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Local rocks can yield more crops

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 8:30am

Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three elements that support the productivity of all plants used for agriculture, and are the constituents of commercial fertilizers that farmers use throughout the world. 

Potassium (also referred to as potash) is largely produced in the Northern Hemisphere, where is abundant. In fact, the potash market is dominated by just a few producers, largely in Canada, Russia, and Belarus. As a result, potash (and fertilizers in general) can be accessed relatively affordably by farmers in northern regions, where it also happens to be a closer match for the soil nutrient needs of their farms and crops.

But that's not necessarily the case for farmers elsewhere. For tropical growing regions in Brazil and some countries in Africa, differing soil and rock compositions make for a poor match for the fertilizers that are currently on the market. When these fertilizers — which are resource intensive to produce — need to be shipped long distances to reach consumers in Southern Hemisphere countries, costs can skyrocket. When the fertilizer isn’t the right match for the soil needs, farmers may need to add more in order to achieve as much gain as their counterparts in the north, if they are even able to afford more in the first place.    

So while these fertilizers promise higher yields, small- and medium-scale farmers still can end up with lower profits, higher soil salinity, a rapid reduction in overall soil fertility, and increased leaching into groundwater, rivers, and streams. This makes it challenging for these farmers to thrive, especially in Africa. Expensive or unsuitable fertilizer lowers food production capacity, affecting farmers’ economic and nutritional self-sufficiency. Now, at a time when the United Nations projects that global population will rise by to 8.5 billion in 2030 — an overall increase of over 1.2 billion people — the need for local, sustainable fertilizer solutions to increase yields is even more urgent.  

Meeting food security needs with more interdisciplinary research

This mismatch — and the regional food security implications that it entails — was the inspiration for Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, to focus his efforts on finding alternative fertilizer materials. Over the last six years, he has built a research team, including Davide Ciceri, a research scientist in his lab through 2018. 

Having immersed themselves in fertilizers research, Allanore and Ciceri have found the lack of attention by others in the materials science field to this topic surprising. 

“Industry hasn’t put as much thought as is needed into doing research on the raw materials [used in fertilizers],” says Ciceri. “Their product has worked so far, and no one has complained, so there is little space for innovation.” 

Allanore thinks of it this way: “Unfortunately, farming is not a very profitable field.  They make so little compared to those who work in trade or food processing and marketing, which, as a result, have received a lot of investment and attention.  Because of this lack of research investment, we know very little about what happens to some of the elements that we’re putting in the soil.”

This lack of investment is especially problematic for farmers in the Global South who are without affordable access to the fertilizers that are currently available on the market. Motivated by their desire to find local, sustainable fertilizer solutions for African farmers and fueled by J-WAFS seed funding, Allanore, Ciceri, and other members of their research team have created a road map that materials scientists and others can use to develop a new generation of potash-independent fertilizers suitable for African soils. Published last August in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the paper, “Local fertilizers to achieve food self-sufficiency in Africa,” was one the first comprehensive studies of the use of fertilizer across Africa from a materials science perspective. It indicated urgently needed advancements in fertilizer research, technology, and policy, and recommended approaches that can help to achieve the yield gains necessary to meet current and future demand sustainably.

“From the standpoint of materials processing, there’s really so much to do on the mineral resources required for fertilizers,” says Ciceri. “What we wanted to do was to promote a discussion in the community about this. Why is there no research on new fertilizer developments? What strategies are implementable? Is there enough field crop testing that can be done to support what chemists can do in the lab?”

While their paper was geared toward materials scientists, Allanore recognizes that what is needed is an interdisciplinary approach. “We are about to know the full genome of humans, but we don’t yet know how a crop uptakes nutrients,” he says. Collaboration between agronomists, soil scientists, materials scientists, economists, and others can improve our understanding of all of the interactions, materials, and products that go into obtaining the optimal yield of agricultural crops with minimal negative impact on the surrounding ecosystem. He is quick to state, however, that the goal is not to replicate what has been done with modern agriculture, but go beyond it to find sustainable solutions so that the African continent can provide its own food, profitability, and a decent life for the people who are growing crops.

Finding new sources for potassium and testing results

Professor Allanore’s lab has already discovered a potash alternative that is derived from potassium feldspar, a rock that is commonly found all over the world. To Ciceri, finding a solution in feldspar was startlingly obvious.

“Looking back at years of research, I was surprised to find that no one had looked to K-feldspar as a source,” he says. “It’s so abundant. How could it be that in 2015 our research team was the first to get potassium out of it?” 

And yet, that’s just what they’ve been able to do. With the support of a partnership with two Brazilian entities, Terrativa and EMBRAPA (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), the research team was able to develop a hydrothermal process to turn K-feldspar rocks into a new fertilizing material. But while this early collaboration helped the researchers develop an understanding of feldspar and how it could be used as a fertilizer for specific crops in Brazil, the team did not have direct control or access to the agronomic trials. 

That's where J-WAFS funding proved supportive. The 2017 seed grant provided the research team the opportunity to conduct an independent assessment of the fertilizing potential of the new materials, and also contextualize their discovery within a broader conversation about global food security, as they did in their paper.

For crop testing, they began with tomatoes, which are one of the most common and economically important horticultural crops, and ranked among the most consumed vegetables in the world. A collaboration with Allen Barker, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, made it possible. Barker provided greenhouse space for testing, as well as essential expertise in agronomy that helped the MIT research team perform the rigorous analysis of the new material that has, now, determined its effectiveness. 

“This was an extremely important step for our research,” Allanore says. “The J-WAFS funding gave us the freedom to enter into this collaboration with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And, unlike what happens with corporate sponsorship research agreements, in this case we all had open access to the data.” 

Allanore is particularly grateful to the contributions of Barker and his team, since the tests would not have been possible without their participation. The results of this work were published on Jan. 22, in the article “Fertilizing properties of potassium feldspar altered hydrothermally” in the journal Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis. The paper was co-authored by Ciceri, Barker, Allanore, and Thomas Close, another member of the MIT team currently completing his doctorate.

Six MIT researchers elected to the National Academy of Engineering for 2019

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 4:15pm

Six MIT researchers are among the 86 new members and 18 foreign associates elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to "engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature," and to "the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”

The six elected this year include:

Richard D. Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering, for contributions to diagnosis and control of large-scale and molecular processes for materials, microelectronics, and pharmaceuticals manufacturing.

Gareth H. McKinley, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, for contributions in rheology, understanding of complex fluid dynamical instabilities, and interfacial engineering of super-repellent textured surfaces.

Robert T. Morris, a professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for contributions to programmable network routers, wireless mesh networks, and networked computer systems.

Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and director of affective computing research in the MIT Media Lab, for contributions to affective and wearable computing.

Christopher A. Schuh, the department head and the Danae and Vasilis Salapatas Professor in Metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, for contributions to design science and application of nanocrystalline metals.

Christine Wang, a senior staff scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, for contributions to epitaxial crystal growth of III-V compound semiconductors and design of organometallic vapor-phase epitaxy reactors.

“My warm congratulations to the researchers inducted into the National Academy of Engineering for their outstanding contributions as leaders in their fields,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, the dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It is fantastic to see the contributions of our faculty recognized at such a high level.”

Including this year’s inductees, 138 members of the NAE are current or retired members of the MIT faculty and staff, or members of the MIT Corporation.

Six MIT researchers elected to the National Academy of Engineering for 2019

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 4:15pm

Six MIT researchers are among the 86 new members and 18 foreign associates elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to "engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature," and to "the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”

The six elected this year include:

Richard D. Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering, for contributions to diagnosis and control of large-scale and molecular processes for materials, microelectronics, and pharmaceuticals manufacturing.

Gareth H. McKinley, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, for contributions in rheology, understanding of complex fluid dynamical instabilities, and interfacial engineering of super-repellent textured surfaces.

Robert T. Morris, a professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for contributions to programmable network routers, wireless mesh networks, and networked computer systems.

Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and director of affective computing research in the MIT Media Lab, for contributions to affective and wearable computing.

Christopher A. Schuh, the department head and the Danae and Vasilis Salapatas Professor in Metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, for contributions to design science and application of nanocrystalline metals.

Christine Wang, a senior staff scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, for contributions to epitaxial crystal growth of III-V compound semiconductors and design of organometallic vapor-phase epitaxy reactors.

“My warm congratulations to the researchers inducted into the National Academy of Engineering for their outstanding contributions as leaders in their fields,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, the dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It is fantastic to see the contributions of our faculty recognized at such a high level.”

Including this year’s inductees, 138 members of the NAE are current or retired members of the MIT faculty and staff, or members of the MIT Corporation.

Kirk Kolenbrander to leave MIT after 29 years of service

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 3:10pm

Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander will leave MIT in March to become an executive vice president at Southern New Hampshire University, the nation’s largest private nonprofit university and a leader in online education. In this new role, Kolenbrander will lead the development of SNHU’s College of Engineering, Technology and Aeronautics.

Trained as a chemist, Kolenbrander has been at MIT since 1990, first as a faculty member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and then in a variety of administrative roles. His last day at the Institute will be March 2.

President L. Rafael Reif shared the news today in an email to MIT faculty and staff.

“Kirk has the rare distinction of having closely served three MIT presidents,” Reif wrote. “From 2001 to 2004, he was special assistant to Chuck Vest. From 2004 to 2006, he served as senior advisor to Susan Hockfield, and then, from 2006 to 2011, as her Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation. And since I began as president in 2012, Kirk has continued as a superb member of MIT’s leadership team, the calm voice we all count on for his personal wisdom, deep institutional knowledge and unerring moral compass.”

Reif noted that Kolenbrander has made “an indelible difference in the history of MIT” by managing the searches that elevated the Institute’s last two presidents, as well as two successive chairs of the MIT Corporation: Dana Mead PhD ’67 and John Reed ’61, SM ’65.

“Kirk Kolenbrander is the epitome of an MIT citizen,” says President Emerita Susan Hockfield. “Having held a number of different roles at the Institute, he was the ideal person to staff the 2004 Presidential Search Committee. When the Committee first approached me, he provided a warm welcome and an intelligent introduction to the Institute. And then, when the outcome of the search became clear, he took up the assignment as my primary guide through the transition, with the responsibility of introducing me to the people and resources that would build my understanding of the Institute’s past, present, and possible future. Kirk’s constant patience, insight, and good humor served the Institute and me exceedingly well throughout my years as president.”

Reflecting on his decades at the Institute, Kolenbrander says, “In so many ways, I grew up at MIT. I have become who I am through countless relationships with MIT’s amazing students, faculty, postdocs, staff, alumni, and trustees. It has been my tremendous honor to serve this community in its enduring and inspiring work.”

