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Mindy Bishop. Photo: Sarah Bastille Photography

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

The Art and Science of Staying Grounded

Mindy Bishop finds connections between artificial intelligence, sustainable energy, and patient care

Mindy Bishop. Photo: Sarah Bastille Photography

“In electrical engineering, I often find myself marveling at the simple concept of a switch—which is essentially what transistors are, the tiny devices that computing systems are made of,” says Mindy D. Bishop, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. “It is truly awe-inspiring how something so simple can be leveraged, through many layers of abstraction, to do so many different things, from typing an email to video conferencing to harnessing sophisticated artificial intelligence.”

Bishop’s journey through academia contains multiple flips of myriad switches. Not many MIT PhD students will tell you they struggled with algebra in high school, didn’t take a science class until attending community college, and originally pursued a career as a jazz bassist. But Bishop’s path is not exactly conventional. After navigating abuse and the psychological consequences of trauma during her early music career, she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which piqued her interest in science as she investigated the chemical dynamics of her own brain.

“Since the scientific concepts behind my diagnosis were new to me, I realized that I really didn’t know anything about the physical world at all,” Bishop recalls. “And slowly, everything I saw turned into a mystery. The ways that cars work, how I could hear someone’s voice on my cell phone over a distance, electricity, what cancer is, and why our bodies are so strange inside. I wanted to know all of it.” She ended up enrolling in intermediate algebra and introductory chemistry at a community college and eventually graduated with a joint degree in bioengineering and materials science and engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. “Studying science allowed me to train my mind in a way that was consistent, grounding, and incredibly spiritual.”

The freedom to be creative

While considering graduate schools, Bishop describes feeling most “at home” with the people of HST, which is distinctive for its curriculum for engineers and scientists who are developing patient-centric innovations to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. “While interviewing, I felt like I could be more expansive about the things I was thinking about and choose what to study on the science and engineering side, while still getting the medical training,” she explains. “I like that it spans the entire spectrum, from caring for individual patients in the hospital to developing new technology in any field that could have broad implications for all of humanity.”

That potential for expansive thinking means that Bishop will be equipped to pursue a number of different paths when she receives her PhD. In June 2020, she was a lead author on a paper published in Nature wherein she and her collaborators in the lab of Max Shulaker, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, demonstrated that carbon nanotube transistors can be made swiftly in commercial facilities with the same equipment used to manufacture silicon-based transistors, which are the backbone of the computing industry. Since carbon nanotube transistors and the 3-D architectures that they enable promise substantial gains in computing performance over their silicon counterparts, the implications are huge for individual consumers and industry giants alike.

This recent study is just one facet of Bishop’s research and one example of nanotech at work. In 2020, she received one of the first fellowships from the MIT-Takeda Program, which was designed to fuel the development and application of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to benefit human health and drug development. “The beauty of working on emerging nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes is that we’re constantly finding ways to use their properties in new ways,” Bishop says. “We are just beginning our investigation of this new terrain.”

In this sea of possibilities, she says, the freedom that a fellowship affords is important. “Fellowship funding allowed me more freedom to take time to really think about the best way to proceed,” she says.

Making connections for a better world

What do semiconductors have to do with patient care and the human condition at large? A lot, according to Bishop. “Today, technology is intimately and exponentially connected to our everyday lives,” she says. “I wonder how we can learn from how massively lucrative and transformative the semiconductor industry has become to help solve some of our biggest problems.”

Those problems range from overarching threats like climate change, but also, in Bishop’s eyes, how we care for individuals in a medical and spiritual sense. “We have billions of amazing, beautiful people on the planet to take care of in all senses of the word. We have everything we need to do it; we just have to clean up some of the messes we’ve made along the way and use everything we know to come full circle to something sustainable.”

Graduate students at MIT are performing much of this research. “If someone is considering funding a graduate fellowship at MIT, I would encourage them to do it,” Bishop says. “We will do the work.”

Spatial and categorization loss in a deep neural network. Image: Kris Brewer

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

Modeling a Visionary Future

Hyodong “Hyo” Lee builds brain-inspired neural networks to help machines see like humans

Spatial and categorization loss in a deep neural network. Image: Kris Brewer

The way the brain processes sensory information, especially visual input, determines so much of the human experience. When it comes to machine learning, the visual barrier is a tremendous hurdle to potential applications.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of James DiCarlo, head of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience, Hyodong Lee SM ’16, PhD ’20 worked toward building an AI model of the brain that acts like a human’s visual cortex. “I concentrated on two things: making computational models more brain-like so we can bridge the gap between models and brains, and using those models to further our understanding of how the brain works,” she explains. “So far, I’ve been focused on the former—building topographic models that can reproduce phenomena we see in the higher visual cortex—and the future direction of my work will be on the latter.”

This rapidly evolving field has changed significantly since Lee started as a graduate student at MIT in 2013. “Before, researchers would use more rudimentary computational models,” she explains, “but now we’re using AI models to gather and interpret data.” As data builds on itself, it makes it easier for more advanced models to be built, and the cycle continues. What is it building toward? “A comprehensive spatial mapping of the brain, especially the visual cortex,” she says. “This line of research is important in computational neuroscience as it furthers the understanding of brain. It will also be critical from a brain-machine interface perspective as models become more brain-like.” Now, as a software engineer at Google Research, Lee’s mission is to enable machines to understand and describe video at a human level.

