chevron file-pdf envelope facebook twitter share-alt view_carousel windows zoom-in comment

From the President

Thank You from President L. Rafael Reif

The MIT Campaign for a Better World raised $6.24B to help the people of MIT tackle humanity’s urgent global challenges.

The MIT Campaign for a Better World raised $6.24B to help the people of MIT tackle humanity’s urgent global challenges. Watch President Reif’s thank you to the MIT community.

Human Health

MIT Bridge Project Spans Disciplines for Better Cancer Diagnostics

Researchers meld their expertise in engineering, immunology, and polymer chemistry to tackle ovarian cancer

This false-colored scanning electron microscope image shows the microneedles used to detect ovarian cancer. Image: Sasan Jalili

In 2019, 20 women diagnosed with ovarian tumors agreed to try out a new MIT-designed skin patch—a small, clear, flexible disc that may one day become the first noninvasive screening tool for ovarian cancer.

Short of a biopsy, there’s currently no screening method or diagnostic test for ovarian cancer, the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths among women. MIT researchers Darrell Irvine PhD ’00 and Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93 are melding their expertise in engineering, immunology, and polymer chemistry to change that.

“Ovarian cancer over the past 30 years has seen very little improvement in survivability. We need multiple means of addressing this disease; there’s not going to be a single bullet,” says Hammond, Institute Professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. The microneedle patch Hammond is developing with Irvine, the Underwood-Prescott Professor in the departments of biological engineering and materials science and engineering, could become a lifesaving tool for the early detection of ovarian cancer.

The work is supported by the Bridge Project, a collaboration drawing on expertise from the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and the Dana-Farber/ Harvard Cancer Center that brings bioengineering, advanced cancer science, and clinical oncology together to solve today’s most challenging problems in cancer research and care.

Finding ovarian cancer

portrait of Paula HammondHammond has a wealth of experience developing biomaterials to enable targeted drug and gene delivery for a variety of challenging disorders. Yet ovarian cancer strikes her as particularly insidious: it’s hard to detect and often diagnosed too late to save the patient. Further, unlike cancers with known genetic origins, ovarian cancer has more opaque causes. “We’ve needed to be much sneakier about how we approach ovarian cancer,” Hammond says.

She learned some daunting truths about ovarian cancer in 2013, when she met oncologist Dr. Kevin Elias at the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute. Elias, intrigued by nanomedicine’s potential for cancer treatment, became a postdoctoral associate in Hammond’s lab at MIT. When he later started his own lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and began evaluating microRNAs’ (miRNAs) potential as a biomarker, he immediately thought that Hammond and Irvine’s microneedle technology could prove useful.

MiRNAs are small, noncoding strands of RNA that regulate gene expression. Made up of nucleic acids that synthesize proteins in all living cells, miRNAs can be found in blood, urine, saliva, and the interstitial fluid between blood vessels and cells.

Elias knew Irvine, whose background is in immunology, and Hammond had been developing microneedle patches as an alternative to traditional vaccine delivery and as a tool for gauging immune responses and pinpointing infections. But Elias had something else in mind.

portrait of Darrell IrvineWhen Elias asked, “If I can identify a ‘fingerprint’ of microRNAs associated with ovarian cancer, can we use your tool set to detect it,” Irvine says they started thinking about microneedles as a way to sample material out of—rather than delivering things into—the skin.

Sasan Jalili, a postdoctoral research associate the Koch Institute, helped design the microneedle patches to project only several hundred microns into the skin, where there are few capillaries and pain receptors. The patches are made of a biodegradable, FDA-approved polymer similar to the material used in resorbable sutures. Their tiny prongs are coated with hydrogels, a network of polymers that can absorb water or biological fluids without losing their structure.

Anasuya Mandal SM ’14, PhD ’17, who completed her PhD under Irvine and Hammond, started making hydrogels out of alginate, a benign seaweed extract. Within the alginate matrix, the team was able to incorporate molecular strands that attract the miRNAs Elias hoped to sample.

The alginate layer swells in the presence of water, absorbing interstitial fluid that may contain miRNAs from cancer cells. “They get captured in the hydrogel, and we essentially isolate miRNA from the patch by dissolving the alginate layer,” Hammond says. These recovered molecules are then analyzed for Elias’s ovarian cancer “fingerprint.”

A mail-in cancer test

The women who agreed to participate in the microneedle patch trial had all experienced pelvic discomfort and had already undergone an ultrasound that revealed an ovarian mass.

Doctors suspected—but couldn’t confirm—that these masses were malignant. Only a biopsy can do that, but in the case of ovarian cancer, biopsies are ill-advised.

“We don’t biopsy the ovaries because it risks seeding the abdominal cavity with cancer cells and worsening the prognosis,” Elias says. “So, the decision is really whether you wait and observe it or remove the whole ovary.”

An accurate ovarian cancer test would make this decision crystal clear. The holy grail, according to Elias, would be a noninvasive, accurate cancer screen that a patient could conduct herself.

“The most practical application for the microneedle patch is a patient who lives in a remote part of Maine, six hours away from specialists,” he said. For such a patient, even coming in for a blood sample might be difficult.

Microneedle patches may one day resemble flexible polymer Band-Aids “that can be mailed to somebody’s house and mailed back,” he says.

The women who generously volunteered for the clinical trial had prototype patches affixed to their abdomens with surgical tape. After 30 minutes, the two-by-two squares were removed and checked for miRNAs. “The results are being analyzed in a blinded fashion, so I cannot tell yet whether the miRNA test correctly identified all of the women with cancer,” Elias says. However, in prior analyses, the test identified about 90% of women with ovarian cancer and had a false positive rate of less than 1%.

