News and Research
New Space Age Conference

New Space Age Conference

Organized by current LGO students, the event will explore the space industry and entrepreneurship on the final frontier. Register to attend with industry leaders on March 11.
Read more


MBAs in space: rocket science absorbs business school thinking

“I’m trying to get more technical and business education to transition into the space industry,” says Barret Schlegelmilch (LGO ’18), a former submarine officer in the US Navy, who is pursuing an MBA at the same time as a masters of science in astronautical and space engineering.

February 21, 2017 | More

Learning: the key to continuous improvement

Steven Spear is an LGO thesis advisor and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Certain companies continually deliver more value to the market. They do so with greater speed and ease than their rivals, even when they lack the classic elements of strategic advantage: locked-in customers, dependent suppliers and barriers that keep competitors at bay. Absent such structural advantages, you would expect parity. There are, however, still those companies that regularly outscore the competition. Toyota, Intel, and Apple are among them, as are many lesser known but no less disproportionally successful ventures.

The source of uneven outcomes on otherwise level playing fields? Learning, at which the very best organizations excel. They are far faster and better at discovering what to do and how to do it, as well as at refreshing the set of problems to be solved and solutions to be delivered faster than the ecosystem can render their relevance obsolete.

For sure, learning is not simply training. Training involves accepted skills with an accepted application, and then using an accepted approach to deliver those skills to the organization. Learning, on the other hand, involves converting ignorance and a lack of capacity into knowledge, new skills and understanding. It requires recognizing what you do not know and finding new approaches to solve new problems. This, in turn, requires critical thinking and a willingness to challenge accepted practices, even when those practices are perceived as successful.

Challenge—even respectful challenge—is not a natural act. When something has worked well, complacency and inertia accumulate and interests get vested in sustaining what is familiar, even if it is not optimal. Challenging historical approaches goes along with challenging the emotions, status and prestige associated with those approaches. That is not typically welcome.

For aspiring leaders to overcome inertia, as well as to realize and capitalize on the innate potential of those they wish to lead, they must embrace a two-pronged approach. First, they need to cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction with current practices, actively encourage paranoia about the status quo and incite a spirit of relentlessly seeking flaws. Second, they must make this constant challenge both respectful and safe, communicating the expectation that associates at all levels identify problems, try new approaches and evaluate those approaches based on both the results and the discipline and speed with which insights are generated.

This is a skunkworks approach, not a tactic isolated to a few top projects given to an elite group of researchers. It is everyone striving ahead on the work that is within their control and subject to their influence, so that both the pieces and the whole get better together.

Successful practitioners of high-velocity learning have made it a fundamental part of leadership to develop less-experienced associates’ ability to actively convert experiences into bona fide learning. A problem-solving/learning dynamic is broadly diffused throughout the enterprise. These organizations have expanded our typical concept of “the knowledge worker” from doctors, scientists and IT staff to the people wearing hard hats, coveralls and khakis.

Global manufacturer Alcoa enjoyed a profound transformation by embracing this approach. For example, when an Alcoa manager new to a recently acquired facility formed a quality and safety committee, he chose to depend on unionized workers. Previously, these employees expressed their insights by filing labor grievances, because more genteel methods of calling out issues were ignored and diminished.

This led the company to implement a system for all workers to easily document practices that led to injuries or beneficial outcomes. By changing practices based on workers’ insights, the risk of job injury collapsed from 2 percent to 0.07 percent. Costs dropped, and productivity soared. The company’s stock, a mainstay of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, starting tracking the NASDAQ—the domicile of dot.coms, high-techs and other ventures valued for what they know and what they are expected to invent.

Alcoa’s success reflects the essence of high-velocity learning: By motivating and enabling all employees to challenge the norm, organizations can realize competitive advantage.

Steven Spear is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

February 9, 2017 | More

Featured video: MIT Hyperloop

A team of MIT students, including LGOs, are competing in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in California.

January 25, 2017 | More

MIT Students Tour Pratt & Whitney’s Columbus Facility

A group of more than 50 students and faculty members from MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations program toured the Columbus Engine Center on January 9 to experience what it’s like to work in a high-tech manufacturing business.

January 11, 2017 | More

Researchers design one of the strongest, lightest materials known

A team of researchers at MIT, including Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and LGO thesis advisor, has designed one of the strongest lightweight materials known, by compressing and fusing flakes of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon. The new material, a sponge-like configuration with a density of just 5 percent, can have a strength 10 times that of steel.

January 6, 2017 | More

From Teen Mom To 3 MIT Degrees

This Latina shares her secrets to making the most of your career with Women@Forbes. Noramay Cadena (LGO ’11) is a #bosslady in all aspects of her life.

November 17, 2016 | More

MIT program enrolls first student from the Philippines

The MIT Sloan School of Management recently announced that the first student from the Philippines, Dominique Rustia, matriculated into its prestigious Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) Program. In the MIT LGO program, Rustia will earn both an MBA from MIT Sloan and an SM from MIT’s School of Engineering.

November 5, 2016 | More

Video: Electric motors find new roles in robots, ships, cars, and microgrids

James Kirtley, LGO advisor and professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. “Electric motors are being used more widely in ships, airplanes, trains, and cars. We’re also seeing a lot more electric motors in robots.”

October 25, 2016 | More

How to teach the unteachable

In August, LGO advisor Leon Glicksman, an MIT professor of architecture and mechanical engineering, and John Lienhard, a professor of mechanical engineering, published “Modeling and Approximation in Heat Transfer” (Cambridge University Press).

The product of a nearly 20-year-long collaboration between them, the book explores the challenges faced by engineers in systems design and research. Mastery of fancy calculations is well and good, they argue, but students must also acquire a critical and often neglected skill set: the ability to think in physical terms. To this end, the authors focus on how modeling and synthesis can be carried out in practice. This is about thinking the big picture: how to get started, how to identify key physical variables in a problem, how to focus your attention toward what matters.

The School of Engineering recently spoke with the coauthors (who replied collectively) by email about their new text.

Q: How would you describe the origins of this textbook?

A: Many excellent textbooks on thermal science are already available, but most of them lack systematic discussions of how modeling and synthesis can be carried out in practice. Specifically, most textbook problems have already bee

October 21, 2016 | More

Translating a Biologic Revolution into an Organizational Overhaul

MIT LGO students and professors work with Mass General Hospital to redesign healthcare processes and bring novel therapies to patients.

October 20, 2016 | More


How a Boston surgeon reduced operating room injuries — and saved money along the way

Carlos Estrada, a pediatric urologist and Executive MBA student at MIT Sloan, was sitting in a safety training session at Boston Children’s Hospital when the conversation turned to sharps-related injuries to employees. “As a surgeon, I thought I’d naturally know about this,” he said. But when the data were presented — 90 to 100 accidental sticks with suture or hypodermic needles every year — Estrada was floored. “Imagine if 90 to 100 patients got stuck,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in business.”

The problem not only puts employee health at risk, increasing the chance of infectious disease transfer, but it’s expensive: Estrada estimated that accidental sticks cost the hospital roughly $200,000 every year.

Eager to find a solution, Estrada examined the problem in Organizations Lab, in which MIT Executive MBA students work to solve a specific issue in their company. Over the course of the semester, Estrada designed and implemented an intervention that reduced the unsafe transfer of sharps to only five instances across as many surgeries; no accidental stick occurred. A control group with no intervention reported 42 unsafe transfers over four surgeries, with one accidental stick.

Such stark differences resulted from a straightforward process that any company, in any sector, can use to improve safety and efficiency.

Get the problem on paper — size A3, to be precise
Once Estrada decided to address accidental sticks from sharps transfers, he summarized the whole issue — background, root causes of problem, intervention design, execution plan, and takeaways — on a single sheet of A3 paper, roughly 11-by-16 inches. “This forces you to really find out what’s important,” he said. “From that you can hone down on the issue and really focus your problem-solving skills.”

One essential part of this process, he said, is a concise problem statement. He noted that it’s often easy to write at-length about a problem, but too much detail muddies the search for a solution. Writing a problem briefly and clearly instead helps to establish a manageable scope. “You get down to the heart of it,” Estrada said.

Take time to observe the process you’re reforming
Estrada was emphatic about the importance of observation. “Go and see the work,” he said. Many senior managers are distant from operations; they may not directly oversee the assembly line or the call centers or the scheduling of meetings. Whatever the process under investigation, study it before trying to reform it.

2017-estrada Dr. Carlos Estrada in his office at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Estrada referred to advice he received from MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning, the faculty director of the Executive MBA program. “What Nelson told us was absolutely brilliant,” he said. “If you go and see the work and you’re not embarrassed to some degree, then you’re not really seeing the work.”

Observation is also useful for providing clarity through distance. Though Estrada had been working in operating rooms for 15 years, he never recognized the need for safer sharps transfer practices. (Indeed, such closeness likely obscured the problem.) “When I stepped away I had a kind of ‘duh’ moment,” he said.

Simplicity and collaboration help earn stakeholder buy-in
Interventions need to be simple. Managers — or surgeons in Estrada’s case — are preoccupied with the task on-hand, like performing surgery. If they are asked to make big changes then the request “will be dead in the water,” said Estrada. Recognizing this, he followed three basic guidelines as he designed the intervention: no additional work for any team member; no additional operative time; and no capital expenditure.

Data, too, are a useful ally. Demonstrating the largely hidden problem of unsafe sharps transfers in the operating room, along with the results of his intervention, helped Estrada earn support from the chief of surgery and the hospital’s chief operating officer.

Finally, the idea for a change should be introduced openly and inclusively. Estrada highlighted the need to be “hyperaware of the social and political consequences of coming in and planting a flag.” Instead, he brought his proposed intervention to the table and went about its implementation by “having everyone take part. It was a contributory group effort.”

From A3 to action: use education and competition
People are often comfortably set in their ways. Estrada said surgeons develop their own methods over a career. So how do you encourage adoption of a new idea?

