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Ritu Raman working at a table in a lab, she is wearing a white shirt, and looking down towards her materials.

Design

Ritu Raman Is an Architect of Muscle and Nerve

Mechanical engineering professor designs motor control components to heal wounds and animate “soft” robots

Photo: Courtesy of L’Oreal USA

Ritu Raman views human beings as “soft and squishy and easy to damage.” But she also regards our bodies as flesh-and-blood miracles, capable of astonishing feats of adaptability, sensing, self-organization, and resilience. At her lab, Raman, the d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in Engineering Design and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a biofabricated platform that can leverage the remarkable properties of living cells to address devastating injuries, as well as to create useful biohybrid devices. “I am learning to build with biology using cells as functional components,” she says.

Raman’s lab is focused on the motor control system, which governs how we plan and execute movement. Using her laboratory models of working muscle and nerve cells, Raman engineers, molds, and scaffolds tissue, “creating new design rules,” she says. This work, although in its infancy, puts her on a path toward restoring mobility to someone who’s lost it and creating new kinds of robots, ones that “can do things nonbiological robots can’t,” she says.

Observing nature’s mechanisms

Going about our daily lives, we take for granted the complex machinery required to grasp an object or run and jump. Yet neurons, in constant conversation with skeletal muscle tissue, make all such movements possible, allowing us to sense changes in the physical world and to respond dynamically. To an engineer, these neuromuscular systems are nature’s actuators—mechanical devices that convert energy to motion. Through reverse engineering, Raman is fabricating models of motor control actuators.

“Like Leonardo da Vinci looking at a bird, I’m trying to pick apart the structure created by nature and study what happens when it is diseased or injured,” says Raman. Based on such close observation, Raman has fabricated bio-actuators that are revealing what unfolds at the cellular level when motor control systems are subjected to trauma and what therapies might best speed recovery.

Working with mouse stem cells, which she induces to grow into layers of muscle cells, Raman cultivates a sheath of muscle fibers that she places over two pillars. “It’s like a stretchy, pink rubber band,” she says. Normal muscle cells contract in response to electric signals from nerves. Raman’s genetically engineered muscle twitches in reaction to light, contracting and bending the pillars. Her research was the first to demonstrate that light stimulation could be used to exercise muscle. By measuring the force exerted by her band on these pillars, she can gather data on the behavior of muscle tissue in normal conditions, when under stress and when deeply damaged.

In recent, unpublished research, Raman’s muscle studies have revealed that exercise triggered by a light probe helps accelerate recovery after injury. When she grafted this tissue into a live mouse with a muscle wound, Raman was able to show that a regimen of light-activated exercise yielded faster recovery after damage.

“Our key insight is that targeted exercise of this graft enhances recovery because it makes newly added muscle stronger, and it enables communication between the new muscle and surrounding cells, which assists with integration into the surrounding tissue,” she says. Raman now hopes to determine what specific signals muscle cells might be sending to each other and to neighboring cells. She is also experimenting with genetically engineered nerve cells to learn how they form connections with muscles over time and what happens when this connection is cut or crushed.

Raman is set on translating her laboratory findings to real-world applications. “After we gain specific knowledge of the mechanism by which newly added cells function and how targeted exercise can optimize recovery in different wounds, I see creative ways of applying these techniques to humans,” she says.

Designing by hand

While Raman works with 3-D printers, computational models, and computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies, she always starts her biofabrication designs by hand. “Even though at the end of the day there is a fancy render, the easiest way is pen and paper,” says Raman. “I go back to that all the time in my work.” She learned drawing from her grandfather and parents, all engineers, who encouraged her to “draw something from every side, over and over, and then move to a more formal design.” Still, she says the real artist in the family is her mother, who provided illustrations for Raman’s recent book, Biofabrication (The MIT Press, 2021). “If I can’t draw something, I will FaceTime her, and she’ll draw it as I describe it to her.”

One design that has leaped off her sketchbook into animated existence is a robotic worm that uses biological tissues to move around. With her light-based stimulus, she can make this creature move in one direction, then turn and rotate. When it exercises, it gets stronger.

“This is interesting and important because, unlike traditional robots made out of metals, biological robots can heal and walk again,” says Raman.

What Raman calls “soft” robots may not only enter domains dangerous to humans, but through their sensory and motor capabilities, respond in real time to unpredictable conditions that require “informed decisions about moving in one versus another direction,” says Raman. Adaptable biohybrid devices could become stronger in challenging terrain, exerting more force, for example, or repairing themselves through exercise if injured in the field.

“You really need biological tissues when the situation is unpredictable, dynamically changing over a long time,” says Raman. Metal robots need large battery packs for force and motion. “Living cells just need sugar water and some amino acids—dense energy to power movement,” she says.

But creating something with a human-like metabolism, and even the capacity to scavenge for food, “is a long way away,” says Raman. From worm to fully functioning soft robot entails building multiple systems from scratch, she notes. Yet Raman believes the small steps she is taking in her lab today will make a positive impact in the world tomorrow. “Something we learn could play a role in the future by helping somebody move again, and we could be taking something out of a petri dish that will eventually become an untethered robot solving challenges in the world.”

Design

From Major to Minor, Design Proves Key at MIT

Students see the benefits of adding a creative skillset to their repertoire

Faith Jones ’22 presents her Re-Woven chair, whose sling is designed to be infinitely un-woven and re-woven, to product designers from Emeco and Formlabs as part of 4.041 Advanced Product Design. Photo: Lavender Tessmer

Since its introduction six years ago, the MIT Department of Architecture’s design minor has consistently ranked among the most popular minors on campus. The department’s design major, launched two years later, has been similarly appealing, enticing students studying such disciplines as computer science, mechanical engineering, and biology to also earn a bachelor of science in art and design.

