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The latest development in textiles and fibers is a kind of soft hardware that you can wear: cloth that has electronic devices built right into it.
Researchers at MIT have now embedded high speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and diode photodetectors, within fibers that were then woven at Inman Mills, in South Carolina, into soft, washable fabrics and made into communication systems. This marks the achievement of a long-sought goal of creating “smart” fabrics by incorporating semiconductor devices — the key ingredient of modern electronics — which until now was the missing piece for making fabrics with sophisticated functionality.
This discovery, the researchers say, could unleash a new “Moore’s Law” for fibers — in other words, a rapid progression in which the capabilities of fibers would grow rapidly and exponentially over time, just as the capabilities of microchips have grown over decades.
The findings are described this week in the journal Nature in a paper by former MIT graduate student Michael Rein; his research advisor Yoel Fink, MIT professor of materials science and electrical engineering and CEO of AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America); along with a team from MIT, AFFOA, Inman Mills, EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Lincoln Laboratory.
A spool of fine, soft fiber made using the new process shows the embedded LEDs turning on and off to demonstrate their functionality. The team has used similar fibers to transmit music to detector fibers, which work even when underwater. (Courtesy of the researchers)
Optical fibers have been traditionally produced by making a cylindrical object called a “preform,” which is essentially a scaled-up model of the fiber, then heating it. Softened material is then drawn or pulled downward under tension and the resulting fiber is collected on a spool.
The key breakthrough for producing these new fibers was to add to the preform light-emitting semiconductor diodes the size of a grain of sand, and a pair of copper wires a fraction of a hair’s width. When heated in a furnace during the fiber-drawing process, the polymer preform partially liquified, forming a long fiber with the diodes lined up along its center and connected by the copper wires.
In this case, the solid components were two types of electrical diodes made using standard microchip technology: light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and photosensing diodes. “Both the devices and the wires maintain their dimensions while everything shrinks around them” in the drawing process, Rein says. The resulting fibers were then woven into fabrics, which were laundered 10 times to demonstrate their practicality as possible material for clothing.
“This approach adds a new insight into the process of making fibers,” says Rein, who was the paper’s lead author and developed the concept that led to the new process. “Instead of drawing the material all together in a liquid state, we mixed in devices in particulate form, together with thin metal wires.”
One of the advantages of incorporating function into the fiber material itself is that the resulting fiber is inherently waterproof. To demonstrate this, the team placed some of the photodetecting fibers inside a fish tank. A lamp outside the aquarium transmitted music (appropriately, Handel’s “Water Music”) through the water to the fibers in the form of rapid optical signals. The fibers in the tank converted the light pulses — so rapid that the light appears steady to the naked eye — to electrical signals, which were then converted into music. The fibers survived in the water for weeks.
Though the principle sounds simple, making it work consistently, and making sure that the fibers could be manufactured reliably and in quantity, has been a long and difficult process. Staff at the Advanced Functional Fabric of America Institute, led by Jason Cox and Chia-Chun Chung, developed the pathways to increasing yield, throughput, and overall reliability, making these fibers ready for transitioning to industry. At the same time, Marty Ellis from Inman Mills developed techniques for weaving these fibers into fabrics using a conventional industrial manufacturing-scale loom.
“This paper describes a scalable path for incorporating semiconductor devices into fibers. We are anticipating the emergence of a ‘Moore’s law’ analog in fibers in the years ahead,” Fink says. “It is already allowing us to expand the fundamental capabilities of fabrics to encompass communications, lighting, physiological monitoring, and more. In the years ahead fabrics will deliver value-added services and will no longer just be selected for aesthetics and comfort.”
He says that the first commercial products incorporating this technology will be reaching the marketplace as early as next year — an extraordinarily short progression from laboratory research to commercialization. Such rapid lab-to-market development was a key part of the reason for creating an academic-industry-government collaborative such as AFFOA in the first place, he says. These initial applications will be specialized products involving communications and safety. “It's going to be the first fabric communication system. We are right now in the process of transitioning the technology to domestic manufacturers and industry at an unprecendented speed and scale,” he says.
In addition to commercial applications, Fink says the U.S. Department of Defense — one of AFFOA’s major supporters — “is exploring applications of these ideas to our women and men in uniform.”
Beyond communications, the fibers could potentially have significant applications in the biomedical field, the researchers say. For example, devices using such fibers might be used to make a wristband that could measure pulse or blood oxygen levels, or be woven into a bandage to continuously monitor the healing process.
The research was supported in part by the MIT Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) through the MRSEC Program of the National Science Foundation, by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. This work was also supported by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
In an op-ed piece published today in The New York Times, MIT President L. Rafael Reif urges a more farsighted response to address China’s attempts to dominate cutting-edge technologies, which have included tactics such as industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property.
While strong and decisive action against such practices is essential, Reif writes, it is not enough. “[I]t would be a mistake to think that an aggressive defense alone will somehow prevent China’s technological success — or ensure America’s own,” he says.
Rather, the most important action the U.S. can take to protect its global leadership role is to redouble its core strength in innovation, starting with ground-breaking federally funded research.
China has begun to do just that, in a concerted national effort, including a project called “Made in China 2025” that aims to achieve global dominance in several key areas of technology and manufacturing. Because of these ambitious initiatives by the Chinese government, Reif writes, “stopping intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices — even if fully effective — would not allow the United States to relax back into a position of unquestioned innovation leadership.”
Reif adds that “Unless America responds urgently and deliberately to the scale and intensity of this challenge, we should expect that, in fields from personal communications to business, health, and security, China is likely to become the world’s most advanced technological nation and the source of the most advanced technological products in not much more than a decade.”
However, he emphasizes that this outcome is far from inevitable. The most effective countermeasure is to harness the power of federally funded research at American universities, “rooted in a national culture of opportunity and entrepreneurship, inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, supported by the rule of law and, crucially, pushed to new creative heights by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of our society and every corner of the world.”
Reif concludes that “As a nation, the United States needs to change its focus from merely reacting to China’s actions to building a farsighted national strategy for sustaining American leadership in science and innovation.”
When the FBI filed a court order in 2016 commanding Apple to unlock the iPhone of one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in San Bernandino, California, the news made headlines across the globe. Yet every day there are tens of thousands of court orders asking tech companies to turn over Americans’ private data. Many of these orders never see the light of day, leaving a whole privacy-sensitive aspect of government power immune to judicial oversight and lacking in public accountability.
To protect the integrity of ongoing investigations, these requests require some secrecy: Companies usually aren’t allowed to inform individual users that they’re being investigated, and the court orders themselves are also temporarily hidden from the public.
In many cases, though, charges never actually materialize, and the sealed orders usually end up forgotten by the courts that issue them, resulting in a severe accountability deficit.
To address this issue, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI) have proposed a new cryptographic system to improve the accountability of government surveillance while still maintaining enough confidentiality for the police to do their jobs.
“While certain information may need to stay secret for an investigation to be done properly, some details have to be revealed for accountability to even be possible,” says CSAIL graduate student Jonathan Frankle, one of the lead authors of a new paper about the system, which they’ve dubbed “AUDIT” ("Accountability of Unreleased Data for Improved Transparency"). “This work is about using modern cryptography to develop creative ways to balance these conflicting issues.”
Many of AUDIT’s technical methods were developed by one of its co-authors, MIT Professor Shafi Goldwasser. AUDIT is designed around a public ledger on which government officials share information about data requests. When a judge issues a secret court order or a law enforcement agency secretly requests data from a company, they have to make an iron-clad promise to make the data request public later in the form of what’s known as a “cryptographic commitment.” If the courts ultimately decide to release the data, the public can rest assured that the correct documents were released in full. If the courts decide not to, then that refusal itself will be made known.
AUDIT can also be used to demonstrate that actions by law-enforcement agencies are consistent with what a court order actually allows. For example, if a court order leads to the FBI going to Amazon to get records about a specific customer, AUDIT can prove that the FBI’s request is above board using a cryptographic method called “zero-knowledge proofs.” First developed in the 1980s by Goldwasser and other researchers, these proofs counterintuitively make it possible to prove that surveillance is being conducted properly without revealing any specific information about the surveillance.
The team's approach builds on privacy research in accountable systems led by co-author Daniel J. Weitzner, a principal research scientist at CSAIL and director of IPRI.
“As the volume of personal information expands, better accountability for how that information is used is essential for maintaining public trust,” says Weitzner. “We know that the public is worried about losing control over their personal data, so building technology that can improve actual accountability will help increase trust in the internet environment overall.”
Another element of AUDIT is that statistical information can be aggregated so that that the extent of surveillance can be studied at a larger scale. This enables the public to ask all sorts of tough questions about how their data are being shared. What kinds of cases are most likely to prompt court orders? How many judges issued more than 100 orders in the past year, or more than 10 requests to Facebook this month? Frankle says the team’s goal is to establish a set of reliable, court-issued transparency reports, to supplement the voluntary reports that companies put out.
“We know that the legal system struggles to keep up with the complexity of increasing sophisticated users of personal data,” says Weitzner. “Systems like AUDIT can help courts keep track of how the police conduct surveillance and assure that they are acting within the scope of the law, without impeding legitimate investigative activity.”
Importantly, the team developed its aggregation system using an approach called multi-party computation (MPC), which allows courts to disclose relevant information without actually revealing their internal workings or data to one another. The current state-of-the-art MPC would normally be too slow to run on the data of hundreds of federal judges across the entire court system, so the team took advantage of the court system’s natural hierarchy of lower and higher courts to design a particular variant of MPC that would scale efficiently for the federal judiciary.
According to Frankle, AUDIT could be applied to any process in which data must be both kept secret but also subject to public scrutiny. For example, clinical trials of new drugs often involve private information, but also require enough transparency to assure regulators and the public that proper testing protocols are being observed.
“It’s completely reasonable for government officials to want some level of secrecy, so that they can perform their duties without fear of interference from those who are under investigation,” Frankle says. “But that secrecy can’t be permanent. People have a right to know if their personal data has been accessed, and at a higher level, we as a public have the right to know how much surveillance is going on.”
Next the team plans to explore what could be done to AUDIT so that it can handle even more complex data requests - specifically, by looking at tweaking the design via software engineering. They also are exploring the possibility of partnering with specific federal judges to develop a prototype for real-world use.