“It’s essential to raise awareness about whatever problem needs reforming,” said Estrada. He created informational flyers on accidental sticks and their costs, both monetary and health (in terms of infectious disease transfer); he pasted these all over Boston Children’s Hospital. This raised the profile of the problem.

Estrada then created a competition to reduce unsafe sharps transfers, with points earned by following the proper procedure. This, he said, tapped into the well-known competitive nature of surgeons and helped to build participation. Though competition may not work in every setting, he noted that behavior is not easy to change, so any intervention needs to be aligned with — and take advantage of — the specific culture of a workplace.

February 19, 2017 | More

Evolution of a company

When Stefany Shaheen, EMBA ’18, first started thinking about launching a company, she thought it would sell tools to help people manage their food portions. Today, the business, called Good Measures, is an integrated digital platform and service company that employs registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators to work with people who are living with conditions like diabetes and heart disease. What happened?

The original idea
Shaheen’s passion for building the business grew out of her own family’s struggle to help her young daughter manage Type I diabetes. When she met her co-founder, George Bennett, he was working on tracking nutrition. Together they saw an opportunity to build on the idea of giving people tools to manage portion sizes. “I realized that our biggest challenges were having access to accurate nutrition information and helping my daughter figure out what to eat for meals and snacks,” Shaheen said.

The evolution
Good Measures started by building a technology platform, but the team quickly realized that pairing its technology with human expertise would offer a better solution.

“Our goal is not how much food can a person log or weight-loss tracking. It’s about achieving sustainable behavior change,” Shaheen said. That’s where the registered dietitians come in, distinguishing Good Measures from the wide array of apps and websites available for health tracking.

The Good Measures patented approach personalizes meal and snack recommendations tailored for an individual’s nutrient needs based on age, gender, food preferences, health status, and medications. The company’s registered dietitians then spend time working on behavior change. People can see their progress in real time by monitoring their “Good Measures Index” to see how well they are meeting their individualized nutrient needs.

The lesson
Staying focused on your mission can help you navigate challenging shifts in the business. While the company went through a lot of changes from the original concept to its current state, Shaheen’s focus on helping her child manage a life-threatening illness kept the work in perspective. “You don’t have the capacity to worry about the things that aren’t big problems, and that forces a focus on the real problems so you can tackle them before it is too late,” she said.

Shaheen is also the author of Elle and Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything .

February 18, 2017 | More

In era of ethical crisis, time for a venture capital Hippocratic oath?

The MIT Venture Capital and Innovation Conference focused on ways venture capital firms and startups can better bring services to those in need amid global economic uncertainty and a rising tide of populism in the Western world.

“Keep the focus on the hope”
Macroeconomic instability over the last decade and a half has exposed inequalities in opportunity and income in the developed world, said Roberto Rigobon, professor of applied economics at MIT Sloan. This growing socioeconomic divide, and perceptions of what caused it, fueled the populist movements led by Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump — and that in turn has fueled protests and resistance movements, especially in the United States.

The political climate presents those who are either funding or running startups with a chance to make a difference, said Jennifer Hanley, managing director of startup advisory firm Tusk Ventures and the former press secretary for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Civil liberties have garnered a lot of attention, she said, but the Trump administration’s policy announcements regarding education, the environment, trade, immigration, and science, among other areas, are likely to provide “limitless opportunities to focus on.”

Hanley cautioned entrepreneurs and investors against trying to take on everything at once and instead suggested focusing on a single issue. She also encouraged attendees to tap into growing public activism and engagement.

“For all the turmoil, keep the focus on the hope that exists in the little whirlwind we are in,” she said.

A Hippocratic oath for venture capital
Firms striving to make a difference must also make money, but they must resist the urge to put growth and profits above all else, said Kat Manalac, director of outreach for early-stage startup incubator Y Combinator. She pointed to investments in controversial, but profitable “fake news” websites as one example of an ethical lapse. Other examples could include Theranos and Zenefits, startups that fell from grace after reportedly engaging in questionable practices to meet lofty promises.

To encourage integrity, Manalac proposed a sort of Hippocratic oath to guide venture capital firms, as well as founders, in their decision-making. Throughout the process, both sides must emphasize a respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice, she said.

Taken together, Manalac said, these four principles can address issues such as rapid growth, user privacy, the lack of female founders, and the disruptive impact of new technology. Artificial intelligence and self-driving cars are poised to transform the transportation industry — but what will happen to everyone who drives trucks, buses, or cabs for a living today and is threatened by the socioeconomic divide of tomorrow?

“Maybe it’s our responsibility to make projections and guide others to the problems that most other people aren’t even considering yet,” Manalac said. This feedback, she added, will help the industries being disrupted figure out what’s next before the consequences of disruption grow larger and more negative.

In addressing these problems, Wade, of Tiossan, told conference attendees to “start with a new canvas” instead of trying to make incremental improvements to services that already exist — like pizza apps.

“Too often we try to fix solutions within a box of accepted facts,” she said.

February 18, 2017 | More

How the CEO of Staples uses faith to stay focused

As the CEO of Staples, Shira Goodman uses her faith to help her stay focused and guide her as a leader.

Goodman, SM ’87, has been at the office supply retailer since 1992 and was named CEO last fall after Ron Sargent stepped down from the role following a failed bid to merge with Office Depot. In a Feb. 14 talk at MIT Sloan, she explained three ways her Jewish faith informs her work.

Get a mentor
“Find yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably” is a teaching from the Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of ethical teachings in the Jewish faith, Goodman said. In her career, she found two “towering figures” who influenced her career—Staples co-founder Tom Stemberg and former CEO Sargent, whom she worked with for many years.

Following her graduation from MIT Sloan, Goodman worked in consulting at Bain & Company, where she first became acquainted with Stemberg, as Staples was her client at Bain. The pair researched whether Staples should have a delivery business (the answer: “yes”) and Goodman eventually left Bain for Staples.

In 1992, Goodman and her husband planned to move to New York City so he could attend rabbinical school. She tried to resign from Staples, but Sargent convinced her to stay and gave her a telecommuting position.

It’s one of the reasons that Goodman “bleeds Staples red to this day.”

Recreate your business. Every day.
This is consistent with the Jewish idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to “repair” or, to use Goodman’s word, “recreate” the world to continually make it better. To be in business today, a company needs to recreate its business each day, Goodman said.

“Today, while most people think of us as an office products retailer, the reality is that over 60 percent of our sales, and an ever greater percentage of our profit and cash flow, is from our delivery business,” she said.

Goodman said Staples is facing threats from Amazon and in the transformation of how people work today. “I call it double digitization. What we sell [paper and ink] is being digitized and how we sell it is being digitized … the transformation is really, really hard and morale and retention is a constant challenge.”

Staples is heading off the threats by making some strategic moves—such as selling off its European business, a decision Goodman said has been one of her toughest—and piloting Workbar, a co-working space.

Take time out
Goodman credits her weekly observance of the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest that begins on Friday at sunset and ends Saturday at nightfall, with keeping her grounded.

As part of this observance, Goodman said, “For me, this 25-hour ‘time-out’ is when, by and large, I try to go technology free … I really go off the grid and I think this helps me stay sane,” who added that if there’s a work-related emergency, she can be reached.

Goodman said she does some of her best thinking on that day, and when she shared her custom with Staples associates on an internal blog post, she was inundated with similar stories of how others unwind by various activities such as reading, exercising, or spending time with family.

It means that even in the midst of a hard transformation at the retail giant, associates are still encouraged to “replenish and have a life.”

Goodman’s talk was sponsored by the Sloan Jewish Students Organization and the Retail, Consumer Packaged Goods, and Luxury club.

February 17, 2017 | More

NeuroSleeve wins MIT Accelerate with affordable carpal tunnel diagnostic

This new technology could prevent nerve damage, save money, and boost worker productivity. Early diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome can be the difference between mild home treatments and surgery, and in worst case scenarios, a permanent loss of function in the hand. New MIT startup NeuroSleeve won the $10,000 Daniel M. Lewin Accelerate Prize Feb. 15 with the promise of increasing early detection and reducing $1 billion in carpal tunnel surgical costs each year.

Developed by a medical doctor and an electrical and robotics engineer, NeuroSleeve’s pitch to a panel of judges on the MIT campus included a live demonstration of its prototype. While some Accelerate competition participants presented products long in development, Matthew Carey and Louwai Muhammed only began theirs in December when their concept was accepted into the competition.

Muhammed, a doctor now studying neuroscience at MIT, saw the need for a cheaper, easier, more portable diagnosis when working with a patient he saw in London. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused when the main nerve in the hand gets caught between the bones and ligaments in the wrist, leading to pain and numbness. Treatment is easy when caught early, often just a period of wearing a splint, rest, and ice. Without early diagnosis, treatment rises to steroid injections or surgery.

“But only if the disease is picked up early enough,” Muhammed said. “In the case of the patient I saw in London, this is exactly what did not happen. Living in a developing country, he had been complaining of pain and numbness for years. By the time we saw him, he had developed permanent and debilitating loss of function in the nerve.”

Muhammed teamed with Carey, MBA ’17, and the pair developed a portable testing device they expect to produce for $300, as opposed to $30,000 for current hospital diagnostic machinery. The device can be used by nurses without the specialized training necessary with existing technology, they said. It resembles a wrist splint tied to electronics, and sends small electrical impulses directly into the nerve, causing the thumb to visibly twitch, and reads the strength of the impulses on the other end.

During the Accelerate period, when participants engage with mentors, develop prototypes, and conduct customer research, the NeuroSleeve team connected with medical device manufacturers and researched paths for Food and Drug Administration approval. The business potential appears by reducing the costs of carpal tunnel diagnosis and treatment for hospitals, but they also stressed that the device could benefit society by reducing productivity losses among office and factory workers.

Hacker-combating malware wins runner-up prize
The $3,000 runner-up prize went to the similarly named NeuroMesh, whose founders were inspired to address the security of internet-connected devices last fall when hackers attacked baby monitors and other devices to crash Twitter, PayPal, and other major websites. During the team’s presentation, MIT cybersecurity PhD candidate Gregory Falco played a video showing a hack of a webcam on the MIT campus.

