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Over the last two years, Multiply Labs has helped pharmaceutical companies produce biologic drugs with its robotic manufacturing platform. The robots can work around the clock, precisely formulating small batches of drugs to help companies run clinical trials more quickly.
Now Multiply Labs, which was founded by Fred Parietti PhD ’16 and former visiting PhD at MIT Alice Melocchi, is hoping to bring the speed and precision of its robots to a new type of advanced treatment.
In a recently announced project, Multiply Labs is developing a new robotic manufacturing platform to ease bottlenecks in the creation of cell therapies. These therapies have proven to be a powerful tool in the fight against cancer, but their production is incredibly labor intensive, contributing to their high cost. CAR-T cell therapy, for example, requires scientists to extract blood from a patient, isolate immune cells, genetically engineer those cells, grow the new cells, and inject them back into the patient. In many cases, each of those steps must be repeated for each patient.
Multiply Labs is attempting to automate many processes that can currently only be done by highly trained scientists, reducing the potential for human error. The platform will also perform some of the most time-consuming tasks of cell therapy production in parallel. For instance, the company’s system will contain multiple bioreactors, which are used to grow the genetically modified cells that will be injected back into the patient. Some labs today only use one bioreactor in each clean room because of the specific environmental conditions that have to be met to optimize cell growth. By running multiple reactors simultaneously in a space about a quarter of the size of a basketball court, the company believes it can multiply the throughput of cell therapy production.
Multiply Labs has partnered with global life sciences company Cytiva, which provides cell therapy equipment and services, as well as researchers at the University of California San Francisco to bring the platform to market.
Multiply Labs’ efforts come at a time when demand for cell therapy treatment is expected to explode: There are currently more than 1,000 clinical trials underway to explore the treatment’s potential in a range of diseases. In the few areas where cell therapies are already approved, they have helped cancer patients when other treatment options had failed.
“These [cell therapy] treatments are needed by millions of people, but only dozens of them can be administered by many centers,” Parietti says. “The real potential we see is enabling pharmaceutical companies to get these treatments approved and manufactured quicker so they can scale to hundreds of thousands — or millions — of patients.”
A force multiplier
Multiply Labs’ move into cell therapy is just the latest pivot for the company. The original idea for the startup came from Melocchi, who was a visiting PhD candidate in MIT’s chemical engineering department in 2013 and 2014. Melocchi had been creating drugs by hand in the MIT-Novartis Center for Continuous Manufacturing when she toured Parietti’s space at MIT. Parietti was building robotic limbs for factory workers and people with disabilities at the time, and his workspace was littered with robotic appendages and 3-D printers. Melocchi saw the machines as a way to make personalized drug capsules.
Parietti developed the first robotic prototype in the kitchen of his Cambridge apartment, and the founders received early funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.
After going through the Y Combinator startup accelerator, the founders realized their biggest market would be pharmaceutical companies running clinical trials. Early trials often involve testing drugs of different potencies.
“Every clinical trial is essentially personalized, because drug developers don’t know the right dosage,” Parietti says.
Today Multiply Labs’ robotic clusters are being deployed on the production floors of leading pharmaceutical companies. The cloud-based platforms can produce 30,000 drug capsules a day and are modular, so companies can purchase as many systems as they need and run them together. Each system is contained in 15 square feet.
“Our goal is to be the gold standard for the manufacturing of individualized drugs,” Parietti says. “We believe the future of medicine is going to be individualized drugs made on demand for single patients, and the only way to make those is with robots.”
Roboticists enter cell therapy
The move to cell therapy comes after Parietti’s small team of mostly MIT-trained roboticists and engineers spent the last two years learning about cell therapy production separately from its drug capsule work. Earlier this month, the company raised $20 million and is expecting to triple its team.
Multiply labs is already working with Cytiva to incorporate the company’s bioreactors into its platform.
“[Multiply Labs’] automation has broad implications for the industry that include expanding patient access to existing treatments and accelerating the next generation of treatments,” says Cytiva’s Parker Donner, the company’s head of business development for cell and gene therapy.
Multiply Labs aims to ship a demo to a cell therapy manufacturing facility at UCSF for clinical validation in the next nine months.
“It really is a great adventure for someone like me, a physician-scientist, to interact with mechanical engineers and see how they think and solve problems,” says Jonathan Esensten, an assistant adjunct professor at UCSF whose research group is being sponsored by Multiply Labs for the project. “I think they have complementary ways of approaching problems compared to my team, and I think it’s going to lead to great things. I’m hopeful we’ll build technologies that push this field forward and bend the cost curve to allow us to do things better, faster, and cheaper. That’s what we need if these really exciting therapies are going to be made widely available.”
Esensten, whose workspace is also an FDA-compliant cell therapy manufacturing facility, says his research group struggles to produce more than approximately six cell therapies per month.
“The beauty of the Multiply Labs concept is that it’s modular,” Esensten said. “You could imagine a robot where there are no bottlenecks: You have as much capacity as you need at every step, no matter how long it takes. Of course, there are theoretical limits, but for a given footprint the robot will be able to manufacture many more products than we could do using manual processes in our clean rooms.”
Parietti thinks Esensten’s lab is a great partner to prove robots can be a game changer for a nascent field with a lot of promise.
“Cell therapies are amazing in terms of efficacy,” Parietti says. “But right now, they’re made by hand. Scientists are being used for manufacturing; it’s essentially artisanal. That’s not the way to scale. The way we think about it, the more successful we are, the more patients we help.”
Acclaimed finance expert Robert C. Merton PhD ’70 has been named the recipient of MIT’s 2021-2022 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, the highest honor the Institute faculty can confer upon one of its members.
The Killian Award citation hails Merton, the School of Management Distinguished Professor of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as “one of the founding architects of modern finance theory,” whose work has “become an integral part of the global financial system.”
The citation also notes Merton’s “profound commitment to innovation through scientific research and to advancing pedagogy in financial economics, as well as to serving as a highly valued mentor to graduate students and junior colleagues.” The award was announced at today’s Institute faculty meeting.
“I am deeply honored to have my work recognized by my remarkable and marvelously accomplished faculty colleagues who make MIT so special,” Merton said, upon receiving the award.
The Killian Award is the latest honor for Merton in a career full of distinctions. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1997 (an honor shared with Myron Scholes) for his work in the 1970s developing an innovative model for pricing options in markets. Options are contracts used to buy or sell assets at set prices, and are often used to diversify or hedge a portfolio’s holdings.
The Black-Scholes-Merton theory of options pricing — also developed with economist Fischer Black — was recognized as a breakthrough at the time and became applied widely in finance. It remains heavily used today as a basic approach for determining valuations and risks around a wide array of financial instruments, including corporate debt and other liabilities, mortgages, and deposit, pension, and other financial insurance.
Beyond options pricing, Merton has examined a wide range of issues during his career, including retirement finance, optimal lifetime consumption and portfolio selection for investors, intertemporal asset pricing, credit risk, and loan guarantees. In recent years, his research has looked in depth at retirement finance solutions; tracking large-scale, systemic financial risks; and financial innovation and the dynamics of change in financial institutions.
“He is also adept at developing scientific, non-partisan, and apolitical frameworks in which to apply theory to address critical challenges at the intersection of financial economics and public policy pertaining to sovereign risk management, financial regulation of systemic risk, personal retirement planning, and university endowment management,” the Killian Award citation states.
Merton received his BS in engineering mathematics from Columbia University, an MS in mathematics from Caltech, and his PhD from MIT’s Department of Economics in 1970, where his principal adviser was the distinguished economist Paul A. Samuelson.
After receiving his doctorate, Merton joined the finance faculty at MIT Sloan, where he became a full professor and served until 1988 as the J.C. Penney Professor of Management. Merton taught at the Harvard Business School from 1988 through 2010, when he returned to MIT.
Among other distinctions and honors in his career, Merton is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a past president of the American Finance Association. He holds honorary degrees from numerous U.S. and foreign universities.
“I take great pride in this Institute-wide recognition for the field of financial economics and our finance group in the Sloan School,” Merton said while receiving the award. “Every day, the environment at MIT created by its extraordinary community is another day of a continuous renaissance in science, engineering, humanities, management and the arts.”
MIT has released an ambitious new plan for action to address the world’s accelerating climate crisis. The plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs, to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.
As MIT President L. Rafael Reif and other senior leaders have written in a letter to the MIT community announcing the new plan, “Humanity must find affordable, equitable ways to bring every sector of the global economy to net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.” And in order to do that, “we must go as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now.” But that alone, they stress, will not be enough to meet that essential goal. Significant investments will also be needed to invent and deploy new tools, including technological breakthroughs, policy initiatives, and effective strategies for education and communication about this epochal challenge.
“Our approach is to build on what the MIT community does best — and then aspire for still more. Harnessing MIT’s long record as a leader in innovation, the plan’s driving force is a series of initiatives to ignite research on, and accelerate the deployment of, the technologies and policies that will produce the greatest impact on limiting global climate change,” says Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who led the creation and implementation of MIT’s first climate action plan and oversaw the development of the new plan alongside Associate Provost Richard Lester and School of Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan.
The new plan includes a commitment to investigate the essential dynamics of global warming and its impacts, increasing efforts toward more precise predictions, and advocating for science-based climate policies and increased funding for climate research. It also aims to foster innovation through new research grants, faculty hiring policies, and student fellowship opportunities.
Decarbonizing the world’s economy in time will require “new ideas, transformed into practical solutions, in record time,” the plan states, and so it includes a push for research focused on key areas such as cement and steel production, heavy transportation, and ways to remove carbon from the air. The plan affirms the imperative for decarbonization efforts to emphasize the need for equity and fairness, and for broad outreach to all segments of society.
Charting a shared course for the future
Having made substantial progress in implementing the Institute’s original five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, MIT’s new plan outlines measures to build upon and expand that progress over the next decade. The plan consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts.
MIT is already well on its way to reaching the initial target, set in 2015, to reduce the Institute’s net carbon emissions by at least 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. That goal is being met through a combination of innovative off-campus power purchase agreements that enable the construction of large-scale solar and wind farms, and an array of renewable energy and building efficiency measures on campus. In the new plan, MIT commits to net-zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.
The initial plan focused largely on intensifying efforts to find breakthrough solutions for addressing climate change, through a series of actions including the creation of new low-carbon energy centers for research, and the convening of researchers, industry leaders, and policymakers to facilitate the sharing of best practices and successful measures. The new plan expands upon these actions and incorporates new measures, such as climate-focused faculty positions and student work opportunities to help tackle climate issues from a variety of disciplines and perspectives.
A long-running series of symposia, community forums, and other events and discussions helped shape a set of underlying principles that apply to all of the plan’s many component parts. These themes are:
- The centrality of science, to build on MIT’s pioneering work in understanding the dynamics of global warming and its effects;
- The need to innovate and scale, requiring new ideas to be made into practical solutions quickly;
- The imperative of justice, since many of those who will be most affected by climate change are among those with the least resources to adapt;
- The need for engagement, dealing with government, industry, and society as a whole, reflecting the fact that decarbonizing the world’s economy will require working with leaders in all sectors; and
- The power of coordination, emphasizing the need for the many different parts of the Institute’s climate research, education, and outreach to have clear structures for decision making, action, and accountability.
Bolstering research and innovation
The new plan features a wide array of action items to encourage innovation in critical areas, including new programs as well as the expansions of existing programs. This includes the Climate Grand Challenges, announced last year, which focus on game-changing research advances across disciplines spanning MIT.
“We must, and we do, call for critical self-examination of our own footprint, and aspire to substantial reductions. We also must, and we do, renew and bolster our commitment to the kind of paradigm-shifting research and innovation, across every sector and in every field of human endeavor, that the world expects from MIT,” notes Professor Lester. “An existential challenge like climate change calls for both immediate action and extraordinary long shots. I believe the people of MIT are capable of both.”
The plan also calls for expanding the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, created earlier this year, to foster collaborations among companies and researchers to work for solutions to climate problems. The aim is to greatly accelerate the adoption of large-scale, real-world climate solutions, across different industries around the world, by working with large companies as they work to find ways to meet new net-zero climate targets, in areas ranging from aerospace to packaged food.
Another planned action is to establish a Future Energy Systems Center, which will coalesce the work that has been fostered through MIT’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers, created under the previous climate action plan. The Institute is also committing to devoting at least 20 upcoming faculty positions to climate-focused talent. And, there will be new midcareer ignition grants for faculty to spur work related to climate change and clean energy.
For students, the plan will provide up to 100 new Climate and Sustainability Energy Fellowships, spanning the Institute’s five schools and one college. These will enable work on current or new projects related to climate change. There will also be a new Climate Education Task Force to evaluate current offerings and make recommendations for strengthening research on climate-related topics. And, in-depth climate or clean-energy-related research opportunities will be offered to every undergraduate who wants one. Climate and sustainability topics and examples will be introduced into courses throughout the Institute, especially in the General Institute Requirements that all undergraduates must take.
