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Updated: 1 day 46 min ago

Engineers create 3D-printed objects that sense how a user is interacting with them

Tue, 09/14/2021 - 12:00am

MIT researchers have developed a new method to 3D print mechanisms that detect how force is being applied to an object. The structures are made from a single piece of material, so they can be rapidly prototyped. A designer could use this method to 3D print “interactive input devices,” like a joystick, switch, or handheld controller, in one go.

To accomplish this, the researchers integrated electrodes into structures made from metamaterials, which are materials divided into a grid of repeating cells. They also created editing software that helps users build these interactive devices.

“Metamaterials can support different mechanical functionalities. But if we create a metamaterial door handle, can we also know that the door handle is being rotated, and if so, by how many degrees? If you have special sensing requirements, our work enables you to customize a mechanism to meet your needs,” says co-lead author Jun Gong, a former visiting PhD student at MIT who is now a research scientist at Apple.

Gong wrote the paper alongside fellow lead authors Olivia Seow, a graduate student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and Cedric Honnet, a research assistant in the MIT Media Lab. Other co-authors are MIT graduate student Jack Forman and senior author Stefanie Mueller, who is an associate professor in EECS and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The research will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology next month.

“What I find most exciting about the project is the capability to integrate sensing directly into the material structure of objects. This will enable new intelligent environments in which our objects can sense each interaction with them,” Mueller says. “For instance, a chair or couch made from our smart material could detect the user’s body when the user sits on it and either use it to query particular functions (such as turning on the light or TV) or to collect data for later analysis (such as detecting and correcting body posture).”

Embedded electrodes

Because metamaterials are made from a grid of cells, when the user applies force to a metamaterial object, some of the flexible, interior cells stretch or compress.

The researchers took advantage of this by creating “conductive shear cells,” flexible cells that have two opposing walls made from conductive filament and two walls made from nonconductive filament. The conductive walls function as electrodes.

When a user applies force to the metamaterial mechanism — moving a joystick handle or pressing the buttons on a controller — the conductive shear cells stretch or compress, and the distance and overlapping area between the opposing electrodes changes. Using capacitive sensing, those changes can be measured and used to calculate the magnitude and direction of the applied forces, as well as rotation and acceleration.

To demonstrate this, the researchers created a metamaterial joystick with four conductive shear cells embedded around the base of the handle in each direction (up, down, left, and right). As the user moves the joystick handle, the distance and area between the opposing conductive walls changes, so the direction and magnitude of each applied force can be sensed. In this case, those values were converted to inputs for a “PAC-MAN” game.

By understanding how joystick users apply forces, a designer could prototype unique handle shapes and sizes for people with limited grip strength in certain directions.

The researchers also created a music controller designed to conform to a user’s hand. When the user presses one of the flexible buttons, conductive shear cells within the structure are compressed and the sensed input is sent to a digital synthesizer.

This method could enable a designer to quickly create and tweak unique, flexible input devices for a computer, like a squeezable volume controller or bendable stylus.

A software solution

MetaSense, the 3D editor the researchers developed, enables this rapid prototyping. Users can manually integrate sensing into a metamaterial design or let the software automatically place the conductive shear cells in optimal locations.

“The tool will simulate how the object will be deformed when different forces are applied, and then use this simulated deformation to calculate which cells have the maximum distance change. The cells that change the most are the optimal candidates to be conductive shear cells,” Gong says.

The researchers endeavored to make MetaSense straightforward, but there are challenges to printing such complex structures.

“In a multimaterial 3D printer, one nozzle would be used for nonconductive filament and one nozzle would be used for conductive filament. But it is quite tricky because the two materials may have very different properties. It requires a lot of parameter-tuning to settle on the ideal speed, temperature, etc. But we believe that, as 3D printing technology continues to get better, this will be much easier for users in the future,” he says.

In the future, the researchers would like to improve the algorithms behind MetaSense to enable more sophisticated simulations.

They also hope to create mechanisms with many more conductive shear cells. Embedding hundreds or thousands of conductive shear cells within a very large mechanism could enable high-resolution, real-time visualizations of how a user is interacting with an object, Gong says.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Researchers design sensors to rapidly detect plant hormones

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 2:45pm

Researchers from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) interdisciplinary research group of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, and their local collaborators from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have developed the first-ever nanosensor to enable rapid testing of synthetic auxin plant hormones. The novel nanosensors are safer and less tedious than existing techniques for testing plants’ response to compounds such as herbicide, and can be transformative in improving agricultural production and our understanding of plant growth.

The scientists designed sensors for two plant hormones — 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) — which are used extensively in the farming industry for regulating plant growth and as herbicides, respectively. Current methods to detect NAA and 2,4-D cause damage to plants, and are unable to provide real-time in vivo monitoring and information.

Based on the concept of corona phase molecular recognition (​​CoPhMoRe) pioneered by the Strano Lab at SMART DiSTAP and MIT, the new sensors are able to detect the presence of NAA and 2,4-D in living plants at a swift pace, providing plant information in real-time, without causing any harm. The team has successfully tested both sensors on a number of everyday crops including pak choi, spinach, and rice across various planting mediums such as soil, hydroponic, and plant tissue culture.

Explained in a paper titled “Nanosensor Detection of Synthetic Auxins In Planta using Corona Phase Molecular Recognition” published in the journal ACS Sensors, the research can facilitate more efficient use of synthetic auxins in agriculture and hold tremendous potential to advance plant biology study.

“Our CoPhMoRe technique has previously been used to detect compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and heavy-metal pollutants like arsenic — but this is the first successful case of CoPhMoRe sensors developed for detecting plant phytohormones that regulate plant growth and physiology, such as sprays to prevent premature flowering and dropping of fruits,” says DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “This technology can replace current state-of-the-art sensing methods which are laborious, destructive, and unsafe.”

Of the two sensors developed by the research team, the 2,4-D nanosensor also showed the ability to detect herbicide susceptibility, enabling farmers and agricultural scientists to quickly find out how vulnerable or resistant different plants are to herbicides without the need to monitor crop or weed growth over days. “This could be incredibly beneficial in revealing the mechanism behind how 2,4-D works within plants and why crops develop herbicide resistance,” says DiSTAP and TLL Principal Investigator Rajani Sarojam.

“Our research can help the industry gain a better understanding of plant growth dynamics and has the potential to completely change how the industry screens for herbicide resistance, eliminating the need to monitor crop or weed growth over days,” says Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, a research scientist at DiSTAP. “It can be applied across a variety of plant species and planting mediums, and could easily be used in commercial setups for rapid herbicide susceptibility testing, such as urban farms.”

NTU Professor Mary Chan-Park Bee Eng says, “Using nanosensors for in planta detection eliminates the need for extensive extraction and purification processes, which saves time and money. They also use very low-cost electronics, which makes them easily adaptable for commercial setups.”

The team says their research can lead to future development of real-time nanosensors for other dynamic plant hormones and metabolites in living plants as well.

The development of the nanosensor, optical detection system, and image processing algorithms for this study was done by SMART, NTU, and MIT, while TLL validated the nanosensors and provided knowledge of plant biology and plant signaling mechanisms. The research is carried out by SMART and supported by NRF under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

DiSTAP is one of the five interdisciplinary research roups in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical, genetic, and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients.

Scientists from MIT, TTL, NTU, and National University of Singapore (NUS) are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought, and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.

DiSTAP is led by Michael Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai.

SMART was established by MIT, in partnership with the NRF, in 2007. SMART, the first entity in CREATE, serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five interdisciplinary research groups: Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine (CAMP), DiSTAP, Future Urban Mobility (FM), and Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES). SMART is funded by the NRF.

Engineers grow pancreatic “organoids” that mimic the real thing

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 11:00am

MIT engineers, in collaboration with scientists at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, have developed a new way to grow tiny replicas of the pancreas, using either healthy or cancerous pancreatic cells. Their new models could help researchers develop and test potential drugs for pancreatic cancer, which is currently one of the most difficult types of cancer to treat.

Using a specialized gel that mimics the extracellular environment surrounding the pancreas, the researchers were able to grow pancreatic “organoids,” allowing them to study the important interactions between pancreatic tumors and their environment. Unlike some of the gels now used to grow tissue, the new MIT gel is completely synthetic, easy to assemble and can be produced with a consistent composition every time.

“The issue of reproducibility is a major one,” says Linda Griffith, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation and a professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering. “The research community has been looking for ways to do more methodical cultures of these kinds of organoids, and especially to control the microenvironment.”

The researchers have also shown that their new gel can be used to grow other types of tissue, including intestinal and endometrial tissue.

Griffith and Claus Jorgensen, a group leader at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, are the senior authors of the paper, which appears today in Nature Materials. The lead author is Christopher Below, a former graduate student at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute.

Mimicking the microenvironment

Traditionally, labs have used commercially available tissue-derived gel to grow organoids in a lab dish. However, as the most widely used commercial gel is a complex mixture of proteins, proteoglycans, and growth factors derived from a tumor grown in mice, it is variable from lot to lot and has undesirable components present, Griffith says. It also doesn’t always allow for growth of multiple types of cells. About 10 years ago, Griffith’s lab started to work on designing a synthetic gel that could be used to grow epithelial cells, which form the sheets that line most organs, along with other supportive cells.

The gel they developed is based on polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that is often used for medical applications because it doesn’t interact with living cells. By studying the biochemical and biophysical properties of the extracellular matrix, which surrounds organs in the body, the researchers were able to identify features they could incorporate into the PEG gel to help cells grow in it.

