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Reducing the burden of tuberculosis treatment

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 1:59pm

Tuberculosis is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases: One-third of the world’s population is infected with TB, and more than 1 million people die from the disease every year.

One reason TB is so pervasive is that treatment requires a six-month course of daily antibiotics, which is difficult for about half of all patients to adhere to, especially in rural areas with limited access to medical facilities. To help overcome that, a team of researchers led by MIT has devised a new way to deliver antibiotics, which they hope will make it easier to cure more patients and reduce health care costs.

Using this new approach, a coiled wire loaded with antibiotics is inserted into the patient’s stomach through a nasogastric tube. Once in the stomach, the device slowly releases antibiotics over one month, eliminating the need for patients to take pills every day.

“Having a system that allows you to ensure the patient receives the full treatment course could be really transformational,” says Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “When you consider the situation with tuberculosis, where you have multiple grams of antibiotics that have to be taken every day, for many months, we need another solution.”

Traverso and Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, are the senior authors of the study, which appears in the March 13 issue of Science Translational Medicine and includes a full list of authors. The paper’s lead author is MIT graduate student Malvika Verma; the team includes others at MIT, as well as researchers from Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Public Health, several hospitals in India, and the Tata Trusts of Mumbai, India.

Long-term delivery

For several years, Traverso and Langer have been working on a variety of pills and capsules that can remain in the stomach and slowly release medication after being swallowed. This kind of drug delivery, they believe, could improve treatment for many chronic diseases that require daily doses of medication.

One of their capsules has shown promise for delivering small amounts of drugs to treat HIV and malaria. After being swallowed, the capsule’s outer coating dissolves, allowing six arms to expand, helping the device to lodge in the stomach. This device can carry about 300 milligrams of drugs — enough for a week’s worth of HIV treatment, for example. However, it falls far short of the payload needed to treat tuberculosis, which requires about 3 grams of antibiotics every day.

“We had to develop a completely new system that could enable an automated release of these medications over the course of about a month,” Verma says. “This new system can hold a lot more drug and it can release the drug for a longer period of time.”

The new device is a thin, elastic wire made of nitinol — an alloy of nickel and titanium that can change its shape based on temperature. The researchers can string up to 600 “pills” of various antibiotics along the wire, and the drugs are packaged in polymers whose composition can be tuned to control the rate of drug release once the device enters the stomach.

The wire is delivered to the patient’s stomach via a tube inserted through the nose, which is used routinely in hospitals for delivering medications and nutrients. As part of their study, the researchers interviewed 300 tuberculosis patients in India, and most said that this kind of delivery would be acceptable to them for long-term treatment.

“In many cases, this was preferred by the patients, who could come to a health care setting every two weeks or every four weeks instead of having to be seen by a health care provider every day,” Traverso says.

Once the wire reaches the higher temperatures of the stomach, it forms a coil, which prevents it from passing further through the digestive system. In tests in pigs, the researchers found that their prototype device could release several different antibiotics at a constant rate for 28 days. Once all of the drugs are delivered, the device is retrieved through the nasogastric tube using a magnet that can attract the coil.

Cost reduction

The research team included an economist, David Collins of Boston University, who analyzed the potential economic impact of this type of treatment. He found that if implemented in India, treatment costs could be reduced by about $8,000 per patient.

“The current model for TB treatment is directly observed treatment, short course, where the patients have to come in every day and have somebody watch them take their pills. That’s a huge burden, for the patients and the health care system,” Verma says. “We envision this as utilizing the infrastructure of the directly observed treatment, but reducing the frequency of administering the treatment from daily to monthly.”

Carole Mitnick, an associate professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, described the new drug delivery system as “an extremely exciting innovation.”

“Such an approach could be particularly helpful for the longer regimens required for the treatment of multi- and extensively drug-resistant TB, including some that still rely on daily intramuscular injections,” says Mitnick, who was not involved in the research.

Another disease where this approach could be useful is hepatitis C, which requires treatment with antiviral drugs for two to six months. Many other infectious diseases also require doses of medication that are too large to fit in one of the smaller, ingestible devices that Traverso and Langer have developed.

“In many situations, patients need to take multigram dosages of a drug, but up until now, this has been very difficult to do,” Langer says. “We believe that this new approach is an important milestone toward addressing this problem.”

This system might also be useful for delivering drugs that can treat alcohol addiction and other types of substance abuse, the researchers say.

The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the MIT Tata Center, the National Science Foundation, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Division of Gastroenterology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Special effects: How a movie could reduce corruption

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 1:59pm

They don’t give an Academy Award for this, but a Nigerian feature film, “Water of Gold,” made viewers significantly more likely to report corruption, according to a new paper co-authored by an MIT researcher.

That’s the main outcome of an innovative experiment designed to investigate whether media, such as films, can shift social norms and combat corruption. In the case of “Water of Gold,” in Nigeria, the film clearly can change behavior. Or at least one version of the film.

As it happens, “Water of Gold” is a “Nollywood” film (a loose term referring to the Nigerian film industry, the world’s third-largest), commissioned for the purposes of this experiment. The movie, set in the Niger Delta, is a sibling story about two brothers. One brother, Natufe, is a poor fisherman. But Natufe’s brother, Priye, leaves the Niger Delta, gets rich in business, returns home, and becomes a corrupt politician — to the dismay of Natufe, who becomes outspoken about endemic local corruption.

In one version of “Water of Gold,” Natufe and another local activist set up a number for corruption reporting via text message and report instances of it, in scenes lasting five minutes. The other version does not contain those scenes. As the researchers discovered, “Water of Gold” does boost corruption reporting among viewers — but only when it contains the extra 17 minutes showing the movie characters reporting corruption themselves.

“When we added the extra scenes in the film, we found we did get more people reporting,” says Rebecca Littman, now a postdoc at MIT and co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s findings.

Indeed, the movie, and an accompanying mass text message, spurred 240 people in 106 small communities to send in concrete, specific reports of corruption over a seven-month period, a marked improvement compared to two national campaigns that generated 140 reports per year, in a country of 174 million people.

By combining texting with the film, it becomes “less costly, and psychologically easier, to try this new thing,” Littman says about corruption reporting.

The paper summarizing the results, “Motivating the adoption of new community-minded behaviors: An empirical test in Nigeria,” is being published today in Science Advances. The authors are Graeme Blair, of the University of California at Los Angeles; Littman, a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and Elizabeth Levy Paluck of the department of psychology at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University. Littman worked on the study as a graduate student at Princeton and is now a researcher in the Human Cooperation Laboratory, run by David Rand, an MIT Sloan professor.

To conduct the study, the researchers both commissioned “Water of Gold” and then rolled it out in careful fashion. Among the 106 places where the film was available, in 2013 and 2014, it was randomly determined whether viewers would see the “treatment” version of the film, with the corruption-reporting scenes, or the “placebo” version, which lacks them.

Both versions of the movie were also accompanied by a new system for reporting corruption via text message, which was displayed on the film’s packaging and at the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Soon after handing out the films, the researchers then sent out a mass text message blast in each community, to all subscribers of the major mobile phone provider, so people simply had to reply in order to report corruption.

In the paper, the researchers term the film a “norms intervention,” designed to shift public opinion about civic standards. The texts are what they term a “nudge intervention,” intended to reduce the perceived logistical difficulties of reporting corruption.

The alteration of norms generated by the film involves making people feel that reporting corruption is a routine part of being a good citizen. In case people have not encountered others in their community who speak out against corruption, the film steps in to provide an example of reporting malfeasance.

“If we can’t show them their neighbor doing it, we can show them these influential, famous people doing it too,” Littman says.

Nigeria would seem to provide a setting where anticorruption campaigns have room to grow. In a public-opinion survey conducted as part of the research project, just under 80 percent of Nigerians said they thought the police, civil servants, and state governments were corrupt. About 83 percent of respondents said they were “angry” about having to pay bribes to conduct business, with 60 percent being “very angry” about it. 

It is also no accident that the study focused on the Niger Delta region, where massive amounts of oil production have not been accompanied by an equivalently substantial investment in services and infrastructure for citizens.

Even so, the number of corruption reports the research experiment generated was significant compared to two four-year campaigns, running from 2011 to 2015, conducted by a pair of organizations, Integrity Nigeria and, which combined to collect 385 reports.

“I think people were surprised that the campaign actually worked,” Littman says.

Funding for the project was received from an anonymous private donor as well as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

How the brain distinguishes between objects

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 10:59am

As visual information flows into the brain through the retina, the visual cortex transforms the sensory input into coherent perceptions. Neuroscientists have long hypothesized that a part of the visual cortex called the inferotemporal (IT) cortex is necessary for the key task of recognizing individual objects, but the evidence has been inconclusive.

In a new study, MIT neuroscientists have found clear evidence that the IT cortex is indeed required for object recognition; they also found that subsets of this region are responsible for distinguishing different objects.

In addition, the researchers have developed computational models that describe how these neurons transform visual input into a mental representation of an object. They hope such models will eventually help guide the development of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that could be used for applications such as generating images in the mind of a blind person.

“We don’t know if that will be possible yet, but this is a step on the pathway toward those kinds of applications that we’re thinking about,” says James DiCarlo, the head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the new study.

Rishi Rajalingham, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the March 13 issue of Neuron.

Distinguishing objects

In addition to its hypothesized role in object recognition, the IT cortex also contains “patches” of neurons that respond preferentially to faces. Beginning in the 1960s, neuroscientists discovered that damage to the IT cortex could produce impairments in recognizing non-face objects, but it has been difficult to determine precisely how important the IT cortex is for this task.

The MIT team set out to find more definitive evidence for the IT cortex’s role in object recognition, by selectively shutting off neural activity in very small areas of the cortex and then measuring how the disruption affected an object discrimination task. In animals that had been trained to distinguish between objects such as elephants, bears, and chairs, they used a drug called muscimol to temporarily turn off subregions about 2 millimeters in diameter. Each of these subregions represents about 5 percent of the entire IT cortex.

These experiments, which represent the first time that researchers have been able to silence such small regions of IT cortex while measuring behavior over many object discriminations, revealed that the IT cortex is not only necessary for distinguishing between objects, but it is also divided into areas that handle different elements of object recognition.  

The researchers found that silencing each of these tiny patches produced distinctive impairments in the animals’ ability to distinguish between certain objects. For example, one subregion might be involved in distinguishing chairs from cars, but not chairs from dogs. Each region was involved in 25 to 30 percent of the tasks that the researchers tested, and regions that were closer to each other tended to have more overlap between their functions, while regions far away from each other had little overlap.

“We might have thought of it as a sea of neurons that are completely mixed together, except for these islands of “face patches.” But what we’re finding, which many other studies had pointed to, is that there is large-scale organization over the entire region,” Rajalingham says.

The features that each of these regions are responding to are difficult to classify, the researchers say. The regions are not specific to objects such as dogs, nor easy-to-describe visual features such as curved lines.

“It would be incorrect to say that because we observed a deficit in distinguishing cars when a certain neuron was inhibited, this is a ‘car neuron,’” Rajalingham says. “Instead, the cell is responding to a feature that we can’t explain that is useful for car discriminations. There has been work in this lab and others that suggests that the neurons are responding to complicated nonlinear features of the input image. You can’t say it’s a curve, or a straight line, or a face, but it’s a visual feature that is especially helpful in supporting that particular task.”

Bevil Conway, a principal investigator at the National Eye Institute, says the new study makes significant progress toward answering the critical question of how neural activity in the IT cortex produces behavior.

“The paper makes a major step in advancing our understanding of this connection, by showing that blocking activity in different small local regions of IT has a different selective deficit on visual discrimination. This work advances our knowledge not only of the causal link between neural activity and behavior but also of the functional organization of IT: How this bit of brain is laid out,” says Conway, who was not involved in the research.