This emphasis on MIT’s students is reflected in the plan’s introductory cover letter from Reif, Zuber, Lester, Chandrakasan, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Glen Shor. They write: “In facing this challenge, we have very high expectations for our students; we expect them to help make the impossible possible. And we owe it to them to face this crisis by coming together in a whole-of-MIT effort — deliberately, wholeheartedly, and as fast as we can.”
The plan’s educational components provide “the opportunity to fundamentally change how we have our graduates think in terms of a sustainable future,” Chandrakasan says. “I think the opportunity to embed this notion of sustainability into every class, to think about design for sustainability, is a very important aspect of what we’re doing. And, this plan could significantly increase the faculty focused on this critical area in the next several years. The potential impact of that is tremendous.”
The plan calls for creating a new Sustainability Policy Hub for undergraduates and graduate students to foster interactions with sustainability policymakers and faculty, including facilitating climate policy internships in Washington. There will be an expansion of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, which started last year to bring together various groups to consider the climate crisis and its impacts on how people might live now and in the future.
“The proposed new Sustainability Policy Hub, coordinated by the Technology and Policy Program, will help MIT students and researchers engage with decision makers on topics that directly affect people and their well-being today and in the future,” says Noelle Selin, an associate professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “Ensuring sustainability in a changed climate is a collaborative effort, and working with policymakers and communities will be critical to ensure our research leads to action.”
A new series of Climate Action Symposia, similar to a successful series held in 2019-2020, will be convened. These events may include a focus on climate challenges for the developing world. In addition, MIT will develop a science- and fact-based curriculum on climate issues for high school students. These will be aimed at underserved populations and at countering sources of misinformation.
Building on its ongoing efforts to provide reliable, evidence-based information on climate science, technology, and policy solutions to policymakers at all levels of government, MIT is establishing a faculty-led Climate Policy Working Group, which will work with the Institute’s Washington office to help connect faculty members doing relevant research with officials working in those areas.
In the financial arena, MIT will lead more research and discussions aimed at strengthening the financial disclosures relating to climate that corporations need to make, thus making the markets more sensitive to the true risks to investors posed by climate change. In addition, MIT will develop a series of case studies of companies that have made a conversion to decarbonized energy and to sustainable practices, in order to provide useful models for others.
MIT will also expand the reach of its tools for modeling the impacts of various policy decisions on climate outcomes, economics, and energy systems. And, it will continue to send delegations to the major climate policy forums such as the UN’s Conference of the Parties, and to find new audiences for its Climate Portal, web-based Climate Primer, and TILclimate podcast.
“This plan reaffirms MIT’s commitment to developing climate change solutions,” says Christopher Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Applied Economics. “It understands that solving climate change will require not only new technologies but also new climate leaders and new policy. The plan leverages MIT’s strength across all three of these, as well as its most prized resources: its students. I look forward to working with our students and policymakers in using the tools of economics to provide the research needed for evidence-based policymaking.”
Recognizing that the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on some populations that have contributed little to the problem but have limited means to make the needed changes, the plan emphasizes the importance of addressing the socioeconomic challenges posed by major transitions in energy systems, and will focus on job creation and community support in these regions, both domestically and in the developing world. These programs include the Environmental Solutions Initiative’s Natural Climate Solutions Program, and the Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network, which aims to provide fine-grained climate predictions.
“I’m extraordinarily excited about the plan,” says Professor John Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative and a professor of building technology. “These are exactly the right things for MIT to be doing, and they align well with an increasing appetite across our community. We have extensive expertise at MIT to contribute to diverse solutions, but our reach should be expanded and I think this plan will help us do that.”
“It’s so encouraging to see environmental justice issues and community collaborations centered in the new climate action plan,” says Amy Moran-Thomas, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology. “This is a vital step forward. MIT’s policy responses and climate technology design can be so much more significant in their reach with these engagements done in a meaningful way.”
MIT’s first climate action plan produced mechanisms and actions that have led to significant reductions in net emissions. For example, through an innovative collaborative power purchase agreement, MIT enabled the construction of a large solar farm and the early retirement of a coal plant, and also provided a model that others have since adopted. Because of the existing agreement, MIT has already reduced its net emissions by 24 percent despite a boom in construction of new buildings on campus. This model will be extended moving forward, as MIT explores a variety of possible large-scale collaborative agreements to enable solar energy, wind energy, energy storage, and other emissions-curbing facilities.
Using the campus as a living testbed, the Institute has studied every aspect of its operations to assess their climate impacts, including heating and cooling, electricity, lighting, materials, and transportation. The studies confirm the difficulties inherent in transforming large existing infrastructure, but all feasible reductions in emissions are being pursued. Among them: All new purchases of light vehicles will be zero-emissions if available. The amount of solar generation on campus will increase fivefold, from 100 to 500 kilowatts. Shuttle buses will begin converting to electric power no later than 2026, and the number of car-charging stations will triple, to 360.
Meanwhile, a new working group will study possibilities for further reductions of on-campus emissions, including indirect emissions encompassed in the UN’s Scope 3 category, such as embedded energy in construction materials, as well as possible measures to offset off-campus Institute-sponsored travel. The group will also study goals relating to food, water, and waste systems; develop a campus climate resilience plan; and expand the accounting of greenhouse gas emissions to include MIT’s facilities outside the campus. It will encourage all labs, departments, and centers to develop plans for sustainability and reductions in emissions.
“This is a broad and appropriately ambitious plan that reflects the headway we’ve made building up capacity over the last five years,” says Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative. “To succeed we’ll need to continually integrate new understanding of climate science, science and technology innovations, and societal engagement from the many elements of this plan, and to be agile in adapting ongoing work accordingly.”
To help bring MIT’s investments in line with these climate goals, MIT has already begun the process of decarbonizing its portfolio, but aims to go further.
Beyond merely declaring an aspirational goal for such reductions, the Institute will take this on as a serious research question, by undertaking an intensive analysis of what it would mean to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 in a broad investment portfolio.
“I am grateful to MITIMCO for their seriousness in affirming this step,” Zuber says. “We hope the outcome of this analysis will help not just our institution but possibly other institutional managers with a broad portfolio who aspire to a net-zero carbon goal.”
MIT’s investment management company will also review its environmental, social, and governance investment framework and post it online. And, as a member of Climate Action 100+, MIT will be actively engaging with major companies about their climate-change planning. For the planned development of the Volpe site in Kendall square, MIT will offset the entire carbon footprint and raise the site above the projected 2070 100-year flood level.
A centerpiece of the new plan is the creation of two high-level committees representing all parts of the MIT community. The MIT Climate Steering Committee, a council of faculty and administrative leaders, will oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change, from technology to policy. The steering committee will serve as an “orchestra conductor,” coordinating with the heads of the various climate-related departments, labs, and centers, as well as issue-focused working groups, seeking input from across the Institute, setting priorities, committing resources, and communicating regularly on the progress of the climate plan’s implementation.
The second committee, called the Climate Nucleus, will include representatives of climate- and energy-focused departments, labs, and centers that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan, as well as the MIT Washington Office. It will have broad responsibility for overseeing the management and implementation of all elements of the plan, including program planning, budgeting and staffing, fundraising, external and internal engagement, and program-level accountability. The Nucleus will make recommendations to the Climate Steering Committee on a regular basis and report annually to the steering committee on progress under the plan.
“We heard loud and clear that MIT needed both a representative voice for all those pursuing research, education, and innovation to achieve our climate and sustainability goals, but also a body that’s nimble enough to move quickly and imbued with enough budgetary oversight and leadership authority to act decisively. With the Climate Steering Committee and Climate Nucleus together, we hope to do both,” Lester says.
The new plan also calls for the creation of three working groups to address specific aspects of climate action. The working groups will include faculty, staff, students, and alumni and give these groups direct input into the ongoing implementation of MIT’s plans. The three groups will focus on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s own carbon footprint. They will track progress under the plan and make recommendations to the Nucleus on ways of increasing MIT’s effectiveness and impact.
“MIT is in an extraordinary position to make a difference and to set a standard of climate leadership,” the plan’s cover letter says. “With this plan, we commit to a coordinated set of leadership actions to spur innovation, accelerate action, and deliver practical impact.”
“Successfully addressing the challenges posed by climate change will require breakthrough science, daring innovation, and practical solutions, the very trifecta that defines MIT research,” says Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography. “The MIT climate action plan lays out a comprehensive vision to bring the whole Institute together and address these challenges head on. “Last century, MIT helped put humans on the moon. This century, it is committing to help save humanity and the environment from climate change here on Earth.”
In this ongoing series, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nadia Christidi is a PhD student in MIT HASTS, a program that combines research in history, anthropology, science, technology, and society. Her dissertation examines how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. Christidi has a particular interest in the roles that art, design, and architecture are playing in that future imagining and future planning process. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with her on the ways that her field and visual cultures contribute to solving issues of climate change.
Q: There are many sensible approaches to addressing the climate crisis. Increasingly, it looks as if we’ll need all of them. What perspectives from the HASTS fields are significant for addressing climate change and its ecological and social impacts?
A: My research focuses on how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. The three cities I focus on are Los Angeles, Dubai, and Cape Town. Water is one of the key issues when it comes to adapting to climate change and my work tries to understand how climate change impacts are understood and adaptation policies developed.
My approach to climate change and adaptation brings together various disciplines — history, anthropology, science and technology studies, and visual cultures; each of these helps me see and elucidates very particular aspects of climate change.
I think history reminds us that our ways of being and systems are historically constructed rather than given, inevitable, or natural, and that there is an alternative. Anthropology elucidates that while we may all talk about "climate change," what is meant by it, how it is understood and experienced, and how it is dealt with as a problem will differ from place to place; climate change is as much a social and cultural phenomenon and experience as it is a scientific or environmental one, as much a global issue as it is a local one. The social, cultural, and local, anthropology reminds us, have to be factored into meaningful policy.
Science and technology studies sheds light on the various communities involved in developing climate change knowledge; the role that their investments, stakes, and interests play; and the translation between science and policy that needs to happen for scientifically-informed policy to emerge. The STS perspective also points out that science is one of many systems for understanding climate change and that there may be other valid, useful worldviews from which we can learn.
And finally, visual cultures underscore how pop cultural and visual references, symbols, and imagery shape imaginaries and expectations of climate change, including scientific ones, and sometimes open up or foreclose pathways to action.
Q: What pathways of thought and action do you personally think might be most fruitful for alleviating climate change and its impacts — and for forging a more sustainable future?
A: I think we are going to need a lot of imagination going forward. As climate change gets underway, we’re seeing a lot more emphasis on adaptation, and imagination is key to adapting to a set of totally different circumstances.
This belief has led me to explore the "imaginative capacities" of planning institutions, the impact of popular culture imaginaries, from the utopian to the dystopian, on our preparations for the future, and the role that creative practitioners — including artists, architects, and designers — can play in expanding our imaginative possibilities.
One of my interlocutors aptly uses the phrase "crisis of imagination" to describe the present. In order for the necessary imagination work to take place, we must take seriously different actors as sources of knowledge, expertise, and perspectives, and make the process of imagining and planning more inclusive.
Partly, my work considers how creative practitioners are imagining climate change and the future of water and the alternative knowledge or perspectives they can offer. Most of the works that I look at involve collaborations between artists/architects, scientists, engineers, and/or policymakers. They see artists contributing to science or transforming urban space or impacting policy.
For instance, the UAE pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Wetland, will unveil a locally-produced salt-based building material as an alternative to cement. Developed by Dubai-based architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the pavilion tackles the issues of brine — a salty byproduct of desalination, which is the country’s main source of potable water — and the carbon footprint of cement use in Dubai’s robust construction industry.
Inspired by historical examples of salt architecture and by the natural architectures of local salt flat ecosystems, the architects worked with scientists from NYU Abu Dhabi to develop the material. Such work shows how interdisciplinary collaborations with creative practitioners can not only advance the sciences, but also reimagine established industries and practices, and develop innovative approaches to the carbon emissions problem.
Peggy Weil, an artist based in Los Angeles, rethinks landscape as a genre in our climate-changed present. Holding that the traditional horizontal format of the landscape is no longer representative, she develops “underscapes,” where she films the length of ice cores or aquifers, and “overscapes,” which involve studies of the air, as portraits of the Earth. These ‘scapes’ argue for a need to re-perceive our surroundings in order to more fully understand how we have chemically, hydrogeologically, and climatically transformed them.
Peggy and I have talked extensively about how important "re-perceiving" will be for encouraging behavior changes and generating economic and political support for the work of water managers and policymakers as well as the role of the arts in driving this "re-perception."
Q: What dimensions of the emerging climate crisis affect you most deeply — causing uncertainty, and/or altering the ways you think about the present and the future? When you confront an issue as formidable as climate change, what gives you hope?
A: I think one dimension of the climate crisis I find especially disturbing is its configuration at times and in certain places as an economic opportunity, where new devastating environmental conditions are taken to be opportunities for innovation and technological development that will enable economic growth.
