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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Striking a chord

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Listening to the community

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

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

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

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    Embracing life’s surprises

    Experiments often yield unexpected results. In research and in life, MIT Associate Professor Cem Tasan has learned to embrace that uncertainty.

    “Very often we start with an idea or a hypothesis, and to test that idea we design experiments, and when we run the experiments, we see something totally different,” says Tasan, the newly tenured Thomas B. King Associate Professor of Metallurgy.

    Tasan has used those surprises to explore the boundaries of metallurgy and solid mechanics, gleaning new insights into how metals break and deform, and designing new kinds of damage-resistant alloys.

    “As they say, science is like taking a walk in the hills,” Tasan says. “You see the mountain far away, and that’s where you want to go, but as you head toward it, you see a beautiful flower on a different pathway, so you check that out. That happens so often to [my group]. It’s exciting.”

    Tasan has extended that approach to his career, leading him to take a faculty position at MIT despite not seeing the campus until his first job interview.

    “Being at MIT, or even in the USA, was never on my radar,” Tasan says. “It just wasn’t part of a plan.”

    That mindset has also helped him mentor students, whom he’s learned never to judge based on initial impressions.

    “I had a really bright student reach out and say ‘Everything is great, we have funding, we are productive, but I’m not sure I like what I’m doing,’” Tasan recalls. “We talked and identified another direction closer to the student’s interests, but that would mean we might not have secure funding or the necessary know-how, so there were all these disadvantages.

    “But we went down that road and it was amazing, because now this student was doing the research they really liked, and that successful student became an amazing student. Mentoring is complicated because on the outside things can seem fine, but the key idea is to pay attention to small details and keep communicating with these young people, who are on their own journeys. There’s no easy way other than communicating and observing.”

    A winding path

    Tasan grew up in Turkey and studied metallurgical and materials engineering at the country’s top college in the field, the Middle East Technical University.

    “What intrigued me about metallurgy is that it’s an engineering field, but it’s also strongly related with basic sciences,” Tasan says. “That connection exists in other engineering fields as well, but not as strongly. In materials science, it’s fair to say one leg is almost always in the fundamental side of things.”

    Tasan also travelled a lot as a young adult, backpacking with friends across Europe on a shoestring budget.

    “Early on, my personal goal in life was to move to Spain and eat tapas all the time and have fun,” Tasan jokes.

    During one such trip, Tasan packed a suit in the bottom of his backpack just in case he landed an interview with a graduate program. The preparation paid off in the Netherlands, where he met with members of the mechanical engineering department at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Tasan would go on to earn his PhD at the school, studying how damage and cracking takes place in metals.

    After earning his PhD in 2010, Tasan joined the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research in Germany, where he eventually led a research group that continued studying metal behavior and worked on creating new metal alloys that were more damage-resistant and had other unique properties.

    By 2015, Tasan was settled into a comfortable life in Germany. Then a position at MIT opened up.

    “At MIT, I could suddenly do much more on these topics that excited me, so my research could create a bigger impact,” Tasan says.

    After traveling to MIT for interviews, the talent and atmosphere also convinced Tasan to make the move.

    “I think it’s important to be surrounded by people who are very ambitious and who want to have a big impact,” Tasan says. “You walk in the Infinite Corridor, or any other MIT corridor, and every board you pass has stuff about people changing the world in a different way. Being in that environment inspires you.”

    Once in Cambridge, Tasan immediately loved what he describes as its “small-town feel,” comparing it to some European towns. He’s also embraced the Boston culture, becoming a fan of baseball and the Red Sox.

    Since arriving at MIT, Tasan’s group has studied metal samples’ response to stress and other stimuli in real time using a technique called in situ electron microscopy.

    “We do in situ tests, which means you take an electron microscope and basically build machines inside that allows you to take any metal and put it under different conditions, as you watch its structure evolve,” Tasan explains. “Because these experiments are so unique and complex, when a student designs an experiment and eventually brings the results back to me, it’s often the first-ever observation of some phenomena.”

    In 2020 Tasan’s group developed new in-situ methods for studying the effects of hydrogen in metals, leading to insights that could help with the transition to clean hydrogen energy. The approach has been adopted by other labs for further study.

    Tasan’s group also created a more damage resistant, high temperature alloy that’s part of a class of metals known as high entropy alloys. That work was published in the journal Nature Materials.

