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Dora Aldama: Drawn to multidimensional problems

Dora Aldama: Drawn to multidimensional problems

Dora Aldama (LGO ’18) discusses her passion for multidimensional problems and her internship to improve Boeing’s production line.
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New robot rolls with the rules of pedestrian conduct

Jonathan How, Professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor recently co-authored a paper on a new robotic design for autonomous robots with “socially aware navigation.”

September 13, 2017 | More

Finding leaks while they’re easy to fix

A team under professor of mechanical engineering and LGO Thesis Advisor, Kamal Youcef-Toumi, have developed a fast, inexpensive water distribution system.
Access to clean, safe water is one of the world’s pressing needs, yet today’s water distribution systems lose an average of 20 percent of their supply because of leaks. These leaks not only make shortages worse but also can cause serious structural damage to buildings and roads by undermining foundations.Unfortunately, leak detection systems are expensive and slow to operate — and they don’t work well in systems that use wood, clay, or plastic pipes, which account for the majority of systems in the developing world.Now, a new system developed by researchers at MIT could provide a fast, inexpensive solution that can find even tiny leaks with pinpoint precision, no matter what the pipes are made of.

The system, which has been under development and testing for nine years by professor of mechanical engineering Kamal Youcef-Toumi, graduate student You Wu, and two others, will be described in detail at the upcoming IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in September. Meanwhile, the team is carrying out tests this summer on 12-inch concrete water-distribution pipes under the city of Monterrey, Mexico.

The system uses a small, rubbery robotic device that looks something like an oversized badminton birdie. The device can be inserted into the water system through any fire hydrant. It then moves passively with the flow, logging its position as it goes. It detects even small variations in pressure by sensing the pull at the edges of its soft rubber skirt, which fills the diameter of of the pipe.

The device is then retrieved using a net through another hydrant, and its data is uploaded. No digging is required, and there is no need for any interruption of the water service. In addition to the passive device that is pushed by the water flow, the team also produced an active version that can control its motion.

Monterrey itself has a strong incentive to take part in this study, since it loses an estimated 40 percent of its water supply to leaks every year, costing the city about $80 million in lost revenue. Leaks can also lead to contamination of the water supply when polluted water backs up into the distribution pipes.

The MIT team, called PipeGuard, intends to commercialize its robotic detection system to help alleviate such losses. In Saudi Arabia, where most drinking water is provided through expensive desalination plants, some 33 percent is lost through leakage. That’s why that desert nation’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals has sponsored and collaborated on much of the MIT team’s work, including successful field tests there earlier this year that resulted in some further design improvements to the system, Youcef-Toumi says.

Those tests, in a mile-long section of 2-inch rusty pipe provided by Pipetech LLC, a pipeline service company in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that frequently uses the same pipe system for validating and certifying pipeline technologies. The tests, in pipes with many bends, T-joints, and connections, involved creating an artificial leak for the robot to find. The robot did so successfully, distinguishing the characteristics of the leak from false alarms caused by pressure variations or changes in pipe size, roughness, or orientation.

“We put the robot in from one joint, and took it out from the other. We tried it 14 times over three days, and it completed the inspection every time,” Wu says. What’s more, it found a leak that was about one gallon per minute, which is one-tenth the minimum size that conventional detection methods can find on average, and a third as large as those systems can find under even the best of conditions.

These leakage issues are widespread. “In China, there are many newly built cities and they all use plastic water pipes,” says Honghai Bi, CEO of Banzan International Group, one of the largest plastic pipe manufacturers in China. “In those new pipe systems there is still about 30 percent of water lost due to leaks every day. Currently there is not an effective tool to locate leaks in those plastic pipes, and MIT PipeGuard’s robot is the disruptive change we have been looking for.”

The next step for the team, after the field tests in Monterrey, is to make a more flexible, collapsible version of their robot that can quickly adapt itself to pipes of different diameters. Under the steets of Boston, for example, there are a mix of 6-, 8- and 12-inch pipes to navigate — many of them installed so long ago that the city doesn’t even have accurate maps of their locations. The robot would expand “like an umbrella,” Wu says, to adapt to each pipe.

The value of the robot is not just for reducing water losses, but also for making water services safer and more reliable. “When a leak occurs, the force of the water flowing from underground can do serious structural damage undermining streets, flooding houses, and damaging other underground utilities. There is also the issue of loss of service to residents and business for extended period of time,” says Mark Gallager, director of engineering and distribution at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Water Department. The ability of this system to detect much smaller leaks could enable early detection and repair, long before serious pipe breaks occur.

Gallager says, If we had the capability to find leaks when they first appear or before they get to the point of critical failure, that could equate to preventing the loss of millions of gallons of water annually. It could minimize the damage to infrastructure and the loss of water services to homes and businesses, and it could significantly reduce the associated cost.”

Not only could the system find leaks in virtually any kind of water pipe, it could also be used for other kinds of pipe distribution systems, such as those for natural gas. Such pipes, which are often old and also poorly mapped, have produced serious gas buildups and even explosions in some cities, but leaks are hard to detect until they become large enough for people to smell the added odorants. The MIT system was actually first developed to detect gas leaks, and later adapted for water pipes.

Ultimately, the team hopes, the robot could not just find leaks but also be equipped with a special mechanism they have designed, so that, at least for smaller leaks, it could carry out an instant repair on the spot.

The device has already attracted a series of honors and awards. The team members won the $10,000 prize at the 2017 MIT Water Innovation competition, and they were finalists in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, where they won another $10,000. In the $100K finals, they won yet another $10,000 for the Booz Allen Hamilton Data Analytics Award, and they were one of the 25 winners nationwide to receive a $10,000 2017 Infy Maker Award from Infosys Foundation.

One of the judges in that $100k competition, DKNY CEO Caroline Brown, said “PipeGuard has created a simple, pragmatic and elegant solution to a complex problem. … This robot is a great example of utilizing smart design to simplify complexity and maximize efficiency.”

The team presenting the results at the IROS conference includes Kristina Kim ’17 and Michael Finn Henry, a local high school student who was a summer intern at MIT. The founders of PipeGuard are Wu and MIT graduate students Jonathan Miller and Daniel Gomez.

July 31, 2017 | More

Two MIT documentaries win New England Emmy Awards

Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering and LGO faculty was the subject of the Emmy Award winning film “Water is Life,” in which he travels to India gathering research on how to design a low-cost desalination system for use in developing areas.

On June 24, Boston-area journalists, videographers, and producers filled the halls of the Marriott Boston Copley Place for the 40th annual New England Emmy Awards. Staff from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) and MIT Video Productions (MVP) occupied two full tables at the black-tie affair. By the end of the night, two golden statues joined them as both groups were awarded Emmys.

MechE’s multimedia specialist John Freidah was honored with a New England Emmy in the Health/Science Program/Special category for the film “Water is Life,” which chronicles PhD student Natasha Wright and Professor Amos Winter as they travel to India gathering research on how to design a low-cost desalination system for use in developing areas. The film was also recently honored with a 2017 National Edward R. Murrow Award — one of the most prestigious awards in journalism — as well as a 2017 Circle of Excellence Award from the The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

Meanwhile, MVP’s Lawrence Gallagher, Joseph McMaster, and Jean Dunoyer received a New England Emmy in the Education/Schools category for their film “A Bold Move,” which recounts MIT’s relocation from Boston’s Back Bay to a swath of undeveloped land on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The film is the first in a four-part series that commemorate MIT’s 100th year in Cambridge.

“Water Is Life”

As the camera pans over an aerial shot of a lake in India, a flock of white birds majestically flies by. Capturing this moment in the opening shot of “Water is Life” required a lot of patience and a little help from a new friend. Unable to bring a drone into India, the film’s producer, editor, and cinematographer, John Freidah, had to come up with another plan. During a conversation on a flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, Freidah befriended a passenger in his row. He mentioned his search for a drone operator to get the perfect birds-eye-view shot of India’s landscape. As luck would have it, the day before departing India, Freidah received an email from his new friend saying he new someone with a drone that he could use to film sweeping aerial shots.

Planning for “Water is Life” began months before Freidah flew to India, however. Interested in highlighting the important work done in Professor Amos Winter’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, Freidah and his colleagues in the media team at MechE honed in on the research PhD student and Tata Fellow Natasha Wright was conducting on designing an affordable desalination system for use in rural India. With the generous support of Robert Stoner, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative and director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design, plans were arranged to film Winter and Wright in India.

“India is a beautiful and amazing country, which is rich in imagery. I felt lucky to film there,” Freidah says. “We were fortunate to have the aid of stakeholders — Jain Engineering and Tata Projects — who facilitated our visits to the local villages where they were struggling with clean drinking water.”

Visiting these villages and talking to end-users who would benefit from and potentially use a desalination system was a crucial component of Winter and Wright’s research. Capturing the daily challenges these villagers face on film brought another level of exposure to the work being done by GEAR and the Tata Center.

“Having John travel to India enabled us to tell the story of our research in much greater depth than we could on campus,” says Winter. By capturing the many angles of Winter and Wright’s story, “Water Is Life” aims to show people first-hand what a problem access to clean water is on a global scale, and how essential it is to support new research and technologies that hope to solve it.

“I really wanted to give the viewer a first-person experience — through the visuals,” Freidah explains. “I wanted it to be a visual journey, as if they were there — with sound and imagery — from honking horns on the street and rickshaws going by.”

“A Bold Move”

It’s hard to imagine a time when the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge weren’t adorned with MIT’s Great Dome, inter-connected buildings, and stately columns. MIT President Richard Cockburn Maclaurin’s aspiration to move the Institute from its overcrowded classrooms in Boston’s Back Bay to a plot of vacant land across the river in 1916 did more than shape the landscape around Kendall Square; it redefined MIT’s presence as a global pioneer in science and technology research. To celebrate the 1916 move to Cambridge, the program A Century in Cambridge was launched last year.

Well before the centennial fireworks exploded over Killian Court, Larry Gallagher, director of MVP, was approached by the Century in Cambridge Steering Committee. MVP was asked to produce a series of documentaries that explored MIT’s move to Cambridge in 1916 and other key aspects of the MIT experience that have helped shape MIT into what it is today. The first of this series, “A Bold Move,” chronicles the design and construction of MIT’s new campus, the whimsical celebrations commemorating the move, and the tragic and untimely passing of the man who orchestrated the entire process — President Maclaurin.

Capturing this period in MIT’s history required extensive research and the participation of faculty, staff, and historians well versed in the move to Cambridge. “We are deeply indebted to the faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Cambridge community who so generously gave their time end expertise,” says producer and director Joe McMaster. “Without their insights, the film wouldn’t have successfully portrayed this moment in MIT’s history.”

In addition to interviewing those with extensive knowledge of the 2016 move, the MVP team had to dig deep into MIT’s robust archives. Thousands of photos from The MIT Museum, The Institute Archives, the Cambridge Historical Commission, and other sources were analyzed by McMaster and a team of research assistants. “I was amazed to see how thoroughly documented MIT’s history is in photographs — particularly everything to do with the move to Cambridge,” McMaster adds. “The whole affair seemed to be carried out with such a wonderful mixture of seriousness and whimsy, and I hoped the film would capture that feeling.”

Editor and co-producer Jean Dunoyer was tasked with weaving together the footage and photographs in a way that reflected this mixture of the silly and sacred. The imagery and footage was set to period music, to give viewers a feel for that particular era in history. In one of the concluding scenes, this period music is brought to life once more by MIT a capella group The Chorallaries. The group performs a haunting rendition of “Mother Tech,” a piece originally performed at the conclusion of the celebrations in 1916.

The entire Century in Cambridge documentary series was produced over the course of 18 months, with assistance from the Century in Cambridge Steering Committee and the generous support of Jane and Neil Papparlardo ’64. The scope of “A Bold Move” required a massive collaboration across all of MVP. “This is indeed a huge collaborative effort for MVP,” says Gallagher. “Projects of this scope benefit from the contributions of the entire team, and for their work and talents to be recognized by their peers in the video production community with an Emmy is a great source of pride.”

July 5, 2017 | More

School of Engineering awards for 2017

Amos Winter, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and LGO faculty won the Junior Bose Award for being an outstanding contributor to education among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering.

The School of Engineering recently honored outstanding faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students, with the following awards:

  • Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering, won the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, given to a faculty member whose contributions have been characterized by dedication, care, and creativity.
  • Amos Winter, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, won the Junior Bose Award for being an outstanding contributor to education among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering.

The Ruth and Joel Spira Awards for Excellence in Teaching are awarded to one faculty member in each of three departments: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), Mechanical Engineering (MechE), and Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). The awards acknowledge “the tradition of high-quality engineering education at MIT.” A fourth award rotates among the School of Engineering’s five other academic departments.

This year’s winners are:

  • John Hart, an associate professor of mechanical engineering;
  • Patrick Jaillet, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor in Electrical Engineering;
  • R. Scott Kemp, the Norman C. Rasmussen Career Development Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering; and
  • Nir Shavit, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Mary Elizabeth Wagner, a graduate student in materials science and engineering, won the School of Engineering Graduate Student Award for Extraordinary Teaching and Mentoring, established in 2006 to recognize an engineering graduate student who has demonstrated extraordinary teaching and mentoring as a teaching or research assistant.

Alexander H. Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, won the Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising, given to a faculty member who has demonstrated a lasting commitment to personal and professional development.

Hannah Diehl of the Department of Physics and Bryce Hwang of EECS were awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, given to students who exhibit an outstanding potential and intend to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering disciplines that contribute significantly to technological advances in the United States.

Arinze C. Okeke, a biological engineering major, won the Henry Ford II Award, presented to a senior engineering student who has maintained a cumulative GPA average of 5.0 at the end of their seventh term and who has exceptional potential for leadership in the profession of engineering and in society.

John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, won the Samuel M. Seegal Prize, awarded for excellence in teaching to a faculty member (or members) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and/or the MIT Sloan School of Management who inspires students in pursuing and achieving excellence.

June 22, 2017 | More

Space junk: The cluttered frontier

A team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Kerri Cahoy have developed a laser sensing technique that can decipher not only where but what kind of space objects may be passing overhead.