“Almost all our students are familiar with the scientific method, which they learn at an early age,” says Paul Pettigrew MArch ’88, who returned to the architecture department in 2016 as manager of special projects. “They take a sequence of science classes where they apply the scientific method repeatedly in different contexts. We take the same approach in teaching design. We teach a design process: ideate, iterate, prototype. If a student learns that process, they can apply those principles to any number of disciplines.”

For many undergraduates, design studies offer a novel approach to creativity, one that complements their studies in other departments. “Design as a field of study is very young,” says Janice Tjan ’22, a mechanical engineering student who added a double major in design her second year. “But as a process it’s very old. A lot of mechanical engineering students are now taking design classes or minoring in design just to get that perspective.”

For Daniela Carrasco ’18, who majored in computer science, design at MIT first served as an outlet to make art and build tangible objects. “I wanted to use tools other than the tools you find on a computer,” says Carrasco, who today designs software at Adobe. “But what I really learned was how to be creative. Before my design studies, I thought creativity was something nebulous, something you are either born with or not. At MIT, I learned that creativity is a skill, just like math, that you can practice, learn, and perfect.”

A very techy program

Design at MIT is taught differently than at most universities. Few art or design schools expect a similar level of technical, material, or computational expertise in their students. And very few university design programs are as rigorous or demanding. “Of all the majors, design majors turn in their theses later than anyone else,” says Tjan, who for her senior thesis worked to improve hearing aids. “The design process requires so much time. There are so many questions to answer, and often it can feel like you’ll never be completely satisfied with those answers. Design is really blood, sweat, and tears.”

“This isn’t just about aesthetics,” says Skylar Tibbits SM ’10, associate professor of design research who directs the design minor and major programs and is one of the creators of the undergraduate design program. “It’s about learning to think and create in a whole new way. These are the best and brightest of MIT undergraduates, who study computer science, engineering, physics or chemistry on one side of the campus but are also super talented in arts and design. Left brain and right brain. Mind and hand. This is the pure ethos of MIT.”

For Jierui Fang ’20, who majored in design with minors in computer science and biomedical engineering, the real value of design education at MIT is versatility. “In the professional world, rules and roles are often in flux,” says Fang, who worked on biomedical device software after MIT and recently completed her first year in a master’s program in design at Stanford. “Technical ability and concrete skills are important. But the ability to adapt, to speak other people’s languages, and to gain perspective in an unfamiliar environment is even more important. That is what I learned studying design at MIT.”

MIT’s minor and major in design and its expanded offering of undergraduate design courses have made design available both in the department of architecture and throughout campus. Students have responded: the total number of students enrolled in design courses at MIT has increased nearly three-fold since 2016. Currently, there are close to 70 students majoring or minoring in design at the Institute. More than 200 undergraduates enroll in design subjects each semester.

The MIT design program has established a collaboration with the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne in Switzerland. MIT’s program also has numerous partners in fields including furniture, software, luggage, and lighting who help connect the research and instruction at the Institute to industry. For example, Jaye Buchbinder, head of product development and sustainability at furniture maker Emeco, was an industry collaborator in 4.041 Design Studio: Advanced Product Design taught by Jeremy Bilotti SM ’21, a course where students learn to identify client needs and design manufactured products such as furniture.

“At the end of the class, the student projects weren’t just pieces of furniture,” Buchbinder says. “They were new ways of thinking about what design is and how we manufacture. The curiosity the students—and teachers—showed in that room made us excited for the future.”

Design students at work

The design minor and major build on the 150-year-old Department of Architecture’s history of pioneering design research and scholarship, offering students even more ways to engage with the discipline. “I can show prospective students a list of graduates with a major or minor in design, all of whom are working at interesting jobs or attending graduate school,” says Pettigrew, who also teaches 4.021 How to Design Anything, a course that introduces students to fundamental design principles and processes. “Students and particularly parents find this reassuring.”

Leslie Yan ’22, who majored in mechanical engineering and design, says working in both disciplines at the same time has made her a better engineer and a better designer. “The storytelling and presentation techniques I learned in design classes inform my engineering choices,” says Yan, who is going to work for Microsoft on its Surface line of consumer devices. “And my engineering training helps me make more timely and efficient design decisions.”

Carrasco, who says she would have majored in design had the major been available when she was at MIT, believes her training in design helped her land her job at Adobe. She believes her dual expertise in engineering and design bring added value to her team. “It’s not all that common to find a software engineer who also has design experience,” she says. “Having insight into the other side—the design side—helps you bridge the gap between those sides. Everyone benefits.”

CREWSnet simulation map

Wide Angle

CREWSnet Project Forecasts a Climate Early Warning System for All

Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to empower underserved communities by providing tools they need to plan for the future

Simulated tropical cyclone tracks passing through Bangladesh. The tracks are color coded by their intensity approaching the country (red is more intense). Such simulations provide a comprehensive picture of cyclone-induced risk. Image: Sai Ravela/CREWSnet

Across Bangladesh, climate change is a daily reality, reshaping everything from housing and crops to economic policy and social life. As in other climate-vulnerable regions, residents face urgent questions about the future: Should they attempt to relocate? Would it be better to stay and adapt? What resources are available to guide and support their decisions?

