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The Spin Doctor: Danna Freedman Designs Novel Molecules for Possible Quantum Applications

Chemistry professor and 2022 MacArthur Fellow opens a door “into a real field that has real potential”

Illustration of an experiment that analyzes a molecular qubit. Image: Daniel Laorenza

Danna Freedman was returning to her MIT office in early September 2022 with cookies for her students when she heard the news: she had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the no-strings $800,000 prize referred to as the “genius grant.” Her lab’s groundbreaking work using synthetic chemistry to design novel molecules potentially paves the way for quantum sensing and communication applications to be conducted with a new set of tools—molecules— versus traditionally used, and intrinsically more limiting, solid-state materials.

“I was speechless. This is an incredible honor,” says Freedman, the F. G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry. “It’s acknowledgment that we’re on the right track, that we opened up a door into a real field that has real potential, not just on paper but to impact the world around us.”

Quantum mechanics is a field of physics that seeks to understand the behavior of the tiniest particles in the universe—particles that are small or smaller than atoms (including electrons, protons, and neutrons) and behave differently from larger objects, often in strange ways. The first “quantum revolution” of the 20th century led scientists to observe quantum properties and develop technologies like lasers, the transistor, GPS, magnetic resonance imaging, and semiconductors. Now, in the second quantum revolution, scientists like Freedman are seeking to harness those properties and apply them to a wide range of fields.

At the heart of this work, and one of its biggest hurdles, is the concept of electron spin, a quantum property and form of angular momentum that influences the position of electrons and nuclei in atoms and molecules. Spin can have two states but also a natural third state that’s a combination of the two, called superposition. (Think about something on Earth existing not just in one position like up or down but in several positions all at once, or a spinning coin that is neither heads nor tails.)

Few molecules remain in this third state long enough to measure, so they have been difficult to use as building blocks for quantum technologies. Freedman, a former MIT postdoc who joined the faculty in 2021, appears to have devised a way using a bottom-up approach.

From the electron spin of certain molecules, her lab has created a new class of quantum units, or qubits, that retain superposition and can be manipulated to control quantum system properties. Their research has shown that qubits—in this case, molecules designed with a central chromium atom surrounded by four hydrocarbon molecules—could be customized for specific targets within quantum sensing and communication.

Using chemical control, Freedman says spins can be positioned in chosen orientations or separated by form (electron versus proton). Specific combinations of atoms can even be forced to interact to shed light on the nature of a chemical bond. “Chemistry enables us to make systems that are atomically precise, reproducible, and tunable,” she says.

Next-generation information processing

Portrait of Danna FreedmanFreedman is reluctant to speculate about the potential real-world applications of her research, but a next generation of molecular components could perform otherwise impossible information-processing (sensing, communication, and measurement) tasks with an unprecedented level of specification and accuracy.

“Molecules are uniquely suited for a lot of quantum sensing applications and for quantum communication applications,” Freedman says. “You can use a molecule to put atoms exactly where you want them to be and then tune them so you can get a whole array of properties, and that combination is incredibly powerful for applications where specificity is important.”

One direction she hopes to pursue with her MacArthur grant is working with other scientists on quantum sensors, which are extremely sensitive to minuscule variations in their environment. Freedman’s lab also works on targeting emergent properties and applying extreme pressure to synthesize new materials, which could impact areas such as energy generation and transport.

Creativity and scholarly depth

Freedman’s deep passion for her work is palpable. In high school, she taught science to 11-year-olds and worked at the local observatory running the telescope and conducting tours. That’s where she heard a guest scientist explain an alternative theory to dark matter. Now, decades later, she’s thrilled to also be collaborating on a dark matter detection project.

“I’ve been hearing about this since I was 15,” she says. “How lucky am I that I had such a long exposure.”

Freedman describes MIT as “phenomenally interdisciplinary.” Her office is near that of Peter Shor PhD ’85, the renowned mathematician and quantum computing pioneer. “This is just an inspirational place to be,” Freedman says. “There’s a lot of creativity, risk taking, and ambition, but it’s also met by a scholarly depth, which is essential.”

Mai Hassan


When Movements Topple Dictators

Associate professor of political science Mai Hassan examines contentious politics and collective action in autocratic regimes—and the barriers to democratization that follow

Photo: Sarah Bastille Photography

Social and political movements can be powerful enough to topple authoritarian regimes. “But mobilizing large numbers of people onto the streets takes collective action,” says Mai Hassan, associate professor of political science in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, noting that successful revolutions tap into broad, easily understood narratives and feelings that run deep among the general public. “The mantra of the Sudanese uprising in 2019 was ‘freedom, peace, and justice.’ Who doesn’t want that?”

Hassan, a social scientist examining contentious politics and collective action in autocratic regimes, also studies the barriers to democratization that follow in the aftermath. “Overthrowing a dictatorship is fundamentally different than building a lasting democracy,” she notes. People with different backgrounds may unite to oppose brutal rulers as they did in Sudan, but they usually don’t establish consensus about what should come next.

