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Finding common ground in Malden

Wed, 08/04/2021 - 4:15pm

When disparate groups convene around a common goal, exciting things can happen.

That is the inspiring story unfolding in Malden, Massachusetts, a city of about 60,000 — nearly half people of color — where a new type of community coalition continues to gain momentum on its plan to build a climate-resilient waterfront park along its river. The Malden River Works (MRW) project, recipient of the inaugural Leventhal City Prize, is seeking to connect to a contiguous greenway network where neighboring cities already have visitors coming to their parks and enjoying recreational boating. More important, the MRW is changing the model for how cities address civic growth, community engagement, equitable climate resilience, and environmental justice.                                                                                        

The MRW’s steering committee consists of eight resident leaders of color, a resident environmental advocate, and three city representatives. One of the committee’s primary responsibilities is providing direction to the MRW’s project team, which includes urban designers, watershed and climate resilience planners, and a community outreach specialist. MIT’s Kathleen Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach Education and Engagement Core at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), and Marie Law Adams MArch ’06, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), serve on the project team.

“This governance structure is somewhat unusual,” says Adams. “More typical is having city government as the primary decision-maker. It is important that one of the first things our team did was build a steering committee that is the decision maker on this project.”

Evan Spetrini ’18 is the senior planner and policy manager for the Malden Redevelopment Authority and sits on both the steering committee and project team. He says placing the decision-making power with the steering committee and building it to be representative of marginalized communities was intentional. 

“Changing that paradigm of power and decision-making in planning processes was the way we approached social resilience,” says Spetrini. “We have always intended this project to be a model for future planning projects in Malden.”

This model ushers in a new history chapter for a city founded in 1640.

Located about six miles north of Boston, Malden was home to mills and factories that used the Malden River for power, and a site for industrial waste over the last two centuries. Decades after the city’s industrial decline, there is little to no public access to the river. Many residents were not even aware there was a river in their city. Before the project was under way, Vandiver initiated a collaborative effort to evaluate the quality of the river’s water. Working with the Mystic River Watershed Association, Gradient Corporation, and CEHS, water samples were tested and a risk analysis conducted.

“Having the study done made it clear the public could safely enjoy boating on the water,” says Vandiver. “It was a breakthrough that allowed people to see the river as an amenity."

A team effort

Marcia Manong had never seen the river, but the Malden resident was persuaded to join the steering committee with the promise the project would be inclusive and of value to the community. Manong has been involved with civic engagement most of her life in the United States and for 20 years in South Africa.

“It wasn’t going to be a marginalized, token-ized engagement,” says Manong. “It was clear to me that they were looking for people that would actually be sitting at the table.”

Manong agreed to recruit additional people of color to join the team. From the beginning, she says, language was a huge barrier, given that nearly half of Malden’s residents do not speak English at home. Finding the translation efforts at their public events to be inadequate, the steering committee directed more funds to be made available for translation in several languages when public meetings began being held over Zoom this past year.

“It’s unusual for most cities to spend this money, but our population is so diverse that we require it,” says Manong. “We have to do it. If the steering committee wasn’t raising this issue with the rest of the team, perhaps this would be overlooked.”

Another alteration the steering committee has made is how the project engages with the community. While public attendance at meetings had been successful before the pandemic, Manong says they are “constantly working” to reach new people. One method has been to request invitations to attend the virtual meetings of other organizations to keep them apprised of the project.

“We’ve said that people feel most comfortable when they’re in their own surroundings, so why not go where the people are instead of trying to get them to where we are,” says Manong.

Buoyed by the $100,000 grant from MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) in 2019, the project team worked with Malden’s Department of Public Works, which is located along the river, to redesign its site and buildings and to study how to create a flood-resistant public open space as well as an elevated greenway path, connecting with other neighboring cities’ paths. The park’s plans also call for 75 new trees to reduce urban heat island effect, open lawn for gathering, and a dock for boating on the river.

“The storm water infrastructure in these cities is old and isn’t going to be able to keep up with increased precipitation,” says Adams. “We’re looking for ways to store as much water as possible on the DPW site so we can hold it and release it more gradually into the river to avoid flooding.”

The project along the 2.3-mile-long river continues to receive attention. Recently, the city of Malden was awarded a 2021 Accelerating Climate Resilience Grant of more than $50,000 from the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Barr Foundation to support the project. Last fall, the project was awarded a $150,015 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant. Both awards are being directed to fund engineering work to refine the project’s design.

“We — and in general, the planning profession — are striving to create more community empowerment in decision-making as to what happens to their community,” says Spetrini. “Putting the power in the community ensures that it’s actually responding to the needs of the community.”

Contagious enthusiasm

Manong says she’s happy she got involved with the project and believes the new governance structure is making a difference.

“This project is definitely engaging with communities of color in a manner that is transformative and that is looking to build a long-lasting power dynamic built on trust,” she says. “It’s a new energized civic engagement and we’re making that happen. It’s very exciting.”

Spetrini finds the challenge of creating an open space that’s publicly accessible and alongside an active work site professionally compelling.

“There is a way to preserve the industrial employment base while also giving the public greater access to this natural resource,” he says. “It has real implications for other communities to follow this type of model.”

Despite the pandemic this past year, enthusiasm for the project is palpable. For Spetrini, a Malden resident, it’s building “the first significant piece of what has been envisioned as the Malden River Greenway.” Adams sees the total project as a way to build social resilience as well as garnering community interest in climate resilience. For Vandiver, it’s the implications for improved community access.

“From a health standpoint, everybody has learned from Covid-19 that the health aspects of walking in nature are really restorative,” says Vandiver. “Creating greater green space gives more attention to health issues. These are seemingly small side benefits, but they’re huge for mental health benefits.”

Leventhal City Prize’s next cycle

The Leventhal City Prize was established by the LCAU to catalyze innovative, interdisciplinary urban design, and planning approaches worldwide to improve both the environment and the quality of life for residents. Support for the LCAU was provided by the Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Family Foundation and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation.

“We’re thrilled with inaugural recipients of the award and the extensive work they’ve undertaken that is being held up as an exemplary model for others to learn from,” says Sarah Williams, LCAU director and a professor in DUSP. “Their work reflects the prize’s intent. We look forward to catalyzing these types of collaborative partnership in the next prize cycle.”

Submissions for the next cycle of the Leventhal City Prize will open in early 2022.   

Using graphene foam to filter toxins from drinking water

Wed, 08/04/2021 - 2:00pm

Some kinds of water pollution, such as algal blooms and plastics that foul rivers, lakes, and marine environments, lie in plain sight. But other contaminants are not so readily apparent, which makes their impact potentially more dangerous. Among these invisible substances is uranium. Leaching into water resources from mining operations, nuclear waste sites, or from natural subterranean deposits, the element can now be found flowing out of taps worldwide.

In the United States alone, “many areas are affected by uranium contamination, including the High Plains and Central Valley aquifers, which supply drinking water to 6 million people,” says Ahmed Sami Helal, a postdoc in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. This contamination poses a near and present danger. “Even small concentrations are bad for human health,” says Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering.

Now, a team led by Li has devised a highly efficient method for removing uranium from drinking water. Applying an electric charge to graphene oxide foam, the researchers can capture uranium in solution, which precipitates out as a condensed solid crystal. The foam may be reused up to seven times without losing its electrochemical properties. “Within hours, our process can purify a large quantity of drinking water below the EPA limit for uranium,” says Li.

A paper describing this work was published in this week Advanced Materials. The two first co-authors are Helal and Chao Wang, a postdoc at MIT during the study, who is now with the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Tongji University, Shanghai. Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, and the University of Tokyo also participated in the research. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (U.S. Department of Defense) funded later stages of this work.

Targeting the contaminant

The project, launched three years ago, began as an effort to find better approaches to environmental cleanup of heavy metals from mining sites. To date, remediation methods for such metals as chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury, radium, and uranium have proven limited and expensive. “These techniques are highly sensitive to organics in water, and are poor at separating out the heavy metal contaminants,” explains Helal. “So they involve long operation times, high capital costs, and at the end of extraction, generate more toxic sludge.”

To the team, uranium seemed a particularly attractive target. Field testing from the U.S. Geological Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed unhealthy levels of uranium moving into reservoirs and aquifers from natural rock sources in the northeastern United States, from ponds and pits storing old nuclear weapons and fuel in places like Hanford, Washington, and from mining activities located in many western states. This kind of contamination is prevalent in many other nations as well. An alarming number of these sites show uranium concentrations close to or above the EPA’s recommended ceiling of 30 parts per billion (ppb) — a level linked to kidney damage, cancer risk, and neurobehavioral changes in humans.

The critical challenge lay in finding a practical remediation process exclusively sensitive to uranium, capable of extracting it from solution without producing toxic residues. And while earlier research showed that electrically charged carbon fiber could filter uranium from water, the results were partial and imprecise.

Wang managed to crack these problems — based on her investigation of the behavior of graphene foam used for lithium-sulfur batteries. “The physical performance of this foam was unique because of its ability to attract certain chemical species to its surface,” she says. “I thought the ligands in graphene foam would work well with uranium.”

Simple, efficient, and clean

The team set to work transforming graphene foam into the equivalent of a uranium magnet. They learned that by sending an electric charge through the foam, splitting water and releasing hydrogen, they could increase the local pH and induce a chemical change that pulled uranium ions out of solution. The researchers found that the uranium would graft itself onto the foam’s surface, where it formed a never-before-seen crystalline uranium hydroxide. On reversal of the electric charge, the mineral, which resembles fish scales, slipped easily off the foam.

It took hundreds of tries to get the chemical composition and electrolysis just right. “We kept changing the functional chemical groups to get them to work correctly,” says Helal. “And the foam was initially quite fragile, tending to break into pieces, so we needed to make it stronger and more durable,” says Wang.

This uranium filtration process is simple, efficient, and clean, according to Li: “Each time it’s used, our foam can capture four times its own weight of uranium, and we can achieve an extraction capacity of 4,000 mg per gram, which is a major improvement over other methods,” he says. “We’ve also made a major breakthrough in reusability, because the foam can go through seven cycles without losing its extraction efficiency.” The graphene foam functions as well in seawater, where it reduces uranium concentrations from 3 parts per million to 19.9 ppb, showing that other ions in the brine do not interfere with filtration.

The team believes its low-cost, effective device could become a new kind of home water filter, fitting on faucets like those of commercial brands. “Some of these filters already have activated carbon, so maybe we could modify these, add low-voltage electricity to filter uranium,” says Li.

“The uranium extraction this device achieves is very impressive when compared to existing methods,” says Ho Jin Ryu, associate professor of nuclear and quantum engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Ryu, who was not involved in the research, believes that the demonstration of graphene foam reusability is a “significant advance,” and that “the technology of local pH control to enhance uranium deposition will be impactful because the scientific principle can be applied more generally to heavy metal extraction from polluted water.”

The researchers have already begun investigating broader applications of their method. “There is a science to this, so we can modify our filters to be selective for other heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium,” says Li. He notes that radium is another significant danger for locales in the United States and elsewhere that lack resources for reliable drinking water infrastructure.

“In the future, instead of a passive water filter, we could be using a smart filter powered by clean electricity that turns on electrolytic action, which could extract multiple toxic metals, tell you when to regenerate the filter, and give you quality assurance about the water you’re drinking.”

Matching health care offices with short-term workers

Wed, 08/04/2021 - 12:00am

For small health-care groups like dentist’s offices, one sick staff member can mean a day’s worth of cancelled appointments. Such offices can either continue short-staffed, which could negatively affect patient care, or reschedule appointments, potentially delaying critical procedures and screenings.

The MIT alumnus-founded Stynt is solving that problem by helping health care offices fill last-minute shift openings for positions including dental hygienists, assistants, office managers and dentists. Stynt’s online platform lets offices post openings that qualified professionals can then bid on.