Kolenbrander, who holds a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joined MIT in 1990 as an assistant professor of electronic materials, becoming an associate professor in 1995. As a faculty member, he won the MIT Baker Award for Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the MIT Smith Award for Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Student Life, each of which is awarded annually to one member of the MIT faculty.

In 1995, Kolenbrander led the creation of MIT LeaderShape, an intensive leadership curriculum he has taught during Independent Activities Period for nearly 25 years, providing more than 1,000 MIT students with a formative experience in community-centered problem solving.

“MIT has been fortunate to claim the loyalty of Kirk Kolenbrander for several decades of extraordinary change,” says Susan Silbey, chair of the MIT faculty. “He brings a depth of institutional knowledge and wisdom, which we will not enjoy again for a long, long time. His passion for education and the well-being of students, as well as the Institute, is unmatched. We are poorer without him.”

Kolenbrander moved to the Office of the Chancellor in 1998, serving as an associate dean from 1998 to 2000, as interim dean for student life in 2000, and as a special assistant to then-Chancellor Lawrence Bacow from 2000 to 2001.

In 2001, Kolenbrander became a special assistant to President Charles Vest; in 2004, President Susan Hockfield named him as senior advisor to the president. He played a key role, from 2004 to 2012, in assembling Hockfield’s senior team, managing searches for the provost, chancellor, executive vice president and treasurer, president of the MIT Investment Management Company, vice president for research, and vice president for resource development.

Kolenbrander himself has been an MIT vice president since 2006. He served from 2006 to 2011 as vice president for Institute affairs and secretary of the Corporation, overseeing a reimagining of communications at MIT during that time. In 2011 he became vice president and secretary of the Corporation, serving as interim vice president for resource development in 2013 and 2014.

In recent years, Kolenbrander was instrumental in forging a new partnership between the Institute and the MIT Alumni Association. He has also led efforts to introduce changes intended to enhance diversity and inclusion at MIT, including improvements related to orientation for incoming students, mental health services, implicit bias training, financial aid, and student surveys and data collection. 

“These are tumultuous times on college campuses across the nation, specifically in the areas of climate, culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says DiOnetta Jones Crayton, associate dean in the Office of the Vice Chancellor and director of the Office of Minority Education, who has worked closely with Kolenbrander on these issues. “What was uniquely different about MIT’s approach is that we took the time to listen, and then we partnered with students to address their concerns. Kirk stepped in to lead this charge at a critical time, and he did what any good leader should do — he sought out thought partners and collaborators to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of our students’ needs and concerns. Then, he worked with those same campus partners and with senior administration to address those concerns. For that, I think we can all say, ‘thank you.’”

SNHU is a private, nonprofit university with 3,000 students on its Manchester, New Hampshire, campus and more than 90,000 online students. The institution currently offers programs in business, education, liberal arts, social sciences, and various STEM fields.

Using artificial intelligence to engineer materials’ properties

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 3:00pm

Applying just a bit of strain to a piece of semiconductor or other crystalline material can deform the orderly arrangement of atoms in its structure enough to cause dramatic changes in its properties, such as the way it conducts electricity, transmits light, or conducts heat.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT and in Russia and Singapore have found ways to use artificial intelligence to help predict and control these changes, potentially opening up new avenues of research on advanced materials for future high-tech devices.

The findings appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper authored by MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering Ju Li, MIT Principal Research Scientist Ming Dao, and MIT graduate student Zhe Shi, with Evgeni Tsymbalov and Alexander Shapeev at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, and Subra Suresh, the Vannevar Bush Professor Emeritus and former dean of engineering at MIT and current president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Already, based on earlier work at MIT, some degree of elastic strain has been incorporated in some silicon processor chips. Even a 1 percent change in the structure can in some cases improve the speed of the device by 50 percent, by allowing electrons to move through the material faster.

Recent research by Suresh, Dao, and Yang Lu, a former MIT postdoc now at City University of Hong Kong, showed that even diamond, the strongest and hardest material found in nature, can be elastically stretched by as much as 9 percent without failure when it is in the form of nanometer-sized needles. Li and Yang similarly demonstrated that nanoscale wires of silicon can be stretched purely elastically by more than 15 percent.  These discoveries have opened up new avenues to explore how devices can be fabricated with even more dramatic changes in the materials’ properties.

Strain made to order

Unlike other ways of changing a material’s properties, such as chemical doping, which produce a permanent, static change, strain engineering allows properties to be changed on the fly. “Strain is something you can turn on and off dynamically,” Li says.

But the potential of strain-engineered materials has been hampered by the daunting range of possibilities. Strain can be applied in any of six different ways (in three different dimensions, each one of which can produce strain in-and-out or sideways), and with nearly infinite gradations of degree, so the full range of possibilities is impractical to explore simply by trial and error. “It quickly grows to 100 million calculations if we want to map out the entire elastic strain space,” Li says.

That’s where this team’s novel application of machine learning methods comes to the rescue, providing a systematic way of exploring the possibilities and homing in on the appropriate amount and direction of strain to achieve a given set of properties for a particular purpose. “Now we have this very high-accuracy method” that drastically reduces the complexity of the calculations needed, Li says.

“This work is an illustration of how recent advances in seemingly distant fields such as material physics, artificial intelligence, computing, and machine learning can be brought together to advance scientific knowledge that has strong implications for industry application,” Suresh says.

The new method, the researchers say, could open up possibilities for creating materials tuned precisely for electronic, optoelectronic, and photonic devices that could find uses for communications, information processing, and energy applications.

When a small amount of strain is applied to a crystalline material like silicon, its properties can change dramatically; for example, it can shift from blocking electrical current to conducting it freely like a metal. Credit: Frank Shi

The team studied the effects of strain on the bandgap, a key electronic property of semiconductors, in both silicon and diamond. Using their neural network algorithm, they were able to predict with high accuracy how different amounts and orientations of strain would affect the bandgap.

“Tuning” of a bandgap can be a key tool for improving the efficiency of a device, such as a silicon solar cell, by getting it to match more precisely the kind of energy source that it is designed to harness. By fine-tuning its bandgap, for example, it may be possible to make a silicon solar cell that is just as effective at capturing sunlight as its counterparts but is only one-thousandth as thick. In theory, the material “can even change from a semiconductor to a metal, and that would have many applications, if that’s doable in a mass-produced product,” Li says.

While it’s possible in some cases to induce similar changes by other means, such as putting the material in a strong electric field or chemically altering it, those changes tend to have many side effects on the material’s behavior, whereas changing the strain has fewer such side effects. For example, Li explains, an electrostatic field often interferes with the operation of the device because it affects the way electricity flows through it. Changing the strain produces no such interference.

Diamond’s potential

Diamond has great potential as a semiconductor material, though it’s still in its infancy compared to silicon technology. “It’s an extreme material, with high carrier mobility,” Li says, referring to the way negative and positive carriers of electric current move freely through diamond. Because of that, diamond could be ideal for some kinds of high-frequency electronic devices and for power electronics.

By some measures, Li says, diamond could potentially perform 100,000 times better than silicon. But it has other limitations, including the fact that nobody has yet figured out a good and scalable way to put diamond layers on a large substrate. The material is also difficult to “dope,” or introduce other atoms into, a key part of semiconductor manufacturing.

By mounting the material in a frame that can be adjusted to change the amount and orientation of the strain, Dao says, “we can have considerable flexibility” in altering its dopant behavior.

Whereas this study focused specifically on the effects of strain on the materials’ bandgap, “the method is generalizable” to other aspects, which affect not only electronic properties but also other properties such as photonic and magnetic behavior, Li says. From the 1 percent strain now being used in commercial chips, many new applications open up now that this team has shown that strains of nearly 10 percent are possible without fracturing. “When you get to more than 7 percent strain, you really change a lot in the material,” he says.

“This new method could potentially lead to the design of unprecedented material properties,” Li says. “But much further work will be needed to figure out how to impose the strain and how to scale up the process to do it on 100 million transistors on a chip [and ensure that] none of them can fail.”

“This innovative new work demonstrates potential to significantly accelerate the engineering of exotic electronic properties in ordinary materials via large elastic strains,” says Evan Reed, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, who was not involved in this research. “It sheds light on the opportunities and limitations that nature exhibits for such strain engineering, and it will be of interest to a broad spectrum of researchers working on important technologies.”

The work was supported by the MIT-Skoltech program and Nanyang Technological University.

Catherine Iacobo named industry co-director for MIT Leaders for Global Operations

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 2:22pm

Cathy Iacobo, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has been named the new industry co-director for the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program (LGO).

LGO’s 27 industry partners host graduate students for six-month operations management internship projects that form the basis for their master’s theses. Besides recruiting new partners and managing relations with current partners, the industry co-director also mentors students and helps enhance overall ties between the partners and the LGO community at MIT. 

Cathy is well-known in the LGO program as a “mentor of mentors” in the LGO Operations Lab. She also serves as a faculty mentor for MIT Sloan’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab), Healthcare Lab (H-Lab) and China/India Lab, as well as the Venture Mentoring Service, which supports entrepreneurs across the MIT community.

“With her industry background, energy, and excellent communication and mentoring skills, I expect that Cathy’s close work with industry partners and students will greatly contribute to strengthening the sense of community and partnership at LGO,” says LGO Program Director Thomas Roemer.

Before joining MIT Sloan, Iacobo had a distinguished career as an executive for over 30 years at IBM and Lexmark International. She joined Lexmark at its inception in 1991 and rose to the position of vice president for global services operations and had leadership roles in many functions, including manufacturing, supply chain, and engineering, that are at the core of LGO. She has extensive international experience, including a four-year placement managing operations in Europe.

Iacobo holds a BSE degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University and a master’s degree in management of technology from MIT Sloan.

She succeeds Vahram Erdekian, a vice president of manufacturing and operations at Cisco Systems who retired after 10 years as LGO industry co-director.

An active affiliation among the MIT School of Engineering, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and 27 industry partners, MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) is the premier program for developing leaders of operations- and manufacturing-oriented companies with both management know-how and deep technical understanding. Its mission is to generate knowledge at the intersection of engineering and management, and to educate leaders to address the world’s most challenging operations problems.

Its dual-degree graduate program awards an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master of science from the School of Engineering. The two-year LGO experience features a cross-disciplinary curriculum, a global orientation, a six-month internship with a partner company, and an emphasis on leadership and teamwork. In addition to providing students with transformative learning experiences and privileged access to career opportunities, partner companies provide input on LGO’s curriculum and activities, ensuring that the program stays relevant and responsive to their most pressing operations challenges.