Such questions motivate CREWSnet (the Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network), a groundbreaking collaboration between MIT and Bangladesh-based global nonprofit BRAC. CREWSnet is one of five flagship projects chosen for support in 2022 through MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative.

According to Deborah Campbell, MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Climate Change Initiative co-lead and CREWSnet’s executive director, “the project is empowering underserved communities by giving them the tools they need to interpret local risk, minimize loss, and plan for their futures.” One example is the use of the “downscaling” approach—which provides climate variables at the resolution needed to assess climate change impacts at regional and local scales—described by Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Emeritus Professor Kerry Emanuel ’76, PhD ’78 and EAPS Principal Research Scientist Sai Ravela. The approach simulates tropical cyclone tracks through Bangladesh, under various climate scenarios to assess wind, rainfall, storm surges, waves, and rainfall-driven flood inundation to advance our broader understanding of cyclone-induced physical risk.

Other tools include cutting-edge climate models developed by researcher group of  CREWSnet co-lead Elfatih Eltahir ScD ’93, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of hydrology and climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and researchers at the MIT Center for Global Change Science; insights and recommendations from development economists at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab; and proactive, integrated decision support tools for local communities and government agencies developed by the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory.

John Aldridge, CREWSnet co-lead and associate leader of the HADR Systems Group, notes that CREWSnet and other MIT Climate Grand Challenges projects represent “the perfect opportunity to synthesize together MIT’s strengths in climate science, impact modeling, and decision support systems” to solve complex and urgent climate challenges.

Spotlight

A Scroll Through Class Offerings in Design

In fields as diverse as aerospace, theater, and neurobiology, classes reveal logical, practical, and rigorous approaches to design

Cloth simulation has applications in computer animation, garment design, and robot-assisted dressing. Students in Computational Design and Fabrication worked on a differentiable cloth simulator whose additional gradient information facilitates cloth-related applications. Their research was published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Image: Yikei Li, Tao Du, Kui Wu, Jie Xu, and Wojciech Matusik

Choosing classes from the MIT Bulletin each term is an activity rich with possibility for students. With 56 undergraduate majors, 58 minors, and 50 departments and programs offering graduate degrees, there is a dizzying array of choices. Inevitably, each student gets just a sampling of coursework—self-tailored to suit their tastes and ambition. But there are pedagogical themes that run across MIT, threading through an unlikely combination of classes. Design is one of these. In fields as diverse as aerospace systems, theater, and neurobiology, classes reveal approaches to design that are logical, practical, and rigorous. Here is a brief look at a few recent offerings.

Jump to a course:
→ 6.4420 Computational Design and Fabrication
→ 10.321 Design Principles in Mammalian Systems and Synthetic Biology
→ 21M.731 Sound Design for Theater and Dance
→ Unified Engineering: 16.001 Materials and Structures, 16.002 Signals and Systems, 16.003 Fluid Dynamics, and 16.004 Thermodynamics and Propulsion
→2.75 Medical Device Design
→ 16.83 Space Systems Engineering

6.4420 Computational Design and Fabrication

Introduces computational aspects of computer-aided design and manufacturing. Explores relevant methods in the context of additive manufacturing (e.g., 3-D printing). The course covers tools for every stage in the computational design pipeline, from hardware and its abstraction to high-level design specification methods.

Sample project
A cloth simulator that uses a fast and novel method for deriving gradients.

Professor Wojciech Matusik SM ’01, PhD ’03, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “Computing plays a more and more important role in design because it allows you to figure out what the best designs are and to translate them into something that can be manufactured. This could work for anything. It can work for molecules, for webpage design, for drone design, for products, and so on.”

Yifei Li, graduate student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “The class taught me useful concepts and fundamentals of the research areas and applications related to computational design and fabrication and prepared me to conduct relevant research. I highly recommend it.”

Kai Jia, graduate student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “Although computational design/fabrication is not my research area, I learned a lot during this class, and the final project led to a top-tier conference publication.”


 

10.321 Design Principles in Mammalian Systems and Synthetic Biology

Focuses on the layers of design, from molecular to large networks, in mammalian biology. Formally introduces concepts in the emerging fields of mammalian systems and synthetic biology, including engineering principles in neurobiology and stem cell biology.

Sample project
Developing a computational model of dynamic synthetic gene circuits to identify how design choices at the DNA, RNA, or protein level impact performance.

Assistant Professor Kate E. Galloway, W. M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering: “I hope students gain an appreciation for the diverse ways in which biology encodes functions. The layering of systems gives rise to rich and robust behaviors that enable complex processes to unfold with remarkable precision. Through the class, I hope they learn how we can integrate native design schemes into synthetic systems.”

Adam Beitz, graduate student, Department of Chemical Engineering: “In this class, I was able to design a model of the DNA damage response in mammalian cells that I continue to use in my PhD research. Overall, this class was great for learning how to model the regulatory mechanisms in biological systems and for designing new ways to engineer synthetic biological systems.”

Kasey Love, graduate student, Department of Biological Engineering: “It was exciting to apply engineering strategies to biological systems and explore the unique principles governing these molecular and cellular contexts. The concepts related to design that I learned in this class are directly relevant to my graduate studies; I have already begun to use this knowledge and experience in my research.”


 

21M.731 Sound Design for Theater and Dance

Introduces the elements of a sound designer’s work—such as music and sound effects that inform and make stage action plausible— to sound system design and placement and the use of microphones. Discusses how effective sound design enhances live performance by clarifying storytelling, heightening emotional experience, and making words and music legible to an audience.