Freedom to pursue solutions

“When I was a little kid, I always enjoyed problem solving, especially mathematical problems,” Lee says. This interest led her to move from her native South Korea as an undergraduate to major in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University. “I was actually not originally interested in the brain. I didn’t know any neuroscience before I joined MIT,” she says. “I came here to pursue systems biology or synthetic biology, but I was open to different fields as long as they incorporated some modeling. I ended up doing a rotation at the DiCarlo lab and became fascinated with bridging the gap between AI models and neuroscience.”

As a doctoral candidate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Lee was supported by the Lore Harp McGovern Fellowship, which made a tangible difference in her research. “Having a fellowship during my PhD program helped me in multiple ways,” she says. “It made it so I could focus more on the research instead of finding funding. But more importantly, funding gives you freedom in exploring different research areas. If you get funding from other sources, you typically have to stick to the plan that you originally proposed,” she explains. “But research is not always like that. Sometimes different ideas pop up. The fellowship gave me a lot of freedom, and it really helped.”

“Humans are the best resources”

Lee chose MIT for her graduate work over other schools because of the diversity among and collaboration between different research areas. “I knew that MIT had a good environment, especially for computational biology. I knew that if my research interests changed, I would have other good options.” That ended up being exactly what happened when she found the DiCarlo lab.

Although MIT’s computing resources are extensive, and, with the founding of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing in 2019, growing in revolutionary ways, Lee sees the community of people as the Institute’s most attractive trait. “At MIT, humans are the best resources,” she says. “Collaboration is encouraged between different labs. During my time here, no one has hesitated to collaborate or give advice.” In her long career at MIT, the importance of fellowship funding has become clear. “It really helps in exploring different research ideas and executing those ideas in the lab and the real world, so that these concepts will eventually benefit society,” she says. “A fellowship is about contributing to the science. And that is a really cool thing.”

MBA student Brittny Chong pitches her startup ONA at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2019. Photo: Courtesy Brittny Chong

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

A Passion for Positive Change

Brittny Chong seeks social action through immersive technologies and data analytics

MBA student Brittny Chong pitches her startup ONA at the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2019. Photo: Courtesy Brittny Chong

Why do people make the choices they do? MIT Sloan School of Management student Brittny Chong has pondered that question for a long time. “I’ve always been interested in understanding behavior,” she says. “I want to find new ways to help people make better decisions.”

As a pre-med and Asian Languages and Civilization undergraduate at Amherst College, Chong explored these ideas and other wide-ranging interests. After college, she embarked on an unconventional career path that included practicing social work in New York City, studying traditional Chinese medicine at a hospital in Yunnan, China, and product development and management consulting at Deloitte.

At Deloitte, Chong worked in immersive technology, leading the design and development of a product that used virtual reality to help executives understand their implicit biases. She continued on to work in Deloitte’s Digital Reality practice as the head of product for a consolidated platform that solves the major challenges of enterprise adoption for augmented, virtual, and mixed reality tools. “For companies, there are four hurdles to adopting a new technology like that,” she explains. “Device management, meaning you have to buy tons of equipment; content management, because you have to keep it updated; learning management, which requires integrating it into your existing systems so people will really adopt it; and analytics, so that you can prove to your boss that it’s worth the money!”

Chong’s team developed a one-stop-shop product so that customers wouldn’t need four different vendors to meet those four challenges, and with those two intrapreneurial products she raised a combined $550,000, ran live pilots of the solutions, and created sales pipelines before leaving the firm. From these experiences, “I caught the entrepreneurial bug,” she says.

Throughout the professional twists and turns, one thing was clear: “I’ve always been focused on innovation, even when working for others in the public and private sectors,” she recalls. “I love to tinker and build solutions.”

With startups in mind, Chong sought to improve her technical skills and expand her network through graduate study. She designed a graduate experience that will cover all the bases of her curiosity by earning an MBA from MIT Sloan concentrating on entrepreneurship and innovation, and a master’s degree from the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program at Harvard University, concentrating on learner agency and cognitive science.

Receiving fellowship funding from MIT Sloan, including the Beatrice Ballini (1986) Fellowship, made coming to the Institute possible for Chong. “Money was not a trivial consideration for me,” she says. The eldest of six children, most of whom live in her native Jamaica, she has supplemented her family’s income and education throughout her career. “Even taking time to go to school was a sacrifice and a family decision,” she explains. “The fellowship gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams.”

During her first year at MIT Sloan, Chong is proud to have cofounded three startups. The first is an app called ONA, which means “ownership” in Jamaican Patois. ONA uses augmented reality to provide consumers with analytics that help them make more socially conscious spending decisions. “People talk nonstop about the things that frustrate them,” she says. “You can create a new form of protest through your dollar.” Chong is particularly interested in using the app to help consumers make choices that support climate action.

Her second startup, Two Breaths, was built on the Snapchat platform and uses machine learning and augmented reality to assist users with anxiety. “If you see something that triggers extreme stress, you can put on Snapchat Spectacle glasses that will shield the offensive object with a unique filter that is trained to calm you,” Chong explains.

