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Some materials, including metals, consist of atoms densely packed in a lattice or crystal. These structures can be very good at conducting electricity, and their behavior is often relatively easy to predict. Other materials, such as plastics and other polymers, have a great deal of disorder to their structures.
Adam Willard, an associate professor of chemistry at MIT, wants to illuminate those disordered structures. Using theoretical models and high-powered supercomputers, he is developing ways to simulate the properties of these disordered materials and predict their behavior. This kind of modeling could help researchers replace heavy and brittle silicon-based photovoltaic cells with light and flexible alternatives made entirely of plastic.
“Our interest is really in trying to understand the role of molecular disorder in physical processes that are important in both biology and the energy sciences,” says Willard, who recently earned tenure in MIT’s Department of Chemistry. “We want to develop a deeper understanding of how molecular forces play a role in the chemical processes that are fundamental to life and industry.”
Captivated by chemistry
Growing up in Bend, Oregon, Willard wanted to become a doctor and entered the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, as a pre-med major. However, by the end of his sophomore year, he had lost his enthusiasm for medicine and decided to switch to a double major in chemistry and math.
“Fortuitously, the next course I had to take was an undergraduate course in quantum mechanics in the chemistry department, and I loved it,” Willard recalls. “I decided then that being a chemistry professor would be a pretty nice gig because the material was so deep and captivating.”
Having switched his major late, Willard hadn’t done much chemistry research as an undergraduate, so he decided to spend a year after graduation working in an experimental spectroscopy lab at the University of Puget Sound. “It was a great experience because I got to have a spectrometer all to myself, and I got to spend late nights alone in the lab, collecting data and thinking about things. I enjoyed it immensely,” he says.
He attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, drawn by its program in theoretical chemistry. There, he used computer simulations to study how hydrophobic forces between large molecules influence their behavior, as well as how water affects the interactions between such molecules.
After finishing his PhD, Willard went to the University of Texas at Austin to do a postdoc studying quantum dynamics, specifically those seen in organic photovoltaics — solar cells made from plastic. Such cells are lightweight, easy to make, and relatively inexpensive. However, at the molecular scale, these plastics are made of many tangled strands, which present complex pathways for the transport of electrons.
Much of Willard’s work in this area, which has continued since he joined MIT’s faculty in 2013, focuses on designing materials that will allow electrons to efficiently flow from one site, where they are excited by light, to the point where their energy is collected.
“For photovoltaic applications, we want to arrange photoexcitable molecules in a particular geometry, so that if we excite one molecule, the excited electron is passed through the material, molecule to molecule, in a way that guides and transforms them in predictable ways,” he says.
In his lab at MIT, Willard has also continued studying interactions between water and other molecules. While he focused on hydrophobic interactions as graduate student, he now analyzes hydrophilic molecules and how they interact with each other in water.
“Describing how hydrophilic objects interact with each other in water is much more complicated because there are many different ways that surfaces can be hydrophilic, whereas there's only one way to be hydrophobic. So, if I’ve solved the hydrophobic problem for one case, I’ve solved it for all of the cases. However, the behavior of hydrophilic particles depends very much on how they are hydrophilic, for example, positively and negatively charged surfaces have different influences on the surrounding water,” Willard says.
Some important types of hydrophilic interactions include protein-protein interactions and protein-drug interactions. These molecules often form weak hydrogen bonds that help hold them together. Water can affect these bonds, influencing the binding strength between two proteins or a protein and a drug.
In the last few years, Willard’s research group has developed computational methods to analyze the hydration environment surrounding a protein and how it depends on a protein’s conformation. They are now using machine-learning techniques, similar to those used to teach computer models to recognize objects, to identify sites of a protein that could be targeted by particular drugs.
Another area of research in his lab involves interactions that occur at surfaces where electrochemical reactions take place, such as those found in batteries. These interactions are typically difficult to simulate because describing the path of electrons within the electrodes requires massive computational resources, but Willard’s lab has developed methods to make this description more efficient. This kind of modeling could help to researchers to design better battery or electrocatalytic systems.
“Our hope is that our contributions will provide both new fundamental theory that will help people understand these systems better, but also in specific cases, provide molecular design principles that can be applied,” Willard says.
MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the way on the technological advances and policy options needed to address climate change. At the second MIT Climate Engagement Forum of the semester, students, faculty, alumni, and staff described the many ways they are engaging an array of organizations to bring real solutions to the climate crisis. Several participants in the discussion offered suggestions from their own personal and professional experiences on how the Institute can make tackling the climate crisis part of its core mission. “The problems are too big and too interconnected for any institution, even this one, to solve alone,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, in opening remarks.
As MIT prepares to release its second Plan for Action on Climate Change this spring, the Office of the Vice President for Research is taking stock of the Institute’s climate progress to date. The forum, hosted by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), brought together a diverse group: seniors Kiara Wahnshafft and Megan Guenther, graduate students Pervez Agwan and Caroline White-Nockleby, alumni Lucy Milde and Gail Greenwald, MIT Corporation member Diana Chapman-Walsh, Senior Associate Dean Kate Trimble, and faculty members Megan Black, Desiree Plata, Timothy Gutowski, and John E. Fernandez.
Supporting students to ensure an “all of MIT” approach
MIT is known for providing students with hands-on training through experiential learning opportunities and internships. Industry leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of having technically skilled employees who can also navigate the messiness of real-world problem-solving, said John Fernández, director of ESI.
“There are a growing number of companies who see that one of the obstacles to a sustainable future for them is they don’t have the workforce to get there,” Fernández said. “I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for us.”
Similarly, Kate Trimble, director of the Office of Experiential Learning, told forum attendees that sustainability should be the “crown jewel” of an MIT education. “I imagine a world where sustainability really permeates everything that we do, and sustainability is something that students have to go out of their way to avoid, as opposed to specially seeking it out,” Trimble said. To do that, MIT needs to provide more opportunities for students to develop “change-making skills,” she said, and reflect on what they’re learning out in the field during internships.
Timothy Gutowski, an MIT professor of engineering, described the hands-on class he co-teaches called “Solving for carbon neutrality at MIT.” Diving deep into MIT’s own emissions has given him a new perspective on the obstacles to carbon neutrality, both on campus and in the wider world. “Quite frankly, they often turn out to be people — human behavior, how we get along, how we cooperate, how we solve problems.”
Pervez Agwan, an MBA candidate and president of the MIT Energy Club, said that he has found a community of like-minded students working on energy problems. But the Institute should do a better job of instilling in all students that MIT stands for sustainability and climate action. “It’s not because they don’t have an interest,” he said. “They just don’t know what’s happening, and it’s not part of our culture.”
Engaging outside of MIT
One of the pillars of MIT’s 2015 Plan for Action on Climate Change is to better educate government and industry leaders on climate change. Senior Kiara Wahnschafft remarked that she worked on Massachusetts’ recent climate bill as part of an internship she did with the Environmental Solution Initiative’s Rapid Response Group. The Institute should scale up those partnerships so that policymakers know to turn to MIT for scientifically-sound climate research. “In my ideal world, MIT is the climate policymaking hub,” she said.
A key component of that will be continually evaluating what successful engagement with partners looks like, said Gail Greenwald ‘75, a board member of Launchpad Venture Group. Similar to how MIT tracks its emissions reductions project, the Institute needs to ensure its partnerships advance decarbonization off-campus. “We don’t have time to rest on our laurels or to be participating in greenwashing,” she said.
At the same time, meeting attendees stressed that MIT should not shy away from working with companies that have less-than-sterling reputations on climate change. “It doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” said Wahnschafft. “We can have a great relationship with a company and do research or some other kind of partnership, and still say we disagree with their current tax bill in Washington.”
Lucy Milde ’20 called on MIT to weave ethical considerations into its work around climate mitigation and adaptation. “I think the MIT education is kind of lacking in the area of making sure that we’re empowering marginalized communities,” and ensuring that graduates carry those considerations forward into their careers, she said.
To do that, the Institute should incorporate community engagement and climate justice into its next plan, stressed Caroline White-Nockleby, a graduate student in MIT’s Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. MIT is “well-positioned” to facilitate energy transition conversations between residents, employers, and local and state officials, she added.
White-Nockleby noted that places facing climate impacts are often dealing with other economic or environmental challenges. For example, in a western Pennsylvania county where she and other Environmental Solutions Initiative interns researched the economic impacts of coal’s decline, residents are primarily concerned about job losses and tax cuts. “There’s a lot of ways to engage communities around climate change by engaging in the values that matter to those communities,” White-Nockleby said.
Facing uncertainty head-on
The forum closed with a panel on how to deal with uncertainty — the topic of a new effort called the “Council on the Uncertain Human Future” at MIT and other universities. Diana Chapman Walsh, a member of the council’s leadership team, said that anxiety and dread can hinder meaningful conversations around climate change. “So our intention for the council was and is to hold a space for a very different conversation than usual,” she explained, “where participants look deeply and personally into the reality of situation as best we can understand it” with others ready to commit to an “honest reckoning” with the climate emergency.
Desiree Plata, an associate professor of in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said her initial skepticism about joining the council went away when she saw other participants become more optimistic over the course of weekly meetings. “People need mechanisms for healing in this time, especially, and that healing can impart motivation,” she said.
Megan Black, an associate professor of history at MIT, pointed to the massive infrastructure building and conservation work done in the United States in response to the Great Depression as an inspiration for how to deal with present-day uncertainties. “In moments of crisis, people have come together even though it was highly uncertain how it would turn out, and tried to forge a meaningful response,” she said.
Senior Megan Guenther, echoing that, said that although, “there is a lot of uncertainty regarding what is going on with the climate, there are a ton of opportunities available — really, endless opportunities — for how we can address this issue.”
In closing remarks, Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester highlighted the “whole-of-MIT” approach as integral to its expanding commitment to the climate challenge. “This institution, more than most, has the capacity and therefore the responsibility to contribute” to addressing the climate emergency, he said. “And it seems to me that the question that we should always be asking ourselves is, how can we make our institution stronger and better able to contribute, where we can have the greatest impact?”
MIT Professional Education, housed under the School of Engineering, is the arm of MIT that provides access to MIT knowledge and expertise to thousands of professionals around the world via education programs designed for them.
Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education, says he didn’t consciously set out to bring more diversity to the program when he stepped into his role in 2008. But, as he puts it, a commitment to diversity and multiculturalism is in his “DNA.”
Pant was born of Indian heritage in Zambia; he has lived on four continents, and is fluent in English, Hindi, and Gujarati, with a working knowledge of French. During several decades in the private sector, he worked as an executive on four continents with vastly different cultural contexts, and has seen multiple, vivid examples of how a commitment to inclusion and a respect for cultural differences can have a positive impact on the work of both individuals and institutions.
This lifetime of experiences shaped the ethic he brought to MIT, where he has dramatically expanded the global reach of MIT Professional Education. Soon after he assumed his role, he said to his colleagues, “We’re not really reaching out to too many people where they are located; we are focusing on those who reach out to us. Let’s make it the other way around.”
Under Pant’s leadership, the program now offers an array of MIT courses in multiple languages on multiple continents — making it a rarity among professional education programs globally. On April 8, Pant was recognized as the first-ever recipient of the national UPCEA Leadership in Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), a leading association for professional, continuing, and online education in the United States.
