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    Andrea Lo ’21 draws on ecological lessons for life, work, and education

    Growing up in Los Angeles about 10 minutes away from the Ballona Wetlands, Andrea Lo ’21 has long been interested in ecology. She witnessed, in real-time, the effects of urbanization and the impacts that development had on the wetlands. 

    “In hindsight, it really helped shape my need for a career — and a life — where I can help improve my community and the environment,” she says.

    Lo, who majored in biology at MIT, says a recurring theme in her life has been the pursuit of balance, valuing both extracurricular and curricular activities. She always felt an equal pull toward STEM and the humanities, toward wet lab work and field work, and toward doing research and helping her community. 

    “One of the most important things I learned in 7.30[J] (Fundamentals of Ecology) was that there are always going to be trade-offs. That’s just the way of life,” she says. “The biology major at MIT is really flexible. I got a lot of room to explore what I was interested in and get a good balance overall, with humanities classes along with technical classes.” 

    Lo was drawn to MIT because of the focus on hands-on work — but many of the activities Lo was hoping to do, both extracurricular and curricular, were cut short because of the pandemic, including her lab-based Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project. 

    Instead, she pursued a UROP with MIT Sea Grant, working on a project in partnership with Northeastern University and the Charles River Conservancy with funding support from the MIT Community Service fund as part of STEAM Saturday.  

    She was involved in creating Floating Wetland kits, an educational activity directed at students in grades 4 to 6 to help students understand ecological concepts,the challenges the Charles River faces due to urbanization, and how floating wetlands improve the ecosystem. 

    “Our hope was to educate future generations of local students in Cambridge in order for them to understand the ecology surrounding where they live,” she says. 

    In recent years, many bodies of water in Massachusetts have become unusable during the warmer months due to the process of eutrophication: stormwater runoff picks up everything — from fertilizer and silt to animal excrement — and deposits it at the lowest point, which is often a body of water. This leads to an excess of nutrients in the body of water and, when combined with warm temperatures, can lead to harmful algal blooms, making the water sludgy, bright green, and dangerously toxic. 

    The wetland kits Lo worked with were mini ecosystems, replicating a full-sized floating wetland. One such floating wetland can be seen from the Longfellow Bridge at one end of MIT’s campus — the Charles River floating wetland is a patch of grass attached to a buoy like a boat, which is often visited by birds and inhabited by much smaller critters that cannot be seen from the shore.  

    The Charles River floating wetland has a variety of flora, but the kits Lo helped present use only wheat grass because it is easy to grow and has long, dangling roots that could penetrate the watery medium below. A water tray beneath the grass — the Charles river of the mini ecosystem — contains spirulina powder for replicating algae growth and daphnia, which are small, planktonic crustaceans that help keep freshwater clean and usable. 

    “This work was really fulfilling, but it’s also really important, because environmental sustainability relies on future generations to carry on the work that past generations have been doing,” she says. “MIT’s motto is ‘mens et manus’ — education for practical application, and applying theoretical knowledge to what we do in our daily lives. I think this project really helped reinforce that.” 

    Since 2021, Lo has been working in Denmark in a position she learned about through the MIT-Denmark program. 

    She chose Denmark because of its reputation for environmental and sustainability issues and because she didn’t know much about it except for it being one of the happiest countries in the world, often thought of synonymously with the word “hygge,” which has no direct translation but encapsulates coziness and comfort from the small joys in life. 

    “At MIT, we have a very strong work-hard, play-hard culture. I think we can learn a lot from the work-life balance that Denmark has a reputation for,” she says. “I really wanted to take the opportunity in between graduation and whatever came after to explore beyond my bubble. For me, it was important to step back, out of my comfort zone, step into a different environment — and just live.”

    Currently, her personal project is comparing the conditions of two lagoons on the island of Fyn in Denmark. Both are naturally occurring, but in different states of environmental health. 

    She’s been doing a mix of field work and lab work. She collects sediment and fauna samples using a steel corer, or “butter stick” in her lab’s slang. In the same way that one can use a metal tube-shaped tool to remove the core of an apple, she punches the steel corer into the ground, removing a plug of sample. She then sifts the sample through 1 millimeter mesh, preserves the filtered sample in formalin, and takes everything back to the lab. 

    Once there, she looks through the sample to find macrofauna — mollusks, barnacles, and polychaetes, a bristly-looking segmented worm, for example. Collected over time, sediment characteristics like organic matter content, sediment grain size, and the size and abundance of macrofauna, can reveal trends that can help determine the health of the ecosystem. 

    Lo doesn’t have any concrete results yet, but her data could help researchers project the recovery of a lagoon that was rehabilitated using a technique called managed realignment, where water is allowed to reclaim areas where it was once found. She says she’s glad she gets a mix of field work and lab work, even on Denmark’s stormiest days. 

    “Sometimes there are really cold days where it’s windy and I wish I was in the lab, but, at the same time, it’s nice to have a balance where I can be outside and really be hands-on with my work,” she says.  

