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    K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research Center will prioritize innovations for resource-constrained communities

    Billions of people worldwide face threats to their livelihood, health, and well-being due to poverty. These problems persist because solutions offered in developed countries often do not meet the requirements — related to factors like price, performance, usability, robustness, and culture — of poor or developing countries. Academic labs frequently try to tackle these challenges, but often to no avail because they lack real-world, on-the-ground knowledge from key stakeholders, and because they do not have an efficient, reliable means of converting breakthroughs to real-world impact.

    The new K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Center at MIT, founded with a $28 million gift from philanthropist and investor Lisa Yang, aims to rethink how products and technologies for resource-constrained communities are conceived, designed, and commercialized. A collaboration between MIT’s School of Engineering and School of Science, the Yang GEAR Center will bring together a multidisciplinary team of MIT researchers to assess today’s most pressing global challenges in three critical areas: global health, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the water-energy-food nexus.

    “As she has shown over and over through her philanthropy, Lisa Yang shares MIT’s passion for connecting fundamental research and real-world data to create positive impact,” says MIT president Sally Kornbluth. “I’m grateful for her powerful vision and incredible generosity in founding the K. Lisa Yang GEAR Center. I can’t imagine a better use of MIT’s talents than working to improve the lives and health of people around the world.”

    Yang’s gift expands her exceptional philanthropic support of human health and basic science research at MIT over the past six years. Yang GEAR Center will join MIT’s Yang Tan Collective, an assemblage of six major research centers focused on accelerating collaboration in basic science, research, and engineering to realize translational strategies that improve human health and well-being at a global scale.

    “Billions of people face daily life-or-death challenges that could be improved with elegant technologies,” says Yang. “And yet I’ve learned how many products and tools created by top engineers don’t make it out of the lab. They may look like clever ideas during the prototype phase, but they are entirely ill-suited to the communities they were designed for. I am very excited about the potential of a deliberate and thoughtful engineering effort that will prioritize the design of technologies for use in impoverished communities.”

    Cost, material availability, cultural suitability, and other market mismatches hinder many major innovations in global health, food, and water from being translated to use in resource-constrained communities. Yang GEAR Center will support a major research and design program with its mission to strategically identify compelling challenges and associated scientific knowledge gaps in resource-constrained communities then address them through academic innovation to create and translate transformative technologies.

    The center will be led by Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose lab focuses on creating technologies that marry innovative, low-cost design with an in-depth understanding of the unique socioeconomic constraints of emerging markets.

    “Academia has a key role to play in solving the historically unsolvable challenges in resource-constrained communities,” says Winter. “However, academic research is often disconnected from the real-world requirements that must be satisfied to make meaningful change. Yang GEAR Center will be a catalyst for innovation to impact by helping colleagues identify compelling problems and focus their talents on realizing real-world solutions, and by providing mechanisms for commercial dissemination. I am extremely grateful to find in Lisa a partner who shares a vision for how academic research can play a more efficient and targeted role in addressing the needs of the world’s most disadvantaged populations.”

    The backbone of the Yang GEAR Center will be a team of seasoned research scientists and engineers. These individuals will scout real-world problems and distill the relevant research questions then help assemble collaborative teams. As projects develop, center staff will mentor students, build and conduct field pilots, and foster relationships with stakeholders around the world. They will be strategically positioned to translate technology at the end of projects through licensing and startups. Center staff and collaborators will focus on creating products and services for climate-driven migrants, such as solar-powered energy and water networks; technologies for reducing atmospheric carbon and promoting the hydrogen economy; brackish water desalination and irrigation solutions; and high-performance, global health diagnostics and devices.

    For instance, a Yang GEAR Center team focused on creating water-saving and solar-powered irrigation solutions for farmers in the Middle East and North Africa will continue its work in the region. They will conduct exploratory research; build a team of stakeholders, including farmers, agricultural outreach organizations, irrigation hardware manufacturers, retailers, water and agriculture scientists, and local government officials; design, rigorously test, and iterate prototypes both in the lab and in the field; and conduct large-scale field trials to garner user feedback and pave the way to product commercialization.

    “Grounded in foundational scientific research and blended with excellence in the humanities, MIT provides a framework that integrates people, economics, research, and innovation. By incorporating multiple perspectives — and being attentive to the needs and cultures of the people who will ultimately rely on research outcomes — MIT can have the greatest impact in areas of health, climate science, and resource security,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics.

    An overarching aim for the center will be to educate graduates who are global engineers, designers, and researchers positioned for a career of addressing compelling, high-impact challenges. The center includes four endowed Hock E. Tan GEAR Center Fellowships that will support graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows eager to enter the field of global engineering. The fellowships are named for MIT alumnus and Broadcom CEO Hock E. Tan ’75 SM ’75.

    “I am thrilled that the Yang GEAR Center is taking a leading role in training problem-solvers who will rethink how products and inventions can help communities facing the most pressing challenges of our time,” adds Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “These talented young students,  postdocs, and staff have the potential to reach across disciplines — and across the globe — to truly transform the impact engineering can have in the future.” More

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    Food for thought

    MIT graduate student Juana De La O describes herself as a food-motivated organism, so it’s no surprise that she reaches for food and baking analogies when she’s discussing her thesis work in the lab of undergraduate officer and professor of biology Adam Martin. 

    Consider the formative stages of a croissant, she offers, occasionally providing homemade croissants to accompany the presentation: When one is forming the puff pastry, the dough is folded over the butter again and again. Tissues in a developing mouse embryo must similarly fold and bend, creating layers and structures that become the spine, head, and organs — but these tissues have no hands to induce those formative movements. 