“We’re a software-as-a-service marketplace with a focus on health care staffing,” founder and CEO Alex Adeli MBA ’17 says. “We provide health care facilities with credentialed professionals extremely fast, in most cases within 15 minutes or less. These offices get direct access to certified professionals who are seeking open positions in their area of expertise, at their desired pay rate, within their preferred geography.”

The platform onboards professionals by verifying their credentials, work experience, and conducting reference checks. It then lets professionals set their own schedule and desired hourly rate. Algorithms alert them to relevant work in their area and suggest bids.

Stynt also provides workers’ compensation, health benefits, insurance, personal time off, human resource services, and payroll services, which simplifies the hiring process and provides a safety net to workers.

The company is already working with more than 5,000 offices around the U.S. and 40,000 professionals. Last week, the nation’s largest dental association, the American Dental Association Members Advantage, endorsed Stynt to serve as their staffing solution nationwide, which Adeli believes will help Stynt achieve its goal of working with the majority of dental facilities in the U.S. by 2025.

Some professionals finding work on Stynt’s platform are new graduates that utilize Stynt as a gateway to full-time jobs. Others work a few days a week at offices that don’t have enough business to give them more hours. Another set of Stynt’s workers have young children or other family obligations and like to personalize their schedules depending on needs.

“I’m a single parent with two children and love the flexibility of working as often or as little as I need or prefer,” says Cathryn Schnackenberg, a registered dental hygienist on Stynt’s platform. “I never have to worry about asking for time off for vacation, sick children, doctor’s appointments, or just a ‘day of rest.’ I’m even given sick time pay with the hours I accrue through temping.”

A hands-on education

Before founding Stynt, Adeli owned and ran multiple dental offices around Boston. Through that experience he saw firsthand the disruptions that come when employees can’t show up for work.

Larger offices can call on other employees to fill in, but for smaller offices, the scramble to replace workers often involves calling temporary staffing agencies then waiting for them to make calls through their network.

When those agencies do find workers, the pricing and worker credentials can be extremely variable. When they don’t find workers, offices often have to cancel their appointments for the day.

“Our schedule was booked several months in advance, so if our employees didn’t show up, patient access to care was compromised,” Adeli says.

In 2014, inspired by the rise of marketplace platforms like Uber, Adeli decided to build a software as service for health care professionals interested in shift work to find temporary job openings. It worked so well for his offices that he showed it to other dental offices in the area. Soon he had a small network of dental offices that could share a pool of workers, helping them operate like bigger companies in the industry.

Adeli had always wanted to go to business school, and around the middle of 2015, in the same month he decided to sell his dental business and commit himself to running Stynt full time, he was accepted to MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

At MIT, Adeli was able to apply the principles he learned in the classroom to his business in real-time. He created pricing algorithms while taking economics classes. He designed the bidding and matching features of his platform while learning about supply and demand. As he took data analytics classes, he incorporated systems for gathering and labeling data into Stynt’s system.

“We set a great foundation as a result of the education I was receiving,” Adeli says.

Adeli also believes he learned as much from his classmates as he did from his professors.

When you’re CEO, you don’t have a team of peers around you,” he says. “When you’re at a place like MIT, you can learn from all these great minds around you, and your mind expands.”

By the time Adeli graduated in 2017, Stynt was being used in seven states and beginning to work with larger health care organizations.

Helping small businesses

Today Stynt is helping small health care offices navigate hiring regulations across the U.S. Many states have, for instance, different employment classifications, tax requirements, and standards around liability and benefits.

“We’re standardizing classification of employment for health care professionals across the country,” Adeli says. “We have fully underwritten workers compensation, malpractice, and general liability insurances and a team of HR specialists that basically allows us to scale everywhere. Our payroll service is also in compliance for tax purposes across all states. This was a huge burden for many small offices.”

Stynt also provides its workers with professional development training, compliance certifications, and coaching on best practices in their industry.

During the pandemic, Adeli says Stynt helped keep offices running as they struggled through forced closures and, later, ramping back up as the federal government changed its definition of essential businesses.

Overall, Adeli is proud to be helping small health care offices “punch above their weight” in terms of running more smoothly with limited resources.

“What we’re trying to do is make the market more efficient,” Adeli says. “We’re allowing stranded capacity of both sides to come together. So, if you’re a health care professional working four days a week and you have two days available, and an office is in need of someone, we want to make sure you can link up in real-time.”

Kristy Johnson: Expanding communication for all

Wed, 08/04/2021 - 12:00am

As a teenager, Kristy Johnson thought she had her career all planned out. Raised in a small town in Indiana, she spent much of her childhood stargazing and mapping constellations. She dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist and pursued a rigorous academic path. After achieving top honors as an undergraduate, Johnson immediately began a PhD program in physics at the University of Maryland.

Everything changed when she discovered her son, Felix, had a rare genetic disorder, one with only seven known cases in the world. The condition is associated with delayed development, absent speech, severe intellectual disabilities, autism, epilepsy, and motor challenges.

“We knew that this would be something that would affect him for his entire life, and therefore us as a family. I knew I wanted and needed to stay home with him instead of finishing my PhD,” says Johnson.

Building a future for her son

For the next five years, Johnson poured the dedication she had honed as a grad student into caring for her son. While in the evenings she edited scientific manuscripts and taught college astronomy to earn a living, her free time was spent learning everything she could about her son’s condition. Johnson studied genetics, neuroscience, and even taught herself American Sign Language as a new way to connect with him.

Yet for Johnson, this wasn’t enough. Her son was still struggling to meet milestones. He showed intense interest in certain songs and music but was still not engaging or learning on his own. She realized that if the tools her son needed to succeed didn’t exist, she would have to make them herself. “I bought an Arduino and started programming things to react with his movements and encourage him to learn,” says Johnson. “Most of the things I built were out of cardboard, scraps of wood, and old toys. It was after I received a $300 grant from the Artisan’s Asylum, a makerspace in Somerville, that I was able to make my first real prototypes.”

As her son grew older, Johnson began to consider returning to research. But so much of her purpose had changed. “I realized physics wasn’t the love of my life anymore — my son was. And I knew that I wanted to pursue research that would improve his life and the lives of people like him,” Johnson says.

Her old resume, entirely physics-oriented, couldn’t begin to convey the countless hours she had spent studying neurodevelopmental disorders. In her search for a research program, she faced several rejections before finding the MIT Media Lab, which welcomes individuals with unique backgrounds and focuses on multidisciplinary research. “It’s like the academic island of misfit toys,” jokes Johnson. “I’m so grateful that it exists. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my entire life.” 

Designing devices to enhance communication and understanding

Today, Johnson is a senior graduate student in the Picard Lab. She has led a variety of projects that support individuals with neurodevelopmental differences. Her work in the Affective Computing Group uses wearable devices that measure changes in the electrical properties of the skin. “These devices can be worn on the wrist and serve as a proxy for sympathetic nervous system responses,” she says.

“Before, people like my son would often struggle to come into a clinical setting. With wearable devices, you can unobtrusively observe populations in their normal environments,” she says. Johnson has pursued neuroscience research that combines these wearable sensors with deep brain stimulation in epilepsy patients and fMRI neuroimaging with children with autism. “We’re really expanding our knowledge of what’s happening in the brain and how that relates to everyday life.”

Johnson is also currently collaborating with MIT graduate student Jaya Narain as well as researchers at MIT Lincoln Lab and Harvard University on Commalla, a research project whose name combines “communication” and “all.” The team is working to capture, characterize, and classify nonverbal vocalizations from a population that she refers to as mv*. The term encompasses those with 20 or fewer spoken words, potentially due to genetic disorders, intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and/or other neurological conditions.

“Nonverbal vocalizations are sounds like ‘uh huh’ or ‘ahh’ that have an associated emotion or meaning. Their meanings have been studied in infants and many other species and animals,” says Johnson. “Yet, they have not been studied in mv* individuals, which is mind-blowing and frustrating to me. Not only does my son fall into this category, but so do over 1 million individuals in the U.S.”

These nonverbal vocalizations can be recorded through the Commalla app and labeled with the correct meaning by a knowledgeable caretaker. All of this is done remotely, meaning the research has been able to continue throughout the global pandemic and to reach the geographically dispersed mv* community, Johnson says. The team then takes these recordings and has started to develop machine-learning models that help interpret an individual’s vocalizations in real time. The recordings can also be easily shared to help those who may be communicating with the individual for the first time. “Many mv* individuals are robustly communicating, but their listener is trained only for speech. We want to help them be heard and understood,” she says. “I’m hopeful that this project is something we can continue to expand and grow into the basis of a new field.”

Johnson will defend her PhD next week and recently accepted a postdoc at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she will continue research in translational neuroscience for children with neurodevelopmental disorders or differences. She hopes her research will deepen our understanding of communication from all individuals and empower mv* individuals, including her son, to be seen for all they can do.

“Just as in astronomy, we must study our brains indirectly to begin to unravel their complexity,” says Johnson. “Brains are a human cosmos, filled with so much that we recognize as beautiful but have yet to understand.”

3 Questions: David Kaiser and Julie Shah on social and ethical responsibilities of computing

Tue, 08/03/2021 - 1:10pm

David Kaiser and Julie Shah are on a mission to prepare students and facilitate research to address the broad challenges and opportunities associated with computing. As associate deans of Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) in the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, Kaiser and Shah are advancing a number of initiatives they hope will get students and faculty to reflect on the potential social, ethical, and policy implications of new technologies.

To help guide their efforts, Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics, and Shah, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, have developed a teaching, research, and engagement framework for SERC that includes case studies, active learning projects, and building a community of scholars. Here, they discuss projects that are taking shape and how they are tapping into the expertise of colleagues across a wide range of fields to help inform the activities of SERC.

Q: Weaving social and ethical aspects of computing into the curricula is a key mandate of SERC. How are you approaching this challenge and what are some efforts underway?

Kaiser: Every semester we bring together a number of interdisciplinary faculty groups that we call SERC Dean’s Action Groups. Each group consists of eight to 12 members from across MIT. The idea is for them to work together, discuss common research interests, and craft original content that can be embedded into a wide variety of courses and materials, across all levels of instruction, such as new questions for existing assignments and new final projects.

The action groups are modeled on successful workshops organized by MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory. To date we’ve launched five action groups in three focal areas: active learning projects; AI and public policy; and computing, data, and anti-racism.

Over the past academic year, several faculty members — including Dwai Banerjee and Will Deringer from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society; In Song Kim from the Department of Political Science; and Catherine D’Ignazio from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; as well as Jacob Andreas, Frédo Durand, Daniel Jackson, Kimberly Koile, and Arvind Satyanarayan in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) — created and incorporated new SERC materials for their respective courses, which was a direct result of their work in recent Action Groups for Active Learning Projects.

Shah: In addition, a team of advanced graduate students — from EECS and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Philosophy; and History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) — worked together to redesign each of the 12 weekly labs for the course 6.036 (Introduction to Machine Learning), taught by EECS Professor Leslie Kaebling, to highlight SERC content. 6.036 is a really popular class, with 600 students enrolled last semester, so we managed to reach nearly 15 percent of the undergraduate population as a result.

These are the kinds of steps that will help us towards meeting our goal of prompting responsible ways of thinking in computing education as well as in research and implementation. It’s also part of SERC’s broader mission to incorporate humanist, social science, social considerations, and policy/civic perspectives into everything we do.

Q: In February, SERC published a new series of case studies. How can the cases help students and researchers better understand social, economic, and other implications of the systems they’re designing in a holistic manner?

Kaiser: We interpret ‘social and ethical responsibilities of computing’ broadly on purpose. While some cases focus closely on particular technologies, others look at trends across technological platforms. Still others examine social, historical, philosophical, legal, and cultural facets that are essential for thinking critically about present-day efforts in computing and data science. In curating the series, we made special attempts to solicit cases on topics ranging beyond the United States and that highlight perspectives of people who are affected by various technologies, in addition to perspectives of designers and engineers.

