expert

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
When it comes to curbing planet-warming emissions, the transportation sector is a heavier lift than the power sector.

COAL: Wyo. ponders bill to save ailing power plants

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
Wyoming has long contemplated alternative ways to burn its ample coal reserves. Few have ended well.

ARCTIC: Soot on snow speeds up warming. Here's where it comes from

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
Human emissions of greenhouse gases are driving rapid warming all over the globe — particularly in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at about twice the global rate. But there's another form of carbon in the atmosphere that may also be playing a role.

VENEZUELA: Climate change lurks in background of humanitarian crisis

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
When stories are written about the Venezuelan crisis that has turned a tenth of the country's population into refugees, climate change isn't in the headlines.

WHITE HOUSE: Trump order could foist 'Green New Deal' on U.S., some worry

ClimateWire News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 7:45am
President Trump's emergency declaration to support a border wall will be issued against a violent backdrop of natural disasters that killed roughly 3,200 Americans since he took office two years ago.

Author Correction: New EU ETS Phase 4 rules temporarily puncture waterbed

Nature Climate Change - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:00am

Author Correction: New EU ETS Phase 4 rules temporarily puncture waterbed

Author Correction: New EU ETS Phase 4 rules temporarily puncture waterbed, Published online: 15 February 2019; doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0429-5

Author Correction: New EU ETS Phase 4 rules temporarily puncture waterbed

From summer research program to PhD dissertation

MIT Latest News - Fri, 02/15/2019 - 12:00am

One of the most important aspects of MIT’s educational mission is preparing students to be effective members of their scientific and technological communities. For Raspberry Simpson, that process began when she was a 17-year-old participant in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP); it is reaching fruition today as she pursues her doctorate in nuclear science and develops novel diagnostics for inertial confinement fusion and high-energy-density physics experiments at some of the country’s most advanced research facilities.

In 2010, Simpson (then a student in Bard College’s Early College program) worked with MIT physics professors Lindley Winslow and Janet Conrad at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. In addition to their academic work in the MSRP, she recalls, “they put it into my mind subconsciously that MIT was a place for me, that I could do science and be accepted in this space. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is.”

Shortly afterward, Simpson transferred to Columbia University to complete her bachelor’s degree in applied physics. During that time she took a year off from study to assist Winslow with development of a neutrino detector, and work on astrophysics experiments at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she received important mentoring. 

“I really enjoyed the national laboratory environment; it’s really special to have that many scientists in one place working towards a similar goal,” says Simpson.

In large part because of her experience in MSRP, which seeks to motivate members of under-represented groups to pursue graduate education, Simpson applied to the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) for her PhD studies. “I felt I had a science family here,” she says. “Also, Mareena Robinson, who did the MSRP at the same time I did, was in the PhD program. Having representation from women, especially black women, in the department was a huge factor in me wanting to come back.”

Today, a primary focus of Simpson’s is working on developing diagnostics that allow the assessment of the performance inertial confinement fusion (ICF). There has been a recent surge in optimism about fusion becoming a practical, plentiful, carbon-free energy source, with increased private funding and several private companies (including MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems) announcing roadmaps for demonstration fusion power plants by the mid-2020s.

To achieve that, ICF compresses pellets of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to such extremely high temperatures and densities that the isotope nuclei fuse. This creates a heavier nucleus while releasing large quantities of heat in the form of neutrons. Work to date has been promising, but researchers have struggled to extract the full measure of energy from the process.

“The problem we’ve noticed is that there are lots of asymmetries in the implosion; if you think about trying to compress a basketball to the size of a pea, it would be difficult to keep it perfectly spherical,” explains Simpson. “That leads to inefficiencies.”

Simpson is working to develop new ways of measuring and characterizing these asymmetries during the implosion, using a pair of orthogonally positioned charged-particle instruments to measure the spectra of deuterons (deuterium nuclei) scattered during the process. The approach allows inference of variations in density and symmetry.

“Fusion is very complex, and you need as many diagnostics and as much information as you can get to understand the dynamics of these experiments,” notes Simpson, whose role at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center also connects her to the center’s research into magnetic-confinement fusion, the other leading potential path to energy production.

The project is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE); Simpson has worked on several projects at the LLE’s Omega laser facility, a key research resource for fusion and other high-temperature high-density phenomena.

In addition, Simpson was chosen this year for the inaugural class of the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Laboratory Residency Graduate Fellowships, which support long-term security-related study and research at national labs. She will build a charged-particle spectrometer for a group under Tammy Ma at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is using a high-intensity petawatt-class laser to generate highly accelerated ions for use in radiography of a variety of targets.

Simpson recently passed her NSE qualifying examinations, and will be turning her attention to her dissertation, writing about the two pieces of work mentioned above, and an additional project that utilizes knock-on deuterons for imaging of ICF asymmetries.