    De La O is studying neural tube closure, the formation of the structure that becomes the spinal cord and the brain. Disorders like anencephaly and craniorachischisis occur when the head region fails to close in a developing fetus. It’s a heartbreaking defect, De La O says, because it’s 100 percent lethal — but the fetus fully develops otherwise. 

    “Your entire central nervous system hinges on this one event happening successfully,” she says. “On the fundamental level, we have a very limited understanding of the mechanisms required for neural closure to happen at all, much less an understanding of what goes wrong that leads to those defects.” 

    Hypothetically speaking

    De La O hails from Chicago, where she received an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and worked in the lab of Ilaria Rebay. De La O’s sister was the first person in her family to go to and graduate from college — De La O, in turn, is the first person in her family to pursue a PhD. 

    From her first time visiting campus, De La O could see MIT would provide a thrilling environment in which to study.

    “MIT was one of the few places where the students weren’t constantly complaining about how hard their life was,” she says. “At lunch with prospective students, they’d be talking to each other and then just organically slip into conversations about science.”

    The department emails acceptance letters and sends a physical copy via snail mail. De La O’s letter included a handwritten note from department head Amy Keating, then a graduate officer, who had interviewed De La O during her campus visit. 

    “That’s what really sold it for me,” she recalls. “I went to my PI [principal investigator]’s office and said, ‘I have new data’” and I showed her the letter, and there was lots of unintelligible crying.” 

    To prepare her for graduate school, her parents, both immigrants from Mexico, spent the summer teaching De La O to make all her favorite dishes because “comfort food feels like home.”   

    When she reached MIT, however, the Covid-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt and severely limited what students could experience during rotations. Far from home and living alone, De La O taught herself to bake, creating the confections she craved but couldn’t leave her apartment to purchase. De La O didn’t get to work as extensively as she would have liked during her rotation in the Martin lab. 

    Martin had recently returned from a sabbatical that was spent learning a new research model; historically a fly lab, Martin was planning to delve into mouse research. 

    “My final presentation was, ‘Here’s a hypothetical project I would hypothetically do if I were hypothetically going to work with mice in a fly lab,’” De La O says. 

    Martin recalls being impressed. De La O is skilled at talking about science in an earnest and engaging way, and she dug deep into the literature and identified points Martin hadn’t considered. 

    “This is a level of independence that I look for in a student because it is important to the science to have someone who is contributing their ideas and independent reading and research to a project,” Martin says. 

    After agreeing to join the lab — news she shared with Martin via a meme — she got to work. 

    Charting mouse development

    The neural tube forms from a flat sheet whose sides rise and meet to create a hollow cylinder. De La O has observed patterns of actin and myosin changing in space and time as the embryo develops. Actin and myosin are fibrous proteins that provide structure in eukaryotic cells. They are responsible for some cell movement, like muscle contraction or cell division. Fibers of actin and myosin can also connect across cells, forming vast networks that coordinate the movements of whole tissues. By looking at the structure of these networks, researchers can make predictions about how force is affecting those tissues.

    De La O has found indications of a difference in the tension across the tissue during the critical stages of neural tube closure, which contributes to the tissue’s ability to fold and form a tube. They are not the first research group to propose this, she notes, but they’re suggesting that the patterns of tension are not uniform during a single stage of development.

    “My project, on a really fundamental level, is an atlas for a really early stage of mouse development for actin and myosin,” De La O says. “This dataset doesn’t exist in the field yet.” 

    However, De La O has been performing analyses exclusively in fixed samples, so she may be quantifying phenomena that are not actually how tissues behave. To determine whether that’s the case, De La O plans to analyze live samples.

    The idea is that if one could carefully cut tissue and observe how quickly it recoils, like slicing through a taught rubber band, those measurements could be used to approximate force across the tissue. However, the techniques required are still being developed, and the greater Boston area currently lacks the equipment and expertise needed to attempt those experiments. 

    A big part of her work in the lab has been figuring out how to collect and analyze relevant data. This research has already taken her far and wide, both literally and virtually. 

    “We’ve found that people have been very generous with their time and expertise,” De La O says. “One of the benefits we, as fly people, brought into this field is we don’t know anything — so we’re going to question everything.”

    De La O traveled to the University of Virginia to learn live imaging techniques from associate professor of cell biology Ann Sutherland, and she’s also been in contact with Gabriel Galea at University College London, where Martin and De La O are considering a visit for further training. 

    “There are a lot of reasons why these experiments could go wrong, and one of them is that I’m not trained yet,” she says. “Once you know how to do things on an optimal setup, you can figure out how to make it work on a less-optimal setup.”

    Collaboration and community

    De La O has now expanded her cooking repertoire far beyond her family’s recipes and shares her new creations when she visits home. At MIT, she hosts dinner parties, including one where everything from the savory appetizers to the sweet desserts contained honey, thanks to an Independent Activities Period course about the producers of the sticky substance, and she made and tried apple pie for the first time with her fellow graduate students after an afternoon of apple picking. 

    De La O says she’s still learning how to say no to taking on additional work outside of her regular obligations as a PhD student; she’s found there’s a lot of pressure for underrepresented students to be at the forefront of diversity efforts, and although she finds that work extremely fulfilling, she can, and has, stretched herself too thin in the past. 

    “Every time I see an application that asks ‘How will you work to increase diversity,’ my strongest instinct is just to write ‘I’m brown and around — you’re welcome,’” she jokes. “The greatest amount of diversity work I will do is to get where I’m going. Me achieving my goals increases diversity inherently, but I also want to do well because I know if I do, I will make everything better for people coming after me.”

    De La O is confident her path will be in academia, and troubleshooting, building up protocols, and setting up standards for her work in the Martin Lab has been “an excellent part of my training program.” 