Most recently, Chong has been incubating her third startup, WiRa Lab, which will apply machine learning analytics and interactive design to managing food waste. WiRa’s technology will identify which food products are commonly thrown out, allowing front-end food-service operators to receive data that will help them better forecast supply and demand. Chong and her cofounder and CTO, Abdalla Moustafa, also hope to transform this food waste into biofuel, creating a new economic driver for communities disproportionately impacted by climate change, like the island nations in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. “Their primary source of income is tourism,” she remarks. “They will be impacted first by climate change even if they’re not contributing to it at the same rate.”

Chong is pleased that her decision to attend graduate school led her to the tools and network needed to build the solutions she envisioned. “I came here to be an entrepreneur,” says Chong, “and I was one thrice over this past year. MIT Sloan provided all the guidance and mentorship I was hoping for and more.” While developing her startups, she has connected with MIT alumni all over the world.

Like everyone else, Chong had her life disrupted by Covid-19, but her immediate family in New York City was hit particularly hard. “My mother and stepfather, plus seven other relatives, were diagnosed with Covid-19,” she says. Two of her grandparents passed away from the virus, and Chong took a leave from school, with the full support of her professors, to help with their end-of-life care.

Chong is grateful that fellowship funding made studying at MIT Sloan possible, and looks forward to her final year in the program, after spending this academic year at Harvard. “The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT is unlike anywhere else.”

Isa Frankenthal's capstone report for the MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy examined the impact of female labor productivity on domestic violence in Peru. Photo: Christian Vinces/

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

Improving Lives, Through the Lens of Economics

Master’s program from the Department of Economics and J-PAL empowers a young Brazilian economist

Isa Frankenthal’s capstone report for the MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy examined the impact of female labor productivity on domestic violence in Peru. Photo: Christian Vinces/

When Isadora Frankenthal MASc ’20 was an undergraduate in economics at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, she began looking for ways to delve deeper into her favorite subject—development economics—and discovered the online MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP), offered by MIT’s Department of Economics and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). It would be a consequential step for Frankenthal, who was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, and sees the field of economics as a way to understand and improve human well-being.

After completing her bachelor’s degree concurrently with the DEDP MicroMasters, Frankenthal returned to Brazil and continued to build experience in the field, conducting research for an impact investment firm and coauthoring a study on the cost effectiveness of various cancer screening policies. She also applied to the DEDP master’s, to complete the journey she’d begun from Amsterdam, this time, on the MIT campus.

The innovative DEDP program is led by 2019 Nobel Prize recipients Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and Esther Duflo PhD ’99, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, and their colleague Benjamin Olken, director of J-PAL and the Jane Berkowitz Carlton and Dennis William Carlton Professor of Microeconomics. The master’s component, launched in 2020, is the first program of its kind for the MIT Department of Economics and the first at MIT to formally blend online and residential components. Frankenthal was thrilled to be accepted to the program as part of the first cohort and to receive a fellowship through the Vivian and Marcos Lederman–TVML Fellowship Fund.

Just a few weeks after she arrived in Cambridge in January 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded and the DEDP program, along with much of the Institute, switched to fully remote learning. Though she regrets the loss of in-person classes, Frankenthal credits MIT’s faculty with keeping students fully engaged and fostering a strong, interactive community.

“One of my favorite class was 14.750 Political Economy of Economic Development,” she recalls. In classes like 14.750, taught by Ben Olken, Frankenthal encountered the challenge that fascinates her most: identifying the specific factors and methods to illuminate complex social and economic issues. It was exciting, she says, to see faculty and students engaging in that process, together. “It’s always inspiring when somebody finds a really cool way to answer a question.” She also had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Olken, bridging the classroom experience with hands-on research experience.

“I’m really interested in the relationship between economic development and the well-being of women, a question that is especially relevant in the context of Brazil and other Latin-American countries,” Frankenthal says. Her capstone report examines the impact of female labor productivity on domestic violence in Peru. “When the harvesting and processing of a crop require care-intensive tasks, for example in the case of asparagus, women have a comparative advantage and therefore employers favor hiring female labor. My idea was to combine fluctuations in international prices for crops that favor female labor with information on where each crop is grown in order to zoom in on changes in female labor productivity that are ‘as good as random.’ This makes it possible to answer the question—does increasing women’s employment and wages reduce domestic violence?—in a causal way.”

She was curious to see if the research would yield evidence of a negative reaction to women’s economic empowerment. “I found that female labor productivity decreases domestic violence, which is good news,” she says, but adds that there’s much more to learn. “I want to continue working on this, to understand the underlying mechanisms.” She hopes her research will help to address domestic violence, which remains a pervasive problem globally, especially in developing countries, with heavy costs to individuals and economies.

Frankenthal’s experience is precisely what Marcos Lederman hoped to support when he established a fellowship for DEDP students through the Vivian and Marcos Lederman-TVML Foundation. Lederman, a philanthropist and financier from Brazil, has been deeply engaged in building higher education in his country. He sees MIT as an inspirational model for Brazilian institutions as they grow.