    Reflecting her dual interests in the technical and the innovative, she will be back in the Greater Boston area in the fall, pursuing a master of science in innovation and management and an MS in civil and environmental engineering at the Tufts Gordon Institute.

    “So much has happened and changed due to the pandemic that it’s easy to dwell on what could’ve been, but I tell myself to be optimistic and take the positive aspects that have come out of the circumstances,” Lo says. “My opportunities with the Sea Grant, MISTI, and Tufts definitely wouldn’t have happened if the pandemic hadn’t happened.” More

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    MIT climate and sustainability interns consider aviation emissions and climate change

    Over 600 MIT students are traveling abroad with the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) to intern, research, and work in organizations across 25 countries this summer. Twenty percent of the students were placed in areas related to climate and sustainability.

    Through MISTI, hundreds of MIT students travel abroad each summer to intern in companies, universities, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Since 2018, around 20 percent of the internships and research experiences have been in areas related to climate and sustainability. MISTI has been working to increase the number of interns working on these projects by increasing the number of hosts and available grants, as well as connecting with other labs, departments, and centers across MIT to support students’ global experiences.

    For the first time this year, MISTI developed pre-departure sessions intended to help students reflect on their experiences in the wider context of sustainability and climate change. Around 90 students were invited to participate in a Canvas course and an in-person session with guest speakers. In the Canvas session, students were asked to calculate the carbon footprint of their flight to their MISTI destination and compare the results to other common daily activities. Four out of five of them expressed that the level of emissions from their flights was higher, or much higher, than they previously thought. Half of the students expressed that this was the first time they thought about their flight emissions for the summer. The students were then directed to the MIT Climate Portal website and asked to reflect on the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate and the effects of climate change on economically developing countries. The Canvas exercise concluded with readings and reflections on what can be done to address the climate crisis.

    The in-person session featured David Hsu, associate professor of urban and environmental planning and co-chair of the Campus Fast Forward working group on climate education, who presented his research and work on flight emissions. He emphasized the high impact of aviation on carbon dioxide emissions and how emissions are unevenly distributed on a global scale, based on income levels and per capita bases. A small group of travelers account for most of the emissions, which is also true in academic settings where a small number of travelers have a much higher carbon footprint. Hsu also explained the School of Architecture and Planning climate action plan and how it addresses faculty and student travel. “I know it’s hard. If we at MIT want to be leaders in this area, talking about it is not enough,” he said. “We have to act. We cannot be models just by doing research; we have to be role models at all levels. Faculty, staff, and students have to change their flight habits.”

    Having completed the climate and sustainability training, Favianna Colón Irizarry, a rising second-year majoring in chemical and biological engineering, explains, “to minimize our carbon footprint, we are taught to eat consciously and use environmentally friendly products. What we are not taught is that this alone will not make a difference; we ought to sacrifice more, like flying selectively and meaningfully, to truly make an impact. MISTI’s Climate and Sustainability helped me recognize this, as well as prepare me for how I choose to proceed in my future green endeavors.”

    Also during the session, rising seniors Anushree Chaudhuri and Melissa Stok, the leads for the MIT Student Sustainability Coalition, presented their work around coordinating efforts among students and the vast landscape of groups, organizations, and entities at the Institute. They invited all interested students to join and reach out to any of the entities that could be a good fit for their interests. Chaudhuri reflected afterwards, “Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary. Every MIT student can incorporate sustainability into their work, regardless of major, class year, or interests! I was excited to join my SSC co-lead, Melissa, in speaking with a diverse group of MISTI interns about how to explore sustainability-related academic, extracurricular, professional, and experiential opportunities at MIT and beyond. These students come from many different disciplines, so it was incredibly heartening to hear that they are all pursuing a climate-related project abroad this summer.”

    Eduardo Rivera, MISTI’s coordinator for climate and sustainability expressed that “educational experiences abroad are a fundamental part of MIT’s mission to foster global leaders to tackle the climate crisis. This summer, more than 110 students will be working around the world in solar and wind technologies, carbon capture, climate adaptation and urban planning, sustainable concrete, electric mobility, among others. We are using this opportunity to expand on the reflection part of the experiential learning cycle. The goal of these pre-departure sessions is to raise awareness and help our students reflect on the impact of their everyday activities on the climate, and to also give them resources to learn and act thoughtfully. We hope they will not only become conscious travelers, but also agents for change.”

    “This year’s climate and sustainability pre-departure training were pilot sessions, and the goal is to expand this learning experience to all MISTI students, not just those working in the fields of climate and sustainability. This will be a unique opportunity to raise awareness and expand the knowledge to over 1,000 of our students as they travel to more than 40 countries across the globe,” explains Abby MacKenzie, MIT-India coordinator who co-developed the pre-departure sessions. More

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    MIT speaker series taps into students’ passion for entrepreneurship and social impact.

    Last summer, leaders of MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) noticed a growing trend in entrepreneur applications to the program: An increasing number of aspiring founders were expressing a passion for social impact.