“My hope is that, once this proof of concept becomes reality, court administrators will embrace the possibility of enhancing public oversight while preserving necessary secrecy,” says Stephen William Smith, a federal magistrate judge who has written extensively about government accountability. “Lessons learned here will undoubtedly smooth the way towards greater accountability for a broader class of secret information processes, which are a hallmark of our digital age.”
Frankle co-wrote the paper with Goldwasser, Weitzner, CSAIL PhD graduate Sunoo Park and undergraduate Daniel Shaar. The paper will be presented at this week’s USENIX Security conference in Baltimore. IPRI team members will also discuss related surveillance issues in more detail at upcoming workshops for both USENIX and this week’s International Cryptography Conference (Crypto 2018) in Santa Barbara.
The research was supported by IPRI, National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Simons Foundation.
The MIT-Germany Program, a part of the MIT Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), which connects students and faculty members with research and industry partners abroad, recently began a new partnership with the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU). FAU, currently celebrating its 275th year, is one of the largest universities in Germany, with strong research programs in engineering and technology.
The new partnership is multifaceted. For students, it enables new student internship placements and expands the Global Teaching Labs program to Erlangen and Nürnberg, with both MIT and FAU participants. For faculty, the partnership creates a new MIT-FAU Seed Fund, which will finance collaborative early stage research projects as part of the MISTI Global Seed Funds program. Additional activities, including an annual workshop, will help to cement further faculty and student collaboration between the two universities.
Founded in 1997, the MIT-Germany Program is one of the largest MISTI programs, sending an average of 80 to 100 students each year. Justin Leahey, MIT-Germany Program manager, says student interest for internships in Germany continues to rise, given the high quality of tailored projects with top German partners. “Our students have already had great research internships at FAU itself,” Leahey says. “But FAU’s strong ties to local industry, including the innovative ‘Medical Valley’ cluster, afford new opportunities.”
Bjoern Eskofier, professor of computer science at FAU and current visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab, agrees. “In Germany, we say we have a lot of ‘hidden champions.’” He explains that this refers to companies comprised of less than 500 employees that form the backbone of the German economy. “A lot of them are world market leaders in a really small niche, but nobody can surpass them because of their high quality,” he says. “We call them the ‘Deutscher Mittelstand’ [roughly equivalent to ‘small and medium-sized enterprises’]. I would say that my university is also one of those hidden champions.” While some outside Europe may not immediately be able to place his home university, he points out that FAU has been ranked by Reuters this year as the most innovative university in Germany and number 5 in all of Europe.
“MIT is one of the worldwide leading institutions in engineering sciences and other disciplines, so it’s just logical for us to try to work with the best out there,” Eskofier says. FAU is especially strong in medical and engineering research, with its engineering faculty ranking as one of the three strongest in Germany. Pointing to FAU’s scientific core areas, including medical engineering, life sciences and health, new materials and processes, and information technology, he adds, “This is just a perfect match for things that are also in focus [at MIT].” As the head of the Machine Learning and Data Analytics Lab at FAU, Eskofier is currently collaborating with the MIT Media Lab in machine learning, wearable computing, and human-computer interaction groups.
Bringing researchers from different countries together with varying but overlapping sets of expertise is fruitful in both directions, Eskofier says. The research he is involved in at the Media Lab revolves around social network badges, a project driven by Oren Lederman of the Human Dynamics research group. The group is working on a wearable computing device that measures social interactions, closeness and audio pitch of people in work environments. “It brings up questions like, [do] men more often interrupt women in a meeting scenario?” says Eskofier, explaining the potential applications of this research collaboration back in Germany for The World of Work, another one of FAU’s scientific core areas.
Eskofier hopes to leverage the many complementary projects at FAU and MIT. One familiar challenge that most German university hospitals face is making health care data accessible for research without putting personal data protection and privacy at risk. Researchers at MIT work on a system called Open Algorithms (OPAL), and Eskofier is exploring strategies to make this useful in Germany. This is the type of knowledge sharing and exchange made possible when two universities collaborate through partnerships like the MIT-Germany-FAU cooperation.
In addition to the excellent researchers and facilities at FAU, Eskofier notes the strong embedding in German local and national industry that allows MIT-Germany students to receive exposure to industry projects, including within the automotive and medical technology fields. The German emphasis on having a balanced work-life culture also lends itself to a positive professional experience for students. “That’s a magic secret we only show to visitors that experience it [first-hand],” Eskofier jokes about the high productivity in the German workplace, despite often working fewer hours than Americans.
Last summer, MIT-Germany student Tyndale Hannan worked on a physics project with the Department of Computer Science at FAU. “My mentor would occasionally take a break from work with me to sit down and discuss future prospects in the field of laser physics,” says Hannan. “These talks were invaluable guidance. Overall, working at FAU was a fun and formative experience that opened doors to more opportunities in research.” This summer, the rising junior is now working as a Physics Research Fellow at the University of California at San Diego.
“There is nothing better than to send students away and to hire them again later because they were just immersed in a different scientific culture,” Eskofier says of his FAU students who have brought new skills back from international research experiences. He notes that such opportunities are good for personal development, and that they return from their experience more enriched and full of ideas.
As a visiting professor himself at MIT, Eskofier cites the obvious appeal for FAU students and researchers to come to MIT, and is excited about the bridge that this new partnership has opened up to receive MIT students at FAU. “They will benefit because it’s always good to have exposure to different ideas, skillsets, and mindsets. We have a different way of working and it’s also very competitive and motivating,” he says.
The framework for the new cooperation outlines the current global engagement at FAU focusing on “promoting an increasingly diverse culture of internationalization through complementary strategic institutional measures” with the main goal of expanding and promoting international research collaborations, giving way to greater visibility worldwide. This aligns well with the mission of the MIT-Germany Program and MISTI, which is a part of the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Leahey says, “We’re looking forward to a productive partnership that will benefit students and faculty at both universities.”
MIT chemical engineers have developed a new sensor that lets them see inside cancer cells and determine whether the cells are responding to a particular type of chemotherapy drug.
The sensors, which detect hydrogen peroxide inside human cells, could help researchers identify new cancer drugs that boost levels of hydrogen peroxide, which induces programmed cell death. The sensors could also be adapted to screen individual patients’ tumors to predict whether such drugs would be effective against them.
“The same therapy isn’t going to work against all tumors,” says Hadley Sikes, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT. “Currently there’s a real dearth of quantitative, chemically specific tools to be able to measure the changes that occur in tumor cells versus normal cells in response to drug treatment.”
Sikes is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Aug. 7 issue of Nature Communications. The paper’s first author is graduate student Troy Langford; other authors are former graduate students Beijing Huang and Joseph Lim and graduate student Sun Jin Moon.
Tracking hydrogen peroxide
Cancer cells often have mutations that cause their metabolism to go awry and produce abnormally high fluxes of hydrogen peroxide. When too much of the molecule is produced, it can damage cells, so cancer cells become highly dependent on antioxidant systems that remove hydrogen peroxide from cells.
Drugs that target this vulnerability, which are known as “redox drugs,” can work by either disabling the antioxidant systems or further boosting production of hydrogen peroxide. Many such drugs have entered clinical trials, with mixed results.
“One of the problems is that the clinical trials usually find that they work for some patients and they don’t work for other patients,” Sikes says. “We really need tools to be able to do more well-designed trials where we figure out which patients are going to respond to this approach and which aren’t, so more of these drugs can be approved.”
To help move toward that goal, Sikes set out to design a sensor that could sensitively detect hydrogen peroxide inside human cells, allowing scientists to measure a cell’s response to such drugs.
Existing hydrogen peroxide sensors are based on proteins called transcription factors, taken from microbes and engineered to fluoresce when they react with hydrogen peroxide. Sikes and her colleagues tried to use these in human cells but found that they were not sensitive in the range of hydrogen peroxide they were trying to detect, which led them to seek human proteins that could perform the task.
Through studies of the network of human proteins that become oxidized with increasing hydrogen peroxide, the researchers identified an enzyme called peroxiredoxin that dominates most human cells’ reactions with the molecule. One of this enzyme’s many functions is sensing changes in hydrogen peroxide levels.
Langford then modified the protein by adding two fluorescent molecules to it — a green fluorescent protein at one end and a red fluorescent protein at the other end. When the sensor reacts with hydrogen peroxide, its shape changes, bringing the two fluorescent proteins closer together. The researchers can detect whether this shift has occurred by shining green light onto the cells: If no hydrogen peroxide has been detected, the glow remains green; if hydrogen peroxide is present, the sensor glows red instead.
The researchers tested their new sensor in two types of human cancer cells: one set that they knew was susceptible to a redox drug called piperlongumine, and another that they knew was not susceptible. The sensor revealed that hydrogen peroxide levels were unchanged in the resistant cells but went up in the susceptible cells, as the researchers expected.
Sikes envisions two major uses for this sensor. One is to screen libraries of existing drugs, or compounds that could potentially be used as drugs, to determine if they have the desired effect of increasing hydrogen peroxide concentration in cancer cells. Another potential use is to screen patients before they receive such drugs, to see if the drugs will be successful against each patient’s tumor. Sikes is now pursuing both of these approaches.
“You have to know which cancer drugs work in this way, and then which tumors are going to respond,” she says. “Those are two separate but related problems that both need to be solved for this approach to have practical impact in the clinic.”
The research was funded by the Haas Family Fellowship in Chemical Engineering, the National Science Foundation, a Samsung Fellowship, and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface.
The construction and operation of all kinds of buildings uses vast amounts of energy and natural resources. Researchers around the world have therefore been seeking ways to make buildings more efficient and less dependent on emissions-intensive materials.
Now, a project developed through an MIT class has come up with a highly energy-efficient design for a large community building that uses one of the world’s oldest construction materials. For this structure, called “the Longhouse,” massive timbers made of conventional lumber would be laminated together like a kind of supersized plywood.
The design will be presented this October at the Maine Mass Timber Conference, which is dedicated to exploring new uses of this material, which can be used to build safe, sound high-rise buildings, if building codes permit them.
John Klein, a research scientist in MIT’s architecture department who taught a workshop called Mass Timber Design that came up with the new design, explains that “in North America, we have an abundance of forest resources, and a lot of it is overgrown. There’s an effort to find ways to use forest products sustainably, and the forests are actively undergoing thinning processes to prevent forest fires and beetle infestations.”
