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The MIT Media Lab has opened the call for nominations for its third annual Disobedience Award. The $250,000 cash prize will go to a person or group to recognize individuals and groups who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society. The award is open to nominations for anyone still living and active in any field, including the arts, academia, law, politics, science, and social advocacy. A diverse selection committee composed of experts in a wide range of fields will choose the winner(s) and finalist(s), who will be announced in November.
The criteria for the Disobedience Award include nonviolence, creativity, and personal responsibility: It’s about speaking truth to power, taking responsibility, and demanding systemic change.
“Disobedience can mean different things in different spaces,” says Media Lab Director Joi Ito. “Defying a formal process or deeply ingrained culture, such as we might see in academia and the sciences, looks very different from staging a nonviolent civil protest, or resisting political pressure. What these things have in common is moral courage, a willingness to take personal risk, and a commitment to a goal beyond personal gain.”
As head of the selection committee, Ito hopes to see nominations from around the world — from expected as well as unexpected quarters. Although the Disobedience Award was not intended to function as a popularity contest or commentary on specific controversies, Ito says, the annual nature of the award means that it will often reflect the zeitgeist of any given year.
Previous winners and finalists have included Mona Hanna-Attisha and Marc Edwards, physicians who fought to expose and correct the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; Tarana Burke, BethAnn McLaughlin, and Sherry Marts, three leaders of the #MeToo and #MeTooStem movements; the Standing Rock water protectors; a representative of the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike; and numerous advocates and defenders of immigrants’ rights and environmental protection.
Nominations can be submitted at mitdisobedienceaward.fluidreview.com.
Baking soda, table salt, and detergent are surprisingly effective ingredients for cooking up carbon nanotubes, researchers at MIT have found.
In a study published this week in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the team reports that sodium-containing compounds found in common household ingredients are able to catalyze the growth of carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, at much lower temperatures than traditional catalysts require.
The researchers say that sodium may make it possible for carbon nanotubes to be grown on a host of lower-temperature materials, such as polymers, which normally melt under the high temperatures needed for traditional CNT growth.
“In aerospace composites, there are a lot of polymers that hold carbon fibers together, and now we may be able to directly grow CNTs on polymer materials, to make stronger, tougher, stiffer composites,” says Richard Li, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Using sodium as a catalyst really unlocks the kinds of surfaces you can grow nanotubes on.”
Li’s MIT co-authors are postdocs Erica Antunes, Estelle Kalfon-Cohen, Luiz Acauan, and Kehang Cui; alumni Akira Kudo PhD ’16, Andrew Liotta ’16, and Ananth Govind Rajan SM ’16, PhD ’19; professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano, and professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian Wardle, along with collaborators at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Harvard University.
Under a microscope, carbon nanotubes resemble hollow cylinders of chicken wire. Each tube is made from a rolled up lattice of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms. The bond between carbon atoms is extraordinarily strong, and when patterned into a lattice, such as graphene, or as a tube, such as a CNT, such structures can have exceptional stiffness and strength, as well as unique electrical and chemical properties. As such, researchers have explored coating various surfaces with CNTs to produce stronger, stiffer, tougher materials.
Researchers typically grow CNTs on various materials through a process called chemical vapor deposition. A material of interest, such as carbon fibers, is coated in a catalyst — usually an iron-based compound — and placed in a furnace, through which carbon dioxide and other carbon-containing gases flow. At temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius, the iron starts to draw carbon atoms out of the gas, which glom onto the iron atoms and to each other, eventually forming vertical tubes of carbon atoms around individual carbon fibers. Researchers then use various techniques to dissolve the catalyst, leaving behind pure carbon nanotubes.
Li and his colleagues were experimenting with ways to grow CNTs on various surfaces by coating them with different solutions of iron-containing compounds, when the team noticed the resulting carbon nanotubes looked different from what they expected.
“The tubes looked a little funny, and Rich and the team carefully peeled the onion back, as it were, and it turns out a small quantity of sodium, which we suspected was inactive, was actually causing all the growth,” Wardle says.
Tuning sodium’s knobs
For the most part, iron has been the traditional catalyst for growing CNTs. Wardle says this is the first time that researchers have seen sodium have a similar effect.
“Sodium and other alkali metals have not been explored for CNT catalysis,” Wardle says. “This work has led us to a different part of the periodic table.”
To make sure their initial observation wasn’t just a fluke, the team tested a range of sodium-containing compounds. They initially experimented with commercial-grade sodium, in the form of baking soda, table salt, and detergent pellets, which they obtained from the campus convenience store. Eventually, however, they upgraded to purified versions of those compounds, which they dissolved in water. They then immersed a carbon fiber in each compound’s solution, coating the entire surface in sodium. Finally, they placed the material in a furnace and carried out the typical steps involved in the chemical vapor deposition process to grow CNTs.
In general, they found that, while iron catalysts form carbon nanotubes at around 800 degrees Celsius, the sodium catalysts were able to form short, dense forests of CNTs at much lower temperatures, of around 480 C. What’s more, after surfaces spent about 15 to 30 minutes in the furnace, the sodium simply vaporized away, leaving behind hollow carbon nanotubes.
“A large part of CNT research is not on growing them, but on cleaning them —getting the different metals used to grow them out of the product,” Wardle says. “The neat thing with sodium is, we can just heat it and get rid of it, and get pure CNT as product, which you can’t do with traditional catalysts.”
Li says future work may focus on improving the quality of CNTs that are grown using sodium catalysts. The researchers observed that while sodium was able to generate forests of carbon nanotubes, the walls of the tubes were not perfectly aligned in perfectly hexagonal patterns — crystal-like configurations that give CNTs their characteristic strength. Li plans to “tune various knobs” in the CVD process, changing the timing, temperature, and environmental conditions, to improve the quality of sodium-grown CNTs.
“There are so many variables you can still play with, and sodium can still compete pretty well with traditional catalysts,” Li says. “We anticipate with sodium, it is possible to get high quality tubes in the future. And we have pretty high confidence that, even if you were to use regular Arm and Hammer baking soda, it should work.”
For Shigeo Maruyama, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tokyo, the ability to cook up CNTs from such a commonplace ingredient as sodium should reveal new insights into the way the exceptionally strong materials grow.
“It is a surprise that we can grow carbon nanotubes from table salt!” says Maruyama, who was not involved in the research. “Even though chemical vapor deposition (CVD) growth of carbon nanotubes has been studied for more than 20 years, nobody has tried to use alkali group metal as catalyst. This will be a great hint for the fully new understanding of growth mechanism of carbon nanotubes.”
This research was supported, in part, by Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, ANSYS, Saertex, and TohoTenax through MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium.
Many members of the science and technology community are inspired by the startup mantra “fail fast and fail often.” They aim to remain calm and resolute when their experiments go awry, startups dissolve, and problem sets occasionally go unfinished.
When it comes to the lived experience of navigating setbacks, however, many end up failing at failing. They internalize the experience and treat failure as a reflection of their abilities, rather than an unavoidable part of life, necessary for personal growth.
This very human tendency was the inspiration for FAIL!, an event series committed to destigmatizing failure. MIT graduate and visiting students Francesco Benedetti, Chengzhao Zhang, Giannandrea Inchingolo, David Rolnick, Tanja Mueller, Simone Bruno, Luca Alfeo, Stefano Deluca, and Sandra Rothenbuecher founded FAIL! in spring 2018. To date, there have been three FAIL! conferences held at MIT, drawing sold-out crowds of 350-400 people.
At each conference, prominent scholars from MIT and Harvard University share 10-minute stories of personal, academic, and professional failures, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. By learning of the challenges and missteps of highly successful people, the organizers hope to reduce the discouragement and isolation attendees may feel when confronted with their own failures.
Fail! was funded by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, a grant program supporting projects that advance mental health, community, diversity, and inclusion at MIT. The series was also supported by the Division of Student Life, MIT Sandbox, MIT VISTA, MIT Graduate Student Council, and MITell.
What it means to fail
MIT professor of computer science Daniel Jackson, who recently published a book on resilience at MIT, opened this April’s FAIL! Conference by reflecting on the different types of failure. “There’s what I call ‘little-f failure’ and ‘big-F failure,’” he said. “Little-f failure is when you do something and you screw it up … Big-F failure is when your whole life comes to nothing.”
Big-F failures, he noted, are relatively rare, although fear of them can lead people to avoid taking worthwhile risks and limit their ability to lead full, meaningful lives. “Talking about fear and failure is the key to changing ourselves and the culture in which we live,” said Jackson, emphasizing the importance of events like FAIL! that create spaces to explore these topics.
Professor of humanities, sociology, and anthropology Susan Silbey, who was recently awarded MIT’s highest faculty honor, the Killian Award, spoke after Jackson. Although Silbey has had a celebrated career with seemingly few little-f failures, she struggled to find direction and mentorship as a graduate student.
“I started my PhD two months after I graduated college,” said Silbey. “In 1962 there weren’t very many women who joined PhD programs at the University of Chicago. That was quite extraordinary in that year. What was more extraordinary is that I did not graduate until 1978. Sixteen years. That is not the career of a star: That is a failure.” Silbey credited her eventual success to her love of learning and research, regardless of the topic she was studying.
Harvard Medical School professor of genetics George Church spoke at the FAIL! Conference held in November 2018. Those who know him as a founding father of synthetic biology would be surprised to learn that he spent six months homeless and failed out of graduate school at Duke University prior to being accepted to a PhD program at Harvard University, where he later graduated.
Church encouraged the audience to not only embrace their own failures, but to learn from the failures of others. “I’ve learned as much from my negative role models as I did from my positive ones,” he said. “They had trouble, and you’re trying to learn from their trouble without personally experiencing it.”
The success of FAIL!
A survey of the first two FAIL! conferences showed a satisfaction rate above 90 percent. “We were able to start a community,” says Francesco Benedetti, one of the FAIL! organizers and a postdoc in chemical engineering at MIT. “People started conversations about failure and made friends because of the experiences they had in common.”
In February, FAIL! was awarded first prize in the “Live” category of the BetterMIT Innovation Challenge for successfully “expanding study spaces and student life.” The challenge was organized by the Undergraduate Association Committee on Innovation and Technology.
This spring, FAIL! organizers piloted a workshop series on the topic of failure to complement their conferences. Ten graduate students met on a monthly basis with a FAIL! faculty presenter to discuss times they had failed and what they had learned from their experiences.
“These workshops help bridge the gap between inspiring speakers and students who would like to change their relationship with failure,” says Kanika Gakhar, a first-year graduate student and lead organizer of the FAIL! workshop. “By sharing personal experiences and coping strategies, students have an opportunity to feel accepted and learn from each other.”
The FAIL! initiative is also expanding beyond MIT. In March, a FAIL! Conference was held at the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad, India and drew a crowd of 350 people.
When confronted with failure, it can be hard to know how to start again. Among the FAIL! Conference speakers, and those who organized the series, there was no one path forward. The only thing that was true for all of them was that they did start again.
FAIL! organizer Chengzhao Zhang, who is pursuing a PhD in mathematics at MIT, reflects: “I’ve failed at so many things; I don’t know where to begin. When I was an undergrad, I scored 35/120 on a partial differential equations midterm. I had never scored so low on a test. But afterwards, I still stuck with the field because of the beauty of math and its ability to model physical and engineering phenomena. Now I am able to do PhD-level research at one of the best institutes in the world.”
