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    MIT in the media: 2023 in review

    It was an eventful trip around the sun for MIT this year, from President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration and Mark Rober’s Commencement address to Professor Moungi Bawendi winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 2023 MIT researchers made key advances, detecting a dying star swallowing a planet, exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence, creating clean energy solutions, inventing tools aimed at earlier detection and diagnosis of cancer, and even exploring the science of spreading kindness. Below are highlights of some of the uplifting people, breakthroughs, and ideas from MIT that made headlines in 2023.

    The gift: Kindness goes viral with Steve HartmanSteve Hartman visited Professor Anette “Peko” Hosoi to explore the science behind whether a single act of kindness can change the world.Full story via CBS News

    Trio wins Nobel Prize in chemistry for work on quantum dots, used in electronics and medical imaging“The motivation really is the basic science. A basic understanding, the curiosity of ‘how does the world work?’” said Professor Moungi Bawendi of the inspiration for his research on quantum dots, for which he was co-awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.Full story via the Associated Press

    How MIT’s all-women leadership team plans to change science for the betterPresident Sally Kornbluth, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, and Chancellor Melissa Nobles emphasized the importance of representation for women and underrepresented groups in STEM.Full story via Radio Boston

    MIT via community college? Transfer students find a new path to a degreeUndergraduate Subin Kim shared his experience transferring from community college to MIT through the Transfer Scholars Network, which is aimed at helping community college students find a path to four-year universities.Full story via the Christian Science Monitor

    MIT president Sally Kornbluth doesn’t think we can hit the pause button on AIPresident Kornbluth discussed the future of AI, ethics in science, and climate change with columnist Shirley Leung on her new “Say More” podcast. “I view [the climate crisis] as an existential issue to the extent that if we don’t take action there, all of the many, many other things that we’re working on, not that they’ll be irrelevant, but they’ll pale in comparison,” Kornbluth said.Full story via The Boston Globe 

    It’s the end of a world as we know itAstronomers from MIT, Harvard University, Caltech and elsewhere spotted a dying star swallowing a large planet. Postdoc Kishalay De explained that: “Finding an event like this really puts all of the theories that have been out there to the most stringent tests possible. It really opens up this entire new field of research.”Full story via The New York Times

    Frontiers of AI

    Hey, Alexa, what should students learn about AI?The Day of AI is a program developed by the MIT RAISE initiative aimed at introducing and teaching K-12 students about AI. “We want students to be informed, responsible users and informed, responsible designers of these technologies,” said Professor Cynthia Breazeal, dean of digital learning at MIT.Full story via The New York Times

    AI tipping pointFour faculty members from across MIT — Professors Song Han, Simon Johnson, Yoon Kim and Rosalind Picard — described the opportunities and risks posed by the rapid advancements in the field of AI.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    A look into the future of AI at MIT’s robotics laboratoryProfessor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, discussed the future of artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, emphasizing the importance of balancing the development of new technologies with the need to ensure they are deployed in a way that benefits humanity.Full story via Mashable

    Health care providers say artificial intelligence could transform medicineProfessor Regina Barzilay spoke about her work developing new AI systems that could be used to help diagnose breast and lung cancer before the cancers are detectable to the human eye.Full story via Chronicle

    Is AI coming for your job? Tech experts weigh in: “They don’t replace human labor”Professor David Autor discussed how the rise of artificial intelligence could change the quality of jobs available.Full story via CBS News

    Big tech is bad. Big AI will be worse.Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu and Professor Simon Johnson made the case that “rather than machine intelligence, what we need is ‘machine usefulness,’ which emphasizes the ability of computers to augment human capabilities.”Full story via The New York Times

    Engineering excitement

    MIT’s 3D-printed hearts could pump new life into customized treatments MIT engineers developed a technique for 3D printing a soft, flexible, custom-designed replica of a patient’s heart.Full story via WBUR

    Mystery of why Roman buildings have survived so long has been unraveled, scientists sayScientists from MIT and other institutions discovered that ancient Romans used lime clasts when manufacturing concrete, giving the material self-healing properties.Full story via CNN

    The most interesting startup in America is in Massachusetts. You’ve probably never heard of it.VulcanForms, an MIT startup, is at the “leading edge of a push to transform 3D printing from a niche technology — best known for new-product prototyping and art-class experimentation — into an industrial force.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Catalyzing climate innovations

    Can Boston’s energy innovators save the world?Boston Magazine reporter Rowan Jacobsen spotlighted how MIT faculty, students, and alumni are leading the charge in clean energy startups. “When it comes to game-changing breakthroughs in energy, three letters keep surfacing again and again: MIT,” writes Jacobsen.Full story via Boston Magazine

    MIT research could be game changer in combating water shortagesMIT researchers discovered that a common hydrogel used in cosmetic creams, industrial coatings, and pharmaceutical capsules can absorb moisture from the atmosphere even as the temperature rises. “For a planet that’s getting hotter, this could be a game-changing discovery.”Full story via NBC Boston

    Energy-storing concrete could form foundations for solar-powered homesMIT engineers uncovered a new way of creating an energy supercapacitor by combining cement, carbon black, and water that could one day be used to power homes or electric vehicles.Full story via New Scientist

    MIT researchers tackle key question of EV adoption: When to charge?MIT scientists found that delayed charging and strategic placement of EV charging stations could help reduce additional energy demands caused by more widespread EV adoption.Full story via Fast Company

    Building better buildingsProfessor John Fernández examined how to reduce the climate footprints of homes and office buildings, recommending creating airtight structures, switching to cleaner heating sources, using more environmentally friendly building materials, and retrofitting existing homes and offices.Full story via The New York Times

    They’re building an “ice penetrator” on a hillside in WestfordResearchers from MIT’s Haystack Observatory built an “ice penetrator,” a device designed to monitor the changing conditions of sea ice.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Healing health solutions