Sample project
An audio play adaptation of Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McCloskey’s iconic children’s book set in the Boston Public Garden.

Christian Frederickson, technical instructor, Music and Theater Arts Section: “My hope is that students will come away from this class hearing the world differently. Sound design for theater is the art of storytelling, and also a technical craft, but it’s only by really listening that we discover what stories we want to tell, and how to make them legible.”

Aquila Simmons ’23, double major in mechanical engineering and theater arts: “The class focuses on the different design elements of compiling sounds to reinforce an environment or to tell a story. We learned about quantifiable measures such as the different qualities of sound ranging from footsteps to music, and the number of sounds a person can distinguish before they blend into white noise. We also studied more artistic measures such as what sounds are comforting to an audience, and which set listeners on edge. It was a lot of fun learning to use the many different audio programs to edit and mold sound, and to consider listening to the world around me in ways I hadn’t before.”


 

Unified Engineering: 16.001 Materials and Structures, 16.002 Signals and Systems, 16.003 Fluid Dynamics, and 16.004 Thermodynamics and Propulsion

Presents fundamental principles and methods for aerospace engineering and engineering analysis and design concepts applied to aerospace systems. This class is taught within the context of the CDIO (conceive-design-implement-operate) framework. The goal is to educate the future leaders of the field on how to contribute to the development of new products in a modern, team-based environment.

Sample project
Students, working in teams, conceive of, design, build, and fly an airplane in a competition.

Professor Zoltán Spakovszky SM ’99, PhD ’01, T. Wilson Professor in Aeronautics, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “Aerospace systems problems are complex and highly multidisciplinary in nature. Unified Engineering connects the core disciplines by leveraging common intellectual threads and equips the students with fundamental skills to characterize the underlying mechanisms, create conceptual models, and design new solutions to address the technical challenges of the future.”

Benjamin Rich ’24: “Unified Engineering provides a unique opportunity to get immersed in very modern, computational-based design practices as well as traditional design techniques built upon decades of physics and engineering fundamentals. For me, design is most fun when it is centered around a complicated problem, with many possible approaches to solving that problem. Combining computational tools with hand calculations and theory only adds to the fun!”


 

2.75 Medical Device Design

Provides an intense project-based learning experience around the design of medical devices with foci ranging from mechanical to electromechanical and electronics. Projects are motivated by real-world clinical challenges provided by sponsors and clinicians who also help mentor design teams.

Sample projects
A device to close an intracardiac defect, a cooling suit for astronauts, and an imaging device that aids in the detection of cervical cancer.

Associate Professor Ellen Roche, Latham Family Career Development Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science: “This class is a team project-based class where students team up with local physicians and industry sponsors to solve real clinical needs. They come up with a working prototype in 14 weeks and learn design fundamentals and the logistics of translating medical devices to the clinic, including regulatory, intellectual property, and commercialization aspects.”

Anup Sreekumar, graduate student, System Design and Management Master’s program: “This course introduced me to the world of medical devices, taught me key principles of design and engineering, and helped me apply these lessons to solving real-world challenges in health care.”


 

16.83 Space Systems Engineering

Design of a complete space system, including systems analysis, trajectory analysis, entry dynamics, propulsion and power systems, structural design, avionics, thermal and environmental control, human factors, support systems, and weight and cost estimates.

Sample project
Students participate in teams, each of which is responsible for an integrated vehicle design. This provides experience in project organization and interaction between disciplines.

Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “The students bring their expertise in aeronautics and astronautics from their undergraduate curriculum to the project and learn how to use their knowledge as well as identify other skills that are necessary to create a successful mission design through systems engineering.”

Mary Dahl ’20, SM ’22, teaching assistant for the class: “The students in this class have spent years at MIT learning and honing skills in aerospace engineering. This class finally gives them the opportunity to put them all together for a mission the class cares about. They learn the difficulties of integration of multiple subsystems and come out as well-rounded engineers.”

An illustration of two groups of hands holding survey cards. The group on the left holds white cards, the group on the right holds red cards.

Design

Political Scientist Adam Berinsky Takes Surveys Seriously

Researcher crafts measured approach to capturing public opinion

Illustration: Getty Images

In an era when “alternative facts” and “fake news” are political catchphrases, surveys are a crucial snapshot of public opinion. Like voting, surveys provide a megaphone to the electorate.

“In democracies, where the citizens have a voice in the direction of politics, we obviously want to know: What does the public think?” says Adam Berinsky, the Mitsui Professor of Political Science. A specialist in measuring public opinion, Berinsky designs surveys that strive for impartiality and accuracy.

He says well-designed surveys accurately capture public opinions, and they explain how firmly the public holds them.

“In survey design, there are two questions we need to ask. The first is, ‘Whom do we interview?’ The second is, ‘What questions do we ask?’” he explains.

The “who” question has grown complicated. A generation ago, surveys were conducted via old-fashioned telephone, with pollsters coldcalling people. He dubs the 1980s the “golden age” of polling, when almost everyone had a landline— and actually answered it. These days, less than 10% of people agree to be interviewed, he says, thanks to caller ID on cell phones and other changing technologies.

For that reason, Berinsky’s surveys are typically conducted online. A good survey, he says, is “concise, clear, intelligible.” He aims for efficiency, taking no more time than a typical old-school phone call.

“Going into the survey, I know about how many questions I can ask people in 10 to 15 minutes, which still gives me time to ask them 30 to 40 questions,” he says.

Of course, if you wanted to get a 100% accurate measure of public opinion, you’d have to survey the entire population. That is impractical in a nation of 330 million people, so good surveys use random sampling for best results.