One key feature is the presence of molecules called peptide ligands, which interact with cell surface proteins called integrins. The sticky binding between ligands and integrins allows cells to adhere to the gel and form organoids. The researchers found that incorporating small synthetic peptides derived from fibronectin and collagen in their gels allowed them to grow a variety of epithelial tissues, including intestinal tissue. They showed that supportive cells called stromal cells, along with immune cells, can also thrive in this environment.

In the new study, Griffith and Jorgensen wanted to see if the gel could also be used to support the growth of normal pancreatic organoids and pancreatic tumors. Traditionally, it has been difficult to grow pancreatic tissue in a manner that replicates both the cancerous cells and the supporting environment, because once pancreatic tumor cells are removed from the body, they lose their distinctive cancerous traits.

Griffith’s lab developed a protocol to produce the new gel, and then teamed up with Jorgensen’s lab, which studies the biology of pancreatic cancer, to test it. Jorgensen and his students were able to produce the gel and use it to grow pancreatic organoids, using healthy or cancerous pancreatic cells derived from mice.

“We got the protocol from Linda and we got the reagents in, and then it just worked,” Jorgensen says. “I think that speaks volumes of how robust the system is and how easy it is to implement in the lab.”

Other approaches they had tried were too complicated or did not recapitulate the microenvironment seen in living tissues, he says. Using this gel, Jorgensen’s lab was able to compare the pancreatic organoids to tissues they have studied in living mice, and they found that the tumor organoids express many of the same integrins seen in pancreatic tumors. Furthermore, other types of cells that normally surround tumors, including macrophages (a type of immune cells) and fibroblasts (a type of supportive cells), were also able to grow in the microenvironment.

Patient-derived cells

The researchers also showed that they can use their gel to grow organoids from pancreatic cancer cells from patients. They believe it could also be useful for studying lung, colorectal, and other cancers. Such systems could be used to analyze how potential cancer drugs affect tumors and their microenvironment.

“The discoveries described in this paper will facilitate further important questions concerning responses to novel drug treatment approaches,” says Hilary Critchley, a professor of reproductive medicine and co-deputy director of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study. “The cancer field has long relied upon other approaches (mouse models or isolated cell studies), and the contribution of the organoid approach, and notably the gel structure in which these mini groups of cells grow, will be pivotal to research advancement.”

Griffith also plans to use the gel to grow and study tissue from patients with endometriosis, a condition that causes the tissue that lines the uterus to grow outside the uterus. This can lead to pain and sometimes infertility.

One of the advantages of the new gel is that it is completely synthetic, and can be made easily in a lab by mixing together specific precursors, including PEG and some polypeptides. The researchers have filed a patent on the technology and are in the process of licensing it to a company that could produce the gel commercially.

The research was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Rosetrees Trust, a European Research Council Consolidator Award, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The MIT Press Bookstore reopens in a new location in Kendall Square

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 9:00am

The MIT Press Bookstore is re-opens today in its new location at 314 Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Part of the reimagined MIT Kendall Gateway, the bookstore will soon share a home with the MIT Museum, a cafe, and a mix of other tenants. 

“This move has been many years in planning, and we are thrilled to finally be opening our doors once again,” says Clarissa Murphy, manager of the MIT Press Bookstore. “We cannot wait to see our long-time patrons, and meet our new community here in Kendall. The store has been empty for too long, and our staff is ready to be hand-selling our books once again."

Located next to the Kendall Square T stop, the new MIT Press Bookstore is a strikingly designed space on the lower level of 314 Main Street. Featuring expanded square footage, the bookstore will stock books and journals published by the MIT Press, as well as an extensive section of academic and general interest titles by other publishers in related fields. 

The store will also include a dedicated children’s space, where visitors can gather and discover the best STEAM books for kids of all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books, and books for a young adult audience. New MIT Kids Press and MITeens Press titles will also be prominently featured, along with Institute branded merchandise. 

“We’re thrilled that the MIT Press Bookstore is reopening at the heart of Kendall Square,” notes Amy Brand, MIT Press director and publisher. “As a part of the MIT Kendall Gateway, the bookstore will help provide a warm welcome to the Institute and surrounding community for all of its many visitors from around the world.” 

Founded in 1980, the MIT Press Bookstore is one of the only retail bookstores owned and operated by a university press. The bookstore has been closed to the public since spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

During opening week, visitors who spend $75 or more at the MIT Press Bookstore will receive a complimentary MIT Press tote bag with their purchase.

MIT named No. 2 university by U.S. News for 2022

Mon, 09/13/2021 - 12:00am

MIT has placed second in U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of the nation’s best colleges and universities, announced today. The Institute shares the No. 2 spot with Columbia University and Harvard University.

As in past years, MIT’s engineering program continues to lead the list of undergraduate engineering programs at a doctoral institution. The Institute also placed first in six out of 12 engineering disciplines. No other institution is No. 1 in more than two disciplines.

MIT also remains the No. 2 undergraduate business program. Among business subfields, MIT is ranked first in three specialties.

U.S. News also evaluated undergraduate computer science programs, placing MIT first on the list, along with Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The Institute ranks No. 1 in four disciplines in this area.

MIT ranks as the third most innovative national university, according to the U.S. News peer assessment survey of top academics. And it’s second on the magazine’s list of national universities that offer students the best value, based on the school’s ranking, the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid, and other variables.

MIT placed first in six engineering specialties: aerospace/aeronautical/astronautical engineering; chemical engineering; computer engineering; electrical/electronic/communication engineering; materials engineering; and mechanical engineering. It placed second in bioengineering/biomedical engineering.

Other schools in the top five overall for undergraduate engineering programs are Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Caltech, and Georgia Tech.

Among undergraduate business specialties, the MIT Sloan School of Management leads in business analytics, production/operations management, and quantitative analysis/methods. It ranks second in management information systems and in entrepreneurship (shared with Berkeley).

The No. 1-ranked undergraduate business program overall is at the University of Pennsylvania; other schools ranking in the top five include Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, New York University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

In computer science, MIT placed first in four specialties: biocomputing/bioinformatics/biotechnology (shared with the University of California at San Diego); computer systems; mobile/web applications; and theory. It ranks second in artificial intelligence; cybersecurity (shared with Georgia Tech); programming languages; and software engineering (shared with Berkeley).

Other top-ranking undergraduate computer science programs include Cornell University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A teacher’s education in Haiti

Sun, 09/12/2021 - 12:00am

Eli Brooks was only supposed to stay in Haiti for a few weeks. Like many college students, the mechanical engineering senior’s original plans for the summer of 2020 were scrapped due to the pandemic. He had an opportunity to volunteer at Have Faith Haiti Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince for four weeks. As his month in Haiti was coming to a close, Brooks had a change of heart thanks to a persuasive toddler.

“People were asking me to stay, and it’s pretty hard to say no to a three-year old saying ‘Mr. Eli, can you stay here and teach me?’” recalls Brooks. He decided to take a leave of absence from MIT during the fall 2020 semester and stayed in Haiti for five more months.

The six months Brooks spent in Haiti would be transformative for both him and the children he worked with.

For nearly the entirety of his time at Have Faith Haiti, Brooks remained on the quarter acre plot of land. His bedroom was in a small building in the middle of the playground. The tiny room had no running water or air conditioning, but Brooks was amazed by how quickly the comforts he took for granted back home didn’t seem to matter.

“Within a few days I realized that while this is the hardest place I will ever live, it's also the happiest I've ever been,” he adds.

When Brooks arrived at the orphanage, students had been isolated for six months due to Covid-19. With so many immunocompromised children, there were few visitors – making Brooks’ arrival all the more exciting.

At first, his role was similar to a camp counselor. In the morning, he would set up obstacle courses for the kids and referee water balloon tosses. During the afternoon, he’d teach younger children how to read and discuss books with the older children. It was this experience teaching that ignited a spark in Brooks.

“Once I started teaching kids how to read, I fell in love with it. That’s when I decided to take on more of a teaching role, and I think that was the greatest decision I’ve made, maybe ever,” he recalls.

Replicating MIT’s Toy Product Design course

After deciding to stay to teach for five months, Brooks drew upon his experiences in mechanical engineering classes at MIT. He saw an opportunity to replicate class 2.00b (Toy Product Design), when teaching middle school and high school students. Offered to MIT’s first-year students each spring, the class introduces students to product design and the product development process. By the end of the semester, students present a working prototype of a toy.  

The first half of the semester, Brooks taught students basic, hands-on engineering skills. He utilized some of the slides developed by Professor David Wallace and Lecturer Joshua Ramos for the class.

“It was amazing to explain what engineering was to these kids and to see that they fell in love with it,” says Brooks.

For the second half of the semester, students pitched toy product ideas. Much like in 2.00b, students would start with dozens of ideas, sketch out the concepts, and narrow it down to the top three. They then built prototypes for the younger children at the orphanage to test out.

While MIT students in 2.00b have access to machinery, electronics, and various materials on campus, Brooks had to make the class work with cardboard, paper, and glue sticks. These limited resources didn’t stifle students’ creativity.

Brooks was inspired by the prototypes students developed by the end of the semester. Projects included a “Live Action FIFA” soccer game and “Mad Ball,” which resembled a typical pinball game. The games were so popular, the younger children at the orphanage played them during Brooks’ going away party.

How to live life a better way

As his time in Haiti came to a close last winter, Brooks reflected on how life-altering the experience was. When he first arrived in Port-au-Prince, he was struggling with what he wanted to do with his life and grappling with his own mental health and happiness.

Seeing how happy the children at Have Faith Haiti were with so few material goods or the comforts he had grown accustomed to gave Brooks an education in happiness.