“MIT is a place that I have admired for a long time,” he says. Supporting the DEDP program was a natural choice, Lederman notes, because it “ticks many boxes” on his list of priorities: application of rigorous data science when dealing with public challenges, developing robust public policy on issues like poverty, increasing diversity in higher education, and “investing in people.” He is pleased to see the DEDP program empowering individuals like Frankenthal and, through them, delivering benefits to the world. “This is, for me, 100% within the MIT and TVML Foundation mission.”

Three years after Frankenthal logged on to her first DEDP online course from Amsterdam, she is preparing to apply to doctoral programs and is more determined than ever to pursue a career in economics. “We need more women economists and definitely more Latin American women in economics,” she notes. Her experience at MIT and in the DEDP program have given her a glimpse of what she can accomplish.

“I was inclined to do a PhD program before this,” she says. “I’m absolutely sure now.”

An early MicroMasters participant becomes a champion for today’s DEDP students

“The DEDP program is a wonderful way to expand the reach of MIT to the world,” says Paul Groepler, a technology consultant and founder of numerous startups. Groepler, who lives in Austin, Texas, was among the first participants in the DEDP MicroMasters program. He was pleased to provide a fellowship for a student in the first DEDP blended-masters cohort. This year, Groepler and other donors will provide at least one fellowship, and are encouraging others to join them in supporting future DEDP students. “I feel lucky to have been on the bleeding edge of this,” he says, and he’s excited to extend that opportunity, especially for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to MIT.

Much like the open platform of the MicroMasters, he observes, fellowships will open access to the master’s to talented people around the world and “equip them with tools to go and make a difference.”

The timing couldn’t be better, Groepler adds. With growing global needs for top-quality digital learning, MIT and the DEDP program are in “the perfect place at the perfect time.”

Photo: William Chambers Photography

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

The Freedom to Explore

Doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science bridges labs and disciplines to study human disease

Photo: William Chambers Photography

“Messy” isn’t a word often associated with science and engineering, where precision is paramount. But as Sebastian Pineda SM ’20, a third-year doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science, has found, the path of discovery isn’t always a straight line—and that’s a good thing.

“The process that led me to graduate school and MIT is a little messy,” Pineda explains. A native of Galveston, Texas, Pineda studied electrical engineering and neuroscience at Texas A&M, where he become interested in “working at the interface of electrical engineering and biology.” While a majority of engineering graduate students arrive at MIT with specific research plans, Pineda’s interests were still crystalizing. He knew he wanted to apply his engineering skill set to intriguing questions in biology, and that’s where a Lemelson Presidential Fellowship, which funded Pineda’s first year, provided him with an invaluable asset: “the freedom to explore,” he says.

After a careful search of MIT labs and projects, Pineda found his niche at two of the Institute’s most prestigious research centers: the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. His research focuses on developing experimental and computation tools to study neurodegeneration and aging at the single-cell level, work that bridges the disciplines of molecular biology and computer science. “I was moving into a completely new field,” he recalls, and the learning curve was steep, but “that’s what I was expecting, coming to MIT.” He hopes his work will lead to a clearer understanding of the mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“These are terrible diseases that are almost always fatal. They have no cure, and in many cases no therapy that would even improve a person’s quality of life. It’s a big problem and it affects a lot of people.” Neurodegenerative disease is “one of the modern challenges that we now have the tools to tackle.”

Pineda’s work falls within a new and growing area of molecular biology called single-cell genomics, a field he explains by placing it on the timeline of genomics history. Twenty years ago, says Pineda, the Human Genome Project opened up incredible opportunities “to explore the genetic landscape of an individual or a disease at the molecular level. We can now do that at the resolution of individual cells.” That capability could prove crucial in understanding a disease like ALS, which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. “This is a disease that will kill one very small and particular population of cells in the brain and leave everything else untouched,” says Pineda. “With these new single-cell resolution technologies, we can dissect the mechanisms of those specific populations at a resolution that we couldn’t before.” If successful, he says, research in single-cell genomics could speed the development of treatments, and even cures, for ALS and similar diseases.

Just as the combination of engineering and biology has enriched Pineda’s doctoral work, the contrasts between CSAIL and the Broad Institute have been valuable too. At the Broad, Pineda works in the lab of Myriam Heiman, the Latham Family Career Development Associate Professor of Neuroscience, “a very hands-on, experimental wet lab,” while at CSAIL, he works in the “purely computational, dry lab” of Manolis Kellis ’99, MEng ’99, PhD ’03, professor of computer science. The labs also differ in size and structure; one is small, with a lot of direct engagement with the principal investigator, while the other larger, with more mentorship among the students and scientists. “It’s been beneficial for me and my work to be able to experience both of those settings.” Though he has always leaned toward independent work, Pineda has been happy to discover an aptitude and appreciation for teamwork.

“One of the areas where MIT shines is that it’s very collaborative,” he says. “This is not something you see in many other places: two individuals from completely different fields will get together to solve a problem.” Their approaches, and even the questions they seek to answer, may differ, “but they recognize that by combining their skill sets, they can address previously insurmountable challenges.”