“Are you scared yet?” he asked the audience. Falco described NeuroMesh’s product as “good” malware, using the same type of technology as malicious programs to blacklist harmful programs and deny access to potential hackers. As more household and commercial products become connected, co-founder Caleb Li, MBA ’17, said, there’s been little invested in ensuring their security to hackers.

The $3,000 audience favorite prize went to Infinite Cooling, which also placed second in the Pitch competition in November. The team has developed a mechanism for recapturing water lost in the cooling systems of power plants, reducing water costs and usage.

Accelerate is the second of three annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition events. The third, Launch, takes place in May and awards the $100,000 grand prize. There were 127 applications for Accelerate. Twenty semifinalists spent two months developing prototypes and conducting customer and industry research. Eight finalists were selected Feb. 9 by a panel of judges. Applications for Launch open March 1. The final competition takes place May 17.

February 17, 2017 | More

MIT professor working with Uber to address racial bias

MIT Sloan Professor Christopher Knittel, who led a 2016 study that found Boston Uber passengers with black-sounding names were more likely to have rides cancelled than those with white-sounding names, said his team is working with Uber to investigate the issue. Both Uber and its rival, Lyft, got in touch with Knittel and his fellow researchers shortly after they published the study last fall, Knittel said.

February 14, 2017 | More

Uber image

How ride-hailing apps like Uber continue cab industry’s history of racial discrimination

From hailing taxis that won’t stop for them to being forced to ride at the back of buses, African-Americans have long endured discrimination within the transportation industry.

Many have hoped the emergence of a technology-driven “new economy,” providing greater information and transparency and buoyed by an avowed idealism, would help us break from our history of systemic discrimination against minorities.

Unfortunately, our research shows that the new economy has brought along some old baggage, suggesting that it takes more than just new technologies to transform attitudes and behavior.

Our new paper, “Racial and Gender Discrimination in Transportation Network Companies,” found patterns of discrimination in how some drivers using ride-hailing platforms, such as Uber and Lyft, treat African-American passengers and women. Our results are based on extensive field studies in Seattle and Boston, both considered liberal-minded cities, and provide stark evidence of discrimination.

Discrimination by taxi drivers has long been a social problem. As a result, most cities explicitly require drivers to pick up any passenger while on duty, something they’re reminded of, but such provisions are difficult to enforce. Our work confirmed that traditional taxis in downtown Seattle were more likely to pass black passengers without stopping than to drive by white passengers.

Advances in technology are drastically changing the cab-hailing experience, however, allowing those in need of a lift to order a car with a few taps on a smartphone. The question we wanted to answer with our research is whether this fast-growing market is treating customers of all races and genders equally.

Read the full post at The Conversation.

Christopher Knittel is the George P. Shultz Professor and a Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

 has a Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering from the University of Washington.

 is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington.

 is the Executive Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University.

February 13, 2017 | More

Sloan Fencing Story

Small US company bucks a trend, adding manufacturing jobs

A rising tide of automation, trade problems and lagging growth in productivity has slashed millions of jobs from the U.S. manufacturing sector. At the same time, a small factory in Northbridge, Massachusetts, has been hiring, expanding and exporting. Riverdale Mills hopes to grow further by making unusual products and building a strong workforce. Riverdale makes materials that have revolutionized lobster fishing with unique processes and materials. The company applied lessons from fishing to making security fences, including some that protect borders.

February 12, 2017 | More

Kenya Sloan Study

Will mobile payments alleviate poverty and empower women in India?

A study in Kenya has shown that use of mobile payments has lifted a percentage of the population out of extreme poverty and empowered women in savings and shifting of occupations from agriculture to business. Whether the use of mobile payments in India would similarly lift families from extreme poverty and whether women would be empowered, is the interesting question Indian researchers now ought to focus on.

February 12, 2017 | More

Why big pharma should think twice about working with Trump

President Donald Trump has demanded that pharmaceutical companies cut drug prices in return for fewer regulations. As a matter of economics, this plan makes no sense.

Politically, however, it might just work. But traditional critics of the industry should think long and hard about whether going along with the president out of fear of his wrath is a cause for celebration. Pharmaceutical firms should also consider the long-term dangers of aligning themselves too closely with the new president and his volatile brand of policy making.

Trump has a simple theory to explain why drug prices are so high, one long espoused by libertarians: Onerous and superfluous Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations make it prohibitively expensive for companies to bring innovative new drugs to market. It is certainly true that the cost of developing a new treatment are astronomical and getting higher year after year. Yet regulations are not the culprit; instead, many of these new drugs simply do not provide significant clinical benefits to patients—even if they’re deemed safe. As a result, failure remains endemic in drug development in ways that executives and financiers used to developing products quickly find hard to fathom.

In fact, one might reasonably argue that with a toothless FDA, the discoverers and manufacturers of treatments that provide real, documented clinical benefits will find it harder to stand out in a field cluttered by snake oil salesmen. Therefore, executives in the industry should be very skeptical of the president’s bargain as a matter of economic logic.

The actual reason that prices remain stubbornly high is that they mostly reflect what patients (and their insurers) are willing to pay for them given the state of competition in the marketplace. That’s a frustrating explanation, and one lacking the simple solution Trump peddles.

Read the full post at Fortune.

Pierre Azoulay is the International Programs Professor of Management and a Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

February 8, 2017 | More


New resource for optical chips

The Semiconductor Industry Association has estimated that at current rates of increase, computers’ energy requirements will exceed the world’s total power output by 2040.

Using light rather than electricity to move data would dramatically reduce computer chips’ energy consumption, and the past 20 years have seen remarkable progress in the development of silicon photonics, or optical devices that are made from silicon so they can easily be integrated with electronics on silicon chips.

But existing silicon-photonic devices rely on different physical mechanisms than the high-end optoelectronic components in telecommunications networks do. The telecom devices exploit so-called second-order nonlinearities, which make optical signal processing more efficient and reliable.

In the latest issue of Nature Photonics, MIT researchers present a practical way to introduce second-order nonlinearities into silicon photonics. They also report prototypes of two different silicon devices that exploit those nonlinearities: a modulator, which encodes data onto an optical beam, and a frequency doubler, a component vital to the development of lasers that can be precisely tuned to a range of different frequencies.

In optics, a linear system is one whose outputs are always at the same frequencies as its inputs. So a frequency doubler, for instance, is an inherently nonlinear device.

“We now have the ability to have a second-order nonlinearity in silicon, and this is the first real demonstration of that,” says Michael Watts, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and senior author on the new paper.

“Now you can build a phase modulator that is not dependent on the free-carrier effect in silicon. The benefit there is that the free-carrier effect in silicon always has a phase and amplitude coupling. So whenever you change the carrier concentration, you’re changing both the phase and the amplitude of the wave that’s passing through it. With second-order nonlinearity, you break that coupling, so you can have a pure phase modulator. That’s important for a lot of applications. Certainly in the communications realm that’s important.”

The first author on the new paper is Erman Timurdogan, who completed his PhD at MIT last year and is now at the silicon-photonics company Analog Photonics. He and Watts are joined by Matthew Byrd, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Christopher Poulton, who did his master’s in Watts’s group and is also now at Analog Photonics.

Dopey solutions

If an electromagnetic wave can be thought of as a pattern of regular up-and-down squiggles, a digital modulator perturbs that pattern in fixed ways to represent strings of zeroes and ones. In a silicon modulator, the path that the light wave takes is defined by a waveguide, which is rather like a rail that runs along the top of the modulator.

Existing silicon modulators are doped, meaning they have had impurities added to them through a standard process used in transistor manufacturing. Some doping materials yield p-type silicon, where the “p” is for “positive,” and some yield n-type silicon, where the “n” is for “negative.” In the presence of an electric field, free carriers — electrons that are not associated with particular silicon atoms — tend to concentrate in n-type silicon and to dissipate in p-type silicon.

A conventional silicon modulator is half p-type and half n-type silicon; even the waveguide is split right down the middle. On either side of the waveguide are electrodes, and changing the voltage across the modulator alternately concentrates and dissipates free carriers in the waveguide, to modulate an optical signal passing through.

The MIT researchers’ device is similar, except that the center of the modulator — including the waveguide that runs along its top — is undoped. When a voltage is applied, the free carriers don’t collect in the center of the device; instead, they build up at the boundary between the n-type silicon and the undoped silicon. A corresponding positive charge builds up at the boundary with the p-type silicon, producing an electric field, which is what modulates the optical signal.

Because the free carriers at the center of a conventional silicon modulator can absorb light particles — or photons — traveling through the waveguide, they diminish the strength of the optical signal; modulators that exploit second-order nonlinearities don’t face that problem.

Picking up speed

In principle, they can also modulate a signal more rapidly than existing silicon modulators do. That’s because it takes more time to move free carriers into and out of the waveguide than it does to concentrate and release them at the boundaries with the undoped silicon. The current paper simply reports the phenomenon of nonlinear modulation, but Timurdogan says that the team has since tested prototypes of a modulator whose speeds are competitive with those of the nonlinear modulators found in telecom networks.

The frequency doubler that the researchers demonstrated has a similar design, except that the regions of p- and n-doped silicon that flank the central region of undoped silicon are arranged in regularly spaced bands, perpendicular to the waveguide. The distances between the bands are calibrated to a specific wavelength of light, and when a voltage is applied across them, they double the frequency of the optical signal passing through the waveguide, combining pairs of photons into single photons with twice the energy.

Frequency doublers can be used to build extraordinarily precise on-chip optical clocks, optical amplifiers, and sources of terahertz radiation, which has promising security applications.

“Silicon has had a huge renaissance within the optical communication space for a variety of applications,” says Jason Orcutt, a researcher in the Physical Sciences Department at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “However, there are still remaining application spaces — from microwave photonics to quantum optics — where the lack of second-order nonlinear effects in silicon has prevented progress. This is an important step towards addressing a wider range of applications within the mature silicon-photonics platforms around the world.”