3Q: Hamsa Balakrishnan on reimagining the future of transportation

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 2:15pm

Associate Professor Hamsa Balakrishnan is the associate head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. She is also the director of Transportation@MIT, an initiative that knits together the wide-ranging, robust research underway at the Institute and creates new opportunities for education and innovation in the field of transportation research. Her thinking addresses the dramatic changes in transportation systems worldwide due to advances not just in vehicular technologies, but also in computing, communications, sensing, and information processing. Her current research interests are in the design, analysis, and implementation of control and optimization algorithms for large-scale, cyber-physical infrastructures, particularly air transportation systems.

Q: The research scope of Transportation@MIT is broader than what is traditionally considered the purview of “transportation,” and it encompasses what you refer to as “networks of things that move.” Could you tell us more about the new transportation research opportunities presented by data, intelligence, and autonomy?

A: Dramatic transformations are happening because of rapid advances in technologies. This includes vehicular technologies — but also technologies in communications, big data analytics, and computing at large. I think MIT is a unique place because we have strengths both in the domain of transportation and also in the disciplines that impact it. For example, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing nearly every system around us — including the way people and things move. Let us consider driverless cars or drones: at MIT, we have expertise not just in automotive and aerospace engineering, but also in intelligent systems, manufacturing, autonomy, and computation. This allows us to tackle transportation challenges on the ground and in the air with integrated cutting-edge research.

Q: The successful integration of multiple modes of travel will greatly enhance the passenger experience, enable reliable door-to-door transport and delivery, and improve the reliability of transportation systems. You describe this as the seamless movement of people, materials, and information. What would this look like in daily life?

A: We currently have very siloed modes of transportation. We need a seamless flow of information, so that a journey reflects the most reliable path from origin to destination as well as the most efficient use of different transportation modes. For instance, if I want to go to New York, I need to know that it isn’t a good day to fly and that the train is a better option. Or on a certain day, I may decide to take public transportation, such as the subway, because I know certain roads are jammed. We need the seamless movement of people and things and materials — and that first requires the seamless flow of information.

Q: MIT currently attracts some of the best students in the world studying transportation. You emphasize the close integration of cutting-edge transportation research at MIT and the transportation education programs. What do you see as the long-term impact of MIT’s commitment to this integrated approach?

A: One of the best things about MIT is the close coupling between research and education. When our students go out knowing where the state-of-the-art is in both the transportation domain and the technical disciplines, they are empowered to advance knowledge and have a practical impact. Climate change is probably the biggest issue that humankind faces today. Although vehicles have been getting more efficient, the transportation sector still remains a significant consumer of fossil fuels. The growth of electric vehicles and advances in autonomy have led to a range of interesting questions on the potential impact on energy consumption and the environment. What are the most efficient strategies to manufacture these vehicles, and also for routing traffic and the managing heterogeneous fleets, for instance? If there is more efficient travel between work and home in urban areas, for example, this will have implications for the future of employment and work, including the nature and location of jobs. Or consider how a fundamental rethinking of tolling mechanisms and incentives will be needed to make transportation truly accessible and affordable to all parts of society — and how that will lead to societal change. The research possibilities and the opportunities to make a positive impact on the world are tremendous.

Bose grants for 2018 fund research at the frontier of discovery

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:35pm

Eight MIT faculty members have been awarded one of the Institute’s most respected honors: the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant, which supports work that is unorthodox, and potentially world-changing. The topics of the grants range from nanoscale textiles that purify drinking water, to revolutionary new approaches in catalysis, high-speed logic, and drug delivery.

The awards are named for the late Amar G. Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, a longtime MIT faculty member and the founder of the Bose Corporation. The Bose Research Fellows for 2018 are Dirk Englund, Laura L. Kiessling, Leonid S. Levitov, Nuno F. Loureiro, Elizabeth M. Nolan, Julia Ortony, Katharina Ribbeck, and Yuriy Román. Each of this year’s grants reflects the innovative thinking, intellectually adventurous spirit, curiosity, and enthusiasm that characterize the Bose grant program. They also embody the value and practice of interdisciplinary collaboration at MIT, which drives discovery and expands the intellectual horizons of individual researchers, their colleagues, and their students. 

An awards ceremony was hosted by MIT President L. Rafael Reif, and the awards were presented by MIT Provost Martin Schmidt, the Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The fellows provided updates on their ongoing work at the ceremony.

As President Reif noted in his remarks, the 2018 awards carry special meaning, because they are the first to be awarded since the untimely passing in November of Vanu Gopal Bose ’87, SM ’94, PhD ’99, the son of Amar Bose and a member of the MIT Corporation. In his professional life and his service to MIT, Vanu Bose was a champion of innovation and supported many others in their pursuit of knowledge and discovery. 

Novel electronic fluids for high-speed logic in quantum materials

Three investigators from the fields of quantum physics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear science and engineering will pool their expertise to explore the wonder material known as graphene. Graphene is an atomically thin carbon sheet possessing unique properties that have made it the subject of intense interest, particularly for its applications in electronics. One of those properties, says Leonid Levitov, professor of physics, is the behavior of electrons in graphene, which travel through this material “like free particles, along straight lines, ballistically, over enormous distances, and showing robust quantum-mechanical behavior up to room temperature.”            

Dirk Englund, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, believes that insights gained from their study of graphene may advance the creation of a new logic device, capable of performing logic operations “many orders of magnitude faster and with much lower energy consumption” than the logic devices powering today’s electronics.             

“Moore’s Law is coming to an end and really new concepts are needed [to] go beyond the traditional computer architecture,” Englund notes. “A lot of incremental paths have been explored already and they haven’t given us ... another few orders of magnitude of performance. We have to look at radically new ideas.” 

Nuno Loureiro, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, describes his role in the project as providing “a bridge between plasma physics” — his own area of expertise — “and the fluid-like dynamics of electrons in graphene.” In his discussions with Levitov, he has come to believe that “there are methods and ideas that can be ported from one system to the other.” 

“That would be a wonderful outcome” says Loureiro, particularly for exploring some of the astrophysical applications of plasma research. “It’s possible that the behavior of a graphene sheet can map directly to a pair plasma, and if we know how to read that map, we [might create] the first quote-unquote pair plasma in the lab.” He credits the Bose grant for giving him a chance to pursue this unorthodox idea, and stretch beyond his own research.            

“I’m reaching to something that is completely outside of my domain of expertise, and I’m going to learn a lot. I’m hoping those ideas can then be inspiring for things in my specific domain.”            

Levitov also appreciates the exchange of ideas that the project will yield.

 “To a theorist, this is all particularly appealing, as it provides a unique perspective on the developments in my field by connecting it to other fields and, of course, because of a possibly far-reaching outcome this collaboration can lead to.”

Controlling infections using nature’s strategies

Our bodies are home to trillions of microbes, the vast majority of which reside in the mucus that coats our respiratory tracts, digestive systems, and other bodily systems. Yet the exact functions and molecular structures of mucus remain largely a mystery. Laura Kiessling, professor of chemistry, and Katharina Ribbeck, the Hyman Career Development Professor in Biological Engineering, will use their Bose grant to explore how mucus protects against pathogens, and use that knowledge to create mimetic, bio-inspired materials. 

Ribbeck compares mucus’s long, thread-like polymers to “tiny bottle brushes, and the bristles of these brushes are sugar molecules.” These glycoproteins regulate microbial physiology by suppressing harmful pathogens and supporting the body’s diverse microbiota. “It's hard to get down to a molecular-level understanding of how our bodies do that,” says Kiessling, but by fabricating bio-inspired materials, “we can alter their properties systematically, and ask those molecular questions that are much harder to investigate with natural materials.”

Ribbeck says her team will identify which glycoproteins have the most important effects. That knowledge then “will become the tools for [Kiessling], who will begin to build mimetic, synthetic versions of these molecular structures.” With the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections, they see enormous potential in disarming pathogens rather than killing them with antibiotics (thereby creating evolutionary pressure to become antibiotic-resistant). Instead, as Ribbeck puts it, they are “identifying nature’s strategies and then implementing them with creative chemistry.”

Kiessling and Ribbeck say that the Bose grant has enabled them to form a dynamic partnership, and pursue a high-risk, high-reward idea.

“As a scientist, you have your dreams, the stuff that keeps you awake at night,” says Ribbeck, and the research she will conduct with Bose grant support is one such project. “I am immensely grateful.” Kiessling is also excited to work on a project with broad applications: “If we can change how people think about treating infectious disease, and [move] toward exploiting natural mechanisms, that could be really transformative.”

A heavy-metal Trojan horse

One of the most serious threats to human health is the lack of new antibiotics and the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease. To tackle this problem, Elizabeth Nolan, an associate professor of chemistry, will use the Bose research grant to explore the design and delivery of nontraditional antibiotics using a Trojan horse strategy that takes advantage of the mechanisms used by bacteria to obtain iron.           

“Our idea is that, since these bacteria are expressing machinery that enables iron acquisition, maybe we can take advantage of that machinery as a way to target and deliver antibacterial or toxic cargo, in a species- or strain-selective manner.” The Bose grant will enable her to “build upon [previous work] and start delivering nontraditional toxic cargo into the cell, masked as a beneficial iron chelator to the bacteria.”          

This precision targeting could minimize the toxicity of drugs to the host, while addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance. It’s the type of unconventional approach that Nolan says can be challenging to fund with traditional sources. Gathering enough preliminary data to support the feasibility of a high-risk idea can be especially challenging, she adds. 

With the Bose grant, Nolan can take that step, creating avenues for future research in her own lab as well as “tremendous opportunity for collaboration” with researchers in other areas of inquiry. She uses the metaphor of a tree: “We need to build the trunk right now, by making the molecules, and then once we have those, we can branch off in many different directions.”             

Nolan and her colleagues have been hoping to pursue these ideas for several years, and now, she says, “we can hit the ground running. I’m delighted and very grateful.”

Functional textiles for water purification

With the support of a Bose research grant, Julia Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Professor of Engineering, hopes to create simple, yet powerful, nanoscale solutions to the problem of arsenic-contaminated drinking water, a threat to the health and lives of millions in Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia. 

“In our lab, we design small molecules that spontaneously self-assemble in water,” says Ortony. Their goal is to match the mechanical properties of each nanostructure with particular applications. Arsenic removal requires “very high surface area to remove trace amounts of toxins, and very robust structures so that we have very little molecular exchange.”