People tend to think of wood as a suitable material for structures just a few stories high, but not for larger structures, Klein says. But already some builders are beginning to use mass timber products (a term that basically applies to any wood products much larger than conventional lumber) for bigger structures, including medium-rise buildings of up to 20 stories. Even taller buildings should ultimately be practical with this technology, he says. One of the largest mass timber buildings in the U.S. is the new 82,000-square-foot John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
One of the first questions people raise when they hear of such construction has to do with fire. Can such tall wooden structures really be safe? In fact, Klein says, tests have demonstrated that mass timber structures can resist fire as well or better than steel. That’s because wood exposed to fire naturally produces a layer of char, which is highly insulating and can protect the bulk of the wood for more than two hours. Steel, in contrast, can fail suddenly when heat softens it and causes it to buckle.
Klein explains that this natural fire resistance makes sense when you think about dropping a lit match onto a pile of wood shavings, versus dropping it onto a log. The shavings will burst into flames, but on the log a match will simply sputter out. The greater the bulk of the wood, the better it resists ignition.
The structure designed by the class uses massive beams made from layers of wood veneers laminated together, a process known as laminated veneer lumber (LVL), made into panels 50 feet long, 10 feet wide, and more than 6 inches thick These are cut to size and used to make a series of large arches, 40 feet tall to the central peak and spanning 50 feet across, made of sections with a triangular cross-section to add structural strength. A series of these arches is assembled to create a large enclosed space with no need for internal structural supports. The pleated design of the roof is designed to accommodate solar panels and windows for natural lighting and passive solar heating.
“The structural depth achieved by building up the triangular section helps us achieve the clear span desired for the communal space, all while lending a visual language on both the interior and the exterior of the structure,” says Demi Fang, an MIT architecture graduate student who was part of the design team. “Each arch tapers and widens along its length, because not every point along the arch will be subject to the same magnitude of forces, and this varying cross-section depth both expresses structural performance while encouraging materials savings,” she says.
The arches would be factory-built in sections, and then bolted together on site to make the complete building. Because the building would be largely prefabricated, the actual on-site construction process would be greatly streamlined, Klein says.
“The Longhouse is a multifunctional building, designed to accommodate a range of event scenarios from co-working, exercise classes, social mixers, exhibitions, dinner gatherings and lectures,” Klein says, adding that it builds on a long tradition of such communal structures in cultures around the world.
Whereas the production of concrete, used in most of the world’s large buildings, involves large releases of greenhouse gases from the baking of limestone, construction using mass timber has the opposite effect, Klein says. While concrete adds to the world’s burden of greenhouse gases, timber actually lessens it, because the carbon removed from the air while trees grow is essentially sequestered for as long as the building lasts. “The building is a carbon sink,” he says.
One obstacle to greater use of mass timber for large structures is in current U.S. building codes, Klein says, which limit the use of structural wood to residential buildings up to five stories, or commercial buildings up to six stories. But recent construction of much taller timber buildings in Europe, Australia, and Canada — including an 18-story timber building in British Columbia — should help to establish such buildings’ safety and lead to the needed code changes, he says.
Steve Marshall, an assistant director of cooperative forestry with the U.S. Forest Service, who was not involved in this project, says “Longhouse is a wonderfully creative and beautifully executed example of the design potential for mass timber.” He adds that “mass timber is poised to become a significant part of how America builds. The sustainability implications for the places we live, work, and play are huge. In addition to the well-known ramifications such as the sequestration of carbon within the buildings, there are also community benefits such as dramatically reduced truck traffic during the construction process.”
The Longhouse design was developed by a cross-disciplinary team in 4.S13 (Mass Timber Design), a design workshop in MIT’s architecture department that explores the future of sustainable buildings. The team included John Fechtel, Paul Short, Demi Fang, Andrew Brose, Hyerin Lee, and Alexandre Beaudouin-Mackay. It was supported by the Department of Architecture, BuroHappold Engineering and Nova Concepts.
Glioma, a type of brain cancer, is normally treated by removing as much of the tumor as possible, followed by radiation or chemotherapy. With this treatment, patients survive an average of about 10 years, but the tumors inevitably grow back.
A team of researchers from MIT, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital hopes to extend patients’ lifespan by delivering directly to the brain a drug that targets a mutation found in 20 to 25 percent of all gliomas. (This mutation is usually seen in gliomas that strike adults under the age of 45.) The researchers have devised a way to rapidly check for the mutation during brain surgery, and if the mutation is present, they can implant microparticles that gradually release the drug over several days or weeks.
“To provide really effective therapy, we need to diagnose very quickly, and ideally have a mutation diagnosis that can help guide genotype-specific treatment,” says Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the paper.
The researchers are also working ways to identify and target other mutations found in gliomas and other types of brain tumors.
“This paradigm allows us to modify our current intraoperative resection strategy by applying molecular therapeutics that target residual tumor cells based on their specific vulnerabilities,” says Ganesh Shankar, who is currently completing a spine surgery fellowship at Cleveland Clinic prior to returning as a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he performed this study.
Shankar and Koch Institute postdoc Ameya Kirtane are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Aug. 6. Daniel Cahill, a neurosurgeon at MGH and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, is a senior author of the paper, and Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, is also an author.
The tumors that the researchers targeted in this study, historically known as low-grade gliomas, usually occur in patients between the ages of 20 and 40. During surgery, doctors try to remove as much of the tumor as possible, but they can’t be too aggressive if tumors invade the areas of the brain responsible for key functions such as speech or movement. The research team wanted to find a way to locally treat those cancer cells with a targeted drug that could delay tumor regrowth.
To achieve that, the researchers decided to target a mutation called IDH1/2. Cancer cells with this mutation shut off a metabolic pathway that cells normally use to create a molecule called NAD, making them highly dependent on an alternative pathway that requires an enzyme called NAMPT. Researchers have been working to develop NAMPT inhibitors to treat cancer.
So far, these drugs have not been used for glioma, in part because of the difficulty in getting them across the blood-brain barrier, which separates the brain from circulating blood and prevents large molecules from entering the brain. NAMPT inhibitors can also produce serious side effects in the retina, bone marrow, liver, and blood platelets when they are given orally or intravenously.
To deliver the drugs locally, the researchers developed microparticles in which the NAMPT inhibitor is embedded in PLGA, a polymer that has been shown to be safe for use in humans. Another desirable feature of PLGA is that the rate at which the drug is released can be controlled by altering the ratio of the two polymers that make up PLGA — lactic acid and glycolic acid.
To determine which patients would benefit from treatment with the NAMPT inhibitor, the researchers devised a genetic test that can reveal the presence of the IDH mutation in approximately 30 minutes. This allows the procedure to be done on biopsied tissue during the surgery, which takes about four hours. If the test is positive, the microparticles can be placed in the brain, where they gradually release the drug, killing cells left behind during the surgery.
In tests in mice, the researchers found that treatment with the drug-carrying particles extended the survival of mice with IDH mutant-positive gliomas. As they expected, the treatment did not work against tumors without the IDH mutation. In mice treated with the particles, the team also found none of the harmful side effects seen when NAMPT inhibitors are given throughout the body.
“When you dose these drugs locally, none of those side effects are seen,” Traverso says. “So not only can you have a positive impact on the tumor, but you can also address the side effects which sometimes limit the use of a drug that is otherwise effective against tumors.”
The new approach builds on similar work from Langer’s lab that led to the first FDA-approved controlled drug-release system for brain cancer — a tiny wafer that can be implanted in the brain following surgery.
“I am very excited about this new paper, which complements very nicely the earlier work we did with Henry Brem of Johns Hopkins that led to Gliadel, which has now been approved in over 30 countries and has been used clinically for the past 22 years,” Langer says.
An array of options
The researchers are now developing tests for other common mutations found in brain tumors, with the goal of devising an array of potential treatments for surgeons to choose from based on the test results. This approach could also be used for tumors in other parts of the body, the researchers say.
“There’s no reason this has to be restricted to just gliomas,” Shankar says. “It should be able to be used anywhere where there’s a well-defined hotspot mutation.”
They also plan to do some tests of the IDH-targeted treatment in larger animals, to help determine the right dosages, before planning for clinical trials in patients.
“We feel its best use would be in the early stages, to improve local control and prevent regrowth at the site,” Cahill says. “Ideally it would be integrated early in the standard-of-care treatment for patients, and we would try to put off the recurrence of the disease for many years or decades. That’s what we’re hoping.”
The research was funded by the American Brain Tumor Association, a SPORE grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Burroughs Wellcome Career Award in the Medical Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, and the Division of Gastroenterology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Forecasting space weather is even more challenging than regular meteorology. The ionosphere — the upper atmospheric layer containing particles charged by solar radiation — affects many of today’s vital navigation and communication systems, including GPS mapping apps and airplane navigation tools. Being able to predict activity of the charged electrons in the ionosphere is important to ensure the integrity of satellite-based technologies.
Geospace research has long established that certain changes in the atmosphere are caused by the sun’s radiation, through mechanisms including solar wind, geomagnetic storms, and solar flares. Coupling effects — or changes in one atmospheric layer that affect other layers — are more controversial. Debates include the extent of connections between the layers, as well as how far such coupling effects extend, and the details of processes involved with these effects.
One of the more scientifically interesting large-scale atmospheric events is called a sudden stratospheric warming (SSW), in which enormous waves in the troposphere — the lowermost layer of the atmosphere in which we live — propagate upward into the stratosphere. These planetary waves are generated by air moving over geological structures such as large mountain ranges; once in the stratosphere, they interact with the polar jet streams. During a major SSW, temperatures in the stratosphere rise dramatically over the course of a few days.
SSW-induced changes in the ionosphere were once thought to be daytime events. A recent study led by Larisa Goncharenko of MIT Haystack Observatory, available online and in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, examined a major SSW from January 2013 and its effect on the nighttime ionosphere. Decades of data from the MIT Millstone Hill geospace facility in Westford, Massachusetts; Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico; and the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) was used to measure various parameters in the ionosphere and to separate the effect of the SSW from other, known effects.
