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Ceasar McDowell, MIT professor of the practice of civic design and associate head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), has been named associate director for civic design at MIT’s new Center for Constructive Communication (CCC).
McDowell will maintain his leadership roles at both DUSP and CCC moving forward.
“Since 2019, Ceasar has been a trusted advisor to my Media Lab research team’s work in promoting deeper learning and understanding in human networks, and has helped guide our formation as a new center at MIT,” says CCC director and professor of media arts and sciences Deb Roy. “His new role reflects that evolution, as we move toward prototyping civic systems where equity is embedded in their aspiration and their design. We’re thrilled to share in his deep experience in civic design and public participation.”
The MIT Center for Constructive Communication was launched in January 2021 with the mission of designing human-machine systems that improve communication across divides and increase opportunity for under-heard communities. Current CCC projects include collaborations with local grassroots organizations aimed at both hearing and amplifying community voices in public health communication and municipal leadership selection.
“The center’s mission goes to the heart of what my work is about — voice,” McDowell says. “My passion is figuring out how people who are systematically marginalized by society can voice their lived experiences to the world, and as a result participate as full members of society. I’m looking forward to helping CCC design research and civic solutions that will work for a broader set of people down the road.”
McDowell is an expert in designing public conversations and leads We Who Engage MIT, a group focusing on the increasing complexity of the American public and the implications for cities and democracy. The group recently issued a report, “The Civic Design Framework: Principles for public conversations during a time of crisis,” detailing recommended methods for organizations seeking effective public dialogue.
“Ceasar is known to be a bridge builder,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. “And with this new role, he will have the chance to build more bridges across the school and MIT, and throughout the new networks created by this important center.”
Last October, the White House released the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. The plan was motivated, in part, by a greater understanding of the pervasiveness of the crime. In 2019, 11,500 situations of human trafficking in the United States were identified through the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and the federal government estimates there are nearly 25 million victims globally.
This increasing awareness has also motivated MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to harness its technological expertise toward combating human trafficking.
In recent years, researchers in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group have met with federal, state, and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and technology companies to understand the challenges in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting trafficking cases. In 2019, the team compiled their findings and 29 targeted technology recommendations into a roadmap for the federal government. This roadmap informed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s recent counter-trafficking strategy released in 2020.
"Traffickers are using technology to gain efficiencies of scale, from online commercial sex marketplaces to complex internet-driven money laundering, and we must also leverage technology to counter them," says Matthew Daggett, who is leading this research at the laboratory.
In July, Daggett testified at a congressional hearing about many of the current technology gaps and made several policy recommendations on the role of technology countering trafficking. "Taking advantage of digital evidence can be overwhelming for investigators. There's not a lot of technology out there to pull it all together, and while there are pockets of tech activity, we see a lot of duplication of effort because this work is siloed across the community," he adds.
Breaking down these silos has been part of Daggett's goal. Most recently, he brought together almost 200 practitioners from 85 federal and state agencies, NGOs, universities, and companies for the Counter–Human Trafficking Technology Workshop at Lincoln Laboratory. This first-of-its-kind virtual event brought about discussions of how technology is used today, where gaps exist, and what opportunities exist for new partnerships.
The workshop was also an opportunity for the laboratory's researchers to present several advanced tools in development. "The goal is to come up with sustainable ways to partner on transitioning these prototypes out into the field," Daggett adds.
One the most mature capabilities at the laboratory in countering human trafficking deals with the challenge of discovering large-scale, organized trafficking networks.
"We cannot just disrupt pieces of an organized network, because many networks recover easily. We need to uncover the entirety of the network and disrupt it as a whole," says Lin Li, a researcher in the Artificial Intelligence Technology Group.
To help investigators do that, Li has been developing machine learning algorithms that automatically analyze online commercial sex ads to reveal whether they are likely associated with human trafficking activities and if they belong to the same organization.
This task may have been easier only a few years ago, when a large percentage of trafficking-linked activities were advertised, and reported, from listings on Backpage.com. Backpage was the second-largest classified ad listing service in the United States after Craigslist, and was seized in 2018 by a multi-agency federal investigation. A slew of new advertising sites has since appeared in its wake. "Now we have a very decentralized distributed information source, where people are cross-posting on many web pages," Li says. Traffickers are also becoming more security-aware, Li says, often using burner cellular or internet phones that make it difficult to use "hard" links such as phone numbers to uncover organized crime.
So, the researchers have instead been leveraging "soft" indicators of organized activity, such as semantic similarities in the ad descriptions. They use natural language processing to extract unique phrases in content to create ad templates, and then find matches for those templates across hundreds of thousands of ads from multiple websites.
"We've learned that each organization can have multiple templates that they use when they post their ads, and each template is more or less unique to the organization. By template matching, we essentially have an organization-discovery algorithm," Li says.
In this analysis process, the system also ranks the likelihood of an ad being associated with human trafficking. By definition, human trafficking involves compelling individuals to provide service or labor through the use of force, fraud, or coercion — and does not apply to all commercial sex work. The team trained a language model to learn terms related to race, age, and other marketplace vernacular in the context of the ad that may be indicative of potential trafficking.
To show the impact of this system, Li gives an example scenario in which an ad is reported to law enforcement as being linked to human trafficking. A traditional search to find other ads using the same phone number might yield 600 ads. But by applying template matching, approximately 900 additional ads could be identified, enabling the discovery of previously unassociated phone numbers.
"We then map out this network structure, showing links between ad template clusters and their locations. Suddenly, you see a transnational network," Li says. "It could be a very powerful way, starting with one ad, of discovering an organization's entire operation."
Analyzing digital evidence
Once a human trafficking investigation is underway, the process of analyzing evidence to find probable cause for warrants, corroborate victim statements, and build a case for prosecution can be very time- and human-intensive. A case folder might hold thousands of pieces of digital evidence — a conglomeration of business or government records, financial transactions, cell phone data, emails, photographs, social media profiles, audio or video recordings, and more.
"The wide range of data types and formats can make this process challenging. It's hard to understand the interconnectivity of it all and what pieces of evidence hold answers," Daggett says. "What investigators want is a way to search and visualize this data with the same ease they would a Google search."
The system Daggett and his team are prototyping takes all the data contained in an evidence folder and indexes it, extracting the information inside each file into three major buckets — text, imagery, and audio data. These three types of data are then passed through specialized software processes to structure and enrich them, making them more useful for answering investigative questions.
The image processor, for example, can recognize and extract text, faces, and objects from images. The processor can then detect near-duplicate images in the evidence, making a link between an image that appears on a sex advertisement and the cell phone that took it, even for images that have been heavily edited or filtered. They are also working on facial recognition algorithms that can identify the unique faces within a set of evidence, model them, and find them elsewhere within the evidence files, under widely different lighting conditions and shooting angles. These techniques are useful for identifying additional victims and corroborating who knows whom.
Another enrichment capability allows investigators to find "signatures" of trafficking in the data. These signatures can be specific vernacular used, for example, in text messages between suspects that refer to illicit activity. Other trafficking signatures can be image-based, such as if the picture was taken in a hotel room, contains certain objects such as cash, or shows specific types of tattoos that traffickers use to brand their victims. A deep learning model the team is working on now is specifically aimed at recognizing crown tattoos associated with trafficking. “The challenge is to train the model to identify the signature across a wide range of crown tattoos that look very different from one another, and we’re seeing robust performance using this technique," Daggett says.
One particularly time-intensive process for investigators is analyzing thousands of jail phone calls from suspects who are awaiting trial, for indications of witness tampering or continuing illicit operations. The laboratory has been leveraging automated speech recognition technology to develop a tool to allow investigators to partially transcribe and analyze the content of these conversations. This capability gives law enforcement a general idea of what a call might be about, helping them triage ones that should be prioritized for a closer look.
Finally, the team has been developing a series of user-facing tools that use all of the processed data to enable investigators to search, discover, and visualize connections between evidentiary artifacts, explore geolocated information on a map, and automatically build evidence timelines.
"The prosecutors really like the timeline tool, as this is one of the most labor-intensive tasks when preparing for trial," Daggett says.
When users click on a document, a map pin, or a timeline entry, they see a data card that links back to the original artifacts. "These tools point you back to the primary evidence that cases can be built on," Daggett says. "A lot of this prototyping is picking what might be called low-hanging fruit, but it's really more like fruit already on the ground that is useful and just isn't getting picked up."
These data analytics are especially useful for helping law enforcement corroborate victim statements. Victims may be fearful or unwilling to provide a full picture of their experience to investigators, or may have difficulty recalling traumatic events. The more nontestimonial evidence that prosecutors can use to tell the story to a jury, the less pressure prosecutors must place on victims to help secure a conviction. There is greater awareness of the retraumatization that can occur during the investigation and trial processes.
"In the last decade, there has been a greater shift toward a victim-centered approach to investigations," says Hayley Reynolds, an assistant leader in the Human Health and Performance Systems Group and one of the early leaders of counter–human trafficking research at the laboratory. "There's a greater understanding that you can't bring the case to trial if a survivor's needs are not kept at the forefront."
Improving training for law enforcement, specifically in interacting with victims, was one of the team's recommendation in the trafficking technology roadmap. In this area, the laboratory has been developing a scenario-based training capability that uses game-play mechanics to inform law enforcement on aspects of trauma-informed victim interviewing. The training, called a “serious game,” helps officers experience how the approach they choose to gather information can build rapport and trust with a victim, or can reduce the feeling of safety and retraumatize victims. The capability is currently being evaluated by several organizations that specialize in victim-centered practitioner training. The laboratory recently published a journal on serious games built for multiple mission areas over the last decade.
Daggett says that prototyping in partnership with the state and federal investigators and prosecutors that these tools are intended for is critical. "Everything we do must be user-centered," he says. "We study their existing workflows and processes in detail, present ideas for technologies that could improve their work, and they rate what would have the most operational utility. It's our way to methodically figure out how to solve the most critical problems," Daggett says.
When Daggett gave congressional testimony in July, he spoke of the need to establish a unified, interagency entity focused on R&D for countering human trafficking. Since then, some progress has been made toward that goal — the federal government has now launched the Center for Countering Human Trafficking, the first integrated center to support investigations and intelligence analysis, outreach and training activities, and victim assistance.
Daggett hopes that future collaborations will enable technologists to apply their work toward capabilities needed most by the community. "Thoughtfully designed technology can empower the collective counter–human trafficking community and disrupt these illicit operations. Increased R&D holds the potential make a tremendous impact by accelerating justice and hastening the healing of victims."
A pendulum wave is a series of weights, each suspended by a string a little longer than the last. The weights swing in a wave, like a snake slithering through grass. It’s a work of kinetic art and a demonstration of trigonometry, and it can also be a magic wand for catalyzing interest in physics. This is exactly what happened at Roiti High School in Ferrara, Italy, back in 2018.
That’s when Ed Moriarty, a technical instructor with MIT’s Edgerton Center, helped Roiti teachers set up a club in which students design and construct elaborate machines like amphibious hovercrafts, dancing pianos, and water-powered rockets. This hands-on approach to learning is unlike the lectures, worksheets, and tests found in most Roiti classes. Students say it’s shifted their view of education, it’s helped close the gender gap in science, and it’s making them rethink their career plans.
The project started after Roiti physics and math teacher Cristina Trevissoi visited Moriarty at MIT while he was running “The Saturday Thing.” Every weekend (pre-pandemic), he opened up the center’s Student Project Lab for anyone who wanted to build stuff. A lot of high school students dropped by, but graduate students, retired people, and even 5-year-olds would jump in. Everyone worked together to create and have fun.
“I realized that concepts in physics aren’t just related to formulas,” says Trevissoi. “They’re also related to experiences.” She decided to start a similar project in Ferrara.