“It’s scary to fail,” Zhang acknowledges. “You’ll doubt your ability, your worthiness, and your intelligence in confronting it. But failure is no reason to stop trying. Reflect upon the mistakes you made and learn a lesson from them.”
“FAIL! is about being human,” adds Benedetti. “We all need inspiring and realistic role models. By sharing the challenges and vulnerabilities that many people try to hide, our brave speakers are helping to create an environment where students feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their creativity. We believe that FAIL! is providing a model of thoughtfulness and humility, which will inspire attendees to be better leaders.”
Other prominent speakers at the MIT FAIL! Conferences include: Allan Adams, physicist and principal investigator of the Future Ocean Lab at MIT; Amanda Bosh, astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT; Amy Edmonson, professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School; Arthur Bahr, associate professor of literature at MIT; Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT; Mariana Castells, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; Mira Wilczek, president and CEO of Cogo Labs and a senior partner at Link Ventures; Muriel Medard, professor of electrical engineering at MIT; Nuno Loureiro, associate professor of physics at MIT; and Regina Bateson, assistant professor of political science at MIT. Kirsty Bennett, manager of MITell, an on-campus storytelling initiative, hosted the conferences and John Werner, curator of TEDxBeaconStreet, moderated the Q&A session at the fall 2018 conference.
The next FAIL! Conference will take place in fall 2019.
Felice Frankel, an award-winning photographer and a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, has donated nearly 600 images to the MIT Libraries. The images will be housed in Dome, the libraries’ digital collections of images, media, maps, and more built as a companion site to DSpace@MIT.
The photographs were taken during Frankel’s early career as a landscape architecture photographer. Many of the sites captured are iconic in the world of built landscape, such as Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, Richard Haag’s Bloedel Reserve, and Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden.
The idea to share her collection broadly stemmed from conversations Frankel had with library staff about the importance of images and making them accessible. In 2016, Frankel gave a brown bag talk for the libraries’ Program on Information Science, where she argued that images and figures are first-class intellectual objects and should be considered just as important as text in publication, learning, and thinking.
Frankel sees the collection as an educational tool: “The more people see quality, the more they will understand what quality is.”
This visual collection can support teaching and learning in faculty curricula and student research in a variety of disciplines, but can be especially useful in landscape architecture, architecture, and art.
Recently, Frankel has become well-known for a different type of photography: scientific images. Her work was featured alongside that of Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Berenice Abbott in the recent MIT Museum exhibition "Images of Discovery," and her scientific images have been published in numerous articles and publications for general audiences, such as National Geographic, Nature, Science, Newsweek, Scientific American, Discover, and Popular Science. Frankel teaches researchers and others how to create compelling compositions and graphics and communicate complex scientific phenomena. Her book, "Picturing Science and Engineering," which includes a step-by-step guide to creating science images that are both accurate and visually stunning, was published by the MIT Press in 2018.
“The [landscape architecture work] might look disparate from my work now, but it’s all about capturing structured information,” she says. “The scientific images are just as much landscapes. There’s a visual thread throughout the work: a way of composing.”
For Frankel, the photos of built landscapes are about capturing an experience — getting a feel for a place from one small moment. She hopes their availability in Dome will expand access not just for designers or design students but for anyone interested in stunning design: “I’m eager to send it out into the world.”
These are tough times for proponents of arms control and nuclear nonproliferation. Talks with North Korea seem to be at another impasse, and the United States and Russia are walking away from decades-old weapons agreements. But this state of affairs doesn’t seem to faze Mareena Robinson Snowden PhD ’17 in nuclear science and engineering.
“It’s exciting as a researcher to work on something that people are thinking about now, something with real-world implications,” says Snowden. A Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), she is focused on bringing new ideas to the table on nuclear arms control.
“I try to understand how policymakers and negotiators think, explore current nuclear challenges, and then try to evolve technical frameworks to meet the world as it is,” she says.
Snowden’s work is part of a larger CEIP initiative, the “nuclear firewall” project. Through this effort, scholars hope “to distinguish between peaceful nuclear programs and those focused on weapons,” applying both technical and contextual analysis, explains Snowden. CEIP wants to help nations sidestep nuclear crises, and to stem the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states.
Since joining Carnegie last summer, Snowden has been looking especially hard at the question of nuclear verification, a problem that is quite different today than in years past.
With the United States and Russia — established nuclear states — verification frameworks permit reciprocal inspection of nuclear weapons systems. Under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an international agency goes on location to monitor progress on the accumulation of fissile nuclear materials used for bomb building.
But North Korea presents a new, hybrid challenge for verification, according to Snowden. “The U.S. does not consider North Korea a peer nation like Russia, and reciprocal nuclear inspections are not on the table here,” she says. And given North Korea’s sprawling, highly developed, and very secretive nuclear system — from missiles and mobile launchers to warheads and enrichment plants — it seems implausible to establish a framework involving demands for the system’s complete dismantlement, and intrusive visits to ensure compliance with the framework.
So what kind of plan might work for the kind of evolving, emerging nuclear challenge represented by North Korea?
One concept, suggests Snowden, might require “the U.S. government and international community to prioritize what constitutes militarily significant activities within the larger program, and to ask for limits and demonstrations of compliance on just those activities.”
Under “probabilistic verification,” negotiators pose the question, “What’s enough?” says Snowden. They zero in on a cluster of technically critical features whose elimination or destruction would prove sufficient for the purposes of reducing nuclear weapons capability.
But it seems unlikely the current U.S. administration would embrace such a framework. “Today the expectation in the American mind, set by the current commander in chief, is to go big, go for an all-or-nothing deal,” she says. Successful agreements require lengthy negotiations between diplomats, says Snowden, noting it took 10 years to lay the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces pact between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. “One-and-done” — a single nuclear summit between two leaders — is unrealistic, believes Snowden.
Driven to succeed
It took just a single class on the history of nuclear non-proliferation to seize Snowden’s interest as a graduate student.
“I had so many questions: ‘Why were there such tensions between countries? What policies deal with these weapons?’” she says. “There are technical questions at the heart of nuclear disagreements between nations, and for a technical person, this was a clear lane for me,” she says.
Her thesis investigated whether natural radiation signals generated inside of plutonium-based warheads could be using to monitor them in a future arms control agreement.
Conducting this research wasn’t always smooth sailing. But Snowden found guidance and support from two key advisors. “Richard Lanza (a senior research scientist), a titan in the field of radiation detection, spent so much time brainstorming with me, and discussing my data and analysis,” she says. “And with Sidney Yip [emeritus professor of nuclear science and engineering], it went beyond technical mentorship to personal mentorship: He talked about how difficult the PhD process is, and gave me the encouragement to get through it.”
Snowden felt strongly driven to get through her graduate studies, which she describes as “an extended period of uncertainty.” She was the first black woman to receive a PhD from MIT’s nuclear science and engineering program. “I understood I existed in a unique space, and this was a complete motivator for me,” she says. “There was no license to lie down and give up, because who knows when the next person of color, particularly another black woman, will come in behind me.”
Snowden seeks to advance both the community she represents and her ideas in the arms control domain — sometimes simultaneously. In “Responsible Disruption,” a paper she recently published on the website N Square, she argues for greater inclusion of women and other marginalized voices in nuclear security debates.
“For a long time, gender was not considered a valid part of nuclear security discussions, but it’s now becoming a vibrant conversation,” she says. “There are biological impacts related to the ionizing radiation of nuclear weapons that affect women differently, as well as gendered impacts associated with crisis and conflict during and following war.” She also notes that the impacts of most conflicts fall hardest on those pushed to the margins, whether along class, racial, or gender lines. So it is imperative, Snowden says, that “we have different voices at the table, especially when some are starting to entertain the premise of limited nuclear war.”
She sees popular culture as a way to lure interest to arms policy discussions, and to her field more generally. Just as the film and book "Hidden Figures" drew attention to black women in computer science, making the discipline more accessible, she believes that creative storytellers could “dig into the history of the nuclear security space and tell that story in a new way that really connects with people, especially with underrepresented communities,” says Snowden. “We need to reframe who this space belongs to.”
While Snowden might someday delve into such storytelling, she is at full throttle at Carnegie, currently preparing a paper on the necessary evolution of verification.
“I discovered I really love research, so I would like to find a full-time position continuing this work,” she says. “There is a lot of instability now between countries with a history of conflict, which worries me, but I hope I will be able to provide valuable suggestions that will make a useful impact on real-world conversations about nuclear security, and navigate to a future that’s more stable.”
MIT Sloan Fellow James Fok attributes his early interest in science and engineering to spending many of his childhood days in Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport, where his father was a senior air traffic control supervisor.
“He took me to the control tower to see the flights, and I’ve always been fascinated by the question of why, I guess. I always asked my dad ‘Why this? Why that?’ and when I started going to high school, I always had a particular interest in physics and chemistry,” he recalls.
Fok also liked figuring out how things work, so after attending boarding school in the U.K., he went on to major in mechanical engineering at Imperial College. While there, he immersed himself in both basic research and the advent of startup culture.
That combination of engineering and business led Fok to conclude that a lack of financial savvy was impeding the availability of engineering solutions to the general public. “Even with a good idea, very often [scientists are] asking for silly money and no one’s ever going to fund it,” he says. “Just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean you’re going to make money. So I talk to money people, and they don’t know how innovations work, and I talk to scientists and engineers and they don’t know how money works, and it’s just frustrating.”
The realization that Fok could bridge this gap set him on a new path: to “bring engineering to the market by being the financier of it,” he says.
A global perspective
Fok became a citizen of the world at a young age, moving from Hong Kong to the U.K. countryside for boarding school. There, he learned English alongside other students from Turkey, Russia, and Japan. The move to London for college was a more high-spirited global education. “More than any other city in the world, London is so international. The cultural diversity, the ethnic diversity, everything is evident. Different pockets of London have different cultures, are populated by different groups of people,” he says.
After graduating from Imperial, Fok spent time as a certified public accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, an experience that exposed him to an even wider world perspective. So when he was offered an internal position in Bahrain, he didn’t think twice about moving to the Middle East.
“Lo and behold when I got there, it was a completely different experience,” Fok says. “Despite thinking that I had known almost every different culture that I could think of, being embedded in the Middle East, where religion is at the forefront, taught me a cultural sensitivity that I thought I had, but didn’t.” It was a lesson in making space in his mind for a new culture — a lesson that Fok has brought with him to MIT.
FinTech at MIT
Throughout his early career, Fok nurtured his interest in finance with positions in investment companies and startups — particularly those with a technological edge. Financial technology, or fintech, is a specific type of technology that reinvents the ways in which people interact with their finances. Fok believes this creates more freedom in the world, which is the type of solution he is driven to bring about.
“It’s not necessarily hard engineering problems, but very much with the ethos of solving problems to make life a bit better for people,” Fok says. “I see my role as not necessarily the person who does it but very much a part of the team that makes it happen. Given my interest in finances, I was always the person who would try and make the numbers add up. How do we make technology work?”
To Fok, there’s no better place than MIT to merge business with tech. So when he was deciding whether or not to take time out of his career, the Sloan Fellows program — a 12-month, accelerated MBA with a heavy emphasis on teamwork and leadership — made perfect sense.
Rather than asking himself if he could afford to do it, he realized he couldn’t afford not to keep up with rapidly advancing technologies. “New technology has come to the forefront that changed the world: machine learning. Love it or hate it, it’s going to change the world. It’s the same for cryptocurrency. So how often can you take the time to really dive into these topics even as a business person, even as a tech person?” Fok says.
