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    Food for thought, thought for food

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately 3.1 billion people worldwide were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2020. Meanwhile, in 2021 close to 2.3 billion people were moderately or severely food insecure. Given the strong link between malnutrition and income disparity, the numbers paint a grim picture representing one of the grand challenges of our time.

    “I’m probably an idealist,” says MIT Research Scientist Christopher Mejía Argueta, “but I really believe that if we change our diets and think about ways to help others, we can make a difference — that’s my motivation.”

    Mejía Argueta is the founder and director of the MIT Food and Retail Operations Lab (FaROL). He has more than a decade of experience in supply chain management, optimization, and effective data-driven decision-making on pressing issues like the evolution of end consumers for retail and e-tail supply chains, food waste, and equitable access to nutrition.  

    Supply chain network designs typically focus on minimizing costs without considering the implications (e.g., cost) of changes in consumer behavior. Mejía Argueta and his colleagues at the FaROL, however, are working to understand and design optimal supply chains to create high-performance operations based on consumer choice. “Understanding the significant factors of consumer choice and analyzing their evolution over time becomes critical to designing forward-looking retail operations with data-driven and customer-centric supply chains, inventory management, and distribution systems,” explains Mejía Argueta. 

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    One of his recent projects examined the challenges of small retailers worldwide. These mom-and-pop outlets, or nanostores, account for 50 percent of the global market share and are the primary source of consumer packaged goods for people in urban areas. Worldwide there are nearly 50 million nanostores, each serving between 100-200 households in a community. In India alone, there are 14 million nanostores known as kiranas. And while these retailers are more prevalent in emerging markets, they play an important role in developed markets, particularly in under-resourced communities, and are frequently located in “food deserts,” where they are the only source of essential goods for the community.  

    These small retailers thrive thanks, partly, to their ability to offer the right combination of affordability and convenience while fostering trust with local customers, who often lack access to a supermarket or a grocery store. They often exist in fragmented, densely populated areas where infrastructure and public transportation services are poor and consumers have limited purchasing power. But nanostore shopkeepers and owners are intimately familiar with their customers and their consumption patterns, which means they can connect those consumption patterns or information to the larger supply chain. According to Mejía Argueta, when it comes to the future of retail, nanostores will be the cornerstones of growth in emerging economies. 

    But it’s a complicated scenario. Mom-and-pop shops don’t have the capacity to offer a broad range of products to their customers, and often, they lack access to nutritious food options. Logistically speaking, it is expensive to supply them, and the cost-to-serve (i.e., the logistics cost) is between 10 to 30 percent more expensive than other retailers. According to Mejía Argueta, this has a significant ripple effect, impacting education, productivity, and, eventually, the economic performance of an entire nation.  

    “The high fragmentation of nanostores causes substantial distribution inefficiencies, especially in congested megacities,” he says. “At my lab, we study how to make nanostores more efficient and effective by considering various commercial and logistics strategies while considering inherent technical challenges. We need to serve these small retailers better to help them survive and thrive, to provide a greater impact for underserved communities and the entire economic ecosystem.”

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    Mejía Argueta and his team recently collaborated with Tufts University and the City of Somerville, Massachusetts, to conduct research on food access models in underserved communities. The Somerville Project explored various interventions to supply fresh produce in food desert neighborhoods.

    “A lack of nutrition does not simply mean a lack of food,” Mejía Argueta says. “It can also be caused by an overabundance of unhealthy foods in a given market, which is particularly troublesome for U.S. cities where people in underserved communities don’t have access to healthy food options. We believe that one way to combat the problem of food deserts is to supply these areas with healthy food options affordably and create awareness programs.”  

    The collaborative project saw Mejía Argueta and his colleagues assessing the impact of several intervention schemes designed to empower the end consumer. For example, they implemented a low-cost grocery delivery model similar to Instacart as well as a ride sharing system to transport people from their homes to grocery stores and back. They also collaborated with a nonprofit organization, Partnership for a Healthier America, and began working with retailers to deliver “veggie boxes” in underserved communities. Models like these provide low-income people access to food while providing dignity of choice, Mejía Argueta explains.  

    When it comes to supply chain management research, sustainability and societal impact often fall by the wayside, but Mejía Argueta’s bottom-up approach shirks tradition. “We’re trying to build a community, employing a socially driven perspective because if you work with the community, you gain their trust. If you want to make something sustainable in the long term, people need to trust in these solutions and engage with the ecosystem as a whole.”  

    And to achieve real-world impact, collaboration is key. Mejía Argueta says that government has an important role to play, developing policy to connect the models he and his colleagues develop in academia to societal challenges. Meanwhile, he believes startups and entrepreneurs can function as bridge-builders to link the flows of information, the flows of goods and cash, and even knowledge and security in an ecosystem that suffers from fragmentation and siloed thinking among stakeholders.

