Grace Moore ’21, a recent graduate of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), is the first from MIT to receive the prestigious Michel David-Weill Scholarship, which provides funding for graduate study at Sciences Po in Paris, France. The scholarship carries an approximate monetary value of $80,000 and covers the cost of tuition and living expenses. The scholarship’s eponym, Michel David-Weill, is an alumnus of Sciences Po and former chair of Lazard Frère. His foundation created this award to encourage exceptional American students to pursue their graduate education at his alma mater. The university specializes in the social sciences and offers multidisciplinary programs taught in both English and French. Each year, the awards committee selects one American student who exemplifies the core values embodied by Michel David-Weill: academic excellence, leadership, multiculturalism, tolerance, and high achievement. Sciences Po has held a longtime partnership with the Institute through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) MIT-France program. MISTI supported Moore’s candidacy. “MIT was honored to endorse Grace Moore as a candidate for the Michel David-Weill Scholarship,” says Candi Deblay, program manager for MIT-France. “Grace is committed to graduate studies at Sciences Po. She views France as a model for environmental reform at the national level and has demonstrated that she has a clear vision and the necessary expertise to navigate the French environmental and educational systems. We gave our strongest endorsement and look forward to her next steps in France.” Moore graduated in February with a bachelor of science in materials science and engineering (Course 3), recognized with both Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi honors. This fall, she will begin a two-year master’s program in the energy, environment, and sustainability stream of public policy at Sciences Po. With her robust academic foundations at MIT and Sciences Po, she hopes to support decision-makers with a scientific perspective on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, and considerations of politically and economically feasible pollution mitigation strategies. When asked about her motivations and inspirations as she pursued this amazing opportunity, Moore said, “I have a heartfelt belief that international collaboration in environmental policy is an imperative mechanism for addressing our climate crisis.” Moore went on to credit her formative experiences with NEET Advanced Materials Machines track internationally and working on the MIT Climate Action Plan in the Office of the Vice President for Research. Her impressive academic candidacy was bolstered by a wealth of involvement and service across campus. A member of Alpha Phi sorority, the varsity field hockey team, and the alpine ski team, Moore also acted as a first-year advisor and teaching assistant for the Talented Scholars Resource Room (TSR^2), sharing her experience and academic passion with a new generation of MIT students. Moore led the Energy Club by educating and lobbying for more efficient energy grids. She helped bring the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal cleanup and conservation organization, to MIT. She gained valuable experience piloting marine cleanup initiatives and plans to translate these experiences to French groups such as Guppy, helping to clean up the Seine. She also plans to take part in the Sciences Po Environment Club and hopes to organize a microplastics sampling initiative in the waterway to help inform local policy. Moore has been a highly visible part of the DMSE community, active in a multitude of curricular and non-curricular programs and supportive of her classmates. Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, says that Moore “has been a pleasure to have a part of the DMSE community, patiently pushing us to be the best educators and mentors we can be. She leads by example through her calm diplomacy, unparalleled work ethic, ability to balance and excel at a multitude of pursuits, as well as her commitment to being the best whole contributor to society she can be. She will be a force for bringing about effective change and advancement in environmental policy, linking technical pursuits with the broader context in which they function.” Moore’s language studies merged with her scientific interests to advance her academic career, making her the perfect example of MIT’s “new bilinguals,” a group of students heralded by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences for being well-rounded in both humanities and the sciences.Raf Jaramillo, assistant professor of materials, says that “Grace will cut her own path to meaningful impact. She truly stands out in her balance of academic success with personal engagement with the world beyond academia. She is without fail inquisitive, self-aware, and friendly, and she does not suffer fools — a powerful combination! To the folks at Sciences Po, I say: Look out!” More
- in Environment
The most dramatic moments of David McGee’s research occur when he is working with cores of sediment drilled from the Earth that hold clues to our planet’s climate long before there were records created by humans.
“Some of the biggest excitement I have,” says McGee, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), “is when we’re working with sediments that have been taken from 2,000 meters down in the Atlantic Ocean, for example. You’re performing various geochemical measurements on the sediments, you’re using radiocarbon dating to figure how old a core is, and you’re developing records of how the climate has changed over the past thousands of years. You’re able to go basically from mud to a coherent picture of what the atmosphere was doing in the past, what the ocean was doing in the past.”
Imagining the natural world as it was in the distant past, when no people were around to directly observe or write about it, always fascinated McGee. As a child, before it even occurred to him that there was such a thing as an Earth scientist, he was “constantly wondering about what mountains and beaches would have looked like millions of years ago and what they might look like a million years from now.” Recently, while going through the artifacts of his childhood, he found a rock collection and a creative writing project focused on time travel back to the Precambrian Era. He recalls that once when he was set loose in the school library to find a science project topic, he chose a book on ice ages and tried to develop related hypotheses that he could test.
Later, stumbling into a geology class in college, as he describes it, McGee was completely taken in by the idea that Earth science involved a sort of detective work to uncover history out in the natural world, using the tools of modern science, such as geochemistry, computation, and close observation.
“I really fell for it,” he says.
McGee’s focus on studying paleoclimate and the atmosphere’s response to past climate changes satisfies his lifelong curiosity — and it yields important insights into the climate change the planet is currently undergoing.