Trevissoi invited Moriarty to help her, so he headed off to Ferrara to run a one-week workshop along with five other current or past participants of The Saturday Thing. Although many of the 25 Roiti students they worked with had never used a screwdriver, the students were so motivated by the idea of building a pendulum wave that after a few days, they were working without help from their teachers or the MIT group. In fact, Moriarty was napping and the rest of the MIT crew was touring a Lamborgini factory when the students got the wave working.
The project lived on as an after-school club called Hands on Physics Education, or HoPE. Around 50 students participate each year, and their projects have included a harp with lasers instead of strings, a motorized skateboard, and a glove that plays music when the wearer bends their fingers. The glove attracted the attention of physiotherapy students from the University of Ferrara, who are interested in how the glove might be useful to people with disabilities.
Not everyone was a fan of HoPE. Roiti student Eleanora Signorini says, “When this project came into our school, it was a shock for everyone. Our school is pretty traditional, and a lot of the teachers don’t like changes.”
But HoPE is changing attitudes toward science, despite some resistance. Signorini, for example, says that before she participated, she was thinking of studying fashion management after high school, or maybe becoming a stylist. “Now,” she says, “I’m thinking about a career in biomedical engineering.” Many girls are poised to follow Signorini’s lead — only two out of the 25 students in the first workshop were girls, but this year the program is about equally split between boys and girls.
Some students who were already considering careers in science say that HoPE has helped them clarify their career goals. Jacopo Boaretto has always enjoyed computer science, and after working on the programming side of a flying machine, he says, “I think it’s really what I want to do with my life.”
“It makes you gain so much confidence in yourself,” says student Liz Sciannaca, who hopes to be accepted to a competitive veterinary program after high school.
The Saturday Thing’s approach is spreading, and a similar program recently started in Barcelona. Behind it all is one simple message: Physics isn’t just about books and tests. It’s about the magic in our world.
What if a cancer patient could receive life-saving cellular therapy within days of diagnosis rather than weeks? What if pharmaceutical researchers could bring new treatments to market in months rather than years?
Kytopen is significantly speeding up both discovery and delivery of engineered cell therapies with its transformative Flowfect platforms. The MIT spinout was co-founded by associate professor of mechanical engineering Cullen Buie and former MIT research scientist Paulo Garcia, now the company’s CEO.
Cellular engineering is the process of enhancing or providing new capabilities to living cells, and producing these enhanced cells at scale for therapeutic purposes. Groundbreaking therapies for infections, genetic diseases, and many cancers rely on engineered cells, but the process of creating them can be slow and costly.
Delivery of genetic material into cells can be done virally, an effective but often prohibitively expensive method. Non-viral delivery methods are more accessible, but traditionally there is a compromise between cell viability and delivery efficiency. And as Garcia and Buie learned during an intensive customer discovery bootcamp in 2015, the time-consuming, highly manual process of non-viral cell manufacturing is a source of frustration for everyone in the business of developing, delivering, and receiving engineered cellular therapies.
Armed with this understanding of market and patient needs, the Kytopen team set about developing the Flowfect platform to help speed the cell engineering process. After all, Buie says, “A lab therapy isn’t a therapy until it’s delivered to patients.”
Flowfect combines mechanical energy from fluid flow and electrical energy from pulses to make cell membranes more permeable, Garcia explains. This enables minimally disruptive introduction of genetic material — RNA, DNA, or CRISPR Cas RNP — into the cytoplasm or nucleus of the cells in a continuous process. Experiments have shown higher cell viability and delivery efficiency with Flowfect than with traditional transfection methods while retaining cell functionality for downstream therapeutic applications.
While pursuing his PhD at Virginia Tech, Garcia produced pioneering research in the use of electric fields to kill solid tumors in the brain. Meanwhile at MIT, Buie’s bioengineering lab was advancing research in microfluidics and experimental fluid mechanics. It was Garcia’s mentor in Virginia who connected the two, recommending Garcia as a postdoc in Buie’s lab.
Their complementary expertise and research interests soon laid the groundwork for what would become Kytopen’s Flowfect platforms. “Fast forward a couple of years to MIT,” Garcia says, “where we are using electric fields not to kill cells, but to deliver genetic material into cells in order to give them the capability of performing enhanced therapeutic functions.”
In the lab, the 96-well Flowfect Array is compatible with commercially available liquid handling systems, which makes the technology more accessible to smaller labs and startups. In a therapeutic setting, Flowfect Tx uses a peristaltic pump and cartridge system to deliver a continuous flow of engineered cells. Both devices use the same underlying technology, enabling a smooth transition from lab to clinic. This doesn’t just mean a shorter scale-up timeline, it eliminates scaling from the timeline entirely.
The strength of the Kytopen team isn’t rooted only in their engineering and entrepreneurial talents, but also in an authentic, active commitment to diversity and inclusion. Buie points to the story of Onesimus, an enslaved man in colonial Boston who introduced methods of inoculation — widely practiced throughout Africa and among enslaved communities — that helped mitigate a deadly smallpox outbreak. Even more lives would have been saved had more white Boston leaders been willing to learn from African medicine.
“Who knows how many cures have been lost due to racial inequalities,” Buie says. Collaborators and colleagues who represent a range of life experiences and backgrounds are not just at the table, but involved at all levels of planning and decision-making, helping to ensure that Kytopen won’t make similar mistakes.
Garcia also highlights the community-building aspects of The Engine, the early-stage venture firm conceived and propelled out of MIT, as key to Kytopen’s early successes. “We are extremely blessed to be one of the first seven companies to have received investment from The Engine,” he says. In addition to funding, The Engine offers access to shared facilities, mentorship, and relationship-building with other entrepreneurs and industry partners. “We have built a community that is supporting each other and helping accelerate progress toward meaningful impact, not just in the biosciences,” Garcia says, “I would encourage anyone in the tough tech ecosystem to apply.”
Kytopen is currently focused on the growing field of immunotherapy—an area that ties closely to Garcia’s personal research interests. But the technology has potential in many fields, including vaccine development. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Garcia notes, Kytopen scientist James Hemphill was able to identify parameters that achieve high transfection efficiency and high cell viability of primary B-cells, part of the body’s immune system.
Given the many challenges of delivering genetic material into these delicate cells, it’s no surprise that Kytopen has piqued the interest of potential collaborators around the world. “What we're looking for,” Garcia says, “are therapeutic partners or academic pioneers that have access to genetic material that can help accelerate the potential treatment of disease by leveraging our non-viral delivery methodology.”
Among Kytopen’s research goals in the coming year is to look closely at challenges in engineering CAR-T cells, a promising therapy for blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
CAR-T cells use DNA as the genetic payload and that DNA can be toxic to the cells. “If we had access to therapeutically relevant DNA, we would start by investigating that toxicity issue and see if, with our platform, we can generate impactful results with low concentrations of DNA,” Garcia says.
Garcia’s PhD research produced exciting results in minimally invasive treatments for brain tumors. “I look forward to the day in which Flowfect engineered cell therapies actually treat brain tumors in human patients,” he says, bringing together his biomedical engineering expertise and his entrepreneurial goals.
Enabling and accelerating new cures for cancer? Flowfect could be the tool that makes it happen and it’s exactly the kind of world-changing tech fostered at MIT through The Engine. “Yeah, just a minimal goal,” Garcia laughs, “I don’t want to aim too high.”
Two distinguished MIT chemical engineers, Arup K. Chakraborty and Paula Hammond, have been named Institute Professors, the highest honor bestowed upon MIT faculty members.
Hammond, who chairs MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, is renowned for her work in developing novel polymers and nanomaterials, while Chakraborty, the founding director of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), is a pioneer in applying computational techniques to challenges in the field of immunology, including vaccine development.
“At MIT, the distinction of Institute Professor designates the best of the best — and that is exactly how I would describe Paula Hammond and Arup Chakraborty,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif.
“Paula’s boldness and creativity as an engineer, her excellence as an educator, and her leadership on issues of equity and inclusion have long made her an MIT star,” Reif says. “Arup is perhaps best known as the visionary founding director of IMES and, of course, for his seminal contributions toward the development of a vaccine for HIV. I have always admired his extraordinary ability to explain complex issues — across a range of disciplines — with precision and clarity. Paula and Arup are great ambassadors for the Institute and our community. More than that, they are among MIT’s finest citizens.”
The appointments were announced today in an email to the faculty from Provost Martin Schmidt and chair of the faculty Rick Danheiser. With the addition of Hammond and Chakraborty, there are now 12 Institute Professors, as well as 10 Institute Professors Emeriti. The new appointments will take effect July 1.
Arup K. Chakraborty
Chakraborty, a chemical engineer by training, has wide-ranging research interests that span biology, chemistry, and physics. His work in immunology has led to discoveries pertinent to T cell activation, the nature of human T cell repertoires, and antibody and T cell responses to infection and vaccination. He has also contributed to the development of potential new vaccines for highly mutable pathogens such as HIV.
“Arup has made seminal contributions in creatively addressing complex interdisciplinary issues at the confluence of molecular engineering, theoretical immunology, and the physical sciences, resulting in — as just one of many examples — advances toward the development of a vaccine for HIV,” Schmidt and Danheiser wrote in their announcement.
At the University of California at Berkeley, where he began his faculty career, Chakraborty pioneered the integration of quantum chemical calculations with macroscopic approaches in chemical engineering. For over two decades, much of his work has focused on developing and applying approaches rooted in statistical physics to tackle questions in immunology.
“Over 20 years ago, I had a hunch, which proved to be correct, that the convergence of physics-based theoretical/computational approaches and experimental immunology would lead to a deep understanding of how the immune system functions, and this knowledge could be harnessed to advance health,” says Chakraborty, who joined the MIT faculty in 2005. “I have truly enjoyed working with basic and clinical immunologists, as well as physicists, chemists, and engineers.”
His work with immunologists led to discoveries such as how the immune synapse functions during T cell activation, how T cells respond to minute numbers of antigens, and why such responses are “on” or “off.” With MIT professor of physics Mehran Kardar, he provided new insights on how developmental processes shape a T cell repertoire that can mount pathogen-specific responses to a diverse and evolving world of microbes.
This work also led to new insights (with Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute) of why humans with certain genes can control HIV infections more efficiently while also being prone to autoimmune diseases. Chakraborty’s work on virus evolution and T cell and antibody responses to infection and vaccination (with professor of biological engineering Darrell Irvine and others) has led him to design novel immunogens for the T cell component of an HIV vaccine that is now in preclinical trials.
Chakraborty’s work with Institute Professor Phillip Sharp and professor of biology Richard Young led to the discovery that the transcription of genes key for maintaining cell identity (such as heart cell, cancer cell, etc.) is regulated by the formation of phase-separated bodies that are now called “transcriptional condensates.”
Chakraborty is the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering and a professor in the departments of physics and chemistry. One of his most significant strengths, according to the colleagues who nominated him, is his ability to foster collaborations across many different departments.
As the founding director of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, Chakraborty worked to enhance interdisciplinary collaborations between MIT researchers working in life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and medicine, as well as to establish ongoing partnerships with medical institutions in the Boston area.
“I felt that if I could help catalyze these pan-MIT efforts and help bring new faculty and students to MIT, it would be worth devoting significant effort toward this goal,” Chakraborty says. “I think that IMES enhances MIT’s efforts to bring disciplines together in an integrative way to advance health, and helps educate students who can work seamlessly across disciplines.”
He has also passed that interdisciplinary spirit on to the students and postdocs he mentors: Twenty-four of Chakraborty’s former trainees are now faculty members at various universities, in departments that include chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, and immunology. Chakraborty has also received five awards for classroom teaching, and he co-authored a recent book meant for a general audience called “Viruses, Pandemics, and Immunity.”
