Geology rocks. Just ask Becca Mastrola ’24, whose studies into the magnetic properties of meteorites blasted into space billions of years ago are shedding light on the origins of the cosmos.
“I have a passion for understanding where our planet came from, how it came to be over time, and the implications processes on Earth have for other bodies in the universe,” she says. “All of that is so, so interesting.”
The first in her family to attend college, Mastrola is majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. She is one of 18 students supported this past year by the Edward J. Poitras Scholarship, created in 1982 by electrical engineer and inventor Edward J. Poitras ’28. Since its inception, the scholarship fund has benefited more than 200 students.
“Without that scholarship, I wouldn’t be here,” Mastrola says. “MIT is a really collaborative environment, and I have had so much fun working with my peers, meeting new people, and getting to know some of the greatest minds on Earth.
“We’re all going on journeys, maybe in separate directions, but we’re working together, growing together and changing together, just like the surface of Earth.”
Currently, she is studying the magnetic properties of a type of meteorite called primitive achondrites, blasted into space before the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago.
The magnetic signature of the meteorite, she says, gives clues to the properties of the parent body from which it originated eons ago, and adds to our knowledge of the early processes of the universe.
“When our universe started to expand, we had a bunch of tiny little particles that lumped together,” Mastrola says.
“They smashed into each other and started accreting and growing and growing and became bigger and bigger. They got up to these kilometer-sized objects that kept going and smashing into each other and kept growing and growing.
“I’m working with one particular meteorite right now to figure out how big its parent body got. What actually happened as these materials started getting bigger?”
Mastrola aspires to earn an advanced degree and become a college professor in Earth science. “I am passionate about teaching, and I love breaking people’s misconceptions about geology,” she says. “Some think it’s irrelevant or boring and that all we do is look at rocks. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
For example, she says, geologists add to our understanding of climate change by exploring the history of Earth’s climate that is captured in the geologic record. Oxygen isotopes are a common and useful proxy for paleotemperatures.
“We can figure out what fluctuations in climate are normal, and the time periods over which these fluctuations occurred,” she says. “We can also determine what’s not normal and what’s going on way too quickly. We know there are human impacts on the environment right now because of how rapidly the Earth is warming and levels of carbon dioxide are changing.
“Thanks to the record left behind in rocks, we know what has happened on Earth, and that what’s going on now is not normal,” Mastrola says. “We need to make a change if we are going to have hope for the future of the Earth.
“So many branches of science tie into geology,” she says. “I hope to get other students interested in the field, if not to pursue it as a career then to have an appreciation of Earth and the incredible journey we’ve been on to get here today.”
Last year, she took part in a geologic field expedition in California’s Mojave Desert. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. On her bucket list: “I would love to go to the Swiss Alps, and there’s a really well-preserved impact crater in Germany I would love to see,” she says.
“Being a complete rock nerd, I love my rocks,” Mastrola says. “But I think learning about the Earth and how we came to be where we are today is such an important thing to study. I’m so grateful to be able to do just that for the rest of my life.”
Led by urban studies professor Sarah Williams MCP ’05, the lab visualizes data on the movements of people—and moves audiences in the process
An installation woven from bills of currency, Motivational Tapestry represents the 5,000 migrant households interviewed for the Civic Data Design Lab’s 2021 report on migration patterns. Photo: Courtesy Civic Data Design Lab
“I think any city planner would say that movement is essential to the work that they do—transportation, the movement of people through the city, but also the change of movement of people over time, and how cities can change to address that,” says Sarah Williams MCP ’05, the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Professor in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), which works to understand data for public good through creative visualizations and reports.
“We live in dynamic, moving places, and the data are always moving, too,” she says. “It’s important to make sure the algorithms and predictive models that we make account for the dynamism of human patterns.”
People move across the globe for a number of reasons. In 2021, the CDDL co-authored Charting a New Regional Course of Action: The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration, a comprehensive report about patterns in migration from Central America. The CDDL interviewed nearly 5,000 households for the project, which also spurred an interactive online report and a multifaceted artistic exhibition called DISTANCE UNKNOWN that premiered at the 2022 United Nations World Food Programme executive board meeting in Rome. The exhibition received a Responsible Disrupter Award from Metropolis Magazine and will appear at the 2023 Venice Biennale.
A striking component of DISTANCE UNKNOWN is Motivational Tapestry, a 15-by-8-foot installation woven from 5,000 bills of currency representing the migrants interviewed for the report—a significant percentage of whom cited economic distress as their reason for migrating to the United States. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of the tapestry and scan it at a touch-screen station, where the story of that migrant appears.