    Finally, Mejía Argueta reflects on the role of corporations and his belief that the MIT Industrial Liaison Program is essential to getting his research to the frontline of business challenges. “The Industrial Liaison Program does a fantastic job of connecting our research to real-world scenarios,” he says. “It creates opportunities for us to have meaningful interactions with corporates for real-world impact. I believe strongly in the MIT motto ‘mens et manus,’ and ILP helps drive our research into practice.” More

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    Microparticles could help prevent vitamin A deficiency

    Vitamin A deficiency is the world’s leading cause of childhood blindness, and in severe cases, it can be fatal. About one-third of the global population of preschool-aged children suffer from this vitamin deficiency, which is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

    MIT researchers have now developed a new way to fortify foods with vitamin A, which they hope could help to improve the health of millions of people around the world. In a new study, they showed that encapsulating vitamin A in a protective polymer prevents the nutrient from being broken down during cooking or storage.

    “Vitamin A is a very important micronutrient, but it’s an unstable molecule,” says Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “We wanted to see if our encapsulated vitamin A could fortify a food vehicle like bouillon cubes or flour, throughout storage and cooking, and whether the vitamin A could remain biologically active and be absorbed.”

    In a small clinical trial, the researchers showed that when people ate bread fortified with encapsulated vitamin A, the bioavailability of the nutrient was similar to when they consumed vitamin A on its own. The technology has been licensed to two companies that hope to develop it for use in food products.

    “This is a study that our team is really excited about because it shows that everything we did in test tubes and animals works safely and effectively in humans,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute. “We hope this opens the door for someday helping millions, if not billions, of people in the developing world.”

    Jaklenec and Langer are the senior authors of the new study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper’s lead author is former MIT postdoc Wen Tang, who is now an associate professor at South China University of Technology.

    Nutrient stability

    Vitamin A is critical not only for vision but also the functioning of the immune system and organs such as the heart and lungs. Efforts to add vitamin A to bread or other foods such as bouillon cubes, which are commonly consumed in West African countries, have been largely unsuccessful because the vitamin breaks down during storage or cooking.

    In a 2019 study, the MIT team showed that they could use a polymer called BMC to encapsulate nutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and several others. They showed that this protective coating improved the shelf life of the nutrients, and that people who consumed bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb the iron.

    BMC is classified by the FDA as “generally regarded as safe,” and is already used in coatings for drugs and dietary supplements. In the new study, the researchers focused on using this polymer to encapsulate vitamin A, a nutrient that is very sensitive to temperature and ultraviolet light.

    Using an industrial process known as a spinning disc process, the researchers mixed vitamin A with the polymer to form particles 100 to 200 microns in diameter. They also coated the particles with starch, which prevents them from sticking to each other.

    The researchers found that vitamin A encapsulated in the polymer particles were more resistant to degradation by intense light, high temperatures, or boiling water. Under those conditions, much more vitamin A remained active than when the vitamin A was free or when it was delivered in a form called VitA 250, which is currently the most stable form of vitamin A used for food fortification.

    The researchers also showed that the encapsulated particles could be easily incorporated into flour or bouillon cubes. To test how well they would survive long-term storage, the researchers exposed the cubes to harsh conditions, as recommended by the World Health Organization: 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and 75 percent humidity. Under those conditions, the encapsulated vitamin A was much more stable than other forms of vitamin A. 

    “The enhanced stability of vitamin A with our technology can ensure that the vitamin A-fortified food does provide the recommended daily uptake of vitamin A, even after long-term storage in a hot humidified environment, and cooking processes such as boiling or baking,” Tang says. “People who are suffering from vitamin A deficiency and want to get vitamin A through fortified food will benefit, without changing their daily routines, and without wondering how much vitamin A is still in the food.”

    Vitamin absorption

    When the researchers cooked their encapsulated particles and then fed them to animals, they found that 30 percent of the vitamin A was absorbed, the same as free uncooked vitamin A, compared to about 3 percent of free vitamin A that had been cooked.

    Working with Biofortis, a company that does dietary clinical testing, the researchers then evaluated how well vitamin A was absorbed in people who ate foods fortified with the particles. For this study, the researchers incorporated the particles into bread, then measured vitamin A levels in the blood over a 24-hour period after the bread was consumed. They found that when vitamin A was encapsulated in the BMC polymer, it was absorbed from the food at levels comparable to free vitamin A, indicating that it is readily released in bioactive form.

    Two companies have licensed the technology and are focusing on developing products fortified with vitamin A and other nutrients. A benefit corporation called Particles for Humanity, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is working with partners in Africa to incorporate this technology into existing fortification efforts. Another company called VitaKey, founded by Jaklenec, Langer, and others, is working on using this approach to add nutrients to a variety of foods and beverages.