This becomes especially compelling in times of economic deceleration or as the specter of the end of oil grows stronger. But we need to ask: economic growth for whom, at what costs, and with what effects? And is growth what we really need?
I don’t think that the economy should be pitted against the environment; I am a total believer in sustainability as an issue that must encompass the economic, social, and environmental. But the real problems are with economic distribution rather than growth, and the promise of unlimited growth — as further stoked by renewables — which is a fallacy or fantasy.
I tend to agree with journalist Naomi Klein that the market, green or not, isn’t going to solve climate change challenges because we need more than just a technofix; we need policy and behavioral changes and new investment directions, many of which go against established economic arrangements and priorities. Locally produced salt-based building materials are a good start, but not enough.
Some of the most challenging and consequential imaginative work we will have to do will be on the social front; this will entail reconsidering some things we take for granted. I love theorist Frederic Jameson’s suggestion that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” as well as Mike Fisher’s concept of “capitalist realism,” which captures the ideological underpinnings of that worldview.
The privatization of water is one of the scariest intensifying developments in my mind, especially given anticipated climate change effects, but I take some reassurance from projects that aim to counter such trends. One of the promising architectural proposals I've studied in Los Angeles is by Stephanie Newcomb. Stephanie’s work, Coopelluvia, aims to complement stormwater capture projects developed by governmental entities in LA county on public land and that form a major prong of the City of LA’s water planning strategy; it explores the possibility of turning stormwater captured in side setback spaces between private properties into a communal water resource in the low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Pacoima and Arletta in the San Fernando Valley.
Stephanie’s proposed intervention blurs the boundary between public and private and empowers marginalized communities through developing communal resource management systems with multiple environmental and social benefits. Her work is guided by theories of the commons, rather than privatization and market-oriented solutions — and I think such projects and theories hold a lot of promise for facilitating the kinds of radical change we need.
Series prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Co-Editor: Kathryn O'Neill
In January, when MIT’s campus was snowy and students were engaged in their Independent Activities Period, the Undergraduate Association (UA) announced a team-up with MIT leaders to source ideas on making the upcoming spring semester more enjoyable despite the pandemic. The resulting event, christened COVID Hack, started on Jan. 8 and encompassed three days of brainstorming around four tracks: outdoor spaces, virtual community, remote learning, and policy awareness.
Preceded by several days of community events intended to build excitement, the hackathon drew nearly 100 team proposals that were judged by MIT leaders including Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and Professor Rick Danheiser, the Arthur C. Cope Professor of Chemistry and chair of the MIT faculty.
The idea of COVID Hack sprang from the proposals students were generating on their own to make life on campus in Covid time a little better. “They had ideas about dining or socialization,” says senior Kiara Wahnschafft, COVID Hack director, and UA chief of staff. “And so we thought, well, everyone's bored and at home during IAP. So why don't we hold this really fun event where you can actually share your ideas.”
What’s more, COVID Hack had the backing of MIT leaders who agreed to help the winners turn their hacks into real programs. The fun of thinking big, combined with the potential for those ideas to shape life on campus, gave participants an emotional and intellectual boost. “The Hack provided an outlet for actually thinking about your community,” says first-year student Abbie Schipper, who serves on the UA’s Committee on COVID-19 and helped organize the hackathon. “We asked a bunch of people what was the most fun thing they did over IAP, and they said it was the COVID Hack.”
The four selected concepts are now being implemented, though the final forms of some projects have evolved from the teams' original ideas. Here’s where their ideas stand today.
Submitted by Team banana bunch: Felix Li, Robert Cato III, Umang Bansal, and Sangita Vasikaran (all juniors)
The Pitch: “The _finite is an assortment of up to three guided walking loops in the MIT area with signs posted along the trails acting as conversation starters. The trails will help students explore new areas of campus, create extended social spaces, and encourage conversation and socialization in a Covid-safe way.”
What’s the latest? “This has already been implemented,” says Gustavo Burkett, senior associate dean for diversity and community involvement. Two routes — DORMfinite on the west side of campus and MAINfinite on the east side — offer a nice walk enhanced by unanticipated conversations. “Along each loop are signs with QR codes that link to questions intended to be conversation starters,” Burkett adds. “Using a smartphone, students will get questions to share with a walking buddy or for personal reflection if they’re walking alone.” Each route has its own set of questions, so the experience is different each time students walk the paths.
“The entire project is centered around asking questions and getting to know the people you're walking the trails with, and my friends and I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different questions,” says Robby Cato of Team banana bunch. “One of the biggest adaptations we made from our initial proposal was the use of QR codes,” Cato adds. “I think our original design had the questions printed directly on the signs, but this made the project less sustainable because you'd have to print new signs if you wanted to swap questions.”
And, like each team, finding the time to work on The _finite was among the biggest challenges they faced. “I think we were able to overcome this by delegating different tasks [to other team members] based on skill level and comfort,” Cato said.
Submitted by Team Ok Google, Play All Star By Smash Mouth: Tim Gutterman, Kenny Cox, and Ibuki Iwasaki (all juniors)
The Pitch: “Beavers Incognito is a weekend-long social event with a mystery-solving component. Designed to bring MIT undergraduates together using a novel yet simple anonymous matching system, this event will foster the development of meaningful, long-term connections within the student body.”
What’s the latest? “The team is ready to launch this any time now,” Burkett says. The system, currently undergoing beta testing, poses a number of questions to student participants about how they experience life at MIT. The algorithm matches participants, who then have to guess who they’re matched with based on the submitted answers. The team also got some help from an outside developer and support from the Division of Student Life (DSL) and the de Florez Fund for Humor.
“I’m surprised at how little we’ve actually had to change our concept since the hack,” says team member Kenny Cox. “We thought we would be able to consolidate all the parts of the project into one website, but that turned out to be logistically difficult, so we’ve had to think creatively about the way we’re going to deliver the project to students,” he says. Teammate Ibuki Iwasaki had a more personal take. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing responses come in ever since we opened up the registration to testers,” she says. “Kenny and I have put in a decent amount of time and effort into Beavers Incognito, and it’s been really cool to see it come to life.”
Improving Digital Education: A Handbook and Suggestions
Submitted by Team JAS: junior Shannon Weng and first-years Joshua-Curtis Kuffour and Abigail Kolyer
The Pitch: “This project aims to improve digital education by the creation of a handbook and the development of suggestions for professors and students. Our project will centralize academic information and tools that instructors can employ to foster a sense of community among students and faculty, and enhance the virtual MIT experience.”
What’s the latest? Team JAS published their handbook on the UA website. “The most enjoyable part of working on the handbook was the team assembly part,” says Joshua Curtis Kuffour. The team especially enjoyed working with a broad range of people who work on education. “From the UA Education committee to the Teaching and Learning Lab to even working with Ian Waitz was very exciting for all of us.” Vice Chancellor Waitz was particularly helpful, guiding the team to keep the handbook concise, Kuffour says. “Our original idea was to have a very lengthy handbook detailing everything we wanted to suggest to faculty regarding teaching online,” he says. The finished product is a web page with 19 suggestions across five topic areas.
“The judges really resonated with the goal that Team JAS articulated during their pitch: If instructors heard about what their students see as best practices, this could result in better teaching, better learning, and better engagement,” says Krishna Rajagopal, the William A.M. Burden Professor of Physics and MIT’s dean for digital learning. “Immediately after the hack, it was great to see how JAS and the UA did such an excellent job preparing their Handbook of Tips for Remote Teaching in a very short time.”
Submitted by Team :0:D: sophomore Kanoe Evile and first-year Jimin Lee
The Pitch: “[COVID Friends!] are animated public service announcements (PSAs) aiming to educate students on MIT Covid policies. This collection of characters unique to the MIT community will be an engaging and dynamic alternative to the currently dense presentation of Covid policy available to students through email and the DSL website.”
What’s the latest? [COVID Friends!] launched in early March and continues to evolve, with three student animators developing clips on topics such as Covid testing, daily attestation, and building access. “It’s been difficult deciding which policies to animate, and to actually create the animations,” Lee says. “Animating is a time-consuming process and thus it’s been difficult to balance this project with the semester and these challenging times.” To ensure that the interpretations of policies were both clear and correct for the first round of animations, the team shared storyboards with DSL staff.
“Their concept is really fun and novel,” says Matthew D. Bauer of DSL Communications, who discussed the project’s opportunities and challenges with team members Evile and Lee. “Covid policies are carefully written and detailed by design, so visually highlighting what students need to know helps to clarify expectations and encourage students to do their part.” Lee adds: “Beyond Covid, we think these beavers could be integrated into communications from the various offices and services on campus, and hope to continue to share informative and enjoyable content.” For the moment, [COVID Friends!] can be seen on various social media platforms and on the team’s Instagram account.
Expanding life outside
In addition to working with hackathon winners, the UA and DSL are implementing other outdoor enhancements that will invigorate campus as the weather gets warmer. “We’re setting up some fun and inviting spaces on campus, including outdoor games like giant Jenga and Connect Four, and we extended Tech Twinkles into spaces around the Student Center by wrapping trees with lights and installing strings of bistro lights in spaces where students can gather safely,” Burkett says. “We are preparing to take delivery of outdoor furniture — picnic tables, benches, and chairs — made from recycled milk crates, so it’s really durable and sustainable,” Burkett adds.
Another idea generated outside of the hackathon is a collaboration of the UA, DSL, and The Borderline, which sponsors student artists to paint works in the tunnel between buildings 66 and E17. Borderline will project student art in three campus locations to encourage outdoor activity and brighten the Institute’s overall environment.
The UA and DSL are also teaming up to run movies in the Stata Center Amphitheater using an inflatable screen. “We can safely get about 25 viewers in the space outside, so the UA worked out a system for obtaining tickets ahead of time, which ensures that we stay within Covid space usage limits,” Burkett says. The movies have since been moved to Kresge Lawn to allow more students to attend spread out across a wider space.
Junior Maheera Bawa, who also serves on the UA’s COVID-19 Committee and helped to organize the hackathon, says ideas that didn’t win their track also had merit. “Abby and I right now are trying to get ideas off the ground that didn't necessarily win but were really great,” she says. “Movies at Stata is one of them, and then there’s the ‘smores project, which was also really great.” The soon-to-launch effort includes delivering kits for making ‘smores outdoors to pods in undergraduate houses.
Though these ideas were developed with Covid time in mind, Burkett sees purpose beyond the pandemic for ideas submitted through COVID Hack. “We’re working to make the lighting around the Student Center more permanent,” he says, “and the new Student Events Board is taking over the movie nights and carrying those on beyond the pandemic.”
The student leaders are thinking even more broadly. “When we were developing COVID Hack, in the back of our minds we were thinking ‘Are we going to do this again in the future?’ And let's make sure that this is replicable, because the idea of bringing a whole bunch of students together to impact their experience is something we want to do again and again and again,” Wahnschafft says. “What if we do a [diversity, equity, and inclusion]-specific hackathon? Or, you could imagine doing another space-specific hackathon. It would be really cool to see them popping up across campus, getting more people involved in improving MIT further.”
“I grew up with asthma as a kid, so bad air quality holds a visceral significance for me,” says Sidhant (Sid) Pai ’14, who spent much of his childhood in Pune, India. Located about 90 miles southwest of Mumbai, the city’s population has mushroomed over the past few decades, creating significant waste management concerns and poor air quality. Witnessing these unintended consequences of development and urbanization has shaped Pai’s interests in environmental engineering — first as an undergraduate at MIT and now as a graduate student.
“I’ve been fortunate to live in areas with relatively good air quality, but air pollution results in over a million premature deaths in India every year, heavily impacting under-served communities that live in the most polluted regions,” he says. “That’s what makes studying regional air quality in India an important and potentially impactful space.” Pai’s doctoral work is broadly motivated by his passion for human-centered environmental problem-solving.
That passion inspired him to found a social enterprise project, called Protoprint, in Pune after he finished his bachelor’s degree at MIT in 2014. The organization works collaboratively with a waste-picker cooperative, using low-cost and decentralized technology interventions to upcycle waste plastic. Protoprint provides a market-driven solution to augment waste-picker incomes while also increasing profitable recycling avenues for the city.
Pai is particularly interested in exploring translational science related to air quality and climate. “I tend to be pretty scattered in my interests,” he says laughing, “but I’m generally motivated by a sense that I’m contributing to a tangible problem that people actually care about — something that I can intuitively validate as important. I knew I wanted to work on air pollution and climate issues even as an undergrad, but felt like I needed to better understand the science if I was interested in contributing to solutions.”
Pai returned to MIT in 2017 to begin his doctoral work in civil and environmental engineering. Informed by his “fire hose” experience as an undergraduate, though, he has tried to embrace a more sanguine perspective as an MIT graduate student.
