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3Qs: Sarah Williams on mapping urban transport

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:20pm

Imagine that you’re a city planner who needs to make decisions about where to place public housing, amenities, or critical services, but you don’t have a complete picture of how people move throughout the city. You simply don’t have the data needed to make these decisions. That is the case for 92 percent of the world’s largest low- and middle-income cities faced with transportation data deficits. Add informal transit into the picture — matatus in Nairobi, colectivos in Mexico City, jeepneys in Manila — and the situation gets even more complex since these modes operate outside of formal public transportation and their routes and schedules tend to be irregular. Not every city has the means of creating or collecting data on informal transit to get that full picture of the network. Sarah Williams is combining her skills as a geographer, architect, data scientist, and city planner to address such deficiencies in developing cities. Her goal is to create data for civic change. 

Q: What is your new initiative and what you hope to accomplish?

A: We’re creating an open platform for anyone who is interested in accessing tools for mapping urban informal transit in Latin American and Caribbean cities. Transportation data is essential for economic development, and the goal is to make creating and collecting transportation data easier.

Our resource center will link people to the right resources and tools to create transportation data that can influence policy outcomes. We’re linking city transit operators, local governments, nonprofit and civic organizations, startups, and researchers to open access data collection and analysis tools, tutorials, case studies, and a global knowledge network on policy, data, and mobility. Overall, the resource center’s efforts contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and to target 11.2, which calls for “safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all.”

The MIT Civic Data Design Lab’s main partners for this project are the Inter-American Development Bank and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and it will be led by World Resources Institute Mexico, the MIT International Policy Lab, and Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Q: What are the main challenges to collecting urban data in this region and how are you addressing those challenges?

A: When it comes to developing cities, one major challenge is that data is scarce. This is the case across many sectors but especially urban transportation. Another challenge is that governments, NGOs, transit operators, and other actors don’t know how to access funds to pay for data collection, and there is lack of knowledge about the tools that are available for accomplishing this. On top of everything, transportation networks in developing cities are rarely unified. There are hundreds of operators across public transit and informal transit that are not necessarily coordinated with each other in terms of who goes where and who serves whom. This presents challenges to urban planning, reaching sustainable development targets, and providing accessibility to public transit and amenities in cities. 

To address these challenges, we coordinate the right stakeholders to be part of transit mapping initiatives, help connect them to funding sources, train people to develop transit data in a standardized format, show people who use transit data as an analysis tool, and connect people to the local tech community to build new products with the transit data.

Q. How did you become interested in urban transportation?  

A: I wasn't always interested in transportation, but when I saw how severe congestion in Nairobi could bring the city to a standstill, I knew I needed to get involved and use my skills to address critical transportation problems. I quickly learned how the crippling problems I saw in Nairobi also afflict other developing cities. 

The resource center that we’ve launched is largely inspired by the Civic Data Design Lab’s Digital Matatus project in Nairobi. Launched in 2012, Digital Matatus began as a collaboration between MIT, Columbia University, and the University of Nairobi. The project captured transportation data for Nairobi’s informal matatu network and resulted in the development of mobile routing applications and a new transit map for the city. The data, maps and apps are now free and available to the public, transforming the way residents of Nairobi navigate and think about their transportation system. 

Sorority leaders recognized for creating leadership, support, service, and scholarship opportunities

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:25am

MIT’s Panhellenic Association (Panhel) has been honored with three awards from the 2019 Northeast Greek Leadership Association (NGLA). MIT Panhel governs seven MIT sorority chapters. With over 750 total members, the sorority community fosters friendships and provides opportunities for members to explore academics, careers, and leadership, and get involved with community service.

The awards were announced at the annual NGLA Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month. The conference brings together student leaders from fraternities and sororities across the Northeast to learn from one another. The conference’s mission is to empower student leaders and their communities to align their actions and values. Additionally, the NGLA honors Greek organizations for academic achievement, chapter development and leadership, membership recruitment and intake, multicultural initiatives and programming, civic engagement, public relations, and risk management.

This year, MIT Panhel took home three major awards. The Josette Kaufman Award recognized the STAR Program, a series of six education sessions that cover women’s health and well-being topics ranging from bystander training to substance abuse. Additionally, the two Amy Vojta Impact Awards recognized Panhel’s risk-management efforts on campus, and its pre-recruitment inclusivity program and multicultural initiatives. Additionally, MIT’s Zeta Delta chapter of Delta Phi Epsilon was recognized for its academic achievement.

“The conference went really well! It was a great experience to interact and exchange ideas with interfraternity councils and panhellenic councils from around the northeast region,” says Vanessa Wong, executive vice president of MIT Panhel.

“Being part of a sorority and the Panhel community is something to be really proud of,” says Alice Zhou, president of the MIT Panhellenic Association. “The members we have here in sororities are incredibly amazing and inspiring.”

Moving forward, MIT’s Panhellenic Association hopes to continue to grow, improve, and celebrate diversity and inclusivity on campus. “We are so appreciative and thankful for the leadership of MIT’s Panhellenic Association and the positive impact they have on our campus community,” said Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life.

Using machine learning for medical solutions

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:00am

Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of time testing potential drugs, and they end up wasting  much of that effort on candidates that don’t pan out. Kyle Swanson wants to change that.

A master’s student in computer science and engineering, Swanson is working on a project that involves feeding a computer information about chemical compounds that have or have not worked as drugs in the past. From this input, the machine “learns” to predict which kinds of new compounds have the most promise as drug candidates, potentially saving money and time otherwise spent on testing. Several prominent companies have already adopted the software as their new model.

“Our model is never going to be perfect … but the hope is that by doing this prediction phase first, the molecules that they actually test in the lab have a much higher chance of being viable drugs,” says Swanson, who graduated from MIT in 2018 with a BS in computer science and engineering, a BS in mathematics, and a minor in music.

Swanson’s overall aim is to use his skills in computer science and machine learning for real-world science applications. He’ll work toward that goal as a Marshall Scholar for the next two years, attending Cambridge University to pursue a pair of master’s degrees, one in mathematical statistics and the other in computational biology.

“I think the ultimate goal is to do something very similar to what I’m doing right now,” he says. “I feel like it’s a great mix of doing interesting computer science research and pushing the field of machine learning forward, while also having practical applications in the sciences.”

Researcher and survivor

Swanson’s first experience researching medical applications for machine learning was as an undergraduate in the lab of Regina Barzilay, the Delta Electronics Professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Swanson worked on a system designed to identify the presence of breast cancer from mammogram images. While the original goal of cancer detection proved to be difficult, the tool was successful at a related task. The algorithm is still used to analyze mammogram images, but rather than identifying cancer, it identifies whether patients are at greater risk for cancer, depending on the density of their breast tissue.

While he was already interested in machine learning, Swanson entered cancer research for a very personal reason. One day, he noticed he had a little cough, which he attributed to catching a cold from his roommate. But while his roommate’s cough subsided, Swanson’s didn’t. Walking home one night a few weeks later, he found a lump above his collarbone. It turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“My approach is to try and laugh it off as much as possible. I feel like if I were to take it seriously, it would just be so awful I wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Swanson says. “I mean, obviously there were times when I actually was very distraught about the whole thing. … The way I’ve tried to handle it is just to be as positive as possible.”

He asked to join Barzilay’s lab not only because he found her research important, but also because she’d been through a similar scare with breast cancer. He felt that she understood what he was going through. Even now, as he’s working on that pharmaceutical machine learning project, she is still his advisor.

“She’s been a role model for the kind of person I want to be both professionally and personally, and I hope that one day I can be in a similar position, making a real difference in the lives of others through my research,” he says.

After several rounds of treatment, Swanson’s most recent PET scans indicate that he’s now cancer free.

A symphony for all seasons

Swanson first went to music school in Scarsdale, New York, when he was 2 years old. He picked up the flute in third grade, and later the piccolo. With many hours of practice, he became a skilled classical musician. He’s been in the MIT Symphony Orchestra for five straight years, and he’s played in a number of other ensembles as well.

“The great thing about MIT is that I’ve been able to continue that interest. …The music program here is really excellent,” Swanson says. “I’ve enjoyed all the classes I’ve taken, and the ensembles are great as well.”

His favorite experience in the music department is one to be rivaled. His first-year roommate, Bertrand Stone, also a mathematics major and musician, is a very talented composer. Before the summer of 2016, Swanson joked that Stone should use some of his free time outside of class to write a flute piece for him. When he returned in the fall, Stone handed him a 135-page, fully composed 20-minute flute concerto. Stone had already shown the piece to the MIT symphony conductor for input during the composition process, and Swanson was asked to perform it with the orchestra.

“That was my favorite by far,” Swanson says.

Music still takes up most of Swanson’s free time. But when he’s not practicing on some sort of woodwind, he enjoys pounding the pavement with MIT’s Running Club and spending time with friends. His undergraduate fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, is still a big part of his life. He met many of his closest friends there, including one of his current roommates, and they played a key supportive role for him when he was wrestling with cancer.

“They’re just some of the smartest and nicest people I know on campus,” Swanson says.

A master of degrees

By the time Swanson leaves Cambridge, he’ll have three master’s degrees. “Really, I want to just have a better understanding of the fields that I’m going to be applying machine learning to,” he says.

As for his future after that, he’s not exactly sure. He will most likely go back to school for a PhD, and then he’ll decide if he wants to enter industry or academia. The important thing for him is that he’s applying his knowledge of machine learning to science that has a real impact on human lives.

“If I were to keep doing what I’m doing right now, I think I would be very happy. I love machine learning and I love the way it can do such amazing things,” he says. “But I also specifically like seeing the difference that I’m making in the world.”

Open access task force releases draft recommendations

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 2:25pm

The Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT’s Research has released a set of draft recommendations that aim to support and increase the open sharing of MIT publications, data, software, and educational materials. They are available for public comment until April 17.

The recommendations include ratifying an Institute-wide set of principles for open science; broadening the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy to cover all MIT authors; adopting an open access (OA) policy for monographs; and asking department heads to develop discipline-specific plans to encourage and support open sharing from their faculty, students, and staff.

“Our recommendations are grounded in the view that openness leads to better research,” says Chris Bourg, director of the MIT Libraries and co-chair of the OA task force along with Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They are intended to reduce barriers and provide incentives to open sharing, while remaining flexible where needed to accommodate differences across disciplines.”

The Institute-wide OA task force, convened by Provost Martin Schmidt in July 2017, was charged with exploring how MIT should update and revise MIT’s current OA policies to “further the Institute’s mission of disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.” 

Over the past 18 months, task force members gathered input from experts across campus and beyond to better understand local, national, and global practices and policies related to open access. At MIT, the task force hosted two community forums and met with the five school councils, the Technology Licensing Office, the Committee on Intellectual Property, the vice president for research, and others. Members also consulted with representatives from Google, the Gates Foundation, Creative Commons, and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.  

In fall 2018, the task force released “Open Access at MIT and Beyond: A White Paper of the MIT Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT's Research," which provided a backdrop to the work of preparing the recommendations. 

There are several ways for the MIT community to offer feedback on the draft recommendations. Ideas can be submitted via the task force idea bank, on the open publishing platform PubPub, via email to the task force, or at an upcoming community forum on April 10, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in Room 56-114.

After the Cold War, an uncertain peace

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 1:12pm

Why have U.S.-Russia relations been rather fraught over much of the last decade? Some might argue that tension is inevitable among international powers. Others have contended that U.S.-backed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the last two decades has made Russia feel threatened. But those are hardly the only possible explanations.