Current methods for removing arsenic are bulky, costly, and hard to maintain. A fabric made of nanoscale fibers would provide the surface area necessary to remove arsenic and could be functionalized with a chemical to grab arsenic ions. It would be simple to distribute and use, and could even be recharged. “We could easily modify this material remove lead or other metals,” she adds.

One inspiration behind Ortony’s proposal is a solution devised for guinea worm disease, a parasitic illness spread through drinking water. This disease was eradiated with an astoundingly simple solution: filtering drinking water through nylon fabric. Though contaminants like arsenic and lead are much more complicated to remove, Ortony believes a simple, cost-effective method utilizing nanoscale fabrics is within reach. 

The Bose grant has allowed her to think more expansively about her research, created exciting opportunities for her students, and enabled her to pursue a project that engages multiple disciplines, including some that are completely new to her. “You learn a lot that way. You can bring very different ideas together, and I think that’s how a lot of discoveries and inventions are made,” she says.

Breaking away from mainstream catalysis

“The Bose grant is itself like a catalyst,” says Yuriy Román, associate professor of chemical engineering. Román’s research centers on heterogeneous catalysis, with the goal of making chemical reactions faster, more stable, and more efficient. With the support of the Bose research grant, he will embark on a new exploration: the potential of electric fields to impact molecular interactions on catalytic gas-solid surfaces.

“In our lab we work on developing strategies to enable renewable energy, implement renewable chemicals and to replace critical materials, but we have never engaged in this idea of joining the fields of electrochemistry and traditional high-temperature catalysis. It’s a completely new direction.” 

The primary aims in catalysis, Román explains, are maximizing carbon economy, minimizing reactor downtime, and maximizing stability. The use of electric fields offers “an additional handle to control the catalytic process” with a high level of precision.

Román was pleased to find the very possibility he is exploring described in papers published in the 1970s by Constantinos G. Vayenas, a former professor of chemical engineering at MIT. By using today’s cutting-edge tools to examine the phenomena that Vayenas observed, Román and his team can expand Vayenas’s work, while adding new insights of their own.

While research into the unknown is a bit unnerving, Román says it also “reignites excitement” for discovery for everyone in the lab. He is grateful for the generosity of the Bose family and for the example of Professor Amar Bose, whose wide-ranging contributions and fearless spirit are inspiring. “I'm very happy that we might continue his legacy in some way.”

A semester studying abroad at Imperial College London

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:25pm

New rigorous learning environments, cultural expansion, career insight, and renewed confidence are just some of the benefits cited by MIT students participating in the new MIT-Imperial Academic Exchange

Launched last fall as a two-year pilot, the exchange offers undergraduates in specific departments the opportunity to study abroad at Imperial College London for one semester or a full year. As part of the exchange, a cohort of Imperial students are studying at MIT this academic year. The program will be evaluated after each year of the pilot for learning outcomes and overall benefits to participants.

Two chemical engineering students — Julia Pallone and Anjolaoluwa “Anj” Fayemi — represented MIT in the exchange’s inaugural 2018-2019 semester, which lasted from September through early January. The juniors took courses in Imperial’s chemical engineering department that will earn them transfer credit at MIT and were able to take other classes as well. Living in university housing close to Imperial’s campus, they participated fully in extracurricular activities and immersed themselves in London’s stimulating cultural environment.

“I felt most enriched by the seemingly unlimited opportunities to learn inside and outside the lecture halls,” Pallone says. “Initially I was challenged by the prospect of being in a completely unfamiliar place and needing to still fulfill my academic requirements as well as try to find interesting extracurriculars. I soon learned, though, that Imperial is full of supportive students and staff, particularly in the exchange network and my academic department. The chemical engineering faculty member in charge of advising exchange students, who was also my Reaction Engineering I professor, was very helpful throughout the entire process of registering for classes and making sure I was settled at Imperial.”

Fayemi describes the teaching at Imperial as “similarly rigorous to MIT.”

“You really have to be self-directed," he says. “I learned important skills in self-discipline and how to be responsible for myself.”

This is especially true as Imperial requires few assignments during terms and grading is largely dependent on one final exam. Fayemi began exploring business classes, which provided a global perspective and awakened his interest in entrepreneurship. He has now added an entrepreneurship concentration to his major at MIT, and is completing the StartMIT course at the Martin Trust Center and receiving mentorship for his future plans.

Both students note Imperial’s strong emphasis on industry, which complemented the theoretical training of their MIT education.

“The guest speakers from industry offered context to what we were learning, as well as the focus on using practical software for coursework,” says Pallone. “I found that the focus on industry applications really enhanced all the theory I have learned and gave me a better big-picture understanding of the purpose and consequences of decisions in chemical engineering.”

For Fayemi, his experience at Imperial encouraged him to take advantage of MIT’s options for chemical engineering majors to explore career opportunities outside of their field.

Pallone and Fayemi enjoyed their activities outside of class and the chance to meet diverse people. Pallone dove headfirst into Imperial’s student-led groups. She ran with the cross country and athletics club, sailed in the English Channel with the yacht club, and explored the myriad of exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum, located next-door to the campus.

Fayemi played first-team football (soccer), was a member of the African-Caribbean student society, and attended shows at the Royal Albert Hall, which is also located at the edge of Imperial’s campus. He found the Freshers’ Fair (similar to MIT’s activities midway) a great opportunity to learn about Imperial’s hundreds of student clubs and societies. “Joining a club is an excellent way to meet new people, not just exchange students,” he says.

The newest cohort of MIT students arrived at Imperial in early January to begin their studies for the spring and summer terms, which run until mid-June. They include four electrical engineering and computer science students — Lily Bailey, Michael Hiebert, Dain Kim, and Chase Warren — as well as Sara Wilson from materials science and engineering.

“Imperial has exceeded my expectations,” reports Warren. “The Imperial students are incredibly welcoming, and are excited to meet MIT students. Downtown London is very accessible and has even more exciting things to offer, and it’s very easy to get around London in general. The staff for international/abroad/exchange students here has been very supportive and friendly.”

Wilson was attracted to participating in the academic exchange after spending last summer with the MIT-Imperial Summer Research Exchange. In addition to taking materials science and engineering courses at Imperial this semester, she has returned to her research project in Imperial’s biomedical materials science lab, where she is helping synthesize semiconducting polymer nanoparticles for biosensing applications. The impetus to study abroad emerged from Wilson's desire to “test my ability to adapt to new environments and grow.” 

“The MIT-Imperial Exchange felt like the perfect opportunity to do just that.” Kim reflects. “Being an international student I’ve always been aware of the personal growth that comes with meeting people from diverse cultures. I wanted to get out of the MIT bubble and learn how my peers from other institutions and countries learn and think, and how their values and aspirations differ from mine.”

While Imperial’s educational structure can put pressure on students to independently stay on top of their academics, the absence of Psets also offers more free time.

“I’m planning on doing the things at Imperial that I never had time for at MIT,” attests Wilson. “I plan to join the anime club, start taking piano lessons again, and finally learn how to cook! I hope that I’ll finally start building my life and discovering what I enjoy outside of academics.”

The students anticipate that their study abroad at Imperial will also engender insights and rewards for the future. “I am using this semester to explore other potential careers and spend some time networking with people here in London,” states Bailey. “I have always dreamed of eventually working abroad, either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, so I plan to leverage my time here to begin to investigate how I might go about making that happen.”

Global fluency — with its benefits for life after MIT — is an additional goal for the students.

“I hope this experience furthers my global thinking and ability to adapt to changing environments — professional, educational, etc.,” says Warren. “Being comfortable in foreign cities will allow me to widen my scope of professional possibilities. I hope that my ability to connect with people from around the world improves and translates to professional success.”

The Global Education Office (GEO), part of the Office of Experiential Learning (OEL), manages the MIT-Imperial Academic Exchange in partnership with participating MIT academic departments and with counterparts at Imperial. GEO’s work includes the recruitment and admission process, student preparation, and support during and after the exchange experience.  

“It is very gratifying to hear from Julia and Anj how much they enjoyed and gained through their participation in the fall semester exchange,” says Malgorzata Hedderick, the associate dean of GEO. “I am impressed by the observations and goals of the students starting their spring semester at Imperial. In our work, we hope that students will be able to amplify the benefits of their MIT education by adding important skills and insights from the study abroad experience and this is what we are seeing in this Program already.”

In March, GEO will begin selecting the next cohort of MIT students for spring 2020 participation in the MIT-Imperial Academic Exchange.

Strategic thinking on a global scale

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:05pm

Graduate students from 42 countries recently gathered at MIT to showcase innovative research projects that aim to strategically transform — on a global scale befitting their many points of origin — major industries such as manufacturing, retail, and transportation.

“I share your desire to make positive global impact. I am both inspired and impressed by this showcase of your research,” said Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, as he welcomed more than 180 graduate students and about 200 industry professionals to the 2019 MIT Global Supply Chain and Logistics Excellence (SCALE) Network Research Expo.

He congratulated Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and director of the master’s program in supply chain management, and his team for the vision and realization of world-leading supply chain educational and research programs.

The MIT Supply Chain Management Program (SCM) is an intensive 10-month program that mixes leadership development, analytical training, and real-world problem solving through the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics’ powerful industry and alumni networks.

“You are standing in a global center of innovation. You are surrounded by people who share your values,” said Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to the crowd on the packed sixth floor of the Media Lab.

The synergy was apparent as industry professionals dove into animated discussion about the industry-sponsored research projects on display. MIT graduate students Atmaja Sinha and Rakesh Thykandi spoke with executives from trucking companies about their work to reduce transportation costs for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies.

"FMCG companies ship thousands of loads every year through various trucking companies, and they incur millions of dollars in expenses,” said Thykandi. He and Sinha are using index-based pricing to help companies streamline their shipping contracts. “So the end game is that you end up with a lower cost.”

“We are getting valuable perspectives on what might work or not work, and we’re planning to incorporate all of the feedback,” added Sinha, whose project poster was titled, “Alternate Pricing Model for Transportation Contracts.” “I’m speaking to a lot of carriers in the U.S. market,” she added. “I think we’re doing something very new. If this project works, and we are quite sure that it will, it could revolutionize the transportation industry.”

Carla Alvarado and Yangfei Liu, also graduate students in the MIT supply chain management program, are focused on reducing transportation costs within the e-commerce industry with a project called, “Buy Online, Pick Up in Store.”

“We’re running an optimized model to develop the best solution for a selection of stores to both minimize costs for the company and minimize CO2 emissions,” said Alvarado. 

The Research Expo is hosted by the Institute for Supply Management, MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, MIT Supply Chain Management, and MIT Global SCALE Network.