The study found that electron density in the nighttime ionosphere was dramatically reduced by the effects of the SSW for several days: A significant hole was formed that stretched across hemispheres from latitudes 55 degrees S to 45 degrees N. They also measured a strong downward plasma motion and a decrease in ion temperature after the SSW.
“Goncharenko et al. show clearly that lower atmospheric forcing associated to the large meteorological event called an SSW can also influence the low- and mid-latitude ionosphere,” says Jorge L. Chau, head of the Radar Remote Sensing Department at the Leibniz Institute of Atmospheric Physics. “In a way the connection was expected, given the strong connectivity between regions; however, due to other competing factors, lack of proper data, and — more important — lack of perseverance to search for such nighttime connections, previous studies have not shown such connections — at least not as clear. The new findings open new challenges as well of opportunities to improve the understanding of lower atmospheric forcing in the ionosphere.”
These significant results from Goncharenko and colleagues are also featured as an AGU research highlight in EOS.
Understanding how events far away and in other layers of the atmosphere affect the ionosphere is an important component of space weather forecasting; additional work is needed to pin down the precise mechanisms by which SSWs affect the nighttime ionosphere and other coupling effects.
“The large depletions in the nighttime ionosphere shown in this study are potentially important for near-Earth space weather as they may impact how the upper atmosphere responds to geomagnetic storms and influence the occurrence of ionosphere irregularities,” says Nick Pedatella, scientist at the High Altitude Observatory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The observed depletions in the nighttime ionosphere provide another point of reference for testing the fidelity of model simulations of the impact of SSWs on the ionosphere.”
In memory of MIT alumnus Samuel Ing '53, MS '54, ScD '59, his family has established a memorial fund to support graduate students at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) who are taking part in the center’s push to create a smaller, faster, and less expensive path to fusion energy.
Samuel Ing was born in Shanghai, China in 1932. Mentored by Professor Thomas Sherwood at MIT, he received BS, MS, and ScD degrees in chemical engineering in 1953, 1954, and 1959 respectively. Joining the Xerox Corporation after graduation, he rose from senior scientist, to principal scientist, to senior vice president of the Xerographic Technology Laboratory at the Webster Research Center in Webster, New York. He spent most of his career in western New York State with his wife Mabel, whom he met at an MIT dance. They raised four daughters: Julie, Bonnie, Mimi, and Polly.
An innovator and advocate for new technologies, including desktop publishing, Samuel Ing became intrigued with MIT’s approach to creating fusion energy after attending a talk by PSFC Director Dennis Whyte at the MIT Club in Palo Alto in early 2016. His daughter Emilie “Mimi” Slaughter ’87, SM ’88, who majored in electrical engineering, later expressed her own enthusiasm to her father when, as a member of the School of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, she heard Whyte speak in the fall of 2017.
In pursuit of a clean and virtually endless source of energy to fulfill the growing demands around the world, MIT has championed fusion research since the 1970s, designing compact tokamaks that use high magnetic fields to heat and contain the plasma fuel in a donut-shaped vacuum chamber. The PSFC is now working on SPARC, a new high-field, net fusion energy experiment. Researchers are using a thin superconducting tape to create compact electromagnets with fields significantly higher than those available to any other current fusion experiment. These magnets would make it possible to build a smaller, high-field tokamak at less cost, while speeding the quest for fusion energy.
Mimi Slaughter remembers her father’s passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“It’s the MIT culture,” she says. “I see that in the fusion lab — the idea of just doing it; figuring out a way to try to make it happen, not necessarily through the traditional channels. I know my Dad agrees. He did that at Xerox. He had his own lab, creating his own desktop copiers. That grew out of what he experienced at MIT.”
The Ing family is celebrating that creative spirit with the Samuel W. Ing Memorial Fund for MIT graduate students who will be driving the research and discovery forward on SPARC. It was a class of PSFC graduate students that proposed the original concept for this experiment, and it will be the young minds with new ideas that, with the support of the fund, will advance fusion research at MIT.
Or as Sam Ing once said: “Very interesting technology. It has a tremendous future, and if anyone can do it, it’s MIT.”
For the past three years, the Department of Defense’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) organization has committed to a different kind of mission than any it has pursued before — to transform their engineering acquisition capabilities to a model-based design. Their goal is to shorten the timeline from beginning to delivery without lacking quality or precision.
Since early in 2017, an essential part of implementing that transformation has been NAVAIR’s participation in the MIT program, “Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems,” a four-course online course on model-based systems engineering.
“It is taking way too long to develop and deliver the next generation of war fighting capability to our war fighters,” says David Cohen, director of the Air Platform Systems Engineering Department at NAVAIR, referring to the current design and development processes based on systems engineering practices and processes from the 1970s. “We need to shorten that timeline dramatically. We have a national security imperative to be delivering the next level of technology to our warfighter to continue to try to maintain our advantage over our adversaries.”
NAVAIR views the shift to model-based systems engineering as an essential step in shortening and modernizing its abilities to deliver high-quality, state-of-the-art programs. They enrolled their first cohort of 60 engineers and managers into the MIT program in March 2017. The third group will soon complete the four-month program, which has become a key piece of the NAVAIR transformation by building the awareness and skills needed to successfully implement model-based systems engineering.
Procuring naval aviation assets
NAVAIR procures and helps sustain all of the Navy and Marine Corps aviation assets — helicopters, jets, transport aircraft, bombs, avionics, missiles, virtually any kind of weapon used by U.S. sailors and Marines. Their responsibilities include research, design, development, and systems engineering of these assets internally and with contractors; acquisition, testing and evaluation of these assets, as well as training, repair, modification, and in-service engineering and logistics support.
“We are the organization that receives requirements from the Pentagon for a new program, puts them out on contract, does the acquisition of that project and also provides the technical oversight and programmatic oversight during the development of that project to be sure it is maturing as expected and delivering what is needed,” says David Meiser, Advanced Systems Engineering Department head, who is helping to lead the systems transformation effort at NAVAIR.
NAVAIR employs more than 10,000 engineers, plus logisticians, testers, and specialists in a variety of different areas from software, to engines, to structures.
“We are kind of like the FAA for naval aircraft,” says Meiser, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration. “We go through the whole test and certification process and also provide the air-worthiness authority. Once the system is tested and does what it needs to do, we also provide the support mechanism to have ongoing logistics and engineering support needed to maintain these aircraft for 20-50 years.”
Design changes needed
It takes approximately 15 years to build a new weapons system, such as a fighter jet, from idea to fruition. A key reason is due to increasing systems complexity. In the 1960s, the technology of a jet was largely based solely on the air vehicle itself. Today, everything is integrated with the aircraft ranging from how it flies, its targeting system, its weapons capabilities, the visual system, and more.
“They are so much more complex in functionality and capabilities and it’s harder to develop and manage all of the requirements and interfaces,” says Systems Transformation Director Jaime Guerrero of NAVAIR’s Systems Engineering Development and Implementation Center. “You need a model-based approach to do that as opposed to a document-centric approach which has been how NAVAIR has operated for decades.”
Add to the pressure that NAVAIR leadership was mandating a cycle time collapse from 15 years to less than half that, David Cohen says.
“That’s where we need to be,” Cohen adds. “The threats we are trying to address with these weapons systems are evolving in a faster pace. We have to be a lot more agile in terms of getting a product to the fleet much faster.”
In 2013, NAVAIR participated in a research effort with the DOD’s Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC) to learn how to find better and faster ways of systems engineering. After collaborating with industry partners, academia, and other government agencies, SERC determined that is was technically feasible to pursue modeling methods as the way forward in the future. Between 2014 and early 2016, NAVAIR engineering leadership researched modeling methods with its key industry partners like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and 30 other companies to see how they were executing model methods, as well as those practiced in the auto industry where short design timelines are the norm. They also enlisted input from other government agencies that were already moving their processes to a model-centric method.
“We absorbed a lot of information from these industries to see that we could use a different methodology to collapse cycle time,” Guerrero says.
In those two years, NAVAIR researched 40-50 companies, universities, and government agencies and decided it was technically feasible for them to transform in about 10 years to be a different organization with different skills, tools, methods, and processes. They made the commitment to shift to model-based system engineering to incorporate this paradigm shift into its organization.
Implementing model-based systems engineering
Leadership, however, was not supportive of a 10-year transformational window. They wanted to aggressively compress the timeline.
“When we realized leadership wanted to compress the timeline to about a three-year timeline for transforming the organization, we decided to go out and search experts and the best training we could get, the best tools in the market,” Guerrero recalls.
They started searching for the resources needed to do that and attended workshops and symposiums. One of them was sponsored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was a few steps ahead in initiating a model-based systems engineering (MBSE) perspective. There, Meiser, and Guerrero learned of the MIT program from Bruce Cameron, director of the Systems Architecture Lab at MIT, who developed the coursework in 2016 and was also in attendance.
“Some of our partners, especially Boeing, were already involved with the MIT coursework and they recommended it,” says Guerrero. It had also become a command initiative at NAVAIR to push a fast transformation program. “So we had the command initiative and the resources to go out and train as many people as possible,” he says.
NAVAIR committed to the courses as a way to establish a common language, to introduce its workforce to concepts, tools, and terminology that will foster deeper conversations that are going to be necessary to adopt MBSE concepts and advance the level of training.
The entire four-course online program, which runs on the edX online learning platform, requires about 20 weeks for completion. Each course is gated with a weekly lesson which requires about 4-5 hours of work/week. It has a combination of videos, reading material, assessment and course work. At the end of each week, students are required to complete a project which is reviewed by peers.
When Guerrero and Meiser completed the program in the spring of 2017, they realized it would help align NAVAIR’s leadership by educating its command leaders why modeling is part of the solution for them to become a more agile organization.
“The four-course series provides a high-level explanation of how to do systems engineering and architecture in a model-based environment, Meiser says. “At the end of these courses you may not be a total practitioner of model-based engineering but you have an appreciation of the value of model based methods.”
Management commitment from top leadership
“We came out of that and realized we needed to require a lot of our senior leaders here and some of our chief engineers because it is not about making them modelers or making them experts in the process,” adds Guerrero. “It’s about informing them of how this model-centric method is going to help us as an organization. Leaders have to be in agreement and push in the same direction to make this quick transformation happen.”
Fortunately, NAVAIR’s top leadership was immediately on board.
