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Liberty Mutual Insurance joins MIT's Quest for Intelligence

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 1:20pm

MIT and Liberty Mutual Insurance today announced a $25 million, five-year collaboration to support artificial intelligence research in computer vision, computer language understanding, data privacy and security, and risk-aware decision making, among other topics. 

The new collaboration launched today at a meeting between leadership from both institutions, including Liberty Mutual Chairman and CEO David Long and MIT President Rafael L. Reif. The collaboration will span MIT’s five schools and be led by MIT’s Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing through the Quest for Intelligence, MIT’s research initiative focusing on the science and engineering of intelligence. 

“With the Quest, MIT is working to accelerate progress on techniques and technologies that can help countless industries seize the transformative opportunities of AI. Our collaboration with Liberty Mutual will advance research in an interdisciplinary, problem-focused way that will feel very familiar to our community," says Reif.

“AI tools and technologies are reshaping industry, and insurance is no exception,” says Antonio Torralba, director of the Quest for Intelligence and a professor of computer science and electrical engineering. “We look forward to working with Liberty Mutual to develop methods to make AI systems fair, secure, transparent, and more risk-aware.”

Based in Boston, Liberty Mutual employs 50,000 people globally, holds $126 billion in assets, and is the fourth largest U.S. insurer for property loss and damage, and other liabilities. The collaboration with MIT is designed to produce a range of intelligence tools and technologies. 

“We are excited to embark on this project with MIT and look forward to leveraging their leading AI research to identify, develop, and ultimately operationalize several transformational AI-enabled solutions,” says Long, of Liberty Mutual. “Through this collaboration we intend to challenge the insurance industry status quo and be at the forefront of AI breakthroughs.”

Research topics under discussion include efforts to make decision-making algorithms transparent to customers and regulators, use computer vision to reduce crashes by identifying dangerous driving conditions and roadways, further protect the anonymity and security of personal data, use computer language understanding to analyze insurance claims to speed processing and compensation, and structure investment portfolios.

“We are excited to be working with Liberty Mutual and hope that this represents the first of many such collaborations that will help us advance the science of machine learning and natural intelligence,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the MIT School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics.

The quest to understand human society scientifically

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 1:05pm

Is it appropriate to evaluate the causes of suicide but dismiss mental illness as a contributing factor? What happens when you talk about war deaths as colored wedges on a chart? Does that change the conversation in important ways?

MIT students grappled with these and similar questions this spring in STS.047 (Quantifying People), a new subject focused on the history of the quest to understand human society scientifically. William Deringer, the Leo Marx Career Development Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, says he developed the class to enable students to explore the questions that motivate much of his own research: “Why do we invest so much trust in numbers, and what are the consequences for who we are?”

Deringer has written a book on the subject, "Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age" (Harvard University Press, 2018), in which he examines the history of human efforts to use statistics to influence opinions and shape policy. “Many MIT students will likely be practitioners in the data field, so I want to encourage them to think about these issues,” he says.

The class has certainly gotten Jordan Browne thinking. “There’s this idea that by working with numbers people aren’t making moral judgments, but that’s a really dangerous assumption,” says Browne, a senior in the class who is majoring in mathematical economics. “This should be a required class.”

In fact, STS.047 will be one of several courses featured in a new MIT undergraduate HASS concentration focused on Computational Cultures, which "brings together perspectives from the humanities and social sciences for students to understand and improve the social, cultural, and political impact of the computing tools and digital devices that shape our lives."

Are numbers neutral?

STS.047 covers the history of science from the 17th century to the present as seen through the eyes of early statisticians and sociologists — people who were building new fields by attempting to understand social life through quantification.

One goal of the class, Deringer says, is to prompt students to consider the ways in which the tools we use to understand issues today can themselves reflect biases. “Thinking about old projects of quantification — the ways things look weird, wrong, or biased — helps you see how subjective elements might play out in current practice,” he says.

In the late 1850s, for example, British nurse, social reformer, and statistician Florence Nightingale gathered mortality data from the Crimean War and created visualizations to show that wounded soldiers were dying from disease due to poor sanitation in military hospitals. Those deaths were represented as blue wedges on a diagram, prompting Nightingale to make this impassioned plea to save lives: “Expunge the blue wedges.”

“That really struck me,” Deringer says. “There is some sort of strange transmutation that happens when you take data, turn it into something visual, then that is what you act on. That’s an interesting way of interacting with the world.”

Students discussing the work during one class session this spring wondered if Nightingale had abstracted the problem to make it seem easier to solve, although some found it odd that she had effectively dehumanized those who had died.

The students in class that day also discussed the work of 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who studied the correlation of suicide to such social circumstances as religion, marital status, and economic class. While Nightingale was using statistics in an attempt to change policy and save lives, Durkheim took an abstract approach that was less focused on solutions — and many students were unsettled by his dry assessment of the suicide data.

“They’re not just statistics, they’re people too,” says Yiran He.

The complicated history of quantitative methods

A junior in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, He says she signed up for STS.047 to gain insight into today’s data-driven society. “Numbers rule everything I see in the rest of my life: measurements and results in academia in science and engineering, statistics in politics and policy decisions, models in economic decisions, and everything between and beyond,” she says. “I felt it was important to understand the origins of the statistics we use.”

For example, students in STS.047 learned that many tools in use today — including regression analysis — were developed through eugenics research. “These tools that every student here uses have this really insidious beginning,” Browne says.

This supports a point Deringer makes right in the syllabus for STS.047. “Social science and quantitative methods have a complicated history. There is much to celebrate and also much to criticize.”

This complex interplay of science and society is precisely what attracted Rhea Lin to the subject. “I wanted to take a humanities course that would give me the opportunity to reflect on how society has been impacted by science in the past and how my work as an engineer might affect people in the future,” says Lin, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

“From this class, I have learned that technology and science are not always the answer to our problems. We've studied social scientists who have thrown statistics and theories at society in questionable ways, and I think it's important to remember that science is not effective if not used correctly,” Lin says.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill

IDEAS challenge showcases social ventures at MIT

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 10:50am

Ten impact-driven student teams tackling a wide range of problems around the world took home $100,000 in combined awards at the MIT IDEAS innovation and social entrepreneurship showcase and awards Saturday.

A total of 34 teams, many members of which are already in the early stages of company building, displayed their projects at the event.

The grand prize of $15,000 was awarded to Myco Diagnostics, a startup that is working on a urine-based test to cheaply and quickly diagnose tuberculosis in low-resource areas of India.

Tuberculosis, or TB, is traditionally diagnosed through chest X-rays or skin test analysis that requires medical professionals to examine microscopic samples.

But for impoverished people in developing countries dealing with common TB symptoms like coughing or a fever, it can be difficult to travel to the nearest clinic. The result is that only about 35 percent of the nearly 3 million people with TB in India get diagnosed. That makes it much more likely the disease will be transmitted to family members and people in the local community.

“If you’re living on $2 a day, you don’t necessarily have the financial freedom to travel to these clinics,” Myco Diagnostics co-founder Eric Miller, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, told MIT News. “We’re trying to replace that diagnostic with something that is decentralized, that can go to the patient.”

To accomplish that, Myco has re-engineered a set of proteins to bind with urine-based biomarkers of tuberculosis while staying stable enough to be stored at room temperature for long periods of time. It is also developing methods for cheaply grouping those proteins on paper so that, when exposed to urine, they can quickly show test results.

“Studies have shown that if you could cut the time to diagnosis from six months down to three months, over the course of 10 years you could reduce incidence of TB by 65 percent,” Miller says.

Myco’s team is made up of Miller; Naht Nguyen, an MBA candidate at Sloan School of Management; and Aditi Trehan, a research scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Miller credits his PhD advisor Hadley Sikes, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor at MIT, with helping to focus his research on areas that could make an impact. Myco has also been supported by the Tata Center, the Deshpande Center, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, and the Sandbox Fund.

Each year, IDEAS serves as a launchpad for new ventures with sustainable impact. Saturday’s showcase and awards were the culmination of a process that began at the beginning of the academic year, when 68 teams entered the MIT IDEAS program. Teams received feedback and support from industry experts, past IDEAS winners, and more than a dozen centers and programs across campus throughout the program.

Each of the projects fell into one of nine categories: water and sanitation, education and training, agriculture and food, health and medical, emergency and disaster relief, housing and transportation, energy and environment, mobile device and communication, and finance and entrepreneurship.

About 200 people attended the event on the 7th floor of the Samberg Conference Center. Thirty-five judges spoke with teams earlier in the day and deliberated on the floor below the event. They ultimately awarded nine other teams prizes of $10,000 and $7,500 each. Those teams were:

  • Retired Talent ($7,500): a company that employs retirees by matching their skills with needs in the local community;
  • Sustainable AI ($7,500): an organization that provides accurate forest inventory to aid reforestation efforts;
  • Animo ($10,000): an affordable, noninvasive wristband that reduces hand tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease;
  • Precavida ($10,000): a digital matching platform that connects uninsured patients to health care providers;
  • SciTeens ($10,000): a free online social network for high school STEM students designed to encourage sharing, reviewing, and collaborating;
  • SiPure ($10,000): a company that develops silicon membrane technology that removes arsenic from fresh water;
  • Req Staffing ($10,000): a company that develops contracts between energy companies and formerly incarcerated individuals to meet human capital needs;
  • InSanirator ($10,000): a company that fills the gap in the sanitation value chain by converting fecal sludge into energy and clean water; and
  • Frolic ($10,000): a company that pairs landowners who want to age-in-place with middle-income first time homebuyers.

IDEAS is run by the PKG Center at MIT.

This year marked the 18th year of IDEAS. Since its inception, the program has awarded more than $1 million to 160 social ventures operating in 44 different countries. After winning, IDEAS teams have gone on to secure over $65 million in funding and about half are still operating today.

This year’s projects included 16 undergraduate students, 50 graduate students, and 11 other MIT community members.

Last year’s winning teams have already gone on to develop a multipurpose sleeping bag for refugee families in the Middle East, design low-cost, inflatable seat cushions for wheelchair users in Indonesia, and launch mobile apps to do things such as access indoor air quality information in China and empower communities to document and preserve their indigenous languages.

