MIT PhD student Yami Acevedo-Sánchez discovered she enjoyed science by watching television at home in Puerto Rico. While a strong student, encouraged by her mentors and parents to do well, she never imagined a science career would be in her future.
Acevedo-Sánchez is the second member of her extended family—her mother has 17 brothers and sisters; her father has 11—to earn a college degree. She didn’t learn about MIT until she began studying at the University of Puerto Rico, and attending the Institute felt like a very big step.
“I remember my thoughts were, ‘I’m never going to make it there.’ It felt really, really out of reach,” she says. “But I don’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just go for it.”
Today at MIT, Acevedo-Sánchez is pursuing her passion for biology, working to understand the basic processes that make all the complexity of life possible. “To me, it seems like a puzzle waiting for someone to assemble the pieces,” she says.
Her research focuses on a fundamental question: How do bacterial pathogens hijack a host? By studying how they travel between cells and spur infection, she hopes to discover more about the diseases they cause and potential therapies.
In particular, she is focused on Listeria monocytogenes, a widespread bacterium that can cause food poisoning. In high-risk populations, such as pregnant women or immunocompromised individuals, it can spread to the liver and then move through the bloodstream into the rest of the body. Listeria infection (listeriosis) has a high mortality rate, killing an estimated 20% to 30% of those infected, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Listeria hijacks molecular pathways as it spreads from cell to cell. It typically forces itself into neighboring cells by ramming into cell junctions (spots where cells connect). The force and speed Listeria uses to do this is about 0.2–1 microns per second—the equivalent of 50 feet per second if Listeria were the size of a submarine, Acevedo-Sánchez says: “It’s very impressive to watch!”
What is the mechanism of this action? Is it random, or programmed and regulated by the bacteria or our cells? Working with assistant professor of biology Rebecca Lamason and others in Lamason’s lab, Acevedo-Sánchez hopes to answer such questions through groundbreaking work that visualizes the cell membrane dynamics as Listeria spreads from cell to cell. To do this, the team uses a cellular line with a membrane marker (developed by Lamason) and a confocal microscope, which can capture high-resolution images deep inside cells.
Acevedo-Sánchez is especially interested in exploring how the mechanisms of two proteins, CAV1 and PACSIN2, promote cell-to-cell spread over long distances in a short amount of time. “These pathogens are constantly interacting with their host,” she says. “By understanding the key players that mediate those interactions from the bacteria side as well as the cell side, we can understand more about the microbiology of the bacteria and our own cell biology.”
Outside the lab, Acevedo-Sánchez is working to support others like her who have not always believed they could pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “There is tremendous power in having someone believe in your ability,” she says.
She has served as a mentor for the MIT Summer Research Program in Biology and supported first-year biology graduate students through the BioPals Program. Acevedo- Sánchez has also presented her work to middle school students around the world through the video series MIT Abstracts.
“Anyone can be a scientist, regardless of their background,” says Acevedo-Sánchez, who also has served as a graduate diversity ambassador at MIT. “You just need three things: be curious about the world that surrounds you, be willing to ask questions, and do the work yourself. Work smart and hard.”
Pamela Ferdinand is a 2003–2004 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow
In a remote village high in the mountains of Tajikistan, local women showed MIT architecture professor Sheila Kennedy enormous boulders sitting in a grassy field. “These absolutely huge boulders had bounced down from 16,000-foot mountains, hit the river, and then bounced up like marbles and landed in this garden,” Kennedy recalls. This was no accident. Climate change has reduced the snowpack keeping the mountains stable, leading to increasingly dangerous avalanches. In the spring, melting snow leads to flooding from below.
“These are tangible threats,” Kennedy says. “And it was profoundly moving to see the present impact that these multi-hazardous climate change challenges bring to these people.”
She was in Tajikistan in 2019 along with a colleague, emeritus landscape architecture professor Jim Wescoat, and a group of MIT graduate students to help design a radical response to the village’s problems: moving the entire community 300 meters higher into the mountains, to a stable plateau where they would be protected from the perils of the changing climate. The ambitious undertaking is a collaboration between the nonprofit development organization Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH); Kennedy’s firm, Kennedy & Violich Architecture; and MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. The goal is to provide a replicable new model for how communities can voluntarily relocate in response to climate change.
The project has been overseen and coordinated at MIT by the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU), a multidisciplinary center in the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) focused on applying design to large-scale urban challenges.
The Tajikistan project was one of three case studies LCAU presented as part of Moving Together, an exhibition at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, which was curated by Hashim Sarkis, dean of SA+P. The project addressed the issues of the 150 million people worldwide who will be forced to relocate due to climate change in the next three decades. “It’s a particularly challenging topic because relocation is usually the last resort, and it’s often implemented poorly,” says Wescoat, former co-director of LCAU.
The projects included in Moving Together examined how to plan and implement such relocations equitably and proactively rather than reacting as climate refugees flee their homes. In addition to the Tajikistan project led by Kennedy and Wescoat, the exhibit also included an analysis led by architecture associate professor Miho Mazereeuw on efforts to aid a community in a Puerto Rico flood zone and an examination by urban planning professor Janelle Knox-Hayes of attempts to relocate a vulnerable Indigenous community in Louisiana.