“Think of it as a doctor taking a blood test. They can’t drain your whole blood supply, so they take a sample. If your cholesterol is too high in that sample, chances are it is throughout your bloodstream. That’s the beauty of the survey: we can learn about the whole American public without having to talk to everyone,” he explains.

To ensure an appropriately broad swath of the population is surveyed, pollsters used a practice called multistage sampling, which divides a population into clusters. In this system, a canvasser might select 10 states, then choose 10 towns within those states, and, finally, identify 10 neighborhoods within those towns for polling. Such samples are the gold standard for polling.

In addition, Berinsky says, simple random samples have two important properties: each individual is chosen for inclusion in the sample by chance, and each member of the population has an equal chance of being included in the sample.

For national surveys, Berinsky typically aims to survey 1,000 respondents. “That sample size is adequate to describe national public opinion with reasonable certainty,” he says. Since this swath is so broad, though, he always aims for understandable questions, with clear response options asked in logical order.

Where should voters go for reliable survey data? Berinsky says that while many news organizations are accused of bias, their surveys are generally reliable and agenda-free. “These are people who really want to get the polls right, so they win when they get the outcome correct and then get the story right,” he says. As for the next election cycle? The jury is still out.

“In the last 20 years, it has become harder and harder to conduct polls in advance of elections. In the last couple election cycles, for example, for whatever reason, Democrats were more willing to talk to pollsters than Republicans. Our polls, therefore, have tended to overestimate support for Democratic candidates,” he says. “This is something we need to keep in mind when we think about polls going forward. Good polls measure public opinion writ large. That is always the goal.”

Design

Shape-Shifting at the Molecular Level in the Wendlandt Lab

Organic chemist designs molecules from the atoms up, with the goal of synthesizing useful substances faster and more efficiently

Alison Wendlandt’s research team relies on light produced through blue LEDs made for fish tanks. Photo: Courtesy of the Wendlandt Lab.

Organic chemist Alison Wendlandt designs molecules from the atoms up, with the goal of synthesizing useful substances faster and more efficiently.

Her lab focuses on stereochemistry, or how molecules’ atoms are arranged in space—a key criterion for pharmaceuticals because a drug molecule’s shape determines how it interacts with proteins and other large molecules in and on our cells. For instance, the antihistamine levocetirizine makes you less sleepy than cetirizine even though the two molecules are isomers, which means they have the same number and types of atoms. The difference is in their shape.

Wendlandt, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry, says determining which bonds link which atoms in a molecule can be crucial to designing drugs such as those that interact with the

Alison Wendlandt

body’s enzymes. “We think about the connectivity of the molecule and how that might help fit the right drug into the right enzyme,” she says.

In the 1800s, Louis Pasteur noticed that tiny facets on the edge of a crystalline organic acid were sometimes oriented to the right and sometimes to the left, and chemist Emil Fischer found that differences in the configuration of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms accounted for differences in sweetness between, say, glucose and galactose. Like many organic chemists, Wendlandt has learned to rotate complex schematics of molecules in her head. “It’s not unlike other aspects of design, like architecture,” she says.

More than a century after Pasteur’s and Fischer’s revelations, fine-tuning the spatial arrangement of atoms within molecules is still one of organic chemistry’s biggest challenges.

To make designing new, potentially useful substances even more challenging, certain isomers are mirror images of one another; awareness of this “handedness,” or chirality, is particularly important in drug development. A chiral isomer may produce the desired therapeutic effect while its achiral version might be ineffective or even dangerous— take the infamous example of thalidomide, prescribed in the 1950s for morning sickness. The left-handed molecule was safe and effective while its right-handed version was highly toxic, causing a generation of birth defects.

Rearranging molecular pieces

Typically, assembling a new molecule is a little like assembling a jigsaw puzzle: the way the pieces go together is fixed. Wendlandt identifies strategies to render those static positions dynamic.

“We use straightforward and unselective chemistry to assemble the molecule with the desired bond connectivity, and then use our methods to tune the stereochemistry of any chiral centers,” she says. “This contrasts with the typical way in which complex chiral molecules have been made, where the correct stereochemistry must be set when the bond connections are forged.”

Creating the bonds first and then tuning the stereochemistry can make the process of developing new molecules quicker and easier, she says. Essentially, instead of creating a new puzzle from scratch, her team rearranges individual pieces.

To do this, Wendlandt’s team performs highly selective catalytic reactions that access specific atoms. Breaking and reforming chemical bonds requires energy. “Typically, if you wanted to add energy to a reaction, you’d turn the heat up, which means every molecule, every bond is experiencing the same influx of energy,” she says. “We selectively apply energy in a very targeted way” using light.

Her research team relies on light produced through an unlikely source: blue LEDs made for fish tanks. Within a fume hood covered in orange film to counteract the blue light, chemists in Wendlandt’s lab irradiate small vials of substances in the presence of a photosensitive catalyst. “Selectively adding photons allows us to drive the reaction to a thermodynamically unstable place,” allowing the researchers to selectively break and reform atomic bonds.

“If you can take a molecule and interconvert between its many isomers selectively, you don’t have to go back to the beginning and make a completely new molecule. So, it’s more about shape-shifting at the late stage,” she says.

Wendlandt has successfully used this light-catalyst approach to synthesize rare sugars used in a host of antiviral, antibacterial, anticancer, and cardiac drugs. The ability to synthesize rare sugars, limited in nature, could help meet increased global demand.