Alumnus gives MIT $4.5 million to establish the Broderick Fund for Phytocannabinoid Research

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 9:00am

The following news is adapted from a press release issued in conjunction with Harvard Medical School.

Charles R. Broderick, an alumnus of MIT and Harvard University, has made gifts to both alma maters to support fundamental research into the effects of cannabis on the brain and behavior.

The gifts, totaling $9 million, represent the largest donation to date to support independent research on the science of cannabinoids. The donation will allow experts in the fields of neuroscience and biomedicine at MIT and Harvard Medical School to conduct research that may ultimately help unravel the biology of cannabinoids, illuminate their effects on the human brain, catalyze treatments, and inform evidence-based clinical guidelines, societal policies, and regulation of cannabis.

Lagging behind legislation

With the increasing use of cannabis both for medicinal and recreational purposes, there is a growing concern about critical gaps in knowledge. 

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report calling upon philanthropic organizations, private companies, public agencies and others to develop a “comprehensive evidence base” on the short- and long-term health effects — both beneficial and harmful — of cannabis use.

“Our desire is to fill the research void that currently exists in the science of cannabis,” says Broderick, who was an early investor in Canada’s medical marijuana market. 

Broderick is the founder of Uji Capital LLC, a family office focused on quantitative opportunities in global equity capital markets. Identifying the growth of the Canadian legal cannabis market as a strategic investment opportunity, Broderick took equity positions in Tweed Marijuana Inc. and Aphria Inc., which have since grown into two of North America’s most successful cannabis companies. Subsequently, Broderick made a private investment in and served as a board member for Tokyo Smoke, a cannabis brand portfolio, which merged in 2017 to create Hiku Brands, where he served as chairman. Hiku Brands was acquired by Canopy Growth Corp. in 2018.  

Through the Broderick gifts to Harvard Medical School and MIT’s School of Science through the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Broderick funds will support independent studies of the neurobiology of cannabis; its effects on brain development, various organ systems and overall health, including treatment and therapeutic contexts; and cognitive, behavioral and social ramifications.

“I want to destigmatize the conversation around cannabis — and, in part, that means providing facts to the medical community, as well as the general public,” says Broderick, who argues that independent research needs to form the basis for policy discussions, regardless of whether it is good for business. “Then we’re all working from the same information. We need to replace rhetoric with research.” 

MIT: Focused on brain health and function

The gift to MIT from Broderick will provide $4.5 million over three years to support independent research for four scientists at the McGovern and Picower institutes. 

Two of these researchers — John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and Myriam Heiman, the Latham Family Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute — will separately explore the relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia. 

Gabrieli, who directs the Martinos Imaging Center at MIT, will monitor any potential therapeutic value of cannabis for adults with schizophrenia using fMRI scans and behavioral studies. 

“The ultimate goal is to improve brain health and wellbeing,” says Gabrieli. “And we have to make informed decisions on the way to this goal, wherever the science leads us. We need more data.”

Heiman, who is a molecular neuroscientist, will study how chronic exposure to phytocannabinoid molecules THC and CBD may alter the developmental molecular trajectories of cell types implicated in schizophrenia.

“Our lab’s research may provide insight into why several emerging lines of evidence suggest that adolescent cannabis use can be associated with adverse outcomes not seen in adults,” says Heiman.

In addition to these studies, Gabrieli also hopes to investigate whether cannabis can have therapeutic value for autism spectrum disorders, and Heiman plans to look at whether cannabis can have therapeutic value for Huntington’s disease.  

MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel has proposed to study the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor, which mediates many of the effects of cannabinoids. Her team recently found that CB1 receptors are tightly linked to dopamine — a neurotransmitter that affects both mood and motivation. Graybiel, who is also a member of the McGovern Institute, will examine how CB1 receptors in the striatum, a deep brain structure implicated in learning and habit formation, may influence dopamine release in the brain. These findings will be important for understanding the effects of cannabis on casual users, as well as its relationship to addictive states and neuropsychiatric disorders.  

Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute, will study effects of cannabinoids on both attention and working memory. His lab has recently formulated a model of working memory and unlocked how anesthetics reduce consciousness, showing in both cases a key role in the brain’s frontal cortex for brain rhythms, or the synchronous firing of neurons. He will observe how these rhythms may be affected by cannabis use — findings that may be able to shed light on tasks like driving where maintenance of attention is especially crucial. 

Harvard Medical School: Mobilizing basic scientists and clinicians to solve an acute biomedical challenge 

The Broderick gift provides $4.5 million to establish the Charles R. Broderick Phytocannabinoid Research Initiative at Harvard Medical School, funding basic, translational and clinical research across the HMS community to generate fundamental insights about the effects of cannabinoids on brain function, various organ systems, and overall health.

The research initiative will span basic science and clinical disciplines, ranging from neurobiology and immunology to psychiatry and neurology, taking advantage of the combined expertise of some 30 basic scientists and clinicians across the school and its affiliated hospitals. 

The epicenter of these research efforts will be the Department of Neurobiology under the leadership of Bruce Bean and Wade Regehr. 

“I am excited by Bob’s commitment to cannabinoid science,” says Regehr, professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. “The research efforts enabled by Bob’s vision set the stage for unraveling some of the most confounding mysteries of cannabinoids and their effects on the brain and various organ systems.”

Bean, Regehr, and fellow neurobiologists Rachel Wilson and Bernardo Sabatini, for example, focus on understanding the basic biology of the cannabinoid system, which includes hundreds of plant and synthetic compounds as well as naturally occurring cannabinoids made in the brain. 

Cannabinoid compounds activate a variety of brain receptors, and the downstream biological effects of this activation are astoundingly complex, varying by age and sex, and complicated by a person’s physiologic condition and overall health. This complexity and high degree of variability in individual biology has hampered scientific understanding of the positive and negative effects of cannabis on the human body. Bean, Regehr, and colleagues have already made critical insights showing how cannabinoids influence cell-to-cell communication in the brain.

“Even though cannabis products are now widely available, and some used clinically, we still understand remarkably little about how they influence brain function and neuronal circuits in the brain,” says Bean, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. “This gift will allow us to conduct critical research into the neurobiology of cannabinoids, which may ultimately inform new approaches for the treatment of pain, epilepsy, sleep and mood disorders, and more.”

To propel research findings from lab to clinic, basic scientists from HMS will partner with clinicians from Harvard-affiliated hospitals, bringing together clinicians and scientists from disciplines including cardiology, vascular medicine, neurology, and immunology in an effort to glean a deeper and more nuanced understanding of cannabinoids’ effects on various organ systems and the body as a whole, rather than just on isolated organs. 

For example, Bean and colleague Gary Yellen, who are studying the mechanisms of action of antiepileptic drugs, have become interested in the effects of cannabinoids on epilepsy, an interest they share with Elizabeth Thiele, director of the pediatric epilepsy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Thiele is a pioneer in the use of cannabidiol for the treatment of drug-resistant forms of epilepsy. Despite proven clinical efficacy and recent FDA approval for rare childhood epilepsies, researchers still do not know exactly how cannabidiol quiets the misfiring brain cells of patients with the seizure disorder. Understanding its mechanism of action could help in developing new agents for treating other forms of epilepsy and other neurologic disorders.

New polymer films conduct heat instead of trapping it

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:59pm

Polymers are usually the go-to material for thermal insulation. Think of a silicone oven mitt, or a Styrofoam coffee cup, both manufactured from polymer materials that are excellent at trapping heat.

Now MIT engineers have flipped the picture of the standard polymer insulator, by fabricating thin polymer films that conduct heat — an ability normally associated with metals. In experiments, they found the films, which are thinner than plastic wrap, conduct heat better than many metals, including steel and ceramic.

The team’s results, published in the journal Nature Communications, may spur the development of polymer insulators as lightweight, flexible, and corrosion-resistant alternatives to traditional metal heat conductors, for applications ranging from heat dissipating materials in laptops and cellphones, to cooling elements in cars and refrigerators.

“We think this result is a step to stimulate the field,” says Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, and a senior co-author on the paper. “Our bigger vision is, these properties of polymers can create new applications and perhaps new industries, and may replace metals as heat exchangers.”

Chen’s co-authors include lead author Yanfei Xu, along with Daniel Kraemer, Bai Song, Jiawei Zhou, James Loomis, Jianjian Wang, Migda Li, Hadi Ghasemi, Xiaopeng Huang, and Xiaobo Li from MIT, and Zhang Jiang of Argonne National Laboratory.

In 2010, the team reported success in fabricating thin fibers of polyethylene that were 300 times more thermally conductive than normal polyethylene, and about as conductive as most metals. Their results, published in Nature Nanotechnology, drew the attention of various industries, including manufacturers of heat exchangers, computer core processors, and even race cars.

It soon became clear that, in order for polymer conductors to work for any of these applications, the materials would have to be scaled up from ultrathin fibers (a single fiber measured one-hundredth of the diameter of a human hair) to more manageable films.

“At that time we said, rather than a single fiber, we can try to make a sheet,” Chen says. “It turns out it was a very arduous process.”

The researchers not only had to come up with a way to fabricate heat-conducting sheets of polymer, but they also had to custom-build an apparatus to test the material’s heat conduction, as well as develop computer codes to analyze images of the material’s microscopic structures.

In the end, the team was able to fabricate thin films of conducting polymer, starting with a commercial polyethylene powder. Normally, the microscopic structure of polyethylene and most polymers resembles a spaghetti-like tangle of molecular chains. Heat has a difficult time flowing through this jumbled mess, which explains a polymer’s intrinsic insulating properties.

Xu and her colleagues looked for ways to untangle polyethylene’s molecular knots, to form parallel chains along which heat can better conduct. To do this, they dissolved polyethylene powder in a solution that prompted the coiled chains to expand and untangle. A custom-built flow system further untangled the molecular chains, and spit out the solution onto a liquid-nitrogen-cooled plate to form a thick film, which was then placed on a roll-to-roll drawing machine that heated and stretched the film until it was thinner than plastic wrap.