In a talk at MIT on Thursday afternoon, Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, offered a different intepretation: Much of the change in relations stems from internal Russian politics, he argued. In particular, McFaul said, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the U.S. works hard to foster regime changes around the world. The 2011 Arab Spring, followed by large-scale protests in Russia later that year, heightened this feeling on Putin’ part, marking a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia relations.

“He was genuinely worried about this mobilization against him … and that’s when he pivoted hard against us,” McFaul said. “For Putin, this was confirming his theory of U.S. foreign policy.”

Those events occurred as Putin was preparing to run for Russia’s presidency in 2012, to regain a position held at the time by Dmitry Medvedev. And while many Western observers regarded Medvedev as being entirely subordinate to Putin, McFaul contended that with Medvedev as president — even though he was “pretty constrained” in that position — U.S.-Russia relations were more cooperative.

Putin, McFaul said, is more likely to regard the U.S. relations as a zero-sum game, whereas Medvedev was willing to seek out “win-win” deals with the U.S.

“He [Putin] actually has a very different world view than Medvedev,” McFaul said.

McFaul made his remarks before an audience of over 250 people in MIT’s room 26-100. His talk was part of the Starr Forum, a series of public-affairs events hosted by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS).

McFaul is a longtime political science professor at Stanford University who in 2009 joined the National Security Council (NSC) in the administration of President Barack Obama, serving as a specialist on Russian policy. He then served as ambassador from late 2011 until early 2014. McFaul has returned to the faculty at Stanford, and in his talk elaborated on ideas discussed in his new book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.”

McFaul was introduced at the event by Elizabeth Wood, an MIT professor who is a historian of modern Russia and co-author of the 2015 book “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine.” McFaul was joined onstage for a question-and-answer session by Wood and Carol Saivetz, a senior advisor in MIT’s Security Studies Program, who is also an expert on Russia’s foreign policy.

Saivetz asked McFaul if U.S.-Russia relations would have worsened in absence of the expansion of NATO, which grew to include some Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia — by 2004.

McFaul contended that relations between the countries would still be highly fraught even without NATO expansion, and drew on his firsthand experience in the government to make the case. McFaul was involved in a large number of direct dicussions among the highest-level officials from the two countries, and during his tenure at the NSC, he recounted, Russian officials simply did not raise the enlargement of NATO as an issue they wanted the U.S. to change course on.

“I can’t recall a single time when NATO expansion came up,” McFaul said.

Over the slightly longer term, McFaul noted, going back to the end of the Cold War and the end of Russia’s communist government in 1991, there have been many different phases in the U.S.-Russia relationship — meaning that the tensions the two countries feel today are not a necessarily permanent condition.

As McFaul noted, the end of the Cold War and the early 1990s was in some ways “a euphoric time. … It felt like we were all moving in the same direction.” By contrast, the Russian cyberattacks that seem to have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, McFaul noted, were “pretty outrageous. That’s a violation of our sovereignty.”

As McFaul also recounted in some detail, he personally was the subject of many ad hominem attacks in the Russian press while serving as ambassador — something that continues even today and that symbolizes the worsened relations between the countries.

In response to a question from Wood, McFaul said he still hopes and expects that the U.S. and Russia can cooperate in a number of ways, despite the current froideur between them.

“I support nongovernmental engagaement … and I think we should continue that,” McFaul said, adding that “science is universal” and lends itself to international collaboration.

Still, McFaul suggested, having Putin as president means there will always be a substantial amount of wariness in U.S.-Russia relations.

“As long as he’s around we’re going to be in this confrontational mode,” McFaul concluded.

“One.MIT” creates a monument — at the smallest scale

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 12:55pm

MIT.nano is a natural convening space. The Institute’s newest laboratory facility, devoted to nanoscale research, sits in the very center of campus as an open toolset available to researchers from across MIT and beyond. Its public spaces are frequently crowded with students huddling over problem sets and steady flows of visitors peeking through the building’s glass walls and windows to get a glimpse of the wonders of modern science and technology in action.  

When the building opened last fall, its inaugural faculty director, Vladimir Bulović, decided to take this convening power a step further. “MIT.nano sits in the shadow of MIT’s Great Dome, and our responsibility is to enhance the work and aspirations of the entire campus,” says Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor in Emerging Technology. “We wanted a way to celebrate all of us instead of just a few — a monument to the MIT community made using the tools of nanoscale research.”

The result is “One.MIT,” a mosaic depicting the MIT Great Dome formed by etching more than 270,000 names on a 6-inch-diameter silicon wafer. The image attempts to include the names of all the individuals associated with MIT between its founding in 1861 and Spring 2018 — every student, alumnus/a, professor, president, lecturer, lab assistant, staff member, custodian, administrator, and anyone else who has been a member of the MIT community. 

Now on display in the MIT.nano first-floor gallery, the “One.MIT” wafer hangs alongside a 6-foot diameter enlargement as a permanent installation celebrating the many generations of MIT that are the foundation and inspiration for the research that will take place inside MIT.nano. Because the names are too small to see with the naked eye, a new website,, enables anyone to search for a name and find its location in the mosaic.
“A bit of a goose chase”

Collecting the names that would make up “One.MIT” was the first challenge. Annie Wang, a research scientist and special projects coordinator for MIT.nano, embraced solving this puzzle. The initial stage, she says, was pretty easy: the MIT Alumni Association has a comprehensive database of all degree recipients and former students, and the Office of Institutional Research could provide records of faculty and staff — but only back to 1991. 

“Everything before then,” Wang says, “was a bit of a goose chase.” Joining Wang on the chase were staff from the MIT Libraries and Institute Archives, and W. Craig Carter, the POSCO Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, who also happens to do computational art projects in his spare time.

Working with scans of more than 6,000 pages of MIT’s old paper directories, Carter, Wang, and two volunteers built specialized algorithms and machine learning tools to extract the remaining data for the project. “Some things gave us no end of trouble,” Carter says. “Like ‘Doc’ Edgerton’s name always appearing in parentheses.”

Then things got even more difficult, Wang says: “It turns out that what’s really hard is to arrange all of the names into the picture.” Once again, Carter found his programming skills taxed in new ways. To have the names draw a shape, each of their roughly 4 million typographic characters had to be converted to a format in which Carter could adjust their shading — to “draw” the image — and manage their spacing to maximally fill the available space in an aesthetically sophisticated way that resulted in an image of the MIT dome. 

Etching a monument at the micro- and nanoscale

The output of Carter and Wang’s initial efforts, however beautiful, was only the first step for what they needed. “One.MIT” also needed to exist as a set of detailed computer-aided design (CAD) drawings and instructions that could be used in micro- and nanotechnology fabrication processes. Carter says he was intrigued by the opportunity to learn how to convert his PDF document into a set of CAD drawings, but, he deadpans: “I have a rule about these things. If you make a prediction about how long something new is going to take you, you should multiply your estimate twice, then go to the next unit. So, two days? That’s eight weeks.” 

He passed his files to Wang, who worked with technical staff in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) to set about creating a silicon wafer etched with the same information. But the MTL’s equipment and processes — including oxidation furnaces, photolithography tools, and photoresist coaters — are more suited to the highly repetitive patterns of manufacturing priorities than they are to names, alphabets, and the aesthetic considerations of artwork. “Normally, MTL works with CAD files that are a few hundred kilobytes,” says Wang. “They told me the largest they’d ever worked with before us was about one gig. Ours was about 4 gigabytes.”

A wafer was completed in time to be installed on the first-floor gallery of MIT.nano for the facility’s grand opening on Oct. 4, 2018. The final element of “One.MIT” is the website, just launched this week, in which users can find and locate any of the names in the project. The organizers, who spent weeks reviewing the names on the lists, are confident the project represents a solid and comprehensive accounting of the MIT community. “I wouldn’t call it perfect,” Wang explains, “but we really did our best.”

For Bulović, “One.MIT” is the first step in what he sees as a key objective for MIT.nano: to be a place where all kinds of people can make unforeseen connections and pursue their ideas with creativity, intelligence, and passion. “It would be understandable to see MIT.nano as just a collection of tools and instruments,” he says. “By placing 'One.MIT' in our most visible corner, we’re reminding everyone that the people of MIT are our most incredible resource — just as they have been since the beginning.”

Gulf Stream series wins Knight Science Journalism Program’s Inaugural Victor K. McElheny Award

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 12:20pm

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has announced that the inaugural Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will go to a team of reporters from the Charleston Post and Courier, for an investigative series that shed light on a little-known impact of climate change and an overlooked risk of offshore drilling in the eastern U.S.

The series featured a captivating piece by Tony Bartelme that took readers “into” the Gulf Stream, the powerful system of currents that carries warm tropical water up the U.S. East Coast to the Arctic. Weaving the story of a 1969 submarine expedition with the more recent story of an unexpected Gulf Stream slowdown, Bartelme expertly conveyed both the current’s might and its fragility in the face of climate change. In a data-driven companion piece, Bartelme and Emory Parker used more than 1,000 simulations to paint a startling picture of how the Gulf Stream could complicate efforts to contain spills from offshore drilling operations — a salient concern now that some lawmakers are pushing to open the East Coast to drilling. And in a mark of the team’s innovative approach to audience engagement, the series included an adult coloring book: “30 Days in the Gulf Stream,” designed by Bartelme and Chad Dunbar.

“It was really well done and creative — an unexpected story told with great storytelling technique,” remarked a member of the judging panel. “The topic was fresh, and it had real impact.” National environmental groups described the team’s work as “stunning,” and the series helped energize the drilling debate ahead of South Carolina’s 2018 elections.

In addition to the Post and Courier series, judges honored two other outstanding entries as finalists: The Seattle Times series Hostile Waters, a gut-wrenching story of how hunting, pollution, and other human activities have caused the population of Southern Resident Orcas in Puget Sound to dwindle toward extinction; and The Last Grove, a Tampa Bay Times feature that recounts the closing of Hillsborough County’s last commercial orange grove, a victim of Florida’s citrus greening epidemic. The three honorees rose to the top of a competitive field that included more than 100 entries from newspapers, magazines, and radio stations across the U.S.

Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. “The local newspaper and radio station are where many people get the news that matters to them the most, and sadly, a lot of good science reporting at these outlets goes unnoticed,” said Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program. “So it was really encouraging to see the quality, breadth, and depth of science coverage in this year’s entries — and to see that these stories are having real impacts in their communities.”

The winning team from the Post and Courier will be honored at a luncheon ceremony at MIT’s Samberg Center on Wednesday, April 17.

The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. The award’s judges and screeners include Brian Bergstein (freelance journalist), Magnus Bjerg (TV 2, Denmark), Alicia Chang (Associated Press), Jason Dearen (Associated Press), Lisa De Bode (freelance journalist), Gideon Gil (STAT), Elana Gordon (WHYY), and Barbara Moran (WBUR).

2019 McElheny Award honorees


Charleston Post and Courier (Tony Bartelme, Chad Dunbar, and J. Emory Parker)

A powerful current just miles from SC is changing. It could devastate the East Coast.

If oil spilled off SC’s coast, a huge current would make it ‘impossible to control’

A massive current off Charleston’s coast is changing


Seattle Times (Lynda V. Mapes, Steve Ringman, Emily Eng, Lauren Frohne, and Ramon Dompor)

Hostile Waters

The orca and the orca catcher: How a generation of killer whales was taken from Puget Sound

To catch an orca

Tampa Bay Times (Lisa Gartner)

Florida scientists are working to solve greening. They were too late for Cee Bee’s.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications.

Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.

Tim Berners-Lee named FT “Boldness in Business” Person of the Year

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 10:25am

The week that his invention of the World Wide Web turned 30, MIT professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been named the Financial Times’ Person of the Year in their special “Boldness in Business” issue.

Berners-Lee was honored for his new startup inrupt, which emerged out of work at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developing the open-data platform Solid.

Solid aims to give users ownership over their data by building decentralized social applications.

"Right now we really have the worst of all worlds, in which people not only cannot control their data, but also can’t really use it, because it’s spread across a number of different silo-ed websites,” says Berners-Lee. “Our goal is to ‘re-decentralize the web’ and develop a web architecture that gives users more control over the information they provide to applications.”

Solid has produced some 50,000 so-called personal online data stores (PODs) that are being experimented on by thousands of developers across more than 25 countries. His company is also collaborating with partners like UK’s National Health Service to explore growing the scale of Solid, and intends to launch a user product by the end of the year.

In the FT article, Berners-Lee acknowledges the challenges of breaking through with a new paradigm in a climate where companies have vested interests in maintaining their data ecosystem. But he retains a healthy optimism that recent concerns about data privacy have created more momentum for a project like this.

“It is rocket science. It is tricky. Things can blow up on you,” Berners-Lee told FT. “But we know how to fire rockets into the sky. We should be able to build constructive social networks.”

Besides his responsibilities at CSAIL, Berners-Lee is director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops web standards, specifications, and tool, as well as director of the World Wide Web Foundation, which does advocacy related to “a free and open web for everyone.”

He is the 3Com Founders Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT as well as a recipient of the A.C.M. Turing Award, often described as “the Nobel Prize of computing,” for inventing the web and developing the protocols that spurred its global use.

“Tim’s contributions to computer science have fundamentally transformed the world, and his more recent work with inrupt is poised to do the same,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “All of us at the lab — and MIT more broadly — are so very proud of him and excited to see how his efforts will continue to impact the way that people use and share data.”

Ethics, Computing, and AI: Perspectives from MIT

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 10:24am

The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will reorient the Institute to bring the power of computing and AI to all fields at MIT; allow the future of computing and AI to be shaped by all MIT disciplines; and advance research and education in ethics and public policy to help ensure that new technologies benefit the greater good.

To support ongoing planning for the new college, Dean Melissa Nobles invited faculty from all five MIT schools to offer perspectives on the societal and ethical dimensions of emerging technologies. This series presents the resulting commentaries — practical, inspiring, concerned, and clear-eyed views from an optimistic community deeply engaged with issues that are among the most consequential of our time. 

The commentaries represent diverse branches of knowledge, but they sound some common themes, including: the vision of an MIT culture in which all of us are equipped and encouraged to discern the impact and ethical implications of our endeavors.

Ethics, Computing, and AI  
Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean, and Professor of Political Science
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"These commentaries, representing faculty from all five MIT schools, implore us to be collaborative, foresighted, and courageous as we shape a new college — and to proceed with judicious humility. Rightly so. We are embarking on an endeavor that will influence nearly every aspect of the human future." Read more >>

The Tools of Moral Philosophy
Caspar Hare, Professor of Philosophy
Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"We face ethical questions every day. Philosophy does not provide easy answers for these questions, nor even fail-safe techniques for resolving them. What it does provide is a disciplined way to think about ethical questions, to identify hidden moral assumptions, and to establish principles by which our actions may be guided and judged. Framing a discussion of the risks of advanced technology entirely in terms of ethics suggests that the problems raised are ones that can and should be solved by individual action. In fact, many of the challenges presented by computer science will prove difficult to address without systemic change.”

Action: Moral philosophers can serve both as teachers in the new College and as advisers/consultants on project teams. Read more >>

A New Kind of Education
Susan Silbey, Chair of the MIT Faculty
Celebration for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
28 February 2018

"The college of computing will be dedicated to educating a different kind of technologist. We hope to integrate computing with just about every other subject at MIT so that students leave here with the knowledge and resources to be wiser, more ethically and technologically competent citizens and professionals." Read more >>

Part I: A Human Endeavor
Computing is embedded in cultural, economic, and political realities.

Computing is Deeply Human
Stefan Helmreich, Elting E. Morison Professor of Anthropology
Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"Computing is a human practice that entails judgment and is embedded in politics. Computing is not an external force that has an impact on society; instead, society — institutional structures that organize systems of social norms — is built right into making, programming, and using computers."

Action: The computational is political; MIT can make that recognition one of the pillars of computing and AI research. Read more >>

When Computer Programs Become Unpredictable
John Guttag, Dugald C. Jackson Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
School of Engineering

“We should look forward to the many good things machine-learning will bring to society. But we should also insist that technologists study the risks and clearly explain them. And society as whole should take responsibility for understanding the risks and for making human-centric choices about how best to use this ever-evolving technology.”

Action: Develop platforms that enable a wide spectrum of society to engage with the societal and ethical issues of new technology. Read more >>

Safeguarding Humanity in the Age of AI
Bernhardt Trout, Raymond F. Baddour Professor of Chemical Engineering
School of Engineering

"There seem to be two possibilities for how AI will turn out. In the first, AI will do what it is on track to do: slowly take over every human discipline. The second possibility is that we take the existential threat of AI with the utmost seriousness and completely change our approach. This means redirecting our thinking from a blind belief in efficiency to a considered understanding of what is most important about human life." Read more >>

Action: Develop a curriculum that encourages us to reflect deeply on fundamental questions: What is justice? How ought I to live?

Shaping ethical technology is a collective responsibility.

The Common Ground of Stories
Mary Fuller, Professor of Literature, and Head MIT Literature section
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science

“Stories are things in themselves, and they are also things to think with. Stories allow us to model interpretive, affective, ethical choices; they also become common ground. Reading about Milton’s angelic intelligences or William Gibson’s “bright lattices of logic” won’t tell us what we should do with the future, but reading such stories at MIT may offer a conceptual meeting place to think together across the diversity of what and how we know."

Action: Create residencies for global storytellers in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Read more >>

Who's Calling the Shots with AI?
Leigh Hafrey, Senior Lecturer, Leadership and Ethics
MIT Sloan School of Management

"'Efficiency' is a perennial business value and a constant factor in corporate design, strategy, and execution. But in a world where the exercise of social control by larger entities is real, developments in artificial intelligence have yet to yield the ethics by which we might manage their effects. The integrity of our vision for the future depends on our learning from the past and celebrating the fact that people, not artifacts and institutions, set our rules of engagement."

Action: Adopt a full-on stakeholder view of business in society and the individual in business. Read more >>

In Praise of Wetware
Caroline A. Jones, Professor of Art History
School of Architecture and Planning

“As we enshrine computation as the core of smartness, we would be well advised to think of the complexity of our ‘wet’ cognition, which entails a much more distributed notion of intelligence that goes well beyond the sacred cranium and may not even be bounded by our own skin.”

Action: Before claiming that it is "intelligence" we've produced in machines or modeled in computation, we should better understand the adaptive, responsive human wetware — and its dependence on a larger living ecosystem. Read more >>

Blind Spots
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, and Professor of Physics
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and Department of Physics

“MIT has a powerful opportunity to lead in the development of new technologies while also leading careful, deliberate, broad-ranging, and ongoing community discussions about the “whys” and 'what ifs,' not just the 'hows.' No group of researchers, flushed with the excitement of learning and building something new, can overcome the limitations of blind spots and momentum alone."

Action: Create ongoing forums for brainstorming and debate; we will benefit from engaging as many stakeholders as possible. Read more >>

Assessing the Impact of AI on Society
Lisa Parks, Professor of Comparative Media Studies
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

“Three fundamental societal challenges have emerged from the use of AI, particularly for data collection and machine learning. The first challenge centers on this question: Who has the power to know about how AI tools work, and who does not? A second challenge involves learning how AI tools intersect with international relations and the dynamics of globalization. Beyond questions of knowledge, power, and globalization, it is important to consider the relationship between AI and social justice."

Action: Conduct a political, economic, and materialist analysis of the relationship of AI technology to global trade, governance, natural environments, and culture. Read more >>

Clues and Caution for AI from the History of Biomedicine
Robin Wolfe Scheffler, Leo Marx Career Development Professor in the History and Culture of Science and Technology
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"The use of AI in the biomedical fields today deepens longstanding questions raised by the past intractability of biology and medicine to computation, and by the flawed assumptions that were adopted in attempting to make them so. The history of these efforts underlines two major points: 'Quantification is a process of judgment and evaluation, not simple measurement' and 'Prediction is not destiny.'"

Action: First, understand the nature of the problems we want to solve — which include issues not solvable by technical innovation alone. Let that knowledge guide new AI and technology projects. Read more >>

The Environment for Ethical Action
T.L. Taylor, Professor of Comparative Media Studies
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"We can cultivate our students as ethical thinkers but if they aren’t working in (or studying in) structures that support advocacy, interventions, and pushing back on proposed processes, they will be stymied. Ethical considerations must include a sociological model that focuses on processes, policies, and structures and not simply individual actors."

Action: Place a commitment to social justice at the heart of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Read more >>

Biological Intelligence and AI
Matthew A. Wilson, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience
School of Science and the Picower Institute

"An understanding of biological intelligence is relevant to the development of AI, and the effort to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI) magnifies its significance. AGIs will be expected to conform to standards of behavior...Should we hold AIs to the same standards as the average human? Or will we expect AIs to perform at the level of an ideal human?"

Action: Conduct research on how innate morality arises in human intelligence, as an important step toward incorporating such a capacity into artificial intelligences. Read more >>

Machine Anxiety
Bernardo Zacka, Assistant Professor of Political Science
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"To someone who studies bureaucracy, the anxieties surrounding AI have an eerily familiar ring. So too does the excitement. For much of the 20th century, bureaucracies were thought to be intelligent machines. As we examine the ethical and political implications of AI, there are at least two insights to draw from bureaucracy's history: That it is worth studying our anxieties whether or not they are realistic; and that in doing so we should not write off human agency."

Action: When societies undergo deep transformations, envisioning a future that is both hopeful and inclusive is a task that requires moral imagination, empathy, and solidarity. We can study the success of societies that have faced such challenges well. Read more >>

Part III: A Structure for Collaboration
Thinking together is powerful.

Bilinguals and Blending
Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
School of Engineering

"When we study society today, we can no longer separate humanities — the study of what’s human — from computing. So, while there’s discussion under way about building bridges between computing and the humanities, arts, and social sciences, what the College of Computing needs is blending, not bridging. MIT’s guideline should be President Reif’s goal to 'educate the bilinguals of the future' —experts in many fields who are also skilled in modern computing."

Action: Develop approaches for joint research and joint teaching. Read more >>

A Dream of Computing
Fox Harrell, Professor of Digital Media and Artificial Intelligence
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences + Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab

"There are numerous perspectives on what computing is: some people focus on theoretical underpinnings, others on implementation, others still on social or environmental impacts. These perspectives are unified by shared characteristics, including some less commonly noted: computing can involve great beauty and creativity."

Action: "We must reimagine our shared dreams for computing technologies as ones where their potential social and cultural impacts are considered intrinsic to the engineering practices of inventing them." Read more >>

A Network of Practitioners
Nick Montfort, Professor of Media Studies
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"Computing is not a single discipline or even a set of disciplines; it is a practice. The new College presents an opportunity for many practitioners of computing at MIT."