    De La O and Martin embarked on a new project in a new model for the lab for De La O’s thesis, so much of her graduate studies will be spent laying the groundwork for future research. 

    “I hope her travels open Juana’s eyes to science being a larger community and to teach her about how to lead a collaboration,” Martin says. “Overall, I think this project is excellent for a student with aspirations to be a PI. I benefited from extremely open-ended projects as a student and see, in retrospect, how they prepared me for my work today.” More

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    Engineers develop a vibrating, ingestible capsule that might help treat obesity

    When you eat a large meal, your stomach sends signals to your brain that create a feeling of fullness, which helps you realize it’s time to stop eating. A stomach full of liquid can also send these messages, which is why dieters are often advised to drink a glass of water before eating.

    MIT engineers have now come up with a new way to take advantage of that phenomenon, using an ingestible capsule that vibrates within the stomach. These vibrations activate the same stretch receptors that sense when the stomach is distended, creating an illusory sense of fullness.

    In animals who were given this pill 20 minutes before eating, the researchers found that this treatment not only stimulated the release of hormones that signal satiety, but also reduced the animals’ food intake by about 40 percent. Scientists have much more to learn about the mechanisms that influence human body weight, but if further research suggests this technology could be safely used in humans, such a pill might offer a minimally invasive way to treat obesity, the researchers say.

    “For somebody who wants to lose weight or control their appetite, it could be taken before each meal,” says Shriya Srinivasan PhD ’20, a former MIT graduate student and postdoc who is now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University. “This could be really interesting in that it would provide an option that could minimize the side effects that we see with the other pharmacological treatments out there.”

    Srinivasan is the lead author of the new study, which appears today in Science Advances. Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is the senior author of the paper.

    A sense of fullness

    When the stomach becomes distended, specialized cells called mechanoreceptors sense that stretching and send signals to the brain via the vagus nerve. As a result, the brain stimulates production of insulin, as well as hormones such as C-peptide, Pyy, and GLP-1. All of these hormones work together to help people digest their food, feel full, and stop eating. At the same time, levels of ghrelin, a hunger-promoting hormone, go down.

    While a graduate student at MIT, Srinivasan became interested in the idea of controlling this process by artificially stretching the mechanoreceptors that line the stomach, through vibration. Previous research had shown that vibration applied to a muscle can induce a sense that the muscle has stretched farther than it actually has.

    “I wondered if we could activate stretch receptors in the stomach by vibrating them and having them perceive that the entire stomach has been expanded, to create an illusory sense of distension that could modulate hormones and eating patterns,” Srinivasan says.

    As a postdoc in MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Srinivasan worked closely with Traverso’s lab, which has developed many novel approaches to oral delivery of drugs and electronic devices. For this study, Srinivasan, Traverso, and a team of researchers designed a capsule about the size of a multivitamin, that includes a vibrating element. When the pill, which is powered by a small silver oxide battery, reaches the stomach, acidic gastric fluids dissolve a gelatinous membrane that covers the capsule, completing the electronic circuit that activates the vibrating motor.

    In a study in animals, the researchers showed that once the pill begins vibrating, it activates mechanoreceptors, which send signals to the brain through stimulation of the vagus nerve. The researchers tracked hormone levels during the periods when the device was vibrating and found that they mirrored the hormone release patterns seen following a meal, even when the animals had fasted.

    The researchers then tested the effects of this stimulation on the animals’ appetite. They found that when the pill was activated for about 20 minutes, before the animals were offered food, they consumed 40 percent less, on average, than they did when the pill was not activated. The animals also gained weight more slowly during periods when they were treated with the vibrating pill.

    “The behavioral change is profound, and that’s using the endogenous system rather than any exogenous therapeutic. We have the potential to overcome some of the challenges and costs associated with delivery of biologic drugs by modulating the enteric nervous system,” Traverso says.

    The current version of the pill is designed to vibrate for about 30 minutes after arriving in the stomach, but the researchers plan to explore the possibility of adapting it to remain in the stomach for longer periods of time, where it could be turned on and off wirelessly as needed. In the animal studies, the pills passed through the digestive tract within four or five days.

    The study also found that the animals did not show any signs of obstruction, perforation, or other negative impacts while the pill was in their digestive tract.

    An alternative approach

    This type of pill could offer an alternative to the current approaches to treating obesity, the researchers say. Nonmedical interventions such as diet exercise don’t always work, and many of the existing medical interventions are fairly invasive. These include gastric bypass surgery, as well as gastric balloons, which are no longer used widely in the United States due to safety concerns.

    Drugs such as GLP-1 agonists can also aid weight loss, but most of them have to be injected, and they are unaffordable for many people. According to Srinivasan, the MIT capsules could be manufactured at a cost that would make them available to people who don’t have access to more expensive treatment options.

    “For a lot of populations, some of the more effective therapies for obesity are very costly. At scale, our device could be manufactured at a pretty cost-effective price point,” she says. “I’d love to see how this would transform care and therapy for people in global health settings who may not have access to some of the more sophisticated or expensive options that are available today.”

    The researchers now plan to explore ways to scale up the manufacturing of the capsules, which could enable clinical trials in humans. Such studies would be important to learn more about the devices’ safety, as well as determine the best time to swallow the capsule before to a meal and how often it would need to be administered.

    Other authors of the paper include Amro Alshareef, Alexandria Hwang, Ceara Byrne, Johannes Kuosmann, Keiko Ishida, Joshua Jenkins, Sabrina Liu, Wiam Abdalla Mohammed Madani, Alison Hayward, and Niora Fabian.