Hundreds of millions of pieces of space junk orbit the Earth daily, from chips of old rocket paint, to shards of solar panels, and entire dead satellites. This cloud of high-tech detritus whirls around the planet at about 17,500 miles per hour. At these speeds, even trash as small as a pebble can torpedo a passing spacecraft.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are using ground-based telescopes and laser radars (ladars) to track more than 17,000 orbital debris objects to help prevent collisions with operating missions. Such ladars shine high-powered lasers at target objects, measuring the time it takes for the laser pulse to return to Earth, to pinpoint debris in the sky.

Now aerospace engineers from MIT have developed a laser sensing technique that can decipher not only where but what kind of space junk may be passing overhead. For example, the technique, called laser polarimetry, may be used to discern whether a piece of debris is bare metal or covered with paint. The difference, the engineers say, could help determine an object’s mass, momentum, and potential for destruction.

“In space, things just tend to break up over time, and there have been two major collisions over the last 10 years that have caused pretty significant spikes in debris,” says Michael Pasqual, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “If you can figure out what a piece of debris is made of, you can know how heavy it is and how quickly it could deorbit over time or hit something else.”

Kerri Cahoy, the Rockwell International Career Development Associate Professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, says the technique can easily be implemented on existing groundbased systems that currently monitor orbital debris.

“[Government agencies] want to know where these chunks of debris are, so they can call the International Space Station and say, ‘Big chunk of debris coming your way, fire your thrusters and move yourself up so you’re clear,’” Cahoy says. “Mike came up with a way where, with a few modifications to the optics, they could use the same tools to get more information about what these materials are made of.”

Pasqual and Cahoy have published their results in the journal IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems.

Seeing a signature

The team’s technique uses a laser to measure a material’s effect on the polarization state of light, which refers to the orientation of light’s oscillating electric field that reflects off the material. For instance, when the sun’s rays reflect off a rubber ball, the incoming light’s electric field may oscillate vertically. But certain properties of the ball’s surface, such as its roughness, may cause it to reflect with a horizontal oscillation instead, or in a completely different orientation. The same material can have multiple polarization effects, depending on the angle at which light hits it.

Pasqual reasoned that a material such as paint could have a different polarization “signature,” reflecting laser light in patterns that are distinct from the patterns of, say, bare aluminum. Polarization signatures therefore could be a reliable way for scientists to identify the composition of orbital debris in space.

To test this theory, he set up a benchtop polarimeter — an apparatus that measures, at many different angles, the polarization of laser light as it reflects off a material. The team used a high-powered laser beam with a wavelength of 1,064 nanometers, similar to the lasers used in existing ground-based ladars to track orbital debris. The laser was horizontally polarized, meaning that its light oscillated along a horizontal plane. Pasqual then used polarization filtering optics and silicon detectors to measure the polarization states of the reflected light.

Sifting through space trash

In choosing materials to analyze, Pasqual picked six that are commonly used in satellites: white and black paint, aluminum, titanium, and Kapton and Teflon — two filmlike materials used to shield satellites.

“We thought they were very representative of what you might find in space debris,” Pasqual says.

He placed each sample in the experimental apparatus, which was motorized so measurements could be made at different angles and geometries, and measured its polarization effects. In addition to reflecting light with same polarization as the incident light, materials can also display other, stranger polarization behaviors, such as rotating the light’s oscillation slightly — a phenomenon called retardance. Pasqual identified 16 main polarization states, then took note of which efffects a given material exhibited as it reflected laser light.

“Teflon had a very unique property where when you shine laser light with a vertical oscillation, it spits back some in-between angle of light,” Pasqual says. “And some of the paints had depolarization, where the material will spit out equal combinations of vertical and horizontal states.”

Each material had a suffiiciently unique polarization signature to distinguish it from the other five samples. Pasqual believes other aerospace materials, such as various shielding films, or composite materials for antennas, solar cells, and circuit boards, may also exhibit unique polarization effects. His hope is that scientists can use laser polarimetry to establish a library of materials with unique polarization signatures. By adding certain filters to lasers on existing groundbased ladars, scientists can measure the polarization states of passing debris and match them to a library of signatures to determine the object’s composition.

“There are already a lot of facilities on the ground for tracking debris as it is,” Pasqual says. “The point of this technique is, while you’re doing that, you might as well put some filters on your detectors that detect polarization changes, and it’s those polarization features that can help you infer what the material is made of. And you can get more information, basically for free.”

This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Lincoln Scholars Program.

June 22, 2017 | More

LGO Best Thesis 2017 for Integrated Manufacturing Analytics Project

After graduation ceremonies at MIT, Jeremy Rautenbach won the Leaders for Global Operations Program’s Best Thesis award for his project at a Danaher Corporation subsidiary company. “Jeremy’s capstone thesis shows how all of the operations concepts we develop at LGO work together. He applied skills in advanced data analytics, manufacturing optimization, and leading all levels of an organization. In the end, he created sustainable solutions for his host company,” Thomas Roemer, the executive director of the LGO program, said when announcing the award winner.

Applying MIT knowledge in the real world

MIT LGO best thesis 2017 - rautenbauch
Jeremy Rautenbach won the 2017 LGO best thesis award for his work applying statistical analysis onto a manufacturing line.

Jeremy prepared for his thesis project during one of his courses: Control of Manufacturing Processes. Current and former LGO Faculty Co-Directors Duane Boning (EECS) and David Hardt (ME) teach the course, which is jointly listed as a mechanical and electrical engineering graduate class. Students study statistical decision making, yield modeling and identifying root causes, multivariate SPC chart methods, and nested variance. Both professors noticed Jeremy’s passion for the topic and agreed to supervise his internship and thesis. Professor of Statistics and Engineering Systems Roy Welsch served as Jeremy’s final supervising professor. All LGO students work with least one management professor and one engineering professor when completing their dual-degree internship and thesis.

During his internship, Jeremy worked at a biotech firm and analyzed the company’s manufacturing processes. “Jeremy took to heart ‘classical’ statistical ideas: sampling, experimental design, and variance analysis to improve the company’s processes. He learned to carefully observe both the human and technical factors at the plant and considered that in his recommendations too,” Welsch said. “He left behind a true spirit of continuous improvement.”

Jeremy found and fixed multiple problems in the company’s manufacturing process. He identified a number of small and very different yield loss sources using a highly methodological approach. He also worked with the team on site, Boning stated, “so that they ‘owned’ the improvements. More importantly, they now own the methodology for continually improving the line.”

Every spring, the LGO office asks for nominations from MIT professors throughout the Institute who worked with LGO theses. LGO alumni read and comment on the thesis to select a winner. Jeremy will return to the Danaher Corporation at a facility in the United Kingdom in a full-time role after graduation. Before enrolling in the program, he completed undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and worked in the South African mining industry for four years.

LGO Class of 2017

Forty-five students graduated in the MIT LGO Class of 2017 on Friday, June 9. As of graduation, 98% had received a job offer. In addition to Danaher, recruiting companies include Amazon, Amgen, Boeing, Blue Origin, Cruise Automation (a General Motors subsidiary), Boston Scientific, Dell, Flex, and Nike.

June 9, 2017 | More

Engineers design drones that can stay aloft for five days

Warren Hoburg, Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and LGO thesis advisor, co-led a team of MIT engineers who developed a unique autonomous aircraft.

In the event of a natural disaster that disrupts phone and Internet systems over a wide area, autonomous aircraft could potentially hover over affected regions, carrying communications payloads that provide temporary telecommunications coverage to those in need.

However, such unpiloted aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are often expensive to operate, and can only remain in the air for a day or two, as is the case with most autonomous surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force. Providing adequate and persistent coverage would require a relay of multiple aircraft, landing and refueling around the clock, with operational costs of thousands of dollars per hour, per vehicle.

Now a team of MIT engineers has come up with a much less expensive UAV design that can hover for longer durations to provide wide-ranging communications support. The researchers designed, built, and tested a UAV resembling a thin glider with a 24-foot wingspan. The vehicle can carry 10 to 20 pounds of communications equipment while flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. Weighing in at just under 150 pounds, the vehicle is powered by a 5-horsepower gasoline engine and can keep itself aloft for more than five days — longer than any gasoline-powered autonomous aircraft has remained in flight, the researchers say.

The team is presenting its results this week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Conference in Denver, Colorado. The team was led by R. John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Warren Hoburg, the Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Hansman and Hoburg are co-instructors for MIT’s Beaver Works project, a student research collaboration between MIT and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A solar no-go

Hansman and Hoburg worked with MIT students to design a long-duration UAV as part of a Beaver Works capstone project — typically a two- or three-semester course that allows MIT students to design a vehicle that meets certain mission specifications, and to build and test their design.

In the spring of 2016, the U.S. Air Force approached the Beaver Works collaboration with an idea for designing a long-duration UAV powered by solar energy. The thought at the time was that an aircraft, fueled by the sun, could potentially remain in flight indefinitely. Others, including Google, have experimented with this concept,  designing solar-powered, high-altitude aircraft to deliver continuous internet access to rural and remote parts of Africa.

But when the team looked into the idea and analyzed the problem from multiple engineering angles, they found that solar power — at least for long-duration emergency response — was not the way to go.

“[A solar vehicle] would work fine in the summer season, but in winter, particularly if you’re far from the equator, nights are longer, and there’s not as much sunlight  during the day. So you have to carry more batteries, which adds weight and makes the plane bigger,” Hansman says. “For the mission of disaster relief, this could only respond to disasters that occur in summer, at low latitude. That just doesn’t work.”

The researchers came to their conclusions after modeling the problem using GPkit, a software tool developed by Hoburg that allows engineers to determine the optimal design decisions or dimensions for a vehicle, given certain constraints or mission requirements.

This method is not unique among initial aircraft design tools, but unlike these tools, which take into account only several main constraints, Hoburg’s method allowed the team to consider around 200 constraints and physical models simultaneously, and to fit them all together to create an optimal aircraft design.

“This gives you all the information you need to draw up the airplane,” Hansman says. “It also says that for every one of these hundreds of parameters, if you changed one of them, how much would that influence the plane’s performance? If you change the engine a bit, it will make a big difference. And if you change wingspan, will it show an effect?”

Framing for takeoff

After determining, through their software estimations, that a solar-powered UAV would not be feasible, at least for long-duration use in any part of the world, the team performed the same modeling for a gasoline-powered aircraft. They came up with a design that was predicted to stay in flight for more than five days, at altitudes of 15,000 feet, in up to 94th-percentile winds, at any latitude.

In the fall of 2016, the team built a prototype UAV, following the dimensions determined by students using Hoburg’s software tool. To keep the vehicle lightweight, they used materials such as carbon fiber for its wings and fuselage, and Kevlar for the tail and nosecone, which houses the payload. The researchers designed the UAV to be easily taken apart and stored in a FedEx box, to be shipped to any disaster region and quickly reassembled.

This spring, the students refined the prototype and developed a launch system, fashioning a simple metal frame to fit on a typical car roof rack. The UAV sits atop the frame as a driver accelerates the launch vehicle (a car or truck) up to rotation speed — the UAV’s optimal takeoff speed. At that point, the remote pilot would angle the UAV toward the sky, automatically releasing a fastener and allowing the UAV to lift off.

In early May, the team put the UAV to the test, conducting flight tests at Plum Island Airport in Newburyport, Massachusetts. For initial flight testing, the students modified the vehicle to comply with FAA regulations for small unpiloted aircraft, which allow drones flying at low altitude and weighing less than 55 pounds. To reduce the UAV’s weight from 150 to under 55 pounds, the researchers simply loaded it with a smaller ballast payload and less gasoline.

In their initial tests, the UAV successfully took off, flew around, and landed safely. Hoburg says there are special considerations that have to be made to test the vehicle over multiple days, such as having enough people to monitor the aircraft over a long period of time.

“There are a few aspects to flying for five straight days,” Hoburg says. “But we’re pretty confident that we have the right fuel burn rate and right engine that we could fly it for five days.”

“These vehicles could be used not only for disaster relief but also other missions, such as environmental monitoring. You might want to keep watch on wildfires or the outflow of a river,” Hansman adds. “I think it’s pretty clear that someone within a few years will manufacture a vehicle that will be a knockoff of this.”

This research was supported, in part, by MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

June 9, 2017 | More

Using statistics can can improve clinical trials and outcomes

Dimitris Bertsimas, LGO faculty and Thesis advisor, Professor of Operations Research, and the CoDirector of the Operations Research Center at MIT explains how using more data would mean better treatments and fewer tears in clinical trials.

Sometimes science can be personal. When my father, who was living in Greece at the time, was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer in 2007, I set out to find the best possible care for him. As is the case with many patients with advanced disease, drug therapy was his best course. So, after unsuccessful surgery in Greece, he came to the US for treatment.

I contacted the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the country and found that they all used different drugs in different treatment regimens to treat advanced gastric cancer. As both a son and a scientist, I was surprised to discover that there was no standard treatment – something I would later realise was true of many different kinds of late-stage cancers.

My family and I were therefore left without a good way to make treatment decisions. As a result, I was forced to do a kind of back-of-the-envelope calculation. Based on the small number of published findings I could locate, I plotted different drug combinations on a curve, seeking to discover the sweet spot between the estimated survival period given by the chemotherapy treatment and the expected toxicity of the treatment.

Read the full post at Times Higher Education 

Dimitris Bertsimas is the Boeing Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management, a Professor of Operations Research, and the CoDirector of the Operations Research Center at MIT.

May 23, 2017 | More

Illuminating uncertainty

Associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Youssef Marzouk has been working to quantify and reduce the uncertainty in complex computational models which can be applied to tracking underground contaminants and improving the accuracy in weather forecasts.

How does today’s weather compare with what was forecast a week or even a day ago? Is that torrential Nor’easter that was predicted in fact just a light drizzle? Has the sun, projected to emerge from the clouds at 11 a.m., instead appeared at noon?

It may come as no surprise that weather predictions come with a fair amount of uncertainty, as do any predictions of large, complex, and interacting systems. And yet, many of us depend on such simulations for information, from everyday traffic and weather reports, to long-term projections for climate.

“You’re sort of using a simulation as an oracle,” says Youssef Marzouk, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “But if we’re really going to use computations as a way of predicting what’s happening in the world, how can we get a handle on this very fuzzy problem of how believable the computations are?”

