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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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    “The world needs your smarts, your skills,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells MIT’s Class of 2022

    On a clear warm day, the MIT graduating class of 2022 gathered in Killian Court for the first in-person commencement exercises in three years, after two years of online ceremonies due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, director-general of the World Trade Organization, delivered the Commencement address, stressing the global need for science-informed policy to address problems of climate change, pandemics, international security, and wealth disparities. She told the graduates: “In these uncertain times, in this complex world in which you are entering, you need not be so daunted, if you can search for the opportunities hidden in challenges.” She urged them to go “into the world to embrace the opportunities to serve.”

    An expert in global finance, economics, and international development, Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and first African to lead the WTO. She earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT in 1978, and a PhD in regional economics and development in 1981.

    Okonjo-Iweala began her address by paying tribute to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who earlier this semester announced plans to end his decade-long tenure in that role. Calling this a “bittersweet day” because of his departure, she honored “his academic, institutional, and thought leadership of these past 10 years.”

    She spoke warmly of the way MIT had helped her while she was a graduate student struggling to pay the bills. She was assured that the Institute would do whatever was needed to make sure she could complete her studies, she recalled, saying, “They had my back.” Noting that this year’s graduating class had their own educational journeys challenged by the global pandemic, she described how her own early education was interrupted for three years by civil war in her home country of Nigeria. She also noted the recent tragic shootings in Uvalde, Texas, saying that “I feel grief as a mother and a grandmother.”

    “MIT has helped make me who I am today,” she said. “My parents made it clear to me that education was a privilege, and that with that privilege comes responsibility — the responsibility to use it for others, not just for yourself.”

    She said that what the world needs in this time of multiple global challenges, including Covid-19, climate change, public health, and international security, is an approach “combining science, social science, and public policy, to meet the challenges of our future.”

    Friday’s Commencement ceremony celebrated the 1,099 undergraduate and 2,590 graduate students receiving MIT diplomas this year.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    MIT President L. Rafael Reif walked near the head of the procession to Killian Court, followed by Commencement speaker Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and others.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it.”

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    In a longstanding MIT Commencement ritual, graduates turn over their class ring, the “brass rat.” The ring’s image of the Boston skyline faces students until they graduate, and thereafter they will see the Cambridge skyline, in effect looking back at campus.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Fifty years after their own graduation, members of the Class of 1972 attended the ceremony as special guests, wearing signature red jackets. Members of the Classes of ’70 and ’71 also joined the festivities.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    President Reif urged the assembled graduates to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and others who helped them reach today’s milestone.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

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    Okonjo-Iweala, who was formerly head of the World Bank, said that “a common thread running through many of these challenges is the central role for science,” and she stressed the need for technological innovation to address the global problems facing humanity. “New inventions and new ways of doing things will have an impact, mainly to the extent they are scaled up across the dividing lines of income and geography,” she said.

    “We don’t just need vaccines,” she continued. “We need shots in arms across the world, to be safe. We need new renewable technologies diffused not just in rich countries to fight climate change, but also in poor ones. We need new agricultural technologies built to local conditions and culture, if we’re to fight hunger. In other words, we need innovation. But we also need access, equity, diffusion.”

    In the case of the global response to the pandemic, she noted that only 17 percent of people in Africa and 13 percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared to 75 percent of people in high income countries. “Since we all know that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the risk of more dangerous variants and pathogens remains real because of this public policy lapse and the lack of timely international cooperation,” she said.

    As for climate change, she pointed out that the world somehow managed to come up with $14 trillion to address the Covid-19 pandemic but has not managed to fulfill the pledges nations made to provide $100 billion to help less-developed nations build renewable energy solutions.

    To address these global challenges, she told the new graduates, “the world needs your smarts, your skills, your adaptability, and the great training you have received here at MIT. The world needs you for innovation, for policymaking, for connecting the dots so that implementation can actually happen.”

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    President Reif, in his charge to the graduates, urged the assembled crowd to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and other who helped them reach today’s milestone. He pointed out that research, including from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, shows that “simply expressing gratitude does wonderful things to your brain. It gets different parts of your brain to act in a synchronized way. It lights up reward pathways!”

