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    School of Engineering welcomes new faculty

    The School of Engineering welcomes 15 new faculty members across six of its academic departments. This new cohort of faculty members, who have either recently started their roles at MIT or will start within the next year, conduct research across a diverse range of disciplines.Many of these new faculty specialize in research that intersects with multiple fields. In addition to positions in the School of Engineering, a number of these faculty have positions at other units across MIT. Faculty with appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) report into both the School of Engineering and the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. This year, new faculty also have joint appointments between the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the School of Science.“I am delighted to welcome this cohort of talented new faculty to the School of Engineering,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, chief innovation and strategy officer, dean of engineering, and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am particularly struck by the interdisciplinary approach many of these new faculty take in their research. They are working in areas that are poised to have tremendous impact. I look forward to seeing them grow as researchers and educators.”The new engineering faculty include:Stephen Bates joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as an assistant professor in September 2023. He is also a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS). Bates uses data and AI for reliable decision-making in the presence of uncertainty. In particular, he develops tools for statistical inference with AI models, data impacted by strategic behavior, and settings with distribution shift. Bates also works on applications in life sciences and sustainability. He previously worked as a postdoc in the Statistics and EECS departments at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Bates received a BS in statistics and mathematics at Harvard University and a PhD from Stanford University.Abigail Bodner joined the Department of EECS and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences as an assistant professor in January. She is also a member of the LIDS. Bodner’s research interests span climate, physical oceanography, geophysical fluid dynamics, and turbulence. Previously, she worked as a Simons Junior Fellow at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. Bodner received her BS in geophysics and mathematics and MS in geophysics from Tel Aviv University, and her SM in applied mathematics and PhD from Brown University.Andreea Bobu ’17 will join the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics as an assistant professor in July. Her research sits at the intersection of robotics, mathematical human modeling, and deep learning. Previously, she was a research scientist at the Boston Dynamics AI Institute, focusing on how robots and humans can efficiently arrive at shared representations of their tasks for more seamless and reliable interactions. Bobu earned a BS in computer science and engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.Suraj Cheema will join the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, with a joint appointment in the Department of EECS, as an assistant professor in July. His research explores atomic-scale engineering of electronic materials to tackle challenges related to energy consumption, storage, and generation, aiming for more sustainable microelectronics. This spans computing and energy technologies via integrated ferroelectric devices. He previously worked as a postdoc at UC Berkeley. Cheema earned a BS in applied physics and applied mathematics from Columbia University and a PhD in materials science and engineering from UC Berkeley.Samantha Coday joins the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in July. She will also be a member of the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics. Her research interests include ultra-dense power converters enabling renewable energy integration, hybrid electric aircraft and future space exploration. To enable high-performance converters for these critical applications her research focuses on the optimization, design, and control of hybrid switched-capacitor converters. Coday earned a BS in electrical engineering and mathematics from Southern Methodist University and an MS and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.Mitchell Gordon will join the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in July. He will also be a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In his research, Gordon designs interactive systems and evaluation approaches that bridge principles of human-computer interaction with the realities of machine learning. He currently works as a postdoc at the University of Washington. Gordon received a BS from the University of Rochester, and MS and PhD from Stanford University, all in computer science.Kaiming He joined the Department of EECS as an associate professor in February. He will also be a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). His research interests cover a wide range of topics in computer vision and deep learning. He is currently focused on building computer models that can learn representations and develop intelligence from and for the complex world. Long term, he hopes to augment human intelligence with improved artificial intelligence. Before joining MIT, He was a research scientist at Facebook AI. He earned a BS from Tsinghua University and a PhD from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.Anna Huang SM ’08 will join the departments of EECS and Music and Theater Arts as assistant professor in September. She will help develop graduate programming focused on music technology. Previously, she spent eight years with Magenta at Google Brain and DeepMind, spearheading efforts in generative modeling, reinforcement learning, and human-computer interaction to support human-AI partnerships in music-making. She is the creator of Music Transformer and Coconet (which powered the Bach Google Doodle). She was a judge and organizer for the AI Song Contest. Anna holds a Canada CIFAR AI Chair at Mila, a BM in music composition, and BS in computer science from the University of Southern California, an MS from the MIT Media Lab, and a PhD from Harvard University.Yael Kalai PhD ’06 will join the Department of EECS as a professor in September. She is also a member of CSAIL. Her research interests include cryptography, the theory of computation, and security and privacy. Kalai currently focuses on both the theoretical and real-world applications of cryptography, including work on succinct and easily verifiable non-interactive proofs. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s degree at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a PhD from MIT.Sendhil Mullainathan will join the departments of EECS and Economics as a professor in July. His research uses machine learning to understand complex problems in human behavior, social policy, and medicine. Previously, Mullainathan spent five years at MIT before joining the faculty at Harvard in 2004, and then the University of Chicago in 2018. He received his BA in computer science, mathematics, and economics from Cornell University and his PhD from Harvard University.Alex Rives will join the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in September, with a core membership in the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. In his research, Rives is focused on AI for scientific understanding, discovery, and design for biology. Rives worked with Meta as a New York University graduate student, where he founded and led the Evolutionary Scale Modeling team that developed large language models for proteins. Rives received his BS in philosophy and biology from Yale University and is completing his PhD in computer science at NYU.Sungho Shin will join the Department of Chemical Engineering as an assistant professor in July. His research interests include control theory, optimization algorithms, high-performance computing, and their applications to decision-making in complex systems, such as energy infrastructures. Shin is a postdoc at the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. He received a BS in mathematics and chemical engineering from Seoul National University and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Jessica Stark joined the Department of Biological Engineering as an assistant professor in January. In her research, Stark is developing technologies to realize the largely untapped potential of cell-surface sugars, called glycans, for immunological discovery and immunotherapy. Previously, Stark was an American Cancer Society postdoc at Stanford University. She earned a BS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Cornell University and a PhD in chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University.Thomas John “T.J.” Wallin joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering as an assistant professor in January. As a researcher, Wallin’s interests lay in advanced manufacturing of functional soft matter, with an emphasis on soft wearable technologies and their applications in human-computer interfaces. Previously, he was a research scientist at Meta’s Reality Labs Research working in their haptic interaction team. Wallin earned a BS in physics and chemistry from the College of William and Mary, and an MS and PhD in materials science and engineering from Cornell University.Gioele Zardini joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as an assistant professor in September. He will also join LIDS and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. Driven by societal challenges, Zardini’s research interests include the co-design of sociotechnical systems, compositionality in engineering, applied category theory, decision and control, optimization, and game theory, with society-critical applications to intelligent transportation systems, autonomy, and complex networks and infrastructures. He received his BS, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on robotics, systems, and control from ETH Zurich, and spent time at MIT, Stanford University, and Motional. More

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    Propelling atomically layered magnets toward green computers

    Globally, computation is booming at an unprecedented rate, fueled by the boons of artificial intelligence. With this, the staggering energy demand of the world’s computing infrastructure has become a major concern, and the development of computing devices that are far more energy-efficient is a leading challenge for the scientific community. 

