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Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor, who began her role as head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) on July 1, has announced that Pierre Lermusiaux, professor of mechanical engineering and ocean science and engineering, and Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering, will join her on the department’s leadership team. Lermusiaux will serve as associate department head for operations and Karnik will be the associate department head for education.
“I am delighted to welcome Pierre and Rohit to the department’s leadership team,” says Wang. “They have both made substantial contributions to the department and are well-suited to ensure that it continues to thrive.”
Pierre Lermusiaux, associate department head for operations
Pierre Lermusiaux has been instrumental in developing MechE’s strategic plan over the past several years. In 2015, with Evelyn Wang, he was co-chair of the mechanical engineering strategic planning committee. They were responsible for interviewing individuals across the MechE community, determining priority “grand challenge” research areas, investigating new educational models, and developing mechanisms to enhance community and departmental operations. The resulting strategic plan will inform the future of MechE for years to come.
“Pierre is an asset to our department,” adds Wang. “I look forward to working with him to lead our department toward new research frontiers and cutting-edge discoveries.”
Lermusiaux joined MIT as associate professor in 2007 after serving as a research associate at Harvard University, where he also received his PhD. He is an internationally recognized thought leader at the intersection of ocean modeling and observing. He has developed new uncertainty quantification and data assimilation methods. His research has improved real-time data-driven ocean modeling and has had important implications for marine industries, fisheries, energy, security, and our understanding of human impact on the ocean’s health.
Lermusiaux’s talent as an educator has been recognized with the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Teaching Excellence. He has been the chair of the graduate admissions committee since 2014. He has served on many MechE and institute committees and is also active in MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program committees.
“Working for the department, from our graduate admission to the strategic planning with Evelyn, has been a pleasure,” says Lermusiaux. “I am thrilled to be continuing such contributions as associate department head for research and operations. I look forward to developing and implementing strategies and initiatives that help our department grow and thrive.”
Lermusiaux succeeds Evelyn Wang, who previously served as associate department head for operations under the former department head Gang Chen.
Rohit Karnik, associate department head for education
Over the past two years, Rohit Karnik has taken an active role in shaping the educational experience at MechE. As the undergraduate officer, he has overseen the operations of the department’s undergraduate office and chaired the undergraduate programs committee. This position has afforded Karnik the opportunity to evaluate and refine the department’s course offerings each year and work closely with undergraduate students to provide the best education.
“Rohit is a model citizen and has provided dedicated service to our department,” says Wang. “I look forward to working with him to create new education initiatives and continue to provide a world-class education for our students.”
Prior to joining MIT as a postdoc in 2006, Karnik received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2006, he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He is recognized as a leader in the field of micro-and-nanofluidics and has made a number of seminal contributions in the fundamental understanding of nanoscale fluid transport. He has been recognized by an National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a Department of Energy Early Career Award.
Karnik’s dedication to his students have been recognized by the Keenan Award for Innovation in Education and the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Teaching Excellence. He has also served on the graduate admissions committee and various faculty search committees.
“It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to take this position in the top mechanical engineering department in the world,” says Karnik. “I will strive to ensure that we maintain excellence in mechanical engineering education and adapt to the changing times to offer strong and comprehensive degree programs and the best possible experience for our students.”
Karnik succeeds Professor John Brisson who previously served as associate department head for education.
As an undergraduate, Seth Mnookin went through five or six different majors before finally settling on history and science — an apt combination for someone who would end up heading MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, as he does now. But there was a long road in between these endpoints.
“I didn’t think I had the skills to be a bench scientist,” Mnookin recalls, “but science was something that fascinated me.” At the same time, he says, “I knew since high school that I wanted to be a journalist.”
At Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts, he worked on the school paper, where he says he learned more from the paper’s advisor, Helen Smith, than he has “from any other person.” Smith imparted to her students the importance of attention to detail, Mnookin recalls, by “treating our paper as if it was The New York Times. … She really laid the foundations [and showed] that being a reporter gave you a way to go anywhere, talk to anyone.”
Mnookin pursued a dual history and science major as an undergraduate at Harvard University, which, he says, “allowed me to focus on science through a humanities lens.” That combination worked well for him, leading to a career as a writer for prestigious publications and eventually to penning award-winning books including “The Panic Virus,” about the erroneous belief that vaccines contributed to a rise in autism cases.
It wasn’t all science along the way, though. “I didn’t do anything with my degree for about 15 years,” Mnookin says. Instead, he covered very different topics, including the amazing rise of the Red Sox to win their first World Series in nearly a century, in his book “Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top.” Earlier, he wrote about journalism, in his 2004 book “Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media,” which was named by The Washington Post as a best book of the year.
Mnookin started his journalism career as a freelance rock and jazz critic before joining The Palm Beach Post in Florida as a crime and metro reporter in 1997. In 1999 he moved to New York City, where he covered City Hall for The Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper. The following year, he was hired by Brill’s Content to cover the 2000 presidential campaign.
He describes that campaign as a great introduction to political coverage, which found him riding on press planes with people who had been covering politics since John F. Kennedy’s campaign and later the Watergate scandal. “It was an incredible experience,” he recalls. Among other things, “I got to interview [Bill] Clinton in the Oval Office.”
After Brill’s Content closed shortly after Sept. 11, Mnookin was hired as a senior writer at Newsweek, where he covered the media.
Soon, a series of scandals rocked the journalism world, involving plagiarism and falsified interviews with people who turned out not to exist. Jayson Blair at The New York Times, for example, was found to have invented sources for numerous stories. “I had been skeptical” about the leadership at the Times in those days, he says, and that led to his first book, “Hard News,” which was an account of those events.
After that project, as he was wondering about what to write as a second book project, “a fortuitous confluence of events” led Mnookin to follow the progress of a new young general manager: local boy Theo Epstein, who had taken over at the Red Sox, vowing that “this is the year they’re going to win” after having failed to win a World Series since 1918.
“I spent a year living with the team,” Mnookin says, a period that included the amazing come-from-behind win of the 2004 series. The book came out in the summer of 2006 and made the Times best-seller list in its first week. The fact that the book did so well, Mnookin says, had “less to do with me, and more about the fact that people like to read about winning sports teams.” The success of that book, he says, “gave me more freedom to choose what’s next.”
He had previously interviewed for science writing positions, including at The Wall Street Journal, and “I knew that was something I wanted to get back into.” He started looking into what was then heating up as an intense controversy: the now thoroughly debunked notion that vaccines were contributing to a rise in autism rates. That became the subject of his next book, “The Panic Virus,” which he says took him longer to write and required more discipline than anything he had done before.
He says the reason he finds writing about science so attractive, compared to, say, music, which he also loves to write about, is that “science was a difficult type of challenge. It pushes me to constantly go out of my comfort zone. You’re always learning about new things, and I think that’s the coolest part about being a journalist.”
Mnookin joined MIT in 2011, first as a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Science Writing. The following year, he was hired as an assistant professor and became the program's co-director. In 2016 he became the director of that program and and the following year was promoted to professor of science writing in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing program. “What we do here is a little bit different” than at many other journalism schools, he says, stressing the importance of providing students with real-world journalistic experiences and giving them the hands-on knowledge that he says is indispensable in today’s journalism world.
These days, with newspapers declining and fewer entry-level jobs in the business, he says, “it’s much more difficult to just pop in and learn on the job — to understand what the null principle is, or to get a study and immediately focus on what the shortcomings are, [or to ask,] ‘is the sample size sufficient for the conclusions the authors claim?’ That kind of stuff can be pretty difficult to learn on the job.”
Since he’s been the director, the science writing program has added some new modules to its curriculum every year, he says, including one on podcasting and another on data journalism. “We want to constantly update ourselves,” including finding more ways to help fund students’ learning and find them employment opportunities.
Mnookin has also been collaborating with Deborah Blum, director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program, to find ways for the two programs to work together. Each year, four students from the graduate program work as editorial interns for Undark, a magazine Blum runs out of the Knight program. The students also write profiles of all Knight fellows each year as a way for the two groups to get to know each other.
In addition to his academic work, Mnookin has met with MIT students struggling with drug-use issues, and has served as a resource for Student Support Services. He's motivated by personal experiences with drug-use disorders, which stretched from high school through his mid-twenties. “I almost died as a result of heroin dependency,” he says.
Outside of MIT, Mnookin spends his free time with his wife Sara and their two children, Max and Eliza. They love music and go to a lot of concerts together, says Mnookin, who also enjoys playing the mandolin.
Researchers from the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab have released a new report on critical supply chains during hurricanes and how they might be better managed in future U.S. disasters.
The report summarizes the lab’s December 2017 roundtable, “Supply Chain Resilience: Restoring Business Operations Following a Hurricane,” which convened 40 supply chain leaders from both the public and private sectors to discuss the challenges brought on by the record-breaking 2017 hurricane season. The discussion addressed how better information sharing and resource coordination could accelerate the restoration of business operations serving disaster-affected populations.
The discussions revealed potential opportunities for improvement, especially in the realm of business-government coordination. For example, pre-crisis supply chain mapping and post-crisis visibility may enable better management of resources. In cases where detailed real-time data is impractical, aggregate indicators and sentinel data sources could provide timely, actionable insights. Better relationships among businesses and the many government agencies in all levels of jurisdictions could improve coordination in a crisis. Although the future of disasters may be dynamic and unbounded, research, development, and rehearsal of resilience strategies can help mitigate the black swans to come.
MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab Director Jarrod Goentzel released the report to coincide with the start of the new FEMA-sponsored Post-hurricane Supply Chain Adaptability Study. The study, led by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looks at issues related to the resilience of supply chains during disasters to better understand how supply and demand networks react to severe disruptions, including the role of logistics management in preparing for and responding to extreme events.
Goentzel will lead a team to analyze private sector supply chain capabilities for critical commodities.