    “All of us could use a reliable device for feeling better. So now, thanks to brain science, Course 9, you have one! The Gratitude Amplifier is unbreakable. Its battery never dies, it will never try to sell you anything, you can use it every day, forever — and it’s free!”

    He recalled the example of the way students banded together to create a new space for relaxation on campus, now known as the Banana Lounge, a central location where students could relax with free coffee and bananas. “The students have done this all essentially themselves, applying their skills and the most delightful MIT values.” The project has already distributed a half-million bananas, he said, and produced a “wonderful, tropical, perfectly improbable new MIT institution.”

    He urged the graduating students to work to “make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.” And, he added, “try always to share your bananas!”

    Adam Joseph “AJ” Miller, president of the Graduate Student Council, said, “Today marks the end of a chapter, the culmination of so many late nights, to forge lifelong friendships, to hold onto new experiences, to shape our dreams.” He added that “Something I heard a lot about when I first got here was all the doubt so many of us had in ourselves. I can say unequivocally today though, there are no impostors before me. Nobody sits where you sit by accident. You’re all now graduates of MIT, carrying on an incredibly impressive history.”

    Miller urged his fellow students to “stay confident in yourselves because of the challenges you’ve overcome. Be courageous in trying, because failure is learning and investing in each other.”

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it. Even if you don’t realize it, this is a huge accomplishment.” He added that “it’s sad that we’re all parting ways at the moment, but I’m even more excited than sad. I’m excited to see what more you all will accomplish. I look out and I don’t just see friends and classmates. I see future leaders, people who will change the world. I’m going to try my best to keep up and change the world too.”

    Later in the day, in a separate ceremony on Briggs Field, each of the members of the undergraduate Class of 2022 had a chance to hear their names read aloud as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Right before this presentation, senior and physics and mathematics major Quinn Brodsky performed a heartful rendition of “Hypotheticals” by Lake Street Dive.

    Addressing the graduating seniors, Chancellor Melissa Nobles urged them to “absorb and relish this celebration of what you’ve achieved during your transformative time at MIT. How much you have grown, academically, professionally and personally!” She added that “the lifelong friends and mentors you found here are the people who I know will continue to be sources of encouragement, support, and inspiration as you make your way in the world.”

    Recalling the way the pandemic altered their academic careers, she said “you should know now that you can handle whatever life throws your way. Never forget that you are stronger and more resilient than you think you are.” She added, “hold on to the way this pandemic has put certain things into perspective. Time with people we care about is precious. So are our health and wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of the ones we love. Looking out for others and feeling a sense of shared responsibility for the common good are paramount.”

    Nobles concluded that “your journey into the future holds countless possibilities, risks, joys, rewards, sometimes failures, and always surprises. … We wish you well on the road ahead.” More

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    MIT in the media: 2021 in review

    From Institute-wide efforts to address the climate crisis to responding to Covid-19, members of the MIT community made headlines this year for their innovative work in a variety of areas. Faculty, students, and staff were on the front lines of addressing many pressing issues this year, raising their voices and sharing their findings. Below are highlights of news stories that spotlight the many efforts underway at MIT to help make a better world.

    Fireside chat: Tackling global challenges with a culture of innovationPresident L. Rafael Reif and Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners, took part in a wide-ranging fireside chat during the inaugural Globe Summit, touching upon everything from the urgent need to address the climate crisis to MIT’s response to Covid-19, the Institute’s approach to artificial intelligence education and the greater Boston innovation ecosystem.Full discussion via Globe Summit

    A real-world revolution in economicsProfessor Joshua Angrist, one of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, spoke with The Economist’s Money Talks podcast about the evolution of his research and how his work has helped bring the field of economics closer to real life. “I like to tell graduate students that a good scholar is like a good hitter in baseball,” says Angrist of his advice for economics students. “You get on base about a third of the time you’re doing pretty well, which means you strike out most of the time.”Full story via The Economist

    Paula Hammond guest edits C&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issueC&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issue, curated by guest editor Paula Hammond, celebrated Black chemists and chemical engineers. “As we learn from several of the personal stories highlighted in this issue,” writes Hammond, “that first connection to science and research is critical to engage and inspire the next generation.” Helping propel the issue’s message about the importance of mentorship was a one-on-one with Professor Kristala Prather about her career path and a wide-ranging interview with Hammond herself on building a home at MIT.Full issue via C&EN