This year also marked the launch of an annual full-tuition scholarship from the MIT SCM program and AWESOME, a group that encourages women to prepare for and perform successfully in supply chain leadership roles. The applicant profiles in response to the scholarship were so strong that the organizers decided to award one full scholarship and two additional half scholarships. Elizabeth Raman, logistics data analyst at The Home Depot, received the full scholarship award. Gabriela Lamas, process engineer at Johnson & Johnson, and Victoria Brown, program manager in global supply chain management at International Data Corporations, each received half-tuition awards. All three of these finalists attended the event.

Acoustic waves can monitor stiffness of living cells

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 10:59am

MIT engineers have devised a new, noninvasive way to measure the stiffness of living cells using acoustic waves. Their technique allows them to monitor single cells over several generations and investigate how stiffness changes as cells go through the cell division cycle.

This approach could also be used to study other biological phenomena such as programmed cell death or metastasis, the researchers say.

“Noninvasive monitoring of single-cell mechanical properties could be useful for studying many different types of cellular processes,” says Scott Manalis, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the MIT departments of Biological Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and the senior author of the study.

It could also be useful for analyzing how patients’ tumor cells respond to certain drugs, potentially helping doctors choose the best drugs for individual patients, the researchers say.

Joon Ho Kang, an MIT graduate student, is the first author of the paper, which appears in the Feb. 11 issue of Nature Methods. Other authors include postdocs Teemu Miettinen and Georgios Katsikis, graduate student Lynna Chen, visiting scholar Selim Olcum, and professor of chemical engineering Patrick Doyle.

A unique measurement

The new measurement technique makes use of a technology that Manalis’ lab previously developed to measure the mass of cells. This device, known as the suspended microchannel resonator (SMR), can measure the mass of cells as they flow through a tiny fluid-filled cantilever that vibrates inside a vacuum cavity. As cells flow through the channel, their mass slightly alters the cantilever’s vibration frequency, and the mass of the cell can be calculated from that change in frequency.

In the new study, the researchers discovered that they could also measure changes in stiffness to the cell — specifically, a cell structure called the cortex that lies just below the cell membrane. The cortex, which helps to determine the shape of a cell, is composed mainly of actin filaments. Contraction and relaxation of these filaments often occurs during processes such as cell division, metastasis, and programmed cell death, leading to changes in the stiffness of the cortex.

Over the past couple of years, Manalis and his students realized that the vibration of the cantilever also creates an acoustic wave that can be used to measure the stiffness of the particle or cell flowing through the device. As a particle flows through the channel, it interacts with the acoustic waves, changing the overall energy balance. This alters the vibration of the cantilever, by an amount that varies depending on stiffness of the cell or particle. This allows the researchers to calculate the stiffness of the cell by measuring how much the vibration changes.

The researchers confirmed that their technique is accurate by measuring hydrogel particles of known stiffnesses, created in Doyle’s lab, and measuring them as they flowed through the device.

The acoustic waves used to generate these measurements disturb the cell by only about 15 nanometers, much less than the displacement produced by most existing techniques for measuring mechanical properties.

Cell division

The MIT team showed that they could use this technique to measure stiffness of a single cell repeatedly for over 20 hours as they flowed back and forth through the SMR device. During this time, they were able to monitor stiffness through two or more cell division cycles. They found that as cells enter mitosis, stiffness decreases, which the researchers believe is due to the swelling that occurs when the cells prepare to divide. By imaging the cells, they confirmed that the cell cortex becomes thinner as the cell swells. 

The researchers also found that cell stiffness dynamically changes just before it divides. Actin accumulates at the equatorial region, making the cell stiffer, while the polar regions become more relaxed as actins are temporarily depleted.

“We can use our way of measuring stiffness to look at the dynamics of actin in a label-free, noninvasive way,” Kang says.

The researchers plan to start using this technique to measure the stiffness of even smaller particles, such as viruses, and to explore whether that measurement might be correlated with a virus’s infectivity.

“Measuring stiffness of submicron particles with meaningful throughput is currently not possible with existing approaches,” Manalis says. Such a capability could help researchers who are working on developing weakened viruses that could be tested as possible vaccines. This kind of measurement could also be used to help characterize tiny particles such as those used for drug delivery.

Another possible application is combining the stiffness measurement with the mass and growth rate measurements that Manalis’ lab has been developing as a possible predictor of how individual cancer patients will respond to particular drugs.

“When it comes to assays for precision medicine, measuring multiple functional properties from the same cell could help to make tests more predictive,” Manalis says.

The research was funded by the Koch Institute Support Grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology, the NCI Cancer Systems Biology Consortium, and the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies through the U.S. Army Research Office.

Creating new spaces for art

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 10:31am

For the first half of 2018, a large contemporary artwork greeted people entering the famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. An image two stories high on the museum’s façade showed people in a refugee boat looking upward — where a drone was taking photos.

“Global Displacement,” stated text printed over the image. “1 in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes.”

The installation was the work of Judith Barry, a prominent contemporary American artist and the new director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT). Like much of Barry’s oeuvre, this work was attention-grabbing, but with subtle twists. For example, the people in the original photo had been replaced by portraits of faces gazing upward, taken by associates in Barry’s studio.

Those looking closely at the work might find themselves asking new questions. For instance: What if you recognized people in refugee boats, or saw them as people much like yourself?

“Art constructs a space that people can inhabit,” Barry says. “And when you enter into the space that art makes, if you engage with the work in that space, other kinds of experiences are possible.”

Over three decades, Barry has gained acclaim while making new spaces for people to inhabit in galleries around the world. She has created video installations for major museums, performance art pieces, collages, and much more, all while exploring socially relevant topics.

“I don’t have a signature style,” Barry says. “The form and the content are derived from my research process. And that’s been the case since the very beginning.”

That applies to works such as the Gardner mural among many others she has developed. Barry’s acclaimed 2011 work, “Cairo Stories,” was a video installation based on 215 interviews with Egyptian women describing the conditions of daily life they encounter, and took nearly a decade to complete; it was reinstalled at the Mary Boone gallery in New York City this fall.

“I met many people across Egyptian society that I never would have gotten to know had I done the project in a shorter period of time,” Barry says. “It took many years, and the experience was profoundly moving.”

Barry’s emphasis on research, innovation, and social relevance all make her a natural fit at MIT; Barry joined the Institute in January 2018 as a professor with tenure and head of ACT.

A training in space

Barry was born in Columbus, Ohio, although, as she recounts of her life growing up, “We were moving all the time.” Like some other kids who move a lot, Barry developed some transportable skills — “I could draw, and I was athletic” — which, in her case, included dance. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Barry studied architecture, and subsequently found herself working for a large firm in the field.

“I got to design bathrooms and hallways and HVAC systems — all the things young architects do,” Barry says. “That was not interesting. But when I began taking art classes, another world opened to me.”

Indeed, Barry soon realized that art was a place where she could combine many of her interests. Inspired in part by the renowned artist (and MIT professor emerita) Joan Jonas, Barry developed performance art pieces in San Francisco in the 1970s. Before long she had expanded her repertoire to include video art installations. Indeed, as a leading video-art practitioner, Barry had exhibitions in venues such as the New York’s Whitney Museum fairly soon after leaving art school (at the San Francisco Art Institute).

“It was so different then,” Barry says of the 1970s art scene — meaning it was more open to newcomers of many backgrounds. By the late 1980s, she thinks, careers in the field had already begun to depend more on professionalized study, with graduate art degrees becoming the norm for many aspiring artists.

Still, as Barry notes, education is highly valuable. She herself has often used her architectural training in her career as an artist.

“When you’re in the space of an art exhibition, art happens at that moment when the viewer and the artwork come into contact,” Barry says. “It doesn’t necessarily carry over into daily life or another experience. But there are those moments when you encounter an artwork and something happens — it’s the sense of discovery and your engagement that produces an art experience. I try to set places where this can happen when I design my work. I use my architecture training as a methodology to interrogate space, so that in certain spots, something happens spatially that might keep you engaged.”

All told, Barry has been a prolific artist and gained international recognition for her challenging works. Among other honors, she received the Frederick Kiesler Prize for Architecture and the Arts in 2000, the “Best Pavilion” award at the Cairo Biennale in 2001, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011. Barry’s work has been displayed multiple times at the Venice Biennale, the Whitney, and biennales in Berlin, Nagoya Biennale, Sao Paolo, Sydney, Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates, where “Cairo Stories” debuted), among others.

At the Institute

Along the way, Barry spent one academic year teaching at MIT, in 2002-03, and says she is eager to explore new possibilities for teaching and creating art at ACT.

“It’s a great opportunity to rethink the question of what art, culture, and technology might become in the 21st century, and especially at MIT where you’re in a maw of technology and which is unlike traditional art schools,” Barry says. “I hope to use my time as director to put together programs and projects that reflect this revised sense of art, culture, and technology.”

Among other things, Barry notes, artists are grappling with issues of diversity in evolving ways: “In terms of culture, you have to ask, what is culture today? It is not one unified culture, but composed of many diverse cultures which are reflected in the student population at MIT.”

Barry finds herself in an interesting position with regard to technology, as well. She has often used technologies in her work, even while depicting tensions that arise in part from technological forces.

“Now we’re living in a technology-anxious time, where you read article after article about AI and robots taking over the world,” Barry says. “One of the major issues about technology facing society is your privacy, for instance. Or the anxiety that because machines do not rely on visual language, the need for mimesis [the depiction of things] will disappear. I hope questions about how technology affects daily life will become part of a much broader public debate.”  

Indeed, Barry adds, “Artists are often charged with the task of representation — in other words, finding ways to make these issues visible. Art has an important role to play in this discussion.”

President Reif calls for federal funding, focused education to address “opportunity and threat” of AI

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 9:42am

In an op-ed piece published today in Financial Times, MIT President L. Rafael Reif argues for sustained federal investment in artificial intelligence, and encourages the nation’s colleges and universities to prepare students for new societal challenges posed by AI.  

AI promises to help “humanity learn more, waste less, work smarter, live longer and better understand and predict almost anything that can be measured,” Reif writes. But with great power comes great responsibility: New technologies could pose serious risks, he says, “including threats to privacy, public safety, jobs and the security of nations.”

Countries around the world have started heavily investing in national AI initiatives, with China alone spending a reported $1 billion annually. To say competitive, Reif says, the U.S. must commit to at least a decade of sustained financial support for rising researchers and new academic centers across the nation.

But with the looming “opportunity and threat” of AI advancements, he says, higher education must be prepared to guide students through new ethical and cultural issues, especially as computer science seeps into other fields of study. At MIT, for instance, 40 percent of students major in computer science alone or paired with other subjects, such as molecular biology, economics, and urban planning. Higher education must now teach students to become “AI bilingual,” Reif says.