Making the world a smaller place
He has immersed himself in MIT and Cambridge culture in his year at the Institute by living in the Sidney Pacific dormitory, participating on the MIT Driverless team, and spending time near the Charles River. He has also been involved in Sloan Pride and G@MIT, two of MIT’s LGBTQ+ organizations. The supportive environment he’s found at Sloan has allowed him to promote a shared agenda between LGBTQ+ people and allies to broaden diversity and inclusion. It’s a perspective that’s resonated within the Sloan Fellows program.
“To be an ally [means] if you see anything — it doesn’t matter if its anti-LGBT or racist comments — just if you hear it, whether it affects you or not, challenge it and be supportive,” Fok explains. “Whether you have friends in that situation or not, it doesn’t matter. Just be there. And I think that’s one thing that my fellows have been very supportive and proactive in, is just learning how to do that.”
In many ways, Fok feels the Sloan Fellows program is a microcosm of the world, with a rich diversity of cultures and perspectives — and that has made him feel at home. In his program alone, there are 111 Fellows from 40 different countries. The camaraderie among his cohort fosters an appreciation for differences in sexual orientation, race, and nationality. As a world citizen, living far from home, he counts these friends as family. Like he does in his travels, Fok cherishes the differences in perspectives he has gained from his diverse friend group.
“And certainly my friends see a different perspective because of me,” he says. “So I have always strived to see different cultures, and over the years I’ve tried to change from one place to another to try to learn different things. MIT is just the latest chapter of a very long journey.”
After MIT, Fok plans to follow the technologies that he thinks are changing the world, wherever they lead; he doesn’t feel committed to any particular city or country in his career. One reason for that freedom, he notes, is technology itself. In fact, he believes that FinTech helps make the world a smaller place — a place where he, and all of us, can connect internationally with ease.
“Technology has such an incredible way of linking and transforming every part of the globe,” he says.
Researchers at MIT have collaborated with a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia, the University of Maryland, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Google to conduct a multiyear investigation into cold fusion, a type of benign nuclear reaction hypothesized to occur in benchtop apparatus at room temperature.
In 1989, benchtop experiments were reported that raised hopes that cold fusion had been achieved. If true, this form of fusion could potentially be a source of limitless, carbon-free energy. However, researchers were unable to reproduce the results, and serious questions arose about the validity of the work. The topic laid largely dormant for 30 years. (In contrast, research in “hot” fusion has persisted, including the SPARC collaboration, which aims to commercialize fusion technology.)
Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is part of the Google-sponsored team now revisiting the possibility of cold fusion through scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed research. A progress report published today in Nature publicly describes the group’s collaboration for the first time.
The group, which included about 30 graduate students, postdocs, and staff scientists from across the collaborating institutions, has not yet found any evidence of the phenomenon, but they did find important new insights into metal-hydrogen interactions that could affect low-energy nuclear reactions. The team remains excited about investigating this area and hopes their ongoing journey will inspire others in the scientific community to contribute data to this intriguing field.
Q: How did you get involved with a project that many would not consider?
A: Matt Trevithick SB ’92, SM ’94, senior program manager at Google Research, approached me in spring of 2015 and he did so pretty gingerly, kind of poking around the edges at first, and then he popped the question, “What do you think of cold fusion?” And my answer to him was that I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other on the scientific merits, because in 1989, when the cold fusion story broke, I was working all-out on high-temperature superconductivity, which had broken in 1986-87. We were furiously doing research in my lab on that topic, and also had started a company with MIT collaborators. So the cold fusion story came and went, and I was peripherally aware of it.
Then Matt asked if this was something I might be interested in. Google recruited the collaborators on this team not by telling us what they wanted done, but by asking us what we would find interesting to do. We wrote proposals that were internally reviewed. What was interesting to me is the idea that electrochemistry, and especially solid-state electrochemistry, is a very powerful driving force that can create unusual states of matter. We’ve applied that idea to high energy batteries and electrochemical actuators previously, and this was another field in which electrochemical manipulation of matter could be interesting.
This project was carried out in stealth. We didn’t want the fact that Google was funding research in this area to become a distraction. For the first couple of years, we didn’t even tell other members of our group the real reason behind the hydrogen storage experiments going on in the lab!
Ariel Jackson, a postdoc, had a major role in developing the original proposal. Later on, Daniel Rettenwander and Jesse Benck joined as postdocs, and David Young SB ’12, SM ’18 joined as a graduate student. Together, we pursued the idea of using different types of electrolytes, liquid, polymer, and ceramic, as the medium by which to electrochemically pump hydrogen into palladium metal in order to achieve as highly loaded a state as possible. We also developed techniques to measure loading dynamically more precisely and more accurately than had been done before. To date we’ve been able to reach a H:Pd ratio of 0.96, where the theoretical maximum is 1, measured to an uncertainty of + or – 0.02. These results have just been published in Chemistry of Materials, and one measure of the care we went to in this work is the fact that the supplemental information section of the paper is 50 pages long.
Q: What have you learned, and why did the group choose to publish now?
A: The Nature publication makes clear that to date we have not discovered compelling evidence for cold fusion. Our objective was to be scrupulously objective, and I think we have managed to avoid any form of “confirmation bias.” However, we’ve also learned that the high deuterium concentrations hypothesized to be necessary for cold fusion to occur are much more difficult to attain than we would have expected. And, there have been a number of other discoveries that have come about as a result of the group’s work that are applicable in other scientific areas.
Google’s intent from the beginning was to fund a multi-institutional collaborative effort that would work quietly but intensively, then publish its findings in peer-reviewed journals. Now is the right time to disclose that this project exists, to tell people what we have found and not found. We are not finished – in many ways this is just the beginning – and we want others to join the effort to look into the materials science, electrochemistry, and physics surrounding this topic.
Q: What’s next at MIT?
A: The project at MIT goes on, and we are looking to add to the team. What we’ve learned over the past three years has suggested new ways to use electrochemistry and materials science to create highly loaded metal hydrides: palladium for sure, but also other metals. We believe that we have found certain knobs that could allow us to create phase states that have not been accessible before. If we can controllably produce these, they will be very interesting target materials for other experiments within the broader program looking at, for example, neutron yields from deuterium-deuterium fusion in a plasma discharge device at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
Since February, five working groups have been generating ideas about the form and content of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. That includes the Working Group on Social Implications and Responsibilities of Computing, co-chaired by Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and a professor of political science, and Julie Shah, associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and head of the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. MIT News talked to Shah about the group’s progress and goals to this point.
Q: What are the main objectives of this working group?
A: The goals of the working group are to think about how we can weave social and ethical considerations into the fabric of what the college is doing. That includes our educational mission, our research mission, and how we engage externally. The pull for this right now is enormous. We need to deal with these issues, which are very complex. No single person here at MIT has a full handle on the needs of society. A key challenge is to think about how we close that cross-disciplinary gap, to talk with and engage people in different disciplines.
The members of the working group organized ourselves into two subgroups. One focused on undergraduate and graduate education and curriculum. The other was thinking about research and broader external engagement. We did benchmarking of other centers, departments, and units, and examined how they achieved facets of what we would want to achieve here at MIT.
On both the curricular and research sides, the working group coalesced around the vision of being able to make it a habit of mind and a habit of action, for people to be able to analyze both ethical challenges and societal challenges, and then train our students, as well as us, as researchers, to be equally facile at engineering both technical solutions and policy solutions. In the College of Computing, we need to be the catalyst for bringing together the numerous disciplines that have input into these issues. We have great potential to create collaboration.
And we do have growing public discomfort regarding the implications of computation, technology, AI, and machine learning. There are social implications, including economic inequality, lack of diversity and inclusion, and bias in data and systems. Human rights are at issue, as well as potential impacts on the labor market, and issues around trust, transparency, and accountability. This is an important moment.
Q: What are some of the core ideas the working group has actively discussed?
A: In one sense, a longer-term success would be where we train students in a new way, where they move across disciplines and ask questions alongside the development of their technologies. And in terms of curricular innovation, students need a breadth of knowledge. One option is through stand-alone classes: Students take a class on the ethics of technology or a highly relevant class in the social sciences or humanities. But we’ve also looked at models of embedded curriculum, getting students to engage these considerations as they’re studying and developing technology.
On the research side, you have a similar challenge. In regard to both education and research, one takeaway that’s come up over and over in conversation, internally and externally, is that grappling with the social issues is not something that can be done through a sort of service model, where you have one discipline in the service of training computing students and researchers about doing this. The success of this is contingent on learning how to speak the same language across disciplines and creating new educational and research paths together. This needs to be set up as a deep collaboration and a live field of study.
Beyond computer science, we need to understand and leverage the rigor of other disciplines. Each of these different disciplines has different tools, methods, and techniques, and ways of following questions and conducting analysis.
Q: What is the path forward from here?
A: We had extraordinarily strong engagement from the working group, with a lot of enthusiasm and ideas, a lot of thinking through the pros and cons of different mechanisms — everything from students thinking about how to optimize their course loads while wanting to integrate ethical considerations into their research, to faculty who want to be provided the right opportunities to engage in collaboration.
What is special about this effort is that it’s not something where the working group is done, we file our report, and that’s the end. It’s about continual engagement with the community here at MIT, about fostering collaboration. Members of the working group are continually looking for further input and ideas, to build community, and to build cross-disciplinary collaboration. This is a starting point, a set of options and ideas. But finding the right path through needs to be a larger collaborative effort.
Since February, five working groups have been generating ideas about the form and content of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. That includes a Working Group on Faculty Appointments. Its co-chairs are Eran Ben-Joseph, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and William Freeman, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering. MIT News talked to Ben-Joseph and Freeman about the group’s progress and ideas at this point.
Q: What are the major issues your working group was formed to address?
Freeman: It’s a really big opportunity to have this college. And now we have to decide important things, such as: How does the electrical engineering and computer science department (EECS) relate to the new college, and how does the rest of the university relate to it? The big sense I got from our working group is that people really want to be included and don’t want to be left out. How faculty appointments are made is important — to make sure existing faculty are included, and of course that new faculty are included as well.
Ben-Joseph: With the horizontal structure [of the college, which spans MIT], we also want to make sure we are strengthening computation and computer science at MIT and not weakening it. We wish to create a structure that engages everyone across the Institute who’s interested, while maintaining the strength and position of computer science within MIT — you have to strike a balance between what we have, what we want to have, and to include both existing faculty and new faculty, in a way that’s meaningful. That’s what we had the most conversations about. For me our committee was a great example of how we might answer all of this, and figure out new systems because we were diverse, and able to bring to the table different opinions while respecting each others’ positions.
Q: What are some of the specific ideas you addressed — both in terms of hiring and retaining faculty with interdisciplinary interests, and assessing the range of disciplines in which faculty might be hired?
Ben-Joseph: First of all, we were looking at the existing faculty and what might be the relationship between EECS, and other faculty. For example, do all the computer science and EECS faculty automatically become members of the college, even if a department does not move into it?
We also spent a lot of time on the subject of multicommunity faculty, which is our preferred and recommended name for what has been called “bridge faculty.” We want to create an inclusive community [in the college] while understanding that for some faculty, that’s the core of their profession. We spent a lot of time trying to think about how people will be associated with the college if they join from other departments. And with new faculty, particularly junior faculty doing interesting new research and breaking new disciplinary ground, to make sure that there will not be the issue of, where do they belong, who’s mentoring them, what is their path for tenure?