    The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other authors of the paper include Jia Zhuang, Aaron Anselmo, Xian Xu, Aranda Duan, Ruojie Zhang, James Sugarman, Yingying Zeng, Evan Rosenberg, Tyler Graf, Kevin McHugh, Stephany Tzeng, Adam Behrens, Lisa Freed, Lihong Jing, Surangi Jayawardena, Shelley Weinstock, Xiao Le, Christopher Sears, James Oxley, John Daristotle, and Joe Collins. More

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    Pesticide innovation takes top prize at Collegiate Inventors Competition

    On Oct. 12, MIT mechanical engineering alumnus Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22 was named the first-place winner in the graduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The annual competition, which is organized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, celebrates college and university student inventors. Jayaprakash won for his pesticide innovation AgZen-Cloak, which he developed while he was a student in the lab of Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering.

    Currently, only 2 percent of pesticide spray is retained by crops. Many crops are naturally water-repellent, causing pesticide-laden water to bounce off of them. Farmers are forced to over-spray significantly to ensure proper spray coverage on their crops. Not only does this waste expensive pesticides, but it also comes at an environmental cost.

    Runoff from pesticide treatment pollutes soil and nearby streams. Droplets can travel in the air, leading to illness and death in nearby populations. It is estimated that each year, pesticide pollution causes between 20,000 and 200,000 deaths, and up to 385 million acute illnesses like cancer, birth defects, and neurological conditions.   

    With his invention AgZen-Cloak, Jayaprakash has found a way to keep droplets of water containing pesticide from bouncing off crops by “cloaking” the droplets in a small amount of plant-derived oil. As a result, farmers could use just one-fifth the amount of spray, minimizing water waste and cost for farmers and eliminating airborne pollution and toxic runoff. It also improves pesticide retention, which can lead to higher crop yield.

    “By cloaking each droplet with a minute quantity of a plant-based oil, we promote water retention on even the most water-repellent plant surfaces,” says Jayaprakash. “AgZen-Cloak presents a universal, inexpensive, and environmentally sustainable way to prevent pesticide overuse and waste.”

    Farming is in Jayaprakash’s DNA. His family operates a 10-acre farm near Chennai, India, where they grow rice and mangoes. Upon joining the Varanasi Research Group as a graduate student, Jayaprakash was instantly drawn to Varanasi’s work on pesticides in agriculture.

    “Growing up, I would spray crops on my family farm wearing a backpack sprayer. So, I’ve always wanted to work on research that made farmer’s lives easier,” says Jayaprakash, who serves as CEO of the startup AgZen.

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    2022 World Food Day First Prize Winner – AgZen Cloak: Reducing Pesticide Pollution and Waste

    Helping droplets stick

    Varanasi and his lab at MIT work on what is known as interfacial phenomena — or the study of what happens when different phases come into contact and interact with one another. Understanding how a liquid interacts with a solid or how a liquid reacts to a certain gas has endless applications, which explains the diversity of the research Varanasi has conducted over the years. He and his team have developed solutions for everything from consumer product packaging to power plant emissions.

    In 2009, Varanasi gave a talk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There, he learned from the USDA just how big of a problem runoff from pesticide spray was for farmers around the world.
    A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using conventional spraying. Image courtesy of AgZen.A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using AgZen’s technology. By cloaking droplets in a tiny amount of plant-derived oil, the droplets stick to the leaf, minimizing over-spraying, waste, and pollution. Image courtesy of AgZen.He enlisted the help of then-graduate student Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18 to apply their work in interfacial phenomena to pesticide sprays. Over the next several years, the Varanasi Research Group developed a technology that utilized electrically charged polymers to keep droplets from bouncing off hydrophobic surfaces. When droplets containing positively and negatively charged additives meet, their surface chemistry allows them to stick to a plant’s surface.

    Using polyelectrolytes, the researchers could reduce the amount of spray needed to cover a crop by tenfold in the lab. This motivated the Varanasi Research Group to pursue three years of field trials with various commercial growers around the world, where they were able to demonstrate significant savings for farmers.

    “We got fantastic feedback on our technology from farmers. We are really excited to change the paradigm for agriculture. Not only is it good for the environment, but we’ve heard from farmers that they love it. If we can put money back into farms, it helps society as a whole,” adds Varanasi.

    In response to the positive feedback, Varanasi and Jayaprakash co-founded startup AgZen in 2020. 

    When field testing their polyelectrolyte technology, Varanasi and Jayaprakash came up with the idea to explore the use of a fully plant-based material to help farmers achieve the same savings. 

    Cloaking droplets and engineering nozzles

    Jayaprakash found that by cloaking a small amount of plant-derived oil around a water droplet, droplets stick to plant surfaces that would typically repel water. After conducting many studies in the lab, he found that the oil only needs to make up 0.1 percent of a droplet’s total volume to stick to crops and provide total, uniform coverage.

    While his cloaking solution worked in the lab, Jayaprakash knew that to have a tangible impact in the real world he needed to find an easy, low-cost way for farmers to coat pesticide spray droplets in oil.