The op-ed comes on the heels of several of MIT’s major investments in AI, most recently the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. Announced in October, the new college aims to educate the leaders of the AI future, with a particular focus on research and education on the ethical implications and societal impact of computing technologies. Other initiatives include the MIT­–IBM Watson AI Lab launched in late 2017 and the MIT Intelligence Quest launched last February.

Reif concludes his piece with a call for a “broad strategic effort across society” in dealing with AI. “Technology belongs to all of us,” he says. “We must all be alert to the risks posed by AI, but this is no time to be afraid. Those nations and institutions which act now to help shape the future of AI will help shape the future for us all.”

Three graduate students named 2019 Aviation Week “20 Twenties”

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 1:30pm

MIT graduate students Casey Evans, Stewart Isaacs, and Jessica Zhu have been selected as recipients of the Aviation Week Network’s 2019 “Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders: The 20 Twenties” awards.

The awards recognize 20 students earning STEM degrees who are nominated by their universities for academic performance, civic contributions, research, or design projects. The program is part of an effort to create awareness of elements that contribute to business and academic success for technology hiring managers, students, and faculty .

U.S. Air Force Second Lieutenant Casey Evans is a Lincoln Laboratory Military Fellow pursuing a master’s degree in both the Technology and Policy Program and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). Her research centers on the technical and policy development, construction, and validation of a testbed for a novel optical neuroimaging technique that uses pulsed laser illumination and fast-gated Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode detections to resolve changes in blood flow in the brain. This modality has been considered for applications ranging from diagnosing edema, traumatic brain injury and stroke to uses in brain-computer interface.

In nominating Evans for the award, EECS Professor George Verghese wrote: “Lt. Evans fully commits to all she takes on, and has excelled academically, in her research on optical imaging systems for neuroimaging, as well as through her volunteering as a teacher to a broad spectrum of students: Air Force Academy cadets, middle and high school students, MIT employees who are English-language learners, and Madagascar residents.”

“Lt. Evans is peerless in her combination of ability, dedication, and humility,” Verghese added.

Stewart Isaacs is pursuing his master’s degree in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment (LAE). His research focuses on assessing the economic and technical feasibility of electrofuels, a novel class of non-fossil, liquid fuels with a potential to dramatically reduce transportation’s climate impact.

In nominating Isaacs, LAE director Professor Steven Barrett wrote: “Stewart has quickly learned the chemical and economic concepts required for his research and is presenting novel and solid results. At all times, his work shows highest levels of scientific rigor and deep understanding of underlying concepts.”

Barrett also lauded Stewart’s leadership activities with the National Society of Black Engineers to bring hands-on engineering experience to minority high schoolers, as well as with a project to develop a low-cost solar-powered egg incubator for poultry farmers in the African country of Burkina Faso.

U.S. Army First Lieutenant Jessica Zhu is a master’s candidate in MIT’s Operations Research Center. She is conducting research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the Homeland Protection Mission, area using machine learning, graph matching, and language modeling techniques to analyze dark networks to detect organizations participating in illicit and covert cyberspace activity.

Lin Li, a technical staff member in Lincoln Laboratory’s Human Language Technology Group wrote in Zhu’s nomination: “Her research will allow us to easily analyze large-scale heterogeneous datasets and identify shifts away from the norm. This approach would significantly decrease the amount of resources spent on an otherwise labor-intensive activity of manually trawling through and monitoring online markets, social media, chat rooms, and forums.”

Zhu volunteers her free time with Boston Glow (Girls' Leadership, Organized Women), and teaches with Girls’ LEAP (Lifetime Empowerment and Awareness Program). 

The 20 Twenty winners will be recognized in March at an awards luncheon in Washington.

At StartMIT, students gain advice for building a successful startup

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 1:15pm

Technology encourages the growth of startups, but starting and running a business requires skills beyond what a student might learn in the classroom. Enter StartMIT, an annual Independent Activities Period course that focuses on entrepreneurship and aims to make students aware of the process of turning ideas into companies.

StartMIT began in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) as Start6 in 2014, and it has since gone Institute-wide. This year, the program ran Jan. 7-23 and featured 60 guest speakers representing a wide spectrum of innovation leadership, from Jinane Abounadi, executive director of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund; to Hari Balakrishnan, a professor in EECS and cofounder of Cambridge Mobile Telematics; to Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, cofounder and CEO of Shift7 and former chief technology officer of the United States.

Balakrishnan was part of a panel called “From a MIT research project to a startup,” moderated by EECS Professor Saman Amarsinghe. Joining Balakrishnan were two faculty colleagues, Michael Stonebraker and Silvio Micali, both winners of the A.M. Turing Award — which is considered by many to be the “Nobel Prize of computing.” Along with being members of the EECS faculty, all three have another shared interest, Balakrishnan says: “All of our companies came out of research done at MIT.”  

During the panel, Balakrishnan’s message to students was that a company’s main priority is to solve problems for customers. “Engineers and researchers believe it’s all about technology, and then you go to a company and the business people tell you it’s all about the product. But what it really is all about is solutions for customers, and the purpose of a business should be to solve real problems for real customers,” he says.

Balakrishnan cofounded Cambridge Mobile Telematics in 2010 along with Sam Madden (another EECS entrepreneur) and Bill Powers. The company’s goal is to make the world’s roads safer, which is done through sensors on smartphones and other devices that the company designs.

The company sprouted from Balakrishnan’s previous research on driving. From 2005 to 2010, he and Madden worked on a mobile sensing system they developed at MIT called CarTel. It was one of the first research projects that attached mobile sensors to vehicles. “We focused a lot on transportation applications and the project had a lot of academic successes,” says Balakrishnan. One of their first big successes was the Pothole Patrol, a project in which sensors attached to several Boston-area taxis helped researchers monitor road conditions, detect potholes, and determine which roads were in need of repair.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics is focused on making roads safer by measuring driving quality, and combining that with incentives to help drivers improve. One device produced by the company is a small square tag that attaches to a car’s windshield. It contains sensors like accelerometers that, when combined with the sensors on smartphones, can be used to study people’s driving habits. These devices are sold mainly to insurance companies, which often give customer rewards, discounts, and offer other incentives for measuring driving quality. “We have a very good way to score people’s driving that is very predictive of their crash risk, which allows insurance companies to use our data to improve how they price insurance,” says Balakrishnan. The products are used by insurance companies in 23 countries to monitor the vehicles of millions of drivers.

Not only do the sensors help insurance companies determine price points, they also make drivers more conscious of their habits when they’re behind the wheel, which reduces distracted driving and improves safety. One study showed that the company’s product reduced a driver’s phone distraction by about 35 percent on average within 30 days.

The company now generates tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. During their early phases, the company was financed largely with customer revenues. However, this past December, Cambridge Mobile Telematics secured a $500 million investment from SoftBank Vision Fund. This investment will allow the company to further expand.

Balakrishnan and others at Cambridge Mobile Telematics are starting to look at monitoring autonomous vehicles, a topic that he says students at the StartMIT panel were extremely interested in. “In the future, insurance is going to be a function of observability, of third parties such as Cambridge Mobile Telematics observing the data and then using that information to assess the quality of the machine learning in self-driving vehicles,” he says.

Balakrishnan says that while there is a strong focus on computing and artificial intelligence at MIT, students are also interested in technology’s wider societal applications. “We happen to be using some exciting technology, but certainly [at the panel] there was excitement from students who do want to make an impact on society, and I think that's quite an important aspect of the culture at MIT,” he says.

From the Marines to MIT

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 1:00pm

It has been more than a decade since Brent Minchew donned his dress blues, but reminders of his days as a U.S. Marine are everywhere in his office at MIT: a photo with Vice President Al Gore taken at Andrews Air Force Base in January 2001; a matte army-green road bike propped up in the corner, his shaved head and military stature; and, best of all, some spellbinding stories.

Minchew was 17 and chasing a life of adventure and purpose when he enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school in 1995.

“I grew up in a very small-town mindset, so I'd seen only one very small subset of culture,” he says. “I wanted to see the world and I wanted to understand how other people lived.”

After basic training, Minchew was chosen to join HMX-1, the squadron responsible for flying the president of the United States, the vice president, other heads of state, and Department of Defense officials. It wasn’t exactly the life of adventure he desperately sought, but it is one of the highest honors to which an enlisted Marine can aspire. Now, with the clarity of time, Minchew recognizes the historic moments he was privy to, including ferrying foreign dignitaries to Camp David ahead of international peace talks.

Then on Sept. 11, 2001, his squadron responded to the attack on the U.S. Pentagon, where he and his squad members were charged with transporting important personnel and papers to Camp David for safe keeping. Months later, he requested and was given permission to join the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and shortly afterwards was deployed, first to Mosul, Iraq, and then to Djibouti on the eastern horn of Africa.

For his final posting, Minchew was stationed in Monrovia, Liberia in the midst of the Second Liberian Civil War, arriving just ahead of United Nations peacekeepers. After nearly eight years in the military, Minchew says he finally found himself doing the humanitarian aid work for which he had originally joined.

“That was a really fitting end to my career as a Marine,” Minchew says.

Today, Minchew’s daily responsibilities are a far cry from flying helicopters full of foreign dignitaries. An assistant professor in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), he is researching ice sheet dynamics and leading the Glaciers at MIT research group, where he heads a team looking at the mechanisms of ice, hoping to solve the most complex problems in one of the world’s formidable environments.  

“I kind of took a non-linear approach to life,” he readily jokes.

Non-linear as his career may be, the common thread through Minchew’s path from the Marine Corps to MIT is a determined pursuit of adventure and insatiable curiosity for the extreme, only-partially-understood places on Earth.

“Best childhood ever”

Michew attributes his curious nature in large part to his childhood in Texas. Minchew was born in Pasadena, a small working-class town just southeast of Houston, where his mother was a computer programmer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, a place that provided an early taproot for his love of the sciences.

“I would go to work with her and get to hang out on the actual Space Shuttle mockup, where the astronauts trained,” he says. “It was the best childhood ever.”

When his family moved to a small town north of Dallas, Minchew brought with him a fascination with flying, an admiration for John Glenn, and, perhaps most notably, a curiosity for how helicopters worked. Joining the Marine Corps, he says, perfectly wrapped all those things together.

“It was just so obvious that that's what I wanted to do,” he says.

When his military service ended in 2004, Minchew returned to Texas to spend time with family and start an academic career, taking classes at the University of Texas at Dallas as physics major before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin to major in aerospace engineering. As a master’s student in orbital mechanics, Minchew planned to design spacecrafts to complete sample return missions from Enceladus, a moon of Saturn with geysers.

