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Left: Black and white photo of Norhan posing next to a rustic wooden wall. Right: Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for film Comrade X

Fall 2022

Norhan Bayomi, Inspired by Hollywood Icon, Takes on Climate Change

Entrepreneur-DJ pushes boundaries in technology, art

Left: Courtesy Norhan Bayomi. Right: Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr for film Comrade X

When MIT postdoctoral fellow Norhan Bayomi SM ’17, PhD ’21 was choosing a name for the new venture that has grown out of her thermal-imaging research, she decided to honor the 1940s Hollywood actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, whose technological innovation offscreen paved the way for today’s Wi-Fi and GPS.

“Paying tribute to a woman inventor has a very special meaning to me,” says Bayomi,  who is originally from Cairo, Egypt. Bayomi, too, is multifaceted: an environmental scientist, electronic music producer, and DJ who combines research and music to fight climate change.

This spring, the company she cofounded, Lamarr.AI, was honored for making the best presentation at the sixth annual Pitch Day competition hosted by the School of Architecture and Planning’s entrepreneurship accelerator, MITdesignX.

Lamarr.AI employs artificial intelligence (AI), aerial robotics and cloud computing to rapidly diagnose the performance of building envelopes.

“In plain language, we’re using drones equipped with infrared camera sensors to give your building an MRI scan,” said Bayomi, who conducts her research at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI).

“We’re combining building science and AI to detect and diagnose any kind of problematic area in the building exterior,” she says. “Then we use that information to autonomously identify opportunities for energy saving in the building.”

Collaborators in the venture include her MIT thesis advisor, John E. Fernández ’85, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of the MIT ESI, and Tarek Rakha PhD ’15, assistant professor of architecture and director of the High Performance Building Lab at Georgia Tech and cofounder in Lamarr.AI.

She says Lamarr.AI—which also received seed funding and mentorship from MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund Program—recently landed its first big client, and received $200,000 in funding by winning the US Department of Energy’s E-ROBOT competition as part of the Unified Retrofits team with Gensler and FLX Solutions.

Bayomi’s research explores potential risks to human health associated with rising temperatures in cities, and how aerial technology and AI can help in adapting building and urban design to meet the challenge of climate change.

Lamarr.AI grew out of an aerial thermography project she worked on alongside Rakha as a graduate student with Fernández’s Urban Metabolism Group at MIT. In the MITdesignX program, Bayomi also was part of a team that founded Airworks, a company that uses aerial data collected by drones to provide developers with automated site plans and building models.

“It’s very exciting to see a research-based technology come to reality and have a tangible impact, offering a solution that people can use,” she says.

“Find a passion and pursue it”

Bayomi is also plugged into the world of entertainment. As “Nourey,” a producer specializing in a genre of electronic dance music called trance, she is a rising star with Anjunabeats, the record label started by the electronic music group Above & Beyond. Her Meant to Be EP recording was released in August 2022.

She made her live debut at Above & Beyond’s Group Therapy Weekender festival at Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state in July. She was joined at the festival by Fernández and students from ESI for accompanying presentations aimed at inspiring eco-consciousness among concertgoers.

Bayomi credits MIT for giving her the creative freedom to explore the intersection between science and art. “I don’t see myself doing that in any other place,” she says. “MIT gives me an enriching environment to get outside my comfort zone and pursue crazy new ideas.

“People shouldn’t be shy to explore new venues,” she says. “If you find a passion and pursue it with the intention to help others and make a tangible impact in people’s lives, there usually is a really positive outcome.”

Design

Q&A: Fueling Design at MIT

Julie A. Lucas, vice president for resource development, discusses how philanthropy and faculty commitment are contributing to design excellence on campus and beyond

The MIT Morningside Academy for Design is one result of a concerted effort to amplify design at MIT. Julie A. Lucas, the Institute’s vice president for resource development, talks about how philanthropy and faculty commitment have built a strong foundation for design excellence that stretches well beyond campus.

How are MIT faculty from all departments involved with design at MIT?

Julie A. Lucas

Our brilliant faculty members are always finding creative ways to implement design principles in classrooms, labs, international learning opportunities, and makerspaces. In recent years, the Institute has made a concerted effort to elevate and strengthen interdisciplinary education, research, and innovation in design. In 2020, professors John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang ’91 co-chaired a committee of 18 educators from across the Institute to envision ways to more fully offer design leadership in service to MIT and the world. When the committee released a whitepaper in 2021 with its recommendations, a design center like the Academy was aspirational. Now their insightful work, aided by visionary philanthropy, has made it a reality.

How has philanthropy accelerated design initiatives at MIT?

One way is through the founding of the Morningside Academy for Design. The Academy was established through a $100 million gift from The Morningside Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the T. H. Chan family. Thanks to this gift, several Morningside Academy fellowships were awarded to graduate students this past summer, and construction on the Metropolitan Warehouse was able to begin. The gift will also provide funding for faculty chairs. We are incredibly grateful to the Chan family for their generosity and for recognizing the importance of design at MIT, both for our students and the world. All gifts, no matter their size, are instrumental to supporting design at MIT.

Why is MIT the best place for the Morningside Academy?

We have the best landscape of technological research in the world, as well as a wonderful landscape of design. Ours is a culture of innovation, making, and collaborating, and the Morningside Academy puts those pieces together in an impactful way. The principles of the Academy, particularly its commitment to creativity, interdisciplinary approaches, and equitable design, are the embodiment of MIT values and resources. Most importantly, we have seen and continue to see how MIT students, faculty, and researchers are driven in their pursuit to design a better world. We must support them in those efforts, both through philanthropy and initiatives like the Morningside Academy.

