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Updated: 17 hours 21 min ago

Phonon catalysis could lead to a new field

Fri, 05/28/2021 - 9:00am

Batteries and fuel cells often rely on a process known as ion diffusion to function. In ion diffusion, ionized atoms move through solid materials, similar to the process of water being absorbed by rice when cooked. Just like cooking rice, ion diffusion is incredibly temperature-dependent and requires high temperatures to happen fast.

This temperature dependence can be limiting, as the materials used in some systems like fuel cells need to withstand high temperatures sometimes in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius. In a new study, a team of researchers at MIT and the University of Muenster in Germany showed a new effect, where ion diffusion is enhanced while the material remains cold, by only exciting a select number of vibrations known as phonons. This new approach — which the team refers to as “phonon catalysis” — could lead to an entirely new field of research. Their work was published in Cell Reports Physical Science.

In the study, the research team used a computational model to determine which vibrations actually caused ions to move during ion diffusion. Rather than increasing the temperature of the entire material, they increased the temperature of just those specific vibrations in a process they refer to as targeted phonon excitation.

“We only heated up the vibrations that matter, and in doing so we were able to show that you could keep the material cold, but have it behave just like it's very hot,” says Asegun Henry, professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the study.

This ability to keep materials cool during ion diffusion could have a wide range of applications. In the example of fuel cells, if the entire cell doesn’t need to be exposed to extremely high temperatures engineers could use cheaper materials to build them. This would lower the cost of fuel cells and would help them last longer — solving the issue of the short lifetime of many fuel cells.

The process could also have implications for lithium-ion batteries.

“Discovering new ion conductors is critical to advance lithium batteries, and opportunities include enabling the use of lithium metal, which can potentially double the energy of lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately, the fundamental understanding of ion conduction is lacking,” adds Yang Shao-Horn, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and co-author.

This new work builds upon her previous research, specifically the work of Sokseiha Muy PhD ’18 on design principles for ion conductors, which shows lowering phonon energy in structures reduces the barrier for ion diffusion and potentially increases ion conductivity. Kiarash Gordiz, a postdoc working jointly with Henry’s Atomistic Simulation and Energy Research Group and Shao-Horn’s Electrochemical Energy Laboratory, wondered if they could combine Shao-Horn’s research on ion conduction with Henry’s research on heat transfer.

“Using Professor Shao-Horn’s previous work on ion conductors as a starting point, we set out to determine exactly which phonon modes are contributing to ion diffusion,” says Gordiz.

Henry, Gordiz, and their team used a model for lithium phosphate, which is often found in lithium-ion batteries. Using a computational method known as normal mode analysis, along with nudged elastic-band calculations and molecular dynamics simulations, the research group quantitatively computed how much each phonon contributes to the ion diffusion process in lithium phosphate.

Armed with this knowledge, researchers could use lasers to selectively excite or heat up specific phonons, rather than exposing the entire material to high temperatures. This method could open up a new world of possibilities.

The dawn of a new field

Henry believes this method could lead to the creation of a new research field — one he refers to as “phonon catalysis.” While the new work focuses specifically on ion diffusion, Henry sees applications in chemical reactions, phase transformations, and other temperature-dependent phenomena.

“Our group is fascinated by the idea that you may be able to catalyze all kinds of things now that we have the technique to figure out which phonons matter,” says Henry. “All of these reactions that usually require extreme temperatures could now happen at room temperature.”

Henry and his team have begun exploring potential applications for phonon catalysis. Gordiz has been looking at using the method for lithium superionic conductors, which could be used in clean energy storage. The team is also considering applications such as a room-temperature superconductor and even the creation of diamonds, which require extremely high pressure and temperatures that could be triggered at much lower temperatures through phonon catalysis.

“This idea of selective excitation, focusing only on the parts that you need rather than everything, could be a very big kind of paradigm shift for how we operate things,” says Henry. “We need to start thinking of temperature as a spectrum and not just a single number.”

The researchers plan to show more examples of targeted phonon excitation working in different materials. Moving forward, they hope to demonstrate their computational model works experimentally in these materials. 

Artificial intelligence system could help counter the spread of disinformation

Thu, 05/27/2021 - 3:45pm

Disinformation campaigns are not new — think of wartime propaganda used to sway public opinion against an enemy. What is new, however, is the use of the internet and social media to spread these campaigns. The spread of disinformation via social media has the power to change elections, strengthen conspiracy theories, and sow discord.

Steven Smith, a staff member from MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Artificial Intelligence Software Architectures and Algorithms Group, is part of a team that set out to better understand these campaigns by launching the Reconnaissance of Influence Operations (RIO) program. Their goal was to create a system that would automatically detect disinformation narratives as well as those individuals who are spreading the narratives within social media networks. Earlier this year, the team published a paper on their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and they received an R&D 100 award last fall.

The project originated in 2014 when Smith and colleagues were studying how malicious groups could exploit social media. They noticed increased and unusual activity in social media data from accounts that had the appearance of pushing pro-Russian narratives.

"We were kind of scratching our heads," Smith says of the data. So the team applied for internal funding through the laboratory’s Technology Office and launched the program in order to study whether similar techniques would be used in the 2017 French elections.

In the 30 days leading up to the election, the RIO team collected real-time social media data to search for and analyze the spread of disinformation. In total, they compiled 28 million Twitter posts from 1 million accounts. Then, using the RIO system, they were able to detect disinformation accounts with 96 percent precision.

What makes the RIO system unique is that it combines multiple analytics techniques in order to create a comprehensive view of where and how the disinformation narratives are spreading.

"If you are trying to answer the question of who is influential on a social network, traditionally, people look at activity counts," says Edward Kao, who is another member of the research team. On Twitter, for example, analysts would consider the number of tweets and retweets. "What we found is that in many cases this is not sufficient. It doesn’t actually tell you the impact of the accounts on the social network."

As part of Kao’s PhD work in the laboratory’s Lincoln Scholars program, a tuition fellowship program, he developed a statistical approach — now used in RIO — to help determine not only whether a social media account is spreading disinformation but also how much the account causes the network as a whole to change and amplify the message.

Erika Mackin, another research team member, also applied a new machine learning approach that helps RIO to classify these accounts by looking into data related to behaviors such as whether the account interacts with foreign media and what languages it uses. This approach allows RIO to detect hostile accounts that are active in diverse campaigns, ranging from the 2017 French presidential elections to the spread of Covid-19 disinformation.

Another unique aspect of RIO is that it can detect and quantify the impact of accounts operated by both bots and humans, whereas most automated systems in use today detect bots only. RIO also has the ability to help those using the system to forecast how different countermeasures might halt the spread of a particular disinformation campaign.

The team envisions RIO being used by both government and industry as well as beyond social media and in the realm of traditional media such as newspapers and television. Currently, they are working with West Point student Joseph Schlessinger, who is also a graduate student at MIT and a military fellow at Lincoln Laboratory, to understand how narratives spread across European media outlets. A new follow-on program is also underway to dive into the cognitive aspects of influence operations and how individual attitudes and behaviors are affected by disinformation.

“Defending against disinformation is not only a matter of national security, but also about protecting democracy,” says Kao.

3Q: The socio-environmental complexities of renewable energy

Thu, 05/27/2021 - 3:15pm

Caroline White-Nockleby is a PhD student in MIT’s doctoral program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), which is co-sponsored by the History and Anthropology sections, and the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). White-Nockleby's research centers on the shifting supply chains of renewable energy infrastructures. In particular, she is interested in the interfaces between policymaking, social dynamics, and tech innovations in the sourcing, manufacture, and implementation of energy storage technologies. She received a BA in geosciences and American studies from Williams College and an MPhil in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge, England. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with her for the series Solving Climate: Humanistic Perspectives from MIT about the perspectives her field and research bring to addressing the climate crisis. 
 
Q: How has research from the HASTS doctoral program shaped your understanding of global climate change and its myriad ecological and social impacts?

A: MIT HASTS alum Candis Callison [PhD ’10], now an anthropologist and professor of journalism, wrote her first book, “How Climate Change Comes to Matter” about the different discursive frameworks — what she terms “vernaculars” — through which scientists, journalists, Indigenous communities, sustainable investment firms, and evangelical Christian environmental organizations understand climate change.

Through ethnographic research, Callison shows that although these understandings were grounded in a shared set of facts, each drew from different cultural and ethical frameworks. These variations could silo conversations, even as they illustrated the pluralities of the climate crisis by highlighting different challenges and compelling different actions.

HASTS faculty member and environmental historian Megan Black, an associate professor in the MIT History Section, is currently researching the history of the first Landsat satellites launched in the 1970s. The technical capacities of Landsat’s visualization mechanisms were influenced by the political context of the Cold War. Black’s investigation has revealed, among other findings, that Landsat’s imaging devices were particularly well-suited to surfacing geological features and thus to minerals exploration, which was a key application of Landsat data in its inaugural decade. The historical context of the satellite’s initial design has thus shaped — and limited — the information accessible to the many investigations that today use early Landsat imagery as a vital indicator of decadal-scale environmental changes. 

Climate change is not only a scientific and technological matter, but also a social, political, and historical one. It stems from centuries of uneven geographies of energy extraction and distribution; related historical and geographical processes today distribute climate vulnerabilities unevenly across places and people.

The dimensions of today’s promising interventions have, in turn, been configured by past funding and research agendas — and the many technologies employed have a wide variety of implications for equity, ethics, and justice. The parameters of public opinion and policy debate on the nature and risks of climate change, as well as its conceivable solutions, are similarly shaped by socio-historical contexts.

MIT's Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) supports research that attends to the social and historical facets of climate change. Just as importantly, the HASTS program equips scholars with the tools to develop nuanced understandings of the scientific and technological mechanisms of its causes, impacts, and proposed solutions. Such technical and social attunement makes the program well-situated — perhaps particularly so — to unravel the myriad social and ecological dimensions of the climate crisis.

Q: Technology offers hope for addressing climate change, and it also presents challenges. The renewable energy industry, for example, relies on the mining of lithium and other metals — a process that is itself damaging to the environment. What has your research revealed about the trade-offs humanity is facing in its efforts to combat global climate change, and, how would you suggest we begin to grapple with such trade-offs?

A: Renewable energy can sometimes be positioned as immaterial and inherently redistributive. In some sense these characterizations arise from physical qualities: the sun and wind don’t require extraction, won’t run out, and are distributed across space.

Yet renewable energy must be collected, stored, and transported; it requires financing, metals extraction, and the processing of decommissioned materials. Energy access, mining, and waste deposition are material, geographically situated dynamics. Not everyone stands to benefit equally from renewable energy's financial and environmental potentials, and not everyone will be equally exposed to its socio-environmental impacts.

The distribution of burdens is in some cases already mapping onto existing inequities in power and privilege, disproportionately impacting BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] and low-income individuals, as well as communities in the Global South — often in locales also on the front lines of climate change or other forms of environmental injustice.

None of these challenges should stall renewable energy implementation; renewables are an absolutely crucial part of climate mitigation and can also increase climate resilience and reduce environmental contamination, among other co-benefits.

Moreover, neither the parameters of these challenges nor the potential interventions are clear-cut. Minerals extraction is key for many local economies.

Different metals also have distinct environmental and social footprints. Cobalt mining, which takes place largely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under environmentally and economically precarious conditions, poses different socio-ecological challenges than copper extraction, which takes place around the world, primarily at large scales via increasingly remote methods. Lithium, meanwhile, can be found in salt flats, igneous rocks, geothermal fluids, and clays, each of which requires different mining techniques.

Minimizing the localized burdens of renewable energy implementation will be complex. Here at MIT, researchers are working on technical approaches to develop less-intensive forms of mining, novel battery chemistries, robust energy storage technologies, recycling mechanisms, and policies to extend energy access. Just as important, I think, is understanding the historical processes through which the benefits and burdens of different energies have been distributed — and ensuring that the ethical frameworks by which current and future projects might be mapped and evaluated are sufficiently nuanced.

I’m still in the planning phase of my own research, but I hope it will help surface, and offer tools with which to think through, some of these socio-environmental complexities.

Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as climate change, what gives you hope?
   
A: In college I did an interview project to learn about collaborations between student environmental groups and a local church to address climate change. Toward the end of each interview, I found myself coming back to the same question: What gives you energy in your work on climate change? What keeps you going?

The question wasn’t strictly necessary for my project; I was asking, mostly, for myself. Climate change can be truly overwhelming, in part because it so dramatically dwarfs the scope, in space and in time, of a single human life. It is also complex — intertwined with so many different ways of knowing the world.

