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2019 Creative Arts Competition winners combine arts and entrepreneurship

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:50am

Mark Adams '19 worked in agriculture in Zambia. Derek Beckvold taught music in a refugee camp outside of Erbil in Iraq. Robert Jordon gave piano lessons to young people in Afghanistan. Their experiences in the developing world, combined with a shared love of music (Adams is also a musician), inspired the three longtime friends to create “Teach to Learn,” an online global music mentorship program that connects musicians, teachers, and students across the globe.

Teach to Learn won this year’s $15,000 first prize in the MIT Creative Arts Competition. Now in its seventh year, the annual competition encourages art-based entrepreneurship on campus, offering mentorship, support, and cash awards to student teams who present business plans for arts-related initiatives.“This almost feels surreal,” says Jordon, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, after his team was awarded first prize. “But I’d seen Mark’s presentation several times. That convinced me we had a chance.”

Other competition winners include Sky international Music Education, awarded $7,500 for second place in the 2019 competition; ArtNext took the $2,500 third prize; and Along Fault Lines won $750 for the Audience Choice Prize. “Every year we see so many strong ideas at the competition,” says Mary Hale '09, a Boston-area architect and artist who has participated in the Creative Arts Competition judging panel since it began. “I think it’s wonderful that there is so much attention focused on the arts here.”

This year’s competition drew a record 28 teams who submitted their proposals in February. Teams then worked with arts industry mentors to develop a business plan and pitch over the next six weeks. The names of the eight finalists were announced in April. Later that month, the teams pitched their proposals to a panel of judges before a live audience at an event at the Media Lab. “It’s a tough competition,” says Sam Magee, manager of Student Arts Programs at MIT and organizer of the competition. “We had teams with working prototypes and revenues who didn’t make the final eight. But the process that the students go through, starting with defining their idea, to developing their business plan, to working with their mentors, and ultimately honing their pitch, is more important than the prize.”

In addition to working with industry mentors, the eight finalists had an opportunity to refine their pitches with Chris Nolte '15, winner of the 2014 competition, who worked with the teams a week before their final presentations. “This prize was a big validation for our team,” says Nolte, who is now vice president of partnerships at TIDAL (an audio streaming service). “I’m able to leverage the experience in my current role. I’m still grateful to the Arts and MIT team that gave us this fantastic opportunity in 2014.”

Teach To Learn: First Prize

Omar is a cellist in Damascus, Syria; Henry is a cellist in Brooklyn, New York. Each month, the two connect on a video platform to talk about music, technique, and their lives.

This is the essence of Teach to Learn, a global music mentorship program. Founded just two years ago, the program’s U.S.-based mentors already connect over 100 students in 19 countries. “Our company is about music across cultures,” says Teach to Learn team member Derek Beckvold. “But it’s also about listening across cultures.”

Beckvold grew up on Boston’s North Shore with Teach to Learn teammate Mark Adams, and studied with Robert Jordon at the New England Conservatory of Music. While in Iraq, Beckvold watched children in a refugee camp communicate and create an online community with children in Afghanistan. He thought the internet could do the same thing for musicians.

Teach to Learn currently has a pilot program at Masconomet Regional High School in Boxford, Massachusetts (two of the team’s three members are Masconomet graduates). To support its core global mentoring platform, the program’s business model includes two additional platforms to generate revenue: Fellowship, a series of 10-month programs at universities, will culminate in a community music event; Leadership offers professional musicians a platform to teach remotely at high schools.

As a nonprofit company, Teach to Learn will also depend on grant funding and individual and corporate donations. “We can demonstrate the tangible impact of this program for all our stakeholders,” says team member Mark Adams. “There are global connections, there is community building, and there is an opportunity for musicians to share their expertise and earn a living.”

In the coming year, the team will apply its $15,000 prize to expand its high school programs, launch its university collaborations, and develop a unified technical platform for its mentorship initiatives.

Sky International Music Education: Second Prize

There are approximately 280 million children between the ages of 3 and 18 in China. Sky International Music Education CTO Guo Zhang ’19 believes that many of these children would like to study music (or their parents would like them to.) Yet most qualified music instructors live in big cities — out of reach of rural families.

Sky International Music Education is an online music instruction system that connects aspiring Chinese violinists and pianists with expert teachers in their country. The system also employs artificial intelligence tools that assess a student’s progress and suggests practice techniques. Zhang believes his potential market is huge, and ready to be tapped.

ArtNext: Third Prize

ArtNext, an online leasing service, connects art lovers looking to enjoy artworks in their home or workplace with art galleries. ArtNext seeks to tap the nearly 98 percent of all art gallery objects in storage that generate neither revenue nor aesthetic pleasure.

Using ArtNext, galleries could lease their warehoused artworks for a modest monthly fee, providing enjoyment to the client and a reliable and significant revenue stream for the gallery. ArtNext’s team estimates that individual galleries could pocket up to $170,000 each year through the initiative. ArtNext is launching its pilot program in Boston and hopes to enlist 15 percent of that city’s galleries by 2020.

Along Fault Lines: Audience Choice

Art and urban design can serve as a source of hope to people in urban communities that have suffered trauma. Along Fault Lines’ team member Antonio Moya-Latorre, a second-year graduate student at the Department of Urban Studies (DUSP), saw this firsthand during a visit to Mexico’s earthquake-stricken Oaxaca state as it recovered in 2018. While there, he also saw there was room for much broader healing, and how a global pool of artists and urbanists could contribute to that healing.

As a nonprofit donor-funded company, Along Fault Lines matches distressed communities with grassroots arts organizations and artists around the world. Along Fault Lines has launched a pilot program in Oaxaca and intends to expand its reach to other communities around the world that have been impacted by natural disasters, conflict, and endemic poverty.

Untangling the social dynamics of water

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:30am

Water operator partnerships, or WOPs, bring together water utility employees from different countries to improve public water delivery and sanitation services. “In these partnerships, interpersonal dynamics are so important,” explains Andrea Beck, “and I’m really passionate about hearing people’s stories.” Beck, a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and a 2018-19 J-WAFS Fellow for Water Solutions, is studying the dynamics of water operator partnerships to understand how they create mutual benefit for water utilities worldwide.

WOPs bring together utilities from different countries as peer-to-peer partnerships to encourage mutual learning. Topics covered by these partnerships range from operational issues to finance and human resources.  WOPs were conceived by a United Nations advisory board in 2006 as an alternative to public-private partnerships and have since gained traction across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with over 200 partnerships formed to date. Beck’s research focuses on the development of WOPs in global policy circles, differences between WOPs and public-private partnerships, and conditions for successful partnerships.

A journey of interest

Beck’s interest in water issues and African culture began long before she came to MIT. After finishing high school, Beck volunteered at a cultural center in rural Malawi, where she developed an appreciation for cultural immersion. Her undergraduate and master’s work focused on water resources and trans-boundary water cooperation; during her PhD studies at MIT, Beck shifted her focus to urban water issues, seeking a topic that more personally affected people at smaller scale. Water issues “have always been close to my heart,” she explains. When Beck returned to Malawi for her doctoral fieldwork in 2018, she found her urban water perspective “eye-opening.”  “I was suddenly seeing all of the valves in the ground. I was looking for pipes,” she explained. “If I hadn’t studied that here [at DUSP], I would have been blind” to those elements.

Inspired by Associate Professor Gabriella Carolini in the International Development Group at DUSP, Beck focused her doctoral research on water and sanitation services and the water operators that serve urban populations. In addition to Carolini, she is working with Professor Lawrence Susskind in the DUSP Environmental Policy and Planning Group and Professor James Wescoat in the Department of Architecture. Beck used the United Nations Habitat database of WOPs to gain an overview of all partnerships worldwide. From this background research, she decided to focus on partnerships in Africa due to their prevalence and her previous experience in the region.

In 2018, MIT’s MISTI-Netherlands program sponsored Beck’s participation in a short course on partnerships for water supply and sanitation in the Netherlands. The course’s lecturers were part of a Dutch water company conducting international water partnerships with a range of African countries, including Malawi. Beck then used the connections from the short course and the support from her 2018-19 fellowship from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) to research partnerships underway in the Lilongwe, Malawi water utility, which has worked with partners from the Netherlands, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. She observed meetings between representatives, shadowed workers in the field, and conducted interviews. Beck found that many utilities faced similar challenges, such as non-revenue water, or water lost after pumping. She also found that utilities had much to gain from exchanges with colleagues and peers. For instance, the utility representatives in Lilongwe, Malawi were excited about their partnership with Rwanda because they saw an opportunity to share their experiences as peers.

Beck found ample support at MIT for her dissertation project. “I’m drawing on development studies, urban planning, geography, and ethnographic approaches, and MIT has allowed me to bring all of this together,” she explains. Beck has received funding from J-WAFS, DUSP, MISTI-Netherlands, the Center for International Studies, and MISTI-Africa. “They’ve been great resources,” she says, “and I’ve felt that there is an understanding and an appreciation for qualitative research and the contributions it can make.” Beck also highlighted that the short course sponsored by MISTI-Netherlands, and the water utility connections she forged there, were “absolutely instrumental in [her] research.”

Beck has great appreciation for the J-WAFS Fellowship as well. The open-ended nature of the funding gave her the academic freedom to pursue the research questions she was interested in, while the additional time allowed Beck to digest her fieldwork and think about how to drive her research forward in new ways.

Taking a deeper dive

In the future, Beck would like to study high-performing utilities across Africa, in places such as Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Swaziland. “I want to do more research into these utilities,” she explains, “and understand what other utilities could learn from them.” She will begin this work soon, having recently received an award from the Water Resource Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers that will support a research trip to Rabat, Morocco, to study WOPs there. She would also like to conduct additional interviews in the Netherlands, since Dutch representatives are involved in many utility partnerships in Africa.

Beck’s qualitative research into partnership dynamics provides a necessary perspective on the effectiveness of WOPs. Being able to “follow along [with utility partners], hang out with them, chat with them while they’re doing their work, is something that has really enriched my research,” she explains. Beck’s analysis is one of the first to compare learning dynamics between north-south and south-south WOPs; most studies examine one partnership in detail. Her work could pinpoint ways to improve current water utility partnerships. As the world grows increasingly interconnected and water grows scarcer, integrating multiple perspectives into these issues will provide a more stable grounding to create robust solutions for issues of water access and social equity.

UPOP’s new career peer-mentoring program reaches for the STARS

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:25am

MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) has striven to enhance the effectiveness of MIT students by providing professional development and career education to MIT sophomores since its inception in 2001. This past year, a new student leadership pilot program — the UPOP STARS (Student Taskforce Advancing Retention and Success) — was integrated into all aspects of the yearlong program to provide a fresh perspective and add another layer of community.

“Many of the roughly 600 UPOP graduates who are still juniors and seniors at MIT are fiercely enthusiastic and supportive of the program, so setting up a STARS team seemed like a great opportunity to provide peer education and mentoring to the current class of UPOP sophomores. The pilot year has been extremely successful, and we plan to make the STARS an ongoing component of the UPOP experience,” said Joel Schindall, acting faculty director of UPOP.

After months of planning and design involving a heavy amount of student input and best practices from nationally recognized peer career-advising programs, the UPOP STARS program was born. The inaugural class’s leaders — lovingly nicknamed PopSTARS — were seniors Ryan Koeppen, Jen McDermott, Marissa Steinmetz, Gabe Valdes, and Kim Veldee.

After an intensive training in proper career coaching methods, the STARS immediately were put to task to bring the message of professional development to MIT sophomores by helping to recruit 500-plus students to UPOP’s Class of 2021. After a successful campaign, they jumped into onboarding by assisting with orientation and résumé reviews. Over the course of three months, the STARS were able to review all of the résumés, many of which needed multiple revisions. Altogether, the STARS engaged in more than 650 in-person and email check-ins with the UPOP students.

“It was absolutely incredible to have them be a part of the team. With only five full-time UPOP staff members, it can be quite the undertaking to onboard 500 students every fall, so it was a welcome addition to have these STARS act as a force multiplier to bring an increased amount of support to all of our students,” says Justin Crim, UPOP’s student program administrator.

Résumé reviews were only the tip of the iceberg. The STARS all brought their own unique backgrounds and experiences to mentor other students.

“Over the past semester, I was very stressed about the internship process, especially the interviews. I felt overwhelmed by all of the resources at MIT and on the internet, which only increased my anxiety,” says sophomore Varsha Sridhar, a current UPOP student. “Luckily, I was able to reach out to UPOP and meet Jen, a PopSTAR. Her advice not only prepared me for technical interviews but also helped me calm down and feel more confident in myself. I am also grateful for her empathy and patience throughout our meetings, especially when I asked way too many questions. Overall, the PopSTARS program has been a very valuable resource to me at MIT. Jen’s guidance has helped me through this past semester and will probably be advice I will use in the future as well. I am glad that I was able to consult PopSTARS, because it not only provided me with a new resource, but also a basis for support into the next few years.”

With the fall semester behind them, the STARS pivoted to exploring ways to engage graduates of UPOP, as well as the greater MIT community. After exploring several opportunities, they set out on the path of paving the way for current MIT first-year students to make informed decisions about their major declarations via a new event called the First-Year Major Mixer.

“I struggled a lot with deciding on a major, and ended up not declaring until months into my sophomore year,” said Marissa Steinmetz, a Course 15 (Sloan School of Management) major. “We thought it would be fun and helpful to bring juniors and seniors together to talk to first-years about the experiences they’ve had in their majors.”