“Coming back to MIT was nostalgic!” he says, “I was happy to be back, even though the transition to being a student again was challenging. To be honest, I was pretty burnt out from the [post-undergraduate] work that I was doing in India, which was challenging in a whole different way,” he explains. “Working through p-sets and exams are stressful — don’t get me wrong — but it’s not as stressful as when you’re trying to run an organization and have people depending on you. It was almost nice to be able to just focus on my PhD and work on myself. That said, I think my experiences with Protoprint helped provide some useful perspective while I was navigating hurdles as a junior grad student, and they continue to help center me now when I get anxious or stressed.”
Now in his fifth year, Pai performs his graduate research under the guidance of Professor Colette Heald in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Composition Modeling Group. The lab focuses broadly on studying atmospheric chemistry through the use of community models — complex and collaborative numerical models that simulate atmospheric pollutants and their interactions. Hundreds of scientific groups rely on such models for their research, and their simulations often form the basis for far-reaching policy decisions on air quality management and climate change mitigation.
An important aspect of Pai’s doctoral work focuses on validating and constraining these models with real-world data using satellite retrievals, observations from research aircraft, and earth-surface measurements. He is particularly interested in research questions that can inform real-world decisions for policymakers. Much of his work with the Heald group has focused on understanding an important class of particulate pollutants called secondary aerosols.
“It’s not always practical to regulate pollutant emissions across the board. A more constructive framing might be to determine the subset of regulations and incentives that most effectively move the needle,” he explains. Secondary aerosols, the class of pollutant Pai studies, are formed in the atmosphere from primary pollutants interacting with each other. The nonlinear complexities governing their atmospheric fates mean that different regions might require different kinds of regulations to limit these harmful pollutants. “By adding to our understanding of these secondary species, we contribute to a larger body of literature that helps policymakers improve air quality in their region.”
Growing up at MIT
The social impact ecosystem at MIT has played a formative role in Pai’s trajectory through the Institute and beyond. As an undergraduate, he worked on multiple projects with MIT D-Lab, focused on low-cost technology interventions and community-led design in under-served communities. As a graduate student, Pai works part-time at the PKG Center, analyzing student representation and outcomes in experiential learning programs and developing an online portal for internal decision-making.
In contrast to his life as an undergraduate, Pai has tried to pay more attention to his health as a graduate student, eating better and exercising more often. He plays socially distanced tennis with others in his department (“I’ve been trying to work on my backhand for months!”), and he’s developed small rituals that help him clear his mind as he navigates the inevitable stressors of graduate school. One such habit is taking long walks around campus, which is full of memories for the 28-year-old, given that he has called MIT home for eight years now.
“It’s interesting to think about how much I’ve changed as I walk down the same path I took to class as a first-year in 2010. I’m a very different person than I was when I first got here at age 18! It’s been complicated at times, and there are things about the Institute that I would like to see change, but I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to grow and develop at a place like MIT,” he says.
With graduation about a year away, Pai is looking toward his future and considering a variety of careers connected to science policy and stakeholder-engaged research. As for his next home, he now has two continents to consider. “At this point, I’m equally comfortable in both places,” he says. “I’m also often equally uncomfortable in both places,” he adds, chuckling. “I don’t know what my next steps will be, and I’m still very much in the process of figuring that out, but I’ve recently gotten more interested in developing simple and accessible tools for air-quality and climate decision-making.”
Whatever direction he chooses, Pai will continue to view his interests through the lens of his real-world sensibilities.
MIT researchers have created a new system that automatically cleans “dirty data” — the typos, duplicates, missing values, misspellings, and inconsistencies dreaded by data analysts, data engineers, and data scientists. The system, called PClean, is the latest in a series of domain-specific probabilistic programming languages written by researchers at the Probabilistic Computing Project that aim to simplify and automate the development of AI applications (others include one for 3D perception via inverse graphics and another for modeling time series and databases).
According to surveys conducted by Anaconda and Figure Eight, data cleaning can take a quarter of a data scientist's time. Automating the task is challenging because different datasets require different types of cleaning, and common-sense judgment calls about objects in the world are often needed (e.g., which of several cities called “Beverly Hills” someone lives in). PClean provides generic common-sense models for these kinds of judgment calls that can be customized to specific databases and types of errors.
PClean uses a knowledge-based approach to automate the data cleaning process: Users encode background knowledge about the database and what sorts of issues might appear. Take, for instance, the problem of cleaning state names in a database of apartment listings. What if someone said they lived in Beverly Hills but left the state column empty? Though there is a well-known Beverly Hills in California, there’s also one in Florida, Missouri, and Texas … and there’s a neighborhood of Baltimore known as Beverly Hills. How can you know in which the person lives? This is where PClean’s expressive scripting language comes in. Users can give PClean background knowledge about the domain and about how data might be corrupted. PClean combines this knowledge via common-sense probabilistic reasoning to come up with the answer. For example, given additional knowledge about typical rents, PClean infers the correct Beverly Hills is in California because of the high cost of rent where the respondent lives.
Alex Lew, the lead author of the paper and a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), says he’s most excited that PClean gives a way to enlist help from computers in the same way that people seek help from one another. “When I ask a friend for help with something, it's often easier than asking a computer. That's because in today's dominant programming languages, I have to give step-by-step instructions, which can't assume that the computer has any context about the world or task — or even just common-sense reasoning abilities. With a human, I get to assume all those things,” he says. “PClean is a step toward closing that gap. It lets me tell the computer what I know about a problem, encoding the same kind of background knowledge I'd explain to a person helping me clean my data. I can also give PClean hints, tips, and tricks I've already discovered for solving the task faster.”
Co-authors are Monica Agrawal, a PhD student in EECS; David Sontag, an associate professor in EECS; and Vikash K. Mansinghka, a principal research scientist in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
What innovations allow this to work?
The idea that probabilistic cleaning based on declarative, generative knowledge could potentially deliver much greater accuracy than machine learning was previously suggested in a 2003 paper by Hanna Pasula and others from Stuart Russell’s lab at the University of California at Berkeley. “Ensuring data quality is a huge problem in the real world, and almost all existing solutions are ad-hoc, expensive, and error-prone,” says Russell, professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. “PClean is the first scalable, well-engineered, general-purpose solution based on generative data modeling, which has to be the right way to go. The results speak for themselves.” Co-author Agrawal adds that “existing data cleaning methods are more constrained in their expressiveness, which can be more user-friendly, but at the expense of being quite limiting. Further, we found that PClean can scale to very large datasets that have unrealistic runtimes under existing systems.”
PClean builds on recent progress in probabilistic programming, including a new AI programming model built at MIT’s Probabilistic Computing Project that makes it much easier to apply realistic models of human knowledge to interpret data. PClean's repairs are based on Bayesian reasoning, an approach that weighs alternative explanations of ambiguous data by applying probabilities based on prior knowledge to the data at hand. “The ability to make these kinds of uncertain decisions, where we want to tell the computer what kind of things it is likely to see, and have the computer automatically use that in order to figure out what is probably the right answer, is central to probabilistic programming,” says Lew.
PClean is the first Bayesian data-cleaning system that can combine domain expertise with common-sense reasoning to automatically clean databases of millions of records. PClean achieves this scale via three innovations. First, PClean's scripting language lets users encode what they know. This yields accurate models, even for complex databases. Second, PClean's inference algorithm uses a two-phase approach, based on processing records one-at-a-time to make informed guesses about how to clean them, then revisiting its judgment calls to fix mistakes. This yields robust, accurate inference results. Third, PClean provides a custom compiler that generates fast inference code. This allows PClean to run on million-record databases with greater speed than multiple competing approaches. "PClean users can give PClean hints about how to reason more effectively about their database, and tune its performance — unlike previous probabilistic programming approaches to data cleaning, which relied primarily on generic inference algorithms that were often too slow or inaccurate," says Mansinghka.
As with all probabilistic programs, the lines of code needed for the tool to work are many fewer than alternative state-of-the-art options: PClean programs need only about 50 lines of code to outperform benchmarks in terms of accuracy and runtime. For comparison, a simple snake cellphone game takes twice as many lines of code to run, and Minecraft comes in at well over 1 million lines of code.
In their paper, just presented at the 2021 Society for Artificial Intelligence and Statistics conference, the authors show PClean’s ability to scale to datasets containing millions of records by using PClean to detect errors and impute missing values in the 2.2 million-row Medicare Physician Compare National dataset. Running for just seven-and-a-half hours, PClean found more than 8,000 errors. The authors then verified by hand (via searches on hospital websites and doctor LinkedIn pages) that for more than 96 percent of them, PClean’s proposed fix was correct.
Since PClean is based on Bayesian probability, it can also give calibrated estimates of its uncertainty. “It can maintain multiple hypotheses — give you graded judgments, not just yes/no answers. This builds trust and helps users override PClean when necessary. For example, you can look at a judgment where PClean was uncertain, and tell it the right answer. It can then update the rest of its judgments in light of your feedback," says Mansinghka. "We think there's a lot of potential value in that kind of interactive process that interleaves human judgment with machine judgment. We see PClean as an early example of a new kind of AI system that can be told more of what people know, report when it is uncertain, and reason and interact with people in more useful, human-like ways.”
David Pfau, a senior research scientist at DeepMind, noted in a tweet that PClean meets a business need: “When you consider that the vast majority of business data out there is not images of dogs, but entries in relational databases and spreadsheets, it's a wonder that things like this don't yet have the success that deep learning has.”
Benefits, risks, and regulation
PClean makes it cheaper and easier to join messy, inconsistent databases into clean records, without the massive investments in human and software systems that data-centric companies currently rely on. This has potential social benefits — but also risks, among them that PClean may make it cheaper and easier to invade peoples' privacy, and potentially even to de-anonymize them, by joining incomplete information from multiple public sources.
"We ultimately need much stronger data, AI, and privacy regulation, to mitigate these kinds of harms," says Mansinghka. Lew adds, "As compared to machine-learning approaches to data cleaning, PClean might allow for finer-grained regulatory control. For example, PClean can tell us not only that it merged two records as referring to the same person, but also why it did so — and I can come to my own judgment about whether I agree. I can even tell PClean only to consider certain reasons for merging two entries.” Unfortunately, the reseachers say, privacy concerns persist no matter how fairly a dataset is cleaned.
Mansinghka and Lew are excited to help people pursue socially beneficial applications. They have been approached by people who want to use PClean to improve the quality of data for journalism and humanitarian applications, such as anticorruption monitoring and consolidating donor records submitted to state boards of elections. Agrawal says she hopes PClean will free up data scientists’ time, “to focus on the problems they care about instead of data cleaning. Early feedback and enthusiasm around PClean suggest that this might be the case, which we’re excited to hear."
In a uniquely deep and detailed look at how the commonly used anesthetic propofol causes unconsciousness, a collaboration of labs at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT shows that as the drug takes hold in the brain, a wide swath of regions become coordinated by very slow rhythms that maintain a commensurately languid pace of neural activity. Electrically stimulating a deeper region, the thalamus, restores synchrony of the brain’s normal higher frequency rhythms and activity levels, waking the brain back up and restoring arousal.
“There’s a folk psychology or tacit assumption that what anesthesia does is simply ‘turn off’ the brain,” says Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and co-senior author of the study in eLife. “What we show is that propofol dramatically changes and controls the dynamics of the brain’s rhythms.”
Conscious functions, such as perception and cognition, depend on coordinated brain communication, in particular between the thalamus and the brain’s surface regions, or cortex, in a variety of frequency bands ranging from 4 to 100 hertz. Propofol, the study shows, seems to bring coordination among the thalamus and cortical regions down to frequencies around just 1 hertz.
Miller’s lab, led by postdoc Andre Bastos and former graduate student Jacob Donoghue, collaborated with that of co-senior author Emery N. Brown, who is the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience and an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. The collaboration therefore unified the Miller lab’s expertise on how neural rhythms coordinate the cortex to produce conscious brain function with the Brown lab’s expertise in the neuroscience of anesthesia and statistical analysis of neural signals.
Brown says studies that show how anesthetics change brain rhythms can directly improve patient safety because these rhythms are readily visible on the EEG in the operating room. The study’s main finding of a signature of very slow rhythms across the cortex offers a model for directly measuring when subjects have entered unconsciousness after propofol administration, how deeply they are being maintained in that state, and how quickly they may wake up once propofol dosing ends.
“Anesthesiologists can use this as a way to better take care of patients,” Brown says.
Brown has long studied how brain rhythms are affected in humans under general anesthesia by making and analyzing measurements of rhythms using scalp EEG electrodes and, to a limited extent, cortical electrodes in epilepsy patients. Because the new study was conducted in animal models of those dynamics, the team was able to implant electrodes that could directly measure the activity or “spiking” of many individual neurons and rhythms in the cortex and thalamus. Brown said the results therefore significantly deepen and extend his findings in people.
For instance, the same neurons that they measured chattering away with spikes of voltage 7-10 times a second during wakefulness routinely fired only once a second or less during propofol-induced unconsciousness, a notable slowing called a “down state.” In all, the scientists made detailed simultaneous measurements of rhythms and spikes in five regions: two in the front of the cortex, two toward the back, and the thalamus.