“I think going there taught me a lot about how to be happy and how to deal with mental health,” he says. “These kids have nothing and they were happier than I was. I really learned just how to live life a better way.”

As he enters in final year at MIT, Brooks is now exploring career paths in teaching. He recently applied to graduate school programs for a master’s in education with a specialization in teaching in the inner city.

Wherever his career takes him, Brooks knows he will find a path back to Haiti someday.

“There is no question I will go back to visit, hopefully someday soon. These people became my friends and family for six months, and the impact they had on my life can’t be overstated,” he adds.

Why the future of textiles is collaborative

Fri, 09/10/2021 - 11:25am

When MIT and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) joined forces to advance textile research and to develop and employ sustainable fabrics of the future, they found that their work was so synergistic that they were compelled to write an instruction manual about their multi-year partnership so that other organizations could replicate their process and benefit from their work.

“Transdisciplinary Innovation Playbook: How to build a virtual workshop that collapses walls between design and engineering and kick-starts collaboration to solve real world problems” codifies the partnership between MIT, FIT, and the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), which supported the work, into something of a template that other institutions can follow in order to develop their own innovative programs.

The playbook — based around MIT and FIT’s design and engineering synergy — is a model for successfully embarking on innovative partnerships. The manual offers step-by-step considerations for how to build interdisciplinary workshops that prepare students to think beyond their specializations and to tackle real-world problems together. It covers how to find an industry partner and what matters in a successful partnership, how to build an effective challenge, how to recruit faculty, how to plan a budget, and how to create a curriculum. “Use our story to write your own,” the playbook encourages.

Multiyear partnership

In 2017, after a meeting between FIT President Joyce F. Brown and MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Joanne Arbuckle, former deputy to the president for industry partnerships and collaborative programs at FIT, and Gregory C. Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT, created a plan to build a bridge between design and engineering — and to help boost the textile industry along the way.

How and why might their two missions merge? MIT scientists are advancing textile research that could change the world, while FIT designers, long renowned for their creativity, are developing the sustainable fabrics of the future. The overlapping synergies seemed destined for collaboration. What unexpected discoveries might occur if these students worked together? FIT and MIT wanted to find out and approached AFFOA to help realize this vision.

The playbook is an outgrowth of the resulting multiyear partnership. Since 2018, students from each institution have participated in three workshops during which they gather in small teams to develop product concepts exploring the use of advanced fibers and fabric technology. The workshops — which have pivoted to a remote experience since the Covid-19 pandemic — have been held collaboratively with AFFOA. AFFOA is a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based nonprofit public-private partnership whose mission is to rekindle the domestic textiles industry by leading a nationwide enterprise for advanced fiber and fabric technology development and manufacturing, enabling revolutionary system capabilities for national security and commercial markets. A key part of AFFOA’s mission is to inspire, prepare, and grow the next-generation workforce for the advanced fiber and fabric industry.

Part of the students’ work has been the opportunity to respond to a project challenge posed by footwear and apparel manufacturer New Balance, a member of the AFFOA network. Students spent their first week in Cambridge learning new technologies at MIT and the second at FIT, working on projects and prototypes.

“Collaboration and teamwork are DNA-level attributes of the New Balance workplace,” says Chris Wawrousek, senior creative design lead in the New Balance Innovation Studio. “We were very excited to participate in the program from a multitude of perspectives. The program allowed us to see some of the emerging research in the field of technical textiles. In some cases, these technologies are still very nascent, but give us a window into future developments.”

Many ideas

Over the years, teams of students have developed innovative and forward-thinking projects that have moved the needle on design and technology. A few examples of the teams are:

  • Team Natural Futurism, which presented a concept to develop a biodegradable lifestyle shoe using natural material alternatives, including bacterial cellulose and mycelium, and advanced fiber concepts to avoid use of chemical dyes;
  • Team CoMIT to Safety Before ProFIT, which explored the various ways that runners get hurt, sometimes from acute injuries but more often from overuse;
  • Team Peacock, which prototyped athletic apparel with color-changing material to highlight an athlete's movement and quickly analyze motion through an app;
  • Team Ecollab, which designed apparel and footwear using PE (polyethylene) and color changing material that is multifaceted and environmentally conscious; and
  • Team Laboratory 56, which created footwear to enhance longevity of product and reduce waste using PE, while connecting with the community through a recycling app program.

“We’re excited to see how the release of this playbook opens up the minds of students across the country to the possibility of working in an interdisciplinary environment, and in advanced textiles. We see a continuing need for a workforce that is agile, innovative, and able to apply higher-order thinking to develop the future of the industry, and believe this playbook will play a part in that development,” says Sasha Stolyarov, CEO of AFFOA.

“These kinds of partnerships are so valuable for both teams — the design students get to work in a team environment engaging in the latest technologies, while the engineering students use their creativity in a new way,” says Arbuckle. “So if the MIT/FIT collaboration can be a model for other institutions to do something similar, then these kinds of interactions and the invention of products they create together can help define our future.”

“When designers and engineers come together and open their minds to creating new technologies that ultimately will impact the world, we can imagine exciting new multi-material fibers that reveal a new spectrum of applications,” says Yuly Fuentes, MIT Materials Research Laboratory project manager for fiber technologies. “Being able to share what we’ve learned through this playbook brings this process to a different level and makes it possible that this kind of thinking will become more widespread.”

3 Questions: Jean-Jacques Degroof SM ’93, PhD ’02 on how MIT became an entrepreneurial powerhouse

Fri, 09/10/2021 - 9:00am

There are tens of thousands of companies founded by MIT alumni operating around the world today. Those companies employ millions of people and generated nearly $2 trillion in annual revenue as of 2015. To train the next generation of founders, MIT offers more than 200 resources dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, including more than 80 courses and dozens of extracurricular activities.

So how did MIT get here, and what makes the Institute’s entrepreneurial community so prolific? In his new book, “From the Basement to the Dome: How MIT’s Unique Culture Created a Thriving Entrepreneurial Community,” Jean-Jacques Degroof SM ’93, PhD ’02, a venture investor, dives into the history of MIT entrepreneurship, before carefully detailing the state of affairs today and offering some lessons learned.

It turns out, things didn’t always used to be this way, and MIT’s entrepreneurial support structures look much different from what they looked like even 10 years ago. MIT News spoke with Degroof about some of the findings in his new book.

Q: How did MIT become so entrepreneurial?

A: The short answer is, primarily from the bottom up. Until the early 2010s, interest in entrepreneurship materialized through a myriad of local, informal initiatives, primarily in the extracurricular arena; MIT’s central administration did not have a deliberate policy toward entrepreneurship on campus. In the late ’60s and ’70s, some young alumni entrepreneurs in Boston convinced the alumni office to organize the first series of entrepreneurship-focused seminars. It was a huge and unexpected success. That eventually led to the MIT Enterprise Forum, run by MIT alumni. Then in the late ’80s, students from the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management launched the Entrepreneurship Club and the Sloan New Venture Association (SNVA). They started the $10K Business Plan Competition (which eventually became the successful $100K Entrepreneurship Competition).

In 1990, Professor Ed Roberts of Sloan, a pioneer in entrepreneurship on campus, founded the Entrepreneurship Center, now the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, in response to student requests for guidance in starting new businesses.

From there, student clubs, entrepreneurial competitions, and other entities providing support to entrepreneurs multiplied over the years, especially during and since the internet era. This was all thanks to the efforts of alumni, students, and individual faculty and staff members, who lobbied their administrations.

Following the growing interest of students, Sloan and the Media Lab in particular developed course offerings. Another turning point was after the 2008 financial crisis. As traditional large employers hired fewer graduates, entrepreneurship appeared for the first time as a valid career path for students.

Students were also attracted to entrepreneurial firms because of promising technological developments in the mid to late 2000s. The iPhone launched in 2007, there was the internet of things, cloud computing, the genome revolution, the convergence of biotech and information technology, engineering at the nanoscale, clean energy, and the explosion of real-time information in general. The center of gravity of the economy was increasingly moving from the traditional employers to new, disrupting firms.

Around that time, roughly 2010, MIT’s central administration more formally embraced entrepreneurship with the Innovation Initiative and programs like the minor in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Q: You argue that MIT’s culture has been a fertile ground for entrepreneurship. What specific parts of MIT’s culture do you think align with entrepreneurship?

A: There is an excellent fit between several elements of MIT’s culture and entrepreneurship:

  • Openness to bottom-up initiatives and decision making. This is particularly strong at the level of MIT centers and laboratories. They are set up by individual faculty members — who need to find funding to sustain their lab. As such, they are academic entrepreneurs in a way.
  • Excellence. MIT ranks among the best universities in the world, so excellence is a core value. Launching and growing a company can feel like hell at times and requires excellence and dedication. The MIT experience absolutely prepares its people for uphill battles and humbling experiences.
  • Learning by doing and problem solving. Since its founding, MIT has put a lot of emphasis on experiential learning through lab work and internships, for instance. Similarly, entrepreneurship requires you to go out into the real world and iterate on your ideas.
  • Experimenting and tolerance to failure. Entrepreneurship fits perfectly into such an approach because it is also a process of experimentation and trial and error.
  • Multidisciplinarity. Solving real-world problems often requires solutions combining multiple approaches. Innovating through entrepreneurship generally requires people to think outside of the box and imagine solutions that often involve several disciplines. One of the few reliable rules drawn from research in entrepreneurship is that diverse teams of startup founders perform better.
  • Impact. MIT’s motto, mens et manus (“mind and hand” in Latin), and its logo — which features the scholar and the craftsman in parallel positions — reflect the ideal of cooperation between knowledge and practice, but also a concern about impact. Entrepreneurship fits this philosophy perfectly as a process to make impact on the world.
  • Embracing the outsider. For a long time, MIT was seen as an outsider by its peers in academia and looked upon as a mere vocational school. This identity of being an outsider is still alive in the MIT community, but it is accompanied by a sense of pride in being disruptors, upstarts, and even a bit geeky. Having an identity outside the establishment fits entrepreneurs well, who by definition try to challenge incumbents.