When you look at hires, one scenario could be that a department might initiate a suggestion of a particular hire. So that department would still be the home department, but you might still need two thumbs up — the college would still have a say about the hiring, but really it’s the department that has to take care of the particular individual and their ultimate academic success. One option we considered is if there’s a new faculty hiring, half of the line comes from the department and half comes from the college, so there is a stake for the department to be involved.
Freeman: There is a tension between having a critical mass in some areas and having academic diversity with many different departments participating. One solution the working group proposed was to have intellectual clusters within the college, which would span different departments but develop a critical mass even in some areas you might consider interdisciplinary.
Eran Ben-Joseph: So you could start organizing clusters around different topics, for example a cluster in climate science and climate action. You could be working in computational ecology, or risk and uncertainty, or climate modeling, and AI within the cluster. What will hold it all together is the focus on computation.
Q: What is the path forward, at least in terms of community input?
Freeman: I think we need to present our results, and I think the community needs to read them and comment on them. And we need to listen to that. There are some points when decisions will have to be made, responsively, to the comments of the community.
I’m from computer science, and the new college addresses everyone’s livelihood, so the level of engagement has been extremely high. And outside computer science, the interest is also extremely high, because computing is everywhere, and the college is an opportunity to enhance research and teaching. So, everyone wants to have an opportunity to take part.
Ben-Joseph: We hope people understand these are suggestions, frameworks; it’s a starting point, and hopefully things will evolve. Nobody expects that we will hire 50 faculty tomorrow. It will take a few years. Some of our ideas and proposals may work, but some may not, and hopefully things will change for the better. Also, we should emphasize that there are other teaching faculty at MIT — lecturers, technical instructors, and staff, whom we depend on and who are part of our community. We had less of a chance [in this working group] to address their needs and opportunity for engagement with the college. We must include them as part of the conversation.
In 1984, when the British government was planning to build a flashy modernist addition to the National Gallery in London, Prince Charles offered a dissenting view. The proposed extension, he said, resembled “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” A public controversy ensued, and eventually a more subtle addition was built.
There is more to the story, however. Prince Charles’ public interventions into architecture fell into a legal gray area. Was he improperly trying use the influence of the British monarchy — now meant to be nonpolitical — to affect government policy?
“It’s not quite clear whether Prince Charles was speaking as a private citizen or as a future monarch,” says Timothy Hyde, the Clarence H. Blackall Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture. He adds: “Because of his architectural pronouncements, a series of constitutional debates has emerged about how such opinions should be regulated, or if they should be regulated at all.”
Indeed, Prince Charles’ public tussles over architecture have led to legal battles. In 2015, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that 27 advocacy memos Prince Charles had written to various officials — on architecture, the environment, and other subjects — could not be kept private, meaning the public could scrutinize his activities. And more recently, Prince Charles has vowed not to make similar policy interventions should he become king.
So for Prince Charles, debates over architecture have spilled into questions of political power. But as Hyde explores in a new book, “Ugliness and Judgment: On Architecture in the Public Eye,” published by Princeton University Press, this is hardly unique. In Britain alone, Hyde notes, controversies specifically over the “ugliness” of buildings have shaped matters from libel law to environmental policy.
“Aesthetic arguments about ugliness have often served to tie architectural thinking to other kinds of debates and questions in parallel spheres of social and cultural production — things like science, law, professionalism,” Hyde says. “Debates about ugliness are very easily legible as debates about politics.”
Clearing the air
The impetus for the book, says Hyde, an architectural historian, came partly from the sheer number of people who have commented about “ugly” buildings to him.
“It’s the frequency of that phrase, ‘What an ugly building,’ that really piqued my curiosity about ugliness,” Hyde says.
“Ugliness is an undertheorized dimension of architecture, given how common that critique is,” he adds. “People always think buildings are ugly. Particularly as a historian of modern architecture, I encounter any number of people who say ‘Oh, you’re a modern architectural historian, can you explain, why would an architect ever think to do a building like that?’”
Hyde’s book, however, is not simply about aesthetics. Instead, as he soon noticed, disputes centered around “ugly” buildings have a way of leaping into other domains of life. Consider libel laws. In the first decades of the 19th century, the prominent architect Sir John Soane filed a long series of libel cases against critics, which led to the larger evolution of the law.
“There was a prevailing assumption at the time that a work of architecture, a work of art, a work of literature, was an embodiment of its creator,” Hyde says. A critique of a building, then, could be seen a personal attack on an individual. But as Soane filed one libel cases after another — against people who used terms like “a ridiculous piece of architecture” and “a palpable eyesore” — he lost again and again. A bad review, the legal community decided, was simply that.
“In the cases that John Soane brought for libel, all of which he lost … the modern conception that we have within libel law, of art criticism being a special case, emerged,” Hyde says. “Now what we take for granted, this modern idea that one can criticize a work of architecture or book, without necessarily saying its creator is a bad or immoral person, begins to emerge as a legal concept.”
Or take environmental policy, which gained traction in Britain due to concerns about the aesthetics of the Houses of Parliament. As Hyde details, the 19th century reconstruction of Britain’s Parliament — the old one burned in 1834 — soon became derailed, in the 1840s, by concerns that its limestone was already decaying and becoming ugly.
A formal inquiry by the end of the 1850s concluded that the sulphuric “acid rain” from London’s sooty atmosphere was corroding the city’s buildings — an important step for the incorporation of science into 19th-century policymaking, and a finding that helped usher in Britain’s 1875 Public Health Act, which directly addressed such pollution.
The levers of power
“Ugliness and Judgment” has received praise from other architectural historians. Daniel M. Abramson, a professor of architecture at Boston University, calls it “a superb piece of scholarship, opening up new ways, through the lens of ugliness, to understand and connect a whole range of canonical figures, buildings, and themes.”
To be sure, as Hyde readily notes, the geographic scope of “Ugliness and Judgement” is limited to Britain, and almost exclusively on London architecture. It could well be worthwhile, he notes, to look at controversies over architecture, ugliness, and power in other settings, which might have their own distinctive elements.
Still, he notes, studying Britain alone uncovers a rich history stemming from the notion of “ugliness” by itself.
“Disagreements over questions of ugliness are much more volatile than disagreements over questions of beauty,” Hyde says. When it comes to politics and the law, he observes, “In some sense, beauty doesn’t matter as much. ... The stakes are different.” Few people try to prevent buildings from being built, he notes, if they are merely a bit less beautiful than onlookers had hoped.
Perceptions of ugliness, however, precipitate civic battles.
“It’s a way to look for the levers of power,” Hyde says.
More than 100 approved drugs in the U.S. warn of immune-related side effects on their labels. Countless others never make it onto shelves because of unwanted immune responses that can harm patients and limit the effectiveness of drug candidates.
Most gene therapies, for instance, use viruses to enter a person’s cells and alter their DNA. But those viruses often elicit immune responses that can have unpredictable consequences and, in some cases, eliminate potential benefits associated with the treatment.
Selecta Biosciences is working to overcome those problems with a nanoparticle-based system, called ImmTOR, that has been shown to control human immune responses in preliminary clinical data. The company is pairing its ImmTOR technology with biological drugs that can cause unwanted immune responses, to increase the drugs’ effectiveness and safety.
“Any time you’re faced with giving a drug that could be great but might lead to an immune response that leads to rejection or neutralization, this is a potential way to change that,” says Robert Langer, Selecta co-founder and the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. “Immune responses could be a good thing, but they could also be a bad thing. With Selecta’s platform, you can modulate the immune system, turn it up or down. It would really be the first time you could do that.”
The company’s lead drug candidate, currently in a phase 2 trial with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is aimed at treating a painful inflammatory condition called chronic gout. Beyond that trial, Selecta is focused on enabling the repeated dosing of gene therapies, which it has already accomplished in mice and detailed in a recent Nature Communications paper.
Selecta’s team of researchers has made important progress in advancing the nanoparticle technology since the start of the company in 2008. The foundations of the company, however, were largely laid at MIT.
Tiny particles with massive potential
The science behind Selecta’s ImmTOR technology has its roots in a 1994 paper published by Langer and others in the journal Science. The paper outlined a method for using biodegradable nanoparticles as a vehicle to control the circulation of drugs in the body. Omid Farokhzad MBA ’15 came to Langer’s lab in 2001 as a postdoc and improved the technology’s ability to target specific types of cells. Farokhzad also demonstrated the technology’s potential in a living organism for the first time.
Farokhzad joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School in 2004, where he is currently a professor and the director of the Center for Nanomedicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, but he and Langer have continued collaborating to this day. In 2006, the two researchers published a highly cited paper showing how to use synthesized nanoparticles to deliver drugs to cancer cells.
In 2008, they founded Selecta Biosciences with Harvard immunologist Ulrich von Andrian, after von Andrian and Farokhzad realized it might be possible for the nanoparticles to control the immune system if they had the same shape and size as specific viruses.
The three founders began by working with MIT’s Technology Licensing Office to secure a significant portion of Selecta’s founding intellectual property.
Meanwhile, Langer leveraged his legendary network (nearly 1,000 scientists worldwide have been trained in his laboratory on campus) to help get the company off the ground. To secure seed funding, he turned to two former-students-turned-investors, Polaris Venture Partners managing partner Amir Nashat PhD ’03 and Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87, the founder of investment fund Flagship Pioneering. The founders’ first hire was Lloyd Johnston SM ’92 PhD ’96, who had previously worked for another company founded by Langer.
“I think of these companies as kind of like children growing up,” Langer says. “In the beginning, the first year or two, you help on almost everything, and as the company gets older, they need — and often want — less and less support from you.”
At first, the company worked on developing vaccines by using the nanoparticles to activate the immune system in response to specific antigens. But it later pivoted to use its technology to induce immune tolerance. Farokhzad says tolerance is a much riskier, less explored path, but the rewards can be much higher if drugs earn FDA approval.
Today, Selecta’s team has optimized the nanoparticle technology to encapsulate specific compounds that regulate the immune system, known as “immunomodulators.” The nanoparticles are injected into the body, accumulating in organs where immune responses are coordinated, and delivering the immunomodulator to specialized immune cells. Then the drug is administered. The immunomodulator makes the immune system tolerate the drug, mitigating the formation of antibodies against it and increasing the drug’s effectiveness and safety.
When paired with gene therapies, Selecta’s ImmTOR nanoparticle platform contains rapamycin, an immunomodulator that’s currently approved to prevent organ rejection after kidney transplants. The rapamycin prevents the formation of antibodies that normally attack the virus, allowing the virus to effectively enter cells and edit genes.
The approach is a big upgrade compared to some other immunomodulators, which simply suppress the formation of all immune cells in the body. Farokhzad likens Selecta’s technology to “engineering, or teaching,” the immune system to tolerate specific drugs.
The added sophistication brings a number of advantages. For instance, the immune responses triggered by many gene therapies can cause harm to patients or wipe out the effectiveness of a second dose. In Selecta’s recent Nature Communications paper, the company used ImmTOR to successfully re-administer these gene therapies in animals. Redosing holds particular promise for children who may benefit from continued gene therapy treatment later in life.
Overall, Selecta believes unwanted immune responses are the biggest reason that drug candidates fail. Company officials are hoping their technology can dramatically expand the applications of treatments like gene therapy and lead to better patient outcomes for every drug that’s hampered by immune responses.