“Having grown up in a British colony, and then living through the process of my country becoming independent, and indigenous people charting their own destiny — that experience got embedded in my life,” Pant says. “I have seen people who were oppressed, who became independent, who could then really have the freedom to reach their full personal and professional potential. I saw that diversity brought about a lot of transformative outcomes for all. So, when you have that as your background, you try to promulgate that in everything you do. It all coalesced for me at MIT. Among other accomplishments at MIT Professional Education, we’ve really been able to reach out to underserved communities around the world, particularly women. That is what satisfies me the most.”
A lifetime of experience
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Pant brought a world with him to MIT, and then brought MIT back out into the world.
As a boy, Pant attended racially segregated schools in what was then Northern Rhodesia, which he says fueled a desire to learn more about the people who were being kept apart legally. He moved to the U.K. to earn an advanced pre-college educational certificate, then received a full U.S. government-aided scholarship to attend engineering school at the University of Rochester, where he subsequently became president of the International Students Association. In graduate school at Indiana University, he studied communications and media, and got particularly interested in global, cross-cultural communications.
Drawing on his technical background and communications education, Pant went into technical sales at Tektronix, a leader in electronic test equipment. Next, he joined Sony America as vice president for broadcast systems, and took the opportunity to learn about Japanese language and culture. Among other roles, Pant later became the first president of Turner Broadcasting South Asia. “Constantly, I was exposed to international and intercultural communication in addressing diverse populations,” he says.
Cartoon Network was Turner Broadcasting’s most popular offering in Asia, and Pant observed the way that children could often understand English-language cartoons, even without dubbing in local language. However, Pant soon discovered that for India, he needed to switch the programming schedule for the country to not include “Cow and Chicken,” an animated series that featured a sarcastic and abrasive cow, in a country where cows are held sacred.
“Within Asia, there are so many countries with different cultures, and if you just bombard all of them with the same satellite feed, then what about regional sensitivities?” Pant asks. “Similarly, you cannot produce a product and say, ‘Why don’t we just ship it everywhere in the world, without understanding local needs and/or sensitivities?”
Bringing people together
These sorts of lessons were crucial in shaping Pant’s work at MIT. When he came to campus, he first made a point of hiring a diverse, culturally sensitive staff. Under his leadership, MIT Professional Education launched in-person courses in countries like Japan, Singapore, India, and Nigeria. Pant also launched MIT Professional Education’s innovative, hybrid online Digital Plus Programs (DPP), which removed barriers around cost, language, and location — helping to bring in many more students from countries around the world to MIT education. Only 15 percent of enrollees were female when the program launched, but that number had increased to nearly 40 percent by early 2020. The program now offers nine online courses and two professional certificate programs in multiple languages, including Spanish and Portuguese.
Pant has been mindful about cultural context when delivering courses in new countries — offering programs in a way that account for cultural differences, while also ensuring that each course embodies MIT’s values.
For programs in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, for example, Pant, with permission from the host organizers, insisted that MIT courses be open to men and women on equal terms. For a Dubai program on innovation in government, MIT Professional Education required that men and women work together at the same table — a significant departure from typical practices there. In addition to promoting gender equity, Pant says, the stipulation resulted in new ideas coming to the forefront.
“We said, ‘How are you going to have innovation if you have all this separation?’” Pant recalls. “Women started speaking up because they felt empowered, and quite frankly, they were making much more poignant points than the men. One of the assignments was to go and interview their own children, and perhaps talk to some of their teachers, and find out what was going on in primary education. Most male government officers sat around at home because they always had other people to do the work for them. We found that the women actually went and talked to the teachers after school and came back to class the next day surfacing all kinds of issues. They then came through with brilliant ideas for improvement and innovation!”
Pant teaches a cultural awareness and communication workshop for MIT staff, and also one that is required for all incoming MIT international undergraduate and graduate students as part of their orientation. Ideally, Pant says, such a course should be required of all incoming MIT students, regardless of their background.
“I’m a big proponent of cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity among all citizens of MIT,” Pant says. “That should be the case, but we are not there yet. There’s still this idea that people who come from other countries need to know more about the U.S. and MIT cultures. That’s true. But if it is only that, then you’re leaving out a huge majority of the community who, quite frankly, need a lot more cultural awareness for there to be sustainable mutual respect and success.”
Pant hopes to continue increasing also the percentage of MIT Professional Education faculty members who are women, continue to offer courses in many more languages, and find new ways to reach more people around the globe. “We just celebrated a benchmark that I had set, which was to exceed touching 10,000 lives — 10,000 professionals in a year,” he says. “We just exceeded that number in the year of Covid, which is pretty phenomenal. Now, it’s up to 12,000 people.”
“Our mission at MIT is to work with others to help address the great challenges of humankind,” Pant adds. “That being the case, we need to bring into our universe many more people of varying stripes and needs from around the world. We have just got started; I look forward with my team to scale greater heights in our continuing journey to address lifelong learning needs of professionals around the world.”
A lobster’s underbelly is lined with a thin, translucent membrane that is both stretchy and surprisingly tough. This marine under-armor, as MIT engineers reported in 2019, is made from the toughest known hydrogel in nature, which also happens to be highly flexible. This combination of strength and stretch helps shield a lobster as it scrabbles across the seafloor, while also allowing it to flex back and forth to swim.
Now a separate MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly. The researchers ran the material through a battery of stretch and impact tests, and showed that, similar to the lobster underbelly, the synthetic material is remarkably “fatigue-resistant,” able to withstand repeated stretches and strains without tearing.
If the fabrication process could be significantly scaled up, materials made from nanofibrous hydrogels could be used to make stretchy and strong replacement tissues such as artificial tendons and ligaments.
The team’s results are published today in the journal Matter. The paper’s MIT co-authors include postdocs Jiahua Ni and Shaoting Lin; graduate students Xinyue Liu and Yuchen Sun; professor of aeronautics and astronautics Raul Radovitzky; professor of chemistry Keith Nelson; mechanical engineering professor Xuanhe Zhao; and former research scientist David Veysset PhD ’16, now at Stanford University; along with Zhao Qin, assistant professor at Syracuse University, and Alex Hsieh of the Army Research Laboratory.
In 2019, Lin and other members of Zhao’s group developed a new kind of fatigue-resistant material made from hydrogel — a gelatin-like class of materials made primarily of water and cross-linked polymers. They fabricated the material from ultrathin fibers of hydrogel, which aligned like many strands of gathered straw when the material was repeatedly stretched. This workout also happened to increase the hydrogel’s fatigue resistance.
“At that moment, we had a feeling nanofibers in hydrogels were important, and hoped to manipulate the fibril structures so that we could optimize fatigue resistance,” says Lin.
In their new study, the researchers combined a number of techniques to create stronger hydrogel nanofibers. The process starts with electrospinning, a fiber production technique that uses electric charges to draw ultrathin threads out of polymer solutions. The team used high-voltage charges to spin nanofibers from a polymer solution, to form a flat film of nanofibers, each measuring about 800 nanometers — a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.
They placed the film in a high-humidity chamber to weld the individual fibers into a sturdy, interconnected network, and then set the film in an incubator to crystallize the individual nanofibers at high temperatures, further strengthening the material.
They tested the film’s fatigue-resistance by placing it in a machine that stretched it repeatedly over tens of thousands of cycles. They also made notches in some films and observed how the cracks propagated as the films were stretched repeatedly. From these tests, they calculated that the nanofibrous films were 50 times more fatigue-resistant than the conventional nanofibrous hydrogels.
Around this time, they read with interest a study by Ming Guo, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who characterized the mechanical properties of a lobster’s underbelly. This protective membrane is made from thin sheets of chitin, a natural, fibrous material that is similar in makeup to the group’s hydrogel nanofibers.
Guo found that a cross-section of the lobster membrane revealed sheets of chitin stacked at 36-degree angles, similar to twisted plywood, or a spiral staircase. This rotating, layered configuration, known as a bouligand structure, enhanced the membrane’s properties of stretch and strength.
“We learned that this bouligand structure in the lobster underbelly has high mechanical performance, which motivated us to see if we could reproduce such structures in synthetic materials,” Lin says.
Ni, Lin, and members of Zhao’s group teamed up with Nelson’s lab and Radovitzky’s group in MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Qin’s lab at Syracuse University, to see if they could reproduce the lobster’s bouligand membrane structure using their synthetic, fatigue-resistant films.
“We prepared aligned nanofibers by electrospinning to mimic the chinic fibers existed in the lobster underbelly,” Ni says.
After electrospinning nanofibrous films, the researchers stacked each of five films in successive, 36-degree angles to form a single bouligand structure, which they then welded and crystallized to fortify the material. The final product measured 9 square centimeters and about 30 to 40 microns thick — about the size of a small piece of Scotch tape.
Stretch tests showed that the lobster-inspired material performed similarly to its natural counterpart, able to stretch repeatedly while resisting tears and cracks — a fatigue-resistance Lin attributes to the structure’s angled architecture.
“Intuitively, once a crack in the material propagates through one layer, it’s impeded by adjacent layers, where fibers are aligned at different angles,” Lin explains.
The team also subjected the material to microballistic impact tests with an experiment designed by Nelson’s group. They imaged the material as they shot it with microparticles at high velocity, and measured the particles’ speed before and after tearing through the material. The difference in velocity gave them a direct measurement of the material’s impact resistance, or the amount of energy it can absorb, which turned out to be a surprisingly tough 40 kilojoules per kilogram. This number is measured in the hydrated state.
“That means that a 5-millimeter steel ball launched at 200 meters per second would be arrested by 13 millimeters of the material,” Veysset says. “It is not as resistant as Kevlar, which would require 1 millimeter, but the material beats Kevlar in many other categories.”
It’s no surprise that the new material isn’t as tough as commercial antiballistic materials. It is, however, significantly sturdier than most other nanofibrous hydrogels such as gelatin and synthetic polymers like PVA. The material is also much stretchier than Kevlar. This combination of stretch and strength suggests that, if their fabrication can be sped up, and more films stacked in bouligand structures, nanofibrous hydrogels may serve as flexible and tough artificial tissues.
“For a hydrogel material to be a load-bearing artificial tissue, both strength and deformability are required,” Lin says. “Our material design could achieve these two properties.”
This research was supported, in part, by MIT and the U. S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT.
CRISPR’s potential to prevent or treat disease is widely recognized. But the gene-editing technology can also be used as a research tool to probe and understand diseases.
That’s the basic insight behind KSQ Therapeutics. The company uses CRISPR to alter genes across millions of cells. By observing the effect of turning on and off individual genes, KSQ can decipher their role in diseases like cancer. The company uses those insights to develop new treatments.
The approach allows KSQ to evaluate the function of every gene in the human genome. It was developed at MIT by co-founder Tim Wang PhD ’17 in the labs of professors Eric Lander and David Sabatini.
“Now we can look at every single gene, which you really couldn’t do before in a human cell system, and therefore there are new aspects of biology and disease to discover, and some of these have clinical value,” says Sabatini, who is also a co-founder.
KSQ’s product pipeline includes small-molecule drugs as well as cell therapies that target genetic vulnerabilities identified from their experiments with cancer and tumor cells. KSQ believes its CRISPR-based methodology gives it a more complete understanding of disease biology than other pharmaceutical companies and thus a better chance of developing effective treatments to cancer and other complex diseases.
A tool for discovery
KSQ’s scientific co-founders had been studying the function of genes for years before advances in CRISPR allowed them to precisely edit genomes about 10 years ago. They immediately recognized CRISPR’s potential to help them understand the role of genes in disease biology.
