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    High-energy and hungry for the hardest problems

    A high school track star and valedictorian, Anne White has always relished moving fast and clearing high hurdles. Since joining the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2009 she has produced path-breaking fusion research, helped attract a more diverse cohort of students and scholars into the discipline, and, during a worldwide pandemic, assumed the role of department head as well as co-lead of an Institute-wide initiative to address climate change. For her exceptional leadership, innovation, and accomplishments in education and research, White was named the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering in July 2020.

    But White declares little interest in recognition or promotions. “I don’t care about all that stuff,” she says. She’s in the race for much bigger stakes. “I want to find ways to save the world with nuclear,” she says.

    Tackling turbulence

    It was this goal that drew White to MIT. Her research, honed during graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, involved developing a detailed understanding of conditions inside fusion devices, and resolving issues critical to realizing the vision of fusion energy — a carbon-free, nearly limitless source of power generated by 150-million-degree plasma.

    Harnessing this superheated, gaseous form of matter requires a special donut-shaped device called a tokamak, which contains the plasma within magnetic fields. When White entered fusion around the turn of the millennium, models of plasma behavior in tokamaks didn’t reliably match observed or experimental conditions. She was determined to change that picture, working with MIT’s state-of-the-art research tokamak, Alcator C-Mod.

    Play video

    Alcator C-Mod Tokamak Tour

    White believed solving the fusion puzzle meant getting a handle on plasma turbulence — the process by which charged atomic particles, breaking out of magnetic confinement, transport heat from the core to the cool edges of the tokamak. Although researchers knew that fusion energy depends on containing and controlling the heat of plasma reactions, White recalls that when she began grad school, “it was not widely accepted that turbulence was important, and that it was central to heat transport. She “felt it was critical to compare experimental measurements to first principles physics models, so we could demonstrate the significance of turbulence and give tokamak models better predictive ability.”

    In a series of groundbreaking studies, White’s team created the tools for measuring turbulence in different conditions, and developed computational models that could account for variations in turbulence, all validated by experiments. She was one of the first fusion scientists both to perform experiments and conduct simulations. “We lived in the domain between these two worlds,” she says.

    White’s turbulence models opened up approaches for managing turbulence and maximizing tokamak performance, paving the way for net-energy fusion energy devices, including ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, and SPARC, a compact, high-magnetic-field tokamak, a collaboration between MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

    Laser-focused on turbulence

    Growing up in the desert city of Yuma, Arizona, White spent her free time outdoors, hiking and camping. “I was always in the space of protecting the environment,” she says. The daughter of two lawyers who taught her “to argue quickly and efficiently,” she excelled in math and physics in high school. Awarded a full ride at the University of Arizona, she was intent on a path in science, one where she could tackle problems like global warming, as it was known then. Physics seemed like the natural concentration for her.

    But there was unexpected pushback. The physics advisor believed her physics grades were lackluster. “I said, ‘Who cares what this guy thinks; I’ll take physics classes anyway,’” recalls White. Being tenacious and “thick skinned,” says White, turned out to be life-altering. “I took nuclear physics, which opened my eyes to fission, which then set me off on a path of understanding nuclear power and advanced nuclear systems,” she says. Math classes introduced her to chaotic systems, and she decided she wanted to study turbulence. Then, at a Society of Physics Students meeting White says she attended for the free food, she learned about fusion.

    “I realized this was what I wanted to do,” says White. “I became totally laser focused on turbulence and tokamaks.”

    At UCLA, she began to develop instruments and methods for measuring and modeling plasma turbulence, working on three different fusion research reactors, and earning fellowships from the Department of Energy (DOE) during her graduate and post-graduate years in fusion energy science. At MIT, she received a DOE Early Career Award that enabled her to build a research team that she now considers her “legacy.”

    As she expanded her research portfolio, White was also intent on incorporating fusion into the NSE curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate level, and more broadly, on making NSE a destination for students concerned about climate change. In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2014 Junior Bose Teaching Award. She also helped design the EdX course, Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society, introducing thousands of online learners to the potential of the field. “I have to be in the classroom,” she says. “I have to be with students, interacting, and sharing knowledge and lines of inquiry with them.”

    But even as she deepened her engagement with teaching and with her fusion research, which was helping spur development of new fusion energy technologies, White could not resist leaping into a consequential new undertaking: chairing the department. “It sounds cheesy, but I did it for my kid,” she says. “I can be helpful working on fusion, but I thought, what if I can help more by enabling other people across all areas of nuclear? This department gave me so much, I wanted to give back.”

    Although the pandemic struck just months after she stepped into the role in 2019, White propelled the department toward a new strategic plan. “It captures all the urgency and passion of the faculty, and is attractive to new students, with more undergraduates enrolling and more graduate students applying,” she says. White sees the department advancing the broader goals of the field, “articulating why nuclear is fundamentally important across many dimensions for carbon-free electricity and generation.” This means getting students involved in advanced fission technologies such as nuclear batteries and small modular reactors, as well as giving them an education in fusion that will help catalyze a nascent energy industry.