“This is a great opportunity to continue the learning from recent events and further develop ideas that surfaced at this roundtable,” he says.
Those ideas focus on the transport of food, fuel, water, pharmaceutical supplies, and medical equipment to affected communities, and how data gathering, analysis, communication, and prioritization can be improved.
Recent advances in automating and digitizing financial services has largely changed how we use technology to make fiscal decisions. As infrastructure and operations are changing rapidly — recent reports show $31 billion was invested in the sector in 2017 — reinventing global financial technology poses many challenges and potential rewards.
To address these issues, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently launched a research-industry collaboration focused on creating financial technologies that will be able to open up new business models, gain new data insights, and improve security.
The initiative will span topics that include artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, blockchain foundation and applications, machine learning, multi-party computation for superior security and privacy, data management and analytics, natural language processing, and cyber-risk management, among others.
MIT professors Andrew Lo, Silvio Micali, and Shafi Goldwasser are leading the new initiative, which is called FinTech@CSAIL. A select group of companies, including ANT Financial, Citi, London Stock Exchange Group, Nasdaq, Ripple, Ryan LLC, and State Street, will work with CSAIL researchers to inform new lines of impactful research and develop innovative real-world applications.
“A financial company’s success in this sector is built on trust, security, value, and efficiency,” says FinTech Executive Director Lori Glover. “FinTech holds promise not only for verified transaction systems such as blockchain, but also for technologies involving AI, security, data analytics, trust verification, risk management and privacy advances as well.”
CSAIL researchers will focus on several key areas across the lab, including cybersecurity and secure computation, natural language processing, robotics, and replacement technologies and legacy systems.
Lo, Micali, and Goldwasser are guiding the effort with a unique combined expertise focused on economics, computer science and cybersecurity.
Lo’s research centers on using computational tools to make better financial decisions, including financial engineering and risk management, trading technology and market microstructure, as well as creating computational models for individual risk preferences, financial markets, and intelligence.
During his remarks at the Wednesday launch event, Lo talked about the interplay of finance and technology and how they have impacted the way that AI systems are used.
Specifically, he discussed early efforts in AI that focused on very specific problems and tasks, like playing chess, and how they aimed to covered as many different scenarios for each problem as possible. He said that this approach was a timely and expensive endeavour that was ineffective for financial models.
“We’ve largely moved away from AI as expert systems to simple algorithms and more complex data, which is much closer to real human intelligence,” Lo said. “We need theories and algorithms on how people actually behave, and larger datasets where we can find meaningful trends and patterns. Unless we truly understand human behavior, we won’t we be able to make financial technologies that work.”
Micali and Goldwasser, who are both focused on security, have pioneered research at the foundation of current and emerging fintech innovations. Both are winners of the A.C.M. Turing Award, often described as “the Nobel of computing.”
Micali and Goldwasser’s research efforts focus on enhancing information security and the privacy and correctness of computation and data. They have been instrumental in developing systems like zero-knowledge proofs (methods for authentication that don’t require passwords), and secure multi-party computation, which are both used in many cybersecurity systems and financial applications.
“We believe in transferring technology to society, which is a value of not only fintech but CSAIL as well,” said Micali. “As this sector rapidly matures, we need to make technologies that can keep up with that pace.”
“With a legacy that dates back to the originators of artificial intelligence and many computational techniques in use today, CSAIL is at the leading edge of research and new technologies that can benefit the entire financial ecosystem,” said Lo.
Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson today shared the following.
To the members of the MIT community and friends of MIT:
The homepage we replace has given good service to the Institute. Since its launch in 2009, it has maintained a straightforward and uncommon aesthetic: a single “Spotlight” image surrounded by links to sites from around MIT. (And that basic approach had been established years before.) The page has been well-liked and well-used.
But research of our audiences showed us that it was time to make some changes. First, we wanted to transform the Search function. We sought not just to make it perform better (it’s both highly used and a frequent source of frustration, we learned), but also to make it say something about MIT: that we prize utility, practicality, serendipity, exploration, and fun. What you see here is just a beginning; we will be eager over time to find new ways to make Search satisfy and delight our visitors.
If the left side of the new homepage is devoted to utility and self-guided journeys, the right side offers a daily glimpse of the culture and output of MIT. Here we have preserved the daily Spotlight — which we now summarize in brief, bold type that itself (through hyperlinks) serves as a jumping-off point to other destinations at MIT.
We also wanted to clean up the navigation structure: The old homepage exposed both too much and too little, our research showed. After determining how our audiences classify different kinds of information about MIT, we created a navigation system of secondary landing pages linked to from the top of the homepage — places designed to orient visitors and get them where they want to go.
In all of this, we required a site that would work well on mobile devices, meet the highest standards of accessibility, and be “light” enough to function usefully in a world of highly variable levels of bandwidth and processing power.
The homepage you see today, then, aims to honor but also improve upon MIT’s long-distinctive approach to a homepage.
The new MIT Daily email complements that effort. Building on the weekly MIT News email that was begun in 2009 — and to which tens of thousands of people beyond the MIT community now subscribe — the new Daily (plus a redesigned Weekly) aims to give the MIT community and our friends outside a regular dose of the Institute’s news and culture: You’ll find a diverse menu of content that changes every day. We’ll do our best to keep these emails varied and surprising, and we’ll feature their content on the homepage under the “Recommended today” list of links.
Over the course of this journey, the creative input we received from the MIT community was an embarrassment of riches. Communications colleagues from across MIT put their mark on the work. The Admissions Office partnered with us from the beginning, lending us their high degree of creativity and their deep understanding of current and prospective students. MIT’s senior leadership improved our thinking with energy and encouragement — and in user testing, the Institute’s brilliant students and alumni helped us see things in new ways. Finally, hats off to the creative agency Upstatement, which helped us to be as bold as we were careful. Thank you, all!
Vice President for Communications, MIT
The case for an ambitious new particle accelerator to be built in the United States has just gotten a major boost.
Today, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have endorsed the development of the Electron Ion Collider, or EIC. The proposed facility, consisting of two intersecting accelerators, would smash together beams of protons and electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light. In the aftermath of each collision, scientists should see “snapshots” of the particles’ inner structures, much like a CT scan for atoms. From these images, scientists hope to piece together a multidimensional picture, with unprecedented depth and clarity, of the quarks and gluons that bind together protons and all the visible matter in the universe.
The EIC, if built, would significantly advance the field of quantum chromodynamics, which seeks to answer fundamental questions in physics, such as how quarks and gluons produce the strong force — the “glue” that holds all matter together. If constructed, the EIC would be the largest accelerator facility in the U.S. and, worldwide, second only to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. MIT physicists, including Richard Milner, professor of physics at MIT, have been involved from the beginning in making the case for the EIC.
MIT News checked in with Milner, a member of MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics and the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, about the need for a new particle collider and its prospects going forward.
Q: Tell us a bit about the history of this design. What has it taken to make the case for this new particle accelerator?
A: The development of both the scientific and technical case for the EIC has been in progress for about two decades. With the development of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) in the 1970s by MIT physics Professor Frank Wilczek and others, nuclear physicists have long sought to bridge the gap between QCD and the successful theory of nuclei based on experimentally observable particles, where the fundamental constituents are the undetectable quarks and gluons.
A high-energy collider with the ability to collide electrons with the full range of nuclei at high rates and to have the electrons and nucleons polarized was identified as the essential tool to construct this bridge. High-energy electron scattering from the proton was how quarks were experimentally discovered at SLAC in the late 1960s (by MIT physics faculty Henry Kendall and Jerome Friedman and colleagues), and it is the accepted technique to directly probe the fundamental quark and gluon structure of matter.
Significant initial impetus for the EIC came from nuclear physicists at the university user-facilities at the University of Indiana and MIT as well as from physicists seeking to understand the origin of the proton’s spin, at laboratories and universities in the U.S. and Europe. Over the last three long-range planning exercises by U.S. nuclear physicists in 2002, 2007, and 2015, the case for the EIC has matured and strengthened. After the 2007 exercise, the two U.S. flagship nuclear facilities, namely the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Laboratory, took a leadership role in coordinating EIC activities across the broad U.S. QCD community. This led to the production in 2012 of a succinct summary of the science case, “Electron-Ion Collider: The Next QCD Frontier (Understanding the glue that binds us all).”
The 2015 planning exercise established the EIC as the highest priority for new facility construction in U.S. nuclear physics after present commitments are fulfilled. This led to the formation of a committee by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess the EIC science case. The NAS committee deliberated for about a year and the report has been publicly released this month.
Q: Give us an idea of how powerful this new collider will be and what kind of new interactions it will produce. What kinds of phenomena will it help to explain?
A: The EIC will be a powerful and unique new accelerator that will offer an unprecedented window into the fundamental structure of matter. The electron-ion collision rate at the EIC will be high, more than two orders of magnitude greater than was possible at the only previous electron-proton collider, namely HERA, which operated at the DESY laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, from 1992 to 2007. With the EIC, physicists will be able to image the virtual quarks and gluons that make up protons, neutrons, and nuclei, with unprecedented spatial resolution and shutter speed. A goal is to provide images of the fundamental structure of the microcosm that can be appreciated broadly by humanity: to answer questions such as, what does a proton look like? And what does a nucleus look like?
There are three central scientific issues that can be addressed by an electron-ion collider. The first goal is to understand in detail the mechanisms within QCD by which the mass of protons and neutrons, and thus the mass of all the visible matter in the universe, is generated. The problem is that while gluons have no mass, and quarks are nearly massless, the protons and neutrons that contain them are heavy, making up most of the visible mass of the universe. The total mass of a nucleon is some 100 times greater than the mass of the various quarks it contains.