Brain-machine interface

The experimental results were consistent with computational models that DiCarlo, Rajalingham, and others in their lab have created to try to explain how IT cortex neuron activity produces specific behaviors.

“That is interesting not only because it says the models are good, but because it implies that we could intervene with these neurons and turn them on and off,” DiCarlo says. “With better tools, we could have very large perceptual effects and do real BMI in this space.”

The researchers plan to continue refining their models, incorporating new experimental data from even smaller populations of neurons, in hopes of developing ways to generate visual perception in a person’s brain by activating a specific sequence of neuronal activity. Technology to deliver this kind of input to a person’s brain could lead to new strategies to help blind people see certain objects.

“This is a step in that direction,” DiCarlo says. “It’s still a dream, but that dream someday will be supported by the models that are built up by this kind of work.”

The research was funded by the National Eye Institute, the Office of Naval Research, and the Simons Foundation.

Microgravity research after the International Space Station

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 11:00pm

For nearly 20 years, the International Space Station (ISS) has served as a singular laboratory for thousands of scientists, students, and startups around the world, who  have accessed the station’s microgravity environment to test how being in space impacts everything from cancer cells and human tissues to zucchini and barley seeds — not to mention a host of living organisms including flatworms, ants, geckos, and bobtail squids.

Indeed, the ISS “has operated as a bastion of international cooperation and a unique testbed for microgravity research,” write MIT engineers in a paper they presented on March 8 at the IEEE Aerospace Conference in Montana. But the ISS will eventually be retired in its current form. NASA is preparing to transition the focus of its human space flight activities to the Moon, and the international partners that manage the ISS are discussing how to transition out of the current operational model.

As NASA explores options for commercial entities to operate research platforms in orbit around Earth, and while other public and private entities consider alternative designs for microgravity facilities, the MIT team says it’s important to keep affordable access to such facilities at the forefront of these discussions. In their paper, the researchers argue that scientists from any country should be able to participate in microgravity research.

Toward that end, the team has developed a tool for evaluating the accessibility of various “governance models,” such as facilities that are controlled by mostly governments or private entities, or a mixture of both.

MIT News checked in with the researchers about the future of microgravity research and how openness can drive innovation and collaboration in space. Christine Joseph is a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Technology and Policy Program. Danielle Wood is the Benesse Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Research in Education within MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences and jointly appointed in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She is also founder of the Space Enabled Research Group within the MIT Media Lab, whose mission is to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space.

Q: Why is affordable access important, particularly for space-based microgravity research?

Wood: Participation in space-based microgravity research should be an opportunity open to researchers from every nation because space is a global commons that does not belong to a single nation. As stated in the Outer Space Treaty, ratified by over 100 countries, “the exploration and use of outer space … shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries … and shall be the province of all [hu]mankind.”

Studies in the microgravity environment bring new knowledge about the human body, plants, animals, materials, physics, manufacturing, and medicines. This knowledge can contribute to sustainable development when it is translated into Earth-based applications, such as when knowledge of astronaut exercise routines informs recovery procedures for patients facing long periods of bedrest, or when experiments about the physics of combustion yield results that can improve fire safety on Earth.

When a larger variety of researchers from around the world participate in microgravity research, the scientific community benefits from the broader range of research outcomes. Participation in microgravity research also helps countries that do not yet have experience in space build local capability to design and operate space-based experiments.

Q: How does your new tool evaluate accessibility to microgravity research facilities?

Joseph: We propose that accessibility can be measured using the metrics of economic and administrative openness. Economic openness is based on the financial costs paid by researchers to perform all the activities involved with completing a microgravity research project. This includes the costs associated with designing an experiment, engineering it to be safe and functional, launching it to space, accessing a facility that provides environmental control, data and power, operating the experiment, and possibly returning it to Earth.

Administrative openness refers to the type of gatekeeping that directly and indirectly determines who can participate. For example, today administrative procedures influence access depending on the nationality or type of organization the user comes from and the type of microgravity activity they are seeking. We map future microgravity research facilities and their governance policies along these dimensions of economic and administrative openness. Using these two metrics, we can rate the overall accessibility of a future marketplace for microgravity research.

Wood: Our goal is to encourage a dialogue about the value of providing access to this unique research environment. Many stakeholders — governments, companies, international organizations — may influence the rules that determine who sends micrgravity research to space after the International Space Station is retired. Thus far, the world has not experienced a microgravity research marketplace that is fully driven by commercial forces with prices set by a free market, because governments have subsidized the cost of research access as a public service. This work highlights the need to evaluate future policy and commercial proposals based on the needs of those that have the least access and experience with microgravity research today.

Q: What type of facility or structure have you found, through your tool, can provide the most affordable access to microgravity research, and what will it take to launch such a model?

Joseph: Although not ideal, our current structure has evolved to become surprisingly accessible. Faciliators like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs help to broker access for emerging space nations by working with some of the “gatekeeper” space agencies that built the ISS. Commercial companies have also started to build and operate their own modules attached to the ISS that almost any user can buy access to. The ISS has become this interesting conglomeration of public, private, commercial, and international entities. So far, none of the other proposals for space stations in low Earth orbit (up to about 2,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface) are mature enough to determine whether they will have a similar level of accessibility as the current environment.

However, we can always do better. Building the ISS was the single largest and most expensive construction project in human history and it involved effort from many countries. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the development of the ISS in terms of technical and policy models. We also need to take into account the expectations of the commercial companies that will participate in the emerging commercial space economy in low Earth orbit.

The “spaces in space” that we operate in are evolving dramatically. It is not too early to examine how policies and investment decisions will shape the nature of accessibility for microgravity research beyond the International Space Station. Thinking about accessibility now is important to help ensure that microgravity research remains the province of all humankind.

CEE event showcases multidisciplinary opportunities

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 5:00pm

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's ninth annual Research Speed Dating event featured a well-rounded display of research from both civil and environmental engineering disciplines, from human microbiomes, carbon partitioning of plants, climate change, and urban pollution to recovering from major storm damage, algorithms for car-sharing networks, and integrating autonomy into transportation systems. The Feb. 15 event brought together a wide range of faculty, research scientists, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates to present their research findings.

Assistant Professor Tami Lieberman kicked off the event by highlighting her research that investigates how to add a microbe to an already established microbiome. Lieberman conducts her research through the lens of evolution, using DNA sequencing in order to identify how bacteria spreads between people, and how it is evolving within humans as they coexist with other adapted mutations. 

Lieberman, who is one of the department’s newest faculty members, explained that she is searching for expertise within lipid characterization, directed evolution, DNA, large data, and high-throughput microbiology. Her lab plans to explore many different areas such as the colonization of new bacterial strains, disease-specific adaptation, colon cancer, host-specificity, and immune responses to bacteria and probiotics. 

Switching gears from the world of microbiomes to the biosphere was PhD student Josh Moss in Professor Jesse Kroll’s lab. The Kroll lab studies atmospheric chemistry, and Moss’ research is concerned with various aspects of urban pollution, such as how smog forms, the reactions of certain chemicals in the atmosphere, and secondary organic aerosol. 

“When discussing smog, we talk about it in terms of secondary organic aerosol, and look at what humans and the biosphere emit as primary gasses that react in the atmosphere with oxidants such as OH radical and ozone to form secondary gases. They tend to either form new particles or they will condense onto existing particles to create smog; the mixture of particles and gasses which forms in the presence of UV light,” Moss explained. 

Incorporating computer modeling in conjunction with physical experiments in the lab has elicited many exciting opportunities to explore new avenues within his discipline, Moss said.

Moving the discussion from urban pollution to plant biology was Assistant Professor Dave Des Marais, who gave his talk on how plants respond to environmental stressors. He discussed how climate change is impacting growing seasons and is seeking ways to understand these issues. He explained that there is a lot of opportunity for collaboration and research within this field, including the chance to work with a lab in Israel to study numerous variables over time. 

Incoming Gilbert W. Winslow Assistant Professor Cathy Wu, who will officially begin her position in CEE this June, switched gears and introduced the audience to the world of transportation. Wu’s research is centered around the integration of autonomy into transportation systems. 

She said she aims to challenge conventional transportation systems by looking at the ways in which technology will influence certain systems for the better, making a difference in the long run. Wu came to the realization that researchers do not have a strong understanding of the potential impact autonomous vehicles could have on society.

“These vehicles can potentially provide access to one third of the population including the youth, the elderly, and the disabled. So, I set out and studied robotics, and then became determined to understand the impact of autonomous vehicles on the transportation system,” said Wu.

Wu’s interest in transportation continues to grow. “In the U.S, we have 37,000 traffic accidents each year, it is the leading cause of death in young people, and a vast majority of these accidents are caused by human error,” she explained. “Additionally, we waste 7 billion hours from people sitting in traffic each year, and more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation.”

Wu is investigating transportation through deep reinforcement learning — learning policy in order to maximize reward — simulations, and flow traffic LEGO blocks. Moving forward, she is interested in two technical aspects, reliability and scalability in terms of the types of decisions that can be made for urban systems. “There are so many rich perspectives in this department, and I am excited to see the interplay of this when it comes to decision-making,” concluded Wu.

Graduate student Andrew Feldman, who later went on to receive the best lightning talk award, presented on water exchange patterns in the soil-plant continuum based on SMAP Microwave Satellite Measurements. Feldman works with Bacardi Stockholm Water Foundations Professor Dara Entekhabi’s lab to study soil moisture and vegetation water content observations from NASA’s SMAP satellite in order to evaluate plant water storage changes following rainfall. 

New to the event this year was a panel discussion on the future of research in infrastructure and environment, moderated by Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology, and Anthropology Susan Silbey. Silbey serves as chair of the MIT faculty and is also a professor of behavioral and policy sciences within the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

“As a social scientist, I have a logical interest in the physical platform of social life, that is the natural and built environment within which social action takes place,” explained Silbey. “My research aims to understand how and when environmental, health, and safety regulations are more or less successful in managing hazards. More specifically, I study how management systems are introduced to control environmental, health, and safety hazards in laboratories. It seems to me my work and CEE addresses the same or overlapping phenomena.” 

The panel included CEE Professor Colette Heald, Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor Benedetto Marelli, JR East Professor of Engineering Professor Ali Jadbabaie, and Breene M. Kerr Professor Elfatih Eltahir. 

The discussion covered crucial topics such as the challenge of connecting engineering disciplines with the humanities in order to accomplish more as a society. A recurring issue that was brought up by the panel was how the department intends to solve environmental problems. 

“The climate is evolving and changing and there are increasing needs for adapting to that new climate, involving infrastructure in a major way. How do we engineer a process of societal adaptation? I think we are in a unique position as a department to address this concern,” said Eltahir. 

Heald supported that argument. “A National Academy of Sciences report about the future of engineering explained that the 20th century was regulation-driven, and the 21st century will be challenge-driven,” she said. “I think this is a great way to think about our department.” 

Heald and Eltahir agreed that the diversity of the department places CEE in a unique position to capitalize on the expertise available when tackling global issues. “Our diverse knowledge is beneficial when taking on climate change, and we can provide opportunity in various disciplines including infrastructure, systems, and the environment,” said Heald.

Eltahir explained that having a connection to the social sciences would be something that the department should consider seriously. He emphasized the challenge of consumerism, as a cultural and societal problem throughout the U.S, Europe, and China. “We live in a world that has limited resources, and the global society behaves with the implicit assumption that there are no limits,” explained Eltahir. 

“I thought it was a very interesting and thought-provoking afternoon; I think lots of departments, labs, and centers should stage such inviting and informative events,” said Silbey. 