“What we have going for us at NAVAIR is that they’ve embraced MBSE and faster cycle times as a command initiative and they’ve committed to doing this comprehensively across NAVAIR,” says Meiser, adding they’ve been given the budget to pursue MBSE and top-level support.
Vice Admiral Paul Grosklags, NAVAIR commander, even prepared a video discussing the path to going digital with acquisition, sustainment, and business processes and how it has the potential to increase readiness and speed to the fleet. Encouraged by that, Guerrero and Meiser produced their own YouTube video to help get the message out about the systems engineering transformation at NAVAIR.
As a result, NAVAIR targets the MIT program toward management and command leaders across all of its engineering disciplines as well as logistics and testing, the people who have to facilitate the change. Though they are not the individuals responsible for doing the modeling, they are required to understand the capabilities of model-based systems engineering.
Now that nearly 150 NAVAIR personnel have completed the program, the feedback has been very encouraging. Some with more experience believe it was a great reinforcement of what they knew or should have known. Others say it helped them understand certain MBSE aspects they were not previously familiar with.
“We’ve given it to a fairly diverse group of people,” says Meiser. “One thing I had heard regularly is that people say once they’ve been through it that they look at the problem differently. That has been the effect we’ve wanted to have. They start to think more about how to approach the problems in a model-based approach.”
Participants have also realized the value of pursuing this type of education together in the MIT program.
“We have learned from others NOT to try to do this transformational work in isolation,” adds Meiser. “This discipline is fairly new and having access to others pursuing the same thing has been very helpful for us.”
The leadership perspective
Cohen appreciated the non-intrusive delivery method as well as the content, feeling that the on-site training provided a good balance of depth and instruction time. “It has been an integral first step, especially for bringing the broad workforce at large into the discussion of what MBSE is,” he says.
Cohen knows NAVAIR is embarking on a monumental challenge. After completing the program himself, he realized he had to adjust his expectations.
“It helped alert me to some of those cautionary areas where I could be considered more optimistic about my expectations,” he says. “Throughout the course, there was more emphasis on quality of the product, not just on rapid cycle time.”
He was particularly impressed by the level of respect, knowledge, and professional experience demonstrated by others involved in the course.
“I had to take on board and value the experience of people who have been working in this field a lot longer than we have,” he says. He admits the coursework tempered his aggressive expectations, but it simultaneously highlighted where NAVAIR needed to invest more research and resources in certain program areas to achieve the faster results expected by top leadership.
Cohen credits the program with shaping the transformational process at NAVAIR by pointing out where they need to pursue deeper dives for the next level of depth in workforce training.
“The course gives you the understanding that MBSE has layers to it,” he says. “So depending on where you are in the organization, you will need to get more in-depth training in your area. We found the course introduced everyone to the depth and breadth of what model-based engineering is, its applications and how it’s used.”
At NAVAIR, the program has worked because they intentionally involve a large diversity of people across the organization rather than a few silos involving an entire group or department. They recommend that the program be taken by those in higher levels of an organization who are facilitating the engineering change. Those with more job-specific responsibilities should receive training specific to those precise areas they are going to be implement.
“The courses have helped everyone understand the over-arching goal and establish a common language,” says Cohen. “Although the transition to model-based systems engineering is complicated, we have expanded our skills and contacts tremendously in the process and crystalized where we need to focus on to get results.”
Since 2012, a handful of Saudi Arabia’s top scientists and engineers have arrived on MIT’s campus every year for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Through the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women, these Saudi female scientists and engineers with PhDs are invited to spend one year conducting research at MIT. Each fellow is paired with an MIT faculty for a research project and exposed to a number of professional development opportunities.
While the program was launched in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the 27 fellows have been placed in 14 different departments, labs, and centers across the Institute including the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT Sloan School of Management, and the MIT Media Lab. Recently, 24 of these fellows convened on campus for the program’s first ever reunion.
“For me, this week has felt like a family reunion,” remarks Kate Anderson, former program manager for the fellowship. Anderson, along with program director and professor of mechanical engineering Kamal Youcef-Toumi and recently appointed program manager Theresa Werth, has worked with each fellow on identifying the appropriate research project and helping them navigate their new surroundings at MIT.
At the reunion, the five current fellows who are wrapping up their assignments at MIT provided an overview of their research projects. Topics ranged from carbon nanomaterials to solar cells and personalized drug screening. Alumni of the program then provided updates both on their research projects and how their careers have progressed since returning to Saudi Arabia.
“It was very inspiring to hear about how so many fellows have built successful careers by taking bold steps that required a lot of courage,” recalls Areej Al-Wabil, 2015 fellow and current principal investigator at the Center for Complex Engineering at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and MIT.
In addition to serving as leaders in their respective research fields, many former fellows, such as Al-Wabil, have gone on to serve as deans, vice deans, directors of research centers, and principal investigators.
“You are the change and you are the leaders,” said Youcef-Toumi in his remarks at the reunion. “Each one of you — your contributions are very significant. You are influencing people and inspiring them to become motivated just by interacting with you.”
Finding sense of community inside and outside of the lab
Since the program launched, the 27 fellows have authored 34 journal publications and 27 conference papers, and submitted four patents all directly related to the research they conducted at MIT.
For current fellow Thamraa Al-Shahrani, her project afforded her the opportunity to research a topic that could have a major impact on her home country. She worked with Tonio Buonassisi, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the MIT Photovoltaics Research Laboratory, on developing solar cells that can function in hot or arid climates — like that of Saudi Arabia.
“Working on something that has direct applications to my country has been amazing,” says Al-Shahrani. She and her team exposed solar cells to varying temperatures and studied their behavior in the hopes of determining how to improve temperature stability. Al-Shahrani served as first author on the resulting research paper, which was presented at the Materials Research Society meeting in April.
Helping lead a team of scientists from MIT and Saudi Aramco did more than give Al-Shahrani critical research experience — she learned about the teamwork necessary for international research collaborations. “Tonio and his team were so supportive and encouraging,” she says. “If there was a problem with the study, we would all discuss it together to come up with a solution. The experience really gave me a sense of what it’s like to work on a team.”
This sense of community extended beyond the lab to her fellow Ibn Khaldun classmates. “The program connects fellows to each other — we got to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha together along with Kate and Theresa,” she recalls.
The network the fellows create continues after the experience at MIT concludes. “An important part of the fellowship for me was building a network of professional in a similar phase of our careers,” adds Al-Wabil. This network has resulted in career opportunities for the fellows back in Saudi Arabia.
Bringing hacker culture to Saudi Arabia
For Al-Wabil, her work researching the design planning and ideation process in engineering projects, with Maria Yang, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of MIT’s Ideation Laboratory, was just the start. “The experience was so rich,” says Al-Wabil. “I learned on so many fronts about scientific research, educational best practices, and professional development skills.”
Al-Wabil served as a mentor for class 2.00b (Toy Design). In lab sessions, she and her fellow mentors brought their discipline-specific expertise to the design process to help guide students from the ideation phase to a working prototype. “In teaching we rarely touch on all phases, so that was an immersive learning experience for me as a teaching faculty,” she adds.
While at MIT, Al-Wabil also immersed herself in hacker culture. After participating in the annual Assistive Technologies Hackathon, she was inspired to bring the hackathon platform back to her institution in Saudi Arabia. “I was able to take that experience and introduce the same concept in Saudi at a smaller scale,” says Al-Wabil. In October, her institution will host a “Hacking Medicine” hackathon using the MIT hacking model.
Empowering a new generation of Saudi women
As Saudi Arabia works toward Saudi Vision 2030, which hopes to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by the year 2030, programs like the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship take on a greater purpose.
“These women are not only contributing to the science and technology development of the Kingdom, they are changing the country as we speak,” says Anderson.
Al-Shahrani sees the value of the program at this particular time in Saudi Arabia’s history. “The fellowship has helped a new generation of Saudi women build their leadership skills,” she notes. “This is especially important now as Saudi Arabia is making big changes and supporting women in the workforce.”
In March, the program announced an agreement with new sponsor KACST to extend the fellowship for the next decade. In January 2019, five new fellows will join a community of women who are shaping the future of science and engineering in their country.
On July 12, a group of MIT students, staff, and faculty embarked on The History Project’s Pride Tour. The two-hour tour was led by Joan Ilacqua, co-chair of the board of directors for The History Project, which aims “to document, preserve, and share Boston’s LGBTQ history.”
Students connected with Ilacqua as part of the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Center’s Summer Series, a program that offers numerous community service and engagement opportunities for students throughout the summer. All programs are free for the MIT community, and each allows them to explore and contribute to the greater Boston area through community service and outreach.
The tour followed the trail of the first-ever Boston Pride parade, while highlighting various historic LGBTQ landmarks. The day ended with a visit to The History Project’s archives. Here, students were able to see firsthand various historical documents beyond what they had learned on the tour, including posters, photographs, and newspaper clippings from Boston’s early days of LGBTQ activism.
Charlotte Minsky, a rising junior double majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences (Course 12) and humanities and engineering (Course 21E), explains how the tour affected her: “Personally, as a history nerd, I really love seeing the archives and actually handling the historical documents,” she says. “It was really amazing to hear about all these issues and to see these places, but [especially] to actually come in and touch and see these things the people we had just been talking about were handling and creating.”
Minsky said that the program was eye-opening. “As MIT students, we often think of ourselves as separate from the Boston community,” she explains. “We stay in our bubble [...] and don’t really engage with what’s around us, so I think it’s really important for us [...] to realize [...] all of the social and cultural contexts of the technologies we are engaging with so we can be more informed in our decisions of what to do with the opportunities we’ve been granted.”
Danny Becker, program coordinator for the PKG Center, seconds Minsky’s sentiment about the importance of these programs for MIT students. “To understand the opportunities in their community to apply those skills is truly impactful to their experience with MIT,” he says. “To see these communities and the context in which they are living is invaluable [to MIT students] in understanding how to leverage their skills.”
Ilacqua, who enjoys observing the differences between generations of LGBTQ people, says it is vital to close the gap between these age groups. “I think it’s super important to talk about history with people who haven’t experienced it because we are all part of the same story,” she explains. “I find it really fun but also really rewarding to hear about how people are experiencing life as an LGBTQ person today, to hear about what they know about and what they’ve heard about, [...] and to think about these questions of coming out and meeting people [...] and having the right to be gay.”