During his PhD work, Wang and his collaborators developed a way to use CRISPR at scale, knocking out individual genes across millions of cells. By observing the impact of those changes over time, the researchers could tease out the functionality of each gene. If a cell died, they knew the gene they knocked out was essential. In cancer cells, the researchers could add drugs and see if knocking out any of the genes affected drug resistance. More sophisticated screening methods taught the researchers how different genes inhibit or drive tumor growth.
“It’s a tool for discovering human biology at scale that was not possible before CRISPR,” says KSQ co-founder Jonathan Weissman, a professor of biology at MIT and a member of the Whitehead Institute. “You can search for genes or mechanisms that can modulate essentially any disease process.”
Wang credits Sabatini with spearheading the commercialization efforts, speaking with investors, and working with MIT’s Technology Licensing Office. Wang also says MIT’s ecosystem helped him think about bringing the technology out of the lab.
“Being at MIT and in the Cambridge area probably made the leap to commercialization a bit easier than it would have been elsewhere,” Wang says. “A lot of the students are entrepreneurial, there’s that rich tradition, so that helped shape my mindset around commercialization.”
Weissman had developed a complementary, CRISPR-based technology that Wang and Sabatini knew would be useful for KSQ’s discovery platform. Around 2015, as the founders were starting the company, they also brought on co-founder William Hahn, a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and the chief operating officer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Since then, the company has advanced Wang’s method.
“They’re able to scale this to a degree that is not possible in any academic lab, even David’s,” Wang says. “The cell lines I used for my experiments were just what was easy to grow and what was in the lab, whereas KSQ is thinking about what therapies aren’t available in certain cancers and deciding what diseases to go after.”
KSQ’s gene evaluations include tens of millions of cells. The company says the data it collects has been predictive of past successes and failures in cancer drug development. Weissman equates the data to “a roadmap for finding cancer vulnerabilities.”
“Cancers have all these different escape routes,” Weissman says. “This is a way of mapping out those escape routes. If there are too many, it’s not a good target to go after, but if there is a small number, you can now start to develop therapies to block off the escape routes.”
From discovery to impact
KSQ’s lead drug candidate is in preclinical development. It targets a DNA-repair pathway identified using an updated version of Wang’s technique. The drug could treat multiple ovarian cancers as well as a disease called triple-negative breast cancer. KSQ is also currently developing a cell therapy to boost the immune system’s ability to fight tumors.
“I’ve always thought the best biotech companies start with information that other people don’t have,” Sabatini says. “I think biotech companies have to have some discovery to them. That’s enabled KSQ to go in different directions.”
The founders feel KSQ has already validated their approach and stimulated further interest in using CRISPR as a research tool.
“There’s a lot of interest in CRISPR as a therapeutic, and that’s an important aspect,” Weissman says. “But I’d argue equally important both in discovery and in therapeutics will be [using CRISPR] to identify the targets you want to go after to affect disease process. Your ability to engineer genomes or make drugs depends on knowing what genes you want to change.”
There is a lot of activity beneath the vast, lonely expanses of ice and snow in the Arctic. Climate change has dramatically altered the layer of ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Areas of water that used to be covered by a solid ice pack are now covered by thin layers only 3 feet deep. Beneath the ice, a warm layer of water, part of the Beaufort Lens, has changed the makeup of the aquatic environment.
For scientists to understand the role this changing environment in the Arctic Ocean plays in global climate change, there is a need for mapping the ocean below the ice cover.
A team of MIT engineers and naval officers led by Henrik Schmidt, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering, is trying to understand environmental changes, their impact on acoustic transmission beneath the surface, and how these changes affect navigation and communication for vehicles traveling below the ice.
“Basically, what we want to understand is how does this new Arctic environment brought about by global climate change affect the use of underwater sound for communication, navigation, and sensing?” explains Schmidt.
To answer this question, Schmidt traveled to the Arctic with members of the Laboratory for Autonomous Marine Sensing Systems (LAMSS) including Daniel Goodwin and Bradli Howard, graduate students in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in oceanographic engineering.
With funding from the Office of Naval Research, the team participated in ICEX — or Ice Exercise — 2020, a three-week program hosted by the U.S. Navy, where military personnel, scientists, and engineers work side-by-side executing a variety of research projects and missions.
A strategic waterway
The rapidly changing environment in the Arctic has wide-ranging impacts. In addition to giving researchers more information about the impact of global warming and the effects it has on marine mammals, the thinning ice could potentially open up new shipping lanes and trade routes in areas that were previously untraversable.
Perhaps most crucially for the U.S. Navy, understanding the altered environment also has geopolitical importance.
“If the Arctic environment is changing and we don’t understand it, that could have implications in terms of national security,” says Goodwin.
Several years ago, Schmidt and his colleague Arthur Baggeroer, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering, were among the first to recognize that the warmer waters, part of the Beaufort Lens, coupled with the changing ice composition, impacted how sound traveled in the water.
To successfully navigate throughout the Arctic, the U.S. Navy and other entities in the region need to understand how these changes in sound propagation affect a vehicle’s ability to communicate and navigate through the water.
Using an unpiloted, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) built by General Dynamics-Mission Systems (GD-MS), and a system of sensors rigged on buoys developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Schmidt and his team, joined by Dan McDonald and Josiah DeLange of GD-MS, set out to demonstrate a new integrated acoustic communication and navigation concept.
The framework, which was also supported and developed by LAMSS members Supun Randeni, EeShan Bhatt, Rui Chen, and Oscar Viquez, as well as LAMSS alumnus Toby Schneider of GobySoft LLC, would allow vehicles to travel through the water with GPS-level accuracy while employing oceanographic sensors for data collection.
“In order to prove that you can use this navigational concept in the Arctic, we have to first ensure we fully understand the environment that we’re operating in,” adds Goodwin.
Understanding the environment below
After arriving at the Arctic Submarine Lab’s ice camp last spring, the research team deployed a number of conductivity-temperature-depth probes to gather data about the aquatic environment in the Arctic.
“By using temperature and salinity as a function of depth, we calculate the sound speed profile. This helps us understand if the AUV’s location is good for communication or bad,” says Howard, who was responsible for monitoring environmental changes to the water column throughout ICEX.
Because of the way sound bends in water, through a concept known as Snell’s Law, sine-like pressure waves collect in some parts of the water column and disperse in others. Understanding the propagation trajectories is key to predicting good and bad locations for the AUV to operate.
To map the areas of the water with optimal acoustic properties, Howard modified the traditional signal-to-noise-ratio (SNR) by using a metric known as the multi-path penalty (MPP), which penalizes areas where the AUV receives echoes of the messages. As a result, the vehicle prioritizes operations in areas with less reverb.
These data allowed the team to identify exactly where the vehicle should be positioned in the water column for optimal communications which results in accurate navigation.
While Howard gathered data on how the characteristics of the water impact acoustics, Goodwin focused on how sound is projected and reflected off the ever-changing ice on the surface.
To get these data, the AUV was outfitted with a device that measured the motion of the vehicle relative to the ice above. That sound was picked up by several receivers attached to moorings hanging from the ice.
The data from the vehicle and the receivers were then used by the researchers to compute exactly where the vehicle was at a given time. This location information, together with the data Howard gathered on the acoustic environment in the water, offer a new navigational concept for vehicles traveling in the Arctic Sea.
Protecting the Arctic
After a series of setbacks and challenges due to the unforgiving conditions in the Arctic, the team was able to successfully prove their navigational concept worked. Thanks to the team’s efforts, naval operations and future trade vessels may be able to take advantage of the changing conditions in the Arctic to maximize navigational accuracy and improve underwater communications.
“Our work could improve the ability for the U.S. Navy to safely and effectively operate submarines under the ice for extended periods,” Howard says.
Howard acknowledges that in addition to the changes in physical climate, the geopolitical climate continues to change. This only strengthens the need for improved navigation in the Arctic.
“The U.S. Navy’s goal is to preserve peace and protect global trade by ensuring freedom of navigation throughout the world’s oceans,” she adds. “The navigational concept we proved during ICEX will serve to help the Navy in that mission.”
MIT students Spencer Compton, Karna Morey, Tara Venkatadri, and Lily Zhang have been selected to receive a Barry Goldwater Scholarship for the 2021-22 academic year. Over 5,000 college students from across the United States were nominated for the scholarships, from which only 410 recipients were selected based on academic merit.
The Goldwater scholarships have been conferred since 1989 by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. These scholarships have supported undergraduates who go on to become leading scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in their respective fields. All of the 2021-22 Goldwater Scholars intend to obtain a doctorate in their area of research, including the four MIT recipients.
A junior majoring in computer science and engineering, Compton is set to graduate next year with both his undergraduate and master’s degrees. For Compton, solving advanced problems is as fun as it is challenging — he’s been involved in algorithm competitions since high school, where, on the U.S. team for the 2018 International Olympiad in Informatics, Compton won gold. “I still participate — there’s a college equivalent, the Intercollegiate Programming Contest or ICPC, and I’m on last year’s MIT team that won first in North America,” reports Compton. “We were supposed to represent MIT in the World Finals in Russia last summer, but it’s been postponed due to Covid.” Compton brings his competitive and enthusiastic mindset to his areas of research, including his collaboration on causal inference with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and his work on approximation algorithms and scheduling with professor of electrical engineering and computer science Ronitt Rubinfeld and postdoc Slobodan Mitrović.
In her recommendation letter, Rubinfeld, a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, spoke at length about Compton’s aptitude as a student but she also left a glowing review as to Compton’s character. “Spencer is extraordinarily pleasant to work with. He is kind and caring when he interacts with younger students. I once had a high school student follow me for a day on which I happened to have a meeting with Spencer — she was so impressed with him that he became a role model for her,” wrote Rubinfeld. Following the completion of his current degrees at MIT, Compton plans to obtain his PhD in computer science, continue his research in algorithms, and teach at the university level.
Morey is a third-year majoring in physics with a minor in Spanish. He got interested in physics while reading Albert Einstein’s biography in the seventh grade, and performed research for two years in high school on gravitational wave physics of a body falling into a black hole. On campus, he has been involved in physics research in theoretical and observational astrophysics, as well as in condensed matter experiments. He recently authored an accepted paper on measuring the lifetime of high-redshift quasars to better understand the ways that supermassive black holes grow. Currently, he is working in the Gedik group, exploring quantum materials using second harmonic generation. Morey plans on pursuing a PhD in physics and one day conduct research at the university level.
“It was a great experience working with Karna. He was the first student I worked with and he set the bar very high for any future students,” said Christina Eilers, a Pappalardo Fellow in the MIT Department of Physics; Eilers supervised Morey’s research estimating the timescales of supermassive black holes in the early universe and was extremely impressed by his coding skills and confidence as a researcher. Morey is also heavily involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the physics department and in the broader field, where he serves as one of the co-chairs of the cross-constituency Physics Values Committee, which seeks to work with department leadership and stakeholders to improve the climate and culture of the physics department. He hopes to make meaningful contributions not only to further scientific discoveries, but also to making science more inclusive.
A fourth-generation engineer and junior at MIT, Venkatadri is following her passion for space exploration, majoring in aeronautical and astronautical engineering with a minor in Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. During her time at MIT, Venkatadri became interested in aerospace structures, pointing out that the unforgiving space environment places unique spacecraft constraints, especially for crewed missions. "As we go deeper into outer space and send humans to other planets, we need to design new methods and materials to ensure the safety of astronauts when pursuing increasingly ambitious space exploration," she said.
