MIT News - Profile MIT News is dedicated to communicating to the media and the public the news and achievements of the students, faculty, staff and the greater MIT community. en Sat, 07 Mar 2020 23:59:59 -0500 “Doing machine learning the right way” Professor Aleksander Madry strives to build machine-learning models that are more reliable, understandable, and robust. Sat, 07 Mar 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>The work of MIT computer scientist Aleksander Madry is fueled by one core mission: “doing machine learning the right way.”</p> <p>Madry’s research centers largely on making machine learning — a type of artificial intelligence — more accurate, efficient, and robust against errors. In his classroom and beyond, he also worries about questions of ethical computing, as we approach an age where artificial intelligence will have great impact on many sectors of society.</p> <p>“I want society to truly embrace machine learning,” says Madry, a recently tenured professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “To do that, we need to figure out how to train models that people can use safely, reliably, and in a way that they understand.”</p> <p>Interestingly, his work with machine learning dates back only a couple of years, to shortly after he joined MIT in 2015. In that time, his research group has published several critical papers demonstrating that certain models can be easily tricked to produce inaccurate results — and showing how to make them more robust.</p> <p>In the end, he aims to make each model’s decisions more interpretable by humans, so researchers can peer inside to see where things went awry. At the same time, he wants to enable nonexperts to deploy the improved models in the real world for, say, helping diagnose disease or control driverless cars.</p> <p>“It’s not just about trying to crack open the machine-learning black box. I want to open it up, see how it works, and pack it back up, so people can use it without needing to understand what’s going on inside,” he says.</p> <p><strong>For the love of algorithms</strong></p> <p>Madry was born in Wroclaw, Poland, where he attended the University of Wroclaw as an undergraduate in the mid-2000s. While he harbored interest in computer science and physics, “I actually never thought I’d become a scientist,” he says.</p> <p>An avid video gamer, Madry initially enrolled in the computer science program with intentions of programming his own games. But in joining friends in a few classes in theoretical computer science and, in particular, theory of algorithms, he fell in love with the material. Algorithm theory aims to find efficient optimization procedures for solving computational problems, which requires tackling difficult mathematical questions. “I realized I enjoy thinking deeply about something and trying to figure it out,” says Madry, who wound up double-majoring in physics and computer science.</p> <p>When it came to delving deeper into algorithms in graduate school, he went to his first choice: MIT. Here, he worked under both Michel X. Goemans, who was a major figure in applied math and algorithm optimization, and Jonathan A. Kelner, who had just arrived to MIT as a junior faculty working in that field. For his PhD dissertation, Madry developed algorithms that solved a number of longstanding problems in graph algorithms, earning the 2011 George M. Sprowls Doctoral Dissertation Award for the best MIT doctoral thesis in computer science.</p> <p>After his PhD, Madry spent a year as a postdoc at Microsoft Research New England, before teaching for three years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne — which Madry calls “the Swiss version of MIT.” But his alma mater kept calling him back: “MIT has the thrilling energy I was missing. It’s in my DNA.”</p> <p><strong>Getting adversarial</strong></p> <p>Shortly after joining MIT, Madry found himself swept up in a novel science: machine learning. In particular, he focused on understanding the re-emerging paradigm of deep learning. That’s an artificial-intelligence application that uses multiple computing layers to extract high-level features from raw input — such as using pixel-level data to classify images. MIT’s campus was, at the time, buzzing with new innovations in the domain.</p> <p>But that begged the question: Was machine learning all hype or solid science? “It seemed to work, but no one actually understood how and why,” Madry says.</p> <p>Answering that question set his group on a long journey, running experiment after experiment on deep-learning models to understand the underlying principles. A major milestone in this journey was an influential paper they published in 2018, developing a methodology for making machine-learning models more resistant to “adversarial examples.” Adversarial examples are slight perturbations to input data that are imperceptible to humans — such as changing the color of one pixel in an image — but cause a model to make inaccurate predictions. They illuminate a major shortcoming of existing machine-learning tools.</p> <p>Continuing this line of work, Madry’s group showed that the existence of these mysterious adversarial examples may contribute to how machine-learning models make decisions. In particular, models designed to differentiate images of, say, cats and dogs, make decisions based on features that do not align with how humans make classifications. Simply changing these features can make the model consistently misclassify cats as dogs, without changing anything in the image that’s really meaningful to humans.</p> <p>Results indicated some models — which may be used to, say, identify abnormalities in medical images or help autonomous cars identify objects in the road —&nbsp;aren’t exactly up to snuff. “People often think these models are superhuman, but they didn’t actually solve the classification problem we intend them to solve,” Madry says. “And their complete vulnerability to adversarial examples was a manifestation of that fact. That was an eye-opening finding.”</p> <p>That’s why Madry seeks to make machine-learning models more interpretable to humans. New models he’s developed show how much certain pixels in images the system is trained on can influence the system’s predictions. Researchers can then tweak the models to focus on pixels clusters more closely correlated with identifiable features — such as detecting an animal’s snout, ears, and tail. In the end, that will help make the models more humanlike —&nbsp;or “superhumanlike” —&nbsp;in their decisions. To further this work, Madry and his colleagues recently founded the <a href="">MIT Center for Deployable Machine Learning</a>, a collaborative research effort within the <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Quest for Intelligence</a> that is working toward building machine-learning tools ready for real-world deployment.&nbsp;</p> <p>“We want machine learning not just as a toy, but as something you can use in, say, an autonomous car, or health care. Right now, we don’t understand enough to have sufficient confidence in it for those critical applications,” Madry says.</p> <p><strong>Shaping education and policy</strong></p> <p>Madry views artificial intelligence and decision making (“AI+D” is one of the three <a href="">new academic units</a> in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) as “the interface of computing that’s going to have the biggest impact on society.”</p> <p>In that regard, he makes sure to expose his students to the human aspect of computing. In part, that means considering consequences of what they’re building. Often, he says, students will be overly ambitious in creating new technologies, but they haven’t thought through potential ramifications on individuals and society. “Building something cool isn’t a good enough reason to build something,” Madry says. “It’s about thinking about not if we can build something, but if we should build something.”</p> <p>Madry has also been engaging in conversations about laws and policies to help regulate machine learning. A point of these discussions, he says, is to better understand the costs and benefits of unleashing machine-learning technologies on society.</p> <p>“Sometimes we overestimate the power of machine learning, thinking it will be our salvation. Sometimes we underestimate the cost it may have on society,” Madry says. “To do machine learning right, there’s still a lot still left to figure out.”</p> Alexander MadryImage: Ian MacLellanComputer science and technology, Algorithms, Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Computer vision, Technology and society, Faculty, Profile, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering, MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Quest for Intelligence MIT senior Christine Soh integrates computer science and linguistics Knowledge in both a technical and humanistic field prepares her to make new tools in computational linguistics. Thu, 05 Mar 2020 14:50:01 -0500 School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences <p>Christine Soh fell in love with MIT the summer before her senior year of high school while attending the Women’s Technology Program run by MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. That’s when she discovered that learning to program in Python is just like learning a new language — and Soh loves languages.<br /> <br /> Growing up in Colorado, Soh spoke both English and Korean; she learned French and Latin in school. This June, Soh will graduate from MIT, where she has happily combined her passions by majoring in computer science and engineering (Course 6-3) and linguistics (Course 24). She plans to begin working toward a PhD in linguistics next year.<br /> <br /> With fluency in both technical and humanistic modes of thinking, Soh exemplifies a "bilingual" perspective. "Dual competence is a good model for undergraduates at MIT," says engineer/historian David Mindell, who encourages MIT students to "master two fundamental ways of thinking about the world, one technical and one humanistic or social. Sometimes these two modes will be at odds with each other, which raises critical questions. Other times they will be synergistic and energizing."<br /> &nbsp;<br /> <strong>The challenge of natural language and computation</strong><br /> <br /> “The really cool thing about language is that it’s universal,” says Soh, who has added ancient Greek, Chinese, and the programming language Java to her credits since that summer. “I can have a really interesting conversation with anybody, even if they don’t have a linguistics background, because everyone has experience with language.”<br /> <br /> That said, natural language is difficult for computers to comprehend — something Soh finds fascinating. “It’s really interesting to think about how we understand language,” she says. “How is it that computers have such a hard time understanding what we find so easy?”<br /> <br /> <strong>Tools from computational linguistics to improve speech</strong><br /> <br /> Pairing linguistics with computer science has allowed Soh to explore cutting-edge research combining the two disciplines. Thanks to MIT’s Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Soh got the chance to explore whether speech analysis software can be used as a tool for the clinical diagnosis of speech impairments.</p> <p>“It’s very difficult to correctly diagnose a child because a speech impairment can be caused by a ton of different things,” says Soh. Working with the Speech Communication Group in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, Soh has been developing a tool that can listen to a child’s speech and extract linguistic information, such where in the mouth the sound was produced, thus identifying modifications from the proper formation of the word. “We can then use computational techniques to see if there are patterns to the modifications that have been made and see if these patterns can distinguish one underlying condition from another.”<br /> <br /> <strong>A natural leader</strong></p> <p>Even if the team isn’t able to find such patterns, Soh says the tool could be used by speech pathologists to learn more about what linguistic modifications a child might need to make to improve speech. In December, Soh presented a poster on this work at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and was honored with a first-place prize in her category (signal processing in acoustics).<br /> <br /> Exploring such real-world applications for computational linguistics helped inspire Soh to apply to doctoral programs in linguistics for next year. “I’ll be doing research that will be integrating computer science and linguistics,” she says, noting that possible applications of computational linguistics include working to improve speech-recognition software or to make machine-produced speech sound more natural. “I look forward to using the knowledge and skills I’ve learned at MIT in doing that research.”<br /> <br /> “Christine’s unique interests,&nbsp;energy, and deep interests in both linguistics and computer science should enable her to accomplish great things,” says Suzanne Flynn, a professor of linguistics who has had Soh as a student. “She is a natural leader.”<br /> &nbsp;<br /> <strong>From field methods to neurolinguistics</strong><br /> <br /> Looking back at her time at MIT, Soh recalls particularly enjoying two linguistics classes: 24.909 (Field Methods in Linguistics) which explores the structure of an unfamiliar language through direct work with a native speaker (in Soh’s year, the class centered on Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania), and 24.906 (The Linguistic Study of Bilingualism).<br /> <br /> In the latter class, Soh says, “We looked at neurolinguistics, what’s happening in the brain as the bilingual brain developed. We looked at topics in sociolinguistics: In communities that are bilingual, like Quebec, what kind of impact does it have on society, such as how schools are run? … We got to see a spectrum of linguistics. It was really cool.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Building community at MIT</strong><br /> <br /> Outside class, Soh says she found community at MIT through the Asian Christian Fellowship and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which she served last year as vice president of membership. “SWE has also been a really awesome community and has opened up opportunities for conversation about what it means to be a woman engineer,” she says.<br /> <br /> Interestingly, Soh almost didn’t apply to MIT at all, simply because her brother was already at the Institute. (Albert Soh ’18 is now a high school teacher of math and physics.) Fortunately, the Women’s Technology Program changed her mind, and as she nears graduation, Soh says, "MIT has been absolutely fantastic.”<br /> &nbsp;</p> <h5><em>Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications<br /> Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand<br /> Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill</em><br /> &nbsp;</h5> Potential applications of Soh's work in computational linguistics include improving speech recognition software and making machine-produced speech sound more natural.Photo: Jon Sachs/MIT SHASS Communications School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), SuperUROP, Research Laboratory of Electronics, computer science, Linguistics, Students, Profile, Women in STEM, School of Engineering, MIT Schwarzman College of Computing Answering “Why?” MLK Visiting Scholar Benjamin McDonald uses synthetic organic chemistry in the Swager lab to answer questions with more questions. Mon, 02 Mar 2020 13:00:01 -0500 Fernanda Ferreira | School of Science <p>Everyone knows a kid who constantly asks, “Why?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do people have teeth?” “Why are hurricanes given names?” According to Benjamin McDonald, he was that kid. “I kept asking ‘Why?’ to the point of exasperation on the part of my parents,” he says. Because McDonald always wanted to get to the root of things, each answer was met with another “why” question. “I saw science as a clear mechanism for trying to answer some of those questions,” he explains.</p> <p>Currently, McDonald is a postdoc and the self-described “regular old organic chemist learning new tricks and new questions” in Professor Tim Swager’s lab. The Swager lab uses concepts from basic chemistry to create new applications such as materials that react to different chemicals. This has led McDonald to flip the question from “Why?” to “Why not?” He’s still interested in why substances behave as they do, but he has also begun tinkering with these substances. Specifically, he’s modifying polymers to give them new applications.</p> <p><strong>The language of chemistry</strong></p> <p>For as long as McDonald can remember, he always knew he wanted to be a chemist. He took a short detour during his first year at the University of North Carolina at Asheville after a disappointing general chemistry class. “I was like ‘I’m going to be a biologist,’” McDonald remembers. He hedged his bets, choosing to double major in biology and chemistry. “And then I took organic chemistry my sophomore year and something just clicked,” McDonald says.</p> <p>Organic chemistry introduced McDonald to what he calls the hieroglyphic language of molecules. The two-dimensional sketch of a molecule is the hieroglyphic, and reading it allows you to picture the molecule in three dimensions in your head. “We can then understand some of the properties of the molecule, such as the collagen in your skin, based on its structure and how that relates to how our body works and even how the universe works.” He dropped biology, graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 2012.</p> <p>For McDonald, organic chemistry offered the perfect level of detail to understand questions like how different types of life processes work — without getting tied down by big-picture complexities such as appearance, behavior, and systematic taxonomy. “I was addicted to it,” he says. McDonald got involved with organic chemistry research, moving systematically from undergraduate research to a doctoral program at Northwestern University.</p> <p>“My PhD was in total synthesis and reaction development,” McDonald says. This is a field that harkens back to the 1960s, explains McDonald, when the magic-bullet concept developed by Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich was in full force. Ehrlich believed that molecules could be developed to specifically target a germ while leaving the rest of the body unscathed. “Total synthesis is the art and science of making these small organic molecules, and reaction development is figuring out how to make a specific chemical bond,” McDonald says.</p> <p>“I was trained in that, which a lot of times sets you up to be a chemist in a pharmaceutical company, which wasn’t that appealing,” McDonald says. Becoming a postdoc in the Swager lab allowed him to find an application for that training outside of the focused approach of the pharmaceuticals industry, he says. “Tim [Swager] is particularly unique because he knows a lot of organic chemistry, but he also knows polymer chemistry, material science, even some electrical engineering,” says McDonald. “As he says, he knows enough about many things to be dangerous.”</p> <p>Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, also makes sure his lab members represent a number of scientific fields. “I strive to bring in a mix of all different types of people,” he says. To this mix, McDonald brings the pure synthetic chemistry. “It takes a lot of skill to make complicated molecules, do multi-step reactions, and to do these fast,” Swager explains. The molecules McDonald is synthesizing require dozens of steps in a row and the yield goes down with each step added. “You need really good chemistry to get any material out, and Ben brings that skill.”</p> <p>Coming to Swager’s lab was, according to McDonald, a paradigm shift: “to go from being exquisitely focused on one specific space, to seeing someone who is able to use it simply as a tool towards more interesting applications.”</p> <p>These applications are wide-ranging, from responsive polymers on the surface of materials that can create uniforms that protect against chemical warfare to polymers that can act as functional surfactants, changing the surface tension of droplets in an emulsion. McDonald is one of the polymer chemists in the lab, but these projects are collaborative, involving work with chemists with other specialties, as well as engineers. “Our group is very interdisciplinary, and that is also great training for modern science,” he says. “No one has the one skill set to rule them all.”</p> <p><strong>Bringing in voices</strong></p> <p>The same way no scientist can master every skill set, no single person can represent every perspective or human experience, which is why McDonald is concerned with increasing representation in chemistry. “For me, diversity in research is necessary to keep fresh ideas and questions in science,” says McDonald. And when it comes to technological progress, diversity guarantees that as many of society’s stakeholders are involved in the process. “This is important for an equitable society, but also for an&nbsp; informed and engaged one.”</p> <p>During his PhD, McDonald was involved in a number of initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion, particularly through the graduate-student-led NU BonD (Northwestern University’s Building on Diversity). “It’s still going on, and it’s an effort to make chemistry more reflective of the general population and bring in more voices.” NU BondD organized workshops, seminar series, and monthly social events that promoted diversity and focused on how microaggressions and implicit bias can impact scientific research.</p> <p>At MIT, McDonald has focused his efforts on the question of “How?”&nbsp;— How do people get to MIT? “I noticed that a lot of people at MIT always do summer research rotations here,” he says, which allows future graduate students to start building connections at MIT while still in college. “If we want to make the community more balanced, an obvious answer is to have programs that get people who are not the majority in the door,” he adds.</p> <p>Last year, Swager nominated McDonald for the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program, which enhances and recognizes the contributions of scholars in the community, and in October 2019 McDonald was <a href="">announced as one of the six MLK Visiting Scholars</a> for 2019-20. “Ben is an outstanding scholar and he’s doing a lot for diversity at MIT,” says Swager.</p> <p>Recently, McDonald has started talking with the MIT Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion (CADI) to create a program that gets more underrepresented groups in the summer research rotations. Similar programs exist in other departments at MIT; <a href="">the MIT Summer Research Program</a>, for instance, brings underrepresented minorities and underserved students to MIT for nine weeks of research on campus in fields including biology and brain and cognitive science. “I think this is the simplest way to affect bottom-up change,” says McDonald.</p> MLK Scholar Ben McDonald uses his synthetic chemistry skills set to develop new applications in Tim Swager’s lab.Photo: Danielle Randall DoughtySchool of Science, Chemistry, MLK visiting scholars, Diversity and inclusion, Profile, Graduate, postdoctoral A force for health equity Through on-site projects in developing countries and internships in the business world, Kendyll Hicks explores the political and economic drivers of global health. Sat, 29 Feb 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Becky Ham | MIT News Office <p>After spending three weeks in Kenya working on water issues with Maasai women, Kendyll Hicks was ready to declare it her favorite among the international projects she’s participated in through MIT.</p> <p>As a volunteer with the nonprofit <a href="">Mama Maji</a>, Hicks spoke about clean water, menstrual hygiene, and reproductive health with local women, sharing information that would enable them to become community leaders. “In rural Kenya, women are disproportionately affected by water issues,” she explains. “This is one way to give them a voice in societies that traditionally will silence them.”</p> <p>The team also planned to build a rainwater harvesting tank, but climate change has transformed Kenya’s dry season into a rainy one, and it was too wet to break ground for the project. During her stay, Hicks lived in the home of the first female chief of the Masaai, Beatrice Kosiom, whom Hicks describes as “simultaneously a political animal and the most down-to-earth-person.” It was this close contact with the community that made the project especially fulfilling.</p> <p>During MIT’s Independent Activities Period, Hicks also has traveled to South Africa to learn more about the cultural and biological determinants of that country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, and to Colombia to lead an entrepreneurial initiative among small-scale coffee farmers. Hicks joined the Kenya trip after taking an <a href="">MIT D-Lab class</a> on water, sanitation, and hygiene. Each experience has been successively more hands-on, she says.</p> <p>“I’ve been drawn to these experiences mainly because I love school, and I love the classroom experience,” Hicks says. “But it just can’t compare to living with people and understanding their way of life and the issues they face every day.”</p> <p>Hicks, a senior majoring in computer science and molecular biology, says she has shifted her focus during her time at MIT from more incremental technical discoveries to addressing larger forces that affect how those discoveries contribute — or fail to contribute — to global health.</p> <p>Her love of biology began with animals and zoology, later expanding into an interest in medicine. “Humans are these amazing machines that have been crafted by nature and evolution, and we have all these intricacies and mechanisms that I knew I wanted to study further,” Hicks says.</p> <p>At the same time, she says, “I’ve always been interested in health care and medicine, and the main impetus behind that is the fact that when someone you love is sick, or if you’re sick, you’ll do whatever you can.”</p> <p>As a first-year student she worked in the Lippard Lab at MIT, helping to synthesize and test anticancer compounds, but she soon decided that lab work wasn’t the right path for her. “I made the realization that health care and medicine are extremely political,” she recalls. “Health policy, health economics, law — those can be the drivers of real large-scale change.”</p> <p>To learn more about those drivers, Hicks has worked two summers at the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, and will take a full-time position with the company after graduation.</p> <p>“As someone immersed in the world of science and math and tech, I had this lingering insecurity that I didn’t know that much about this entirely different but super-important area,” she says. “I thought it would be important to understand what motivates business and the private sector, since that can have a huge effect on health care and helping communities that are often disenfranchised.”</p> <p>Hicks wants to steer her work at McKinsey toward their health care and hospital sector, as well as their growing global health sector. Over the long term, she is also interested in continuing fieldwork that involves science, poverty eradication, and international development.</p> <p>“Being at MIT, it’s like this hub of tech, trying to venture further into novel breakthroughs and innovations, and I think it’s amazing,” Hicks says. “But as I have started to garner more of an interest in politics and economics and the highly socialized aspects of science, I would say it’s important to take a pause before venturing further and deeper into that realm, to make sure that you truly understand the downstream effects of what you are developing.”</p> <p>“Those effects can be negative,” she adds, “and they oftentimes impact communities that already are systematically and institutionally oppressed.”</p> <p>Hicks joined MIT’s Black Students Union as a first-year student and now serves as the BSU Social and Cultural Co-Chair. In the role, she is responsible for planning the annual Ebony Affair fly-in program, which brings more than 30 black high school students to campus each year to participate in workshops, tour labs, and join a gala celebration with BSU students, faculty, and staff. “We’re doing our best as a community to convince young bright black minds to come to a place like MIT,” she says.</p> <p>It worked for Hicks: She participated in Ebony Affair as a high schooler, and the experience cemented her decision to attend. “When I saw everyone showing out and having such pride in being black and being at MIT, I was like, ‘OK, I want to be a part of that,’” she recalls.</p> <p>Last year, Hicks planned BSU’s first Black Homecoming event, a barbecue that brought together current and former black MIT students — some who attended the school 50 years ago. The event was a celebration of support and a way to strengthen the BSU network. “You have to do what you can to cultivate communities wherever you are, and that’s what I’ve tried to do here at MIT,” she says.</p> <p>Hicks also served as the Black Women’s Alliance alumni relations chair and GlobeMed’s campaigns co-director, and was on the Undergraduate Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee. She has discovered a love of event organizing and leadership at MIT, although it has been a change of pace from her former shy, “hyper-bookworm” self, she says.</p> <p>“I have realized that in my career that I really want to do a lot of good and affect a lot of change in people’s lives, and in order to do that, you kind of have to be this way.”</p> “I’ve been drawn to [international] experiences mainly because I love school, and I love the classroom experience, but it just can’t compare to living with people and understanding their way of life and the issues they face every day," says senior Kendyll Hicks.Photo: Gretchen ErtlStudents, Undergraduate, Independent Activities Period, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Profile, School of Engineering, Biology, School of Science, D-Lab, Developing countries, Health care, Global, Africa, Diversity and inclusion From culinary arts to nuclear engineering Ciara Sivels ’13 takes unusual path to a research career in nuclear engineering for national security. Wed, 26 Feb 2020 15:05:01 -0500 Leda Zimmerman | Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering <p>No one could be more astonished to find Ciara Sivels ’13 where she is today than Ciara Sivels herself. “Never in a million years would I have predicted that I’d be working as a nuclear engineer in a major research laboratory,” says Sivels. “My original dream was to be a pastry chef.”</p> <p>Instead, Sivels, who grew up in rural Virginia, went to MIT and majored in nuclear science and engineering with a focus on nuclear nonproliferation, and a concentration in middle school education. She then earned a PhD from the University of Michigan in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, where she was the first African-American woman to graduate from this program.</p> <p>Today, Sivels is on staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), engaged in projects related to national security. While details about her research remain classified, Sivels&nbsp;can&nbsp;reveal that she works on radiation transport simulations focusing on materials effects: “In lay terms, I look at how radiation interacts with and changes the properties of various types of materials.”</p> <p>Sivels’ expertise in this area evolved during her graduate study and national security internships at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where she helped develop a unique detection system for radioxenon, a gas linked to explosions from nuclear weapons testing.</p> <p>Although she must maintain a shroud of secrecy around her current work life, Sivels readily shares details of the remarkable journey she has traveled from her home in Hickory, Virginia, to a prestigious national defense lab. It has been a trek marked by some lucky breaks, hard-won battles, a fascination for problem solving, and an abiding passion to give back to others.</p> <p><strong>Not the engineering type</strong></p> <p>“I didn’t have a traditional engineering past,” says Sivels. “I wasn’t interested in tinkering or building things, and I was all over the place in high school, doing things like culinary arts and church-related activities like praise dancing.”</p> <p>No academic subjects resonated with Sivels until she tried chemistry. Her teacher, taking note of both her engagement and good grades, suggested she think about chemical engineering in college. “I was making a list of schools all related to culinary careers, and he was telling me to think about much better colleges, places I’d never heard about.”</p> <p>With her chemistry teacher’s help, she applied to several, including MIT. Unfamiliar with the admissions process, she missed learning about her acceptance on Pi Day. “I assumed I was going to Virginia Commonwealth University when one of my classmates told me to check my email,” she recalls.</p> <p>Sivels was sold on MIT after Campus Preview Weekend. “I thought it would be a great experience to attend a university far away from home,” she says. She also decided to shift her major that weekend, after learning that chemical engineering involved “polymers and plastics and manufacturing things,” which didn’t appeal to Sivels. “My weekend host thought nuclear engineering might be a better match for my interests, and I thought the field seemed really interesting, so I decided to major in it.”</p> <p>Before Sivels officially started, she completed MIT’s <a href="">Interphase EDGE</a> program, a summer school that helps admitted students fill academic gaps prior to their first year. “I had previously taken physics, but Interphase made me realize I didn’t know what vectors were, and I wasn’t up to speed on math,” she says. “I struggled, but the program was pivotal for me, because it helped me assimilate to the academics faster than I would have, and introduced me to a new group of friends.”</p> <p>Sivels’ academic challenges were not over, though. “Growing up, learning had come naturally to me, but at MIT, things were really hard for the first time — I felt I might even fail a class,” says Sivels. “It wasn’t until junior year, after learning new study skills, and thinking beyond cookie-cutter solutions, that I could take the tools I was given and really figure out how to solve problems.” Says Sivels, “MIT is where I became myself — a thinker and an engineer.”</p> <p>Her social experiences at MIT also proved formative. “I was thrown into a melting pot full of highly motivated people who held different perspectives from me, and at a human level, I grew.”</p> <p>Part of that growth came from Sivels’ immersion in secondary-school teaching during her undergraduate years. In high school, she routinely tutored younger students, and thought a career in education might ultimately prove rewarding. While earning her NSE degree Sivels pursued a middle school general science teaching degree, and worked directly with students at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. “I saw how important it was for students to learn from someone who looked like them — young, black, female — someone they could relate to,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Pushed toward nuclear engineering</strong></p> <p>Sivels pivoted from a teaching career on to the advice of her advisor, Richard K. Lester, then department head and now associate provost. “He knew I wanted to teach, but he told me I hadn’t really given nuclear engineering a chance, that I’d just taken the classes but not tried research,” recalls Sivels, whose summers had exclusively been occupied by teaching internships. Lester pointed her toward opportunities that would “show me what nuclear engineering was really about,” she says. “I was lucky he was my advisor; he changed the course of my career.”</p> <p>One of those opportunities included an internship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, just after graduation from MIT. There Sivels became engaged in experimental studies to detect the release of radioxenon gas from underground nuclear weapons testing, an effort driven by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This research expanded to become the foundation of her graduate school studies at the University of Michigan.</p> <p>“I helped develop a novel device to improve monitoring stations all over the world, where detectors run 24/7,” she says. “We fabricated something that could plug and play in existing technology at these stations.”</p> <p>Now at APL, she leverages the knowledge and problem-solving skills she acquired at MIT and Michigan to make “critical contributions to critical challenges that face the nation,” Sivels says. But she also makes contributions in other areas important to her. She was recently named one of the nation’s 125 American Association for the Advancement of Science <a href="">If/Then ambassadors</a>, an initiative aimed at middle-school girls to further women in STEM fields. Also, she serves as a math mentor for elementary kids. “Working with students is a highlight for me,” she says. “Maybe if they see someone like me doing something they never knew was possible, it might change their lives.”</p> "MIT is where I became myself — a thinker and an engineer," says Ciara Sivels ’13.Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.Nuclear science and engineering, School of Engineering, Diversity and inclusion, Alumni/ae, STEM education, Nuclear security and policy, Government, Women in STEM, Mentoring, Profile, Education, teaching, academics A chemist investigates how proteins assume their shape Matt Shoulders hopes to shed light on diseases linked to flawed protein folding. Sun, 23 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>When proteins are first made in our cells, they often exist as floppy chains until specialized cellular machinery helps them fold into the right shapes. Only after achieving this correct structure can most proteins perform their biological functions.</p> <p>Many diseases, including genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis and brittle bone disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, are linked to defects in this protein folding process. Matt Shoulders, a recently tenured associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, is trying to understand how protein folding happens in human cells and how it goes wrong, in hopes of finding ways to prevent diseases linked to protein misfolding.</p> <p>“In the human cell, there are tens of thousands of proteins. The vast majority of proteins must eventually attain some well-defined three-dimensional structure to carry out their functions,” Shoulders says. “Protein misfolding and protein aggregation happen a lot, even in healthy cells. My research group’s interest is in how cells get proteins folded into a functional conformation, in the right place and at the right time, so they can stay healthy.”</p> <p>In his lab at MIT, Shoulders uses a variety of techniques to study the “proteostasis network,” which comprises about a thousand components that cooperate to enable cells to maintain proteins in the right conformations.</p> <p>“Proteostasis is exceedingly important. If it breaks down, you get disease,” he says. “There’s this whole system in cells that helps client proteins get to the shapes they need to get to, and if folding fails the system responds to try and address the problem. If it can’t be solved, the network actively works to dispose of misfolded or aggregated client proteins.”</p> <p><strong>Building new structures</strong></p> <p>Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, Shoulders was homeschooled by his mother, along with his five siblings. The family lived on a small farm near Blacksburg, Virginia, where his father was an accounting professor at Virginia Tech. Shoulders credits his grandfather, a chemistry professor at Ohio Northern University and Alice Lloyd College, with kindling his interest in chemistry.</p> <p>“My family had a policy that the kids helped clean up the kitchen after dinner. I hated doing it,” he recalls. “Fortunately for me, there was one exception: If we had company, and if you were in an adult conversation with the company, you could get out of cleaning the kitchen. So I spent many hours, starting at the age of 5 or 6, talking about chemistry with my grandfather after dinner.”</p> <p>Before starting college at nearby Virginia Tech, Shoulders spent a couple of years working as a carpenter.</p> <p>“That’s when I discovered that I really liked building things,” he says. “When I went to college I was thinking about fields to get into, and I realized chemistry was an opportunity to merge those two things that I had begun to find very exciting — building things but also thinking at the molecular level. A big part of what chemists do is make things that have never been made before, by connecting atoms in different ways.”</p> <p>As an undergraduate, Shoulders worked in the lab of chemistry professor Felicia Etzkorn, devising ways to synthesize complex new molecules, including stable peptides that mimic protein functions. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he worked with Professor Ronald Raines, who is now on the faculty at MIT. At Wisconsin, Shoulders began to study protein biophysics, with a focus on the physical and chemical factors that control which structure a given protein adopts and how stable the structure is.</p> <p>For his graduate studies, Shoulders analyzed how proteins fold while in a solution in a test tube. Once he finished his PhD, he decided to delve into how proteins fold in their natural environment: living cells.</p> <p>“Experiments in test tubes are a great way to get some insight but, ultimately, we want to know how the biological system works,” Shoulders says. To that end, he went to the Scripps Research Institute to do a postdoc with professors Jeffery Kelly and Luke Wiseman, who study diseases caused by protein misfolding.</p> <p>Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are perhaps the best known protein misfolding disorders, but there are thousands of others, most of which affect smaller numbers of people. Kelly, Wiseman, and many others, including the late MIT biology professor Susan Lindquist, have shown that protein misfolding is linked to cellular signaling pathways involved in stress responses.</p> <p>“When protein folding goes awry, these signaling pathways recognize it and try to fix the problem. If they succeed, then all is well, but if they fail, that almost always leads to disease,” Shoulders says.</p> <p><strong>Disrupted protein folding</strong></p> <p>Since joining the MIT faculty in 2012, Shoulders and his students have developed a number of chemical and genetic techniques for first perturbing different aspects of the proteostasis network and then observing how protein folding is affected.</p> <p>In one major effort, Shoulders’ lab is exploring how cells fold collagen. Collagen, an important component of connective tissue, is the most abundant protein in the human body and, at more than 4,000 amino acids, is also quite large. There are as many as 50 different diseases linked to collagen misfolding, and most have no effective treatments, Shoulders says.</p> <p>Another major area of interest is the evolution of proteins, especially viral proteins. Shoulders and his group have shown that flu viruses’ <a href="" target="_blank">rapid evolution</a> depends in part on their ability to hijack some components of the proteostasis network of the host cells they infect. Without this help, flu viruses can’t adapt nearly as rapidly.</p> <p>In the long term, Shoulders hopes that his research will help to identify possible new ways to treat diseases that arise from aberrant protein folding. In theory, restoring the function of a single protein involved in folding could help with a variety of diseases linked to misfolding.</p> <p>“You might not need one drug for each disease — you might be able to develop one drug that treats many different diseases,” he says. “It’s a little speculative right now. We still need to learn much more about the basics of proteostasis network function, but there is a lot of promise.”</p> Matt ShouldersImages: Gretchen ErtlFaculty, Chemistry, School of Science, Profile, Disease, Research An entrepreneur finds his way to MIT Introduced to the Institute through MITx and MIT Bootcamps, Jakub Chudik is now a senior in EECS and CTO of his own startup. Mon, 17 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Shafaq Patel | MIT News correspondent <p>Jakub Chudik went to China for the first time on his dad’s business trip. A translator communicated in English, and Chudik translated to Slovak, his father’s native language. Just a few years later, as a rising junior at MIT, Chudik was in China again — this time to pitch his own business to Chinese investors.</p> <p>He was pitching the startup he co-founded: ConquerX, which aims to develop a new type of blood test for detecting early-stage cancers. As chief technology officer, Chudik has high hopes for his company, but he’s also focused on finishing his senior year and graduating with a computer science and engineering degree.</p> <p>Chudik began his journey to MIT as an entrepreneurially minded high school student in a small town in Slovakia. There, he discovered the free online courses offered by <em>MITx</em> on the edX platform.</p> <p>He had learned English at his bilingual school and was interested in helping his mother grow her small accounting business, so he completed <em>MITx’s</em> Entrepreneurship 101 and 102 courses. From there, he applied and was accepted to the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp.</p> <p>Through the MIT Bootcamp, a weeklong innovation and leadership program on campus for people from across the world, Chudik — who at age 18 was one of the youngest in the group — conceptualized a business idea with a couple of other participants. Among them was Chudik’s current business partner, Deborah Zanforlin, who had the idea for the technology on which ConquerX is based. After the program, he decided to apply to MIT.</p> <p>“I loved how welcoming the environment at MIT was,” Chudik recalls. “I felt I could be myself and always find support and guidance. Especially being able to have a frank one-on-one discussion with a professor made a big impression on me at the time.”