Hammer family gift to support doctoral fellowships in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) has taken a major step forward thanks to a generous endowment gift from Phyllis Thurm Hammer and the Hammer family, establishing the Michael Hammer Fellowship Fund. The Hammer Fellowships will be awarded annually to IDSS doctoral candidates in the Program in Social and Engineering Systems (SES). In addition, the Hammer family’s gift will also support postdoctoral fellows in IDSS.
The first Hammer Fellowship recipients were chosen this summer: Manxi Wu SM ’17, a second-year PhD student in SES; and Cate Heine and Leon Yao, who will join SES in September. The first postdoctoral fellow is Kiran Garimella, who will start in February 2019. Ultimately, the endowment will support 10 scholars annually.
Since its launch in 2015, IDSS has been helping drive a revolution in the use of data drawn from networks and systems throughout society. IDSS is advancing education and research with a broad, ambitious goal: harness the massive amounts of data being generated, and use it to create knowledge and address complex societal challenges. IDSS faculty, researchers, and students are turning data troves into practical solutions on subjects ranging from transportation, climate, finance, and health care to social challenges such as radicalization, mass migration, and false news stories. The SES program is educating students to be researchers, policymakers, and thought leaders who solve society’s most pressing problems using ideas and analytical methods at the nexus of engineering, social sciences, and data science.
In a short time, IDSS has achieved success on three strategic fronts. It has hired and promoted a major corps of faculty, now engaging more than 80 core and affiliate faculty from all five schools at MIT. It has driven an expanding academic program, welcoming 24 SES doctoral students, launching an undergraduate minor in statistics, and undertaking development of both an interdisciplinary statistics PhD and an online MicroMasters in statistics and data science. And it has been the catalyst for a growing number of major, multidisciplinary research projects — from ways of improving nuclear power generation facilities to assessing the health benefits of China’s climate policies to reducing control overheads in wireless networks.
The addition of the Hammer Fellowships will empower the SES program to attract and support top students in the field. The Michael Hammer FellowshipFund will also support valuable programming for IDSS scholars, and will underwrite two postdoctoral research fellows who will further expand the Institute’s research initiatives.
“Social and Engineering Systems is, in many ways, an extension of Michael Hammer’s insights and work,” observes Munther Dahleh, director of IDSS and the William A. Coolidge Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “He recognized that solving major societal challenges begins with an understanding of howcomplex systems function and interact — and that it requires a careful teasing apart of the interplay among inherently different kinds of systems: physical and engineered, economic and social-behavioral, and institutional.”
Michael M. Hammer ’68, SM ’70, PhD ’73 was a much-lauded educator, visionary engineer, and pioneering business leader and author. As a full-time MIT faculty member from 1973 to 1984, he was hailed for his teaching in courses on programming language processors, computer language engineering, data base management, and office automation. His research in the latter two fields earned him an international reputation.
“Michael was, at heart, a life-long student and a life-long teacher,” says Phyllis Thurm Hammer, herself a former MIT bioscience researcher. “MIT was an integral part of his life — as a student, faculty member, and long-time collaborator. Even after he stepped away from a full-time faculty role, he remained a passionate educator and mentor, providing intellectual guidance and unique perspectives through adjunct faculty roles at MIT and Oxford University and the hundreds of classes he taught for corporate leaders around the world.”
As a business thought leader and consultant, Hammer helped drive fundamental changes in the nation’s engineering and business landscape. Widely known for his founding role in the business reengineering movement and his formulation of the process-centered organization, Hammer sought to transform business in ways that not only made it more efficient, but more personally engaging for workers across the entire corporate spectrum. As just one measure of his impact, he was named by TIME magazine to its first list of “America’s 25 Most Influential Individuals.”
“Our family believes that creating the Michael Hammer Fellowships — supporting new generations of systems thinkers and integrative problem solvers at MIT — will continue Michael’s legacy of impactful and iconoclastic research and education,” says Phyllis Thurm Hammer. “It is one of the best ways we could honor his memory.”
Few animals are more problematic than the tiny African insect known to English speakers as the tsetse fly. This is the carrier of “sleeping sickness,” an often deadly neurological illness in humans, as well as a disease that has killed millions of cattle, reshaping the landscape and economy in some parts of the continent.
For generations, vedzimbahwe (the “Shona” people, builders of houses) and their African neighbors, assembled a significant store of ruzivo — knowledge — about mhesvi, their name for the tsetse fly. As MIT Associate Professor Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga explains in a new book, this accumulation of local knowledge formed the basis for all subsequent efforts to control or destroy the tsetse fly and is an exemplary case of scientific knowledge being developed in Africa, by Africans.
“Ruzivo and practices based on it were the foundation of what became science and means and ways of tsetse control,” Mavhunga writes in “The Mobile Workshop: The Tsetse Fly and African Knowledge Production,” recently published by the MIT Press. However, he notes, Europeans nonetheless dismissed Africans as being “only good at creating and peddling myths and legends.”
In fact, Africans developed a diverse set of practices to combat mhesvi. For example, they used late-season forest burning to expose mhesvi to predators; moved herds through mhesvi-infested stretches at night while the insect was inactive; strategically located their settlements to neutralize the insect’s threat or turn it into a weapon against their human enemies; cleared bush and felled trees to create buffer zones between mhesvi-infested wildlife areas and human- and livestock-inhabited areas; and developed innoculations using live or dead mhesvi. Europeans appropriated many of these methods, or, at the very least, used their basic principles as starting points for what they then called “science.”
To understand how Africans learned about the intricacies of mhesvi, Mavhunga says it is important to consider the connections between the mobilities of the insect and those of larger animals, people, and the environment itself. Mhesvi was, first of all, a vehicle carrying and spreading a deadly passenger, a nyongororo (parasite) that vachema (white people) would later call a “trypanosome.” This mobility of pest and human turned the forest land into an “open laboratory producing knowledge,” as Mavhunga puts it.
The generative value of mobility as a site for and influence on knowledge production is a theme within Mavhunga’s larger body of work. His first book, “Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe” (MIT Press, 2014), looked at African hunting as a practice through which African science, technology, and innovation could be generated.
Much of “The Mobile Workshop” details the strategic deployment of mobility among the diverse tactics Africans developed to combat mhesvi. These methods had adverse social consequences when adopted by Europeans, whose practice of “prophylactic resettlement” forcibly relocated Africans to the mhesvi-infested margins of land, while they settled on lands vatema (black people) had made healthy and livable.
“There is a contrast in environmental philosophy I wanted to highlight,” Mavhunga says.
The African approach centered on “strategic deployments within the environment,” as Mavhunga puts it in the book, including “careful siting of settlements, avoiding the potentially pestiferous insect’s territory.”
But the Europeans, he adds, were intent on “destroying species they designated vermin beings, and by any means necessary — slaughtering the host and food source animals, massacring whole forests, poisoning the environment with deadly pesticides whose environmental pollution consequences we are yet to study and understand, including possible links to cancers.”
As Mavhunga details, cancer rates in Zimbabwe have risen significantly in recent decades, following the use of pesticides — but much of the outside analysis of local health trends has focused on “lifestyle” choices by Africans, rather than environmental factors.
Other scholars of African science say the book is an important contribution to the field. Ron Eglash, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has called it “a sophisticated sociological analysis, and a unique account of Africa’s relations between knowledge, science, nature, and politics.”
In addition to highlighting the robustness of African scientific knowledge and its place in the matrix of European solutions to the tsetse fly, Mavhunga’s book extensively deploys rich indigenous vocabularies, of vedzimbahwe and others across southern and eastern Africa, to help reconstruct this historical episode through the minds and languages of Africans. In addition to mhesvi and ruzivo, readers can learn the terms for everything from ngongoni (wildebeest) to tsika (culture or custom). It is all part of Mavhunga’s project of demonstrating the extent and sophistication of African scientific and technological knowledge on its own terms.
“To have written this book otherwise was, quite simply, impossible,” Mavhunga writes.
“I wanted the reader to appreciate how language, deployed as a tool to silence African modes of knowledge, can be mobilized as a tool to recover that same knowledge,” Mavhunga says. “In a sense, the book hopes to excite younger scholars — and Africans! — to investigate, imagine, and make science from Africa.”
There’s no doubt that in order to study physics, students must be first-rate learners. But another essential skill that may not be so obvious is the ability to craft a great research proposal, which is key to career advancement.
Early in her career, Lindley Winslow, the Jerrold R. Zacharias Career Development Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT, received mentorship that was crucial to her career path. She is now paying it forward with the launch of a physics research fellowship program to help undergrads, graduate students, and postdocs in the Department of Physics, especially within a particularly underrepresented group: female physicists.
Winslow’s pilot program not only offers money for research, but also builds in a workshop on preparing research proposals. “The program is more than just how to write a proposal,” said Winslow. “It is designing a self-contained research project and then writing the supporting research proposal. It is putting together the idea, budget, and timeline as well as the text.”
Winslow says the program is aimed at women because at MIT alone, women make up only 22 percent of physics students, and 15 percent of physics faculty, if you include adjuncts and secondary appointments. In the hopes of increasing these numbers, Winslow received a $75,000 grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to fund a program aimed at helping women in physics.
The heart of the program is to provide support on the research grant process, with guidelines of $5,000 for undergraduate projects, $10,000 for graduate student projects, and $15,000 for postdoctoral projects. Funds are expected to be used for non-stipend expenses including equipment, materials, supplies, computers, and travel for collaboration and scientific meetings. The proposals will be peer-reviewed in the National Science Foundation style, with Winslow acting as the program manager.
Winslow received 16 fellowship applications by the May deadline, and four were chosen. The first round of fellows selected are Clara Sousa-Silva, who is working on "Creating a Rosetta Stone for the Interpretation of Exoplanet Biospheres" with mentor Professor Sara Seager; Shuo Zhang, for her project "Probing MeV-GeV Cosmic-ray Particles in the Galactic Center," with Professor Kerstin Perez; Carina Belvin, for her project, "Investigating Nonequilibrium Magnetization Dynamics Using Ultrafast Terahertz Spectroscopy," under Professor Nuh Gedik; and Radha Mastandrea, for her project "Analyzing CMS Open Collider Data Though Machine Learning," with Professor Jesse Thaler.