    Use of magnetic materials to build computing devices like memories and processors has emerged as a promising avenue for creating “beyond-CMOS” computers, which would use far less energy compared to traditional computers. Magnetization switching in magnets can be used in computation the same way that a transistor switches from open or closed to represent the 0s and 1s of binary code. 

    While much of the research along this direction has focused on using bulk magnetic materials, a new class of magnetic materials — called two-dimensional van der Waals magnets — provides superior properties that can improve the scalability and energy efficiency of magnetic devices to make them commercially viable. 

    Although the benefits of shifting to 2D magnetic materials are evident, their practical induction into computers has been hindered by some fundamental challenges. Until recently, 2D magnetic materials could operate only at very low temperatures, much like superconductors. So bringing their operating temperatures above room temperature has remained a primary goal. Additionally, for use in computers, it is important that they can be controlled electrically, without the need for magnetic fields. Bridging this fundamental gap, where 2D magnetic materials can be electrically switched above room temperature without any magnetic fields, could potentially catapult the translation of 2D magnets into the next generation of “green” computers.

    A team of MIT researchers has now achieved this critical milestone by designing a “van der Waals atomically layered heterostructure” device where a 2D van der Waals magnet, iron gallium telluride, is interfaced with another 2D material, tungsten ditelluride. In an open-access paper published March 15 in Science Advances, the team shows that the magnet can be toggled between the 0 and 1 states simply by applying pulses of electrical current across their two-layer device. 

    Play video

    The Future of Spintronics: Manipulating Spins in Atomic Layers without External Magnetic FieldsVideo: Deblina Sarkar

    “Our device enables robust magnetization switching without the need for an external magnetic field, opening up unprecedented opportunities for ultra-low power and environmentally sustainable computing technology for big data and AI,” says lead author Deblina Sarkar, the AT&T Career Development Assistant Professor at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Neurobiological Engineering, and head of the Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek research group. “Moreover, the atomically layered structure of our device provides unique capabilities including improved interface and possibilities of gate voltage tunability, as well as flexible and transparent spintronic technologies.”

    Sarkar is joined on the paper by first author Shivam Kajale, a graduate student in Sarkar’s research group at the Media Lab; Thanh Nguyen, a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE); Nguyen Tuan Hung, an MIT visiting scholar in NSE and an assistant professor at Tohoku University in Japan; and Mingda Li, associate professor of NSE.

    Breaking the mirror symmetries 

    When electric current flows through heavy metals like platinum or tantalum, the electrons get segregated in the materials based on their spin component, a phenomenon called the spin Hall effect, says Kajale. The way this segregation happens depends on the material, and particularly its symmetries.

    “The conversion of electric current to spin currents in heavy metals lies at the heart of controlling magnets electrically,” Kajale notes. “The microscopic structure of conventionally used materials, like platinum, have a kind of mirror symmetry, which restricts the spin currents only to in-plane spin polarization.”

    Kajale explains that two mirror symmetries must be broken to produce an “out-of-plane” spin component that can be transferred to a magnetic layer to induce field-free switching. “Electrical current can ‘break’ the mirror symmetry along one plane in platinum, but its crystal structure prevents the mirror symmetry from being broken in a second plane.”

    In their earlier experiments, the researchers used a small magnetic field to break the second mirror plane. To get rid of the need for a magnetic nudge, Kajale and Sarkar and colleagues looked instead for a material with a structure that could break the second mirror plane without outside help. This led them to another 2D material, tungsten ditelluride. The tungsten ditelluride that the researchers used has an orthorhombic crystal structure. The material itself has one broken mirror plane. Thus, by applying current along its low-symmetry axis (parallel to the broken mirror plane), the resulting spin current has an out-of-plane spin component that can directly induce switching in the ultra-thin magnet interfaced with the tungsten ditelluride. 

    “Because it’s also a 2D van der Waals material, it can also ensure that when we stack the two materials together, we get pristine interfaces and a good flow of electron spins between the materials,” says Kajale. 

    Becoming more energy-efficient 

    Computer memory and processors built from magnetic materials use less energy than traditional silicon-based devices. And the van der Waals magnets can offer higher energy efficiency and better scalability compared to bulk magnetic material, the researchers note. 

    The electrical current density used for switching the magnet translates to how much energy is dissipated during switching. A lower density means a much more energy-efficient material. “The new design has one of the lowest current densities in van der Waals magnetic materials,” Kajale says. “This new design has an order of magnitude lower in terms of the switching current required in bulk materials. This translates to something like two orders of magnitude improvement in energy efficiency.”

    The research team is now looking at similar low-symmetry van der Waals materials to see if they can reduce current density even further. They are also hoping to collaborate with other researchers to find ways to manufacture the 2D magnetic switch devices at commercial scale. 

    This work was carried out, in part, using the facilities at MIT.nano. It was funded by the Media Lab, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla named 2024 Gates Cambridge Scholars

    This article was updated on April 23 to reflect the promotion of Gosha Geogdzhayev from alternate to winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

    MIT seniors Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla have won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which offers students an opportunity to pursue graduate study in the field of their choice at Cambridge University in the U.K.

    Established in 2000, Gates Cambridge offers full-cost post-graduate scholarships to outstanding applicants from countries outside of the U.K. The mission of Gates Cambridge is to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

    Gosha Geogdzhayev

    Originally from New York City, Geogdzhayev is a senior majoring in physics with minors in mathematics and computer science. At Cambridge, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue an MPhil in quantitative climate and environmental science. He is interested in applying these subjects to climate science and intends to spend his career developing novel statistical methods for climate prediction.

    At MIT, Geogdzhayev researches climate emulators with Professor Raffaele Ferrari’s group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and is part of the “Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge” Grand Challenges project. He is currently working on an operator-based emulator for the projection of climate extremes. Previously, Geogdzhayev studied the statistics of changing chaotic systems, work that has recently been published as a first-author paper.

    As a recipient of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Hollings Scholarship, Geogdzhayev has worked on bias correction methods for climate data at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He is the recipient of several other awards in the field of earth and atmospheric sciences, notably the American Meteorological Society Ward and Eileen Seguin Scholarship.