Chakraborty is a founding steering committee member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, whose mission is to harness the immune system to cure and prevent disease. He has served on the Defense Science Board of the U.S. Department of Defense since 2013, is a member of the board of governors of the Wellcome Trust, and serves on corporate scientific advisory boards and National Academy panels.
Chakraborty, who grew up in India, earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, then earned a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware. He was a postdoc at the University of Minnesota before he began his faculty career.
Being named an Institute Professor is the most meaningful recognition he has received, because it comes from his MIT colleagues, Chakraborty says.
“When I look at the list of past and present Institute Professors, I'm deeply humbled and I hope that I can live up to the trust that MIT has placed in me,” he says. “This recognition really belongs to my inspiring faculty colleagues, the students in my classrooms whose immense curiosity makes me a better teacher, and the students and postdocs in my research group who have taught me so much.”
Hammond, who is the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is renowned for her work developing polymers and nanomaterials for a variety of applications in drug delivery, noninvasive imaging, solar cells, and battery technology.
“Paula is a pioneer in nanotechnology research and has made substantial contributions to the science and engineering of macromolecular systems, with applications ranging from non-invasive imaging technologies for cancer diagnosis to sustainable solutions for battery technology,” Schmidt and Danheiser wrote in their announcement.
Early in her career, Hammond developed new techniques for building polymers with highly controlled architectures. This approach, known as layer-by-layer assembly, allows polymer layers with different properties to be laid down by alternately exposing a surface to positively and negatively charged particles.
Hammond has used layer-by-layer assembly to develop novel polymers for a variety of medical applications. Some of her polymer nanoparticles zoom in on tumors and release their cargo when they enter the tumor’s acidic environment, and she has also developed nanoparticles and thin polymer films that can carry multiple drugs to a specific site and release the drugs in a controlled fashion.
In her energy-related work, she has developed polymer films that dramatically improve the efficiency of methanol fuel cells. She is also working on batteries and solar cells that self-assemble with the help of genetically engineered viruses.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from MIT, Hammond spent two years working as a process engineer. During that time, she also earned a master’s degree at Georgia Tech and decided that she wanted to return to academia. She was drawn back to MIT to study for a PhD in part because of the unique drive and enthusiasm she had seen in the students and faculty there.
“There’s a sense at MIT that almost anything can happen if you bring the right people together,” she says. “It has always been exciting to me to work with others who are equally enthusiastic and completely gung-ho about exploring new areas and new ideas, and also about impacting the world with their science.”
After finishing her PhD in polymer science and technology, she was a postdoc at Harvard University before joining MIT’s faculty in 1995. She has been a full professor since 2006.
In their announcement, Schmidt and Danheiser also cited Hammond’s commitment to mentoring future generations of chemical engineers. She has mentored more than 60 graduate students and 60 postdocs during her time as a professor, and has hosted more than 100 undergraduate researchers in her lab. As a reflection of her excellence in teaching and mentoring, Hammond was awarded the MIT Committed to Caring Award in 2017-18, the Henry Hill Lecturer Award in 2002, and the Junior Bose Faculty Award in 2000.
Hammond cited her own mentors at MIT as an inspiration for her devotion to her students.
“I had wonderful mentoring experiences myself when I was a graduate student, and experiencing those kinds of mentors inspired me to give that back to other students,” she says. “I want to be someone who is able to think up new ideas that get me really excited about science, and then to work with young people who are developing their careers to make those ideas real. Even more inspiring is watching them formulate their own ideas in the process, and ultimately seeing them launch their own careers.”
Hammond has also chaired or co-chaired two committees that contributed landmark reports on gender and race at MIT: the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, and the Academic and Organizational Relationships Working Group. She is also a national leader outside of MIT, and has served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy Scientific Advisory Board, the NIH Center for Scientific Review Advisory Council, and the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
In 2019, Hammond was awarded the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Margaret H. Rousseau Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement by a Woman Chemical Engineer. She also received the ETH Zurich Chemical Engineering Medal in 2019 and the American Chemical Society Award in Applied Polymer Science in 2018.
In recognition of their achievements, both Hammond and Chakraborty have been elected to all three National Academies — Engineering, Science, and Medicine — making them two of only 25 people to hold that distinction.
“It’s a real honor to become an Institute Professor alongside Arup, who has always been such a universal contributor,” Hammond says. “I’ve always thought of this group as just amazing, incredible people because of the things that they’ve done. Each Institute Professor is at the cutting edge of their field and they’ve also done great things for MIT. When I look at the list of current and past Institute Professors, I am both extremely humbled and greatly inspired by their achievements and impact on MIT and the greater world. I’m very honored to be among this group.”
When you save an image to your smartphone, those data are written onto tiny transistors that are electrically switched on or off in a pattern of “bits” to represent and encode that image. Most transistors today are made from silicon, an element that scientists have managed to switch at ever-smaller scales, enabling billions of bits, and therefore large libraries of images and other files, to be packed onto a single memory chip.
But growing demand for data, and the means to store them, is driving scientists to search beyond silicon for materials that can push memory devices to higher densities, speeds, and security.
Now MIT physicists have shown preliminary evidence that data might be stored as faster, denser, and more secure bits made from antiferromagnets.
Antiferromagnetic, or AFM materials are the lesser-known cousins to ferromagnets, or conventional magnetic materials. Where the electrons in ferromagnets spin in synchrony — a property that allows a compass needle to point north, collectively following the Earth’s magnetic field — electrons in an antiferromagnet prefer the opposite spin to their neighbor, in an “antialignment” that effectively quenches magnetization even at the smallest scales.
The absence of net magnetization in an antiferromagnet makes it impervious to any external magnetic field. If they were made into memory devices, antiferromagnetic bits could protect any encoded data from being magnetically erased. They could also be made into smaller transistors and packed in greater numbers per chip than traditional silicon.
Now the MIT team has found that by doping extra electrons into an antiferromagnetic material, they can turn its collective antialigned arrangement on and off, in a controllable way. They found this magnetic transition is reversible, and sufficiently sharp, similar to switching a transistor’s state from 0 to 1. The results, published today in Physical Review Letters, demonstrate a potential new pathway to use antiferromagnets as a digital switch.
“An AFM memory could enable scaling up the data storage capacity of current devices — same volume, but more data,” says the study’s lead author Riccardo Comin, assistant professor of physics at MIT.
Comin’s MIT co-authors include lead author and graduate student Jiarui Li, along with Zhihai Zhu, Grace Zhang, and Da Zhou; as well as Roberg Green of the University of Saskatchewan; Zhen Zhang, Yifei Sun, and Shriram Ramanathan of Purdue University; Ronny Sutarto and Feizhou He of Canadian Light Source; and Jerzy Sadowski at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
To improve data storage, some researchers are looking to MRAM, or magnetoresistive RAM, a type of memory system that stores data as bits made from conventional magnetic materials. In principle, an MRAM device would be patterned with billions of magnetic bits. To encode data, the direction of a local magnetic domain within the device is flipped, similar to switching a transistor from 0 to 1.
MRAM systems could potentially read and write data faster than silicon-based devices and could run with less power. But they could also be vulnerable to external magnetic fields.
“The system as a whole follows a magnetic field like a sunflower follows the sun, which is why, if you take a magnetic data storage device and put it in a moderate magnetic field, information is completely erased,” Comin says.
Antiferromagnets, in contrast, are unaffected by external fields and could therefore be a more secure alternative to MRAM designs. An essential step toward encodable AFM bits is the ability to switch antiferromagnetism on and off. Researchers have found various ways to accomplish this, mostly by using electric current to switch a material from its orderly antialignment, to a random disorder of spins.
“With these approaches, switching is very fast,” says Li. “But the downside is, everytime you need a current to read or write, that requires a lot of energy per operation. When things get very small, the energy and heat generated by running currents are significant.”
Comin and his colleagues wondered whether they could achieve antiferromagnetic switching in a more efficient manner. In their new study, they work with neodymium nickelate, an antiferromagnetic oxide grown in the Ramanathan lab. This material exhibits nanodomains that consist of nickel atoms with an opposite spin to that of its neighbor, and held together by oxygen and neodymium atoms. The researchers had previously mapped the material’s fractal properties.
Since then, the researchers have looked to see if they could manipulate the material’s antiferromagnetism via doping — a process that intentionally introduces impurities in a material to alter its electronic properties. In their case, the researchers doped neodymium nickel oxide by stripping the material of its oxygen atoms.
When an oxygen atom is removed, it leaves behind two electrons, which are redistributed among the other nickel and oxygen atoms. The researchers wondered whether stripping away many oxygen atoms would result in a domino effect of disorder that would switch off the material’s orderly antialignment.
To test their theory, they grew 100-nanometer-thin films of neodymium nickel oxide and placed them in an oxygen-starved chamber, then heated the samples to temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius to encourage oxygen to escape from the films and into the chamber’s atmosphere.
As they removed progressively more oxygen, they studied the films using advanced magnetic X-ray crystallography techniques to determine whether the material’s magnetic structure was intact, implying that its atomic spins remained in their orderly antialignment, and therefore retained antiferomagnetism. If their data showed a lack of an ordered magnetic structure, it would be evidence that the material’s antiferromagnetism had switched off, due to sufficient doping.
Through their experiments, the researchers were able to switch off the material’s antiferromagnetism at a certain critical doping threshold. They could also restore antiferromagnetism by adding oxygen back into the material.
Now that the team has shown doping effectively switches AFM on and off, scientists might use more practical ways to dope similar materials. For instance, silicon-based transistors are switched using voltage-activated “gates,” where a small voltage is applied to a bit to alter its electrical conductivity. Comin says that antiferromagnetic bits could also be switched using suitable voltage gates, which would require less energy than other antiferromagnetic switching techniques.
“This could present an opportunity to develop a magnetic memory storage device that works similarly to silicon-based chips, with the added benefit that you can store information in AFM domains that are very robust and can be packed at high densities,” Comin says. “That’s key to addressing the challenges of a data-driven world.”
This research was supported, in part, by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. This research used resources of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and National Synchrotron Light Source II, both U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facilities located at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
With rapidly growing demands on health care systems, nurses typically spend 18 to 40 percent of their time performing direct patient care tasks, oftentimes for many patients and with little time to spare. Personal care robots that brush hair could provide substantial help and relief.
This may seem like a truly radical form of “self-care,” but crafty robots for things like shaving, hair-washing, and makeup are not new. In 2011, the tech giant Panasonic developed a robot that could wash, massage, and even blow-dry hair, explicitly designed to help support “safe and comfortable living of the elderly and people with limited mobility, while reducing the burden of caregivers.”
Hair-combing bots, however, proved to be less explored, leading scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Soft Math Lab at Harvard University to develop a robotic arm setup with a sensorized soft brush. The robot is equipped with a camera that helps it “see” and assess curliness, so it can plan a delicate and time-efficient brush-out.
The team's control strategy is adaptive to the degree of tangling in the fiber bunch, and they put “RoboWig” to the test by brushing wigs ranging from straight to very curly hair.
While the hardware setup of RoboWig looks futuristic and shiny, the underlying model of the hair fibers is what makes it tick. CSAIL postdoc Josie Hughes and her team opted to represent the entangled hair as sets of entwined double helices — think classic DNA strands. This level of granularity provided key insights into mathematical models and control systems for manipulating bundles of soft fibers, with a wide range of applications in the textile industry, animal care, and other fibrous systems.
“By developing a model of tangled fibers, we understand from a model-based perspective how hairs must be entangled: starting from the bottom and slowly working the way up to prevent 'jamming' of the fibers,” says Hughes, the lead author on a paper about RoboWig. “This is something everyone who has brushed hair has learned from experience, but is now something we can demonstrate through a model, and use to inform a robot.”