Her interest in aerospace structures eventually landed her in the lab of Professor Tal Cohen, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering. Venkatadri is trying to understand how adhesive materials deform under torsion in order to use them safely and efficiently in real-world structures, such as spacecraft. There has been increasing interest in adhesives across many industries because they can bond dissimilar materials together without welding and do not concentrate stress on the materials the way mechanical fastenings like bolts and rivets do. In his letter of recommendation, Olivier de Weck, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at MIT, cited Venkatadri's research rigor, academic scholarship, and significant acts of service to the department, noting "without hesitation that Tara is the most impressive undergraduate student I have seen in our department over the last decade."
Zhang is a junior double-majoring in Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences as well as physics, with minors in public policy and math. Zhang has a passion for climate science, something she’s known since she first viewed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” as a child. That passion was encouraged by her father, a professor of meteorology. “He was really passionate about his research and loved his job, which helped me develop my own appreciation for science and academia,” says Zhang. Though her father passed away in 2019, Zhang says he remains a major inspiration on her life.
At MIT, Zhang is now in the finishing stages of two of her own research projects, including using satellite observations to fill in the historic Halley ozone record with Professor Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Lily never ceases to astonish me with her ability to tackle research questions and come up with clever solutions. The Goldwater scholarship is fitting recognition of her enormous potential,” said Solomon. Zhang is thankful to all of her mentors, both past and present, and says that the opportunity to work alongside them and observe their research approaches first-hand has been a dream. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Zhang aims to obtain her PhD and bring her zest for education and research as a professor in climate science.
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, a soldier and national leader who served the country for 56 years. Awardees receive scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to cover costs related to tuition, room and board, fees, and books.
MIT is committed to driving the transition to a low-carbon world, throwing the full weight of its research forces into transformative technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But “MIT can’t solve climate change alone,” said Maria T. Zuber, MIT's vice president for research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, speaking at a virtual symposium in late March.
When MIT initiated its first Climate Action Plan in 2015, a key tenet, said Zuber, was “engagement with actors and entities outside of MIT.” As the Institute prepares to issue an updated version of the plan later this spring, this engagement forum, “Research collaborations to decarbonize the energy system,” was conceived as an opportunity for the MIT community to learn about and comment upon some of the low-carbon research projects between MIT and key outside collaborators. It was co-hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).
“With vignettes of current or recent engagement activities, we seek to share a small handful of examples of how working with industry has catalyzed progress in the electric power sector, life-cycle analysis to inform decarbonization efforts, and fusion energy, to name a few,” said MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, in his introductory remarks.
Symposium speakers, who included MIT faculty and scientists, industry liaisons, and venture capital leaders, made clear that joining forces yields concrete benefits — not simply in specific technologies or sectors, but in the kind of large-scale, market-based solutions required to meet the climate crisis.
Wind, electric vehicles, and nuclear
Take, for instance, the case of Iberdrola, a Spanish-based multinational electric utility with a large renewables portfolio, which is launching a vast fleet of offshore wind farms around the world. As a senior asset performance analysis engineer for the company, Sofia Koukoura found help in modeling the operation of these turbines from Kalyan Veeramachaneni, a principal research scientist with the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.
Veeramachaneni harnessed machine learning to predict component failures and likely repairs affecting the longevity of these turbines, providing Koukoura with “flexible, reproducible, and scalable solutions,” she says. “Bridging the gap between development and deployment of a project is a big leap, and the team at MIT is helping us do that.”
Other panels in this session, also moderated by Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering and head of the Department of Biological Engineering, demonstrated the reciprocal nature of MIT’s research with industry associates.
One such case: MITEI research scientist Emre Gençer has developed a life-cycle assessment tool called SESAME (Sustainable Energy Systems Analysis Modeling Environment) to enable a systems-level understanding of the environmental impact and fuel emissions reduction potential of a spectrum of interrelated energy technologies.
ExxonMobil’s Research and Engineering Company — a sponsor of MITEI’s Mobility of the Future Study — engaged with Gençer to use SESAME for modeling the emissions impacts of switching from internal combustion engine vehicles to hybrid, battery electric, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in different regions of the United States. Jennifer Morris, a research scientist with both MITEI and the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, provided the various policy scenario projections for the Mobility of the Future Study.
The resulting studies proved useful not just to ExxonMobil, but to the MIT scientists as well.
“In academia, we can come up with solutions, but if they’re not implementable, they’re not as valuable, especially during a climate crisis,” said Gençer. “These connections with industrial sponsors are valuable, because they provide reality checks on our technological and economic assumptions,” said Morris. “These are real-world challenges that make our applications relevant and have real-world impact.” The goal is to make these tools widely available to policymakers, industry, and other stakeholders to inform decision-making that can drive decarbonization.
An example from another research domain: Michael Short the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), had been searching for a solution to a vexing, decades-old issue for light water nuclear reactors — the deposition of corrosive deposits on nuclear fuel, which can lead to reactor downtime.
When Short’s lab cracked this problem of fuel rod fouling, a major U.S. clean energy provider recognized it might be valuable for reducing costs on its nuclear fleet. With support from this company, Short’s lab is now busy developing materials with better resistance to these deposits, which could help keep existing reactors producing clean energy for decades to come.
Beyond such technological advances, Short notes there are less-tangible yet significant rewards to the joint enterprise with industry. When “students have frequent, primary contact with an industry sponsor, they learn they are not just first authors on papers but on patents as well, giving them a sense of what problems they want to work on and what to do with their lives,” he said. If a student solves a problem in science, they will see “someone is ready to snap it up and make an impact on the carbon issue.”
Solar and fusion breakthroughs
In recent years, alliances formed between MIT researchers and outside companies have not merely sparked novel carbon-cutting technologies, but laid the groundwork for path-breaking spinoffs, and even potential new industries. Two panels moderated by Anne White, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the MIT School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering, featured instructive cases.
When Italian energy company Eni first paired up with MIT in 2008, founding the Solar Frontiers Center (SFC), the initial goal was to “explore everything beyond silicon,” said Massimiliano Pieri, Eni’s cleantech director at Eni Next, Eni’s corporate venture capital organization. After dozens of SFC projects, which have involved a small army of graduate students, generated many patent filings, and produced hundreds of research papers, it is readily apparent that MIT “has dramatically benefited,” said Vladimir Bulović, a professor of electrical engineering and the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology. Among the results of this mutual venture: a new class of super thin, flexible, and lightweight materials that could vastly expand the use of solar energy.
This long-lived collaboration has also served as the launchpad for such startups as Swift Solar, co-founded by Joel Jean SM ’13, PhD ’17, and Ubiquitous Energy, co-founded by Miles Barr SM ’08, PhD ’12, both of whom earned a Forbes "30 under 30 in Energy" for innovations in the solar industry. Work with Eni at SFC “inspired me to start a career commercializing new solar technology,” said Barr.
In 2016, when researchers in MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) saw a path to making commercial fusion energy a reality, they went big, searching for collaborators who could help “launch a new energy industry,” said Dennis G. Whyte, PSFC director and Hitachi America Professor of Engineering. “It was high risk, but the idea resonated with us,” said Pieri, whose Eni Next firm invested in the MIT spinoff, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
With additional investment from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other leading investors in breakthrough energy technologies, said CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, “We were able to attract talent from all sorts of disciplines much earlier than normally possible, start the company, and scale up quickly.” CFS is now on a fast track to build the world’s first net energy fusion machine, and from there, the first commercially viable fusion power plant, opening a window to limitless clean energy.
By symposium’s end, participants had reached consensus: To achieve the urgent goals of the climate fight, whether by catalyzing new energy industries or deploying cost-effective, carbon-reducing applications, industry and academia must work cooperatively. “We truly need to step up our game — we simply don’t yet have all the technologies we need to decarbonize our energy systems and our economy,” said Zuber. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Go big, or go home.’ When it comes to climate change, going big is imperative, because Earth is our home.”
On April 1, the Office of the Vice President for Research co-hosted another forum, “Viewpoints from the MIT community engaging on climate change: An all-of-MIT approach,” this one in conjunction with the Environmental Solutions Initiative.
Last year’s 24th annual European Career Fair (ECF) at MIT, held in early 2020 before the pandemic shuttered campus, was a resounding success, with over 2,000 in-person attendees meeting with over 100 employers from 10 different countries. First-year students chatted with the consul general of the German Consulate Boston while postdocs and PhD candidates met with university presidents. Students, graduates, and young professionals alike interviewed with corporate recruiters from industry leaders such as Airbus and Roche, as well as vibrant startups like Lilium and Picnic. The Johnson Athletic Center was abuzz with activity, creating a powerful atmosphere of transatlantic interest and personal exchange.
“Thanks to the fair in 2020, I was able to secure a tenure track assistant professor position at one of the leading technical universities — Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands," says Natalia Barbour, then a postdoc at MIT.
This connectivity and interaction abruptly halted when the campus shut down during the spring semester and personal exchange the way we knew it was no longer possible. Yet the ECF organizers, who make up the the student-run MIT European Club (EuroClub), were still hard at work as they were adapting to the changes and challenges ahead. “Our club’s mission is to support transatlantic friendship and foster cross-cultural collaboration between MIT and Europe by organizing the ECF and hosting in-person events for the MIT community,” says Jonas Lehmann, co-president of the EuroClub and lead of the fair. “When personal meetings were no longer possible, the whole board rose to the challenge and pivoted our club’s format, organizing a series of virtual events for our community to stay connected. We also remained committed, during these times of limited personal exchange and broader isolationist tendencies, to supporting MIT students to do internships in Europe.”
This year’s 25th anniversary of the European Career Fair took place online Feb. 25, and proved to be just as successful as in previous years. Breaking last year’s record with more than 3,900 candidates signed up, ECF 2021 was also the largest single career fair event at MIT during this academic year in terms of attendance. Dozens of video broadcasts and over 2,600 video chats between candidates and recruiters showed the enormous interest in connecting between the United States and Europe — and brought the servers of the host platform intermittently to their limits.
EuroClub officers were dedicated to making the 25th anniversary of the fair just as successful despite having to adjust to the new virtual format and ways of collaboration. “Through hard work, our team was able to maintain strong participation from European employers and attract organizations from new countries like Poland and Belgium,” says Mustafa Doğa Doğan, co-president of the EuroClub. “The virtual format also allowed more flexibility for candidates, since before only people from the Greater Boston area were able to physically attend the fair.” While the lower entry barrier made the fair more accessible to both attendees and recruiters, Doğan notes that they saw an enormous interest in MIT students as companies and research institutions still look to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for recruiting top talent.
“As we were in the process of converting our in-person internships to be virtual, the EuroClub told us it was preparing for its 25th ECF to be virtual, too,” says Alicia Raun, managing director of the MIT-Spain and MIT-Portugal programs. “Since we work with many of the same partners and had similar challenges, deeper collaboration in this ‘new realm’ for both of us made sense.”
Each year, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) matches over 1,000 students with internship, research, and teaching opportunities at leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world. Based in the Center for International Studies at the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), MISTI is MIT's pioneering international education initiative. It features a broad array of European programs: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Working with many of the same European partners, MISTI worked to overcome similar challenges. "Although we had to cancel our in-person internships for the summer of 2020, we were able to convert many internships to virtual format, which had surprising success," says Justin Leahey, managing director of the MIT-Germany, MIT-Netherlands, and MIT-Switzerland programs. "Building on that, we've offered virtual internships with international partners this academic year — including in a new European country for us, the Czech Republic — and we're well-prepared for this summer, regardless of whether student travel will be possible. And the EuroClub's support has been invaluable."