With continued Bridge Project support, the researchers hope to do a more extensive follow-up to see if the patches will detect ovarian cancer in patients who have not yet been diagnosed with an ovarian mass.

Irvine says the Bridge Project “was absolutely crucial because it allowed us—relatively quickly and without a lot of preliminary data—to pitch this novel approach. And we’re now positioned to raise funds from the National Institutes of Health or other sources that might be interested in supporting our work.”

Elias, now director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital gynecologic oncology laboratory, credits the Bridge Project with enabling higher-risk projects because “the clinicians and the engineers involved can come up with a creative solution to a new problem, rather than focusing on needing to have a large body of preliminary data in order to start sponsoring a project.”

“What’s unique about the Bridge Project,” he say s, “is that it leverages the expertise of the participating institutions.”

Meanwhile, MIT researchers are pushing ahead with microneedle technology. Irvine and Jalili are collaborating with the UMass Chan Medical School on using microneedle patches to monitor immune responses to autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis and lupus. Jalili is using the patches to unravel key immune mechanisms regulating the efficacy of potential vaccines against cancer.

Irvine says, “This is an area that’s going to continue to grow. We’re excited about the potential for using microneedle patches in many different ways, even though it’s really a relatively simple device.”

Adela (YiYu) Zhang and Jakin Ng pose on MIT's campus.

Discovery Science

MIT PRIMES = A Plus for Youth

Math program mentoring helps high schoolers advance in research

Adela (YiYu) Zhang ’18, left, mentored Jakin Ng ’25 in MIT’s Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science. Photo: Ken Richardson

In late 2020, three researchers working in an area of math called combinatorics wrote a paper proving “a Stembridgetype equality for skew dual stable Grothendieck polynomials.” Relatively few people on the planet know what that means—and co-author Jakin Ng ’25 admits she wasn’t one of them when she dove into the project. “The first time I looked at it, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to understand this,’” she recalls.

At that time, Ng and her research partners, Fiona Abney-McPeek and Serena An, were high school students participating in the MIT Mathematics Department’s yearlong Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (PRIMES). Now they’ve submitted their paper for publication, and Ng is a first-year student at MIT in Course 18-C Mathematics with Computer Science. An is slated to enroll next year, and Abney-McPeek is at Harvard.

PRIMES, Ng says, gave her “a taste of what professional mathematicians do—instead of just learning about results other people have already achieved, actually creating new knowledge.”

PRIMES pairs high schoolers with MIT graduate students and postdocs to investigate unsolved problems. Founded in 2010 by math professor Pavel Etingof and lecturer Slava Gerovitch PhD ’99, it has expanded into several subprograms, all free to students. PRIMES-USA attracts some of the most advanced students nationwide, while PRIMES Circle and MathROOTS are designed to reach talented kids with less previous exposure to higher math. All of the program’s offerings aim to open the world of mathematics to more people, particularly those underrepresented in the field.

Group projects are relatively new for PRIMES-USA, but Ng was glad to be part of a trio so each student could build on the others’ insights. She, Abney-McPeek, and An connected often and had weekly video checkins with their mentor, MIT PhD candidate Adela (YiYu) Zhang ’18.

Zhang provided the high schoolers with background reading on Grothendieck polynomials—the symmetries of which can reveal information about a mathematically important class of geometric objects called Grassmannians—and a roadmap to help them get started. In Ng’s words, “Adela was able to zoom out and give us the macroscopic view of what we should be working on.”

Zhang says her top priority was to help her mentees build the skills and habits all research mathematicians need, such as “being comfortable with getting stuck but still not giving up.”

These are lessons Zhang says she feels she is still learning herself. As a young student in Shanghai, China, she was attracted to math by the beauty of famous theorems, but in her day-to-day research she has had to come to grips with slow progress. She knows what it’s like to feel a bit overwhelmed. “When I started mentoring Jakin’s group, I was just starting to work on my own project for the first time in grad school. So, I can fully sympathize with what it feels like,” she says.

There are successes as well as setbacks. Zhang recalls that Ng spent weeks slogging through examples of an unfamiliar technique called constructing bijections before finally getting the hang of it. “She proved something using this technique, which I found really impressive,” Zhang says. “I was proud of her.”

Ask Ng if there were moments during the year when she thought her team might never get anywhere, and she laughs. “Basically, the whole time except for the end. I think that’s the point. That’s how research goes. You have a small victory, you celebrate it, and then you’re back to not knowing what’s going on.”

Connecting with a community

Both Ng and Zhang say that connecting with others through math has made their research pursuits more rewarding. As an undergraduate at MIT, says Zhang, “I felt very lonely because there weren’t many women doing higher math.” She persevered thanks to encouragement from a female postdoc who supervised her in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Zhang went on to serve in turn as a mentor for UROP as well as for PRIMES. The program recognized her ongoing work in 2021 by awarding her a George Lusztig Mentorship.

Ng started building her own math support network while growing up in Ithaca, New York, attending math camps and leading her high school’s Science Olympiad and math competition teams. She’s met some of her closest friends, including her MIT roommate, through such activities. “A lot of what kept me interested in math was having that community,” she says.

Whatever the future holds for Ng, she says she expects math or its applications will play some part in her profession. Meanwhile, she is enjoying a variety of creative activities at MIT, including origami and music. She says PRIMES helped her see that creativity is vital to research. “You’re venturing into territory that no one has ever really studied before,” she says. “You have to think of new ways to look at something. Otherwise, it’s already been done.”

