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Showing posts with label MIT News. Show all posts
Showing posts with label MIT News. Show all posts

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Silencing gene expression to cure complex diseases

Many people think of new medicines as bullets, and in the pharmaceutical industry, frequently used terms like “targets” and “hits” reinforce that idea. Immuneering co-founder and CEO Ben Zeskind ’03, PhD ’06 prefers a different analogy.

His company, which specializes in bioinformatics and computational biology, sees many effective drugs more like noise-canceling headphones.

Rather than focusing on the DNA and proteins involved in a disease, Immuneering focuses on disease-associated gene signaling and expression data. The company is trying to cancel out those signals like a pair of headphones blocks out unwanted background noise.

The approach is guided by Immuneering’s decade-plus of experience helping large pharmaceutical companies understand the biological mechanisms behind some of their most successful medicines.

“We started noticing some common patterns in terms of how these very successful drugs were working, and eventually we realized we could use these insights to create a platform that would let us identify new medicine,” Zeskind says. “[The idea is] to not just make existing medicines work better but also to create entirely new medicines that work better than anything that has come before.”

In keeping with that idea, Immuneering is currently developing a bold pipeline of drugs aimed at some of the most deadly forms of cancer, in addition to other complex diseases that have proven difficult to treat, like Alzheimer’s. The company’s lead drug candidate, which targets a protein signaling pathway associated with many human cancers, will begin clinical trials within the year.

It’s the first of what Immuneering hopes will be a number of clinical trials enabled by what the company calls its “disease-canceling technology,” which analyzes the gene expression data of diseases and uses computational models to identify small-molecule compounds likely to bind to disease pathways and silence them.

“Our most advanced candidates go after the RAS-RAF-MEK [protein] pathway,” Zeskind explains. “This is a pathway that’s activated in about half of all human cancers. This pathway is incredibly important in a number of the most serious cancers: pancreatic, colorectal, melanoma, lung cancer — a lot of the cancers that have proven tougher to go after. We believe this is one of the largest unsolved problems in human cancer.”

A good foundation

As an undergraduate, Zeskind participated in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (the $50K back then) and helped organize some of the MIT Enterprise Forum’s events around entrepreneurship.

“MIT has a unique culture around entrepreneurship,” Zeskind says. “There aren’t many organizations that encourage it and celebrate it the way MIT does. Also, the philosophy of the biological engineering department, of taking problems in biology and analyzing them quantitatively and systematically using principles of engineering, that philosophy really drives our company today.”

Although his PhD didn’t focus on bioinformatics, Zeskind’s coursework did involve some computational analysis and offered a primer on oncology. One course in particular, taught by Doug Lauffenburger, the Ford Professor of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Biology, resonated with him. The class tasked students with uncovering some of the mechanisms of the interleukin-2 (IL-2) protein, a molecule found in the immune system that’s known to severely limit tumor growth in a small percentage of people with certain cancers.

After Zeskind earned his MBA at Harvard Business School in 2008, he returned to MIT’s campus to talk to Lauffenburger about his idea for a company that would decipher the reasons for IL-2’s success in certain patients. Lauffenburger would go on to join Immuneering’s advisory board.

Of course, due to the financial crisis of 2007-08, that proved to be difficult timing for launching a startup. Without easy access to capital, Zeskind approached pharmaceutical companies to show them some of the insights his team had gained on IL-2. The companies weren’t interested in IL-2, but they were intrigued by Immuneering’s process for uncovering the way it worked.

“At first we thought, ‘We just spent a year figuring out IL-2 and now we have to start from scratch,’” Zeskind recalls. “But then we realized it would be easier the second time around, and that was a real turning point because we realized the company wasn’t about that specific medicine, it was about using data to figure out mechanism.”

In one of the company’s first projects, Immuneering uncovered some of the mechanisms behind an early cancer immunotherapy developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb. In another, they studied the workings of Teva Pharmaceuticals’ drug for multiple sclerosis.

As Immuneering continued working on successful drugs, they began to notice some counterintuitive patterns.

“A lot of the conventional wisdom is to focus on DNA,” Zeskind says. “But what we saw over and over across many different projects was that transcriptomics, or which genes are turned on when — something you measure through RNA levels — was the thing that was most frequently informative about how a drug was working. That ran counter to conventional wisdom.”

In 2018, as Immuneering continued helping companies appreciate that idea in drugs that were already working, it decided to start developing medicines designed from the start to go after disease signals.

Today the company has drug pipelines focused around oncology, immune-oncology, and neuroscience. Zeskind says its disease-canceling technology allows Immuneering to launch new drug programs about twice as fast and with about half the capital as other drug development programs.

“As long as we have a good gene-expression signature from human patient data for a particular disease, we’ll find targets and biological insights that let us go after them in new ways,” he says. “It’s a systematic, quantitative, efficient way to get those biological insights compared to a more traditional process, which involves a lot of trial and error.”

An inspired path

Even as Immuneering advances its drug pipelines, its bioinformatics services business continues to grow. Zeskind attributes that success to the company’s employees, about half of which are MIT alumni — the continuation of trend that began in the early days of the company, when Immuneering was mostly made up of recent MIT PhD graduates and postdocs.

“We were sort of the Navy Seals of bioinformatics, if you will,” Zeskind says. “We’d come in with a small but incredibly well-trained team that knew how to make the most of the data they had available.”

In fact, it’s not lost on Zeskind that his analogy of drugs as noise-canceling headphones has a distinctively MIT spin: He was inspired by longtime MIT professor and Bose Corporation founder Amar Bose.

And Zeskind’s attraction to MIT came long before he ever stepped foot on campus. Growing up, his father, Dale Zeskind ’76, SM ’76, encouraged Ben and his sister Julie ’01, SM ’02 to attend MIT.

Unfortunately, Dale passed away recently after a battle with cancer. But his influence, which included helping to spark a passion for entrepreneurship in his son, is still being felt. Other members of Immuneering’s small team have also lost parents to cancer, adding a personal touch to the work they do every day.

“Especially in the early days, people were taking more risk [joining us over] a large pharma company, but they were having a bigger impact,” Zeskind says. “It’s all about the work: looking at these successful drugs and figuring out why they’re better and seeing if we can improve them.”

Indeed, even as Immuneering’s business model has evolved over the last 12 years, the company has never wavered in its larger mission.

“There’s been a ton of great progress in medicine, but when someone gets a cancer diagnosis, it’s still, more likely than not, very bad news,” Zeskind says. “It’s a real unsolved problem. So by taking a counterintuitive approach and using data, we’re really focused on bringing forward medicines that can have the kind of durable responses that inspired us all those years ago with IL-2. We’re really excited about the impact the medicines we’re developing are going to have.”



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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Yogesh Surendranath wants to decarbonize our energy systems

Electricity plays many roles in our lives, from lighting our homes to powering the technology and appliances we rely on every day. Electricity can also have a major impact at the molecular scale, by powering chemical reactions that generate useful products.

Working at that molecular level, MIT chemistry professor Yogesh Surendranath harnesses electricity to rearrange chemical bonds. The electrochemical reactions he is developing hold potential for process such as splitting water into hydrogen fuel, creating more efficient fuel cells, and converting waste products like carbon dioxide into useful fuels.

“All of our research is about decarbonizing the energy ecosystem,” says Surendranath, who recently earned tenure in MIT’s Department of Chemistry and serves as the associate director of the Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Center, one of the Low-Carbon Energy Centers run by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

Although his work has many applications in improving energy efficiency, most of the research projects in Surendranath’s group have grown out of the lab’s fundamental interest in exploring, at a molecular level, the chemical reactions that occur between the surface of an electrode and a liquid.

“Our goal is to uncover the key rate-limiting processes and the key steps in the reaction mechanism that give rise to one product over another, so that we can, in a rational way, control a material's properties so that it can most selectively and efficiently carry out the overall reaction,” he says.

Energy conversion

Born in Bangalore, India, Surendranath moved to Kent, Ohio, with his parents when he was 3 years old. Bangalore and Kent happen to have the world’s leading centers for studying liquid crystal materials, the field that Surendranath’s father, an organic chemist, specialized in.

“My dad would often take me to the laboratory, and although my parents encouraged me to pursue medicine, I think my interest in science and chemistry probably was sparked at an early age, by those experiences,” Surendranath recalls.

Although he was interested in all of the sciences, he narrowed his focus after taking his first college chemistry class at the University of Virginia, with a professor named Dean Harman. He decided on a double major in chemistry and physics and ended up doing research in Harman’s inorganic chemistry lab.

After graduating from UVA, Surendranath came to MIT for graduate school, where his thesis advisor was then-MIT professor Daniel Nocera. With Nocera, he explored using electricity to split water as a way of renewably generating hydrogen. Surendranath’s PhD research focused on developing methods to catalyze the half of the reaction that extracts oxygen gas from water.

He got even more involved in catalyst development while doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he became interested in nanomaterials and the reactions that occur at the interfaces between solid catalysts and liquids.

“That interface is where a lot of the key processes that are involved in energy conversion occur in electrochemical technologies like batteries, electrolyzers, and fuel cells,” he says.

In 2013, Surendranath returned to MIT to join the faculty, at a time when many other junior faculty members were being hired.