The final portion of the evening included a digital poster presentation, which encouraged networking and collaboration between researchers in the department. More than 20 students, ranging from first-year students to postdocs, presented their digital posters.

Postdoc Fabiola Sanchez won honorable mention for her poster about the dynamics of the active-growing bacterial community in the estuarine environment during a 24-hour period. Her poster explains that the active community is different from the total, and its abundance exhibits a strong correlation with the chlorophyll levels and the day-night cycle.

The runner up, senior Stephanie Chin, presented a poster about analyzing noisy data with limited training data, based on a CNN approach, for the specific application of a traffic surveillance camera. This approach could help adapt general-purpose models for domain-specific content and applications, such as traffic surveillance images. 

PhD student Isabelle Su’s winning poster, “Exploring a Spider Web’s Structure with Sound,” explained the use of sonification in order to visualize complex 3-D spider web data through sound. Su created an interactive sonification model that can be used as a versatile data exploration tool, for instance, to find spider web patterns, as a creative platform or recreated for similar data networks. 

After announcing the prizes, the night concluded with a dinner for the participants and their colleagues, allowing for further networking opportunities. Inspiring research talks, a panel discussion, and digital poster presentation session successfully displayed the bright future that CEE has ahead. 

“Research speed dating gives the community of students, postdocs, staff, and faculty an opportunity to present their research and collaborative opportunities to their colleagues,” said McAfee Professor of Engineering and department head Markus Buehler. “The panel addressed many issues regarding climate change and efforts that call for numerous disciplines to come together when addressing critical challenges of infrastructure and environment. This event certainly highlighted the inspiring research that intends to solve the imperative large-scale societal issues of today, where science and engineering play a crucial role.” 

Opera star Renée Fleming explores music and minds in MIT talk

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 3:39pm

Renée Fleming normally impresses audiences with her singing. On Monday, delivering the Institute’s Compton Lecture, the famous opera singer engrossed an MIT audience with something rather different: a talk about music and neuroscience.

“There’s so much to learn about how and why music engages the brain, and even alters the brain,” said Fleming, a world-renowned soprano who in recent years has been working with the medical community to develop new research programs linking music and neuroscience.

The Compton lectures are MIT’s highest-profile, Institute-wide speaking series. Fleming’s talk, interspersed with video clips, examined the therapeutic potential of music across a number of medical applications, including recovery from brain trauma, fighting depression and combatting loneliness, and even in the recovery process from nonbrain pathologies such as cancer.

Fleming’s presentation, titled “Music and the Mind,” was delivered before a large audience at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. In it, Fleming discussed research findings about music and health, and also described a collaboration she has developed with the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of music on the brain. Fleming herself, as she discussed, even once underwent a lengthy MRI to map her own brain’s activity in relation to music.

In her remarks, Fleming drew links between the thought processes of singers and musicians on the one hand, and scientific researchers on the other, noting that both professions require creativity and have practitioners willing to explore the boundaries of their work.

“I think that what [scientists] do, people have likened it to creativity in artists, because there’s a comfort level with being in a place where you don’t know [everything],” Fleming said. “And that is powerful. We [artists] have that comfort level, that’s where we choose to be, and scientists also have that comfort level.”

Fleming is a celebrated soprano who has often focused on opera but has also expanded her career to cover other genres of music and stage performance. A prominent star for nearly three decades, she made her debuts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the San Francisco Opera in the early 1990s, and has performed worldwide in many of music’s most notable venues.

Fleming has earned many awards and distinctions in her career, including the National Medal of Arts, given to her by President Obama in 2013. She has won four Grammy Awards and, in one measure of her reach, in 2014 became the first classical artist to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Fleming has also performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Fleming maintains a busy performance schedule. This April, she will appear in opening performances at the Shed, a large new arts venue in New York, and in June will make her London theater debut, performing in “The Light in the Piazza” at the Royal Festival Hall.

Fleming explained that her collaboration with the NIH came about after she met musically inclined NIH Director Francis Collins at a dinner party. But it wasn’t just any old dinner party, Fleming noted; also present were U.S. Supreme Court justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who had just ruled that day on opposite sides of the court decisions to require states to grant and recognize same-sex marriages.

“I sat between Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg, and let me tell you, there was not a lot of eye contact in the room,” Fleming said, drawing a roar of laughter from the crowd. “Fortunately they both love[d] opera.” Meanwhile, she added, “Francis Collins had come with his guitar, as all heads of major institutions and world leaders [should] do,” leading to a sing-along and lightening of the mood.

Fleming also took audience questions after her talk, some of which were presented to her by MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

In response to one query, Fleming said her favorite role was the Marschallin from “Der Rosenkavalier,” the Richard Strauss opera that premiered in 1911.

Fleming also noted that the intense drama of many classical operas provides a necessary emotional outlet for their audiences, perhaps now more than ever.

“Difficult emotions need to be expressed sometimes,” Fleming said. “Many of us are frankly today working 24/7, so we need those moments to let down and feel something.”

Fleming noted that her interest in science is comparatively recent, and that, as the child of two music teachers, she was not especially attuned to the STEM fields as a student.

“Math and science were just not on the radar,” said Fleming. “I thought every family sang.”

The Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series, introduced in 1957, was created in memory of Karl Taylor Compton (1887-1954), who served as MIT’s president from 1930 to 1948 and chair of the MIT Corporation from 1948 to 1954.

“He helped the Institute transform itself,” Reif said, emphasizing Compton’s work developing MIT’s strengths in basic scientific research, as well as the Institute’s research partnerships with the federal government.

Reif also noted that Fleming’s lecture comes at a time when the arts are building a bigger physical presence on the MIT campus, given the 2017 opening of a new theater and performing arts building (W97) on Vassar Street, and the foundational 2018 gift by Joyce Linde to create a new music building.

“MIT students love music,” Reif said. “It brings them joy and pleasure, consolation and escape. It makes them whole, and helps them understand each other.”

MIT graduate engineering, business programs earn top rankings from U.S. News for 2020

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 9:18am

MIT’s graduate program in engineering has again earned a No. 1 spot in U.S. News and Word Report’s annual rankings, a place it has held since 1990, when the magazine first ranked such programs.

The MIT Sloan School of Management also placed highly, occupying the No. 3 spot for the best graduate business program, which it shares with Harvard University and the University of Chicago.

Among individual engineering disciplines, MIT placed first in six areas: aerospace/aeronautical/astronautical engineering (tied with Stanford University), biomedical engineering/bioengineering (tied with Johns Hopkins University), chemical engineering, electrical/electronic/communications engineering, materials engineering, and mechanical engineering (tied with Stanford). It placed second in computer engineering and nuclear engineering.

In the rankings of individual MBA specialties, MIT placed first in information systems and production/operations. It placed second in supply chain/logistics and third in entrepreneurship.

U.S. News does not issue annual rankings for all doctoral programs but revisits many every few years. Last year, MIT ranked in the top five for 24 of the 37 science disciplines evaluated.

The magazine bases its rankings of graduate schools of engineering and business on two types of data: reputational surveys of deans and other academic officials, and statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school’s faculty, research, and students. The magazine’s less-frequent rankings of programs in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities are based solely on reputational surveys.

Using machine learning to improve subseasonal climate forecasting

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 4:15pm

Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at AER (Atmospheric and Environmental Research) and visiting scientist in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Ernest Fraenkel, professor of biological engineering at MIT, have won first place in three out of four temperature forecasting categories in the Sub-Seasonal Climate Forecast Rodeo competitionhosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 

The MIT researchers, who were joined by Stanford University PhD students Jessica Hwang and Paulo Orenstein and Microsoft researcher Lester Mackey, beat the operational long-range forecasting model used by the U.S. government. 

To be eligible for the competition, the teams were required to submit their climate predictions every two weeks between April 17, 2017 and April 18, 2018. The goal was to create a model that the western United States would be able to rely on weeks in advance to help manage water resources and prepare for wildfires and drought. 

The competition required that the models achieve a higher mean skill over all competitive forecasts, and two benchmarks submitted by the U.S. Government, which are unbiased versions of the physics-based U.S. Climate Forecasting System. The models also had to achieve damped persistence (indicating that the data you are contributing is increasing the correlative effect over time).

“The current weather predicting models are only able to make forecasts about seven to 10 days prior to the forecast. By using machine learning techniques like the one we created for this contest, [the new model] is able to help energy companies and cities prepare for severe storms much farther in advance,” says Cohen. 

The dynamic team of experts combined historical weather-pattern recognition and machine learning in order to produce real-time predictions of temperature and precipitation anomalies two to six weeks in advance for the western United States.  

“We capitalized on the current availability of ample meteorological records and high-performance computing techniques to blend both physics-based or dynamic models and statistical machine learning approaches in order to extend the skillful forecast horizon from days to weeks,” says Cohen. 

The combination of machine learning techniques and historical weather-pattern recognition is very powerful because it can help the government maximize water resources and prepare for natural disasters or extreme weather conditions. 

“There are certainly plans to continue this project, as we have been talking about extending the model to the entire U.S. We demonstrated with this contest that there is potential with this model to leapfrog the forecasting process. It can help provide more accuracy at lower costs in the subseasonal forecasts," explains Cohen.

Entrepreneur Vinod Khosla: “Focus on the consequences of success”

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 1:03pm

Vinod Khosla grew up in rural India in an environment where he says there was no science, and no business. Science became his religion, he told an MIT audience last week, and it led him on a path that ultimately included becoming the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and, later, chairman of Khosla Ventures. Last year, he became one of the initial investors in a company established to develop MIT’s pioneering approach to producing practical fusion power.

On March 6, Khosla described his thoughts on entrepreneurship, personal development, and how to tackle the world’s most challenging problems, during a freewheeling “fireside chat” with Dennis Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

The discussion was the 2019 David J. Rose Lecture, an event dedicated to the memory of a longtime professor of nuclear engineering and pioneer of fusion research. Rose’s widow, the Rev. Renata Rose, was in attendance.

Khosla stressed the importance of taking chances, trying new things, and being unafraid of failure. As an example, he pointed out that he founded two different companies at about the same time, in 1982. One of them was Sun, the powerhouse company that catapulted him to wealth and success. But as for the one that failed, nobody even remembers it, he said. “Failure doesn’t matter,” he said. “My willingness to fail gives me the ability to succeed.”

That’s the attitude that propels his current investments, he said. When it comes to tackling the really big problems facing the world — providing enough food, water, energy, and meaningful work for a growing population — “some problems are too important not to work on,” he said. “Let’s not focus on the probability of success, let’s focus on the consequences of success.”

He pointed out that today, roughly 700 million people live in relative wealth. Those people, around the world, are “rich in energy, rich in housing, rich in medical care, rich in education.” But to try to apply those living standards in an incremental way to all of the world’s 7 billion people — 10 times as many — “that can’t be done. A linear progression is just not going to work.” Instead, drastic changes and advances are needed, he said.

While most investors focus on short-term rewards, all of the truly important and significant breakthroughs, like those that are needed today, have come from pioneers who took big chances and strayed far from the established and safe ways of doing things, Khosla continued. “Most large innovations that have had a large effect on society have generally not come from people who are experts” in the field involved, he said.

As an example, he cited a study in 2010 that comprised hundreds of pages, including interviews with experts at leading car companies, that projected how many electric vehicles might be sold over the coming 25 years. “Tesla exceeded their projection in five years,” he said. “Elon Musk tried to do something crazy, with no experience at all in that business,” and in the process “he beat [the projection] by 20 years!”

In general, to achieve the big leaps in progress, “You need a multiplication of resources,” he said. “The only thing that can provide that multiplication is science and technology. How do you make a ton of steel go 100 times farther? A nonlinear approach is needed.”