All this illustrates that MIT’s environment is difficult to replicate.

Q: What do you hope this book teaches readers about supporting entrepreneurship?

A: It is important to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem that builds on one’s institution’s culture, or at least does not go against it. Simply copying and pasting another institution’s model is not a promising approach. Entrepreneurship training should also go beyond simply pitching a business plan. One should not underestimate the resources required for putting in place an entrepreneurship curriculum. Institutions that do not have the required scale should consider pooling resources with peer institutions.

Developing an entrepreneurship curriculum and internal ecosystem should also involve a variety of stakeholders, including large corporations, providers of risk capital, and government. The involvement of alumni is particularly key because they can contribute as lecturers, mentors, and donors. They can also be a channel to other stakeholders, all of which can facilitate the promotion of entrepreneurship locally.

Reflecting on September 11, 20 years later

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 4:25pm

The 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, is an occasion to look back on the American response to the atrocities, how and why they occurred, and what the implications are for future global policy dealing with terrorist groups. The long war in Afghanistan, a war-torn country that harbored Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the subsequent war in Iraq took hundreds of thousands of lives, among them several thousand American military, and ushered in a global war on terror that by most reckonings has had doubtful results. 

Steven Simon, the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, is one of the people who observed the unfolding of the war on terror from the vantage points of the White House staff and as a scholar and writer. He served as the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa during the Obama Administration and as the council's senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton White House. These assignments followed a 15-year career at the U.S. Department of State. Between government appointments, he worked in the private sector and in academia. He comes to MIT from Colby College, where he was professor of the practice of international relations. Simon has co-authored books on the U.S. response to 9/11, including The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right, which was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize and listed among the best books of the year on this topic in The Washington Post and Financial Times.

In this interview, Simon reflects on the 9/11 catastrophe, and offers some advice on where we can go from here.

Q: Looking back at events leading to September 11, it is often noted that a lack of communication between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation contributed to the execution of the attacks. Based on your experience at the White House before 9/11, do you agree that this was the most significant intelligence failure?                       

A: As with many surprise attacks, 9/11 entailed an interlocking series of both intelligence and policy failures. In the intelligence domain, there was no question that the failure of the CIA to inform the FBI of the entry into the United States of two key hijackers, who were tracked by CIA there from an Al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, was a consequential blunder. There are legitimate questions regarding how well the FBI would have performed even if they had been told. For example, another conspirator who was present at the Kuala Lumpur meeting, Zacharious Moussaoui, had been arrested shortly before 9/11 on an immigration violation. The local FBI field office concluded that he was part of an impending attack, but its request for a warrant to exploit Moussaoui’s computer was declined by headquarters in DC. There was, in any case, a longstanding reluctance among CIA personnel to share intelligence with law enforcement. Such information would ultimately be used by prosecutors who would reveal it, thereby jeopardizing sources and methods and continued access to intelligence from important sources and assets.

Perhaps even more damaging was the failure of both agencies to detect the methodical creation by employees of the Saudi government of a support infrastructure in the United States to facilitate the entry of the hijackers and get them embedded, funded, housed, and equipped with driver's licenses and so forth. It is probable that many others in the Saudi government were aware of the diversion of resources to support of Al Qaeda even as the U.S. had designated the group as a terrorist organization that had repeatedly attacked the U.S. (There’s no evidence that the Al Saud themselves were aware of this activity.) The policy errors revolved around the conviction of a new administration that the key challenges to the U.S. emanated from adversarial nation states, rather than sub-state actors operating autonomously on the basis of religious justifications for violence. Hence, [then U.S. national security advisor] Condoleezza Rice’s oft quoted statement that President [George W.] Bush refused to be distracted from important work by having to "swat flies.” Unfortunately, 19 of those flies destroyed the World Trade Center towers, wrecked a large part of the Pentagon, and massacred the passengers and crew on four commercial aircraft, propelling the Bush administration into a bloody 20-year war.

Q: Was the initial response — hunting for Osama bin Laden and collapsing the Taliban state — the correct one?

A: Most observers would agree that Al Qaeda could not be allowed to continue to attack the United States and that the Taliban were an indispensable co-conspirator in so far as it had sheltered not just Bin Laden, but also the camps in which the hijackers were trained and indoctrinated. Strategic logic suggested that deterrence could only be restored by destroying both Al Qaeda and its Afghan sponsor. And there was ample justification for this broad course of action in customary international law and the UN charter.           

Q: What advice do you have to the Biden administration going forward? 

A: There are some things that are obvious. First is that terrorism is not going to go away. Grievances will persist, the means will be available, and individuals predisposed to action will continue to circulate. Domestic terrorism conducted by white supremacists is rising, even as the number of jihadists, according to the UN, is at an all time high. Extensive use of chemical weapons in Syria and advances in genome editing against the background of a brutal pandemic will seed the idea of using these weapons against adversaries. Cyberterrorism is perhaps a lesser threat but is feasible, based on criminal models, and potentially costly to the victim.

The prescription usually advanced is societal and infrastructural resilience. But, to coin a phrase, resilience is futile if counter-terrorism policy devolves to yet another partisan tool. Of all challenges, terrorism is mostly likely to spur a dangerously excessive reaction while degrading the state of American politics if the two parties have not cooperated on building and implementing effective defenses. If politics are too broken to permit such preparedness, then a successful strike against the U.S. will be more likely, the partisan blame game more poisonous, and an appropriate response far more difficult to engineer.

MIT mathematicians awarded 2022 New Frontiers Prize

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 11:00am

An MIT instructor and an alumna have been named winners of the 2022 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize, which recognizes female mathematicians for early-career achievements.

Mathematicians Yilin Wang and Hong Wang PhD ’19 will each receive one of the $50,000 awards, which are given by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. The prize was created in 2019 in honor of Iranian mathematician and Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani, who was 40 when she died in 2017 from breast cancer.

"Once again, it is uplifting to see women in mathematics receiving a major prize for their outstanding research,” says Michel Goemans, the RSA Professor of Mathematics and head of the Department of Mathematics. “We are proud of Yilin's achievements in probability and Hong’s contributions to Fourier analysis."

Yilin Wang, a CLE Moore Instructor at MIT, will receive the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize “for innovative and far-reaching work on the Loewner energy of planar curves,” according to the award citation.

A mathematician working on probability theory, complex analysis, and related problems in mathematical physics, she focuses on connections among random conformal geometry, geometric function theory, and Teichmueller theory. 

Using ideas from the probabilistic theory of random curves called Schramm-Loewner evolutions (SLEs), she introduced the Loewner energy to measure the roundness of a planar loop. She found that it is the same quantity as the universal Liouville action, which is of importance in geometric function theory and Kahler geometry of the infinite-dimensional Teichmueller space, and also has links to string theory. Her works revealed surprising new connections between random conformal geometry and Teichmueller theory, which seemed far apart, and her insights from probability theory have already enabled many new results for the latter. ­­­­­

She also explores the link between the Loewner energy and Gaussian free field, determinants of Laplacians on Riemann surfaces, the Brownian loop measure, and minimal surfaces in hyperbolic 3-space.

Growing up in Shanghai, she moved to France at 18 for classes préparatoires in Lycée du Parc, Lyon, before entering Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris and receiving master's degrees from University Paris XI (now Paris Saclay) and Paris VI (now Sorbonne University).

Pursuing her doctorate at ETH Zurich under advisor Wendelin Werner, she studied probability theory, specifically the random planar curves called SLEs that appear in statistical mechanics models and modern probabilistic theory of Liouville quantum gravity. She received the NCCR SwissMAP innovator prize and the ETH medal.

Yilin Wang joined MIT as a CLE Moore Instructor in 2019, and is a co-organizer of the MIT Probability seminar. This spring, she also will be a Strauch Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California.

Hong Wang PhD ’19 is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles and earned a doctorate in mathematics from MIT in 2019. She received her prize “for advances on the restriction conjecture, the local smoothing conjecture, and related problems,” according to the citation.

Her research is focused on the restriction theory in Fourier analysis. In the 1960s, Stein posed the restriction problem about functions with Fourier support on some smooth compact hypersurface. The restriction problem has been a central open problem in Fourier analysis. The tools created in understanding this problem have also found applications in PDE, number theory, and geometric measure theory.

A native of Guilin, China, Hong Wang studied mathematics at Peking University and completed her diplôme d'ingénieur degree at Ecole Polytechnique in 2014. After receiving her PhD from MIT, she concluded a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in June before joining UCLA.

In her doctoral thesis, she provided an improved estimate for the restriction problem in three-dimensional space based on the work of her advisor, Larry Guth, the Claude Shannon Professor of Mathematics at MIT.

In joint work with Guth and Ruixiang Zhang, she proved Sogge's local smoothing conjecture for the wave equation in dimension 2+1. In another joint work with Guth, Alex Iosevich, and Yumeng Ou, she also researched the Falconer distance set problem, which is about measuring the set of distances between pairs of points in a fractal set.

A third recipient of the prize is Sarah Peluse of the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University, who was recognized “for contributions to arithmetic combinatorics and analytic number theory, particularly with regards to polynomial patterns in dense sets.”