    Outside of research, Geogdzhayev enjoys writing poetry and is actively involved with his living community, Burton 1, for which he has previously served as floor chair.

    Sadhana Lolla

    Lolla, a senior from Clarksburg, Maryland, is majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics and literature. At Cambridge, she will pursue an MPhil in technology policy.

    In the future, Lolla aims to lead conversations on deploying and developing technology for marginalized communities, such as the rural Indian village that her family calls home, while also conducting research in embodied intelligence.

    At MIT, Lolla conducts research on safe and trustworthy robotics and deep learning at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory with Professor Daniela Rus. Her research has spanned debiasing strategies for autonomous vehicles and accelerating robotic design processes. At Microsoft Research and Themis AI, she works on creating uncertainty-aware frameworks for deep learning, which has impacts across computational biology, language modeling, and robotics. She has presented her work at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference and the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). 

    Outside of research, Lolla leads initiatives to make computer science education more accessible globally. She is an instructor for class 6.s191 (MIT Introduction to Deep Learning), one of the largest AI courses in the world, which reaches millions of students annually. She serves as the curriculum lead for Momentum AI, the only U.S. program that teaches AI to underserved students for free, and she has taught hundreds of students in Northern Scotland as part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs program.

    Lolla was also the director for xFair, MIT’s largest student-run career fair, and is an executive board member for Next Sing, where she works to make a cappella more accessible for students across musical backgrounds. In her free time, she enjoys singing, solving crossword puzzles, and baking. More

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    Co-creating climate futures with real-time data and spatial storytelling

    Virtual story worlds and game engines aren’t just for video games anymore. They are now tools for scientists and storytellers to digitally twin existing physical spaces and then turn them into vessels to dream up speculative climate stories and build collective designs of the future. That’s the theory and practice behind the MIT WORLDING initiative.

    Twice this year, WORLDING matched world-class climate story teams working in XR (extended reality) with relevant labs and researchers across MIT. One global group returned for a virtual gathering online in partnership with Unity for Humanity, while another met for one weekend in person, hosted at the MIT Media Lab.

    “We are witnessing the birth of an emergent field that fuses climate science, urban planning, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction, and it is all fueled by the urgency of the climate crises,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the WORLDING initiative at the Co-Creation Studio of MIT Open Documentary Lab. “Interdisciplinary teams are forming and blossoming around the planet to collectively imagine and tell stories of healthy, livable worlds in virtual 3D spaces and then finding direct ways to translate that back to earth, literally.”

    At this year’s virtual version of WORLDING, five multidisciplinary teams were selected from an open call. In a week-long series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students, and graduates, as well as other leading figures in the field. Guests ranged from curators at film festivals such as Sundance and Venice, climate policy specialists, and award-winning media creators to software engineers and renowned Earth and atmosphere scientists. The teams heard from MIT scholars in diverse domains, including geomorphology, urban planning as acts of democracy, and climate researchers at MIT Media Lab.

    Mapping climate data

    “We are measuring the Earth’s environment in increasingly data-driven ways. Hundreds of terabytes of data are taken every day about our planet in order to study the Earth as a holistic system, so we can address key questions about global climate change,” explains Rachel Connolly, an MIT Media Lab research scientist focused in the “Future Worlds” research theme, in a talk to the group. “Why is this important for your work and storytelling in general? Having the capacity to understand and leverage this data is critical for those who wish to design for and successfully operate in the dynamic Earth environment.”

    Making sense of billions of data points was a key theme during this year’s sessions. In another talk, Taylor Perron, an MIT professor of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, shared how his team uses computational modeling combined with many other scientific processes to better understand how geology, climate, and life intertwine to shape the surfaces of Earth and other planets. His work resonated with one WORLDING team in particular, one aiming to digitally reconstruct the pre-Hispanic Lake Texcoco — where current day Mexico City is now situated — as a way to contrast and examine the region’s current water crisis.

    Democratizing the future

    While WORLDING approaches rely on rigorous science and the interrogation of large datasets, they are also founded on democratizing community-led approaches.

    MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning graduate Lafayette Cruise MCP ’19 met with the teams to discuss how he moved his own practice as a trained urban planner to include a futurist component involving participatory methods. “I felt we were asking the same limited questions in regards to the future we were wanting to produce. We’re very limited, very constrained, as to whose values and comforts are being centered. There are so many possibilities for how the future could be.”

    Scaling to reach billions

    This work scales from the very local to massive global populations. Climate policymakers are concerned with reaching billions of people in the line of fire. “We have a goal to reach 1 billion people with climate resilience solutions,” says Nidhi Upadhyaya, deputy director at Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. To get that reach, Upadhyaya is turning to games. “There are 3.3 billion-plus people playing video games across the world. Half of these players are women. This industry is worth $300 billion. Africa is currently among the fastest-growing gaming markets in the world, and 55 percent of the global players are in the Asia Pacific region.” She reminded the group that this conversation is about policy and how formats of mass communication can be used for policymaking, bringing about change, changing behavior, and creating empathy within audiences.

    Socially engaged game development is also connected to education at Unity Technologies, a game engine company. “We brought together our education and social impact work because we really see it as a critical flywheel for our business,” said Jessica Lindl, vice president and global head of social impact/education at Unity Technologies, in the opening talk of WORLDING. “We upscale about 900,000 students, in university and high school programs around the world, and about 800,000 adults who are actively learning and reskilling and upskilling in Unity. Ultimately resulting in our mission of the ‘world is a better place with more creators in it,’ millions of creators who reach billions of consumers — telling the world stories, and fostering a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable world.”

    Access to these technologies is key, especially the hardware. “Accessibility has been missing in XR,” explains Reginé Gilbert, who studies and teaches accessibility and disability in user experience design at New York University. “XR is being used in artificial intelligence, assistive technology, business, retail, communications, education, empathy, entertainment, recreation, events, gaming, health, rehabilitation meetings, navigation, therapy, training, video programming, virtual assistance wayfinding, and so many other uses. This is a fun fact for folks: 97.8 percent of the world hasn’t tried VR [virtual reality] yet, actually.”

    Meanwhile, new hardware is on its way. The WORLDING group got early insights into the highly anticipated Apple Vision Pro headset, which promises to integrate many forms of XR and personal computing in one device. “They’re really pushing this kind of pass-through or mixed reality,” said Dan Miller, a Unity engineer on the poly spatial team, collaborating with Apple, who described the experience of the device as “You are viewing the real world. You’re pulling up windows, you’re interacting with content. It’s a kind of spatial computing device where you have multiple apps open, whether it’s your email client next to your messaging client with a 3D game in the middle. You’re interacting with all these things in the same space and at different times.”