Quantifying and reducing the uncertainty in complex computational models is the major theme in Marzouk’s work, which he is applying to a wide range of problems, including tracking underground contaminants, characterizing combustion in jet engines, estimating the concentrations of trace gases in the atmosphere, and improving the accuracy in weather forecasts.

“I’m driven by developing methodology that will be broadly useful,” says Marzouk, who earned tenure in 2016.

An abstract pull

In the 1970s, Marzouk’s parents emigrated from Egypt to the U.S., ultimately settling in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father took up a faculty position at Washington University’s School of Dental Medicine. Before their move, Marzouk’s mother worked as a translator, performing simultaneous translations in French and Arabic for diplomats in the Middle East.

Marzouk and his sister were born and raised in suburban St. Louis, and he remembers feeling a pull toward science and math from an early age.

“When I was in grade school, kids would be playing in the playground, and I stayed in the classroom because I wanted to add the biggest numbers I possibly could,” Marzouk recalls. “I was a relatively nerdy kid.”

As his academic pursuits grew, so did his passion for music. Marzouk, following in his sister’s footsteps, took up piano lessons when he was 6 years old. In high school, he regularly participated in science fairs, and he entered and sometimes won piano competitions. In retrospect, he says that his interests in music and math may have shared some overlap.

“There’s a level of abstract thinking and conceptual thought involved in understanding the structure of a piece of music that, in some indirect way, can carry over to math and quantitative thinking,” Marzouk says.

Solving puzzles

In the summer before his junior year of high school, Marzouk took part in a program that placed students in local university labs as summer interns. He worked in a combustion lab at Washington University, studying the physical and chemical interactions involved in producing flames.

“It was my first exposure to mechanical engineering,” Marzouk says. “There were high temperatures, flames, blowing things up — what more could you want?”

He liked the work so much that he continued participating in the lab for the next two and a half years. After graduating high school, he decided to study mechanical engineering at MIT, where he found an immediate connection during Campus Preview Weekend.

“People were down to earth; they were excited about what they were doing. It was very relatable and full of techie people I could talk to,” Marzouk says. “People wanted to work with and help each other to solve puzzles. I think this is still true of the students I see today.”

As an undergraduate, he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in physics and a minor in music. He also took part in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), working in the lab of mechanical engineering professor Doug Hart, where he first learned to develop algorithms to track the direction of vortices in a fluid flow.

That experience helped steer Marzouk toward more computational research. He continued his master’s and PhD work at MIT under the guidance of mechanical engineering professor Ahmed Ghoniem, concentrating again in the field of fluid dynamics but this time from a modeling perspective. For his thesis, he developed a computational model of how a jet of fluid mixes with a cross-flow, yielding new insights useful for improving the design of jet engines.

Uncertain knowledge

After receiving his PhD, Marzouk spent four years working as a postdoc and staff member at Sandia National Laboratories, developing computational models to simulate processes in the physical world. Specifically, he looked for ways to model subsurface flows of radioactive waste and other contaminants that seep through soil and rocks — information that is crucial for determining where and how to clean up contamination and prevent its leakage into aquifers. He soon found that modeling such physical systems was a daunting task with countless unknowns.

“I started getting interested in what aspects of your computational prediction should you actually believe, and what parts are not so reliable or trustworthy?” Marzouk says.

For instance, he says a model’s mathematical formulas that should characterize a certain relationship, such as a porous medium’s response to a given pressure, may not be “perfectly predictive.” Data from actual subsurface measurements can help refine the model, but the number of measurements that can be practically made are limited. Uncertainty, therefore, is intrinsic to both building models and drawing conclusions from data.

Marzouk surmised that if researchers could quantify the uncertainty in a model and a dataset, they could begin to reduce that uncertainty, to produce a more accurate prediction of the state of a physical system. To do this, he dove into Bayesian statistics, a philosophy of statistics which represents the state of the world in terms of probability, or degrees of uncertainty.

Uncertainy can still encode knowledge,” says Marzouk, who continued this line of work, known as uncertainty quantification, when he accepted a faculty position in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2009.

Modeling a data stream

At MIT, Marzouk has been developing methods to quantify and reduce uncertainty in computational models. He’s also finding ways to identify the best quantities to measure in order to improve a model’s prediction.

“You might have thousands of uncertain parameters, and you could boil them down to maybe 20 that matter and that are informed by data, which makes the problem much more tractable,” Marzouk says.

He’s applied his methods to a number of wide-ranging, high-dimensional problems, from subsurface flow and combustion in jet engines, to estimating the concentration of gases throughout Earth’s atmosphere.

“I’m particularly interested in geophysical phenemona which are complex and where data may be very expensive to acquire,” Marzouk says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and characterizing that uncertainty is important.”

In the coming years, he plans to nail down and reduce the sources of uncertainty in  continuously changing models, such as weather forecasting tools, which are constantly updated with a glut of streaming data from ground, air, and space sensors.

“We know mathematically how to formulate rigorous predictions of uncertainty,” Marzouk says. “But doing that for a system the size of the weather is hopelessly out of reach. Our algorithms are giving rise to a new class of approximations that might make uncertainty quantification for these kind of problems more tractable.”

May 12, 2017 | More

Teaching robots to teach other robots

A team under professor of aeronautics and astronautics and LGO thesis advisor Julie Shah, developed a system that enables users to teach robots skills that can be automatically transferred to other robots.

Most robots are programmed using one of two methods: learning from demonstration, in which they watch a task being done and then replicate it, or via motion-planning techniques such as optimization or sampling, which require a programmer to explicitly specify a task’s goals and constraints.

Both methods have drawbacks. Robots that learn from demonstration can’t easily transfer one skill they’ve learned to another situation and remain accurate. On the other hand, motion planning systems that use sampling or optimization can adapt to these changes but are time-consuming, since they usually have to be hand-coded by expert programmers.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have recently developed a system that aims to bridge the two techniques: C-LEARN, which allows noncoders to teach robots a range of tasks simply by providing some information about how objects are typically manipulated and then showing the robot a single demo of the task.

Importantly, this enables users to teach robots skills that can be automatically transferred to other robots that have different ways of moving — a key time- and cost-saving measure for companies that want a range of robots to perform similar actions.

“By combining the intuitiveness of learning from demonstration with the precision of motion-planning algorithms, this approach can help robots do new types of tasks that they haven’t been able to learn before, like multistep assembly using both of their arms,” says Claudia Pérez-D’Arpino, a PhD student who wrote a paper on C-LEARN with MIT Professor Julie Shah.

The team tested the system on Optimus, a new two-armed robot designed for bomb disposal that they programmed to perform tasks such as opening doors, transporting objects, and extracting objects from containers. In simulations they showed that Optimus’ learned skills could be seamlessly transferred to Atlas, CSAIL’s 6-foot-tall, 400-pound humanoid robot.

A paper describing C-LEARN was recently accepted to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), which takes place May 29 to June 3 in Singapore.

How it works

With C-LEARN the user first gives the robot a knowledge base of information on how to reach and grasp various objects that have different constraints. (The C in C-LEARN stands for “constraints.”) For example, a tire and a steering wheel have similar shapes, but to attach them to a car, the robot has to configure its arms differently to move them. The knowledge base contains the information needed for the robot to do that.

The operator then uses a 3-D interface to show the robot a single demonstration of the specific task, which is represented by a sequence of relevant moments known as “keyframes.” By matching these keyframes to the different situations in the knowledge base, the robot can automatically suggest motion plans for the operator to approve or edit as needed.

“This approach is actually very similar to how humans learn in terms of seeing how something’s done and connecting it to what we already know about the world,” says Pérez-D’Arpino. “We can’t magically learn from a single demonstration, so we take new information and match it to previous knowledge about our environment.”

One challenge was that existing constraints that could be learned from demonstrations weren’t accurate enough to enable robots to precisely manipulate objects. To overcome that, the researchers developed constraints inspired by computer-aided design (CAD) programs that can tell the robot if its hands should be parallel or perpendicular to the objects it is interacting with.

The team also showed that the robot performed even better when it collaborated with humans. While the robot successfully executed tasks 87.5 percent of the time on its own, it did so 100 percent of the time when it had an operator that could correct minor errors related to the robot’s occasional inaccurate sensor measurements.

“Having a knowledge base is fairly common, but what’s not common is integrating it with learning from demonstration,” says Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the research. “That’s very helpful, because if you are dealing with the same objects over and over again, you don’t want to then have to start from scratch to teach the robot every new task.”


The system is part of a larger wave of research focused on making learning-from-demonstration approaches more adaptive. If you’re a robot that has learned to take an object out of a tube from a demonstration, you might not be able to do it if there’s an obstacle in the way that requires you to move your arm differently. However, a robot trained with C-LEARN can do this, because it does not learn one specific way to perform the action.

“It’s good for the field that we’re moving away from directly imitating motion, toward actually trying to infer the principles behind the motion,” Berenson says. “By using these learned constraints in a motion planner, we can make systems that are far more flexible than those which just try to mimic what’s being demonstrated”

Shah says that advanced LfD methods could prove important in time-sensitive scenarios such as bomb disposal and disaster response, where robots are currently tele-operated at the level of individual joint movements.

“Something as simple as picking up a box could take 20-30 minutes, which is significant for an emergency situation,” says Pérez-D’Arpino.

C-LEARN can’t yet handle certain advanced tasks, such as avoiding collisions or planning for different step sequences for a given task. But the team is hopeful that incorporating more insights from human learning will give robots an even wider range of physical capabilities.

“Traditional programming of robots in real-world scenarios is difficult, tedious, and requires a lot of domain knowledge,” says Shah. “It would be much more effective if we could train them more like how we train people: by giving them some basic knowledge and a single demonstration. This is an exciting step toward teaching robots to perform complex multiarm and multistep tasks necessary for assembly manufacturing and ship or aircraft maintenance.”

May 11, 2017 | More


Why home care costs too much

As baby boomers age into long-term care facilities, Medicaid costs will go through the roof. Americans already spend – counting both public and private money – more than $310 billion a year on long-term support services, excluding medical care, for the elderly and the disabled. Medicaid accounts for about 50% of that, according to a 2015 report from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. Other public programs cover an additional 20%.

Yet in another decade or so these figures may look small. In 2015 around 14 million Americans needed long-term care. That number is expected to hit 22 million by 2030. There’s an urgent need to find ways of providing good long-term care at a lower cost. One fix would be to deregulate important aspects of home care.

There are two million home health aides in the U.S. They spend more time with the elderly and disabled than anyone else, and their skills are essential to their clients’ quality of life. Yet these aides are poorly trained, and their national median wage is only a smidgen more than $10 an hour.

The reason? State regulations – in particular, Nurse Practice Acts – require registered nurses to perform even routine home-care tasks like administering eyedrops. That duty might not require a nursing degree, but defenders of the current system say aides lack the proper training. “What if they put in the cat’s eyedrops instead?’ a healthcare consultant asked me. In another conversation, the CEO of a managed-care insurance company wrote off home-care aides as “minimum wage people.”

But aides could do more. With less regulation and better training, they could become as integral to healthcare teams as doctors and nurses. That could improve the quality of care while saving buckets of money for everyone involved.

Take hospital readmissions. When elderly people leave the hospital after an acute incident, they often end up readmitted for another costly stay within 30 days. Or they’re sent not home but to an expensive long-term care facility. Home-care aides can improve such transitions. A recent trial program at New York University Hospital found that when aides were trained to work with heart patients upon discharge, the patients were significantly better at maintaining their health.

Aides could act as health coaches, working on diet and exercise with people suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes. They could facilitate communication between doctors and nurses, reporting on changes in the patient’s condition. Today’s rules don’t explicitly bar them from these tasks, but the regulations that treat aides as mere drudge workers prevent them from expanding to fill this natural role.

Read the full post at the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Osterman is the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Professor of Human Resources and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a member of the Department of Urban Planning at MIT.

September 19, 2017 | More

Design thinking, explained

Design thinking, explained

Solve any business problem with this approach.

Coming up with an idea is easy. Coming up with the right one takes work. With design thinking, throwing out what you think you know and starting from scratch opens up all kinds of possibilities.

What is design thinking?
Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.

The approach has been around for decades, but it only started gaining traction outside of the design community after the 2008 Harvard Business Review article [subscription required] titled “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of design company IDEO.

Since then, the design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems, from creating a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb.

At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: first, fully understand the problem; second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms.

The skills associated with these steps help people apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems better than they otherwise would. They can be readily learned, but take effort. For instance, when trying to understand a problem, setting aside your own preconceptions is vital, but it’s hard. Creative brainstorming is necessary for developing possible solutions, but many people don’t do it particularly well. And throughout the process it is critical to engage in modeling, analysis, prototyping, and testing, and to really learn from these many iterations.

Once you master the skills central to the design thinking approach, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry.

Here’s what you need to know to get started.


Understand the problem 
The first step in design thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions. Sometimes, the problem you need to address is not the one you originally set out to tackle.

“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space,” said MIT Sloan professor Steve Eppinger. The mistake they make is to try and empathize, connecting the stated problem only to their own experiences. This falsely leads to the belief that you completely understand the situation. But the actual problem is always broader, more nuanced, or different than people originally assume.

Take the example of a meal delivery service in Holstebro, Denmark. When a team first began looking at the problem of poor nutrition and malnourishment among the elderly in the city, many of whom received meals from the service, it thought that simply updating the menu options would be a sufficient solution. But after closer observation, the team realized the scope of the problem was much larger, and that they would need to redesign the entire experience, not only for those receiving the meals, but for those preparing the meals as well. While the company changed almost everything about itself, including rebranding as The Good Kitchen, the most important change the company made when rethinking its business model was shifting how employees viewed themselves and their work. That, in turn, helped them create better meals (which were also drastically changed), yielding happier, better nourished customers.

Involve users
Imagine you are designing a new walker for rehabilitation patients and the elderly, but you have never used one. Could you fully understand what customers need? Certainly not, if you haven’t extensively observed and spoken with real customers. There is a reason that design thinking is often referred to as human-centered design.

“You have to immerse yourself in the problem,” Eppinger said.

How do you start to understand how to build a better walker? When a team from MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program together with the design firm Altitude took on that task, they met with walker users to interview them, observe them, and understand their experiences.