“A really basic message that comes from the study of paleoclimate is the sensitivity of the Earth’s system,” says McGee. “A few degrees of warming or cooling is a really big deal.”
From the start of his career, McGee has been dedicated to sharing his love of exploration with students. He earned a master’s degree in teaching and spent seven years as a teacher in middle school and high school classrooms before earning his PhD in Earth and environmental sciences from Columbia University. He joined the MIT faculty in 2012 and in 2018 received the Excellence in Mentoring Award from MIT’s Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming office. In 2019, he was granted tenure.
In 2016, McGee became the director of MIT’s Terrascope first-year learning community, where he says he has been able to continue to pursue his interest in how students learn.
“Part of why Terrascope has been so important to me is it’s a place where there is a lot of great thinking about what makes a meaningful educational experience,” he says.
Terrascope, one of four learning communities offered to first-year MIT students, allows them to address real-world sustainability issues in interdisciplinary, student-led teams. The projects the students undertake connect them to related experts and professionals, in part so the students can figure out what blend of areas of expertise — such as technology, policy, economics, and human behaviors — will serve them as they head toward their life’s work.
“Students are often asking themselves, ‘How do I connect what I really like to do, what I’m good at, and what the world actually needs?’” McGee says. “In Terrascope, we try to provide a space for that exploration.”
McGee’s work with Terrascope was, in part, the basis for his September 2020 appointment to the role of associate department head for diversity, equity, and inclusion within EAPS. On the occasion of McGee’s appointment, EAPS department head Rob van der Hilst said, “David has proven he is a dedicated and compassionate leader, able to build a robust community around collaboration, shared purpose, and deep respect for the strengths each member brings.”
McGee says Earth science is often unwelcoming to women, members of racial or ethnic minoritized groups, and people who are LGBTQ+. Improved recruitment and retention policies are needed to diversify the field, he says.
“Earth science is a very white science,” McGee says. “And yet we’re working on problems that affect everyone and disproportionately affect communities of color — things like climate change and natural disasters. It’s really important that the future of Earth science look different than the present in terms of the demographics.”
One of the things McGee takes from his research experience as he approaches students is his observation that being an Earth scientist represents many different approaches and avenues of study — inherently, the field can extend itself to a wide diversity of talent.
“The thing I try to make clear to students is there’s no way to be the expert in every aspect of even one Earth science study,” he says. “With the study of paleoclimate, for instance, there’s field geology, careful analytical chemistry, data analysis, computation, the physics of climate systems. You’re constantly on the edge of your learning and working with people who know more than you about a certain aspect of a study. Students are not coming to Earth science to become a carbon copy of any of us.” More
The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its seventh round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J-WAFS is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet. The seed grant program is J-WAFS’ flagship funding initiative, aimed at catalyzing innovative research across the Institute that solves the challenges facing the world’s water and food systems.
This year, eight new projects will be funded, led by nine faculty principal investigators (PIs) across six MIT departments. The winning projects address challenges that range from climate-resilient crops, food safety technologies and innovations that can remove contaminants from water, research supporting smallholder farmers’ productivity and resilience, and more.
Many of the projects that were selected for funding this year are focused on agriculture and food systems challenges, and these innovations could not be more timely. “Agriculture and food production are responsible for more than 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we could completely shut down fossil fuel emissions today, agricultural emissions would prevent us from meeting the targets of the Paris accords. Simply fixing energy systems will not be enough,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. “It will take researchers working in all sectors and disciplines working together to address these challenges to meet the needs of current and future populations despite the challenges posted by climate change. The innovations that are being developed at MIT, such as those that we selected for funding this year, are truly inspiring and can lead the way toward a food-secure future.”
Water and food systems challenges are inspiring a growing number of faculty across the Institute to pursue solutions-oriented research. Over 190 MIT faculty members from across all five schools at MIT as well as the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing have submitted proposals to J-WAFS’ grant programs since its launch in 2015. In 2021 alone, 37 principal investigators from 17 departments across all five schools proposed to the J-WAFS seed grant program. Competing for funding were established experts in water and food-related research areas as well as professors who are only recently applying their disciplinary expertise to the world’s water and food challenges. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. Additional funded principal investigators are from the Department of Biology in the School of Science, the Sloan School of Management, and the MIT Media Lab in the School of Architecture and Planning.
The eight projects selected for J-WAFS seed grant funding and detailed below will receive $150,000, overhead-free, for two years.
Ensuring climate resilience in agriculture and crop production
Climate change poses a grave risk to water availability and rain-fed agriculture, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. “Impact of Near-term Climate Change on Water Availability and Food Productivity in Africa,” a project led by Elfatih A. B. Eltahir, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, aims to better understand the projected near-term effects of the climate crisis on agricultural production at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Eltahir’s research will focus on integrating regional climate modeling with an analysis of archived observations on rainfall, temperature, and yield. His goal is to better understand how impacts of climate change on crop yields vary at the regional level. His team will work closely with other scientists and the policymakers in Africa who are in charge of planning climate change adaptation in the water and agriculture sectors to support a transition to resilient agriculture planning.