“One of the most attractive features of the department is its balanced composition of early career and senior faculty. This has created a nurturing and vibrant atmosphere that is highly collaborative,” he says. “But more than anything else, it was the phenomenal students at MIT that drew me back. Their intensity and enthusiasm is what drives the science.”

Fuel decarbonization

Among the many electrochemical reactions that Surendranath’s lab is trying to optimize is the conversion of carbon dioxide to simple chemical fuels such as carbon monoxide, ethylene, or other hydrocarbons. Another project focuses on converting methane that is burned off from oil wells into liquid fuels such as methanol.

“For both of those areas, the idea is to convert carbon dioxide and low-carbon feedstocks into commodity chemicals and fuels. These technologies are essential for decarbonizing the chemistry and fuels sector,” Surendranath says.

Other projects include improving the efficiency of catalysts used for water electrolysis and fuel cells, and for producing hydrogen peroxide (a versatile disinfectant). Many of those projects have grown out of his students’ eagerness to chase after difficult problems and follow up on unexpected findings, Surendranath says.

“The true joy of my time here, in addition to the science, has been about seeing students that I've mentored grow and mature to become independent scientists and thought leaders, and then to go off and launch their own independent careers, whether it be in industry or in academia,” he says. “That role as a mentor to the next generation of scientists in my field has been extraordinarily rewarding.”

Although they take their work seriously, Surendranath and his students like to keep the mood light in their lab. He often brings mangoes, coconuts, and other exotic fruits in to share, and enjoys flying stunt kites — a type of kite that has multiple lines, allowing them to perform acrobatic maneuvers such as figure eights. He can also occasionally be seen making balloon animals or blowing extremely large soap bubbles.

“My group has really cultivated an extraordinarily positive, collaborative, uplifting environment where we go after really hard problems, and we have a lot of fun along the way,” Surendranath says. “I feel blessed to work with people who have invested so much in the research effort and have built a culture that is such a pleasure to work in every day.”



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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

“What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots”

As Covid-19 has made it necessary for people to keep their distance from each other, robots are stepping in to fill essential roles, such as sanitizing warehouses and hospitals, ferrying test samples to laboratories, and serving as telemedicine avatars.

There are signs that people may be increasingly receptive to robotic help, preferring, at least hypothetically, to be picked up by a self-driving taxi or have their food delivered via robot, to reduce their risk of catching the virus.

As more intelligent, independent machines make their way into the public sphere, engineers Julie Shah and Laura Major are urging designers to rethink not just how robots fit in with society, but also how society can change to accommodate these new, “working” robots.

Shah is an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and the associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Major SM ’05 is CTO of Motional, a self-driving car venture supported by automotive companies Hyundai and Aptiv. Together, they have written a new book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots: The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration,” published this month by Basic Books.

What we can expect, they write, is that robots of the future will no longer work for us, but with us. They will be less like tools, programmed to carry out specific tasks in controlled environments, as factory automatons and domestic Roombas have been, and more like partners, interacting with and working among people in the more complex and chaotic real world. As such, Shah and Major say that robots and humans will have to establish a mutual understanding.

“Part of the book is about designing robotic systems that think more like people, and that can understand the very subtle social signals that we provide to each other, that make our world work,” Shah says. “But equal emphasis in the book is on how we have to structure the way we live our lives, from our crosswalks to our social norms, so that robots can more effectively live in our world.”

Getting to know you

As robots increasingly enter public spaces, they may do so safely if they have a better understanding of human and social behavior.

Consider a package delivery robot on a busy sidewalk: The robot may be programmed to give a standard berth to obstacles in its path, such as traffic cones and lampposts. But what if the robot is coming upon a person wheeling a stroller while balancing a cup of coffee? A human passerby would read the social cues and perhaps step to the side to let the stroller by. Could a robot pick up the same subtle signals to change course accordingly?

Shah believes the answer is yes. As head of the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT, she is developing tools to help robots understand and predict human behavior, such as where people move, what they do, and who they interact with in physical spaces. She’s implemented these tools in robots that can recognize and collaborate with humans in environments such as the factory floor and the hospital ward. She is hoping that robots trained to read social cues can more safely be deployed in more unstructured public spaces.

Major, meanwhile, has been helping to make robots, and specifically self-driving cars, work safely and reliably in the real world, beyond the controlled, gated environments where most driverless cars operate today. About a year ago, she and Shah met for the first time, at a robotics conference.

“We were working in parallel universes, me in industry, and Julie in academia, each trying to galvanize understanding for the need to accommodate machines and robots,” Major recalls.

From that first meeting, the seeds for their new book began quickly to sprout.

A cyborg city

In their book, the engineers describe ways that robots and automated systems can perceive and work with humans — but also ways in which our environment and infrastructure can change to accommodate robots.

A cyborg-friendly city, engineered to manage and direct robots, could avoid scenarios such as the one that played out in San Francisco in 2017. Residents there were seeing an uptick in delivery robots deployed by local technology startups. The robots were causing congestion on city sidewalks and were an unexpected hazard to seniors with disabilities. Lawmakers ultimately enforced strict regulations on the number of delivery robots allowed in the city — a move that improved safety, but potentially at the expense of innovation.

If in the near future there are to be multiple robots sharing a sidewalk with humans at any given time, Shah and Major propose that cities might consider installing dedicated robot lanes, similar to bike lanes, to avoid accidents between robots and humans. The engineers also envision a system to organize robots in public spaces, similar to the way airplanes keep track of each other in flight.

In 1965, the Federal Aviation Agency was created, partly in response to a catastrophic crash between two planes flying through a cloud over the Grand Canyon. Prior to that crash, airplanes were virtually free to fly where they pleased. The FAA began organizing airplanes in the sky through innovations like the traffic collision avoidance system, or TCAS — a system onboard most planes today, that detects other planes outfitted with a universal transponder. TCAS alerts the pilot of nearby planes, and automatically charts a path, independent of ground control, for the plane to take in order to avoid a collision.

Similarly, Shah and Major say that robots in public spaces could be designed with a sort of universal sensor that enables them to see and communicate with each other, regardless of their software platform or manufacturer. This way, they might stay clear of certain areas, avoiding potential accidents and congestion, if they sense robots nearby.

“There could also be transponders for people that broadcast to robots,” Shah says. “For instance, crossing guards could use batons that can signal any robot in the vicinity to pause so that it’s safe for children to cross the street.”

Whether we are ready for them or not, the trend is clear: The robots are coming, to our sidewalks, our grocery stores, and our homes. And as the book’s title suggests, preparing for these new additions to society will take some major changes, in our perception of technology, and in our infrastructure.

“It takes a village to raise a child to be a well-adjusted member of society, capable of realizing his or her full potential,” write Shah and Major. “So, too, a robot.”



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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Bringing construction projects to the digital world

People who work behind a computer screen all day take it for granted that everyone’s work will be tracked and accessible when they collaborate with others. But if your job takes place out in the real world, managing projects can require a lot more effort.

In construction, for example, general contractors and real estate developers often need someone to be physically present on a job site to verify work is done correctly and on time. They might also rely on a photographer or smartphone images to document a project’s progress. Those imperfect solutions can lead to accountability issues, unnecessary change orders, and project delays.

Now the startup OpenSpace is bringing some of the benefits of digital work to the real world with a solution that uses 360-degree cameras and computer vision to create comprehensive, time-stamped digital replicas of construction sites.

All customers need to do is walk their job site with a small 360-degree camera on their hard hat. The OpenSpace Vision Engine maps the photos to work plans automatically, creating a Google Streetview-like experience for people to remotely tour work sites at different times as if they were physically present.

The company is also deploying analytics solutions that help customers track progress and search for objects on their job sites. To date, OpenSpace has helped customers map more than 1.5 billion square feet of construction projects, including bridges, hospitals, football stadiums, and large residential buildings.

The solution is helping workers in the construction industry improve accountability, minimize travel, reduce risks, and more.

“The core product we have today is a simple idea: It allows our customers to have a complete visual record of any space, indoor or outdoor, so they can see what’s there from anywhere at any point in time,” says OpenSpace cofounder and CEO Jeevan Kalanithi SM ’07. “They can teleport into the site to inspect the actual reality, but they can also see what was there yesterday or a week ago or five years ago. It brings this ground truth record to the site.”

Shining a light on construction sites

The founders of OpenSpace originally met during their time at MIT. At the Media Lab, Kalanithi and David Merrill SM ’06, PhD ’09 built a gaming system based on small cubes that used LCD touch screens and motion sensors to encourage kids to develop critical thinking skills. They spun the idea into a company, Sifteo, which created multiple generations of its toys.

In 2014, Sifteo was bought by 3D Robotics, then a drone company that would go on to focus on drone inspection software for construction, engineering, and mining firms. Kalanithi stayed with 3D Robotics for over two years, eventually serving as president of the company.

In the summer of 2016, Kalanithi left 3D Robotics with the intention of spending more time with friends and family. He reconnected with two friends from MIT, Philip DeCamp ’05, SM ’08, PhD ’13 and Michael Fleischman PhD ’08, who had researched new machine vision and AI techniques in their PhD research. Fleischman had started a social media analytics company he sold to Twitter.

At the time, DeCamp and Fleischman were considering ways to use machine vision advances with 360-degree cameras. Kalanithi, who had helped guide 3D Robotics toward the construction industry, thought he had the perfect application.