Hundreds of Insomnia Cookies were consumed as more than 80 first-year students attended the STARS’ Major Mixer in April. More than 35 UPOP-alum juniors and seniors, spanning the vast majority of majors and minors offered to undergraduates, discussed their majors and the internship opportunities they afforded. The STARS created comprehensive data sheets on all the majors, covering popular classes, average salaries, and relevant student groups, to name a few. The Major Mixer was timed to help first-years make informed decisions before the official major declaration day later that month.

The STARS program will continue next year, and hopefully beyond, to help guide the next classes of UPOP sophomores.

“The STARS have brought considerable passion, energy, and talent to their roles this year, and leave big shoes to fill for next year’s peer career advisors. It will be exciting to see the program continue to grow and innovate how we provide professional development to MIT sophomores,” says Reza Rahaman, director of UPOP.

MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities is a co-curricular program, and part of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. UPOP is open to MIT sophomores of all majors, and will be accepting applications for the class of 2022 in fall 2019. For more information visit:

Dwaipayan Banerjee receives 2019 Levitan Prize in the Humanities

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:20am

Assistant Professor Dwaipayan Banerjee of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) has been awarded the 2019 James A. (1945) and Ruth Levitan Prize in the Humanities. The prestigious award comes with a $29,500 grant that will support Banerjee's research on the history of computing in India.

Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), announced the award, noting that a committee of senior faculty had reviewed submissions for the Levitan Prize and selected Banerjee’s proposal as the most outstanding.

“Dwai’s work is extremely relevant today, and I look forward to seeing how his new project expands our understanding of technology and technological culture as a part of the human world,” Nobles says.

Postcolonial India and computing

Banerjee’s scholarship centers on the social contexts of science, technology, and medicine in the global south. He has two book projects now nearing completion: "Enduring Cancer: Health and Everyday Life in Contemporary India" (forthcoming in 2020, Duke University Press) and "Hematologies: The Political Life of Blood in India" (forthcoming in 2019, Cornell University Press; co-authored with J. Copeman). Both books assess how India’s post-colonial history has shaped, and been shaped by, practices of biomedicine and health care.

Banerjee says he was delighted to receive the Levitan Award, which is presented annually by SHASS to support innovative and creative scholarship in one of the Institute’s humanities, arts, or social science fields. “Its funds will go a long way in helping explore archives about computational research and technology spread across India, some of which have yet to receive sustained scholarly attention,” he says.

Global computing histories

Banerjee's Levitan project will investigate the post-colonial history of computing in India from the 1950s to today. “Contemporary scholarly and popular narratives about computing in India suggest that, even as India supplies cheap IT labor to the rest of the world, the country lags behind in basic computing research and development,” he says. “My new project challenges these representations.”

Banerjee adds, “In presenting this account, I urge social science research, which has predominantly focused on the history of computing in Europe and the United States, to take account of more global histories of computing.”

The project, titled "A Counter History of Computing in India," will trace major shifts in the relation between the Indian state and computing research and practice. Banerjee explains that “In the first decades after India’s independence, the postcolonial state sought to develop indigenous computing expertise and infrastructure by creating public institutions of research and education, simultaneously limiting private enterprise and the entry of global capital.”

Noting that today the vision for development relies heavily on private entrepreneurship, Banerjee asks: “Why and how did the early post-colonial vision of publicly-driven computing research and development decline?”

Policy, computing, and outsourcing

More broadly, Banerjee plans to investigate how changing policies have impacted the development of computing and shaped the global distribution of expertise and labor. “After economic liberalization in the 1980s, a transformed Indian state gave up its protectionist outlook and began to court global corporations, giving rise to the new paradigm of outsourcing."

Banerjee says he will endeavor to answer the question, “What is lost when a handful of U.S.-based corporations seek to determine hierarchies of technology work and control how its social benefits are globally distributed?” The Levitan Prize will support Banerjee's field research in India and help him develop a multi-city archive of primary sources relating to the history of computational science and technology in the region.

First awarded in 1990, the Levitan Prize in the Humanities was established through a gift from the late James A. Levitan, a 1945 MIT graduate in chemistry who was also a member of the MIT Corporation.

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

Solving equations to design safer ships

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 10:10am

David Larson ’16, SM ’18 spends much of his time thinking about boats. He has been a competitive sailor since high school. In his free time, he designs and tinkers with boats and is a member of the MIT Nautical Association Executive Committee. As a PhD student in MIT’s Laboratory for Ship and Platform Flows, he works on modeling ship-wave interactions to understand how ships behave in severe storms.

“I think I got into design and engineering through the sailing route,” says Larson. “I wanted to understand the physics of what was happening when I was out on the water.”

It was sailing that first drew Larson, who grew up near the water in San Diego, California, to MIT. On a trip as a first-year in high school, he stayed at a hotel on Memorial Drive and watched sail boats dart along the Charles River. Four years later, he enrolled at MIT.

Initially intent on studying physics, Larson quickly determined that he was most interested in mechanical engineering and ocean engineering classes. As a sophomore, he took class 2.016 (Hydrodynamics), taught by Paul Sclavounos, professor of mechanical engineering and naval architecture. The class would end up shaping the rest of his academic career.

On the second day of teaching 2.016, Sclavounos told students about his experiences designing for the America’s Cup. Larson knew some of the sailors with whom Sclavounos had worked. The two struck up a conversation after class, marking the beginning of their collaboration.

“Professor Sclavounos was the most influential in encouraging me to continue studying ocean engineering and naval architecture,” recalls Larson. Sclavounos recognized Larson’s talent and passion, often taking time after class to explain theories that Larson hadn’t yet learned.

“He was by far the best student in the class and was eagerly sought after by other students to help them through the course,” adds Sclavounos. “It was immediately evident to me that he possessed an intelligence and maturity unusual for his age.”

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2016, Larson enrolled in MIT’s graduate program for mechanical engineering and ocean engineering. The summer between his undergraduate and graduate studies, he went back to his native California for an internship with Morrelli and Melvin Design and Engineering.

As an intern, Larson got to apply the concepts he learned as an undergrad — like controls, geometry optimization, and fluid mechanics — to real-world ship design. “That experience gave me a lot of practical insight into what the actual ship design process entails,” says Larson.

Back at MIT, Larson has spent his graduate studies working with Sclavounos on developing stochastic models for how ships interact with waves. While his work seems at times theoretical and abstract, it is grounded in a very practical problem: keeping ships safe in extreme weather.

“What I’m doing is motivated by practical ship design and manufacturing,” explains Larson. “I’m working to create a framework that gets more accurate predictions for how ships behave in severe storms, and to get those predictions fast enough to use in iterative design.”

Current models have come a long way in enhancing our ability to predict how waves move in the ocean. But many existing models that predict how ships move in waves, while extremely powerful, are constrained to one or two degrees of freedom, or often used over-simplified hull geometries. Larson hopes to take those models to the next level.

“The key components of our method are that we can take any realistic ship geometry directly from a CAD program, put that geometry through our model that treats the full six degrees of freedom, and get predictions for how these ships will behave in waves,” explains Larson.

Understanding how these ships behave in rough water could have immediate industrial applications. In addition to helping sailors find the safest route for their vessels, the predictions could be used to someday facilitate interactive ship design.

“My long-term goal is to eventually create an interface that can be used by design and manufacturing engineers for iterative design and optimization of the next generation of ships,” says Larson.

When Larson needs a break from mathematical equations and modeling, he uses CAD to design boats. “My research is quite mathematical, so designing boats is my outlet for reconnecting with the experimental and practical work I loved doing as an undergrad,” he adds.

Whether it’s designing boats in his spare time, competitive sailing, umpiring collegiate races across New England, helping the MIT Sailing Pavilion design its next fleet of dinghies, or developing a model to predict how ships behave in choppy seas — Larson will continue to pursue the passion for sailing he developed in childhood.

Experiments reveal the physics of evaporation

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 9:40am

It’s a process so fundamental to everyday life — in everything from your morning coffeemaker to the huge power plant that provides its electricity — that it’s often taken for granted: the way a liquid boils away from a hot surface.

Yet surprisingly, this basic process has only now, for the first time, been analyzed in detail at a molecular level, in a new analysis by MIT postdoc Zhengmao Lu, professor of mechanical engineering and department head Evelyn Wang, and three others at MIT and Tokyo University. The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

“It turns out that for the process of liquid-to-vapor phase change, a fundamental understanding of that is still relatively limited,” Wang explains. “While there’s been a lot of theories developed, there actually has not been experimental evidence of the fundamental limits of evaporation physics.”

It’s an important process to understand because it is so ubiquitous. “Evaporation is prevalent in all sorts of different types of systems such as steam generation for power plants, water desalination technologies, membrane distillation, and thermal management, like heat pipes, for example,” Wang says. Optimizing the efficiency of such processes requires a clear understanding of the dynamics at play, but in many cases engineers rely on approximations or empirical observations to guide their choices of materials and operating conditions.

By using a new technique to both control and detect temperatures at the surface of an evaporating liquid, the researchers were able to identify a set of universal characteristics involving time, pressure and temperature changes that determine the details of the evaporation process. In the process, they discovered that the key factor determining how fast the liquid could evaporate was not the temperature difference between the surface and the liquid, but rather the difference in pressure between the liquid surface and the ambient vapor.

The “rather simple question” of how a liquid evaporates at a given temperature and pressure, has remained unanswered despite many decades of study, says Pawel Keblinski, professor and head of Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), who was not involved in this work. “While theorists speculated for over a century, experiment was of little help, as seeing the evaporating liquid-vapor interface and knowing the temperature and pressure near the interfaces is extremely challenging,” he says.

This new work, Keblinski says, “brings us closer to the truth.” Along with other new observational techniques developed by others, the new insights will “put us on the path to finally quantify the evaporation process after a century of efforts,” he says.

The researchers’ success was partly the result of eliminating other factors that complicate the analysis. For example, evaporation of liquid into air is strongly affected by the insulating properties of the air itself, so for these experiments the process was observed in a chamber with only the liquid and vapor present, isolated from the surrounding air. Then, in order to probe the effects right at the boundary between the liquid and the vapor, the researchers used a very thin membrane riddled with small pores to confine the water, heat it up, and measure its temperature.

That membrane, just 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter) thick, made of silicon nitride and coated with gold, carries water through its pores by capillary action, and is electrically heated to cause the water to evaporate. Then, “we also use that membrane as the sensor, to sense the temperature of the evaporating surface in an accurate and noninvasive way,” Lu says.

The gold coating of the membrane is crucial, he adds. The electrical resistance of the gold varies directly as a function of the temperature, so by carefully calibrating the system before the experiment, they are able to get a direct reading of the temperature at the exact point where evaporation is taking place, moment by moment, simply by reading the membrane’s resistance.

The data they gathered “suggests that the actual driving force or driving potential in this process is not the difference in temperature, but actually the pressure difference,” Wang says. “That's what makes everything now aligned to this really nice curve, that matches well with what theory would predict,” she says.

While it may sound simple in principle, actually developing the necessary membrane with its 100-nanometer-wide pores, which are made using a method called interference lithography, and getting the whole system to work properly took two years of hard work, she says.

Overall, the findings so far “are consistent with what theory predicts,” Lu says, but it is still important to have that confirmation. “While theories have predicted things, there’s been no experimental evidence that the theories are correct,” Wang adds.

The new findings also provide guidance for engineers designing new evaporation-based systems, providing information on both the selection of the best working fluids for a given situation, as well as the conditions of pressure and removal of ambient air from the system. “Using this system as a guideline you can sort of optimize the working conditions for certain kinds of applications,” Lu says.

This team did a series of elegant experiments designed to confirm theoretical predictions,” says Joel Plawsky, professor of chemical and biological engineering at

RPI, who was not involved in this work. “The apparatus was unique and painstakingly difficult to fabricate and operate. The data was exceptional in its quality and detail. Any time one can collapse a large spread of data by developing a dimensionless formulation,” that is, one that applies equally well under a wide variety of conditions, “that represents a major advance for engineering,” he says.

Plawsly adds, “There are many questions that this work opens up about the behavior of different fluids and of fluid mixtures.  One can imagine many years’ worth of follow-on work.”

The team also included Ikuya Kinefuchi at the University of Tokyo and graduate students Kyle Wilke and Geoffrey Vaartstra at MIT. The work was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

Getting the oil out of water

Sun, 06/09/2019 - 11:59pm

Oil and water are famously reluctant to mix fully together. But separating them completely — for example, when cleaning up an oil spill or purifying water contaminated through fracking — is a devilishly hard and inefficient process that frequently relies on membranes that tend to get clogged up, or “fouled.”

A new imaging technique developed at MIT could provide a tool for developing better membrane materials that can resist or prevent fouling. The new work is described in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces, in a paper by MIT graduate students Yi-Min Lin and Chen Song and professor of chemical engineering Gregory Rutledge.

Cleaning up oily wastewater is necessary in many industries, including petroleum refining, food processing, and metal finishing, and the untreated waste can be damaging to aquatic ecosystems. Methods of removing oily contaminants vary, depending on the relative amounts of oil and water and the sizes of the oil droplets. When the oil is emulsified, the most efficient cleanup method is the use of membranes that filter out the tiny oil droplets, but these membranes quickly get fouled by the droplets and require time-consuming cleaning.

But the fouling process is very hard to observe, making it difficult to assess the relative advantages of different materials and architectures for the membranes themselves. The new technique developed by the MIT team could make such evaluations much easier to carry out, the researchers say.

