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Thu, 30 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

With a quantum “squeeze,” clocks could keep even more precise time, MIT researchers propose
Posted on Thursday November 30, 2023

Category : Light

Author : Jennifer Chu | MIT News

More stable clocks could measure quantum phenomena, including the presence of dark matter.

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The practice of keeping time hinges on stable oscillations. In a grandfather clock, the length of a second is marked by a single swing of the pendulum. In a digital watch, the vibrations of a quartz crystal mark much smaller fractions of time. And in atomic clocks, the world’s state-of-the-art timekeepers, the oscillations of a laser beam stimulate atoms to vibrate at 9.2 billion times per second. These smallest, most stable divisions of time set the timing for today’s satellite communications, GPS systems, and financial markets.

A clock’s stability depends on the noise in its environment. A slight wind can throw a pendulum’s swing out of sync. And heat can disrupt the oscillations of atoms in an atomic clock. Eliminating such environmental effects can improve a clock’s precision. But only by so much.

A new MIT study finds that even if all noise from the outside world is eliminated, the stability of clocks, laser beams, and other oscillators would still be vulnerable to quantum mechanical effects. The precision of oscillators would ultimately be limited by quantum noise.

But in theory, there’s a way to push past this quantum limit. In their study, the researchers also show that by manipulating, or “squeezing,” the states that contribute to quantum noise, the stability of an oscillator could be improved, even past its quantum limit.

“What we’ve shown is, there’s actually a limit to how stable oscillators like lasers and clocks can be, that’s set not just by their environment, but by the fact that quantum mechanics forces them to shake around a little bit,” says Vivishek Sudhir, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Then, we’ve shown that there are ways you can even get around this quantum mechanical shaking. But you have to be more clever than just isolating the thing from its environment. You have to play with the quantum states themselves.”

The team is working on an experimental test of their theory. If they can demonstrate that they can manipulate the quantum states in an oscillating system, the researchers envision that clocks, lasers, and other oscillators could be tuned to super-quantum precision. These systems could then be used to track infinitesimally small differences in time, such as the fluctuations of a single qubit in a quantum computer or the presence of a dark matter particle flitting between detectors.

“We plan to demonstrate several instances of lasers with quantum-enhanced timekeeping ability over the next several years,” says Hudson Loughlin, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Physics. “We hope that our recent theoretical developments and upcoming experiments will advance our fundamental ability to keep time accurately, and enable new revolutionary technologies.”

Loughlin and Sudhir detail their work in an open-access paper published in the journal Nature Communications.

Laser precision

In studying the stability of oscillators, the researchers looked first to the laser — an optical oscillator that produces a wave-like beam of highly synchronized photons. The invention of the laser is largely credited to physicists Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes, who coined the name from its descriptive acronym: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

A laser’s design centers on a “lasing medium” — a collection of atoms, usually embedded in glass or crystals. In the earliest lasers, a flash tube surrounding the lasing medium would stimulate electrons in the atoms to jump up in energy. When the electrons relax back to lower energy, they give off some radiation in the form of a photon. Two mirrors, on either end of the lasing medium, reflect the emitted photon back into the atoms to stimulate more electrons, and produce more photons. One mirror, together with the lasing medium, acts as an “amplifier” to boost the production of photons, while the second mirror is partially transmissive and acts as a “coupler” to extract some photons out as a concentrated beam of laser light.

Since the invention of the laser, Schawlow and Townes put forth a hypothesis that a laser’s stability should be limited by quantum noise. Others have since tested their hypothesis by modeling the microscopic features of a laser. Through very specific calculations, they showed that indeed, imperceptible, quantum interactions among the laser’s photons and atoms could limit the stability of their oscillations.

“But this work had to do with extremely detailed, delicate calculations, such that the limit was understood, but only for a specific kind of laser,” Sudhir notes. “We wanted to enormously simplify this, to understand lasers and a wide range of oscillators."

Putting the “squeeze” on

Rather than focus on a laser’s physical intricacies, the team looked to simplify the problem.

“When an electrical engineer thinks of making an oscillator, they take an amplifier, and they feed the output of the amplifier into its own input,” Sudhir explains. “It’s like a snake eating its own tail. It’s an extremely liberating way of thinking. You don’t need to know the nitty gritty of a laser. Instead, you have an abstract picture, not just of a laser, but of all oscillators.”

In their study, the team drew up a simplified representation of a laser-like oscillator. Their model consists of an amplifier (such as a laser’s atoms), a delay line (for instance, the time it takes light to travel between a laser’s mirrors), and a coupler (such as a partially reflective mirror).

The team then wrote down the equations of physics that describe the system’s behavior, and carried out calculations to see where in the system quantum noise would arise.

“By abstracting this problem to a simple oscillator, we can pinpoint where quantum fluctuations come into the system, and they come in in two places: the amplifier and the coupler that allows us to get a signal out of the oscillator,” Loughlin says. “If we know those two things, we know what the quantum limit on that oscillator’s stability is.”

Sudhir says scientists can use the equations they lay out in their study to calculate the quantum limit in their own oscillators.

What’s more, the team showed that this quantum limit might be overcome, if quantum noise in one of the two sources could be “squeezed.” Quantum squeezing is the idea of minimizing quantum fluctuations in one aspect of a system at the expense of proportionally increasing fluctuations in another aspect. The effect is similar to squeezing air from one part of a balloon into another.

In the case of a laser, the team found that if quantum fluctuations in the coupler were squeezed, it could improve the precision, or the timing of oscillations, in the outgoing laser beam, even as noise in the laser’s power would increase as a result.

“When you find some quantum mechanical limit, there’s always some question of how malleable is that limit?” Sudhir says. “Is it really a hard stop, or is there still some juice you can extract by manipulating some quantum mechanics? In this case, we find that there is, which is a result that is applicable to a huge class of oscillators.”

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


Thu, 30 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

Q&A: Phillip Sharp and Amy Brand on the future of open-access publishing
Posted on Thursday November 30, 2023

Category : Open access

Author : Peter Dizikes | MIT News

An MIT-based white paper identifies leading questions in the quest to make open-access publications sustainable.

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Providing open access to scholarly publications is a long-running issue with new developments on the horizon. Last year, the U.S. federal government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy mandated that starting in 2026 publishers must provide open access to publications stemming from federal funding. That provides more impetus for the open-access movement in academia.

Meanwhile, other trends are changing academic publishing, including consolidation of journal titles and provision of access by having authors (and their home institutions) pay for publication costs. With these developments unfolding, a group of MIT scholars is releasing a new white paper about academic open-access publishing. The paper gathers information, identifies outstanding questions, and calls for further research and data to inform policy on the subject.

The group was chaired by Institute Professor Emeritus Phillip A. Sharp, of the Department of Biology and Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research, who co-authored the report along with William B. Bonvillian, senior director of special projects at MIT Open Learning; Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; Barbara Imperiali, the Class of 1922 Professor of Biology; David R. Karger, professor of electrical engineering; Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, professor of science, technology, and society; Amy Brand, director and publisher of the MIT Press; Nick Lindsay, director for journals and open access at MIT Press; and Michael Stebbins of Science Advisors, LLC.

MIT News spoke with Sharp and Brand about the state of open-access publishing.

Q: What are the key benefits of open access, as you see it?

Amy Brand: As an academic publisher running the MIT Press, we have embraced open access in both books and journals for a long time because it is our mission to support our authors and get their research out into the world. Whether it’s completely removing paywalls and barriers, or keeping prices low, we do whatever we can to disseminate the content that we publish. Even before we were talking about federal policies, this was a priority at the MIT Press.

Phillip Sharp: As a scientist, I’m interested in having my research make the largest impact it can, to help solve some of the challenges of society. And open access, making research available to people around the world, is an important aspect of that. But the quality of research is dependent upon peer review. So, I think open access policies need to be considered and promoted in the context of a very valuable and vigorous peer-review publication process.

Q: What are the key elements of this report?

Brand: The first part of the report is a history of open access, and the second part is a list of questions driving toward evidence-based policy. On the one hand, there are questions such as: How does policy impact the day-to-day work of researchers and their students? What are the impacts on the lab? Other questions have to do with the impacts on the publishing industry. One reason I was invested in doing this is concerns about the impact on nonprofit publishers, on university presses, on scientific societies that publish. Some of the questions we raise have to do with understanding the impact on smaller, nonprofit publishers and ultimately knowing how to protect their viability.

Sharp: The current policies for open access being required by OSTP’s Nelson Memo dramatically change who is paying for publication, where the resources come from for publication. It puts a lot of emphasis on the research institute or other sources to cover that. And that raises another issue in open access: Will this limit publications from researchers at institutes that cannot afford the charge? The scientific community is very international, and the impact of science in many countries is incredibly important. So dealing with the [impact of] open access is something that needs to be developed with evidence and policy.

The report notes that if open access was covered by an institution for all publications at $3,000 per article, MIT’s total cost would be $25 million per year. That’s going to be a challenge. And if it’s a challenge for MIT, it’s going to be an enormous challenge in a number of other places.

Q: What are some additional points about open access that we should keep in mind?

Brand: The Nelson Memo also provides that self-archiving is one of the ways to comply with the policy — which means authors can take an earlier version of an article and put it in an institutional repository. Here at MIT we have the DSpace repository that contains many of the papers that faculty publish. The economics of that are very different, and it’s also a little unclear how that’s going to play out. We recently saw one scientific society decide to implement a charge around that, something the community has never seen before.

But as we essentially have a system that already creates incentives for publishers to increase these article processing charges, the publication charges, there are a lot of questions about how publishers who do high-quality peer review will be sustained, and where that money is going to come from.

Sharp: When you come to the data side of the issue, it’s complicated because of the value of the data itself. It’s important that data is collected and has metadata about the research process that’s been made available to others. It’s also time to talk about this in the academic community.

Q: The report makes clear that there are multiple trends here: consolidation in for-profit publishing, growth of open-access publications, fiscal pressure on university libraries, and now the federal mandate. Complicated as the present may be, it does seem that MIT wants to look ahead on this issue.

Brand: I do think in the publishing community, and certainly in the university press community, we’ve been way out in front on this for a while, and with some of the business models we helped implement and test and create, we’re finding other publishers are following suit and they are interested. But right now, with the new federal policy, most publishers have no choice but to begin asking: What does sustainable high-quality publishing mean if, as a publisher, I have to distribute all or some of this content in open digital form?

Sharp: The purpose of this report is to stimulate that conversation: more numbers, every bit of evidence. Communities have been responsible for the quality of science in different disciplines, and sharing the repsonsbility of peer review is something that motivates a lot of engagement. Sustaining that is important for the discipline. Without that sustainability, there will be slower progress in science, in my opinion.


Wed, 29 Nov 2023 16:00:00 -0500

What does the future hold for generative AI?
Posted on Wednesday November 29, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Adam Zewe | MIT News

Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot, kicks off an MIT symposium on the promise and potential pitfalls of increasingly powerful AI tools like ChatGPT.

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Speaking at the “Generative AI: Shaping the Future” symposium on Nov. 28, the kickoff event of MIT’s Generative AI Week, keynote speaker and iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks warned attendees against uncritically overestimating the capabilities of this emerging technology, which underpins increasingly powerful tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard.

“Hype leads to hubris, and hubris leads to conceit, and conceit leads to failure,” cautioned Brooks, who is also a professor emeritus at MIT, a former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and founder of Robust.AI.

“No one technology has ever surpassed everything else,” he added.

The symposium, which drew hundreds of attendees from academia and industry to the Institute’s Kresge Auditorium, was laced with messages of hope about the opportunities generative AI offers for making the world a better place, including through art and creativity, interspersed with cautionary tales about what could go wrong if these AI tools are not developed responsibly.

Generative AI is a term to describe machine-learning models that learn to generate new material that looks like the data they were trained on. These models have exhibited some incredible capabilities, such as the ability to produce human-like creative writing, translate languages, generate functional computer code, or craft realistic images from text prompts.

In her opening remarks to launch the symposium, MIT President Sally Kornbluth highlighted several projects faculty and students have undertaken to use generative AI to make a positive impact in the world. For example, the work of the Axim Collaborative, an online education initiative launched by MIT and Harvard, includes exploring the educational aspects of generative AI to help underserved students.

The Institute also recently announced seed grants for 27 interdisciplinary faculty research projects centered on how AI will transform people’s lives across society.

In hosting Generative AI Week, MIT hopes to not only showcase this type of innovation, but also generate “collaborative collisions” among attendees, Kornbluth said.

Collaboration involving academics, policymakers, and industry will be critical if we are to safely integrate a rapidly evolving technology like generative AI in ways that are humane and help humans solve problems, she told the audience.

“I honestly cannot think of a challenge more closely aligned with MIT’s mission. It is a profound responsibility, but I have every confidence that we can face it, if we face it head on and if we face it as a community,” she said.

While generative AI holds the potential to help solve some of the planet’s most pressing problems, the emergence of these powerful machine learning models has blurred the distinction between science fiction and reality, said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus in her opening remarks. It is no longer a question of whether we can make machines that produce new content, she said, but how we can use these tools to enhance businesses and ensure sustainability. 

“Today, we will discuss the possibility of a future where generative AI does not just exist as a technological marvel, but stands as a source of hope and a force for good,” said Rus, who is also the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

But before the discussion dove deeply into the capabilities of generative AI, attendees were first asked to ponder their humanity, as MIT Professor Joshua Bennett read an original poem.

Bennett, a professor in the MIT Literature Section and Distinguished Chair of the Humanities, was asked to write a poem about what it means to be human, and drew inspiration from his daughter, who was born three weeks ago.

The poem told of his experiences as a boy watching Star Trek with his father and touched on the importance of passing traditions down to the next generation.

In his keynote remarks, Brooks set out to unpack some of the deep, scientific questions surrounding generative AI, as well as explore what the technology can tell us about ourselves.

To begin, he sought to dispel some of the mystery swirling around generative AI tools like ChatGPT by explaining the basics of how this large language model works. ChatGPT, for instance, generates text one word at a time by determining what the next word should be in the context of what it has already written. While a human might write a story by thinking about entire phrases, ChatGPT only focuses on the next word, Brooks explained.

ChatGPT 3.5 is built on a machine-learning model that has 175 billion parameters and has been exposed to billions of pages of text on the web during training. (The newest iteration, ChatGPT 4, is even larger.) It learns correlations between words in this massive corpus of text and uses this knowledge to propose what word might come next when given a prompt.

The model has demonstrated some incredible capabilities, such as the ability to write a sonnet about robots in the style of Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18. During his talk, Brooks showcased the sonnet he asked ChatGPT to write side-by-side with his own sonnet.

But while researchers still don’t fully understand exactly how these models work, Brooks assured the audience that generative AI’s seemingly incredible capabilities are not magic, and it doesn’t mean these models can do anything.

His biggest fears about generative AI don’t revolve around models that could someday surpass human intelligence. Rather, he is most worried about researchers who may throw away decades of excellent work that was nearing a breakthrough, just to jump on shiny new advancements in generative AI; venture capital firms that blindly swarm toward technologies that can yield the highest margins; or the possibility that a whole generation of engineers will forget about other forms of software and AI.

At the end of the day, those who believe generative AI can solve the world’s problems and those who believe it will only generate new problems have at least one thing in common: Both groups tend to overestimate the technology, he said.

“What is the conceit with generative AI? The conceit is that it is somehow going to lead to artificial general intelligence. By itself, it is not,” Brooks said.

Following Brooks’ presentation, a group of MIT faculty spoke about their work using generative AI and participated in a panel discussion about future advances, important but underexplored research topics, and the challenges of AI regulation and policy.

The panel consisted of Jacob Andreas, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of CSAIL; Antonio Torralba, the Delta Electronics Professor of EECS and a member of CSAIL; Ev Fedorenko, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT; and Armando Solar-Lezama, a Distinguished Professor of Computing and associate director of CSAIL. It was moderated by William T. Freeman, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of EECS and a member of CSAIL.

The panelists discussed several potential future research directions around generative AI, including the possibility of integrating perceptual systems, drawing on human senses like touch and smell, rather than focusing primarily on language and images. The researchers also spoke about the importance of engaging with policymakers and the public to ensure generative AI tools are produced and deployed responsibly.

“One of the big risks with generative AI today is the risk of digital snake oil. There is a big risk of a lot of products going out that claim to do miraculous things but in the long run could be very harmful,” Solar-Lezama said.

The morning session concluded with an excerpt from the 1925 science fiction novel “Metropolis,” read by senior Joy Ma, a physics and theater arts major, followed by a roundtable discussion on the future of generative AI. The discussion included Joshua Tenenbaum, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of CSAIL; Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor in EECS and a principal investigator in CSAIL and the MIT Jameel Clinic; and Max Tegmark, professor of physics; and was moderated by Daniela Rus.

One focus of the discussion was the possibility of developing generative AI models that can go beyond what we can do as humans, such as tools that can sense someone’s emotions by using electromagnetic signals to understand how a person’s breathing and heart rate are changing.

But one key to integrating AI like this into the real world safely is to ensure that we can trust it, Tegmark said. If we know an AI tool will meet the specifications we insist on, then “we no longer have to be afraid of building really powerful systems that go out and do things for us in the world,” he said.


Wed, 29 Nov 2023 16:00:00 -0500

Pushing the frontiers of art and technology with generative AI
Posted on Wednesday November 29, 2023

Category :

Author : Zach Winn | MIT News

“I believe by using AI, whether generative or otherwise, we have the opportunity to find the language of humanity,” media artist Refik Anadol told an MIT audience.

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Many people are scrambling to predict how AI will impact society. But living in a world of ubiquitous computing has already changed us in ways we might not fully appreciate. Generative AI-aided art — like all art — can be a powerful tool to visualize those changes, broaden our perceptions, and inspire us all.

That was the message of a keynote talk by artist Refik Anadol on the first day of MIT’s Generative AI Week. Anadol walked the audience through his studio’s body of work, which includes public art displays and other digital creations that visualize human and machine intelligence around the world.

“I’m inspired by the idea of how our perceptions of physical and virtual worlds are transforming us,” Anadol explained to a packed Kresge Auditorium.

The presentation was part of a full day of events that also included panels on generative AI’s potential applications and impact on society, with opening presentations from iRobot founder Rodney Brooks and MIT President Sally Kornbluth. The goal of the week of events is to bring together MIT’s community to spotlight insights from MIT’s researchers, stimulate thoughtful analysis, and engage in critical dialogues on the implications and possibilities of generative AI. Other days feature symposia on generative AI and education, creativity, and commerce.

Anadol’s work uses generative AI-based aesthetics on top of data from things like real-time weather data, changing climates and landscapes, historic architecture, and more. Some of his projects even incorporate AI-generated smells. A growing portion of Anadol’s work uses generative AI to visualize data and the physical world in new ways and change people’s perspectives of their surroundings and themselves. Part of that work leverages hallucinations — or creations by machines that are often a source of frustration for computer scientists.