    VMS, which connects students and alumni with teams of mentors, hosts bootcamps, holds expert office hours, and offers an annual Demo Day, did not previously have offerings to help founders focused on this type of impact, so its leaders decided to pilot an Impact Speaker Series.

    The series, which featured experienced early-stage entrepreneurs from the MIT community and took place throughout the year, was a smashing success. In total, more than 1,200 MIT community members registered across eight events, including students at all stages of their education as well as alumni interested in making a positive impact on the world through entrepreneurship.

    “We felt an intense desire from attendees to explore entrepreneurship as a path to solve our most pressing problems,” VMS mentor and series co-Lead Paul Bosco says. “The degree to which students identified with challenges such as climate, health, sustainability, and education, rather than their major, was striking. Our goal was to help them see a path as first-time founders.”

    Now VMS is riding the momentum from the speaker series by rolling out more support services for impact-driven students, including hosting additional events, adding experienced impact entrepreneurs and social enterprise experts to its network of mentors, and connecting with more funders and executives with experience leading organizations focused on impact.

    Ultimately, VMS believes these new efforts will bolster MIT’s broader mission of translating science and innovation from its labs and classrooms into positive advances around the world.

    “Our pivot to strengthen support for founders with a passion for impact is absolutely aligned with the mission of MIT,” Bosco says. “Pursuing research and ideas with a passion for world-changing impact has always been in the DNA of MIT. A new generation of entrepreneurs is challenging us to help them hone their skills and lead organizations to build a better world.”

    Striking a chord

    Each one of VMS’ events had a different theme, from addressing general founder challenges, like first time pre-seed or nondilutive fundraising to building startup ventures in sectors like climate, health care, and education. One panel focused on helping entrepreneurs find their personal paths to success and impact, featuring founders leading impactful companies at different stages of development. Another panel discussion, titled Funding Your Path to Impact and Success, featured investors and directors of programs funding ventures delivering impact.

    “I want to encourage founders to consider driving toward a new ‘unicorn success’ model, where success is not measured in $1-billion-dollar valuations, but is based on world-changing carbon reductions, water cleanliness, lives saved, students inspired, etc.,” Ela Mirowski, a program director with the National Science Foundation, told the audience at one event.

    In total, the events featured 24 expert speakers, early-stage founders, and funders. Impact driven businesses, speakers emphasized, can take many forms. Bosco, who moderated one of the panels, says he’s heard from students and alumni interested in starting for-profit companies focused on profit and impact, what he called “dual bottom lines,” as well as students interested in starting public benefit companies, social enterprises, and traditional nonprofit organizations.

    “VMS is getting better at tapping into the different types of entrepreneurs at different stages of their journeys,” says Akshit Singla SM ’22. “It’s exactly what’s needed, and I know that because there was a huge waitlist for these events.”

    Zahra Kanji, who attended VMS’s most recent event in May and is currently director of MIT Hacking Medicine, sees the speaker series as a natural response to evolving student needs.

    “For students, I think the focus has changed a lot over the years,” Kanji said. “There used to be a lot more interest in entrepreneurship with making money as the final goal, and now it’s turned into more of a triple goal, like a public benefit corporation or something that has more impact. So, hearing key lessons learned from experts is really important — these aren’t answers you can get in a textbook.”

    Listening to the community

    Many of next year’s VMS events will be similar to the events that most resonated with the MIT community this year. VMS will also be adding an event on entrepreneurship in artificial intelligence and computing for impact. VMS is hoping to continue expanding student connections to recent founders, or what Bosco refers to as “near-peer founders,” that can relate more closely with first-time founders navigating the current startup environment.

    “Given that many new entrepreneurs are shifting to focus on impact, we need to evolve,” says VMS mentor Matt Cherian SM ’11. “I’m glad students are starting to think differently, and I’m really glad VMS is making this programming to help people think in this new way.”

    “The most notable aspect of our series was the commitment of students, including undergrads, graduates, and postdocs, pursuing their passion for impact through entrepreneurship,” Bosco says. “Many students we met exploring entrepreneurship for impact have exceptional job offers from top employers, or if they are alums they’re leaving significant positions to pursue a greater purpose in their lives. It is profoundly inspiring and an honor to help each of these founders.” More

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    Panel addresses technologies needed for a net-zero future

    Five speakers at a recent public panel discussion hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and introduced by Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner tackled one of the thorniest, yet most critical, questions facing the world today: How can we achieve the ambitious goals set by governments around the globe, including the United States, to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century?

    While the challenges are great, the panelists agreed, there is reason for optimism that these technological challenges can be solved. More uncertain, some suggested, are the social, economic, and political hurdles to bringing about the needed innovations.

    The speakers addressed areas where new or improved technologies or systems are needed if these ambitious goals are to be achieved. Anne White, aassociate provost and associate vice president for research administration and a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, moderated the panel discussion. She said that achieving the ambitious net-zero goal “has to be accomplished by filling some gaps, and going after some opportunities.” In addressing some of these needs, she said the five topics chosen for the panel discussion were “places where MIT has significant expertise, and progress is already ongoing.”