“Once an authoritarian regime is overthrown, then comes the bickering about what should replace it,” says Hassan. In the case of theocracies, some activists will expect the new government to be secular, while others might envision a less restrictive faith-based government. Some will advocate for a more expansive socialist and welfare state and find themselves in opposition to proponents of capitalism.

While Hassan studies several countries in Africa, she is particularly interested in Sudan, from which she and much of her extended family emigrated in the 1990s. After settling in Virginia, she frequently listened to adults talking about the political turmoil in the country they left behind, piquing her interest in history, economics, and political science.

Social movements in the age of social media

Modern political movements, Hassan believes, may be more susceptible to the problem of competing internal objectives because today’s activists are recruited differently than in the past. While the extensive reach of social media can quickly gather protest participants to engage in collective action, the result is often a group with diverse belief systems. “If an opposition political party or deeply ingrained labor union was at the forefront of the movement,” Hassan says, “they would have built up membership for years and instilled the organization’s core beliefs in its members. It would be very clear what the post-revolution landscape they were working towards would look like.”

While information and communication technologies are useful for coordinating collective action, Hassan points out, the regime can see social media posts, too. “But dissidents are smart,” she continues. “Living in an authoritarian regime for years, they have developed intuition of how the regime is likely to respond, and they come up with clever ways to outsmart them.” Her field research has uncovered stories of activists using subversive tactics, for example, keeping the date, time, and mode of a protest the same but quietly changing the location.

This poses a challenge for researchers like Hassan who, she says, can’t rely only on publicly available data, given that sources such as social media posts might be written to mislead the regime. For her most recent paper “Coordinated Dis-coordination,” Hassan conducted more than 100 interviews and focus groups with leading activists and dissidents in and around Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to study how dissidents used social media to coordinate among themselves while deceiving the regime.

Building—or protecting—democratic systems

Joining a political movement in an authoritarian country can subject participants to hostility and even violence, not just from the regime but from fellow citizens. “Every authoritarian regime has some popular base of support,” says Hassan.

The recent phenomenon of election denialism in the United States, she observes, “puts into perspective how polarized the United States is if some people are willing to overthrow democratic protections just to have a government that will instill their idea of what society should look like.” She explains that when social scientists evaluate other countries for democratization potential, they examine the thinking of that nation’s powerful elites. “Do they believe that democracy is the only valid form of government? When we turn that criterion on ourselves, the years 2016 to 2021 showed cracks in the system.”

Cartoon illustration of a futuristic city. People use various modes of transportation to move around the city while researchers work at giant computers monitoring traffic.


MIT Mobility Initiative Thinks Forward

Platform merges public, private, and academic spheres to help shape the future of transportation

Illustrations: Meredith Miotke

Few sectors of the global economy are changing as rapidly and dramatically as the mobility sector, and even fewer have mobility’s broad potential to shape the way we live. New technologies are upending long-static industries such as automobile manufacturing and highway construction, and altering the way we plan our cities and homes. The climate crisis is compelling the mobility and transportation industries to innovate in ways that are not only new but also clean and sustainable.

“It’s an incredibly turbulent but interesting time,” says Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09, associate professor of transportation and city planning and founder and director of the MIT Mobility Initiative (MMI). “The transportation world is booming but in flux: the industry is being reshuffled, communities and cities are often confused and anxious about their mobility future, and the ecosystem pressure is daunting. While the major players like car manufacturers scramble to adapt, new players like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence (AI) stake their claim. MIT wants to play a leadership role in shaping this new reality.”

Launched in 2020, the MMI provides continuity, context, and an ongoing forum for MIT researchers and key stakeholders in the mobility ecosystem, both inside and outside MIT. The Institute-spanning initiative includes 75 MIT faculty researchers from 12 departments and laboratories. Zhao has hosted a series of 62 virtual MMI Mobility Forums, showcasing the groundbreaking transportation research across the Institute and reaching over 10,000 participants and viewers from across the globe. Leaders from Hyundai Motor Group, Ferrovial, Ford, Liberty Mutual, Microsoft, US DOT, Chicago Transit Authority, and Transport for London presented during MMI’s annual Mobility Vision Day in November 2022.

“Transportation is a complex system with multiple actors in the public, private, and academic spheres,” says John Moavenzadeh, executive director of the MMI and former lead of the mobility platform at the World Economic Forum, who also developed and co-teaches the graduate-level Mobility Ventures course. “The future of mobility isn’t being charted solely in a research university. It’s being charted in a dynamic ecosystem of big technology players, startups, entrepreneurs, academics, and civic leaders. If we want to have a global mobility system that is safe, clean, and inclusive, we need to ground that system, to connect it across disciplines and institutions and people on the front lines. This is the type of thing that MIT can do very well.”