    “WORLDING combines our passion for social-impact storytelling and incredible innovative storytelling,” said Paisley Smith of the Unity for Humanity Program at Unity Technologies. She added, “This is an opportunity for creators to incubate their game-changing projects and connect with experts across climate, story, and technology.”

    Meeting at MIT

    In a new in-person iteration of WORLDING this year, organizers collaborated closely with Connolly at the MIT Media Lab to co-design an in-person weekend conference Oct. 25 – Nov. 7 with 45 scholars and professionals who visualize climate data at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planetariums, and museums across the United States.

    A participant said of the event, “An incredible workshop that had had a profound effect on my understanding of climate data storytelling and how to combine different components together for a more [holistic] solution.”

    “With this gathering under our new Future Worlds banner,” says Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics chair, “the Media Lab seeks to affect human behavior and help societies everywhere to improve life here on Earth and in worlds beyond, so that all — the sentient, natural, and cosmic — worlds may flourish.” 

    “WORLDING’s virtual-only component has been our biggest strength because it has enabled a true, international cohort to gather, build, and create together. But this year, an in-person version showed broader opportunities that spatial interactivity generates — informal Q&As, physical worksheets, and larger-scale ideation, all leading to deeper trust-building,” says WORLDING producer Srushti Kamat SM ’23.

    The future and potential of WORLDING lies in the ongoing dialogue between the virtual and physical, both in the work itself and in the format of the workshops. More

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    MIT in the media: 2023 in review

    It was an eventful trip around the sun for MIT this year, from President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration and Mark Rober’s Commencement address to Professor Moungi Bawendi winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 2023 MIT researchers made key advances, detecting a dying star swallowing a planet, exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence, creating clean energy solutions, inventing tools aimed at earlier detection and diagnosis of cancer, and even exploring the science of spreading kindness. Below are highlights of some of the uplifting people, breakthroughs, and ideas from MIT that made headlines in 2023.

    The gift: Kindness goes viral with Steve HartmanSteve Hartman visited Professor Anette “Peko” Hosoi to explore the science behind whether a single act of kindness can change the world.Full story via CBS News

    Trio wins Nobel Prize in chemistry for work on quantum dots, used in electronics and medical imaging“The motivation really is the basic science. A basic understanding, the curiosity of ‘how does the world work?’” said Professor Moungi Bawendi of the inspiration for his research on quantum dots, for which he was co-awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.Full story via the Associated Press

    How MIT’s all-women leadership team plans to change science for the betterPresident Sally Kornbluth, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, and Chancellor Melissa Nobles emphasized the importance of representation for women and underrepresented groups in STEM.Full story via Radio Boston

    MIT via community college? Transfer students find a new path to a degreeUndergraduate Subin Kim shared his experience transferring from community college to MIT through the Transfer Scholars Network, which is aimed at helping community college students find a path to four-year universities.Full story via the Christian Science Monitor

    MIT president Sally Kornbluth doesn’t think we can hit the pause button on AIPresident Kornbluth discussed the future of AI, ethics in science, and climate change with columnist Shirley Leung on her new “Say More” podcast. “I view [the climate crisis] as an existential issue to the extent that if we don’t take action there, all of the many, many other things that we’re working on, not that they’ll be irrelevant, but they’ll pale in comparison,” Kornbluth said.Full story via The Boston Globe 

    It’s the end of a world as we know itAstronomers from MIT, Harvard University, Caltech and elsewhere spotted a dying star swallowing a large planet. Postdoc Kishalay De explained that: “Finding an event like this really puts all of the theories that have been out there to the most stringent tests possible. It really opens up this entire new field of research.”Full story via The New York Times

    Frontiers of AI

    Hey, Alexa, what should students learn about AI?The Day of AI is a program developed by the MIT RAISE initiative aimed at introducing and teaching K-12 students about AI. “We want students to be informed, responsible users and informed, responsible designers of these technologies,” said Professor Cynthia Breazeal, dean of digital learning at MIT.Full story via The New York Times

    AI tipping pointFour faculty members from across MIT — Professors Song Han, Simon Johnson, Yoon Kim and Rosalind Picard — described the opportunities and risks posed by the rapid advancements in the field of AI.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    A look into the future of AI at MIT’s robotics laboratoryProfessor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, discussed the future of artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, emphasizing the importance of balancing the development of new technologies with the need to ensure they are deployed in a way that benefits humanity.Full story via Mashable

    Health care providers say artificial intelligence could transform medicineProfessor Regina Barzilay spoke about her work developing new AI systems that could be used to help diagnose breast and lung cancer before the cancers are detectable to the human eye.Full story via Chronicle

    Is AI coming for your job? Tech experts weigh in: “They don’t replace human labor”Professor David Autor discussed how the rise of artificial intelligence could change the quality of jobs available.Full story via CBS News

    Big tech is bad. Big AI will be worse.Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu and Professor Simon Johnson made the case that “rather than machine intelligence, what we need is ‘machine usefulness,’ which emphasizes the ability of computers to augment human capabilities.”Full story via The New York Times

    Engineering excitement

    MIT’s 3D-printed hearts could pump new life into customized treatments MIT engineers developed a technique for 3D printing a soft, flexible, custom-designed replica of a patient’s heart.Full story via WBUR

    Mystery of why Roman buildings have survived so long has been unraveled, scientists sayScientists from MIT and other institutions discovered that ancient Romans used lime clasts when manufacturing concrete, giving the material self-healing properties.Full story via CNN

    The most interesting startup in America is in Massachusetts. You’ve probably never heard of it.VulcanForms, an MIT startup, is at the “leading edge of a push to transform 3D printing from a niche technology — best known for new-product prototyping and art-class experimentation — into an industrial force.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Catalyzing climate innovations

    Can Boston’s energy innovators save the world?Boston Magazine reporter Rowan Jacobsen spotlighted how MIT faculty, students, and alumni are leading the charge in clean energy startups. “When it comes to game-changing breakthroughs in energy, three letters keep surfacing again and again: MIT,” writes Jacobsen.Full story via Boston Magazine

    MIT research could be game changer in combating water shortagesMIT researchers discovered that a common hydrogel used in cosmetic creams, industrial coatings, and pharmaceutical capsules can absorb moisture from the atmosphere even as the temperature rises. “For a planet that’s getting hotter, this could be a game-changing discovery.”Full story via NBC Boston

    Energy-storing concrete could form foundations for solar-powered homesMIT engineers uncovered a new way of creating an energy supercapacitor by combining cement, carbon black, and water that could one day be used to power homes or electric vehicles.Full story via New Scientist