“We can forget that those points on a chart or map represent people who have hopes and dreams who, in this case, don’t have the money they need to live. Remembering that can connect you to the human situation more deeply,” says Williams. “But a point on a graph on the chart is also very effective to another group of people. So we do the traditional reports as well as the visualizations because we know that different ways of taking in information are important.”
Data and design to tell important stories
That marriage of data and artistic design is central to the CDDL’s mission. The lab is taking on more migration-centric projects in other parts of the world, including West Africa and Venezuela. “We will likely see large populations moving into cities as agricultural land becomes unusable due to issues of climate change in some of these regions,” Williams says. “Migrants are typically seeking a better economic lifestyle, but often their economic losses are due to climate change as well as violence and insecurity within the region in which they live. Our goal is not necessarily only to encourage migration but to identify the problems that lead to it so they can be addressed.”
The data gathered for the project, which includes responses to more than 100 questions on topics beyond economics, feature prominently in a new Common Ground course offering from the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Williams co-teaches the course, Interactive Data Visualization and Society, with Arvind Satyanarayan, associate professor of computer science, and Catherine D’Ignazio SM ’14, the Sherman Fairchild Career Development Professor and associate professor of urban studies and planning. “This approach is a great example of how to bring data and design together to tell important stories about society,” Williams says.
The timing was right to bring about dramatic results: in November 2021, 33 senators made recommendations to the White House to create more legal pathways for Central American migrants, citing the CDDL’s study. In June 2022, the Biden administration did just that.
The in-person element of DISTANCE UNKNOWN at the World Food Programme was a striking aspect of the project; Williams recalls powerful reactions from ambassadors at the Rome exhibition, leading to more thoughtful, empathetic, and productive discussions among them.
“When someone receives a policy report or academic paper, it can be easy to push it aside,” says Williams. “Viewing the exhibition in person can allow people to open their eyes to a problem from another vantage point.”
When he turned his ankle five years ago as an undergraduate playing pickup basketball at the University of Illinois, Wei-Chen (Eric) Wang SM ’22 knew his life would change in certain ways. For one thing, Wang, then a computer science major, wouldn’t be playing basketball anytime soon. He also assumed, correctly, that he might require physical therapy (PT).
What he did not foresee was that this minor injury would influence his career trajectory. While lying on the PT bench, Wang began to wonder: “Can I replicate what the therapist is doing using a robot?” It was an idle thought at the time. Today, however, his research involves robots and movement, closely related to what had seemed a passing fancy.
Wang continued his focus on computer science as an MIT graduate student, receiving his master’s in 2022 before deciding to pursue work of a more applied nature. He met Nidhi Seethapathi, who had joined MIT’s faculty as an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science and brain and cognitive science a few months earlier, and was intrigued by the notion of creating robots that could illuminate the key principles of movement—knowledge that might someday help people regain the ability to move comfortably after suffering from injury, stroke, or disease.
As the first PhD student in Seethapathi’s group and a MathWorks Fellow, Wang is charged with building machine learning-based models that can accurately predict and reproduce human movements. He will then use computer-simulated environments to visualize and evaluate the performance of these models.
To begin, he needs to gather data about specific human movements. One potential data collection method involves the placement of sensors or markers on different parts of the body to pinpoint their precise positions at any given moment. He can then try to calculate those positions in the future, as dictated by the equations of motion in physics.
The other method relies on computer vision-powered software that can automatically convert video footage to motion data. Wang prefers the latter approach, which he considers more natural. “We just look at what humans are doing and try to learn from that directly,” he explains. That’s also where machine learning comes in. “We use machine-learning tools to extract data from the video, and those data become the input to our model,” he adds. The model, in this case, is just another term for the robot brain.
The near-term goal is not to make robots more natural, Wang notes. “We’re using [simulated] robots to understand how humans are moving and eventually to explain any kind of movement—or at least that’s the hope. That said, based on the general principles we’re able to abstract, we might someday build robots that can move more naturally.”
Wang is also collaborating on a project headed by postdoctoral fellow Antoine De Comité that focuses on robotic retrieval of objects—the movements required to remove books from a library shelf, for example, or to grab a drink from a refrigerator. While robots routinely excel at tasks such as grasping an object on a tabletop, performing naturalistic movements in three dimensions remains challenging.
Wang describes a video shown by a Stanford University scientist in which a robot destroyed a refrigerator while attempting to extract a beer. He and De Comité hope for better results with robots that have undergone reinforcement learning—an approach using deep learning in which desired motions are rewarded or reinforced whereas unwanted motions are discouraged.
If they succeed in designing a robot that can safely retrieve a beer, Wang says, then more important and delicate tasks could be within reach. Someday, a robot at PT might guide a patient through knee exercises or apply ultrasound to an arthritic elbow.