People have long used photographs to document construction projects, and many times contracts for large construction projects require photos of progress to be taken. But the photos never document the entire site, and they aren’t taken frequently enough to capture every phase of work.

Early versions of the OpenSpace solution required someone to set up a tripod in every space of a construction project. A breakthrough came when one early user, a straight-talking project manager, gave the founders some useful feedback.

“I was showing him the output of our product at the time, which looks similar to now, and he says, ‘This is great. How long did it take you?’ When I told him he said, ‘Well that’s cool Jeevan, but there’s no way we’re going to use that,’” Kalanithi recalls. “I thought maybe this idea isn’t so good after all. But then he gave us the idea. He said, ‘What would be great is if I could just wear that little camera and walk around. I walk around the job site all the time.’”

The founders took the advice and repurposed their solution to work with off-the-shelf 360-degree cameras and slightly modified hard hats. The cameras take pictures every half second and use artificial intelligence techniques to identify the camera’s precise location, even indoors. Once a few tours of the job site have been uploaded to OpenSpace’s platform, it can map pictures onto site plans within 15 minutes.

Kalanithi still remembers the excitement the founders felt the first time they saved a customer money, helping to settle a dispute between a general contractor and a drywall specialist. Since then they’ve gotten a lot of those calls, in some cases saving companies millions of dollars. Kalanithi says saving builders costs helps the construction industry meet growing needs related to aging infrastructure and housing shortages.

Helping nondigital workers

OpenSpace’s analytics solutions, which the company calls its ClearSight suite of products, have not been rolled out to every customer yet. But Kalanithi believes they will bring even more value to people managing work sites.

“If you have someone walking around the project all the time, we can start classifying and computing what they’re seeing,” Kalanithi says. “So, we can see how much framing and drywall is being installed, how quickly, how much material was used. That’s the basis for how people get paid in this industry: How much work did you do?”

Kalanithi believes Clearsight is the beginning of a new phase for OpenSpace, where the company can use AI and computer vision to give customers a new perspective on what’s going on at their job site.

“The product experience today, where you look around to see the site, will be something people sometimes do on OpenSpace, but they may be spending more time looking at productivity charts and little OpenSpace verified payment buttons, and maybe sometimes they’ll drill down to look at the actual images,” Kalanithi says.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated some companies’ adoption of digital solutions to help cut down on travel and physical contact. But even in states that have resumed construction, Kalanithi says customers are continuing to use OpenSpace, a key indicator of the value it brings.

Indeed, the vast majority of the information captured by OpenSpace was never available before, and it brings with it the potential for major improvements in the construction industry and beyond.

“If the last decade was defined by the cloud and mobile technology being the real enabling technologies, I think this next decade will be innovations that affect people in the real physical world,” Kalanithi says. “Because cameras and computer vision are getting better, so for a lot of people who have been ignored or left behind by technology based on the work they do, we’ll have the opportunity to make some amends and build some stuff that will make those folks lives easier.”



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Translating lost languages using machine learning

Recent research suggests that most languages that have ever existed are no longer spoken. Dozens of these dead languages are also considered to be lost, or “undeciphered” — that is, we don’t know enough about their grammar, vocabulary, or syntax to be able to actually understand their texts.

Lost languages are more than a mere academic curiosity; without them, we miss an entire body of knowledge about the people who spoke them. Unfortunately, most of them have such minimal records that scientists can’t decipher them by using machine-translation algorithms like Google Translate. Some don’t have a well-researched “relative” language to be compared to, and often lack traditional dividers like white space and punctuation. (To illustrate, imaginetryingtodecipheraforeignlanguagewrittenlikethis.)

However, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently made a major development in this area: a new system that has been shown to be able to automatically decipher a lost language, without needing advanced knowledge of its relation to other languages. They also showed that their system can itself determine relationships between languages, and they used it to corroborate recent scholarship suggesting that the language of Iberian is not actually related to Basque.

The team’s ultimate goal is for the system to be able to decipher lost languages that have eluded linguists for decades, using just a few thousand words.

Spearheaded by MIT Professor Regina Barzilay, the system relies on several principles grounded in insights from historical linguistics, such as the fact that languages generally only evolve in certain predictable ways. For instance, while a given language rarely adds or deletes an entire sound, certain sound substitutions are likely to occur. A word with a “p” in the parent language may change into a “b” in the descendant language, but changing to a “k” is less likely due to the significant pronunciation gap.

By incorporating these and other linguistic constraints, Barzilay and MIT PhD student Jiaming Luo developed a decipherment algorithm that can handle the vast space of possible transformations and the scarcity of a guiding signal in the input. The algorithm learns to embed language sounds into a multidimensional space where differences in pronunciation are reflected in the distance between corresponding vectors. This design enables them to capture pertinent patterns of language change and express them as computational constraints. The resulting model can segment words in an ancient language and map them to counterparts in a related language.  

The project builds on a paper Barzilay and Luo wrote last year that deciphered the dead languages of Ugaritic and Linear B, the latter of which had previously taken decades for humans to decode. However, a key difference with that project was that the team knew that these languages were related to early forms of Hebrew and Greek, respectively.

With the new system, the relationship between languages is inferred by the algorithm. This question is one of the biggest challenges in decipherment. In the case of Linear B, it took several decades to discover the correct known descendant. For Iberian, the scholars still cannot agree on the related language: Some argue for Basque, while others refute this hypothesis and claim that Iberian doesn’t relate to any known language. 

The proposed algorithm can assess the proximity between two languages; in fact, when tested on known languages, it can even accurately identify language families. The team applied their algorithm to Iberian considering Basque, as well as less-likely candidates from Romance, Germanic, Turkic, and Uralic families. While Basque and Latin were closer to Iberian than other languages, they were still too different to be considered related. 

In future work, the team hopes to expand their work beyond the act of connecting texts to related words in a known language — an approach referred to as “cognate-based decipherment.” This paradigm assumes that such a known language exists, but the example of Iberian shows that this is not always the case. The team’s new approach would involve identifying semantic meaning of the words, even if they don’t know how to read them. 

“For instance, we may identify all the references to people or locations in the document which can then be further investigated in light of the known historical evidence,” says Barzilay. “These methods of ‘entity recognition’ are commonly used in various text processing applications today and are highly accurate, but the key research question is whether the task is feasible without any training data in the ancient language.”      .

The project was supported, in part, by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).



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Sunday, October 18, 2020

What are the odds your vote will not count?

This is part 2 of a two-part MIT News series on voting research and the 2020 election. Part 1 focuses on shifts in post-Election Day vote tallies.

In elections, every vote counts. Or should count. But a new study by an MIT professor indicates that in the 2016 U.S. general election, 4 percent of all mail-in ballots were not counted — about 1.4 million votes, or 1 percent of all votes cast, signaling a significant problem that could grow in 2020.

The study quantifies the range of reasons for this, including late-arriving ballots, problems with ballot signatures and envelopes, and improperly marked ballots, among other things.

“Mail ballots tend to have more mistakes on them,” says Charles Stewart, a professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science and author of a paper detailing the study, which looks at data from all 50 U.S. states.

Voting by mail — the same thing as absentee voting — will probably be more prevalent than ever in 2020, as voters seek to avoid crowds at polling places during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the study suggests, states that have more experience with mail-in voting tend to have a slightly lower percentage of lost votes. Thus the 2020 election could feature an unusually high percentage of lost mail-in voting attempts, and the odds of your mail-in ballot counting may vary a bit, depending on where you live.

“The likelihood of a vote being lost by mail is, in part, determined by how the state feels about that,” says Stewart, who is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science and head of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “States can put more or less effort into ensuring that voters don’t make mistakes. … There are different mail-ballot regimes, they handle the ballots differently, they operate under different philosophies of what mail balloting is supposed to achieve, and who bears the risk of mail balloting.”

The paper, “Reconsidering Lost Votes by Mail,” appears as a working paper on the Social Science Research Network, and will be published by the Harvard Data Science Review.

Check your work

The concept of “lost votes” was first studied comprehensively by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) following the contested 2000 U.S. presidential election. The VTP concluded that of 107 million votes cast in 2000 — of all kinds, not just mail-in voting — between 4 million and 6 million went unrecorded. The federal Help America Vote Act of 2003 (HAVA) subsequently reduced that number to between 2 million and 3 million.

The current paper extends that line of analysis to absentee votes, and updates a 2010 Stewart study. Overall, there are three main types of problems with mail-in votes: postal issues, procedural problems involving things like signatures and ballot envelopes, and vote-scanning problems.

In the first case, about 1.1 percent of all mail-in votes are lost because of problems during the mailing process — from unfilled absentee ballot requests to the return of those ballots. Some of those lost votes represent election-administration errors, not postal issues. Stewart does not think recent reductions in U.S. Postal Service capacity will necessarily change that, although many experts are urging voters to mail in their ballots promptly.

“Postal service problems, literally the ballot not arriving, the ballot arriving late, getting lost in the office, that’s one source,” Stewart says. “But it’s probably the least important source of loss, despite all the controversy about the postal service.”

Secondly, votes can also be lost when voters handle the process incorrectly: They fail to sign ballots, are judged to have submitted mismatched signatures, or do not use the ballot’s safety envelope, among other things. About 1.5 percent of mail-in votes suffer from these problems, Stewart estimates.