An opportunity to lead

Jinhua Zhao came to MIT in 2013 with a joint appointment in the departments of urban studies and planning and civil and environmental engineering. In 2018, he met with a small group of MIT leaders: Provost Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88; School of Engineering dean Anantha Chandraksan; School of Architecture and Planning dean Hashim Sarkis; professor of engineering Sanjay Sarma (then the vice president of open learning); and Professor Emeritus Daniel Roos to discuss an idea for an Institute-wide project. “I observed that MIT had a long and proud history in transport scholarship,” says Zhao. “Transportation is not one single discipline but it requires and unifies all sorts of expertise. And all those disciplines need to speak with each other.”

By Zhao’s design, the MMI is perched on three pillars: technology, data, and values. The first pillar supports research in subjects including energy, vehicle design and development, and aeronautics. The second encompasses projects ranging from demand modeling to AI and big data. “The third pillar, values, is where we ask what transportation is for,” says Zhao, who also directs the JTL Urban Mobility Lab at MIT. “What purpose do our sophisticated technologies and intelligence serve? Do they alter our behaviors? Can we create a mobility ecosystem that furthers public health and creates greater equity and access? Transportation is currently the biggest contributor of CO2 in the United States. Can we quickly decarbonize transportation while providing everyone the access to opportunities?”

Digging deep

In March 2022, the MMI put out its first call for research proposals. “I applied with a proposal about safety and performance in autonomous vehicles,” says Cathy Wu ’12, MNG ’13, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering. “There is a perception that the public expects autonomous vehicles to be significantly safer than human-piloted vehicles. We wanted to explore whether that should be the bar. To ask how safe is safe enough.”

To answer that question, Wu first had to ascertain how safe human drivers are. To her surprise, she discovered there weren’t sufficient data to make that calculation. Performing even a rudimentary analysis would require simulating billions if not trillions of miles of driving, a largely futile operation requiring enormous resources. Instead, Wu is using neural surrogate modeling, a machine-learning technique, to simulate and analyze specific driving and traffic scenarios. “That would establish a baseline,” Wu explains. “Then regulators could debate whether autonomous vehicles should be 5 or 10 or 25 percent safer. And whether that level should change over time.”

Andres Sevtsuk SM ’06, PhD ’10, the Charles and Ann Spaulding Career Development Professor of Urban Science and Planning, is also undertaking research projects with MMI. “We want to know whether we can have built environments that don’t require everyone to drive,” says Sevtsuk, who explores public transport, cycling, and walkability. “With the demographic shifts we’re seeing, away from suburbs and into cities, can we see something other than cars 2.0 emerge? New transport services, personal mobility devices like scooters, and the challenge of charging the growing electric fleet have thrown the field into a whirlwind. The MMI is helping to create clarity and also linking the private sector with city, state, and federal governments.”

Asking the big questions

Karl Iagnemma SM ’97, PhD ’01, CEO of the Boston-based company Motional, which develops autonomous vehicle technology for major ride-hail companies including Lyft and Uber Eats, says the MMI offers both an invaluable network and a fresh perspective for its industry partners. “In industry, we are too often tied up in shorter-term technologies and strategies,” says Iagnemma, who recently joined MMI’s Global Advisory Board. “MIT is looking at fundamental questions related to the future of transport and mobility. They ask the ‘what ifs’ that could lead to meaningful strategies across the sector, in business, autonomous transport, urban planning, and policy.”

Cartoon illustration of a crane lifting an object. Two people stand next to the crane examining a blueprint.

In addition to providing a holistic platform to view mobility, the MMI is also training personnel to drive the sector towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and change. “The Mobility Initiative provides great value as a place where the brightest minds from private, public, and academic organizations can connect,” says Regina Clewlow PhD ’12, CEO and cofounder of Populus, a data platform that helps private mobility operators and cities deliver safe streets for all forms of transit. “But it will also produce graduates with expertise in transport and mobility to work in those organizations.”

Wu says the MMI is already playing a vital role in shaping transportation—and society. She also believes the initiative can serve as a test bench, a first-generation experiment in facing and resolving a complex global problem. “Transportation, in the end, feels like one of our more tractable systems,” says Wu, who studied electrical engineering and computer science as an MIT undergraduate. “We don’t really understand why people click on a specific social media link, or why they choose to take their medication or not. We do understand how and why people hit the brake pedal. And we have decades of modeling under our belt. If we do this right, we can create the methods and tools that can help resolve far messier global problems.”

Mobility Ventures: Making Transportation Your Business

“We emphasize the idea of mobility as a system,” says John Moavenzadeh about the Mobility Ventures course he co-teaches with Martin Trust Center managing director Bill Aulet SM ’94; Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09; and Jenny Larios Berlin ’15 MCP/MBA, entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center. “We want our students to understand that the many different stakeholders within the mobility system—regulators, startups, big corporates— have different and often competing incentives. They need to understand these incentives to change the broader system.”

Mobility Ventures has been offered jointly by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to students from MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and Wellesley since 2020. In one class exercise, students organize into small teams to explore a mobility problem and then present a proposed solution to their peers. “The exercise teaches them to see the broader picture,” says Moavenzadeh, executive director of the MIT Mobility Initiative (MMI). “It’s not just designing a better scooter and dumping them in the middle of a city. You need to involve the city officials to plan how they will be used and where they will be charged and stored.”