This new chapter is just part of a long-term cooperative relationship. Thanks to the success of the 24th ECF, the EuroClub was able to provide $40,000 for MISTI to sponsor internships at European companies and research institutes, continuing a yearly tradition. “For the past 10 years, the EuroClub has given an annual contribution to MISTI sum totaling $320,000,” continues Raun. “This funding converted into over 70 internships, which has been incredible support for MISTI, especially for our smaller European programs.”
The EuroClub is a student activity club of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scientists. The club's current executive board members are co-presidents Jonas Lehmann and Mustafa Doğa Doğan, Vice President Isabella Pedraza Pineros, co-treasurers Serena Booth and Botond Oreg, Secretary Anna Rasmussen, Digitals Chair Lily Tsai, Publicity Chair Kevin Wang, Liaison Chair Leanne Morical, and social co-chairs Alexandra (Ola) Zytek and Joshua Robinson.
“Companies and institutions from Denmark have enjoyed joining the European Career Fair for many years,” says Madeline Smith, program manager for the MIT-Denmark Program. Despite the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, the EuroClub’s commitment to fostering collaboration between MIT and Europe remains steady. “We celebrate the success of this year’s milestone ECF and can’t wait for next year. It is always a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in a potential career in Europe and for European employers seeking top talent!”
Five MIT faculty members are among more than 250 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities, and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced Thursday.
One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.
Those elected from MIT this year are:
- Linda Griffith, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation, Biological Engineering, and Mechanical engineering;
- Muriel Médard, the Cecil H. Green Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering;
- Leona Samson, professor of biological engineering and biology;
- Scott Sheffield, the Leighton Family Professor in the Department of Mathematics; and
- Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
“We are honoring the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far, and imagining what they will continue to accomplish,” says David Oxtoby, president of the academy. “The past year has been replete with evidence of how things can get worse; this is an opportunity to illuminate the importance of art, ideas, knowledge, and leadership that can make a better world.”
Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading thinkers from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.
Isaac Newton may have met his match.
For centuries, engineers have relied on physical laws — developed by Newton and others — to understand the stresses and strains on the materials they work with. But solving those equations can be a computational slog, especially for complex materials.
MIT researchers have developed a technique to quickly determine certain properties of a material, like stress and strain, based on an image of the material showing its internal structure. The approach could one day eliminate the need for arduous physics-based calculations, instead relying on computer vision and machine learning to generate estimates in real time.
The researchers say the advance could enable faster design prototyping and material inspections. “It's a brand new approach,” says Zhenze Yang, adding that the algorithm “completes the whole process without any domain knowledge of physics.”
The research appears today in the journal Science Advances. Yang is the paper’s lead author and a PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Co-authors include former MIT postdoc Chi-Hua Yu and Markus Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering and the director of the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics.
Engineers spend lots of time solving equations. They help reveal a material’s internal forces, like stress and strain, which can cause that material to deform or break. Such calculations might suggest how a proposed bridge would hold up amid heavy traffic loads or high winds. Unlike Sir Isaac, engineers today don’t need pen and paper for the task. “Many generations of mathematicians and engineers have written down these equations and then figured out how to solve them on computers,” says Buehler. “But it’s still a tough problem. It’s very expensive — it can take days, weeks, or even months to run some simulations. So, we thought: Let’s teach an AI to do this problem for you.”
The researchers turned to a machine learning technique called a Generative Adversarial Neural Network. They trained the network with thousands of paired images — one depicting a material’s internal microstructure subject to mechanical forces, and the other depicting that same material’s color-coded stress and strain values. With these examples, the network uses principles of game theory to iteratively figure out the relationships between the geometry of a material and its resulting stresses.
“So, from a picture, the computer is able to predict all those forces: the deformations, the stresses, and so forth,” Buehler says. “That’s really the breakthrough — in the conventional way, you would need to code the equations and ask the computer to solve partial differential equations. We just go picture to picture.”
That image-based approach is especially advantageous for complex, composite materials. Forces on a material may operate differently at the atomic scale than at the macroscopic scale. “If you look at an airplane, you might have glue, a metal, and a polymer in between. So, you have all these different faces and different scales that determine the solution,” say Buehler. “If you go the hard way — the Newton way — you have to walk a huge detour to get to the answer.”
But the researcher’s network is adept at dealing with multiple scales. It processes information through a series of “convolutions,” which analyze the images at progressively larger scales. “That’s why these neural networks are a great fit for describing material properties,” says Buehler.
The fully trained network performed well in tests, successfully rendering stress and strain values given a series of close-up images of the microstructure of various soft composite materials. The network was even able to capture “singularities,” like cracks developing in a material. In these instances, forces and fields change rapidly across tiny distances. “As a material scientist, you would want to know if the model can recreate those singularities,” says Buehler. “And the answer is yes.”
The advance could “significantly reduce the iterations needed to design products,” according to Suvranu De, a mechanical engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who was not involved in the research. “The end-to-end approach proposed in this paper will have a significant impact on a variety of engineering applications — from composites used in the automotive and aircraft industries to natural and engineered biomaterials. It will also have significant applications in the realm of pure scientific inquiry, as force plays a critical role in a surprisingly wide range of applications from micro/nanoelectronics to the migration and differentiation of cells.”
In addition to saving engineers time and money, the new technique could give nonexperts access to state-of-the-art materials calculations. Architects or product designers, for example, could test the viability of their ideas before passing the project along to an engineering team. “They can just draw their proposal and find out,” says Buehler. “That’s a big deal.”
Once trained, the network runs almost instantaneously on consumer-grade computer processors. That could enable mechanics and inspectors to diagnose potential problems with machinery simply by taking a picture.
In the new paper, the researchers worked primarily with composite materials that included both soft and brittle components in a variety of random geometrical arrangements. In future work, the team plans to use a wider range of material types. “I really think this method is going to have a huge impact,” says Buehler. “Empowering engineers with AI is really what we’re trying to do here.”
Funding for this research was provided, in part, by the Army Research Office and the Office of Naval Research.
As a small child, Manduhai Buyandelger lived with her grandparents in a house unconnected to the heating grid on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. There, in the world’s coldest capital city, temperatures can drop as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months.
“Once I moved further into the city with my parents, I had nightmares about my grandparents,” recalls Buyandelger, now a professor of anthropology at MIT. “I felt so vulnerable for them. In the ger district where they lived, most people do not have central heating, and they warm their homes by making fire in their stoves. My grandparents didn't have heat. I was always worried about them getting up in this icy cold house, carrying buckets of coal from their little shed back into the house, and then using a small shovel putting the coal in the stove. It has been more than 40 years since then, and life there is still very much like that.”
With temperatures this harsh, having access to safe and affordable heat sources is critical for the citizens of Ulaanbaatar, especially for the 60 percent of the population living in the ger district. This suburban area of the city, composed mainly of off-grid nomadic tents, houses some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Traditionally, the households occupying the ger district kept their homes warm as Buyandelger’s grandparents did, by using individual coal-burning stoves — contributing to Ulaanbaatar’s other “claim to fame” as the world’s most-polluted capital city. In recent years, as air pollution reached levels twice as high as what the World Health Organization defined as “acutely hazardous,” the Mongolian government took measures to combat this pollution. They banned the use of coal in ger district homes and enforced the use of cleaner-burning charcoal briquettes, which in turn created a new set of problems.
“A lot of people died,” says Buyandelger. “The briquettes are toxic in a different way. Their instructions for burning are nuanced and require more oxygen in the house, which means people have to open their windows and doors, defeating their purpose.” When burned incorrectly, these briquettes generate large amounts of carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless, and toxic gas.
Establishing interdisciplinary collaborations
Enter Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) at MIT. He recognized the need for a safer, cleaner heat source and connected with Buyandelger, whose work in Mongolian anthropology was uniquely suited to aid these efforts. According to Buyandelger, “Oftentimes in history, people adjusted their behaviors so they can use technology. But we can do better and change the technology so that we don’t necessarily jeopardize the people or culture.”
With this goal in mind, Buyandelger, Short, and a team of students from NSE and the Department of Anthropology have begun a collaboration to study the particularities of the local culture, environment, political climate, and economy in Ulaanbaatar to inform their work designing a sustainable, flameless thermal heat source made from molten nitrate salts. Once Covid-19 restrictions have lifted, they plan to travel to Mongolia, where they will live in the ger district with those they aim to help, conducting ethnographic participant observations and extensive interviews to prototype a useful heat bank, observe its functionality in person, and make adaptations and improvements as needed.
For the students, the goal is twofold: They will be trained in “anthropologically informed engineering” and see firsthand the benefits of developing a product with the end-user in mind from the outset; and they will see how targeted, well-informed engineering can empower citizens and in turn preserve democracy.
“Our core hypothesis is that clean fuel independence from the government will foster democratization and prevent setbacks to authoritarianism,” says Buyandelger. She explains that the people in the ger district are heavily dependent on the government: They must agree to use these dangerous fuels or else they will not qualify for other vital government subsidies and food programs. “We want to see if implementing the heat banks would help generate a more open and free society.”
Understanding human complexities
When thinking about climate change and energy challenges across the globe, a lot of emphasis is put on how technology and policy can enact change. But, as illustrated in the Ulaanbaatar project, there is an important, undeniable element that is central: people.
“For scholars doing this research, if they don’t include the political, social, and cultural dimensions, it is an incomplete project,” says Melissa Nobles. She is the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (MIT SHASS), as well as a professor of political science.
MIT SHASS is home to 13 academic fields, including anthropology, history, international studies, economics, and music and theater arts — all contributing to understanding the world’s many human complexities. Part of the school’s mission is to generate research and ideas that can change the world for the better, and it helps do this by informing public policy, educating leading science communicators, and shedding light on the cultural barriers that prevent people, organizations, and governments from supporting effective environmental policies and practices.
“Human motivation is hugely complicated,” says Nobles. “The science has been clear on climate change, and it has been clear for a while; but as we see, the facts don’t change people’s behavior. You have to actually get people to ingest it intellectually and emotionally, because part of the resistance is rooted in fears of uncertainty: How am I going to have to change my life? What does it mean for my day-to-day? What does it mean for future generations?”
This question of the day-to-day was something that stuck out to Buyandelger when thinking about the cultural and social challenges their heat bank might face: “How do we distribute this? How heavy is it; will people be able to carry it? Who in the household will receive it? Can the temperature be altered for cooking?”
Integrating climate into curriculum
In MIT’s SHASS classrooms, students learn to think critically about these big sociopolitical questions through some 30 courses that tackle climate and energy topics. Presented through rigorous humanities and social science lenses, the subjects range from history to literature to economics to political science to philosophy.
Courses include 24.07 (The Ethics of Climate Change), a moral philosophy class in which students explore the ethical implications of a rapidly warming world; CMS.375 (Reading Climate through Media), in which students learn how contemporary media shapes public perceptions about climate issues, as well as how to craft effective climate stories and messages themselves; and 21H.421 (Introduction to Environmental History), which explores the influence of planetary life and conditions on human history, and the reciprocal influence of people on the Earth.
Clare Balboni, the 3M Career Development Assistant Professor of Environmental Economics, teaches graduate- and undergraduate-level courses on environmental policy and economics. The undergraduate-level course, which will be taught this semester for the first time in several years, fulfills an elective requirement for MIT’s energy studies minor. Balboni joined the Department of Economics in 2019 and has been working toward making environmental economics a core topic in the department.
