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    Five MIT PhD students awarded 2022 J-WAFS fellowships for water and food solutions

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) recently announced the selection of its 2022-23 cohort of graduate fellows. Two students were named Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water Solutions and three students were named J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellows. All five fellows will receive full tuition and a stipend for one semester, and J-WAFS will support the students throughout the 2022-23 academic year by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    New this year, fellowship nominations were open not only to students pursuing water research, but food-related research as well. The five students selected were chosen for their commitment to solutions-based research that aims to alleviate problems such as water supply or purification, food security, or agriculture. Their projects exemplify the wide range of research that J-WAFS supports, from enhancing nutrition through improved methods to deliver micronutrients to developing high-performance drip irrigation technology. The strong applicant pool reflects the passion MIT students have to address the water and food crises currently facing the planet.

    “This year’s fellows are drawn from a dynamic and engaged community across the Institute whose creativity and ingenuity are pushing forward transformational water and food solutions,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “We congratulate these students as we recognize their outstanding achievements and their promise as up-and-coming leaders in global water and food sectors.”

    2022-23 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water SolutionsThe Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a fellowship for students pursuing water-related research at MIT. The Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions was made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family.

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he works in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab under Professor Amos Winter. Ghodgaonkar received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the RV College of Engineering in India. He then moved to the United States and received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.Ghodgaonkar is currently designing hydraulic components for drip irrigation that could support the development of water-efficient irrigation systems that are off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. He has focused on designing drip irrigation emitters that are resistant to clogging, seeking inspiration about flow regulation from marine fauna such as manta rays, as well as turbomachinery concepts. Ghodgaonkar notes that clogging is currently an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. With an eye on hundreds of millions of farms in developing countries, he aims to bring the benefits of irrigation technology to even the poorest farmers.Outside of his research, Ghodgaonkar is a mentor in MIT Makerworks and has been a teaching assistant for classes such as 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). He also helped organize the annual MIT Water Summit last fall.

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where he researched fluid flow in energy-efficient pumps. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stemmed from his experience growing up in India, where water sources are threatened by population growth, industrialization, and climate change.As a researcher in the Doyle group, Devashish is developing sustainable and reusable materials for water treatment, with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and other micropollutants from water through cost-effective processes. Many of these contaminants are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, posing significant threats to both humans and animals. His advisor notes that Devashish was the first researcher in the Doyle group to work on water purification, bringing his passion for the topic to the lab.Gokhale’s research won an award for potential scalability in last year’s J-WAFS World Water Day competition. He also serves as the lecture series chair in the MIT Water Club.

    2022-23 J-WAFS Graduate Student FellowsThe J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which offers companies the opportunity to collaborate with MIT on water and food research. A portion of each research affiliate’s fees supports this fellowship. The program is central to J-WAFS’ efforts to engage across sector and disciplinary boundaries in solving real-world problems. Currently, there are two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    James Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he has worked in the NanoEngineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen since 2019. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, he double majored in mechanical engineering and engineering public policy. He then received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In addition to working in the NanoEngineering Laboratory, James has also worked in the Zhao Laboratory and in the Boriskina Research Group at MIT.Zhang is developing a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light interacts with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical as well as experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating brackish water at high energy efficiencies. Outside of his research, Zhang has served as a student moderator for the MIT International Colloquia on Thermal Innovations.

    Katharina Fransen is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Bradley Olsen in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, where she was involved in the Society of Women Engineers. Fransen is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from the large quantities of plastic waste associated with traditional food packaging materials. As a researcher in the Olsen Lab, Fransen is developing new plastics that are biologically-based and biodegradable, so they can degrade in the environment instead of polluting communities with plastic waste. These polymers are also optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste.Outside of her research, Fransen is involved in Diversity in Chemical Engineering as the coordinator for the graduate application mentorship program for underrepresented groups. She is also an active member of Graduate Womxn in ChemE and mentors an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student.

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Robert Langer and Ana Jaklenec in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she researched how to genetically engineer microorganisms for the efficient production of advanced biofuels and chemicals.Zhang is currently developing a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. She has helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under harsh conditions, enabling local food companies to fortify food with essential vitamins. This work aims to tackle a hidden crisis in low- and middle-income countries, where a chronic lack of essential micronutrients affects an estimated 2 billion people.Zhang is also working on the development of self-boosting vaccines to promote more widespread vaccine access and serves as a research mentor in the Langer Lab. More

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    Using plant biology to address climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    The impact of our changing climate on agriculture and food security — and how contemporary agriculture contributes to climate change — is at the forefront of MIT’s multidisciplinary project “Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops.” The project The project is one of five flagship winners in the Climate Grand Challenges competition, and brings together researchers from the departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    “Our team’s research seeks to address two connected challenges: first, the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agricultural fertilizer; second, the fact that the yields of many current agricultural crops will decrease, due to the effects of climate change on plant metabolism,” says the project’s faculty lead, Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “We are pursuing six interdisciplinary projects that are each key to our overall goal of developing low-emissions methods for fertilizing plants that are bioengineered to be more resilient and productive in a changing climate.”