These filtration membranes “tend to be very hard to look inside of,” Rutledge says. “There’s a lot of effort to develop new types of membranes, but when they get put in service, you want to see how they interact with the contaminated water, and they don’t lend themselves to easy examination. They are usually designed to pack in as much membrane area as possible, and being able to look inside is very hard.”

The solution they developed uses confocal laser scanning microscopy, a technique in which two lasers are scanned across the material, and at the point where the two beams cross, a material marked with a fluorescent dye will glow. In their approach, the team introduced two fluorescent dyes, one to mark the oily material in the fluid, the other to mark the fibers in the filtration membrane. The technique allows the material to be scanned not only across the area of the membrane, but also into the depth of the material, layer by layer, to build up a full 3-D image of the way the oil droplets are dispersed in the membrane, which in this case is composed of an array of microscopic fibers.

The basic method has been used in biological research, to observe cells and proteins within a sample, Rutledge explains, but it has not been applied much to studying membrane materials, and never with both the oil and the fibers labelled. In this case, the researchers are observing droplets that range in size from about 10 to 20 microns (millionths of a meter), down to a few hundred nanometers (billionths of a meter).

Until now, he says, “methods for imaging pore spaces in membranes were pretty crude.” For the most part, the pore characteristics were inferred by measuring flow rates and pressure changes through the material, giving no direct information about how the oily material actually builds up in the pores. With the new process, he says, “now you can actually measure the geometry, and build a three-dimensional model and characterize the material in some detail. So what’s new now is that we can really look at how separation takes place in these membranes.”

By doing so, and by testing the effects using different materials and different arrangements of the fibers, “this should give us a better understanding of what fouling really is,” Rutledge says.

The team has already demonstrated that the interaction between the oil and the membrane can be very different depending on the material used. In some cases the oil forms tiny droplets that gradually coalesce to form larger drops, while in other cases the oil spreads out in a layer along the fibers, a process called wetting. “The hope is that with a better understanding of the mechanism of fouling, people will be able to spend more time on the techniques that are more likely to succeed” in limiting that fouling, Rutledge says.

The new observational method has clear applications for engineers trying to design better filtration systems, he says, but it also can be used for research on the basic science of how mixed fluids interact. “Now we can begin to think about some fundamental science on the interaction between two-phase liquid flows and porous media,” he says. “Now, you can develop some detailed models” of the process.

And the detailed information about how different structures or chemistries perform could make it easier to engineer specific kinds of membranes for different applications, depending on the types of contaminants to be removed, the typical sizes of the droplets in these contaminants, and so on. “In designing membranes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he says. “Potentially you can have different types of membranes for different effluents.”

The method could also be used to observe the separation of different kinds of mixtures, such as solid particles in a liquid, or a reverse situation where the oil is dominant and the membrane is used to filter out water droplets, such as in a fuel filtration system, Rutledge says.

“When I read his paper in depth, I was impressed by Greg’s way of using 3-D imaging to understand the complex fouling process in membranes used for oil-water emulsions,” says William J. Koros, the Roberto C. Goizueta Chair for Excellence in Chemical Engineering and GRA Eminent Scholar in Membranes at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not involved in this research.

The research was supported, in part, by the cooperative agreement between the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi and MIT.

MIT class of 2019 witnesses $500 million climate pledge

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 4:03pm

In his Commencement address to the MIT graduating Class of 2019, entrepreneur, engineer, and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a landmark pledge to combat climate change: a $500 million investment in a program called Beyond Carbon.

Referring to the 50th anniversary this year of humankind’s first landing on the moon — made possible in part through an MIT-developed guidance system — Bloomberg said his new initiative aims for a total shift to clean energy sources “as expeditiously as possible” and amounts to a kind of moonshot for today’s generation. “I hope that you will all become part of it,” he told the MIT audience.

“All of you are part of an amazing institution that has proven — time and time again —that human knowledge and achievement is limitless. In fact, this is the place that proved moonshots are worth taking,” he said.

Bloomberg added that “I hope you will carry with you MIT’s tradition of taking — and making — moonshots. Be ambitious in every facet of your life. … Because just trying to make the impossible possible can lead to achievements you never dreamed of. And sometimes, you actually do land on the moon.”

He delivered his address under a cloudless sky in MIT’s Killian Court, where this week 1,086 undergraduate students and 1,368 graduate students received their degrees, at the Doctoral Ceremony on June 6 and the Commencement exercises on June 7.

“The challenge that lies before you — stopping climate change — is unlike any other ever faced by humankind,” Bloomberg said. “The stakes could not be higher.”

The new initiative announced today, Bloomberg said, would have four components.

“First, we will push states and utilities to phase out every last U.S. coal-fired power plant by 2030 — just 11 years from now.” He stressed that he knows this is possible, because the country is already more than halfway there, with 289 coal plants closed since 2011, when he joined with the Sierra Club for an initiative called Beyond Coal. “A decade ago no one would have believed that we could take on the coal industry and close half of all U.S. plants. But we have,” he said.

In places where jobs are being lost, Beyond Carbon intends to support local organizations working to spur economic growth and retrain workers for jobs in growing industries, Bloomberg said.

The initiative’s second component is to stop the construction of new gas plants. “By the time they are built, they will already be out of date — because renewable energy will be cheaper,” he said, noting that in many parts of the country this is already the case. “We don’t want to replace one fossil fuel with another. We want to build a clean energy economy — and we will push more states to do that,” he said.

Third, he said, “we will support our most powerful allies — governors, mayors, and legislators — in their pursuit of ambitious policies and laws, and we will empower the grassroots army of activists and environmental groups that are currently driving progress state-by-state.”

And finally, because climate change is currently a political problem, not a scientific or technological one, Bloomerg said, the initiative will be engaged in elections across the country. “At least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancement and more on political activism. … Our message to elected officials will be simple: Face reality on climate change, or face the music on election day,” he said.

While many people think of tackling climate change as something that will require personal and financial sacrifice, Bloomberg took the opposite view: “We intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need, but by investing in things we want: more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less-congested roads.”

Bloomberg said that “I believe we will succeed again — but only if one thing happens and that is: You have to help lead the way by raising your voices, by joining an advocacy group, by knocking on doors, by calling your elected officials, by voting, and getting your friends and family to join you.”

Following Bloomberg’s address, Peter Su, president of the MIT Graduate Student Council, gave remarks emphasizing the great variety of people and programs embodied in MIT. He told the graduates that as they go about their new careers, “if we’re all going to truly build a better world, we’ll need that diversity of perspectives, and the willingness and ability to work together across disciplines.”

Su urged the graduates to take time to focus not just on the technical and business aspects of their careers or the projects they are working on, but to “consider also the social and ethical implications, and how your fellow human beings, as both individuals and as society, will react and respond.”

Trevor McMichael, president of the Class of 2019, also addressed the graduates, urging them to keep in touch with each other as they began their new lives after graduation. “If someone is important to you, do not let them go. Call them. Plan to meet them. Go the extra mile for them. Because if they helped you through this wild journey called MIT, that is a person worth holding onto,” he said.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his charge to the graduating class, echoed the importance of taking action to make the world better. “After you depart for your new destinations, I want to ask you to hack the world — until you make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind. And because the people of MIT also like to fix things that are broken, as you strive to hack the world, please try to heal the world, too.”

Reif too alluded to the Apollo 11 moon landing and MIT’s role in it. Referring to the alumni present from MIT’s class of 1969, who were sporting the signature red jackets worn by graduates who have celebrated their 50th reunion, he said, “I believe our 1969 graduates might all agree on the most important wisdom we gained from Apollo: It was the sudden, intense understanding of our shared humanity and of the preciousness and fragility of our blue planet. Fifty years later, those lessons feel more urgent than ever. And I believe that, as members of the great global family of MIT, we must do everything in our power to help make a better world.”

In that spirit, he said, “So now, go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. Shoot for the moon!”

Michael Bloomberg's Commencement address

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 1:38pm

Below is the text of the Commencement address delivered by entrepreneur, philanthropist, and three-term New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg for the Institute's 2019 Commencement held June 7, 2019.

As excited as all of you are today, there's a group here that is beaming with pride and that deserves a big round of applause – your parents and your families.

You've been very lucky to study at a place that attracts some of the brightest minds in the world. And during your time here, MIT has extended its tradition of groundbreaking research and innovation. Most of you were here when LIGO proved that Einstein was right about gravitational waves, something that I – as a Johns Hopkins engineering graduate – claimed all along.

And just this spring, MIT scientists and astronomers helped to capture the first-ever image of a black hole. Those really are incredible accomplishments for MIT.

All of you are part of an amazing institution that has proven – time and time again – that human knowledge and achievement is limitless. In fact, this is the place that proved moonshots are worth taking.

Fifty years ago next month, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the moon. It's fair to say the crew never would have gotten there without MIT. I don't just mean that because Buzz Aldrin was class of '63 here, and took Richard Battin's famous astro-dynamics course. As Chairman Millard mentioned, the Apollo 11 literally got there thanks to its navigation and control systems that were designed right here at what is now the Draper Laboratory.

Successfully putting a man on the moon required solving so many complex problems. How to physically guide a spacecraft on a half-million-mile journey was arguably the biggest one, and your fellow alums and professors solved it by building a one-cubic-foot computer at the time when computers were giant machines that filled whole rooms.

The only reason those MIT engineers even tried to build that computer in the first place was that they had been asked to help do something that people thought was either impossible or unnecessary.

Going to the moon was not a popular idea back in the 1960s. And Congress didn't want to pay for it. Imagine that, a Congress that didn't want to invest in science. Go figure – that would never happen today.

President Kennedy needed to persuade the taxpayers that a manned mission to the moon was possible and worth doing. So in 1962, he delivered a speech that inspired the country. He said, ‘We choose to go to the moon this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

In that one sentence, Kennedy summed up mankind's inherent need to reach for the stars. He continued by saying, ‘That challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and which we intend to win.’

In other words, for the good of the United States, and humanity, it had to be done. And he was right. Neil Armstrong took a great leap for mankind, the U.S. won a major Cold War victory, and a decade of scientific innovation led to an unprecedented era of technological advancement.

The inventions that emerged from that moonshot changed the world: satellite television, computer microchips, CAT scan machines, and many other things we now take for granted – even video game joysticks.

The world we live in today is fundamentally different, not just because we landed on the moon, but because we tried to get there in the first place. In hindsight, President Kennedy’s call for the original moonshot at exactly the right moment in history was brilliant. And the brightest minds of their generation – many of them MIT graduates – delivered.

Today, I believe that we are living in a similar moment. And once again, we'll be counting on MIT graduates – all of you – to lead us.

But this time, our most important and pressing mission – your generation's mission – is not only to explore deep space and reach faraway places. It is to save our own planet, the one that we're living on, from climate change. And unlike 1962, the primary challenge before you is not scientific or technological. It is political.

The fact is we've already pioneered the technology to tackle climate change. We know how to power buildings using sun and wind. We know how to power vehicles using batteries charged with renewable energy. We know how to power factories and industry using hydrogen and fuel cells. And we know that these innovations don't require us to sacrifice financially or economically. Just the opposite, these investments, on balance, create jobs and save money.

Yes, all of those power sources need to be brought to scale – and that will require further scientific innovation which we need you to help lead. But the question isn't how to tackle climate change. We've known how to do that for many years. The question is: why the hell are we moving so slowly?

The race we are in is against time, and we are losing. And with each passing year, it becomes clearer just how far behind we've fallen, how fast the situation is deteriorating, and how tragic the results can be.

In the past decade alone, we've seen historic hurricanes devastate islands across the Caribbean. We've seen ‘thousand-year floods’ hit the Midwestern and Southern United States multiple times in a decade. We've seen record-breaking wildfires ravage California, and record-breaking typhoons kill thousands in the Philippines.

This is a true crisis. If we fail to rise to the occasion, your generation, your children, and grandchildren will pay a terrible price. So scientists know there can be no delay in taking action – and many governments and political leaders around the world are starting to understand that.

Yet here in the United States, our federal government is seeking to become the only country in the world to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. The only one. Not even North Korea is doing that.

Those in Washington who deny the science of climate change are no more based in reality than those who believe the moon landing was faked. And while the moon landing conspiracy theorists are relegated to the paranoid corners of talk radio, climate skeptics occupy the highest positions of power in the United States government.

Now, in the administration's defense: climate change, they say, is only a theory. Yeah, like gravity is only a theory.

People can ignore gravity at their own risk, at least until they hit the ground. But when they ignore the climate crisis they are not only putting themselves at risk, they are putting all humanity at risk.

Instead of challenging Americans to believe in our ability to master the universe, as President Kennedy did, the current administration is pandering to the skeptics who, in the 1960s, looked at the space program and only saw short-term costs, not long-term benefits.

President Kennedy's era earned the nickname, ‘The Greatest Generation’ – not only because they persevered through the Great Depression and won the Second World War. They earned it because of determination to rise, to pioneer, to innovate, and to fulfill the promise of American freedom.

They dreamed in moonshots. They reached for the stars. And they began to redeem – through the civil rights movement – the failures of the past. They set the standard for leadership and service to our nation's ideals.

Now, your generation has the opportunity to join them in the history books. The challenge that lies before you – stopping climate change – is unlike any other ever faced by humankind. The stakes could not be higher.

If left unchecked, the climate change crisis threatens to destroy oceanic life that feeds so many people on this planet. It threatens to breed war by spreading drought and hunger. It threatens to sink coastal communities, devastate farms and businesses, and spread disease.

Now, some people say we should leave it in God's hands. But most religious leaders, I’m happy to say, disagree. After all, where in the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran, or any other book about faith or philosophy does it teach that we should do things that make floods and fires and plagues more severe? I must have missed that day in religion class.