Action: Build a robust network with many relevant types of connections, not all of them through a single core. Read more >>

Two Commentaries
Susan Silbey, Chair of the MIT Faculty
Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, and Professor of Behavioral and Policy Sciences
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and MIT Sloan School of Management

How Not To Teach Ethics  — "Rather than thinking about ethics as a series of anecdotal instances of problematic choice-making, we might think about ethics as participation in a moral culture, and then ask how that culture supports or challenges ethical behavior."

Forming the College  — "The Stephen A. Schwarzman College is envisioned to be the nexus connecting those who advance computer science, those who use computational tools in specific subject fields, and those who analyze and write about digital worlds." Read more >>

Ethical AI by Design
Abby Everett Jaques, Postdoctoral Associate, Philosophy
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

"We are teaching an ethical protocol, a step-by-step process that students can use for their own projects. In this age of self-driving cars and machine learning, the questions feel new, but in many ways they’re not. Philosophy offers powerful tools to help us answer them." Read more >>

Series prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Office of the Dean, MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Series Editors: Emily Hiestand, Kathryn O'Neill

Meenakshi Chakraborty named 2019 Churchill Scholar

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 3:35pm

Meenakshi Chakraborty, a senior from Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been named a 2019 Churchill Scholar and will pursue an MPhil at Cambridge University.

Chakraborty is expected to graduate this spring with a BS in computer science and molecular biology. As a Churchill scholar she aims to pursue a master’s degree in genetics at Cambridge. When she returns to the U.S. she plans to pursue a PhD in biology with a focus on genetics.  

Chakraborty realized a passion for scientific research when still in high school. After a trip to a South African hospital, she realized the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic, and discovered a desire to participate in scientific research that could lead to medical breakthroughs. Upon her return, she learned of the work of Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. Despite the fact that Chakraborty was still in high school, Walker agreed to mentor her work on a study of epidemiology of HIV.

Chakraborty next began research under the tutelage of Institute Professor Phil Sharp. Jeremy Wilusz, a former Sharp Lab postdoc and current professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “It was clear long ago that Meena was a superstar in the making. As a 15-year-old, she reached out to Phil about writing an independent report on RNA over the summer. (I believe you had to be at least 16 to do actual research in a lab at MIT, so this was her way of getting her feet wet.) She asked to meet with one of the postdocs in the lab every couple of weeks to make sure she was heading in the right direction, and I became that postdoc. We decided to have her write a report on the history and functions of circular RNAs, which had recently been the subject of several prominent papers in Nature. She would go off, read a ton of papers, write extensive outlines, and bring very thoughtful questions to my attention that we would talk about. This effort ultimately resulted in the first Wikipedia page on circular RNAs (completely her idea) that others have built upon as the field has evolved.”

When Chakraborty matriculated at MIT, she began conducting research in the Sharp Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, as an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) student. During her time in the lab, she has investigated cell states, and how cells with identical genetic information and the same differentiation state vary. This issue is at the center of problems in developmental biology and the mechanisms of cancer. She has worked closely with research scientist Salil Garg on this work, who says, “Meena makes everything around her more fun. Her endless enthusiasm and positivity rub off on everyone in lab. Working with her has been an absolute joy. It's hard to imagine what the lab will be like without her.” 

Chakraborty has also participated in competitive summer research programs including MIT’s Johnson and Johnson UROP Scholars Program, which aims to support and increase the number of women in STEM, manufacturing, and design fields. With funding from Johnson and Johnson as part of its Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design (WiSTEM2D) initiative, Johnson and Johnson UROP Scholars conduct full-time summer research, in addition to attending faculty presentations, workshops, and networking events. Sarah Nelson, senior program coordinator of UROP and Johnson and Johnson UROP Scholars, says, “Meena was a great addition to this program not only because she is an outstanding student and researcher, but she is a true advocate for women in STEM.”  

Chakraborty received a Goldwater scholarship last year due to her exceptional work as a student and researcher. She has continued to work in the Sharp lab while she finishes her degree at MIT.

During her time at MIT, she has also worked on science advocacy with MIT Effective Altruism (EA) Club. Chakraborty plans to explore working with Cambridge EA while studying in the U.K. She hopes to use this opportunity to develop her multidisciplinary approach to research and developing treatments for life-threatening conditions. 

Chakraborty was advised in her application by Kim Benard in the Office of Distinguished Fellowships and by the Presidential Committee for Distinguished Fellowships, co-chaired by Professors William Broadhead and Rebecca Saxe. The Churchill Scholarship is a competitive program that annually offers 16 students an opportunity to pursue a funded graduate degree in science, mathematics or engineering at Churchill College within Cambridge University.

MIT celebrates 50th anniversary of historic moon landing

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 3:28pm

On Sept. 12, 1962, in a speech given in Houston to pump up support for NASA’s Apollo program, President John F. Kennedy shook a stadium crowd with the now-famous quote: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

As he delivered these lines, engineers in MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory were already taking up the president’s challenge. One year earlier, NASA had awarded MIT the first major contract of the Apollo program, charging the Instrumentation Lab with developing the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation, and control systems that would shepherd astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong to the moon and back.

On July 20, 1969, the hard work of thousands paid off, as Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface, safely delivering Armstrong and Aldrin ScD ’63 as the first people to land on the moon.

On Wednesday, MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) celebrated the 50th anniversary of this historic event with the daylong symposium “Apollo 50+50,” featuring former astronauts, engineers, and NASA adminstrators who examined the legacy of the Apollo program, and MIT faculty, students, industry leaders, and alumni who envisioned what human space exploration might look like in the next 50 years.

In welcoming a large audience to Kresge Auditorium, some of whom sported NASA regalia for the occasion, Daniel Hastings, head of AeroAstro, said of today’s prospects for space exploration: “It’s the most exciting time since Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.”

The event kicked off three days of programming for MIT Space Week, which also included the Media Lab’s “Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age” on March 14, and the student-led “New Space Age Conference” on March 15.

“We could press on”

As a “baby boomer living through Apollo,” retired astronaut Charles Bolden, NASA’s 12th administrator, said the Apollo program illustrated “how masterful we were at overcoming adversity.” In a keynote address that opened the day’s events, Bolden reminded the audience that, at the time the ambitious program got underway in the 1960s, the country was in the violent thick of the civil rights movement.

We were killing each other in the streets,” Bolden said. “And yet we had an agency like NASA, and a small group of people, who were able to bear through everything and land on the moon. … We could recognize there were greater things we could do as a people, and we could press on.”

For MIT’s part, the push began with a telegram on Aug. 9, 1961, to Charles Stark Draper, director of the Instrumentation Laboratory, notifying him that NASA had selected the MIT lab “to develop the guidance navigation system of the Project Apollo spacecraft.” Draper, who was known widely as “Doc,” famously assured NASA of MIT’s work by volunteering himself as a crew member on the mission, writing to the agency that “if I am willing to hang my life on our equipment, the whole project will surely have the strongest possible motivation.”

This of course proved unnecessary, and Draper went on to lead the development of the guidance system with “unbounded optimism,” as his former student and colleague Lawrence Young, the MIT Apollo Program Professor, recalled in his remarks.

“We owe the lighting of our fuse to Doc Draper,” Young said.

At the time that MIT took on the Apollo project, the Instrumentation Laboratory, later renamed Draper Laboratory, took up a significant footprint, with 2,000 people and 15 buildings on campus, dedicated largely to the lunar effort.

“The Instrumentation Lab dwarfed the [AeroAstro] department,” said Hastings, joking, “it was more like the department was a small pimple on the Instrumentation Lab.”

Apollo remembered

In a highlight of the day’s events, NASA astronauts Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7) and Charles Duke SM ’64 (Apollo 16), and MIT Instrumentation Laboratory engineers Donald Eyles and William Widnall ’59, SM ’62 — all from the Apollo era — took the stage to reminisce about some of the technical challenges and emotional moments that defined the program.

One of the recurring themes of their conversation was the observation that things simply got done faster back then. For instance, Duke remarked that it took just 8.5 years from when Kennedy first called for the mission, to when Armstrong’s boots hit the lunar surface.

“I would argue the proposal for such a mission would take longer [today],” Duke said to an appreciative rumble from the audience.

The Apollo Guidance Computer, developed at MIT, weighed 70 pounds, consumed 55 watts of power — half the wattage of a regular lightbulb — and took up less than 1 cubic foot inside the spacecraft. The system was one of the first digital flight computers, and one of the first computers to use integrated circuits.  

Eyles and Widnall recalled in detail the technical efforts that went into developing the computer’s hardware and software. “If you’re picturing [the computer code] on a monitor, you’d be wrong,” Eyles told the audience. “We were writing the program on IBM punch cards. That clunking mechanical sound of the key-punch machine was the soundtrack to creating the software.”

Written out, that code famously amounted to a stack of paper as tall as lead software engineer Margaret Hamilton — who was not able to participate in Wednesday’s panel but attended the symposium dinner that evening.

In the end, the Apollo Guidance Computer succeeded in steering 15 space flights, including nine to the moon, and six lunar landings. That’s not to say that the system didn’t experience some drama along the way, and Duke, who was the capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, for Apollo 11, remembers having to radio up to the spacecraft during the now-famous rocky landing.

“When I heard the first alarm go off during the braking phase, I thought we were dead in the water,” Duke said of the first in a series of alerts that the Apollo astronauts reported, indicating that the computer was overloaded, during the most computationally taxing phase of the mission. The spacecraft was several miles off course and needed to fly over a “boulder field,” to land within 60 seconds or risk running out of fuel.

Flight controllers in Houston’s Mission Control Center determined that if nothing else went wrong, the astronats, despite the alarms, could proceed with landing.

“Tension was high,” Duke said of the moment. “You didn’t want to touch down on a boulder and blow a nozzle, and spoil your whole day.”

When the crew finally touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, with Armstrong’s cool report that “the Eagle has landed,” Duke, too wound-up to properly verbalize the callback “Tranquility,” recalls “I was so excited … it came out as ‘Twang,’ or something like that.’ The tension — it was like popping a balloon.”

Since the Apollo era, NASA has launched astronauts on numerous missions, many of whom are MIT graduates. On Wednesday, 13 of those graduates came onstage to be recognized along with the Apollo crew.

In introducing them to the audience, Jeffrey Hoffman, a former astronaut and now AeroAstro professor of the practice, noted MIT’s significant representation in the astronaut community. For instance, in the five missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, which comprised 24 spacewalks, 13 of those were performed by MIT graduates.

“That’s pretty cool,” Hoffman said.

On the horizon

The Apollo moon rocks that were were brought back to Earth have “evolved our understanding of how the moon formed,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. These rocks “vanquished” the idea that the moon originally formed as a cold assemblage of rocks and “foo foo dust,” she said.

Instead, after carefully analyzing samples from Apollo 11 and other missions, scientists at MIT and elsewhere have found that the moon was a dynamic body, with a surface that at one time was entirely molten, and a metallic core, or “dynamo,” powering an early, lunar magnetic field. Even more provocative was the finding that the moon was not in fact “bone-dry,” but actually harbored water — an idea that Zuber said was virtually unpublishable until an MIT graduate reported evidence of water in Apollo samples, after which the floodgates opened in support of the idea.