My interviewees gave different answers. Some told me they were careful to mentally segment the issue so as to keep “climate change,” as a paralyzing totality, from sapping a sense of purpose from their daily research or advocacy endeavors. Others I spoke with took the opposite approach, conceptually linking their own efforts — which could feel insufficiently quotidian — to a sense of the broader stakes. But almost everyone I talked to highlighted the importance of being part of a community — of engaging in and through collaborative efforts.

That’s what gives me hope as well: people working together to address climate change in ways that attend to both its scientific and its social complexities. Intersections between climate change and social justice like the Sunrise Movement or the Climate Justice Alliance give me hope.

Climate-related collaborations are also happening all across MIT; I find the initiatives that have emerged from the Climate Grand Challenges process particularly inspirational. In STS, individuals such as HASTS alum Sara Wylie [PhD ’11], who has researched the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, have built deep relationships with the communities they work within, leveraging their research to support relevant climate justice initiatives.

For my part, I’ve been energized by my involvement in a project led by MIT MLK Scholar Luis G. Murillo [former minister of environment and sustainable development in Colombia] that convenes policymakers, community advocates, and researchers to advance initiatives that foment racial justice, conservation, climate mitigation, and peace.

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Series editor and designer: Emily Hiestand
Co-editor: Kathryn O'Neill

How metals work together to weaken hardy nitrogen-nitrogen bonds

Thu, 05/27/2021 - 11:00am

Nitrogen, an element that is essential for all living cells, makes up about 78 percent of Earth’s atmosphere. However, most organisms cannot make use of this nitrogen until it is converted into ammonia. Until humans invented industrial processes for ammonia synthesis, almost all ammonia on the planet was generated by microbes using nitrogenases, the only enzymes that can break the nitrogen-nitrogen bond found in gaseous dinitrogen, or N2.

These enzymes contain clusters of metal and sulfur atoms that help perform this critical reaction, but the mechanism of how they do so is not well-understood. For the first time, MIT chemists have now determined the structure of a complex that forms when N2 binds to these clusters, and they discovered that the clusters are able to weaken the nitrogen-nitrogen bond to a surprising extent.

“This study enables us to gain insights into the mechanism that allows you to activate this really inert molecule, which has a very strong bond that is difficult to break,” says Daniel Suess, the Class of ’48 Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry at MIT and the senior author of the study.

Alex McSkimming, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Tulane University, is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in Nature Chemistry.

Nitrogen fixation

Nitrogen is a critical component of proteins, DNA, and other biological molecules. To extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, early microbes evolved nitrogenases, which convert nitrogen gas to ammonia (NH3) through a process called nitrogen fixation. Cells can then use this ammonia to build more complex nitrogen-containing compounds.

“The ability to access fixed nitrogen on large scales has been instrumental in enabling the proliferation of life,” Suess says. “Dinitrogen has a really strong bond and is really unreactive, so chemists basically consider it an inert molecule. It’s a puzzle that life had to figure out: how to convert this inert molecule into useful chemical species.”

All nitrogenases contain a cluster of iron and sulfur atoms, and some of them also include molybdenum. Dinitrogen is believed to bind to these clusters to initiate the conversion to ammonia. However, the nature of this interaction is unclear, and until now, scientists had not been able to characterize N2 binding to an iron-sulfur cluster.

To shed light on how nitrogenases bind N2, chemists have designed simpler versions of iron-sulfur clusters that they can use to model the naturally occurring clusters. The most active nitrogenase uses an iron-sulfur cluster with seven iron atoms, nine sulfur atoms, a molybdenum atom, and a carbon atom. For this study, the MIT team created one that has three iron atoms, four sulfur atoms, a molybdenum atom, and no carbon.

One challenge in trying to mimic the natural binding of dinitrogen to the iron-sulfur cluster is that when the clusters are in a solution, they can react with themselves instead of binding substrates such as dinitrogen. To overcome that, Suess and his students created a protective environment around the cluster by attaching chemical groups called ligands.

The researchers attached one ligand to each of the metal atoms except for one iron atom, which is where N2 binds to the cluster. These ligands prevent unwanted reactions and allow dinitrogen to enter the cluster and bind to one of the iron atoms. Once this binding occurred, the researchers were able to determine the structure of the complex using X-ray crystallography and other techniques.

They also found that the triple bond between the two nitrogen atoms of N2 is weakened to a surprising extent. This weakening occurs when the iron atoms transfer much of their electron density to the nitrogen-nitrogen bond, which makes the bond much less stable.

Cluster cooperation

Another surprising finding was that all of the metal atoms in the cluster contribute to this electron transfer, not only the iron atom to which the dinitrogen is bound.

“That suggests that these clusters can electronically cooperate to activate this inert bond,” Suess says. “The nitrogen-nitrogen bond can be weakened by iron atoms that wouldn’t otherwise weaken it. Because they’re in a cluster, they can do it cooperatively.”

The findings represent “a significant milestone in iron-sulfur cluster chemistry,” says Theodore Betley, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study.

“Although the nitrogenase enzymes known to fix atmospheric nitrogen are composed of fused iron-sulfur clusters, synthetic chemists have never, until now, been able to demonstrate dinitrogen uptake using synthetic analogues,” Betley says. “This work is a major advance for the iron-sulfur cluster community and bioinorganic chemists at large. More than anything, this advance has shown that iron-sulfur clusters have a rich reaction chemistry yet to be discovered.”

The researchers’ findings also confirmed that simpler versions of the iron-sulfur cluster, such as those they created for this study, can effectively weaken the nitrogen-nitrogen bond. The earliest microbes to develop the ability to fix nitrogen may have evolved similar types of simple clusters, Suess says.

Suess and his students are now working on ways to study how the more complex, naturally occurring versions of iron-sulfur clusters interact with dinitrogen.

The research was funded by the MIT Research Support Committee Fund.

Searching for truth in data from authoritarian regimes

Thu, 05/27/2021 - 12:00am

Like most scientists, Minh Trinh has long been preoccupied with trying to understand his surroundings. For Trinh, this curiosity has been directed at the most impactful, yet elusive, force in his early life — the one-party Vietnamese government. Under the Communist Party of Vietnam, many of the decisions that impacted Trinh’s life were made behind closed doors.

Moving from Hanoi to Singapore for high school and seeing two different one-party systems sparked his initial questions. Trinh then went on to pursue a BA from Harvard University, which would introduce him to the contrasting government of the U.S. Suddenly, Trinh saw how politics could have an enormous impact on human rights and well-being. 

“Through my undergrad classes, I was introduced to many different international case studies. It helped me realize the need for action sometimes pushes people to settle for easy answers when searching for ways to improve the livelihoods of their fellow citizens,” Trinh says. “I grew very interested in first trying to figure out what is going on around us and how confident we can be about our knowledge.”

In 2015, after his junior year of college, Trinh took a gap year and worked at the Electoral Integrity Project in Sydney, Australia. The job required him to apply quantitative methods to analyze perceptions of electoral integrity. Over time, he became increasingly interested in working with data, and returned to Harvard to complete a dual BA and MA in statistics. “When I did my undergrad, we compared a few case studies that gave theoretical reasons for a certain outcome. The thing I didn’t find very fulfilling is that I never knew if A explicitly caused B,” explains Trinh.

“What attracts me to quantitative methods is that it allows you to establish a more principled way to deal with the confounding nature of relationships. That being said, quantitative data can not go without qualitative data, which provides the intuition for us understand what our numbers mean in real life.”

After completing his MA, Trinh was certain that he enjoyed academia, and decided to apply to PhD programs for political science. When he was accepted to multiple programs, he took his statistical skills and applied them to making a personal life decision: “I entered all the criteria I wanted [in a school] into a spreadsheet, scored them, and hid the averaged total to not bias myself until I had gone through them all,” he jokes. “The close-knit community and methodologically informed research made MIT come out on top.”

Investigating statistical misreporting

Today, Trinh’s dissertation is focused on analyzing reporting relationships between local governments and the central government of Vietnam. Since the country is an authoritarian regime, most data collection is delegated to local governments to keep information internal. The central government collects statistics to measure local governments’ performance, which it claims will promote productivity and growth.

However, Trinh’s research has revealed a different story. “Instead of performance indicators encouraging better work, they have instead encouraged people to lie more,” explains Trinh. “This happens because provincial governments are being evaluated on the very data they collect. It leaves them with both the capacity and the incentive to misreport data.”

Through his calculations, Trinh has found that the total GDP reported by each province adds up to an amount far greater than the central government’s estimate. “The reports have been shown to be mathematically impossible. The top officials are looking below and know that someone must be lying, but they can’t tell which ones or by how much,” Trinh says. “Without statistics, they can’t hold provinces accountable and deliver a punishment or reward. The whole system of accountability no longer works.”

Trinh has also looked into alternative methods the central government uses to create transparency. One strategy is to create conflicting goals for local officials, making the benefits of lying unclear. “In Vietnam, the central government picks a number of election candidates they want to see win the seats from each province,” Trinh explains. “From there, the central government has two goals: get their candidates elected and measure [those candidates’] level of popularity across the country.”

Provincial governments are tasked with running the elections and executing the central government’s goals. They must decide whether they want to keep electoral manipulation low on election day to accurately measure popularity, or manipulate results to ensure the centrally preferred candidate gets the job. “So, because the right task is no longer straightforward, the central government views the outcome as a more reliable signal,” says Trinh. “This creative method is not particularly efficient, but it is a way around the issue of misreporting.”   

Finding truth through transparency

As he wraps up his dissertation, advised by Ford Professor of Political Science Lily Tsai, Trinh has concluded there are two major obstacles the Vietnamese government must overcome to achieve more accurate data collection. “First, the government must allow information to be collected by independent planners who can guarantee safety and transparency. Next, the government must show it can be accountable to its citizens and do good things with the information,” he says. “It’s a two-way street.”

Outside of his own research, Trinh is part of the MIT Governance Lab, an initiative to bridge the gap between citizens and government. The group focuses on creating discussions and activities that highlight the important ethical questions behind their work. Throughout his project, Trinh has relied on his weekly GOV/LAB discussions to guide his research. “With some findings, given the kind of regimes I research, it is not clear whether I should share them and help give the government more information. It might be used to punish people, which can be very problematic,” says Trinh. “These are questions we have to deal with all the time.”

While these ethical dilemmas may appear inconclusive, Trinh believes with enough data, there can be an answer. He hopes to continue in academia and pave the way for other researchers seeking to answer tough questions. “My dream is to be the person generating cutting-edge knowledge that changes the shape of what we know about politics,” says Trinh.

“In the social sciences, since there’s so many variables, there’s a tendency for people to dismiss things and say the answer can’t be found. That things are too subjective to be conclusive. But I believe there is a degree of universal truth and objective knowledge. If you have the right tools and push hard enough to get there — it’s possible.”

Mastering online learning to level up

Wed, 05/26/2021 - 3:55pm

A number of pervasive myths surround online learning: that it’s isolating, that the quality of instruction is innately lower than in an in-person classroom, or that it’s only for those who can’t succeed in traditional educational settings.

Abigael Bamgboye, an accomplished and highly self-motivated university graduate who just completed the MITx MicroMasters Data and Economic Development Policy (DEDP) program, gives the lie to all these myths.

Instead of feeling isolated, Bamgboye connected with communities of learners around the world. Instead of experiencing a watered-down version of graduate studies, she discovered a challenging and rewarding introduction to masters-level work in a field that interests her deeply, and that will help inform her future career. And far from pursuing online study as an alternative to traditional higher education, this recent graduate of Imperial College London’s Materials Science program used her MicroMasters experience to add to her record of high achievement. 

The program also helped her reconnect with MIT: Bamgboye spent a semester studying in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering in 2019 as part of an academic exchange. Indeed, it was during Bamgboye’s time at MIT that the MicroMasters program first drew her interest. While taking an introduction to international development class at the MIT D-Lab, she was introduced to the work of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and was impressed to find a research center of its scope attached to a university. She was also excited to discover that J-PAL, which houses the DEDP (Data, Economics, and Development Policy) MicroMasters program, could offer her opportunities to stay engaged with MIT after her semester-long exchange had ended. “I thought, ‘Wow, not only is it a fantastic way for me to expand my learning, but it’s something I could potentially do remotely across the school year,’” she says. “Plus, there’s the opportunity to come back to campus and do things there.”

Once enrolled in the DEDP program, Bamgboye immediately realized she had gone up a step in the intensity of her studies, particularly compared to her undergraduate work. “You’re learning so much in a short period of time,” she says. “In a [UK] undergraduate degree, you learn a foundational skill set over two years [before specializing in a third or fourth year], while in the MicroMasters, if you take courses concurrently, you’re potentially learning the foundational skill set over three to six months.”

