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    MIT Policy Hackathon produces new solutions for technology policy challenges

    Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to uncover a “new normal.”

    “Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] wants to build back something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS). “How do we communicate this mindset to others, that the world cannot be the same as before?”

    This was the inspiration behind “A New (Re)generation,” this year’s theme for the IDSS-student-run MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped to organize as the event chair. The Policy Hackathon is a weekend-long, interdisciplinary competition that brings together participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. 

    Unlike other competitions of its kind, Sandoval says MIT’s event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of our hackathon is to promote applications of technology that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We take the opportunity to examine aspects of technology in the spaces where they tend to interact with society and people, an opportunity most technical competitions don’t offer because their primary focus is on the technology.”

    The competition started with 50 teams spread across four challenge categories. This year’s categories included Internet and Cybersecurity, Environmental Justice, Logistics, and Housing and City Planning. While some people come into the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.

    “We encourage people to pair up with others outside of their country and to form teams of different diverse backgrounds and ages,” Sandoval says. “We try to give people who are often not invited to the decision-making table the opportunity to be a policymaker, bringing in those with backgrounds in not only law, policy, or politics, but also medicine, and people who have careers in engineering or experience working in nonprofits.”

    Once an in-person event, the Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process these past three years, according to Sandoval. After going entirely online during the pandemic’s height, last year they successfully hosted the first hybrid version of the event, which served as their model again this year.

    “The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it is only online, while also keeping the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or income, to provide their input,” Sandoval says.

    For Swetha Tadisina, an undergraduate computer science major at Lafayette College and participant in the internet and cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much more advanced in their careers. “I was surprised how such a diverse team that had never met before was able to work so efficiently and creatively,” Tadisina says.

    Erika Spangler, a public high school teacher from Massachusetts and member of the environmental justice category’s winning team, says that while each member of “Team Slime Mold” came to the table with a different set of skills, they managed to be in sync from the start — even working across the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with policy advocate Shruti Nandy from Calcutta, India.

    “We divided the project into data, policy, and research and trusted each other’s expertise,” Spangler says, “Despite having separate areas of focus, we made sure to have regular check-ins to problem-solve and cross-pollinate ideas.”

    During the 48-hour period, her team proposed the creation of an algorithm to identify high-quality brownfields that could be cleaned up and used as sites for building renewable energy. Their corresponding policy sought to mandate additional requirements for renewable energy businesses seeking tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.

    “Their policy memo had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives in a few key cities to show the impact of their proposed approach for site selection at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levin acted as both a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.

    “They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly noting the relevant actor,” she adds. This clarity around what can be done, and who would be responsible for those actions, is highly valuable for those in policy.”

    Levin says the NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams did not need to address all of them. She notes that this gave teams significant leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table. 

    “As a challenge partner, the work put together by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions about the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Levin says. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”

    While having partners with experience in data science and policy definitely helped, fellow Team Slime Mold member Sara Sheffels, a PhD candidate in MIT’s biomaterials program, says she was surprised how much her experiences outside of science and policy were relevant to the challenge: “My experience organizing MIT’s Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas about more meaningful community involvement in renewables projects on brownfields. It is not meaningful to merely educate people about the importance of renewables or ask them to sign off on a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.”

    “I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure, and expand my world,” Tadisina adds. “The exposure, friendships, and experiences you gain in such a short period of time are incredible.”

    For Willy R. Vasquez, an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If you’re interested in the intersection of tech, society, and policy, then this is a must-do experience.” More

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    Finding community in high-energy-density physics

    Skylar Dannhoff knew one thing: She did not want to be working alone.

    As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, she had committed to a senior project that often felt like solitary lab work, a feeling heightened by the pandemic. Though it was an enriching experience, she was determined to find a graduate school environment that would foster community, one “with lots of people, lots of collaboration; where it’s impossible to work until 3 a.m. without anyone noticing.” A unique group at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) looked promising: the High-Energy-Density Physics (HEDP) division, a lead partner in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Center for Excellence at MIT.

    “It was a shot in the dark, just more of a whim than anything,” she says of her request to join HEDP on her application to MIT’s Department of Physics. “And then, somehow, they reached out to me. I told them I’m willing to learn about plasma. I didn’t know anything about it.”

    What she did know was that the HEDP group collaborates with other U.S. laboratories on an approach to creating fusion energy known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF). One version of the technique, known as direct-drive ICF, aims multiple laser beams symmetrically onto a spherical capsule filled with nuclear fuel. The other, indirect-drive ICF, instead aims multiple lasers beams into a gold cylindrical cavity called a hohlraum, within which the spherical fuel capsule is positioned. The laser beams are configured to hit the inner hohlraum wall, generating a “bath” of X-rays, which in turn compress the fuel capsule.