&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Hooked by helping people</strong></p> <p>Chudik became interested in medical technology, especially related to cancer, after his younger brother, who was a toddler at the time, was diagnosed with cancer during Chudik’s first year of high school. His brother is healthy now, but that experience was an eye-opener for Chudik.</p> <p>“I had never had such a bad disease so close to me before. And I realized how much disease can impact not just the person but the whole family,” he says.</p> <p>He was hooked by the idea of the startup once Zanforlin told him about the technology she had been working on.</p> <p>“I thought it would be really great if I could be involved in helping people. I believed that I somewhat understood what people [experiencing cancer] were going through or what our company could help save them from” by enabling early intervention, Chudik says.</p> <p>Chudik says he had always assumed that only doctors could help people with health problems. “I realize now that you can be an engineer; you could come up with good technology that would maybe help even more people than if you were a doctor.”</p> <p>Now, through his experience with ConquerX, Chudik has become interested in the management and investing side of business. He thinks he might want to be a chief technology officer for other startups or become a venture capitalist and help fund small businesses.</p> <p>Chudik spent this past summer working on his startup and gaining more experience — instead of doing an internship, he managed interns at his own startup. But he has used MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) to acquire hands-on experience working for larger companies.</p> <p>During the IAP of his sophomore year, he went to Singapore and was a research intern for a biomedical institute. And for his junior year, he worked as a data science intern in Geneva for Expedia.</p> <p>“I must say, though, that classes and the startup have taken the majority of my time during college,” Chudik says.</p> <p><strong>No longer strictly ballroom</strong></p> <p>Chudik’s commitment to his startup echoes the way he delved into dance when he was growing up.</p> <p>His junior high and high school experiences were filled with ballroom dancing. He got swept into it when one of his friends needed a partner, and her entire family came to his house to ask him to join her.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>He danced for seven years, which included five years of competitive dance. He became extremely dedicated to the art, training for 12-20 hours a week plus entire weekends at competitions. He would travel to different cities throughout Slovakia, spend hours doing his hair and makeup, and practicing the routine.</p> <p>After a while, competitive dance started to take over his life and added a lot of stress and demand on his parents, so he stopped.</p> <p>“I’m glad it’s over now,” he says. Chudik says that he now has more control over his life and has a better sleeping and eating schedule in college than ever before.</p> <p>“During international student orientation, the sophomore and junior orientation leaders found out about my ballroom dance experience. They tried tricking me into joining and spent the whole week trying to recruit me, but no, it’s in the past now,” he says, with a laugh.</p> <p>He spends his time focusing on his classes — from his major-related classes to electives like game design — and the MIT International Students Association.</p> <p>He says the organization is currently not very active, but it has been a source of important friendships.</p> <p>“Sometimes we would meet new people, but oftentimes we would just meet up with friends at the meetings that we haven’t seen for a long time,” Chudik says. “The international community is not so big here, so we kind of all know each other.”</p> <p>When Chudik first moved to Boston, he didn’t know of anyone else from Slovakia — not even students from other universities. He says that when he studied in Slovakia, it was rare for people to apply to colleges in the United States. He had to slowly convince his family to let him study so far away. But once he got into MIT and received his financial assistance, his family was overjoyed.</p> <p>Chudik grew up with a large extended family who would come over regularly for dinner. He knew he would be saying goodbye to that sense of community when he came to Boston. But Chudik received MIT’s Kate and Gordon B. Baty Scholarship, and the family responsible for the scholarship made him feel at home. The family hosts lunches two to three times a year and has a Thanksgiving dinner for all the students in the scholarship program.</p> <p>“They’ve become my second family here. They’re like grandparents that I’ve never had,” he says. “They’re so great.”</p> <p>Chudik has adjusted to Boston and has made this “very European-like” city his home. Because he found his way around an American university, he now mentors high school students in Slovakia and helps them navigate the college application process.</p> MIT senior Jakub Chudik became interested in medical technology, especially related to cancer, after his younger brother, who was a toddler at the time, was diagnosed with cancer during Chudik’s first year of high school.Image: Adam GlanzmanStudents, Profile, Undergraduate, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Cancer, Startups, MITx, Office of Open Learning, Massive open online courses (MOOCs), Health sciences and technology New theories at the intersection of algebra and geometry Professor Chenyang Xu applies the techniques of abstract algebra to study concrete but complex geometric objects. Sat, 08 Feb 2020 23:59:55 -0500 Jonathan Mingle | MIT News correspondent <p>As a self-described “classical type of mathematician,” Chenyang Xu eschews software for paper and pen, chalk and chalkboard. Walk by his office, and you might simply see him pacing about, deep in concentration.</p> <p>Walking — across campus to get a cup of coffee, or from his apartment to his office — is an essential part of his process.</p> <p>“The way I think about math, I do a lot of picturing in my brain,” he says. “If I need a more clear picture, I might draw something and do some calculations. And when I walk I think of these pictures.”</p> <p>Those paces sometimes lead him to colleagues’ offices. “There are so many great minds here, and I interact with my colleagues in the department a lot,” says Xu, a recently tenured professor of mathematics at MIT.</p> <p>Xu’s specialty is algebraic geometry, which applies the problem-solving methods of abstract algebra to the complex but concrete shapes, surfaces, spaces, and curves of geometry. His primary objects of study are algebraic varieties — geometric manifestations of sets of solutions of systems of polynomial equations. As he walks and talks with colleagues, Xu focuses on ways of classifying these algebraic varieties in higher dimensions, using the techniques of birational geometry.</p> <p>“I like to talk with other mathematicians working in my subject,” Xu says. “We discuss a bit, then go back to think for ourselves, encounter new difficulties, then discuss again. Most of my papers are basically collaborations.”</p> <p>Such a collaboration helped Xu take his research in a new direction toward developing the new theory of K-stability of Fano varieties. Eight years ago, he devoted some thought to a certain subject in his field known as K-stability, which he describes as “an algebraic definition invented for differential geometry studies.”</p> <p>“I tried to develop an algebraic theory based on this K-stability as a background intuition, using algebraic geometry tools.” After a few years’ “gap,” he eventually came back to it because of conversations with his collaborator Chi Li, a professor of mathematics at Purdue University.</p> <p>“He had more of a differential geometry background and translated that concept into algebraic geometry,” says Xu. “That’s when I realized this was important to study. Since then, we have done more than we expected four or five years ago.”</p> <p>Together they published a highly cited <a href="">paper</a> in 2014 on the “K-stability of Fano varieties,” which put forward an entirely new theory in the field of birational algebraic geometry.</p> <p>It was representative of his approach to mathematics, which involves advancing new theories before tackling specific problems.</p> <p>“In my subject there are questions that everybody trying to solve, that have been open for 40 years,” Xu says. “I have those kinds of problems in my mind. My way of doing math is to go after the theory. Instead of working on one problem with techniques, we have to first develop the theory. We then see something in a new light. Every time I find some new theory, I test it on old classical problems to see if it works or not.”</p> <p><strong>The beauty of math</strong></p> <p>Growing up near Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan Province, Xu enjoyed math from a young age. “I attended some math Olympiads, and I did okay, but I wasn’t the gold medal winner,” he says with a laugh.</p> <p>He was talented enough, however, to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Peking University, as a part of the premier math program in China.</p> <p>“After I got into college, I started to learn more advanced mathematics, and I found it very beautiful and very deep,” he says. “To me, a big chunk of mathematics is art more than science.”</p> <p>Toward the end of his time at Peking, he concentrated increasingly on algebraic geometry. “I just like geometry a lot and wanted to study some subject related to geometry,” he says. “I found that I’m good at the techniques of algebra. So using those techniques to study geometry fit me very well.”</p> <p>Xu then pursued a PhD at Princeton University, where his advisor, János Kollár, a leading algebraic geometer, had a “huge influence” on him.</p> <p>“What I learned from him, aside from many techniques, of course, was more about what I could call ‘taste,’” says Xu. “What questions are important in mathematics? In general, graduate students or postdocs in the early stages of their career need some role model to follow. Doing math is a complicated thing, and at some point there are choices they need to make,” he says, that require balancing how difficult or interesting a particular problem might be with more practical concerns about its tractability.</p> <p>In addition to Kollár’s mentorship, the unfamiliarity of his new surroundings also aided his research.</p> <p>“I had never been outside China before that point, so there was a bit of culture shock,” he recalls. “I didn’t know much about U.S. culture at the time. But in some sense that made me even more concentrated on my work.”</p> <p>After Xu received his doctorate in 2008, he spent three years as a postdoc and C.L.E. Moore Instructor at MIT. He then spent about six years as a professor at the Beijing International Center of Mathematical Research and then returned to MIT as a full professor of mathematics in 2018.</p> <p>Throughout those years, Xu demonstrated a talent for finding important questions to pursue, becoming a leading thinker in his field and making a series of major advances in algebraic birational geometry.</p> <p>In 2017, Xu won the inaugural Future Science Prize in Mathematics and Computer Science for his “fundamental contributions” to the field of birational geometry. Some of that field’s real-world applications include coding and robotics. For example, birational geometry techniques are used to help robots “see” by grouping a series of two-dimensional pictures together into something approximating a field of vision to navigate our three-dimensional world.</p> <p>Xu’s work to advance the minimal model program (MMP) — a key theory in birational geometry that was first articulated in the early 1980s — and apply it to algebraic varieties won him the 2019 New Horizons Prize for early-career achievement in mathematics. He has since proved a series of conjectures related to the MMP, expanding it to previously untested varieties of certain conditions.</p> <p>The theory of algebraic K-stability that he developed has proven to be fertile ground for new discoveries. “I’m still working on this topic, and it’s a particularly interesting question to me,” he says.</p> <p>Xu has been making progress on proving other key conjectures related to K-stability rooted in the minimal model program. Recently, he drew on that prior work to prove the existence of moduli space for Fano algebraic varieties. Now he’s hard at work developing a solution for a specific property of that moduli space: its “compactness.”</p> <p>“To solve that problem it will be very important,” he says. “I hope we can still solve the last piece of it. I’m pretty sure that would be my best work to date.”</p> Chenyang XuImage: M. Scott BrauerProfile, Faculty, Mathematics, School of Science, China Singing for joy and service After surgery to correct childhood hearing loss, Swarna Jeewajee discovered a desire to be a physician-scientist, and a love of a cappella music. Sun, 02 Feb 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Shafaq Patel | MIT News correspondent <p>Swarna Jeewajee grew up loving music — she sings in the shower and blasts music that transports her to a happy state. But until this past year, she never felt confident singing outside her bedroom.</p> <p>Now, the senior chemistry and biology major spends her Saturdays singing around the greater Boston area, at hospitals, homes for the elderly, and rehabilitation centers, with the a cappella group she co-founded, Singing For Service.</p> <p>Jeewajee says she would not have been able to sing in front of people without the newfound confidence that came after she had transformative ear surgery in the spring of 2018.&nbsp;</p> <p>Jeewajee grew up in Mauritius, a small island off the east coast of Madagascar, where she loved the water and going swimming. When she was around 8 years old, she developed chronic ear infections as a result of a cholesteatoma, which caused abnormal skin growth in her middle ear.&nbsp;</p> <p>It took five years and three surgeries for the doctors in Mauritius to diagnose what had happened to Jeewajee’s ear. She spent some of her formative years at the hospital instead of leading a normal childhood and swimming at the beach.&nbsp;</p> <p>By the time Jeewajee was properly diagnosed and treated, she was told her hearing could not be salvaged, and she had to wear a hearing aid.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I sort of just accepted that this was my reality,” she says. “People used to ask me what the hearing aid was like — it was like hearing from headphones. It felt unnatural. But it wasn’t super hard to get used to it. I had to adapt to it.”</p> <p>Eventually, the hearing aid became a part of Jeewajee, and she thought everything was fine. During her first year at MIT, she joined <a href="">Concourse</a>, a first-year learning community which offers smaller classes to fulfill MIT’s General Institute Requirements, but during her sophomore year, she enrolled in larger lecture classes. She found that she wasn’t able to hear as well, and it was a problem.&nbsp;</p> <p>“When I was in high school, I didn’t look at my hearing disability as a disadvantage. But coming here and being in bigger lectures, I had to acknowledge that I was missing out on information,” Jeewajee says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Over the winter break of her sophomore year, her mother, who had been living in the U.S. while Jeewajee was raised by her grandmother in Mauritius, convinced Jeewajee to see a specialist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital. That’s when Jeewajee encountered her role model, Felipe Santos, a surgeon who specializes in her hearing disorder.&nbsp;</p> <p>Jeewajee had sought Santos’ help to find a higher-performing hearing aid, but instead he recommended a titanium implant to restore her hearing via a minimally invasive surgery. Now, Jeewajee does not require a hearing aid at all, and she can hear equally well from both ears.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The surgery helped me with everything. I used to not be able to balance, and now I am better at that. I had no idea that my hearing affected that,” she says.&nbsp;</p> <p>These changes, she says, are little things. But it’s the little things that made a large impact.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I gained a lot more confidence after the surgery. In class, I was more comfortable raising my hand. Overall, I felt like I was living better,” she says.</p> <p>This feeling is what brought Jeewajee to audition for the a cappella group. She never had any formal training in singing, but in January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, her friend mentioned that she wanted to start an a cappella group and convinced Jeewajee to help her start Singing For Service. The group launched with the help of the <a href="">Council for the Arts Grants Program</a>, which supports student arts projects that engage with the MIT community and beyond.</p> <p>Jeewajee describes Singing For Service as her “fun activity” at MIT, where she can just let loose. She is a soprano singer, and the group of nine to 12 students practices for about three hours a week before their weekly performances. They prepare three songs for each show; a typical lineup is a Disney melody, Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” and a mashup from the movie “The Greatest Showman.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Her favorite part is when they take song requests from the audience. For example, Singing For Service recently went to a home for patients with multiple sclerosis, who requested songs from the Beatles and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After the performance, the group mingles with the audience, which is one of Jeewajee’s favorite parts of the day.&nbsp;</p> <p>She loves talking with patients and the elderly. Because Jeewajee was a patient for so many years growing up, she now wants to help people who are going through that type of experience. That is why she is going into the medical field and strives to earn an MD-PhD.&nbsp;</p> <p>“When I was younger, I kind of always was at the doctor’s office. Doctors want to help you and give you a treatment and make you feel better. This aspect of medicine has always fascinated me, how someone is literally dedicating their time to helping you. They don’t know you, they’re not family, but they’re here for you. And I want to be there for someone as well,” she says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Jeewajee says that because she grew up with a medical condition that was poorly understood, she wants to devote her career to search for answers to tough medical problems. Perhaps not surprisingly, she has gravitated toward cancer research.</p> <p>She discovered her passion for this field after her first year at MIT, when she spent the summer conducting research in a cancer hospital in Lyon, through MISTI-France. There, she experienced an “epiphany” as she watched scientists and physicians come together to fight cancer, and was inspired to do the same.</p> <p>She cites the hospital’s motto, “Chercher et soigner jusqu’à la guérison,” which means “Research and treat until the cure,” as an expression of what she will aspire to as a physician-scientist.</p> <p>Last summer, while working at The Rockefeller University investigating mechanisms of resistance to cancer therapy, she developed a deeper appreciation for how individual patients can respond differently to a particular treatment, which is part of what makes cancer so hard to treat. Upon her return at MIT, she joined the <a href="" target="_blank">Hemann lab</a> at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where she conducts research on near-haploid leukemia, a subtype of blood cancer. Her ultimate goal is to find a vulnerability that may be exploited to develop new treatments for these patients.</p> <p>The Koch Institute has become her second home on MIT’s campus. She enjoys the company of her labmates, who she says are good mentors and equally passionate about science. The walls of the lab are adorned with science-related memes and cartoons, and amusing photos of the team’s scientific adventures.</p> <p>Jeewajee says her work at the Koch Institute has reaffirmed her motivation to pursue a career combining science and medicine.</p> <p>“I want to be working on something that is challenging so that I can truly make a difference. Even if I am working with patients for whom we may or may not have the right treatment, I want to have the capacity to be there for them and help them understand and navigate the situation, like doctors did for me growing up,” Jeewajee says.</p> Swarna JeewajeeImage: Gretchen ErtlProfile, Students, Undergraduate, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine, Koch Institute, MISTI, Cancer, Student life, Arts, Music, School of Science, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Council for the Arts at MIT MIT helps first-time entrepreneur build food hospitality company Led by Christine Marcus MBA ’12, Alchemista is finding success with a human-centered approach to food service. Thu, 30 Jan 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Zach Winn | MIT News Office <p>Christine Marcus MBA ’12 was an unlikely entrepreneur in 2011. That year, after spending her entire, 17-year career in government, most recently as the deputy chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Energy, she entered the MIT Sloan School of Management Fellows MBA Program.</p> <p>Moreover, Marcus didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur.</p> <p>“That was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says. “I knew it was time to think about the private sector, but my plan was to leave Sloan and get a job in finance. The thought of entrepreneurship was nowhere in my mind. I wasn’t one of those people who came with a business idea.”</p> <p>By the end of Sloan’s intensive, 12-month program, however, Marcus was running a startup helping local organizations and companies serve food from some of Boston’s best restaurants to hundreds of people. Upon graduation, in addition to her degree, Marcus had 40 recurring customers and had sold about $50,000 worth of food from her classmates’ Italian restaurant.</p> <p>What happened to spark such a dramatic change?</p> <p>“MIT happened,” Marcus says. “Being in that ecosystem and listening to all the people share their stories of starting companies, listening to CEOs talk about their successes and failures, the mistakes they’ve made along the way, that was super-inspiring. What I realized at MIT was that I’ve always been an entrepreneur.”</p> <p>In the years since graduation, Marcus has used her new perspective to build Alchemista, a “high-touch” hospitality company that helps businesses, commercial real estate developers, and property owners provide meals to employees and tenants. Today, Alchemista has clients in Boston, New York City, and Washington, and serves more than 60,000 meals each month.</p> <p>The company’s services go beyond simply curating restaraunts on a website: Each one of Alchemista’s clients has its own representative that customizes menus each month, and Alchemista employees are on the scene setting up every meal to ensure everything goes smoothly.</p> <p>“We work with companies that focus on employee culture and invest in their employees, and we incorporate ourselves into that culture,” Marcus says.</p> <p><strong>Finding inspiration, then confidence</strong></p> <p>At first, all Marcus wanted from MIT were some bright new employees for the Department of Energy. During a recruiting trip for that agency in 2011, she met Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and professor of the practice at Sloan.</p> <p>“I mentioned to Bill that I was thinking of doing an MBA,” Marcus remembers. “He said, ‘You need to come to MIT. It will transform your life.’ Those were his exact words. Then basically, ‘And you need to do it now.’”</p> <p>Soon after that conversation, Marcus applied for the Sloan Fellows Program, which crams an MBA into one year of full-time, hands on work. A few weeks after being accepted, she left her lifelong career in government for good.</p> <p>But Marcus still had no plans to become an entrepreneur. That came more gradually at Sloan, as she listened to experts describe entrepreneurship as a learnable craft, received encouragement and advice from professors, and heard from dozens of successful first-time entrepreneurs about their own early doubts and failures.</p> <p>“A lot of these founders had backgrounds in things that had nothing to do with their industry,” Marcus says. “My question was always, ‘How do you become successful in an industry you don’t know anything about?’ Their answer was always the same: ‘It’s all about learning and being curious.’”</p> <p>During one typically long day in the MBA program, a classmate brought in food from his Italian restaurant. Marcus was blown away and wondered why MIT didn’t cater from nice restaurants like that all the time.</p> <p>The thought set in motion a process that has never really stopped for Marcus. She began speaking with office secretaries, club presidents, and other event organizers at MIT. She learned it was a nightmare ordering food for hundreds of people, and that many of Boston’s best restaurants had no means of connecting with such organizers.</p> <p>“I made myself known on campus just hustling,” Marcus remembers. “First I had to spend time figuring out who orders food. … I made it my mission to talk to all of them, understand their pain points, and understand what would get them to change their processes at that point. It was a lot of legwork.”</p> <p>Marcus moved into the entrepreneurial track at Sloan, and says one of her most helpful classes was tech sales, taught by Lou Shipley, who’s now an advisor for Alchemista. She also says it was helpful that professors focused on real-world problems, at some points even using Alchemista as a case study, allowing Marcus’s entire class to weigh in on problems she was grappling with.</p> <p>“That was super-helpful, to have all these smart MIT students working on my company,” she says.</p> <p>As she neared gradation, Marcus spent a lot of time in the Trust Center, and leaned heavily on MIT’s support system.</p> <p>“That’s the best thing about MIT: the ecosystem,” Marcus says. “Everybody genuinely wants to help however they can.”</p> <p>Leaving that ecosystem, which Marcus described as a “challenging yet safe environment,” presented Marcus with her biggest test yet.</p> <p><strong>Taking the plunge</strong></p> <p>At some point, every entrepreneur must decide if they’re passionate and confident enough in their business to fully commit to it. Over the course of a whirlwind year, MIT gave Marcus a crash course in entrepreneurship, but it couldn’t make that decision for her.</p> <p>Marcus responded unequivocally. She started by selling her house in Washington and renting a one-bedroom apartment in Boston. She also says she used up her retirement savings as she worked to expand Alchemista’s customer base in the early days.</p> <p>“I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone without a strong stomach, but I jumped in with both feet,” Marcus says.</p> <p>And MIT never stopped lending support. At the time, Sloan was planning to renovate a building on campus, so in the interim, Aulet started a coworking space called the MIT Beehive. Marcus worked out of there for more than a year, collaborating with other MIT startup founders and establishing a supportive network of peers.</p> <p>Her commitment paid off. By 2014, Marcus had a growing customer base and a strong business model based on recurring revenue from large customer accounts. Alchemista soon expanded to Washington and New York City.</p> <p>Last year, the company brought on a culinary team and opened its own kitchens. It also expanded its services to commercial property owners and managers who don’t want to give up leasing space for a traditional cafeteria or don’t have restaurants nearby.</p> <p>Marcus has also incorporated her passion for sustainability into Alchemista’s operations. After using palm leaf plates for years, the company recently switched over to reusable plates and utensils, saving over 100,000 tons of waste annually, she says.</p> <p>Ultimately, Marcus thinks Alchemista’s success is a result of its human-centered approach to helping customers.</p> <p>“It’s not this massive website where you place an order and have no contact,” Marcus says. “We’re the opposite of that. We’re high-touch because everyone else is a website or app. Simply put, we take all the headaches away from ordering for hundreds of people. Food is very personal; breaking bread is one of the most fundamental ways to connect with others. We provide that experience in a premium, elevated way.”</p> Alchemista co-founder and CEO Christine Marcus MBA ’12 says she sold her house and dipped into her retirement savings to get the company off the ground.Image courtesy of AlchemistaMartin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Food, Startups, Sloan School of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Business and management, Alumni/ae, Profile Demystifying artificial intelligence Doctoral candidate Natalie Lao wants to show that anyone can learn to use AI to make a better world. Wed, 29 Jan 2020 13:55:01 -0500 Kim Martineau | MIT Quest for Intelligence <p><a href="">Natalie Lao</a>&nbsp;was set on becoming an electrical engineer, like her parents, until she stumbled on course 6.S192 (<a href="">Making Mobile Apps</a>), taught by Professor <a href="">Hal Abelson</a>. Here was a blueprint for turning a smartphone into a tool for finding clean drinking water, or sorting pictures of faces, or doing just about anything. “I thought, I wish people knew building tech could be like this,” she said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from writing her dissertation.</p> <p>After shifting her focus as an MIT undergraduate&nbsp;to computer science, Lao joined Abelson’s lab, which was busy spreading its&nbsp;<a href="">App Inventor</a>&nbsp;platform and do-it-yourself philosophy to high school students around the world. App Inventor set Lao on her path to making it easy for anyone, from farmers to factory workers, to understand AI, and use it to improve their lives. Now in the third and final year of her PhD at MIT, Lao is also the co-founder of an AI startup to fight fake news, and the co-producer of a series of machine learning tutorials. It’s all part of her mission to help people find the creator and free thinker within.&nbsp;</p> <p>“She just radiates optimism and enthusiasm,” says Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “She’s a natural leader who knows how to get people excited and organized.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Lao was immersed in App Inventor, building modules to teach students to build face recognition models and store data in the cloud. Then, in 2016, the surprise election of Donald Trump to U.S. president forced her to think more critically about technology. She was less upset by Trump the politician as by revelations that social media-fueled propaganda and misinformation had tilted the race in Trump’s favor.</p> <p>When a friend, Elan Pavlov, a then-EECS postdoc, approached Lao about an idea he had for building a platform to combat fake news she was ready to dive in. Having grown up in rural, urban, and suburban parts of Tennessee and Ohio, Lao was used to hearing a range of political views. But now, social platforms were filtering those voices, and amplifying polarizing, often inaccurate, content. Pavlov’s idea stood out for its focus on identifying the people (and bots) spreading misinformation and disinformation, rather than the content itself.&nbsp;</p> <p>Lao recruited two friends,&nbsp;<a href="">Andrew Tsai</a>&nbsp;and&nbsp;<a href="">Keertan Kini</a>, to help build out the platform. They would later name it&nbsp;<a href="">HINTS</a>, or Human Interaction News Trustworthiness System, after an early page-ranking algorithm called HITS.&nbsp;</p> <p>In a demo last fall, Lao and Tsai highlighted a network of Twitter accounts that had shared conspiracy theories tied to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under the hashtag #khashoggi. When they looked at what else those accounts had shared, they found streams of other false and misleading news. Topping the list was the incorrect claim that then-U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke had funded a caravan of migrants headed for the U.S. border.</p> <p>The HINTS team hopes that by flagging the networks that spread fake news, social platforms will move faster to remove fake accounts and contain the propagation of misinformation.</p> <p>“Fake news doesn’t have any impact in a vacuum — real people have to read it and share it,” says Lao. “No matter what your political views, we’re concerned about facts and democracy. There’s fake news being pushed on both sides and it’s making the political divide even worse.”</p> <p>The HINTS team is now working with its first client, a media analytics firm based in Virginia. As CEO, Lao has called on her experience as a project manager from internships at GE, Google, and Apple, where, most recently, she led the rollout of the iPhone XR display screen. “I’ve never met anyone as good at managing people and tech,” says Tsai, an EECS master’s student who met Lao as a lab assistant for Abelson’s course 6.S198 (<a href="">Deep Learning Practicum</a>), and is now CTO of HINTS.</p> <p>As HINTS was getting off the ground, Lao co-founded a second startup,&nbsp;<a href="">ML Tidbits</a>, with EECS graduate student&nbsp;<a href="">Harini Suresh</a>. While learning to build AI models, both women grew frustrated by the tutorials on YouTube. “They were full of formulas, with very few pictures,” she says. “Even if the material isn’t that hard, it looks hard!”&nbsp;</p> <p>Convinced they could do better, Lao and Suresh reimagined a menu of intimidating topics like unsupervised learning and model-fitting as a set of inviting side dishes. Sitting cross-legged on a table, as if by a cozy fire, Lao and Suresh put viewers at ease with real-world anecdotes, playful drawings, and an engaging tone. Six more videos, funded by&nbsp;<a href="">MIT Sandbox</a>&nbsp;and the&nbsp;MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, are planned for release this spring.&nbsp;</p> <p>If her audience learns one thing from ML Tidbits, Lao says, she hopes it’s that anyone can learn the basic underpinnings of AI. “I want them to think, ‘Oh, this technology isn't just something that professional computer scientists or mathematicians can touch. I can learn it too. I can form educated opinions and join discussions about how it should be used and regulated.’ ”</p> A PhD student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Natalie Lao has co-founded startups aimed at democratizing artificial intelligence and using AI to protect democracy by fighting false and misleading information.Photo: Andrew TsaiQuest for Intelligence, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, School of Engineering, Computer science and technology, Technology and society, STEM education, K-12 education, Apps, Invention, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), Artificial intelligence, Graduate, postdoctoral, Profile, education, Education, teaching, academics Powering the planet Fikile Brushett and his team are designing electrochemical technology to secure the planet’s energy future. Wed, 29 Jan 2020 09:00:00 -0500 Zain Humayun | School of Engineering <p>Before Fikile Brushett wanted to be an engineer, he wanted to be a soccer player. Today, however, Brushett is the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Building 66 might not look much like a soccer field, but Brushett says the sport taught him a fundamental lesson that has proved invaluable in his scientific endeavors.<br /> <br /> “The teams that are successful are the teams that work together,” Brushett says.</p> <p>That philosophy inspires the Brushett Research Group, which draws on disciplines as diverse as organic chemistry and economics to create new electrochemical processes and devices.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>As the world moves toward cleaner and sustainable sources of energy, one of the major challenges is converting efficiently between electrical and chemical energy. This is the challenge undertaken by Brushett and his colleagues, who are trying to push the frontiers of electrochemical technology.</p> <p>Brushett’s research focuses on ways to improve redox flow batteries, which are potentially low-cost alternatives to conventional batteries and a viable way of storing energy from renewable sources like wind and the sun. His group also explores means to recycle carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — into fuels and useful chemicals, and to extract energy from biomass.</p> <p>In his work, Brushett is helping to transform every stage of the energy pipeline: from unlocking the potential of solar and wind energy to replacing combustion engines with fuel cells, and even enabling greener industrial processes.</p> <p>“A lot of times, electrochemical technologies work in some areas, but we'd like them to work much more broadly than we've asked them to do beforehand,” Brushett says. “A lot of that is now driving the need for new innovation in the area, and that's where we come in.”</p> Fikile Brushett is the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering.Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of EngineeringSchool of Engineering, Chemical engineering, Energy, Energy storage, Climate change, Batteries, Profile, Faculty, Sustainability, Chemistry, electronics Testing the waters MIT sophomore Rachel Shen looks for microscopic solutions to big environmental challenges. Tue, 28 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Lucy Jakub | Department of Biology <p>In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began restoring the Broad Meadows salt marsh in Quincy, Massachusetts. The marsh, which had grown over with invasive reeds and needed to be dredged, abutted the Broad Meadows Middle School, and its three-year transformation fascinated one inquisitive student. “I was always super curious about what sorts of things were going on there,” says Rachel Shen, who was in eighth grade when they finally finished the project. She’d spend hours watching birds in the marsh, and catching minnows by the beach.</p> <p>In her bedroom at home, she kept an eye on four aquariums furnished with anubias, hornwort, guppy grass, amazon swords, and “too many snails.” Now, living in a dorm as a sophomore at MIT, she’s had to scale back to a single one-gallon tank. But as a Course 7 (Biology) major minoring in environmental and sustainability studies, she gets an even closer look at the natural world, seeing what most of us can’t: the impurities in our water, the matrices of plant cells, and the invisible processes that cycle nutrients in the oceans.</p> <p>Shen’s love for nature has always been coupled with scientific inquiry. Growing up, she took part in <a href="">Splash</a> and <a href="">Spark</a> workshops for grade schoolers, taught by MIT students. “From a young age, I was always that kid catching bugs,” she says. In her junior year of high school, she landed the perfect summer internship through Boston University’s <a href="">GROW program</a>: studying ant brains at BU’s <a href="">Traniello lab</a>. Within a colony, ants with different morphological traits perform different jobs as workers, guards, and drones. To see how the brains of these castes might be wired differently, Shen dosed the ants with serotonin and dopamine and looked for differences in the ways the neurotransmitters altered the ants’ social behavior.</p> <p>This experience in the Traniello lab later connected Shen to her first campus job working for <a href=""><em>MITx</em> Biology</a>, which develops online courses and educational resources for students with Department of Biology faculty. Darcy Gordon, one of the administrators for GROW and a postdoc at the Traniello Lab, joined <em>MITx</em> Biology as a digital learning fellow just as Shen was beginning her first year. <em>MITx</em> was looking for students to beta-test their <a href="">biochemistry course</a>, and Gordon encouraged Shen to apply. “I’d never taken a biochem course before, but I had enough background to pick it up,” says Shen, who is always willing to try something new. She went through the entire course, giving feedback on lesson clarity and writing practice problems.</p> <p>Using what she learned on the job, she’s now the biochem leader on a student project with the <a href="">It’s On Us Data Sciences</a> club (formerly Project ORCA) to develop a live map of water contamination by rigging autonomous boats with pollution sensors. Environmental restoration has always been important to her, but it was on her trip to the Navajo Nation with her first-year advisory group, <a href="">Terrascope</a>, that Shen saw the effects of water scarcity and contamination firsthand. She and her peers devised filtration and collection methods to bring to the community, but she found the most valuable part of the project to be “working with the people, and coming up with solutions that incorporated their local culture and local politics.”</p> <p>Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Shen has put her problem-solving skills to work in the lab. Last summer, she interned at Draper and the Velásquez-García Group in MIT’s Microsystems Technologies Laboratories. Through experiments, she observed how plant cells can be coaxed with hormones to reinforce their cell walls with lignin and cellulose, becoming “woody” — insights that can be used in the development of biomaterials.</p> <p>For her next UROP, she sought out a lab where she could work alongside a larger team, and was drawn to the people in the lab of <a href="" target="_blank">Sallie “Penny” Chisholm</a> in MIT’s departments of Biology and Civil and Environmental Engineering, who study the marine cyanobacterium <em>Prochlorococcus</em>. “I really feel like I could learn a lot from them,” Shen says. “They’re great at explaining things.”</p> <p><em>Prochlorococcus </em>is one of the most abundant photosynthesizers in the ocean. Cyanobacteria are mixotrophs, which means they get their energy from the sun through photosynthesis, but can also take up nutrients like carbon and nitrogen from their environment. One source of carbon and nitrogen is found in chitin, the insoluble biopolymer that crustaceans and other marine organisms use to build their shells and exoskeletons. Billions of tons of chitin are produced in the oceans every year, and nearly all of it is recycled back into carbon, nitrogen, and minerals by marine bacteria, allowing it to be used again.</p> <p>Shen is investigating whether <em>Prochlorococcus</em> also recycles chitin, like its close relative <em>Synechococcus</em> that secretes enzymes which can break down the polymer. In the lab’s grow room, she tends to test tubes that glow green with cyanobacteria. She’ll introduce chitin to half of the cultures to see if specific genes in <em>Prochlorococcus</em> are expressed that might be implicated in chitin degradation, and identify those genes with RNA sequencing.</p> <p>Shen says working with <em>Prochlorococcus </em>is exciting because it’s a case study in which the smallest cellular processes of a species can have huge effects in its ecosystem. Cracking the chitin cycle would have implications for humans, too. Biochemists have been trying to turn chitin into a biodegradable alternative to plastic. “One thing I want to get out of my science education is learning the basic science,” she says, “but it’s really important to me that it has direct applications.”</p> <p>Something else Shen has realized at MIT is that, whatever she ends up doing with her degree, she wants her research to involve fieldwork that takes her out into nature — maybe even back to the marsh, to restore shorelines and waterways. As she puts it, “something that’s directly relevant to people.” But she’s keeping her options open. “Currently I'm just trying to explore pretty much everything.”</p> Biology major Rachel Shen sees what most of us can’t: the impurities in our water, the matrices of plant cells, and the invisible processes that cycle nutrients in the oceans.Photo: Lucy JakubBiology, School of Science, MITx, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Civil and environmental engineering, School of Engineering, Bacteria, Data, Environment, Microbes, Profile, Research Finding solutions amidst fractal uncertainty and quantum chaos Math professor Semyon Dyatlov explores the relationship between classical and quantum physics. Sat, 25 Jan 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Jonathan Mingle | MIT News correspondent <p>Semyon Dyatlov calls himself a “mathematical physicist.”</p> <p>He’s an associate editor of the journal <em>Probability and Mathematical Physics. </em>His PhD dissertation advanced understanding of wave decay in black hole spacetimes. And much of his research focuses on developing new ways to understand the correspondence between classical physics (which describes light as rays that travel in straight lines and bounce off surfaces) and quantum systems (wherein light has wave-particle duality).</p> <p>So it may come as a surprise that, as a student growing up in Siberia, he didn’t study physics in depth.</p> <p>“Much of my work is deeply related to physics, even though I didn’t receive that much physics education as a student,” he says. “It took when I started working as a mathematician to slowly start understanding things like general relativity and modern particle physics.”</p> <p><strong>A math-loving family, and inspiring mentors</strong></p> <p>His mathematical education, however, has been extensive — and started early.</p> <p>Dyatlov was raised in a family of mathematicians. One of his two brothers is an applied mathematician. Both of his parents have math degrees. He grew up a five-minute walk away from the campus of Novosibirsk State University (NSU), a major academic research center in Siberia, where his father still teaches.</p> <p>“From a young age I was exposed to all kinds of mathematics,” he says. “There were journals and books lying around our house. I was very lucky that I both liked mathematics and was born into a family where a lot of mathematics was going on.”</p> <p>He can even trace his interest in microlocal analysis — his field of specialty today as an associate professor of mathematics at MIT — to conversations with his older brother decades ago. These talks sparked a fascination with partial differential equations, which Dyatlov studied as an undergraduate at NSU, where both his brother and father received their PhDs.