“It’s a really exciting time in environmental economics, and there is a tremendous amount of interest from the student body,” Balboni says. “There is a longstanding tradition of theoretical work in this area, but more recently there has also been an upsurge in related empirical work. This reflects in part increased awareness and political and policy focus on environmental issues, but also enormous opportunities presented by new data sources, which make it possible to study environmental phenomena in ways that we weren’t previously able to do.”
She explains that economic studies can be key to informing effective climate solutions. “Understanding economic incentives and human behavior and responses is crucial. For instance, pollutants and climate damages can affect a wide range of human outcomes, such as mortality and health, labor productivity, education, conflict, and crime, which it is critical to understand and quantify when thinking about environmental policy design and implementation.”
A growing area of interest for MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is how to continue incorporating climate into its curriculum across all of its varied academic disciplines. As climate change issues become an even more important topic in national legislation and policymaking — especially with the new Biden-Harris administration in office — Nobles expects research and teaching to follow suit.
She explains that “what literature does, what music does, what art can do, what studying philosophy, culture, politics, and economics can do, is help students understand why it’s so complicated for climate change efforts to move forward, and then, what they can do to help.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover has been marking milestones on Mars since landing on the Red Planet in February. Its latest historic accomplishment is the first creation of oxygen from carbon dioxide in the thin Mars atmosphere. Mission time is measured in sols, or Martian days. Oxygen production was achieved early in the evening of April 20, or early morning on Sol 60 in Jezero Crater.
MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a small, gold box-shaped instrument on the rover, successfully demonstrated a solid oxide electrolysis technology for converting the Martian atmosphere to oxygen. The atmosphere on Mars is about 95% carbon dioxide.
MOXIE’s first oxygen run produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in an hour. The power supply limits potential production to 12 g/hr — about the same amount that a large tree would produce.
For both rockets and astronauts, oxygen is crucial, says MOXIE’s principal investigator, Michael Hecht of MIT Haystack Observatory. “To burn its fuel, a rocket must have many times more oxygen by weight. To get four astronauts off the Martian surface on a future mission would require 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen.” In contrast, Hecht says, “The astronauts who spend a year on the surface will maybe use one metric ton between them to breathe.”
The oxygen production process starts with carbon dioxide intake; inside MOXIE, the Martian CO2 is compressed and filtered to remove any contaminants. It is then heated, which causes separation into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The oxygen is further isolated by a hot, charged ceramic component; the oxygen ions merge into O2. Carbon monoxide is expelled harmlessly back into the atmosphere.
The MOXIE teams will next analyze the purity of the oxygen; preliminary indications are that once the background CO2 was flushed out by the flowing oxygen, the resulting product was nearly 100% pure oxygen.
Serving as a proof of concept, MOXIE has paved the way for possible future Mars missions to produce oxygen, which will be needed for rocket propulsion on return trips for crewed missions.
“The first run of MOXIE is a step in the right direction to bring us closer to the possibility of human missions to Mars,” says Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who is the deputy principal investigator the project. “The technology that evolves from what we have been able to do here will be the grandchildren descended from the success of our MOXIE instrument.”
MOXIE is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. It is a joint venture between NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), MIT Haystack Observatory, and MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.
MIT associate professors Desirée Plata and Justin Steil have been named recipients of the 2020-21 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award. The award’s selection committee chose to recognize both faculty members for their excellence in service, mentorship, and research that impacts critical societal challenges in environmental sustainability and social justice.
The annual Edgerton Faculty Award was established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton in recognition of his active support of junior faculty members. Each year, a committee presents the award to one or more non-tenured faculty members to recognize exceptional contributions in research, teaching, and service.
The award, announced at today’s MIT faculty meeting, lauds Plata for “her innovative approach to environmentally sustainable industrial practices; her inspirational teaching and mentoring; and her service to the Institute, the Commonwealth, and her professional community.” The selection committee commends Steil for “his tremendous dedication to building institutions to remediate social injustice and relieve suffering by doing so; his deep commitment to creative ways of teaching his students how to do similar work; and his service record that is without equal.”
Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Associate Professor in Civil Engineering, focuses her research on making industrial processes more environmentally sustainable for the health and betterment of society. Her proactive environmental engineering approach is changing the way people invent materials and processes — to incorporate environmental objectives into the design phase to avoid environmental damage. “Her work is leading environmental chemistry away from the clean-up mode of environmental protection and toward smart and sustainable innovation that aims to prevent future negative impacts on the environment,” stated the selection committee in their report. In the domain of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional drilling, the committee noted, “she has provided perhaps the most complete and best-grounded study of potential water-quality impacts from this technology and is publishing geospatially-referenced guidance for avoiding compromising chemical reaction.” In addition, Plata’s contributions to carbon nanotube manufacturing for the mitigation of waste product formation, and enhanced growth of desired carbon nanotube products, resulted in two patents.
Steil, Class of 1942 Career Development Associate Professor of Law and Urban Planning, examines the intersection of urban policy with property, land use, and civil rights law. His recent research has explored the relationship between space, power, and inequality in the context of environmental justice, mass incarceration, immigration federalism, lending discrimination, and housing policy. The selection committee commended Steil’s influential research in fair housing and preserving civil rights: “fifty-seven cities, counties, civil rights, and fair housing organizations across the US cited his research in comments to the Department of Housing and Urban Development regarding HUD’s suspension of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, and the Attorneys General of 22 states cited his research in comments regarding HUD’s efforts to change a key anti-discrimination tool provided under the Fair Housing Act.”
Both Plata and Steil are pioneering leaders in their fields and within their teaching styles through shaping students’ learning with real-world problems they can address in and outside of the classroom.
Steil’s highly-rated, innovative teaching style has connected students with local groups working on urban environmental hazards; with regional leaders involved in making and implementing policy regarding immigrants; and with students of urban sociology who are incarcerated, to explore issues such as processes by which urban inequality is created and reproduced. The students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning awarded him the Student Council’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and the Office of Graduate Education’s Committed to Caring Award.
“Professor Steil far surpasses any reasonable bar for ‘exceptional distinction in teaching, in research, and in service.’ Indeed, he is redefining these terms for us all,” one senior colleague wrote in a nomination.
Plata’s colleagues and students admire her clear, approachable, enthusiastic style as a teacher and mentor, who is committed to ensuring her students’ success. “She is one of the most remarkable individuals I have encountered in my years at MIT, and an exemplary member of our faculty,” one senior faculty colleague wrote in a nomination. A former student praises, “she leads by example and bestows confidence in those she mentors,” the selection committee stated.
The committee acknowledged both faculty members' outstanding dedication to service. At MIT, Plata has helped in the development of educational materials for the Environmental Solutions Initiative. She’s also on the faculty steering committee for the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. Outside the Institute, she is a member of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decarbonization Academic Steering Committee, which has been commissioned to inform strategies for 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050. She is also an associate editor of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, and has served as session chair and organizer for several Gordon Research Conferences on Environmental Nanotechnology and one on Environmental Sciences: Water.
Steil is an active and valued member of the Academic and Organizational Relationships Working Group of MIT’s response to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on the sexual harassment of women, and also of the Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. Outside the Institute, Steil is a member of the Mayor of Boston’s Housing Advisory Task Force, and a board member of the Inter-University Committee on International Migration, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. In 2018, he received the inaugural MIT Paul Gray Award for Public Service, and in 2019 the International Municipal Lawyers Association’s Amicus Service Award.
Steil received a BA in African-American studies from Harvard University; an MS in city design and social science from the London School of Economics and Political Science; a JD from the Columbia University School of Law; and a PhD in urban planning from Columbia University. Before coming to MIT, Justin was a fellow at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University Law School. Steil joined the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 2015. He was promoted to associate professor without tenure in 2018. He is also the co-editor of three books on the topics of fair housing and social justice.
Plata received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Union College and PhD in chemical oceanography and environmental chemistry from the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. After receiving her doctorate, Plata held positions at Mount Holyoke College, Duke University, and Yale University. She joined the MIT faculty in 2018 as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She was promoted to associate professor without tenure in 2020. She is also co-founder of Nth Cycle, maker of recycling technology for clean energy products.
Her other career honors include an NSF CAREER award, an Odebrecht-Braskem Sustainable Innovation Award, a two-time National Academy of Engineers Frontiers of Engineering Fellow, a two-time National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow, a Caltech Resnick Sustainability Fellow, and MIT’s Junior Bose Teaching Award.
The 2020-21 Edgerton Award Selection Committee was chaired by Professor Bevin Engelward in the Department of Biological Engineering. Committee members included Alessandro Bonatti, associate professor in MIT Sloan School of Management, Amy Glasmeier, professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Tim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, and T.L. Taylor, professor of comparative media studies.
“MIT’s work to understand and improve human health spans decades and covers the Institute,” said W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, at MIT Better World (Health), a virtual gathering in February. “More than a third of the faculty representing every department at MIT engage in research directly related to health science and innovation.” Grimson, who is MIT’s chancellor for academic advancement and the Bernard M. Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering, spoke of the many achievements of Institute scholars in the human health arena: “Serving as the hub of the densest innovation cluster in the world, MIT is nimble and inventive, particularly when it comes to the life sciences.”
MIT alumni and friends from around the globe were invited to attend the online event, which featured presentations from Institute leaders, faculty, and alumni about human health-related research at the Institute. With more than 1,000 participants from 27 countries, the evening began with video greetings from nearly a dozen alumni working in a range of health-care roles all over the world. Their graduation years spanned five decades, from 1967 to 2019.
Grimson then turned the spotlight over to the presenting speakers: Daniel P. Huttenlocher SM ’84 PhD ’88, dean of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Mariana Arcaya MCP ’08, associate professor of urban planning and public health; and Steven Truong ’20, a Marshall Scholar studying computational biology at the University of Cambridge in England.
Huttenlocher spoke about the role of artificial intelligence in health research. Last year, he said, faculty at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health identified a new antibiotic candidate capable of killing drug-resistant bacteria. “In the search for new antibiotics, there are so many possibilities that it’s not practical to try even a small fraction of them,” he explained. “This is where machine learning comes in.”
He also discussed the Schwarzman College’s mission of educating “computing bilinguals” — “people [who] are equipped with knowledge about computing and AI in addition to their field of expertise” — and emphasized the need for experts in different disciplines to collaborate. “By truly integrating computing across MIT — that’s how we’ll make unparalleled leaps in making a better world.”
“The work we heard about tonight embodies the MIT commitment to curiosity and discovery in the pursuit of a better, healthier world.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, according to Arcaya, “everyone could guess who would suffer first and most.” She explained that social epidemiologists have repeatedly demonstrated that socially vulnerable people face elevated disease risk. Through participatory action research in Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Everett, Arcaya’s students learned that the high cost of Boston-area housing has forced many community members to live in overcrowded apartments or become transient, increasing their likelihood of exposure. Concluding that rapidly increasing home values in previously affordable neighborhoods also increased Covid-19 infection rates, Arcaya’s team made a compelling case for public policy that protects affordable housing. “Putting residents at the center of place-based research improves social science,” she said.