To consider the next 50 years of space exploration, the MIT symposium featured a panel of faculty members — Paulo Lozano, Danielle Wood, Richard Binzel, and Sara Seager — who highlighted, respectively, the development of tiny thrusters to power miniature spacecraft; an effort to enable wider access to microgravity missions; an MIT student-designed mission (REXIS) that is currently analyzing the near-Earth asteroid Bennu; and TESS and ASTERIA, satellite missions that are currently in orbit, looking for planets and possibly, life, outside our solar system.

Industry leaders also weighed in on the growing commercialization of space exploration, in a panel featuring MIT alums who currently head major aerospace companies.

Keoki Jackson, chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin, noted the pervasiveness of space-based technologies, such as GPS-dependent apps for everything from weather and news, to Uber.

“[Commercial enterprises] have made space a taken-for-granted part of life,” said Jackson, noting later in the panel that in 2015, 1 billion GPS devices had been sold around the world. “This shows you what can happen exponentially when you come up with something truly enabling.”

“The challenge we face is talent, and in particular, diversity,” said John Langford, CEO and founder of Aurora Flight Sciences, who noted the panel’s all-male participants as an example. “It’s an industry-wide challenge. We’re working to reform ourselves, as we move from the brigade-type technologies that we grew up with, to incorporating technologies such as computer technology and artificial intelligence.”

Future missions

In a glimpse of what the future of space exploration might hold, MIT students presented lightning talks on a range of projects, including a custom-designed drill to excavate ice on Mars, a system that makes oxygen on Mars to fuel return missions to Earth, and a plan to send CubeSats around the world to monitor water vapor as a measure of climate change.

Audience members voted online for the best pitch, which ultimately went to Raichelle Aniceto and her presentation of a CubeSat-enabled laser communications system designed to transmit large amounts of data from the moon to Earth in just five minutes.

In the last keynote address of the symposium, Thomas Zubuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told the audience that there is still a lot of research to be done on the moon, which he said is changing, as evidenced by new craters that have formed in the last 50 years.

“The moon of the Apollo era is not the same moon of today,” said Zurbuchen, who noted that just this week, NASA announced it will open previously unlocked samples of soil collected by the Apollo missions.

In closing the symposium, Dava Newman, the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics and former NASA deputy administrator, envisioned a future dedicated to sending humans back to the moon, and ultimately to Mars.

“I’m a rocket scientist. I got here because of Apollo, and Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: Believe in the beauty of your dreams,” Newman said. “The challenge is, within 50 years, to be boots on Mars. I think we have the brains and the doers and inspiration to really make that happen.”

Buddhist nun Sister Dang Nghiem invites MIT community to practice mindfulness

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 12:30pm

Dharma teacher Sister Dang Nghiem challenged her listeners to “Look up from your computer. And see the blue sky that brings you joy.” A Buddhist nun in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Dang Nghiem spoke on the topic of “Mindfulness as Medicine” at MIT on March 7 as part of the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series sponsored by MIT Global Studies and Languages.

The brown-robed sister, smiling and speaking barely above a whisper, began by leading the attentive audience of over 200 people in a short seated meditation. She explained she would not be presenting a lecture as such: “It’s more of a heart-to-heart transmission.” Three sounds of a bell were struck by Sister Truc Nghiem, known as “Sister Bamboo.” Both sisters, who reside at the Deer Park Monastery in California, were invited to MIT for two days of activities, organized in conjunction with MIT’s Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and the Addir Interfaith Fellows Program. The bell was loaned to event organizers by Temple Vietnam, a local Buddhist temple.

Sister Dang Nghiem was born in 1968 in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, the daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier. She lost her mother at the age of 12 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 with her brother. Living in various foster homes, she learned English and went on to earn a medical degree. After suffering further tragedy and loss, she quit her practice as a doctor to travel to the Plum Village monastery in France where she was ordained a nun in 2000. She is the author of two books: "Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun" (2010) and "Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing and Spirit" (2015).

A central theme of her talk was the role of meditation and mindful breathing as an antidote to the stresses, pain, and traumas of life that can produce physical and mental illnesses, among other difficulties. She discussed her own history with depression, headaches, and neuro-Lyme disease, as well as her experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.

“We are very privileged people, and yet in so many ways we don’t have control over our own life. As doctors we are pushed to see 20, 30, 40 patients a day. As scientists you’re forced, pushed to finish one project after another.” Some of the stresses are also produced from within ourselves. She said, “We are very hard on ourselves. You got a degree. It’s not good enough. I have to get another degree. You finished a project? Oh no. I have a second project. You just don’t take the time to acknowledge what you have done, how hard you have worked, how far you have gone.”

By using meditation and mindful breathing, she said, the mind and body can rest and relax. “You don’t have to become monks and nuns to practice mindfulness, or to practice meditation. You can practice wherever you are.”

She spoke at length about one of the Buddhist principles: “interbeing” — that is, the interconnectedness of life, and the interpenetration of apparent separate phenomena. She said, “It helps us not to feel so isolated when we are in a classroom, in a lab, when we are so engrossed in our project, surrounded by concrete. Sometimes we feel so cut off from life. We’re not aware of what’s going on and can be so much in despair and desperation, because of deadlines, because of pressure. But if we just remember about interbeing — how our happiness and suffering affect not just one person, not just our loved ones, our family members, but the whole society. The ripple effect. So we come back to our breath, to our body, to smile, to take good care of ourselves, because the one contains the all. Taking good care of ourselves is taking good care of our family, of our society. That is love.”

One aspect of “interbeing” is understanding our interconnection with people across disparate backgrounds. She reminded the MIT community, “We are a very privileged population. For every student or professor there must be hundreds of thousands of people who will never attain this kind of privilege, education, status in society."

She addressed the concern that happiness and contentment might lead to complacency and under-achievement. She said, “People become more creative when our minds are spacious and calm. We see possibilities. We can be more spontaneous. As scientists we can become more like technicians. Because we keep repeating the patterns. We don’t see new ways to do things. New angles to the same problem. If you take those moments to take care of your body and mind. To just put it aside. Trust your consciousness. Our consciousness has many different levels. We usually use just the superficial levels. But deep down inside is the well, it’s like the ocean, that is unlimited. And when we can let that deep store consciousness to be at work we become very creative.”

The evening was emceed by Professor Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT and head of Global Studies and Languages. The sister was introduced by Professor Elizabeth A. Wood, professor of history and interim director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program.

During the discussion period, a student asked why she should do her homework if meditation is what makes her feel good. The sister encouraged the student to use meditation or mindful breathing to help her study. “You still do what you need to do, and yet it comes from a different well. And it’s inspiring. It’s nourishing you as you do it.”

She challenged those in the audience to step away from our computers and mobile phones. “We say we have no time, but every second we get, we get out that electronic gadget and start pressing the buttons. We don’t have enough love for ourselves. We consume constantly. We give no chance for the mind to rest, for the engine to cool off. Put them aside, my dear. And simply breathe and smile. Look at the beauty of nature. Look at the face of your loved one. Your child is growing up. Your loved one is growing away, apart from you. Connect.”

The sister joked that an alternate meaning for the acronym “MIT” might be “Mindfulness in Technology.”

After the lecture both Sister Dang Nghiem and Sister Bamboo met with members of the MIT Vietnamese Students Association.

The following day, more than 40 MIT students, faculty, and staff from religious, ethics, athletics, and wellness organizations attended an “eating meditation.” Event organizer Olga Opojevici said the event included representatives from different groups on campus that provide programming in mindfulness. “This gave everyone a chance talk to each other about what resources already exist, and what could be created, to promote mindfulness practices on campus. The visit of Sister Dang Nghiem and Sister Bamboo was a true catalyst for this.”

Earlier in the morning, about 35 people also attended a walking meditation in the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, led by Sister Bamboo.

A video of the talk is available on the website of the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series.

Exercises in amazement: Discovering deep learning

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 12:05pm

It was standing-room only in the Stata Center’s Kirsch Auditorium when some 300 attendees showed up for opening lectures for MIT’s intensive, student-designed course 6.S191 (Introduction to Deep Learning).

Nathan Rebello, a first-year graduate student in chemical engineering, was among those who were excited about the class, coordinated by Alexander Amini ’17 and Ava Soleimany ’16 during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January.

“I hope to go into either industry or academia and to apply deep learning techniques for the design of new materials,” Rebello says. He signed up for 6.S191 to learn more about deep learning with the intention of applying it to the design of bio-inspired polymeric materials, adding: “I also wanted to network with students and faculty to explore their ways of thinking on this topic.”

There were plenty of people available for networking. “We want the class to be open and accessible to the broader community,” says Soleimany, a MIT and Harvard University graduate student, who, with Amini, also served as an instructor for the course. “We welcome people from outside MIT. There were many students from surrounding universities in Boston and even specialized physicians from Mass General Hospital. We had people fly in from California and from outside the country, from Turkey and China, to attend the lectures.”

The for-credit course has been offered for the past three years. A subset of artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning focuses on building predictive models automatically from big data. Each class consisted of technical lectures followed by software labs where students could immediately apply what they had learned. Technical lectures spanned state-of-the-art techniques in deep learning, and included lectures on computer vision, reinforcement learning, and natural language processing given by Amini and Soleimany, as well as guest lectures by leading AI researchers from Google, IBM, and Nvidia.

“This year, we remade the software labs totally from scratch and collaborated very closely with the Google Brain team to reflect the newest version of the framework TensorFlow, the language which we were using for the labs,” says Amini, a PhD student in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “TensorFlow is the most popular machine learning and deep learning framework out there.”

One specific lab featured research that Amini and Soleimany recently published in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence/Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society. “The focus is on building facial detection systems and using deep learning to make them unbiased with respect to things like gender and race,” Soleimany says. “This is a really exciting piece of work, but it’s also really pragmatic work, because there’s been a lot of news recently on AI being biased towards certain underrepresented minorities. To have students not only understand why that bias might arise, but also try to use deep learning to actually remove some of that bias was really cool. It’s cutting-edge work.”

For final projects, 6.S191 students could either write a brief review of a new deep learning paper or present a three-minute oral proposal for a deep learning application, to be judged by industry representatives.

This year, some 20 groups comprising two to four people completed projects, competing for high-end graphics processing units (GPUs) provided by Nvidia, each worth more than $1,000, and AI home assistants provided by Google.

One winning team proposed using deep learning to detect deformation in 2-D materials on a micro scale or even smaller. A second group proposed using it to design new catalysts for chemistry applications. The final group proposed using deep learning to analyze the X-rays of scoliosis patients.

“We thought that these three projects stood out in terms of their immediate applications and that these teams would take the GPUs and really put them to use,” Soleimany says.

Rebello, who had a basic knowledge of neural nets and TensorFlow before he enrolled in the course, was on the team that presented “Advanced Scoliosis Detection with Deep Neural Nets.”

“Even though my teammates and I were from different disciplines, we pooled our knowledge and interests to propose the award-winning idea of a merger of convolutional neural networks with scoliosis detection, potentially enabling doctors to detect subtle abnormal features from X-rays in the early stages of scoliosis and classify the severity of the condition over time,” Rebello says.

“The project was a fun way to think outside of the box,” says another member of the winning team, Eric A. Magliarditi, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics. The third team member, Sandra Liu, who is studying for a master's degree in mechanical engineering, said she had little knowledge of deep learning before the class but was eager to learn about its applications to soft robotics, her academic interest. “The highlights of the course were the labs,” she says. “In one, we got to complete the code for a neural net that could generate Irish folk songs. It was fun to be able to do ‘hands-on’ projects and also to learn more about real-life applications of deep learning.”