    First of these was the heating and cooling of buildings. Christoph Reinhart, a professor of architecture and director of the Building Technology Program, said that currently about 1 percent of existing buildings are being retrofitted each year for energy efficiency and conversion from fossil-fuel heating systems to efficient electric ones — but that is not nearly enough to meet the 2050 net-zero target. “It’s an enormous task,” he said. To meet the goals, he said, would require increasing the retrofitting rate to 5 percent per year, and to require all new construction to be carbon neutral as well.

    Reinhart then showed a series of examples of how such conversions could take place using existing solar and heat pump technology, and depending on the configuration, how they could provide a payback to the homeowner within 10 years or less. However, without strong policy incentives the initial cost outlay for such a system, on the order of $50,000, is likely to put conversions out of reach of many people. Still, a recent survey found that 30 percent of homeowners polled said they would accept installation at current costs. While there is government money available for incentives for others, “we have to be very clever on how we spend all this money … and make sure that everybody is basically benefiting.”

    William Green, a professor of chemical engineering, spoke about the daunting challenge of bringing aviation to net zero. “More and more people like to travel,” he said, but that travel comes with carbon emissions that affect the climate, as well as air pollution that affects human health. The economic costs associated with these emissions, he said, are estimated at $860 per ton of jet fuel used — which is very close to the cost of the fuel itself. So the price paid by the airlines, and ultimately by the passengers, “is only about half of the true cost to society, and the other half is being borne by all of us, by the fact that it’s affecting the climate and it’s causing medical problems for people.”

    Eliminating those emissions is a major challenge, he said. Virtually all jet fuel today is fossil fuel, but airlines are starting to incorporate some biomass-based fuel, derived mostly from food waste. But even these fuels are not carbon-neutral, he said. “They actually have pretty significant carbon intensity.”

    But there are possible alternatives, he said, mostly based on using hydrogen produced by clean electricity, and making fuels out of that hydrogen by reacting it, for example, with carbon dioxide. This could indeed produce a carbon-neutral fuel that existing aircraft could use, but the process is costly, requiring a great deal of hydrogen, and ways of concentrating carbon dioxide. Other viable options also exist, but all would add significant expense, at least with present technology. “It’s going to cost a lot more for the passengers on the plane,” Green said, “But the society will benefit from that.”

    Increased electrification of heating and transportation in order to avoid the use of fossil fuels will place major demands on the existing electric grid systems, which have to perform a constant delicate balancing of production with demand. Anuradha Annaswamy, a senior research scientist in MIT’s mechanical engineering department, said “the electric grid is an engineering marvel.” In the United States it consists of 300,000 miles of transmission lines capable of carrying 470,000 megawatts of power.

    But with a projected doubling of energy from renewable sources entering the grid by 2030, and with a push to electrify everything possible — from transportation to buildings to industry — the load is not only increasing, but the patterns of both energy use and production are changing. Annaswamy said that “with all these new assets and decision-makers entering the picture, the question is how you can use a more sophisticated information layer that coordinates how all these assets are either consuming or producing or storing energy, and have that information layer coexist with the physical layer to make and deliver electricity in all these ways. It’s really not a simple problem.”

    But there are ways of addressing these complexities. “Certainly, emerging technologies in power electronics and control and communication can be leveraged,” she said. But she added that “This is not just a technology problem, really, it is something that requires technologists, economists, and policymakers to all come together.”

    As for industrial processes, Bilge Yildiz, a professor of nuclear science and engineering and materials science and engineering, said that “the synthesis of industrial chemicals and materials constitutes about 33 percent of global CO2 emissions at present, and so our goal is to decarbonize this difficult sector.” About half of all these industrial emissions come from the production of just four materials: steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene, so there is a major focus of research on ways to reduce their emissions.

    Most of the processes to make these materials have changed little for more than a century, she said, and they are mostly heat-based processes that involve burning a lot of fossil fuel. But the heat can instead be provided from renewable electricity, which can also be used to drive electrochemical reactions in some cases as a substitute for the thermal reactions. Already, there are processes for making cement and steel that produce only about half the present carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

    The production of ammonia, which is widely used in fertilizer and other bulk chemicals, accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other industrial source. The present thermochemical process could be replaced by an electrochemical process, she said. Similarly, the production of ethylene, as a feedstock for plastics and other materials, is the second-highest emissions producer, with three tons of carbon dioxide released for every ton of ethylene produced. Again, an electrochemical alternative method exists, but needs to be improved to be cost competitive.

    As the world moves toward electrification of industrial processes to eliminate fossil fuels, the need for emissions-free sources of electricity will continue to increase. One very promising potential addition to the range of carbon-free generation sources is fusion, a field in which MIT is a leader in developing a particularly promising technology that takes advantage of the unique properties of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials.