    How Boston is beating cancerMIT researchers are developing drug-delivery nanoparticles aimed at targeting cancer cells without disturbing healthy cells. Essentially, the nanoparticles are “engineered for selectivity,” explained Professor Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.Full story via Boston Magazine

    A new antibiotic, discovered with artificial intelligence, may defeat a dangerous superbugUsing a machine-learning algorithm, researchers from MIT discovered a type of antibiotic that’s effective against a particular strain of drug-resistant bacteria.Full story via CNN

    To detect breast cancer sooner, an MIT professor designs an ultrasound braMIT researchers designed a wearable ultrasound device that attaches to a bra and could be used to detect early-stage breast tumors.Full story via STAT

    The quest for a switch to turn on hungerAn ingestible pill developed by MIT scientists can raise levels of hormones to help increase appetite and decrease nausea in patients with gastroparesis.Full story via Wired

    Here’s how to use dreams for creative inspirationMIT scientists found that the earlier stages of sleep are key to sparking creativity and that people can be guided to dream about specific topics, further boosting creativity.Full story via Scientific American

    Astounding art

    An AI opera from 1987 reboots for a new generationProfessor Tod Machover discussed the restaging of his opera “VALIS” at MIT, which featured an artificial intelligence-assisted musical instrument developed by Nina Masuelli ’23.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Surfacing the stories hidden in migration dataAssociate Professor Sarah Williams discussed the Civic Data Design Lab’s “Motivational Tapestry,” a large woven art piece that uses data from the United Nations World Food Program to visually represent the individual motivations of 1,624 Central Americans who have migrated to the U.S.Full story via Metropolis

    Augmented reality-infused production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” opens Bayreuth FestivalProfessor Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” brought “fantastical images” to audience members.Full story via the Associated Press

    Understanding our universe

    New image reveals violent events near a supermassive black holeScientists captured a new image of M87*, the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, showing the “launching point of a colossal jet of high-energy particles shooting outward into space.”Full story via Reuters

    Gravitational waves: A new universeMIT researchers Lisa Barsotti, Deep Chatterjee, and Victoria Xu explored how advances in gravitational wave detection are enabling a better understanding of the universe.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    Nergis Mavalvala helped detect the first gravitational wave. Her work doesn’t stop thereProfessor Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, discussed her work searching for gravitational waves, the importance of skepticism in scientific research, and why she enjoys working with young people.Full story via Wired

    Hitting the books

    “The Transcendent Brain” review: Beyond ones and zeroesIn his book “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman, a professor of the practice of humanities, displayed his gift for “distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence.”Full story via The Wall Street Journal

    What happens when CEOs treat workers better? Companies (and workers) win.Professor of the practice Zeynep Ton published a book, “The Case for Good Jobs,” and is “on a mission to change how company leaders think, and how they treat their employees.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    How to wage war on conspiracy theoriesProfessor Adam Berinsky’s book, “Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight it,” examined “attitudes toward both politics and health, both of which are undermined by distrust and misinformation in ways that cause harm to both individuals and society.”Full story via Politico

    What it takes for Mexican coders to cross the cultural border with Silicon ValleyAssistant Professor Héctor Beltrán discussed his new book, “Code Work: Hacking across the U.S./México Techno-Borderlands,” which explores the culture of hackathons and entrepreneurship in Mexico.Full story via Marketplace

    Cultivating community

    The Indigenous rocketeerNicole McGaa, a fourth-year student at MIT, discussed her work leading MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team at the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition.Full story via Nature

    “You totally got this,” YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober tells MIT graduatesDuring his Commencement address at MIT, Mark Rober urged graduates to embrace their accomplishments and boldly face any challenges they encounter.Full story via The Boston Globe

    MIT Juggling Club going strong after half centuryAfter almost 50 years, the MIT Juggling Club, which was founded in 1975 and then merged with a unicycle club, is the oldest drop-in juggling club in continuous operation and still welcomes any aspiring jugglers to come toss a ball (or three) into the air.Full story via Cambridge Day

    Volpe Transportation Center opens as part of $750 million deal between MIT and fedsThe John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square was the first building to open in MIT’s redevelopment of the 14-acre Volpe site that will ultimately include “research labs, retail, affordable housing, and open space, with the goal of not only encouraging innovation, but also enhancing the surrounding community.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Sparking conversation

    The future of AI innovation and the role of academics in shaping itProfessor Daniela Rus emphasized the central role universities play in fostering innovation and the importance of ensuring universities have the computing resources necessary to help tackle major global challenges.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Moving the needle on supply chain sustainabilityProfessor Yossi Sheffi examined several strategies companies could use to help improve supply chain sustainability, including redesigning last-mile deliveries, influencing consumer choices and incentivizing returnable containers.Full story via The Hill

    Expelled from the mountain top?Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77 made the case that “diverse learning environments expose students to a broader range of perspectives, enhance education, and inculcate creativity and innovative habits of mind.”Full story via Science

    Marketing magic of “Barbie” movie has lessons for women’s sportsMIT Sloan Lecturer Shira Springer explored how the success of the “Barbie” movie could be applied to women’s sports.Full story via Sports Business Journal

    We’re already paying for universal health care. Why don’t we have it?Professor Amy Finkelstein asserted that the solution to health insurance reform in the U.S. is “universal coverage that is automatic, free and basic.”Full story via The New York Times 

    The internet could be so good. Really.Professor Deb Roy described how “new kinds of social networks can be designed for constructive communication — for listening, dialogue, deliberation, and mediation — and they can actually work.”Full story via The Atlantic

    Fostering educational excellence

    MIT students give legendary linear algebra professor standing ovation in last lectureAfter 63 years of teaching and over 10 million views of his online lectures, Professor Gilbert Strang received a standing ovation after his last lecture on linear algebra. “I am so grateful to everyone who likes linear algebra and sees its importance. So many universities (and even high schools) now appreciate how beautiful it is and how valuable it is,” said Strang.Full story via USA Today