“We center the design process on human beings by understanding their needs at the beginning, and then include them throughout the development and testing process,” Eppinger said.

Central to the design thinking process is prototyping and testing (more on that later) which allows designers to try, to fail, and to learn what works. Testing also involves customers, and that continued involvement provides essential user feedback on potential designs and use cases. If the MIT-Altitude team studying walkers had ended user involvement after its initial interviews, it would likely have ended up with a walker that didn’t work very well for customers.

It is also important to interview and understand other stakeholders, like people selling the product, or those who are supporting the users throughout the product life cycle.

Go wild!
The second phase of design thinking is developing solutions to the problem (which you now fully understand). This begins with what most people know as brainstorming.

Hold nothing back during brainstorming sessions — except criticism. Infeasible ideas can generate useful solutions, but you’d never get there if you shoot down every impractical idea from the start.

“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment,” Eppinger said. “When we’re exploring the solution space, we first broaden the search and generate lots of possibilities, including the wild and crazy ideas. Of course, the only way we’re going to build on the wild and crazy ideas is if we consider them in the first place.”

That doesn’t mean you never judge the ideas, Eppinger said. That part comes later, in downselection. “But if we want 100 ideas to choose from, we can’t be very critical.”

In the case of The Good Kitchen, the kitchen employees were given new uniforms. Why? Uniforms don’t directly affect the competence of the cooks or the taste of the food.

But during interviews conducted with kitchen employees, designers realized that morale was low, in part because employees were bored preparing the same dishes over and over again, in part because they felt that others had a poor perception of them. The new, chef-style uniforms gave the cooks a greater sense of pride. It was only part of the solution, but if the idea had been rejected outright, or perhaps not even suggested, the company would have missed an important aspect of the solution.

Prototype and test. Repeat.
You’ve defined the problem. You’ve spoken to customers. You’ve brainstormed, come up with all sorts of ideas, and worked with your team to boil those ideas down to the ones you think may actually solve the problem you’ve defined.

What next?

“We don’t develop a good solution just by thinking about a list of ideas, bullet points and rough sketches,” Eppinger said. “We explore potential solutions through modeling and prototyping. We design, we build, we test, and repeat — this design iteration process is absolutely critical to effective design thinking.”

Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing, and gathering user feedback is crucial for making sure the design is right — that is, it works for customers, you can build it, and you can support it.

“After several iterations, we might get something that works, we validate it with real customers, and we often find that what we thought was a great solution is actually only just OK. But then we can make it a lot better through even just a few more iterations,” Eppinger said.

The goal of all the steps that come before this is to have the best possible solution before you move into implementing the design. Your team will spend most of its time, its money, and its energy on this stage.

“Implementation involves detailed design, training, tooling, and ramping up. It is a huge amount of effort, so get it right before you expend that effort,” said Eppinger.

Think big
Design thinking isn’t just for “things.” If you are only applying the approach to physical products, you aren’t getting the most out of it. Design thinking can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution. When Eppinger ran into a primary school educator who told him design thinking was big in his school, Eppinger thought he meant that they were teaching students the tenets of design thinking.

“It turns out they meant they were using design thinking in running their operations and improving the school programs. It’s being applied everywhere these days,” Eppinger said.

In another example from the education field, Peruvian entrepreneur Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor hired design consulting firm IDEO to redesign every aspect of the learning experience in a network of schools in Peru. The ultimate goal? To elevate Peru’s middle class.

As you’d expect, many large corporations have also adopted design thinking. IBM has adopted it at a company-wide level, training many of its nearly 400,000 employees in design thinking principles.

What can design thinking do for your business?
The impact of all the buzz around design thinking today is that people are realizing that “anybody who has a challenge that needs creative problem solving could benefit from this approach,” Eppinger said. That means that managers can use it, not only to design a new product or service, “but anytime they’ve got a challenge, a problem to solve.”

Applying design thinking techniques to business problems can help executives across industries rethink their product offerings, grow their markets, offer greater value to customers, or innovate and stay relevant. “I don’t know industries that can’t use design thinking,” said Eppinger.

Ready to go deeper?
Read “The Designful Company” by Marty Neumeier, a book that focuses on how businesses can benefit from design thinking, and “Product Design and Development,” co-authored by Eppinger, to better understand the detailed methods.

Register for an MIT Sloan Executive Education course:

Apply for Innovation of Products and Services: MIT’s Approach to Design Thinking, an Emeritus Institute of Management course taught by Eppinger.


The expert
Steve Eppinger is a professor of management science and innovation at MIT Sloan. He holds the General Motors Leaders for Global Operations Chair and has a PhD from MIT in engineering. He is the faculty co-director of MIT’s System Design and Management program and Integrated Design and Management program, both master’s degrees joint between the MIT Sloan and Engineering schools. His research focuses on product development and technical project management, and has been applied to improving complex engineering processes in many industries.

September 16, 2017 | More

2 from MIT Sloan make Boston Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list

2 from MIT Sloan make Boston Business Journal’s 40 under 40 list

MIT Sloan alumni honored for bolstering robotics, startups, innovation.

Mira Wilczek (right) and Fady Saad were named to the Boston Business Journal “40 under 40” list.

Two MIT Sloan alumni were named to the 2017 Boston Business Journal “40 under 40” list, which recognizes those who are having a positive impact at work and in their communities in and around the Boston area. The honorees will be recognized at a dinner on Oct. 19.

Meet this year’s honorees from MIT Sloan:

Fady Saad, SDM ‘13
Boston-based MassRobotics is the largest robotics and artificial intelligence escalator in the world. As the co-founder and director of partnerships, Saad has played a key role in helping robotics companies get off the ground. He also advises Rewired, a robotics-focused venture studio based in London, and he coined the term “startup escalation” to describe an innovation support model for hardware companies.

At MIT Sloan, Saad earned a joint master’s of science degree in engineering and management through the MIT System Design and Management program and was an organizer for the MIT $100K competition. Since graduation, Saad has served as a judge for the MIT $100K, and as a mentor for MIT Launch and the MIT Enterprise Forum Greece.

Mira Wilczek, SB ’04, MBA ‘09
Mira Wilczek is the president and CEO of Cogo Labs and a senior partner at Link Ventures. In the nine months since she has taken the helm at Cogo Labs, a Cambridge-based incubator that was founded in 2005, the revenue generated by Cogo’s incubating companies has more than doubled.

Wilczek earned a bachelor’s of science from MIT and a MBA in entrepreneurship and innovation from MIT Sloan. She was also both an organizer of the MIT $100K competition, cofounding the organization’s mentorship function, and a finalist in the consumer track with a custom manufacturing business plan. Last spring she also judged the final round of the competition.

Did we miss an MIT Sloan student or graduate on the Boston Business Journal’s “40 under 40” list? Let us know at

September 15, 2017 | More

MIT students design and donate sleeping bags to Syrian refugees

MIT students design and donate sleeping bags to Syrian refugees

“It’s a simple solution to a big problem.”

MIT students are sending sleeping bags to Syrian refugees.

Why It Matters

A group of MIT students has figured out how to make and distribute functional sleeping bags to refugees — for just $50 each.

Winter in Syria can be cold. Freezing cold.

With over 11 million people displaced since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011, many millions are without adequate heating or shelter during the cold winter months.

A group of MIT students has set out to change that.

The team of six, led by MIT Sloan undergraduate student Vick Liu, has created TravlerPack, a light, durable, water-resistant sleeping bag that can withstand temperatures as cold as -10 degrees Celsius, with the goal of distributing them to Syrian refugees.

TravlerPack started as an idea scribbled on a napkin.

During a freshman pre-orientation exercise last year, Liu was among a group of students discussing startup ideas when he realized he was interested in creating something that would help people. He wrote the idea for TravlerPack on a napkin and stuffed it in his pocket so he wouldn’t forget it.

“TravlerPack was a natural transition for me, since I went backpacking and camping growing up,” said Liu. “The refugee crisis is a huge problem, and I have experience with something that could really help people.”

With fuel and shelter hard to come by, refugees have few ways to keep warm during the Syrian winters. But a sleeping bag doesn’t require a battery or fuel. “It’s a simple solution to a big problem,” said Liu.

The idea grew from there, with the team sewing together its first prototype sleeping bag in a dorm room over the winter. To test it, Liu slept on the roof of his fraternity house one night during a Boston snowstorm last January — temperatures dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but Liu stayed warm the entire night.

TravlerPack sleeping bags have evolved since then. Initially insulated with sheep’s wool (the team bought the wool directly from a local shepherd they visited) the bags now use duck down. Also, Liu and his team spoke directly with refugees to understand any additional features they would need. They found that refugees had no way to securely store valuables, especially at night, so each TravlerPack contains one outside storage compartment and five inside storage compartments. Each pack also has a built-in, detachable mosquito net and TravlerPacks can be zipped together to make one larger sleeping space for a family, or unzipped completely and used as a blanket.

travlrpack-2 The current Travlerpack design

When not being used, TravlerPack compresses down into a small sack, which can be worn over ­the shoulder like a messenger bag. This allows refugees to also wear a backpack and still have their hands free.

After initially reaching out to around 80 potential manufacturers, the team officially partnered with one in April to make the sleeping bags. Then they had to figure out the logistics of actually getting the sleeping bags into the hands of refugees.

The team reached out to many non-profits and organizations that turned it down because they had “little to gain by working with us and a lot of time and effort to lose,“ said Liu. Luckily, NuDay Syria, a non-profit with experience distributing goods to Syrian refugees, signed on to distribute the packs within resettlement areas in Northwestern Syria.

The group launched a GoFundMe campaign on Saturday to raise $15,000 to send TravlerPacks to Syrian refugees. Every $50 raised funds making and sending one bag.

The team has held off on becoming an official company for the time being — they are waiting until after the GoFundMe campaign is done. But the tentative plan is to become a non-profit. In the meantime, all money they make from the fundraising push will go directly to providing refugees with sleeping bags.

“We’ve been really lucky the whole way through,” Liu said. “This has been a journey of luck, intuition, and a lot of planning.”

September 14, 2017 | More

Has China’s Coal Use Peaked? Here’s How to Read the Tea Leaves

Has China’s coal use peaked? Hear’s how to read the tea leaves

As the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, how much coal China is burning is of global interest.



In March, the country’s National Bureau of Statistics said the tonnage of coal has fallen for the second year in the row. Indeed, there are reports that China will stop construction of new plants, as the country grapples with overcapacity, and efforts to phase out inefficient and outdated coal plants are expected to continue.

A sustained reduction in coal, the main fuel used to generate electricity in China, will be good news for the local environment and global climate. But it also raises questions: what is driving the drop? And can we expect this nascent trend to continue?

It appears many of the forces that led coal use to slow down in recent years are here to stay. Nevertheless, uncertainties abound.

The future of coal in China will depend on economic factors, including whether alternatives are cheaper and whether a return to high oil prices will encourage production of liquid fuels from coal. Also crucial to coal’s future trajectory are the pace of China’s economic growth and the country’s national climate and air pollution policies.


First, let’s consider how certain we are that the rise in China’s coal use has reversed course. Unpacking that requires understanding the context in which the data is produced.

China’s national energy statistics are subject to ongoing adjustments. The most recent one, in 2014, revised China’s energy use upward, mainly as a result of adjustments to coal use. The revisions follow the Third National Economic Census, which involved a comprehensive survey of energy use and economic activity that better represent the energy use of small- and medium-sized enterprises.

There is good reason to believe these revised figures better reflect reality, because they help to explain a well-recognized gap between previously published national totals and the sum of provincial energy statistics, and because these regular revisions capture more sources of energy consumption.

In short, the latest numbers show China is using more coal and energy than previously thought, but the last two years of data suggest China’s coal use may be peaking earlier than expected.

Read the full post at The Conversation.

Valerie J. Karplus is the Class of 1943 Career Development Professor and an Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

September 14, 2017 | More

A biotech company focused on inherited diseases just raised $135 million from a bunch of Wall Street firms

A biotech company focused on inherited diseases just raised $135 million from a bunch of Wall Street firms

“Modern drug discovery requires modern business infrastructure,” MIT Prof. Andrew Lo said in a news release. “Despite the terrific scientific innovations we’ve seen in biomedicine, there’s been much less innovation on the corporate side. BridgeBio employs a novel structure that combines portfolio diversification with asset-level focus to sustainably develop drugs for genetic disease.”

September 13, 2017 | More

Will human workers be replaced by robots?

Will human workers be replaced by robots?

When the economic discussion turns to artificial intelligence, robots and jobs, fear of the effect on humans is usually the first emotion to emerge. Thomas Kochan isn’t quite so pessimistic. He is co-director of MIT’s Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

September 13, 2017 | More

Xconomy Award Finalists in the eye of the national drug price debate

Xconomy Award Finalists in the eye of the national drug price debate

Unlike our first two finalists, Andrew Lo‘s mind isn’t always on healthcare. The MIT Sloan professor (a finalist in the Big Idea category) is fascinated by financial innovation of all kinds, as well as the human perception—and misperception—of risk.

September 13, 2017 | More

MIT startups: 18 to watch

MIT startups: 18 to watch

The highest number of startups ever took the stage at this year’s MIT delta v Demo Day.

Pine Health’s Lina Colucci discusses how the company is helping patients follow through on doctors’ orders.

Why It Matters

Having a great idea isn’t always enough to get a startup up and running, but the right guidance and support can help companies really take off.

Robotics-inspired strength-training equipment. A platform that digitizes and markets artwork from indigenous artists. Sensors in women’s clothing to monitor them for heart disease.

These are just a few examples of the startup products student entrepreneurs presented at a demo day on Sept. 9 at Kresge Auditorium. These companies were formed during the intensive summer-long MIT delta v capstone educational accelerator.

Saturday’s event was the largest in delta v’s history, said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Twenty-one teams participated this year, and 18 presented on stage.

“This year’s cohort is special in a lot of ways. It’s our biggest cohort ever and our most diverse program ever. We have [students] from Costa Rica, Singapore, Mexico, Canada, Russia, Germany, Tunisia — even someone from a farm in Arkansas,” Aulet said.

The accelerator is one of the Martin Trust Center’s most visible programs. Over three months, selected participants receive entrepreneurship training, mentorship, mock board reviews, up to $20,000 in equity-free funding, office space, and access to lab space and prototyping tools. MIT students also receive a $2,000 monthly fellowship from the Goss Foundation to pursue their ideas.