    Can fusion put the brakes on climate change? MIT’s new Climate Action Plan for the Decade calls for going as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now — but also asserts that ultimate success depends on breakthroughs. Commercial fusion energy is potentially one such game-changer, and a unique collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is pursuing it. As Joy Dunn ’08, head of manufacturing at CFS, explains to the New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen: “When people ask me, ‘Why fusion? Why not other renewables,’ my thinking is: This is a solution at the scale of the problem.”Full story via New Yorker

    The genius next door: Taylor Perron discusses landscape evolutionProfessor and geomorphologist Taylor Perron, a recipient this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, joined Callie Crossley of GBH’s Under the Radar to discuss his work studying the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. “We try to figure out how we can look at landscapes and read them, and try to figure out what happened in the past and also anticipate what might happen in the future,” says Perron.Full story via GBH

    How the pandemic “re-imagined how we can exhibit” Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, spoke with Cajsa Carlson of Dezeen about how the field of architecture is transforming due to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and efforts to increase diversity and representation. “Talent and imagination are not restricted to advanced development economically,” says Sarkis. “I hope this message comes across in this biennale.”Full story via Dezeen

    10 years at the top of the QS World University RankingsProvost Martin Schmidt spoke with TopUniversities.com reporter Chloe Lane about how MIT has maintained its position as the top university in the world on the QS World University Rankings for 10 consecutive years. “The Institute is full of a diverse community of people from all corners of the globe dedicated to solving the world’s most difficult problems,” says Schmidt. “Their efforts have a demonstrable impact through ambitious high-impact activities.”  Full story via TopUniversities.com

    Tackling Covid-19 and the Impact of a Global PandemicIn 2021, MIT researchers turned their attention to addressing the widespread effects of a global pandemic, exploring everything from supply chain issues to K-12 education.Massachusetts Miracle: “There are a lot of potential Modernas”Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung spotlighted how the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine demonstrates the success of the Massachusetts life sciences sector. “For more than half a century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been the epicenter of that curiosity, with a focus on molecular biology — initially to find a cure for cancer,” writes Leung.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Weak links in the supply chainProfessor Yossi Sheffi spoke with David Pogue of CBS Sunday Morning about what’s causing supply chain breakdowns. “The underlying cause of all of this is actually a huge increase in demand,” says Sheffi. “People did not spend during the pandemic. And then, all the government help came; trillions of dollars went to households. So, they order stuff. They order more and more stuff. And the global markets were not ready for this.”Full story via CBS News

    Recruiting students and teachers to rethink schoolsA report co-authored by Associate Professor Justin Reich proposed a new path forward for rethinking K-12 schools after Covid-19, reported Paul Darvasi for KQED. “The report recommends that educators build on the positive aspects of their pandemic learning experience in the years ahead,” notes Darvasi, “and supports increased student independence to cultivate a safe and healthy environment that is more conducive to learning.”Full story via KQED

    This staff member has been quietly curating a flower box at the Collier MemorialResearch Specialist Kathy Cormier’s dedication to tending a flower planter at the Collier Memorial throughout the pandemic captured the hearts of many in the MIT community. “Here’s something that’s empty that I can fill, and make myself feel better and make other people — hopefully — feel better,” she says.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Amazing Alumni MIT alumni made headlines for their efforts to change the world, both here on Earth and in outer space. NASA selects three new astronaut candidates with MIT rootsMarcos Berríos ’06, Christina Birch PhD ’15 and Christopher Williams PhD ’12 were selected among NASA’s 10-member 2021 astronaut candidate class, reported WBUR’s Bill Chappell. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum — out of many, one,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.Full story via WBUR

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala named WTO director-generalNgozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, a former Nigerian finance minister, was named director-general of the World Trade Organization, reported William Wallace for the Financial Times. “Okonjo-Iweala sees an opportunity for the organization to rediscover some of its original purpose of raising living standards across the board and to bring its outdated rule book up to date at a time of accelerating change,” notes Wallace.Full story via Financial Times