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Novo Nordisk, the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, a Schmidt Science Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation. More

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    MIT campus goals in food, water, waste support decarbonization efforts

    With the launch of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, the Institute committed to decarbonize campus operations by 2050 — an effort that touches on every corner of MIT, from building energy use to procurement and waste. At the operational level, the plan called for establishing a set of quantitative climate impact goals in the areas of food, water, and waste to inform the campus decarbonization roadmap. After an 18-month process that engaged staff, faculty, and researchers, the goals — as well as high-level strategies to reach them — were finalized in spring 2023.

    The goal development process was managed by a team representing the areas of campus food, water, and waste, respectively, and includes Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes and Senior Sustainability Project Manager Susy Jones (food), Director of Utilities Janine Helwig (water), Assistant Director of Campus Services Marty O’Brien, and Assistant Director of Sustainability Brain Goldberg (waste) to co-lead the efforts. The group worked together to set goals that leverage ongoing campus sustainability efforts. “It was important for us to collaborate in order to identify the strategies and goals,” explains Goldberg. “It allowed us to set goals that not only align, but build off of one another, enabling us to work more strategically.”

    In setting the goals, each team relied on data, community insight, and best practices. The co-leads are sharing their process to help others at the Institute understand the roles they can play in supporting these objectives.  

    Sustainable food systems

    The primary food impact goal aims for a 25 percent overall reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases starting with academic year 2021-22 as a baseline, acknowledging that beef purchases make up a significant share of those emissions. Additionally, the co-leads established a goal to recover all edible food waste in dining hall and retail operations where feasible, as that reduces MIT’s waste impact and acknowledges that redistributing surplus food to feed people is critically important.

    The work to develop the food goal was uniquely challenging, as MIT works with nine different vendors — including main vendor Bon Appetit — to provide food on campus, with many vendors having their own sustainability targets. The goal-setting process began by understanding vendor strategies and leveraging their climate commitments. “A lot of this work is not about reinventing the wheel, but about gathering data,” says Hayes. “We are trying to connect the dots of what is currently happening on campus and to better understand food consumption and waste, ensuring that we area reaching these targets.”

    In identifying ways to reach and exceed these targets, Jones conducted listening sessions around campus, balancing input with industry trends, best-available science, and institutional insight from Hayes. “Before we set these goals and possible strategies, we wanted to get a grounding from the community and understand what would work on our campus,” says Jones, who recently began a joint role that bridges the Office of Sustainability and MIT Dining in part to support the goal work.

    By establishing the 25 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases across MIT residential dining menus, Jones and Hayes saw goal-setting as an opportunity to add more sustainable, local, and culturally diverse foods to the menu. “If beef is the most carbon-intensive food on the menu, this enables us to explore and expand so many recipes and menus from around the globe that incorporate alternatives,” Jones says.

    Strategies to reach the climate food goals focus on local suppliers, more plant-forward meals, food recovery, and food security. In 2019, MIT was a co-recipient of the New England Food Vision Prize provided by the Kendall Foundation to increase the amount of local food served on campus in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester. While implementation of that program was put on pause due to the pandemic, work resumed this year. Currently, the prize is funding a collaborative effort to introduce falafel-like, locally manufactured fritters made from Maine-grown yellow field peas to dining halls at MIT and other university campuses, exemplifying the efforts to meet the climate impact goal, serve as a model for others, and provide demonstrable ways of strengthening the regional food system.

    “This sort of innovation is where we’re a leader,” says Hayes. “In addition to the Kendall Prize, we are looking to focus on food justice, growing our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] vendors, and exploring ideas such as local hydroponic and container vegetable growing companies, and how to scale these types of products into institutional settings.”

    Reduce and reuse for campus water

    The 2030 water impact goal aims to achieve a 10 percent reduction in water use compared to the 2019 baseline and to update the water reduction goal to align with the new metering program and proposed campus decarbonization plans as they evolve.

    When people think of campus water use, they may think of sprinklers, lab sinks, or personal use like drinking water and showers. And while those uses make up around 60 percent of campus water use, the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) accounts for the remaining 40 percent. “The CUP generates electricity and delivers heating and cooling to the campus through steam and chilled water — all using what amounts to a large percentage of water use on campus,” says Helwig. As such, the water goal focuses as much on reuse as reduction, with one approach being to expand water capture from campus cooling towers for reuse in CUP operations. “People often think of water use and energy separately, but they often go hand-in-hand,” Helwig explains.

    Data also play a central part in the water impact goal — that’s why a new metering program is called for in the implementation strategy. “We have access to a lot of data at MIT, but in reviewing the water data to inform the goal, we learned that it wasn’t quite where we needed it,” explains Helwig. “By ensuring we have the right meter and submeters set up, we can better set boundaries to understand where there is the potential to reduce water use.” Irrigation on campus is one such target with plans to soon release new campuswide landscaping standards that minimize water use.

    Reducing campus waste

    The waste impact goal aims to reduce campus trash by 30 percent compared to 2019 baseline totals. Additionally, the goal outlines efforts to improve the accuracy of indicators tracking campus waste; reduce the percentage of food scraps in trash and percent of recycling in trash in select locations; reduce the percentage of trash and recycling comprised of single use items; and increase the percentage of residence halls and other campus spaces where food is consumed at scale, implementing an MIT food scrap collection program.

    In setting the waste goals, Goldberg and O’Brien studied available campus waste data from past waste audits, pilot programs, and MIT’s waste haulers. They factored in state and city policies that regulate things like the type and amount of waste large institutions can transport. “Looking at all the data it became clear that a 30 percent trash reduction goal will make a tremendous impact on campus and help us drive toward the goal of completely designing out waste from campus,” Goldberg says. The strategies to reach the goals include reducing the amount of materials that come into campus, increasing recycling rates, and expanding food waste collection on campus.