The team then built an apparatus to test the film’s heat conduction. While most polymers conduct heat at around 0.1 to 0.5 watts per meter per kelvin, Xu found the new polyethylene film measured around 60 watts per meter per kelvin. (Diamond, the best heat-conducting material, comes in at around 2,000 watts per meter per kelvin, while ceramic measures about 30, and steel, around  15.) As it turns out, the team’s film is two orders of magnitude more thermally conductive than most polymers, and also more conductive than steel and ceramics.

To understand why these engineered polyethylene films have such an unusually high thermal conductivity, the team conducted X-ray scattering experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at the Argonne National Laboratory.

“These experiments, at one of the world’s most bright synchrotron X-ray facilities, allow us to see the nanoscopic details within the individual fibers that make up the  stretched film,” Jiang says.

By imaging the ultrathin films, the researchers observed that the films exhibiting better heat conduction consisted of nanofibers with less randomly coiled chains, versus those in common polymers, which resemble tangled spaghetti. Their observations could help researchers engineer polymer microstructures to efficiently conduct heat.

“This dream work came true in the end,” Xu says.

Going forward, the researchers are looking for ways to make even better polymer heat conductors, by both adjusting the fabrication process and experimenting with different types of polymers.

Zhou points out that the team’s polyethylene film conducts heat only along the length of the fibers that make up the film. Such a unidirectional heat conductor could be useful in carrying heat away in a specified direction, inside devices such as laptops and other electronics. But ideally, he says the film should dissipate heat more effectively in any direction.

“If we have an isotropic polymer with good heat conductivity, then we can easily blend this material into a composite, and we can potentially replace a lot of conductive materials,” Zhou says. “So we’re looking into better heat conduction in all three dimensions.”

This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy EERE Manufacturing Program, MIT Desphande Center, and the DoE Basic Energy Science programs.

Department of Biology hosts second annual Science Slam

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 4:10pm

Trainees recently took over the Tuesday Biology Colloquium for the second annual Science Slam, hosted by MIT’s Department of Biology. Topics ranged from the science behind cancer metastasis to parasites, hangovers, and, notably, poop.

A science slam features a series of short presentations where researchers explain their work in a compelling manner, and — as the name suggests — make an impact. These presentations aren’t just talks, they’re performances geared towards a science-literate but non-specialized public audience. In this case, competitors were each given one slide and three minutes to tell their scientific tales and earn votes from audience members and judges.

The latter included Mary Carmichael, founder and CEO of the strategic communications consultancy Quark 4; John Pham, editor-in-chief of Cell; and Ari Daniel, an independent science reporter who crafts digital videos for PBS NOVA and co-produces the Boston branch of Story Collider.

Among the competitors were six graduate students and two postdocs who hailed from labs scattered throughout Building 68, the Whitehead Institute, and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. In order of appearance:

  • Rebecca Silberman, from Angelika Amon’s lab, who spoke about how there is something special about cancer cells that allows them to thrive with the wrong number of chromosomes;
  • Tyler Smith, from Sebastian Lourido’s lab, who spoke about his organism of choice, Toxoplasma gondii, and how these parasites provide insights into fundamental biology that classic “model” organisms do not;
  • Jasmin Imran Alsous, from Adam Martin’s lab, who spoke about the coordinated cellular interactions required for fruit fly egg development;
  • Darren Parker, from Gene-Wei Li’s lab, who spoke about the ratio of ingredients needed to concoct nature’s winning recipe for the perfect cell;
  • Sophia Xu, from Jing-Ke Weng’s lab, who spoke about the molecules responsible for the kudzu flower’s capacity to alleviate hangovers;
  • Jay Thangappan, from Silvi Rouskin’s lab, who spoke about the importance of RNA structure in splicing and its consequences for many important biological processes;
  • Lindsey Backman, from Catherine Drennan’s lab, who spoke about the biochemical processes carried out by gut bacteria that make poop smell bad; and
  • Arish Shah, from Eliezer Calo’s lab, who spoke about how developing zebrafish clear maternally-contributed molecules and replace them with their own, thus becoming “independent from mom.”

The event was moderated by former Slammers, postdoc Monika Avello and graduate student Emma Kowal. The duo joined forces with the Building 68 communications team and Biology Graduate Student Council to publicize the event and host two pre-slam workshops and a practice session.

Kowal, last year’s winner, was motivated to mentor this year’s cohort because, as she puts it, most scientists either don't recognize the importance of clear communication or don't recognize the challenge of doing it well.

“It is rare to see graduate programs devote training time to this,” she says, “but I believe it's worth the effort. Taking the time to distill what excites and motivates us in our research not only inspires people to value science and even become scientists, but also helps us connect with each other — and remember why we love doing science in the first place.”

Avello recalls signing up for last year’s slam at the last minute, and “loving the experience.”

“I wanted to facilitate the experience of thinking hard about science communication in a fun and inclusive way for other graduate students and postdocs,” she says. “I really enjoyed watching everyone wrestle with the challenge of presenting their science in such a tight, condensed format, and ultimately developing their own unique story and style.”

There were two prizes, one awarded by the three judges and another awarded by the audience. Silberman, a fifth-year graduate student whose talk was titled “Does Chromosome Imbalance Cause Cancer?,” took home the Judges’ Prize, while third-year graduate student Sophia Xu claimed the Audience Prize with her talk, “Plant Natural Products and Human Ethanol Metabolism.”

Silberman said her favorite part was watching her fellow participants’ talks develop over time during the consecutive practice sessions. “Getting the opportunity to workshop my ideas and get input from Emma, Moni, and the other participants made the final presentation much less terrifying than it would have been otherwise, and made my talk much better,” she says.

Xu saw the Slam as an opportunity to practice presenting her research in an engaging way, and take a small step toward conquering her fear of public speaking. “I was overwhelmed by the support I received, not only from the organizers, but also from the other speakers,” she says. “It felt much like what I imagine a collaborative, friendly British cooking show would be like.”

Silberman encourages Department of Biology trainees considering participating in next year’s slam to “go for it.” She adds: “As grad students, we often aren’t challenged to distill our research down to its simplest terms. It was both harder and more fun than I expected.”

For better deep neural network vision, just add feedback (loops)

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:55am

Your ability to recognize objects is remarkable. If you see a cup under unusual lighting or from unexpected directions, there’s a good chance that your brain will still compute that it is a cup. Such precise object recognition is one holy grail for artificial intelligence developers, such as those improving self-driving car navigation.

While modeling primate object recognition in the visual cortex has revolutionized artificial visual recognition systems, current deep learning systems are simplified, and fail to recognize some objects that are child’s play for primates such as humans.

In findings published in Nature Neuroscience, McGovern Institute investigator James DiCarlo and colleagues have found evidence that feedback improves recognition of hard-to-recognize objects in the primate brain, and that adding feedback circuitry also improves the performance of artificial neural network systems used for vision applications.

Deep convolutional neural networks (DCNN) are currently the most successful models for accurately recognizing objects on a fast timescale (less than 100 milliseconds) and have a general architecture inspired by the primate ventral visual stream, cortical regions that progressively build an accessible and refined representation of viewed objects. Most DCNNs are simple in comparison to the primate ventral stream, however.

“For a long period of time, we were far from an model-based understanding. Thus our field got started on this quest by modeling visual recognition as a feedforward process,” explains senior author DiCarlo, who is also the head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and research co-leader in the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines (CBMM). “However, we know there are recurrent anatomical connections in brain regions linked to object recognition.”

Think of feedforward DCNNs, and the portion of the visual system that first attempts to capture objects, as a subway line that runs forward through a series of stations. The extra, recurrent brain networks are instead like the streets above, interconnected and not unidirectional. Because it only takes about 200 ms for the brain to recognize an object quite accurately, it was unclear if these recurrent interconnections in the brain had any role at all in core object recognition. Perhaps those recurrent connections are only in place to keep the visual system in tune over long periods of time. For example, the return gutters of the streets help slowly clear it of water and trash, but are not strictly needed to quickly move people from one end of town to the other. DiCarlo, along with lead author and CBMM postdoc Kohitij Kar, set out to test whether a subtle role of recurrent operations in rapid visual object recognition was being overlooked.

Challenging recognition

The authors first needed to identify objects that are trivially decoded by the primate brain, but are challenging for artificial systems. Rather than trying to guess why deep learning was having problems recognizing an object (is it due to clutter in the image? a misleading shadow?), the authors took an unbiased approach that turned out to be critical.

Kar explains further that “we realized that AI models actually don’t have problems with every image where an object is occluded or in clutter. Humans trying to guess why AI models were challenged turned out to be holding us back.”

Instead, the authors presented the deep learning system, as well as monkeys and humans, with images, homing in on "challenge images" where the primates could easily recognize the objects in those images, but a feedforward DCNN ran into problems. When they, and others, added appropriate recurrent processing to these DCNNs, object recognition in challenge images suddenly became a breeze.

Processing times

Kar used neural recording methods with very high spatial and temporal precision to determine whether these images were really so trivial for primates. Remarkably, they found that although challenge images had initially appeared to be child’s play to the human brain, they actually involve extra neural processing time (about an additional 30 ms), suggesting that recurrent loops operate in our brain, too.

 “What the computer vision community has recently achieved by stacking more and more layers onto artificial neural networks, evolution has achieved through a brain architecture with recurrent connections," says Kar.

Diane Beck, professor of psychology and co-chair of the Intelligent Systems Theme at the Beckman Institute and not an author on the study, explains further. “Since entirely feedforward deep convolutional nets are now remarkably good at predicting primate brain activity, it raised questions about the role of feedback connections in the primate brain. This study shows that, yes, feedback connections are very likely playing a role in object recognition after all.”

What does this mean for a self-driving car? It shows that deep learning architectures involved in object recognition need recurrent components if they are to match the primate brain, and also indicates how to operationalize this procedure for the next generation of intelligent machines.

“Recurrent models offer predictions of neural activity and behavior over time," says Kar. “We may now be able to model more involved tasks. Perhaps one day, the systems will not only recognize an object, such as a person, but also perform cognitive tasks that the human brain so easily manages, such as understanding the emotions of other people.”

This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research and the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines through the National Science Foundation.

Once abroad is not enough

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 9:00am

Studying Spanish language and culture in Madrid, discovering the literary history of British authors in London, or taking summer courses in Scandinavia are just some of the ways that MIT students experience global education during summer and Independent Activitities Period (IAP).