Mountain move in Tajikistan
For the Tajikistan project, Kennedy and Wescoat led a two semester–long course that included a 2019 trip to the Pamir Mountain village with scientists and planners from AKAH, including Kira Intrator MCP ’12. “Our role was to expose students to this challenging technical planning and design problem and bring a series of design options forward that would allow the people of the village to retain their autonomy,” Kennedy says. The MIT team used AKAH’s drone imagery (analyzed by doctoral student Dorothy Tang) to map the plateau, analyzed sunlight exposure, and assessed existing water and vegetation to determine the most efficient placement of homes and farms.
Working with community members, the team developed an original method of insulating houses with sheep’s wool, which the village had in abundance. “The biggest challenge was to shift everyone’s mindset from an all-or-nothing point of view and create a design that would be actionable and attainable,” says Kennedy.
The project includes a proposal to use gravity to siphon water from higher altitudes down to the valley and keep it under pressure to rise to the village, rather than the more costly alternative of pumping water from the river. Wescoat used his background in water resources to estimate the village’s domestic and agricultural water requirements. While the project was put on hold due to the pandemic, LCAU hopes to help AKAH and officials in Tajikistan implement it in the coming year. “We all feel a profound commitment to this project and community to take it to the next steps,” Kennedy says.
Flood zone in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, Mazereeuw analyzed an unusual effort to relocate a community along El Caño Martín Peña, a canal on the outskirts of San Juan that has become a flood zone, especially during hurricanes. “There are not many options for communities to move together,” Mazereeuw says, noting that US relocation processes typically center on moving individuals. “The social networks we really need during a crisis are broken up.”
As an alternative, a local public development corporation called Proyecto ENLACE developed a plan to relocate some 1,000 families to make room for an ecologically sustainable expansion of the channel to mitigate flooding. “They created a committee to guide the whole process for residents to move into new housing or find existing housing within the neighborhood,” says research scientist Larisa Ovalles SM ’16, who interviewed residents along with Mazereeuw and urban studies doctoral candidate and LCAU doctoral fellow Lizzie Yarina MA ’16, MCP ’16 to assess the project. “So, they’re made aware they’re in a high-risk situation, but also given options and resources, rather than just: ‘Here’s some money, and you figure it out.’”
The project included mental health counseling to address the emotional impact of leaving family land. In addition, ENLACE worked with a nonprofit land trust to ensure residents would retain ownership stakes in the land. “There is a history of forced relocation in Puerto Rico,” says Ovalles. “This way they know it’s not something that can be taken away from them. The residents are part of the entire process from the beginning.” So far, more than 600 families have been relocated, and the US Army Corps of Engineers has begun work on the canal infrastructure.
Working with communities
Despite these success stories, moving people from their homes always raises issues of power and trust. For her part in the Moving Together project, Knox-Hayes and her students analyzed the difficulties faced by the members of Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe displaced by climate change in Louisiana.
The residents of the Isle de Jean Charles have been struggling with the effects of sea-level rise, exacerbated by canals built for the oil industry; much of their land has been lost. Yet, attempts to resettle to the mainland have been complicated by lack of federal tribal recognition and by state bureaucracy. “There has been a lack of understanding from state and federal authorities about the nature of the tribes and their identities that makes working in a way that is culturally sensitive and appropriate more challenging,” Knox-Hayes says.
In response to such challenges, Knox-Hayes led efforts this summer for LCAU to develop an Equitable Resilience Framework (ERF) as part of the MIT Climate Grand Challenges Initiative, putting together a plan for community adaptation planning that goes well beyond the usual cost-benefit analysis, taking into account social and racial inequities. “Climate adaptation can either exacerbate existing inequalities or provide new opportunities for more equitable transformations,” she says.
The ERF proposal seeks to pilot the framework with the City of Boston to develop specific adaptation plans for communities vulnerable to climate impacts. “The kind of losses we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico now are going to happen in the Northeast in a matter of decades,” Knox-Hayes says. “There’s a critical opportunity to learn from what’s happening in other parts of the country.”
Farther afield, LCAU is reaching out globally to cities where climate change has led to loss of land, food insecurity, and other issues. Most recently, it has begun work with the World Food Program to look at issues around climate and migration. “We are in a climate crisis right now, and it’s one of the biggest challenges cities face,” says Sarah Williams MCP ’05, director of the LCAU and the Norman B. and Muriel Leventhal Associate Professor of Advanced Urbanism. “I hope we can be a hub for how cities can address this issue, from Boston to Tajikistan.”
Asking big questions, then asking many more, can change the course of humankind. That is the arc of scientific discovery. It takes curiosity, tenacity, patience, and, above all, time.
Below are stories of MIT alumni and friends who are helping our faculty and students pursue new knowledge today to face the unknowns of tomorrow.
“Communication is paramount to achieving the full potential of science.”
Scott Denmark ’75 loved chemistry so much as a child that he sought out a college that would provide the same sense of fun, discovery, and excitement he had felt doing home lab experiments. “At MIT, I found exactly what I dreamed of. I spent four years, including summers, doing laboratory research at the forefront of bioinorganic chemistry and molecular recognition/synthesis,” he says. “I felt like a kid in candy store.”
Today, Denmark is the Reynold C. Fuson Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Remembering his time in Course 5 at MIT as “among the most enjoyable, formative, and happiest times of my life,” Denmark chose to give back by creating the annual MIT Organic Chemistry Retreat. “This retreat gives students the financial resources to organize their own retreat and celebrate their phenomenal research.”