“This class brings the perspectives of behavioral thinking and computational thinking together to identify venture opportunities,” says Zhao, director of the MMI. Mobility Ventures has featured fireside chats and intensive Q & A sessions with a bustling roster of industry heavyweights including Kyle Vogt ’08, CEO and cofounder of the GM-owned self-driving company Cruise, and Mark Rosekind, a former official with the National Highway Safety Administration.

“The highlight was the visit from Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway,” says Sloan Fellow Morgan McCray MBA ’23, who came to MIT after a decade of work in the public and private sectors. “I sought out this class to understand what is going on in the mobility industry, to better understand the opportunities for integration that exist between the many stakeholders, and to learn how we can incentivize people and institutions toward change. This course is a beautiful hybrid that bridges all those elements.”


Francesca Riccio-Ackerman Works to Improve Access to Prosthetics

PhD student is designing and building a sustainable care and delivery model in Sierra Leone

PhD student Francesca Riccio-Ackerman and a technician inspect a prosthesis in Sierra Leone. Photo: Adikalie Kamara

In Sierra Leone, war and illness have left up to 40,000 people requiring orthotics and prosthetics services, but there is a profound lack of access to specialized care, says Francesca Riccio-Ackerman, a biomedical engineer and PhD student studying health equity and health systems. There is just one fully certified prosthetist available for the thousands of patients in the African nation who are living with amputation, she notes. The ideal number is one for every 250, according to the World Health Organization and the International Society of Orthotics and Prosthetics.

The data point is significant for Riccio-Ackerman, who conducts research in the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group and in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics, both of which aim to improve translation of assistive technologies to people with disabilities. “We’re really focused on improving and augmenting human mobility,” she says. For Riccio-Ackerman, part of the quest to improve human mobility means ensuring that the people who need access to prosthetic care can get it—for the duration of their lives.

In September 2021, the Yang Center provided funding for Riccio-Ackerman to travel to Sierra Leone, where she witnessed the lingering physical effects of a brutal decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. Prosthetic and orthotic care in the country, where a vast number of patients are also disabled by untreated polio or diabetes, has become more elusive, she says, as global media attention on the war’s aftermath has subsided. “People with amputation need low-level, consistent care for years. There really needs to be a long-term investment in improving this.”

Through the Yang Center and supported by a fellowship from the new MIT Morningside Academy for Design, Riccio-Ackerman is designing and building a sustainable care and delivery model in Sierra Leone that aims to multiply the production of prosthetic limbs and strengthen the country’s prosthetic sector. “[We’re working] to improve access to orthotic and prosthetic services,” she says.

She is also helping to establish a supply chain for prosthetic limb and orthotic brace parts and equipping clinics with machines and infrastructure to serve more patients. In January 2023, her team launched a four-year collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation. One of the goals of the joint effort is to enable Sierra Leoneans to obtain professional prosthetics training, so they can care for their own community without leaving home.

From engineering to economics

Riccio-Ackerman was drawn to issues around human mobility after witnessing her aunt suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. “My aunt was young, but she looked like she was 80 or 90. She was sick, in pain, in a wheelchair— a young spirit in an old body,” she says.

As a biomedical engineering undergraduate student at Florida International University, Riccio-Ackerman worked on clinical trials for neural-enabled myoelectric arms controlled by nerves in the body. She says that the technology was thrilling yet heartbreaking. She would often have to explain to patients who participated in testing that they couldn’t take the devices home and that they may never be covered by insurance.

Riccio-Ackerman began asking questions: “What factors determine who gets an amputation? Why are we making devices that are so expensive and inaccessible?” This sense of injustice inspired her to pivot away from device design and toward a master’s degree in health economics and policy at the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan.

She began work as a research specialist with Hugh Herr SM ’93, professor of arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab and codirector of the Yang Center, helping to study communities that were medically neglected in prosthetic care. “I knew that the devices weren’t getting to the people who need them, and I didn’t know if the best way to solve it was through engineering,” Riccio-Ackerman explains.

While Riccio-Ackerman’s PhD should be finished within three years, she’s only at the beginning of her health care equity work. “We’re forging ahead in Sierra Leone and thinking about translating our strategy and methodologies to other communities around the globe that could benefit,” she says. “We hope to be able to do this in many, many countries in the future.”

Close-up of a black man's hand holding a mobile phone.


CashEx Startup Helps Immigrants Build Financial Future

Funded by delta v, digital service is designed to help African migrants to the US overcome banking obstacles

For the more than 100,000 people from the African continent who move to the United States every year, opening a local bank account or figuring out how to cheaply send money back home can be fraught with obstacles. The creators of a new app called CashEx want to help do away with such barriers to financial mobility, offering these immigrants a better way to safeguard and access their resources.

Devised by Scott Morgan, an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Kingsley Ezeani, who earned an MBA at Oxford and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, CashEx was among the startups in the 2022 cohort of MIT’s student venture accelerator program delta v. It also won the grand prize in Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition.