“To date, efforts to achieve second-order nonlinear effects in silicon have focused on hard material-science problems,” Orcutt adds. “The [MIT] team has been extremely clever by reminding the physics community what we shouldn’t have forgotten. Applying a simple electric field creates the same basic crystal polarization vector that other researchers have worked hard to create by far more complicated means.”

February 20, 2017 | More

Advanced silicon solar cells

As the world transitions to a low-carbon energy future, near-term, large-scale deployment of solar power will be critical to mitigating climate change by midcentury. Climate scientists estimate that the world will need 10 terawatts (TW) or more of solar power by 2030 — at least 50 times the level deployed today. At the MIT Photovoltaics Research Laboratory (PVLab), teams are working both to define what’s needed to get there and to help make it happen. “Our job is to figure out how to reach a minimum of 10 TW in an economically and environmentally sustainable way through technology innovation,” says Tonio Buonassisi, associate professor of mechanical engineering and lab director.

Their analyses outline a daunting challenge. First they calculated the growth rate of solar required to achieve 10 TW by 2030 and the minimum sustainable price that would elicit that growth without help from subsidies. Current technology is clearly not up to the task. “It would take between $1 trillion and $4 trillion of additional debt to just push current technology into the marketplace to do the job, and that’d be hard,” says Buonassisi. So what needs to change?

Using models that combine techno­logical and economic variables, the researchers determined that three changes are required: reduce the cost of modules by 50 percent, increase the conversion efficiency of modules (the fraction of solar energy they convert into electricity) by 50 percent, and decrease the cost of building new factories by 70 percent. Getting all of that to happen quickly enough — within five years — will require near-term policies to incentivize deployment plus a major push on technological innovation to reduce costs so that government support can decrease over time.

Making strides on efficiency

Major gains are already being made on the conversion efficiency front — both at the MIT PVLab and around the world. One especially promising technology is the passivated emitter and rear cell (PERC), which is based on low-cost crystalline silicon but has a special “architecture” that captures more of the sun’s energy than conventional silicon cells do. While costs must be brought down, the technology promises to bring a 7 percent increase in efficiency, and many experts predict its widespread adoption.

But there’s been a problem. In field tests, some modules containing PERC solar cells have degraded in the sun, with conversion efficiency dropping by fully 10 percent in the first three months. “These modules are supposed to last 25 years, and within just weeks to months they’re generating only 90 percent as much electricity as they’re designed for,” says Ashley Morishige, postdoc in mechanical engineering. That behavior is perplexing because manufacturers thoroughly test the efficiency of their products before releasing them. In addition, not all modules exhibit the problem, and not all companies encounter it. Interestingly, it took up to a few years before individual companies realized that other companies were having the same problem. Manufacturers came up with a variety of engineering solutions to deal with it, but its exact cause remained unknown, prompting concern that it could recur at any time and could affect next-generation cell architectures.

To Buonassisi, it seemed like an opportunity. His lab generally focuses on basic materials problems at the wafer and cell level, but the researchers could equally well apply their equipment and expertise to modules and systems. By defining the problem, they could support the adoption of this energy-efficient technology, helping to bring down materials and labor costs for each watt of power generated.

Working closely with an industrial solar cell manufacturer, the MIT team undertook a “root-cause analysis” to define the source of the problem. The company had come to them for help with the unexpected degradation of their PERC modules and reported some odd trends. PERC modules stored in sunlight for 60 days with their wires connected into a closed loop lost no more efficiency than conventional solar cells typically do during their break-in period. But modules stored in sunlight with open circuits degraded significantly more. In addition, modules made from different silicon ingots displayed different power-loss behavior. And, as shown in Figure 1 in the slideshow above, the drop in efficiency was markedly higher in modules made with cells that had been fabricated at a peak temperature of 960 degrees Celsius than in those containing cells fired at 860 C.

Subatomic misbehavior

Understanding how defects can affect conversion efficiency requires understanding how solar cells work at a fundamental level. Within a photoreactive material such as silicon, electrons exist at two distinct energy levels. At the lower level, they’re in the “valence band” and can’t flow; at the higher level, they’re in the “conduction band” and are free to move. When solar radiation shines onto the material, electrons can absorb enough energy to jump from the valance band to the conduction band, leaving behind vacancies called holes. If all is well, before the electrons lose that extra energy and drop back to the valence band, they travel through an external circuit as electric current.

Generally, an electron or hole has to gain or lose a set amount of energy to move from one band to the other. (Although holes are defined as the absence of electrons, physicists view both electrons and holes as “moving” within semiconductors.) But sometimes a metal impurity or a structural flaw in the silicon provides an energy “state” between the valence and conduction bands, enabling electrons and holes to jump to that intermediate energy level — a move achieved with less energy gain or loss. If an electron and hole both make the move, they can recombine, and the electron is no longer available to pass through the external circuit. Power output is lost.

The PVLab researchers quantify that behavior using a measure called lifetime — the average time an electron remains in an excited state before it recombines with a hole. Lifetime critically affects the energy conversion efficiency of a solar cell, and it is “exquisitely sensitive to the presence of defects,” says Buonassisi.

To measure lifetime, the team — led by Morishige and mechanical engineering graduate student Mallory Jensen — uses a technique called lifetime spectroscopy. It involves shining light on a sample or heating it up and monitoring electrical conductivity during and immediately afterward. When current flow goes up, electrons excited by the added energy have jumped into the conduction band. When current drops, they’ve lost that extra energy and fallen back into the valence band. Changes in conductivity over time thus indicate the average lifetime of electrons in the sample.

Locating and characterizing the defect

To address the performance problems with PERC solar cells, the researchers first needed to figure out where in the modules the primary defects were located. Possibilities included the silicon surface, the aluminum backing, and various interfaces between materials. But the MIT team thought it was likely to be in the bulk silicon itself.

To test that assumption, they used partially fabricated solar cells that had been fired at 750 C or at 950 C and — in each category — one that had been exposed to light and one that had been kept in the dark. They chemically removed the top and bottom layers from each cell, leaving only the bare silicon wafer. They then measured the electron lifetime of all the samples. As shown in Figure 2 in the slideshow above, with the low-temperature pair, lifetime is about the same in the light-exposed and unexposed samples. But with the high-temperature pair, lifetime in the exposed sample is significantly lower than that in the unexposed sample.

Those findings confirm that the observed degradation is largely attributable to defects that are present in the bulk silicon and — when exposed to light — affect lifetime, thus conversion efficiency, in cells that have been fired at higher temperatures. In follow-up tests, the researchers found that by reheating the degraded samples at 200 C for just an hour, they could bring the lifetime back up — but it dropped back down with re-exposure to light.

So how do those defects interfere with conversion efficiency, and what types of contaminants might be involved in their formation? Two characteristics of the defects would help the researchers answer those questions. First is the energy level of the defect — where it falls between the valence and conduction bands. Second is the “capture cross section,” that is, the area over which a defect at a particular location can capture electrons and holes. (The area might be different for electrons than for holes.)

While those characteristics can’t easily be measured directly in the samples, the researchers could use a standard set of equations to infer them based on lifetime measurements taken at different illumination intensities and test temperatures. Using samples that had been fired at 950 C and then exposed to light, they ran lifetime spectroscopy experiments under varying test conditions. With the gathered data, they calculated the energy level and capture cross section of the primary defect causing recombination in their samples. They then consulted the literature to see what elements are known to exhibit those characteristics, making them likely candidates for causing the drop in conversion efficiency observed in their samples.

According to Morishige, the team has narrowed down the list of candidates to a handful of possibilities. “And at least one of them is consistent with much of what we’ve observed,” she says. In this case, a metal contaminant creates defects in the crystal lattice of the silicon during fabrication. Hydrogen atoms that are present combine with those metal atoms, making them electrically neutral so they don’t serve as sites for electron-hole recombination. But under some conditions — notably, when the density of electrons is high — the hydrogen atoms dissociate from the metal, and the defects become very recombination-active.

That explanation fits with the com­pany’s initial reports on their modules. Cells fired at higher temperatures would be more susceptible to light-induced damage because the silicon in them typically contains more impurities and less hydrogen. And performance would vary from ingot to ingot because different batches of silicon contain different concentrations of contaminants as well as hydrogen. Finally, baking the silicon at 200 C — as the researchers did — could cause the hydrogen atoms to recombine with the metal, neutralizing the defects.

Based on that possible mechanism, the researchers offer manufacturers two recommendations. First, try to adjust their manufacturing processes so that they can perform the firing step at a lower temperature. And second, make sure that their silicon has sufficiently low concentrations of certain metals that the researchers have pinpointed as likely sources of the problem.

Unintended consequences

The bottom line, observes Buonassisi, is that the very feature that makes the PERC technology efficient — the special architecture designed to capture solar energy efficiently — is what reveals a problem inherent in the fabricated material. “The cell people did everything right,” he says. “It’s the quintessential law of unintended consequences.” And if the problem is the higher density of excited electrons interacting with defects in the silicon wafer, then developing effective strategies for dealing with it will only get more important because next-generation device designs and decreasing wafer thicknesses will bring even higher electron densities.

To Buonassisi, this work demonstrates the importance of talking across boundaries. He advocates communication among all participants in the solar community — both private companies and research organizations — as well as collaboration among experts in every area — from feedstock materials to wafers, cells, and modules to system integration and module installation. “Our laboratory is taking active steps to bring together a community of stakeholders and create a vertically integrated R&D platform that I hope will enable us to more quickly address the technical challenges and help lead to 10 TW of PV by 2030,” he says.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Research Foundation Singapore through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

February 17, 2017 | More

Cheaper, faster randomized evaluations

Hospitals, governments, school systems, and many other institutions gather a wealth of data on individuals for operational purposes. MIT-based J-PAL North America recently launched a catalog of administrative datasets to provide researchers with clear information on data access and content, including costs and indicators. Together with J-PAL North America’s guide to using administrative data for randomized evaluations, this public catalog will support researchers in carrying out high-quality evaluations.