    “Doing physical metallurgy research allows us to connect basic understanding of metals and industrial applications,” Tasan says. “I’m dealing with atoms and how they interact — and at the same time I’m talking weekly with companies that produce thousands of tons of metals, and we’re using the same language. I can talk to a company producing steels for auto bodies or titanium for airplane engines, and the stuff I study in my lab is still valuable to them.”

    In one much-publicized Science paper, Tasan’s group uncovered the reasons why even the sharpest knives and razors dull after everyday processes like shaving.

    “We like to demonstrate the importance of materials science and metallurgy to a broader audience,” Tasan says. “The paper on why hair deforms steel was great because it was picked up in all kinds of news channels around the world, and it showed that even in very conventional areas, like making knives or blades, there’s a lot of new insights and paths to find.”

    Solving the ultimate puzzles

    Tasan brings the same careful diligence he uses to study metals to support students. He says he’s found that like metals, people also typically have more complex stories that you can only see if you look closely enough.

    “It’s interesting because everybody is so different,” Tasan says. “Once you start working with people and trying to help them, you see so many different dimensions that were not visible before. You have the opportunity to sit down with them and look them in the eye and try to understand what they really want. And it’s interesting because often they also don’t know what they want, and sometimes they even don’t know that they don’t know that!”

    Fortunately, Tasan enjoys those challenges most of all.

    “In a way, the researchers are puzzles waiting to be solved, like the research itself,” Tasan says. “And if you put in enough effort and you really care, you get this enormously gratifying feeling of helping someone succeed in life. It’s really a unique part of the job, and it’s what I love more than anything.” More

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    Paula Hammond wins faculty’s Killian Award for 2023-24

    Paula Hammond, a leading innovator in nanotechnology and head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, has been named the recipient of the 2023-2024 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award.

    Hammond, an MIT Institute Professor, was honored for her work designing novel polymers and nanomaterials, which have extensive applications in fields including medicine and energy.

    “Professor Hammond is a pioneer in nanotechnology research, with a program that spans from basic science to translational research in medicine and energy. She has introduced new approaches for the design and development of complex drug delivery systems for cancer treatment and non-invasive imaging,” according to the award citation, which was read at the May 17 faculty meeting by Laura Kiessling, the chair of the Killian Award Selection Committee and the Novartis Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

    Established in 1971 to honor MIT’s 10th president, James Killian, the Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional achievements by an MIT faculty member.

    “I’ve been to past Killian Award lectures, and I’ve always thought these were the ultimate achievers at MIT in terms of their work and their science,” Hammond says. “I am incredibly honored and overwhelmed to be considered even close to a part of that group.”

    Hammond, who earned her bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1984, worked as an engineer before returning to the Institute four years later to earn a PhD, which she received in 1993. After two years as a postdoc at Harvard University, she returned to MIT again as a faculty member in 1995.

    “In a world where it isn’t always cool to be heavy into your science and your work, MIT was a place where I felt like I could just be completely myself, and that was an amazing thing,” she says.

    Since joining the faculty, Hammond has pioneered techniques for creating thin polymer films and other materials using layer-by-layer assembly. This approach can be used to build polymers with highly controlled architectures by alternately exposing a surface to positively and negatively charged particles.

    Hammond’s lab uses this technique to design materials for many different applications, including drug delivery, regenerative medicine, noninvasive imaging, and battery technology.

    Her accomplishments include designing nanoparticles that can zoom in on tumors and release their cargo when they associate with cancer cells. She has also developed nanoparticles and thin polymer films that can carry multiple drugs to a specific site and release the drugs in a controlled or staggered fashion. In recent years, much of that work has focused on potential treatments and diagnostics for ovarian cancer.

    “We’ve really had a focus on ovarian cancer over the past several years. My hope is that our work will move us in the direction of understanding how we can treat ovarian cancer, and, in collaboration with my colleagues, how we can detect it more effectively,” says Hammond, who is a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

    The award committee also cited Hammond’s record of service, both to MIT and the national scientific community. She currently serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and she is a former member of the U.S. Secretary of Energy Scientific Advisory Board. At MIT, Hammond chaired the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity, and co-chaired the Academic and Professional Relationships Working Group and the Implementation Team of the MIT response to the National Academies’ report entitled “Sexual Harassment of Women.”

    Among her many honors, Hammond is one of only 25 scientists who have been elected to the National Academies of Engineering, Sciences, and Medicine.

    Hammond has also been recognized for her dedication to teaching and mentoring. As a reflection of her excellence in those areas, Hammond was awarded the Irwin Sizer Award for Significant Improvements to MIT Education, the Henry Hill Lecturer Award in 2002, and the Junior Bose Faculty Award in 2000. She also co-chaired the recent Ad Hoc Committee on Faculty Advising and Mentoring, and has been selected as a “Committed to Caring” honoree for her work mentoring students and postdocs in her research group.