Aerial view of the MIT campus.

Reimagining Campus

In Support of MIT’s Campus

MIT donors contribute to creation of new Welcome Center and Earth and Environment Building plus renovation of beloved Kresge Auditorium

From collaborative labs to classrooms, arts spaces to residences, makerspaces to historical landmarks, the reinvigoration of campus has created a physical environment as open and energized as the people of MIT. Below are stories of alumni and friends who are helping to usher in a major evolution of MIT’s spaces.

“[We hope] to help MIT turn its campus into a competitive advantage.”

Hamid Moghadam ’77, SM ’78 wants to help MIT put its best face forward. His support for the MIT Welcome Center in Kendall Square and for a new Earth and Environment Building at the Green Building, he says, was inspired by his vision of a more inviting campus.

“I thought it would be wonderful to have a focal point where people could have a really great first impression of MIT,” the cofounder and chairman of the San Francisco-based Prologis says of the Welcome Center, which is named for him and his wife, Tina.

Recently opened as part of MIT’s new Kendall Square gateway, the center has a 200-seat auditorium, art installations, and a fun “Welcome Wall” featuring a photo of the MIT Dome enhanced with illustrations.

It’s a space designed with MIT’s prospective students and their families in mind. “While MIT certainly has no problem attracting some of the best students—and while substance is the most important thing—presentation is also important,” Moghadam says, noting that he and his wife hope “to help MIT turn its campus into a competitive advantage.”

The Earth and Environment Building, currently under construction, offers a similar opportunity, he says, lending a “sense of presence” to the 21-story Green Building, designed by I. M. Pei ’40. The new structure will serve as a central hub where students, researchers, faculty, and others can gather for classes, events, and programming on climate, environment, and sustainability issues.

Inside, work will address climate change, “the existential issue of our time,” Moghadam says. “The future is all about the kids, the students, and MIT attracts some of the best,” he says. “If we are to have a planet in the next 100 years, I think it will be these young minds who are going to do it.”
Mark Sullivan

“I received a great education. And I’m ever so grateful.”

Throughout his life, Lord Swraj Paul ’52 has risen to meet diverse challenges. His company, Caparo Group, has gained global recognition since he founded it in 1968. He is a longtime philanthropist and an advisor, as member of the Privy Council, to Queen Elizabeth II.

Looking back, what is his takeaway from these experiences? Gratitude is key.

“I received a great education. And I’m ever so grateful,” says Paul, who grew up in British-ruled India at a time when attending college in the United States seemed almost unfathomable. “During my time at the Institute, I saw how education was infused with the ethic of public service, and I applaud MIT for its continuing commitment to these ideals.”

In 2020, he made a gift in support of the landmark, Eero Saarinen-designed Kresge Auditorium, MIT’s premier venue for world leaders, renowned musicians, distinguished speakers, and student presentations. The 1,200-seat large theater has been named the Lord Swraj Paul PC ’52 and Angad Paul ’92 Theater—or, more colloquially, the Paul Theater—after Paul and his late son, Angad, who graduated from MIT in 1992. His son Akash Paul SM ’81 also attended MIT.

“MIT means a lot to our family, and I am honored that we are able to support the continuation of its values and way of life through this iconic building,” Paul says.
Joelle Carson

An illustrated map of MIT Cambridge campus.

Wide Angle

A Reinvention of MIT’s Campus

Spaces for learning, living, discovering, and making were created and renewed during the MIT Campaign for a Better World.

Click the magnifying glass to view full image.

MIT’s campus underwent a major reinvention during the Campaign for a Better World. Historic buildings were ushered into the modern age. New residence halls opened, and libraries were revamped. A new facility was dedicated to groundbreaking work in nanotechnology. A portal between academia and industry—and a new gateway to MIT—was established in Kendall Square, while homes for music, design, computing, and Earth and environmental sciences took shape.

Click the magnifying glass above to view a full image of the map or download a pdf of the map.

Jump to:
Completed Since 2011 | Under Construction | In Design

Completed Since 2011

1. Theater Arts Building (Building W97)
The rejuvenation of a former warehouse on Vassar Street creates a home for MIT’s theater arts program, which has more than doubled its enrollment in recent years.

2. New House Residence (Building W70)
A thorough renovation brought new life to the 115,000-square-foot residence that is home to 290 undergraduates in nine living groups.

3. David H. Koch Childcare Center (Building W64)
With 11 classrooms, as well as playgrounds, climbing structures, and gardens, this new facility serves children of faculty, staff, and students.

5. Richard J. Resch Boathouse (Building W8)
A substantial renovation of this circa-1966 crew boathouse added space for more shells, new fitness areas, upgraded locker rooms, and a larger viewing deck on the Charles River.

6. New Vassar Residence (Building W46)
MIT’s new undergraduate residence hall built on the site of the old West Garage parking facility provides 450 students with housing close to the heart of campus.

8. Kresge Auditorium (Building W16)
A meticulous renovation of Kresge Auditorium, the Eero Saarinen-designed “main stage” of MIT, stabilized the features of this mid-century Modernist landmark while improving visitor comfort.

11. MIT Chapel (Building W15)
The renovation and renewal of the landmark chapel designed by Eero Saarinen brought about needed repairs.

12. Samuel Tak Lee Building (Building 9)
The substantial renovation of this building provides dedicated space for the innovative STL Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab.

13. Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel (Building 17)
The renovation of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, used since 1938 to test aerodynamics, establishes the most advanced academic wind tunnel in US academia.