“This is the World Series, plus the Super Bowl, plus the NBA Championships — and Boston wins them all,” Aulet said.

Alba has developed a marketplace to help parents in Latin America find babysitters, something that is particularly needed as more women join the workforce there. They match more than 5,000 qualified caregivers with busy families.

Biobot Analytics
Biobot’s mission is to equip cities with data to build healthier and safer communities. Its first application is generating a new type of data on the opioid epidemic, focusing on a proactive instead of reactive model of measuring opioid consumption. The company’s first prototype deployment was completed with support from the Cambridge Public Health Department.

Too many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Blockparty combats this food insecurity by connecting foodies with engaging, fun cooking classes where the food they prepare is provided to the needy. So far, they’ve served more than 1,000 meals through four pilot events.

Bloomer Health Tech
Forty-six million women in the United States live with heart disease, but medical research is still focused to men. Bloomer delivers medical-grade sensors embedded in a woman’s bra to monitor biomarkers using algorithms, so her physician can track her vital signs and tailor treatment.

The Divaqua team aims to improve the wastewater treatment process. They’re developing cost-effective technology for limiting toxic industrial effluents, and their initial solution focuses on improving mercury removal systems in coal-fired power plants.

Infinite Cooling
Infinite Cooling helps power plants, the largest U.S. water consumer, reuse freshwater used for cooling by reintroducing it back into the cooling cycle, improving efficiency. The U.S. power industry can save about $3 billion per year by reusing water.

Taking (some of) the stress out of legal work, KLARITY aims to provide access to trustworthy legal advice through intelligent technology that reviews contracts using a proprietary analytical engine.

Mayflower Venues
Mayflower’s platform, technology, and tools allow unique spaces like farms, orchards, and ranches to easily market and manage themselves as potential venues for events, like weddings.

For a 72-hour mission, soldiers carry 10–20 pounds of batteries with them. Aiming to reduce this load, Mesodyne provides technology to enable ultra-portable, reliable, and affordable energy generation through mini-generators with on-the-move charging capabilities.

Octant provides a data-curation platform to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles, ensuring that these self-driving cars are safe for public roads.

Pine Health
Aiming to help patients follow doctors’ orders after they’ve left the office, Pine Health offers an adherence platform that delivers semi-automated conversations through an AI-augmented health coach. The initiative could lead to a large reduction in preventable health care costs each year.

ReviveMed focuses on metabolomics — the study of small molecules, like glucose. Their precision-medicine platform aims to improve health and develop targeted therapeutics by unlocking metabolomic data.

Roots Studio
Roots Studio is a for-profit social enterprise that curates, digitizes, and markets artwork from isolated and indigenous artists. Artists can transact with buyers wherever they reside. Founder Rebecca Hui has set up scanners and computers in rural villages and trained artists to digitize their work.

Sigma Ratings
This is the world’s first non-credit risk-rating agency. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, Sigma Ratings helps companies efficiently navigate regulatory challenges by assigning dynamic non-credit risk ratings and scores to their counterparties. Their initial focus is on financial crime compliance.

Recognizing the difficulty of finding effective psychiatric help, Sophia pairs patients with therapists using a data-driven matching process. So far, they’ve matched more than 30 clients with providers.

TradeTrack’s mobile application aims to improve personalized customer services in the fashion industry. Their app captures employee evaluations and a personalized record of customer preferences so shoppers can learn about offers, discounts, or new collections.

W8X developed strength-training equipment that adapts to athletes’ individual needs. The company’s robotics-inspired weight-lifting system creates resistance electrically, without requiring physical weights.

Waypoint substitutes cumbersome training documents with augmented reality glasses that help frontline workers — particularly those who work in manual tasks like advanced manufacturing — rapidly capture, access, and scale knowledge.

September 12, 2017 | More

What to know about MIT Sloan’s 5 new faculty members

What to know about MIT Sloan’s 5 new faculty members

New professors explore the consequences of financial reporting, how labor markets act during periods of turmoil, and more.

Clockwise from top right: Claudia Steinwender, Christopher Palmer, Danielle Li, Delphine Samuels, and Namrata Kala.

Why It Matters

In an era of unverified facts and self-described experts, real knowledge matters more than ever. Here are five new MIT professors conducting robust, peer-reviewed research.

One examines how environmental technologies affect company returns. Another studies how machine learning algorithms impacted a firm’s HR practices. From fields ranging from technological innovation to applied economics, here are this year’s five new MIT Sloan faculty members.

Claudia Steinwender
Assistant Professor of Applied Economics

Comes from: Harvard Business School, where she was an assistant professor of business in the strategy unit.

Steinwender’s research interests include economic history, innovation, and international trade. Her most recent work looked at how information affects exporting merchant behavior in a historical context.

Find out more:
On her website and her faculty directory page.

Namrata Kala
Assistant Professor of Applied Economics

Comes from: Harvard University, where she was a Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT where she was a postdoctoral fellow.

Kala’s research explores how both companies and households adapt to regulation and environmental change, the returns on environmental technologies, and on worker trainings and incentives.

Find out more
: On her website and her faculty directory page.

Delphine Samuels
Assistant Professor of Accounting

Comes from: The Wharton School of Business, where she completed her PhD in accounting.

Samuels’ research examines the economic determinants and consequences of financial reporting. Her recent work looked at how financial statement complexity is related to voluntary disclosure.

Find out more:
On her faculty directory page.

Christopher Palmer
Assistant Professor of Finance

Comes from: The University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he was an assistant professor, and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, where he was a visiting scholar. He has a PhD in economics from MIT.

Palmer’s research focuses on how credit, real estate, and labor markets respond to periods of significant upheaval. His current work looks at frictions in mortgage and auto loan markets.

Find out more:
On his website and his faculty directory page.

Danielle Li
Assistant Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management

Comes from: Harvard Business School, where she was an assistant professor of entrepreneurship. She is currently also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She has a PhD in economics from MIT.

Li’s research focuses on how organizations weigh expert advice and quantitative data when making investments and assessing the value of those investments on innovation. A recent project looked at how machine learning algorithms impacted a firm’s human resources practices and worker productivity.

Find out more:
On her website and her faculty directory page.

September 1, 2017 | More


The Engine announces investments in first group of startups

The Engine announces investments in first group of startups

The Engine, founded last year by MIT, today announced investments in its first group of seven startups that are developing innovations poised for transformative impact on aerospace, renewable energy, synthetic biology, medicine, and other sectors.

The founding startups will be featured today at an event to celebrate the official opening of The Engine’s headquarters at 501 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, now renovated to include three floors of conference rooms, makerspaces, labs with cutting-edge equipment, computer stations, and other amenities.

The seven startups are:

  • Analytical Space, developing systems that provide no-delay, high-speed data from space, to address global challenges such as precision agriculture, climate monitoring, and city planning;
  • Baseload Renewables, developing ultra low-cost energy storage to replace fossil baseload generation with renewable energy to successfully reduce carbon on a global level;
  • C2Sense, building a digital olfactory sensor for industrial use cases such as food, agriculture, and worker safety, and transforming smell into real-time data that can be accessed remotely;
  • iSee, delivering the next generation of humanistic artificial intelligence technology for human and robotic collaborations, including autonomous vehicles;
  • Kytopen, accelerating the development of genetically engineered cells by developing technology that modifies microorganisms 10,000 times faster than current state-of-the-art methods;
  • Suono Bio, enabling ultrasonic targeted delivery of therapeutics and macromolecules across tissues without the need for reformulation or encapsulation; and
  • Via Separations, developing a materials technology for industrial separation processes that uses 10 times less energy than traditional methods.

Announced last October, The Engine combines funding and an open network of technical facilities to provide stable financial support and access to costly resources. It focuses on startups developing “tough” technologies — breakthrough ideas that require time to commercialize — in a range of sectors including robotics, manufacturing and materials, health, biotechnology, and energy.

“As we look at the first seven companies we have invested in, it is wonderful to see the breadth of tough-tech areas founders have leaned into,” says Katie Rae, president and CEO of The Engine. “We have been so gratified by the quality and passion of the founders that have come to us. These entrepreneurs are on a mission, and with our help they are going to change the world for the better.”

In January, MIT announced the creation of The Engine Working Groups, charged with guiding the development of Institute policies and procedures related to The Engine, and an Idea Bank for MIT community members and alumni to provide input. In February, the program secured funding and established its leadership, and in April it closed its first investment fund with more than $150 million to support the startups. Since then, additional funds have been raised, for an updated total of $200 million.

“We announced The Engine nearly a year ago with the vision of supporting innovative ventures working to address society’s most important challenges,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “I am thrilled that the first cohort of startups has the potential to do exactly that. I have watched The Engine’s evolution with great enthusiasm and admiration, and I look forward to this exciting next step in making The Engine’s bold vision a reality.”

A running start

The startups have already begun benefiting from The Engine.

Shreya Dave PhD ’16 and Brent Keller PhD ’16, co-founders of Via Separations, have drawn on the tight-knit community growing inside The Engine, where advice and feedback are just around the corner. Joined by MIT professor of materials science and engineering Jeffrey Grossman and industry expert Karen Golmer, the team has been at The Engine since July. “Instead of sending out a million emails and asking for advice, we can literally walk next door and ask advice on company or customer problems,” Dave says.

Membranes today are predominantly polymers that filter out particles from liquids; examples include removing salt during water desalination or sifting out ingredients for pharmaceuticals or foods. These membranes are low-cost and efficient, but cannot withstand high temperatures, intense cleaning, and harsh environments, so some industries turn to power-hungry thermal-separation processes. Via Separations’ graphene oxide membranes, however, are more resilient than polymers and can operate in the streams polymers cannot. According to the startup, its membrane can replace thermal separation in many industries, cutting energy use by 90 percent. The startup now has a working prototype and is in talks with potential customers.

The Engine’s patient capital has been a major help for the startup. “Our development timeline will take a few years, with key milestones in design scale up, manufacturing, and customer agreements. But when we do it, it is going to have huge impact. With the Engine’s community and support, we have the resources to support a stellar team,” Dave says.

Also appreciative of The Engine’s patient capital is MIT professor of mechanical engineering Cullen Buie, another first-time entrepreneur who co-founded the two-month-old Kytopen. “The Engine is betting on us. I don’t know how many venture capitalists would bet on where we are today,” Buie says. “We could have stayed in the lab a little longer, but it wouldn’t get going nearly as fast. The Engine is helping us throw some gas on the idea and accelerate what we’re doing.”

Kytopen is developing a platform to enable extremely high-throughput cell engineering. To genetically engineer organisms, scientists expose cells to an electric field, which opens pores within the cell membrane, allowing customized DNA to flow into the cell. But scientists must zap the cells one batch at a time to find the right electric field that can open the cells but not kill them, which can be a months-long process.

Buie and his Kytopen co-founder, MIT research scientist Paulo Garcia, developed a microfluidics device that shocks cells continuously. Then they integrated the device’s components into a pipette tip, meaning scores of cells can be zapped as the flow through. In one pipette channel, the startup can process the equivalent of 80 tests per minute. Systems already exist that process 96 and 384 pipette samples in parallel, which makes the process potentially 10,000 times faster than traditional methods. “We take the guts of microfluidics and put it in a pipette tip which … makes it amenable to automation and scaling,” Buie says.

Power of proximity

The Engine’s central location is also beneficial for startups such as Baseload Renewables, whose founders and employees are transitioning into the startup life from MIT and other jobs. “We’re four co-founders of this company, and two of us live within walking distance of The Engine,” says MIT professor of materials science and engineering Yet-Ming Chiang. “It makes it easy for us to meet, get early research started, and have a smooth transition from lab to commercial product.”

Baseload Renewable’s battery system is based on cheap, readily available, and energy-dense sulfur dissolved in water as the anode, with an equally low-cost cathode.

Because the components are low-cost and allow for great energy-density, the system can store electricity from renewable sources for long durations — multiple days to months — for about a fifth to a tenth the cost of traditional battery storage for the grid. Today’s traditional lithium-ion batteries cost more than $300 per kilowatt hour and may only drop to about $150 per kilowatt hour, Chiang says.

The aim is to use the system for baseload power — the minimum demand on an electrical grid over a span of time — which currently relies on systems that produce a lot of carbon emissions. “Anyone in the energy industry will recognize that turning renewable energy into baseload electricity available all day, every day, is an extremely ambitious goal,” Chiang says. “But The Engine is allowing us to get a running start at it.”

Fresher food, safer cars, better health

The other founding startups’ goals are similarly ambitious.

Analytical Space, founded by Harvard Business School graduates, aims to make downloading satellite data much faster. Every few hours, terabytes of data are collected by orbiting satellites, but downloading that data is becoming very costly and complex. The startup is building small satellite relays that use laser communication to enable continuous high-speed wireless connectivity between space and ground. The startup is now preparing to launch its first pilot on a SpaceX craft from the International Space Station later this year.

C2Sense aims to bring gas sensing to the so-called internet of things by creating a “digital olfactory” platform for industrial use. The startup has developed low-cost sensors that detect and measure a range of chemical substances in food that indicate rot as well as toxic gases, to help ensure worker safety and environmental protection. In one of its first use cases, the startup’s sensing technologies could “smell” when apples were ripening by detecting tiny amounts of ethylene, a gas that promotes ripening in plants.

iSee AI is developing predictive artificial intelligence (AI) that can act as a type of “cognitive brain” for autonomous vehicles. Learning algorithms developed by the startup analyze scenarios and infer the intentions of various agents on the road — such as drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians — to anticipate their movement and determine how to react appropriately in real time. According to the startup, the algorithms can predict driving scenarios three seconds ahead of time and react with high accuracy.

Suono Bio’s drug delivery platform uses ultrasound waves to rapidly deliver drugs, proteins, vaccines, and other molecules directly into the gastrointestinal tract to treat inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that are difficult to treat. When a fluid is exposed to ultrasound waves, tiny bubbles form that then implode to create microjets that penetrate and push the drugs into tissue. The drugs absorb about 22 times faster than the traditional treatment method using enemas, where drugs must be kept in the colon for eight to 12 hours.