Photograph of John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang, leaders of the Morningside Academy for Design, outside the under-construction Metropolitan Warehouse building, which be home to the new Academy and serve as a design hub for all of MIT. They are standing on the sidewalk mid-day.

Design

A New Academy, a New Dawn for Design

Faculty leaders of the interdisciplinary Morningside Academy for Design discuss how the Academy will elevate design at MIT and beyond

John Ochsendorf and Maria Yang, leaders of the Morningside Academy for Design, outside the under-construction Metropolitan Warehouse building, which will be home to the new Academy and serve as a design hub for all of MIT. Photo: Tony Luong

Design is everywhere at MIT, incorporated into research and academics in fields as diverse as artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and music. The Institute is home to the nation’s first department of architecture, established in 1865, which began offering a widely popular design minor in 2016. Now, the new MIT Morningside Academy for Design is harnessing these resources to take design to a new level, both on campus and beyond.

Launched in March 2022 as a major interdisciplinary center, the Academy builds on the Institute’s leadership in design-focused education and aims to be a global hub for design research, thinking, and entrepreneurship. MIT professors John Ochsendorf, Morningside Academy founding director, the Class of 1942 Professor, and professor of architecture and civil and environmental engineering, and Maria Yang ’91, Morningside Academy associate director, the Gail E. Kendall Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and associate dean of the School of Engineering, discuss how the Academy will elevate design at MIT and in the greater world, supporting students and faculty who are champions of innovation.

What does “design” mean, and why is it so important, especially here at MIT?

Ochsendorf: Design is many things to many people. In some cultures, when people say “design” they refer to aesthetics, the external appearance of a product or structure. But the definition is much broader than that—design is how we deploy technology to serve people. That’s particularly important to emphasize at MIT, where we’re creating and embracing new and existing technologies every day.

Yang: We talk about making a “better world” at MIT, and design is a great way to approach that. Design is the primary mover that gets you from a basic technology to something that is usable by a human being. For example, we have all sorts of technologies that exist for clean cooking, but how do you translate that research into a clean-burning cookstove that will be embraced by families in low-income countries? Or consider a new vaccine. It might look great in the lab, but someone must figure out the system to get it in a syringe, refrigerate and deliver it, educate people, and make it available—the whole process. These examples take basic technology and use design to connect it to users, and that translation can be very hard.

Ochsendorf: With a design-oriented perspective, the framing of the problem becomes as important as the solution. In an educational setting, when students and researchers are challenged with an open-ended design project, they must frame what is important, develop novel solutions, prototype them, and think about how they can scale them to work in the world. That is such a valuable experience and an amazing way of applying the brilliant technical ideas that our students are learning.

What are the goals of the Morningside Academy, and how will this new entity alter the design landscape at MIT?

Ochsendorf: The Academy supports students and faculty who are conceiving and working on novel design solutions across disciplines. Design-based projects are a perfect way to cut across disciplines, because you’re in search of a common solution. We’re creating design leaders of the future who represent the broadest spectrum of humanity, both in their own experience and in the projects they pursue. Our priorities include developing curricula to support new design-related classes, funding undergraduate research projects that have a strong design component, creating high-profile graduate fellowships, and exposing students to research and educational opportunities in design at and beyond MIT. On a broader scale, we want to make sure that when people think of creativity and design, they think of MIT as the leading university in the world. STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—should be synonymous with creativity, invention, and design, but right now it’s not for many people, neither in the public nor in our professions.

Yang: Building a larger design community within MIT is particularly important. We want to make sure everyone knows that people do design here and to bring those people together. When I was a mechanical engineering major here, I would have loved to be a part of a larger design community, but it really wasn’t something I was aware of on campus, and I’ve heard similar sentiments from other alumni. With the Morningside Academy, we’re excited to raise the visibility of design on campus and share that with the outside world. We’re creating new initiatives but also leveraging existing MIT programs and assets.

Why is interdisciplinary collaboration a key focus of the Academy?

Ochsendorf: New insights emerge when you bring together expertise from different disciplines, and MIT has always embraced this idea to some degree. We envision the Academy bringing undergraduate engineering majors together with Sloan MBA students to craft new products, for example, or pairing Department of Urban Studies and Planning fellows with biochemists to work on challenges relating to public health. This will happen through courses and public programming but also through common spaces and social activities. One of our core ideas is to create cross-fertilization by offering graduate fellowships for anyone who’s working in design in any discipline and by bringing that cohort of new fellows together so they can look for methodologies and approaches from other fields that apply to their own work. It’s important to support risk-taking designers who are thinking outside the box, even if their ideas are radical for their discipline.

In general, do students arrive at MIT with design on their radar as something they want to pursue?

Ochsendorf: One of the great joys of teaching at MIT is that our students are inherently designers—creative tinkerers who are already making and thinking. Many of them, no matter their field, arrive with a design portfolio. That trajectory should extend even further once they’re here so that they’re as comfortable tackling open-ended, ill-defined problems as they are in solving well-defined, closed-form equations.

Yang: That said, we have a lot of students who come in with strong technical skills but not much design experience. When they take a design class here, we often see a little switch go off as they realize they have the freedom to be creative in a different way. We want to support that passion and make them understand that it’s something they can bring to their work at MIT and to their future careers.