14. Building 31
Building 31, home to the departments of aeronautics and astronautics and mechanical engineering,  has been transformed into an inspiring, collaborative space for research in autonomous vehicles, turbomachinery, energy storage, and transportation.

15. Great Dome (Building 10)
Erected in 1916, the Great Dome underwent a full restoration, returning the skylight to brilliance for the first time since it was blacked out during World War II and restoring the Baker Library reading room.

16. Lisa T. Su Building—MIT.nano (Building 12)
MIT.nano, inside the Lisa T. Su Building, supports the activities of more than 2,000 faculty and researchers as they work on projects at the nanoscale (one billionth of a meter).

18. The Simons Building (Building 2)
Home to the Department of Mathematics and portions of the Department of Chemistry, this was the first of the Main Group of 100-year-old Beaux Arts buildings to receive a comprehensive renewal.

19. Hayden Library and Courtyard (Building 14)
The renovation of Hayden Library and the Building 14 Courtyard, central elements of the campus for more than 70 years, creates an intellectual town square that fosters connection and collaboration.

21. Ralph Landau Building (Building 66)
A modernist icon, this I. M. Pei ’40-designed building, home to the Department of Chemical Engineering, has been refreshed.

22. MIT Museum (Building E28)
Occupying 67,000 square feet in Kendall Square, the new museum spotlights collections curated by experts on MIT-based invention.

23. Moghadam Welcome Center, MIT Admissions, MIT InnovationHQ (Building E38)
This new multiuse building in Kendall Square welcomes prospective students and visitors and provides spaces for student innovators and entrepreneurs to collaborate.

24. Kendall Open Space
Two acres of landscaped green spaces and open spaces invite the MIT and Cambridge communities to gather, connect, and discover.

25. Graduate Residence and Childcare (Building E37)
Rising above the Moghadam Welcome Center and MIT InnovationHQ in Kendall Square, this new residence provides 454 apartments for graduate students and a childcare facility.

26. Morris and Sophie Chang Building (Building E52)
The complete renovation of this Art Deco gem along the Charles River, home to the Department of Economics and administrative offices and student services the the MIT Sloan School of Management,  revived an aging facility while creating the state-of-the-art Samberg Conference Center.

Under Construction

4. Burton Conner Residence (Building W51)
A renewal project slated for completion in fall 2022 will restore this beloved residence’s infrastructure and prepare it to serve students well for years to come.

7. Music Building (Building W18)
A new music building sited next to Kresge Auditorium will provide a dedicated home for MIT’s conservatory-level music program, which annually enrolls more than 1,500 students.

17. MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing (Building 45)
The centralized headquarters for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will be an interdisciplinary hub for research and innovation in computing, artificial intelligence, and related fields.

20. Earth and Environment Building (Building 55), Green Building (Building 54)
A new building adjacent to the I. M. Pei ’40-designed Green Building will add a major new hub for environmental and climate research. Meanwhile, infrastructure improvements will modernize the iconic Green Building.

In Design

9. Metropolitan Storage Warehouse Building (Building W41)
A renovation of this historic building will provide a new home for the School of Architecture and Planning, the recently established Morningside Academy for Design, and a Project Manus-run makerspace open to the whole community.

10. Stratton Student Center (Building W20)
A renewal of the Stratton Student Center will improve design, infrastructure, and flexible-use space in this 24/7 central hub of student life.

Reimagining Campus

Q&A: A Campus as Energized as the Community

Julie A. Lucas, Vice President for Resource Development, discusses how generosity is fueling a physical transformation of MIT

The view down Main Street showcases the transformation of Kendall Square. Building E37, a new 29-story graduate residence, is at center. Photo: Eric Keezer

Continuous renewal and renovation of MIT’s physical facilities is an essential component of the Institute’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students. During the recent MIT Campaign for a Better World, the MIT community raised more than $600 million in support of capital needs. Julie A. Lucas, the Institute’s Vice President for Resource Development, talks about how this collective generosity is helping to fuel a campus transformation.

To meet the needs of our community, MIT’s campus has changed substantially over the past decade and is continuing to evolve. How does philanthropy help make this possible?

MIT is fortunate to have many alumni and friends who share the Institute’s vision for a modern, sustainable campus that can equip students, faculty, and staff to take on big challenges—now and decades from now. Our donors have contributed to the creation of new forward-thinking interdisciplinary research, innovation, living, learning, and maker facilities. They have also helped us reinvigorate and maintain MIT treasures such as the Great Dome, Kresge Auditorium, and the Hayden Library and Building 14 Courtyard, plus numerous other spaces that underpin our education and research activities.

Can you share some examples of impactful projects?

It’s difficult to pick! The Campaign made it possible to create MIT’s first dedicated music building, which is expected to open in 2024. The arts are vital to MIT; hundreds of our students arrive on campus as trained musicians, while others become music lovers through classes or extracurricular activities. The building will have state-of-the-art production facilities, music technology labs, and performance spaces, a huge benefit for MIT and the local community. Next year, MIT will gain a new home for the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing at the heart of campus, reflecting the important role computing plays across all disciplines at MIT.

Another notable project is the renovation of the iconic Metropolitan Storage Warehouse building. When it opens in 2025, the Met Warehouse will be a new home for our School of Architecture and Planning and the recently established MIT Morningside Academy for Design. It will also have the largest makerspace on campus.

Where have you seen the most dramatic changes?

It has to be in Kendall Square, which has been reimagined as a thriving new gateway to the Institute. The area now has the new  Moghadam Welcome Center, Admissions Office, and innovation and entrepreneurship hub. It is also home to the relocated MIT Museum,  a graduate residence, and two acres of open space for everyone to enjoy.