“What’s so compelling is we are getting data down to the level of spikes,” Brown says. “The slow oscillations modulate the spiking activity across large parts of the cortex.”
As much as the study explains how propofol generates unconsciousness, it also helps to explain the unified experience of consciousness, Miller says.
“All the cortex has to be on the same page to produce consciousness,” Miller says. “One theory about how this works is through thalamo-cortical loops that allow the cortex to synchronize. Propofol may be breaking the normal operation of those loops by hyper synchronizing them in prolonged down states. It disrupts the ability of the cortex to communicate.”
For instance, by making measurements in distinct layers of the cortex, the team found that higher-frequency “gamma” rhythms, which are normally associated with new sensory information like sights and sounds, were especially reduced in superficial layers. Lower-frequency “alpha” and “beta” waves, which Miller has shown tend to regulate the processing of the information carried by gamma rhythms, were especially reduced in deeper layers.
In addition to the prevailing synchrony at very slow frequencies, the team noted other signatures of unconsciousness in the data. As Brown and others have observed in humans before, alpha and beta rhythm power was notably higher in posterior regions of the cortex during wakefulness, but after loss of consciousness power at those rhythms flipped to being much higher in anterior regions.
The team further showed that stimulating the thalamus with a high-frequency pulse of current (180 hertz) undid propofol’s effects.
“Stimulation produced an awake-like cortical state by increasing spiking rates and decreasing slow-frequency power,” the authors wrote in the study. “In all areas, there was a significant increase in spiking during the stimulation interval compared to pre-stimulation baseline.”
In addition to Miller, Brown, Bastos and Donoghue, the paper’s other authors are Scott Brincat, Meredith Mahnke, Jorge Yanar, Josefina Correa, Ayan Waite, Mikael Lundqvist, and Jefferson Roy.
The National Institutes of Health and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the study.
In early 2020, a few months after the Covid-19 pandemic began, scientists were able to sequence the full genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 infection. While many of its genes were already known at that point, the full complement of protein-coding genes was unresolved.
Now, after performing an extensive comparative genomics study, MIT researchers have generated what they describe as the most accurate and complete gene annotation of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. In their study, which appears today in Nature Communications, they confirmed several protein-coding genes and found that a few others that had been suggested as genes do not code for any proteins.
“We were able to use this powerful comparative genomics approach for evolutionary signatures to discover the true functional protein-coding content of this enormously important genome,” says Manolis Kellis, who is the senior author of the study and a professor of computer science in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) as well as a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
The research team also analyzed nearly 2,000 mutations that have arisen in different SARS-CoV-2 isolates since it began infecting humans, allowing them to rate how important those mutations may be in changing the virus’ ability to evade the immune system or become more infectious.
The SARS-CoV-2 genome consists of nearly 30,000 RNA bases. Scientists have identified several regions known to encode protein-coding genes, based on their similarity to protein-coding genes found in related viruses. A few other regions were suspected to encode proteins, but they had not been definitively classified as protein-coding genes.
To nail down which parts of the SARS-CoV-2 genome actually contain genes, the researchers performed a type of study known as comparative genomics, in which they compare the genomes of similar viruses. The SARS-CoV-2 virus belongs to a subgenus of viruses called Sarbecovirus, most of which infect bats. The researchers performed their analysis on SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV (which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak), and 42 strains of bat sarbecoviruses.
Kellis has previously developed computational techniques for doing this type of analysis, which his team has also used to compare the human genome with genomes of other mammals. The techniques are based on analyzing whether certain DNA or RNA bases are conserved between species, and comparing their patterns of evolution over time.
Using these techniques, the researchers confirmed six protein-coding genes in the SARS-CoV-2 genome in addition to the five that are well established in all coronaviruses. They also determined that the region that encodes a gene called ORF3a also encodes an additional gene, which they name ORF3c. The gene has RNA bases that overlap with ORF3a but occur in a different reading frame. This gene-within-a-gene is rare in large genomes, but common in many viruses, whose genomes are under selective pressure to stay compact. The role for this new gene, as well as several other SARS-CoV-2 genes, is not known yet.
The researchers also showed that five other regions that had been proposed as possible genes do not encode functional proteins, and they also ruled out the possibility that there are any more conserved protein-coding genes yet to be discovered.
“We analyzed the entire genome and are very confident that there are no other conserved protein-coding genes,” says Irwin Jungreis, lead author of the study and a CSAIL research scientist. “Experimental studies are needed to figure out the functions of the uncharacterized genes, and by determining which ones are real, we allow other researchers to focus their attention on those genes rather than spend their time on something that doesn’t even get translated into protein.”
The researchers also recognized that many previous papers used not only incorrect gene sets, but sometimes also conflicting gene names. To remedy the situation, they brought together the SARS-CoV-2 community and presented a set of recommendations for naming SARS-CoV-2 genes, in a separate paper published a few weeks ago in Virology.
In the new study, the researchers also analyzed more than 1,800 mutations that have arisen in SARS-CoV-2 since it was first identified. For each gene, they compared how rapidly that particular gene has evolved in the past with how much it has evolved since the current pandemic began.
They found that in most cases, genes that evolved rapidly for long periods of time before the current pandemic have continued to do so, and those that tended to evolve slowly have maintained that trend. However, the researchers also identified exceptions to these patterns, which may shed light on how the virus has evolved as it has adapted to its new human host, Kellis says.
In one example, the researchers identified a region of the nucleocapsid protein, which surrounds the viral genetic material, that had many more mutations than expected from its historical evolution patterns. This protein region is also classified as a target of human B cells. Therefore, mutations in that region may help the virus evade the human immune system, Kellis says.
“The most accelerated region in the entire genome of SARS-CoV-2 is sitting smack in the middle of this nucleocapsid protein,” he says. “We speculate that those variants that don't mutate that region get recognized by the human immune system and eliminated, whereas those variants that randomly accumulate mutations in that region are in fact better able to evade the human immune system and remain in circulation.”
The researchers also analyzed mutations that have arisen in variants of concern, such as the B.1.1.7 strain from England, the P.1 strain from Brazil, and the B.1.351 strain from South Africa. Many of the mutations that make those variants more dangerous are found in the spike protein, and help the virus spread faster and avoid the immune system. However, each of those variants carries other mutations as well.
“Each of those variants has more than 20 other mutations, and it’s important to know which of those are likely to be doing something and which aren’t,” Jungreis says. “So, we used our comparative genomics evidence to get a first-pass guess at which of these are likely to be important based on which ones were in conserved positions."
This data could help other scientists focus their attention on the mutations that appear most likely to have significant effects on the virus’ infectivity, the researchers say. They have made the annotated gene set and their mutation classifications available in the University of California at Santa Cruz Genome Browser for other researchers who wish to use it.
“We can now go and actually study the evolutionary context of these variants and understand how the current pandemic fits in that larger history,” Kellis says. “For strains that have many mutations, we can see which of these mutations are likely to be host-specific adaptations, and which mutations are perhaps nothing to write home about.”
The research was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institutes of Health. Rachel Sealfon, a research scientist at the Flatiron Institute Center for Computational Biology, is also an author of the paper.
At dinnertime in Zaina Moussa’s childhood home, the table would be filled with an array of Moroccan and Syrian dishes, representing her parents’ different backgrounds. A mix of French, Arabic, and English words would fill the air as Moussa’s siblings chattered, waiting for their father to join them. As her diabetic father pricked his finger to check his blood sugar, she and her siblings would shout out numbers to predict the results before the monitor.
From a young age, Moussa appreciated how accessible medical devices can empower patients. She dreamed of one day studying bioengineering to learn how to create these devices. Yet, her small high school in Lubbock, Texas, had limited engineering opportunities. When a summer engineering program at a local university opened for high-school students, Moussa jumped at the chance. Over one summer, she learned how to build an electrocardiogram out of just two pennies, shower gel, an Arduino, an LCD screen, and a speaker. “The process showed me just how accessible we can make technology to those who need it,” says Moussa.
After getting accepted to MIT, Moussa arrived to campus ready to begin pursuing her biological engineering major. However, she quickly found herself struggling to adjust to her new environment compared to her support system back home. She joined the Black Women’s Alliance (BWA), whose weekend retreat helped her build a new family on campus. “We did a lot of workshops together that made me feel part of a sense of camaraderie,” she says. “I’ve been part of the organization ever since. I love being able to support others and to feel supported by so many amazing women.”
Moussa sought out research experiences through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). She toured the lab of Institute Professor Robert Langer and became interested in a project about injectable hydrogels that can facilitate polyp removal during surgery. For the next two years, Moussa worked on the project and is now an author on two published papers on hydrogels and drug delivery.
Summer research experiences in other labs gave Moussa a chance to explore additional topics in medical research. During the summer after her sophomore year, she worked alongside a physician-scientist at the Mayo Clinic in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and Radiology. Although she knew little at the time about machine learning, she taught herself to develop a model to diagnose early stage cardiac amyloidosis. “I try to go into things thinking ‘let’s do this,’ even if I’m scared at first,” she says, laughing. “Google has definitely been my best friend for approaching any new challenge.”
Through this experience, Moussa also became introduced to the importance of patient input throughout the technical design process. This eventually inspired Moussa to pursue a combined MD/PhD. “The physician I shadowed would really take the time with each patient to educate them about their diagnosis and options,” she says. “I realized I don’t want to do research without also knowing the patient’s perspective. Since then, I’ve been interested in an MD/PhD track to combine both of my interests.”
Understanding the person behind a medical treatment has continued to be a key interest of Moussa’s. Her favorite course, WGS.S10 (Black Feminist Health Science Studies), is about the medicalization of race and the health of marginalized groups. “It also got me thinking about how we often put the blame on the patient. For example, we’ve seen the lowest rates of Covid-19 vaccination in Black and Brown communities,” explains Moussa. “We need to look towards our institutions for why this might be, not just blame the patient for vaccine hesitancy.”
“I think that’s why the intersection of engineering and humanities is so important to bringing the human back into engineering,” she says. “We need to meld these two spheres together if we’re going to make technologies that better serve our communitites.”
Moussa also enjoys understanding people better by learning new languages. In addition to the three languages of her household, Moussa has taught herself Spanish and Portugese. She also has a minor in Japanese, which she first pursued out of her love for anime. “It’s always been about the people for me, and I find that studying languages helps open up the world. By understanding a person’s language, you can begin to better understand their values and culture,” she says.
In her free time, Moussa enjoys mentoring other pre-med students through the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students. Whenever worried students approach her about grades, she shares the advice she has gained from self studying languages. “Learning new topics is similar to learning a new language. You can’t get embarrassed, because if do, you’re not going to learn as much,” Moussa explains. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and try to immerse yourself in the environment of whatever you’re trying to learn.”
This fall, Moussa will begin pursuing her MD/PhD in bioengineering. She hopes to use her daily conversations with patients to create technologies that meet their needs. “I’m excited to see what the future holds and I’m very open-minded. Three years ago, I wasn’t even thinking about being a physician. It’s amazing to look back and see how much I’ve changed,” she says.
“I used to face this mental gymnastics between my different interests and cultures. I still get in my head sometimes, but for the most part, I now embrace that I am both Black and Middle Eastern. Both a physician and a scientist. That’s just me,” Moussa says.
“My new perspective is that there’s just not enough time to be invalidating yourself or worrying what other people think. Just ask questions and go for it! You’ve got this.”
Coastal desalination plants are a source of drinking water for an increasing number of people around the world. But their proximity to the ocean can cause disruptions from events like riptides and oil spills. Such disruptions reduce the productivity, lifespan, and sustainability of desalination plants.
The winner of this year’s MIT Water Innovation Prize, Bloom Alert, is seeking to improve desalination plant operations with a new kind of data monitoring platform. The platform tracks ocean and desalination plant activity and provides early warnings about events that could interrupt clean water production or lead to coastal pollution.
At the heart of Bloom Alert’s solution are models that crunch satellite data in real time to understand what’s going on in the ocean near the plants.
“Coastal events can reduce a plant’s water production capacity by up to 30 percent — that means 30 percent less water for coastal communities,” Bloom Alert team member Enzo Garcia said in the winning pitch. “Our models allow plant operators to apply mitigation measures during emergencies, which improve not only plant efficiency, but also overall water security for potentially millions of people.”
Bloom Alert’s models, which were trained on 20 years of satellite data, are capable of predicting disruption events up to 14 days in advance. That can lead to major savings: Garcia estimates severe riptide events can cost plants up to $200,000 a day.
Team members said their subscription-based platform, developed in their home country of Chile, can be used around the globe at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions.
The company recently completed its first pilot project with the biggest desalination plant in South America. Through the project, Garcia says Bloom is already helping to secure 20 percent of Chile’s desalinated water production.
Now, with $18,000 in new funding earned from the competition’s grand prize, the company is targeting plants in the Middle East, where about half of the world’s desalination plants are located.