    Whitehead Institute members Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists who are also associate professors in MIT’s Department of Biology, will lead two of those projects.

    Promoting crop resilience

    For most of human history, climate change occurred gradually, over hundreds or thousands of years. That pace allowed plants to adapt to variations in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition. However, human-driven climate change has occurred much more quickly, and crop plants have suffered: Crop yields are down in many regions, as is seed protein content in cereal crops.

    “If we want to ensure an abundant supply of nutritious food for the world, we need to develop fundamental mechanisms for bioengineering a wide variety of crop plants that will be both hearty and nutritious in the face of our changing climate,” says Gehring. In her previous work, she has shown that many aspects of plant reproduction and seed development are controlled by epigenetics — that is, by information outside of the DNA sequence. She has been using that knowledge and the research methods she has developed to identify ways to create varieties of seed-producing plants that are more productive and resilient than current food crops.

    But plant biology is complex, and while it is possible to develop plants that integrate robustness-enhancing traits by combining dissimilar parental strains, scientists are still learning how to ensure that the new traits are carried forward from one generation to the next. “Plants that carry the robustness-enhancing traits have ‘hybrid vigor,’ and we believe that the perpetuation of those traits is controlled by epigenetics,” Gehring explains. “Right now, some food crops, like corn, can be engineered to benefit from hybrid vigor, but those traits are not inherited. That’s why farmers growing many of today’s most productive varieties of corn must purchase and plant new batches of seeds each year. Moreover, many important food crops have not yet realized the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

    The project Gehring leads, “Developing Clonal Seed Production to Fix Hybrid Vigor,” aims to enable food crop plants to create seeds that are both more robust and genetically identical to the parent — and thereby able to pass beneficial traits from generation to generation.

    The process of clonal (or asexual) production of seeds that are genetically identical to the maternal parent is called apomixis. Gehring says, “Because apomixis is present in 400 flowering plant species — about 1 percent of flowering plant species — it is probable that genes and signaling pathways necessary for apomixis are already present within crop plants. Our challenge is to tweak those genes and pathways so that the plant switches reproduction from sexual to asexual.”

    The project will leverage the fact that genes and pathways related to autonomous asexual development of the endosperm — a seed’s nutritive tissue — exist in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. In previous work on Arabidopsis, Gehring’s lab researched a specific gene that, when misregulated, drives development of an asexual endosperm-like material. “Normally, that seed would not be viable,” she notes. “But we believe that by epigenetic tuning of the expression of additional relevant genes, we will enable the plant to retain that material — and help achieve apomixis.”

    If Gehring and her colleagues succeed in creating a gene-expression “formula” for introducing endosperm apomixis into a wide range of crop plants, they will have made a fundamental and important achievement. Such a method could be applied throughout agriculture to create and perpetuate new crop breeds able to withstand their changing environments while requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

    Roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States are a product of agriculture. Fertilizer production and use accounts for one third of those emissions and includes nitrous oxide, which has heat-trapping capacity 298-fold stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Plant Science study. Most artificial fertilizer production also consumes huge quantities of natural gas and uses minerals mined from nonrenewable resources. After all that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer becomes runoff that pollutes local waterways. For those reasons, this Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to greatly reduce use of human-made fertilizers.

    One tantalizing approach is to cultivate cereal crop plants — which account for about 75 percent of global food production — capable of drawing nitrogen from metabolic interactions with bacteria in the soil. Whitehead Institute’s Weng leads an effort to do just that: genetically bioengineer crops such as corn, rice, and wheat to, essentially, create their own fertilizer through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing microbes.

    “Legumes such as bean and pea plants can form root nodules through which they receive nitrogen from rhizobia bacteria in exchange for carbon,” Weng explains. “This metabolic exchange means that legumes release far less greenhouse gas — and require far less investment of fossil energy — than do cereal crops, which use a huge portion of the artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers employed today.

    “Our goal is to develop methods for transferring legumes’ ‘self-fertilizing’ capacity to cereal crops,” Weng says. “If we can, we will revolutionize the sustainability of food production.”

    The project — formally entitled “Mimicking legume-rhizobia symbiosis for fertilizer production in cereals” — will be a multistage, five-year effort. It draws on Weng’s extensive studies of metabolic evolution in plants and his identification of molecules involved in formation of the root nodules that permit exchanges between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also leverages his expertise in reconstituting specific signaling and metabolic pathways in plants.