    Jayaprakash focused on spray nozzles. He developed a proprietary nozzle that coats each droplet with a small amount of oil as they are being formed. The nozzles can easily be added to any hose or farming equipment.

    “What we’ve done is figured out a smart way to cloak these droplets by using a very small quantity of oil on the outside of each drop. Because of that, we get this drastic improvement in performance that can really be a game-changer for farmers,” says Jayaprakash.

    In addition to improving pesticide retention in crops, the AgZen-Cloak solves a second problem. Since large droplets are prone to break apart and bounce off crops, historically, farmers have sprayed pesticide in tiny, mist-like droplets. These fine droplets are often carried by the wind, increasing pesticide pollution in nearby areas. 

    When AgZen-Cloak is used, the pesticide-laden droplets can be larger and still stick to crops. These larger droplets aren’t carried by the wind, decreasing the risk of pollution and minimizing the health impacts on local populations.  

    “We’re actually solving two problems with one solution. With the cloaking technology, we can spray much larger droplets that aren’t prone to wind drift and they can stick to the plant,” Jayaprakash adds.

    Bringing AgZen-Cloaks to farmers around the world

    This spring, Varanasi encouraged Jayaprakash to submit AgZen-Cloak to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Out of hundreds of applications, Jayaprakash was one of 25 student inventors to be chosen as a finalist.

    On Oct. 12, Jayaprakash presented his technology to a panel of judges composed of National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. Meeting with such an illustrious group of inventors and officials left an impression on Jayaprakash.

    “These are people who have invented things that have changed the world. So, to get their feedback on what we’re doing was incredibly valuable,” he says. Jayaprakash received a $10,000 prize for being named the first-place graduate winner.

    As full-time CEO of AgZen, Jayaprakash is shifting focus to field testing and commercialization. He and the AgZen team have already conducted field testing across the world at locations including a Prosecco vineyard outside of Venice, a ranch in California, and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s vegetable extension program, led by their program director Susan Scheufele, recently concluded a field test that validated AgZen’s on-field performance.

    Two days after his win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Jayaprakash was named the first prize winner of the MIT Abdul Latif Jamel Water and Food Systems Lab World Food Day student video competition. Hours later, he flew across the country to attend an agricultural tech conference in California, eager to meet with farmers and discuss plans for rolling out AgZen’s innovations to farms everywhere. More

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    Two first-year students named Rise Global Winners for 2022

    In 2019, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, launched a $1 billion philanthropic commitment to identify global talent. Part of that effort is the Rise initiative, which selects 100 young scholars, ages 15-17, from around the world who show unusual promise and a drive to serve others. This year’s cohort of 100 Rise Global Winners includes two MIT first-year students, Jacqueline Prawira and Safiya Sankari.

    Rise intentionally targets younger-aged students and focuses on identifying what the program terms “hidden brilliance” in any form, anywhere in the world, whether it be in a high school or a refugee camp. Another defining aspect of the program is that Rise winners receive sustained support — not just in secondary school, but throughout their lives.

    “We believe that the answers to the world’s toughest problems lie in the imagination of the world’s brightest minds,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, which manages Rise along with the Rhodes Trust. “Rise is an integral part of our mission to create the best, largest, and most enduring pipeline of exceptional talent globally and match it to opportunities to serve others for life.”

    The Rise program creates this enduring pipeline by providing a lifetime of benefits, including funding, programming, and mentoring opportunities. These resources can be tailored to each person as they evolve throughout their career. In addition to a four-year college scholarship, winners receive mentoring and career services; networking opportunities with other Rise recipients and partner organizations; technical equipment such as laptops or tablets; courses on topics like leadership and human-centered design; and opportunities to apply for graduate scholarships and for funding throughout their careers to support their innovative ideas, such as grants or seed money to start a social enterprise.

    Prawira and Sankari’s winning service projects focus on global sustainability and global medical access, respectively. Prawira invented a way to use upcycled fish-scale waste to absorb heavy metals in wastewater. She first started experimenting with fish-scale waste in middle school to try to find a bio-based alternative to plastic. More recently, she discovered that the calcium salts and collagen in fish scales can absorb up to 82 percent of heavy metals from water, and 91 percent if an electric current is passed through the water. Her work has global implications for treating contaminated water at wastewater plants and in developing countries.

    Prawiri published her research in 2021 and has won awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other organizations. She’s planning to major in Course 3 (materials science and engineering), perhaps with an environmentally related minor. “I believe that sustainability and solving environmental problems requires a multifaced approach,” she says. “Creating greener materials for use in our daily lives will have a major impact in solving current environmental issues.”

    For Sankari’s service project, she developed an algorithm to analyze data from electronic nano-sensor devices, or e-noses, which can detect certain diseases from a patient’s breath. The devices are calibrated to detect volatile organic compound biosignatures that are indicative of diseases like diabetes and cancer. “E-nose disease detection is much faster and cheaper than traditional methods of diagnosis, making medical care more accessible to many,” she explains. The Python-based algorithm she created can translate raw data from e-noses into a result that the user can read.