At the start of his doctoral work, Pineda took time to explore the options, and he’s doing that again as he considers career paths after he earns his PhD. For now, the specifics of that future remain open, but whatever direction his work takes, Pineda is confident that “the interface of engineering and biology” will continue to offer captivating challenges.

Ous Abou Ras. Photo: Olivier Faber

Inside the MIT Campaign for a Better World

Designing the Future

At MIT, a young architect finds the perfect platform for collaborative learning

Ous Abou Ras. Photo: Olivier Faber

As a young child, Ous Abou Ras loved going to work with his father, an architect, and poring over building plans. Originally from Syria, Abou Ras grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and has always been drawn to building and design. “I used to love playing with LEGOs,” he recalls, “and initially I wanted to be an engineer.” Ultimately it was architecture, however, that integrated his interests in math and engineering with his appreciation for creative influences such as art and cultural history.

Abou Ras earned undergraduate degrees in architectural design and physics from the University of Toronto and today continues to add new influences to his work as a second-year graduate student in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). He is focusing on the emergent field of computational architecture.

“The best part about MIT is that every single person in my studio has a different background, a different focus of study, and something to share with the others,” says Abou Ras, who is this year’s recipient of the Carney Goldberg Fellowship, created by the family of MIT-trained architect Carney Goldberg ’29. The support of this fellowship, says Abou Ras, has made his MIT education possible.

Abou Ras and his SA+P classmates work in studio cohorts of approximately 30 students each, a structure that he says encourages community and a rich exchange of ideas. In the fall of 2019, his cohort’s first assignment was to create a performance space within the Emerald Necklace, a chain of connected parks designed by storied landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts. Abou Ras designed a computational method to divide the imagined space into a grid and then algorithmically populated the space with elements such as trees and benches. The result was an innovative co-creation by architect and machine.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abou Ras is spending the fall 2020 semester taking courses remotely from his family’s current home in Toronto, Canada. But he says classes such as 4.181 Architectural Design Workshop: Kintsugi, Upcycling, and Machine Learning, taught by SA+P faculty members Caitlin Mueller ’07, SM ’14, PhD ’14 and Daniel Marshall MA ’19, continue to expand his skills and spark his imagination. In this workshop, students combine computational modeling and design with Kintsugi, a Japanese art form in which broken fragments of pottery are reassembled into new shapes. The class perfectly suits Abou Ras’s interest in exploring the boundaries of traditional form and drawing inspiration from many disciplines. He notes that his personal influences range from writings in his own field, such as Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays by the architectural historian Robin Evans, to the magical realism of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude reminds Abou Ras that architecture is about more than structures; it has the power to profoundly shape people and their stories.

“Our cities are where we live, where we develop, where we evolve,” Abou Ras says. “The role of the architect [can be] to envision the city,” not only as it is but “what it might become.” This imaginative work is particularly important now, he says, as Covid-19 is profoundly impacting the lives of people around the world and may influence design solutions of the future—just as cholera once reshaped urban water and waste management.

Global warming is another force that presents compelling questions for architects, Abou Ras notes: How will humans survive rising sea levels? How can buildings become more adaptable to changing weather? And how can cities be made greener and more sustainable? Answering such questions will take the work of many minds, which is one reason Abou Ras is glad to be at MIT.

“MIT has this perfect collaborative platform where you can share, not only with your cohort in your studio, but also with individuals in different departments, [cultivating ] thoughts and ideas,” he says. Though architecture is rooted in technical rigor and precision, says Abou Ras, it is also “a very subjective field, and I think that the only way to learn in such a subjective field is to share as much as you can with others.”

Venkata Mandala PhD ’20. Photo: Courtesy of the Hong Lab

Global Health

Tiny Molecules, Big Impacts

Protein research by chemical biologist provides insights into flu, Covid-19

Venkata Mandala PhD ’20. Photo: Courtesy of the Hong Lab

Proteins provide useful targets for medicines to fight a wide variety of diseases. Knowing more about how these complex molecules function might even help scientists fight Covid-19. But that’s not the only reason that fundamental protein research is so interesting to Venkata Mandala PhD ’20.

Mandala’s fascination with proteins began in high school. He had joined a project called Folding@home in which researchers at Stanford University borrowed computational power from hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world for a cloud-computing project investigating how proteins fold into their three-dimensional structures.

“The question that they were asking—which is still an open question—is whether you can predict what a protein structure will look like based on the string of amino acids that makes it up,” Mandala explains. As he learned more about protein folding and watched protein structures pop up on his computer screen, he was hooked.

What is it about these complex molecules that Mandala finds so captivating? For him, the answer is simple. “Proteins are these tiny, molecular machines that do everything in your body, from holding together muscle cells to making sure your heart beats in a regular fashion to causing diseases. These tasks are all related to protein structure and folding,” he says. As a chemical biologist, Mandala uses physical chemistry techniques to investigate biological questions about the structure and function of proteins, including those essential to influenza viruses and coronaviruses such as Covid-19.

Fighting the flu

Influenza viruses cause influenza (or flu), a common yet potentially serious respiratory infection. Between 2018 and 2019, around 35.5 million people in the United States developed influenza and almost 34,200 died, with most infections caused by one of two strains: influenza A or influenza B. Historically, influenza A has been more common, causing 70% of infections, but in many cases its symptoms can be reduced by the antiviral drugs amantadine and rimantadine. These agents work by blocking M2, a type of protein that sits in the membrane of the virus and plays a key role in viral replication. More recently, however, influenza B has become more prevalent, and the usual antivirals don’t work against it in part because little is known about the structure or function of its analogous M2 protein, Mandala says.

To study M2, Mandala used a technique called solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (ssNMR) spectroscopy, which was adapted to proteins by his advisor Mei Hong, a professor of chemistry at MIT. “Basically, we have these very strong, superconducting magnets, and we do MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] on proteins instead of humans,” Mandala says. This technique enables him to map the atoms that make up the M2 protein by recording the magnetic signals they give off; as a result, he can visualize the protein’s three-dimensional shape.

Mandala first used ssNMR to examine the more well-characterized influenza A M2 protein (AM2). He discovered that AM2 is a one-way valve that funnels protons in one direction. He then began studying influenza B M2 (BM2), whose structure was basically unknown. He found that BM2 has a similar structure, but BM2 allows proton flow in both directions. “You have this evolutionary trade-off: it’s clear that the viruses evolved to be slightly different,” says Mandala, whose findings were published this February in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Relevance to Covid-19

Ultimately, Mandala hopes his fundamental scientific research will prove useful to other experts, such as medicinal chemists. “The goal of the project was to get the structure, and then we can say, ‘OK, why doesn’t the drug bind to influenza B?’” Mandala says. “Medicinal chemists can use that information to design drugs.”

The work might even prove useful in addressing the pandemic, as Mandala found when he took his research in an unexpected direction this spring. Realizing that it would be possible to adapt the ssNMR approach to study coronaviruses, he and others in his research group spent six months mapping the structure of an essential envelope protein that conducts ions into SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. He also established that the drug candidate hexamethylene amiloride binds to the protein, albeit weakly.

“This is the first look at this protein, and we’re excited to share it with the scientific community,” Mandala says. “Now that we know the structure and we have a starting point for the drug, medicinal chemists can iterate on the drug to make it better.”

For Mandala, his research at MIT was an ideal blend of disciplines. “Biology is more hands-on, physics is more theoretical, and biophysical chemistry is a happy middle ground,” he says. “I get to apply this physical chemistry spectroscopic technique to these interesting biological questions.”

Mandala has also appreciated the academic environment at MIT, which he chose because it seemed like the place where he could learn the most. “I really like the energy and the atmosphere. Everyone is super excited about what they do and just wants to work on cool stuff and do science,” he says.

And while Mandala certainly recognizes and appreciates the potential public health application of his work, it is his profound interest in the basic science that keeps him going. “I really enjoy working on new and unknown problems. I always want to learn more, and in science you learn more every single day,” Mandala says. “You do your best to add to the pool of scientific knowledge, and even though my flavor of science is not as applied, it all helps toward our understanding of how the world works.”

Jianzhu Chen. Photo: Courtesy of Jianzhu Chen

Global Health

Vaccine Booster

Biologist Jianzhu Chen works to enhance immune response

Jianzhu Chen. Photo: Courtesy of Jianzhu Chen

Jianzhu Chen, professor of biology and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, is pursuing a different strategy from most of his colleagues working on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. “We focus on the immune system and fundamental mechanisms as well as their application in cancer immunotherapy, vaccine development, and metabolic diseases,” he explains. Rather than trying to develop a specific vaccine, Chen is pursuing vaccine platform technologies that can be used to enhance any vaccine.

This effort is built on Chen’s previous work on dengue fever, a severe tropical disease transmitted by mosquitos. “We have been working to improve a vaccine against dengue virus infection,” he says, “which has this phenomenon called antibody-dependent enhancement,” in which “non-neutralizing” antibodies bind to the virus but do not destroy it. The immune system’s pathogen-eating macrophages then consume these virus-antibody complexes and become infected themselves, making a subsequent infection worse.

Chen’s team has identified vaccine adjuvants, or enhancing agents, that can increase neutralizing (that is, effective) antibodies while reducing non-neutralizing antibody response in mice and nonhuman primates. The team is confident that using a similar strategy against Covid-19 would improve any vaccine’s effectiveness.

Addressing cytokine storm

Chen is also focusing on the dangerous hyperinflammatory response seen in Covid-19: the cytokine storm that can result when the immune system overreacts to infection.

“We have been working on macrophage biology for quite some time,” Chen says. “SARS-CoV-2 infection is a hyperinflammatory response, and macrophages probably play a critical role in that response.”

“We have identified many compounds, including FDA-approved drugs, bioactive compounds, and natural products that can modulate macrophage activity to become anti-inflammatory,” he says. Such macrophage modulation would likely be used in conjunction with other treatments as a therapeutic strategy for already-infected patients.

A promising result from either research project could be used along with a Covid-19 vaccine to enhance immune response while preventing or reducing the severity of any possible reinfection. But it’s too early to tell what might happen. “We don’t have a vaccine yet,” Chen notes. “It’s not clear when we’ll have one. Even when we have one, it’s not clear how well it will work. It could be 95% protection; it could be 50%. Some of them may not confer much protection at all. But even 50% or 60% is a significant number of people.”