Since the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program was created in 2016 by the School of Engineering, it has provided funding in the $1K to $25K range to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneur teams to develop and launch their businesses. In 2022, the program received a $1 million gift from Daniel Gilbert ’91 and his wife, Judy, providing a permanent source of funding with the establishment of the MIT Sandbox Endowment Fund and ensuring that students’ creative technologies, ideas, and business concepts will have a supportive home for years to come.
Many MIT Sandbox spinouts seek to take on big challenges, such as health care and sustainability. Spectrum spoke to two recent alumni whose companies are making a splash.
Using AI to revolutionize the fight against heart failure Claire Beskin MBA ’22 and Ruizhi “Ray” Liao SM ’17, PhD ’21
Claire Beskin always had an interest in health care and occasionally even shadowed her physician father while he worked. But it was pure coincidence that the first MIT hackathon she attended focused on the subject. It inspired her to pursue a health care-related business idea, and after meeting cofounder Ray Liao, then a computer science PhD candidate, she joined his MIT Sandbox team. Their collaboration resulted in the formation of Empallo, a software company that builds algorithms to assess health records for patients with heart failure and other cardiovascular syndromes and diseases.
Heart failure is responsible for about 1 million hospitalizations each year in the United States and $12 billion in hospitalization costs. Twenty percent of heart failure patients are readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge. “This results in huge costs to hospitals and danger to the patient,” Beskin says. “We’re collaborating with several hospitals across the US to enhance and test our algorithms to improve heart failure management.” The future may bring partnerships with pharmaceutical and medical device companies, too, as the software is poised to support both clinical trial design and clinical practice.
MIT Sandbox funding has been essential in helping Empallo get off the ground, Beskin says. “I don’t think we would still exist if it weren’t for MIT Sandbox. In our first year, it was really helpful to have that support for a variety of expenses, from early consumer discovery activities to office supplies to legal advice about company formation and patent filing,” she says. “MIT is setting the pace for universities to listen to startup founders, hear what they need, and create programs and resources to support them, which helps explain why so many companies come out of MIT.”
Turning aluminum recycling waste into green energy
Rostam Reifschneider ’21
“Growing up between never-ending droughts and wildfires in California made me want to pursue a career fighting climate change,” says Rostam Reifschneider. “I decided to study mechanical engineering at MIT and use a combination of STEM and entrepreneurship to build a company that would make a big impact.” When the Covid-19 pandemic made it necessary for Reifschneider to return to California to do his senior year remotely, he reconnected with a high school friend, Julian Davis, who was completing his degree in physics and management at Georgetown University and shares a similar passion for climate action. The two ended up founding Hydrova, a company that uses zero-waste technology to recover valuable aluminum, salt, and oxide products from dross and salt cake while generating hydrogen for clean energy use in recycling plants.
MIT Sandbox was instrumental to Hydrova’s earliest stages, says Reifschneider. “In September 2020, while we didn’t have access to any campus resources, we’d been self-funding experiments in my garage,” he says. “In addition to the Sandbox funding helping us to prove out the technology, our first meeting with the Sandbox Funding Board pointed us in the right direction and helped us focus on developing a solution with a commercial potential.”
Hydrova hasn’t stopped since: in 2022, the company began a large-scale pilot trial with California’s largest aluminum recycling plant diverting 5,000 pounds of aluminum waste to Hydrova’s new zero-waste facility. Reifschneider encourages MIT students to get involved with the “amazing” programs at MIT and make the most of the experience but also to nurture relationships. “Focus on your personal life and making friends as well as the academic part,” he says. “You may even end up being cofounders or business partners in the future.”
“When I teach playwriting, my students often are interested in writing about how technology impacts the lives of their characters,” says Ken Urban, senior lecturer and head of dramatic writing in the Music and Theater Arts program at MIT.
But Zoom and other defining technologies of the pandemic era have changed the “landscape of being a writer for theater,” he says.
“Theater has had to reconcile itself to what technology makes possible, such as streaming plays, writing works for virtual spaces, and using AI to generate dialogue,” Urban says. “Theater also provides what other media cannot: the experience of communal viewing in a shared space.”
Some 900 students a year take classes in theater at MIT, with performance and studio course offerings ranging from the traditional to the very avant-garde, according to Jay Scheib, the Class of 1949 Professor of Music and Theater Arts.
Innovations in neurotechnology influenced The Conquered, written by Urban and directed by Scheib, which was performed as a work in progress on campus at the end of 2022 with support from the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology.
“The science that inspired the piece, a neural device that aids people with epilepsy, has been described by some implant recipients as giving a feeling of ‘someone inside their head,’” Urban says. “I transformed this into a narrative device to explore ethical issues: What does it mean to forget? How does it relate to questions of forgiveness and justice?”