“The voter can make a mistake in the certification process,” Stewarts says. “They don’t sign the envelope where they’re supposed to, they don’t seal it properly … there are all sorts of things that lead to rejected ballots.” Still, Stewart observes, “Election offices could be less persnickety about technical issues.”

The third type of problem, comprising 1.5 percent of all attempts at absentee voting, occurs when scanning machines in polling places reject ballots.

“The scanning problems, nobody really talks about because it’s the most abstract, but I think it may be the most important,” Stewart says.

This category includes voter mistakes that could be corrected in person, but lead to rejection on absentee ballots. When people “overvote,” selecting too many candidates, scanning machines catch the errors — and HAVA mandates that in-person voters can re-do the ballot.

“If you overvote, there’s a requirement in federal law that the ballot be kicked back to you,” Stewart says about in-person voting. “If you undervote, there’s not a requirement, but many states will kick back the ballot [to voters]. But if you do that and drop your ballot in the mailbox, there’s nobody to kick the ballot back to you.”

One frequent type of overvote happens when voters redundantly add their chosen candidate’s name to the write-in line, Stewart says: “The most common reason for overvotes is people will fill in the bubble for their candidate, and then they’ll go down to the bottom and write in the name of their candidate.”

There are other ways a voter can foul up a ballot as well.

“It could be, if you’re making choices and put your pencil down next to every name, that could be picked up as a vote by the scanners,” Stewart says. “There are things you just don’t think about that could go wrong.”

The geography of lost votes

To conduct the study, Stewart used a variety of data sources, including U.S. Postal Service on-time rates, the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, and the Current Population Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.

One finding of the study is that the percentage of lost mail-in votes is lower in states that lean more heavily on absentee balloting overall. It is 3.5 percent in states that conduct their elections almost completely by mail (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) and in those that keep a permanent absentee ballot list (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, and Utah, plus Washington, D.C.). But the lost votes percentage for mail-in ballots is higher, at 4.4 percent, in states that honor absentee ballot requests with no excuse needed, and it’s 4.9 percent in states that require an excuse for absentee balloting.

That suggests both that voters become more proficient when they have more experience at mail-in voting, and that states may process mail ballots more effectively when it becomes routine for them. Stewart, for one, believes that election officials do an exceptional job overall.

“I’m very sanguine about the integrity of the process, from what I know about election officials,” Stewart says. Still, he acknowledges, absentee voting can be a tricky process, and a significant number of votes may be lost in 2020.

“That’s why we have a lot of voter education going on right now,” Stewart says.



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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Designing off-grid refrigeration technologies for crop storage in Kenya

For smallholder farmers living in hot and arid regions, getting fresh crops to market and selling them at the best price is a balancing act. If crops aren’t sold early enough, they wilt or ripen too quickly in the heat, and farmers have to sell them at reduced prices. Selling produce in the morning is a strategy many farmers use to beat the heat and ensure freshness, but that results in oversupply and competition at markets and further reduces the value of the produce sold. If farmers could chill their harvests — maintaining cool temperatures to keep them fresh for longer — then they could bring high-quality, fresh produce to afternoon markets and sell at better prices. Access to cold storage could also allow growers to harvest more produce before heading to markets, making these trips more efficient and profitable while also expanding consumers’ access to fresh produce.

Unfortunately, many smallholder farming communities lack access to the energy resources needed to support food preservation technologies like refrigeration. To address this challenge, an MIT research team funded by a 2019 seed grant from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) is combining expertise in mechanical engineering, architecture, and energy systems to design affordable off-grid cold storage units for perishable crops. Three MIT principal investigators are leading this effort: Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering in the Department of Architecture; Daniel Frey, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the faculty director for research at MIT D-Lab; and Eric Verploegen, a research engineer at MIT D-Lab. They are also collaborating with researchers at the University of Nairobi to study the impact of several different chamber designs on performance and usability in Kenya. Together, they are looking to develop a cost-effective large-scale cooperative storage facility that uses the evaporative cooling properties of water to keep harvests fresher, longer.

Evaporative cooling

Evaporative cooling involves the energy dynamics of the phase change of water from its liquid state into its gas state. Simply put, when dry air moves across a saturated surface such as a container full of water, the water molecules absorb a large amount of heat as they change from liquid to gas, cooling the surrounding air. Evaporative cooling isn’t a new concept. People have been leveraging this property of water to cool buildings and keep harvests fresh for thousands of years. Today, in many arid regions, people use a double clay pot system to harness the evaporative cooling process to prolong the freshness of fruit and vegetables. Known as a pot-in-pot cooler or Zeer pot, the space between a larger and smaller ceramic pot is filled with sand and kept wet. As water evaporates through the vessel walls, it lowers the temperature of the inner chamber. 

However, while clay pot coolers can be effective for individual household use, they are limited by their storage capacity. Some larger-scale produce storage strategies that use evaporative cooling exist and are in use in Kenya and other countries and arid regions. In fact, Verploegen has focused his research at MIT D-Lab on evaporative cooling technologies since 2016, resulting in the production of several designs currently at the pilot stage.

Yet size still remains a challenge. Few designs exist today that are large enough to effectively store several metric tons of produce and that satisfy important criteria like ease of construction, quality of performance, and affordability, which would meet the storage needs for larger harvests or groups of farmers. Designs exist for solar-powered mechanical refrigeration; however, the costs associated with the energy, implementation, and maintenance of these units is prohibitive to many smallholder farmers around the world. Teaming up with Frey and Gliskman for this J-WAFS-funded effort, the group is aiming to address this lack of access. “For us, the questions became, ‘How can we scale evaporative cooling techniques and improve upon the existing ways that people have been using it for centuries?’” Glicksman reflects. With this in mind, the team set out to find a solution.

Sustainability as a design throughline

Initially the team’s focus was on improving the performance of existing cooling chamber technologies. “We worked with local folks [in Kenya] and built some of the more traditional designs that use charcoal,” says Verploegen. “However, what we found was that these efforts were very labor-intensive, time-consuming, and overall not very replicable.” Building on the ongoing user research performed by teams at the University of Nairobi and MIT D-Lab, the researchers have been exploring different kinds of materials for the structure, and settled on shipping containers as the basis for the chamber. 

As it turns out, the height and width of a shipping container meets the dimension specifications of users’ requirements. Plus, using shipping containers provides the opportunity to up-cycle existing, used materials. “I’m always checking out where used shipping containers are available and checking prices in various countries for our cost model,” Verploegen admits. So, in their current design, they retrofitted a shipping container with a double-layered insulating wall, a solar-powered fan to force air through a central matrix of wet pads, and interior storage crates arranged to maximize convection and cooling rates and ease of use. 

This design is informed by several analytical models that the research team continues to develop. The models evaluate the effect that different evaporative cooling materials, arrangements of produce storage crates, and exterior insulating materials have on the efficiency and functionality of the cooling chamber. These models help maximize cooling capabilities while minimizing water and energy usage, and also inform decisions on material choices.

One such decision was the transition away from wetted charcoal as an evaporative cooling medium. Charcoal is commonly used as a cooling membrane material, but the release of CO2 during the burn-treatment process and subsequent negative environmental effects made it less attractive to the team. Currently, they are experimenting with plant-based aspen fiber and corrugated cellulose pads, which are both a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solution. Lastly, the team has installed a solar-powered electronic control system that allows farmers to automate the chamber’s fan and water pumps, increasing efficiency and minimizing maintenance requirements. 

Collaborating overseas

Critical to the research project’s development is collaboration with researchers at the University of Nairobi (UON) in Kenya. Professor Jane Ambuko, a leading horticulturist at UON in the Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection, is well-versed in post-harvest technologies. In addition to her expert knowledge on crop physiology and the effects of cooling on produce, Ambuko is well-connected within the local Kenyan farming community and has provided the team with critical introductions to local farmers willing to test out the team’s chamber prototypes. Another collaborator, Duncan Mbuge, an agricultural engineer in the UON Department of Environmental and Biosystems Engineering, has been able to provide insight into the design, construction, and materials selection for the cooling chambers.

The project has also involved exchange between MIT D-Lab and UON students, and this collaboration has opened up additional avenues for both institutions to work together. “The exchange of ideas [with MIT] has been mutually beneficial,” says Mbuge, “the net result has been an overall improvement in the technology.” The two professors, along with their research students, have continued monitoring and managing the pilot structure built in Kenya. “Together, with expertise from the MIT team, we complete each other­,” adds Ambuko.

“The researchers at UON have a whole history and institutional knowledge of challenges that previously tried designs have come up against in real-world contexts,” Verploegen says, adding this has been essential to moving the MIT designs from concept to practice. Farmers have also played a major role in shaping the design and implementation of this technology. Following the D-Lab model, the MIT and UON research teams worked together to run a number of interviews and focus groups in farming communities in order to learn directly from users about their needs. The farmers in these communities have important insights into how to design a practical and effective cooling chamber that is suitable for use by farming cooperatives. Given that it will have more than one user, farmers have asked for a crate-stacking arrangement that will allow for easy inventory management. Farmers have pointed out additional benefits of the evaporative cooling chambers. “We have been told that these containers can also provide special protection from rodents,” Frey explains, “that turns out to be a very important for the farmers that we’re working with.”

