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MIT’s Solve initiative seeks solutions to its 2017 global challenges

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 00:00

Solve — MIT’s initiative that brings together problem-solvers of all stripes to tackle the world’s pressing problems — has four new global challenges for 2017: brain health; sustainable urban communities; women and technology; and youth, skills, and the workforce of the future. Applications for those who have a solution to any of these challenges are due August 1.

Solve issues challenges for anybody around the world to apply to participate in. The program identifies the best solutions through open innovation. And, it builds and convenes a community of leaders who have the resources, the expertise, the mentorship, and the know-how to get each solution piloted, scaled, and implemented.

At its most recent event last May, Solve convened technologists, social entrepreneurs, business leaders, policymakers, researchers, and change agents on campus for three days of Solve at MIT.

“As I look out on the world, I’m more certain than ever of the power and significance of the collaborative problem-solving global platform we call Solve,” said MIT President Rafael Reif at Solve at MIT. “In the two and a half years since we first announced Solve, it has evolved in important ways. As many of you know firsthand, since then Solve has launched specific, actionable challenges around refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases, and inclusive innovation. In its first cycle, Solve attracted more than 400 solutions from more than 57 countries.”

The May event celebrated the first cycle of Solvers, who worked on those 2016 challenges, by bringing them together with the Solve community to form partnerships to help implement their solutions. Also at that time, Solve launched its new challenges for 2017. Those challenges are now getting ready to close on August 1. They are:

  • Brain Health: How can every person improve their brain health and mental resilience?
  • Sustainable Urban Communities: How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources?
  • Women and Technology: How can women and girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds use technology to fully participate and prosper in the economy?
  • Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future: How can disadvantaged youth learn the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce of the future and thrive in the 21st century?

Solve further announced three prizes for the 2017 challenges during Solve at MIT. Applicants for these challenges should be sure to opt in if they’re eligible.

  1. Atlassian Foundation International is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers from non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, social enterprises, academics, entrepreneurs, and for-profit organizations.
  2. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is pledging up to $1 million in grant funding for the Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Challenge to selected Solvers who will have an impact in developing countries across the Indo-Pacific. 
  3. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is pledging to curate a mentorship prize for selected Solvers who propose solutions based in arts and culture to the four challenges.

Applicants who are selected as finalists will join the Solve Challenge Finals in New York City on Sept. 17 during the United Nations General Assembly Week. The Solve pitch session will take place in front of challenge judges, Solve members, and a live audience in New York. 

“This is just the beginning of the community, of the marketplace, of the movement,” said Solve Executive Director Alex Amouyel during Solve at MIT. “And to truly realize the vision of Solve, we need you to continue the charge.”

Jessica Myers: Liberté, Égalité, Sécurité

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 09:00

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Jessica Myers MCP ’17 threw herself into writing a thesis on urban food markets in New Orleans. After many months of work, however, she was disappointed to see it filed away, virtually unread. For her graduate thesis in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), she was determined to resist that fate.

Interested in writing about the urban fabric of Paris, she spoke with members of DUSP’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), who suggested that she produce a podcast that could be disseminated online to a wider audience. She’d never created a podcast, Myers says, but as an avid podcast listener, she was excited about the challenge of figuring it out.

The result is “Here There Be Dragons,” a two-season, 13-episode (and counting) exploration of urban life in New York and Paris through the themes of race, class, and security. “I basically wanted to ask questions about fear,” says Myers, “looking at how people prepare themselves to be in a city and create mental maps and strategies.”

Myers isn’t from a big city herself; she grew up in the bedroom community of Plainfield, New Jersey. But she fell in love with Paris during a study abroad semester during which she held a number of jobs — washing dishes at a restaurant, translating poetry for a cabaret, and working as an archivist at the Centre Pompidou. “I was all over the city, working in a lot of different contexts, and that made me very interested in how it works socially and politically.”

At MIT, she took a class with DUSP lecturer Jota Samper on “conflict cities” that examined how policies around security affect the use of public space. While other students studied Teheran, Donetsk, or Medellin, Myers chose to focus on Paris. “With older Western cities, we typically look at them as historical case studies, seeing them as ‘developed’ rather than ‘developing,’” says Myers. “But on a neighborhood level, they are dealing with the same social and cultural issues as the global south.”

For her podcast, Myers honed her craft with a first “season” on New York, featuring interviews with seven people about how they constructed mental maps of where they felt safe and unsafe. “If I am a woman, where am I not going to wear a short skirt; if I am queer, where can I hold hands,” she says. “I wanted to look at all of these strategies people have and how they change over time.”

After developing her interview techniques and tweaking the software she used to weave together the program, she set forth on a second season on Paris, starting with reactions to the terrorist attacks of November 2015. “What was interesting was that white men were very shocked at the prospect of having to feel worried in a public space,” says Myers. “Whereas women and LGTBQ interviewees were more like, ‘This is another thing I need to add to my running ticker tape of public stress.’”

As she spoke to different groups — white, immigrant, middle class, and poor — about where they felt safe or unsafe in the city, the conversations took a surprising turn toward issues of gentrification. For middle-class Parisians, the introduction of a wine shop or brunch spot on a previously “unsafe” corner made them extend their mental map. For residents of poor neighborhoods, however, an influx of unfamiliar faces made them feel unsafe. “If you rely on the so-called ‘eyes on the street’ to keep your kids safe,” Myers says, “then all of a sudden that change breaks up your sense of community trust.”

Later episodes of the podcast address the contradictions of the French policy of mixité, a social housing program based on the ideal of mixing social classes that relocates poorer people such as immigrants from North and West Africa into more affluent arrondissements. “But what exactly is the support offered to those families?” Myers asks. Often even second- or third-generation African-French citizens are referred to as “immigrants” by white French people. “If they cook food with strong peanut sauces and neighbors smell it, will it be a nuisance? Will they feel hostility in a place that is supposed to be their home?”

For each episode, Myers created a script, transcribing the interviews in French and then translating them into English. She cast English speakers to closely match the original subjects in age, gender, and ethnicity, and overlaid the English audio onto the French. It’s an effective strategy in bringing the issues alive, says Myers’s advisor, professor of landscape architecture and planning Anne Whiston Spirn. “Hearing their voices and their words, it makes it so clear that the ideas are emerging from the data,” she says. “You often don’t get that as directly in a more conventional thesis.”

Since DUSP first offered students the option of a media-based thesis four years ago, Spirn has overseen several other students with backgrounds in film and photography who created multimedia explorations of urban planning. She hopes that in the future, more students like Myers, who didn’t arrive with a media background, can take that approach. “I am interested in promoting these theses and in giving students the support they need in order to do them.”

In telling the stories of her subjects, Myers had to balance between the academic demands of her thesis and the entertainment value of a podcast. “I think academics have lost a crucial audience because there is little emphasis on being engaging, and news has decided to become so much a part of entertainment, that there is no grounding in rigor,” she says. In addition to receiving guidance from Spirn, she’s worked with a producer from BuzzFeed France in maneuvering between those poles.

Her formula seems to be working. “I would say it’s as rigorous as any thesis I’ve seen, and at the same time it’s enormously engaging,” says Spirn. In recognition of the achievement, Myers was awarded honorable mention for the department’s outstanding thesis award.

Currently the podcast is downloaded 200 times a week by listeners in the United States and France, as well as from as far away as Iceland, Hong Kong, and Chile. “I hope that people take away from this the fact that Paris is still developing, and the conversation isn’t over about what it can become,” says Myers, who is thrilled with the wide reach of the work. “Someone in Medellin or Mogadishu might have something to contribute.”

3 Questions: Justin Steil on the Trump administration travel ban

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 16:10

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments relating to President Donald Trump's recent executive order on travel, which limits individuals from six majority-Musliim countries and refugees worldwide from entering the United States. The court also ruled to uphold a limited version of the travel ban, which went into effect on June 29. President Trump cited this as “a clear victory for our national security.”

Justin Steil, assistant professor of professor of law and urban planning at MIT, firmly disagrees. Steil is a member of the The Inter-University Committee on International Migration — a focal point for migration and refugee studies at six universities in the greater Boston area that's hosted by the MIT Center for International of Studies (CIS). He recently spoke with the CIS, arguing that such policies undermine our nation’s security and that immigration makes the U.S. more safe, not less.

Q: What concerns you most about the Supreme Court decision to allow parts of the travel ban to go into effect? 

A: The revised executive order seeking to temporarily ban the migration to the United States of refugees worldwide and of individuals from six predominantly Muslim countries presents both foreign-born residents, particularly Muslim residents, of the United States and those seeking to immigrate here as a threat to national security, against the evidence. The Supreme Court’s decision to stay, in part, the preliminary injunctions issued by the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal and preventing implementation of that executive order unfortunately lends credence to the administration’s political theater. The court’s decision continues to allow the entry of refugees or migrants from the six countries who have “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” but stays the injunction as to other affected foreign nationals.

What concerns me most about the court’s decision to let part of Executive Order 13780 go into effect is the impact it will have on refugees who are fleeing persecution in their countries of origin and on immigrants hoping to build a new life and contribute to the vibrancy and growth of the United States. 

I am also concerned about the message the executive order, and the court’s validation of it, sends to the rest of the world, to the potential immigrants who have always contributed and who continue to contribute to the United States, economically, intellectually, culturally, artistically, and in other ways. Thousands of communities across the United States are eager to welcome immigrants, but the order sends a message of fear and division both at home and abroad, and makes it that much more difficult for immigrants to enrich the fabric of our local social and economic lives. In my research analyzing local government policymaking with regard to immigrants, I have seen immigrants scapegoated for political gain, and I have also seen that the targeting of immigrants often comes back to have negative social, economic, and political consequences for the rest of those in the locality, including increasing political polarization and fragmentation in social life, and even violence.

Q: The Trump administration consistently portrays immigrants as a primary threat to national security. Does this stand up to a fact check?

A: Despite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. citizens are descended from either voluntary or involuntary migrants, and the United States often represents itself as a nation of immigrants, it is also a place where, for centuries, some have represented the foreign-born as a danger to the nation’s values and its security. 

As described in an amicus brief by a bipartisan group of former national security officials, there is no legitimate national security rationale for the executive order, and it will instead disrupt existing counterterrorism partnerships, endanger U.S. troops in the field, and have a negative impact on U.S. citizens at home. Refugees — those individuals who have fled their country of nationality because of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion — are already some of the most carefully vetted migrants to the United States and, since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, have not been associated with even a single terrorist attack in the United States. Nor has a single citizen of the six countries targeted by the Executive Order killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in at least the last four decades, if ever. In the past 15 years, more terrorist attacks have been committed, and significantly more Americans have been killed, by native-born attackers than by foreign-born ones.

Beyond the executive order at issue here, the current White House has worked hard to paint a picture of immigrants generally as a threat to public safety, whether from crime or from terrorism. But overwhelming social scientific evidence has consistently found that immigrants (both documented and undocumented) are significantly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And higher shares of immigrants have aggregate benefits as well: Cities with larger shares of immigrants have lower crime rates than those with fewer immigrants, and the cities that experienced the largest increase in their foreign-born populations between 1990 and 2000 experienced the largest decrease in murder rates over the same period.

My own research at the municipal level has found that anti-immigrant policies are actually more likely to be enacted in cities where violent crime is decreasing than ones where it is increasing, but that immigrants in those cities are nevertheless blamed for crime and that anti-immigrant rhetoric is used for political gain.

In short, immigration generally makes the United States more, not less, safe. Certainly careful review of those seeking to enter the United States is necessary, but neither bans on refugee admissions, nor bans on migration from certain countries, nor mass deportations will make America safer.

Q: What’s your predicted outcome for the Supreme Court decision this fall? 

A: It is hard to say what the court will do. The Supreme Court has historically been hesitant to intervene in the Executive Branch’s power over immigration, especially when national security justifications are invoked. But reference to national security cannot exempt an executive policy from judicial review. 

The court asked for additional briefing on whether the case will be moot by the time it is argued in October, so the court may dismiss it as moot. If the court does reach the merits of the case, the most discussed legal argument against the executive order is that it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on favoring one religion over another. A second argument is that parts of the order violate provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), including the provision prohibiting discrimination in the issuance of an immigrant visa on the basis of a person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence. There are numerous additional arguments, but I’ll just discuss those two.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause prohibits the government both from establishing an official religion and from favoring one religion over another. The Establishment Clause claim is essentially a challenge based on the president’s intent when he enacted the executive order, and the court is very reluctant to strike down policies based on claims about the discriminatory intent of a policy’s enactor. Indeed, it is often hard to know the intent behind any policy outside of what is written in the policy itself. Some justices may evaluate the executive order based on the text of the revised order alone and, without an explicitly discriminatory classification in that text, argue to uphold it.

Unlike in many cases where discerning intent may be challenging, however, Donald Trump has argued explicitly for a ban on immigration on the basis of religion. For instance, as a candidate, he released a statement on his campaign website calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” And just before signing the first version of the executive order he said, “This is the ‘Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.’ We all know what that means.” Further, the first executive order treated refugees differently on the basis of religion, by excluding from the ban refugees from religious minorities, which Trump explained in an interview to the Christian Broadcasting News would give preference to Christian refugees. Although the executive order does not prohibit all immigration by Muslim individuals to the United States, there is convincing evidence that it did not have a bona fide secular purpose of protecting national security and that its primary purpose instead was to enact a policy discriminating on the basis of religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

The INA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence in the issuance of an immigrant visa — such as legal permanent resident visas — but does not apply to non-immigrant visas — such as tourist visas — and its application to the actual entry of any visa holder into the United States is unclear. What is clear is that this provision was enacted as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, influenced by the civil rights movement’s push to challenge the overt discrimination codified in the nation’s immigration system forty years prior. In 1924, Congress had enacted immigration quotas explicitly designed to return the United States to the racial and cultural composition it had in 1890, by excluding immigrants from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The current administration’s policies have disturbing parallels to these historic white supremacist policies. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ultimate conclusion about the legality of the current executive order, its mean-spiritedness, short-sightedness, and damage it has done, and will continue to do, are already evident.

Evaluating approaches to agricultural development

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 15:00

As the old saying goes, teaching someone to fish is far more helpful than just giving them a fish. Now, research from WorldFish and MIT takes that adage a step further: Better yet, the study found, is working with the fishermen to help develop better fishing methods.

Involving local people in figuring out how to improve their farming and fishing methods provides more lasting and widespread benefits than just introducing new technologies or methods, the researchers showed. The findings are described in the journal Agricultural Systems, in a paper by Boru Douthwaite of the research funding agency WorldFish, based in Malaysia, and Elizabeth Hoffecker, lead researcher at the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), based at the MIT D-Lab.

Considerable research over the last few decades has shown that bringing about improvements in agricultural systems is a highly complex challenge, with many interrelationships and feedbacks determining how well new methods and devices take hold or provide a real improvement. Yet government agencies as well as research and nonprofit organizations still mostly evaluate the success of their programs using simple metrics that overlook much of this complexity, Hoffecker says.

For three decades, Douthwaite has been studying how these programs work in practice. He says he has often observed a disconnect between the measures agencies use to decide whether a program is working, versus the real effects he saw in some of the communities involved.

For this study, the researchers focused on two quite different examples that help to illustrate these disparities: fishing on lakes and rivers in Zambia, and growing a fiber crop called abaca in the Philippines.

In Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa, refrigeration facilities and ice are scarce, and nearly one-third of the fish caught there is lost to spoilage before it ever reaches the market. Many of the fish are currently dried or smoked, but they are vulnerable to insects and rodents during the drying process, and they become brittle and subject to damage during transportation. Reducing such spoilage could both provide financial benefits for the economically struggling fishing community and help alleviate food shortages for consumers.

The Zambian fisheries were facing two related issues, Hoffecker says: “The narrow challenge was to come up with a way to prevent fish from spoiling.” But in addressing that challenge, it became apparent that “there was a much bigger challenge, which was overfishing.” Though many communities in the region were facing these same challenges, “some of the stakeholders were not working together” to address them, she says. If people had tried to get these groups to work together on the bigger challenge right at the start, she says, “it probably would have failed,” because there was so much mistrust between the different communities.

But instead, she said, “they started out working on this technical challenge,” of reducing spoilage, “which built relationships that allowed them to tackle the bigger challenge.” The participatory research process included meetings of different stakeholders including government officials, non-governmental organizations, researchers, and residents, which were followed by village-level workshops in 10 communities. This resulted in establishing three ongoing working groups to tackle different aspects of the issue: fisheries co-management, establishing cooperatives and other economic associations, and postharvest processing. Among other solutions, the group decided to introduce salting of fish as an improved preservation method.

The overall process led to four significant outcomes, Douthwaite says — none of which had been planned or anticipated initially and thus might have been missed in an evaluation based just on meeting initial, stated goals. The four outcomes consisted of developing a locally sourced fish-processing method (the salting), developing a value chain for the salted fish from harvest to market, creating working groups that could continue to evaluate and improve innovations in the fishery, and improving relationships among the different groups involved, from the fishermen to the government agencies to the traders and buyers. In the end, this led to a growing consensus about the need for measures to prevent overfishing.

In the other case studied, the Philippine abaca farmers had been facing a virus that threatened to greatly diminish their harvests of the widely used fiber plant, which is the nation’s primary source of cordage and paper. With some regions experiencing a 90 percent decline in harvests, the government’s initial strategy was to eradicate all the infected plants to curtail the virus’ spread. But farmers were wary of efforts to destroy the plants they relied on, especially when there was miscommunication about what exactly was being done.

So when a new, virus-resistant variety of the plant was developed, the local farmers’ weren’t willing to make the switch, as they considered the new varieties inferior for fiber-making.

Instead of just pressing the farmers to change, the team used a different approach, “enlisting the farmers in a process of experimentation,” as Hoffecker describes it. Several hybrid varieties were developed, and the local farmers tested them in their fields. “Because they were involved in the process, they were much more receptive to the results,” she says. In fact, many of them came up with their own suggestions for furthering the research, including testing local varieties that seemed to be naturally resistant and trying plantings on different kinds of soils and slopes.

They not only came up with an acceptable resistant variety, but when it turned out there were not enough seeds available, the farmers developed their own strategy for sharing the seeds, requiring those who got the initial seedling allotments to pay back new seedlings into the system for others to plant.

Many development organizations are well aware of these kinds of complexities and of the need for more community involvement and fewer “top-down” aid solutions, Hoffecker says. A problem, though, is that the metrics and results-assessment frameworks used to measure success often leave no room for complex, emergent outcomes. Instead, they typically focus on measuring the extent to which various solutions — such as a new crop variety, tool, or farming method — are adopted, equating scale of use with success.

Outcomes associated with how the solutions were developed, such as the creation of greater cooperation among communities or stakeholder groups, and the instilling of local empowerment and problem-solving abilities and motivation, are much harder to measure and typically left to anecdotes rather than rigorously assessed, she says.

This research was designed to help provide a basis for new ways to assess the success of programs that are working towards these types of outcomes. “It’s a first step in developing such a model and encouraging others to develop such models,” Douthwaite says.

And such assessments are essential, Hoffecker says, for making development interventions more effective and lasting. Some worthy projects, she says, are “not getting funded, because the results are not understood by the donors. Some projects are producing important outcomes, but they’re not being seen and appreciated.” Hopefully, she says, this new study can begin to address that need.

The fieldwork for this research was funded by WorldFish, which is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a World Bank agency that promotes research on sustainable development of agriculture. 

Academics without borders

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 17:45

In January, MIT President L. Rafael Reif sent an update to the MIT community that described the international makeup of the campus. “Like the United States, and thanks to the United States, MIT gains tremendous strength by being a magnet for talent from around the world,” he wrote. “Faculty, students, post-docs, and staff from 134 other nations join us here because they love our mission, our values and our community.”

Inspired by President Reif’s description of MIT “magnificently global, absolutely American community,” researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab recently studied 20 years of enthnographic data in order to visualize where international faculty, students, and researchers have come from over time. The result is “MIT World,” an online map showing the countries of origin of MIT students and scholars from 1999 to present.

“The international nature of MIT’s community can be seen just by walking through campus each day,” says Newsha Ghaeli, an Iranian-born researcher from Canada working at the MIT Senseable City Lab, along with Wonyoung So, one of the project’s leaders, who came to MIT from South Korea. “At our lab alone, we currently work with colleagues from 19 different countries including India, Mexico, China, Russia, Israel, and Croatia. However, we wanted to dig a bit deeper in order to discover just how global MIT really is and how we can learn about our community by specifically seeing where our colleagues and peers come from.”

Using data from the International Students Office and the International Scholars Office, MIT World is an interactive map that allows users to pick a region or specific country to see the flows of students and scholars coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from that part of the world. Accompanying interactive graphs show the number of students and scholars per country and per year coming to MIT.

The researchers also credit the project for demonstrating the power of visualization as a platform to disseminate data to large audiences. “The raw data for MIT World is available online to anyone via the MIT website, but visualizing it creates a different understanding ,” says Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab, professor of the practice in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and a native of Italy. “Data visualization helps sharing insights with a broader audience.”

MIT World shows how openness and academic excellence go hand-in-hand, says Ghaeli. “The ability to attract the best global talent is what makes MIT what it is: a vibrant and diverse community driven to serve the nation and the world.”

"Mens et manus" goes global

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 15:15

This year the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program will send more than 1,000 students abroad. From conceptualizing electric-bicycle kits in Spain to developing assistive technology devices in Mexico, MISTI students will learn about new cultures and explore techniques for solving the world’s challenges through experiences with partners across the globe. Through their experiences abroad, students gain a firsthand understanding of the international workplace, learn to navigate scientific networks and begin to understand just how far an MIT education can take them.

Here are a few things the more than 600 2017 MISTI summer interns will do:

  • hole up in the island of Pellestrina, Italy, with MIT professors Paola Rizzoli and Andrew Whittle to study the Venice lagoon and the mechanical gates that will protect Venice from high waters;
  • explore ancient sites in Italy with a view to inventing new technologies and materials to protect them with Assistant Professor Admir Masic;
  • design a recumbent tricycle for athletes with disabilities using robotic technologies in Berlin;
  • team up with Israeli scientists at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat to research coral reefs;
  • work on the development of an Earth observation spacecraft in collaboration with Russia’s first private space company, Dauria Aerospace;
  • teach STEM subjects to high school students in Armenia;
  • mentor future mobile-tech entrepreneurs and spur start-up development in Algeria, Mauritius, South Africa, Peru, Brazil, Russia, and Germany; and
  • collaborate with researchers and farmers in Uganda to identify and tackle debilitating crop disease.

MISTI is MIT’s pioneering international education program, based in the Center for International Studies in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Founded in 1983 by SHASS faculty, the program is rooted in the "mens-et-manus" ("mind-and-hand") tradition: Faculty in SHASS first prepare MIT students for their internships with courses in the language, history, and culture of their host countries. MISTI then matches students with tailored internship, research, and teaching opportunities abroad — training them for cross-cultural careers and leadership on global teams. MISTI also facilitates international faculty collaborations and develop partnerships with leading companies, research institutes, and universities around the world.

For great challenges, a global strategy

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 11:30

At a time of great societal challenges worldwide, MIT has released a new plan for global engagement, outlining a framework for the Institute’s burgeoning international activites in education, research, innovation, and service.

Published after extensive consultations with members of the Institute community, the report, “A Global Strategy for MIT,” establishes core principles to help guide the Institute’s future international activities, and proposes several new initiatives to promote these activities, both on campus and around the world.

“MIT’s international activities have been growing rapidly, and further growth is likely,” the report states. “The plan is designed to create a more robust and durable platform to support the international initiatives of individual faculty, while also establishing a principled framework for selecting and undertaking larger-scale activities to increase MIT’s impact in the world.”

Among its recommendations, the report calls for new efforts to cultivate and coordinate faculty- and Institute-level collaborations in different regions of the world. While MIT will likely increase its engagement in many countries, the plan specifically calls for an increased focus on China, Latin America, and Africa — places that “have been underrepresented in the MIT portfolio of activities previously and that have high potential for impactful engagement.”

Additional recommendations are designed to continue building out MIT’s distinctive “global classroom,” which already provides many opportunities for students to learn about the world through hands-on projects that solve practical problems. Another recommendation calls for a more steamlined approach to helping build new institutions and capabilities in other countries. The plan also calls for a review of the cap on international undergraduate admissions.

“Working internationally and achieving international impact are essential to achieving MIT’s mission of service to the nation and the world,” says Richard K. Lester, the associate provost of MIT who oversees international activities, and who authored the report. “Engaging internationally also strengthens our own campus in many ways,” adds Lester, who is also the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering. 

Partners in progress

MIT already has a global character; its campus community of more than 20,000 includes about 6,500 faculty, academic staff, and students from about 150 foreign countries. About 43 percent of faculty, 43 percent of graduate students, and 65 percent of postdocs are from outside the U.S.

These figures have risen significantly within the last two decades: International students accounted for 75 percent of the increase in MIT’s graduate student population since 1998, and 80 percent of the growth in the Institute’s postdoctoral population since 2006. International sponsorship of research and other campus activities has grown threefold over the last decade, and accounted for 18 percent of all such activity at MIT in 2016.

Meanwhile, MIT faculty and students are engaged in research, education, and service projects in 75 countries. Half of graduating MIT seniors in 2016 reported having at least one international educational experience, up from 23 percent in 2006.

MIT’s orientation toward innovative solutions, exemplified by its current “Campaign for a Better World,” will continue to encourage projects in other countries, in areas including health, energy, the environment, education, and water access.

The new plan’s recommendation to strengthen MIT’s regional outreach — “MIT Partnerships for a Better World,” as the plan calls them — includes three elements.

First, the report calls for faculty working groups, organized by geographic region, to provide strategic advice and create regional action plans. Second, the plan suggests that periodic MIT summit meetings in targeted regions will help establish new programs and connections.  And third, the plan calls for an expansion of international seed funds to support collaborative research and educational programs with faculty and institutions in these regions.

MIT is already a participant in high-level summits with leaders around the world. This week, MIT President L. Rafael Reif will be speaking at a forum in Saudi Arabia hosted by Khalid Al-Falih, head of the country’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources.

(Al-Falih also spoke at MIT in June 2016, at a meeting of university and business leaders from Massachusetts. At that event, he discussed Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” project, a new policy agenda aiming to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil, to other technologies as well as services, logistics, and tourism.)

As the new report outlines, MIT’s existing programs will continue to play a central role in its global strategy. For example, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) arranged almost 1,000 student internships in 30 countries in 2016 — representing a fourfold increase over the last decade. MIT’s OpenCourseWare website has received nearly 200 million visits from around the world since its launch in 2003, while 3.5 million learners, 75 percent of whom are from outside the U.S., have signed up for MITx courses since the launch of the edX platform in 2012. MIT is also continuing to develop a MicroMasters credential available to global learners in multiple fields. 

Still room for MIT-style “bottom-up” enterprise

Lester emphasizes the importance of “bottom up” activities, driven by enterprising faculty and students, to the new global strategy.

“We must support and encourage and help those efforts grow,” Lester says. “But in addition, MIT sometimes seeks to act on a larger scale, in order to increase its impact. We can’t do everything and be everywhere in the world, and the new plan will help us think systematically about what we want to do, where we want to do it, and who we want to do it with.”

Finally, as the plan notes, MIT’s international activities are subject to geopolitical shifts and the possibility of “disruptive developments” around the world. Given the pace of global change, the plan states, another comprehensive stragetic review should be undertaken in five years or less. But for now, Lester says, MIT’s commitment to global engagement is strengthening.

“Now is not the time to change course,” Lester says. “On the contrary, this is the time to affirm our commitment to working with others, across national borders, on the world’s most challenging problems. In a very fundamental sense, that is who we are.”

Q&A: When is giving to charity the wrong thing to do?

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 16:20

The race to cure poverty has turned into a vast multi-billion dollar industry, but there’s not a silver-bullet solution that’s going to end impoverishment, says MIT grad student Mark Weber, co-producer of the 2015 documentary film “Poverty, Inc.

Most people give to charity with the best of intentions, and although foreign aid is vital following a disaster, fueling a country with aid dollars can foster unintended bad consequences, such as when it prevents local entrepreneurs from getting their own businesses off the ground.

The 91-minute movie, which looks at global charity — from disaster relief to social entrepreneurship — has earned more than 50 international film festival honors. In a recent interview, Weber explained why charity has sometimes failed and what individuals can do to help.

Q: "Poverty, Inc." argues that we’ve been doing charity wrong for many years. Why is that?

A: It’s not that simple. I think one of the things that we try to emphasize in the film is that it’s not just foreign aid. Foreign aid is symptomatic of the deeper problem. The problem … at its philosophical core is about our tendency to objectify the poor. We have turned them into objects of our pity and our charity, and we make ourselves the protagonists of this development story.

This film is more about embracing complexity and understanding that there are broken models, more than saying ‘Oh, here’s a new silver bullet that everybody should follow.’ It’s more about learning how to think deeply and algorithmically in terms of principles and functions.

Q: What if there is a famine in Africa and I do want to help?

A: If a person is in crisis, you don’t wax poetic to them about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the rule of law; you help them. But how do we then transition from crisis mode to development? This is where the safety net often becomes a spider’s web.

If we take a long-term approach to food security, not just a reactionary crisis approach, we should be reconsidering American and European domestic industrial agricultural subsidies and food aid programs, which undermine the agrarian economies of many developing nations. This is well documented and highlighted with the example of Haitian rice in the film.

Q: The movie talks about volunteering with orphanages abroad. Why is that destructive?

A: Virtually every kid [in an orphanage] is struggling or will struggle with an attachment disorder. What we do is, we come in and … hug them, and play with them, and take pictures with them, and sometimes we make promises that we can’t keep, and then we are gone forever. We think that these kids are without [love], but in reality, a lot of people — even their own parents — are visiting them throughout the year. And so that love is coming and going. So, we actually exacerbate the attachment disorders that these kids struggle with, and it can be incredibly damaging to them.

Q: Is the situation with the orphanages one where nothing can be done?

A: First, do no harm. I see this as connected to the sponsor-a-child issue, which I think is also problematic because a lot of these kids have parents. And by making orphanages more robust in terms of their educational and daycare services, we actually incentivize parents to give up their kids and we break families apart, which is a much bigger problem in the long run.

I think there are many ways we can support children, and two are featured in the film with the story of the Haitian solar panel company Enersa and the Apparent Project. By creating employment in those communities, hundreds of children are being fed, clothed, and put through school by their own parents.

Q: So, what can we do if we want to aid other countries?

A: It depends on who you are individually, and your unique qualities, and perspective. We need good people working for good governance. Rule of law, property rights, and basic freedoms are critically important, as is creating cultures of trust.

We also need to be conscious consumers and harness the democratic function of the market economy to signal demand for vertically integrated ethics in the economy. If I’m willing to donate a couple of thousand dollars a year to charity, then why am I not willing to spend an extra $20 here or there to buy something from a company [like Patagonia] that is willing to give me information about its supply chain? There are more and more companies championing intentionality and transparency in their supply chains.

We also need good people working in business. Business is the normative way in which people rise out of poverty.

J-WAFS awards $1.4 million in third round of seed grant funding

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 14:30

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its third round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet.

This year, seven new projects will be funded, led by 10 faculty principal investigatorss across seven MIT departments. The winning projects include fertilizer technologies, technologies for water supply, and policy-oriented research addressing the uptake of irrigation technologies in Africa.

An ever-increasing number of faculty from across the Institute are deeply invested in addressing critical global challenges in water and food security, and this is reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals. The third J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 38 principal investigators, nearly two-thirds of whom had not submitted proposals to J-WAFS before. Competing for funding were established experts in water and food-related research areas as well as professors who are only recently applying their disciplinary expertise to the world’s water and food challenges. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the departments of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Additional funded principal investigators are from the Department of Chemistry in the School of Science, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

The seven newly funded projects bring the total number of seed research projects supported by J-WAFS to 24 since 2015. J-WAFS Director John Lienhard argues that “we must continue to advance innovations and creative ideas for delivering safe and secure food and clean and renewable water supplies. Through the innovative technologies and collaborations we are supporting with these new research projects, J-WAFS is working to secure the future of our communities, the sustainability of our cities, and the prosperity of our economies in the face of rising population, greater urbanization, and changing climate.” 

Project highlights appear below, followed by a full listing of 2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant-funded projects.

Enhancing crop production with an eye toward sustainability

Enhancing crop production while supporting environmentally sustainable farming practices in developing countries was a theme of several funded projects this year. Two projects are addressing challenges around nitrogen fertilizer.  Nitrogen is required for agricultural productivity, and most nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured using fossil fuels, which has a large carbon footprint. In Africa and other parts of the world, nitrogen fertilizer is not accessible to most farmers due to poor infrastructure for distribution, limiting the crop yields they can achieve. However, in North America and elsewhere, excess fertilizer runoff from farms contributes to water pollution.

Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will develop a solar-powered electrochemical device that can convert nitrogen from air, water, and sunlight into ammonia to be added to soil to promote plant growth. Christopher Voigt, professor of biological engineering, is pursuing an entirely different path, with the objective of engineering cereal grains that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen the way that legumes do. Once realized, these grains could become self-fertilizing high-yield producers in varied regions across the globe and dramatically reduce the damage to soil health, water supply, and local ecosystems often associated with the use of chemical fertilizer. 

Improving methods for culturing microalgae for food and fuel

Another funded project could significantly contribute to our ability to expand a promising future source of protein and oil, and reduce the energy use associated with its production. Mathias Kolle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, aims to create a new class of multifunctional micro- and nanostructural optical fibers that can more efficiently and effectively transport light and carbon dioxide throughout industrial microalgae cultures.

Microalgae are effective generators of protein-rich biomass that could, if produced on an industrial scale, supplement human nutrition, provide animal feedstock, and serve as biofuel. However, current production methods aren’t economically viable for this scale. Kolle’s microfibers could transform large-scale industrial microalgae production, making microalgae-produced protein and fuel an economically viable, sustainable, and energy efficient option in the future. 

Harvesting water from air

Securing clean drinking water in environments that are water-scarce or polluted is a challenge in many regions of the world. Additionally, agriculture and industrial uses deplete — and contaminate — global supply of freshwater, which increases the demand for alternative means of water gathering. Mircea Dinca, associate professor of chemistry, and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are teaming up to develop a new technology that can be used to harvest water in even the most arid regions of the globe. They will create a passive solar device that can extract clean, fresh water from the air at any range of humidity, using a metal-organic framework (MOF), a specialized porous material. J-WAFS seed funding will support the development of MOFs that can be used for providing water to remote areas, with greatly reduced infrastructure costs.

2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:

"Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa." PI: Antoine Allanore, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

"Characterizing Extension Policy and Private Irrigation Supply Chain Linkages: Lessons from Senegal." PIs: Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science in the Sloan School of Management; and Bishwapriya Sanyal, professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning

"Distributed Water Harvesting from Air in Water-Stressed and Remote Areas using Metal-Organic Frameworks." PIs: Mircea Dinca, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering 

"Electrochemical Nitrogen Fixation for Distributed Fertilizer Production." PI: Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering

"Evaluation of Fully Synthetic Nitrogen Fixation Pathways, Designed for Plant Mitochondria and Plastids." PI: Christopher Voigt, professor in the Department of Biological Engineering 

"High-efficiency Chemical-Free Backwash Strategy for Reverse Osmosis Membrane Antifouling." PIs: Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and John H. Lienhard, V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and J-WAFS 

"Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors." PI: Mathias Kolle, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

MIT community celebrates its many cultures

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 15:30

The MIT community came out in full force Saturday for a spirited festival celebrating the Institute’s diverse cultures.

A stage show at the Johnson Athletics Center drew an audience of more than 1,600, including many families, for 17 student performances showcasing dance, music, poetry, and costumes from around the world.

The program’s hosts, sophomore Bruke Mesfin Kifle, junior Sravya Bhamidipati, and seniors Alberto Hernandez and Pragya Tooteja, kept the packed program running like clockwork, as artists took the stage to perform acrobatic capoeira, a gliding tango, traditional dances of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a tribute to an iconic Scottish poet, and much more.

Later in the evening, approximately 9,000 people comprising MIT students, faculty, staff, and friends got their groove on in four tent dance parties on campus. The dancing, music, and food centered around four themes: A World of Music: Middle East/K-pop/Hip-hop/India; Campus Night Club; Caribbean Rhythms and African Beats; and Country Two-Step to Salsa. Dance teams Mocha Moves and MIT Bhangra made special guest appearances.

The OneWorld @ MIT Multicultural Festival and Dance Parties event was presented by members of the MIT student body and the One World@MIT planning group, which is led by Raul Radovitzky, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

MIT students plan multicultural festival

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 16:30

MIT is gearing up for an evening of fun and celebration at the OneWorld @ MIT Multicultural Festival and Dance Parties this Saturday, April 29. The event, open to the entire MIT community and their guests, will feature a dizzying array of traditional and contemporary music, costume, dance, and food from around the world. It is presented by members of the MIT student body and the One World@MIT planning group, which is led by Professor Raul Radovitzky.

The evening promises to showcase the community’s diverse and vibrant spirit — and show that MIT “knows how to party!” In an invitation to the community, President L. Rafael Reif said, “Last May, MIT experimented with an evening of community-wide dance parties. The results were so compelling that this spring, we’re doing it again — and the night will start with a spectacular multicultural festival.”

From belly dancing to flamenco to Bollywood fusion to Chinese ribbon dance, MIT students will share the hearts of their cultures and countries at the Festival Stage Show, taking place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Johnson Athletics Center. Seventeen different individuals and groups will perform, showcasing traditional or modern cultural expressions of Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Korea, Palestine, Scotland, Spain, and the United States.

Upon arrival, attendees will be treated to traditional and new Balinese music and dance by Gamelan Galak Tika, led by Professor Evan Ziporyn. Gamelan means “to hammer,” a term referring to the large percussion orchestras of Java and Bali whose instruments are gongs, metallophones, hand drums, cymbals, bamboo flutes, and spiked fiddles, with vocals.

Rambax MIT, co-directed by master Senegalese drummer Lamine Touré and Professor Patricia Tang, will follow the stage show finale with the electrifying sabar drumming and dance tradition of the Wolof people of Senegal, West Africa.

The festival continues with tent dance parties — including special appearances by Mocha Moves and MIT Bhangra — from 9 p.m. to midnight in four campus locations:

  • Country Two-Step to Salsa (Walker Tent): Featuring the Houston Bernard Country Music Band and the Beantown Social Club, with sounds of Old Havana
  • Campus Night Club (Killian Court): Today’s music, remixed around the world
  • Caribbean Rhythms and African Beats (McDermott Court): Featuring the Conscious Reggae Band and West African Drum and dance master Sidi Mohamed “Jon” Camara
  • A World of Music: Middle East / K-pop / Hip-hop / India (Kresge Oval): DJ Yogz fuses Bollywood, K-pop, and hip-hop, with performances by the Kinan Idnawi Band, playing Arabic folk and contemporary tunes

Registration is not required. The festival is free and open to all students, faculty, and staff with an MIT or Lincoln ID. Guests are welcome, and it is a wonderful event for families.

Nile faces greater variability

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 10:59

The unpredictable annual flow of the Nile River is legendary, as evidenced by the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, whose dream foretold seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in a land whose agriculture was, and still is, utterly dependent on that flow. Now, researchers at MIT have found that climate change may drastically increase the variability in Nile’s annual output.

Being able to predict the amount of flow variability, and even to forecast likely years of reduced flow, will become ever more important as the population of the Nile River basin, primarily in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, is expected to double by 2050, reaching nearly 1 billion. The new study, based on a variety of global climate models and records of rainfall and flow rates over the last half-century, projects an increase of 50 percent in the amount of flow variation from year to year.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and postdoc Mohamed Siam. They found that as a result of a warming climate, there will be an increase in the intensity and duration of the Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as the El Niño/La Niña cycle, which they had previously shown is strongly connected to annual rainfall variations in the Ethiopian highlands and adjacent eastern Nile basins. These regions are the primary sources of the Nile’s waters, accounting for some 80 percent of the river’s total flow.

The cycle of the Nile’s floods has been “of interest to human civilization for millennia,” says Eltahir, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate. Originally, the correlation he showed between the El Niño/La Niña cycle and Ethiopian rainfall had been aimed at helping with seasonal and short-term predictions of the river’s flow, for planning storage and releases from the river’s many dams and reservoirs. The new analysis is expected to provide useful information for much longer-term strategies for placement and operation of new and existing dams, including Africa’s largest, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, now under construction near the Ethiopia-Sudan border.

While there has been controversy about that dam, and especially about how the filling of its reservoir will be coordinated with downstream nations, Eltahir says this study points to the importance of focusing on the potential impacts of climate change and rapid population growth as the most significant drivers of environmental change in the Nile basin. “We think that climate change is pointing to the need for more storage capacity in the future,” he says. “The real issues facing the Nile are bigger than that one controversy surrounding that dam.”

Using a variety of global circulation models under “business as usual” scenarios, assuming that major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions do not take place, the study finds that the changing rainfall patterns would likely lead to an average increase of the Nile’s annual flow of 10 to 15 percent. That is, it would grow from its present 80 cubic kilometers per year to about 92 or more cubic kilometers per year averaged over the 21st century, compared to the 20th century average.

The findings also suggest that there will be substantially fewer “normal” years, with flows between 70 and 100 cubic kilometers per year. There will also be many more extreme years with flows greater than 100, and more years of drought. (Statistically, the variability is measured as the standard deviation of the annual flow rates, which is the number that is expected to see a 50 percent rise).

The pattern has in fact played out over the last two years — 2015, an intense El Niño year, saw drought conditions in the Nile basin, while the La Niña year of 2016 saw high flooding. “It’s not abstract,” Eltahir says. “This is happening now.”

As with Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh, the knowledge of such likely changes can help planners to be prepared, in this case by storing water in huge reservoirs to be released when it is really needed.

"Too often we focus on how climate change might influence average conditions, to the exclusion of thinking about variability," says Ben Zaitchik, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in this work. "That can be a real problem for a place like the Eastern Nile basin, where average rainfall and streamflow might increase with climate change, suggesting that water will be plentiful. But if variability increases as well, then there could be as frequent or more frequent stress events, and significant planning — in infrastructure or management strategies — might be required to ensure water security."

Already, Eltahir’s earlier work on the El Niño/La Niña correlation with Nile flow is making an impact. “It’s used operationally in the region now in issuing seasonal flood forecasts, with a significant lead time that gives water resources engineers enough time to react. Before, you had no idea,” he says adding that he hopes the new information will enable even better long-term planning. “By this work, we at least reduce some of the uncertainty.”

3 Questions: Jeanne Guillemin on the recent chemical attack in Syria

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 15:00

On April 4, a suspected nerve gas attack killed at least 80 in Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s Idlib Province. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the current UN Security Council president, stated shortly after the incident that members "are hoping to get as much information” as they can about the event.

Jeanne Guillemin, a medical anthropologist and a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program, recently answered a few questions on the attack. Guillemin is an authority on biological weapons and has published four books on the topic. Her latest, "Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trial," will be published by Columbia University Press in September.

Q. What do we now know about the attack?

A. The process of investigation will be difficult, given the ongoing war and secrecy on the part of Syria and others. It seems certain that the regime of Syria’s President al-Assad or some element thereof not only violated treaty obligations regarding chemical weapons but could be complicit in a major war crime.

On a technical level, the chemical agent that caused more than 80 deaths and many injuries has been identified by the United Kingdom as sarin, which accords with medical records. The timing of the attack was April 4 at just before 7 a.m. local time, optimal for dispersal. Much less or nothing is reliably known regarding the munition and its source.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the operational arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in The Hague, is the lead agency for investigating the nerve gas attack. The OPCW can count on assistance from the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), created by the Security Council with all permanent members in agreement. OPCW investigations are kept secret until the final reports are released, which can take months, and their mandate does not extend to identifying perpetrators. The mandate of the JIM is broader and does extend to estimating perpetrators, which makes its eventual report important.

Q. Based on your expertise on the historical use of chemical weapons, why would Assad strike now? Is he likely to strike again?

A. The use of chemical weapons in war, starting in April 1915 with the German release of chlorine gas on Allied trenches at Ypres, has invariably been to break an impasse by targeting a defenseless enemy, those lacking protection such as gas masks or antidotes. For Syria, frustration with rebel holdouts in Idlib Province may have provoked the attack; one wonders, though, exactly what authorities reasoned that killing civilians with nerve gas could be carried out without controversy — and without jeopardizing the new potential for cooperation with the Trump administration.

The political furor created by the social media images of the victims make it unlikely that President al-Assad, if he ordered or permitted the attacks, would venture any more. For years, though, Syria has been getting a pass from the international community regarding its less-than-complete compliance with the CWC, to which it acceded in October 2013. In 2014, the belief that Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons contained gaps and inconsistencies prompted the Director-General of the OPCW to send a special team of technical investigators on 18 trips to Syria to do what proved impossible: to verify that Syria’s declaration was in accordance with the CWC. The UN Security Council was fully advised of OPCW reports, but no action was taken to bring Syria in line.

Currently the Russian government is taking al-Assad's protestations of innocence at face value. At the same time, though, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken strongly in favor of UN investigations and asserted that Syria will be forthcoming about its military activities in the region at the time of the April 4 sarin attack. If evidence points clearly to al-Assad’s forces, which the U.S. government has already publicly blamed, Putin will have to address the difficult problem of regime change in Syria — or risk his own legitimacy by supporting a Syrian president many feel is at best a loose cannon and at worst the murderer of his own people.  

Q. What are psychological and physical effects of this kind of attack, and how does one determine who was responsible?

A. Follow-up information from the 1988 chemical attack in Halabja, Iraq, and the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, illustrates the terrifying impact of aerial chemical attacks on defenseless populations already under siege.

In Halabja, the attacks with blistering mustard and with sarin, combined with conventional bombings, were part of Saddam Hussein’s punitive objective to eliminate the Kurds from Iraq.

The unusual strikes on Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun seem more intended to terrify Syrian civilians, that is, to frighten survivors and witnesses (even those watching on the internet) into submission to the enemy aggressor, whose power to rapidly asphyxiate hundreds must seem mythic, especially when done with impunity, without legal repercussions.

Over time, the criminal responsibility for the April 4 sarin attack might be put on Syrian officials, who may well be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court’s statute contains language banning the use of poisons taken directly from the Geneva Protocol; the prosecution of murderous attacks on defenseless populations is, of course, central to the ICC mission, regardless of means. The broader responsibility for what has happened in Syria and for the extreme vulnerability of its civilian population throughout the war lies with the international community. This week, one hears the Chinese delegate to the United Nations calling for a political solution, rather than a military showdown between the United States and Russia. After this latest barbarism, is it too much to ask for international safe zones and a cease fire?

Amos Winter wins the Harold E. Edgerton Award

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 17:30

Amos G. Winter, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Global Engineering and Research Lab (GEAR), has been awarded the 2016-2017 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, announced today at MIT’s faculty meeting.

The award was established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton, for his active support of younger, untenured faculty members. Each year, a faculty committee presents the award to one or more junior members of the faculty, in recognition of exceptional distinctions in teaching, research, and service.

Winter was honored for being “a leader in global engineering, an emerging sub-discipline that seeks creative solutions to persistent challenges in the developing world.” The committee, chaired by MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Thomas A. Kochan, also noted “his creativity in designing critical but affordable products within the constraints found in emerging markets, and for his approachable style and advocacy on behalf of his students, as well as the infectious energy he imparts to them.”

Winter’s students have thrived under his mentorship. A team he led with one of his graduate students, Natasha Wright, was awarded the USAID Desal Prize in 2015 for their work on affordable and sustainable photovoltaic desalination; Wright and another graduate student in Winter's laboratory, Dan Dorsch, have both been awarded the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, Wright this year and Dorsch in 2016.

In addition, the famed mechanical engineering undergraduate course, 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I), has been co-taught by Winter for the past few years. The themes of the class’s final robot competition, where students compete against one another, have been drawn from pop culture, ranging from “Back to the Future” to Paul Revere’s ride to this year’s “Star Wars.”

Focused on the marriage of mechanical design theory and user-centered product design, Winter’s research interests include design for emerging markets and developing countries, biomimetic design, fluid/solid/granular mechanics, biomechanics, and the design of ocean systems. Innovations of note include the development of the Leveraged Freedom Chair, an all terrain wheelchair, and the advancement of prosthetic limbs, drip irrigation nozzles, and small-scale desalination plants.

Much of his work is based in a concept dubbed “reverse innovation.” Detailed in an award winning Harvard Business Review paper co-authored with Dartmouth’s Vijay Govindarajan, “reverse innovation” refers to the commercialization of emerging marketing solutions to more developed markets such as the United States.

Winter recently received a 2017 NSF CAREER Award and was also awarded the 2017 Junior Bose Award, given each year to an outstanding contributor to education from among the junior faculty of the School of Engineering. He was also named one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2013 by MIT Technology Review magazine; was a winner of the 2012 ASME/Pi Tau Sigma Gold Medal; and was honored with the 2010 Tufts University Young Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award and the 2010 MIT School of Engineering Graduate Student Extraordinary Teaching and Mentoring Award.

Winter received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and master of science and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT. He did postdoctoral research at the SUTD/MIT International Design Center and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, returning to MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in July 2012. Winter is also co-founder and chief scientific advisor for the local MIT spinout company, Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT).

Combined energy and water system could provide for millions

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 16:45

Many highly populated coastal regions around the globe suffer from severe drought conditions. In an effort to deliver fresh water to these regions, while also considering how to produce the water efficiently using clean-energy resources, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Hawaii has created a detailed analysis of a symbiotic system that combines a pumped hydropower energy storage system and reverse osmosis desalination plant that can meet both of these needs in one large-scale engineering project.

The researchers, who have shared their findings in a paper published in Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, say this kind of combined system could ultimately lead to cost savings, revenues, and job opportunities.

The basic idea to use a hydropower system to also support a reverse osmosis desalination plant was first proposed two decades ago by Kyoto University’s Masahiro Murakami, a professor of synthetic chemistry and biological chemistry, but was never developed in detail.

"Back then, renewables were too expensive and oil was too cheap," says the paper’s co-author Alexander Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. "There was not the extreme need and sense of urgency that there is now with climate change, increasing populations and waves of refugees fleeing drought and war-torn regions."

Recognizing the potential of the concept now, Slocum and his co-authors — Maha Haji, Sasan Ghaemsaidi, and Marco Ferrara of MIT; and A Zachary Trimble of the University of Hawaii — developed a detailed engineering, geographic, and economic model to explore the size and costs of the system and enable further analysis to evaluate its feasibility at any given site around the world.

Typically, energy and water systems are considered separately, but combining the two has the potential to increase efficiency and reduce capital costs. Termed an "integrated pumped hydro reverse osmosis (IPHRO) system," this approach uses a lined reservoir placed in high mountains near a coastal region to store sea water, which is pumped up using excess power from renewable energy sources or nuclear power stations. When energy is needed by the electric grid, water flows downhill to generate hydroelectric power. With a reservoir elevation greater than 500 meters, the pressure is great enough to also supply a reverse osmosis plant, eliminating the need for separate pumps. An additional benefit is that the amount of water typically used to generate power is about 20 times the amount needed for creating fresh water. That means the brine outflow from the reverse osmosis plant can be greatly diluted by the water flowing through the hydroelectric turbines before it discharges back into the ocean, which reduces reverse osmosis outflow system costs.

As part of their research, Slocum’s team developed an algorithm that calculates a location's distance from the ocean and mountain height to explore areas around the world where IPHRO systems could be installed. Additionally, the team has identified possible IPHRO system locations with potential for providing power and water — based on the U.S. average of generating 50 kilowatt-hours of energy and 500 liters of fresh water per day — to serve 1 million people. In this scenario, a reservoir at 500 meters high would only need to be one square kilometer in size and 30 meters deep.

The team's analysis determined that in Southern California, all power and water needs can actually be met for 28 million people. An IPHRO system could be located in the mountains along the California coast or in Tijuana, Mexico, and would additionally provide long-term construction and renewable energy jobs for tens of thousands of people. Findings show that to build this system, the cost would be between $5,000 and $10,000 per person served. This would cover the cost of all elements of the system — including the renewable energy sources, the hydropower system, and the reverse osmosis system — to provide each person with all necessary renewable electric power and fresh water.

Working with colleagues in Israel and Jordan under the auspices of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, the team has studied possible sites in the Middle East in detail, as abundant fresh water and continuous renewable energy could help bring stability to the region. An IPHRO system could potentially form the foundation for stable economic growth, providing local jobs and trade opportunities and, as hypothesized in Slocum’s article, IPHRO systems could possibly help mitigate migration issues as a direct result of these opportunities.

"Considering the cost per refugee in Europe is about 25,000 euros per year and it takes several years for a refugee to be assimilated, an IPHRO system that is built in the Middle East to anchor a new community and trading partner for the European Union might be a very good option for the world to consider," Slocum says. "If we create a sustainable system that provides clean power, water, and jobs for people, then people will create new opportunities for themselves where they actually want to live, and the world can become a much nicer place."

This work is available as an open access article on ScienceDirect, thanks to a grant by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation through the MIT Energy Initiative, which also supported the class from which this material originated. The class has also been partially supported by MISTI and the cooperative agreement between the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and MIT. 

Fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in the euro area

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 16:20

Calling attention to the slowing of a metric known as total factor productivity growth and an increasing innovation gap in the euro area, thought leaders in academia, government, risk capital, and industry discussed the need for innovation and entrepreneurship to overcome such challenges during a two-day conference on March 13-14 in Frankfurt, Germany.

Organized by the MIT Innovation Initiative’s Lab for Innovation Science and Policy and the European Central Bank (ECB), the joint conference was opened by ECB President Mario Draghi PhD ’77 and MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt, and featured panels chaired by ECB Vice President Vítor Constâncio and ECB Chief Economist Peter Praet. The conference aimed to highlight the key role technology-based innovation can play in fostering regional growth and to help identify evidence-based solutions.

Draghi noted that, while the topic may be unusual for a central bank conference at first glance, there is only so much monetary policy can do as it principally operates through the demand side of the economy. The key to productivity growth lies not just in the creation of new ideas, but also in their diffusion. Draghi additionally observed that “it is equally important for the euro area to facilitate and encourage the spread of new technology from the frontier to the laggard firms. Simply by diffusing better the technology we already have, we could make sizeable gains in productivity.”

Schmidt took a micro approach, providing his view on the topic from the MIT lens. He pointed to the Institute’s efforts in studying the importance of robust ecosystems to support innovation, as well as its work in creating it in partnership with key stakeholders, as evidenced by the Kendall Square of today. “From our perspective, it is clear that vibrant ecosystems are critical to the process of innovation. It’s equally clear these ecosystems need to dynamically evolve. We believe that they will evolve if all the stakeholders contribute to the commons and participate in this evolution,” said Schmidt.

The structure and content of the conference drew on recent research that is developing the field of innovation science — an evidence-based approach to understanding the innovation process. This emerging area of study, which MIT is helping to build through its Lab for Innovation Science and Policy, highlights novel frameworks for evaluating a region’s innovative and entrepreneurial capacity, tools for identifying areas of comparative advantage, and options for developing ecosystem-level policies and programs for accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship.

Encompassing the larger, more integrated European context, the workshop delved into topics of new measures, ecosystem approaches, and ways to partner and collaborate over four intensive sessions. Augmenting the panels were keynote speeches given by Carlos Moedas, European Commission commissioner in charge of research, science, and innovation, who talked about why fostering innovation is crucial to avert secular stagnation and the reason it is particularly urgent for the euro area; Manuel Trajtenberg, professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, who emphasized demographic trends and missed human potential as the critical issues that innovation and entrepreneurship should be channeled to tackle; and Grete Faremo, under-secretary-general and executive director of the United Nations Office for Project Services, who highlighted the connection and importance of innovation in emerging nations to progress in Europe.

The first session set the stage with a discussion of the future of economic growth with and without total factor productivity growth — an economic term defined as the growth in output that exceeds growth in capital and labor inputs — and raised the main issues and questions for the other panels to address in greater detail.

During a session that considered new measures to better capture the changing nature of innovation and entrepreneurship, Christian Ketels, a member of the Harvard Business School faculty at the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, noted that innovation and entrepreneurship often happens at the intersection of related industries and technology fields within regional clusters of economic activity. Sharing findings from his research, Ketels pointed to data that indicate strong clusters provide more robust environments for turning new ideas into sustainable, growth businesses.

Building on Ketel’s presentation, Scott Stern, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management at MIT Sloan School of Management, gave an overview of his joint research developing new, empirical measures of entrepreneurial quality showing the rate at which high-potential growth startups are founded. He commented that the new measures could be useful in driving policy and acceleration in part because they facilitate “shared understanding as a driver of coordinated activity in a world where innovation and entrepreneurship are not controlled by any one agency or person.” 

The conference culminated in extracting policy lessons for the euro area during the final session. Fiona Murray, the Bill Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship, associate dean of innovation at MIT Sloan, and co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, advocated for an education experiment. Given the high rates of youth employment in parts of Europe, she argued that deviating from traditional teaching methods would be a test worth undertaking in order to help prepare the next generation. “I believe strongly that we must challenge our universities, our educators, and our students to actually push the system, to experiment, and to demand a different way of being educated rather than have all that be top down,” she said.

Ann Mettler, head of the European Political Strategy Center for the European Commission, brought up the need for better benchmarks, improving the connection between the macro and the micro, and the significance of data as a driver of innovation. She urged all regional policymakers to see their potential for innovation, even in the face of fiscal constraints or limited risk capital. Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of embracing failure as much as success in the innovation process. “Innovation suggests success. Every policymaker wants success, but what they have to learn is to get success, you have many, many failures, way more failures than success. We need to do a much better job of saying innovation requires failure.”

Engaged neighbors

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 23:59

MIT faculty, students, and alumni consistently find creative ways to apply their knowledge to local contexts, collaborating with partners around the globe to make the world a better place. Arguably, no MIT exchange is more fertile than the one the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) enjoys with Mexico.

Recently, students and scholars from SA+P have worked with local collaborators to plan mixed-use developments around mass transit hubs in Mexico City and to design novel solutions for Baja wineries faced with chronic drought. And here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mexican artist and social activist Pedro Reyes spent a semester in residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST), where he explored potential collaborative projects with MIT faculty and taught a course that invited students to consider the human cost of unbridled technology.

The Institute’s synergy with Mexico will be celebrated on March 23 at the MIT Better World campaign event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City. Part of an ongoing celebration of MIT’s global culture that has already sponsored gatherings in New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles, the Mexico City event will feature economist Pedro Aspe Armella PhD ’78, cellist and author Carlos Prieto ’58, faculty members Miho Mazereeuw and Paulo Lozano SM ’98, PhD ’03, and master’s in city planning candidate Carlos Sainz Caccia, as well as MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

The event will reflect the spirit of the many innovative collaborations between MIT and Mexico, from urban initiatives around housing, transportation, and the environment, to scholarly exchanges on many other topics. Through these engagements, including the recent SA+P activities described below, faculty, students, and alumni are tackling pressing global issues.

Researching transportation in Mexico City

Last spring, P. Christopher Zegras, an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), co-taught a graduate practicum in which students traveled to Mexico City to study the potential of linking real estate development to public transportation networks. Known as transit-oriented development, the development paradigm requires designers to engage with multiple stakeholders — government officials, local businesses, residents, transit authorities, and private developers — to help create sustainable mixed-use communities around mass transit stations.

Zegras’s students integrated their classroom knowledge into the realities of Mexico’s economy, geography, and politics, crafting solutions that made sense — and could be implemented — in that particular time, space, and culture.

“The good news is that there are concrete actions that can be taken,” says Onésimo Flores PhD ’13, who co-taught the course as a visiting lecturer at MIT. Flores is now CEO of Conecta Cuatro, a company that promotes innovative technology ventures to tackle urban and transportation problems in Mexico.

The client and sponsor for the practicum was Grupo Prodi, a private developer and operator of multimodal transit stations in Mexico City. “It’s clear that transit-oriented development can be the key to improving quality of life in urban areas not only in Mexico City, but also in cities like Monterey and Guadalajara,” says José Miguel Bejos, Grupo Prodi CEO.