Magliarditi had a real-life interest in the topic the trio explored. “I had advanced scoliosis — I had surgery to fix it in 2014 — so this topic was extremely relevant and interesting to me,” he says. “I am not entirely sure if our idea could work, but it is something I want to investigate further because it has some interesting consequences if it were to work.”

Not every idea presented was so practical. “One project was an AI personal assistant,” says Amini. “And though it may be far-fetched, a full-fledged AI assistant, essentially a micro-drone the size of an insect that would fly around the house and keep track of your personal belongings, would be pretty amazing.”

Amini and Soleimany plan to teach the deep learning course again during IAP 2020. In the meantime, the lectures from the 2019 class can be found on the course website.

Robot hand is soft and strong

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 11:45am

Fifty years ago, the first industrial robot arm (called Unimate) assembled a simple breakfast of toast, coffee, and champagne. While it might have looked like a seamless feat, every movement and placement was coded with careful consideration.

Even with today’s more intelligent and adaptive robots, this task remains difficult for machines with rigid hands. They tend to work only in structured environments with predefined shapes and locations, and typically can’t cope with uncertainties in placement or form.

In recent years, though, roboticists have come to grips with this problem by making fingers out of soft, flexible materials like rubber. This pliability lets these soft robots pick up anything from grapes to boxes and empty water bottles, but they’re still unable to handle large or heavy items.

To give these soft robots a bit of a hand, researchers from MIT and Harvard University have developed a new gripper that’s both soft and strong: a cone-shaped origami structure that collapses in on objects, much like a Venus' flytrap, to pick up items that are as much as 100 times its weight. This motion lets the gripper grasp a much wider range of objects — such as soup cans, hammers, wine glasses, drones, and even a single broccoli floret.

“One of my moonshots is to create a robot that can automatically pack groceries for you,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and one of the senior authors of a new paper about the project.

“Previous approaches to the packing problem could only handle very limited classes of objects — objects that are very light, or objects that conform to shapes such as boxes and cylinders — but with the Magic Ball gripper system we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items ranging from wine bottles to broccoli, grapes and eggs,” says Rus. “In other words, objects that are heavy and objects that are light. Objects that are delicate, or sturdy, or that have regular or free-form shapes.”

The project is one of several in recent years that has researchers thinking outside the box with robot design. Ball-shaped grippers, for example, can handle a wider range of objects than fingers, but still have the issue of limited angles. Softer robotic fingers typically use compressed air, but aren’t strong enough to pick up heavier objects.

The structure of this new gripper, meanwhile, takes an entirely different form. Cone-shaped, hollow, and vacuum-powered, the device was inspired by the “origami magic ball” and can envelope an entire object and successfully pick it up.

The gripper has three parts: the origami-based skeleton structure, the airtight skin to encase the structure, and the connector. The team created it using a mechanical rubber mold and a special heat-shrinking plastic that self-folds at high temperatures.

The magic ball’s skeleton is covered by either a rubber balloon or a thin fabric sheet, not unlike the team’s previous research on fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles, which consisted of an airtight skin surrounding a foldable skeleton and fluid.

The team used the gripper with a standard robot to test its strength on different objects. The gripper could grasp and lift objects 70 percent of its diameter, which allowed it to pick up and hold a variety of soft foods without causing damage. It could also pick up bottles weighing over four pounds.

“Companies like Amazon and JD want to be able to pick up a wider array of delicate or irregular-shaped objects, but can’t with finger-based and suction-cup grippers,” says Shuguang Li, a joint postdoc at CSAIL and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Suction cups can’t pick up anything with holes — and they’d need something much stronger than a soft-finger-based gripper.”

The robot currently works best with cylindrical objects like bottles or cans, which could someday make it an asset for production lines in factories. Not surprisingly, the shape of the gripper makes it more difficult for it to grasp something flat, like a sandwich or a book.

“One of the key features of this approach to manipulator construction is its simplicity,” says Robert Wood, co-author and professor at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “The materials and fabrication strategies used allow us to rapidly prototype new grippers, customized to object or environment as needed.”  

In the future, the team hopes to try to solve the problem of angle and orientation by adding computer vision that would let the gripper “see”, and make it possible to grasp specific parts of objects.

“This is a very clever device that uses the power of 3-D printing, a vacuum, and soft robotics to approach the problem of grasping in a whole new way,” says Michael Wehner, an assistant professor of robotics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the project. “In the coming years, I could imagine seeing soft robots gentle and dexterous enough to pick a rose, yet strong enough to safely lift a hospital patient.”

Other co-authors of the paper include MIT undergraduates John Stampfli, Helen Xu, Elian Malkin, and Harvard Research Experiences for Undergraduates student Evelin Villegas Diaz from St. Mary's University. The team will present their paper at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal, Canada, this May.

This project was supported in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and Harvard's Wyss Institute.

Quantum sensing method measures minuscule magnetic fields

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 12:00am

A new way of measuring atomic-scale magnetic fields with great precision, not only up and down but sideways as well, has been developed by researchers at MIT. The new tool could be useful in applications as diverse as mapping the electrical impulses inside a firing neuron, characterizing new magnetic materials, and probing exotic quantum physical phenomena.

The new approach is described today in the journal Physical Review Letters in a paper by graduate student Yi-Xiang Liu, former graduate student Ashok Ajoy, and professor of nuclear science and engineering Paola Cappellaro.

The technique builds on a platform already developed to probe magnetic fields with high precision, using tiny defects in diamond called nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers. These defects consist of two adjacent places in the diamond’s orderly lattice of carbon atoms where carbon atoms are missing; one of them is replaced by a nitrogen atom, and the other is left empty. This leaves missing bonds in the structure, with electrons that are extremely sensitive to tiny variations in their environment, be they electrical, magnetic, or light-based.

Previous uses of single NV centers to detect magnetic fields have been extremely precise but only capable of measuring those variations along a single dimension, aligned with the sensor axis. But for some applications, such as mapping out the connections between neurons by measuring the exact direction of each firing impulse, it would be useful to measure the sideways component of the magnetic field as well.

Essentially, the new method solves that problem by using a secondary oscillator provided by the nitrogen atom’s nuclear spin. The sideways component of the field to be measured nudges the orientation of the secondary oscillator. By knocking it slightly off-axis, the sideways component induces a kind of wobble that appears as a periodic fluctuation of the field aligned with the sensor, thus turning that perpendicular component into a wave pattern superimposed on the primary, static magnetic field measurement. This can then be mathematically converted back to determine the magnitude of the sideways component.

The method provides as much precision in this second dimension as in the first dimension, Liu explains, while still using a single sensor, thus retaining its nanoscale spatial resolution. In order to read out the results, the researchers use an optical confocal microscope that makes use of a special property of the NV centers: When exposed to green light, they emit a red glow, or fluorescence, whose intensity depends on their exact spin state. These NV centers can function as qubits, the quantum-computing equivalent of the bits used in ordinary computing.

“We can tell the spin state from the fluorescence,” Liu explains. “If it’s dark,” producing less fluorescence, “that’s a ‘one’ state, and if it’s bright, that’s a ‘zero’ state,” she says. “If the fluorescence is some number in between then the spin state is somewhere in between ‘zero’ and ‘one.’”

The needle of a simple magnetic compass tells the direction of a magnetic field, but not its strength. Some existing devices for measuring magnetic fields can do the opposite, measuring the field’s strength precisely along one direction, but they tell nothing about the overall orientation of that field. That directional information is what the new detector system can n provide.

In this new kind of “compass,” Liu says, “we can tell where it’s pointing from the brightness of the fluorescence,” and the variations in that brightness. The primary field is indicated by the overall, steady brightness level, whereas the wobble introduced by knocking the magnetic field off-axis shows up as a regular, wave-like variation of that brightness, which can then be measured precisely.

An interesting application for this technique would be to put the diamond NV centers in contact with a neuron, Liu says. When the cell fires its action potential to trigger another cell, the system should be able to detect not only the intensity of its signal, but also its direction, thus helping to map out the connections and see which cells are triggering which others. Similarly, in testing new magnetic materials that might be suitable for data storage or other applications, the new system should enable a detailed measurement of the magnitude and orientation of magnetic fields in the material.

Unlike some other systems that require extremely low temperatures to operate, this new magnetic sensor system can work well at ordinary room temperature, Liu says, making it feasible to test biological samples without damaging them.

The technology for this new approach is already available. “You can do it now, but you need to first take some time to calibrate the system,” Liu says.

For now, the system only provides a measurement of the total perpendicular component of the magnetic field, not its exact orientation. “Now, we only extract the total transverse component; we can’t pinpoint the direction,” Liu says. But adding that third dimensional component could be done by introducing an added, static magnetic field as a reference point. “As long as we can calibrate that reference field,” she says, it would be possible to get the full three-dimensional information about the field’s orientation, and “there are many ways to do that.”

Amit Finkler, a senior scientist in chemical physics at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, who was not involved in this work, says “This is high quality research. … They obtain a sensitivity to transverse magnetic fields on par with the DC sensitivity for parallel fields, which is impressive and encouraging for practical applications.”

Finkler adds, “As the authors humbly write in the manuscript, this is indeed the first step toward vector nanoscale magnetometry. It remains to be seen whether their technique can indeed be applied to actual samples, such as molecules or condensed matter systems.” However, he says, “The bottom line is that as a potential user/implementer of this technique, I am highly impressed and moreover encouraged to adopt and apply this scheme in my experimental setups.”

While this research was specifically aimed at measuring magnetic fields, the researchers say the same basic methodology could be used to measure other properties of molecules including rotation, pressure, electric fields, and other characteristics. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Research Office.

Tectonics in the tropics trigger Earth’s ice ages, study finds

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 2:00pm

Over the last 540 million years, the Earth has weathered three major ice ages — periods during which global temperatures plummeted, producing extensive ice sheets and glaciers that have stretched beyond the polar caps.

Now scientists at MIT, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of California at Berkeley have identified the likely trigger for these ice ages.

In a study published today in Science, the team reports that each of the last three major ice ages were preceded by tropical “arc-continent collisions” — tectonic pileups that occurred near the Earth’s equator, in which oceanic plates rode up over continental plates, exposing tens of thousands of kilometers of oceanic rock to a tropical environment.

The scientists say that the heat and humidity of the tropics likely triggered a chemical reaction between the rocks and the atmosphere. Specifically, the rocks’ calcium and magnesium reacted with atmospheric carbon dioxide, pulling the gas out of the atmosphere and permanently sequestering it in the form of carbonates such as limestone.

Over time, the researchers say, this weathering process, occurring over millions of square kilometers, could pull enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to cool temperatures globally and ultimately set off an ice age.

“We think that arc-continent collisions at low latitudes are the trigger for global cooling,” says Oliver Jagoutz, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “This could occur over 1-5 million square kilometers, which sounds like a lot. But in reality, it’s a very thin strip of Earth, sitting in the right location, that can change the global climate.”

Jagoutz’ co-authors are Francis Macdonald and Lorraine Lisiecki of UC Santa Barbara, and Nicholas Swanson-Hysell and Yuem Park of UC Berkeley.

A tropical trigger

When an oceanic plate pushes up against a continental plate, the collision typically creates a mountain range of newly exposed rock. The fault zone along which the oceanic and continental plates collide is called a “suture.” Today, certain mountain ranges such as the Himalayas contain sutures that have migrated from their original collision points, as continents have shifted over millenia.