    Imploding the capsule generates intense fusion energy within a tiny fraction of a second (an order of tens of picoseconds). In August 2021, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) used this method to produce an historic fusion yield of 1.3 megajoules, putting researchers within reach of “ignition,” the point where the self-sustained fusion burn spreads into the surrounding fuel, leading to a high fusion-energy gain.  

    Joining the group just a month before this long-sought success, Dannhoff was impressed more with the response of her new teammates and the ICF community than with the scientific milestone. “I got a better appreciation for people who had spent their entire careers working on this project, just chugging along doing their best, ignoring the naysayers. I was excited for the people.”

    Dannhoff is now working toward extending the success of NIF and other ICF experiments, like the OMEGA laser at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Under the supervision of Senior Research Scientist Chikang Li, she is studying what happens to the flow of plasma within the hohlraum cavity during indirect ICF experiments, particularly for hohlraums with inner-wall aerogel foam linings. Experiments, over the last decade, have shown just how excruciatingly precise the symmetry in ICF targets must be. The more symmetric the X-ray drive, the more effective the implosion, and it is possible that these foam linings will improve the X-ray symmetry and drive efficiency.

    Dannhoff is specifically interested in studying the behavior of silicon and tantalum-based foam liners. She is as concerned with the challenges of the people at General Atomics (GA) and LLNL who are creating these targets as she is with the scientific outcome.

    “I just had a meeting with GA yesterday,” she notes. “And it’s a really tricky process. It’s kind of pushing the boundaries of what is doable at the moment. I got a much better sense of how demanding this project is for them, how much we’re asking of them.”

    What excites Dannhoff is the teamwork she observes, both at MIT and between ICF institutions around the United States. With roughly 10 graduate students and postdocs down the hall, each with an assigned lead role in lab management, she knows she can consult an expert on almost any question. And collaborators across the country are just an email away. “Any information that people can give you, they will give you, and usually very freely,” she notes. “Everyone just wants to see this work.”

    That Dannhoff is a natural team player is also evidenced in her hobbies. A hockey goalie, she prioritizes playing with MIT’s intramural teams, “because goalies are a little hard to come by. I just play with whoever needs a goalie on that night, and it’s a lot of fun.”

    She is also a member of the radio community, a fellowship she first embraced at Case Western — a moment she describes as a turning point in her life. “I literally don’t know who I would be today if I hadn’t figured out radio is something I’m interested in,” she admits. The MIT Radio Society provided the perfect landing pad for her arrival in Cambridge, full of the kinds of supportive, interesting, knowledgeable students she had befriended as an undergraduate. She credits radio with helping her realize that she could make her greatest contributions to science by focusing on engineering.

    Danhoff gets philosophical as she marvels at the invisible waves that surround us.

    “Not just radio waves: every wave,” she asserts. “The voice is the everywhere. Music, signal, space phenomena: it’s always around. And all we have to do is make the right little device and have the right circuit elements put in the right order to unmix and mix the signals and amplify them. And bada-bing, bada-boom, we’re talking with the universe.”

    “Maybe that epitomizes physics to me,” she adds. “We’re trying to listen to the universe, and it’s talking to us. We just have to come up with the right tools and hear what it’s trying to say.” More

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    Assay determines the percentage of Omicron, other variants in Covid wastewater

    Wastewater monitoring emerged amid the Covid-19 pandemic as an effective and noninvasive way to track a viral outbreak, and advances in the technology have enabled researchers to not only identify but also quantify the presence of particular variants of concern (VOCs) in wastewater samples.

    Last year, researchers with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) made the news for developing a quantitative assay for the Alpha variant of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, while also working on a similar assay for the Delta variant. Previously, conventional wastewater detection methods could only detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 viral material in a sample, without identifying the variant of the virus.

    Now, a team at SMART has developed a quantitative RT-qPCR assay that can detect the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. This type of assay enables wastewater surveillance to accurately trace variant dynamics in any given community or population, and support and inform the implementation of appropriate public health measures tailored according to the specific traits of a particular viral pathogen.

    The capacity to count and assess particular VOCs is unique to SMART’s open-source assay, and allows researchers to accurately determine displacement trends in a community. Hence, the new assay can reveal what proportion of SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in a community belongs to a particular variant. This is particularly significant, as different SARS-CoV-2 VOCs — Alpha, Delta, Omicron, and their offshoots — have emerged at various points throughout the pandemic, each causing a new wave of infections to which the population was more susceptible.