    Sankari is a lifetime member of the American Junior Academy of Science and has been a finalist in several prestigious science competitions. She is considering a major in Course 6-7 (computer science and molecular biology) at MIT and hopes to continue to explore the intersection between nanotechnology and medicine.

    While the 2022 Rise recipients share a desire to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems, their ideas and interests, as reflected by their service projects, are broad, innovative, and diverse. A winner from Belarus used bioinformatics to predict the molecular effect of a potential Alzheimer’s drug. A Romanian student created a magazine that aims to promote acceptance of transgender bodies. A Vietnamese teen created a prototype of a toothbrush that uses a nano chip to detect cancerous cells in saliva. And a recipient from the United States designed modular, tiny homes for the unhoused that are affordable and sustainable, as an alternative to homeless shelters.

    This year’s winners were selected from over 13,000 applicants from 47 countries, from Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso to Lebanon and Paraguay. The selection process includes group interviews, peer and expert review of each applicant’s service project, and formal talent assessments. More

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    MIT student club Engineers Without Borders works with local village in Tanzania

    Four students from the MIT club Engineers Without Borders (EWB) spent part of their summer in Tanzania to begin assessment work for a health and sanitation project that will benefit the entire village, and an irrigated garden for the Mkutani Primary School.

    The club has been working with the Boston Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-BPC) since 2019. The Boston chapter finds projects in underserved communities in the developing world and helped connect the MIT students with local government and school officials.

    Juniors Fiona Duong, female health and sanitation team lead, and Lai Wa Chu, irrigation team lead, spent two weeks over the summer in Mkutani conducting research for their projects. Chu was faced with finding more water supplies and a way to get water from the nearby river to the school to use in the gardens they were planting. Duong was charged with assessing the needs of the people who visit The Mkutani Dispensary, which serves as a local medical clinic. Juniors Hung Huynh, club president, and Vivian Cheng, student advisor, also made the trip to work on the projects.

    Health and sanitation project

    Duong looked into ways to help pregnant women with privacy issues as the facility they give birth in — The Mkutani Dispensary — is very small, with just two beds, and is in need of repairs and upgrades. Before leaving Cambridge, Duong led FaceTime meetings with government officials and facilities managers in the village. Once on the ground, she began collecting information and conducted focus groups with the local women and other constituents. She learned that one in three women were not giving birth in the dispensary due to privacy concerns and the lack of modern equipment needed for high-risk pregnancies.

    “The women said that the most pressing need there was water. The women were expected to bring their own water to their deliveries. The rain-catching system there was not enough to fulfill their needs and the river water wasn’t clean. When in labor, they relied on others to gather it and bring it to the dispensary by bike,” Duong says. “With broken windows, the dispensary did not allow for privacy or sanitary conditions.”

    Duong will also analyze the data she collected and share it with others before more MIT students head to Mkutani next summer.

    Farming, sustainability, and irrigation projectBefore heading to Mkutani, Chu conducted research regarding irrigation methods and water collection methods. She confirmed that the river water still contained E.coli and advised the teachers that it would need to be boiled or placed in the sun for a few hours before it could be used. Her technical background in fluid dynamics was helpful for the project.

    “We also found that there was a need for supplemental food for the school, as many children lived too far away to walk home for lunch. The headmaster reached out to us about building the garden, as the garden provides supplemental fruit and vegetables for many of the 600 students to eat. They needed water from the river that was quite far away from the school. We looked at ways to get the water to the garden,” Chu says.

    The group is considering conducting an ecological survey of the area to see if there is another source of water so they could drill another borehole. They will complete their analysis and then decide the best solution to implement.

    “Watching the whole team’s hard work pay off when the travel team got to Mkutani was so amazing,” says second-year student Maria Hernandez, club internal relations chair. “Now, we’re ready to get to work again so we can go back next year. I love being a part of Engineers Without Borders because it’s such a unique way to apply technical skills outside of the classroom and see the impact you make on the community. It’s a beautiful project that truly impacts so many people, and I can’t wait to go back to Mkutani next year.”

    Both Duong and Chu hope they’ll return to the school and the dispensary in summer 2023 to work on the implementation phase of their projects. “This project is one of the reasons I came to MIT. I wanted to work on a social impact project to help improve the world,” Chu says.

    “I hope to go back next summer and implement the project,” adds Duong. “If I do, we’ll go during the two most crucial weeks of the project — after the contractors have started the repair work on the dispensary, so we can see how things are going and then help with anything else related to the project.”

    Duong and Chu said students don’t have to be engineers to help with the EWB’s work — any MIT student interested in joining the club may do so. Both agree that fundraising is a priority, but there are numerous other roles students can help with.

    “MIT students shouldn’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that needs to be done there, and even if you don’t have experience in a certain area, don’t let that be a barrier. It’s very rewarding work and it’s also great to get international work experience,” Duong says.