    “Brave Behind Bars”: Reshaping the lives of inmates through coding classesGraduate students Martin Nisser and Marisa Gaetz co-founded Brave Behind Bars, a program designed to provide incarcerated individuals with coding and digital literacy skills to better prepare them for life after prison.Full story via MSNBC

    Melrose TikTok user “Ms. Nuclear Energy” teaching about nuclear power through social mediaGraduate student Kaylee Cunningham discussed her work using social media to help educate and inform the public about nuclear energy.Full story via CBS Boston  More

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    Celebrating five years of MIT.nano

    There is vast opportunity for nanoscale innovation to transform the world in positive ways — expressed MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović as he posed two questions to attendees at the start of the inaugural Nano Summit: “Where are we heading? And what is the next big thing we can develop?”

    “The answer to that puts into perspective our main purpose — and that is to change the world,” Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies, told an audience of more than 325 in-person and 150 virtual participants gathered for an exploration of nano-related research at MIT and a celebration of MIT.nano’s fifth anniversary.

    Over a decade ago, MIT embarked on a massive project for the ultra-small — building an advanced facility to support research at the nanoscale. Construction of MIT.nano in the heart of MIT’s campus, a process compared to assembling a ship in a bottle, began in 2015, and the facility launched in October 2018.

    Fast forward five years: MIT.nano now contains nearly 170 tools and instruments serving more than 1,200 trained researchers. These individuals come from over 300 principal investigator labs, representing more than 50 MIT departments, labs, and centers. The facility also serves external users from industry, other academic institutions, and over 130 startup and multinational companies.

    A cross section of these faculty and researchers joined industry partners and MIT community members to kick off the first Nano Summit, which is expected to become an annual flagship event for MIT.nano and its industry consortium. Held on Oct. 24, the inaugural conference was co-hosted by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program.

    Six topical sessions highlighted recent developments in quantum science and engineering, materials, advanced electronics, energy, biology, and immersive data technology. The Nano Summit also featured startup ventures and an art exhibition.

    Watch the videos here.

    Seeing and manipulating at the nanoscale — and beyond

    “We need to develop new ways of building the next generation of materials,” said Frances Ross, the TDK Professor in Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “We need to use electron microscopy to help us understand not only what the structure is after it’s built, but how it came to be. I think the next few years in this piece of the nano realm are going to be really amazing.”

    Speakers in the session “The Next Materials Revolution,” chaired by MIT.nano co-director for Characterization.nano and associate professor in DMSE James LeBeau, highlighted areas in which cutting-edge microscopy provides insights into the behavior of functional materials at the nanoscale, from anti-ferroelectrics to thin-film photovoltaics and 2D materials. They shared images and videos collected using the instruments in MIT.nano’s characterization suites, which were specifically designed and constructed to minimize mechanical-vibrational and electro-magnetic interference.

    Later, in the “Biology and Human Health” session chaired by Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology Thomas Schwartz, biologists echoed the materials scientists, stressing the importance of the ultra-quiet, low-vibration environment in Characterization.nano to obtain high-resolution images of biological structures.

    “Why is MIT.nano important for us?” asked Schwartz. “An important element of biology is to understand the structure of biology macromolecules. We want to get to an atomic resolution of these structures. CryoEM (cryo-electron microscopy) is an excellent method for this. In order to enable the resolution revolution, we had to get these instruments to MIT. For that, MIT.nano was fantastic.”

    Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, shared CryoEM images from her lab’s work, followed by biology Associate Professor Joey Davis who spoke about image processing. When asked about the next stage for CryoEM, Davis said he’s most excited about in-situ tomography, noting that there are new instruments being designed that will improve the current labor-intensive process.

    To chart the future of energy, chemistry associate professor Yogi Surendranath is also using MIT.nano to see what is happening at the nanoscale in his research to use renewable electricity to change carbon dioxide into fuel.

    “MIT.nano has played an immense role, not only in facilitating our ability to make nanostructures, but also to understand nanostructures through advanced imaging capabilities,” said Surendranath. “I see a lot of the future of MIT.nano around the question of how nanostructures evolve and change under the conditions that are relevant to their function. The tools at MIT.nano can help us sort that out.”

    Tech transfer and quantum computing

    The “Advanced Electronics” session chaired by Jesús del Alamo, the Donner Professor of Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), brought together industry partners and MIT faculty for a panel discussion on the future of semiconductors and microelectronics. “Excellence in innovation is not enough, we also need to be excellent in transferring these to the marketplace,” said del Alamo. On this point, panelists spoke about strengthening the industry-university connection, as well as the importance of collaborative research environments and of access to advanced facilities, such as MIT.nano, for these environments to thrive.

    The session came on the heels of a startup exhibit in which eleven START.nano companies presented their technologies in health, energy, climate, and virtual reality, among other topics. START.nano, MIT.nano’s hard-tech accelerator, provides participants use of MIT.nano’s facilities at a discounted rate and access to MIT’s startup ecosystem. The program aims to ease hard-tech startups’ transition from the lab to the marketplace, surviving common “valleys of death” as they move from idea to prototype to scaling up.

    When asked about the state of quantum computing in the “Quantum Science and Engineering” session, physics professor Aram Harrow related his response to these startup challenges. “There are quite a few valleys to cross — there are the technical valleys, and then also the commercial valleys.” He spoke about scaling superconducting qubits and qubits made of suspended trapped ions, and the need for more scalable architectures, which we have the ingredients for, he said, but putting everything together is quite challenging.

    Throughout the session, William Oliver, professor of physics and the Henry Ellis Warren (1894) Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, asked the panelists how MIT.nano can address challenges in assembly and scalability in quantum science.