    Dennis Whyte, the director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, pointed out that despite global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, “we use exactly the same percentage of carbon-based products to generate energy as 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.” To make a real difference in global emissions, “we need to make really massive amounts of carbon-free energy.”

    Fusion, the process that powers the sun, is a particularly promising pathway, because the fuel, derived from water, is virtually inexhaustible. By using recently developed HTS material to generate the powerful magnetic fields needed to produce a sustained fusion reaction, the MIT-led project, which led to a spinoff company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems, was able to radically reduce the required size of a fusion reactor, Whyte explained. Using this approach, the company, in collaboration with MIT, expects to have a fusion system that produces net energy by the middle of this decade, and be ready to build a commercial plant to produce power for the grid early in the next. Meanwhile, at least 25 other private companies are also attempting to commercialize fusion technology. “I think we can take some credit for helping to spawn what is essentially now a new industry in the United States,” Whyte said.

    Fusion offers the potential, along with existing solar and wind technologies, to provide the emissions-free power the world needs, Whyte says, but that’s only half the problem, the other part being how to get that power to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. “How do we adapt these new energy sources to be as compatible as possible with everything that we have already in terms of energy delivery?”

    Part of the way to find answers to that, he suggested, is more collaborative work on these issues that cut across disciplines, as well as more of the kinds of cross-cutting conversations and interactions that took place in this panel discussion. More

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    Preparing Colombia’s cities for life amid changing forests

    It was an uncharacteristically sunny morning as Marcela Angel MCP ’18, flanked by a drone pilot from the Boston engineering firm AirWorks and a data collection team from the Colombian regional environmental agency Corpoamazonia, climbed a hill in the Andes Mountains of southwest Colombia. The area’s usual mountain cloud cover — one of the major challenges to working with satellite imagery or flying UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, or drones) in the Pacific highlands of the Amazon — would roll through in the hours to come. But for now, her team had chosen a good day to hike out for their first flight. Angel is used to long travel for her research. Raised in Bogotá, she maintained strong ties to Colombia throughout her master’s program in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). Her graduate thesis, examining Bogotá’s management of its public green space, took her regularly back to her hometown, exploring how the city could offer residents more equal access to the clean air, flood protection and day-to-day health and social benefits provided by parks and trees. But the hill she was hiking this morning, outside the remote city of Mocoa, had taken an especially long time to climb: five years building relationships with the community of Mocoa and the Colombian government, recruiting project partners, and navigating the bureaucracy of bringing UAVs into the country. Now, her team finally unwrapped their first, knee-high drone from its tarp and set it carefully in the grass. Under the gathering gray clouds, the buzz of its rotors joined the hum of insects in the trees, and the machine at last took to the skies.

    From Colombia to Cambridge

    “I actually grew up on the last street before the eastern mountains reserve,” Angel says of her childhood in Bogotá. “I’ve always been at that border between city and nature.” This idea, that urban areas are married to the ecosystems around them, would inform Angel’s whole education and career. Before coming to MIT, she studied architecture at Bogotá’s Los Andes University; for her graduation project she proposed a plan to resettle an informal neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts to minimize environmental risks to its residents. Among her projects at MIT was an initiative to spatially analyze Bogotá’s tree canopy, providing data for the city to plan a tree-planting program as a strategy to give vulnerable populations in the city more access to nature. And she was naturally intrigued when Colombia’s former minister of environment and sustainable development came to MIT in 2017 to give a guest presentation to the DUSP master’s program. The minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo (now the Colombian ambassador to the United States), introduced the students to the challenges triggered by a recent disaster in the city of Mocoa, on the border between the lowland Amazon and the Andes Mountains. Unprecedented rainstorms had destabilized the surrounding forests, and that April a devastating flood and landslide had killed hundreds of people and destroyed entire neighborhoods. And as climate change contributed to growing rainfall in the region, the risks of more landslide events were rising. Murillo provided useful insights into how city planning decisions had contributed to the crisis. But he also asked for MIT’s support addressing future landslide risks in the area. Angel and Juan Camilo Osorio, a PhD candidate at DUSP, decided to take up the challenge, and in January 2018 and 2019, a research delegation from MIT traveled to Colombia for a newly-created graduate course. Returning once again to Bogotá, Angel interviewed government agencies and nonprofits to understand the state of landslide monitoring and public policy. In Mocoa, further interviews and a series of workshops helped clarify what locals needed most and what MIT could provide: better information on where and when landslides might strike, and a process to increase risk awareness and involve traditionally marginalized groups in decision-making processes around that risk. Over the coming year, a core team formed to put the insights from this trip into action, including Angel, Osorio, postdoc Norhan Bayomi of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and MIT Professor John Fernández, director of the ESI and one of Angel’s mentors at DUSP. After a second visit to Mocoa that brought into the fold Indigenous groups, environmental agencies, and the national army, a plan was formed: MIT would partner with Corpoamazonia and build a network of community researchers to deploy and test drone technology and machine learning models to monitor the mountain forests for both landslide risks and signs of forest health, while implementing a participatory planning process with residents. “What our projects aim to do is give the communities new tools to continue protecting and restoring the forest,” says Angel, “and support new and inclusive development models, even in the face of new challenges.”