Short-term study-abroad programs are now a growing sector in MIT’s global education offerings. The multi-week courses are attractive to students for many reasons: They provide MIT degree credit or transfer credit, are a comfortable entry point for students motivated to have a meaningful international experience, and are often supported by scholarships. They also do not interfere with academic and extracurricular schedules and can increase students’ confidence in traveling and living overseas.

MIT’s Global Education Office (GEO), part of the Office of Experiential Learning, has discovered another trend: Students who engage in one of these courses often go on to undertake additional study-abroad experiences during their time at MIT. Some students are motivated to sample more IAP global education courses, while others embark on semester-long international academic ventures.

As a sophomore majoring in urban studies and planning, Kathleen Schwind, who is now a graduate student studying city planning, pursued an IAP opportunity in Madrid through its Global Literature course. Her instructor, Professor Margery Resnick, then recommended she enroll in Professor Diana Henderson’s Literary London course during the following IAP.

“The IAP Madrid experience was one of the highlights of my MIT career, and I loved having a professor who knew so much about every element of the history of the country which ultimately added a whole new dimension to our understanding of the literature,” says Schwind. “I knew I wanted to take another course abroad. As a member of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I also was interested in how the culture of a place is influenced by its structure, and how the structure is often influenced by different cultures.”

“Professor Resnick and Professor Henderson are two of the best professors I have ever had and were really passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, she continued. “They were able to tie the literature and history seamlessly together with the modern-day city and country, in a way that mesmerized me as I wandered around each city. What surprised me the most is how interwoven a country’s history is with its literature. I also loved being with other MIT students and creating memories with colleagues that I would not have had the chance to meet and get to know otherwise.”

Samantha Cawthon found that spending an IAP in Madrid studying global literature “led me to do Global Teaching Lab Italy the following IAP, to spend the next summer in Scandinavia taking classes, and to go to South Africa for HST.434 this past IAP.”

“I think that my first program taught me most of what I needed for my additional trips abroad,” says Cawthon, who graduated in December with a BS in brain and cognitive sciences. “I learned how to travel on my own, how to get around when I didn't know the language, and strategies for staying safe in an unfamiliar environment.”

She also took three of her eight electives abroad. “It meant I was able to get ahead of the academic requirements, which is so useful when you are already trying to fulfill your major requirements as well as your pre-med requirements,” she says. “It also made so much financial sense for me.”

Senior Eric Koch, a mechanical engineering major, has integrated three study abroad experiences into his MIT education.

“I first studied abroad in China during the summer and fall semester after my freshman year,” he says. “I studied Mandarin in Tianjin before enrolling as a student in Tsinghua University to study international relations and electrical engineering taught in Mandarin. My second study abroad took me to Astana, Kazakhstan, where I studied Russian language and Central Asian history after my sophomore year. My third study-abroad experience was an intensive Russian conversations course through Wellesley College in Moscow, Russia, during IAP.”

Koch says his “desire to really immerse myself in another country to learn its language and culture motivated me to embark on my first study abroad program.

“Of course, I was also lured by the promise of adventure and escape from the regular drudgery of MIT p-sets.” he adds. “I'm a member of Army ROTC at MIT, and I will commission as an officer in a few months. My study-abroad experiences have instilled an appreciation for the limits of my own understanding. As an officer, I want to encourage the development of international understanding that comes from dialogue and interaction. Travel abroad is an extraordinarily unique experience. The process of flinging yourself into an unfamiliar environment before adapting to it and building new friendships adds an entirely new perspective to your worldview.”

Other students who have participated in multiple study-abroad experiences also cite the perspectives it has given them for their future career plans. Study abroad serves to foster an expanded worldview, strengthens problem solving skills, and refines their understanding of personal and professional goals. 

Schwind, who has been accepted into an MPhil in international relations program at Cambridge University notes: “I planned on pursuing a career in foreign affairs before the IAP Madrid program, and this interest was one of the reasons why the program caught my eye. But after the program, and after IAP London, I have an even deeper passion for working in an international context. My appreciation and interest in world cultures and foreign affairs has only grown because of these courses.”

Cawthon, who is headed to medical school in the fall, feels that her study-abroad participation helped give her an edge in the application process. “In my last med school interview, I probably spent 75 percent of my time talking about the awesome experiences I had studying abroad, because it is fairly unusual for premeds to have done so. I think that studying abroad has further verified the importance of global health for me in my future career. I definitely want to do rotations abroad or get an MPH in global health. Hopefully, I will be able to work as a physician in another country for some amount of time.”

Milka Piszczek, who will be graduating this spring with a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, is contemplating pursuing a PhD in literature, thanks in part to her study-abroad experiences. After taking Resnick’s IAP Spanish Incubator class, she designed an independent study to return to Madrid to research the recent interest in Polish poetry in Spain. Without an initial study abroad class, she says, “I would not have had the necessary background to think about connections between Polish and Spanish cultures.”

The staff at GEO are available to help students find and apply to programs that match their interests. As Piszczek observes: “MIT has so many resources and opportunities so if there is ever one you are interested in, reach out to the people in charge and ask how you can get involved. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with all the options and I think meeting with someone from GEO is the best way to understand what is available and make sure you are on the correct path.”

Better email automation

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 12:00am

"Inbox zero" often feels like the ultimate unattainable goal. You can spend hours organizing your email, and somehow a deluge of new messages will always emerge.

Since its origins in the 1970s, there’s been a longstanding desire to automate various aspects of email. Some might even recall the ’90s flirtation with “procmail”, which let authors write regular-expression scripts to sort their email into chosen folders.

While there’ve been several developments since then, the one-size-fits-all approach of apps like Gmail still leaves many users sifting, clicking, and separating until what can feel like the end of time.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) decided to dig deeper into people’s specific needs through a three-part study and new open-source tool that lets users write, test, and hone simple Python scripts for controlling incoming emails.

The team first led a workshop to identify categories of email needs, followed by a larger survey to deepen their understanding of the needs identified. They then looked at source code on Github to see types of automation needs that were important enough for email users to take into their own hands to address. Finally, the team used these findings to test a new tool they developed called “YouPS” (Your Postal Service).

The team found that over 40 percent of email users felt that their desired rules couldn’t be expressed using common email clients like Gmail or Outlook.

YouPS, which is still in a testing phase, lets users write more specific filter rules for incoming emails. Users can add multiple editor tabs, each related to a separate email mode, and they can also write different rules for each mode, so that their inbox behaves differently depending on the current one.

You might not want emails from a campus mailing list during a summer vacation, for example, or you might want the option of muting a pesky emailer who sent too many messages within a short period of time.

“Managing our inboxes in a such fine-grained manner with something like YouPS could eventually help give non-programmers the tools to manage their emails, and help save time for more intensive tasks or work,” says Soya Park, a PhD student at CSAIL and lead author of a new paper about the system.

Better data models wanted

For plenty of us, a flurry of emails during a tight deadline interrupts workflow and disrupts mental focus.

With that in mind, many users wanted filters that could capture “unseen” information that wasn’t in email headers or specifically labeled (i.e. sender or date). This included things like progress — pending or done — deadline, topic, priority, and task.

One potential filter could see that a message seems to require an action, and label it as “pending”, or tag a deadline if need be.

Filters could also be related to time of day, characteristics of the email thread — such as previous replies by a recipient, or number or rate of responses by others — and the state of the recipient (i.e. busy, in the office, on vacation).

Managing attention: notifications, modes, and context

MIT Professor David Karger says that standard email filters don’t give much in the way of flexibility. For example, some users disliked that these filters can’t be used for short periods of time or customized to the specific needs of the day.

Automatic filters also lack context for subtleties beyond what they’ve been trained on. Current email filtering rules are only based on metadata of incoming messages, such as if it’s from a specific sender or contains certain keywords. Users wanted to incorporate more context outside of the contents of a single message, like previous replies by a recipient, or number or rate of responses by others.

What’s more, with greater access to laptops, phones, and tablets, email has become an increasingly more expected “instant” way of communicating. To address this, users came up with rules for more tailored notification filters and temporary modes.

With YouPS, temporary modes, such as overnight “sleep modes” or daytime “work modes,” could be useful for those on specific schedules. For example, all “sleep mode” emails could be labeled “For Tomorrow,” while “work mode” emails could be labeled “To Do.”

Additional modes for things like vacations, conferences, or even evenings could have more specific rules to better fit the users’ needs. A user’s conference mode could have a rule that highlights only conference-related emails (i.e., meetups, announcements), or an “emotion” mode could kick in depending on a tired or anxious mood.

These more detailed filters all revolve around a broader goal of using a tool to better manage attention in a hyperconnected world.

Testing the tool

To get a sense of what programmers were already doing to make email more organized, the team went through GitHub to search for written scripts related to email and filters, and found that this complex processing made up at least 40 percent of the email scripts.

When finally using YouPS, users found that the extended email vocabulary was useful for scripting the rules users wanted, such as a way to write vacation auto-replies that could be sent to co-workers, but not family members.

In the future the team hopes to do a larger-scale deployment. They also plan to extend YouPS’ email automation capabilities to non-programmers by creating graphical user interfaces for expressing rules that use a much broader non-technical vocabulary.

“Email has a broad spectrum of users,” says Park. “A fixed interface for an email client simply can’t meet the diverse needs of many email users. The needs we found in these studies will guide future designers and developers of email clients and inbox management systems.”  

“Many scripts for automating email were found on Github software archives, yet these automation techniques aren’t incorporated into common email clients”, says Susan Fussell, a professor of information science and communications at Cornell University who was not involved in the paper. “This suggests a need for a pipeline between the Github repository and ordinary email users, so that users know what scripts are there and how to use them — and one day be integrated into popular email clients.”

Park and Karger co-wrote the paper with PhD students Amy Zhang and Luke Murray. The team will present their paper in May at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland.

3Q: Assessing MIT’s computing infrastructure needs

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 11:59pm

In February, the Institute established five working groups to generate ideas for different components of the structure and operation of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. Nicholas Roy, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Benoit Forget, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, are co-chairs of the Working Group on College Infrastructure, which is charged with examining how to ensure that departments, labs, and centers (DLCs) have the information and resources they require to meet their computational needs such as accessing and storing data. MIT News checked in with Roy and Forget to find out about the group’s goals, processes, and progress so far.