Today, most Americans in both parties accept that human activity is driving the climate crisis and they want government to take action. Over the past few months, there has been a healthy debate – mostly within the Democratic Party – over what those actions should be. And that's great.

In the years ahead, we need to build consensus around comprehensive and ambitious federal policies that the next Congress should pass. But everyone who is concerned about the climate crisis should also be able to agree on two realities.

The first one is given opposition in the Senate and White House, there is virtually no chance of passing such policies before 2021. And the second reality is we can't wait to act. We can't put this mission off any longer. Mother Nature does not wait on the election calendar – and neither can we.

Our foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been working for years to rally cities, states, and businesses to lead on this issue – and we've had real success. Just not enough.

So today, I'm happy to announce that, with our foundation, I am committing $500 million to the launch of a new national climate initiative, and I hope that you will all become part of it. We are calling it Beyond Carbon. The last one was Beyond Coal, this is Beyond Carbon because we have greater goals.

And our goal is to move the U.S. toward a 100 percent clean energy economy as expeditiously as possible, and begin that process right now. We intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need, but by investing in things we want: more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less congested roads.

To do it, we will defeat in the courts the EPA's attempts to rollback regulations that reduce carbon pollution and protect our air and water. But most of our battles will take place outside of Washington. We are going to take the fight to the cities and states – and directly to the people. And the fight will take place on four main fronts.

First, we will push states and utilities to phase out every last U.S. coal-fired power plant by 2030 – just 11 years from now. Politicians keep making promises about climate change mitigation by the year 2050 – hypocritically, after they're long gone and no one can hold them accountable. Meanwhile, the science keeps moving the possible inflection point of irreversible global warming closer and closer. We have to set goals for the near-term – and we have to hold our elected officials accountable for meeting them.

We know that closing every last U.S. coal-fired power plant over the next 11 years is achievable because we're already more than half-way there. Through a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club, we've shut down 289 coal-fired power plants since 2011, and that includes 51 that we have retired since the 2016 presidential election despite all the bluster from the White House. As a matter of fact, since Trump got elected the rate of closure has gone up.

Second, we will work to stop the construction of new gas plants. By the time they are built, they will already be out of date – because renewable energy will be cheaper. Cities like Los Angeles are already stopping new gas plant construction in favor of renewable energy, and states like New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, and California are working to convert their electrical systems to 100 percent clean energy.

We don't want to replace one fossil fuel with another. We want to build a clean energy economy – and we will push more states to do that.

Third, we will support our most powerful allies – governors, mayors, and legislators – in their pursuit of ambitious policies and laws, and we will empower the grassroots army of activists and environmental groups that are currently driving progress state-by-state.

Together, we will push for new incentives and mandates that increase renewable power, pollution-free buildings, waste-free industry, access to mass transit, and sales of electric vehicles, which are now turning the combustion engine – and all of its pollution – into a relic of the industrial revolution.

Fourth, and finally, we will get deeply involved in elections across the country, because climate change is now first and foremost a political problem, not a scientific quandary, or even a technological puzzle.

Now, I know that as scientists and engineers, politics can be a dirty word. I'm an engineer – I get it. But I'm also a realist so I have three words for you: get over it.

At least for the foreseeable future, winning the battle against climate change will depend less on scientific advancement and more on political activism.

That’s why Beyond Carbon includes political spending that will mobilize voters to go to the polls and support candidates who actually are taking action on something that could end life on Earth as we know it. And at the same time, we will defeat at the voting booth those who try to block action and those who pander with rhetoric that just kicks the can down the road.

Our message to elected officials will be simple: face reality on climate change, or face the music on Election Day. Our lives and our children's lives depend on it. And so should their political careers.

Now, most of America will experience a net increase in jobs as we move to renewable energy sources and reductions in pollution. In some places jobs are being lost – we know that, and we can’t leave those communities behind.

For example, generations of miners powered America to greatness – and many paid for it with their lives and their health. But today they need our help to change with technology and the economy.

And while it is up to the federal government to make those investments, Beyond Carbon will continue our foundation's work to show that progress really is possible. So we will support local organizations in Appalachia and the western mountain states and work to spur economic growth and re-train workers for jobs in growing industries.

Taken together, these four elements of Beyond Carbon will be the largest coordinated assault on the climate crisis that our country has ever undertaken.

We will work to empower and expand the volunteers and activists fighting these battles community by community, state by state. It's a process that our foundation and I have proved can succeed. After all, this isn't the first time we've done an end run around Washington.

A decade ago no one would have believed that we could take on the coal industry and close half of all U.S. plants. But we have.

A decade ago no one would have believed we could take on the NRA and pass stronger gun safety laws in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. But we have.

Two decades ago, no one would have believed that we could take on the tobacco industry and spread New York City's smoking ban to most of America and to countries around the world. But we have.

And now, we will take on the fossil fuel industry to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. I believe we will succeed again – but only if one thing happens and that is: you have to help lead the way by raising your voices, by joining an advocacy group, by knocking on doors, by calling your elected officials, by voting, and getting your friends and family to join you.

Back in the 1960's, when scientists here at MIT were racing to the moon, there was a popular saying that went: if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. Today, Washington is a very, very big part of the problem.

We have to be part of the solution through political activism that puts the screws to our elected officials. Let me reiterate, this has gone from a scientific challenge to a political one.

It is time for all of us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time. As President Kennedy said 57 years ago of the moon mission: we are willing to accept this challenge, we are unwilling to postpone it, and we intend to win it. We must again do what is hard.

Graduates, we need your minds and your creativity to achieve a clean energy future. But that is not all. We need your voices. We need your votes. And we need you to help lead us where Washington will not. It may be a moonshot – but it's the only shot we've got.

As you leave this campus I hope you will carry with you MIT's tradition of taking – and making – moonshots. Be ambitious in every facet of your life. And don't ever let something stop you because people say it's impossible. Let those words inspire you. Because just trying to make the impossible possible can lead to achievements you never dreamed of. And sometimes, you actually do land on the moon.

Tomorrow start working on the mission that, if you succeed, will lead the whole world to call you the Greatest Generation, too.

Thank you, and congratulations.

President L. Rafael Reif’s charge to the Class of 2019

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 9:51am

Below is the prepared text of the charge to the graduates by MIT President L. Rafael Reif for the Institute’s 2019 Commencement, held June 7, 2019.

Thank you, Trevor!  And thank you, Mike, for your thoughtful and inspiring remarks.

To the graduates of 2019:  Congratulations!  My job today is to deliver a “CHARGE” to you… and I will get to that in a minute. But first, I want to recognize the people who helped you charge this far!

To everyone who came here this morning, to celebrate our graduates – welcome to MIT!

And to the parents and families of today’s graduates, a huge “Congratulations” to you as well!  This day is the joyful result of your loving support and sacrifice. Please accept our deep gratitude and admiration. 

(Now, graduates, for this next acknowledgment, I need your help. Over my left shoulder, there’s a camera. In a moment, I’m going to ask all of you to cheer and wave to it, all right? Just cheer and wave.  And I would love it if you make it… loud!!)

Next, I would like to offer a special greeting to all those who were not able to come to campus, but who are cheering-on today’s graduates online, from locations all over the globe. We are very glad to have you with us, too!

Now, graduates, this is the moment! Please cheer and wave! Now, wait. I’m pretty sure you have taken physics and electricity – so you know something about amplification.
So let’s try this again.  (And remember … I still have your diplomas!)

So one more time – let’s cheer and wave!

It is great to have all of you here on Killian Court, on this wonderful day, for this tremendously important occasion.

But before we send our new graduates out into the world, first, I must beg your indulgence, on behalf of… my wife. Christine Reif is a wonderful person. (And she’s sitting right there.) But she has one weakness: She is crazy about astronauts, and about outer space.

July 20th of this year marks 50 years since the first human walked on the Moon. For those of you graduating, I know this is ancient history – your parents’ history! Or even your grandparents’! So perhaps not all of you have been focused on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

But because Mrs. Reif also loves the Institute, she has asked that, in addition to giving you a charge, I also prepare you for a mission.

In the next few weeks, you will encounter all sorts of Moon-landing hoopla. So she wants to make sure that every one of you is well-equipped with precisely engineered conversation deflectors. That way, when people start talking on and on about NASA, and Houston, and the great vision of President Kennedy, you can steer the discussion right back to MIT.

So to do this, I’m going to give you one final little prep quiz.  I read the question…and you fill in the blank, OK? (And please make it loud!) 

(And to the parents and grandparents: Texting them the answers is not allowed!)



In 1961, NASA realized that the Moon-landing required the invention of a computer-guidance-system that was miniaturized, foolproof and far more powerful than any the world had ever seen. So NASA did not call Harvard. NASA called ____________ [“MIT!”]

I knew you would be good at this!


The first person to walk on the Moon was a man. But at MIT, among the very first programmers hired for the Apollo project was not a man, but a ____________ [“Woman!”]

A woman! You got it!  Her name is Margaret Hamilton. She played a key role in developing the software that made the moon-landing possible. By the way, Margaret Hamilton was also one of the first to argue that computer programming deserved as much respect as computer hardware. So she insisted on describing her work with a brand-new term: “software engineering.”  

OK, just one more.


The second person to walk on the moon was Buzz Aldrin. Buzz was the first astronaut to have a doctoral degree, and he earned it from the school that has produced more astronauts than any non-military institution. In fact, of the 12 humans who have walked on the moon, four graduated from that same institution…which is known by just three letters: [“MIT!”]  

You are brilliant!  I knew you could do it!  “The Beaver has landed!” Mrs. Reif, I believe they are ready.

As you prepare for lift-off, I would like to use the Apollo story to reflect on a few larger lessons we hope you learned at MIT… because the spirit of that magnificent human project speaks to this community’s deepest values…

and its highest aspirations.

The first lesson is the power of interdisciplinary teams. We live in a culture that loves to single-out heroes. We love to crown superstars.

As graduates of MIT, however, I expect you are already skeptical of stories of scientific triumph that have only one hero. You know by now that if you want to do something big, like detect gravitational waves in outer space, or decode the human genome, or tackle climate change, or finish an 8.01 pset before sunrise – you cannot do it without a team.

As Margaret Hamilton herself would be quick to explain, by 1968, the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory had 600 people working on the moon-landing-software. At its peak, the MIT-hardware-team was 400! And from Virginia to Texas, NASA engaged thousands more.

In short, she was one star in a tremendous constellation of talent. And together, those stars created something impossible for any one of them to create alone.

From your time at MIT, I trust all of you have experienced that feeling – of learning from each other, respecting each other, and depending on each other. And I hope that this instinct for sharing the work, and sharing the credit, is something you never forget.

The Moon-landing-story reflects many other MIT values. To seek-out bold ideas. To not be afraid of “impossible” assignments. And always, to stay humble (especially when it comes to the laws of nature!) The Apollo story also proves how much human beings can accomplish when we invest in research, and put our trust in science.

But the final lesson I want to emphasize is not technical, and it could not be more important for our time.

Just over on that side of Killian Court, showing off their spectacular red jacket, are more than 170 members of the Class of 1969. Apollo 11 landed on the Moon a few weeks after their MIT graduation. A number of them went on to work in fields that were greatly accelerated by progress from Apollo 11. (One of them is Irene Greif, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT!)

But I believe our 1969 graduates might all agree on the most important wisdom we gained from Apollo: It was the sudden, intense understanding of our shared humanity and of the preciousness and fragility of our blue planet.

50 years later, those lessons feel more urgent than ever. And I believe that, as members of the great global family of MIT, we must do everything in our power to help
make a better world. So it is in that spirit that I deliver my charge to you.

I’m going to use a word that feels very comfortable at MIT – although it has taken on a troubling new-meaning elsewhere. But I know that our graduates will know
what I mean.

After you depart for your new destinations, I want to ask you to hack the world – until you make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind. 

And because the people of MIT also like to fix things that are broken, as you strive to hack the world, please try to heal the world, too. 

Our society is like a big, complicated family, in the midst of a terrible argument. I believe that one-way to make it better is to find ways to listen to each other, to understand our differences, and to work constantly to remind each other of our common humanity. I know you will find your own ways to help with this healing, too.

This morning, we share with the world nearly 3,000 new graduates who are ready for this urgent and timeless problem-set.

You came to MIT with exceptional qualities of your own. And now, after years of focused and intense dedication, you leave us, equipped with a distinctive set of skills and steeped in this community’s deepest values: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Meritocracy. Boldness. Humility. An open spirit of collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.

So now, go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. Shoot for the Moon! And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.

On this wonderful day, I am proud of all of you. To every one of the members of the graduating Class of 2019: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career.  Congratulations!

At doctoral ceremony, a strong call to provide opportunity for all

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 4:38pm

Distinguished biochemist Squire Booker PhD ’94 emphasized the importance of opportunity for all, in his keynote speech at today’s 2019 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods and Degree Conferral, a ceremony for MIT’s new doctoral degree holders.

While congratulating MIT’s doctoral graduates, Booker also urged them to give back to society and to take responsibility for helping others accomplish their own goals — however daunting those goals, such as a PhD, may seem.

“Almost anyone can excel if given the chance,” Booker said. “Take advantage of opportunities, and make the most of them. But also, work to provide opportunities for others. That’s how you will grow as a future leader.”