How can physical spaces, like the Metropolitan Warehouse currently under renovation, support that interdisciplinary mindset?

Yang: Space for people to come together and incubate ideas, generate new thoughts, and build a sense of community is so important at MIT. The Academy is a driver for those facets of community-building, and the Met Warehouse will eventually be a fantastic physical manifestation of that for design, both by hosting programming and by acting as a social space.

Ochsendorf: MIT’s innovative spirit and ability to work across disciplines is also inherent in our campus architecture overall, with interconnected buildings that for the most part don’t have boundaries between departments. This fluidity is a hallmark of our culture, and the opportunity and the challenge for the Met Warehouse as a hub for design is to be a continuation of that ecosystem.

Design can be an important factor in promoting equity across populations. How will the Academy make progress in this area?

Yang: “Design justice” is a movement that rethinks design processes to open up design to participation by a broader cross-section of the community to address inequality. In the Academy’s efforts to champion design across disciplines, we have the opportunity to help our instructors and students take these principles into consideration when they design products and systems. There can be a big gap between having an awesome technology that works in the lab and something that is actually useful and equitable for end users from various populations. To make truly socially impactful change, we must design things in a way that deeply considers the human side of the equation.

Ochsendorf: When designing, it’s critical to understand the cultural context and to consider why end users would desire any particular technology. Many of the challenges that the planet faces, from climate change to public health to inequality, can be tackled if we use a design lens to consider solutions. We need solutions that are not purely technical and not purely policy-based. The goal of a designer is to imagine the world that we want to see.

An illustration of shape, a pair of hands, snippets of computer code, and the words "Bio," "Computing," "Music," "Product," "Work," and "Urban design."

Design

Design for Anything and Everything

Across MIT, researchers apply disciplined approach to form and function

Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino

Thoughtful, intentional planning is central to design for any purpose, so it’s not surprising that designers can be found everywhere at MIT. Researchers work on everything from building better robots to reimagining urban landscapes. Here’s a glimpse at just some of the design work underway.

Elevating the health of our cities

“The resilience of our cities and human landscapes is the biggest design challenge of the 21st century,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and head of architecture at MIT. That’s why de Monchaux is creating a suite of digital tools to help cities weather the challenges presented by climate change, in part by optimizing overlooked urban spaces such as alleys and vacant lots. If such remnant parcels were landscaped, they could aid in drainage and mitigate air pollution, he explains.

“Cities are organic living things, just like a plant or a human body,” he says. “You need to elevate the health of what’s there.”

In an ongoing project begun at the University of California at Berkeley, de Monchaux has digitally mapped thousands of abandoned or underused urban sites and created site-specific designs for park-like community spaces that can mitigate ecological threats from storm flooding, heat waves, and air pollution. Specific design proposals for 3,659 individual sites were published in de Monchaux’s book Local Code (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016).

The aim of this work is to link urban health with social welfare in a “distributed immune system for the 21st century city,” says de Monchaux.

Collaborating with Carlos Sandoval Olascoaga SM ’16, PhD ’21, a former Berkeley colleague who is now a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, de Monchaux is employing the same digital mapping techniques to identify New York City properties that might be used as urban farms.

In this work, both researchers say they hope to promote the democratization of design by enabling community members to collaborate in selecting farm sites. Their mapping software allows non-technical users to evaluate the overall social and ecological impact of a site by graphically synthesizing data analytics and providing interactive feedback. Sandoval Olascoaga says he hopes the work leads to cities that are shaped “collectively and holistically, rather than from the top down.”
Mark Sullivan

Democratizing product creation with AI

Thomas Edison once said: “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”

Faez Ahmed seeks to harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help people connect with their inner Edisons.

Ahmed and his team at the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Design Computation and Digital Engineering (DeCoDE) Lab are creating new AI-driven methods to generate novel designs for various products, from bicycles to aircrafts and ships. Using a database of designs created by people as a starting point, the team applies new machine-learning algorithms to identify promising elements and then uses computer simulations for accelerated discovery.

“The vision of the lab is to create a world where humans and AI design together to solve some of our biggest challenges,” says Ahmed, the Brit and Alex d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in Engineering Design and assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

When humans design new ships or bicycles, he says, the tweaks they make tend to be incremental. “They take a design and maybe change it a little bit. They may not think out of the box,” Ahmed says. Also, it is difficult for people to consider millions of options.

This is where Ahmed’s method comes in. “We create new algorithms that can learn from humans and then work with humans to create better product designs,” he says.

 

Above: With vast applications in machine design, a mechanical linkage mechanism—such as this complex version—translates one type of motion into another. Working in assistant professor Faez Ahmed’s DeCoDE lab and in collaboration with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, doctoral student Amin Heyrani Nobari SM ’22 created LINKS, a dataset of a hundred million planar linkage mechanisms aimed at enabling high-performing data-driven models and helping engineers optimize their designs.

Humans guide AI to tailor and perfect their designs, he explains. “Right now, designs are created at the headquarters of major industrial companies,” he says. With AI-enabled design democratization, “even if you’re not trained in engineering methods, you can create designs.”

For example, working with a dataset of thousands of bicycle designs made by bicycle enthusiasts, the group devised machine-learning tools to distinguish between styles, functions, and parts. The tools leverage this knowledge to generate innovative new bike designs that meet customer needs. Ahmed’s team is now working to build algorithms that can create designs worthy of being patented.
Mark Sullivan

Exploring sonic possibilities

Engineering is a creative process, says Ian Hattwick, who helps MIT students tap this creativity to make music in his class 21M.370 Digital Instrument Design. Technology is central to the artistic practice of the class, in which students examine aspects of sound and learn to build instruments through the design of software systems, hardware interfaces, or interactive artworks.