    The team’s new allele-specific RT-qPCR assay is described in a paper, “Rapid displacement of SARS-CoV-2 variant Delta by Omicron revealed by allele-specific PCR in wastewater,” published this month in Water Research. Senior author on the work is Eric Alm, professor of biological engineering at MIT and a principal investigator in the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group within SMART, MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore. Co-authors include researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore National University (NUS), MIT, Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), and Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Lombardia e dell’Emilia Romagna (IZSLER) in Italy.

    Omicron overtakes delta within three weeks in Italy study

    In their study, SMART researchers found that the increase in booster vaccine population coverage in Italy concurred with the complete displacement of the Delta variant by the Omicron variant in wastewater samples obtained from the Torbole Casaglia wastewater treatment plant, with a catchment size of 62,722 people. Taking less than three weeks, the rapid pace of this displacement can be attributed to Omicron’s infection advantage over the previously dominant Delta in vaccinated individuals, which may stem from Omicron’s more efficient evasion of vaccination-induced immunity.

    “In a world where Covid-19 is endemic, the monitoring of VOCs through wastewater surveillance will be an effective tool for the tracking of variants circulating in the community and will play an increasingly important role in guiding public health response,” says paper co-author Federica Armas, a senior postdoc at SMART AMR. “This work has demonstrated that wastewater surveillance can be used to quickly and quantitatively trace VOCs present in a community.”

    Wastewater surveillance vital for future pandemic responses

    As the global population becomes increasingly vaccinated and exposed to prior infections, nations have begun transitioning toward the classification of SARS-CoV-2 as an endemic disease, rolling back active clinical surveillance toward decentralized antigen rapid tests, and consequently reducing sequencing of patient samples. However, SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to produce novel VOCs that can swiftly emerge and spread rapidly across populations, displacing previously dominant variants of the virus. This was observed when Delta displaced Alpha across the globe after the former’s emergence in India in December 2020, and again when Omicron displaced Delta at an even faster rate following its discovery in South Africa in November 2021. The continuing emergence of novel VOCs therefore necessitates continued vigilance on the monitoring of circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants in communities.

    In a separate review paper on wastewater surveillance titled “Making Waves: Wastewater Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in an Endemic Future,” published in the journal Water Research, SMART researchers and collaborators found that the utility of wastewater surveillance in the near future could include 1) monitoring the trend of viral loads in wastewater for quantified viral estimates circulating in a community; 2) sampling of wastewater at the source — e.g., taking samples from particular neighborhoods or buildings — for pinpointing infections in neighborhoods and at the building level; 3) integrating wastewater and clinical surveillance for cost-efficient population surveillance; and 4) genome sequencing wastewater samples to track circulating and emerging variants in the population.

    “Our experience with SARS-CoV-2 has shown that clinical testing can often only paint a limited picture of the true extent of an outbreak or pandemic. With Covid-19 becoming prevalent and with the anticipated emergence of further variants of concern, qualitative and quantitative data from wastewater surveillance will be an integral component of a cost- and resource-efficient public health surveillance program, empowering authorities to make more informed policy decisions,” adds corresponding author Janelle Thompson, associate professor at SCELSE and NTU. “Our review provides a roadmap for the wider deployment of wastewater surveillance, with opportunities and challenges that, if addressed, will enable us to not only better manage Covid-19, but also future-proof societies for other viral pathogens and future pandemics.”

    In addition, the review suggests that future wastewater research should comply with a set of standardized wastewater processing methods to reduce inconsistencies in wastewater data toward improving epidemiological inference. Methods developed in the context of SARS-CoV-2 and its analyses could be of invaluable benefit for future wastewater monitoring work on discovering emerging zoonotic pathogens — pathogens that can be transmitted from animals to humans — and for early detection of future pandemics.

    Furthermore, far from being confined to SARS-CoV-2, wastewater surveillance has already been adapted for use in combating other viral pathogens. Another paper from September 2021 described an advance in the development of effective wastewater surveillance for dengue, Zika, and yellow fever viruses, with SMART researchers successfully measuring decay rates of these medically significant arboviruses in wastewater. This was followed by another review paper by SMART published in July 2022 that explored current progress and future challenges and opportunities in wastewater surveillance for arboviruses. These developments represent an important first step toward establishing arbovirus wastewater surveillance, which would help policymakers in Singapore and beyond make better informed and more targeted public health measures in controlling arbovirus outbreaks such as dengue, which is a significant public health concern in Singapore.

    “Our learnings from using wastewater surveillance as a key tool over the course of Covid-19 will be crucial in helping researchers develop similar methods to monitor and tackle other viral pathogens and future pandemics,” says Lee Wei Lin, first author of the latest SMART paper and research scientist at SMART AMR. “Wastewater surveillance has already shown promising utility in helping to fight other viral pathogens, including some of the world’s most prevalent mosquito-borne diseases, and there is significant potential for the technology to be adapted for use against other infectious viral diseases.”