The second round of proposals are due Dec. 7.
Winslow, an experimental nuclear physicist whose primary focus is on neutrinoless double-beta decay, modeled the fellowship on the 2010 $60,000 L’Oreal for Women in Science Fellowship that she earned while an MIT postdoc, which was from 2008 to 2012.
“I have been very lucky that I have had very strong mentoring, which I credit to my current success: My thesis advisor, who used the classical approach of having us contribute to the writing of the group grant, and my colleague at UCLA, who proofread my NSF CAREER proposal and told me I needed to make sure the big picture was front and center.”
It was her postdoc advisor, Professor Janet Conrad, who mentored Winslow on how to create a good proposal. “She took a very detailed approach of breaking down what is a good proposal, how to construct it, how to work with your program manager to tailor the budget and subject, and finally to deliver something that will be reviewed well by your peers,” said Winslow. “She was responsible for me applying to the L’Oreal and helped me re-write, refine, and edit that proposal (and a couple others since then).”
Winslow never forgot the importance of mentorship. In 2016, she was among a dozen leading scholars in physics and astronomy at a Heising-Simons Foundation summit that discussed academic and career pathways for women in these fields. She was also on the workshop committee for a separate Heising-Simons initiative at April’s Rising Stars in Physics Workshop, for women interested in navigating the early stages of academic careers in physics and astronomy.
At a kickoff event for the new fellowship, Winslow surveyed Women in Physics group members and discovered that few students knew much about the grant proposal process. “It was striking how confident they were that they could execute a research plan, but how that confidence disappeared when I asked about their ability to come up with ideas and actually prepare the proposal,” Winslow recalled.
To ensure their success, workshops trained applicants on how to put their best foot forward. “This program aims to “pull back the curtain” and teach our students and postdocs how that part of the system works,” says Winslow.
“The process of structuring projects and writing grants to support them is one of the most intimidating aspects of the academic path, and is a particular barrier for women. It’s these sorts of tasks — qualifying exams, physics GREs, job applications — that end up affecting women more due to a combination of confidence, unequal mentoring, and societal pressure. Confidence in your ability to get grants is integral to wanting to stay in the field, and the numbers (of women physicists) are so low that we cannot afford to lose anyone.”
When A. R. Rahman, two-time Academy Award winner, singer-songwriter, and music producer from India, came to visit and take a course at MIT in July, he was in his element during a tour of interactive music systems on campus.
Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering, led Rahman and his group to Building 24 where the small group of mostly non-musicians jammed together using their smartphones to sound off as brass, clarinet, percussion, or strings.
Rahman tapped a sneakered foot to the beat. “This is fantastic,” says Rahman of the performance orchestrated by MIT professor of the practice Eran Egozy ’95, MEng ’95, who teaches, among other things, 21M.385 / 6.809 (Interactive Music Systems) — the first MIT music class that is also an electrical engineering and computer science class.
These creative points of convergence are exciting, says Chandrakasan, who is also the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “There are tremendous opportunities to bring computing and artificial intelligence, sensing, and other technological advances to the world of music,” he says.
Rahman’s own music is known to experiment with the fusion of traditional instruments with new electronic sounds and technology. Like Egozy, he is passionate about using technology to enhance the experience of listening to or making music and enabling people to engage with it.
“You created games about things that are constructive not destructive.” Rahman says with a nod of approval to Egozy, co-founder and chief scientist of the company that brought the world “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.”
A recipient of multiple Academy Awards, Rahman is especially interested in harnessing the power of technology in music to counter inequality, hate, and violence in social media and global discourse.
Music and technology for the next generation
Rahman was on a whirlwind MIT tour that involved visits with a string of creative academics in multiple realms: music, technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics among them.
His visit capped off a week during which Rahman dove into a four-day course offered by MIT Professional Education, “Advances in Imaging: VR-AR, Machine Learning, and Self-Driving Cars,” which is led by Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab.
The course immersed participants in imaging and how cameras are used in machine learning, self-driving cars, health, industrial settings, and more. Rahman took it all in, says Raskar.
“A.R. is focused on how to use imaging, machine learning, and AI not just for entertainment but to impart a sense of responsibility and cohesiveness and togetherness for the younger generation,” he says.
“We were pleased to offer a course that could contribute to A.R.’s quest,” said Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education. “His work in entertainment and education exposes enormous numbers of people to the latest technologies. That is something we want to support.”
The tour stopped briefly on the green at Killian Court. “We are very happy to engage with A.R. here at MIT,” adds Chandrakasan, with a smile as Rahman’s family and friends snapped photographs in front of the Great Dome.
“A.R.’s participation in the course was coupled to a larger discussion about the role of computing and music and the role technology, such as machine learning and vision, can have in helping people experience the benefits of making music and media,” says Chandrakasan.
New tools for humanity
Rahman’s next stop was for a presentation by Dina Katabi, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She has created a WiFi-like device that uses radio signals to monitor breathing, sleep, heart rate, gait, and detects falls.
“This kind of technology is seamless and not intrusive at all,” says Rahman after the presentation. “Many people have complicated lives, but they love their parents and cannot take care of them in person. This is amazing.”
Rahman was equally engaged by a demonstration of an autonomous wheelchair, an invention spearheaded by Daniela Rus, the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Finally, Rahman was off to meet with composer Tod Machover, the Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media. “Today was fascinating,” says Rahman on his return to the Media Lab, which he toured earlier in the day.
“I have a deep interest in music and how to bring technology to human emotion, how to conquer it to make beautiful things, to create emotions, to create beautiful songs,” he says. “But at heart, my interest is always in humanity. We need all kinds of new ideas and innovations that will help people.”
Lukas Kamphausen MFin '18 recently graduated with a master of finance degree from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Last January, he participated in MIT Sloan’s Israel Lab, organized in collaboration with the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-Israel program. MISTI provides MIT students with high quality internship, research and teaching experiences in international companies, universities, research institutes, and high schools. While participating in the Israel Lab, Kamphausen took part in a hackathon organized by MISTI’s PeaceTech Initiative and Our Generation Speaks, a fellowship program and incubator, hosted at MassChallenge in Jerusalem. “I loved the Middle East so much and just had to come back in order to make an even larger impact for families living in this region,” Kamphausen says.
Learning about new regions while making a real impact
Currently, Kamphausen is doing an internship through MISTI at SunBox, a startup that sells affordable and self-installable solar energy systems to families living in the Gaza Strip. “This second experience in the region has really enabled me to get a deeper understanding both of how to work with people from very different backgrounds, and how as an MIT student I can make a real impact,” Kamphausen says. “More than 2 million Gazans live with less than four hours of electricity a day. Hence, most families do not have refrigerators, access to the internet or lights at night. People can’t work, students can’t study, and entrepreneurs can’t run a business.”
SunBox was founded in June 2017 by Majd Mashharawi, a 24-year-old recent civil engineering graduate from Gaza City. “She is one of the most inspiring entrepreneurs I have ever met,” Kamphausen says.
Mashharawi explains that entire areas in the Middle East suffer from a lack of sufficient electricity, which severely affects both quality of life and opportunity for economic growth. Reflecting on these regional issues, she says, “There did not seem to be any solution on the horizon, so we decided to bring the solution ourselves. That’s why we introduced SunBox to the market,” Mashharawi adds. “The region has a resource that can be harnessed: an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, making solar energy an ideal source of electricity production. It is simple, affordable and available to everyone.”
SunBox sells affordable smart solar kits that every family can install by themselves. It powers not just lights, but also laptops, phones, internet, and even a fan or a TV. The system is safe to use, even around children. “Gaza’s unemployment rate amounts to 44 percent. This is among the highest in the world. We believe that by providing people with a constant access to electricity, we will be able to improve this situation both significantly and sustainably. Kids will be able to study at night, students will have continuous access to the internet, and new entrepreneurs can build their own businesses.”
Last month, SunBox successfully sold and installed their first solar energy systems in Gaza. This month, the company plans to sell their next 200 devices. “For us, 200 units is not just a simple number in our cash flow statement,” Kamphausen says. “We’re proud that we’re changing the lives of 200 families, almost 1,200 people, in a single month!”
Making “an incredible difference for this region”
“Local families’ purchasing power is very limited; this is why we launched our crowdfunding campaign in order to subsidize each system by about $100 per unit,” Kamphausen says. “We want to make sure that all Gazan families will be able to afford our devices, especially those who are currently most disadvantaged or unlucky.”
Kamphausen, Mashharawi, and their team are already dreaming about expanding to other markets. After solving the energy crisis in Gaza, SunBox plans to support refugee camps around the region, including Syrian refugees in Jordan and off-grid Bedouin communities throughout the Middle East. “We just successfully installed our first pilot systems in the Bedouin community and we’re confident that we’ll soon be able to penetrate other markets, too.”
Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow
“After learning about the Middle East, its culture on campus and working in companies in the region, I decided I also wanted to see how I could bring the world class education I received at MIT to others.” Through MISTI, Kamphausen will teach entrepreneurship to Israeli and Palestinian students as part of the MEET program in Jerusalem. MEET brings together young Israeli and Palestinian leaders to create positive change through technology and entrepreneurship, in partnership with MIT.
At MEET, Kamphausen is working together with Celina Mukarker, the program's student program coordinator.
“Five years ago, I participated in the MEET program myself as a student. MEET and MIT student instructors provided me with outstanding knowledge in both entrepreneurship and programming, as well as an incredible global and local network,” Mukarker says. “As a Palestinian, I am now able to pursue so many different opportunities and career paths that would have otherwise been almost impossible. In the future, I aim to further challenge the current status quo by continuously trying to improve the Israeli-Palestinian relationship,” she adds.
After his experiences in the Middle East, Kamphausen will start working for a global management consulting firm in Berlin, Germany. “Nevertheless, I will always stay involved in this region,” he says. “I will continuously try to build on my MISTI experiences in the region to be effective in making global impact and improve the lives for the most disadvantaged families on earth, both in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
MISTI has sent over 9,500 students abroad to date, and currently sends over 1,200 students annually to more than 25 countries. It is housed within the Institute's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. For more information about MISTI’s programs in the Middle East please contact David Dolev.