Launched in 2018, the all-day, student-run event convenes MIT’s organic chemistry graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, undergraduates, and faculty. Through presentations in poster and lecture formats, research groups learn about each other’s projects. “I wanted to introduce one element I missed as an undergraduate—a sense of community,” Denmark says. “I also want graduate students to take ownership of their graduate experience.”
In some ways, the MIT retreat is an extension of the work Denmark does with his own graduate students, with whom he emphasizes the development of both written and oral communications skills. “I have long felt that the primary functions of academic research are the creation of new science and the training of new scientists in equal measure,” he says. “I’m a big proponent of having students polish the craft of communicating their science. If they do not communicate their work in an accessible, clear manner, it won’t have the same impact.”
The fourth MIT Organic Chemistry Retreat, which took place virtually in June 2021, featured a total of 17 presentations and poster sessions.
Denmark says he hopes holding the event annually will boost students’ presentation skills. “Communication is paramount to achieving the full potential of science to solve real-world problems,” he says. “Chemistry, which has direct impact on just about every human endeavor, still has no public figure who can educate the public in all that its research contributes to society.”
Looking ahead, Denmark says, “I hope that this retreat becomes a marquee event in the MIT calendar for chemistry department students and faculty, a day they look forward to and recall as part of their great memories of MIT.”
“MIT taught me not to be afraid of a big challenge.”
Kathleen Octavio SM ’77, PhD ’86 has tackled complex problems as a physics major at Clark University, an MIT graduate student in environmental systems and civil engineering, and throughout her engineering career. Today, she is helping address complex, human problems through her support of MIT neuroscience research.
“MIT taught me not to be afraid of a big challenge,” she says.
Her motivations are personal: “My husband, Miguel, was hit by a car while we were biking and suffered a serious brain injury.” She and Miguel, a noted physicist, met as undergraduates at Clark. After completing their doctorates at MIT and Harvard, respectively, they spent 35 years in Miguel’s native Venezuela before moving to Florida.
Since Miguel’s life-altering accident, Kathy has learned about, and supported, MIT’s innovative research on brain injury and the aging brain, including gifts to the Neurodegenerative Disorders and Neurotechnology Funds at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and to the Aging Brain Initiative and Innovation Funds at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “I’m interested in the whole value chain, from bold new ideas to clinical studies to the latest medical devices. The work they are doing is fascinating,” she says, and will build a foundation for discovery. “I hope that my contributions will help, in some small way, to find solutions that can help other individuals and families in the future.”
“We wanted to start supporting future physics superstars during our lifetime.”
Art Peskoff ’56, SM ’58, PhD ’60 and his wife, Fran, were at Art’s 50th Reunion when they made a key decision. “We don’t have children, and we wanted to leave our estate to a charity working to better the world,” Fran says. “Attending reunion events, we saw that MIT was already changing the world. We chose MIT as the beneficiary of our bequest.”
The Peskoffs’ bequest will support fellowships for first-year graduate students in MIT’s Department of Physics, where Art did his dissertation in plasma physics. “Given my abiding interest in plasma physics,” says Art, “I am especially excited about the work now being done at MIT in plasma fusion.”
He and Fran, who majored in math at the University of Southern California, met while working at TRW Inc. Art was a physicist, and Fran was a computer programmer. Later, the pair turned to new ventures, including real estate. Art became an adjunct professor of physiology and biomathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Fran earned her MBA at UCLA and founded a company that developed a desktop publishing program for children.
In honor of Art’s 60th Reunion, the couple instituted the Frances and Arthur Peskoff Physics Fellowship Fund, which has already awarded fellowships to five students. “We wanted to start supporting future physics superstars during our lifetime,” says Fran.
The couple also supports MIT’s online physics courses, which educate students worldwide. Art recently took MIT’s online courses in quantum physics and says, “I learned a lot about recent discoveries.”
At first, it might seem odd: Why would two experts in the space program take on a project that relates to, of all things, farm animal waste? But when you think about it, the notion makes sense. Olivier de Weck SM ’99, PhD ’01, the Apollo Program Professor of astronautics and engineering systems, and Afreen Siddiqi ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’06, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), work on closed life-support systems, such as crew quarters on the International Space Station and proposed habitats on Mars, which need to provide clean air and water and recycle all wastes. Why not apply the expertise they’ve gained to managing animal waste from small farms on Earth?
The environmental stakes are considerable: throughout the globe, there are more than 475 million farms smaller than five acres, and they generate hundreds of millions of tons of manure each year. Siddiqi and de Weck are now studying the thousands of small farms in Brazil that line the Paraná River, which flows into the Itaipu Dam, the world’s second-largest hydroelectric power plant. Animal wastes that wash into the river seriously degrade water quality and promote algal blooms that can impede efficient power generation.
With funding from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and consultation from Brazilian colleagues, de Weck and Siddiqi embarked on a project in 2021 aimed at devising economically viable strategies for preventing farm waste from entering the Paraná by turning it into valuable byproducts—solid fertilizer pellets and biomethane. The latter can be used for cooking and heating or to generate electricity, and it can also be converted into compressed natural gas, a transportation fuel.