That kind of long-term thinking, openness to new ideas, acceptance of risk, and desire to tackle the biggest and thorniest challenges are behind Khosla’s decision to invest in Commonwealth Fusion Systems, the private company established last year to develop and commercialize some major advances in fusion power plant technology that MIT researchers have developed. After thoroughly studying the plans, Khosla became an early supporter, convinced of its potential to make dramatic changes in the world’s energy supplies and in the battle to limit climate change.

Another venture he is supporting involves exploring ways to change the chemistry of cement in a way that would incorporate carbon dioxide into the material’s structure. The result would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, by adding a ton of carbon dioxide to a ton of cement, “you essentially double the amount of cement,” he said.

Khosla at one point left his various businesses behind to spend time at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, studying subjects completely outside his experience. Along the way, after studying how complex climate models were developed, he became convinced that a major transformation in medicine would be coming soon — a kind of AI and robotics-based medicine that would, for example, be better at keeping up with the ever-growing medical literature.

Speaking of that break from his normal work life, he said, “I highly encourage everybody to change fields often enough to enhance your thinking. Diversity of experiences helps in a real way in influencing conceptual models.”

Streamlining restaurant operations

Sun, 03/10/2019 - 12:00am

People in the restaurant industry know a thing or two about execution. High operating costs, low profit margins, and the perishable nature of every establishment’s most important resource — food — make it essential to get things done with speed and efficiency.

It’s no surprise, then, that the startup Toast has found success developing technology to streamline restaurant operations. Since its launch in 2013, Toast has been building on its original point of sale (POS) software to address each step in the process of getting an order from a customer to the kitchen and back again. Today, the company offers hardware and software solutions including a kitchen display system for cooks, tablet-based and handheld POS devices for waitstaff, payroll and analytics features for managers, and online ordering and delivery options for customers.

The POS space includes some large, well-funded companies, but Toast founders Aman Narang ’04 SM ’06, Jonathan Grimm ’07, and Steve Fredette ’06 have stayed focused on the customer and tried to make developing impactful solutions the focal point of everything they do.

That customer-focused mindset has worked: In 2017, Deloitte named Toast the third-fastest-growing technology company in the country, reporting revenue growth over 30,000 percent between 2013 and 2016.

Fredette says they didn’t realize how special their company was until their fundraising round last year, when Toast was valued at $1.4 billion.

“Once we started talking to investors who had compared our metrics to our competitors and seen the whole market, it started to become clear we were doing things differently,” Fredette says. “We’ve had a level of customer success that is much higher, I think, than what others have had. … I think a lot of that ultimately comes down to good execution.”

Just don’t congratulate the founders quite yet. Even now, Fredette says the company is in growth mode, and he still talks about the business like it’s a scrappy startup. That’s a useful way of looking at things if you want to be a market leader in the restaurant industry, which was projected to do more than $800 billion in sales in the U.S. last year. It’s also a perspective that was partially borne out of the founders’ experience at MIT.

“One of the biggest benefits of MIT is just being surrounded by a network of people that are ambitious and thinking about big ideas,” Fredette says. “That's a very positive, infectious thing, and that was certainly influential for me. Coming out of MIT also gives you a confidence that you can do anything. You look around and think, ‘These are the people that are going to change the world, and I’m a part of that group.’”

Perhaps another thing driving the founders is the lack of confidence potential investors showed in the company early on. Then again, Toast’s early operations didn’t exactly inspire visions of Boston’s next billion-dollar startup.

Humble beginnings

Toast’s three founders set out to start a company after working together at Endeca, a software company that was bought by Oracle in 2011. Their initial idea was to make an ecommerce app for the restaurant industry, but they kept running into problems with the dated POS software many restaurants were using at the time, so they decided to build a better POS system.

After considering some areas to lease office space, the founders decided it would be cheaper to refinish the basement in Narang’s house and set up operations there. For the next nine months, Narang’s wife, who worked as a teacher, would wake up at 6 a.m. to find members of Toast’s small team coding in her basement, and would often go to sleep at night with the same people there.

Investors looking at Toast could be forgiven for failing to see the company’s potential at the time. Although the founders had worked in managerial roles at Endeca, they had very little experience running a startup. Narang and Grimm had majored in computer science at MIT, while Fredette’s degree was in chemistry, and the company’s “operations” looked more like a disheveled group of hackers in a basement — one of whom was seriously testing his wife’s patience.

Still, Fredette says some of Toast’s first customers were ditching market-leading POS solutions like Square and Micro for the company’s early product.

“We were always very customer-driven,” Fredette says. “Not having spent a lot of time in the restaurant industry ourselves, we didn’t presuppose we knew what our customers needed. We also had a lot of customer-facing experience from Endeca, so the best way to figure out what to build was to work with customers and deeply understand their problems.”

That approach ensured the founders were only building things their customers needed, and they quickly learned there was a lot to build. Fredette says they built five to 10 features for each of their first 10 customers or so until their needs started to converge.

Eventually, the company outgrew Narang’s basement, but the founders still didn’t feel ready to move into an office space, so they rented an apartment in Central Square. Fredette still remembers the unorthodox “office” holiday party Toast threw in December 2013. That arrangement came to an abrupt end when the landlord realized they were running a business.

By that time, however, it was clear Toast was on to something, and the founders finally felt comfortable enough to lease office space. It turned out to be a good investment.

“We couldn’t scale out quickly enough,” Fredette remembers. “We were basically scaling as fast as we could to fulfill what we saw as the demand from the market. It was a good problem to have as a company.”

Fredette says the founders have endured the inevitable pains that come from running a fast-growing company, learning in real-time as they overhauled processes, systems, and teams. Now at 1,400 employees, the founders have learned to look at scaling as an opportunity to improve the company.

They’ve also tried to maintain the spirit of the basement-based coding marathons of their early days by avoiding a top-down development structure and giving people the freedom to work on their own ideas. Fredette says Toast’s leadership team also tries to set big goals for the company.

“One of the most important things in terms of innovation is to have a big vision and set ambitious goals. Necessity is the mother of innovation,” Fredette says. “If you say we need to go to the moon, then innovation often happens. You could say the same thing for a lot of the MIT work that happens in research labs and the early projects that led to the internet. That pursuit of big goals then led to innovation, so I think setting big goals is an important part of a culture of innovation.”

But Fredette believes the best way to maintain success is to do what’s worked since the beginning: stay focused on the customer.

“We’re still very committed to our customers and to helping them achieve their own goals,” Fredette says. “We always ask our customers how we can help them thrive, how we can help them do more of what they love. And they have lots of ideas, so there’s a lot in front of us to increase our impact.”

Taking the world by storm

Sat, 03/09/2019 - 11:59pm

Senior Jordan Benjamin has childhood memories of staring through the window, eagerly listening to the NOAA weather radio to see if a storm was approaching. 

Oftentimes, Benjamin was not alone by the window. His father, who grew up in the Caribbean and had experienced major hurricanes, liked to keep an eye on impending storms. Together, they observed the shifting weather patterns, making predictions about how storms would develop and tracking them as they grew stronger or weaker.

“I love interesting weather,” Benjamin says. “It’s my thing. Even before I came here I would look at weather models to see if there’s going to be a big Nor'easter.” 

For Benjamin, this fascination with the weather developed into something more: direction for his education and career. 

“My interest in atmospheric science has always been there, as long as I can remember,” says Benjamin. “I always knew what I wanted to study.”

Today, Benjamin is a double major in physics and in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences (EAPS) at MIT, where he has been active in the community and his research. Between ongoing climate modeling projects and a full course load, Benjamin is deeply engaged in the academic world of atmospheric science. His work recently led to his selection for the 2018 EAPS Achievement Award, given in recognition of a junior who has made exceptional achievements in leadership and coursework.

But Benjamin’s passion also continues to go beyond the classroom. 

“Whenever there's interesting weather, I like to go out in it,” he says. 

Last year during a wind storm, Benjamin and a friend sat on a nearby bridge and leaned forward against the power of the wind. Over the past few summers while conducting research in Colorado, he joined friends to go storm chasing after hail and tornadoes. Last January, he says he walked around through one of the snow storms and recorded videos of the rising surge. “I must have walked 10 miles that day,” he says. 

While fascinating to him, Benjamin acknowledges that these storms seriously impact many people. After major hurricanes hit the Caribbean in 2017, Benjamin’s father returned to help his family recover. “You have to respect these types of storms,” Benjamin says. 

An easy decision 

Homeschooled near Atlanta, Benjamin came to MIT with his sights already set on atmospheric science. 

His early interest in weather and climate systems strengthened during an internship with his local National Weather Service office during high school, as well as his selection for the Research Science Institute (RSI) at MIT. Run by the Center for Excellence in Education, this program brings 80 of the world’s most accomplished high school students to MIT to experience the entire research cycle. Benjamin worked with ocean engineering professors to examine river runoff following typhoons. He credits these experiences as his first glimpses of true atmospheric science research.

“They really solidified the value of what I wanted to do,” said Benjamin. “RSI also elevated MIT in my eyes because I gained familiarity with a variety of programs and learned about the opportunities here.” 

Benjamin knew that MIT had strong departments in each of the areas he was interested in: atmospheric science, physics, and computer science. After his application was accepted, Benjamin says “it was a pretty easy decision to come here.”

His decision was further validated during the first-year preorientation program called Discover EAPS, which allows incoming first-year students to explore extreme weather and climate through lab and field work. There, Benjamin first met EAPS Senior Lecturer Lodovica Illari. He has been inspired by Illari and her work ever since. 

“She's my favorite professor,” said Benjamin. “And she's the nicest person you'll ever meet.”

Benjamin recognized the importance of this program as an early introduction to EAPS research. He went on to be involved as a teaching assistant for Discover EAPS during the summers of 2017 and 2018. 

During his first year at MIT, Benjamin says he decided to major in physics out of love for the subject. He soon added a major in EAPS and a minor in computer science.

While people may picture atmospheric scientists out in the field, Benjamin spends most of his time at a laptop writing code. He says that taking computer science classes on artificial intelligence and machine learning has been more useful in his field than he could have anticipated. 

“I went into computer science to learn all the buzzwords so I could at least know what's going on,” he said. “But I think it's been really useful because I have a much better understanding of how to write good code. No matter what job I get in the future, I think it will be very useful.” 

Engaging in research 

In addition to his full plate of coursework, Benjamin has pursued several research opportunities at MIT and beyond. In the summer of 2017, he participated in the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. His climate modeling research examined the impacts of climate change on circulation patterns and the implications for pollutant transport and surface air quality. Benjamin presented his findings at the 2018 American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting, and won the undergraduate poster award. 

Over the summer of 2018, he returned to Boulder through a NOAA Hallin Scholarship. Working in a NOAA lab, he decided to build on his previous research and examine stratospheric ozone intrusions. In low pressure systems, Benjamin explains, an infusion of stratospheric air can dump ozone and cause certain cities to surpass ozone thresholds. He presented this work at the 2019 AMS annual meeting and at the 2018 American Geophysical Union annual meeting.

Now in his senior year, Benjamin continues to expand on this work through his thesis research with Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies. He is exploring different parameters and aspects of model construction, including how stratospheric chemistry and other factors influence model outcomes. 

He is also working with Chris Hill, principal research engineer in EAPS, on an initiative to improve global climate models and reduce uncertainty. Benjamin says these models aim to capture smaller scale features such as low clouds over the ocean, which elude existing models but can impact climate. 

“Our current climate models have a lot of sources of error,” Benjamin says. “[This team] wants to build better climate models that use recent computing advances and other techniques to quickly and scalably make proper predictions.”

Building community

In addition to his work with EAPS, Benjamin says he has enjoyed being involved with the MIT community. 