In 2016, Jagoutz and his colleagues retraced the movements of two sutures that today make up the Himalayas. They found that both sutures stemmed from the same tectonic migration. Eighty million years ago, as the supercontinent known as Gondwana moved north, part of the landmass was crushed against Eurasia, exposing a long line of oceanic rock and creating the first suture; 50 million years ago, another collision between the supercontinents created a second suture.

The team found that both collisions occurred in tropical zones near the equator, and both preceded global atmospheric cooling events by several million years — which is nearly instantaneous on a geologic timescale. After looking into the rates at which exposed oceanic rock, also known as ophiolites, could react with carbon dioxide in the tropics, the researchers concluded that, given their location and magnitude, both sutures could have indeed sequestered enough carbon dioxide to cool the atmosphere and trigger both ice ages.

Animation showing suture zones developing as tectonic plates evolved over the last 540 million years. MIT researchers found sutures in the tropical rain belt, shown in green, were associated with Earth's major ice ages. Credit: Swanson-Hysell research group 

Interestingly, they found that this process was likely responsible for ending both ice ages as well. Over millions of years, the oceanic rock that was available to react with the atmosphere eventually eroded away, replaced with new rock that took up far less carbon dioxide.

“We showed that this process can start and end glaciation,” Jagoutz says. “Then we wondered, how often does that work? If our hypothesis is correct, we should find that for every time there’s a cooling event, there are a lot of sutures in the tropics.”

Exposing Earth’s sutures

The researchers looked to see whether ice ages even further back in Earth’s history were associated with similar arc-continent collisions in the tropics. They performed an extensive literature search to compile the locations of all the major suture zones on Earth today, and then used a computer simulation of plate tectonics to reconstruct the movement of these suture zones, and the Earth’s continental and oceanic plates, back through time. In this way, they were able to pinpoint approximately where and when each suture originally formed, and how long each suture stretched.

They identified three periods over the last 540 million years in which major sutures, of about 10,000 kilometers in length, were formed in the tropics. Each of these periods coincided with each of three major, well-known ice ages, in the Late Ordovician (455 to 440 million years ago), the Permo-Carboniferous (335 to 280 million years ago), and the Cenozoic (35 million years ago to present day). Importantly, they found there were no ice ages or glaciation events during periods when major suture zones formed outside of the tropics.

“We found that every time there was a peak in the suture zone in the tropics, there was a glaciation event,” Jagoutz says. “So every time you get, say, 10,000 kilometers of sutures in the tropics, you get an ice age.”

He notes that a major suture zone, spanning about 10,000 kilometers, is still active today in Indonesia, and is possibly responsible for the Earth’s current glacial period and the appearance of extensive ice sheets at the poles.

This tropical zone includes some of the largest ophiolite bodies in the world and is currently one of the most efficient regions on Earth for absorbing and sequestering carbon dioxide. As global temperatures are climbing as a result of human-derived carbon dioxide, some scientists have proposed grinding up vast quantities of ophiolites and spreading the minerals throughout the equatorial belt, in an effort to speed up this natural cooling process.

But Jagoutz says the act of grinding up and transporting these materials could produce additional, unintended carbon emissions. And it’s unclear whether such measures could make any significant impact within our lifetimes.

“It’s a challenge to make this process work on human timescales,” Jagoutz says. “The Earth does this in a slow, geological process that has nothing to do with what we do to the Earth today. And it will neither harm us, nor save us.”

However, Lee Kump, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State University, sees at least one silver lining for this slow, natural sequestration process in the Earth’s future.

“Emissions of carbon dioxide from human activity today rival the most massive volcanic episodes in Earth history, far exceeding the capacity of rock weathering feedbacks to counter the buildup,” says Kump, who was not involved in the research. “However, as anthropogenic carbon emissions wane, natural restoration processes like these will begin the multimillennial repair job of restoring atmospheric carbon dioxide to pre-Anthropocene levels.”

Exotic “second sound” phenomenon observed in pencil lead

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 2:00pm

The next time you set a kettle to boil, consider this scenario: After turning the burner off, instead of staying hot and slowly warming the surrounding kitchen and stove, the kettle quickly cools to room temperature and its heat hurtles away in the form of a boiling-hot wave.

We know heat doesn’t behave this way in our day-to-day surroundings. But now MIT researchers have observed this seemingly implausible mode of heat transport, known as “second sound,” in a rather commonplace material: graphite — the stuff of pencil lead.

At temperatures of 120 kelvin, or -240 degrees Fahrenheit, they saw clear signs that heat can travel through graphite in a wavelike motion. Points that were originally warm are left instantly cold, as the heat moves across the material at close to the speed of sound. The behavior resembles the wavelike way in which sound travels through air, so scientists have dubbed this exotic mode of heat transport “second sound.”  

The new results represent the highest temperature at which scientists have observed second sound. What’s more, graphite is a commercially available material, in contrast to more pure, hard-to-control materials that have exhibited second sound at 20 K, (-420 F) — temperatures that would be far too cold to run any practical applications.

The discovery, published today in Science, suggests that graphite, and perhaps its high-performance relative, graphene, may efficiently remove heat in microelectronic devices in a way that was previously unrecognized.

“There’s a huge push to make things smaller and denser for devices like our computers and electronics, and thermal management becomes more difficult at these scales,” says Keith Nelson, the Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry at MIT. “There’s good reason to believe that second sound might be more pronounced in graphene, even at room temperature. If it turns out graphene can efficiently remove heat as waves, that would certainly be wonderful.”

The result came out of a long-running interdisciplinary collaboration between Nelson’s research group and that of Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Power Engineering. MIT co-authors on the paper are lead authors Sam Huberman and Ryan Duncan, Ke Chen, Bai Song, Vazrik Chiloyan, Zhiwei Ding, and Alexei Maznev.

“In the express lane”

Normally, heat travels through crystals in a diffusive manner, carried by “phonons,” or packets of acoustic vibrational energy. The microscopic structure of any crystalline solid is a lattice of atoms that vibrate as heat moves through the material. These lattice vibrations, the phonons, ultimately carry heat away, diffusing it from its source, though that source remains the warmest region, much like a kettle gradually cooling on a stove.

The kettle remains the warmest spot because as heat is carried away by molecules in the air, these molecules are constantly scattered in every direction, including back toward the kettle. This “back-scattering” occurs for phonons as well, keeping the original heated region of a solid the warmest spot even as heat diffuses away.

However, in materials that exhibit second sound, this back-scattering is heavily suppressed. Phonons instead conserve momentum and hurtle away en masse, and the heat stored in the phonons is carried as a wave. Thus, the point that was originally heated is almost instantly cooled, at close to the speed of sound.

Previous theoretical work in Chen’s group had suggested that, within a range of temperatures, phonons in graphene may interact predominately in a momentum-conserving fashion, indicating that graphene may exhibit second sound. Last year, Huberman, a member of Chen’s lab, was curious whether this might be true for more commonplace materials like graphite.

Building upon tools previously developed in Chen’s group for graphene, he developed an intricate model to numerically simulate the transport of phonons in a sample of graphite. For each phonon, he kept track of every possible scattering event that could take place with every other phonon, based upon their direction and energy. He ran the simulations over a range of temperatures, from 50 K to room temperature, and found that heat might flow in a manner similar to second sound at temperatures between 80 and 120 K.

Huberman had been collaborating with Duncan, in Nelson’s group, on another project. When he shared his predictions with Duncan, the experimentalist decided to put Huberman’s calculations to the test.

“This was an amazing collaboration,” Chen says. “Ryan basically dropped everything to do this experiment, in a very short time.”

“We were really in the express lane with this,” Duncan adds.

Upending the norm

Duncan’s experiment centered around a small, 10-square-millimeter sample of commercially available graphite.

Using a technique called transient thermal grating, he crossed two laser beams so that the interference of their light generated a “ripple” pattern on the surface of a small sample of graphite. The regions of the sample underlying the ripple’s crests were heated, while those that corresponded to the ripple’s troughs remained unheated. The distance between crests was about 10 microns.

Duncan then shone onto the sample a third laser beam, whose light was diffracted by the ripple, and its signal was measured by a photodetector. This signal was proportional to the height of the ripple pattern, which depended on how much hotter the crests were than the troughs. In this way, Duncan could track how heat flowed across the sample over time.

If heat were to flow normally in the sample, Duncan would have seen the surface ripples slowly diminish as heat moved from crests to troughs, washing the ripple pattern away. Instead, he observed “a totally different behavior” at 120 K.

Rather than seeing the crests gradually decay to the same level as the troughs as they cooled, the crests actually became cooler than the troughs, so that the ripple pattern was inverted — meaning that for some of the time, heat actually flowed from cooler regions into warmer regions.

“That’s completely contrary to our everyday experience, and to thermal transport in almost every material at any temperature,” Duncan says. “This really looked like second sound. When I saw this I had to sit down for five minutes, and I said to myself, ‘This cannot be real.’ But I ran the experiment overnight to see if it happened again, and it proved to be very reproducible.”

According to Huberman’s predictions, graphite’s two-dimensional relative, graphene, may also exhibit properties of second sound at even higher temperatures approaching or exceeding room temperature. If this is the case, which they plan to test, then graphene may be a practical option for cooling ever-denser microelectronic devices.

“This is one of a small number of career highlights that I would look to, where results really upend the way you normally think about something,” Nelson says. “It’s made more exciting by the fact that, depending on where it goes from here, there could be interesting applications in the future. There’s no question from a fundamental point of view, it’s really unusual and exciting.”

This research was funded in part by the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

Brain wave stimulation may improve Alzheimer’s symptoms

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 11:00am

By exposing mice to a unique combination of light and sound, MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can improve cognitive and memory impairments similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s patients.

This noninvasive treatment, which works by inducing brain waves known as gamma oscillations, also greatly reduced the number of amyloid plaques found in the brains of these mice. Plaques were cleared in large swaths of the brain, including areas critical for cognitive functions such as learning and memory.

“When we combine visual and auditory stimulation for a week, we see the engagement of the prefrontal cortex and a very dramatic reduction of amyloid,” says Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the senior author of the study.

Further study will be needed, she says, to determine if this type of treatment will work in human patients. The researchers have already performed some preliminary safety tests of this type of stimulation in healthy human subjects.

MIT graduate student Anthony Martorell and Georgia Tech graduate student Abigail Paulson are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the March 14 issue of Cell.

Memory improvement

The brain’s neurons generate electrical signals that synchronize to form brain waves in several different frequency ranges. Previous studies have suggested that Alzheimer’s patients have impairments of their gamma-frequency oscillations, which range from 25 to 80 hertz (cycles per second) and are believed to contribute to brain functions such as attention, perception, and memory.

In 2016, Tsai and her colleagues first reported the beneficial effects of restoring gamma oscillations in the brains of mice that are genetically predisposed to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms. In that study, the researchers used light flickering at 40 hertz, delivered for one hour a day. They found that this treatment reduced levels of beta amyloid plaques and another Alzheimer’s-related pathogenic marker, phosphorylated tau protein. The treatment also stimulated the activity of debris-clearing immune cells known as microglia.

In that study, the improvements generated by flickering light were limited to the visual cortex. In their new study, the researchers set out to explore whether they could reach other brain regions, such as those needed for learning and memory, using sound stimuli. They found that exposure to one hour of 40-hertz tones per day, for seven days, dramatically reduced the amount of beta amyloid in the auditory cortex (which processes sound) as well as the hippocampus, a key memory site that is located near the auditory cortex.