September 19, 2017 | More

A new approach to ultrafast light pulses

A new approach to ultrafast light pulses

Two-dimensional materials called molecular aggregates are very effective light emitters that work on a different principle than typical organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) or quantum dots. But their potential as components for new kinds of optoelectronic devices has been limited by their relatively slow response time. Now, researchers at MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and Northeastern University have found a way to overcome that limitation, potentially opening up a variety of applications for these materials.

The findings are described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering Nicholas X. Fang, postdocs Qing Hu and Dafei Jin, and five others.

The key to enhancing the response time of these 2-D molecular aggregates (2DMA), Fang and his team found, is to couple that material with a thin layer of a metal such as silver. The interaction between the 2DMA and the metal that is just a few nanometers away boosts the speed of the material’s light pulses more than tenfold.

These 2DMA materials exhibit a number of unusual properties and have been used to create exotic forms of matter, known as Bose-Einstein condensates, at room temperature, while other approaches required extreme cooling. They have also been applied in technologies such as solar cells and light-harvesting organic antennas. But the new work for the first time identifies the strong influence that a very close sheet of metal can have on the way these materials emit light.

In order for these materials to be useful in devices such as photonic chips — which are like semiconductor chips but carry out their operations using light instead of electrons — “the challenge is to be able to switch them on and off quickly,” which had not been possible before, Fang says.

With the metal substrate nearby, the response time for the light emission dropped from 60 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) to just 2 picoseconds, Fang says: “This is pretty exciting, because we observed this effect even when the material is 5 to 10 nanometers away from the surface,” with a spacing layer of polymer in between. That’s enough of a separation that fabricating such paired materials in quantity should not be an overly demanding process. “This is something we think could be adapted to roll-to-roll printing,” he says.

If used for signal processing, such as sending data by light rather than radio waves, Fang says, this advance could lead to a data transmission rate of about 40 gigahertz, which is eight times faster than such devices can currently deliver. This is “a very promising step, but it’s still very early” as far as translating that into practical, manufacturable devices, he cautions.

The team studied only one of the many kinds of molecular aggregates that have been developed, so there may still be opportunities to find even better variations. “This is actually a very rich family of luminous materials,” Fang says.

Because the responsiveness of the material is so strongly influenced by the exact proximity of the nearby metal substrate, such systems could also be used for very precise measuring tools. “The interaction is reduced as a function of the gap size, so it could now be used if we want to measure the proximity of a surface,” Fang says.

As the team continues its studies of these materials, one next step is to study the effects that patterning of the metal surface might have, since the tests so far only used flat surfaces. Other questions to be addressed include determining the useful lifetimes of these materials and how they might be extended.

Fang says a first prototype of a device using this system might be produced “within a year or so.”

The team also included Soon Hoon Nam at MIT; Jun Xiao, Xiaoze Liu, and Xiang Zhang at UC Berkeley; and Yongmin Liu at Northeastern University. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

September 18, 2017 | More

Former MIT President Paul Gray dies at 85 after lifelong career of service and leadership at the Institute

Former MIT President Paul Gray dies at 85 after lifelong career of service and leadership at the Institute

Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60, a devoted leader at MIT whose lifetime career at the Institute included turns as a student, professor, dean of engineering, associate provost, chancellor, president, and MIT Corporation chair, died today at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85.

As MIT’s 14th president, from 1980 to 1990, and in his other roles, Gray transformed the Institute through his commitment to enhancing undergraduate education and increasing the presence of women and underrepresented minorities on campus. With his wife, Priscilla King Gray, at his side, he helped guide MIT through the social change and technological transformation that marked the second half of the 20th century.

His commitment to MIT, particularly to its students, was absolute. Even after retiring as MIT Corporation chair in 1997, he returned to teaching and advising. His work at the Institute was carried out in partnership with Priscilla, a champion of public service who led efforts to create a sense of community at MIT and co-founded what is now called the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“Paul Gray led MIT with the clear-eyed pragmatism and uncommon steadiness of a born engineer, and the humility, warmth, and wisdom of an exceptional human being,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “He was an indispensable advisor to two MIT presidents who preceded him and all three who have followed him. His affection for and trust in our students allowed him to serve as an anchor at MIT during the turbulence of the Vietnam War; inspired him to greatly increase the presence and profile of underrepresented minority and women students in our community; and led him to pioneer the creation of the then-revolutionary Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, now an inseparable part of the MIT experience. Paul loved the MIT community like family — and we feel his loss like family, too.”

“Paul became my first and most essential guide to MIT. With the wisdom gained from a lifetime devoted to the Institute, he showed me MIT’s ethos and history,” says MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield, who served as president of the Institute from 2004 to 2012. “Whether at dinner with his newly red-coated Class of ’54 classmates, or walking the Infinite Corridor with wonderful Priscilla — love of his life and partner in a presidency of warmth and purpose — his love of the place, of the people, and of our mission shone brightly in all he said and did. A part of me has always and will always see MIT through his eyes.”

A vigorous embrace of diversity

When Gray arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, women made up less than 2 percent of each MIT class, and the percentage of underrepresented minorities was similarly low. After joining the administration, he took up the charge to make the MIT community more representative of society at large.

In 1968, in response to recommendations from the newly created Black Students Union, Gray, who was then associate provost, and others created the Task Force on Educational Opportunity. Among other efforts, they hired an assistant director of admissions and worked with him to actively recruit minority students. MIT also began the landmark summer program Project Interphase, staffed largely by students of color.

As chancellor, Gray wrote and began implementing the Institute’s first formal plan to increase the presence of women and minorities among MIT’s faculty as well as its student body. In a 2008 MIT Infinite History interview, Gray recalled that these efforts represented a sea change for the Institute. Until that time, “MIT had never recruited [any students]. We waited for applications to come,” he said.

By the time he stepped down from the presidency in 1990, women made up more than 30 percent of incoming undergraduate classes, and underrepresented minorities constituted 14 percent. Gray’s efforts had laid the foundation for MIT’s subsequent leaders to further increase diversity and inclusion at the Institute. His work on diversity among students and the faculty “may be the most important thing I did around here,” Gray said in the Infinite History interview.

One of the first members of the Black Students Union was Shirley Ann Jackson ’68, PhD ’73, who is now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a life member of the MIT Corporation. “For me, Paul was foremost a great friend, advisor, supporter, and confidante. I always turned to him at critical junctures in my career. He never failed me — his advice and guidance were always spot on,” Jackson says.

Reshaping undergraduate education

Even after becoming a full-time administrator in the 1970s, Gray maintained a close connection with the Institute’s students. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from MIT, all in electrical engineering, in 1954, 1955, and 1960, respectively. After three years of teaching as an instructor, he joined the faculty in 1960 and became the MIT Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering from 1968 to 1971. He was associate dean for student affairs from 1965 to 1967, associate provost from 1969 to 1970, and dean of the School of Engineering from 1970 to 1971.

“To me, he is the iconic president of MIT because he was made out of pure Institute clay, as an undergraduate, graduate, professor, and academic leader,” says Institute Professor Emeritus John Deutch, who served as MIT provost from 1985 to 1990. “As his provost, I witnessed his endless devotion to education and scholarship. His love for Priscilla and his family matched his love for MIT.”

In his Infinite History interview, Gray reflected on his early days of teaching, which he did alongside Harold “Doc” Edgerton, another popular MIT professor: “I found it enormously satisfying. Demanding, but very satisfying. And somewhere in that two-year interval, with teaching every semester, I came to the conclusion that this is what I want to do with my life.”

As a professor, Gray was part of an effort in the 1960s to overhaul the way electrical engineering was taught, moving the focus away from vacuum tubes and squarely onto semiconductor electronics. In support of this transition, Gray wrote seven textbooks and other materials, working with MIT colleagues as well as others at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Raytheon, and IBM.

Gray joined the MIT administration full-time when he accepted the position of chancellor, serving from 1971 to 1980, followed by a decade as MIT president. He was chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1991 to 1997.

As associate provost, Gray championed professor Margaret MacVicar and her innovative proposal to create a program that would involve undergraduates in faculty research. The result was the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), one of the earliest programs of its kind in the United States and now a national model, supporting thousands of projects each year. Today, 90 percent of MIT graduating seniors participate in at least one UROP during their undergraduate years.

As president, Gray committed himself to paying renewed attention to the “pace, coherence, and intellectual impact” of the undergraduate experience.

To this end, he helped make a number of reforms to MIT’s undergraduate curriculum. He reaffirmed the pass/no record grading system for freshman that he had helped implement while associate provost. He also launched a formal review of an undergraduate curriculum that until then had been largely focused on engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences. This led to the addition of biology to the core requirements, as well as a strengthening of the offerings in the humanities and social sciences.

“There may be no single person in modern history who has had such an impact on MIT as Paul Gray,” says MIT Corporation Life Member Emeritus Jim Champy ’63, SM ’65. “So much of what we experience at MIT today was begun by Paul. I worked for him in my years at MIT while he was chancellor, and knew him later as a friend and Corporation member. For all the magnitude of his impact, Paul — together with Priscilla — brought a genuine warmth and caring for every student and member of the MIT community.”

Responding to national and international trends

In broadening the MIT curriculum, Gray was also carrying out another of his goals: to rededicate science and technology as socially powerful activities.
“We continue to hear the complaint that … many of our human and social ills are the direct result of unanticipated and deleterious artifacts of technology, foisted upon the world by technicians with tunnel vision,” he said in his inaugural address.

“It is clear, however, that the future development not only of this nation, but of the world, is inexorably tied to continued scientific progress and to the humane and thoughtful applications of science,” Gray continued. “What is needed is not a retreat from science and technology, but a more complete science and technology. We must strive to develop among ourselves, among our students, and in the public at large, an understanding of the fact that engineering and science are, by their very nature, humanistic enterprises.”

Gray furthered his vision of a science and engineering enterprise in service of society while developing new ventures at MIT and representing the Institute in Washington.

In 1986, with the economic recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s still a recent memory, MIT under Gray’s leadership created the Commission on Industrial Productivity. The group, which comprised 17 MIT faculty members, produced the landmark study “Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge,” which examined the causes of the recent slowdown in U.S. productivity growth and made recommendations for improved economic performance.

Gray also helped establish the Leaders for Manufacturing Program (now Leaders for Global Operations), a joint effort by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering in partnership with top manufacturing companies. The program’s goal was to help students develop the technical, analytical, and business skills needed to lead strategic initiatives in high-tech, operations, and manufacturing companies.

Also during his presidency, Gray implemented a plan to establish the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT. Initially headed by MIT Professor David Baltimore, the institute brought major new biology resources to MIT.

Gray served for four years on the White House Science Council and the Council’s Panel on the Health of Universities. He was also vice chairman of the nonprofit Council on Competiveness. He was a staunch advocate for public understanding of science, federal support for research and higher education, and collaboration between academia and industry.

Increasing MIT’s financial strength

Federal funding for science and technology research and for higher education had been at a historic high during the Sputnik era, but it declined significantly in the 1970s and remained stagnant in the ’80s, during Gray’s term as president.

In 1987, MIT under Gray launched the five-year Campaign for the Future, which raised $710 million. And in 1994, while at the helm of the MIT Corporation, Gray played a lead role in the seven-year Campaign for MIT, which raised $2.05 billion, surpassing the original goal of $1.5 billion and bringing the Institute into a small group of universities — many with significantly larger alumni populations — that had comparably ambitious campaign goals. By the time Gray retired from the Corporation in 1997, MIT’s endowment was more than $2.1 billion.

Gray also helped MIT secure funding from corporations in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and created long-term partnerships with industry that provided relatively unconstrained support for MIT research.

Much of Gray’s success in the fundraising arena can be credited to the personable approach both he and his wife brought to MIT.

Many alumni have recalled the care the couple demonstrated toward MIT students. Together, the pair held weekly dinners for seniors in the president’s house — now known as Gray House — and visited dormitories and other student residences. They were often seen together on campus, talking with students, faculty, and staff from across the MIT community.

“In the whole history of MIT, very few people have ever rivaled Paul Gray’s legacy of stewardship and service — as a faculty member, an administrator, an alumnus, a trustee, and a leader,” says Robert Millard ’73, chair of the MIT Corporation. “His nearly 50 years on the MIT Corporation included 26 as a member of the Executive Committee and, after his presidency, seven distinguished years as Corporation Chair. He played a pivotal role in countless key decisions, including the selection of MIT’s two most recent presidents. Universally respected and loved, Paul was — and remains — an inspiration to all of us charged with caring for what he called ‘this special place.’”

Family at the center of life

Paul Edward Gray was born on Feb. 7, 1932, in Newark, New Jersey. He cited his father, a technician at a public utility who never finished high school, as an influential figure who helped him discover his interest in electricity at an early age. By first or second grade, Gray was winding copper wire around nails to make electromagnets, and by age 10 he was repairing his neighbors’ radios. He built his own radio equipment and was a ham radio operator for many years.

By high school, Gray knew he wanted to be an engineer. As an undergraduate at MIT, he joined the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, enrolled in ROTC, and met Priscilla on a blind date. After earning his master’s degree and marrying Priscilla in 1955, he served in the U.S. Army for two years, then returned to MIT for further graduate study. Together, the Grays raised and educated four children. In his spare time, Gray played squash, made furniture in his woodshop, and enjoyed many outdoor activities with his family.

Gray served on the board of directors of the Boeing Company and Eastman Kodak Company, and was a Life Trustee of the Boston Museum of Science and Wheaton College. He was a life fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Gray is survived by his wife, Priscilla King Gray; by four children and their spouses — Virginia and Thomas Army, Amy and David Sluyter, Andrew and Yukiko Gray, and Louise and Timothy Huyck — and by 12 grandchildren, three of their spouses, and one great grandchild. He also leaves a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Cynthia and Louis Schueler, and several nephews and nieces.

Gifts in Gray’s memory may be made to MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative to support research on Alzheimer’s disease. A memorial service will be held at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington on Oct. 1. An MIT memorial service is planned for 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 30, in Kresge Auditorium.

September 18, 2017 | More

Heather Kulik: Innovative modeling for chemical discovery

Heather Kulik: Innovative modeling for chemical discovery

Without setting foot from her office, Heather Kulik, the Joseph R. Mares ’24 Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, is charting unknown worlds. Her discoveries plumb “vast regions of chemical space,” she says, a domain comprised of combinations of chemical elements that do not yet exist. Best estimates indicate that we have likely made or studied only about 1 part in 10 to the 50th of that chemical space,” she says.