The neighborhood’s palpable new energy is a powerful reminder that our campus is so much more than bricks and mortar. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends, MIT has been able to build, restore, and maintain facilities that will empower the world’s best thinkers, teachers, and makers for the next century and beyond.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

In the Pioneering MIT Department of Economics, Researchers Turn a Scientific Lens to Policy

Economists offer insights and interventions for health care, education, and work

What motivates an MIT economist?
“I entered the field to figure out how to make some progress on big, fundamental problems in society,” says Parag Pathak, the Class of 1922 Professor of Economics in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and a director of Blueprint Labs, a policy-oriented economic research group at MIT. “One of these problems is the inequality of opportunity.”

David H. Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics, specializes in the impacts of technology on work. He wants to understand “how we minimize adverse consequences of a changing economy and shape opportunities to create a world we all want to live in.”

Driven by such concerns, Pathak and Autor, as well as such departmental colleagues as Joshua Angrist, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and 2018 MacArthur Fellow Amy Finkelstein PhD ’01, are engaged in research with the power to reshape key sectors of public life—work supported by the MIT Campaign for a Better World. Their studies of health care, education, and the workforce— grounded in theory, novel experimentation, and data analysis—provide insights that frequently capture the attention of the press and sometimes shake up their field.

“We have been a pioneering department for decades, and successful because we are highly innovative while at the same time quite practical,” says Autor. “New ideas start at MIT and diffuse from there.”

Randomized trials light the way

In 2008, Finkelstein, the John and Jennie S. MacDonald Professor of Economics, encountered what she calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”: the state of Oregon was running a lottery to allocate a limited number of health care slots to uninsured citizens. She sprang into action to take advantage of this real-world, randomized trial. With research partner Katherine Baicker (now at the University of Chicago), Finkelstein evaluated the effects of Medicaid coverage on the uninsured, following both the lottery winners and losers over several years.

Portrait of Amy FinkelsteinThe study’s notable findings—that health insurance coverage diminished financial hardship, for example—landed on front pages and fed public debate about Medicaid expansion.

“What we did was not rocket science; it was economic science,” says Finkelstein. “The incredible response to Oregon showed a real demand and appreciation for evidence.”

Finkelstein realized that vanishingly few interventions tailored to improve the delivery of health care were subject to the kind of strict evaluations typical of medical research, and she decided that needed to change. She launched the US Health Care Delivery Initiative (HCDI), a research program based in MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).

With a dual mission of research and policy action, the initiative identifies significant health care issues, and in partnership with affiliate researchers, health care organizations, and government agencies, conducts randomized controlled trials that generate evidence about the efficacy of a health care intervention.

In the past few years alone, HCDI researchers have investigated a wide range of health-related questions, such as the relative benefits of different treatments for renal disease, the possible effects of provider race on the health behavior of Black men, and the effectiveness of employee wellness programs.

In one case, HCDI research helped develop letters health care agencies could use to persuade physicians to stop overprescribing powerful opiates. Finkelstein worked with a former student who successfully designed and tested an effective version of this intervention, leading to a major reduction in prescription rates. “I see myself as a research activist, increasing appreciation for rigorous evidence, training the next generation to get evidence, and then getting that evidence out in the policy world,” she says.

Scanning future projects, Finkelstein says she is “incredibly excited about people in our network seeing what happens if we forgive people’s medical debt, which can be psychologically and financially crushing.”

Cause and effect in education

At Blueprint Labs, founded as the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative in 2012, Pathak and Angrist, the Ford Professor of Economics, wield research from the fields of market design and econometrics to illuminate issues in education that are of broad concern to the public and decision makers alike.

Portrait of Josh Angrist“The most important, systematic determinant of family income is the human capital of earners, the schooling of earners,” says Angrist. “If you get a college education, the odds of being in poverty go way down.” The corollary is that the quality of schools matters, Angrist adds, and if schools don’t impart essential skills to graduates “then schooling doesn’t have an inequality-ameliorating effect.” Angrist’s pathbreaking empirical strategies measure the effects of policies intended to influence the quality and accessibility of schools, research that can be used to improve policy.

With evidence from such research in hand, Pathak has in the past decade provided public school systems in Boston, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere with a more efficient and equitable method for allocating seat assignments in highly desirable schools. With an algorithm similar to that used by Uber to link riders with drivers, Pathak’s approach impartially matches students to their choice schools.

“Something that makes us distinct is that we love to interact with practitioners,” says Pathak of MIT economists. “Much of our research is animated by someone with real concrete problems, who calls us up and says, ‘What should we do?’”

Complementing this work, Angrist is refining the measurement of school quality. One of his studies challenges long-held claims of exceptional academic effectiveness by exclusive exam schools like the storied Boston Latin School and New York’s Bronx Science. Angrist, Pathak, and their collaborators demonstrate that attendance at these selective schools has “no actual causal effect on learning,” he says.

Breaking down what he calls this “elite illusion” serves as a great teaching moment in Angrist’s undergraduate econometrics class, he says. Students are surprised to learn that many of them likely did well academically not because of their school but because they were smart anyway, Angrist says.

Portrait of Parag Pathak.Angrist, Pathak, and their Blueprint Labs partners have shown that public preschools boost college attendance, and they have revealed that urban charter schools can elevate student achievement. Now they are producing findings relevant to the ongoing debate about making education at all levels more affordable and accessible.

Blueprint Lab’s primary goal, says Pathak, is “understanding the role of schools in the production of opportunity.”