To Bamgboye’s mind, this intensity is all to the good, helping build learners’ confidence in the skills they’ve acquired: “By the time you get to the proctored exams, where you have to consolidate everything you’ve learned, you surprise yourself. And your understanding is boosted as things fall into place.” She was reminded of the “dense and challenging” MIT course content she encountered during her semester abroad, recalling how a high percentage of PhD students in one of her classes in the nuclear science and engineering department kept her studies rigorous. 

A global approach to life and learning

International cooperation is an integral part of Bamgboye’s raison d’être, as are the connections between science and human activity. “As a learner, I’m always curious to understand how the world works, or to gain a new perspective,” she says, noting that she sees “materials and science as a way of understanding the world, similar to the way some people see and use economics.” Her undergraduate major allowed her to combine interests across STEM disciplines, but also to ask far-reaching questions for the future of humankind: “Why do technologies work the way they do? How will they evolve to be more efficient, and less environmentally intensive? How can we use existing knowledge to help people?”

She describes discovering, as an undergraduate, “a passion for working on projects that use data to drive decision-making and ultimately impact people.” A natural communicator and networker, Bamgboye got involved in a variety of clubs and societies that allowed her to connect with those who shared her interests — she participated in Imperial College’s African Caribbean Society, and was elected vice president and eventually president of the school’s Materials Society — and also pursued opportunities to engage with a global audience, joining her school’s chapter of Enactus, an international social entrepreneurship society. While completing a series of internships across a variety of industries including banking, manufacturing engineering, and teaching, she discovered and deepened an overarching interest in organizations that “maximized opportunities for people and communities.”

It’s this commitment to interdisciplinary and cross-cultural cooperation that has inspired her to share her learning journey with others. Bamgboye has distilled wisdom accrued over more than 800 hours of online learning into a YouTube video sharing her keys to success. One of these keys is — unsurprisingly — creating and participating in a community of people who share your learning journey. “Learning is always more fun if you can engage in real-time conversation and ask insightful questions to TAs [teaching assistants], lecturers, and peers,” she says.

Bamgboye also finds ways to use and share her learning as part of her professional life. In her current role as an associate consultant at Bain & Company, she is able to devote 10 percent of her time to projects of her own choosing, focusing on social impact. She volunteers with various UK nonprofit organizations, helping them scale their reach and impact. Thanks to her DEDP training, “I’m already able to offer contextual examples of how different social programs have been able to validate and quantify which of their interventions are the most effective.”

She’s also using her foray into graduate studies as a springboard into new educational opportunities. Bamgboye has been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Moelis Advanced Access MBA program, a deferred admission scheme that offers both undergraduate and full-time master’s students in their final year of study a guaranteed pathway to the Wharton MBA following two to four years of work experience. While at Wharton, Bamgboye plans to leverage the knowledge and skills gained during the MicroMasters in social-focused ventures.

“Ultimately, there are so many ways that the MicroMasters has enhanced my life,” she says, “from broadening my horizons, to equipping me with new skills, to providing me with the vocabulary and context to participate in conversations and activities that I am interested in.” Most importantly, she describes how completing the program helped her feel ready to tackle any educational or career challenge that comes her way: “Having done the MicroMasters, I now have a level of confidence I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

MIT baseball coach uses sensors, motion capture technology to teach pitching

Wed, 05/26/2021 - 3:45pm

The field of sports analytics is most known for assessing player and team performance during competition, but MIT Baseball’s pitching coach, Todd Carroll, is bringing a different kind of analytics to the practice field for his student athletes.

“A baseball player might practice a pitch 10,000 times before it becomes natural. Through technology, we can speed that process up,” Carroll said in a recent seminar organized by the MIT.nano Immersion Lab. “To help players improve athletically, without taking up that much time, and keep them healthy — that’s the goal.”

The virtual talk — “Pitching in baseball: Using scientific tools to visualize what we know and learn what we don't” — grew out of a new research collaboration between MIT Baseball, the MIT Clinical Research Center (CRC), and the Immersion Lab.

Carroll started with an explanation of how pitching has evolved over time and what specific skills coaches measure to help players perfect their throw. Then, he and Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) postdoc Praneeth Namburi used the Immersion Lab’s motion capture platform and wireless physiological sensors from the CRC to explore how biomechanical feedback and interactive visualization tools could change the future of sports.

Namburi stepped up to the (hypothetical) mound, with Carroll as his coach. By interfacing the physical and digital in real time, the two were able to assess Namburi’s pitches and make immediate adjustments that improved his athletic performance in one session.

Visualizing sports data

Stride length, pitcher extension, hip-shoulder separation, and ground force production are all measurable aspects of pitching, explained Carroll. The capabilities of the Immersion Lab allow for digital tracking and visualization of these skills. Wearing wireless sensors on his body, Namburi threw several pitches inside the lab. The sensors plot Namburi’s position and track his movements through space, as shown in the first part of the video below. Adding in the physiological measurements, the second clip shows the activity of his rotation muscles (in green), his acceleration through space (in blue), and the pressure, or ground force, produced by his foot (in red).

By reviewing the motion capture frames together, Carroll could show Namburi how to modify his posture to increase stride length and extend his hip-shoulder separation by holding his back foot on the ground. In this example, the technology betters the communication between coach and player, leading to more efficient improvements.

Assessing physiological measurements alongside the motion capture can also help decrease injuries. Carroll emphasized how this technology can help rehabbing players, teaching them to trust their body again. “That’s a big part of injury recovery, trusting the process. These students find comfort in the data and that allows them to push through.”

Following the training session, Namburi overlayed the motion capture from his first and last throw, comparing his posture, spine position, stride length, and feet position. A visual compilation of all his throws compared the trajectory of his wrist, showing that, over time, his movement became more consistent and more natural.

The seminar concluded with a live demonstration of a novice pitcher in the Immersion Lab following the advice of Coach Carroll via Zoom. “Two people who have never thrown a baseball before today, and we’re able to teach them remotely during a pandemic,” reflected Carroll. “That’s pretty cool.”

Afterward, Namburi answered questions about the ease of taking the physiological monitoring tools to the field and of being able to capture and measure the movements of multiple athletes at once.

Immersed in collaboration

The MIT.nano Immersion Lab’s new seminar series, IMMERSED, explores the possibilities enabled by technologies such as motion capture, virtual and augmented reality, photogrammetry, and related computational advances to gather, process, and interact with data from multiple modalities. The series highlights the capabilities available at the Immersion Lab, and the wide range of disciplines to which the tools and space can be applied.

“IMMERSED offers another avenue for any individual — scientists, artists, engineers, performers — to consider collaborative projects,” says Brian W. Anthony, MIT.nano associate director. “The series combines lectures with demonstrations and tutorials so more people can see the wide breadth of research possible at the lab.”

As a shared-access facility, MIT.nano’s Immersion Lab is open to researchers from any department, lab, or center at MIT, as well as external partners. Learn more about the Immersion Lab and how to become a user.

New algorithms show accuracy, reliability in gauging unconsciousness under general anesthesia

Wed, 05/26/2021 - 3:30pm

Anesthestic drugs act on the brain, but most anesthesiologists rely on heart rate, respiratory rate, and movement to infer whether surgery patients remain unconscious to the desired degree. In a new study, a research team based at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital shows that a straightforward artificial intelligence approach, attuned to the kind of anesthetic being used, can yield algorithms that assess unconsciousness in patients based on brain activity with high accuracy and reliability.

“One of the things that is foremost in the minds of anesthesiologists is ‘Do I have somebody who is lying in front of me who may be conscious and I don’t realize it?’ Being able to reliably maintain unconsciousness in a patient during surgery is fundamental to what we do,” says senior author Emery N. Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, and an anesthesiologist at MGH. “This is an important step forward.”

More than providing a good readout of unconsciousness, Brown adds, the new algorithms offer the potential to allow anesthesiologists to maintain it at the desired level while using less drug than they might administer when depending on less direct, accurate, and reliable indicators. That can improve patient’s post-operative outcomes, such as delirium.

“We may always have to be a little bit ‘overboard,’” says Brown, who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School. “But can we do it with sufficient accuracy so that we are not dosing people more than is needed?”

Used to drive an infusion pump, for instance, algorithms could help anesthesiologists precisely throttle drug delivery to optimize a patient’s state and the doses they are receiving.

Artificial intelligence, real-world testing

To develop the technology to do so, postdocs John Abel and Marcus Badgeley led the study, published in PLOS ONE, in which they trained machine learning algorithms on a remarkable dataset the lab gathered back in 2013. In that study, 10 healthy volunteers in their 20s underwent anesthesia with the commonly used drug propofol. As the dose was methodically raised using computer-controlled delivery, the volunteers were asked to respond to a simple request until they couldn’t anymore. Then when they were brought back to consciousness as the dose was later lessened, they became able to respond again. All the while, neural rhythms reflecting their brain activity were recorded with electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes, providing a direct, real-time link between measured brain activity and exhibited unconsciousness.

In the new work, Abel, Badgeley, and the team trained versions of their AI algorithms, based on different underlying statistical methods, on more than 33,000 2-second-long snippets of EEG recordings from seven of the volunteers. This way the algorithms could “learn” the difference between EEG readings predictive of consciousness and unconsciousness under propofol. Then the researchers tested the algorithms in three ways.

First, they checked whether their three most promising algorithms accurately predicted unconsciousness when applied to EEG activity recorded from the other three volunteers of the 2013 study. They did.

Then they used the algorithms to analyze EEG recorded from 27 real surgery patients who received propofol for general anesthesia. Even though the algorithms were now being applied to data gathered from a “noisier” real-world surgical setting where the rhythms were also being measured with different equipment, the algorithms still distinguished unconsciousness with higher accuracy than other studies have shown. The authors even highlight one case in which the algorithms were able to detect a patient’s decreasing level of unconsciousness several minutes before the actual attending anesthesiologist did, meaning that if it had been in use during the surgery itself, it could have provided an accurate and helpful early warning.

As a third test, the team applied the algorithms to EEG recordings from 17 surgery patients who were anesthetized with sevoflurane. Though sevoflurane is different from propofol and is inhaled rather than infused, it works in a similar manner, by binding to the same GABA-A receptors on the same key types of brain cells. The team’s algorithms again performed with high, though somewhat-reduced accuracy, suggesting that their ability to classify unconsciousness carried over reliably to another anesthetic drug that works in a similar way.

The ability to predict unconsciousness across different drugs with the same mechanism of action is key, the authors said. One of the main flaws with current EEG-based systems for monitoring consciousness, they said, is that they don’t distinguish among drug classes, even though different categories of anesthesia drugs work in very different ways, producing distinct EEG patterns. They also don’t adequately account for known age differences in brain response to anesthesia. These limitations on their accuracy have also limited their clinical use.

In the new study, while the algorithms trained on 20-somethings applied well to cohorts of surgery patients whose average age skewed significantly older and varied more widely, the authors acknowledge that they want to train algorithms distinctly for use with children or seniors. They can also train new algorithms to apply specifically for other kinds of drugs with different mechanisms of action. Altogether, a suite of well-trained and attuned algorithms could provide high accuracy that accounts for patient age and the drug in use.

Abel says the team’s approach of framing the problem as a matter of predicting consciousness via EEG for a specific class of drugs made the machine learning approach very simple to implement and extend.

“This is a proof of concept showing that now we can go and say let’s look at an older population or let’s look at a different kind of drug,” he says. “Doing this is simple if you set it up the right way.”

The resulting algorithms aren’t even computationally demanding. The authors noted that for a given 2 seconds of EEG data, the algorithms could make an accurate prediction of consciousness in less than a tenth of a second running on just a standard MacBook Pro computer.

The lab is already building on the findings to refine the algorithms further, Brown says. He says he also wants to expand testing to hundreds more cases to further confirm their performance, and also to determine whether wider distinctions may begin to emerge among the different underlying statistical models the team employed.

In addition to Brown, Abel and Badgeley, the paper’s other authors are Benyamin Meschede-Krasa, Gabriel Schamberg, Indie Garwood, Kimaya Lecamwasam, Sourish Chakravarty, David Zhou, Matthew Keating, and Patrick Purdon.

Funding for the study came from the National Institutes of Health, The JPB Foundation, A Guggenheim Fellowship for Applied Mathematics, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Study reveals a universal travel pattern across four continents

Wed, 05/26/2021 - 11:00am

What explains how often people travel to a particular place? Your intuition might suggest that distance is a key factor, but empirical evidence can help urban studies researchers answer the question more definitively.