“There are very tangible qualities to sound,” says Hattwick, an engineer, professional musician, and a lecturer in Music and Theater Arts. “It’s fun to explore but unpredictable. Students get a handle on that unpredictability and interact with emerging sonic processes and sonic results.” Successful instrument building, he points out, requires interdisciplinary skills, including multimedia software programming and electronic and mechanical engineering.

During the 2020–2021 school year, Hattwick invited professional musicians who incorporate digital and electronic musical instruments into their practice to participate in an online concert, “Engineered Expressions.” Students enjoyed performances by Myriam Bleau, Marije Baalman, 80KV, and Author & Punisher, then had the opportunity to engage with the artists in a virtual workshop.

Digital Instrument Design students study the work of such contemporary musicians, then design, build, and play instruments consisting of electronic, mechanical, and software components. Many work on their designs in the Voxel Lab, the music and art makerspace in the Institute’s new InnovationHQ in Kendall Square. The lab is also headquarters for FaMLE, the MIT Laptop Ensemble, which under Hattwick’s direction explores emerging digital music practices such as live coding, a practice in which performers write code in real time to generate music and visuals.

Hattwick enjoys watching students gain artistic and technical confidence as the Digital Instrument Design course progresses. “They should feel empowered to make decisions, think through the implications of the decisions they’re making, and follow their interests in the things they create.”
Christine Thielman

Creating robots with human-level perception

“This is a great time for robotics,” says Luca Carlone, the Leonardo Career Development Professor in Engineering and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “What we do can have a real impact on the world.”

Carlone and his team at the SPARK (Sensing, Perception, Autonomy, and Robot Kinetics) Lab are working to help robots navigate the world with ease, the way humans do. “As humans, we form a complex internal model of the external world, which we use to navigate and make decisions,” says Carlone. “Similarly, robots need spatial perception algorithms to understand their surroundings.”

A lack of scene understanding by an autonomous vehicle can lead to failures—for example, a self-driving car may crash as a result of incorrectly interpreting its sensor data. SPARK Lab researchers are developing robust and certifiable algorithms and systems that enable robots to understand 3-D scenes. They have also developed groundbreaking tools to build hierarchical models (called 3-D scene graphs) of the environment as the robot navigates in it. “My lab is about pushing the state-of-the-art in perception, increasing the robustness of the algorithms, and getting performance guarantees,” says Carlone.

SPARK Lab is also working on the flight and grasping capabilities of robots and drones, since many aerial manipulators are still relatively clumsy. Carlone’s goal is to take lessons from nature: imitating the way an eagle, for example, uses its muscles and tendons effectively to grasp and hold prey. To help a drone move more like an animal, Carlone’s team retrofitted it with soft silicone fingers that can pick up and hold objects—a vital skill for machines used in disaster response missions. In a recent study, he says, “We were able to achieve a 92% grasping success rate, showing that the soft gripper enables grasping where a rigid gripper would fail.”
Christine Thielman

Conceptual illustration showing an abstract network of people relating to each other

Design

Helping Organizations Learn from Turmoil

Dynamic work design takes a focused approach to tackling challenges

Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino

Work changed drastically during the Covid-19 pandemic. While the sudden switch to remote operations was incredibly overwhelming, for many workers it was also a time of intense productivity: many nonessential tasks fell away as organizations concentrated on their most mission-critical work.

Nelson Repenning PhD ’96, associate dean of leadership and special projects at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says this is a known phenomenon. “Organizations tend to become much more functional during a crisis,”  he says.

“I can’t tell you how many managers I’ve talked to who report working in a crisis as the most satisfying, engaging, exciting work of their career. But when the crisis is over, they don’t learn the right lessons. They go right back to the same way of thinking as before.”

The problem, Repenning says, is that leaders rarely adopt such a focused approach to addressing everyday work challenges, even if they employ workflow management tools such as Agile. That’s why Repenning has created a new approach called dynamic work design. Developed with Donald Kieffer, senior lecturer in operations management at MIT Sloan and former vice president for operational excellence at Harley-Davidson, the approach is intended to channel the energy and purpose one might experience in a crisis—without the actual crisis.

“My research is dedicated to helping organizations not leave money, value, happiness, or engagement on the table,” says Repenning, who is the School of Management Distinguished Professor of System Dynamics and Organization Studies and faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center. And more organizations and MIT colleagues are realizing that the payoff of dynamic work design is significant.

Repenning was on the organization design committee of MIT’s Schwarzman College. He regularly is asked to consult about work process dysfunction at MIT and has been involved in planning discussions for the new Morningside Academy for Design.

The dynamic work design approach adopts the premise that everyone’s assumptions about workflow and process will ultimately be proved wrong when unexpected organizational challenges arise, whether from new business goals or crises such as Covid-19. There are four main principles:

  • Establish smart, actionable goals based on what problems exist. Make sure that people can communicate problems they experience effectively and in concrete ways. Listen to your workforce, and know what prevents them from doing their jobs.
  • Identify a process to escalate problems effectively and solve them regularly and in a timely fashion, never losing sight of the original problem-solving goals.
  • Bring in the “people” element by taking advantage of workers’ creativity and talent to better address the identified problems, interactively, as work continues.
  • Identify the “ideal” number of challenges you should be working to solve in an organization. This step essentially creates a list of mini crises—bubbling up problems that can then be solved individually, in bite-size pieces. It’s important not to take on so many challenges that people get overwhelmed.