Taking agency in the workplace

In spring 2018, MIT President L. Rafael Reif handed Autor his marching orders: Organize a task force to address the ways that technology is changing the nature of work. Two-and-a-half years later, the interdisciplinary Work of the Future group wrapped up its challenging assignment with dozens of expert papers and a major report, Building Better Jobs in an Era of Intelligent Machines.

But the task force didn’t just focus on the impacts of artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, manufacturing, and supply chains, Autor says. “We also wanted to understand the levers that shape how we adapt to technology and how we shape technology itself.”

Portrait of David AutorThe idea of agency plays a major role in Autor’s research. “Technological changes and economic phenomena are driven by incentives and priorities and people’s vision of what the future is supposed to be,” he says.“This is something that MIT, and government, and we collectively as society, shape.”

Consonant with this view, Autor launched a Work of the Future initiative based at J-PAL, which focuses on exploring ways to help people who lack significant formal education to find high-quality jobs. “This is the biggest problem of the US labor market right now, with 35% of adults stuck in low-paid jobs,” he says. Technology has had a huge effect in hollowing out middle-tier jobs, and “the question is how to get people onto career ladders that lead elsewhere.”

Campaign funds are supporting the drive for answers, enabling Autor and a far-flung network of research partners to evaluate evidence from programs that explicitly address this problem. Among these is a program in New York that trains non-college-educated adults for 15 months, then places them in technology jobs where they earn on average four times their previous income.

Autor also devises his own real-world experiments. One project aims to determine whether establishing a minimum, livable wage for restaurant workers can also reduce employee turnover at their companies. Another involves studying whether relaxing criteria on criminal background checks can offer a path out of hardship to workers while sustaining employer satisfaction.

“Many employers won’t touch people with nonviolent misdemeanors, a category in the criminal justice system where minorities are hugely overrepresented,” Autor says. “This is a matter of equity in opportunity.”

He is eyeing another experiment with potentially enormous payoffs for employment equity: eliminating the college requirement for jobs in such areas as tech support, programming, and computer security. “A vast majority of people who are Black and Hispanic don’t have four-year degrees, and yet that has become the sine qua non for all kinds of positions—not always the correct decision,” he says. Autor is joining with partners from the corporate world to advance this research.

For Autor, this research is not just about “describing how the world is working but improving how things work.” He might well be speaking on behalf of his fellow economists. “Applying a scientific lens to the world’s most pressing problems— that’s where our energy is dedicated.”

Reimagining Campus

New MIT Museum in Kendall Square Invites Exploration and Discussion

Collections reflect the wide interests of the MIT community

The lobby of the new MIT Museum in Kendall Square, which is expected to host a quarter of a million visitors each year. Image: Courtesy of MIT Museum

When the new MIT Museum opens in fall 2022, it will provide public access to the world of science and technology and a window into the cutting-edge research underway at the Institute. Relocated to a central spot in bustling Kendall Square, the new museum will feature 57,000 square feet of galleries, classrooms, a dynamic public makerspace, and a soaring two-story seating area where people can meet and discuss ideas.

The MIT Museum’s collection encompasses more than a million objects, prints, rare books, drawings, photographs, films, and holograms that reflect the wide interests of the MIT community from the Institute’s founding in 1861 to today. A new gallery, MIT Collects, will highlight many pieces that have never been exhibited before within installations ranging from Modeling Everything to Totally Useless Things, a collection focused on toys, puzzles, play, and the role of creativity in scientific research.

The museum, made possible partly through the generosity of MIT’s donors, will also feature an exhibition called Essential MIT. Centered on the process of inquiry and discovery, this exhibition will spotlight ongoing research projects.

John Durant, the Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director of the MIT Museum, says museum staff are excited to welcome back visitors. “We are really keen to be a meeting ground between the academic community and the wider community, especially around issues that need a full discussion in public,” he says. “So please come join the conversation. That’s what we’re about.”

A male student works in the laboratory.

Human Health

In Support of Human Health

MIT donors set their sights on lyme disease research, student mental health, and data-driven postdocs

Image: Bearwalk Cinema

Paving the way to a healthier global future calls for audacious, creative, interdisciplinary problem solving in the hands of exceptional talent. All these ingredients are at work at MIT.

Below are stories of MIT alumni and friends who are helping MIT bring its multidimensional strengths in the life and social sciences and other disciplines to bear on critical human health challenges.

“You have a high concentration of brilliant minds that hunger for really hard problems.”

Emily and Malcolm Fairbairn 84, SM 85, of Orinda, California, are on a mission to cure Lyme disease. They want to give hope to people who—like themselves and their family members—have been afflicted.

“I know how people feel and what they’re going through,” says Emily. “It will take committed, private donors to fund critical research necessary to prevent and treat a disease that affects millions of Americans.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 476,000 people get Lyme disease each year in the United States. Transmitted through the bite of infected ticks, Lyme causes fever, headache, fatigue, joint and body pain, brain fog, and a characteristic skin rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

The couple’s support of Lyme research at MIT spans a broad range of efforts, including research led by Linda Griffith, the School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation in the Department of Biological Engineering, and collaborations through the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program to investigate chronic health problems associated with Lyme and Covid-19.

“You have a high concentration of brilliant minds that hunger for really hard problems,” Fairbairn says. “We want to help unleash that energy and creativity!”

Fairbairn hopes seeding research projects and facilitating novel partnerships will attract more funding. “Curing this disease will take billions of dollars and a lot of concerted effort by brilliant scientists like Linda.”
Mark Sullivan

“Mental health is important for MIT and personal to us.”