A new paper by an MIT team, drawing on global data, finds that people visit places more frequently when they have to travel shorter distances to get there.

“What we have found is that there is a very clear inverse relationship between how far you go and how frequently you go there,” says Paolo Santi, a research scientist at the Senseable City Lab at MIT and a co-author of the new paper. “You only seldom go to faraway places, and usually you tend to visit places close to you more often. It tells us how we organize our lives.”

By examining cellphone data on four continents, the researchers were able to arrive at a distinctive new finding in the urban studies literature.

“We might shop every day at a bakery a few hundred meters away, but we’ll only go once a month to the fancy boutique miles away from our neighborhood. This kind of intuitive notion had never been empirically tested. When we did it we found an incredibly regular and robust law — which we have called the visitation law,” says Carlo Ratti, a co-author of the paper and director of the Senseable City Lab, which led the research project.

The paper, “The universal visitation law of human mobility,” is published today in Nature.

The paper is co-authored by Markus Schläpfer, a scholar in the Urban Complexity Project at the ETH Future Cities Lab in Singapore; Lei Dong, a researcher at Peking University in Beijing; Kevin O’Keeffe, a postdoc at the MIT Senseable City Lab; Santi, a research director at Istituto di Informatica e Telematica, CNR (the National Research Council of Italy); Michael Szell, an associate professor in Data Science at IT University of Copenhagen; Hadrien Salat of the Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore-ETH Centre; Samuel Anklesaria, a researcher at the MIT Senseable City Lab; Mohammad Vazifeh, a senior postdoc at the MIT Senseable City Lab; Ratti; and Geoffrey West, a professor at and former president of the Santa Fe Institute. Schläpfer, Dong, Santi, and Szell are also former members of the Senseable City Lab.

To conduct the study, the researchers used anonymized cellphone data from large communications providers to track the movement of people in the metro areas of Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Boston; Braga, Lisbon, and Porto, Portugal; Dakar, Senegal; and Singapore.

Cellphone data are ideal for this kind of study because they establish both the residence area of people and the destinations they travel to. In some cases, the researchers defined areas visited by using grid spaces as small as 500 square meters. Overall, the researchers charted over 8 billion location-indicating pieces of data generated by over 4 million people, charting movement for a period of months in each location.

And, in each case, from city to city, the same “inverse law” of visitation held up, with the charted data following a similar pattern: The frequency of visits declined over longer distances, and higher-density areas were filled with people who had, on aggregate, taken shorter trips. To the extent that there was some variation from this pattern, the largest deviations involved sites with atypical functions, such as ports and theme parks.

The paper itself both measures the data and presents a model of movement, in which people seek out the closest locations that offer particular kinds of activity. Both of those buttress “central place theory,” an idea developed in the 1930s by German scholar Walter Christaller, which seeks to describe the location of cities and towns in terms of the functions they offer to people in a region.

The scholars note that the similarity in movement observed in very different urban areas helps reinforce the overall finding.

“This generalized behavior is not just something you observe in Boston,” Santi says. “From a scientific viewpoint, we are adding evidence about a generalized pattern of behavior.”

The researchers also hope the finding, and the methods behind it, can be usefully applied to urban planning. Santi suggests this type of study can help predict how substantial changes in the physical layout of a city will affect movement within it. The method also makes it possible to examine how changes in urban geography affect human movement over time.

“The visitation law could have many practical applications — from the design of new infrastructure to urban planning,” adds Ratti. “For instance, it could help implement the concept of the ‘Fifteen-Minute City,’ which aims to reorganize physical space around walkable neighborhoods and which has become very popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our law suggests that we can indeed capture a large fraction of all urban trips within a fifteen-minute radius, while leaving the rest — perhaps 10 percent — further away.”

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the MIT Center for Complex Engineering Systems, Audi Volkswagen, BBVA, Ericsson, Ferrovial, GE, the MIT Senseable City Lab Consortium, the John Templeton Foundation, the Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust, the U.S. Army Research Office Minerva program, the Singapore National Research Foundation, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Slender robotic finger senses buried items

Wed, 05/26/2021 - 12:00am

Over the years, robots have gotten quite good at identifying objects — as long as they’re out in the open.

Discerning buried items in granular material like sand is a taller order. To do that, a robot would need fingers that were slender enough to penetrate the sand, mobile enough to wriggle free when sand grains jam, and sensitive enough to feel the detailed shape of the buried object.

MIT researchers have now designed a sharp-tipped robot finger equipped with tactile sensing to meet the challenge of identifying buried objects. In experiments, the aptly named Digger Finger was able to dig through granular media such as sand and rice, and it correctly sensed the shapes of submerged items it encountered. The researchers say the robot might one day perform various subterranean duties, such as finding buried cables or disarming buried bombs.

The research will be presented at the next International Symposium on Experimental Robotics. The study’s lead author is Radhen Patel, a postdoc in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Co-authors include CSAIL PhD student Branden Romero, Harvard University PhD student Nancy Ouyang, and Edward Adelson, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Vision Science in CSAIL and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Seeking to identify objects buried in granular material — sand, gravel, and other types of loosely packed particles — isn’t a brand new quest. Previously, researchers have used technologies that sense the subterranean from above, such as Ground Penetrating Radar or ultrasonic vibrations. But these techniques provide only a hazy view of submerged objects. They might struggle to differentiate rock from bone, for example.

“So, the idea is to make a finger that has a good sense of touch and can distinguish between the various things it’s feeling,” says Adelson. “That would be helpful if you’re trying to find and disable buried bombs, for example.” Making that idea a reality meant clearing a number of hurdles.

The team’s first challenge was a matter of form: The robotic finger had to be slender and sharp-tipped.

In prior work, the researchers had used a tactile sensor called GelSight. The sensor consisted of a clear gel covered with a reflective membrane that deformed when objects pressed against it. Behind the membrane were three colors of LED lights and a camera. The lights shone through the gel and onto the membrane, while the camera collected the membrane’s pattern of reflection. Computer vision algorithms then extracted the 3D shape of the contact area where the soft finger touched the object. The contraption provided an excellent sense of artificial touch, but it was inconveniently bulky.

For the Digger Finger, the researchers slimmed down their GelSight sensor in two main ways. First, they changed the shape to be a slender cylinder with a beveled tip. Next, they ditched two-thirds of the LED lights, using a combination of blue LEDs and colored fluorescent paint. “That saved a lot of complexity and space,” says Ouyang. “That’s how we were able to get it into such a compact form.” The final product featured a device whose tactile sensing membrane was about 2 square centimeters, similar to the tip of a finger.

With size sorted out, the researchers turned their attention to motion, mounting the finger on a robot arm and digging through fine-grained sand and coarse-grained rice. Granular media have a tendency to jam when numerous particles become locked in place. That makes it difficult to penetrate. So, the team added vibration to the Digger Finger’s capabilities and put it through a battery of tests.

“We wanted to see how mechanical vibrations aid in digging deeper and getting through jams,” says Patel. “We ran the vibrating motor at different operating voltages, which changes the amplitude and frequency of the vibrations.” They found that rapid vibrations helped “fluidize” the media, clearing jams and allowing for deeper burrowing — though this fluidizing effect was harder to achieve in sand than in rice.

They also tested various twisting motions in both the rice and sand. Sometimes, grains of each type of media would get stuck between the Digger-Finger’s tactile membrane and the buried object it was trying to sense. When this happened with rice, the trapped grains were large enough to completely obscure the shape of the object, though the occlusion could usually be cleared with a little robotic wiggling. Trapped sand was harder to clear, though the grains’ small size meant the Digger Finger could still sense the general contours of target object.

Patel says that operators will have to adjust the Digger Finger’s motion pattern for different settings “depending on the type of media and on the size and shape of the grains.” The team plans to keep exploring new motions to optimize the Digger Finger’s ability to navigate various media.

Adelson says the Digger Finger is part of a program extending the domains in which robotic touch can be used. Humans use their fingers amidst complex environments, whether fishing for a key in a pants pocket or feeling for a tumor during surgery. “As we get better at artificial touch, we want to be able to use it in situations when you’re surrounded by all kinds of distracting information,” says Adelson. “We want to be able to distinguish between the stuff that’s important and the stuff that’s not.”

Funding for this research was provided, in part, by the Toyota Research Institute through the Toyota-CSAIL Joint Research Center; the Office of Naval Research; and the Norwegian Research Council.

MIT IDEAS celebrates 20 years of social innovation at MIT

Tue, 05/25/2021 - 12:30pm

Currently, less than 7 percent of high school graduates in the African nation of Eswatini proceed to higher education, according to a 2020 UNICEF study. This troubling fact led Thandolwethu Dlamini, a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program, to found The Knowledge Institute (TKI), which earned a $20,000 grant at the 20th annual MIT IDEAS Social Innovation Awards on April 25. TKI is developing a mobile platform to simplify and streamline the college application process for high schoolers in Eswatini, Dlamini’s home country. Nearly 60 percent of Eswatini’s population lives below the poverty line and additional education could substantially improve the lives of many of the country’s young people. “This is an investment in the youth and in the future of Eswatini” said Dlamani upon receiving the award. “We are extremely grateful for IDEAS for believing in our project and helping us throughout the entire IDEAS program as we were refining everything.” 

IDEAS has been influencing the social innovation ecosystem at MIT for two decades and, like many of the teams that engage in the year-long program, has evolved significantly during that period. The most notable shift, led by Rebecca Obounou, PKG Center’s assistant dean for social innovation, has been transitioning the tone of IDEAS from a “competition” to a more collaborative “challenge.”

“The challenges that society faces today require collaborative frameworks over competitive ones,” Obounou says. “We de-emphasize competition to invite more people in. We de-emphasize 'winning' because it implies that there are losers. It's a win for the PKG center when we have the opportunity to support any student along their social change pathway. As a result, we see many MIT students and their teammates who would have otherwise typically identified as a social innovator or entrepreneur finally see their ability to make positive change! Our world's challenges cannot be solved alone by the subjective 'best' but rather the input of as many stakeholders as possible is imperative. I learned this concept early on as a young girl who grew up in the Haitian community, where the konbit philosophy was the many in which people survived and thrived. One key tenet of the konbit culture is community and a popular saying, 'With many hands, burdens are light.'"

However, even early iterations of IDEAS had a monumental impact on participants. Rebeca Hwang ’02, MNG ’03, the first IDEAS grantee in 2001, gave the keynote address at this year’s awards ceremony. “From the perspective of my life and the future career that I had after MIT IDEAS, it was a huge success because it did launch my thinking and my understanding of what it means to run successfully some of these projects that involved much more than technology,” said Hwang. “It has also broadened my empathy and my understanding of these target markets; that I could live with, in their community, and become much more sensitized to some of the education and awareness building and culture factors that make some of these projects successful.” 

Fifty percent of all IDEAS grantee projects are still active in some form, and it is common for those with connections to the IDEAS program, like Rebeca Hwang, to stay in touch or remain involved with the program. Other members of the “IDEAS village” come back year after year because the work of the student teams continues to inspire. A group of these volunteers (project reviewers, judges, and mentors) received special recognition this year for their many years of service.

“IDEAS is a team-based program because that reflects the reality of how real social change occurs,” says Jill Bassett, PKG Center associate dean and director. “Our diverse and talented reviewers, judges, and mentors are crucial to the development of our students’ projects. The connections our students build with these individuals often persist long after the challenge cycle has wrapped up.” 

Earlier this year, IDEAS launched a limited-series podcast in honor of its 20th anniversary to celebrate the many faces of the program, featuring program alumni and community partners as guests. A group of 20 volunteer judges from around the world with a diverse set of backgrounds and expertise helped determine the allocation of four juried grant awards. Judging groups reviewed teams’ written proposals and participated in a round of virtual interviews the day before the award. The four juried grantee teams were:

  • The Knowledge Institute (TKI) (Eswatini) is developing SaSa, a mobile-friendly web platform that will enable high school graduates to quickly and inexpensively apply for tertiary education. SaSa will increase successful application outcomes for low-income students and improve awareness of available higher education options with the ultimate aim of lifting young students out of poverty. ($20,000 grant)
  • Kivuli (Kenya) offers a range of services that facilitate connections between Kenya’s "Jua Kali" informal manufacturing sector and the construction industry. Kivuli's business model is designed to support the long-term economic security of Jua Kali workers while pushing the Kenyan building sector toward more sustainable and locally-oriented practices. ($15,000 grant)
  • Critical Healthcare Information Integration Network (CHIIN) (Nigeria) is a free SMS messaging system that provides validated medical information on context-relevant diseases to community health workers practicing in rural settings. CHIIN relies on SMS messaging to reach offline community health workers and empower them with insights needed to guide care decisions and ultimately improve patient outcomes. ($10,000 grant)
  • Sustainable Sea (United States) is developing a machine-learning-based aquaculture monitoring and response system that uses microbiome data to predict and prevent disease. Seaweed aquaculture has the potential to feed the world, fight climate change, and restore the oceans, but the rapid growth of seaweed production is accelerating the spread of infectious diseases that harm the seaweed and lead to socioeconomic instability due to the loss of the farming income. The Sustainable Sea system will reduce livestock losses, lead to cost savings, and promote sustainable food production. ($7,500 grant)

Additionally, two IDEAS projects — Compass and Abrazar — received $2,500 “crowd favorite” awards by earning 786 and 544 (respectively) of the 3,702 total votes cast online for various IDEAS projects during the month preceding the awards.  