His interests soon shifted, however, when a professor introduced him to Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) remote sensing, a type of radar that measures motion by calculating the change in phase of the radar waves between two separate images. 

“To me, it was roughly equivalent to having something like 10 million GPS stations scattered all over the ground. I just thought it was absolutely fascinating that you can measure deformation at centimeter-scale accuracy over huge areas with really high precision and very high resolution,” Minchew says. “As soon as I saw it, I had to know more.”

Minchew quickly changed his master’s focus to remote sensing and then, perhaps unsurprisingly, choose the most adventurous area to study: glaciers, in Antarctica.

“Antarctica is like this sense of inherent adventure,” he says. “It's impossible to think of Antarctica and not think of adventure.”

Minchew left Texas for the other Pasadena — in California — heading to Caltech to complete a PhD in geophysics. At Caltech, Minchew worked under geodesy expert Mark Simons, before joining the British Antarctic Survey as a postdoc, hoping for the chance to see the glaciers of Antarctica in person. However, the year he planned to make the trip, there was a major fracture in the ice that endangered a British research station, forcing him to stay home.  

Today, Minchew is one of the country’s leading experts on ice sheet dynamics, a topic he has an infectious passion for and speaks about animatedly, with the ever-slightest Texan twang.

“I think a lot of people tend to mistake the ubiquity of ice with some sense that it's sort of a normal and typical material but it's not,” he says. “It's a fascinating material with all kinds of interesting properties.”

It floats, for example, he says. “Almost nothing else floats in its solid phase.” Less well-known is that it’s still highly viscous even at its melting temperature. Even more remarkably, he continues, is that ice can be brittle at its melting temperatures. “Nothing else that I know of is brittle at its melting temperature. That's amazing.”

For glaciers, he explains, that has all kinds of interesting dynamical implications that inform how ice sheets evolve and couple into the climate system. Last January, Minchew was hired to answer these questions, leading Glaciers at MIT.

A part of something special

Minchew’s office in the Green Building is remarkably tidy. A dry erase board spans an entire wall, facing a huge glass-plated map of Antarctica with a sticker in the corner that reads: “I [heart] Geodesy.” On the map, a thick black line separates the halo of floating ice shelves from the solid mainland ice sheet. Those margins, Minchew explains, keep the ice sheet from disappearing into the ocean by providing back stress, almost like a levy.

“There is this common misconception that ice shelves, the floating bits, have a major role to play in sea level contribution,” he says. “But by themselves, they don't necessarily matter. They're already floating, so they've contributed whatever they're going to contribute to sea level. However, they can play a major role in setting the sea level contribution of ice sheets because they are resisting the flow of the ice from the land to the ocean.”

How margins behave — and thus how the ice sheet will respond to changes in climate — is one of the three primary areas of interests for Glaciers at MIT. The team will use novel remote sensing techniques to look at the mechanics of how cracks form in the ice and how glaciers slip along their beds.

The latter is arguably the largest source of uncertainty in understanding projections of sea level rise, says Minchew, at least for ice sheet models. It’s still unknown how the drag, or resistance, at the base is related to the speed at which ice is traveling. For example, whether the resistance increases the faster the ice flows, whether it’s independent of speed, or whether the resistance lessens the faster the ice flows, perhaps because the ice becomes more disconnected from the base as it increases in speed.

“All these things are possible, so we don't quite know how to represent resistance in our models,” he says. “That problem has been around for a long time because it's really hard to figure out what's going on at the bottom of two kilometers of ice.”

Another unknown is how cracks in ice form and travel. Rifts, or fractures, tend to spread in spurts, with stress building up at the crack until, upon reaching a tipping point, it rips through the ice until it “runs out of gas,” Minchew explains. But that’s a “pretty superficial” understanding of fractures, he says. The glaciers team will dig into the next level-details: how fast rifts propagate, how that rate feeds back into the whole propagation.

For example, Minchew supervises EAPS PhD student Joanna Millstein, who uses satellite observations to map how the stress field changes on Brunt Ice Shelf before and after the propagation of a long rift, called Chasm 1 — the same one that kept Minchew from Antarctica.

Despite the freezing rain drops outside his window, Minchew says he, his wife (a teacher), and their 7-year-old daughter “couldn’t be happier here.” The opportunity to spearhead Glaciers at MIT seems to have outweighed their initial hesitancy of Northeast winters.

“This has been just a really great opportunity to not only carve out my own space in ice sheet dynamics, but to carve out my own space among all these other very interesting and admirable people here,” he says.

In addition to the caliber of his EAPS colleagues and students, Minchew was also attracted to MIT because of its close connections with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which was responsible for a lot of remote sensing development. It seems Minchew has found at MIT a team as dedicated and permanently curious as he.

“There’s this idea here that people feel like they are a part of something special, a part of the growth of something special,” he says. “I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Letter regarding the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing working groups and Idea Bank

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 10:32am

The following letter was sent to the MIT community on Feb. 7 by Provost Martin A. Schmidt.

To the members of the MIT community:

In October 2018, MIT announced the establishment of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. The College aims to create a shared academic structure to facilitate the connection of computing scholarship and resources to all disciplines at MIT, and to provide opportunities for pathbreaking initiatives in computing-related education and research.

At that time, we anticipated the formation of several working groups to develop ideas and options for creation of the College that can help the administration plan for its launch.  I am writing to let you know that we have created five working groups for this purpose, as follows:

  1. Organizational Structure — Co-chairs:  Asu Ozdaglar, Department Head, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering; Nelson Repenning, Associate Dean of Leadership and Special Projects, and School of Management Distinguished Professor of System Dynamics and Organization Studies
  2. Faculty Appointments — Co-chairs:  Eran Ben-Joseph, Department Head, Urban Studies and Planning; William Freeman, Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering
  3. Curriculum and Degrees — Co-chairs: Srini Devadas, Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Troy Van Voorhis, Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry
  4. Social Implications and Responsibilities of Computing — Co-chairs:  Melissa Nobles, Kenan Sahin Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Julie Shah, Associate Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics
  5. College Infrastructure — Co-chairs:  Benoit Forget, Associate Professor, Nuclear Science and Engineering; Nicholas Roy, Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Member, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory   

The full memberships of these groups, which include faculty, staff, and students from a wide range of MIT departments, can be found here.

These groups will convene throughout the spring 2019 semester with the aim of producing a report describing their thoughts on these important issues by May. A steering committee — composed of the 10 co-chairs, Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, MIT Faculty Chair Susan Silbey, and me — will provide collaborative guidance to the working groups. In addition, we have established an Idea Bank in order to gain input from the MIT community. Community members can submit ideas related to the working group topics to the Idea Bank until the end of April.

I wish to express my appreciation to all members of the working groups and the steering committee for their efforts on the important task of planning for the launch of the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing in fall 2019. I am certain the guidance from their recommendations will help shape the College’s path to lasting success. 

Sincerely,

Martin A. Schmidt
Provost

New technique pinpoints milestones in the evolution of bacteria

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 11:59pm

Bacteria have evolved all manner of adaptations to live in every habitat on Earth. But unlike plants and animals, which can be preserved as fossils, bacteria have left behind little physical evidence of their evolution, making it difficult for scientists to determine exactly when different groups of bacteria evolved.

Now MIT scientists have devised a reliable way to determine when certain groups of bacteria appeared in the evolutionary record. The technique could be used to identify when significant changes occurred in the evolution of bacteria, and to reveal details about the primitive environments that drove such changes in the first place.

In a paper published online Jan. 28 in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, the researchers report using the technique to determine that, around 450 to 350 million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era, several major groups of soil bacteria acquired a specific gene from fungi that allowed them to break down chitin — a fibrous material found in the cell walls of fungi and in the exoskeletons of arthropods — and use its products to grow.

This evolutionary adaptation in bacteria may have been driven by a significant shift in the environment. Around the same time, arthropods such as early spiders, insects, and centipedes, were moving from the oceans onto land. As these terrestrial arthropods spread and diversified, they left behind chitin, creating richer soil environments and a new opportunity for bacteria — particularly those that acquired the chitinase gene — to thrive.

“Before this period, you would have had soils, but it might have looked like the dry valleys of Antarctica,” says Gregory Fournier, the Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “With animals living in soils for the first time, that provided new opportunities for microbes to take advantage and diversify.”

Fournier says that, by tracing certain genes such as chitinase in bacteria, scientists can gain new insight into the early history of animals and the environments in which they lived.

“Microbes contain in their genomes a shadow history of animal life that we can use to fill gaps in our understanding of not only microbes, but also of the early history of animals,” Fournier says.

The paper’s authors include lead author Danielle Gruen PhD ’18, now a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, and former postdoc Joanna Wolfe, now a research scientist at Harvard University.

Missing fossils

Without a fossil record, scientists have used other techniques to lay out bacteria’s “tree of life” — a map of genetic relationships, showing many branches and splits as bacteria have evolved into hundreds of thousands of species through time. Scientists have established such maps by analyzing and comparing the gene sequences of existing bacteria.

Using a “molecular clock” approach, they can estimate the rates at which certain genetic mutations may have occurred, and calculate the time at which two species may have diverged.

But that can only tell you relative time, and there’s a huge uncertainty associated with these estimates,” Fournier says. “We have to anchor this tree somehow to the geological record, to absolute time.”

The team found they could use fossils from an entirely different organism to anchor the time at which certain groups of bacteria evolved. While in the vast majority of cases, genes are passed down through generations, from parent to offspring, every so often, a gene can hop from one organism to another, via a virus or through the environment, in a process known as horizontal gene transfer. The same genetic sequence, therefore, can appear in two organisms that otherwise would have entirely different genetic histories.

Fournier and his colleagues reasoned that if they could identify a common gene between bacteria and an entirely different organism — one with a clear fossil record — they might be able to pin bacteria’s evolution to the point at which this gene was transferred from the fossil-dated organism, to bacteria.

Splitting trees

They looked through the genome sequences of thousands of organisms and identified a single gene, chitinase, that appeared in several major bacterial groups, as well as in most species of fungi, which have a well-established fossil record.

They then used algorithms to produce a tree of all the different species with the chitinase genes, showing the relationships between species based on mutations in their genomes. Next, they employed a molecular clock approach to determine the relative times at which each species of bacteria containing chitinase branched from its respective ancestor. They repeated this same process for fungi.

The researchers traced chitinase in fungi to the point at which it most resembled the gene when it first appeared in bacteria, and reasoned that that must have been when fungi transferred the gene to bacteria. They then used fungi’s fossil record to pinpoint the time at which transfer likely occurred.