This task at hand is a tangled one. Every head of hair is different, and the intricate interplay between hairs when combing can easily lead to knots. What’s more, if the incorrect brushing strategy is used, the process can be very painful and damaging to the hair.
Previous research in the brushing domain has mostly been on the mechanical, dynamic, and visual properties of hair, as opposed to RoboWig’s refined focus on tangling and combing behavior.
To brush and manipulate the hair, the researchers added a soft-bristled sensorized brush to the robot arm, to allow forces during brushing to be measured. They combined this setup with something called a “closed-loop control system,” which takes feedback from an output and automatically performs an action without human intervention. This created “force feedback” from the brush — a control method that lets the user feel what the device is doing — so the length of the stroke could be optimized to take into account both the potential “pain,” and time taken to brush.
Initial tests preserved the human head — for now — and instead were done on a number of wigs of various hair styles and types. The model provided insight into the behaviors of the combing, related to the number of entanglements, and how those could be efficiently and effectively brushed out by choosing appropriate brushing lengths. For example, for curlier hair, the pain cost would dominate, so shorter brush lengths were optimal.
The team wants to eventually perform more realistic experiments on humans, to better understand the performance of the robot with respect to their experience of pain — a metric that is obviously highly subjective, as one person’s “two” could be another’s “eight.”
“To allow robots to extend their task-solving abilities to more complex tasks such as hair brushing, we need not only novel safe hardware, but also an understanding of the complex behavior of the soft hair and tangled fibers,” says Hughes. “In addition to hair brushing, the insights provided by our approach could be applied to brushing of fibers for textiles, or animal fibers.”
Hughes wrote the paper alongside Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences PhD students Thomas Bolton Plumb-Reyes and Nicholas Charles; Professor L. Mahadevan of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Department of Physics, and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; and MIT professor and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. They presented the paper virtually at the IEEE Conference on Soft Robotics (RoboSoft) earlier this month.
The project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation's Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program between MIT CSAIL and the Soft Math Lab at Harvard.
Stressful transitions are endemic to graduate school. Professors Alfredo Alexander-Katz and Caroline Jones have been honored as “Committed to Caring” for reliably supporting students, and for helping them to endure and even thrive amidst difficulty.
Alfredo Alexander-Katz: Fortifying students
Alexander-Katz is an associate professor in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where he leads the Laboratory for Soft Materials. The lab focuses on self-assembly and the dynamics of biological soft materials using a combination of analytical theory, simulations, and experiments.
In particular, the Alexander-Katz lab is working to design three dimensional self-assembled materials and new polymers for applications in energy and biological systems.
Physical distancing, social connectedness
When students are facing challenges, Alexander-Katz is understanding and generous with his time. In one instance, he worked weekly with a group of students who needed to retake their qualifying exams, helping them build confidence, solidify concepts, and improve their public speaking skills.
In their nomination letter, a student mentions a harrowing period in their life, as their mother went through terminal cancer. Alexander-Katz was incredibly supportive throughout this time and helped ensure the student could smoothly navigate graduate school while based with their mother. His active empathy for students aligns with a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the Committed to Caring program.
New group members have joined in the midst of the pandemic; they feel both included and celebrated by Alexander-Katz and other labmates. Writes one advisee, “I work remotely all the time but I feel I belong to the group,” which is “very supportive, friendly, and willing to help each other.” Alexander-Katz writes that what fulfills him is seeing his students succeed.
The pandemic has taken a significant toll on many students. When one student had a Covid-19 scare, Alexander-Katz “was constantly checking in … offering to drop off food if needed, and encouraging [the student] to relax and not worry” about work, acknowledging the stress of waiting on a test. This encouragement and support bolstered the student and helped ease their fear and uncertainty. Fortunately, the test was negative.
Alexander-Katz advocates for students at times when they are not fully able to advocate for themselves. His advisees emphasize how comfortable they are talking openly about their mental health with him. Writes one advisee, “During the past year in particular, [Alexander-Katz] has even gently and compassionately pointed out that I seem more stressed … and it has helped me get support.”
Above all, Alexander-Katz prioritizes the well-being of his students. Daily, writes one nominator, he "encourages us to get enough rest, exercise, and healthy [meals] to be productive at our jobs and happy in our lives."
Caroline Jones: Adaptive expectations
Caroline Jones is a professor in the History, Theory, Criticism (HTC) section of MIT's Department of Architecture. Jones studies modern and contemporary art, focusing on its technological modes of production, distribution, and reception.
Before completing her PhD at Stanford University, Jones curated exhibits and worked in museum administration at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard University Art Museums.
Dedicating time, optimizing time
Jones is thoughtful with her time and attention. HTC students can write papers that are 50 to 75 pages long. Nevertheless, Jones “responds to every draft with keen remarks throughout.” Her “infectious enthusiasm and rigor” inspire graduate students in their commitment to, and interest in, their studies.
When work and life blur together — amplified for many during the pandemic — both effective working time and true breaks can be elusive. Jones tries to guide students in separating the two by offering her approach: “recognize when you work best and optimize that time, without dithering.” This allows students to take clear breaks “to be in nature or with family, which is crucial to your well-being.”
Adaptability is essential in the PhD process, for both students and faculty. In considering how dissertations have shifted over the course of the pandemic, Jones encourages students to "keep the deadline, but lower the expectation.” Being understanding and realistic about what is achievable is crucial “when your archive just [closed] or you can’t leave your apartment.” As Jones regularly reminds students: “The only good dissertation is a done dissertation.”
Transparency with hurdles
Being a transparent role model is critical, according to Jones. She is open about the resources and people that have supported her throughout her career as well as the challenges she has encountered. Jones works to introduce women and first-generation students to some of the unspoken norms of academia, helping them learn how to navigate uncomfortable and hostile questions, publish articles, and understand what to expect during academic job searches. Teaching the informal rules of academia is a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the Committed to Caring program.
In graduate school, Jones faced two concurrent serious stressors: the novelty and challenge of being a young parent while simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy. For Jones, “dissertation work became a place of quiet solace and joy” and she reflects on the intentionality with which she crafted breaks with family, finding “time to cherish each other in the midst of the chaos.”
Many graduate students also face significant personal trials over the course of their studies. One nominator reflects with gratitude on support from Jones after a stunning loss: “Dr. Jones rallied the entire faculty and staff and my family, and I received more flowers and cards from MIT than any other source (even close family!).” For Jones, if students experience “a loss or a blow, simple compassion and listening are crucial.”
More on Committed to Caring (C2C)
The Committed to Caring (C2C) program is an initiative of the Office of Graduate Education and contributes to its mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.”
Since 2014, C2C has invited graduate students from across MIT’s campus to nominate professors whom they believe to be outstanding mentors. Selection criteria for the honor include the scope and reach of advisor impact on graduate students’ experience, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The most recent outgrowth in 2019 took the form of a Faculty Peer Mentorship Program, in which C2C faculty act as peer mentors to incoming MIT professors. The program provides one-to-one matches with the goal of fostering strong mentorship practices and providing a network of support.
By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage excellent advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus.
For all animals, eliminating some cells is a necessary part of embryonic development. Living cells are also naturally sloughed off in mature tissues; for example, the lining of the intestine turns over every few days.
One way that organisms get rid of unneeded cells is through a process called extrusion, which allows cells to be squeezed out of a layer of tissue without disrupting the layer of cells left behind. MIT biologists have now discovered that this process is triggered when cells are unable to replicate their DNA during cell division.
The researchers discovered this mechanism in the worm C. elegans, and they showed that the same process can be driven by mammalian cells; they believe extrusion may serve as a way for the body to eliminate cancerous or precancerous cells.
“Cell extrusion is a mechanism of cell elimination used by organisms as diverse as sponges, insects, and humans,” says H. Robert Horvitz, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology at MIT, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the senior author of the study. “The discovery that extrusion is driven by a failure in DNA replication was unexpected and offers a new way to think about and possibly intervene in certain diseases, particularly cancer.”
MIT postdoc Vivek Dwivedi is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in Nature. Other authors of the paper are King’s College London research fellow Carlos Pardo-Pastor, MIT research specialist Rita Droste, MIT postdoc Ji Na Kong, MIT graduate student Nolan Tucker, Novartis scientist and former MIT postdoc Daniel Denning, and King’s College London professor of biology Jody Rosenblatt.
Stuck in the cell cycle
In the 1980s, Horvitz was one of the first scientists to analyze a type of programmed cell suicide called apoptosis, which organisms use to eliminate cells that are no longer needed. He made his discoveries using C. elegans, a tiny nematode that contains exactly 959 cells. The developmental lineage of each cell is known, and embryonic development follows the same pattern every time. Throughout this developmental process, 1,090 cells are generated, and 131 cells undergo programmed cell suicide by apoptosis.
Horvitz’s lab later showed that if the worms were genetically mutated so that they could not eliminate cells by apoptosis, a few of those 131 cells would instead be eliminated by cell extrusion, which appears to be able to serve as a backup mechanism to apoptosis. How this extrusion process gets triggered, however, remained a mystery.
To unravel this mystery, Dwivedi performed a large-scale screen of more than 11,000 C. elegans genes. One by one, he and his colleagues knocked down the expression of each gene in worms that could not perform apoptosis. This screen allowed them to identify genes that are critical for turning on cell extrusion during development.
To the researchers’ surprise, many of the genes that turned up as necessary for extrusion were involved in the cell division cycle. These genes were primarily active during first steps of the cell cycle, which involve initiating the cell division cycle and copying the cell’s DNA.
Further experiments revealed that cells that are eventually extruded do initially enter the cell cycle and begin to replicate their DNA. However, they appear to get stuck in this phase, leading them to be extruded.
Most of the cells that end up getting extruded are unusually small, and are produced from an unequal cell division that results in one large daughter cell and one much smaller one. The researchers showed that if they interfered with the genes that control this process, so that the two daughter cells were closer to the same size, the cells that normally would have been extruded were able to successfully complete the cell cycle and were not extruded.
The researchers also showed that the failure of the very small cells to complete the cell cycle stems from a shortage of the proteins and DNA building blocks needed to copy DNA. Among other key proteins, the cells likely don’t have enough of an enzyme called LRR-1, which is critical for DNA replication. When DNA replication stalls, proteins that are responsible for detecting replication stress quickly halt cell division by inactivating a protein called CDK1. CDK1 also controls cell adhesion, so the researchers hypothesize that when CDK1 is turned off, cells lose their stickiness and detach, leading to extrusion.
Horvitz’s lab then teamed up with researchers at King’s College London, led by Rosenblatt, to investigate whether the same mechanism might be used by mammalian cells. In mammals, cell extrusion plays an important role in replacing the lining of the intestines, lungs, and other organs.
The researchers used a chemical called hydroxyurea to induce DNA replication stress in canine kidney cells grown in cell culture. The treatment quadrupled the rate of extrusion, and the researchers found that the extruded cells made it into the phase of the cell cycle where DNA is replicated before being extruded. They also showed that in mammalian cells, the well-known cancer suppressor p53 is involved in initiating extrusion of cells experiencing replication stress.
That suggests that in addition to its other cancer-protective roles, p53 may help to eliminate cancerous or precancerous cells by forcing them to extrude, Dwivedi says.
“Replication stress is one of the characteristic features of cells that are precancerous or cancerous. And what this finding suggests is that the extrusion of cells that are experiencing replication stress is potentially a tumor suppressor mechanism,” he says.
The fact that cell extrusion is seen in so many animals, from sponges to mammals, led the researchers to hypothesize that it may have evolved as a very early form of cell elimination that was later supplanted by programmed cell suicide involving apoptosis.