This prize is one of several awards given out each year by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founding sponsors Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki. A committee of past awardees in each field choose the winners. Traditionally celebrated during a televised awards ceremony, this year’s program is postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

A universal system for decoding any type of data sent across a network

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 12:00am

Every piece of data that travels over the internet — from paragraphs in an email to 3D graphics in a virtual reality environment — can be altered by the noise it encounters along the way, such as electromagnetic interference from a microwave or Bluetooth device. The data are coded so that when they arrive at their destination, a decoding algorithm can undo the negative effects of that noise and retrieve the original data.

Since the 1950s, most error-correcting codes and decoding algorithms have been designed together. Each code had a structure that corresponded with a particular, highly complex decoding algorithm, which often required the use of dedicated hardware.

Researchers at MIT, Boston University, and Maynooth University in Ireland have now created the first silicon chip that is able to decode any code, regardless of its structure, with maximum accuracy, using a universal decoding algorithm called Guessing Random Additive Noise Decoding (GRAND). By eliminating the need for multiple, computationally complex decoders, GRAND enables increased efficiency that could have applications in augmented and virtual reality, gaming, 5G networks, and connected devices that rely on processing a high volume of data with minimal delay.

The research at MIT is led by Muriel Médard, the Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and was co-authored by Amit Solomon and Wei Ann, both graduate students at MIT; Rabia Tugce Yazicigil, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boston University; Arslan Riaz and Vaibhav Bansal, both graduate students at Boston University; Ken R. Duffy, director of the Hamilton Institute at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth; and Kevin Galligan, a Maynooth graduate student. The research will be presented at the European Solid-States Device Research and Circuits Conference next week.

Focus on noise

One way to think of these codes is as redundant hashes (in this case, a series of 1s and 0s) added to the end of the original data. The rules for the creation of that hash are stored in a specific codebook.

As the encoded data travel over a network, they are affected by noise, or energy that disrupts the signal, which is often generated by other electronic devices. When that coded data and the noise that affected them arrive at their destination, the decoding algorithm consults its codebook and uses the structure of the hash to guess what the stored information is.

Instead, GRAND works by guessing the noise that affected the message, and uses the noise pattern to deduce the original information. GRAND generates a series of noise sequences in the order they are likely to occur, subtracts them from the received data, and checks to see if the resulting codeword is in a codebook.

While the noise appears random in nature, it has a probabilistic structure that allows the algorithm to guess what it might be.

“In a way, it is similar to troubleshooting. If someone brings their car into the shop, the mechanic doesn’t start by mapping the entire car to blueprints. Instead, they start by asking, ‘What is the most likely thing to go wrong?’ Maybe it just needs gas. If that doesn’t work, what’s next? Maybe the battery is dead?” Médard says.

Novel hardware

The GRAND chip uses a three-tiered structure, starting with the simplest possible solutions in the first stage and working up to longer and more complex noise patterns in the two subsequent stages. Each stage operates independently, which increases the throughput of the system and saves power.

The device is also designed to switch seamlessly between two codebooks. It contains two static random-access memory chips, one that can crack codewords, while the other loads a new codebook and then switches to decoding without any downtime.

The researchers tested the GRAND chip and found it could effectively decode any moderate redundancy code up to 128 bits in length, with only about a microsecond of latency.

Médard and her collaborators had previously demonstrated the success of the algorithm, but this new work showcases the effectiveness and efficiency of GRAND in hardware for the first time.

Developing hardware for the novel decoding algorithm required the researchers to first toss aside their preconceived notions, Médard says.

“We couldn’t go out and reuse things that had already been done. This was like a complete whiteboard. We had to really think about every single component from scratch. It was a journey of reconsideration. And I think when we do our next chip, there will be things with this first chip that we’ll realize we did out of habit or assumption that we can do better,” she says.

A chip for the future

Since GRAND only uses codebooks for verification, the chip not only works with legacy codes but could also be used with codes that haven’t even been introduced yet.

In the lead-up to 5G implementation, regulators and communications companies struggled to find consensus as to which codes should be used in the new network. Regulators ultimately chose to use two types of traditional codes for 5G infrastructure in different situations. Using GRAND could eliminate the need for that rigid standardization in the future, Médard says.

The GRAND chip could even open the field of coding to a wave of innovation.

“For reasons I’m not quite sure of, people approach coding with awe, like it is black magic. The process is mathematically nasty, so people just use codes that already exist. I’m hoping this will recast the discussion so it is not so standards-oriented, enabling people to use codes that already exist and create new codes,” she says.

Moving forward, Médard and her collaborators plan to tackle the problem of soft detection with a retooled version of the GRAND chip. In soft detection, the received data are less precise.

They also plan to test the ability of GRAND to crack longer, more complex codes and adjust the structure of the silicon chip to improve its energy efficiency.

The research was funded by the Battelle Memorial Institute and Science Foundation of Ireland.

MIT welcomes nine MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars for 2021-22

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 4:00pm

In its 31st year, the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Visiting Professors and Scholars Program will host nine outstanding scholars from across the Americas. The flagship program honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by increasing the presence and recognizing the contributions of underrepresented minority scholars at MIT. Throughout the year, the cohort will enhance their scholarship through intellectual engagement with the MIT community and enrich the cultural, academic, and professional experience of students.

The 2021-22 scholars

Sanford Biggers is an interdisciplinary artist hosted by the Department of Architecture. His work is an interplay of narrative, perspective, and history that speaks to current social, political, and economic happenings while examining their contexts. His diverse practice positions him as a collaborator with the past through explorations of often-overlooked cultural and political narratives from American history. Through collaboration with his faculty host, Brandon Clifford, he will spend the year contributing to projects with Architecture; Art, Culture and Technology; the Transmedia Storytelling initiatives; and community workshops and engagement with local K-12 education.

Kristen Dorsey is an assistant professor of engineering at Smith College. She will be hosted by the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Her research focuses on the fabrication and characterization of microscale sensors and microelectromechanical systems. Dorsey tries to understand “why things go wrong” by investigating device reliability and stability. At MIT, Dorsey is interested in forging collaborations to consider issues of access and equity as they apply to wearable health care devices.

Omolola "Lola" Eniola-Adefeso is the associate dean for graduate and professional education and associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. She will join MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE). Eniola-Adefeso will work with Professor Paula Hammond on developing electrostatically assembled nanoparticle coatings that enable targeting of specific immune cell types. A co-founder and chief scientific officer of Asalyxa Bio, she is interested in the interactions between blood leukocytes and endothelial cells in vessel lumen lining, and how they change during inflammation response. Eniola-Adefeso will also work with the Diversity in Chemical Engineering (DICE) graduate student group in ChemE and the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

Robert Gilliard Jr. is an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia and will join the MIT chemistry department, working closely with faculty host Christopher Cummins. His research focuses on various aspects of group 15 element chemistry. He was a founding member of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers UGA section, and he has served as an American Chemical Society (ACS) Bridge Program mentor as well as an ACS Project Seed mentor. Gilliard has also collaborated with the Cleveland Public Library to expose diverse young scholars to STEM fields.

Valencia Joyner Koomson ’98, MNG ’99 will return for the second semester of her appointment this fall in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Based at Tufts University, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Koomson has focused her research on microelectronic systems for cell analysis and biomedical applications. In the past semester, she has served as a judge for the Black Alumni/ae of MIT Research Slam and worked closely with faculty host Professor Akintunde Akinwande.

Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia will continue his appointment in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. He has 30 years of experience in public policy design, implementation, and advocacy, most notably in the areas of sustainable regional development, environmental protection and management of natural resources, social inclusion, and peace building. At MIT, he has continued his research on environmental justice, with a focus on carbon policy and its impacts on Afro-descendant communities in Colombia.

Sonya T. Smith was the first female professor of mechanical engineering at Howard University. She will join the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. Her research involves computational fluid dynamics and thermal management of electronics for air and space vehicles. She is looking forward to serving as a mentor to underrepresented students across MIT and fostering new research collaborations with her home lab at Howard.

Lawrence Udeigwe is an associate professor of mathematics at Manhattan College and will join MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He plans to co-teach a graduate seminar course with Professor James DiCarlo to explore practical and philosophical questions regarding the use of simulations to build theories in neuroscience. Udeigwe also leads the Lorens Chuno group; as a singer-songwriter, his work tackles intersectionality issues faced by contemporary Africans.

S. Craig Watkins is an internationally recognized expert in media and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He will join MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society to assist in researching the role of big data in enabling deep structural changes with regard to systemic racism. He will continue to expand on his work as founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, exploring the intersections of critical AI studies, critical race studies, and design. He will also work with MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality to develop computational systems that support social perspective-taking.

Community engagement

Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, MLK professors and scholars will be presenting their research at a monthly speaker series. Events will be held in an in-person/Zoom hybrid environment. All members of the MIT community are encouraged to attend and hear directly from this year’s cohort of outstanding scholars. To hear more about upcoming events, subscribe to their mailing list.

On Sept. 15, all are invited to join the Institute Community and Equity Office in welcoming the scholars to campus by attending a welcome luncheon.

English Language Studies joins Comparative Media Studies/Writing

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 3:50pm

English Language Studies (ELS), MIT’s unit for supporting the language needs of the Institute’s large bilingual and international populations, has officially moved to be under the umbrella of Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W). With this addition, all of MIT’s Institute-wide writing and communications instruction are now under one academic roof.

Professor Eric Klopfer, head of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, says he was “delighted to welcome the ELS program,” adding: “I see this as a useful expansion of our program, which helps consolidate these related programs in one place.”