Wendlandt, originally from Colorado, hadn’t envisioned a career centered on manipulating molecules, but she became enamored with organic chemistry at the University of Chicago.

A cellist, she likens organic chemistry to jazz. “Once you understand the basic rules of jazz, you can really have a lot of fun,” she says. “You can riff in the space. “That’s the essence of what any scientist does—play within some interesting space.”

Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07 and Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli stand near trees on the MIT campus.

Design

Elsa Olivetti and Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli Develop New Recipes for New Materials

Faculty lead a collaboration that pairs computational design techniques with machine learning to invent and improve materials

Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07 and Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli pair computational design techniques and machine learning to assess materials and determine if they can be improved. Photo: Sarah Bastille

What if we could improve the environmental impact of the products that run our world, from the catalysts that drive chemical reactions to the cement used in buildings and many things in between?

Materials scientists at MIT are asking and answering this very question. Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in materials science and engineering, and Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, the Jeffrey Cheah Career Development Professor and assistant professor of materials science and engineering, are leading a collaboration that pairs cutting-edge computational design techniques with machine learning to assess the properties of materials and to determine how they can be redesigned and improved, or if entirely new materials could be synthesized to do a job better.

“We aspire as people that work on matter and atoms to use computational tools in the same way as engineers in other specialties,” says Gomez-Bombarelli. Mechanical engineers, for example, use programs such as AutoCAD and Ansys to predict how various components will perform in different environments, and chemical engineers use Aspen to understand processes flows.

Now, Olivetti and Gomez-Bombarelli are bringing similar design tools to the field of materials science and applying them at a broad scale. “We can think about what elements to include in a material and do so with a set of tools that inform design across its life cycle, from manufacturing to recycling,” says Olivetti. “That accelerates the screening of materials that might be more sustainable and directs efforts experimentally.”

Olivetti, a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, and Gomez-Bombarelli have worked with their students to assemble a suite of machine learning-based software tools, ranging from natural language processing tools to custom neural networks adapted to use molecular structures as inputs. This suite of tools automatically collates information from published literature and uses volumes of data to develop algorithms for materials synthesis and optimized performance.

The team has been using this process to build better zeolites, a class of materials commonly used in catalysts, chemical filters, and the catalytic converters used to clean vehicle emissions. “We use our tools to extract massive amounts of data from the literature around zeolites,” says Olivetti. “Then we use our predictive modeling algorithm to determine potential subsequent ingredients to add to make the final zeolite.”

Using this system, the researchers were able to work with colleagues to design a new zeolite recipe optimized for removing nitrogen oxide, a major pollutant, from diesel engine exhaust. “We were able to use all this computation to support our collaborators in the lab and hit a narrow, really exciting piece of innovation that would have been really hard to find with traditional trial and error,” says Gomez-Bombarelli.

More sustainable concrete

Predictive synthesis works well in cases such as zeolites, in which there are far too many options to sift through experimentally. It’s also useful when optimizing a mixture of materials is needed to make a product more sustainable.

Consider cement, an essential ingredient of concrete. Thirty billion tons of concrete is used every year, accounting for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions due to the intense heat needed to create cement from raw materials such as lime, clay, and silica. Developing a more sustainable process requires a clear understanding of how possible replacement materials might mix.

Because zeolites and cement have a similar chemistry, critical aspects of Olivetti and Gomez-Bombarelli’s predictive zeolite work could be applied to the world of cement. The researchers plan to use their techniques to predict how potential concrete ingredients will behave on a molecular level, with the aim of adjusting the recipe to employ, for example, industrial waste materials.

“We use these computational tools to search the space for how to make the best mixture,” says Olivetti. “The way I think about it is, how early in the design of new materials can we think about their environmental implications from extraction to end of life?” Her answer? “The earlier, the better.”

Design

D-Lab Marks 20 Years of Empowering Communities

Academic program puts tools of design into action around the world

MIT D-Lab students at the Faros Horizon Center in Athens, Greece, teaching the design process through hands-on learning to refugee youth from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Photo: Faros Horizon Center

Cooking beans over an open fire used to take hours for South Sudanese refugees living in a camp in Northern Uganda. As the pot sat over the flames, they would have to feed the fire, using up precious firewood and incidentally creating woodsmoke, which harms health and the climate. Recently, however, the refugees began using insulated box cookers; now they can bring beans to a boil for just a few minutes and leave them to cook inside overnight, a system that uses much less energy.

The innovation was made possible by D-Lab, an MIT program that develops collaborative solutions for global poverty challenges. The program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, doesn’t just create products for resource-poor communities; it actively works with people to help them design their own solutions.

“If you are giving people off-the-shelf items, then frequently that means someone else decided what people’s priorities are,” says D-Lab’s founding director Amy Smith ’84, SM ’95, ME ’95, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering. “One of the best ways of knowing what people need is to see what they’ll make.” The process of teaching design and collaborating to create products ensures that those products will be useful. It is also empowering— especially for people who have been displaced by conflict and are living in camps.

“Being able to feel in control of their environment is something they don’t normally have,” Smith says. Creating products to fill their own needs, fosters “joy and pride.’”

Inclusion and equity

Smith became acutely aware of the gulf between the privileged and disadvantaged when she lived in Rajasthan, India, for a year as a child. “Inclusion and equity have always been driving forces for me,” Smith says. After studying mechanical engineering at MIT, she joined the Peace Corps in Botswana.

She returned to MIT to earn her master’s, intending to develop the skills to design products for communities like the ones in Africa where she worked. As a teaching assistant, she developed classes on designing for the developing world, where resources are limited. “These products are great vehicles for teaching solid design principles of reliability, robustness, and simplicity,” Smith says.