    “To harness the power of students to innovate, you really need to allow them to get their hands dirty, try new things, try all their crazy ideas, before this goes into a foundry-level process,” responded Kevin O’Brien, associate professor in EECS. “That’s what my group has been working on at MIT.nano, building these superconducting quantum processors using the state-of-the art fabrication techniques in MIT.nano.”

    Connecting the digital to the physical

    In his reflections on the semiconductor industry, Douglas Carlson, senior vice president for technology at MACOM, stressed connecting the digital world to real-world application. Later, in the “Immersive Data Technology” session, MIT.nano associate director Brian Anthony explained how, at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, researchers are doing just that.

    “We think about and facilitate work that has the human immersed between hardware, data, and experience,” said Anthony, principal research scientist in mechanical engineering. He spoke about using the capabilities of the Immersion Lab to apply immersive technologies to different areas — health, sports, performance, manufacturing, and education, among others. Speakers in this session gave specific examples in hardware, pediatric health, and opera.

    Anthony connected this third pillar of MIT.nano to the fab and characterization facilities, highlighting how the Immersion Lab supports work conducted in other parts of the building. The Immersion Lab’s strength, he said, is taking novel work being developed inside MIT.nano and bringing it up to the human scale to think about applications and uses.

    Artworks that are scientifically inspired

    The Nano Summit closed with a reception at MIT.nano where guests could explore the facility and gaze through the cleanroom windows, where users were actively conducting research. Attendees were encouraged to visit an exhibition on MIT.nano’s first- and second-floor galleries featuring work by students from the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) who were invited to utilize MIT.nano’s tool sets and environments as inspiration for art.

    In his closing remarks, Bulović reflected on the community of people who keep MIT.nano running and who are using the tools to advance their research. “Today we are celebrating the facility and all the work that has been done over the last five years to bring it to where it is today. It is there to function not just as a space, but as an essential part of MIT’s mission in research, innovation, and education. I hope that all of us here today take away a deep appreciation and admiration for those who are leading the journey into the nano age.” More

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    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

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    Improving US air quality, equitably

    Decarbonization of national economies will be key to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, a major stepping stone to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 C), and thereby averting the worst consequences of climate change. Toward that end, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, backed by its implementation of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This strategy is consistent with a 50-percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) by the end of the decade.

    If U.S. federal carbon policy is successful, the nation’s overall air quality will also improve. Cutting CO2 emissions reduces atmospheric concentrations of air pollutants that lead to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. But an average nationwide improvement in air quality will not be felt equally; air pollution exposure disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income populations.

    How effective are current federal decarbonization policies in reducing U.S. racial and economic disparities in PM2.5 exposure, and what changes will be needed to improve their performance? To answer that question, researchers at MIT and Stanford University recently evaluated a range of policies which, like current U.S. federal carbon policies, reduce economy-wide CO2 emissions by 40-60 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Their findings appear in an open-access article in the journal Nature Communications.

    First, they show that a carbon-pricing policy, while effective in reducing PM2.5 exposure for all racial/ethnic groups, does not significantly mitigate relative disparities in exposure. On average, the white population undergoes far less exposure than Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. This policy does little to reduce exposure disparities because the CO2 emissions reductions that it achieves primarily occur in the coal-fired electricity sector. Other sectors, such as industry and heavy-duty diesel transportation, contribute far more PM2.5-related emissions.

    The researchers then examine thousands of different reduction options through an optimization approach to identify whether any possible combination of carbon dioxide reductions in the range of 40-60 percent can mitigate disparities. They find that that no policy scenario aligned with current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions targets is likely to significantly reduce current PM2.5 exposure disparities.

    “Policies that address only about 50 percent of CO2 emissions leave many polluting sources in place, and those that prioritize reductions for minorities tend to benefit the entire population,” says Noelle Selin, supervising author of the study and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This means that a large range of policies that reduce CO2 can improve air quality overall, but can’t address long-standing inequities in air pollution exposure.”

    So if climate policy alone cannot adequately achieve equitable air quality results, what viable options remain? The researchers suggest that more ambitious carbon policies could narrow racial and economic PM2.5 exposure disparities in the long term, but not within the next decade. To make a near-term difference, they recommend interventions designed to reduce PM2.5 emissions resulting from non-CO2 sources, ideally at the economic sector or community level.

    “Achieving improved PM2.5 exposure for populations that are disproportionately exposed across the United States will require thinking that goes beyond current CO2 policy strategies, most likely involving large-scale structural changes,” says Selin. “This could involve changes in local and regional transportation and housing planning, together with accelerated efforts towards decarbonization.” More

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    AI pilot programs look to reduce energy use and emissions on MIT campus

    Smart thermostats have changed the way many people heat and cool their homes by using machine learning to respond to occupancy patterns and preferences, resulting in a lower energy draw. This technology — which can collect and synthesize data — generally focuses on single-dwelling use, but what if this type of artificial intelligence could dynamically manage the heating and cooling of an entire campus? That’s the idea behind a cross-departmental effort working to reduce campus energy use through AI building controls that respond in real-time to internal and external factors. 

    Understanding the challenge

    Heating and cooling can be an energy challenge for campuses like MIT, where existing building management systems (BMS) can’t respond quickly to internal factors like occupancy fluctuations or external factors such as forecast weather or the carbon intensity of the grid. This results in using more energy than needed to heat and cool spaces, often to sub-optimal levels. By engaging AI, researchers have begun to establish a framework to understand and predict optimal temperature set points (the temperature at which a thermostat has been set to maintain) at the individual room level and take into consideration a host of factors, allowing the existing systems to heat and cool more efficiently, all without manual intervention. 