The case studies are brief and modular by design, primarily to be appropriate for undergraduate education, and for users to be able to mix and match the content to fit a variety of pedagogical needs. Each case, which is based on original research and is peer-reviewed, is supported by scholarly apparatus of notes and references, but we don’t intend to stick to any particular format. The main goal of the series is to present important material in engaging ways for students across a range of classes and fields of study.

Our first series of cases were well received and we’re looking forward to publishing the second series in August. We’re also excited to share many of the novel active learning projects and homework assignments that our colleagues and students have developed on a companion website that we’re preparing with MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW). Like the case studies site, all of the materials on the new SERC OCW site will be available for free, anywhere in the world.

Q: Many students and researchers are seeking to understand the societal and ethical consequences of technological advancements, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence. How can they get involved?

Shah: The SERC Scholars Program is a new initiative that we just launched to provide avenues for students and postdocs to deepen their engagement in SERC and advance SERC efforts in the college. We’re working from emerging models of students’ participation so far, to design undergraduate pathways, graduate-student pathways, and an expanded postdoctoral program. For each group, the goal is to craft sustainable-level effort over a semester that can build over time. There has also been a focus on designing avenues for engagement so that these are not undertaken as individual efforts but intersect to build and further grow a community.

For example, we’re collaborating with campus partners to offer additional opportunities for SERC Scholars, such as engaging in research projects through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and internships that advance computing in the public interest through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. We’re also working with MIT student groups, including the Ethical Technology Initiative, AI Ethics Reading Group, and Science Policy Initiative, to organize extracurricular and social activities for scholars.

The program is open to students across MIT. These are hourly funded positions with selective and limited yearly enrollment. Many opportunities within each group's pathway have varying levels of time commitment. We hope that this variety of options will allow a broad range of students and postdocs to participate and help in attracting scholars from diverse backgrounds.

During the previous academic year, we were able to work with three terrific groups of undergraduates through MIT’s Experiential Learning Opportunities initiative. With generous support from the Patrick W. McGovern Foundation, we can now build upon that experience and expand our programs for undergraduate and graduate students. We’re also focusing on building up a postdoc program, designed in collaboration with selectees based on their interests. Each postdoctoral appointment will be based in the scholar’s home unit, which could be the college or one of the other schools or departments at MIT. The SERC portion of their appointment will be dedicated to advancing particular teaching, research, and broader engagement efforts.

Knight Science Journalism Program announces 2021-22 fellows

Tue, 08/03/2021 - 12:30pm

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT (KSJ) has announced that it has selected a group of 21 distinguished science journalists for its 2021-22 project fellowship class — a cohort that ranges from award-winning freelance writers to staff reporters for outlets such as The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, and MIT Technology Review.

It marks the second year that KSJ will offer the remote project fellowships, which were established in response to the unique challenges and public health concerns presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The fellowships are designed to support journalists pursuing a diverse range of projects related to science, health, technology, and the environment. Each fellow will receive a stipend and a budget for project-related expenses, as well as access to seminars, workshops, mentoring, and a large offering of online resources at MIT. (KSJ’s traditional in-person fellowships are expected to resume in the 2022-23 academic year.)

The newly selected fellows will pursue in-depth reporting projects probing issues such as globalization in the artificial intelligence industry, inequities in maternal health, animal lab testing, and environmental justice in the Deep South. “It’s an impressive array of projects that really embodies the multitude of ways our lives are touched by science,” says KSJ Associate Director Ashley Smart. “We’re proud to be able to support so much important work — and the talented journalists who are undertaking it.”

“The Knight Science Journalism Program is honored to contribute to the work being done by this talented group of science journalists,” says KSJ Director Deborah Blum. “It’s a pleasure to see such innovative and insightful work across so many platforms — books, documentary films, podcasts, long-form investigative stories — all with such a promise of making a difference.”

Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, the 2021-22 fellowship class includes authors, reporters, documentary photographers, and multimedia journalists representing every time zone in the contiguous United States. Seven journalists will receive full-year fellowships supported by $40,000 stipends; 14 will receive single-semester fellowships supported by $20,000 stipends, with nine in the fall semester and five in the spring semester.

The Knight Science Journalism Program, supported by a generous endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is recognized around the world as the premier mid-career fellowship program for science writers, editors, and multimedia journalists. The program’s goal is to foster professional growth among the world’s small but essential community of journalists covering science and technology, and encourage them to pursue that mission, first and foremost, in the public interest.

Since its founding in 1983, the program has hosted more than 350 fellows representing media outlets from The New York Times to Le Monde, from CNN to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and more. In addition to the fellowship program, KSJ publishes the award-winning digital magazine Undark and administers a national journalism prize, the Victor K. McElheny Award, honoring local and regional science reporting. KSJ’s academic home at MIT is the Program in Science, Technology and Society, which is part of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

2021-22 KSJ Fellows — Full-year fellows

Jessica Camille Aguirre is an award-winning journalist and writer from California. She often covers climate, and is especially interested in how people make and experience extremes. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books Daily, n+1, and many others. Aguirre will be researching and writing about the history of life-support systems.

Rene Ebersole is an award-winning journalist specializing in investigative stories about science, health, and the environment. Ebersole has reported on six continents for publications ranging from National Geographic to Audubon magazine on topics ranging from eel smuggling, health fraud, forensic science, and climate change to suspended animation, microbiomes, and Monsanto's Big Tobacco moment. For her investigative project, Ebersole will examine the troubling legacy of junk science in the criminal justice system.

Lauren Gravitz is an award-winning, independent science journalist based in San Diego whose work has appeared in publications such as The Economist, The Washington Post, Nature, Aeon, and NPR. She writes about everything from cancer to car seats but is particularly interested in neuroscience and the brain, especially memory. For her project, she will be writing about the newly emerging science of forgetting — from molecular biology to cognitive science — and the vital role it plays in our everyday lives.

Karen Hao is the senior AI editor at MIT Technology Review, covering the field’s cutting-edge research and its impacts on society. Her work is regularly taught in universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, and cited in government reports and by Congress. For her fellowship project, Hao will investigate the global AI supply chain and how it often concentrates power into the hands of wealthy people, companies, and nations while leaving the less fortunate with little privacy, agency, or benefit.

Ferris Jabr is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American. He has also written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Outside, Wired, Slate, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. Some of his work has been anthologized by the Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Currently, he is writing a book for Random House about the co-evolution of Earth and life, which will be the focus of his KSJ fellowship.

Asha Stuart is a documentary filmmaker and photographer whose work focuses on sociocultural themes, with a focus on people living in marginalized communities and facing injustice in areas such as inequality, public health, and environmental threats. Her work has appeared on National Geographic, CNN, PBS, TIME, Politico, and many other news outlets. For her project, Stuart will undertake a documentary film project investigating the intersection of racial inequality and environmental injustice on African American communities living in the Deep South.

Emily Willingham is a science journalist and author of “Phallacy: Life Lessons From the Animal Penis” (Avery, 2020) and “The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, A User's Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter” (Basic, 2021). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Aeon, and Undark, among others; she is a regular contributor to Scientific American and Medscape who earned a PhD in biology and completed a postdoc in urology, both after taking a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Willingham's project will focus on the science of adolescence.

2021-22 KSJ Fellows — Fall-semester fellows

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, author, and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her books include “Purple Hearts — Back from Iraq,” (Trolley, 2004), “Homeland,” (Trolley, 2008), and “An autobiography of Miss Wish” (2017). Berman’s project, When the Jets Fly, is a multichannel documentary film, photography, and audio report investigating the environmental impact of U.S. military training focusing on Whidbey Island, Washington, and the greater Puget Sound area.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer at The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Bloomberg CityLab, and Art in America, among other publications. As a Knight Science Journalism fellow, he will be writing about shade, and its relationship to global warming and inequality, for a book to be published by Random House.

Virginia Gewin is a former soil scientist turned journalist. Based in Portland, Oregon, she writes about food security, land use, climate change, and biodiversity loss for a variety of publications, including Nature, Popular Science, Bloomberg, and Civil Eats. Her reporting has taken her to Malaysia, Peru, Iceland, Scotland, and all over the United States. Her MIT Knight Science Journalism fellowship project will focus on whether the United States is prepared for another Dust Bowl event.

Jeremy Hance is a writer and freelance environmental journalist. He is the author of the 2020 award-winning travel memoir, “Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac.” As a journalist, Hance cut his teeth at Mongabay as a lead writer and editor. A story on the Sumatran rhino for Mongabay was chosen for “Best American Science and Nature Writing” in 2019. Hance will be working on a book about the effort to save one of the world’s most endangered megafauna, the Sumatran rhino.

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance journalist in Washington. She writes about science, travel, and animals and is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Kaplan will embark on a road trip with her beagle Hammy, who spent four years in a testing lab, to explore the use of dogs and other animals in testing across America — a journey that will take them to laboratories, universities, pharmaceutical companies, and the homes of other former lab animals. She plans to share their story in a book.

Tasmiha Khan is a freelance writer from the Midwest. She champions marginalized communities, particularly the Muslim American population, including women and children. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, Forbes, The Daily Beast, Vox, and VICE, among others. Her project will be examining the science of ensuring cultural and religious competent care for pregnant and perinatal Muslim women.

Emily Mullin is an award-winning science journalist who writes about how biology is shaping our future. She’s held staff positions covering biotech at Medium’s OneZero and MIT Technology Review and her reporting has also appeared in The Washington Post, Scientific American, and National Geographic. For her project, Mullin is working on a book on the quest to use animals as a source of organs for people who desperately need transplants.

Natasha Singer is a reporter at The New York Times whose work focuses on the intersection of business, technology, and society. She was part of a team of Times journalists who won a George Polk Award for national reporting in 2019 for their privacy coverage. For her project, Singer will examine the historical parallels and differences between the Cold War push for physics education in U.S. high schools in the 1950s and current efforts by tech companies and nonprofits to normalize computer science education in American public schools.

Jared Whitlock is a freelance health reporter. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Wired Magazine, and Voice of San Diego, with support from USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He previously covered biotech and health care as a staff reporter at the San Diego Business Journal, was the associate editor of the Encinitas Advocate, and a staff reporter at The Coast News. His project will cover drug development for rare diseases.

2021-22 KSJ Fellows — Spring-semester fellows

Rebecca Boyle is an award-winning science journalist and author based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Quanta, and The New York Times, and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Boyle is a former newspaper reporter and now writes primarily about astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. She will use her fellowship to pursue a book on the history and biology of darkness, illuminating the nexus among human health, ecological health, and artificial light.

Anna Kuchment is a science reporter at The Dallas Morning News and contributing editor at Scientific American. Previously, she worked as a senior editor at Scientific American and as a staff writer at Newsweek. During her fellowship Kuchment will work on “Shaky Ground: The Untold Story of the Largest Earthquake Surge in Modern History” (University of Chicago Press), about earthquakes and the fracking boom. She is co-writing the book with Boston College historian of science Conevery Bolton Valencius.

Julia Rosen is an independent journalist covering science and the environment from Portland, Oregon. She writes about how the world works and how humans are changing it. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Science, High Country News, and many other publications. Her feature on invasive earthworms was anthologized in the 2021 edition of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing.” Rosen’s project will explore the origins of Earth's grasslands and the threats they face today.

Hilke Schellmann is an Emmy-award-winning reporter and journalism professor at New York University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, MIT Technology Review, PBS/Frontline, HBO, VICE, National Geographic, and The Atlantic. For her fellowship project, Schellmann will report on artificial intelligence and health data in education, and employment for MIT Technology Review and for an upcoming book with Hachette.

Sushma Subramanian is a health and science journalist and author of “How to Feel: The Science and Meaning of Touch.” Her byline has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, Elle, Scientific American, Discover, and others. She has twice been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and won a Newswomen's Club of New York Front Page Award. She will be writing about the ethics behind the commodification of breast milk.