    MIT researchers tackle key question of EV adoption: When to charge?MIT scientists found that delayed charging and strategic placement of EV charging stations could help reduce additional energy demands caused by more widespread EV adoption.Full story via Fast Company

    Building better buildingsProfessor John Fernández examined how to reduce the climate footprints of homes and office buildings, recommending creating airtight structures, switching to cleaner heating sources, using more environmentally friendly building materials, and retrofitting existing homes and offices.Full story via The New York Times

    They’re building an “ice penetrator” on a hillside in WestfordResearchers from MIT’s Haystack Observatory built an “ice penetrator,” a device designed to monitor the changing conditions of sea ice.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Healing health solutions

    How Boston is beating cancerMIT researchers are developing drug-delivery nanoparticles aimed at targeting cancer cells without disturbing healthy cells. Essentially, the nanoparticles are “engineered for selectivity,” explained Professor Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.Full story via Boston Magazine

    A new antibiotic, discovered with artificial intelligence, may defeat a dangerous superbugUsing a machine-learning algorithm, researchers from MIT discovered a type of antibiotic that’s effective against a particular strain of drug-resistant bacteria.Full story via CNN

    To detect breast cancer sooner, an MIT professor designs an ultrasound braMIT researchers designed a wearable ultrasound device that attaches to a bra and could be used to detect early-stage breast tumors.Full story via STAT

    The quest for a switch to turn on hungerAn ingestible pill developed by MIT scientists can raise levels of hormones to help increase appetite and decrease nausea in patients with gastroparesis.Full story via Wired

    Here’s how to use dreams for creative inspirationMIT scientists found that the earlier stages of sleep are key to sparking creativity and that people can be guided to dream about specific topics, further boosting creativity.Full story via Scientific American

    Astounding art

    An AI opera from 1987 reboots for a new generationProfessor Tod Machover discussed the restaging of his opera “VALIS” at MIT, which featured an artificial intelligence-assisted musical instrument developed by Nina Masuelli ’23.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Surfacing the stories hidden in migration dataAssociate Professor Sarah Williams discussed the Civic Data Design Lab’s “Motivational Tapestry,” a large woven art piece that uses data from the United Nations World Food Program to visually represent the individual motivations of 1,624 Central Americans who have migrated to the U.S.Full story via Metropolis

    Augmented reality-infused production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” opens Bayreuth FestivalProfessor Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” brought “fantastical images” to audience members.Full story via the Associated Press

    Understanding our universe

    New image reveals violent events near a supermassive black holeScientists captured a new image of M87*, the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, showing the “launching point of a colossal jet of high-energy particles shooting outward into space.”Full story via Reuters

    Gravitational waves: A new universeMIT researchers Lisa Barsotti, Deep Chatterjee, and Victoria Xu explored how advances in gravitational wave detection are enabling a better understanding of the universe.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    Nergis Mavalvala helped detect the first gravitational wave. Her work doesn’t stop thereProfessor Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, discussed her work searching for gravitational waves, the importance of skepticism in scientific research, and why she enjoys working with young people.Full story via Wired

    Hitting the books

    “The Transcendent Brain” review: Beyond ones and zeroesIn his book “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman, a professor of the practice of humanities, displayed his gift for “distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence.”Full story via The Wall Street Journal

    What happens when CEOs treat workers better? Companies (and workers) win.Professor of the practice Zeynep Ton published a book, “The Case for Good Jobs,” and is “on a mission to change how company leaders think, and how they treat their employees.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    How to wage war on conspiracy theoriesProfessor Adam Berinsky’s book, “Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight it,” examined “attitudes toward both politics and health, both of which are undermined by distrust and misinformation in ways that cause harm to both individuals and society.”Full story via Politico

    What it takes for Mexican coders to cross the cultural border with Silicon ValleyAssistant Professor Héctor Beltrán discussed his new book, “Code Work: Hacking across the U.S./México Techno-Borderlands,” which explores the culture of hackathons and entrepreneurship in Mexico.Full story via Marketplace

    Cultivating community

    The Indigenous rocketeerNicole McGaa, a fourth-year student at MIT, discussed her work leading MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team at the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition.Full story via Nature

    “You totally got this,” YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober tells MIT graduatesDuring his Commencement address at MIT, Mark Rober urged graduates to embrace their accomplishments and boldly face any challenges they encounter.Full story via The Boston Globe

    MIT Juggling Club going strong after half centuryAfter almost 50 years, the MIT Juggling Club, which was founded in 1975 and then merged with a unicycle club, is the oldest drop-in juggling club in continuous operation and still welcomes any aspiring jugglers to come toss a ball (or three) into the air.Full story via Cambridge Day

    Volpe Transportation Center opens as part of $750 million deal between MIT and fedsThe John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square was the first building to open in MIT’s redevelopment of the 14-acre Volpe site that will ultimately include “research labs, retail, affordable housing, and open space, with the goal of not only encouraging innovation, but also enhancing the surrounding community.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Sparking conversation

    The future of AI innovation and the role of academics in shaping itProfessor Daniela Rus emphasized the central role universities play in fostering innovation and the importance of ensuring universities have the computing resources necessary to help tackle major global challenges.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Moving the needle on supply chain sustainabilityProfessor Yossi Sheffi examined several strategies companies could use to help improve supply chain sustainability, including redesigning last-mile deliveries, influencing consumer choices and incentivizing returnable containers.Full story via The Hill

    Expelled from the mountain top?Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77 made the case that “diverse learning environments expose students to a broader range of perspectives, enhance education, and inculcate creativity and innovative habits of mind.”Full story via Science

    Marketing magic of “Barbie” movie has lessons for women’s sportsMIT Sloan Lecturer Shira Springer explored how the success of the “Barbie” movie could be applied to women’s sports.Full story via Sports Business Journal

    We’re already paying for universal health care. Why don’t we have it?Professor Amy Finkelstein asserted that the solution to health insurance reform in the U.S. is “universal coverage that is automatic, free and basic.”Full story via The New York Times 

    The internet could be so good. Really.Professor Deb Roy described how “new kinds of social networks can be designed for constructive communication — for listening, dialogue, deliberation, and mediation — and they can actually work.”Full story via The Atlantic

    Fostering educational excellence

    MIT students give legendary linear algebra professor standing ovation in last lectureAfter 63 years of teaching and over 10 million views of his online lectures, Professor Gilbert Strang received a standing ovation after his last lecture on linear algebra. “I am so grateful to everyone who likes linear algebra and sees its importance. So many universities (and even high schools) now appreciate how beautiful it is and how valuable it is,” said Strang.Full story via USA Today

    “Brave Behind Bars”: Reshaping the lives of inmates through coding classesGraduate students Martin Nisser and Marisa Gaetz co-founded Brave Behind Bars, a program designed to provide incarcerated individuals with coding and digital literacy skills to better prepare them for life after prison.Full story via MSNBC

    Melrose TikTok user “Ms. Nuclear Energy” teaching about nuclear power through social mediaGraduate student Kaylee Cunningham discussed her work using social media to help educate and inform the public about nuclear energy.Full story via CBS Boston  More

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    New tools are available to help reduce the energy that AI models devour

    When searching for flights on Google, you may have noticed that each flight’s carbon-emission estimate is now presented next to its cost. It’s a way to inform customers about their environmental impact, and to let them factor this information into their decision-making.