Potential impacts

Overall, the team’s models indicate that a standard 40-foot-long shipping container outfitted as an evaporative cooler will be able to store between 6,500-8,000 kilograms of produce. The cost of constructing the chamber will likely be $7,000-$8,000, which, compared to mechanically refrigerated options of a similar size, offers over a 50 percent reduction in cost, making this new design very lucrative for farming cooperatives. One of the ways the team is keeping the production costs down is by using local materials and a centralized manufacturing strategy. “We are of the mindset that building a technology of this size and complexity centrally and then distributing it locally is the best way to make it accessible and affordable for these communities,” Verploegen says. 

There are many benefits to making technologies accessible to and replicable by members of specific communities. Collaborative development is a cornerstone of D-Lab’s work, the academics and research program that Verploegen and Frey are a part of. “At D-Lab, we're interested in planting the idea that community involvement is critical in order to adapt technological solutions to people’s needs and to maximize their use of the resulting solution,” says Frey. While an emphasis on co-creation is expected to result in community buy-in for their cooling solution, centralized manufacturing and construction of the containers is an additional strategy aimed at ensuring the accessibility and affordability of the technology for the communities they aim to serve. 

While the current design has been developed for farmers near Nairobi in Kenya, these evaporative cooling devices could be deployed in a host of other regions in Kenya, as well as parts of West Africa and regions of western India such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. Verploegen, who is also leading a related J-WAFS-funded effort on evaporative cooling through the J-WAFS Grant for Water and Food Projects in India, is developing designs for crop storage for farms in western India. He says that “the scale of need is what determines what kind of evaporative cooling technology a community might need.” His work in India is focused on helping to disseminate technologies that are smaller and constructed at the location where they will be used, using brick and sand. He is also “helping to make them more efficient and improving the design to best fit local needs.”

Ultimately, the research team’s goal is to make their evaporative cooling chamber something that local farming communities will consistently use and benefit from. To do this, they have to “come up with not only the MIT solution, but a solution that the people on the ground find is the best for them,” says Glicksman. They hope that this technology will not only help producers economically, but that it will also enable widespread food storage and preservation capabilities, allowing better access for populations to fresh produce.

To read more about this work, visit the project site via J-WAFS.



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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

How many votes will be counted after election night?

This is part 1 of a two-part MIT News series on voting research and the 2020 election.

When you watch election returns on Nov. 3, keep this in mind: In some U.S. states, it will take days to count all the ballots, and the winner might only be clear later, rather than sooner.

Four straight U.S. presidential elections have featured a “blue shift,” in which the post-Election Day ballot count helped the Democratic Party candidate gain ground on the Republican nominee. And the GOP’s Richard Nixon twice enjoyed a “red shift” from post-Election Day vote counting.

A study co-authored by an MIT political scientist quantifies this effect by state, analyzes its causes, and shows why the 2020 election might indeed be decided after Nov. 3.

“It’s one of the reasons people are bracing for a bit of a rocky ride after the polls close,” says Charles Stewart, a professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science and co-author of a paper detailing the study’s results.

As the study shows, a growing share of votes since 1992 have been counted after Election Day; in 2016, it was about 10 percent of all votes. The use of provisional ballots and absentee ballots is the leading driver of this trend. Last time out, Hillary Clinton’s national popular-vote margin increased by 0.30 percentage points due to votes counted after Election Day.

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic seems likely to generate more absentee voting than ever. These factors have led many political commentators to speculate that President Donald Trump, who has been mostly critical of mail-in voting, might verbally claim victory on election night despite an unfinished vote count. This may especially be relevant to Pennsylvania and Michigan, which have little or no advance counting of mail-in ballots.

However, Stewart notes, we do not know what will unfold. Fully 42 states start counting absentee ballots before Election Day, and if voters return mail-in ballots unusually quickly, some absentee vote counts might wrap up routinely. In that case, “There could be more [issues] with Election Day voting than mail voting,” Stewart says.

Additionally, Stewart says, if Democrats are particularly focused on sending in absentee ballots early, “We could have a red shift in 2020 in some of these states, if Democratic ballots [have] already been scanned and preloaded, and if Republican ballots are the last ones, which will get counted on Wednesday or Thursday.”

The paper, “Explaining the Blue Shift in Election Canvassing,” is co-authored by Stewart, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, and Edward Foley, the Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Chair in Constitutional Law, and director of the election law program at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. It appeared this summer in the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy.

Why more votes are counted later …

To conduct the research, Foley and Stewart examined all presidential elections since 1948. First, to gain an overall sense of the size of the post-Election Day vote count, they compared the vote tabulations appearing in The New York Times on the Thursday after every Election Day with the eventual vote totals (using Dave Leip’s Election Atlas as the source for final results).

From 1948 through 1956, the number of votes counted after Election Day was higher than it is now, above 10 percent, which the researchers attribute to the slower forms of communication (and thus vote reporting) of the time. That number generally stayed under 5 percent for a few decades but ticked up in 1992 and again starting in 2004.

Two main factors likely account for this growth: greater use of provisional ballots and more mail-in voting (also known as absentee voting). In the first case, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002, modernized voting equipment and required all states to issue provisional ballots to voters.

Provisional ballots allow people whose registration is challenged at the polls to vote anyway; their ballot is evaluated again after Election Day. Prior to 2002, only half of the states used provisional ballots. In 2016, about 2.5 million provisional ballots were cast; about 1.7 million of those were fully or partially counted, with around 800,000 provisional ballots being rejected.

At the same time, voting by mail has grown in popularity. Using the federal Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) and U.S. Census Bureau data, Foley and Stewart conclude in their paper that “there is a correlation between the number of provisional and mail ballots that must be processed by a state’s election officials and the number of overtime votes” — that is, those counted after Election Day.

“The reforms after the 2000 election routinized some of these dynamics,” Stewart says, while state-level changes “removed [the need for] excuses for voting by mail.”

… and why has the shift been blue?

Still, if an increasing number of votes are counted after Election Day, why has that boosted the Democratic Party candidate? The post-Election Day vote count generated a 0.12 percentage point shift in the national popular vote in favor of John Kerry in 2004, a 0.35 point shift for Barack Obama in 2008, and a 0.39 point shift for Obama in 2012, before Clinton’s 0.30 point gain in 2016.

One explanation, which Foley and Stewart detail in the paper, is that Democrats are more likely to cast provisional ballots. In the Cooperative Congressional Election Study of 2016, they note, 60.1 percent of respondents who said they had cast a provisional ballot identified as Democrats, whereas only 47.8 percent of those who did not cast provisional ballots identified as Democrats.

Digging into state-level data, the scholars find the same pattern. In North Carolina, which has the most extensive public data about provisional ballots of any state, 39 percent of voters casting a provisional ballot in 2016 were Democrats, although just 34.6 percent of the state electorate consisted of Democrats.

But why are Democrats casting more provisional ballots in the first place? One reason, the scholars suggest, is that new voter registrations since 2000 have tended to favor the Democratic Party; many challenges that lead to provisional ballots being cast are due to either new voter registration records that not reflected at the polls, or changes of address.

Stewart suggests another reason, though, which stems from the campaign side of politics.

“Starting in 2008, I think something else happened,” he says. “The Obama campaign recognized the strategic opportunity in some states to lock down the Democratic vote early, so that the election-day get-out-the-vote effort could be more [focused] and less costly. And ever since then Democratic [Party] strategists, more so than Republican [Party] strategists, have looked to mail balloting as a way of getting their votes in.”

Certainly the blue shift has not been constant. Nixon enjoyed a red shift of 0.20 percentage points in 1960, while narrowly losing to John F. Kennedy, and then a smaller red shift while winning in 1968.

Eyes on the Midwest

As Foley and Stewart also detail in the paper, states vary widely in how quickly they process votes. Florida starts counting absentee votes 22 days before the election. Conversely, Pennsylvania and Michigan, key states Trump won narrowly in 2016, have just implemented no-excuses absentee voting — but Pennsylvania will not start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. Michigan will start processing mail-in ballots — taking them out of their envelopes, marking names off the voter list, and more — the day before the election and will feed them into vote-scanning machines on Election Day.

Another factor is whether states count absentee ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive later. In 2016 in Washington, which uses entirely mail-in ballots, 31.3 percent of votes were counted after Election Day. In Oregon, which also is a vote-by-mail state, that figure was just 6.0 percent. Why? Washington allows ballots to be counted if they are received five days after Election Day, while in Oregon, ballots must be received by Election Day.

Those states are not likely to tip the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and historically some of the biggest post-Election Day shifts have not, either. The single biggest shift the researchers found for any state in the 1948-2016 time period was a 6.9 percentage point shift for George Wallace in his home state of Alabama in 1968, but Nixon won the state anyway.

Still, in a few places, a relatively small shift could change the state and national results.

“When you do the math, you’re not talking about big [numbers of] votes,” Stewart says. “It’s going to be outcome-determinative only under a narrow range of conditions. It’s a game of inches.”



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Monday, October 12, 2020

David Autor receives Heinz Award

MIT economist David Autor has been named the recipient of the Heinz 25th Special Recognition Award, as part of the 25th anniversary of the Heinz Awards, in a distinction announced today.

The honor, granted by Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation as part of its set of prominent annual awards, is for Autor’s research on labor, trade, and economic security, “and for transforming our understanding of how globalization and technological change are impacting jobs and earning prospects for American workers,” according to the foundation’s citation.