Truong offered a sobering statistic: People of Asian descent are three times more likely than their white counterparts to have undiagnosed diabetes, because they often lack the obesity commonly associated with the disease. “My dad was a perfect example of this,” he said. “Because he didn’t look like the ‘typical’ American with diabetes, the doctors didn’t test him for it. So he was diagnosed so late in his disease that his body had already been seriously damaged.” While his father’s death reinforced Truong’s determination to study the genetic basis of diabetes in Vietnamese people, he noted the limitations of large data resources such as the UK Biobank, which includes genetic information representative of the demographic breakdown of the UK as it currently is: 95 percent white. “I was able to kickstart something in Vietnam; hopefully, it not only sheds a little light onto these questions but also brings more awareness to this issue of representation in general,” he told the audience. “I hope you uplift those underrepresented in whatever fields you represent.”
“The work we heard about tonight,” remarked Grimson as the main program concluded, “embodies the MIT commitment to curiosity and discovery in the pursuit of a better, healthier world.”
Men have been more susceptible than women to the Covid-19 virus since the start of the pandemic. At a glance, that suggests sex-based biological differences shape the way people respond to the disease. But a newly published study indicates societal factors in the U.S. play an even bigger role.
One of the study’s findings is that Black women are up to four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white men are. Additionally, Black men have the highest Covid-19 mortality rates of any group defined by both race and sex — up to six times higher than the rates among white men. These findings strongly suggest structural inequities in society, including that Black people are more likely than whites to hold higher-risk jobs, are a principal factor in driving disparities in Covid-19 health outcomes across and between social groups.
The study, based on an analysis of data from Georgia and Michigan, is distinctive in simultaneously examining the impact of both race and gender on Covid-19 outcomes.
“Our finding that Black women as a group are four times more vulnerable than white men really challenges the idea that sex disparities are driven primarily by sex-based biological differences, and makes clear the kinds of vulnerabilities that might be invisible if you focus purely on either race or sex alone,” says Marion Boulicault PhD ’20, a graduate student in the MIT Department of Lingustics and Philosophy, and co-author of the study.
The research found that within any one racial group, men are more likely to die of Covid-19 than women are. However, striking disparities exist from one group to another. For instance, Black women are also three times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Asian American men are.
The paper, “Sex Disparities in COVID-19 Mortality Vary Across U.S. Racial Groups,” appears in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Boulicault’s co-authors are Tamara Rushovich and Ann Caroline Danielsen, graduate students at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Jarvis T. Chen, a lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Amelia Tarrant, an undergraduate at Harvard University; Sarah S. Richardson, a professor of the history of science and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University; and Heather Shattuck-Heidorn, an assistant professor of women and gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine.
To conduct the study, the researchers used statistics through late September 2020 from Georgia and Michigan, the only two U.S. states that collected data tabulating age, race, and gender for all individual Covid-19 patients. That allowed the scholars to compare outcomes not just by race or gender, but a combination of those factors. Overall, they found similar patterns in both Georgia and Michigan, even though the two states have featured a variety of policy differences during the pandemic.
“Georgia and Michigan are large and diverse states, and they are quite different in a number of respects,” observes Boulicault. “The fact that we found these disparities and they held across both of these states, given their differences, is noteworthy.”
The study found that in Michigan, the mortality rate for Black men was 1.7 times greater than the rate for Black women; among whites, the mortality rate was only 1.3 times greater for men than for women. That variation likely shows the relative importance of social inequalities rather than biology.
“If you thought these sex disparities were innate differences, you might assume they would hold across racial groups, and so seeing these differences within groups shows the limitations of thinking about sex-based-biology as the only or main determinant of sex disparities,” notes Boulicault, who will be starting a postdoc in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing later this year.
She also emphasizes, as a consensus of public-health researchers has found, that the differences in Covid-19 outcomes between racial groups are societal and structural, not biological. Overall, as the paper notes, men represent about 57 percent of “essential” workers in the U.S. — those in higher-risk jobs, such as service-industry positions. However, women of color themselves represent a disproportionate number of workers in the health care industries and have often been in frontline jobs during the pandemic.
“It highlights the role of inequalities and structural racism in determining outcomes in this pandemic,” Boulicault says. “The fact that Black women are disproportionately represented in health care occupations and service occupations that are risk factors for Covid-19 exposure is an example of one kind of structural inequality.”
Boulicault says she and her colleagues would welcome an expansion of this line of research drawing data from additional states, where possible, as well as more research examining the impact of high-exposure work on Covid-19 outcomes.
“This work opens up different hypotheses,” Boulicault says. “It matters so much to think about and pay attention to the ways different social identities and structural factors affect vulnerabilities. It shows the power of intersectional analysis.”
Blade Kotelly is a senior lecturer at MIT on design thinking, user interfaces, and innovation whose enthusiasm for cars is intertwined with his passion for innovative design. Despite Kotelly’s love affair with the internal combustion engine, he realizes the technology is heading for endangered species list. “We are going to see a huge shift to electric cars, not just for the environment but because the total operating cost is lower,” he says.
Kotelly’s brain may have convinced him batteries would rule, but his heart did not follow until he saw Tesla’s upcoming Cybertruck. “The Cybertruck will be one of the most significant shifts in cars in 50 years,” enthuses Kotelly. “It’s a radically different design idea — so simply made with folds and an exoskeleton. Tesla is the only car company that is challenging the underlying assumption on every axis.”
In Kotelly’s work with his innovation consultancy, which includes assessments, keynotes, training classes, and hands-on engagement, he encourages design teams to similarly question prevailing assumptions. “Large companies need to make innovation a part of the way they work every day,” says Kotelly. “Innovation not only needs to happen in the product group, but in HR, sales, marketing — everywhere in the organization.”Building and acquiring innovation
One of the most challenging paradoxes facing businesses today is that success typically requires achieving scale while also demanding continuous innovation. Yet, the larger the organization, the harder it is to innovate.
“Most corporations don’t know how to innovate consistently across the board,” says Kotelly. “Some have some very innovative groups, but innovation is usually not a part of the company’s culture and DNA. Often whatever it was that made a company successful in the beginning doesn’t keep them successful over time.”
Companies have tried to tame the paradox by acquiring innovative startups. Although this is often a smart move, Kotelly suggests that larger companies should also identify how startups achieve innovation and try to imitate it in-house.
“Due to the need to win funding and early customers, startups are forced from the start to figure out who they really are and to understand the core of their product or service,” says Kotelly. “That is part of the key to their success at innovation. Yet when a company acquires the startup, that culture of innovation can evaporate.”
Typically, says Kotelly, the acquiring company “squelches the innovation and its own DNA takes over.” If the parent company applies the right touch, the acquired startup group can continue to innovate, at least for a while. Yet, Kotelly cautions that it is rare that an acquiring company can absorb the startup’s innovative techniques throughout the organization. The exceptions are those companies that can rethink their own processes and goals across the board.
“The world is changing so quickly on so many levels that companies need to learn new techniques and be able to adapt very quickly,” says Kotelly. “We are seeing a lot of shifts around gig economy workers and in consumer expectations of things like delivery of physical goods. There are huge changes in the way media is disseminated and consumed.”
Cultural shifts can also catch companies unprepared. “Design consultants often talk about the intersection of business, technology, and people, but I’d like to add another dimension: culture,” says Kotelly. “Things like speech patterns, styles, and political causes usually shift slowly, but these days the culture is shifting very quickly.”Stakeholder vs. user-centered design
Innovative design starts with fully understanding the problem the product aims to solve and for whom. Design teams should “spend enough time at the very beginning to really sink into the problem space,” says Kotelly. “The organization needs to leverage the core things it does well and seek input from the outside. Back in the '90s we focused on user-centered design, which was great because people had not been thinking enough about users. Yet companies still produced some terrible products or else targeted the products at the wrong people. Even if a product works technically, your customers need to like it.”
Kotelly suggests broadening the concept of user-centered design to encompass stakeholder-centered design. “The stakeholder could be the person using it or the person buying it or even a competitor, each of whom might respond to the product differently,” he says. “Companies need to consider a much richer and more complex network.”Software/hardware integration
Technology companies are increasingly producing both hardware and software, yet it is often a challenge getting the two sides to mesh. “Most companies, and especially smaller companies, that work on software and hardware in-house don’t do one of them well,” says Kotelly. “If you have been excellent at hardware for a long time, you may not be good at software. It is super critical to get people with software and hardware skills to work together well.”
One major difference between software and hardware development is that software is produced much more quickly, says Kotelly. There are also differences in style. “It is particularly important with software development that people communicate with each other effectively, which comes down to good leadership skills. The leaders need to understand how to get the energy to the team and help them identify and solve the paradox.”Voice assistants
After working on the MIT-inspired Jibo social robot before leading the Advanced Concept Lab at Sonos, Kotelly had extensive experience in voice interfaces. Although voice assistants have boomed, there have also been failures, which Kotelly says are usually due to a failure to manage expectations.
“Voice assistant companies often fail to set boundaries about what the assistant can or cannot do well,” says Kotelly. “These products typically run into trouble when they do not state the product’s limitations up front.”
In a typical scenario, a customer attempts a voice query that fails. The company later adds support for the query but fails to adequately inform the customer, in which case he or she is unlikely to try it again. “The end result is all that development effort has been wasted.”
The problem is made more challenging because there is no visual way of seeing all the options on voice products. “It’s hard to form a mental model of the system,” says Kotelly.
Despite improvements to universal voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant, they can still be laughably clueless. AI is still far from the stage in which it can reliably answer every question.
“I believe we will return to more specialized voice assistants,” says Kotelly. “An expert speech system that knows a domain very deeply will let users better anticipate what it might know. For example, a music expert could differentiate between composers and performers to understand that a search for the composer Mozart should return results of music composed by Mozart and recorded by, say, Glen Gould. This is different than a search for the artist Duran Duran, in which case you would expect the recording to be done by the artist. Voice agents can be more helpful by being more specialized.”Social media shifts
Although short-form social media platforms such as Twitter have come to dominate our lives, Kotelly sees problems on the horizon. “People love consuming short-format media, but at some point it’s kind of like candy. People are literally always on and don’t know how to turn things off. This is already leading to mental health problems. People consume too much media because it stimulates their brain. They don’t realize they could be happier if they stopped.”
Technology companies have a responsibility to suggest to over-consuming users that they give it a rest from time to time, says Kotelly. Yet, he adds that the industry also needs to develop longer-form social media formats that are not so ephemeral.
“One problem for short-form social media is that it is not always easy to click through to the primary source material,” says Kotelly. “We have interpretations and derivatives on derivatives, and we’re not getting to the important material itself. We need a better way of surfacing the primary source in a way that is true to the material and helps people understand it. I think we’ll see media produced in multiple different ways that help people with different backgrounds to absorb it.”
People frequently try to participate in political processes, from organizing to hold government to account for providing quality health care and education to participating in elections. But sometimes these systems are set up in a way that makes it difficult for people and government to engage effectively with each other. How can technology help?
In a new how-to guide, Luke Jordan, an MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) practitioner-in-residence, advises on how — and more importantly, when — to put together a team to build such a piece of “civic technology.”
Jordan is the founder and executive director of Grassroot, a civic technology platform for community organizing in South Africa. “With Grassroot, I learned a lot about building technology on a very limited budget in difficult contexts for complex problems,” says Jordan. “The guide codifies some of what I learned.”
While the guide is aimed at people interested in designing technology that has a social impact, some parts might also be useful more broadly to anyone designing technology in a small team.
The “don’t build it” principle
The guide’s first lesson is its title: “Don’t Build It.” Because an app can be designed cheaply and easily, many get built when the designer hasn’t found a good solution to the problem they're trying to solve or doesn’t even understand the problem in the first place.