The second issue is to understand the origin of the intrinsic angular momentum, or spin, of nucleons, a fundamental property that underlies many practical applications, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). How the angular momentum, both intrinsic as well as orbital, of the internal quarks and gluons gives rise to the known nucleon spin is not understood. And thirdly, the nature of gluons in matter — that is, their arrangements or states — and the details of how they hold matter together, is not well-known. Gluons in matter are a little like dark matter in the universe: unseen but playing a crucial role. An electron-ion collider would potentially reveal new states resulting from the close packing of many gluons within nucleons and nuclei. These issues are fundamental to our understanding of the matter in the universe.
Q: What role will MIT have in this project going forward?
A: At present, more than a dozen MIT physics department faculty lead research groups in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science that work directly on understanding the fundamental structure of matter as described by QCD. It is the largest university-based group in the U.S. working on QCD. Theoretical research is focused at the Center for Theoretical Physics, and experimentalists rely heavily on the Bates Research and Engineering Center for technical support.
MIT theorists are carrying out important calculations using the world’s most powerful computers to understand fundamental aspects of QCD. MIT experimental physicists are conducting experiments at existing facilities, such as BNL, CERN, and Jefferson Laboratory, to reach new insight and to develop new techniques that will be used at the EIC. Further, R&D into new polarized sources, detectors, and innovative data-acquisition schemes by MIT scientists and engineers is in progress. It is anticipated that these efforts will ramp up as the realization of the EIC approaches.
It is anticipated that the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science will initiate in the near future the official process for EIC by which the U.S. government approves, funds, and constructs new, large scientific facilities. Critical issues are the selection of the site for EIC and the participation of international users. An EIC user group has formed with the participation of more than 700 PhD scientists from over 160 laboratories and universities around the world. If the realization of EIC follows a schedule comparable to that of past large facilities, it should be doing science by about 2030. MIT has a long history of providing leadership in U.S. nuclear physics and will continue to play a significant role as we proceed along the path to EIC.
MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a machine-learning model that takes computers a step closer to interpreting our emotions as naturally as humans do.
In the growing field of “affective computing,” robots and computers are being developed to analyze facial expressions, interpret our emotions, and respond accordingly. Applications include, for instance, monitoring an individual’s health and well-being, gauging student interest in classrooms, helping diagnose signs of certain diseases, and developing helpful robot companions.
A challenge, however, is people express emotions quite differently, depending on many factors. General differences can be seen among cultures, genders, and age groups. But other differences are even more fine-grained: The time of day, how much you slept, or even your level of familiarity with a conversation partner leads to subtle variations in the way you express, say, happiness or sadness in a given moment.
Human brains instinctively catch these deviations, but machines struggle. Deep-learning techniques were developed in recent years to help catch the subtleties, but they’re still not as accurate or as adaptable across different populations as they could be.
The Media Lab researchers have developed a machine-learning model that outperforms traditional systems in capturing these small facial expression variations, to better gauge mood while training on thousands of images of faces. Moreover, by using a little extra training data, the model can be adapted to an entirely new group of people, with the same efficacy. The aim is to improve existing affective-computing technologies.
“This is an unobtrusive way to monitor our moods,” says Oggi Rudovic, a Media Lab researcher and co-author on a paper describing the model, which was presented last week at the Conference on Machine Learning and Data Mining. “If you want robots with social intelligence, you have to make them intelligently and naturally respond to our moods and emotions, more like humans.”
Co-authors on the paper are: first author Michael Feffer, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; and Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and founding director of the Affective Computing research group.
Traditional affective-computing models use a “one-size-fits-all” concept. They train on one set of images depicting various facial expressions, optimizing features — such as how a lip curls when smiling — and mapping those general feature optimizations across an entire set of new images.
The researchers, instead, combined a technique, called “mixture of experts” (MoE), with model personalization techniques, which helped mine more fine-grained facial-expression data from individuals. This is the first time these two techniques have been combined for affective computing, Rudovic says.
In MoEs, a number of neural network models, called “experts,” are each trained to specialize in a separate processing task and produce one output. The researchers also incorporated a “gating network,” which calculates probabilities of which expert will best detect moods of unseen subjects. “Basically the network can discern between individuals and say, ‘This is the right expert for the given image,’” Feffer says.
For their model, the researchers personalized the MoEs by matching each expert to one of 18 individual video recordings in the RECOLA database, a public database of people conversing on a video-chat platform designed for affective-computing applications. They trained the model using nine subjects and evaluated them on the other nine, with all videos broken down into individual frames.
Each expert, and the gating network, tracked facial expressions of each individual, with the help of a residual network (“ResNet”), a neural network used for object classification. In doing so, the model scored each frame based on level of valence (pleasant or unpleasant) and arousal (excitement) — commonly used metrics to encode different emotional states. Separately, six human experts labeled each frame for valence and arousal, based on a scale of -1 (low levels) to 1 (high levels), which the model also used to train.
The researchers then performed further model personalization, where they fed the trained model data from some frames of the remaining videos of subjects, and then tested the model on all unseen frames from those videos. Results showed that, with just 5 to 10 percent of data from the new population, the model outperformed traditional models by a large margin — meaning it scored valence and arousal on unseen images much closer to the interpretations of human experts.
This shows the potential of the models to adapt from population to population, or individual to individual, with very few data, Rudovic says. “That’s key,” he says. “When you have a new population, you have to have a way to account for shifting of data distribution [subtle facial variations]. Imagine a model set to analyze facial expressions in one culture that needs to be adapted for a different culture. Without accounting for this data shift, those models will underperform. But if you just sample a bit from a new culture to adapt our model, these models can do much better, especially on the individual level. This is where the importance of the model personalization can best be seen.”
Currently available data for such affective-computing research isn’t very diverse in skin colors, so the researchers’ training data were limited. But when such data become available, the model can be trained for use on more diverse populations. The next step, Feffer says, is to train the model on “a much bigger dataset with more diverse cultures.”
Better machine-human interactions
Another goal is to train the model to help computers and robots automatically learn from small amounts of changing data to more naturally detect how we feel and better serve human needs, the researchers say.
It could, for example, run in the background of a computer or mobile device to track a user’s video-based conversations and learn subtle facial expression changes under different contexts. “You can have things like smartphone apps or websites be able to tell how people are feeling and recommend ways to cope with stress or pain, and other things that are impacting their lives negatively,” Feffer says.
This could also be helpful in monitoring, say, depression or dementia, as people’s facial expressions tend to subtly change due to those conditions. “Being able to passively monitor our facial expressions,” Rudovic says, “we could over time be able to personalize these models to users and monitor how much deviations they have on daily basis — deviating from the average level of facial expressiveness — and use it for indicators of well-being and health.”
A promising application, Rudovic says, is human-robotic interactions, such as for personal robotics or robots used for educational purposes, where the robots need to adapt to assess the emotional states of many different people. One version, for instance, has been used in helping robots better interpret the moods of children with autism.
Roddy Cowie, professor emeritus of psychology at the Queen’s University Belfast and an affective computing scholar, says the MIT work “illustrates where we really are” in the field. “We are edging toward systems that can roughly place, from pictures of people’s faces, where they lie on scales from very positive to very negative, and very active to very passive,” he says. “It seems intuitive that the emotional signs one person gives are not the same as the signs another gives, and so it makes a lot of sense that emotion recognition works better when it is personalized. The method of personalizing reflects another intriguing point, that it is more effective to train multiple ‘experts,’ and aggregate their judgments, than to train a single super-expert. The two together make a satisfying package.”
J. Meejin Yoon, professor and head of the Department of Architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, has been appointed the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. She will take up this new position on January 1, 2019. Andrew Scott, professor of architecture and urbanism, currently associate head of the department, has agreed serve as interim head starting August 15.
An architect, designer, and educator, Yoon joined the MIT faculty as assistant professor in 2001 and became department head in 2014. She is founding principal, with Eric Höweler, of Höweler + Yoon Architecture, a multidisciplinary architecture and design studio that has garnered international recognition for a wide range of built work.
Yoon’s designs have embraced technologies at multiple scales, from interactive wearables and landscapes to robotic fabrication of stone structures. Her pioneering interactive installation project for the Athens Olympics, White Noise White Light, was reinstalled on MIT’s campus for MIT President Susan Hockfield’s inauguration in 2005.
Eleven years later, Yoon was asked to design the Sean Collier Memorial at MIT to honor MIT police officer Sean Collier, killed in the line of duty. The memorial is an open vaulted stone structure at the corner of Vassar and Main Streets.
Among her current design projects are the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, the future MIT Museum in Kendall Square, planned to open in 2020, and a 20-story multifamily residential tower in downtown Boston.
“Beyond her excellence and renown as a designer, educator, and administrator, Meejin brings rigor and dedication to everything she touches,” says Hashim Sarkis, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. “Cornell is lucky to have her, to have her back, as we have been for the past 17 years. We will watch Cornell under her leadership with anticipation and with admiration.”
While leading the department, Yoon’s accomplishments included the establishment of a design minor open to all MIT undergraduates; the relaunch of the bachelor of science in art and design; and an increase in cross-disciplinary studios within the graduate program. In 2013, she received the Irwin Sizer Award for the Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education. Her popular course 4.110 / MAS.650 (Design Across Scales and Disciplines), co-taught with Neri Oxman, explores the relationships among science, technology, and design.
Yoon received a bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell and a master’s in architecture in urban design from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She traveled to Korea under a Fulbright Fellowship after completing her studies.
Her design work, often operating at the intersection of architecture, technology, and public space, has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and the National Art Center in Japan.
She is the author of “Expanded Practice: Projects by Höweler + Yoon and MY Studio” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009); “Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig” (MAP Book Publishers, 2008); and “Absence,” a World Trade Center Memorial artist book (Printed Matter and the Whitney Museum of Art, 2003).