Anywhere else, the company’s ambitious goals would stand out. But in the greater Boston area, Selecta is just one of an ever-growing number of biotech companies with a past that can be traced back to MIT and a radical plan to transform the future. Langer doesn’t think the booming biotech sector around MIT is a coincidence.
“MIT has great graduates, and people love to stay around here and see the things they do lead to products,” Langer says. “That’s been great for Selecta and great for Cambridge and it’s why the Boston area is what it is today.”
Voice recognition seems to be an ever-growing part of daily life, as more and more households rely on software like Siri or Alexa to check the weather, turn on the stereo, or look up a recipe for dinner. But what if this software could take on an even greater role? Noopur Ranganathan, a sophomore in biology, is harnessing the power of these digital assistants to improve the lives of deaf-blind individuals halfway around the world. Taking her work from Boston to Chennai, India, Ranganathan’s work empowers those with visual and auditory impairments to take communication into their own hands.
Ranganathan first started working with the visually impaired community as a high school student. “I was involved in a research project that focused on macular degeneration,” she says. “As a part of that research project, I had to go to a visual eye care center and speak with the patients. Ever since then, I’ve been involved with the visually impaired population,” Ranganathan explains.
An active member of her speech and debate club, Ranganathan was also interested in how we communicate, how we speak to each other, and how we can do so more effectively. “One of my best friends had a speech impairment in high school, and I always noticed the difficulties that she went through,” Ranganathan says of her fascination with speech. “And her dad said something that always stuck with me, that in the real world it doesn’t so much matter what you say but how you say it.”
When she came to MIT, she was looking for her passions for communication and accessibility to intersect, which led her to connect with the local Perkins School for the Blind and, later, the National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities (NIEPMD), an Indian government agency providing services to persons with multiple disabilities. “In the fall semester of my freshman year, I contacted NIEPMD and just asked them if it would be OK if I visited the institute over IAP [Independent Activities Period], just to see how the institute runs and what services they provide,” Ranganathan says. “At the time, I didn’t know what my project would be. I was very open-minded about that.”
And so, when she first traveled to Chennai in early 2018, she did so without a personal agenda. It was a trip, first and foremost, to build the context of this community in order to truly understand their needs. Traveling alone, without any external impetus, the experience was a leap of faith of sorts that resulted in the life-changing project Ranganathan would implement almost exactly one year later. “The institute [as suggested in its name] focused on people with multiple disabilities. So, there were some people with speech impairments as well as visual impairments, others with cognitive impairments,” Ranganathan explains of NIEPMD’s work and environment. What truly changed her experience, and ultimately propelled her project moving forward, was a meeting she had with a NIEPMD patient named Miranda, a man who was both deaf and blind.
“My interaction with him was very different from anything I had ever experienced,” Ranganathan explains. “Usually, when communicating with someone, we always take sound into factor. But since he was both deaf and blind, I wasn’t able to speak to him, nor write something on a piece of paper to him.” To communicate, Miranda had a refreshable braille unit that was linked to a simple word document. All you had to do was type out a word or a sentence into the document, and the braille unit would translate what had been written into braille. While simple enough, and effective in exchanging messages, Ranganathan felt uneasy about the whole process.
“There was no sound, no eye contact,” she says of their first meeting. “It seemed very … not human. It seemed totally robotic, and so that’s when I thought about apps like Siri or Alexa. We can speak into a device and these apps can pick up on our voices and translate them into text.” This is where Ranganathan’s IAP 2019 fellowship was truly born; a lightning bolt had struck and she got the idea that she could somehow make communicating with Miranda and his peers, a task that at first glance seemed impossible, seamless. She could make communicating with the deaf-blind community a human act, instead of a robotic one.
“With this project in mind, I applied to the PKG (Priscilla King Gray) Fellowship through ESG [Experimental Study Group]. I got the letter of approval from the community partner [NIEPMD], and over sophomore IAP I was finally able to implement this project,” Ranganathan says, barely able to contain her excitement. The project consisted of implementing a Siri-like software to the patient’s refreshable braille unit, such that speech could be translated into text, and then the text could be translated into braille. Ranganathan envisioned this seamless chain reaction: speech to text, text to braille, which could then be read and understood by the patient — in this case, Miranda. There would be no need for a middleman to type out sentences, to transcribe speech, to record notes from Miranda’s lectures (he is currently working towards his medical doctor degree in special education). With Ranganathan’s software, anyone could speak to him and, with the aid of his refreshable braille unit, he could understand them. The results were outstanding.
“I interviewed his wife and she just burst into tears,” Ranganathan explains. “Before this project, he was very dependent on her for writing emails, and doing his work, and … everything. And she has her own job as well, so she felt like she had a lot on her shoulders. But with this software, he is now empowered to be independent. He can craft his own emails and see Word documents and search the internet and check his own mail.” And so as this project’s coming to fruition has made a notable impact on Ranganathan’s life — the satisfaction and excitement of seeing years of dedication and hard work come to life in real, tangible ways — it has made an even larger impact on the community she has worked so hard to support.
As this project continues to impress, not just within NIEPMD, but also within the Perkins Global Network, earning accolades from organizations in Germany and Japan among others, Ranganathan looks forward to implementing this software on a much larger scale and with even more benefits. The next steps are making the software more adaptable to translation into native languages, as well as adapting the program to be compatible with portable devices like cell phones. While Miranda is currently the only patient with access to this program, Ranganathan hopes to implement this software for others as well. “The first time I spoke with this person, it was shocking and surprising,” she says. “I was not able to speak with him. I had never come across someone like that before. It was something that was really saddening at first, but now … he’s empowered now.” Ranganathan hopes to empower many more, not only by continuing to work with NIEPMD, but also in her more long-term pre-med track towards ocular medicine.
For all of the hype about artificial intelligence (AI), most software is still geared toward engineers. To demystify AI and unlock its benefits, the MIT Quest for Intelligence created the Quest Bridge to bring new intelligence tools and ideas into classrooms, labs, and homes. This spring, more than a dozen Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) students joined the project in its mission to make AI accessible to all. Undergraduates worked on applications designed to teach kids about AI, improve access to AI programs and infrastructure, and harness AI to improve literacy and mental health. Six projects are highlighted here.
Project Athena for cloud computing
Training an AI model often requires remote servers to handle the heavy number-crunching, but getting projects to the cloud and back is no trivial matter. To simplify the process, an undergraduate club called the MIT Machine Intelligence Community (MIC) is building an interface modeled after MIT’s Project Athena, which brought desktop computing to campus in the 1980s.
Amanda Li stumbled on the MIC during orientation last fall. She was looking for computer power to train an AI language model she had built to identify the nationality of non-native English speakers. The club had a bank of cloud credits, she learned, but no practical system for giving them away. A plan to build such a system, tentatively named “Monkey,” quickly took shape.
The system would have to send a student’s training data and AI model to the cloud, put the project in a queue, train the model, and send the finished project back to MIT. It would also have to track individual usage to make sure cloud credits were evenly distributed.
This spring, Monkey became a UROP project, and Li and sophomore Sebastian Rodriguez continued to work on it under the guidance of the Quest Bridge. So far, the students have created four modules in GitHub that will eventually become the foundation for a distributed system.
“The coding isn’t the difficult part,” says Li. “It’s the exploring the server side of machine learning — Docker, Google Cloud, and the API. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to efficiently design and pipeline a project as big as this.”
A launch is expected sometime next year. “This is a huge project, with some timely problems that industry is also trying to address,” says Quest Bridge AI engineer Steven Shriver, who is supervising the project. “I have no doubt the students will figure it out: I’m here to help when they need it.”
An easy-to-use AI program for segmenting images
The ability to divide an image into its component parts underlies more complicated AI tasks like picking out proteins in pictures of microscopic cells, or stress fractures in shattered materials. Although fundamental, image segmentation programs are still hard for non-engineers to navigate. In a project with the Quest Bridge, first-year Marco Fleming helped to build a Jupyter notebook for image segmentation, part of the Quest Bridge’s broader mission to develop a set of AI building blocks that researchers can tailor for specific applications.
Fleming came to the project with self-taught coding skills, but no experience with machine learning, GitHub, or using a command-line interface. Working with Katherine Gallagher, an AI engineer with the Quest Bridge, and a more experienced classmate, Sule Kahraman, Fleming became fluent in convolutional neural networks, the workhorse for many machine vision tasks. “It’s kind of weird,” he explains. “You take a picture and do a lot of math to it, and the machine learns where the edges are.” Bound for a summer internship at Allstate this summer, Fleming says the project gave him a confidence boost.
His participation also benefitted the Quest Bridge, says Gallagher. “We’re developing these notebooks for people like Marco, a freshman with no machine learning experience. Seeing where Marco got tripped up was really valuable.”
An automated image classifier: no coding required
Anyone can build apps that impact the world. That’s the motto of the MIT AppInventor, a programming environment founded by Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Working in Abelson’s lab over Independent Activity Period, sophomore Yuria Utsumi developed a web interface that lets anyone build a deep learning classifier to sort pictures of, say, happy faces and sad faces, or apples and oranges.
In four steps, the Image Classification Explorer lets users label and upload their images to the web, select a customizable model, add testing data, and see the results. Utsumi built the app with a pre-trained classifier that she restructured to learn from a set of new and unfamiliar images. Once users retrain the classifier on the new images, they can upload the model to AppInventor to view it on their smartphones.
In a recent test run of the Explorer app, students at Boston Latin Academy uploaded selfies shot on their laptop webcams and classified their facial expressions. For Utsumi, who picked the project hoping to gain practical web development and programming skills, it was a moment of triumph. “This is the first time I’m solving an algorithms problem in real life!” she says. “It was fun to see the students become more comfortable with machine learning,” she adds. “I’m excited to help expand the platform to teach more concepts.”
Introducing kids to machine-generated art
One of the hottest trends in AI is a new method for creating computer-generated art using generative adversarial networks, or GANs. A pair of neural networks work together to create a photorealistic image while letting the artist add their unique twist. One AI program called GANpaint, developed in the lab of MIT Quest for Intelligence Director Antonio Torralba, lets users add trees, clouds, and doors, among other features, to a set of pre-drawn images.
In a project with the Quest Bridge, sophomore Maya Nigrin is helping to adapt GANpaint to the popular coding platform for kids, Scratch. The work involves training a new GAN on pictures of castles and developing custom Scratch extensions to integrate GANpaint with Scratch. The students are also developing Jupyter notebooks to teach others how to think critically about GANs as the technology makes it easier to make and share doctored images.
A former babysitter and piano teacher who now tutors middle and high school students in computer science, Nigrin says she picked the project for its emphasis on K-12 education. Asked for the most important takeaway, she says: “If you can’t solve the problem, go around it.”
Learning to problem-solve is a key skill for any software engineer, says Gallagher, who supervised the project. “It can be challenging,” she says, “but that’s part of the fun. The students will hopefully come away with a realistic sense of what software development entails.”
A robot that lifts you up when you’re feeling blue
Anxiety and depression are on the rise as more of our time is spent staring at screens. But if technology is the problem, it might also be the answer, according to Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab.
In a new project, Breazeal is rebooting her home robot Jibo as a personal wellness coach. (The MIT spinoff that commercialized Jibo closed last fall, but MIT has a license to use Jibo for applied research). MIT junior Kika Arias spent the last semester helped to design interactions for Jibo to read and respond to people’s moods with personalized bits of advice. If Jibo senses you’re down, for example, it might suggest a “wellness” chat and some positive psychology exercises, like writing down something you feel grateful for.