</p> <p>Dyatlov went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley. There his trajectory was influenced by a course he took during his first year with Professor Maciej Zworski on the theory of scattering resonances, which he explains are “pure states for systems in which energy can scatter to infinity.”</p> <p>It would prove to be a fruitful encounter. Zworski became Dyatlov’s dissertation advisor; a decade later, they are still collaborating. In addition to the many papers that they have written together, they co-authored a new textbook published by the American Mathematical Society in September.</p> <p>Zworski, who received both his bachelor’s degree and PhD in math from MIT, gave Dyatlov a particular problem to tackle early in his graduate studies.</p> <p>“There was back then a bit of a mystery surrounding how to apply scattering theory methods to black holes,” he recalls. The problem, which related to this mystery, grew into his dissertation’s detailed exploration of exponential wave decay in the context of general relativity.</p> <p><strong>Of luck, </strong><strong>collaboration, and “trapped trajectories”</strong></p> <p>In December 2013, Dyatlov began a postdoc at MIT; by 2015 he had been hired as an assistant professor of mathematics. He is now an associate professor and was awarded tenure in 2019.</p> <p>“I sometimes feel I just got lucky many times,” Dyatlov says of his professional journey, from growing up in a family of mathematicians to finding influential mentors and collaborators like Zworski.</p> <p>Dyatlov is now studying how the behavior of quantum systems over long time periods corresponds to that of classical systems. Some of his recent research focuses on spectral gaps for open quantum chaotic systems.</p> <p>To help beginning students conceptualize it, he offers the analogy of striking a bell: “How does the shape of a bell determine how long its sound is sustained?” (Sometimes he uses MIT math department mugs instead.)</p> <p>The shape of the bell determines how long the sound is sustained. The difference lies in both the pitch of the sound, and in how long it can be heard. “You can study both,” he says, “but a natural question to ask is, no matter how you hit the bell, how long does it take for the sound to die out?”</p> <p>Classical physics might characterize what’s happening with the bell (or mug) as a phenomenon similar to light bouncing off a mirror: The sound bounces once off the bell and then escapes to infinity.</p> <p>“Mathematically what you hope to see is some exponential decay of energy, of the solution to a corresponding wave equation,” he explains. What interests Dyatlov is the rate of this decay, and whether, in some situations, there may not be any exponential decay at all.</p> <p>His recent work delves into what happens with these trajectories under conditions of “quantum chaos.”</p> <p>“Say you have waves bouncing off, and everything else escapes but you have a system — say the inside of a bowl — where these classical trajectories never leave. The thing that I study is a situation where you have in your system a fractal set of trapped trajectories,” he says.</p> <p>These trapped trajectories form a fractal set that appears “out of nowhere,” he says. “The fact that fractal sets appear from this was known well before my work, but it was still a surprise to me when I looked at it. Here, a fractal set appears naturally in a problem where you didn’t put in a fractal set.”</p> <p>That work led to his development of what he terms the “fractal uncertainty principle.” The classical uncertainty principle says you can’t pinpoint both the position and momentum of a quantum particle. Dyatlov posited a form of this principle for this fractal set of trapped trajectories.</p> <p><strong>“</strong>I figured out one might be able to solve this wave decay question — this question about partial differential equations, about classical-quantum correspondence, about wave dynamics, and chaotic dynamics — but the component you need is this new kind of fractal uncertainty principle,” he says.</p> <p><strong>Translation and toolboxes</strong></p> <p>Pursuing this question required him to branch out into different fields of math, which lay outside his own training. In that pursuit, he caught another “lucky break:” MIT professor of mathematics Larry Guth suggested he talked with Joshua Zahl, a postdoc who had been thinking independently about a related question, from his own field of additive combinatorics. Applying their respective techniques, they developed a proof for exponential decay in some specific fractal sets and wrote a paper together on the subject. A couple years later — in yet another “lucky” collaboration — Dyatlov worked with the late Jean Bourgain, a renowned mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study, to prove the fractal uncertainty principle for the general case of these sets.</p> <p>“You have your toolbox, and you try to get as much out of it as you can for a problem,” he says, but sometimes you have to seek out new tools. “MIT is a great place for that.”</p> <p>That act of reaching across fields is fundamental to the practice of mathematics, he says. The book that he recently published with Zworski opens with a quote from Goethe: “Mathematicians are Frenchmen of sorts: Whatever one says to them they translate into their own language and then it becomes something entirely different.”</p> <p>Dyatlov sees a connection between this epigraph and his own forays into the correspondence between math and physics.</p> <p>“It’s an ironic take on that,” he says. “There’s a natural repelling force for math and physics to diverge into separate fields, because we do things so differently. Experimental physicists have to respect the reality of situation, and have to think about what you can model in a lab. As a mathematician, you focus on things you can prove. You have to distill and translate the physical phenomena into theorems.”</p> <p>“It’s up to people in communities to create an attracting force to work together and bridge this divide.”</p> Semyon DyatlovImage: M. Scott BrauerProfile, Faculty, Mathematics, Physics, School of Science Understanding combustion Assistant Professor Sili Deng is on a quest to understand the chemistry involved in combustion and develop strategies to make it cleaner. Thu, 23 Jan 2020 15:15:01 -0500 Mary Beth Gallagher | Department of Mechanical Engineering <p>Much of the conversation around energy sustainability is dominated by clean-energy technologies like wind, solar, and thermal. However, with roughly 80 percent of energy use in the United States coming from fossil fuels, combustion remains the dominant method of energy conversion for power generation, electricity, and transportation.</p> <p>“People think of combustion as a dirty technology, but it’s currently the most feasible way to produce electricity and power,” explains Sili Deng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the Brit (1961) &amp; Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor.</p> <p>Deng is working toward understanding the chemistry and flow that interacts in combustion in an effort to improve technologies for current or near-future energy conversion applications. “My goal is to find out how to make the combustion process more efficient, reliable, safe, and clean,” she adds.</p> <p>Deng’s interest in combustion stemmed from a conversation she had with a friend before applying to Tsinghua University for undergraduate study. “One day, I was talking about my dream school and major with a friend and she said ‘What if you could increase the efficiency of energy utilization by just 1 percent?’” recalls Deng. “Considering how much energy we use globally each year, you could make a huge difference.”</p> <p>This discussion inspired Deng to study combustion. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in thermal engineering, she received her master’s and PhD from Princeton University. At Princeton, Deng focused on the how the coupling effects of chemistry and flow influence combustion and emissions.</p> <p>“The details of combustion are much more complicated than our general understanding of fuel and air combining to form water, carbon dioxide, and heat,” Deng explains. “There are hundreds of chemical species and thousands of reactions involved, depending on the type of fuel, fuel-air mixing, and flow dynamics.”</p> <p>Along with her team at the <a href="" target="_blank">Deng Energy and Nanotechnology Group at MIT</a>, she hopes that understanding chemically reacting flow in the combustion process will result in new strategies to control the process of combustion and reduce or eliminate the soot generated in combustion.&nbsp;</p> <p>“My group utilizes both experimental and computational tools to build a fundamental understanding of the combustion process that can guide the design of combustors for high performance and low emissions,” Deng adds. Her team is also utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms along with physical models to predict — and hopefully control — the combustion process.</p> <p>By understanding and controlling the combustion process, Deng is uncovering more about how soot, combustion’s most notorious by-product, is created.</p> <p>“Once soot leaves the site of combustion, it is difficult to contain. There isn’t much you can do to prevent haze or smog from developing,” she explains.</p> <p>The production of soot starts within the flame itself — even on a small scale, such as burning a candle. As Deng describes it, a “chemical soup” of hydrocarbons, vapor, melting wax, and oxygen interact to create soot particles visible as the yellow glow surrounding a candle light.</p> <p>“By understanding exactly how this soot is generated within a flame, we’re hoping to develop methods to reduce or eliminate it before it gets out of the combustion channel,” says Deng.</p> <p>Deng’s research on flames extends beyond the formation of soot. By developing a technology called flame synthesis, she is working on producing nanomaterials that can be used for renewable energy applications.</p> <p>The process of synthesizing nanomaterials via flames shares similarities with the soot formation in flames. Instead of generating the byproducts of incomplete combustion, certain precursors are added to the flame, which result in the production of nanomaterials. One common example of using flame synthesis to create nanomaterials is the production of titanium dioxide, a white pigment often used in paint and sunscreen.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I’m hoping to create a similar type of reaction to develop new materials that can be used for things like renewable energy, water treatment, pollution reduction, and catalysts,” she explains. Her team has been tweaking the various parameters of combustion — from temperature to the type of fuel used — to create nanomaterials that could eventually be used to clean up other, more nefarious byproducts created in combustion.</p> <p>To be successful in her quest to make combustion cleaner, Deng acknowledges that collaboration will be key. “There’s an opportunity to combine the fundamental research on combustion that my lab is doing with the materials, devices, and products being developed across areas like materials science and automotive engineering,” she says.</p> <p>Since we may be decades away from transitioning to a grid powered by renewable resources like solar, wave, and wind, Deng is helping carve out an important role for fellow combustion scientists.</p> <p>“While clean-energy technologies are continuing to be developed, it’s crucial that we continue to work toward finding ways to improve combustion technologies,” she adds.</p> “My goal is to find out how to make the combustion process more efficient, reliable, safe, and clean,” says Sili Deng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.Photo: Tony PulsoneMechanical engineering, School of Engineering, Energy, Environment, Faculty, Oil and gas, Carbon, Emissions, Profile, Sustainability, Nanoscience and nanotechnology Hacking life inside and outside the laboratory Managing her own synthetic biology project helped graduate student Jesse Tordoff overcome imposter syndrome and hit her stride. Tue, 21 Jan 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Bridget E. Begg | Office of Graduate Education <p>Jesse Tordoff makes cells form unusual patterns. “I have the coolest research project ever, which has the big, broad goal of controlling the shapes that cells grow into.” Her signature shape? Polka dots.</p> <p>“The idea is that [the process is] synthetic, outside of the natural developmental pathways,” she explains. “My project mostly involves giving the cells genetic circuits to express cell-to-cell adhesion molecules differently.”</p> <p>A fifth-year graduate student in the Computational and Systems Biology program, Tordoff is passionate about synthetic biology, which aims to create artificial systems from parts already found in nature — in her case, harnessing nature’s ability to form shapes as complex and intricate as the human body.</p> <p>The field has implications for developing organoids, artificially grown organs, and even things as fantastic as living materials, where engineered structures may one day be able to grow and heal themselves.</p> <p><strong>Cells as computers </strong></p> <p>Tordoff’s interest in science was fostered at an early age by her parents, who are both scientists at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She recalls her father teaching her QBasic, a programming language, and her mother buying her a used light microscope that Tordoff used to observe microorganisms in pond water in her free time. She also grew to love entomology. “It’s official, I’m a nerd,” she laughs.</p> <p>In college, Tordoff turned to computer science, where she became enamored with the creative process of coding and solving problems. She was also president of Yale University’s Women in Computer Science Club, an experience that encouraged her to reflect on the gender disparities in technical fields and to appreciate her parents’ support in cultivating her early interests in math and science.</p> <p>She assumed she would seek a career in programming, but eventually Tordoff returned to bugs — this time cataloguing species in a part-time data entry job in college. Around the same time, she was introduced to the field of synthetic biology, and she realized that it perfectly merged her interests in computer science and the natural world.</p> <p>“I like the biology-as-computer analogy so much,” she says. “A computer runs on binary code, and you can control pretty much every part of it. You can make programs that are human-readable and human-interpretable. Cells are obviously way more complicated; they’re not built from the ground up the way computers are built from the ground up — not yet! But they do work on logic the same way computers do, just with much more complexity and very different mechanisms underneath.”</p> <p><strong>Becoming the expert </strong></p> <p>The wealth of synthetic biology labs attracted Tordoff to MIT for graduate school, and she is thrilled to be here. “People get jaded about it, but we’re at the best research institute in the entire world! It sounds pretentious when you say it like that, but then somehow it’s more pretentious to say it’s not a big deal. It’s a huge deal!” she says.</p> <p>Despite an unwavering enthusiasm for research, Tordoff had trouble adjusting to grad school, and she was plagued with imposter syndrome in her early years. Over her graduate career, these anxieties have subsided, but she often reflects on how she overcame them.</p> <p>“A big part of getting over my imposter syndrome was having my own research project, which I think is the best thing about grad school,” she says. “I remember in my first year, all of my cohort cared so much about machine learning, and I did not feel called to the machine learning path. At the time, I thought ‘I’m so dumb, I can’t understand that it’s interesting.’ And now I realize that it’s actually just not my scene! It’s not as cool to me.”</p> <p>The turning point came when she began working in the lab of Ron Weiss, a professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science. After six months she got her own project, and she alone was responsible for designing and executing her experiments. “That made me feel like I was the expert — and it was true. And it made me realize that there is something that I’m good at. Realistically, there are a million ways to be good at something, and being honest about not understanding something is way more important than being the smartest person in the room,” Tordoff says.</p> <p>It’s a lesson that she tries to pass on to first-year students, technicians, and laboratory rotation students, and she has relished her new role as a mentor in her program and lab. “Partially, I see in their eyes that … they may be dealing with some of the anxiety issues that I was, too. I survived it, and I survived it because everyone was nice to me and supported me, so I feel like it’s sort of a pay-it-forward thing,” she says.</p> <p><strong>A life outside the lab</strong></p> <p>These days, Tordoff has hit her stride. Living in Inman Square, she enjoys walking or biking to lab, getting takeout from Punjabi Dhaba, and watching Netflix with her boyfriend, Sam. In fact, she finds time for many activities outside of lab and is surprised at the work-life balance she’s managed to achieve. “I thought that you didn’t have any free time in grad school. But I have so much free time to do stuff that I like,” she says. “This weekend, I chilled and watched ‘Great British Bakeoff’ for hours. That was the biggest surprise for me in grad school. When I work late it’s because I want to, not because I have to.”</p> <p>Tordoff is also a passionate crafter. Making resin jewelry is one of her favorite pastimes — a hobby that reflects her lifelong love of nature. She sometimes wears her creations, which can contain pressed flowers and leaves and sometimes acorns covered in glitter.</p> <p>Tordoff is grateful for her supportive family, friends, and labmates for helping her to find her niche in graduate school as well as always reminding her that she is more than her work. Adopting this mindset has allowed her to thrive both inside and outside of the laboratory. Their support has also given her a passion for mentorship; she encourages other young, struggling graduate students to be patient, realize that they are smart, and most importantly, learn to fail.</p> <p>“You just have to keep doing it! That’s the hardest lesson, for sure.”</p> Jesse TordoffImage: Gretchen ErtlProfile, Graduate, postdoctoral, Students, Biology, Synthetic biology, Biological engineering, Community, Student life Zeroing in on decarbonization Wielding complex algorithms, nuclear science and engineering doctoral candidate Nestor Sepulveda spins out scenarios for combating climate change. Wed, 15 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Leda Zimmerman | Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering <p>To avoid the most destructive consequences of climate change, the world’s electric energy systems must stop producing carbon by 2050. It seems like an overwhelming technological, political, and economic challenge — but not to Nestor Sepulveda.</p> <p>“My work has shown me that we&nbsp;do&nbsp;have the means to tackle the problem, and we can start now,” he says. “I am optimistic.”</p> <p>Sepulveda’s research, first as a master’s student and now as a doctoral candidate in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), involves complex simulations that describe potential pathways to decarbonization. In work published last year in the journal&nbsp;<em>Joule,&nbsp;</em>Sepulveda and his co-authors made a powerful case for using a mix of renewable and “firm” electricity sources, such as nuclear energy, as the least costly, and most likely, route to a low- or no-carbon grid.</p> <p>These insights, which flow from a unique computational framework blending optimization and data science, operations research, and policy methodologies, have attracted interest from&nbsp;<em>The New York Times&nbsp;</em>and&nbsp;<em>The Economist,&nbsp;</em>as well as from such notable players in the energy arena as Bill Gates. For Sepulveda, the attention could not come at a more vital moment.</p> <p>“Right now, people are at extremes: on the one hand worrying that steps to address climate change might weaken the economy, and on the other advocating a Green New Deal to transform the economy that depends solely on solar, wind, and battery storage,” he says. “I think my data-based work can help bridge the gap and enable people to find a middle point where they can have a conversation.”</p> <p><strong>An optimization tool</strong></p> <p>The computational model Sepulveda is developing to generate this data, the centerpiece of his dissertation research, was sparked by classroom experiences at the start of his NSE master’s degree.</p> <p>“In courses like Nuclear Technology and Society [22.16], which covered the benefits and risks of nuclear energy, I saw that some people believed the solution for climate change was definitely nuclear, while others said it was wind or solar,” he says. “I began wondering how to determine the value of different technologies.”</p> <p>Recognizing that “absolutes exist in people’s minds, but not in reality,” Sepulveda sought to develop a tool that might yield an optimal solution to the decarbonization question. His inaugural effort in modeling focused on weighing the advantages of utilizing advanced nuclear reactor designs against exclusive use of existing light-water reactor technology in the decarbonization effort.</p> <p>“I showed that in spite of their increased costs, advanced reactors proved more valuable to achieving the low-carbon transition than conventional reactor technology alone,” he says. This research formed the basis of Sepulveda’s master’s thesis in 2016, for a degree spanning NSE and the Technology and Policy Program. It also informed the MIT Energy Initiative’s report,&nbsp;“The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World.”</p> <p><strong>The right stuff</strong></p> <p>Sepulveda comes to the climate challenge armed with a lifelong commitment to service, an appetite for problem-solving, and grit. Born in Santiago, he enlisted in the Chilean navy, completing his high school and college education at the national naval academy.</p> <p>“Chile has natural disasters every year, and the defense forces are the ones that jump in to help people, which I found really attractive,” he says. He opted for the most difficult academic specialty, electrical engineering, over combat and weaponry. Early in his career, the climate change issue struck him, he says, and for his senior project, he designed a ship powered by hydrogen fuel cells.</p> <p>After he graduated, the Chilean navy rewarded his performance with major responsibilities in the fleet, including outfitting a $100 million amphibious ship intended for moving marines and for providing emergency relief services. But Sepulveda was anxious to focus fully on sustainable energy, and petitioned the navy to allow him to pursue a master’s at MIT in 2014.</p> <p>It was while conducting research for this degree that Sepulveda confronted a life-altering health crisis: a heart defect that led to open-heart surgery. “People told me to take time off and wait another year to finish my degree,” he recalls. Instead, he decided to press on: “I was deep into ideas about decarbonization, which I found really fulfilling.”</p> <p>After graduating in 2016, he returned to naval life in Chile, but “couldn’t stop thinking about the potential of informing energy policy around the world and making a long-lasting impact,” he says. “Every day, looking in the mirror, I saw the big scar on my chest that reminded me to do something bigger with my life, or at least try.”</p> <p>Convinced that he could play a significant role in addressing the critical carbon problem if he continued his MIT education, Sepulveda successfully petitioned naval superiors to sanction his return to Cambridge, Massachusetts.</p> <p><strong>Simulating the energy transition</strong></p> <p>Since resuming studies here in 2018, Sepulveda has wasted little time. He is focused on refining his modeling tool to play out the potential impacts and costs of increasingly complex energy technology scenarios on achieving deep decarbonization. This has meant rapidly acquiring knowledge in fields such as economics, math, and law.</p> <p>“The navy gave me discipline, and MIT gave me flexibility of mind — how to look at problems from different angles,” he says.</p> <p>With mentors and collaborators such as Associate Provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor Richard Lester and MIT Sloan School of Management professors Juan Pablo Vielma and Christopher Knittel, Sepulveda has been tweaking his models. His simulations, which can involve more than 1,000 scenarios, factor in existing and emerging technologies, uncertainties such as the possible emergence of fusion energy, and different regional constraints, to identify optimal investment strategies for low-carbon systems and to determine what pathways generate the most cost-effective solutions.</p> <p>“The idea isn’t to say we need this many solar farms or nuclear plants, but to look at the trends and value the future impact of technologies for climate change, so we can focus money on those with the highest impact, and generate policies that push harder on those,” he says.</p> <p>Sepulveda hopes his models won’t just lead the way to decarbonization, but do so in a way that minimizes social costs. “I come from a developing nation, where there are other problems like health care and education, so my goal is to achieve a pathway that leaves resources to address these other issues.”</p> <p>As he refines his computations with the help of MIT’s massive computing clusters, Sepulveda has been building a life in the United States. He has found a vibrant Chilean community at MIT&nbsp;and discovered local opportunities for venturing out on the water, such as summer sailing on the Charles.</p> <p>After graduation, he plans to leverage his modeling tool for the public benefit, through direct interactions with policy makers (U.S. congressional staffers have already begun to reach out to him), and with businesses looking to bend their strategies toward a zero-carbon future.</p> <p>It is a future that weighs even more heavily on him these days: Sepulveda is expecting his first child. “Right now, we’re buying stuff for the baby, but my mind keeps going into algorithmic mode,” he says. “I’m so immersed in decarbonization that I sometimes dream about it.”</p> “In courses like Nuclear Technology and Society, which covered the benefits and risks of nuclear energy, I saw that some people believed the solution for climate change was definitely nuclear, while others said it was wind or solar,” says doctoral student Nestor Sepulveda. “I began wondering how to determine the value of different technologies.”Photo: Gretchen ErtlNuclear science and engineering, MIT Energy Initiative, School of Engineering, Technology and policy, Students, Research, Alternative energy, Energy, Energy storage, Greenhouse gases, Climate change, Global Warming, Sustainability, Emissions, Renewable energy, Economics, Policy, Nuclear power and reactors, Profile, graduate, Graduate, postdoctoral Sending clearer signals Associate Professor Yury Polyanskiy is working to keep data flowing as the “internet of things” becomes a reality. Sat, 11 Jan 2020 23:59:59 -0500 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>In the secluded Russian city where Yury Polyanskiy grew up, all information about computer science came from the outside world. Visitors from distant Moscow would occasionally bring back the latest computer science magazines and software CDs to Polyanskiy’s high school for everyone to share.</p> <p>One day while reading a borrowed <em>PC World</em> magazine in the mid-1990s, Polyanskiy learned about a futuristic concept: the World Wide Web.</p> <p>Believing his city would never see such wonders of the internet, he and his friends built their own. Connecting an ethernet cable between two computers in separate high-rises, they could communicate back and forth. Soon, a handful of other kids asked to be connected to the makeshift network.</p> <p>“It was a pretty challenging engineering problem,” recalls Polyanskiy, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, who recently earned tenure. “I don’t remember exactly how we did it, but it took us a whole day. You got a sense of just how contagious the internet could be.”</p> <p>Thanks to the then-recent fall of the Iron Curtain, Polyanskiy’s family did eventually connect to the internet. Soon after, he became interested in computer science and then information theory, the mathematical study of storing and transmitting data. Now at MIT, his most exciting work centers on preventing major data-transmission issues with the rise of the “internet of things” (IoT). Polyanskiy is a member of the of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and the&nbsp;Statistics and Data Science Center.</p> <p>Today, people carry around a smartphone and maybe a couple smart devices. Whenever you watch a video on your smartphone, for example, a nearby cell tower assigns you an exclusive chunk of the wireless spectrum for a certain time. It does so for everyone, making sure the data never collide.</p> <p>The number IoT devices is expected to explode, however. People may carry dozens of smart devices; all delivered packages may have tracking sensors; and smart cities may implement thousands of connected sensors in their infrastructure. Current systems can’t divvy up the spectrum effectively to stop data from colliding. That will slow down transmission speeds and make our devices consume much more energy in sending and resending data.</p> <p>“There may soon be a hundredfold explosion of devices connected to the internet, which is going to clog the spectrum, and there will be no way to ensure interference-free transmission. Entirely new access approaches will be needed,” Polyanskiy says. “It’s the most exciting thing I’m working on, and it’s surprising that no one is talking much about it.”</p> <p><strong>From Russia, with love of computer science</strong></p> <p>Polyanskiy grew up in a place that translates in English to “Rainbow City,” so named because it was founded as a site to develop military lasers. Surrounded by woods, the city had a population of about 15,000 people, many of them engineers.</p> <p>In part, that environment got Polyanskiy into computer science. At the age of 12, he started coding —&nbsp;“and for profit,” he says. His father was working for an engineering firm, on a team that was programming controllers for oil pumps. When the lead programmer took another position, they were left understaffed. “My father was discussing who can help. I was sitting next to him, and I said, ‘I can help,’” Polyanskiy says. “He first said no, but I tried it and it worked out.”</p> <p>Soon after, his father opened his own company for designing oil pump controllers and brought Polyanskiy on board while he was still in high school. The business gained customers worldwide. He says some of the controllers he helped program are still being used today.</p> <p>Polyanskiy earned his bachelor’s in physics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a top university worldwide for physics research. But then, interested in pursuing electrical engineering for graduate school, he applied to programs in the U.S. and was accepted to Princeton University.</p> <p>In 2005, he moved to the U.S. to attend Princeton, which came with cultural shocks “that I still haven’t recovered from,” Polyanskiy jokes. For starters, he says, the U.S. education system encourages interaction with professors. Also, the televisions, gaming consoles, and furniture in residential buildings and around campus were not placed under lock and key.</p> <p>“In Russia, everything is chained down,” Polyanskiy says. “I still can’t believe U.S. universities just keep those things out in the open.”</p> <p>At Princeton, Polyanskiy wasn’t sure which field to enter. But when it came time to select, he asked one rather discourteous student about studying under a giant in information theory, Sergio Verdú. The student told Polyanskiy he wasn’t smart enough for Verdú — so Polyanskiy got defiant. “At that moment, I knew for certain that Sergio would be my number one pick,” Polyanskiy says, laughing. “When people say I can’t do something, that’s usually the best way to motivate me.”<br /> <br /> At Princeton, working under Verdú, Polyanskiy focused on a component of information theory that deals with how much redundancy to send with data. Each time data transmit, they are perturbed by some noise. Adding duplicate data means less data get lost in that noise. Researchers thus study the optimal amounts of redundancy to reduce signal loss but keep transmissions fast.</p> <p>In his graduate work, Polyanskiy pinpointed sweet spots for redundancy when transmitting hundreds or thousands of data bits in packets, which is mostly how data are transmitted online today.</p> <p><strong>Getting hooked</strong></p> <p>After earning his PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton, Polyanskiy finally did come to MIT, his “dream school,” in 2011, but as a professor. MIT had helped pioneer some information theory research and introduced the first college courses in the field.</p> <p>Some call information theory “a green island,” he says, “because it’s hard to get into but once you’re there, you’re very happy. And information theorists can be seen as snobby.” &nbsp;When he came to MIT, Polyanskiy says, he was narrowly focused on his work. But he experienced yet another cultural shock — this time in a collaborative and bountiful research culture.</p> <p>MIT researchers are constantly presenting at conferences, holding seminars, collaborating, and “working on about 20 projects in parallel,” Polyanskiy says. “I was hesitant that I could do quality research like that, but then I got hooked. I became more broad-minded, thanks to MIT’s culture of drinking from a fire hose. There’s so much going on that eventually you get addicted to learning fields that are far away from you own interests.”</p> <p>In collaboration with other MIT researchers, Polyanskiy’s group now focuses on finding ways to split up the spectrum in the coming IoT age. So far, his group has mathematically proven that the systems in use today do not have the capabilities and energy to do so. They’ve also shown what types of alternative transmission systems will and won’t work.</p> <p>Inspired by his own experiences, Polyanskiy likes to give his students “little hooks,” tidbits of information about the history of scientific thought surrounding their work and about possible future applications. One example is explaining philosophies behind randomness to mathematics students who may be strictly deterministic thinkers. “I want to give them a little taste of something more advanced and outside scope of what they’re studying,” he says.</p> <p>After spending 14 years in the U.S., the culture has shaped the Russian native in certain ways. For instance, he’s accepted a more relaxed and interactive Western teaching style, he says. But it extends beyond the classroom, as well. Just last year, while visiting Moscow, Polyanskiy found himself holding a subway rail with both hands. Why is this strange? Because he was raised to keep one hand on the subway rail, and one hand over his wallet to prevent thievery. “With horror, I realized what I was doing,” Polyanskiy says, laughing. “I said, ‘Yury, you’re becoming a real Westerner.’”</p> Yury Polyanskiy Image: M. Scott BrauerResearch, Computer science and technology, Profile, Faculty, Wireless, internet of things, Data, Mobile devices, Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), IDSS, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering Finding the true potential of algorithms Using mathematical theory, Virginia Williams coaxes algorithms to run faster or proves they’ve hit their maximum speed. Tue, 07 Jan 2020 00:00:00 -0500 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office <p>Each semester, Associate Professor Virginia Vassilevska Williams tries to impart one fundamental lesson to her computer-science undergraduates: Math is the foundation of everything.</p> <p>Often, students come into Williams’ class, 6.006 (Introduction to Algorithms), wanting to dive into advanced programming that power the latest, greatest computing techniques. Her lessons instead focus on how algorithms are designed around core mathematical models and concepts. &nbsp;</p> <p>“When taking an algorithms class, many students expect to program a lot and perhaps use deep learning, but it’s very mathematical and has very little programming,” says Williams, the Steven G. (1968) and Renee Finn Career Development Professor who recently earned tenure in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We don’t have much time together in class (only two hours a week), but I hope in that time they get to see a little of the beauty of math — because math allows you to see how and why everything works together. It really is a beautiful thing.”</p> <p>Williams’ life is very much shaped by math. As a child of two mathematician parents, she fell in love with the subject early on. But even though she excelled in the subject, her high school classes focused on German, writing, and biology. Returning to her first love in college and beyond, she applied her math skills to make waves in computer science.</p> <p>In highly influential work, Williams in 2012 improved an algorithm for “<a href="">matrix multiplication</a>” —&nbsp;a fundamental operation across computer science — that was thought to be the fastest iteration for 24 years. Years later, she co-founded an emerging field called “fine-grained complexity,” which seeks to explain, in part, how fast certain algorithms can solve various problems.</p> <p>In matrix multiplication, her work has now shifted slightly to showing that existing techniques “cannot do better,” she says. “We couldn’t improve the performance of our own algorithms anymore, so we came up with ways to explain why we couldn’t and why other methods can’t improve the performance either.”</p> <p><strong>Winding path to math</strong></p> <p>Growing up in Sofia, Bulgaria, Williams loved math and was a gifted student. But her parents often reminded her the mathematician’s life wasn’t exactly glamorous —especially when trying to find faculty gigs in the same area for two people. They sometimes traveled where work took them.</p> <p>That included a brief odyssey around the U.S. as a child. The first stop was Laramie, Wyoming. Her parents were visiting professors at the University of Wyoming, while Williams initially struggled through fourth grade because of the language barrier. “I didn’t really speak English, and was thrown into this school. My brother and I learned English watching the Disney channel, which was pretty fun,” says Williams, who today speaks Bulgarian, English, German, and some Russian.</p> <p>The next stop was Los Angeles — right around the time of the Rodney King riots. “The house on the other side of our street was set on fire,” Williams recalls. “Those were some very strange memories of L.A.”</p> <p>Returning to Bulgaria after two years, Williams decided to “explore her options” outside math by enrolling in the German Language High School in Sofia, the country’s top high school at the time, where she studied the German language, literature, history, and other humanities subjects. But, when it came to applying to colleges, she could never shake her first love. “I really tried to like the humanities, and what I learned is very helpful to me nowadays. But those subjects were very hard for me. My brain just doesn’t work that way,” she says. “I went back to what I like.”</p> <p><strong>Transfixed by algorithms</strong></p> <p>In 1999, Williams enrolled in Caltech. In her sophomore year, she became smitten by an exciting new field: computer science. “I took my first programming course, and I loved it,” she says.</p> <p>She became transfixed by matrix multiplication algorithms, which have some heavy-duty math at their core. These algorithms compute multiple arrays of numbers corresponding to some data and output a single combined matrix of some target values. Applications are wide-ranging, including computer graphics, product design, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology.</p> <p>As a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon, and beyond, she published <a href="">numerous papers</a>, on topics such as developing fast matrix multiplication algorithms in special algebraic structures, with applications including flight scheduling and network routing. After earning her PhD, she took on a series of postdoc and researcher positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, the University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford University, where she landed a faculty position in 2013 teaching courses on algorithms.</p> <p>In 2012, she developed a new algorithm that was faster than the Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm, which had reigned supreme in matrix multiplication since the 1980s. Williams’ method reduced the number of steps required to multiply matrices. Her algorithm is only slightly slower than the current record-holder.</p> <p><strong>Dealing with complexity</strong></p> <p>Between 2010 and 2015, Williams and her husband, Ryan Williams, who is also an MIT professor, became main founders of “fine-grained complexity.” The older field of “computational complexity” finds provably efficient algorithms and algorithms that are probably inefficient, based on some threshold of computational steps they take to solve a problem.</p> <p>Fine-grained complexity groups problems together by computational equivalence to better prove if algorithms are truly optimal or not. For instance, two problems may appear very different in what they solve and how many steps algorithms take to solve them. But fine-grained complexity shows such problems are secretly the same. Therefore, if an algorithm exists for one problem that uses fewer steps, then there must exist an algorithm for the other problem that uses fewer steps, and vice versa. On the flip side, if there exists a provably optimal algorithm for one problem, then all equivalent problems must have optimal algorithms. If someone ever finds a much faster algorithm for one problem, all the equivalent problems can be solved faster.</p> <p>Since co-launching the field, “it’s ballooned,” Williams says. “For most theoretical computer science conferences, you can now submit your paper under the heading ‘fine-grained complexity.’”</p> <p>In 2017, Williams came to MIT, where she says she has found impassioned, likeminded researchers. Many graduate students and colleagues, for instance, are working in topics related to fine-grained complexity. In turn, her students have introduced her to other subjects, such as cryptography, where she’s now introducing ideas from fine-grained complexity.</p> <p>She also sometimes studies “computational social choice,” a field that caught her eye during graduate school. Her work focuses on examining the computational complexity needed to rig sports games, voting schemes, and other systems where competitors are placed in paired brackets. If someone knows, for instance, which player will win in paired match-ups, a tournament organizer can place all players in specific positions in the initial seeding to ensure a certain player wins it all.</p> <p>Simulating all the possible combinations to rig these schemes can be very computationally complex. But Williams, an avid tennis player, authored a 2010 <a href="">paper</a> that found it’s fairly simple to rig a single-elimination tournament so a certain player wins, depending on accurate predictions for match-up winners and other factors.</p> <p>This year she co-wrote a <a href="">paper</a> that showed a tournament organizer could arrange an initial seeding and bribe certain top players — within a specific budget —&nbsp;to ensure a favorite player wins the tournament. “When I need a break from my usual work, I work in this field,” Williams says. “It’s a fun change of pace.”</p> <p>Thanks to the ubiquity of computing today, Williams’ graduate students often enter her classroom far more experienced in computer science than she was at their age. But to help steer them down a distinct path, she draws inspiration from her own college experiences, getting hooked on specific topics she still pursues today.</p> <p>“In order to do good research, you have to obsess over a problem,” Williams says. “I want them to find something in my course they can obsess over.”</p> Virginia WilliamsImage: Jared CharneyResearch, Computer science and technology, Algorithms, Profile, Faculty, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering, Mathematics Anoushka Bose: Targeting a career in security studies and diplomacy Nuclear science and engineering and physics met political science to illuminate a new path. Tue, 17 Dec 2019 15:25:01 -0500 Leda Zimmerman | MIT Political Science <div> <p>Anoushka Bose arrived at MIT in 2016 intent on pursuing problems related to climate change and energy. But two years later, she found herself discussing arms control and international security with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov during a policy forum connecting American and Russian students.</p> <p>“It was eye-opening for me,” says Bose, a double major in political science and physics. “I thought it was fascinating to see how politics and diplomacy work between countries that don't share the same motivations.”</p> <p>In the wake of this experience and a set of equally transformative internships, Bose is now on a new trajectory, moving purposefully toward a public-service career in nuclear policy and diplomacy.</p> <p><strong>Passion for policy and science</strong></p> <p>Growing up in the San Diego, California, area, Bose gravitated toward physics and chemistry in her STEM-oriented high school. But the extracurricular project that completely captivated her was her community's yearlong research and writing competition that traditionally focused on a historical topic. Bose's subject: the Clean Air Act.</p> <p>“This project substantively shaped my interests,” she says. Bose found it “enlightening” to study both the science behind air pollution and the political movement that helped nail down the legislation. “I realized I had passions for both the social sciences and science.”</p> <p>Bose inclined initially toward nuclear science and engineering at MIT because she saw “nuclear energy as the pinnacle solution to climate problems.” She later migrated toward physics, where she hoped to gain more latitude to pursue clean-energy policy questions as well.