Yoon’s research, teaching, and design work has been widely recognized for innovation and interdisciplinary reach, with honors including the 2016 ACADIA Teaching Award, the 2015 New Generation Design Leadership Award from Architectural Record, the Audi Urban Futures Award in 2012, the United States Artist Award in Architecture and Design in 2008, Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard Award in 2007, the Architecture League’s Emerging Voices Award in 2007, and the Rome Prize in Design in 2005.
“MIT’s ethos and commitment to applied knowledge for a better world has had a profound impact on me as an educator and as a designer,” says Yoon. “Design is an instrument for imagining and implementing change — social, cultural, technological, and environmental. During my time at MIT, it has been a privilege to work with such exceptional students and colleagues with these shared values. I look forward to the new challenges ahead and to advancing the principles I have learned here.”
With an affinity for environmental issues and a knack for analysis, MIT doctoral student Parrish Bergquist aims to clarify the ways in which changing political landscapes influence environmental policy outcomes.
Bergquist’s path to doctoral research in the departments of Political Science and Urban Studies and Planning began well before she joined MIT. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in American studies and English, the Birmingham, Alabama, native volunteered for two years with the U.S. Peace Corps in Honduras to study international development and policy. There, she gained a firsthand perspective on the impacts of global climate change.
“People in Honduras lived so much closer to environmental damage than we do in the U.S.,” Bergquist says. “Carbon emissions from developed countries were already starting to have an effect on [climate in that region]. ... It affects everybody.” During conversations with women and children, Bergquist learned that those who were tasked with fetching water had to walk even further with each trip to find clean water sources.
“I was struck by the extent to which industrialization had caused problems that we in the United States have buffers against feeling every single day,” she says. Her experiences inspired her to pursue a career in environmental policy, which led her to earn a master’s degree in urban planning and environmental policy from the University of Michigan. “While I was there, I decided that research was what I was really excited about,” Bergquist says; her next move was to pursue a PhD. She hopes to “gain some traction on understanding the politics behind how environmental policy decisions are made.”
Bergquist was attracted to MIT for her doctoral studies because the Department of Urban Studies and Planning integrated the study of environmental problems with urban studies, and because of the Institute’s strong political science department. “My degree is interdepartmental,” Bergquist says. “I knew when I came in that I wanted to study politics and decision making, so I knew I wanted a school that had strong political science and planning departments.”
For her dissertation, Bergquist studies the implications of political polarization on environmental politics in the United States. To do this, she uses a mixed-methods approach to examine different federal- and state-level policies.
“One paper looks at whether or not elected officials from the different parties influence the way that environmental agencies enforce federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act," Bergquist says. She examines other laws as well, such as the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, through a similar lens.
She also studies how environmental public opinions change on the state level over time, and whether they have an impact on actual policy decisions. To guide her research, Bergquist starts with a question: “Do legislators from different states vote in favor of environmental legislation based on what their constituents think?”
Today’s increasing political polarization introduces not only a new challenge, but another set of questions for Bergquist's research.
“Scholars have argued that economic factors are more important than political parties and ideology in terms of shaping what states are doing for the environment,” Bergquist says. “But increasingly, every issue is really polarized across the parties — so are there places that are not as polarized for the environment now, and if so, why?”
Part of Bergquist’s research approach has been informed by courses she took early in her MIT career, including 17.150 (The American Political Economy in Comparative Perspective), taught by Kathleen Thelen, the Ford Professor of Political Science, and Devin Caughey, the Silverman Family Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science.
“The readings we did were really great, and it was a chance to think through big ideas, like how politics is structured, how politics and the economy interact, and the way that political systems develop over time,” Bergquist says. “The course really shaped the way I think about my research.”
Mentorship has also been crucial to Bergquist’s development as a scholar. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to take courses, teach, and collaborate with some fantastic faculty members,” she notes. Describing her work with Chris Warshaw, one of her advisors, she says: “Collaborating with Chris on a research project has been a ton of fun. Also working with him on revising, submitting, and responding to reviews on our paper has been incredibly instructive.”
Bergquist also serves as a graduate resident tutor (GRT) at Simmons Hall, an undergraduate dorm at MIT.
“When I started at MIT, I did not expect to be living in an undergraduate dorm again. But this will be my fifth year doing it,” she says with a laugh. “It's just a really awesome community, and it's been a great way for me to feel like so much more a part of the MIT community than I otherwise would have.”
Through her GRT program, Bergquist plans frequent events for her undergraduate cohorts to foster community and lend support. “I do try to make sure that [undergraduates] feel like I'm approachable and that they could come to me if they have something going on that they need to talk about,” she says.
“I just love everything about it. I love the job and getting to know the students,” Bergquist says.
When she's not at her desk or in the dorm, Bergquist is usually exploring the environment in yet another way, by spending time outside, running, climbing, or biking.
In the future, Bergquist hopes to continue her pursuit of academia by becoming a professor and continuing research. “I had always thought about teaching,” Bergquist says. “Part of the reason I majored in English was because I loved my English teacher in high school.”
Bergquist says that her educational journey was strongly shaped by her teachers and professors, who eventually led her to political science and planning. “Discovering those disciplines was very important to my decision to pursue an academic career,” she explains.
Through the course of her master’s degree program, her resolve to teach grew stronger: “I wanted to pursue my own creative and intellectual projects. You know who pursue their creative and intellectual projects and also teach? Professors!”
Bergquist’s ultimate goal involves a combination of scholarship, teaching, relationship-building, and the outdoors.
“I would love to get an academic job where I get to do impactful research with great colleagues and teach fantastic students,” she says. “But I recharge and refresh by spending time with people and staying active. My work is better and I’m happier when I have time to spend with the people that I care about and pursue the activities that I love to do. That’s the dream.”
The inaugural Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) essay competition recently concluded with the announcement of 10 winners. Answering the call to create works in conversation with Media Lab Director Joi Ito’s manifesto “Resisting Reduction” and the articles on this theme published in the third issue of JoDS, the authors of the winning essays addressed topics including gender and power in the age of AI, the contributions social workers can make to data-based systems, and the fluid boundaries of non-communicable disease, among others.
Ito and MIT Press Director Amy Brand conceived of the competition as a way to support the free exchange of ideas, and more than 260 entrants answered the open call for submissions. Following a double-blind review and selection process, the judges decided to grant the maximum number of available prizes. Each winning essay entitles its authors to a $10,000 award funded by the Media Lab and the MIT Press Innovations Fund, which supports open access and experimental publishing projects.
"One of our primary goals with JoDS is to invite interaction between the sometimes siloed academic disciplines as well as those public intellectuals who don’t fit in a discipline," said Ito. "This contest was part of a larger effort to experiment with open access and open discourse in scholarly communication, and I'm very excited about the level of informed ideas and the delightful diversity the contest winners have brought to the conversation."
The 10 winning pieces are now published on the JoDS website under a Creative Commons license. In the coming months, they will go through further peer review and revision, and will finally be collected in an MIT Press book to be published in 2019. Proceeds from the sale of this volume will support open access publishing at the Institute.
“We are encouraged by the response to the competition and the range of perspectives that the entrants brought to bear in exploring the theme of Resisting Reduction across industries and schools of thought,” said Brand. “JoDS aims to bridge gaps between disciplines, and the winning essays will expand the conversations already taking place in the journal by generating further discussion and exchange.”
A joint venture of the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Press, the Journal of Design and Science is hosted on PubPub, an open-access, open-review, rapid-publication platform that invites lively discussions, unconventional formats, and widespread participation among members of many different communities. Readers are now able to enjoy and interact with the 10 winning essays:
“The Wicked Queen’s Smart Mirror” by Snoweria Zhang. Zhang is currently a research fellow at the MIT Senseable City Lab.
“Making Kin with the Machines” by Jason Edward Lewis, Noelani Arista, Archer Pechawis, and Suzanne Kite. Arista is assistant professor of Hawaiian and U.S. history at University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa. Pechawis is a practicing artist with particular interest in the intersection of Plains Cree culture and digital technology. Kite — an Oglala Lakota performance artist, visual artist, and composer — is currently a PhD student at Concordia University.
“Systems Seduction: The Aesthetics of Decentralization” by Gary Zhexi Zhang. Zhang is currently a graduate student in the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology at MIT.
“Design Justice, AI, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination” by Sasha Costanza-Chock. Costanza-Chock is a scholar, activist, and media-maker who is currently associate professor of civic media at MIT.
“Systems Justice” by Vafa Ghazavi. Ghazavi is a John Monash Scholar and doctoral student at the University of Oxford.
“Myth and the Making of AI” by Kat Holmes and Molly McCue. Holmes is founder of Kata and design.co, complimentary ventures for advancing inclusion in product development and digital experiences. McCue is a writer, musician, and founder of a non-profit that helps artists and churches create together in new ways.
“How to Become a Centaur” by Nicky Case. Case makes “explorable explanations” — games designed to explain complex issues, including The Evolution of Trust, Parable of the Polygons, A Better Ballot, and Fireflies.
“What Social Work Got Right and Why it is Needed for our [Technology] Evolution” by Jaclyn Sawyer. Sawyer currently serves as the director of data services at Breaking Ground, a non-profit organization that provides homeless street outreach and housing opportunity.
“Resisting Reduction: The Fluid Boundaries of Non-Communicable Disease” by Cathryn Klusmeier. Klusmeier graduated with distinction from the University of Oxford in 2018 with a master’s degree in medical anthropology and currently lives in Sitka, Alaska, working as a commercial salmon fisherwoman and writer.
“The Truth Will Set Us Free: A Paradigm to End Reductionism According to Girls” by Heidi Therese Dangelmaier. Dangelmaier is an inventor, designer, scientist and founder of the growth and innovation firm, Girlapproved.