    She doesn’t think skateboarding’s a sport, but she competed for a medalAlexis Sablone MArch ’16 spoke with Washington Post reporter Les Carpenter about street skateboarding, competing at this year’s Olympic Games, and why she is uncomfortable with being defined. “To me, I’m just always like trying to be myself and do things that I love to do and not try to fit into these categories in ways that I don’t feel comfortable with,” says Sablone.Full story via The Washington Post

    Applauding the culture of aerospace engineeringTiera Fletcher ’17, a structural design engineer working on building NASA’s Space Launch System, and her husband Myron Fletcher spoke with the hosts of The Real about what inspired them to pursue careers in aerospace engineering and their organization Rocket with the Fletchers, which is aimed at introducing youth to the field of aerodynamics.Full story via The Real

    Addressing the Climate CrisisThe urgent need to take action on climate change became more apparent in 2021. MIT researchers across campus answered the call and are unleashing innovative ideas to help address the biggest threat of our time.

    Why closing California’s last nuclear power plant would be a mistake The Washington Post Editorial Board highlighted a report co-authored by MIT researchers that found keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California open would help the state reach its climate goals.Full story via The Washington Post

    What will the U.S. do to reach emission reduction targets?Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, spoke with Brian Cheung of Yahoo Finance about climate change, the path to net-zero emissions, and COP26. Paltsev was a lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. Full story via Yahoo News

    Lithium battery costs have fallen by 98% in three decadesA study by Professor Jessika Trancik and postdoc Micah Ziegler examining the plunge in lithium-ion battery costs finds “every time output doubles, as it did five times between 2006 and 2016, battery prices fall by about a quarter,” reports The Economist, which highlighted the work in its popular “Daily chart” feature. (Trancik’s research detailing carbon impacts of different cars was also cited by The Washington Post as a climate-change innovation helping respond to calls for action.)Full story via The Economist

    MIT students display a “climate clock” outside the Green BuildingBoston Globe reporter Matt Berg spotlights how a team from the MIT D-Lab created a climate clock, which was projected on the exterior of the Green Building at MIT in an effort to showcase key data about climate change. “The display highlights goals of the fight against climate change, such as limiting the annual temperature increases to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit,” writes Berg.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Social Impact

    MIT community members increasingly sought to address social issues around the world, from the spread of misinformation to ensuring marginalized communities could share their experiences. At MIT, arts, humanities and STEM fields forge an essential partnershipWriting for Times Higher Ed, Agustín Rayo, interim dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, underscore the importance of the arts, humanities, and design fields as “an essential part of an MIT education, critical to the Institute’s capacity for innovation and vital to its mission to make a better world.” They add that “the MIT mission is to serve humankind, and the arts and humanities are essential resources for knowledge and understanding of the human condition.”Full story via Times Higher Ed

    Helping Bostonians feel heard with MIT’s “Real Talk” portalAn MIT initiative called “Real Talk for Change” launched a new online portal of more than 200 audio stories collected from Boston residents as part of an effort to “help prompt future community dialogues about the lived experiences of everyday Bostonians, particularly those in marginalized communities,” reported Meghan E. Irons for The Boston Globe.Full story via Boston Globe

    Why nations fail, America editionProfessor Daron Acemoglu spoke with Greg Rosalsky of NPR’s Planet Money about his book, “Why Nations Fail,” and whether the attack on the U.S. Capitol signals difficulties for U.S. institutions, and how politicians can create more shared prosperity through a “good jobs” agenda. “We are still at a point where we can reverse things,” Acemoglu says. “But I think if we paper over these issues, we will most likely see a huge deterioration in institutions. And it can happen very rapidly.”Full story via Planet Money

    Why confronting disinformation spreaders online only makes it worseA study by MIT researchers found that correcting people who were spreading misinformation on Twitter led to people retweeting and sharing even more misinformation, reported Matthew Gault for Motherboard. Professor David Rand explains that the research is aimed at identifying “what kinds of interventions increase versus decrease the quality of news people share. There is no question that social media has changed the way people interact. But understanding how exactly it’s changed things is really difficult.” Full story via Motherboard

    Out of This WorldFrom designing a new instrument that can extract oxygen out of Martian air to investigating gravitational waves, MIT community members continued their longstanding tradition of deepening our understanding of the cosmos. MOXIE pulled breathable oxygen out of thin Martian airMichael Hecht of MIT’s Haystack Observatory spoke with GBH’s Edgar Herwick about how the MIT-designed MOXIE instrument successfully extracted oxygen out of Martian air. “I’ve been using the expression ‘a small breath for man, a giant leap for humankind,’” says Hecht, who is the principal investigator for MOXIE.Full story via GBH