“It’s really inspiring to see how we can reconstruct this information through AI’s hallucinations to compose a new form of art-making and space-making,” Anadol said.

For one of Anadol’s projects, he combined a dataset of approximately 100 million images of coral reefs with generative AI and visual art techniques to show vibrant, morphing coral images based on actual corals found in nature. The project sought to raise awareness of climate change by emphasizing the importance of coral preservation.

Another project Anadol discussed used real-time climate data in Barcelona to generate an array of digital patterns that were projected onto the famous Casa Batlló created by renowned architect Antoni Gaudí. The display was later sold as a nonfungible digital token, or NFT, with a portion of proceeds donated to institutions that work with neurodiverse adults and children.

“I believe light, data, and AI, when connected, can create a new form of architecture, which I call sensing architecture,” Anadol explained.

A third project was sparked by Anadol’s experience watching his uncle struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. The experience led the artist to consider new ways of visualizing neurological data in a way that provokes fundamental questions about the human brain and mental health. Anadol later received permission from patients to use their datasets, collected by electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to create a multisensory, immersive art exhibit and to promote mental health through art.

“Our fundamental goal is to find dreams of reality and concepts of reality,” Anadol said. “It’s about trying to find new ways of speculating, and I think the future of imagination, with neural networks and the integration of materials, [offers] a lot of room for creatives to recombine and explore connections between humanity.”

Through each of the projects, Anadol seeks to enhance our ability to express ourselves and find meaning.

“I believe by using AI, whether generative or otherwise, we have the opportunity to find the language of humanity,” Anadol said.

Speaking in front of a large screen displaying each of the projects, Anadol’s presentation gave the audience vivid examples of how generative AI technology is changing the world of art. Speaking in roundtable discussions after the talk, MIT professors gave more examples of how the technology could transform other fields, from transportation and manufacturing to health care, finance, and music.

One of those presenters was Cathy Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Wu described how generative AI could be used to create synthetic data to help prepare self-driving cars for rare events, better model traffic patterns, and improve zoning regulations to ease housing shortages.

In conducting her research, Wu said she was surprised to find so many promising applications for generative AI, and said she’s cautiously optimistic it will contribute to some of the transportation industry’s hardest problems.

“Longstanding issues are longstanding issues, and generative AI by itself will not move the needle, but it adds one very powerful tool to the toolbox,” Wu said. “I’m very encouraged that for some of these challenges, generative AI might just give us the push we need to make an impact.”

Another speaker was Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ghassemi showed how some models can perpetuate unequal outcomes by recommending African Americans exhibiting violent behavior be sent to jail while recommending their white counterparts be sent to a hospital.

Still, Ghassemi showed that the way decision makers interact with models ultimately determines if they exacerbate biases.

“Maybe we can get to safe integration [of these tools] without perfect models, as some other industries like aviation have done,” Ghassemi said. “If we want to move forward with AI in health care, we need to recognize that this is an ongoing process and it’s going to require diverse data and [consideration of diverse] needs.”

All of the examples presented in the afternoon described a technology whose ultimate effect on society should be determined by the people it impacts most.

“The impact of bringing generative AI to different fields is captivating,” Anadol said toward the end of his presentation. “By co-creating with musicians, other artists, and the public, there’s a beautiful, positive future to explore.”


Wed, 29 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

Everything, everywhere all at once
Posted on Wednesday November 29, 2023

Category : School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences

Author : Sophie Hartley | School of Science

Cosmologist and MLK Scholar Morgane König uses gravitational waves to study the universe’s origins, inflation, and present trajectory.

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The way Morgane König sees it, questioning how we came to be in the universe is one of the most fundamental parts of being human.

When she was 12 years old, König decided the place to find answers was in physics. A family friend was a physicist, and she attributed her interest in the field to him. But it wasn't until a trip back to her mother's home country of Côte d'Ivoire that König learned her penchant for the subject had started much younger. No one in Côte d'Ivoire was surprised she was pursuing physics — they told her she'd been peering upward at the stars since she was a small child, wondering how they all had come together. ­

That wonder never left her. “Everyone looks at the stars. Everyone looks at the moon. Everybody wonders about the universe,” says König. “I’m trying to understand it with math.”

König’s observations have led her to MIT, where in 2021 she continued studying theoretical cosmology as a postdoc with physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth and physicist and historian of science David Kaiser. Now, she is a member of MIT’s 2023-24 Martin Luther King (MLK) Visiting Professors and Scholars Program cohort, alongside 11 others. This year, members of the MLK Scholars are researching and teaching diverse subjects including documentary filmmaking, behavioral economics, and writing children’s books.

Once she was set on physics, König finished her undergraduate studies in 2012, double-majoring in mathematics and physics at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

Still compelled by questions about the universe, König narrowed in on cosmology, and graduated with her master’s degree from Pierre and Marie Curie in 2014. The way König describes it, cosmology is like archaeology, just up in space. While astronomers study galaxy formations and mutations — all of the stuff in the universe — cosmologists study everything about the universe, all at once.

“It’s a different scale, a different system,” says König. “Of course, you need to understand stars, galaxies, and how they work, but cosmologists study the universe and its origin and contents as a whole.”

From practice to theory

Throughout her studies, König said, she was often the only woman in the room. She wanted to pursue the theories behind cosmology but wasn’t encouraged to try. “You have to understand that being a woman in this field is super, incredibly difficult,” says König. “I told everyone I wanted to do theory, and they didn't believe in me. So many people told me not to do it.”

When König had the opportunity to pursue a PhD in observational cosmology in Marseille and Paris, she almost accepted. But she was more drawn to theory. When she was offered a spot with a little more freedom to study cosmology at the University of California at Davis, she took it. Alongside Professor Nemanja Kaloper, König dove into inflation theory, looking all the way back to the universe's beginning.

It is well-known that the universe is always expanding. Think about inflation as the precursor to that expansion — a quick and dramatic beginning, where the universe grew exponentially fast.

“Inflation is the moment in history that happened right after the beginning of the universe,” says König. “We're not talking about 1 second, not even a millisecond. We are talking 10 to the negative 32nd seconds.” In other words, it took 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,01 seconds for the universe to go from something minuscule to, well, everything. And today, the universe is only getting bigger.

Only a sliver of the universe’s composition is understandable using current technology — less than 5 percent of the universe is composed of matter we can see. Everything else is dark matter and dark energy.

For decades, cosmologists have been trying to excavate the universe’s mysterious past using photons, the tiny, particle form of light. Since light travels at a fixed speed, light emitted further back in the universe’s history, from objects that are now farther away from us due to the expansion of the universe, takes longer to reach Earth. “If you look at the sun — don’t do it! — but if you did, you’d actually be seeing it eight minutes in the past,” says König. As they carve their way through the universe, photons give cosmologists historical information, acting as messengers across time. But photons can only account for the luminous 4.9 percent of the universe. Everything else is dark.

Since dark matter doesn’t emit or reflect photons like luminous matter, researchers can’t see it. König likens dark matter to an invisible person wearing a tuxedo. She knows something is there because the tuxedo is dancing, swinging its arms and legs around. But she can’t see or study the person inside the suit using the technology at hand. Dark matter has stirred up countless theories, and König is interested in the methods behind those theories. She is asking: How do you study something dark when light particles are necessary for gathering historical information?

According to König and her MIT collaborators — Guth, the forerunner of inflation theory, and Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science — the answer might lie in gravitational waves. König is using her time at MIT to see if she can sidestep light particles entirely by using the ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves. These waves are caused by the collision of massive, dense stellar objects such as neutron stars. Gravitational waves also transmit information across the universe, in essence giving us a new sense, like hearing is to seeing. With data from instruments such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and NANOGrav, “not only can we look at it, now we can hear the cosmos, too,” she says.

Black in physics

Last year, König worked on two all-Black research teams with physicists Marcell Howard and Tatsuya Daniel. “We did great work together,” König says, but she points out how their small group was one of the largest all-Black theoretical physics research teams — ever. She emphasizes how they cultivated creativity and mentorship while doing highly technical science, producing two published papers (Elastic Scattering of Cosmological Gravitational Wave Backgrounds and An SZ-Like Effect on Cosmological Gravitational Wave Backgrounds).

Out of the 69,238 people who have earned doctorates in physics and astronomy since 1981, only 122 of them were Black women, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. When König finished her PhD in 2021, she became the first Black student at UC Davis to receive a PhD in physics and the ninth Black woman to ever complete a doctorate in theoretical physics in the United States.

This past October, in a presentation at MIT, König ended with an animated slide depicting a young Black girl sitting in a dark meadow, surrounded by warm lights and rustling grass. The girl was looking up at the stars, her eyes full of wonder. “I had to make this with AI,” says König. “I couldn't find an image online of a young Black girl looking up at the stars. So, I made one.”

In 2017, König went to Côte d'Ivoire, spending time teaching school children about physics and cosmology. “The room was full,” she says. Adults and students alike came to listen to her. Everyone wanted to learn, and everyone echoed the same questions about the universe as König did when she was younger. But, she says, “the difference between them and me is that I was given a chance to study this. I had access to people explaining how incredible and exciting physics is.”

König sees a stark disconnect between physics in Africa and physics everywhere else. She wants universities around the world to make connections with African universities, building efforts to encourage students of all backgrounds to pursue the field of physics.

König explains that ushering in more Black and African physicists means starting at the beginning and encouraging more undergraduates and young students to enter the field. “There is an enormous amount of talent and brilliance there,” König says. She sees an opportunity to connect with students across Africa, building the bridges needed to help everyone pursue the questions that keep them looking up at the stars.

While König loves her research, she knows theoretical cosmology has far to come to as a discipline. “There is so much room to grow in the field. It’s not all figured out.”


Wed, 29 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

Five high schoolers awarded MIT OMEGA scholarships for intergenerational efforts
Posted on Wednesday November 29, 2023

Category : AgeLab

Author : Adam Felts | MIT AgeLab

MIT AgeLab annual awards go to high school students who lead or develop intergenerational programs, bringing together younger and older people in their communities.

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The MIT AgeLab awards annual scholarships to high school students who lead or develop intergenerational programs — initiatives designed to bring together younger and older people — in their communities. On Sept. 29, five $5,000 OMEGA scholarships were given to high school students across the United States, with support from AARP Massachusetts. An additional $1,000 was awarded to each winning intergenerational program to help sustain and grow the students’ efforts.

OMEGA, which stands for Opportunities for Multigenerational Exchange, Growth, and Action, develops programming and offers scholarships to facilitate intergenerational connections between younger people and older adults in their communities.

The scholarships were awarded at a virtual ceremony hosted by the MIT AgeLab, with representatives from the AgeLab and AARP in attendance, along with the scholarship winners, their parents, program participants, and community partners.

“OMEGA is a reminder to all of us that there are new generations committed to intergenerational solutions, not only for the challenges of aging, but also for unlocking the opportunities of living longer,” says Michael E. Festa, state director of AARP Massachusetts.

Intergenerational programs help to strengthen social ties within communities and facilitate knowledge transfer between younger and older adults. Two of the winning programs for 2023, a book club focused on discussing feminist literature and a project uncovering the history of a historically Black neighborhood, focus on bringing together and centering the voices of historically marginalized communities.

The five scholarship winners and their winning programs are:

Hannah Paseltiner, currently a first-year student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a 2023 graduate of Clarkstown High School in New City, New York. Paseltiner founded the Elderly Allies Club, which works to build relationships between younger adults and communities of older people, including nursing homes and assisted living communities, in New City. The program partners with the Rockland County Village Community, a social and mutual support community for older adults. Members of the club make personal deliveries on behalf of nursing home residents, craft décor for assisted living communities, and organize “speed-dating” and storytelling events between younger and older adults.

Sarah Adams, currently a senior at East High School in Rochester, New York. Adams is a Youth History Ambassador for Clarissa Uprooted, a collaboration between the Center for Teen Empowerment and the Clarissa Street Reunion Committee. The project aims to preserve and transmit knowledge about the history of the Clarissa Street “village” in Rochester, New York, a historically Black neighborhood that was gutted by urban renewal policies in the 1950s and ’60s. Relying on the historical memory of older adults in the community, the initiative produced a documentary titled Clarissa Uprooted, and is developing a school curriculum to teach the history of the neighborhood to students in Monroe County.

India Ratha, currently a first-year student at Carleton College in Minnesota, and a 2023 graduate of Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Ratha joined and later became an organizer of an initiative called Sounds of Sunday, which brings high school musicians into nursing homes for musical performances and intergenerational conversations. Sounds of Sunday has partnered with the Central Minnesota Council on Aging, as well as the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness for Central Minnesota.

Lorenzo Martinelli, currently a first-year student at the University of Chicago, and a 2023 graduate of Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Martinelli is a co-founder of a program called Tandem, based in Louisville. Founded during the Covid-19 pandemic, when social isolation was a major challenge for people of all ages, Tandem facilitates ongoing friendships between older adults and high school students through 30-minute phone conversations. Over two-and-a-half years, the program has facilitated over 900 calls and 450 hours of deep conversation between pairs of older and younger adults.

Vienna Rivard, currently a first-year student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a 2023 graduate of Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts. Rivard founded an intergenerational feminist book club in her community in Hopkinton, connecting students with members of the Hopkinton’s Women’s Club. The group gathers students and older adults to engage in discussion about their readings, attend field trips to local historical museums, and share their past and present experiences as women. The group originally met over Zoom, before moving to community settings including the outdoors and local libraries.

The AgeLab’s OMEGA program works in a variety of ways with students to develop their intergenerational programs. The MIT AgeLab was created in 1999 within the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics to invent new ideas and creatively translate technologies into practical solutions that improve people's health and enable them to “do things” throughout their lifespan. Equal to the need for ideas and new technologies for older adults is the belief that innovations in how products are designed, services are delivered, or policies are implemented are of critical importance to our quality of life tomorrow.


Wed, 29 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

Elly Nedivi receives 2023 Kreig Cortical Kudos Discoverer Award
Posted on Wednesday November 29, 2023

Category : School of Science

Author : David Orenstein | The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory

The neuroscientist is recognized for her ongoing work to understand molecular and cellular mechanisms that enable the brain to adapt to experience.

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The Cajal Club has named Elly Nedivi, William R. and Linda R. Young Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the 2023 recipient of the Krieg Cortical Kudos Discoverer Award.

The club’s award, first bestowed in 1987, honors outstanding established investigators studying the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layers where circuits of neurons enable functions ranging from sensory processing to cognition. These circuits can constantly remodel their connections to adapt the brain to experience, a phenomenon called plasticity, that underlies learning and memory.

With a focus on the visual cortex, Nedivi’s lab investigates the molecular and cellular mechanisms that enable plasticity in the developing and adult brain, including identification of the genes whose expression is involved, characterization of the cellular functions of the proteins those genes encode, and studies of synaptic and neuronal remodeling as it happens in live, behaving animals. To enable those observations, Nedivi and longtime collaborator Peter So, professor of mechanical engineering, have developed advanced microscopy systems that can image multiple components of neural connections in the cortex of live rodents.

In a message to Nedivi notifying her of the honor, Cajal Club president Leah Kurbitzer, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, said: “This award recognizes your outstanding and continuous contributions to our understanding of fundamental aspects of cortical connectivity in the mammalian brain, and the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying adult visual experience plasticity. Your work examining both the effects of visual experience manipulations and the functions of activity-induced candidate plasticity genes, by using advanced state-of-the-art in vivo multiphoton imaging technologies and sophisticated molecular genetic manipulations to expose fundamental mechanisms of brain plasticity, has made you a leader in the field, and an exceptional Krieg Cortical Discoverer award winner.”

Nedivi said she was honored to receive the award. The club conferred it Nov. 12 at its annual social during the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Washington.

“I am honored to be recognized with this award and to be following in the footsteps of many previous recipients whose work I admire and respect,” says Nedivi, a faculty member of MIT’s departments of Biology and of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Previous honorees with Picower Institute ties include Newton Professor of Neuroscience Mriganka Sur and Picower Institute Scientific Advisory Board member Carla Shatz, a professor at Stanford University. Nedivi’s former trainee Jerry Chen, now an associate professor at Boston University, and Sur’s former trainee Anna Majewska, now a professor at the University of Rochester, have each won Krieg Cortical Explorer awards, which are given to researchers at an earlier career stage.


Tue, 28 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

A new way to see the activity inside a living cell
Posted on Tuesday November 28, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Anne Trafton | MIT News

Using fluorescent labels that switch on and off, MIT engineers can study how molecules in a cell interact to control the cell’s behavior.

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Living cells are bombarded with many kinds of incoming molecular signal that influence their behavior. Being able to measure those signals and how cells respond to them through downstream molecular signaling networks could help scientists learn much more about how cells work, including what happens as they age or become diseased.

Right now, this kind of comprehensive study is not possible because current techniques for imaging cells are limited to just a handful of different molecule types within a cell at one time. However, MIT researchers have developed an alternative method that allows them to observe up to seven different molecules at a time, and potentially even more than that.

“There are many examples in biology where an event triggers a long downstream cascade of events, which then causes a specific cellular function,” says Edward Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology. “How does that occur? It’s arguably one of the fundamental problems of biology, and so we wondered, could you simply watch it happen?”

The new approach makes use of green or red fluorescent molecules that flicker on and off at different rates. By imaging a cell over several seconds, minutes, or hours, and then extracting each of the fluorescent signals using a computational algorithm, the amount of each target protein can be tracked as it changes over time.

Boyden, who is also a professor of biological engineering and of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, as well as the co-director of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics, is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Cell. MIT postdoc Yong Qian is the lead author of the paper.

Fluorescent signals

Labeling molecules inside cells with fluorescent proteins has allowed researchers to learn a great deal about the functions of many cellular molecules. This type of study is often done with green fluorescent protein (GFP), which was first deployed for imaging in the 1990s. Since then, several fluorescent proteins that glow in other colors have been developed for experimental use.

However, a typical light microscope can only distinguish two or three of these colors, allowing researchers only a tiny glimpse of the overall activity that is happening inside a cell. If they could track a greater number of labeled molecules, researchers could measure a brain cell’s response to different neurotransmitters during learning, for example, or investigate the signals that prompt a cancer cell to metastasize.

“Ideally, you would be able to watch the signals in a cell as they fluctuate in real time, and then you could understand how they relate to each other. That would tell you how the cell computes,” Boyden says. “The problem is that you can’t watch very many things at the same time.”

In 2020, Boyden’s lab developed a way to simultaneously image up to five different molecules within a cell, by targeting glowing reporters to distinct locations inside the cell. This approach, known as “spatial multiplexing,” allows researchers to distinguish signals for different molecules even though they may all be fluorescing the same color.

In the new study, the researchers took a different approach: Instead of distinguishing signals based on their physical location, they created fluorescent signals that vary over time. The technique relies on “switchable fluorophores” — fluorescent proteins that turn on and off at a specific rate. For this study, Boyden and his group members identified four green switchable fluorophores, and then engineered two more, all of which turn on and off at different rates. They also identified two red fluorescent proteins that switch at different rates, and engineered one additional red fluorophore.

Each of these switchable fluorophores can be used to label a different type of molecule within a living cell, such an enzyme, signaling protein, or part of the cell cytoskeleton. After imaging the cell for several minutes, hours, or even days, the researchers use a computational algorithm to pick out the specific signal from each fluorophore, analogous to how the human ear can pick out different frequencies of sound.

“In a symphony orchestra, you have high-pitched instruments, like the flute, and low-pitched instruments, like a tuba. And in the middle are instruments like the trumpet. They all have different sounds, and our ear sorts them out,” Boyden says.

The mathematical technique that the researchers used to analyze the fluorophore signals is known as linear unmixing. This method can extract different fluorophore signals, similar to how the human ear uses a mathematical model known as a Fourier transform to extract different pitches from a piece of music.

Once this analysis is complete, the researchers can see when and where each of the fluorescently labeled molecules were found in the cell during the entire imaging period. The imaging itself can be done with a simple light microscope, with no specialized equipment required.

Biological phenomena

In this study, the researchers demonstrated their approach by labeling six different molecules involved in the cell division cycle, in mammalian cells. This allowed them to identify patterns in how the levels of enzymes called cyclin-dependent kinases change as a cell progresses through the cell cycle.

The researchers also showed that they could label other types of kinases, which are involved in nearly every aspect of cell signaling, as well as cell structures and organelles such as the cytoskeleton and mitochondria. In addition to their experiments using mammalian cells grown in a lab dish, the researchers showed that this technique could work in the brains of zebrafish larvae.

This method could be useful for observing how cells respond to any kind of input, such as nutrients, immune system factors, hormones, or neurotransmitters, according to the researchers. It could also be used to study how cells respond to changes in gene expression or genetic mutations. All of these factors play important roles in biological phenomena such as growth, aging, cancer, neurodegeneration, and memory formation.

“You could consider all of these phenomena to represent a general class of biological problem, where some short-term event — like eating a nutrient, learning something, or getting an infection — generates a long-term change,” Boyden says.

In addition to pursuing those types of studies, Boyden’s lab is also working on expanding the repertoire of switchable fluorophores so that they can study even more signals within a cell. They also hope to adapt the system so that it could be used in mouse models.

The research was funded by an Alana Fellowship, K. Lisa Yang, John Doerr, Jed McCaleb, James Fickel, Ashar Aziz, the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics at MIT, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health.


Tue, 28 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

MIT’s Science Policy Initiative holds 13th annual Executive Visit Days
Posted on Tuesday November 28, 2023

Category : Students

Author : Science Policy Initiative

MIT students traveled to Washington to speak to representatives from several federal executive agencies.

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From Oct. 23-24, a delegation consisting of 21 MIT students, one MIT postdoc, and four students from the University of the District of Columbia met in Washington for the MIT Science Policy Initiative’s Executive Visit Days (ExVD). Now in its 13th cycle, this trip offers a platform where university students and young researchers can connect with officials and scientists from different federal agencies, discuss issues related to science and technology policy, and learn about the role the federal government plays in addressing these issues.

The delegation visited seven different agencies, as well as the MIT Washington Office, where the group held virtual calls with personnel from the National Institutes of Health and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. Visits to the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Environmental Protection Agency, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration then followed over the course of two days. The series of meetings, facilitated by the MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI), offered a window into the current activities of each agency and how individuals can engage with science policy through the lens of each particular agency.

The Science Policy Initiative is an organization of students and postdocs whose core goal is not only to grow interest at MIT and in the community at large in science policy, but also to facilitate the exchange of ideas between the policymakers of today and the scientists of tomorrow. One of the various trips organized by SPI every year, ExVD allows students to gain insight into the work of federal agencies, while also offering the chance to meet with representatives from these agencies, many of whom are MIT alumni, and discuss their paths toward careers in science policy. Additionally, ExVD serves as an opportunity for participants to network with students, postdocs, and professionals outside of their fields but united by common interests in science policy. 

“I believe it is critical for students with vital technical expertise to gain a sense of the realities of policymaking,” says Phillip Christoffersen, a PhD student researching AI in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and SPI ExVD 2023 chair. “Due to the many complexities of modern life, we are simultaneously reaching tipping points in many fields — AI, climate change, biotechnology, among many others. For this reason, science and science policy must increasingly move in lockstep for the good of society, and it falls on us as scientists-in-training to make that happen.”

One example of the delegation’s visits was to the White House OSTP, located directly next to the West Wing at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. This special agency of fewer than 200 staff, most of whom are either in rotation or on loan from other federal agencies, directly reports to the president on all matters related to science and policy. The atmosphere at the White House complex and the exchanges with Kei Koizumi, principal deputy director for policy at OSTP, deeply inspired the students and showcased the vast impact science can have on federal policy.

The overall sentiment among the ExVD participants has been that of reborn motivation, having become inspired to participate in policy matters, either as a portion of their graduate research or in their future career. The ExVD 2023 cohort is thankful to the MIT Washington office, whose generous support was crucial to making this trip a reality. Furthermore, the delegation thanks the MIT Science Policy Initiative’s leadership team for organizing this trip, enabling an extremely meaningful experience.


Tue, 28 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

Serious play at the MIT Game Lab
Posted on Tuesday November 28, 2023

Category : Classes and programs

Author : Zach Winn | MIT News

This unique lab uses games as a way for students to play, explore, and learn to think critically about the role of games in society.

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Students fill the glass-walled room and spill out into the common area. They gather around tables and desks cluttered with board games and game pieces. Along the far wall, large screens show students exploring the latest virtual reality experience alongside classmates reliving their favorite retro videogames.

Welcome to an open house of the MIT Game Lab, where play and experimentation are joined by serious inquiry about the gaming industry and its role in society.

In addition to its rollicking open houses, which take place at least once a semester, the Game Lab hosts public events, organizes research projects, and teaches courses through MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W).

The Game Lab’s work is designed to help students think critically about the games they’ve often been playing for years without considering the values they might project, and to prepare them to engage in thoughtful design practices themselves.

“Students come to the Game Lab because it sounds like fun, which is great, but they realize through our research that there’s also something really serious at work in games,” Game Lab Director and Professor T.L. Taylor says. “I think students often have this moment where they realize this thing they’ve been enjoying actually has a lot of stakes in it; these are things that really matter.”

The Game Lab analyzes the gaming industry and its impact, explores new technologies and formats, and creates games that tackle important issues. Many new games are tied to larger research projects.

“There’s a desire from our students to express themselves through games, whether that’s through making educational games or games with specific messages or lessons,” says Game Lab research scientist and lecturer Mikael Jakobsson. “Games are a big part of most people’s lives, so there’s a thirst among our students for not only learning how to make games, but also studying games as social and cultural artefacts.”

Through that research, students come to appreciate the impact of games on the world.

Game are hugely important in society and culture,” Taylor says. “We’re really trying to always think critically and productively about what we do with this powerful form of media and entertainment, and to think about games as a place in which imagination and stories about the world can be worked over and thought about.”

Learning to play

The MIT Game Lab was founded in cooperation with the Singapore government in 2006. Early on, it would host workshops on game design with students from Singapore in the summer, then conduct teaching and research with MIT students during the school year.

The Singapore collaboration ended in 2012, but the lab continued its work, often partnering with outside companies, private donors, and other groups around campus to explore the influence of games on different aspects of society.

In one project with the Samuel Tak Lee MIT Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab, students designed a game to explore the basics of real estate development, including managing capital and debt and deciding what sorts of buildings to build and where.

The lab also does work with communities to help them think about civic engagement. It has held workshops around the world with local students and other community members to challenge them to think about issues in their societies through the lens of game design. One such collaboration led to the game Promesa, which Jakobsson created with Puerto Rican graphic artist Rosa Colón Guerra and the design collective Popcicleta to promote what the creators call a “countercolonialist” viewpoint in the context of a game about the island’s debt crisis.

Aside from making games, researchers also consider the influence of historically popular games.

“We’re not making games as much as studying them,” says junior Michelle Liang, who works at the Game Lab as an undergraduate researcher. “It’s so easy to detach entertainment as its own separate world, when in fact media is influenced by a lot of different factors and biases. A lot of the Game Lab’s work is geared toward enhancing that understanding.”

The Game Lab’s organizers say that work distinguishes them from other gaming-focused groups in academia, which often equip students with specific skills to get jobs in the videogame industry.

“We’re not a pipeline program to go work in the gaming industry,” Taylor explains. “Some students do go into the industry, but because we’re doing critical design practice, we’re approaching games with a much broader, critically inflective perspective by thinking about things like equity and representation.”

Liang hadn’t considered the role of games in social and political issues until she discovered the Game Lab. She immediately saw the Lab as a way to combine a number of things she was passionate about.

“It’s funny to talk about my job to people,” Liang says. “Even though we are the Institute of Technology, there’s so much more MIT has to offer.”

Changing the rules

Jakobsson says the perception of games as nothing more than entertainment has led to a lack of introspection.

“The gaming industry has been a bit of a boys club where a lot of social responsibility has been shirked because they say they’re just trying to have fun and don’t have to think about how it affects society,” Jakobsson says. “Now we’re dealing with a lot of the consequences from that mindset.”

For students, involvement in the Game Lab can mean conducting research, enrolling in one of its classes, or just stopping by an open house. Regardless of how they’re exposed to the lab’s work, Taylor hopes they leave with a deeper appreciation of the power of games in our society.

“Games are a hugely important media and entertainment space, but they’re also one of our most culturally relevant and politically active spaces,” Taylor says. “Media spaces are in part where we learn about the world, for good or ill, where we construct imaginaries of the world, where we think about other possibilities. Part of the mission of CMS/W in general is taking media spaces seriously, and games are an increasingly important part of that.”


Mon, 27 Nov 2023 15:15:00 -0500

Celebrating five years of MIT.nano
Posted on Monday November 27, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Amanda Stoll DiCristofaro | MIT.nano

The Nano Summit highlights nanoscale research across multiple disciplines at MIT.

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There is vast opportunity for nanoscale innovation to transform the world in positive ways — expressed MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović as he posed two questions to attendees at the start of the inaugural Nano Summit: “Where are we heading? And what is the next big thing we can develop?”

“The answer to that puts into perspective our main purpose — and that is to change the world,” Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies, told an audience of more than 325 in-person and 150 virtual participants gathered for an exploration of nano-related research at MIT and a celebration of MIT.nano’s fifth anniversary.

Over a decade ago, MIT embarked on a massive project for the ultra-small — building an advanced facility to support research at the nanoscale. Construction of MIT.nano in the heart of MIT’s campus, a process compared to assembling a ship in a bottle, began in 2015, and the facility launched in October 2018.

Fast forward five years: MIT.nano now contains nearly 170 tools and instruments serving more than 1,200 trained researchers. These individuals come from over 300 principal investigator labs, representing more than 50 MIT departments, labs, and centers. The facility also serves external users from industry, other academic institutions, and over 130 startup and multinational companies.

A cross section of these faculty and researchers joined industry partners and MIT community members to kick off the first Nano Summit, which is expected to become an annual flagship event for MIT.nano and its industry consortium. Held on Oct. 24, the inaugural conference was co-hosted by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program.

Six topical sessions highlighted recent developments in quantum science and engineering, materials, advanced electronics, energy, biology, and immersive data technology. The Nano Summit also featured startup ventures and an art exhibition.

Watch the videos here.

Seeing and manipulating at the nanoscale — and beyond

“We need to develop new ways of building the next generation of materials,” said Frances Ross, the TDK Professor in Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “We need to use electron microscopy to help us understand not only what the structure is after it’s built, but how it came to be. I think the next few years in this piece of the nano realm are going to be really amazing.”

Speakers in the session “The Next Materials Revolution,” chaired by MIT.nano co-director for Characterization.nano and associate professor in DMSE James LeBeau, highlighted areas in which cutting-edge microscopy provides insights into the behavior of functional materials at the nanoscale, from anti-ferroelectrics to thin-film photovoltaics and 2D materials. They shared images and videos collected using the instruments in MIT.nano’s characterization suites, which were specifically designed and constructed to minimize mechanical-vibrational and electro-magnetic interference.

Later, in the “Biology and Human Health” session chaired by Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology Thomas Schwartz, biologists echoed the materials scientists, stressing the importance of the ultra-quiet, low-vibration environment in Characterization.nano to obtain high-resolution images of biological structures.

“Why is MIT.nano important for us?” asked Schwartz. “An important element of biology is to understand the structure of biology macromolecules. We want to get to an atomic resolution of these structures. CryoEM (cryo-electron microscopy) is an excellent method for this. In order to enable the resolution revolution, we had to get these instruments to MIT. For that, MIT.nano was fantastic.”

Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, shared CryoEM images from her lab’s work, followed by biology Associate Professor Joey Davis who spoke about image processing. When asked about the next stage for CryoEM, Davis said he’s most excited about in-situ tomography, noting that there are new instruments being designed that will improve the current labor-intensive process.

To chart the future of energy, chemistry associate professor Yogi Surendranath is also using MIT.nano to see what is happening at the nanoscale in his research to use renewable electricity to change carbon dioxide into fuel.

“MIT.nano has played an immense role, not only in facilitating our ability to make nanostructures, but also to understand nanostructures through advanced imaging capabilities,” said Surendranath. “I see a lot of the future of MIT.nano around the question of how nanostructures evolve and change under the conditions that are relevant to their function. The tools at MIT.nano can help us sort that out.”

Tech transfer and quantum computing

The “Advanced Electronics” session chaired by Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor of Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), brought together industry partners and MIT faculty for a panel discussion on the future of semiconductors and microelectronics. “Excellence in innovation is not enough, we also need to be excellent in transferring these to the marketplace,” said del Alamo. On this point, panelists spoke about strengthening the industry-university connection, as well as the importance of collaborative research environments and of access to advanced facilities, such as MIT.nano, for these environments to thrive.

The session came on the heels of a startup exhibit in which eleven START.nano companies presented their technologies in health, energy, climate, and virtual reality, among other topics. START.nano, MIT.nano’s hard-tech accelerator, provides participants use of MIT.nano’s facilities at a discounted rate and access to MIT’s startup ecosystem. The program aims to ease hard-tech startups’ transition from the lab to the marketplace, surviving common “valleys of death” as they move from idea to prototype to scaling up.

When asked about the state of quantum computing in the “Quantum Science and Engineering” session, physics professor Aram Harrow related his response to these startup challenges. “There are quite a few valleys to cross — there are the technical valleys, and then also the commercial valleys.” He spoke about scaling superconducting qubits and qubits made of suspended trapped ions, and the need for more scalable architectures, which we have the ingredients for, he said, but putting everything together is quite challenging.

Throughout the session, William Oliver, professor of physics and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, asked the panelists how MIT.nano can address challenges in assembly and scalability in quantum science.

“To harness the power of students to innovate, you really need to allow them to get their hands dirty, try new things, try all their crazy ideas, before this goes into a foundry-level process,” responded Kevin O’Brien, associate professor in EECS. “That’s what my group has been working on at MIT.nano, building these superconducting quantum processors using the state-of-the art fabrication techniques in MIT.nano.”

Connecting the digital to the physical

In his reflections on the semiconductor industry, Douglas Carlson, senior vice president for technology at MACOM, stressed connecting the digital world to real-world application. Later, in the “Immersive Data Technology” session, MIT.nano associate director Brian Anthony explained how, at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, researchers are doing just that.

“We think about and facilitate work that has the human immersed between hardware, data, and experience,” said Anthony, principal research scientist in mechanical engineering. He spoke about using the capabilities of the Immersion Lab to apply immersive technologies to different areas — health, sports, performance, manufacturing, and education, among others. Speakers in this session gave specific examples in hardware, pediatric health, and opera.

Anthony connected this third pillar of MIT.nano to the fab and characterization facilities, highlighting how the Immersion Lab supports work conducted in other parts of the building. The Immersion Lab’s strength, he said, is taking novel work being developed inside MIT.nano and bringing it up to the human scale to think about applications and uses.

Artworks that are scientifically inspired

The Nano Summit closed with a reception at MIT.nano where guests could explore the facility and gaze through the cleanroom windows, where users were actively conducting research. Attendees were encouraged to visit an exhibition on MIT.nano’s first- and second-floor galleries featuring work by students from the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) who were invited to utilize MIT.nano’s tool sets and environments as inspiration for art.

In his closing remarks, Bulović reflected on the community of people who keep MIT.nano running and who are using the tools to advance their research. “Today we are celebrating the facility and all the work that has been done over the last five years to bring it to where it is today. It is there to function not just as a space, but as an essential part of MIT’s mission in research, innovation, and education. I hope that all of us here today take away a deep appreciation and admiration for those who are leading the journey into the nano age.”


Mon, 27 Nov 2023 13:45:00 -0500

Team engineers nanoparticles using ion irradiation to advance clean energy and fuel conversion
Posted on Monday November 27, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Elizabeth Thomson | Materials Research Laboratory

The work demonstrates control over key properties leading to better performance.

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MIT researchers and colleagues have demonstrated a way to precisely control the size, composition, and other properties of nanoparticles key to the reactions involved in a variety of clean energy and environmental technologies. They did so by leveraging ion irradiation, a technique in which beams of charged particles bombard a material.

They went on to show that nanoparticles created this way have superior performance over their conventionally made counterparts.

“The materials we have worked on could advance several technologies, from fuel cells to generate CO2-free electricity to the production of clean hydrogen feedstocks for the chemical industry [through electrolysis cells],” says Bilge Yildiz, leader of the work and a professor in MIT’s departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

Critical catalyst

Fuel and electrolysis cells both involve electrochemical reactions through three principal parts: two electrodes (a cathode and anode) separated by an electrolyte. The difference between the two cells is that the reactions involved run in reverse.

The electrodes are coated with catalysts, or materials that make the reactions involved go faster. But a critical catalyst made of metal-oxide materials has been limited by challenges including low durability. “The metal catalyst particles coarsen at high temperatures, and you lose surface area and activity as a result,” says Yildiz, who is also affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory and is an author of an open-access paper on the work published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

Enter metal exsolution, which involves precipitating metal nanoparticles out of a host oxide onto the surface of the electrode. The particles embed themselves into the electrode, “and that anchoring makes them more stable,” says Yildiz. As a result, exsolution has “led to remarkable progress in clean energy conversion and energy-efficient computing devices,” the researchers write in their paper.

However, controlling the precise properties of the resulting nanoparticles has been difficult. “We know that exsolution can give us stable and active nanoparticles, but the challenging part is really to control it. The novelty of this work is that we’ve found a tool — ion irradiation — that can give us that control,” says Jiayue Wang PhD ’22, first author of the paper. Wang, who conducted the work while earning his PhD in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, is now a postdoc at Stanford University.

Sossina Haile ’86, PhD ’92, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, who was not involved in the current work, says:

“Metallic nanoparticles serve as catalysts in a whole host of reactions, including the important reaction of splitting water to generate hydrogen for energy storage. In this work, Yildiz and colleagues have created an ingenious method for controlling the way that nanoparticles form.”

Haile continues, “the community has shown that exsolution results in structurally stable nanoparticles, but the process is not easy to control, so one doesn’t necessarily get the optimal number and size of particles. Using ion irradiation, this group was able to precisely control the features of the nanoparticles, resulting in excellent catalytic activity for water splitting.”

What they did

The researchers found that aiming a beam of ions at the electrode while simultaneously exsolving metal nanoparticles onto the electrode’s surface allowed them to control several properties of the resulting nanoparticles.

“Through ion-matter interactions, we have successfully engineered the size, composition, density, and location of the exsolved nanoparticles,” the team writes in Energy & Environmental Science.

For example, they could make the particles much smaller — down to 2 billionths of a meter in diameter — than those made using conventional thermal exsolution methods alone. Further, they were able to change the composition of the nanoparticles by irradiating with specific elements. They demonstrated this with a beam of nickel ions that implanted nickel into the exsolved metal nanoparticle. As a result, they demonstrated a direct and convenient way to engineer the composition of exsolved nanoparticles.

“We want to have multi-element nanoparticles, or alloys, because they usually have higher catalytic activity,” Yildiz says. “With our approach, the exsolution target does not have to be dependent on the substrate oxide itself.” Irradiation opens the door to many more compositions. “We can pretty much choose any oxide and any ion that we can irradiate with and exsolve that,” says Yildiz.

The team also found that ion irradiation forms defects in the electrode itself. And these defects provide additional nucleation sites, or places for the exsolved nanoparticles to grow from, increasing the density of the resulting nanoparticles.

Irradiation could also allow extreme spatial control over the nanoparticles. “Because you can focus the ion beam, you can imagine that you could ‘write’ with it to form specific nanostructures,” says Wang. “We did a preliminary demonstration [of that], but we believe it has potential to realize well-controlled micro- and nano-structures.”

The team also showed that the nanoparticles they created with ion irradiation had superior catalytic activity over those created by conventional thermal exsolution alone.

Additional MIT authors of the paper are Kevin B. Woller, a principal research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), home to the equipment used for ion irradiation; Abinash Kumar PhD ’22, who received his PhD from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) and is now at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and James M. LeBeau, an associate professor in DMSE. Other authors are Zhan Zhang and Hua Zhou of Argonne National Laboratory, and Iradwikanari Waluyo and Adrian Hunt of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

This work was funded by the OxEon Corp. and MIT’s PSFC. The research also used resources supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory, and MIT.nano. The work was performed, in part, at Harvard University through a network funded by the National Science Foundation.


Mon, 27 Nov 2023 12:00:00 -0500

A green hydrogen innovation for clean energy
Posted on Monday November 27, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Ryan Kendall | Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Fall 2023 Wulff Lecture speaker Sossina Haile ’86, PhD ’92 uses ammonia and a “superprotonic” material for efficient and eco-friendly energy generation.

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Renewable energy today — mainly derived from the sun or wind — depends on batteries for storage. While costs have dropped in recent years, the pursuit of more efficient means of storing renewable power continues.

“All of these technologies, unfortunately, have a long way to go,” said Sossina Haile SB ’86, PhD ’92, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, at recent talk at MIT. She was the speaker of the fall 2023 Wulff Lecture, an event hosted by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) to ignite enthusiasm for the discipline.

To add to the renewable energy mix — and help quicken the pace to a sustainable future — Haile is working on an approach based on hydrogen in fuel cells, particularly for eco-friendly fuel in cars. Fuel cells, like batteries, produce electricity from chemical reactions but don’t lose their charge so long as fuel is supplied.

To generate power, the hydrogen must be pure — not attached to another molecule. Most methods of producing hydrogen today require burning fossil fuel, which generates planet-heating carbon emissions. Haile proposes a “green” process using renewable electricity to extract the hydrogen from steam.

When hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, “you have water as the product, and that’s the beautiful zero emissions,” Haile said, referring to the renewable energy production cycle that is set in motion.

Ammonia fuels hydrogen’s potential

Hydrogen is not yet widely used as a fuel because it’s difficult to transport. For one, it has low energy density, meaning a large volume of hydrogen gas is needed to store a usable amount of energy. And storing it is challenging because hydrogen’s tiny molecules can infiltrate metal tanks or pipes, causing cracks and gas leakage.

Haile’s solution for transporting hydrogen is using ammonia to “carry” it. Ammonia is three parts hydrogen and one part nitrogen, so the hydrogen needs to be separated from the nitrogen before it can be used in the kind of fuel cells that can power cars.

Ammonia has some advantages, including using existing pipelines and a high transmission capacity, Haile said — so more power can be transmitted at any given time.

To extract the hydrogen from ammonia, Haile has built devices that look a lot like fuel cells, with cesium dihydrogen phosphate as an electrolyte. The “superprotonic” material displays high proton conductivity — it allows protons, or positively charged particles, to move through it. This is important for hydrogen, which has just a proton and an electron. By letting only protons through the electrolyte, the device strips hydrogen from the ammonia, leaving behind the nitrogen.

The material has other benefits, too, Haile said: “It’s inexpensive, nontoxic, earth-abundant — all these good things that you want to have when you think about a sustainable energy technology.”

Sparking interest — and hope

Haile’s talk piqued interest in the audience, which nearly filled the 6-120 auditorium at MIT, which seats about 150 people.

Materials science and engineering major Nikhita Law heard hope in Haile’s talk for a more sustainable future.

“A major problem in making our energy system sustainable is finding ways to store energy from renewables,” Law says. Even if hydrogen-powered cars are not as wide-scale as lithium-battery-powered electric cars, “a permanent energy storage station where we convert electricity into hydrogen and convert it back seems like it makes more sense than mining more lithium.”

Another DMSE student, senior Daniel Tong, learned about the challenges involved in transporting hydrogen at another seminar and was curious to learn more. “This was something I hadn't thought of: Can you carry hydrogen more effectively in a different form? That’s really cool.”

He adds that talks like the Wulff Lecture are helpful in keeping people up to date in a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary field such as materials science and engineering, which spans chemistry, physics, engineering, and other disciplines. “This is a really good way to get exposed to different parts of materials science. There are so many more facets than you know of.”

In her talk, Haile encouraged audience members to get involved in sustainability research.

“There’s lots of room for further insight and materials discovery,” she said.

Haile concluded by underscoring the challenges faced by developing countries in dealing with climate change impacts, particularly those near the equator where there isn’t adequate infrastructure to deal with big swings in precipitation and temperature. For the people who aren’t driven to solve problems that affect people on the other side of the world, Haile offered some extra motivation.

“I’m sure many of you enjoy coffee. This is going to put the coffee crops in jeopardy as well,” she said.


Mon, 27 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

New method uses crowdsourced feedback to help train robots
Posted on Monday November 27, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Adam Zewe | MIT News

Human Guided Exploration (HuGE) enables AI agents to learn quickly with some help from humans, even if the humans make mistakes.

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To teach an AI agent a new task, like how to open a kitchen cabinet, researchers often use reinforcement learning — a trial-and-error process where the agent is rewarded for taking actions that get it closer to the goal.

In many instances, a human expert must carefully design a reward function, which is an incentive mechanism that gives the agent motivation to explore. The human expert must iteratively update that reward function as the agent explores and tries different actions. This can be time-consuming, inefficient, and difficult to scale up, especially when the task is complex and involves many steps.

Researchers from MIT, Harvard University, and the University of Washington have developed a new reinforcement learning approach that doesn’t rely on an expertly designed reward function. Instead, it leverages crowdsourced feedback, gathered from many nonexpert users, to guide the agent as it learns to reach its goal.

While some other methods also attempt to utilize nonexpert feedback, this new approach enables the AI agent to learn more quickly, despite the fact that data crowdsourced from users are often full of errors. These noisy data might cause other methods to fail.

In addition, this new approach allows feedback to be gathered asynchronously, so nonexpert users around the world can contribute to teaching the agent.

“One of the most time-consuming and challenging parts in designing a robotic agent today is engineering the reward function. Today reward functions are designed by expert researchers — a paradigm that is not scalable if we want to teach our robots many different tasks. Our work proposes a way to scale robot learning by crowdsourcing the design of reward function and by making it possible for nonexperts to provide useful feedback,” says Pulkit Agrawal, an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) who leads the Improbable AI Lab in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

In the future, this method could help a robot learn to perform specific tasks in a user’s home quickly, without the owner needing to show the robot physical examples of each task. The robot could explore on its own, with crowdsourced nonexpert feedback guiding its exploration.

“In our method, the reward function guides the agent to what it should explore, instead of telling it exactly what it should do to complete the task. So, even if the human supervision is somewhat inaccurate and noisy, the agent is still able to explore, which helps it learn much better,” explains lead author Marcel Torne ’23, a research assistant in the Improbable AI Lab.

Torne is joined on the paper by his MIT advisor, Agrawal; senior author Abhishek Gupta, assistant professor at the University of Washington; as well as others at the University of Washington and MIT. The research will be presented at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems next month.

Noisy feedback

One way to gather user feedback for reinforcement learning is to show a user two photos of states achieved by the agent, and then ask that user which state is closer to a goal. For instance, perhaps a robot’s goal is to open a kitchen cabinet. One image might show that the robot opened the cabinet, while the second might show that it opened the microwave. A user would pick the photo of the “better” state.

Some previous approaches try to use this crowdsourced, binary feedback to optimize a reward function that the agent would use to learn the task. However, because nonexperts are likely to make mistakes, the reward function can become very noisy, so the agent might get stuck and never reach its goal.

“Basically, the agent would take the reward function too seriously. It would try to match the reward function perfectly. So, instead of directly optimizing over the reward function, we just use it to tell the robot which areas it should be exploring,” Torne says.

He and his collaborators decoupled the process into two separate parts, each directed by its own algorithm. They call their new reinforcement learning method HuGE (Human Guided Exploration).

On one side, a goal selector algorithm is continuously updated with crowdsourced human feedback. The feedback is not used as a reward function, but rather to guide the agent’s exploration. In a sense, the nonexpert users drop breadcrumbs that incrementally lead the agent toward its goal.

On the other side, the agent explores on its own, in a self-supervised manner guided by the goal selector. It collects images or videos of actions that it tries, which are then sent to humans and used to update the goal selector.

This narrows down the area for the agent to explore, leading it to more promising areas that are closer to its goal. But if there is no feedback, or if feedback takes a while to arrive, the agent will keep learning on its own, albeit in a slower manner. This enables feedback to be gathered infrequently and asynchronously.

“The exploration loop can keep going autonomously, because it is just going to explore and learn new things. And then when you get some better signal, it is going to explore in more concrete ways. You can just keep them turning at their own pace,” adds Torne.

And because the feedback is just gently guiding the agent’s behavior, it will eventually learn to complete the task even if users provide incorrect answers.

Faster learning

The researchers tested this method on a number of simulated and real-world tasks. In simulation, they used HuGE to effectively learn tasks with long sequences of actions, such as stacking blocks in a particular order or navigating a large maze.

In real-world tests, they utilized HuGE to train robotic arms to draw the letter “U” and pick and place objects. For these tests, they crowdsourced data from 109 nonexpert users in 13 different countries spanning three continents.

In real-world and simulated experiments, HuGE helped agents learn to achieve the goal faster than other methods.

The researchers also found that data crowdsourced from nonexperts yielded better performance than synthetic data, which were produced and labeled by the researchers. For nonexpert users, labeling 30 images or videos took fewer than two minutes.

“This makes it very promising in terms of being able to scale up this method,” Torne adds.

In a related paper, which the researchers presented at the recent Conference on Robot Learning, they enhanced HuGE so an AI agent can learn to perform the task, and then autonomously reset the environment to continue learning. For instance, if the agent learns to open a cabinet, the method also guides the agent to close the cabinet.

“Now we can have it learn completely autonomously without needing human resets,” he says.

The researchers also emphasize that, in this and other learning approaches, it is critical to ensure that AI agents are aligned with human values.

In the future, they want to continue refining HuGE so the agent can learn from other forms of communication, such as natural language and physical interactions with the robot. They are also interested in applying this method to teach multiple agents at once.

This research is funded, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.


Thu, 23 Nov 2023 14:00:00 -0500

Search algorithm reveals nearly 200 new kinds of CRISPR systems
Posted on Thursday November 23, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Allessandra DiCorato | Broad Institute

By analyzing bacterial data, researchers have discovered thousands of rare new CRISPR systems that have a range of functions and could enable gene editing, diagnostics, and more.

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Microbial sequence databases contain a wealth of information about enzymes and other molecules that could be adapted for biotechnology. But these databases have grown so large in recent years that they’ve become difficult to search efficiently for enzymes of interest.

Now, scientists at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health have developed a new search algorithm that has identified 188 kinds of new rare CRISPR systems in bacterial genomes, encompassing thousands of individual systems. The work appears today in Science.

The algorithm, which comes from the lab of pioneering CRISPR researcher Professor Feng Zhang, uses big-data clustering approaches to rapidly search massive amounts of genomic data. The team used their algorithm, called Fast Locality-Sensitive Hashing-based clustering (FLSHclust) to mine three major public databases that contain data from a wide range of unusual bacteria, including ones found in coal mines, breweries, Antarctic lakes, and dog saliva. The scientists found a surprising number and diversity of CRISPR systems, including ones that could make edits to DNA in human cells, others that can target RNA, and many with a variety of other functions.

The new systems could potentially be harnessed to edit mammalian cells with fewer off-target effects than current Cas9 systems. They could also one day be used as diagnostics or serve as molecular records of activity inside cells.

The researchers say their search highlights an unprecedented level of diversity and flexibility of CRISPR and that there are likely many more rare systems yet to be discovered as databases continue to grow.

“Biodiversity is such a treasure trove, and as we continue to sequence more genomes and metagenomic samples, there is a growing need for better tools, like FLSHclust, to search that sequence space to find the molecular gems,” says Zhang, a co-senior author on the study and the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT with joint appointments in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering. Zhang is also an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, a core institute member at the Broad, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Eugene Koonin, a distinguished investigator at the NCBI, is co-senior author on the study as well.

Searching for CRISPR

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a bacterial defense system that has been engineered into many tools for genome editing and diagnostics.

To mine databases of protein and nucleic acid sequences for novel CRISPR systems, the researchers developed an algorithm based on an approach borrowed from the big data community. This technique, called locality-sensitive hashing, clusters together objects that are similar but not exactly identical. Using this approach allowed the team to probe billions of protein and DNA sequences — from the NCBI, its Whole Genome Shotgun database, and the Joint Genome Institute — in weeks, whereas previous methods that look for identical objects would have taken months. They designed their algorithm to look for genes associated with CRISPR.

“This new algorithm allows us to parse through data in a time frame that’s short enough that we can actually recover results and make biological hypotheses,” says Soumya Kannan PhD ’23, who is a co-first author on the study. Kannan was a graduate student in Zhang’s lab when the study began and is currently a postdoc and Junior Fellow at Harvard University. Han Altae-Tran PhD ’23, a graduate student in Zhang’s lab during the study and currently a postdoc at the University of Washington, was the study’s other co-first author.

“This is a testament to what you can do when you improve on the methods for exploration and use as much data as possible,” says Altae-Tran. “It’s really exciting to be able to improve the scale at which we search.”

New systems

In their analysis, Altae-Tran, Kannan, and their colleagues noticed that the thousands of CRISPR systems they found fell into a few existing and many new categories. They studied several of the new systems in greater detail in the lab.

They found several new variants of known Type I CRISPR systems, which use a guide RNA that is 32 base pairs long rather than the 20-nucleotide guide of Cas9. Because of their longer guide RNAs, these Type I systems could potentially be used to develop more precise gene-editing technology that is less prone to off-target editing. Zhang’s team showed that two of these systems could make short edits in the DNA of human cells. And because these Type I systems are similar in size to CRISPR-Cas9, they could likely be delivered to cells in animals or humans using the same gene-delivery technologies being used today for CRISPR.

One of the Type I systems also showed “collateral activity” — broad degradation of nucleic acids after the CRISPR protein binds its target. Scientists have used similar systems to make infectious disease diagnostics such as SHERLOCK, a tool capable of rapidly sensing a single molecule of DNA or RNA. Zhang’s team thinks the new systems could be adapted for diagnostic technologies as well.

The researchers also uncovered new mechanisms of action for some Type IV CRISPR systems, and a Type VII system that precisely targets RNA, which could potentially be used in RNA editing. Other systems could potentially be used as recording tools — a molecular document of when a gene was expressed — or as sensors of specific activity in a living cell.

Mining data

The scientists say their algorithm could aid in the search for other biochemical systems. “This search algorithm could be used by anyone who wants to work with these large databases for studying how proteins evolve or discovering new genes,” Altae-Tran says.

The researchers add that their findings illustrate not only how diverse CRISPR systems are, but also that most are rare and only found in unusual bacteria. “Some of these microbial systems were exclusively found in water from coal mines,” Kannan says. “If someone hadn’t been interested in that, we may never have seen those systems. Broadening our sampling diversity is really important to continue expanding the diversity of what we can discover.”

This work was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Molecular Therapeutics Center at MIT; Broad Institute Programmable Therapeutics Gift Donors; The Pershing Square Foundation, William Ackman and Neri Oxman; James and Patricia Poitras; BT Charitable Foundation; Asness Family Foundation; Kenneth C. Griffin; the Phillips family; David Cheng; and Robert Metcalfe.


Wed, 22 Nov 2023 13:00:00 -0500

Judgment, reason, and the university
Posted on Wednesday November 22, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Peter Dizikes | MIT News

MIT’s Malick Ghachem extends the “Dialogues across Differences” lecture series with a talk about the past and present of university politics.

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At a time when universities are subject to intense political pressure, it is tempting to think they can follow a template for establishing to all concerned that educational institutions are neutral entities. But circumstances will almost always complicate such efforts, MIT Professor Malick Ghachem suggested in a recent public lecture.

The talk focused on the Kalven Report, a widely cited 1967 University of Chicago document heralding neutrality as a goal for institutions of higher education. While that may often be desirable as a pragmatic goal, Ghachem observed, there is no absolute, immutable condition of neutrality that can be achieved by complex institutions. Instead, sound institutional positioning requires reasonable judgment, applied again and again.

For higher education leaders in today’s world, Ghachem noted, who are often implored to comment on civic and global matters, “There is no way to avoid saying something. The issue is, what do you say, how, and how often.”

Ghachem’s lecture, titled “Neutrality, Diversity, and the University,” was part of an MIT event series, “Dialogues Across Difference: Building Community at MIT.” In it, Ghachem, the head of MIT’s History Section, detailed the history of the Kalven Report, which was rooted in Vietnam War-era protests at the University of Chicago. The talk outlined the differing views that existed among its creators and offered further thoughts about the dynamics of seeking neutrality.

“Neutrality is an unstable value,” Ghachem said, noting that professing a goal of neutrality can be deployed as a tactic by people with their own aims and agendas. Indeed, Ghachem added, the idea of neutrality can start “veering off into a nonneutral direction.”

And even in seemingly routine, everyday matters, institutions are often faced with choices about funding and support that may never be viewed as value-free.

“When values and the expenditure of money collide, a decision has to be made,” said Ghachem. “And at that moment, neutrality, or honor, or whatever it is, are not going to tell what the answer is. No report will.”

The community dialogue was held in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center on Oct. 26 and also shown via webcast. The event was co-sponsored by the offices of the President, Provost, and Chancellor at MIT. Interim Deputy Institute Community and Equity Officer Tracie Jones-Barrett served as a moderator for a question-and-answer session following the talk.

Ghachem was introduced by MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart, who called the talk part of the “essential work of cultivating civil discourse, critical thinking, and empathy among members of the MIT community.” She also noted that the event series was “one of many activities our staff, faculty, and students are working on to foster the respectful exchange of viewpoints.”

Ghachem is both a trained historian and lawyer; he has a BA in history and a JD from Harvard University, and earned his MA and PhD in history from Stanford University. A leading scholar of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic world, as well as legal and constitutional history, he is the author of “The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The historical background for the Kalven Report is the Vietnam War, especially the period of student protest following the U.S. government decision to roll back the S-2 student draft deferment rule. That embroiled the University of Chicago and many other institutions in significant contention on campus. 

The Kalven Report, Ghachem said, “embodies a dream of the American university as a space where minds can be free because no one is told what they can or must think.” In the report’s view, the university houses social critics — faculty and students — without itself functioning as a critic; heavy-handed institutional positions would threaten the diversity of viewpoints, in the report’s estimation. The report suggests overturning the stance of neutrality for only a couple of reasons: threats to the university’s mission as a site of free inquiry, and times when the university is acting in its corporate capacity (such as legal matters).

And yet, Ghachem noted, the committee members that worked on the Kalven Report — it is named after its chair, Harry Kalven, a first amendment legal scholar — had varying views about the matter. The eminent historian John Hope Franklin, Ghachem observed, believed we “cannot be indifferent to the disorders and defects in our society that are themselves opposed to its [the university’s] existence as a free intellectual community.” Jacob Getzels, an education professor, warned that the idea of “neutrality” had aided the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany. Gilbert White, a professor of geography and former president of Haverford College, contended it was important for universities to actively “model ethical action,” Ghachem explained.

From still another perspective, the prominent economist George Stigler contended that the sum total of individual actions and views would create a kind of civic equivalent of the “general equilibrium” modeled in market economics, thus providing sufficient balance and rendering institutional views less necessary.

To Ghachem, this disagreement within the Kalven Report committee, and the possible range of ethical stances it encompassed, was glossed over in the final report and is largely and wrongly overlooked today.

“The Kalven Report is an obscuring of real differences that existed among the committee [members] who made up that report,” Ghachem said. “That is why we are struggling with this ideal today. Because we don’t fully acknowledge the extent of the disagreement.”

Ghachem suggested there were a few other shortcomings of the Kalven Report, or at least the way we think about it today. For one thing, referencing the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Ghachem noted that, in effect, nothing really exists outside of history; the idea of neutrality will always be set with reference to the politics of its era.

It also may be unclear who at a university is thought to speak for that institution, as Ghachem outlined. Beyond that, he noted, many different kinds of universities may exist, some oriented explicitly around certain priorities that make political neutrality on all issues less of an institutional North Star.

For all of this, Ghachem added, when assessing the Kalven Report, we can still “treat it as a model even if it’s philosophically very problematic.” An institution can move toward balance and fairness at all times, without expecting to achieve a perpetual, self-sustaining state of neutrality.

In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Ghachem said he strongly agreed that it is important for university members to speak up against political interference — such as state government leaders trying to control curriculum and content decisions at public universities, schools, and libraries. Such a view is also aligned with the Kalven Report.

“Our very mission as a university is bound up with the fate of other universities in the United States,” Ghachem said, adding that he thinks “it’s appropriate for universities to stand up for shared university values.” For instance, he observed, “If we don’t say something about curriculum, then there’s really nothing left for us to stick up for.”

In answering audience questions, Ghachem again underlined the practical value of aiming for something like neutrality in “prudential” everyday terms, rather than thinking of it as a philosophical condition one might enter into. For instance, aiming for balance can often serve scholars and students well in the classroom.

“I try to model a version of the Kalven Report as an instructor,” Ghachem said. “I don’t cite it. But the ethos that it tries to evoke, as a prudential matter, that’s what I try to do, because I think that’s the best way for students to have discussions. And as scholar I try to do the same thing, in the sense that if there are people I disagree with in the field, I feel like I want to read what they say, and understand and learn from it, and respond to it.”


Wed, 22 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

Liberty Ladd: Going above and beyond
Posted on Wednesday November 22, 2023

Category : Interview

Author : Angelina Parrillo | MIT News correspondent

For the political science and mechanical engineering student, who is also an Air Force ROTC member, systematic change starts with personal actions.

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Liberty Ladd has been drawn to public service and fighting injustice from a young age. At 15, as a student representative from the first congressional district of Maine, she testified to the state board of education about unfair grading policies at her school. Later, she decided to join the Air Force, with the understanding that military experience would put her on a path to ultimately making a difference on issues such as voting rights and services for U.S. veterans.

With her interest in politics — policymaking in particular — Ladd knew she wanted to study political science entering MIT. Also wanting a double major in a STEM field, she selected mechanical engineering. Ladd expects to graduate in the spring with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, and has participated in the Air Force ROTC throughout her time at MIT.

Following graduation, Ladd will serve in the United States Space Force for a minimum of five years. Ladd hopes to be a positive force in shaping the new military branch to avoid inequalities faced in other older branches. She says she will stay as long as she feels she can make an impact, but she eventually wants a career in policymaking.

MIT News interviewed Ladd to learn more about her life as a student.

Q: What are your communities on campus?

A: I’m on the varsity field hockey team. Sophomore year, Covid sent us all home, so we got one extra year of eligibility. I was here for my master’s, so I figured I’d play one more year. It’s been a really fantastic support network on and off the field. Some of my closest friends are on the team.

I’m in the United States Space Force and I am in the Air Force ROTC Reserve Officer Training Corps program through MIT. Through ROTC on campus, I was the vice commander of our wing, where I was in charge of the operational and logistical operations of our training program.

I used to be on the MIT Mock Trial team, which I joined because I wanted to be a lawyer — or used to want to be a lawyer. I stayed because the team is just super fun, and we’re all really close now.

Q: What responsibilities does ROTC at MIT entail?

A: Freshman and sophomore year, you’re learning what the military is and what it does. The juniors and seniors are responsible for crafting the curriculum to prepare the underclassmen to go to field training and graduate. So, what that looks like is a lab for two hours every week, and then you have two physical training sessions a week in the mornings, and you also have Air Force or aerospace studies. Then you go to field training the summer after your sophomore year. When you come back it’s the same two-hour lab, the two hours of PT [physical fitness] a week, and then also a three-hour class. 

Q: When did your journey in the military start?

A: I discovered that ROTC was a program my junior year of high school. After, I decided to serve. I didn’t know what the mechanisms were for getting there. Honestly, I didn’t even know what an officer was. But I [saw] the way that the United States treats our veterans. It’s inhumane: We’ve got mental health crises, homelessness crises with our veterans, and seeing the lack of effectiveness from policies that were set out as solutions got me thinking that I wanted to make a difference in that.

But I also knew that if I ever wanted to make policies that would help to address those crises, no one would listen to me if I had never served. So, that was my initial motivation for serving. I also knew that serving my country was something that would allow me to make a big impact at a young age.

And then I also started to learn about some of the inequities within the military, both when it comes to treatment of women and minorities, and institutionally. We’ve got a certain percentage of our members living on SNAP programs while they’re serving the military. They’re focused on trying to figure out ways to keep food on their family’s table while also putting their lives on the line for our freedom and safety. These are things that I think are untenable, but I wouldn’t be able to fix unless I was in there to kind of work within the system to make those changes.

Q: What inspires you to take on such large institutions?

A: It stems from hating to see the wrong thing being done, or people being treated poorly. Whether it be because of my political privilege of attending MIT or being a white woman, if there’s a situation where I sense that I have some sort of privilege, it feels like my responsibility to do something because I have the option of being okay when some of my peers don’t.

Q: Why pursue a second major in mechanical engineering?

A: Effective policymakers can’t afford to be ignorant about the science and technology advances that drive our society. Engineering design is an unusual but helpful background to have when making intentional, effective policy decisions.

Q: Have you encountered any situations recently in which you felt motivated to take action?

A: The big one that jumps to mind is what happened to my peers in ROTC our sophomore year. The Air Force decided to cut people in the program who were in my class, and they cut practically 50 percent. From my peers’ perspectives, they were losing opportunities to be an officer in the Air Force and some of them were losing their opportunity to go to college at all. I felt incredibly helpless.

Our regional commander happened to be in the area and was going to have lunch with some of the cadets. And I was like, “Perfect, I’m going to show him why the way that they were choosing which cadets got to stay was untenable, unfair, and hurting the needs of the Air Force.” Did that change his mind? I don’t know. But fortunately, the Air Force did change course: While not all my peers were allowed to rejoin, a large majority were. It’s the first experience that I had with how frigid the bureaucracy can be toward the people it’s supposed to be protecting. But it also made me realize that working within the system, I can make change as well.

Q: What would your 5-year-old self say to you today?

A: What’s field hockey? What’s an engineer? She would probably wonder why I wear so much pink and wear so many dresses. Five-year-old Liberty wanted to be as strong and tough and smart as the boys. I rejected everything stereotypically feminine. What society told me was that weak was feminine. I would tell her: You can be just as strong as the guys you meet and just as smart, and you can wear a pink pantsuit. I promise you; it will be okay.


Tue, 21 Nov 2023 13:45:00 -0500

Scholarship keeps John F. Kennedy’s legacy alive at MIT
Posted on Tuesday November 21, 2023

Category : International initiatives

Author : Lisa Capone | Office of the Vice Provost for International Activities

In the 60 years since President Kennedy’s death, a scholarship in his name has sent generations of British students to study tuition-free at MIT and Harvard University.

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About 20 miles west of London, the meadow of Runnymede hosts a memorial to John F. Kennedy, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II two years after the U.S. president’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. Situated on land bequeathed in perpetuity to the American people, the memorial overlooks the riverbank where the Magna Carta — a pivotal document prefiguring modern constitutional democracies — was sealed 800 years before. It’s an apt place for visitors to reflect on President Kennedy’s legacy of democratic leadership and service.

Across the Atlantic, the MIT campus hosts another British memorial to President Kennedy: the Kennedy Scholarship program. Conceived as a “living memorial” to complement the Runnymede monument and overseen by the Kennedy Memorial Trust, a U.K. charity, the Kennedy Scholarship program has kept the ideals of Kennedy’s presidency alive by sending generations of British students to Massachusetts to study tuition-free at MIT and Harvard University. Since the first cohort of Kennedy Scholars arrived in Cambridge in 1966, more than 570 U.K. citizens have traveled to the U.S. for graduate degrees, PhDs, and fellowships — often with life-changing consequences.

“It really did change the course of my whole life. It made possible some things I couldn’t have imagined,” says Richard Lester PhD ’80, a 1974 Kennedy Scholar who earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering at MIT after learning about the scholarship from a professor at London’s Imperial College. “That was for me a truly transformative moment.”

Lester, who hadn’t heard of MIT before that, stayed in the U.S. after his scholarship years and became a faculty member at MIT. He eventually served on the board of the Kennedy Memorial Trust and is currently the Institute’s vice provost for international activities and the Japan Steel Industry Professor in Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Like Lester, hundreds of British students got their first taste of America through the Kennedy Scholarship. Each fall, U.K. citizens who’ve earned British undergraduate degrees can apply for the scholarship, which covers tuition, fees, health insurance and living expenses, as well as stipends for U.S. travel following the academic year. Governed by a board of trustees, including appointees of the U.K. prime minister and the presidents of MIT and Harvard, the Kennedy Trust selects scholarship recipients in January, contingent on their acceptance into MIT or Harvard.

While Lester said the scholarship enabled him to pursue an academic field at MIT that wasn’t available elsewhere — the study of technologies and policies for nuclear safety and security, “the scholarship isn’t just about enabling a graduate education.”

“It is also about creating opportunities for the scholars to learn about the country,” he says. “Fifty years later, I am still learning about the U.S. and the scholarship puts people on that path.”  

It’s a path that has produced an impressive group of alumni with a wide range of degrees, who are making a positive difference in the world as a result, said Kennedy Trust Director Emily Charnock. Charnock said trust founders chose MIT and Harvard in honor of President Kennedy’s interest in “bringing the sciences and humanities into conversation.”

“I think the values the Kennedy Scholarship program advances are still incredibly relevant in today’s more internationalized world.” Charnock says.

President Kennedy’s daughter, current U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy, agrees, saying, “It is a great tribute to my father that the Kennedy Scholars come to the United States to learn, strengthen the U.S.-U.K. relationship, and help build a more peaceful and just world. I hope that spending time in the U.S. is as transformational for the scholars as my father’s time in England was in shaping his life.”

At its essence, Charnock added, the scholarship pays tribute to three core values associated with JFK: intellectual endeavor, leadership, and public service.

“Those qualities, in some combination, are really exemplified by Kennedy Scholars,” she says, adding, “We see public service in a broad way. It doesn’t have to be that traditional sense of government service or going into politics but contributing in some way to your community and the wider world.”

Exemplary of a scholarship recipient who still contributes in that way is David Miliband SM ’90, a 1988 Kennedy Scholar who studied political science at MIT, went on to become a Labour MP and Foreign Secretary in Britain and now serves as CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Other Kennedy Scholars have served in various high level government roles in both countries, as well as heading up impactful non-governmental organizations.

“It’s not a political scholarship, but the animating ideas about public service, internationalism, about commitment to others as well as yourself — you are forced to engage with that,” Miliband says. “There is a ripple effect that is not to be underestimated.”

Anil Jain PhD ’14, a 2009 Kennedy Scholar, is among those who credit the scholarship with steering their careers toward public service. Now principal economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington, Jain was pursuing a master’s in economics at the University of Cambridge when he learned about the scholarship through a poster. His decision to apply was “a major turning point” that routed him toward economic policy, rather than finance or another business-oriented field.

“Going into economics and the policy world has made me feel that I have an enriched professional life. Whenever there has been a big world event…I’ve always been glad that I’m working in government. There’s this idea of being able to do something, just being a small cog in trying to do something better,” Jain says. “The Kennedy Scholarship allowed me to do this PhD, this PhD allowed me to go into this policy role and in this policy role I am supporting the U.S. economy.”

Others who attended MIT through the Kennedy Scholarship either stayed at or returned to the campus in professional capacities.

“Winning a Kennedy Scholarship literally changed the direction of my career and life,” says Gareth McKinley PhD ’91, now the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT’s representative on the Kennedy Scholarship Board of Trustees.

While studying chemical engineering at MIT in 1986, McKinley met his future wife, then a nursing student at Boston College.

“We got married in 1991 and decided to stay in the U.S. I applied to faculty positions and was lucky to get a job in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard,” he said. “After teaching at Harvard for six years, I moved back to MIT in 1997 and I have been here for the last 26 years.”

Also teaching at MIT is former Kennedy Scholar Anna Stansbury, who attended Harvard on the scholarship in 2013 and is now assistant professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Initially attracted to the scholarship by an interest in working in government, Stansbury said her scholarship year helped her realize the potential to influence public policy through an academic career.

“In that sense, the Kennedy Scholarship completely changed the direction of my life. The course of my professional life would have been nothing like it is now,” says Stansbury.

While the late president’s legacy is the stuff of history lessons for people of Stansbury’s generation, early scholarship recipients have memories of JFK — and his assassination.

“It was so determinative, that terrible moment in 1963,” says Emma Rothschild, who came to MIT in 1967 to study economics as part of the second cohort of Kennedy Scholars.

Chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust from 2000 to 2009, Rothschild is now the Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History at Harvard, where she also directs the Joint Center for History and Economics 

“Students of my generation were thrilled at the possibility of going to the U.S., of being associated with President Kennedy’s name. Both MIT and Harvard were fascinating places,” Rothschild says. “1967 to 1968 was also a dramatic time in America and world politics. I was so excited to be at MIT.”

Later, as chair of the trust, Rothschild experienced that “sense of awe” again as she met and interviewed scholarship applicants — a group whose diversity has expanded over time, she says.

“They are such amazing young people who are interested in being Kennedy Scholars,” Rothschild says. “That really hasn’t changed.”

Crediting former MIT president (and Kennedy presidential adviser) Jerome Wiesner with helping shape the scholarship’s emphasis on connecting the humanities and sciences, Rothschild says the program’s success in fostering interdisciplinary conversations is its “great strength.”

Lester, a member of the eighth cohort of scholars, pointed out that, “the Kennedy presidency was an early memory for me and has remained part of my life.” In the decades since, Lester says, the U.K.’s living memorial has “brought JFK to life for generations of scholars.”

“Even though JFK has passed into history,” he says, “this program is as current today as it was in 1966.”


Tue, 21 Nov 2023 11:50:00 -0500

Students pitch transformative ideas in generative AI at MIT Ignite competition
Posted on Tuesday November 21, 2023

Category : Contests and academic competitions

Author : Mary Beth Gallagher | Lauren Hinkel | Greg Wymer | School of Engineering | MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab | Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Twelve teams of students and postdocs across the MIT community presented innovative startup ideas with potential for real-world impact.

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This semester, students and postdocs across MIT were invited to submit ideas for the first-ever MIT Ignite: Generative AI Entrepreneurship Competition. Over 100 teams submitted proposals for startups that utilize generative artificial intelligence technologies to develop solutions across a diverse range of disciplines including human health, climate change, education, and workforce dynamics.

On Oct. 30, 12 finalists pitched their ideas in front of a panel of expert judges and a packed room in Samberg Conference Center.

“MIT has a responsibility to help shape a future of AI innovation that is broadly beneficial — and to do that, we need a lot of great ideas. So, we turned to a pretty reliable source of great ideas: MIT’s highly entrepreneurial students and postdocs,” said MIT President Sally Kornbluth in her opening remarks at the event. 

The MIT Ignite event is part of a broader focus on generative AI at MIT put forth by Kornbluth. This fall, across the Institute, researchers and students are exploring opportunities to contribute their knowledge on generative AI, identifying new applications, minimizing risks, and employing it for the benefit of society. This event — co-organized by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and supported by MIT’s School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management — inspired young researchers to contribute to the dialogue and innovate in generative AI.

Serving as co-chairs for the event were Aude Oliva, MIT director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and a principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Bill Aulet, the Ethernet Inventors Professor of the Practice at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the Martin Trust Center; and Dina Katabi, the Thuan (1990) and Nicole Pham Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, director of the Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing, and a CSAIL principal investigator.

Twelve teams of students and postdocs were competing for a number of prizes, including five MIT Ignite Flagship Prizes of $15,000 each, a special first-year undergraduate student team Flagship Prize, and runner-up prizes. All prizes were provided by the MIT-IBM AI Watson Lab. Teams were judged on their project’s innovative applications of generative AI, feasibility, potential for real-world impact, and the quality of presentation.

After the 12 teams showcased their technology, its potential to address an issue, and the team’s ability to execute the plan, a panel of judges deliberated. As the audience waited for the results, remarks were made by Mark Gorenberg ’76, chair of the MIT Corporation; Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and David Schmittlein, the John C. Head III Dean and professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The student winners included:

MIT Ignite Flagship Prizes

(Philip Cherner, Julia Sebastien, Caroline Lige Zhang, and Daeun Yoo): Sometimes identifying and expressing emotions is difficult, particularly for those on the alexithymia spectrum; further, therapy can be expensive. eMote’s app allows users to identify their emotions, visualize them as art using the co-creative process of generative AI, and reflect on them through journaling, thereby assisting school counselors and therapists.

LeGT.ai (Julie Shi, Jessica Yuan, and Yubing Cui): Legal processes around immigration can be complicated and costly. LeGT.ai aims to democratize legal knowledge. Using a platform with a large language model, prompt engineering, and semantic search, the team will streamline a chatbot for completion, research, and drafting of documents for firms, as well as improve pre-screening and initial consultations.

Sunona (Emmi Mills, Selin Kocalar, Srihitha Dasari, and Karun Kaushik): About half of a doctor’s day is consumed by medical documentation and clinical notes. To address this, Sunona harnesses audio transcription and a large language model to transform audio from a doctor’s visit into notes and feature extraction, affording providers more time in their day.

UltraNeuro (Mahdi Ramadan, Adam Gosztolai, Alaa Khaddaj, and Samara Khater): For about one in seven adults, spinal cord injury, stroke, or disease will induce motor impairment and/or paralysis. UltraNeuro’s neuroprosthetics will help patients to regain some of their daily abilities without invasive brain implants. Their technology leverages an electroencephalogram, smart sensors, and a multimodal AI system (muscle EMG, computer vision, eye movements) trained on thousands of movements to plan precise limb movements.

UrsaTech (Rui Zhou, Jerry Shan, Kate Wang, Alan He, and Rita Zhang): Education today is marked by disparities and overburdened educators. UrsaTech’s platform uses a multimodal large language model and diffusion models to create lessons, dynamic content, and assessments to assist teachers and learners. The system also has immersive learning with AI agents for active learning for online and offline use.

First-Year Undergraduate Student Team MIT Ignite Flagship Prize

Alikorn (April Ren and Ayush Nayak): Drug discovery accounts for significant biotech costs. Alikorn’s large language model-powered platform aims to streamline the process of creating and simulating new molecules, using a generative adversarial network, a Monte-Carlo algorithm to vet the most promising candidates, and a physics simulation to determine the chemical properties.

Runner-up Prizes

Autonomous Cyber (James “Patrick” O’Brien, Madeline Linde, Rafael Turner, and Bohdan Volyanyuk): Code security audits require expertise and are expensive. “Fuzzing” code — injecting invalid or unexpected inputs to reveal software vulnerabilities — can make software significantly safer. Autonomous Cyber’s system leverages large language models to automatically integrate “fuzzers” into databases.

Gen EGM (Noah Bagazinski and Kristen Edwards): Making informed socioeconomic development policies requires evidence and data. Gen EGM’s large language model system expedites the process by examining and analyzing literature, and then produces an evidence gap map (EGM), suggesting potential impact areas.

Mattr AI (Leandra Tejedor, Katie Chen, and Eden Adler): Datasets that are used to train AI models often have issues of diversity, equity, and completeness. Mattr AI addresses this with generative AI with a large language model and stable diffusion models to augment datasets.

Neuroscreen (Andrew Lu, Chonghua Xue, and Grant Robinson): Screening patients to potentially join a dementia clinical trial is costly, often takes years, and mostly results in an ineligibility. Neuroscreen employs AI to more quickly assess patients’ dementia causes, leading to more successful enrollment in clinical trials and treatment of conditions.

The Data Provenance Initiative (Naana Obeng-Marnu, Jad Kabbara, Shayne Longpre, William Brannon, and Robert Mahari): Datasets that are used to train AI models, particularly large language models, often have missing or incorrect metadata, causing concern for legal and ethical issues. The Data Provenance Initiative uses AI-assisted annotation to audit datasets, tracking the lineage and legal status of data, improving data transparency, legality, and ethical concerns around data.

Theia (Jenny Yao, Hongze Bo, Jin Li, Ao Qu, and Hugo Huang): Scientific research, and online dialogue around it, often occurs in silos. Theia’s platform aims to bring these walls down. Generative AI technology will summarize papers and help to guide research directions, providing a service for scholars as well as the broader scientific community.

After the MIT Ignite competition, all 12 teams selected to present were invited to a networking event as an immediate first step to making their ideas and prototypes a reality. Additionally, they were invited to further develop their ideas with the support of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship through StartMIT or MIT Fuse and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab.

“In the months since I’ve arrived [at MIT], I’ve learned a lot about how MIT folks think about entrepreneurship and how it’s really built into everything that everyone at the Institute does, from first-year students to faculty to alumni — they are really motivated to get their ideas out into the world,” said President Kornbluth. “Entrepreneurship is an essential element for our goal of organizing for positive impact.”


Tue, 21 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

Merging science and systems thinking to make materials more sustainable
Posted on Tuesday November 21, 2023

Category : Faculty

Author : Zach Winn | MIT News

Passionate about materials science “from the atom to the system,” Elsa Olivetti brings a holistic approach to sustainability to her teaching, research, and coalition-building.

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For Professor Elsa Olivetti, tackling a problem as large and complex as climate change requires not only lab research but also understanding the systems of production that power the global economy.

Her career path reflects a quest to investigate materials at scales ranging from the microscopic to the mass-manufactured.

“I’ve always known what questions I wanted to ask, and then set out to build the tools to help me ask those questions,” says Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering.

Olivetti, who earned tenure in 2022 and was recently appointed associate dean of engineering, has sought to equip students with similar skills, whether in the classroom, in her lab group, or through the interdisciplinary programs she leads at MIT. Those efforts have earned her accolades including the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship in 2021, and the McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2023.

“I think to make real progress in sustainability, materials scientists need to think in interdisciplinary, systems-level ways, but at a deep technical level,” Olivetti says. “Supporting my students so that’s something that a lot more people can do is very rewarding for me.”

Her mission to make materials more sustainable also makes Olivetti grateful she’s at MIT, which has a long tradition of both interdisciplinary collaboration and technical know-how.

“MIT’s core competencies are well-positioned for bold achievements in climate and sustainability — the deep expertise on the economics side, the frontier knowledge in science, the computational creativity,” Olivetti says. “It’s a really exciting time and place where the key ingredients for progress are simmering in transformative ways.”

Answering the call

The moment that set Olivetti on her life’s journey began when she was 8, with a knock at her door. Her parents were in the other room, so Olivetti opened the door and met an organizer for Greenpeace, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of environmental issues.

“I had a chat with that guy and got hooked on environmental concerns,” Olivetti says. “I still remember that conversation.”

The interaction changed the way Olivetti thought about her place in the world, and her new perspective manifested itself in some unique ways. Her elementary school science fair projects became elaborate pursuits of environmental solutions involving burying various items in the backyard to test for biodegradability. There was also an awkward attempt at natural pesticide development, which lead to a worm hatching in her bedroom.

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Olivetti gravitated toward classes in environmentalism and materials science.

“There was a link between materials science and a broader, systems way of framing design for environment, and that just clicked for me in terms of the way I wanted to think about environmental problems — from the atom to the system,” Olivetti recalls.

That interest led Olivetti to MIT for a PhD in 2001, where she studied the feasibility of new materials for lithium-ion batteries.

“I really wanted to be thinking of things at a systems level, but I wanted to ground that in lab-based research,” Olivetti says. “I wanted an experiential experience in grad school, and that’s why I chose MIT’s program.”

Whether it was her undergraduate studies, her PhD, or her ensuing postdoc work at MIT, Olivetti sought to learn new skills to continue bridging the gap between materials science and environmental systems thinking.

“I think of it as, ‘Here’s how I can build up the ways I ask questions,’” Olivetti explains. “How do we design these materials while thinking about their implications as early as possible?”

Since joining MIT’s faculty in 2014, Olivetti has developed computational models to measure the cost and environmental impact of new materials, explored ways to adopt more sustainable and circular supply chains, and evaluated potential materials limitations as lithium-ion battery production is scaled. That work helps companies increase their use of greener, recyclable materials and more sustainably dispose of waste.

Olivetti believes the wide scope of her research gives the students in her lab a more holistic understanding of the life cycle of materials.

When the group started, each student was working on a different aspect of the problem — like on the natural language processing pipeline, or on recycling technology assessment, or beneficial use of waste — and now each student can link each of those pieces in their research,” Olivetti explains.

Beyond her research, Olivetti also co-directs the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, which has established a set of eight areas of sustainability that it organizes coalitions around. Each coalition involves technical leaders at companies and researchers at MIT that work together to accelerate the impact of MIT’s research by helping companies adopt innovative and more sustainable technologies.

“Climate change mitigation and resilience is such a complex problem, and at MIT we have practice in working together across disciplines on many challenges,” Olivetti says. “It’s been exciting to lean on that culture and unlock ways to move forward more effectively.”

Bridging divides

Today, Olivetti tries to maximize the impact of her and her students’ research in materials industrial ecology by maintaining close ties to applications. In her research, this means working directly with aluminum companies to design alloys that could incorporate more scrap material or with nongovernmental organizations to incorporate agricultural residues in building products. In the classroom, that means bringing in people from companies to explain how they think about concepts like heat exchange or fluid flow in their products.

“I enjoy trying to ground what students are learning in the classroom with what’s happening in the world,” Olivetti explains.

Exposing students to industry is also a great way to help them think about their own careers. In her research lab, she’s started using the last 30 minutes of meetings to host talks from people working in national labs, startups, and larger companies to show students what they can do after their PhDs. The talks are similar to the Industry Seminar series Olivetti started that pairs undergraduate students with people working in areas like 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing.

“It’s about helping students learn what they’re excited about,” Olivetti says.

Whether in the classroom, lab, or at events held by organizations like MCSC, Olivetti believes collaboration is humanity’s most potent tool to combat climate change.

“I just really enjoy building links between people,” Olivetti says. “Learning about people and meeting them where they are is a way that one can create effective links. It’s about creating the right playgrounds for people to think and learn.”


Mon, 20 Nov 2023 14:25:00 -0500

A civil discourse on climate change
Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Benjamin Daniel | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

A recent forum was the first in a series planned at MIT this year, part of an initiative meant to encourage the open exchange of ideas.

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A new MIT initiative designed to encourage open dialogue on campus kicked off with a conversation focused on how to address challenges related to climate change.

“Climate Change: Existential Threat or Bump in the Road” featured Steve Koonin, theoretical physicist and former U.S. undersecretary for science during the Obama administration, and Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. A crowd of roughly 130 students, staff, and faculty gathered in an MIT lecture hall for the discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 24. 

“The bump is strongly favored,” Koonin said when the talk began, referring to his contention that climate change was a “bump in the road” rather than an existential threat. After proposing a future in which we could potentially expect continued growth in America’s gross domestic product despite transportation and infrastructure challenges related to climate change, he concluded that investments in nuclear energy and capacity increases related to storing wind- and solar-generated energy could help mitigate climate-related phenomena. 

Emanuel, while mostly agreeing with Koonin’s assessment of climate challenges and potential solutions, cautioned against underselling the threat of human-aided climate change.

“Humanity’s adaptation to climate stability hasn’t prepared us to effectively manage massive increases in temperature and associated effects,” he argued. “We’re poorly adapted to less-frequent events like those we’re observing now.”

Decarbonization, Emanuel noted, can help mitigate global conflicts related to fossil fuel usage. “Carbonization kills between 8 and 9 million people annually,” he said.

The conversation on climate change is one of several planned on campus this academic year. The speaker series is one part of “Civil Discourse in the Classroom and Beyond,” an initiative being led by MIT philosophers Alex Byrne and Brad Skow. The two-year project is meant to encourage the open exchange of ideas inside and outside college and university classrooms. 

The speaker series pairs external thought leaders with MIT faculty to encourage the interrogation and debate of all kinds of ideas.

Finding common ground

At the talk on climate change, both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a slow and steady approach to mitigation efforts, reminding attendees that, for example, developing nations can’t afford to take a developed world approach to climate change. 

“These people have immediate needs to meet,” Koonin reminded the audience, “which can include fossil fuel use.”

Both Koonin and Emanuel recommended a series of steps to assist with both climate change mitigation and effective messaging:

  1. Sustain and improve climate science — continue to investigate and report findings.
  2. Improve climate communications for non-experts — tell an easy-to-understand and cohesive story.
  3. Focus on reliability and affordability before mitigation — don’t undertake massive efforts that may disrupt existing energy transmission infrastructure.
  4. Adopt a “graceful” approach to decarbonization — consider impacts as broadly as possible.
  5. Don’t constrain energy supply in the developing world.
  6. Increase focus on developing and delivering alternative responses  — consider the potential ability to scale power generation, and delivery methods like nuclear energy.

Mitigating climate risk requires political will, careful consideration, and an improved technical approach to energy policy, both concluded.

“We have to learn to deal rationally with climate risk in a polarized society,” Koonin offered.

The audience asked both speakers questions about impacts on nonhuman species (“We don’t know but we should,” both shared); nuclear fusion (“There isn’t enough tritium to effectively scale the widespread development of fusion-based energy; perhaps in 30 to 40 years,” Koonin suggested); and the planetary boundaries framework (“There’s good science underway in this space and I’m curious to see where it’s headed,” said Emanuel.) 

“The event was a great success,” said Byrne, afterward. “The audience was engaged, and there was a good mix of faculty and students.”

“One surprising thing,” Skow added, “was both Koonin and Emanuel were down on wind and solar power, [especially since] the idea that we need to transition to both is certainly in the air.”

More conversations

A second speaker series event, held earlier this month, was “Has Feminism Made Progress?” with Mary Harrington, author of “Feminism Against Progress,” and Anne McCants, MIT professor of history. An additional discussion planned for spring 2024 will cover the public health response to Covid-19.

Discussions from the speaker series will appear as special episodes on “The Good Fight,” a podcast hosted by Johns Hopkins University political scientist Yascha Mounk.

The Civil Discourse project is made possible due, in part, to funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and a collaboration between the MIT History Section and Concourse, a program featuring an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach to investigating some of humanity’s most interesting questions.

The Civil Discourse initiative includes two components: the speaker series open to the MIT community, and seminars where students can discuss freedom of expression and develop skills for successfully engaging in civil discourse.


Mon, 20 Nov 2023 12:00:00 -0500

Peer coaching helps graduate students thrive
Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Category : Students

Author : Zach Winn | MIT News

The Graduate Student Coaching Program teaches students the “coaching mindset” to help them reach their personal and professional goals.

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Ever since middle school, when people asked Y. Jenny Wang SM ’15, PhD ’22 what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d say a tenured professor. But during her PhD in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, she started to doubt herself.

“Like a lot of grad students, I came in having bought into the story that I got into MIT, I’m a PhD student, so I should be able to figure out everything on my own,” Wang recalls. “If you can’t figure this out, were you really good enough to get in here?”

Instead of asking for help, Wang would spend hours trying to find answers to every question herself. Eventually she became aware that her PhD was taking longer than average, which fueled her doubts. When the pandemic delayed her research, she worried about falling even further behind.

Then, in the spring of 2020, she got an email about the launch of the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Coaching Program for students. Her first reaction was, “What do I have to lose?”

Over the ensuing coaching sessions, which took place with small groups of peers each week, Wang discovered that many other students were also grappling with doubt and anxiety. She learned to reflect on what she really wanted out of her MIT experience, break her goals into small steps, and accept more support.

“I was not very cognizant or aware of the type of environment I needed to thrive,” Wang says. “The analogy I like to use is we don’t think of a fish as a bad animal because it can’t live on land. It thrives in water. So, it was about finding the environment I needed, and until then I didn’t understand the importance of environment.”

Since those early sessions, the Graduate Coaching Program has helped hundreds of students through group coaching sessions, accountability groups, and summer workshops. It has also expanded to offer its services to graduate students from other departments, with some events open to every graduate student at MIT.

“We’re creating a community through this approach of supporting each other in what we call the coaching mindset,” explains program creator Kelli Hendrickson PhD ’05, who also works as a research engineer at MIT.

Hendrickson draws a distinction between coaching and mentoring or advising. In her view, coaching creates a unique partnership between peer coaches and coachees to find creative solutions that foster personal and professional growth. One way she describes it to mechanical engineers is to think about coaching as collaborative product development, with the student as the product.

“Sometimes there’s a little bit of a lottery you win as a graduate student in terms of getting enough support from people in your immediate bubble,” Hendrickson says. “What the coaching program is trying to do is provide a new way to support students outside of their principal investigators and other people you may normally think of.”

Hendrickson had been thinking about starting a coaching program for years when the pandemic hit. As a former graduate student herself, she saw the unique challenges students struggled with firsthand.

“With everything going virtual, there was definitely a big need,” she recalls. “Coaching seemed like the missing piece in students’ support.

Early sessions made it clear students could benefit from coaching even beyond the pandemic, and the program has continued to grow. Today, cohorts of three to seven graduate students meet in confidential sessions each week to go over coaching skills as well as topics related to their personal and professional goals.

Meetings may have themes around common challenges like prioritization, goal setting, and stress management. Students also often seek help for making transitions in their careers, whether it be switching thesis topics, moving research labs, or beginning their work careers.

“The students really build trust and start to get to know each other through the weekly sessions,” explains Wang, who currently works as a postdoctoral research associate at MIT and is an instructor with the coaching program. “They’ll start the semester learning coaching skills, and they get to practice over facilitated discussions. Then they transition to group peer coaching, where one person brings in a topic that is pertinent to what they’re going through, and then the group acts as the coach to help them explore that topic and ask questions.”