</p> <p>But it was her engagement with political science that propelled Bose on her current academic path.</p> <p>Venturing into 17.581 (Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions), taught by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, Bose says “a gate opened for me into national security.” With its hybrid focus on American and international politics, the class “gave me both knowledge and respect for the entire security enterprise of the U.S.”</p> <p>This class, along with 17.482-3 (U.S. Military Power), taught by Barry R. Posen, the Ford International Professor of Political Science, “kicked off several semesters dedicated to security studies,” says Bose. “This area seemed like it might be really fulfilling as a career.” The summer after her sophomore year, she grabbed a chance to test her premise.</p> <p><strong>The Washington experience</strong></p> <p>With the help of the MIT Washington DC Summer Internship Program, and Ernest J. Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, Bose landed an internship at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Plunging into research about safeguarding nuclear materials in central Asia, protecting against radiological challenges, and the potential impacts of a nuclear winter after a small-scale nuclear exchange, Bose strongly felt, “This is the kind of place where I want to be.”</p> <p>The initiative's mission also made an impact on Bose: “I thought maybe I should be exploring global nuclear safety, proliferation, and security issues, rather than energy,” she says. With this in mind, she seized an opportunity to dive even deeper into this area, applying for one of 20 U.S. spots in the Stanford-U.S. Russia Forum.</p> <p>Running September 2018 through April 2019, this project brought Bose together with a small group of U.S. and Russian students to discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the Trump administration had decided to withdraw. Meeting virtually and then in person (in both Moscow and Washington) to present policy ideas, Bose and her partners tried to offer solutions that might prove mutually, politically beneficial.</p> <p>“From the policy-making side, I hadn't understood the power of individuals to shape what gets done,” she says. “It was really interesting working with the Russians, who often spoke bluntly, and who did not routinely view the U.S. as having pure motivations.”</p> <p>While laboring over the research and writing for this policy project, Bose continued to delve deeper into security studies at MIT. “I needed to gain knowledge and confidence in understanding international crises,” says Bose.</p> <p>Increasingly sure that she “wanted to do something involving diplomacy and international relations,” Bose secured another internship in Washington last summer, working on nuclear energy policy at the State Department. Even though she hoped to concentrate on weapons and proliferation, Bose was eager “to learn about the processes of government and bureaucracy.”</p> <p>The internship did not disappoint. Bose worked on bolstering U.S. nuclear energy business in countries around the world seeking nuclear power. “I had not internalized how the State Department on a daily basis uses nuclear energy as a policy thrust,” she says. She also helped develop U.S. nuclear cooperation accords with Argentina and Romania. “I was so excited to see something come out of my advocacy,” she says.</p> <p>These real-world experiences “sealed the deal" for Bose. “After last summer I knew I wanted to work in nuclear policy, focusing on security,” she says. Today, under the direction of political science Associate Professor Vipin Narang, she is delving into the issue of global noncompliance with nuclear materials — work for which she has been named a presidential fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.</p> <p>She hasn't abandoned energy, though. She serves as president of the MIT Energy Club, devoting considerable time to hosting events as she finishes coursework for her double major. She is applying both to law school, and for a full-time job next year in Washington in policy and/or diplomacy.</p> <p>In a world challenged by nationalism and conflict, Bose retains a sense of optimism and commitment to a larger goal — a safer world. “It's simple for me to believe in the power of cooperation and trust, especially after working alongside Russian students all year,” she says. “I learned that both sides deeply value nuclear security, and neither side wants a much more dangerous world where no one wins,” she says.</p> </div> Anoushka Bose is moving purposefully toward a public-service career in nuclear policy and diplomacy.Political science, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Physics, Policy, Nuclear security and policy, Energy, International relations, Students, Undergraduate, School of Science, Government, Profile, Nuclear science and engineering, Global Making buildings from industrial waste Following a successful project creating bricks from pulp plant waste in northern India, Elsa Olivetti is looking for ways to repurpose slag produced by the metals industry. Mon, 16 Dec 2019 13:15:01 -0500 Rachel Fritts | Environmental Solutions Initiative <p>Elsa Olivetti’s interest in materials science began when she was an engineering science major at the University of Virginia. Initially unable to settle on any one form of engineering, she took an introduction to materials science class on a whim. She loved the way materials science let her examine everyday material, like a block of wood or piece of cloth, on a molecular level. “Being able to think across those scales is something that I found really cool,” Olivetti says.</p> <p>Now, Olivetti is an associate professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the principal investigator of her own lab. Her interest has turned to the social and environmental impacts of the materials we use in our daily lives. Specifically, the Olivetti lab looks at the huge quantities of industrial waste materials generated in the manufacturing industry, in the hopes of finding useful ways to reconstitute and reuse this waste for building.</p> <p>Some types of waste have already become standard tools in the building industry: fly ash from burning coal, for instance, is increasingly used in concrete as a substitute for freshly produced cement. Most types of industrial waste, however, are simply discarded as useless byproducts. Olivetti hopes to change that. By applying her understanding of materials on a molecular level, she can propose new ways these byproducts might be integrated into usable building materials to make the industry more efficient.</p> <p>Several years ago, Olivetti was able to put that idea to the test by participating in a Tata Center project launched in a city called Muzaffarnagar in northern India. The area is highly industrial, containing pulp and paper mills and steel and brick manufacturers. “But the challenge there is they don’t have a lot of resources to put into environmental abatement,” Olivetti says. “They’re just dumping.”</p> <p>So, the Tata Center team went looking for byproducts that could potentially be put to another use. They noticed that the pulp plants were powered by sugar cane and rice husks, which were burned to generate energy. The byproduct of these burnt plant materials was something called “biomass ash,” which has “pretty high, fairly reactive silica content.” This means that it can bind with other materials to produce a strong, cement-like structure.</p> <p>They were able to demonstrate that this ash, which had previously been dumped as waste, could actually be turned into cheap building material, providing an economic and environmental benefit to the local community. The end result, produced in 2015, was dubbed the Eco-BLAC brick. In 2017, Olivetti received an Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) seed grant to continue this work back at MIT.</p> <p>“What we used the ESI money for is to move outside of biomass ash and into other materials,” Olivetti says. She summarizes the work as “beyond India, beyond ash.” She’s most interested in the kinds of materials where “there’s still enough quantity to make it useful, but they aren’t already well-utilized,” a rubric that has brought her focus to metal waste products, especially the “slag” left over during copper production.</p> <p>Olivetti is particularly fond of the ESI project because “it pulls together a bunch of different dimensions of what I like to think about.” When trying to understand which metal waste materials might be put to the best use, she has to ask a few key questions. First, is the waste material reactive, like the biomass ash material was? Can it bind with other materials to add strength and integrity? How reactive is it? What will it react with, and under what conditions? Or, is the material non-reactive? Non-reactive materials don’t necessarily add value, but can be used to add volume, just as sand is mixed with cement to produce concrete.</p> <p>Once she figures out what role the material might play, she has to understand its durability in the environment where it will be used. Biomass ash, for instance, has a lot of carbon, and one implication of this is that it takes in water. This might not be a problem in India, where it is warm year-round, but it can harm the structural integrity of a material that will be used somewhere like Boston, Massachusetts, where winter temperatures drop below freezing.</p> <p>To test all these things, she needs to do something a little bit counterintuitive. “One of the things we’ve started to do, which has been kind of fun, is synthesize waste,” she says. “Which feels silly when I say it like that.”</p> <p>A recurring problem with researching waste is that it involves substances people have typically ignored. It’s rare for any industry to keep careful track of what its waste is made up of, or how much of it is produced. When making copper, for instance, the end product is always copper. But there might be several different kinds of unintended waste products that are produced along the way, which all get mixed together. Olivetti describes the end result as “Jell-O with a bunch of fruit in it.”</p> <p>By artificially manufacturing the waste, Olivetti can better understand how much of each waste product is produced, and how to best separate it into usable materials. The question of quantity is another one that becomes trickier to answer when dealing with waste material. While a steel factory, for example, has an incentive to measure its steel production, it has little incentive to keep detailed records of how much material it’s wasting.</p> <p>“I think overall what this field needs is better cataloging of what wastes are going to be where, and trying to project that a little bit,” Olivetti says. “If it’s a raw material for making something, you need to know that supply’s going to be steady.” A key component of any business is having a stable supply, so in order for all this waste material to be used more widely, there need to be better records of what kinds of waste are being produced where, and in what quantity. Now, Olivetti is working on a project using AI to automatically extract information about how various materials are made, to try to better understand the supply chain and where the most promising byproducts are being created.</p> <p>She’s also hoping to better understand the environmental impact of using waste materials, to ensure that there will be no harmful effects of repurposing these substances. If even one of the Olivetti lab’s discoveries is widely adopted, her research will have contributed to a materials supply chain that is much more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable than ever before.</p> Associate Professor Elsa Olivetti studies the huge quantities of industrial waste materials generated in the manufacturing industry, in hopes of finding useful ways to reconstitute and reuse this waste for building.Photo: MIT Environmental Solutions InitiativeMaterials Science and Engineering, Tata Center, School of Engineering, Environment, Supply chains, Sustainability, Recycling, Industry, DMSE, Profile, Faculty, India Mary Gehring: Using flowering plants to explore epigenetic inheritance Biologist’s studies illuminate a control system that influences how traits are passed along to new generations. Sat, 14 Dec 2019 23:59:59 -0500 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Genes passed down from generation to generation play a significant role in determining the traits of every organism. In recent decades, scientists have discovered that another layer of control, known as epigenetics, is also critically important in shaping those characteristics.</p> <p>Those added controls often work through chemical modifications of genes or other sections of DNA, which influence how easily those genes can be expressed by a cell. Many of those modifications are similar across species, allowing scientists to use plants as an experimental model to uncover how epigenetic processes work.</p> <p>“Many of the epigenetic phenomena we know about were first discovered in plants, and in terms of understanding the molecular mechanisms, work on plants has also led the way,” says Mary Gehring, an associate professor of biology and a member of MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.</p> <p>Gehring’s studies of the small flowering plant <em>Arabidopsis thaliana</em> have revealed many of the mechanisms that underlie epigenetic control, shedding light on how these modifications can be passed from generation to generation.</p> <p>“We’re trying to understand how epigenetic information is used during plant growth and development, and looking at the dynamics of epigenetic information through development within a single generation, between generations, and on an evolutionary timescale,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Seeds of discovery</strong></p> <p>Gehring, who grew up in a rural area of northern Michigan, became interested in plant biology as a student at Williams College, where she had followed her older sister. During her junior year at Williams, she took a class in plant growth and development and ended up working in the lab of the professor who taught the course. There, she studied how development of <em>Arabidopsis</em> is influenced by plant hormones called auxins.</p> <p>After graduation, Gehring went to work for an environmental consulting company near Washington, but she soon decided that she wanted to go to graduate school to continue studying plant biology. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where she joined a lab that was studying how different genetic mutations affect the development of seeds.</p> <p>That lab, led by Robert Fischer, was one of the first to discover an epigenetic phenomenon called gene imprinting in plants. Gene imprinting occurs when an organism expresses only the maternal or paternal version of particular gene. This phenomenon has been seen in flowering plants and mammals.</p> <p>Gehring’s task was to try to figure out the mechanism behind this phenomenon, focusing on an <em>Arabidopsis</em> imprinted gene called MEDEA. She found that this type of imprinting is achieved by DNA demethylation, a process of removing chemical modifications from the maternal version of the gene, effectively turning it on.</p> <p>After finishing her PhD in 2005, she worked as a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in the lab of Steven Henikoff. There, she began doing larger, genome-scale studies in which she could examine epigenetic markers for many genes at once, instead of one at a time.</p> <p>During that time, she began studying some of the topics she continues to investigate now, including regulation of the enzymes that control DNA methylation, as well as regulation of “transposable elements.” Also known as “jumping genes,” these sequences of DNA can change their position within the genome, sometimes to promote their own expression at the expense of the organism. Cells often use methylation to silence these genes if they generate harmful mutations.</p> <p><strong>Patterns of inheritance</strong></p> <p>After her postdoc, Gehring was drawn to MIT by “how passionate people are about what they’re working on, whether that’s biology or another subject.”</p> <p>“Boston, especially MIT and Whitehead, is a great environment for science,” she says. “It seemed like there were a lot of opportunities to get really smart and talented students in the lab and have interesting colleagues to talk with.”</p> <p>When Gehring joined the Whitehead Institute in 2010, she was the only plant biologist on the faculty, but she has since been joined by Associate Professor Jing-Ke Weng.</p> <p>Her lab now focuses primarily on questions such as how maternal and paternal parents contribute to reproduction, and how their differing interests can lead to genetic conflicts. Gene imprinting is one way that this conflict is played out. Gehring has also discovered that small noncoding RNA molecules play an important role in imprinting and other aspects of inheritance by directing epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation.</p> <p>“One thing we’ve found is that this noncoding RNA pathway seems to control the transcriptional dosage of seeds, that is, how many of the transcripts are from the maternally inherited genome and how many from the paternally inherited genome. Not just for imprinted genes, but also more broadly for genes that aren’t imprinted,” Gehring says.</p> <p>She has also identified a genetic circuit that controls an enzyme that is required to help patterns of DNA methylation get passed from parent to offspring. When this circuit is disrupted, the methylation state changes and unusual traits can appear. In one case, she found that the plants’ leaves become curled after a few generations of disrupted methylation.</p> <p>“You need this genetic circuit in order to maintain stable methylation patterns. If you don’t, then what you start to see is that the plants develop some phenotypes&nbsp;that get worse over generational time,” she says.</p> <p>Many of the epigenetic phenomena that Gehring studies in plants are similar to those seen in animals, including humans. Because of those similarities, plant biology has made significant contributions to scientists’ understanding of epigenetics. The phenomenon of epigenomic imprinting was first discovered in plants, in the 1970s, and many other epigenetic phenomena first seen in plants have also been found in mammals, although the molecular details often vary.</p> <p>“There are a lot of similarities among epigenetic control in flowering plants and mammals, and fungi as well,” Gehring says. “Some of the pathways are plant-specific, like the noncoding RNA pathway that we study, where small noncoding RNAs direct DNA methylation, but small RNAs directing silencing via chromatin is something that happens in many other systems as well.”</p> “Many of the epigenetic phenomena we know about were first discovered in plants, and in terms of understanding the molecular mechanisms, work on plants has also led the way,” says Associate Professor Mary Gehring.Image: Gretchen ErtlFaculty, Profile, Plants, Genetics, Biology, Whitehead Institute, School of Science Supporting students in Puerto Rico after a hurricane’s devastation Postdoc Héctor De Jesús-Cortés works to build up the STEM pipeline from his homeland to MIT and beyond. Fri, 13 Dec 2019 00:00:00 -0500 Fernanda Ferreira | School of Science <p>When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, Héctor De Jesús-Cortés was vacationing on the island with his wife, Edmarie Guzmán-Vélez. “Worst vacation ever, but it actually turned out to be the most important in my life,” says De Jesús-Cortés. In the days immediately after the hurricane, both focused on helping their families get their bearings; after that first week, however, they were itching to do more. That itch would take them to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, where they asked the then-secretary of education a simple question: “How can we help?”</p> <p>With De Jesús-Cortés’ PhD in neuroscience and Guzmán-Vélez’s PhD in clinical psychology, they soon became involved in an effort led by the Department of Education to help students and school staff, as well as the community at large, troubled by the hurricane. “Everyone was traumatized, so if you bring kids to teachers who are also traumatized, that’s a bad recipe,” explains De Jesús-Cortés.</p> <p>De Jesús-Cortés and Guzmán-Vélez connected with their friend Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who studies traumatic stress and Hispanic populations. Working together with the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they developed a program to address trauma in schools. The Esperanza, or “promise,” program is ongoing and has already trained hundreds of school staff members on how to manage trauma and anxiety, and to identify these manifestations in students. &nbsp;</p> <p>Back in Boston, De Jesús-Cortés has continued his efforts for Puerto Rico, raising funds for micro-entrepreneurs and teaching neuroscience in online classes for undergraduates on the island. Each effort is guided by that same simple question — How can we help? His latest effort along with Guzmán-Vélez is a precollege summer program at MIT that will give Puerto Rican students a taste for scientific research. &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>A sense of possibility</strong></p> <p>For De Jesús-Cortés, teaching is more than just a transfer of knowledge. “I see teaching as mentorship,” he says. “I want students to be exposed to opportunities, because growing up in Puerto Rico, I know how difficult it can be for some students to get those opportunities.”</p> <p>While De Jesús-Cortés was an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, he participated in Minority Access for Research Careers (MARC), a National Institutes of Health-funded program that supports underrepresented minority undergraduates as they move toward careers in biomedical sciences. “We had workshops every month about applications; they would bring recruiters, and they would also pay for summer internships,” explains De Jesús-Cortés.</p> <p>MARC allowed De Jesús-Cortés to see a career in science as a possibility, and he envisions that the summer school, whose inaugural class will be in summer 2020, will do something similar. “The idea is to have kids first spend two weeks in Puerto Rico and expose them to research at the undergraduate level,” explains De Jesús-Cortés. The students will be at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Puerto Rico; the university has partnered with De Jesús-Cortés on the project. “Then they travel to Boston and see what research is happening here.” The 15-20 students will spend two weeks in Massachusetts, living in the MIT dorms, visiting labs, and learning how to apply to colleges in the United States.</p> <p>The MARC program also gave De Jesús-Cortés a community. “To this day, I talk to my MARC fellows,” he says, and that’s something he hopes to replicate with the summer students. “Each student will have a mentor, and I want them to keep talking after the program,” De Jesús-Cortés says.</p> <p>The summer school will not just give students a taste of scientific research, it will also show that universities like MIT are within their reach. “I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and my schools didn't have the best resources in STEM,” De Jesús-Cortés says. He hopes that, by seeing researchers in Greater Boston that have the same background, the summer students will see MIT and a career in science as a possibility. “Students need to be exposed to mentors and role models that prove that it can be done,” he says.</p> <p><strong>Fixing vision</strong></p> <p>De Jesús-Cortés works on the summer school, and his other efforts for Puerto Rico and the Latino community, in addition to his neuroscience research. As a postdoc in the lab of Mark Bear, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, he’s trying to use electrophysiology to figure out when neurons in the brain need a little help to communicate.<br /> &nbsp;<br /> Neurons communicate with one another using both chemical and electrical activity. An action potential, which is electrical, travels down the arms of the neuron, but when it reaches the end of that arm, the synapse, the communication becomes chemical. The electrical signal stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, which reach across the gap between two neurons, stimulating the neighboring neuron to make its own action potential.<br /> Not every neuron is equally capable of producing action potentials. “In a neurodegenerative disorder, before the neuron dies, it’s sick,” says De Jesús-Cortés. “And if it’s sick, it’s not going to communicate electrically very well.” De Jesús-Cortés wants to use this diminished electrical activity as a biomarker for disorders in the brain. “If I can detect that diminished activity with an electrode, then I can intervene with a pharmacological agent that will prevent the death of neurons,” he explains.</p> <p>To test this, De Jesús-Cortés is focusing on amblyopia, a condition more commonly known as lazy eye. Lazy eye happens when the communication between the visual cortex — a region in the back of the brain where visual information is received and processed — and one of the eyes is impaired, resulting in blurred vision. Electrical activity in the visual cortex that corresponds to the lazy eye is also down, and De Jesús-Cortés can detect that decreased activity using electrodes. &nbsp;</p> <p>When amblyopia is caught early on, a combination of surgery and an eye patch can strengthen the once-lazy eye, getting rid of the blurriness. “But, if you catch that condition after 8 years old, the patching doesn’t work as well,” says De Jesús-Cortés. Another postdoc in the Bear Lab, Ming-fai Fong, figured out that tetrodotoxin, which is found in puffer fish, is able to reboot the lazy eye, bringing up electrical activity in the visual cortex and giving mice with amblyopia perfect vision mere hours after receiving a drop of the toxin.</p> <p>But we don’t actually know how tetrodotoxin is doing this on a molecular level. “Now, putting tetrodotoxin in humans will be a little bit difficult,” says De Jesús-Cortés. Add too much toxin and you could cause a number of new problems. He is investigating what exactly the toxin is doing to sick neurons. Using that information, he then wants to design alternative treatments that have the same or even better effect: “Find neurons that are quiet because they are sick, and reboot them with a pharmacological agent,” he says.</p> <p>In the future, De Jesús-Cortés wants to look beyond the visual cortex, at other regions of the brain and other conditions like Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, and autism, finding the hurting neurons and giving them a boost.<br /> In both his neuroscience research and his work for Puerto Rico, De Jesús-Cortés is passionate about finding ways to help. But he has also learned that for all these efforts to succeed, he needs to accept help as well. “When you are working on so many projects at the same time, you need a lot of different people that believe in your vision,” he says. “And if you’re helping them, you believe in their vision.” For De Jesús-Cortés, this reciprocity is one of the most important aspects of his work, and it’s a guiding principle in his research and life. “I believe in collaboration like nothing else."</p> At MIT, Héctor De Jesús-Cortés studies neuronal electrical activity underlying diseases such as amblyopia, or lazy eye.Photo: Steph StevensPicower Institute, Brain and cognitive sciences, School of Science, Diversity and inclusion, Research, Profile, graduate, Graduate, postdoctoral, Natural disasters, Latin America, Education, teaching, academics Bringing figures in anticolonial politics out of the shadows MIT historian Sana Aiyar sheds new light on the complexities of independence movements and global migration. Tue, 10 Dec 2019 00:00:00 -0500 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office <p>Independence movements are complicated. Consider Burma (now Myanmar), which was governed as a province of British India until 1937, when it was separated from India. Burma then attained self-rule in 1948. Amid some straightforward demands for autonomy from India, one Burmese nationalist, a Buddhist monk named U Ottama, had a different vision: He wanted his country to break free of Britain but remain part of India, until Burma could become independent.</p> <p>Why would a Burmese Buddhist want independence from one country, only to seek a union with a much bigger — and majority Hindu — neighbor to achieve this?</p> <p>“At the heart of Ottama’s politics lay a spiritual and civilizational geography that framed his argument for Burma’s unity with India,” says MIT historian Sana Aiyar, who is working on a book about Burma and India at the time of the independence movement. “As Burmese nationalists increasingly defined their nationhood in religious terms to demand the separation of Burma from India, U Ottama insisted that since India was the birthplace of Buddhism, Burma was inextricably linked with India.”</p> <p>That this vision found an audience hints at the extensive connections between Burma and India. From 1830 through 1930, an estimated 13 million Indians passed through Burma — the majority of whom were migrant or seasonal laborers — making the city of Rangoon a cosmopolitan capital. Many stayed and married Burmese women — which helped spark an anti-immigrant, anti-Indian backlash that became one driver of Burma’s independence movement.</p> <p>The complexity of the political fault lines of Burmese self-rule makes the topic a natural for Aiyar. A historian of the Indian diaspora, she generally examines how migration, nationalism, and religion have fed into 20th-century anticolonial politics.</p> <p>Aiyar’s work has another distinctive motif. She specializes in illuminating figures like U Ottama, who were once influential but are little-known now.</p> <p>“The core interest that I have is in political history,” says Aiyar, who was awarded tenure earlier this year. “But I’m interested less in the big event, the obvious narrative, and the big leaders. What has always fascinated me are the alternatives, the possibilities that did not get a chance to see complete fruition — the person who didn’t become ‘Gandhi,’ didn’t quite get the same following, but seems to have really mattered in the moment.”</p> <p>In Aiyar’s 2015 book “Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora,” for instance, a key figure is Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, a trader who, in another complex scenario, became a leader for Indian rights in British-occupied Kenya, even as many Indians never became fully aligned with the British or other Kenyans. But even people strolling through Jeevanjee Gardens, a park in central Nairobi, are unlikely to know much about its namesake.&nbsp;</p> <p>“In all of my research, I’ve been following those kinds of elusive figures whose long, shadowy presence emerges in fragments in colonial and national archives,” Aiyar says. “They allow me to ask questions about the dilemmas and dynamics of the moment.”</p> <p><strong>Old and new in Delhi</strong></p> <p>Aiyar grew up in Delhi, in an intellectually minded family; her mother was a journalist, and her father a diplomat and politician.</p> <p>“Even around the dining table, history and politics were always there. It was just part of growing up,” Aiyar says.</p> <p>History and politics were always there in Delhi, too.</p> <p>“Growing up in a city like Delhi … you’re surrounded by history,” Aiyar notes. “It’s almost impossible to look out of the window when you’re driving anywhere in Delhi without seeing historical sites and the outcomes of historical processes in people’s everyday lives.”</p> <p>Aiyar received a BA in history at St. Stephen’s College of Delhi University and then a BA and MA in history at Jesus College in Cambridge, U.K. Aiyar’s stay in England was also the first time she had observed Indians abroad, which made a significant impression on her: “I noticed the way the diaspora made itself visible in Britain, especially in a multicultural state, was not by presenting itself as secular, but through religion,” she says.</p> <p>At that time, politics within India had also taken a turn away from the secularism of the post-independence era, opening up, Aiyar says, “the question of what defined Indian nationhood, who is Indian.”</p> <p>Aiyar attended Harvard University for her PhD in history, originally planning a dissertation about the rise of Hindu nationalism among the Indian diaspora in Britain. She started her research examining the first group in Britain to assert their right to belonging through religion — Indians who had arrived in the U.K. from East Africa in the 1960s. Aiyar became fascinated by the migration of Indians to Kenya in the 19th and 20th centuries, a little-known history at the time, and the relationship they had to both sides of anticolonial politics. Visiting Kenyan archives made clear there was abundant material on hand involving Jeevanjee and many other figures.</p> <p>“Methodologically it always comes back to the archives, where I find a person or an event that calls into question what we think we know about the past,” Aiyar says. “I wonder what is this person doing there, and then I start digging up all the files I can find. I am really an archive rat and the thing about dealing with South Asian history in the colonial period is, there’s just files and files and files of documents — the Brits really liked their paperwork! If one likes the joy of discovery in the archives, there’s so much to piece together.”</p> <p>After completing her dissertation, Aiyar took a postdoc position at Johns Hopkins University, then served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for three years. She joined MIT in 2013.</p> <p><strong>Partition project</strong></p> <p>At MIT, Aiyar appreciates her students — “They are curious, they are open-minded, and a lot of fun to teach” — and enjoys being part of a history faculty with global scope.</p> <p>“One of the things I absolutely love about being here is how international our world history section is,” she says. “For a small department, we really pack a punch. We have every region of the world represented with top-rate scholars.”</p> <p>While teaching, Aiyar is pursuing two long-term research efforts. One project is about the encounters between African soldiers and civilians during World War II, &nbsp;in Burma and India. The other, about Burmese independence and titled “India’s First Partition: Recovering Burma’s South Asian History,” is her second book project.</p> <p>The title is an indirect reference to the division of Pakistan from India in 1947, which almost exclusively holds claim to the world “partition” in South Asian history. But Aiyar’s contention is that this term applies to the separation of Burma from India in 1937. &nbsp;</p> <p>“It is a partition,” Aiyar says. “It’s the very first time a carceral border is created in South Asia, and immigration laws are introduced that literally prevent the millions who moved in and out of Burma from crossing over without paperwork. The border creates a surveillance state. All of this takes place a full decade before Pakistan is created. … I am arguing that 1937 was the first partition of India.”</p> <p>In writing the book, Aiyar is also digging into literature, diaries, and other documents to reconstruct daily life in Burma and show the many interconnections among people of Burmese and Indian heritage.</p> <p>“The history of the mundane, the everyday, I think will really complement the political history of conflict and tension,” Aiyar says. “I’ve always been interested in how people live together with difference.”</p> <p>Or not live together, as the case may be. In South Asia or elsewhere, then and now, as Aiyar recognizes, separatist identity politics can also be a powerful animating force for individuals and political factions.</p> <p>“We can look to history to understand what these questions are about and why people are that invested,” Aiyar says. “I’ve always found history is a really useful way to understand what is going on in the contemporary world.”</p> Sana AiyarImage: M. Scott BrauerSchool of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, History, India, Faculty, Profile, Books and authors Uncovering the role of technology and medicine in deaf and signing worlds Timothy Loh, a HASTS program doctoral student studying deafness, sign language, and technology, is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist-in-training. Thu, 05 Dec 2019 15:00:01 -0500 School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences <p>If the joy and excitement of following your own path could be personified, it would look like Timothy Loh. A love of languages led him nearly around the world to study, and then to MIT, where he is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist-in-training.<br /> <br /> Now in his second year in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences doctoral program in History/Anthropology/Science, Technology and Society — HASTS for short — Loh marvels at what he has already learned and at the “happy confluence” that led him to MIT.<br /> <br /> Growing up in Singapore, Loh was already fascinated with languages. In school there, he studied French and started learning sign language. Add his native languages — English and Mandarin Chinese — and Loh was a polyglot before he arrived at Georgetown University in 2012. There, he studied in the School of Foreign Service where, to satisfy a language requirement, he opted for Arabic, a language he had never before encountered.&nbsp;&nbsp;<br /> <br /> “Structurally, I found it very compelling,” says Loh. “There’s a tri-consonantal root in Arabic, so every word has three letters that form the root of a word, and they can be manipulated into different ways to create new words. I was really blown away.”<br /> <br /> “But I also remember very distinctly in Arabic class when my classmates were talking about the Syrian crisis and I couldn’t understand their conversation. Not because I didn’t understand the words, but because I didn’t know anything about Syria. That marked a turning point for me. I started taking classes in the history, politics, and economics of the Middle East. I realized that you can’t really understand a language without knowing the culture and history behind it.”</p> <p><strong>Sign language, identity, and assistive technology</strong><br /> <br /> For an undergraduate research project, Loh merged these two interests — sign language and the Middle East — and received a grant to study the pedagogical structure of a school for the deaf in Jordan, picking up some Jordanian Sign Language in the process to carry out the research.<br /> <br /> “Sign languages are different in every country,” Loh explains, “because they emerge naturally within communities. They develop individually and become different languages, just as spoken languages do. American Sign Language and British Sign Language, for example, are different sign languages even though these signers are all surrounded by English speakers.”<br /> <br /> Soon, however, Loh began to explore assistive technology and, in particular, cochlear implants. These devices are surgically implanted and bypass the normal acoustic hearing process with electronic signals; these stimulate the auditory nerve to provide a sense of sound to the user.<br /> <br /> “Implants were controversial within the deaf community in the United States at first,” says Loh, “and still are, to some extent. There was a fear of what they would mean for the future of the deaf community. There were scholars who described cochlear implants for the deaf as a form of cultural or linguistic genocide. That sounds like an extreme description, but it really does index the depth of attachment that people have to a sense of themselves as deaf. So, I started thinking about the implications that technology has in the world of the deaf and for their ability to navigate the world.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Teaching and learning in the Middle East</strong><br /> <br /> Returning from Jordan to Georgetown, Loh completed a master’s degree in Arab Studies, considered starting a PhD in anthropology, then decided to spent two years first working in the Middle East: the first year with a refugee program for Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese families in urban areas in Amman; and the second at a boarding school in Madaba, teaching Chinese and Middle East history.<br /> <br /> By then, Loh knew his next step was a doctoral program in anthropology, in which he could explore deafness, sign language, and the role of technology and medicine. “MIT is the best place to be an anthropologist studying issues of science and technology,” he says. “We’re right beside colleagues who are inventing the very technologies and devices whose ethical and social implications we’re trying to understand. It’s a place where we’re able to think deeply and critically about how scientific knowledge and authority is constructed.<br /> <br /> Loh is now framing his doctoral thesis and taking advantage of features available to HASTS students, such as auditing MIT classes in technical fields and also taking Harvard classes. “It’s such a privilege to be able to draw on the intellectual resources of two universities in one city,” says Loh.<br /> <br /> “I’ve also found that as a program and a cohort of students, MIT HASTS is very collegial and welcoming,” he says. “As doctoral students, we benefit from a level of focused attention from professors across all three HASTS departments that’s really rare and generative for interdisciplinary work.”</p> <p><strong>Speaking truth to power</strong></p> <p>Reflecting on his first year at MIT, Loh says it was humbling for several reasons: realizing how much he didn’t yet know; doing research in languages in which he’s not a native speaker; and the politics of writing about the deaf community, particularly as a person who is not deaf.</p> <p>“The history of anthropology is full of foreigners, often ones with privilege and social capital, coming in and speaking for a group that, for some reason, might not be able to speak for itself. With that history in mind, we as anthropologists are constantly thinking, ‘How do we represent social life responsibly?’</p> <p>“Last summer, when I was doing fieldwork, one of my deaf friends asked me straight up, ‘How does your work benefit the deaf community in Jordan?’ That’s a fair question. I told him I am still thinking about this. It’s an important question to answer well. How do anthropologists give back to the community that we’re learning from?</p> <p>“I think for many anthropologists, we hope that our work can ‘speak truth to power,’ to resist and complicate simplistic and hegemonic narratives, like the idea that technology can provide technical solutions for political problems. I do hope that my research can eventually inform policymaking for people in the Middle East whose voices need to be heard.”<br /> &nbsp;</p> <h5><em>Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications<br /> Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand<br /> Writer, Photographer: Maria Iacobo</em></h5> “MIT is the best place to be an anthropologist studying issues of science and technology," says Timothy Loh, a sophomore in the HASTS PhD program. "It’s a place where we’re able to think deeply and critically about how scientific knowledge and authority is constructed."Photo:Maria IacoboSchool of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Anthropology, History, Technology and society, Assistive technology, Middle East, Students, Gradaute, Graduate, postdoctoral, Profile, Program in STS Fueled by the power of stories A fascination with storytelling led K. Guadalupe Cruz to graduate studies in neuroscience and shapes her work to promote inclusivity at MIT. Thu, 05 Dec 2019 00:00:00 -0500 Fernanda Ferreira | School of Science <p>K. Guadalupe Cruz’s path into neuroscience began with storytelling.</p> <p>“For me, it was always interesting that we are capable of keeping knowledge over so many generations,” says Cruz, a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. For millennia, information has been passed down through the stories shared by communities, and Cruz wanted to understand how that information was transferred from one person to the next. “That was one of my first big questions,” she says.</p> <p>Cruz has been asking this question since high school and the urge to answer it led her to anthropology, psychology, and linguistics, but she felt like something was missing. “I wanted a mechanism,” she explains. “So I kept going further and further, and eventually ended up in neuroscience.”</p> <p>As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Cruz became fascinated with the sheer complexity of the brain. “We started learning a lot about different animals and how their brains worked,” says Cruz. “I just thought it was so cool,” she adds. That fascination got her into the lab and Cruz has never left. “I’ve been doing research ever since.”</p> <p><strong>A sense of space </strong></p> <p>If you’ve ever seen a model of the brain, you’ve probably seen one that is divided into regions, each shaded with a different color and with its own distinct function. The frontal lobe in red plans, the cerebellum in blue coordinates movement, the hippocampus in green remembers. But this is an oversimplification.</p> <p>“The brain isn’t entirely modular,” says Cruz. Different parts of the brain don’t have a single function, but rather a number of functions, and their complexity increases toward the front of the brain. The intricacy of these frontal regions is embodied in their anatomy: “They have a lot of cells and they’re heavily interconnected,” she explains. These frontal regions encode many types of information, which means they are involved in a number of different functions, sometimes in abstract ways that are difficult to unravel.</p> <p>The frontal region Cruz is bent on demystifying is the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, a part of the brain that wraps around the corpus callosum, which divides the outer layers of the brain into left and right hemispheres. Working with mice in Professor Mriganka Sur’s lab, Cruz looks at the role of the ACC in coordinating different downstream brain structures in orientating tasks. In humans, the ACC is involved in motivation, but in mice it has a role in visually guided orienting.