Collaboration between MIT and Weizmann Institute of Science supports new avenues of scientific research
MIT and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have announced a new research collaboration, made possible by a gift from the Sagol family, that will support a series of multidisciplinary projects between the two institutions across all areas of science.
Longtime philanthropists, the Sagols are the founders of the Sagol Neuroscience and Longevity Network, a series of 12 centers at eight Israeli institutions focused on brain science, aging, and longevity. The gift was announced at MIT during the Global Gathering of the Weizmann Institute, which was held in Boston in June.
“This gift will not only seed joint research between Weizmann and MIT, two great institutions but I would like it to be the starting point to seed scientific collaborations between the Sagol Network in Israel and scientists in Massachusetts, another major hub of scientific activity,” Sami Sagol said.
He says hopes others will follow his lead “so that Israel develops a deeper connection with Massachusetts.”
“When we’re done with that, the sky’s the limit,” he said.
The program entails competitively awarded grants to support research collaborations between pairs (or teams) of faculty from the Weizmann Institute and MIT. The Weizmann Institute and MIT will establish a scientific committee consisting of members of both institutions that will issue a call for research proposals. In addition, leadership at both institutions will actively solicit proposals in promising areas identified in consultation with faculty at the Weizmann Institute and at MIT.
“We hope this gift will jump-start new opportunities for excellent collaborative work,” said Professor Daniel Zajfman, president of the Weizmann Institute. “We are deeply grateful that the Sagols have made this important step, and in doing so hope to inspire others to invest in the future of scientific collaboration between Israeli and American scientists at the basic research level.”
Richard Lester, associate provost for international affairs, said that at MIT “we have long engaged with our peers across the globe to push the boundaries of science and technology.”
“We are extremely grateful to the Sagol family for providing researchers from both MIT and Weizmann with rich opportunities to exchange and advance their ideas for the betterment of all humankind — and for their vision of an even stronger research connection between Israel and Massachusetts,” Lester said.
The Weizmann Institute and MIT have a shared history in computer science research and faculty. In the late 1970s, Weizmann Professor Adi Shamir — then a researcher at MIT — together with MIT’s Ronald Rivest and Leonard Adleman, developed the RSA encryption algorithm, which made so-called public-key encryptions useful in practice. In 2002, the three scientists were awarded the A.M. Turing Award, the highest award in computer science, for the breakthrough.
The Weizmann Institute’s Shimon Ullman received his PhD in electrical engineering from MIT and became a member of its Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (1973-1983). From 1982 to 1986, he had a joint appointment as associate professor at MIT and the Weizmann Institute. He returned to the Weizmann full time in 1986 and has continued close collaborations with his MIT colleagues over the course of more than three decades.
RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Shafi Goldwasser did her postdoctoral studies in computer science at MIT and has held a joint appointment in computer science at the Weizmann Institute and MIT for many years. In 2018, she also became the director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California at Berkeley. She founded the Cryptography and Information Security Group at MIT. For her work in cryptography, she received the Turing Award in 2013.
The Sagol family established Keter Plastics in 1948 and turned it from a small workshop in Jaffa, Israel, into a world-leading industrial group within the home improvement consumer products industry. Sami Sagol is a member of the Weizmann Institute’s International Board and received an honorary doctorate from the Institute in 2016.
Constantinos (“Costis”) Daskalakis, an MIT professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and principal investigator at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), has won the 2018 Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, one of the most prestigious international awards in mathematics.
Announced today at the International Conference of Mathematicians in Brazil, the prize is awarded every four years (alongside the Fields Medal) to a scientist under 40 who has made major contributions to the mathematical aspects of computer science.
Daskalakis was honored by the International Mathematical Union (IMU) for “transforming our understanding of the computational complexity of fundamental problems in markets, auctions, equilibria, and other economic structures.” The award comes with a monetary prize of 10,000 euros.
“Costis combines amazing technical virtuosity with the rare gift of choosing to work on problems that are both fundamental and complex,” said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “We are all so happy to hear about this well-deserved recognition for our colleague.”
A native of Greece, Daskalakis received his undergraduate degree from the National Technical University of Athens and his PhD in electrical engineering and computer sciences from the University of California at Berkeley. He has previously received such honors as the 2008 ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award, the 2010 Sloan Fellowship in Computer Science, the Simo Simons Investigator Award, and the Kalai Game Theory and Computer Science Prize from the Game Theory Society.
Created in 1981 by the Executive Committee of the IMU, the prize is named after the Finnish mathematician Rolf Nevanlinna. The prize is awarded for outstanding contributions on the mathematical aspects of informational sciences. Recipients are invited to participate in the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, an annual networking event that also includes recipients of the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the Abel Prize, and the Fields Medal.
To help students gain a better grasp of biological concepts, MIT and Northwestern University researchers have designed educational kits that can be used to perform experiments with DNA, to produce glowing proteins, scents, or other easily observed phenomena.
Biology teachers could use the BioBits kits to demonstrate key concepts such as how DNA is translated into proteins, or students could use them to design their own synthetic biology circuits, the researchers say.
“Our vision is that these kits will serve as a creative outlet for young individuals, and show them that biology can be a design platform,” says James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “The time is right for creating educational kits that could be utilized in classrooms or in the home, to introduce young folks as well as adults who want to be retrained in biotech, to the technologies that underpin synthetic biology and biotechnology.”
The new kits contain no living cells but instead consist of freeze-dried cellular components, which makes them inexpensive, shelf-stable, and accessible to any classroom, even in schools with minimal resources.
“Synthetic biology is a technology for the 21st century, and these ‘just add water’ kits are poised to transform synthetic biology education. Indeed, BioBits kits are user-friendly, engage the senses in a fun and exciting way, and reduce biosafety concerns,” says Michael Jewett, the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, and co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology at Northwestern University, who led the research team with Collins.
The researchers describe the two kits, BioBits Bright and BioBits Explorer, in two papers appearing in Science Advances on Aug. 1. The lead authors of both papers are Ally Huang, an MIT graduate student; Peter Nguyen, a postdoc at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering; and Jessica Stark, a Northwestern University graduate student.
In recent years, Collins’ lab has been working on technology to extract and freeze-dry the molecular machinery needed to translate DNA into proteins. They developed freeze-dried pellets, which contain dozens of enzymes and other molecules extracted from cells, and can be stored for an extended period of time at room temperature. Upon the addition of water and DNA, the pellets begin producing proteins encoded by the DNA.
The Collins and Jewett labs recently began to adapt this technology to educational biology kits, in hopes of bringing hands-on, laboratory experiences to high school students, as well as younger students.
“I fell in love with biology in high school, but I never really truly understood the biological concepts until college, when I started working in a research lab and actually doing all the real experiments,” says Huang, who took on the project after joining Collins’ lab a few years ago. “The intent of this project was to find a way to bring these laboratory experiments into a nonlaboratory setting in an easy-to-do and cheap way.”
The researchers set out to create the equivalent of the toy chemistry kit, which allows users to perform their own simple chemical reactions at home.
“One of the best gifts I got as a kid was a chemistry kit,” Collins says. “I did all the prescribed reactions and then went off-script and created my own reactions, some of which were probably not recommended. But I had a tremendous time, and, like many faculty here, was inspired, in part, to consider a career in science because of those kits.”
Similar kits are available to help children build their own simple electronic or robotic systems, but right now, the researchers say, there is no cost-effective equivalent for biology. One reason for that is that most biology experiments involve living cells, which require expensive equipment to keep them alive and can also pose safety risks. The MIT and Northwestern researchers were able to overcome that obstacle with their freeze-dried cellular components.
“The goal was to create a kit where the teacher could open the box and hand out all the components to the kids, without any prep time,” Huang says. “You add the water that contains your DNA to these freeze-dried pellets, and just by doing that the kids can produce a variety of different proteins, and visualize or sense different outputs from these proteins.”
The BioBits Bright kit is based on fluorescent proteins. The kit includes tubes with freeze-dried pellets containing all of the cellular components needed to translate DNA into proteins, as well as DNA that encodes fluorescent proteins of several different colors. Students can add DNA to the pellets, put the tubes into an inexpensive incubator the researchers designed, and then image them using a $15 device that the researchers also developed.
This kind of experimentation, which allows students to vary the amount of DNA added, length of incubation, and temperature of the reaction, helps students to grasp firsthand the “central dogma” of biology: how information encoded by genes flows from DNA to RNA to proteins. The kit can be produced for less than $100 for a classroom of 30 students, making it feasible for use in schools with limited budgets.
In the BioBits Explorer kit, the researchers included DNA that encodes proteins with outputs other than fluorescence, helping to teach additional biological concepts such as reaction catalysis. One DNA sequence included in the kit codes for an enzyme that converts isoamyl alcohol into banana oil, producing a distinctive scent. Another DNA sequence produces an enzyme that can catalyze the formation of hydrogels. The kit also allows students to extract DNA from a fruit such as a banana or kiwi and then test it with a sensor that can distinguish between DNA sequences found in different types of fruit.
Mix and match
In addition to classroom experiments, the researchers believe these kits could be useful for school science clubs where students could “mix and match the components and try to come up with new reactions, or experiment to find what new combinations of outputs they could make,” Huang says.
In trial runs in the Chicago public schools, which began last year, the researchers found that students ranging in age from elementary school to high school were able to successfully perform their own experiments using the kits.
“Seeing the students’ and teachers’ results, which showed that a first-time user could run the BioBits Bright labs successfully, was when it started to become real,” Stark says. “That data gives us evidence that these kits have the potential to significantly expand the kinds of hands-on biology activities that are possible in classrooms or other non-lab settings.”
The team is now building new prototypes of the BioBits Bright kit that will be tested in high schools in Boston, Cambridge, and Chicago this fall. The researchers have launched a website to help enable the creation of an open source community that would allow teachers to add their own supporting curriculum, and scientists to add new components to the kits.
“Eventually, we hope to form a larger community of scientists and educators who are interested in continuing to translate cutting-edge science into hands-on educational experiences,” Stark says.
The researchers hope that the kits will not only help students grasp the connections between what they learn from their biology textbook and real-life biological events, but also stimulate their interest in careers in biology or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“We want the BioBits kits to help students see themselves as scientists and hope that these open-access kits might inspire the next generation of students to pursue STEM education,” Jewett says.
The research was funded, in part, by the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program, and the Department of Energy.