Jibo the wellness coach will face its first test in a pilot study with MIT students this summer. To get it ready, Arias designed and assembled what she calls a “glorified robot chair,” a portable mount for Jibo and its suite of instruments: a camera, microphone, computer, and tablet. She has translated scripts written for Jibo by a human life coach into his playful but laid-back voice. And she has made a widely used scale for self-reported emotions, which study participants will use to rate their mood, more engaging.
“I’m not a hardcore machine learning, cloud-computing type, but I’ve discovered I’m capable of a lot more than I thought,” she says. “I’ve always felt a strong desire to help people, so when I found this lab, I thought this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
A storytelling robot that helps kids learn to read
Kids who are read-to aloud tend to pick up reading easier, but not all parents themselves know how to read or have time to regularly read stories to their children. What if a home robot could fill in, or even promote higher-quality parent-child reading time?
In the first phase of a larger project, researchers in Breazeal’s lab are recording parents as they read aloud to their children, and are analyzing video, audio, and physiological data from the reading sessions. “These interactions play a big role in a child’s literacy later in life,” says first-year student Shreya Pandit, who worked on the project this semester. “There’s a sharing of emotion, and exchange of questions and answers during the telling of the story.”
These sidebar conversations are critical for learning, says Breazeal. Ideally, the robot is there to strengthen the parent-child bond and provide helpful prompts for both parent and child.
To understand how a robot can augment learning, Pandit has helped to develop parent surveys, run behavioral experiments, analyze data, and integrate multiple data streams. One surprise, she says, has been learning how much work is self-directed: She looks for a problem, researches solutions, and runs them by others in the lab before picking one — for example, an algorithm for splitting audio files based on who’s speaking, or a way of scoring the complexity of the stories being read aloud.
“I try to set goals for myself and report something back after each session,” she says. “It’s cool to look at this data and try to figure out what it can tell us about improving literacy.”
These Quest for Intelligence UROP projects were funded by Eric Schmidt, technical adviser to Alphabet Inc., and his wife, Wendy.
Starting in 2008, as she pursued dual undergraduate degrees in physics, and nuclear science and engineering (NSE), and then a doctorate in health sciences and technology, there has been one constant in Agata Wiśniowska's life: work at MIT's Nuclear Research Laboratory (NRL).
"I've always enjoyed it," says Wiśniowska '11. "The atmosphere at the lab is so nice — it's been comfortable and welcoming, like a refuge."
During her notably venturesome academic journey, Wiśniowska has made the NRL an informal home base. It has served variously as her gateway to the world of nuclear science, a testing ground for technical competence, and a domain for practicing management skills. It has also functioned as a launchpad.
"At the lab, I gained my first supervisory experience," Wiśniowska says. "I learned to deal with different types of people, handle different situations that might arise, and confidently make decisions."
Wiśniowska's connection to the lab began the winter of her freshman year. Newly arrived to MIT from an international baccalaureate program in Poland where she had focused on physics, she was intent, she says, on "choosing as a major something I didn't already know a lot about." After sampling courses, she found nuclear science and engineering (NSE) particularly intriguing. At a departmental open house, she saw an advertisement encouraging students to train as MIT reactor operators.
"Since I was considering nuclear engineering, and I like to learn in depth from basic principles, it made sense to work at the plant and see how it operated from the inside out," she says. "I thought if I wanted to become a nuclear engineer, this would be really helpful."
In addition to an income, the reactor operator job provided unexpected benefits. "Imagine coming from a different country, with English as a second language, and receiving a manual for studying this complex system," says Wiśniowska. "I didn't understand many of the words, so I kept bugging my supervisor to explain by drawing things." While trying to master the technical demands of her job, Wiśniowska made progress in her efforts to become fluent in English.
She also received the deep immersion she sought in nuclear science and engineering. She participated in studies conducted by a range of investigators using the reactor. And several of her NSE classes centered on studies taking place at the reactor, including one involving modeling tritium radiation as it dissipated through the layers of experimental capsule of molten salt coolant.
"I could talk directly to experimenters and gain unique insights while sitting at the console as an operator," she says. "It was fun to be able to work on something very relevant to the reactor lab while also satisfying course work."
Wiśniowska found the NRL life so rewarding that in her sophomore year, she decided to expand her role and train to become a shift supervisor. She vividly recalls some of her experiences early on in this new position.
"My first reactor scram [automatic shutdown] was definitely memorable," she says. "I could hear the intercom announcement that the reactor power was decreasing, realized we had just scrammed, and knew that as supervisor, I'd have to work with the operator to figure out what to do next."
It turned out that this was no emergency, but a run-of-the-mill power dip. For Wiśniowska it was a formative moment in a long learning process. "I had this sense of uncertainty, but realized I could handle it, and later, dealing with these issues became second nature."
A new direction
By the time she reached senior year, though, Wiśniowska began to push at the constraints of her NSE studies. She had become interested in chemistry and biology, and took enough classes to minor in both fields. Medical school seemed like a possibility. For her undergraduate thesis, Wiśniowska found a way to combine her interests, researching proton irradiation therapy for liver cancer patients at Massachusetts General Hospital.
During her thesis work, she learned that the NRL had decades earlier contributed to medical studies, providing neutrons to irradiate patients with brain tumors using a technique called boron neutron capture therapy.
"I became interested in medical applications of nuclear science, but because there was no NSE program that focused on this area to the degree I hoped for, I ended up changing programs," says Wiśniowska. "While sticking with NSE would have been easier, I needed a new challenge, even if it pushed me out of my comfort zone."
Wiśniowska landed at the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). A rigorous course of study, combining medical training at Boston's teaching hospitals with research, HST "felt like a beacon of possibilities," says Wiśniowska.
After doing rotations in different specialties, Wiśniowska knew she wasn't cut out to be a doctor. But she spotted a research area that simultaneously satisfied her desire to stretch herself intellectually and to improve human health: studying the brain using novel imaging techniques.
In the lab of Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering, Wiśniowska has been able to draw on her expertise in a range of fields to develop methods for observing mechanistic molecular events in the brain.
"The research is cutting edge," she says. "We're trying to understand the elusive concept of consciousness from the molecular standpoint, getting at the question by looking at signaling molecules in the living brain."
For her doctoral work, Wiśniowska helped devise an organic sensor — a small protein — that when prompted by its small molecule target in the brain activates receptors on the smooth muscle cells lining blood vessels. This in turn triggers the cells to elongate and increase blood flow to the area, a process called vasodilation. The local increase in blood flow, indicative of detection of the target molecule, can be captured in real-time by molecular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
"This sensor, by tapping into the contrast naturally available in blood vessels, removes the need for metal-based contrast agents normally used in molecular fMRI and allows us to image mechanistically informative molecular events in the brain with an unprecedented degree of sensitivity," says Wiśniowska. It is work that may give scientists a close up view of how neurotransmitters work to inhibit or stimulate regions in the brain.
"For the first time we may really come to understand the underlying processes of the brain, because we are developing tools that can look at the molecular aspects of signaling," she says. "The first application will involve mapping functions and determining normal brain activity, but downstream, it may be possible to diagnose people based on patterns of signaling molecules."
Ready to launch
Although pleased by the fruits of her doctoral labor, Wiśniowska decided to shift gears again. "I have contributed my bit to research, but I'd like to focus now on bringing tools like this to market." She will soon be joining the life sciences division of a consulting company, helping to evaluate and boost new biologics and medical devices.
"It will be exciting to get a sense of the business end of drug discovery, where I hope to leverage my research and insights to help companies make an impact on a range of different conditions," she says.
But even today, as she closes out her academic life at MIT and prepares for the next phase, Wiśniowska is sticking with her regular Sunday double shift (16 hours) at the NRL. "I have found it helpful staying at my desk there, with my tea mug and food supplies, rather than going back to my apartment," she says. "People at the lab motivate me to keep working on my thesis, and I’m more productive."
She also credits the NRL for helping her land her consulting job. "My work as a reactor operator is a great conversation starter in interviews," she says. "But more important, the NRL gave me my first real work experience, showing me that my decisions can have real weight, and how to take responsibility."
For the immediate future, Wiśniowska plans to stay connected. "I will continue to work as a temp and keep my license active," she says. "It's like my second home.
How do you place a value on a single species? What’s the price of an ecosystem’s production or the cost of its loss? Last week, conservation scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services revealed the bottom line of their latest comprehensive United Nations report assessing the global state of nature: We’re facing a biodiversity crisis. Up to 1 million of about 8 million animal and plant species are threatened with the possibility of extinction, many within decades, and the culprit is human activity. The main drivers for this, the researchers point out, are changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms and materials for economic gain, climate change, pollution, and new evolutionary pressures like invasive species and pathogens.
Although the future laid out in the report may seem bleak, and economic and societal growth is at odds with protecting biodiversity, it does highlight some “transformative changes” we can make to mitigate this outcome while vastly improving the well-being of humanity. If we produce and consume natural resources in an equitable and sustainable manner, this “will better support the achievement of future societal and environmental objectives.”
Last week, Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford University and Natural Capital Project co-founder and director, showed attendees of the 17th annual Henry W. Kendall Memorial Lecture how this could be done.
Daily — who briefly worked alongside the late Henry Kendall, the J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics at MIT and an ardent environmentalist — is a pioneer in the fields of conservation biology, ecology, and “countryside biogeography.” Her research elucidates the fates of species and ecosystems in a growing fraction of the Earth’s non-urban lands, which are becoming more strongly influenced by humanity. Through scientific study, Daily attempts to determine which species in a given ecosystem are relatively more important for sustaining the area’s biodiversity, and thus merit protection. She then links the natural services to humanity provided by the conserved biodiversity and incorporates these values into decisions in private practice, development, finance, and public policy.
In short, Daily evaluates the value the environment and its services afford people and then incentivizes them to invest in these, helping to ensure their future and that of the planet.
The foundation of this lies in the argument that ecosystems are treated similarly to a capital asset that retains value. The Earth’s biosphere — land, air, water, and biodiversity — are all part of our life support system, which provides a stream of benefits to the world and people. These include coastal protection, urban cooling, food production and security, flood control, clean water, recreation, and mental health, in addition to climate and energy security.
Reflecting on recent environmental disasters like the California wildfires and flooding in China that are becoming increasingly common, Daily worries about the capacity of ecosystems to continue to provide these benefits in light of dwindling abundance due to human consumption, the expansion of civilization, and anthropogenic causes. We can attribute some of this valuation to our mindset on conservation that tends to fall into one of two camps. There’s the thought that “nature is infinitely valuable and that we shouldn’t be, from a moral perspective, just driving everything to extinction as the dominant species on the planet,” says Daily. “Yet, in decisions, mostly nature comes in at a zero, if it’s not something to be extracted or mined.” This neglects the fact that scarcity conveys a value all its own. “Neither of those extremes has helped informed decisions [on conservation and consumption] in a productive way.”
Daily suggests a compromise: Rather than thinking of the environment as an all-you-can-eat buffet with a one-time, exhaustible set of resources, people need to strike a balance between livelihood and conservation, being mindful of the limited resources, applying restraint when using these them, and investing in these life support systems to maintain them.