Q: What kind of process has your working group been going through in preparing your report, and who has been involved?

A: Our working group has representatives from every school and most major DLCs. As part of our information-gathering process, our group devised a survey that was circulated to all DLCs and computing-related student groups and via meetings between working groups members and designated representatives of each group.

Additionally, the working group leveraged historical perspectives from the Athena project, as well as insights from prior working groups on related topics; a recent survey from the research computing committee that was sent to all MIT principal investigators (PIs); peer comparisons; and thematic meetings on current infrastructure (hardware, software, data, etc.) and on the needs of campus.

Q: Could you describe some of the insights from the survey?

A: One of the major insights is that there is a great deal of research computing infrastructure present on campus, but the majority of the infrastructure is relatively hard to find and access for most people. We have heard several requests for some form of centralized, accessible, and equitable computing resource at MIT. 

Currently, most of the computing resources are funded by individual PIs, leaving many on campus with a lack of access to substantial computing power. MIT is very decentralized in the computing area when compared to our peer institutions. A few DLCs have their own internal infrastructure that is centrally managed within the DLC, and that centralization has largely led to happy researchers.

Additionally, there is a strong demand for computational infrastructure and support that combines scientific and educational computing. Areas of MIT that are not commonly associated with computing find the barrier of entry quite high and could benefit from a better internal support structure on how to best use available resources.

Finally, we have heard repeatedly that personnel support is an essential part of computational infrastructure; having engineers and support staff to maintain systems is critical to accessible and equitable computing.

Q: What has been the most difficult part of this process?

A: The focus of this working group was aimed to address the computational infrastructure needs of the MIT community for research and educational activities, and the major difficulty that we ran into was defining the meaning of computing infrastructure since it means different things to different people. 

To some it is more focused on the enterprise aspect of emails, networking, and laptop/desktop resources, but for the research and education aspect it can be much broader. Our committee spent some time defining the scope of what could be addressed in the short time frame given, and by necessity chose not to address some forms of computing, such as providing specialized hardware or online education. However, some members of the MIT community feel strongly that these should be within the scope of computing infrastructure on campus.

Nanoparticles take a fantastic, magnetic voyage

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 1:59pm

MIT engineers have designed tiny robots that can help drug-delivery nanoparticles push their way out of the bloodstream and into a tumor or another disease site. Like crafts in “Fantastic Voyage” — a 1960s science fiction film in which a submarine crew shrinks in size and roams a body to repair damaged cells — the robots swim through the bloodstream, creating a current that drags nanoparticles along with them.

The magnetic microrobots, inspired by bacterial propulsion, could help to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to delivering drugs with nanoparticles: getting the particles to exit blood vessels and accumulate in the right place.

“When you put nanomaterials in the bloodstream and target them to diseased tissue, the biggest barrier to that kind of payload getting into the tissue is the lining of the blood vessel,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and its Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and the senior author of the study.

“Our idea was to see if you can use magnetism to create fluid forces that push nanoparticles into the tissue,” adds Simone Schuerle, a former MIT postdoc and lead author of the paper, which appears in the April 26 issue of Science Advances.

In the same study, the researchers also showed that they could achieve a similar effect using swarms of living bacteria that are naturally magnetic. Each of these approaches could be suited for different types of drug delivery, the researchers say.

Tiny robots

Schuerle, who is now an assistant professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), first began working on tiny magnetic robots as a graduate student in Brad Nelson’s Multiscale Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich. When she came to Bhatia’s lab as a postdoc in 2014, she began investigating whether this kind of bot could help to make nanoparticle drug delivery more efficient.

In most cases, researchers target their nanoparticles to disease sites that are surrounded by “leaky” blood vessels, such as tumors. This makes it easier for the particles to get into the tissue, but the delivery process is still not as effective as it needs to be.

The MIT team decided to explore whether the forces generated by magnetic robots might offer a better way to push the particles out of the bloodstream and into the target site.

The robots that Schuerle used in this study are 35 hundredths of a millimeter long, similar in size to a single cell, and can be controlled by applying an external magnetic field. This bioinspired robot, which the researchers call an “artificial bacterial flagellum,” consists of a tiny helix that resembles the flagella that many bacteria use to propel themselves. These robots are 3-D-printed with a high-resolution 3-D printer and then coated with nickel, which makes them magnetic.

To test a single robot’s ability to control nearby nanoparticles, the researchers created a microfluidic system that mimics the blood vessels that surround tumors. The channel in their system, between 50 and 200 microns wide, is lined with a gel that has holes to simulate the broken blood vessels seen near tumors.

Using external magnets, the researchers applied magnetic fields to the robot, which makes the helix rotate and swim through the channel. Because fluid flows through the channel in the opposite direction, the robot remains stationary and creates a convection current, which pushes 200-nanometer polystyrene particles into the model tissue. These particles penetrated twice as far into the tissue as nanoparticles delivered without the aid of the magnetic robot.

This type of system could potentially be incorporated into stents, which are stationary and would be easy to target with an externally applied magnetic field. Such an approach could be useful for delivering drugs to help reduce inflammation at the site of the stent, Bhatia says.

Bacterial swarms

The researchers also developed a variant of this approach that relies on swarms of naturally magnetotactic bacteria instead of microrobots. Bhatia has previously developed bacteria that can be used to deliver cancer-fighting drugs and to diagnose cancer, exploiting bacteria’s natural tendency to accumulate at disease sites.

For this study, the researchers used a type of bacteria called Magnetospirillum magneticum, which naturally produces chains of iron oxide. These magnetic particles, known as magnetosomes, help bacteria orient themselves and find their preferred environments.

The researchers discovered that when they put these bacteria into the microfluidic system and applied rotating magnetic fields in certain orientations, the bacteria began to rotate in synchrony and move in the same direction, pulling along any nanoparticles that were nearby. In this case, the researchers found that nanoparticles were pushed into the model tissue three times faster than when the nanoparticles were delivered without any magnetic assistance.

This bacterial approach could be better suited for drug delivery in situations such as a tumor, where the swarm, controlled externally without the need for visual feedback, could generate fluidic forces in vessels throughout the tumor.  

The particles that the researchers used in this study are big enough to carry large payloads, including the components required for the CRISPR genome-editing system, Bhatia says. She now plans to collaborate with Schuerle to further develop both of these magnetic approaches for testing in animal models.

The research was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Branco Weiss Fellowship, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Peter Shor wins 2018 Micius Quantum Prize

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 1:10pm

Peter Shor, the Morss Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT, has received the 2018 Micius Quantum Prize, which is awarded within the field of quantum computation.

Shor was nominated for his groundbreaking theoretical work on the factoring algorithm and quantum error correction. Shor, who received his PhD in applied mathematics from MIT in 1985 under the direction of Tom Leighton, is known for his work on quantum computation. Shor's algorithm is a groundbreaking integer-factoring algorithm that he developed in the mid-1990s, which proves a quantum computer can calculate the prime factors of a large number exponentially faster than a classical computer.

“Peter Shor's quantum algorithms, starting from his factoring algorithm — known as Shor's algorithm — has revolutionized the field of quantum computing,” says Michel Goemans, department head and professor of mathematics. “One could even say that the field would never have taken off without his deep and significant contributions to it.”

The algorithm is designed to use a quantum computer to quickly break through the RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adelman) encryption algorithm, which is based on the difficulty of prime factorization, a major concern for the security of classical computing systems. Shor also introduced quantum error-correcting codes and fault-tolerant quantum computation to protect quantum states against decoherence and noise.

He will receive 1 million Chinese yuan (about $150,000) as part of his award, which he expects to put toward his continued research into quantum cryptography and quantum information theory. One idea: “I’m thinking about how quantum information relates to black holes,” he says.

More importantly, says Shor, the Micius Quantum Prize “will draw a lot of attention to the field.”

“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “The U.S. government and the Chinese government are putting a lot of money into quantum computing. Experimentalists are starting to build quantum computers that are reaching the point where they can’t be simulated by digital computers. People are building very small prototypes, as experiments to see how big quantum computers will behave.”

Shor has received many other awards for his quantum computing research, including the Dirac Medal of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, the IEEE Eric E. Sumner Award, for Outstanding Contributions to Communications Technology, and the Nevanlinna Prize. He also is affiliated with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Center for Theoretical Physics.

The Micius Quantum Prize recognizes significant science advances ranging from early conceptual contributions to recent experimental breakthroughs in the field of quantum communications, quantum simulation, quantum computation, and quantum metrology. Funded by private entrepreneurs, the Micius Quantum Foundation was named after the fifth-century B.C. Chinese scientist — who is also known as Mozi — who used a pinhole to discover that light travels in straight lines, and who wrote an earlier version of what later became Newton’s first law of motion.

Other 2018 Micius laureates are Juan Ignacio Cirac, David Deutsch, and Peter Zoller, for their theoretical work on quantum algorithms and physical architectures of quantum computers and simulators; and Rainer Blatt and David Wineland, for experiments that demonstrated fundamental elements of quantum computing with trapped ions.

The 2019 Micius Quantum Prizes were also announced within the field of quantum communication: Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard, Artur Ekert, and Stephen Wiesner, for their inventions of quantum cryptography, and Jian-Wei Pan and Anton Zeilinger for experiments that enabled practically secure and large-scale quantum communications.

The award ceremony for 2018 and 2019 prizes will be held on Sept. 20, during the International Conference on Emerging Quantum Technologies in Hefei, China.

Designing ocean ecological systems in the lab

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 11:00am

Researchers from MIT have discovered simple rules of assembly of ocean microbiomes that degrade complex polysaccharides in coastal environments. Microbiomes, or microbial communities, are composed of hundreds or thousands of diverse species, making it a challenge to identify the principles that govern their structure and function.

The findings indicate that marine microbiomes can be simplified by grouping species into two types of functional modules. The first type contain polysaccharide specialists that produce the enzymes required to break down the complex sugars. The second type contains species that consume simple metabolic byproducts released by the specialist degraders and are therefore independent of the polysaccharide. This partitioning reveals a simple design for the microbiome: a trophic network in which energy is funneled from degraders to consumers.