The climate crisis is projected to affect agricultural productivity worldwide. In nature, species adapt to environmental changes through the natural genetic variation that exists within a specific population. However, the time frame for this process is long and cannot meet the urgent need for food crops that are adaptable in a changing climate. With her project, “A New Approach to Enhance Genetic Diversity to Improve Crop Breeding,” Mary Gehring, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, is re-imagining the future of plant breeding beyond current practices that rely on natural variation. Supported by a J-WAFS seed grant, she will develop methods that rapidly produce genetic variations in order to increase the genetic diversity of food crop species. Using pigeon pea, a legume that is widely grown as a food, they will then test these variations against environmental stresses such as heat and drought in order to identify strains that could be more adapted to climate change.
Food loss and waste, which accounted for 32 percent of all food produced in the world in 2009, presents grand societal, economic, and environmental challenges, especially when climate change threatens current and future food supplies. In developing countries where food security is still a great concern, food loss is largely due to lack of adequate refrigeration for post-harvest food. Technologies exist for crop storage that use evaporative cooling, but they are less effective in hot and humid climates. Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has teamed up with Evelyn N. Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to find a solution. With their project, “Hybrid Evaporative and Radiative Cooling as a Passive Low-cost High-performance Solution for Food Shelf-life Extension,” they are developing a low-cost device using an innovative combination of two methods of cooling: evaporative and radiative technologies. Their structure will use solar-reflecting materials and highly porous insulation to double the shelf life of perishable foods in remote and rural settings, without the need for electricity.
Addressing pathogens and pesticide contamination with novel technology
Food-borne illness represents a major source of both human morbidity and economic loss; however, current pathogen detection methods used across the United States are time- and labor-intensive. This means that food contamination is often not detected until it is already in the hands of consumers, requiring costly recalls. While rapid tests have emerged to address this challenge, they are do not have the sensitivity to detect a wide variety of contaminants. Rohit Karnik, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has teamed up with Pratik Shah, a principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, to develop a food safety test that is rapid, sensitive, and easy to use. The device that they are developing with their project, “On-site Analysis of Foodborne Pathogens Using Density-Shift Immunomagnetic Separation and Culture,” will use a novel technology called density-shift immunomagnetic separation (DIMS) to detect a wide variety of pathogens on-site within a matter of hours to enable on-site testing at food processing plants.
Pesticide ingestion by humans poses another health challenge. A class of chemicals called organophosphates (OPs) — commonly used for pesticides — is particularly toxic. Though some OPs have been discontinued, many of these toxic chemicals remain widely available and continue to be used for weed control in agriculture and to reduce mosquito populations. Currently, OP can only be detected in blood or urine after a person has been exposed, and the methods for detection are costly. With her project, “Engineered Microbial Co-Cultures to Detect and Degrade Organophosphates,” Ariel L. Furst, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, is developing a technology to more quickly and effectively detect and remove this chemical. She is engineering specific strains of bacteria to work together to both detect and degrade OPs. These bacteria will be deployed using a single electronic device, which will provide a modular, adaptable strategy to detect and degrade these harmful toxins before they are ingested.
Aquaculture is widely recognized as an efficient system that can enable the production of healthy protein for human consumption with a minimal impact on the environment. With 85 percent of the world’s marine stocks fully exploited, it plays a pivotal role in current and future food production. However, the industry is challenged by the spread of preventable infectious diseases that cripple farmed fish populations and can cause substantial economic losses. Fish vaccines are in use for certain diseases, but effective delivery is challenging and costly, and can lead to adverse effects to the fish. Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is developing a solution. With his project, “Precise Fish Vaccine Injection Using Silk-based Biomaterials for Sustainable Aquaculture,” he is creating a microneedle for fish vaccination that is made of silk. This novel technology will enable controlled drug release in fish and will also naturally degrade in water, which will support the health of fish populations and reduce losses for aquaculture farms.
Improving the resilience of rural populations and smallholder farmers
Regions around the world that don’t have access to safe or abundant supplies of freshwater often rely on small-scale, decentralized groundwater desalination devices that use reverse osmosis. Unfortunately, these systems are extremely energy-intensive, and therefore are both expensive to operate and environmentally unsustainable. Amos G. Winter V, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working on a new design for desalination devices for settings such as these that has the potential to make reverse osmosis water treatment more affordable and better able to be powered by renewable energy. With his project, “A Sliding Vane Energy Recovery Device (ERD) for Photovoltaic-Powered Brackish Water Reverse Osmosis Desalination (PV-BWRO),” Winter and his research team will focus on affordability, energy efficiency, and ease of use in their design to ensure that the resulting technology is accessible to poor and rural communities around the world.
Agricultural supply chains in developing countries are highly fragmented and opaque. Millions of smallholder farmers worldwide are the main producers, and often sell through a complex network of traders and intermediaries. Due to the highly fragmented nature of this system, these farmers persistently struggle with low productivity and high poverty. In an effort to find a solution, many countries have invested in mobile technologies that are intended to improve farmers’ market and information access. However, there remains a disconnect between the data that are collected and distributed via these mobile platforms and their effective use by smallholders. Yanchong Zheng, associate professor of operations management at the Sloan School of Management, aims to fill this gap with her project, “Improving Smallholder Farmers’ Welfare with AI-driven Technologies,” by developing AI-driven market tools that can sift through the data to develop unbiased weather, crop planning, and pricing information. Additionally, she and her research team will develop recommendations based on these data that can more effectively inform farmers’ investments. The team will work in close collaboration with public and private sector organizations on the ground in order to ensure that their solutions are informed by the specific needs of the smallholder farmers that they seek to support.