Kulik is pioneering computational approaches to this near-infinite space with the potential to greatly accelerate identification and design of new chemicals. Her pathbreaking work in the field of cheminformatics is quickly earning acclaim, including top billing in the “2017 Class of Influential Researchers” published by Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research. Kulik is part of a select group showcasing scientists in the first third of their careers with key impacts on chemical engineering.

For Kulik, the stakes involved in this research cannot be underestimated: “All of the possible materials and compounds that could solve outstanding challenges in energy or other new technologies live in this large combinatorial space,” she says.

“In the past, through trial and error, we managed to create lots of materials with practical real-world use, like steel, and more recently Teflon,” she notes. “But trial and error is too slow now, and chemical intuition, though valuable, is not enough.”

Transition metals at the core

As a doctoral student, Kulik seized on the importance of transition metals in chemical discovery. Generally occupying the d-block on the periodic table (think iron, manganese, and copper), these elements appear in inorganic molecules. “Almost all materials with desirable properties feature a transition metal surrounded by an organic environment,” says Kulik. These include materials central to applications in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and energy. “Transition metals are incredibly reactive, with electrons that do interesting things,” she says.

But the very same electronic properties that make these transition metals cornerstones for all kinds of materials make them very tricky to characterize computationally. The standard modeling approach, called density functional theory (DFT), doesn’t do a good job predicting structure and behavior when a transition metal-based molecule is larger than a few atoms.

Applying a novel set of mathematical parameters, Kulik figured out a way to correct for DFT errors to “achieve better estimates of reactivity … and get closer to exact solutions for big molecule systems.”

Building on this foundation, Kulik has developed strategies for identifying potentially useful chemical materials and optimizing important properties such as spin state, chemical bonds and structure, and redox potential (the measure of a chemical’s tendency to acquire electrons).

Her research group published molSimplify, an open source software code that allows researchers a speedy way of generating potential transition metal complexes from building blocks. More recently, her team expanded the functionality of this code by incorporating a trained artificial neural network to predict the structure of a transition metal compound’s properties, such as ground vs excited state and geometry. With this extension, Kulik made it possible for scientists to assess potential molecular complexes in an instant rather than wait over long periods for a simulation to complete.

“This network can tell us in a fraction of a second the quantum mechanical spin state, and predict what structure should be around the transition metal … and allows us to enable discovery in a wide range of chemical space,” says Kulik.

In another venture, Kulik has mined the contents of online databases featuring millions of organic molecules, and derived a formula for making critical reactions move faster. “From our analysis, we’ve revealed a design rule to hand to experimentalists,” she says.

This screening approach has created a new way of using the enormous organic chemical database: “People don’t normally look at this library for anything outside of pharmaceutical design, and we showed how we could use these libraries as building blocks for discovering new chemistry in very different fields,” she says.

Together, these computational and software programs create what Kulik calls a “design tool kit” that can help researchers master “the quantum mechanical peculiarities of transition metal behavior” and speed creation of important new chemical compounds.

Eager for the next challenge

Accelerating discovery has been a theme of Kulik’s life since childhood. As a mathematically precocious child growing up in central New Jersey, Kulik was pursuing college-level courses while in middle school. “I was initially driven by boredom and wanted things that made me think,” she says. She also relished computer programming and the internet, creating a high school blog in 1998 featuring not just her own poetry and short stories, but illustrations. This art served as a training ground for the graphics she designs for her website and research.

She attended tiny Cooper Union in New York City, attracted not just by the free education but by the lure of Manhattan’s exciting arts scene. A chemical engineering major, she had intended to get a job after college, but a course introducing her to protein crystallography at Rockefeller University changed her trajectory. “The visual aspect of crystal structures drew me in,” she says.

That summer, she interned at Rockefeller University. “It was an experimental lab, and we were supposed to pour things, and I was a disaster at it,” she recalls. “I realized I wanted to see results right away, and I didn’t like the idea of mixing things by recipe, using trial and error, waiting to get lucky.” Kulik recognized that the kind of research that best suited her involved computation and modeling, which enabled her to visualize and manipulate molecular structures with immediate results.

Today, Kulik — who earned a PhD from MIT in 2009 — applies ever-more sophisticated mathematical approaches to projects with real-world applications. One venture involves creating a new generation of quantum dots, a material with useful electronic properties that emits bright light.  Current quantum dots, made from toxic transition metals, are used in televisions and lighting. “We want to create non-toxic quantum dots that could possibly be used in human cells, where they could help track if someone has cancer,” says Kulik.

In the energy field, she is designing molecular catalysts that could help split water for hydrogen fuel with the precision and high yields unobtainable when using solid state catalysts. And Kulik is investigating the chemistry for a redox flow battery, a storage technology intended for renewable energy sources such as solar.

While she enjoys applied research, Kulik finds the greatest gratification in seeking answers using computation and basic science. “I like most the idea that there is unknown and new chemistry out there I don’t know about yet that could lead to solutions of problems,” she says. “I care more about how to enable discovery than about solving a particular problem, because there will always be new problems to solve that we may not have thought of yet.”

September 15, 2017 | More

One vaccine injection could carry many doses

One vaccine injection could carry many doses

MIT engineers have invented a new 3-D fabrication method that can generate a novel type of drug-carrying particle that could allow multiple doses of a drug or vaccine to be delivered over an extended time period with just one injection.

The new microparticles resemble tiny coffee cups that can be filled with a drug or vaccine and then sealed with a lid. The particles are made of a biocompatible, FDA-approved polymer that can be designed to degrade at specific times, spilling out the contents of the “cup.”

“We are very excited about this work because, for the first time, we can create a library of tiny, encased vaccine particles, each programmed to release at a precise, predictable time, so that people could potentially receive a single injection that, in effect, would have multiple boosters already built into it. This could have a significant impact on patients everywhere, especially in the developing world where patient compliance is particularly poor,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT.

Langer and Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, are the senior authors of the paper, which appears online in Science on Sept. 14. The paper’s lead authors are postdoc Kevin McHugh and former postdoc Thanh D. Nguyen, now an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Connecticut.

After the lids are deposited onto the cups, the particles are heated slightly to form a tight seal between the lids and cups. (Courtesy of the Langer lab)

Sealed cups

Langer’s lab began working on the new drug delivery particles as part of a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was seeking a way to deliver multiple doses of a vaccine over a specified period of time with just one injection. That could allow babies in developing nations, who might not see a doctor very often, to get one injection after birth that would deliver all of the vaccines they would need during the first one or two years of life.

Langer has previously developed polymer particles with drugs embedded throughout the particle, allowing them to be gradually released over time. However, for this project, the researchers wanted to come up with a way to deliver short bursts of a drug at specific time intervals, to mimic the way a series of vaccines would be given.

To achieve their goal, they set out to develop a sealable polymer cup made from PLGA, a biocompatible polymer that has already been approved for use in medical devices such as implants, sutures, and prosthetic devices. PLGA can also be designed to degrade at different rates, allowing for the fabrication of multiple particles that release their contents at different times.

Conventional 3-D printing techniques proved unsuitable for the material and size that the researchers wanted, so they had to invent a new way to fabricate the cups, drawing inspiration from computer chip manufacturing.

Using photolithography, they created silicon molds for the cups and the lids. Large arrays of about 2,000 molds are fit onto a glass slide, and these molds are used to shape the PLGA cups (cubes with edge lengths of a few hundred microns) and lids. Once the array of polymer cups has been formed, the researchers employed a custom-built, automated dispensing system to fill each cup with a drug or vaccine. After the cups are filled, the lids are aligned and lowered onto each cup, and the system is heated slightly until the cup and lid fuse together, sealing the drug inside.

“Each layer is first fabricated on its own, and then they’re assembled together,” Jaklenec says. “Part of the novelty is really in how we align and seal the layers. In doing so we developed a new method that can make structures which current 3-D printing methods cannot. This new method called SEAL (StampEd Assembly of polymer Layers) can be used with any thermoplastic material and allows for fabrication of microstructures with complex geometries that could have broad applications, including injectable pulsatile drug delivery, pH sensors, and 3-D microfluidic devices.”

Leon Bellan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, says the approach offers an impressive level of control for constructing 3-D microparticles.

“It’s a new take on a 3-D printing process, and an elegant solution to building macroscopic 3-D structures out of materials that are relevant for biomedical applications,” says Bellan, who was not involved in the research.

An automated dispensing system can be used to load drugs into the 3-D microparticles. Courtesy of the Langer lab

An automated dispensing system can be used to load drugs into the 3-D microparticles. (Courtesy of the Langer lab)

Long-term delivery

The molecular weight of the PLGA polymer and the structure of the polymer molecules’ “backbone” determine how fast the particles will degrade after injection. The degradation rate determines when the drug will be released. By injecting many particles that degrade at different rates, the researchers can generate a strong burst of drug or vaccine at predetermined time points. “In the developing world, that might be the difference between not getting vaccinated and receiving all of your vaccines in one shot,” McHugh says.

In mice, the researchers showed that particles release in sharp bursts, without prior leakage, at 9, 20, and 41 days after injection. They then tested particles filled with ovalbumin, a protein found in egg whites that is commonly used to experimentally stimulate an immune response. Using a combination of particles that released ovalbumin at 9 and 41 days after injection, they found that a single injection of these particles was able to induce a strong immune response that was comparable to that provoked by two conventional injections with double the dose.

The researchers have also designed particles that can degrade and release hundreds of days after injection. One challenge to developing long-term vaccines based on such particles, the researchers say, is making sure that the encapsulated drug or vaccine remains stable at body temperature for a long period before being released. They are now testing these delivery particles with a variety of drugs, including existing vaccines, such as inactivated polio vaccine, and new vaccines still in development. They are also working on strategies to stabilize the vaccines.

“The SEAL technique could provide a new platform that can create nearly any tiny, fillable object with nearly any material, which could provide unprecedented opportunities in manufacturing in medicine and other areas,” Langer says. These particles could also be useful for delivering drugs that have to be given on a regular basis, such as allergy shots, to minimize the number of injections.

Other authors on the paper are Allison Linehan, David Yang, Adam Behrens, Sviatlana Rose, Zachary Tochka, Stephanie Tzeng, James Norman, Aaron Anselmo, Xian Xu, Stephanie Tomasic, Matthew Taylor, Jennifer Lu, and Rohiverth Guarecuco.

September 14, 2017 | More

Investigating a big dam concrete problem

Investigating a big dam concrete problem

When the Mactaquac Dam opened in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1968, it was expected to have a service life of 100 years, but a chemical reaction occurring within the concrete used to build the dam has drastically shortened that timeline.

“Concrete is a mix of cement, crushed rock, sand, and water. Alkali-silica reaction, the cause of the major issues in New Brunswick, occurs when alkalis in the cement pore solution encounter reactive forms of silica in the rock used to make the concrete,” explains Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). “The reaction produces a gel which expands as it absorbs water and exerts pressure that can cause cracking and result in structural problems in concrete infrastructure.”

Researchers from the CSHub, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Oregon State University (OSU) have teamed up on a project to address several concrete durability issues, including alkali-silica reaction (ASR). Researchers at UNB are conducting ASR experiments, while OSU researchers are leading work on another durability issue known as freeze-thaw. Most of the project’s computational work is done at MIT, along with some experimental measurements.

“Our research collaboration looks at understanding ASR from fundamental building blocks,” explains Thomas Petersen, a grad student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and research assistant with the CSHub. “Starting from an atomistic description, we wish to understand the mechanisms leading to the expansion of the bulk concrete composite. Is the gel expanding? Is the CSH [calcium-silicate-hydrate] expanding? We are looking to answer these questions by understanding the molecular configurations of the materials.”

The team visited Mactaquac during a meeting in August. Petersen says the visit offered a great opportunity to learn about the potential impact of the team’s research on infrastructure systems. CSHub postdoc Laurent Béland agrees, noting that observing the “crazy expansion” at Mactaquac in person rather than in pictures, made the sometimes-abstract ideas he explores, more, well … concrete.

“Seeing the impacts of ASR on a structure that large, in person, makes you realize how big this problem is; not only is this major dam supplying electricity, it’s making sure a pretty big city won’t be flooded,” says Béland. “As an atomistic simulation expert, I’m coming at this from one perspective. Working with people to be able to absorb what this is all about, you see the research impact scaled up.”

The Mactaquac Dam has swelled some 9 to 12 inches in height since it was constructed 50 years ago. Cracking is visible throughout the structure, but the issues extend well beyond the concrete.

“There are gates that no longer close — there’s a seven- or eight-inch gap,” says Béland. “There are also places where engineers have had to cut through the dam to relieve pressure and, for obvious reasons, you’d prefer that dams not have to be cut into.”

Additionally, the dam’s turbines, which are used to generate hydroelectric power, need to periodic adjustments to prevent contact with the blades, and the steel beams and columns that help house the turbines and shafts must also be occasionally readjusted to maintain stability. Engineers are working to keep the dam in operation through the end of its intended service life, roughly the year 2068. These efforts are costly. Petersen notes, “A full-time engineering unit and $8 million per year are needed to maintain the dam and ensure its health into the future.”

The civil engineers and cities planners who built the Mactaquac Dam did test the aggregate for susceptibility to the alkali-silica reaction, however they did not test under conditions that well represented the conditions of the dam. The industry is still seeking fast, reliable testing methods for ASR that take such factors into account, something the CSHub-UNB-OSU durability project hopes to achieve.

“The benefit of working on applied topics is that the consequences of diligent and informed engineering practices is vividly portrayed in our everyday life,” says Petersen. “By advancing our modeling techniques and testing procedures, mistakes in the design of the Mactaquac dam can be avoided in the future.”

CSHub researchers Alice Dufresne, Thibaut Divoux, and Michael Heist recently published research briefs relating to the team’s ASR work. The publications, entitled “Atomistic Modeling of ASR Gel” and “Mechanical Properties of Alkali Silica gels, “are available on the CSHub website.