“We seek to position ourselves as the worldwide leader in satellite intelligence for the desalination industry,” Garcia says.
The Water Innovation Prize, which helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact, has been hosted by the MIT Water Club since its first year in 2015. Each year, student-led finalist teams from around the world pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.
This year’s event, held virtually on Thursday, included six finalist teams. The second place, $10,000 award was given to Nymphea Labs.
Mosquitos are the deadliest animal on the planet. Every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria. At a park one day, Nymphea team member Pranav Agarwal noticed a pond that had no mosquito larvae on its surface because wind was causing ripples. A nearby pond, with no wind ripples, was filled with larvae. The observation led to an idea.
Nymphea Labs is marketing a device called Ripple that creates tiny waves on the surface of still water by leveraging solar power. The device, which costs about $10 dollars, requires no maintenance to run. It can also be deployed in fleets to cause ripples across larger bodies of water.
“Today the most widespread solutions are insecticides and insecticide treated bed nets, but more and more we’re seeing that mosquitos are developing a resistance to these chemicals, making these efforts less effective,” Agarwal says.
Nymphia says the device has already led to decreased mosquito populations in small tests. Now the company will be producing 100 units for further testing. The team is hoping Ripple will be helping to protect more than 10 million people by 2025.
The third-place prize was awarded to NERAMCO, which has invented a more sustainable, high-performance polyethylene fabric called SVETEX. SVETEX is a breathable, quick drying, and stain resistant textile, and NERAMCO CEO Maren Cattonar says its production uses 100 times less water than cotton.
“Fiber production is extremely water intensive, consuming 86 trillion meters of water per year, enough to supply the global population with drinking water for 14 years,” says Cattonar, who works as a mentor for MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund Program and MIT’s iTeams initiative.
In addition to using less water, SVETEX production also eliminates aquatic dye pollution using a dry spin coloring process.
“A staggering amount of pollution comes from textile dyeing,” Cattonar says. “Twenty percent of industrial water pollution originates from the textile industry. Each year 6.3 trillion liters of water are used to dye textiles.”
The other finalist teams were:
AgroBeads, which has developed biodegradable water beads designed to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation while providing plants with nutrients;
Brineys, which seeks to to fund new water desalination plants in water insecure countries by selling artisanal salt created as a byproduct of the desalination process; and
FinsTrust, a blockchain-based e-commerce platform designed to improve transparency and traceability in fishery products while empowering Indonesian fishermen and fish farmers.
Many of the finalist teams seek to address problems expected to worsen over time due to climate change. A sense of urgency has come over efforts to address water shortages in particular as communities increasingly face water distress around the world.
“Demand is outpacing supply, and it’s not happening in five years or 10 years — it’s happening now,” Tom Ferguson, a managing partner as Burnt Island Ventures, said in the keynote to the event.
Ben Linville-Engler, MIT System Design and Management (SDM) industry and certificate director, is the 2021 recipient of the Collier Medal. The Collier Medal was established in 2014 to honor MIT Police Officer Sean Collier and his commitment to community engagement and model citizenship. It is among the highest honors that MIT awards to staff and community members. Linville-Engler exemplifies these values and has demonstrated his own dedication to MIT and broader communities throughout his career.
In spring 2020, as the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be an official pandemic and case numbers rose in Massachusetts, many different groups and individuals across MIT and the Commonwealth sought ways to help. Linville-Engler’s background in the medical device industry and his training in applying a systems approach to sociotechnical challenges immediately proved useful. Linville-Engler worked closely with professors John Hart and Haden Quinlan of the Department of Mechanical Engineering to navigate the rapidly evolving response across the Institute and to identify labs and other groups that could join in these efforts.
Through this work, Linville-Engler connected with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which convened experts from a variety of fields to form what became the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (M-ERT). This collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and cross-industry group played a key role in the Baker-Polito administration’s initial response to Covid-19. M-ERT helped local manufacturers pivot their operations to produce personal protective equipment and other much-needed supplies for health-care workers at scale. Linville-Engler helped lead the effort and provided medical device development guidance to manufacturers. He also served as the team’s key liaison with U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials and ensured that critical emergency regulatory requirements were addressed. M-ERT’s organizing resulted in one of the largest and most diverse manufacturing responses to the pandemic in the United States. Much of Linville-Engler’s time in 2020 was spent coordinating these efforts, tapping into existing networks and creating new connections to make a rapid response possible in a time of overwhelming need. Like many others, he was also juggling his work with SDM and family responsibilities, with Ben and his wife caring for their 1-year-old son at their home in Medford, Massachusetts.
Linville-Engler is quick to highlight the support and efforts of all involved. “I’m very grateful that my role and additional support I received from SDM and MIT enabled me to pursue this work,” he says. “I feel this is a recognition of everyone I have collaborated with over the past 12 months who simply asked, ‘How can I help?’ and stepped up when and how they could, especially those in Massachusetts’ manufacturing community. I have seen what a true community response to a crisis can look like. If there is anything to be optimistic about looking ahead, it is what else can come from so many of these new community connections.”
Linville-Engler’s work in creating links to SDM across the Institute has also extended beyond his Covid-19 efforts and into the classroom. Before studying at SDM, he served in vice president roles in technology, product development, and engineering at Applied Medical. Linville-Engler has shared his knowledge of the medical device field in an Independent Activities Period course he created and taught, “Medical Device Development: Architecting Trust.” This course, along with his background in medical devices, was an impetus for others at MIT to reach out with ideas for respirators, ventilators, and other devices that were in short supply early in the pandemic’s first U.S. surge. Linville-Engler advised many of these groups on navigating the regulatory pathways and quality management required for medical devices — a step that many innovators don’t account for in their early planning. He has also continued to serve as SDM’s industry and certificate director, bringing in new sponsors for spring projects and overseeing the graduate certificate program.
Joan Rubin, executive director of SDM, notes that Linville-Engler has always been interested in building connections across his communities. “Ben embodies the characteristics exemplified by Officer Collier, and this is reflected in his belief in the broad sense of community and commitment outside of his official role here at MIT,” she says. “This year he has put the needs of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the nation first to find solutions to save lives.”
Filtration membranes are critical to a wide variety of industries around the world. Made of materials as varied as cellulose, graphene, and nylon, they serve as the barriers that turn seawater into drinking water, separate and process milk and dairy products, and pull contaminants from wastewater. They serve as an essential technology to these and other industries but are plagued with an Achilles heel: fouling.
Membrane fouling occurs when particles get deposited on the filter over time, clogging the system and limiting its effectiveness and efficiency. Efforts to clean, or de-foul, these membranes have typically relied on chemical processes, in which synthetic solvents are pumped through the membrane to flush the system. However, this results in losses in productivity and profit, all while raising environmental and workplace safety concerns associated with waste disposal.
A solution to this challenge may soon be in sight. A team of researchers from the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, supported by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), has found an alternative. Their solution was developed via a unique collaboration between researchers with expertise in fluid as well as structure dynamics.
The team has developed a novel system that can mechanically clean membranes using controlled deformation. Their new approach, one of the first ever to combine membranes and mechanics, has the potential to be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly than traditional membrane cleaning techniques, and is poised to revolutionize the way we think about filtration.
“Fouling is the biggest problem that's facing membranes. Being able to solve it would be a game-changer for everyone,” says Omar Labban PhD ’20 of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a joint lead author of a new paper published in the Journal of Membrane Science.
The work got its start when two mechanical engineering professors saw the potential of uniting their areas of expertise. John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering and the director of J-WAFS, joined forces with Xuanhe Zhao, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and George N. Hatsopoulos Faculty Fellow. Lienhard is an international expert on water purification and desalination, while Zhao specializes in the field of soft materials.
“Real-world problems, such as membrane fouling, inherently cut across disciplinary lines,” says Lienhard. “In this case, we faced both a problem of soft matter mechanics and of membrane desalination. Our team combined this disparate knowledge through a solid experimental program to achieve a more environmentally benign cleaning process.”
The paper that details the team’s new approach was selected as an Editor’s Choice Article by the journal for February 2021. Paper co-authors Lienhard, Zhao, and Labban were also joined by co-lead author and member of the core research team driving this work, Grace Goon PhD ’20 of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Zi Hao Foo, a former visiting student and current graduate student in mechanical engineering.
The “Achilles heel” of filtration
Fouling is the process through which particles are deposited on a membrane’s surface. While it occurs in any membrane filtration system, fouling is especially troublesome for desalination. As a process input, seawater has much more than salt that needs to be removed. Foulants, ranging from bacteria to organic material and minerals, can collect on reverse osmosis membranes very quickly. Once membranes become clogged, they are less effective, limiting the amount of clean water that can be produced as well as the purity of the end product.
Unfortunately, the current cleaning solution is not ideal. Membranes used for desalination are cleaned with chemicals, which takes time, money, and resources away from filtration plant operation. Water desalination plant operators often have to stop production to flush their systems for several hours per cleaning cycle. For the dairy industry, operators need to clean the membranes multiples times a day. The chemical cocktails used to flush the systems are often proprietary, making desalination prohibitively expensive for some countries and municipalities. The environmental impact is also hefty because the plants then must figure out how to dispose of the large quantities of chemical waste without causing ecological and toxicological problems.
Working together for a cleaner solution
Motivated by efficiency, affordability, and environmental sustainability, the research team sought to develop a chemical-free solution enabled by the principles of mechanics. Goon, a member of the core research team, recounts the early days, when the team explored various vibration methods, including a stereo system, to shake the foulant layer off the membrane. From there, they moved on to experimenting with varying the pressure on either side of the membrane to weaken the bonded debris. Eventually, they were able to cause the layer to peel off.
Their solution relies on a phenomenon known as membrane-foulant interfacial fatigue. Through subtle pressure changes, the team was able to gradually weaken and deform the bonded layer of foulants little by little until it could be washed away. Previous research strayed away from this method because of the fragility of the membranes, “but we've shown that if you're able to actually control it properly, you can avoid damaging your membrane,” says Goon. Best of all, the method can be used on the industry-standard spiral wound membrane module, where the tightly spaced layers of membranes posed a challenge for other mechanical cleaning methods.
While traditional chemical cleaning processes might be necessary to supplement this mechanical solution, this new method can reduce users’ reliance on chemical flushing, which benefits plant operators in multiple ways. The team’s calculations indicate that the shutdown time for cleaning would go down by a factor of six. With plants down less often, the total amount of clean water produced by the system can increase. “You'll be saving on cost, you'll be running the plant more, you'll be getting more output. When cleaning no longer becomes a burden for the operator, the system is going to operate in a much better state in the long run,” explains Labban.
These improvements provide tangible benefits to producers and consumers alike. During field research the team explored the market potential for this technology and spoke with plant operators across a number of industries who all expressed frustration with the cumbersome nature of the cleaning process. For the dairy industry alone, one that has already faced shrinking profits from the pandemic, the team estimates that a switch to mechanical cleaning could cut cleaning costs by half.
The unique intersection of membrane technology and mechanical processes that this technology models provides a solution that many in the desalination field did not think was possible. “Suddenly you're able to achieve a lot a lot more than before — your impact and change that you can accomplish becomes bigger,” says Labban of the chance to work on a multidisciplinary collaboration.
The project not only brought together two specialties in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The team was also joined by Gabrielle Enns, Annetoinette Figueroa, Lara Ketonen, Hannah Mahaffey, Bryan T. Padilla, and Maisha Prome through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. The unique perspective that each team member brought helped foster creativity and camaraderie around the lab.
Because of the out-of-the-box approach that the interdisciplinary research team was taking, traditional funding mechanisms were not as readily available for this work. This is why the J-WAFS seed grant was so impactful. “Without J-WAFS, this work would not have happened,” says Labban. The grant allowed the research team to focus on the challenge as a primary research catalyst, as opposed to being limited to a particular technical process or structured outcome. This provided the team the freedom to take advantage of the cross-departmental collaboration that enabled the convergence of mechanics and membrane research in the name of better filtration strategies.
The current paper primarily looks at organic foulants and the technique has only been evaluated for a limited number of industries. Looking forward, however, the team is excited to expand upon its research by applying the method across a variety of areas, including the energy and agriculture sectors. As long as membranes are being used, there is going to be a need to clean them. “We are excited to be solving the major bottleneck with membranes and desalination,” says Labban. “Nothing else compares to this challenge.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, like many other health crises, has had unequal effects on the U.S. population, with communities of color often hit the hardest. A new study co-authored by an MIT professor identifies a related challenge: Different social groups have different reactions to the fact that Covid-19 has generated those health inequities.
More specifically, the study, based on a multilayered survey of U.S. residents, finds a divergence among racial groups when people are informed about the varying effects of the pandemic. Upon learning more about the social distribution of Covid-19, Black Americans tend to gain a better understanding of their risk. But among white Americans given the same information, there is a split response.
The study used “feeling thermometers,” on a scale from 0 to 100, to let participants rate their attitudes other racial groups. After learning more about health disparities, whites with “warmer” feelings toward Blacks favored a more vigorous public health response, while those with a “cooler” view of Blacks subsequently viewed Covid-19 as a less urgent problem and became less inclined to support strong public health measures.
