Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology

SMART scientists collaborate across continents

Jessica Fujimori, Global MIT

They might be 18 hours apart by air, but Singapore and MIT are bridged by nearly as many years of partnership in research.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance, launched in 1998, was the first step in this partnership; nine years later, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Centre followed, sponsored by the Singapore National Research Foundation.

When the SMART Centre first launched in January 2007, it was MIT's largest international research endeavor to date. Rafael Reif — then Provost of MIT, now President — declared, "We hope the research conducted at the SMART Centre will transform the development of engineering, technology, and science in the decades ahead."

Since Reif spoke those words, SMART has grown and flourished. The Centre now comprises an Innovation Centre focused on entrepreneurship in technology and five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) producing impactful research in areas ranging from water quality to malaria diagnosis to autonomous vehicles.

SMART's inaugural research group, Infectious Diseases, has made major strides — first on the H5N1 avian flu, then on the H1N1 swine flu viruses that began circulating soon after the group's creation, and persistently against the mosquito-borne disease that kills more than half a million people each year: malaria.

In 2008, one research team used advanced microscopy techniques to show in unprecedented detail how the malaria parasite attacks red blood cells. In 2014, another team further illuminated how the human immune system defends against the parasite.

Later that year, researchers from the BioSystems and Micromechanics (BioSyM) group unveiled a new way to diagnose malaria using magnetic imaging to detect and measure the waste product of the parasite in a patient's blood even before the patient shows symptoms. "There is real potential to make this into a field-deployable system, especially since you don't need any kind of labels or dye," said Jongyoon Han, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering and one of the senior authors of the paper describing the technique.

Meanwhile, SMART's Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling (CENSAM) focuses on developing and deploying technologies that monitor, model, and control the natural and built environment. In 2009, a team led by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Charles Harvey uncovered the cause of a massive arsenic contamination in Bangladesh that had exposed tens of millions of people to the poison and had remained an enigma for nearly 30 years: man-made ponds were transporting arsenic into groundwater and then into shallow drinking wells. The researchers' results suggested that digging deeper wells could help alleviate the problem.

In 2014, another CENSAM team revealed a new tri-optical principle water sensor that can detect, measure, and create a 3-D map of a broad spectrum of contaminants in a water body as large as two soccer fields. "[The sensor] empowers agencies to better monitor the water situation on a large scale in the long term," said Kelvin Chee-Loon Ng, a research scientist at SMART.

The Future Urban Mobility research group, led by MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics Emilio Frazzoli, envisions safer, speedier, and more sustainable ways to get around town. In 2014, the group released the first self-driving vehicles for use by the public; in a 9-day pilot project, driverless buggies designed by SMART researchers provided tours of the Chinese and Japanese gardens in Singapore. In place of a steering wheel, the buggies feature touchscreens that allow passengers to select a destination. "Mobility should be available to all — the elderly, young, or the disabled," said Marcelo Ang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore who worked on the project.

Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES), launched in 2012, is the newest research group to join the SMART Centre. LEES seeks to engineer integrated circuits — "chips" — that perform more efficiently, helping advance a world that runs increasingly on electronics.

While SMART scientists and engineers in the five research groups work to advance their fields of study, the Innovation Centre fosters entrepreneurship in technology with grants and mentorship. One group supported by the Innovation Centre developed a new approach to desalination that could remove not just salt, but contaminants as well, from seawater using an ion-selective membrane and electrostatic repulsion. "We clearly demonstrated that we can do it at the unit chip level," says Sung Jae Kim, a postdoctoral associate who worked with associate professor Jongyoon Han to design the method. Once scaled up, the small, portable system could become valuable in emergency situations where fresh water is unavailable.

As SMART research continues to progress, the MIT connection to Singapore is strengthening: in 2012, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), a publicly-funded, research-intensive institution established in consultation with MIT, opened its doors to students just a few blocks from the SMART Centre. For the faculty and students that travel from Boston to Singapore to take part in research or coursework, these collaborations create an MIT away from MIT — a place where minds from opposite sides of the world can meet, mingle, innovate, and create.