The use of dynamic work design can vary widely based on an organization’s function and which of the four principles is most relevant to its needs. But in day-to-day practice, workflow can look like an enormous whiteboard filled with sticky notes representing projects and processes, each with a clear designation of team members, status, and due dates.

In regular meetings, managers speak about progress and lack thereof, and the whiteboard provides a look at the production process. Now, as on an assembly line, it’s obvious which projects need attention because they aren’t moving. Dynamic work design makes an intangible process visible so that organizations can harness resources, dedicate time, and leverage workers’ creativity to fixing it.

According to Repenning, one early adopter of dynamic work design is the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and it has seen drastic improvements in productivity. The research center is now able to set budget and planning targets every quarter rather than annually. “For Covid-19 testing, the Broad went from never having done a PCR test to being one of the top-10 labs in the country in about six months. Not many organizations could pull that off so quickly,” he says.

Repenning works collaboratively with organizations in his teaching of dynamic work design to students, whom he sends into workplaces as an important, impactful part of their coursework. He says it’s his favorite part of class: students leave assuming that workplaces aren’t struggling with their workflow. They come back, mouths agape, at the redundancies and inefficiencies they find.

For example, he says, “One student’s company had invested millions of dollars in an electronic repository for their engineering documentation. Nobody told the poor lady that ran the physical documents, so they were killing a forest every year printing out these enormous engineering files that were going in totally superfluous file cabinets.”

Thus, dynamic work design can have important impacts—both immediately and long term. “Particularly in the relationship we have with the Broad, that collaboration has helped increase their impact on the world,” he says. “That’s the Institute firing on all cylinders: we can help those smart people just have more time to be smart and less time burdened with all the bureaucracy.”

Larry Sass sits in front of a colorful wall in the School of Architecture and Planning

Design

Associate Professor Larry Sass Wants a Tech Upgrade for Housing

Architectural designer and researcher envisions construction components that can be printed and shipped

Photo: M. Scott Brauer

When many people think of 3-D printing, they envision toys, cards, or perhaps prototypes for new products. Larry Sass SM ’94, PhD ’00, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, thinks bigger: he wants to build houses using a system similar to 3-D printing.

It’s not as audacious as it seems.

3-D printing has grown to become a mainstream term for home production with computers and machines. The machine that’s central to Sass’s work is actually a computer numerical control woodcutter—picture a 48-by-96-inch table saw—a rudimentary version of which was first designed at MIT in 1949. Equipped with this technology, Sass has developed a forward-thinking vision for components of houses to be printed and shipped “just like a flat piece of furniture from IKEA.”

All that workers would have to do to build the house is assemble various numbered parts using clamps, glue guns, and rubber mallets. Since much less labor than usual is required, such houses should be faster and cheaper to build than traditional housing.

To accomplish this, Sass is exploring the idea of home production directly from 3-D models made using computer-aided design. The system decomposes an initial 3-D shape into smaller, interlocking parts ready for computer-aided fabrication and assembly as a physical kit of parts.

It’s the same principle as the prefabricated home kits sold by Sears in the early 1900s. The difference is that those parts were cut by hand rather than rapidly printed or cut by computer.

Following family footsteps

As a descendant of enslaved people and the grandson of a builder in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Sass says he is proud to be working in architecture. “Once upon a time, slaves built everything for everybody,” he says. Noting that he grew up watching his grandfather build houses and furniture, he adds, “I think of him all the time when I work.”

Sass’s system can produce modern or traditional small buildings on demand, although so far technology is restricted to making smaller-scale exhibition structures. “I can make round buildings. I can make triangular buildings. I can reconstruct Queen Anne and Victorian homes, or I can construct a modern home,” he says.

Yet, his work is about more than aesthetics. Such rapidly built homes could provide shelter in times of crisis. “This would be a great opportunity to make and deliver houses to people right after a disaster,” he says. “I don’t need power tools. I don’t need experienced labor.”

Sass’s current research focuses on refining the sophisticated software necessary to make 3-D-printed homes truly viable. The software must possess a human-like understanding of how gravity works and how pieces fit together, which is a tall order. It’s not yet ready for application; the field is still relatively new. However, change is coming.

“Woodcutting is on its way to becoming computerized. Imagine if you had a sketchbook and the pen or pencil came with a computerized device, helping you to draw a straight line,” he explains. “In the future, a tape measure will be gone. A computer and a machine will do it all. The age of digital construction is on its way.”

In his mind, it’s long overdue: construction costs are so high that computer-aided design is going to become essential. “Homes could be manufactured in a matter of days as opposed to years by using software and machines to make buildings,” he says. “We’ve ignored the construction industry with technology until the last two to five years.”

In the future, Sass hopes to share his knowledge of digital carpentry with technical and trade schools. He’s confident that construction workers will be able to make the transition easily. “It’s very accessible technology,” he says.

Design

Biologist Amy Keating Designs Proteins to Thwart Disease

Lab draws on advances in computational tools to explore creating proteins from scratch

Amy Keating’s lab uses algorithms to search protein structures for examples of smaller surface fragments that complement each other. This image, produced by doctoral student Sebastian Swanson, shows how such methods can build up a model for a new backbone by combining small pieces of structure taken from other proteins. Image: Sebastian Swanson

Proteins do just about everything inside a cell. They build its structure, convey information, and regulate gene expression. Their ranks include molecules as diverse as antibodies, enzymes, and hormones, so when something goes wrong with proteins, it can be a serious problem.