Mapping the cellular circuits behind spitting

Tue, 08/03/2021 - 11:50am

For over a decade, researchers have known that the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans can detect and avoid short-wavelength light, despite lacking eyes and the light-absorbing molecules required for sight. As a graduate student in the Horvitz lab, Nikhil Bhatla proposed an explanation for this ability. He observed that light exposure not only made the worms wriggle away, but it also prompted them to stop eating. This clue led him to a series of studies that suggested that his squirming subjects weren’t seeing the light at all — they were detecting the noxious chemicals it produced, such as hydrogen peroxide. Soon after, the Horvitz lab realized that worms not only taste the nasty chemicals light generates, they also spit them out.

Now, in a study published in eLife, a team led by recent graduate student Steve Sando PhD '20 reports the mechanism that underlies spitting in C. elegans. Individual muscle cells are generally regarded as the smallest units that neurons can independently control, but the researchers’ findings question this assumption. In the case of spitting, they determined that neurons can direct specialized subregions of a single muscle cell to generate multiple motions — expanding our understanding of how neurons control muscle cells to shape behavior.

“Steve made the remarkable discovery that the contraction of a small region of a particular muscle cell can be uncoupled from the contraction of the rest of the same cell,” says H. Robert Horvitz, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology at MIT, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and senior author of the study. “Furthermore, Steve found that such subcellular muscle compartments can be controlled by neurons to dramatically alter behavior.”

Roundworms are like vacuum cleaners that wiggle around hoovering up bacteria. The worm’s mouth, also known as the pharynx, is a muscular tube that traps the food, chews it, and then transfers it to the intestines through a series of “pumping” contractions.

Researchers have known for over a decade that worms flee from UV, violet, or blue light. But Bhatla discovered that this light also interrupts the constant pumping of the pharynx, because the taste produced by the light is so nasty that the worms pause feeding. As he looked closer, Bhatla noticed the worms’ response was actually quite nuanced. After an initial pause, the pharynx briefly starts pumping again in short bursts before fully stopping — almost like the worm was chewing for a bit even after tasting the unsavory light. Sometimes, a bubble would escape from the mouth, like a burp.

After he joined the project, Sando discovered that the worms were neither burping nor continuing to munch. Instead, the “burst pumps” were driving material in the opposite direction, out of the mouth into the local environment, rather than further back into the pharynx and intestine. In other words, the bad-tasting light caused worms to spit. Sando then spent years chasing his subjects around the microscope with a bright light and recording their actions in slow motion, in order to pinpoint the neural circuitry and muscle motions required for this behavior.

“The discovery that the worms were spitting was quite surprising to us, because the mouth seemed to be moving just like it does when it’s chewing,” Sando says. “It turns out that you really needed to zoom in and slow things down to see what’s going on, because the animals are so small and the behavior is happening so quickly.”  

To analyze what’s happening in the pharynx to produce this spitting motion, the researchers used a tiny laser beam to surgically remove individual nerve and muscle cells from the mouth and discern how that affected the worm’s behavior. They also monitored the activity of the cells in the mouth by tagging them with specially-engineered fluorescent "reporter" proteins.

They saw that while the worm is eating, three muscle cells toward the front of the pharynx called pm3s contract and relax together in synchronous pulses. But as soon as the worm tastes light, the subregions of these individual cells closest to the front of the mouth become locked in a state of contraction, opening the front of the mouth and allowing material to be propelled out. This reverses the direction of the flow of the ingested material and converts feeding into spitting.

The team determined that this “uncoupling” phenomenon is controlled by a single neuron at the back of the worm’s mouth. Called M1, this nerve cell spurs a localized influx of calcium at the front end of the pm3 muscle likely responsible for triggering the subcellular contractions.

M1 relays important information like a switchboard. It receives incoming signals from many different neurons, and transmits that information to the muscles involved in spitting. Sando and his team suspect that the strength of the incoming signal can tune the worm’s behavior in response to tasting light. For instance, their findings suggest that a revolting taste elicits a vigorous rinsing of the mouth, while a mildly unpleasant sensation causes the worm spit more gently, just enough to eject the contents.

In the future, Sando thinks the worm could be used as a model to study how neurons trigger subregions of muscle cells to constrict and shape behavior — a phenomenon they suspect occurs in other animals, possibly including humans.

“We’ve essentially found a new way for a neuron to move a muscle,” Sando says. “Neurons orchestrate the motions of muscles, and this could be a new tool that allows them to exert a sophisticated kind of control. That’s pretty exciting.”

Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

Tue, 08/03/2021 - 12:00am

About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

“Campus as a living laboratory”

The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

Far-reaching benefits

Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

“Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.”

Making voting easier for previously incarcerated people

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 2:15pm

In March 2020, 83,000 New Jersey residents who had been ineligible to vote became eligible when a new law took effect restoring voting rights for people on parole or probation who had previously been convicted of felonies.

Ariel White, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science and an MIT Governance Lab faculty associate, is one of several researchers working with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) to inform these people of their eligibility.

NJISJ spearheaded the effort to get the law passed, and worked throughout 2020 to register people to vote before the presidential election. Now, White and her colleagues are gathering more information about the barriers making it more difficult for previously incarcerated people to vote, as well as what messaging might convince people to register. 

People vote infrequently after being incarcerated, and the criminal legal system disproportionately incarcerates people of color. White has been studying this issue for several years, focusing in particular on situations where people legally can vote, but don’t manage to. Now, she’s trying to find ways to address this inequality. “I got sick of writing the ‘this is a problem’ papers,” she says. “I wanted to see what could be done about it.” 

Increasing political participation among previously incarcerated people

In the first stage of their research in New Jersey, the researchers are interviewing previously incarcerated people. They’re talking with active voters to better understand what motivates them to participate in the political process. They’re also asking people who aren’t voting why they’re reluctant to do so, and seeing what arguments for voting might resonate with them. 

Some people are hesitant to vote because they’re simply not sure if they’re eligible, and don’t want to get in trouble. Others feel like their votes don’t make a difference, or that their voice isn’t valued. “This is something they have learned through personal experience with a system that doesn’t generally reward speaking up and making your opinion known,” says White. “The criminal legal system is both scary and disempowering to interact with.”

White and her colleagues have attended NJISJ organizing meetings to learn from a group that has a lot of experience mobilizing people to vote. “We’ve gotten to learn about what they’re already doing, what kinds of things are working for them, what kinds of messages they think are resonating,” she says. 

This work is in line with MIT GOV/LAB’s engaged scholarship approach, which promotes collaborating with partners to gain valuable insights from people living these issues and to make research more valuable to decision-makers.

Adding to the voter mobilization literature 

Early interviews have suggested that particularly convincing messaging might focus on the importance of local politics, as well as how it might be meaningful to someone’s friends and family that they vote.

White says that while the existing literature has shown that these and other strategies are effective at increasing turnout among people who are already registered, “there is actually a lot less published work on how you register people who are not currently registered.” There is also little evidence specifically on increasing turnout among people who have had contact with the criminal legal system. 

Once interviews are completed, the researchers will put their findings to the test by reaching out to people via mail before New Jersey’s state and municipal elections this November. They’ll try some different messages for convincing people that their votes matter and collect data on which are most effective at getting people registered and voting. 

This project comes on the heels of similar research White and other researchers conducted in North Carolina and Texas leading up to the 2020 presidential election. In this instance, the research team wanted to see if mailing certain pieces of information to people with criminal records increased registration and turnout. “Does it matter whether you include, for example, the registration form itself, or is it more just the information about eligibility,” White explains. Results from this project are forthcoming.

People rarely vote after being incarcerated

Voting rates are low not only among people who have served longer sentences for felonies, but also among people who have served shorter sentences for misdemeanors. In a 2019 paper, White found that jail time for a first-time misdemeanor offense actually made it less likely that someone would vote after they were released.

White explains that fewer people vote after a misdemeanor conviction because even the shortest jail stint can turn someone’s life upside down. “Going to jail for a couple weeks could mean that you lose your job, it could mean that you lose your housing,” she says. People can also lose custody of their children. “You’re likely to have a lot of other stuff on your plate that could just make it really unlikely that you manage to vote,” says White.

While incarceration didn’t affect voting among white people in the study, voting dropped significantly among Black people, who were more than twice as likely to have voted before being incarcerated, a difference White suggests could be attributable to racial disparities in policing and the criminal legal system. 

White says that a lot of research on incarceration and voting has focused on legal restrictions on voting, like felony disenfranchisement laws. “These [legal restrictions] are important for a whole range of reasons,” she says. “But there are millions of people who pass through the criminal legal system with their voting rights intact, but who do not manage to exercise those rights.” 

She also points out that we should incarcerate fewer people to begin with. But there will need to continue to be efforts to increase voting among previously incarcerated people. “We have this system that incarcerates an enormous number of people who have this intense personal knowledge, this particularly intimate understanding of how that system works,” she says. “But they are rarely involved in electing the people who could potentially change the way the system works.”

A comprehensive study of technological change

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 2:00pm

The societal impacts of technological change can be seen in many domains, from messenger RNA vaccines and automation to drones and climate change. The pace of that technological change can affect its impact, and how quickly a technology improves in performance can be an indicator of its future importance. For decision-makers like investors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, predicting which technologies are fast improving (and which are overhyped) can mean the difference between success and failure.

New research from MIT aims to assist in the prediction of technology performance improvement using U.S. patents as a dataset. The study describes 97 percent of the U.S. patent system as a set of 1,757 discrete technology domains, and quantitatively assesses each domain for its improvement potential.

“The rate of improvement can only be empirically estimated when substantial performance measurements are made over long time periods,” says Anuraag Singh SM ’20, lead author of the paper. “In some large technological fields, including software and clinical medicine, such measures have rarely, if ever, been made.”

A previous MIT study provided empirical measures for 30 technological domains, but the patent sets identified for those technologies cover less than 15 percent of the patents in the U.S. patent system. The major purpose of this new study is to provide predictions of the performance improvement rates for the thousands of domains not accessed by empirical measurement. To accomplish this, the researchers developed a method using a new probability-based algorithm, machine learning, natural language processing, and patent network analytics.

Overlap and centrality

A technology domain, as the researchers define it, consists of sets of artifacts fulfilling a specific function using a specific branch of scientific knowledge. To find the patents that best represent a domain, the team built on previous research conducted by co-author Chris Magee, a professor of the practice of engineering systems within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Magee and his colleagues found that by looking for patent overlap between the U.S. and international patent-classification systems, they could quickly identify patents that best represent a technology. The researchers ultimately created a correspondence of all patents within the U.S. patent system to a set of 1,757 technology domains.

To estimate performance improvement, Singh employed a method refined by co-authors Magee and Giorgio Triulzi, a researcher with the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) within IDSS and an assistant professor at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. Their method is based on the average “centrality” of patents in the patent citation network. Centrality refers to multiple criteria for determining the ranking or importance of nodes within a network.

“Our method provides predictions of performance improvement rates for nearly all definable technologies for the first time,” says Singh.

Those rates vary — from a low of 2 percent per year for the “Mechanical skin treatment — Hair removal and wrinkles” domain to a high of 216 percent per year for the “Dynamic information exchange and support systems integrating multiple channels” domain. The researchers found that most technologies improve slowly; more than 80 percent of technologies improve at less than 25 percent per year. Notably, the number of patents in a technological area was not a strong indicator of a higher improvement rate.

“Fast-improving domains are concentrated in a few technological areas,” says Magee. “The domains that show improvement rates greater than the predicted rate for integrated chips — 42 percent, from Moore’s law — are predominantly based upon software and algorithms.”

TechNext Inc.

The researchers built an online interactive system where domains corresponding to technology-related keywords can be found along with their improvement rates. Users can input a keyword describing a technology and the system returns a prediction of improvement for the technological domain, an automated measure of the quality of the match between the keyword and the domain, and patent sets so that the reader can judge the semantic quality of the match.