    The research is carried out by SMART and its collaborators at SCELSE, NTU, and NUS, co-led by Professor Eric Alm (SMART and MIT) and Associate Professor Janelle Thompson (SCELSE and NTU), and is supported by Singapore’sNational Research Foundation (NRF) under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program. The research is part of an initiative funded by the NRF to develop sewage-based surveillance for rapid outbreak detection and intervention in Singapore.

    SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the NRF in 2007. SMART is the first entity in CREATE developed by NRF and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both Singapore and MIT. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Centre and five interdisciplinary research groups: AMR, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The AMR IRG is a translational research and entrepreneurship program that tackles the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. By leveraging talent and convergent technologies across Singapore and MIT, they tackle AMR head-on by developing multiple innovative and disruptive approaches to identify, respond to, and treat drug-resistant microbial infections. Through strong scientific and clinical collaborations, our goal is to provide transformative, holistic solutions for Singapore and the world. 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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    Evan Leppink: Seeking a way to better stabilize the fusion environment

    “Fusion energy was always one of those kind-of sci-fi technologies that you read about,” says nuclear science and engineering PhD candidate Evan Leppink. He’s recalling the time before fusion became a part of his daily hands-on experience at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, where he is studying a unique way to drive current in a tokamak plasma using radiofrequency (RF) waves. 

    Now, an award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program will support his work with a 12-month residency at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego, California.

    Like all tokamaks, DIII-D generates hot plasma inside a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber wrapped with magnets. Because plasma will follow magnetic field lines, tokamaks are able to contain the turbulent plasma fuel as it gets hotter and denser, keeping it away from the edges of the chamber where it could damage the wall materials. A key part of the tokamak concept is that part of the magnetic field is created by electrical currents in the plasma itself, which helps to confine and stabilize the configuration. Researchers often launch high-power RF waves into tokamaks to drive that current.

    Leppink will be contributing to research, led by his MIT advisor Steve Wukitch, that pursues launching RF waves in DIII-D using a unique compact antenna placed on the tokamak center column. Typically, antennas are placed inside the tokamak on the outer edge of the doughnut, farthest from the central hole (or column), primarily because access and installation are easier there. This is known as the “low-field side,” because the magnetic field is lower there than at the central column, the “high-field side.” This MIT-led experiment, for the first time, will mount an antenna on the high-field side. There is some theoretical evidence that placing the wave launcher there could improve power penetration and current drive efficiency. And because the plasma environment is less harsh on this side, the antenna will survive longer, a factor important for any future power-producing tokamak.

    Leppink’s work on DIII-D focuses specifically on measuring the density of plasmas generated in the tokamak, for which he developed a “reflectometer.” This small antenna launches microwaves into the plasma, which reflect back to the antenna to be measured. The time that it takes for these microwaves to traverse the plasma provides information about the plasma density, allowing researchers to build up detailed density profiles, data critical for injecting RF power into the plasma.

    “Research shows that when we try to inject these waves into the plasma to drive the current, they can lose power as they travel through the edge region of the tokamak, and can even have problems entering the core of the plasma, where we would most like to direct them,” says Leppink. “My diagnostic will measure that edge region on the high-field side near the launcher in great detail, which provides us a way to directly verify calculations or compare actual results with simulation results.”

    Although focused on his own research, Leppink has excelled at priming other students for success in their studies and research. In 2021 he received the NSE Outstanding Teaching Assistant and Mentorship Award.

    “The highlights of TA’ing for me were the times when I could watch students go from struggling with a difficult topic to fully understanding it, often with just a nudge in the right direction and then allowing them to follow their own intuition the rest of the way,” he says.

    The right direction for Leppink points toward San Diego and RF current drive experiments on DIII-D. He is grateful for the support from the SCGSR, a program created to prepare graduate students like him for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics careers important to the DOE Office of Science mission. It provides graduate thesis research opportunities through extended residency at DOE national laboratories. He has already made several trips to DIII-D, in part to install his reflectometer, and has been impressed with the size of the operation.

    “It takes a little while to kind of compartmentalize everything and say, ‘OK, well, here’s my part of the machine. This is what I’m doing.’ It can definitely be overwhelming at times. But I’m blessed to be able to work on what has been the workhorse tokamak of the United States for the past few decades.” More

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    Migration Summit addresses education and workforce development in displacement

    “Refugees can change the world with access to education,” says Alnarjes Harba, a refugee from Syria who recently shared her story at the 2022 Migration Summit — a first-of-its-kind, global convening to address the challenges that displaced communities face in accessing education and employment.