The digital service is designed to help African migrants obtain their first US bank account and debit card just before their arrival in the United States and to help facilitate the transfer of their savings. It also plans to offer zero-fee remittances for sending money back their countries of origin.

“We know that moving across the globe to build a life in a new country is incredibly stressful, and we want to ensure that interactions with financial services will not add to that stress,” says Morgan, CashEx’s chief technology officer, who says his previous experience in financial services exposed him to the challenges of moving money internationally.

Ezeani, the startup’s CEO, has also experienced those challenges, although on a more personal level. When he set out from Nigeria to travel to the United States for the first time to pursue his degree at the Harvard Kennedy School, he says he was worried about being robbed along the way.

“We want to create a future where immigrants are able to get the same access to financial services as the rest of the population in the United States,” he says of CashEx. “One where we have eliminated the high remittance fees immigrants pay to send money to their families.”

CashEx has received funding from Google’s Black Founders Fund and recently launched on Google Play and the Apple App Store, where it drew 50,000 wait-list sign-ups in two months, Ezeani notes.

Morgan credits the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s delta v program for helping the cofounders shape a promising startup. “Five or 10 years down the road, we hope that our venture will be the bank of choice for migrants around the world,” he says.

A man points to an architectural diagram pinned to a whiteboard as two other men look on.

Community Highlights

Two Stories of Philanthropy in the Department of Architecture

Named professorship and significant discretionary funds are “gifts of confidence”

Philanthropy helps make the MIT School of Architecture and Planning a leader in education, research, and innovative practice. Photo: Gretchen Ertl

Two significant gifts to the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) offer different but equally transformative examples of philanthropic leadership in action. In December 2021, Alan G. Spoon ’73, chair of the Department of Architecture Visiting Committee, and his wife, architect Terri Spoon, established the Terri and Alan Spoon Professor of Architecture and Climate—the second full professorship in the department since 1978—and the Spoon Climate Studio. In September 2022, Berkeley Investments, founded by visiting committee member Young K. Park ’71, contributed discretionary funds to strengthen and enrich the student experience in architecture.

Both gifts are enabling the architecture department and SA+P to remain at the leading edge of education, research, and innovative practice while navigating a challenging financial climate.

Prioritizing climate-related research in architecture

“The climate crisis requires many important shifts in building and construction,” says professor and architecture department head Nicholas de Monchaux. “As the home of the first professional training architecture program in North America, and the home of pathbreaking research in building today, MIT is well positioned to be a leader in addressing this existential challenge.” Yet funding for this work lags far behind the need, he notes, making gifts like the Spoons’ particularly crucial.

Christoph Reinhart, professor and director of the Building Technology Program and the Sustainable Design Lab, has been named the inaugural Terri and Alan Spoon Professor of Architecture and Climate.

Caitlin Mueller ’07, PhD ’14, SM ’14, associate professor of building technology, and Sheila Kennedy, professor of architecture, were chosen as co-leaders of the inaugural Spoon Climate Studio and will lead a series of workshops and studies beginning in 2024 that will offer a critical cultural inquiry into the modern development of standardized building construction materials.

“The Spoons’ gift will be a catalyst in seeding important climate-related research in the Department of Architecture that could not happen otherwise,” says de Monchaux. “It reflects Alan’s sense of service to MIT and the keen interest that Alan and Terri have for unlocking our department’s potential to face the largest contemporary challenges.”

“A gift of care” to ensure an excellent student experience

At a meeting of the Architecture Visiting Committee in April 2022, de Monchaux spoke about the robust student experience the department aims to provide as well as the challenges it faces in meeting that aspiration, including the rising cost of living and inflation and supporting an increasingly economically diverse student body. Committee member Park, an SA+P alumnus, was inspired to help.

“Members of the visiting committee are able to get an unvarnished glimpse at the inner workings of SA+P departments,” says Park. “Amid the transformative achievements of the past year, we were also made aware of continuing resource gaps, including the ever-increasing expenses borne by graduate students and PhD candidates. Berkeley Investments’ multiyear funding commitment is designed to address this gap, and we hope it will be a useful complement to traditional capital funding.”

The gift will be used to avoid charging specific fees to students for travel, printing, and modeling and prototyping in their studies. “It will expand student access and empower them to use our facilities and workshops. This is incredibly important during a time of budgetary challenges. For students, it’s a gift of care that will enhance their experience.”

Though the designations of these two gifts are quite different, de Monchaux sees an important link between them. “What these gifts share is a spirit of curiosity and generous listening. Both gifts are connected to individuals who have given significant time and service to MIT over the years” and who appreciate the importance of addressing the climate crisis in the built environment and supporting an ever-more diverse student population. “These are remarkable gifts of confidence in our work and priorities.”

Nidhi Seethapathi writes on a whiteboard as a colleague looks on.