“This cell elimination mechanism depends only on the cell cycle,” Dwivedi says. “It doesn’t require any specialized machinery like that needed for apoptosis to eliminate these cells, so what we’ve proposed is that this could be a primordial form of cell elimination. This means it may have been one of the first ways of cell elimination to come into existence, because it depends on the same process that an organism uses to generate many more cells.”
Dwivedi, who earned his PhD at MIT, was a Khorana scholar before entering MIT for graduate school. This research was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health.
Growing up in coastal Connecticut, Flora Klise’s childhood was shaped by water. She spent summers taking sailing lessons and working at a local marina. But it wasn’t until she stood next to a well in rural Tanzania that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in water innovation.
The summer before her junior year, Klise traveled to Tanzania alongside a team of MIT D-Lab students to work on the Okoa Project, an ambulance trailer that can be attached to motorcycles. While visiting one particular rural village, she noticed dozens of young children carrying large buckets and taking turns jumping up and down on a pump to get water from the well. At the kids’ urging, Klise started pumping water herself.
After five exhausting minutes pumping water, Klise rethought her career aspirations.
“It got me really thinking about water accessibility from an engineer’s perspective, and how the way people get water is so different in every part of the world,” says Klise, currently a senior studying mechanical engineering. “There’s a whole area of innovation in water accessibility — from filtering bacteria and viruses to figuring out how to get water to a house or rigging a device that makes pumping easier.”
Up until that point, Klise had focused on medical devices throughout her undergraduate experience at MIT. Concerned that it was too late to pivot from a career path in medical devices to one in water research, she sought the advice of her advisor, Warren Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Seering encouraged Klise to follow her passion and not feel boxed in by her previous academic focus.
“Professor Seering asked, ‘Are you having fun exploring water research?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ To which he then said ‘See, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a great job,’” adds Klise. “Everyone needs an advisor who encourages them like that.”
In addition to a supportive advisor, Klise found freedom in the flexibility a mechanical engineering degree provides.
“Mechanical engineering is an area where you can get the technical skills you need to be able to do pretty much whatever you want,” she says. “You’re not limited by anything because it’s so broad, so it gives you the freedom to choose what you are actually passionate about, even later on in your undergraduate experience.”
With a renewed focus on water accessibility, Klise sought a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) project on water research. She quickly found an opportunity in the lab of John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering. Her project was to focus on desalinating brackish groundwater for agricultural use.
As a relative novice to water research, Klise had some catching up to do. Yvana Ahdab SM '17, PhD '21, a research assistant in the Lienhard lab, provided Klise with relevant literature to help her fill in the gaps.
“Working with Flora was seamless. She possesses the intellectual curiosity and drive central to the scientific research process, which often involves a series of setbacks before any success is realized,” says Ahdab.
Together, they worked on testing monovalent selective electrodialysis for the treatment of brackish groundwater. This process only filters harmful ions, keeping the ions that promote plant growth in the water. As a result, farmers save money by not needing to add as much fertilizer to their water, offering them a cost-effective, sustainable desalination alternative.
“The target application is to use this in agricultural irrigation systems. We’ve developed a cost model demonstrating the amount of money saved by not using as much fertilizer,” says Klise.
Last spring, before campus shut down due to the pandemic, Klise spent most of her time in the wet lab testing the flow rate of their system. After leaving campus due to lockdown, her focus shifted to a new project developing a techno-economic model for the pretreatment of groundwater. This project turned into Klise’s senior thesis.
Using a database of 28,000 brackish groundwater samples from the U.S. Geological Survey, Klise has been writing a MATLAB script to demonstrate how much money could be saved by pretreating groundwater with lime.
Klise has also pursued her passion for water research outside the lab. In the mechanical engineering and D-Lab class 2.729/EC.729 (Design for Scale), she worked on the FairCap project to develop a device that could filter a bucket of water, rather than individual glasses. Last fall, she worked as a student researcher for MIT Sea Grant, helping develop an autonomous aquaculture robot for oyster farming. As a member of MIT Water, Klise was active in planning Water Night 2021, held on April 22.
“Water Club is an amazing community at MIT of people passionate about water issues. Water Night is a real celebration of water that’s engaging for all ages,” she says.
After graduating in June, Klise will be joining one of the largest water innovation companies in the world, Xylem. Through Xylem’s two-year Engineering Leadership Development Program, Klise will rotate between three different positions across the company to get a sampling of different areas of water innovation she can pursue throughout her career.
“My main career motivation is the impact of water research and technology. Every year, the need for fresh accessible water is increasing, so there is really a need for innovation in that area,” says Klise.
While only a fraction of MIT students may end up pursuing careers in water innovation, according to Klise water is something that affects everyone on campus, whether they realize it or not.
“I think every student at MIT is connected to water and the ocean just from living in Cambridge or Boston. It’s inevitable that you are going to see things, smell things, and notice things related to water. I think that helps people rethink their relationship with water and how it impacts their own lives,” she adds.
On June 10 of last year, MIT’s Department of Biology took the day to engage in open conversations about racial bias, diversity, and inclusion in support of the #ShutDownSTEM national initiative. These discussions spurred students, faculty, and staff to come together and form their own initiative. Known as the Community College Partnership, this program hopes to develop strong ties with local community colleges that are within commuting distance and serve diverse, nontraditional students — in order to increase access to MIT’s on-site and online resources.
The department’s existing outreach programs — including the MIT Summer Research Program in Biology (MSRP-Bio), Quantitative Methods Workshop (QMW), and LEAH Knox Scholars Program — engage local high school students and non-MIT undergraduates from historically underrepresented groups in science. However, as of last year, the department had no research training opportunities geared toward community college students. The Community College Partnership is filling this gap by organizing virtual career panels, workshops, and seminars for students from Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College. In doing so, the initiative aims to encourage community college students from the Boston area to participate in additional MIT research opportunities, such as MSRP-Bio and QMW. Graduate student Sheena Vasquez, who spearheaded this initiative, and Mandana Sassanfar, the department’s director of outreach, sat down to discuss building a new program from scratch and how to plan for long-term success.
Q: What was your impetus for creating a program geared toward community college outreach?
Vasquez: I consider community college outreach very important for personal reasons. Back when I was applying to college, I couldn’t afford to attend a traditional four-year institution. I was also unsure what I wanted to major in, and I needed to stay close to home to take care of my family. I attended Georgia Perimeter College — a two-year community college — before transferring to the University of Georgia to finish my bachelor's degree. I was able to participate in programs funded by the National Science Foundation, which led me to MIT for several summers as part of MSRP-Bio.
Looking back, I don't think I would be a biology graduate student today if I hadn't attended a community college. It also allowed me to see firsthand the talent, drive, and diversity at community colleges. And yet, at times these students are overlooked and underestimated by the general public. After our #ShutDownSTEM event last summer, it seemed like an ideal time to start engaging local community colleges in MIT’s biology research.
Sassanfar: I agree. It was by admitting bright students like Sheena to programs like MSRP that I realized the lack of initiatives aimed at community colleges. #ShutDownSTEM generated the energy and interest we needed to finally catalyze something like this. It was the missing link.
Q: What are the goals of the program, and how will you measure success?
Sassanfar: Our goals are twofold. First, we want to ensure that these students go far and reach their career goals — and possibly discover new goals that they didn’t realize were possible. Second, we hope to educate our own MIT community about the community college population, and build long-lasting relationships. This way, everyone will benefit.
Vasquez: We’ll be able to gauge the strength of these budding relationships by tracking how many students go on to participate in MSRP-Bio, QMW, and other rigorous research opportunities after attending our events. We also hope to create a team of graduate student mentors who can offer their expertise in grant writing and applying to graduate or other post-secondary schools.
Q: What challenges have you had to overcome in order to launch an outreach program aimed at a new community? How have you surmounted these difficulties?
Vasquez: The first challenge we faced was figuring out which community colleges to reach out to, and establishing points of contact there. We connected with Bunker Hill Community College first because of the diversity of students that attend. In addition, they had an active diversity, equity, and inclusion office, but no formal relationship with MIT Biology yet.
The next challenge was figuring out how to teach lab techniques virtually during our four-day workshop. We experimented with several different platforms before settling on Zoom. We also ended up sharing video recordings of ourselves in lab, and included tutorials on open-source software such as SnapGene and PyMOL — which allowed students to try their hand at procedures like DNA cloning, PCR, and interpreting protein structures. We asked everyone to fill out a survey at the very end, and 82 percent said they enjoyed the workshop and gained new skills. Ninety-six percent said they’d be interested in learning more about applying to graduate school, and some students have even reached out to us individually to continue the discussion.
Sassanfar: As Sheena alluded to, we’ve learned over the years that the secret to success is finding at least one faculty member or administrator at the other institution who is equally passionate about forming a partnership. In the case of Roxbury Community College, it took one meeting with a handful of faculty members to identify a professor who was willing to help make things happen. We do our part and they do their part; there has to be seamless communication.
My last piece of advice is that it’s vital for an outreach initiative to be focused. Go for depth, not breadth. It would be impossible to engage all community colleges in the greater Boston area. Instead, we are working hard to form strong relationships with a few in particular. That’s essential to creating something that’s long-lasting.
On Thursday, May 6 and Friday, May 7, the AI Policy Forum — a global effort convened by researchers from MIT — will present their initial policy recommendations aimed at managing the effects of artificial intelligence and building AI systems that better reflect society’s values. Recognizing that there is unlikely to be any singular national AI policy, but rather public policies for the distinct ways in which we encounter AI in our lives, forum leaders will preview their preliminary findings and policy recommendations in three key areas: finance, mobility, and health care.
The inaugural AI Policy Forum Symposium, a virtual event hosted by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, will bring together AI and public policy leaders, government officials from around the world, regulators, and advocates to investigate some of the pressing questions posed by AI in our economies and societies. The symposium’s program will feature remarks from public policymakers helping shape governments’ approaches to AI; state and federal regulators on the front lines of these issues; designers of self-driving cars and cancer-diagnosing algorithms; faculty examining the systems used in emerging finance companies and associated concerns; and researchers pushing the boundaries of AI.
AI Policy Forum (AIPF) Symposium
- Martin A. Schmidt, MIT provost
- Daniel Huttenlocher, AIPF chair and dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
- Regina Barzilay, MIT School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of AI and Health; AI faculty lead of the Jameel Clinic at MIT
- Daniel Weitzner, founding director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative; former U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy
- Luis Videgaray, senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management; former foreign minister and minister of finance of Mexico
- Aleksander Madry, professor of computer science in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
- R. David Edelman, director of public policy for the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative; former special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama for economic and technology policy
- Julie Shah, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics; associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
- Andrew Lo, professor of finance in the MIT Sloan School of Management
Guest speakers and participants:
- Julie Bishop, chancellor of the Australian National University; former minister of foreign affairs and member of the Parliament of Australia
- Andrew Wyckoff, director for science, technology and innovation at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
- Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard Law School; former dean of the Harvard Law School
- Alejandro Poiré, dean of the School of Public Policy at Monterrey Tec; former secretary of the interior of Mexico
- Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford
- Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation at the Texas Department of Transportation
- Nat Beuse, vice president of security at Aurora; former head safety regulator for autonomous vehicles at the U.S. Department of Transportation
- Laura Major, chief technology officer of Motional
- Manuela Veloso, head of AI research at JP Morgan Chase
- Stephanie Lee, managing director of BlackRock Systematic Active Equities Emerging Markets
Thursday and Friday, May 6 and 7
Anjali Nambrath is about to graduate from MIT with a double major in physics and mathematics, but her big project this winter didn’t center on neutrinos, the subject of her undergraduate thesis. Instead, she worked on translating "Hurlevents," a Quebecois play by Fanny Britt, from French into English.