Koketso Moeti, founding executive director of amandla.mobi, says she is regularly approached by people with an idea for a piece of civic technology. “Often after a discussion, it is either realized that there is something that already exists that can do what is desired, or that the problem was misdiagnosed and is sometimes not even a technical problem,” she says. The “don’t build it” principle serves as a reminder that you have to work hard to convince yourself that your project is worth starting.
The guide offers several litmus tests for whether or not an idea is a good one, one of which is that the technology should help people do something that they’re already trying to do, but are finding it difficult. “Unless you’re the Wright brothers,” says Jordan, “you have to know if people are actually going to want to use this.”
This means developing a deep understanding of the context you’re trying to solve a problem in. Jordan’s original conception of Grassroot was an alert for when services weren’t working. But after walking around and talking to people in communities that might use the product, his team found that people were already alerting each other. “But when we asked, ‘how do people come together when you need to do something about it,’” says Jordan, “we were told over and over, ‘that’s actually really difficult.’” And so Grassroot became a platform activists could use to organize gatherings.
Building a team: hire young engineers
One section of the guide advises on how to put together a team to build a project, such as what qualities one should want in a chief technology officer (CTO) who will help run things; where to look for engineers; and how a tech team should work with one's field staff.
The guide suggests hiring entry-level engineers as a way to get some talented people on board while operating on a limited budget. “When I’ve hired, I’ve tended to find most of the value among very unconventional and raw junior hires,” says Jordan. “I think if you put in the work in the hiring process, you get fantastic people at junior levels.”
“Civic tech is one exciting area where promising young engineers, like MIT students, can apply computer science skills for the public good,” says Professor Lily L. Tsai, MIT GOV/LAB’s director and founder. “The guide provides advice on how you can find, hire, and mentor new talent.”
Jordan says the challenge is that while people in computer science find these “tech for good” projects appealing, they often don’t pay nearly as well as other opportunities. Like in other startup contexts, though, young engineers have the opportunity to learn a lot in an engaging environment. “I tell people, ‘come and do this for a year-and-a-half, two years,’” he says. “‘You’ll get paid perhaps significantly below industry rate, but you’ll get to do a really interesting thing, and you’ll work in a small team directly with the CTO. You’ll get a lot more experience a lot more quickly.’”
How to work: learn early, quickly, and often
Jordan says that both a firm and its engineers must have “a real thirst to learn.” This includes being able to identify when things aren’t working and using that knowledge to make something better. The guide emphasizes the importance of ignoring “vanity metrics,” like the total number of users. They might look flashy and impress donors, but they don’t actually describe whether or not people are using the app, or if it’s helping people engage with their governments. Total user numbers “will always go up except in a complete catastrophe,” Jordan writes in the guide.
The biggest challenge is convincing partners and donors to also be willing to accept mistakes and ignore vanity metrics. Tsai thinks that getting governments to buy into civic tech projects can help create an innovation culture that values failure and rapid learning, and thus leads to more productive work. “Many times, civic tech projects start and end with citizens as users, and leave out the government side,” she says. “Designing with government as an end user is critical to the success of any civic tech project.”
Strategic use of data is vital for progress in science, commerce, and even politics, but at the same time, citizens are demanding more responsible, respectful use of personal data. Internet users have never felt more helpless about how their data are being used: Surveys show that the vast majority of U.S. adults feel that they have little to no control over the data that the government and private companies collect about them. In response to these concerns, new privacy laws are being enacted in Europe, California, Virginia, and elsewhere around the world.
To conduct more-focused research and analysis of these issues, last week MIT launched a new initiative to bring state-of-the-art computer science research together with public policy expertise and engagement.
Launched on April 6, the MIT Future of Data, Trust, and Privacy initiative (FOD) will involve collaboration between experts specializing in five distinct technical areas:
- database systems
- applied cryptography
- AI and machine learning
- data portability and new information architectures; and
- human-computer interaction.
In addition to technical research, FOD will provide forums for dialogue amongst MIT researchers, policymakers, and industry consortium members, with a structure similar to MIT’s 2019 AI Policy Congress, which included members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
FOD is a collaboration between MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI). Co-director Daniel Weitzner is both a researcher at CSAIL and founding director of IPRI, and previously served as the White House deputy CTO under President Obama.
Weitzner says that one of the larger goals is to reduce the cycle time between the development of new policies and new software systems. He also hopes to work with industry to develop new privacy-preserving tools and to help steer conversations focused on “shaping the future of data governance.”
Founding member companies include American Family Insurance, Capital One, and MassMutual. Initiative Co-director Srini Devadas, a professor at MIT, says that the effort will draw on expertise across MIT in the fields of cryptography, machine learning, systems security, and public policy.
“The goal is to solve challenging problems of collaborative data analytics and machine learning where sharing data provides significant benefit to all participants, while also preserving strong privacy protections,” says Devadas.
At the launch event, CSAIL Director Daniela Rus cited MIT’s long history of work in the privacy space, from foundational work on cryptography, to IPRI and the Trust:Data Consortium, which has created tools and architectures that foster the development of a secure internet-based network of trusted data.
Member companies stressed the benefits they see in being part of this initiative as not only helping navigate a changing policy landscape but also developing technical tools to help manage the new policies, laws, and regulations more efficiently. Speaking at the launch were MassMutual’s Head of Data Adam Fox, Capital One’s Machine Learning Research Director Bayan Bruss, and American Family Insurance’s Enterprise Chief Data Officer Brad Burke.
Companies interested in participating in the new initiative can visit the CSAIL site for more information.
Since its invention several millennia ago, concrete has become instrumental to the advancement of civilization, finding use in countless construction applications — from bridges to buildings. And yet, despite centuries of innovation, its function has remained primarily structural.
A multiyear effort by MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) researchers, in collaboration with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), has aimed to change that. Their collaboration promises to make concrete more sustainable by adding novel functionalities — namely, electron conductivity. Electron conductivity would permit the use of concrete for a variety of new applications, ranging from self-heating to energy storage.
Their approach relies on the controlled introduction of highly conductive nanocarbon materials into the cement mixture. In a paper in Physical Review Materials, they validate this approach while presenting the parameters that dictate the conductivity of the material.
Nancy Soliman, the paper’s lead author and a postdoc at the MIT CSHub, believes that this research has the potential to add an entirely new dimension to what is already a popular construction material.
“This is a first-order model of the conductive cement,” she explains. “And it will bring [the knowledge] needed to encourage the scale-up of these kinds of [multifunctional] materials.”
From the nanoscale to the state-of-the-art
Over the past several decades, nanocarbon materials have proliferated due to their unique combination of properties, chief among them conductivity. Scientists and engineers have previously proposed the development of materials that can impart conductivity to cement and concrete if incorporated within.
For this new work, Soliman wanted to ensure the nanocarbon material they selected was affordable enough to be produced at scale. She and her colleagues settled on nanocarbon black — a cheap carbon material with excellent conductivity. They found that their predictions of conductivity were borne out.
“Concrete is naturally an insulative material,” says Soliman, “But when we add nanocarbon black particles, it moves from being an insulator to a conductive material.”
By incorporating nanocarbon black at just a 4 percent volume of their mixtures, Soliman and her colleagues found that they could reach the percolation threshold, the point at which their samples could carry a current.
They noticed that this current also had an interesting upshot: It could generate heat. This is due to what’s known as the Joule effect.
“Joule heating (or resistive heating) is caused by interactions between the moving electrons and atoms in the conductor, explains Nicolas Chanut, a co-author on the paper and a postdoc at MIT CSHub. “The accelerated electrons in the electric field exchange kinetic energy each time they collide with an atom, inducing vibration of the atoms in the lattice, which manifests as heat and a rise of temperature in the material.”
In their experiments, they found that even a small voltage — as low as 5 volts — could increase the surface temperatures of their samples (approximately 5 cm3 in size) up to 41 degrees Celsius (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit). While a standard water heater might reach comparable temperatures, it’s important to consider how this material would be implemented when compared to conventional heating strategies.
“This technology could be ideal for radiant indoor floor heating,” explains Chanut. “Usually, indoor radiant heating is done by circulating heated water in pipes that run below the floor. But this system can be challenging to construct and maintain. When the cement itself becomes a heating element, however, the heating system becomes simpler to install and more reliable. Additionally, the cement offers more homogenous heat distribution due to the very good dispersion of the nanoparticles in the material.”
Nanocarbon cement could have various applications outdoors, as well. Chanut and Soliman believe that if implemented in concrete pavements, nanocarbon cement could mitigate durability, sustainability, and safety concerns. Much of those concerns stem from the use of salt for de-icing.
“In North America, we see lots of snow. To remove this snow from our roads requires the use of de-icing salts, which can damage the concrete, and contaminate groundwater,” notes Soliman. The heavy-duty trucks used to salt roads are also both heavy emitters and expensive to run.
By enabling radiant heating in pavements, nanocarbon cement could be used to de-ice pavements without road salt, potentially saving millions of dollars in repair and operations costs while remedying safety and environmental concerns. In certain applications where maintaining exceptional pavement conditions is paramount — such as airport runways — this technology could prove particularly advantageous.
While this state-of-the-art cement offers elegant solutions to an array of problems, achieving multifunctionality posed a variety of technical challenges. For instance, without a way to align the nanoparticles into a functioning circuit — known as the volumetric wiring — within the cement, their conductivity would be impossible to exploit. To ensure an ideal volumetric wiring, researchers investigated a property known as tortuosity.
“Tortuosity is a concept we introduced by analogy from the field of diffusion,” explains Franz-Josef Ulm, a leader and co-author on the paper, a professor in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the faculty advisor at CSHub. “In the past, it has described how ions flow. In this work, we use it to describe the flow of electrons through the volumetric wire.”
Ulm explains tortuosity with the example of a car traveling between two points in a city. While the distance between those two points as the crow flies might be two miles, the actual distance driven could be greater due to the circuity of the streets.
The same is true for the electrons traveling through cement. The path they must take within the sample is always longer than the length of the sample itself. The degree to which that path is longer is the tortuosity.
Achieving the optimal tortuosity means balancing the quantity and dispersion of carbon. If the carbon is too heavily dispersed, the volumetric wiring will become sparse, leading to high tortuosity. Similarly, without enough carbon in the sample, the tortuosity will be too great to form a direct, efficient wiring with high conductivity.
Even adding large amounts of carbon could prove counterproductive. At a certain point conductivity will cease to improve and, in theory, would only increase costs if implemented at scale. As a result of these intricacies, they sought to optimize their mixes.
“We found that by fine-tuning the volume of carbon we can reach a tortuosity value of 2,” says Ulm. “This means the path the electrons take is only twice the length of the sample.”
Quantifying such properties was vital to Ulm and his colleagues. The goal of their recent paper was not just to prove that multifunctional cement was possible, but that it was also viable for mass production.
“The key point is that in order for an engineer to pick up things, they need a quantitative model,” explains Ulm. “Before you mix materials together, you want to be able to expect certain repeatable properties. That’s exactly what this paper outlines; it separates what is due to boundary conditions — [extraneous] environmental conditions — from really what is due to the fundamental mechanisms within the material.”
By isolating and quantifying these mechanisms, Soliman, Chanut, and Ulm hope to provide engineers with exactly what they need to implement multifunctional cement on a broader scale. The path they’ve charted is a promising one — and, thanks to their work, shouldn’t prove too tortuous.
The research was supported through the Concrete Sustainability Hub by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation.