Professor Emeritus Ulrich Becker, who made major contributions to particle physics, dies at 81

Ulrich J. Becker, a professor emeritus in the Department of Physics, passed away on March 10 at age 81, after a long struggle with cancer.

Becker became emeritus in 2011 after 42 years with MIT, but he never really retired; he continued to mentor students in his fourth-floor Grad Lab until shortly before he died.

Known to many as Uncle Bravo, Becker used his engineering talents and endless curiosity to discover elementary particles in his pursuit of the secrets of the universe. Becker’s career in experimental high-energy physics included key contributions to the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the J particle. He was also a major contributor to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) on the International Space Station, the advancement of international collaborations in high-energy physics, and other instruments and discoveries that impacted high-energy physics research.

“Ulrich Becker was a gifted physicist who made major contributions to particle physics,” says Samuel C.C. Ting, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Institute Professor of Physics at MIT. “Over more than half a century of collaboration, I found him to be an exceptional physicist not only in the invention of precision instruments but, most importantly, in that he had good taste in physics.”

Early life

Ulrich Becker was born in Dortmund, Germany, on Dec. 17, 1938. On that day, nuclear fission was discovered in Berlin. Just a few months before, Germany reissued to its Jewish citizens passports stamped with the red letter “J,” and launched the Kristallnacht pogrom.

During World War II, Becker, with his brother Peter and parents Auguste (Bühner) and Georg Becker, took shelter in the basement of their apartment building while bombs fell overhead. 

After the war, his father ran a laboratory supply business in Dortmund and would send the teenage Ulrich on deliveries. “He learned a lot of dirty secrets of industry like planned obsolescence,” says his daughter, Katharina Becker, and that left him disillusioned. He tried his hand as a coal miner, a steelworker, and an electrician, but he was also good at math and science.

“He started thinking about why would something as awful as World War II happen, and why so many were killed, and the inequity of it all — why did it have to be that terrible?” says his daugher, Katharina Becker. “In the end it was an existential question: Why would God let war happen?” Raised as a Lutheran, Becker decided that if he studied physics, he might be able to ask God a few of these questions.

After graduating from the University of Marburg, Becker pursued his PhD at the University of Hamburg, focusing on the photo-production and leptonic decays of vector mesons. He was able to show that all vector-mesons behave like heavy photons, that they displayed diffraction and converted back to virtual photons.

The Nobel pursuit

In 1964, physicists proposed the concept of the subatomic particles known as quarks. These fundamental particles and corresponding antiparticles bind together to form other particles, like protons and neutrons. There were three types of quarks — up, down, and strange — while the proposed fourth, the charm quark, remained a theory.

Samuel Ting was leading an experiment at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) Laboratory in Hamburg, Germany when he met doctoral candidate Becker in fall 1965. The group was using the 6 billion electron volt synchrotron light to measure the size of the electron. Ting decided to sponsor Becker’s research, so he joined the group. “He made important contributions to the data analysis of this experiment,” recalled Ting.

It was a complementary match: Becker was a dogged researcher, and Ting was a master in organization and politics.

They presented their results at the XIIIth International Conference on High Energy Physics at Berkeley in 1966. The results showed that electrons have no measurable size, which contradicted earlier results from both the Cambridge Electron Accelerator and Cornell University. 

Becker then completed his PhD under mentor Peter Stähelin, founder of DESY and co-founder of CERN, and remained at DESY to study the photoproduction and leptonic decays of vector mesons. 

In 1970, Becker joined the MIT faculty, counting among his mentors Victor Weisskopf and Martin Deutsch, and was promoted to associate professor in 1973, and full professor in 1977. The following year he joined the team of Glenn Everhart, Terry Rhoades, and Min Chen at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) to design a precision spectrometer. “He developed high-precision, radiation-resistant proportional chambers which operated at a very low voltage in order to function smoothly in a high radiation environment at rates of 20 MHz,” says Ting.

Ting’s group used the spectrometer in their experiment, smashing protons into a fixed target of beryllium to produce heavy particles that would then decay into electrons and positrons. They were hoping to find heavy particles. Instead, they produced an unexpected curve in the data.

Becker and Ting worked day and night to process the data, to figure out what they had actually found: A heavy particle with a lifetime that was about a thousand times longer than predicted.

“We had no idea why the hell this was,” Becker said in a 2014 MIT Technology Review interview. “We were highly suspicious of it, but since it was so clear cut, there was very little room for doubt.”

Becker recalled that the announcement of what they found had been delayed, due to budget and disbelief. “Brookhaven couldn’t pay their electric bill, and I had to ask Martin Deutsch for $30,000 so they could pay the bill. He flatly refused. And then he said I had to give a seminar, so I gave a seminar in October 1974, and we had the data that showed the peak at 3.1 GeV.”  

Becker’s first round of findings was in September to early October, but “it wasn’t something we had been expecting,” Becker recalled. They were confirmed later that October, and Becker pasted one of the graphs on top of another. (Becker held onto this graph, and later, when he moved into his Grad Lab, he hung these breakthrough results on his display case.) 

“Ulrich showed up at the Center for Theoretical Physics excited, in his Germanic way, with two graphs: one with a sharp peak and the other with a broad one,” recalls Robert L. Jaffe, Morningstar Professor of Physics and MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT. “He was explaining that one graph showed their data on electron-positron-pair production at BNL and the other showed the pair-autocorrelation function. I, of course, assumed that the sharp peak was the autocorrelation function and the broad, relatively uninteresting one was the enhancement in the electron-positron mass distribution. It took a few minutes for me to figure out that the situation was the reverse and that the electron-positron pair enhancement was narrower than the experimental resolution. Ulrich smiled broadly. My jaw dropped and the world was never quite the same!”

Meanwhile, Burton Richter ’52, PhD ’56, was reviewing measurements of collisions of electrons and positrons at Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory’s particle collider when he too found something surprising: a heavy particle with an unusually long lifetime.  

Ting flew to Stanford that November and ran into Richter. After discussing their results, they quickly organized a lab seminar, presented their results on Nov. 11, 1974, and published their findings, separately, in the same issue of Physical Review Letters.

In early 1975, Becker went to Germany for a talk about their result. He recalled to Technology Review that theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg interrupted his talk to comment, “Whenever they don’t know what it is, they invent a new quark.” To which Becker replied, “Look, Professor Heisenberg, I’m not arguing whether this is charm or not charm. I’m telling you it’s a particle which doesn’t go away.’ Dead silence. It got very cold in the room. Then Heisenberg said, ‘Accepted.’”

What followed were rapid changes in high-energy physics, which became known as the “November Revolution.” Physicists decided that the J/Ψ consisted of one charm quark and one anti-charm quark. It also created structure and predictability for fundamental particles, which physicists dubbed the Standard Model.

Ting’s group called the new particle “J,” which is one letter away from “K,” the name of the “strange” meson; “J” also resembles the Chinese character for Ting’s name. Richter’s group called it “Ψ” (psi).

The discovery led to Ting and Richter sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1976. According to Nobel rules, only three people at most can win for any single discovery, and if Ting’s colleagues at MIT had tried to nominate a collaborator from the Ting team, then Richter’s colleagues at Stanford would have wanted to nominate a colleague from their team.

“If only one of the groups — MIT — discovered it, I am convinced Becker would have been included in the Nobel Prize for it,” says Wit Busza, Francis Friedman Professor of Physics Emeritus and MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT, who had worked with Ting’s team alongside Becker in Hamburg.

When asked recently about missing out on the Nobel Prize, Becker just shrugged. “That’s what happens.” 

In the late 1970s, one of Becker’s chambers that he had designed for the J particle experiment was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution.   

His passion for discovery led him to build detectors and run other experiments at DESY, Brookhaven, MIT, and CERN. “He just wanted to get to the bottom of things,” says his daughter.

“He was not in the limelight, he was very modest,” says Boleslaw Wyslouch, director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. “He had a deep knowledge of particle physics, having contributed himself to some of the most important discoveries. His main contribution was to build the detectors that worked extremely well in experiments that led to major discoveries.”

Getting the drift

Becker developed several other major instruments widely used in experimental particle physics, and that were the catalyst for many major discoveries. 

His large-area drift chamber would provide large acceptance coverage for experiments, and his drift tubes enabled physicists to measure particles near the interaction point. Those developments led to Becker to design and build the huge muon detectors for the MARK-J experiment at DESY, which resulted in the discovery of the three-jet pattern from gluon production.

This led to his leading hundreds of colleagues in designing the muon detector, one of three main outer layers of the L3 detector, one of four large detectors on the Large Electron-Positron collider (LEP), at CERN, to study the electro-weak interference. The outer layer of the L3 detector held a magnet that generated a field 10,000 times stronger than the average field on the Earth’s surface. L3 started data taking in 1989 and stopped in 2000, to be replaced by the Large Hadron Collider. “The results from L3 provided accurate confirmation of the Standard Model,” says Ting. 

He also made important contributions to advancing international collaboration in high-energy physics.  

“The readiness of Professor Becker to help in training our colleagues, his deep understanding of the Mark-J experiment and his superb teaching skills deserves our highest recognition,” says Manuel Aguilar of the Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology. “His friendly approach, his behavior and deep understanding of physics, made all of us to feel very comfortable, and that is something we did most appreciate and will never forget.”

In 1978, Becker went to China to select 18 young physicists to work with the MIT group. This was the first group of young Chinese physics students to work outside China after the Cultural Revolution. Many of them went on to lead the Chinese high-energy physics research program and launch an international collaboration.

“Professor Becker was an old friend of Chinese high-energy physicists,” says Institute of High Energy Physics Physicist Hesheng Chen PhD ’84, who was mentored by Becker for 40 years. “He taught and advised many Chinese physicists to do the Mark-J experiment and the L3 experiment.”

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

Becker also worked with professor of physics and department head Peter Fisher, and MIT Electromagnetic Interactions Group senior research scientists Joseph Burger and Michael Capell, among others on building an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). This was another Ting project, which aimed to record the tracks of millions of cosmic ray particles, the debris released by explosions in distant stars. 

The idea for the AMS was born while Becker and Ting were on a coffee break while working on the L3. “We sat in Building 44 and thought, ‘How can we prove or disprove the prejudice that there is only matter?’ One anti-carbon nucleus could change our whole perception of the universe,” Becker said to MIT News. The idea was to search for anti-matter, but because anti-matter is destroyed in Earth’s atmosphere, the research would need to be done in space. 

“I had this dream to build an experiment that would have fewer than 100 collaborators and could fit on a table,” Becker told Nature. NASA greenlighted the project, but it ballooned to 500 scientists from 56 institutions, and would need a vastly larger table. Its 0.86-tesla magnetic field is 17,000 times bigger than Earth’s. “Sam Ting doesn’t like to do small things,” said Becker.

The first AMS cosmic ray detector flew in the STS-91 shuttle payload in June 1998 and gathered about 100 hours of data. The first large magnet experiment ever placed in the Earth’s orbit, the AMS’s instrumentation allowed researchers to measure higher-energy particles with greater accuracy. Becker was alternately excited and mystified by the results: 100 million particles were detected with four times as many positrons as electrons showing up near the Earth’s magnetic equator. But not a  single anti-carbon nucleus was found.

Becker then went on to help design the transition radiation detector for Ting’s AMS-02, which sought to conduct a more extensive search for rare cosmic ray particles while mounted on the International Space Station in May 2011. In March 2013, Ting reported initial results, saying that AMS had observed over 400,000 positrons. By March 2020, AMS had collected over 155 billion cosmic ray events. 

Becker never did set up his own research group, choosing instead to spend nearly his entire career collaborating with Ting. “They had an incredible, very complementary interaction,” says Busza. “Ting is brilliant when it comes to judgment, organization, political skills, and obtaining funding. While Becker is brilliant in the design and building of experiments, in instrumentation and analysis of data. As a result of both of those people, their research program has been extraordinarily successful.”

In 2002, Becker received a NASA Recognition Letter for “Success in the First AMS Flight” and in 2006 was named a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Says Ting, “Professor Ulrich Becker was a person of integrity and a good friend.” Adds Busza, “For Ulrich, physics was an essential part of life.”

A mentor to many

Becker was a mentor to many talented physicists, including thesis advisor to MIT’s Wyslouch, Capell, and Joseph A. Paradiso, and Reyco Henning from the University of North Carolina. “Ulrich was a mentor of mine, and to many of us,” notes Peter Fisher.

“He was extremely friendly but also very stern,” says Wyslouch. “I would have never called him by his first name. I think once I called him Ulrich, and it just didn’t work. Professor Becker exuded authority.” Wyslouch recalled trying to score “some brownie points” with his professor by spending weekends repairing a 1974 Datsun. “He really appreciated students who liked to build things and use their hands.” 

Wyslouch had also worked with Becker for 10 years in Ting’s group. “He just knew everything, he had this approach to things, to check things very quickly, calculate things very quickly, we were always in awe of his knowledge and his experience,” he says. “He was a very good manager of people.”

Former student Teresa Fazio ’02 recalls his patience. “I can hear him saying, ‘Och, Teresa. This is not good,’ when I had written particularly boneheaded or incorrect things in my thesis. When someone reported an experiment had failed or equipment didn’t work or something from Aachen or CERN was late, his typical response was, “Oh, well… Next?” Considering some of the things that went wrong, he remained remarkably chill.” She also recalled him adjourning his Friday afternoon journal club every week by saying, “So, we go for beer?”

Students recalled that his idea of lab shoes were Birkenstocks and socks, and memorably, the time he fed a stray dog that turned out to be a coyote. Students also joined him in kayaking trips and were invited to his house for pizza and his wife Gerda’s rhubarb tarts.  

In 2013 Becker transitioned to emeritus status, but despite his battle with blood clots and prostate cancer, he came in every day to mentor students in his meticulously created fourth-floor Grad Lab that held many abandoned experiments and broken equipment, which he had rescued for repair and demonstration. At the age of 81, he even learned Python.

The Department of Physics recently held an informal ceremony where Becker officially handed over the keys to his lab. “After that, he got sick,” recalls his daughter.

Ulrich Becker is survived by his wife Gerda (Barthel), children Katharina, Peter, and Robert, and grandchildren Jarin and Hannah.

The physics department will host a memorial service at a date to be announced. The family has requested that donations in his memory may be made to the American Cancer Society.

The MIT Press offers e-resources during the Covid-19 pandemic

To address the increased need for digital content and distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, the MIT Press is rapidly expanding access to a variety of free content. From making select books freely available on their open-source platform to granting libraries complimentary access to its institutional e-book platform, the press will continue to bring content to readers in a variety of formats.

“The full staff is now working remotely and will continue to do so for as long as necessary,” says Amy Brand, director of the MIT Press. “Despite this transition, all essential activities and operations remain intact. We will continue to consider proposals for new books by qualified authors in a wide range of subject areas and will work tirelessly to launch and promote publishing efforts for our current authors through a wide variety of marketing and media channels. During these uncertain times, the MIT Press remains committed to its mission of disseminating scholarly ideas for the broadest possible audience.”

As the current crisis unfolds, teams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London are hard at work at finding creative solutions to share words and ideas with readers across the globe. The following free e-resources have been made available to help those who are working and studying remotely.

Articles on pandemics and other relevant topics

A collection of articles from the MIT Press archives offers valuable information on pandemics to help inform and educate at this critical time.

In addition, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University has put together a Crisis Reader on Biosecurity and the Global Covid-19 Outbreak, a collection of articles from the journal International Security, that is also free on mitpressjournals.org. 

Freely available MIT Press books

In response to the increased need for digital content and distance learning, the MIT Press has made a selection of books on pandemics, epidemiology, and related topics freely available for the foreseeable future on its PubPub platform.

The MIT Press Reader

The MIT Press Reader will continue to publish articles related to the Covid-19 crisis, providing insightful commentary for as long as necessary.

Currently, these include everything from a sweeping history of pandemics — with a few words on our current crisis — by renowned scientist Vaclav Smil, to a powerful argument for employing smartphone location data to stop the spread of the virus.

Virtual author talk series

MIT Press Live! is a weekly virtual author talk series aimed at building vibrant online communities. These online events will feature experts from around the world offering enlightening and timely takes on important topics.

Events will take place Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time and are free and open to the public.

Complimentary access to MIT Press Direct for libraries

Complimentary access to the e-book platform MIT Press Direct will be granted to libraries through the end of May 2020.

The press is also partnering with ProQuest, EBSCO, Project MUSE, and University Press Scholarship Online to expand access to MIT Press e-books on those platforms.

Access to e-textbooks for faculty and students

The MIT Press is supporting instructors and students with free e-textbook access codes through The MIT Press eTextbook site for the rest of the semester. Please contact the press to request an access code for a particular course.

The MIT Press will continue to provide updates on its dedicated blog as well.  

Katie Collins, Vaishnavi Phadnis, and Vaibhavi Shah named 2020-21 Goldwater Scholars

MIT students Katie Collins, Vaishnavi Phadnis, and Vaibhavi Shah have  been selected to receive a Barry Goldwater Scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year. Over 5,000 college students from across the United States were nominated for the scholarships, from which only 396 recipients were selected based on academic merit. 

The Goldwater scholarships have been conferred since 1989 by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. These scholarships have supported undergraduates who go on to become leading scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in their respective fields. All of the 2020-21 Goldwater Scholars intend to obtain a doctorate in their area of research, including the three MIT recipients. 

Katie Collins, a third-year majoring in brain and cognitive sciences with minors in computer science and biomedical engineering, got involved with research in high school, when she worked on computational models of metabolic networks and synthetic gene networks in the lab of Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Timothy Lu at MIT. It was this project that led her to realize how challenging it is to model and analyze complex biological networks. She also learned that machine learning can provide a path for exploring these networks and understanding human diseases. This realization has coursed a scientific path for Collins that is equally steeped in computer science and human biology.

Over the past few years, Collins has become increasingly interested in the human brain, particularly what machine learning can learn from human common-sense reasoning and the way brains process sparse, noisy data. “I aim to develop novel computational algorithms to analyze complex, high-dimensional data in biomedicine, as well as advance modelling paradigms to improve our understanding of human cognition,” explains Collins. In his letter of recommendation, Professor Tomaso Poggio, the Eugene McDermott Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of Collins’ mentors, wrote, “It is very difficult to imagine a better candidate for the Goldwater fellowship.” Collins plans to pursue a PhD studying machine learning or computational neuroscience and to one day run her own lab. “I hope to become a professor, leading a research program at the interface of computer science and cognitive neuroscience.”

Vaishnavi Phadnis, a second-year majoring in computer science and molecular biology, sees molecular and cellular biology as the bridge between chemistry and life, and she’s been enthralled with understanding that bridge since 7th grade, when she learned about the chemical basis of the cell. Phadnis spent two years working in a cancer research lab while still in high school, an experience which convinced her that research was not just her passion but also her future. “In my first week at MIT, I approached Professor Robert Weinberg, and I’ve been grateful to do research in his lab ever since,” she says. 

“Vaishnavi’s exuberance makes her a joy to have in the lab,” wrote Weinberg, who is the Daniel Ludwig Professor in the Department of Biology. Phadnis is investigating ferroptosis, a recently discovered, iron-dependent form of cell death that may be relevant in neurodegeneration and also a potential strategy for targeting highly aggressive cancer cells. “She is a phenomenon who has vastly exceeded our expectations of the powers of someone her age,” Weinberg says. Phadnis is thankful to Weinberg and all the scientific mentors, both past and present, that have inspired her along her research path. Deciphering the mechanisms behind fundamental cellular processes and exploring their application in human diseases is something Phadnis plans to continue doing in her future as a physician-scientist after pursuing an MD/PhD. “I hope to devote most of my time to leading my own research group, while also practicing medicine,” she says. 

Vaibhavi Shah, a third-year studying biological engineering with a minor in science, technology and society, spent a lot of time in high school theorizing ways to tackle major shortcomings in medicine and science with the help of technology. “When I came to college, I was able to bring some of these ideas to fruition,” she says, working with both the Big Data in Radiology Group at the University of California at San Francisco and the lab of Professor Mriganka Sur, the Newton Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. 

Shah is particularly interested in integrating innovative research findings with traditional clinical practices. According to her, technology, like computer vision algorithms, can be adopted to diagnose diseases such as Alzheimer’s, allowing patients to start appropriate treatments earlier. “This is often harder to do at smaller, rural institutions that may not always have a specialist present,” says Shah, and algorithms can help fill that gap. One of aims of Shah’s research is to improve the efficiency and equitability of physician decision-making. “My ultimate goal is to improve patient outcomes, and I aim to do this by tackling emerging scientific questions in machine learning and artificial intelligence at the forefront of neurology,” she says. The clinic is a place Shah expects to be in the future after obtaining her physician-scientist training, saying, “I hope to a practicing neurosurgeon and clinical investigator.”

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Senator Barry Goldwater, a soldier and statesman who served the country for 56 years. Awardees receive scholarships of up to $7,500 a year to cover costs related to tuition, room and board, fees, and books.

In virtual town hall, MIT leadership updates community on Covid-19 responses

As the MIT community adjusts to this unique period of separation and disruption, the Institute’s top leaders held an online “town hall” on Tuesday to answer some of the most frequent questions being asked by students, faculty, and staff. Roughly 7,000 members of the MIT community tuned in live for an update on adjustments and activities underway now, and on planning for the coming summer and fall, given the uncertainties as to how the Covid-19 pandemic may unfold.

“These past few weeks have demonstrated that we are all incredibly interdependent,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We need each other, yet we do not always know what’s happening in other parts of MIT, so this town hall attempts to allow every one of us, students, staff, postdocs, faculty, to learn what others elsewhere at MIT are dealing with in this difficult time.”

Over the course of an hour, MIT’s leaders described the impact of the campus shutdown on students’ lives and finances; on staff members, including those who can carry on their duties from home and those who cannot; on faculty scrambling to translate their classroom teaching to an online form; on the Institute’s finances of the Institute; on the physical and mental health of community members; and more.

“Covid-19 is challenging all of us,” Reif said. “In that global experience, in the disruption and uncertainty, we are all united.” And yet, he pointed out, the impacts are far greater and more personal for some than others — medically, financially, academically, and emotionally. “More than ever we must make time to imagine and to ask about each other’s burdens.”

Reif pointed out that “for absolutely every one of us, the scale and intensity of this problem are new. We are all learning. We need to encourage each other, be patient with each other, so that in the end we will remember this experience not only as a time of disruption and difficulty, but of human connection and open-hearted kindness.”

Medical impacts

“We are adjusting to our new remote work environment, and that’s a really unusual thing for those of us who are used to seeing patients face-to-face in an exam room,” said Cecilia Stuopis, director of MIT Medical. Despite the challenges, “it’s been incredibly rewarding to see the dedication of the MIT Medical staff,” she said.

MIT is keeping track of members of the MIT community who have voluntarily informed the Institute that they have tested positive for Covid-19, she said. As of Tuesday, there are 17 members of the community in New England who have reported positive tests, and five more outside the region, but there could be others that have not been reported.

She said that the number of cases, both at MIT and the community at large, is expected to rise over the coming weeks. We are now in the phase of the pandemic known as widespread community transmission, Stuopis said, and she and her staff are closely monitoring the unfolding situation. Hospitalizations in Massachusetts are expected to peak around April 18.

Stuopis stressed the importance of continuing the recommended measures: frequent handwashing, wiping down high-touch surfaces including phones, and trying not to touch your face. She reiterated the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s advice to wear face coverings in public spaces, and noted that, above all, “social distancing remains the best way to slow the spread of this illness and to reduce the strain on our health care system.”

Transforming teaching and learning

The decision in early March to have all students leave the campus with little notice “was not an easy one, to say the least,” said Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. But there was little choice, she explained. “We knew that we had to protect the life and health of our community.” An analysis of the situation in the dormitories revealed that they posed risks similar to those of cruise ships, with many people confined to a relatively small space. “So, we decided our top priority was to get our students out of harm’s way,” she said.

To ease that process, MIT offered support including travel reimbursements and moving and storage services, and a process to make exceptions for those who had no other options. And although graduate students’ housing situations are more apartment-like, they were also strongly encouraged to leave, and offered similar support.

Barnhart added that “I have seen firsthand staff who have been working exceptionally long hours often under very difficult conditions. … I’m deeply indebted and grateful for the positive difference they’ve made, and continue to make.”

Suzy Nelson, vice president for student life, said that in less than five days about 4,000 undergraduates packed up and moved, and a week later about 1,000 graduate students also left. Right now, about 220 undergraduate students remain on campus, and about 1,500 graduate students. Meanwhile, making use of some of the newly vacant housing, MIT is providing accommodations for Cambridge and MIT essential personnel.

Nelson pointed to some creative programs being implemented to help out with the situation, including one that has recruited 600 “student success coaches” to check in with students and help them out with any issues they have in adjusting to this new pattern of distance learning.

“If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, please remember that we’re here for you and just reach out,” she said, “because we want to send you some support and some MIT love.”

Though the transition to total online learning has been abrupt and unanticipated, Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning, said “in many ways we’ve been preparing for this for a couple of decades now.” Because of MIT’s pioneering efforts through projects such as OpenCourseWare and the highly successful MITx platform, the Institute was especially well-prepared to make this kind of shift.

He said that in the last couple of weeks, “MIT has mobilized in a way that is unprecedented.” Professors are now teaching from home, using “whatever it takes” to convey their material. Over 1,000 courses are now entirely online, he said. New servers have been quickly set up to handle the new online loads. A new help desk has been set up to work with faculty as they set up new platforms for their teaching.

As professors teach from home, Sarma said, “you might hear a dog in the background, you might have a child walk by, but you know the fact is, we’re just carrying on, because that’s what we do.” But, he added, “there’s a very special magic on campus, and for everything we do, it’s going to be very hard to recreate this magic online. We will do what we can, but it’s just not the same. Hogwarts would not be the same without the wizards.”

Addressing a question about the rigor and integrity of online education, faculty chair Rick Danheiser said that though developing online versions of classes in just two weeks has been no easy task, faculty and staff have risen to the challenge. While some courses already had online components, “for some subjects, a daunting amount of work was necessary.”

He said that “our overriding aim is for students to emerge from this novel and difficult semester equipped with the essential knowledge and tools they would have acquired in a normal spring term.” One week into the new online mode of teaching, “I’ve been very impressed by the creativity and rigor of the offerings that our instructors have developed to meet this extraordinary challenge,” he said.

Because of the emergency situation, MIT has adopted an alternate grading system for all subjects this semester: Pass or No Record. This decision was reached after extensive consultation, and many other institutions have since followed that lead, Danheiser said, noting that graduate and professional schools have issued statements that students will not be disadvantaged in the application process because of this emergency grading system.

Financial impacts

Provost Martin Schmidt addressed concerns about student financial aid and the overall impact on MIT of the unfolding financial crisis accompanying the pandemic. He said that as in the financial crisis of 2008, there will be an impact on the Institute’s endowment, the proceeds from which fund about a third of MIT’s budget. But there are also two important differences from 2008, he said: “first, the significant costs we’ve incurred in the immediate response to the crisis, and second, the uncertainty about when we can return to campus.”

The extra expenses — including information technology-related costs for moving everything online, funds for impacted workers in areas like child care and dining, and reimbursement of student housing and dining fees — are expected to be in the tens of millions.

Any reduced level of operations that continues through the summer and into the fall could also have a significant impact on finances, affecting both tuition receipts and research funding, he said.

As far as research, he said, “we’ve encouraged our community to focus their efforts on work that can be done remotely, but regrettably, we’ve had to significantly curtail our on-campus research,” while prioritizing any research that might have an impact on the pandemic. He added that MIT will work as hard as possible to use its resources to preserve jobs at a time when so many people are losing theirs. In preparing a revised budget for next year, MIT will endeavor to eliminate any need for layoffs, he said.

He said that MIT is looking at various scenarios about how and when to restore the campus to teaching and research: “It’s going to require substantial work to figure out how best to begin to return to campus while maintaining the health and safety of our community.” He said that rather than cancelling this semester and refunding tuition, MIT felt it was important to allow seniors to graduate on time, and for other students to maintain their progress, even if it meant a different kind of experience for this term.

Working at home

“We didn’t have a lot of time to adjust” to this new working situation in which most of MIT’s almost 17,000 staff members and postdocs are either working from home, or not working at all because their jobs require their physical presence in areas that are no longer open, said Ramona Allen, MIT’s director of human resources. For those whose jobs can’t be done remotely, such as custodians, dining workers, and lab assistants, both hourly and salaried, MIT has made a commitment to continuing to pay their full wages and benefits as long as possible, she said.

“People have a lot of worries right now,” she said. “We don’t want them to have to worry about their paycheck too.”

She added that “work isn’t just about work. It’s about relationships, collaboration, and friendships, and I think we’re all missing that right now. Personal connection is very important, as we’re all learning. We’re exploring new ways to stay engaged,” including options such as Zoom parties and social gatherings. They’ve also added increased options for staff and postdocs through My Life Services, which provides advice and support.

Research continues

“All research that can be done off campus is being done off campus,” said Maria Zuber, vice president for research. For research that is continuing on campus, special distancing rules have been implemented.

Zuber explained that continuing research includes long-term projects whose data would have been seriously compromised by an interruption; doctoral thesis work or postdoc research projects nearing completion; work needed to maintain critical equipment, samples, and animal populations; and, of course, work that directly relates to the Covid-19 pandemic and has a timeline for completion that means it could address the current crisis.

There are about 50 such short- or long-term projects relating to the pandemic, she said. Those include students from all five schools, including low-cost test development using CRISPR, various approaches to vaccine development, a collaboration to deliver trusted information on social media, and a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app that maintains privacy.

As for the research that has been curtailed for now, she said, “our goal is for that research to resume as soon as it is safe to do so. … I can tell you that there is not going to be a single date when everyone will have the green light to reopen their labs,” Zuber said. Instead, her office and others are developing an approach to ramping up the density of on-campus research in a way that maintains a low-risk profile for both MIT and the surrounding community.

Looking ahead

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz addressed the looming question of when MIT’s campus would be able to fully reopen. Because the situation is evolving so rapidly, he said, some decisions will be delayed until more information is known about the progression of the pandemic and of measures against the disease.

“What we do know is that there’s a good chance that many of the activities of the summer will remain remote,” he said. “For the fall, it’s much more wide open.”

A cross-Institute team of people is considering several scenarios. The process “doesn’t provide answers,” he said, “but it provides a set of guidelines” on how to best preserve MIT’s mission while also protecting human health. “We’ve just begun this planning process, and we look forward to opportunities to share more,” he said.

“In exceptional times,” he said, “you just learn throughout the whole system really how great our community is, and it’s been an experience that has reaffirmed that in a great way.”

Meanwhile, more than 60 faculty members are participating in projects to help with the crisis. One of those is Martin Culpepper, who led a team that has developed a new kind of face shield for medical workers that can be quickly and cheaply produced. “We came up with a new design that had to meet a lot of constraints,” he said. The shield is made flat from sheet plastic and folds up into a 3-D shape that can be worn in multiple positions, depending on the procedure being performed. “This is one of the hardest processes I’ve ever worked on,” he said. Over 100 people worked on the project, and it has already been delivered into mass manufacturing, with tens of thousands of units being produced. MIT is ensuring that 100,000 of these will be donated to Boston-area hospitals.

Elazer Edelman, a physician and director of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, has been coordinating MIT’s medical outreach team, which aims to “help those who care for the stricken,” he said. For example, in his own work caring for Covid-19 patients in a hospital, he is issued one surgical mask to use for the whole day, because of shortages. Such equipment is in terribly short supply, he said.

MIT instituted an effort to solicit such equipment in every area they could find, from different labs, departments, and centers, and has already distributed 600,000 such devices. More than a million additional items are expected to be sent soon, he said. The team has been supporting various research projects, including validating equipment to be used on the front lines. They’ve provided swabs for testing, and creative solutions such as stethoscopes that can be used from a distance via Bluetooth.

“It’s been magical to see how the MIT community has risen up,” he said.

Bluetooth signals from your smartphone could automate Covid-19 contact tracing while preserving privacy

Imagine you’ve been diagnosed as Covid-19 positive. Health officials begin contact tracing to contain infections, asking you to identify people with whom you’ve been in close contact. The obvious people come to mind — your family, your coworkers. But what about the woman ahead of you in line last week at the pharmacy, or the man bagging your groceries? Or any of the other strangers you may have come close to in the past 14 days?

A team led by MIT researchers and including experts from many institutions is developing a system that augments “manual” contact tracing by public health officials, while preserving the privacy of all individuals. The system relies on short-range Bluetooth signals emitted from people’s smartphones. These signals represent random strings of numbers, likened to “chirps” that other nearby smartphones can remember hearing.

If a person tests positive, they can upload the list of chirps their phone has put out in the past 14 days to a database. Other people can then scan the database to see if any of those chirps match the ones picked up by their phones. If there’s a match, a notification will inform that person that they may have been exposed to the virus, and will include information from public health authorities on next steps to take. Vitally, this entire process is done while maintaining the privacy of those who are Covid-19 positive and those wishing to check if they have been in contact with an infected person.

“I keep track of what I’ve broadcasted, and you keep track of what you’ve heard, and this will allow us to tell if someone was in close proximity to an infected person,” says Ron Rivest, MIT Institute Professor and principal investigator of the project. “But for these broadcasts, we’re using cryptographic techniques to generate random, rotating numbers that are not just anonymous, but pseudonymous, constantly changing their ‘ID,’ and that can’t be traced back to an individual.”

This approach to private, automated contact tracing will be available in a number of ways, including through the privacy-first effort launched at MIT in response to Covid-19 called SafePaths. This broad set of mobile apps is under development by a team led by Ramesh Raskar of the MIT Media Lab. The design of the new Bluetooth-based system has benefited from SafePaths’ early work in this area.

Bluetooth exchanges

Smartphones already have the ability to advertise their presence to other devices via Bluetooth. Apple’s “Find My” feature, for example, uses chirps from a lost iPhone or MacBook to catch the attention of other Apple devices, helping the owner of the lost device to eventually find it. 

“Find My inspired this system. If my phone is lost, it can start broadcasting a Bluetooth signal that’s just a random number; it’s like being in the middle of the ocean and waving a light. If someone walks by with Bluetooth enabled, their phone doesn’t know anything about me; it will just tell Apple, ‘Hey, I saw this light,’” says Marc Zissman, the associate head of MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Cyber Security and Information Science Division and co-principal investigator of the project.

With their system, the team is essentially asking a phone to send out this kind of random signal all the time and to keep a log of these signals. At the same time, the phone detects chirps it has picked up from other phones, and only logs chirps that would be medically significant for contact tracing — those emitted from within an approximate 6-foot radius and picked up for a certain duration of time, say 10 minutes.

Phone owners would get involved by downloading an app that enables this system. After a positive diagnosis, a person would receive a QR code from a health official. By scanning the code through that app, that person can upload their log to the cloud. Anyone with the app could then initiate their phones to scan these logs. A notification, if there’s a match, could tell a user how long they were near an infected person and the approximate distance.  

Privacy-preserving technology

Some countries most successful at containing the spread of Covid-19 have been using smartphone-based approaches to conduct contact tracing, yet the researchers note these approaches have not always protected individual’s privacy. South Korea, for example, has implemented apps that notify officials if a diagnosed person has left their home, and can tap into people’s GPS data to pinpoint exactly where they’ve been.

“We’re not tracking location, not using GPS, not attaching your personal ID or phone number to any of these random numbers your phone is emitting,” says Daniel Weitzner, a principal research scientist in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and co-principal investigator of this effort. “What we want is to enable everyone to participate in a shared process of seeing if you might have been in contact, without revealing, or forcing anyone to reveal, anything.”

Choice is key. Weitzner sees the system as a virtual knock on the door that preserves people’s right to not answer it. The hope, though, is that everyone who can opt in would do so to help contain the spread of Covid-19. “We need a large percentage of the population to opt in for this system to really work. We care about every single Bluetooth device out there; it’s really critical to make this a whole ecosystem,” he says.

Public health impact

Throughout the development process, the researchers have worked closely with a medical advisory team to ensure that this system would contribute effectively to contact tracing efforts. This team is led by Louise Ivers, who is an infectious disease expert, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health.

“In order for the U.S. to really contain this epidemic, we need to have a much more proactive approach that allows us to trace more widely contacts for confirmed cases. This automated and privacy-protecting approach could really transform our ability to get the epidemic under control here and could be adapted to have use in other global settings,” Ivers says. “What’s also great is that the technology can be flexible to how public health officials want to manage contacts with exposed cases in their specific region, which may change over time.”

For example, the system could notify someone that they should self-isolate, or it could request that they check in through the app to connect with specialists regarding daily symptoms and well-being. In other circumstances, public health officials could request that this person get tested if they were noticing a cluster of cases.

The ability to conduct contact tracing quickly and at a large scale can be effective not only in flattening the curve of the outbreak, but also for enabling people to safely enter public life once a community is on the downward side of the curve. “We want to be able to let people carefully get back to normal life while also having this ability to carefully quarantine and identify certain vectors of an outbreak,” Rivest says.

Toward implementation

Lincoln Laboratory engineers have led the prototyping of the system. One of the hardest technical challenges has been achieving interoperability, that is, making it possible for a chirp from an iPhone to be picked up by an Android device and vice versa. A test at the laboratory late last week proved that they achieved this capability, and that chirps could be picked up by other phones of various makes and models.

A vital next step toward implementation is engaging with the smartphone manufacturers and software developers — Apple, Google, and Microsoft. “They have a critical role here. The aim of the prototype is to prove to these developers that this is feasible for them to implement,” Rivest says. As those collaborations are forming, the team is also demonstrating its prototype system to state and federal government agencies.

Rivest emphasizes that collaboration has made this project possible. These collaborators include the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, CSAIL, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Boston University, Brown University, MIT Media Lab, The Weizmann Institute of Science, and SRI International.

The team also aims to play a central, coordinating role with other efforts around the country and in Europe to develop similar, privacy-preserving contact-tracing systems.

“This project is being done in true academic style. It’s not a contest; it’s a collective effort on the part of many, many people to get a system working,” Rivest says.  

3 Questions: Jeffrey Harris on the evolution of health care during the Covid-19 pandemic

Jeffrey E. Harris is a physician and a professor in MIT’s Department of Economics. He served as an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital for more than 20 years and continues to practice medicine today at community health centers. Harris is currently working on a new health economics textbook based on medical case studies. SHASS Communications spoke with him recently about the Covid-19 pandemic. Q: As a doctor on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic, can you provide a glimpse of what is going on today inside our increasingly burdened health care facilities? How are electronic health or “telehealth” services being employed to ease the burden on in-person providers during this crisis?A: Since 2005, I have been working exclusively in community health centers, taking care of the neediest patients. Health care in these facilities has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Patients with chronic conditions are being dissuaded from coming in. Instead, electronic health or “telehealth” service has become the new form of care. Large general hospitals are preparing for the worst. Elective surgeries have been cancelled.
Many hospitals have record-low inpatient counts, having reserved separate floors for Covid-19 patients. Clinics have likewise created separate areas for patients with respiratory symptoms. Health care providers’ work shifts have been reconfigured to reduce stress and potential exposure. In intensive care units, some attending physicians see patients only once daily to reduce risk.

Telehealth is no longer evolving. Instead, it is being revolutionized. Patients are being asked to download videoconferencing apps on their phones. Nurses are being trained and recruited to make home visits using devices such as electronic stethoscopes that can transmit heart and lung sounds, electronic otoscopes to transmit magnified images of the ear canal, telemetry-capable electrocardiograms and portable ultrasound devices. Even after the Covid-19 pandemic passes, these will be permanent fixtures of our health-care system.

Q: Does the Covid-19 pandemic pose special challenges for patients with few resources?A: Absolutely. Here’s an example of the challenges that health-care providers face every day: A patient calls into the health center reporting fever, lethargy, and a cough, but no shortness of breath. Following current triage guidelines, I counsel the patient to seek care if her breathing gets worse, but otherwise to stay home and isolate herself from household members for two weeks.
“Can you stay in your own bedroom?” I ask in Spanish. The response is no. Family members have to share the same bedroom. I ask her whether she could use her own bathroom. Same response. She inquires whether the self-isolation period could be reduced to just one week, as she has to get back to work. I am reluctant to say yes, but one-week isolation is still better than none.
The patient then informs me that she will have to take two buses to get to work. I know that public transportation may have been the fuse that lit the epidemic explosion in New York and other dense metropolitan areas, but at best I can only counsel her to maintain her distance as much as possible from other passengers, wear a mask if she can get one, and wash her hands thoroughly when she gets to work.

Q: Six Massachusetts medical leaders recently called for a comprehensive program to triage and safely support Covid-19 patients at home or in community-based venues. Can you comment on whether this plan is similar to the system of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation/treatment that has been successful in several Asian countries?  

A: We need a comprehensive response that’s tailored to our own health care system. That’s where new telehealth capabilities become absolutely critical. With expanded channels of communication, primary care providers can steer patients to testing resources, advise them on home isolation, and help with contact tracing. If people with symptoms or questions can’t get access to primary care providers, they’ll end up in emergency rooms.

But the financial viability of primary care providers will depend on adequate insurance reimbursement for phone and video visits. Some progress has been made in realigning financial incentives, but bureaucratic rigidity remains the rule. Here’s an example: A federally qualified health center can bill Medicare for a telehealth visit only if the visit is for a condition unrelated to an evaluation/management [E/M] service provided by the health center within the previous seven days and does not lead to an E/M service or procedure within the next 24 hours or soonest available appointment. This is an unnecessary barrier to care at a time when flexibility is absolutely essential.

Origins of Earth’s magnetic field remain a mystery

Microscopic minerals excavated from an ancient outcrop of Jack Hills, in Western Australia, have been the subject of intense geological study, as they seem to bear traces of the Earth’s magnetic field reaching as far back as 4.2 billion years ago. That’s almost 1 billion years earlier than when the magnetic field was previously thought to originate, and nearly back to the time when the planet itself was formed.

But as intriguing as this origin story may be, an MIT-led team has now found evidence to the contrary. In a paper published today in Science Advances, the team examined the same type of crystals, called zircons, excavated from the same outcrop, and have concluded that zircons they collected are unreliable as recorders of ancient magnetic fields.

In other words, the jury is still out on whether the Earth’s magnetic field existed earlier than 3.5 billion years ago.

“There is no robust evidence of a magnetic field prior to 3.5 billion years ago, and even if there was a field, it will be very difficult to find evidence for it in Jack Hills zircons,” says Caue Borlina, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “It’s an important result in the sense that we know what not to look for anymore.”

Borlina is the paper’s first author, which also includes EAPS Professor Benjamin Weiss, Principal Research Scientist Eduardo Lima, and Research Scientist Jahandar Ramezan of MIT, along with others from Cambridge University, Harvard University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Alabama, and Princeton University.

A field, stirred up

Earth’s magnetic field is thought to play an important role in making the planet habitable. Not only does a magnetic field set the direction of our compass needles, it also acts as a shield of sorts, deflecting away solar wind that might otherwise eat away at the atmosphere.

Scientists know that today the Earth’s magnetic field is powered by the solidification of the planet’s liquid iron core. The cooling and crystallization of the core stirs up the surrounding liquid iron, creating powerful electric currents that generate a magnetic field stretching far out into space. This magnetic field is known as the geodynamo.

Multiple lines of evidence have shown that the Earth’s magnetic field existed at least 3.5 billion years ago. However, the planet’s core is thought to have started solidifying just 1 billion years ago, meaning that the magnetic field must have been driven by some other mechanism prior to 1 billion years ago. Pinning down exactly when the magnetic field formed could help scientists figure out what generated it to begin with.

Borlina says the origin of Earth’s magnetic field could also illuminate the early conditions in which Earth’s first life forms took hold.

“In the Earth’s first billion years, between 4.4 billion and 3.5 billion years, that’s when life was emerging,” Borlina says. “Whether you have a magnetic field at that time has different implications for the environment in which life emerged on Earth. That’s the motivation for our work.”

“Can’t trust zircon”

Scientists have traditionally used minerals in ancient rocks to determine the orientation and intensity of Earth’s magnetic field back through time. As rocks form and cool, the electrons within individual grains can shift in the direction of the surrounding magnetic field. Once the rock cools past a certain temperature, known as the Curie temperature, the orientations of the electrons are set in stone, so to speak. Scientists can determine their age and use standard magnetometers to measure their orientation, to estimate the strength and orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field at a given point in time.

Since 2001, Weiss and his group have been studying the magnetization of the Jack Hills rocks and zircon grains, with the challenging goal of establishing whether they contain ancient records of the Earth’s magnetic field.  

“The Jack Hills zircons are some of the most weakly magnetic objects studied in the history of paleomagnetism,” Weiss says. “Furthermore, these zircons include the oldest known Earth materials, meaning that there are many geological events that could have reset their magnetic records.”

In 2015, a separate research group that had also started studying the Jack Hills zircons argued that they found evidence of magnetic material in zircons that they dated to be 4.2 billion years old — the first evidence that Earth’s magnetic field may have existed prior to 3.5 billion years ago.

But Borlina notes that the team did not confirm whether the magnetic material they detected actually formed during or after the zircon crystal formed 4.2 billion years ago — a goal that he and his team took on for their new paper.

Borlina, Weiss, and their colleagues had collected rocks from the same Jack Hills outcrop, and from those samples, extracted 3,754 zircon grains, each around 150 micrometers long — about the width of a human hair. Using standard dating techniques, they determined the age of each zircon grain, which ranged from 1 billion to 4.2 billion years old.

Around 250 crystals were older than 3.5 billion years. The team isolated and imaged those samples, looking for signs of cracks or secondary materials, such as minerals that may have been deposited on or within the crystal after it had fully formed, and searched for evidence that they were significantly heated over the last few billion years since they formed. Of these 250, they identified just three zircons that were relatively free of such impurities and therefore could contain suitable magnetic records.

The team then carried out detailed experiments on these three zircons to determine what kinds of magnetic materials they might contain. They eventually determined that a magnetic mineral called magnetite was present in two of the three zircons. Using a high-resolution quantum diamond magnetometer, the team looked at cross-sections of each of the two zircons to map the location of the magnetite in each crystal.

They discovered magnetite lying along cracks or damaged zones within the zircons. Such cracks, Borlina says, are pathways that allow water and other elements inside the rock. Such cracks could have let in secondary magnetite that settled into the crystal much later than when the zircon originally formed. Either way, Borlina says the evidence is clear: These zircons cannot be used as a reliable recorder for Earth’s magnetic field.

“This is evidence we can’t trust these zircon measurements for the record of the Earth’s magnetic field,” Borlina says. “We’ve shown that, before 3.5 billion years ago, we still have no idea when Earth’s magnetic field started.”

“For me, these results cast a great deal of doubt on the potential of Jack Hills zircons to faithfully record the palaeomagnetic field intensity prior to 3.5 billion years,” says Andy Biggin, professor of paleomagnetism at the University of Liverpool, who was not involved in the research. “That said, this debate has been raging, like the palaeomagnetic equivalent to Brexit, since 2015 and I would be very surprised if this were the last word on the matter. It is nigh on impossible to prove a negative and neither methods nor interpretations are ever beyond question.”

Despite these new results, Weiss stresses that previous magnetic analyses of these zircons are still highly valuable. 

“The team that reported the original zircon magnetic study deserves a lot of credit for trying to tackle this enormously challenging problem,” Weiss says.  “As a result of all the work from both groups, we now understand much better how to study the magnetism of ancient geological materials. We now can begin to apply this knowledge to other mineral grains and to grains from other planetary bodies.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

Sprayable user interfaces

For decades researchers have envisioned a world where digital user interfaces are seamlessly integrated with the physical environment, until the two are virtually indistinguishable from one another. 

This vision, though, is held up by a few boundaries. First, it’s difficult to integrate sensors and display elements into our tangible world due to various design constraints. Second, most methods to do so are limited to smaller scales, bound by the size of the fabricating device. 

Recently, a group of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) came up with SprayableTech, a system that lets users create room-sized interactive surfaces with sensors and displays. The system, which uses airbrushing of functional inks, enables various displays, like interactive sofas with embedded sensors to control your television, and sensors for adjusting lighting and temperature through your walls.

SprayableTech lets users channel their inner Picassos: After designing your interactive artwork in the 3D editor, it automatically generates stencils for airbrushing the layout onto a surface. Once they’ve created the stencils from cardboard, a user can then add sensors to the desired surface, whether it’s a sofa, a wall, or even a building, to control various appliances like your lamp or television. (An alternate option to stenciling is projecting them digitally.)

“Since SprayableTech is so flexible in its application, you can imagine using this type of system beyond walls and surfaces to power larger-scale entities like interactive smart cities and interactive architecture in public places,” says Michael Wessely, postdoc in CSAIL and lead author on a new paper about SprayableTech. “We view this as a tool that will allow humans to interact with and use their environment in newfound ways.”

The race for the smartest home has now been in the works for some time, with a large interest in sensor technology. It’s a big advance from the enormous glass wall displays with quick-shifting images and screens we’ve seen in countless dystopian films. 

The MIT researchers’ approach is focusing on scale, and creative expression. By using the airbrush technology, they’re no longer limited to the size of the printer, the area of the screen-printing net, or the size of the hydrographic bath — and there’s thousands of possible design options. 

Let’s say a user wanted to design a tree symbol on their wall to control the ambient light in the room. To start the process, they would use a toolkit in a 3D editor to design their digital object, and customize for things like proximity sensors, touch buttons, sliders, and electroluminescent displays. 

Then, the toolkit would output the choice of stencils: fabricated stencils cut from cardboard, which are great for high-precision spraying on simple, flat, surfaces, or projected stencils, which are less precise, but better for doubly-curved surfaces. 

Designers can then spray on the functional ink, which is ink with electrically functional elements, using an airbrush. As a final step to get the system going, a microcontroller is attached that connects the interface to the board that runs the code for sensing and visual output.

The team tested the system on a variety of items, including:

a musical interface on a concrete pillar;
an interactive sofa that’s connected to a television;
a wall display for controlling light; and
a street post with a touchable display that provides audible information on subway stations and local attractions.
Since the stencils need to be created in advance via the digital editor, it reduces the opportunity for spontaneous exploration. Looking forward, the team wants to explore so-called “modular” stencils that create touch buttons of different sizes, as well as shape-changing stencils that adjust themselves based on a desired user interface shape. 

“In the future, we aim to collaborate with graffiti artists and architects to explore the future potential for large-scale user interfaces in enabling the internet of things for smart cities and interactive homes,” says Wessely.

Wessely wrote the paper alongside MIT PhD student Ticha Sethapakdi, MIT undergraduate students Carlos Castillo and Jackson C. Snowden, MIT postdoc Isabel P.S. Qamar, MIT Professor Stefanie Mueller, University of Bristol PhD student Ollie Hanton, University of Bristol Professor Mike Fraser, and University of Bristol Associate Professor Anne Roudaut. 

Titan’s missing river deltas and an Earthly climate connection

“I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw new Cassini data come down from Titan’s surface,” says Samuel Birch. “I was in awe at witnessing this brand new, never-seen-before bit of our solar system.”

Birch explores and models the evolution of the surfaces of planets, moons, and small bodies in the outer solar system, including Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — two very different, icy worlds investigated by the spacecraft Cassini and Rosetta. He joins MIT this summer as one of eight recipients of the 2020 Heising-Simons Foundation 51 Pegasi b Fellows bridging planetary science and astronomy, accelerating our understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, and advance new technologies for detecting Earthlike worlds.

Over the years, the Heising-Simons Foundation has generously supported a growing cohort of exoplanet researchers at MIT, including Jason Dittmann, Ian Wong, Ben Rackham, Clara Sousa-Silva, and now Samuel Birch, a research associate from Cornell University. In the coming three years, with support networks, mentorship from MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) members like Professor Taylor Perron and Research Scientist Jason Soderblom, and a grant of up to $375,000, Birch will have the space and time to fully explore ideas, deciphering what the surfaces of those objects tell us about their climatological past and potential habitability. He’ll also develop and operate related spacecraft missions and mission concepts that seek to study edges of our solar system.

“I like to think of myself as an explorer of the outer solar system, trying to figure what is shaping the weird landscapes on these icy worlds,” Birch says.

Not quite familiar territory

As scientists learn more about the geophysics of Saturn’s moon Titan, their findings motivate newer and bigger questions that extend to Earth and other planetary bodies, highlighting the need for its continued study. “Titan’s surface is perhaps the most intriguing in our solar system, as there are rivers and seas of liquid methane and sand dunes made of organic plastics — all the result of a dense, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere,” says Birch. With a salty liquid water ocean beneath the surface, and an icy exterior sculpted by rivers, seas, and waves, Titan’s hydrologic cycle is similar to Earth’s. However, when its coastal rivers meet the lakes and sea, they seem to be missing deltas at their ends, Birch says. This may be because deltas like those on Earth do not form (or rarely form) because of differences in materials, dynamics, and coastal conditions. Alternately, their characteristics and representation in Cassini datasets may make them difficult to identify.

To solve this mystery, Birch and MIT researchers will investigate deltaic and river dynamics, using a combination of theoretical, experimental, and numerical modeling, atmospheric simulations, and a re-evaluation of Cassini data for evidence of the resulting landforms. This suite of studies will help them understand what a delta “looks” like and map their distribution, which may unveil a record of Titan’s climate history and reveal how liquid methane has molded its landscapes.

“If we can understand the reasons for the stark differences between Earth and Titan — and with it, the fate of all the mass eroded by Titan’s rivers,” Birch says, “we have the chance to really advance our knowledge of the history of erosion, sea-level, and climate change on Titan.”

Life extensions

This work inherently informs the study of fundamental Earthlike surface processes related to climate and the search for life beyond Earth. Since Titan lacks the complex interplay of diverse physical and chemical processes of Earth’s biosphere — like active tectonics, variable bedrock lithologies, diverse climate zones, vegetation, and (as far as we know) organisms — the moon serves as a natural laboratory for studying the effects of sea-level change on shoreline, river, and delta evolution. Additionally, scientists target deltas because of their high astrobiological potential for harboring life, like those on Mars. Analogous, active environments like Titan’s offer promise for the upcoming Dragonfly mission — when a nuclear-powered, dual-quadcopter will explore the moon, and perhaps these valuable spots.

In the long run, Birch would like to parlay the skills he cultivates here to develop his own research group and continue to participate in missions that address key questions regarding the evolution of planetary surfaces. “I am extremely honored by this opportunity and that the community and the Heising-Simons Foundation value my work … I am fortunate that the mentors I will have at MIT are some of the best in the field,” Birch says, acknowledging the support of his collaborators and advisor, and welcoming the challenge and rewards that the future research will bring. “It is a fantastic opportunity and can’t wait to see what we can all discover on Titan and elsewhere!”

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California. The foundation works with its many partners to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people. In addition to Birch, other fellows selected in this year’s cohort will join their host institutions: Elizabeth Bailey at the University of California at Santa Cruz; Ashley Baker and Kimberly Moore at Caltech; Emilie Dunham at the University of California at Los Angeles; Emily First and Eileen Gonzales at Cornell University; and Benjamin Tofflemire at University of Texas at Austin.

New “refrigerator” super-cools molecules to nanokelvin temperatures

For years, scientists have looked for ways to cool molecules down to ultracold temperatures, at which point the molecules should slow to a crawl, allowing scientists to precisely control their quantum behavior. This could enable researchers to use molecules as complex bits for quantum computing, tuning individual molecules like tiny knobs to carry out multiple streams of calculations at a time.

While scientists have super-cooled atoms, doing the same for molecules, which are more complex in their behavior and structure, has proven to be a much bigger challenge.

Now MIT physicists have found a way to cool molecules of sodium lithium down to 200 billionths of a Kelvin, just a hair above absolute zero. They did so by applying a technique called collisional cooling, in which they immersed molecules of cold sodium lithium in a cloud of even colder sodium atoms. The ultracold atoms acted as a refrigerant to cool the molecules even further.

Collisional cooling is a standard technique used to cool down atoms using other, colder atoms. And for more than a decade, researchers have attempted to supercool a number of different molecules using collisional cooling, only to find that when molecules collided with atoms, they exchanged energy in such a way that the molecules were heated or destroyed in the process, called “bad” collisions.

In their own experiments, the MIT researchers found that if sodium lithium molecules and sodium atoms were made to spin in the same way, they could avoid self-destructing, and instead engaged in “good” collisions, where the atoms took away the molecules’ energy, in the form of heat. The team used precise control of magnetic fields and an intricate system of lasers to choreograph the spin and the rotational motion of the molecules. As result, the atom-molecule mixture had a high ratio of good-to-bad collisions and was cooled down from 2 microkelvins to 220 nanokelvins.

“Collisional cooling has been the workhorse for cooling atoms,” adds Nobel Prize laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. Arthur professor of physics at MIT. “I wasn’t convinced that our scheme would work, but since we didn’t know for sure, we had to try it. We know now that it works for cooling sodium lithium molecules. Whether it will work for other classes of molecules remains to be seen.”

Their findings, published today in the journal Nature, mark the first time researchers have successfully used collisional cooling to cool molecules down to nanokelvin temperatures.

Ketterle’s coauthors on the paper are lead author Hyungmok Son, a graduate student in Harvard University’s Department of Physics, along with MIT physics graduate student Juliana Park, and Alan Jamison, a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo and visiting scientist in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Reaching ultralow temperatures

In the past, scientists found that when they tried to cool molecules down to ultracold temperatures by surrounding them with even colder atoms, the particles collided such that the atoms imparted extra energy or rotation to the molecules, sending them flying out of the trap, or self-destructing all together by chemical reactions.

The MIT researchers wondered whether molecules and atoms, having the same spin, could avoid this effect, and remain ultracold and stable as a result. They looked to test their idea with sodium lithium, a “diatomic” molecule that Ketterle’s group experiments with regularly, consisting of one lithium and one sodium atom.

“Sodium lithium molecules are quite different from other molecules people have tried,” Jamison says. “Many folks expected those differences would make cooling even less likely to work. However, we had a feeling these differences could be an advantage instead of a detriment.”

The researchers fine-tuned a system of more than 20 laser beams and various magnetic fields to trap and cool atoms of sodium and lithium in a vacuum chamber, down to about 2 microkelvins — a temperature Son says is optimal for the atoms to bond together as sodium lithium molecules.

Once the researchers were able to produce enough molecules, they shone laser beams of specific frequencies and polarizations to control the quantum state of the molecules and carefully tuned microwave fields to make atoms spin in the same way as the molecules.  “Then we make the refrigerator colder and colder,” says Son, referring to the sodium atoms that surround the cloud of the newly formed molecules. “We lower the power of the trapping laser, making the optical trap looser and looser, which brings the temperature of sodium atoms down, and further cools the molecules, to 200 billionths of a kelvin.”

The group observed that the molecules were able to remain at these ultracold temperatures for up to one second. “In our world, a second is very long,” Ketterle says. “What you want to do with these molecules is quantum computation and exploring new materials, which all can be done in small fractions of a second.”

If the team can get sodium lithium molecules to be about five times colder than what they have so far achieved, they will have reached a so-called quantum degenerate regime where individual molecules become indistinguishable and their collective behavior is controlled by quantum mechanics. Son and his colleagues have some ideas for how to achieve this, which will involve months of work in optimizing their setup, as well as acquiring a new laser to integrate into their setup. 

“Our work will lead to discussion in our community why collisional cooling has worked for us but not for others,” Son says “Perhaps we will soon have predictions how other molecules could be cooled in this way.”

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Samsung Scholarship.

Learning about artificial intelligence: A hub of MIT resources for K-12 students

In light of the recent events surrounding Covid-19, learning for grades K-12 looks very different than it did a month ago. Parents and educators may be feeling overwhelmed about turning their homes into classrooms. 

With that in mind, a team led by Media Lab Associate Professor Cynthia Breazeal has launched aieducation.mit.edu to share a variety of online activities for K-12 students to learn about artificial intelligence, with a focus on how to design and use it responsibly. Learning resources provided on this website can help to address the needs of the millions of children, parents, and educators worldwide who are staying at home due to school closures caused by Covid-19, and are looking for free educational activities that support project-based STEM learning in an exciting and innovative area. 

The website is a collaboration between the Media Lab, MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, and MIT Open Learning, serving as a hub to highlight diverse work by faculty, staff, and students across the MIT community at the intersection of AI, learning, and education. 

“MIT is the birthplace of Constructionism under Seymour Papert. MIT has revolutionized how children learn computational thinking with hugely successful platforms such as Scratch and App Inventor. Now, we are bringing this rich tradition and deep expertise to how children learn about AI through project-based learning that dovetails technical concepts with ethical design and responsible use,” says Breazeal. 

The website will serve as a hub for MIT’s latest work in innovating learning and education in the era of AI. In addition to highlighting research, it also features up-to-date project-based activities, learning units, child-friendly software tools, digital interactives, and other supporting materials, highlighting a variety of MIT-developed educational research and collaborative outreach efforts across and beyond MIT. The site is intended for use by students, parents, teachers, and lifelong learners alike, with resources for children and adults at all learning levels, and with varying levels of comfort with technology, for a range of artificial intelligence topics. The team has also gathered a variety of external resources to explore, such as Teachable Machines by Google, a browser-based platform that lets users train classifiers for their own image-recognition algorithms in a user-friendly way.

In the spirit of “mens et manus” — the MIT motto, meaning “mind and hand” — the vision of technology for learning at MIT is about empowering and inspiring learners of all ages in the pursuit of creative endeavors. The activities highlighted on the new website are designed in the tradition of constructionism: learning through project-based experiences in which learners build and share their work. The approach is also inspired by the idea of computational action, where children can design AI-enabled technologies to help others in their community.

“MIT has been a world leader in AI since the 1960s,” says MIT professor of computer science and engineering Hal Abelson, who has long been involved in MIT’s AI research and educational technology. “MIT’s approach to making machines intelligent has always been strongly linked with our work in K-12 education. That work is aimed at empowering young people through computational ideas that help them understand the world and computational actions that empower them to improve life for themselves and their communities.”

Research in computer science education and AI education highlights the importance of having a mix of plugged and unplugged learning approaches. Unplugged activities include kinesthetic or discussion-based activities developed to introduce children to concepts in AI and its societal impact without using a computer. Unplugged approaches to learning AI are found to be especially helpful for young children. Moreover, these approaches can also be accessible to learning environments (classrooms and homes) that have limited access to technology. 

As computers continue to automate more and more routine tasks, inequity of education remains a key barrier to future opportunities, where success depends increasingly on intellect, creativity, social skills, and having specific skills and knowledge. This accelerating change raises the critical question of how to best prepare students, from children to lifelong learners, to be successful and to flourish in the era of AI.

It is important to help prepare a diverse and inclusive citizenry to be responsible designers and conscientious users of AI. In that spirit, the activities on aieducation.mit.edu range from hands-on programming to paper prototyping, to Socratic seminars, and even creative writing about speculative fiction. The learning units and project-based activities are designed to be accessible to a wide audience with different backgrounds and comfort levels with technology. A number of these activities leverage learning about AI as a way to connect to the arts, humanities, and social sciences, too, offering a holistic view of how AI intersects with different interests and endeavors. 

The rising ubiquity of AI affects us all, but today a disproportionately small slice of the population has the skills or power to decide how AI is designed or implemented; worrying consequences have been seen in algorithmic bias and perpetuation of unjust systems. Democratizing AI through education, starting in K-12, will help to make it more accessible and diverse at all levels, ultimately helping to create a more inclusive, fair, and equitable future.

Computational thinking class enables students to engage in Covid-19 response

When an introductory computational science class, which is open to the general public, was repurposed to study the Covid-19 pandemic this spring, the instructors saw student registration rise from 20 students to nearly 300.

Introduction to Computational Thinking (6.S083/18.S190), which applies data science, artificial intelligence, and mathematical models using the Julia programming language developed at MIT, was introduced in the fall as a pilot half-semester class. It was launched as part of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing’s computational thinking program and spearheaded by Department of Mathematics Professor Alan Edelman and Visiting Professor David P. Sanders. They very quickly were able to fast-track the curriculum to focus on applications to Covid-19 responses; students were equally fast in jumping on board.

“Everyone at MIT wants to contribute,” says Edelman. “While we at the Julia Lab are doing research in building tools for scientists, Dave and I thought it would be valuable to teach the students about some of the fundamentals related to computation for drug development, disease models, and such.” 

The course is offered through MIT’s Department of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Mathematics. “This course opens a trove of opportunities to use computation to better understand and contain the Covid-19 pandemic,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus.

The fall version of the class had a maximum enrollment of 20 students, but the spring class has ballooned to nearly 300 students in one weekend, almost all from MIT. “We’ve had a tremendous response,” Edelman says. “This definitely stressed the MIT sign-up systems in ways that I could not have imagined.”

Sophomore Shinjini Ghosh, majoring in computer science and linguistics, says she was initially drawn to the class to learn Julia, “but also to develop the skills to do further computational modeling and conduct research on the spread and possible control of Covid-19.”

“There’s been a lot of misinformation about the epidemiology and statistical modeling of the coronavirus,” adds sophomore Raj Movva, a computer science and biology major. “I think this class will help clarify some details, and give us a taste of how one might actually make predictions about the course of a pandemic.” 

Edelman says that he has always dreamed of an interdisciplinary modern class that would combine the machine learning and AI of a “data-driven” world, the modern software and systems possibilities that Julia allows, and the physical models, differential equations, and  scientific machine learning of the “physical world.” 

He calls this class “a natural outgrowth of Julia Lab’s research, and that of the general cooperative open-source Julia community.” For years, this online community collaborates to create tools to speed up the drug approval process, aid in scientific machine learning and differential equations, and predict infectious disease transmission. “The lectures are open to the world, following the great MIT tradition of MIT open courses,” says Edelman.

So when MIT turned to virtual learning to de-densify campus, the transition to an online, remotely taught version of the class was not too difficult for Edelman and Sanders.

“Even though we have run open remote learning courses before, it’s never the same as being able to see the live audience in front of you,” says Edelman. “However, MIT students ask such great questions in the Zoom chat, so that it remains as intellectually invigorating as ever.”

Sanders, a Marcos Moshinsky research fellow currently on leave as a professor at the National University of Mexico, is working on techniques for accelerating global optimization. Involved with the Julia Lab since 2014, Sanders has worked with Edelman on various teaching, research, and outreach projects related to Julia, and his YouTube tutorials have reached over 100,000 views. “His videos have often been referred to as the best way to learn the Julia language,” says Edelman.

Researching from home: Science stays social, even at a distance

With all but a skeleton crew staying home from each lab to minimize the spread of Covid-19, scores of Picower Institute researchers are immersing themselves in the considerable amount of scientific work that can done away from the bench. With piles of data to analyze; plenty of manuscripts to write; new skills to acquire; and fresh ideas to conceive, share, and refine for the future, neuroscientists have full plates, even when they are away from their, well, plates. They are proving that science can remain social, even if socially distant.

Ever since the mandatory ramp down of on-campus research took hold March 20, for example, teams of researchers in the lab of Troy Littleton, the Menicon Professor of Neuroscience, have sharpened their focus on two data-analysis projects that are every bit as essential to their science as acquiring the data in the lab in the first place. Research scientist Yulia Akbergenova and graduate student Karen Cunningham, for example, are poring over a huge amount of imaging data showing how the strength of connections between neurons, or synapses, mature and how that depends on the molecular components at the site. Another team, comprised of Picower postdoc Suresh Jetti and graduate students Andres Crane and Nicole Aponte-Santiago, is analyzing another large dataset, this time of gene transcription, to learn what distinguishes two subclasses of motor neurons that form synapses of characteristically different strength.

Work is similarly continuing among researchers in the lab of Elly Nedivi, the William R. (1964) and Linda R. Young Professor of Neuroscience. Since heading home, Senior Research Support Associate Kendyll Burnell has been looking at microscope images tracking how inhibitory interneurons innervate the visual cortex of mice throughout their development. By studying the maturation of inhibition, the lab hopes to improve understanding of the role of inhibitory circuitry in the experience-dependent changes, or plasticity, and development of the visual cortex, she says. As she’s worked, her poodle Soma (named for the central body structure of a neuron) has been by her side.

Despite extra time with comforts of home, though, it’s clear that nobody wanted this current mode of socially distant science. For every lab, it’s tremendously disruptive and costly. But labs are finding many ways to make progress nonetheless.

“Although we are certainly hurting because our lab work is at a standstill, the Miller lab is fortunate to have a large library of multiple-electrode neurophysiological data,” says Picower Professor Earl Miller. “The datasets are very rich. As our hypotheses and analytical tools develop, we can keep going back to old data to ask new questions. We are taking advantage of the wet lab downtime to analyze data and write papers. We have three under review and are writing at least three more right now.”

Miller is inviting new collaborations regardless of the physical impediment of social distancing. A recent lab meeting held via the videoconferencing app Zoom included MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Associate Professor Ila Fiete and her graduate student, Mikail Khona. The Miller lab has begun studying how neural rhythms move around the cortex and what that means for brain function. Khona presented models of how timing relationships affect those waves. While this kind of an interaction between labs of the Picower Institute and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research would normally have taken place in person in MIT’s Building 46, neither lab let the pandemic get in the way.

Similarly, the lab of Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor and director of the Picower Institute, has teamed up with that of Manolis Kellis, professor in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They’re forming several small squads of experimenters and computational experts to launch analyses of gene expression and other data to illuminate the fate of individual cell types like interneurons or microglia in the context of the Alzheimer’s disease-afflicted brain. Other teams are focusing on analyses of questions such as how pathology varies in brain samples carrying different degrees of genetic risk factors. These analyses will prove useful for stages all along the scientific process, Tsai says, from forming new hypotheses to wrapping up papers that are well underway.

Remote collaboration and communication are proving crucial to researchers in other ways, too, proving that online interactions, though distant, can be quite personally fulfilling.

Nicholas DiNapoli, a research engineer in the lab of Associate Professor Kwanghun Chung, is making the best of time away from the bench by learning about the lab’s computational pipeline for processing the enormous amounts of imaging data it generates. He’s also taking advantage of a new program within the lab in which Senior Computer Scientist Lee Kamentsky is teaching Python computer programming principles to anyone in the lab who wants to learn. The training occurs via Zoom two days a week.

As part of a crowded calendar of Zoom meetings, or “Zeetings” as the lab has begun to call them, Newton Professor Mriganka Sur says he makes sure to have one-to-one meetings with everyone in the lab. The team also has organized into small subgroups around different themes of the lab’s research.

But also, the lab has continued to maintain its cohesion by banding together informally creating novel work and social experiences.

Graduate student Ning Leow, for example, used Zoom to create a co-working session in which participants kept a video connection open for hours at a time, just to be in each other’s virtual presence while they worked. Among a group of Sur lab friends, she read a paper related to her thesis and did a substantial amount of data analysis. She also advised a colleague on an analysis technique via the connection.

“I’ve got to say that it worked out really well for me personally because I managed to get whatever I wanted to complete on my list done,” she says, “and there was also a sense of healthy accountability along with the sense of community.”

Whether in person or via an officially imposed distance, science is social. In that spirit, graduate student K. Guadalupe “Lupe” Cruz organized a collaborative art event via Zoom for female scientists in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. She took a photo of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose work was essential for resolving the structure of DNA, and divided it into nine squares to distribute to the event attendees. Without knowing the full picture, everyone drew just their section, talking all the while about how the strange circumstances of Covid-19 have changed their lives. At the end, they stitched their squares together to reconstruct the image.

Examples abound of how Picower scientists, though mostly separate and apart, are still coming together to advance their research and to maintain the fabric of their shared experiences.

Building and reconnecting MIT in Minecraft

Many MIT students, like their beaver mascot, are well-known for engineering skills, industrious habits, and for creating some amazing things late into the night. So, an ambitious project to build a 1:1 scale replica of MIT in Minecraft may come as no surprise. “As MIT students normally are nocturnal people anyway, there’s no doubt that we would apply our normal schoolwork habits to a light-hearted project like this,” says Shayna Ahteck, a first-year student involved with building and community outreach for the initiative.

With the Covid-19 pandemic scattering students around the globe, Minecraft — a sandbox style game akin to digital LEGO — has served as a creative and cathartic outlet for some students while they are physically away from campus, while also providing the entire community with some sense of stability. “Getting back to the basic structure of what campus looks like, while not a replacement for the feeling that I got from people and everything, it reminds me of all the times that we had, as well as processing some of my own grief from leaving campus,” says Ahteck.

The initial idea to recreate MIT’s campus in Minecraft surfaced in the Busy Beavers Discord server, a chat platform that has connected nearly 1,000 students and other displaced members of the MIT community. Jeffery Yu, a sophomore in Course 18, originally hosted the project on his personal computer. “We told people they could build whatever their heart desired, and it’s been really interesting to see how many MIT interests have come together,” Yu says.

As more students joined the project, it had to be migrated to a server. The game is now hosted and supported by the Student Information Processing Board (SIPB), a volunteer computing group that has worked to improve MIT’s computing environment since 1969.

Alexander Patton, a senior in mechanical engineering who laid the groundwork in the Minecraft server, has been pleasantly surprised by everyone’s creative collaboration. “I’ve really been blown away by the attention to detail that people put into all the buildings and projects,” he said. “When we started this, I kind of expected, like, okay, there’s so many buildings, we probably will just build the outsides so it kind of looks like MIT, but people really have been trying to build the whole interiors. It really just shows to me how much these spaces meant to them and how MIT is basically like a second home.”

The Minecraft platform launched in 2009 and was acquired by Microsoft in 2014. Today, 112 million players are active each month, and it is now considered the best-selling video game in history. The platform is so flexible that courses on paleontology, chemistry, and computer coding have been launched through an educational version.

The project truly is a community-wide project, including admitted members of the Class of 2024. With long stretches of social distancing on the horizon, Minecraft is serving as a channel for human interaction for many during a time of uncertainty. “To be able to see everyone from all these different walks of MIT when you otherwise wouldn’t have is cool because otherwise it would a little while longer until we randomly happen across these people and have interesting conversations about the things they enjoy,” says William Moses ’18, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science and chair of SIPB.

3 Questions: J-WEL leaders on retooling education during a global crisis

In an effort to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, industries across the globe are retooling their operations. Textile mills are making masks, automobile plants are making respirators, and perfume factories are making hand sanitizer to meet the needs of the United States and the world. Education is scrambling to retool, as well. According to Vijay Kumar, executive director of the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) and associate dean of open learning, and Eric Klopfer, J-WEL’s faculty advisor for pK-12 and chair of MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, the situation is unprecedented, but we are not entirely unprepared. Here, Kumar and Klopfer discuss learning responses to the global education crisis amidst the current pandemic.

Q: What are some key challenges facing K-12 and higher education right now, in terms of online learning?

KUMAR: The sudden conversion from in-person classes to an all-online format has seismically shifted the landscape, practically overnight. This is hard work and essential for the continued progress of the tens of millions of post-secondary students in the U.S., and many more around the world. But the greater challenge arises when we begin to look outward at students in the K-12 public school systems — 50 million in the U.S. alone — many of whom are now at home, and the countless individuals sheltering in place in their homes, anxiously wondering if they have the skills demanded by a plummeting economy that is facing an increasingly long road to recovery. We must retool to reach an audience with highly differentiated educational needs, readiness, and access.

Higher education is also struggling with this wholesale transition to online learning, but at the same time it is forced to reckon with greater financial and operational implications of the pandemic. Fortunately for the greater educational system, however, many institutions of higher education have been ramping up their expertise in digital and remote learning over the past decade and can lend a hand.

KLOPFER: The crisis faced by the K-12 system, where massive numbers of students have been displaced from schools into individual home situations with varying degrees of access to social, emotional, and educational support, has no end in sight. Higher education can and must play an important role in supporting K-12 students and teachers. We must reconfigure some of our operations to support this critical system.

Many of us working at the intersection of K-12 and higher education have often talked about “disrupting” K-12 education, with the benign intention of moving a system stuck in the 19th and early 20th centuries into the present day. But the complexities of this deep-rooted system have made it resistant to change and left it unprepared to manage an instantaneous leap well into the 21st century. Now that this system is thoroughly disrupted we must act to help bring about normalcy and positive change.

Q: How can we best retool online education in this time of crisis?

KLOPFER: We need to listen to the challenges that students and teachers are facing. We need to share our knowledge of teaching and learning online. We need to work with purpose and agility, sharing our existing resources and using the talent that we have to create new ones in partnership with K-12 educators. And we need to think creatively about how we build tools, systems, and partnerships to provide quality online learning to everyone. Making these changes requires new kinds of recognition, resourcing, and organizational structures to be effective.KUMAR: J-WEL, along with MIT Open Learning as a whole, is working to facilitate this essential transition through activities and resources for capacity building. J-WEL is making available a range of digital resources and is engaging educators, technologists, and policymakers in virtual events to help develop capabilities and capacity to respond to this crisis. A key element of J-WEL’s mission is to work with our partners to mobilize and transform education worldwide for the digital economy. Our efforts including Full STEAM Ahead, an online resource and activity hub, and the multi-week J-WEL Connections virtual event, address topics ranging from curriculum redesign to virtual collaboration and leadership, and are designed to share resources and knowledge with education stakeholders worldwide.

Q: What might the future of online education look like — and what needs to be done to make it successful?

KLOPFER: We know from decades of research on and implementation of digital learning models is that this is not about a transition to a dystopian future where young people interact only with machines. That kind of fear is exactly what prevented earlier adaptation to the digital realm. The importance of the human element in teaching and learning was never in doubt. Indeed, it has become even clearer as we witness how critical teachers are in facilitating learning for a community of diverse learners, and how important peer-to-peer interactions are for learning and social progression.

KUMAR: What we need to aim for is support for teachers to be able to continue in these critical roles, and to learn new skills about facilitating new forms of student learning online, through new digital activities, peer communities, and engaging, enriching learning experiences that are designed to work for all students. We need to create the confidence, the capabilities and the policies for our educators and institutions to be successful in this transformation to a different world for learning.

Emergency-coordination system from Lincoln Laboratory supports Covid-19 response

When the Republic of North Macedonia joined a project supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Program (SPS) in 2016, the country teamed up with MIT Lincoln Laboratory to adopt the laboratory’s Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) as its official emergency-response platform. Now, this system is helping North Macedonian emergency agencies coordinate their national response to Covid-19.

NICS is a web-based communications and collaboration platform. Personnel sign onto the platform and add details about an emergency response on a shared incident map. On this map, users can draw boundaries, enable GPS tracking of their own locations, send messages and reports to other responders, and add live videos and photos. Essentially, the platform is designed to be a centralized way to track all of the response activities during a large-scale emergency.

North Macedonia’s Crisis Management Center quickly adapted the platform to enhance its response to Covid-19. All emergency institutions in North Macedonia responsible for dealing with the pandemic are using NICS to coordinate, communicate, and cooperate countrywide. While normally only accessible to emergency personnel, NICS is also now being used for the first time to communicate directly with the public. 

“North Macedonia is using the system as designed, in that they are giving national, regional, and local authorities the tools to communicate and collaborate as needed. Yet, in addition to these core NICS capabilities, they are aggregating the data produced by the responding organizations into a ‘public room’ that can be shared in real time with the entire nation,” says Stephanie Foster, a technical staff member at Lincoln Laboratory who leads the NICS NATO program.

Lincoln Laboratory worked with the Crisis Management Center team to enable public access to aspects of NICS. The goals of enabling public access were to disseminate rapidly updating information about Covid-19 cases and to inform citizens on where health resources are located. The public can access the NICS feed, where information is displayed in four tabs.

In the first tab, “Infection,” the total number of infected people is displayed on the map, including the numbers of those who have recovered and those who are deceased. These data can be shown countrywide or drilled down to specific municipalities, as shown in the second tab, labeled “Skopje,” the capital city of North Macedonia.

In the third tab, “Quarantine,” the total number of isolated people is displayed, including those who are self-isolating and those who are under supervision. The last tab, “Activities,” shows the locations of health resources for the public along with contact information. “The Red Cross is very active in NICS. The markers on the public map show locations. If you click on them, you can get details such as the address and resources,” Foster says.

NICS was originally developed a decade ago by Lincoln Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate to help California coordinate their responses to wildfires. Since then, responders across 250 organizations worldwide have been trained to use it. The adoption of NICS in North Macedonia is part of a wider NATO SPS project, called the Advanced Regional Civil Emergency Coordination Pilot, which aims to enhance the emergency collaboration among and within the southeastern European nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

“We are very pleased to see a DHS S&T-funded technology, which was originally intended to help U.S. firefighters, is successfully scaled to support real-world events in North Macedonia. As a result of our collaboration with NATO SPS and Lincoln Laboratory, NICS is not only used in North Macedonia but also in other western Balkan countries in their day-to-day operations,” says Ron Langhelm, NICS project manager at Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology.

Eyup Turmus, SPS advisor and program manager at NATO, adds that the “SPS project enhanced the capacity of North Macedonia to deal with the coronavirus crisis as the country formally became the 30th member of NATO on March 27, 2020.”

Foster thinks that NICS could help support Covid-19 coordination in other places where the system is available. “NICS is the perfect platform for aggregating data and sharing real-time status across several different organizations. It was designed to interoperate with other systems and datasets — not to replace current systems, but to bring a higher level of visibility and awareness to resource availability, location information, et cetera. The possibilities are endless.”

Neuroscientists find memory cells that help us interpret new situations

Imagine you are meeting a friend for dinner at a new restaurant. You may try dishes you haven’t had before, and your surroundings will be completely new to you. However, your brain knows that you have had similar experiences — perusing a menu, ordering appetizers, and splurging on dessert are all things that you have probably done when dining out.

MIT neuroscientists have now identified populations of cells that encode each of these distinctive segments of an overall experience. These chunks of memory, stored in the hippocampus, are activated whenever a similar type of experience takes place, and are distinct from the neural code that stores detailed memories of a specific location.

The researchers believe that this kind of “event code,” which they discovered in a study of mice, may help the brain interpret novel situations and learn new information by using the same cells to represent similar experiences.

“When you encounter something new, there are some really new and notable stimuli, but you already know quite a bit about that particular experience, because it’s a similar kind of experience to what you have already had before,” says Susumu Tonegawa, a professor of biology and neuroscience at the RIKEN-MIT Laboratory of Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Tonegawa is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Neuroscience. Chen Sun, an MIT graduate student, is the lead author of the paper. New York University graduate student Wannan Yang and Picower Institute technical associate Jared Martin are also authors of the paper.

Encoding abstraction

It is well-established that certain cells in the brain’s hippocampus are specialized to store memories of specific locations. Research in mice has shown that within the hippocampus, neurons called place cells fire when the animals are in a specific location, or even if they are dreaming about that location.

In the new study, the MIT team wanted to investigate whether the hippocampus also stores representations of more abstract elements of a memory. That is, instead of firing whenever you enter a particular restaurant, such cells might encode “dessert,” no matter where you’re eating it.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers measured activity in neurons of the CA1 region of the mouse hippocampus as the mice repeatedly ran a four-lap maze. At the end of every fourth lap, the mice were given a reward. As expected, the researchers found place cells that lit up when the mice reached certain points along the track. However, the researchers also found sets of cells that were active during one of the four laps, but not the others. About 30 percent of the neurons in CA1 appeared to be involved in creating this “event code.”

“This gave us the initial inkling that besides a code for space, cells in the hippocampus also care about this discrete chunk of experience called lap 1, or this discrete chunk of experience called lap 2, or lap 3, or lap 4,” Sun says.

To further explore this idea, the researchers trained mice to run a square maze on day 1 and then a circular maze on day 2, in which they also received a reward after every fourth lap. They found that the place cells changed their activity, reflecting the new environment. However, the same sets of lap-specific cells were activated during each of the four laps, regardless of the shape of the track. The lap-encoding cells’ activity also remained consistent when laps were randomly shortened or lengthened.

“Even in the new spatial locations, cells still maintain their coding for the lap number, suggesting that cells that were coding for a square lap 1 have now been transferred to code for a circular lap 1,” Sun says.

The researchers also showed that if they used optogenetics to inhibit sensory input from a part of the brain called the medial entorhinal cortex (MEC), lap-encoding did not occur. They are now investigating what kind of input the MEC region provides to help the hippocampus create memories consisting of chunks of an experience.

Two distinct codes

These findings suggest that, indeed, every time you eat dinner, similar memory cells are activated, no matter where or what you’re eating. The researchers theorize that the hippocampus contains “two mutually and independently manipulatable codes,” Sun says. One encodes continuous changes in location, time, and sensory input, while the other organizes an overall experience into smaller chunks that fit into known categories such as appetizer and dessert.

“We believe that both types of hippocampal codes are useful, and both are important,” Tonegawa says. “If we want to remember all the details of what happened in a specific experience, moment-to-moment changes that occurred, then the continuous monitoring is effective. But on the other hand, when we have a longer experience, if you put it into chunks, and remember the abstract order of the abstract chunks, that’s more effective than monitoring this long process of continuous changes.”

The new MIT results “significantly advance our knowledge about the function of the hippocampus,” says Gyorgy Buzsaki, a professor of neuroscience at New York University School of Medicine, who was not part of the research team.

“These findings are significant because they are telling us that the hippocampus does a lot more than just ‘representing’ space or integrating paths into a continuous long journey,” Buzsaki says. “From these remarkable results Tonegawa and colleagues conclude that they discovered an ‘event code,’ dedicated to organizing experience by events, and that this code is independent of spatial and time representations, that is, jobs also attributed to the hippocampus.”

Tonegawa and Sun believe that networks of cells that encode chunks of experiences may also be useful for a type of learning called transfer learning, which allows you to apply knowledge you already have to help you interpret new experiences or learn new things. Tonegawa’s lab is now working on trying to find cell populations that might encode these specific pieces of knowledge.

The research was funded by the RIKEN Center for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the JPB Foundation.

Accelerating data-driven discoveries

As technologies like single-cell genomic sequencing, enhanced biomedical imaging, and medical “internet of things” devices proliferate, key discoveries about human health are increasingly found within vast troves of complex life science and health data.

But drawing meaningful conclusions from that data is a difficult problem that can involve piecing together different data types and manipulating huge data sets in response to varying scientific inquiries. The problem is as much about computer science as it is about other areas of science. That’s where Paradigm4 comes in.

The company, founded by Marilyn Matz SM ’80 and Turing Award winner and MIT Professor Michael Stonebraker, helps pharmaceutical companies, research institutes, and biotech companies turn data into insights.

It accomplishes this with a computational database management system that’s built from the ground up to host the diverse, multifaceted data at the frontiers of life science research. That includes data from sources like national biobanks, clinical trials, the medical internet of things, human cell atlases, medical images, environmental factors, and multi-omics, a field that includes the study of genomes, microbiomes, metabolomes, and more.

On top of the system’s unique architecture, the company has also built data preparation, metadata management, and analytics tools to help users find the important patterns and correlations lurking within all those numbers.

In many instances, customers are exploring data sets the founders say are too large and complex to be represented effectively by traditional database management systems.

“We’re keen to enable scientists and data scientists to do things they couldn’t do before by making it easier for them to deal with large-scale computation and machine-learning on diverse data,” Matz says. “We’re helping scientists and bioinformaticists with collaborative, reproducible research to ask and answer hard questions faster.”

A new paradigm

Stonebraker has been a pioneer in the field of database management systems for decades. He has started nine companies, and his innovations have set standards for the way modern systems allow people to organize and access large data sets.

Much of Stonebraker’s career has focused on relational databases, which organize data into columns and rows. But in the mid 2000s, Stonebraker realized that a lot of data being generated would be better stored not in rows or columns but in multidimensional arrays.

For example, satellites break the Earth’s surface into large squares, and GPS systems track a person’s movement through those squares over time. That operation involves vertical, horizontal, and time measurements that aren’t easily grouped or otherwise manipulated for analysis in relational database systems.

Stonebraker recalls his scientific colleagues complaining that available database management systems were too slow to work with complex scientific datasets in fields like genomics, where researchers study the relationships between population-scale multi-omics data, phenotypic data, and medical records.

“[Relational database systems] scan either horizontally or vertically, but not both,” Stonebraker explains. “So you need a system that does both, and that requires a storage manager down at the bottom of the system which is capable of moving both horizontally and vertically through a very big array. That’s what Paradigm4 does.”

In 2008, Stonebraker began developing a database management system at MIT that stored data in multidimensional arrays. He confirmed the approach offered major efficiency advantages, allowing analytical tools based on linear algebra, including many forms of machine learning and statistical data processing, to be applied to huge datasets in new ways.

Stonebraker decided to spin the project into a company in 2010, when he partnered with Matz, a successful entrepreneur who co-founded Cognex Corporation, a large industrial machine-vision company that went public in 1989. The founders and their team went to work building out key features of the system, including its distributed architecture that allows the system to run on low-cost servers, and its ability to automatically clean and organize data in useful ways for users.

The founders describe their database management system as a computational engine for scientific data, and they’ve named it SciDB. On top of SciDB, they developed an analytics platform, called the REVEAL discovery engine, based on users’ daily research activities and aspirations.

“If you’re a scientist or data scientist, Paradigm’s REVEAL and SciDB products take care of all the data wrangling and computational ‘plumbing and wiring,’ so you don’t have to worry about accessing data, moving data, or setting up parallel distributed computing,” Matz says. “Your data is science-ready. Just ask your scientific question and the platform orchestrates all of the data management and computation for you.”

SciDB is designed to be used by both scientists and developers, so users can interact with the system through graphical user interfaces or by leveraging statistical and programming languages like R and Python.

“It’s been very important to sell solutions, not building blocks,” Matz says. “A big part of our success in the life sciences with top pharmas and biotechs and research institutes is bringing them our REVEAL suite of application-specific solutions to problems. We’re not handing them an analytical platform that’s a set of LEGO blocks; we’re giving them solutions that handle the data they deal with daily, and solutions that use their vocabulary and answer the questions they want to work on.”

Accelerating discovery

Today Paradigm4’s customers include some of the biggest pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the world as well as research labs at the National Institutes of Health, Stanford University, and elsewhere.

Customers can integrate genomic sequencing data, biometric measurements, data on environmental factors, and more into their inquiries to enable new discoveries across a range of life science fields.

Matz says SciDB did 1 billion linear regressions in less than an hour in a recent benchmark, and that it can scale well beyond that, which could speed up discoveries and lower costs for researchers who have traditionally had to extract their data from files and then rely on less efficient cloud-computing-based methods to apply algorithms at scale.

“If researchers can run complex analytics in minutes and that used to take days, that dramatically changes the number of hard questions you can ask and answer,” Matz says. “That is a force-multiplier that will transform research daily.”

Beyond life sciences, Paradigm4’s system holds promise for any industry dealing with multifaceted data, including earth sciences, where Matz says a NASA climatologist is already using the system, and industrial IoT, where data scientists consider large amounts of diverse data to understand complex manufacturing systems. Matz says the company will focus more on those industries next year.

In the life sciences, however, the founders believe they already have a revolutionary product that’s enabling a new world of discoveries. Down the line, they see SciDB and REVEAL contributing to national and worldwide health research that will allow doctors to provide the most informed, personalized care imaginable.

“The query that every doctor wants to run is, when you come into his or her office and display a set of symptoms, the doctor asks, ‘Who in this national database has genetics that look like mine, symptoms that look like mine, lifestyle exposures that look like mine? And what was their diagnosis? What was their treatment? And what was their morbidity?” Stonebraker explains. “This is cross correlating you with everybody else to do very personalized medicine, and I think this is within our grasp.”

3 Questions: Greg Britten on how marine life can recover by 2050

As the largest ecosystem on the planet, the ocean provides incredible resources and benefits to humanity — including contributing 2.5 percent of global GDP and 1.5 percent of global employment, as well as regulating our climate, providing clean energy, and producing much of the oxygen we breathe. But exploitation and human pressures — like pollution, overfishing, and climate change — have stressed its life-support systems, depleting biodiversity, reducing habitats, and undermining ocean productivity.

Study and public awareness of the of these problems, as well as the beauty of these ecosystems, has led to conservation efforts beginning in the 1980s. By that time, however, significant damage had been done and some losses were permanent. Years of increased management and international policy since then have made measurable gains. At the same time, growing human populations are leaning harder on ocean resources. Understanding the critical need to rebuild these habitats and species populations has reached the level of the United Nations, which instated the Sustainable Development Goal 14 to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” The effort sets benchmarks and indicators of environmental successes in the area but threats, both local and international, persist and in some cases are worsening.

In a new Nature Review paper, Greg Britten, a postdoc in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and his colleagues examine different aspects of marine life and argue that aggressive interventions could lead to recovery of marine life by 2050. Here, he elucidates some of the findings from this work, which was supported, in part, by the Simons Collaboration on Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems/CBIOMES.

Q: What is the current state of the world’s marine life and what recovery efforts have been attempted in the past?

A: While marine populations have been exploited throughout all of human history, the rate and magnitude of exploitation expanded exponentially between the 1950s and 1990s, largely due to the advent of industrial-scale fishing technology and large-scale habitat destruction via development of coastal areas. By the year 2000, it was estimated that the oceans’ “big fish” (tunas, large sharks, and billfish) were depleted by 90 percent relative to pre-exploitation levels. Further, approximately 60 percent of the world’s fisheries were considered “collapsed,” meaning that catches were at, or below, 10 percent of their historical maximum. At the same time, habitat destruction reached unprecedented levels — particularly in coastal areas.

These findings caused a tremendous response when revealed to the public that led to widespread calls for conservation intervention. Since then, marine exploitation has been significantly curtailed in much of the developed world, to a point where levels of exploitation are widely considered “sustainable”. Major global policy initiatives, like the Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and improvements to the Clean Water Act, also significantly reduced conservation threats like pollution, as well as the implementation of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

But this does not mean that populations immediately rebounded — indeed, they did not. It can take many years and decades for populations to fully rebuild to previous levels after the rate of exploitation has been reduced, and the impact of historical pollution and habitat destruction can linger for decades or longer. Furthermore, rates of exploitation and habitat destruction in the rest of the developing world have not been reduced as quickly, or remain unknown, while agreements to limit pollution and habitat destruction are generally also much weaker in developing countries.

Q: Tell us about your assessment of various interventions and potential future outcomes. What efforts have been successful so far, and where is there room for improvement?

A: We used a very large synthesis of available data to calculate historical and future trajectories of depleted marine populations under various levels of exploitation globally. We also documented the rates of recovery of habitats and ecosystems after pollution reductions and remediations were implemented.

We found that conservation and pollution reduction efforts, along with global environmental policy initiatives, have had a strong net positive influence on the recovery of marine populations, habitats, and ecosystems. We documented many cases of coral reef and mangrove recovery after local pollution remediation efforts. These occurred on a similar time scale as fish stocks, ranging from one to two decades for saltmarshes, to 30 years to a century for deep-sea corals and sponges that grow more slowly and are facing climate change, trawling, and oil spills. Globally, our research showed that the number of species listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conversation of Nature decreased from 18 percent in 2000 to 11.4 percent in the 2019, while the area of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) increased from 0.13 million square kilometers to 27.4 million over the same period. These MPAs help protect multiple layers of the ecosystem, from coastal habitats to fish and megafauna species. The switch to unleaded gasoline in the 1980s reduced marine lead concentrations to those comparable to the time before leaded gasoline was introduced, due to the relatively low residence time of lead in marine surface waters.

Going forward, we found the vast majority of populations and habitats (with available data) could be rebuilt based on documented recovery rates by the year 2050, if exploitation is not increased beyond current levels. However, large-scale environmental agreements were most successful in developed countries, whereas enforcement and financial commitment was generally poorer in developing countries. Marine environmental “success stories” were generally of smaller scale in the developing world and often involved the intervention of international, non-governmental organizations.

Our analysis of recovery times showed that there are reasons for hope. Assuming that there’s a 2.95 percent annual recovery rate across ecosystems, and provided conditions aren’t depleted to less than 50 percent of their original level, we estimate that, on average, 90 percent of the original ecosystem could be regained in about 21 years — what we would consider a “substantial recovery.” However, since pressures like climate change and plastic pollution are increasing, and species and habitats are on the decline, more time is needed for recovery. Taking into account uncertainties associated with poor data coverage and varied national commitments, we believe it is possible to rebuild the vast majority of depleted marine populations and ecosystems by some 50 to 90 percent by 2050 — a goal we have labeled a “Grand Challenge for humanity.”

Q: What are barriers to recovery and why is it critical to act now to find a way around them for humanity and the planet?

A: Lack of consistency in national marine commitments, funding, and regulations around the globe is perhaps the largest barrier to marine population and habitat recovery. For example, many nations differ in their fishing policies, in and around MPAs, which means that migratory populations like bluefin tuna and large sharks may be protected across much of their habitat while also encountering areas where fishing policies are less stringent, which can significantly slow rebuilding efforts.

Since developing nations lack conservation capacity and financial resources, we argue that enhancing the regulatory power of international bodies such as CITES and the United National Environment Program has the potential to solve these issues. But, it will require concerted effort among all countries, along with significant financial commitments, to improve and enforce these agreements internationally. However, achieving the desired results may be problematic if groups are failing to meet commitments to existing problems, like the Paris Agreement with climate change — an issue that affects whole ecosystems, causing species displacement and mass mortalities, and dictates rebuilding efforts.

If international, regional, and local communities prioritize “blue infrastructure” and marine life, the societal benefits and economic return by 2050 would be numerous. For every dollar invested, yields would be 10 dollars and over a million jobs. Revitalized fish populations, supported by policies and incentives, would see a huge jump in profits while improving overall health and sustainability of life in the area. Worldwide, the seafood profits would increase $53 billion. Further, $52 billion would be saved by restoring wetlands, which control storm surge, flooding, subsistence, and assist with climate change. Multi-tiered, complementary strategies, accountability, and buy-in can make this an achievable goal.

MIT scientist helps build Covid-19 resource to address shortage of face masks

When the Covid-19 crisis hit the United States this March, MIT neuroscientist Jill Crittenden wanted to help. One of her greatest concerns was the shortage of face masks, which are a key weapon for health care providers, frontline service workers, and the public to protect against respiratory transmission of Covid-19. For those caring for Covid-19 patients, face masks that provide a near-100 percent seal are essential. These critical pieces of equipment, called N95 masks, are now scarce, and health-care workers are now faced with reusing potentially contaminated masks.

To address this, Crittenden joined a team of 60 scientists and engineers, students, and clinicians drawn from universities and the private sector to synthesize the scientific literature about mask decontamination and create a set of best practices for bad times. The group has now unveiled a website, N95decon.org, which provides a summary of this critical information.

“I first heard about the group from Larissa Little, a Harvard graduate student with John Doyle,” explains Crittenden, who is a research scientist in Ann Graybiel’s lab at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. “The three of us began communicating because we are all also members of the Boston-based MGB Covid-19 Innovation Center, and we agreed that helping to assess the flood of information on N95 decontamination would be an important contribution.”

The team members who came together over several weeks scoured hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and held continuous online meetings to review studies of decontamination methods that had been used to inactivate previous viral and bacterial pathogens, and to then assess the potential for these methods to neutralize the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

“This group is absolutely amazing,” says Crittenden. “The Zoom meetings are very productive because it is all data- and solutions-driven. Everyone throws out ideas, what they know and what the literature source is, with the only goal being to get to a data-based consensus efficiently.”

Reliable resource

The goal of the consortium was to provide overwhelmed health officials, who don’t have the time to study the literature for themselves, reliable, pre-digested scientific information about the pros and cons of three decontamination methods that offer the best options should local shortages force a choice between decontamination and reuse, or going unmasked.

The three methods involve (1) heat and humidity, (2) a specific wavelength of light called ultraviolet C (UVC), and (3) treatment with hydrogen peroxide vapors (HPV). The scientists did not endorse any one method, but instead sought to describe the circumstances under which each could inactivate the virus provided rigorous procedures were followed. Devices that rely on heat, for instance, could be used under specific temperature, humidity, and time parameters. With UVC devices — which emit a particular wavelength and energy level of light — considerations involve making sure masks are properly oriented to the light so the entire surface is bathed in sufficient energy. The HPV method has the potential advantage of decontaminating masks in volume, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, acting in this emergency, has certified certain vendors to offer hydrogen peroxide vapor treatments on a large scale. In addition to giving health officials the scientific information to assess the methods best suited to their circumstances, N95decon.org points decision-makers to sources of reliable and detailed how-to information provided by other organizations, institutions, and commercial services.

“While there is no perfect method for decontamination of N95 masks, it is crucial that decision-makers and users have as much information as possible about the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches,” says Manu Prakash, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, who helped coordinate this ad hoc, volunteer undertaking. “Manufacturers currently do not recommend N95 mask reuse. We aim to provide information and evidence in this critical time to help those on the front lines of this crisis make risk-management decisions given the specific conditions and limitations they face.”

The researchers stressed that decontamination does not solve the N95 shortage, and expressed the hope that new masks should be made available in large numbers as soon as possible so that health-care workers and first providers could be issued fresh protective gear whenever needed as specified by the non-emergency guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Forward thinking

Meanwhile, these ad hoc volunteers have pledged to continue working together to update the N95decon.org website as new information becomes available, and to coordinate their efforts to do research to plug the gaps in current knowledge to avoid duplication of effort.

“We are, at heart, a group of people that want to help better equip hospitals and health-care personnel in this time of crisis,” says Brian Fleischer, a surgeon at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a member of the N95DECON consortium. “As a health care provider, many of my colleagues across the country have expressed concern with a lack of quality information in this ever-evolving landscape. I have learned a great deal from this team and I look forward to our continued collaboration to positively affect change.”

Crittenten is hopeful that the new website will help health-care workers make informed decisions about the safest methods available for decontamination and reuse of N95 masks. “I know physicians personally who are very grateful that teams of scientists are doing the in-depth data analysis so that they can feel confident in what is best for their own health,” she says.

Members of the team come from institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Seattle University, University of Utah, MIT, the University of Michigan, and from Consolidated Sterilizers and X, the Moonshot Factory.

Explained: Cement vs. concrete — their differences, and opportunities for sustainability

There’s a lot the average person doesn’t know about concrete. For example, it’s porous; it’s the world’s most-used material after water; and, perhaps most fundamentally, it’s not cement.

Though many use cement and concrete interchangeably, they actually refer to two different — but related — materials: Concrete is a composite made from several materials, one of which is cement.

Cement production begins with limestone, a sedimentary rock. Once quarried, it is mixed with a silica source, such as industrial byproducts slag or fly ash, and gets fired in a kiln at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. What comes out of the kiln is called clinker. Cement plants grind clinker down to an extremely fine powder and mix in a few additives. The final result is cement.

“Cement is then brought to sites where it is mixed with water, where it becomes cement paste,” explains Professor Franz-Josef Ulm, faculty director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). “If you add sand to that paste it becomes mortar. And if you add to the mortar large aggregates — stones of a diameter of up to an inch — it becomes concrete.”

What makes concrete so strong is the chemical reaction that occurs when cement and water mix — a process known as hydration.

“Hydration occurs when cement and water react,” says Ulm. “During hydration, the clinker dissolves into the calcium and recombines with water and silica to form calcium silica hydrates.”

Calcium silica hydrates, or CSH, are the key to cement’s solidity. As they form, they combine, developing tight bonds that lend strength to the material. These connections have a surprising byproduct — they make cement incredibly porous.

Within the spaces between the bonds of CSH, tiny pores develop — on the scale of 3 nanometers, or around 8 millionths of an inch. These are known as gel pores. On top of this, any water that hasn’t reacted to form CSH during the hydration process remains in the cement, creating another set of larger pores, called capillary pores.

According to research conducted by CSHub, the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Aix-Marseille University, cement paste is so porous that 96 percent of its pores are connected.

Despite this porosity, cement possesses excellent strength and binding properties. Of course, by decreasing this porosity, one can create a denser and even stronger final product.

Starting in the 1980s, engineers designed a material — high-performance concrete (HPC) — that did just that.

“High-performance concrete developed in the 1980s when people realized that the capillary pores can be reduced in part by reducing the water-to-cement ratio,” says Ulm. “With the addition of certain ingredients as well, this created more CSH and reduced the water that remained after hydration. Essentially, it reduced the larger pores filled with water and increased the strength of the material.”

Of course, notes Ulm, reducing the water-to-cement ratio for HPC also requires more cement. And depending on how that cement is produced, this can increase the material’s environmental impact. This is in part because when calcium carbonate is fired in a kiln to produce conventional cement, a chemical reaction occurs that produces carbon dioxide (CO2).

Another source of cement’s CO2 emissions come from heating cement kilns. This heating must be done using fossil fuels because of the extremely high temperatures required in the kiln (2,700 F). The electrification of kilns is being studied, but it is currently not technically or economically feasible.

Since concrete is the most popular material in the world and cement is the primary binder used in concrete, these two sources of CO2 are the main reason that cement contributes around 8 percent of global emissions.

CSHub’s Executive Director Jeremy Gregory, however, sees concrete’s scale as an opportunity to mitigate climate change.

“Concrete is the most-used building material in the world. And because we use so much of it, any reductions we make in its footprint will have a big impact on global emissions.”

Many of the technologies needed to reduce concrete’s footprint exist today, he notes.

“When it comes to reducing the emissions of cement, we can increase the efficiency of cement kilns by increasing our use of waste materials as energy sources rather than fossil fuels,” explains Gregory.

“We can also use blended cements that have less clinker, such as Portland limestone cement, which mixes unheated limestone in the final grinding step of cement production. The last thing we can do is capture and store or utilize the carbon emitted during cement production.”

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage has significant potential to reduce cement and concrete’s environmental impact while creating large market opportunities. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, carbon utilization in concrete will have a $400 billion global market by 2030. Several companies, like Solidia Cement and Carbon Cure, are getting ahead of the curve by designing cement and concrete that utilize and consequentially sequester CO2 during the production process.

“What’s clear, though,” says Gregory, “is that low-carbon concrete mixtures will have to use many of these strategies. This means we need to rethink how we design our concrete mixtures.”

Currently, the exact specifications of concrete mixtures are prescribed ahead of time. While this reduces the risk for developers, it also hinders innovative mixes that lower emissions.

As a solution, Gregory advocates specifying a mix’s performance rather than its ingredients.

“Many prescriptive requirements limit the ability to improve concrete’s environmental impact — such as limits on the water-to-cement ratio and the use of waste materials in the mixture,” he explains. “Shifting to performance-based specifications is a key technique for encouraging more innovation and meeting cost and environmental impact targets.”

According to Gregory, this requires a culture shift. To transition to performance-based specifications, numerous stakeholders, such as architects, engineers, and specifiers, will have to collaborate to design the optimal mix for their project rather than rely on a predesigned mix.

To encourage other drivers of low-carbon concrete, says Gregory, “we [also] need to address barriers of risk and cost. We can mitigate risk by asking producers to report the environmental footprints of their products and by enabling performance-based specifications. To address cost, we need to support the development and deployment of carbon capture and low-carbon technologies.”

While innovations can reduce concrete’s initial emissions, concrete can also reduce emissions in other ways.

One way is through its use. The application of concrete in buildings and infrastructure can enable lower greenhouse gas emissions over time. Concrete buildings, for instance, can have high energy efficiency, while the surface and structural properties of concrete pavements allow cars to consume less fuel.

Concrete can also reduce some of its initial impact through exposure to the air.   

“Something unique about concrete is that it actually absorbs carbon over its life during a natural chemical process called carbonation,” says Gregory.

Carbonation occurs gradually in concrete as CO2 in the air reacts with cement to form water and calcium carbonate. A 2016 paper in Nature Geoscience found that since 1930, carbonation in concrete has offset 43 percent of the emissions from the chemical transformation of calcium carbonate to clinker during cement production.

Carbonation, though, has a drawback. It can lead to the corrosion of the steel rebar often set within concrete. Going forward, engineers may seek to maximize the carbon uptake of the carbonation process while also minimizing the durability issues it can pose.

Carbonation, as well as technologies like carbon capture, utilization, and storage and improved mixes, will all contribute to lower-carbon concrete. But making this possible will require the cooperation of academia, industry, and the government, says Gregory.

He sees this as an opportunity.

“Change doesn’t have to happen based on just technology,” he notes. “It can also happen by how we work together toward common objectives.”

Q&A: Markus Buehler on setting SARS-CoV-2 protein and AI-inspired proteins to music

The proteins that make up all living things are alive with music. Just ask Markus Buehler: The musician and MIT professor develops artificial intelligence models to design new proteins, sometimes by translating them into sound. His goal is to create new biological materials for sustainable, non-toxic applications. In a project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, Buehler is searching for a protein to extend the shelf-life of perishable food. In a new study in Extreme Mechanics Letters, he and his colleagues offer a promising candidate: a silk protein made by honeybees for use in hive building. 

In another recent study, in APL Bioengineering, he went a step further and used AI discover an entirely new protein. As both studies went to print, the Covid-19 outbreak was surging in the United States, and Buehler turned his attention to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the appendage that makes the novel coronavirus so contagious. He and his colleagues are trying to unpack its vibrational properties through molecular-based sound spectra, which could hold one key to stopping the virus. Buehler recently sat down to discuss the art and science of his work.

Q: Your work focuses on the alpha helix proteins found in skin and hair. Why makes this protein so intriguing? 

A: Proteins are the bricks and mortar that make up our cells, organs, and body. Alpha helix proteins are especially important. Their spring-like structure gives them elasticity and resilience, which is why skin, hair, feathers, hooves, and even cell membranes are so durable. But they’re not just tough mechanically, they have built-in antimicrobial properties. With IBM, we’re trying to harness this biochemical trait to create a protein coating that can slow the spoilage of quick-to-rot foods like strawberries.

Q: How did you enlist AI to produce this silk protein?

A: We trained a deep learning model on the Protein Data Bank, which contains the amino acid sequences and three-dimensional shapes of about 120,000 proteins. We then fed the model a snippet of an amino acid chain for honeybee silk and asked it to predict the protein’s shape, atom-by-atom. We validated our work by synthesizing the protein for the first time in a lab — a first step toward developing a thin antimicrobial, structurally-durable coating that can be applied to food. My colleague, Benedetto Marelli, specializes in this part of the process. We also used the platform to predict the structure of proteins that don’t yet exist in nature. That’s how we designed our entirely new protein in the APL Bioengineering study. 

Q: How does your model improve on other protein prediction methods? 

A: We use end-to-end prediction. The model builds the protein’s structure directly from its sequence, translating amino acid patterns into three-dimensional geometries. It’s like translating a set of IKEA instructions into a built bookshelf, minus the frustration. Through this approach, the model effectively learns how to build a protein from the protein itself, via the language of its amino acids. Remarkably, our method can accurately predict protein structure without a template. It outperforms other folding methods and is significantly faster than physics-based modeling. Because the Protein Data Bank is limited to proteins found in nature, we needed a way to visualize new structures to make new proteins from scratch.

Q: How could the model be used to design an actual protein?

A: We can build atom-by-atom models for sequences found in nature that haven’t yet been studied, as we did in the APL Bioengineering study using a different method. We can visualize the protein’s structure and use other computational methods to assess its function by analyzing its stablity and the other proteins it binds to in cells. Our model could be used in drug design or to interfere with protein-mediated biochemical pathways in infectious disease.

Q: What’s the benefit of translating proteins into sound?

A: Our brains are great at processing sound! In one sweep, our ears pick up all of its hierarchical features: pitch, timbre, volume, melody, rhythm, and chords. We would need a high-powered microscope to see the equivalent detail in an image, and we could never see it all at once. Sound is such an elegant way to access the information stored in a protein. 

Typically, sound is made from vibrating a material, like a guitar string, and music is made by arranging sounds in hierarchical patterns. With AI we can combine these concepts, and use molecular vibrations and neural networks to construct new musical forms. We’ve been working on methods to turn protein structures into audible representations, and translate these representations into new materials. 

Q: What can the sonification of SARS-CoV-2’s “spike” protein tell us?

A: Its protein spike contains three protein chains folded into an intriguing pattern. These structures are too small for the eye to see, but they can be heard. We represented the physical protein structure, with its entangled chains, as interwoven melodies that form a multi-layered composition. The spike protein’s amino acid sequence, its secondary structure patterns, and its intricate three-dimensional folds are all featured. The resulting piece is a form of counterpoint music, in which notes are played against notes. Like a symphony, the musical patterns reflect the protein’s intersecting geometry realized by materializing its DNA code.

Q: What did you learn?

A: The virus has an uncanny ability to deceive and exploit the host for its own multiplication. Its genome hijacks the host cell’s protein manufacturing machinery, and forces it to replicate the viral genome and produce viral proteins to make new viruses. As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music. But it tricks our ear in the same way the virus tricks our cells. It’s an invader disguised as a friendly visitor. Through music, we can see the SARS-CoV-2 spike from a new angle, and appreciate the urgent need to learn the language of proteins.  

Q: Can any of this address Covid-19, and the virus that causes it?

A: In the longer term, yes. Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and design proteins. Even a small mutation can limit or enhance the pathogenic power of SARS-CoV-2. Through sonification, we can also compare the biochemical processes of its spike protein with previous coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS. 

In the music we created, we analyzed the vibrational structure of the spike protein that infects the host. Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more. Vibrations may change as temperatures warm, for example, and they may also tell us why the SARS-CoV-2 spike gravitates toward human cells more than other viruses. We’re exploring these questions in current, ongoing research with my graduate students. 

We might also use a compositional approach to design drugs to attack the virus. We could search for a new protein that matches the melody and rhythm of an antibody capable of binding to the spike protein, interfering with its ability to infect.

Q: How can music aid protein design?

A: You can think of music as an algorithmic reflection of structure. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for example, are a brilliant realization of counterpoint, a principle we’ve also found in proteins. We can now hear this concept as nature composed it, and compare it to ideas in our imagination, or use AI to speak the language of protein design and let it imagine new structures. We believe that the analysis of sound and music can help us understand the material world better. Artistic expression is, after all, just a model of the world within us and around us.  

Co-authors of the study in Extreme Mechanics Letters are: Zhao Qin, Hui Sun, Eugene Lim and Benedetto Marelli at MIT; and Lingfei Wu, Siyu Huo, Tengfei Ma and Pin-Yu Chen at IBM Research. Co-author of the study in APL Bioengineering is Chi-Hua Yu. Buehler’s sonification work is supported by MIT’s Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) and the Mellon Foundation. 

Q&A: Markus Buehler on setting coronavirus and AI-inspired proteins to music

The proteins that make up all living things are alive with music. Just ask Markus Buehler: The musician and MIT professor develops artificial intelligence models to design new proteins, sometimes by translating them into sound. His goal is to create new biological materials for sustainable, non-toxic applications. In a project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, Buehler is searching for a protein to extend the shelf-life of perishable food. In a new study in Extreme Mechanics Letters, he and his colleagues offer a promising candidate: a silk protein made by honeybees for use in hive building. 

In another recent study, in APL Bioengineering, he went a step further and used AI discover an entirely new protein. As both studies went to print, the Covid-19 outbreak was surging in the United States, and Buehler turned his attention to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the appendage that makes the novel coronavirus so contagious. He and his colleagues are trying to unpack its vibrational properties through molecular-based sound spectra, which could hold one key to stopping the virus. Buehler recently sat down to discuss the art and science of his work.

Q: Your work focuses on the alpha helix proteins found in skin and hair. Why makes this protein so intriguing? 

A: Proteins are the bricks and mortar that make up our cells, organs, and body. Alpha helix proteins are especially important. Their spring-like structure gives them elasticity and resilience, which is why skin, hair, feathers, hooves, and even cell membranes are so durable. But they’re not just tough mechanically, they have built-in antimicrobial properties. With IBM, we’re trying to harness this biochemical trait to create a protein coating that can slow the spoilage of quick-to-rot foods like strawberries.

Q: How did you enlist AI to produce this silk protein?

A: We trained a deep learning model on the Protein Data Bank, which contains the amino acid sequences and three-dimensional shapes of about 120,000 proteins. We then fed the model a snippet of an amino acid chain for honeybee silk and asked it to predict the protein’s shape, atom-by-atom. We validated our work by synthesizing the protein for the first time in a lab — a first step toward developing a thin antimicrobial, structurally-durable coating that can be applied to food. My colleague, Benedetto Marelli, specializes in this part of the process. We also used the platform to predict the structure of proteins that don’t yet exist in nature. That’s how we designed our entirely new protein in the APL Bioengineering study. 

Q: How does your model improve on other protein prediction methods? 

A: We use end-to-end prediction. The model builds the protein’s structure directly from its sequence, translating amino acid patterns into three-dimensional geometries. It’s like translating a set of IKEA instructions into a built bookshelf, minus the frustration. Through this approach, the model effectively learns how to build a protein from the protein itself, via the language of its amino acids. Remarkably, our method can accurately predict protein structure without a template. It outperforms other folding methods and is significantly faster than physics-based modeling. Because the Protein Data Bank is limited to proteins found in nature, we needed a way to visualize new structures to make new proteins from scratch.

Q: How could the model be used to design an actual protein?

A: We can build atom-by-atom models for sequences found in nature that haven’t yet been studied, as we did in the APL Bioengineering study using a different method. We can visualize the protein’s structure and use other computational methods to assess its function by analyzing its stablity and the other proteins it binds to in cells. Our model could be used in drug design or to interfere with protein-mediated biochemical pathways in infectious disease.

Q: What’s the benefit of translating proteins into sound?

A: Our brains are great at processing sound! In one sweep, our ears pick up all of its hierarchical features: pitch, timbre, volume, melody, rhythm, and chords. We would need a high-powered microscope to see the equivalent detail in an image, and we could never see it all at once. Sound is such an elegant way to access the information stored in a protein. 

Typically, sound is made from vibrating a material, like a guitar string, and music is made by arranging sounds in hierarchical patterns. With AI we can combine these concepts, and use molecular vibrations and neural networks to construct new musical forms. We’ve been working on methods to turn protein structures into audible representations, and translate these representations into new materials. 

Q: What can the sonification of SARS-CoV-2’s “spike” protein tell us?

A: Its protein spike contains three protein chains folded into an intriguing pattern. These structures are too small for the eye to see, but they can be heard. We represented the physical protein structure, with its entangled chains, as interwoven melodies that form a multi-layered composition. The spike protein’s amino acid sequence, its secondary structure patterns, and its intricate three-dimensional folds are all featured. The resulting piece is a form of counterpoint music, in which notes are played against notes. Like a symphony, the musical patterns reflect the protein’s intersecting geometry realized by materializing its DNA code.

Q: What did you learn?

A: The virus has an uncanny ability to deceive and exploit the host for its own multiplication. Its genome hijacks the host cell’s protein manufacturing machinery, and forces it to replicate the viral genome and produce viral proteins to make new viruses. As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music. But it tricks our ear in the same way the virus tricks our cells. It’s an invader disguised as a friendly visitor. Through music, we can see the SARS-CoV-2 spike from a new angle, and appreciate the urgent need to learn the language of proteins.  

Q: Can any of this address Covid-19, and the virus that causes it?

A: In the longer term, yes. Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and design proteins. Even a small mutation can limit or enhance the pathogenic power of SARS-CoV-2. Through sonification, we can also compare the biochemical processes of its spike protein with previous coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS. 

In the music we created, we analyzed the vibrational structure of the spike protein that infects the host. Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more. Vibrations may change as temperatures warm, for example, and they may also tell us why the SARS-CoV-2 spike gravitates toward human cells more than other viruses. We’re exploring these questions in current, ongoing research with my graduate students. 

We might also use a compositional approach to design drugs to attack the virus. We could search for a new protein that matches the melody and rhythm of an antibody capable of binding to the spike protein, interfering with its ability to infect.

Q: How can music aid protein design?

A: You can think of music as an algorithmic reflection of structure. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for example, are a brilliant realization of counterpoint, a principle we’ve also found in proteins. We can now hear this concept as nature composed it, and compare it to ideas in our imagination, or use AI to speak the language of protein design and let it imagine new structures. We believe that the analysis of sound and music can help us understand the material world better. Artistic expression is, after all, just a model of the world within us and around us.  

Co-authors of the study in Extreme Mechanics Letters are: Zhao Qin, Hui Sun, Eugene Lim and Benedetto Marelli at MIT; and Lingfei Wu, Siyu Huo, Tengfei Ma and Pin-Yu Chen at IBM Research. Co-author of the study in APL Bioengineering is Chi-Hua Yu. Buehler’s sonification work is supported by MIT’s Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) and the Mellon Foundation. 

3 Questions: Fotini Christia on new deal-making in Afghanistan

More than 18 years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States sent troops to Afghanistan with NATO as a measure to protect the U.S. homeland and its allies from the threat of terrorism. Now, the Trump administration hopes to bring an end what is referred to by many as an “endless war.” On Feb. 19 in Doha, Qatar, the United States signed an accord with the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist political and military organization that has been active within Afghanistan. The agreement calls for a cease-fire, withdrawal of foreign forces, intra-Afghan talks, and an end to terrorist activities. 

The parties are moving ahead — in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic — by connecting remotely, says Fotini Christia, a professor in the MIT Department of Political Science. On March 19, Afghan government officials had a two-and-a-half-hour Skype video call with their Taliban counterparts to reach an agreement on prisoner exchange. A U.S. envoy facilitated these discussions, highlighting a committed effort toward a lasting cease-fire. The peace talks will continue virtually for now. Christia recently discussed the U.S.-Taliban agreement and whether she believes it will bring peace to the Afghan people.

Q: You wrote in a 2009 article in Foreign Affairs that to win the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy should include the reconciliation of the Afghan government, NATO allies, and Pakistan, and enable the Taliban to realign with the Afghan government. Is this finally happening?

A: Not quite. What we are seeing now is very much a top-down agreement involving the Taliban and the U.S. What is agreed is a withdrawal of 12,800 U.S. forces within 14 months; a Taliban commitment not to conduct attacks against the U.S.; and a cessation of attacks between the Taliban and Afghan forces while U.S. forces withdraw. But there has been no clear discussion on what life will be like for Afghans after the peace deal. The intra-Afghan peace talks are supposed to get at that and to hammer out the details of a negotiated settlement. 

These talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were supposed to start on 10 March, but were delayed as the Afghan government is in disarray. There were parallel swearing-in ceremonies for the presidency held on March 9 by incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah. Even the Taliban spokesman pleaded with them to put their disagreements aside and focus on the peace talks. 

The truth is that the Afghan government has been fearful of a possible peace agreement with the Taliban, as that would allow for the military withdrawal of its main backer, the United States. U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, an American of Afghan descent who has been heading the negotiations with notable canny, has been working hard to keep the intra-Afghan negotiations on track. For instance, even though the U.S. had refused to recognize the results of the recent Afghan presidential election, recently we declared the incumbent Ashraf Ghani as the winner. In his inauguration speech, he in turn announced the gradual release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a precondition for the next step in the peace negotiations. 

It is unclear how long the intra-Afghan talks will take, especially since it is not clear whether the rival camp of Tajik leader Abdullah Abdullah will accept a place on the table in the Afghan government negotiations led by President Ghani or will choose to boycott them. But there will likely be a lot of U.S. pressure to reach an agreement that would expedite our exit. The U.S. State Department recently announced that it will cut $1 billion in aid in 2020 and potentially another in 2021. And even though withdrawal is supposed to be conditional on events on the ground (i.e., Taliban compliance with U.S. demands), the U.S. is seen determined to go ahead with troop withdrawal irrespective of how things play out.  

Q: Protecting Afghan women’s rights was a part of the rationale for our fight against the Taliban, yet human rights were not a consideration in the peace agreement. Furthermore, the Taliban does not recognize the civil liberties enshrined in that country’s constitution. Is this a concern? 

A: This has always been a concern. It has been clear from early on that any peace agreement with the Taliban will involve a regression on human rights and civil liberties. The U.S. does not want to formally recognize that risk, as it would go against our values and what we have claimed to have been fighting for all along. It chooses to go by vague Taliban pronouncements that all Afghans, men and women, will have due rights. What those rights would be is clearly open to interpretation. For now, the Taliban leader has provided an aspirational declaration that they “shall work towards providing quality (religious and scientific) education, employment, trade opportunities, development, and growth in all public sectors because this is the basic right of all Afghans and a fundamental need for our national progress, prosperity, and well-being.”

Despite the lack of rights-related guarantees, the U.S. desire to withdraw now is stronger than ever, and that means exit will proceed despite the collateral damage on individual freedoms and women’s rights that will inadvertently follow. After all, these gains always felt extremely tentative and were only experienced by a limited subset of urban Afghans. People on the countryside have only witnessed violence and economic insecurity. They want peace at any cost. 

Any hopes for some semblance of respect for human rights and civil liberties will end up depending on the U.S. making its post-withdrawal economic and development aid contributions conditional on guarantees for inclusion and respect for women’s rights. 

Q: Are you optimistic that this agreement will be effective in providing a path to peace in Afghanistan? 

A: The agreement will certainly enable rapid U.S. withdrawal. But it is very much an open question as to whether it will bring about peace. 

The day the U.S. and the Taliban signed the peace agreement, Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a message on the “Termination of Occupation Agreement with the United States.” There he declared the “collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation” to drive out U.S. forces after 19 years of “Jihad and struggle.” In that message he made it clear that the Taliban, referred to as the Islamic Emirate, has an intent to govern. 

Beyond making a call to all internal actors to find a “rational and just solution” and announcing a call for national unity and prosperous life, including amnesty for all that fought against the Taliban, the message signaled its stately aspirations by declaring that the Islamic Emirate is keen to maintain good relations with its neighbors and the international community. 

It is unclear what a negotiated settlement could look like between the Afghan government and the Taliban, given the latter’s clear desire to head the state. Whether the Taliban can commit to power sharing is a highly doubtful proposition, as many expect it to get military emboldened as soon as the U.S. withdraws, and to become the de facto ruling power. The 1988-89 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan saw a continuation of low-level fighting during Soviet withdrawal and an all-out civil war in the years that followed. We will have to hope that we can get it done better than the Soviets. 

MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem steps up to the challenge of Covid-19

Innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t easy. New companies are forced to make due with minimal resources. Decisions must be made in the face of great uncertainty. Conditions change rapidly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, MIT’s I&E community has stepped up to the unforeseen challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Groups from many corners of the Institute are adapting to the myriad disruptions brought on by the emergency and spearheading efforts to help the people most affected.

At a time when most students would be on spring break, many were collaborating on projects and participating in hacking workshops to respond to Covid-19. And as faculty and staff develop new curricula and support structures, they’re focusing on the needs of their students with the same devotion entrepreneurs must focus on their customers.

Above all, members of the MIT community have treated the challenges presented by Covid-19 as opportunities to help. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than the Covid-19 Rapid Innovation Dashboard, which was just a rough idea as recently as March 16, but is now a bustling hub of MIT’s Covid-19-related activities. Projects on the dashboard include an initiative to help low-income K-12 students with school shutdowns, an effort leveraging behavioral science to reduce the spread of misinformation about the virus, and multiple projects aimed at improving access to ventilators.

People following those projects would hardly suspect the participants have been uprooted from their lives and forced to radically change the way they work.

“We never would’ve wished this on anybody, but I feel like we’re ready for it,” says Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a professor of the practice at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “Working in an environment of great change, if you’re a great entrepreneur, is playing to your strengths. I think the students will rise to the occasion, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

The Rapid Innovation Dashboard

In the second week of March, as the global consequences of Covid-19’s spread were becoming apparent, members of the MIT Innovation Initiative began getting contacted by members of the MIT community looking for ways to help.

Most people wanted information on the various grassroots projects that had sprouted up around campus to address disruptions related to the spread of the virus. Some people were looking for ways to promote their projects and get support.

MITii’s team began brainstorming ways to help fill in those gaps, officially beginning work on the dashboard the week of March 16 — the same time staff members began working remotely.

“From ideation to whiteboarding, to concept, to iteration, to launch, we did it all in real time, and we went from idea to standing the dashboard up in four days,” MITii executive director Gene Keselman says. “It was beautiful for all of us innovation nerds.”

The site launched on March 19 with six projects. Today there are 50 live projects on the site and counting. Some of them deal with mechanical or scientific problems, like the aforementioned efforts to improve access to ventilators, while others are more data-focused, like an initiative to track the spread of the virus at the county level. Still others are oriented toward wellness, like a collection of MIT-related coloring pages for destressing.

“A lot of the things we’re seeing are data-driven, creative-driven projects to get people involved and get them feeling like they’re making an impact,” Keselman says.

The current dashboard is version 1.0 of an ongoing project that will continue to evolve based on the community’s needs. Down the line, the MITii team is considering ways to better connect the MIT community with investors looking to fund projects related to the virus.

“This is going to be a long term problem, and even when we go back to the office, issues will persist, we’ll be dealing with things that are the runoff from Covid-19,” Keselman says. “There will be an opportunity to keep this thing going to solve all kinds of second- or third-order problems.”

Overcoming adversity

The dashboard is just one example of how different entrepreneurial organizations on campus are stepping up to the challenges of Covid-19. The Trust Center is encouraging students to leverage its Orbit app, to get help from entrepreneurs in residence, engage with other members of MIT’s entrepreneurial community, and navigate MIT’s myriad entrepreneurial resources. And in response to Covid-19, the Trust Center launched the Antifragile Entrepreneurship Speaker Series to provide thought leadership to students.

“We’ve revitalized our speaker series,” Aulet says. “We used to fly people in, but now we can have anyone. They’re sitting at home, they’re bored, and we can have more interaction than we did before. We try to create antifragile humans, and antifragile humans excel in times like this.”

MIT D-Lab, where hands-on learning and common makerspaces are central to operations, is just one example of an area where faculty members are taking this opportunity to try new ways of managing projects and rethinking their curriculum.

“We’re in a real brainstorming phase right now, in the best sense of the word — throwing out all the wild ideas that come to us, and entertaining anything as we decide how to move forward,” Libby Hsu, a lecturer and academic program manager at D-Lab, told MIT News the week before MIT classes resumed. “We’re getting ready to ship materials and tools to students at their homes. We’re studying how to use Zoom to facilitate project work student teams have already put in. We’re realistically re-assessing what deliverables we could ask of students to help D-Lab staff prototype things for them here on campus, perhaps later in the semester or over the summer.”

Other entrepreneurial groups on campus, like the Venture Mentoring Service, MIT Sandbox, and the Legatum Center, are similarly adopting virtualized support mechanisms.

On March 5, MIT Solve, which uses social impact challenges to tackle the world’s biggest problems, launched a new Global Challenge seeking innovations around the prevention, detection, and response of Covid-19. The winning team will receive a $10,000 grant to further develop their solution.

The students themselves, of course, are also organizing initiatives. In addition to many of the projects in the Rapid Innovation Dashboard, the MIT COVID-19 Challenge is a student-led initiative that held its first virtual “ideathon” this past weekend, with another major event April 3-5.

Indeed, Keselman could’ve been talking about any group on campus when he said of his team at MITii, “We feel like we lived an entire lifetime in just the last week.”

The early efforts may not have been the way many participants expected to spend their spring break, but in the entrepreneurial world, new challenges are par for the course.

“Being knocked out of your homeostasis is a good thing and a bad thing, and it’s an entrepreneur’s job to make it more of a good thing than a bad thing,” Aulet says. “I think we’ll come out of this utilizing technology to have more efficient, more effective, more inclusive engagements. Is this disrupting the entrepreneurial ecosystem? Absolutely. Should we come out of it stronger? Absolutely.”

Technique reveals how crystals form on surfaces

The process of crystallization, in which atoms or molecules line up in orderly arrays like soldiers in formation, is the basis for many of the materials that define modern life, including the silicon in microchips and solar cells. But while many useful applications for crystals involve their growth on solid surfaces (rather than in solution), there has been a dearth of good tools for studying this type of growth.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT and Draper has found a way to reproduce the growth of crystals on surfaces, but at a larger scale that makes the process much easier to study and analyze. The new approach is described in a paper in the journal Nature Materials, by Robert Macfarlane and Leonardo Zomberg at MIT, and Diana Lewis PhD ’19 and David Carter at Draper.

Rather than assembling these crystals from actual atoms, the key to making the process easy to observe and quantify was the use of “programmable atom equivalents,” or PAEs, Macfarlane explains. This works because the ways atoms line up into crystal lattices is entirely a matter of geometry and doesn’t rely on the specific chemical or electronic properties of its constituents.

The team used spherical nanoparticles of gold, coated with specially selected single strands of genetically engineered DNA, giving the particles roughly the appearance of Koosh balls. Single DNA strands have the inherent property of attaching themselves tightly to the corresponding reciprocal strands, to form the classic double helix, so this configuration provides a surefire way of getting the particles to align themselves in precisely the desired way.

“If I put a very dense brush of DNA on the particle, it’s going to make as many bonds with as many nearest neighbors as it can,” Macfarlane says. “And if you design everything appropriately and process it correctly, they will form ordered crystal structures.” While that process has been known for some years, this work is the first to apply that principle to study the growth of crystals on surfaces.

“Understanding how crystals grow upward from a surface is incredibly important for a lot of different fields,” he says. The semiconductor industry, for example, is based on the growth of large single-crystal or multi-crystalline materials that must be controlled with great precision, yet the details of the process are difficult to study. That’s why the use of oversized analogs such as the PAEs can be of such benefit.

The PAEs, he says, “crystallize in exactly the same pathways that molecules and atoms do. And so they are a very nice proxy system for understanding how crystallization occurs.” With this system, the properties of the DNA dictate how the particles assemble and the 3D configuration they end up in.

They designed the system such that the crystals nucleate and grow starting from a surface and “by tailoring the interactions both between particles, and between the particles and the DNA-coated surface, we can dictate the size, the shape, the orientation and the degree of anisotropy (directionality) in the crystal,” Macfarlane says.

“By understanding the process this is going through to actually form these crystals, we can potentially use that to understand crystallization processes in general,” he adds.

He explains that not only are the resulting crystal structures about 100 times larger than the actual atomic ones, but their formation processes are also much slower. The combination makes the process much easier to analyze in detail. Earlier methods of characterizing such crystalline structures only showed their final states, thus missing complexities in the formation process.

“I could change the DNA sequence. I can change the number of DNA strands in the particle. I can change the size of the particle and I can tweak each of these individual handles independently,” Macfarlane says. “So if I wanted to be able to say, OK, I hypothesize that this particular structure might be favored under these conditions if I tuned the energetics in such a way, that’s a much easier system to study with the PAEs than it would be with atoms themselves.”

The system is very effective, he says, but DNA strands modified in a manner that allows for attachment to nanoparticles can be quite expensive. As a next step, the Macfarlane lab has also developed polymer-based building blocks that show promise in replicating these same crystallization processes and materials, but can be made inexpensively at a multigram scale.

The work was partly supported by a Draper fellowship and the National Science Foundation and used facilities of the Materials Technology Laboratory at MIT.

New sensors could offer early detection of lung tumors

People who are at high risk of developing lung cancer, such as heavy smokers, are routinely screened with computed tomography (CT), which can detect tumors in the lungs. However, this test has an extremely high rate of false positives, as it also picks up benign nodules in the lungs.

Researchers at MIT have now developed a new approach to early diagnosis of lung cancer: a urine test that can detect the presence of proteins linked to the disease. This kind of noninvasive test could reduce the number of false positives and help detect more tumors in the early stages of the disease.

Early detection is very important for lung cancer, as the five-year survival rates are at least six times higher in patients whose tumors are detected before they spread to distant locations in the body. 

“If you look at the field of cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, there’s a renewed recognition of the importance of early cancer detection and prevention. We really need new technologies that are going to give us the capability to see cancer when we can intercept it and intervene early,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, who is the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

Bhatia and her colleagues found that the new test, which is based on nanoparticles that can be injected or inhaled, could detect tumors as small as 2.8 cubic millimeters in mice.

Bhatia is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Science Translational Medicine. The paper’s lead authors are MIT and Harvard University graduate students Jesse Kirkpatrick and Ava Soleimany, and former MIT graduate student Andrew Warren, who is now an associate at Third Rock Ventures.

Targeting lung tumors

For several years, Bhatia’s lab has been developing nanoparticles that can detect cancer by interacting with enzymes called proteases. These enzymes help tumor cells to escape their original locations by cutting through proteins of the extracellular matrix.

To find those proteins, Bhatia created nanoparticles coated with peptides (short protein fragments) that are targeted by cancer-linked proteases. The particles accumulate at tumor sites, where the peptides are cleaved, releasing biomarkers that can then be detected in a urine sample.

Her lab has previously developed sensors for colon and ovarian cancer, and in their new study, the researchers wanted to apply the technology to lung cancer, which kills about 150,000 people in the United States every year. People who receive a CT screen and get a positive result often undergo a biopsy or other invasive test to search for lung cancer. In some cases, this procedure can cause complications, so a noninvasive follow-up test could be useful to determine which patients actually need a biopsy, Bhatia says.

“The CT scan is a good tool that can see a lot of things,” she says. “The problem with it is that 95 percent of what it finds is not cancer, and right now you have to biopsy too many patients who test positive.”

To customize their sensors for lung cancer, the researchers analyzed a database of cancer-related genes called the Cancer Genome Atlas and identified proteases that are abundant in lung cancer. They created a panel of 14 peptide-coated nanoparticles that could interact with these enzymes.

The researchers then tested the sensors in two different mouse models of cancer, both of which are engineered with genetic mutations that lead them to naturally develop lung tumors. To help prevent background noise that could come from other organs or the bloodstream, the researchers injected the particles directly into the airway.

Using these sensors, the researchers performed their diagnostic test at three time points: 5 weeks, 7.5 weeks, and 10.5 weeks after tumor growth began. To make the diagnoses more accurate, they used machine learning to train an algorithm to distinguish between data from mice that had tumors and mice that did not.

With this approach, the researchers found that they could accurately detect tumors in one of the mouse models as early as 7.5 weeks, when the tumors were only 2.8 cubic millimeters, on average. In the other strain of mice, tumors could be detected at 5 weeks. The sensors’ success rate was also comparable to or better than the success rate of CT scans performed at the same time points.

Reducing false positives

The researchers also found that the sensors have another important ability — they can distinguish between early-stage cancer and noncancerous inflammation of the lungs. Lung inflammation, common in people who smoke, is one of the reasons that CT scans produce so many false positives.

Bhatia envisions that the nanoparticle sensors could be used as a noninvasive diagnostic for people who get a positive result on a screening test, potentially eliminating the need for a biopsy. For use in humans, her team is working on a form of the particles that could be inhaled as a dry powder or through a nebulizer. Another possible application is using these sensors to monitor how well lung tumors respond to treatment, such as drugs or immunotherapies.

“A great next step would be to take this into patients who have known cancer, and are being treated, to see if they’re on the right medicine,” Bhatia says.

She is also working on a version of the sensor that could be used to distinguish between viral and bacterial forms of pneumonia, which could help doctors to determine which patients need antibiotics and may even provide complementary information to nucleic acid tests like those being developed for Covid-19. Glympse Bio, a company co-founded by Bhatia, is also working on developing this approach to replace biopsy in the assessment of liver disease.

The research was funded by the Koch Institute Support (core) Grant from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, the Koch Institute’s Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program through a gift from Upstage Lung Cancer, and Johnson and Johnson.

How dopamine drives brain activity

Using a specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor, MIT neuroscientists have discovered how dopamine released deep within the brain influences both nearby and distant brain regions.

Dopamine plays many roles in the brain, most notably related to movement, motivation, and reinforcement of behavior. However, until now it has been difficult to study precisely how a flood of dopamine affects neural activity throughout the brain. Using their new technique, the MIT team found that dopamine appears to exert significant effects in two regions of the brain’s cortex, including the motor cortex.

“There has been a lot of work on the immediate cellular consequences of dopamine release, but here what we’re looking at are the consequences of what dopamine is doing on a more brain-wide level,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering. Jasanoff is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the senior author of the study.

The MIT team found that in addition to the motor cortex, the remote brain area most affected by dopamine is the insular cortex. This region is critical for many cognitive functions related to perception of the body’s internal states, including physical and emotional states.

MIT postdoc Nan Li is the lead author of the study, which appears today in Nature.

Tracking dopamine

Like other neurotransmitters, dopamine helps neurons to communicate with each other over short distances. Dopamine holds particular interest for neuroscientists because of its role in motivation, addiction, and several neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. Most of the brain’s dopamine is produced in the midbrain by neurons that connect to the striatum, where the dopamine is released.

For many years, Jasanoff’s lab has been developing tools to study how molecular phenomena such as neurotransmitter release affect brain-wide functions. At the molecular scale, existing techniques can reveal how dopamine affects individual cells, and at the scale of the entire brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can reveal how active a particular brain region is. However, it has been difficult for neuroscientists to determine how single-cell activity and brain-wide function are linked.

“There have been very few brain-wide studies of dopaminergic function or really any neurochemical function, in large part because the tools aren’t there,” Jasanoff says. “We’re trying to fill in the gaps.”

About 10 years ago, his lab developed MRI sensors that consist of magnetic proteins that can bind to dopamine. When this binding occurs, the sensors’ magnetic interactions with surrounding tissue weaken, dimming the tissue’s MRI signal. This allows researchers to continuously monitor dopamine levels in a specific part of the brain.

In their new study, Li and Jasanoff set out to analyze how dopamine released in the striatum of rats influences neural function both locally and in other brain regions. First, they injected their dopamine sensors into the striatum, which is located deep within the brain and plays an important role in controlling movement. Then they electrically stimulated a part of the brain called the lateral hypothalamus, which is a common experimental technique for rewarding behavior and inducing the brain to produce dopamine.

Then, the researchers used their dopamine sensor to measure dopamine levels throughout the striatum. They also performed traditional fMRI to measure neural activity in each part of the striatum. To their surprise, they found that high dopamine concentrations did not make neurons more active. However, higher dopamine levels did make the neurons remain active for a longer period of time.

“When dopamine was released, there was a longer duration of activity, suggesting a longer response to the reward,” Jasanoff says. “That may have something to do with how dopamine promotes learning, which is one of its key functions.”

Long-range effects

After analyzing dopamine release in the striatum, the researchers set out to determine this dopamine might affect more distant locations in the brain. To do that, they performed traditional fMRI imaging on the brain while also mapping dopamine release in the striatum. “By combining these techniques we could probe these phenomena in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Jasanoff says.

The regions that showed the biggest surges in activity in response to dopamine were the motor cortex and the insular cortex. If confirmed in additional studies, the findings could help researchers understand the effects of dopamine in the human brain, including its roles in addiction and learning.

“Our results could lead to biomarkers that could be seen in fMRI data, and these correlates of dopaminergic function could be useful for analyzing animal and human fMRI,” Jasanoff says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and a Stanley Fahn Research Fellowship from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

The data speak: Stronger pandemic response yields better economic recovery

The research described in this article has been published as a working paper but has not yet been peer-reviewed by experts in the field.

With much of the U.S. in shutdown mode to limit the spread of the Covid-19 disease, a debate has sprung up about when the country might “reopen” commerce, to limit economic fallout from the pandemic. But as a new study co-authored by an MIT economist shows, taking care of public health first is precisely what generates a stronger economic rebound later.

The study, using data from the flu pandemic that swept the U.S. in 1918-1919, finds cities that acted more emphatically to limit social and civic interactions had more economic growth following the period of restrictions.

Indeed, cities that implemented social-distancing and other public health interventions just 10 days earlier than their counterparts saw a 5 percent relative increase in manufacturing employment after the pandemic ended, through 1923. Similarly, an extra 50 days of social distancing was worth a 6.5 percent increase in manufacturing employment, in a given city.

“We find no evidence that cities that acted more aggressively in public health terms performed worse in economic terms,” says Emil Verner, an assistant professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings. “If anything, the cities that acted more aggressively performed better.”

With that in mind, he observes, the idea of a “trade-off” between public health and economic activity does not hold up to scrutiny; places that are harder hit by a pandemic are unlikely to rebuild their economic capacities as quickly, compared to areas that are more intact.

“It casts doubt on the idea there is a trade-off between addressing the impact of the virus, on the one hand, and economic activity, on the other hand, because the pandemic itself is so destructive for the economy,” Verner says.

The study, “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu,” was posted to the Social Science Research Network as a working paper on March 26. In addition to Verner, the co-authors are Sergio Correia, an economist with the U.S. Federal Reserve, and Stephen Luck, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Evaluating economic consequences

To conduct the research, the three scholars examined mortality statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), historical economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and banking statistics compiled by finance economist Mark D. Flood, using the “Annual Reports of the Comptroller of Currency,” a government publication.

As Verner notes, the researchers were motivated to investigate the 1918-1919 flu pandemic to see what lessons from it might be applicable to the current crisis.

“The genesis of the study is that we’re interested in what the expected economic impacts of today’s coronavirus are going to be, and what is the right way to think about the economic consequences of the public health and social distancing interventions we’re seeing all around the world,” Verner says.

Scholars have known that the varying use of “nonpharmaceutical interventions,” or social-distancing measures, correlated to varying health outcomes across cities in 1918 and 1919. When that pandemic hit, U.S. cities that shut down schools earlier, such as St. Louis, fared better against the flu than places implementing shutdowns later, such as Philadelphia. The current study extends that framework to economic activity.

Quite a bit like today, social distancing measures back then included school and theater closures, bans on public gatherings, and restricted business activity.

“The nonpharmaceutical interventions that were implemented in 1918 interestingly resemble many of the policies that are being used today to reduce the spread of Covid-19,” Verner says.

Overall, the study indicates, the economic impact of the pandemic was severe. Using state-level data, the researchers find an 18 percent drop in manufacturing output through 1923, well after the last wave of the flu hit in 1919.

Looking at the effect across 43 cities, however, the researchers found significantly different economic outcomes, linked to different social distancing policies. The best-performing cities included Oakland, California; Omaha, Nebraska; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, which all enforced over 120 days of social distancing in 1918. Cities that instituted fewer than 60 days of social distancing in 1918, and saw manufacturing struggle afterward, include Philadelphia; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Lowell, Massachusetts.

“What we find is that areas that were more severely affected in the 1918 flu pandemic see a sharp and persistent decline in a number of measures of economic activity, including manufacturing employment, manufacturing output, bank loans, and the stock of consumer durables,” Verner says.

Banking issues

As far as banking goes, the study included banking write-downs as an indicator of economic health, because “banks were recognizing losses from loans that households and businesses were defaulting on, due to the economic disruption caused by the pandemic,” Verner says.

The researchers found that in Albany, New York; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston; and Syracuse, New York — all of which also had fewer than 60 days of social distancing in 1918 — the banking sector struggled more than anywhere else in the country.

As the authors note in the paper, the economic struggles that followed the 1918-1919 flu pandemic reduced the ability of firms to manufacture goods — but the reduction in employment meant that people had less purchasing power as well.

“The evidence that we have in our paper … suggests that the pandemic creates both a supply-side problem and a demand-side problem,” Verner notes.

As Verner readily acknowledges, the composition of the U.S. economy has evolved since 1918-1919, with relatively less manufacturing today and relatively more activity in services. The 1918-1919 pandemic was also especially deadly for prime working-age adults, making its economic impact particularly severe. Still, the economists think the dynamics of the previous pandemic are readily applicable to our ongoing crisis.

“The structure of the economy is of course different,” Verner notes. However, he adds, “While one shouldn’t extrapolate too directly from history, we can learn some of the lessons that may be relevant to us today.” First among those lessons, he emphasizes: “Pandemic economics are different than normal economics.”

MIT Professional Education conducts first all-virtual class in the wake of Covid-19

Following more than a year of planning, MIT Professional Education’s high-demand “Digital Transformation” program was ready to be held at Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when it suddenly hit an inflection point. Given the development of the Covid-19 global pandemic, delivering the on-the-ground program was no longer an option. Program Director Abel Sanchez and staff considered the options: “Do we cancel or postpone the program, or can we effectively pivot to a live virtual format — and still provide an engaging, high-quality learning experience?”

With only two weeks to reconfigure the program, Sanchez decided to take on the challenge and quickly adapted his curriculum to a new environment of instruction — live, but completely virtual.

“Though I’ve taught webinars in the past, this was my first time teaching an entire program virtually,” says Sanchez. “The challenge is that online formats can be dry and dull. As a participant, you’re checking your emails while [the course] is going on, and then coming back to attention when things pick up a bit. I knew we had to develop a better way. So that’s what we did!”

Developing a high-level online experience

With the support of Al Yamamah University, Sanchez took the material he had planned for the Digital Transformation course and reformatted it to accommodate live virtual delivery. That included incorporating tools such as interactive surveys and word-clouds. “I probably did about four times more preparation for this offering than I’ve done for a traditional face-to-face course,” Sanchez says. “I wanted to incorporate a lot of interactivity.”

Through the process, he discovered three major takeaways for translating on-the-ground courses to online virtual formats: 

1. You can’t rely on charm and personality. When teaching, instructors often rely on the in-person connection to effectively engage with their students. Without that component, you need to win them over with content and activities.

2. Don’t fall in love with your planned content. You’ve worked hard in your field and put a lot of effort into preparing your curriculum, but the pacing of virtual teaching can differ from in-person courses. If your students are particularly engaged with one activity, you may not have time for something else you had planned — and you have to be OK with that. 

3. Interactive activities win the day. You may not be physically together, but you can — and should — still work together. “The pace and ratio of activities are really important,” Sanchez says. “If you include too many activities, the program becomes disconnected and you lose momentum. But if your course is too lecture-heavy, you lose engagement. You need to strike a very careful balance.”

Learning in a period of disruption

Once the course launched, Sanchez followed a simple format to encourage participant engagement. After familiarizing the participants with the interactive features of the online platform, he would lecture for a short period, introduce an activity, make time for discussion, and then repeat the cycle. Within the structure, Sanchez encouraged participants to help shape their course experience. For instance, he offered the choice of completing an activity on fake news or autonomous vehicles (fake news won with two-thirds of the votes).

Group discussions, an important component of the on-the-ground course curriculum, were also translated for the online environment. Sanchez found that not only did the virtual format allow for these important breakout sessions — it actually made them easier to facilitate. 

“The team breakouts were faster than when we do them face-to-face,” he said. “In person, it takes a lot of time for people to navigate the physical space and get into groups. For this course, I’d tell them it was time to break out and 10 seconds later, 36 participants were in groups and collaborating.”

Participants also appeared more comfortable asking questions in the online format, Sanchez reports, perhaps due to the anonymity of the chat function. The result was a more open environment, in which people could engage without worrying about whether they were asking “stupid” questions. 

Moving forward in a time of uncertainty

Under less-than-ideal circumstances created by Covid-19, Sanchez was able to transform an in-person offering into a virtual learning model in just two weeks. And the final product was an unqualified success.

“The course was wonderful,” says Hessah Alsalamah, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture, Al Yamamah University, who attended the course herself. She notes, “The hands-on exercises and group discussions made the material even more interesting.”

“It was a very informative and effective course,” says another course participant, Feras Ababatain, team lead of a digital transformation unit. “We were able to explore the most important and up-to-date technologies that executives must know about.”

Khalid Alrabiah, financial analyst for an electricity company, agrees, highlighting the advantages of virtual learning. “I liked using Zoom because there were no (external) distractions,” Khalid says. “We were able to focus completely on the course.”

“At MIT, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of technology — and that includes the way we teach,” says Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education. “At MIT Professional Education, we had been pursuing asynchronous online and hybrid learning models for some time, but this is the first time we offered an entire four-day course live virtually to a dispersed, non-colocated audience, spurred by the evolving coronavirus situation. We are very proud to have taken the lead in this regard, with Dr. Sanchez’s adventurous, well-planned contribution, allowing MIT faculty to learn from our successful experience. We will continue to break new ground in serving our learners in these uncertain times.”

MIT initiates mass manufacture of disposable face shields for Covid-19 response

The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) available to health care professionals has become increasingly problematic as Covid-19 cases continue to surge. The sheer volume of PPE needed to keep doctors, nurses, and their patients safe in this crisis is daunting — for example, tens of millions of disposable face shields will be needed nationwide each month. This week, a team from MIT launched mass manufacturing of a new technique to meet the high demand for disposable face shields.

The single piece face shield design will be made using a process known as die cutting. Machines will cut the design from thousands of flat sheets per hour. Once boxes of these flat sheets arrive at hospitals, health care professionals can quickly fold them into three-dimensional face shields before adjusting for their faces.

“These face shields have to be made rapidly and at low cost because they need to be disposable,” explains Martin Culpepper, professor of mechanical engineering, director of Project Manus, and a member of MIT’s governance team on manufacturing opportunities for Covid-19. “Our technique combines low-cost materials with a high-rate manufacturing that has the potential of meeting the need for face shields nationwide.”

Culpepper and his team at Project Manus spearheaded the development of the technique in collaboration with a number of partners from MIT, local-area hospitals, and industry. The team has been working closely with the MIT Medical Outreach team and the Crisis Management Unit established by Vice President for Research Maria Zuber and directed by Elazer R. Edelman, the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT.

Extending the life of face masks

When used correctly, face masks should be changed every time a doctor or nurse treats a new patient. However, over the past month, many health care professionals have been asked to wear one face mask per day. That one mask could carry virus particles — potentially contributing to the spread of Covid-19 within hospitals and endangering health care professionals.

“The lack of adequate protective equipment or the idea of reusing potentially contaminated equipment is especially frightening to health care workers who are putting their lives, and by extension the lives and well-being of their families, on the line every day,” explains Edelman, who is also the director of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and leader of MIT’s PPE task force.

Face shields can address this problem by providing another layer of protection that covers masks and entire faces while extending the life of PPE. The shields are made of clear materials and have a shape similar to a welder’s mask. They protect the health care professional and their face mask from coming in direct contact with virus particles spread through coughing or sneezing.

“If we can slow down the rate at which health care professionals use face masks with a disposable face shield, we can make a real difference in protecting their health and safety,” explains Culpepper.

Culpepper and his team at Project Manus set out to design a face shield that could be rapidly produced at a scale large enough to meet the growing demand. They landed on a flat design that people could quickly fold into a three dimensional structure when the shield was ready for use. Their design also includes extra protection with flaps that fold under the neck and over the forehead.

As much of MIT’s campus came to a halt in light of social distancing measures being put in place, Culpepper started prototyping using a laser cutter he had in his house. Along with some design input from his children, he tested different materials and made the first 10 prototypes at home.

“When you’re thinking of materials, you have to keep supply chains in mind. You can’t choose a material that could evaporate from the supply chain. That is a challenging problem in this crisis,” explains Culpepper. After testing a few materials that cracked and broke when bent, the team chose polycarbonate and polyethylene terephthalate glycol – known more commonly as PETG – as the shield’s material.

In addition to making more prototypes at the Project Manus Metropolis Makerspace using a laser cutter, Culpepper worked with Professor Neil Gershenfeld and his team at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) on rapid-prototyping designs for testing using a Zund large-format cutter.

Gershenfeld’s team at CBA is working on a number of projects for coronavirus response using its digital fabrication facility at MIT as well as the global Fab Lab network it launched. “The coronavirus response site is a great resource for those that are interested in working on solutions for PPE and devices for the Covid-19 pandemic,” Culpepper adds.

“It’s been a pleasure in this difficult time collaborating with such an impressive group, drawing on all of the Institute’s strengths to quickly define and refine a solution to an urgent need,” says Gershenfeld. “The work at MIT will be valuable beyond its immediate local impact, as a best-practices reference for the many other face shield projects emerging around the world.”

Testing the shield at local hospitals

With a number of working prototypes built, Culpepper and his team moved to the testing phase after consultation with, and practical feedback from, Edelman, who is also a physician.

“The single greatest insecurity of a health care provider is the thought that we will become infected and in doing so be unable to perform our duties or infect others,” adds Edelman.

Edelman demonstrated how to store, assemble, and use the face shields for nurses and physicians at a number of area hospitals. Participants were then asked to use them in real-life situations and provide feedback using a one-page survey.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive — participants found that in addition to being easy to assemble and use, the MIT-designed shields provided good protection against coming in contact with virus particles through splashes or aerosolized particles.

Armed with this feedback, Culpepper’s team made a few minor adjustments to the design to maximize coverage around the sides and neck of users. With the design finalized, the project has this week shifted to high-rate mass manufacturing.

High-rate mass manufacturing

The die cutter machines used in mass manufacturing will produce the flat face shields at a rate of 50,000 shields per day in a few weeks. The manufacturer will continue to ramp up and increase the rate of manufacturing further with the ability to fabricate in more than 80 facilities nationwide.

“This process has been designed in such a way that there is the potential to ramp up to millions of face shields produced per day,” explains Culpepper. “This could very quickly become a nationwide solution for face shield shortages.”

MIT plans on purchasing the first 40,000 face shields to donate to local Boston-area hospitals this week and the fabrication facilities will donate 60,000.

“Having an adequate and perhaps even endless supply of PPE is absolutely critical to ensuring the safety of the entire population, especially those who care for Covid-19 patients,” adds Edelman.

Throughout the process, Culpepper’s team received help from a number of colleagues and departments across MIT. This includes MIT’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Professor Elazer Edelman, Tolga Durak, managing director of the MIT Environment, Health and Safety Office, the Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT Procurement Operations, MIT’s Office of the General Counsel, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and colleagues from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, who helped source material to build the face shields and supported design iterations. They also received advice from MIT colleagues working with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which is helping organize manufacturers for Covid-19 response.

“This project was a great example of collaboration across MIT and the employment of mind-heart-hand. When we reached out to others, they dropped everything to put their minds and hands to work helping us make this happen quickly,” says Culpepper. “It is also a great example for others to look to safely and rapidly innovate PPE for Covid-19.”

In a time of physical distancing, connecting socially across generations is more important than ever

Collective disruption to our schools, work, and play, along with a heightened awareness of what it means to worry about our close ties with others, add up to fuel for sparking a movement. Just a few days ago, most high school students were in school, looking forward to spring break, graduation, and dreaming about plans for the summer. In light of Covid-19 outbreaks across the globe, many of those plans have suddenly changed.

At the same time, older adults have found that their senior centers and social clubs have closed. Everyday public spaces, such as grocery stores, have become potentially dangerous places. Not only Covid-19, but social isolation is a major risk.

In a time of so much uncertainty and change, the mutually beneficial activities that foster connections between the old and young cannot stop now. They are more important than ever.

Connection between older and younger adults strengthens social bonds and community ties, facilitates the sharing of knowledge and wisdom, and reminds us that generational differences are often greater in theory than in practice. The MIT AgeLab helps to organize a program called OMEGA (Opportunities for Multigenerational Exchange, Growth, and Action), an initiative designed to foster multigenerational connections between high school students and older adults. But conventional thinking about intergenerational connection must change during a pandemic. 

While it might not be possible to connect across generations in the usual ways, it doesn’t mean those connections need to stop entirely. Instead, now can be a time for new creative measures: Individuals need to support one another and to leverage technologies to support our relationships. It is now more important than ever to live up to the “mens et manus” (“mind and hand”) MIT motto. Here are some ways the AgeLab is thinking about to help keep generations connected for a better life tomorrow:

Mutual aid: Neighborhood apps like Nextdoor can connect you with neighbors nearby who may be worried about the risk of exposure to the virus in public spaces. With the app, you can volunteer to run an errand, such as grocery shopping. Additionally, with so many school districts shifting over to online learning, adults can offer virtual or phone tutoring to students who may need academic support. Both of these forms of intergenerational aid offer an opportunity to check in with each other and have a conversation.  

Virtual performances: Do you have a hobby or skill like playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, vlogging, cooking, etc., that you could share with someone in your life? Whether live or pre-recorded, virtual performances are a great opportunity to practice your talent while sharing the live energy with others.

Informal conversations: Whether it’s “old school” through the phone or live on a video chatting application, such as FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, we can talk in real-time with others — or engage thoughtfully through social media. Consider using these formats to check in with folks, to share news or interesting information, or even to do an activity together, such as a puzzle, game, or book club discussion.

Video messages: Pre-recording digital video messages to share with people you can’t visit right now is a great way to let someone know you are thinking of them. You can get really creative with these, including how they are produced, what you discuss, and how many you collect from others.

Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection, and all generations can play a key role in taking action. The movement doesn’t have to stall because of Covid-19; instead, it is more important than ever.

The MIT AgeLab’s OMEGA Project, sponsored by Five Star Senior Living, is an initiative designed to strengthen multigenerational relationships and spark brainstorming for student-championed programming ideas and activities that connect high school students with older adults. The 2020 OMEGA Scholarship application is now available for high school students who have led intergenerational efforts in their own communities.

Need advice about running an intergenerational activity during this period of social distancing? Get in touch virtually with an AgeLab researcher at [email protected]

Mesoamerican copper smelting technology aided colonial weaponry

When Spanish invaders arrived in the Americas, they were generally able to subjugate the local peoples thanks, in part, to their superior weaponry and technology. But archeological evidence indicates that, in at least one crucial respect, the Spaniards were quite dependent on an older indigenous technology in parts of Mesoamerica (today’s Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras).

The invaders needed copper for their artillery, as well as for coins, kettles, and pans, but they lacked the knowledge and skills to produce the metal. Even Spain at that time had not produced the metal domestically for centuries, relying on imports from central Europe. In Mesoamerica they had to depend on local smelters, furnace builders, and miners to produce the essential material. Those skilled workers, in turn, were able to bargain for exemption from the taxes levied on the other indigenous people.

This dependence continued for at least a century, and perhaps as long as two centuries or more, according to new findings published in the journal Latin American Antiquity, in a paper by Dorothy Hosler, professor of archeology and ancient technology at MIT, and Johan Garcia Zaidua, a researcher at the University of Porto, in Portugal.

The research, at the site of El Manchón, in Mexico, made use of information gleaned from more than four centuries worth of archeological features and artifacts excavated by Hosler and her crew over multiple years of fieldwork, as well as from lab work and historical archives in Portugal, Spain, and Mexico analyzed by Garcia.

El Manchón, a large and remote settlement, initially displayed no evidence of Spanish presence. The site consisted of three steep sectors, two of which displayed long house foundations, some with interior rooms and religious sanctuaries, patios, and a configuration that was conceptually Mesoamerican but unrelated to any known ethnic groups such as the Aztec. In between the two was an area that contained mounds of slag (the nonmetallic material that separates out during smelting from the pure metal, which floats to the surface).

The Spanish invaders urgently needed enormous quantities of copper and tin to make the bronze for their cannons and other armaments, Hosler says, and this is documented in the historical and archival records. But “they didn’t know how to smelt,” she says, whereas archaeological data suggest the indigenous people had already been smelting copper at this settlement for several hundred years, mostly to make ritual or ceremonial materials such as bells and amulets. These artisans were highly skilled, and in Guerrero and elsewhere had been producing complex alloys including copper-silver, copper-arsenic, and copper-tin for hundreds of years, working on a small scale using blowpipes and crucibles to smelt the copper and other ores. 

But the Spanish desperately reqired large quantities of copper and tin, and in consultation with indigenous smelters introduced some European technology into the process. Hosler and her colleagues excavated an enigmatic feature that consisted of two parallel courses of stones leading toward a large cake of slag in the smelting area. They identified this as the remains of a thus-far-undocumented hybrid type of closed furnace design, powered by a modified hand-held European bellows. A small regional museum in highland Guerrero illustrates just such a hybrid furnace design, including the modified European-introduced bellows system, capable of producing large volumes of copper. But no actual remains of such furnaces had previously been found.

The period when this site was occupied spanned from about 1240 to 1680, Hosler says, and may have extended to both earlier and later times.

The Guerrero site, which Hosler excavated over four field seasons before work had to be suspended because of local drug cartel activity, contains large heaps of copper slag, built up over centuries of intensive use. But it took a combination of the physical evidence, analysis of the ore and slags, the archaeological feature in the the smelting area, the archival work, and reconstruction drawing to enable identification of the centuries of interdependence of the two populations in this remote outpost.

Earlier studies of the composition of the slag at the site, by Hosler and some of her students, revealed that it had formed at a temperature of 1150 degrees Celsius, which could not have been achieved with just the blowpipe system and would have required bellows. That helps to confirm the continued operation of the site long into the colonial period, Hosler says.

Years of work went into trying to find ways to date the different deposits of slag at the site. The team also tried archaeomagnetic data but found that the method was not effective for the materials in that particular region of Mexico. But the written historical record proved key to making sense of the wide range of dates, which reflected centuries of use of the site.

Documents sent back to Spain in the early colonial period described the availability of the locally produced copper, and the colonists’ successful tests of using it to cast bronze artillery pieces. Documents also described the bargains made by the indigenous producers to gain economic privileges for their people, based on their specialized metallurgical knowledge.

“We know from documents that the Europeans figured out that the only way they could smelt copper was to collaborate with the indigenous people who were already doing it,” Hosler says. “They had to cut deals with the indigenous smelters.”

Hosler says that “what’s so interesting to me is that we were able to use traditional archeological methods and data from materials analysis as well as ethnographic data” from the furnace in a museum in the area, “and historical and archival material from 16th century archives in Portugal, Spain, and Mexico, then to put all the data from these distinct disciplines together into an explanation that is absolutely solid.”

The research received support from Charles Barber, CEO of Asarco; the Wenner-Gren Foundation; FAMSI; and MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

The 2020 U.S. census: Time to make it count

The year’s U.S. census is taking place at a unique time in the country’s history. Many people, including college students, are staying in their homes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the Census Bureau has taken a number of steps to respond to the disruptions of the outbreak.

Students who are usually at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily living somewhere else due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and universities like MIT are working with census officials to count students that normally live in a dorm or other college-owned housing.

But, under official guidance, “if you live in an apartment or house alone or with roommates or others,” you should receive an invitation in the mail to respond to the census, which you can respond to online, by phone, or by mail. “Whatever method you choose,” the guidance continues, “make sure you use your normal address — where you usually live while you’re at school. You should also include anyone else who normally lives there, too. That means you’ll be asked about your roommates’ birthdays, how they want to identify their race, etc. But if you don’t know that information, or you can’t verify whether your roommate has already responded for your home, please respond for the entire household.”

Census Day is April 1, but the government strongly encourages online responses, which can be submitted here until Aug. 14 under a revised schedule. Census takers will also follow up with some households that don’t respond. Still, most things will not change for the once-a-decade-survey. By law, the Census Bureau must deliver each state’s population total to the president by Dec. 31 of this year. That’s because census data have important implications for redistricting and representation purposes.

The census is valuable for a number of other applications as well. To learn more, and to understand why members of the MIT community should participate, MIT News spoke with Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and Amy Glasmeier, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planing, both of whom have used census data for important research throughout their careers.

Q: Why is the census so important?

GLASMEIER: The census is the basis of many important functions in our society. First, it helps to set the congressional districts and decide how many representatives particular geographic areas have. Second, the census is used to determine the distribution of federal resources. For example, if a region goes down to 49,000 people, it’s not considered a metropolitan area anymore and falls into a completely different [resource allocation] category. Third, it’s important at the community level. Communities are responsible for certain kinds of goods and services, and if they don’t have an accurate count of their population, they don’t have a good way of knowing what their responsibilities are. It’s incredibly important to know how many students are in your school district and the growth rate of your school district, or the growth rate of your elderly population. So the census is the statistical fabric, if you will, of our society.

NOBLES: Over the centuries, the importance of census data has grown far past representative purposes. Uses now extend to budgeting and really anything we care about in public life.

The census deals with many things researchers are interested in. From where people live to how they are living, to how large their households are, to age distribution, gender distribution, etc. It’s a public service and it allows for broad access to data by researchers, which is different from private databases ,which may not provide you that information. It’s a public service that researchers rely on enormously.

Q: Why should members of the MIT community participate?

NOBLES: The census is based on inhabitants in locations, so it’s indifferent to citizenship. It’s important for governments (federal, state, and municipal) and researchers to know that international students are here, for example, and how many people there are in their communities.

The main thrust of the census is to be counted. It asks where every inhabitant in the U.S. is on April 1, census day. It’s a relatively quick survey and it’s worth doing; it’s part of our civic duty. Our government needs reliable data — we should appreciate the importance of that, at MIT. In order to make good policies, you first need good data, so participating in the census is  part of our intellectual duty in addition to our civic duty.

GLASMEIER: Unless someone is registered to vote in their home, they’re going to be identified here as a resident in a group quarter. This kind of information is important for the city of Cambridge, because they’re making decisions about things like water supply, housing, and transportation, and it’s also important from the perspective of understanding who’s going to college. What’s their personal history? Where do they come from, from the standpoint of ethnicity, race, gender?

Q: What do you wish more people know about the census?

NOBLES: I don’t want people to be suspicious of it. There are rightly many concerns right now about data privacy, and sometimes it seems people are more fearful of the census than they are of private corporations, which often have way more personal information than the government, by the way. You can rest assured that these data are used for a range of government programs, most importantly our own democratic governance, and it’s part of living in the U.S. People should look at it as a useful tool and not be suspicious of it.

GLASMEIER: The anonymity is important. America is extremely rigorous about confidentiality across the entire census. It also sets the political environment for the nation, and it’s exceedingly important in that way. Finally, for those of us who use it for research purposes, it’s a daily thing we touch. For many others that are starting to deal with populations and think about people, the census is this amazing source they may not even know exists.

Making MIT entrepreneurship matter in Hong Kong

You have two weeks in a city that is 8,000 miles away from everything familiar to you. Alongside you are 34 of the best minds selected from both MIT and Hong Kong universities. There is one goal: build products that will transform an underserved district.

This objective was set by the staff of the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, who believed that by putting theory into practice, they could design a program that grounded action learning to local inquiry — they call it the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI). This program is featured in Kowloon East, a unique area of Hong Kong with sponsors who have a vested interest in its prospects for revitalization. Professor Charles Sodini, the Clarence J. LeBel Professor in Electrical Engineering and faculty director of the Innovation Node, says the location provides “a terrific experience for students to discover opportunities against a backdrop of socio-economic and environmental challenges.”

Product ideas and proposed startups are a valuable resource to both the sponsors and the community. In response to these challenges, students form interdisciplinary teams to examine wide-ranging themes across smart mobility, sustainability, and wellness. Participants experience the chaos and excitement of entrepreneurship: making critical early decisions, building relationships with stakeholders and prospective customers, and using insights to converge ideas into tangible solutions. By the end of the program, the MEMSI teams build proof-of-concept prototypes and pitch their business plans to over 100 attendees at a showcase held in Hong Kong.

Showcased projects have included:

a health-care kiosk to give patients access to diagnostic services;
a fall-detection wearable, worn as jewelry by seniors, that alerts caregivers;
an intelligent waste management system to promote positive food waste-sorting habits;
an internet of things-enabled platform that upgrades the walking tour experience and made accessible for the visually-impaired; and
a crowd-control system to improve passenger dispersion on train platforms.
From idea to market

While MEMSI is about the educational experience, teams have already started testing their ideas outside of the program. Sodini notes that several projects have advanced to the next level, often connecting with opportunities on campus to develop into startups. “MEMSI is a launch pad for students. They can explore multiple entrepreneurial paths and access rapid, low-volume manufacturing capabilities right in our backyard,” he states.

The program is designed for students who are looking to test their appetite for technology-based entrepreneurship. For example, Atem, a startup admitted into MIT’s delta v accelerator last summer, created their “smart” inhaler during MEMSI. The device helps users manage respiratory health through improved adherence and technique.

Another startup, Aavia, focuses on women’s health and was also conceived during the MEMSI program, with co-founders from both MIT and Hong Kong. They created a patented “smart sleeve” for blister packs of contraceptives that sends reminders to users to take the pill on schedule. Prior to joining delta v, the team spent one year at the Innovation Node prototyping and sourcing manufacturing partnerships across the mainland China border.

A global classroom

MEMSI is a product of collaborative input that was designed to educate students in the key areas of innovation practice, by incorporating the knowledge and novel experiences of both innovation node staff and featured entrepreneurs. This two-week immersive hardware program is supported by the MIT Innovation Initiative and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) China Program, and it integrates content from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Project Manus.

For MBA student Yunus Sevimli, learning to work in a diverse team “is an indispensable skill” but often “hard to practice within the classroom of a business school.” He says MEMSI gave him the opportunity to collaborate with a group that is truly diverse in multiple aspects. “Our team of seven was composed of engineering, design, business, and occupational therapy students from three universities in Hong Kong as well as two graduate programs at MIT. The different perspectives each team member brought to the table allowed us to challenge our assumptions and push ourselves.”

Kate Wong, a student participant from Hong Kong, agrees. Working with Sevimli, she attributes the team’s “positive dynamics” to this diversity. Wong’s background in medical rehabilitation enabled her to “make use of connections with nonprofit organizations and professionals … and connecting with the elderly,” as they drew stakeholder insights to inform the design of a fall detection wearable for senior citizens.

The global classroom experience included a two-day tour to Shenzhen, a major city known for its speed to market when it comes to hardware innovation. Students learned about the Chinese hardware manufacturing ecosystem first-hand, which was a highlight for students such as Antoine Yazbeck, an engineering graduate student studying advanced manufacturing and design.

“We hear a lot about Chinese factories, but having the chance to actually see that for yourself is different. Within these visits, what was great was also the diversity of factories we visited. From the traditional ‘high productivity for a healthy economy’ factory to the new modern-and-connected factory,” says Yazbeck. 

Building an entrepreneurial community

The MIT Innovation Node has worked with more than 120 MIT students in the past three years. With each cohort, students return to Hong Kong as teaching assistants to support the learning experience for their peers, while honing their own teaching and learning around entrepreneurship.

Being a teaching assistant for MEMSI provided Eric Wong, an engineering graduate student, “an amazing opportunity to take what I learned as a participant in the program last year and hopefully inspire the cohort to think bigger of what is possible for them as I felt myself.”

For the Innovation Node, building an entrepreneurial community is fundamental to inspire students to think bigger. This means connecting with like-minded entrepreneurs, industry experts and business mentors — many of whom are MIT alumni residing in Hong Kong.

The opportunity for alumni to mentor students is “like an intense pick-up basketball game with a group of young skilled players — both challenging and fun,” says Sean Kwok ’97, MArch ’01, a practicing architect and prop-tech entrepreneur. Kwok sees the experience of guiding these aspiring entrepreneurs as mutually beneficial, “Their fresh perspectives and unique insights often inspire me with new ideas for my own projects.” 

By helping students adopt a customer-centric approach to build solutions around those insights, the program aims to nurture entrepreneurial skills relevant for the future.

“Whether they’re building a startup, joining a corporation, or advancing their academic pursuits,” says Charleston Sin, executive director of the Innovation Node, “our goal is to nurture the entrepreneurial mindset that will help students succeed in their careers.”

Newly discovered enzyme “square dance” helps generate DNA building blocks

How do you capture a cellular process that transpires in the blink of an eye? Biochemists at MIT have devised a way to trap and visualize a vital enzyme at the moment it becomes active — informing drug development and revealing how biological systems store and transfer energy.

The enzyme, ribonucleotide reductase (RNR), is responsible for converting RNA building blocks into DNA building blocks, in order to build new DNA strands and repair old ones. RNR is a target for anti-cancer therapies, as well as drugs that treat viral diseases like HIV/AIDS. But for decades, scientists struggled to determine how the enzyme is activated because it happens so quickly. Now, for the first time, researchers have trapped the enzyme in its active state and observed how the enzyme changes shape, bringing its two subunits closer together and transferring the energy needed to produce the building blocks for DNA assembly.

Before this study, many believed RNR’s two subunits came together and fit with perfect symmetry, like a key into a lock. “For 30 years, that’s what we thought,” says Catherine Drennan, an MIT professor of chemistry and biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “But now, we can see the movement is much more elegant. The enzyme is actually performing a ‘molecular square dance,’ where different parts of the protein hook onto and swing around other parts. It’s really quite beautiful.”

Drennan and JoAnne Stubbe, professor emerita of chemistry and biology at MIT, are the senior authors on the study, which appeared in the journal Science on March 26. Former graduate student Gyunghoon “Kenny” Kang PhD ’19 is the lead author.

All proteins, including RNR, are composed of fundamental units known as amino acids. For over a decade, Stubbe’s lab has been experimenting with substituting RNR’s natural amino acids for synthetic ones. In doing so, the lab realized they could trap the enzyme in its active state and slow down its return to normal. However, it wasn’t until the Drennan lab gained access to a key technological advancement — cryo-electron microscopy — that they could snap high-resolution images of these “trapped” enzymes from the Stubbe lab and get a closer look.

“We really hadn’t done any cryo-electron microscopy at the point that we actively started trying to do the impossible: get the structure of RNR in its active state,” Drennan says. “I can’t believe it worked; I’m still pinching myself.”

The combination of these techniques allowed the team to visualize the complex molecular dance that allows the enzyme to transport the catalytic “firepower” from one subunit to the next, in order to generate DNA building blocks. This firepower is derived from a highly reactive unpaired electron (a radical), which must be carefully controlled to prevent damage to the enzyme. 

According to Drennan, the team “wanted to see how RNR does the equivalent of playing with fire without getting burned.”

First author Kang says slowing down the radical transfer allowed them to observe parts of the enzyme no one had been able to see before in full. “Before this study, we knew this molecular dance was happening, but we’d never seen the dance in action,” he says. “But now that we have a structure for RNR in its active state, we have a much better idea about how the different components of the enzyme are moving and interacting in order to transfer the radical across long distances.”

Although this molecular dance brings the subunits together, there is still considerable distance between them: The radical must travel 35-40 angstroms from the first subunit to the second. This journey is roughly 10 times farther than the average radical transfer, according to Drennan. The radical must then travel back to its starting place and be stored safely, all within a fraction of a second before the enzyme returns to its normal conformation.

Because RNR is a target for drugs treating cancer and certain viruses, knowing its active-state structure could help researchers devise more effective treatments. Understanding the enzyme’s active state could also provide insight into biological electron transport for applications like biofuels. Drennan and Kang hope their study will encourage others to capture fleeting cellular events that have been difficult to observe in the past.

“We may need to reassess decades of past results,” Drennan says. “This study could open more questions than it answers; it’s more of a beginning than an end.”

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a David H. Koch Graduate Fellowship, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Discerning the texture of urban resilience

If you’ve ever turned down a city street only to be blasted with air, you’ve stepped into what is known as an urban canyon.

Much like their geological counterparts, urban canyons are gaps between two tall surfaces — in this case, buildings. The gusts they channel, however, have real implications. They can magnify a hurricane’s winds or increase a city’s air temperature depending on their arrangement — an arrangement known as city texture. The problem is, according to researchers at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), that current hazard mitigation practices don’t consider city texture. Consequently, they frequently underestimate damages, in some cases by as much as a factor of three.

Reconsidering current practices

To understand the potential impact of city texture, CSHub researchers first investigated the current construction practices. One of the practices they examined were building codes.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Building codes are sets of regulations governing the design, construction, alteration, and maintenance of structures.” One of their purposes is to protect the inhabitants of a building from natural disasters by specifying the strength of that building.

To keep buildings safe from wind hazards, codes stipulate how a building must interact with the wind, a value known as a drag coefficient. The drag coefficient of a building determines the amount of air resistance it will experience when exposed to the wind. As a building’s drag coefficient increases, so does its likelihood of damage.

“Design codes assume that buildings have fixed drag coefficients. And in a way, that makes sense — the shape of a building doesn’t change much,” says Jake Roxon, a researcher at CSHub. “However, we’ve found that it’s not just the shape of the building that affects its drag coefficient, but also the local configuration of adjacent buildings, which we refer to as urban texture.”

Urban texture measures the probability of finding a neighboring building at a certain distance away from a given building. Roxon calculates it by drawing rings of a certain diameter around each building in a city. Then he counts the number of buildings in each ring.

The more buildings in each ring, the greater the probability is of finding a building at that distance. And the higher the probability, the more ordered and regular the local texture is, while the lower the probability, the more disordered and unpredictable. To capture a whole city’s texture, Roxon averages together the texture of each of its buildings.

“On average, we have found that areas with disordered textures have more resilience,” says Roxon. “If you are unable to predict which angle the wind will come from, it will offer the greatest level of protection. On the other hand, for an ordered city with the same density of buildings, you would expect to see more damage during an extreme hazard event.”

The reason behind the resilience of disordered streets is how they distribute wind. By distributing wind more randomly, disordered cities like Boston or Paris experience less of the magnification that occurs as the wind travels the corridors of ordered cities, such as New York. In some cases, cities with more ordered textures can magnify hurricane winds from a Category 3 to a Category 4, Roxon has found.

The impact of city texture on drag coefficients and wind loads appeared prominently during Hurricane Irma in 2017, which passed through West Florida.

“An example of the texture effect is Sarasota and Lee counties in Florida during Irma,” explains Ipek Bensu Manav, a CSHub researcher collaborating with Roxon. “Those counties are situated close to each other geographically, so they experience a similar hurricane risk. And when you look at the building stocks, they are also similar — mostly single and two-floor single-family houses.”

However, the two counties differed in terms of texture.

“Sarasota County has a less-ordered texture, falling less onto a typical grid, and Lee County has a more orderly texture,” says Manav. “When looking at Lee County we saw more structural damage — some buildings collapsed completely. There were more flooding and overturning of vegetation as well. So, Irma caused a lot more damage in the county that had a higher texture effect.”

It turns out, too, that ordered textures have a similar effect on heat.

“We have found this to be the case with temperature as well — specifically, the urban heat island effect,” says Roxon. “Ordered cities experience the greatest temperature difference between them and their rural surroundings at night.”

Code cracking

So, then, if layouts of streets greatly influence hazard damage, why don’t building codes account for them?

Simply put, it’s currently too difficult to incorporate them.

Right now, the standard tool for investigating the drag coefficients of a building is computational fluid dynamics (CFD). CFD simulations measure the drag coefficient of a building and its hazard risk by modeling the flow of heat and wind. Though highly accurate, CFD simulations demand prohibitively intense time and computing requirements at scale.

“Using current resources, CFD simulations simply don’t work on the scale of cities,” says Roxon. “New York City, for example, has over 1 million buildings. Running a simulation would take a long time. And if you make just one small adjustment to the arrangement of buildings or the direction of the wind, you have to rerun the simulation.”

Despite their imperfections, CFD simulations remain an important tool for understanding wind flow. But Roxon believes his city texture model can compensate for CFD’s limitations and, in the process, make cities more resilient.

“We have found that there are certain variables derived from city texture that allow us, with relative accuracy, to estimate the drag coefficients for buildings and identify areas vulnerable to risks of damage. Then we can run CFD simulations to determine precisely where that damage will occur.”

Essentially, city texture serves as a first-line tool for stakeholders, allowing them to assess risk and then use their resources, including CFD, more efficiently to identify vulnerable buildings for retrofit and, in turn, save lives.

The complete picture

In addition to the loss of life, natural disasters inflict an immense financial toll. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, 258 natural disasters have caused more than $1.75 trillion of damage in the United States since 1980.

While numerous practices can predict and mitigate these costs, Manav has found that they still leave a lot on the table — namely, city texture.

By collaborating with Roxon, she has discovered that by discounting community characteristics like city texture, current models underestimate losses, often dramatically.