“I just fell in love with the play,” says Nambrath, who has also earned a minor in French. She started the translation project during class 21M.716 (Play Translation and Cultural Transmission), a class taught by professor of theater Claire Conceison. “It’s a play that entertains and makes you laugh, but in the end leaves you with serious issues to mull over. I think it’s nice when humor is used to gently introduce you to something.”
Nambrath, who has been involved with the Shakespeare Ensemble throughout her time at MIT, says her studies in the Institute's arts and humanities fields are as important for her future as her training in the science fields. “I’ve learned just how special it can be to swap out the lenses with which you view the world,” she says.
Studying French has been particularly valuable, she notes, because the approach of the Global Languages program enabled her to explore a wide range of other subjects as a part of learning French. “I’ve read literature, learned about history, and watched great films. Everything I’m interested in has been bundled into this program. It’s been a window into all these other fields,” she says.
Pushing the boundaries of knowledge
Nambrath’s goal is to become a practicing physicist in an academic institution, and she says learning to see the world through a wide variety of lenses is “crucial” to success in her field. In physics, she explains, “the whole point is to find new ways of looking at the world. I think it’s super important as a human being to push the boundaries of knowledge, to find out more.”
To that end, Nambrath has been an active participant in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Through the UROPs, she had the chance to work on an experimental program that is searching for hypothetical elementary particles called axions, for example, and is currently exploring a new way to look at neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle. Her undergraduate thesis, based on research conducted in the lab of Assistant Professor Or Hen, applies data gained from electrons to facilitate an analysis of neutrino behavior.
Very cool: from the Fermilab to teaching quantum to kids
The project with Hen gave Nambrath the opportunity to work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois — a memorable highlight, but only one of several during her time at MIT. “A lot of the research I’ve done has been very cool,” Nambrath says. “At MIT, you can just show up and really dive in. I’ve done some hardware, some computational analysis, some theory. It’s fun to really dip your toes into all of that.”
Nambrath is the current president of the MIT Society of Physics Students, and also enjoys sharing her love of science through the MIT Educational Studies Program, which over the past few years has given her the opportunity to teach a range of topics from black holes to the history of science to middle and high school students. “I ran a course on quantum computing, and the kids would ask all sorts of crazy questions,” she says. “It’s nice to be confronted with that enthusiasm. Sometimes when you’re doing problem sets week after week, you can think: Why am I doing this? When you’re teaching, you’re reminded of why what you’re doing is cool.”
The passionate people of MIT
This excitement about research and learning is exactly what first attracted Nambrath to MIT. “One of the greatest things about MIT for me is, no matter what people are doing, they are so passionate about it,” she says.
Translating “Hurlevents” — which is loosely based on Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights” — into English turned out to be one of those passions for Nambrath. The project began as a class assignment that called for students to translate a scene from a play that had never been translated before.
“A colleague of Professor Conceison’s sent me this Quebecois play and I was hooked by the language and wit and its scope,” says Nambrath, who later chose to finish translating the entire play as an independent project. She worked with both Conceison and Catherine Clark, an associate professor of French Studies, to complete the project. And now — Le voilà! — a staged reading of the play (by professional actors) recently took place online on April 30.
All of these things
“I didn’t realize how crucial translation work is until I did it,” says Nambrath, noting that working on the project has given her insight into the French-speaking people of Quebec, Canada. “Quebec is just north of the U.S. border, but few here in the States seem to understand much about the culture,” she says. During the translation project, she became aware of the tensions that emerge between the province’s Francophone community and the broader, English-speaking Canada. “There is a very complex play of identities,” she notes, “and some really interesting politics surrounding language.”
Soon Nambrath will head off to graduate school in particle physics at the University of California at Berkeley, where she plans to continue looking at the world through the many lenses she has discovered during her MIT education. “I love physics; understanding what’s fundamentally going on in the universe is an ambitious, humbling task, and exciting endeavor to be part of. But if my life were only physics, I would feel very limited,” she says. “French and theater, literature, history, and film — all of these things keep me whole.”
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand
Senior writer: Kathryn O'Neill
In work that could someday turn cell phones into sensors capable of detecting viruses and other minuscule objects, MIT researchers have built a powerful nanoscale flashlight on a chip.
Their approach to designing the tiny light beam on a chip could also be used to create a variety of other nano flashlights with different beam characteristics for different applications. Think of a wide spotlight versus a beam of light focused on a single point.
For many decades, scientists have used light to identify a material by observing how that light interacts with the material. They do so by essentially shining a beam of light on the material, then analyzing that light after it passes through the material. Because all materials interact with light differently, an analysis of the light that passes through the material provides a kind of “fingerprint” for that material. Imagine doing this for several colors — i.e., several wavelengths of light — and capturing the interaction of light with the material for each color. That would lead to a fingerprint that is even more detailed.
Most instruments for doing this, known as spectrometers, are relatively large. Making them much smaller would have a number of advantages. For example, they could be portable and have additional applications (imagine a futuristic cell phone loaded with a self-contained sensor for a specific gas). However, while researchers have made great strides toward miniaturizing the sensor for detecting and analyzing the light that has passed through a given material, a miniaturized and appropriately shaped light beam—or flashlight—remains a challenge. Today that light beam is most often provided by macroscale equipment like a laser system that is not built into the chip itself as the sensors are.
Enter the MIT work. In two recent papers in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers describe not only their approach for designing on-chip flashlights with a variety of beam characteristics, they also report building and successfully testing a prototype. Importantly, they created the device using existing fabrication technologies familiar to the microelectronics industry, so they are confident that the approach could be deployable at a mass scale with the lower cost that implies.
Overall, this could enable industry to create a complete sensor on a chip with both light source and detector. As a result, the work represents a significant advance in the use of silicon photonics for the manipulation of light waves on microchips for sensor applications.
“Silicon photonics has so much potential to improve and miniaturize the existing bench-scale biosensing schemes. We just need smarter design strategies to tap its full potential. This work shows one such approach,” says PhD candidate Robin Singh SM ’18, who is lead author of both papers.
“This work is significant, and represents a new paradigm of photonic device design, enabling enhancements in the manipulation of optical beams,” says Dawn Tan, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design who was not involved in the research.
The senior coauthors on the first paper are Anuradha “Anu” Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory, Microphotonics Center, and Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing; and Brian W. Anthony, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Singh’s coauthors on the second paper are Agarwal; Anthony; Yuqi Nie, now at Princeton University; and Mingye Gao, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
How they did it
Singh and colleagues created their overall design using multiple computer modeling tools. These included conventional approaches based on the physics involved in the propagation and manipulation of light, and more cutting-edge machine-learning techniques in which the computer is taught to predict potential solutions using huge amounts of data. “If we show the computer many examples of nano flashlights, it can learn how to make better flashlights,” says Anthony. Ultimately, “we can then tell the computer the pattern of light that we want, and it will tell us what the design of the flashlight needs to be.”
All of these modeling tools have advantages and disadvantages; together they resulted in a final, optimal design that can be adapted to create flashlights with different kinds of light beams.
The researchers went on to use that design to create a specific flashlight with a collimated beam, or one in which the rays of light are perfectly parallel to each other. Collimated beams are key to some types of sensors. The overall flashlight that the researchers made involved some 500 rectangular nanoscale structures of different dimensions that the team’s modeling predicted would enable a collimated beam. Nanostructures of different dimensions would lead to different kinds of beams that in turn are key to other applications.
The tiny flashlight with a collimated beam worked. Not only that, it provided a beam that was five times more powerful than is possible with conventional structures. That’s partly because “being able to control the light better means that less is scattered and lost,” says Agarwal.
Singh describes the excitement he felt upon creating that first flashlight. “It was great to see through a microscope what I had designed on a computer. Then we tested it, and it worked!”
This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Skoltech Initiative.
Additional MIT facilities and departments that made this work possible are the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the Materials Research Laboratory, the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and MIT.nano.
“The challenge for humanity now is how to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. To do that, we need a supercharged decade of energy innovation,” said Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and a former U.S. secretary of energy, as he opened the MIT Forefront virtual event on April 21. “But we also need practical visionaries, in every economic sector, to develop new business models that allow them to remain profitable while achieving the zero-carbon emissions.”
The event, “Addressing Climate and Sustainability through Technology, Policy, and Business Models,” was the third in the MIT Forefront series, which invites top minds from the worlds of science, industry, and policy to propose bold new answers to urgent global problems. Moniz moderated the event, and more than 12,000 people tuned in online.
MIT and other universities play an important role in preparing the world’s best minds to take on big climate challenges and develop the technology needed to advance sustainability efforts, a point illustrated in the main session with a video about Via Separations, a company supported by MIT’s The Engine. Co-founded by Shreya Dave ’09, SM ’12, PhD ’16, Via Separations customizes filtration technology to reduce waste and save money across multiple industries. “By next year, we are going to be eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from our customers’ facilities,” Dave said.
Via Separations is one of many innovative companies born of MIT’s energy and climate initiatives — the work of which, as the panel went on to discuss, is critical to achieving net-zero emissions and deploying successful environmental sustainability efforts. As Moniz put it, the company embodies “the spirit of science and technology in action for the good of humankind” and exemplifies how universities and businesses, as well as technology and policy, must work together to make the best environmental choices.
How businesses confront climate change
Innovation in sustainable practices can be met with substantial challenges when proposed or applied to business models, particularly on the policy side, the panelists noted. But they shared some key ways that their respective organizations have employed current technologies and the challenges they face in reaching their sustainability goals. Despite each business’s different products and services, a common thread of needing new technologies to achieve their sustainability goals emerged.
Although 2050 is the long-term goal for net-zero emissions put forth by the Paris Agreement, the businesses represented by the panelists are thinking about the shorter term. “IBM has committed to net-zero emissions by 2030 ― without carbon offsets,” said Arvind Krishna, chairman and chief executive officer of IBM. “We believe that some carbon taxes would be a good policy tool. But policy alone is insufficient. We need advanced technological tools to reach our goal.”
Jeff Wilke SM ’93, who retired as Amazon’s chief executive officer of Worldwide Consumer in February 2021, outlined a number of initiatives that the online retail giant is undertaking to curb emissions. Transportation is one of their biggest hurdles to reaching zero emissions, leading to a significant investment in Class 8 electric trucks. “Another objective is to remove the need for plane shipments by getting inventory closer to urban areas, and that has been happening steadily over the years,” he said.
Jim Fitterling, chair and chief executive officer of Dow, explained that Dow has reduced its carbon emissions by 15 percent in the past decade and is poised to reduce it further in the next. Future goals include working toward electrifying ethylene production. “If we can electrify that, it will allow us to make major strides toward carbon-dioxide reduction,” he said. “But we need more reliable and stable power to get to that point.”
Collaboration is key to advancing climate solutions
Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was recently appointed by U.S. President Joe Biden as co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, stressed that MIT innovators and industry leaders must work together to implement climate solutions.
“Innovation is a team sport,” said Zuber, who is also the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “Even if MIT researchers make a huge discovery, deploying it requires cooperation on a policy level and often industry support. Policymakers need to solve problems and seize opportunities in ways that are popular. It’s not just solving technical problems ― there is a human behavior component.”
But businesses, Zuber said, can play a huge role in advancing innovation. “If a company becomes convinced of the potential of a new technology, they can be the best advocates with policymakers,” she said.
The question of “sustainability vs. shareholders”
During the Q&A session, an audience member pointed out that environmentalists are often distrustful of companies’ sustainability policies when their focus is on shareholders and profit.
“Companies have to show that they’re part of the solution,” Fitterling said. “Investors will be afraid of high costs up front, so, say, completely electrifying a plant overnight is off the table. You have to make a plan to get there, and then incentivize that plan through policy. Carbon taxes are one way, but miss the market leverage.”
Krishna also pushed back on the idea that companies have to choose between sustainability and profit. “It’s a false dichotomy,” he said. “If companies were only interested in short-term profits, they wouldn’t last for long.”
“A belief I’ve heard from some environmental groups is that ‘anything a company does is greenwashing,’ and that they’ll abandon those efforts if the economy tanks,” Zuber said, referring to a practice wherein organizations spend more time marketing themselves as environmentally sustainable than on maximizing their sustainability efforts. “The economy tanked in 2020, though, and we saw companies double down on their sustainability plans. They see that it’s good for business.”
The role of universities and businesses in sustainability innovation
“Amazon and all corporations are adapting to the effects of climate change, like extreme weather patterns, and will need to adapt more — but I’m not ready to throw in the towel for decarbonization,” Wilke said. “Either way, companies will have to invest in decarbonization. There is no way we are going to make the progress we have to make without it.”
Another component is the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. Krishna noted multiple ways that AI and quantum computing will play a role at IBM, including finding the most environmentally sustainable and cost-efficient ways to advance carbon separation in exhaust gases and lithium battery life in electric cars.
AI, quantum computing, and alternate energy sources such as fusion energy that have the potential to achieve net-zero energy, are key areas that students, researchers, and faculty members are pursuing at MIT.
“Universities like MIT need to go as fast as we can as far as we can with the science and technology we have now,” Zuber said. “In parallel, we need to invest in and deploy a suite of new tools in science and technology breakthroughs that we need to reach the 2050 goal of decarbonizing. Finally, we need to continue to train the next generation of students and researchers who are solving these issues and deploy them to these companies to figure it out.”
When was the last time you repainted your car? Redesigned your coffee mug collection? Gave your shoes a colorful facelift?
You likely answered: never, never, and never. You might consider these arduous tasks not worth the effort. But a new color-shifting “programmable matter” system could change that with a zap of light.
MIT researchers have developed a way to rapidly update imagery on object surfaces. The system, dubbed “ChromoUpdate” pairs an ultraviolet (UV) light projector with items coated in light-activated dye. The projected light alters the reflective properties of the dye, creating colorful new images in just a few minutes. The advance could accelerate product development, enabling product designers to churn through prototypes without getting bogged down with painting or printing.
ChromoUpdate “takes advantage of fast programming cycles — things that wouldn’t have been possible before,” says Michael Wessley, the study’s lead author and a postdoc in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
The research will be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this month. Wessely’s co-authors include his advisor, Professor Stefanie Mueller, as well as postdoc Yuhua Jin, recent graduate Cattalyya Nuengsigkapian ’19, MNG ’20, visiting master’s student Aleksei Kashapov, postdoc Isabel Qamar, and Professor Dzmitry Tsetserukou of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.
ChromoUpdate builds on the researchers’ previous programmable matter system, called PhotoChromeleon. That method was “the first to show that we can have high-resolution, multicolor textures that we can just reprogram over and over again,” says Wessely. PhotoChromeleon used a lacquer-like ink comprising cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes. The user covered an object with a layer of the ink, which could then be reprogrammed using light. First, UV light from an LED was shone on the ink, fully saturating the dyes. Next, the dyes were selectively desaturated with a visible light projector, bringing each pixel to its desired color and leaving behind the final image. PhotoChromeleon was innovative, but it was sluggish. It took about 20 minutes to update an image. “We can accelerate the process,” says Wessely.
They achieved that with ChromoUpdate, by fine-tuning the UV saturation process. Rather than using an LED, which uniformly blasts the entire surface, ChromoUpdate uses a UV projector that can vary light levels across the surface. So, the operator has pixel-level control over saturation levels. “We can saturate the material locally in the exact pattern we want,” says Wessely. That saves time — someone designing a car’s exterior might simply want to add racing stripes to an otherwise completed design. ChromoUpdate lets them do just that, without erasing and reprojecting the entire exterior.
This selective saturation procedure allows designers to create a black-and-white preview of a design in seconds, or a full-color prototype in minutes. That means they could try out dozens of designs in a single work session, a previously unattainable feat. “You can actually have a physical prototype to see if your design really works,” says Wessely. “You can see how it looks when sunlight shines on it or when shadows are cast. It’s not enough just to do this on a computer.”
That speed also means ChromoUpdate could be used for providing real-time notifications without relying on screens. “One example is your coffee mug,” says Wessely. “You put your mug in our projector system and program it to show your daily schedule. And it updates itself directly when a new meeting comes in for that day, or it shows you the weather forecast.”
Wessely hopes to keep improving the technology. At present, the light-activated ink is specialized for smooth, rigid surfaces like mugs, phone cases, or cars. But the researchers are working toward flexible, programmable textiles. “We’re looking at methods to dye fabrics and potentially use light-emitting fibers,” says Wessely. “So, we could have clothing — t-shirts and shoes and all that stuff — that can reprogram itself.”
The researchers have partnered with a group of textile makers in Paris to see how ChomoUpdate can be incorporated into the design process.
This research was funded, in part, by Ford.
“We’re in an emergency, and we need a coordinated effort with all hands and all minds on deck trying to solve this problem.” The urgency in that call to confront climate change, issued by MIT faculty member Asegun Henry SM ’06, PhD ’09, reverberated throughout MIT Better World (Sustainability), a recent virtual gathering of the global MIT community.
More than 830 attendees from 57 countries logged on to learn about climate change solutions in development at MIT and to consider how, in the words of Provost Martin A. Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88, “Every academic discipline in every corner of our community can contribute to solving this global challenge.” Schmidt, who is the Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, moderated the main session of the program, which also featured Vice President for Research Maria Zuber and linguistics graduate student Annauk Denise Olin.
Henry is the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Atomistic Simulation and Energy Research Group. “The laws of thermodynamics tell us that if there is an imbalance in the rate at which we are heated by the sun … the planet will become too hot for human beings to live here. So that means we must make radical change,” he told the online audience of MIT alumni and friends. Henry’s own research focuses on energy storage, one of the greatest challenges to sustainable energy adoption. “We have to store renewable energy when we have an overabundance, and then discharge it back to the grid whenever it's needed,” he explained. “We need the price of solar, plus batteries, to be cheaper than gas. And today that's not true.”
Zuber, the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, touched on the psychological and economic barriers to moving societies away from the use of fossil fuels, noting that both of her grandfathers were coal miners in Eastern Pennsylvania. “The burning of a fossil fuel, anthracite coal, was the foundation of the community and the way of life where I grew up,” she said.
Still, Zuber — who was recently tapped by the Biden Administration to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — expressed optimism for a sustainable future: “Our past is full of scientific and technological breakthroughs that have changed our species’ course — and changed countless lives for the better.” She highlighted three promising areas of research at MIT: improved battery storage technology, carbon capture, and nuclear fusion.
“People used to laugh when I talked about fusion,” she said, “but they’re not laughing anymore.” This long-sought energy source may finally be coming within humanity’s reach, transforming the fight against climate change: “The key ingredient for fusion energy — hydrogen — is essentially both free and inexhaustible,” Zuber noted. In collaboration with private fusion startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, MIT is designing and building SPARC, a compact, high-field fusion device that will demonstrate net energy — producing more energy than it consumes — for the first time in history. SPARC is a key step toward building a fusion power plant capable of producing electricity continuously within as few as 15 years.
The third presenter was Olin, a graduate student in the MIT Indigenous Languages Initiative, where she works to preserve her Native language of Iñupiaq. “Embedded in our indigenous languages are lessons in how to take care of the environment,” she said. For example, Iñupiaq has more than 100 terms to describe ice conditions. But now, “The climate is changing so much, so fast, our elders literally don’t have words for the way sea ice is behaving.”
During her mother’s childhood in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, several feet of sea ice would form and remain from October to June, offering protection from storm surges. “In February 2018 and 2019,” she said, “there was no ice at all.” Erosion has resulted so fast that houses and roads have dropped into the sea without warning, and villages like Shishmaref are being forced to move away from the ocean they rely on for food. In fact, according to Olin, the word “erosion” does not capture the magnitude of the crisis. She has helped to coin an Inuit word, “usteq,” to describe the intersection of coastal flooding, permafrost degradation, and erosion that results in catastrophic land collapse.
Olin hopes that a broader understanding of usteq will enable these events to be classified as a natural hazard by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, unlocking federal funding to help Native Alaskan villages move to stable ground. “We need more people to understand and talk about what’s at stake for our villages, for our people, and our shared humanity,” she said.
“The work we heard about tonight,” remarked Schmidt, bringing the main presentations to a close, “embodies the MIT commitment to curiosity and discovery in pursuit of a better, more sustainable world.”
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently passed a climate bill that sets a target of net-zero emissions for the state by the year 2050. The bill is one of several successful legislative efforts in Northeastern states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 to 100 percent by mid-century. To achieve these ambitious targets — which align with the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — will require a significant ramp-up of zero-carbon, intermittent, renewable energy technologies.
Hydropower is a particularly appealing renewable energy option for policymakers in the region; substantial hydro resources available in nearby Quebec could be used to dispatch power to consumers in Northeastern states during periods of low wind and solar generation. But environmental and aesthetic concerns have mobilized communities along proposed hydro transmission line routes to nip that notion in the bud. To stand a chance of overcoming these concerns, policymakers in the U.S. Northeast and Quebec will need to demonstrate compelling benefits to consumers and transmission line abutters alike.
To that end, researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Energy Initiative have conducted a study to assess the economic impacts of expanding hydropower transmission capacity from Quebec to the Northeast. Using a unique modeling framework that represents both regional economic behavior and hourly electricity operations, they project these impacts under three scenarios. In each scenario, transmission capacity is expanded by 10, 30, or 50 percent above existing capacity into New York and all New England states starting in 2026, and carbon emissions are capped in alignment with regional climate goals.
Compared to a reference scenario in which current and projected state renewable energy technology policies are implemented with carbon emissions capped to achieve mid-century regional goals, the researchers estimate that by 2050, electricity imports enabled by these three transmission expansions save the New York state economy 38-40 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh) and the New England economy 30-33 cents per kWh. The results appear in the journal Energy Policy.
“These economy-wide savings are significantly higher than the cost of the electricity itself,” says Joint Program research scientist Mei Yuan, the lead author of the study. “Moreover, the carbon limits that we impose in these scenarios raise fuel prices enough to make electricity cost-competitive in multiple economic sectors. This accelerates electrification in both New England and New York, particularly between 2030 and 2050.”
The overall economic impact of the three transmission capacity expansion scenarios is a significantly lower cost of meeting the emissions reduction goals of all states in the region.
The study is an outgrowth of an Energy Modeling Forum effort, EMF34, which aims to improve understanding of how energy markets affect one another throughout North America. The researchers were supported by sponsors of the MIT Joint Program sponsors and the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund Program.
Deep neural networks excel at finding patterns in datasets too vast for the human brain to pick apart. That ability has made deep learning indispensable to just about anyone who deals with data. This year, the MIT Quest for Intelligence and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab sponsored 17 undergraduates to work with faculty on yearlong research projects through MIT’s Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (SuperUROP).
Students got to explore AI applications in climate science, finance, cybersecurity, and natural language processing, among other fields. And faculty got to work with students from outside their departments, an experience they describe in glowing terms. “Adeline is a shining testament of the value of the UROP program,” says Raffaele Ferrari, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, of his advisee. “Without UROP, an oceanography professor might have never had the opportunity to collaborate with a student in computer science.”
Highlighted below are four SuperUROP projects from this past year.
A faster algorithm to manage cloud-computing jobs
The shift from desktop computing to far-flung data centers in the “cloud” has created bottlenecks for companies selling computing services. Faced with a constant flux of orders and cancellations, their profits depend heavily on efficiently pairing machines with customers.