    The down-to-Earth applications of spaceAssistant Professor Danielle Wood joined Bloomberg TV to discuss her work focused on using space technologies as a way to advance the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. She emphasizes how space “is a platform for serving the broad public. We use satellites to observe the environment and the climate, we use satellites to connect people across different parts of the Earth, and they give us information about our positions and our weather. All of these are broad public goods that really can serve people across the world all at once.”Full story via Bloomberg TV

    How Perseverance is hunting for life on MarsIn a conversation with New Scientist reporter Jonathan O’Callaghan, Professor Tanja Bosak discussed her work with the NASA Perseverance rover’s rock reconnaissance mission. “In the middle of a pandemic, I think we needed something good to happen, and that’s why so many people wanted all the science and engineering that goes into landing a rover on Mars to succeed,” says Bosak.Full story via New Scientist

    What scientists have learned from hidden ripples in spacetimeNergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, spoke with Becky Ferreira of Motherboard’s “Space Show” about LIGO’s 2015 discovery of gravitational waves and what researchers in the field have learned since then. “Every one of these observations tells us a little bit more about how nature has assembled our universe,” says Mavalvala. “Really, in the end, the question we’re asking is: ‘How did this universe that we observe come about?’” Full story via MotherboardJoining the Conversation

    MIT authors contributed nearly 100 op-eds and essays to top news outlets this year, along with research-focused deep dives in The Conversation.

    Building on Vannevar Bush’s “wild garden” to cultivate solutions to human needsPresident L. Rafael Reif examined Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking 1945 “Science, the Endless Frontier” report and considered how our needs today have changed. “To meet this moment, we need to ensure that our federally sponsored research addresses questions that will enhance our competitiveness now and in the future,” writes Reif. “Our current system has many strengths … but we must not allow these historical advantages to blind us to gaps that could become fatal weaknesses.”Full story via Issues in Science and Technology

    Good news: There’s a labor shortageWriting for The New York Times, Professor David Autor explored how the current labor shortage provides an opportunity to improve the quality of jobs in the U.S. “The period of labor scarcity, then, is an opportunity to catalyze better working conditions for those who need them most,” writes Autor.Full story via New York Times

    Opening the path to biotechIn an editorial for Science, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, Professor Emerita Nancy Hopkins, and President Emerita Susan Hockfield underscored the importance of addressing the underrepresentation of women and individuals of color in tech transfer. “The discoveries women and minority researchers are making today have great potential as a force for good in the world,” they write, “but reaching that potential is only possible if paths to real-world applications are open to everybody.”Full story via Science

    To protect from lab leaks, we need “banal” safety rules, not anti-terrorism measuresMIT Professor Susan Silbey and Professor Ruthanne Huising of Emlyon Business School made the case that to prevent lab leaks, there should be a greater emphasis placed on biosafety. “The global research community does not need more rules, more layers of oversight, and more intermediary actors,” they write. “What it needs is more attention and respect to already known biosafety measures and techniques.”Full story via Stat

    Boston: The Silicon Valley of longevity?Writing for The Boston Globe, AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin and Research Associate Luke Yoquinto explored how Greater Boston could serve as an innovation hub for aging populations. “By making groundbreaking creativity and inventiveness for older adults both seen and felt, Greater Boston and New England will be able to offer the world a new vision of old age,” they write.Full story via The Boston Globe

    More of the latest MIT In the Media summaries, with links to the original reporting, are available at news.mit.edu/in-the-media. More

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    MIT community in 2021: A year in review

    During 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to color much of the year, as MIT saw both the promise of vaccines as well as the rise of troubling new variants. The Institute also made new commitments to climate action, saw the opening of new and renovated spaces, continued in its efforts to support its diverse voices, and celebrated new Nobel laureates and astronaut candidates. Here are some of the top stories in the MIT community this year.

    Continuing to work through CovidVaccines became widely available to the MIT community early in the year — thanks, in significant part, to the ingenuity of MIT scientists and engineers. In response, the Institute developed a policy requiring vaccination for most members of the community and planned a return to fully in-person teaching and working at MIT for the fall 2021 semester.