    Chu added, “The project may not seem flashy now, but the rewards are great. Students will get new technical skills and get to experience a new culture as well.” More

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    Scientists chart how exercise affects the body

    Exercise is well-known to help people lose weight and avoid gaining it. However, identifying the cellular mechanisms that underlie this process has proven difficult because so many cells and tissues are involved.

    In a new study in mice that expands researchers’ understanding of how exercise and diet affect the body, MIT and Harvard Medical School researchers have mapped out many of the cells, genes, and cellular pathways that are modified by exercise or high-fat diet. The findings could offer potential targets for drugs that could help to enhance or mimic the benefits of exercise, the researchers say.

    “It is extremely important to understand the molecular mechanisms that are drivers of the beneficial effects of exercise and the detrimental effects of a high-fat diet, so that we can understand how we can intervene, and develop drugs that mimic the impact of exercise across multiple tissues,” says Manolis Kellis, a professor of computer science in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

    The researchers studied mice with high-fat or normal diets, who were either sedentary or given the opportunity to exercise whenever they wanted. Using single-cell RNA sequencing, the researchers cataloged the responses of 53 types of cells found in skeletal muscle and two types of fatty tissue.

    “One of the general points that we found in our study, which is overwhelmingly clear, is how high-fat diets push all of these cells and systems in one way, and exercise seems to be pushing them nearly all in the opposite way,” Kellis says. “It says that exercise can really have a major effect throughout the body.”

    Kellis and Laurie Goodyear, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior investigator at the Joslin Diabetes Center, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in the journal Cell Metabolism. Jiekun Yang, a research scientist in MIT CSAIL; Maria Vamvini, an instructor of medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center; and Pasquale Nigro, an instructor of medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center, are the lead authors of the paper.

    The risks of obesity

    Obesity is a growing health problem around the world. In the United States, more than 40 percent of the population is considered obese, and nearly 75 percent is overweight. Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and even infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

    “Obesity, along with aging, is a global factor that contributes to every aspect of human health,” Kellis says.

    Several years ago, his lab performed a study on the FTO gene region, which has been strongly linked to obesity risk. In that 2015 study, the research team found that genes in this region control a pathway that prompts immature fat cells called progenitor adipocytes to either become fat-burning cells or fat-storing cells.

    That finding, which demonstrated a clear genetic component to obesity, motivated Kellis to begin looking at how exercise, a well-known behavioral intervention that can prevent obesity, might act on progenitor adipocytes at the cellular level.

    To explore that question, Kellis and his colleagues decided to perform single-cell RNA sequencing of three types of tissue — skeletal muscle, visceral white adipose tissue (found packed around internal organs, where it stores fat), and subcutaneous white adipose tissue (which is found under the skin and primarily burns fat).

    These tissues came from mice from four different experimental groups. For three weeks, two groups of mice were fed either a normal diet or a high-fat diet. For the next three weeks, each of those two groups were further divided into a sedentary group and an exercise group, which had continuous access to a treadmill.

    By analyzing tissues from those mice, the researchers were able to comprehensively catalog the genes that were activated or suppressed by exercise in 53 different cell types.

    The researchers found that in all three tissue types, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) appeared to control many of the diet and exercise-induced effects that they observed. MSCs are stem cells that can differentiate into other cell types, including fat cells and fibroblasts. In adipose tissue, the researchers found that a high-fat diet modulated MSCs’ capacity to differentiate into fat-storing cells, while exercise reversed this effect.

    In addition to promoting fat storage, the researchers found that a high-fat diet also stimulated MSCs to secrete factors that remodel the extracellular matrix (ECM) — a network of proteins and other molecules that surround and support cells and tissues in the body. This ECM remodeling helps provide structure for enlarged fat-storing cells and also creates a more inflammatory environment.

    “As the adipocytes become overloaded with lipids, there’s an extreme amount of stress, and that causes low-grade inflammation, which is systemic and preserved for a long time,” Kellis says. “That is one of the factors that is contributing to many of the adverse effects of obesity.”

    Circadian effects

    The researchers also found that high-fat diets and exercise had opposing effects on cellular pathways that control circadian rhythms — the 24-hour cycles that govern many functions, from sleep to body temperature, hormone release, and digestion. The study revealed that exercise boosts the expression of genes that regulate these rhythms, while a high-fat diet suppresses them.

    “There have been a lot of studies showing that when you eat during the day is extremely important in how you absorb the calories,” Kellis says. “The circadian rhythm connection is a very important one, and shows how obesity and exercise are in fact directly impacting that circadian rhythm in peripheral organs, which could act systemically on distal clocks and regulate stem cell functions and immunity.”

    The researchers then compared their results to a database of human genes that have been linked with metabolic traits. They found that two of the circadian rhythm genes they identified in this study, known as DBP and CDKN1A, have genetic variants that have been associated with a higher risk of obesity in humans.