“From a public health perspective, there is both good and bad news,” says MIT political scientist Evan Lieberman, co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s results. “For African Americans who were learning from this study that death rates were higher among African Americans, this increased their perception that they were at greater risk from Covid. … That’s good news because a big part of public health messaging is to make people aware of these dangers.”
Moreover, Lieberman adds, “A second piece of good news is that a large share of white Americans feel empathic or close to Black Americans.” And those fitting this description “became more invested in the notion that the government should do more on Covid.”
However, white participants who admitted to having colder feelings about Blacks became more reluctant to support extensive efforts to tackle the pandemic.
“We did find that those whites who had these cooler views toward African Americans, to the extent they were aware of these disparities in death rates, were more likely to perceive that this was not a problem that affected them, and wanted less aggressive action on Covid-19,” says Lieberman.
The paper, “How information about race-based health disparities affects policy preferences: Evidence from a survey experiment about the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States,” is published in the May issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine. The authors are Lieberman, who is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT; and Allison Harell, a professor of political science at the University of Québec at Montréal.
To conduct the study, the researchers conducted an online survey from August to September 2020, using the Qualtrics platform and working with the survey firm Dynata. The final sample is a demographically representative group of 3,961 adult Americans. The participants were asked a variety of questions, and responded to the “feeling thermometers” about other racial groups.
Some participants were then given information about the health disparities generated by Covid-19 — as of last summer, there were 2.5 times as many deaths per capita for Black Americans, compared to white Americans. Then respondents were asked a series of follow-up questions about Covid-19 risk, the government reaction, public health measures, personal liberties, and economic relief measures.
Only about 15 percent of the whites in the survey reported an unfavorable view about Blacks generally. But among those who did, there was a significant shift in perspective after being presented with information about Covid-19 health disparities. Those least favorable toward Blacks were most likely to think the government was doing too much to combat Covid-19 for instance, while those more favorable were most likely to think the government was doing too little. The researchers identified a similar pattern related to acceptance of certain public health measures such as social distancing and restricting access to public venues.
“It was telling that this share of participants, when they learned this information, became disinclined to have a public health response to Covid,” Lieberman says. “Whites who were cool toward Blacks at the start of the study were already relatively less inclined to support aggressive Covid policies. So, the overall effect of receiving the information was to further polarize attitudes on this important set of policies.”
Moreover, he says, the results are of a piece with other findings indicating that, for instance, white American men disproportionately do not want to get vaccinated.
“That’s a clear expression of a denial of the problem and a lack of interest in participating in what needs to be a coordinated effort to achieve herd immunity,” Lieberman says. “They’re not interested in a multiracial collective [solution], nor do they perceive themselves to be particularly vulnerable.”
Lieberman and Harell recognize their findings can seem vexing, since health officials place a premium on delivering facts to the public — and in this case, the facts can lead a portion of the population to become more indifferent to the problem. Still, Lieberman says, the research could help make public health messaging more effective.
“The best strategy would be some targeting in messaging,” Lieberman suggests. Communicating the facts about Covid-19 disparities usefully informed Black participants, after all, while for some others, he says, it may be necessary to attempt “more messaging that reminds us of the different ways we’re interconnected, in which we all lose out to the extent that this pandemic persists.”
Reformulating a certain amount of Covid-19 messaging may not be easy. Still, Lieberman says, even if policymakers “are uncomfortable with the notion that there might be any negative effects of disseminating true information, it’s fairly clear that’s an important reality.”
The study was supported, in part, by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
These days homebuilders might have several reasons to make new homes energy-efficient. They may be required to hit efficiency goals by local building codes. They may want to take advantage of financial incentive programs offered by governments, lenders, and utilities. They may just want to appeal to the growing segment of home buyers who prioritize sustainability and want lower energy bills.
But the process of building energy-efficient homes and then getting certifications requires cooperation across a complex ecosystem of players. For the last 10 years, Ekotrope has worked to simplify that process.
The company’s software was inspired by system optimization work done for NASA by Ed Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT and co-founder of Ekotrope. It brings together disparate systems used by builders, home energy raters, and utilities to calculate the efficiency and costs of different designs. Energy raters can then use Ekotrope’s system to apply for home energy certifications. If the criteria aren’t met, the system gives reasons why. If the submission is successful, Ekotrope completes the accreditation process instantaneously.
“The problem we are trying to solve is that information does not flow very well,” co-founder and CEO Ziv Rozenblum SM '07 says. “For example, previously, if a builder wanted to participate in an energy efficiency program, they’d send a file, it could take months to get feedback, they’d make corrections, and many hands would touch that file. We automated almost everything.”
Today Ekotrope is one of the leading energy-accreditation systems in the country. The company says its software has been used to certify more than half a million homes and is used in the construction of one in every five new homes in the U.S.
The company’s success translates to major impact in a home energy sector responsible for a fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. For the founders, the success affirms their belief that the U.S. can make huge strides in reducing carbon emissions using today’s technologies — as long as the right systems are in place.
“I see all this interest in inventing new technologies and building energy-efficient solutions, but we think a lot of progress can be achieved with existing solutions,” Rozenblum says. “You just need to help people make the right choices at the right time. All the stakeholders want to make the right decisions; they just don’t always have the right information.”
Building a better system
The idea for Ekotrope, like so many successful businesses, came from a bad experience. Crawley was working with a contractor and architect to build a new home and was disappointed that neither person could project the impact different materials and appliances would have on the overall energy efficiency of the home. At MIT, Crawley had worked with NASA and BP on projects in which researchers had to determine the impact of different parts on efficiency, performance, cost, and more.
“He had a light bulb go off that designing a home is a similarly complex process,” Ekotrope co-founder and lead engineer Nick Sisler '11 says. “There are a lot of options. Specifically around energy efficiency, there are all these different components of a home that affect energy consumption and cost — whether it’s insulation, heating and cooling systems, solar panels on the roof, light bulbs — all of those things have an impact on energy and cost.”
In 2010, Cy Kilbourn, a visiting researcher at MIT from Brown University, and Rozenblum, who had been a research assistant for Crawley as a graduate student, worked with Crawley to understand how different home construction decisions impacted energy efficiency. The following year Rozenblum quit his job to run Ekotrope full time. Sisler, who had researched the home energy preferences of buyers with Crawley as an undergraduate, joined shortly after graduation in 2011. The other founders are software engineer Ben DeLillo and Kenneth Lazarus SM ’89, PhD ’92.
The founders initially began building a software solution for architects and builders, calculating the costs associated with different design options and their impact on efficiency and emissions. A key component of the solution was an algorithm that measured hourly energy use in different scenarios.
Around 2016, Ekotrope pivoted to selling to home energy raters. Raters sit at the heart of home energy accreditations, working with builders, utilities, accreditation agencies, mortgage lenders, and governments, and providing an energy score for climate-conscious buyers.
“The [energy raters] will work with the builder, get their building plans, put that data into Ekotrope, and see what energy consumption is predicted to be, what energy codes the home will need, what programs it qualifies for, like Energy Star or tax credit or utility rebate programs,” Sisler explains. “All that stuff is integrated into our solution.”
The system streamlines a process the founders say had prevented energy efficiency programs from reaching their full potential.
“People are making worse decisions because they lack information, and there’s lot of double data entry and inefficiencies,” Rozenblum says. “We try to solve that by making systems that provide people with the information they need to make better choices.”
Leaving a large footprint
The founders say about 75 percent of new energy-efficient homes in the U.S. are accredited with help from Ekotrope’s software. Most of those homes are single-family.
The company has partnered with some of the largest programs promoting home energy efficiency in the country. Ekotrope has also partnered with mortgage lenders, material suppliers, and about 40 utilities.
That progress has put Ekotrope in a unique position to help different players in the industry understand what kind of incentives improve sustainability and what other trends they need to prepare for.
“We probably have the most inclusive database of information on new homes,” Rozenblum says. “We have information like who’s building new homes, where, what kind of materials they’re using, how far they are from an energy goal, how much CO2 they will add to the atmosphere, what’s the projected performance, what kind of incentives are working and not working.”
Ekotrope also sees opportunities to work more closely with utilities, and has seen strong results from pilot programs that let utilities make suggestions to raters and builders.
“It’s exciting to show that energy efficiency and economic decisions aren’t different,” Rozenblum says. “You can make money and be efficient at the same time.”
Michale Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has been named as the new head of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), effective May 1.
Fee, who also is an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, succeeds James DiCarlo, the Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience, who announced in December that he was stepping down to become director of the MIT Quest for Intelligence.
“I want to thank Jim for his impressive work over the last nine years as head,” says Fee. “I know firsthand from my time as associate department head that BCS is in good shape and on a steady course. Jim has set a standard of transparent and collaborative leadership, which is a solid foundation for making our community stronger on all fronts.”
Fee notes that his first mission is to continue the initiatives begun under DiCarlo’s leadership — in academics (especially Course 6-9); mentoring; and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) — while maintaining the highest standards of excellence in research and education.
“Jim has overseen significant growth in the faculty and its impact, as well as important academic initiatives to strengthen the department’s graduate and undergraduate programs,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science. “His emphasis on building ties among BCS, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory has brought innumerable new collaborations among researchers and helped solidify Building 46 and MIT as world leaders in brain science.”
Fee earned his BE in engineering physics in 1985 at the University of Michigan, and his PhD in applied physics at Stanford University in 1992, under the mentorship of Nobel laureate Stephen Chu. His doctoral work was followed by research in the Biological Computation Department at Bell Laboratories. He joined MIT and BCS as an associate professor in 2003 and was promoted to full professor in 2008.
He has served since 2012 as associate department head for education in BCS, overseeing significant evolution in the department’s academic programs, including a complete reworking of the Course 9 curriculum and the establishment in 2019 of Course 6-9 (Computation and Cognition), in partnership with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
In his research, Fee explores the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns complex sequential behaviors, using the learning of song by juvenile zebra finches as a model. He has brought new experimental and computational methods to bear on these questions, identifying a number of circuits used to learn, modify, time, and coordinate the development and utterance of song syllables.
“His work is emblematic of the department in that it crosses technical and disciplinary boundaries in search of the most significant discoveries,” says DiCarlo. “His research background gives Michale a deep appreciation of the importance of every sub-discipline in our community and a broad understanding of the importance of their connections with each other.”
Fee has received numerous honors and awards for his research and teaching, including the MIT Fundamental Science Investigator Award in 2017, the MIT School of Science Teaching Prize for Undergraduate Education in 2016, the BCS Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2015, and the Lawrence Katz Prize for Innovative Research in Neuroscience from Duke University in 2012.
Fee will be the sixth head of the department, after founding chair Hans Lukas Teuber (1964–77), Richard Held (1977–86), Emilio Bizzi (1986–97), Mriganka Sur (1997–2012), and DiCarlo (2012–21).
The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President L. Rafael Reif.
To the members of the MIT community,
Hopeful signs of reopening here in Massachusetts stand in cruel contrast to the immense new pandemic suffering unfolding in India, and increasingly across South Asia.
Because MIT is intensely global, our community has countless close ties all over the world. Thousands of members of our MIT community – students, staff, faculty, postdocs, alumni, parents and Corporation members – live in or have family, friends or colleagues in India. For them, the current tragic stories are much more than news reports. The grief and anxiety are personal.
As a native of Venezuela, I know very well the pain and worry, and the sense of responsibility and of helplessness that come with trying to address disaster from afar. Many of us know how it feels to “live in two places” in our hearts – especially when a distant home country is experiencing a crisis.
So I write now to tap the strength of our global MIT family – around the world, across the country, and right here in Cambridge – in hopes that those of us who can do so will reach out, in whatever way makes sense, to check in, to listen, to console and to offer practical support.
In this work, members of our community are lighting the way. For example, the South Asian Association of Students (SAAS) recently held a targeted fundraiser. The MIT India Program has vetted and compiled a list of resources and organizations active on the ground in India, as well as other ways to help, and is now seeking to coordinate efforts with other Boston-area universities. And many Indian American business leaders, including MIT alumni, are setting inspiring examples.
The painful news from India continues to pour in, at a point in the spring semester that is always intense at MIT. If you would benefit from personal, academic or spiritual support in this moment, or you know someone who would, I urge you to reach out to our campus resources for staff, postdocs and faculty, and for students.
And I ask that we do all we can to look out for each other with patience, generosity and understanding.
With shared sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
Six MIT affiliates have been selected for the newest cohort of the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholars program. Kofi Blake, Orisa Coombs, Jierui Fang ’20, Max Kessler ’20, Claire Lazar Reich ’17, and Kyle Swanson ’18, MEng ’19 will begin graduate studies at Stanford University this fall.
Founded in 2018, the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program seeks to cultivate a diverse, multidisciplinary community of future leaders and prepare them to address global challenges. The highly competitive fellowship, which fully funds graduate studies in any field at Stanford University, attracts applicants from around the globe.