With the addition of these eight newly funded projects, J-WAFS will have supported 53 seed grant research projects since the program launched in 2014. The J-WAFS seed funding catalyzes new solutions-oriented research at MIT and supports MIT researchers who bring a wide variety of disciplinary tools and knowledge from working in other sectors to apply their expertise to water and food systems challenges. The results of this investment are already evident: to date, J-WAFS’ seed grant PIs have brought in nearly $15 million in follow-on funding, have published numerous papers in internationally recognized journals and publications, obtained patents, and launched spinout companies. Each project yields fresh insights and engages J-WAFS with new partners and thought leaders who drive the development of solutions at and beyond MIT. More
- in Security
It’s no secret that a manufacturer’s ability to maintain and ideally increase production capability is the basis for long-run competitive success. But discovering a way to significantly increase production without buying a single piece of new equipment — that may strike you as a bit more surprising.
Global beer manufacturer Heineken is the second-largest brewer in the world. Founded in 1864, the company owns over 160 breweries in more than 70 countries and sells more than 8.5 million barrels of its beer brands in the United States alone. In addition to its sustained earnings, the company has demonstrated significant social and environmental responsibility, making it a globally admired brand. Now, thanks to a pair of MIT Sloan Executive Education alumni, the the firm has applied data-driven developments and AI augmentation to its operations, helping it solve a considerable production bottleneck that unleashed hidden capacity in the form of millions of cases of beer at its plant in México.
Little’s Law, big payoffs
Federico Crespo, CEO of fast-growing industrial tech company Valiot.io, and Miguel Aguilera, supply chain digital transformation and innovation manager at Heineken México, first met at the MIT Sloan Executive Education program Implementing Industry 4.0: Leading Change in Manufacturing and Operations. During this short course led by John Carrier, senior lecturer in the System Dynamics Group at MIT Sloan, Crespo and Aguilera acquired the tools they needed to spark a significant improvement process at Mexico’s largest brewery.
Ultimately, they would use Valiot’s AI-powered technology to optimize the scheduling process in the presence of unpredictable events, drastically increasing the brewery throughput and improving worker experience. But it all started with a proper diagnosis of the problem using Little’s Law.
Often referred to as the First Law of Operations, Little’s Law is named for John D.C. Little, a professor post tenure at MIT Sloan and an MIT Institute Professor Emeritus. Little proved that the three most important properties of any system — throughput, lead time, and work-in-process — must obey the following simple relationship:
Little’s law formula says work-in-progress is equal to throughput multiplied by lead time.
Little’s Law is particularly useful for detecting and quantifying the presence of bottlenecks and lost throughput in any system. And it is one of the key frameworks taught in Carrier’s Implementing Industry 4.0 course.
Crespo and Aguilera applied Little’s Law and worked backward through the entire production process, examining cycle times to assess wait times and identify the biggest bottlenecks in the brewery.
Specifically, they discovered a significant bottleneck at the filtration stage. As beer moved from maturation and filtration to bright beer tanks (BBT), it was often held up waiting to be routed to the bottling and canning lines, due to various upsets and interruptions throughout the facility as well as real-time demand-based production updates.
This would typically initiate a manual, time-intensive rescheduling process. Operators had to track down handwritten production logs to figure out the current state of the bottling lines and inventory the supply by manually entering the information into a set of spreadsheets stored on a local computer. Each time a line was down, a couple hours were lost.
With the deficiency identified, the facility quickly took action to solve it.
Bottlenecks introduce habits, which evolve into culture
Once bottlenecks have been identified, the next logical step is to remove them. However, this can be particularly challenging, as persistent bottlenecks change the way the people work within the system, becoming part of worker identity and the reward system.
“Culture can act to reject any technological advance, no matter how beneficial this technology may be to the overall system,” says Carrier. “But culture can also provide a powerful mechanism for change and serve as a problem-solving device.”
The best approach to introducing a new technology, advises Carrier, is to find early projects that reduce human struggle, which inevitably leads to overall improvements in productivity, reliability, and safety.
Heineken México’s digital transformation
Working with Federico and his team at Valiot.io, and with full support of Sergio Rodriguez, vice president of manufacturing at Heineken México, Aguilera and the Monterrey brewery team began connecting the enterprise resource plan and in-floor sensors to digitize the brewing process. Valiot’s data monitors assured a complete data quality interaction with the application. Fed by real-time data, machine learning was applied for filtering and the BBT process to optimize the daily-optimized production schedule. As a result, BBT and filtration time were reduced in each cycle. Brewing capacity also increased significantly per month. The return on the investment was clear within the first month of implementation.
The migration to digital has enabled Heineken México to have a real-time visualization of the bottling lines and filtering conditions in each batch. With AI constantly monitoring and learning from ongoing production, the technology automatically optimizes efficiency every step of the way. And, using the real-time visualization tools, human operators in the factory can now make adjustments on the fly without slowing down or stopping production. On top of that, the operators can do their jobs from home effectively, which has had significant benefits given the Covid-19 pandemic.