Modeling the Marvelous Journey from A to B

Assistant Professor Nidhi Seethapathi seeks to understand why we move the way we do

Nidhi Seethapathi uses computational modeling in her study of human movement. Photo: Steph Stevens

Nidhi Seethapathi was first drawn to using powerful yet simple models to understand elaborate patterns when she learned about Newton’s laws of motion as a high school student in India. She was fascinated by the idea that wonderfully complex behaviors can arise from a set of objects that follow a few elementary rules.

Now an assistant professor at MIT, Seethapathi seeks to capture the intricacies of movement in the real world, using computational modeling as well as input from theory and experimentation. “[Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate] Richard Feynman ’39 once said, ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand,’” Seethapathi says. “In that same spirit, the way I try to understand movement is by building models that move the way we do.”

Models of locomotion in the real world

Seethapathi, the Frederick A. (1971) and Carole J. Middleton Career Development Assistant Professor—who holds a shared faculty position between the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s Faculty of Artificial Intelligence + Decision-Making, which is housed in the Schwarzman College of Computing and the School of Engineering—recalls a moment during her undergraduate years studying mechanical engineering in Mumbai when a professor asked students to pick an aspect of movement to examine in detail. While most of her peers chose to analyze machines, Seethapathi selected the human hand. She was astounded by its versatility, she says, and by the number of variables, referred to by scientists as “degrees of freedom,” that are needed to characterize routine manual tasks. The assignment made her realize that she wanted to explore the diverse ways in which the entire human body can move.

Also an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Seethapathi pursued graduate research at The Ohio State University Movement Lab, where her goal was to identify the key elements of human locomotion. At that time, most people in the field were analyzing simple movements, she says, “but I was interested in broadening the scope of my models to include real-world behavior. Given that movement is so ubiquitous, I wondered: What can this model say about everyday life?”

After earning her PhD from Ohio State in 2018, Seethapathi continued this line of research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. New computer vision tools to track human movement from video footage had just entered the scene, and during her time at UPenn, Seethapathi sought to expand her skillset to include computer vision and applications to movement rehabilitation.

At MIT, Seethapathi continues to extend the range of her studies of human movement, looking at how locomotion can evolve as people grow and age, and how it can adapt to anatomical changes and even adjust to shifts in weather, which can alter ground conditions. Her investigations now encompass other species as part of an effort to determine how creatures with different morphologies and habitats regulate their movements.

The models Seethapathi and her team create make predictions about human movements that can later be verified or refuted by empirical tests. While relatively simple experiments can be carried out on treadmills, her group is developing measurement systems incorporating wearable sensors and video-based sensing to measure movement data that have traditionally been hard to obtain outside the laboratory.

Although Seethapathi says she is primarily driven to uncover the fundamental principles that govern movement behavior, she believes her work also has practical applications.

“When people are treated for a movement disorder, the goal is to impact their movements in the real world,” she says. “We can use our predictive models to see how a particular intervention will affect a person’s trajectory. The hope is that our models can help put the individual on the right track to recovery as early as possible.”


A Robotic Helping Hand for Aging in Place

Mechanical engineering professor Harry Asada works on tools that may be able to help elderly people retain their independence

Graduate student Roberto Bolli ’20 demonstrates a robot designed to provide a grab bar that can move in response to a patient’s needs. Photo: Courtesy of Roberto Bolli

Harry Asada smiles warmly when he recalls his mom, Yoshiko Asada, who lived in Osaka, Japan. She spent much of her time volunteering and “was a very independent old lady,” he says. But after breaking a hip in a fall at age 89, she developed complications and then dementia. “She became a different person after that,” Asada says, remembering the chain of events that motivated him to move his mother into a nursing home. Over the next 15 years, her functions slowly declined, and she became a wheelchair user. She passed away in early 2022 at age 104. “Amazing,” Asada chuckles.

This loss of autonomy is a common trajectory for people as they age. Asada says that most older adults don’t want to go to a nursing home. “They want to live more independently,” he explains. “And it’s not a good thing for them to be disconnected from their familiar community.” Not to mention the price tag, says Asada, combined with a growing elderly population worldwide and a shrinking workforce to support them.

Asada, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, says robotics may be able to help elderly people retain their independence and live at home for longer, a concept often referred to as aging in place. He admits that it’s difficult for someone to regain the mobility that they’ve lost. Instead, Asada, who is also director of the Brit and Alex d’Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology, is focusing his efforts on slowing physical decline, preventing falls, and improving overall balance.

A human must be in the loop

Take the task of standing up from a sitting or reclining position. An elderly person might have grab bars installed on the walls of their home “but the ideal bar locations are not necessarily the walls,” says Asada. It would be more helpful to have bars that can float in mid-air, in front of or beside the person. One of Asada’s graduate students and a Flowers Family Graduate Fellow, Roberto Bolli ’20, outfitted a collaborative robot arm with a handlebar and attached it to a mobile base, called Handle Anywhere. It can be teleoperated by a health professional or run autonomously.