“Almost all diseases involve some sort of a malfunction of proteins,” says Amy Keating, the Jay A. Stein Professor of Biology and head of the Department of Biology.

In cystic fibrosis patients, for example, a protein called CFTR, which moves ions into and out of cells, is either lacking or malfunctioning. In the lungs, this failure leads to the development of mucus that clogs the airways. Some pathogens also rely on protein interactions to attack their hosts. Viruses like influenza, HIV, and the SARS coronaviruses gain entry into cells by binding to cell proteins. Blocking such interactions could block infection.

Having all this power packed into tiny proteins is fascinating to Keating, whose lab designs protein-protein interactions that could potentially be harnessed for drug therapies. Yet, she didn’t start out in biology; she was simply intrigued by the three-dimensional properties of molecules and the way they interact. Following her intellectual curiosity led her from an undergraduate focus on physics to a PhD in organic chemistry, and ultimately to work on protein interactions—a field where she could explore that interest further.

“I was always interested in inter-molecular recognition and self-assembly,” she says.

In the 20 years since she joined MIT, she has focused on the biology of protein interactions in nature and, more recently, designing protein interactions not found in biology.

Taking clues from nature

There are about 20,000 different proteins in the human body, circulating in any given cell by the millions. All start with the cell’s own DNA. Individual genes code for specific proteins, and the cell’s machinery assembles them from strands of amino acids. These strands then fold in on themselves, settling into specific 3-D shapes as bonds form between different parts of the strand. This structure is key to the protein’s function, including how it recognizes and binds with other proteins in interactions that underlie myriad biological processes.

Keating’s lab examines groups of related proteins to learn more about how they do their jobs. “Every eight to ten years we pick an interesting new protein family whose interactions are important for cell decisions in biology and do a deep dive,” she says. In recent years, that has included Bcl-2 proteins, which help regulate programmed cell death, a process by which a cell whose DNA is damaged beyond repair kills itself. If Bcl-2 proteins can’t trigger cell death, the damaged cells can continue reproducing, potentially leading to cancer.

Proteins play countless roles, and Keating is particularly interested in creating proteins that can block interactions that contribute to disease. In other words, designing something that binds with Protein A to prevent it from binding with Protein B, thereby interfering with the basic processes that allow disease to progress.

For Keating, like other biological engineers, designing new protein interactions started with building on those already known from nature. “We would choose to study protein interactions where there was already information about the geometry of how they interact,” she says. With that information in hand, they could use a biochemical approach to change one or both of the proteins to alter that interaction—perhaps making the pair bind more tightly, or changing a protein that naturally interacts with several others so that it will interact with only one.

If you’re trying to make therapeutics, for example, “you might want to make a tight-binding but very selective inhibitor of just the protein that’s problematic in disease,” Keating says. “You don’t want it going off and binding a bunch of other proteins that are actually good for the cell.” Keating refers to this kind of tweaking as “redesign.”

From redesign to de novo design

The revolution in DNA sequencing has made it possible to synthesize and lab-test proteins on a larger scale, and advances in machine learning have dramatically improved researchers’ ability to predict protein structure and expand the library of known structures. So, Keating’s lab is now trying to move into de novo design of proteins, she says. Basically, “if you don’t have a good solution already from nature, can we invent one?”

This is becoming increasingly possible with computational tools such as DeepMind’s AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program that, with a high degree of accuracy, predicts a protein’s structure on the basis of its amino acid sequence. The dream, Keating says, would be to start with nothing but the DNA sequence of a protein and design “something that would block it, or bind to it, or detect it and inhibit it.”

One approach her lab has taken is to focus on small sections of proteins. While whole protein structures are incredibly varied and complex, she says, “they’re all built out of different combinations of the same pieces.” Now, rather than looking for entire proteins that will bind, her lab is using algorithms to search known protein structures for examples of smaller surface fragments that complement each other, which they call “seeds.” They then consider whether such seeds could be stitched together into an actual protein molecule. They’ve been successful in these initial steps.

“We know they look pretty good,” Keating says. “If we stitch them together, they have a lot of the properties of natural proteins.” Lab testing has yet to prove whether this is an effective technique, but Keating is optimistic about the momentum of computational tools in the field.

“The rate of progress has just accelerated I think a hundredfold from what it was just two years ago,” she says. “Great things are going to happen.”

 

Photograph of Jack Yao,a man wearing a blue shirt, sitting in front of his extendable laptop screen.

Design

MIT System Design and Management Alum Makes Productivity Portable

Founder of Mobile Pixels credits MIT with giving him the skills to launch his company and thrive through the pandemic

Photo: Bob O’Connor

When Covid-19 lockdowns forced legions of employees to work from home in 2020, Jack Yao SM ’18 saw a huge leap in demand at his startup, Mobile Pixels, Inc. The company, which sells monitor extension kits and other tools to help people work productively from anywhere, ballooned from three employees and $4.2 million in sales at the end of 2019 to $20 million by the end of 2021. This year, Yao says he expects to reach $30 million in sales. While nobody could have predicted this path to success, Yao credits MIT with giving him the skills to launch his company and thrive through the pandemic.