Moving forward, the researchers have founded a new MIT spinoff called TechNext Inc. to further refine this technology and use it to help leaders make better decisions, from budgets to investment priorities to technology policy. Like any inventors, Magee and his colleagues want to protect their intellectual property rights. To that end, they have applied for a patent for their novel system and its unique methodology.

“Technologies that improve faster win the market,” says Singh. “Our search system enables technology managers, investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs to quickly look up predictions of improvement rates for specific technologies.”

Adds Magee: “Our goal is to bring greater accuracy, precision, and repeatability to the as-yet fuzzy art of technology forecasting.”

Amy Watterson: Model engineer

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 1:40pm

“I love that we are doing something that no one else is doing.”

Amy Watterson is excited when she talks about SPARC, the pilot fusion plant being developed by MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF). Since being hired as a mechanical engineer at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) two years ago, Watterson has found her skills stretching to accommodate the multiple needs of the project.

Fusion, which fuels the sun and stars, has long been sought as a carbon-free energy source for the world. For decades researchers have pursued the “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where hot plasma can be contained by magnetic fields and heated to the point where fusion occurs. Sustaining the fusion reactions long enough to draw energy from them has been a challenge.

Watterson is intimately aware of this difficulty. Much of her life she has heard the quip, “Fusion is 50 years away and always will be.” The daughter of PSFC research scientist Catherine Fiore, who headed the PSFC’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health, and Reich Watterson, an optical engineer working at the center, she had watched her parents devote years to making fusion a reality. She determined before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that she could forgo any attempt to follow her parents into a field that might not produce results during her career.

Working on SPARC has changed her mindset. Taking advantage of a novel high-temperature superconducting tape, SPARC’s magnets will be compact while generating magnetic fields stronger than would be possible from other mid-sized tokamaks, and producing more fusion power. It suggests a high-field device that produces net fusion gain is not 50 years away. SPARC is scheduled to be begin operation in 2025.

An education in modeling

Watterson’s current excitement, and focus, is due to an approaching milestone for SPARC: a test of the Toroidal Field Magnet Coil (TFMC), a scaled prototype for the HTS magnets that will surround SPARC’s toroidal vacuum chamber. Its design and manufacture have been shaped by computer models and simulations. As part of a large research team, Waterson has received an education in modeling over the past two years.

Computer models move scientific experiments forward by allowing researchers to predict what will happen to an experiment — or its materials — if a parameter is changed. Modeling a component of the TFMC, for example, researchers can test how it is affected by varying amounts of current, different temperatures or different materials. With this information they can make choices that will improve the success of the experiment.

In preparation for the magnet testing, Watterson has modeled aspects of the cryogenic system that will circulate helium gas around the TFMC to keep it cold enough to remain superconducting. Taking into consideration the amount of cooling entering the system, the flow rate of the helium, the resistance created by valves and transfer lines and other parameters, she can model how much helium flow will be necessary to guarantee the magnet stays cold enough. Adjusting a parameter can make the difference between a magnet remaining superconducting and becoming overheated or even damaged.

Watterson and her teammates have also modeled pressures and stress on the inside of the TFMC. Pumping helium through the coil to cool it down will add 20 atmospheres of pressure, which could create a degree of flex in elements of the magnet that are welded down. Modeling can help determine how much pressure a weld can sustain.

“How thick does a weld need to be, and where should you put the weld so that it doesn’t break — that’s something you don’t want to leave until you’re finally assembling it,” says Watterson.

Modeling the behavior of helium is particularly challenging because its properties change significantly as the pressure and temperature change.

“A few degrees or a little pressure will affect the fluid's viscosity, density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity,” says Watterson. “The flow has different pressures and temperatures at different places in the cryogenic loop. You end up with a set of equations that are very dependent on each other, which makes it a challenge to solve.”

Role model

Watterson notes that her modeling depends on the contributions of colleagues at the PSFC, and praises the collaborative spirit among researchers and engineers, a community that now feels like family. Her teammates have been her mentors. “I’ve learned so much more on the job in two years than I did in four years at school,” she says.

She realizes that having her mother as a role model in her own family has always made it easier for her to imagine becoming a scientist or engineer. Tracing her early passion for engineering to a middle school Lego robotics tournament, her eyes widen as she talks about the need for more female engineers, and the importance of encouraging girls to believe they are equal to the challenge.

“I want to be a role model and tell them ‘I'm a successful engineer, you can be too.’ Something I run into a lot is that little girls will say, ‘I can't be an engineer, I'm not cut out for that.’ And I say, ‘Well that's not true. Let me show you. If you can make this Lego robot, then you can be an engineer.’ And it turns out they usually can.”

Then, as if making an adjustment to one of her computer models, she continues.

“Actually, they always can.”

Apekshya Prasai receives 2021 Jeanne Guillemin Prize

Fri, 07/30/2021 - 2:40pm

Growing up in the periphery of the civil war in Nepal, Apekshya Prasai was exposed to a 10-year conflict that by some accounts left 19,000 people dead and 150,000 people internally displaced.

The insurgency was led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) with the aim of overthrowing the ruling monarchy and establishing a people’s republic. The war ended in 2016 under the auspices of the United Nations, and a peace treaty between the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels.

“We lived in Kathmandu, the capital city, and were fortunate to be sheltered from most of the conflict and direct violence. But we were close enough to be aware of and concerned about what was happening in the countryside,” says Prasai.

Of the many related activities that were difficult for Prasai to make sense of at the time, she was particularly perplexed by the large numbers of women who joined the People’s War.

“Thousands of women were fighters, leaders, and in other kinds of support roles in this violent conflict. And given the deeply patriarchal nature of our society, I have always found this to be astounding.”

As a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Prasai seeks to better understand this puzzling phenomenon and investigate the dynamics of women’s participation in conflict. Drawing on original data collected through fieldwork in Nepal and secondary data from across South Asia, Prasai’s dissertation analyzes the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in rebel organizations and examines how women themselves influence these processes.

Prasai is the recipient of this year’s Jeanne Guillemin Prize at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS). Guillemin, a longtime colleague at CIS and senior advisor in the Security Studies Program, endowed the fund shortly before her death in 2019. An authority on biological warfare, Guillemin established the prize to help support female PhD candidates working in the field of security studies, which has long been dominated by men.

Like Guillemin, Prasai is committed to advancing women and other historically excluded groups in academia and has worked in various capacities to further this goal. In the past, she has chaired the Women in International Politics and Security working group at CIS — a network that supports women graduate students, fellows, and faculty in the greater Boston area. Prasai also served as gender and diversity co-chair in the political science department’s Graduate Student Council and was a member of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.

“The Guillemin prize is especially meaningful to me because Jeanne was not only an esteemed research scientist, but she was also passionate about supporting women. I share her commitment and feel humbled and honored that I could benefit from her generosity,” says Prasai.

From Nepal to MIT

Prasai left Nepal in 2012 for undergraduate studies in the United States at Bowdoin College. It was at Bowdoin that she was first exposed to political science and began noticing how coursework on politics and conflict, rarely, if ever, mentioned women.

“I was taking political science courses and noticed how discussions of wars, both interstate and civil wars, rarely mentioned women. This was odd given what I knew from the conflict in Nepal. So I became curious if women’s participation in violence was something unique to Nepal.”

Curiosity compelled her to explore the issue further. As early as her sophomore year, she delved into learning about women in conflict beyond the Nepal context. And, during a junior year abroad at Oxford University, she began exploring the role of women in resistance movements more broadly. The following summer, she got a grant from Bowdoin to conduct an independent study on women’s participation in violent movements across South Asia. This formed the basis of her undergraduate honors thesis on female suicide bombers.

The thesis left Prasai with more questions than answers and inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at MIT.

“Broadly, my dissertation tries to shed light on the gender dimensions of civil wars. Specifically, I am trying to understand the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in male-dominated, rebel organizations operating in patriarchal communities. I am especially keen on exploring how women themselves influence these processes and aspire to bring otherwise-neglected women’s voices into the discourse on gender and civil wars.”

Prasai feels incredibly fortunate to be a part of the political science department and SSP community.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from exceptionally talented faculty, fellows, and students, who are all doing creative and important research. And I am thankful for having the latitude to pursue research I care about while receiving excellent advising that helps me explore answers to questions that are meaningful to me in a manner that is both rigorous and relevant to the real world.”

For women’s sake

Prasai’s research has involved extensive fieldwork interviewing CPN-M members who participated in the People’s War and collecting primary documents back in Nepal.

She will apply the funds from the Guillemin prize toward additional fieldwork in Nepal. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed her travel plans, she hopes to return by the end of this year. 

“Many of the women I have spoken to have never had an opportunity to put their experiences into words. They are often eager to tell their stories, which, along with their contributions to the movement, they hope will not be forgotten,” she explains. One of her dissertation goals is to try to shed light on these women’s experiences in the People’s War and help conserve some aspects of their history.

“As a Nepali woman, doing work that can help us understand women’s roles in a movement that changed the socio-political trajectory of Nepal and making even a small contribution towards conserving their history, holds great meaning to me and many in my community,” she says. “And I am thankful for support from the Guillemin Prize, which will allow me to continue this work.”

Advancing industry convergence through technology and innovation

Fri, 07/30/2021 - 2:25pm

Launched in October 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology is intended to demonstrate how the convergence of industries and technologies is powering the next wave of change and innovation. The five-year initiative is designed to advance three main pillars: research, education, and fellowships. As part of the third pillar, Accenture has awarded five fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity and gender.  
 
The recipients of the inaugural Accenture Fellows program are working across disciplines including electronics, textiles, machine learning, economics, and supply chain. Their research has the potential to advance innovation and technology to influence industry convergence and to broaden the convergence process to virtually all industries — through creative problem-solving, the accelerated adoption of new technologies, unique collaborations, and thinking imaginatively and boldly. 
 
“Accenture has long focused on how creativity and ingenuity can help solve some of the world’s most complex problems. When we wanted to explore the convergence of industry and technology, we turned to MIT to extend our longstanding partnership with education, research, and fellowships that delved deeper into this topic,” says Sanjeev Vohra, global lead of applied intelligence at Accenture. “The Accenture Fellows awards underscore our strong commitments to education, innovation, research and discovery, and creating opportunities that will help accelerate the achievements of these future champions of change.”
 
Research being conducted by the fellows covers an array of critical work, including: developing robot-aided therapy to improve balance in impaired subjects; leveraging the increasing availability of data in the gig economy; using machine learning to process locally generated waste for use as alternative energy in low-income municipalities; examining operational challenges that may arise from barriers to extending credit and sharing information among supply chain partners; and designing and applying electronic textile technology to low-Earth orbit, prompting an opportunity for convergence among the electronics, textile, and space technology industries.
 
“These fellows are prime examples of the incredible cross-disciplinary work happening at the nexus of industry and technology,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We are tremendously grateful for Accenture’s commitment to our students, and for their goal of supporting and advancing student innovation and discovery through these fellowships.”
 
Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwartzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as the inaugural fellows of the initiative:
 
Jacqueline Baidoo is a PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, exploring policy related to materials use. Specifically, her research is focused on waste-to-energy (WTE) strategies that could be adopted at the municipal level to treat and process locally generated waste for use as alternative energy. Her goal is to use machine learning to reduce the barrier to entry of WTE practices in low-income municipalities through the development of a tool that informs municipal decisions around waste management and the construction of WTE facilities. Baidoo earned a BS in chemistry and BA in physics from Xavier University of Louisiana and a BS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Georgia Tech.
 
Juliana Cherston is PhD student in the Media Lab. Her work in the Responsive Environments Group is focused on bringing electronic textile technology to low-Earth orbit, prompting an opportunity for convergence among the electronics, textile, and space technology industries. Specifically, she is augmenting large area space fabrics with active sensory functionality, weaving vibration-sensitive piezoelectric fibers and charge-sensitive conductive yarns into these specialized materials. Cherston earned a BA in physics and computer science from Harvard University.
 