    Restless for a challenge

    White feels she’s still growing into the leadership role. “I’m really enthusiastic and sometimes too intense for people, so I have to dial it back during challenging conversations,” she says. She recently completed a Harvard Business School course on leadership.

    As the recently named co-chair of MIT’s Climate Nucleus (along with Professor Noelle Selin), charged with overseeing MIT’s campus initiatives around climate change, White says she draws on a repertoire of skills that come naturally to her: listening carefully, building consensus, and seeing value in the diversity of opinion. She is optimistic about mobilizing the Institute around goals to lower MIT’s carbon footprint, “using the entire campus as a research lab,” she says.

    In the midst of this push, White continues to advance projects of concern to her, such as making nuclear physics education more accessible. She developed an in-class module involving a simple particle detector for measuring background radiation. “Any high school or university student could build this experiment in 10 minutes and see alpha particle clusters and muons,” she says.

    White is also planning to host “Rising Stars,” an international conference intended to help underrepresented groups break barriers to entry in the field of nuclear science and engineering. “Grand intellectual challenges like saving the world appeal to all genders and backgrounds,” she says.

    These projects, her departmental and institutional duties, and most recently a new job chairing DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee leave her precious little time for a life outside work. But she makes time for walks and backpacking with her husband and toddler son, and reading the latest books by female faculty colleagues, such as “The New Breed,” by Media Lab robotics researcher Kate Darling, and “When People Want Punishment,” by Lily Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science. “There are so many things I don’t know and want to understand,” says White.

    Yet even at leisure, White doesn’t slow down. “It’s restlessness: I love to learn, and anytime someone says a problem is hard, or impossible, I want to tackle it,” she says. There’s no time off, she believes, when the goal is “solving climate change and amplifying the work of other people trying to solve it.” More

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    Using seismology for groundwater management

    As climate change increases the number of extreme weather events, such as megadroughts, groundwater management is key for sustaining water supply. But current groundwater monitoring tools are either costly or insufficient for deeper aquifers, limiting our ability to monitor and practice sustainable management in populated areas.

    Now, a new paper published in Nature Communications bridges seismology and hydrology with a pilot application that uses seismometers as a cost-effective way to monitor and map groundwater fluctuations.

    “Our measurements are independent from and complementary to traditional observations,” says Shujuan Mao PhD ’21, lead author on the paper. “It provides a new way to dictate groundwater management and evaluate the impact of human activity on shaping underground hydrologic systems.”

    Mao, currently a Thompson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Geophysics department at Stanford University, conducted most of the research during her PhD in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Other contributors to the paper include EAPS department chair and Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Robert van der Hilst, as well as Michel Campillo and Albanne Lecointre from the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in France.

    While there are a few different methods currently used for measuring groundwater, they all come with notable drawbacks. Hydraulic heads, which drill through the ground and into the aquifers, are expensive and can only give limited information at the specific location they’re placed. Noninvasive techniques based on satellite- or airborne-sensing lack the sensitivity and resolution needed to observe deeper depths.

    Mao proposes using seismometers, which are instruments used to measure ground vibrations such as the waves produced by earthquakes. They can measure seismic velocity, which is the propagation speed of seismic waves. Seismic velocity measurements are unique to the mechanical state of rocks, or the ways rocks respond to their physical environment, and can tell us a lot about them.

    The idea of using seismic velocity to characterize property changes in rocks has long been used in laboratory-scale analysis, but only recently have scientists been able to measure it continuously in realistic-scale geological settings. For aquifer monitoring, Mao and her team associate the seismic velocity with the hydraulic property, or the water content, in the rocks.

    Seismic velocity measurements make use of ambient seismic fields, or background noise, recorded by seismometers. “The Earth’s surface is always vibrating, whether due to ocean waves, winds, or human activities,” she explains. “Most of the time those vibrations are really small and are considered ‘noise’ by traditional seismologists. But in recent years scientists have shown that the continuous noise records in fact contain a wealth of information about the properties and structures of the Earth’s interior.”

    To extract useful information from the noise records, Mao and her team used a technique called seismic interferometry, which analyzes wave interference to calculate the seismic velocity of the medium the waves pass through. For their pilot application, Mao and her team applied this analysis to basins in the Metropolitan Los Angeles region, an area suffering from worsening drought and a growing population.

    By doing this, Mao and her team were able to see how the aquifers changed physically over time at a high resolution. Their seismic velocity measurements verified measurements taken by hydraulic heads over the last 20 years, and the images matched very well with satellite data. They could also see differences in how the storage areas changed between counties in the area that used different water pumping practices, which is important for developing water management protocol.

    Mao also calls using the seismometers a “buy-one get-one free” deal, since seismometers are already in use for earthquake and tectonic studies not just across California, but worldwide, and could help “avoid the expensive cost of drilling and maintaining dedicated groundwater monitoring wells,” she says.