Yao earned master’s degrees in engineering and management through MIT System Design and Management (SDM), which teaches its fellows to use systems thinking to understand the technical, managerial, and societal components of large-scale, complex challenges. The program has taught a method focused on designing and architecting systems to solve problems since its founding 25 years ago.

Yao, who was a business leader at GE Aviation when he arrived at MIT in the fall of 2015, says he wasn’t expecting to launch a company when he enrolled in SDM; he simply hoped to advance his career at GE. He says MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem made his success not only conceivable but achievable.

“I thought you had to be a real genius to start a company. But when you are at MIT, everyone next to you is starting a company, so that goal becomes more realistic,” Yao says.

The SDM curriculum also gives students the tools entrepreneurs need, Yao says. “A lot of the business classes are taught with an entrepreneurship focus. You have to write a business plan, build financial statements, research the competition, and put a pitch deck together,” he says. “On the engineering side, in every class you had to build a working prototype. So, that combination really prepped students to start their own companies.”

Not surprisingly, when Yao got an idea for a product during the summer of 2016, he knew just what to do. The inspiration for Mobile Pixels’ first product—a portable external monitor that attaches to a laptop as a second screen—came to him during his SDM summer internship at Amazon. Frustrated by the constraints of working on his small laptop screen, he thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if another screen could slide out?”

Once back at MIT, Yao picked up some off-the-shelf components and built a working prototype in the Hobby Shop. “My classmates and professors thought it was cool and said: ‘Could you make one for me?’” he says. Eventually, he teamed up with his roommate, Stephen Ng, a mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University, to build more sophisticated prototypes. Yao’s SDM classmate Shruti Banda SM ’18 joined to help the team develop its marketing strategy, and the three officially founded Mobile Pixels in January 2018.

With some seed funding and mentorship from MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund and from a similar program at Northeastern, Mobile Pixels launched a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter. In October 2018, the company won the $100,000 Diamond Prize from the startup accelerator MassChallenge. “That’s when we decided to pursue this full time,” Yao says, noting that the crowdfunding effort raised $1.5 million in presales.

Today, Mobile Pixels is doing so well that Yao has fielded several acquisition offers (although he says he and Ng have no plans to sell the business; Banda left the company in 2019). It’s a level of success Yao never anticipated when he arrived at MIT but which he believes SDM made possible.

“I think SDM is great because of the exposure to both engineering and management. The two go hand in hand if you’re going to start a company,” Yao says.

Design

Inspired to Heal the Human Heart

Ellen Roche combines robotics, biologics to design cardiac devices

Ellen Roche’s medical device designs include a biohybrid robotic heart designed for high-fidelity testing of mitral valve repair strategies. Photo: Courtesy Roche Lab

Design inspiration often strikes Ellen Roche in her MIT lab. But it can also emerge while she’s with her children at the New England Aquarium, where soft creatures such as jellyfish share characteristics with the human heart. Or when she sees textiles with unique structures and weaves that could be used to reinforce devices that support and repair cardiac function.

The Latham Family Career Development Professor and an associate professor at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Roche takes such ideas back to her lab, where she and her team use combinations of organic tissue and synthetic, robotic components to design groundbreaking medical devices.

Ellen RocheOne device draws on the motion of jellyfish, combined with clinical imaging datasets, to replicate the diaphragm’s movement. Another helps the heart’s ventricles eject blood, using a motion akin to the simultaneous squeezing and wringing of a towel or sponge. The lab has also developed a new type of medical mesh, inspired by textiles and enabled by advancements in 3-D printing, that helps support and repair cardiac function.

“The challenge of integrating synthetic mechanical devices into a dynamic organ such as the heart, with the aim to repair or augment function, inspires me,” says Roche, leader of the Therapeutic and Technology Design and Development research group and recipient of the 2022 MIT Future Founders Prize Competition grand prize.

Roche’s approach to medical device design transcends the traditional boundaries of individual scientific fields. A bioengineer by training, Roche also attended medical school and went on to work with medical device companies Mednova Medical Technologies, Abbott Laboratories, and Medtronic, where she helped design blood filters, coronary stents, and a minimally invasive system for replacing aortic valves. She then completed her PhD at Harvard University and a postdoc in Ireland (her native country) before joining the faculty at MIT in 2017.

Her 25-person lab, working closely with industry partners and clinicians, focuses on designing minimally invasive devices to improve and support failing organs and deliver drugs. The lab also develops realistic benchtop models to test and monitor device effectiveness. Roche’s research recently expanded to include respiratory care and diabetes. But her primary focus remains the heart, which continually adapts even as it pumps 2,000 gallons of blood a day.

“Of course, with all this complexity, sometimes parts fail,” says Roche. “We design devices that can repair part of the function and integrate very seamlessly with the native heart function.”

Track record of innovation

Roche and her team use computational analysis, soft robotics, advanced materials, and evolving imaging techniques to understand how to help the heart without affecting its native function or leaving synthetic material behind.

Their medical device designs include a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts in a soft robotic matrix that replaces heart muscle and is bonded to inner heart tissue. The robotic muscles squeeze and twist the inner heart, mimicking the way a real human heart beats and pumps blood.

 

Roche and her team have used the biohybrid heart to simulate disease and then repair it with different types of valves. Designed to be a benchtop model (versus an implantable device), it provides an innovative way to better visualize and test repair options and to train interventionalists.