The coaching program also organizes accountability groups for students to discuss their work, reflect, and set new goals in a nonjudgmental and supportive environment. This summer, it hosted a three-day workshop open to all graduate students through support from the Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program (GradEL). The workshop was so well-received that the program’s organizers decided to hold it again in the upcoming Independent Activities Period.

Students report that the approach has helped them become more effective researchers, mentors, collaborators, and labmates to their peers. Some issues students commonly get help with are burnout, imposter syndrome, and dealing with internal pressure or negativity.

“It’s very common at the end of the first session for students to say, ‘I’m so glad I’m not the only one struggling with these things,’” Wang says.

“We spend a lot of time on that word, ‘should,’” Hendrickson adds. “Students say ‘I should be able to do all of these activities, participate in all these groups, do my research, and take this high course load. Somehow not doing all those things is a failure. Perfectionism is something we see a lot.”

Last spring, through a partnership with MIT’s MindHandHeart initiative and a grant from the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund, the coaching program began a workshop series open to all graduate students around topics including defining success and career exploration. The events helped the organizers learn about other departments where MIT graduate students could benefit from their work. They recently opened up the weekly coaching sessions to students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and hope to continue expanding.

“This couldn’t have been possible if students hadn’t come in and trusted us, and if leadership hadn’t bought in,” Hendrickson says. “That was really important.”

With every session, the program not only helps students with their own problems but also equips them with skills to help their peers and make MIT a more supportive place.

“A key thing we hear from people is we help build a sense of community,” Hendrickson says. “Especially if your lab group is small, your living arrangements are small, and also you stop taking classes as you progress in your PhD work. It can feel like you’re on your own for a long time. Trying to find a sense of community that still feels like it’s helping you develop and move forward is a big reason students join the group.”


Mon, 20 Nov 2023 10:15:00 -0500

Gitanjali Rao honored at White House “Girls Leading Change” celebration
Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Category : Awards, honors and fellowships

Author : Sarah Foote | Division of Student Life

First-year MIT student and former Time “Kid of the Year” honored for promoting science and innovation among youth and inspiring them with several inventions.

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MIT first-year student Gitanjali Rao was honored at the first Girls Leading Change celebration held at the White House on Oct. 11, which is also the International Day of the Girl Child.

Fifteen young women were selected by the White House Gender Policy Council for their work as leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, authors, climate change activists, and health care advocates. First Lady Jill Biden recognized the group at the celebration and thanked them for their hard work, achievements, and strides toward making positive change in their communities and across the country.

Rao, from Lone Tree, Colorado, was nominated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for her work promoting science and innovation among youth, locally and globally, and inspiring them with several inventions.

Before the ceremony, honorees had the opportunity to socialize with each other and spent a night bowling in the White House bowling alley. They also toured the White House, and First Lady Biden took them to a flower garden where they picked flowers to make bouquets for the ceremony.

“Dr. Biden was very down-to-earth and very connected to the community. The event was her idea because she wants to see social change happen,” says Rao, adding, “I focus on STEM, and there is an overlap between STEM and climate change, including the contamination of natural resources. Teenage mental health overlaps with gun violence and many other things. We are all interested in the lack of education for women, especially in third-world countries.”

“Right now, I plan to major in biological engineering and minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. MIT was my dream school. In the last few months, I have really grown up living on the campus and in the labs,” says Rao. “My dream is to work on developing solutions to some of the most complex problems in our communities, and possibly someday run a biotech company.”

Rao is no stranger to inventing, conducting research, and undertaking projects to make the world a better place. Among her inventions are “Tethys,” a patented solution that warns of lead levels in drinking water, a service named “Kindly” that uses artificial intelligence and neurolinguistic programming to help stop cyberbullying on social media, and “Epione,” a device for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction.

She is also the author of two books: “A Young Inventor’s Guide to STEM: 5 Steps to Problem Solving for Students, Educators, and Parents,” which is currently available worldwide in five languages, and “A Young Innovators Guide to Planning For Success,” coming out in June 2024.

Before she applied to MIT, Rao spent time on campus conducting research at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, where she worked on a system that would deliver medication to cancerous tumors more quickly. She also did research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“The Koch and Broad institutes are magical places. I loved working there. There are so many smart, dedicated people with a singular aim to solve some of the biggest problems around us,” says Rao.

Her extraordinary accomplishments landed Rao on the cover of Time as its first “Kid of the Year” in 2020, at the age of 15.

Rao is looking forward to exploring MIT even more. She will soon start an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project in the lab of Professor Manolis Kellis at the Broad Institute. After meeting MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer at a conference in Florida, she is inspired to work at a biotech firm next summer.

“Dr. Langer is one of the nicest people I have met, and his constant encouragement means a lot to me. I hope I get to work on some of the groundbreaking work that organizations like Moderna are doing,” says Rao.

In her free time, Rao enjoys playing the piano, and — after recently getting her pilot’s license — flying gliders. She loves music, is a huge Taylor Swift fan, and hopes to join the fencing team.

Of her White House experience, Rao says, “I met incredible women who want to change the world. Everyone is passionate about what they do. They are people I would like to collaborate with in the future.”


Mon, 20 Nov 2023 09:00:00 -0500

Synthetic imagery sets new bar in AI training efficiency
Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Rachel Gordon | MIT CSAIL

MIT CSAIL researchers innovate with synthetic imagery to train AI, paving the way for more efficient and bias-reduced machine learning.

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Data is the new soil, and in this fertile new ground, MIT researchers are planting more than just pixels. By using synthetic images to train machine learning models, a team of scientists recently surpassed results obtained from traditional “real-image” training methods. 

At the core of the approach is a system called StableRep, which doesn't just use any synthetic images; it generates them through ultra-popular text-to-image models like Stable Diffusion. It’s like creating worlds with words. 

So what’s in StableRep's secret sauce? A strategy called “multi-positive contrastive learning.”

“We're teaching the model to learn more about high-level concepts through context and variance, not just feeding it data,” says Lijie Fan, MIT PhD student in electrical engineering, affiliate of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), lead researcher on the work. “When multiple images, all generated from the same text, all treated as depictions of the same underlying thing, the model dives deeper into the concepts behind the images, say the object, not just their pixels.”

This approach considers multiple images spawned from identical text prompts as positive pairs, providing additional information during training, not just adding more diversity but specifying to the vision system which images are alike and which are different. Remarkably, StableRep outshone the prowess of top-tier models trained on real images, such as SimCLR and CLIP, in extensive datasets.

“While StableRep helps mitigate the challenges of data acquisition in machine learning, it also ushers in a stride towards a new era of AI training techniques. The capacity to produce high-caliber, diverse synthetic images on command could help curtail cumbersome expenses and resources,” says Fan. 

The process of data collection has never been straightforward. Back in the 1990s, researchers had to manually capture photographs to assemble datasets for objects and faces. The 2000s saw individuals scouring the internet for data. However, this raw, uncurated data often contained discrepancies when compared to real-world scenarios and reflected societal biases, presenting a distorted view of reality. The task of cleansing datasets through human intervention is not only expensive, but also exceedingly challenging. Imagine, though, if this arduous data collection could be distilled down to something as simple as issuing a command in natural language. 

A pivotal aspect of StableRep’s triumph is the adjustment of the “guidance scale” in the generative model, which ensures a delicate balance between the synthetic images’ diversity and fidelity. When finely tuned, synthetic images used in training these self-supervised models were found to be as effective, if not more so, than real images.

Taking it a step forward, language supervision was added to the mix, creating an enhanced variant: StableRep+. When trained with 20 million synthetic images, StableRep+ not only achieved superior accuracy but also displayed remarkable efficiency compared to CLIP models trained with a staggering 50 million real images.

Yet, the path ahead isn't without its potholes. The researchers candidly address several limitations, including the current slow pace of image generation, semantic mismatches between text prompts and the resultant images, potential amplification of biases, and complexities in image attribution, all of which are imperative to address for future advancements. Another issue is that StableRep requires first training the generative model on large-scale real data. The team acknowledges that starting with real data remains a necessity; however, when you have a good generative model, you can repurpose it for new tasks, like training recognition models and visual representations. 

The team notes that they haven’t gotten around the need to start with real data; it’s just that once you have a good generative model you can repurpose it for new tasks, like training recognition models and visual representations. 

While StableRep offers a good solution by diminishing the dependency on vast real-image collections, it brings to the fore concerns regarding hidden biases within the uncurated data used for these text-to-image models. The choice of text prompts, integral to the image synthesis process, is not entirely free from bias, “indicating the essential role of meticulous text selection or possible human curation,” says Fan. 

“Using the latest text-to-image models, we've gained unprecedented control over image generation, allowing for a diverse range of visuals from a single text input. This surpasses real-world image collection in efficiency and versatility. It proves especially useful in specialized tasks, like balancing image variety in long-tail recognition, presenting a practical supplement to using real images for training,” says Fan. “Our work signifies a step forward in visual learning, towards the goal of offering cost-effective training alternatives while highlighting the need for ongoing improvements in data quality and synthesis.”

“One dream of generative model learning has long been to be able to generate data useful for discriminative model training,” says Google DeepMind researcher and University of Toronto professor of computer science David Fleet, who was not involved in the paper. “While we have seen some signs of life, the dream has been elusive, especially on large-scale complex domains like high-resolution images. This paper provides compelling evidence, for the first time to my knowledge, that the dream is becoming a reality. They show that contrastive learning from massive amounts of synthetic image data can produce representations that outperform those learned from real data at scale, with the potential to improve myriad downstream vision tasks.”

Fan is joined by Yonglong Tian PhD ’22 as lead authors of the paper, as well as MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and CSAIL principal investigator Phillip Isola; Google researcher and OpenAI technical staff member Huiwen Chang; and Google staff research scientist Dilip Krishnan. The team will present StableRep at the 2023 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) in New Orleans.


Mon, 20 Nov 2023 00:00:00 -0500

How do reasonable people disagree?
Posted on Monday November 20, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Peter Dizikes | MIT News

A study by philosopher Kevin Dorst explains how political differences can result from a process of “rational polarization.”

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U.S. politics is heavily polarized. This is often regarded as a product of irrationality: People can be tribal, are influenced by their peers, and often get information from very different, sometimes inaccurate sources.

Tribalism and misinformation are real enough. But what if people are often acting rationally as well, even in the process of arriving at very different views? What if they are not being misled or too emotional, but are thinking logically?

“There can be quite reasonable ways people can be predictably polarized,” says MIT philosopher Kevin Dorst, author of a new paper on the subject, based partly on his own empirical research.

This may especially be the case when people deal with a lot of ambiguity when weighing political and civic issues. Those ambiguities generate political asymmetry. People consider evidence in predictably different ways, leading them to different conclusions. That doesn’t mean they are not thinking logically, though.

“What’s going is people are selectively scrutinizing information,” Dorst says. “That’s effectively why they move in opposite directions, because they scrutinize and selectively look for flaws in different places, and so they get overall different takes.”

The concept of rational polarization may help us develop a more coherent account about how views differ, by helping us avoid thinking that we alone are rational — or, conversely, that we have done no real thinking while arriving at our own opinions. Thus it can add nuance to our assessments of others.

The paper, “Rational Polarization,” appears in The Philosophical Review. Dorst, the sole author, is an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Looking for flaws

To Dorst, rational polarization stands as a useful alternative to other models about belief formation. In particular, rational polarization in his view improves upon one type of model of “Bayesian” thinking, in which people keep using new information to hone their views.

In Bayesian terms, because people use new information to update their views, they will rationally either change their ideas or not, as is warranted. it, But in reality, Dorst asserts, things are not so simple. Often when we assess new evidence, there is ambiguity present — and Dorst contends that it is rational to be unsure about that ambiguity. But this can generate polarization because people’s prior assumptions do influence the places where they find ambiguity.

Suppose a group of people have been given two studies about the death penalty: One study finds the death penalty has no deterrent effect on people’s behavior, and the other study finds it does. Even reading the same evidence, people in the group will likely wind up with different interpretations of it.

“Those who really believe in the deterrent effect will look closely at the study suggesting there is no deterrent effect, be skeptical about it, poke holes in the argument, and claim to recognize flaws in its reasoning,” Dorst says. “Conversely, for the people who disbelieve the deterrent effect, it’s the exact opposite. They find flaws in the study suggesting there is a deterrent effect.”

Even to these seemingly selective readings can be rational, Dorst says: “It makes sense to scrutinize surprising information more than unsurprising information.” Therefore, he adds, “You can see that people who have this tendency to selectively scrutinize [can] drift apart even when they are presented with the same evidence that’s mixed in the same way.”

By the letter

To help show that this habit exists, Dorst also ran an online experiment about ambiguity, with 250 participants on the Prolific online survey platform. The aim was to see how much people’s views might become polarized in the presence of ambiguous information.

The participants were given an incomplete string of letters, as one might find in a crossword puzzle or on “Wheel of Fortune.” Some letter strings were parts of real words, and some were not. Depending on what kinds of additional information participants were given, the ambiguous, unsolvable strings of letters had a sharply polarizing effect on how people reacted to the additional information they received.

This process at work in the experiment, Dorst says, is similar to what happens when people receive uncertain information, in the news or in studies, about political matters.

“When you find a flaw, it gives you clear evidence that undermines the study,” Dorst says. Otherwise, people often tend to be uncertain about the material they see. “When you don’t find a flaw, it [can] give you ambiguous evidence and you don’t know what to make of it. As a result, that can lead to predictable polarization.”

The larger point, Dorst believes, is that we can arrive at a more nuanced and consistent picture of how political differences exist when people process similar information.

“There’s a perception that in politics, rational brains shut off and people think with their guts,” Dorst says. “If you take that seriously, you should say, ‘I form my beliefs on politics in the same ways.’”

Unless, that is, you believe you alone are rational, and everyone else is not — though Dorst finds this to be an untenable view of the world.

“Part of what I’m trying to do is give an account that’s not subject to that sort of instability,” Dorst says. “You don’t necessarily have to point the finger at others. It’s a much more interesting process if you think there’s something [rational] there as well.”


Fri, 17 Nov 2023 16:10:00 -0500

Celebrating diversity and cultural connections
Posted on Friday November 17, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Michael Brindley | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

At a “Heritage Meets Heritage” event, MIT students enjoy conversations, trivia, and delicacies from around the world.

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The aroma of global delicacies filled MIT’s Bush Room, as students made cultural connections and answered trivia questions at the third “Heritage Meets Heritage” event.

The event is organized by MIT Global Languages, and has become a tradition. It was first held in spring 2022, and again that fall. The third event, held Oct. 19, continued in the same theme: celebrating the diversity and culture of the MIT community.

The event is co-sponsored by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and Hermanas Unidas.

Annabel Tiong, a first-year student studying biological engineering, is taking Chinese this semester, and came to meet other students taking Chinese. “But I also wanted to see some of the other languages that are available. I knew a lot of other students from other language classes would be here. So it was a good chance to meet them,” she said.

Tiong is Chinese herself and grew up speaking the language, but she never knew how to read or write Chinese. She’s taking the Chinese streamlined class, and hopes it will help her with communicating in Chinese with her parents over text and email.

While enjoying an empanada, Tiong said the event helped her learn about other cultures. 

“Some of the people at my table are from Korea and they were telling me about Korean traditions. I didn’t realize how similar they were to Chinese traditions. It was great to make those kinds of connections,” she said.

Min-Min Liang, a lecturer in Chinese, says she had no idea how the event would go when she helped launch it in 2022. She saw it as a way to highlight the beauty of diversity among the MIT community.

“My intention back then, as it is now, was to bring everyone together,” she says.

She says that with the tremendous support from the Global Languages department and all instructors from each language group, the third event was a success. “I witnessed our community — teachers and students alike — coming together to celebrate our differences while also recognizing our similarities.”

Students sat in groups at desks throughout the room, and between rounds of trivia questions, they took time to discuss various topics that presented opportunities to share something unique about their respective heritage.

Some of the discussion topics included: 

  • “How is love and appreciation celebrated in your culture?” 
  • “Do you consider yourself biracial? If so, how is this expressed?” 
  • “On what holidays do people give gifts to each other in your culture?” 

At the end of the event, everyone in attendance enjoyed samplings of the food, from pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese rolls) to baklava.

First-year student Nielsen Euvrard says he enjoyed making connections with the other language departments at MIT and with MISTI. And he found the conversations with other students insightful. “The discussion activities were really great for my friends and I to reflect on ourselves and how our cultural backgrounds shape our decisions. And the variety of food was great,” he says.

Brian Carrick, a second-year PhD student in chemical engineering, is taking Portuguese this semester. He isn’t a heritage speaker, but attended the event to learn more about the global experiences of those within the MIT community. “It was so fun to learn about just a few of the cultural celebrations and experiences that other students grew up with. It really puts a bigger picture into perspective,” he says.

Emily Goodling, a German language lecturer, helps to organize the event. She says “Heritage Meets Heritage” reveals a sort of deeper purpose behind the learning and teaching of languages that happens in the Global Studies and Languages Section: that of bringing people together, of creating community across national borders and linguistic barriers. 

“It was incredible to see students from so many different backgrounds in a single room, having meaningful conversations about what it means to participate in multiple cultures,” says Goodling. “I think this mirrors what happens when we learn languages: we grow our ability to communicate empathetically and authentically with people who are different than us. And that is vitally important right now.”

Maria Khotimsky, a senior lecturer in Russian, also helps to organize the event.

“'Heritage Meets Heritage' is a unique event that brings MIT students for meaningful conversations about languages and cultures, and a feast of treats from around the world,” says Khotimsky. “It is also a testament to the camaraderie and the incredible teamwork of Global Languages lecturers and staff who work together to make this event possible."

Khotimsky says Global Languages plans to host the event annually each fall semester.


Fri, 17 Nov 2023 12:00:00 -0500

Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship
Posted on Friday November 17, 2023

Category : Special events and guest speakers

Author : Peter Dizikes | MIT News

An expert panel discussed the strengths, and limits, of the alignment between the two world powers and U.S. rivals.

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What is the nature of the relationship between China and Russia today, and how extensively will the two countries keep cooperating in the future? It is a leading question of international relations.

On Thursday, a public panel discussion at MIT offered some answers, with foreign-policy scholars offering that China and Russia do not really have an “alliance” in a traditional sense, although they maintain a durable alignment based on not merely convenience but also some deeper common interests and perspectives.

“The partnership with Russia is big priority for China despite the fallout for certain foreign policy goals from the war in Ukraine, and that’s because there’s a certain amount of interdependence between China and Russia, shared goals, despite differences in many areas,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, an expert in Chinese foreign policy. “The limits to the partnership have always been apparent, but sometimes I think we underestimate its staying power.”

Those shared goals are apparent for both parties, including from the Russian point of view, as the panelists emphasized.

“Ultimately this certainly is not just a transactional relationship; it’s a relationship that’s been evolving for quite some time,” said Natasha Kuhrt, a scholar specializing in Russian foreign policy and security.