Henry Lichstein ’65, ’66, SM ’66 and his wife, Janine, had a straightforward goal for their MIT philanthropy: expanding mental health services available to students. Having lost their son, Daniel, to suicide during his junior year in college, the couple has supported mental health and suicide prevention programs ever since. Janine has been an active volunteer and board member for a suicide prevention group in their home state of California, while Henry shifted his approach to giving at MIT, seeking effective ways to support MIT students.

After learning about the Institute’s MindHandHeart initiative and meeting with leaders of MIT Medical’s Student Mental Health and Counseling Services, Henry and Janine created the Lichstein Family Mental Health and Counseling Fund to support a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical psychology and funded it for four years. The inaugural fellow began in the fall 2020 semester, assisting full-time clinicians in caring for MIT students.

“Mental health is important for MIT and personal to us,” says Henry. “I would like to think that what we’ve done will mean better mental health outcomes for people on the MIT campus.” Now working with early-stage companies after a 30-year career at Citibank, Henry reflects, “Given that my success was tied to the friends I made and the skills I learned at MIT, it’s only right that we support MIT. We were glad to find a creative program in an area important to us. We are delighted by the outcome.”
Christine Thielman

“Each one of us has an obligation to ensure a better and safer future.”

The head of one of Brazil’s largest retailers hopes his support for postdoctoral fellowships at MIT will help create a digital platform for health that benefits people worldwide.

Fred Trajano is CEO of his family’s Magazine Luiza retail chain; the company’s app, Magalu, has been revolutionizing e-commerce in Brazil. Now, after seeing the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trajano hopes to support a similar transformation in health care.

“The pandemic awakened in me a particular interest in the transformative role of science and research in society,” Trajano says. “I feel each one of us has an obligation to ensure a better and safer future.”

His gift to MIT has established the Fred Trajano Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Laboratory for Computational Physiology at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. The lab works to improve health care by developing new and refined approaches to interpreting data.

“Big data, artificial intelligence, and predictive analysis are now the lingua franca through which health care professionals communicate as they diagnose, treat, and deliver care. The digital transformation is empowering them to deliver quality care more effectively, more safely, and more efficiently,” he says.

The global marshaling of resources to create vaccines for Covid-19 shows how much can be achieved in science when backed with enough resources, Trajano adds. “This is a trend that will benefit patients everywhere.”
Mark Sullivan

Watch: Supporting Human Health at MIT

Discovery Science

Foundations Provide Crucial Support for Novel Ideas

Funding helps researchers follow a hunch or a passion

Electrons appear to flow freely between two sheets of graphene in this image. Pablo Jarillo-Herrero’s discovery of the “magic angle” that enables this flow could usher in a new generation of superconductors. Image: Ella Maru Studio

If it takes a village to raise a child,  it takes an ecosystem to grow excellence in research. Scientists work long hours, pursuing insights, hitting dead ends, and revising their roadmaps so they can move toward discovery. And science is powered by discoveries made by those whose trajectories were anything but clear at the outset—researchers willing and eager to follow a hunch or a passion without knowing where it might lead.

Today, significant support for this “discovery” research comes from private foundations. At MIT, researchers eager to explore fresh territory have received timely support in the form of gifts and grants from foundations that are increasingly investing in research potential. This kind of funding fills a crucial niche, placing necessary bets on a novel idea, a mid-career pivot, or a promising but unproven young researcher. As the below examples illustrate, the payoff is that science moves forward.

Fuel for a breakthrough

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero likes to encourage his students to take risks. “I ask them to imagine themselves as a scientific Indiana Jones,” says Jarillo-Herrero, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, referring to the hero of the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie franchise. “To think like explorers going into the jungle with a machete, with only a vague idea of where they might end up.”

Portrait of Pablo Jarillo-HerreroJarillo-Herrero’s own trek has led him to a discovery many think could usher in a new generation of superconductors with potential applications from energy transport to levitating trains to quantum computing. The discovery involves two sheets of graphene—a two-dimensional material consisting of a layer of graphite just one-atom thick—stacked at the so-called “magic angle.” That magic angle somehow creates a crystalline lattice that allows electrons to flow freely between the two stacked sheets.

“Electrons are negatively charged and normally repel each other,” says Jarillo- Herrero. “We don’t usually see this in solids because they have considerable kinetic energy. But in sheets of graphene, set at a certain angle, the kinetic energy drops, and another force, their repulsive interaction energy, becomes more prominent. Then crazy things can happen. We found a system that could be either a superconductor  or a different type of insulator, depending on how many electrons we put into that system.”

Along with his Indiana Jones spirit, the rising physics star credits critical support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for fueling his work; the foundation named him an investigator for its Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative in 2014. “I was looking at a funding cliff,” he says, noting that his group had a number of grants that were expiring in 2016 and 2017. “But these were also extraordinary years for our group, with so many things just coming into focus. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to write grants at the same time. With the Moore funding, we were able to dedicate all our energies to our research and push the project through to completion.”

Jarillo-Herrero is quick to note that other funders, including the National Science Foundation, were also instrumental in his magic angle research. “The Moore funding was less restrictive,” he adds. “With it, we could change directions midway, reallocate resources to projects that had suddenly become interesting. The Moore Foundation encouraged and enabled us to take those necessary risks.”

Intellectual freedom

For a brief time after birth, a baby’s heart cells can repair and regenerate themselves following cardiac injury. As we continue to grow into adults, our hearts lose this capacity. Laurie Boyer wants to know how that happens and if there is a way to harness this process to fix hearts.