    Weng and his colleagues will begin by deciphering the full spectrum of small-molecule signaling processes that occur between legumes and rhizobium bacteria. Then they will genetically engineer an analogous system in nonlegume crop plants. Next, using state-of-the-art metabolomic methods, they will identify which small molecules excreted from legume roots prompt a nitrogen/carbon exchange from rhizobium bacteria. Finally, the researchers will genetically engineer the biosynthesis of those molecules in the roots of nonlegume plants and observe their effect on the rhizobium bacteria surrounding the roots.

    While the project is complex and technically challenging, its potential is staggering. “Focusing on corn alone, this could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons,” Weng notes. “And it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.” More

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    MIT engineers introduce the Oreometer

    When you twist open an Oreo cookie to get to the creamy center, you’re mimicking a standard test in rheology — the study of how a non-Newtonian material flows when twisted, pressed, or otherwise stressed. MIT engineers have now subjected the sandwich cookie to rigorous materials tests to get to the center of a tantalizing question: Why does the cookie’s cream stick to just one wafer when twisted apart?

    “There’s the fascinating problem of trying to get the cream to distribute evenly between the two wafers, which turns out to be really hard,” says Max Fan, an undergraduate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    In pursuit of an answer, the team subjected cookies to standard rheology tests in the lab and found that no matter the flavor or amount of stuffing, the cream at the center of an Oreo almost always sticks to one wafer when twisted open. Only for older boxes of cookies does the cream sometimes separate more evenly between both wafers.

    The researchers also measured the torque required to twist open an Oreo, and found it to be similar to the torque required to turn a doorknob and about 1/10th what’s needed to twist open a bottlecap. The cream’s failure stress — i.e. the force per area required to get the cream to flow, or deform — is twice that of cream cheese and peanut butter, and about the same magnitude as mozzarella cheese. Judging from the cream’s response to stress, the team classifies its texture as “mushy,” rather than brittle, tough, or rubbery.

    So, why does the cookie’s cream glom to one side rather than splitting evenly between both? The manufacturing process may be to blame.

    “Videos of the manufacturing process show that they put the first wafer down, then dispense a ball of cream onto that wafer before putting the second wafer on top,” says Crystal Owens, an MIT mechanical engineering PhD candidate who studies the properties of complex fluids. “Apparently that little time delay may make the cream stick better to the first wafer.”

    The team’s study isn’t simply a sweet diversion from bread-and-butter research; it’s also an opportunity to make the science of rheology accessible to others. To that end, the researchers have designed a 3D-printable “Oreometer” — a simple device that firmly grasps an Oreo cookie and uses pennies and rubber bands to control the twisting force that progressively twists the cookie open. Instructions for the tabletop device can be found here.

    The new study, “On Oreology, the fracture and flow of ‘milk’s favorite cookie,’” appears today in Kitchen Flows, a special issue of the journal Physics of Fluids. It was conceived of early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when many scientists’ labs were closed or difficult to access. In addition to Owens and Fan, co-authors are mechanical engineering professors Gareth McKinley and A. John Hart.

    Confection connection

    A standard test in rheology places a fluid, slurry, or other flowable material onto the base of an instrument known as a rheometer. A parallel plate above the base can be lowered onto the test material. The plate is then twisted as sensors track the applied rotation and torque.

    Owens, who regularly uses a laboratory rheometer to test fluid materials such as 3D-printable inks, couldn’t help noting a similarity with sandwich cookies. As she writes in the new study:

    “Scientifically, sandwich cookies present a paradigmatic model of parallel plate rheometry in which a fluid sample, the cream, is held between two parallel plates, the wafers. When the wafers are counter-rotated, the cream deforms, flows, and ultimately fractures, leading to separation of the cookie into two pieces.”

    While Oreo cream may not appear to possess fluid-like properties, it is considered a “yield stress fluid” — a soft solid when unperturbed that can start to flow under enough stress, the way toothpaste, frosting, certain cosmetics, and concrete do.

    Curious as to whether others had explored the connection between Oreos and rheology, Owens found mention of a 2016 Princeton University study in which physicists first reported that indeed, when twisting Oreos by hand, the cream almost always came off on one wafer.

    “We wanted to build on this to see what actually causes this effect and if we could control it if we mounted the Oreos carefully onto our rheometer,” she says.

    Play video

    Cookie twist

    In an experiment that they would repeat for multiple cookies of various fillings and flavors, the researchers glued an Oreo to both the top and bottom plates of a rheometer and applied varying degrees of torque and angular rotation, noting the values  that successfully twisted each cookie apart. They plugged the measurements into equations to calculate the cream’s viscoelasticity, or flowability. For each experiment, they also noted the cream’s “post-mortem distribution,” or where the cream ended up after twisting open.

    In all, the team went through about 20 boxes of Oreos, including regular, Double Stuf, and Mega Stuf levels of filling, and regular, dark chocolate, and “golden” wafer flavors. Surprisingly, they found that no matter the amount of cream filling or flavor, the cream almost always separated onto one wafer.