When equipped with safeguards for privacy, access to administrative data has the potential to reduce research costs, create opportunities for long-term follow-up on intervention impacts, and improve the accuracy of research. As J-PAL North America Executive Director Quentin Palfrey notes in a recent op-ed, access to administrative data can be transformational for researchers looking to conduct policy-relevant studies on key challenges in reducing poverty.

The catalog, which currently features 16 entries, includes datasets related to consumption, criminal justice, education, employment, and health care. This data has been collected at the national, state, and local level. The catalog will continue to grow as new datasets are added.

For those interested in having their organization’s dataset featured, or to provide feedback and requests for new entries, contact

February 17, 2017 | More

Researchers devise efficient power converter for internet of things

The “internet of things” is the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock will soon have sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and the coordination of tasks.

Those sensors will have to operate at very low powers, in order to extend battery life for months or make do with energy harvested from the environment. But that means that they’ll need to draw a wide range of electrical currents. A sensor might, for instance, wake up every so often, take a measurement, and perform a small calculation to see whether that measurement crosses some threshold. Those operations require relatively little current, but occasionally, the sensor might need to transmit an alert to a distant radio receiver. That requires much larger currents.

Generally, power converters, which take an input voltage and convert it to a steady output voltage, are efficient only within a narrow range of currents. But at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference last week, researchers from MIT’s Microsystems Technologies Laboratories (MTL) presented a new power converter that maintains its efficiency at currents ranging from 500 picoamps to 1 milliamp, a span that encompasses a 2,000,000-fold increase.

“Typically, converters have a quiescent power, which is the power that they consume even when they’re not providing any current to the load,” says Arun Paidimarri, who was a postdoc at MTL when the work was done and is now at IBM Research. “So, for example, if the quiescent power is a microamp, then even if the load pulls only a nanoamp, it’s still going to consume a microamp of current. My converter is something that can maintain efficiency over a wide range of currents.”

Paidimarri, who also earned doctoral and master’s degrees from MIT, is first author on the conference paper. He’s joined by his thesis advisor, Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

Packet perspective

The researchers’ converter is a step-down converter, meaning that its output voltage is lower than its input voltage. In particular, it takes input voltages ranging from 1.2 to 3.3 volts and reduces them to between 0.7 and 0.9 volts.

“In the low-power regime, the way these power converters work, it’s not based on a continuous flow of energy,” Paidimarri says. “It’s based on these packets of energy. You have these switches, and an inductor, and a capacitor in the power converter, and you basically turn on and off these switches.”

The control circuitry for the switches includes a circuit that measures the output voltage of the converter. If the output voltage is below some threshold — in this case, 0.9 volts — the controllers throw a switch and release a packet of energy. Then they perform another measurement and, if necessary, release another packet.

If no device is drawing current from the converter, or if the current is going only to a simple, local circuit, the controllers might release between 1 and a couple hundred packets per second. But if the converter is feeding power to a radio, it might need to release a million packets a second.

To accommodate that range of outputs, a typical converter — even a low-power one — will simply perform 1 million voltage measurements a second; on that basis, it will release anywhere from 1 to 1 million packets. Each measurement consumes energy, but for most existing applications, the power drain is negligible. For the internet of things, however, it’s intolerable.

Clocking down

Paidimarri and Chandrakasan’s converter thus features a variable clock, which can run the switch controllers at a wide range of rates. That, however, requires more complex control circuits. The circuit that monitors the converter’s output voltage, for instance, contains an element called a voltage divider, which siphons off a little current from the output for measurement. In a typical converter, the voltage divider is just another element in the circuit path; it is, in effect, always on.

But siphoning current lowers the converter’s efficiency, so in the MIT researchers’ chip, the divider is surrounded by a block of additional circuit elements, which grant access to the divider only for the fraction of a second that a measurement requires. The result is a 50 percent reduction in quiescent power over even the best previously reported experimental low-power, step-down converter and a tenfold expansion of the current-handling range.

“This opens up exciting new opportunities to operate these circuits from new types of energy-harvesting sources, such as body-powered electronics,” Chandrakasan says.

“This work pushes the boundaries of the state of the art in low-power DC-DC converters, how low you can go in terms of the quiescent current, and the efficiencies that you can achieve at these low current levels,” says Yogesh Ramadass, the director of power management research at Texas Instruments’ Kilby Labs. “You don’t want your converter to burn up more than what is being delivered, so it’s essential for the converter to have a very low quiescent power state.”

The work was funded by Shell and Texas Instruments, and the prototype chips were built by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, through its University Shuttle Program.

February 17, 2017 | More

“Discrimination affects us all”

Aerospace engineer Aprille Joy Ericsson ’86, a mission manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and an alumna of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, recalled Wednesday how a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. affected a Hollywood actress’s career decision — and in turn helped to inspire Ericsson and many others of her generation to enter the world of aerospace engineering.

Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series, was not under contract, Ericsson explained in her keynote talk at MIT’s 43rd annual celebration of King’s life and work. “King shared with her that Star Trek was one of the few TV shows he would let his children watch, primarily because of her role as chief technical officer on the Starship Enterprise,” which was so different than most portrayals of African-American women on television. After her conversation with King, Nichols reconsidered her plans to leave the show. She went on to provide a role model that Ericsson said helped propel her and many others into a career in the space program.

“Space travel has become a routine part of our daily lives,” though it remains a dangerous occupation, Ericsson said. Recalling the daring commitment that President John F. Kennedy made, launching the U.S. toward landing on the moon, “I believe that challenge is before us again,” she said.

Ericsson graduated from MIT just four months after the first space shuttle disaster, the Challenger accident in 1986. She earned her doctorate at Howard University and soon after went to work for NASA. “I followed my dream to explore space,” she says. But that road was not without its obstacles. “Discrimination affects us all,” she said. And yet, “inclusion of women and minorities” in working teams of all kinds, “is imperative. When I work with science and engineering teams, I know that each one on that team is important.”

“We scientists are agents of change,” she said. “Let’s embrace [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry’s vision of diversity in space. We must work together across the differences of skin color, gender, and religion. … We are making this journey together, in a drive to make this world a better place.”

Ericsson suggested that people should think of their lives as if they were governed by an imaginary bank, which each day credits us with 86,400 seconds, or one day’s worth — but wipes out the balance at the end of the day. Make use of that time, and remember that it’s fleeting, she said: “I say, invest it! Please make the most of today and every day.”

“We’re all capable of making an impact,” she said, quoting King’s statement: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, speaking to the MLK celebration audience, described a number of steps the Institute has taken in the last year to “make our community stronger and more inclusive.” These include the creation of a new Academic Council Working Group on Community, the recruitment of new specialists in multicultural mental health care, new sessions on diversity added to undergraduate orientation, and an increase of more than 10 percent in student aid.

“We live in a moment when some fundamental assumptions seem to be in question — about how we should conduct ourselves as individuals and as a society,” he said. Given that, he said, it’s worth reiterating some “unwritten rules” that govern life in the MIT community.

“At MIT, when our community is at its best, racism, bigotry, and discrimination are out of bounds, period. Diminishing or excluding others because of their identity — whether race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, social class, nationality, or any other aspect — is unthinkable and unacceptable,” he said.

He added that “It’s also out of the question to bully others, period. Such behavior is simply beneath us — because we value each other as members of our community and respect each other as fellow human beings. Intellectually, we are a community where prejudice — prejudging — is anathema. In the MIT community I love, our personal interactions benefit when we behave as we do in our intellectual work: Assume less and ask more, to learn more. Refrain from jumping to conclusions on superficial evidence. And listen as closely and as much as we can.”

Reif said that “when people of many backgrounds work together to address big human challenges — whether it’s climate change or fresh water access or Alzheimer’s — they come to value each other as human beings, united in a struggle larger than themselves.”

Reflecting on the deep divisions facing this country today, Reif added that “The coming months and years may put great pressure on us as a community. Whatever we face together, it is of the utmost importance that MIT remains a place that can endure, and grow from, the challenge of dissenting views — a community that makes room for us all.”

The event also featured reflections on King’s legacy by senior Rasheed Auguste and graduate student Faye-Marie Vassel. Auguste described a three-step process for addressing injustice in the world. Step one is recognizing a particular injustice that troubles you, he said. For example, “2016 was especially difficult for a lot of people.” After the election, “the weight of hateful rhetoric and injustice took its toll. … Regardless of political position, my MIT needed healing and support on Nov. 9. … It hurts to see people you know suffer and not being able to tell them ‘It’ll be okay.’ Because even though it may be reassuring, it might not be true.”

The second step, he said, is to “find a community of change-makers. Chances are, your issue is not as unique as you think. You are not, and have never been alone in your pain.” He went on to describe his meetings with MIT leadership in seeking ways to improve the inclusiveness of the Institute — as a result of which, he said “I felt empowered in the process, like I had a valued contribution to making our ideas, our compromises, our solutions, real.”

The final step, Auguste said, is to carry out the list of actions developed in step two. “Step three is putting in the work to make the justice a reality. … This amazing mentality exists at MIT: If you want something, go chase it. And if it doesn’t exist yet, then make it. People really live by this. So if you want justice, you have to chase it, to fight for it. You cannot settle for ambivalence, indifference, or passivity.”

Vassel, a doctoral student in biology, described some of the challenges of her own background, as the product of an interracial immigrant couple. (Her father is from Uzbekistan and her mother is from Jamaica.) “Education in this country is still not equal and just for all.” She added, “I hope we all see the dangers of any political message that relies on dividing people. …Injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent action. Remember to lift your voice!”

The MLK celebration also included the presentation of this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards, which were given to Michael Beautyman, Catherine Gamon, Maryanne Kirkbride, Kristala Prather, Tremaan Robbins, Reginald Van Lee, and the Muslim Student Association.

February 16, 2017 | More

Putting data in the hands of doctors

Regina Barzilay is working with MIT students and medical doctors in an ambitious bid to revolutionize cancer care. She is relying on a tool largely unrecognized in the oncology world but deeply familiar to hers: machine learning.