The key practical aspects
The Valoit team was required to be present on the floor with the operators to decode what they were doing, and the algorithm had to be constantly tested against performance. According to Sergio Rodriguez Garza, vice president supply chain for Heineken México, success was ultimately based on the fact that Valiot’s approach was impacting the profit and loss, not simply counting the number of use cases implemented.
“The people who make the algorithms do not always know where the value in the facility is,” says Garza. “For this reason, it is important to create a bridge between the areas in charge of digitization and the areas in charge of the process. This process is not yet systematic; each plant has a different bottleneck, and each needs its own diagnosis. However, the process of diagnosis is systematic, and each plant manager is responsible for his/her own plant’s diagnosis of the bottleneck.”
“A unique diagnosis is the key,” adds Carrier, “and a quality diagnosis is based on a fundamental understanding of systems thinking.” More
“To do really important research in environmental policy,” said Francesca Dominici, “the first thing we need is data.”
Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, recently presented the Henry W. Kendall Memorial Lecture at MIT. She described how, by leveraging massive amounts of data, Dominici and a consortium of her colleagues across the nation are revealing, on a grand scale, the effects air pollution levels have on human health in the United States. Their efforts are critical for providing a data-driven foundation on which to build environmental regulations and human health policy. “When we use data and evidence to inform policy, we can get very excellent results,” Dominici said.
Overall, air pollution has dropped dramatically nationwide in the past 20 years, thanks to regulations dating back to the Clean Air Act of 1970. “On average, we are all breathing cleaner air,” said Dominici. But the research efforts of Dominici and her colleagues show that even relatively low air pollution levels, like those currently present in much of the country, can fall well within national regulations and still be harmful to health. Moreover, recent patterns of decreasing air pollution have left certain geographic areas worse off than others, and exacerbated environmental injustice in the process. “We are not cleaning the air equally for all of the racial groups,” Dominici said.
Speaking over Zoom to audience members tuning in from around the world, Dominici shared these findings and discussed the underlying methodologies at the 18th Henry W. Kendall Memorial Lecture on April 21. This annual lecture series, which is co-sponsored by the MIT Center for Global Change Science (CGCS) and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), honors the memory of the late MIT professor of physics Henry W. Kendall. Kendall was instrumental in bringing awareness of global environmental threats to the world stage through the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in 1992 and the Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997. The Kendall Lecture spotlights leading global change science by outstanding researchers, according to Ron Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS and director of CGCS.
How Much Evidence Do You Need? 18th Henry W. Kendall Lecture
In the various studies Dominici discussed, she and her colleagues honed in on a specific kind of harmful air pollution called fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. These tiny particles, less than 2.5 microns in width, come from a variety of sources including vehicle emissions and industrial facilities that burn fossil fuel. “Particulate matter can penetrate very deep into the lungs [and] it can get into our blood,” said Dominici, noting that this can lead to systemic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and a compromised immune system.
To analyze how much of a risk PM2.5 poses to human health, Dominici and her colleagues turned to the data — specifically, to large datasets about people and the environment they experience. One dataset provided fine-grained information on the more than 60 million Americans enrolled in Medicare, including not only their health history, but also factors like socioeconomic status and Zip code. Meanwhile, a team led by Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, amassed satellite data on air pollution, weather, land use, and other variables, combined it with air quality data from the EPA’s national network, and created a model that provides daily levels of PM2.5 for every square kilometer in the continental United States over the last 20 years. “In this way we could assign, to every single person enrolled in the Medicare system, their daily exposure to PM2.5,” said Dominici.
Combining and analyzing these datasets provided a holistic look at how PM2.5 affects the population enrolled in Medicare, and yielded several important findings. Based on the current national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for PM2.5, levels below 12 micrograms per cubic meter are considered “safe.” However, Dominici’s team pointed out that even levels below that standard are associated with a higher risk of death. They further showed that making air quality regulations more stringent by lowering the standard to 10 micrograms per cubic meter would save an estimated 140,000 lives over the course of a decade.
The scope of the datasets enabled Dominici and her colleagues to use not only traditional statistical approaches, but also a method called matching. They compared pairs of individuals who had the same occupations, health conditions, and racial and socioeconomic profiles, but who differed in terms of PM2.5 exposure. In this way, the researchers could eliminate potential confounding factors and lend further support to their findings.
Their research also illuminated issues of environmental injustice. “We started to see some drastic environmental differences in risk across socioeconomic and racial groups,” said Dominici. Black Americans have a risk of death from exposure to PM2.5 that is three times higher than the national average. Asian and Hispanic populations, as well as people with low socioeconomic status, are also more at risk than the national population as a whole.
One factor behind these discrepancies is that air pollution has been decreasing at different rates in different parts of the country over the past 20 years. In 2000, nearly the entire eastern half of the United States had relatively high levels of PM2.5 at 8 micrograms per cubic meter or higher. In 2016, those pollution levels had dropped dramatically across much of the map, but remained high in areas with the highest proportions of Black residents. “Racial inequalities in air pollution exposure are actually increasing over time,” said Dominici. She noted that one thing to consider is whether future regulations can tackle such inequities while also lowering air pollution for the entire nation on average.