Reflecting on his own trajectory, from a childhood when he knew no one working in the sciences to a career on the front lines of discovery, Booker called himself “just an average guy from southeast Texas, no different than anyone else.” But he said new opportunities had “made all the difference” in his career. One key moment of opportunity, Booker said, was his graduate training at the Institute.

“MIT gave me my first real opportunity to explore scientific research and realize my passion for discovery and working with people from all over the world to solve problems,” Booker said. He credited his mentors with “helping me to achieve goals that I didn’t even know existed when I undertook this journey, or that I didn’t even have for myself. I can honestly say my cup runneth over today.”

Booker is the Evan Pugh Professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology and Eberly Family Distinguished Chair in Science at Penn State University. He is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and in April of this year was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

During his career, Booker has conducted significant research uncovering the ways enzymes catalyze reactions within cells, a line of work with applications ranging from medicine to biofuels.

The ceremony honors graduate students who have earned their doctoral degrees within this academic year. It was held this year in MIT’s Killian Court, where a large audience of family members and friends filled the seats. Killian Court is also the site of Friday’s 2019 Commencement exercises.

Graduates from 26 departments, programs, and centers at the Institute, as well as MIT’s joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, received degrees on Thursday. MIT faculty — who wear the brightly colored formal garb of the universities where they received their own doctorates — placed doctoral hoods, a part of the formal academic clothing, over the shoulders of the new graduates. 

In his remarks, Booker said he shared the experience this year’s doctoral graduates have gone through, and understood how hard they have worked at the Institute.

“I don’t just imagine the blood, the sweat, the tears, and the immense amount of time that you put into arriving at this point in your careers and your lives,” Booker said. “I actually experienced it firsthand as a graduate student here at MIT between 1987 and 1994.” He cited his graduate advisor, JoAnne Stubbe, as an important influence on his career.

Booker infused his remarks with self-deprecating humor, joking that he first thought MIT had ask him to speak by mistake. But he also spoke earnestly about the serious hurdles he had faced in his life.

Booker grew up in what he described as a segregated environment in Beaumont, Texas. He noted that it was not uncommon for him to hear teachers make disparaging remarks about the abilities of African-Americans, adding, “A career in science was about as likely as winning the lottery … largely because there were no role models.”

Raised by a grandmother with the help of three uncles, Booker earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and first came to MIT in 1986, as part of the Institute’s MIT Summer Research Program, which now supports 40 interns every year from underrepresented backgrounds.

That stint at MIT helped lead Booker to enter the graduate program, where he studied biochemistry. It also gave him a greater awareness of the travails of black scientists who had gone before him — partly through the work of MIT’s Kenneth Manning, the Thomas Maloy Professor in Rhetoric, whose 1983 book, “Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just,” chronicled the life of a pioneering black researcher excluded from American academia.

In his speech, Booker outlined the lives of both Just and Percy Lavon Julian, an innovative 20th-century African-American research chemist who also spent decades excluded from a conventional professorship in academia.

“We’re still trying to recover from the bigotry and misogyny of the past, some of which still exist,” Booker said. In that vein, he noted, in 2008, he became the first Afrcian-American professor in Penn State’s chemistry department.

‘That it took so long is completely tragic,” said Booker, observing that countless talented people had been excluded from promising careers and fulfilling lives as a result of prejudice.

“America’s strength is its people,” Booker said. “And there is so much untapped potential in people who have been traditionally disenfranchised, including people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and the differently abled.”

At the same time, Booker added, “In fact, first-generation white students, or students from modest socioeconomic backgrounds, are the ones that I have impacted the greatest, directly, at Penn State. And you can’t imagine how appreciative they have been to have been given the chance, and some direction.”

Booker was introduced by MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88, the Ford Foundation Professor of Engineering, who briefly delivered her own remarks to the graduates.

“Today is about honoring the accomplishment and success of all of you, our doctoral candidates,” Barnhart said. “Congratulations. Each and every one of you have succeeded. … You were curious and creative, determined to problem-solve, to collaborate, and to innovate.”

Barnhart also called the doctoral hooding ceremony a “delightfully hopeful moment where infinite possibilities stretch out in front of you,” and asked the graduates to rise in appreciation of their friends and families who have supported their efforts.

This is the fifth year in a row that MIT’s doctoral hooding ceremony has had a keynote speaker — who is annually drawn from the ranks of past MIT doctoral graduates. Booker was chosen with input from the MIT community.

The festive, bright regalia of the doctoral ceremony represents a mix of old traditions and recent changes. Formal academic wear, at least of the kind seen at commencement ceremonies, dates to the 1400s, if not earlier. However, American universities did not agree to standards for such gowns and hoods until 1893.

At MIT, the doctoral degree robes were redesigned as recently as 1995. MIT gowns feature a silver-gray robe with a cardinal red velvet front panel, and are embellished by cardinal red velvet bars on the sleeves. Additional color markings signify whether graduates have received the Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) or the Doctor of Science degree (ScD). Silver-gray academic caps complement the gowns. The doctoral hoods are an accessory to the main robe ensemble.

After Barnhart’s introductory remarks and Booker’s speech, all doctoral graduates had their names announced as they walked across the stage one by one. The newly minted degree holders then had the hoods draped over their shoulders by their department or program heads.

The names of all the new doctoral degree holders were read aloud, one after another, by two MIT staff members: Monica Lee, a senior communications officer in the Department of Facilities; and Steven M. Lanou, a project manager in the Office of Sustainability.

MIT Corporation elects 11 term members, three life members

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 1:59pm

The MIT Corporation — the Institute’s board of trustees — elected nine full-term members, who will each serve for five years, two partial-term members, who will each serve for one year, and three life members, during its quarterly meeting held today. Corporation Chair Robert B. Millard ’73 announced the election results; all positions are effective July 1.

The nine full-term members are: Patricia R. Callahan ’75, SM ’77; Hala Fadel MBA ’01; Alan M. Leventhal; Laird M. Malamed ’89; Paul R. Marcus ’81; Sarah Melvin ’18; Neil E. Rasmussen ’76, SM ’80; David M. Siegel SM ’86, PhD ’91; and Charles “C.J.” Whelan III ’92, ’93.

The two partial-term members are: Wesley G. Bush ’83, SM ’83 and Orit Gadiesh.

The three life members are: Roger C. Altman; John W. Jarve ’78, SM ’79; and Martin Y. Tang SM ’72.

The Corporation also announced R. Erich Caulfield SM ’01, PhD ’06 as the 2019-2020 president of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT, effective July 1. He succeeds Whelan, who will return to the Corporation for a five-year term.

As of July 1, the Corporation will consist of 75 distinguished leaders in education, science, engineering, and industry; of those, 24 are life members and eight are ex officio. An additional 35 individuals are life members emeritus.

Life members serve without a specific term until they turn 75 years old, while term members serve for five years. Both types of members have voting rights in the Corporation. Alumni nominees and representatives of recent graduating classes also serve five-year terms. At age 75, life members become life members emeritus/a; while they no longer have a vote, they continue to play an active role in Institute affairs.

This year’s elected term members:

Patricia R. Callahan, retired senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Wells Fargo and Company

Callahan received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and her master’s degree in management and finance from MIT in 1975 and 1977, respectively. She began her career at Wells Fargo, formerly Crocker National Bank, in 1977, serving in various roles in operations, finance, and product management. After the merger with Wells Fargo, she held various positions in senior management, including head of systems, operations, and finance for the Commercial Real Estate Group and Wholesale Banking; head of corporate human resources; and head of compliance and enterprise risk management. From 2008 to 2011, Callahan provided oversight and strategic direction for the merger of Wells Fargo and Wachovia Corporation. In 2011, she was promoted to chief administrative officer and became responsible for managing corporate communications, corporate social responsibility, enterprise marketing, government relations, and corporate human resources. She retired in 2015 and currently serves on the visiting committee for MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Hala Fadel, co-founder and managing partner at Leap Ventures

Fadel earned an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2001. She is a co-founder and managing partner at Leap Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on global technology companies with operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. She has 20 years of experience in finance and entrepreneurship, working as a portfolio manager for 12 years in European equities at Comgest, a $22 billion growth equity fund. Fadel founded and chairs the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan-Arab Region, an organization that promotes entrepreneurship and organizes, among other things, the MIT Arab startup competition and the Innovate for Refugees Initiative. She recently co-founded the MIT ReACT Hub, delivering computer and data science certificates from MIT to displaced populations. Fadel sits on the executive board of the MIT Sloan School of Management. She founded and chairs Ruwwad Lebanon, a nonprofit focused on community building in disenfranchised areas through education and volunteerism.

Alan M. Leventhal, chairperson and chief executive officer of Beacon Capital Partners

Leventhal received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Northwestern University in 1974 and an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College in 1976. He has been a Corporation member since 2013 and currently serves on the visiting committees for MIT’s departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Urban Studies and Planning, and the Music and Theater Arts Section. In addition to his membership in the Corporation, he has served as the chair of the Boston University Board of Trustees and the chair of the Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation, and is a life trustee at Northwestern University, among other activities.

Laird M. Malamed, director of operations and general manager at Facebook (Oculus)

Malamed has enjoyed over 25 years in various entertainment and technology fields. He was founding COO of Oculus VR, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion. Malamed has continued at Facebook in various operational roles, and he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where he teaches every spring. Malamed created his own major at MIT and graduated in 1989 with a joint bachelor’s degree in film and media studies and aeronautical and astronautical engineering. In subsequent years, he worked on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” for Lucasfilm and various TV shows for Sony Pictures. He joined Activision in 1995, where he helped create the game series “Call of Duty,” drive software and hardware operations on “Guitar Hero,” and launch the children’s game “Skylanders.” In 2011, Malamed joined the faculty at USC’s Interactive Media and Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts, where he currently teaches a graduate thesis preproduction course each spring.

Paul R. Marcus, CEO, Marcus Partners

Marcus graduated from MIT in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He is the CEO of Marcus Partners, a real estate investment firm with offices in Boston, New York, and Washington. He currently serves on the board of Business Executives for National Security (BENS) and co-chairs the BENS-Boston Chapter. He was a founding member of the 484 Phi Alpha Foundation, an MIT-affiliated educational foundation, and is a founder of the Boston-based Autism Consortium. He is currently a member of the Boston Children’s Hospital Chairman’s Council and has served a 10-year term as a member of the Trust Board of Children’s Hospital Boston, where he was a founder of the Children’s Hospital Developmental Medicine Center Philanthropic Leadership Council. Marcus served as chair of the board and is a past president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP). He currently serves on the MIT Corporation visiting committees for the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Political Science, and Urban Studies and Planning.

Sarah Melvin, strategy analyst at Accenture

Melvin double majored in physics and political science as an MIT undergraduate. During the 2017-2018 academic year, she served as the president of the MIT Undergraduate Association, working to improve the MIT experience for all undergraduates. In this role, she partnered with the Division of Student Life and the Graduate Student Council to launch SwipeShare, a program that enables students to donate unused dining hall meals to other students facing food insecurity. Melvin also collaborated with the vice chancellor on the redesign of the first-year academic experience. During her time at MIT, Melvin held a UROP at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and took her research project abroad to the University of Amsterdam with a grant from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). She also participated in the MIT Washington Summer Internship Program, during which she worked at an international development organization. Currently, Melvin works as a strategy analyst at Accenture, focusing on pricing and commercial treatment strategy.

Neil E. Rasmussen, retired senior vice president of innovation at Schneider Electric

Rasmussen earned his bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1976 and his master’s in 1980, both in electrical engineering and computer science. He worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratory from 1979 to 1981, where he and two other staff members spun off the company American Power Conversion (APC). Over the next 26 years, as CTO and director, Rasmussen helped APC grow from zero to $3 billion in revenue, and the company became listed in the S&P 500. During that time, he operated an R&D organization with a staff reaching 1,500, and held key roles in strategy, acquisitions, and marketing. Rasmussen holds 30 patents and has published over 60 papers related to power and cooling systems. After APC was acquired for $6.1 billion in 2007, Rasmussen took on the role of senior vice president of innovation within the new parent company, Schneider Electric. In 2015 he stepped down from Schneider to focus on nonprofit work, including managing the Neil and Anna Rasmussen Foundation.

David M. Siegel, co-chairperson at Two Sigma

After graduating from Princeton University, Siegel earned a PhD in computer science from MIT. In 2001, he co-founded the financial sciences company Two Sigma, which is transforming activities across financial services from investment management to insurance. He founded Siegel Family Endowment in 2011 to support organizations and leaders that understand and shape the impact of technology on society. He is the chair of the Board of Overseers at Cornell Tech and a board member of Carnegie Hall and of the Robin Hood Learning and Tech Fund. After co-founding the board of New York City FIRST, he joined the national FIRST board. His service also includes roles on the Global Advisory Board of Khan Academy, the Advisory Board for Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and the Advisory Council for Princeton’s Center on Information Technology Policy. In 2014, he co-founded the Scratch Foundation to support Scratch, an MIT-originated, block-based programming language and online community for kids.

Charles “C.J.” Whelan III, founder of Front Range Technology Group, LLC

Whelan earned bachelor’s degrees from MIT in electrical engineering in 1992 and management science in 1993. His professional career has been concentrated in the telephony and teleconferencing industry, including founding or co-founding a number of companies. He recently sold his teleconferencing services company, Conserto, where he was CTO and co-founder with another MIT graduate. Currently, Whelan is consulting for the telecommunications and software industries. He has also been active in municipal politics in his hometown of Centennial, Colorado, including recently completing a four-year term on City Council and conducting a bid for mayor in 2017. He has also served as president of the Cunningham Fire Protection District, and has served on or chaired numerous community and civic organizations.