“Our work reveals fundamental principles of microbial community assembly that can help us make sense of the vast diversity of microbes in the environment,” states Otto X. Cordero, principal investigator on the research and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). 

Cordero’s co-authors on the paper include CEE research affiliates Tim Enke and Manoshi S. Datta, CEE postdoc Julia Schwartzman, and Computational and Systems Biology Program research affiliate Nathan Cermak, as well as researchers from science and technology university ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

The simple trophic organization revealed by this study allowed Cordero and colleagues to predict microbiome species composition based on the profile of energy resources available to the community. 

“The significance of these discoveries is that we have identified simple rules of assembly, which allows us to predict community composition and rationally design ecological systems in the lab,” emphasizes Cordero. 

In order to investigate the modular organization of the microbial communities, the researchers conducted fieldwork with synthetic marine particles made of polysaccharides that are abundant in marine environments, such as chitin, alginate, agarose and carrageenan, as well as combinations of these substrates.

The team immersed the microscopic particles in natural samples of seawater and studied the colonization dynamics of bacteria using genome sequencing. This analysis allowed the researchers to disentangle the effect of polysaccharide composition on microbiome assembly.

“A promising application of this work is to apply these principles in order to design synthetic communities that degrade complex biological materials, such as those found in agricultural waste and animal feed,” says Cordero. 

The complex world of carbohydrate chemistry

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:59pm

Every living cell is coated with a layer of carbohydrates. The composition of these molecules essentially serves as an identification card for a cell, says Laura Kiessling, the Novartis Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

While researchers have learned much about how these coats vary from cell to cell, Kiessling is now investigating “how proteins check those IDs, and what cells do when they are let into the party,” as she puts it. Her lab is working on identifying some of the key carbohydrates expressed by human and bacterial cells, and exploring how they interact with proteins and other molecules. Such knowledge could be exploited to develop new treatments and diagnostics for a variety of diseases.

Kiessling, who joined MIT’s faculty in 2017 after 26 years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is developing vaccines that interact with cell surface carbohydrates, and she is also exploring ways to disrupt microbes’ ability to assemble the carbohydrates they need to build their cell walls.

“Bacteria have cell walls made of building blocks that we don’t use and that can be unique to different species,” she says. “That opens opportunities for new kinds of antibiotics that are narrow-spectrum. They don’t target all bacteria, but they target pathways that pathogenic bacteria need to build critical cell surface carbohydrates.”

Drawn to MIT

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Kiessling spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities, such as camping and observing the wildlife in the pond in her parents’ backyard. With one of her brothers, she performed “shocking” experiments with a kids’ electronics kit and tried to convert the family lawnmower into a go-cart. When it was time to choose a college, she decided on the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the time, top students in Wisconsin high schools could be admitted automatically to the state university, so she didn’t apply anywhere else.

Her closest friend at the university had a sister who was a student at MIT, so for spring break their first year, Kiessling and her friend decided to head to Cambridge for a visit. After a 20-hour train ride from Chicago, Kiessling spent the next several days attending classes and hanging out with her friend’s sister in her dorm, McCormick Hall, MIT’s first women’s dorm and today the only women-only residence hall.

“I met all these amazing women who were doing science, and I thought, oh my gosh, I should transfer here,” Kiessling recalls. She met someone who worked in the admissions office and convinced them to give her an interview, then formally applied as soon as she got back to Wisconsin. In August, she found out that she had been accepted, and transferred at the beginning of her sophomore year.

At MIT, she majored in chemistry, where her lab partner and close friend was Cady Coleman ’83, who later became an astronaut. She also rowed on MIT’s crew team, along with Elizabeth Bradley, a future Olympian. After graduating, Kiessling decided to go to Yale University for graduate school, where she focused on organic chemistry.

At Yale, she worked in the lab of Stuart Schreiber, who is now a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. At the time, they were working on synthesizing a naturally occurring antitumor agent that cleaves DNA. “That got me really interested in using chemistry to study biological processes,” Kiessling says.

After finishing her PhD, Kiessling did a postdoc at Caltech, working with Peter Dervan, a professor of chemistry, on a strategy for modifying DNA. Their idea was to use chemical compounds to recognize DNA sequences so that they could be selectively cut out, similar to the way that the CRISPR genome-editing system works now.


When Kiessling joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 1991, she was inspired to study carbohydrates by an argument she had had with some of her labmates at Yale over how carbohydrates interact with DNA. She thought that the carbohydrates must be involved in recognizing DNA, while others believed their role was more limited.

“The basis for that argument made me start thinking about carbohydrates, and I realized we don’t know very much about their biological roles,” she says. “So when I went to start my own lab, I thought this would be an exciting field to get involved in.”

Carbohydrates on cell surfaces often interact with proteins, including a class of proteins called lectins. Kiessling has previously shown that many of these lectin-carbohydrate interactions are multivalent, meaning they involve multiple receptors binding to multiple binding partners, and she has designed polymers, similar to carbohydrates, that can mimic these interactions.

She also recently discovered that some human lectins, found in the gut and lung, only bind to carbohydrates found on the surface of bacteria. This interaction appears to help human cells grab onto and retain bacterial cells that may be potentially useful.

“A lot of these lectins are at mucosal barriers, and they’ve evolved to presumably help us keep microbes in the right spot,” Kiessling says.

She is also studying how cells synthesize carbohydrates, in hopes of developing drugs that could specifically block the production of carbohydrates expressed by pathogens such as the mycobacteria that cause tuberculosis.

In another project, she is developing cancer vaccines that could target carbohydrate-binding proteins located on the surfaces of immune cells. She is also working on a vaccine that targets a protein produced by chickens when they contract bacterial infections. This protein limits chicken growth, which is partly why chickens raised for food are treated with antibiotics. Blocking that protein, Kiessling hopes, could help to eliminate the need for antibiotic treatment.

Many of these projects involve collaborations with other MIT faculty members, including a large number of female professors. The possibility of such collaborations is one of the reasons that Kiessling decided to join the faculty here.

“MIT and the area surrounding MIT is the mecca of science,” she says. “The original reason I was drawn to MIT as a student is I could find other women who loved science as much as I do. And as a faculty member here, there are also so many women faculty who love science as much as I do.”

Advocating for federal research funding on Capitol Hill

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 5:00pm

In late March, 29 MIT graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates traveled to Washington to speak with members of Congress about the need for continued federal investment of science and technology R&D in fiscal year 2020 and beyond.

The delegation met with 69 offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from 23 states, including staff from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The Congressional Visit Days (CVD) trip is organized by the Science Policy Initiative (SPI), a student group that works at the intersection of research and public policy. This is the 13th consecutive year MIT students have participated in CVD.

In addition to advocating for federal support of science research, CVD serves another purpose — giving students the opportunity to practice speaking with members of Congress. In preparatory sessions on campus in the weeks leading up to CVD, students received training on how to advocate effectively. These sessions touched on the federal budgeting process, effective communication, and more practical details such as contacting congressional offices to schedule a meeting, or even navigating the numerous buildings on Capitol Hill. No matter their future careers, SPI aims to equip students with the tools to engage with the policy world.

“It was personally important to me to advocate for science funding during CVD. This trip was an incredible educational opportunity that empowered me to engage with senators and representatives as a scientist,” said Cherry Gao, a PhD student in the Department of Biological Engineering, who was motivated to participate by the NSF funding that enabled her to train in Antarctica as an early-career environmental scientist.

The focus of CVD on science and the federal budget was particularly timely this year. Released earlier in March, President Trump’s budget proposal for FY 2020 included significant cuts to the National Institutes of Health (down 12 percent), the National Science Foundation (down 12 percent), and the Department of Energy (down 11 percent).

In their congressional meetings, students shared stories about the impact of interrupted or decreased federal funding on scientific research. For example, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP) is a critical fellowship program that recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students enrolled in research-based programs in the United States.

In recent years, the GRFP has awarded 2,000 fellowships a year. The fiscal 2020 President's Budget Request proposes funding for only 1,600 awards. Since 1952, the GRFP has funded over 50,000 Graduate Research Fellowships, with 42 fellows going on to become Nobel laureates, so cuts to this important talent pipeline could have significant ramifications for the United States research capability in the future.

In addition to sustained federal science funding, students asked members of Congress to express their support for H.R. 36, the “Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019.” The bill, introduced by Reps. Eddie Johnson (D-TX) and Frank Lucas (R-OK), would increase research efforts to understand the causes and effects of sexual harassment in the workplace as well as examine policies to reduce the prevalence and impact of such harassment. H.R. 36 follows through on the recommendations of a recent National Academies report, which found that 58 percent of individuals in academia experience sexual harassment. HR 36 hopes to address how harassment causes women to leave scientific field, despite the significant resources dedicated to retaining women in science at a time when we need them most.

“The HR 36 Bill is a necessary step in our journey to analyzing the roots and addressing the consequences of the sexual harassment that persists in STEM fields,” said Océane Boulais, a first-year graduate student in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the Media Lab. “While visiting local representatives during the CVD trip, the majority of those representatives I spoke to had not yet heard of the bill. It was empowering to advocate for a piece of legislation that is so important to me and the field I love to work within.”

Students also advocated for renewed funding for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). From 1972 to 1995, the OTA helped members of Congress to do their job in the best way possible by providing unbiased analysis of complex technical issues.

“Congress needs premier technical expertise, now more than ever.” said Quantum Wei, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “The absence of the OTA compromises the ability of Congress to govern. Technological developments will continue to change our society, impacting American lives. The OTA would equip policymakers to write laws in anticipation and in response to a rapidly changing world.”

The student delegation requested a combined $65 billion for the fiscal year 2020 budgets of the National Institutes for Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA Science, and the Department of Energy Office of Science.

Spreading kindness for four years and counting

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 3:10pm

Kindness can be contagious, and Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Week has proven it year after year.

During the second week of March, the MIT community celebrated RAK Week through a series of loosely-planned events and small, spontaneous acts of generosity known as “RAK hacks.” From a “kindness crawl” to a rainbow-colored ball pit to a yoga and dance party, the week was full of fun activities, giveaways, surprises, and intentional acts of kindness.