Through the MIT Weather and Climate Club, Benjamin has participated in a national weather forecasting competition called the WxChallenge, in which MIT is often ranked the top national team. Made up of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, each university’s team forecasts the high and low temperature, amounts of wind and rain, and other factors for a particular city.

“It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” says Benjamin. “I have friends at other universities who study atmospheric science, so we’re always chatting about how everyone is doing in the competition. It’s really fun.”

Working with the Undergraduate Association Sustainability Committee, Benjamin also helped out with projects including expanding dorm composting efforts and improving recycling on campus. He also assisted with outreach efforts such as gathering student volunteers to pick up trash by the Charles River.

Benjamin says he will always remember these volunteer experiences at MIT. 

“I like to be active and make changes in the community,” says Benjamin. “You may forget certain classes, but you don't really forget the experience of interfacing with the administration about how recycling should work.” Looking ahead to his future, Benjamin is currently applying to graduate school. He hopes to leverage his background in computer science to solve issues in climate modeling. As for his father, Benjamin says he, too, continues to keep an eye to the skies. “I think he’s happy with my choice of career.”

Students helping to make islands carbon neutral

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 3:05pm

Small island communities across the globe are facing some of the earliest and most severe impacts of climate change. Many have started to turn away from traditional energy sources to reduce their own carbon footprints and inspire broader conversations on the urgent need for all communities to help mitigate climate change by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Recently, the Massachusetts island community of Martha’s Vineyard engaged with MIT students to discuss pathways toward a net-zero carbon future. Getting to net-zero carbon emissions entails transitioning to low- or no-carbon energy generation, employing energy efficiency measures, offsetting emissions by purchasing carbon credits, and other measures.

Prompted by the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee, Martha’s Vineyard is looking to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030. Even with its relatively small carbon footprint, the Vineyard could serve as a model for other island communities.

To meet this challenge, Martha’s Vineyard is collaborating with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) to develop a multifaceted action plan. As a first step, MITEI hosted a net-zero carbon design thinking workshop during Independent Activities Period in January. The week-long program offered participants a chance to creatively explore clean energy options through a process known as the design thinking model. The workshop was co-hosted with Shell, a founding member of MITEI.

Design thinking is a uniquely collaborative process where groups are constantly engaged in out-of-the-box thought exercises and activities such as fast-paced brainstorming and rapid prototyping sessions. While still relatively new, the concept has proven itself time and time again as an effective problem-solving tool.

For senior Allison Shepard, the design thinking process has changed how she thinks about everything. “Design thinking really brings creativity and hands-on, quick thinking to the forefront and makes things happen,” she says.

During the workshop, graduate and undergraduate students from MIT, Harvard University, and Tufts University worked in three cross-institutional groups that each tackled a separate energy-related issue on Martha’s Vineyard. One group addressed transportation, another focused on agriculture, and the third looked at the issue of the economic stability of year-round Martha’s Vineyard residents. With the help of design thinking experts from Viessmann, a German manufacturer of heating, industrial, and refrigeration systems, the students say they experienced a continuous state of creative flow that produced innovative results.

At the beginning of the week, students were introduced to the conditions on Martha’s Vineyard and to the basics of design thinking. As the workshop progressed, the group explored more complex topics that presented new opportunities and challenges.

Through brainstorming sessions involving hundreds of sticky notes, LEGO prototypes, and numerous cups of coffee, each team devised a unique remedy for carbon reduction on the island. At the end of the week, each group presented their solutions to Martha’s Vineyard residents and stakeholders.

Antje Danielson, MITEI’s director of education, led the effort, assisted by Aisling O’Grady, a MITEI project coordinator. They engaged a series of experts, Martha’s Vineyard stakeholders, and industry leaders to help teach and work with the students. The workshop was also connected to National Science Foundation-funded research that Danielson performs on model-based reasoning, which is closely related to design thinking.

Rob Hannemann ScD ’75 was the main point of contact on the island and initially proposed the idea of a collaboration between MITEI and Martha’s Vineyard.

“My goal in working with the Institute was to tap MITEI’s expertise,” he says. He believes that this collaboration is mutually beneficial as it not only helps Martha’s Vineyard work toward its goal of net-zero carbon, but also provides MIT with “a conceptual test bed” where researchers can study the effects of clean energy technologies on a micro scale.

In the workshop, Danielson introduced students to the process of design thinking to see how group dynamics were affected in collaborative environments.

“Every grad student starts off wanting to change the world,” she says. “But how do they get from, ‘I want to change the world’ to ‘This is a project that I can do in a year for my master’s degree’?”

Danielson believes that the distinctly cooperative nature of the design thinking model and other methods can play key roles in helping students gain a more comprehensive understanding of their respective fields and develop actionable plans. She says she is excited to see where the ideas generated in the workshop may go.

“Many communities in the U.S. have now set timelines for going to net-zero carbon — not an easy task. The collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard allows us to train our students in this area,” she says. “By working on a real example, they can practice using new tools and apply their skills in a safe but meaningful way.”

This workshop was supported by the National Science Foundation and Shell. 

Aaron Weber contributed to this article.

President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone visits MIT

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 2:47pm

In just 10 months in office as the Republic of Sierra Leone’s fifth democratically elected president, Julius Maada Bio has already laid out and begun to implement one of Africa’s most ambitious agendas, aimed at transforming the impoverished nation into a major hub for technology and innovation. In a visit to MIT on Thursday, he stressed the importance of partnerships and alliances in bringing this vision to reality, and talked about some initial collaborations with MIT that are already underway, with more under discussion.

The visit, which included a delegation of officials from Sierra Leone and continued on to a series of meetings at Harvard University, was initiated by MIT alumnus David Moinina Sengeh, SM ’12, PhD ’16, who was appointed last year by President Bio to head the newly created Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) and to serve as chief innovation officer.

The visit included a tour of MIT’s Media Lab, where Sengeh earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. The tour was led by the lab’s founding director Nicholas Negroponte and included visits to several different research groups. The Media Lab has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sierra Leone government, initiating a series of collaborations including opportunities for visiting students and joint research projects between MIT and universities in Sierra Leone. 

In introducing President Bio for a public talk before the tour, MIT Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma described the recently elected president’s “very ambitious and inspiring national development plan” for the next five years, “which focuses on ‘human capital’ development, [including] health and education, a diversified and resilient green economy, strengthening an inclusive, just, peaceful state, and a competitive economy with a well-developed infrastructure.”

President Bio (pronounced “BEE-oh”) said that already, “we’ve been able to accomplish quite a lot,” despite having “inherited a nearly bankrupt state,” saddled with huge debt and failing institutions. While many people outside the small West African nation so far mostly associate it with its brutal war and its outbreak of the ebola virus, he said, “what we want to do is change all of that narrative.”

He said that while this is “a daunting task, I admit,” it’s one they have already begun to make progress on. As one measure to begin dealing with their strained economy, the government has set up an independent commission of inquiry focused on corrupt officials from past administrations, with the aim of recovering money that was pilfered from public funds, and using it toward the new development goals.

In working to bring about sustainable development, Bio said, “you cannot do that without a quality education.” One of the essential needs is for “people and institutions who can share knowledge, valuable knowledge that is good for our development.” Part of the reason for his trip to Cambridge, he said, was to seek out ways of fostering such knowledge-sharing through an emphasis on collaborations with leading thinkers, institutions, and groups.

In a nation where 60 percent of adults can’t read or write, education is clearly a key need, and that has become “our flagship program,” he said. Investing in Sierra Leone’s human capital, he said, is the best investment they can make as a nation. They have already declared their intention to support free, quality education for all, from preprimary through high school, he said. “That is ongoing now,” despite the nation’s limited financial resources, so that “even the poorest of the poor” will have access to new opportunities.

A second part of his three-pronged plan, he said, is to make sure that those educated brains are housed in bodies that are healthy and strong, by improving access to quality health care. And finally, to maintain those healthy bodies, another essential part of the plan is to work toward greater food and water security.

To encourage investment in the nation, he is working to streamline and simplify tax codes and regulations, to make it easier for businesses to become established there. “We want to set up a one-stop shop for all investments” to help guide entrepreneurs through the process, he said. The nation has strong potential for new industries in solar energy, natural gas, and other energy technologies, he said.

“Technology can help us to catch up, and maybe even lead the process of development one day,” he said. That’s why he established the new Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation, “to bring to bear on the process of development things that can make the process easier. We want to leverage the benefits of information and communications technology to promote entrepreneurship and development. That’s why we see science and technology as a way to seed innovation.”

The new and growing collaborations with MIT might help in that process. With support from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, four MIT students, along with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, have already spent time in Sierra Leone, working with the DSTI to advance existing research projects and assist in software development projects. The recently signed memorandum of understanding with the Media Lab will allow more such visits to take place, including work on a water monitoring project, and DSTI researchers will also be spending time doing research at the Media Lab; similar exchanges are expected over the summer. Meanwhile, discussions about further collaborations are ongoing.

Sierra Leone’s Njala University will also become a member of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab to transform its education system, with goals of empowering students with skills for success and promoting high-impact research. At the event, Professor Hazel Sive, director of Higher Education @ J-WEL, presented Aiah Gbakima, Sierra Leone minister of technical and higher education, with a J-WEL membership certificate.

Sengeh, speaking at the public talk, drew comparisons between the atmosphere of MIT and what he sees in his home country. “The same things that are true at MIT are also true at Freetown,” the capital city, he said. He cited the same kind of freedom to explore ideas creatively that he experienced at MIT and also in Sierra Leone’s statehouse with the new directorate. “We’re lucky to have a leadership in Freetown who create that sense of freedom for thinking about science and innovation. … The president and I talk about blockchain in his office, yes, we talk about IoT [the internet of things]. And that is a wonderful and special place to be in, where you have a leadership who engage technically.”

Speaking about the new agreements on cooperation, Sengeh said “what is amazing about this relationship is I know that Sierra Leone and MIT will be together, and this is an equal co-partnership that is based on mutual respect, empathy, and a desire to change the world.”

MARC 2019 shines a light on research in microsystems, nanotechnology, and more

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 2:35pm

Featuring the work of 44 research groups affiliated with six departments, the 2019 Microsystems Annual Research Conference (MARC) recently brought faculty and students together with industry partners in a diverse showcase for the latest MIT research in research in microsystems, nanotechnology, and more.

Presented at the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the two-day event included more than 100 pitch-style presentations, keynote speeches from industry leaders, a networking luncheon, and two poster sessions spanning 10 technical areas.

MARC is led and organized by a student committee, with support from the staff of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL). This year’s conference co-chairs were Sırma Örgüç and Alex Hanson, PhD candidates in electrical engineering and computer science.

“MARC is a unique event bringing the entirety of MTL together: students, industry, faculty, and staff. Each year is new and fresh as attendees present their research, connect MIT with industry, and enjoy social activities in- and outdoors,” says Örgüç, part of the Energy-Efficient Circuits and Systems group, led by professor and School of Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan. “Students really look forward to its academic, career, and social value. MARC makes MTL a community.”

The two keynote speakers were Sophie Vandebroek, vice president of emerging technology partnerships at IBM, and Nevada Sanchez, co-founder of Butterfly Network, a manufacturer of a handheld ultrasound device that connects to a smartphone. They were joined at MARC by other industry representatives drawn from the 13 companies in the Microsystems Industrial Group (MIG), the MTL corporate consortium.

The goal for the annual event, according to MARC organizers, is to convey the breadth of state-of-the-art technologies emerging from the MTL research community and to foster conversation and engagement between MIT researchers and MIG members.

“The industry presence at MARC is really indispensable. Every year I see students and industry engineers sparking new ideas, suggesting collaborations, and arranging for internships and jobs,” says Hanson, the PhD co-chair and a member of the Power Electronics Research Group led by Professor David Perrault in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “Students get a view into the amazing work at MIG companies through the MIG pitches as well as targeted interactions at mealtime. It adds a reality to MARC, with insights into real-world constraints as well as real-world interest in students’ research.”

MARC is part of a weeklong series of events at MTL called MTL EXPO that also includes the annual meeting of the Industrial Advisory Board and StartUP@MTL, an event showcasing recent startups that have roots in MTL.

“MARC is a great opportunity to stay abreast of MIT’s leading-edge research and connect with its world-class students, so I look forward to attending every year,” said Nerissa Draeger, director of university engagements, Lam Research. “MTL, and now MIT.nano, are centers of excellence for some of the most advanced research in nanoscale processes and devices which is relevant to Lam Research and our customers. The student pitches and poster sessions provide an opportunity to learn more about this advanced research and how it might impact industry.”

MTL was formed in the early 1980s to bring faculty and students together to share experimental resources to advance the field of silicon-integrated circuit technology. It has been both an intellectual nexus for innovation in this field and the manager of the toolsets and facilities needed to carry out the research, says Jesús del Alamo, the MTL director.

“Over the years, the MTL charter broadened many times over to accommodate the explosive interest in nanotechnology in an ever-widening range of materials and devices for a multiplicity of applications,” says del Alamo, who is also Donner Professor and professor of electrical engineering in EECS. “The program of MARC 2019 reflects the extraordinary intellectual research that the services and facilities of MTL support.”

MTL recently passed administrative responsibility for its shared fabrication and other tools and instruments to MIT.nano, the new 200,000-square-foot nanoscale research center that launched at MIT last fall. Over the next several years, these toolsets will be transferred from their current locations in MTL to the new clean rooms and other facilities of MIT.nano.

Next year, MTL and MIT.nano will co-sponsor MARC as part of a close and coordinated relationship to jointly support the faculty, students, and member companies associated with MTL.

A new way to calculate global intensive care unit mortality risk

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 2:00pm

A man with a history of cardiac arrhythmia is admitted to an emergency room in Virginia, with symptoms of chest pain and irregular heartbeat. Based on factors such as age, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and platelet count, doctors are able to determine the likelihood of his surviving under intensive care. They do this with the help of an intensive care unit (ICU) severity-of-illness score, the most common of which is the APACHE system. APACHE — Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation — was originally designed in the early 1980s as a tool for predicting, then presenting critical-care mortality risk in a simplified format.

With vital signs and serum levels checked, the man is estimated to have a 7 percent risk, suggesting a relatively low probability of dying during his ICU stay. The hospital will use this score to later assess its own performance, and compare similar patients’ outcomes with those of other hospitals.

Yet had the patient been Australian and brought to a critical care unit in Perth, the U.S.-centric APACHE score might have proven less useful, with his chances of survival a more complex matter, says Jesse Raffa, a research scientist at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and lead developer of a new scoring system known as the Global Open Source Severity of Illness Score, or GOSSIS.

“It would be difficult to say if a model developed on American patients is relevant to such a patient in Australia,” Raffa says. “What we’re trying to do is come up with something more internationally appropriate.”

With GOSSIS, Raffa and a group of collaborators are looking to collect and incorporate hospital data from a range of countries, thus creating a truly universal ICU severity-of-illness score to be used in a variety of settings. Raff and the group — co-researchers Alistair Johnson, Tom Pollard, David Pilcher, and Omar Badawi, advised by Principal Research Scientist Leo Anthony Celi and part of the Laboratory for Computational Physiology, led by Professor Roger Mark at IMES, who along with participating hospitals are collectively titled the GOSSIS Consortium — aims also to provide a better calibrated system than older models. Initial funding for GOSSIS was provided by Philips Healthcare and the National Institutes of Health.

“APACHE’s primary use is for hospitals to monitor how well they’re doing,” Raffa says. “And calibration is important for benchmarking, or comparing survival statistics against those of other hospitals, and then assessing relative performance.”

While hospitals generally have an idea of their own patient mortality rates, Raffa says, well-calibrated prediction models are often lacking, making comparison to their peers difficult. “When you have a systematic approach — a validated algorithm — this leads to more accurate benchmarking of your center.”

Nearly 45 U.S. hospitals currently contribute data to APACHE IV, a recent iteration of APACHE. In contrast, as of early 2019, GOSSIS-ready datasets exist for critical-care units in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and 205 American hospitals. Combined with the international consortium members, the GOSSIS system will provide data from a total of more than 1,000 medical facilities.

An additional proposed benefit of GOSSIS: its cost-effectiveness. Unlike pricey APACHE scores, often challenging to obtain for hospitals with fewer resources and which cannot be considered fully analogous to reports from other countries, GOSSIS can be accessed, as well as added to, free of charge — a potential boon for the system, as with increased and more active participation, the algorithm itself has the unique opportunity to be regularly updated, and improved.

“GOSSIS is an important initiative for numerous reasons,” says Celi. “Foremost is its open-source nature, which allows for continuous evaluation and recalibration of the algorithm. This is difficult with proprietary scoring systems and would typically be accompanied by the vendors charging more for these services. The second reason is participation of a much larger number of countries that are traditionally left out from development of such scores. By having these countries contribute data to train the algorithm, it’s more likely that the algorithm will perform well on their population.”

Although GOSSIS will be available to any hospital seeking access, the researchers encourage as many intensive care units as possible, worldwide, to upload their data.

“By contributing their own critical care data, hospitals ensure they are well represented in the algorithm. Often hospitals are collecting all or part of these data elements anyway, particularly if they are using some other scoring system,” Raffa says.

He adds that homogeneity will not be a prerequisite for uploading data. “We recognize that not everyone will have perfect data, and we chose the approach we used with this in mind.”

Badawi, head of Health Data Science and AI at Philips Patient Care Analytics, is hopeful the system will have a major impact. “In 10 years’ time, we would envision a large consortium of data contributed from every region around the globe, which would enable for a variety of open source risk models to be available across countries.”

In its initial stages of adoption, GOSSIS is already gaining wide attention from the medical community. On Feb. 19, Raffa and his colleagues were accorded the Silver Medal Award for their work by the Society of Critical Care Medicine in San Diego. Reflecting on the award, Raffa says he was honored, especially as a data scientist, to be acknowledged by an organization of medical professionals.

“Having the team recognized with this award is an honor, and I think it illustrates well that data science, particularly when done collaboratively with clinicians, will have an important role in the future of clinical research,” Raffa says.

For more information and to become a part of the GOSSIS consortium, visit

Tackling poverty, one person at a time

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 12:00am

When Staten Island-native Sarah Tress first arrived at MIT, she had never been outside of the United States. Now, almost four years later, she’s travelled across Asia, spending weeks at a time in India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. But the reason for all this travel hasn’t been sightseeing — she’s been working to reduce poverty, one person at a time.

Tress began her studies at MIT on a premed track. However, a MISTI internship at a hospital in a poor region of India in the summer after her first year made her feel there was a different application for her skills. Seeing homeless people living just outside the hospital’s gated entrance, and recognizing her privilege as an MIT student and a U.S. citizen, she shifted her goals.

“There are so many people trying to get so few med school spots, a lot of people would happily take my spot if I were to get in. But working to fight poverty is not nearly as popular of a career choice,” she says.

While those in the medical field may see more of an immediate impact to their work, Tress feels  each individual effort to fight poverty makes a difference. Poverty may be a broad and international problem — but we have to start somewhere, she says.

Tress was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship last November for her work in developing countries. But before that, she was a mechanical engineering major who wanted to make an impact — and she happened to take a class on wheelchairs that would inspire her to do just that.

Making a life-saving product more affordable

In her sophomore year, Tress took EC. 721 (D-Lab: Mobility Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries), a class about wheelchairs, offered by MIT D-Lab. She learned that pressure sores — areas of damaged tissue that arise from sitting or lying down too long with improper cushioning — were one of the leading causes of preventable death for people with disabilities in developing countries.

Wheelchairs in these countries typically come with one foam cushion that costs under $10. The cushions flatten quickly, becoming ineffective, but due to financial limitations or lack of access users often don’t replace them. The best cushions cost up to $400, making them out of reach for many low-income users.

With support from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust and a Tau Beta Pi Engineering Service Grant, Tress spent weeks the following summer visiting wheelchair factories in Vietnam and interviewing wheelchair users in Indonesia, getting a better sense of their needs. It wasn’t the easiest trip.

“Traveling solo throughout Southeast Asia for six weeks is definitely a challenge of its own, which involves losing credit cards. And getting sick by yourself is terrible. But the learning experiences were great,” she says.

She came up with an idea for a new cushion — one that would be high in quality, like the $400 version, but at a cost of $10 or less. With support from the D-Lab, she designed a product with three bicycle inner tubes looped through a plastic base, forming an array of air cells. The aim was to make a cushion with a simple design and easy-to-find components, which users could either fix them themselves or buy replacements for. That device — now named Loop — has since been fashioned into a prototype, with hopes of passing on the project to other MIT students in the coming years.

Wrestling with philosophy

In addition to her mechanical engineering major, Tress has also pursued a concentration in ethics. She is deeply engaged by questions of right and wrong, and is fascinated by the absence of easy answers.

“Most ethical, moral questions for me are very gray, and it’s very hard to say definitively this is good, or this is bad,” she says. “I really like thinking about those questions, because people are too quick to say something is good or too bad.”

As she’s gotten more involved in reducing poverty, she’s started to take more classes in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and cites 24.236 (Topics in Social Theory and Practice), 14.74 (Foundations of Development Policy), and 17.317 (U.S. Social Policy) as among the most influential. “I can't imagine being an effective engineer attempting to reduce poverty without understanding the complexity of poverty,” Tress says. “These classes have helped me understand the world as a whole. Engineering of course is great, because it lets you do things that are really great for the world, but if you don’t understand the context that you’re putting it in, you’re … not as great of an engineer.”

The art of engineering

An ACL tear in her senior year of high school dashed Tress’s hopes of playing on MIT’s varsity soccer team, but that hasn’t stopped her from enjoying the sport. She’s an active player on the club team, where she’s been a co-captain since her junior year, and enjoys being part of a community that plays just for the love of the game.

Participating in DanceTroupe for four years has also been a great experience. She started with beginner dances, but now participates in four advanced routines per semester, ranging from hip hop to bhangra and anything in between. Art is another hobby that she’s frequently trying to find time for. Last year, she painted a mural in her East Campus bedroom, of the famous painting “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This fall, she also took 21M.601 (Drawing for Designer)s, where she learned how to draw the human figure. For her, art and engineering aren’t separate.

“I consider the engineering stuff I do to be the same kind of artistic outlet. It’s very hands on when I’m machining things or just actually making the physical products,” she says. “For me that’s like a way to do art.”

Tress has been an undergraduate apprentice in MIT's mechanical engineering shop, the Pappalardo Lab, for the past two years, where she has served as a shop TA for 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). When she took this class as a sophomore, she had to create a robot to be entered in a class competition. Because this was her first experience with fabrication, she was unsure of how to use many of the machines and felt extremely self-conscious. She noted that many of the annual winners were males, who often had more prior experience in robotics or relevant fields than their female counterparts. In the end, however, she built a robot she was proud of and became comfortable with those machines that once confounded her.

“Part of being a Pappalardo Apprentice for me is being able to show women in 2.007 that they can overcome the disadvantages they may have faced throughout all of the years before, and can be amazing mechanical engineers that can make designs and products they are really proud of, with just a bit of grit,” Tress says.

“I want to show that the face of success in mechanical engineering at MIT is not a male one, but anyone.”