After earning her mechanical engineering master’s, she continued on as a lecturer at MIT, working with the Haitian Students Alliance to create a course simply called The Haiti Class. Students spent the fall learning about the country, traveled there during the Independent Activities Period in January to conduct research, and spent the spring designing a product. They then returned to implement the solution in summer.

As organizations from other countries learned about the approach, Smith quickly expanded the program to create D-Lab— named in the style of MIT Sloan School of Management classes such as G-Lab, the Global Entrepreneurship Lab. “D is an awesome letter,” says Smith, who left the meaning of the initial open-ended. “You can use it for development and design and dissemination and discovery.”

Since its founding in 2002, D-Lab has expanded into more than 25 countries, including Colombia, Ghana, India, Mali, and Uganda and involves two dozen MIT faculty and staff. In its 20 years, more than 3,000 students have participated in D-Lab’s hands-on, project-based MIT classes, with more than 600 traveling to work with community partners in person.

Today, the program incorporates three overlapping approaches— design for, where D-Lab staff works with students to develop technologies for new groups; design with, where they create products together with community members; and design by, where communities learn to design for themselves. “Design by is by far the richest of the three in terms of community development outcomes,” Smith says. “It is tremendously empowering and transformative.”

In addition to offering more than 15 different classes at MIT each year, D-Lab also helps lead international design summits that bring teams of people together to brainstorm and create new products. It has also developed several curricula that enable partner organizations to teach the principles of design.

In Haiti, for example, Smith and her students helped residents turn agricultural waste into clean-burning fuel. One of Smith’s first graduate students, Amy Banzaert ’98, SM ’06, PhD ’13, combined fieldwork and laboratory research to bring the technique to El Salvador and Nicaragua, adapting it to local materials and methods with the help of residents. This laid the foundation for D-Lab’s Harvest Fuel Initiative, which later brought the technique to East Africa. Banzaert now serves as director of engineering studies at Wellesley College, where she created “We-Lab,” applying D-Lab’s collaborative humanitarian approach to domestic challenges.

Respect for people

Other successful products that have emerged from D-Lab include a low-cost water testing kit and pedal-powered machines for washing clothes and processing grain. While most of D-Lab’s work has occurred in developing countries, it recently piloted a new project in its Humanitarian Innovation class, which works with displaced people in relatively resource-rich areas. This project centered on teaching design in Greece to unaccompanied refugee children from Afghanistan and Syria.

“Some of them came in with the hopes of going into engineering and design and some seemed to be inspired by the work they did at the center,” says Sally Beiruti ’20, who helped with the project. “It felt like a fun experience for everyone involved.”

Beiruti, who is originally from Jordan, now works with an international humanitarian organization and credits D-Lab with solidifying her interest in humanitarian work. “The classes I took taught me to approach work in the humanitarian field with a critical eye because of the unintended harm that can come from well-meaning projects and why the collaborative process is so important,” she says.

Ultimately, Smith says one of her goals is to seed “design ecosystems,” and she notes that some projects started in D-Lab have spun out into businesses that employ local people to create products for their own communities.

Kwami Williams ’12, for example, worked on a project helping farmers in his native Ghana to process moringa seeds into high-quality oil. He then cofounded MoringaConnect, a business that provides farmers with financial credit, agricultural training, and other services. “Coming to MIT, I thought my American dream would be working as a rocket scientist,” Williams says. “But thanks to D-Lab, I found a global dream, helping the poorest demographic in our world today— rural farmers— improve their lives.”

At the heart of everything D-Lab does, Smith says, lies respect for the knowledge and experiences of local people. “We approach people with a very deep level of respect, which they don’t always get,” Smith says. “They not only appreciate the technology they create, but also the way they are engaged.”

Exterior of MIT Nano facilities

Community Highlights

A Big Change for the Home of MIT.nano

Alumna Lisa T. Su ’90, SM ’91, PhD ’94 lends her name to Building 12

MIT.Nano provides shared experimental facilities that draw researchers from across MIT as well as from industry, academia, and other organizations. Photo: Anton Grassl/Courtesy of Wilson Architects

In May 2020, Lisa T. Su ’90, SM ’91, PhD ’94, chief executive officer and chair of the board of directors of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), became the first alumna to make a gift for a building that will bear her own name. Building 12, home of MIT.nano, is now the Lisa T. Su Building.

Located in the center of campus adjacent to the Great Dome, the Lisa T. Su Building is an open-access facility for nanoscale science and engineering. Opened in 2018, the building is notable for expansive glass facades that allow unobstructed views into the laboratories, designed to visually connect researchers within the building and with the world outside. The design of the building has enlivened its  shared experimental facilities, drawing the participation of  researchers from more than three dozen departments, labs, and centers, as well as external users from industry, academia, and other organizations.

Inventing the future

“Nanoscience and nanotechnology are central to the work of MIT, and to the work of inventing the future,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Through the superb research and training spaces inside its walls, Building 12   brings together many kinds of ‘brilliant’—students, faculty, and research staff; scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs—in spaces deliberately designed to trigger conversation, spark collaboration, and create community.”

Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology and founding director of MIT.nano, notes that Su’s legacy at MIT began as soon as she graduated. “For many years after her graduation, Dr. Su’s technical recipes developed during her PhD studies were followed by new student researchers utilizing MIT’s shared toolsets for nanofabrication,” he says.