    “It’s not that different from what folks are doing in houses,” explains Les Norford, a professor of architecture at MIT, whose work in energy studies, controls, and ventilation connected him with the effort. “Except we have to think about things like how long a classroom may be used in a day, weather predictions, time needed to heat and cool a room, the effect of the heat from the sun coming in the window, and how the classroom next door might impact all of this.” These factors are at the crux of the research and pilots that Norford and a team are focused on. That team includes Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium; Audun Botterud, principal research scientist for the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems; Steve Lanou, project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS); Fran Selvaggio, Department of Facilities Senior Building Management Systems engineer; and Daisy Green and You Lin, both postdocs.

    The group is organized around the call to action to “explore possibilities to employ artificial intelligence to reduce on-campus energy consumption” outlined in Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, but efforts extend back to 2019. “As we work to decarbonize our campus, we’re exploring all avenues,” says Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins, who originally pitched the idea to students at the 2019 MIT Energy Hack. “To me, it was a great opportunity to utilize MIT expertise and see how we can apply it to our campus and share what we learn with the building industry.” Research into the concept kicked off at the event and continued with undergraduate and graduate student researchers running differential equations and managing pilots to test the bounds of the idea. Soon, Gregory, who is also a MITOS faculty fellow, joined the project and helped identify other individuals to join the team. “My role as a faculty fellow is to find opportunities to connect the research community at MIT with challenges MIT itself is facing — so this was a perfect fit for that,” Gregory says. 

    Early pilots of the project focused on testing thermostat set points in NW23, home to the Department of Facilities and Office of Campus Planning, but Norford quickly realized that classrooms provide many more variables to test, and the pilot was expanded to Building 66, a mixed-use building that is home to classrooms, offices, and lab spaces. “We shifted our attention to study classrooms in part because of their complexity, but also the sheer scale — there are hundreds of them on campus, so [they offer] more opportunities to gather data and determine parameters of what we are testing,” says Norford. 

    Developing the technology

    The work to develop smarter building controls starts with a physics-based model using differential equations to understand how objects can heat up or cool down, store heat, and how the heat may flow across a building façade. External data like weather, carbon intensity of the power grid, and classroom schedules are also inputs, with the AI responding to these conditions to deliver an optimal thermostat set point each hour — one that provides the best trade-off between the two objectives of thermal comfort of occupants and energy use. That set point then tells the existing BMS how much to heat up or cool down a space. Real-life testing follows, surveying building occupants about their comfort. Botterud, whose research focuses on the interactions between engineering, economics, and policy in electricity markets, works to ensure that the AI algorithms can then translate this learning into energy and carbon emission savings. 

    Currently the pilots are focused on six classrooms within Building 66, with the intent to move onto lab spaces before expanding to the entire building. “The goal here is energy savings, but that’s not something we can fully assess until we complete a whole building,” explains Norford. “We have to work classroom by classroom to gather the data, but are looking at a much bigger picture.” The research team used its data-driven simulations to estimate significant energy savings while maintaining thermal comfort in the six classrooms over two days, but further work is needed to implement the controls and measure savings across an entire year. 

    With significant savings estimated across individual classrooms, the energy savings derived from an entire building could be substantial, and AI can help meet that goal, explains Botterud: “This whole concept of scalability is really at the heart of what we are doing. We’re spending a lot of time in Building 66 to figure out how it works and hoping that these algorithms can be scaled up with much less effort to other rooms and buildings so solutions we are developing can make a big impact at MIT,” he says.

    Part of that big impact involves operational staff, like Selvaggio, who are essential in connecting the research to current operations and putting them into practice across campus. “Much of the BMS team’s work is done in the pilot stage for a project like this,” he says. “We were able to get these AI systems up and running with our existing BMS within a matter of weeks, allowing the pilots to get off the ground quickly.” Selvaggio says in preparation for the completion of the pilots, the BMS team has identified an additional 50 buildings on campus where the technology can easily be installed in the future to start energy savings. The BMS team also collaborates with the building automation company, Schneider Electric, that has implemented the new control algorithms in Building 66 classrooms and is ready to expand to new pilot locations. 

    Expanding impact

    The successful completion of these programs will also open the possibility for even greater energy savings — bringing MIT closer to its decarbonization goals. “Beyond just energy savings, we can eventually turn our campus buildings into a virtual energy network, where thousands of thermostats are aggregated and coordinated to function as a unified virtual entity,” explains Higgins. These types of energy networks can accelerate power sector decarbonization by decreasing the need for carbon-intensive power plants at peak times and allowing for more efficient power grid energy use.

    As pilots continue, they fulfill another call to action in Fast Forward — for campus to be a “test bed for change.” Says Gregory: “This project is a great example of using our campus as a test bed — it brings in cutting-edge research to apply to decarbonizing our own campus. It’s a great project for its specific focus, but also for serving as a model for how to utilize the campus as a living lab.” More

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    Devices offers long-distance, low-power underwater communication

    MIT researchers have demonstrated the first system for ultra-low-power underwater networking and communication, which can transmit signals across kilometer-scale distances.

    This technique, which the researchers began developing several years ago, uses about one-millionth the power that existing underwater communication methods use. By expanding their battery-free system’s communication range, the researchers have made the technology more feasible for applications such as aquaculture, coastal hurricane prediction, and climate change modeling.

    “What started as a very exciting intellectual idea a few years ago — underwater communication with a million times lower power — is now practical and realistic. There are still a few interesting technical challenges to address, but there is a clear path from where we are now to deployment,” says Fadel Adib, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Signal Kinetics group in the MIT Media Lab.

    Underwater backscatter enables low-power communication by encoding data in sound waves that it reflects, or scatters, back toward a receiver. These innovations enable reflected signals to be more precisely directed at their source.

    Due to this “retrodirectivity,” less signal scatters in the wrong directions, allowing for more efficient and longer-range communication.

    When tested in a river and an ocean, the retrodirective device exhibited a communication range that was more than 15 times farther than previous devices. However, the experiments were limited by the length of the docks available to the researchers.