    Mao emphasizes that this study is just the beginning of exploring possible applications of seismic noise interferometry in this way. It can be used to monitor other near-surface systems, such as geothermal or volcanic systems, and Mao is currently applying it to oil and gas fields. But in places like California currently experiencing megadroughts, and who rely on groundwater for a large portion of their water needs, this kind of information is key for sustainable water management.

    “It’s really important, especially now, to characterize these changes in groundwater storage so that we can promote data-informed policymaking to help them thrive under increasing water stress,” she says.

    This study was funded, in part, by the European Research Council, with additional support from the Thompson Fellowship at Stanford University. More

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    From bridges to DNA: civil engineering across disciplines

    How is DNA like a bridge? This question is not a riddle or logic game, it is a concern of Johannes Kalliauer’s doctoral thesis.

    As a student at TU Wien in Austria, Kalliauer was faced with a monumental task: combining approaches from civil engineering and theoretical physics to better understand the forces that act on DNA.

    Kalliauer, now a postdoc at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, says he modeled DNA as though it were a beam, using molecular dynamics principles to understand its structural properties.

    “The mechanics of very small objects, like DNA helices, and large ones, like bridges, are quite similar. Each may be understood in terms of Newtonian mechanics. Forces and moments act on each system, subjecting each to deformations like twisting, stretching, and warping,” says Kalliauer.

    As a 2020 article from TU Wien noted, Kalliauer observed a counterintuitive behavior when examining DNA at an atomic level. Unlike a typical spring which becomes less coiled as it is stretched, DNA was observed to become more wound as its length was increased. 

    In situations like these where conventional logic appears to break down, Kalliauer relies on the intuition he has gained as an engineer.

    “To understand this strange behavior in DNA, I turned to a fundamental approach: I examined what was the same about DNA and macroscopic structures and what was different. Civil engineers use methods and calculations which have been developed over centuries and which are very similar to the ones I employed for my thesis,” Kalliauer explains. 

    As Kalliauer continues, “Structural engineering is an incredibly versatile discipline. If you understand it, you can understand atomistic objects like DNA strands and very large ones like galaxies. As a researcher, I rely on it to help me bring new viewpoints to fields like biology. Other civil engineers can and should do the same.”

    Kalliauer, who grew up in a small town in Austria, has spent his life applying unconventional approaches like this across disciplines. “I grew up in a math family. While none of us were engineers, my parents instilled an appreciation for the discipline in me and my two older sisters.”

    After middle school, Kalliauer attended a technical school for civil engineering, where he discovered a fascination for mechanics. He also worked on a construction site to gain practical experience and see engineering applied in a real-world context.

    Kalliauer studied out of interest intensely, working upwards of 100 hours per week to better understand coursework in university. “I asked teachers and professors many questions, often challenging their ideas. Above everything else, I needed to understand things for myself. Doing well on exams was a secondary concern.”

    In university, he studied topics ranging from car crash testing to concrete hinges to biology. As a new member of the CSHub, he is studying how floods may be modeled with the statistical physics-based model provided by lattice density functional theory.

    In doing this, he builds on the work of past and present CSHub researchers like Elli Vartziotis and Katerina Boukin. 

    “It’s important to me that this research has a real impact in the world. I hope my approach to engineering can help researchers and stakeholders understand how floods propagate in urban contexts, so that we may make cities more resilient,” he says. More

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    Power, laws, and planning

    Think about almost any locale where people live: Why does it have its current built form? Why do people reside where they do? No doubt there are quirks of geography or history involved. But places are also shaped by money, politics, and the law — in short, by power.

    Studying those issues is the work of Justin Steil, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Steil’s research largely focuses on cities, drawing out the ways that politics and the law sustain social divisions on the ground.

    Or, as Steil says, “The biggest theme that runs through my work is: How is power exercised through control of space, and access to particular places? What are the spatial and social and legal processes of inclusion and exclusion that generate or can address inequality, generally?”

    Those mechanisms can be found all around. Wealthy suburbs with large minimum lot sizes restrict growth and access to high-ranking school districts; gated communities take that process of separation even more literally; and many U.S. metro areas have island-like jurisdictions that have seceded from larger surrounding cities. City residential geography often displays the legacies of redlining (discrimination laws) and even century-old mob violence incidents used to curb integration.

    “I really like to try to get down to pinpoint what are the precise laws, ordinances, and policies, and specific social processes, which continue to generate inequality,” says Steil. “And ask: How can we change that to generate greater access to resources and opportunities?”

    While investigating questions that range widely across the theme of power and space, Steil has published many research articles and book chapters while helping edit volumes on the subject. For his research and teaching, Steil was awarded tenure at MIT earlier this year.

    Combining law and urban planning

    Steil grew up in New York City, where his surroundings helped him realize how much urban policy and laws matters. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, majored in African American Studies, and spent a summer as a student in South Africa in 1998, just as the country was launching its new democracy.

    “That had a big impact,” Steil says. “Both seeing the power of grassroots organizing and social movements, to overthrow this white supremacist government, but also to understand how the apartheid system had worked, the role of law and of space — how the landscape and built environment had been consciously designed to keep people separate and unequal.”