Fieldwork, like the kind Daily and her research group conduct, helps researchers understand the interplay between different organisms and the environment, put numbers to these relationships, and establish where to draw the line and the worth of biodiversity. In this way, they can establish “lower-bound” values on the services provided. This new data can then inform and motivate decisions to shift practices and policy, driving “economic dimensions of growth that are important, but at the same time dramatically reducing our impact on the life support systems we depend on truly, so securing human well-being at the same time as security the environment over the long run.”
Promising pathways for green finance
The idea of a field interfacing ecology and economics predates Daily’s research. In 1991, economist Ken Arrow demonstrated how nature behaves like an asset that can be invested in with the current economic system. Since then others have implemented the strategy, joining the growing movement.
Costa Rica led the way as an early adopter. Setting up the first national payment for ecosystem services program, the country went from having the world's highest recorded deforestation rate to net reforestation, which has continued for over 20 years thanks to buy-ins from investors for the first carbon offsets and pharmaceutical groups for biodiversity benefits. This also provided climate stability, water purification, and scenic beauty.
Daily’s own work there helped to elucidate and enumerate the benefits of biodiversity to agriculture, since about a third of our food supply is from pollinated species of crops, and agribusiness drives significant biodiversity loss. To create a “win” for all parties, Daily works to help integrate nature into agricultural practices. Through various studies, her team teased apart intricate ecosystem relationships and the added value they conferred, and found that wildlife-friendly farming yielded more crops and revenue compared to traditional practices — a bright outcome. Other examples included improving New York City watersheds to ensure clean drinking water at a cost cheaper than installing filtration plants. Additionally, there were indirect benefits delivered that the analysis didn’t capture, but further supported justification for green investments.
Daily wants to encourage outcomes like these by systemizing and building a universal approach that replicates and scales cases like these around the world. She’s thinking critically about the barriers to entry and how to overcome them, driving open pathways to green development that provide economic, social, and ecological “wins” for all involved.
Capturing and translating value into winning scenarios
The Natural Capital Project, formed in 2006 with the help of Daily, has been building up these approaches to the scale of cities and even countries. To date it has amassed the involvement of about 50 research institutions and 200-plus implementing institutions globally. To optimize conservation efforts and investments in green capital, the group has developed an open-source, free, data and modeling software platform called InVEST (integrated valuation of environmental services and tradeoffs). The model helps determine what portfolio of investments and interventions can achieve a particular environmental goal under various budgets, as well as positive impacts on human well-being and mental health.
Most countries have taken up the model to some degree and the group is seeing significant results, particularly when it comes to clean water. In Latin America, clean water scarcity is plaguing cities. The group has examined social and data layers related to the watersheds feeding the city of Tulua, Colombia, and found a mixture of funds that have considered protecting forests upstream, reforesting, silvopasture, fencing, and enrichment around streams to help alleviate the problem. The Natural Capital Project has tested this in Africa as well.
China, which has rapidly industrialized and seen incredible pollution, is changing gears to become the ecological civilization for the 21st century. The country is increasingly viewing its natural resources as an asset. “Clear waters and lush mountains are gold and silver,” said Daily, translating the motto of this nationwide initiative. “We will not trade them for gold or silver.”
Over a 10-year period the country zoned about 49 percent of its lands for ecosystem services, vastly improving soil fertility, flood control, sandstorm control, water supply, and biodiversity, all the while paying 200 million people to restore natural capital. Follow-on monitoring studies found it to be a success.
Daily suggests that these cases support the need to move beyond gross domestic product and to consider another metric — gross ecosystem product — when making these decisions, since GDP does not capture the full suite of services provided to humanity. It would better account for ecosystem contributions to the economy and society, guide financial compensation among regions, and evaluate policies and performance of conservation over time.
“The bottom line is that we don’t have much time,” she says, reflecting on Kendall’s comment and noting that there are many opportunities on the horizon to turn this around. “We have a lot of inspiration to look to, and a lot of eager, open-minded and ready-to-run leaders in scaling institutions with whom we can engage.”
The Henry W. Kendall Memorial Lecture Series, which is sponsored by the MIT Center for Global Change Science and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, honors the memory of Professor Henry W. Kendall (1926-1999), who was the J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics at MIT. Kendall received the Nobel Prize in 1990 for research that provided the first experimental evidence for quarks. He had a deep commitment to understanding and finding solutions to the multiple environmental problems facing the world today and in the future. Kendall was a founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and this lecture marked 50th anniversary of the organization. The permanently endowed Kendall Lecture allows MIT faculty and students to be introduced to forefront areas in global change science by leading researchers.
The following is a joint announcement from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the University of Bristol.
Since 2013, annual emissions of a banned chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) have increased by nearly 8,000 tons from eastern China, according to new research published in Nature by an international team of scientists from the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, the United States, Australia, and Switzerland.
Last year it was reported that emissions of one of the most important ozone-depleting substances, CFC-11, had increased. This chemical was used primarily as a foaming agent for building insulation, refrigerators, and other consumer products. The surprise finding indicated that someone, somewhere was likely producing thousands of tons of CFC-11, despite a global phase-out since 2010 under the Montreal Protocol.
“Through global monitoring networks such as the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Global Monitoring Division, scientists have been making measurements of CFCs in the atmosphere for over 40 years,“ says Matt Rigby, a lead author of the study and reader in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Bristol. “In recent decades, we’ve primarily seen declining CFC emissions reflected in these measurements, because of the Montreal Protocol. Therefore, it was unexpected when it was reported last year that, starting around 2013, global emissions of one of the most important CFCs suddenly began to grow.”
This finding was concerning because CFCs are the main culprits in depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Any increase in emissions of CFCs will delay the time it takes for the ozone layer, and the Antarctic ozone “hole,” to recover.
But where were these new emissions coming from? Until now, researchers only had an indication that at least part of the source was located somewhere in eastern Asia.
“Initially our monitoring stations were set up in remote locations, far from potential sources,” says Ronald Prinn, co-author of the study, leader of the AGAGE network, and professor of atmospheric science and co-director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “This was because we were interested in collecting air samples that were representative of the background atmosphere, so that we could monitor global changes in concentration and determine their atmospheric lifetimes.”
To better pinpoint emissions sources, more recent measurement stations have been located closer to industrialized regions. In this case, the clue to the location of the new CFC-11 emissions came from an AGAGE station in South Korea and an AGAGE-affiliated station run by the National Institute of Environmental Studies (NIES) in Japan.
Professor Sunyoung Park from Kyungpook National University in South Korea, a lead author on the study, who runs the South Korean Gosan measurement station, explains: “Our measurements show ‘spikes’ in pollution, when air arrives from industrialized areas. For CFC-11, we noticed that the magnitude of these spikes increased after 2012, indicating that emissions must have grown from somewhere in the region.”
Similar signals had also been noticed at the NIES station on the Japanese island of Hateruma, close to Taiwan. To establish which countries were responsible for the growing pollution levels at these stations, an international team of modeling groups at University of Bristol, the U.K. Met Office, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, and MIT ran sophisticated computer simulations that determined the origin of the polluted air samples.
“From the atmospheric observation data of CFC-11 at the Korean and Japanese stations and models, we found that emissions of CFC-11 from eastern China had increased by around 7,700 tons per year after 2013 — primarily around the northeastern provinces of Shandong and Hebei — while no evidence of increasing emissions had been found for Japan and the Korean peninsula in that period,” says Xuekun Fang, a lead author on the study and a postdoc at MIT.
To investigate the possibility that the new emissions from China could be the result of a release to the atmosphere of CFC-11 that was produced before the ban, the team considered a range of possibilities. CFC-11 was used primarily in foam blowing, so researchers looked at estimates of the amount of CFC-11 that could be locked up in insulating foams in buildings or refrigerators made before 2010, but the quantities were far too small to explain the recent rise.
“The most likely explanation is that new production has taken place, at least prior to the end of 2017, which is the period covered in our work,” says Rigby.
While the study has identified a substantial fraction of the global emissions rise, it is possible that smaller increases have also taken place in other countries, or even in other parts of China. According to Park, the Korean and Japanese measurements are sensitive only to the eastern part of China, western Japan, and the Korean peninsula; the remainder of the AGAGE network sees parts of North America, Europe, and southern Australia. Thus there are large swathes of the world for which there is very little detailed information on the emissions of ozone-depleting substances.
Nevertheless, this study “represents an important and particularly policy-relevant milestone in atmospheric scientists’ ability to tell which regions are emitting ozone-depleting substances, greenhouse gases, or other chemicals, and in what quantities,” says Professor Ray Weiss, a geochemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and study co-author.
Rigby stresses the urgent need to identify which industries are responsible for the new emissions.
“If the emissions are due to the manufacture and use of products such as foams, it is possible that we have only seen part of the total amount of CFC-11 that was produced,” he says. “The remainder could be locked up in buildings and chillers and will ultimately be released to the atmosphere over the coming decades.”
Previous reports by the Environmental Investigation Agency and The New York Times had suggested that Chinese foam manufacturers were using CFC-11 after the global ban, and Chinese authorities have identified and closed down some illegal production facilities.
While this new study cannot determine which industry or industries are responsible, it provides a clear indication of large increases in emissions of CFC-11 from China in recent years. These increases, likely from new production, account for a substantial fraction of the concurrent global emission rise.
With aims of bringing more human-like reasoning to autonomous vehicles, MIT researchers have created a system that uses only simple maps and visual data to enable driverless cars to navigate routes in new, complex environments.
Human drivers are exceptionally good at navigating roads they haven’t driven on before, using observation and simple tools. We simply match what we see around us to what we see on our GPS devices to determine where we are and where we need to go. Driverless cars, however, struggle with this basic reasoning. In every new area, the cars must first map and analyze all the new roads, which is very time consuming. The systems also rely on complex maps — usually generated by 3-D scans — which are computationally intensive to generate and process on the fly.
In a paper being presented at this week’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation, MIT researchers describe an autonomous control system that “learns” the steering patterns of human drivers as they navigate roads in a small area, using only data from video camera feeds and a simple GPS-like map. Then, the trained system can control a driverless car along a planned route in a brand-new area, by imitating the human driver.
Similarly to human drivers, the system also detects any mismatches between its map and features of the road. This helps the system determine if its position, sensors, or mapping are incorrect, in order to correct the car’s course.
To train the system initially, a human operator controlled an automated Toyota Prius — equipped with several cameras and a basic GPS navigation system — to collect data from local suburban streets including various road structures and obstacles. When deployed autonomously, the system successfully navigated the car along a preplanned path in a different forested area, designated for autonomous vehicle tests.
“With our system, you don’t need to train on every road beforehand,” says first author Alexander Amini, an MIT graduate student. “You can download a new map for the car to navigate through roads it has never seen before.”
“Our objective is to achieve autonomous navigation that is robust for driving in new environments,” adds co-author Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “For example, if we train an autonomous vehicle to drive in an urban setting such as the streets of Cambridge, the system should also be able to drive smoothly in the woods, even if that is an environment it has never seen before.”
Joining Rus and Amini on the paper are Guy Rosman, a researcher at the Toyota Research Institute, and Sertac Karaman, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
Traditional navigation systems process data from sensors through multiple modules customized for tasks such as localization, mapping, object detection, motion planning, and steering control. For years, Rus’s group has been developing “end-to-end” navigation systems, which process inputted sensory data and output steering commands, without a need for any specialized modules.
Until now, however, these models were strictly designed to safely follow the road, without any real destination in mind. In the new paper, the researchers advanced their end-to-end system to drive from goal to destination, in a previously unseen environment. To do so, the researchers trained their system to predict a full probability distribution over all possible steering commands at any given instant while driving.