A key challenge in the embryonic development of complex life forms is the correct specification of cell positions so that organs and limbs grow in the right places. To understand how cells arrange themselves at the earliest stages of development, an interdisciplinary team of applied mathematicians at MIT and experimentalists at Princeton University identified mathematical principles governing the packings of interconnected cell assemblies.
In a paper entitled “Entropic effects in cell lineage tree packings,” published this month in Nature Physics, the team reports direct experimental observations and mathematical modeling of cell packings in convex enclosures, a biological packing problem encountered in many complex organisms, including humans.
In their study, the authors investigated multi-cellular packings in the egg chambers of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, an important developmental model organism. Each egg chamber contains exactly 16 germline cells that are linked by cytoplasmic bridges, resulting from a series of incomplete cell divisions. The linkages form a branched cell-lineage tree which is enclosed by an approximately spherical hull. At some later stage, one of the 16 cells develops into the fertilizable egg, and the relative positioning of the cells is thought to be important for the biochemical signal exchange during the early stages of development.
The group run by Princeton's Stanislav Y. Shvartsman, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton succeeded in measuring the spatial positions and connectivities between individual cells in more than 100 egg chambers. The experimentalists found it difficult to explain, however, why certain tree configurations occurred much more frequently than others, says Jörn Dunkel, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Mathematics.
So while Shvartsman’s team were able to visualize the cell connections in complex biological systems, Dunkel and postdoc Norbert Stoop, a recent MIT math instructor, began to develop a mathematical framework to describe the statistics of the observed cell packings.
“This project has been a prime example of an extremely enjoyable interdisciplinary collaboration between cell biology and applied mathematics,” Dunkel says. The experiments were performed by Shvartsman’s PhD student Jasmin Imran Alsous, who will begin a postdoctoral position at Adam Martin’s lab in the MIT Department of Biology this fall. They were analyzed in collaboration with postdoc Paul Villoutreix, who is now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Dunkel points out that while human biology is considerably more complex than a fruit fly’s, the underlying tissue organization processes share many common aspects.
“The cell trees in the egg chamber store the history of the cell divisions, like an ancestry tree in a sense,” he says. “What we were able to do was to map the problem of packing the cell tree into an egg chamber onto a nice and simple mathematical model that basically asks: If you take the fundamental convex polyhedrons with 16 vertices, how many different ways are there to embed 16 cells on them while keeping all the bridges intact?”
The presence of rigid physical connections between cells adds interesting new constraints that make the problem different from the most commonly considered packing problems, such as the question of how to arrange oranges efficiently so that they can be transported in as few containers as possible. The interdisciplinary study of Dunkel and his colleagues, which combined modern biochemical protein labelling techniques, 3-D confocal microscopy, computational image analysis, and mathematical modeling, shows that constrained tree packing problems arise naturally in biological systems.
Understanding the packing principles of cells in tissues at the various stages of development remains a major challenge. Depending on a variety of biological and physical factors, cells originating from a single founder cell can develop in vastly different ways to form muscles, bones, and organs such as the brain. While the developmental process “involves a huge number of degrees of freedom, the end result in many cases is highly complex yet also very reproducible and robust,” Dunkel says.
“This raises the question, which many people asked before, whether such robust complexity can be understood in terms of a basic set of biochemical, physical, and mathematical rules,” he says. “Our study shows that simple physical constraints, like cell-cell bridges arising from incomplete divisions, can significantly affect cell packings. In essence, what we are trying to do is to identify relatively simple tractable models that allow us to make predictions about these complex systems. Of course, to fully understand embryonic development, mathematical simplification must go hand-in-hand with experimental insight from biology.”
Since incomplete cell-divisions have also been seen in amphibians, mollusks, birds, and mammals, Dunkel hopes the modeling approach developed in the paper might be applicable to those systems as well.
“Physical constraints could play a significant role in determining the preferences for certain types of multicellular organizations, and that may have secondary implications for larger-scale tissue dynamics which are not yet clear to us. A simple way you can think about it is that these cytoplasmic bridges, or other physical connections, can help the organism to localize cells into desired positions,” he says. “This would appear to be a very robust strategy.”
Researchers at MIT have created what may be the smallest robots yet that can sense their environment, store data, and even carry out computational tasks. These devices, which are about the size of a human egg cell, consist of tiny electronic circuits made of two-dimensional materials, piggybacking on minuscule particles called colloids.
Colloids, which insoluble particles or molecules anywhere from a billionth to a millionth of a meter across, are so small they can stay suspended indefinitely in a liquid or even in air. By coupling these tiny objects to complex circuitry, the researchers hope to lay the groundwork for devices that could be dispersed to carry out diagnostic journeys through anything from the human digestive system to oil and gas pipelines, or perhaps to waft through air to measure compounds inside a chemical processor or refinery.
“We wanted to figure out methods to graft complete, intact electronic circuits onto colloidal particles,” explains Michael Strano, the Carbon C. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and senior author of the study, which was published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. MIT postdoc Volodymyr Koman is the paper’s lead author.
“Colloids can access environments and travel in ways that other materials can’t,” Strano says. Dust particles, for example, can float indefinitely in the air because they are small enough that the random motions imparted by colliding air molecules are stronger than the pull of gravity. Similarly, colloids suspended in liquid will never settle out.
Researchers produced tiny electronic circuits, just 100 micrometers across,on a substrate material which was then dissolved away to leave the individual devices floating freely in solution. These were later attached to tiny colloidal particles. (Courtesy of the researchers)
Strano says that while other groups have worked on the creation of similarly tiny robotic devices, their emphasis has been on developing ways to control movement, for example by replicating the tail-like flagellae that some microbial organisms use to propel themselves. But Strano suggests that may not be the most fruitful approach, since flagellae and other cellular movement systems are primarily used for local-scale positioning, rather than for significant movement. For most purposes, making such devices more functional is more important than making them mobile, he says.
Tiny robots made by the MIT team are self-powered, requiring no external power source or even internal batteries. A simple photodiode provides the trickle of electricity that the tiny robots’ circuits require to power their computation and memory circuits. That’s enough to let them sense information about their environment, store those data in their memory, and then later have the data read out after accomplishing their mission.
The microscopic devices, combining electronic circuits with colloid particles, are aerosolized inside a chamber and then a substance to be analyzed is introduced, where it can interact with the devices. These devices are then collected on microscope slides on a surface so they can be tested. (Courtesy of the researchers)
Such devices could ultimately be a boon for the oil and gas industry, Strano says. Currently, the main way of checking for leaks or other issues in pipelines is to have a crew physically drive along the pipe and inspect it with expensive instruments. In principle, the new devices could be inserted into one end of the pipeline, carried along with the flow, and then removed at the other end, providing a record of the conditions they encountered along the way, including the presence of contaminants that could indicate the location of problem areas. The initial proof-of-concept devices didn’t have a timing circuit that would indicate the location of particular data readings, but adding that is part of ongoing work.
Similarly, such particles could potentially be used for diagnostic purposes in the body, for example to pass through the digestive tract searching for signs of inflammation or other disease indicators, the researchers say.
Most conventional microchips, such as silicon-based or CMOS, have a flat, rigid substrate and would not perform properly when attached to colloids that can experience complex mechanical stresses while travelling through the environment. In addition, all such chips are “very energy-thirsty,” Strano says. That’s why Koman decided to try out two-dimensional electronic materials, including graphene and transition-metal dichalcogenides, which he found could be attached to colloid surfaces, remaining operational even after after being launched into air or water. And such thin-film electronics require only tiny amounts of energy. “They can be powered by nanowatts with subvolt voltages,” Koman says.
As a demonstration of how such particles might be used to test biological samples, the team placed a solution containing the devices on a leaf, and then used the devices’ internal reflectors to locate them for testing by shining a laser at the leaf. (Courtesy of the researchers)
Why not just use the 2-D electronics alone? Without some substrate to carry them, these tiny materials are too fragile to hold together and function. “They can’t exist without a substrate,” Strano says. “We need to graft them to the particles to give them mechanical rigidity and to make them large enough to get entrained in the flow.”
But the 2-D materials “are strong enough, robust enough to maintain their functionality even on unconventional substrates” such as the colloids, Koman says.
The nanodevices they produced with this method are autonomous particles that contain electronics for power generation, computation, logic, and memory storage. They are powered by light and contain tiny retroreflectors that allow them to be easily located after their travels. They can then be interrogated through probes to deliver their data. In ongoing work, the team hopes to add communications capabilities to allow the particles to deliver their data without the need for physical contact.
Other efforts at nanoscale robotics “haven’t reached that level” of creating complex electronics that are sufficiently small and energy efficient to be aerosolized or suspended in a colloidal liquid. These are “very smart particles, by current standards,” Strano says, adding, “We see this paper as the introduction of a new field” in robotics.
The research team, all at MIT, included Pingwei Liu, Daichi Kozawa, Albert Liu, Anton Cottrill, Youngwoo Son, and Jose Lebron. The work was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the Swiss National Science Foundation.
The School of Science announced that eight of its faculty members have been appointed to named professorships. These positions afford the faculty members additional support to pursue their research and develop their careers.
Eliezer Calo, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has been named the Irwin W. and Helen Sizer Career Development Professor. He focuses on the coordination of RNA metabolism using a combination of genetic, biochemical, and functional genomic approaches. The core of Calo’s research program is to understand how ribosome biogenesis is controlled by specific RNA binding proteins, particularly RNA helicases of the “DEAD box” family, and how disregulation of ribosome biogenesis contributes to various diseases, including cancer. He proposes initially to characterize the functions of specific genes of interest, including the DDX21 RNA helicase and the TCOF1 factor involved in RNA Pol I transcription and rRNA processing, using biochemical, molecular and genome-wide approaches in mouse, Xenopus and Zebrafish models.