  • Compass (Uganda): The Covid-19 crisis exposed the gap in access to modern health-tech tools, such as triaging websites or health-monitoring apps; homeless populations in particular generally do not have reliable internet access, although many have mobile phones with SMS capability. To address this problem, Compass aims to deploy a natural language processing-driven, HIPAA-compliant, mobile-based (mHealth) intervention in Uganda that triages Covid-19. The team is also expanding their platform to triage cancers and communicable diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. 
  • Abrazar (Argentina): Abrazar uses machine learning techniques to identify children exposed to violence, and in this way enables local governments to reach unprotected children. Its initial models suggest that around 70 percent of at-risk children could be identified, representing a 35-times improvement over the current level of detection.

All nineteen finalist teams received $1,000 for their commendable efforts in six different sectors across 17 different countries. Additionally, the finalists took part in a Tackling Social Change seminar series that featured presenters such as MIT Senior Lecturer and Director Jason Jay at the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative; the $100 million MacArthur Fellow, Community Solutions; Ingo Michelfelder, postdoc at Harvard Kennedy School Social Innovation + Change Initiative; MIT PhD candidate at History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society program and IDEAS graduate community fellow Rustam Khan; Dana François, program officer at the Kellogg Foundation; and Madeleine Avignon from COFHED, a community-development organization in rural Haiti. The seminars engaged the teams with applicable frameworks and intellectual discourse on the sometimes-nebulous field of social innovation. Juried grant recipients and finalists will spend the next year receiving additional mentoring support as they take their projects to the next level, working toward mutually beneficial goals with community partners.

As the awards event concluded, Rebecca Obounou drew upon the words of the PKG Center’s namesake and founder, MIT first lady emeritus Priscilla King Gray, to offer encouragement to all the finalists: “As a partner [to President Paul Gray] Priscilla found three things were necessary: 1) a sense of self, 2) a sense of humor, 3) a love of people.” Obounou shared. “These three items strike me as qualities that many of our social innovators might call on as they walk their paths. Your sense of self to understand your purpose, your values, and your principles, as you’ll have to call on them often as you face a varying world with unanticipated decisions and dynamics. A sense of humor to persevere when things don’t go exactly as you planned and the world is almost certainly going to serve you a lot of curveballs, and you might as well build fun into the process. And a love of people to engage the most proximally impacted and underserved stakeholders with empathy, kindness and a spirit of service.”

MIT students and alumni “hack” Hong Kong Kowloon East

Tue, 05/25/2021 - 11:15am

The year 2020 was undoubtedly a challenge for everyone. The pandemic generated vast negative impacts on the world on a physical, psychological, and emotional level: mobility was restricted; socialization was limited; economic and industrial progress were put on hold. Many industries and small independent business have suffered, and academia and research have also experienced many difficulties. The education of future generations may have transitioned online, but it limited in-person learning experiences and social growth.

On the collegiate level, first-year students were barred from anticipated campus learning and research, while seniors faced tremendous anxiety over the lack of face-to-face consultations and the uncertainty of their graduation. To meet the increasing desire to reconnect, the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node took on a new role: to expand the MIT Global Classroom initiative and breach the boundaries of learning via the collaboration of colleagues, students, and alumni across the globe.

Since its founding in 2016, the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node has focused on cultivating the innovative and entrepreneurial capabilities of MIT students and Hong Kong university students. The collaboration with MIT alumni and students has contributed to the establishment of numerous landing programs around the globe. This accomplishment is best demonstrated by the success of the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI) and the MIT Entrepreneurship and FinTech Integrator (MEFTI).

In 2020, the node executed the Kowloon East Inclusive Innovation and Growth Project, which carried out smart city activities that would boost inclusion, innovation, and growth for the Hong Kong communities. The exchange of ideas between MIT students, faculty, researchers, and alumni, in collaboration with the rest of the Hong Kong community, revealed opportunities beyond Kowloon East in the neighboring cities in Pearl River Delta region. Some of these opportunities involved the production of internships and public engagement opportunities.

“Hacking” Kowloon East: activating technology for urban life

The MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node welcomed 2021 with an Independent Activities Period virtual site visit to Hong Kong in collaboration with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The two-week “hacking” series offered by Associate Professor Brent Ryan, head of the City Design and Development Group, altered the concept of smart cities by exploring how the current initiative in Kowloon East can be better leveraged by emerging digital technologies to connect residents to each other and enhance economic opportunities.

As a paradigm of high-density urbanism and the center of a wide variety of global and local challenges, Hong Kong provides an opportunity to rethink how physical spaces can be integrated with digital technologies for better synergy. “Hacking” series participants took advantage of this fact. Equal numbers of undergraduate student ambassadors were recruited from local universities, and paired with MIT students and Hong Kong-MIT graduate students who were based in Boston. Some of the project ideas focused on how to retail revitalization, how to promote health care and environment, and how to establish an overall human-centered urban design.

“Although I couldn't travel physically, special lectures from the domain experts and the student pairing system with HK student ambassadors helped me discover a specific problem I wanted to tackle,” says Younjae Oh, a second-year student of the master of science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT. She went on to state that the series “inspired creativity within the team and led us to make more insightful, considered decisions upon cultural awareness. What I have found valuable in this workshop is the extremity of engagement with the cross-cultural team.”

This blend of “Hacking” contributors collaborated in an open-ended structure where they proposed and developed reality-based projects to promote “smart, equitable urbanism” in the Kowloon East (Kwun Tong) neighborhood of Hong Kong. Queenie Kwan Li, a first-year master's student in the science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT, describes aspects of the program, mentioning, “Direct consultations with local and international domain experts lined up by the MIT Innovation Node immensely deepened my understanding of my home city’s development.” She adds, “It also gifted me a unique opportunity to relate my ongoing training at MIT for a potential impact in Hong Kong.”

Global classroom-in-action

Despite its progress in innovation, entrepreneurship, and smart city restructuring in this collaboration with the node, the pandemic highlighted an ongoing challenge of how the School of Architecture and Planning can offer a hybrid learning experience for a professional audience with mentorships and apprenticeships.

Architecture and urban design training emphasize the design studio culture of collective learning, which is vastly different from solo learning at home. This learning usually begins with a physical site visit: surveys, interviews, meeting and interacting with locals to obtain firsthand engagement experience. Under the experimentation of a hybrid format, the teaching team has to curate and piece fragments together to imitate refreshing local perspectives through tailored exercises using online interactions and team collaborations.

Although traveling experiences are always the best and most-direct ways to understand the benefits and deficits of an area, to appreciate the culture and customs, and to pinpoint challenges the locals face, it is easy to forget that people are the core, the identity of a place, when learning solely online. To make up for that deficit, the “Hacking” series invited the physical attendance of local and international members of the MIT alumni community with relevant domain expertise.

Sean Kwok ’01 says, “MIT graduates spanning five decades volunteered to teach and guide current students. In return, this workshop gave us, former MIT students, the rare opportunity to participate in the MIT academic life again, learn from our colleagues, and give back to the school at the same time.”

Some of the domain expertise included those with backgrounds in architecture, urban design and planning, real estate, mobility and transportation, public housing, workforce development, city science and urban analytics, art administration, and engineering. In fact, a total of 23 domain experts, local stakeholders, and eight mentors from various disciplines were physically involved in the program at the node’s headquarters in Hong Kong.

Throughout the series, they shared their knowledge and experiences in a hybridized format so that non-Hong Kong-based members could also participate. Joel Austin Cunningham, a first-year master's student in the science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT, commends the “Hacking” series, stressing that it “addressed the unprecedented constraints of the coronavirus with an innovative educational solution … As architecture and urban planning students, we rely heavily upon active engagements with a project’s site, something which has been significantly constrained this academic year. The IAP workshop responded to this issue, through a multi-institutional collaboration which compensated for our inability to travel through active engagements with an array of local stakeholders and collaborators based in the city.”

Learning is a feedback loop — part of it is learned from the reconstruction of a previous experience, and part of it is constructed by us as we develop the learning experience together and assimilate new information, insights, and ideas from one another. As part of such interconnectedness, a human-centric approach, communication skills, cultural and moral values involve the inclusive diversity and empathy of everyone. 

A graduate student who goes to extremes

Mon, 05/24/2021 - 2:55pm

When he entered the Museo Galieo, Theo Mouratidis was not expecting to make a life-changing decision. Having recently graduated from a high school outside Melbourne, Australia, and looking forward to undergraduate studies at nearby Monash University, he had joined his family for a holiday in Florence, Italy. Stepping inside a museum devoted to the genius of Galileo, one of his “scientific heroes,” Mouratidis was stirred.

“I saw all of his works, his inventions, at that museum,” he recalls, “and that changed it for me. I remember sitting in a café after, and my parents were wondering at how quiet I was. And at some point I just spurted out, ‘I’m going to MIT.’”

The determination, drive, and pure will needed to change course and pursue a transfer to MIT, an institute he had only learned about from his chemistry tutor during his senior year of high school, are qualities evidenced in the way Mouratidis attacks every challenge. Now a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he works daily on what is considered one of the world’s most difficult science and engineering efforts — making fusion energy a viable source of plentiful carbon-free energy for coming generations. Supported by the MIT Energy Initiative as an MIT Energy Fellow, sponsored by Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), Mouratidis is focused on creating special magnets for a future fusion pilot plant called ARC.

Fusion, the energy source of the sun and stars, occurs when two atomic nuclei in a plasma collide and fuse, forming a heavier nucleus and releasing energy in the form of neutrons. Because this plasma responds to magnetic fields, researchers use a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak to contain it. Wrapped with magnets, a tokamak is designed to keep the hot plasma away from the walls of the toroidal vacuum chamber while fusion reactions take place.

Re-imagining magnets

At MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), where Mouratidis works under the direction of Director Dennis Whyte and Senior Research Scientist Brian LaBombard, scientists have been working with tokamaks for decades, most recently concentrating on SPARC, a fusion experiment that will pave the way for the ARC fusion pilot plant Mouratidis has chosen as his focus.

The magnets for SPARC are revolutionary, made from high-temperature superconducting (HTS) tape so much more compact than previous coils that they will be able to produce significantly higher magnetic fields, consequently increasing the economic success of the tokamak. Moreover, building on concepts developed by LaBombard and PSFC Head of Mechanical Development Bill Beck, the magnet design makes it possible for the conductors to be jointed. Unlike a continuous superconducting coil, these magnets might be able to be disassembled and reassembled while still retaining the electrical characteristics of a continuous coil. This would be a major breakthrough in the assembly and maintenance strategy of tokamaks made with HTS.

Mouratidis has tasked himself with finding a way to build joints for these magnets, which surround the torus of the tokamak at spaced intervals. The key is obtaining the requisite joint resistance and geometry. He is giving himself what he calls “a hell of a challenge.”

“Can I design a demountable joint that will satisfy the electrical requirements I need for this magnet to behave as a stable superconducting coil? And how can we make the design practical for an actual fusion power plant?”

Such a technological advance would allow the magnets to be removed in order to access internal components, which are subject to damage from neutrons created in the fusion process, reducing the need to shut down the tokamak for extended periods of time.

A new path, or two

When Mouratidis first approached the PSFC, he was not expecting to get involved in tokamak research. He was pursuing a master’s degree at MIT in the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, interested in advanced rocket propulsion technology. Although Whyte was receptive to the student’s interest in fusion propulsion, he and Mouratidis eventually realized the funding for such an effort would not be immediately forthcoming.

“Over two years, Dennis and I had been trying to get some funding. But all the avenues were fruitless. I think what he was doing was he was slowly poking SPARC on to me. He told me ‘None of this is going to happen if you haven’t gotten fusion to work first. Don't worry about fusion propulsion; worry about fusion!’”