    While reducing the waste created from material sources is outlined in the goals, food waste is a special focus on campus because it comprises approximately 40 percent of campus trash, it can be easily collected separately from trash and recycled locally, and decomposing food waste is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions found in landfills. “There is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that result from production, distribution, transportation, packaging, processing, and disposal of food,” explains Goldberg. “When food travels to campus, is removed from campus as waste, and then breaks down in a landfill, there are emissions every step of the way.”

    To reduce food waste, Goldberg and O’Brien outlined strategies that include working with campus suppliers to identify ordering volumes and practices to limit waste. Once materials are on campus, another strategy kicks in, with a new third stream of waste collection that joins recycling and trash — food waste. By collecting the food waste separately — in bins that are currently rolling out across campus — the waste can be reprocessed into fertilizer, compost, and/or energy without the off-product of greenhouse gases. The waste impact goal also relies on behavioral changes to reduce waste, with education materials part of the process to reduce waste and decontaminate reprocessing streams.

    Tracking progress

    As work toward the goals advances, community members can monitor progress in the Sustainability DataPool Material Matters and Campus Water Use dashboards, or explore the Impact Goals in depth.

    “From food to water to waste, everyone on campus interacts with these systems and can grapple with their impact either from a material they need to dispose of, to water they’re using in a lab, or leftover food from an event,” says Goldberg. “By setting these goals we as an institution can lead the way and help our campus community understand how they can play a role, plug in, and make an impact.” More

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    Building a better indoor herb garden

    Randall Briggs ’09, SM ’18 didn’t set out to build indoor gardens when he arrived at MIT. The winner of the 2010 2.007 robot competition class, he was excited to work on designing fighter planes one day.

    But in 2016, halfway through his studies for his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Briggs’s father passed away unexpectedly. “It was a big blow to me. My motivation took a big hit, so it was hard for me to keep working on my research,” Briggs shares.

    Briggs ordered a home hydroponic garden in the hopes that growing herbs inside his apartment could bring him some positivity. “There is something healing about seeing something organic and beautiful grow and develop,” Briggs says.

    When the garden arrived, Briggs found that many aspects of the design fell short. The plants weren’t getting enough light because the LEDs were dispersing light throughout the room and not focusing it on the plants. “It’s just not very pleasing aesthetically when it’s, like, a fluorescent color of light, and it just fills your room,” Briggs says.

    He set forth to create a better indoor garden. Briggs turned his spare bedroom into a hydroponics lab, testing herbs growing under various lighting conditions and with different nutrient solutions. He read every book and article he could find on the subject. “The same seed pods that I had used in that cheap garden, when I moved them over to my garden, they grew way faster and way healthier and more fragrant and full of flavor,” he says.

    Working on this project became a daily source of joy for Briggs. “Every day when you come home, you want to see if it’s growing a little bit more or to see how they’re doing. I think that made me happy, too.”

    Briggs saw the potential for his garden to improve the well-being of others. “I thought if people had fresh herbs at home, they might be more inspired to cook for themselves instead of always just eating out, as it’s normally a lot healthier to cook your own food at home.”

    After much research and experimentation, GardenByte was born in 2017: a tabletop indoor herb garden that is nearly 3 feet wide with almost 2 feet of height for the plants to grow, which is quite a bit larger than most models on the market. With Briggs’s hydroponics technology, the plants grow three times faster than they would grow outdoors. His garden allows anyone to grow fresh herbs in a wide range of settings. And since plants have a longer shelf life than cut herbs, they also cut down on food waste.

    Briggs was determined to make something that grows plants well and is attractive in a variety of settings. The outer case is handcrafted from solid hardwood from a local Massachusetts lumber yard, ensuring both durability and a visually pleasing aesthetic that seamlessly integrates into any kitchen or restaurant setting. The light bar, crafted from a single piece of crystal-clear acrylic, maintains an unobtrusive and ethereal appearance. This choice complements the overall design while allowing the LED lights to emit a powerful simulation of full sunshine. To ensure a smooth transition from daytime growth to evening, four different types of LEDs were incorporated. Polymer lenses focus the light directly onto the plants, preventing any wastage or unnecessary light spillage in the room. A light and color sensor on top detect the lighting conditions in the room and automatically adjust the lighting in the garden to match, enhancing plant growth. The grid tray is designed to accommodate up to 39 plants at once, offering ample space for an array of herbs. To simplify plant care, the garden is connected to a mobile app that will allow you to care for your plants while you’re away.

    The herb garden contains computer numerical control (CNC) machined-aluminum parts, in contrast with the flimsier plastic most products use. The heat flow capacity of aluminum disperses the heat from all the LEDs and the aluminum grid tray helps keep it compact and thin but rigid, so users can lift the plants up without it bending.

    Briggs received his foundation in machining as an undergrad at the MIT Edgerton Center, where he was on the MIT Motorsports team and MIT Electric Vehicle Team. He learned how to use the CNC machines in the student machine shop at the Area 51 garage under the tutelage of Instructor Pat McAtamney and Briggs’s teammates.

    Building an electric motorcycle on the Electric Vehicle Team for the Isle of Man TT Race in 2011 helped prepare Briggs for creating a robust product for production. The race took place on city streets, raising the potential for deadly crashes. “When we were building that motorcycle, the head of our team, Lennon Rodgers, kept reiterating to us, ‘you got to think aircraft quality, like aircraft quality. This is actually a life-or-death project.’ Seeing the way that he led, and the way that he really set the bar for quality and for execution and kind of kept things moving, was really helpful for me.”