    To better understand the limits of underwater backscatter, the team also developed an analytical model to predict the technology’s maximum range. The model, which they validated using experimental data, showed that their retrodirective system could communicate across kilometer-scale distances.

    The researchers shared these findings in two papers which will be presented at this year’s ACM SIGCOMM and MobiCom conferences. Adib, senior author on both papers, is joined on the SIGCOMM paper by co-lead authors Aline Eid, a former postdoc who is now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and Jack Rademacher, a research assistant; as well as research assistants Waleed Akbar and Purui Wang, and postdoc Ahmed Allam. The MobiCom paper is also written by co-lead authors Akbar and Allam.

    Communicating with sound waves

    Underwater backscatter communication devices utilize an array of nodes made from “piezoelectric” materials to receive and reflect sound waves. These materials produce an electric signal when mechanical force is applied to them.

    When sound waves strike the nodes, they vibrate and convert the mechanical energy to an electric charge. The nodes use that charge to scatter some of the acoustic energy back to the source, transmitting data that a receiver decodes based on the sequence of reflections.

    But because the backscattered signal travels in all directions, only a small fraction reaches the source, reducing the signal strength and limiting the communication range.

    To overcome this challenge, the researchers leveraged a 70-year-old radio device called a Van Atta array, in which symmetric pairs of antennas are connected in such a way that the array reflects energy back in the direction it came from.

    But connecting piezoelectric nodes to make a Van Atta array reduces their efficiency. The researchers avoided this problem by placing a transformer between pairs of connected nodes. The transformer, which transfers electric energy from one circuit to another, allows the nodes to reflect the maximum amount of energy back to the source.

    “Both nodes are receiving and both nodes are reflecting, so it is a very interesting system. As you increase the number of elements in that system, you build an array that allows you to achieve much longer communication ranges,” Eid explains.

    In addition, they used a technique called cross-polarity switching to encode binary data in the reflected signal. Each node has a positive and a negative terminal (like a car battery), so when the positive terminals of two nodes are connected and the negative terminals of two nodes are connected, that reflected signal is a “bit one.”

    But if the researchers switch the polarity, and the negative and positive terminals are connected to each other instead, then the reflection is a “bit zero.”

    “Just connecting the piezoelectric nodes together is not enough. By alternating the polarities between the two nodes, we are able to transmit data back to the remote receiver,” Rademacher explains.

    When building the Van Atta array, the researchers found that if the connected nodes were too close, they would block each other’s signals. They devised a new design with staggered nodes that enables signals to reach the array from any direction. With this scalable design, the more nodes an array has, the greater its communication range.

    They tested the array in more than 1,500 experimental trials in the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Falmouth, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The device achieved communication ranges of 300 meters, more than 15 times longer than they previously demonstrated.

    However, they had to cut the experiments short because they ran out of space on the dock.

    Modeling the maximum

    That inspired the researchers to build an analytical model to determine the theoretical and practical communication limits of this new underwater backscatter technology.

    Building off their group’s work on RFIDs, the team carefully crafted a model that captured the impact of system parameters, like the size of the piezoelectric nodes and the input power of the signal, on the underwater operation range of the device.

    “It is not a traditional communication technology, so you need to understand how you can quantify the reflection. What are the roles of the different components in that process?” Akbar says.

    For instance, the researchers needed to derive a function that captures the amount of signal reflected out of an underwater piezoelectric node with a specific size, which was among the biggest challenges of developing the model, he adds.

    They used these insights to create a plug-and-play model into a which a user could enter information like input power and piezoelectric node dimensions and receive an output that shows the expected range of the system.

    They evaluated the model on data from their experimental trials and found that it could accurately predict the range of retrodirected acoustic signals with an average error of less than one decibel.

    Using this model, they showed that an underwater backscatter array can potentially achieve kilometer-long communication ranges.

    “We are creating a new ocean technology and propelling it into the realm of the things we have been doing for 6G cellular networks. For us, it is very rewarding because we are starting to see this now very close to reality,” Adib says.

    The researchers plan to continue studying underwater backscatter Van Atta arrays, perhaps using boats so they could evaluate longer communication ranges. Along the way, they intend to release tools and datasets so other researchers can build on their work. At the same time, they are beginning to move toward commercialization of this technology.

    “Limited range has been an open problem in underwater backscatter networks, preventing them from being used in real-world applications. This paper takes a significant step forward in the future of underwater communication, by enabling them to operate on minimum energy while achieving long range,” says Omid Abari, assistant professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was not involved with this work. “The paper is the first to bring Van Atta Reflector array technique into underwater backscatter settings and demonstrate its benefits in improving the communication range by orders of magnitude. This can take battery-free underwater communication one step closer to reality, enabling applications such as underwater climate change monitoring and coastal monitoring.”

    This research was funded, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, the Sloan Research Fellowship, the National Science Foundation, the MIT Media Lab, and the Doherty Chair in Ocean Utilization. More

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    Putting public service into practice

    Salomé Otero ’23 doesn’t mince words about the social impact internship she had in 2022. “It was transformational for me,” she says.

    Otero, who majored in management with a concentration in education, always felt that education would play some role in her career path after MIT, but she wasn’t sure how. That all changed her junior year, when she got an email from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) about an internship at The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides education and technology training for justice-impacted individuals.

    Otero applied and was selected as a web curriculum and re-entry intern at The Last Mile the summer between her junior and senior year — an eye-opening experience that cemented her post-graduation plans. “You hear some amazing stories, like this person was incarcerated before the iPhone had come out. Now he’s a software developer,” she explains. “And for me, the idea of using computer science education for good appealed to me on many fronts. But even if I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work at The Last Mile, the fact that I saw a job description for this role and learned that companies have the resources to make a difference … I didn’t know that there were people and organizations dedicating their time and energy into this.”