Created over 40 years ago and until now part of the Global Languages section in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, ELS has been critical to the success of undergraduates and graduate students whose first language is not English. Rather than the typical university model of simply providing tutors to students still developing their college-level English, ELS is integrated into MIT’s education more broadly. It offers credit-bearing subjects targeting skills like expository writing, public speaking, pronunciation, and field-specific communication, and students taking three of these or related subjects can craft a HASS concentration. It administers the English Evaluation Test, a pre-semester assessment of roughly 300 incoming international graduate students, to appraise their written and spoken English and recommend appropriate ELS subjects.

Similarly, ELS plays a role in CMS/W’s First-Year Essay Evaluation, which places new MIT undergraduates in communication-intensive writing classes, including ELS’s 21G.222 (Expository Writing for Bilingual Students).

The integration of language instruction into MIT education generally — and ELS into CMS/W specifically — is fairly unique: unlike most colleges’ approaches, ELS classes are offered for credit in parallel with, rather than as prerequisites for, major coursework, and CMS/W facilitates this by overseeing MIT’s communication requirement. Global Languages has recently refocused on non-English language education and travel abroad, making it an apt time for ELS’s English-focused work to switch homes.

Lecturer Eric Grunwald is the interim head of ELS. “It’s an exciting move for us,” he says. “We’ll miss the camaraderie and constant pedagogical cross-pollination we shared with the other language groups in Global Languages, but like CMS/W we care about communication, particularly academic and professional English and helping students deploy those well, so it’s a great fit in that way. We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership.”

Grunwald developed a background in STEM as an undergraduate and afterward lived in Germany. In addition to his interests in academic and second-language writing and reading, he has a strong interest in creative writing and worked as managing editor at the esteemed Boston-based literary magazine AGNI. A published author of short stories and translation, Grunwald developed the ELS subject 21G.240 (Imagining English: Creative Writing for Bilingual Students).

The other lecturer making the move from Global Languages to CMS/W is A. C. Kemp, whose interests are in academic and professional writing, teacher training, academic integrity, and vocabulary acquisition. She has written over 300 columns on slang and colloquial language for the Slang City website since 2002, and in 2008 published a humor book on obscure vocabulary, “The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion: Lady Snark's Guide to Common Discourtesy.” Kemp agreed with Grunwald, saying “This is a terrific fit for us. We and CMS/W have a lot of common interests, especially with the Writing and Communication Center and Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication.”

The Writing and Communication Center Kemp mentions is a CMS/W unit led by Elena Kallestinova that hosts one-on-one consultations, workshops, and online resources for MIT community members. Kallestinova says the incorporation of ELS into CMS/W means they can “learn from each other, share effective strategies and resources, and come up with joint initiatives to engage the vast multilingual and international community of MIT students and scholars.”

ELS has already had a long-running collaboration with another CMS/W group: Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication (WRAP), which teaches MIT’s foundational writing subjects and partners with MIT faculty and departments to teach written, oral, and visual communication. Like Kallestinova, WRAP Director Suzanne Lane is excited about the chance to work more closely with ELS colleagues. “WRAP and the ELS program have a long history of collaborating and learning from each other. ELS plays a role in the First-year Essay Evaluation, which WRAP administers, and both programs offer communications-intensive humanities and writing subjects, so we’ve often collaborated about pedagogy as well. We expect to find more ways to work together to enrich the communication instruction we provide to MIT students at all levels.”

Even beyond its departmental spaces, Grunwald and Kemp have found ways to connect ELS to other parts of MIT. They have worked with the International Scholars Office and OpenCourseWare (with Kemp’s course RES.21G-001(The User-friendly Classroom), and ELS has supported teacher training capacities, such as Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science in MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy

Wed, 09/08/2021 - 7:00am

It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.

“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”

Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.

“The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, “it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”

Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. “It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,” he says.

The sun in a bottle

Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.

That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.

The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.

Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic “bottle” capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.

The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach, led by Zach Hartwig, the MIT principal investigator and the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.

A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.

Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, “the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.”

That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. “It’s a big moment,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. “We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,” he says of the successful magnet demonstration.
 

Proof of the concept

Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.

“We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,” says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. “We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.” That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications — and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.

They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. “It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.” The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.

In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field — the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.

“Three years ago we announced a plan,” says Mumgaard, “to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.” That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.

Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says “basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.”

The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.

Zuber says that “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”

Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, “I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.”

The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.”

Wisdom from MIT graduate students at the start of a new semester

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 3:25pm

Whether you’re returning to the MIT campus or coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the first time, one thing is certain: You want to bring your whole self with you. In the case of MIT’s graduate student population, there are nearly 7,000 such selves from all over the country and around the world, each playing an essential role in supporting teaching and research.

To help every student start strong, take care of themselves, and to make the most of this semester, here are 12 articles — covering everything from the curious MIT vernacular to tackling burnout to making friends and building networks — from MIT’s graduate student bloggers. Even if you are not pursuing a degree, the posts present a snapshot into the vibrant life at the Institute.

MIT 101

If you’re new to campus, Allison P.’s “MIT-isms: Crack the Code to MIT Conversation” and Hyunjin P.’s “Navigating MIT: How to Survive in the Forest of Numbers” will help you orient yourself. And if this will be your first New England winter, don’t miss Paul G.’s advice on navigating Cambridge’s cooler months.

On belonging

To know you belong here, read “Fitting into MIT: How imposter syndrome gave me a sense of belonging” by Kristan H. “To this day, I sometimes walk through the archetypal MIT dome to my lab in the mornings, look up at the stained-glass ceiling, and have a sense of disbelief that I made it here. However, now, instead of doubting how I made it here, I feel grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself in new ways and work with brilliant people.”

Welcome to Massachusetts

To explore New England, read “A Journey through time: Voyaging into Boston’s ‘other’ history” by Pervez A. “As graduate students, we come here to learn, and to teach, but what we can also do in Boston is experience — through the writings of history’s greats who have walked this city’s streets, and been molded by its character. Boston’s ‘other’ history is an opportunity for MIT students to step beyond ourselves, and immerse ourselves into the beauty of what’s right outside our door step.”

Preventing burnout

To fight burnout, read “Dousing first-year burnout: The importance of making MIT your home” by Alex O. “If you’re like me, it’s easy to get caught up in the challenge of a graduate program and to think you’re not allowed to focus on anything else, but feeling like part of a community makes a world of difference in your mental health and ability to learn.”

Setting and meeting goals

To reach your goals, read “The buddy system: How checking in weekly can keep your goals on track” by Kathleen L. “Graduate school is overwhelming and lonely at times. In addition to producing good research, graduate students have to balance networking, taking classes, staying updated on advances in their field by reading papers, and managing personal life goals. … To address this issue, my labmate and I have started a weekly check-in routine that has helped me grow personally and professionally during graduate school while also combating loneliness.”

Finding the light

To find inspiration, read “small silver slivers: finding the bright spots in a dark time” by Rumya R. “Because, after all we’ve been through, maybe that was what I missed the most — the chance to make someone new smile. The fleeting interactions and human connections that reminded us that we aren’t alone in this world. A reminder that, despite how dark it got, there was always a small, silver, sliver of a lining, even when we didn’t believe that it was there.”

Keys to networking

For tips on making new connections, read “Networking for introverts: How to break out of your shell” by Morgan J. “Networking. For some of us introverts out there, it’s a dreaded word. … I used to absolutely dread networking. However, throughout my college years and the graduate school interview process, I began to crack the code to networking confidently and productively.”

On being mindful

To find time for what matters to you, read “What a poet taught me about sitting still: Building a mindfulness practice into a busy grad student schedule” by Meggan D. “It’s funny, isn’t it, how we feel called to be busy all of the time? In school, and then in life after school, and on weekends between our work? Am I the only one who wakes and wonders immediately how I will fill my days? This is quite the habit to be in — with what was I filling my time?”

Supporting mental health

To hear about resources for prioritizing your mental health, read “Ask and you shall receive: How grad school put me on a healthier path” by Tatiana N. “To the current and future first-year students in similar situations, who question their self-worth, their place at MIT, whether they are smart enough to get an A in that class or to join their dream lab, here’s my advice: it is never too early or too late to get help. Grad school is difficult, but taking care of your mental health during this time does not have to be.”

Use your imagination

To find your own superpowers, read “Practice imagination in MIT Hogwarts: Where empathy and compassion are the real magic” by Hsin-Yu L. “To me, imagination is the magic that does not only empower a person, but spreads its spell. Embrace the challenges, unfold your imagination, and welcome to MIT Hogwarts.”


If you’d like to learn about writing for the MIT Graduate Admissions Blog, email gradblogeditors@mit.edu.

Lincoln Laboratory honored for transfer of security-enhancing technologies

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 3:00pm

The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer (FLC) awarded their 2021 Excellence in Technology Transfer Award for the Northeast region to two Lincoln Laboratory technologies developed to improve security.

The first technology, Forensic Video Exploitation and Analysis (FOVEA), is a suite of analytic tools that makes it significantly easier for investigators to review surveillance video footage. The second technology, Keylime, is a software architecture designed to increase the security and privacy of data and services in the cloud. Both technologies have transitioned to commercial use via license or open-source access.

"These Federal Laboratory Consortium awards are an acknowledgement that the advanced capabilities developed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory are valued, not only for their contribution to enhancing national security, but also for their value to related private-sector needs," says Bernadette Johnson, the chief technology ventures officer at Lincoln Laboratory. "Technology transfer is considered an integral element of the Department of Defense's mission and is explicitly called out in the laboratory’s Prime Contract and Sponsoring Agreement. The transfer of these two technologies is emblematic of the unique 'R&D-to-rapid-prototyping' transition pipeline we have been developing at Lincoln."