Portrait of Laurie Boyer“The body has cells, like skin and blood cells, that constantly renew themselves,” says Boyer, a professor of biology and biological engineering at MIT. “But the developed heart lacks dedicated stem cells like these other tissues. Instead, cardiac muscle cells stop dividing early after birth, making it difficult to replace damaged cells in response to injury or disease. We hoped that if we could learn how to turn back the developmental clock, we could restore the heart’s capacity to replace lost cells.”

Boyer spent much of her career studying stem cells and the gene regulatory mechanisms that drive their development. After college, she worked at Integrated Genetics/Genzyme during the day and spent her nights volunteering in the lab of David Housman, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Scholar for Cancer Research at MIT. Housman helped steer Boyer to a PhD program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She joined the MIT biology faculty in 2007 and received tenure in 2014. She also joined the Department of Biological Engineering.

In 2017, Boyer submitted a proposal to  the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation. She’d already compiled an impressive academic record, helping to decipher the role of the epigenome in the cellular decisionmaking process. She had funding from leading institutions including the National Institutes of Health, but she also hoped to take on new challenges. “I was thinking about the future of our research,” she explains. “I wanted to pivot toward projects with translational potential, projects whose success requires new ideas and new developments in technology, but institutional funding doesn’t typically afford you the time to do that.”

She received a three-year grant that provided her the opportunity to make this pivot. “Foundation funding fueled an exciting new phase of discovery,” Boyer says.

“We are now charting the various signals that converge on the heart genome and tell it how to grow and function,” says Boyer, who has found a novel connection between a metabolic enzyme and cardiac maturation. “If we can understand the mechanisms that regulate these cell fate transitions, perhaps we can discover new therapies.”

Early career impact

MIT postdoc Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich can’t remember a time she didn’t love math and physics. An interest in thermofluids and turbomachinery took her to Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and then to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. She wrote her PhD thesis on jet engine coolants.

Portrait of Gladys Chepkirui NgetichNgetich came to the United States and MIT in 2020 as a Schmidt Science Fellow and joined the Space Enabled research group in the MIT Media Lab. The group works to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems by using designs inspired and enabled by space research. Ngetich, who was named an International Astronautical Federation “Emerging Space Leader” in 2021, is deeply committed to sustainable development goals, and she has shifted her research from jet engine coolants to environmentally friendly, wax-based propellants for use in rocket launches and in-space propulsion.

“The Schmidt Science Fellowship has given me a special chance to step out of my comfort zone and try a research area very different from my PhD,” says Ngetich, who hopes one day to contribute to Kenya’s space sector. “This interdisciplinary research has introduced me to a new way of approaching and solving research problems.”

Teachers and scholars

Several private foundations provide recognition and stability for young faculty in the sciences. During the Campaign for a Better World, MIT faculty won 64 Sloan Research Fellowships, nine Packard Fellowships, four Cottrell Scholar Awards, and eight Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards.

Portrait of William TisdaleWilliam Tisdale, a MacVicar Faculty Fellow who directs an experimental research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering, won his Dreyfus award in 2017.

“A big part of getting students excited is by showing them how excited you are,” says Tisdale, whose research focuses on advanced spectroscopy techniques and on next-generation semiconductor nanomaterials, including colloidal quantum dots and halide perovskites. His research could lead to major advances in fields as diverse as solar technology, medical imagery, and quantum computing. “I like thinking how these materials might benefit society. But I also love thinking about how things move around at the nanoscale.”

The teacher-scholar award, granted by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, provided welcome wiggle room for his growing research group. “I used the Dreyfus funding to support exploration of new ideas, many of which became federally funded projects,” says Tisdale. “The flexibility of the Dreyfus funding was key for that.”

Underrepresented in science

As an experimental nuclear and particle physicist, Associate Professor Lindley Winslow enjoys the challenge of measuring things that are extremely hard to measure. “The motivation comes from trying to discover the smallest building blocks and how they affect the universe we live in,” she says.

Portrait of Lindley WinslowMuch of Winslow’s work focuses on neutrinos—subatomic particles that pass by the billions through ordinary matter. In 2016, she and colleagues earned the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work that detected neutrino oscillations for the first time. Today, she is continuing to try to answer some of the most tantalizing questions in contemporary physics: Why does the universe have more matter than antimatter? and What is dark matter made of?

Winslow credits good mentorship with helping her to advance her career, which is why in 2018 she established a physics research fellowship program for women with support from the Heising-Simons Foundation. The program includes a workshop on preparing research proposals. “Confidence in your ability to get grants is integral to wanting to stay in the field, and the numbers (of women physicists) are so low that we cannot afford to lose anyone,” she says.

Role models

BelinPortrait of Belinda Lida Li thinks girls and underrepresented minority children need role models in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “There are way too many stereotypes about computer science and technology,” says Li, a second-year graduate student at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and a recipient of a Clare Boothe Luce Graduate Fellowship for Women. A program of the Henry Luce Foundation, the multiyear fellowship supports graduate women in STEM. “If they see someone who looks like them in those fields, they’re more likely to think they belong there.”

Li studies language models and natural language processing, an interest she developed after a year spent working in Facebook’s AI Integrity Team, which developed automated detectors for harmful content such as hate speech and misinformation. “I saw the extent to which we rely on language technologies to detect hate speech,” says Li, “and I don’t think current language models are always up to that task.”

Now, Li is going beyond hate speech detection to investigate whether machines actually understand the language they process. “The Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship allows me to pursue my research without having to worry about funding,” says Li. “It lends credibility to what I’m doing.”