Applying a method they use in their space research, the MIT duo are addressing this challenge from a “systems perspective,” which enables them to assess how the many factors involved—water, energy, agriculture, transportation, and the environment—are interdependent, and what tradeoffs might have to be taken into account. “We want to use our knowledge of these connections to come up with new solutions that we might otherwise miss if we just looked at one part of the system,” Siddiqi explains.
To support this project, de Weck enlisted students in his Multidisciplinary System Design Optimization class to analyze various options for handling farm waste, including processing it onsite with small-scale biodigesters or transporting it to regional processing facilities by trucks. This approach has demonstrated that there is no single best solution, de Weck explains. In choosing between a centralized or decentralized approach, “the optimal solution will be dictated by geography, depending on the size of the farms, the average distances between them, and the quality of roads.”
It’s a complex challenge, so the team has developed a sophisticated model that weighs the costs of installing biodigesters and transporting wastes against the value of the electricity and natural gas produced. “We’re modeling not just the flow of wastes and biomethane, but also the flow of money,” de Weck says. Based on current technology and prices, waste recovery systems would not be self-sustaining, but that could change with incentives that monetize the benefits of reduced water pollution— especially when lowered operating and maintenance costs at the hydropower plant are factored in. This finding emphasizes the applicability of their research to policy makers in addition to the farmers themselves.
The MIT team presented its preliminary findings at the December 2021 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a prime gathering spot for Earth and space scientists from all over the world. The researchers plan to carry out site visits in the Paraná region in 2022 to gather more data and then share their model with Brazilian decision makers. They also plan to study farms in New England.
“Our aim is to have a tool that is applicable to agricultural areas throughout the world, so long as you provide it with the right data,” Siddiqi says. “Although this tool is presently focused on animal-waste generation and recovery, the same approach could be applied to other kinds of waste streams and other kinds of problems.”
Steve Nadis is a 1997–1998 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.
Success has many parents, perhaps none more than in academia, where collaboration and idea sharing is built into the DNA of most endeavors. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) was unveiled at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, one thread in its lineage could be traced back to MIT: the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, part of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).
Established in 2012 to bring rich technical talent and experience to bear on the persistent and emerging challenges of the developing world, particularly India, the Tata Center has spent the past decade supporting MIT faculty and graduate students who do groundbreaking work in a myriad of sectors—always with the goal of improving quality of life for billions of people in developing nations.
According to Tata Center founding director Robert Stoner, one endeavor, centered on rural electrification planning and design, ultimately led to a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty. The commission brings together utilities, off-grid electrification companies, multilateral development banks, academics, and others to find ways to provide power to the 800 million people who lack it. Stoner, who is also the deputy director for science and technology at MITEI and the secretary of the commission, says the commission provided the intellectual underpinnings for the GEAPP, a philanthropic program subsequently launched by the Rockefeller Foundation that has so far attracted pledges of $1.5 billion to address energy access, carbon emissions, and jobs in energy-poor countries.
This extraordinary success story is hardly a first for the Tata Center, which was founded with support from the Tata Trusts, one of India’s oldest philanthropic organizations. Over the past 10 years, Tata Center–funded researchers have developed dozens of products and services, produced influential policy papers, and launched numerous new businesses and nonprofits serving the developing world, with innovations related to energy access, water, housing, health care, the environment, and agriculture.
“The Tata Center has been about teaching people in a novel way to engage with problems and bring technology to bear,” Stoner says.
The center’s methodology includes providing multiyear funding for lab, field, and policy research; collaborating with governments, companies, nongovernmental organizations, and universities; and training graduate students to mold solutions to the market conditions and community needs of developing countries.
A hallmark of the program has always been to provide support for Tata Fellows, a select group of MIT students who commit at least 10 weeks a year to working in India and other developing countries over the course of their graduate careers. Research with real-world application is the key emphasis, Stoner says, noting that the center launched its Translational Research Program in 2017 to help move promising technologies from lab to market. Here are just a few examples of the Tata Center has addressed over the past decade and the solutions that have emerged.
During trips to India as Tata Fellows in 2013, Katie Taylor SM ’15 and Kevin Simon PhD ’19 learned firsthand that many farmers in rural areas have limited access to electricity, making it difficult for them to pump water out of the ground to grow crops outside of monsoon season.
To address this challenge, Taylor and Simon expanded on a pump design project they began in their 2.760 Global Engineering class taught by mechanical engineering associate professor Amos Winter SM ’05, PhD ’11. Over time, the pair worked with smallholder farmers in India and were ultimately able to develop a groundwater pump that runs on the most reliable, abundant resource available to farmers during dry months: the sun.
They went on to cofound Khethworks, the first startup to emerge from the Tata Center, to commercialize the technology.
Today Khethworks’ portable, solar-powered, water pump is enabling year-round irrigation, cultivation, and income generation for many smallholder farmers in eastern India, Nepal, and Malawi. In 2015, the work was recognized by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said, “MIT Tata Center’s Khethworks is changing the lives of small farmers.”
India has millions of small farms cultivating rice, wheat, sugarcane, and other staple crops. Twice a year, when the harvest is in, farmers burn the remaining stalks and other waste, releasing carbon dioxide and particulate matter into the atmosphere, profoundly degrading the air quality in downwind cities.