    “We had expected an effect based on size,” Owens says. “If there was more cream between layers, it should be easier to deform. But that’s not actually the case.”

    Curiously, when they mapped each cookie’s result to its original position in the box, they noticed the cream tended to stick to the inward-facing wafer: Cookies on the left side of the box twisted such that the cream ended up on the right wafer, whereas cookies on the right side separated with cream mostly on the left wafer. They suspect this box distribution may be a result of post-manufacturing environmental effects, such as heating or jostling that may cause cream to peel slightly away from the outer wafers, even before twisting.

    The understanding gained from the properties of Oreo cream could potentially be applied to the design of other complex fluid materials.

    “My 3D printing fluids are in the same class of materials as Oreo cream,” she says. “So, this new understanding can help me better design ink when I’m trying to print flexible electronics from a slurry of carbon nanotubes, because they deform in almost exactly the same way.”

    As for the cookie itself, she suggests that if the inside of Oreo wafers were more textured, the cream might grip better onto both sides and split more evenly when twisted.

    “As they are now, we found there’s no trick to twisting that would split the cream evenly,” Owens concludes.

    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT UROP program and by the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program. More

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    How molecular biology could reduce global food insecurity

    Staple crops like rice, maize, and wheat feed over half of the global population, but they are increasingly vulnerable to severe environmental risks. The effects of climate change, including changing temperatures, rainfall variability, shifting patterns of agricultural pests and diseases, and saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise, all contribute to decreased crop yields. As these effects continue to worsen, there will be less food available for a rapidly growing population. 

    Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is growing increasingly concerned about the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change and has resolved to do something about it.

    The Gehring Lab’s primary research focus is plant epigenetics, which refers to the heritable information that influences plant cellular function but is not encoded in the DNA sequence itself. This research is adding to our fundamental understanding of plant biology and could have agricultural applications in the future. “I’ve been working with seeds for many years,” says Gehring. “Understanding how seeds work is going to be critical to agriculture and food security,” she explains.

    Laying the foundation

    Gehring is using her expertise to help crops develop climate resilience through a 2021 seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Her research is aimed at discovering how we can accelerate the production of genetic diversity to generate plant populations that are better suited to challenging environmental conditions.

    Genetic variation gives rise to phenotypic variations that can help plants adapt to a wider range of climates. Traits such as flood resistance and salt tolerance will become more important as the effects of climate change are realized. However, many important plant species do not appear to have much standing genetic variation, which could become an issue if farmers need to breed their crops quickly to adapt to a changing climate. 

    In researching a nutritious crop that has little genetic variation, Gehring came across the pigeon pea, a species she had never worked with before. Pigeon peas are a legume eaten in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They have some of the highest levels of protein in a seed, so eating more pigeon peas could decrease our dependence on meat, which has numerous negative environmental impacts. Pigeon peas also have a positive impact on the environment; as perennial plants, they live for three to five years and sequester carbon for longer periods of time. They can also help with soil restoration. “Legumes are very interesting because they’re nitrogen-fixers, so they create symbioses with microbes in the soil and fix nitrogen, which can renew soils,” says Gehring. Furthermore, pigeon peas are known to be drought-resistant, so they will likely become more attractive as many farmers transition away from water-intensive crops.

    Developing a strategy

    Using the pigeon pea plant, Gehring began to explore a universal technology that would increase the amount of genetic diversity in plants. One method her research group chose is to enhance transposable element proliferation. Genomes are made up of genes that make proteins, but large fractions are also made up of transposable elements. In fact, about 45 percent of the human genome is made up of transposable elements, Gehring notes. The primary function of transposable elements is to make more copies of themselves. Since our bodies do not need an infinite number of these copies, there are systems in place to “silence” them from copying. 

    Gehring is trying to reverse that silencing so that the transposable elements can move freely throughout the genome, which could create genetic variation by creating mutations or altering the promoter of a gene — that is, what controls a certain gene’s expression. Scientists have traditionally initiated mutagenesis by using a chemical that changes single base pairs in DNA, or by using X-rays, which can cause very large chromosome breaks. Gehring’s research team is attempting to induce transposable element proliferation by treatment with a suite of chemicals that inhibit transposable element silencing. The goal is to impact multiple sites in the genome simultaneously. “This is unexplored territory where you’re changing 50 genes at a time, or 100, rather than just one,” she explains. “It’s a fairly risky project, but sometimes you have to be ambitious and take risks.”

    Looking forward

    Less than one year after receiving the J-WAFS seed grant, the research project is still in its early stages. Despite various restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, the Gehring Lab is now generating data on the Arabidopsis plant that will be applied to pigeon pea plants. However, Gehring expects it will take a good amount of time to complete this research phase, considering the pigeon pea plants can take upward of 100 days just to flower. While it might take time, this technology could help crops withstand the effects of climate change, ultimately contributing to J-WAFS’ goal of finding solutions to food system challenges.