Issues of both air pollution and environmental injustice have been thrown into stark relief during the Covid-19 pandemic. An early study on Covid-19 and air pollution led by Dominici showed that long-term exposure to higher levels of air pollution increased the risk of dying from Covid-19, and that areas with more Black Americans are even more at risk. Additional research showed that during last year’s wildfire season in California, up to 50 percent of Covid-19 deaths in some areas were attributable to the spikes in PM2.5 that result from wildfires.
Due to a lack of data on individual Covid-19 patients, some of these analyses were based on county-level data, which Dominici noted was a major limitation. “Fortunately, in some geographical areas, we’ve started getting access to individual-level records,” said Dominici. Access to more and better data has sparked additional research around the world on the link between air pollution and Covid-19. Dominici was also part of an international collaboration that estimated, for example, that 13 percent of Covid-19 deaths in Europe were attributable to fossil-fuel related emissions.
For Dominici, “a data scientist at heart,” findings like these highlight the role of data science in influencing critical environmental policy decisions. “Our all being devastated by this pandemic could provide an additional source of evidence of the importance of controlling fossil-fuel related emission.” More
The year 2020 was undoubtedly a challenge for everyone. The pandemic generated vast negative impacts on the world on a physical, psychological, and emotional level: mobility was restricted; socialization was limited; economic and industrial progress were put on hold. Many industries and small independent business have suffered, and academia and research have also experienced many difficulties. The education of future generations may have transitioned online, but it limited in-person learning experiences and social growth.
On the collegiate level, first-year students were barred from anticipated campus learning and research, while seniors faced tremendous anxiety over the lack of face-to-face consultations and the uncertainty of their graduation. To meet the increasing desire to reconnect, the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node took on a new role: to expand the MIT Global Classroom initiative and breach the boundaries of learning via the collaboration of colleagues, students, and alumni across the globe.
Since its founding in 2016, the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node has focused on cultivating the innovative and entrepreneurial capabilities of MIT students and Hong Kong university students. The collaboration with MIT alumni and students has contributed to the establishment of numerous landing programs around the globe. This accomplishment is best demonstrated by the success of the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI) and the MIT Entrepreneurship and FinTech Integrator (MEFTI).
In 2020, the node executed the Kowloon East Inclusive Innovation and Growth Project, which carried out smart city activities that would boost inclusion, innovation, and growth for the Hong Kong communities. The exchange of ideas between MIT students, faculty, researchers, and alumni, in collaboration with the rest of the Hong Kong community, revealed opportunities beyond Kowloon East in the neighboring cities in Pearl River Delta region. Some of these opportunities involved the production of internships and public engagement opportunities.
“Hacking” Kowloon East: activating technology for urban life
The MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node welcomed 2021 with an Independent Activities Period virtual site visit to Hong Kong in collaboration with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The two-week “hacking” series offered by Associate Professor Brent Ryan, head of the City Design and Development Group, altered the concept of smart cities by exploring how the current initiative in Kowloon East can be better leveraged by emerging digital technologies to connect residents to each other and enhance economic opportunities.
As a paradigm of high-density urbanism and the center of a wide variety of global and local challenges, Hong Kong provides an opportunity to rethink how physical spaces can be integrated with digital technologies for better synergy. “Hacking” series participants took advantage of this fact. Equal numbers of undergraduate student ambassadors were recruited from local universities, and paired with MIT students and Hong Kong-MIT graduate students who were based in Boston. Some of the project ideas focused on how to retail revitalization, how to promote health care and environment, and how to establish an overall human-centered urban design.
“Although I couldn’t travel physically, special lectures from the domain experts and the student pairing system with HK student ambassadors helped me discover a specific problem I wanted to tackle,” says Younjae Oh, a second-year student of the master of science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT. She went on to state that the series “inspired creativity within the team and led us to make more insightful, considered decisions upon cultural awareness. What I have found valuable in this workshop is the extremity of engagement with the cross-cultural team.”
This blend of “Hacking” contributors collaborated in an open-ended structure where they proposed and developed reality-based projects to promote “smart, equitable urbanism” in the Kowloon East (Kwun Tong) neighborhood of Hong Kong. Queenie Kwan Li, a first-year master’s student in the science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT, describes aspects of the program, mentioning, “Direct consultations with local and international domain experts lined up by the MIT Innovation Node immensely deepened my understanding of my home city’s development.” She adds, “It also gifted me a unique opportunity to relate my ongoing training at MIT for a potential impact in Hong Kong.”
Despite its progress in innovation, entrepreneurship, and smart city restructuring in this collaboration with the node, the pandemic highlighted an ongoing challenge of how the School of Architecture and Planning can offer a hybrid learning experience for a professional audience with mentorships and apprenticeships.
Architecture and urban design training emphasize the design studio culture of collective learning, which is vastly different from solo learning at home. This learning usually begins with a physical site visit: surveys, interviews, meeting and interacting with locals to obtain firsthand engagement experience. Under the experimentation of a hybrid format, the teaching team has to curate and piece fragments together to imitate refreshing local perspectives through tailored exercises using online interactions and team collaborations.
Although traveling experiences are always the best and most-direct ways to understand the benefits and deficits of an area, to appreciate the culture and customs, and to pinpoint challenges the locals face, it is easy to forget that people are the core, the identity of a place, when learning solely online. To make up for that deficit, the “Hacking” series invited the physical attendance of local and international members of the MIT alumni community with relevant domain expertise.