</p> <p>“Everything you experience in the world is relative to your own body,” says Cruz. Being able to determine where your body is in space is essential for navigating through the world. To explain this, Cruz gives the example of driver making a turn. “If you have to do a left turn, you’re going to need to use different information to determine whether you’re allowed to make that turn and if that’s the right choice,” Cruz explains. The ACC in this analogy is the driver: It has to take in all the information about the surrounding world, decide what to do, and then send this decision to other parts of the brain that control movement.</p> <p>To study this, Cruz gives mice a simple task: She shows them two squares of different shades on a screen and asks them to move the darker square. “The idea is, how does this area of the brain take in this information, compare the two squares and decide which movement is correct,” she explains. Many researchers study how information gets to the ACC, but Cruz is interested in what happens after the information arrives, focusing on the processing and output ends of the equation, particularly in deciphering the contributions of different brain connections to the resulting action.</p> <p>Cruz uses optogenetics to figure out which areas of the brain are necessary for decision-making. Optogenetics is a technique that uses light to turn on or off previously targeted neurons or areas of the brain. “This allows us to causally test whether parts of a circuit are required for a behavior or not,” she explains. Cruz distills it even further: “But mostly, it just lets us know that if you screw with this area, you’re going to screw something up.”</p> <p><strong>Community builder </strong></p> <p>At MIT, Cruz has been able to ask the neuroscience questions she’s captivated by, but coming to the Institute also made her more aware of how few underrepresented minorities, or URMs, there are in science broadly. “I started realizing how academia is not built for us, or rather, is built to exclude us,” says Cruz. “I saw these problems, and I wanted to do something to address them.”</p> <p>Cruz has focused many of her efforts on community building. “A lot of us come from communities that are very ‘other’ oriented, and focused on helping one another,” she explains. One of her initiatives is Community Lunch, a biweekly casual lunch in the brain and cognitive sciences department. “It’s sponsored by the School of Science for basically anybody that’s a person of color in academia,” says Cruz. The lunch includes graduate students, postdocs, and technicians who come together to talk about their experiences in academia. “It’s kind of like a support group,” she says. Connecting with people that have shared experiences is important, she adds: “You get to talk about things and realize this is a feeling that a lot of people have.”</p> <p>Another goal of Cruz’s is to make sure MIT understands the hurdles that many URMs experience in academia. For instance, applying to graduate school or having to cover costs for conferences can put a real strain on finances. “I applied to 10 programs; I was eating cereal every day for a month,” remembers Cruz. “I try to bring that information to light, because faculty and administrators have often never experienced it.”</p> <p>Cruz also is the representative for the LGBT community on the MIT Graduate Student Council and a member of LGBT Grad, a student group run by and for MIT’s LGBT grad students and postdocs. “LGBT Grad is basically a social club for the community, and we try to organize events to get to know each other,” says Cruz. According to Cruz, graduate school can feel pretty lonely for members of the LGBT community, so, similar to her work with URMs, Cruz concentrates on bringing people together. “I can’t fix the whole system, which can be very frustrating at times, but I focused my efforts on supporting people and allowing us to build a community.”</p> <p>As in her research, Cruz again comes back to the importance of storytelling. In her activism on campus, she wants to make sure the stories of URMs are known and, in doing so, help remove the obstacles faced by that generations of students that come after her.</p> K. Guadalupe Cruz studies the neuroscience of decision-making and creates community in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Photo: Steph StevensSchool of Science, Brain and cognitive sciences, Picower Institute, Students, Graduate, postdoctoral, Diversity and inclusion, Women in STEM, Student life, Profile, Community, Neuroscience There’s excitement in the air for Humberto Caldelas The AeroAstro major’s childhood love of airplanes and space travel has led to lofty career ambitions. Wed, 04 Dec 2019 00:00:00 -0500 Shafaq Patel | MIT correspondent <p>When Humberto Caldelas II was growing up, his dad took him to all the nearest air shows so he could see all the planes.&nbsp;And when he learned to drive, he joked with his parents that he shouldn’t drive near the airport because he would get distracted. He always looks up at the sky when he hears airplanes pass.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I can't even tell you the first time I got interested in airplanes,” he says. “I think I just was born with it.”</p> <p>Caldelas is an MIT senior majoring in aeronautics and astronautics, but he came into the university thinking he’d go into nuclear science and engineering.&nbsp;He used to think of his love of flying as a hobby but not a profession — that is, until his friends convinced him to take a tour of the MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro). During his tour, he learned of a semiserious requirement for every professor candidate. As the rumor goes, after the technical interviews, the candidate is taken outside; if a plane flies overhead and the candidate doesn’t look up, they don’t get the job.</p> <p>As soon as Caldelas heard this, he knew AeroAstro would be his home.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I was like, ‘If that's the passion here in the department, then that's where I should be.’ And I haven't regretted that decision since,” he says. “It's really been so much fun. It feels like a home just because I can nerd out with people about all the airplane and space things.”</p> <p>Through his major, Caldelas has focused on both air and space travel, and hopes his career will go in both directions. Caldelas has been involved with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) during his four years at MIT and after graduation will join the Navy as a naval aviator. After serving for his country and working with airplanes, he then hopes to become an astronaut.</p> <p><strong>The flying bug</strong></p> <p>Caldelas is the kind of person to arrive at the airport well before his flight, just so he can see planes take off. And when he’s on the airplane, he loves sitting in a seat where he can look out the window and watch the engine function.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>“Every time I fly, I get the chills,” he says. “There's a quote that goes ‘with understanding comes appreciation, and with appreciation comes respect.’ So after studying how a jet engine works, how hard it is to design it, how hard it is to build it, it makes [an airplane] even more incredible.”&nbsp;</p> <p>The aeronautics part of his MIT education gave Caldelas a background on the theory and mechanics of airplane flight. Through his classes, he’s learned about the physics of flying, experimented by making foam airplanes, and tested equipment through wind tunnels.&nbsp;</p> <p>Over the past two summers, Caldelas interned at Boeing, gaining hands-on experience with the 737 and P-8A Poseidon aircraft. He also got to see how understanding the mechanics of an airplane will help him when he is a pilot.&nbsp;</p> <p>For example, when they were testing some iterations of the new 777X, one of the test pilots — who had both flying experience and and understood what was going on inside the plane — easily identified an issue with the plane because she was in tune with how an airplane is constructed. Caldelas aspires to do exactly that.</p> <p>After graduating, he wants to commission as an officer in the Navy and be a fighter pilot. During his first year of high school, Caldelas enrolled in the Civil Air Patrol, which is affiliated with the U.S. Air Force. He flew an airplane for the first time and has never gotten over that thrill. Throughout his time at MIT, he’s been involved with Naval ROTC and often wears the classic “summer whites” uniform with the gold buttons; this semester, he is the company commander of his unit.</p> <p>After Navy training post-college, he hopes to go to U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. Caldelas says test pilots know how to fly and have a technical understanding of airplanes, which helps them communicate with the engineers on what they need to tweak.</p> <p><strong>From white uniform to white space suit</strong></p> <p>The AeroAstro hallway displays photos of many illustrious alumni of the department, including a number of astronauts — a group Caldelas ultimately hopes to join.</p> <p>His fascination with astronauts began early: When he was 4 years old, his family went to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I was just barely walking, and this astronaut comes up, and I was like wow, ‘I want to be him,’” he says.&nbsp;</p> <p>The admiration with astronauts skyrocketed as he grew up. When MIT was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Caldelas received an email from the department asking for students to help escort astronauts around the events. Immediately, he filled out the form — if there is an opportunity to meet an astronaut, Caldelas is there.&nbsp;</p> <p>Caldelas was assigned to Mark Lee, a former Air Force Colonel and <a href="" title="NASA">NASA</a> <a href="" title="Astronaut">astronaut</a> who flew on four <a href="" title="Space Shuttle">Space Shuttle</a> missions. When Caldelas was showing Lee around, Lee stopped in the middle of the hallway of photographs and nonchalantly said “that’s me,” pointing to a large photograph of a man in a white space suit with Earth in the background. Starstruck, Caldelas looked at the frame and saw the name “Mark Lee” on it. He immediately asked for a photograph of the two of them with the historic image in the background.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I walk past this photo everyday. Who else can say they met the astronaut in a famous photograph?” Caldelas says. “Only at MIT does that happen.”</p> <p>Throughout the tour of the department, Caldelas kept saying how he can’t believe he is in the same space as so many MIT legends. A national Hispanic Scholarship Fund recipient, Caldelas is also a first-generation American, one of the first Hispanic students to be accepted into the engineering program at his high school, and the first person to get into MIT from his New Jersey high school.</p> <p>He’s constantly grateful for his opportunities and hopes to inspire the next generation, just as the MIT astronauts and their photographs inspired him.&nbsp;</p> <p>“You don’t have to be perfect to go to this school, you just have to have the passion, and that motivates people,” he says. “It’s really humbling for me live out my dreams to come to MIT. And I want to honor this opportunity by inspiring others to keep going and reach for their dreams.”</p> “I can't even tell you the first time I got interested in airplanes,” says AeroAstro major Humberto Caldelas. “I think I just was born with it.”Image: Bryce VickmarkUndergraduate, Profile, Aeronautical and astronautical engineering, School of Engineering, ROTC, Students Exploring the human side of health care Senior and “people person” Adedoyin Olateru-Olagbegi brings a human touch to caring for people dealing with medical crises. Wed, 20 Nov 2019 23:59:59 -0500 Shafaq Patel | MIT News correspondent <p>For over 100 hours per semester, Adedoyin Olateru-Olagbegi can be found wearing a navy blue polo, black pants, boots, and a radio over her shoulder. She’s on the alert; if someone calls the emergency line, she’s ready to drive an ambulance to the scene.</p> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi, an MIT senior, is a certified emergency medical technician. She is one of about 40 MIT community members to participate in the student-run <a href="">Emergency Medical Services</a> program, which she has been involved with since her first Independent Activities Period at MIT.</p> <p>“I’ve always been a people person, and I think that has carried over to EMS,” she says. “My favorite part is being able to interact with different types of people. It’s a scary thing to ride in an ambulance, and I understand that I can be a friend to them in that moment.”</p> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi is also a friend to the kids at <a href="">Camp Kesem</a>, a summer camp for children who have been affected by a parent’s cancer, where she has been a counselor and is now a co-director. In all of these roles, and during a formative trip to South Africa to learn about efforts to empower patients affected by HIV/AIDs, Olateru-Olagbegi has seen firsthand the importance of human interactions in caring for people experiencing medical crises. Ultimately, she hopes to use her formidable people skills as well as the analytical skills she has honed while majoring in computer science, economics, and data science, to work in global public health, helping to address inequities that lead to preventable deaths.</p> <p><strong>Ready at the sound of a siren</strong></p> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi is sitting in her Sigma Kappa sorority house when, in the middle of the interview, she hears ambulance sirens. She stops mid-sentence to look out the window.</p> <p>“I always look outside to see if its our ambulance,” she laughs. “A lot of the hospitals are down the street, so a lot of the ambulances drive down here.”</p> <p>When Olateru-Olagbegi is on EMS duty, she waits in the basement of the Stata Center with a group of fellow EMS-certified volunteers. When they get a call, they hurry to the truck and then drive to the location. MIT EMS responds to both on-campus calls and mutual-aid calls in Boston and Cambridge.</p> <div class="cms-placeholder-content-video"></div> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi is an EMS crew chief, which can mean that she’s either driving or in the back of the ambulance with the patient.</p> <p>“I’ll be thinking big-picture about the call — about how quickly we need to be moving, about if we need to be calling anyone else for help, about making sure that everyone is doing the right thing. But ultimately, I ensure that the patient is safe and is getting to care as quickly as they need to,” she says.</p> <p>She was also a HeartSafe Officer for MIT EMS during her first and second years at MIT. Project HeartSafe runs much of the CPR/First Aid training on MIT’s campus, including a free annual event called MassCPR, where students, faculty, and staff learn CPR and other life-saving skills. Olateru-Olagbegi and her HeartSafe colleagues have trained hundreds of MIT community members in CPR.</p> <p>They have also conducted outreach to make CPR training more accessible, including partnering with independent living groups for trainings and conducting other trainings in public places on campus.</p> <p>“I’m super proud of our initiative to use existing MIT infrastructure to make CPR training more accessible,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Shaving cream, fake mud, and friendship</strong></p> <p>While Olateru-Olagbegi, who grew up in suburban Maryland, never went to a sleepaway summer camp, she has been volunteering for MIT’s chapter of Camp Kesem since her first year at MIT. The free camp gives over 200 children a fun week in a community of other campers who understand what they’re going through.</p> <p>One way the children let loose is during “messy wars.” There’s shaving cream, mud-like substances, slime, and more. No one is spared.</p> <p>“I often try to avoid getting messy, but it’s inevitable. Someone always finds me,” Olateru-Olagbegi laughs.</p> <p>Her favorite part of each year, however, is seeing how shy new campers become comfortable and gain confidence as the week progresses.</p> <p>“There’s just a really true desire to support and be supported. It’s a really special environment,” she says. “I think the camp environment is super special in that campers often feel at home so quickly, even if they’ve never been to camp before, and it really is a family in that sense.”</p> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi has co-directed the program since last year, heading the volunteer committee, which recruits, supports, and trains 140 counselors throughout the year, and the teen committee, which runs Kesem for the teen campers. She devotes most of her free time to planning Camp Kesem and loves being able to create this experience for the campers.</p> <p>Olateru-Olagbegi has also participated in a variety of other extracurricular activities at MIT, including serving as secretary of the Black Students’ Union and as a student representative on the MIT presidential advisory committee, among other things.</p> <p>“A lot of what has defined my time at MIT has been the different things that I’ve been able to get involved in,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Global impact</strong></p> <p>For two consecutive Independent Activities Periods, Olateru-Olagbegi decided to avail herself of MIT’s opportunities to travel abroad.</p> <p>Her first year, she went to South Africa and learned about the HIV/AIDS crisis directly from the people being affected. She had never been to South Africa before, but she was instantly surrounded by a welcoming community and began creating new relationships. She and her classmates interacted with villagers, traditional healers, researchers, and HIV-positive women — some of whom were approximately her age.</p> <p>“That was hugely impactful for me to experience as far as understanding how I, as someone who wants to work in public health, might work with those communities,” she says.</p> <p>She decided to go to Colombia for her next IAP. The focus of this class was designing technologies with coffee farmers and directly engaging with the farmers throughout the whole process. The students did market research on coffee in Colombia, facilitated community conversations about the research and a future strategy, and taught the community members how to make and use a website to sell their products.</p> <p>These two experiences solidified her desire to go into global public health, with a focus on removing barriers to equity. A career is a researcher in a laboratory has never had much appeal to Olateru-Olagbegi anyway; she would prefer to be out in the field, helping to affect change by working with people directly.</p> <p>“As we think about system-wide change in health care, we must keep in mind the human aspect of it all,” she says.</p> “A lot of what has defined my time at MIT has been the different things that I’ve been able to get involved in,” says senior Adedoyin Olateru-Olagbegi.Image: Gretchen ErtlProfile, Students, Undergraduate, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Engineering, Developing countries, Health, Medicine, Africa, Latin America, Public health Jaleesa Trapp shakes things up in the classroom and in computing The PhD student and former high school teacher aims to study the ways young people of color interact with technology. Thu, 14 Nov 2019 23:59:59 -0500 Bridget E. Begg | Office of Graduate Education <p>“My introduction to MIT was an interesting one,” says Jaleesa Trapp, a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab. “MIT came to me.”</p> <p>That introduction came in the form of an afterschool program called the Computer Clubhouse in Trapp’s hometown of Tacoma, Washington. The program, founded by the Media Lab research group Lifelong Kindergarten and run by the The Clubhouse Network, is a technology-based learning environment for high school students that has been introduced to 100 underserved neighborhoods in over 20 countries. At the Clubhouse, Trapp learned graphic design, coding, video editing, and robotics, and she was introduced to a wide spectrum of possible STEM careers.</p> <p>Now, Trapp is working toward her PhD in the very same research group. Informed by many happy hours spent at the Clubhouse, her undergraduate studies, and her experience teaching high school, she aims to study the different ways youth, particularly black and brown youth, interact with computers and technology. She is especially curious about nonstandard human-computer interfaces — technologies distinct from desktop or laptop interactions.</p> <p><strong>Shaking things up</strong></p> <p>The Clubhouse in Tacoma was in close proximity to Trapp’s high school, yet it felt worlds away. “I hated high school, but I liked going to the Clubhouse,” she says. “It was like I was in two different worlds. My teachers had no idea that at the Clubhouse I was creating these interactive CD-ROMs and doing all types of things.”</p> <p>Trapp’s experience at the Clubhouse, along with a high school internship at Microsoft, crystallized her interest in using technology to solve problems for people. She received her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington in human-centered design and engineering with a concentration in human-computer interactions.</p> <p>After college, Trapp spent a year with AmeriCorps before returning to the Clubhouse as a coordinator, running the program she had attended just a few years before. After a year working solely at the Clubhouse, she was approached by local educators to teach high school. She hesitated at first but then realized the impact she could have. “I ended up going back to teach high school [because] I wanted to give more youth the opportunity to have the same Clubhouse experience I did — but inside the classroom. Not all students can come to an afterschool program, so I try to find a way to do that inside the school.”</p> <p>Trapp describes her pedagogical approach as a bit unorthodox. She recalls a computer science class in which she taught students how to make their own playdough to use with Makey Makey, software that allows children to make their own controllers with conductive objects. “The way that I run things, when I go to other teachers’ classrooms I know they think, ‘She’s letting these kids run wild!’ I like going and shaking things up.”</p> <p><strong>Returning to kindergarten</strong></p> <p>After teaching for three years, Trapp wanted to apply her skills and her proclivity for shaking things up to the world of academic research. When she applied to the Media Lab, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group was a natural fit. The group is inspired by the way learning occurs in kindergarten — through building and experimenting — and aims to expand that concept to other technologies and learning experiences.</p> <p>One of the strengths of the program, she says, is the diverse backgrounds of others in the Media Lab. "Kind of like the real world!” she laughs. “We all have these different skills and knowledge to bring to work on a project, which I think makes it a lot more dynamic than if we were to work alone.”</p> <p>Despite the diversity of backgrounds, Trapp notes that she is one of just a few black students in the Media Lab, which at times makes her feel hypervisible: “I change my hair a lot. I wear a lot of braids and twists and stuff. And just the comments about my hair, asking why it’s so different … just having to answer that type of question is really exhausting. Like, you get to come here and be a student, and I get to come here and teach you about black hair … and then be a student.”</p> <p><strong>Empowering her students</strong></p> <p>Trapp has channeled the added pressure she feels as a minority student into her master’s thesis, which she recently finished. It’s an antiracist learning guide that helps educators engage marginalized youth in STEM activities by creating an equitable learning space. One important way to do that, Trapp explains, is by shifting power: “Even just the way we do introductions, allowing students to stand up there and say their names instead of [teachers] butchering their names, asking them their preferred name, giving them that power, asking them what they value.”</p> <p>“I don’t have rules in my classroom,” she adds. “They come in and as a group we decide, how do we want to treat each other in this space? How do we want to treat this space, and how do we hold each other accountable for it? And by doing that, if something happens I can always remind them, ‘You set this up, not me, and I’m also held accountable to it.’” Trapp looks forward to using her master’s thesis work as a foundation for her PhD thesis, but with more of a focus on how youth interact with computing.</p> <p>As she gears up for her next four years in Boston, Trapp admits she misses her beloved Tacoma, where her strongest support system remains. (The town raised thousands of dollars after she was admitted to MIT, to help her to move to campus and settle in.) She also feels a responsibility to the youth of Tacoma.</p> <p>“I think I’m so invested because I want to be able to give opportunities that I didn’t have,” she says. “If there were more opportunities like the Clubhouse … I think that could inspire kids to do other things, and know that they’re capable, and know that there’s more out there. And then, hopefully, they would still want to give back to Tacoma, too. For the future of Tacoma, I want kids to know that they can go and do anything that they want to do.”</p> Jaleesa TrappImage: Gretchen ErtlStudents, Media Lab, School of Architecture and Planning, K-12 education, STEM education, Education, teaching, academics, Diversity and inclusion, Technology and society, Human-computer interaction, Profile, Graduate, postdoctoral Advancing nuclear detection and inspection Assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering Areg Danagoulian probes deep inside cargo containers and ballistic warheads to ferret out fissile materials. Thu, 14 Nov 2019 11:25:01 -0500 Leda Zimmerman | Nuclear science and engineering <p>If not for an episode of soul-searching at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Areg Danagoulian ’99 might have remained content pummeling protons with photons and advancing experimental nuclear physics. Instead, the assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering took off on a different trajectory.</p> <p>“At Los Alamos, where I worked after my doctoral research, I began learning about the scale of the problem of nuclear weapons,” he recounts. “With two children, I was newly sensitive to the issue, and began wondering if I could apply what I had learned in nuclear physics to address such urgent challenges as nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear war.”</p> <p>Since 2008, Danagoulian has committed himself to these challenges, generating new technologies that reduce nuclear security threats in the near term and that offer game-changing options in the arena of nuclear nonproliferation and treaty verification.</p> <p>This work has brought significant notice. This year the U.S. Department of Energy named him as a member of its Consortium of Monitoring, Technology, and Verification. And for scientific and engineering achievements that bear important implications for the field, he was just awarded the 2019 Radiation Science and Technology Award from the American Nuclear Society.</p> <p><strong>Verify, then trust</strong></p> <p>One of Danagoulian’s key research thrusts is development of a method for verifying the authenticity of nuclear warheads. His most recent work in the area, <a href="" target="_blank">published</a> in the Sept. 30 <em>Nature Communications</em>&nbsp;and coauthored by nuclear science and engineering graduate student Ezra M. Engel, may open up new paths to reducing nuclear stockpiles and reaching new treaties on deployed nuclear weaponry.</p> <p>“Up to now, there have been no ways to verify warheads, or to verify dismantlement of warheads,” says Danagoulian. For security reasons, nuclear powers don’t let inspectors get close to their warheads, and the conventional method for offering proof of dismantlement relies on destroying weapons delivery systems — e.g., cutting wings off B-52 bombers.</p> <p>And even where disarmament treaties exist, “there is an incentive to cheat and maintain an advantage,” says Danagoulian. Without the capacity to determine whether the other side’s warhead is real, or if its warhead has actually been dismantled, a nation might well view a current or future treaty as toothless.</p> <p>But Danagoulian has found a technical solution to this problem. His approach uses neutron resonance transmission spectroscopy to capture a unique fingerprint of the relevant isotopes in a nuclear weapon, as well as its geometry. During this process, information describing these key identifiers for a nuclear object becomes encrypted physically in a special filter. This encrypted, master version of data can be used as the basis for comparison of other warheads. If their nuclear signatures don't match this template, warheads may be deemed hoaxes.</p> <p>This technology offers two major advances: First, the physical encryption, unlike a digitally stored, computational record, cannot be hacked. And second, the process around this technology makes it possible for weapons inspectors to determine the nature of a weapon without ascertaining its engineering makeup.</p> <p>“This is a way to verify that something is a warhead, and find out nothing about it,” says Danagoulian. The capacity to protect proprietary nuclear weapon design while verifying the dismantlement of its treaty partner’s nuclear stockpile makes it more likely that nations will submit to inspections, and potentially sign new treaties.</p> <p>“By reducing technological barriers, our approach might catalyze future treaties,” says Danagoulian. While he knows that “without political will, even the coolest technology won’t come into play,” he wants the right technology in hand if and when the political door opens. “Our research is high risk, high reward: If and when the politics lines up, the impact will be enormous.”</p> <p><strong>Evolving nuclear concerns</strong></p> <p>Danagoulian was born in Soviet-era Armenia, the child of two physicists. While he grew up during the Cold War, he says that most of the Soviet public didn’t perceive nuclear weapons as an existential threat. “The party regulated all debate, and while my own father knew a lot and discussed with me the devastating power of the bomb, most people knew little about fallout and nuclear winter,” he recalls. “Then suddenly, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was all about peace, but no one could really say what it meant to try to prevent nuclear war.”</p> <p>Smitten with math, he decided to become a physicist. After moving to the United States with his family in 1993, he attended first North Carolina State University, then MIT as an undergraduate, where he was warmly welcomed by the nuclear physics group.</p> <p>Then came doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he investigated the interactions of fundamental particles, and next, his career-changing time at Los Alamos. “People there were working on nuclear detection and others on nuclear terrorism,” he says. “But not everyone shared my sense of the dangers of nuclear weapons, or the urgency to get rid of them.”</p> <p>Eager to pursue technological solutions to nuclear threats where he could employ his physics expertise, Danagoulian took a job at Passport Systems starting in 2009. Over the next five years, he helped spearhead a new process for detecting bomb-worthy nuclear materials concealed in large shipping containers. “We wanted to be able to find a tiny amount of material, maybe a two-inch cube representing a two- to three-kilogram uranium or plutonium weapon, inside a jammed 20-ton container,” he says.</p> <p>The technology he helped develop finds radioactive material by subjecting a container to a beam of photons. These energetic particles catalyze fission and breakup of elements like uranium and plutonium, releasing a flood of neutrons. “If we see a sudden increase in the count of fast neutrons in our detector, we know something weird is going on inside,” he says. This technology for sniffing out radioactive weapons has been put into practice at such sites as South Boston’s Conley terminal.</p> <p><strong>Contending with an existential threat</strong></p> <p>While bringing this technology to commercial fruition was rewarding, Danagoulian felt drawn back to academia. “I was more interested in focusing fully on research and the opportunity to work with students,” he says. Returning to MIT in 2014, he encountered an eager and engaged pool of young people.</p> <p>“Today’s students, even though they didn’t grow up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, are imaginative and curious enough to understand the scale of the problem,” he says. “Many come to MIT motivated to adopt a mission, which is more important than a good job to them.”</p> <p>Danagoulian is happy for such motivated recruits, given the immensity of his cause. “We use abstract and technical language like deterrence and strategic balance to talk about these weapons, when what we’re really talking about are instruments of global genocide,” he says. “I’d like to see a world with no nuclear weapons at all.”</p> Areg Danagoulian has committed himself to generating new technologies that reduce nuclear security threats and that offer game-changing options in the arena of nuclear nonproliferation and treaty verification.Photo: Gretchen ErtlNuclear science and engineering, Research, Nuclear security and policy, Security studies and military, School of Engineering, Physics, International relations, Cryptography, Profile, Alumni/ae, Policy, Faculty Historian of the hinterlands In overlooked spots on the map, MIT Professor Kate Brown examines the turbulence of the modern world. Tue, 12 Nov 2019 23:59:59 -0500 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office <p>History can help us face hard truths. The places Kate Brown studies are particularly full of them. &nbsp;</p> <p>Brown, a historian in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, has made a career out of studying what she calls “modernist wastelands” — areas suffering after years of warfare, social conflict, and even radioactive fallout from atomic accidents.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brown has spent years conducting research in the former Soviet Union, often returning to a large region stretching across the Poland-Ukraine border, which has been beset by two world wars, ethnic cleansing, purges, famine, and changes in power. It’s the setting for her acclaimed first book, “A Biography of No Place” (2004), a chronicle of the region’s conflicts and their consequences.</p> <p>The same region includes the site of the Chernobyl nuclear-reactor explosion, subject of Brown’s fourth and most recent book, “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future” (2019), which uncovers extensive new evidence about the effects of the disaster on the area and its people.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Progress [often] occurs in big capitals, but if you go to the hinterlands, you see what’s left in the wake of progress, and it’s usually a lot of destruction,” says Brown, speaking of areas that have suffered due to technological or economic changes.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>That does not apply only to the former Soviet Union and its former satellite states, to be sure. Brown, who considers herself an transnational historian, is also the author of 2013’s “Plutopia,” reconstructing life in and around the plutonium-producing plants in Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia, which have both left a legacy of nuclear contamination.</p> <p>With a record of innovative and award-winning research over more than two decades in academia, Brown joined MIT with tenure, as a professor of science, technology, and society, in early 2019.</p> <p><strong>When “no place” is like home</strong></p> <p>The lesson that life can be tough in less-glamorous locales is one Brown says she learned early on. Brown grew up in Elgin, Illinois, once headquarters of the famous Elgin National Watch Company — although that changed.</p> <p>“The year I was born, 1965, the Elgin watch factory was shuttered, and they blew up the watch tower,” Brown says. “It was a company town, and that was the main business. I grew up watching the supporting businesses close, and then regular clothing stores and grocery stores went bankrupt.”</p> <p>And while the changes in Elgin were very different (and less severe) than those in the places she has studied professionally, Brown believes her hometown milieu has shaped her work.</p> <p>“It was nothing near what I describe in wartime Ukraine, or Chernobyl, or one of plutonium plants, but I finally realized I was so interested in modernist wastelands because of my own background,” Brown says.</p> <p>Indeed, Brown notes, her mother moved four times in her life because of the “deindustrialized landscape,” from places like Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and Detroit. And her parents, she says, “moved to Elgin thinking it was healthy, small-town America. So how many times do they have to jump? … What if you care about your family and community? What if you’re loyal?”</p> <p>As it happens, part of the direct impetus for Brown’s career came from her mother. One day in the 1980s, Brown recalls, she was talking to her parents and criticizing the superficial culture surrounding U.S.-Soviet relations. To which Brown’s mother responded, “Do something about it. Study Russian, change the world.”</p> <p>As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Brown soon “took everything Russian, Russian lit and translation, grammar, history, politics, and I just got hooked. Then I thought I should go study there.” In 1987, she spent a year abroad in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). After graduating, Brown worked for a study-abroad program in the Soviet Union for three more years, helping students troubleshoot “pretty major problems, with housing and food and medical care,” as well as some cases where students had run afoul of Soviet authorities.&nbsp;</p> <p>Returning to the U.S., Brown entered the graduate program in history at the University of Washington while working as a journalist. She kept returning to the Ukraine borderlands region, collecting archival and observational material, and writing it up, for her dissertation “in the narrative mode of a first-person travelogue.”</p> <p>That did not fit the model of a typical PhD thesis. But Richard White, a prominent American historian with an openness toward innovative work, who was then at the University of Washington, advocated to keep the form of Brown’s work largely intact. She received her PhD, and more: Her thesis formed the basis of “A Biography of No Place,” which won the George Louis Beer Prize for International European History from the American Historical Association (AHA). Brown joined the faculty at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County before joining MIT.</p> <p><strong>A treasure island for research</strong></p> <p>In all of Brown’s books, a significant portion of the work, a bit atypically for academia, has continued to incorporate first-person material about her travels, experiences, and research, something she also regards as crucial.</p> <p>“Because these places are rarely visited, they’re hard to imagine for the readers,” Brown says. “That puts me in the narrative, though not for all of it.”</p> <p>Brown’s approach to history is also highly archival: She has unearthed key documents in all manner of local, regional, and national repositories. When she entered the profession, in the 1990s, many Soviet archives were just opening up, providing some rich opportunities for original research.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It’s amazing,” Brown says. “Over and over again I’ve been one of the first persons to walk into an archive and see what’s there. And that is just sort of a treasure island quality of historical research. Being a Soviet historian in the early 1990s, there was nothing else like it.”</p> <p>The archives continue to be profitable for Brown, yielding some of her key new insights in “Manual for Survival.” In assessing Chernobyl, Brown shows, local and regional studies of the disaster’s effects were often extensive and candid, but the official record became sanitized as it moved up the Soviet bureaucratic hierarchy.</p> <p>Brown’s combination of approaches to writing history has certainly produced extensive professional success. “Plutopia” was awarded the AHA’s Albert J. Beveridge and John H. Dunning prizes as the best book in American history and the Organization of American Historians’ Ellis H. Hawley Award, among others. Brown has also received Guggenheim Foundation and Carnegie Foundation fellowships.</p> <p>Brown is currently working on a new research project, examining overlooked forms of human knowledge about plants and the natural environment. She notes that there are many types of “indigenous knowledge and practices we have missed or rejected,” which could foster a more sustainable relationship between human society and the environment.</p> <p>It is a different type of topic than Brown’s previous work, although, like her other projects, this one recognizes that we have spent too long mishandling the environment, rather than prioritizing its care — another hard truth to consider.</p> Kate Brown is a professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society.Image: Allegra BovermanSchool of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Faculty, Profile, Technology and society, Energy, History, Program in STS, Nuclear power and reactors, History of science, Science communications Optimizing kidney donation and other markets without money MIT economist Nikhil Agarwal analyzes the efficiency of markets that match suppliers and consumers but don’t use prices. Mon, 04 Nov 2019 23:59:59 -0500 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office <p>When people die, they can become organ donors for a period of about 24 to 48 hours. But 20 percent of kidneys in the U.S. that could be transplanted in these situations are never used.</p> <p>Meanwhile, by some estimates, 30 to 50 percent of living people who are willing to donate a kidney never find a recipient. With around 100,000 Americans waiting for kidney transplants at any given time, those are suboptimal situations.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>What can be done to help fix this? Give the problem to a market design scholar, such as MIT economist Nikhil Agarwal, who has studied the issue in close detail.</p> <p>From within the walls of MIT’s Building E52, where economics equations litter the whiteboards, Agarwal’s work has now leapt out to the medical establishment. In the last year, a new method he and some colleagues formulated for a more efficient kidney-donation system has been approved for implementation by the Alliance for Paired Donation, the second-largest platform for such transplants in the U.S.</p> <p>“It’s particularly exciting,” says Agarwal, who is low-key about his accomplishments but allows that he is thrilled to see his work having a tangible effect. Currently there are about 800 kidney exchange transplants in the U.S. annually; by Agarwal’s estimation, a more efficient exchange market could increase that number by 30 to 60 percent.</p> <p>Though Agarwal’s work is still being implemented, and it is not yet easy to quantify its impact yet, it is simple enough to see his rising trajectory in academia. For his research and teaching, Agarwal was granted tenure at MIT earlier this year.</p> <p><strong>“That’s not how a lot of markets work” </strong></p> <p>At first glance, transplants might not seem to be a problem for an economist. But a growing cadre of economists have made notable progress understanding markets that match pairs of things — transplant donors and recipients, applicants and schools — and do not use money to settle matters.</p> <p>“In economics,” Agarwal says, “we often [assume] there’s the demand, the supply, the price, and the market clears, somehow. It just happens.” And yet, he says, “That’s not how a lot of markets work. There are all these different important markets where we do not allow prices.”</p> <p>Scholars in the field of “market design,” therefore, closely examine these nonfinancial markets, observing how their rules and procedures affect outcomes. Agarwal calls himself a specialist in “resource allocation systems that do not use prices.” These include kidney donations: The law forbids selling vital organs. Many education systems and entry-level labor markets, for example, also fit into this category.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Agarwal’s case, he has a specialty within his specialty. Some market-design scholars are theorists. Agarwal is an empiricist who locates data on nonpriced markets, evaluates their efficiency, and works out improvements.</p> <p>“Data can teach you new things you maybe wouldn’t have otherwise thought,” Agarwal says.</p> <p>In a series of papers examining the inefficiencies of kidney transplant systems in the U.S., Agarwal and a variety of co-authors looked at the numbers and came back with solutions. One major source of inefficiency, Agarwal has discovered, is a lack of scale. Bigger networks of hospitals could better match donors and recipients. Right now, 62 percent of kidney donor-and-recipient pairings consist of patients at the same hospitals; that number would be lower in a more efficient system.</p> <p>One reason for this: Donors and recipients must have matching blood types. People with type O blood can donate kidneys across blood types, but they can only receive kidneys from other type O people. Due to the timing of when people enter kidney markets, a bigger network is more efficient in this regard. In single-hospital networks, 22.8 percent of type O donors give a kidney to a non-type O recipient (for whom other donors might be found), while in the biggest U.S. kidney network, just 6.5 percent do, meaning its type O participants are connecting more optimally.</p> <p>Agarwal’s research also suggests that hospitals tend to be very concerned about the financial and administrative costs they incur while handling the transplant process — although such costs are small compared to the overall social value of transplants. Well-crafted subsidies and mandates, as he has detailed, can help address this particular problem.