    “Climate change is not something any of us can ignore. … If one of us has the ability to address it, even in a very small way, that’s important to try to pursue,” Gehring remarks. “It’s part of our responsibility as scientists to take what knowledge we have and try to apply it to these sorts of problems.” More

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    Progress toward a sustainable campus food system

    As part of MIT’s updated climate action plan, known as “Fast Forward,” Institute leadership committed to establishing a set of quantitative goals in 2022 related to food, water, and waste systems that advance MIT’s commitment to climate. Moving beyond the impact of campus energy systems, these newly proposed goals take a holistic view of the drivers of climate change and set the stage for new frontiers of collaborative climate work. “With the release of ‘Fast Forward,’ the MIT Office of Sustainability is setting out to partner with campus groups to study and quantify the climate impact of our campus food, while deeply considering the social, cultural, economic, and health aspects of a sustainable food system,” explains Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager. 

    While “Fast Forward” is MIT’s first climate action plan to integrate the campus food system, the Division of Student Life (DSL) has long worked with dining vendors, MIT’s Office of Sustainability (MITOS), and other campus partners to advance a more sustainable, affordable, and equitable food system. Initiatives have ranged from increasing access to low-cost groceries on and around campus to sourcing sustainable coffee for campus cafes.

    Even with the complexities of operating during the pandemic, efforts in this area accelerated with the launch of new partnerships, support for local food industries, and even a food-startup incubator in the Stratton Student Center (Building W20). “Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, MIT Dining has been focused on positive change — driven in part by student input, alterations to the food landscape, and our ongoing goal to support a more sustainable and equitable campus food system,” says Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining.

    New vendors on campus focus on healthy food systems

    For many, a fresh cup of coffee is a daily ritual. At MIT, that cup of coffee also offers an opportunity to make a more sustainable choice at the Forbes Family Café in the Stata Center (Building 32). The cafe now brews coffee by Dean’s Beans, a local roaster whose mission is to “prove that a for-profit business could create meaningful change through ethical business practices rooted in respect for the earth, the farmer, our co-workers, and the consumer.” The choice of Dean’s Beans — a certified B Corporation located in Orange, Massachusetts — as the new vendor in this space helps advance MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Businesses that achieve this certification meet rigorous social and environmental goals. “With choices like this, we’re taking big issues down to the campus level,” says Hayes. Dean’s Beans focuses on long-term producer relationships, organic shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee, a solar-powered roasting facility, and people-centered development programs. These practices contribute to healthier environments and habitats — benefiting farmers, soils, birds, pollinators, and more.

    Another innovative new food concept for the MIT community can be found down the street in the Stratton Student Center. The Launchpad, a nonprofit food business incubator created in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), debuted this fall in the second-floor Lobdell Food Court. It offers the MIT community more variety and healthy food options while also “advancing CWK’s and MIT’s mutual goal to support diverse, local start-up food businesses and to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable food economy,” according to DSL. Work on the Launchpad began in 2018, bringing together the Student Center Dining Concepts Working Group, comprising students from the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, DormCon, house dining chairs, and other students interested in dining and dining staff from the MITOS and DSL. Their goal was to re-envision dining options available in Lobdell to support local, diverse, and sustainable menus. “We’ve been nurturing a partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen for years and are excited to partner with them on a project that re-imagines the relationship between campus and local food systems,” says Jones. “And, of course, the vegetarian arepas are a highlight,” she adds.

    Local partnerships for sustainability

    The impacts of Covid-19 on local food businesses quickly came into focus in early 2020. For the New England fishing industry, this impact was acute — with restaurant closures, event cancellations, and disruptions in the global supply chain, fisheries suddenly found a dearth of markets for their catch, undermining their source of income. One way to address this confluence of challenges was for fisheries to expand into new markets where they may have had limited knowledge or experience.

    Enter MIT Sea Grant and MIT Dining. Supported in part by funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, MIT Sea Grant created the Covid-19 Rapid Response Program to develop new markets for local fisheries, including local food banks and direct sales to organizations including MIT. Though MIT Dining was stretched thin by the pandemic, the partnership offered a singular opportunity to support vital regional businesses and enhance menus in campus dining venues. “The stress level was unimaginable as more people were testing positive in the early days of the pandemic — it was the worst and most stressful time to do anything outside of what was completely necessary, and I get this phone call about chowder,” recalls Hayes. “Everyone is wearing two masks and standing six feet apart, but in about 15 seconds, I said to myself, ‘This is the exact time this needs to happen — in the middle of a pandemic when fishermen need support, families need support, people need support.’”