“A human must be in the loop,” cautions Asada. “If the robot were to approach the person and yank their arms to stand up on their feet, that would be rather terrifying. Instead, the robot needs to communicate with the user to ascertain their willingness to stand up, and develop a cooperative, trusting relationship.” This is accomplished by having the elderly person lean forward before the robot starts to lift their body. Because today’s robotics are not yet at that level, the current setup requires human supervision. Ideally, the machine would behave like a well-trained and compassionate caregiver who offers both physical and sympathetic support.

Exercise safety net

Another of Asada’s efforts focuses on tai chi. His collaborator Peter Wayne, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the Chinese martial art can enhance mobility, balance, and mental health. Asada and Wayne have found that medical professionals often discourage the elderly and frail from practicing tai chi because of the risk of falling.

In response, Asada and Wayne are developing a tai chi robotic assistant. A metal frame supports a spray of cables and winches that attaches to a special pair of pants built by a student in his lab, Emily Kamienski SM ’21, and a visiting scholar, Hirofumi Itagaki. “When the person doesn’t need assistance, the robot is almost invisible,” explains Asada. But when sensors in the pants detect that the individual is losing their balance, the winches engage, the cables tighten, and the pants grip the person mid-fall, supporting up to a quarter of their body weight. “With this kind of safety net,” Asada says, “the people who really benefit from this exercise can do it safely.” In addition, it’s a way of continuously monitoring someone’s balance and risk of falling.

Neither robot is on the market yet, says Asada, who notes that this is delicate and difficult work. But the payoff of success would be enormous, providing people with robotic assistance to remain healthy, independent, and meaningfully engaged with their communities and loved ones. Asada likes to think his mom would be proud.


In the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, Capturing the Movements of Dancers Has Wide Applications

Characteristics of motion in dance can illuminate what it means to be efficient or fatigued in other domains

Graduate student Roger Pallares Lopez views sensors placed on dancer Kaelyn Dunnell ’25 from a monitor in the MIT.nano Immersion Lab. Photo: Ken Richardson

In the autumn of 2011, when Praneeth Namburi PhD ’16 was a graduate student at MIT, he recalls “stumbling into a room full of people dancing.” Which is how Namburi took his first lesson with the MIT Ballroom Dance Team—by accident. “The instructor just put me in front of a partner,” he says. Yet despite his serendipitous introduction to the sport, Namburi chose to go back week after week, first as a respite from the rigors of his degree in experimental neuroscience and then, when he got deeper into it, “as a way of exploring and understanding how my body works.”

In 2018, returning from a ballroom competition at Columbia University, Namburi experienced a sudden flash of insight inspired by all his time practicing and learning dance. In that moment, he understood that to dance is to move one’s body as a whole—as a single, unbroken form. Namburi logged into Amazon and bought a few motion sensors to stick to his body as he danced. By looking at the data from those sensors before and after learning a new routine, Namburi gained a quantitative means of describing his mastery of movement. It got him thinking about whether he could use that information to help others learn. “Everybody has the potential,” he says. “Most people just haven’t discovered it yet.”

Today, Namburi is a research scientist at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, a shared, central facility housed within the Lisa T. Su Building that enables research visualizing and interacting with large, multidimensional data sets. Projects span departments and disciplines, ranging from 3-D content development to hardware design to human-subject research and bringing together engineers, scientists, artists, and athletes.

One project that bridges the physical and digital worlds uses virtual reality (VR) simulations to train people to fabricate computer chips and semiconductors. This allows individuals to “visualize and interact with the tools virtually before you put them in front of something where they can hurt themselves or the equipment,” says Brian W. Anthony SM ’98, PhD ’06, associate director of MIT.nano and the Immersion Lab’s founding director.

In addition, the data from a single measurement from one of MIT.nano’s sophisticated characterization tools, including scanning and electron microscopes, can easily be several terabytes. To interact with that hi-res and high-dimensional imagery, the Immersion Lab uses VR and augmented reality (AR) and massive interactive compute power to allow researchers to “blow it up to human scale” and then grab and pull at it, says Anthony. “Many of these tools have been around for a while,” notes Talis Reks, the Immersion Lab’s VR/AR gaming technologist, but he says the applications are fresh and innovative.

The lab routinely supports deep collaborations between scientists and artists. Anthony explains that “after you start to build those capabilities for training or for data interaction, it’s a set of tools now that are broadly applicable” to art, education, design, manufacturing, and dance. That’s where Namburi fits in.

A new tool for communication and instruction

Namburi fires up a demo video filmed at a nearby production studio where several dozen motion-capture cameras hang from the ceiling, pointing downwards at a wooden floor. A coach stands beside a high-heeled dancer wearing an AR headset, her back covered with motion-tracking markers. The foxtrot music begins and as the performer dances, the coach offers encouraging words: “From the legs to the spine, from the spine to the legs. Feel the rhythm. Good, good. Be yourself.”

Meanwhile, in the headset, the dancer sees herself represented as a constellation of moving lights, corresponding to the placement of the markers on her back. “This is similar to a portable mirror,” says Namburi. “She can view the relationships between different parts of her back, as if she’s always standing behind herself.” The goal is to give the dancer-coach duo a new tool to improve communication and instruction, one that provides instantaneous, visual feedback.