Barzilay, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. She soon learned that good data about the disease is hard to find. “You are desperate for information — for data,” she says now. “Should I use this drug or that? Is that treatment best? What are the odds of recurrence? Without reliable empirical evidence, your treatment choices become your own best guesses.”

Across different areas of cancer care — be it diagnosis, treatment, or prevention — the data protocol is similar. Doctors start the process by mapping patient information into structured data by hand, and then run basic statistical analyses to identify correlations. The approach is primitive compared with what is possible in computer science today, Barzilay says.

These kinds of delays and lapses (which are not limited to cancer treatment), can really hamper scientific advances, Barzilay says. For example, 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. every year, but only about 3 percent enroll in clinical trials, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Current research practice relies exclusively on data drawn from this tiny fraction of patients. “We need treatment insights from the other 97 percent receiving cancer care,” she says.

To be clear: Barzilay isn’t looking to up-end the way current clinical research is conducted. She just believes that doctors and biologists — and patients — could benefit if she and other data scientists lent them a helping hand. Innovation is needed and the tools are there to be used.

Barzilay has struck up new research collaborations, drawn in MIT students, launched projects with doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, and begun empowering cancer treatment with the machine learning insight that has already transformed so many areas of modern life.

Machine learning, real people

At the MIT Stata Center, Barzilay, a lively presence, interrupts herself mid-sentence, leaps up from her office couch, and runs off to check on her students.

She returns with a laugh. An undergraduate group is assisting Barzilay with a federal grant application, and they’re down to the wire on the submission deadline. The funds, she says, would enable her to pay the students for their time. Like Barzilay, they are doing much of this research for free, because they believe in its power to do good. “In all my years at MIT I have never seen students get so excited about the research and volunteer so much of their time,” Barzilay says.

At the center of Barzilay’s project is machine learning, or algorithms that learn from data and find insights without being explicitly programmed where to look for them. This tool, just like the ones Amazon, Netflix, and other sites use to track and predict your preferences as a consumer, can make short work of gaining insight into massive quantities of data.

Applying it to patient data can offer tremendous assistance to people who, as Barzilay knows well, really need the help. Today, she says, a woman cannot retrieve answers to simple questions such as: What was the disease progression for women in my age range with the same tumor characteristics?

What a machine can see

Working closely with collaborators Taghian Alphonse, chief of breast radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH); Kevin Hughes, co-director of the Avon Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at MGH; and Constance Lehman, the chief of the breast imaging division at MGH, Barzilay intends to bring data science into clinical research nationwide. But first, she’s content with connecting her world with theirs.

Barzilay’s work in natural language processing (NLP) enables machines to search, summarize, and interpret textual documents, such as those about cancer patients in pathology reports. Using NLP tools, she and her students extracted clinical information from 108,000 reports provided by area hospitals. The database they’ve created has an accuracy rate of 98 percent. Next she wants to incorporate treatment outcomes into it.

For another study, Barzilay has developed a database that Hughes and his team can use to monitor the development of atypias, which help identify which patients are at risk of developing cancer later in life.

Machines are good at making predictions — “Why not throw all the information you have about a breast cancer patient into a model?” she says — but Barzilay is wary of having the recommendations arrive as highly complex, computational recommendations without explanation. Jointly with Tommi Jaakkola, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and graduate student Tao Lei, she is also developing interpretable neural models that can justify and explain the machine-based predictive reasoning.

Barzilay is also looking at how new tools can help do preventive work. Mammograms contain lots of information that may be hard for a human eye to decipher. Machines can detect subtle changes and are more capable of detecting low-level patterns. Jointly with Lehman and graduate student Nicolas Locascio, Barzilay is applying deep learning for automating analysis of mammogram data. As the first step, they are aiming to compute density and other scores currently derived by radiologists who manually analyze these images. Their ultimate goal is to identify patients who are likely to develop a tumor before it’s even visible on a mammogram, and also to predict which patients are heading toward recurrence after their initial treatment.

Ultimate success, Barzilay says, will involve drawing on computer science in unexpected ways, and pushing it in a variety of new health-related directions.

Outside her door, several of Barzilay’s students are talking ideas, hunching over laptops, and drinking coffee. An object set against the back wall resembles an odd coatrack. Guided by an idea from Taghian, six undergraduate students, led by graduate student Julian Straub, built a device that uses machine-learning to detect lymphedema, a swelling of the extremities that can be caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment. It can be disabling and incurable unless detected early. Because of their high cost, these machines — lymphometers — are rare in the U.S.; very few hospitals have them.

Students have created an affordable version. And they hope to start testing this device at MGH in a couple of months. “These students are doing amazing work,” says Barzilay. “These innovations will make a really big difference. It is an entry point. There is so much to do. We are just getting started.”

February 16, 2017 | More

Living sensors at your fingertips

Engineers and biologists at MIT have teamed up to design a new “living material” — a tough, stretchy, biocompatible sheet of hydrogel injected with live cells that are genetically programmed to light up in the presence of certain chemicals.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers demonstrate the new material’s potential for sensing chemicals, both in the environment and in the human body.

The team fabricated various wearable sensors from the cell-infused hydrogel, including a rubber glove with fingertips that glow after touching a chemically contaminated surface, and bandages that light up when pressed against chemicals on a person’s skin.

Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the group’s living material design may be adapted to sense other chemicals and contaminants, for uses ranging from crime scene investigation and forensic science, to pollution monitoring and medical diagnostics.

“With this design, people can put different types of bacteria in these devices to indicate toxins in the environment, or disease on the skin,” says Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science. “We’re demonstrating the potential for living materials and devices.”

The paper’s co-authors are graduate students Xinyue Liu, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eleonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk, and Shaoting Lin.

Infusing life in materials

Lu and his colleagues in MIT’s Synthetic Biology Group specialize in creating biological circuits, genetically reprogramming the biological parts in living cells such as E. coli to work together in sequence, much like logic steps in an electrical circuit. In this way, scientists can reengineer living cells to carry out specific functions, including the ability to sense and signal the presence of viruses and toxins.

However, many of these newly programmed cells have only been demonstrated in situ, within Petri dishes, where scientists can carefully control the nutrient levels necessary to keep the cells alive and active — an environment that has proven extremely difficult to replicate in synthetic materials.

“The challenge to making living materials is how to maintain those living cells, to make them viable and functional in the device,” Lu says. “They require humidity, nutrients, and some require oxygen. The second challenge is how to prevent them from escaping from the material.”

To get around these roadblocks, others have used freeze-dried chemical extracts from genetically engineered cells, incorporating them into paper to create low-cost, virus-detecting diagnostic strips. But extracts, Lu says, are not the same as living cells, which can maintain their functionality over a longer period of time and may have higher sensitivity for detecting pathogens.

Other groups have seeded heart muscle cells onto thin rubber films to make soft, “living” actuators, or robots. When bent repeatedly, however, these films can crack, allowing the live cells to leak out.

A lively host

Zhao’s group in MIT’s Soft Active Materials Laboratory has developed a material that may be ideal for hosting living cells. For the past few years, his team has come up with various formulations of hydrogel — a tough, highly stretchable, biocompatible material made from a mix of polymer and water. Their latest designs have contained up to 95 percent water, providing an environment which Zhao and Lu recognized might be suitable for sustaining living cells. The material also resists cracking even when repeatedly stretched and pulled — a property that could help contain cells within the material.

The two groups teamed up to integrate Lu’s genetically programmed bacterial cells into Zhao’s sheets of hydrogel material. They first fabricated layers of hydrogel and patterned narrow channels within the layers using 3-D printing and micromolding techniques. They fused the hydrogel to a layer of elastomer, or rubber, that is porous enough to let in oxygen. They then injected E. coli cells into the hydrogel’s channels. The cells were programmed to fluoresce, or light up, when in contact with certain chemicals that pass through the hydrogel, in this case a natural compound known as DAPG.

The researchers then soaked the hydrogel/elastomer material in a bath of nutrients which infused throughout the hydrogel and helped to keep the bacterial cells alive and active for several days.

To demonstrate the material’s potential uses, the researchers first fabricated a sheet of the material with four separate, narrow channels, each containing a type of bacteria engineered to glow green in response to a different chemical compound. They found each channel reliably lit up when exposed to its respective chemical.

Next, the team fashioned the material into a bandage, or “living patch,” patterned with channels containing bacteria sensitive to rhamnose, a naturally occurring sugar. The researchers swabbed a volunteer’s wrist with a cotton ball soaked in rhamnose, then applied the hydrogel patch, which instantly lit up in response to the chemical.

Finally, the researchers fabricated a hydrogel/elastomer glove whose fingertips contained swirl-like channels, each of which they filled with different chemical-sensing bacterial cells. Each fingertip glowed in response to picking up a cotton ball soaked with a respective compound.

The group has also developed a theoretical model to help guide others in designing similar living materials and devices.

“The model helps us to design living devices more efficiently,” Zhao says. “It tells you things like the thickness of the hydrogel layer you should use, the distance between channels, how to pattern the channels, and how much bacteria to use.”

Ultimately, Zhao envisions products made from living materials, such as gloves and rubber soles lined with chemical-sensing hydrogel, or bandages, patches, and even clothing that may detect signs of infection or disease.

This research was supported, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

February 15, 2017 | More

Safe at any speed

Yiou He is ready to get to full speed. On a recent weekend in California, she felt the thrill of victory: She and MIT classmates became the first to successfully shoot a levitating Hyperloop pod down a 1-mile vacuum tube during a SpaceX Hyperloop competition. “We proved our design worked,” she says with satisfaction.

Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk envisions the Hyperloop as the “fifth mode of transportation.” It’s a concept dreamed up by Musk that involves the delivery of people through a system of tubes maintained in a near-vacuum that connect major cities. Dramatically reducing air friction, the pods travel at close to the speed of sound, using low-energy propulsion systems.