This was not the first time Mouratidis had needed to redirect his path. As a high school student excelling in soccer, he had envisioned for himself a professional sports career. That was before he tore his meniscus, not once but three times. After the third operation to repair his knee, the surgeon informed him that this time he could not simply suture the meniscus; he had to remove it. He advised the student to quit soccer.

“That’s tough to hear as a 17-year-old,” says Mouratidis. “But I will say, that was my turning point. That was when I really recognized that, OK, I’ve got a brain, I need to use it for good.”

Though now determined to test his academic strengths, Mouratidis never gave up on testing himself physically. When he arrived at MIT he spent some time rowing. Then, one day in the gym, lifting a dead weight from the floor, he realized he had a talent and the strength for weight-lifting. His decision to commit time and energy to improving his lifting led him to compete in powerlifting tournaments, in the process setting some records. His personal best for the deadlift is 770 pounds.

Balancing his physical drive is a creative spirit, currently employed in coauthoring an educational fiction series for middle school students. The three books planned will provide comprehensive lessons in the fundamentals of physics, including relativity, astrophysics, and his favorite topic — fusion rockets.

While the need to isolate due to Covid-19 has perhaps been a boon to his writing, it has made it impossible for him to compete in powerlifting for the past year. Still, he continues to train, while cultivating a new test of his endurance: climbing mountains.

He admits to having already had a close call or two on the mountain side.

“I always ask myself a question — why do these guys climb the most dangerous mountains in the world and put themselves in the most precarious positions? I think there is an indescribable beauty and freedom in such a challenging endeavor, and an unquenchable thirst within the human condition to want to explore places where few have been. For good or worse, I have a little bit of that. I think there is a necessary amount of risk that you have to take on to grow as a person.”

Taking calculated risks and setting fusion records is something he looks forward to while working on the SPARC tokamak, and ultimately ARC. Crediting the increased magnetic fields that will be available with ARC’s HTS magnets, he observes, “I think that puts us in a position where I could be part of this team that is going to be the first to create a pilot fusion plant and produce net energy.” 

On every path in his life he is determined to reach the summit.

The MIT Press breaks new ground with STEM-themed young-adult graphic fiction

Mon, 05/24/2021 - 2:40pm

With one of its latest publications, the MIT Press is breaking new ground — and reaching out to new audiences.

The Curie Society” is a STEM-themed action-adventure graphic novel for young adults, the first publication in this genre in the press's nearly 60-year history.

“You would be forgiven if you didn’t expect to see this book come from an academic publisher,” says Jermey Matthews, acquisitions editor at the MIT Press. “The MIT Press has done fiction before. We publish STEM extensively. And we even recently released two well-received graphic books: 'The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe' and 'A Brief History of Feminism.' Still, publishing a novel for a young adult audience is breaking new ground.” 

Created by Heather Einhorn, Adam Staffaroni, Janet Harvey, and Sonia Liao, “The Curie Society” follows a team of young women recruited by an elite secret society with the mission of supporting the most brilliant female scientists, engineers, and technologists in the world.

“The Curie Society” introduces an entertaining, empowering media universe for fans of all ages, genders, and identities who love a spy thriller. The heroines of the Curie Society use their smarts, gumption, and cutting-edge technology to protect the world from rogue scientists with nefarious plans. Readers can follow recruits Simone, Taj, and Maya as they decipher secret codes, clone extinct animals, develop autonomous robots, and go on high-stakes missions. The science used by the characters in this book is verified and was fact-checked by a real-life society of female-identifying scientists.

The MIT Press views the publication of “The Curie Society” as an important opportunity to engage a new generation of individuals interested in diversity in science and technology.

“Although reaching Gen Z and Millennial fandoms is new territory for us, we are excited about the impact that “The Curie Society” can have on the next, and current, generation of adults,” says Matthews. These young people will be responsible for advancing the push for ethics and equity in STEM.”

Publication of “The Curie Society” was supported, in part, by the MIT Press Fund for Diverse Voices, which aims to increase the press’s publication of books by or about women and other underrepresented people in science and technology.

Startup improving chemical separations wins MIT $100K competition

Mon, 05/24/2021 - 2:00pm

In America’s quest to slash greenhouse gas emissions, many have cited the chemical industry as one of the hardest to decarbonize. It’s a significant roadblock: Chemical separation alone is responsible for up to 15 percent of the U.S.’s total energy usage.

Osmoses, a startup trying to dramatically increase the efficiency of chemical separations, got a major boost Thursday when it won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. The company has developed a molecular filtration solution containing tiny channels that can be precisely sized to separate even the smallest molecules. The company claims its membranes can form channels that are 1/100,000 the width of a human hair, allowing the separation of molecules that differ in size by a mere fraction of an angstrom — less than the size of an atom.

“This is one of the greatest challenges of the century for our society, but also one of the biggest opportunities for companies that can innovate in this space,” Francesco Maria Benedetti, a postdoc at MIT, said in the winning pitch. The company is also led by PhD candidate Katherine Mizrahi Rodriguez ’17, Zachary P. Smith, the Joseph R. Mares Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, and Holden Lai, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and former researcher in Smith’s lab.

Many chemical separation processes, such as distillation, use huge amounts of energy in the form of heat. Membrane filtration offers a promising alternative form of separation, but Osmoses says most membranes today have poor performance, leading to low adoption rates among chemical plants and higher operating costs.

Osmoses’ membranes come in a module that fits in existing separation systems. The company has tested its lab prototype in industrial-like environments, including in high-pressure, variable temperature conditions. The company says its results show a marked improvement over existing membrane filtration technologies.

“We’ve completely redesigned the materials these membranes are made of, lowering the energy consumption to a minimum and generating unprecedented performance,” Benedetti said.

The company is starting by targeting gas and vapor separations in the traditional and renewable natural gas processing space. Osmoses says by switching to its solution, companies in the market can reduce product loss by 85 percent, generating added fuel that could power 7 million additional homes in the U.S. for a year.

Osmoses also believes it can bring efficiencies to oxygen and nitrogen generation, hydrogen purification, and carbon capture.

The company will use the prize money to purchase equipment and scale its prototype later this year. Next year, it hopes to test an early version of its product with potential customers.

Osmoses’ first customers will be natural gas plants that produce hundreds of millions of standard cubic feet of gas per day. The team believes it can reduce up to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from each plant of that size.

The MIT $100K is MIT’s largest entrepreneurship competition. It began in 1989 (with a much smaller grand prize value) and is organized by students with support from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Each team must include at least one current MIT student.

The second place, $25,000 prize went to Mach 9, which is building a suite of tools to help companies locate and analyze underground utilities.

“We’re helping you look at what’s underground right now by creating the Google Maps for subsurface information,” said CEO Alex Baikovitz. “We’re making subsurface mapping as easy as driving a car through the city on a nice summer day — not like right after a Red Sox game.”

Baikovitz says many companies currently rely on painted lines to locate underground utilities, an error-prone solution that leads to billions of dollars in losses.

Mach 9 is developing a digital visualization tool to help utility locators interpret field data and save their results in the cloud for future reference. The solution automatically interprets radar data in real-time without an internet connection. It is also building a complementary tool to simplify ground surveys for large-scale construction projects. The software integrates with commonly used design and mapping tools in the industry.

“We’re creating geospatial postprocessing software that just makes sense and is intuitive,” Baikovitz said. “We create 3-D models of the subsurface environment, where we can overlay ground penetrating radar data for interpretation. We can show a digital twin of utilities identified by the Mach 9 system.”

Mach 9 is already in negotiations with the largest utility locating company in the U.S. and is collecting over 1,000 miles of ground-penetrating radar data from surveying firms. The company has also already acquired over $250,000 worth of mapping equipment to construct a proof of concept. It plans to make its first sales in 2022.

In the future, the Mach 9 team plans to offer underground mapping solutions in agriculture and mining. It estimates subsurface mapping to be a $90 billion industry.

This year’s event was hosted by Carly Chase, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Scott Stern, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management and chair of the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. It also featured an interview with Payal Kadakia ’05, the CEO and founder of exercise scheduling platform ClassPass.

The competition was the culmination of a process that began in the winter with more than 80 applicants from all five of MIT’s schools pitching their ideas. Thursday’s winning teams were two of eight finalists. The other finalist teams were:

Azeki Road, which is building technology solutions to help consumer brands in Africa scale around the world;

Candelytics, an analytics company building solutions to make 3-D data created by technologies like LIDAR sensors more accessible, intelligent, and impactful;

UltraNeuro, which is building a wearable ultrasound transducer to activate damaged nerves and reduce pain caused by a condition called peripheral neuropathy;

Resolute, which is creating a line of natural sunscreens that is suited for people of all skin tones;

Synthera Health, which is developing a testing, analytics, and iron supplement platform to help people maintain optimal iron levels in their blood; and

Volt, which is creating a marketplace for companies to buy and sell printed circuit boards, reducing procurement times and costs.

Twelve from MIT awarded 2021 Fulbright Fellowships

Mon, 05/24/2021 - 12:25pm

Twelve MIT student affiliates have won fellowships for the Fulbright 2021-22 grant year. Their host country destinations include Brazil, Iceland, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan, where they will conduct research, earn a graduate degree, or teach English.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers opportunities for American student scholars in over 160 countries. Last fall, Fulbright received a record number of applications, making this the most competitive cycle in the 75-year history of the program.

Jenny Chan is a senior studying mechanical engineering. Growing up in Philadelphia as the child of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants gave her an appreciation for how education could be used to uplift others. This led to her joining many activities that would continue to ignite her passion for education, including CodeIt, Global Teaching Labs, Full STEAM Ahead, and DynaMIT. At MIT, Chan also enjoys holding Friday night events with SaveTFP, sailing on the Charles River, and dancing as a member of DanceTroupe. Her Fulbright grant will take her to Taiwan, where she will serve as an English teaching assistant.

Gretchen Eggers ’20 graduated with double majors in brain and cognitive sciences and computer science. As a Fulbright student in Brazil, Eggers will head to the Arts and Artificial Intelligence group at the University of São Paulo to research graffiti, street art, and the design of creative artificial intelligence. With a lifelong passion for painting and the arts, Eggers is excited to spend time with and learn about mural painting from local artists in São Paulo. Upon completing her Fulbright, Eggers plans to pursue a PhD in human-computer interaction.

Miki Hansen is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. As the winner of the Delft University of Technology’s Industrial Design Engineering Award, she will pursue a MS in integrated product design at TU Delft in the Netherlands. In tandem with her studies, she hopes to conduct research into sustainable product design for a circular economy. At MIT, Hansen was involved in Design for America, Pi Tau Sigma (MechE Honor Society), DanceTroupe, the MissBehavior dance team, and Alpha Chi Omega. After completing Fulbright, Hansen plans on working as a product designer focused on sustainable materials and packaging.

Olivia Wynne Houck is a doctoral student in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture program. She focuses on urban planning in the 20th century, with an interest in the intersections of transportation, economic, and diplomatic policies in Iceland, the United States, and Sweden. She also conducts research on infrastructure in the Arctic. As a Fulbright National Science Foundation Arctic Research Award recipient, Houck will be hosted by the political science department at the University of Iceland, where she will pursue archival research on Route 1, the ring road that encircles Iceland. Houck has also received a fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation. 

Laura Huang is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. At the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Huang will combine engineering and art to develop an assistive calligraphy robot to better understand human-computer interaction. At MIT, she has done research with the Human Computer Interaction Engineering group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and has helped run assistive technology workshops in India and Saudi Arabia. Outside of research, Huang creates art, plays with the women's volleyball club, and leads STEM educational outreach through MIT CodeIt and Global Teaching Labs. While in Taiwan, she hopes to continue STEM outreach, explore the culinary scene, and learn calligraphy.

Teis Jorgensen graduates in June with an MS from the Integrated Design and Management program. He is a designer, researcher, and behavioral scientist with seven years’ experience designing products and services with a social mission. His passion is designing games that inspire and challenge players to be the best version of themselves. For his Fulbright research grant in Kerala, India, Teis will interview women about their challenges balancing home and professional responsibilities. His goal is to use these interviews as the inspiration for the design of a board game that shares their stories and ultimately helps remove barriers to female employment.