The AR session stayed with the dancer, who later told Namburi she continues to imagine those glowing, moving points of light in her mind as she learns new routines. “Getting immediate feedback on whether one achieved an intended action or not,” says Namburi, “seems to be the most valuable aspect of this biofeedback tool.”

From the dance floor to the factory floor

Anthony says that professional dancers, who strive “to get better at motion—more efficient, more smooth, more elegant,” have traits that can be helpful to people across a broad spectrum of activities. Namburi and his team used accelerometers to record dancers and other “motion experts,” such as athletes and martial artists, as they made simple reaching gestures with one arm. The researchers observed that the professionals moved more smoothly than the typical person. When individuals without motion training were recorded making the same gesture, they exhibited a characteristic shake and subtle tremor, undetectable to the naked eye.

A similar difference emerges among workers on a factory floor whose wrists were outfitted with accelerometers. Those with less experience tend to conduct their physical tasks not as smoothly and with more wobble. “The characteristics of efficient motion that we see in dance,” says Anthony, “help us understand what it means to be efficient or fatigued in other domains,” settings where worker safety and performance are important, for example. Namburi says these insights could help lead to changes in a factory’s environment or training protocol to reduce the risk of injury.

Although Namburi continues to take ballroom dancing lessons several hours each week, his work with the Immersion Lab has taught him “that we don’t necessarily know how to see movement.” That’s why, from time to time, he wires up and works through a routine on that dance floor ringed by motion-capture cameras. For Namburi, the lab is a tool “to interact with my dancing in another way”—with the power to teach the dancer inside each of us how to visualize and then control our own movement.

Chloé Gentgen poses outside on MIT's campus with the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium in the background.


Mission-Driven Space Scholar Chloé Gentgen Sets Her Sights High

AeroAstro PhD student hopes to formulate and eventually lead a robotic mission to the outer solar system

Photo: Courtesy of Chloé Gentgen

In the Star Trek TV series, space is called the “final frontier,” but to Chloé Gentgen SM ’22, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and a MathWorks Fellow, space is the first and only frontier. As an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last summer, Gentgen was part of a team charged with designing a mission to explore Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that holds special scientific interest due to the massive geysers spewing forth from its subsurface ocean.

Gentgen’s ultimate goal is to someday lead such an endeavor—and she is well on her way. In 2022, she headed the winning team in the NASA-sponsored Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition. Alongside fellow MIT students, she designed a plan for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and water from the planet’s underground ice reserves to produce 50 tons of rocket fuel each year. That same year, Gentgen was one of  “20 students in their twenties” honored by Aviation Week Network as premier up-and-coming talents in aerospace.

The allure of systems thinking

Gentgen began her formal studies in the space field in 2020, entering MIT as a graduate student after completing her undergraduate work at CentraleSupélec, University of Paris-Saclay, in her native France. Seeing unique opportunities in aerospace engineering in the United States, Gentgen was particularly drawn to MIT because of the Institute’s strong programs in systems engineering, an approach that involves viewing systems and their interactions as a whole rather than focusing on individual components such as propulsion, guidance and control, and celestial mechanics. That perspective is appealing, she says, “because I am interested in all of these areas. And with the world getting more and more complex, systems thinking is sure to become increasingly important.”

Gentgen analyzed possible architectures and propulsion systems for small satellites and tried to arrive at optimal design choices. She joined MIT’s student team for the 2021 RASC-AL design competition and helped design a crewed mission to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. The team demonstrated that astronauts could be supported on Ceres for two months while studying the dwarf planet’s mineral and water resources. Such a mission would be conducted to learn more about this intriguing object and see whether Ceres could be a useful waystation en route to explorations of points beyond.

With her master’s thesis now complete, Gentgen has established the first goal of her PhD work: to design an exciting research project. She knows for certain that the project will involve mission architecture, and she hopes that others in her community will share her enthusiasm in planning a future mission. Gentgen will be using some of the methodologies routinely employed in AeroAstro’s Engineering Systems Lab headed by her thesis supervisor, Olivier de Weck SM ’99, PhD ’01, the Apollo Program Professor of astronautics and engineering systems. “We’ve developed a logistical way of viewing a mission—strategies for driving down costs, using resources efficiently, refueling in orbit, and the like,” she explains.

To determine what scientists will want to do in the future, Gentgen is currently studying important missions of the past, consulting with experts in the field, and reviewing key reports like the planetary science decadal surveys (produced by the National Research Council), as well as assessing potential uses of new technology. “You don’t become the leader of a mission overnight,” she acknowledges. “You have to work up to it.”

Gentgen’s ultimate goal is to formulate and eventually lead a robotic mission to the outer solar system—the realm of planets, dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, and meteoroids lying beyond Mars. She recognizes that to make that goal a reality, she will need to take on different roles on other missions, familiarizing herself with all phases of development. Although the outer solar system holds a special allure for her, she says with a grin, “I would not be opposed to a Mars mission.”