Olumurejiwa Fatunde is a PhD student studying in the Center for Transportation and Logistics. Her research examines operational challenges that may arise from barriers to extending credit and sharing information among supply chain partners in informal settings. With the proliferation of novel payment platforms, cryptocurrency usage, and natural language processing, Fatunde postulates that there is an opportunity to drive convergence across financial services, telecommunications, and other customer-facing industries in emerging markets. Specifically, she is investigating how technologies could trickle down to the smallest, least-formal organizations, helping them to create value for consumers and to be a part of the global economy. Fatunde earned a BA in biomedical engineering from Harvard University and an MS in international health policy from the London School of Economics in the U.K.
 
André Medeiros Sztutman is a PhD student in the Department of Economics. Leveraging the increasing availability of data in the gig economy, his work focuses on the development of tools for tackling adverse selection in insurance markets. By creating tools that make better use of information — especially in situations where it is particularly needed — he is contributing to the convergence of different industries: gig platforms, reporting agencies, and the insurance business. Medeiros Sztutman earned a BS in economics from the Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil and an MS in economics from Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
 
Kaymie Shiozawa '19 is a master’s student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, exploring how robot-aided therapy could potentially address the challenge of improving balance in impaired subjects. Drawing on her experience designing human subject experiments, applying machine learning and mathematical simulations, and designing complex mechanisms for robotics and medical devices, Shiozawa aims to design a variable impedance cane and a novel protocol known as AdaptiveCane, which encourages unaided balance by progressively reducing the level of assistance provided as a user’s performance improves. Shiozawa earned an BS in mechanical engineering from MIT.

Teenage MIT ninja students

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 3:10pm

Guang Cui and Daniel Sun are members of the class of 2022, course 6.3 (Computer Science and Engineering) majors, former roommates, best friends — and now, alumni of the long-running TV competition “American Ninja Warrior.” The episode in which they debuted (season 13, night 4 of qualifiers) as first-time competitors recently aired on NBC, and is available on several streaming services. They spoke recently about what it takes to be a ninja.

Q: How did you decide to try for this goal — were you both already fans of “American Ninja Warrior”?

Dan: Guang and I met in CPW [Campus Preview Weekend] and bonded almost immediately. We shared lots of things in common, and one of them was watching “American Ninja Warrior,” or ANW, since we were kids. When we met, we were both 18 and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we tried to be on the show?” But the lower age limit to apply was 21. We spent our freshman year together in Chicago, participating in an internship at Akuna Capital. While we were there, we picked up bouldering as a pastime. A lot of the skills involved in bouldering are transferable to ANW, so when they lowered the age restriction for application from 21 to 18, we decided we should apply. We applied in 2019 for the 2020 season and were rejected, but we tried again the next year and ended up on the show.

Guang: Personally, I remember being about 5 years old, in the lobby of my apartment building, watching the original Japanese version of the show, “Sasuke.” We all watched ANW growing up, so when Dan and I met in freshman year and immediately had conversations about all the big-name ninjas and who we thought was the best, I knew we were going to be close.

Dan: My parents would always chastise me for climbing on things in the house, trying to do random tricks — a big one was doing pull-ups on door frames. My parents would always be upset, thinking I was going to break the door frames, but now I see that as me getting started with the training relatively early.

Guang: It was the same with me, though I don’t think I could do pull-ups on the door frames until high school. But I could do spider climbs on door frames starting when I was about 9 years old, and, like Dan’s, my parents would get mad at me.

Q: Athletic training during any Boston winter is hard — but it must have been doubly so during Covid. How did you stay safe while you trained?

Dan: During the early days we were both at home, and very early on we realized that there was really no way to safely go to the gym. The first thing I ordered was a pull-up bar so I could do exercises like calisthenics and body weight stuff. Trying to come up with exercises we could do was challenging.

Guang: At home, I also did a lot of calisthenics and other random exercises using makeshift materials. I made a random YouTube video of me working out and doing ninja stuff at home. Once we were allowed to attend socially distanced gyms, I went to the rock-climbing gym with my mask on. I got tested a lot in the late summer. We kept each other updated with training; I would text Dan the hard rock-climbing problems I encountered. In spring, when we got back onto campus, that’s when we got the surprise call that we would be on the show. After that, we would go to the ninja gym multiple times every week, as well as training in the Z Center. We would get a Zipcar and go to the ninja gyms out in Boston and Wellesley, train for two hours in the evening, then get home and rest. We blew through a thousand dollars in Zipcar costs … but it was absolutely worth it.

Q: What’s it like to go behind the scenes of the set — were there any surprises?

Dan: One memory that comes to mind is when we were on the buses to go to the actual competition. I didn’t know any of the ninjas that were there on my bus, and then this one guy in a hoodie and beanie, sipping tea, sits down next to me. He starts talking to the guy behind me about the obstacles, like, “What do you think we’re gonna have?” And I leaned in to join the conversation. As I’m introducing myself, the guy pulls back his hoodie — and it’s David Campbell, the “Godfather,” who has competed in literally every ANW competition. I’ve seen him in every season since I was a little kid. He gave me a bunch of advice for being in my rookie season. It’s surreal to see people you’ve just seen on TV, and I’ll say that I really like the people in the ninja community — they’re really friendly and open to talking, and they lead interesting lives.

Guang: I totally agree. Interacting with people whom we’ve seen as celebrities for so long is crazy. To realize that we’re running the same course is still wild to me. We were playing instruments in the office there, and [retired NFL player] Andrew East walked by and said, “You sound nice!” There are people from all walks of life who participate, and since we’re normally surrounded by other college students, it was great to have the opportunity to learn from them.

Q: When did you learn which challenges you’d be facing, and how did you mentally prepare? Emotionally?

Guang: You don’t learn the obstacles until the day of filming; it was like maybe an hour or two, max, before we ran the course. They took us through and told us the rules, and then we were just thinking about how to go through, engaging in mental visualization and strategizing.

The only exception to the surprises are the first and last obstacle, which are usually the same. The last obstacle is always the Warped Wall, so we’d practice that a lot. Recently, the first obstacle has been the wobble steps, followed a rope to the platform. I was weirdly really nervous about the first obstacle! The day before we had to leave for Seattle, I put five books in the hallway and strode across them just to prepare; Dan came out and laughed at me. I was being dumb, but it was good practice.

Q: Tell us about the actual, physical experience of going through the course.

Guang: I would say it obviously creates a lot of nerves, because you only get to do it once a year. I took a lot of deep breaths and tried to zone in, and live in the moment. Physically, I think my training helped a lot; I didn’t feel too tired after any one obstacle. It’s like riding a roller coaster but a lot better. In the moment, it’s just so fun — it’s like play.

Dan: I remember that backstage, in the warm-up area, there were these bars for infrastructure to hold up some posters, and the other ninjas were doing pull-ups and warmups on those bars. They’d set up some crash pads, so after we got a glimpse of the obstacles, we were trying to mimic them by swinging around on the support bars.

Q: Do you think being a scientist is beneficial to being a ninja — and if so, how?

Dan: There’s definitely things that carry over; the discipline and training it takes to be a ninja is very similar to discipline in studying. Like achieving anything in life, you have to put in the hours, effort, and training, to get to where you want to be. You have to eat healthy and work on your body in order to be at peak performance. Mental preparation translates well, too; we both did a lot of academic competitions back in high school, and a lot of that mindset translates. You have to be completely zoned in and focused on the question at hand in order to make progress on the problem. That “in the zone” feeling is very similar across both kinds of challenge.

Guang: One area where the experience doesn’t translate is when the announcers say things like “as scientists, you should be able to calculate the trajectory of the needed movement” … well, no. There are a few cases where knowing the physics of an obstacle can sort of help — for instance, knowing that if you spread your legs out, you have a greater chance of completing the obstacle. But the actual experience of being on the obstacle helps way more. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do this challenge that is totally different than either computer science or electrical engineering. It’s nice to play on obstacles when I’m burnt out from writing code. It balances my life.

Q: How has this experience changed you? 

Dan: The first thing both of us said after it was over was, “We have to run it back next year; we’ll be back.” Surface-level, it was cool to learn about how TV is made. We realized a lot of things can be scripted or filmed hundreds of times until they get it right. Additionally, it was a great learning experience for figuring out how I act in high-pressure scenarios — “American Ninja Warrior” was by far the biggest stage I’ve ever been on, which is kind of bizarre because I feel like I have other strengths as well, and I would have expected to be showcasing those! It’s not that Ninja is my weakest side, exactly, but it was cool to be able to showcase that athletic side of myself on the biggest stage.

Guang: I learned a little about what I was capable of. If you’d asked me three years ago if I would be on the show, I would have been pretty surprised. As Dan said, we would have been less surprised if we’d done something remarkable in the sciences. I don’t think the experience fundamentally changed us as people; we had this one moment on TV. It’s just a neat moment in our lives. Also, Dan and I were best friends before ANW, but this experience has brought us even closer, which was really great.  

Q: Do you plan to try to start a ninja community at MIT? 

Guang: Actually, yes! We’ve been talking about trying to get a ANW club started, apply through MIT and maybe make it official soon.

Inaugural fund supports early-stage collaborations between MIT and Jordan

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 1:10pm

MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), together with the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF), the cultural and social responsibility arm of the Arab Bank, recently created a new initiative to support collaboration with the Middle East. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund is providing awardees with financial grants up to $30,000 to cover travel, meeting, and workshop expenses, including in-person visits to build cultural and scientific connections between MIT and Jordan. MISTI and AHSF recently celebrated the first round of awardees in a virtual ceremony held in Amman and the United States.

The new grant is part of the Global Seed Funds (GSF), MISTI's annual grant program that enables participating teams to collaborate with international peers, either at MIT or abroad, to develop and launch joint research projects. Many of the projects funded lead to additional grant awards and the development of valuable long-term relationships between international researchers and MIT faculty and students.

Since MIT's first major collaboration in the Middle East in the 1970s, the Institute has deepened its connection and commitment to the region, expanding to create the MIT-Arab World program. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund enables the MIT-Arab World program to move forward on its key objectives: build critical cultural and scientific connections between MIT and the Arab world; develop a cadre of students who have a deep understanding of the Middle East; and bring tangible value to the partners in the region.

Valentina Qussisiya, CEO of the foundation, shared the importance of collaboration between research institutes to improve and advance scientific research. She highlighted the role of AHSF in supporting science and researchers since 1982, emphasizing, "The partnership with MIT through the MISTI program is part of AHSF commitment toward this role in Jordan and hoped-for future collaborations and the impact of the fund on science in Jordan."

The new fund, open to both Jordanian and MIT faculty, is available to those pursuing research in the following fields: environmental engineering; water resource management; lean and modern technologies; automation; nanotechnology; entrepreneurship; nuclear engineering; materials engineering; energy and thermal engineering; biomedical engineering, prostheses, computational neuroscience, and technology; social and management sciences; urban studies and planning; science, technology, and society; innovation in education; Arabic language automation; and food security and sustainable agriculture.

Philip S. Khoury, faculty director of MISTI's MIT-Arab World program and Ford International Professor of History and associate provost at MIT, explained that the winning projects all deal with critical issues that will benefit both MIT and Jordan, both on- and off-campus. "Beyond the actual faculty collaboration, these projects will bring much value to the hands-on education of MIT and Jordanian students and their capacity to get to know one another as future leaders in science and technology," he says.