The two partial-term members are:

Wesley G. Bush, chairperson of the Northrop Grumman Corporation

Bush received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT in electrical engineering and computer science in 1983. He has worked in the aerospace and defense industry since starting at COMSAT Labs under MIT’s co-op program. After MIT, Bush worked at The Aerospace Corporation, then became a systems engineer at TRW’s Space Park facility in 1987. Prior to Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of TRW in 2002, Bush led numerous space program activities, served as vice president of TRW Ventures, and was the president and chief executive officer of TRW’s UK-based Aeronautical Systems business. At Northrop Grumman, he served as the president of the company’s space technology sector, then as its chief financial officer. He became president of the company in 2006. He served as chief executive officer from 2010 through 2018 and became chairperson in 2011. Bush serves on the boards of Northrop Grumman, General Motors, Dow, Conservation International, Inova Health System, and the Greater Washington Partnership. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Orit Gadiesh, chairperson of Bain and Company Inc.

Gadiesh earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1977 and graduated in the top 5 percent of her class. She was a Baker Scholar and received the Brown Prize for the most outstanding marketing student. She joined Bain and Company in 1977 and has been the chairperson since 1993. Gadiesh is a world-renowned expert on management and corporate strategy. She has advised multiple CEOs and senior executives of major international companies on strategy development and the implementation of change. She has counseled top-level management on structuring and managing portfolios, developing and implementing global strategy, executing turnarounds, improving organizational effectiveness, and designing both cost reduction and growth programs.

The three life members are:

Roger C. Altman, founder and senior chairperson at Evercore

Altman is founder and senior chairperson of Evercore, which, for many years, has been the most active independent investment bank in the United States. He began his investment banking career at Lehman Brothers and became a general partner of that firm in 1974. Beginning in 1977, he served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for four years. He then returned to Lehman Brothers, later becoming co-head of overall investment banking and a member of the firm’s management committee and its board. He remained in those positions until the firm was sold. In 1987, Altman joined The Blackstone Group as vice chairperson, head of the firm’s advisory business, and a member of its Investment Committee. In 1993, he returned to Washington to serve as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury for two years. He formed Evercore in 1995.

John W. Jarve, partner emeritus at Menlo Ventures

Jarve received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT in 1978, and his master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University in 1983. He is a partner emeritus at Menlo Ventures, a venture capital firm, which he joined in 1985. Menlo Ventures provides capital for multistage consumer, enterprise, and life sciences technology companies. He has served as a Corporation member in various capacities since 1998, and has served on the development committee of the Corporation since 1996. He currently serves on MIT’s visiting committees for the departments of Materials Science and Engineering, Nuclear Science and Engineering, and Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation. He served as the president of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT from 2013-2014 and the vice president of that organization in 1996.

Martin Y. Tang, private investor

Tang received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1970 from Cornell University before attending MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he earned a master’s degree in management in 1972. In 2018, he was conferred the title of doctor of letters (honores causa) by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Currently a private investor, Tang spent 16 years with Spencer Stuart, a leading management consulting firm specializing in senior-level executive search and board director appointments. Prior to joining Spencer Stuart, Tang ran Norman Broadbent HK Ltd. in Hong Kong. He was an executive director of Techno-Ventures (Hong Kong) Ltd., a venture capital firm, from 1986 to 1988. Early in his career, he was with Bank of America in San Francisco and Taiwan. He then worked as an executive director of the publicly listed South Sea Textile Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in Hong Kong and Indonesia.

President of the Association of Alumni and Alumnae of MIT:

R. Erich Caulfield, founder and president of The Caulfield Consulting Group

Caulfield obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT in 2001 and 2006, respectively. After two years as an associate at McKinsey and Company, he served as the chief policy advisor to Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and to the city’s business administrator in 2008. While there, he was responsible for directing the city’s federal economic stimulus-related efforts, which involved reviewing, implementing, and tracking projects totaling $360 million. In 2010, Caulfield was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as a White House Fellow, working at the White House Domestic Policy Council. In 2011, Caulfield assumed the role of New Orleans Community Solutions team lead for the Obama White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Initiative. In 2013, Caulfield founded The Caulfield Consulting Group, a New Orleans-based management consulting firm that specializes in helping clients to improve their organization’s performance and grow through planning, coordination, and operational support. Recently, in this role, Caulfield served as the director of policy development for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Transition Team.

Neurons’ “antennae” are unexpectedly active in neural computation

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:59am

Most neurons have many branching extensions called dendrites that receive input from thousands of other neurons. Dendrites aren’t just passive information-carriers, however. According to a new study from MIT, they appear to play a surprisingly large role in neurons’ ability to translate incoming signals into electrical activity.

Neuroscientists had previously suspected that dendrites might be active only rarely, under specific circumstances, but the MIT team found that dendrites are nearly always active when the main cell body of the neuron is active.

“It seems like dendritic spikes are an intrinsic feature of how neurons in our brain can compute information. They’re not a rare event,” says Lou Beaulieu-Laroche, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the study. “All the neurons that we looked at had these dendritic spikes, and they had dendritic spikes very frequently.”

The findings suggest that the role of dendrites in the brain’s computational ability is much larger than had previously been thought, says Mark Harnett, who is the Fred and Carole Middleton Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the paper.

“It’s really quite different than how the field had been thinking about this,” he says. “This is evidence that dendrites are actively engaged in producing and shaping the outputs of neurons.”

Graduate student Enrique Toloza and technical associate Norma Brown are also authors of the paper, which appears in Neuron on June 6.

“A far-flung antenna”

Dendrites receive input from many other neurons and carry those signals to the cell body, also called the soma. If stimulated enough, a neuron fires an action potential — an electrical impulse that spreads to other neurons. Large networks of these neurons communicate with each other to perform complex cognitive tasks such as producing speech.

Through imaging and electrical recording, neuroscientists have learned a great deal about the anatomical and functional differences between different types of neurons in the brain’s cortex, but little is known about how they incorporate dendritic inputs and decide whether to fire an action potential. Dendrites give neurons their characteristic branching tree shape, and the size of the “dendritic arbor” far exceeds the size of the soma.

“It’s an enormous, far-flung antenna that’s listening to thousands of synaptic inputs distributed in space along that branching structure from all the other neurons in the network,” Harnett says.

Some neuroscientists have hypothesized that dendrites are active only rarely, while others thought it possible that dendrites play a more central role in neurons’ overall activity. Until now, it has been difficult to test which of these ideas is more accurate, Harnett says.

To explore dendrites’ role in neural computation, the MIT team used calcium imaging to simultaneously measure activity in both the soma and dendrites of individual neurons in the visual cortex of the brain. Calcium flows into neurons when they are electrically active, so this measurement allowed the researchers to compare the activity of dendrites and soma of the same neuron. The imaging was done while mice performed simple tasks such as running on a treadmill or watching a movie.

Unexpectedly, the researchers found that activity in the soma was highly correlated with dendrite activity. That is, when the soma of a particular neuron was active, the dendrites of that neuron were also active most of the time. This was particularly surprising because the animals weren’t performing any kind of cognitively demanding task, Harnett says.

“They weren’t engaged in a task where they had to really perform and call upon cognitive processes or memory. This is pretty simple, low-level processing, and already we have evidence for active dendritic processing in almost all the neurons,” he says. “We were really surprised to see that.”

Evolving patterns

The researchers don’t yet know precisely how dendritic input contributes to neurons’ overall activity, or what exactly the neurons they studied are doing.

“We know that some of those neurons respond to some visual stimuli, but we don’t necessarily know what those individual neurons are representing. All we can say is that whatever the neuron is representing, the dendrites are actively participating in that,” Beaulieu-Laroche says.

While more work remains to determine exactly how the activity in the dendrites and the soma are linked, “it is these tour-de-force in vivo measurements that are critical for explicitly testing hypotheses regarding electrical signaling in neurons,” says Marla Feller, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Berkeley, who was not involved in the research.

The MIT team now plans to investigate how dendritic activity contributes to overall neuronal function by manipulating dendrite activity and then measuring how it affects the activity of the cell body, Harnett says. They also plan to study whether the activity patterns they observed evolve as animals learn a new task.

“One hypothesis is that dendritic activity will actually sharpen up for representing features of a task you taught the animals, and all the other dendritic activity, and all the other somatic activity, is going to get dampened down in the rest of the cortical cells that are not involved,” Harnett says.

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Drug makes tumors more susceptible to chemo

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:59am

Many chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells by severely damaging their DNA. However, some tumors can withstand this damage by relying on a DNA repair pathway that not only allows them to survive, but also introduces mutations that helps cells become resistant to future treatment.

Researchers at MIT and Duke University have now discovered a potential drug compound that can block this repair pathway. “This compound increased cell killing with cisplatin and prevented mutagenesis, which is was what we expected from blocking this pathway,” says Graham Walker, the American Cancer Society Research Professor of Biology at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and one of the senior authors of the study.

When they treated mice with this compound along with cisplatin, a DNA-damaging drug, tumors shrank much more than those treated with cisplatin alone. Tumors treated with this combination would be expected not to develop new mutations that could make them drug-resistant.

Cisplatin, which is used as the first treatment option for at least a dozen types of cancer, often successfully destroys tumors, but they frequently grow back following treatment. Drugs that target the mutagenic DNA repair pathway that contributes to this recurrence could help to improve the long-term effectiveness of not only cisplatin but also other chemotherapy drugs that damage DNA, the researchers say.

“We’re trying to make the therapy work better, and we also want to make the tumor recurrently sensitive to therapy upon repeated doses,” says Michael Hemann, an associate professor of biology, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and a senior author of the study.

Pei Zhou, a professor of biochemistry at Duke University, and Jiyong Hong, a professor of chemistry at Duke, are also senior authors of the paper, which appears in the June 6 issue of Cell. The lead authors of the paper are former Duke graduate student Jessica Wojtaszek, MIT postdoc Nimrat Chatterjee, and Duke research assistant Javaria Najeeb.

Overcoming resistance

Healthy cells have several repair pathways that can accurately remove DNA damage from cells. As cells become cancerous, they sometimes lose one of these accurate DNA repair systems, so they rely heavily on an alternative coping strategy known as translesion synthesis (TLS).

This process, which Walker has been studying in a variety of organisms for many years, relies on specialized TLS DNA polymerases. Unlike the normal DNA polymerases used to replicate DNA, these TLS DNA polymerases can essentially copy over damaged DNA, but the copying they perform is not very accurate. This enables cancer cells to survive treatment with a DNA-damaging agent such as cisplatin, and it leads them to acquire many additional mutations that can make them resistant to further treatment.

“Because these TLS DNA polymerases are really error-prone, they are accountable for nearly all of the mutation that is induced by drugs like cisplatin,” Hemann says. “It’s very well-established that with these frontline chemotherapies that we use, if they don’t cure you, they make you worse.”

One of the key TLS DNA polymerases required for translesion synthesis is Rev1, and its primary function is to recruit a second TLS DNA polymerase that consists of a complex of the Rev3 and Rev7 proteins. Walker and Hemann have been searching for ways to disrupt this interaction, in hopes of derailing the repair process.

In a pair of studies published in 2010, the researchers showed that if they used RNA interference to reduce the expression of Rev1, cisplatin treatment became much more effective against lymphoma and lung cancer in mice. While some of the tumors grew back, the new tumors were not resistant to cisplatin and could be killed again with a new round of treatment.

After showing that interfering with translesion synthesis could be beneficial, the researchers set out to find a small-molecule drug that could have the same effect. Led by Zhou, the researchers performed a screen of about 10,000 potential drug compounds and identified one that binds tightly to Rev1, preventing it from interacting with Rev3/Rev7 complex.

The interaction of Rev1 with the Rev7 component of the second TLS DNA polymerase had been considered “undruggable” because it occurs in a very shallow pocket of Rev1, with few features that would be easy for a drug to latch onto. However, to the researchers’ surprise, they found a molecule that actually binds to two molecules of Rev1, one at each end, and brings them together to form a complex called a dimer. This dimerized form of Rev1 cannot bind to the Rev3/Rev7 TLS DNA polymerase, so translesion synthesis cannot occur.

Chatterjee tested the compound along with cisplatin in several types of human cancer cells and found that the combination killed many more cells than cisplatin on its own. And, the cells that survived had a greatly reduced ability to generate new mutations.

“Because this novel translesion synthesis inhibitor targets the mutagenic ability of cancer cells to resist therapy, it can potentially address the issue of cancer relapse, where cancers continue to evolve from new mutations and together pose a major challenge in cancer treatment,” Chatterjee says.

A powerful combination

Chatterjee then tested the drug combination in mice with human melanoma tumors and found that the tumors shrank much more than tumors treated with cisplatin alone. They now hope that their findings will lead to further research on compounds that could act as translesion synthesis inhibitors to enhance the killing effects of existing chemotherapy drugs.

Zhou’s lab at Duke is working on developing variants of the compound that could be developed for possible testing in human patients. Meanwhile, Walker and Hemann are further investigating how the drug compound works, which they believe could help to determine the best way to use it.

“That’s a future major objective, to identify in which context this combination therapy is going to work particularly well,” Hemann says. “We would hope that our understanding of how these are working and when they’re working will coincide with the clinical development of these compounds, so by the time they’re used, we’ll understand which patients they should be given to.”

The research was funded, in part, by an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to Walker, and by grants from the National Cancer Institute, the Stewart Trust, and the Center for Precision Cancer Medicine at MIT.