“I’m honored and flattered to be receiving this award,” Autor told MIT News. “It makes me feel my work has an an impact in the policy space.”

Established in memory of U.S. Senator John Heinz (1938-1991), the Heinz Awards recognize contributors in the categories of Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment. The foundation also bestows special awards, including the one given to Autor.

The Heinz Awards have recognized 151 individuals and granted more than $30 million to the recipients since 1995. Autor will receive an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.

“We honor David for developing methodologies of research that shed new light on the deep and lingering impacts of globalization and technological change on American workers and their communities,” Teresa Heinz, chair of the Heinz Family Foundation, said in a statement released today.

She added: “His findings lay bare the obstacles faced by so many who are seeking economic opportunity and better lives for their families, the need for policies that support these families, and the economic factors, such as educational status, that are contributing to wage inequality. David’s research should be a wake-up call for policy makers to address systemic shortcomings in labor standards and reduce the barriers that place both higher education and opportunities it creates to access good jobs out of reach for so many.”

The foundation also noted Autor’s work as co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, an Institute-wide project examining technology, employment, and labor policy, and specifically cited some of his influential papers about work and social mobility. Autor’s 2020 paper “The Faltering Urban Opportunity Escalator,” the foundation stated, identifies and highlights “the elimination of middle-skill jobs such as clerical and administration positions in large urban areas,” and reveals it to have an especially large impact on people of color.

The foundation’s citation also notes that in his 2016 paper “The China Shock,” co-written with David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, Autor “upends prevailing economic wisdom that the U.S. job market is large enough and flexible enough to absorb and redirect workers displaced by manufacturing job loss.” The study found that Chinese imports were sufficient to replace about 1.53 million U.S. manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, with area employment and wages remaining depressed in affected areas for a decade or more after those jobs were eliminated.

“Senator Heinz was very concerned with the state of working conditions, in Pennsylvania and beyond, especially due to globalization and how it was affecting the blue-collar work force,” says Autor, who is the Ford International Professor in the Department of Economics. “I’m heartened to know my research has helped advance understanding of these issues.”

When it comes to trade, Autor added, “There are real distributional consequences, and the benefits are quite dispersed, but the losses are quite concentrated. Policy needs to wake up to that and stand up to that. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trading, but we should be preparing for the consequences.”

Other MIT faculty who have received a Heinz Award in the last two decades include biomedical engineer Sangeeta Bhatia, in 2015; biomechatronic engineer Hugh Herr, in 2007; physicist Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus, in 2005; and biomedical engineer Robert Langer, in 2003.



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Kofi Blake is bringing people together

It was the middle of his first night at MIT, but Kofi Blake couldn’t sleep. Instead, he was waiting anxiously outside the door to be let into a residential hall called Chocolate City. The current members were having their house meeting, and it was carrying on for much longer than expected. Blake, then a high school senior visiting for an event called Weekend Immersion in Science and Engineering (WISE), could feel his curiosity growing with every minute.

When the doors finally opened, Blake stepped inside to find a room full of students who had been excitedly planning for his arrival. The wait was worth it. The Chocolate City brothers welcomed him with pride, sharing with him their personal experiences and what it meant to be Black at MIT. That was the night when he found his community, recalls Blake, who is now a senior double-majoring in aerospace engineering and physics, with a minor in political science.

“There weren’t that many Black people where I went to high school. I never knew what it was like to go to school around others who looked like me and were into the same type of things,” Blake says. “Now, after four years of living in Chocolate City, I’ve really gotten to see the support that comes from within the brotherhood. They’re why I came to MIT.”

The organization was founded in 1975, at a time when Black men were struggling at MIT. The lack of a support system was leading to students with lower GPAs and higher dropout rates. Today, Chocolate City acts as a living community, providing growth and leadership opportunities for its members.

Throughout his career at MIT, Blake has been focused on uniting the Black community on campus by supporting his fellow brothers academically, socially, and professionally. He began by serving as Chocolate City’s historian his first year due to his love for photography, and is now the senior co-chair of the organization.

This past summer, Chocolate City used its platform to advocate and fundraise for the Black Lives Matter movement. Blake and his brotherhood worked together to raise $2,000 for different social justice organizations. Their call to action inspired other MIT cultural organizations as well, who also raised awareness and money using social media.

Blake has served as the student body president of the Class of 2021 throughout all of his four years at MIT. “It was actually a Chocolate City brother who inspired me to run,” he recalls. “He explained to me how you get to advocate for the class and put on fun events that bring people together. That really got me interested!”

Yet, it wasn’t until the campaigning process that Blake truly began to develop an appreciation for the complexities of the role. Class presidents must connect with peers and work with the MIT administration to plan social events that will engage the entire student population. Along the way, he met with hundreds of students and listened to what they each wanted out of Class Council. By the end of the race, Blake felt he had an even deeper understanding of the importance of diversity.

“The role really makes you appreciate just how many different people there are [in terms of] race, ethnicity, sexuality, background, thought. People will come to the table and they have so much to offer,” Blake says. “You have that realization and then you take it to whatever you’re doing to try and make something that accommodates everyone. It’s been a humbling experience.”

One of Blake’s accomplishments as class president was organizing a field trip to the Six Flags amusement park for over 200 students. The planning process began with building a consensus on how to use the budget, which became a major challenge with so many students involved. Ideas ranged from Marvel movie screenings to inviting Michelle Obama as commencement speaker. “People will ask for some pretty interesting things,” Blake says, laughing.

Eventually, the idea came together, and soon Blake found himself and his classmates on a bus heading out to western Massachusetts. They spent that Saturday jumping between rides and recharging before another challenging semester. Blake remembers the event as one of his favorite experiences at MIT.

“There’s no greater feeling than when you’re with all your classmates and they’re having a great time. The students are really appreciative.” Blake says. Despite the many conflicting suggestions, he had finally found a way to bring people together through the simple joy of having fun.

In addition to representing over 1,100 students on campus, Blake has also worked to encourage more minority students in STEM. Last spring, he collaborated with a team of Boeing engineers to develop aerospace curriculum to teach local high school students.

The classes were taught through MIT’s OEOP SEED Academy and touched on fundamental concepts in aerospace engineering. For many students, Blake’s class was their first introduction to the world of flight. While learning about everything from conservation of momentum to the rocket equation, students could determine whether this was a field that they might want to pursue further.

Blake made it his mission to share his passion for the technical challenges of aerospace engineering alongside words of encouragement. “It’s intimidating to look toward academia and industry and not see yourself represented,” he says. “I wanted to teach the students to never let their identities hold them back. To me, Black excellence is the standard, not the exception.”  

Blake sees himself entering academia after graduation. His current research focuses on improving space propulsion systems. Combining his technical and political science classes, he hopes to one day serve in a position of national space policy leadership. Along with advancing aerospace technology, Blake aspires to make the field more inclusive by serving as a mentor and role model.

“After teaching younger kids, I’ve found that they’re so eager to learn — you just have to put the content in front of them. When we value their input and respect them, there’s nothing they won’t do.”

Blake credits MIT’s Black alumni, many of whom were previously a part of Chocolate City, as his own source of motivation. Their determination to succeed against all boundaries is evidence that the support of a community makes anything possible, he says.

“The more I talk to recent graduates, the more I realize that there’s so many powerful people that slept in the same bed as I have. They struggled with the same classes, the same feelings, but now they’re leaders and scholars,” Blake says.

“I want that to be something that every student like me believes — that we’re going to come together. We’re going to be the ones to break these barriers.”



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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Sheila Widnall: A lifetime exploring the unknown

On Sept. 30, the MIT community came together to celebrate the career of Institute Professor Emerita Sheila Widnall, who recently retired after spending 64 years at MIT. The virtual event featured remarks from MIT leaders, current and former secretaries of the U.S. Air Force, and Widnall’s faculty colleagues from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), who spoke of her impact at MIT and beyond.

MIT was not only a springboard for a hungry young tinkerer who became a remarkable engineer and a visionary leader, both at MIT and on the national stage. Widnall would also become one of the curious few who make MIT their intellectual home for their full adult lives. Her work in fluid dynamics would have major implications in aviation and space flight. She would become the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military when she was secretary of the Air Force in the 1990s. And her leadership in supporting women in the STEM fields, both at MIT and internationally, would blaze trails for six decades.

The call to adventure

It was a small chunk of uranium, a gift from an uncle who worked for a mining company that first brought Widnall face to face with her future. 

It may seem like an odd choice of present for teenager, but in the 1950s when Widnall was in high school in Tacoma, Washington, America was hot for uranium. Hollywood produced two uranium-themed movies: “Uranium Boom” and “Dig That Uranium.” The Atomic Energy Commission was paying between $3,000 and $7,000 a ton for the stuff — half the cost of a new home.

To Widnall, however, the rock had a more practical purpose. An 11th grader at Aquinas Academy, a Catholic girls’ school, she had a science project due: “I used it, along with models of atoms, to explain radioactive decay,” she told a reporter in 2009.

Her project on the degradation of uranium won first prize at the Tacoma Science Fair, and from there it was on to a national competition. She traveled with her science teacher on a two-day, 2,000-mile train trip to Ohio, where Widnall’s life was about to change forever.