September 13, 2017 | More

MIT named No. 5 university by U.S. News

MIT named No. 5 university by U.S. News

U.S. News and World Report has placed MIT fifth in its annual rankings of the nation’s best colleges and universities, which were announced today. The Institute has moved up from the No. 7 spot it occupied previously; it now shares the No. 5 spot with Columbia University and Stanford University.

MIT’s engineering program maintained its standing at the top of the magazine’s list of undergraduate engineering programs at a doctoral institution. The Institute also placed first in six out of 12 engineering disciplines. No other institution is No. 1 in more than two disciplines.

MIT also remains the No. 2 undergraduate business program, this year standing alone in a spot it had previously shared with the University of California at Berkeley. Among business subfields, MIT is ranked No. 1 in three specialties.

In the overall institutional rankings, U.S. News placed Princeton University in the No. 1 spot, followed by Harvard University. The University of Chicago and Yale University are tied for No. 3.

One of the factors in the overall rankings is the “peer assessment score,” which reflects assessments by presidents, provosts, and top admissions officials at peer institutions. MIT, Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford tied for the highest peer assessment score in this year’s rankings (4.9 out of a possible 5.0). MIT, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all received assessment scores of 5.0 from high school counselors.

MIT placed first in six engineering specialties: aerospace/aeronautical/astronautical engineering; chemical engineering; computer engineering; electrical/electronic/communications engineering; materials engineering; and mechanical engineering. In the area of biomedical engineering, MIT’s undergraduate program ranks third, and in civil engineering it ranks fifth.

Other schools in the top five overall for undergraduate engineering programs are Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, and Georgia Tech.

Among undergraduate business specialties, the MIT Sloan School of Management leads in three areas: management information systems; production/operations management; and quantitative analysis/methods. MIT Sloan also ranks second in entrepreneurship and in supply chain management/logistics, and it ranks third in finance.

The No. 1-ranked undergraduate business program overall is at the University of Pennsylvania; the top five also include Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and New York University.

MIT ranks as the third most innovative university in the nation, according to the U.S. News peer assessment survey of top academics. The Institute is also fifth on the magazine’s list of national universities that offer students the best value, based on the school’s ranking and the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid.

September 12, 2017 | More

Stick, peel, or bounce: Controlling a freezing droplet’s fate

Stick, peel, or bounce: Controlling a freezing droplet’s fate

When freezing droplets impact a surface, they generally either stick to it or bounce away. Controlling this response is crucial to many applications, including 3-D printing, the spraying of some surface coatings, and the prevention of ice formation on structures such as airplane wings, wind turbines, or power lines.

Now, MIT researchers have found a surprising new twist to the mechanics involved when droplets come in contact with surfaces. While most research has focused on the hydrophobic properties of such surfaces, it turns out that their thermal properties are also crucially important — and provide an unexpected opportunity to “tune” those surfaces to meet the exact needs of a given application. The new results are presented today in the journal Nature Physics, in a report by MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi, former postdoc Jolet de Ruiter, and postdoc Dan Soto.

“We found something very interesting,” Varanasi explains. His team was studying the properties of a liquid — in this case, drops of molten metal — freezing onto a surface. “We had two substrates that had similar wetting properties [the tendency to either spread out or bead up on a surface] but different thermal properties.” According to conventional thinking, the way droplets acted on the two surfaces should have been similar, but instead it turned out to be dramatically different.

This clip reveals the different behavior of droplets on materials that have different thermal properties. Identical droplets of molten tin impact a surface of fused silica (left) and one of zinc selenide (right). While the droplet on the left sticks to the surface, the one on the right displays fringes around the edge that show how the flattened droplet begins to curve upward and peel away. (Image: Varanasi Group/MIT)

On silicon, which conducts heat very well, as most metals do, “the molten metal just fell off,” Varanasi says. But on glass, which is a good thermal insulator, “the drops of metal stuck and were hard to remove.”

The finding showed that “we can control the adhesion of a droplet freezing on a surface by controlling the thermal properties” of that surface, he says. “It’s a whole new approach” to determining how liquids interact with surfaces, he adds. “It provides new tools for us to control the outcome of such liquid-solid interactions.”

To explain the difference in thermal conductivity of different materials, Varanasi gives the example of two flooring surfaces, one made of stone, another of wood. Even if both are at exactly the same temperature, if you step with bare feet on the wood, it will feel warmer than the stone. That’s because the stone has higher thermal effusivity (the rate at which a material can exchange heat) than wood, so it draws heat away from your feet more rapidly, causing it to feel colder.

The experiments in the study were carried out with molten metal, which is important in some industrial processes such as the thermal spray coatings that are applied to turbine blades and other machine parts. For these processes, the quality and uniformity of the coatings can depend on how well each tiny droplet adheres to the surface during deposition. The results likely apply to all kinds of liquids as well, including water, Varanasi says.

When coating surfaces, “the way droplets impact and form splats dictates the integrity of the coating itself. If it’s not perfect, it can have a tremendous impact on the performance of the part, such as a turbine blade,” Varanasi says. “Our findings will provide a whole new understanding of when things stick and when they don’t.”

The new insights could be useful both when it is desirable to have droplets stick to surfaces, such as in some kinds of 3-D printers, to help make sure each printed layer adheres thoroughly to the previous layer, and when it’s important to prevent droplets from sticking, such as on airplane wings in icy weather. The research could also be helpful for cleaning and waste management of additive manufacturing and thermal spray processes.

A droplet of molten tin is seen falling on a surface of silicon, left, which conducts heat well, and on glass, right, which is a thermal insulator. Under identical conditions, the solidified droplet on the silicon falls right off when the surface is tilted, whereas the droplet on glass adheres tightly to the surface. (Image: Varanasi Group/MIT)

Soto says the discovery came about when the team was studying the local freezing mechanism at the interface between the liquid and the substrate, using a thermal high-speed camera that revealed rapid effects during the cooling process that would have been impossible to see at longer timescales. The images showed a progressive development of fringes around the droplets’ outer edges. “We then realized that the droplet was unexpectedly curling up and detaching from the surface as it froze,” he says. They described this phenomenon as “self-peeling” of the droplets.

“The main ingredients for this phenomenon,” de Ruiter says, “are the interplay between short timescale fluid dynamics, which set the adhesion, and longer timescale thermal effects, which lead to global deformation.” The team developed a design map that captures different possible outcomes (sticking, self-peeling, or bouncing) in terms of key thermal properties: drop and substrate effusivities, and temperatures.

Since the degree to which droplets stick or don’t depends on a material’s thermal properties, it’s possible to tailor those properties based on the application, Soto says. “We can imagine scenarios where thermal properties can be adjusted in real time through electric or magnetic fields, allowing the stickiness of the surface to impacting droplets to be adjustable.”

The sticking outcome can also be controlled simply by changing the relative temperatures of the droplets and the surface, the team found. In many cases, these changes are counterintuitive: For example, while one might expect that the only way to prevent sticking of freezing droplets is by warming a substrate, the team found a new regime, where cooling the surface can also lead to the same outcome.

The research was supported by Alstom and a Rubicon fellowship from the Netherlands.

September 11, 2017 | More

Ask an engineer

Ask an engineer

When the School of Engineering redesigned its website in 2008, the occasion provided an opportunity to throw open a door into the Institute. “Ask an Engineer” came before Facebook got big and before most people knew the word “tweet” as anything but a bird sound. It was founded on the simple idea that people could ask MIT questions and someone would answer them. Now the feature —  which can be found at — is restarting this month after a two-year hiatus.

Since its launch, Ask an Engineer has generated approximately 4,300 questions from the public. These have come from nearly every country in the world, and from people of all ages and backgrounds.

Once the answer to a clue in The New York Times‘ Saturday crossword puzzle, Ask an Engineer seeks to unravel the mysteries of engineering — from the mundane (“Why is a bicycle easier to control when it’s moving?”) to the highly complex (“Are Santa’s reindeer used for propulsion or navigation?”) for anyone who wants to ask a relatively pithy question.

Among the most popular in the library of existing questions are “What’s the difference between AC and DC?” “How many solar panels do I need to put on my house to become energy independent?” and the classic “What’s the difference between a motor and an engine?” (The last of these was actually answered by a literature professor.)

Ask an Engineer publishes a new entry once a week during the academic year. And although the columns only address a tiny fraction of the questions received, editors always welcome new questions (especially the ones asked by kids).

The first query with the relaunch: “Is it possible to make a Batman suit?

September 11, 2017 | More

J-WAFS awards commercialization grants to develop technologies for water and food solutions

J-WAFS awards commercialization grants to develop technologies for water and food solutions

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) has announced three new recipients of J-WAFS Solutions grants, as well as the award of a second year of funding to two current projects.

Together, the funded projects demonstrate MIT’s application of innovative technologies to food and water challenges such as improving irrigation, reducing pesticide use, and improving water filtration and monitoring. The financial support and mentorship from industry partners facilitated by the Solutions program helps move these water and food technologies from labs at MIT into commercial use, where they can improve the productivity, accessibility, and sustainability of water and food systems.

“MIT was created to move innovative research into the real world, including a distinguished legacy of solutions for critical needs in the water and food sectors,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food. “Today, with the impact of climate change, urbanization, and rising population, water and food security is of even greater global importance. This program serves as a catalyst for entrepreneurial faculty and students to develop and commercialize technologies that can have a positive impact on the world.”

Technologies that monitor food quality and safety

Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, has been awarded a commercialization grant to develop a handheld device that can inexpensively test the quality of milk by measuring milk fat and protein. His goal is to ensure real-time control across the dairy industry supply chain — from farmers to collection centers to processing plants. Sarma and his team are motivated by challenging issues prevalent in the dairy industry in India: Milk procurement is complicated and uncontrolled, the system is vulnerable to tampering, and consistency in the safety and quality of milk products is difficult to manage. During the grant period, the team will develop and test the image processing system that is the foundation of their technology.  Once refined, they will turn it into a sensor scaled for handheld devices, and conduct pilot studies in select regions in India.

Timothy Swager, the John D. McArthur Professor of Chemistry, and postdoc Myles Herbert will follow up on prior J-WAFS Solutions funding to further refine a technology that exploits the chemistry of Janus emulsions. Janus emulsions are special droplets on the nano scale that have two or more distinct physical properties. Swager and Herbert have developed a process in which Janus particles to interact with bacteria in order to detect foodborne pathogens and the interaction between the liquid droplets and bacterial proteins can be detected by a smartphone or even the naked eye. This device could reduce the cost and accessibility of food safety testing across the supply chain which, as a result, could reduce foodborne illnesses and reduce costs.  During this grant year, Swager’s his group will further refine the sensitivity and selectivity of the sensor and explore different detection modalities that provide rapid robust and detection.

Improving agricultural practices for increased yield and reduced environmental impact

Kripa Varanasi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is developing novel spray formulations comprising charged molecules to improve the application of agricultural pesticides. These new formulations enable the pesticide drops to adhere better to leaf and fruit surfaces without bouncing or rolling off, thereby decreasing the volume of pesticide application and limiting pollution of soils, surface water, and groundwater. Lab-scale results have demonstrated that the technology can reduce the amount of pesticide sprayed by a factor of 10. Varanasi and his team will conduct field studies on pesticide sprays tailored for a range of plants and field conditions. Once commercialized, the enhanced spray solutions could have a game-changing impact on pesticide application practices, improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of pesticide applications and significantly reducing runoff pollution.

J-WAFS Director John Lienhard and PhD candidate Kishor G. Nayar have received a Solutions grant for a new project that seeks to improve agricultural practices and crop yield, especially for hydroponic growers. The team is developing a system called Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis (ISED) for reducing water salinity that is superior to existing reverse osmosis desalination processes. ISED selectively removes ions harmful to crops and retains those that are beneficial, resulting in improved yield with less water and fertilizer use. The team plans on using their grant to test the prototype, design the first field pilot, and conduct end-user interviews in the US and Mexico.

Developing affordable water filtration systems from trees

A 2016 Solutions project lead by Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and co-PI Amy Smith, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-director of the D-Lab, received a renewal grant that will allow them to further develop a plant-based water purification device. Along with PhD candidates Krithika Ramchander, Kendra Leith, Megha Hegde, Luda Wang, and Anish Antony, Karnik and Smith have developed low-cost water filters that exploit the natural filtration capabilities of xylem tissue in wood. Designed for communities that lack access to piped water supply systems, the filter reduces the microbial contamination that is a threat to health in developing regions. This year’s grant will support continued field tests for the filtration system in India, product design and prototyping, exploration of opportunities for increasing awareness and adoption, and the development of a strategy for manufacturing and commercialization by and for the people in regions who most need them.

Transforming promising ideas into commercialized breakthroughs 

The J-WAFS Solutions program aims to help MIT faculty and students commercialize breakthrough technologies and inventions by transforming promising ideas at MIT into innovative products and cutting-edge spin-off companies.

Funded through a research partnership with Community Jameel (the social enterprise arm of Abdul Latif Jameel Enterprises) and administered in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the program’s mission is to help bring to market products and services that have a transformational effect on water and food systems worldwide. The program supports projects that bring tangible economic and societal benefits to the communities where they are deployed.

“From using wood to provide clean drinking water, being able to easily test the quality of milk in rural communities, and reducing the amount of pesticides being sprayed on crops, the research we are supporting at MIT has the potential to make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” says Fady Mohammed Jameel, president of Community Jameel International. “With rising populations, climate change and urbanization, we need to start taking action now to meet the world’s future needs for food and water. Community Jameel is proud to be a key partner of MIT in tackling some of the most pressing issues related to food and water safety and security in the Middle East and around the world.”

The three new 2017 J-WAFS Solutions grant recipients and their projects are:

In-situ Particle Characterization in Emulsions for Field-scale Quality Assurance in the Dairy Industry
PI: Sanjay Sarma, Vice President for Open Learning and Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Reducing Runoff and Environmental Impact of Agricultural Sprays
PI: Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering

Developing Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis for 21st century Agriculture
PI: John H. Lienhard V, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab

The two renewal projects, which will receive a second year of funding, are:

Development of Low-Cost Water Filter Using Sapwood Xylem
PIs: Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Amy Smith, senior lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-director, D-Lab

Detection of Pathogens Using Dynamically Reconfigurable Liquid Colloid Particles
PIs: Timothy Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry; Alexander M. Klibanov, Novartis Professor, Chemistry and Bioengineering

September 7, 2017 | More