Speeding up video review 

The FOVEA program first began under sponsorship from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to address the challenge of efficiently reviewing video surveillance footage. The process of searching for a specific event, investigating abandoned objects, or piecing together activity from multiple cameras can take investigators hours or even days. It is especially challenging in large-scale closed-circuit TV systems, like those that surveil subway stations.

The FOVEA suite overcomes these challenges with three advanced tools. The first tool, video summarization, condenses all motion activity into a visual summary, transforming, for example, an hour of raw video into a three-minute product that only highlights motion. The second tool, called jump back, automatically seeks a portion of the video when an idle object, such as a backpack, first appeared. The third tool, multi-camera navigation and path reconstruction, allows an operator to track a person or vehicle of interest across multiple camera views.

Notably, FOVEA's analytic tools can be integrated directly into existing video surveillance systems and can be processed on any desktop or laptop computer. In contrast, most commercial offerings first require customers to export their video data for analysis and to purchase proprietary server equipment or cloud services.

"The project team worked very hard on not just the development of the FOVEA prototype, but also packaging the software in a way that accommodates hand-off to third-party deployment sites and transition partners," says Marianne DeAngelus, who led the development of FOVEA with a team in the Homeland Sensors and Analytics Group.

Under government sponsorship, the developers first deployed FOVEA to two mass transit facilities. Through participation in an MIT-led Innovation-Corps program, the team then adapted the technology into a commercial application. Doradus Lab, Inc. has since licensed FOVEA for security surveillance in casinos.

"Though FOVEA was originally developed for a specific use case of mass transit security, our tech transfer to industry will make it available for a broader set of security applications that would benefit from accelerated forensic analysis of surveillance video. We and our DHS sponsor are happy that this may lead to a wider impact of the technology," adds Jason Thornton, who leads the technical group.

Putting trust in the cloud

Keylime is making it possible for government and industry users with sensitive data to increase the security of their cloud and internet-of-things (IoT) devices. This free, open-source software architecture enables cloud customers to securely upload cryptographic keys, passwords, and certificates into the cloud without divulging these secrets to their cloud provider, and to secure their cloud resources without relying on their provider to do it for them.

Keylime started as an internal project funded through Lincoln Laboratory's Technology Office in 2015. Eventually, the Keylime team began discussions with RedHat, one of the world's largest open-source software companies, to expand the technology's reach. With RedHat's help, Keylime was transitioned in 2019 into the Cloud Native Computing Foundation as a sandbox technology with more than 30 open-source developers contributing to it from around the world. Most recently, IBM announced its plans to adopt Keylime into its cloud feet, enabling IBM to attest to the security of its thousands of cloud servers.

"Keylime's transfer and adoption into the open-source community and cloud environments helps to empower edge/IoT and cloud customers to validate provider claims of trustworthiness, rather than needing to rely solely on trust of the underlying environment for compliance and correctness," says Charles Munson, who developed Keylime with former laboratory staff member Nabil Schear and adapted it as an open-source platform with Luke Hinds at RedHat. 

Keylime achieves its cloud security by leveraging a piece of hardware called a TPM, an industry-standard hardware security chip. A TPM generates a hash, a short string of numbers representing a much larger amount of data, that changes significantly if data are even slightly tampered with. Keylime can detect and react to this tampering in under a second.

Before Keylime, TPMs were incompatible with cloud technology, slowing down systems and forcing engineers to change software to accommodate the module. Keylime gets around these problems by serving as a piece of intermediary software that allows users to leverage the security benefits of the TPM without having to make their software compatible with it.

Transferring to industry

The transition of Lincoln Laboratory's technology to industry and government is central to its role as a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC).

The mission of the FLC is to facilitate and educate FFRDCs and industry on the process of technology transfer. More than 300 federal laboratories, facilities, research centers, and their parent agencies make up the FLC community.

The transfer of these FLC-awarded technologies was supported by Bernadette Johnson and Lou Bellaire in the Technology Ventures Office; David Pronchick, Drinalda Kume, Zachary Sweet, and Jayme Selinger of the Contracting Services Department; and Daniel Dardani in MIT's Technology Licensing Office, along with the technology development teams. Both FOVEA and Keylime were also awarded R&D 100 Awards in 2020, acknowledging them among the year's 100 most innovative technologies available for sale or license.

The FLC will recognize the award recipients at a regional meeting in October.

Q&A: Dina Katabi on a “smart” home with actual intelligence

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 2:50pm

Dina Katabi is designing the next generation of smart wireless devices that will sit in the background of a given room, gathering and interpreting data, rather than being wrapped around one's wrist or worn elsewhere on the body. In this Q&A, Katabi, the Thuan (1990) and Nicole Pham Professor at MIT, discusses some of her recent work.

Q: Smartwatches and fitness trackers have given us a new level of personalized health information. What’s next?

A: The next frontier is the home, and building truly-intelligent wireless systems that understand people’s health and can interact with the environment and other devices. Google Home and Alexa are reactive. You tell them, “wake me up,” but they sound the alarm whether you’re in bed or have already left for work. My lab is working on the next generation of wireless sensors and machine-learning models that can make more personalized predictions.

We call them the invisibles. For example, instead of ringing an alarm at a specific time, the sensor can tell if you’ve woken up and started making coffee. It knows to silence the alarm. Similarly, it can monitor an elderly person living alone and alert their caregiver if there’s a change in vital signs or eating habits. Most importantly, it can act without people having to wear a device or tell the sensors what to do.

Q: How does an intelligent sensing system like this work?

A: We’re developing “touchless” sensors that can track people’s movements, activities, and vital signs by analyzing radio signals that bounce off their bodies. Our sensors also communicate with other sensors in the home, which allows them to analyze how people interact with appliances in their home. For example, by combining user location data in the home with power signals from home smart meters, we can tell when appliances are used and measure their energy consumption. In all cases, the machine-learning models we’re co-developing with the sensors analyze radio waves and power signals to extract high-level information about how people interact with each other and their appliances.

Q: What’s the hardest part of building “invisible” sensing systems?

A: The breadth of technologies involved. Building “invisibles” requires innovations in sensor hardware, wireless networks, and machine learning. Invisibles also have strict performance and security requirements.

Q: What are some of the applications?

A: They will enable truly “smart” homes in which the environment senses and responds to human actions. They can interact with appliances and help homeowners save energy. They can alert a caregiver when they detect changes in someone’s health. They can alert you or your doctor when you don’t take your medication properly. Unlike wearable devices, invisibles don’t need to be worn or charged. They can understand human interactions, and unlike cameras, they can pick up enough high-level information without revealing individual faces or what people are wearing. It’s much less invasive.

Q: How will you integrate security into the physical sensors?

A: In computer science, we have a concept called challenge-response. When you log into a website, you’re asked to identify the objects in several photos to prove that you’re human and not a bot. Here, the invisibles understand actions and movements. So, you could be asked to make a specific gesture to verify that you’re the person being monitored. You could also be asked to walk through a monitored space to verify that you have legitimate access.

Q: What can invisibles measure that wearables can’t?

A: Wearables track acceleration but they don’t understand actual movements; they can’t tell whether you walked from the kitchen to the bedroom or just moved in place. They can’t tell whether you’re sitting at the table for dinner or at your desk for work. The invisibles address all of these issues.

Current deep-learning models are also limited whether wireless signals are collected from wearable or background sensors. Most handle images, speech, and written text. In a project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, we’re developing new models to interpret radio waves, acceleration data, and some medical data. We’re training these models without labeled data, in an unsupervised approach, since non-experts have a difficult time labeling radio waves, and acceleration and medical signals.

Q: You’ve founded several startups, including CodeOn, for faster and secure networking, and Emerald, a health analytics platform. Any advice for aspiring engineer-entrepreneurs?

A: It’s important to understand the market and your customers. Good technologies can make great companies, but they are not enough. Timing and the ability to deliver a product are essential.

Making catalytic surfaces more active to help decarbonize fuels and chemicals

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 10:00am

Electrochemical reactions that are accelerated using catalysts lie at the heart of many processes for making and using fuels, chemicals, and materials — including storing electricity from renewable energy sources in chemical bonds, an important capability for decarbonizing transportation fuels. Now, research at MIT could open the door to ways of making certain catalysts more active, and thus enhancing the efficiency of such processes.

A new production process yielded catalysts that increased the efficiency of the chemical reactions by fivefold, potentially enabling useful new processes in biochemistry, organic chemistry, environmental chemistry, and electrochemistry. The findings are described today in the journal Nature Catalysis, in a paper by Yang Shao-Horn, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the Research Lab of Electronics (RLE); Tao Wang, a postdoc in RLE; Yirui Zhang, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and five others.

The process involves adding a layer of what’s called an ionic liquid in between a gold or platinum catalyst and a chemical feedstock. Catalysts produced with this method could potentially enable much more efficient conversion of hydrogen fuel to power devices such as fuel cells, or more efficient conversion of carbon dioxide into fuels.

“There is an urgent need to decarbonize how we power transportation beyond light-duty vehicles, how we make fuels, and how we make materials and chemicals,” says Shao-Horn, emphasizing the pressing call to reduce carbon emissions highlighted in the latest IPCC report on climate change. This new approach to enhancing catalytic activity could provide an important step in that direction, she says.

Using hydrogen in electrochemical devices such as fuel cells is one promising approach to decarbonizing fields such as aviation and heavy-duty vehicles, and the new process may help to make such uses practical. At present, the oxygen reduction reaction that powers such fuel cells is limited by its inefficiency. Previous attempts to improve that efficiency have focused on choosing different catalyst materials or modifying their surface compositions and structure.