The system uses a machine learning model called a convolutional neural network (CNN), commonly used for image recognition. During training, the system watches and learns how to steer from a human driver. The CNN correlates steering wheel rotations to road curvatures it observes through cameras and an inputted map. Eventually, it learns the most likely steering command for various driving situations, such as straight roads, four-way or T-shaped intersections, forks, and rotaries.
“Initially, at a T-shaped intersection, there are many different directions the car could turn,” Rus says. “The model starts by thinking about all those directions, but as it sees more and more data about what people do, it will see that some people turn left and some turn right, but nobody goes straight. Straight ahead is ruled out as a possible direction, and the model learns that, at T-shaped intersections, it can only move left or right.”
What does the map say?
In testing, the researchers input the system with a map with a randomly chosen route. When driving, the system extracts visual features from the camera, which enables it to predict road structures. For instance, it identifies a distant stop sign or line breaks on the side of the road as signs of an upcoming intersection. At each moment, it uses its predicted probability distribution of steering commands to choose the most likely one to follow its route.
Importantly, the researchers say, the system uses maps that are easy to store and process. Autonomous control systems typically use LIDAR scans to create massive, complex maps that take roughly 4,000 gigabytes (4 terabytes) of data to store just the city of San Francisco. For every new destination, the car must create new maps, which amounts to tons of data processing. Maps used by the researchers’ system, however, captures the entire world using just 40 gigabytes of data.
During autonomous driving, the system also continuously matches its visual data to the map data and notes any mismatches. Doing so helps the autonomous vehicle better determine where it is located on the road. And it ensures the car stays on the safest path if it’s being fed contradictory input information: If, say, the car is cruising on a straight road with no turns, and the GPS indicates the car must turn right, the car will know to keep driving straight or to stop.
“In the real world, sensors do fail,” Amini says. “We want to make sure that the system is robust to different failures of different sensors by building a system that can accept these noisy inputs and still navigate and localize itself correctly on the road.”
On May 13, over 300 members of the MIT community gathered in the Samberg Center (E52) to celebrate outstanding achievements by students, student groups, faculty, and community members at the annual MIT Awards Convocation. In total, more than 60 awardees were honored for their accomplishments in leadership, academics and teaching, public service, athletics, the arts, and service to MIT.
In a video message to attendees, MIT President L. Rafael Reif commended all award recipients for playing a role in shaping the Institute community. ”MIT draws great strength from talented, creative, dedicated individuals in every corner of our campus. Today we say thank you for all you do to make MIT so special.”
The nomination process for the 30-plus awards begins in early February and lasts several weeks into the spring semester. Winners are selected by committees convened for each award. This year, MIT community members submitted over 500 nominations across all award categories.
Although the nearly 21 million miles of paved roads around the globe appear static, their environmental footprints are anything but set.
When studying all stages of a road’s life using a technique called pavement life-cycle assessment, it becomes clear that a pavement’s environmental impact doesn't end with construction. In fact, there are significant emissions associated with a pavement during its operational life, also known as its use phase.
Several factors, like the pavement quality’s impact on fuel efficiency, lighting, and its ability to absorb carbon dioxide through carbonation all contribute to this footprint. What’s more, these factors can vary depending on the pavement’s context, which includes the climate and the amount of traffic. This can make a pavement’s use phase impacts difficult to calculate.
In a paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, researchers at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) examine the use phase of pavements and calculate the influence of context on their environmental footprint. Their work finds that the use phase is highly context-dependent.
Where the rubber meets the road
Although the use phase can have a sizable environmental footprint, decisions made before a pavement is even constructed can influence the size of that footprint.
“It turns out that the design and maintenance of pavements indirectly impact the environment,” explains Jeremy Gregory, CSHub executive director and an author of the recent paper. “Some of these impacts include the way that pavements impact climate through their reflectivity, through the absorption of carbon dioxide over time through the paving materials, and by how they affect the fuel consumption of the vehicles that drive on them.”
This latter effect, called pavement-vehicle interaction (PVI), causes excess fuel consumption and is one of the greatest contributors to use-phase pavement emissions.
As its name suggests, PVI refers to the interaction between a vehicle’s tires and the road it drives upon. It is a multifaceted phenomenon.
The first, and most apparent, aspect of PVI is roughness, which refers to irregularities in the surface of the pavement. In addition to affecting ride comfort, roughness can have a significant effect on fuel consumption.
“The rougher a pavement is, the more energy dissipation there is in the shock absorber system of a vehicle,” explains Gregory. “A vehicle must then consume more fuel to overcome this additional energy dissipation. We refer to this as excess fuel consumption.”
Along with roughness, the second aspect of PVI is deflection. “Deflection has to do with very heavy vehicles, primarily trucks,” notes Gregory. “The weight of a truck makes a small indentation in the pavement so that the vehicle is always driving up a very shallow hill. Like roughness, deflection also causes excess fuel consumption.”
Since excess fuel consumption only decreases fuel economy by a few percentage points, it isn’t that noticeable to the average driver. But when factoring in the often thousands of vehicles that drive across a stretch of pavement every single day, these few percentage points add up. In the case of California, excess fuel consumption on highways totaled 1 billion gallons over five years.
While roughness and deflection contribute significantly to use-phase environmental impacts, another factor is also in play — a pavement’s context.
“When we look at the overall life cycle assessment of pavements, we find that the results are very context dependent,” says Gregory. “The context includes the climate the pavement exists in, the amount of traffic for that pavement, the type of pavement design, and also the maintenance and rehabilitation schedule that’s planned for that pavement in the future. All of those factors will combine to determine the environmental impact of a pavement.”
The authors of the paper selected nine different scenarios to study the impacts of these context-specific conditions. They analyzed pavements in four U.S. states with different climates — Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida. Within each climate zone, they then looked at roads with different traffic levels.
After studying the data, they found that traffic was the most significant factor affecting pavement environmental impacts.
“It turns out that for pavements with really high traffic loads, a much bigger fraction of their overall environmental impact is associated with the use phase and the excess fuel consumption of vehicles,” explains Gregory.
For example, interstates, which have the most traffic, also had the greatest use-phase impacts — as much as 78 percent of total life cycle impacts.
“On the other hand, for pavements that have much fewer vehicles that travel on them, most of the environmental impact is associated with the materials and construction,” reports Gregory. These kinds of less-trafficked roads, like state and rural highways, displayed lower use-phase impacts of 38 percent and 37 percent, respectively.
In addition to traffic, the design and maintenance of a pavement also influence its environmental footprint.
For example, since interstates see a lot of passenger vehicle traffic, the roughness of their pavements is their primary source of excess fuel consumption. If not regularly maintained, an interstate’s roughness might increase, leading to greater excess fuel consumption.
Since truck traffic is higher on rural and state highways than on interstates, the deflection of those pavements may have a greater impact on excess fuel consumption than roughness. To mitigate the effects of deflection, the pavement must be designed to be stiff enough to withstand a truck’s weight.
Climate also affects the environmental footprint of a pavement’s use phase. In colder climates, some pavements can deteriorate more quickly due to freeze-thaw damage, and therefore can have higher roughness. This increases the excess fuel consumption of vehicles on these pavements in cold climates.
In warmer climates, pavements made with petroleum-based materials deform more easily, which increases their susceptibility to deflection. In turn, trucks driving on these pavements in warm climates have greater excess fuel consumption.
Ultimately, this recent paper shows just how many contextual factors must be considered during a pavement’s use phase in order to make it as sustainable as possible. “It’s important to not assume any environmental impact for any given context,” explains Gregory. “You really have to run the numbers.”
The MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub is a team of researchers from several departments across MIT working on concrete and infrastructure science, engineering, and economics. Its research is supported by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation.
More than 550 leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs convened on MIT’s campus May 7-9 for Solve at MIT, Solve’s annual flagship meeting. Attendees traveled from more than 28 countries to connect with Solver teams, discuss new ideas, and advance solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The event featured five inspiring plenary sessions with visionary speakers such as Alaa Murabit, high-level commissioner of health employment and economic growth at the United Nations; Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation; and Tristan Harris, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology.
Members of the Solve community — including leaders from Oxfam, Starbucks, and the World Bank Group — met 40 Solver and Fellow teams and, through intimate working group sessions, advised these entrepreneurs and built partnerships to scale their solutions.
In addition to advising 2018 Solver teams, attendees also brainstormed ideas to address Solve’s 2019 Global Challenges: Circular Economy, Community-Driven Innovation, Early Childhood Development, and Healthy Cities.
Alex Amouyel, Solve’s executive director, announced a prize pool of $1.5 million in funding for selected solutions to these new challenges. Prize funders include General Motors, Vodafone America, and the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Amouyel reminded the Solve community that “our brightest future lies in the use of technology to make the world a better place” and encouraged innovators around the world to submit their solutions.
During the event, Solve also announced the launch of the Solve Innovation Fund, a philanthropic venture fund that will direct catalytic investments in early-stage entrepreneurs solving global challenges. The fund will raise $30 million over time from philanthropic donors who can contribute through tax-deductible gifts to MIT.
Noubar Afeyan, founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering and MIT Corporation member, committed up to $3 million as the fund’s founding anchor donor. “It's highly unlikely that a reasonable idea is going to change the world,” says Afeyan. “You have to find a way to persist until the world considers it reasonable."
In the opening plenary, “Tech for Equality,” speakers discussed how to leverage local innovation to design and deploy technology that addresses inequality. "We would be remiss to talk about tech for equality without talking about power,” says Murabit.
“Oftentimes the tech is imported … If the people who are most impacted by the solution are not the first people at the table, if they are not architecting the solution, then the solution will simply not work."
Panelists in the “Innovation for and by Women” session debated various forms of gender inequality — from the gender data gap to sexism in the workplace to unequal access to financial tools.
In reflecting on her own career, Crate and Barrel CEO Neela Montgomery said, “It's critical for women who are making career choices to ask: 'Does the data match the rhetoric? Are they really committed to letting me to be my best self?' There's such a war for talent. You have the power now to really drive cultures to change."
Discussions during the “Diving into Data for Good” session examined the incongruous nature of technology, data, and society. "We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology,” says Harris.
“YouTube has hired 10,000 content moderators to say they're going to block the bad pieces of conspiracy-theory videos. But how many engineers at YouTube speak the 22 languages of India, where there's a key election coming up? Are these really neutral tools, or is technology controlling the pen of history and tilting the playing field?"
Uplifting conversations in the “Investing in Refugees and Immigrant Entrepreneurs” session highlighted the critical importance of providing opportunities to unlock the potential of refugees and immigrants.
"The immigration experience is itself an entrepreneurial edge: a self-selected group of people that's ready to brave a new culture, a new role outside their comfort zone,” says Eveline Buchatskiy, managing partner of One Way Ventures. “So what you expect from them is the grit, the determination, and the ability to cope with change.”
In the closing plenary, “Science or Fiction — Creating the Future,” a diverse array of speakers — science fiction writers, a futurist, inventors, a philanthropist, and an academic — imagined the future of our world and debated the ways in which tech will impact society.
“I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with how we have hardened the borders of statehood. Historically we have been so accustomed to moving about, and that's how we became who we are. I am looking at a manuscript now where there’s an imperative to drop statehood and become citizens of Earth before we can participate in a higher government, which will be galactic,” says writer Karen Lord. “I wonder what would push us to that point and how we could accomplish it.”