The question of how world powers engage and align themselves is certainly topical, with U.S. President Joe Biden meeting China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Thursday in California, a development that might offer a slight thawing of U.S.-China relations. Among other things, China has remained neutral about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the U.S., the Biden administration has adamantly opposed the invasion.

The event, titled, “A permanent partnership? How Xi and Putin are shaping a turbulent world,” was held online as part of MIT’s Starr Forum series, an ongoing series of public discussions about pressing international matters. The Starr Forum is organized by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS), and Thursday’s event was co-sponsored by MIT’s Security Studies Program and the MISTI MIT-Eurasia program.

Wishnick is currently a senior research scientist in China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, while on leave as a professor of political science at Montclair State University. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy and China-Russian relations, as well as Arctic geopolitics.

Kuhrt is a senior lecturer of international peace and security in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. She focuses on Russian and Eurasian security matters and foreign policy, especially pertaining to Asia.

The event was moderated by Carol Saivetz, a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program and an expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

The speakers noted that China and Russia are certainly linked by, among other things, economic interests. As Wishnick pointed out, China gets 19 percent of its oil and 25 percent of its coal from Russia; with coal accounting for about half of China’s energy consumption, those import levels are very significant. Indeed, while Russia is only China’s 10th-largest trade partner — behind Malaysia — its role as an energy supplier gives it a crucial role in the Chinese economy.

What Russia gets out of the partnership is not just an export destination for fossil fuels, however. A better relationship with China means Russia needs to commit fewer troops to its 2,300-mile border between the countries. In turn, that has freed up more Russian troops for the war in Ukraine.

“We’ve seen also the way in which Moscow deployed a large number of troops from the Russian Far East to the Ukrainian battlefield, and that hardly would have been possible 20-odd years ago,” Kuhrt said. “So, just that fact itself is of great significance.”

Whatever China’s own high-level assessment of Russia’s invasion, China has kept to its neutral public position with regard to the war.

“Clearly China is concerned about what’s happening in Ukraine but happy to project this kind of neutral stance,” Kuhrt said. “They do come together, Russia and China, in their view of the war essentially as being a proxy war, and being a war against western hegemonism. So, while China does profess to be neutral, I think it seems to be clear that they have a very similar view of the kind of underlying causes of this war, despite Chinese concerns about sovereignty.”

She added: “I don’t think it’s an alliance, otherwise China might have come to Russia’s assistance, and I don’t think it will ever be an alliance. The military level of cooperation is not at such a level that we can really call it an alliance relationship.”

And yet, as both scholars noted, the seemingly elusive sense of definition behind the relationship may help both partners in it.

“There is a strategic ambiguity about the partnership that increases its deterrent value even without a full-scale alliance,” Wishnick said. “For China, I would say that Russia is a consequential partner, though a problematic one.”

During a question-and-answer session following the presentations, Saivetz asked the panelists which issues could damage the China-Russia relationship. Wishnick suggested that nuclear security issues were “the main red line” in the partnership, along with China’s territorial integrity; both agreed that Arctic geopolitics could also be a source of tension, among other things.

The scholars were also asked if Xi’s visit to Biden in the U.S. had any bearing on China-Russia relations. They largely concurred that it represented a straightforward matter of China trying to findways to re-engage with the world in order to emerge from its economic doldrums.

“I don’t think that this visit was meant to signal anything to Russia,” Wishnick said. “I think it was, for Xi Jinping it was an opportunity to help revive old economic ties, not just with the U.S. but globally, at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling.”

Still, Xi’s visit might reflect one thing about the China-Russia relationship: the altered size of the countries’ economies. For decades after World War II the U.S. and Russia were the superpowers in the Cold War world, but China’s economic growth has altered that. Now, the U.S. and China have the biggest economies, in that order.

“This is maybe becoming a G2 world, even if they’re not really actually articulating it in that way,” Kuhrt said.


Fri, 17 Nov 2023 11:00:00 -0500

Ingestible electronic device detects breathing depression in patients
Posted on Friday November 17, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Anne Trafton | MIT News

The new sensor measures heart and breathing rate from patients with sleep apnea and could also be used to monitor people at risk of opioid overdose.

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Diagnosing sleep disorders such as sleep apnea usually requires a patient to spend the night in a sleep lab, hooked up to a variety of sensors and monitors. Researchers from MIT, Celero Systems, and West Virginia University hope to make that process less intrusive, using an ingestible capsule they developed that can monitor vital signs from within the patient’s GI tract.

The capsule, which is about the size of a multivitamin, uses an accelerometer to measure the patient’s breathing rate and heart rate. In addition to diagnosing sleep apnea, the device could also be useful for detecting opioid overdoses in people at high risk, the researchers say.

“It’s an exciting intervention to help people be diagnosed and then receive the appropriate treatment if they suffer from obstructive sleep apnea,” says Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The device also has the potential for early detection of changes in respiratory status, whether it’s a result of opiates or other conditions that could be monitored, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).”

In a study of 10 human volunteers, the researchers showed that the capsule can be used to monitor vital signs and to detect sleep apnea episodes, which occur when the patient repeatedly stops and starts breathing during sleep. The patients did not show any adverse effects from the capsule, which passed harmlessly through the digestive tract.

Traverso is one of the senior authors of the study, along with Robert Langer, an MIT Institute Professor and member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research; Victor Finomore, director of the Human Performance and Applied Neuroscience Research Center at the West Virginia University School of Medicine; and Ali Rezai, director of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. The paper appears today in the journal Device.

Vital sign measurements

Over the past decade, Traverso and Langer have developed a range of ingestible sensors that could be used to monitor vital signs and diagnose disorders of the GI tract, such as gastrointestinal slowdown and inflammatory bowel diseases.

This new study focused on measuring vital signs, using a capsule developed by Celero Systems that includes an accelerometer that detects slight movements generated by the beating of the heart and the expansion of the lungs. The capsule also contains two small batteries and a wireless antenna that transmits data to an external device such as a laptop.

In tests in an animal model, the researchers found that this capsule could accurately measure breathing rate and heart rate. In one experiment, they showed that the sensor could detect the depression of breathing rate that resulted from a large dose of fentanyl, an opioid drug.

Building on those results, the researchers decided to further test the capsule in a clinical trial at the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute. Ten patients who enrolled in the study were monitored using the ingestible capsule, and these patients were also connected to the sensors typically used to monitor sleep, so the researchers could compare measurements from both types of sensors.

The researchers found that their ingestible sensor was able to accurately measure both breathing rate and heart rate, and it also detected a sleep apnea episode that one of the patients experienced.

“What we were able to show is that using the capsule, we could capture data that matched what the traditional transdermal sensors would capture,” Traverso says. “We also observed that the capsule could detect apnea, and that was confirmed with standard monitoring systems that are available in the sleep lab.”

In this study, the researchers monitored signals emitted by the capsule while it was in the stomach, but in a previous study, they showed that vital signs can also be measured from other parts of the GI tract.

“The stomach generally offers some of the best signals, mainly because it’s close to the heart and the lungs, but we know that we can also sense them elsewhere,” Traverso says.

None of the patients reported any discomfort or harm from the capsule. Radiographic imaging performed 14 days after the capsules were ingested revealed that all of them had passed through the patients’ bodies. The research team’s previous work has shown that objects of similar size usually move through the digestive tract in a little more than a day.

Close monitoring

The researchers envision that this kind of sensor could be used to diagnose sleep apnea in a less intrusive way than the skin-based sensors that are now used. It could also be used to monitor patients when they begin treatment for apnea, to make sure that the treatments are effective.

Celero Systems, a company founded by Traverso, Langer, Jeremy Ruskin, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Benjamin Pless, now CEO of the company, is now working on sensors that could be used to detect sleep apnea or opioid overdose.

“We know that people who have had an overdose are at higher risk of recurrence, so those individuals could be monitored more closely so that in the event of another overdose, someone could help them,” Traverso says.

In future work, the researchers hope to incorporate an overdose reversal agent such as nalmefene into the device, so that drug release would be triggered when the person’s breathing rate slowed or stopped. They are also working on strategies to lengthen the amount of time that the capsules could remain in the stomach.

The research was funded by the Karl van Tassel Career Professorship, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Celero Systems.

Authors of the paper also include Pless, James Mahoney, Justin Kupec, Robert Stansbury, Daniel Bacher, Shannon Schuetz, and Alison Hayward.


Thu, 16 Nov 2023 14:00:00 -0500

How cell identity is preserved when cells divide
Posted on Thursday November 16, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Anne Trafton | MIT News

MIT study suggests 3D folding of the genome is key to cells’ ability to store and pass on “memories” of which genes they should express.

Read more about this article :

Every cell in the human body contains the same genetic instructions, encoded in its DNA. However, out of about 30,000 genes, each cell expresses only those genes that it needs to become a nerve cell, immune cell, or any of the other hundreds of cell types in the body.

Each cell’s fate is largely determined by chemical modifications to the proteins that decorate its DNA; these modification in turn control which genes get turned on or off. When cells copy their DNA to divide, however, they lose half of these modifications, leaving the question: How do cells maintain the memory of what kind of cell they are supposed to be?

A new MIT study proposes a theoretical model that helps explain how these memories are passed from generation to generation when cells divide. The research team suggests that within each cell’s nucleus, the 3D folding of its genome determines which parts of the genome will be marked by these chemical modifications. After a cell copies its DNA, the marks are partially lost, but the 3D folding allows the cell to easily restore the chemical marks needed to maintain its identity. And each time a cell divides, chemical marks allow a cell to restore its 3D folding of its genome. This way, by juggling the memory between 3D folding and the marks, the memory can be preserved over hundreds of cell divisions.

“A key aspect of how cell types differ is that different genes are turned on or off. It's very difficult to transform one cell type to another because these states are very committed,” says Jeremy Owen PhD ’22, the lead author of the study. “What we have done in this work is develop a simple model that highlights qualitative features of the chemical systems inside cells and how they need to work in order to make memories of gene expression stable.”

Leonid Mirny, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and the Department of Physics, is the senior author of the paper, which appears today in Science. Dino Osmanović, a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Center for the Physics of Living Systems, is also an author of the study.

Maintaining memory

Within the cell nucleus, DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones, forming a densely packed structure known as chromatin. Histones can display a variety of modifications that help control which genes are expressed in a given cell. These modifications generate “epigenetic memory,” which helps a cell to maintain its cell type. However, how this memory is passed on to daughter cells is somewhat of a mystery.

Previous work by Mirny’s lab has shown that the 3D structure of chromosomes is, to a great extent, determined by these epigenetic modifications, or marks. In particular, they found that certain chromatin regions, with marks telling cells not to read a particular segment of DNA, attract each other and form dense clumps called heterochromatin, which are difficult for the cell to access.

In their new study, Mirny and his colleagues wanted to answer the question of how those epigenetic marks are maintained from generation to generation. They developed a computational model of a polymer with a few marked regions, and saw that these marked regions collapse into each other, forming a dense clump. Then they studied how these marks are lost and gained.

When a cell copies its DNA to divide it between two daughter cells, each copy gets about half of the epigenetic marks. The cell then needs to restore the lost marks before the DNA is passed to the daughter cells, and the way chromosomes were folded serves as a blueprint for where these remaining marks should go.

These modifications are added by specialized enzymes known as “reader-writer” enzymes. Each of these enzymes is specific for a certain mark, and once they “read” existing marks, they “write” additional marks at nearby locations. If the chromatin is already folded into a 3D shape, marks will accumulate in regions that already had modifications inherited from the parent cell.

“There are several lines of evidence that suggest that the spreading can happen in 3D, meaning if there are two parts that are near each other in space, even if they're not adjacent along the DNA, then spreading can happen from one to another,” Owen says. “That is how the 3D structure can influence the spreading of these marks.”

This process is analogous to the spread of infectious disease, as the more contacts that a chromatin region has with other regions, the more likely it is to be modified, just as an individual is more likely to become infected as their number of contacts increases. In this analogy, dense regions of marked chromatin are like cities where people have many social interactions, while the rest of the genome is comparable to sparsely populated rural areas.

“That essentially means that the marks will be spreading in the dense region and will be very sparse anywhere outside it,” Mirny says.

The new model also suggests possible parallels between epigenetic memories stored in a folded polymer and memories stored in a neural network, he adds. Folding of marked regions can be thought of as analogous to the strong connections formed between neurons that fire together in a neural network.

“Broadly this suggests that akin to the way neural networks are able to do very complex information processing, the epigenetic memory mechanism we described may be able to process information, not only store it,” he says.

“One beautiful aspect of the work is how it offers and explores connections with ideas from the seemingly very distant corners of science, including spreading of infections (to describe formation of new chemical marks in the 3D vicinity of the existing one), associative memory in model neural networks, and protein folding,” says Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University, who was not involved in the research.

Epigenetic erosion

While this model appeared to offer a good explanation for how epigenetic memory can be maintained, the researchers found that eventually, reader-writer enzyme activity would lead to the entire genome being covered in epigenetic modifications. When they altered the model to make the enzyme weaker, it didn’t cover enough of the genome and memories were lost in a few cell generations.

To get the model to more accurately account for the preservation of epigenetic marks, the researchers added another element: limiting the amount of reader-writer enzyme available. They found that if the amount of enzyme was kept between 0.1 and 1 percent of the number of histones (a percentage based on estimates of the actual abundance of these enzymes), their model cells could accurately maintain their epigenetic memory for up to hundreds of generations, depending on the complexity of the epigenetic pattern.

It is already known that cells begin to lose their epigenetic memory as they age, and the researchers now plan to study whether the process they described in this paper might play a role in epigenetic erosion and loss of cell identity. They also plan to model a disease called progeria, in which cells have a genetic mutation that leads to loss of heterochromatin. People with this disease experience accelerated aging.

“The mechanistic link between these mutations and the epigenetic changes that eventually happen is not well understood,” Owen says. “It would be great to use a model like ours where there are dynamic marks, together with polymer dynamics, to try and explain that.”

The researchers also hope to work with collaborators to experimentally test some of the predictions of their model, which could be done, for example, by altering the level of reader-writer enzymes in living cells and measuring the effect on epigenetic memory.

The research was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.


Thu, 16 Nov 2023 11:30:00 -0500

A new ultrasound patch can measure how full your bladder is
Posted on Thursday November 16, 2023

Category : Research

Author : Anne Trafton | MIT News

The wearable device, designed to monitor bladder and kidney health, could be adapted for earlier diagnosis of cancers deep within the body.

Read more about this article :

MIT researchers have designed a wearable ultrasound monitor, in the form of a patch, that can image organs within the body without the need for an ultrasound operator or application of gel.

In a new study, the researchers showed that their patch can accurately image the bladder and determine how full it is. This could help patients with bladder or kidney disorders more easily track whether these organs are functioning properly, the researchers say.

This approach could also be adapted to monitor other organs within the body by changing the location of the ultrasound array and tuning the frequency of the signal. Such devices could potentially enable earlier detection of cancers that form deep within the body, such as ovarian cancer.

“This technology is versatile and can be used not only on the bladder but any deep tissue of the body. It’s a novel platform that can do identification and characterization of many of the diseases that we carry in our body,” says Canan Dagdeviren, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab and the senior author of the study.

Lin Zhang, an MIT research scientist; Colin Marcus, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; and Dabin Lin, a professor at Xi’an Technological University, are the lead authors of a paper describing the work, which appears today in Nature Electronics.

Wearable monitoring

Dagdeviren’s lab, which specializes in designing flexible, wearable electronic devices, recently developed an ultrasound monitor that can be incorporated into a bra and used to screen for breast cancer. In the new study, the team used a similar approach to develop a wearable patch that can adhere to the skin and take ultrasound images of organs located within the body.

For their first demonstration, the researchers decided to focus on the bladder, partly inspired by Dagdeviren’s younger brother, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer a few years ago. After having one of his kidneys surgically removed, he had difficulty fully emptying his bladder. Dagdeviren wondered if an ultrasound monitor that reveals how full the bladder is might help patients similar to her brother, or people with other types of bladder or kidney problems.

“Millions of people are suffering from bladder dysfunction and related diseases, and not surprisingly, bladder volume monitoring is an effective way to assess your kidney health and wellness,” she says.

Currently, the only way to measure bladder volume is using a traditional, bulky ultrasound probe, which requires going to a medical facility. Dagdeviren and her colleagues wanted to develop a wearable alternative that patients could use at home.

To achieve that, they created a flexible patch made of silicone rubber, embedded with five ultrasound arrays made from a new piezoelectric material that the researchers developed for this device. The arrays are positioned in the shape of a cross, which allows the patch to image the entire bladder, which is about 12 by 8 centimeters when full.

The polymer that makes up the patch is naturally sticky and adheres gently to the skin, making it easy to attach and detach. Once placed on the skin, underwear or leggings can help to hold it in place.

Bladder volume

In a study performed with collaborators at the Center for Ultrasound Research and Translation and Department of Radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, the researchers showed that the new patch could capture images comparable to those taken with a traditional ultrasound probe, and these images could be used to track changes in bladder volume.

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 patients with a range of body mass indexes. Subjects were first imaged with a full bladder, then with a partially empty bladder, and then with a completely empty bladder. The images obtained from the new patch were similar in quality to those taken with traditional ultrasound, and the ultrasound arrays worked on all subjects regardless of their body mass index.

Using this patch, no ultrasound gel is needed, and no pressure needs to be applied, as with a regular ultrasound probe, because the field of view is large enough to encompass the entire bladder.

To see the images, the researchers connected their ultrasound arrays to the same kind of ultrasound machine used in medical imaging centers. However, the MIT team is now working on a portable device, about the size of a smartphone, that could be used to view the images.

“In this work, we have further developed a path toward clinical translation of conformable ultrasonic biosensors that yield valuable information about vital physiologic parameters. Our group hopes to build on this and develop a suite of devices that will ultimately bridge the information gap between clinicians and patients,” says Anthony E. Samir, director of the MGH Center for Ultrasound Research and Translation and Associate Chair of Imaging Sciences at MGH Radiology, who is also an author of the study.

The MIT team also hopes to develop ultrasound devices that could be used to image other organs within the body, such as the pancreas, liver, or ovaries. Based on the location and depth of each organ, the researchers need to alter the frequency of the ultrasound signal, which requires designing new piezoelectric materials. For some of these organs, located deep within the body, the device may work better as an implant rather than a wearable patch.

“For whatever organ that we need to visualize, we go back to the first step, select the right materials, come up with the right device design and then fabricate everything accordingly,” before testing the device and performing clinical trials, Dagdeviren says.

“This work could develop into a central area of focus in ultrasound research, motivate a new approach to future medical device designs, and lay the groundwork for many more fruitful collaborations between materials scientists, electrical engineers, and biomedical researchers,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and an author of the paper.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER award, a 3M Non-Tenured Faculty Award, the Sagol Weizmann-MIT Bridge Program, Texas Instruments Inc., the MIT Media Lab Consortium, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and an ARRS Scholar Award.



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