“Our group in the High Energy Density Physics Division has lots of fingers in lots of pies, like fusion, high energy density science, and astrophysics, so my dissertation will include multiple projects,” says Simpson. The group recently received a prestigious Center of Excellence award from the National Nuclear Security Administration

Looking ahead, Simpson says she would enjoy working at a national laboratory, because of both the research culture and labs’ role in cultivating new generations of scientists. “The national labs have a deep understanding of the value of students, and they wouldn’t exist without continued stewardship of student talent, and I’d like to position myself in that environment. I’m not mentoring yet, but eventually I would like to give back in that way.”

She’s also a big fan of the 32-year-old MSRP, and of Institute efforts to make the science and engineering communities more inclusive. 

Dance brings a community together

MIT Latest News - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 12:55pm

For the first time during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), the MIT Bhangra Dance Team held a series of dance workshops for the MIT community.

More than two dozen students packed into McCormick Hall’s dance studio to learn step-by-step choreography prepared by two Bhangra dance team members, MIT juniors Rishi Sundaresan and Tarun Kamath.

“We decided to have these workshops during IAP because we figured people at MIT would have more free time,” says Divya Goel, senior and co-captain of MIT Bhangra. “I think we had one of the biggest turnouts ever because of this, which is awesome.”

Bhangra, which originates from the state of Punjab in northern India, is a high-energy, upbeat folk dance that was traditionally performed at harvest festivals or celebrations. With its global growth in popularity in recent years, bhangra has now become a competitive dance form throughout the world.

MIT Bhangra started in 1991 with a mission to spread and share bhangra traditions and culture. Kamath says he joined the dance group because he wanted a community where he could have fun and de-stress, but it turned into something bigger.

“Being part of a dance team starts out as loving the dance form, but what it becomes is a community and a family that you can appreciate for many years,” he says.

In addition to their performances on campus and dance competitions, each summer the group hosts Summer Bhangra, a twice-weekly summer dance workshop for people of all ages and skill levels in the Greater Boston area.

“Knowing that we’re able to teach people so quickly and seeing everyone happy from learning this dance style is really rewarding,” says Goel.

Kamath says that at the end of the day, it’s about more than learning the dance moves.

“If you can walk out of the dance workshop and had a fun two hours, then that’s the best thing that can be said.”

J-WAFS grants advance sustainable agriculture

MIT Latest News - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 12:40pm

MIT is known for its thriving innovation ecosystem: Numerous programs and funding mechanisms have evolved to ensure that new technologies and business models developed on campus can move beyond it to benefit the world.

Among them is the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), which brings its mission-driven concern for the safety, supply, efficiency, and accessibility of the planet’s water and food systems to MIT’s innovation ecosystem through the J-WAFS Solutions grant program. The program provides one-year, renewable, commercialization grants aimed to support MIT principal investigators in scaling up early stage technologies that are poised to have a measurable, international impact, and bring tangible economic and societal benefits to the communities where they are deployed. It provides the essential support that entrepreneurially-minded members of the Institute’s research community need to leverage bench-scale innovations into start-up-ready technologies.

The program is supported by Community Jameel and administered in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. This month, J-WAFS is distributing the call for submissions for fall 2019 funding. At the same time, J-WAFS has announced recent J-WAFS Solutions grants for two technologies aimed at increasing the resiliency of farmers and the ecosystems within which they operate.  

Precision agriculture for smallholder farmers

The challenge of yield gaps — the difference between farmers’ yields and what is attainable for a given region — is well documented, especially in the Global South, where the majority of the agricultural landscape is occupied by smallholder farmers. 

Many factors contribute to these yield gaps, though one of the primary causes is soil nutrient deficiency. With global population on the rise and consumption patterns changing, closing yield gaps is a critical avenue for sustainably feeding these growing numbers of people. The use of fertilizers can help solve the challenges posed by soil nutrient deficiency, but fertilizer can be prohibitively expensive for some smallholder farmers and also can, if misapplied, have a negative environmental impact. 

The use of sensors that accurately detect soil nutrient needs can help. Analyses show that appropriate application of fertilizer will increase the crop productivity. When sensors provide accurate information to farmers right at the farm, they can more efficiently use expensive fertilizer and avoid inefficient under or overuse.  Reducing overuse then saves money and reduces the environmental impact of runoff.

An interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers has received a J-WAFS Solutions grant to commercialize an affordable sensor that they have developed, one that is aimed at accessibility and ease-of-use. They call it QuantiSoil; it is a sensor that can indicate soil nutrient levels and deficiencies related to the type of crops grown, providing information in an easily digestible manner.  This on-site soil analysis system uses printed ion-selective electrodes, combined with an electrochemical reader, to obtain actionable soil health information.