    At the age of 13, Harba was displaced to Lebanon, where she graduated at the top of her high school class. But because of her refugee status, she recalls, no university in her host country would accept her. Today, Harba is a researcher in health-care architecture. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University, where she was part of the Global Education Movement, a program providing refugees with pathways to higher education and work.

    Like many of the Migration Summit’s participants, Harba shared her story to call attention not only to the barriers to refugee education, but also to the opportunities to create more education-to-employment pathways like MIT Refugee Action Hub’s (ReACT) certificate programs for displaced learners.

    Organized by MIT ReACT, the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), Na’amal, Karam Foundation, and Paper Airplanes, the Migration Summit sought to center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by displacement — both in narratives about the crisis and in the search for solutions. Themed “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement,” this year’s summit welcomed more than 900 attendees from over 30 countries, to a total of 40 interactive virtual sessions led by displaced learners, educators, and activists working to support communities in displacement.

    Sessions highlighted the experiences of refugees, migrants, and displaced learners, as well as current efforts across the education and workforce development landscape, ranging from pK-12 initiatives to post-secondary programs, workforce training to entrepreneurship opportunities.

    Overcoming barriers to access

    The vision for the Migration Summit developed, in part, out of the need to raise more awareness about the long-standing global displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 82.4 million people worldwide today are forcibly displaced, a figure that doesn’t include the estimated 12 million people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since February.

    “Refugees not only leave their countries; they leave behind a thousand memories, their friends, their families,” says Mondiant Dogon, a human rights activist, refugee ambassador, and author who gave the Migration Summit’s opening keynote address. “Education is the most important thing that can happen to refugees. In that way, we can leave behind the refugee camps and build our own independent future.”

    Yet, as the stories of the summit’s participants highlight, many in displacement have lost their livelihoods or had their education disrupted — only to face further challenges when trying to access education or find work in their new places of residence. Obstacles range from legal restrictions, language and cultural barriers, and unaffordable costs to lack of verifiable credentials. UNHCR estimates that only 5 percent of refugees have access to higher education, compared to the global average of 39 percent.

    “There is another problem related to forced displacement — dehumanization of migrants,” says Lina Sergie Attar, the founder and CEO of Karam Foundation. “They are unjustly positioned as enemies, as a threat.”

    But as Blein Alem, an MIT ReACT alum and refugee from Eritrea, explains, “No one chooses to be a refugee — it just occurs. Whether by conflict, war, human rights violations, just because you have refugee status does not mean that you are not willing to make a change in your life and access to education and work.” Several participants, including Alem, shared that, even with a degree in hand, their refugee status limited their ability to work in their new countries of residence.

    Displaced communities face complex and structural challenges in accessing education and workforce development opportunities. Because of the varying and vast effects of displacement, efforts to address these challenges range in scale and focus and differ across sectors. As Lorraine Charles, co-founder and director of Na’amal, noted in the Migration Summit’s closing session, many organizations find themselves working in silos, or even competing with each other for funding and other resources. As a result, solution-making has been fragmented, with persistent gaps between different sectors that are, in fact, working toward the same goals.

    Imagining a modular, digital, collaborative approach

    A key takeaway from the month’s discussions, then, is the need to rethink the response to refugee education and workforce challenges. During the session, “From Intentions to Impact: Decolonizing Refugee Response,” participants emphasized the systemic nature of these challenges. Yet formal responses, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, have been largely inadequate — in some instances even oppressing the communities they’re meant to support, explains Sana Mustafa, director of partnership and engagement for Asylum Access.

    “We have the opportunity to rethink how we are handling the situation,” Mustafa says, calling for more efforts to include refugees in the design and development of solutions.

    Presenters also agreed that educational institutions, particularly universities, could play a vital role in providing more pathways for refugees and displaced learners. Key to this is rethinking the structure of education itself, including its delivery.

    “The challenge right now is that degrees are monolithic,” says Sanjay Sarma, vice president for MIT Open Learning, who gave the keynote address on “Pathways to Education, Livelihood, and Hope.” “They’re like those gigantic rocks at Stonehenge or in other megalithic sites. What we need is a much more granular version of education: bricks. Bricks were invented several thousand years ago, but we don’t really have that yet formally and extensively in education.”

    “There is no way we can accommodate thousands and thousands of refugees face-to-face,” says Shai Reshef, the founder and president of University of the People. “The only path is a digital one.”

    Ultimately, explains Demetri Fadel of Karam Foundation, “We really need to think about how to create a vision of education as a right for every person all around the world.”

    Underlying many of the Migration Summit’s conclusions is the awareness that there is still much work to be done. However, as the summit’s co-chair Lana Cook said in her closing remarks, “This was not a convening of despair, but one about what we can build together.”

