Maria Zuber is vice president for research and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. She oversees a dozen of MIT’s largest research centers and is responsible for research administration and policy. Spectrum asked her to explain how MIT digs into the world’s most complex problems.

We face massive hurdles—climate change, the pressing need for clean energy and clean water, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease. How is MIT positioned to solve these challenges?

MZ: We have a number of things going for us. First, we have great people who are attracted to problems because they are hard. Students who come to MIT are very bright, and tend to have a strong social conscience, fully expecting to change the world. And we have a reputation for excellence. If we aren’t going to do a world-class job, we don’t get involved. And we have the ability to work across disciplinary boundaries.

For example, the development of radar, which was instrumental in winning World War II, brought together MIT researchers from physics and engineering. Today, at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, biology is meshing with chemical engineering, biological engineering, materials science, chemistry. We’re thinking not only about the basic science of cancer, why cells go wrong and the process of metastasis, but also about engineering solutions, like delivering drugs to tumors. Another example is our Environmental Solutions Initiative. All of the seed proposals recently announced have investigators from more than one MIT school collaborating. And part of our history and part of our success is building partnerships.

Could you elaborate on these partnerships?

MZ: We’re most interested in inventing the future, the next big discovery. Once you acquire knowledge, you wish to use it to find a solution to a problem. Then you want to get that solution to market, so you’ve got to scale it up. By collaborating with industry we more effectively transmit our ideas into the outside world. Also important is having international reach. We collaborate in different places of the world with industry, as well as academia and government, on problems that are crying out for solutions. It’s important to get out and interact with people across the world, understand their real needs, their cultural settings. That won’t happen by staying in Cambridge.

Does asking big questions to solve big problems begin with fundamental research?

MZ: In this country, in research universities, and in industry, we have long been fortunate to have an ever-growing base of fundamental knowledge to draw on to design solutions. Eroding federal support and a shift to emphasize applied research are therefore matters of great concern. When we answer important basic questions, it is sometimes possible to apply the answers to new problems. In exploratory science, sometimes you find what you’re looking for easily, sometimes not. Often there are happy surprises, but they can’t be predicted. Society is now benefiting from the knowledge gained from basic research questions asked decades ago. Advances in basic physics led to GPS and the iPhone. But the researchers who made those discoveries certainly didn’t have those things in mind at the time.

What will it take to solve the world’s massive, interconnected problems?

MZ: In 35 years, we’ll need to feed 9.6 billion people; the problem seems intractable. The way to proceed is to break it down into pieces you can solve. Think about what can you do to feed one more person. What can you do to feed people in a local area? What can you do to feed people in a larger region? Part of this challenge is a biology problem, part a water management problem, part a logistics problem, part a human behavior problem. It doesn’t seem nearly so daunting when you look at it in this way.

Do you think we can solve these huge problems in time?

MZ: I’m optimistic. Having to find solutions to urgent problems is a great motivating factor. Things that seem impossible today won’t always seem that way. In 1950, sending humans to the moon was viewed as impossible. But in 1969, it happened. Although needing to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050 sounds today like a daunting challenge, if we can just make a handful of key discoveries, we’ll change the game.

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