RAK Week began four years ago when Bettina Arkhurst and Cory Johnson, then sophomores, applied to the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund after a particularly stressful spring semester.

“We would always say that MIT isn't a place that a person is meant to go through alone and RAK Week is meant to get people to connect (or re-connect) with each other,” says Bettina, who is now a graduate student at Georgia Tech. Arkhurst and Johnson envisioned an event series that fostered a caring atmosphere across campus, which aligned with MindHandHeart’s mission and goals. MindHandHeart awarded them funding to pilot the week, which has since grown into an annual, Institute-wide event.

This year, academic departments, support offices, residences, student groups, and individual community members participated in the week. Keeping up its tradition of celebrating RAK Week with enthusiasm, the Department of Chemistry organized a series of RAK events and volunteers handed out thank you balloons, shoutouts, and candygrams to members of their community.

“RAK Week is one of our favorite annual events, and it’s always so encouraging and uplifting to see all of the thoughtful things our staff, faculty, students, and postdocs do for one another to facilitate even more kindness than usual in the department and beyond,” says department head Timothy Jamison.

MIT Medical also hosted several activities during the week, including staff passing out daffodils to visiting patients. The Spouses and Partners Connect, a program associated with MIT Medical to support personal, social, and professional growth of spouses and partners of MIT community, organized a kindness crawl — kids and adults walked around campus, spreading cheer and kindness while handing out flowers and candies. MIT Medical Executive Director and Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis sent out handwritten thank you cards to every MIT Medical staff member and organized a surprise musical performance by Keytar Bear, one of Boston’s most famous buskers. Passersby grooved to Keytar Bear’s music and took selfies, which was popular on social media.

“From flowers to live music, RAK Week serves as a wonderful and fun opportunity for us to show our patients that we truly care for them,” Stuopis reflected. “At the same time, we made sure to thank our staff, who work so hard, every day, to keep the MIT community healthy.”

All week long, 17 support offices tabled at Lobby 10 with goodies and informational material. The MIT Libraries also hosted their annual letter-writing event in Lobby 10, and provided participants with a variety of thank you cards, pens, markers, and colorful stationery. The following week, MIT Libraries sent 424 letters from the event to 42 countries across the globe.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz also hosted a study break in the UA Compton Lounge with cookies and cupcakes.

“It’s been wonderful to see RAK Week grow into a campus-wide celebration over the years,” Barnhart commented. “I think the participation across departments, residence halls, support offices, student groups — the list goes on and on — says a lot about the value we place on treating one another with kindness and care. We really are a community who wants to create connections and to promote wellbeing.”

MindHandHeart partnered with the SPXCE Intercultural Center to host an open mic night for students to share stories, perform spoken word poetry and musical acts, and connect with one another in a supportive environment. The open mic was also organized by Good Karma, a student-led kindness initiative sponsored by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund. RAK Week concluded with an early morning yoga and dance party in the Media Lab.

Random Acts of Kindness Week has grown beyond spreading kindness to become a means to help community members connect with and support one another, and showcase MIT’s many support resources. MindHandHeart’s faculty, students, and staff say they look forward to what creative projects will come out of next year’s celebration.

Random Acts of Kindness Week is co-sponsored by MIT Medical and the Office of the Chancellor.

Imaging system helps surgeons remove tiny ovarian tumors

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 11:59pm

Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed only after it has reached an advanced stage, with many tumors spread throughout the abdomen. Most patients undergo surgery to remove as many of these tumors as possible, but because some are so small and widespread, it is difficult to eradicate all of them.

Researchers at MIT, working with surgeons and oncologists at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), have now developed a way to improve the accuracy of this surgery, called debulking. Using a novel fluorescence imaging system, they were able to find and remove tumors as small as 0.3 millimeters — smaller than a poppy seed — during surgery in mice. Mice that underwent this type of image-guided surgery survived 40 percent longer than those who had tumors removed without the guided system.

“What’s nice about this system is that it allows for real-time information about the size, depth, and distribution of tumors,” says Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science at MIT, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the recently appointed head of MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering.

The researchers are now seeking FDA approval for a phase 1 clinical trial to test the imaging system in human patients. In the future, they hope to adapt the system for monitoring patients at risk for tumor recurrence, and eventually for early diagnosis of ovarian cancer, which is easier to treat if it is caught earlier.

Belcher and Michael Birrer, formerly the director of medical gynecologic oncology at MGH and now the director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, are the senior authors of the study, published online in the journal ACS Nano this week.

Neelkanth Bardhan, a Mazumdar-Shaw International Oncology Fellow at the Koch Institute, and Lorenzo Ceppi, a researcher at MGH, are the lead authors of the paper. Other authors include MGH researcher YoungJeong Na, MIT Lincoln Laboratory technical staff members Andrew Siegel and Nandini Rajan, Robert Fruscio of the University of Milan-Bicocca, and Marcela del Carmen, a gynecologic oncologist at MGH and chief medical officer of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization.

Glowing tumors

Because there is no good way to detect early-stage ovarian cancer, it is one of the most difficult types of cancer to treat. Of 250,000 new cases diagnosed each year worldwide, 75 percent are in an advanced stage. In the United States, the five-year combined survival rate for all stages of ovarian cancer is 47 percent, only a slight improvement from 38 percent three decades ago, despite the advent of chemotherapeutic drugs such as cisplatin, approved by the FDA in 1978 for ovarian cancer treatment. In contrast, the five-year combined survival rate for all stages of breast cancer has steadily improved, from around 75 percent in the 1970s to over 90 percent now.  

“We desperately need better upfront therapies, including surgery, for these (ovarian cancer) patients,” Birrer says.

Belcher and Birrer joined forces to work on this problem through the Bridge Project, a collaboration between the Koch Institute and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. Belcher’s lab has been developing a novel type of medical imaging based on light in the near-infrared (NIR) spectrum. In a paper published in March, she reported that this imaging system could achieve an unprecedented combination of resolution and penetration-depth in living tissue.

In the new study, Belcher, Birrer, and their colleagues worked with researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory to adapt NIR imaging to help surgeons locate tumors during ovarian cancer surgery, by providing continuous, real-time imaging of the abdomen, with tumors highlighted by fluorescence. Previous analyses have shown that survival rates are strongly inversely correlated with the amount of residual tumor mass left behind in the patient during debulking surgery, but many ovarian tumors are so small or hidden that surgeons can’t find them.

To make the tumors visible, the researchers designed chemical probes using single-walled carbon nanotubes that emit fluorescent light when illuminated by a laser. They coated these nanotubes with a peptide that binds to SPARC, a protein that is overexpressed by highly invasive ovarian cancer cells. This probe binds to the tumors and makes them fluoresce at NIR wavelengths, allowing surgeons to more easily find them with fluorescence imaging.

The researchers tested the image-guided system in mice that had ovarian tumors implanted in a region of the abdominal cavity known as the intraperitoneal space, and showed that surgeons were able to locate and remove tumors as small as 0.3 millimeters. Ten days after surgery, these mice had no detectable tumors, while mice that had undergone the traditional, non-image-guided surgery, had many residual tumors missed by the surgeon.

By three weeks after the surgery, many of the tumors had grown back in the mice that underwent image-guided surgery, but those mice still had a median survival rate that was 40 percent longer than that of mice that underwent traditional surgery.

No other imaging system would be able to locate tumors that small during a surgical procedure, the researchers say.

“You can’t have a patient in a CT machine or an MRI machine and have the surgeon perform this surgical debulking procedure at the same time, and you can’t expose the patient to X-ray radiation for multiple hours of the long surgery. This optics-based imaging system allows us to do that in a safe manner,” Bardhan says.

Alessandro Santin, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and clinical research program leader at the Yale University School of Medicine, described the results as “intriguing.”

“These data support the potential use of this novel imaging system in the intraoperative setting for the optical detection of residual malignant tissue at the time of surgical staging, and/or cytoreductive surgery in ovarian cancer patients,” says Santin, who was not involved in the study.

Monitoring patients

For most ovarian cancer patients, tumor debulking surgery is followed by chemotherapy, so the researchers now plan to do another study where they treat the mice with chemotherapy after image-guided surgery, in hopes of preventing the remaining tiny tumors from spreading.

“We know that the amount of tumor removed at the time of surgery for patients with advanced-stage ovarian cancer is directly correlated with their outcome,” Birrer says. “This imaging device will now allow the surgeon to go beyond the limits of resecting tumors visible to the naked eye, and should usher in a new age of effective debulking surgery.”

Now that they have demonstrated that this concept can be successfully applied to imaging during surgery, the researchers hope to begin adapting the system for use in human patients.

“In principle, it’s quite doable,” Siegel says. “It’s purely the mechanics and the funding at this point, because this mouse experiment serves as the proof of principle and may actually have been more challenging than building a human-scale system.”

The researchers also hope to deploy this type of imaging to monitor patients after surgery, and eventually to develop it as a diagnostic tool for screening women at high risk for developing ovarian cancer.

“A major focus for us right now is developing the technology to be able diagnose ovarian cancer early, in stage 1 or stage 2, before the disease becomes disseminated,” Belcher says. “That could have a huge impact on survival rates, because survival is related to the stage of detection.”

The research was funded, in part, by the Bridge Project and the Koch Institute Support (core) Grant from the National Cancer Institute, with previous support for the development of the system from the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program and the Kathy and Curt Marble Cancer Research Fund.

Water Innovation Prize goes to startups targeting methane and wastewater

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 4:34pm

A startup with a cheap technology for purifying textile wastewater and another with a system to help reduce methane emissions from cattle were named co-winners of the MIT Water Innovation Prize on Thursday.

After eight student finalist teams pitched their companies’ water-related solutions, the judges couldn’t agree on the winners and ultimately split the grand prize into two $14,000 checks for the co-winners.

The founders of both the seaweed-producing startup Symbrosia and the textile wastewater purification startup SiPure said they were happy to split the winnings.

“We were just so proud to be here,” SiPure business development lead Lily Cheng Zedler said after the event. “We’re really grateful to the Water Innovation Prize and the judges for believing in us.”