    Lifelines for the climate

    The goal of tropical forest conservation is an urgent one. As forests are cut down, their trees and soils release carbon they have stored over millennia, adding huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, is now estimated to contribute more to climate change than any country besides the United States and China — and once lost, tropical forests are exceptionally hard to restore. “Tropical forests should be a natural way to slow and reverse climate change,” says Angel. “And they can be. But today, we are reaching critical tipping points where it is just the opposite.” This became the motivating force for Angel’s career after her graduation. In 2019, Fernández invited her to join the ESI and lead a new Natural Climate Solutions Program, with the Mocoa project as its first centerpiece. She quickly mobilized the partners to raise funding for the project from the Global Environmental Facility and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, and recruited additional partners including MIT Lincoln Laboratories, AirWorks, and the Pratt Institute, where Osorio had become an assistant professor. She hired machine learning specialists from MIT to begin design on UAVs’ data processing, and helped assemble a local research network in Mocoa to increase risk awareness, promote community participation, and better understand what information city officials and community groups needed for city planning and conservation. “This is the amazing thing about MIT,” she says. “When you study a problem here, you’re not just playing in a sandbox. Everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by the complexity of the technical challenge and the opportunity for meaningful engagement in Mocoa, and hopefully in many more places besides.” At the same time, Angel created opportunities for the next generation of MIT graduate students to follow in her footsteps. With Fernández and Bayomi, she created a new course, 4.S23 (Biodiversity and Cities), in which students traveled to Colombia to develop urban planning strategies for the cities of Quidbó and Leticia, located in carbon-rich and biodiverse areas. The course has been taught twice, with Professor Gabriella Carolini joining the teaching team for spring 2023, and has already led to a student report to city officials in Quidbó recommending ways to enhance biodiversity and adapt to climate change as the city grows, a multi-stakeholder partnership to train local youth and implement a citizen-led biodiversity survey, and a seed grant from the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium to begin providing both cities detailed data on their tree cover derived from satellite images. “These regions face serious threats, especially on a warming planet, but many of the solutions for climate change, biodiversity conservation, and environmental equity in the region go hand-in-hand,” Angel says. “When you design a city to use fewer resources, to contribute less to climate change, it also causes less pressure on the environment around it. When you design a city for equity and quality of life, you’re giving attention to its green spaces and what they can provide for people and as habitat for other species. When you protect and restore forests, you’re protecting local bioeconomies.”

    Bringing the data home

    Meanwhile, in Mocoa, Angel’s original vision is taking flight. With the team’s test flights behind them, they can now begin creating digital models of the surrounding area. Regular drone flights and soil samples will fill in changing information about trees, water, and local geology, allowing the project’s machine learning specialists to identify warning signs for future landslides and extreme weather events. More importantly, there is now an established network of local community researchers and leaders ready to make use of this information. With feedback from their Mocoan partners, Angel’s team has built a prototype of the online platform they will use to share their UAV data; they’re now letting Mocoa residents take it for a test drive and suggest how it can be made more user-friendly. Her visit this January also paved the way for new projects that will tie the Environmental Solutions Initiative more tightly to Mocoa. With her project partners, Angel is exploring developing a course to teach local students how to use UAVs like the ones her team is flying. She is also considering expanded efforts to collect the kind of informal knowledge of Mocoa, on the local ecology and culture, that people everywhere use in making their city planning and emergency response decisions, but that is rarely codified and included in scientific risk analyses. It’s a great deal of work to offer this one community the tools to adapt successfully to climate change. But even with all the robotics and machine learning models in the world, this close, slow-unfolding engagement, grounded in trust and community inclusion, is what it takes to truly prepare people to confront profound changes in their city and environment. “Protecting natural carbon sinks is a global socio-environmental challenge, and one where it is not enough for MIT to just contribute to the knowledge base or develop a new technology,” says Angel. “But we can help mobilize decision-makers and nontraditional actors, and design more inclusive and technology-enhanced processes, to make this easier for the people who have lifelong stakes in these ecosystems. That is the vision.” More

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    Arina Khotimsky ’23 awarded 2023 Michel David-Weill Scholarship

    Arina Khotimsky ’23 was selected for the 2023 Michel David-Weill scholarship, awarded each year to one student from the United States in a master’s program at Sciences Po in France who exemplifies the core values embodied by its namesake: excellence, leadership, multiculturalism, and high achievement. This fall Khotimsky will enter the master’s program in international energy, which is part of Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs. The program aims to provide a holistic understanding of energy issues, across disciplines and across all energy sources.

    Khotimsky graduated this year from MIT with a major in materials science and engineering, and minors in energy studies and in French.