Looking for ways to accelerate the development of a functional prototype, in 2015 Musk created an international competition challenging university students to design and build the best Hyperloop. In January of 2016, a group of MIT students beat out teams from 115 other universities and 20 countries to earn the Best Overall Design Award. Their victory set them on the road to their next task: to build a functional pod capable of safely shooting through a tunnel at hundreds of miles per hour.

The MIT Hyperloop Team pod flies through a mock Hyperloop tube at 90 kph during a recent SpaceX Hyperloop competition. Watch carefully, and you’ll see the wheel stops rotating, demonstrating that the pod achieved stable magnetic levitation.

Video: MIT Hyperloop Team

In Cambridge, He and the rest of the 35-person team — which includes students in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management — each worked more than 10 hours per week (sometimes much more) on the project while also attending classes and working on PhD theses and research work. They designed a small pod for 250 mph — and last May unveiled the first ever physical Hyperloop prototype in the world.

Last month, they showed up in California to give it a go. The MIT Hyperloop Team was one of only three of the 27 competing teams that passed a litany of safety and design tests, earning the right to run their pods on the Hyperloop track. Of these, the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) team earned the highest score overall. Technical University of Munich (Germany) secured the award for the fastest pod. MIT placed third overall and won an award for safety and reliability.

“This is an exciting project. And the competition is not a one-time thing,” says He. She adds that many of the current MIT team members will be moving on due to graduation. He, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is game to keep the pod work alive: “I’m ready to transfer knowledge to the next generation team.”

For Max Opgenoord, team captain and a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the recent SpaceX event was the culmination of an effort that dates back to June 2015. Opgenoord and four other students started the team just after the SpaceX competition was announced. At first, they met in classrooms late at night. Eventually, they attracted other students who felt the same way they did about the project.

“A whole new transportation system is both super exciting and necessary,” says Opgenoord. He says a key goal this weekend was to accomplish magnetic levitation of the pod. “Can we show levitation?” he asked before leaving. “That is what matters.” He is thrilled, upon return, to say, yes, they could.

“If you watch video, you can see that the wheel on the pod stops rotating at some point, showing that we have stable magnetic levitation,” says Opgenoord. He adds that TU Munich covered the longest distance, but they were using a wheeled pod. “Using magnetic levitation is much more efficient at higher speeds,” he says.

Speeds of 600 mph are envisioned for commuting between cities. In fact, the Hyperloop Pod Competition II at SpaceX this summer, which will be open to new and existing teams, is focused on a single criterion: maximum speed.

Opgenoord says the current MIT Hyperloop Team is signing off with the knowledge that in 2016, they unveiled the very best pod design — and now, they’ve built a safe and reliable pod that is both capable of magnetic levitation and imminently scalable. “Obviously, we wanted to come in first this weekend — but what we’ve accomplished is in reality worth more than the prizes.”

Meanwhile, He says there is more fun ahead. “We think it technically feasible to build a Hyperloop. You need a lot of political willpower and capital to do it, and that’s not something we’ve investigated — but technically, it is possible to do it. And that is just really cool.”

February 14, 2017 | More

Voice control everywhere

The butt of jokes as little as 10 years ago, automatic speech recognition is now on the verge of becoming people’s chief means of interacting with their principal computing devices.

In anticipation of the age of voice-controlled electronics, MIT researchers have built a low-power chip specialized for automatic speech recognition. Whereas a cellphone running speech-recognition software might require about 1 watt of power, the new chip requires between 0.2 and 10 milliwatts, depending on the number of words it has to recognize.

In a real-world application, that probably translates to a power savings of 90 to 99 percent, which could make voice control practical for relatively simple electronic devices. That includes power-constrained devices that have to harvest energy from their environments or go months between battery charges. Such devices form the technological backbone of what’s called the “internet of things,” or IoT, which refers to the idea that vehicles, appliances, civil-engineering structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock will soon have sensors that report information directly to networked servers, aiding with maintenance and the coordination of tasks.

“Speech input will become a natural interface for many wearable applications and intelligent devices,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, whose group developed the new chip. “The miniaturization of these devices will require a different interface than touch or keyboard. It will be critical to embed the speech functionality locally to save system energy consumption compared to performing this operation in the cloud.”

“I don’t think that we really developed this technology for a particular application,” adds Michael Price, who led the design of the chip as an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and now works for chipmaker Analog Devices. “We have tried to put the infrastructure in place to provide better trade-offs to a system designer than they would have had with previous technology, whether it was software or hardware acceleration.”

Price, Chandrakasan, and Jim Glass, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, described the new chip in a paper Price presented last week at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference.

The sleeper wakes

Today, the best-performing speech recognizers are, like many other state-of-the-art artificial-intelligence systems, based on neural networks, virtual networks of simple information processors roughly modeled on the human brain. Much of the new chip’s circuitry is concerned with implementing speech-recognition networks as efficiently as possible.

But even the most power-efficient speech recognition system would quickly drain a device’s battery if it ran without interruption. So the chip also includes a simpler “voice activity detection” circuit that monitors ambient noise to determine whether it might be speech. If the answer is yes, the chip fires up the larger, more complex speech-recognition circuit.

In fact, for experimental purposes, the researchers’ chip had three different voice-activity-detection circuits, with different degrees of complexity and, consequently, different power demands. Which circuit is most power efficient depends on context, but in tests simulating a wide range of conditions, the most complex of the three circuits led to the greatest power savings for the system as a whole. Even though it consumed almost three times as much power as the simplest circuit, it generated far fewer false positives; the simpler circuits often chewed through their energy savings by spuriously activating the rest of the chip.

A typical neural network consists of thousands of processing “nodes” capable of only simple computations but densely connected to each other. In the type of network commonly used for voice recognition, the nodes are arranged into layers. Voice data are fed into the bottom layer of the network, whose nodes process and pass them to the nodes of the next layer, whose nodes process and pass them to the next layer, and so on. The output of the top layer indicates the probability that the voice data represents a particular speech sound.

A voice-recognition network is too big to fit in a chip’s onboard memory, which is a problem because going off-chip for data is much more energy intensive than retrieving it from local stores. So the MIT researchers’ design concentrates on minimizing the amount of data that the chip has to retrieve from off-chip memory.

Bandwidth management

A node in the middle of a neural network might receive data from a dozen other nodes and transmit data to another dozen. Each of those two dozen connections has an associated “weight,” a number that indicates how prominently data sent across it should factor into the receiving node’s computations. The first step in minimizing the new chip’s memory bandwidth is to compress the weights associated with each node. The data are decompressed only after they’re brought on-chip.

The chip also exploits the fact that, with speech recognition, wave upon wave of data must pass through the network. The incoming audio signal is split up into 10-millisecond increments, each of which must be evaluated separately. The MIT researchers’ chip brings in a single node of the neural network at a time, but it passes the data from 32 consecutive 10-millisecond increments through it.

If a node has a dozen outputs, then the 32 passes result in 384 output values, which the chip stores locally. Each of those must be coupled with 11 other values when fed to the next layer of nodes, and so on. So the chip ends up requiring a sizable onboard memory circuit for its intermediate computations. But it fetches only one compressed node from off-chip memory at a time, keeping its power requirements low.

“For the next generation of mobile and wearable devices, it is crucial to enable speech recognition at ultralow power consumption,” says Marian Verhelst, a professor of microelectronics at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. “This is because there is a clear trend toward smaller-form-factor devices, such as watches, earbuds, or glasses, requiring a user interface which can no longer rely on touch screen. Speech offers a very natural way to interface with such devices.”

The research was funded through the Qmulus Project, a joint venture between MIT and Quanta Computer, and the chip was prototyped through the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company’s University Shuttle Program.

February 13, 2017 | More

New faculty strengthen, broaden MIT’s energy expertise

From mimicking the natural characteristics of photosynthesis in human-made solar energy systems, to modeling plasma behavior in fusion reactor designs, some of MIT’s newest faculty bring a wide array of energy expertise to the Institute. The latest issue of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) magazine, Energy Futures, gives an in-depth look at what drives four of them.

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen: What photovoltaics can learn from photosynthesis

Unlike human-made electric grids, the natural world’s energy-harvesting systems never experience blackouts. Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, is trying to learn from this natural talent for energy-making so she can change our energy systems for the better.

For Schlau-Cohen, this means starting with plants. Plants are the ultimate energy-users: The average global rate of photosynthesis is 130 terawatts — a level of energy-capture more than six times worldwide energy consumption. “Leaves absorb light throughout the visible spectrum, and they basically funnel all of that energy to a dedicated protein where electricity is generated,” Schlau-Cohen says. Plants’ ability to convert sunlight into electricity is two- to three-fold higher than that of a typical solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

With this in mind, Schlau-Cohen and her colleagues set out to unlock plants’ energy secrets. They began by studying the basic physics of plants, with the eventual goal of mimicking these natural characteristics in a human-made system. Through the MIT Center for Excitonics, Schlau-Cohen and her team are able to experiment with cutting-edge technology for bio-inspired artificial light-harvesting systems.

One of the most important takeaways from her study of plants isn’t the discovery of a single plant structure or chemical that makes natural energy processing so efficient, Schlau-Cohen says. It’s the economic choices represented by the operation of the system as a whole.

“I think that the big picture here is that nature has solved the intermittency problem,” says Schlau-Cohen. One of the major challenges for renewable energy is that two of its key sources — wind and sunlight — are intermittent. That variability proves a challenge for those who are trying to develop technology for harvesting energy from those sources. Schlau-Cohen gives the example of building solar PV systems. “Build a system to handle just the maximum amount of sunlight, and it’s going to sit idle for most of the time,” says Schlau-Cohen. “But build it to work best at the lowest level of sunlight, and in high-sun situations much of the light is unused.”

To deal with this challenge, the energy-harvesting pathways in plants are designed to strike a balance between being hardy enough to operate in full sunlight and finely tuned enough to make the most of low sunlight conditions. Increasing the amount of time the system can be active has economic advantages as well. Natural systems optimize by making sure their most energy-expensive machinery is always in use so that they can get the most out of it. “Through complicated feedback loops implemented in its molecular machinery, the system responds to changes in solar intensity,” says Schlau-Cohen. This responsiveness addresses the intermittency problem, while also ensuring that the plant structures that take the most energy to develop are used to their full potential.