Steven Flavell, assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has been named the Lister Brothers Career Development Professor. He uses Caenorhabditis elegans to examine how neuromodulators coordinate activity in neural circuits to generate locomotion behaviors linked to the feeding or satiety states of an animal. His long-term goal is to understand how neural circuits generate sustained behavioral states, and how physiological and environmental information is integrated into these circuits. Gaining a mechanistic understanding of how these circuits function will be essential to decipher the neural bases of sleep and mood disorders.
Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, explores quantum transport in novel condensed-matter systems such as graphene, transition metal dichalcogenides and topological insulators. In recent work, he has demonstrated the presence of a bandgap in graphene-based van der Waals heterostructures, novel quantum spin Hall and photothermoelectric effects in graphene, as well as light-emitting diodes, photodetectors and solar cells in the atomically thin tungsten diselenide system. He has also made advances in characterizing and manipulating the properties of other ultrathin materials such as ultrathin graphite and molybdenum disulphide, which lack graphene’s ultrarelativistic properties, but possess other unusual electronic properties.
Becky Lamason, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has been named the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Career Development Professor of Life Sciences. She investigates how intracellular bacterial pathogens hijack host cell processes to promote infection. In particular, she studies how Rickettsia parkeri and Listeria monocytogenes move through tissues via a process called cell-to-cell spread. She utilizes cellular, molecular, genetic, biochemical, and biophysical approaches to elucidate the mechanisms of spread in order to reveal key aspects of pathogenesis and host cell biology.
Rebecca Saxe, the inaugural John W. Jarve (1978) Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is best known for her discovery of a brain region that is specialized for "theory of mind," people's ability to think about the thoughts, beliefs, plans, hopes and emotions of other people. Saxe continues to study this region and its role in social cognition, and is exploring the theory-of-mind system as a promising candidate for understanding the biological basis of autism. She also studies brain development in human babies, including her own.
Omer Yilmaz, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has been named the Eisen and Chang Career Development Professor. He studies how the adult intestine is maintained by stem cells that require a cellular neighborhood, or niche, consisting in part of Paneth cells. Specifically, he investigates the molecular mechanisms of how intestinal stem cells and their Paneth cell niche respond to diverse diets to coordinate intestinal regeneration with organismal physiology and its impact on the formation and growth of intestinal cancers. By better understanding how intestinal stem cells adapt to diverse diets, he hopes to identify and develop new strategies that prevent and reduce the growth of cancers involving the intestinal tract that includes the small intestine, colon, and rectum.
Yufei Zhao, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, has been named the Class of 1956 Career Development Professor. He has made significant contributions in combinatorics with applications to computer science. Recently, Zhao and three undergraduates solved an open problem concerning the number of independent sets in an irregular graph, a conjecture first proposed in 2001. Understanding the number of independent sets — subsets of vertices where no two vertices are adjacent — is important to solving many other combinatorial problems. In other research accomplishments, Zhao co-authored a proof with Jacob Fox and David Conlon that contributed to a better understanding of the celebrated Green-Tao theorem that states prime numbers contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. Their work improves our understanding of pseudorandom structures — non-random objects with random-like properties — and has other applications in mathematics and computer science.
Martin Zwierlein, the inaugural Thomas A. Frank (1977) Professor of Physics, studies ultracold gases of atoms and molecules. These gases host novel states of matter and serve as pristine model systems for other systems in nature, such as neutron stars or high-temperature superconductors. In contrast to bulk materials, in experiments with cold gases one can freely tune the interaction between atoms and make it as strong as quantum mechanics allows. This enabled the observation of a novel robust form of superfluidity: Scaled to the density of electrons in solids, superfluidity would in fact occur far above room temperature. Under a novel quantum gas microscope with single-atom resolution, the team recently studied charge and spin correlations and transport in a Fermi-Hubbard lattice gas. This system is believed to hold the key to high-temperature superconductivity in cuprate materials. Using ultracold molecules, Zwierlein’s group also demonstrated coherence times on the order of seconds, spurring hopes for the future use of such molecules in quantum information applications.
With droughts plaguing much of the western United States and millions of people across the globe living without access to safe water, the need for technologies that produce clean water is greater than ever. The key, according to Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor and department head for MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is in the very air we breathe.
“Water vapor is all around us in the air, even in arid conditions,” explains Wang. She and her team in MIT’s Device Research Laboratory have developed a device that can tap into this abundant resource and literally pull water out of thin air.
The key to the process is a powder that desiccates the air, attracting vapor directly to the porous matrix at the base of the device’s main chamber like a sponge. The vapor is then condensed into liquid and can be collected as usable water – even in dry atmospheres with as low as 20 percent humidity.
The entire process of converting the water vapor found in air into potable water can be done using only the power of the sun. “The device is completely passive,” says Wang. “There is no need to use outside power supplies which can help keep the device low-cost and efficient.”
Keeping costs low and efficiency high is one of Wang’s central goals. “We hope to develop a device that provides relief to the millions of people living in communities that lack the infrastructure needed to provide access to clean drinking water or those living in regions plagued by drought,” adds Wang.
During a field test in Tempe, Arizona earlier this year, a small proof-of-concept prototype of the device extracted a quarter-liter of water per day per kilogram of the absorbent powder. The researchers hope to increase this output by further tailoring the powder and optimizing the device.
If the production capacity of the device can be increased, Wang’s research could have a tangible impact in places experiencing water scarcity — even in the driest of conditions.
Submitted by: Mary Beth O'Leary / Department of Mechanical Engineering | Video by: John Freidah | 1 min, 23 sec
McGovern Institute investigator Michale Fee has been selected to receive a 2018 McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award for his research on “new technologies for imaging and analyzing neural state-space trajectories in freely-behaving small animals.”
“I am delighted to get support from the McKnight Foundation,” says Fee, who is also the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Neurosciences at MIT. “We’re very excited about this project which aims to develop technology that will be a great help to the broader neuroscience community.”
Fee studies the neural mechanisms by which the brain, specifically that of juvenile songbirds, learns complex sequential behaviors. The way that songbirds learn a song through trial and error is analogous to humans learning complex behaviors, such as riding a bicycle. While it would be insightful to link such learning to neural activity, current methods for monitoring neurons can only monitor a limited field of neurons, a big issue since such learning and behavior involve complex interactions between larger circuits. While a wider field of view for recordings would help decipher neural changes linked to this learning paradigm, current microscopy equipment is large relative to a juvenile songbird, and microscopes that can record neural activity generally constrain the behavior of small animals. Ideally, technologies need to be lightweight (about 1 gram) and compact in size (the size of a dime), a far cry from current larger microscopes that weigh in at 3 grams. Fee hopes to be able to break these technical boundaries and miniaturize the recording equipment thus allowing recording of more neurons in naturally behaving small animals.
“We are thrilled that the McKnight Foundation has chosen to support this project. The technology that Michale’s developing will help to better visualize and understand the circuits underlying learning,” says Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
In addition to development and miniaturization of the microscopy hardware itself, the award will support the development of technology that helps analyze the resulting images, so that the neuroscience community at large can more easily deploy and use the technology.
Heads of state and heads of government recently attended the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit held in Brussels, Belgium. There, President Donald Trump created controversy by criticizing Germany and calling other allies “delinquent.” Yet, he deemed the meetings a “success.”
Barry Posen, a leading national security expert and Cold War historian, offers in-depth scholarship on the historic meetings. Posen, a Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program, discusses the role of NATO today, and whether the alliance is “stronger than ever,” as President Trump stated in a post-summit press conference. And he provides historical context on defense spending, which was a chief criticism of the U.S. president.
Q: A core argument of President Trump’s going into the NATO Summit was that the defense spending by our allies is significantly imbalanced and needs to be increased. This issue has also been cited as an issue by earlier U.S. presidents. Do our allies “owe” us money?
A: For many years, U.S. officials, including past presidents, have registered their displeasure with the level of defense spending by the NATO allies. It has been a guideline, perhaps since 2006, reaffirmed at the NATO Wales summit in 2014, that each ally would endeavor to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. At Wales the allies further set 2024 as the year when this objective should be achieved. The fact is that NATO's own figures — which differ slightly from national figures as a result of an accounting system that tries to ensure that each member's overall efforts are measured identically — show that the U.S. will devote 3.5 percent of its economy to defense in 2018, while the European average is expected to be 1.5 percent; and that follows four years of European increases.
If one subscribes to the argument advanced by alliance supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, that NATO is an alliance of liberal democracies, which constitutes the foundation of a liberal world order from which all benefit, then all should contribute, and thus this is a very significant gap. It must be remembered that Europe as a whole is a very wealthy region; European nations can afford to invest more for their own security. Thus, the Europeans are cheap-riding on the U.S.
That said, the allies don't "owe" the U.S. money in a legal or even an administrative sense. Other than a small budget for NATO infrastructure, there is no gigantic pool of NATO military funding to which we and the Europeans are meant to contribute. There is no official military account in deficit on anyone's books, awaiting European checks.
If one looks into what the European spending does buy, there is a further difficulty: European defense spending is inefficient. Some of this inefficiency reflects the fact that the spending is distributed across 26 independent countries, some of them very small. But even the large countries are often inefficient. Germany, the most productive economy in European NATO, seems to get much less than it should for the money it does spend, which the president fairly points out is only about 1.25 percent of its GDP. For example, at best a third of its military equipment is in working condition.
Q: Some scholars have argued that NATO is obsolete. What role does it play today?
A: Rather than ask whether NATO is obsolete, one should ask whether its benefits to the U.S. are commensurate with its costs to the U.S. This is a matter that should be debated.