    “These results help us see the translational values of these targets, and how we could potentially target specific biological processes in specific cell types,” Yang says.

    The researchers are now analyzing samples of small intestine, liver, and brain tissue from the mice in this study, to explore the effects of exercise and high-fat diets on those tissues. They are also conducting work with human volunteers to sample blood and biopsies and study similarities and differences between human and mouse physiology. They hope that their findings will help guide drug developers in designing drugs that might mimic some of the beneficial effects of exercise.

    “The message for everyone should be, eat a healthy diet and exercise if possible,” Kellis says. “For those for whom this is not possible, due to low access to healthy foods, or due to disabilities or other factors that prevent exercise, or simply lack of time to have a healthy diet or a healthy lifestyle, what this study says is that we now have a better handle on the pathways, the specific genes, and the specific molecular and cellular processes that we should be manipulating therapeutically.”

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Novo Nordisk Research Center in Seattle. More

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    J-WAFS awards $150K Solutions grant to Patrick Doyle and team for rapid removal of micropollutants from water

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has awarded a 2022 J-WAFS Solutions grant to Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, for his innovative system to tackle water pollution. Doyle will be working with co-Principal Investigator Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, assistant professor in materials processing in the Department of Materials Science, as well as PhD students Devashish Gokhale and Tynan Perez. Building off of findings from a 2019 J-WAFS seed grant, Doyle and the research team will create cost-effective industry-scale processes to remove micropollutants from water. Project work will commence this month.

    The J-WAFS Solutions program provides one-year, renewable, commercialization grants to help move MIT technology from the laboratory to market. Grants of up to $150,000 are awarded to researchers with breakthrough technologies and inventions in water or food. Since its launch in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have led to seven spinout companies and helped commercialize two products as open-source technologies. The grant program is supported by Community Jameel.

    A widespread problem 

    Micropollutants are contaminants that occur in low concentrations in the environment, yet continuous exposure and bioaccumulation of micropollutants make them a cause for concern. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plastics derivative Bisphenol A (BPA), the “forever chemicals” per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and heavy metals like lead are common micropollutants known to be found in more than 85 percent of rivers, ponds, and lakes in the United States. Many of these bodies of water are sources of drinking water. Over long periods of time, exposure to micropollutants through drinking water can cause physiological damage in humans, increasing the risk of cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive failure.

    Since micropollutants occur in low concentrations, it is difficult to detect and monitor their presence, and the chemical diversity of micropollutants makes it difficult to inexpensively remove them from water. Currently, activated carbon is the industry standard for micropollutant elimination, but this method cannot efficiently remove contaminants at parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion concentrations. There are also strong sustainability concerns associated with activated carbon production, which is energy-intensive and releases large volumes of carbon dioxide.

    A solution with societal and economic benefits

    Doyle and his team are developing a technology that uses sustainable hydrogel microparticles to remove micropollutants from water. The polymeric hydrogel microparticles use chemically anchored structures including micelles and other chelating agents that act like a sponge by absorbing organic micropollutants and heavy metal ions. The microparticles are large enough to separate from water using simple gravitational settling. The system is sustainable because the microparticles can be recycled for continuous use. In testing, the long-lasting, reusable microparticles show quicker removal of contaminants than commercial activated carbon. The researchers plan to utilize machine learning to find optimal microparticle compositions that maximize performance on complex combinations of micropollutants in simulated and real wastewater samples.

    Economically, the technology is a new offering that has applications in numerous large markets where micropollutant elimination is vital, including municipal and industrial water treatment equipment, as well as household water purification systems. The J-WAFS Solutions grant will allow the team to build and test prototypes of the water treatment system, identify the best use cases and customers, and perform technoeconomic analyses and market research to formulate a preliminary business plan. With J-WAFS commercialization support, the project could eventually lead to a startup company.

    “Emerging micropollutants are a growing threat to drinking water supplies worldwide,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. “Cost-effective and scalable technologies for micropollutant removal are urgently needed. This project will develop and commercialize a promising new tool for water treatment, with the goal of improving water quality for millions of people.” More

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    Promoting systemic change in the Middle East, the “MIT way”

    The Middle East is a region that is facing complicated challenges. MIT programs have been committed to building scalable methodologies through which students and the broader MIT community can learn and make an impact. These processes ensure programs work alongside others across cultures to support change aligned with their needs. Through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), faculty and staff at the Institute continue to build opportunities to connect with and support the region.

    In this spirit, MISTI launched the Leaders Journey Workshop in 2021. This program partnered MIT students with Palestinian and Israeli alumni from three associate organizations: Middle East Entrepreneurs for Tomorrow (MEET), Our Generation Speaks (OGS), and Tech2Peace. Teams met monthly to engage with speakers and work with one another to explore the best ways to leverage science, technology, and entrepreneurship across borders.