Her project impressed a Tacoma civil engineer, Arthur Anderson SM ’35, SCD ’38. As a businessman he’d developed pre-stressed concrete, which could be used to create curved beams, the kind you see in monorails like the ones at Walt Disney World. Anderson thought Widnall had a future in science and told her she should apply to his alma mater, MIT.

“Where’s that?” she asked.

Soon enough, Widnall would discover how the Institute launched the intellectually curious, helping them explore the boundary where the known meets the unknown.

From Tacoma to Cambridge

Widnall attributes the fearlessness with which she faced a career in engineering to her parents, Rolland and Genevieve Evans. At a time when women were only a third of the U.S. labor force, Widnall was unique among her friends in having a mother with a full-time job. Genevieve Evans was a probation officer whose cases sometimes required her to reach back to her earlier professional experience as a social worker. “She worked with families, kids who were accused of violent crimes,” Widnall says with pride. “It was a big deal.”

Her father, Rolland Evans, was an insurance salesman. Later in his life, he went back to school to obtain a master’s degree and teach college-level business. He also taught his daughter self-reliance. “We worked together on various projects, building things. He fixed things and I’d tag along and he’d show me how. I was 20 years old before I realized you could hire people to do work on your house,” Widnall says.

After being accepted to MIT, Widnall arrived on campus in the fall of 1956. Of 6,000 students at that time, just 2 percent were female, including 23 first-years. The women felt isolated, Widnall remembers, forced to live in a rowhouse a mile off campus. While she personally experienced few instances of outright sexism, one episode stood out: “When I came to MIT and was introduced to my freshman advisor, he said “Why are you here?’, Which I took as an insult. I thought, ‘This guy is a jerk.’ But every other advisor was supportive.”

One of these, math professor George Thomas, author of the famous textbook, “Thomas’ Calculus,” brought cookies to sustain her during a test. Another, Holt Ashley, an aeronautical engineering professor known for his patience and humor, first suggested to Widnall that she pursue an advanced degree — and she readily agreed.

By then, Widnall already knew what she would study. “I love airplanes. There was never an issue about what I was going to choose,” she says. Much later in her career, she would read reports suggesting many women entering science and engineering chose fields where they believe they can make the biggest contribution. By her example, it was true. Less than a decade into her career she’d already conducted research that had an impact in aeronautics, one that every air traveler ought to appreciate.

After obtaining her PhD in 1964, Widnall was hired as the first female faculty member in the MIT School of Engineering, where she established her research program with a focus on fluid dynamics. Eventually, she published research that analyzed vortices trailing from the wing tips of aircraft. This work was used to gauge the hazards of wake turbulence. It was no small matter, as some of the largest commercial aircraft were taking to the skies, the Lockheed L10-11, the DC-10 and the jumbo jet that started it all, the 400 plus seat Boeing 747. Turbulence from the wing vortices of these enormous airplanes could and sometimes did upset the flight of airplanes nearby.

But as Widnall’s MIT colleague Dave Darmofal, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, notes, there was a smaller phenomenon in Widnall’s research that had even larger applications for wing, engine and rocket design. “Yes, she made an impact in understanding the wing tip vortex with the obvious aviation application, but the fundamental understanding of the Widnall instability you see in many more situations,” Darmofal says. “With any kind of fluid motion this instability plays a role.”

Widnall also kept an analytical eye on how MIT and other academic institutions could contribute their research expertise to government policy. Transportation was evolving in the seventies. America’s interstate highway system was brand new, but the increasing emphasis on cars had many environmental and social consequences, not all of them positive. Could academia help government think through these issues?

Widnall got the chance to find out when fellow engineering professor Robert Cannon asked her to be the first director of the office of university research for the U.S. Department of Transportation. In the early seventies, Widnall oversaw the distribution of $6.5 million, ($31 million in 2020 dollars) for university research projects from Alaska to Atlanta.

Around this same time, Widnall was thinking about improving outcomes for MIT students who came to the Institute without strong backgrounds in engineering, and who ultimately missed out on careers in this area. She teamed up with MIT physicist and electrical engineer Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus to spearhead a new course for first-year MIT students that introduced avenues for career advancement in various engineering fields. “We had hoped for 15 students per semester, but we got over 100,” Widnall recalled in 2017. “Many MIT women and minority students took the course, and quite a few decided to major in engineering.”

Later, Widnall saw how MIT’s own research provided a way through the persistent gender imbalance in admissions. In the 1980s, as chair of MIT’s admission committee, she proposed a simple solution: accept more of the women who apply to MIT. Her proposal relied on the research of then-engineering professor Art Smith. He had discovered that the Scholastic Aptitude Tests under-predict the actual academic performance of women students — at least as far as the math scores were concerned. The proposal, based on the data, was to add a small percentage to their SAT score. MIT was casting about for ways to increase the number of women while at the same time using an irrelevant barrier.

“People in the administration were saying, ‘We have to do more advertising we have to do more searching” for women students, Widnall says. “And I said, ‘Why are we searching? The women we should admit are the women who have applied.’”

The idea was effective. A year later, she says, “the number of women admitted rose from 26 percent to 38 percent.”

Not satisfied to stop at undergrad admissions, Widnall turned her attention to graduate applicants.

Daniel Hastings, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Education and head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, remembered Widnall’s presence at a meeting of faculty for admissions in the early 1990s. When all the candidates had been considered, the applications sat on the table, divided into stacks of yes, no, and waitlist. Then Widnall summarized the proceedings, noting that all of the women had been waitlisted while they accepted many of the men. 

“Every time there was a question, ‘Is this candidate capable?’ the men were given the benefit of the doubt and the women were not. The women went to the waitlist pile,” says Hastings. “We felt collectively ashamed and we went back to correct that.”

Hasting’s summary was simple. “Wise people are the backbone of this place.”

Leadership on a national stage

Her reputation for wise sensibility was not confined within MIT’s walls. In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton cited Widnall’s scientific acheivements when he nominated her to become secretary of the U.S. Air Force. Prior to the nomination, Widnall had served on several Air Force advisory boards and had served as chair of the Air Force Academy’s Board of Visitors in the 1980s. Accepting Clinton’s nomination, she became the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. military.

While Widnall called it “an incredible experience,” to lead the Air Force, with an $84 billion budget, it was a time of international strife as well as domestic controversies and sexual harassment scandals, all of which were serious business. “Many pressures are brought on the secretary of the Air Force. The person has to make the tough calls and live with the key decisions,” says a successor to Widnall, 23rd Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

When she announced she would return to MIT in 1997, Widnall’s legacy at the Air Force was writ large and small. On the larger side is a program to develop the expendable launch vehicle used for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, which began under her direction. “These vehicles still provide the majority of the launch capability for National Security launches,” she says, adding, “There has never been a launch failure.”

Less obvious, but equally important, was her contribution to defining the character of the Air Force. The branch had no stated core values when Widnall arrived, so she elevated those of the Air Force Academy — “Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do.” — to define all 400,000 airmen and women.

“If you ask any airmen, ‘What are our values?’ my guess is 99 percent would be able to tell you,” says Heather Wilson, who became the 24th Air Force secretary two decades after Widnall broke the glass ceiling. “The best values are those when a leader says, ‘This is who we are.’”

Back to the Tech

Widnall’s return to campus was a thrilling development for MIT’s ROTC students because she volunteered to be their academic advisor.

“It was awesome,” says 1st Lt. John Graham, now an F-16 pilot. Graham found his highly accomplished advisor down-to-Earth, fun-loving, and — most important — a talented instructor.

“What she taught me I wouldn’t have learned in a different astrodynamics class,” Graham says. “She could simplify the complex.”

Meanwhile, Widnall’s service continued on the national level. Most recently she served as co-chair of a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that examined the costs and consequences of sexual harassment in these fields. It was another example of Widnall applying her experience and intellectual energy to improve the environment for female students.

Among other things, the book-length report analyzes the effectiveness of harassment awareness training programs and finds them wanting. The report concludes changing behavior is key, and efforts should be regularly assessed.

“Schools have to create a climate that supports proper behavior,” Widnall says. “They don’t do it by passing rules and regulations; they change the environment.”

To Capt. Jay Pothula ’14, a former ROTC student at MIT, this message was clear: He and all students have a role to play in creating an atmosphere conducive to achievement. “Adhering to the core values is one way we can reduce the incidents of harassment and assault,” says Pothula, now in F-15 pilot training at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Widnall also had a unique approach to testing students, according to Pothula, who took her aerodynamics class.

“Most of the quizzes and learning moments took place in knowledge tests,” he says. “You would go into a room with her and the teaching assistant and you would be given a problem and you would try to solve it in front of them.”

At first, Pothula found the method intimidating but before long his thoughts were flying. “These were great experiences because she would always know the right thing to say to push you ever so slightly in the right direction. She would always get you there. There was a dual purpose, testing your knowledge but you would learn a lot in the experience.”

Widnall did not reserve that kind of thought-prodding for students only. Olivier de Weck, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, joined the faculty of MIT in 2001, occupying an office across the hall from Widnall, who he describes as a friend, colleague, and mentor. He hadn’t been in the job long when Widnall was asked to serve on the board looking into the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which came apart on its return to Earth in February 2003, killing seven astronauts.