The original U.S. strategic reason for joining NATO was to ensure that the damaged but still productive post-World War II European economies would not fall into the hands of the Soviet Union and be turned against us. The U.S. never wishes to compete with a hegemonic power that controls all the wealth of western Eurasia. The elimination of this security threat was achieved with the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia today is a mere shadow of the Soviet Union; France and Germany together have vastly more economic potential than Russia, and they even spend more in absolute terms on defense. So the great threat to Europe is no more. Russia is a pain in the neck, not a candidate for continental hegemony. NATO still does provide the U.S. with bases in Europe, troop contributions to various campaigns of the global war on terror, and some intelligence cooperation. NATO has also drawn the U.S. into three strategically unnecessary, if small, wars — Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya.
On the cost side of the ledger, the U.S. spends a great deal to be prepared to defend the European allies. Journalistic coverage and expert commentary on the NATO summit have been misleading on this score. Some like to count only the cost of the U.S. forces based in Europe, some 70,000 people in uniform, which is significant but not gigantic. This is absurd: Those forces enjoy their deterrent and combat power due to the logistics and training base, and more importantly the reinforcements, and even the nuclear deterrent force, based in the U.S. It may be hard to estimate the costs accurately, but we should try. For most of the Cold War, the U.S. built its forces to deal with two nearly simultaneous wars, one each in Europe and Asia. In the post cold war world, we amended this to two "major regional" wars against a variety of possible middle power challengers. The Pentagon's recently released "National Defense Strategy" redirects U.S. military planning toward great power rivalry, which among other things means deterring Russia in Europe. Presuming that the "two major war" standard persists, it is reasonable to attribute half of current U.S. defense spending to the NATO commitment. Interestingly, this gets us to 1.75 percent of U.S. GDP, which is close to the 2 percent that we have asked the allies to achieve, and to which they aspire.
So the question citizens of the U.S. should ask, is what strategic benefits does this vast expenditure attain? If the most serious threat to the U.S. is gone, and the Europeans are rich enough to defend themselves against the threats that remain, should NATO continue to enjoy the priority is has had in U.S. national security policy? The U.S. foreign policy establishment has turned its attention to Asia, and the rise of China, which will likely prove a more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union ever was. This will require significant resources. Beyond security matters, if one day the U.S. begins to focus again on the ballooning national debt, the country will need to find the money somewhere.
Q: At a post-NATO Summit press conference, President Trump announced that “NATO is much stronger now” than it was before. Do you agree?
A: NATO is neither stronger nor particularly weaker than it was before. The Europeans concluded four years ago that they needed to increase their defense spending. They have made some increases since 2014, and plan for further increases. Some alliance members seem on track to hit 2 percent of GDP fairly soon; unfortunately most of the richer and potentially more capable allies are not quite on track, though they are increasing their spending. For the sake of calming the president, at the recent Brussels summit they may have verbally re-committed to their efforts, but as the president likes to say, "we will see what happens."
It is also critically important how the additional funds are spent. Decades of underfunding have left European militaries in woeful shape. It will take focused management attention to ensure that new money is not simply spread like butter across projects that may contribute little to the solution of key military problems.
I am dubious that all the allies will reach 2 percent of GDP allocated to defense. In the past, allied efforts of this kind have often started strong and then petered out. The basic structure of the alliance causes this. The U.S. is a very great power, and aside from President Trump, the foreign policy establishment views the U.S. as the guardian of (the) world order. So long as the U.S. is strongly committed to NATO, the allies know that if they do a little less, we will fill any important gaps. Economists call this the free rider problem. In his way, the president may understand this, and could count it a political victory if, as a result of his targeted truculence, no slackening of European efforts happens on his watch.
The MIT European Club has donated $40,000 to fund 10 new MISTI European Fellows this summer. Not only is it of the most substantial gifts given by a student group to the MIT community, it also marks the 10th anniversary of a successful partnership.
“The students of the MIT European Club have shown outstanding leadership by enabling their fellow MIT students to benefit from MISTI internships in Europe,” says Richard K. Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and associate provost for international activities. “This is a wonderful example of MIT students looking out for each other.”
Alicia Goldstein Raun, managing director of MISTI’s MIT-Spain, MIT-Portugal, and MIT-UK programs, says she finds pride in the strong partnership that the MIT European Club and MISTI European country programs have built. “As a result, more MIT students will have the opportunity to practice the 'mens-et-manus' approach in the European context and contribute towards solving the world’s greatest challenges,” she says, referring to the Institute's motto of "mind and hand."
As strong supporters of MISTI programs in Europe, the club has allocated the gift to fund ten MISTI fellows this summer in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The student projects include:
- promoting innovation and action plans in the public sphere through a multidisciplinary endeavor within the Innovation in Policy Leaders Program in France;
- identifying genes and markers for drug response in the neuroblastoma cell line using CRISPR sgRNA libraries in Germany;
- interning at TU Delft Center for Systems and Control within the Department of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering in the Netherlands;
- modeling the mouse brain and learning processes under the Neuromorphic Cognitive Robotics group at the Institute for Neuroinformatics in Switzerland;
- researching topology and geometry of algebraic varieties, singularities, and D-modules at KU Leuven in Belgium;
- using confidential Italian social security data to study the impact of governmental subsidies on company hiring through the National Institute for Social Protection in Italy;
- developing disaster risk management procedures on the Peace and Stability team within the Space, Security, and Migration Directorate of the European Union Joint Research Center in Italy;
- working at McLaren Automotive on the suspension, engine testing and rear frame teams in the United Kingdom; and
- generating joint forces and applying a deep learning model to the human body to prevent injuries and optimize treatments for patients recovering from surgery in Spain with the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.
Giulio Alighieri, the president of the MIT European Club, says MISTI fellowships “allow MIT students to do research while experiencing firsthand European culture. Because of that, the partnership with MISTI is the cornerstone of the plan to fulfill our mission to connect MIT students with Europe.”
The funds for the MISTI-European Club fellowships were raised in part through the yearly European Career Fair (ECF), which Alighieri, a PhD candidate in cancer research at the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering, calls a “tremendous and unique opportunity.” Alighieri praises the MISTI officers and network that helps the club recruit more companies for the ECF, and the dedication of the members of the MIT European Club who organize it.
Each year, MISTI matches over 1,000 students with internship, research, and teaching opportunities at leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world. Based in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), MISTI is MIT’s pioneering international education initiative and collaborates with departments, programs and clubs across the Institute.
The MIT European Club is a student activity club of over 2,700 postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and visiting scientists. The club’s current executive board members are president Giulio Alighieri, vice president Susanna Bächle, treasurer Karine Ip Kiun Chong, secretary Katrin Michel, social chair Xiaoyu Wu, and events chairs Saviz Mowlavi and Jane Hung.
Lea Morical, a freshman in mechanical engineering who is currently interning in Spain, says the European Career Fair and MISTI help effectively realize the MIT European Club's mission of fostering cross-cultural collaborations.
“The programs enable MIT students of all levels to work and live in Europe,” Morical says.
Leah Flynn Gallant, associate dean and director for student leadership and engagement programs at MIT, speaks highly of the club’s current board and president.
“Giulio Alighieri has worked tirelessly with his board to think of new and innovative ways to recruit students and connect with European student community networks in and outside of MIT to continue the success of the European Career Fair,” Gallant says. “It has been a pleasure to work with and see the European Club grow over the past few years.”
Many technology companies are working on artificial intelligence systems that can analyze medical data to help diagnose or treat health problems. Such systems raise the question of whether this kind of technology can perform as well as a human doctor.
A new study from MIT computer scientists suggests that human doctors provide a dimension that, as yet, artificial intelligence does not. By analyzing doctors’ written notes on intensive-care-unit patients, the researchers found that the doctors’ “gut feelings” about a particular patient’s condition played a significant role in determining how many tests they ordered for the patient.
“There’s something about a doctor’s experience, and their years of training and practice, that allows them to know in a more comprehensive sense, beyond just the list of symptoms, whether you’re doing well or you’re not,” says Mohammad Ghassemi, a research affiliate at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES). “They’re tapping into something that the machine may not be seeing.”
This intuition plays an even stronger role during the first day or two of a patient’s hospital stay, when the amount of data doctors have on patients is less than on subsequent days.
Ghassemi and computer science graduate student Tuka Alhanai are the lead authors of the paper, which will be presented at the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society conference on July 20. Other MIT authors of the paper are Jesse Raffa, an IMES research scientist, and Roger Mark, a professor of health sciences and technology and of electrical engineering and computer science. Shamim Nemati and Falgun Chokshi of Emory University are also authors of the study.
How to measure feelings
Doctors consider a huge number of factors — including symptoms, severity of illness, family history, and lifestyle habits — when deciding what kinds of exams to order for their patients. In addition to those factors, Ghassemi, Alhanai, and their colleagues wondered whether a doctor’s “gut feelings” about a patient also plays a role in their decision-making.
“That gut feeling is probably informed by a history of experience that doctors have,” Ghassemi says. “It’s sort of like how when I was a kid, my mom could just look at me and tell that I had done something wrong. That’s not because of something mystical, but because she had so much experience dealing with me when I had done something wrong that a simple glance had some data in it.”
To try to reveal whether this kind of intuition plays a role in doctors’ decisions, the researchers performed sentiment analysis of doctors’ written notes. Sentiment analysis, which is often used for gauging consumer attitudes, is based on computer algorithms that examine written language and tally positive or negative sentiments associated with words used in the text.
The researchers performed their analysis on the MIMIC database, a collection of medical records from 60,000 ICU patients admitted to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston over a 10-year period. This database includes doctors’ notes on the patients as well as severity of illness, diagnostic imaging exams, and several other factors.
The researchers wanted to determine what, if anything, the doctors’ notes added on top of the information available in the medical records. They computed sentiment scores from the notes to see if there was any correlation with how many diagnostic imaging tests the doctors ordered for patients.