    The summit’s organizers are currently putting together a public report of the key findings that have emerged from the month’s conversations, including recommendations for thematic working groups and future Migration Summit activities. More

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    Living Climate Futures initiative showcases holistic approach to the climate crisis

    The sun shone bright and warm on the Dertouzos Amphitheater at the Stata Center this past Earth Day as a panel of Indigenous leaders from across the country talked about their experiences with climate activism and shared their natural world philosophies — a worldview that sees humanity as one with the rest of the Earth.

    “I was taught the natural world philosophies by those raised by precolonial individuals,” said Jay Julius W’tot Lhem of the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest and founder and president of Se’Si’Le, an organization dedicated to reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate. Since his great-grandmother was born in 1888, he grew up “one hug away from pre-contact,” as he put it.

    Natural world philosophiesNatural world philosophies sit at the center of the Indigenous activism taking place all over the country, and they were a highlight of the Indigenous Earth Day panel — one part of a two-day symposium called Living Climate Futures. The events were hosted by the Anthropology and History sections and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability and Project Indigenous MIT.

    “The Living Climate Futures initiative began from the recognition that the people who are living most closely with climate and environmental struggles and injustices are especially equipped to lead the way toward other ways of living in the world,” says Briana Meier, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and an organizer of the event. “While much climate action is based in technology-driven policy, we recognize that solutions to climate change are often embedded within and produced in response to existing social systems of injustice and inequity.”

    On-the-ground experts from around the country spoke in a series of panels and discussions over the two days, sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to think differently about how to address the environmental crisis.

    Gathering experts

    The hope, according to faculty organizers, was that an event centered on such voices could create connections among activists and open the eyes of many to the human element of climate solutions.

    Over the years, many such solutions have overlooked the needs of the communities they are designed to help. Streams in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been dammed to generate hydroelectric power — promoted as a green alternative to fossil fuel. But these same locations have long been sacred spots for Indigenous swimming rituals, said Ryan Emanuel (Lumbee), associate professor of hydrology at Duke University and a panelist in the Indigenous Earth Day event. Mitigating the environmental damage does not make up for the loss of sacred connection, he emphasized.

    To dig into such nuances, the organizers invited an intergenerational group of panelists to share successes with attendees.

    Transforming urban spaces

    In one panel, for example, urban farmers from Mansfield, Ohio, and Chelsea, Massachusetts, discussed the benefits of growing vegetables in cities.

    “Transforming urban spaces into farms provides not just healthy food, but a visible symbol of hope, a way for people to connect and grow food that reflects their cultures and homes, an economic development opportunity, and even a safe space for teens to hang out,” said Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability and an event organizer. “We also heard about the challenges — like the cost of real estate in Massachusetts.”

    Another panel highlighted the determined efforts of a group of students from George Washington High School in Southeast Chicago to derail a project to build a scrap metal recycling plant across the street from their school. “We’re at school eight hours a day,” said Gregory Miller, a junior at the school. “We refuse to live next door to a metals scrapyard.”

    The proposed plant was intended to replace something similar that had been shut down in a predominantly white neighborhood due to its many environmental violations. Southeast Chicago is more culturally diverse and has long suffered from industrial pollution and economic hardship, but the students fought the effort to further pollute their home — and won.

    “It was hard, the campaign,” said Destiny Vasquez. “But it was beautiful because the community came together. There is unity in our struggle.”

    Recovering a common heritage 

    Unity was also at the forefront of the discussion for the Indigenous Earth Day panel in the Stata Amphitheater. This portion of the Living Climate Futures event began with a greeting in the Navajo language from Alvin Harvey, PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics (Aero/Astro) and representative of the MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the MIT Native American Student Association. The greeting identified all who came to the event as relatives.

    “Look at the relatives next to you, especially those trees,” he said, gesturing to the budding branches around the amphitheater. “They give you shelter, love … few other beings are willing to do that.”

    According to Julius, such reverence for nature is part of the Indigenous way of life, common across tribal backgrounds — and something all of humanity once had in common. “Somewhere along the line we all had Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “We all need an invitation back to that to understand we’re all part of the whole.”

    Understanding the oneness of all living things on earth helps people of Indigenous nations feel the distress of the earth when it is under attack, speakers said. Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an elder of the Lumbee tribe, discussed the trauma of having forests near her home in the southeastern United States clear-cut to provide wood chips to Europe.

    “They are devastating the lungs of the earth in North Carolina at a rate faster than in the Amazon,” she said. “You can almost hear the pain of the forest.”

    Small pictures of everyday life

    “People are experiencing a climate crisis that is global in really different ways in different places,” says Heather Paxson, head of MIT Anthropology and an event organizer. “What came out of these two days is a real, palpable sense of the power of listening to individual experience. Not because it gives us the big picture, but because it gives us the small picture.”