    With copious protections in place, the fall semester in many ways embodied MIT’s resilience: In-person teaching expanded, staff returned with new flexible arrangements, and community spirit lifted as face-to-face meetings became possible in many cases once again. Some annual traditions, such as Commencement, stayed remote, while others, like the outdoor Great Glass Pumpkin Patch, and 2.009 grand finale, returned, adding smiles and a sense of gratitude among community members.Melissa Nobles appointed chancellor

    In August, Melissa Nobles, the former Kenin Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, became the Institute’s new chancellor. A political scientist, Nobles succeeded Cynthia Barnhart, who returned to research and teaching after seven years as chancellor.

    In other news related to MIT’s top administration, Martin Schmidt announced in November that after 40 years at MIT, he plans to step down as provost to become the next president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his alma mater.

    New climate action plan

    MIT unveiled a new action plan to tackle the climate crisis, committing to net-zero emissions by 2026 and charting a course marshaling all of MIT’s capabilities toward decarbonization. The plan includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.

    In November, a delegation from MIT also traveled to Scotland for COP26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, where international negotiators sought to keep global climate goals on track. Approximately 20 MIT faculty, staff, and students were on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    MIT and Harvard transfer edX

    MIT and Harvard University announced in June that assets of edX, the nonprofit they launched in 2012 to provide an open online platform for university courses, would be acquired by the publicly-traded education technology company 2U, and reorganized as a public benefit company under the 2U umbrella. In exchange, 2U was set to transfer net proceeds from the $800 million transaction to a nonprofit organization, also led by MIT and Harvard, to explore the next generation of online education.

    Supporting our diverse communityAs an important step forward in MIT’s ongoing efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive community, the Institute hired six new assistant deans, one in each school and in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to serve as diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. In addition, this week Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier provided an update on the Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the first draft of which was released in March.

    A community discussion also examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity. The forum was held amid a string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, Professor Emma Teng provided historic context for the crisis.

    Three with MIT ties win Nobel PrizesProfessor Joshua Angrist, whose influential work has enhanced rigorous empirical research in economics, shared half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences with Guido Imbens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the other half went to David Card of the University of California at Berkeley.

    In addition, David Julius ’77, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Ardem Patapoutian, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, for their discoveries in how the body senses touch and temperature. And Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines and digital fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with journalist Dmitry Muratov of Russia.

    National STEM leadersBefore taking office in January, President Joe Biden selected two MIT faculty leaders for top science and technology posts in his administration. Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and professor of biology, was named presidential science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Maria Zuber, vice president for research and professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, was named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Caltech chemical engineer Frances Arnold — the first women ever to co-chair PCAST.

    Paula Hammond, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was also chosen to serve as a member of PCAST. Earlier in the year, Hammond, along with chemical engineer Arup Chakraborty, was named an Institute Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon MIT faculty.

    Task Force 2021 final report

    MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond, charged with reimagining the future of MIT, released its final report, 18 months after it began work in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers 17 recommendations to strengthen and streamline MIT, and make the Institute more successful across its teaching, research, and innovation endeavors. In addition to a providing a substantive list of recommendations, the report suggests routes to implementation, and assigns one or more senior leaders or faculty governance committees with oversight, for every idea presented.

    Newly opened or reopened

    A number of facilities, new or newly redesigned, opened in 2021. These included a new MIT Welcome Center in Kendall Square; the new InnovationHQ, a hub for MIT entrepreneurship; the newly renovated and reimagined Hayden Library and courtyard; and the new MIT Press Bookstore. Two new student residences also opened, and the community welcomed programming from the Institute’s new outdoor open space.

    Students win an impressive number of distinguished fellowshipsAs always, MIT students continued to shine. This year, exceptional undergraduates were awarded Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Schwarzman scholarships.

    Remembering those we’ve lostAmong community members who died this year were William Dalzell, Sergio Dominguez, Gene Dresselhaus, Sow Hsin-Chen, Ronald Kurtz, Paul Lagacé, Shirley McBay, ChoKyun Rha, George Shultz, Isadore Singer, James Swan, and Jing Wang. A longer list of 2021 obituaries is available on MIT News.