    Shortly after getting the call, Hayes and MIT Dining hosted a tasting event featuring “Small Boats, Big Taste Haddock Chowder,” developed through MIT Sea Grant’s work with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which helped independent fishermen stay on the water during Covid-19. The tasting event also offered students a break to stop by and sample the chowder, which later debuted and continues to be served at MIT dining halls. For Hayes, one success of the partnership was the agility it demonstrated. “We don’t know what the next crisis is going to be, but these experiences will make us stronger to handle the next moment when people need the food system to work,” he says.

    In addition to ready-made options for students, MIT Dining and partners have also been working to support students who prepare their own meals, collaborating with local businesses to provide students access to lower-cost and at-cost groceries and food products. The Food Security Action Team, convened by Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Well-being David Randall and DSL Executive Director for Administration Peter Cummings, is focused on taking action, tracking, and updating the community on food security efforts. These efforts have included collaborating with the Daily Table, a new nonprofit community grocer in Central Square. The store now accepts TechCASH and recently worked with the committee to host an interactive food tour for students.

    Because food systems are so interdependent and partnerships are critical — on and off campus — Hayes says it’s important to continue to share and learn. “Sharing our stories is crucial because we can help strengthen networks of campuses, institutions, and businesses in New England to grow more sustainable food programs like these.” More

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    MIT students explore food sustainability

    As students approached the homestretch of the fall semester, many were focused on completing final projects and preparing for exams. During this time of year, some students may neglect their well-being to the point of skipping meals. To help alleviate end-of-term stress and to give students a delicious study break, the Food Security Action Team recently offered a group of first-year students the opportunity to join a food tour of Daily Table, a new grocer located in Cambridge’s Central Square.

    Seventeen students along with staff from Student Financial Services, Office of the First Year, and the Office of Sustainability led the group from the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks down the street to Daily Table in Central Square. As part of participating in the program, students were given a $25 TechCash gift card to shop for grocery items during the trip. To make things even more fun, MIT staff created a recipe challenge to encourage students to work together on making their own variation of quesadillas.

    Healthy, affordable, sustainable

    At Daily Table, students were greeted by Celia Grant, director of community engagement and programs from Daily Table, who led them through a tour of the space and highlighted the history and model of the grocery store, as well as some of its unique features. Founded by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch in 2015, Daily Table operates three retail stores in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Central Square, and a commissary kitchen in the Boston metro area. Two more stores are in the works: one in Mattapan and another in Salem. For added convenience, Daily Table also offers free grocery delivery within a two-mile radius of its three locations.

    The Daily Table’s ethos is that delicious and wholesome food should be available, accessible, and affordable for everyone. To achieve these goals, Daily Table provides a wide selection of fresh produce, nutritious grocery staples, and made-from-scratch prepared grab-n-go foods at affordable prices. “All of our products meet strict nutritional guidelines for sodium and sugar so that customers can make food choices based on their diets, not based on price,” says Grant.

    In addition to a large network of farmers, manufacturers, and distributors who supply food to their stores, Daily Table often recovers and rescues perfectly good food that would have otherwise been sent to landfills. Surplus food, packaging and/or label changes, and items with close expiration dates are often discarded by larger grocery stores in the supply chain. But Daily Table steps in to break this cycle of waste and sell these products to customers at a much lower cost. 

    The pandemic has uncovered how difficult it can be for individuals and families to budget for necessities like utilities, rent, and even food. Daily Table seeks to create a more sustainable future by providing access to more well-balanced, nutritious food. “Even before the pandemic, it was challenging for families on limited incomes to meet the nutrition needs of their families. Post-pandemic, this challenge has now encompassed even more households, even those that have never before been challenged in this way,” says Grant. “As winter moves through, and inflation increases, the need for more affordable food and nutrition will rise. Daily Table is prepared to help meet those needs, and more.” 

    Food resources at MIT

    Downstairs at the Daily Table Central Square store, MIT staff members led a discussion about the components of a sustainable food system at MIT and beyond, shared advice on how to budget for food, and offered tips on how to make grocery shopping or cooking fun with fellow classmates and peers. “Shopping at Daily Table provides an experiential case study in solving for multiple goals at once — from the environmental impacts of food waste to healthy eating to affordability — an important framework to consider when tackling climate challenges.” says Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability.

    The group also discussed budgeting expenses, including food. “By taking students to the grocery store and providing some small but meaningful tips, we provided them the opportunity to put their learning into practice!” says Erica Aguiar, associate director for financial education in Student Financial Services. “We saw students taking a closer look at prices and even coming together to share groceries.”

    MIT senior and DormCon Dining Chair Ashley Holton shared her grocery shopping strategies with the group, and how she utilizes resources available at MIT. “Having a plan before you enter the grocery store is really important,” says Holton. “Not only does it save time, but it helps you avoid potentially getting more than what your budget allows for, while also making sure you get all the food you’ll need.”