    Trinity Colón, one of the leaders of the group from George Washington High School, impressed on attendees that environmental justice is much more than an academic pursuit. “We’re not talking about climate change in the sense of statistics, infographics,” she said. “For us this is everyday life … [Future engineers and others training at MIT] should definitely take that into perspective, that these are real people really being affected by these injustices.”

    That call to action has already been felt by many at MIT.

    “I’ve been hearing from grad students lately, in engineering, saying, ‘I like thinking about these problems, but I don’t like where I’m being directed to use my intellectual capital, toward building more corporate wealth,’” said Kate Brown, professor of STS and an event organizer. “As an institution, we could move toward working not for, not to correct, but working with communities.”

    The world is what we’ve gotMIT senior Abdulazeez Mohammed Salim, an Aero/Astro major, says he was inspired by these conversations to get involved in urban farming initiatives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he plans to move after graduation.

    “We have a responsibility as part of the world around us, not as external observers, not as people removed and displaced from the world. And the world is not an experiment or a lab,” he says. “It’s what we’ve got. It’s who we are. It’s all that we’ve been and all we will be. That stuck with me; it resonated very deeply.”

    Salim also appreciated the reality check given by Bianca Bowman from GreenRoots Chelsea, who pointed out that success will not come quickly, and that sustained advocacy is critical.

    “Real, valuable change will not happen overnight, will not happen by just getting together a critical mass of people who are upset and concerned,” he said. “Because what we’re dealing with are large, interconnected, messy systems that will try to fight back and survive regardless of how we force them to adapt. And so, long term is really the only way forward. That’s the way we need to think of these struggles.” More

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    MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium announces recipients of inaugural MCSC Seed Awards

    The MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) has awarded 20 projects a total of $5 million over two years in its first-ever 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program. The winning projects are led by principal investigators across all five of MIT’s schools.

    The goal of the MCSC Seed Awards is to engage MIT researchers and link the economy-wide work of the consortium to ongoing and emerging climate and sustainability efforts across campus. The program offers further opportunity to build networks among the awarded projects to deepen the impact of each and ensure the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

    For example, to drive progress under the awards category Circularity and Materials, the MCSC can facilitate connections between the technologists at MIT who are developing recovery approaches for metals, plastics, and fiber; the urban planners who are uncovering barriers to reuse; and the engineers, who will look for efficiency opportunities in reverse supply chains.

    “The MCSC Seed Awards are designed to complement actions previously outlined in Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade and, more specifically, the Climate Grand Challenges,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and chair of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. “In collaboration with seed award recipients and MCSC industry members, we are eager to engage in interdisciplinary exploration and propel urgent advancements in climate and sustainability.” 

    By supporting MIT researchers with expertise in economics, infrastructure, community risk assessment, mobility, and alternative fuels, the MCSC will accelerate implementation of cross-disciplinary solutions in the awards category Decarbonized and Resilient Value Chains. Enhancing Natural Carbon Sinks and building connections to local communities will require associations across experts in ecosystem change, biodiversity, improved agricultural practice and engagement with farmers, all of which the consortium can begin to foster through the seed awards.

    “Funding opportunities across campus has been a top priority since launching the MCSC,” says Jeremy Gregory, MCSC executive director. “It is our honor to support innovative teams of MIT researchers through the inaugural 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program.”

    The winning projects are tightly aligned with the MCSC’s areas of focus, which were derived from a year of highly engaged collaborations with MCSC member companies. The projects apply across the member’s climate and sustainability goals.

    The MCSC’s 16 member companies span many industries, and since early 2021, have met with members of the MIT community to define focused problem statements for industry-specific challenges, identify meaningful partnerships and collaborations, and develop clear and scalable priorities. Outcomes from these collaborations laid the foundation for the focus areas, which have shaped the work of the MCSC. Specifically, the MCSC Industry Advisory Board engaged with MIT on key strategic directions, and played a critical role in the MCSC’s series of interactive events. These included virtual workshops hosted last summer, each on a specific topic that allowed companies to work with MIT and each other to align key assumptions, identify blind spots in corporate goal-setting, and leverage synergies between members, across industries. The work continued in follow-up sessions and an annual symposium.

    “We are excited to see how the seed award efforts will help our member companies reach or even exceed their ambitious climate targets, find new cross-sector links among each other, seek opportunities to lead, and ripple key lessons within their industry, while also deepening the Institute’s strong foundation in climate and sustainability research,” says Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and MCSC co-director.