If medical data alone was driving doctors’ decisions, then sentiment would not have any correlation with the number of tests ordered. However, the researchers found that when they accounted for all other factors, the doctors’ sentiments did indeed help predict how many tests they would order. This effect was strongest at the beginning of a patient’s hospital stay, when doctors had less medical information to go on, and then declined as time went by.
They also found that when doctors felt more pessimistic about a patient’s condition, they ordered more testing, but only up to a certain point. If they felt very negatively about the patient’s condition, they ordered fewer tests.
“Clearly the physicians are using something that is not in the data to drive part of their decision making,” Alhanai says. “What’s important is that some of those unseen effects are reflected by their sentiment.”
Next, the researchers hope to learn more about just what factors contribute to doctors’ gut feelings. That could potentially lead to the development of artificial intelligence systems that could learn to incorporate the same information that doctors are using to evaluate patients.
“The question is, can you get the machine to do something like that? It would be very interesting to teach the machine to approximate what the doctor encodes in their sentiment by using data not currently captured by electronic health systems, such as their speech,” Alhanai says.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Neuroimaging Training Grant, the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the NIH Critical Care Informatics Grant, and the NIH Research Resource for Complex Physiologic Signals Grant.
Satellites have changed the way we experience the world, by beaming back images from around the globe and letting us explore the planet through online maps and other visuals. Such tools are so familiar today we often take them for granted.
Lisa Parks does not. A professor in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program, Parks is an expert on satellites and their cultural effects, among other forms of aerial technology. Her work analyzes how technology informs the content of our culture, from images of war zones to our idea of a “global village.”
“I really wanted people to think of the satellite not only as this technology that’s floating around out there in orbit, but as a machine that plays a structuring role in our everyday lives,” Parks says.
As such, Parks thinks we often need to think more crisply about both the power and limitations of the technology. Satellite images helped reveal the presence of mass graves following the Srebrenica massacre in the 1990s Balkans war, for instance. But they became a form of “proof” only after careful follow-up reporting by journalists and other investigators who reconstructed what had happened. Satellites often offer hints about life on the ground, but not omniscience.
“Since satellite images are so abstract and remote, they necessitate closer scrutiny, re-viewing, careful description, and interpretation in ways that other images of war do not,” Parks writes in her 2005 book “Cultures in Orbit.”
Alternately, satellite images can open up our world — or be exclusionary. The landmark 1967 BBC show “Our World,” one of the first broadcasts to feature live global satellite video links, was touted as a global celebration. But as Parks writes, it reinforced distinctions between regions, by emphasizing “the modernity, permanence, and civilizational processes of industrial nations,” and thus “undermining the utopian assumption that satellites inevitably turned the world into a harmonic ‘global village.’”
For her distinctive scholarship, Parks was hired by MIT in 2016. She studies a range of media technologies — from the content of television to drone imagery — and has co-edited five books of essays on such topics, including the 2017 volume “Life in the Age of Drone Warfare.” Parks is also the principal investigator for MIT’s Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, which conducts on-site research about media usage in a range of circumstances.
“Technology and culture is what I’m interested in,” Parks says.
Big sky, then and now
Parks grew up in Southern California and Montana. Her father was a civil engineer and her mother was a social worker — a combination, Parks suggests, that may have helped shape her interests in the social effects of technology.
As an undergraduate at the University of Montana, Parks received her BA in political science and history. She initially expected to become a lawyer but then reconsidered her career path.
“I didn’t want to be in an office all of the time,” Parks says. So she went back to the classroom, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received her PhD in media studies. It was there that Parks’ attention really turned to the skies and the technologies orbiting in them. She wrote a research paper on satellites that turned into both her dissertation and first book. Parks then took a job at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she taught for over a decade before joining MIT.
“I loved my job there, I loved working in the U.C. system, and I had excellent colleagues,” says Parks. Still, she adds, she was fascinated by the opportunities MIT offers, including its abundant interdisciplinary projects that pull together researchers from multiple fields.
“MIT seems to really value those kinds of relationships,” Parks says.
In the classroom, Parks teaches an undergraduate course on current debates in media, which grapples with topics ranging from surveillance to net neutrality and media conglomerations. For graduate students, she has been teaching a foundational media theory course.
“If you’re an MIT student and you want to come out of this place having thought about some of the policy implications relating to the media in this current environment, our classes equip you to think historically and critically about media issues,” Parks says.
Technology … and justice for all
One other issue strongly motivates Parks’ scholarship: the idea that technology is unevenly distributed around the world, with important implications for inequality.
“Most people in the world live in relatively disenfranchised or underprivileged conditions,” Parks says. “If we shift the question about designing technologies so they serve a broader array of people’s interests, and designs are interwoven with concerns about equity, justice, and other democratic principles, don’t those technologies start to look different?”
To this end, MIT’s Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, under Parks’ direction, studies topics such as media infrastructure, to see how video is distributed in places such as rural Zambia. Parks’ research has also examined topics such as the video content accessible to Aboriginal Australians, who, starting in the 1980s, attempted to gain greater control of, and autonomy over, the satellite television programming in rural Australia.
Parks’ research takes place in a variety of social and economic orbits: In March, you could have found her and a research assistant, Matt Graydon, at the Satellite 2018 convention in Washington, interviewing CEOs and industry leaders for a new study of satellite-based internet services.
In some places around the globe, the effects of aerial technology are more immediate. In the volume on drones, Parks writes that these tools create a “vertical mediation” between ground and sky — that when “drones are operating in an area over time, above a certain region, they change the status of sites and motions on the ground.” She elaborates on this in her new book, out this year, “Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror.”
As diverse as these topics may seem at first, Parks’ scholarly output is intended to expore more deeply the connection between aerial and orbital technologies and life on the ground, even if it is not on the mental radar for most of us.
“We need to be studying these objects in orbit above, and think about orbital real estate as something that’s relevant to life on Earth,” Parks says.
MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) researcher Rebecca “Becky” Masterson has much to be pleased about. A device she was instrumental in developing is aboard a spacecraft on a historic mission to a distant asteroid. And she's just been appointed as a principal research scientist for the department.
“Becky is an outstanding researcher with an impressive record of accomplishment in space systems engineering and design,” AeroAstro head Jaime Peraire says in his announcement of Masterson’s promotion from research engineer to principal research scientist. “She has played key technical and management roles in several projects involving sophisticated flight instrumentation and hardware, such as the REXIS project, where she served as program manager and co-PI, and more recently, the NASA TESS program, where she is a technical leader. Becky brings a unique expertise to the MIT community.”
“She is also a talented mentor and educator who, in true MIT fashion, brings together teams of graduate and undergraduate students working on real flight hardware, thus providing them with a unique experience,” Peraire adds.
MIT defines principal research scientists as those who “possess all the qualifications of research scientist, research engineer, or research associate and ... have demonstrated the ability to generate and develop concepts independently, and to conduct independent research.”
Of the Institute’s 115 principal researchers, 22 are women. Including Masterson, there are now four principal researchers in the AeroAstro department — and she is the first woman to earn this honor in the 104-year history of MIT aerospace engineering.
Being the first female in a role in 2018 “feels a bit overwhelming,” Masterson says. “It tells me that there is still work to be done supporting and mentoring young women engineers and researchers and making a place where they feel welcome,” she says. “I hope I can provide some of that encouragement and inclusivity on the research track.”
Professor of aeronautics and astronautics and MIT Institute Professor Sheila Windnall, who became MIT's first female engineering professor in 1964, calls Masterson “a tremendous MIT asset, as both a researcher and a teacher.”
“I am personally thrilled to congratulate her on becoming our first female PRS.” Windall says. “As it says in our department’s statement on diversity, our scholarship, teaching, and learning’s full potential only can happen in an environment where every individual is valued without prejudice, and where inclusion and collaboration is a core principle.”
David Miller, the Jerome Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and former director of the Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), where Masterson has worked since 2012, says Masterson provides “a perfect, yet rare combination of research prowess, real world experience, program management expertise, focus on education, and teamwork skills.”
“Her desire to keep one foot in education and research and her other foot in spaceflight programs provides her with a unique and exceptionally valuable perspective on the aerospace field,” Miller notes. “Hers is a perspective that isn’t traditionally provided in our classrooms and creates opportunities for our graduate researchers that are quite rare in the academic setting.”
On Sept. 8, 2016, NASA launched OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), a spacecraft with an unprecedented mission: to harvest a piece of the asteroid Bennu and return the extraterrestrial sample to Earth. Aboard the spacecraft is REXIS, an MIT and Harvard University student-built imaging spectrometer that will analyze the effect of the sun’s X-rays on the asteroid’s soil, identifying chemical elements on Bennu’s surface. REXIS may also assist in pinpointing a good spot for collecting the sample.
Masterson was a REXIS co-principal investigator.
“REXIS has been on its way to Bennu for two years,” Masterson says. “It turns on about every six months, and every time it does, I’m excited. This summer, we’ll be opening its cover, which is a big deal. We’ll take a look at the Crab Nebula and do some calculations before we do actual asteroid science in the summer of 2019.”
Prior to joining SSL, Masterson was a senior engineer at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, among her tasks were flight control design and certification for Space Shuttle / International Space Station mated operations, and mission control support during space shuttle missions. She earned her BS, MS, and PhD degrees, all in mechanical engineering, from MIT in 1997, 1999, and 2005 respectively.
As a principal researcher, she’s now in a position to bring in her own grants. “Now I can more easily chart my own path,” she says. She notes that in her role as an engineering researcher, “I’m trying to find a balance between building things and publishing.”
Masterson also treasures the time she gets to spend with students.
“I really enjoy being in an academic environment,” she says. “Working with students is an interaction I wouldn’t have in industry. I’d hoped that the department would find my experience building and flying hardware beneficial to our students’ educational experience. My promotion says that yes, the department does.”