    Asked what drew her to her major, Khotimsky talked about her love of the outdoors. Seeing effects of climate change on the world around made her made her want to explore solutions. “I settled on material science and engineering because there’s so many different applications: whether it be solar power, developing different battery materials and chemistries, or some other technology. Getting that technical background at MIT can help me understand how we can implement solutions around the world, with diverse cultures in mind.”

    One of Khotimsky’s material sciences professors, Polina Anikeeva, observes that “Arina possesses the spirit of creativity, optimism, and unparalleled work ethic — all necessary ingredients to solve energy and climate challenges of our century.”

    Khotimsky is well aware of the big stakes in discussions around energy policy. She explains, “We have to cooperate internationally to make a dent in carbon emissions. The United States is historically the biggest CO2 emitter and has a large role to play to transition to a more sustainable future.”

    Her interest in studying climate change solutions on a world scale also converged with her interest in studying other languages and cultures. Her main language studies at MIT have been in French, although she also speaks Russian and beginner Chinese.

    Due to her achievement in MIT French classes, Khotimsky was one of nine students selected for a two-week cultural immersion program in Paris last June, led by MIT Professor Bruno Perreau. Perreau also had her in class last fall, and spoke about the energy and commitment she brought to class, describing her as “one of my very best students since I started to teach 22 years ago.” Khotimsky is excited to be living in France for her master’s program and putting her French skills to work.

    Khotimsky’s impressive undergraduate career has also included being co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and participating in the MIT delegation to 2022 Conference of the Parties summit (COP27) of the United Nations in Egypt last November. She also participated in the NEET Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar project, traveling to Mongolia in Independent Activities Period 2023 with a group of students and instructors to work on clean heating technologies for traditional ger homes.

    In addition to her academic work and other extracurricular activities, Khotimsky was also a member of the MIT women’s rowing team. She walked onto the team as a first-year student, making it into the Varsity 8 boat for her senior season. Holly Metcalf, MIT women’s varsity openweight rowing coach, explains, “Being on the rowing team has in many ways become a metaphor for what Arina has come to study … She realized that rowing is about so much more than physics — it is about who one must become as an individual to contribute to the sum of mental and physical strength of the entire team.” Khotimsky was recognized on May 22 by the Patriot League, who named her the 2023 Patriot League Women’s Rowing Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

    Looking ahead, Khotimsky envisions her future involving international energy negotiations or policy. “The master’s degree I’m pursuing in international relations will help me develop skills to communicate with stakeholders from around the world and figure out how to implement solutions globally.” More

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    Advancing material innovation to address the polymer waste crisis

    Products made from polymers — ranging from plastic bags to clothing to cookware to electronics — provide many comforts and support today’s standard of living, but since they do not decompose easily, they pose long-term environmental challenges. Developing polymers, a large class of materials, with a more sustainable life cycle is a critical step in making progress toward a green economy and addressing this piece of the global climate change crisis. The development of biodegradable polymers, however, remains limited by current biodegradation testing methods.

    To address this limitation, a team of MIT researchers led by Bradley D. Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, has developed an expansive biodegradation dataset to help determine whether or not a polymer is biodegradable.

    Their findings were recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in a paper titled “High-Throughput Experimentation for Discovery of Biodegradable Polyesters.” The MIT team is led by Olsen and PhD candidates Katharina A. Fransen and Sarah H. M. Av-Ron, and also includes postdoc Dylan J. Walsh and undergraduate students Tess R. Buchanan, Dechen T. Rota, and Lana Van Note.

    “Despite polymer waste being a known and significant contributor to the climate crisis, the study of polymer biodegradation has been limited to a small number of polymers because current biodegradation testing methods are time- and resource-intensive,” says Olsen. “This limited scope slows new material innovation, so we are working to open that up to a much broader portfolio of materials.”

    Unique high-throughput approach

    The dataset Olsen’s team has developed, with support from the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), and DIC Corporation, includes more than 600 distinct polyester chemistries.

    “The ingenuity of our work is pushing the screening to be high-throughput, which accelerates the pace of discovery,” says Av-Ron. High-throughput synthesis methods enable large quantities of samples to be screened rapidly, identifying products with the desired property or function you are looking for. In this case, the high-throughput approach was conducted using a method called clear-zone assay, which detects polymer biofragmentation and identifies polymer degrading bacteria. The biodegradation dataset can then lead to structure-property relationships, a concept central to materials science and engineering, where relationships between the chemical detail and property can be established, and used to build a biodegradation prediction model. When developing these models to predict biodegradation, the researchers were interested in looking into the potential linearity and nonlinearity of the relationships between structure and biodegradability.

    “We consider our scientific breakthrough to be having this large dataset, and the qualitative relationships and predictive models such a substantial  amount of data enabled,” adds Av-Ron. “It was captivating to figure out how to integrate the high complexity of polymer chemical representation with predictive machine-learning models. I was very excited to get a validation accuracy of 82 percent for one representation/model combination. With additional data we might be able to improve our predictions even more.”

    The team’s work focuses largely on polyesters; the development of biodegradable polyesters presents a key opportunity for addressing the polymer sustainability crisis and reducing the environmental burden of the polymer life cycle.