Another challenge, Chen acknowledges, is that medical research must move from theory to lab and ultimately into the real world. Vaccines can be designed and modeled on computers but eventually “we have to test them to see if they work as we expect,” he says. “You have to immunize mice or some other animals and then challenge them with SARS-CoV-2 to see whether the vaccine protects the animals from infection or dramatically minimize disease symptoms. These kinds of studies can’t be modeled computationally.”

Chen also hopes that his particular contributions will have benefits beyond the pandemic. “We’re aiming to develop a vaccine platform prototyped on SARS-CoV-2 that can be used for the development of many other vaccines as well, using the most appropriate technologies.” If that happens, science will have dug at least one substantial jewel out of the depths of an unprecedented public health crisis.

Mark Wolverton is a 2016–17 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Erin Kelly. Photo: Mimi Phan

Breakthroughs and Insights

Pandemic Shifts World of Work

Erin Kelly sees opportunities for making jobs better

Erin Kelly. Photo: Mimi Phan

Covid-19 has redefined the qualities of a good workplace. The long-held focus on efficiency and productivity has been dwarfed by the most human need of all: safety.

This makes Erin Kelly’s work particularly timely. As the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT, her research focuses on how to make workplaces more equitable, sustainable, and supportive of people’s health and well-being. These outcomes are important in their own right, and research suggests that organizations also benefit in terms of engagement, retention, and productivity when their employees are happier, healthier, and feel they belong, she says.

“How do we organize work, and how do we set up workplace policies and practices to do right by workers and still get the job done?” asks Kelly, who is also the co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Covid-19 has drawn those priorities to the fore.

“The positive spin is that the pandemic has laid bare problems that need to be addressed and made it more obvious to a broader audience that work fundamentally affects people’s well-being and health,” says Kelly, who focuses mainly on workers in health care, warehouses, and information technology (IT), three sectors feeling the strain of Covid-19 in different ways.

Health care workers are under enormous mental strain, experiencing burnout due to the intensity of the crisis, in addition to facing physical risks. Warehouse workers are facing new safety risks along with their usual long and unpredictable hours. IT workers, along with others in white-collar jobs, are suffering from exhaustion due to poor work-life boundaries.

In all cases, Kelly says, empowering workers is the key to ensuring health and happiness on the job, a goal that has new urgency in the Covid-19 era. “We need to consider how to set up supportive workplaces where people aren’t pushed too far, because they may well walk away,” she says.

Health care and warehouse workers

In many cases, workers were under significant stress even before the pandemic. “Burnout was already a problem among health care providers,” she says, and warehouse workers have long harbored frustrations over arbitrary schedules.

For these latter workers, the popularity of online shopping during the pandemic has increased workloads, and mandatory overtime is common. “People don’t know whether and when they’ll be required to stay an additional one, two, or three or more hours,” which causes strain and fatigue, she says.

The pandemic has also added health and safety concerns, which can tempt workers in any industry to call in sick or skip work out of fear. Conversely, they might put the desire for overtime pay ahead of their personal safety.

“To address those concerns, organizations can set up new channels for workers to share their worries, provide adequate equipment or redesign work practices to allow for more space, and then ask how it is working,” Kelly says, noting that paid leave is also important so that workers can take time off when illness strikes.

With the increasing need for frontline workers in warehouses and health care, Kelly sees this as a good time for workers to gain leverage to improve their working conditions. “I hope that they’re able to negotiate either informally or through policy changes or union contracts for better work conditions. I think there’s growing support for that kind of rebalancing from management to a shared perspective on how we’re in it together.”

IT sector overload

The IT sector’s problems are more subtle but no less challenging. These workers are the focus of Kelly’s March 2020 book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It (Princeton University Press, coauthored with Phyllis Moen). Employees are grappling with too much work and not enough resources. At the same time, they are confronting the expectation of constant availability when working remotely thanks to the prevalence of online collaboration technologies.

The pandemic can exacerbate these issues. “There’s a real risk of increased overload, of people feeling like they must work all of the time, having no way to set boundaries around their work time,” she warns, adding that managers, coworkers, and employees all need to recognize the need for time offline to prevent burnout.

Communicating with coworkers or clients is important, but Kelly says the “real work” gets done with uninterrupted periods of concentration. “There is a temptation to be virtually visible,” she says, “but that can quickly devolve into frantic activities without meaningful thinking.”

To protect workers’ health, managers should focus “less on when, where, and how the work happens and more on the results of the work, and encourage employees to craft their days in ways that make sense to them and encourage teams to talk through how they’re going to coordinate and communicate effectively,” Kelly says. “I think the pandemic push to work at home has helped people take some of those steps.”

The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the ways in which health and happiness on the job are connected, and that gives Kelly hope for change.

“Covid-19 has reminded us of physical risks and exposures that happen on the job. But actually there’s a rich tradition of research that establishes how much say you have at work, whether you feel listened to and respected, and the pace and demands of the work—that those more subtle organizational features of your work affect your mental health and your physical health as well,” she says. “The conditions of work really do matter for people’s health and well-being.”