Oxford and beyond

When Tress found out that she had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, she and her family were stunned. She says she is incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

“Many people deserve awards like these, but it is more often luck and privilege that determines who gets them,” she says. “I am so privileged and lucky to have received an opportunity so few who completely deserve it will ever get, and so I will use it to the best of my ability to create opportunities for others.”

As a Rhodes Scholar, Tress will attend Oxford University, where she will pursue an MPhil in development studies. She has a firm foundation in engineering from her time at MIT and wants to spend the next few years getting a deeper understanding of how poverty arises and how it can be reduced. She doesn’t know exactly what her next project will look like, but she wants to use her skills and her understanding to have the greatest possible impact on alleviating suffering in the developing world.

“Part of it is learning what approaches to development exist so that I get a better understanding of where I could fit in within the whole big picture,” she says.

Combining artificial intelligence with their passions

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 5:30pm

Computational thinking will be the mark of an MIT education when the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing opens this fall, and glimpses of what's to come were on display during the final reception of a three-day celebration of the college Feb. 26-28.

In a tent filled with electronic screens, students and postdocs took turns explaining how they had created something new by combining computing with topics they felt passionate about, including predicting panic selling on Wall Street, analyzing the filler ingredients in common drugs, and developing more energy-efficient software and hardware. The poster session featured undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs from each of MIT’s five schools. Eight projects are highlighted here.

Low-cost screening tool for genetic mutations linked to autism

Autism is thought to have a strong genetic basis, but few of the genetic mutations responsible have been found. In collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, MIT researchers are using AI to explore autism’s hidden origins. 

Working with his advisors, Bonnie Berger and Po-Ru Loh, professors of math and medicine at MIT and Harvard respectively, graduate student Maxwell Sherman has helped develop an algorithm to detect previously unidentified mutations in people with autism which cause some cells to carry too much or too little DNA. 

The team has found that up to 1 percent of people with autism carry the mutations, and that inexpensive consumer genetic tests can detect them with a mere saliva sample. Hundreds of U.S. children who carry the mutations and are at risk for autism could be identified this way each year, researchers say.  

“Early detection of autism gives kids earlier access to supportive services,” says Sherman, “and that can have lasting benefits.” 

Can deep learning models be trusted?

As AI systems automate more tasks, the need to evaluate their decisions and alert the public to possible failures has taken on new urgency. In a project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, graduate student Lily Weng is helping to build an efficient, general framework for quantifying how easily deep neural networks can be tricked or misled into making mistakes.

Working with a team led by Pin-Yu Chen, a researcher at IBM, and Luca Daniel, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), Weng developed a method that reports how much each individual input can be altered before the neural network makes a mistake. The team is now expanding the framework to larger, and more general neural networks, and developing tools to quantify their level of vulnerability based on different ways of measuring input-alteration. The work has spawned a series of papers, summarized in a recent MIT-IBM blog post.

Mapping the spread of Ebola virus

By the time the Ebola virus spread from Guinea and Liberia to Sierra Leone in 2014, the government was prepared. It quickly closed its schools and shut its borders with the two countries. Still, relative to its population, Sierra Leone fared worse than its neighbors, with 14,000 suspected infections and 4,000 deaths.

Marie Charpignon, a graduate student in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), wanted to know why. Her search became a final project for Network Science and Models, a class taught by Patrick Jaillet, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor in EECS. 

In a network analysis of trade, migration, and World Health Organization data, Charpignon discovered that a severe shortage of medical resources seemed to explain why Ebola had caused relatively more devastation in Sierra Leone, despite the country’s precautions.

“Sierra Leone had one doctor for every 30,000 residents, and the doctors were the first to be infected,” she says. “That further reduced the availability of medical help.” 

If Sierra Leone had not acted as decisively, she says, the outbreak could have been far worse. Her results suggest that epidemiology models should factor in where hospitals and medical staff are clustered to better predict how an epidemic will unfold.

An AI for sustainable, economical buildings

When labor is cheap, buildings are designed to use fewer materials, but as labor costs rise, design choices shift to inefficient but easily constructed buildings. That’s why much of the world today favors buildings made of standardized steel-reinforced concrete, says graduate student Mohamed Ismail.

AI is now changing the design equation. In collaboration with TARA, a New Delhi-based nonprofit, Ismail and his advisor, Caitlin Mueller, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are using computational tools to reduce the amount of reinforced concrete in India’s buildings.

“We can, once again, make structural performance part of the architectural design process, and build exciting, elegant buildings that are also efficient and economical,” says Ismail. 

The work involves calculating how much load a building can bear as the shape of its design shifts. Ismael and Mueller developed an optimization algorithm to compute a shape that would maximize efficiency and provide a sculptural element. The hybrid nature of reinforced concrete, which is both liquid and solid, brittle and ductile, was one challenge they had to overcome. Making sure the models would translate on the ground, by staying in close contact with the client, was another.

“If something didn’t work, I could remotely connect to my computer at MIT, adjust the code, and have a new design ready for TARA within an hour,” says Ismail. 

Robots that understand language

The more that robots can engage with humans, the more useful they become. That means asking for feedback when they get confused and seamlessly absorbing new information as they interact with us and their environment. Ideally, this means moving to a world in which we talk to robots instead of programming them. 

In a project led by Boris Katz, a researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Nicholas Roy, a professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, graduate student Yen-Ling Kuo has designed a set of experiments to understand how humans and robots can cooperate and what robots must learn to follow commands.

In one video game experiment, volunteers are asked to drive a car full of bunnies through an obstacle course of walls and pits of flames. It sounds like “absurdist comedy,” Kuo admits, but the goal is straightforward: to understand how humans plot a course through hazardous conditions while interpreting the actions of others around them. Data from the experiments will be used to design algorithms that help robots to plan and explain their understanding of what others are doing.

A deep learning tool to unlock your inner artist 

Creativity is thought to play an important role in healthy aging, with research showing that creative people are better at adapting to the challenges of old age. The trouble is, not everyone is in touch with their inner artist. 

“Maybe they were accountants, or worked in business and don’t see themselves as creative types,” says Guillermo Bernal, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. “I started to think, what if we could leverage deep learning models to help people explore their creative side?”

With Media Lab professor Pattie Maes, Bernal developed Paper Dreams, an interactive storytelling tool that uses generative models to give the user a shot of inspiration. As a sketch unfolds, Paper Dreams imagines how the scene could develop further and suggests colors, textures, and new objects for the artist to add. A “serendipity dial” lets the artist decide how off-beat they want the suggestions to be.

“Seeing the drawing and colors evolve in real-time as you manipulate them is a magical experience,” says Bernal, who is exploring ways to make the platform more accessible.

Preventing maternal deaths in Rwanda

The top cause of death for new mothers in Rwanda are infections following a caesarean section. To identify at-risk mothers sooner, researchers at MIT, Harvard Medical School, Brigham Women’s Hospital, and Partners in Health, Rwanda, are developing a computational tool to predict whether a mother’s post-surgical wound is likely to be infected.  

Researchers gathered C-section wound photos from 527 women, using health workers who captured the pictures with their smartphones 10 to 12 days after surgery. Working with his advisor, Richard Fletcher, a researcher in MIT’s D-Lab, graduate student Subby Olubeko helped train a pair of models to pick out the wounds that developed into infections.  When they tested the logistic regression model on the full dataset, it gave almost perfect predictions. 

The color of the wound’s drainage, and how bright the wound appears at its center, are two of the features the model picks up on, says Olubeko. The team plans to run a field experiment this spring to collect wound photos from a more diverse group of women and to shoot infrared images to see if they reveal additional information.

Do native ads shape our perception of the news?

The migration of news to the web has given advertisers the ability to place ever more personalized, engaging ads amid high-quality news stories. Often masquerading as legitimate news, so-called “native” ads, pushed by content recommendation networks, have brought badly needed revenue to the struggling U.S. news industry. But at what cost?

“Native ads were supposed to help the news industry cope with the financial crisis, but what if they’re reinforcing the public’s mistrust of the media and driving readers away from quality news?” says graduate student Manon Revel

Claims of fake news dominated the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, but politicized native ads were also common. Curious to measure their reach, Revel joined a project led by Adam Berinsky, a professor in MIT’s Department of Political ScienceMunther Dahleh, a professor in EECS and director of IDSS, Dean Eckles, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Ali Jadbabaie, a CEE professor who is associate director of IDSS.  

Analyzing a sample of native ads that popped up on readers’ screens before the election, they found that 25 percent could be considered highly political, and that 75 percent fit the description of clickbait. A similar trend emerged when they looked at coverage of the 2018 midterm elections. The team is now running experiments to see how exposure to native ads influences how readers rate the credibility of real news. 

Spenser’s "Faerie Queene" as a modern visual comic

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 11:45am

Adapting a story — from page to screen, or from biography to fiction — is a precarious process, as a narrative is reinvented in the translation from one medium to another, often radically different medium from the original.

Junior Ivy Li, a double major in literature and physics, navigated a particularly gnarly adaptation process recently while studying one of the legendary works of English literature.  

Edmund Spenser’s "The Faerie Queene" is a phantasmagoric adventure, a 16th century epic poem by a contemporary of Shakespeare. It’s also immense, stretching over six books of challenging material. In course 21L.705 (Major Authors: Avatars, Allegory, and Apocalypse in Spenser’s "Faerie Queene") MIT students wrangle with understanding, and ultimately transforming, this monumental work.

Professor Mary Fuller, who teaches 21L.705 and heads the MIT Literature section, explains the historical background for her students’ 21st century creative engagements with "The Faerie Queene": “From 1596 on, Spenser’s readers have been interacting with the poem to produce new paratextual material: tools to navigate and understand the text, adaptation in other genres and media, additions to a work that is both massive and notoriously unfinished.”

This tradition of “active reading,” which both elucidates and expands a story, is the basis of Fuller’s course; her students work to contextualize Spenser’s many-layered narrative. Written at the dawn of a nascent British Empire struggling to find its national identity, the text is a successor to medieval chivalric romance, and has since seen sprawling use in fantasy genres and modern allegory. It’s a famously meandering story rife with knightly quests, flexible gender roles, sharp comedy, and political argument.

Li says Spenser’s epic poem “is essentially an alternate-universe fan fiction,” the story of King Arthur “before he was king: a virtuous man is destined for glory, but he needs to wander a bit first.”

Each week, the students in Fuller’s class plot the roaming, narrative arc of the poem, visually storyboarding and mapping the movement of characters and events through the story’s six books. The coursework includes research presentations and analytical writing, alongside what the syllabus calls “a modest amount of creative work.”

Li took that creative charge above and beyond. Pouring 70 hours of work into the creative final project over “a two-week drawing binge,” Li produced a detailed, stylized, and striking visual comic adaption of a particularly difficult portion of The Faerie Queene’s fourth book. 

“Using roughly a tenth as many words as the original,” writes Professor Fuller, “[Li’s adaptation] makes shapely narrative from a part of the poem that used to be considered incoherent and obscure. Ivy also makes sure you get the jokes.”

For Li, the study of both literature and physics is based in a deep aesthetic appreciation of the universe and the human condition.

“Physics and literature both search for explanations to the universe around us,” writes Li, “one through mathematics and experimentation, the other, through words. The fact that there's some fundamental truth that can be explained through human language is incredible to me.”

Participating in the MIT Arts Scholars program, and serving as an arts editor for The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, have also provided Li opportunities to develop a deeper understanding of the literary and visual arts, including the comic medium which Li has long admired for its malleable, interdisciplinary nature.

“Since childhood, I’ve been passionate about comics because they tell rich stories by blending elements of different media,” Li says. “Requiring the skills of a playwright and a cinematographer, the comic book medium sits snugly at the intersection between text and visual art.”