Sean Kwok ’01 says, “MIT graduates spanning five decades volunteered to teach and guide current students. In return, this workshop gave us, former MIT students, the rare opportunity to participate in the MIT academic life again, learn from our colleagues, and give back to the school at the same time.”
Some of the domain expertise included those with backgrounds in architecture, urban design and planning, real estate, mobility and transportation, public housing, workforce development, city science and urban analytics, art administration, and engineering. In fact, a total of 23 domain experts, local stakeholders, and eight mentors from various disciplines were physically involved in the program at the node’s headquarters in Hong Kong.
Throughout the series, they shared their knowledge and experiences in a hybridized format so that non-Hong Kong-based members could also participate. Joel Austin Cunningham, a first-year master’s student in the science in architecture studies (design) program at MIT, commends the “Hacking” series, stressing that it “addressed the unprecedented constraints of the coronavirus with an innovative educational solution … As architecture and urban planning students, we rely heavily upon active engagements with a project’s site, something which has been significantly constrained this academic year. The IAP workshop responded to this issue, through a multi-institutional collaboration which compensated for our inability to travel through active engagements with an array of local stakeholders and collaborators based in the city.”
Learning is a feedback loop — part of it is learned from the reconstruction of a previous experience, and part of it is constructed by us as we develop the learning experience together and assimilate new information, insights, and ideas from one another. As part of such interconnectedness, a human-centric approach, communication skills, cultural and moral values involve the inclusive diversity and empathy of everyone. More
Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist whose work explaining the Antarctic ozone hole informed international policy, has received the 2020-2021 James R. Killian, Jr. Faculty Achievement Award. The highest such honor at the Institute, the award was established in 1971 to honor Killian, who served as MIT’s 10th president from 1948 to 1959, and chair of the MIT Corporation from 1959 to 1971.
As this year’s recipient, Solomon on April 14 delivered a one-hour lecture in which she touched on her path to MIT, her time in Antarctica, her work on ozone depletion, and her insights on the state of climate policy.
Solomon is the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. She arrived at MIT in 2012, following 30 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though both an Antarctic glacier and a snow saddle bear her name, at the lecture, Solomon described the Killian award as “the most wonderful honor that anyone could get.”
Solomon “is the embodiment of MIT’s motto ‘mens et manus’ or ‘mind and hand,’ and of our mission to generate, disseminate, and preserve knowledge, and to work with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges,” said Rick Danheiser, the Arthur C. Cope Professor of Chemistry and current chair of the faculty, who introduced Solomon.
Solomon had an affinity for science and the beauty of the natural world long before she was exploring the Antarctic alongside penguins. Growing up, Solomon would travel every year with her family from their home in Chicago to Indiana Dunes National Park. Around age 10, she was inspired by the wonderful adventures of French explorer and scientist Jacques Cousteau on TV. Solomon decided to pursue a career in science, and soon discovered an interest in chemistry.
“At some point, I found out that there was really such a thing as chemistry in a planet’s atmosphere — not in a test tube,” she said. “And I was absolutely fascinated by that.”
In 1974, scientists at the University of California at Irvine identified that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — compounds which were becoming increasingly popular for use in canned hairsprays, deodorants, and cleaning supplies, as well as refrigeration and cooling systems — had devastating effects on Earth’s ozone. Even worse, once the compounds were released, they couldn’t be destroyed. Rather, they were destined to remain in the atmosphere for 40 to 150 years.
Ozone is a gas made of three oxygen atoms, and much of it can be found in the stratosphere. The stratosphere is the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, located between 9 and 50 miles above the Earth. CFCs were depleting the layer of ozone located there, which helps to filter out ultraviolet radiation that can be toxic to living beings. Without ozone, life wouldn’t exist on Earth. And with reduced levels of ozone, there could be increases in skin cancer and cataracts.
In 1985, scientists discovered a large, shocking “hole” in the Antarctic ozone layer.
“I was very, very fortunate to be working with Rolando Garcia at [National Center for Atmospheric Research] at the time that the ozone hole was discovered,” Solomon said. “We began to think about what might be causing it, and what we came up with, basically, was this chemical process which turned out to be the right answer.”
Between 1985 and 1987, scientists from around the world independently studied ozone levels to verify the scope of the problem. In 1986, Solomon first set foot in Antarctica as part of the National Ozone Expedition.
What followed these scientific investigations was a triumph of international climate policy: the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 document signed by all members of the United Nations. The document was designed to limit CFC emissions and to restore the ozone layer. “It’s the only treaty that has that level of participation,” Solomon said.
Solomon said that swift action on the issue came down to the three “p’s”: The ozone issue was personal, perceptible, and practical. Risks posed by CFCs were personal because they could spike cancer and cataract risk; perceptible because many nations were monitoring ozone levels and noticed the change; and practical because replacements were discovered.
“I think when we think about almost any environmental problem, we can apply that rubric, and it will help us to understand what’s going on,” Solomon said, identifying smog and lead as examples. She is currently working on a book about the three p’s.
Solomon went on to receive the United States National Medal of Science in 1999, the nation’s highest scientific honor. In 2007, she and her colleagues on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. This January, she was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in service to society.
AT MIT, Solomon is not only faculty in two departments, but also the founding director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, an Institute-wide coalition of experts working to address the serious challenges posed by climate change.