Helping to foster lifelong learning and bonding at MIT

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 10:30am

It’s no secret that MIT’s reputation as a world-class leader in breakthrough education is a major draw for prospective students. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that many graduates return to the MIT community to serve as members of the faculty or staff, or to engage in ongoing learning, to fill in gaps as technology advances and careers grow.

In research labs and classrooms across the MIT campus — which is quickly developing into one of the most technologically influential square miles on the planet — dozens of alumni are now leading programs and research aimed at helping to train the next generation of innovators and leaders. A number of alumni are also taking part in knowledge enhancement programs offered through MIT Professional Education, as students and facilitators. While each has followed a different path, all share an MIT connection that is second-to-none. 

The boomerang effect

Gergely "Greg" Sirokman’s first exposure to MIT was in 8th grade, when he attended the Splash program, an annual event where 7th and 8th grade students get to take a variety of STEM-related classes taught by MIT students and community members. Years later, he came back to the Cambridge campus to earn his PhD in inorganic chemistry. Today, Sirokman PhD '07 is a full-time professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, but his learning experience at MIT continues.

“Wentworth offers a very generous education reimbursement package, which means they fund a significant amount of classwork. I decided to take advantage of those benefits and enroll in MIT Professional Education courses,” Sirokman says.

Sirokman is among the 84 Institute alumni who have taken advantage of the MIT Professional Education Short Programs over the past five years to actively seek out learning and grow as a member of the MIT community. Since 2007, he has completed a total of seven summer courses, including courses on biofuels, solar energy, and carbon sequestration.

“These courses allowed me to acquire skills and knowledge I didn’t possess yet as a graduate of MIT, and helped fill holes in my education profile,” Sirokman says. “I immediately turned back around and applied the things I learned to the work I was doing at Wentworth.”

Today, Sirokman runs a biodiesel lab at Wentworth and is ramping up a project aimed at mitigating the impending energy crisis. The goal is to produce biodiesel fuel from the waste vegetable oil that comes out of the campus cafeteria, and use it to run the fleet of campus vehicles.

“My mission is to make renewable energy more accessible and train students to have a better understanding and appreciation for renewable energy. Those two things are things I can do better because of the professional education courses I took at MIT,” he says.

Sirokman shares this piece of advice for the Class of 2019: “The accelerated growth of the technological universe is like a run-away train. Actively seek out learning opportunities to keep up with what is happening in science, technology and engineering. Otherwise, you will get left behind.”

Familiar faces carry on MIT’s mission

Another reason alumni feel compelled to return to campus is their desire to carry on MIT’s mission to advance knowledge and effect positive change. That was the case for Kristala Prather '94, the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

“Everyone at MIT is looking to do something special and have an impact by solving some of the world’s biggest challenges,” she says.

Prather first arrived on campus in 1990, back when there was no internet to share real-time updates on research and network with colleagues. After earning her bachelor of science degree, she went on to earn her PhD at the University of California at Berkley. She subsequently worked at Merck Research Labs for several years, and then decided to return home to her alma mater.

“I realized what I liked best about my job in industry had to do with mentoring young scientists and training them to be independent researchers,” she says.

Prather returned as an assistant professor in 2004. Today, her research efforts are centered on the design and assembly of recombinant microorganisms for the production of small molecules, with additional efforts in novel bioprocess design approaches. She also directs an MIT Professional Education course on Fermentation Technology inherited from mentor, Professor Daniel Wang.
“One of the impacts I found I can make is to provide professionals with more of a foundation to help them understand the theory behind the work they are doing in industry,” Prather says.

Her advice to the Class of 2019 is to stay connected to MIT: “MIT is such a strong community," she says. "When I first graduated, I didn’t have a sufficient appreciation for just how many opportunities there are to engage with that community – from MIT Professional Education to seminars and symposiums to the Industrial Liason Program. Graduates should think about what brought them to here to begin with, then ask if there’s a way to remain involved, so they can continue to learn and be at the forefront.”

Online avenues to lifelong learning

Technology has made the world a smaller place and as a result, it is now even easier for alumni to stay connected to campus — even when they live far away. Take Sarah Moran '95 as an example. She graduated from MIT with a BS in mathematics, and now lives in China, where she serves as head of innovation and product at Fidelity Investments.

She recently enrolled in MIT Professional Education Digital Plus Programs so that she could learn more about innovation and leadership from seasoned professionals who could help support her transition to a new role at Fidelity.

“I had been working in quality assurance for the majority of my career and was looking for a new challenge,” she says. “Engaging in the online learning programs helped open my eyes to other viewpoints and helped position me for long-term success.” Moran says she is not only taking classes for herself, but also to share the experience with colleagues and meet new friends virtually around the world.

“We’re proud so many accomplished alums return home to MIT to refuel their knowledge, or to serve as members of faculty in our programs, sharing their research-based knowledge with fellow alums and industry professionals worldwide,” says Bhaskar Pant, executive director at MIT Professional Education. “MIT is after all, a family: an enduring community dedicated to sharing knowledge and giving back for the betterment of humankind.”

Featured video: The MIT Brass Rat

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 5:10pm

Since its debut in 1929, the MIT class ring — affectionately nicknamed the “Brass Rat” for its featured mascot, the MIT beaver — has become a distinctive symbol of the Institute, worn proudly by many of its 138,000 alumni.

Each year, the Brass Rat is redesigned by a committee of 12 students from the second-year class, who then collaborate with the manufacturer, Herff Jones. The committee is responsible for designing, premiering, selling, and delivering the ring to its class. (The MIT graduate ring, known as the “Grad Rat,” is redesigned in a similar process every five years.)

“We try to represent every single community and every single background on the ring,” says Nicholas Salinas, vice chair of the Class of 2021 Ring Committee. “So that way, students are excited and really feel like they have a home here at MIT.”

Video by Melanie Gonick/MIT | 5 min. 17 sec.

How to speed up the discovery of new solar cell materials

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 4:07pm

A broad class of materials called perovskites is considered one of the most promising avenues for developing new, more efficient solar cells. But the virtually limitless number of possible combinations of these materials’ constituent elements makes the search for promising new perovskites slow and painstaking.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT and several other institutions has accelerated the process of screening new formulations, achieving a roughly ten-fold improvement in the speed of the synthesis and analysis of new compounds. In the process, they have already discovered two sets of promising new perovskite-inspired materials that are worthy of further study.

Their findings are described this week in the journal Joule, in a paper by MIT research scientist Shijing Sun, professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, and 16 others at MIT, in Singapore, and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

Somewhat surprisingly, although partial automation was employed, most of the improvements in throughput speed resulted from workflow ergonomics, says Buonassisi. That involves more traditional systems efficiencies, often derived by tracking and timing the many steps involved: synthesizing new compounds, depositing them on a substrate to crystallize, and then observing and classifying the resulting crystal formations using multiple techniques.

“There’s a need for accelerated development of new materials,” says Buonassisi, as the world continues to move toward solar energy, including in regions with limited space for solar panels. But the typical system for developing new energy-conversion materials can take 20 years, with significant upfront capital costs, he says. His team’s aim is to cut that development time to under two years.

Essentially, the researchers developed a system that allows a wide variety of materials to be made and tested in parallel. “We’re now able to access a large range of different compositions, using the same materials synthesis platform. It allows us to explore a vast range of parameter space,” he says.

Perovskite compounds consist of three separate constituents, traditionally labeled as A, B, and X site ions, each of which can be any one of a list of candidate elements, forming a very large structural family with diverse physical properties. In the field of perovskite and perovskite-inspired materials for photovoltaic applications, the B-site ion is typically lead, but a major effort in perovskite research is to find viable lead-free versions that can match or exceed the performance of the lead-based varieties.

While more than a thousand potentially useful perovskite formulations have been predicted theoretically, out of millions of theoretically possible combinations, only a small fraction of those has been produced experimentally so far, highlighting the need for an accelerated process, the researchers say.

For the experiments, the team selected a variety of different compositions, each of which they mixed in a solution and then deposited on a substrate, where the material crystallized into a thin film. The film was then examined using a technique called X-ray diffraction, which can reveal details of how the atoms are arranged in the crystal structure. These X-ray diffraction patterns were then initially classified with the help of a convolutional neural network system to speed up that part of the process. That classification step alone, Buonassisi says, initially took three to five hours, but by applying machine learning, this was slashed to 5.5 minutes while maintaining 90 percent accuracy.

Already, in their initial testing of the system, the team explored 75 different formulations in about a tenth of the time it previously would have taken to synthesize and characterize that many. Among those 75, they found two new lead-free perovskite systems that exhibit promising properties that might have potential for high-efficiency solar cells.  

In the process, they produced four compounds in thin-film form for the first time; thin films are the desirable form for use in solar cells. They also found examples of “nonlinear bandgap tunability” in some of the materials, an unexpected characteristic that relates to the energy level needed to excite an electron in the material, which they say opens up new pathways for potential solar cells.

The team says that with further automation of parts of the process, it should be possible to continue to increase the processing speed, making it anywhere from 10 to 100 times as fast. Ultimately, Buonassisi says, it’s all about getting solar power to be as inexpensive as possible, continuing the technology’s already remarkable plunge. The aim is to bring economically sustainable prices below 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, he says, and getting there could be the result of a single breakthrough in materials: “All you have to do is make one material” that has just the right combination of properties — including ease of manufacture, low cost of materials, and high efficiency at converting sunlight.

“We’re putting all the experimental pieces in place so we can explore faster,” he says.

The work was supported by Total SA through the MIT Energy Initiative, by the National Science Foundation, and Singapore’s National Research Foundation through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

Communities in the cloud

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 1:45pm

The cloud’s very name reflects how many people think of this data storage system: intangible, distant, and disentangled from day-to-day life. But MIT PhD student Steven Gonzalez is reframing the image and narrative of an immaterial cloud. In his research, he’s showing that the cloud is neither distant nor ephemeral: It’s a massive system, ubiquitous in daily life, that contains huge amounts of energy, has the potential for environmental disaster, and is operated by an insular community of expert technicians.

Who's tending the cloud?

“People so often rely on cloud services,” Gonzalez notes, “but they rarely think about where their data is stored and who is storing it, who is doing the job of maintaining servers that run 24/7/365, or the billons of gallons of water used daily to cool the servers, or the gigawatts of electricity that often come from carbon-based grids.”

The first time Gonzalez walked into a server farm, he was enthralled and puzzled by this giant factory filled with roaring computers and by the handful of IT professionals keeping it all running. At the time, he was working with specialized sensors that measured air in critical spaces, including places like the server farm. But the surreal facility led him back to his undergraduate anthropological training: How do these server spaces work? How has the cloud shaped these small, professional communities?

Gonzalez has been fascinated with visible, yet rarely recognized, communities since his first undergraduate ethnography on bus drivers in the small New Hampshire city of Keene. “In anthropology, everyone is a potential teacher,” he says, “Everyone you encounter in the field has something to teach you about the subject that you’re looking at, about themselves, about their world."

Server farms are high-stakes environments

Listening — and a lot of patience — are skills with which Gonzalez cultivated the technical expertise to understand his subject matter. Cloud communities are built around, and depend upon, the technology they maintain, and that technology in turn shapes their behavior. So far, Gonzalez has completed his undergraduate and masters research and degrees, and is currently wrapping up PhD coursework en route to his dissertation. He’s visited server farms across North America and in Scandinavia, where farm operators are seeking to go carbon-free in order to cut the cloud’s carbon emissions, which comprise up to 3 percent of greenhouse gases, according to Greenpeace.

The server-farm technicians function in an extremely high-stakes world: Not only is a massive amount of energy expended on the cloud, but even a few moments of downtime can be devastating. If the systems go down, companies can lose up to $50,000 per minute, depending on what sector (financial, retail, public sector, etc.) and which server racks are affected. “There’s a kind of existential dread that permeates a lot of what they say and what they do,” Gonzalez says. “It’s a very high-stress, unforgiving type of work environment.”

New technology, old gender inequity

In response to these fears, Gonzalez has noted some “macho” performances in language and behavior by cloud communities. The mostly male cloud workforce “tend to use very sexual language,” Gonzalez observes. For instance, when all the servers are functioning properly it’s “uptime”; “They’ll use sexualized language to refer to how ‘potent’ they are or how long they can maintain uptime.”

The cloud communities aren’t exclusively male, but Gonzalez says visibility for women is a big issue. Women tend to be framed as collaborators, rather than executors. Tied up in this sexist behavior is the decades-old patriarchal stereotype that technology is a male domain in which machines are gendered in a way that makes them subordinate.

Although anthropological research is the focus of his academic work, Gonzalez’s interests at MIT have been expansive. With the encouragement of his advisor, Professor Stefan Helmreich, he’s kept his lifelong interest in music and science fiction alive by singing in the MIT Jazz Choir and Concert Choir and taking coursework in science fiction writing. He also enjoyed exploring coursework in history, documentary making, and technology courses. Anthropology is the first among several passions he first discovered during explorations as an undergraduate at Keene State College.

“For me, what makes anthropology so capacious is just the diversity of human experience and the beauty of that,” says Gonzalez. “The beauty of so many different possibilities, different configurations of being, that exist simultaneously.”

The open doors of MIT

Gonzalez was born in Orlando, Florida, to Puerto Rican parents who made sure he always had a connection with the island, where he would spend summers with his grandmother. A first-generation college student, Gonzalez says it was never a given that he would even go to college, let alone earn a doctorate: “I never would have imagined that I would have ended up here. It’s a sad reality that, as a Latino person in this country, I was more likely to end up in prison than in a place like MIT. So I had — and I still do — immense respect and awe for the Institute. MIT has a mystique, and when I first arrived I had to deal with that mystique, getting over the sense that I don’t belong.”