    “My hope in the future is to make a more mass-market version that’s a little bit cheaper and more available to everybody,” Briggs shares.

    The feedback from his first customers has all been positive. After delivering the product to a chef in Boston, Briggs says, “He told me that the whole first evening he was sitting at home with his boyfriend and he just kept staring at it, and he’s like, ‘it is so beautiful. It is so beautiful.’”

    “I feel like something that my dad taught me was that sometimes to do hard things, it does take hard work, and that it’s not always going to be exciting, necessarily,” Briggs shares. “It’s good to be inspired, it’s good to be passionate, but it’s not always going to get you through. And sometimes it’s just hard work that you got to press through the tough parts.” More

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    Accelerated climate action needed to sharply reduce current risks to life and life-support systems

    Hottest day on record. Hottest month on record. Extreme marine heatwaves. Record-low Antarctic sea-ice.

    While El Niño is a short-term factor in this year’s record-breaking heat, human-caused climate change is the long-term driver. And as global warming edges closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the aspirational upper limit set in the Paris Agreement in 2015 — ushering in more intense and frequent heatwaves, floods, wildfires, and other climate extremes much sooner than many expected, current greenhouse gas emissions-reduction policies are far too weak to keep the planet from exceeding that threshold. In fact, on roughly one-third of days in 2023, the average global temperature was at least 1.5 C higher than pre-industrial levels. Faster and bolder action will be needed — from the in-progress United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and beyond — to stabilize the climate and minimize risks to human (and nonhuman) lives and the life-support systems (e.g., food, water, shelter, and more) upon which they depend.

    Quantifying the risks posed by simply maintaining existing climate policies — and the benefits (i.e., avoided damages and costs) of accelerated climate action aligned with the 1.5 C goal — is the central task of the 2023 Global Change Outlook, recently released by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

    Based on a rigorous, integrated analysis of population and economic growth, technological change, Paris Agreement emissions-reduction pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs), geopolitical tensions, and other factors, the report presents the MIT Joint Program’s latest projections for the future of the earth’s energy, food, water, and climate systems, as well as prospects for achieving the Paris Agreement’s short- and long-term climate goals.

    The 2023 Global Change Outlook performs its risk-benefit analysis by focusing on two scenarios. The first, Current Trends, assumes that Paris Agreement NDCs are implemented through the year 2030, and maintained thereafter. While this scenario represents an unprecedented global commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it neither stabilizes climate nor limits climate change. The second scenario, Accelerated Actions, extends from the Paris Agreement’s initial NDCs and aligns with its long-term goals. This scenario aims to limit and stabilize human-induced global climate warming to 1.5 C by the end of this century with at least a 50 percent probability. Uncertainty is quantified using 400-member ensembles of projections for each scenario.

    This year’s report also includes a visualization tool that enables a higher-resolution exploration of both scenarios.

    Energy

    Between 2020 and 2050, population and economic growth are projected to drive continued increases in energy needs and electrification. Successful achievement of current Paris Agreement pledges will reinforce a shift away from fossil fuels, but additional actions will be required to accelerate the energy transition needed to cap global warming at 1.5 C by 2100.

    During this 30-year period under the Current Trends scenario, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix drops from 80 percent to 70 percent. Variable renewable energy (wind and solar) is the fastest growing energy source with more than an 8.6-fold increase. In the Accelerated Actions scenario, the share of low-carbon energy sources grows from 20 percent to slightly more than 60 percent, a much faster growth rate than in the Current Trends scenario; wind and solar energy undergo more than a 13.3-fold increase.

    While the electric power sector is expected to successfully scale up (with electricity production increasing by 73 percent under Current Trends, and 87 percent under Accelerated Actions) to accommodate increased demand (particularly for variable renewables), other sectors face stiffer challenges in their efforts to decarbonize.

    “Due to a sizeable need for hydrocarbons in the form of liquid and gaseous fuels for sectors such as heavy-duty long-distance transport, high-temperature industrial heat, agriculture, and chemical production, hydrogen-based fuels and renewable natural gas remain attractive options, but the challenges related to their scaling opportunities and costs must be resolved,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev, a lead author of the 2023 Global Change Outlook.

    Water, food, and land

    With a global population projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, the Current Trends scenario indicates that more than half of the world’s population will experience pressures to its water supply, and that three of every 10 people will live in water basins where compounding societal and environmental pressures on water resources will be experienced. Population projections under combined water stress in all scenarios reveal that the Accelerated Actions scenario can reduce approximately 40 million of the additional 570 million people living in water-stressed basins at mid-century.

    Under the Current Trends scenario, agriculture and food production will keep growing. This will increase pressure for land-use change, water use, and use of energy-intensive inputs, which will also lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Accelerated Actions scenario, less agricultural and food output is observed by 2050 compared to the Current Trends scenario, since this scenario affects economic growth and increases production costs. Livestock production is more greenhouse gas emissions-intensive than crop and food production, which, under carbon-pricing policies, drives demand downward and increases costs and prices. Such impacts are transmitted to the food sector and imply lower consumption of livestock-based products.

    Land-use changes in the Accelerated Actions scenario are similar to those in the Current Trends scenario by 2050, except for land dedicated to bioenergy production. At the world level, the Accelerated Actions scenario requires cropland area to increase by 1 percent and pastureland to decrease by 4.2 percent, but land use for bioenergy must increase by 44 percent.

    Climate trends

    Under the Current Trends scenario, the world is likely (more than 50 percent probability) to exceed 2 C global climate warming by 2060, 2.8 C by 2100, and 3.8 C by 2150. Our latest climate-model information indicates that maximum temperatures will likely outpace mean temperature trends over much of North and South America, Europe, northern and southeast Asia, and southern parts of Africa and Australasia. So as human-forced climate warming intensifies, these regions are expected to experience more pronounced record-breaking extreme heat events.