Close to 200 people, including students, faculty, investors, and people working in the private industry, traveled to the sixth floor of the Media Lab for the event. Members from the eight finalist teams came from as far away as Lebanon and as close as the MIT Sloan School of Management to share their ideas.

The third place, $7,000 prize went to Volta Irrigation, which loans seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides to smallholder farmers in Rwanda and surrounding countries, then helps the farmers increase their productivity by loaning them a proprietary irrigation system called the Alma Volta. The stationary, bicycle-like device works by having operators pedal, which powers an inverter, battery, and pump that efficiently distribute over 3,000 liters of water per hour onto crops.

Addressing livestock methane emissions

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane accounts for about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The largest source of methane is livestock such as cows, pigs, and goats, who produce it as part of their normal digestive processes.

Recent research has shown that mixing just 2 percent of a specific kind of algae into a cow’s diet can reduce their methane emissions by 99 percent.

Symbrosia is acting on those findings with a patent-pending system that consists of a tank for growing that algae, a tank for growing shrimp, and chambers that move waste and water back and forth. When waste from the shrimp moves to the algae tank it acts as fertilizer, and as the algae absorb nutrients from the water it produces clean, oxygenated water for the shrimp.

The result is a weekly harvest of algae and local, organic shrimp (which are grown in three-month rotational cycles). The only water loss in the system is due to evaporation, and all of the waste is dissolved back into the water, according to the company. Symbrosia plans to sell the algae to feed suppliers at $1.60 a pound, and the shrimp to restaurants at $24 a pound.

With its algae, the company plans to first target the mixed-ration dairy feed supplement market, estimated to be around $5.3 billion in size. With its shrimp, the company will first target the $31 million imported organic shrimp market in the U.S.

The company will begin its first pilot project with three corporate partners at Port Hueneme in California toward the end of this year. Eventually, it plans to place large versions of its system near livestock industry hot spots to maximize its impact.

Cleaning up the textile industry

Garment manufacturers use huge volumes of water each year to dye fabrics. Purifying the resulting wastewater is a complex, expensive process that can account for up to 25 percent of the operating costs of a standard textile mill.

Unfortunately, the low margins in the textile industry lead many manufacturers to dump the wastewater in local waterways. For example, in India, the world’s second largest producer of textiles, 80 percent of textile wastewater goes untreated, according to SiPure.

Wastewater dumping leads to the pollution of drinking water, destruction of local agriculture, and long-term health consequences for people in the area.

SiPure has developed and patented a silicon membrane that it says makes the process of purifying textile wastewater dramatically simpler and cheaper. Billions of tiny nanopores within the membrane allow water to flow through while molecular dyes get stuck.

“It looks boring on the surface, just a gray square,” SiPure co-founder Brendan Smith, who invented the technology during his PhD work in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, told the audience during the pitch. “But the magic is in the cross section.”

Smith says the membrane is capable of removing more than 99 percent of the dyes in waters and can be produced for about 10 times less than competing ceramic-based purification technology. SiPure says its membrane also decreases maintenance costs while working for around 10 years.

This summer, the company is starting a pilot project with a textile mill in India, where its membranes will purify 50 to 100 liters of wastewater each day. From there, the founders plan to continue scaling throughout India in hopes of capturing 35 to 40 percent of the market by 2025.

The Water Innovation Prize, which helps translate research and ideas into business and impact, has been hosted by the MIT Water Club since 2015. Each year, student-led finalist teams from around the country and, increasingly, the world, come to MIT’s campus to pitch their water-related innovations.

“Nanofiber yarn” makes for stretchy, protective artificial tissue

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 4:29pm

The human body is held together by an intricate cable system of tendons and muscles, engineered by nature to be tough and highly stretchable. An injury to any of these tissues, particularly in a major joint like the shoulder or knee, can require surgical repairs and weeks of limited mobility to fully heal.

Now MIT engineers have come up with a tissue engineering design that may enable flexible range of motion in injured tendons and muscles during healing.

The team has engineered small coils lined with living cells, that they say could act as stretchy scaffolds for repairing damaged muscles and tendons. The coils are made from hundreds of thousands of biocompatible nanofibers, tightly twisted into coils resembling miniature nautical rope, or yarn.

The researchers coated the yarn with living cells, including muscle and mesenchymal stem cells, which naturally grow and align along the yarn, into patterns similar to muscle tissue. The researchers found the yarn’s coiled configuration helps to keep cells alive and growing, even as the team stretched and bent the yarn multiple times.

In the future, the researchers envision doctors could line patients’ damaged tendons and muscles with this new flexible material, which would be coated with the same cells that make up the injured tissue. The “yarn’s” stretchiness could help maintain a patient’s range of motion while new cells continue to grow to replace the injured tissue.

“When you repair muscle or tendon, you really have to fix their movement for a period of time, by wearing a boot, for example,” says Ming Guo, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “With this nanofiber yarn, the hope is, you won’t have to wearing anything like that.”

Guo and his colleagues published their results this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His MIT co-authors are Yiwei Li, Yukun Hao, Satish Gupta, and Jiliang Hu. The team also includes Fengyun Guo, Yaqiong Wang, Nü Wang, and Yong Zhao, of Beihang University.

Stuck on gum

The new nanofiber yarn was inspired in part by the group’s previous work on lobster membranes, where they found the crustacean’s tough yet stretchy underbelly is due to a layered, plywood-like structure. Each microscopic layer contains hundreds of thousands of nanofibers, all aligned in the same direction, at an angle that is slightly offset from the layer just above and below.

The nanofibers’ precise alignment makes each individual layer highly stretchable in the direction in which the fibers are arranged. Guo, whose work focuses on biomechanics, saw the lobster’s natural stretchy patterning as an inspiration for designing artificial tissues, particularly for high-stretch regions of the body such as the shoulder and knee.

Guo says biomedical engineers have embedded muscle cells in other stretchy materials such as hydrogels, in attempts to fashion flexible artificial tissues. However, while the hydrogels themselves are stretchy and tough, the embedded cells tend to snap when stretched, like tissue paper stuck on a piece of gum.

“When you largely deform a material like hydrogel, it will be stretched just fine, but the cells can’t take it,” Guo says. “A living cell is sensitive, and when you stretch them, they die.”

Shelter in a slinky

The researchers realized that simply considering the stretchability of a material would not be enough to design an artificial tissue. That material would also have to be able to protect cells from the severe strains produced when the material is stretched.

The team looked to actual muscles and tendons for further inspiration, and observed that the tissues are made from strands of aligned protein fibers, coiled together to form microscopic helices, along which muscle cells grow. It turns out that, when the protein coils stretch out, the muscle cells simply rotate, like tiny pieces of tissue paper stuck on a slinky.

Guo looked to replicate this natural, stretchy, cell-protecting structure as an artificial tissue material. To do so, the team first created hundreds of thousands of aligned nanofibers, using electrospinning, a technique that uses electric force to spin ultrathin fibers out from a solution of polymer or other materials. In this case, he generated nanofibers made from biocompatible materials such as cellulose.

The team then bundled aligned fibers together and twisted them slowly to form first a spiral, and then an even tighter coil, ultimately resembling yarn and measuring about half a millimeter wide. Finally, they seeded live cells along each coil, including muscle cells, mesenchymal stem cells, and human breast cancer cells.

The researchers then repeatedly stretched each coil up to six times its original length, and found that the majority of cells on each coil remained alive and continued to grow as the coils were stretched. Interestingly, when they seeded cells on looser, spiral-shaped structures made from the same materials, they found cells were less likely to remain alive. Guo says the structure of the tighter coils seems to “shelter” cells from damage.

Going forward, the group plans to fabricate similar coils from other biocompatible materials such as silk, which could ultimately be injected into an injured tissue. The coils could provide a temporary, flexible scaffold for new cells to grow. Once the cells successfully repair an injury, the scaffold can dissolve away.

“We may be able to one day embed these structures under the skin, and the [coil] material would eventually be digested, while the new cells stay put,” Guo says. “The nice thing about this method is, it’s really general, and we can try different materials. This may push the limit of tissue engineering a lot.”

This research was funded, in part, by MIT Research Support Committee Fund.

NEET welcomes Boeing sponsorship

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 3:45pm

A cross-departmental engineering program focused on modern industry and real-world projects is welcoming a new sponsor and industry collaborator: aerospace company Boeing.

This is a deeply beneficial industry collaboration for the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program, which launched in 2017 to reimagine engineering education at MIT, says NEET Executive Director Amitava "Babi" Mitra.

A cross-disciplinary endeavor with a focus on integrative, project-centric learning, NEET cultivates the essential skills, knowledge, and qualities to help students build the “new machines and systems” that will be required to address the formidable challenges posed by the 21st century.

“Industry experts bring a flavor of real life into the projects,” Mitra says of the NEET program, which is offering five threads — Advanced Materials Machines, Autonomous Machines, Digital Cities, Living Machines, and Renewable Energy Machines.

“Projects are more engaging for students when we can connect them to what’s happening in industry,” says Mitra. Students in NEET earn a degree in their chosen major and are simultaneously awarded a NEET certificate in their chosen thread.

This fall, Boeing will become a founding co-sponsor of the Autonomous Machines thread. Alexa Jan, a senior in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and NEET participant, calls this news exciting.

“A collaboration with Boeing will provide more resources for interdisciplinary projects that will help students be leaders in the autonomous machines field and beyond,” she says.

The close proximity of Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing company, will enable frequent interactions between students and autonomy and robotics experts from industry, says Jonathan P. How, the Richard Cockburn Maclaurin Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who leads the Autonomous Machines thread.

“This collaboration will provide students with a wealth of experience on the needs for advanced autonomy in complex systems and a better understanding of how to implement those algorithms,” says How. He has worked with Boeing on research for more than a decade.

The collaboration was celebrated when Boeing representatives visited campus visit on April 17 for a series of meetings with administrators, faculty, and students.

“This partnership fits with our strategy for the Boeing Aerospace and Autonomy Center at Kendall Square, which will advance the enabling technologies for autonomous aircraft,” says Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering, test, and technology. “We see great benefit in supporting MIT students challenged with developing real-world autonomy solutions.”