    Between graduating from college and finishing his PhD, Steil embarked on an odyssey of jobs in the nonprofit sector and graduate work on multiple academic disciplines, touching on pressing social topics. Steil worked at the City School in Boston, a youth leadership program; the Food Project, a Massachusetts agricultural program; two nonprofits in Juarez, Mexico, focused on preventing domestic violence and on environmental justice; and the New Economy Project in New York, studying predatory lending. In the midst of this, Steil took time to earn a master’s in city design and social science from the London School of Economics.

    “I learned so much from studying city design, and really enjoyed it,” Steil says of that program. “But I also realized that my personal strengths are not in design. … I was more interested and more capable in the social science realm.”

    With that in mind, Steil was accepted into a joint PhD and JD program at Columbia University, combining a law degree with doctoral studies in urban planning.

    “So much of urban planning is determined by law, by property law and constitutional law,” Steil says. “I felt that if I wanted to research and teach these things, I needed to understand the law.”

    After finishing his law school and doctoral courses, Steil’s dissertation, written under the guidance of the late Peter Marcuse, examined the policy responses of two sets of paired towns — two in Nebraska, two in Pennsylvania — to immigration. In each of the states, one town was far more receptive to immigrants than the other. Steil concluded that the immigration-receptive towns had more local organizations and civic connections that reached across economic classes; instead of being more atomized, they were more cohesive socially, and willing to create more economic opportunities for those willing to work for them.

    Without such ties, Steil notes, people can end up “seeing things as a zero-sum game, instead of seeing the possibilities for new residents to enliven and enrich and contribute to a community.”

    By contrast, he adds, “sustained collaboration across what people might have seen as differences toward a shared goal created opportunities for a dialogue about immigration, its challenges and benefits, to imagine a future that could include these new neighbors. There was an emphasis in some of those towns on being communities where people were proud of working hard, and respected other people who did that.”

    From PhD to EMT

    Steil joined the MIT faculty after completing his PhD in 2015, and has continued to produce work on an array of issues about policy, law, and inclusion. Some of that work bears directly on contemporary housing policy. With Nicholas Kelly PhD ’21, Lawrence Vale, the Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning at MIT, and Maia Woluchem MCP ’19, he co-edited the volume “Furthering Fair Housing” (Temple University Press, 2021), which analyzes recent political clashes over federal fair-housing policy.

    Some of Steil’s other work is more historically oriented. He has published multiple papers on race and housing in the early 20th century, when both violence against Blacks and race-based laws kept many cities segregated. As Steil notes, U.S. laws have been rewritten so as to be no longer explicitly race-based. However, he notes, “That legacy, entrenched into the built environment, is very durable.”

    There are also significant effects stemming from the local, property-tax-based system of funding education in the U.S., another policy approach that effectively leaves many Americans living in very different realms of metro areas.

    “By fragmenting [funding] at the local level and then having resources redistributed within these small jurisdictions, it creates powerful incentives for wealthy households and individuals to use land-use law and other law to exclude people,” Steil says. “That’s partly why we have this tremendous crisis of housing affordability today, as well as deep inequalities in educational opportunities.”

    Since arriving at MIT, Steil has also taught on these topics extensively. The undergraduate classes he teaches include an introduction to housing and community development, a course on land use and civil rights law, another course on land use and environmental law, and one on environmental justice.

    “What an amazing privilege it is to be here at MIT, and learn every day, from our students, our undergraduate and graduate students, and from my colleagues,” Steil says. “It makes it fun to be here.”

    As if Steil didn’t have enough on his plate, he takes part in still another MIT-based activity: For the last few years, he has worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for MIT’s volunteer corps, having received his training from MIT’s EMT students since arriving on campus.

    As Steil describes it, his volunteer work has been a process of “starting out at the bottom of the totem pole as a beginning EMT and being trained by other students and progressing with my classmates.”

    It is “amazing,” he adds, to work with students and see “their dedication to this service and to MIT and to Cambridge and Boston, how hard they work and how capable they are, and what a strong community gets formed through that.” More

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    Passion projects prepare to launch

    At the start of the sixth annual MITdesignX “Pitch Day,” Svafa Grönfeldt, the program’s faculty director, made a point of noting that many of the teams about to showcase their ventures had changed direction multiple times on their projects.

    “Some of you have pivoted more times than we can count,” Grönfeldt said in her welcoming address. “This makes for a fantastic idea because you have the courage to actually question if your ideas are the right ones. In the true spirit of human-centered design, you actually try to understand the problem before you solve it!”

    MITdesignX, a venture accelerator based in the School of Architecture and Planning, is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at the intersection of design, business, and technology. The launching pad for startups focuses on applying design to engage complex problems and discovering high-impact solutions to address critical challenges facing the future of design, cities, and the global environment. The program reflects a new approach to entrepreneurship education, drawing on business theory, design thinking, and entrepreneurial practices.

    At this year’s event, 11 teams pitched their ideas before a panel of three judges, an on-site audience, and several hundred viewers watching the livestream event.

    “These teams have been working hard on solutions,” Gilad Rosenzweig, executive director of MITdesignX, told the audience. “They’re not designing solutions for people. They’re designing solutions with people.”

    Solving urgent problems

    Some of the issues addressed by the teams were lack of adequate housing, endangered food supplies, toxic pollution, and threats to democracy. Many of the students were inspired to create their venture because of problems they encountered in their careers or concerns impacting their home countries. The 25 team members in this year’s cohort represent work on five continents.

    “We’re very proud of our international representation because we want our impact to be felt outside of Cambridge,” said Rosenzweig. “We want to make an impact around the country and around the world.”

    John Devine, a JD/Masters in City Planning (MCP) candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, created a new software platform, “Civic Atlas.” In his pitch, he explained that having worked in city planning in Texas for a decade before coming to MIT, he saw how difficult it was for communities to wade through and comprehend the dense, technical language in city council agendas. Zoning cases, bond projects, and transportation investments are just some of the significant projects that affect a community, and Devine saw many instances where decisions were being made without community awareness as a result of inadequate communication.

    “When communities don’t have access to clear, accessible information, we have poor outcomes,” Devine told the audience. “I realized the solution to this is to make accessible and inclusive digital experiences that really facilitate communication between planners, developers, and members of the community.”

    Seizing the opportunity, Devine taught himself how to code and built a fully automated web tool for the Dallas City Planning Commission. The tool checks the city’s website daily and translates documents into interactive maps, allowing residents to view plans in their community. Devine is starting in Dallas, but says that there are more than 800 cities across the United States with a population greater than 50,000 that present an excellent target market for this product.

    “I think cities have a ton to gain from working with us, including building trust and communication with constituents — something that’s vital for city halls to function,” says Devine.

    Next steps for the cohort

    The judges for this year’s event — Yscaira Jimenez, founder of LaborX; Magnus Ingi Oskarsson of Eyrir Venture Management in Reykjavik, Iceland; and Frank Pawlitschek, director, HPI School of Entrepreneurship in Potsdam, Germany — deliberated to identify the best teams based on three criteria: most innovative, greatest impact, and best presentation. The competition was so strong that the judges decided to award two honorable mentions. This year’s awardees are:

    Atacama, a company that is developing biomaterials to replace plastics, received the “Most Innovative” award and $5,000. The company accelerates the adoption of renewable and sustainable materials through machine learning and robotics, ensuring performance, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Its founders are Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas PhD ’21, Jose Tomas Dominguez, and Jose Antonio Gonzalez.
    Grain Box, a startup focusing on optimizing the post-harvest supply chain for smallholder farmers in rural India, was awarded “Greatest Impact” and a $5,000 award. Its founders are Mona Vijaykumar SMArchS ’22 and T.R. (Radha) Radhakrishnan.
    Lamarr.AI, which offers an autonomous solution for rapid building envelope diagnostics using AI and cloud computing, was recognized for “Best Presentation” and awarded $2,500. Its founders are Norhan Bayomi PhD ’22, Tarek Rakha, PhD ’15, and John E. Fernandez ’85, professor and director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.
    Honorable Mention: “News Detective,” a platform combining moderated, professional fact-checking and AI to fight misinformation on social media, created by rising senior Ilana Strauss.
    Honorable Mention: “La Firme,” which digitizes architectural services to reach families who self-build their homes in Latin America, created by Mora Orensanz MCP ’21, Fiorella Belli Ferro MCP ’21, and rising senior Raul Briceno Brignole.
    Following the award ceremony, Rosenzweig told the students that the process was not yet over because MITdesignX faculty and staff would always be available to continue guiding and supporting their journeys as they launch and grow their ventures.

    “You’re going to become alumni of MITdesignX,” he said. “You’re going to be joining over 50 teams that are working around the world, making an impact. They’re being recognized as leaders in innovation. They’re being recognized by investors who are helping them make an impact. This is your next step.” More

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    New J-WAFS-led project combats food insecurity

    Today the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT announced a new research project, supported by Community Jameel, to tackle one of the most urgent crises facing the planet: food insecurity. Approximately 276 million people worldwide are severely food insecure, and more than half a million face famine conditions.     To better understand and analyze food security, this three-year research project will develop a comprehensive index assessing countries’ food security vulnerability, called the Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability. Global changes spurred by social and economic transitions, energy and environmental policy, regional geopolitics, conflict, and of course climate change, can impact food demand and supply. The Jameel Index will measure countries’ dependence on global food trade and imports and how these regional-scale threats might affect the ability to trade food goods across diverse geographic regions. A main outcome of the research will be a model to project global food demand, supply balance, and bilateral trade under different likely future scenarios, with a focus on climate change. The work will help guide policymakers over the next 25 years while the global population is expected to grow, and the climate crisis is predicted to worsen.    

    The work will be the foundational project for the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation Alliance, or FACT Alliance. Formally launched at the COP26 climate conference last November, the FACT Alliance is a global network of 20 leading research institutions and stakeholder organizations that are driving research and innovation and informing better decision-making for healthy, resilient, equitable, and sustainable food systems in a rapidly changing climate. The initiative is co-directed by Greg Sixt, research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and Professor Kenneth Strzepek, climate, water, and food specialist at J-WAFS.

    The dire state of our food systems

    The need for this project is evidenced by the hundreds of millions of people around the globe currently experiencing food shortages. While several factors contribute to food insecurity, climate change is one of the most notable. Devastating extreme weather events are increasingly crippling crop and livestock production around the globe. From Southwest Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa, communities are migrating in search of food. In the United States, extreme heat and lack of rainfall in the Southwest have drastically lowered Lake Mead’s water levels, restricting water access and drying out farmlands. 

    Social, political, and economic issues also disrupt food systems. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and inflation continue to exacerbate food insecurity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dramatically worsening the situation, disrupting agricultural exports from both Russia and Ukraine — two of the world’s largest producers of wheat, sunflower seed oil, and corn. Other countries like Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Cuba are confronting food insecurity due to domestic financial crises.

    Few countries are immune to threats to food security from sudden disruptions in food production or trade. When an enormous container ship became lodged in the Suez Canal in March 2021, the vital international trade route was blocked for three months. The resulting delays in international shipping affected food supplies around the world. These situations demonstrate the importance of food trade in achieving food security: a disaster in one part of the world can drastically affect the availability of food in another. This puts into perspective just how interconnected the earth’s food systems are and how vulnerable they remain to external shocks. 

    An index to prepare for the future of food

    Despite the need for more secure food systems, significant knowledge gaps exist when it comes to understanding how different climate scenarios may affect both agricultural productivity and global food supply chains and security. The Global Trade Analysis Project database from Purdue University, and the current IMPACT modeling system from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), enable assessments of existing conditions but cannot project or model changes in the future.

    In 2021, Strzepek and Sixt developed an initial Food Import Vulnerability Index (FIVI) as part of a regional assessment of the threat of climate change to food security in the Gulf Cooperation Council states and West Asia. FIVI is also limited in that it can only assess current trade conditions and climate change threats to food production. Additionally, FIVI is a national aggregate index and does not address issues of hunger, poverty, or equity that stem from regional variations within a country.

    “Current models are really good at showing global food trade flows, but we don’t have systems for looking at food trade between individual countries and how different food systems stressors such as climate change and conflict disrupt that trade,” says Greg Sixt of J-WAFS and the FACT Alliance. “This timely index will be a valuable tool for policymakers to understand the vulnerabilities to their food security from different shocks in the countries they import their food from. The project will also illustrate the stakeholder-guided, transdisciplinary approach that is central to the FACT Alliance,” Sixt adds.

    Phase 1 of the project will support a collaboration between four FACT Alliance members: MIT J-WAFS, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, IFPRI (which is also part of the CGIAR network), and the Martin School at the University of Oxford. An external partner, United Arab Emirates University, will also assist with the project work. This first phase will build on Strzepek and Sixt’s previous work on FIVI by developing a comprehensive Global Food System Modeling Framework that takes into consideration climate and global changes projected out to 2050, and assesses their impacts on domestic production, world market prices, and national balance of payments and bilateral trade. The framework will also utilize a mixed-modeling approach that includes the assessment of bilateral trade and macroeconomic data associated with varying agricultural productivity under the different climate and economic policy scenarios. In this way, consistent and harmonized projections of global food demand and supply balance, and bilateral trade under climate and global change can be achieved. 

    “Just like in the global response to Covid-19, using data and modeling are critical to understanding and tackling vulnerabilities in the global supply of food,” says George Richards, director of Community Jameel. “The Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability will help inform decision-making to manage shocks and long-term disruptions to food systems, with the aim of ensuring food security for all.”

    On a national level, the researchers will enrich the Jameel Index through country-level food security analyses of regions within countries and across various socioeconomic groups, allowing for a better understanding of specific impacts on key populations. The research will present vulnerability scores for a variety of food security metrics for 126 countries. Case studies of food security and food import vulnerability in Ethiopia and Sudan will help to refine the applicability of the Jameel Index with on-the-ground information. The case studies will use an IFPRI-developed tool called the Rural Investment and Policy Analysis model, which allows for analysis of urban and rural populations and different income groups. Local capacity building and stakeholder engagement will be critical to enable the use of the tools developed by this research for national-level planning in priority countries, and ultimately to inform policy.  Phase 2 of the project will build on phase 1 and the lessons learned from the Ethiopian and Sudanese case studies. It will entail a number of deeper, country-level analyses to assess the role of food imports on future hunger, poverty, and equity across various regional and socioeconomic groups within the modeled countries. This work will link the geospatial national models with the global analysis. A scholarly paper is expected to be submitted to show findings from this work, and a website will be launched so that interested stakeholders and organizations can learn more information. More

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    Silk offers an alternative to some microplastics

    Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that are now found worldwide in the air, water, and soil, are increasingly recognized as a serious pollution threat, and have been found in the bloodstream of animals and people around the world.