As a Tata Fellow, Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17 began working on addressing this waste problem with Tata Center faculty member Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane Professor of mechanical engineering. Over time, the researchers were able to design, optimize, and implement a low-cost and robust system that can convert agricultural waste into charcoal, fertilizer, and activated carbon, which can be used in water filtration systems.
Kung cofounded a company, Takachar, to commercialize the technology. Takachar’s machine uses a roasting process called torrefaction to densify biomass, making it transportable and increasing its shelf life.
In 2021, Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize awarded by the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. At scale, Takachar estimates its product could reduce carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 700 million tons per year.
Better living conditions
Rapid urban growth has led to an increase in overcrowded informal settlements— particularly in and around the major cities of the developing world. A lack of infrastructure and open spaces as well as unsafe structures make such areas difficult places to live and work.
Ana Cristina Vargas SM ’14 began addressing this challenge as a Tata Fellow. She developed a pilot project in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood and later held several workshops in Mumbai, India. Her strategy was to encourage residents—particularly children—to take ownership of the public spaces in their communities and improve them.
Having developed a replicable and sustainable methodology for transforming spaces, Vargas went on to found Trazando Espacios (Tracing Spaces), a Venezuelan nonprofit that develops training programs aimed at children between the ages of 9 and 13 who live in communities with the potential for transformation. In 2015, Vargas received the Dubai International Award for Best Practices in recognition of her innovative work on public spaces around the globe.
Over 3 billion people around the world have unreliable access to electricity, and close to 800 million people lack access altogether. The problem is especially acute in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which can be difficult and expensive to reach with grid power. Tackling this issue with cutting-edge research combining novel system optimization techniques and regulation has enabled the Tata Center to become a world leader in rural electrification planning and design.
Over six years, the Tata team, including eight students led by Stoner and senior lecturer Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga SM ’78, PhD ’81, focused on the idea of using off-grid technologies efficiently to provide electricity in rural areas where the grid was deemed to be unaffordable. Such technologies, including solar microgrids and isolated systems, can be a better match to the needs of rural consumers.
To identify the most cost-effective combination of grid and off-grid connections over very large areas, Tata researchers developed a computational model known as the Reference Electrification Model. Today this software tool is used throughout the developing world to create affordable universal electrification programs.
When Tata Fellow Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18 began work on his doctoral research with professor of mechanical engineering and Tata Center faculty member Kripa Varanasi SM ’02, PhD ’04, their goal was to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water; they also considered applying such systems to capture water from industrial cooling towers.
Damak and Varanasi found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by applying a charge to the tiny droplets that make up fog and then collecting them on an oppositely charged wire mesh. The project ultimately led them to cofound Infinite Cooling to capture and reuse water evaporating from cooling towers at power plants, reducing water consumption for some plants by more than 20%. The technology was successfully piloted at MIT’s Central Utility Plant and is now being deployed commercially around the world. Since thermoelectric power generation accounts for 39% of all freshwater withdrawals in the United States alone, the company has the potential to save billions of gallons of water for agriculture, sanitation, or human consumption.
What do World War II aircraft, subway station entrances, Olympic ski apparel, and thousands of MIT students have in common? They’ve all taken a spin, in some form, in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, which for eight decades has been a force for education and experimentation in aerospace, architectural, vehicular, and other engineering systems at MIT. In 2019, the vintage tunnel was demolished to make way for a new facility, funded in part by a gift from The Boeing Company and from Becky and the late Arthur (Art) Samberg ’62. The tunnel will opened fully to students, faculty, and industry collaborators later in 2022.
Boeing and MIT share a long history. On July 4, 1915, William E. Boeing took his first seaplane flight with George C. Westervelt, a graduate of MIT’s first-in-the-nation aeronautics course. Boeing and Westervelt would go on to build their own plane, the B&W, and found the Pacific Aero Products Company, later incorporated as Boeing.
Mark Drela ’82, SM ’83, PhD ’86, the Terry J. Kohler Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), oversees the new tunnel, built by Maryland company Aerolab. “As we expected, our students and faculty have been blown away by the new capabilities,” says Drela. “The tunnel is offering unparalleled opportunities for the MIT community and our industry collaborators to play a part in the future of aeronautics research and education.”
Eight things to know about the newly upgraded facility
1. The tunnel is the largest and most advanced of its kind in US academia.
2. The new tunnel more than doubles the volume of the test section, where models are put through their paces, compared to the original without increasing the facility’s footprint on campus— a significant achievement that required an entirely new architecture, Drela says. The ultra-compact facility has 20% of the structural mass of similar-capacity conventional wind tunnels, meaning 80% less steel was needed for MIT’s version.
3. The former test section had a 57-square-foot oval flow area and was limited to 150 mph with relatively high turbulence. The new version improves on its predecessor with 90 square feet of space, much better air-flow quality and visibility, and a top speed of 230 mph.
4. To fit a modern, large-capacity wind tunnel into a tiny pocket of Cambridge real estate, designers introduced a number of space-saving innovations such as combining normally separate components and adding a boundary layer ingestion fan with novel-shaped blades that reduce the drive power by 17% and allow a shorter main diffuser, or duct.
5. A MATLAB-based data-acquisition and control system, supported by MathWorks, provides precise control over the tunnel’s operations and collects and logs data— replacing an error-prone clipboard-and-spreadsheet method. The system prevents unauthorized access and triggers a shutdown should anything go wrong. In other words, “you can’t break the tunnel on a keyboard,” says Drela.
6. The tunnel’s closest campus neighbors now benefit from a facility much quieter than its clamorous forebear. With the fan running at 120 mph, a noise measurement at a nearby office window revealed levels of 65 decibels, about as loud as car traffic on the street outside.
7. With enhanced power and a host of sophisticated tech, the new tunnel has vastly expanded AeroAstro’s research capabilities, Drela says, to include previously tricky high-precision drag measurements; experiments influenced by air flow transitions (work on unmanned aerial vehicles, wind turbine blades, wings, and aircraft bodies, for example); and research that calls on ultraviolet and infrared illumination for motion tracking and advanced flow imaging.
8. Building 17, the wind tunnel’s home, has also been overhauled, introducing new space for faculty and the MIT Rocket Team and a new connection to the adjacent Building 33. As a result, AeroAstro now has contiguous space on campus for the first time in its long history.
MIT is a model of innovation and entrepreneurship in action, with a long history of empowering faculty and students to translate their ideas into solutions that scale. Today, our innovation ecosystem has never been stronger. Below are stories of MIT alumni and friends who are helping MIT foster environments that spark entrepreneurial success, initiate creative collaborations, and share our approach with the world.
“[MITdesignX] is a very healthy way to create innovation.”
Blending disciplines is part of daily life for Liam Thornton SM ’92, executive vice president of development for Live Nation Entertainment and a graduate of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P). Thornton says his work developing music venues places him “at the intersection of real estate development and live entertainment.”
“I’ve been fortunate to use my MIT experience as a platform in my career,” says Thornton, who studied at SA+P’s Center for Real Estate. Today, he fosters interdisciplinary education by supporting MITdesignX, an academic program at SA+P dedicated to design innovation and entrepreneurship. “MITdesignX is all about innovation in the built environment,” he says, noting that the program draws from many parts of the Institute, including SA+P, the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the School of Engineering. “This is a very healthy way to create innovation.”
Through his contributions, Thornton bolsters MIT values that align with his own, including using “design-driven methodologies to address the multiple dimensions of a challenge, from political and economic aspects to technology and design issues.” He hopes his support will inspire MITdesignX students from a variety of disciplines to seek solutions to real-world problems in a spirit of innovation and creativity “while giving them the practical tools to make their ideas a reality.”
“Innovation Node brings out the best of MIT here in Hong Kong.”
As a native of Hong Kong and a devoted MIT alum, David Wu ’90 is delighted to be part of the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node—MIT’s first regional center dedicated to fostering innovation. Wu, who is president of the MIT Club of Hong Kong, says the Node extends generations-long connections between MIT, Hong Kong, and the Greater China Region. “I find it very rewarding to support a new base for MIT here in my hometown.”
Since its launch in 2016, the Node has hosted a range of events and programs (some in conjunction with the MIT Club of Hong Kong), including student hackathons and a startup boot camp called the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator. The Node also supports Smart City, a sustainability project that engages the MIT Media Lab with Hong Kong’s urban planning; Wu calls this initiative a perfect example of the Node’s potential to “build solutions for real-world problems facing our region and the world. This is innovation at its best.”
“The driving question of the MIT Better World Campaign was, ‘How can we leverage the best of MIT to make the world a better place?’ The MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node really does that, and brings out the best of MIT here in Hong Kong,” says Wu. “For me, there’s no better way to express my enthusiasm for this initiative than through a financial gift.”
Consider a 75-year-old we’ll call Gordon. One day in late February 2020, he had a myocardial infarction—a heart attack—and was rushed to the hospital. Fortunately, Gordon recovered. But he wasn’t able to get back to his previous level of mobility.
What if Gordon had had some warning of what was to come?
It turns out that in the six days preceding his heart attack, Gordon’s walking was gradually slowing and his breathing rate was increasing. The changes were so imperceptible that no one noticed, not even Gordon. But a small device sitting in his bedroom did. Part of a purely observational study at the time, the machine, the size of a router, was continuously emitting wireless signals (about a thousand times weaker than your WiFi).
Those signals, ricocheting off the walls and floors of Gordon’s apartment, also bounced off him. The tiniest of Gordon’s bodily signals—the pulsing of his veins, the inhale-exhale movements of his chest, the shuffling of his feet—affected these waves, enabling changes to be detected. Think of it as low-power radar.
For this study, the data weren’t processed in real time, so no intervention could be made. But machine-learning algorithms were ultimately able to disentangle that complex electromagnetic flurry and reveal Gordon’s slowing gait and increased respiration. In other words, this device saw signs of a possible health issue days in advance, at a time when it could have been monitored or treated.
“Once the medical system has more experience with this type of information,” Dina Katabi SM ’99, PhD ’03 says, “it will open up a window into monitoring people’s health in their natural living environment.”
Katabi, the inaugural Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor at the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, explains that the touchless sensors she and her team are developing represent a move from wearables to “invisibles.” Patients consent to having the wireless emitters installed in their homes, but the machines disappear into the background, which means the data depict someone’s actual condition. (Brief exams at the doctor’s office tend not to accurately reflect patients’ day-to-day health experiences.) In addition, there’s no need to interface with the device to charge it, enter personal information, or attach it to your body.
These invisibles can register someone’s breathing, movements, sleep, and heartbeats through walls and around corners—even from another room. The technology can tell if someone is scratching their eczema, going to the medicine cabinet to take their pills on time, or using their inhaler or insulin autoinjector properly. To see it in action—for example, the moment when someone enters REM sleep and starts to dream registered at a distance without attached sensors—is astonishing. Indeed, when Katabi, who is also a principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, did a live demo at one TED talk, the audience broke into applause.
She says two major advances have helped make her work possible. The first is powerful radio technology that can sense faint electromagnetic signals. The second is the revolution in the computer field known as deep learning, which has allowed Katabi and her team to build computer models and signal processing algorithms that can interpret and translate the wireless data into meaningful information about what’s taking place in the home.
Tying together math, medicine
Katabi grew up in Damascus, Syria, in a family flush with physicians. Her grandfather was among the first doctors to graduate medical school in the country. Her father is a practicing cardiologist, and many of her cousins are doctors. Katabi did a year of medical school at Damascus University, “but at the time, I just loved math much more.” She wound up majoring in engineering, a decision that frustrated her family.
It was a hard choice to make, but now Katabi’s current work in wireless signaling has enabled her to embrace math and medicine at once. She’s using engineering and computer code to gain a more precise understanding of our physical bodies.
Two thirds of health care costs in the United States are connected to chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These problems develop gradually. For instance, before someone is brought to the hospital with congestive heart failure, fluid steadily accumulates in the lungs and breathing grows increasingly shallow.
With continuous, remote physiological monitoring, patients can get treated earlier and more precisely, with targeted pharmacological and therapeutic interventions.
In other words, says Katabi, wireless monitoring has the potential to revolutionize health care.
Benefits of home health care
One incarnation of this revolution is “bringing health into the home,” according to Katabi. Continuously assessing people’s basic vitals and medical conditions where they live has several potential benefits. First, health care costs plummet as the number of in-person appointments, tests, and procedures drops. Second, clinical trials can speed up as it becomes easier to more closely and accurately track subjects as they test experimental treatments and medications. Third, in situations where a disease is highly contagious (think of Covid-19), this technology allows physicians to closely monitor patients with zero contact.
Finally, the quality of specialized care improves. Take Parkinson’s, a disease of the central nervous system that causes tremors and difficulties walking and balancing. Some 40% of patients don’t have access to specialists by virtue of where they live. Collecting medical information at home and transmitting it to a Parkinson’s specialist would dramatically enhance their quality of care. Indeed, Katabi has already collected data that shows how the gait of patients with Parkinson’s improves after they take their medication and gradually declines as it wears off. Physicians can use this sort of information to offer individuals precision medicine—personalized, optimized dosing.
Katabi is currently developing tools to enable even more complex monitoring, weaving together breathing, sleep, and behavioral data to diagnose depression or anxiety and forecast flares in Crohn’s disease.
“Every one of us is very different,” she says. Noting that the work promises to improve medicine, Katabi smiles and suggests that she has continued in her family business after all.
More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021—setting the record for a single year. Most were opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Staten Island, the statistics are especially grim: historically, the area has suffered the highest rate of unintentional opioid deaths out of New York City’s five boroughs and double the rate of the United States overall, with 28.7 unintentional overdoses per 100,000 people each year.
Jónas Oddur Jónasson, an assistant professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Nikolaos Trichakis PhD ’11, the Zenon Zannetos Career Development Professor of Operations Management, are working to address this crisis. They have partnered with the Staten Island Performing Provider System on a proactive program designed to allocate resources to high-need patients based on data. The program is called Hotspotting the Opioid Crisis.
Through this partnership, the MIT team was able to develop a computer model that helps providers predict a range of adverse opioid-related events. Researchers began by accessing data from more than 70 Staten Island care providers, gathering electronic health records and prescription data on 251,781 patients who were either on Medicaid or uninsured. They then applied their artificial intelligence-based analytics system to predict which patients were most at risk of overdosing.
For example, by considering 107 behavioral variables, the system can stratify patients by their risk of opioid overdoses through examining their history of prior prescriptions and interactions with the Staten Island health care system. It can also capture the number of short-acting hydrocodone prescriptions filled in the past 90 days or the number of benzodiazepine refills. In this way, the team’s algorithm can identify the top 1% of the highest-risk patients, who in turn account for 69% of adverse opioid events, Jónasson says.
Their model can help health care teams conduct targeted interventions, steering limited resources to the most vulnerable. It’s a potent example of the type of impactful work funded by the MIT Sloan Health Systems Initiative (HSI), according to HSI Director Anne Quaadgras ’85, SM ’86.
A program within the MIT Sloan School of Management, HSI funds and amplifies research, convenes experts, and advances networking opportunities to tackle urgent issues in health care. Research centers on analytics, operations, and incentives that promote healthier behaviors to reduce costs.
“Our goal is to bring researchers and practitioners together to innovate and implement systemic health care solutions,” Quaadgras says. “There are lots of places that do health research, but they’re usually in medical schools and public health schools. There are far fewer that are really focused on health systems and delivery systems.”
HSI has invested in projects ranging from developing analytics to support liquid biopsy for cancer detection to analyzing the health care costs of postmortem genetic testing. Approximately 30 Sloan researchers with roughly 80 working papers are affiliated with HSI.