    She was so inspired that, when she returned for her senior year, Otero found work at two education labs at MIT, completed another social impact internship over Independent Activities Period (IAP) at G{Code}, an education nonprofit that provides computer science education to women and nonbinary people of color, and decided to apply to graduate school. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I would not be pursuing a PhD in education policy right now if it weren’t for the PKG Center,” she says. She will begin her doctorate this fall.

    Otero’s experience doesn’t surprise Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Center. “MIT students are deeply concerned about the world’s most challenging problems,” she says. “And social impact internships are an incredible way for them to leverage their unique talents and skills to help create meaningful change while broadening their perspectives and discovering potential career paths.”

    “There’s a lot more out there”

    Founded 35 years ago, the PKG Center offers a robust portfolio of experiential learning programs broadly focused on four themes: climate change, health equity, racial justice, and tech for social good. The Center’s Social Impact Internship Program provides funded internships to students interested in working with government agencies, nonprofits, and social ventures. Students reap rich rewards from these experiences, including learning ways to make social change, informing their academic journey and career path, and gaining valuable professional skills.

    “It was a really good learning opportunity,” says Juliet Liao ’23, a graduate of MIT’s Naval ROTC program who commissioned as a submarine officer in June. She completed a social impact internship with the World Wildlife Fund, where she researched greenhouse gas emissions related to the salmon industry. “I haven’t had much exposure to what work outside of the Navy looks like and what I’m interested in working on. And I really liked the science-based approach to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Amina Abdalla, a rising junior in biological engineering, arrived at MIT with a strong interest in health care and determined to go to medical school. But her internship at MassHealth, the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program provider for the state of Massachusetts, broadened her understanding of the complexity of the health care system and introduced her to many career options that she didn’t know existed.

    “They did coffee chats between interns and various people who work in MassHealth, such as doctors, lawyers, policy advocates, and consultants. There’s a lot more out there that one can do with the degree that they get and the knowledge they gain. It just depends on your interests, and I came away from that really excited,” she says. The experience inspired her to take a class in health policy before she graduates. “I know I want to be a doctor and I have a lot of interest in science in general, but if I could do some kind of public sector impact with that knowledge, I would definitely be interested in doing that.”

    Social impact internships also provide an opportunity for students to hone their analytical, technical, and people skills. Selma Sharaf ’22 worked on developing a first-ever climate action plan for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. She conducted research and stakeholder interviews with nonprofits; sustainability directors at similar colleges; local utility companies; and faculty, staff, and students at Bennett.

    “Our external outreach efforts with certain organizations allowed me to practice having conversations about energy justice and climate issues with people who aren’t already in this space. I learned how useful it can be to not only discuss the overall issues of climate change and carbon emissions, but to also zoom in on more relatable personal-level impacts,” she says. Sharaf is currently working in clean energy consulting and plans to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program this fall.

    Working with “all stars”

    Organizations that partner with the PKG Center are often constrained by limited technical and financial resources. Since the program is funded by the PKG Center, these internships help expand their organizational capacity and broaden their impact; MIT students can take on projects that might not otherwise get done, and they also bring fresh skills and ideas to the organization — and the zeal to pursue those ideas.

    Emily Moberg ’11, PhD ’16 got involved with the social impact internship programs in 2020. Moberg, who is the director of Scope 3 Carbon Measurement and Mitigation at the World Wildlife Fund, has worked with 20 MIT students since then, including Liao. The body of work that Liao and several other interns completed has been published in the form of 10 briefs onmitigating greenhouse gas emissions from key commodities, such as soy, beef, coffee, and palm oil.

    “Social impact interns bring technical skills, deep curiosity, and tenacity,” Moberg says. “I’ve worked with students across many majors, including computer and materials science; all of them bring a new, fresh perspective to our problems and often sophisticated quantitative ability. Their presence often helps us to investigate new ideas or expand a project. In some cases, interns have proposed new projects and ideas themselves. The support from the PKG Center for us to host these interns has been critical, especially for these new explorations.”

    Anne Carrington Hayes, associate professor and executive director of the Global Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies program at Bennett College, calls the MIT interns she’s worked with since 2021 “all stars.” The work Sharaf and three other students performed has culminated in a draft climate action plan that will inform campus renovations and other measures that will be implemented at the college in the coming years.

    “They have been foundational in helping me to research, frame, collect data, and engage with our students and the community around issues of environmental justice and sustainability, particularly from the lens of what would be impactful and meaningful for women of color at Bennett College,” she says.

    Balancing supply and demand

    Bassett says that the social impact internship program has grown exponentially in the past few years. Before the pandemic, the program served five students from summer 2019 to spring 2020; it now serves about 125 students per year. Over that time, funding has become a significant limiting factor; demand for internships was three times the number of available internships in summer 2022, and five times the supply during IAP 2023.

    “MIT students have no shortage of opportunities available to them in the private sector, yet students are seeking social impact internships because they want to apply their skills to issues that they care about,” says Julie Uva, the PKG Center’s program administrator for social impact internships and employment. “We want to ensure every student who wants a social impact internship can access that experience.”

    MIT has taken note of this financial shortfall: the Task Force 2021 report recommended fundraising to alleviate the under-supply of social impact experiential learning opportunities (ELOs), and MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan called on the Institute to make a climate or clean-energy ELOs available to every undergraduate who wants one. As a result, the Office of Experiential Learning is working with Resource Development to raise new funding to support many more opportunities, which would be available to students not only through the PKG Center but also other offices and programs, such as MIT D-Lab, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programs, MISTI, and the Environmental Solutions Initiative, among others.

    That’s welcome news to Salomé Otero. She’s familiar with the Institute’s fundraising efforts, having worked as one of the Alumni Association’s Tech Callers. Now, as an alumna herself and a former social impact intern, she has an appreciation for the power of philanthropy.