    In Case You Missed It… 

    Additional top community stories of 2021 included NASA’s selection of three new alumni astronaut candidates; the announcement of the 2021 MIT Solve Global Challenges; the successful conclusion of the MIT Campaign for a Better World; a win for MIT in the American Solar Challenge; a look at chess at the Institute; a roundup of new books from MIT authors; and the introduction of STEM-focused young-adult graphic fiction from the MIT Press. More

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    A new way to detect the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant in wastewater

    Researchers from the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, alongside collaborators from Biobot Analytics, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and MIT, have successfully developed an innovative, open-source molecular detection method that is able to detect and quantify the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant of SARS-CoV-2. The breakthrough paves the way for rapid, inexpensive surveillance of other SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater.

    As the world continues to battle and contain Covid-19, the recent identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants with higher transmissibility and increased severity has made developing convenient variant tracking methods essential. Currently, identified variants include the B.1.17 (Alpha) variant first identified in the United Kingdom and the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant first detected in India.

    Wastewater surveillance has emerged as a critical public health tool to safely and efficiently track the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in a non-intrusive manner, providing complementary information that enables health authorities to acquire actionable community-level information. Most recently, viral fragments of SARS-CoV-2 were detected in housing estates in Singapore through a proactive wastewater surveillance program. This information, alongside surveillance testing, allowed Singapore’s Ministry of Health to swiftly respond, isolate, and conduct swab tests as part of precautionary measures.

    However, detecting variants through wastewater surveillance is less commonplace due to challenges in existing technology. Next-generation sequencing for wastewater surveillance is time-consuming and expensive. Tests also lack the sensitivity required to detect low variant abundances in dilute and mixed wastewater samples due to inconsistent and/or low sequencing coverage.

    The method developed by the researchers is uniquely tailored to address these challenges and expands the utility of wastewater surveillance beyond testing for SARS-CoV-2, toward tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

    Wei Lin Lee, research scientist at SMART AMR and first author on the paper adds, “This is especially important in countries battling SARS-CoV-2 variants. Wastewater surveillance will help find out the true proportion and spread of the variants in the local communities. Our method is sensitive enough to detect variants in highly diluted SARS-CoV-2 concentrations typically seen in wastewater samples, and produces reliable results even for samples which contain multiple SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

    Led by Janelle Thompson, NTU associate professor, and Eric Alm, MIT professor and SMART AMR principal investigator, the team’s study, “Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant B.1.1.7 Tracking in Wastewater by Allele-Specific RT-qPCR” has been published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The research explains the innovative, open-source molecular detection method based on allele-specific RT-qPCR that detects and quantifies the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant. The developed assay, tested and validated in wastewater samples across 19 communities in the United States, is able to reliably detect and quantify low levels of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant with low cross-reactivity, and at variant proportions down to 1 percent in a background of mixed SARS-CoV-2 viruses.

    Targeting spike protein mutations that are highly predictive of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant, the method can be implemented using commercially available RT-qPCR protocols. Unlike commercially available products that use proprietary primers and probes for wastewater surveillance, the paper details the open-source method and its development that can be freely used by other organizations and research institutes for their work on wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.

    The breakthrough by the research team in Singapore is currently used by Biobot Analytics, an MIT startup and global leader in wastewater epidemiology headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serving states and localities throughout the United States. Using the method, Biobot Analytics is able to accept and analyze wastewater samples for the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant and plans to add additional variants to its analysis as methods are developed. For example, the SMART AMR team is currently developing specific assays that will be able to detect and quantify the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, which has recently been identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.

    “Using the team’s innovative method, we have been able to monitor the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant in local populations in the U.S. — empowering leaders with information about Covid-19 trends in their communities and allowing them to make considered recommendations and changes to control measures,” says Mariana Matus PhD ’18, Biobot Analytics CEO and co-founder.

    “This method can be rapidly adapted to detect new variants of concern beyond B.1.1.7,” adds MIT’s Alm. “Our partnership with Biobot Analytics has translated our research into real-world impact beyond the shores of Singapore and aid in the detection of Covid-19 and its variants, serving as an early warning system and guidance for policymakers as they trace infection clusters and consider suitable public health measures.”