    Under the Accelerated Actions scenario, global temperature will continue to rise through the next two decades. But by 2050, global temperature will stabilize, and then slightly decline through the latter half of the century.

    “By 2100, the Accelerated Actions scenario indicates that the world can be virtually assured of remaining below 2 C of global warming,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a lead author of the report. “Nevertheless, additional policy mechanisms must be designed with more comprehensive targets that also support a cleaner environment, sustainable resources, as well as improved and equitable human health.”

    The Accelerated Actions scenario not only stabilizes global precipitation increase (by 2060), but substantially reduces the magnitude and potential range of increases to almost one-third of Current Trends global precipitation changes. Any global increase in precipitation heightens flood risk worldwide, so policies aligned with the Accelerated Actions scenario would considerably reduce that risk.

    Prospects for meeting Paris Agreement climate goals

    Numerous countries and regions are progressing in fulfilling their Paris Agreement pledges. Many have declared more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions-mitigation goals, while financing to assist the least-developed countries in sustainable development is not forthcoming at the levels needed. In this year’s Global Stocktake Synthesis Report, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change evaluated emissions reductions communicated by the parties of the Paris Agreement and concluded that global emissions are not on track to fulfill the most ambitious long-term global temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (to keep warming well below 2 C — and, ideally, 1.5 C — above pre-industrial levels), and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to achieve those targets. The Current Trends scenario arrives at the same conclusion.

    The 2023 Global Change Outlook finds that both global temperature targets remain achievable, but require much deeper near-term emissions reductions than those embodied in current NDCs.

    Reducing climate risk

    This report explores two well-known sets of risks posed by climate change. Research highlighted indicates that elevated climate-related physical risks will continue to evolve by mid-century, along with heightened transition risks that arise from shifts in the political, technological, social, and economic landscapes that are likely to occur during the transition to a low-carbon economy.

    “Our Outlook shows that without aggressive actions the world will surpass critical greenhouse gas concentration thresholds and climate targets in the coming decades,” says MIT Joint Program Director Ronald Prinn. “While the costs of inaction are getting higher, the costs of action are more manageable.” More

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    Unlocking the secrets of natural materials

    Growing up in Milan, Benedetto Marelli liked figuring out how things worked. He repaired broken devices simply to have the opportunity to take them apart and put them together again. Also, from a young age, he had a strong desire to make a positive impact on the world. Enrolling at the Polytechnic University of Milan, he chose to study engineering.

    “Engineering seemed like the right fit to fulfill my passions at the intersection of discovering how the world works, together with understanding the rules of nature and harnessing this knowledge to create something new that could positively impact our society,” says Marelli, MIT’s Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Marelli decided to focus on biomedical engineering, which at the time was the closest thing available to biological engineering. “I liked the idea of pursuing studies that provided me a background to engineer life,” in order to improve human health and agriculture, he says.

    Marelli went on to earn a PhD in materials science and engineering at McGill University and then worked in Tufts University’s biomaterials Silklab as a postdoc. After his postdoc, Marelli was drawn to MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental in large part because of the work of Markus Buehler, MIT’s McAfee Professor of Engineering, who studies how to design new materials by understanding the architecture of natural ones.

    “This resonated with my training and idea of using nature’s building blocks to build a more sustainable society,” Marelli says. “It was a big leap forward for me to go from biomedical engineering to civil and environmental engineering. It meant completely changing my community, understanding what I could teach and how to mentor students in a new engineering branch. As Markus is working with silk to study how to engineer better materials, this made me see a clear connection with what I was doing and what I could be doing. I consider him one of my mentors here at MIT and was fortunate to end up collaborating with him.”

    Marelli’s research is aimed at mitigating several pressing global problems, he says.

    “Boosting food production to provide food security to an ever-increasing population, soil restoration, decreasing the environmental impact of fertilizers, and addressing stressors coming from climate change are societal challenges that need the development of rapidly scalable and deployable technologies,” he says.

    Marelli and his fellow researchers have developed coatings derived from natural silk that extend the shelf life of food, deliver biofertilizers to seeds planted in salty, unproductive soils, and allow seeds to establish healthier plants and increase crop yield in drought-stricken lands. The technologies have performed well in field tests being conducted in Morocco in collaboration with the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Ben Guerir, according to Marelli, and offer much potential.

    “I believe that with this technology, together with the common efforts shared by the MIT PIs participating in the Climate Grand Challenge on Revolutionizing Agriculture, we have a  real opportunity to positively impact planetary health and find new solutions that work in both rural settings and highly modernized agricultural fields,” says Marelli, who recently earned tenure.

    As a researcher and entrepreneur with about 20 patents to his name and awards including a National Science Foundation CAREER award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers award, and the Ole Madsen Mentoring Award, Marelli says that in general his insights into structural proteins — and how to use that understanding to manufacture advanced materials at multiple scales — are among his proudest achievements.

    More specifically, Marelli cites one of his breakthroughs involving a strawberry. Having dipped the berry in an odorless, tasteless edible silk suspension as part of a cooking contest held in his postdoctoral lab, he accidentally left it on his bench, only to find a week or so later that it had been well-preserved.

    “The coating of the strawberry to increase its shelf life is difficult to beat when it comes to inspiring people that natural polymers can serve as technical materials that can positively impact our society” by lessening food waste and the need for energy-intensive refrigerated shipping, Marelli says.

    When Marelli won the BioInnovation Institute and Science Prize for Innovation in 2022, he told the journal Science that he thinks students should be encouraged to choose an entrepreneurial path. He acknowledged the steepness of the learning curve of being an entrepreneur but also pointed out how the impact of research can be exponentially increased.