“What we have demonstrated here is that we can use a totally different sensory modality to induce gamma oscillations in the brain. And secondly, this auditory-stimulation-induced gamma can reduce amyloid and Tau pathology in not just the sensory cortex but also in the hippocampus,” says Tsai, who is a founding member of MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative.

The researchers also tested the effect of auditory stimulation on the mice’s cognitive abilities. They found that after one week of treatment, the mice performed much better when navigating a maze requiring them to remember key landmarks. They were also better able to recognize objects they had previously encountered.

They also found that auditory treatment induced changes in not only microglia, but also the blood vessels, possibly facilitating the clearance of amyloid.

Dramatic effect

The researchers then decided to try combining the visual and auditory stimulation, and to their surprise, they found that this dual treatment had an even greater effect than either one alone. Amyloid plaques were reduced throughout a much greater portion of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where higher cognitive functions take place. The microglia response was also much stronger.

“These microglia just pile on top of one another around the plaques,” Tsai says. “It’s very dramatic.”

The researchers found that if they treated the mice for one week, then waited another week to perform the tests, many of the positive effects had faded, suggesting that the treatment would need to be given continually to maintain the benefits.

In an ongoing study, the researchers are now analyzing how gamma oscillations affect specific brain cell types, in hopes of discovering the molecular mechanisms behind the phenomena they have observed. Tsai says she also hopes to explore why the specific frequency they use, 40 hertz, has such a profound impact.

The combined visual and auditory treatment has already been tested in healthy volunteers, to assess its safety, and the researchers are now beginning to enroll patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s to study its possible effects on the disease.

“Though there are important differences among species, there is reason to be optimistic that these methods can provide useful interventions for humans,” says Nancy Kopell, a professor of mathematics and statistics at Boston University, who was not involved in the research. “This paper and related studies have the potential for huge clinical impact in Alzheimer’s disease and others involving brain inflammation.”

The research was funded, in part, by the Robert and Renee Belfer Family Foundation, the Halis Family Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the MIT Aging Brain Initiative.

A new approach to drugging a difficult cancer target

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 11:00am

One of the most common cancer-promoting genes, known as Myc, is also one of the most difficult to target with drugs. Scientists have long tried to develop drugs that block the Myc protein, but so far their efforts have not been successful.

Now, using an alternative strategy, MIT researchers have discovered a compound that can reduce Myc activity by tying up the protein that is Myc’s usual binding partner, leaving Myc partnerless and unable to perform its usual functions.

The research team, led by Angela Koehler, an assistant professor of biological engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, found that the compound they developed could suppress tumor growth in mice with certain types of cancer. The compound has been licensed by an MIT spinout that is now seeking to develop more powerful versions that could potentially be tested in human patients.

Koehler is the senior author of the study, which appears online in the journal Cell Chemical Biology on March 14. MIT postdoc Nicholas Struntz and graduate student Andrew Chen are the lead authors of the study, and the research team also includes authors from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Stanford University, Baylor College of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A new approach

For decades, cancer researchers have been trying to find ways to shut off Myc, which is a transcription factor — a protein that controls the expression of other genes. Known as a “master regulator,” Myc controls many genes involved in basic cellular functions such as growth and metabolism. When it becomes overexpressed, as it does in about 70 percent of cancers, it drives uncontrolled cell growth and proliferation.

Myc usually forms a structure known as a heterodimer with the Max protein, and these proteins together bind to DNA to turn on gene transcription. Drug development efforts have traditionally focused on disrupting the interaction of Myc and Max, which has proven difficult. Most of the compounds that researchers have tested have proven too weak, or not specific enough to the Myc-Max interaction.

Koehler encountered similar difficulties, but several years ago, she decided to pursue a different strategy, based on the Max protein. The idea was to try to find compounds that would interact with Max, and then see if they had any effect on Myc’s ability to drive cell growth.

Using a technology developed by Koehler known as a microarray binding assay, the researchers screened a library of about 20,000 compounds, including both natural products and a collection of compounds synthesized by the Broad Institute, as possible drug candidates. The top six hits, in terms of ability to bind to Max and inhibit Myc transcriptional activity in another assay, all came from the Broad Institute collection.

The researchers tested the compounds in several different cancer cell lines and identified one that appeared to be most effective at halting cell growth.

At first, the researchers were unsure how this compound was blocking Myc activity, but experiments revealed that it was stabilizing a structure in which two molecules of Max bind together, forming a structure called a homodimer. This reduces the formation of the Myc-Max heterodimer and leads to a decrease in Myc levels, which the researchers believe may be the result of the unpartnered protein being broken down within cells.

Shrinking tumors

The researchers found that the compound slowed cell growth in a variety of Myc-dependent human cancer cells, including models for hepatocellular carcinoma, T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and Burkitt’s lymphoma.

They also tested the compound in mice, and found that even though the compound they originally identified was not optimized for maximum potency, it could slow tumor progression in mouse models of hepatocellular carcinoma and T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“The discovery and detailed validation of a small molecule targeting Max homodimers represents a significant advance over previous attempts to directly inhibit either Myc itself or Myc-Max dimerization,” says Robert Eisenman, a principal investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who was not involved in the study. “It not only provides new insight into how Myc functions but reveals what is likely to be an important exploitable vulnerability in Myc-driven cancers.”

Kronos Bio, the company that has licensed the rights to the compound described in this paper, is now working to optimize it to be more potent and more efficient. Koehler’s lab is also working on learning more about how this compound works, as well as determining the structure of the complex that it forms with the Max homodimer, in hopes of potentially developing better versions.

“This particular compound isn’t going to be a drug — it’s really just a tool to clarify the relevance of stabilizing Max homodimers as a strategy to perturb Myc function,” Koehler says. “That can guide people in the pharmaceutical industry who are thinking about trying to drug Myc, to maybe think about other ways to find Max homodimer stabilizers.”

Her lab is also pursuing other ways to target Myc, such as finding ways to stabilize a homodimer of two Myc molecules, which would likely end up being degraded within the cell.

“There may be different ways to stabilize biomolecular interactions within the Myc-Max network that could lead to different ways of perturbing Myc function,” she says.

The research was funded, in part, by the National Cancer Institute, including the Koch Institute Support (core) Grant, the National Institutes of Health, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Ono Pharma Foundation, the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the MIT Center for Precision Cancer Medicine, the AACR-Bayer Innovation and Discovery Grant, and the Merkin Institute Fellows Program at the Broad Institute.

“Inactive” ingredients may not be, study finds

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 2:00pm

Most pills and capsules, whether over-the-counter or prescription, include components other than the actual drug. These compounds, known as “inactive ingredients,” help to stabilize the drug or aid in its absorption, and they can make up more than half of a pill’s mass.

While these components are usually considered benign, a new study from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital has found that nearly all pills and capsules contain some ingredients that can cause allergic reactions or irritations in certain patients. In most cases, doctors have no idea which of these ingredients will be included in the pills they prescribe to their patients, because there are so many different formulations available for any given medication.

“For most patients, it doesn’t matter if there’s a little bit of lactose, a little bit of fructose, or some starch in there. However, there is a subpopulation of patients, currently of unknown size, that will be extremely sensitive to those and develop symptoms triggered by the inactive ingredients,” says Daniel Reker, a Swiss National Science Foundation postdoc at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and one of the lead authors of the study.

The researchers hope that their study, published in the March 13 edition of Science Translational Medicine, will raise awareness of this issue among patients and health care providers and help to stimulate reforms that could protect patients from drugs that they don’t tolerate well.

“Right now there is an imbalance in the amount of information and understanding out there with respect to the inactive components of medication,” says Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the senior author of the study.

Steven Blum, a clinical fellow at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is also a lead author of the paper. Other authors include Christoph Steiger, an MIT postdoc; and Kevin Anger, Jamie Sommer, and John Fanikos of the Investigational Drug Services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Unknown effects

Traverso began looking into this issue about five years ago following an experience involving a patient he was helping to look after. The patient, who had celiac disease, reacted poorly to omeprazole, a common acid suppressant used to treat stomach ulcers. 

The specific formulation of omeprazole the patient had obtained contained ingredients derived from wheat products (potentially containing gluten). This information was only available from the manufacturer at the time. A week after obtaining the medication the patient had reported feeling sick from taking the medication.

“That really brought it home to me as far as how little we know about tablets and the potential adverse effects they might have,” Traverso says. “I think there’s a tremendous underappreciation of the potential impact that inactive ingredients may have.”

Currently, when doctors write a prescription, they specify the type and dosage of the active pharmaceutical, but nothing about the inactive ingredients. Many medications come in dozens of different formulations, and the one that patients get depends on their insurance, their pharmacy, and the manufacturer that supplies the pharmacy. The information that comes with the medication usually lists inactive ingredients, but not the amounts of each one, and they may be difficult to decipher. For example, ingredients that contain gluten may not be listed as “gluten.”

The researchers scoured medical journals and found several studies describing patients who had allergic reactions to inactive ingredients such as lactose and chemical dyes. These studies generally did not include patients with intolerances to a particular ingredient, which are milder and produce symptoms such as bloating or stomach ache. However, the researchers believe these milder reactions may affect many more patients. Potential problems could be especially prevalent among people over the age of 65, 30 percent of whom take at least five pills every day, potentially allowing critical ingredients to accumulate.

Next, the researchers set out to find as much as they could about the inactive ingredients found in prescription and nonprescription medications. Getting much of their information from a database called Pillbox, run by the National Library of Medicine, the researchers were able to determine the composition of nearly all prescription and over-the-counter medications available in the United States.

They found that for most medications, more than half of the pill is made up of inactive ingredients, and for some it is as high as 99 percent. They also found that about 93 percent of medications contain allergens such as peanut oil, lactose, or dyes, and nearly all contain compounds that some patients cannot tolerate, such as gluten and certain kinds of sugars. About 55 percent of medications contain sugars known as FODMAP sugars, which can trigger digestive problems in some people with irritable bowel syndrome.

When medications contain peanut oil, manufacturers print warnings on the labels, but for most other allergens or irritants, no warnings are given, and it is not easy to find out if a compound such as lactose or gluten is in the medicine, the researchers say. Even if patients are aware of their allergies and sensitivities and correctly decipher medication packages, many different treatments might not be available to them because not a single pill that avoids all these ingredients might exist, the researchers add.

Raising awareness

The researchers hope that their findings will help boost awareness of the potential risks that inactive ingredients pose for some patients. If new regulations could be implemented, requiring pharmaceutical companies to provide more information about the inactive ingredients in their formulations, it could be easier for doctors to specify whether a certain ingredient should not be included. The researchers also hope that pharmaceutical companies will develop more alternative formulations for patients with allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients.

“I think all of these really need to come together,” Traverso says. “Education, increased awareness, and legislation are all important.”

The researchers are now working on a follow-up study in which they are polling health care providers to determine how widespread this problem may be. They also hope to perform clinical trials to study how much lactose or other common inactive ingredients manifest in symptoms in people who have intolerances to those ingredients.

“There need to be more clinical trials and more data out there so that we can really dive deep into how many patients are affected and how we can help them,” Reker says.

The research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Brigham and Women’s Department of Medicine Residency Program and Division of Gastroenterology, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Feodor Lynen Fellowship, the National Institutes of Health, and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.