</p> <p><strong>Open questions in need of answers</strong></p> <p>Agarwal was an economics and math double major at Brandeis University, where he received his BA in 2008. Directly out of college, Agarwal was accepted into Harvard University’s PhD program in economics, but, as he recounts it, he did not have a clear idea of what he wanted to study. Before long, though, Agarwal connected at Harvard with Alvin Roth, an innovative market-design theorist who would soon be awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2012; Roth’s work helped create new mechanisms for school-choice programs.</p> <p>Working with Roth, as well as Harvard professors Susan Athey (now of Stanford University) and Ariel Pakes, and MIT Professor Parag Pathak, Agarwal began focusing on market-design problems and developing his taste for empiricism. The theorists had broken the field of market design open; as a result, unanswered questions about the activity in many markets had been identified but not necessarily answered.</p> <p>“I’ve always liked combining different ways of learning about something,” Agarwal says. “Initially I was training as a theorist, but then I got interested in data, because I just saw a big set of open questions there, which wasn’t informed by numbers.” Pakes, who Agarwal cites as a major influence, “showed me what data, especially when combined with theory, can teach us.”</p> <p>Agarwal joined the MIT faculty in 2014 and began publishing papers on a range of topics, on a variety of markets. He has studied online advertising and school-choice systems; one of his first prominent papers, in the <em>American Economic Review</em> in 2015, <a href="">examined</a> the system used to allocate medical students to residencies.</p> <p>Still, the majority of Agarwal’s work has been on kidney transpants specifically, a field of knowledge he has gradually built up.</p> <p>“You need to have domain expertise,” Agarwal says. “It’s very important to have that. Otherwise [theories] may not be directly implementable. For that reason, people really do specialize, so they understand the setting.” One of Agarwal’s co-authors is a kidney transplant surgeon.</p> <p>“I’ve learned a lot from other people,” Agarwal notes.</p> <p>He has also benefitted, as he tells it, from his home in the MIT Department of Economics, where all kinds of work is valued — even work on nonpriced markets, which, as Agarwal quips, can seem like “kind of a weird thing to study,” at least to outsiders.</p> <p>“The economics department is an intellectually amazing place to think about things,” Agarwal adds. “People value good work on the merits and they’re open-minded.”</p> <p>Now Agarwal is also encouraging others to research markets of all kinds: His students are studying topics as diverse as electricity markets, the palm oil industry in Indonesia, and water markets in Australia, among many others. Every such market, he notes, can differ from others, in its practices and in the behavior of its participants.</p> <p>“We have to think a little more carefully about how markets work and demand meets supply, and what are all the implications of that,” Agarwal says.</p> <p>After all, as Agarwal has already seen, a little more careful thought about markets could have a lot more real-world impact.</p> Nikhil AgarwalImage: Jared CharneyEconomics, Medicine, Health care, Profile, Faculty, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences Drawn to open-ended problems Whether racing cross country or teaching coding in rural schools, senior Billy Woltz relishes experimentation and creative thinking. Fri, 01 Nov 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Shafaq Patel | MIT News correspondent <p>Vilhelm Lee Andersen Woltz, who goes by Billy, sits by the outdoor track at MIT on a New England fall day. It’s cold, gray, and misty, but it’s nothing compared to the weather during his most cherished personal cross country memory last year.</p> <p>“The weather was terrible. It was pouring rain and with massive puddles. My heels were numb by the end of the race,” he recalls. The plan was to start out slow then speed up and obliterate the other team. Once Woltz came down a hill, he saw that the field to the finish line was one massive puddle.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I couldn’t see the ground or any rocks and was so worried about falling,” he laughs. “I had put in all this work. Like, if I fall now, then first of all, I’d lose the race, so that would suck. But I would also just be cold.” But he plunged in and placed first.&nbsp;</p> <p>Woltz, an MIT senior majoring in physics and in electrical engineering and computer science, is a distance runner for the Institute’s varsity track and cross country team. He dedicates at least 20 hours a week to the sport, and he can recall all of his meets in college.</p> <p>Woltz takes an analytical approach to his running: “I think, ‘I want to win this race, what do I need to do to get there?’ It’s kind of like an open-ended problem and involves research and conducting my own experiments. I really like that kind of tinkering approach to my training,” he says.</p> <p>Drawn to open-ended scientific questions as well, Woltz works in the lab of Professor William Oliver in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, on research to advance the cutting-edge field of quantum computing. In principle, ultrapowerful quantum computers could solve problems that are intractably complex for classical computers, but the field is still in very early stages.</p> <p>When he took his first class on the subject, he was fascinated by the theory but skeptical about whether quantum computing could work on a large scale. But then he took Oliver’s graduate applied physics class, and that sucked him in.</p> <p>“I was convinced,” he says. “I thought, okay, this might work. And I knew I wanted to work on it.”</p> <p><strong>Science, not football </strong></p> <p>Growing up in Logan, Ohio, a tiny town in the southeastern part of the state, Woltz always knew he wanted to do something related to science.&nbsp;</p> <p>“My grandma was fond of reminding me that when she would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older, I’d say ‘a scientist.’ And she was like, ‘That’s not what little kids say. Why not a professional football player?’” he says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Woltz, whose parents were both helicopter pilots in the U.S. Army, went to the same high school his father went to 30 years ago, which is the same school his grandmother went to 30 years before that. Logan is a football town — kids grow up dreaming of being professional football players, Woltz says. The town has a population of around 7,000, and about 25 percent of his graduating class went to college.&nbsp;</p> <p>Woltz’s background has given him a clear-eyed view of what public education is like for many in America. He grew up on a 64-acre farm and before going to school, he would wake up early to go break the ice that had frozen over the horses’ drinking water during the night. He lived far from the town and only had limited options for internet — none of which had high-speed internet that could handle online gaming or even streaming movies.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Bringing coding to rural schools</strong></p> <p>Even though he now studies computer science, Woltz didn’t learn any computer programing before college. It wasn’t offered at his high school, so he asked a friend to show him the ropes when he came to MIT.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Computer programming should be a basic skill for the American population. It’s so useful,” he says. “To not cover it at all, that seems outdated.”</p> <p>Because he did not have the chance to learn programming in Logan, he wanted to create that opportunity for people in his hometown.&nbsp;After his sophomore year at MIT, Woltz decided to start a one-week summer camp for kids in Logan and the surrounding areas to learn how to program. His old high school gave him a classroom, and the first year 15 students joined the free program.&nbsp;By the end of the week, the students were able to program their own tic-tac-toe game using Python.&nbsp;</p> <p>After that pilot year, the program grew. This past summer, he taught four courses with increasing difficulty levels. He also got in touch with Fugees Family, a nonprofit organization devoted to working with child survivors of war, and he taught 25 middle-school-age refugees from Syria, Bengal, and Bosnia, in Columbus, Ohio.</p> <p>In total, Woltz taught close to 70 students and hopes to keep the program growing. He wants to teach the teachers computer programming so it can be sustainable and implemented across the school system.&nbsp;</p> <p>After he graduates, he wants to get a PhD in Physics and continue working on quantum technologies. He’s currently in the process of obtaining a scuba diving license.</p> <p>“I like going to places where humans don’t belong but where we build technology that lets us go there,” he says. “I’m just curious. I like to explore and figure out what is going on in the world around me, which is probably why I’m so interested in physics and science.”</p> MIT senior Billy WoltzImage: Allegra BovermanProfile, Students, Physics, Athletics, K-12 education, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), School of Science, School of Engineering, Computer science and technology, STEM education, education, Education, teaching, academics Biological engineer Paul Blainey creates new tools to advance biomedical research His technology platforms have benefited genomics, diagnostics, and drug screening. Sat, 19 Oct 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Microfluidics — the science of manipulating tiny amounts of fluid through channels — has been widely used in fields such as genomics, where it has helped to enable high-speed sequencing. Several years ago, Paul Blainey started to wonder why microfluidics was not used for drug screening, another application that requires analyzing huge amounts of samples quickly.</p> <p>That question led him and his students to develop a new type of microfluidics platform in which droplets are sealed within tiny wells, overcoming the problem of drug leakage that had stymied previous efforts. This system worked well for screening drugs, but it also ended up being useful for many other applications, far beyond what Blainey had originally envisioned.</p> <p>“That’s one of the things I love about science — you can have a thought about why doesn’t microfluidics do more for chemistry, and then you develop something that turns out to have all these really exciting uses and applications that no one imagined,” says Blainey, a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a newly tenured associate professor in the Department of Biological Engineering.</p> <p>Blainey’s lab takes a wide-ranging approach to solving technological problems, resulting in the development of many cutting-edge tools over the past several years, with applications in fields from genomics to diagnostics and drug development. He credits his students with helping to come up with ideas for novel technologies, and pursuing alternative directions until they find something that works.</p> <p>“The major research directions and technology platforms that the lab is known for today came out of this process where the students or I had a crazy idea, and then the lab executed on it, with all the twists and turns along the way,” he says.</p> <p><strong>Drawn to engineering</strong></p> <p>Growing up in Seattle, the son of a phone company technician and a nursing professor, Blainey had a natural affinity for engineering. “I was always that kid who was into building models,” he recalls. However, he began his academic career in the sciences, majoring in chemistry and mathematics at the University of Washington. He went on to earn a PhD in physical chemistry at Harvard University, but while pursuing his degrees, he was drawn to the aspects of science most closely related to engineering.</p> <p>“I really liked analytical chemistry, which is very much like an engineering discipline because it’s focused on instrumentation, measurement, and the quantitative aspects of chemistry,” he says.</p> <p>After finishing his PhD, he went to Stanford University to work as a postdoc in the lab of Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering. There, he worked with one of the first high-speed, next-generation genome sequencing machines installed in an academic lab, in 2007.</p> <p>“The result was that I learned sequencing technology and genomics, I learned a little bit of bacterial genetics, I learned microfluidic technology, and I really started to appreciate how these things could play together,” Blainey says.</p> <p>At Stanford, he performed single-cell genome sequencing of environmental microbes, but he wanted to turn his research focus toward biomedicine and studying human cells, so he applied for a faculty position at the Broad Institute. Before coming for his interview, he thought he would prefer living on the West Coast, but his visit to MIT changed his mind.</p> <p>“Despite having been at Harvard for graduate school, I knew very little about the Broad and very little about MIT,” he says. “I took the trip to Boston, which exceeded my expectations. The scientific and collaborative potential at the Broad Institute and surrounding institutions jumped out so clearly.”</p> <p>When Blainey became a member of the Broad Institute, he also joined MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, renewing his longstanding interest in engineering. He launched his lab with the goal of developing biotechnologies that could strongly impact biomedical research and be broadly disseminated.</p> <p>“We were interested in identifying opportunities to develop technology that would fill crucial gaps in the life science research portfolio,” he says. “We had the opportunity to talk with people, see what the needs were, see where biological research was being well-served by technology, and try to find gaps that might overlap with our toolkit or new things we could invent.”</p> <p><strong>Filling the gaps</strong></p> <p>One area where Blainey saw a need for new technology was in screening potential drug compounds. One of the big challenges in screening drugs is making sure there is enough of each compound to test it against a huge number of single cells. Researchers weren’t using microfluidics to help with these screens because drug molecules tend to leak out of the tiny droplets used in microfluidic devices.</p> <p>One of Blainey’s graduate students, Tony Kulesa, came up with an idea for a new way to solve the problem, which was to seal nanoliter droplets into an array of tiny wells on a microfluidic chip. This prevented the drugs from leaking out, and enabled large-scale screens.&nbsp;</p> <p>This technology turned out to be very useful for screening individual drugs and also combinations of drugs. In a <a href="">paper</a> published in 2018, the researchers showed that this system could be used to <a href="">identify compounds</a> that help existing antibiotics to work better. The Broad Institute is now launching a new center funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where this platform will be used to search for additional compounds with antimicrobial activity.</p> <p>It later turned out that this system could be useful for a variety of experiments that involve testing the interactions of many different combinations of cells or molecules.</p> <p>In <a href="">one project</a>, Blainey worked with Jeff Gore, an MIT associate professor of physics, to combine different strains of bacteria in droplets and study how they interact with each other. He also used it to create a new version of a CRISPR-based diagnostic technology called <a href="">Sherlock</a>, previously developed by several other labs at the Broad Institute. The droplet array platform allows the test to be carried out on many samples at a time, and to simultaneously test for many different diseases.</p> <p>Another technique Blainey recently developed, known as <a href="">optical pooled screening</a>, allows researchers to examine how genes affect complex cellular processes, with spatial and temporal resolution. This technique, described in <em>Cell</em> on Oct. 17, combines large-scale pooled genetic screens with image-based analysis of cell behavior.</p> <p>Blainey’s lab continues to seek out new areas that could benefit from technological innovation, while also pursuing potential applications for the tools they have already developed.</p> <p>“Our antennae are sensitive to these general types of technical barriers where if you can come up with robust and general solutions, it really unlocks a lot of stuff. But we’re also excited to dig further into the biology using tools we’ve already developed,” he says. “It’s a bit like grassroots politicking — you really have to get out there and pound the pavement and show how it can be used in different ways.”</p> “The major research directions and technology platforms that [my] lab is known for today came out of this process where the students or I had a crazy idea, and then the lab executed on it, with all the twists and turns along the way,” says Paul Blainey, associate professor of biological engineering.Image: M. Scott BrauerResearch, Biological engineering, Faculty, Broad Institute, School of Engineering, Profile, Imaging, Microfluidics, Genetics, Drug development Computer science in service of medicine Senior Kristy Carpenter aims to leverage artificial intelligence and other computational tools to develop new, more affordable drugs. Fri, 18 Oct 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Shafaq Patel | MIT News correspondent <p>MIT’s <a href="">Ray and Maria Stata Center</a> (Building 32), known for its striking outward appearance, is also designed to foster collaboration among the people inside. Sitting in the famous building’s amphitheater on a brisk fall day, Kristy Carpenter smiles as she speaks enthusiastically about how interdisciplinary efforts between the fields of computer science and molecular biology are helping accelerate the process of drug discovery and design.</p> <p>Carpenter, an MIT senior with a joint major in&nbsp;both subjects, said she didn’t want to specialize in only one or the other — it’s the intersection between both disciplines, and the application of that work to improving human health, that she finds compelling.</p> <p>“For me, to be really fulfilled in my work as a scientist, I want to have some tangible impact,” she says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Carpenter explains that artificial intelligence, which can help compute the combinations of compounds that would be better for a particular drug, can reduce trial-and-error time and ideally quicken the process of designing new medicines.</p> <p>“I feel like helping make drugs in a more efficient manner, or coming up with some new medicine or way to tackle cancer or Alzheimer’s or something, would really make me feel fulfilled,” she says.</p> <p>In the future, Carpenter hopes to get a PhD and pursue computational approaches to biomedicine, perhaps at one of the national laboratories or the National Institutes of Health. She also plans to continue advocating for diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), throughout her career, drawing in part from her experiences as part of the leadership of the MIT chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (<a href="">AISES</a>) and the <a href="">MIT Women’s Independent Living Group</a>.</p> <p><strong>Finding her niche in STEM</strong></p> <p>Carpenter was first drawn to computer science and coding in middle school. She recalls becoming engrossed in a program called <a href="">Scratch</a>, spending hours in the computer lab playing with the block-based visual programming language, which, as it happens, was developed at MIT’s Media Lab.</p> <p>As an MIT student, Carpenter found her way into the computational biology major after a summer internship at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where researchers were using computer simulations and physics to look at a particular protein implicated in tumors.</p> <p>Next, she got hooked on using computational biology for drug discovery and design during her sophomore year, as an intern at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, she learned that developing a new drug can be a very long, tedious, and&nbsp;complicated process that can take years, but that using machine learning and screening drugs virtually can help hasten this process.&nbsp;She followed that internship with an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project in the lab of Professor Collin Stultz, within the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics.</p> <p><strong>Building community </strong></p> <p>For Carpenter, who is part Japanese-American and part Alaskan Native and grew up outside of Seattle, the fact that there were Native American students at MIT, albeit just about a dozen of them, was an important factor in deciding where to attend college.&nbsp;</p> <p>Soon after Carpenter was admitted, a senior from MIT’s AISES chapter called her and told her about the organization.&nbsp;</p> <p>“They sort of recruited me before I even came here,” she recalls.&nbsp;</p> <p>Carpenter is now the vice president of the chapter. The people in the organization, which Carpenter describes as a cultural group at MIT, have become her close friends.&nbsp;</p> <p>“AISES has been a really important part of my time here,” Carpenter says. “At MIT, it’s mostly about having a community of Native students since it’s very easy for us to get isolated here. It’s hard to find people of a similar background, and so AISES is a place where we can all gather just to hang out, socialize, check in with each other.”</p> <p>The organization also puts on movie screenings and other events to “show that we exist and that there are Native people at MIT because a lot of people forget that.”</p> <p>Carpenter first became a member of the national AISES organization as a high school student, when she and her father made serious efforts to reconnect with their Alutiiq heritage. She began educating herself more about the history of Alaska Natives on Kodiak Island, and learning the Alutiiq language, which is severely endangered — just about a couple hundred people still speak it and even fewer speak it fluently.&nbsp;</p> <p>Carpenter started to teach herself the language and then took an online class in high school through Kodiak College.&nbsp;She said she learned very basic amounts and knows simple sentences and personal introductions.</p> <p>“I feel like learning the language was one of the best ways to connect to my culture and sort of legitimize myself in a way.&nbsp;Also, I knew it was important to keep the culture around,” she says.&nbsp;“I would always be telling my friends about it and trying to teach them what I was learning.”</p> <p>Carpenter has also built her MIT community through the Women’s Independent Living Group, one of the few all-women housing options at the Institute. She joined the group of about 40 women the spring semester of her sophomore year.</p> <p>“I really appreciate the group because there’s a lot of diversity in major and diversity in [graduation] year,” she says. “The living group is meant to be a strong community of women at MIT.”</p> <p>Carpenter is now the president of the living group, which has been a significant source of support for her. When she was trying to increase her iron intake so she could donate blood, her friends in the living group helped cook meals and cheered her on.</p> <p>Carpenter also hopes to rise in the ranks at the organizations where she ends up working after MIT, taking a leadership role in advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion.</p> <p>“I don’t want to lose sight of where I came from or my heritage or being a woman in STEM,” Carpenter says. “Wherever I end up working, I hopefully will move up and keep my Native and Asian identity visible, to be an example for others.”</p> Kristy CarpenterImage: Jared CharneyStudents, Profile, Undergraduate, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs), Biology, Medicine, Health care, Drug development, Diversity and inclusion, Women in STEM, Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Computer science and technology Learning about China by learning its language MIT senior&#039;s longstanding passion for Mandarin leads to a hands-on taste of the complexities of functioning in a Chinese business context. Fri, 11 Oct 2019 10:20:01 -0400 Lisa Hickler | MIT Global Languages <p>Among MIT students who didn’t grow up speaking Chinese, few are able to discuss “machine learning models” in passable Mandarin. But that is just what computer science and engineering senior Max Allen is able to do, and this ability comes as a result of academic work, stints abroad, an internship, and also just having the passion to learn Chinese.</p> <p>With China a growing economic powerhouse and leader in STEM, it is no wonder that more and more students are attracted to studying Chinese. Nationally, enrollments in Chinese classes are up, as they are at MIT.</p> <p>But for Max Allen, his interest was first piqued by a teacher’s visit to his eighth-grade class. Intrigued by the sound of the language and structure of the writing system, Allen started taking Chinese classes in high school. To him, learning the language was akin to a big puzzle whose solution is slowly revealed. And since Allen has always been fond of puzzles, he wanted to pursue this.</p> <p>After only two years of high-school language study, Allen spent his 11th-grade year living with a host family in Beijing and attending school through a program called School Year Abroad. Allen returned to the United States able to converse in Mandarin, and also more adept at fitting in culturally. He found that living with a family gives you a level of familiarity with people that is hard to achieve otherwise.</p> <p>Chinese has gradually occupied a greater and greater area of interest for Allen. Upon entering MIT, he decided to pursue a major in computer science and engineering (Course 6-3). After discovering that he could take Chinese to fulfill his humanities concentration requirements, Allen took Chinese V and VI, building on the work he did in high school. Even among MIT students who are known for high academic achievement, Chinese Lecturer Tong Chen noted that Allen stood out for his effort and seriousness.</p> <p>The more classes he took, and the more time he invested, the more Allen began to consider how Chinese might be part of his future academic and career paths.</p> <p>In spring 2018, Allen took “Business Chinese” as an elective concentration subject. Business Chinese helped Allen understand social dynamics and subtleties of social relations in a business setting in China, including how these express themselves in language. As Panpan Gao, the instructor of Business Chinese, explains, the pedagogical approach of the class emphasizes case studies: “Through case studies of multinational companies and introductions to crucial business issues in China, we try to help students better understand Chinese business culture and trends, and expand their language skills so that they can communicate effectively and professionally with Chinese speakers in the workplace.”</p> <p>The class really got Allen thinking about whether he might want to pursue jobs that would employ his knowledge of Chinese.</p> <p>Allen put his Chinese skills to good use the following summer. He took an engineering internship with Airbnb — on a team with a special focus on mitigating financial fraud coming from China. The team was mostly made up of Chinese nationals, and team members generally discussed work matters in Mandarin. To do business in China, the team would need to understand how to market the product to Chinese customers; how to build a secure platform; and how to build payment applications that are in line with expectations of Chinese consumer. This experience gave Allen a hands-on taste of the complexities of functioning in a Chinese business context.</p> <p>After the internship, Allen realized that to take his Chinese to the next level, he would need to put aside other academic pursuits for a period and spend more time studying the language in an immersive Chinese-speaking setting. He spent academic year 2018-2019 abroad studying Chinese: the fall in Taipei at the <a href="">International Chinese Language Program</a> of National Taiwan University, and the spring in Beijing at the <a href="">Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies</a> at Tsinghua University. Both programs are top Chinese language centers in the world and are intensive instructional programs with hours of work a day devoted to learning Mandarin. He particularly appreciated the intensive focus on conversation.</p> <p>While abroad, Allen found that when he ventured to out-of-the-way spots, he encountered curiosity from strangers who were less accustomed to seeing tourists. But when he demonstrated he could speak Chinese, people warmed up. “Speaking their native language helps to establish trust and rapport, which is important when they see you as just another outsider. But once a certain level of trust is established, people become more comfortable talking about meaningful things. And that's where the time investment of learning the language really pays off.”</p> <p>Now back at MIT for his senior year, Allen is considering how his multiple interests in computer science, international business, Chinese language, and cross-cultural communication skills might combine into a career path. The answer will take some time to untangle, but Allen is always up for the challenge of a big puzzle, and will remain open to the possibilities as he heads toward graduation.</p> MIT senior Max Allen (right) stands with Tsinghua University student Sean Chua in Beijing.Computer science and technology, China, Language, Students, Global Studies and Languages, Global, Profile, Business and management, Careers, School of Engineering, Classes and programs, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (eecs) Deploying drones to prepare for climate change PhD student Norhan Bayomi uses drones to investigate how building construction impacts communities’ resilience to rising temperatures. Fri, 04 Oct 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Daysia Tolentino | MIT News correspondent <p>While doing field research for her graduate thesis in her hometown of Cairo, Norhan Magdy Bayomi observed firsthand the impact of climate change on her local community.</p> <p>The residents of the low-income neighborhood she was studying were living in small, poorly insulated apartments that were ill-equipped for dealing with the region’s rising temperatures. Sharing cramped quarters — with families in studios less than 500 square feet — and generally lacking air conditioning or even fans, many people avoided staying in their homes altogether on the hottest days.</p> <p>It was a powerful illustration of one of the most terrible aspects of climate change: Those who are facing its most extreme impacts also tend to have the fewest resources for adapting.</p> <p>This understanding has guided Bayomi’s research as a PhD student in the Department of Architecture’s Building Technology Program. Currently in her third year of the program, she has mainly looked at countries in the developing world, studying how low-income communities there adapt to changing heat patterns and <a href="" target="_blank">documenting</a> global heatwaves and populations’ adaptive capacity to heat. A key focus of her research is how building construction and neighborhoods’ design affect residents’ vulnerability to hotter temperatures.</p> <p>She uses drones with infrared cameras to document the surface temperatures of urban buildings, including structures with a variety of designs and building materials, and outdoor conditions in the urban canyons between buildings.</p> <p>“When you look at technologies like drones, they are not really designed or commonly used to tackle problems like this. We’re trying to incorporate this kind of technology to understand what kind of adaptation strategies are suitable for addressing climate change, especially for underserved populations,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Eyes in the sky</strong></p> <p>Bayomi is currently developing a computational tool to model heat risk in urban areas that incorporates building performance, available urban resources for adaptation, and population adaptive capacity into its data.</p> <p>“Most of the tools that are available right now are mostly using statistical data about the population, the income, and the temperature. I’m trying to incorporate how the building affects indoor conditions, what resources are available to urban residents, and how they adapt to heat exposure — for instance, if they have a cooling space they could go to, or if there is a problem with the power supplies and they don’t have access to ceiling fans,” she says. “I’m trying to add these details to the equation to see how they would affect risk in the future.”</p> <p>She recently began <a href="">looking at similar changes</a> in communities in the Bronx, New York, in order to see how building construction, population adaptation, and the effects of climate change differ based on region. Bayomi says that her advisor, Professor John Fernández, motivated her to think about how she could apply different technologies into her field of research.</p> <p>Bayomi’s interest in drones and urban development isn’t limited to thermal mapping. As a participant in the School of Architecture and Planning’s DesignX entrepreneurship program, she and her team founded Airworks, a company that uses aerial data collected by the drones to provide developers with automated site plans and building models. Bayomi worked on thermal imaging for the company, and she hopes to continue this work after she finishes her studies.</p> <p>Bayomi is also working with Fernández’s Urban Metabolism Group on an aerial thermography project in collaboration with Tarek Rakha PhD ’15, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. The project is developing a cyber-physical platform to calibrate building energy models, using drones equipped with infrared sensors that autonomously detect heat transfer anomalies and envelope material conditions. Bayomi’s group is currently working on a drone that will be able to capture these data and process them in real-time.</p> <p><strong>Second home</strong></p> <p>Bayomi says the personal connections that she has developed at MIT, both within her program and across the Institute, have profoundly shaped her graduate experience.</p> <p>“MIT is a place where I felt home and welcome. Even as an Arabic muslim woman, I always felt home,” she says. “My relationship with my advisor was one of the main unique things that kept me centered and focused, as I was blessed with an advisor who understands and respects my ideas and gives me freedom to explore new areas.”</p> <p>She also appreciates the Building Technology program’s “unique family vibe,” with its multiple academic and nonacademic events including lunch seminars and social events.</p> <p>When she’s not working on climate technologies, Bayomi enjoys playing and producing music. She has played the guitar for 20 years now and was part of a band during her undergraduate years. Music serves an important role in Bayomi’s life and is a crucial creative outlet for her. She currently produces rock-influenced trance music, a genre categorized by melodic, electronic sounds. She released her first single under the moniker Nourey last year and is working on an upcoming track. She likes incorporating guitar into her songs, an element not typically heard in trance tunes.</p> <p>“'I’m trying to do&nbsp; something using guitars with ambient influences in trance music, which is not very common,” she says.</p> <p>Bayomi has been a member of the MIT Egyptian Students Association since she arrived at MIT in 2015, and now serves as vice president. The club works to connect Egyptian students at MIT and students in Egypt, to encourage prospective students to apply and provide guidance based on the members’ own experiences.</p> <p>“We currently have an amazing mix of students in engineering, Sloan [School of Management], Media Lab, and architecture, including graduate and undergraduate members. Also, with this club we try to create a little piece of home here at MIT for those who feel homesick and disconnected due to culture challenges,” she says.</p> <p>In 2017 she participated in MIT’s Vacation Week for Massachusetts Public Schools at the MIT Museum, and in 2018 she participated in the Climate Changed ideas competition, where her team’s <a href="" target="_blank">entry</a> was selected as one of the top three finalists.</p> <p>“I am keen to participate whenever possible in these kind of activities, which enhance my academic experience here,” she says. “MIT is a rich place for such events.”</p> Norhan BayomiImage: Jake BelcherGraduate, postdoctoral, Students, Profile, Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Drones, Climate change, Africa, Middle East, Music Looking under the surface of politics in Latin America Associate Professor Danny Hidalgo’s work reveals some difficult truths about money, elections, and political influence. Tue, 24 Sep 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office <p>Danny Hidalgo’s research involves looking under the surface of elections and political campaigns, and probing some of their questionable elements. It turns out there’s a lot to see down there.</p> <p>Hidalgo, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science, is a scholar who studies the nexus of elections, campaigns, and money in Latin America, and particularly in Brazil, hammering away at the question of who, exactly, benefits from the system.</p> <p>Consider one Hidalgo study of municipal elections that were plagued by the alleged practice of “voter buying,” in which people would be brought into a city to vote illegally. Voter audits that discouraged voter buying, Hidalgo has found, shrank the electorate by 12 percentage points and lowered the chances of mayoral reelection by a whopping 18 percentage points.</p> <p>Even when the rules are being followed, the influence of money in politics is evident. In another study, Hidalgo showed that firms focused on public-works projects, which donate to winning candidates from the ruling party, get a boost to their government contracts that is at least 14 times the value of their contributions.</p> <p>A lot of Hidalgo’s studies focus on elections themselves. In still another study, Hidalgo and a co-author showed that local politicians who were incumbents were twice as likely as nonincumbents to be granted control over community radio stations; in turn, they also showed that radio access significantly boosts the vote share of politicians.</p> <p>“Corruption and accountability are central themes of politics in Brazil,” Hidalgo says, sitting in his office, discussing his work. “Let’s try to think rigorously and bring our social science tools to bear on them.”</p> <p>That rigorous thinking, as well as the exacting quantitative methods Hidalgo uses, are built on a foundation of firsthand knowledge. There is nothing like living somewhere, and learning about it in person, to spur productive research.</p> <p>“I’m very much of the mind, and maybe this is more old-school, of having research questions come to you based on what’s important in the places that you’re studying,” Hidalgo says. “In some sense, you just have to spend a lot of time in Latin America.”</p> <p><strong>Travelin’ man </strong></p> <p>Indeed, many of Hidalgo’s research interests have been formed by his sense of place.</p> <p>Hidalgo was born in Mexico but grew up in Los Angeles, with parents who were highly attuned to Mexican politics. During Hidalgo’s teenage years, in the 1990s, the country’s lurching transition toward a multiparty democracy was a major talking point in his household.</p> <p>“Around my kitchen table there was a lot of discussion of Mexican politics, and what was going on, and that got me interested in politics in other countries, and how politics works in places where the institutions aren’t quite as strong as in the U.S.,” Hidalgo recounts. “So because of that I had an interest in Latin American politics generally.”</p> <p>Hidalgo went to college at Princeton University, where he graduated with a BA in politics in 2002. His focus on Latin American politics was enhanced by an undergraduate study abroad program that landed him in Buenos Aires.</p> <p>“Basically I lived there in the lead-up to the enormous depression that occurred in Argentina, before this period when they had four or five presidents in a matter of months,” Hidalgo says. “That was a very interesting time to be living in Buenos Aires.”</p> <p>After graduation, though, Hidalgo departed for a different part of the world: Hangzhou, China, where he taught English while figuring out his future. Again a social crisis hit soon after Hidalgo’s arrival, this time in the form of the SARS epidemic that shut down cities and scared off travelers.</p> <p>“From one day to the next, Hangzhou went from having incredibly bustling streets, to nothing,” Hidalgo remembers. And when an acquaintance of a friend contracted SARS, Hidalgo reluctantly departed. “The program that I was with essentially said, ‘You have to be under quarantine for a while, or you have to leave,’ which was too bad, because I really liked living in China and I wanted to stay.”</p> <p>At loose ends back in the U.S., Hidalgo applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study in Brazil, got it, and spent his first year in Brazil doing research.</p> <p>“I loved my time in Brazil. I was fascinated. It was so huge and with so much heterogeneity,” Hidalgo says. “A lot of my work stems from that.”</p> <p>Hidalgo adds: “In China there’s been incredible economic development, but a complete lack of accountability. … In Brazil in some sense [it’s been] the opposite, with a long period of sluggish growth, from the late 1970s to mid-90s, but increasingly it became this vibrant democracy, very competitive. It had a traditional oligarchical conservative political class, but there emerged a working-class president [Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from 2003 through 2010] from a left-wing party, which typically didn’t reach political power in Latin America. It was a fascinating contrast.”</p> <p>Brazilian politics have since changed, rather dramatically, but Hidalgo’s interest had been sparked. Back in the U.S. again, Hidalgo attended graduate school in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, earning his PhD in 2012. He was hired out of graduate school by MIT and has been on the Institute faculty since then, embarking on many research trips in the intervening years. For his work, Hidalgo received tenure from MIT earlier this year.</p> <p><strong>The case-driven scholar</strong></p> <p>While Hidalgo’s work is clearly situated at the junction of money, politics, and power, he uses a diversity of methods to get his results. He isn’t necessarily trying to build an overarching theory of how politics works; rather, he has identified an array of ways that money and politics interact.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Some scholars have a theory first and look for cases,” Hidalgo says. “I care about societies and politics and try to find out what’s important. There’s an interplay between theory and cases, but I’m more case-driven.”</p> <p>Hidalgo is also not set on studying Brazil to the exclusion of other countries. In fact, at the moment has embarked on a study of transparency in local U.S. governments. The study uses search technology to see how much government information is available online for residents of towns and cities in the U.S.</p> <p>“In some ways the availability of basic information about the government is actually better in some parts of Latin America,” Hidalgo says, referring to the notorious case of Bell, California — a small town where in 2010 a reporter for the <em>Los Angeles Times</em> discovered that the city manager had a million-dollar salary. There was no local paper, however, which might have caught the inflated salaries of local officials sooner.</p> <p>“The death of local media is just incredibly salient, and these are the kinds of people who care about this stuff,” Hidalgo says. “I don’t think transparency is always a salient issue for citizens. It’s really often external pressure from journalists that makes [discoveries]. I think it’s just important for information about the basic operations of government.”</p> <p>All the more reason, then, for scholars like Hidalgo to look at money in politics as well.</p> F. Daniel HidalgoImage: Adam GlanzmanSchool of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Political science, Politics, Latin America, Voting and elections, Government, Profile, Faculty, Global Meet Carolyn Stein: Researching the economics of science MIT PhD student explores the impact of scientists being &quot;scooped&quot; when a competing research team publishes results first, a concern for many disciplines. Mon, 23 Sep 2019 09:00:00 -0400 School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences <p>Carolyn Stein says she’s not a morning person. And yet …</p> <p>“All of a sudden I’m going on bike rides with people that leave at 5:30 a.m.,” she says, shaking her head in surprise.</p> <p>Such is the appeal of MIT Cycling Club for Stein, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Economics, located within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. After inheriting an old road bike last year she has been shifting gears, literally and figuratively.</p> <p>“It’s a wonderful thing to have happened and it's how I’ve met people across the institute,” Stein says.</p> <p>After graduating from Harvard University with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, Stein worked for a Boston hedge fund for two years. Upon arriving at MIT, she planned to study labor economics and explore why some people reach their potential in the labor force while others do not. But before long, Stein had decided to shift her area of research to the economics of science.</p> <p><strong>The economics of science</strong></p> <p>“The focus on science was influenced by one of my advisers, Professor Heidi Williams," she says, "and also just by being at MIT surrounded by people who do science all the time. I’ve been learning what an interesting and difficult career path science is. On its surface, academic science is different from other jobs that economists typically study. For one, scientists are often motivated by factors other than wages.<br /> <br /> “But many insights from labor economics can still help us understand how the field of science functions. Incentive and career concerns still matter. And risk is a big concern in science. You could have a very good idea, but get scooped. That can derail a scientist, and a whole year’s worth of work could be lost. That's where this research idea began.”