To apply texture to hurricane losses, Manav looked once again to Florida’s Sarasota and Lee counties. She conducted a conventional loss estimation and a city texture-adjusted loss estimation for each county based on the 95th percentile of annual expected hazard events — equivalent to some of the strongest hurricanes, like Irma. She found that the expected losses increased when she incorporated city texture into her estimations. The increase was particularly acute in Lee County, whose ordered texture would likely magnify wind loads.

“In Sarasota County, we saw an increase in the expected loss from 1 percent to 6 percent of average home’s value when incorporating city texture,” says Manav. “But doing the same for Lee County, we saw an appreciably higher amount of damage, equivalent to approximately 9 percent of an average home’s value.”

Without incorporating city texture, then, these conventional estimations dramatically underestimate damages. This makes residents unaware of their hazard risk, and consequentially leaves them vulnerable.

The incentives for resilience

As sobering as these loss estimations are, Manav hopes they may yet help communities become more hazard-resilient.

Currently, she notes, hazard resilience has not become broadly implemented because most remain unaware of its cost benefits.

“One reason hazard-mitigation practices are not being implemented is that their benefits are not being communicated thoroughly,” she says. “Obviously, there is the cost of constructing to better standards. But to balance out these costs there are the benefits of reduced repair costs following hazard events.”

These reduced damage costs are significant.

Actions as simple as choosing hardier shingles, improving roof-to-wall connections, and adding shutters and impact-rated windows can mitigate hazard damages enough to pay back in as little as two years in hazard-prone areas like coastal Florida.

By using city texture to calculate hazard costs, Manav and Roxon hope homeowners, developers, and policymakers will choose to implement these relatively simple practices. The only key is making their incentives widely known.

“Living drug factories” might treat diabetes and other diseases

One promising way to treat diabetes is with transplanted islet cells that produce insulin when blood sugar levels get too low. However, patients who receive such transplants must take drugs to prevent their immune systems from rejecting the transplanted cells, so the treatment is not often used.

To help make this type of therapy more feasible, MIT researchers have now devised a way to encapsulate therapeutic cells in a flexible protective device that prevents immune rejection while still allowing oxygen and other critical nutrients to reach the cells. Such cells could pump out insulin or other proteins whenever they are needed.

“The vision is to have a living drug factory that you can implant in patients, which could secrete drugs as-needed in the patient. We hope that technology like this could be used to treat many different diseases, including diabetes,” says Daniel Anderson, an associate professor of chemical engineering, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and the senior author of the work.

In a study of mice, the researchers showed that genetically engineered human cells remained viable for at least five months, and they believe they could last longer to achieve long-term treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes or hemophilia, among others.

Suman Bose, a research scientist at the Koch Institute, is the lead author of the paper, which appears today in Nature Biomedical Engineering. 

Protective effect

Patients with type 1 diabetes usually have to inject themselves with insulin several times a day to keep their blood sugar levels within a healthy range. Since 1999, a small number of diabetes patients have received transplanted islet cells, which can take over for their nonfunctioning pancreas. While the treatment is often effective, the immunosuppressant drugs that these patients have to take make them vulnerable to infection and can have other serious side effects.

For several years, Anderson’s lab has been working on ways to protect transplanted cells from the host’s immune system, so that immunosuppressant drugs would not be necessary.

“We want to be able to implant cells into patients that can secrete therapeutic factors like insulin, but prevent them from being rejected by the body,” Anderson says. “If you could build a device that could protect those cells and not require immune suppression, you could really help a lot of people.”

To protect the transplanted cells from the immune system, the researchers housed them inside a device built out of a silicon-based elastomer (polydimethylsiloxane) and a special porous membrane. “It’s almost the same stiffness as tissue, and you make it thin enough so that it can wrap around organs,” Bose says.

They then coated the outer surface of the device with a small-molecule drug called THPT. In a previous study, the researchers had discovered that this molecule can help prevent fibrosis, a buildup of scar tissue that results when the immune system attacks foreign objects.

The device contains a porous membrane that allows the transplanted cells obtain nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream. These pores must be large enough to allow nutrients and insulin to pass through, but small enough so that immune cells such as T cells can’t get in and attack the transplanted cells.

In this study, the researchers tested polymer coatings with pores ranging from 400 nanometers to 3 micrometers in diameter, and found that a size range of 800 nanometers to 1 micrometer was optimal. At this size, small molecules and oxygen can pass through, but not T cells. Until now, it had been believed that 1-micrometer pores would be too large to stop cellular rejection.

Drugs on demand

In a study of diabetic mice, the researchers showed that transplanted rat islets inside microdevices maintained normal blood glucose levels in the mice for more than 10 weeks.

The researchers also tested this approach with human embryonic kidney cells that were engineered to produce erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that promotes red blood cell production and is used to treat anemia. These therapeutic human cells survived in mice for at least the 19-week duration of the experiment. 

“The cells in the device act as a factory and continuously produce high levels of EPO. This led to an increase in the red blood cell count in the animals for as long as we did the experiment,” Anderson says.

In addition, the researchers showed that they could program the transplanted cells to produce a protein only in response to treatment with a small molecule drug. Specifically, the transplanted engineered cells produced EPO when mice were given the drug doxycycline. This strategy could allow for on-demand production of a protein or hormone only when it is needed.

This type of “living drug factory” could be useful for treating any kind of chronic disease that requires frequent doses of a protein or hormone, the researchers say. They are currently focusing on diabetes and are working on ways to extend the lifetime of transplanted islet cells.

“This is the eighth Nature journal paper our team has published in the past four-plus years elucidating key fundamental aspects of biocompatibility of implants. We hope and believe these findings will lead to new super-biocompatible implants to treat diabetes and many other diseases in the years to come,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and an author of the paper.

Sigilon Therapeutics, a company founded by Anderson and Langer, has patented the use of the THPT coating for implantable devices and is now developing treatments based on this approach.

The research was funded by JDRF. Other authors of the paper include Lisa Volpatti, Devina Thiono, Volkan Yesilyurt, Collin McGladian, Yaoyu Tang, Amanda Facklam, Amy Wang, Siddharth Jhunjhunwala, Omid Veiseh, Jennifer Hollister-Lock, Chandrabali Bhattacharya, Gordon Weir, and Dale Greiner.

3 Questions: Jonathan Parker on building an economic recovery

The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis with enormous economic implications: As much of the U.S. reduces daily activity in spring 2020, unemployment is already surging and experts are forecasting major drops in GDP during the second quarter of the year. U.S. Congress has also just passed a $2 trillion aid package for individuals and businesses.

To assess the current state of the economy, MIT News contacted Jonathan Parker, the Robert C. Merton Professor of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Among his other areas of research, Parker is a leading expert in understanding how U.S. citizens use stimulus payments from the government, and how big an impact such efforts make on GDP and the macroeconomy.

Q: What are the particular effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy, and how should economic policy be used to respond?

A: Unlike in the typical recession, the main responsibility of our government today is not directly economic policy. First and foremost, we have to focus on winning the medical war against the virus. This not only saves lives, but is also the best way to help the economy. However, the war hasn’t gone well at this point, and for good public health reasons we have shut down large parts of our economy. People are not going to work, producing goods, and earning income, and people are avoiding the types of consumption that would put them in crowded places. So, there is going to be a huge collapse in GDP and national income.

Q: The U.S. Congress just passed a $2 trillion aid package to help compensate for the drastic economic slowdown. To what extent can such policy measures maintain incomes?

A: There is no way for us to make up the lost income, because we have lost it by not producing the goods and services that earn it. That said, we can transfer money to people so that the most vulnerable people don’t lose access completely to the goods and services that we do have. And that is part of what House and Senate leaders have just done in passing the recent relief package. The bill includes what are now being called “stimulus payments” to send around $1,200 out to American households. [The package also includes enhanced unemployment insurance for many people, as well as other aid for people adversely affected by the shutdown.]

While this is called stimulus, it is better thought of as disaster insurance for now. We don’t want the economy stimulated. People should be staying home. But the hardest hit need to be able to pay bills and eat. Ideally, we would freeze time for the period when we are isolating, to limit the spread of the virus and allow the government to catch up with the production of virus-wartime medical supplies like ventilators and masks and test kits, so that we can move from isolating all of us to isolating only the sick. And then having frozen time, we would restart the economy where we were before. Sending out checks to people allows those at the bottom of the income and wealth distribution to survive this freeze, and is part of restarting where we left off.

Q: Don’t we need to give significant funds to businesses for the same reason?

A: No, and yes. Starting with “no,” we don’t have to give funds to large firms, or even make them favorable loans. In the American economic system, when large companies that are profitable in the long run go bankrupt, they continue to operate and employ Americans, and emerge from bankruptcy sometimes stronger than before. This happened for General Motors in the financial crisis, and American Airlines operated for years in bankruptcy. For large companies, bankruptcy is only about the division of profits between stockholders and bondholders, not about whether the company continues to operate, so loans and transfers to large corporations almost exclusively benefit the stockholders.

U.S. stocks are owned by the very wealthiest people all over the world, and I think it is a mistake for the stimulus program to be transferring money from taxpayers to the world’s wealthiest people right now (or any time). The parts of the $2 trillion bill that are for supporting large firms are incorrectly fighting the last war. In 2008, the government supported banks because they were all threatened and, like Lehman Brothers, they cannot survive bankruptcy. So, this aspect of the current legislation is a mistake.

But there is an important answer of “yes,” also. First, in crisis times, there is a large increase in the demand for money and safe money-like assets so that financial markets can function. The Federal Reserve is tasked with providing the money and money-like assets that are appropriate with the demands of businesses, and it is doing this nicely. This type of support makes the taxpayer money, so it’s a win-win situation, not a bailout. Of course, this legislation also has the Treasury involved and is supporting private bond markets, and while this can also help, we have to look more closely at what is and is not a subsidy from taxpayers to stockholders of big firms, rather than an aid to the economy.

Second, small businesses need help to survive this crisis. Small businesses do not survive bankruptcy. While many will be able to renegotiate leases and bank loans and so forth, many others will not. Thus, I am highly supportive of the parts of this bill that provide somewhat-subsidized loans to small businesses to keep them operational through the economic hard times. Again, we want to be able to restart the economy when the virus threat is contained, and to do that, we want our small businesses to also be able to restart and thrive.

Engineers 3D print soft, rubbery brain implants

The brain is one of our most vulnerable organs, as soft as the softest tofu. Brain implants, on the other hand, are typically made from metal and other rigid materials that over time can cause inflammation and the buildup of scar tissue.

MIT engineers are working on developing soft, flexible neural implants that can gently conform to the brain’s contours and monitor activity over longer periods, without aggravating surrounding tissue. Such flexible electronics could be softer alternatives to existing metal-based electrodes designed to monitor brain activity, and may also be useful in brain implants that stimulate neural regions to ease symptoms of epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and severe depression.

Led by Xuanhe Zhao, a professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering, the research team has now developed a way to 3D print neural probes and other electronic devices that are as soft and flexible as rubber.

The devices are made from a type of polymer, or soft plastic, that is electrically conductive. The team transformed this normally liquid-like conducting polymer solution into a substance more like viscous toothpaste — which they could then feed through a conventional 3D printer to make stable, electrically conductive patterns.

The team printed several soft electronic devices, including a small, rubbery electrode, which they implanted in the brain of a mouse. As the mouse moved freely in a controlled environment, the neural probe was able to pick up on the activity from a single neuron. Monitoring this activity can give scientists a higher-resolution picture of the brain’s activity, and can help in tailoring therapies and long-term brain implants for a variety of neurological disorders.

“We hope by demonstrating this proof of concept, people can use this technology to make different devices, quickly,” says Hyunwoo Yuk, a graduate student in Zhao’s group at MIT. “They can change the design, run the printing code, and generate a new design in 30 minutes. Hopefully this will streamline the development of neural interfaces, fully made of soft materials.”

Yuk and Zhao have published their results today in the journal Nature Communications. Their co-authors include Baoyang Lu and Jingkun Xu of the Jiangxi Science and Technology Normal University, along with Shen Lin and Jianhong Luo of Zheijiang University’s School of Medicine.

From soap water to toothpaste

Conducting polymers are a class of materials that scientists have eagerly explored in recent years for their unique combination of plastic-like flexibility and metal-like electrical conductivity. Conducting polymers are used commercially as antistatic coatings, as they can effectively carry away any electrostatic charges that build up on electronics and other static-prone surfaces.

“These polymer solutions are easy to spray on electrical devices like touchscreens,” Yuk says. “But the liquid form is mostly for homogenous coatings, and it’s difficult to use this for any two-dimensional, high-resolution patterning. In 3D, it’s impossible.”

Yuk and his colleagues reasoned that if they could develop a printable conducting polymer, they could then use the material to print a host of soft, intricately patterned electronic devices, such as flexible circuits, and single-neuron electrodes.

In their new study, the team report modifying poly (3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) polystyrene sulfonate, or PEDOT:PSS, a conducting polymer typically supplied in the form of an inky, dark-blue liquid. The liquid is a mixture of water and nanofibers of PEDOT:PSS. The liquid gets its conductivity from these nanofibers, which, when they come in contact, act as a sort of tunnel through which any electrical charge can flow.

If the researchers were to feed this polymer into a 3D printer in its liquid form, it would simply bleed across the underlying surface. So the team looked for a way to thicken the polymer while retaining the material’s inherent electrical conductivity.

They first freeze-dried the material, removing the liquid and leaving behind a dry matrix, or sponge, of nanofibers. Left alone, these nanofibers would become brittle and crack. So the researchers then remixed the nanofibers with a solution of water and an organic solvent, which they had previously developed, to form a hydrogel — a water-based, rubbery material embedded with nanofibers.

They made hydrogels with various concentrations of nanofibers, and found that a range between 5 to 8 percent by weight of nanofibers produced a toothpaste-like material that was both electrically conductive and suitable for feeding into a 3D printer.

“Initially, it’s like soap water,” Zhao says. “We condense the nanofibers and make it viscous like toothpaste, so we can squeeze it out as a thick, printable liquid.”

The team printed several soft electronic devices, including a small, rubbery electrode, which they implanted in the brain of a mouse.

Implants on demand

The researchers fed the new conducting polymer into a conventional 3D printer and found they could produce intricate patterns that remained stable and electrically conductive.

As a proof of concept, they printed a small, rubbery electrode, about the size of a piece of confetti. The electrode consists of a layer of flexible, transparent polymer, over which they then printed the conducting polymer, in thin, parallel lines that converged at a tip, measuring about 10 microns wide — small enough to pick up electrical signals from a single neuron.

The team implanted the electrode in the brain of a mouse and found it could pick up electrical signals from a single neuron.

“Traditionally, electrodes are rigid metal wires, and once there are vibrations, these metal electrodes could damage tissue,” Zhao says. “We’ve shown now that you could insert a gel probe instead of a needle.”

In principle, such soft, hydrogel-based electrodes might even be more sensitive than conventional metal electrodes. That’s because most metal electrodes conduct electricity in the form of electrons, whereas neurons in the brain produce electrical signals in the form of ions. Any ionic current produced by the brain needs to be converted into an electrical signal that a metal electrode can register — a conversion that can result in some part of the signal getting lost in translation. What’s more, ions can only interact with a metal electrode at its surface, which can limit the concentration of ions that the electrode can detect at any given time.

In contrast, the team’s soft electrode is made from electron-conducting nanofibers, embedded in a hydrogel — a water-based material that ions can freely pass through.

“The beauty of a conducting polymer hydrogel is, on top of its soft mechanical properties, it is made of hydrogel, which is ionically conductive, and also a porous sponge of nanofibers, which the ions can flow in and out of,” Lu says. “Because the electrode’s whole volume is active, its sensitivity is enhanced.”

In addition to the neural probe, the team also fabricated a multielectrode array — a small, Post-it-sized square of plastic, printed with very thin electrodes, over which the researchers also printed a round plastic well. Neuroscientists typically fill the wells of such arrays with cultured  neurons, and can study their activity through the signals that are detected by the device’s underlying electrodes.

For this demonstration, the group showed they could replicate the complex designs of such arrays using 3D printing, versus traditional lithography techniques, which

involve carefully etching metals, such as gold, into prescribed patterns, or masks — a process that can take days to complete a single device.

“We make the same geometry and resolution of this device using 3D printing, in less than an hour,” Yuk says. “This process may replace or supplement lithography techniques, as a simpler and cheaper way to make a variety of neurological devices, on demand.”

Optimizing complex decision-making

When he began his engineering program at École Polytechnique in his hometown of Paris, Jean Pauphilet did not aspire to the academy.

“I used to associate academia with fundamental research, which I don’t enjoy much,” he says. “But slowly, I discovered another type of research, where people use rigorous scientific principles for applied and impactful projects.”

A fascination with projects that have direct applications to organizational problems led Pauphilet to the field of operations research and analytics — and to a PhD at the Operations Research Center (ORC), a joint program between the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Operations research models decision-making processes as mathematical optimization problems, such as planning for energy production given unpredictable fluctuations in demand. It’s a complex subject that Pauphilet finds exhilarating. “Operations in practice are very messy, but I think that’s what makes them exciting. You’re never short on problems to solve,” he says.

Working in the lab of Professor Dimitris Bertsimas, and in collaboration with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Pauphilet focuses on solving challenges in the health care field. For example, how can hospitals best make bed assignments and staffing decisions? These types of logistical decisions are “a pain point for everyone,” he notes.

“You really feel that you’re making peoples’ lives easier because when you’re talking about it to doctors and nurses, you realize that they don’t like to do it, they’re not trained at it, and it’s keeping them from actually doing their job. So, for me it was clear that it had a positive impact on their workload.”

Becoming an expert

As the son of two doctors, Pauphilet is already comfortable working within the medical field. He also feels well-prepared by his training in France, which allows students to choose their majors late and emphasizes a background in math. “Operations research requires versatility,” he explains. “Methodologically, it can involve anything ranging from probability theory to optimization algorithms and machine learning. So, having a strong and wide math background definitely helps.”

This mentality has allowed him to grow into an expert in his field at MIT. “I’m less scared of research now,” he explains, “You might not find what you were expecting, but you always find something that is relevant to someone. So [research] is uncertain, but not risky. You can always get back on your feet in some way.” It’s a mentality that’s given him the confidence to find, solve, and address operations problems in novel ways in collaboration with companies and hospitals.

Pauphilet, who plans to remain in academia, has found himself thinking about the different pedagogical philosophies in the U.S. and France. At MIT, he completed the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program to become more familiar with aspects of teaching not typically experienced as a teaching assistant, such as designing a course, writing lectures, and creating assignments.

“Coming from France and teaching in the U.S., I think it’s especially interesting to learn from other peoples’ experience and to compare what their first experience of learning was at their universities in their countries. Also [it’s challenging] to define what is the best method of teaching that you can think of that acknowledges the differences between the students and the way they learn, and to try to take that into account in your own teaching style.”

Culture and community

In his free time, Pauphilet takes advantage of cultural and intellectual offerings in Cambridge and Boston. He frequents the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which offers $25 tickets for people under 40) and enjoys hearing unfamiliar composers and music, especially contemporary music with surprising new elements.

Pauphilet is an avid chef who relishes the challenge of cooking large pieces of meat, such as whole turkeys or lamb shoulders, for friends. Beyond the food, he enjoys the long conversations that these meals facilitate and that people can’t necessarily experience in a restaurant. (As an aside he notes, “I think the service in a restaurant here is much more efficient than in Europe!”). Still, Pauphilet enjoys going out to dinner at Cambridge-area eateries like the Faialense Sport Club, a Portuguese restaurant, or eating a Boston cream pie at Darwin’s Ltd. every Sunday.

Pauphilet is also the president of MIT’s French Club, which organizes a variety of events for around 100 French-speaking graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates — from movie nights and barbecues to wine tastings and mixers with other Boston-area French groups. Though his undergraduate institution is well-represented at MIT, Pauphilet feels strongly about creating a network for those Francophones who may not have his luck, so they can feel as at home as he does.

Now at the end of his PhD, Pauphilet has the chance to reflect on his experiences over the past three and a half years. In particular, he has found a deep sense of community in his cohort, lab, and community here. He attributes some of that to his graduate program’s structure — which begins with two required classes that everyone in the cohort takes together — but that’s just one aspect of the investment in building community Pauphilet has felt at MIT.

“It’s a great environment. Honestly, I find that everyone is very mindful of students. I have a great relationship with my advisor that is not only based on research, and I think that’s very important,” he says.

Overall, Pauphilet attributes his significant personal and professional growth in grad school to learning in MIT’s collaborative and open environment. And, he notes, being at the Institute has affected him in another important way.

“I’m a bit nerdier than I used to be!”

Rolling out remote learning

Moving some 1,200 MIT subjects to a remote teaching and learning model, launched today, has been less like flipping a switch and more like building the switch itself — with whatever was on hand. In short, it’s a very MIT kind of problem.

In late February, before the coronavirus altered daily life and work in the U.S., Meghan Perdue, a digital learning lab fellow in Open Learning and an instructor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, noticed some rumblings on the horizon: Universities in Asia were switching to teaching online as the virus took hold there. She shared her concerns with Krishna Rajagopal, dean for digital learning, who, in turn, looped in Ian A. Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, and Sheryl Barnes, director of residential education in Open Learning. They began thinking, hypothetically, of how MIT could address such a challenging situation. With the help of other digital learning lab fellows across MIT, they began planning in earnest, designing online learning workshops and developing best practices.

In early March, as the outbreak appeared to be turning into a global pandemic, Waitz formed the Covid-19 Academic Continuity Working Group as part of a broader emergency management effort to ensure academic, residential life, research, and business continuity at MIT. From the get-go, he advocated a “pen-knife and matches” approach, with a focus on “thinking less about technology and more about how to put learning first” in the event, as has now happened, that most of the students, faculty, and instructors would be living and working off-campus.

Building the switch

With that in mind, as part of the working group, Rajagopal launched an intense and evolving effort that has drawn upon experts in the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL), Open Learning, Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), and departments across MIT. It has been a monumental task: How do you go from a physical classroom like 10-250 to a multipaned Zoom window or video segments and online problems? How do you balance when to use real-time teaching with asynchronous? How do you support faculty and students along the way? And how do you do all this under the intense time constraints imposed by the ever-changing responses to Covid-19?

In short order, IS&T, TLL, and Open Learning have collaborated to build a teaching resource site that provides soup-to-nuts instructions on preparing classes for remote delivery. The site also focuses on best practices; ensuring equity, diversity and inclusion; and maintaining community; despite the fact that students are engaging from around the globe.

Meanwhile, Vice President for IS&T Mark Silis and his team have been at the ready to bolster and retool the Institute’s technical backbone to align with virtual learning. In addition to negotiating MIT-wide licenses for Zoom, Slack, Piazza, and Gradescope, and expanded Dropbox allocations for file storage, Silis says, “we are pleased to report that we launched a beta version of a Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) program that will simplify the integration of Zoom, Piazza, and Gradescope with MIT’s Stellar and LMOD learning management environments for courses in which instructors plan to use live Zoom sessions for every class and recitation.” Rajagopal commented that IS&T’s “lightning-fast response to needs and never-say-impossible attitude has been astonishing.”

Equally adept at wrangling technology has been Sloan School of Management’s Wes Esser, Chief Technology Officer. Esser and his team have been eager to share their virtual learning expertise with the rest of the campus. Silis wrote in a blog post, “Sloan’s experience has been invaluable in their early embrace of the Zoom platform and its integration in the evolution of their academic programs. The ability to bring the Zoom platform to the entire MIT community within a matter of a few days, would simply not have been possible without our Sloan colleagues, and for that we all owe them a debt of thanks.”

Division of Student Life (DSL) also lent a hand, working with IS&T to ensure that students who needed access to technical tools to learn remotely, such as loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, would be ready for anything, from p-sets to office hours to live or recorded lectures.

One MIT

Throngs of faculty and other staff have come together to help make teaching and learning remote. Even before the decision was made to migrate to virtual instruction, faculty were on it, says Rajagopal. He had reached out to the instructional teams of the largest MIT classes to assess their readiness and to get a sense of how they were thinking about going remote. Appropriately, he says, “the response was magnificent and very MIT.” Faculty were already stepping up, with large economics, physics, and electrical engineering and computer science courses some of the first to make the switch.

For her part, Perdue has offered a steady drumbeat of workshops since early March to help faculty acclimate to teaching online. (To date, 15 two-hour workshops, and counting.) Likewise, two of Rajagopal’s key thought and action partners, Barnes and Janet Rankin, director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, have run webinars and fielded hundreds of questions about everything from how to build community in distributed learning environments, to team teaching, to creating video segments, to Zoom pedagogy. They turned their respective offices into tactical command centers, lending expertise and inspiration to faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants across campus.

Of course, not all modes of instruction translate easily to online platforms. “We also have labs, project classes, design classes, and performance classes and these will be a harder challenge,” Rajagopal says, “where instructors — and students — will need creativity and flexibility to achieve learning goals.” Some faculty have embraced these challenges early on. In 2.007, the iconic design and manufacturing course, professors Amos Winter and Maria Yang have worked to find creative solutions and silver linings, and planned for ways for students to build with at-hand materials. Likewise, in 8.13, the major lab class for physics juniors, Professor Gunther Roland was already confident that although students won’t be able to “twiddle the knobs,” they will achieve many of their learning goals via doing data analysis, writing a paper, and giving presentations.

Emma Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations, has been one of the many department leaders rallying her colleagues. “I feel my unit is prepared to begin the ‘best possible’ remote teaching on Monday,” she says. “We have the right policies, right technologies, right supports, and right spirit to enter into this endeavor. Not that there won’t be glitches, but after the experiences of the past two weeks people are ready to roll with the glitches as well!”

Expressing her gratitude to all those working behind the scenes to virtualize instruction, she says, “No one wished to find themselves in this place, but this group and so many others have worked tirelessly to make it the best it could possibly be.”

As collaboration has and will continue to be the key ingredient for success, Open Learning created an open community site for faculty to work together and share ideas and tips, which has seen lively traffic since it launched. Contributors have chimed in on topics like preventing Zoombombing (when interlopers disrupt an online class); how to conduct office hours and recitations; and even how to turn your cellphone into an overhead camera.

Staying connected to the Infinite — and each other

The parallel to remote teaching is, of course, remote learning. With that in mind, the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC) created a website for students which helps students navigate their new academic and social landscape. The website focuses on learning styles, well-being, and ensuring that classes still have that MIT feel. And in a letter to students Rajagopal and Waitz reminded students to be flexible too: “Don’t be surprised if you encounter a kid or two in the background, spouses and partners might pop in and out of view, as may pets, and everything will not always go according to plan.”

To help students stay connected, the Division of Student Life, OVC, and other campus partners are launching a collaborative effort to match every student with a Student Success Coach. Over 500 volunteers from across MIT have come forward to serve in this new support role. Through weekly one-on-one meetings, coaches will listen to how students are doing — as learners, and overall — and connect them to each other and to MIT in ways that will help them succeed.

“You can think of this as a way to keep students connected to the Infinite,” says Lauren Pouchak, director of special projects in the OVC, who is working with Elizabeth Cogliano Young, associate dean and director of the Office of the First Year, and Gus Burkett, senior associate dean in DSL. The three are leading an effort “to create a new kind of fabric, now that the physical campus is gone.”

And now that classes are underway, they and the hundreds of staff who helped implement remote learning at MIT can pause, briefly, and catch their collective breath. There is much more to be done. There will be hiccups along the way. And there will be unexpected lessons learned and opportunities, too.

“None of us have ever done this before, so we will navigate together,” says Rajagopal. “We will be making course corrections all the time. We will plan as we go, and then change our plan. We will be creative, flexible, and we will deliver to our students something that we can be proud of.”

Scene at MIT: Donations of personal protective equipment ready for local hospitals

While much of the MIT campus is quiet, Mail Services has seen a steady stream of activity this week as it acts as the staging and sorting area for thousands of donated Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from across campus.

More than 50 departments, labs, and centers — as well as individual community members — have responded to a call to donate extra, unopened PPE to support area hospitals and frontline health care workers in need. Some labs even included handwritten notes of thanks and support on their donation.

A cross departmental effort has allowed for a quick response to an outpouring of donations: Mail Services and Custodial Services have collected donated PPEs from across campus, while Campus Services Senior Manager Marty O’Brien; Environment, Health, and Safety Associate Director Nick Paquin; and Office of Sustainability Project Manager Steve Lanou have worked to sort and inventory items as they come in. O’Brien, along with Mail Services Supervisor Darren O’Connor and Manager Mike Fahie, have to date delivered donations to area hospitals including Cambridge Health Alliance and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, as well as to the Cambridge Police and Fire Departments. Additional distribution to area hospitals is planned.

As these donations go out, Professor Elazer R. Edelman, faculty lead on this effort and the director of the Institute for Medical Engineering (IMES), notes that hospitals still remain in acute need of PPE, and are specifically in need of unopened and unused face masks including clinical and surgical; face shields; gloves; powered air-purifying respirators; gowns; cleaning wipes with bleach; hand sanitizers; swabs including Dacron, rayon, or nylon swabs; and culture media. Labs with any of these items in any quantity are encouraged to email [email protected] to arrange collection.

While the handling these donations focuses on collecting available PPE for rapid distribution, another PPE team is organizing efforts across campus to consider manufacturing and sterilization solutions. The PPE manufacturing team can be reached at [email protected]

Energy-harvesting design aims to turn Wi-Fi signals into usable power

Any device that sends out a Wi-Fi signal also emits terahertz waves —electromagnetic waves with a frequency somewhere between microwaves and infrared light. These high-frequency radiation waves, known as “T-rays,” are also produced by almost anything that registers a temperature, including our own bodies and the inanimate objects around us.

Terahertz waves are pervasive in our daily lives, and if harnessed, their concentrated power could potentially serve as an alternate energy source. Imagine, for instance, a cellphone add-on that passively soaks up ambient T-rays and uses their energy to charge your phone. However, to date, terahertz waves are wasted energy, as there has been no practical way to capture and convert them into any usable form.

Now physicists at MIT have come up with a blueprint for a device they believe would be able to convert ambient terahertz waves into a direct current, a form of electricity that powers many household electronics.

Their design takes advantage of the quantum mechanical, or atomic behavior of the carbon material graphene. They found that by combining graphene with another material, in this case, boron nitride, the electrons in graphene should skew their motion toward a common direction. Any incoming terahertz waves should “shuttle” graphene’s electrons, like so many tiny air traffic controllers, to flow through the material in a single direction, as a direct current.

The researchers have published their results today in the journal Science Advances, and are working with experimentalists to turn their design into a physical device.

“We are surrounded by electromagnetic waves in the terahertz range,” says lead author Hiroki Isobe, a postdoc in MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory. “If we can convert that energy into an energy source we can use for daily life, that would help to address the energy challenges we are facing right now.”