    One strain of bacteria, many chemistries

    The biodegradation test that these data create is accessible and cost-effective to put in place; initial industry feedback has been positive. The datasets are also more reproducible than many other standards in this space.

    “With our method, there is one strain of bacteria, so you know exactly what you’re testing,” says Av-Ron. This speaks to the uniqueness of the team’s approach.

    “When polymers are developed, normally the strength of the material is examined first, and then once the material is developed, whether or not it biodegrades comes second,” says Fransen.

    Olsen and his team are examining the opposite — developing the biodegradability screen first, to help filter and focus what to look for in a material. This way, the team’s infrastructure can assess a lot of different options, quickly.

    “There has been big movement recently in developing sustainable polymers,” concludes Fransen, “and having something like this that is quick, tangible, and relatively inexpensive, could add a lot of value to that community.”

    Fransen received a 2022 J-WAFS Fellowship for this work, and she and Av-Ron together won second place in the 2022 J-WAFS World Food Day Student Video Competition, as this research can be applied to creating more sustainable food packaging. More

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    Q&A: Are far-reaching fires the new normal?

    Where there’s smoke, there is fire. But with climate change, larger and longer-burning wildfires are sending smoke farther from their source, often to places that are unaccustomed to the exposure. That’s been the case this week, as smoke continues to drift south from massive wildfires in Canada, prompting warnings of hazardous air quality, and poor visibility in states across New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.

    As wildfire season is just getting going, many may be wondering: Are the air-polluting effects of wildfires a new normal?

    MIT News spoke with Professor Colette Heald of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Professor Noelle Selin of the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Heald specializes in atmospheric chemistry and has studied the climate and health effects associated with recent wildfires, while Selin works with atmospheric models to track air pollutants around the world, which she uses to inform policy decisions on mitigating  pollution and climate change. The researchers shared some of their insights on the immediate impacts of Canada’s current wildfires and what downwind regions may expect in the coming months, as the wildfire season stretches into summer.  

    Q: What role has climate change and human activity played in the wildfires we’ve seen so far this year?

    Heald: Unusually warm and dry conditions have dramatically increased fire susceptibility in Canada this year. Human-induced climate change makes such dry and warm conditions more likely. Smoke from fires in Alberta and Nova Scotia in May, and Quebec in early June, has led to some of the worst air quality conditions measured locally in Canada. This same smoke has been transported into the United States and degraded air quality here as well. Local officials have determined that ignitions have been associated with lightning strikes, but human activity has also played a role igniting some of the fires in Alberta.

    Q: What can we expect for the coming months in terms of the pattern of wildfires and their associated air pollution across the United States?

    Heald: The Government of Canada is projecting higher-than-normal fire activity throughout the 2023 fire season. Fire susceptibility will continue to respond to changing weather conditions, and whether the U.S. is impacted will depend on the winds and how air is transported across those regions. So far, the fire season in the United States has been below average, but fire risk is expected to increase modestly through the summer, so we may see local smoke influences as well.

    Q: How has air pollution from wildfires affected human health in the U.S. this year so far?

    Selin: The pollutant of most concern in wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – fine particles in the atmosphere that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing health damages. Exposure to PM2.5 causes respiratory and cardiovascular damage, including heart attacks and premature deaths. It can also cause symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing. In New England this week, people have been breathing much higher concentrations of PM2.5 than usual. People who are particularly vulnerable to the effects are likely experiencing more severe impacts, such as older people and people with underlying conditions. But PM2.5 affects everyone. While the number and impact of wildfires varies from year to year, the associated air pollution from them generally lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. overall annually. There is also some evidence that PM2.5 from fires could be particularly damaging to health.

    While we in New England usually have relatively lower levels of pollution, it’s important also to note that some cities around the globe experience very high PM2.5 on a regular basis, not only from wildfires, but other sources such as power plants and industry. So, while we’re feeling the effects over the past few days, we should remember the broader importance of reducing PM2.5 levels overall for human health everywhere.

    Q: While firefighters battle fires directly this wildfire season, what can we do to reduce the effects of associated air pollution? And what can we do in the long-term, to prevent or reduce wildfire impacts?

    Selin: In the short term, protecting yourself from the impacts of PM2.5 is important. Limiting time outdoors, avoiding outdoor exercise, and wearing a high-quality mask are some strategies that can minimize exposure. Air filters can help reduce the concentrations of particles in indoor air. Taking measures to avoid exposure is particularly important for vulnerable groups. It’s also important to note that these strategies aren’t equally possible for everyone (for example, people who work outside) — stressing the importance of developing new strategies to address the underlying causes of increasing wildfires.

    Over the long term, mitigating climate change is important — because warm and dry conditions lead to wildfires, warming increases fire risk. Preventing the fires that are ignited by people or human activities can help.  Another way that damages can be mitigated in the longer term is by exploring land management strategies that could help manage fire intensity. More