Over the course of seven months, Widnall and her fellow investigators examined the physical chain of events as well as the systemic pressures that played a role. De Weck watched in fascination as his colleague participated in writing one of the best-ever analyses of an accident.

“She is able to look under the covers,” he says describing Windall as having “an uncanny ability to peel away layers of complexity and get to the core reason about why things are and why they happen.”

It was de Weck’s habit to stop by Widnall’s office most mornings for a quick conversation or to catch up on MIT news. On occasion, though, de Weck would seek her advice. Widnall would steer the search for a solution right back to him, de Weck says, using her decades of experience to provide relevant context.

“She never tells you what to do, just how to look at the question from a holistic perspective,” de Weck says. “After leaving Sheila’s office, I felt I had a different way to think about the problem.”

When Widnall naively stepped onto the campus of MIT in 1956, she began a journey that would help her live up to the expectations of those who saw her potential in her youth and pushed her to do more. She became a role model for those who came after, inspiring those who benefited from her pioneering efforts for women and for science.

All the while she was becoming what she set out to be at the age of 15, considering that chunk of uranium; a traveler on never-ending journey along the border between the known and the unknown.



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Thursday, October 1, 2020

MIT begins testing wastewater to help detect Covid-19 on campus

This week, MIT began piloting a wastewater testing program as a new tool to help keep the campus community safe this semester. In a project that will run through the fall semester, wastewater from seven buildings on campus will be tested each day for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The project is designed to determine if wastewater testing can be an effective early warning system for Covid-19 outbreaks on campus, and is being evaluated as a complementary tool in the Institute’s response to the pandemic, along with clinical testing, contact tracing, and other measures.

Results of the wastewater testing will be communicated to MIT’s Covid Monitoring Team, a cross-Institute collaboration that looks at health trends on campus and makes recommendations to the Covid Decision Team, which is made up of MIT’s senior leadership, to determine next steps. Buildings will not be quarantined on the basis of the test results, but people in the buildings where the virus is detected may be asked to get tested at MIT Medical sooner than otherwise scheduled. The project team members stress that the sampling data is aggregate and cannot be used to identify individuals.

“We view the wastewater treatment data as a part of [the larger portfolio of data] that goes to the Covid Decision Team that helps make strategic choices about campus operations,” MIT Medical Chief of Staff Brian Schuetz says. “It gives us interesting insight into populations, which is really what we’re focused on. [Responding to Covid-19] is a population health initiative, and this fits into that.”

Wastewater testing offers complementary advantages to clinical testing because it reflects health at the community level, is not limited by clinical testing availability, and sheds light on both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections. The lab of biological engineering Professor Eric Alm, which has been testing municipal wastewater for Covid-19 around the country since March, has shown that at the population level, wastewater data precede clinical observations of Covid-19 by four or more days.

“It makes a lot of sense when you think about the fact that there’s a lag between the time somebody gets sick and starts shedding the virus, and the time when they’re symptomatic enough to seek care and get a clinical test,” says Katya Moniz, a research scientist in the Alm Lab.

Wastewater testing is already being used at a number of colleges across the country. In one case, at the University of Arizona, wastewater testing helped detect an outbreak among asymptomatic individuals and officials were able to take precautionary measures before the virus spread.

At MIT, the following buildings have been selected for sewage testing during the pilot:

·           MIT Sloan School of Management (E62)

·           Random Hall (NW61)

·           Sidney-Pacific (NW86)

·           McCormick Hall (W4)

·           Simmons Hall (W79)

·           Tang Hall (W84)

·           Westgate (W85)

Sampling ports installed on the sewage exit lines of each building will extract a small amount of wastewater from the pipes every two minutes. A subsample of that wastewater will be tested each day by the Alm Lab. The test results will then be sent to MIT’s Covid Monitoring Team.

“The goal of this pilot is to build this infrastructure for a subset of buildings on campus and use that data to decide if this is an effective method of monitoring Covid-19 outbreaks on campus,” says Moniz.

The wastewater-based testing project team has met with the faculty, student, and staff leaders of the buildings where the initiative is being piloted, explaining how wastewater-based testing monitors pathogens and guides interventions. The team members also explained that they will only be testing for Covid, and that detection will be aggregate — it will not identify individuals.

The program, which has been approved by the Legal, Ethical, Equity Committee for MIT Campus Planning, is part of a collaboration between MIT Facilities, the Environment, Health, and Safety Office, Housing and Residential Services, and the Alm Lab.

For more information, contact wb-pilot@mit.edu.



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A champion of renewable energy

It’s an amazing moment when a topic learned in the classroom comes to life. For senior Darya Guettler, that moment came on a sweltering day while installing solar panels in low-income communities in Los Angeles, alongside workers who had been previously incarcerated.

Guettler was volunteering with an MIT Energy Initiative program called Solar Spring Break, which had partnered with Homeboy Industries, an organization that supports formerly incarcerated individuals through career opportunities in green energy. Drilling the panels into the roofs while sweat dripped down her neck, Guettler finally got a chance to see the utility of solar panels in action. When the volunteers switched on the lights, the members of the community got together and celebrated.

“I’ve never done that before, and it was a very unique experience,” Guettler says, recalling the internship. “As students, we’re usually designing the solar panels. Actually installing them and then turning the power on — it’s like all these families now have power for free and can finally run their air conditioning during the day. It made it all feel real.”

Guettler’s fascination with renewable energy began back in high school geography class. Listening to lectures on fuel scarcity, she wondered why renewable energy sources weren’t more widely implemented. Her curiosity encouraged her to research solar panel efficiency and galvanic cell temperature concentrations.

She arrived at MIT with the goal of mitigating climate change through technological innovation, and soon joined the MIT Undergraduate Energy Club, where she says she met inspiring and equally passionate students. Over time, they helped to shape her mindset about what her role could be in helping with the climate crisis. Now the club’s president, Guettler has been working to expand the club’s education outreach programs and encourage kids to get excited about ways they can use engineering to help the planet.

Although Guettler had long understood the need to improve solar technologies, it wasn’t until her Solar Spring Break experience that she made the connection between climate change and the need to involve many different parties in putting together solutions.

“After that, I was kind of hooked on the policy side as well, because I saw that there’s really a space for combining all these things,” she says. “Now all of a sudden it wasn’t just about employing the technology, which I had always been interested in, but also about who was going to be employing it, where it was going to be placed, and how we could make that process as equitable as possible.”

Guettler decided to combine her mechanical engineering major with a degree in political science and has gravitated to classes focused on the intersection of sustainable technologies and climate policy.

“They’re really interesting classes. I’ve got a class about engineering democratic development, one about election modeling, and one in energy storage,” she says. “Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to pick. There’s so many I want to take!”

But of all her classes, one that Guettler is most looking forward to now is her capstone for mechanical engineering, 2.s009 (Explorations in Product Design). The class — which this year challenges students to create social impact projects centered around kindness — begins by placing students into groups and giving them a budget. The groups then design a product and come up with a prototype and a business pitch for it.

“The kindness aspect is pretty much up to the group to decide,” Guettler explains. “It can a project centered around climate change, environmental protection, helping people with disabilities, assisting marginalized communities — I’m super excited to see what people come up with.”

Guttler spent the past summer working in consulting, and in her spare time taught middle and high school students about climate change from her remote cabin in Maine. The classes were taught through MIT Splash, which allows MIT students to teach any topic of their choice to interested younger students.

“It was all online, but it was really fun,” she says. “We just kind of talked about climate models and used this cool tool where you can adjust different policy factors and just see what happens. The kids had so many questions, and I loved getting to build their interest and talk about it with them.”

Talking with people of all ages and backgrounds about ways we can develop a more sustainable future has been a consistent theme throughout Guettler’s experience at MIT. Last year, she visited West Point for the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs, where she spoke with military advisors and generals about the concerns of climate change from a national security perspective.

“I was really interested to see that climate change is also a really big issue to them too, since there’s a lot of bases near coastal waters that will be under threat when sea levels rise,” she says. “There’s definitely been a wide range of people I’ve interacted with about the climate change crisis, but at the end of the day, it’s always the same core concepts. I love hearing people’s different ideas, because more people means more potential solutions, and honestly, at this point, we need any solutions we can get.”

As an elected student to the MIT Committee on Outside Engagements, as well as a founding member of MIT Divest, Guettler hasn’t been shy about the importance of holding political leaders and officials accountable for their decisions.

“I was talking a lot with students to see what they held as important values and what they wanted MIT to represent. Climate action kept on coming up, which led to a bigger discussion of who MIT engages with.”

Her experience so far has been positive overall, and she notes that student representatives have been given a seat on MIT’s Climate Action Advisory Committee, as well as been able to contribute to the MIT Climate Action Plan. The inclusion has allowed students to advocate for ways MIT can take initiative to reduce and offset their energy emissions.

While Guettler recognizes that major institutions have the largest immediate impact on improving the climate crisis, she still wants everyone to recognize the importance of individual actions as well.

“My message to everyone right now is just go and vote, just please go and do that. I’ve been phone banking for different state races right now and people have been hanging up in my face or cursing me out, saying it’s not that serious. I’m like, are you serious?” she laughs. “I honestly think voting right now is the best thing you can do for the climate. Even if you’re feeling overwhelmed, even if you don’t feel like you can make an impact — you have an important decision that you can make. Now just go and vote for it!”



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