    Some of these microplastics are intentionally added to a variety of products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, cosmetics, and detergents — amounting to an estimated 50,000 tons a year in the European Union alone, according to the European Chemicals Agency. The EU has already declared that these added, nonbiodegradable microplastics must be eliminated by 2025, so the search is on for suitable replacements, which do not currently exist.

    Now, a team of scientists at MIT and elsewhere has developed a system based on silk that could provide an inexpensive and easily manufactured substitute. The new process is described in a paper in the journal Small, written by MIT postdoc Muchun Liu, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli, and five others at the chemical company BASF in Germany and the U.S.

    The microplastics widely used in industrial products generally protect some specific active ingredient (or ingredients) from being degraded by exposure to air or moisture, until the time they are needed. They provide a slow release of the active ingredient for a targeted period of time and minimize adverse effects to its surroundings. For example, vitamins are often delivered in the form of microcapsules packed into a pill or capsule, and pesticides and herbicides are similarly enveloped. But the materials used today for such microencapsulation are plastics that persist in the environment for a long time. Until now, there has been no practical, economical substitute available that would biodegrade naturally.

    Much of the burden of environmental microplastics comes from other sources, such as the degradation over time of larger plastic objects such as bottles and packaging, and from the wear of car tires. Each of these sources may require its own kind of solutions for reducing its spread, Marelli says. The European Chemical Agency has estimated that the intentionally added microplastics represent approximately 10-15 percent of the total amount in the environment, but this source may be relatively easy to address using this nature-based biodegradable replacement, he says.

    “We cannot solve the whole microplastics problem with one solution that fits them all,” he says. “Ten percent of a big number is still a big number. … We’ll solve climate change and pollution of the world one percent at a time.”

    Unlike the high-quality silk threads used for fine fabrics, the silk protein used in the new alternative material is widely available and less expensive, Liu says. While silkworm cocoons must be painstakingly unwound to produce the fine threads needed for fabric, for this use, non-textile-quality cocoons can be used, and the silk fibers can simply be dissolved using a scalable water-based process. The processing is so simple and tunable that the resulting material can be adapted to work on existing manufacturing equipment, potentially providing a simple “drop in” solution using existing factories.

    Silk is recognized as safe for food or medical use, as it is nontoxic and degrades naturally in the body. In lab tests, the researchers demonstrated that the silk-based coating material could be used in existing, standard spray-based manufacturing equipment to make a standard water-soluble microencapsulated herbicide product, which was then tested in a greenhouse on a corn crop. The test showed it worked even better than an existing commercial product, inflicting less damage to the plants, Liu says.

    While other groups have proposed degradable encapsulation materials that may work at a small laboratory scale, Marelli says, “there is a strong need to achieve encapsulation of high-content actives to open the door to commercial use. The only way to have an impact is where we can not only replace a synthetic polymer with a biodegradable counterpart, but also achieve performance that is the same, if not better.”

    The secret to making the material compatible with existing equipment, Liu explains, is in the tunability of the silk material. By precisely adjusting the polymer chain arrangements of silk materials and addition of a surfactant, it is possible to fine-tune the properties of the resulting coatings once they dry out and harden. The material can be hydrophobic (water-repelling) even though it is made and processed in a water solution, or it can be hydrophilic (water-attracting), or anywhere in between, and for a given application it can be made to match the characteristics of the material it is being used to replace.

    In order to arrive at a practical solution, Liu had to develop a way of freezing the forming droplets of encapsulated materials as they were forming, to study the formation process in detail. She did this using a special spray-freezing system, and was able to observe exactly how the encapsulation works in order to control it better. Some of the encapsulated “payload” materials, whether they be pesticides or nutrients or enzymes, are water-soluble and some are not, and they interact in different ways with the coating material.

    “To encapsulate different materials, we have to study how the polymer chains interact and whether they are compatible with different active materials in suspension,” she says. The payload material and the coating material are mixed together in a solution and then sprayed. As droplets form, the payload tends to be embedded in a shell of the coating material, whether that’s the original synthetic plastic or the new silk material.

    The new method can make use of low-grade silk that is unusable for fabrics, and large quantities of which are currently discarded because they have no significant uses, Liu says. It can also use used, discarded silk fabric, diverting that material from being disposed of in landfills.

    Currently, 90 percent of the world’s silk production takes place in China, Marelli says, but that’s largely because China has perfected the production of the high-quality silk threads needed for fabrics. But because this process uses bulk silk and has no need for that level of quality, production could easily be ramped up in other parts of the world to meet local demand if this process becomes widely used, he says.

    “This elegant and clever study describes a sustainable and biodegradable silk-based replacement for microplastic encapsulants, which are a pressing environmental challenge,” says Alon Gorodetsky, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Irvine, who was not associated with this research. “The modularity of the described materials and the scalability of the manufacturing processes are key advantages that portend well for translation to real-world applications.”

    This process “represents a potentially highly significant advance in active ingredient delivery for a range of industries, particularly agriculture,” says Jason White, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who also was not associated with this work. “Given the current and future challenges related to food insecurity, agricultural production, and a changing climate, novel strategies such as this are greatly needed.”