This year, the MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund received numerous high-quality proposals. Applications were reviewed by MIT and Jordanian faculty and selected by a committee of MIT faculty. There were six winning projects in the inaugural round:

  • Low-Cost Renewable-Powered Electrodialysis Desalination and Drip Irrigation: Amos Winter (MIT principal investigator) and Samer Talozi (international collaborator)
  • iPSC and CRISPR Gene Editing to Study Rare Diseases: Ernest Fraenkel (MIT principal investigator) and Nidaa Ababneh (international collaborator)
  • Use of Distributed Low-Cost Sensor Networks for Air Quality Monitoring in Amann: Jesse Kroll (MIT principal investigator) and Tareq Hussein (international collaborator)
  • Radiation Effects on Medical Devices Made by 3D Printing: Ju Li (MIT principal investigator) and Belal Gharaibeh (international collaborator)
  • Superprotonic Conductivity in Metal-Organic Frameworks for Proton-Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells: Mircea Dinca (MIT principal investigator) and Kyle Cordova (international collaborator)
  • Mapping Urban Air Quality Using Mobile Low-cost Sensors and Geospatial Techniques: Sarah Williams (MIT principal investigator) and Khaled Hazaymeh (international collaborator)

The goal of these funded projects is for researchers and their students to form meaningful professional partnerships across cultures and leave a lasting impact upon the scientific communities in Jordan and at MIT.

"[The fund will] enhance the future career prospects of emerging scholars from both countries," said awardee Professor Kyle Cordova, executive director for scientific research at Royal Scientific Society and assistant to Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan for scientific affairs. "Our young scholars will gain a unique perspective of the influence of different cultures on scientific investigation that will help them to function effectively in a multidisciplinary and multicultural environment."

Jing Wang, professor of Chinese media and cultural studies, dies at 71

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 11:00am

Jing Wang, the S.C. Fang Professor of Chinese Languages and Culture, and a longtime member of the MIT faculty in Global Studies and Languages and Comparative Media Studies/Writing, passed away on Sunday in Boston after a heart attack.

For decades, Wang was a leading scholar of the intersection of media and activism in China. Following a bachelor’s degree at National Taiwan University, she studied comparative literature at the University of Michigan and then at the University of Massachusetts, where she earned her PhD. She continued her focus on literature at Duke University, where she was faculty for 16 years and authored her first books. 1992’s The Story of Stone, which was awarded a Joseph Levenson Book Prize for the year’s best book on premodern China, explored traditional Chinese literature, but her next book, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (1996), marked a move toward her study of Chinese media more broadly.

Her subsequent work, both as a scholar and nonprofit leader, sought ways to empower Chinese grassroots organizations, particularly within the context of digital and social media literacy. Though she perhaps became best known for her 2009 book Brand New China on advertising and Chinese commercial culture, she was also at the time writing and presenting about a new project, the nonprofit NGO2.0. She and China-based collaborators launched it to help local organizers use social media to be change agents in a country where social media is often held suspect. “She was my esteemed mentor and also great friend,” says Rongting Zhou, a professor at China’s University of Science and Technology who came to MIT as a visiting scholar in 2007 and later helped Wang develop NGO2.0. “She and I overcame many difficulties and made remarkable achievements in China.”

Wang’s turn to an academic look at Chinese activism was reflected in her most recent book, The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web (2019), that one reviewer called “a way forward for those in China — and perhaps elsewhere — who want to make progress within a totalitarian state.” She had readers come away understanding that activists in China are savvy actors, not stuck with a choice between full acquiescence or resistance.

She joined the MIT faculty in 2001, as a professor in the Foreign Languages and Literatures (FL&L) section of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and soon found a second home in the Comparative Media Studies section. She served as FL&L’s head from 2005 to 2008. The CMS position later became a joint and then primary appointment. She had a profound impact within MIT. Her signature subject, “Advertising and Media: Comparative Perspectives,” enrolled nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students since Wang developed it in 2002. She was an advisor or committee chair for eight CMS master’s theses, and she served for years as the Chinese minor advisor. And her service on dozens of departmental and Institute-level committees aided with everything from increasing faculty diversity to the essential smooth running of academic programs.

“Professor Wang was my beloved mentor at CMS — a mentor to academics, entrepreneurship, and life,” says Han Su SM ’20, one of Wang’s advisees. “Though I have left school, the mentorship I received from Jing will stay for a lifetime. Though Jing has left us, her wisdom and courageousness will forever live with us and constantly inspire us to fight for the greater good.” Another 2020 CMS master’s program alum, Iago Bojczuk, wrote in a tribute on Facebook, “I tried to learn as much as I could from her as I navigated the obscure rules of grad school as an international student. She often would encourage me to do things differently and not necessarily follow the standard pathway that seemed obvious. I felt she understood me and the hybrid worldviews and lived experiences that shaped me.”

Her contributions to MIT — and academia generally — didn’t go unnoticed. Wang received fellowships, grants, and other honors from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Chinese Ministry of Education, the Ford Foundation, and even her students in the form of MIT’s Levitan Award for Excellence in Teaching. In the nomination letter for the Levitan Award, a student wrote that “Professor Wang consistently challenges our viewpoints and ideologies and makes us think more profoundly about Chinese culture and history. She has reawakened a curiosity for cultural understanding and new perspectives that I have only ever experienced abroad and I am so grateful to have that joy for something other than technical engineering.”

Beyond that, though, she will be remembered for her care for others. She hosted Chinese students at her house each Thanksgiving. She raised money for an artist travel fund set up in memory of her late daughter Candy. And she served as a professional advocate for so many in the MIT community. “Jing was an incredible colleague, mentor, and friend to so many,” says professor of comparative media studies T.L. Taylor. “I often think about how she would host dinners for students, friends, and colleagues during the holidays when people might find themselves on their own. Her thoughtfulness and generosity was something I deeply admired.” Likewise, part of her institutional legacy is as a hiring or promotion committee member for Comparative Media Studies/Writing colleagues Ian Condry, Paloma Duong, and Paul Roquet. In response to news of her death, Professor Condry said that “Jing was a model friend and academic, a force of nature who tackled all projects with integrity, compassion, and commitment.”

Professor Emma Teng, director of MIT Global Languages, knew Wang since Teng herself was a child. She echoed others' sentiments: “Jing was a warm, generous, caring person, fierce in fighting for causes she believed in and for the less advantaged. She was a dedicated mentor to so many of us, and cared deeply about social justice for Asian Americans.”

Wang's personal interests included cooking, Chinese zither, gardening, and the spiritual practice of Tibetan Buddhism. She was also deeply dedicated to philanthropic causes in China.

Information about a memorial will be shared when it is available. ​​Those looking for a way to honor Professor Wang’s memory are encouraged to donate to the Candy R. Wei International Travel Endowment Fund, which Wang established in memory of her daughter. Learn more at candywei.org

A sleep study’s eye-opening findings

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 10:00am

Subjectively, getting more sleep seems to provide big benefits: Many people find it gives them increased energy, emotional control, and an improved sense of well-being. But a new study co-authored by MIT economists complicates this picture, suggesting that more sleep, by itself, isn’t necessarily sufficient to bring about those kinds of appealing improvements.

The study is based on a distinctive field experiment of low-income workers in Chennai, India, where the researchers studied residents at home during their normal everyday routines — and managed to increase participants’ sleep by about half an hour per night, a very substantial gain. And yet, sleeping more at night did not improve people’s work productivity, earnings, financial choices, sense of well-being, or even their blood pressure. The only thing it did, apparently, was to lower the number of hours they worked.

“To our surprise, these night-sleep interventions had no positive effects whatsoever on any of the outcomes we measured,” says Frank Schilbach, an MIT economist and co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s findings.

There is more to the matter: For one thing, the researchers found, short daytime naps do help productivity and well-being. For another thing, participants tended to sleep at night in difficult circumstances, with many interruptions. The findings leave open the possibility that helping people sleep more soundly, rather than just adding to their total amount of low-grade sleep, could be useful. 

“People’s sleep quality is so low in these circumstances in Chennai that adding sleep of poor quality may not have the benefits that another half hour of sleep would have if it’s of higher quality,” Schilbach suggests.

The paper, “The Economic Consequences of Increasing Sleep Among the Urban Poor,” is published in the August issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics. The authors of the paper are Pedro Bessone PhD ’21, a recent graduate from MIT’s Department of Economics; Gautam Rao, an associate professor of economics at Harvard University; Schilbach, who is the Gary Loveman Career Development Associate Professor of Economics at MIT; Heather Schofield, an assistant professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; and Mattie Toma, a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard University.

Sleeping on rickshaws

Schilbach, a development economist, says the genesis of the study came from other research he and his colleagues have done in settings such as Chennai — during which they have observed that low-income people tend to have difficult sleeping circumstances in addition to their other daily challenges. 

“In Chennai, you can see people sleeping on their rickshaws,” says Schilbach, who is also a faculty affiliate at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). “Often, there are four or five people sleeping in the same room where it’s loud and noisy, you see people sleep in between road segments next to a highway. It’s incredibly hot even at night, and there are lots of mosquitos. Essentially, in Chennai, you can find any potential irritant or adverse sleep factor.”

To conduct the study, the researchers equipped Chennai residents with actigraphs, wristwatch-like devices that infer sleep states from body movements, which allowed the team to study people in their homes. Many other sleep studies observe people in lab environments.

The study examined 452 people over a month. Some people were given encouragement and tips for better sleep; others received financial incentives to sleep more. Some members of both those groups also took daytime naps, to see what effect that had.

The participants in the study were also given data-entry jobs with flexible hours while the experiment was taking place, so the researchers could monitor the effects of sleep on worker output and earnings in a granular way.

Overall, the Chennai study’s participants had been averaging about 5.5 hours of sleep per night before the intervention, and added 27 minutes of sleep per night on average. However, in order to gain those 27 minutes, the participants were in bed an extra 38 minutes per night. That speaks to the challenging sleep circumstances of the participants, who on average woke up 31 times per night.

“A key thing that stands out is that people’s sleep efficiency is low, that is, their sleep is heavily fragmented,” Schilbach says. “They have extremely few periods experiencing what’s thought to be the restorative benefits of deep sleep. … People’s sleep quantity went up due to the interventions, because they spent more time in bed, but their sleep quality was unchanged.”

That could be why, across a wide range of metrics, people in the study experienced no positive changes after sleeping more. Indeed, as Schilbach notes, “We find one negative effect, which is on hours worked. If you spend more time in bed, then you have less time for other things in your life.”

On the other hand, study participants who were allowed to nap while on the data-entry job did fare better in several measured categories.

“In contrast to the night sleep intervention, we find clear evidence of naps improving a range of outcomes, including their productivity, their cognitive function, and their psychological well-being, as well as some evidence on savings,” Schilbach says. “These two interventions have different effects.”

That said, naps only increased total income when compared to workers who took a break instead. Naps did not increase the total income of workers — nappers were more productive per minute worked but spent less time actually working.

“It’s not the case that naps just pay for themselves,” Schilbach says. “People don’t actually stay longer in the office when they nap, presumably because they have other things to do, such as taking care of their families. If people nap for about half an hour, their hours worked falls by almost half an hour, almost a one-to-one ratio, and as a result, people’s earnings in that group are lower.”

Valuing sleep as an end in itself

Schilbach says he hopes that other researchers will dig into some of the further questions the study raises. Further work, for instance, could attempt to change the sleeping circumstances of low-income workers to see if better sleep quality, not just increased sleep quantity, makes a difference.

Schilbach also suggests it may be important to better understand the psychological challenges the poor face when it comes to sleep.

“Being poor is very stressful, and that might interfere with people’s sleep,” he notes. “Addressing how environmental and psychological factors affect sleep quality is something worth examining.”

Moreover, using actigraph technology and other devices, Schilbach notes, it should be possible to generate in increased number of studies that capture people’s sleep patterns in their normal home environments, not just medical settings.

“There’s not a lot of work studying people’s sleep in their everyday lives,” Schilbach says. “And I really hope people will study sleep more in developing countries and poor countries, focusing on outcomes that people value.”

For his part, Schilbach says he is interested in continuing work on sleep that is set in the U.S., not just in India, where he has conducted much of his research. In any setting, he says, we should take the issue of sleep seriously as an element of anti-poverty research and public policy — and as an important element of well-being in its own right.