    A similar kind of transparency doesn’t yet exist for the computing industry, despite its carbon emissions exceeding those of the entire airline industry. Escalating this energy demand are artificial intelligence models. Huge, popular models like ChatGPT signal a trend of large-scale artificial intelligence, boosting forecasts that predict data centers will draw up to 21 percent of the world’s electricity supply by 2030.

    The MIT Lincoln Laboratory Supercomputing Center (LLSC) is developing techniques to help data centers reel in energy use. Their techniques range from simple but effective changes, like power-capping hardware, to adopting novel tools that can stop AI training early on. Crucially, they have found that these techniques have a minimal impact on model performance.

    In the wider picture, their work is mobilizing green-computing research and promoting a culture of transparency. “Energy-aware computing is not really a research area, because everyone’s been holding on to their data,” says Vijay Gadepally, senior staff in the LLSC who leads energy-aware research efforts. “Somebody has to start, and we’re hoping others will follow.”

    Curbing power and cooling down

    Like many data centers, the LLSC has seen a significant uptick in the number of AI jobs running on its hardware. Noticing an increase in energy usage, computer scientists at the LLSC were curious about ways to run jobs more efficiently. Green computing is a principle of the center, which is powered entirely by carbon-free energy.

    Training an AI model — the process by which it learns patterns from huge datasets — requires using graphics processing units (GPUs), which are power-hungry hardware. As one example, the GPUs that trained GPT-3 (the precursor to ChatGPT) are estimated to have consumed 1,300 megawatt-hours of electricity, roughly equal to that used by 1,450 average U.S. households per month.

    While most people seek out GPUs because of their computational power, manufacturers offer ways to limit the amount of power a GPU is allowed to draw. “We studied the effects of capping power and found that we could reduce energy consumption by about 12 percent to 15 percent, depending on the model,” Siddharth Samsi, a researcher within the LLSC, says.

    The trade-off for capping power is increasing task time — GPUs will take about 3 percent longer to complete a task, an increase Gadepally says is “barely noticeable” considering that models are often trained over days or even months. In one of their experiments in which they trained the popular BERT language model, limiting GPU power to 150 watts saw a two-hour increase in training time (from 80 to 82 hours) but saved the equivalent of a U.S. household’s week of energy.

    The team then built software that plugs this power-capping capability into the widely used scheduler system, Slurm. The software lets data center owners set limits across their system or on a job-by-job basis.

    “We can deploy this intervention today, and we’ve done so across all our systems,” Gadepally says.

    Side benefits have arisen, too. Since putting power constraints in place, the GPUs on LLSC supercomputers have been running about 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler and at a more consistent temperature, reducing stress on the cooling system. Running the hardware cooler can potentially also increase reliability and service lifetime. They can now consider delaying the purchase of new hardware — reducing the center’s “embodied carbon,” or the emissions created through the manufacturing of equipment — until the efficiencies gained by using new hardware offset this aspect of the carbon footprint. They’re also finding ways to cut down on cooling needs by strategically scheduling jobs to run at night and during the winter months.

    “Data centers can use these easy-to-implement approaches today to increase efficiencies, without requiring modifications to code or infrastructure,” Gadepally says.

    Taking this holistic look at a data center’s operations to find opportunities to cut down can be time-intensive. To make this process easier for others, the team — in collaboration with Professor Devesh Tiwari and Baolin Li at Northeastern University — recently developed and published a comprehensive framework for analyzing the carbon footprint of high-performance computing systems. System practitioners can use this analysis framework to gain a better understanding of how sustainable their current system is and consider changes for next-generation systems.  

    Adjusting how models are trained and used

    On top of making adjustments to data center operations, the team is devising ways to make AI-model development more efficient.

    When training models, AI developers often focus on improving accuracy, and they build upon previous models as a starting point. To achieve the desired output, they have to figure out what parameters to use, and getting it right can take testing thousands of configurations. This process, called hyperparameter optimization, is one area LLSC researchers have found ripe for cutting down energy waste. 

    “We’ve developed a model that basically looks at the rate at which a given configuration is learning,” Gadepally says. Given that rate, their model predicts the likely performance. Underperforming models are stopped early. “We can give you a very accurate estimate early on that the best model will be in this top 10 of 100 models running,” he says.

    In their studies, this early stopping led to dramatic savings: an 80 percent reduction in the energy used for model training. They’ve applied this technique to models developed for computer vision, natural language processing, and material design applications.

    “In my opinion, this technique has the biggest potential for advancing the way AI models are trained,” Gadepally says.

    Training is just one part of an AI model’s emissions. The largest contributor to emissions over time is model inference, or the process of running the model live, like when a user chats with ChatGPT. To respond quickly, these models use redundant hardware, running all the time, waiting for a user to ask a question.

    One way to improve inference efficiency is to use the most appropriate hardware. Also with Northeastern University, the team created an optimizer that matches a model with the most carbon-efficient mix of hardware, such as high-power GPUs for the computationally intense parts of inference and low-power central processing units (CPUs) for the less-demanding aspects. This work recently won the best paper award at the International ACM Symposium on High-Performance Parallel and Distributed Computing.

    Using this optimizer can decrease energy use by 10-20 percent while still meeting the same “quality-of-service target” (how quickly the model can respond).

    This tool is especially helpful for cloud customers, who lease systems from data centers and must select hardware from among thousands of options. “Most customers overestimate what they need; they choose over-capable hardware just because they don’t know any better,” Gadepally says.

    Growing green-computing awareness

    The energy saved by implementing these interventions also reduces the associated costs of developing AI, often by a one-to-one ratio. In fact, cost is usually used as a proxy for energy consumption. Given these savings, why aren’t more data centers investing in green techniques?