Based on their new understanding of plants’ energy-harvesting pathways, Schlau-Cohen and her team are finding ways to control for different variables — creating biomass, for example, rather than protecting the system against too much sunlight. “If we rewire those pathways for optimizing biomass, we can get a 15 percent increase in biomass, or even 30 percent under some conditions,” she says.

As Schlau-Cohen tackles these issues at the forefront of energy knowledge, she finds a source of inspiration in her research community. When she made the decision to come to MIT, the students were a particular draw. “I think MIT students are the best of the best, not just in terms of their smarts, but in terms of their excitement about science,” she says. “That was something I could not turn down, because I felt like they would make me the best scientist I could be.” The students have not disappointed, providing both inspiration and fun — Schlau-Cohen’s very own source of renewable energy.

Rafael Jaramillo: Making new materials to energize today’s technologies

Rafael Jaramillo studied physics as an undergrad and graduate student, but at MIT — first as a postdoc and now as an assistant professor — his work has taken him in a slightly different direction. He’s now developing new materials and teaching materials science and engineering. During his career in engineering, one important lesson he’s learned is how to see new pathways for scientific discoveries that transcend, and often connect, research fields.

“I try to find where the connections are between the scope of science, what you’re capable of at a university, and what matters for energy applications such as solar photovoltaics,” Jaramillo says. As a postdoc, he worked with Tonio Buonassisi, an MIT professor in mechanical engineering who is an expert in solar photovoltaics. “I really appreciate the real-world education I got in Tonio’s group,” Jaramillo says. “It taught me how to be opportunistic — how to define projects where all of those factors come together, and you can find a way to help.”

Though photovoltaics isn’t Jaramillo’s only focus now, he’s carried this skill for finding opportunities for discovery throughout his studies and his early professorship. On the energy front, he now specializes in the study of semi­conductors and their use as new materials for improved energy devices, from batteries and microelectronics to photovoltaic systems.

Jaramillo knows that his interest in semiconductors is something of a departure from his training in fundamental physics. “Physics has in a way moved on,” he says. “It’s been several decades since departments have really taught semiconductors.” This well-studied class of materials, however, is seeing the dawn of a new era. In the low-carbon energy arena, scientists are constantly experimenting with new materials that will improve the economics and energy footprint of existing technologies, permitting critically needed increases in manufacturing along with cost reductions from economies of scale.

Different materials will address different scaling challenges in areas ranging from solar PV to computing to sustainable global development, but the fact that new materials are needed remains a constant, Jaramillo says. “We’re butting up against the limitations of the tried and true materials. That’s exciting because it means you get to dive in and think about new materials. And they’re all semiconductors.”

As Jaramillo works to develop new materials, he is also seeking new ways to inspire students to study one of the most classic (and deceptively basic) topics in science: thermo­dynamics, the subject of an introductory course he teaches to undergraduates. “Thermodynamics is almost the core of materials science,” he says. “It allows you to make predictions about how to process materials and get desired products.” This importance, though, is sometimes lost in traditional ways of teaching the subject. “There are canonical examples, like the invention of steel and the invention of stainless steel, but I tend to focus more on microelectronics and semiconductors,” he says. “You can find great canonical examples of thermodynamics in action from not just 60, 70, 80 years back, but in the last 10 years, 20 years, and today. I like to reach for those.”

According to Jaramillo, it all comes down to being open to new ways of looking at the world, and the applied sciences are a critical part of that. “I think a lot of the great, deep insights have come out of applied research throughout history,” he says. “Einstein came up with relativity by looking at train tables and asking very practical questions about how you synchronize train arrival and departure times across Europe. That sounds pretty boring in the wrong hands. So I think that use-inspired research and going in multiple directions from there is the most rewarding way to do science.”

David Hsu: Planning cities for sustainable living

“Climate change, climate change, climate change.” Assistant Professor David Hsu in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning has no hesitation naming what he considers the most significant challenge facing urban planners today. Threats to cities range from sea-level rise to extreme weather events. But for Hsu, the immediate challenge is to address climate change itself by finding ways to make cities and their inhabitants consume resources like energy and water more efficiently.

Tackling particular sectors can affect climate on a global scale. Hsu says, “If you take just U.S. buildings as a single country, it would be the third-biggest carbon emitter on the planet after the rest of the U.S. economy and China.” Accordingly, a number of Hsu’s current projects involve how to make built environments, both urban and rural, more sustainable. He’s collaborating with fellow researchers at MIT and elsewhere on a wide range of projects including smart infrastructure embedded in physical systems, regulatory policies that promote renewables, and deployment of experimental microgrids in India.

One of the most effective ways to cut down on building energy use, though, is to target the behavior of those inhabiting the buildings. In order to understand humans’ energy behavior and how to change it, researchers need data. One of Hsu’s new projects involves integrating programs, policies, and technologies to enable the moni­toring of energy flows between buildings and the grid. This setup would enable greater grid stability — a prospect that Hsu and his fellow researchers hope will attract the attention of today’s utilities. That information would also enable researchers to map out energy distribution and consumption, which in turn would help them understand better how to shape that consumption to minimize carbon emissions and energy use, he says. Sometimes, one of the most direct ways to encourage people to consume less is simply to share such data with them. Once consumers see how they’re using energy, they can make informed decisions about where they could make changes.

Hsu took a self-described “long, tortuous educational path,” one that he laughingly tells students never to replicate. This path led from under­graduate and master’s degrees in physics to a PhD in urban planning and design. His post-graduation jobs ranged from green-building engineering to real estate finance, and eventually brought him to city government. His first job in city planning was in New York City working to rebuild Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, Hsu has worked in cities from Philadelphia to Seattle to London. This rich, varied experience with city living has led Hsu to his current focus on human interaction with infrastructure, as well as the challenges involved in adapting infrastructure to emerging climate constraints. Last spring he taught a course called Theories of Infrastructure, which compared alternative theories of how people interact with technological systems. Hsu enjoyed the students as much as the course content. “I had a diverse bunch of students who were really into the topic,” he says. “They were curious, interested, and we had great debates.”

Hsu’s membership on the MIT Energy Initiative’s Energy Education Task Force demonstrates his commitment to training leaders in all aspects of energy. But he especially focuses on preparing the urban planners of tomorrow to grapple with humans’ relationship with energy — a remarkably varied one, depending on where you live. “In many places, people have never had cheap, safe, and reliable electricity. One or two out of the three, maybe, but never all three,” Hsu says. Providing all three while also encouraging people worldwide to build sustainable ways of life is — in Hsu’s view — one of the great challenges facing city planners today.

Nuno Loureiro: In search of a more perfect fusion reactor

Nuno Loureiro, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, is particularly attuned to the inner movement of complex systems. Much of his research on plasma theory and modeling concerns turbulence and magnetic reconnection, two phenomena that disrupt the operation of nuclear fusion reactors.

To Loureiro, MIT itself represents a fascinating system — one he’s been exploring since he joined the faculty in January 2016. “It’s great to be in an environment where the system will respond at the level you want,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to find an institution where there is a perfect resonance between what you want, the rhythm you want for your own research, and the institution itself. And MIT does this. MIT will basically respond to whatever you throw at it.”

What drew Loureiro to plasma physics, he says, was energy. “If one is not naïve about today’s world and today’s society, one has to understand that there is an energy problem. And if you’re a physicist, you have the tools to try and do something about it.”

Fusion reactors, with their potential to provide continuous, greenhouse gas emissions-free energy, are one answer to the problem. A working fusion reactor gleans its energy from the organized movement of plasma, a hot ionized gas, along tracks formed by magnetic bands within the reactor, similar to the way the solar plasma on the surface of the sun moves along paths dictated by the sun’s magnetic field. Loureiro, who specializes in plasma as it relates to both reactor physics and astrophysics, knows the details of this parallel well. Sometimes the magnetic field lines on the sun’s surface rearrange themselves, and the resulting “violent phenomenon” of energy release is a solar flare, Loureiro says.

Something similar can take place within fusion reactors. A reactor’s plasma occasionally will spontaneously reconfigure the prescribed magnetic field, inducing instabilities that may abruptly terminate the experiment. In addition, fusion reactor plasmas tend to be in a turbulent state. Both effects hinder the reactor’s ability to operate.

Loureiro uses theoretical calculations and supercomputer modeling to try to figure out what causes those phenomena and what can be done to avoid them in future experiments. He says, “When someone proposes a new concept for a fusion reactor, or when one is planning new experiments on existing machines, one of the things you have to think about is, how will the plasma in it behave?” His simulations use several theoretical approaches to tackle such questions. He notes that his simulations are not meant to be prescriptive, which would require a high level of complexity and realism. “My approach is at a more fundamental level,” he says. “I take very complex phenomena and try to understand them by reducing them to the simplest possible system that still captures the essential physics of those phenomena.”

Loureiro looks forward to continuing to involve more students in his research. In his lab and in the classroom, he already works with both undergraduate and graduate physics students. He is currently teaching a numerical methods class for graduate students in nuclear science and engineering, and an undergraduate introductory seminar on plasma physics and fusion energy. “One of the things that has impressed me most about MIT is how talented the students are,” Loureiro says. “People told me, ‘Oh, the students are just amazing.’ But I don’t think I expected just how amazing they are.”

He feels the same esteem for his fellow researchers. “It’s inspirational to be on the same campus as people in completely different areas from mine who are world leaders in their fields,” he says. “That’s something that is unique to MIT and that I find incredibly motivating.”

He’s also inspired by the vibrant environment of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). “I feel that some of the most interesting ideas in fusion right now are being explored at the PSFC,” he says. “It’s great to be an active part of that excitement.”

Hundreds of MIT faculty members collaborate with MITEI. To learn more about their work, visit MITEI’s research page.

February 7, 2017 | More