During her time at MIT, “She taught, mentored, and inspired her classmates,” says President Reif. “Now well-known, admired, and respected as a visionary leader for her transformation of AMD, Lisa Su is enabling MIT.nano to expand the boundaries of research and innovation at the nanoscale.”

An extraordinary career

In 2021, Su led the multinational semiconductor company AMD to its strongest performance in its more than 50-year history, bringing to market several leading-edge technologies. She previously served in multiple roles at Freescale Semiconductor, IBM, and Texas Instruments. Her remarkable career continues MIT’s legacy of educating leaders in the semiconductor industry. Su’s predecessors include Ray Stata ’57, SM ’58, cofounder of Analog Devices; Cecil Green ’24, SM ’24, cofounder of Texas Instruments; and Irwin Jacobs SM ’57, ScD ’59, cofounder of the global telecommunications firm Qualcomm.

Two of the many honors Su has received include the Global Semiconductor Association’s Dr. Morris Chang Exemplary Leadership Award, named for Morris Chang ’52, SM ’53, ME ’55, founding chairman of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and the Robert N. Noyce Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Robert Noyce PhD ’53 was a cofounder of Intel and the first person to make a monolithic integrated microchip. Su was the first woman ever to receive the Noyce Medal.

“I am deeply grateful for the impact that MIT has had on my education and training, and I am honored and extremely happy to be able to impact the next generation of students and researchers,” says Su. “There is no substitute for hands-on learning, and my hope is that MIT.nano will enable and develop the best and brightest technologists and innovators of the future.”

An active member of the MIT community, Su has participated in several alumni committees, and she gave the Commencement address at the Institute’s 2017 Investiture of Doctoral Hoods. She served on the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Visiting Committee for 10 years and is currently a member of the MIT President’s CEO Advisory Board. In 2018, she established the Lisa Su Fellowship Fund, which supports female graduate students who have demonstrated progress and accomplishments in nanotechnology.

“It is wonderful that Lisa Su’s name will now adorn the home of today’s open-access laboratories and inspire the generations of students who enter the building to follow in her footsteps,” says Bulović.

Photograph of Victor Ambros ’75, PhD ’79 and Rosalind “Candy” Lee ’76

Community Highlights

Donors Help to Build STEM Opportunities for Young People

Victor Ambros ’75, PhD ’79 and Rosalind “Candy” Lee ’76

Photo: Sarah Bastille

When Victor Ambros ’75, PhD ’79 and Rosalind “Candy” Lee ’76 began to think seriously about philanthropy, one of their goals was to help boost the diversity of people pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Their alma mater seemed a natural place to direct their resources. “MIT has a history of really pushing and innovating in this area, while a lot of places are just starting to realize that diversity is important,” says Candy. “MIT is never complacent; it’s always trying to do better.”

Hoping to make STEM education available to young people from diverse backgrounds, they were intrigued by a program at MITES (MIT Introduction to Technology, Engineering, and Science) called the MITES Semester, which selects rising high school seniors from all over the country to participate in a seven-month academic and enrichment experience. The majority of the middle and high school students participating in programs at MITES, formerly known as the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs, each year are members of underrepresented minority groups.

The couple wanted to support programs with measurable results, so both were impressed when MITES Executive Director Eboney Hearn ’01 and her staff were able to answer detailed questions about the efficacy of MITES Semester and other MITES programs, taking the time to explain social science research terms with which they were unfamiliar. “They went through a tremendous effort to engage with us,” recalls Victor.

Victor and Candy chose to support MITES because they believe many talented high school students who would thrive in STEM lack access to educational and career opportunities. “We were looking for a program where if we donated funds it would make a lot of difference for individual young people,” says Victor. Their first gift to MITES Semester expanded the number of spots in the program by 25% from the prior year, an increase of 25 students. Since Victor and Candy are both scientists in the Program in Molecular Medicine at UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, they encouraged MITES leadership to consider students from their city, and were grateful that staff took the time to meet with students at every Worcester high school.

Both of them recognize the power of mentorship in STEM, particularly for first-generation students who “may not know how to navigate things like applying to college and choosing a major,” says Candy. Victor notes that MITES provides structured mentoring to help students with these processes and also offers programming for students’ families. “This kind of support was always there for a select few,” says Victor. “The point is to try to provide resources and awareness to everybody, not just a few.” As Victor and Candy approach their 50th undergraduate reunions (Victor’s in 2025, Candy’s in 2026), they are pleased at how MIT has evolved in many ways since they were at the Institute. For one thing, Candy points out, her class was only 10% female, compared to 48% for the 2021–22 academic year.

A visionary leader and MIT’s evolving mission

“The idea of MIT as a community has also evolved over the years, thanks to a series of presidents who encouraged that shift,” says Victor. Candy points to former Institute President Charles M. “Chuck” Vest as particularly transformational, adding, “Across the campus there has been a changing awareness that MIT as an institution has a responsibility to the world and that students need support. We’ve become very proud of MIT.”

In addition to MITES, they support the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET), a student-founded program that sends MIT student instructors to Jerusalem in the summer via the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). The instructors lead classes, groups, and projects that include equal numbers of male and female students as well as equal numbers of Palestinians and Israelis. Although they live within a few miles of each other, this is a unique experience for the students, who continue working together during the academic year with remote help. MEET’s mission aligns well with Victor and Candy’s goals, as the organization promotes STEM education while creating a community of future leaders who can work together in the face of historical differences.

“We want other alumni to know that the development office can help you find programs that resonate with what you want to accomplish,” says Victor. Candy agrees. “We are so grateful to be involved.”