    “I think it’s a bit of an incentive-misalignment problem,” Samsi says. “There’s been such a race to build bigger and better models that almost every secondary consideration has been put aside.”

    They point out that while some data centers buy renewable-energy credits, these renewables aren’t enough to cover the growing energy demands. The majority of electricity powering data centers comes from fossil fuels, and water used for cooling is contributing to stressed watersheds. 

    Hesitancy may also exist because systematic studies on energy-saving techniques haven’t been conducted. That’s why the team has been pushing their research in peer-reviewed venues in addition to open-source repositories. Some big industry players, like Google DeepMind, have applied machine learning to increase data center efficiency but have not made their work available for others to deploy or replicate. 

    Top AI conferences are now pushing for ethics statements that consider how AI could be misused. The team sees the climate aspect as an AI ethics topic that has not yet been given much attention, but this also appears to be slowly changing. Some researchers are now disclosing the carbon footprint of training the latest models, and industry is showing a shift in energy transparency too, as in this recent report from Meta AI.

    They also acknowledge that transparency is difficult without tools that can show AI developers their consumption. Reporting is on the LLSC roadmap for this year. They want to be able to show every LLSC user, for every job, how much energy they consume and how this amount compares to others, similar to home energy reports.

    Part of this effort requires working more closely with hardware manufacturers to make getting these data off hardware easier and more accurate. If manufacturers can standardize the way the data are read out, then energy-saving and reporting tools can be applied across different hardware platforms. A collaboration is underway between the LLSC researchers and Intel to work on this very problem.

    Even for AI developers who are aware of the intense energy needs of AI, they can’t do much on their own to curb this energy use. The LLSC team wants to help other data centers apply these interventions and provide users with energy-aware options. Their first partnership is with the U.S. Air Force, a sponsor of this research, which operates thousands of data centers. Applying these techniques can make a significant dent in their energy consumption and cost.

    “We’re putting control into the hands of AI developers who want to lessen their footprint,” Gadepally says. “Do I really need to gratuitously train unpromising models? Am I willing to run my GPUs slower to save energy? To our knowledge, no other supercomputing center is letting you consider these options. Using our tools, today, you get to decide.”

    Visit this webpage to see the group’s publications related to energy-aware computing and findings described in this article. More

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    Ms. Nuclear Energy is winning over nuclear skeptics

    First-year MIT nuclear science and engineering (NSE) doctoral student Kaylee Cunningham is not the first person to notice that nuclear energy has a public relations problem. But her commitment to dispel myths about the alternative power source has earned her the moniker “Ms. Nuclear Energy” on TikTok and a devoted fan base on the social media platform.

    Cunningham’s activism kicked into place shortly after a week-long trip to Iceland to study geothermal energy. During a discussion about how the country was going to achieve its net zero energy goals, a representative from the University of Reykjavik balked at Cunnigham’s suggestion of including a nuclear option in the alternative energy mix. “The response I got was that we’re a peace-loving nation, we don’t do that,” Cunningham remembers. “I was appalled by the reaction, I mean we’re talking energy not weapons here, right?” she asks. Incredulous, Cunningham made a TikTok that targeted misinformation. Overnight she garnered 10,000 followers and “Ms. Nuclear Energy” was off to the races. Ms. Nuclear Energy is now Cunningham’s TikTok handle.

    Kaylee Cunningham: Dispelling myths and winning over skeptics

    A theater and science nerd

    TikTok is a fitting platform for a theater nerd like Cunningham. Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, Cunningham’s childhood was punctuated by moves to places where her roofer father’s work took the family. She moved to North Carolina shortly after fifth grade and fell in love with theater. “I was doing theater classes, the spring musical, it was my entire world,” Cunningham remembers. When she moved again, this time to Florida halfway through her first year of high school, she found the spring musical had already been cast. But she could help behind the scenes. Through that work, Cunningham gained her first real exposure to hands-on tech. She was hooked.

    Soon Cunningham was part of a team that represented her high school at the student Astronaut Challenge, an aerospace competition run by Florida State University. Statewide winners got to fly a space shuttle simulator at the Kennedy Space Center and participate in additional engineering challenges. Cunningham’s team was involved in creating a proposal to help NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, designed to help the agency gather a large boulder from a near-earth asteroid. The task was Cunningham’s induction into an understanding of radiation and “anything nuclear.” Her high school engineering teacher, Nirmala Arunachalam, encouraged Cunningham’s interest in the subject.

    The Astronaut Challenge might just have been the end of Cunningham’s path in nuclear engineering had it not been for her mother. In high school, Cunningham had also enrolled in computer science classes and her love of the subject earned her a scholarship at Norwich University in Vermont where she had pursued a camp in cybersecurity. Cunningham had already laid down the college deposit for Norwich.

    But Cunningham’s mother persuaded her daughter to pay another visit to the University of Florida, where she had expressed interest in pursuing nuclear engineering. To her pleasant surprise, the department chair, Professor James Baciak, pulled out all the stops, bringing mother and daughter on a tour of the on-campus nuclear reactor and promising Cunningham a paid research position. Cunningham was sold and Backiak has been a mentor throughout her research career.

    Merging nuclear engineering and computer science

    Undergraduate research internships, including one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she could combine her two loves, nuclear engineering and computer science, convinced Cunningham she wanted to pursue a similar path in graduate school.

    Cunningham’s undergraduate application to MIT had been rejected but that didn’t deter her from applying to NSE for graduate school. Having spent her early years in an elementary school barely 20 minutes from campus, she had grown up hearing that “the smartest people in the world go to MIT.” Cunningham figured that if she got into MIT, it would be “like going back home to Massachusetts” and that she could fit right in.

    Under the advisement of Professor Michael Short, Cunningham is looking to pursue her passions in both computer science and nuclear engineering in her doctoral studies.

    The activism continues

    Simultaneously, Cunningham is determined to keep her activism going.

    Her ability to digest “complex topics into something understandable to people who have no connection to academia” has helped Cunningham on TikTok. “It’s been something I’ve been doing all my life with my parents and siblings and extended family,” she says.

    Punctuating her video snippets with humor — a Simpsons reference is par for the course — helps Cunningham break through to her audience who love her goofy and tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject matter without compromising accuracy. “Sometimes I do stupid dances and make a total fool of myself, but I’ve really found my niche by being willing to engage and entertain people and educate them at the same time.”

    Such education needs to be an important part of an industry that’s received its share of misunderstandings, Cunningham says. “Technical people trying to communicate in a way that the general people don’t understand is such a concerning thing,” she adds. Case in point: the response in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, which prevented massive contamination leaks. It was a perfect example of how well our safety regulations actually work, Cunningham says, “but you’d never guess from the PR fallout from it all.”