He had big expectations about entering a hugely competitive institution but was surprised to find that, in addition to its competitive edge, the Institute was incredibly supportive. “The thing that surprised me the most was how open everyone’s door was.”

Gonzalez has become more and more deeply involved with the campus goings-on: he's now a Diversity Conduit for the Graduate Student Council Diversity and Inclusion Initiative and is also part of an MIT student initiative that is exploring Institute ties and possible investments in the prison-industrial complex.

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

3Q: Ian Waitz on progress in enhancing the undergraduate and graduate student experience

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 12:40pm

Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education Ian A. Waitz is a key player on “Team Chancellor.” Along with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, the trio is focused on working with students, faculty, and staff to enhance undergraduate and graduate student life and learning.

On certain occasions (such as Random Acts of Kindness Week events, ice cream socials, and other gatherings) they don sports jerseys with their names and numbers printed across the back. With his second year in the vice chancellor role now complete, Waitz spoke about his office’s work and how he approaches problem-solving.

Q: You have made some recent progress on enhancing the graduate student experience, especialy in tackling the financial insecurity that some students face. Can you talk about that and other ways you're working on behalf of MIT’s graduate students?

A: Together with many partners across campus, we’re taking a holistic look at the overall graduate student experience here at MIT. Professional development is high on that list, as are addressing the unique financial needs of graduate students, building community, issues around diversity and inclusion, among other issues. We created a Graduate Student Roadmap that lays the foundation for change, and we are working to implement these initiatives one by one.

One issue that has come to the fore recently is financial insecurity. To their credit, the Graduate Student Council (GSC) made it a priority to bring increased attention to the issue this academic year. Their partnership has been vital. With their insights, and informed by the 2018 Academic Climate Survey and other data, we’ve secured a commitment from each school to implement policies and practices to help reduce financial insecurity among graduate students. For now, we’re focusing on doctoral students with 9-month stipends or who have non-resident status. There’s more work to be done, but this is a significant step in the right direction, and we’re grateful to the school deans, department graduate administrators, and graduate student leaders for their efforts to make it happen.

Along the same lines, we recognize that students with families have higher expenses and unique needs. We established a Graduate Family Support Working Group to analyze the issues that impact this cohort. This year, the group has been cataloging and benchmarking needs, in addition to an external scan of our peers, with the goal of providing an interim report for community feedback this summer.

One other area — among many! — we are working on now is graduate advising. Institutional Research did a meta-analysis of this issue for us. Not surprisingly, it revealed that the graduate student/advisor relationship is the biggest single factor that correlates with student satisfaction. If the fit is good, it can be a lifelong, positive mentoring relationship. If it’s not, it can make life very difficult for grad students and even affect their career interests and aspirations. Given that the stakes are high, it is important to do our very best with it.

We are fortunate that senior leadership, deans, department heads, and so many others have been and are now even more engaged with addressing graduate advising issues, too. Efforts like GradSAGE, the graduate student advisory group in the school of engineering, is notable and has recently launched a pilot to ask faculty members in the departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to develop and post their personal advising philosophy statements online in an effort to help make the advisor/advisee matchmaking process more transparent.

We are also launching a questionnaire to departments to enable us to document existing graduate advising practices across the Institute and identify needs. The questions are generally focused on the advisor selection process, resources for students, feedback to advisors, and training in advising/mentoring. We know students are very interested in the advising feedback loop.

In addition, a team from our office, the Office of Graduate Education, the Teaching and Learning Laboratory, and MindHandHeart is working with professor of chemical engineering Paula Hammond, who was recently charged by School of Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan to develop and run a pilot series of workshops aimed to help faculty understand best practices in managing and mentoring in an academic lab. Ultimately, we hope to scale this up to other departments in the School of Engineering, and then to the Institute level.

Q: One of the initial charges of your office was to improve the undergraduate academic experience. That’s a broad mandate. What specifically have you been working on?

A: Our focus for undergraduates has been on community engagement and building consensus around a core set of needs. Thanks in no small part to student input from the Designing the First-Year Experience class, we now have four overarching needs to guide us: more support for exploring and choosing a major; better advising; more inspiring experiences that cultivate a love of learning; and greater flexibility and/or fewer requirements to enable the other things to happen.

Our most prominent efforts in response to these needs are two phases of an educational experiment approved by the Committee on the Undergraduate Program to enable greater exploration in the first year. Phase One, for students who entered in fall 2018, allows them to take up to three science core GIRs as pass/no record (P/NR) after the first semester. This has allowed many students to reframe their approach to the first semester, namely to spend more time exploring interests (including taking GIRs and other courses) and adjusting to college life.

Phase One data indicated that students are, in fact, exploring more. We’ve also learned that incoming students tend to fall into three buckets in terms of how they explore academic fields. Some arrive here with a specific major in mind, some are considering a few options, and the remainder don’t yet have a clear sense of a major and hope to discover new interests. While Phase One enabled students to deeply explore a few departments, it seemed to have less impact for students who wanted to discover their passions from among a broader range of possibilities.

The Phase Two experiment, for students entering this coming fall, aims to address the needs of this third group of students through a category of First-Year Discovery Subjects. These are 1-3 units and offer students a brief taste of departments across the Institute. They’ll be counted under a separate 9-unit limit, outside the normal first-year credit limit. We hope students who take one or more of these subjects can discover topics that spark their curiosity enough to pursue more deeply through majors, minors, HASS concentrations, and more.

Another key aspect of Phase Two is that students entering in fall 2019 will not be offered Early Sophomore Standing (ESS), which enables students to declare a major early, get an advisor in that major, and exceed the first-year spring credit limit. ESS tends to favor students with a lot of unrestricted elective credit from advanced placement and international baccalaureate exams; it resulted in nearly half the class being eligible this year. Our reasoning is that this will help address the notion that anyone should declare their major after only one semester at MIT; give every student access to advice in departments of interest; and shift the responsibility for determining how many units a student should take to the student and their advisor.

In addition to these two experiments, we have smaller efforts that address the other needs: advising and inspiration. In fall 2019, we will be piloting a “network advising” approach, where students are assigned a staff advisor in the Office of the First Year (OFY), a faculty mentor, and a student Associate Advisor. That way, OFY can handle the more mechanical and specialized advising questions, and faculty can focus on personal or goal-oriented questions. We are also working with the First-Year Learning Communities to test methods for embedding inspiring learning experiences within the first year.

Q: Your office is engaged in some very ambitious goals. Is there anything you’ve learned in the process of moving your agenda forward, or anything that has stood out to you?

A: Implementing change at MIT takes time and isn’t always easy; we get used to the status quo, and sometimes it’s hard to think outside of the box. And inevitably, there are differences of opinion that need to be ironed out. But a guiding principle I always try to come back to is, “What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the best way to go about it?”

You can’t solve a problem unless you define and understand it fully, inside and out. And I’ve found that the best way to do that is a two-pronged approach: to gather as much data and information as you can, and to engage the community as much as possible. We rely on our students and faculty for their input, as well as other people who have a stake in the issue at hand. We’re always trying to find that sweet spot where we can respond to our students’ needs and serve them better, while considering the many variables, parameters, constraints, and other players involved.

With that in mind, one thing that stands out to me is the incredibly valuable partnerships we have built with students, particularly the Undergraduate Association (UA) and the Graduate Student Council (GSC). MIT is somewhat unique among universities in that we have a shared governance model. We have great relationships with the UA and GSC. Chancellor Barnhart, Dean Nelson, and I meet with student leaders regularly, and they are such a pleasure to work with. Many of the ideas and solutions that have bubbled up since I started in this role originated with them. And they volunteer their time even though they already have very full plates! That never ceases to amaze me. Their dedication to making MIT better for students now — and in the future — inspires me, my staff, and everyone on “Team Chancellor” every single day.

Chip design drastically reduces energy needed to compute with light

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 12:07pm

MIT researchers have developed a novel “photonic” chip that uses light instead of electricity — and consumes relatively little power in the process. The chip could be used to process massive neural networks millions of times more efficiently than today’s classical computers do.

Neural networks are machine-learning models that are widely used for such tasks as robotic object identification, natural language processing, drug development, medical imaging, and powering driverless cars. Novel optical neural networks, which use optical phenomena to accelerate computation, can run much faster and more efficiently than their electrical counterparts.  

But as traditional and optical neural networks grow more complex, they eat up tons of power. To tackle that issue, researchers and major tech companies — including Google, IBM, and Tesla — have developed “AI accelerators,” specialized chips that improve the speed and efficiency of training and testing neural networks.

For electrical chips, including most AI accelerators, there is a theoretical minimum limit for energy consumption. Recently, MIT researchers have started developing photonic accelerators for optical neural networks. These chips perform orders of magnitude more efficiently, but they rely on some bulky optical components that limit their use to relatively small neural networks.

In a paper published in Physical Review X, MIT researchers describe a new photonic accelerator that uses more compact optical components and optical signal-processing techniques, to drastically reduce both power consumption and chip area. That allows the chip to scale to neural networks several orders of magnitude larger than its counterparts.

Simulated training of neural networks on the MNIST image-classification dataset suggest the accelerator can theoretically process neural networks more than 10 million times below the energy-consumption limit of traditional electrical-based accelerators and about 1,000 times below the limit of photonic accelerators. The researchers are now working on a prototype chip to experimentally prove the results.

“People are looking for technology that can compute beyond the fundamental limits of energy consumption,” says Ryan Hamerly, a postdoc in the Research Laboratory of Electronics. “Photonic accelerators are promising … but our motivation is to build a [photonic accelerator] that can scale up to large neural networks.”

Practical applications for such technologies include reducing energy consumption in data centers. “There’s a growing demand for data centers for running large neural networks, and it’s becoming increasingly computationally intractable as the demand grows,” says co-author Alexander Sludds, a graduate student in the Research Laboratory of Electronics. The aim is “to meet computational demand with neural network hardware … to address the bottleneck of energy consumption and latency.”

Joining Sludds and Hamerly on the paper are: co-author Liane Bernstein, an RLE graduate student; Marin Soljacic, an MIT professor of physics; and Dirk Englund, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, a researcher in RLE, and head of the Quantum Photonics Laboratory.  

Compact design

Neural networks process data through many computational layers containing interconnected nodes, called “neurons,” to find patterns in the data. Neurons receive input from their upstream neighbors and compute an output signal that is sent to neurons further downstream. Each input is also assigned a “weight,” a value based on its relative importance to all other inputs. As the data propagate “deeper” through layers, the network learns progressively more complex information. In the end, an output layer generates a prediction based on the calculations throughout the layers.

All AI accelerators aim to reduce the energy needed to process and move around data during a specific linear algebra step in neural networks, called “matrix multiplication.” There, neurons and weights are encoded into separate tables of rows and columns and then combined to calculate the outputs.

In traditional photonic accelerators, pulsed lasers encoded with information about each neuron in a layer flow into waveguides and through beam splitters. The resulting optical signals are fed into a grid of square optical components, called “Mach-Zehnder interferometers,” which are programmed to perform matrix multiplication. The interferometers, which are encoded with information about each weight, use signal-interference techniques that process the optical signals and weight values to compute an output for each neuron. But there’s a scaling issue: For each neuron there must be one waveguide and, for each weight, there must be one interferometer. Because the number of weights squares with the number of neurons, those interferometers take up a lot of real estate.

“You quickly realize the number of input neurons can never be larger than 100 or so, because you can’t fit that many components on the chip,” Hamerly says. “If your photonic accelerator can’t process more than 100 neurons per layer, then it makes it difficult to implement large neural networks into that architecture.”

The researchers’ chip relies on a more compact, energy efficient “optoelectronic” scheme that encodes data with optical signals, but uses “balanced homodyne detection” for matrix multiplication. That’s a technique that produces a measurable electrical signal after calculating the product of the amplitudes (wave heights) of two optical signals.

Pulses of light encoded with information about the input and output neurons for each neural network layer — which are needed to train the network — flow through a single channel. Separate pulses encoded with information of entire rows of weights in the matrix multiplication table flow through separate channels. Optical signals carrying the neuron and weight data fan out to grid of homodyne photodetectors. The photodetectors use the amplitude of the signals to compute an output value for each neuron. Each detector feeds an electrical output signal for each neuron into a modulator, which converts the signal back into a light pulse. That optical signal becomes the input for the next layer, and so on.

The design requires only one channel per input and output neuron, and only as many homodyne photodetectors as there are neurons, not weights. Because there are always far fewer neurons than weights, this saves significant space, so the chip is able to scale to neural networks with more than a million neurons per layer.

Finding the sweet spot

With photonic accelerators, there’s an unavoidable noise in the signal. The more light that’s fed into the chip, the less noise and greater the accuracy — but that gets to be pretty inefficient. Less input light increases efficiency but negatively impacts the neural network’s performance. But there’s a “sweet spot,” Bernstein says, that uses minimum optical power while maintaining accuracy.

That sweet spot for AI accelerators is measured in how many joules it takes to perform a single operation of multiplying two numbers — such as during matrix multiplication. Right now, traditional accelerators are measured in picojoules, or one-trillionth of a joule. Photonic accelerators measure in attojoules, which is a million times more efficient.

In their simulations, the researchers found their photonic accelerator could operate with sub-attojoule efficiency. “There’s some minimum optical power you can send in, before losing accuracy. The fundamental limit of our chip is a lot lower than traditional accelerators … and lower than other photonic accelerators,” Bernstein says.