    “The Selection Committee is delighted to have this opportunity to honor Professor Paula Hammond, not only for her tremendous professional achievements and contributions, but also for her genuine warmth and humanity, her thoughtfulness and effective leadership, and her empathy and ethics. She is someone worth emulating. Indeed, simply put, she is the best of us,” the award committee wrote in its citation. More

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    Building better batteries, faster

    To help combat climate change, many car manufacturers are racing to add more electric vehicles in their lineups. But to convince prospective buyers, manufacturers need to improve how far these cars can go on a single charge. One of their main challenges? Figuring out how to make extremely powerful but lightweight batteries.

    Typically, however, it takes decades for scientists to thoroughly test new battery materials, says Pablo Leon, an MIT graduate student in materials science. To accelerate this process, Leon is developing a machine-learning tool for scientists to automate one of the most time-consuming, yet key, steps in evaluating battery materials.

    With his tool in hand, Leon plans to help search for new materials to enable the development of powerful and lightweight batteries. Such batteries would not only improve the range of EVs, but they could also unlock potential in other high-power systems, such as solar energy systems that continuously deliver power, even at night.

    From a young age, Leon knew he wanted to pursue a PhD, hoping to one day become a professor of engineering, like his father. Growing up in College Station, Texas, home to Texas A&M University, where his father worked, many of Leon’s friends also had parents who were professors or affiliated with the university. Meanwhile, his mom worked outside the university, as a family counselor in a neighboring city.

    In college, Leon followed in his father’s and older brother’s footsteps to become a mechanical engineer, earning his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M. There, he learned how to model the behaviors of mechanical systems, such as a metal spring’s stiffness. But he wanted to delve deeper, down to the level of atoms, to understand exactly where these behaviors come from.

    So, when Leon applied to graduate school at MIT, he switched fields to materials science, hoping to satisfy his curiosity. But the transition to a different field was “a really hard process,” Leon says, as he rushed to catch up to his peers.

    To help with the transition, Leon sought out a congenial research advisor and found one in Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Because he’s from Spain and my parents are Peruvian, there’s a cultural ease with the way we talk,” Leon says. According to Gómez-Bombarelli, sometimes the two of them even discuss research in Spanish — a “rare treat.” That connection has empowered Leon to freely brainstorm ideas or talk through concerns with his advisor, enabling him to make significant progress in his research.

    Leveraging machine learning to research battery materials

    Scientists investigating new battery materials generally use computer simulations to understand how different combinations of materials perform. These simulations act as virtual microscopes for batteries, zooming in to see how materials interact at an atomic level. With these details, scientists can understand why certain combinations do better, guiding their search for high-performing materials.

    But building accurate computer simulations is extremely time-intensive, taking years and sometimes even decades. “You need to know how every atom interacts with every other atom in your system,” Leon says. To create a computer model of these interactions, scientists first make a rough guess at a model using complex quantum mechanics calculations. They then compare the model with results from real-life experiments, manually tweaking different parts of the model, including the distances between atoms and the strength of chemical bonds, until the simulation matches real life.

    With well-studied battery materials, the simulation process is somewhat easier. Scientists can buy simulation software that includes pre-made models, Leon says, but these models often have errors and still require additional tweaking.

    To build accurate computer models more quickly, Leon is developing a machine-learning-based tool that can efficiently guide the trial-and-error process. “The hope with our machine learning framework is to not have to rely on proprietary models or do any hand-tuning,” he says. Leon has verified that for well-studied materials, his tool is as accurate as the manual method for building models.

    With this system, scientists will have a single, standardized approach for building accurate models in lieu of the patchwork of approaches currently in place, Leon says.

    Leon’s tool comes at an opportune time, when many scientists are investigating a new paradigm of batteries: solid-state batteries. Compared to traditional batteries, which contain liquid electrolytes, solid-state batteries are safer, lighter, and easier to manufacture. But creating versions of these batteries that are powerful enough for EVs or renewable energy storage is challenging.

    This is largely because in battery chemistry, ions dislike flowing through solids and instead prefer liquids, in which atoms are spaced further apart. Still, scientists believe that with the right combination of materials, solid-state batteries can provide enough electricity for high-power systems, such as EVs. 