Li began honing that skill as a first-year student, jumping at the opportunity to take 21W.744 (The Sweet Art of Comic Book Writing), taught by acclaimed author Marjorie Liu. The class — technically a specialized genre fiction workshop — takes students on a survey of a wide variety of comics, from indie web comics to big corporate print titles.

During that far-ranging sampler, students explore questions of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality in narrative, and have a chance to create their own short scripts and comic book stories. Liu, the first woman to win the Eisner Award for Best Writer, the comic industry’s top writing prize, is the writer behind Black Widow, Astonishing X-Men, and most recently Monstress.

The Faerie Queene adaptation project provided the next creative frontier for Li: “At MIT, I have done some illustration and comic strip work for The Tech, but I had never before worked on something of this length and scale. I was excited yet nervous for my first full-page comic project.”

Li studied, drafted, and experimented with layouts and character designs, working from reference images of horses and knights as well as human anatomy. The project was still in full swing when the class deadline brought it to a close. Even after Li put down the fountain pen, however, the mental revising and improving continued.

“Creative work enriches my literature experience,” Li reflected, several weeks after finishing the massive endeavor, “bringing me greater insight into a work’s meaning. The magic of adaption is that interpreting a work through another medium sheds an interesting new perspective while maintaining the integrity of the original.”

Ivy Li's complete adaptation from the fourth book of Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" is available as an online digital book, accompanied by commentaries from Li and Mary Fuller. 

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Emily Hiestand, editorial director
Alison Lanier, senior communications associate

Israeli and Palestinian architects and planners seek common ground on innovation, entrepreneurship

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 11:10am

On a recent rainy day in Jerusalem, two unlikely startup partners, one Israeli and one Palestinian, sit at a table, scribbling ideas as they brainstorm with a group of visiting MIT students.

These venture partners are among six architects and urban planners who participated in Our Generation Speaks (OGS), a fellowship program based at Brandeis University. OGS was founded in 2016 by Ohad Elhelo, an Israeli entrepreneur, as a way to bring young Israelis and Palestinians to a neutral space beyond the regional conflict, where the common bond of entrepreneurship could unite them and help build relationships.

MITdesignX, a venture accelerator created three years ago in the School of Architecture and Planning, and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) partnered this year with OGS to focus part of the program on architects and planners.  

The six MITdesignX/MISTI-associated fellows — from a total of 28 in the OGS program overall — spent last summer living, working, and studying together in Boston. They arrived as strangers, but emerged as three entrepreneurial startup companies dedicated to tackling urban and design issues.

In August 2018, the fellows worked daily at MIT with the support of MITdesignX faculty, mentors, and student interns. They emerged with viable business models and new startups, and returned to the region with $50,000 per team in seed funding from OGS to start new businesses.

Since then, together with MIT students, they have been working to create new technology, products, and services designed for social impact.

“For a startup that at its core is dealing with the way people live and consume in their daily lives, the design discourse and approach that accompanies the thinking at MITdesignX was especially significant in understanding the value we offer and refining the idea through asking the right questions and building a user’s journey,” says fellow Yishai Lehavi, an Israeli architect and co-founder of one of the new ventures, Tulou, based in Tel Aviv.

“The work with the interns during the three months of the accelerator period — plus the second part of the program, which included their working with us in Israel — was significant in many ways and boosted our venture with in-depth market surveys, a detailed financial model, a mockup of our app, and constant brainstorming that challenged the idea and its potential realization,” he says.

“We could really have an impact on the evolution of the businesses,” says Ayrlea Porter, a Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) student intern. “Having the opportunity to work with the same founders, over time and across different geographies, allowed us to form deep and lasting relationships.”

A partnership emerges

After attending a demo day from the second cohort of OGS in 2017, MITdesignX Executive Director Gilad Rosenzweig saw the great potential for MIT to partner with the program.

“We found that among the OGS teams in the previous year, a couple were dealing with urban issues, specifically housing and design,” he says. “The idea quickly emerged that they should have had the resources of MITdesignX and MIT to help as well.”

Almost immediately a partnership was formed among MITdesignX, MISTI, and OGS to create an MIT track to support selected fellows with architectural, planning, and design backgrounds. Rosenzweig traveled to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramallah to join OGS interviews and choose six fellows from dozens of finalists.

MITdesignX and MISTI developed a special program for one month of the OGS fellowship, providing its workspace in Building 7, mentorship, design thinking workshops, and most important, a group of talented graduate student interns from DUSP and the Department of Architecture.

The fellows’ presence on campus created an opportunity for students at MIT to learn about planning, the environment, and housing in the region from the perspective of young professionals seeking to disrupt the status quo. The teams’ student interns helped with design work, finances, and the development of the storyline.

“The internship was the key,” says Rosenzweig. “The masters in city planning and masters in architecture students joined the three startups established by the fellows, supporting their work with knowledge and excitement.”

MISTI’s role was clear from the start: providing insight about the region and then enabling and preparing students to travel during MIT's Independent Activities Period to get hands-on experience. MISTI Assistant Director David Dolev says, “This program and others, like our MISTI-MEET program, are opportunities for our students to learn about entrepreneurship, science, and technology and its capacity to create positive change in the Middle East.”

Developing technology to manage domestic water use on the West Bank

The three startups created by the teams are Tulou, Quix, and WATA. Tulou is creating a sharing service for household equipment in apartment buildings, so that renters or owners can use a communal vacuum cleaner, drill, or ladder. Quix is a service for more transparent and affordable home maintenance and repairs.

WATA was developed by an Israeli industrial designer from Jerusalem and a water engineer and planner from the Palestinian city of Nablus. Their startup addresses an important water management issue in the West Bank and elsewhere in developing regions around the world.

Running water is not constant in the West Bank; in fact, water might be made available only once a week, and sometimes less often in high-consumption summer months. As a result, water is stored in large black tanks on rooftops of homes and apartment buildings, and families must control their use to avoid running out before water again flows through the pipes.

People have to manually check their tanks with poles to measure their supply. And stagnant water is a health concern. These conditions lead to anxiety and expense for families, especially those who need to buy more-expensive privately supplied water between deliveries. 

WATA is developing a device to measure the quantity and quality of water in rooftop tanks and deliver that information to households through a smartphone app. Data can also be used by authorities to compare and help manage water usage and prevent the emergence of harmful bacteria.

For students, contributing to the development of new urban startups and living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for three weeks in January made an impact, one that will grow next year as the program recruits its next cohort of fellows and interns.

“Working with Israeli and Palestinian fellows forced us to consider products, processes, and procedures from a perspective that was entirely new,” says Marissa Reilly, a DUSP intern. “Authentic foreign environments often feel impossible to understand as a tourist, but by working in Israel and spending time with the fellows, we were exposed to sides of the culture we would never otherwise have seen.”

New optical imaging system could be deployed to find tiny tumors

Thu, 03/07/2019 - 4:59am

Many types of cancer could be more easily treated if they were detected at an earlier stage. MIT researchers have now developed an imaging system, named “DOLPHIN,” which could enable them to find tiny tumors, as small as a couple of hundred cells, deep within the body. 

In a new study, the researchers used their imaging system, which relies on near-infrared light, to track a 0.1-millimeter fluorescent probe through the digestive tract of a living mouse. They also showed that they can detect a signal to a tissue depth of 8 centimeters, far deeper than any existing biomedical optical imaging technique.

The researchers hope to adapt their imaging technology for early diagnosis of ovarian and other cancers that are currently difficult to detect until late stages.

“We want to be able to find cancer much earlier,” says Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the newly-appointed head of MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “Our goal is to find tiny tumors, and do so in a noninvasive way.”

Belcher is the senior author of the study, which appears in the March 7 issue of Scientific Reports. Xiangnan Dang, a former MIT postdoc, and Neelkanth Bardhan, a Mazumdar-Shaw International Oncology Fellow, are the lead authors of the study. Other authors include research scientists Jifa Qi and Ngozi Eze, former postdoc Li Gu, postdoc Ching-Wei Lin, graduate student Swati Kataria, and Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and a member of the Koch Institute.

Deeper imaging

Existing methods for imaging tumors all have limitations that prevent them from being useful for early cancer diagnosis. Most have a tradeoff between resolution and depth of imaging, and none of the optical imaging techniques can image deeper than about 3 centimeters into tissue. Commonly used scans such as X-ray computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can image through the whole body; however, they can’t reliably identify tumors until they reach about 1 centimeter in size.

Belcher’s lab set out to develop new optical methods for cancer imaging several years ago, when they joined the Koch Institute. They wanted to develop technology that could image very small groups of cells deep within tissue and do so without any kind of radioactive labeling.

Near-infrared light, which has wavelengths from 900 to 1700 nanometers, is well-suited to tissue imaging because light with longer wavelengths doesn’t scatter as much as when it strikes objects, which allows the light to penetrate deeper into the tissue. To take advantage of this, the researchers used an approach known as hyperspectral imaging, which enables simultaneous imaging in multiple wavelengths of light.

The researchers tested their system with a variety of near-infrared fluorescent light-emitting probes, mainly sodium yttrium fluoride nanoparticles that have rare earth elements such as erbium, holmium, or praseodymium added through a process called doping. Depending on the choice of the doping element, each of these particles emits near-infrared fluorescent light of different wavelengths.

Using algorithms that they developed, the researchers can analyze the data from the hyperspectral scan to identify the sources of fluorescent light of different wavelengths, which allows them to determine the location of a particular probe. By further analyzing light from narrower wavelength bands within the entire near-IR spectrum, the researchers can also determine the depth at which a probe is located. The researchers call their system “DOLPHIN”, which stands for “Detection of Optically Luminescent Probes using Hyperspectral and diffuse Imaging in Near-infrared.”

To demonstrate the potential usefulness of this system, the researchers tracked a 0.1-millimeter-sized cluster of fluorescent nanoparticles that was swallowed and then traveled through the digestive tract of a living mouse. These probes could be modified so that they target and fluorescently label specific cancer cells.

“In terms of practical applications, this technique would allow us to non-invasively track a 0.1-millimeter-sized fluorescently-labeled tumor, which is a cluster of about a few hundred cells. To our knowledge, no one has been able to do this previously using optical imaging techniques,” Bardhan says.

Earlier detection

The researchers also demonstrated that they could inject fluorescent particles into the body of a mouse or a rat and then image through the entire animal, which requires imaging to a depth of about 4 centimeters, to determine where the particles ended up. And in tests with human tissue-mimics and animal tissue, they were able to locate the probes to a depth of up to 8 centimeters, depending on the type of tissue.

Guosong Hong, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, described the new method as “game-changing.”

“This is really amazing work,” says Hong, who was not involved in the research. “For the first time, fluorescent imaging has approached the penetration depth of CT and MRI, while preserving its naturally high resolution, making it suitable to scan the entire human body.”

This kind of system could be used with any fluorescent probe that emits light in the near-infrared spectrum, including some that are already FDA-approved, the researchers say. The researchers are also working on adapting the imaging system so that it could reveal intrinsic differences in tissue contrast, including signatures of tumor cells, without any kind of fluorescent label.

In ongoing work, they are using a related version of this imaging system to try to detect ovarian tumors at an early stage. Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed very late because there is no easy way to detect it when the tumors are still small.

“Ovarian cancer is a terrible disease, and it gets diagnosed so late because the symptoms are so nondescript,” Belcher says. “We want a way to follow recurrence of the tumors, and eventually a way to find and follow early tumors when they first go down the path to cancer or metastasis. This is one of the first steps along the way in terms of developing this technology.”

The researchers have also begun working on adapting this type of imaging to detect other types of cancer such as pancreatic cancer, brain cancer, and melanoma.

The research was funded by the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program, the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, the Koch Institute Support (core) Grant from the National Cancer Institute, the NCI Center for Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, and the Bridge Project.