Meghana Kamineni will graduate this spring with a major in computer science and engineering and a minor in biology. At the University of Oslo in Norway, Kamineni will implement statistical models to understand and predict the impact of vaccinations and other interventions on the spread of Covid-19. At MIT, she pursued interests in computational research for health care through work on the bacterial infection C. difficile in the laboratory of Professor John Guttag. Outside of research, she has been involved with STEM educational outreach for middle school students through dynaMIT and MIT CodeIt, and hopes to continue outreach in Norway. After Fulbright, Kamineni plans to attend medical school.

Andrea Shinyoung Kim will graduate in June with an MS in comparative media studies. Her master's thesis looks at the relation between digital avatars and personhood in social virtual reality, advised by D. Fox Harrell. Her Fulbright research in South Korea will investigate how virtual reality can facilitate cross-cultural learning and live performance art. Kim will observe Korean mask dances and its craft to better inform the design of online virtual worlds. She will collaborate with her hosts at the Seoul Arts Institute and CultureHub. After Fulbright, she plans to pursue a PhD to further explore her interdisciplinary interests and arts praxis.

Kevin Lujan Lee is a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, he will study the transnational processes shaping how low-wage Pacific Islander workers navigate the institutions of labor market regulation. This will comprise one-half of his broader dissertation project — a comparative study of Indigenous Pacific Islanders and low-wage work in 21st-century empires. His research is only made possible by activists in the U.S. immigrant labor movement and global LANDBACK movement, who envision a world beyond labor precarity and Indigenous dispossession. Lee hopes to pursue an academic career to support the work of these movements.

Anjali Nambrath is a senior double majoring in physics and mathematics. She has worked on projects related to nuclear structure, neutrino physics, and dark matter detection at MIT and at two national labs. At MIT, she was president of the Society for Physics Students, a member of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble, an organizer of HackMIT, and a teacher for the MIT Educational Studies Program. For her Fulbright grant to India, Nambrath will be based at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai, where she will work on models of neutrino production and interaction in supernovae. After Fulbright, Nambrath will begin graduate school in physics at the University of California at Berkeley. 

Abby Stein will graduate in June with a double major in physics and electrical engineering. At MIT, she researched communication theory in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and optical network hardware at Lincoln Laboratory. Stein discovered an interest in international research and education through her MISTI experience in Chile, where she studied optics for astronomy, and through teaching engineering workshops in Israel with MIT's Global Teaching Labs. For her Fulbright, Stein will conduct research on quantum optical satellite networks at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain. After completing Fulbright, Stein will head to Stanford University to pursue a PhD in applied physics. 

Tony Terrasa is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and music. As a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Spain, he will be teaching in Galicia. Previously, Terrasa taught English, math, and physics to secondary school students in Lübeck, Germany as part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs program. He also taught for three years in the English as a Second Language Program for MIT Facilities Department employees. An MIT Emerson Fellow of Jazz Saxophone, he looks forward to listening to and learning about Galician music traditions while sharing some of his own.

MIT students and recent alumni interested in applying to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program should contact Julia Mongo in the Office of Distinguished Fellowships at MIT Career Advising and Professional Development. Students are also supported in the process by the Presidential Committee on Distinguished Fellowships.

A searching discussion about being Asian American at MIT

Mon, 05/24/2021 - 11:45am

A broad-ranging panel discussion on May 18 examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity.

The online forum was held amid an ongoing string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which has raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. But the forum — featuring faculty, students, and staff — made clear that anti-Asian American violence, stereotyping, and exclusion have long histories in the U.S.

Indeed, the event’s first segment, featuring presentations from three MIT faculty members, emphasized the importance of situating Asian American and Pacific Islander struggles in the context of systemic bias against many groups. That is both a better reading of history, the speakers suggested, and a more promising platform for allyship in activism.

“Sometimes it’s confusing for Asian Americans/AAPI to know where we belong,” said Emma Teng, a historian and the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations. “Sometimes we’re visible as minorities, and sometimes we’re not visible. … And that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings and lost opportunities for solidarity.”

The dangers of the “model minority” myth

Teng, author of the book, “Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943,” focused her remarks on the dangers of the “model minority” myth — the idea that Asian Americans are a uniquely high-achieving and assimilated ethnic group. That idea, Teng observed, fails to account for the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of Asian Americans, and harms many ethnic groups, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  

For one thing, the model minority myth can form a standard against which negative judgments of other minority groups are constructed. The concept also reduces attention to anti-Asian discrimination, Teng added, while at MIT the idea can burden students with “imposter syndrome” — a sense of not being worthy — and put undue pressure on them.

“I’ve heard students label themselves to me as a ‘bad Asian’ if they’re not breezing through all their classes,” Teng said. “Whereas in reality we all know that being an MIT student is enormously challenging for everybody, regardless of your background.”

Finally, Teng noted, the model minority myth contributes to the so-called “bamboo ceiling” in institutions, limiting opportunities for Asian Americans by linking them to qualities such as technical skills that are not associated with leadership.

“The ‘bamboo ceiling’ can, I think, be seen in many different kinds of contexts, where Asians are recognized as competent, intelligent, and high-achieving, but not possessing the social or leadership skills to be put in high leadership positions,” Teng said.

Against exceptionalism

Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science and faculty chair-elect at the Institute, also suggested that notions of Asian American exceptionalism are problematic.

“There are these myths that focus on the internal and cultural sources of success, for Asian Americans as a model minority,” Tsai said, noting that such narratives “really shift attention away from external structural sources” of disadvantage for all people of color.

Asian Americans, Tsai added, “really need to fight the myth” that, as political scientist Claire Jean Kim has put it, “no amount of externally imposed hardship can keep a good minority down.” Focusing on Asian American achievement, in this sense, can both lead people to minimize the barriers to success facing all minority groups, and heighten an unjustified sense of difference among groups.

Tsai also suggested that “racial triangulation theory,” developed by Kim, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, is a helpful framework for understanding how the dynamics of stereotyping can work. Among three groups — whites, Blacks, and Asian Americans — people may cast whites and Asian Americans as being successful, thus marginalizing Blacks; at the same time, people may view whites and Blacks as “insiders” in America, with Asian Americans being cast as “perpetual foreigners.”

“It enables us to see how Asian Americans can be used as a wedge between whites and Blacks, and how there can be challenges to Asian American and Black solidarity,” Tsai said.

In his remarks, Craig Wilder, the Barton L. Weller Professor of History, emphasized the long history of violence against Asian Americans, dating to the 1800s.

“Going back to the 19th century, those campaigns of violence get so normalized in American history and so easily erased,” Wilder said, adding that in the U.S. there is a “cyclical rediscovery of American violence. We pretend somehow that we’ve forgotten that we have this deep, long history of violence.”

Wilder, author of the book “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” about many universities’ deep ties to slavery, emphasized that academics have long been involved in acts of exclusion toward minority groups.

“American intellectuals from the 1820s … were central to providing a kind of intellectual and academic justification for campaigns of various communities against people of color, and campaigns against other religious groups,” said Wilder. Showing a picture of eugenicist Francis Galton, he added that “our institutions were in fact never innocent actors sitting in the backdrop of history.”

However, Wilder added, at MIT today, “We have a moment where we have to really think about how we hold ourselves accountable, and how these institutions today need not just to repair that past, but also to envision a future that’s far more democratic, far more inclusive, and far less divided.”

Strategies for action

The event, “Asian American Visibility and Intersectionality at MIT,” was introduced by Beatriz Cantada, director of engagement for diversity and inclusion in MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office. The discussion was moderated by Christopher Capozzola, head of the MIT History section.

After the initial faculty presentations, the event featured a discussion among the faculty and three other participants, acting as interlocutors and commentators: Eesha Banerjee, a first-year student majoring in electrical engineering and computer science; Amelia Lee Dogan, a sophomore majoring in urban studies and planning with computer science and in American studies; and Rupinder Grewal, a conflict of interest officer in the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the lead for the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group at MIT.

Grewal queried Teng, for instance, about what approaches might help remove the “bamboo ceiling” from workplaces.

“What do we do about that?” Grewal asked. “How do we change the narrative? Where does the responsibility lie?”

Teng noted that research indicates Asian Americans incur a “penalty” in workplace terms when they act more assertively: “They’re expected to be competent, to be somewhat passive, and also to have a caretaking role for others. It’s not a simple solution by saying … ‘I’m an Asian American woman and I’m going to be assertive now.’” That said, she observed that Tsai herself had just broken through the bamboo ceiling, as the first Asian American woman and first person of East Asian descent to be elected chair of the MIT faculty.

A significant part of the discussion focused on solidarity among different interest groups. Banerjee, for one, asked the panel to comment on “the role of members of the Asian American community who might have more privilege socioeconomically, or in terms of representation, [in creating] Asian solidarity and centering the needs of other groups.”

Tsai, in reply, suggested that kind of support is crucial to effective political alliances. Some research, she noted, suggests that “all of us are best at advocating for groups that we are not a member of. I often think about that, because I want to be able to use my influence and political capital as effectively as possible. ... When you advocate on behalf of a group you are seen to be a member of, it is discredited, because it is seen as self-interest.”

As Teng suggested, however, there can be benefits to “disaggregating” the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, and better understanding the trajectories of some students in relation to their particular ethnicities. Sometimes, she said, “I think we need to understand each group one by one, to understand the socioeconomic profile of the group.”

At the same time, Dogan noted, a willingness to engage in pan-Asian organizing may also reflect the political orientation of the participants: Some people may more readily view different subgroups of Asian Americans as being linked in a common effort, while others may be more particularist.

“I think there are a lot of struggles toward pan-Asian advocacy, and that’s a very deep conversation [regarding being] Asian American as a political identity versus an ethnic identity, and how we internally have our own struggles and regional conflicts,” Dogan said. “There are Asian Americans working toward that right now.”

“Imagine a world that can be different”

Banerjee and Wilder both observed that universities, imperfect though they may be, do offer unusual opportunities for dialogue, action, and progress.

“At MIT, solidarity is something we still do need to work toward,” Banerjee said. And yet, she noted, it does exist to an extent. As a result, one question is how students and others can move multiethnic organizing and awareness from campuses to the cities and towns around them: “The solidarity we build up here on the university level, how can that be translated, either in the Cambridge community or back home?”

For his part, Wilder noted, “One of the things that college campuses allow us to do is to imagine a world that can be different, [along with] using the skill sets that you learn on campus and taking them elsewhere.”

Certainly, Wilder added, “College campuses have a lot of housecleaning to do. We’re not, in fact, racially uncomplicated spaces. We actually have all of the same burdens that the greater society has. One of the things that we do have that’s different is the luxury of stepping back to think about how to wrestle with [existing] tensions. To recognize that they’re not easily solved.”

The event was organized and sponsored by MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office; the African, Black, American, Caribbean Employee Resource Group; the Asian American Association; the Asian American Initiative; the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group; the Black Graduate Student Association; the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; MIT Global Languages; MIT History; the Department of Mechanical Engineering; the Office of Multicultural Programs; and the Undergraduate Association.

Astronaut Michael Fincke ’89 offers students out-of-this-world advice

Fri, 05/21/2021 - 3:50pm

Life was very different in 1989. A trip to the movie theater cost less than $4, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” was newly released, and the World Wide Web had just been invented.

That year, Michael Fincke, a recent MIT grad who had just completed a BS in aeronautics and astronautics and Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, set foot for the first time in Moscow. It was one of the last summers before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Fincke had seen a poster written in Russian hanging in a hall on campus. “If you could read it, you know what it said and you could show up at the meeting,” he recalls. The poster advertised a new exchange program at the Moscow Aviation Institute, a program Fincke went on to attend.

Now, more than 30 years later, Fincke is a decorated NASA astronaut, and the American with the greatest number of Russian spacewalks –– six. He’s clocked more than a year in orbit on three space flights (and soon, a fourth). He’s earned two NASA distinguished service medals, three NASA spaceflight medals, the International Space Station Leadership Award, and many other recognitions.

In a virtual event hosted jointly by the MIT-Russia Program and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics on April 20, Fincke had a lively conversation with Piper Sigrest ’18 about his time as a student on campus, his experiences in both Russian and American space missions, and his advice for students interested in pursuing a similar career. Sigrest, an aspiring astronaut, is currently pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

The event came a week after another MIT-Russia panel, entitled “Soviet and Russian Space Exploration: Celebrity and Propaganda, 1957-Present,” in which historians Andrew Jenks and Victoria Smolkin discussed with Professor Kate Brown how exploration of the cosmos played a symbolic and political role in the USSR.

“April was a banner month for celebrating Russian space efforts and Russian-American cooperation,” Professor Elizabeth Wood, faculty co-director of the MIT-Russia program, says.