Isobe’s co-authors are Liang Fu, the Lawrence C. and Sarah W. Biedenharn Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT; and Su-yang Xu, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor chemistry at Harvard University.

Breaking graphene’s symmetry

Over the last decade, scientists have looked for ways to harvest and convert ambient energy into usable electrical energy. They have done so mainly through rectifiers, devices that are designed to convert electromagnetic waves from their oscillating (alternating) current to direct current.

Most rectifiers are designed to convert low-frequency waves such as radio waves, using an electrical circuit with diodes to generate an electric field that can steer radio waves through the device as a DC current. These rectifiers only work up to a certain frequency, and have not been able to accommodate the terahertz range.

A few experimental technologies that have been able to convert terahertz waves into DC current do so only at ultracold temperatures — setups that would be difficult to implement in practical applications.

Instead of turning electromagnetic waves into a DC current by applying an external electric field in a device, Isobe wondered whether, at a quantum mechanical level, a material’s own electrons could be induced to flow in one direction, in order to steer incoming terahertz waves into a DC current.

Such a material would have to be very clean, or free of impurities, in order for the electrons in the material to flow through without scattering off irregularities in the material. Graphene, he found, was the ideal starting material.

To direct graphene’s electrons to flow in one direction, he would have to break the material’s inherent symmetry, or what physicists call “inversion.” Normally, graphene’s electrons feel an equal force between them, meaning that any incoming energy would scatter the electrons in all directions, symmetrically. Isobe looked for ways to break graphene’s inversion and induce an asymmetric flow of electrons in response to incoming energy.

Looking through the literature, he found that others had experimented with graphene by placing it atop a layer of boron nitride, a similar honeycomb lattice made of two types of atoms — boron and nitrogen. They found that in this arrangement, the forces between graphene’s electrons were knocked out of balance: Electrons closer to boron felt a certain force while electrons closer to nitrogen experienced a different pull. The overall effect was what physicists call “skew scattering,” in which clouds of electrons skew their motion in one direction.

Isobe developed a systematic theoretical study of all the ways electrons in graphene might scatter in combination with an underlying substrate such as boron nitride, and how this electron scattering would affect any incoming electromagnetic waves, particularly in the terahertz frequency range.

He found that electrons were driven by incoming terahertz waves to skew in one direction, and this skew motion generates a DC current, if graphene were relatively pure. If too many impurities did exist in graphene, they would act as obstacles in the path of electron clouds, causing these clouds to scatter in all directions, rather than moving as one.

“With many impurities, this skewed motion just ends up oscillating, and any incoming terahertz energy is lost through this oscillation,” Isobe explains. “So we want a clean sample to effectively get a skewed motion.”

One direction

They also found that the stronger the incoming terahertz energy, the more of that energy a device can convert to DC current. This means that any device that converts T-rays should also include a way to concentrate those waves before they enter the device.

With all this in mind, the researchers drew up a blueprint for a terahertz rectifier that consists of a small square of graphene that sits atop a layer of boron nitride and is sandwiched within an antenna that would collect and concentrate ambient terahertz radiation, boosting its signal enough to convert it into a DC current.

“This would work very much like a solar cell, except for a different frequency range, to passively collect and convert ambient energy,” Fu says.

The team has filed a patent for the new “high-frequency rectification” design, and the researchers are working with experimental physicists at MIT to develop a physical device based on their design, which should be able to work at room temperature, versus the ultracold temperatures required for previous terahertz rectifiers and detectors.

“If a device works at room temperature, we can use it for many portable applications,” Isobe says.

He envisions that, in the near future, terahertz rectifiers may be used, for instance, to wirelessly power implants in a patient’s body, without requiring surgery to change an implant’s batteries. Such devices could also convert ambient Wi-Fi signals to charge up personal electronics such as laptops and cellphones.

“We are taking a quantum material with some asymmetry at the atomic scale, that can now  be utilized, which opens up a lot of possibilities,” Fu says.

This research was funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN).

Outpouring of support from MIT’s worldwide community bolsters Institute’s Covid-19 response

Members of the MIT community living all over the world have reached out to offer support for the Institute’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, prompting the creation of two new funds to support MIT’s efforts to help address the public health crisis.

The new funds will support MIT’s engagement on two fronts: donating urgently needed supplies and equipment to hospitals and health centers in the greater Boston area, and seeking solutions through research and computing.

“Alumni and friends are eager to know what MIT is doing and how to support those efforts,” says Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship.

Elazer Edelman, director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is leading MIT’s coordination with local medical centers, hospitals, and clinics through the newly formed MIT Medical Outreach Team. “We are focused on protecting the MIT community and those on the front lines caring for the health and safety of the MIT and Cambridge communities,” says Edelman, who is the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science and a senior attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Edelman has helped organize action across campus to gather and donate vital supplies such as masks, gloves, swabs, and other items. First deliveries of these materials to frontline medical centers in the region have already been made. He and Higgins are overseeing the Institute’s effort to locate much-needed personal protective equipment for contribution to Boston-area health care facilities.

On a separate track, seeking to marshal resources for regional, national, and global public health initiatives, MIT has joined consortia of industry, government, and academia to provide supercomputing power and pathogen research focused on accelerating the development of Covid-19 solutions. The Institute has also created a new Solve challenge on health security and pandemics.

A variety of MIT research projects and MIT-affiliated companies are working to aid detection, prevent spread of the virus, and develop treatments. “MIT is the premier place in the world to bring technology to bear on global crises and pandemics,” Edelman says. 

In response to the outpouring of support from alumni and friends, MIT has established two new funds to support these efforts and others like them:

MIT Covid-19 Emergency Fund

Gifts to support MIT’s response to help with the Covid-19 crisis, including providing equipment, space, expertise and other resources to local area hospitals and other health care providers. Contributions to this fund will supplement Institute resources that are already being applied to these immediate medical needs.

MIT Covid-19 Research Fund

Gifts to support MIT faculty and researchers addressing various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including vaccine development, portable ventilators, AI solutions, and improved protective equipment.

Student Life, Wellness and Support Fund

Gifts to this preexisting fund will help address student financial needs that have been exacerbated by the crisis, in addition to ongoing efforts focused on student wellness, mental health, and support services.

A special online giving form allows individuals to contribute to any of these three funds.

The Institute’s multifaceted response to the Covid-19 pandemic reflects its focus on solving global problems.

“MIT’s exceptional, acute crisis management response team will transform what we learn from Covid-19 to create a framework and models for responding to future global crises anywhere and at any time,” Edelman says. “MIT’s influence is felt all over the world, and we are grateful for the generous support of our international community as we work to speed the pace of solutions.”

Arizona wildfire series wins Knight Science Journalism’s Victor K. McElheny Award

The Knight Science Journalism Program’s second annual Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will honor an investigative series that explores the ongoing risk of deadly wildfires in the American West.

Spearheaded by The Arizona Republic, “Ahead of the Fire” shines a light on the hundreds of communities across the West that remain vulnerable — and unprepared — for wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and surrounding areas. Arizona Republic reporters Pamela Ren Larson and Dennis Wagner (now at USA Today) tell a heart-wrenching story of how mismanaged emergency alert systems, evacuation constraints, and other factors created the conditions for a catastrophe in Paradise. Working with a team of developers and data journalists the USA Today Network, they identified more than
500 towns across the West that have even higher wildfire hazard potentials. The reporting was complemented with striking images from photojournalist Thomas Hawthorne and edited by Michael Squires, editor of the AZ Data Central team.

Wagner, Hawthorne, and Squires were part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2018.

Judges lauded “Ahead of the Fire” for its rigorous reporting, compelling storytelling, and inventive data journalism. “They pushed the envelope,” the judges said. “It took what was not only an Arizona issue and a California issue and explained why it was relevant to everyone in the country.”

The public response to the reporting was immediate and sweeping. Fire agencies sought to explore the data, while regulators and other government entities sought to use it to inform their own decision-making. “We are proud to honor this exceptional series from The Arizona Republic,” says Knight Science Journalism Program Director Deborah Blum. “The stories not only illuminate an important issue, but do so in a way that serves multiple smaller communities in the west. It’s a reminder that local and regional science journalists are still doing outstanding and important work, deserving not only of this award but of support and praise from all of us.”

In addition to “Ahead of the Fire,” judges honored three other outstanding entries as finalists: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Turned Away,” about the controversial practice of ambulance diversion and how it continues to put lives at risk in the Midwest and beyond; “Arizona’s Next Water Crisis,” published by The Arizona Republic, which explores how a lack of regulation of water wells is threatening the livelihood of the state’s rural families and ecosystems; and The Boston Globe’s “At the Edge of a Warming World,” a multimedia feature on how climate change is reshaping life on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.

Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. The winning team will receive a $5,000 prize.

The McElheny Award is made possible by support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. Screeners reviewed the first round of submissions, and the final panel of judges included James Boren of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust; Ibby Caputo, freelance; Alicia Chang of the Associated Press; Bill Manny of the Idaho Public Television; and Sabriya Rice of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology, and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications. Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, includingThe New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.

An experimental peptide could block Covid-19

The research described in this article has been published on a preprint server but has not yet been peer-reviewed by scientific or medical experts.

In hopes of developing a possible treatment for Covid-19, a team of MIT chemists has designed a drug candidate that they believe may block coronaviruses’ ability to enter human cells. The potential drug is a short protein fragment, or peptide, that mimics a protein found on the surface of human cells.

The researchers have shown that their new peptide can bind to the viral protein that coronaviruses use to enter human cells, potentially disarming it.

“We have a lead compound that we really want to explore, because it does, in fact, interact with a viral protein in the way that we predicted it to interact, so it has a chance of inhibiting viral entry into a host cell,” says Brad Pentelute, an MIT associate professor of chemistry, who is leading the research team.

The MIT team reported its initial findings in a preprint posted on bioRxiv, an online preprint server, on March 20. They have sent samples of the peptide to collaborators who plan to carry out tests in human cells.

Molecular targeting

Pentelute’s lab began working on this project in early March, after the Cryo-EM structure of the coronavirus spike protein, along with the human cell receptor that it binds to, was published by a research group in China. Coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which is causing the current Covid-19 outbreak, have many protein spikes protruding from their viral envelope.

Studies of SARS-CoV-2 have also shown that a specific region of the spike protein, known as the receptor binding domain, binds to a receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). This receptor is found on the surface of many human cells, including those in the lungs. The ACE2 receptor is also the entry point used by the coronavirus that caused the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.

In hopes of developing drugs that could block viral entry, Genwei Zhang, a postdoc in Pentelute’s lab, performed computational simulations of the interactions between the ACE2 receptor and the receptor binding domain of the coronavirus spike protein. These simulations revealed the location where the receptor binding domain attaches to the ACE2 receptor — a stretch of the ACE2 protein that forms a structure called an alpha helix.

“This kind of simulation can give us views of how atoms and biomolecules interact with each other, and which parts are essential for this interaction,” Zhang says. “Molecular dynamics helps us narrow down particular regions that we want to focus on to develop therapeutics.”

The MIT team then used peptide synthesis technology that Pentelute’s lab has previously developed, to rapidly generate a 23-amino acid peptide with the same sequence as the alpha helix of the ACE2 receptor. Their benchtop flow-based peptide synthesis machine can form linkages between amino acids, the buildings blocks of proteins, in about 37 seconds, and it takes less than an hour to generate complete peptide molecules containing up to 50 amino acids.

“We’ve built these platforms for really rapid turnaround, so I think that’s why we’re at this point right now,” Pentelute says. “It’s because we have these tools we’ve built up at MIT over the years.”

They also synthesized a shorter sequence of only 12 amino acids found in the alpha helix, and then tested both of the peptides using equipment at MIT’s Biophysical Instrumentation Facility that can measure how strongly two molecules bind together. They found that the longer peptide showed strong binding to the receptor binding domain of the Covid-19 spike protein, while the shorter one showed negligible binding.

Many variants

Although MIT has been scaling back on-campus research since mid-March, Pentelute’s lab was granted special permission allowing a small group of researchers to continue to work on this project. They are now developing about 100 different variants of the peptide in hopes of increasing its binding strength and making it more stable in the body.

“We have confidence that we know exactly where this molecule is interacting, and we can use that information to further guide refinement, so that we can hopefully get a higher affinity and more potency to block viral entry in cells,” Pentelute says.

In the meantime, the researchers have already sent their original 23-amino acid peptide to a research lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai for testing in human cells and potentially in animal models of Covid-19 infection.

While dozens of research groups around the world are using a variety of approaches to seek new treatments for Covid-19, Pentelute believes his lab is one of a few currently working on peptide drugs for this purpose. One advantage of such drugs is that they are relatively easy to manufacture in large quantities. They also have a larger surface area than small-molecule drugs.

“Peptides are larger molecules, so they can really grip onto the coronavirus and inhibit entry into cells, whereas if you used a small molecule, it’s difficult to block that entire area that the virus is using,” Pentelute says. “Antibodies also have a large surface area, so those might also prove useful. Those just take longer to manufacture and discover.”

One drawback of peptide drugs is that they typically can’t be taken orally, so they would have to be either administered intravenously or injected under the skin. They would also need to be modified so that they can stay in the bloodstream long enough to be effective, which Pentelute’s lab is also working on.

“It’s hard to project how long it will take to have something we can test in patients, but my aim is to have something within a matter of weeks. If it turns out to be more challenging, it may take months,” he says.

In addition to Pentelute and Zhang, other researchers listed as authors on the preprint are postdoc Sebastian Pomplun, grad student Alexander Loftis, and research scientist Andrei Loas.

3 Questions: The risks of using 3D printing to make personal protective equipment

As the number of hospitalizations due to Covid-19 continues to rise across the U.S., addressing the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers has become increasingly urgent. Institutions and organizations across the country – including MIT – have been scrambling to collect and send unused face masks to local hospitals.

In the race to help protect doctors, nurses, and patients, some have suggested that technologies like 3D printing be used to quickly manufacture masks. In a recent memo, MIT faculty members Martin Culpepper, Peter Fisher, and Elazer Edelman, with input from Neil Gershenfeld and A. John Hart, detail the risks associated with using 3D printing to build PPE and Covid-19-related medical devices.

Martin Culpepper is a professor of mechanical engineering, director of Project Manus, and a member of MIT’s governance team on manufacturing opportunities for Covid-19. Here, he discusses the risks associated with using 3D printing for PPE and what designers, researchers, and engineers can do to address the PPE shortage.

Q: What are the risks associated with using 3D printing to make PPE for medical professionals?

A: One of the biggest risks with 3D printing for Covid-19 situations is the false sense of hope that we can quickly print PPE to address needs. Well-intentioned people want to help and think 3D printing can address the current demand for medical devices and PPE in hospitals. However, the production of PPE, for example masks, is much more complicated than people might appreciate and 3D printed masks may do more harm than good.

There are a lot of issues with certain types of 3D printed parts with respect to their use in a clinical setting. One example involves sterilization — material compatibility with the sterilization techniques hospitals currently use and the use of certain materials in a setting where it is uncertain how they interact with other chemicals, devices, and contact with patients and care providers. The thing is though, right now the problem isn’t masks, it’s the filter media. In particular, the use of filter media in masks is essential to their efficacy.

The filter media is really an amazing thing; it just looks like a simple piece of cloth, but it’s made through a very specific process to achieve a very specific end state. This end state is specially engineered to catch small particles. Some materials are electrostatically charged so that small particles become stuck to the fibers as they try to go through. This material works great for clinical use and is urgently needed right now. People are focusing on the masks themselves, and not addressing the real problem — filter media for the masks. Masks without the filter media don’t make much of a difference in protecting people from the spread of viruses like Covid-19.

Q: How should designers and engineers utilize 3D printing to develop Covid-19-related medical devices and PPE?

A: At MIT, we have some of the best 3D printing capabilities you can find on the planet. The reality here is that we aren’t large volume manufacturers: Our 3D printing technologies are set up to build proof-of-concept designs, not to manufacture medical products at scale. The best use of our 3D printing technologies right now is to use them to rapidly demonstrate the feasibility needed to pave the way to high-rate manufacturing processes. Then we can work with manufacturers who can quickly spin the products up and produce these items at the rate that is needed.

The sheer volume of the need is another reason we are discouraging the use of 3D printing to produce PPE on MIT’s campus. Some hospitals need thousands of pieces of PPE each day, 3D printing just cannot keep up with that demand. However, if you can come up with a great idea for PPE that can be fabricated in a high-rate way that meets demand, then we encourage people to use 3D printing as a means to prototype. Once you have that 3D printed proof of concept prototype, MIT can look to have it rapidly vetted for use in a clinical setting and find manufacturers and medical device companies who are equipped to build and distribute products at scale.

Q: Where should researchers and engineers be focusing their efforts to help solve the PPE shortage?

A: The fastest and safest way to make an impact is to donate unopened PPE that is marketed with regulatory approval. For members of the MIT community, use the MIT program. For people elsewhere, don’t take it to a local hospital, find local an official effort that is coordinating a local effort and contact them. The second most important thing is fostering collaborations and connections with others.

At MIT, we are working on a few realistic PPE designs that are suitable for rapid deployment to high-rate manufacturing processes. These prototypes are being vetted for deployment. There are many in the community that are supporting each other by offering design advice, sourcing advice, clinical feedback through MIT’s connections, and helping find places where they can connect with manufacturers if appropriate.

MIT has always been a place where great ideas can make a big difference in the world. If we are going to make a big difference in this crisis, now is the time for great ideas. One of our strengths at MIT is that we focus on “mind, hand, and heart.” This is a time when we need to use all three of those things. People across the world are worried and uncertain. Too many people are “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks and not thinking things through. We can only solve these problems in the fastest, smartest way if continue to apply the motto of “mind, hand, heart” to our efforts.

MIT-based team works on rapid deployment of open-source, low-cost ventilator

One of the most pressing shortages facing hospitals during the Covid-19 emergency is a lack of ventilators. These machines can keep patients breathing when they no longer can on their own, and they can cost around $30,000 each. Now, a rapidly assembled volunteer team of engineers, physicians, computer scientists, and others, centered at MIT, is working to implement a safe, inexpensive alternative for emergency use, which could be built quickly around the world.

The team, called MIT E-Vent (for emergency ventilator), was formed on March 12 in response to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its members were brought together by the exhortations of doctors, friends, and a sudden flood of mail referencing a project done a decade ago in the MIT class 2.75 (Medical Device Design). Students working in consultation with local physicians designed a simple ventilator device that could be built with about $100 worth of parts. They published a paper detailing their design and testing, but the work ended at that point. Now, with a significant global need looming, a new team, linked to that course, has resumed the project at a highly accelerated pace.

The key to the simple, inexpensive ventilator alternative is a hand-operated plastic pouch called a bag-valve resuscitator, or Ambu bag, which hospitals already have on hand in large quantities. These are designed to be operated by hand, by a medical professional or emergency technician, to provide breaths to a patient in situations like cardiac arrest, until an intervention such as a ventilator becomes available. A tube is inserted into the patient’s airway, as with a hospital ventilator, but then the pumping of air into the lungs is done by squeezing and releasing the flexible pouch. This is a task for skilled personnel, trained in how to evaluate the patient and adjust the timing and pressure of the pumping accordingly.

The innovation begun by the earlier MIT class, and now being rapidly refined and tested by the new team, was to devise a mechanical system to do the squeezing and releasing of the Ambu bag, since this is not something that a person could be expected to do for any extended period. But it is crucial for such a system to not damage the bag and to be controllable, so that the amount of air and pressures being delivered can be tailored to the particular patient. The device must be very reliable, since an unexpected failure of the device could be fatal, but as designed by the MIT team, the bag can be immediately operated manually.

The team is particularly concerned about the potential for well-meaning but inexperienced do-it-yourselfers to try to reproduce such a system without the necessary clinical knowledge or expertise with hardware that can operate for days; around 1 million cycles would be required to support a ventilated patient over a two-week period. Furthermore, it requires code that is fault-tolerant, since ventilators are precision devices that perform a life-critical function. To help curtail the spread of misinformation or poorly-thought-out advice, the team has added to their website verified information resources on the clinical use of ventilators and the requirements for training and monitoring in using such systems. All of this information is freely available at e-vent.mit.edu.

“We are releasing design guidance (clinical, mechanical, electrical/controls, testing) on a rolling basis as it is developed and documented,” one team member says. “We encourage capable clinical-engineering teams to work with their local resources, while following the main specs and safety information, and we welcome any input other teams may have.”

The researchers emphasize that this is not a project for typical do-it-yourselfers to undertake, since it requires specialized understanding of the clinical-technical interface, and the ability to work in consideration of strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration specifications and guidelines.

Such devices “have to be manufactured according to FDA requirements, and should only be utilized under the supervision of a clinician,” a team member said. “The Department of Health and Human Services released a notice stating that all medical interventions related to Covid-19 are no longer subject to liability, but that does not change our burden of care.” he said. “At present, we are awaiting FDA feedback” about the project. “Ultimately, our intent is to seek FDA approval. That process takes time, however.”

The all-volunteer team is working without funding and operating anonymously for now because many of them have already been swamped by inquiries from people wanting more information, and are concerned about being overwhelmed by calls that would interfere with their work on the project. “We would really, really like to just stay focused,” says one team member. “And that’s one of the reasons why the website is so essential, so that we can communicate with anyone who wants to read about what we are doing, and also so that others across the world can communicate with us.”

“The primary consideration is patient safety. So we had to establish what we’re calling minimum clinical functional requirements,” that is, the minimum set of functions that the device would need to perform to be both safe and useful, says one of the team members, who is both an engineer and an MD. He says one of his jobs is to translate between the specialized languages used by the engineers and the medical professionals on the team.

That determination of minimum requirements was made by a team of physicians with broad clinical backgrounds, including anesthesia and critical care, he says. In parallel, the group set to work on designing, building, and testing an updated prototype. Initial tests revealed the high loads that actual use incurs, and some weaknesses that have already been addressed so that, in the words of team co-leads, “Even the professor can kick it across the room.” In other words, early attempts focused on super “makability” were too optimistic.

New versions have already been fabricated and are being prepared for additional functional tests. Already, the team says there is enough detailed information on their website to allow other teams to work in parallel with them, and they have also included links to other teams that are working on similar design efforts.

In under a week the team has gone from empty benches to their first realistic tests of a prototype. One team member says that in the less than a week full they have been working, motivated by reports of doctors already having to ration ventilators, and the intense focus the diverse group has brought to this project, they have already generated “multiple theses worth” of research.

The cross-disciplinary nature of the group has been crucial, one team member says. “The most exciting times and when the team is really moving fast are when we have an a design engineer, sitting next to a controls engineer, sitting next to the fabrication expert, with an anesthesiologist on WebEx, all solid modeling, coding, and spreadsheeting in parallel. We are discussing the details of everything from ways to track patients’ vital signs data to the best sources for small electric motors.”

The intensity of the work, with people putting in very long hours every day, has been tiring but hasn’t dulled their enthusiasm. “We all work together, and ultimately the goal is to help people, because people’s lives understandably hang in the balance,” he said.

The team can be contacted via their website.

MIT-affiliated companies take on Covid-19

As the world grapples with the public health crises and myriad disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, many efforts to address its impact are underway.

Several of those initiatives are being led by companies that were founded by MIT alumni, professors, students, and researchers.

These companies’ efforts are as wide ranging and complex as the challenges brought on by Covid-19. They leverage expertise in biological engineering, mobile technology, data analytics, community engagement, and other fields MIT has long focused on.

The companies, a few of whom are featured here, are also at very different stages of deployment, but they are all driven by a desire to use science, engineering, and entrepreneurship to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Moderna Therapeutics

On Jan. 11, Chinese authorities shared the genetic sequence of Covid-19. Just two days later, members of a research team from Moderna Therapeutics, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, finalized the design of a vaccine they hope will prevent infection from the disease.

Moderna was founded by Institute Professor Robert Langer, investor Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87, and researchers from Harvard Medical School in 2010. The company develops treatments that leverage specialized transporter molecules in cells known as messenger RNAs. Messenger RNAs bring instructions from genes to the cellular machinery that makes proteins. By creating specially modified mRNA, Moderna believes it can develop therapies to treat and prevent a number of diseases in humans.

Following its design of a potential Covid-19 vaccine, the company quickly moved to manufacture the mRNA vaccine for clinical trials. On March 16, just 65 days after Covid-19 was sequenced, Moderna began human trials, according to the company.

The first stage of the trials is expected to last six weeks and will focus on the safety of the vaccine as well as the immune response it provokes in participants. The company has said that while a commercially available vaccine is not likely to be available for at least 12-18 months, it is possible that under emergency use, a vaccine could be available to some people sooner.

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals

On March 5, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals announced that its partnership with Vir Biotechnology, which focuses on treating infectious diseases, would extend to developing therapeutics for coronavirus infections, including Covid-19.

Alnylam was founded in 2002 by Institute Professor Phil Sharp, Professor David Bartel, former MIT professor Paul Schimmel, MIT postdocs Tom Tuschl and Phil Zamore, and investors.

The company is already approved to treat patients with certain rare genetic diseases using its patented RNA interference technology. RNA interference, or RNAi, is a method of stopping the expression of specific genes through the manipulation of existing regulatory processes in the human body.

“[RNAi] technology is now strongly validated in a variety of ways and the promise of it is really remarkable,” says Sharp, who currently sits on Alnylam’s scientific advisory board with Bartel and Schimmel. “It’s the creation of a whole new therapeutic modality that I think we’ll be using 100 years from now.”

Under the terms of the extended collaboration, the companies will use Alnylam’s recent advances in delivering its RNAi technology to the lungs, in addition to Vir’s infectious disease capabilities, to identify and advance drug candidates.

Sharp says that even if the collaboration doesn’t lead to a treatment for the current Covid-19 outbreak, it holds tremendous potential for helping victims of infectious diseases down the line.

Dimagi

Dimagi, which provides a platform for creating mobile apps that can be used offline by cell phones of all types, recently began freely offering its mobile tool to organizations responding to the Covid-19 outbreak around the world.

The company’s platform is currently being used by hundreds of thousands of front-line health care workers globally. By enabling people with no coding experience to create mobile apps that work in environments with no cellular service, the company has transformed health care treatment for millions of people in low- and middle-income countries.

The company has already seen governments adopt its platform for Covid-19 response, including the Ogun state government of Nigeria, and it is also exploring use cases with officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in California.

The company was formed in 2002 when Jonathan Jackson’03 SM ’05 met co-founder Vikram Kumar, who was then a graduate research assistant in MIT’s Media Lab and on his way to earning his MD in the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

Since then, Dimagi’s solutions have been used for a variety of large health care initiatives, including the Ebola crisis in West Africa, where the company worked directly with health organizations to give them mobile applications that helped provide critical care during their Ebola response.

Jackson believes Dimagi can help health care workers with tracking person-to-person contact, data collection, decision support, and spreading useful information. The company is also compiling a library of free, open-source templated Covid-19 mobile applications for quick deploymnent.

“Think of it as a free app store where health organizations working on the front lines can go, download their Covid-19 applications and quickly equip their health workforces with Covid-19 apps,” Jackson says.

Biobot Analytics

Biobot Analytics, a startup that analyzes wastewater to gain insights into public health, has begun requesting sewage samples from wastewater treatment facilities across the U.S. to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19.

The company’s technology, developed by CEO Mariana Matus PhD ’18 during her time at MIT in partnership with Newsha Ghaeli, then a research fellow in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has been geared toward estimating drug consumption in communities since its founding in 2017.

Biobot uses a proprietary device to gather representative samples of sewage, then ships those samples to its scientists for near-real time testing. Samples can be used to track opioid use, nutrition, environmental contaminants, antibiotic resistance, and the spread of infectious diseases. The resulting insights can be used to understand the health and well-being of small communities or large cities.

In the company’s Covid-19 testing program, which it launched pro bono in collaboration with researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the teams will process sewage samples from treatment facilities across the U.S., then use a laboratory technique known as a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction to determine the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

The collaborators believe the program could complement existing testing methods in addition to helping guide community reponses, measure the effectiveness of interventions, and provide an early warning for re-emergence of the outbreak.

“There is an incredible opportunity to use this technology to get ahead of and monitor the Covid-19 epidemic,” the company wrote in a recent Medium post announcing the program. “A wastewater epidemiology system that aggregates samples from wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. would provide a dynamic map of Covid-19 as it spreads to new places. [This will be a tracker for the outbreak complementary to individual testing]. Government officials, school administrators, and employers would no longer need to rely on confirmed cases or hospital reporting to make tough decisions like enforcing work from home policies.”

Soofa

Soofa, a startup that creates solar-powered digital signs in public spaces, has begun offering its city partners templates to quickly post emergency announcements regarding Covid-19. In Massachusetts, the templates have been used in Brookline to post updates about school and playground closures, in Somerville to redirect people to the town’s coronavirus webpage, and in Everett, which has posted their updates in both English and Spanish to reach more people.

Soofa was founded in 2014 by Jutta Friedrichs and Sandra Richter, a former researcher in MIT’s Media Lab. The founders refer to their signs as “neighborhood news feeds” because they offer an easy, inclusive way for community members to view and post messages.

The company’s digital signage has also proven useful for its partners outside of government. Boston Architectural College, for example, now gives viewers instructions to attend their spring virtual open house.

Pathr

Pathr is a startup that uses data analytics and machine learning to understand how people move through environments. The company, which has primarily used its technology to help retailers, casino operators, and owners of public spaces gain insights into customer behavior, recently launched a new product called SocialDistance.ai.

SocialDistance.ai will use Pathr’s “spatial intelligence” platform to give operators of large spaces information on how infectious diseases might spread in different scenarios.

Pathr’s platform can be used to simulate the spread of infectious diseases in different scenarios. In this video playlist, simulations incorporating measures such as social distancing (second video) and mask distribution (third video) are shown.

SocialDistance.ai was formed when Pathr’s team got locked down in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the company is based, and began thinking about how their technology could help address disruptions related to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“There’s a spatial component to disease outbreak in general, and we’ve been hearing a lot about that with this coronavirus, so that was the spark, just thinking about what we could do to help,” says Pathr founder and CEO George Shaw SM ’11.

Shaw says his team has been in touch with officials who run malls, casinos, retail stores, and various public spaces to help them make more informed decisions about allowing people to use their spaces in the time periods surrounding an outbreak.

“Nobody who operates a big space wants to limit the number of people [in that space], so this would be a way to strike that balance, to get the right social distance, the right density of crowds; it could also help owners reconfigure a space so the flow of people is more conducive to social distancing,” Shaw says.

Shaw developed the spatial intelligence platform as a graduate student in the lab of Professor Deb Roy while working on a project in the Media Lab.

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