    Leon plans to use his machine-learning tool to help look for good solid-state battery materials more quickly. After he finds some powerful candidates in simulations, he’ll work with other scientists to test out the new materials in real-world experiments.

    Helping students navigate graduate school

    To get to where he is today, doing exciting and impactful research, Leon credits his community of family and mentors. Because of his upbringing, Leon knew early on which steps he would need to take to get into graduate school and work toward becoming a professor. And he appreciates the privilege of his position, even more so as a Peruvian American, given that many Latino students are less likely to have access to the same resources. “I understand the academic pipeline in a way that I think a lot of minority groups in academia don’t,” he says.

    Now, Leon is helping prospective graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds navigate the pipeline through the DMSE Application Assistance Program. Each fall, he mentors applicants for the DMSE PhD program at MIT, providing feedback on their applications and resumes. The assistance program is student-run and separate from the admissions process.

    Knowing firsthand how invaluable mentorship is from his relationship with his advisor, Leon is also heavily involved in mentoring junior PhD students in his department. This past year, he served as the academic chair on his department’s graduate student organization, the Graduate Materials Council. With MIT still experiencing disruptions from Covid-19, Leon noticed a problem with student cohesiveness. “I realized that traditional [informal] modes of communication across [incoming class] years had been cut off,” he says, making it harder for junior students to get advice from their senior peers. “They didn’t have any community to fall back on.”

    To help fix this problem, Leon served as a go-to mentor for many junior students. He helped second-year PhD students prepare for their doctoral qualification exam, an often-stressful rite of passage. He also hosted seminars for first-year students to teach them how to make the most of their classes and help them acclimate to the department’s fast-paced classes. For fun, Leon organized an axe-throwing event to further facilitate student cameraderie.

    Leon’s efforts were met with success. Now, “newer students are building back the community,” he says, “so I feel like I can take a step back” from being academic chair. He will instead continue mentoring junior students through other programs within the department. He also plans to extend his community-building efforts among faculty and students, facilitating opportunities for students to find good mentors and work on impactful research. With these efforts, Leon hopes to help others along the academic pipeline that he’s become familiar with, journeying together over their PhDs. More

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    Elsa Olivetti wins 2021 MIT Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching

    This year’s Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching has been presented to MIT Associate Professor Elsa Olivetti. Olivetti’s zest for enhancing the student experience is evident in the innovative and creative flare she brings to all aspects of her work.

    “Professor Olivetti’s dedication to teaching is truly inspiring,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “She has an extraordinary ability to engage her students, and has developed transformational approaches to curriculum and mentoring.”

    Olivetti is the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, and co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. Her passion for addressing issues related to climate change frames the focus of her research, which centers on improving the environmental and economic sustainability of materials in the context of growing global demand. Her work focuses on reducing the significant burden of materials production and consumption through increased use of recycled and waste materials; informing the early-stage design of new materials for effective scale-up; and understanding the implications of policy, new technology development, and manufacturing processes on materials supply chains. 

    Olivetti has made significant contributions on education within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering since she came on board in 2014, including designing and implementing a subject on industrial ecology and materials, co-design of the Advanced Materials Machines NEET program, and developing a new undergraduate curriculum. Underscoring the care she has for her students’ success and well-being, Olivetti also cultivated the Course 3 Industry Seminars, pairing undergraduates with individuals working in careers related to 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing, with the aim of assisting her students with employment opportunities.

    “Professor Olivetti is a brilliant teacher and a creative educator, who engages the classroom with an uncanny ability to keep students on the edge of their seats combined with a remarkable and signature style that creates learning moments they remember years later,” says Jeff Grossman, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “I am proud to have Elsa as a colleague, and I am delighted that her excellence has been recognized with the Bose Award.”

    Olivetti received her PhD in materials science and engineering from MIT in 2007; shortly after, she joined the department as a postdoc. She subsequently worked as a research scientist in the Materials Systems Lab from 2009 to 2013 and joined the DMSE faculty in 2014. She was recently named a 2021 MacVicar Faculty Fellow in recognition of her exceptional commitment to curricular innovation, scientific research, and improving the student experience through teaching, mentoring, and advising. Previously, she has received the Earll M. Murman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising in 2017, the award for “best DMSE advisor” in 2019, and the Paul Gray Award for Public Service in 2020.

    The Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member whose contributions to education have been characterized by dedication, care, and creativity. Established in 1990 by the School of Engineering, the award stands as a tribute to the late Amar Bose, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and the founder of the Bose Corporation, to recognize outstanding contributions to undergraduate education by members of its faculty. More