“It’s amazing at MIT how everyone you meet is very, very good at what they do,” Solomon said. “It’s an astonishing place. I want to thank the EAPS and chemistry faculties for making me feel so welcome. I can’t imagine a better place to live, do research, and teach.” More
MIT scientists have found that ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, stay in the atmosphere for a shorter amount of time than previously estimated. Their study suggests that CFCs, which were globally phased out in 2010, should be circulating at much lower concentrations than what has recently been measured.
The new results, published today in Nature Communications, imply that new, illegal production of CFCs has likely occurred in recent years. Specifically, the analysis points to new emissions of CFC-11, CFC-12, and CFC-113. These emissions would be in violation of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty designed to phase out the production and consumption of CFCs and other ozone-damaging chemicals.
The current study’s estimates of new global CFC-11 emissions is higher than what previous studies report. This is also the first study to quantify new global emissions of CFC-12 and CFC-113.
“We find total emissions coming from new production is on the order of 20 gigagrams a year for each of these molecules,” says lead author Megan Lickley, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “This is higher than what previous scientists suggested for CFC-11, and also identifies likely new emissions of CFC-12 and 113, which previously had been overlooked. Because CFCs are such potent greenhouse gases and destroy the ozone layer, this work has important implications for the health of our planet.”
The study’s co-authors include Sarah Fletcher at Stanford University, Matt Rigby at the University of Bristol, and Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
Banking on lifetimes
Prior to their global phaseout, CFCs were widely used in the manufacturing of refrigerants, aerosol sprays, chemical solvents, and building insulation. When they are emitted into the atmosphere, the chemicals can loft to the stratosphere, where they interact with ultraviolet light to release chlorine atoms, the potent agents that erode the Earth’s protective ozone.
Today, CFCs are mostly emitted by “banks” — old refrigerators, air conditioners, and insulation that were manufactured before the chemical ban and have since been slowly leaking CFCs into the atmosphere. In a study published last year, Lickley and her colleagues calculated the amount of CFCs still remaining in banks today.
They did so by developing a model that analyzes industry production of CFCs over time, and how quickly various equipment types release CFCs over time, to estimate the amount of CFCs stored in banks. They then incorporated current recommended values for the chemicals’ lifetimes to calculate the concentrations of bank-derived CFCs that should be in the atmosphere over time. Subtracting these bank emissions from total global emissions should yield any unexpected, illegal CFC production. In their new paper, the researchers looked to improve the estimates of CFC lifetimes.
“Current best estimates of atmospheric lifetimes have large uncertainties,” Lickley says. “This implies that global emissions also have large uncertainties. To refine our estimates of global emissions, we need a better estimate of atmospheric lifetimes.”
Rather than consider the lifetimes and emissions of each gas separately, as most models do, the team looked at CFC-11, 12, and 113 together, in order to account for similar atmospheric processes that influence their lifetimes (such as winds). These processes have been modeled by seven different chemistry-climate models, each of which provides an estimate of the gas’ atmospheric lifetime over time.
“We begin by assuming the models are all equally likely,” Lickley says. “Then we update how likely each of these models are, based on how well they match observations of CFC concentrations taken from 1979 to 2016.”
After including these chemistry-climate modeled lifetimes into a Bayesian simulation model of production and emissions, the team was able to reduce the uncertainty in their lifetime estimates. They calculated the lifetimes for CFC-11, 12, and 113 to be 49 years, 85 years, and 80 years, respectively, compared with current best values of 52, 100, and 85 years.
“Because our estimates are shorter than current best-recommended values, this implies emissions are likely higher than what best estimates have been,” Lickley says.
To test this idea, the team looked at how the shorter CFC lifetimes would affect estimates of unexpected emissions, particularly between 2014 and 2016. During this period, researchers previously identified a spike in CFC-11 emissions and subsequently traced half of these emissions to eastern China. Scientists have since observed an emissions decrease from this region, indicating that any illegal production there has stopped, though the source of the remaining unexpected emissions is still unknown.
When Lickley and her colleagues updated their estimates of CFC bank emissions and compared them with total global emissions for this three-year period, they found evidence for new, unexpected emissions on the order of 20 gigagrams, or 20 billion grams, for each chemical.
The results suggest that during this period, there was new, illegal production of CFC-11 that was higher than previous estimates, in addition to new production of CFC-12 and 113, which had not been seen before. Together, Lickley estimates that these new CFC emissions are equivalent to the total yearly greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the United Kingdom.
It’s not entirely surprising to find unexpected emissions of CFC-12, as the chemical is often co-produced in manufacturing processes that emit CFC-11. For CFC-113, the chemical’s use is permitted under the Montreal Protocol as a feedstock to make other chemicals. But the team calculates that unexpected emissions of CFC-113 are about 10 times higher than what the treaty currently allows.
“With all three gases, emissions are much lower than what they were at their peak,” Lickley says. “But they’re very potent greenhouse gases. Pound for pound, they’re five to 10,000 times more of a global warming chemical than carbon dioxide. And we’re currently facing a climate crisis where every source of emission that we can reduce will have a lasting impact on the climate system. By targeting these CFCs, we would essentially be reducing some contribution to climate change.”
This research was supported in part by VoLo Foundation. More