    The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

    SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF) in 2007. SMART is the first entity in CREATE developed by NRF. SMART 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 Center and five IRGs: AMR, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The AMR interdisciplinary research group 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, AMR aims to develop multiple innovative and disruptive approaches to identify, respond to, and treat drug-resistant microbial infections. Through strong scientific and clinical collaborations, its goal is to provide transformative, holistic solutions for Singapore and the world. More

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    Push to make supply chains more sustainable continues to gain momentum

    Much of the effort to make businesses sustainable centers on their supply chains, which were severely disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, according to new research from the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL), supply chain sustainability (SCS) investments hardly slowed, even as the pandemic raged.

    The finding, contained in the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report, puts companies on notice that they ignore the sustainability of their supply chains at their peril. This is particularly the case for enterprises with a low or moderate commitment to SCS, such as organizations classed as “Low Effort” and “Dreamer” in the new SCS Firm Typology that appears in the report for the first time. 

    The research also highlights the increasing pressure companies are under to devote resources to SCS. This pressure came from various stakeholders last year and suggests that sustainability in supply chains is a business trend, and not a fad.

    CTL publishes the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report in collaboration with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), a leading professional membership association. This year’s report is sponsored by BlueYonder, C.H. Robinson, KPMG, Intel, and Sam’s Club.

    Sustainability efforts undaunted by Covid-19

    “We believe cooperation between sectors is vital to thoroughly understand the complexity and evolution of sustainability efforts more broadly,” says David Correll, CTL research scientist. “Our work with CSCMP and our sponsors helps us to embed this essential research and its findings within the context of the real-life practice of supply chain management.”

    The research included a large-scale international survey of supply chain professionals with over 2,400 respondents — more than double the number received for the previous report. The survey was conducted in late 2020. In addition, 21 in-depth executive interviews were completed, and relevant news items, social media content, and reports were analyzed for the report.

    More than 80 percent of survey respondents claimed the pandemic had no impact or increased their firms’ commitments to SCS: Eighty-three percent of the executives interviewed said that Covid-19 had either accelerated SCS activity or, at the very least, increased awareness and brought urgency to this growing field.

    The pressure to support sustainability in supply chains came from multiple sources, both internal and external, but increased the most among investors and industry associations. Internally, company executives were standout champions of SCS.

    Although there are many approaches to investing in SCS, interest in human rights protection and worker welfare, along with energy savings and renewable energy, increased significantly last year. Supplier development was the most common mechanism used by firms to deliver on their SCS promises.

    Increasing investment, some speed bumps

    Given the momentum behind SCS, the future will likely bring more investment in this increasingly important area of supply chain management. And practitioners — who bring deep domain expertise and well-rounded views of enterprises to the table — will become more influential as sustainability advocates.

    But there are some formidable obstacles to overcome, too. For example, it is notable that most of the momentum behind SCS appeared to come from large (1,000-plus employees) and very large (10,000-plus employees) companies covered by the research. Small- to medium-sized enterprises were far less committed, and more work is needed to bring them into the fold through a better understanding of the barriers they face.

    A broader concern is that more attention from stakeholders — notably consumers, investors, and regulators — will bring more scrutiny of firms’ SCS track records, and less tolerance of token efforts to make supply chains sustainable. Improved supply chain transparency and disclosure are critical to firms’ responses, the report suggests.

    Some high-profile issues, such as combating social injustices and climate change mitigation, will continue to stoke the pressure on companies to invest in meaningful SCS initiatives. It follows that the connection between companies’ SCS performance and their profitability is likely to strengthen over the next few years.

    Will companies follow through?

    As companies grapple with these issues, they will face some difficult decisions. For example, the chief operating officer of a consumer goods company interviewed for the report described operating through pandemic constraints as a “moral calculus” where some sustainability commitments had to be temporarily sacrificed to achieve others. Such a calculus will likely challenge many companies as they juggle their responses to SCS demands. A key question is to ascertain the degree to which companies’ recent net-zero commitments will translate into effective SCS actions over the next few years.

    The CTL and CSCMP research teams are laying the groundwork for the 2022 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report. This annual status report aims to help practitioners and the industry to make more effective and informed sustainability decisions. The questionnaire for next year’s report will open in September. More