Roche’s lab also has developed:

  • A device that attaches directly to a damaged heart and delivers medicine to the area where it is most needed. This device has been modified to also deliver treatment for type 1 diabetes.
  • A soft robotic sleeve that is implanted around the heart to support pumping, and recently a diaphragmatic assist device to rescue ventilation.
  • A new catheter system that can affix a biodegradable patch to close a hole in the heart. Currently being commercialized by a company in Paris, the catheter is expected to be available for patient use in 2023.

The first two of these example designs feature biomaterials that don’t need to come in contact with blood, dramatically reducing the risks of infection and blood clots. Because most can be delivered minimally invasively, they ensure shorter procedures and hospital stays for the people who receive them.

Setting design requirements

To begin the design process for each project, Roche first assembles a multidisciplinary team that may include mechanical engineers, bioengineers, material scientists, pharmacists, surgeons, and other doctors. She typically involves clinicians from the get-go, so her team can establish functional requirements, parameters, and engineering specifications for a functional product that addresses a real need.

“Having that team from the beginning just really helps to accelerate the development and ensure that everyone’s on the same page,” she says. “It really helps with innovative, new ideas because often people with unique expertise or a slightly different background can bring practical knowledge and a fresh perspective.”

Roche’s strategy is to collaborate, design, iterate, test and ultimately simplify each design while keeping in mind the ultimate goal of making a difference in the lives of people. She says, “Whether you’re designing a medical device or a building or a structure, a lot of the same principles apply.”

In the long term, Roche dreams of creating a totally artificial soft robotic heart, a feat that would help address the long waiting list for heart transplants. “Ultimately, it would be amazing to build a completely functioning organ,” Roche says.

—Pamela Ferdinand
Pamela Ferdinand is a 2003–04 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Blurred close up view of colorful code on a computer screen

Design

Daniel Jackson Takes a Hard Look at Software Design

Professor of computer science calls for a new, more systematic approach

Photo: Ali Shah Lakhani/Unsplash

Daniel Jackson SM ’88, PhD ’92 accepted his first job as a software engineer in 1984, but after decades in the field, he has come to a rather striking conclusion: software design needs a reboot. Too many products, he claims, are “cluttered with needless complexity, behaving in unexpected and inconsistent ways.”

Daniel JacksonWhen things go wrong, as they often do, blame is commonly attributed to a bug in the code or a problem in the user interface, but the main culprit in many cases is poor design, says Jackson, a professor of computer science and associate director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He believes software should be empowering, dependable, and easy to use, and he has laid out a prescription for doing better in his book The Essence of Software (Princeton University Press, 2021).

Jackson’s blunt assessment of the state of software is not the result of a sudden epiphany but instead dates back to his earliest experiences in the field. “I’ve always believed, since the beginning of my career, that there was a better way of doing things,” he says. “In my first job as a programmer, I was struck by how ad hoc and unsystematic programming was.”

That realization spurred Jackson’s interest in “formal methods,” an engineering field that uses mathematically rigorous techniques to evaluate software systems and to make them more precise. “I worked in that field a long time and eventually recognized that the mathematical analysis didn’t really get to the heart of the problem, which mainly originated in the design phase. What was really needed is a simpler way of organizing and characterizing the design of software.”

Meeting human needs

Even the notion of design requires reexamination, Jackson says. Several definitions have been put forth, and he favors one advanced by the architect Christopher Alexander, who regarded design as the shaping of an artifact to meet a human need within a particular environment or context. In programming, Jackson explains, that means prioritizing the user experience.

Unfortunately, this approach is far from the norm, Jackson laments. When it comes to creating software—as opposed to, say, bridges or skyscrapers—design is commonly a step in name only. “Programmers are often just given a list of requirements and rush from there to writing code,” he says. “They know that design is important, but they don’t know how to structure it.” As a result, they may employ inefficient processes, relying heavily on trial and error.

“There is, however, a way of spelling things out in advance that can make efforts less random and less wasteful,” Jackson asserts. “For software, the design process should be based on identifying concepts—using old concepts that work well and inventing new ones when necessary.” This approach, he says, “can give us a new way to think about design.”

As Jackson defines the term in the realm of software, concepts are “a way of organizing functionality, the useful stuff that computers provide, into independent and reusable units.” To put it more simply, he says, “the concepts of a software system are the ideas you need to understand in order to use it.”

To use Twitter, for example, you need to understand the concept of a tweet and a hashtag. Key concepts associated with Facebook include posts, tags, and friends. There’s also the concept of the upvote, or thumbs up, which can be used in settings ranging from book and movie reviews to comments in the New York Times, or in appraising answers posted on Stack Overflow. The reuse of well-established concepts can be a big plus in software design, Jackson says; it keeps designers and engineers from wasting time reinventing the wheel and can also reduce confusion among users.

“People come to understand complex apps by recognizing concepts that are familiar to them,” Jackson says. The Zoom software platform provides a good example. First, there is the concept of a multi-person video call. “But that alone is not enough to understand Zoom,” Jackson says. “You also need to understand the concept of a session identifier, a key feature that distinguishes it from Skype and FaceTime.”

The Zoom app includes many other concepts, including the text chat box, breakout rooms, and polls. In well-designed apps, such concepts provide independent functions that work together like a well-oiled machine. Without good design, usability suffers.

Jackson spent nearly a decade studying 100 failed apps to devise his new strategy for software design, which he is now introducing to the next generation of programmers through his writing, classroom teaching at MIT, and online courses. In this process, “concepts are central,” Jackson says. On this score, he adds, programmers might want to get with the program.

— Steve Nadis
Steve Nadis is a 1997–98 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.