    As Ms. Nuclear Energy, Cunningham receives her share of skepticism. One viewer questioned the safety of nuclear reactors if “tons of pollution” was spewing out from them. Cunningham produced a TikTok that addressed this misconception. Pointing to the “pollution” in a photo, Cunningham clarifies that it’s just water vapor. The TikTok has garnered over a million views. “It really goes to show how starving for accurate information the public really is,” Cunningham says, “ in this age of having all the information we could ever want at our fingertips, it’s hard to sift through and decide what’s real and accurate and what isn’t.”

    Another reason for her advocacy: doing her part to encourage young people toward a nuclear science or engineering career. “If we’re going to start putting up tons of small modular reactors around the country, we need people to build them, people to run them, and we need regulatory bodies to inspect and keep them safe,” Cunningham points out. “ And we don’t have enough people entering the workforce in comparison to those that are retiring from the workforce,” she adds. “I’m able to engage those younger audiences and put nuclear engineering on their radar,” Cunningham says. The advocacy has been paying off: Cunningham regularly receives — and responds to — inquiries from high school junior girls looking for advice on pursuing nuclear engineering.

    All the activism is in service toward a clear end goal. “At the end of the day, the fight is to save the planet,” Cunningham says, “I honestly believe that nuclear power is the best chance we’ve got to fight climate change and keep our planet alive.” More

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    An interdisciplinary approach to fighting climate change through clean energy solutions

    In early 2021, the U.S. government set an ambitious goal: to decarbonize its power grid, the system that generates and transmits electricity throughout the country, by 2035. It’s an important goal in the fight against climate change, and will require a switch from current, greenhouse-gas producing energy sources (such as coal and natural gas), to predominantly renewable ones (such as wind and solar).

    Getting the power grid to zero carbon will be a challenging undertaking, as Audun Botterud, a principal research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) who has long been interested in the problem, knows well. It will require building lots of renewable energy generators and new infrastructure; designing better technology to capture, store, and carry electricity; creating the right regulatory and economic incentives; and more. Decarbonizing the grid also presents many computational challenges, which is where Botterud’s focus lies. Botterud has modeled different aspects of the grid — the mechanics of energy supply, demand, and storage, and electricity markets — where economic factors can have a huge effect on how quickly renewable solutions get adopted.

    On again, off again

    A major challenge of decarbonization is that the grid must be designed and operated to reliably meet demand. Using renewable energy sources complicates this, as wind and solar power depend on an infamously volatile system: the weather. A sunny day becomes gray and blustery, and wind turbines get a boost but solar farms go idle. This will make the grid’s energy supply variable and hard to predict. Additional resources, including batteries and backup power generators, will need to be incorporated to regulate supply. Extreme weather events, which are becoming more common with climate change, can further strain both supply and demand. Managing a renewables-driven grid will require algorithms that can minimize uncertainty in the face of constant, sometimes random fluctuations to make better predictions of supply and demand, guide how resources are added to the grid, and inform how those resources are committed and dispatched across the entire United States.

    “The problem of managing supply and demand in the grid has to happen every second throughout the year, and given how much we rely on electricity in society, we need to get this right,” Botterud says. “You cannot let the reliability drop as you increase the amount of renewables, especially because I think that will lead to resistance towards adopting renewables.”

    That is why Botterud feels fortunate to be working on the decarbonization problem at LIDS — even though a career here is not something he had originally planned. Botterud’s first experience with MIT came during his time as a graduate student in his home country of Norway, when he spent a year as a visiting student with what is now called the MIT Energy Initiative. He might never have returned, except that while at MIT, Botterud met his future wife, Bilge Yildiz. The pair both ended up working at the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago, with Botterud focusing on challenges related to power systems and electricity markets. Then Yildiz got a faculty position at MIT, where she is a professor of nuclear and materials science and engineering. Botterud moved back to the Cambridge area with her and continued to work for Argonne remotely, but he also kept an eye on local opportunities. Eventually, a position at LIDS became available, and Botterud took it, while maintaining his connections to Argonne.

    “At first glance, it may not be an obvious fit,” Botterud says. “My work is very focused on a specific application, power system challenges, and LIDS tends to be more focused on fundamental methods to use across many different application areas. However, being at LIDS, my lab [the Energy Analytics Group] has access to the most recent advances in these fundamental methods, and we can apply them to power and energy problems. Other people at LIDS are working on energy too, so there is growing momentum to address these important problems.”

    Weather, space, and time

    Much of Botterud’s research involves optimization, using mathematical programming to compare alternatives and find the best solution. Common computational challenges include dealing with large geographical areas that contain regions with different weather, different types and quantities of renewable energy available, and different infrastructure and consumer needs — such as the entire United States. Another challenge is the need for granular time resolution, sometimes even down to the sub-second level, to account for changes in energy supply and demand.

    Often, Botterud’s group will use decomposition to solve such large problems piecemeal and then stitch together solutions. However, it’s also important to consider systems as a whole. For example, in a recent paper, Botterud’s lab looked at the effect of building new transmission lines as part of national decarbonization. They modeled solutions assuming coordination at the state, regional, or national level, and found that the more regions coordinate to build transmission infrastructure and distribute electricity, the less they will need to spend to reach zero carbon.

    In other projects, Botterud uses game theory approaches to study strategic interactions in electricity markets. For example, he has designed agent-based models to analyze electricity markets. These assume each actor will make strategic decisions in their own best interest and then simulate interactions between them. Interested parties can use the models to see what would happen under different conditions and market rules, which may lead companies to make different investment decisions, or governing bodies to issue different regulations and incentives. These choices can shape how quickly the grid gets decarbonized.

    Botterud is also collaborating with researchers in MIT’s chemical engineering department who are working on improving battery storage technologies. Batteries will help manage variable renewable energy supply by capturing surplus energy during periods of high generation to release during periods of insufficient generation. Botterud’s group models the sort of charge cycles that batteries are likely to experience in the power grid, so that chemical engineers in the lab can test their batteries’ abilities in more realistic scenarios. In turn, this also leads to a more realistic representation of batteries in power system optimization models.

    These are only some of the problems that Botterud works on. He enjoys the challenge of tackling a spectrum of different projects, collaborating with everyone from engineers to architects to economists. He also believes that such collaboration leads to better solutions. The problems created by climate change are myriad and complex, and solving them will require researchers to cooperate and explore.

    “In order to have a real impact on interdisciplinary problems like energy and climate,” Botterud says, “you need to get outside of your research sweet spot and broaden your approach.” More