“Sleep might be important as an avenue for improved productivity or other types of choices people make,” Schilbach says. “But I think a good night’s sleep is also important in and of itself. We should value being able to afford to sleep well and not be worried at night. Poverty indices are about income and material consumption. But now that we can measure sleep better, a good night’s sleep should be part of a more comprehensive measure of people’s well-being. I hope that’s where we’re going eventually.”

Geologists take Earth’s inner temperature using erupted sea glass

Thu, 07/29/2021 - 12:00am

If the Earth’s oceans were drained completely, they would reveal a massive chain of undersea volcanoes snaking around the planet. This sprawling ocean ridge system is a product of overturning material in the Earth’s interior, where boiling temperatures can melt and loft rocks up through the crust, splitting the sea floor and reshaping the planet’s surface over hundreds of millions of years.

Now geologists at MIT have analyzed thousands of samples of erupted material along ocean ridges and traced back their chemical history to estimate the temperature of the Earth’s interior.

Their analysis shows that the temperature of the Earth’s underlying ocean ridges is relatively consistent, at around 1,350 degrees Celsius — about as hot as a gas range’s blue flame. There are, however, “hotspots” along the ridge that can reach 1,600 degrees Celsius, comparable to the hottest lava.

The team’s results, appearing today in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, provide a temperature map of the Earth’s interior around ocean ridges. With this map, scientists can better understand the melting processes that give rise to undersea volcanoes, and how these processes may drive the pace of plate tectonics over time.

“Convection and plate tectonics have been important processes in shaping Earth history,” says lead author Stephanie Brown Krein, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “Knowing the temperature along this whole chain is fundamental to understanding the planet as a heat engine, and how Earth might be different from other planets and able to sustain life.”

Krein’s co-authors include Zachary Molitor, an EAPS graduate student, and Timothy Grove, the R.R. Schrock Professor of Geology at MIT.

A chemical history

The Earth’s interior temperature has played a critical role in shaping the planet’s surface over hundreds of millions of years. But there’s been no way to directly read this temperature tens to hundreds of kilometers below the surface. Scientists have applied indirect means to infer the temperature of the upper mantle — the layer of the Earth just below the crust. But estimates thus far are inconclusive, and scientists disagree about how widely temperatures vary beneath the surface.

For their new study, Krein and her colleagues developed a new algorithm, called ReversePetrogen, that is designed to trace a rock’s chemical history back in time, to identify its original composition of elements and determine the temperature at which the rock initially melted below the surface.

The algorithm is based on years of experiments carried out in Grove’s lab to reproduce and characterize the melting processes of the Earth’s interior. Researchers in the lab have heated up rocks of various compositions, reaching various temperatures and pressures, to observe their chemical evolution. From these experiments, the team has been able to derive equations — and ultimately, the new algorithm — to predict the relationships between a rock’s temperature, pressure, and chemical composition.

Krein and her colleagues applied their new algorithm to rocks collected along the Earth’s ocean ridges — a system of undersea volcanoes spanning more than 70,000 kilometers in length. Ocean ridges are regions where tectonic plates are spread apart by the eruption of material from the Earth’s mantle — a process that is driven by underlying temperatures.

“You could effectively make a model of the temperature of the entire interior of the Earth, based partly on the temperature at these ridges,” Krein says. “The question is, what is the data really telling us about the temperature variation in the mantle along the whole chain?”

Mantle map

The data the team analyzed include more than 13,500 samples collected along the length of the ocean ridge system over several decades, by multiple research cruises. Each sample in the dataset is of an erupted sea glass — lava that erupted in the ocean and was instantly chilled by the surrounding water into a pristine, preserved form.

Scientists previously identified the chemical compositions of each glass in the dataset. Krein and her colleagues ran each sample’s chemical compositions through their algorithm to determine the temperature at which each glass originally melted in the mantle.

In this way, the team was able to generate a map of mantle temperatures along the entire length of the ocean ridge system. From this map, they observed that much of the mantle is relatively homogenous, with an average temperature of around 1,350 degrees Celsius. There are however, “hotspots,” or regions along the ridge, where temperatures in the mantle appear significantly hotter, at around 1,600 degrees Celsius.

“People think of hotspots as regions in the mantle where it’s hotter, and where material may be melting more, and potentially rising faster, and we don’t exactly know why, or how much hotter they are, or what the role of composition is at hotspots,” Krein says. “Some of these hotspots are on the ridge, and now we may get a sense of what the hotspot variation is globally using this new technique. That tells us something fundamental about the temperature of the Earth now, and now we can think of how it’s changed over time.”

Krein adds: “Understanding these dynamics will help us better determine how continents grew and evolved on Earth, and when subduction and plate tectonics started — which are critical for complex life.”

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

A new way to detect the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant in wastewater

Wed, 07/28/2021 - 5:00pm

Researchers from the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, alongside collaborators from Biobot Analytics, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and MIT, have successfully developed an innovative, open-source molecular detection method that is able to detect and quantify the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant of SARS-CoV-2. The breakthrough paves the way for rapid, inexpensive surveillance of other SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater.

As the world continues to battle and contain Covid-19, the recent identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants with higher transmissibility and increased severity has made developing convenient variant tracking methods essential. Currently, identified variants include the B.1.17 (Alpha) variant first identified in the United Kingdom and the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant first detected in India.

Wastewater surveillance has emerged as a critical public health tool to safely and efficiently track the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in a non-intrusive manner, providing complementary information that enables health authorities to acquire actionable community-level information. Most recently, viral fragments of SARS-CoV-2 were detected in housing estates in Singapore through a proactive wastewater surveillance program. This information, alongside surveillance testing, allowed Singapore’s Ministry of Health to swiftly respond, isolate, and conduct swab tests as part of precautionary measures.

However, detecting variants through wastewater surveillance is less commonplace due to challenges in existing technology. Next-generation sequencing for wastewater surveillance is time-consuming and expensive. Tests also lack the sensitivity required to detect low variant abundances in dilute and mixed wastewater samples due to inconsistent and/or low sequencing coverage.

The method developed by the researchers is uniquely tailored to address these challenges and expands the utility of wastewater surveillance beyond testing for SARS-CoV-2, toward tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

Wei Lin Lee, research scientist at SMART AMR and first author on the paper adds, “This is especially important in countries battling SARS-CoV-2 variants. Wastewater surveillance will help find out the true proportion and spread of the variants in the local communities. Our method is sensitive enough to detect variants in highly diluted SARS-CoV-2 concentrations typically seen in wastewater samples, and produces reliable results even for samples which contain multiple SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

Led by Janelle Thompson, NTU associate professor, and Eric Alm, MIT professor and SMART AMR principal investigator, the team’s study, “Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant B.1.1.7 Tracking in Wastewater by Allele-Specific RT-qPCR” has been published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The research explains the innovative, open-source molecular detection method based on allele-specific RT-qPCR that detects and quantifies the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant. The developed assay, tested and validated in wastewater samples across 19 communities in the United States, is able to reliably detect and quantify low levels of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant with low cross-reactivity, and at variant proportions down to 1 percent in a background of mixed SARS-CoV-2 viruses.

Targeting spike protein mutations that are highly predictive of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant, the method can be implemented using commercially available RT-qPCR protocols. Unlike commercially available products that use proprietary primers and probes for wastewater surveillance, the paper details the open-source method and its development that can be freely used by other organizations and research institutes for their work on wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.

The breakthrough by the research team in Singapore is currently used by Biobot Analytics, an MIT startup and global leader in wastewater epidemiology headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serving states and localities throughout the United States. Using the method, Biobot Analytics is able to accept and analyze wastewater samples for the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant and plans to add additional variants to its analysis as methods are developed. For example, the SMART AMR team is currently developing specific assays that will be able to detect and quantify the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, which has recently been identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.

“Using the team’s innovative method, we have been able to monitor the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant in local populations in the U.S. — empowering leaders with information about Covid-19 trends in their communities and allowing them to make considered recommendations and changes to control measures,” says Mariana Matus PhD ’18, Biobot Analytics CEO and co-founder.

“This method can be rapidly adapted to detect new variants of concern beyond B.1.1.7,” adds MIT's Alm. “Our partnership with Biobot Analytics has translated our research into real-world impact beyond the shores of Singapore and aid in the detection of Covid-19 and its variants, serving as an early warning system and guidance for policymakers as they trace infection clusters and consider suitable public health measures.”

The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF) in 2007. SMART is the first entity in CREATE developed by NRF. SMART serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both Singapore and MIT. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five IRGs: AMR, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

The AMR interdisciplinary research group is a translational research and entrepreneurship program that tackles the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. By leveraging talent and convergent technologies across Singapore and MIT, AMR aims to develop multiple innovative and disruptive approaches to identify, respond to, and treat drug-resistant microbial infections. Through strong scientific and clinical collaborations, its goal is to provide transformative, holistic solutions for Singapore and the world.

Robert Logcher, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, dies at 85

Wed, 07/28/2021 - 4:35pm

MIT Professor Emeritus Robert D. Logcher ’58, SM ’60, SCD ’62, an accomplished civil and environmental engineer who helped advance the field with computational techniques, passed away peacefully on July 20. He was 85.

Logcher served as a faculty member in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from 1962 to 1996, and was an early pioneer of the computer programming systems used in structural design. He developed STRESS (STRuctural Engineering Systems Solver) and STRUDL (STRUctural Design Language), which were part of the Integrated Civil Engineering System (ICES) used for civil engineering practices and teaching. Logcher was also a key member of the ICES Architecture Group that designed the computer operating system. Beyond the department, he was also a key participant in Project MAC (Multiple Access Computer), the pioneering MIT time-sharing system. 

Logcher led the department in new directions when he initiated the project management program in civil engineering and construction management.

Born in the Hague, Netherlands on Dec. 27, 1935, Logcher first arrived at MIT as an undergraduate in 1954. In addition to studying civil engineering, Logcher was an avid sailor and his passion for sailing would carry him throughout his career and into retirement. When asked about his post-retirement plans, they were to “sail the seven seas.” 

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1958 and going on to pursue his master’s and doctoral degree in civil engineering at the Institute, he was awarded two graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation. He became assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering shortly after receiving his doctoral degree in 1962 and later became full professor in 1975. Some of his earliest research contributed to the pioneering structural design programming language that is still being used in the field today. 

MIT professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering Daniel Roos, who led the ICES Architecture group, where Logcher was a member, remembers him fondly as an engineer and colleague.

"Bob Logcher had a lasting impact on the civil engineering profession with the development of STRUDL in the mid-1960s, a computer-based design system for structural engineering,” says Roos. “That system is still in widespread use today. A new version was released in 2020, over 50 years after its creation. That is a remarkable achievement."

Over the span of his career, Logcher’s research into computational applications and methods for structural engineering attracted the interest of the international community. He attended conference proceedings around the world, and his papers were cited and published among the top engineering journals and international conferences. 

With colleagues Roos and the late Professor Emeritus Joseph Sussman as partners, he founded Engineering Computer International (ECI) in Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1965. A consulting firm that advised large engineering firms around the world about how to use computer systems in their practice, ECI expanded into Multisystems, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was also a senior consultant from 1969 to 1985.  

Logcher was honored with the Moisseiff Award for his contribution to the science of structural design and was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Boston Society of Civil Engineers, National Society of Professional Engineers, and Massachusetts Society of Professional Engineers. 

Logcher led a rich life outside of his academic one. Known as “Bob” to his friends, Logcher enjoyed skiing and backpacking, and classical and folk music. He bought his first sailboat in 1973 and this became his passion that he shared with his wife, Chesley. Their fourth boat was purchased to “sail the seven seas”; however, they enjoyed the Bahamas so much that they continued traveling there for 20 years.

Logcher is survived by his wife, Chesley; children Suzanne, Erica, and Daniel; and four grandchildren. A celebration of Logcher's life will be held at a later date. Gifts in Logcher’s memory may be made to the Robert D. Logcher (1958) Travel Fund.

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