    This program, along with many others, is part of MIT’s larger effort on fostering a more food-secure and sustainable campus for all students. Food Security Action Team members, including students, staff, and campus partners, are striving to achieve this goal by ensuring that there continues to be a well-organized and coordinated action around food security that can be implemented effectively each year. For example, to make shopping at Daily Table even easier, MIT has made it a priority to ensure the store accepts TechCash.

    No MIT student should go hungry due to lack of money or resources, and no student should feel like they need to be “really hungry” to ask for help. MIT offers several other resources to help students find the nutrition and other support they need. In addition, the Office of Student Wellbeing launched their DoingWell website, which offers programs and resources to help students prioritize their well-being by practicing healthy habits and getting support when they need it.

    “In my own cost-analysis comparison of staple grocery items of all the local grocery stores, no other store comes close to being able to offer what Daily Table does for the prices it does. It’s really remarkable to learn and experience just how Daily Table is changing the food system,” says Holton. “Its model is one of the many ways that will continue to foster a more food-secure community where everyone — including MIT students — can access affordable, nutritious food.” More

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    Reducing food waste to increase access to affordable foods

    About a third of the world’s food supply never gets eaten. That means the water, labor, energy, and fertilizer that went into growing, processing, and distributing the food is wasted.

    On the other end of the supply chain are cash-strapped consumers, who have been further distressed in recent years by factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation.

    Spoiler Alert, a company founded by two MIT alumni, is helping companies bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity with a platform connecting major food and beverage brands with discount grocers, retailers, and nonprofits. The platform helps brands discount or donate excess and short-dated inventory days, weeks, and months before it expires.

    “There is a tremendous amount of underutilized data that exists in the manufacturing and distribution space that results in good food going to waste,” says Ricky Ashenfelter MBA ’15, who co-founded the company with Emily Malina MBA ’15.

    Spoiler Alert helps brands manage distressed inventory data, create offers for potential buyers, and review and accept bids. The platform is designed to work with companies’ existing inventory and fulfillment systems, using automation and pricing intelligence to further streamline sales.

    “At a high level, we’re a waste-prevention software built for sales and supply-chain teams,” Ashenfelter says. “You can think of it as a private [business-to-business] eBay of sorts.”

    Spoiler Alert is working with global companies like Nestle, Kraft Heinz, and Danone, as well as discount grocers like the United Grocery Outlet and Misfits Market. Those brands are already using the platform to reduce food waste and get more food on people’s tables.

    “Project Drawdown [a nonprofit working on climate solutions] has identified food waste as the number one priority to address the global climate crisis, so these types of corporate initiatives can be really powerful from an environmental standpoint,” Ashenfelter says, noting the nonprofit estimates food waste accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Contrast that with growing levels of food insecurity and folks not being able to access affordable nutrition, and you start to see how tackling supply-chain inefficiency can have a dramatic impact from both an environmental and a social lens. That’s what motivates us.”

    Untapped data for change

    Ashenfelter came to MIT’s Sloan School of Management after several years in sustainability software and management consulting within the retail and consumer products industries.

    “I was really attracted to transitioning into something much more entrepreneurial, and to leverage not only Sloan’s focus on entrepreneurship, but also the broader MIT ecosystem’s focus on technology, entrepreneurship, clean tech innovation, and other themes along that front,” he says.

    Ashenfelter met Malina at one of Sloan’s admitted students events in 2013, and the founders soon set out to use data to decrease food waste.

    “For us, the idea was clear: How do we better leverage data to manage excess and short-dated inventory?” Ashenfelter says. “How we go about that has evolved over the last six years, but it’s all rooted in solving an enormous climate problem, solving a major food insecurity problem, and from a capitalistic standpoint, helping businesses cut costs and generate revenue from otherwise wasted products.”

    The founders spent many hours in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship with support from the Sloan Sustainability Initiative, and used Spoiler Alert as a case study in nearly every class they took, thinking through product development, sales, marketing, pricing, and more through their coursework.

    “We brought our idea into just about every action learning class that we could at Sloan and MIT,” Ashenfelter says.

    They also participated in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and received support from the Venture Mentoring Service and the IDEAS Global Challenge program.

    Upon graduation, the founders initially began building a platform to facilitate donations of excess inventory, but soon learned big companies’ processes for discounting that inventory were also highly manual. Today, more than 90 percent of Spoiler Alert’s transaction volume is discounted, with the remainder donated.

    Different teams within an organization can upload excess inventory reports to Spoiler Alert’s system, eliminating the need to manually aggregate datasets and preparing what the industry refers to as “blowout lists” to sell. Spoiler Alert uses machine-learning-based tools to help both parties with pricing and negotiations to close deals more quickly.

    “Companies are taking pretty manual and slow approaches to deciding [what to do with excess inventory],” Ashenfelter says. “And when you have slow decision-making, you’re losing days or even weeks of shelf life on that product. That can be the difference between selling product versus donating, and donating versus dumping.”