In this research, however, instead of modifying the solid surfaces, the team added a thin layer in between the catalyst and the electrolyte, the active material that participates in the chemical reaction. The ionic liquid layer, they found, regulates the activity of protons that help to increase the rate of the chemical reactions taking place on the interface.

Because there is a great variety of such ionic liquids to choose from, it’s possible to “tune” proton activity and the reaction rates to match the energetics needed for processes involving proton transfer, which can be used to make fuels and chemicals through reactions with oxygen.

“The proton activity and the barrier for proton transfer is governed by the ionic liquid layer, and so there’s a great tuneability in terms of catalytic activity for reactions involving proton and electron transfer,” Shao-Horn says. And the effect is produced by a vanishingly thin layer of the liquid, just a few nanometers thick, above which is a much thicker layer of the liquid that is to undergo the reaction.

“I think this concept is novel and important,” says Wang, the paper’s first author, “because people know the proton activity is important in many electrochemistry reactions, but it’s very challenging to study.” That’s because in a water environment, there are so many interactions between neighboring water molecules involved that it’s very difficult to separate out which reactions are taking place. By using an ionic liquid, whose ions can each only form a single bond with the intermediate material, it became possible to study the reactions in detail, using infrared spectroscopy.

As a result, Wang says, “Our finding highlights the critical role that interfacial electrolytes, in particular the intermolecular hydrogen bonding, can play in enhancing the activity of the electro-catalytic process. It also provides fundamental insights into proton transfer mechanisms at a quantum mechanical level, which can push the frontiers of knowing how protons and electrons interact at catalytic interfaces.”

“The work is also exciting because it gives people a design principle for how they can tune the catalysts,” says Zhang. “We need some species right at a ‘sweet spot’ — not too active or too inert — to enhance the reaction rate.”

With some of these techniques, says Reshma Rao, a recent doctoral graduate from MIT and now a postdoc at Imperial College, London, who is also a co-author of the paper, “we see up to a five-times increase in activity. I think the most exciting part of this research is the way it opens up a whole new dimension in the way we think about catalysis.” The field had hit “a kind of roadblock,” she says, in finding ways to design better materials. By focusing on the liquid layer rather than the surface of the material, “that’s kind of a whole different way of looking at this problem, and opens up a whole new dimension, a whole new axis along which we can change things and optimize some of these reaction rates.”

The team also included Botao Huang, Bin Cai, and Livia Giordano in the MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, and Shi-Gang Sun at Xiamen University in China. The work was supported by the Toyota Research Institute, and used the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Environment.

A new hub for MIT innovation and entrepreneurship

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 9:00am

MIT’s innovation and entrepreneurship community just got 50,000 square feet of new space to work with.

The Institute’s new InnovationHQ encompasses five floors in the recently renovated Suffolk Building, or E38, in the heart of Kendall Square. It serves as a hub for students at every stage of their entrepreneurial journeys, from undergraduates to PhDs, and includes space for alumni, faculty members, and staff.

“IHQ was designed to encourage those chance collisions which spark the innovation process amongst people and teams who may not otherwise meet,” says Fiona Murray, the associate dean for innovation and inclusion in MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-director of MIT Innovation Initiative (MITii), which designed the space with architects NADAAA and Perkins + Will.

Each floor features open, flexible layouts, and six departments, labs, and centers that formerly supported student entrepreneurship from different parts of campus now call it home. Conference rooms, meeting areas, and staff office space are also available.

What the space ultimately looks like on a day-to-day basis, though, will largely be decided by students.

“I anticipate it feeling warm and welcoming and creative and quirky — very student-driven,” says Lauren Tyger, a program manager with the MITii who heads student experience, including the new Student Venture Studio on the fourth floor.

Built with a purpose

The first thing students will notice about iHQ is what it sits on top of. The first two floors of E38 are home to the newly created MIT Welcome Center and MIT Admissions, sending a message to prospective students and visitors that innovation is encouraged at MIT.

“We’re trying to center innovation and entrepreneurship as a core experiential learning component, rather than just something you do on the side or something you do if you have the luxury of having extra time,” Tyger says. “This will help spark the understanding as a student that you’re empowered to innovate at MIT.”

Floors three through seven make up iHQ, with each level designed to enhance students’ ascent into entrepreneurship.

Most of the third floor is the new MIT Student Innovator Lounge — an open work area for community members to gather. It also includes a new makerspace for music and arts innovation called the Voxel Lab — a collaboration of MITii, the Arts at MIT, and MIT Music and Theater Arts. The fourth floor features the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program as well as the new MIT Student Venture Studio, a space for student organizations interested in entrepreneurship to gather and host events and meetings.

“One of the obstacles the [Student Venture Studio] addresses is the challenge of collaboration and even awareness among student organizations of who’s doing what, who cares about what, who’s working on solving related problems,” Tyger says.

The fifth floor is the new home of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT and houses the new MIT Alumni Venture Studio, which provides a space for MIT alumni,  alumni founders, and MIT-connected ventures to engage with the many alumni innovation and entrepreneurship programs and opportunities offered on campus.

The sixth floor features longtime MIT entrepreneurial staples MIT Venture Mentoring Service and the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The floor also includes the New England I-Corps at MIT program and the MIT Innovation Initiative. All of those programs are topped by a large event space dubbed the Hacker Reactor on the seventh floor.

Tyger says consolidating a number of groups will do more than just save students trips across campus. “It will really help the offices themselves to collaborate more efficiently and effectively,” Tyger says. “Then from the student perspective, there may be less duplicative events and offerings. If we’re together more often, and talking, it will lead to more efficient, thoughtful, and robust offerings for students.”

No single building can house the entirety of innovation at MIT. So, other organizations like the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the PKG Center, MIT D-Lab and others, while not physically located in the building, are connected to the hub through MIT’s thriving I&E ecosystem.

Launching iHQ

MIT InnovationHQ is the culmination of a process that began back in 2013 when President L. Rafael Reif charged the MITii with creating “a chain of new and existing spaces that would, together, create an infinite innovation corridor to include a new innovation center.”

In the years since that charge, MITii has been working with students, faculty, alumni, and staff to learn more about what MIT’s innovation community needs and to build physical and data infrastructure to support those needs.

“Clearly there was a need for extremely flexible space,” Innovation Initiative Program Director Tim Miano says. “You need something akin to the Harry Potter Room of Requirement, or the Star Trek Holodeck, where spaces have the ability to accommodate as many people as possible and everything is rearrangeable to serve whatever activity is taking place. At the other end of the spectrum, there are very low-flex spaces that serve private activities.”

MITii is hosting a series of welcome events to introduce students to the new space, including First Year Exploration Day, a career exploration event, an I&E resource roundup open to all students, and more. But many of the experiences iHQ is built for will be less formal.

“We anticipate students having 24-hour access to the building, so some of the most interesting and exciting things may be happening at 2 o’clock in the morning amongst the students,” Miano says.

As the space starts being used more regularly, MITii will listen to the community and consider ways to adapt or improve its operations.

In that sense, the building is being run on the same principles as a startup, in which founders must keep their ear to the pavement to ensure they’re fulfilling customer needs.

“In a lot of ways, we’re all participating in the innovation process by continuing to talk to people, making the product stronger, and iterating on it from feedback,” Tyger says. “All that will really benefit the student experience.”

Encouraging children’s wonder with “Ada and the Galaxies”

Tue, 09/07/2021 - 9:00am

MIT Kids Press — a first-of-its-kind collaboration between a university press, the MIT Press, and a children’s publisher, Candlewick Press — publishes today its inaugural title, “Ada and the Galaxies.” A picture book by professor of the practice of the humanities Alan Lightman and Olga Pastuchiv, and illustrated by Susanna Chapman, it’s inspired by Lightman’s desire to encourage kids’ native interest in the world around them.

Lightman says of the book: “Children have an instinctive curiosity about the natural world, but that fascination is often stifled by our regimented and fast-paced lifestyle, and our manufactured environment of concrete and steel. I hope that 'Ada and the Galaxies,' and other books like it, will help rekindle the fresh awe of gazing up at the starry night sky, or holding a spiraling seashell in your hand, or listening to the haunting call of a loon. Also, the feeling of connection to nature. We are all part of something larger than ourselves.”

In starred pre-publication reviews, Publishers Weekly noted the book’s “night skies that glitter and seawater that sparkles,” while Kirkus Reviews wrote that “young readers will delight in seeing our universe’s interconnectedness, and, later, when Ada’s family dashes outside to spin in starlight, they will recognize the inextricable bonds among loved ones.”

The MIT Press Bookstore, which will reopen its doors later this month at its new location at 314 Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will have copies of “Ada and the Galaxies” available for sale in the children’s section. On Sept. 18, MIT Kids Press will collaborate with MIT Open Space Programming and MIT’s Office of Government and Community Relations on a family event celebrating the book. Free and open to the public, the event will take place in the new Kendall/MIT Open Space, next to the Kendall/MIT T stop. For more details, visit: openspace.mit.edu/upcoming.

Going forward, MIT Kids Press and its sister press for older readers, MITeen Press, will continue to publish lively, fascinating, and far-reaching writing on STEAM topics for young people, offering ambitious and engaging books for the next generations of budding thinkers, designers, scientists, leaders, and inventors. The next book from MITeen Press is “Become an App Inventor: The Official Guide from MIT App Inventor, Your Guide to Designing, Building, and Sharing Apps,” due out in February 2022.

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