<br /> <br /> Stein and her research partner, Ryan Hill, also a doctoral student in the MIT economics department, are working on two projects simultaneously, both of which focus on the careers of scientists and the incentives they face. Their first paper explores what happens when a scientist is “scooped” or, in other words, what happens to scientists when a competing research team publishes their results first. It’s a concern that resonates with researchers across many disciplines.<br /> <br /> <strong>The impact of being scooped</strong></p> <p>“Economists often worry that while we’re working on something we’re going to flip open a journal and see that someone else has already written the same paper,” Stein says. “This is an even bigger deal in science. In our project, we're studying a particular field of structural biology where we can actually look at data at the level of proteins and find cases where two scientists are simultaneously trying to solve the structure of the same protein.<br /> <br /> “But one person gets there first and publishes. We’re trying to learn what happens to the other scientist, who has been scooped. Are they still able to publish? Do they get published in a lower-ranked journal, or receive fewer citations? Anecdotally, scientists say they’re very stressed about being scooped, so we’re trying to measure how much they’re penalized, if they are.”<br /> <br /> <strong>The tension between quality and competition</strong></p> <p>Stein's and Hill's second paper examines the tradeoff between competition and quality in science. If competition is fierce and scientists are working overtime to get their work done sooner, the science may progress faster, Stein reasons. But if the fear of being scooped is high, scientists may decide to publish early. As a result, the work may not be as thorough.<br /> <br /> “In that case, we miss out on the highest quality work these scientists could produce,” Stein says. “You’re looking at a trade-off. Competition means that science progresses faster, but corners may have been cut. How we as a society should feel about this probably depends on the balance of that trade-off. That’s the tension that we’re trying to explore.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Work that resonates</strong></p> <p>After several years working and studying at MIT, Stein is now excited to see how things have coalesced: Her research topic has received positive feedback from the MIT community; she’s “super happy” with her advisers — professors Heidi Williams and Amy Finkelstein in the Department of Economics, and Pierre Azoulay, a professor of management in the MIT Sloan School of Management — and collaborating with Hill has “made the whole experience much more fun and companionable. (Williams, who continues to serve as Stein's adviser, is now on the faculty of Stanford University.)<br /> <br /> “I want to do things that resonate with people inside and outside the economics field," Stein reflects. "A really rewarding part of this project has been talking to people who do science and asking them if our work resonates with them. Having scientists completely understand what we’re talking about is a huge part of the fun for me.”<br /> <br /> Another activity Stein is enthusiastic about is her teaching experience with professors Williams and David Autor, which has affirmed her interest in an academic career. “I find teaching incredibly gratifying,” Stein says. “And I’ve had the privilege of being a teaching assistant here for professors who care a great deal about teaching.”<br /> <br /> <strong>Women in economics</strong></p> <p>Stein would also like to encourage more women to explore a career in economics. She notes that if you were to poll students in their first year, they would likely say that economics is about what they read in <em>The Wall Street Journal:</em> finance, international trade, and money.<br /> <br /> “But it’s much more than that,” Stein says. “Economics is more like a set of tools that you can apply to an astonishingly wide variety of things. I think that if more people knew this, and knew it sooner in their college career, a much more diverse group of people would want to study the field.”<br /> <br /> Career options in the private sector are also increasing for economists, she says. “A lot of tech companies now realize they love economics PhDs. These companies collect so much data. It’s an opportunity to actually do a job that uses your degree.”<br /> <br /> <strong>A sport with data</strong></p> <p>As the 2019 fall academic term gets underway, Stein is focused on writing her thesis and preparing for the academic job market. To explore her native New England as well as to escape the rigors of thesis-writing, she’s also looking forward to rides with the MIT Cycling Club.</p> <p>“A few weekends ago," she says, "we drove up to Vermont to do this completely insane ride over six mountain passes. The club is such a wonderful group of people. And cycling can be a very nerdy sport with tons of data to analyze.”</p> <p>So, maybe not a total escape.<br /> &nbsp;</p> <h5><em>Story by MIT SHASS Communications<br /> Editorial Team: Emily Hiestand and Maria Iacobo </em></h5> "Scientists are often motivated by factors other than wages,” says Carolyn Stein, "but many insights from labor economics still help us understand how the field of science functions. Incentive and career concerns still matter. And risk is a big concern.”Photo: Maria Iacobo Economics, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Social sciences, Profile, Women, History of science, Data, Analytics, Behavioral economics, Students, Graduate, postdoctoral Bridging the information gap in solar energy PhD student Elise Harrington studies the ways rural communities in Kenya and India learn about solar energy products and their options as consumers. Thu, 19 Sep 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Daysia Tolentino <p>Just 30 seconds into their walk to the town center of Kitale, in Kenya, where they would later conduct a focus group about locally available solar energy options, Elise Harrington and her research partner came across a vendor selling a counterfeit solar lantern. Because they had been studying these very products, they knew immediately it was a fake. But the seller assured them it was authentic and came with a warranty.</p> <p>They bought the lantern and presented it, along with a genuine version, to the members of focus groups. Few of them were able to tell the difference. It was an “eye-opening” discovery says Harrington, a doctoral student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning who has been studying the ways that people in Kenya and India learn about solar products and make decisions about buying and maintaining them.</p> <p>While consumers in developed countries generally assume that a product such as a solar panel will come with a reliable warranty — and wouldn’t purchase the product if it didn’t — Harrington has learned through her fieldwork that this type of information isn’t necessarily communicated to consumers in the countries she’s studied. So far, her research indicates that people’s social relationships, for example with friends, family members, or trusted shop owners, play a critical role in the adoption of solar products, but that gaps remain in household knowledge when it comes to the more complex ideas of standards and after-sales services.</p> <p>“My research looks at not just whether solar energy products are available, but if they’re high quality and have services associated with them that will allow people to use them for a longer period of time,” Harrington says. She hopes that her findings can provide policymakers with information that will help them expand the use of clean energy while also serving communities that lack affordable, reliable electricity.</p> <p>The research combines Harrington’s interests in sustainability (she’s been involved in environmental issues “forever,” she says) with her love of travel (she’s learning Swahili and Hindi in her spare time). She’s also dedicated to her local community at MIT. As a graduate resident advisor in Simmons Hall, she can be found spending time with her undergraduate residents and even brewing them butterbeer during the occasional Harry Potter-themed event.</p> <p><strong>Equitable, reliable access</strong></p> <p>In many parts of the world including Kenya, a variety of different products provide electricity generated by solar power. These range from the ubiquitous solar lanterns that can power an LED light or charge a cell phone, to other types of solar home systems or microgrids that each provide varying amounts of power for different types of household devices.</p> <p>Advised by Associate Professor David Hsu, Harrington has studied how rural communities, first in India and now Kenya, can transition from a centralized electricity grid to these various types of home solar systems. During her recent trip to Kenya, this past summer, she fielded two surveys focusing on solar “intermediaries” who interface between end-users, companies, and policymakers.</p> <p>“As adoption of solar products grows in rural areas, so does the need for energy services accessible by rural communities, and consumer protections that result in equitable and durable electricity service models,” she says.</p> <p>Harrington, who majored in architecture as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied solar energy in several different contexts during her time at MIT. In her first year, she focused on electricity planning for rooftop solar systems in the United States, specifically the growth of distributed solar in Hawaii. Then, as a fellow at the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, she investigated household decision-making on solar microgrids in rural India, looking at how communities could use these small-scale systems as alternatives to the state-sanctioned electricity grid, which is often unreliable in rural areas.</p> <p>“One of the faculty members in our department said to us during our first year that if we came in doing exactly the same thing we wrote in our statement, then we have not been pushed enough. This idea really set the trajectory on the risks I was willing to take in my research,” says Harrington.</p> <p>Harrington is also a recent fellow in the Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability, a community at MIT dedicated to environmental sustainability. Martin fellows are selected every academic year from across the Institute’s departments. “We get the opportunity to interact with each other, learn about each other’s research, and be a part of this network of people who can learn from one another and contribute to environmental and sustainable work inside and out of MIT,” says Harrington.</p> <p><strong>A GReAt way to find community</strong></p> <p>Harrington is a graduate resident advisor (GRA) in Simmons Hall, which she describes as one of the best things about her experience at MIT. As a GRA, she acts as a resource for residents whenever they have questions, challenges, or want to talk about exciting opportunities or events in their lives.</p> <p>She says being a GRA has increased the depth of her connections to the MIT community, and she appreciates that she can come back to that after a long, hard day of work and spend time with the Simmons community.</p> <p>“From my perspective, so much of MIT’s entrepreneurial and creative spirit is housed in the undergraduate population here. Without being a GRA, I don’t think I would get to know that side of MIT as much,” says Harrington.</p> <p>She says she learns as much from her undergraduate residents as they do from her, especially about thinking ahead and managing stress. As a GRA, she hosts a range of events for them, her favorite being the aforementioned annual Harry Potter gathering where she and her partner dress up in costumes in addition to brewing up beverages for Simmons residents.</p> <p><strong>The benefits of downtime</strong></p> <p>In her spare time, Harrington likes to stay active, physically and mentally. She takes yoga classes in Boston and says it's one of the best ways to end a difficult day. She also enjoys going for runs, walks, and hikes in the outdoors.</p> <p>One of Harrington’s favorite activities is playing cards and board games with friends, which she says is a fantastic way to take her mind off of research. On the weekends, she likes to try out new games; her current favorite is Mission to Mars, which she describes as a Settlers of Catan-type board game in space, but with a bit more randomness. In general, she loves games that are accessible for everyone, so that players can just sit down with a group of people and figure out as they go.</p> <p>“Games, hiking, different things that get you out, they help. I find when I take a true break like that, I can work so much better when I go back to it,” Harrington says.</p> Elise HarringtonImage: Jake BelcherProfile, Urban studies and planning, School of Architecture and Planning, Graduate, postdoctoral, Students, Energy, Developing countries, India, Africa, Sustainability, Renewable energy, Solar Understanding genetic circuits and genome organization Assistant professors Pulin Li and Seychelle Vos are investigating how cells become tissues and the proteins that organize DNA. Thu, 12 Sep 2019 11:45:01 -0400 Raleigh McElvery | Department of Biology <p>MIT’s Department of Biology welcomed two new assistant professors in recent months: Pulin Li began at the Whitehead Institute in May, and Seychelle Vos arrived at Building 68 in September. Their respective expertise in genetic circuits and genome organization will augment the department’s efforts to explore cell biology at all levels — from intricate molecular structures to the basis for human disease.</p> <p>“Pulin and Seychelle bring new perspectives and exciting ideas to our research community,” says Alan Grossman, department head. “I’m excited to see them start their independent research programs and look forward to the impact that they will have." &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>From cells to tissues</strong></p> <p>Growing up in Yingkou, China, Li was exposed to science at a young age. Her dad worked for a pharmaceutical company researching traditional Chinese medicine, and Li would spend hours playing with his lab tools and beakers. “I can still vividly remember the smell of his Chinese herbs,” she says. “Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’ve always been interested in biology as it relates to medical sciences.”</p> <p>She earned her BS in life sciences from Peking University, and went on to pursue a PhD in chemical biology at Harvard University studying hematopoietic stem cells. Li performed chemical screens to find drugs that would make stem cell transplantation in animal models more efficient, and eventually help patients with leukemia. In doing so, she became captivated by the molecular mechanisms that control cell-to-cell communication.</p> <p>“I would like to eventually go back to developing new therapies and medicines,” she says, “but that translational research requires a basic understanding of how things work at a molecular level.”</p> <p>As a result, her postdoc at Caltech was firmly rooted in basic biology. She investigated the genetic circuits that underlie cell-cell communication in developing and regenerating tissues, and now aims to develop new methods to study these same processes here at MIT.</p> <p>Traditional genetic approaches involve breaking components of a system one at a time to investigate the role they play. However, Li’s lab will adopt a “bottom-up” approach that involves building these systems from the ground up, adding the components back into the cell one by one to pinpoint which genetic circuits are sufficient for programming tissue function. “Building up a system, rather than tearing it down, allows you to test different circuit designs, tune important parameters, and understand why a circuit has evolved to perform a specific function,” she explains.</p> <p>She is most interested in determining which aspects of cellular communication are critical for tissue formation, in hopes of understanding the diversity of life forms in nature, as well as inspiring new methods to engineer or regenerate different tissues.</p> <p>“My dream would be to put a bunch of genetic circuits into cells in such a way that they could enable the cells to self-organize into certain patterns and shapes, and replace damaged tissues in a patient,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Proteins that organize DNA</strong></p> <p>Although Vos was born in South Africa, her family moved so frequently for her father’s job that she doesn’t call any one place home. “If I had to pick, I’d say it would be the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” she says.</p> <p>Both of her grandparents on her mother’s side were researchers, and encouraged various scientific escapades, like bringing wolf spiders to kindergarten for show-and-tell. Her grandmother on her father’s side found her early passions “mildly disturbing,” but dutifully fulfilled her requests for high-resolution insect microscopy books nonetheless.</p> <p>“I really wanted to know how plants and animals worked starting from a young age, thanks to my grandparents,” Vos says.</p> <p>In high school she was already conducting research on the side at Clemson University, South Carolina, and went on to earn her BS in genetics from the University of Georgia. She began her PhD in molecular cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley intending to study immunology, but surprised herself by becoming taken with structural biology instead.</p> <p>Purifying proteins and solving structures required a much different skill set than performing screens and manipulating genomes, but she very much enjoyed her work on topoisomerase, the enzyme that modifies DNA so it doesn’t become too coiled.</p> <p>She continued conducting biochemical and structural research during her postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany. There, she used cryogenic electron microscopy to probe how different RNA polymerase II complexes are regulated during transcription in eukaryotes.</p> <p>Today, she’s a molecular biologist at her core, but she’s prepared to use “whatever technique gets the answer.” As she explains: “You need biochemistry to solve structures and genetics to understand how they’re working within the whole organism, so it's all related.”</p> <p>In her new lab in Building 68, she will continue investigating gene expression, but this time in the context of genome organization. DNA must be compacted in order to fit into a cell, and Vos will study the proteins that organize DNA so it can be compressed without interfering with gene expression. She also wants to know how those same proteins are affected by gene expression.</p> <p>“How gene regulation impacts compaction is a really critical question to address because different cell types are organized in different ways, and that impacts which genes are ultimately expressed,” she says. “We still don’t really understand how these processes work at an atomic level, so that’s where my expertise in biochemistry and structural biology can be useful.”</p> <p>When asked what they are most excited about as the school year begins, both Li and Vos say the same thing: the diverse skills and expertise of the students and faculty.</p> <p>“It's not just about solving one structure, people here want to understand the entire process,” Vos says. “Biology is a conglomeration of many different fields, and if we can have engineers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, and others work together, we can begin to tackle pressing questions.”</p> Seychelle Vos (left) and Pulin Li recently joined the Department of Biology as assistant professors.Photo: Raleigh McElveryBiology, Whitehead Institute, School of Science, Faculty, Genetics, Cells, Proteins, DNA, Profile Uncovering links between architecture, politics, and society “Every building is ultimately a compromise” involving many stakeholders, says architectural historian Timothy Hyde. Tue, 10 Sep 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office <p>A building is many things: a stylistic statement, a form shaped to its function, and a reflection of its era.</p> <p>To MIT architectural historian Timothy Hyde, a building represents something else as well.</p> <p>“Every building is ultimately a compromise,” says Hyde. “It’s a compromise between the intentions of architects, the capacities of builders, economics, politics, the people who use the building, the people who paid for the building. It’s a compromise of many, many inputs.”</p> <p>Even when architecture is stylish and trend-setting, then, buildings are developed within political, legal, and technological limits. And Hyde, formerly a practicing architect himself, has built a niche for himself at MIT as a scholar exploring those issues.&nbsp;</p> <p>In a relatively short span, Hyde, an associate professor at MIT, has written two books on the relationship between architecture and society, one exploring modernism and democracy in 20th&nbsp;century Cuba, and the other looking at the connections between architecture and power in modern Britain.</p> <p>In both, Hyde, whose sharp archival work matches his grasp of buildings, shows how buildings have co-evolved along with the political and legal practices of the contemporary world.</p> <p>“I really think about myself first as a historian of modernity,” Hyde explains. “Architectural history is the particular vehicle that I use to explore the history of modernity.”</p> <p><strong>The writing on the wall</strong></p> <p>Hyde grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village and double-majored in English and architecture at Yale University. He then received a master of architecture degree from Princeton University and became a practicing architect, mostly working on residences. But he kept writing about architecture, a fairly common practice in the field.</p> <p>“In architecture, as a profession, writing has always been a companion to the building,” Hyde says. “Many architects write.” But before long, he says, “I just had a recognition that the ideas I wanted to explore were best expressed through writing, as opposed to through building.”</p> <p>At about the same time, Hyde was teaching a course at Northeastern University and soon realized he wanted to fully commit to the academic life.</p> <p>“Instead of trying to write alongside my practice, I realized at that point I wanted to flip the two around and focus on writing as a historian, and to be able to teach and work in academia but still remain engaged in a contemporary conversation about architecture,” Hyde says.</p> <p>Hyde thus returned to school, earning his PhD at Harvard University. He sought out an academic position, and at MIT, has landed in the Program in History, Theory, and Criticism, a highly active group of architectural and art historians within the School of Architecture and Planning.</p> <p>“We’re a humanities discipline, but we’re affiliated very tightly to a professional practice that is itself a composite of art and engineering,” Hyde says. “So the role of the historian within the architecture program is a very broad one. We can talk about many facets of buildings.”</p> <p><strong>Cuba, Britain, and … the South Pole?</strong></p> <p>One hallmark of architectural history at MIT is geographic scope: Professors at the Institute have often made a point of examining the subject in global terms. Hyde takes that approach as well.</p> <p>Hyde’s 2012 book on Cuba — “Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933-1959” — stemmed from his realization that Cuba at the time “was an incredibly exciting and fertile place for cultural exchanges and avant-garde aesthetics, and had an economic boom that allowed the commissioning of very innovative projects.”</p> <p>When Cuba drafted a new constitution in the 1940s, philosophers, artists, and writers were a part of the process. Architectural thinking, Hyde contends, was an integral part of the planning and vision of the country — although that became discarded after Cuba’s communist revolution of the late 1950s.</p> <p>“I wrote about the relationship between a national project that was being articulated in political and legal terms, and a national project that was being articulated in terms of architecture and planning,” Hyde says.</p> <p>His book on Britain — “Ugliness and Judgment,” published in 2019 — explores several distinct episodes in which aesthetic disagreements over architecture in London helped produce modern social and legal practices. For instance, Britain’s libel law took shape in response to failed lawsuits filed by Sir John Soane, whose early 19th-century buildings were the object of stinging put-downs from critics.</p> <p>Moreover, in Britain, environmental science and policy have important roots in a controversy of the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt in stone in the 1840s. When the parliament building quickly became smothered in soot, it instigated a decades-long process in which the country gradually charted out new antipollution laws.</p> <p>Hyde is currently working on a third book project, which looks at the historical legacy of buildings that have vanished, from Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond to shelters in Antarctica. Their presence as architectural objects was crucial to the people who inhabited them; Hyde is exploring how this shapes our understanding of the history surrounding them.</p> <p>“Thoreau’s cabin at Walden has an enormous textual presence, but it has virtually no physical presence,” Hyde says. “If the architecture is so central to Thoreau’s book, yet no longer has a presence as a material object, how should architectural history approach that?”</p> <p><strong>Working well with others</strong></p> <p>Beyond his own work, Hyde has helped establish a new, cooperative group of scholars in his field, the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative.</p> <p>The group holds workshops and produces published volumes and pamphlets in architectural history, to aid scholars who often work in isolation. Their edited volume, “Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century,” was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.</p> <p>The idea, Hyde says, is “to try to allow for a collaborative conversation that is otherwise not cultivated very strongly within the field.” The group’s in-depth workshops provide scholars with substantive feedback about works in progress.</p> <p>“Having a workshop where you can spend two days talking about each other’s work is an enormous luxury, and something that I have not experienced elsewhere in our field,” Hyde says.</p> <p>Scholars participating in the collaborative can thus can enjoy a win-win situation, pursuing their own work while getting help from others. Perhaps every building is a compromise — but architectural history don’t have to be one.</p> “I really think about myself first as a historian of modernity,” says Associate Professor Timothy Hyde. “Architectural history is the particular vehicle that I use to explore the history of modernity.”Image: Bryce VickmarkSchool of Architecture and Planning, Architecture, Design, History, Law, Politics, Faculty, Profile, Program in HTC When rats work to protect human safety PhD student Jia Hui Lee studies global differences in how humans relate to other animals, including rats that detect land mines. Thu, 05 Sep 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Daysia Tolentino <p>During a trip to Brussels in 2013, Jia Hui Lee decided to visit the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. While there, he stumbled upon a poster depicting a rat on the ground next to a partially visible land mine. It was April 4, International Mine Awareness Day, and the poster was part of a display about the use of rodents to detect land mines.</p> <p>“When you think about war, you think about these big technological tools, vehicles, and systems. Then to see this image of a rat, it was quite jarring and piqued my interest immediately,” says Lee, a fifth-year doctoral student in MIT’s History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program.</p> <p>He had been thinking about humanity’s relationship with other animals and the environment during the era of climate change, and the display provided the kernel of his PhD thesis, which looks at human-rodent interactions in Tanzania, where humans are training rats to detect landmines, as well as tuberculosis.</p> <p>As a queer man of color, Lee has frequently questioned ideas about power, privilege, and people’s places in society, including his own. With his graduate work, he is extending these questions to consider cross-species interactions and what they say about the impact of technology on society and politics. Throughout his studies, the ethical considerations of anthropology, including who gets to speak for the experiences of others and what experiences are studied in the first place, have remained central to Lee’s work.</p> <p><strong>Helpers, friends, vermin, enemies</strong></p> <p>For his thesis, Lee completed 15 months of field research in Tanzania examining how trainers interacted with, talked about, and ultimately conditioned rats in order to get them to find land mines. He later spent two months in Cambodia to see how the animals worked in the field. The Tanzanian-trained rats were deployed in an area to clear possible land mines, and after they determined that there were no active mines in that site, Lee took a walk through the area. He jokes that the fact that he’s still alive to talk about the experience demonstrates the success of the training.</p> <p>Lee is very careful about how he talks about the nonhuman animals in his research, to acknowledge the cross-cultural differences in how humans think about them. For instance, many people in Tanzania consider rats to be intelligent and helpful, whereas in New York City, for example, they are more commonly viewed as vermin. Likewise, Lee notes that in the U.S. and European countries, dogs are generally viewed as humans’ best friends and treated as part of the family. In places like Tanzania and Kenya, however, he says dogs are often viewed as vicious and fierce, because of the historic use of dogs by colonial British police officers to violently control anticolonial protesters, and later as guards against theft.</p> <p>“The knowledge I hope to produce out of this research is in conversation with zoology, biology, and cognitive science. It includes histories of human-animal interactions which are usually left out in other kinds of disciplines,” Lee says.</p> <p>His focus on East Africa grew in part out of previous research on the growing science and technology markets in the region. Although the technology scene in East Africa is flourishing, he notes, this growth doesn’t get the same recognition as tech hubs in the West.</p> <p>“You see a really exciting embrace of science and technology in this region. It’s interesting to think about these types of science and technology projects in East Africa — not Cambridge, Massachusetts, or London. It’s really important to think of East Africa as a location of critical thinking and knowledge production,” he says.</p> <p><strong>Equity on campus</strong></p> <p>As a person who is concerned with power and privilege, it is no surprise that Lee has advocated on behalf of the Institute’s graduate community. As a graduate fellow for the Institute Community and Equity Office, Lee worked with Professor Ed Bertschinger and other fellows to find ways to candidly discuss the state of diversity and inclusion at MIT.</p> <p>“Over the course of a semester, we hosted discussion lunches that included students, staff, and faculty to share best practices in different departments that foster inclusion at the Institute,” Lee says.</p> <p>He also served on the Working Group on Graduate Student Tuition Models to gather data about grad students’ experiences with some of the Institute’s funding structures. He compiled the stories of various members of the graduate community to present to the Institute’s administration in order to&nbsp;demonstrate the ways that students’ well-being could be enhanced. MIT’s senior leadership has now begun seeking ways to alleviate&nbsp;financial insecurity faced by some of the Institute’s graduate students and has also launched a new effort to better support those with families.</p> <p><strong>Citizen of the world</strong></p> <p>Lee has wide-ranging interests in history and culture, and one of his favorite things to do in his free time is to walk around and analyze Boston’s architecture. After living in the area on and off for about a decade, he says he really enjoys getting to know Boston and its physical changes intimately. He thinks it’s fascinating to think about the city’s transformation from a part of the sea hundreds of years ago to the urban hub it is now. Throughout his travels the past few years, he has picked up bits of art and architectural history that have informed his understanding of some of Boston’s iconic landmarks.</p> <p>“In Boston, there's a lot of Italian influences on certain architecture, so the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum looks like an Italian Renaissance palazzo, which is so quirky. But then Back Bay, especially Commonwealth Avenue, was designed to resemble a French boulevard,” Lee explains.</p> <p>Beyond Boston and Tanzania, Lee has been all over the world, and picked up various languages in the process. He speaks Malay, Swahili, French, English, Hindi, and Urdu, and a bit of several Chinese dialects. In his adventures, Lee has also recognized the value of being alone, and he advocates for solo travel. It invites unique experiences, he says, which for him has included being brought to dance clubs and even a Tanzanian wedding.</p> <p>“I feel like the likelihood of randomly meeting a person or stumbling into an event or a festival is so much higher than if you're traveling with somebody. And when you're alone, I think people do draw you into whatever events they are going to,” Lee says.</p> Jia Hui LeeImage: Jared CharneyProfile, Students, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, Anthropology, Technology and society, Africa, Animals, Graduate, postdoctoral Creating new opportunities from nanoscale materials MIT Professor Frances Ross is pioneering new techniques to study materials growth and how structure relates to performance. Thu, 05 Sep 2019 15:15:01 -0400 Denis Paiste | Materials Research Laboratory <p>A hundred years ago, “2d” meant a two-penny, or 1-inch, nail. Today, “2-D” encompasses a broad range of atomically thin flat materials, many with exotic properties not found in the bulk equivalents of the same materials, with graphene — the single-atom-thick form of carbon — perhaps the most prominent. While many researchers at MIT and elsewhere are exploring two-dimensional materials and their special properties,&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Frances M. Ross</a>, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, is interested in what happens when these 2-D materials and ordinary 3-D materials come together.</p> <p>“We’re interested in the interface between a 2-D material and a 3-D material because every 2-D material that you want to use in an application, such as an electronic device, still has to talk to the outside world, which is three-dimensional,” Ross says.</p> <p>“We’re at an interesting time because there are immense developments in instrumentation for electron microscopy, and there is great interest in materials with very precisely controlled structures and properties, and these two things cross in a fascinating way,” says Ross.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The opportunities are very exciting,” Ross says. “We’re going to be really improving the characterization capabilities here at MIT.” Ross specializes in examining how nanoscale materials grow and react in both gases and liquid media, by recording movies using electron microscopy. Microscopy of reactions in liquids is particularly useful for understanding the mechanisms of electrochemical reactions that govern the performance of catalysts, batteries, fuel cells, and other important technologies. “In the case of liquid phase microscopy, you can also look at corrosion where things dissolve away, while in gases you can look at how individual crystals grow or how materials react with, say, oxygen,” she says.<br /> <br /> Ross&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">joined</a>&nbsp;the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) faculty last year, moving from the Nanoscale Materials Analysis department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “I learned a tremendous amount from my IBM colleagues and hope to extend our research in material design and growth in new directions,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Recording movies</strong></p> <p>During a recent visit to her lab, Ross explained an experimental setup donated to MIT by IBM. An ultra-high vacuum evaporator system arrived first, to be attached later directly onto a specially designed transmission electron microscope. “This gives powerful possibilities,” Ross explains. “We can put a sample in the vacuum, clean it, do all sorts of things to it such as heating and adding other materials, then transfer it under vacuum into the microscope, where we can do more experiments while we record images. So we can, for example, deposit silicon or germanium, or evaporate metals, while the sample is in the microscope and the electron beam is shining through it, and we are recording a movie of the process.”</p> <p>While waiting this spring for the transmission electron microscope to be set up, members of Ross’ seven-member research group, including materials science and engineering postdoc Shu Fen Tan and graduate student Kate Reidy, made and studied a variety of self-assembled structures. The evaporator system was housed temporarily on the fifth-level prototyping space of MIT.nano while Ross’s lab was being readied in Building 13. “MIT.nano had the resources and space; we were happy to be able to help,” says Anna Osherov, MIT.nano assistant director of user services.</p> <p>“All of us are interested in this grand challenge of materials science, which is:&nbsp;‘How do you make a material with the properties you want and, in particular, how do you use nanoscale dimensions to tweak the properties, and create new properties, that you can’t get from bulk materials?’” Ross says.</p> <p>Using the ultra-high vacuum system, graduate student Kate Reidy formed structures of gold and niobium on several 2-D materials. “Gold loves to grow into little triangles,” Ross notes. “We’ve been talking to people in physics and materials science about which combinations of materials are the most important to them in terms of controlling the structures and the interfaces between the components in order to give some improvement in the properties of the material,” she notes.</p> <p>Shu Fen Tan synthesized nickel-platinum nanoparticles and examined them using another technique, liquid cell electron microscopy. She could arrange for only the nickel to dissolve, leaving behind spiky skeletons of platinum. “Inside the liquid cell, we are able to see this whole process at high spatial and temporal resolutions,” Tan says. She explains that platinum is a noble metal and less reactive than nickel, so under the right conditions the nickel participates in an electrochemical dissolution reaction and the platinum is left behind.<br /> <br /> Platinum is a well-known catalyst in organic chemistry and fuel cell materials, Tan notes, but it is also expensive, so finding combinations with less-expensive materials such as nickel is desirable.</p> <p>“This is an example of the range of materials reactions you can image in the electron microscope using the liquid cell technique,” Ross says. “You can grow materials; you can etch them away; you can look at, for example, bubble formation and fluid motion.”</p> <p>A particularly important application of this technique is to study cycling of battery materials. “Obviously, I can’t put an AA battery in here, but you could set up the important materials inside this very small liquid cell and then you can cycle it back and forth and ask, if I charge and discharge it 10 times, what happens? It does not work just as well as before — how does it fail?” Ross asks. “Some kind of failure analysis and all the intermediate stages of charging and discharging can be observed in the liquid cell.”</p> <p>“Microscopy experiments where you see every step of a reaction give you a much better chance of understanding what’s going on,” Ross says.</p> <p><strong>Moiré patterns</strong></p> <p>Graduate student Reidy is interested in how to control the growth of gold on 2-D materials such as graphene, tungsten diselenide, and molybdenum disulfide. When she deposited gold on “dirty” graphene, blobs of gold collected around the impurities. But when Reidy grew gold on graphene that had been heated and cleaned of impurities, she found perfect triangles of gold. Depositing gold on both the top and bottom sides of clean graphene, Reidy saw in the microscope features known as&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">moiré patterns</a>, which are caused when the overlapping crystal structures are out of alignment.</p> <p>The gold triangles may be useful as photonic and plasmonic structures. “We think this could be important for a lot of applications, and it is always interesting for us to see what happens,” Reidy says. She is planning to extend her clean growth method to form 3-D metal crystals on stacked 2-D materials with various rotation angles and other mixed-layer structures. Reidy is interested in the properties of graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (hBN), as well as two materials that are semiconducting in their 2-D single-layer form, molybdenum disulfide (MoS<sub>2</sub>) and tungsten diselenide (WSe<sub>2</sub>). “One aspect that’s very interesting in the 2-D materials community is the contacts between 2-D materials and 3-D metals,” Reidy says. “If they want to make a semiconducting device or a device with graphene, the contact could be ohmic for the graphene case or a Schottky contact for the semiconducting case, and the interface between these materials is really, really important.”</p> <p>“You can also imagine devices using the graphene just as a spacer layer between two other materials,” Ross adds.</p> <p>For device makers, Reidy says it is sometimes important to have a 3-D material grow with its atomic arrangement aligned perfectly with the atomic arrangement in the 2-D layer beneath. This is called epitaxial growth. Describing an image of gold grown together with silver on graphene, Reidy explains, “We found that silver doesn’t grow epitaxially, it doesn’t make those perfect single crystals on graphene that we wanted to make, but by first depositing the gold and then depositing silver around it, we can almost force silver to go into an epitaxial shape because it wants to conform to what its gold neighbors are doing.”</p> <p>Electron microscope images can also show imperfections in a crystal such as rippling or bending, Reidy notes. “One of the great things about electron microscopy is that it is very sensitive to changes in the arrangement of the atoms,” Ross says. “You could have a perfect crystal and it would all look the same shade of gray, but if you have a local change in the structure, even a subtle change, electron microscopy can pick it up. Even if the change is just within the top few layers of atoms without affecting the rest of the material beneath, the image will show distinctive features that allow us to work out what’s going on.”</p> <p>Reidy also is exploring the possibilities of combining niobium — a metal that is superconducting at low temperatures — with a 2-D topological insulator, bismuth telluride. Topological insulators have fascinating properties whose discovery resulted in the&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Nobel Prize</a>&nbsp;in Physics in 2016. “If you deposit niobium on top of bismuth telluride, with a very good interface, you can make superconducting junctions. We’ve been looking into niobium deposition, and rather than triangles we see structures that are more dendritic looking,” Reidy says. Dendritic structures look like the frost patterns formed on the inside of windows in winter, or the feathery patterns of some ferns. Changing the temperature and other conditions during the deposition of niobium can change the patterns that the material takes.</p> <p>All the researchers are eager for new electron microscopes to arrive at MIT.nano to give further insights into the behavior of these materials. “Many things will happen within the next year, things are ramping up already, and I have great people to work with. One new microscope is being installed now in MIT.nano and another will arrive next year. The whole community will see the benefits of improved microscopy characterization capabilities here,” Ross says.</p> <p>MIT.nano’s Osherov notes that two&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">cryogenic transmission electron microscopes</a>&nbsp;(cryo-TEM) are installed and running. “Our goal is to establish a unique microscopy-centered community. We encourage and hope to facilitate a cross-pollination between the cryo-EM researchers, primarily focused on biological applications and ‘soft’ material, as well as other research communities across campus,” she says. The latest addition of a scanning transmission electron microscope with enhanced analytical capabilities (ultrahigh energy resolution monochromator, 4-D STEM detector, Super-X EDS detector, tomography, and several&nbsp;in situ&nbsp;holders) brought in by John Chipman Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering&nbsp;<a dir="ltr" href="" rel="noopener" target="_blank">James M. LeBeau</a>, once installed, will substantially enhance the microscopy capabilities of the MIT campus. “We consider Professor Ross to be an immense resource for advising us in how to shape the in situ approach to measurements using the advanced instrumentation that will be shared and available to all the researchers within the MIT community and beyond,” Osherov says.