“We presented it as a live film, using three cameras and doing a live mix, with microphones amplifying the performers’ voices,” Scheib says. “We weren’t actually using neurotechnology. That would be my preference, though I don’t know what that would look like. Most actors are like, ‘Brain implants? Not so sure,’” he adds, jokingly.
Looking ahead, Scheib is integrating augmented reality into his new staging of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal, which he will premiere at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in July 2023.
Meanwhile, Urban and dance lecturer Dan Safer are collaborating with students on a dance theater piece, Slow Violence. “It will take place in a series of hotel rooms,” says Urban, whose band, Occurrence, will perform live. “The interplay of live and prerecorded music and projections, alongside more traditional sets, costumes, and lights, is a hallmark of theater at MIT.”
6.9280 / 16.9900 / 15.6740: Leading Creative Teams
Senior Lecturer, Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program
From the catalog
This class prepares MIT graduate students for future leadership positions in engineering and technology environments by building a foundation of relevant capabilities. Grounded in research and theory, the class focuses on practical leadership skills and how they can be learned, developed, and applied to group situations in creative contexts. Examples of these contexts include project teams delivering new technologies, decision-making teams solving challenging problems, and research teams building new forms of knowledge. The course is offered through the newly named Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program.
“A leader isn’t just somebody who stands alone at the top of a hill and delivers fire-breathing speeches,” says senior lecturer David Niño. “Leadership is something people do together. Anyone who has valuable insights into how to solve important problems can exercise leadership.”
Says the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s Rishabh Mittal SM ’20, PhD ’23 : “I had a lot of preconceptions about what leadership, management, and negotiation is about. As we went through the class, I understood that these are skills that anyone can develop.”
Class motto: Know Thyself, Build Effective Teams
Leading Creative Teams develops each student’s potential to become an insightful leader of teams. A semester through line focusing on self-awareness elucidates how students can achieve that goal by better understanding themselves, their relationships, and their collective vision. “One of the most important parts of becoming a good leader is to know yourself first. If you cannot manage yourself, you cannot manage anyone else,” says Mittal.
The key self-discovery assignment is an autobiographical paper that asks students to discuss formative moments from their life and career histories and work through how these contributed to who they are today. They are required to solicit only positive feedback from 10 to 15 people to understand how others view them, and then describe in the paper how hearing those views affected their self-perception. Students also use this information to develop a vision of “who they can become. “I never believed that I was making an impact in people’s lives,” says Mittal. “It was quite empowering to hear how people felt about me.”
The exercise is backed by research indicating that a deeper understanding of our qualities improves team building and relations in the workplace. “We can learn about our strengths and our virtues and the unique talents that we have, which can help motivate us to seek out the kinds of problems we can solve and engage the people that can help us,” says Niño. “I was surprised about how my empathy, when it comes to my interactions with my former workers, has positively shaped their viewpoint of my work,” says Chiwon Lee, a second-year Integrated Design and Management master’s student.
Dynamic and visionary thinkers should ensure that pragmatists are included in their teams, for example. Or, introverts should build teams with complimentary extroverts.
Students also learn that conflicts are almost inevitable in teams and can be resolved through skilled and honest dialogue.
“A lot of conflicts come from confusion and misunderstandings,” says Lee. “Ask open questions and use active listening and make sure that you’re focusing on the mutual gain from the conversation rather than assuming the intention. It’s a very logical way and a good framework to have when it comes to resolving conflict.”
From Action Learning projects in classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management to negotiating post-graduation salaries, these teachings are already helping students grow as confident leaders. “I’ve been able to apply my class learnings directly to conflict situations for team projects that are for almost all courses that I’ve been in,” says Lee.
“As a student with 10 years of industry experience, I have often reflected on how I could have applied the learnings from this class to situations and conflicts I experienced early in my career,” says geologist Warren Anderson, a fellow in the System Design and Management master’s program jointly offered by the MIT School of Engineering and MIT Sloan. “This course allows you to reflect on your personal leadership style and provides the tools to communicate effectively with your team.”
All this self-reflection helps students identify their ethical codes of conduct, and a series of class exercises encourages them to stand up for what they believe in within the workplace and to not compromise on issues that are important to them.
“When I say I hope our students will become good leaders in the future, I mean that in a very meaningful way—that they have a sense of what their ethical values are,” says Niño. “That’s valuable in the larger context of an engineering education, that students are mindful of how what they do impacts others and impacts society as well.”
$10M Gift Supports Mission to Develop Next-Generation Tech Leaders
In October 2022, MIT announced a $10 million gift from Daniel J. Riccio to expand and name the Graduate Engineering Leadership Program (GradEL) in the MIT School of Engineering.
The program aims to help develop engineers who will go on to inspire and guide teams throughout their careers. “Those types of skills are essential to successful engineers,” says Riccio, vice president of engineering at Apple, who also serves on the advisory board of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL).
“It is true not just of Apple but of many innovative companies that we are limited not by ideas or by money but by having enough effective engineering leadership to bring complex, innovative products to market,” Riccio says. “I want to do something about it.”
The success of GEL, which was established in 2007 and serves some 150 undergraduates each year, led the School of Engineering four years ago to launch GradEL—now the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program—a series of classes and workshops that culminates in a graduate certificate in technical leadership.
“The gift from Daniel Riccio will allow the graduate program to grow from a ‘scrappy startup’ to the type of sustainable program that characterizes the longer-running undergraduate program,” says Reza Rahaman SM ’85, PhD ’89, Bernard M. Gordon Managing Director of the School of Engineering Technical Leadership and Communication Programs.
Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, says, “I am extremely grateful for this gift and excited about the potential it provides to the future of the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program.”
A version of this story was originally published in MIT News.
Q&A with Julie Lucas, Vice President for Resource Development
The Stratton Student Center closed in February 2023 for a few months of renovations, including this fourth-floor dance and movement space (shown in an artistic rendering), and other upgrades throughout. Image: Dongik Lee Informed by CJ & Katz Studio
The opening words of MIT’s mission statement—“to advance knowledge”—convey a sense of purposeful momentum that is etched into MIT’s DNA. Julie A. Lucas, the Institute’s vice president for resource development, talks about how the generosity and engagement of the extended MIT community, especially in support of initiatives such as the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics and campus spaces like the Stratton Student Center, help keep the Institute’s faculty, students, and staff moving forward.
What makes the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics such an exciting addition to MIT?
The Yang Center has a powerful objective: to create transformational bionic interventions for people with disabilities. You only need read about the inspiring research underway to understand the vast, life-changing potential of this work. The center is also a terrific showcase for two of MIT’s most distinguishing traits: interdisciplinary research and external collaboration. Working together, MIT faculty from the Schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture and Planning are consulting with clinical and surgical experts at Harvard Medical School to ensure that new assistive technologies can be tested rapidly and put within reach of people in need, including those in traditionally underserved communities.
How did the center come about?
The center was made possible by a gift to MIT from philanthropist Lisa Yang. Her previous gifts to the Institute have also enabled the establishment of the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience and the K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center, as well as other programs in support of faculty and students. Lisa’s commitment to improving human health for the benefit of all has transformed research at the Institute. We are grateful for her support, as we are for gifts of all sizes, which are fundamental to accelerating innovation and discovery at MIT.
Speaking of movement, one of the places at MIT that rarely stops is the Stratton Student Center. What’s next for this crucial spot on campus?
Thanks to the support of a number of MIT alumni and friends, a renovation of the student center is moving forward, and we are thrilled by the energy it will bring to this campus landmark and, by extension, to our community. The numerous improvements include the creation of a Wellbeing Lab and a redesign of the central staircase that will open the building’s atrium. Fourth-floor updates include spaces for dance and movement activities such as yoga, and there will be enhanced lounges and gathering spaces throughout the building where students can congregate, rest, and recharge. We are continuing to raise funds for the renovation and are looking forward to fall 2023 when we anticipate sharing the updated Student Center with everyone.
In early December 2022, a middle-aged woman from California arrived at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the amputation of her right leg below the knee following an accident. This was no ordinary procedure. At the end of her remaining leg, surgeons attached a titanium fixture through which they threaded eight thin, electrically conductive wires. These flexible leads, implanted on her leg muscles, would, in the coming months, connect to a robotic, battery-powered prosthetic ankle and foot.
The goal of this unprecedented surgery, driven by MIT researchers from the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at MIT, was the restoration of near-natural function to the patient, enabling her to sense and control the position and motion of her ankle and foot—even with her eyes closed.
“The brain knows exactly how to control the limb, and it doesn’t matter whether it is flesh and bone or made of titanium, silicon, and carbon composite,” says Hugh Herr SM ’93, professor of media arts and sciences, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group, codirector of the Yang Center, and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
For Herr, in attendance during that long day, the surgery represented a critical milestone in a decades-long mission to develop technologies returning mobility to people disabled by disease or physical trauma. His research combines a dizzying range of disciplines—electrical, mechanical, tissue, and biomedical engineering, as well as neuroscience and robotics—and has yielded pathbreaking results. Herr’s more than 100 patents include a computer-controlled knee and powered ankle-foot prosthesis and have enabled thousands of people around the world to live more on their own terms, including Herr.
For much of Herr’s life, “go” meant “up.”
“Starting when I was eight, I developed an extraordinary passion, an absolute obsession, for climbing; it’s all I thought about in life,” says Herr. He aspired “to be the best climber in the world,” a goal he nearly achieved in his teenage years, enthralled by the “purity” of ascending mountains ropeless and solo in record times, by “a vertical dance, a balance between physicality and mind control.”
At 17, Herr became disoriented while climbing New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington during a blizzard. Days in the cold permanently damaged his legs, which had to be amputated below his knees. His rescue cost another man’s life, and Herr was despondent, disappointed in himself, and fearful for his future.
Then, following months of rehabilitation, he felt compelled to test himself. His first weekend home, when he couldn’t walk without canes and crutches, he headed back to the mountains. “I hobbled to the base of this vertical cliff and started ascending,” he recalls. “It brought me joy to realize that I was still me, the same person.”
But he also recognized that as a person with amputated limbs, he faced severe disadvantages. “Society doesn’t look kindly on people with unusual bodies; we are viewed as crippled and weak, and that did not sit well with me.” Unable to tolerate both the new physical and social constraints on his life, Herr determined to view his disability not as a loss but as an opportunity. “I think the rage was the catapult that led me to do something that was without precedent,” he says.
On hand in the surgical theater in December was a member of Herr’s Biomechatronics Group for whom the bionic limb procedure also held special resonance. Christopher Shallal, a second-year graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program who received bilateral lower limb amputations at birth, worked alongside surgeon Matthew Carty testing the electric leads before implantation in the patient. Shallal found this, his first direct involvement with a reconstruction surgery, deeply fulfilling.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to do medicine plus engineering,” says Shallal. “I’m really excited to work on this bionic limb reconstruction, which will probably be one of the most advanced systems yet in terms of neural interfacing and control, with a far greater range of motion possible.”
Like other Herr lab designs, the new prosthesis features onboard, battery-powered propulsion, microprocessors, and tunable actuators. But this next-generation, biomimetic limb represents a major leap forward, replacing electrodes sited on a patient’s skin, subject to sweat and other environmental threats, with implanted sensors that can relay signals between the external prosthesis and muscles in the remaining limb.
This system takes advantage of a breakthrough technique invented several years ago by the Herr lab called CMI (for cutaneous mechanoneural interface), which constructs muscle-skin-nerve bundles at the amputation site. Muscle actuators controlled by computers on board the external prosthesis apply forces on skin cells implanted within the amputated residuum when a person with amputation touches an object with their prosthesis.
With CMI and electric leads connecting the prosthesis to these muscle actuators within the residual limb, the researchers hypothesize that a person with an amputation will be able to “feel” their prosthetic leg step onto the ground. This sensory capability is the holy grail for persons with major limb loss. After recovery from her surgery, the woman from California will be wearing Herr’s latest state-of-the-art prosthetic system in the lab.
‘Tinkering’ with the body
Not all artificial limbs emulate those that humans are born with. “You can make them however you want, swapping them in and out depending on what you want to do, and they can take you anywhere,” Herr says. Committed to extreme climbing even after his accident, Herr came up with special limbs that became a commercial hit early in his career. His designs made it possible for someone with amputated legs to run and dance.
But he also knew the day-to-day discomfort of navigating on flatter earth with most prostheses. He won his first patent during his senior year of college for a fluid-controlled socket attachment designed to reduce the pain of walking. Growing up in a Mennonite family skilled in handcrafting things they needed, and in a larger community that was disdainful of technology, Herr says he had “difficulty trusting machines.” Yet by the time he began his master’s program at MIT, intent on liberating persons with limb amputation to live more fully in the world, he had embraced the tools of science and engineering as the means to this end.
For Shallal, Herr was an early icon, and his inventions and climbing exploits served as inspiration. “I’d known about Hugh since middle school; he was famous among those with amputations,” he says. “As a kid, I liked tinkering with things, and I kind of saw my body as a canvas, a place where I could explore different boundaries and expand possibilities for myself and others with amputations.” In school, Shallal sometimes encountered resistance to his prostheses. “People would say I couldn’t do certain things, like running and playing different sports, and I found these barriers frustrating,” he says. “I did things in my own way and didn’t want people to pity me.”
In fact, Shallal felt he could do some things better than his peers. In high school, he used a 3-D printer to make a mobile phone charger case he could plug into his prosthesis. “As a kid, I would wear long pants to hide my legs, but as the technology got cooler, I started wearing shorts,” he says. “I got comfortable and liked kind of showing off my legs.”
December’s surgery was the first phase in the bionic limb project. Shallal will be following up with the patient over many months, ensuring that the connections between her limb and implanted sensors function and provide appropriate sensorimotor data for the built-in processor. Research on this and other patients to determine the impact of these limbs on gait and ease of managing slopes, for instance, will form the basis for Shallal’s dissertation.
“After graduation, I’d be really interested in translating technology out of the lab, maybe doing a startup related to neural interfacing technology,” he says. “I watched Inspector Gadget on television when I was a kid. Making the tool you need at the time you need it to fix problems would be my dream.”
Herr will be overseeing Shallal’s work, as well as a suite of research efforts propelled by other graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists that together promise to strengthen the technology behind this generation of biomimetic prostheses.
One example: devising an innovative method for measuring muscle length and velocity with tiny implanted magnets. In work published in November 2022, researchers including Herr; project lead Cameron Taylor SM ’16, PhD ’20, a research associate in the Biomechatronics Group; and Brown University partners demonstrated that this new tool, magnetomicrometry, yields the kind of high-resolution data necessary for even more precise bionic limb control. The Herr lab awaits FDA approval on human implantation of the magnetic beads.
These intertwined initiatives are central to the ambitious mission of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics, established with a $24 million gift from Yang in 2021 to tackle transformative bionic interventions to address an extensive range of human limitations.
Herr is committed to making the broadest possible impact with his technologies. “Shoes and braces hurt, so my group is developing the science of comfort—designing mechanical parts that attach to the body and transfer loads without causing pain.” These inventions may prove useful not just to people living with amputation but to patients suffering from arthritis or other diseases affecting muscles, joints, and bones, whether in lower limbs or arms and hands.
The Yang Center aims to make prosthetic and orthotic devices more accessible globally, so Herr’s group is ramping up services in Sierra Leone, where civil war left tens of thousands missing limbs after devastating machete attacks. “We’re educating clinicians, helping with supply chain infrastructure, introducing novel assistive technology, and developing mobile delivery platforms,” he says.
In the end, says Herr, “I want to be in the business of designing not more and more powerful tools but designing new bodies.” Herr uses himself as an example: “I walk on two very powerful robots, but they’re not linked to my skeleton, or to my brain, so when I walk it feels like I’m on powerful machines that are not me. What I want is such a marriage between human physiology and electromechanics that a person feels at one with the synthetic, designed content of their body.” and control, with a far greater range of motion possible.”
Danna Freedman was returning to her MIT office in early September 2022 with cookies for her students when she heard the news: she had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the no-strings $800,000 prize referred to as the “genius grant.” Her lab’s groundbreaking work using synthetic chemistry to design novel molecules potentially paves the way for quantum sensing and communication applications to be conducted with a new set of tools—molecules— versus traditionally used, and intrinsically more limiting, solid-state materials.
“I was speechless. This is an incredible honor,” says Freedman, the F. G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry. “It’s acknowledgment that we’re on the right track, that we opened up a door into a real field that has real potential, not just on paper but to impact the world around us.”
Quantum mechanics is a field of physics that seeks to understand the behavior of the tiniest particles in the universe—particles that are small or smaller than atoms (including electrons, protons, and neutrons) and behave differently from larger objects, often in strange ways. The first “quantum revolution” of the 20th century led scientists to observe quantum properties and develop technologies like lasers, the transistor, GPS, magnetic resonance imaging, and semiconductors. Now, in the second quantum revolution, scientists like Freedman are seeking to harness those properties and apply them to a wide range of fields.
At the heart of this work, and one of its biggest hurdles, is the concept of electron spin, a quantum property and form of angular momentum that influences the position of electrons and nuclei in atoms and molecules. Spin can have two states but also a natural third state that’s a combination of the two, called superposition. (Think about something on Earth existing not just in one position like up or down but in several positions all at once, or a spinning coin that is neither heads nor tails.)
Few molecules remain in this third state long enough to measure, so they have been difficult to use as building blocks for quantum technologies. Freedman, a former MIT postdoc who joined the faculty in 2021, appears to have devised a way using a bottom-up approach.
From the electron spin of certain molecules, her lab has created a new class of quantum units, or qubits, that retain superposition and can be manipulated to control quantum system properties. Their research has shown that qubits—in this case, molecules designed with a central chromium atom surrounded by four hydrocarbon molecules—could be customized for specific targets within quantum sensing and communication.
Using chemical control, Freedman says spins can be positioned in chosen orientations or separated by form (electron versus proton). Specific combinations of atoms can even be forced to interact to shed light on the nature of a chemical bond. “Chemistry enables us to make systems that are atomically precise, reproducible, and tunable,” she says.
Next-generation information processing
Freedman is reluctant to speculate about the potential real-world applications of her research, but a next generation of molecular components could perform otherwise impossible information-processing (sensing, communication, and measurement) tasks with an unprecedented level of specification and accuracy.
“Molecules are uniquely suited for a lot of quantum sensing applications and for quantum communication applications,” Freedman says. “You can use a molecule to put atoms exactly where you want them to be and then tune them so you can get a whole array of properties, and that combination is incredibly powerful for applications where specificity is important.”
One direction she hopes to pursue with her MacArthur grant is working with other scientists on quantum sensors, which are extremely sensitive to minuscule variations in their environment. Freedman’s lab also works on targeting emergent properties and applying extreme pressure to synthesize new materials, which could impact areas such as energy generation and transport.
Creativity and scholarly depth
Freedman’s deep passion for her work is palpable. In high school, she taught science to 11-year-olds and worked at the local observatory running the telescope and conducting tours. That’s where she heard a guest scientist explain an alternative theory to dark matter. Now, decades later, she’s thrilled to also be collaborating on a dark matter detection project.
“I’ve been hearing about this since I was 15,” she says. “How lucky am I that I had such a long exposure.”
Freedman describes MIT as “phenomenally interdisciplinary.” Her office is near that of Peter Shor PhD ’85, the renowned mathematician and quantum computing pioneer. “This is just an inspirational place to be,” Freedman says. “There’s a lot of creativity, risk taking, and ambition, but it’s also met by a scholarly depth, which is essential.”
Social and political movements can be powerful enough to topple authoritarian regimes. “But mobilizing large numbers of people onto the streets takes collective action,” says Mai Hassan, associate professor of political science in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, noting that successful revolutions tap into broad, easily understood narratives and feelings that run deep among the general public. “The mantra of the Sudanese uprising in 2019 was ‘freedom, peace, and justice.’ Who doesn’t want that?”
Hassan, a social scientist examining contentious politics and collective action in autocratic regimes, also studies the barriers to democratization that follow in the aftermath. “Overthrowing a dictatorship is fundamentally different than building a lasting democracy,” she notes. People with different backgrounds may unite to oppose brutal rulers as they did in Sudan, but they usually don’t establish consensus about what should come next.
“Once an authoritarian regime is overthrown, then comes the bickering about what should replace it,” says Hassan. In the case of theocracies, some activists will expect the new government to be secular, while others might envision a less restrictive faith-based government. Some will advocate for a more expansive socialist and welfare state and find themselves in opposition to proponents of capitalism.
While Hassan studies several countries in Africa, she is particularly interested in Sudan, from which she and much of her extended family emigrated in the 1990s. After settling in Virginia, she frequently listened to adults talking about the political turmoil in the country they left behind, piquing her interest in history, economics, and political science.
Social movements in the age of social media
Modern political movements, Hassan believes, may be more susceptible to the problem of competing internal objectives because today’s activists are recruited differently than in the past. While the extensive reach of social media can quickly gather protest participants to engage in collective action, the result is often a group with diverse belief systems. “If an opposition political party or deeply ingrained labor union was at the forefront of the movement,” Hassan says, “they would have built up membership for years and instilled the organization’s core beliefs in its members. It would be very clear what the post-revolution landscape they were working towards would look like.”
While information and communication technologies are useful for coordinating collective action, Hassan points out, the regime can see social media posts, too. “But dissidents are smart,” she continues. “Living in an authoritarian regime for years, they have developed intuition of how the regime is likely to respond, and they come up with clever ways to outsmart them.” Her field research has uncovered stories of activists using subversive tactics, for example, keeping the date, time, and mode of a protest the same but quietly changing the location.
This poses a challenge for researchers like Hassan who, she says, can’t rely only on publicly available data, given that sources such as social media posts might be written to mislead the regime. For her most recent paper “Coordinated Dis-coordination,” Hassan conducted more than 100 interviews and focus groups with leading activists and dissidents in and around Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to study how dissidents used social media to coordinate among themselves while deceiving the regime.
Building—or protecting—democratic systems
Joining a political movement in an authoritarian country can subject participants to hostility and even violence, not just from the regime but from fellow citizens. “Every authoritarian regime has some popular base of support,” says Hassan.
The recent phenomenon of election denialism in the United States, she observes, “puts into perspective how polarized the United States is if some people are willing to overthrow democratic protections just to have a government that will instill their idea of what society should look like.” She explains that when social scientists evaluate other countries for democratization potential, they examine the thinking of that nation’s powerful elites. “Do they believe that democracy is the only valid form of government? When we turn that criterion on ourselves, the years 2016 to 2021 showed cracks in the system.”