    The research team also included Pierre-Eric Millard, Ophelie Zeyons, Henning Urch, Douglas Findley and Rupert Konradi from the BASF corporation, in Germany and in the U.S. The work was supported by BASF through the Northeast Research Alliance (NORA). More

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    Four researchers with MIT ties earn Schmidt Science Fellowships

    Four researchers with MIT ties — Juncal Arbelaiz, Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, Sandya Subramanian, and Heather Zlotnick ’17 — have been honored with competitive Schmidt Science Fellowships.

    Created in 2017, the fellows program aims to bring together the world’s brightest minds “to solve society’s toughest challenges.”

    The four MIT-affiliated researchers are among 29 Schmidt Science Fellows from around the world who will receive postdoctoral support for either one or two years with an annual stipend of $100,000, along with individualized mentoring and participation in the program’s Global Meeting Series. The fellows will also have opportunities to engage with thought-leaders from science, business, policy, and society. According to the award announcement, the fellows are expected to pursue research that shifts from the focus of their PhDs, to help expand and enhance their futures as scientific leaders.

    Juncal Arbelaiz is a PhD candidate in applied mathematics at MIT, who is completing her doctorate this summer. Her doctoral research at MIT is advised by Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Anette Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate dean of the School of Engineering; and Bassam Bamieh, professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the Center for Control, Dynamical Systems, and Computation at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Arbelaiz’s research revolves around the design of optimal decentralized intelligence for spatially-distributed dynamical systems.

    “I cannot think of a better way to start my independent scientific career. I feel very excited and grateful for this opportunity,” says Arbelaiz. With her fellowship, she will enlist systems biology to explore how the nervous system encodes and processes sensory information to address future safety-critical artificial intelligence applications. “The Schmidt Science Fellowship will provide me with a unique opportunity to work at the intersection of biological and machine intelligence for two years and will be a steppingstone towards my longer-term objective of becoming a researcher in bio-inspired machine intelligence,” she says.

    Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao is currently a postdoc in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor in Chemical Engineering, and an Impact Fellow at the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. Cao received his PhD in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 2021, during which he focused on microscopic precision in the simultaneous delivery of light and fluids by optofluidics, with advances relevant to health and sustainability applications. As a Schmidt Science Fellow, he plans to be co-advised by Hatton on carbon capture, and Ted Sargent, professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, on carbon utilization. Cao is passionate about integrated carbon capture and utilization (CCU) from molecular to process levels, machine learning to inspire smart CCU, and the nexus of technology, business, and policy for CCU.

    “The Schmidt Science Fellowship provides the perfect opportunity for me to work across disciplines to study integrated carbon capture and utilization from molecular to process levels,” Cao explains. “My vision is that by integrating carbon capture and utilization, we can concurrently make scientific discoveries and unlock economic opportunities while mitigating global climate change. This way, we can turn our carbon liability into an asset.”

    Sandya Subramanian, a 2021 PhD graduate of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) in the area of medical engineering and medical physics, is currently a postdoc at Stanford Data Science. She is focused on the topics of biomedical engineering, statistics, machine learning, neuroscience, and health care. Her research is on developing new technologies and methods to study the interactions between the brain, the autonomic nervous system, and the gut. “I’m extremely honored to receive the Schmidt Science Fellowship and to join the Schmidt community of leaders and scholars,” says Subramanian. “I’ve heard so much about the fellowship and the fact that it can open doors and give people confidence to pursue challenging or unique paths.”

    According to Subramanian, the autonomic nervous system and its interactions with other body systems are poorly understood but thought to be involved in several disorders, such as functional gastrointestinal disorders, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, migraines, and eating disorders. The goal of her research is to improve our ability to monitor and quantify these physiologic processes. “I’m really interested in understanding how we can use physiological monitoring technologies to inform clinical decision-making, especially around the autonomic nervous system, and I look forward to continuing the work that I’ve recently started at Stanford as Schmidt Science Fellow,” she says. “A huge thank you to all of the mentors, colleagues, friends, and leaders I had the pleasure of meeting and working with at HST and MIT; I couldn’t have done this without everything I learned there.”

    Hannah Zlotnick ’17 attended MIT for her undergraduate studies, majoring in biological engineering with a minor in mechanical engineering. At MIT, Zlotnick was a student-athlete on the women’s varsity soccer team, a UROP student in Alan Grodzinsky’s laboratory, and a member of Pi Beta Phi. For her PhD, Zlotnick attended the University of Pennsylvania, and worked in Robert Mauck’s laboratory within the departments of Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery.

    Zlotnick’s PhD research focused on harnessing remote forces, such as magnetism or gravity, to enhance engineered cartilage and osteochondral repair both in vitro and in large animal models. Zlotnick now plans to pivot to the field of biofabrication to create tissue models of the knee joint to assess potential therapeutics for osteoarthritis. “I am humbled to be a part of the Schmidt Science Fellows community, and excited to venture into the field of biofabrication,” Zlotnick says. “Hopefully this work uncovers new therapies for patients with inflammatory joint diseases.” More