They found that, following the subsequent transfer of this gene across several groups of bacteria, three major groups of soil bacteria containing the chitinase gene all diversified around 450 to 350 million years ago. This rapid burst of microbe diversity was likely in response to a similar diversification of land animals, and specifically, chitin-producing arthropods, which occurred around this same period, as the fossil record shows.

“This result supports [the idea] that microbial groups tend to acquire genes for using resources as soon as they are available in the environment,” Fournier notes. “In principle, this approach can therefore be used to date many more groups of microbes, using the transfer of other genes that use other resources.”

Fournier is now developing an automated pipeline for detecting useful gene transfers between bacteria and other organisms, from huge amounts of gene data. For instance, he is looking at microbial genes responsible for breaking down collagen, a compound that is produced only in animals, and is found in soft body tissues.

“If we have a shadow history in the microbes of genes that eat soft body tissue, we could maybe reconstruct the early history of soft body tissues, which don’t preserve well in the fossil record,” Fournier says.

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

Unleashing perovskites’ potential for solar cells

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 1:59pm

Perovskites — a broad category of compounds that share a certain crystal structure — have attracted a great deal of attention as potential new solar-cell materials because of their low cost, flexibility, and relatively easy manufacturing process. But much remains unknown about the details of their structure and the effects of substituting different metals or other elements within the material.

Conventional solar cells made of silicon must be processed at temperatures above 1,400 degrees Celsius, using expensive equipment that limits their potential for production scaleup. In contrast, perovskites can be processed in a liquid solution at temperatures as low as 100 degrees, using inexpensive equipment. What’s more, perovskites can be deposited on a variety of substrates, including flexible plastics, enabling a variety of new uses that would be impossible with thicker, stiffer silicon wafers.

Now, researchers have been able to decipher a key aspect of the behavior of perovskites made with different formulations: With certain additives there is a kind of “sweet spot” where greater amounts will enhance performance and beyond which further amounts begin to degrade it. The findings are detailed this week in the journal Science, in a paper by former MIT postdoc Juan-Pablo Correa-Baena, MIT professors Tonio Buonassisi and Moungi Bawendi, and 18 others at MIT, the University of California at San Diego, and other institutions.

Perovskites are a family of compounds that share a three-part crystal structure. Each part can be made from any of a number of different elements or compounds — leading to a very broad range of possible formulations. Buonassisi compares designing a new perovskite to ordering from a menu, picking one (or more) from each of column A, column B, and (by convention) column X. “You can mix and match,” he says, but until now all the variations could only be studied by trial and error, since researchers had no basic understanding of what was going on in the material.

In previous research by a team from the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in which Correa-Baena participated, had found that adding certain alkali metals to the perovskite mix could improve the material’s efficiency at converting solar energy to electricity, from about 19 percent to about 22 percent. But at the time there was no explanation for this improvement, and no understanding of exactly what these metals were doing inside the compound. “Very little was known about how the microstructure affects the performance,” Buonassisi says.

Now, detailed mapping using high-resolution synchrotron nano-X-ray fluorescence measurements, which can probe the material with a beam just one-thousandth the width of a hair, has revealed the details of the process, with potential clues for how to improve the material’s performance even further.

It turns out that adding these alkali metals, such as cesium or rubidium, to the perovskite compound helps some of the other constituents to mix together more smoothly. As the team describes it, these additives help to “homogenize” the mixture, making it conduct electricity more easily and thus improving its efficiency as a solar cell. But, they found, that only works up to a certain point. Beyond a certain concentration, these added metals clump together, forming regions that interfere with the material’s conductivity and partly counteract the initial advantage. In between, for any given formulation of these complex compounds, is the sweet spot that provides the best performance, they found.

“It’s a big finding,” says Correa-Baena, who in January became an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech. What the researchers found, after about three years of work at MIT and with collaborators at UCSD, was “what happens when you add those alkali metals, and why the performance improves.” They were able to directly observe the changes in the composition of the material, and reveal, among other things, these countervailing effects of homogenizing and clumping.

“The idea is that, based on these findings, we now know we should be looking into similar systems, in terms of adding alkali metals or other metals,” or varying other parts of the recipe, Correa-Baena says. While perovskites can have major benefits over conventional silicon solar cells, especially in terms of the low cost of setting up factories to produce them, they still require further work to boost their overall efficiency and improve their longevity, which lags significantly behind that of silicon cells.

Although the researchers have clarified the structural changes that take place in the perovskite material when adding different metals, and the resulting changes in performance, “we still don’t understand the chemistry behind this,” Correa-Baena says. That’s the subject of ongoing research by the team. The theoretical maximum efficiency of these perovskite solar cells is about 31 percent, according to Correa-Baena, and the best performance to date is around 23 percent, so there remains a significant margin for potential improvement.

Although it may take years for perovskites to realize their full potential, at least two companies are already in the process of setting up production lines, and they expect to begin selling their first modules within the next year or so. Some of these are small, transparent and colorful solar cells designed to be integrated into a building’s façade. “It’s already happening,” Correa-Baena says, “but there’s still work to do in making these more durable.”

Once issues of large-scale manufacturability, efficiency, and durability are addressed, Buonassisi says, perovskites could become a major player in the renewable energy industry. “If they succeed in making sustainable, high-efficiency modules while preserving the low cost of the manufacturing, that could be game-changing,” he says. “It could allow expansion of solar power much faster than we’ve seen.”

Perovskite solar cells “are now primary candidates for commercialization. Thus, providing deeper insights, as done in this work, contributes to future development,” says Michael Saliba, a senior researcher on the physics of soft matter at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, who was not involved in this research.

Saliba adds, “This is great work that is shedding light on some of the most investigated materials. The use of synchrotron-based, novel techniques in combination with novel material engineering is of the highest quality, and is deserving of appearing in such a high-ranking journal.” He adds that work in this field “is rapidly progressing. Thus, having more detailed knowledge will be important for addressing future engineering challenges.”

The study, which included researchers at Purdue University and Argonne National Laboratory, in addition to those at MIT and UCSD, was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and the California Energy Commission.

New pill can deliver insulin

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 1:59pm

An MIT-led research team has developed a drug capsule that could be used to deliver oral doses of insulin, potentially replacing the injections that people with type 2 diabetes have to give themselves every day.

About the size of a blueberry, the capsule contains a small needle made of compressed insulin, which is injected after the capsule reaches the stomach. In tests in animals, the researchers showed that they could deliver enough insulin to lower blood sugar to levels comparable to those produced by injections given through skin. They also demonstrated that the device can be adapted to deliver other protein drugs.

“We are really hopeful that this new type of capsule could someday help diabetic patients and perhaps anyone who requires therapies that can now only be given by injection or infusion,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

Giovanni Traverso, an assistant professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and a visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, where he is starting as a faculty member in 2019, is also a senior author of the study. The first author of the paper, which appears in the Feb. 7 issue of Science, is MIT graduate student Alex Abramson. The research team also includes scientists from the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.

Video credit: Diana Saville

Self-orientation

Several years ago, Traverso, Langer, and their colleagues developed a pill coated with many tiny needles that could be used to inject drugs into the lining of the stomach or the small intestine. For the new capsule, the researchers changed the design to have just one needle, allowing them to avoid injecting drugs into the interior of the stomach, where they would be broken down by stomach acids before having any effect.

The tip of the needle is made of nearly 100 percent compressed, freeze-dried insulin, using the same process used to form tablets of medicine. The shaft of the needle, which does not enter the stomach wall, is made from another biodegradable material.

Within the capsule, the needle is attached to a compressed spring that is held in place by a disk made of sugar. When the capsule is swallowed, water in the stomach dissolves the sugar disk, releasing the spring and injecting the needle into the stomach wall.

The stomach wall has no pain receptors, so the researchers believe that patients would not be able to feel the injection. To ensure that the drug is injected into the stomach wall, the researchers designed their system so that no matter how the capsule lands in the stomach, it can orient itself so the needle is in contact with the lining of the stomach.

“As soon as you take it, you want the system to self-right so that you can ensure contact with the tissue,” Traverso says.

The researchers drew their inspiration for the self-orientation feature from a tortoise known as the leopard tortoise. This tortoise, which is found in Africa, has a shell with a high, steep dome, allowing it to right itself if it rolls onto its back. The researchers used computer modeling to come up with a variant of this shape for their capsule, which allows it to reorient itself even in the dynamic environment of the stomach.

“What’s important is that we have the needle in contact with the tissue when it is injected,” Abramson says. “Also, if a person were to move around or the stomach were to growl, the device would not move from its preferred orientation.”

Once the tip of the needle is injected into the stomach wall, the insulin dissolves at a rate that can be controlled by the researchers as the capsule is prepared. In this study, it took about an hour for all of the insulin to be fully released into the bloodstream.

Easier for patients

In tests in pigs, the researchers showed that they could successfully deliver up to 300 micrograms of insulin. More recently, they have been able to increase the dose to 5 milligrams, which is comparable to the amount that a patient with type 2 diabetes would need to inject.

After the capsule releases its contents, it can pass harmlessly through the digestive system. The researchers found no adverse effects from the capsule, which is made from biodegradable polymer and stainless steel components.

Maria José Alonso, a professor of biopharmaceutics and pharmaceutical technology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, describes the new capsule as a “radically new technology” that could benefit many patients.

“We are not talking about incremental improvements in insulin absorption, which is what most researchers in the field have done so far. This is by far the most realistic and impactful breakthrough technology disclosed until now for oral peptide delivery,” says Alonso, who was not involved in the research.

The MIT team is now continuing to work with Novo Nordisk to further develop the technology and optimize the manufacturing process for the capsules. They believe this type of drug delivery could be useful for any protein drug that normally has to be injected, such as immunosuppressants used to treat rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. It may also work for nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA.

“Our motivation is to make it easier for patients to take medication, particularly medications that require an injection,” Traverso says. “The classic one is insulin, but there are many others.”

The research was funded by Novo Nordisk, the National Institutes of Health, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Viking Olaf Bjork Research Scholarship, and the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Other authors of the paper include Ester Caffarel-Salvador, Minsoo Khang, David Dellal, David Silverstein, Yuan Gao, Morten Revsgaard Frederiksen, Andreas Vegge, Frantisek Hubalek, Jorrit Water, Anders Friderichsen, Johannes Fels, Rikke Kaae Kirk, Cody Cleveland, Joy Collins, Siddartha Tamang, Alison Hayward, Tomas Landh, Stephen Buckley, Niclas Roxhed, and Ulrik Rahbek.

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