One "tent pole" idea to emerge from the TSL's Imagining September report was a "call a teacher" button that would give students better access to teachers during remote situations. Image: Kelvy Bird

Global Health

Teaching Lab Steps Up During Pandemic

CMS Professor Justin Reich, colleagues help guide schools in remote learning

One “tent pole” idea to emerge from the TSL’s Imagining September report was a “call a teacher” button that would give students better access to teachers during remote situations. Image: Kelvy Bird

If you told Justin Reich back in February that his research into digital education technologies would soon make him a sought-after expert during a once-in-a-century global pandemic, he would have been more than a little surprised.

“I had never imagined in my life that there would be a crisis where having expertise in online learning and equity would become relevant, but here we are,” he says.

Reich is an assistant professor of Comparative Media Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab (TSL), which studies how teachers can best harness technology to help students take an active role in their learning.

“When the learning students do is connected to things they really care about, they’re often quite proficient at teaching themselves,” says Reich. “By contrast, when we try to get them to learn standards-aligned curriculum, things that look more like schooling, there are often huge issues with motivation.”

Before March 2020, the TSL primarily supported this kind of transformation; teachers could take free online classes through edX focused on such topics as design thinking and launching innovation in schools.

And then the world shut down.

“The contest before was, could you do online learning that was better than in-person learning?” he says. “And the contest suddenly became, could you do online learning that was better than nothing?”

Seizing the opportunity to provide some structure to the schools across the country, the TSL released a report in April (downloaded more than 7,000 times) that summarized the guidance for remote learning that was emerging at the state level. For example, most states were canceling tests and using remote learning in some form. Reich and his team then set out to determine what was happening on the ground. They interviewed approximately 40 teachers about the reality of their digital experience and discovered that many were burned out and struggling to motivate students online.

To help move everyone forward, the TSL then facilitated a series of design meetings that involved students, parents, teachers, librarians—anyone who would be impacted by the way schools would run come September. This work culminated in a report titled Imagining September.

“We have tried to give them some tools to make a plan,” says Reich. “Not to come up with the one right answer of what to do, but to come up with a process that schools and districts could use to engage in more participatory design.”

The design meeting participants identified a number of insights, such as supporting students’ increasing responsibility for their own education—an issue Reich and his colleagues often tackled before the pandemic—and building in time for reflection on how the new system is working. Then Reich and his team created fictional scenarios to help school officials visualize how their ideas could be combined for a tailored, successful reopening strategy.

One theme that emerged from this work is that the emotional security provided by having access to teachers is important to replicate in remote situations. Schools could do this by implementing a “call a teacher” button, or by creating an advisory group where one teacher is responsible for checking in with a small number of students, Reich says.

The report also presented a few foundational ideas that schools could use to support reopening. These included prioritizing time for electives and extracurriculars, creating “microschools” (teaching in small groups, an idea often referred to as “learning pods”), and ensuring children who most benefit from being physically at school are prioritized and not left behind.

Addressing inequity

This last point is key, Reich says, since the crisis has underscored issues that have long simmered under the education system, problems like underinvestment in school and childcare systems, limited access to internet connections in homes, and systemic inequities.

“African American, Native American, Latino families, working-class families—these are the folks who bear the greatest risk if they go back to school,” says Reich. “They’re more likely to have essential workers in their households, to have multigenerational households, to have comorbidities [where more than one disease or condition is present at the same time] that make Covid-19 more dangerous and more deadly. So, going back to school is the greater health risk.”

At the same time, he notes, at-risk populations are also less likely to have good computers and internet access and less likely to have parents who can work from home. This combination makes effective remote learning almost impossible, Reich says.

He says progress will hinge on active efforts by educators to combat racism and inequity as well as structural fixes from outside school, such as a commitment to provide broadband for all.

“Professor Reich’s work is important, timely, and resonates with a number of themes in Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W),” says Eric Klopfer, head of CMS/W and director of the Education Arcade at MIT. “As is the case with countless media and technology transitions in other aspects of society, the technification of education has not moved the needle, and real change demands examining and understanding the relationships between media, teachers, and learners. Reich seeks solutions that enhance both equity and technological adoption, which often seem at odds.”

New ideas for education

In an ideal situation, Reich suggests, the entire way we think about education during this unprecedented time would be overhauled.

“What if, for the year ahead, we set really different learning expectations?” Reich asks. “What if we tried having young people learn things about being a good family member, about doing chores, about other kinds of projects that they’re interested in, rather than trying to keep them locked into the curriculum that was designed for in-person schools?”

Maybe students could watch an educational TV show and come together with teachers for a conversation about it. Or they could learn about a craft or skill important in their families’ heritage. For the moment, however, Reich says he has heard of no state plans to deviate from a traditional education model.

Nevertheless, an enormous unplanned experiment is under way, with nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States finding ways to reopen amid the pandemic. These efforts will provide Reich and his team with a wealth of data to draw from to understand best practices and the effects on students.

“I’m hoping that we learn a lot from schools in different places that start with different kinds of models, so that we can figure out what works best,” says Reich. “There will be some incremental learning improvements, and I have every confidence that teachers will do the very best they can.”