    Building on the success of this workshop, the program piloted a for-credit course: SP.258 (MISTI: Middle East Cross-Border Development and Leadership) in fall 2021. The course involved engaging with subject matter experts through five mini-consulting projects in collaboration with regional stakeholders. Topics included climate, health care, and economic development. The course was co-instructed by associate director of the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) Sinan AbuShanab, managing director of MISTI programs in the Middle East David Dolev, and Kathleen Schwind ’19, with MIT CIS/ MISTI Research Affiliate Steven Koltai as lead mentor. The course also drew support from alumni mentors and regional industry partners.

    The course was developed during the height of the pandemic and thus successfully leveraged the intense culture of online engagement prevalent at the time by layering in-person coursework with strategic digital group engagement. Pedagogically, the structure was inspired by multiple MIT methodologies: MISTI preparation and training courses, Sloan Action Learning, REAP/REAL multi-party stakeholder model, the Media Lab Learning Initiative, and the multicultural framework of associate organizations.

    “We worked to develop a series of aims and a methodology that would enrich MIT students and their peers in the region and support the important efforts of Israelis and Palestinians to make systemic change,” said Dolev.

    During the on-campus sessions, MIT students explored the region’s political and historical complexities and the meaning of being a global leader and entrepreneur. Guest presenters included: Boston College Associate Professor Peter Krause (MIT Security Studies Program alumnus), Gilad Rosenzweig (MITdesignX), Ari Jacobovits (MIT-Africa), and Mollie Laffin-Rose Agbiboa (MIT-REAP). Group projects focused on topics that fell under three key regional verticals: water, health care, and economic development. The teams were given a technical or business challenge they were tasked with solving. These challenges were sourced directly from for-profit and nonprofit organizations in the region.

    “This was a unique opportunity for me to learn so much about the area I live in, work on a project together with people from the ‘other side,’ MIT students, and incredible mentors,” shared a participant from the region. “Furthermore, getting a glimpse of the world of MIT was a great experience for me.”

    For their final presentations, teams pitched their solutions, including their methodology for researching/addressing the problem, a description of solutions to be applied, what is needed to execute the idea itself, and potential challenges encountered. Teams received feedback and continued to deepen their experience in cross-cultural teamwork.

    “As an education manager, I needed guidance with these digital tools and how to approach them,” says an EcoPeace representative. “The MIT program provided me with clear deliverables I can now implement in my team’s work.”

    “This course has broadened my knowledge of conflicts, relationships, and how geography plays an important role in the region,” says an MIT student participant. “Moving forward, I feel more confident working with business and organizations to develop solutions for problems in real time, using the skills I have to supplement the project work.”

    Layers of engagement with mentors, facilitators, and whole-team leadership ensured that participants gained project management experience, learning objectives were met, and professional development opportunities were available. Each team was assigned an MIT-MEET alumni mentor with whom they met throughout the course. Mentors coached the teams on methods for managing a client project and how to collaborate for successful completion. Joint sessions with MIT guest speakers deepened participants’ regional understanding of water, health care, economic development, and their importance in the region. Speakers included: Mohamed Aburawi, Phil Budden (MIT-REAP) Steven Koltai, Shari Loessberg, Dina Sherif (MIT Legatum Center, Greg Sixt (J-WAFS), and Shriya Srinivasan.

    “The program is unlike any other I’ve come across,” says one of the alumni mentors. “The chance for MIT students to work directly with peers from the region, to propose and create technical solutions to real problems on the ground, and partner with local organizations is an incredibly meaningful opportunity. I wish I had been able to participate in something like this when I was at MIT.”

    Each team also assigned a fellow group member as a facilitator, who served as the main point of contact for the team and oversaw project management: organizing workstreams, ensuring deadlines were met, and mediating any group disagreements. This model led to successful project outcomes and innovative suggestions.

    “The superb work of the MISTI group gave us a critical eye and made significant headway on a product that can hopefully be a game changer to over 150 Israeli and Palestinian organizations,” says a representative from Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP).

    Leadership team meetings included MIT staff and Israeli and Palestinian leadership of the partner organizations for discussing process, content, recent geopolitical developments, and how to adapt the class to the ongoing changing situation.

    “The topic of Palestine/Israel is contentious: globally, in the region, and also, at times, on the MIT campus,” says Dolev. “I myself have questioned how we can make a systemic impact with our partners from the region. How can we be side-by-side on that journey for the betterment of all? I have now seen first-hand how this multilayered model can work.”

    MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) is MIT’s hub for global experiences. MISTI’s unparalleled internship, research, teaching, and study abroad programs offer students unique experiences that bring MIT’s one-of-a-kind education model to life in countries around the world. MISTI programs are carefully designed to complement on-campus course work and research, and rigorous, country-specific preparation enables students to forge cultural connections and play a role in addressing important global challenges while abroad. Students come away from their experiences with invaluable perspectives that inform their education, career, and worldview. MISTI embodies MIT’s commitment to global engagement and prepares students to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. More