    As the seed projects take shape, the MCSC will provide ongoing opportunities for awardees to engage with the Industry Advisory Board and technical teams from the MCSC member companies to learn more about the potential for linking efforts to support and accelerate their climate and sustainability goals. Awardees will also have the chance to engage with other members of the MCSC community, including its interdisciplinary Faculty Steering Committee.

    “One of our mantras in the MCSC is to ‘amplify and extend’ existing efforts across campus; we’re always looking for ways to connect the collaborative industry relationships we’re building and the work we’re doing with other efforts on campus,” notes Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and MCSC co-director. “We feel the urgency as well as the potential, and we don’t want to miss opportunities to do more and go faster.”

    The MCSC Seed Awards complement the Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to mobilize the entire MIT research community around developing the bold, interdisciplinary solutions needed to address difficult, unsolved climate problems. The 27 finalist teams addressed four broad research themes, which align with the MCSC’s focus areas. From these finalist teams, five flagship projects were announced in April 2022.

    The parallels between MCSC’s focus areas and the Climate Grand Challenges themes underscore an important connection between the shared long-term research interests of industry and academia. The challenges that some of the world’s largest and most influential companies have identified are complementary to MIT’s ongoing research and innovation — highlighting the tremendous opportunity to develop breakthroughs and scalable solutions quickly and effectively. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry underscored the importance of developing these scalable solutions, including critical new technology, during a conversation with MIT President L. Rafael Reif at MIT’s first Climate Grand Challenges showcase event last month.

    Both the MCSC Seed Awards and the Climate Grand Challenges are part of MIT’s larger commitment and initiative to combat climate change; this was underscored in “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021.

    The project titles and research leads for each of the 20 awardees listed below are categorized by MCSC focus area.

    Decarbonized and resilient value chains

    “Collaborative community mapping toolkit for resilience planning,” led by Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) and Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and department head in the Department of Architecture
    “CP4All: Fast and local climate projections with scientific machine learning — towards accessibility for all of humanity,” led by Chris Hill, principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and the Apollo Program Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
    “Emissions reductions and productivity in U.S. manufacturing,” led by Mert Demirer, assistant professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Jing Li, assistant professor and William Barton Rogers Career Development Chair of Energy Economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Logistics electrification through scalable and inter-operable charging infrastructure: operations, planning, and policy,” led by Alex Jacquillat, the 1942 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations research and statistics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Powertrain and system design for LOHC-powered long-haul trucking,” led by William Green, the Hoyt Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and postdoctoral officer, and Wai K. Cheng, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory
    “Sustainable Separation and Purification of Biochemicals and Biofuels using Membranes,” led by John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and director of the Rohsenow Kendall Heat Transfer Laboratory; and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, co-director of the Center for Computational Science and Engineering, associate director of the Center for Exascale Simulation of Materials in Extreme Environments, and graduate officer
    “Toolkit for assessing the vulnerability of industry infrastructure siting to climate change,” led by Michael Howland, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Circularity and Materials

    “Colorimetric Sulfidation for Aluminum Recycling,” led by Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering
    “Double Loop Circularity in Materials Design Demonstrated on Polyurethanes,” led by Brad Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Kristala Prather, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor and department executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Engineering of a microbial consortium to degrade and valorize plastic waste,” led by Otto Cordero, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    “Fruit-peel-inspired, biodegradable packaging platform with multifunctional barrier properties,” led by Kripa Varanasi, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
    “High Throughput Screening of Sustainable Polyesters for Fibers,” led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Brad Olsen, Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Short-term and long-term efficiency gains in reverse supply chains,” led by Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics
    The costs and benefits of circularity in building construction, led by Siqi Zheng, the STL Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability at the MIT Center for Real Estate and Department of Urban Studies and Planning, faculty director of the MIT Center for Real Estate, and faculty director for the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab; and Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist and co-director of MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub

    Natural carbon sinks

    “Carbon sequestration through sustainable practices by smallholder farmers,” led by Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Karen Zheng the George M. Bunker Professor and associate professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Coatings to protect and enhance diverse microbes for improved soil health and crop yields,” led by Ariel Furst, the Raymond A. (1921) And Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology in the Department of Biology, core member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and graduate officer
    “ECO-LENS: Mainstreaming biodiversity data through AI,” led by John Fernández, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
    “Growing season length, productivity, and carbon balance of global ecosystems under climate change,” led by Charles Harvey, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and César Terrer, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Social dimensions and adaptation

    “Anthro-engineering decarbonization at the million-person scale,” led by Manduhai Buyandelger, professor in the Anthropology Section, and Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    “Sustainable solutions for climate change adaptation: weaving traditional ecological knowledge and STEAM,” led by Janelle Knox-Hayes, the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning and head of the Environmental Policy and Planning Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on a Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) More