In another HSI-supported effort, Jónasson has been conducting behavioral analytics research on tuberculosis (TB) patients in Kenya. He and his team are assessing the benefits of a treatment-adherence support platform called Keheala, which offers automated medication reminders, motivational messages, and personal outreach from peer sponsors (people who have overcome TB themselves).
The lack of adherence to treatment protocols is a major barrier to global efforts to eradicate TB, Jónasson says, so it’s important to find interventions that work. In the Keheala study, researchers found that outreach to patients from peer sponsors increased the odds of verified next-day treatment adherence by 35%. This work helps to validate the costly but impactful program, Jónasson says.
“This type of work illustrates how data science and analytics can have a material positive impact to societal welfare and can help improve the world we live in,” Trichakis adds.
Jónasson says that such work on behavioral issues is the next step for the burgeoning field of precision medicine, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve medical decision making and to personalize medicines. “It’s interesting to try to increase precision—doing the right thing for the right person at the right time,” he says. “The idea is to bring precision to behavioral health and social services, which contribute to health.”
As global food demand rises, agriculture is under threat. Climate change is damaging soil through erosion and salinization, forcing farmers struggling with crop yields to rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to boost production. It’s a vicious cycle: these soil additives require an energy intensive manufacturing process that releases carbon, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Augustine Zvinavashe ’16, PhD ’21 is hoping to change this through his startup, Ivu Biologics. With key support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, Ivu seeks to disrupt approaches to farming with a microbe-delivery platform that aims to reduce pollution, build seed resilience, and increase crop yields.
“We’re trying to solve a societal problem: We know that by 2050, we’re going to have a 30% increase in our population. We need to increase food production by about 70%. We know we need to find more sustainable agriculture,” says Zvinavashe, who launched Ivu in 2020. He collaborated with Owen Porth, an MIT PhD student in biological engineering, and Mira Kingsbury-Lee, an undergraduate at Harvard University. Zvinavashe earned his PhD in civil and environmental engineering under Associate Professor Benedetto Marelli and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.
Coating seeds with microbes
Today many farmers use fertilizers comprised of synthesized chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and sometimes micronutrients. “While effective, they can cause harm to the soil and surrounding environments over the long term,” Zvinavashe says.
As an alternative to synthetic additives, Ivu has found a way to enrich the soil using living microorganisms, or microbes. In the lab, Ivu creates seed coatings that hold these fragile microbes and release them into soil when planted. This process promotes the uptake of essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium— even in inhospitable soils. The problem has been ensuring the microbes stay alive, and Ivu’s technology solves this challenge, Zvinavashe says.
Importantly, the coating is biodegradable and climate-resistant. Farmers will reap the benefits such as higher crop yields, reduced fertilizer costs, and better soil quality. Zvinavashe notes that 33% of soil is currently degraded worldwide; 90% could be degraded by 2050 due to climate change, according to UN data. “We need to change how we’re farming. We need to reduce carbon emission and adopt climate-resilient technology. As weather becomes more volatile, soil nutrients will become more depleted,” he explains.
The startup is an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis on engineering seed micro-environments, a project Zvinavashe traces back to his childhood , when he worked on his grandmother’s farm.
“We grew up in nature, learned how to coexist with animals domesticated or wild, and hiked for fun. Farming incorporates a lot of skills: you learn hard work, people management, how to count, and money management. The idea of running my own company was seeded at an early age,” he says.
Crucial seed funding
In the effort to save Earth’s soil, Ivu is in a race against time, but MIT Sandbox has played a crucial role in accelerating its development with seed money (no pun intended) and lab space. Sandbox provides up to $25,000 as well as mentorship that enables student innovators to explore ideas, take risks, and prepare for the launch of their businesses. It accepts teams at any stage of the startup process that demonstrate strong commitment and a willingness to invest in initial research and planning.
“At MIT, you have a lot of people interested in making the world a better place. Sandbox gives you capital to explore your idea, and you have mentors and entrepreneurs who have done it before. If you have the energy to chase your idea and what you believe in, you can do it here,” Zvinavashe says.
In particular, he adds, MIT allowed Zvinavashe to use its Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space, which provided a key advantage. “Lab facilities are so expensive in Boston. Having had an opportunity to use the maker facilities was amazing, because it lowered our development costs pretty significantly,” he says.
The future looks bright: Zvinavashe completed his doctoral work this fall, and Ivu is currently in the process of a material transfer agreement with a Fortune 500 company in the hopes of reaching areas with particularly compromised soil, starting in the United States.
“This is exactly what MIT Sandbox was designed for: providing seed funding and mentorship to student innovators looking to find great applications to their research and using entrepreneurship to explore ways to get those innovations to the market.
Augustine has fully embraced the educational goals of Sandbox,” says Jinane Abounadi SM ’90, PhD ’98, executive director of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.
Zvinavashe is confident that this idea, grown at MIT, will someday take root worldwide as farmers and distributors realize the long-term economic and environmental benefits of biologics.
“I believe this is how we’re going to be doing agriculture. Biologics will be super-important. And as it becomes more challenging to farm because of climate change effects, we’re going to need technologies that are climate resilient,” he says. “Everyone needs to eat.”