    He expanded on this idea more recently.

    “I believe an increasing number of academics and graduate students should try to get their hands ‘dirty’ with entrepreneurial efforts. We live in a time where academics are called to have a tangible impact on our society, and translating what we study in our labs is clearly a good way to employ our students and enhance the global effort to develop new technology that can make our society more sustainable and equitable,” Marelli says.

    Referring to a spinoff company, Mori, that grew out of the coated strawberry discovery and that develops silk-based products to preserve a wide range of perishable foods, Marelli says he finds it very satisfying to know that Mori has a product on the market that came out of his research efforts — and that 80 people are working to translate the discovery from “lab to fork.”

    “Knowing that the technology can move the needle in crises such as food waste and food-related environmental impact is the highest reward of all,” he says.

    Marelli says he tells students who are seeking solutions to extremely complicated problems to come up with one solution, “however crazy it might be,” and then do an extensive literature review to see what other researchers have done and whether “there is any hint that points toward developing their solution.”

    “Once we understand the feasibility, I typically work with them to simplify it as much as we can, and then to break down the problem in small parts that are addressable in series and/or in parallel,” Marelli says.

    That process of discovery is ongoing. Asked which of his technologies will have the greatest impact on the world, Marelli says, “I’d like to think it’s the ones that still need to be discovered.” More

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    Microbes could help reduce the need for chemical fertilizers

    Production of chemical fertilizers accounts for about 1.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. MIT chemists hope to help reduce that carbon footprint by replacing some chemical fertilizer with a more sustainable source — bacteria.

    Bacteria that can convert nitrogen gas to ammonia could not only provide nutrients that plants need, but also help regenerate soil and protect plants from pests. However, these bacteria are sensitive to heat and humidity, so it’s difficult to scale up their manufacture and ship them to farms.

    To overcome that obstacle, MIT chemical engineers have devised a metal-organic coating that protects bacterial cells from damage without impeding their growth or function. In a new study, they found that these coated bacteria improved the germination rate of a variety of seeds, including vegetables such as corn and bok choy.

    This coating could make it much easier for farmers to deploy microbes as fertilizers, says Ariel Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.

    “We can protect them from the drying process, which would allow us to distribute them much more easily and with less cost because they’re a dried powder instead of in liquid,” she says. “They can also withstand heat up to 132 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that you wouldn’t have to use cold storage for these microbes.”

    Benjamin Burke ’23 and postdoc Gang Fan are the lead authors of the open-access paper, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society Au. MIT undergraduate Pris Wasuwanich and Evan Moore ’23 are also authors of the study.

    Protecting microbes

    Chemical fertilizers are manufactured using an energy-intensive process known as Haber-Bosch, which uses extremely high pressures to combine nitrogen from the air with hydrogen to make ammonia.

    In addition to the significant carbon footprint of this process, another drawback to chemical fertilizers is that long-term use eventually depletes the nutrients in the soil. To help restore soil, some farmers have turned to “regenerative agriculture,” which uses a variety of strategies, including crop rotation and composting, to keep soil healthy. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which convert nitrogen gas to ammonia, can aid in this approach.

    Some farmers have already begun deploying these “microbial fertilizers,” growing them in large onsite fermenters before applying them to the soil. However, this is cost-prohibitive for many farmers.

    Shipping these bacteria to rural areas is not currently a viable option, because they are susceptible to heat damage. The microbes are also too delicate to survive the freeze-drying process that would make them easier to transport.

    To protect the microbes from both heat and freeze-drying, Furst decided to apply a coating called a metal-phenol network (MPN), which she has previously developed to encapsulate microbes for other uses, such as protecting therapeutic bacteria delivered to the digestive tract.

    The coatings contain two components — a metal and an organic compound called a polyphenol — that can self-assemble into a protective shell. The metals used for the coatings, including iron, manganese, aluminum, and zinc, are considered safe as food additives. Polyphenols, which are often found in plants, include molecules such as tannins and other antioxidants. The FDA classifies many of these polyphenols as GRAS (generally regarded as safe).

    “We are using these natural food-grade compounds that are known to have benefits on their own, and then they form these little suits of armor that protect the microbes,” Furst says.

    For this study, the researchers created 12 different MPNs and used them to encapsulate Pseudomonas chlororaphis, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium that also protects plants against harmful fungi and other pests. They found that all of the coatings protected the bacteria from temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), and also from relative humidity up to 48 percent. The coatings also kept the microbes alive during the freeze-drying process.

    A boost for seeds

    Using microbes coated with the most effective MPN — a combination of manganese and a polyphenol called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) — the researchers tested their ability to help seeds germinate in a lab dish. They heated the coated microbes to 50 C before placing them in the dish, and compared them to fresh uncoated microbes and freeze-dried uncoated microbes.

    The researchers found that the coated microbes improved the seeds’ germination rate by 150 percent, compared to seeds treated with fresh, uncoated microbes. This result was consistent across several different types of seeds, including dill, corn, radishes, and bok choy.

    Furst has started a company called Seia Bio to commercialize the coated bacteria for large-scale use in regenerative agriculture. She hopes that the low cost of the manufacturing process will help make microbial fertilizers accessible to small-scale farmers who don’t have the fermenters needed to grow such microbes.

    “When we think about developing technology, we need to intentionally design it to be inexpensive and accessible, and that’s what this technology is. It would help democratize regenerative agriculture,” she says.

    The research was funded by the Army Research Office, a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award, a National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Grant, the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program, the MIT J-WAFS Program, the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, and the MIT Deshpande Center. More