In their conversation, Fincke and Sigrest highlighted the integral role of international collaboration in space exploration, and the importance of MIT’s motto “mens et manus,” Latin for “mind and hand.” They shared their excitement about spaceflight and the Russian language as a bridge to better communication.  

His first model rocket

The United States and the Soviet Union had a long, complicated relationship on the ground and in space. Beginning in 1957 with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the two nations engaged in an extended “Space Race” that lasted for decades. For the first several years, they launched satellites into orbit and to the moon. Then astronauts entered the scene.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern-day Kazakhstan. Only a few weeks later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. In 1969, the United States landed the first humans on the moon.

When he was about 10 years old, in the mid-1970s, Fincke launched his first model rocket while at summer camp –– a model Russian Vostok, an early rocket designed for human spaceflight. “Thirty-something years later, I was in the great big brother of the Vostok: the Soyuz launch craft,” Fincke said.

The Soviet Union’s achievements in space motivated Fincke to study Russian as a foreign language at MIT, and to study in Moscow after his graduation in 1989. In his MIT years, he studied in the Foreign Languages and Literatures section within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Today, that program is called Global Languages and has a program in Russian language and literature headed by Maria Khotimsky and Wood.

Fincke’s career takes flight

In the early 1990s, the United States and Russia became partners in space, Fincke said.

After his time in Moscow, Fincke went on to earn a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and a master's in physics from the University of Houston at Clearlake, and to become a top graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. Those experiences, in tandem with his proficiency in the Russian language, made him a strong candidate when he applied and was accepted to NASA in 1996.

“The more you know, the more opportunity you have,” Fincke said. “Because I could speak Russian, and there was an opportunity to go to the Soviet Union and be an exchange student, it opened the door for NASA.”

Fincke was involved in designing and launching the International Space Station (ISS) in the late 1990s and early 2000s –– a feat which required a high level of collaboration between Russian and American astronauts. The ISS has since hosted 243 people from 19 countries. Because he could speak and understand Russian, Fincke next went to Star City near Moscow, where Russian cosmonauts train.

Then, the shocking 2003 Columbia disaster led to a pause in the American space shuttle program. “My friends were on board, my classmates. I still miss them terribly,” Fincke said. “We Americans were without a way to get to space. Our Russian partners stepped up as true partners and they offered us rides on Soyuz.”

In both 2004 and 2009, Fincke rode aboard the Soyuz rockets to get to the ISS. His Russian language skills qualified him to serve as co-pilot.

“When I was growing up and when I was at the Institute, there was no way that Americans and Soviets were ever going to get along and do these things,” Fincke said. “Now we’re great partners in space.”

Infinity and beyond

Fincke has worked with NASA’s commercial crew program on two spacecraft, the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. He will be serving as joint operations commander on the first crewed experimental test flight of the Starliner, scheduled for later this year.

Fincke said his career has taught him the importance of collaboration across barriers.

“It's all teamwork. This idea of a scientist or engineer working in her laboratory late at night and making all the discoveries is a fallacy,” Fincke said. “Spaceflight is definitely the world's biggest team sport.”

Jeremy Kepner named SIAM Fellow

Fri, 05/21/2021 - 3:15pm

Jeremy Kepner, a Lincoln Laboratory Fellow in the Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division and a research affiliate of the MIT Department of Mathematics, was named to the 2021 class of fellows of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The fellow designation honors SIAM members who have made outstanding contributions to the 17 mathematics-related research areas that SIAM promotes through its publications, conferences, and community of scientists. Kepner was recognized for "contributions to interactive parallel computing, matrix-based graph algorithms, green supercomputing, and big data."

Since joining Lincoln Laboratory in 1998, Kepner has worked to expand the capabilities of computing at the laboratory and throughout the computing community. He has published broadly, served on technical committees of national conferences, and contributed to regional efforts to provide access to supercomputing.

"Jeremy has had two decades of contributing to the important field of high performance computing, including both supercomputers and embedded systems. He has also made a seminal impact to supercomputer system research. He invented a unique way to do signal processing on sparse data, critically important for parsing through social networks and leading to more efficient use of parallel computing environments," says David Martinez, now a Lincoln Laboratory fellow and previously a division head who hired and then worked with Kepner for many years.

At Lincoln Laboratory, Kepner originally led the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) High Performance Embedded Computing Software Initiative that created the Vector, Signal and Image Processing Library standard that many DoD sensor systems have utilized. In 1999, he invented the MatlabMPI software and in 2001 was the architect of pMatlab (Parallel Matlab Toolbox) that has been used by thousands of Lincoln Laboratory staff and scientists and engineers worldwide. In 2011, the Parallel Vector Tile Optimizing Library (PVTOL), developed under Kepner's direction, won an R&D 100 Award.

"Jeremy has been a world leader in moving the state of high performance computing forward for the past two decades," says Stephen Rejto, head of Lincoln Laboratory's Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division. "His vision and drive have been invaluable to the laboratory’s mission."

Kepner led a consortium to pioneer the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, the world's largest and, because of its use of hydropower, “greenest" open research data center, which is enabling a dramatic increase in MIT's computing capabilities while reducing its CO2 footprint. He led the establishment of the current Lincoln Laboratory Supercomputing Center, which boasts New England’s most powerful supercomputer. In 2019, he helped found the U.S. Air Force-MIT AI Accelerator, which leverages the expertise and resources of MIT and the Air Force to advance research in artificial intelligence.

"These individual honors are a recognition of the achievements of our entire Lincoln team to whom I am eternally indebted," Kepner says.

Kepner's recent work has been in graph analytics and big data. He created a novel database management language and schema (Dynamic Distributed Dimensional Data Model, or D4M), which is widely used in both Lincoln Laboratory and government big data systems.

His publications range across many fields — data mining, databases, high performance computing, graph algorithms, cybersecurity, visualization, cloud computing, random matrix theory, abstract algebra, and bioinformatics. Among his works are two SIAM bestselling books, "Parallel MATLAB for Multicore and Multinode Computers" and "Graph Algorithms in the Language of Linear Algebra." In 2018, he and coauthor Hayden Jananthan published "Mathematics of Big Data" as one of the books in the MIT Lincoln Laboratory series put out by MIT Press.

Kepner, who joined SIAM during his graduate days at Princeton University, has not only published books and articles through SIAM but also been involved with the SIAM community's activities. He has served as vice chair of the SIAM International Conference on Data Mining; advises a SIAM student section; and enlisted SIAM's affiliation with the High Performance Extreme (originally Embedded) Computing (HPEC) conference, in which he has had "an instrumental role in bringing together the high performance embedded computing community and which under his leadership became an IEEE conference in 2012," according to Martinez, who founded the Lincoln Laboratory-hosted HPEC conference in 1997.

Kepner is the first Lincoln Laboratory researcher to attain the rank of SIAM Fellow and the ninth from MIT.

Inhabiting 21st-century science fiction

Fri, 05/21/2021 - 12:00am

In March, literary heavyweights Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman — a Nobel laureate, and the beloved author of "American Gods," "Sandman," and "Good Omens," respectively — convened at an independent bookstore event to discuss genre and science fiction.

They arrived at twin conclusions: one, that rigid genre distinctions between literary works promote an unproductive and false hierarchy of worth, and two, that the 21st century is a very tricky time to attempt to define “science fiction” at all. Gaiman said that he increasingly feels genre “slippage where science fiction is concerned” because, he says, “the world has become science fiction.” The hacking exploits in William Gibson’s novel "Neuromancer" or the sequencing of an entire genome overnight no longer belong to the realm of fantasy.

For MIT students, the permeable relationship between reality and science fiction is often familiar territory. In their labs and research projects, students and faculty experience personally the process by which imaginative ideas turn into new techniques, possibilities, medicines, tools, and technologies. (And they learn that many such new realities actually have had their origins in speculative literature.)

Students in the MIT Literature course 21L.434 (21st Century Science Fiction), taught by Assistant Professor Laura Finch, also discover that science fiction is a powerful, useful way to think about and understand the world we currently inhabit. The course, which deals with the imaginative flexibility and speculative potential in science fiction and fantasy, explores how we could inhabit worlds seen through lenses of sci-fi books such as N.K. Jemison’s “The Fifth Season,” Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” and China Miéville’s “The City and The City” — all books explored in the class.

Seeing the world in new ways

Arriving at MIT, Finch knew contemporary science fiction would be natural fit for MIT education — which combines perspectives across a wide range of science, technology, humanities, arts, and social science fields. “All literature classes are about seeing the world a different way,” Finch says, “whether it’s Shakespeare or Milton or realist novels.” The 21st-century science fiction course explores a range of worldviews that are free of conventional boundaries.  As students consider seemingly fantastical stories, they rise to the challenge of recognizing characteristics, problems, and potentials that exist in their own societies.

“I was immediately drawn to the opportunity to discuss issues of race, gender, and colonialism through a range of speculative fiction,” says Meriam Soltan, a master's student in architecture studies, recalling what attracted her to the class. “Right from the start, Professor Finch framed the genre in a way that really spoke to a whole range of social justice issues that we are attempting to navigate today.”

The course has an explicit social justice bent to it: Rather than space operas or extreme-tech science fiction, the focus is on authors who rethink the contemporary moment and its various perils, uncertainties, and injustices; authors who use a future space to re-imagine potentials for the present.

The inspiration for the course grew out of Finch’s sense that a cultural atmosphere of despair and turmoil — especially in American politics — was weighing on college students. She thought that the unbounded imagination and fresh avenues of science fiction would enable students to better see that “the present reality is not here forever — and that we have the power to change things.”

Especially in the face of the pandemic, keystone books like “The Fifth Season” give necessary reminders of possibility and resistance, of human and beyond-human nature working in a subtle alliance for positive change. “This isn’t about utopia,” Finch says. “It’s about pushing back in solidarity against a historical, overarching oppressive power.”

“Sci-fi enables us to world-build a more-just world, outside of the constraints of what is ‘feasible’ in our current political constraints,” says Jocelyn Ting, a materials science and engineering with electrical engineering major. “As an engineer who will help shape our world in the next decades of the climate crisis, it feels vital that I world-build with others, that we listen to each other's thoughts as we dream of a better system together.”   

Beyond the human

Works in the genre of “Indigenous futurism” are specifically pushing back against the settler colonial narrative that Indigenous people belong to the past, and that if an Indigenous person behaves in “contemporary” or “modern” ways they are no longer (so goes the white settler culture critique) being “authentically” Indigenous. Against that background, Indigenous futurism is a way for Indigenous writers, artists, and musicians to counter such violent historicizing. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse opens the course with the question of who gets to shape and share cultural histories, and who gets to consume them — through the lens of futuristic virtual technology in an otherwise-realistic world.

“The City and The City,” for instance, tells the noir-ish detective story in a city that shares the same space with another, separate city. Each minute of each day, the citizens of one city have to consciously un-see the denizens of the other, ignoring smells and sounds that no societal taboos or boundaries can prevent, as each city continues on in its own distinct habits and cultures. It is deeply prohibited to acknowledge the other city or its people, a measure enforced by a terrifying and omnipresent police force called Breach.

The conceit may seem fantastic, until the reader begins to do the difficult work of parsing how this is already the reality in the United States. Experimental architect Olalekan Jeyifous reflects on his own understanding of “The City and The City” in one class reading, especially in regard to gentrification: “Walking up and down the street every day, I see such a complete disconnect between the two communities of the Black folks sitting on the steps chilling, and then newer gentrifying folks spilling out of bars. They may walk into the same bodega, but there’s zero acknowledgment.”
 
Soltan reflects that the critical class discussions relate to her own research in architecture, as the course grapples with “liberating” discussions of urban form, space, and planning. “I’m always interested in how fictions are formalized into the built environment,” she says. “I think the class material and discussions really help reclaim that process. We’re introduced to a whole toolkit of methods that might expand our thinking and make space for other possible futures.”

Such coded, reframed analyses open up fresh perspectives. For instance, in the unit focused on Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” students look “beyond the human” to ask how eco-critical narratives push back against continual, capitalistic growth and work to account for the messy and natural processes of our planet. That reading is couched in dense, rich sentences in the fairly short novel — and as they read, the students hone their skills in deciphering those intricacies.    

“I really want students to come out of this class knowing how to do close reading,” says Finch, “because that’s a skill in life that’s so translatable and important — in everything from political discourse and rhetoric to thinking about your relationship to your own mind.”

The course helps students develop fundamental literary skills — from close reading to essay writing to imaginative world-building — all of which serve problem-solvers well. And it does so with a hopeful, imaginative bent, sharing works that ask, even in times of crisis and uncertainty: what can flourish?

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Staff Writer: Alison Lanier

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