Designing sustainable agriculture in Baja

Sheila Kennedy, a professor in the Department of Architecture, brought her Architecture Design Core Studio III students to the Valle de Guadeloupe, in Baja — a wine region severely affected by drought and climate change. “I wanted to place the students at the intersection between places of production and the limits of natural resources,” says Kennedy. “The students needed to have a strategy for their designs, their materials, and where those materials were sourced. They couldn’t just rely on standard sustainable solutions like green roofs.”

After a weeklong visit to Baja, with host and sponsor Bodegas F. Rubio Winery, the students returned to campus to develop novel architectural and site designs that could help wineries survive and thrive in a challenging climate. One student suggested using solar chimneys to take advantage of the sharp nightly drops in temperature, storing cool air and releasing it during the day. Another designed a temporary winery that would exist just as long as there was water and could then be dismantled — with its materials repurposed or recycled — when the water ran out.

Second-year master’s student Anne Graziano came to Baja intending to work on dew collection. But after she saw the morning fog roll in each day from the nearby Pacific Ocean, she returned to MIT to design an undulating series of walls made of MIT’s Fog Harvesting Mesh, a finely woven metal textile that can increase fog collection yields fivefold.

“I love the idea that architecture can create something functional but also communicate a sense of place and create shade and shared spaces,” says Graziano. “Because of the landscape and the culture and the community I encountered there, I was able to imagine a winery whose walls provide the water with which the wine will be made.”

Engaging technology through an artist’s perspective

While working and studying in Mexico has stimulated innovation by MIT scholars, the Institute has also inspired others who call Mexico home. “I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that has such a density of creativity” as MIT, says Reyes, the Mexican artist and activist who is the Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist at CAST. “Every person I meet there is inspiring.” Reyes’ ongoing appointment was the first in a series endowed by a $1 million gift to CAST from Russian-American philanthropist, entrepreneur, and art collector Dasha Zhukova.

Last fall, Reyes taught a course with visiting lecturer Carla Fernández, a Mexican fashion designer, titled “The Reverse Engineering of Warfare: Challenging Techno-Optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector (an Opera for the End of Times).” Reyes encouraged his students to consider the effects of automation on global employment, reexamine the influence of the military sector on U.S. government policies, and imagine retooling the U.S. military complex to combat global climate change.

“My Latin culture leads me to place more importance on human interaction than on technology,” says Reyes. “I’m more interested in replacing robots with humans than in replacing humans with robots. But that doesn’t make me any less of a tech lover. You can see great potential in technology, but also recognize that technology needs to be applied with care. That critical dialectic is a vital part of MIT culture.”

Featured video: Tackling science and technology together

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 13:15

Addressing the 21st century’s great challenges requires the world’s best minds to come together and collaborate on solutions. That is why, reflecting the borderless nature of science and technology, MIT President L. Rafael Reif charges each graduating class with a mission to spread far and wide the lessons they’ve learned while in Cambridge. “Hack the world,” he says, “until you make the world a little more like MIT.”

The Institute comprises a diverse, international community of nearly 23,500 students, postdocs, faculty, and staff. MIT faculty alone hail from 73 countries — including the seven affected by the presidential executive order of Jan. 27.

“All my colleagues are from different countries, different cultures, and I think that’s what makes this whole place an amazing place,” says Nikta Fakhri, an expert on the mechanics of living systems and an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, who hails from Iran.

Dina Katabi, a Syrian-born pioneer in wireless technologies and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, says: “We’re talking about dedicated, smart people who can contribute so much to our nation, but also to making the world a better place.”

Video by: MIT Video Productions | 2 min, 9 sec

Matthew Cavuto: Getting a leg up on engineering

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 00:00

Matthew Cavuto, now a senior in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, embarked on his career path partly as a result of a talk he heard in high school by MIT Professor Hugh Herr, a double amputee who works on improving prosthetic devices and systems to allow people with similar disabilities to regain as much control, independence, and capability as possible.

Herr “gave an awesome talk about the work he was doing in his field. … It both piqued my interest in MIT and made me want to tackle similar problems in my studies,” Cavuto recalls.

Now, thanks to a Marshall Scholarship that will provide him with two years of graduate studies in England, Cavuto will be taking that interest to the next level. He plans one year of work at Imperial College London, with one of the world’s leading research teams on providing sensory feedback to users of prosthetic limbs, and then a year at Cambridge University with a leading team developing devices known as exoskeletons, to restore mobility to patients with paralysis.

Cavuto knows a thing or two himself about graceful, highly controlled mobility: He spends his free time in high-level competitive ballroom dancing and varsity fencing, two very different but equally demanding disciplines that are based on precision movement.

Even as an undergraduate, Cavuto has made some significant progress in providing mobility for some amputees in developing countries. Working with MIT’s GEAR (Global Engineering and Research) Lab, under the guidance of Amos Winter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Cavuto has developed a patent-pending artificial knee device that allows above-the-knee amputees to cross their legs, something that typical prosthetic legs do not allow. In India, being able to sit cross-legged is an important part of being able to participate fully in society and is even a requirement for some kinds of work, he explains.

That project will be going through a second round of field testing in coming months in India, after initial tests last year of an earlier version. The tests are focused on developing a system that would be affordable to low-income users, durable enough to provide years of service, and simple enough that its users could learn to repair and maintain the device on their own. “The challenge is to design devices that can be made for a much lower cost, but that are still as robust and functional as those in the developed world,” Cavuto says. And such solutions, once successful, “can also apply to the developed world,” where costs still do make a difference, he says.

The prosthetic device he designed, which works with an existing knee joint and is not a knee itself, is intended to be something that could sell for just $10, and consists of just five parts that a user can take apart, clean and maintain, and reassemble. Comparable prosthetic knees in the developed world cost “anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars,” Cavuto says. Part of the savings comes from replacing materials such as titanium with less expensive aluminum or plastic, and from the inexpensive yet durable custom locking mechanism he designed. His work on that project, and the associated fieldwork in India, was made possible by funding through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program and MIT’s D-Lab.

Cavuto’s mechanical skills — as well as his fencing and dancing skills ­— go way back. He has enjoyed woodworking since the fourth grade and over the years has made much of the furniture in his family’s home in Skillman, New Jersey. He has won prizes for his woodworking designs, and one of his creations is in the collection of a museum in Pennsylvania.

His interest in fencing started in fifth grade, and in high school he competed in that sport in the Junior Olympics. He has continued his competitive fencing on a team at MIT as a squad leader. In ballroom dancing, he has participated in many national competitions, including the annual MIT Open, which is the largest collegiate ballroom dancing competition in the world, he says. Dancing all 10 categories of standard and Latin dances, he competes with his dance partner at the highest amateur level in the U.S.

Cavuto’s parents are both doctors — in fact, “almost everyone in my family is a doctor,” he says — and he initially considered going into that family business. But he decided that becoming an engineer and designing biomedical devices offered the possibility of impacting many more lives than would be possible by treating one patient at a time.

His tentative goal at this point is, after completing the two master’s programs under his Marshall Scholarship, to pursue a doctorate, perhaps at MIT, and ultimately to become a professor. “Through inspiring and guiding the research of students, as a professor or head of a lab, I could accomplish far more than through pursing my research alone,” he says. Furthermore, based on his experiences working as a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering classes, including the very popular Course 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) that culminates in a robotic competition, “I’ve also realized my passion for teaching,” he says.

Cavuto is looking forward to the work he will be doing next year on providing sensory feedback for prosthetic limbs. The lack of such feedback “is definitely a big bottleneck” in the development of better prosthetics, he says. Even with a prosthetic hand that provides highly precise control over movement, in order to perform complex tasks — or even simple ones like picking up a delicate object — feedback is important. Without it, users must watch all their movements closely and constantly. “The goal is to be able to pick up a pear without bruising it, or a plastic cup without crushing it,” he says.

Featured video: "I grew up in Damascus"

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 16:18

MIT is a home to individuals from all parts of the globe. These community members learn, do research, and advance the Institute’s mission of making the world a better place.

One student, a native of Damascus, Syria, looks forward to bringing what he is learning here back home. “Even though I’m thousands of miles away from my friends and family, I’ve gotten the chance to explore new things [and] meet a ton of interesting people,” says Ihssan Tanawi, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science who has also enjoyed courses in economics and history. “Just seeing people with different opinions — that was something that was very new to me.”

In addition to his academic pursuits, Tanawi has tapped into the Institute’s many entrepreneurship and innovation resources. And he relishes participating in the MIT Muslim Students’ Association, which recently won the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award for community engagement. As a mentor, Tanawi takes pride in helping others who come to MIT from a distant land and helping them learn the ropes as new community members — as he says, “making them feel welcome here.”

Submitted by: School of Engineering | Video by: Lillie Paquette | 1 min, 36 sec