In addition to funding, Knight-Hennessy Scholars receive leadership development training, mentorship, and experiential learning opportunities. Since the program’s inception, 11 MIT affiliates — students and alumni — have been awarded Knight-Hennessy Scholarships.
“Every year, we have the remarkable job of supporting brilliant young MIT students who seek to transform the world,” says Kim Benard, assistant dean of distinguished fellowships in Career Advising and Professional Development. “This year, despite immense challenges, we had a record number of students selected for the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship. This is a testament to their resiliency and dedication. What is even more impressive is that Kofi, Orisa, Jierui, Max, Claire, and Kyle will all contribute to an array of issues that demonstrates the magnitude of an MIT education from advocacy to design to medicine to engineering. They make us all proud that they will be representing MIT.”
Senior Kofi Blake, from Broward County, Florida, will graduate in June with double majors in aerospace engineering and physics, and a political science minor. As a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, Blake will pursue a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford School of Engineering. Blake aspires to research new forms of space propulsion, while also advocating for social justice and inclusion in engineering. He has conducted research on the modeling of electrospray thrusters in the MIT Space Propulsion Lab, and at Imperial College London he developed a hall thruster with a novel use of a microwave antenna. As the first engineer assigned to the rocket, he had the honor of naming it. Throughout all four years at MIT, Blake served as president of his class and was an active resident of the Chocolate City living community. He is now co-chair of the brotherhood organization, which is dedicated to the leadership development of Black and minority men. Blake also volunteered as an aerospace instructor for a STEM enrichment program that serves underrepresented students.
Senior Orisa Coombs hails from Aurora, Colorado, and will receive her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering this June. In the fall, she will begin a PhD program in mechanical engineering at Stanford School of Engineering. Coombs aims to be a professor and contribute to research in the area of energy and sustainability technology. Previously, she explored the medical device industry through internships at Johnson and Johnson and SpineFrontier. At the MIT Media Lab, she designed wearable devices to continuously monitor biomarkers like cortisol in astronauts in the International Space Station. However, Coombs discovered her passion in climate change research. In the Rosenhow Kendall Lab, she researched efficient water desalination methods for long-term water sustainability. Coombs has also served as the chair of the MIT Black Student's Union, and as a representative on Institute Diversity Equity and Inclusion Policy committees. She has worked to eliminate food insecurity across the MIT campus through dorm food pantry initiatives and the design of an on-campus at-cost grocery store.
Jierui Fang ’20
Jierui Fang ’20, from Plano, Texas, graduated MIT as an art and design major with minors in computer science and biomedical engineering. She envisions a future career creating change through interdisciplinary design with system-based products and experiences, specifically in the fields of healthcare, sustainability, and experiential art. At Stanford School of Engineering she will embark on a master’s degree in design impact. Fang has conducted research on medical maker technologies and experimented with biomaterial fabrication at MIT, designed solutions for refugees as part of startup and as a fellow at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and led an augmented reality mural project with international collaborators. Since graduation, she has worked as a design strategist at Tidepool for an automated insulin delivery system that was recently submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She has had her work exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and by the Cooper Hewitt at the Gates Discovery Center.
Max Kessler ’20
Recent graduate Max Kessler ’20, from Friday Harbor, Washington, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. A winner of the Fulbright fellowship, he is currently in Germany researching and developing a bio-inspired suction cup to reduce the energy intensity of industrial processes. As a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, Kessler will pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford School of Engineering. Passionate about addressing climate change, Kessler aspires to develop innovative technologies to reduce emissions in the built environment. To communicate his research and share stories with wide audiences, he has directed many short movies, including an award-winning documentary about sustainability and climate action. Kessler strives to be a global citizen. He has interned at the United Nations, and during his time at MIT he worked on a project to supply custom sleeping bags to people displaced from their homes in the Middle East.
Claire Lazar Reich ’17
Economics and statistics doctoral student Claire Lazar Reich ’17 hails from northern New Jersey. She graduated MIT with a bachelor of science in mathematics and will receive her PhD this year. Lazar Reich will complete her JD studies at Stanford Law School. She plans to use her legal education to contribute to financial regulation and technology law. Her PhD research demonstrates how algorithms in use today can be made simultaneously fairer and more accurate at a time when they increasingly guide access to financial opportunities, medical treatments, and bail decisions. In college, Lazar Reich volunteered as an EMT, served as an editor at MIT’s student newspaper The Tech, and conducted research at Wrightson ICAP, Caltech, and the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering. During her PhD studies, she was awarded the MIT Presidential Fellowship and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
Kyle Swanson ’18, MEng ’19
Kyle Swanson ’18, MEng ’19, from Bronxville, New York, graduated from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics and a master’s degree in computer science. After winning a Marshall Scholarship, he went on to receive a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree in biotechnology from Imperial College London. At the Stanford School of Engineering he will earn a PhD in computer science. Swanson aims to apply machine learning to tackle complex problems in biology and health care. While at MIT, he worked with Professor Regina Barzilay to develop a machine learning model that can determine an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer from a mammogram; this model has helped assess tens of thousands of mammograms at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also applied machine learning to chemistry, resulting in the discovery of halicin, the first antibiotic identified by artificial intelligence.
Perched atop the MIT Cecil and Ida Green Building (Building 54), MIT’s tallest academic building, a large, golf ball-like structure protrudes from the roof, holding its own in the iconic MIT campus skyline. This radar dome — or "radome" for short — is a fiberglass shell that encases a large parabolic dish, shielding it from the elements while allowing radio waves to penetrate. First installed in 1966, it was used initially to pioneer weather radar research. As the years passed and technology evolved, the radome eventually fell out of use for this purpose and was subsequently slated for removal as MIT began a major renovation and capital improvement project for the building. That's when the student-led MIT Radio Society, who had found creative new uses for the radome, sprang into action to save it — and succeeded.
"When we say 'save the radome,' what we set out to accomplish was to preserve a scientific instrument with great potential from demolition and incorporate an in-place renovation of the dish into the overall building renewal project," says Kerri Cahoy, associate professor in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, who serves as the faculty advisor for the MIT Radio Society.
The call to action
Starting in the early 1980s, the MIT Radio Society took up residence alongside the radome on the roof of the Green Building, leveraging the highest point on campus accessible to students that provided a manageable, unobstructed laboratory to house equipment like antenna arrays and an FM repeater. In recent years, the Radio Society adapted and upgraded the radome for their microwave experiments, most notably enabling its use for Earth-moon-Earth or "moonbounce" communication, where signals are bounced off the moon to reach Earth-bound receivers at greater distances than radio communications sent on the ground.
"Before the pandemic, we participated in a contest where we used moonbounce to make contact with as many people in as many places as possible to earn points," says Milo Hooper, a senior in mechanical engineering and president of the MIT Radio Society. "We had to get up at 2 a.m. to make sure the moon was in the right position at the right time, and we were able to talk to people in Europe and on the West Coast. As a student, it's amazing to have the opportunity to use a world-class instrument on a college campus. It's unrivaled."
To secure the large dish’s future and replace the deteriorating radome, the MIT Radio Society spearheaded a fundraising effort and immediately got to work. Building on the momentum of a previous successful fundraising campaign among Radio Society alumni that helped refurbish their equipment on the roof, they further mobilized the MIT community of alumni and friends by organizing a second campaign. The students also pulled together a successful grant application in record time to Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC), a non-profit private foundation supporting amateur radio and digital communications science, resulting in ARDC’s largest-ever philanthropic contribution, made in memory of the organization’s founder Brian Kantor. This lead gift brought the MIT Radio Society across the finish line to successfully meet their fundraising goal.
"We were overwhelmed at first by the amount we needed to raise, and the short time we had before the renovation project needed to begin. We just had to hope that someone would see the same promise and potential in the dish that we did,” says Gregory Allan, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics who led ARDC grant submission efforts. “When we contacted ARDC, they were so supportive and willing to do whatever it took to make this happen. We're really grateful to them for this incredible gift."
Finding a new purpose
When it comes to satellite communication, the bigger the dish, the further you can send communication signals. The large dish atop the Green Building is 18 feet wide, which is unique because academic institutions don't typically have access to a dish that size without partnering with a commercial provider. The dish rests upon a mount that also boasts a unique feature: Built and used initially for an earlier project to track aircraft movement during World War II, the mount can reposition the dish quickly. This will be particularly useful for tracking satellites in low-Earth orbit that streak across the night sky in less than 10 minutes.
"The dish is really perfect for both low-Earth orbit satellite communications because of the fast-tracking and also for deep space lunar CubeSats because of its large size. Additionally, the surface of the dish is in good shape, so we can use it for communications at relatively high frequencies which allow us to transfer data at higher rates," says Mary Knapp '11, PhD ’18, who is now a research scientist at MIT Haystack Observatory. "Basically, it's ready to be put to use by many of the CubeSat projects in the process of being developed at MIT, and potentially for outside parties as well."
The large radome has also proven to be a valuable asset in the classroom, particularly supporting remote-learning efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the help of the MIT Radio Society, the dish enabled remote radio astronomy experiments for the Physics Junior Laboratory (J-Lab), a foundational course in the physics curriculum. The astronomy experiment typically involves using a small radio telescope to measure how the galaxy rotates from our perspective here on Earth. Instead, students collected "exquisite" high-quality data using the large dish, allowing the class to maintain operations close to normal even while working remotely during the pandemic.
"From my perspective, there are three big shining stars that helped make this happen: the initiative and energy of the students, the support of alumni and the MIT community, and ARDC who saw the potential and the exciting future of this facility and how we can use it to educate future generations and support forward-thinking research on campus," says Cahoy. “We feel grateful that MIT gave us the opportunity to see this through, and appreciate the support, partnership, and guidance we received from the Department of Facilities Campus Construction team who helped us navigate this complex project.”
Researchers at the Future Urban Mobility (FM) interdisciplinary research group at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have created a synthetic framework known as theory-based residual neural network (TB-ResNet), which combines discrete choice models (DCMs) and deep neural networks (DNNs), also known as deep learning, to improve individual decision-making analysis used in travel behavior research.
In their paper, "Theory-based residual neural networks: A synergy of discrete choice models and deep neural networks," recently published in the journal Transportation Research: Part B, SMART researchers explain their developed TB-ResNet framework and demonstrate the strength of combining the DCMs and DNNs methods, proving that they are highly complementary.
As machine learning is increasingly used in the field of transportation, the two disparate research concepts, DCMs and DNNs, have long been viewed as conflicting methods of research.
By synergizing these two important research paradigms, TB-ResNet takes advantage of DCMs’ simplicity and DNNs’ expressive power to generate richer findings and more accurate predictions for individual decision-making analysis, which is important for improved travel behavior research. The developed TB-ResNet framework is more predictive, interpretable, and robust than DCMs or DNNs, with findings consistent over a wide range of datasets.
Accurate and efficient analysis of individual decision-making in the everyday context is critical for mobility companies, governments, and policymakers seeking to optimize transport networks and tackle transport challenges, especially in cities. TB-ResNet will eliminate existing difficulties faced in DCMs and DNNs and allow stakeholders to take a holistic, unified view toward transport planning.
Urban Mobility Lab at MIT postdoc and lead author Shenhao Wang says, “Improved insights to how travelers make decisions about travel mode, destination, departure time, and planning of activities are crucial to urban transport planning for governments and transport companies worldwide. I look forward to further developing TB-ResNet and its applications for transport planning now that it has been acknowledged by the transport research community.”
SMART FM lead principal investigator and MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning Associate Professor Jinhua Zhao says, “Our Future Urban Mobility research team focuses on developing new paradigms and innovating future urban mobility systems in and beyond Singapore. This new TB-ResNet framework is an important milestone that could enrich our investigations for impacts of decision-making models for urban development.”
The TB-ResNet can also be widely applied to understand individual decision-making cases as illustrated in this research, whether it is about travel, consumption, or voting, among many others.
The TB-ResNet framework was tested in three instances in this study. First, researchers used it to predict travel mode decisions between transit, driving, autonomous vehicles, walking, and cycling, which are major travel modes in an urban setting. Secondly, they evaluated risk alternatives and preferences when monetary payoffs with uncertainty are involved. Examples of such situations include insurance, financial investment, and voting decisions.
Finally, they examined temporal alternatives, measuring the tradeoff between current and future money payoffs. A typical example of when such decisions are made would be in transport development, where shareholders analyze infrastructure investment with large down payments and long-term benefits.
This research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.
The Future Urban Mobility research group harnesses new technological and institutional innovations to create the next generation of urban mobility systems to increase accessibility, equity, safety, and environmental performance for the citizens and businesses of Singapore and other metropolitan areas worldwide. FM is supported by the NRF Singapore and situated in CREATE.
SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the NRF Singapore in 2007. SMART serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both Singapore and MIT. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five interdisciplinary research groups: Antimicrobial Resistance, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, FM, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.