The “QuantiSoil: Commercialization of an On-Site Analysis System for Smallholding Farmers” project team consists of A. John Hart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Chintan Vaishnav, senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management and academic director of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, as well as Michael Arnold, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. J-WAFS Solutions funding is supporting the scale-up of this sensor technology and field trials that will be conducted in 2019.

Sticky sprays to reduce runoff

Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, received a 2017 grant to support the development of a new mechanism that, when used for the application of agricultural pesticides, helps the droplets adhere more effectively to leaf and fruit surfaces. 

The project, “Reducing Runoff and Environmental Impact of Agricultural Sprays,” has now received a renewal grant that will support further field testing and refinement of the technology for use on farms. When farmers spray their fields with pesticides or other crop treatments, only a very small percentage of the spray sticks to the plants. This means that a high proportion of the material rolls off of plants, lands on the ground, and becomes part of the runoff that contributes to the pollution of soils, surface water, and groundwater. 

The novel technology developed by Varanasi and his team addresses this problem through the use of two different polymers that affect the electric charge of a spray. When two oppositely-charged drops meet on a leaf surface, they more effectively stick to the plant. Early field trials have shown that this technology can significantly reduce the amount of pesticides needed for specific crops. Once commercialized, the spray technology could reduce the environmental impact of agriculture sprays and also prove more cost effective for farmers. 

Though the J-WAFS Solutions program is a critical support for entrepreneurially-minded MIT faculty and students, the mission is about more than innovation. The technologies developed through this program, like QuantiSoil and the agriculture spray under development by Varanasi and his team, are more urgently needed than ever as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding and evolving population on a changing planet and advancements in our water and food systems technologies become critical tools for resiliency.

Podcast reveals the tough reality of building a business

MIT Latest News - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 12:30pm

Angie Hicks of Angie’s List went from doorsteps to NASDAQ. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg turned his dorm room idea into a Silicon Valley corner office. A co-founder “blind date” between Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler sparked the cult-like following of Soul Cycle.

Sure, there were challenges (and legal battles) along the way, but happy endings came for these entrepreneurs — which make for easy fairytales to tell in glossy profiles and curated news sites.

Frederic Kerrest, MBA ’09, wants to change that with his newly launched podcast “Zero to IPO.”

“It’s a lonely thing to try to build a company,” said Kerrest, who is the co-founder and COO of identity management company Okta. “It’s super-hard. People go through these bumps in the road, but all they read in the media is people who are doing amazingly. You’re like ‘Aw man, I’m the only one this is happening to,’ and the reality of it is it’s happening to everyone. Even really successful people. It’s kind of letting people know you’re not all alone out there.”

“Zero to IPO” has launched three episodes, with plans to release a new episode weekly. There are 12 episodes total, each one dedicated to a step in the journey toward an initial public offering. These steps include many firsts — idea, team, big win, screw-up — as well as what happens after the IPO.

Kerrest has the street cred to back up the podcast. He started Okta in 2009, during the second semester of his graduating year at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The company went public in 2017 and is valued at more than $7 billion.

In the past 10 years, Kerrest has received many phone calls from entrepreneurs with questions about starting and growing their own businesses. What he’s noticed, he said, is the trend toward questions on what he called “tribal knowledge.”

“There’s no website that’s got all the answers to how do I structure my first round of financing, how do I hire my first salesperson, or after my first five customers how do I get my next 50,” Kerrest said. “How do I pay the first people, what should my equity pools look like; really getting into the concrete details. It’s almost like you have to have gone through it.”

The same went for media coverage, he explained. What was missing from articles, news segments, and business podcasts were the challenges and questions entrepreneurs would call Kerrest about. 

“Very rarely was there anything about the bumps in the road, or the trials and travails,” he said.

Kerrest reached out to a college friend, Josh Davis (a contributing editor at WIRED), and the two decided to tap into Kerrest’s network of successful entrepreneurs to see who would be willing to share their own stories and advice.

Guests on the show include Julia Hartz of Eventbrite, Parker Harris of Salesforce.com, and Patty McCord of Netflix.

Each step will include stories from entrepreneurs, and some of their stories might be conflicting, Kerrest said. One entrepreneur might have decided not to pursue a lot of venture capital money in favor of managed growth, while another might have wanted to go all in. Their views are opposing, but they were both successful in their own ways.

“So entrepreneurs can walk away [feeling like] it was entertaining but also educational,” Kerrest said. “Like I learned some things, specific tips from people who have done it before, who are well-known, who are almost being vulnerable. They’re telling you what happened to them that you’re never going to hear about otherwise.”

FRANCE: Government could delist EDF amid nuclear challenge

ClimateWire News - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 7:33am
The French government is considering buying out minority shareholders of Électricité de France SA, the first step in a corporate restructuring to address the challenge of replacing the country's nuclear-power backbone, people familiar with the matter said.

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