    Once a deal has been made, Spoiler Alert automatically generates the forms and workflows needed by fulfillment teams to get the product out the door. The relationships companies build on the platform are also a major driver for cutting down waste.

    “We’re providing suppliers with the ability to control where their discounted and donated product ends up,” Ashenfelter says. “That’s really powerful because it allows these CPG brands to ensure that this product is, in many cases, getting to affordable nutrition outlets in underserved communities.”

    Ashenfelter says the majority of inventory goes to regional and national discount grocers, supplemented with extensive purchasing from local and nonprofit grocery chains.

    “Everything we do is oriented around helping sell as much product as possible to a reputable set of buyers at the most fair, equitable prices possible,” Ashenfelter says.

    Scaling for impact

    The pandemic has disrupted many aspects of the food supply chains. But Ashenfelter says it has also accelerated the adoption of digital solutions that can better manage such volatility.

    When Campbell began using Spoiler Alert’s system in 2019, for instance, it achieved a 36 percent increase in discount sales and a 27 percent increase in donations over the first five months.

    Ashenfelter says the results have proven that companies’ sustainability targets can go hand in hand with initiatives that boost their bottom lines. In fact, because Spoiler Alert focuses so much on the untapped revenue associated with food waste, many customers don’t even realize Spoiler Alert is a sustainability company until after they’ve signed on.

    “What’s neat about this program is that it becomes an incredibly powerful case study internally for how sustainability and operational outcomes aren’t in conflict and can drive both business results as well as overall environmental impact,” Ashenfelter says.

    Going forward, Spoiler Alert will continue building out algorithmic solutions that could further cut down on waste internationally and across a wider array of products.

    “At every step in our process, we’re collecting a tremendous amount of data in terms of what is and isn’t selling, at what price point, to which buyers, out of which geographies, and with how much remaining shelf life,” Ashenfelter explains. “We are only starting to scratch the surface in terms of bringing our recommendations engine to life for our suppliers and buyers. Ultimately our goal is to power the waste-free economy, and rooted in that is making better decisions faster, in collaboration with a growing ecosystem of supply chain partners, and with as little manual intervention as possible.” More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October of 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology come together to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.

    This year’s Accenture Fellows work across disciplines including robotics, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine. Their research covers a wide array of subjects, including: advancing manufacturing through computational design, with the potential to benefit global vaccine production; designing low-energy robotics for both consumer electronics and the aerospace industry; developing robotics and machine learning systems that may aid the elderly in their homes; and creating ingestible biomedical devices that can help gather medical data from inside a patient’s body.

    Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows in the initiative’s second year.

    Xinming (Lily) Liu is a PhD student in operations research at MIT Sloan School of Management. Her work is focused on behavioral and data-driven operations for social good, incorporating human behaviors into traditional optimization models, designing incentives, and analyzing real-world data. Her current research looks at the convergence of social media, digital platforms, and agriculture, with particular attention to expanding technological equity and economic opportunity in developing countries. Liu earned her BS from Cornell University, with a double major in operations research and computer science.

    Caris Moses is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science specializing inartificial intelligence. Moses’ research focuses on using machine learning, optimization, and electromechanical engineering to build robotics systems that are robust, flexible, intelligent, and can learn on the job. The technology she is developing holds promise for industries including flexible, small-batch manufacturing; robots to assist the elderly in their households; and warehouse management and fulfillment. Moses earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her MS in computer science from Northeastern University.

    Sergio Rodriguez Aponte is a PhD student in biological engineering. He is working on the convergence of computational design and manufacturing practices, which have the potential to impact industries such as biopharmaceuticals, food, and wellness/nutrition. His current research aims to develop strategies for applying computational tools, such as multiscale modeling and machine learning, to the design and production of manufacturable and accessible vaccine candidates that could eventually be available globally. Rodriguez Aponte earned his BS in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

    Soumya Sudhakar SM ’20 is a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. Her work is focused on theco-design of new algorithms and integrated circuits for autonomous low-energy robotics that could have novel applications in aerospace and consumer electronics. Her contributions bring together the emerging robotics industry, integrated circuits industry, aerospace industry, and consumer electronics industry. Sudhakar earned her BSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and her MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

    So-Yoon Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science. Her work on the development of low-power, wireless, ingestible biomedical devices for health care is at the intersection of the medical device, integrated circuit, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical fields. Currently, the majority of wireless biomedical devices can only provide a limited range of medical data measured from outside the body. Ingestible devices hold promise for the next generation of personal health care because they do not require surgical implantation, can be useful for detecting physiological and pathophysiological signals, and can also function as therapeutic alternatives when treatment cannot be done externally. Yang earned her BS in electrical and computer engineering from Seoul National University in South Korea and her MS in electrical engineering from Caltech. More