Approximation algorithms are used to carry out this feat of optimization. Among all the possible ways of assigning machines to customers by price and other criteria, they find a schedule that achieves near-optimal profit. For the last year, junior Spencer Compton worked on a virtual whiteboard with MIT Professor Ronitt Rubinfeld and postdoc Slobodan Mitrović to find a faster scheduling method.
“We didn’t write any code,” he says. “We wrote proofs and used mathematical ideas to find a more efficient way to solve this optimization problem. The same ideas that improve cloud-computing scheduling can be used to assign flight crews to planes, among other tasks.”
In a pre-print paper on arXiv, Compton and his co-authors show how to speed up an approximation algorithm under dynamic conditions. They also show how to locate machines assigned to individual customers without computing the entire schedule.
A big challenge was finding the crux of the project, he says. “There’s a lot of literature out there, and a lot of people who have thought about related problems. It was fun to look at everything that’s been done and brainstorm to see where we could make an impact.”
How much heat and carbon can the oceans absorb?
Earth’s oceans regulate climate by drawing down excess heat and carbon dioxide from the air. But as the oceans warm, it’s unclear if they will soak up as much carbon as they do now. A slowed uptake could bring about more warming than what today’s climate models predict. It’s one of the big questions facing climate modelers as they try to refine their predictions for the future.
The biggest obstacle in their way is the complexity of the problem: today’s global climate models lack the computing power to get a high-resolution view of the dynamics influencing key variables like sea-surface temperatures. To compensate for the lost accuracy, researchers are building surrogate models to approximate the missing dynamics without explicitly solving for them.
In a project with MIT Professor Raffaele Ferrari and research scientist Andre Souza, MIT junior Adeline Hillier is exploring how deep learning solutions can be used to improve or replace physical models of the uppermost layer of ocean, which drives the rate of heat and carbon uptake. “If the model has a small footprint and succeeds under many of the physical conditions encountered in the real world, it could be incorporated into a global climate model and hopefully improve climate projections,” she says.
In the course of the project, Hillier learned how to code in the programming language Julia. She also got a crash course in fluid dynamics. “You’re trying to model the effects of turbulent dynamics in the ocean,” she says. “It helps to know what the processes and physics behind them look like.”
In search of more efficient deep learning models
There are thousands of ways to design a deep learning model to solve a given task. Automating the design process promises to narrow the options and make these tools more accessible. But finding the optimal architecture is anything but simple. Most automated searches pick the model that maximizes validation accuracy without considering the structure of the underlying data, which may suggest a simpler, more robust solution. As a result, more reliable or data-efficient architectures are passed over.
“Instead of looking at the accuracy of the model alone, we should focus on the structure of the data,” says MIT senior Kristian Georgiev. In a project with MIT Professor Asu Ozdaglar and graduate student Alireza Fallah, Georgiev is looking at ways to automatically query the data to find the model that best suits its constraints. “If you choose your architecture based on the data, you’re more likely to get a good and robust solution from a learning theory perspective,” he says.
The hardest part of the project was the exploratory phase at the start, he says. To find a good research question he read through papers ranging from topics in autoML to representation theory. But it was worth it, he says, to be able to work at the intersection of optimization and generalization. “To make good progress in machine learning you need to combine both of these fields.”
What makes humans so good at recognizing faces?
Face recognition comes easily to humans. Picking out familiar faces in a blurred or distorted photo is a cinch. But we don’t really understand why or how to replicate this superpower in machines. To home in on the principles important to recognizing faces, researchers have shown headshots to human subjects that are progressively degraded to see where recognition starts to break down. They are now performing similar experiments on computers to see if deeper insights can be gained
In a project with MIT Professor Pawan Sinha and the MIT Quest for Intelligence, junior Ashika Verma applied a set of filters to a dataset of celebrity photos. She blurred their faces, distorted them, and changed their color to see if a face-recognition model could pick out photos of the same face. She found that the model did best when the photos were either natural color or grayscale, consistent with the human studies. Accuracy slipped when a color filter was added, but not as much as it did for the human subjects — a wrinkle that Verma plans to investigate further.
The work is part of a broader effort to understand what makes humans so good at recognizing faces, and how machine vision might be improved as a result. It also ties in with Project Prakash, a nonprofit in India that treats blind children and tracks their recovery to learn more about the visual system and brain plasticity. “Running human experiments takes more time and resources than running computational experiments,” says Verma’s advisor, Kyle Keane, a researcher with MIT Quest. “We're trying to make AI as human-like as possible so we can run a lot of computational experiments to identify the most promising experiments to run on humans.”
Degrading the images to use in the experiments, and then running them through the deep nets, was a challenge, says Verma. “It’s very slow,” she says. “You work 20 minutes at a time and then you wait.” But working in a lab with an advisor made it worth it, she says. “It was fun to dip my toes into neuroscience.”
SuperUROP projects were funded, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, MIT Quest Corporate, and by Eric Schmidt, technical advisor to Alphabet Inc., and his wife, Wendy.
Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88 will step down from her role as chancellor and return to the faculty on July 1, President L. Rafael Reif announced today in an email to the MIT community.
During her seven years at the post, Barnhart and her team took a range of actions to make MIT a more caring environment where support is easier to find. She oversaw an expansion of student health and wellness programs, launched a campaign to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct on campus, and focused on new efforts to enhance undergraduate and graduate education.
“From the start, she has been a fearless advocate for student wellbeing, a calm, insistent force for new thinking and creative change, and one of my most trusted and thoughtful advisors,” Reif wrote to the community.
MIT’s chancellor is broadly responsible for student life and learning at MIT. Along with the provost she also advises the president on graduate and undergraduate education, and participates in strategic planning, faculty appointments, resource development, and campus planning.
“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve in this role,” Barnhart says. “It was especially enriching to be exposed to diverse perspectives across the Institute and to engage with so many members of our community. I’m proud that our efforts around student well-being, support, and success have made a difference and will continue into the future.”
Combating sexual misconduct
Barnhart joined the MIT faculty in 1992 and is the Ford Foundation Professor of Engineering. Before becoming chancellor she served as associate and acting dean of the School of Engineering and co-directed the Operations Research Center and the Center for Transportation and Logistics.
In 2014, just days into her tenure as chancellor, the issue of sexual assault shot to the top of her list of priorities, following the publication of a letter in The Tech written by a rape survivor. Charged by President Reif to take action to combat sexual assault at MIT, Barnhart and her team conducted a landmark survey of MIT students and their experiences regarding unwanted sexual behavior, and publicly released the results.
The Office of the Chancellor then took numerous measures to provide more education to students about support resources, reporting options, and how to challenge harmful attitudes and behaviors. To meet students’ needs, Barnhart also bolstered staffing for a variety of offices and services related to student support, mental health and counseling, and violence prevention. Through further surveys, trainings, forums, campaigns, and other efforts, she encouraged members of the MIT community to become part of the solution.
“I have had the privilege of working with Cindy on so many important issues to support students,” says Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo. “Her ability to listen, empathize, collaborate, and create solutions is a model for true effective leadership. Cindy’s impact on the student experience — especially in leading the Institute’s commitment to the prevention of sexual misconduct and to an encouraging and responsible approach to concerns raised — is no less than profound.”
Barnhart also created the Title IX and Bias Response Office, which would later be expanded to become the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office, serving as MIT’s central resource for students, faculty, and staff with concerns related to discrimination, discriminatory harassment, and bias. And, she oversaw the implementation of a new policy and reporting system regarding complaints of sexual misconduct against faculty and staff.
Many of these actions flowed in part from a set of recommendations from four working groups of faculty, students, postdocs, and staff, convened by President Reif in response to a 2018 National Academies report co-authored by Institute Professor Sheila Widnall. The report found that sexual harassment of women in the STEM fields causes significant damage to research integrity and a costly loss of talent.
“The solution to getting started on these difficult issues is leadership,” says Widnall, now emerita, who served with Barnhart on a presidential advisory board that partnered with the four working groups. “As Chancellor, Cindy has embodied that leadership, steadfastly engaging with the MIT community to answer the National Academies’ call and strengthen ongoing efforts to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct at the Institute. With her commitment to diversity, values, and excellence, she has helped bring the MIT community together.”
Prioritizing mental health and well-being
Barnhart has also made student mental health a top priority at MIT, both expanding support services and encouraging students who are feeling overwhelmed to ask for help.
Barnhart built out the Division of Student Life, strengthening connections between residential life and student support, to proactively reach more students likely to need help. Key changes included hiring Suzy Nelson as vice president and dean of student life, as well as merging several programs into the Student Support and Wellbeing team.
At the same time, the Chancellor’s office and MIT Medical expanded staffing, hours, and volunteer training for other mental health, student support, and counseling services. Subsequent efforts have included revamping the Institute’s policies on withdrawal and readmissions and medical leave and hospitalization, among other things.
In 2015, with William Kettyle, then-director of MIT Medical, and Professor Rosalind Picard as founding faculty chair, Barnhart established the MindHandHeart initiative, expanding MIT’s “mens et manus” (mind and hand) motto to recognize the importance of well-being, self-care, and taking care of others.
Maryanne Kirkbride, the executive administrator of MindHandHeart, remembers: “With the chancellor’s leadership and in partnership with the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council, we engaged 150 community members in a series of working groups to advance connectedness, well-being, life skills, and academic achievement. The outcomes served to advance norms and practices in our culture that increase resiliency, better prepare us for success, and strengthen our feeling of community.”
Since its launch, the MindHandHeart Community Innovation Fund has supported 215 projects, including Random Acts of Kindness Week, the Puppy Lab, and Fail!, an initiative aiming to destigmatize failure in academia.
“Cindy had the vision to see how community members could come together for one another to create a climate more supportive of our mental health and well-being,” Kirkbride says.
Innovating in education and learning
Student learning has also been a top priority area in the Office of the Chancellor. In 2017 Barnhart created the Office of the Vice Chancellor, integrating the offices for graduate and undergraduate education. She appointed Ian Waitz as vice chancellor and charged him working alongside students, faculty, and staff from across the Institute to enhance the student academic experience in such areas as the first-year experience, advising, and professional development.
MIT Admissions, also under Barnhart’s purview, has continued to increase the excellence and diversity of each incoming class. Barnhart prioritized keeping an MIT education affordable and accessible, and worked in partnership with Provost Martin Schmidt and others to increase MIT’s financial aid budget.
Recently, “Team Chancellor,” as Barnhart calls it, has played a central role in MIT’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, working to keep students safe and supported. Barnhart has led the Covid Decision Team, the group of senior officers overseeing Covid-related policy and planning decisions and response efforts. She says this operation’s success is due in large part to existing partnerships between the Chancellor’s Office and other MIT units.
“We had a strong collaborative foundation to work from,” Barnhart says. MIT staff and faculty involved in this effort are “amazing,” she says, and their work has ensured that “students know who they can go to for help, which means more help will be given.”
“This past year has been a rollercoaster, which has truly tested the strength of leadership at the Institute. Chancellor Barnhart rose to the challenge and worked to prioritize the needs of students in the important decisions made during the pandemic,” says junior and Undergraduate Association President Danielle Geathers. “Personally, I have found Chancellor Barnhart to be accessible, empathetic and committed to the well-being of our students. During this unprecedented year of Covid-19, Chancellor Barnhart’s authenticity and eagerness to listen enabled our development and success as a community. I predict that the legacy of her leadership during this turbulent time will revolutionize student and administrator relationships for years to come.”
After she steps down, Barnhart will take a sabbatical and then return to her MIT research and teaching. “I take these roles [as chancellor and previously as acting dean] in part because I feel it’s important that everyone contribute their service to MIT. But, at the same time, I’m really excited about having the time to dive back into research, teaching, and advising, as a professor.”
President Reif will be conducting a search to fill the role. Members of the MIT community are encouraged to send input and ideas to email@example.com.