</p> <p><strong>Little drinking straws</strong></p> <p>“Sometimes you know more or less what you are going to see during a growth experiment, but very often there’s something that you don’t expect,” Ross says. She shows an example of zinc oxide nanowires that were grown using a germanium catalyst. Some of the long crystals have a hole through their centers, creating structures which are like little drinking straws, circular outside but with a hexagonally shaped interior. “This is a single crystal of zinc oxide, and the interesting question for us is why do the experimental conditions create these facets inside, while the outside is smooth?” Ross asks. “Metal oxide nanostructures have so many different applications, and each new structure can show different properties. In particular, by going to the nanoscale you get access to a diverse set of properties.”</p> <p>“Ultimately, we’d like to develop techniques for growing well-defined structures out of metal oxides, especially if we can control the composition at each location on the structure,” Ross says. A key to this approach is self-assembly, where the material builds itself into the structure you want without having to individually tweak each component. “Self-assembly works very well for certain materials but the problem is that there’s always some uncertainty, some randomness or fluctuations. There’s poor control over the exact structures that you get. So the idea is to try to understand self-assembly well enough to be able to control it and get the properties that you want,” Ross says.</p> <p>“We have to understand how the atoms end up where they are, then use that self-assembly ability of atoms to make a structure we want. The way to understand how things self-assemble is to watch them do it, and that requires movies with high spatial resolution and good time resolution,” Ross explains. Electron microscopy can be used to acquire structural and compositional information and can even measure strain fields or electric and magnetic fields. “Imagine recording all of these things, but in a movie where you are also controlling how materials grow within the microscope. Once you have made a movie of something happening, you analyze all the steps of the growth process and use that to understand which physical principles were the key ones that determined how the structure nucleated and evolved and ended up the way it does.”</p> <p><strong>Future directions</strong></p> <p>Ross hopes to bring in a unique high-resolution, high vacuum TEM with capabilities to image materials growth and other dynamic processes. She intends to develop new capabilities for both water-based and gas-based environments. This custom microscope is still in the planning stages but will be situated in one of the rooms in the Imaging Suite in MIT.nano.</p> <p>“Professor Ross is a pioneer in this field,” Osherov says. “The majority of TEM studies to-date have been static, rather than dynamic. With static measurements you are observing a sample at one particular snapshot in time, so you don’t gain any information about how it was formed. Using dynamic measurements, you can look at the atoms hopping from state to state until they find the final position. The ability to observe self-assembling processes and growth in real time provides valuable mechanistic insights. We’re looking forward to bringing these advanced capabilities to MIT.nano.” she says.</p> <p>“Once a certain technique is disseminated to the public, it brings attention,” Osherov says. “When results are published, researchers expand their vision of experimental design based on available state-of-the-art capabilities, leading to many new experiments that will be focused on dynamic applications.”</p> <p>Rooms in MIT.nano feature the quietest space on the MIT campus, designed to reduce vibrations and electromagnetic interference to as low a level as possible. “There is space available for Professor Ross to continue her research and to develop it further,” Osherov says. “The ability of in situ monitoring the formation of matter and interfaces will find applications in multiple fields across campus, and lead to a further push of the conventional electron microscopy limits.”</p> Left to right: Postdoc Shu Fen Tan, graduate student Kate Reidy, and Professor Frances Ross, all of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, sit in front of a high vacuum evaporator system. Photo: Denis Paiste/Materials Research LaboratoryMaterials Research Laboratory, Materials Science and Engineering, School of Engineering, Nanoscience and nanotechnology, Microscopy, Research, MIT.nano, DMSE, Faculty, Profile, 2-D, Graphene Jesús Dones-Monroig: Creating space for everyone in chemistry “If we are not given support at a personal level, our educational and professional potential is going to be directly affected,” the PhD student says. Tue, 27 Aug 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Daysia Tolentino | MIT News correspondent <p>Growing up on a large swath of land in Puerto Rico, Jesús Dones-Monroig was always playing in nature. He was encouraged to plant, build, and explore the environment around his home. His father even took him to the ocean to go spearfishing, where he developed a fascination for marine life. He credits a lot of his curiosity of nature to his parents, who encouraged Dones-Monroig and his siblings to play outdoors.</p> <p>“[My parents] let us be free to do whatever we wanted out there. They gave us the freedom to have an idea and play with things outside to make it happen,” says Dones-Monroig.</p> <p>Eventually, this affinity with the natural world would contribute to Dones-Monroig’s interest in biology and organic chemistry. He went on to study chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras and was particularly inspired by his organic chemistry professor, Ingrid Montes, to appreciate the world through a molecular level.</p> <p>Now a fifth year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry, Dones-Monroig works in the lab of Ronald Raines, the Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Product Chemistry, and studies collagen mimetic peptides, or “CMPs.” Dones-Monroig has developed a CMP that can selectively anneal with damaged collagen. At this stage, he is working on optimizing his newly developed CMP to help detect mammalian collagen that has suffered damage. In the future, he hopes to develop a system that selectively anneals to different types of damaged collagen.</p> <p>As a chemical biologist, Dones-Monroig also works on synthetic chemistry projects, from developing synthetic peptides through organic chemistry to synthesizing faster and more selective organic molecules for “<a href="" target="_blank">click chemistry</a>.” &nbsp;</p> <p>“That’s why I love research in the Raines Lab,” Dones-Monroig says, “You’re not restricted to one area of chemistry.”</p> <p><strong>Promoting diversity and inclusion</strong></p> <p>Dones-Monroig is a family-driven, community-oriented person, and being so far from home has motivated him to create connections and support groups at MIT. He also feels strongly that without the right support, students can’t fully realize their potential in their academic and professional pursuits.</p> <p>While pursuing his masters in chemical biology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Dones-Monroig was involved in programs that promote diversity and inclusion. Coming to MIT, he felt there was a lack of support for underrepresented and underserved graduate and undergraduate students at the Institute. With the help of professor and former head of the Department of Chemistry Tim Jamison, as well as individuals in the Women in Chemistry (WIC) group and the Chemistry Graduate Student Committee (CGSC), Dones-Monroig founded the Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion (CADI).</p> <p>Launched in 2018, <a href="" target="_blank">CADI</a> seeks to support the success of underrepresented and underserved graduate and undergraduate students in the chemistry department&nbsp;and to help ensure that the campus has safe, inclusive, and supportive environments for students. The group facilitates conversations regarding the state of diversity in the field of chemistry and provides students with professional and academic resources. Finding community in graduate school can be just as important as the classes one takes or the skills one acquires, Dones-Monroig says.</p> <p>“If we are not given support at a personal level, our educational and professional potential is going to be directly affected. CADI is for anybody that doesn’t feel part of the chemistry department,” he says.</p> <p>Dones-Monroig also serves as a pod leader for the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), a program that aims to promote the value of graduate education and improve the research enterprise through increased diversity in MIT.</p> <p>“The students that come to this program are astounding. They’re very intelligent and driven, but they may not have the same resources as MIT in their home universities. So we welcome them,” says Dones-Monroig.</p> <p>Continuing with his penchant for mentorship, Dones-Monroig will serve as a graduate resident advisor (GRA) at the MIT Student House. He will be a mentor to the international undergraduate and graduate students that live there.</p> <p><strong>Healthy bodies, healthy minds</strong></p> <p>Outside of his research, Dones-Monroig stays quite active and enjoys sports. He plays on MIT’s intramural basketball team, and he also enjoys volleyball, tennis, and surfing. Perhaps most impressively, he participates in the Spartan Races, which are races that range in length and feature a variety of physical obstacles. Next month, he will be doing an Ultra-Spartan Race on Killington Peak in Vermont, where he will go through 60 obstacles over the course of 30 miles.</p> <p>For Dones-Monroig, exercise allows him to reduce stress and focus on something other than his research. He attributes his good health, mentally and physically, to staying active. This mentality is from his 61-year-old father, who still tries to run races against him, Dones-Monroig jokes.</p> <p>“If you have a mindset of keeping your body as healthy as your mind, you’ll be more productive. I train my mind in the lab and come out and train my body outside,” says Dones-Monroig.</p> <p>While Dones-Monroig clearly works hard, he plays hard too, and loves to dance salsa on the weekends. With friends that he has made in the local Puerto Rican community, Dones-Monroig goes out to dance and socialize at La Fábrica in Central Square.</p> <p>“I think I’m decent at salsa,” Dones-Monroig laughs, adding, “When compared to non-salsa dancers, then I’m good!”</p> Jesus Dones-MonroigImage: Adam GlanzmanProfile, Graduate, postdoctoral, Chemistry, School of Science, Diversity and inclusion, Community, Students From streams to teams Graduate student Maya Stokes, a geomorphology expert and ultimate frisbee coach, shows her passion for teaching in the field and on the field. Sun, 18 Aug 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Laura Carter | School of Science <p>If you’ve ever looked out the window of an airplane, you might have seen beautiful meandering and braided river systems cutting their way through the Earth. Fly over that same area again a few years later, and you’ll witness a different landscape. On geologic timescales, geomorphology, the study of how the Earth’s surface is shaped and evolves, involves the most rapid processes.</p> <p>“You can observe changes in the paths that rivers take or landslides that dramatically alter hillslopes in a human lifetime. Many geologic processes don’t allow you that opportunity,” says <a href="">Maya Stokes</a>, a fourth-year graduate student in the <a href="">Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences</a> (EAPS) who researches rivers.</p> <p>Stokes wasn’t always interested in geomorphology, although her love for the outdoors stems from a childhood in Colorado. She entered Rice University in Houston with an interest in science and spent some time as an undergraduate trying out different fields. Fascinated by the history of the Earth and life on it, she narrowed her search down to Earth science and ecology and evolutionary biology. A class on geomorphology won her over. Being able to pursue a career that allowed her to work outside was also an enticing perk.</p> <p>At MIT, Stokes now conducts research with <a href="" target="_blank">Taylor Perron</a>, associate department head of EAPS and associate professor of geology at MIT, who is an expert in <a href="" target="_blank">riverine erosion in mountains</a>. She also collaborates with Tom Near, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, enabling her to combine her two areas of interest. Her research focus lies at the intersection of geology and evolutionary biology. While exploring how rivers evolve over time, she simultaneously investigates how the ecosystems within those systems evolve in response.</p> <p>You can think of it like two carloads of people on a road trip. One car crosses a bridge toward a major metropolis, but shortly after, construction closes the bridge and forms a detour sending the second car traveling through a rural farmland. Those two carloads of people will have different experiences, different meals and lodging, that are unique to their car's particular pathway.</p> <p>Stokes focuses on specific pathways — freshwater environments — and the interplay of biology and streams has some dynamic features. “As shown by the recent UN report, understanding and maintaining biodiversity is a high priority goal for building a sustainable future on Earth,” she says in reference to the <a href="" target="_blank">2019 global assessment report</a> conducted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.</p> <p>To get more hands on, Stokes investigates how related fish are to one another in the United States. She collects both genetic and geologic datasets, processed with the help of a University of Massachusetts at Amherst geochemistry lab run by Isaac Larsen. She has been on three trips to collect data, mostly in the Appalachians, a location of which she’s grown fond, because, she explains, “The topography is rugged, the streams are clear and beautiful, and the landscape is saturated with life.”</p> <p>Specifically narrowing to the Tennessee River, Stokes and her collaborators are observing how several populations of the Greenfin darter fish (<em>Nothonotus chlorobranchius</em>) have been separated, possibly as a result of knickpoints, or sharp changes in the slope. Last year, she published a paper in <em>Geophysical Research Letters</em> that predicts a rerouting of the upper Rio Orinoco into the Rio Negro in the Amazon River basin, which is summarized in a <a href="">blog post</a> on the website of the American Geophysical Union.</p> <p>“Stokes’ ambitious project requires a blend of versatility, creativity, determination and intellectual fearlessness. I think she has that rare combination of talents,” says Perron. In order to explore the scope of her research fully, Stokes expanded her resources beyond MIT, successfully applying for funding to take short courses and field courses to achieve her research goals.</p> <p>“I love the intellectual freedom that’s been awarded to me [at MIT]. It’s made my PhD feel authentic, exciting, and very much mine. I think that the culture of intellectual independence is strong at MIT, and it’s very motivating to be around,” says Stokes. She’s grateful to have received research support from MIT’s Office of Graduate Education as a <a href="" target="_blank">Hugh Hampton Young Fellow</a> and through a fellowship from the <a href="" target="_blank">MIT Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability</a>.</p> <p>Hoping to continue to investigate these questions long after her PhD, Stokes plans to become a professor of the history of the Earth and how it influences the evolution of life. MIT has provided Stokes the opportunity to build her teaching skills as a teaching assistant for incoming undergraduates at Yellowstone National Park on four occasions. Explaining the volcanic and natural history of the area, she reveled in the chance to entice new students to delve into the study of the wonderful and constantly evolving Earth. Stokes was recognized with an <a href="">Award for Excellence in Teaching</a> in EAPS earlier this year.</p> <p>Stokes’s leadership skills also led her to serve as president for the EAPS Student Advisory Council (ESAC), and to help start an initiative for a universal first-year course for all EAPS graduate students. She also worked on an initiative started by her fellow EAPS graduate student Eva Golos to allow students to provide input on faculty searches. Recently, she was honored at the MIT Office of Graduate Education’s 2019 celebration of <a href="">Graduate Women of Excellence</a>, nominated by her peers and one of three in EAPS selected based on “their exemplary leadership through example and action, service to the Institute, their dedication to mentoring and their drive to make changes to improve the student experience.” When not on trips to muddy waters, Stokes regularly joins EAPS post-work gatherings with trips to the Muddy Charles, MIT’s on-campus bar, forging deep friendships.</p> <p>Stokes still manages to spend most of her time outdoors, teaching, outside the realm of Earth science. She coaches the women’s ultimate frisbee team at MIT and plays on regionally competitive teams in the Boston area. “It’s also allowed me to interact with undergraduate students at MIT through coaching which helps me feel more tapped into the MIT community at large. I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, leadership, and teaching from the sport,” she says.</p> <p>Stokes’ advisor speculates that she will continue to stand out after she graduates with her doctorate from MIT. “She has demonstrated strong commitments to teaching undergraduates and communicating science to the public,” says Perron. “I expect that she will be a leading researcher in science working at the intersection of the physical environment and biological diversity.”</p> MIT geomorphology graduate student Maya Stokes performed fieldwork in the Chilean Altiplano in 2016. She assisted fellow MIT PhD student Christine Y. Chen with her thesis work studying the history of lakes and the paleoclimate of South America. Photo courtesy of Christine Y. ChenStudents, Graduate, postdoctoral, School of Science, EAPS, Earth and atmospheric sciences, Athletics, Student life, Leadership, Profile, Geology, Evolution, Biology, Ecology The intersection of technology and war MIT excels in teaching the science and technology associated with the operation of societies, businesses, and militaries, says Fiona Cunningham PhD ’19. Tue, 13 Aug 2019 13:30:01 -0400 Michelle English | Center for International Studies <p>Pursuing big questions is part of the MIT ethos, says Fiona Cunningham PhD ’19.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>“Walking through the Infinite Corridor, you can see what people are doing in this space. There is such dedication across the Institute to solving big problems. There is dedication to doing the best work, without hubris, and often without a break. I find this so exciting, and it’s a huge part of what makes me so proud to be an alumna. This dedication will stay with me forever.”</p> <p>Cunningham completed her PhD at the Department of Political Science, where she was also a member of the Security Studies Program. Her work explores how technology affects warfare in the post-Cold War era. She studies how nations — China specifically — plan to use technology in conflict to achieve their aims.&nbsp;</p> <p>“I want to understand the changing nature of warfare and how new technologies have become both opportunities and restraints for countries in international politics. These questions are the kinds of questions that global leaders are thinking about when they are grappling with the rise of China, how technology factors into the current U.S.-China trade war, and how technology does or doesn’t fit within national boundaries.”</p> <p>She received the Lucian Pye Award for&nbsp;<a href="">outstanding PhD thesis</a>. The award was established by the political science department in 2005 and recipients are determined by the graduate studies committee. Pye was a leading China scholar who taught political science at MIT for 35 years.</p> <p>"Fiona’s thesis was exemplary. She asked an important question that bears on the future of peace and stability among nations, and conducted an impressive amount of original research about a topic that is especially challenging to study. In this way, she combined academic rigor with policy relevance,”&nbsp;says Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.</p> <p><strong>The road to China</strong></p> <p>Cunningham was born and raised in Australia, where the influences of neighboring East Asia are strong. This is what led to her initial curiosity about the region. After high school, she took a gap year and spent part of it in China, where she was drawn into the culture and politics — and the challenge of learning Chinese.</p> <p>She returned to Australia for her undergraduate studies and recalls two pivotal experiences that guided her academic path: a visiting semester at Harvard University, where she got a taste for the U.S. approach to studying international relations, and working as a research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank. There she worked with Rory Medcalf, whose early attention to the international security challenges created by the rise of China really helped shape her research questions, says Cunningham.&nbsp;</p> <p>After those experiences, she knew what she wanted to study and she knew she wanted to study at MIT.</p> <p>“I chose MIT because no other political science graduate program had such strengths in both East Asia and security studies. And, as someone who has always been interested in science and technology and its impact on international politics, the idea that I would be at an Institute where so much brain power is dedicated to advancing the scientific and technological aspects of how our societies, businesses, and militaries operate was amazing!”</p> <p><strong>A model community&nbsp;</strong></p> <p>The Department of Political Science and the Security Studies Program provided a thriving community for Cunningham.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The faculty and scholars she worked with —Taylor Fravel, Vipin Narang, Barry Posen, Owen Coté, Frank Gavin — are models of how to do rigorous scholarship about the things that really matter for the way our world works, she says: “They somehow contribute fully to the discipline and the public debate, which is both super-human and very inspiring.”</p> <p>Fravel served as her dissertation chair. “Taylor was my mentor, my professor, and, in addition to that, my co-author. I was so fortunate to be able to learn how to think, research, write, and teach from him in all of those roles.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Fravel and Cunningham co-authored a paper in 2015 on&nbsp;<a href="">China’s nuclear strategy</a>. They have a forthcoming paper delving further into that topic that examines China’s views of nuclear escalation.</p> <p>Three women — Lena Andrews ’18, Marika Landau-Wells ’18, and Ketian Zhang ’19 — went through the program with Cunningham. “We really helped each other and we will always have a special bond.”</p> <p>The support she found in these relationships, plus her family, has been a source of inspiration. “My parents have always encouraged me to do something I was passionate about, do it really well, and to do something that will make a difference,” she says.</p> <p><strong>Breaking new ground</strong></p> <p>Cunningham joined George Washington University as assistant professor of political science and international affairs this fall after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.&nbsp;</p> <p>She chose an academic track because she wants the freedom to continue to pursue the international relations questions she finds most important.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>It is also her strong ambition to continue doing fieldwork, especially within China.&nbsp;<br /> <br /> “I want to see the problems I research through the eyes of people on the front lines. In addition to my fieldwork in China, the Security Studies Program provided me with these kinds of experiences through field trips to U.S. military bases during graduate school. You can’t get that from a book.”</p> <p>She also looks forward to teaching. “For me, teaching is about teaching students how to think critically about future problems, and how to write and communicate their analysis and their thinking.”</p> <p>Cunningham had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant in undergraduate courses while at MIT. “The students at MIT are so capable. They would bring their STEM background to topics like cybersecurity and the causes of war. I would walk away amazed! If these students are our future, then our world will be good hands.”&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>As a professor, she aims to help her students consider the consequences, both intended and unintended, of employing technology. She wants them to think about the political questions that come into play both now and into the future.</p> <p>MIT really gets you attuned to this crossover of technology and its social and political implications, she explains.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The San Francisco (California) Bay Area, where she has spent the last year, provided fertile ground for her to dig deeper.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Silicon Valley is the innovation engine of the U.S. economy, and arguably the world economy. I've been looking around there to see what are the next political science questions.&nbsp;What is the next big question that sits at the intersection of technology and conflict? And what role does great power competition play in the day-to-day life of tech companies? What is the role of individuals and the companies they are running in making decisions that have big political implications?”&nbsp;</p> <p>Pursuing big questions is a part of Cunningham’s ethos. This dedication will stay with her forever.&nbsp;</p> “I chose MIT because no other political science graduate program had such strengths in both East Asia and security studies,” says Fiona Cunningham PhD ’19. “I want to understand the changing nature of warfare and how new technologies have become both opportunities and restraints for countries in international politics.”Photo courtesy of Fiona CunninghamCenter for International Studies, Political science, China, Security studies and military, Technology and society, Alumni/ae, Profile, Asia, School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences Julian Picard: Chopping microwaves, sharpening instincts MIT graduate student slices microwave pulses to test advanced accelerators. Mon, 12 Aug 2019 12:50:01 -0400 Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center <p>“Looking through microscopes has never been my thing,” says Julian Picard.</p> <p>As a graduate student in the Department of Physics, Picard works with the invisible world of particles and electromagnetic waves every day, yet he is motivated by the goal of creating something very visible, “something you can hold in your hand.” His study of the microwaves that speed from the megawatt gyrotron at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) could lead the way to smaller and more powerful particle accelerators, the kind of finished product Picard finds rewarding.&nbsp;</p> <p>Picard became interested in plasma as an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. His student research at their Advanced Propulsion Laboratory and Space Plasma Simulation Laboratory prepared him for an internship, and later a research engineer position, at Eagle Harbor Technologies. Working there on plasma generation and pulsed power supplies, he admired the way the most experienced scientists seemed to solve problems “intuitively.”</p> <p>“That was inspiring to me,” he says. “One of the reasons I came back to grad school was to be steeped in something for a long time. After spending so long working hard on something, you start to develop a gut instinct.”</p> <p>Picard notes it was difficult to find a graduate program that would provide him with a deep physics background, along with the opportunity to apply his understanding to a practical plasma project.</p> <p>“That is what drives me,” Picard says, “I want to understand how something works well enough to apply it in a new way. To me, it feels vacuous to try to design something without understanding how it works. That’s why I wanted to find a program in physics: I wanted to continue developing my background in basic science, and then be able to apply it to a variety of things.”</p> <p>He discovered what he wanted at the PSFC in the Plasma Science and Technology Group, headed by Richard Temkin, who introduced him to the center’s megawatt gyrotron, the source of microwaves for a new project to test particle accelerator cavities.</p> <p>Particle accelerators, besides being essential tools for studying the universe, have practical applications including medical instrument sterilization, computer chip manufacture, material identification and radioisotope production for cancer treatment. While an accelerator typically runs at low frequency (1 gigahertz) with success, researchers have suspected that running it at higher frequencies would allow it to be made smaller and more efficient, improving the convenience and possibly reducing the expense.</p> <p>Although the PSFC megawatt gyrotron is capable of producing microwaves at the higher frequency of 110 GHz, the length of the pulse would melt any accelerator cavity it passed through. Researchers needed to find a way to shorten that pulse.</p> <p>In an <a href="" target="_blank">article</a> for <em>Applied Physics Letters,</em> Picard describes the experimental setup that allowed researchers to “chop” the pulse. The piece received the Outstanding Student Paper Award from the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society at the 2019 Pulsed Power and Plasma Science Conference in June.</p> <p>To shorten the pulse, PSFC researchers strategically arranged a wafer of silicon in the path of the microwaves. Typically, microwaves would pass straight through this. However, a laser directed onto the wafer creates a type of plasma inside the silicon that will reflect the microwaves for as long as the laser is on. Those reflected high-frequency microwaves can be directed into the accelerator, and the pulse chopped to a manageable length (10 nanoseconds) simply by turning off the laser.</p> <p>The laser-targeted wafer does not reflect all the microwaves; about 30 percent are absorbed by or pass through the silicon. Picard’s study showed, however, that as the gyrotron power increased toward a megawatt the wafer reflected more. Instead of reflecting 70 percent of the microwaves, it reflected closer to 80 or 85 percent.</p> <p>“This effect had never been seen before because nobody could test at the higher power levels,” says Picard. “Reflection becomes more efficient at higher powers compared to lower powers. That means there is more power available, so we can test more interesting accelerator structures.”</p> <p>The PSFC is working with a group from Stanford University that designs accelerator cavities, which can now be tested with the “Megawatt Microwave Pulse Chopper.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Picard is pleased with the experiment.</p> <p>“What I’ve really liked about this project is that, at the end of the day, we have a device that makes a short pulse,” he says. “That’s a deliverable. It’s satisfying and motivating.”</p> “One of the reasons I came back to grad school was to be steeped in something for a long time," says Julian Picard, who works in MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. "After spending so long working hard on something, you start to develop a gut instinct.”Photo: Paul RivenbergPlasma Science and Fusion Center, Physics, School of Science, Plasma, Profile, Students, graduate, Graduate, postdoctoral Throwing lifelines to job seekers after incarceration Through her startup, MBA student Brooke Wages seeks to prepare people for high-skilled trade jobs after they’ve served time. Sat, 03 Aug 2019 23:59:59 -0400 Daysia Tolentino | MIT News correspondent <p>It’s Wednesday morning and Brooke Wages is standing in front of a whiteboard, bouncing ideas off her startup partner Sarika Ram, a rising junior at Boston University, and writing out a game plan for the rest of the day. It’s early, but Wages is focused and energetic about the work ahead of her. You can tell that she is, to use one of her favorite phrases, killing the game.</p> <p>Wages and her team have just finished interviewing formerly incarcerated individuals who are now seeking job training and placement through the team’s startup, <a href="">Surge Employment Solutions</a>, which aims to place people in well-paid, high-skilled trade jobs after they have served time in prison. Today Wages and Ram are planning out the next few months of their pilot program, during which they will start training their selected candidates for their future jobs. By November, the selected candidates will be working their new positions.</p> <p>Wages is in the dual-degree master’s of business administration and master’s of public administration program at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She founded Surge last year, along with Ram and rising Harvard University sophomore Amisha Kambath. The team has partnered with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizens, the Massachusetts Parole Board, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, and Strive Boston in their outreach to formerly incarcerated citizens.</p> <p>Her interest in this area began when she was an undergraduate at North Carolina State University. A mechanical engineering major, she also began to study inequality and the discrimination faced by citizens returning to the workforce after incarceration. Wages was particularly influenced by the late sociologist Devah Pager, especially her book “Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration.” Pager’s research documents discrimination against ex-offenders in the job market and how this bias contributes to recidivism, particularly among black men.</p> <p>Upon learning about these injustices, “I felt moved,” Wages recalls. “I felt like there was a fire inside to do this work.”</p> <p><strong>Taking action</strong></p> <p>After graduating, Wages started working as an engineer in the oil and gas industry, but she still found time to work with former inmates seeking employment. She volunteered with the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI) and attended reentry circles, which welcome a returning citizen back into a community and establish a support system. Through this work, she got to know people coming out of the prison system.</p> <p>“[Discrimination against the formerly incarcerated] became more than just this appalling thing that I read about. It became someone’s life story. I really recognized how we had equal value, but I just, by the luck of the draw, happened to be born in a different place” than many of the former inmates she had been meeting through NAEFI, Wages says.</p> <p>In her engineering work, Wages was finding it difficult to find contractors for highly skilled trade jobs. Meanwhile, she was getting to know people having a hard time finding employment after their release. Taking these two contrasting experiences to heart, Wages founded Surge.</p> <p>Wages emphasizes that Surge should not be characterized as solely a staffing company or a workforce development company. Rather, the startup assesses a client’s staffing needs, trains returning citizens, and places them in specific roles in the client’s company. The organization does not start training people unless they have a job secured for them first.</p> <p>“We talk to the client, understand their needs and then develop a unique, personalized training program for that specific position,” she says. “That’s a business model that is not currently being used for the formerly incarcerated population.”</p> <p>The team currently works out of the Boston University BUild Lab IDG Capital Student Innovation Center as part of the university’s Summer Accelerator Program. Surge also recently won $10,000 from the IDEAS Global Challenge from MIT’s PKG Center, which has also been crucial in funding the startup.</p> <p>Among the classes in her Sloan program that have been particularly formative, Wages cites 15.S03 (Leading the Way: Perspectives on Advancing Equity and Inclusion), for giving her tools to create systems within her own business to promote equity and inclusion.</p> <p>“The course provided me with a startup reference guide. We read and discussed the leading evidence-based diversity and inclusion research on topics such as hiring, pay, performance evaluation, identity bias, and harassment, to name a few,” she says. “Just as we acknowledge and address the bias reentering people face in the job market, we need to acknowledge our brain’s proclivity toward bias and build systems that help eliminate that.”</p> <p><strong>Forging relationships</strong></p> <p>Wages says much of her success has resulted from connections she has made through her extracurricular activities, such as The Educational Justice Institute (<a href="">TEJI</a>) at MIT, where she is a graduate fellow. TEJI has provided significant mentorship and support to Wages and her team.</p> <p>Through TEJI, Wages was a teaching assistant for an “inside-out” class on nonviolent philosophy. The class, ES.114 (Non-violence as a Way of Life), taught by humanities lecturer Lee Perlman of the MIT Experimental Study Group,&nbsp;was based in a prison and comprised half undergraduate students and half incarcerated students. Because it was a discussion-based course, Wages says, all of the students in the class had the opportunity to share life experiences and understand different perspectives. She enjoyed facilitating that process and seeing the strong relationships it helped create among the students.</p> <p>Wages also serves as the events chair for MIT’s Black Business Students Association and is a fellow at the Forté Foundation, an organization that empowers women in business. She has also gone on the FoundHers retreat for female entrepreneurs, where she connected with other women who have founded startups.</p> <p>“[Brooke] is a great mentor,” Ram says. “She has lots of undergrads that she takes under her wing.”</p> <p>Wages has also formed a strong bond with her team and stresses that Surge would not be possible without Ram and Kambath. The trio’s personal relationship is important to Wages, and the group often spends time together outside of work. They take art and dance classes together, for example, and they are prepping for an upcoming Indian movie marathon.</p> <p>Wages can also be found at the dog park virtually every day, with her dog Grace. “She is the best. She is a chihuahua-heeler mix and all-black — all-black everything, that’s how we operate!” Wages jokes.</p> <p>Above all of the personal and professional relationships that Wages has created in Boston, her connection to her Christian faith remains as one of the most important things in her life. She is particularly driven by one piece of scripture, in Hebrew 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”</p> Brooke WagesImage: Jared CharneyGraduate, postdoctoral, Profile, Sloan School of Management, Startups, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Diversity and inclusion, Students, Women, Social justice, Business and management, Jobs Mathematical insights through collaboration and perseverance “Patience is important for our subject,” says math professor Wei Zhang. “You’re always making infinitesimal progress.” Sun, 28 Jul 2019 00:00:00 -0400 Jonathan Mingle | MIT News correspondent <p>Wei Zhang’s breakthrough happened on the train. He was riding home to New York after visiting a friend in Boston, during the last year of his PhD studies in mathematics at Columbia University, where he was focusing on L-functions, an important area of number theory.</p> <p>“All of a sudden, things were linked together,” he recalls, about the flash of insight that allowed him to finish a key project related to his dissertation. “Definitely it was an ‘Aha!’ moment.”</p> <p>But that moment emerged from years of patient study and encounters with other mathematicians’ ideas. For example, he had attended talks by a certain faculty member in his first and third years at Columbia, but each time he thought the ideas presented in those lectures wouldn’t be relevant for his own work.</p> <p>“And then two years later, I found this was exactly what I needed to finish a piece of the project!” says Zhang, who joined MIT two years ago as a professor of mathematics.</p> <p>As Zhang recalls, during that pivotal train ride his mind had been free to wander around the problem and consider it from different angles. With this mindset, “I can have a more panoramic way of putting everything into one piece. It’s like a puzzle — when you close your eyes maybe you can see more. And when the mind is trying to organize different parts of a story, you see this missing part.”</p> <p>Allowing time for this panoramic view to come into focus has been critical throughout Zhang’s career. His breakthrough on the train 11 years ago led him to propose a set of conjectures that he has just now solved in a recent paper.</p> <p>“Patience is important for our subject,” he says. “You’re always making infinitesimal progress. All discovery seems to be made in one moment. But without the preparation and long-time accumulation of knowledge, it wouldn’t be possible.”</p> <p><strong>An early and evolving love for math</strong></p> <p>Zhang traces his interest in math back to the fourth grade in his village school in a remote part of China’s Sichuan Province. “It was just pure curiosity,” he says. “Some of the questions were so beautifully set up.”</p> <p>He started participating in math competitions. Seeing his potential, a fifth-grade math teacher let Zhang pore over an extracurricular book of problems. “Those questions made me wonder how such simple solutions to seemingly very complicated questions could be possible,” he says.</p> <p>Zhang left home to attend a high school 300 miles away in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan. By the time he applied to study at Peking University in Beijing, he knew he wanted to study mathematics. And by his final year there, he had decided to pursue a career as a mathematician.</p> <p>He credits one of his professors with awakening him to some exciting frontiers and more advanced areas of study, during his first year. At that time, around 2000, the successful proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles five years earlier was still relatively fresh, and reverberating through the world of mathematics. “This teacher really liked to chat,” Zhang says, “and he explained the contents of some of those big events and results in a way that was accessible to first-year students.”</p> <p>“Later on, I read those texts by myself, and I found it was something I liked,” he says. “The tools being developed to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem were a starting point for me.”</p> <p>Today, Zhang gets to cultivate his own students’ passion for math, even as his teaching informs his own research. “It has happened more than once for me, that while teaching I got inspired,” he says. “For mathematicians, we may understand some sort of result, but that doesn’t mean we actually we know how to prove them. By teaching a course, it really helps us go through the whole process. This definitely helps, especially with very talented students like those at MIT.”</p> <p><strong>From local to global information</strong></p> <p>Zhang’s core area of research and expertise is number theory, which is devoted to the study of integers and their properties. Broadly speaking, Zhang explores how to solve equations in integers or in rational numbers. A familiar example is a Pythagorean triple (a<sup>2</sup>+b<sup>2</sup>=c<sup>2</sup>).</p> <p>“One simple idea is try to solve equations with modular arithmetic,” he says. The most common example of modular arithmetic is a 12-hour clock, which counts time by starting over and repeating after it reaches 12. With modular arithmetic, one can compile a set of data, indexed, for example, by prime numbers.</p> <p>“But after that, how do you return to the initial question?” he says. “Can you tell an equation has an integer solution by collecting data from modular arithmetic?” Zhang investigates whether and how an equation can be solved by restoring this local data to a global piece of information — like finding a Pythagorean triple.</p> <p>His research is relevant to an important facet of the Langlands Program — a set of conjectures proposed by mathematician Robert Langlands for connecting number theory and geometry, which some have likened to a kind of “grand unified theory” of mathematics.</p> <p><strong>Conversations and patience</strong></p> <p>Bridging other branches of math with number theory has become one of Zhang’s specialties.</p> <p>In 2018, he <a href="">won</a> the New Horizons in Mathematics Breakthroughs Prize, a prestigious award for researchers early in their careers. He shared the prize with his old friend and undergraduate classmate, and current MIT colleague, Zhiwei Yun, for their joint <a href="">work</a> on the Taylor expansion of L-functions, which was hailed as a major advance in a key area of number theory in the past few decades.</p> <p>Their project grew directly out of his dissertation research. And that work, in turn, opened up new directions in his current research, related to the arithmetic of elliptic curves. But Zhang says the way forward wasn’t clear until five years — and many conversations with Yun — later.</p> <p>“Conversation is important in mathematics,” Zhang says. “Very often mathematical questions can be solved, or at least progress can be made, by bringing together people with different skills and backgrounds, with new interpretations of the same set of facts. In our case, this is a perfect example. His geometrical way of thinking about the question was exactly complementary to my own perspective, which is more number arithmetic.”</p> <p>Lately, Zhang’s work has taken place on fewer train rides and more flights. He travels back to China at least once a year, to visit family and colleagues in Beijing. And when he feels stuck on a problem, he likes to take long walks, play tennis, or simply spend time with his young children, to clear his mind.</p> <p>His recent solution of his own conjecture has led him to contemplate unexplored terrain. “This opened up a new direction,” he says. “I think it’s possible to finally get some higher-dimensional solutions. It opens up new conjectures.”</p> Wei ZhangImage: Jake BelcherFaculty, Mathematics, Profile, School of Science, China