    “MIT is ahead of the game compared to so many universities, in so many ways,” she says. “But if they want to continue to do that in the most impactful way possible, I think investing in ideas and missions like the PKG Center is the way to go. So when that call comes, I’ll tell whoever is working that night shift, ‘Yeah, I’ll donate to the PKG Center.’” More

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    Q&A: Three Tata Fellows on the program’s impact on themselves and the world

    The Tata Fellowship at MIT gives graduate students the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research and work with real-world applications in developing countries. Part of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, this fellowship contributes to the center’s goal of designing appropriate, practical solutions for resource-constrained communities. Three Tata Fellows — Serena Patel, Rameen Hayat Malik, and Ethan Harrison — discuss the impact of this program on their research, perspectives, and time at MIT.

    Serena Patel

    Serena Patel graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in energy engineering and a minor in energy and resources. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy at MIT and is a Tata Fellow focusing on decarbonization in India using techno-economic modeling. Her interest in the intersection of technology, policy, economics, and social justice led her to attend COP27, where she experienced decision-maker and activist interactions firsthand.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: The Tata Center appealed to my interest in searching for creative, sustainable energy technologies that center collaboration with local-leading organizations. It has also shaped my understanding of the role of technology in sustainable development planning. Our current energy system disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, and new energy systems have the potential to perpetuate and/or create inequities. I am broadly interested in how we can put people at the core of our technological solutions and support equitable energy transitions. I specifically work on techno-economic modeling to analyze the potential for an early retirement of India’s large coal fleet and conversion to long-duration thermal energy storage. This could mitigate job losses from rapid transitions, support India’s energy system decarbonization plan, and provide a cost-effective way to retire stranded assets.

    Q: Why is interdisciplinary study important to real-world solutions for global communities, and how has working at the intersection of technology and policy influenced your research?

    A: Technology and policy work together in mediating and regulating the world around us. Technological solutions can be disruptive in all the good ways, but they can also do a lot of harm and perpetuate existing inequities. Interdisciplinary studies are important to mitigate these interrelated issues so innovative ideas in the ivory towers of Western academia do not negatively impact marginalized communities. For real-world solutions to positively impact individuals, marginalized communities need to be centered within the research design process. I think the research community’s perspective on real-world, global solutions is shifting to achieve these goals, but much work remains for resources to reach the right communities.

    The energy space is especially fascinating because it impacts everyone’s quality of life in overt or nuanced ways. I’ve had the privilege of taking classes that sit at the intersection of energy technology and policy, involving land-use law, geographic representation, energy regulation, and technology policy. In general, working at the intersection of technology and policy has shaped my perspective on how regulation influences widespread technology adoption and the overall research directions and assumptions in our energy models.

    Q: How has your experience at COP27 influenced your approach to your research?

    A: Attending COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, last November influenced my understanding of the role of science, research, and activism in climate negotiations and action. Science and research are often promoted as necessary for sharing knowledge at the higher levels, but they were also used as a delay tactic by negotiators. I heard how institutional bodies meant to support fair science and research often did not reach intended stakeholders. Lofty goals or financial commitments to ensure global climate stability and resilience still lacked implementation and coordination with deep technology transfer and support. On the face of it, these agreements have impact and influence, but I heard many frustrations over the lack of tangible, local support. This has driven my research to be as context-specific as possible, to provide actionable insights and leverage different disciplines.

    I also observed the role of activism in the negotiations. Decision-makers are accountable to their country, and activists are spreading awareness and bringing transparency to the COP process. As a U.S. citizen, I suddenly became more aware of how political engagement and awareness in the country could push the boundaries of international climate agreements if the government were more aligned on climate action.

    Rameen Hayat Malik

    Rameen Hayat Malik graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and a Bachelor of Laws. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy and is a Tata Fellow researching the impacts of electric vehicle (EV) battery production in Indonesia. Originally from Australia, she first became interested in the geopolitical landscape of resources trade and its implications for the clean energy transition while working in her native country’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: I came across the Tata Fellowship while looking for research opportunities that aligned with my interest in understanding how a just energy transition will occur in a global context, with a particular focus on emerging economies. My research explores the techno-economic, social, and environmental impacts of nickel mining in Indonesia as it seeks to establish itself as a major producer of EV batteries. The fellowship’s focus on community-driven research has given me the freedom to guide the scope of my research. It has allowed me to integrate a community voice into my work that seeks to understand the impact of this mining on forest-dependent communities, Indigenous communities, and workforce development.

    Q: Battery technology and production are highly discussed in the energy sector. How does your research on Indonesia’s battery production contribute to the current discussion around batteries, and what drew you to this topic?

    A: Indonesia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, while also having one of the largest nickel reserves in the world — a key mineral for EV battery production. This presents an exciting opportunity for Indonesia to be a leader in the energy transition, as it both seeks to phase out coal production and establish itself as a key supplier of critical minerals. It is also an opportunity to actually apply principles of a just transition to the region, which seeks to repurpose and re-skill existing coal workforces, to bring Indigenous communities into the conversation around the future of their lands, and to explore whether it is actually possible to sustainably and ethically produce nickel for EV battery production.

    I’ve always seen battery technologies and EVs as products that, at least today, are accessible to a small, privileged customer base that can afford such technologies. I’m interested in understanding how we can make such products more widely affordable and provide our lowest-income communities with the opportunities to actively participate in the transition — especially since access to transportation is a key driver of social mobility. With nickel prices impacting EV prices in such a dramatic way, unlocking more nickel supply chains presents an opportunity to make EV batteries more accessible and affordable.

    Q: What advice would you give to new students who want to be a part of real-world solutions to the climate crisis?

    A: Bring your whole self with you when engaging these issues. Quite often we get caught up with the technology or modeling aspect of addressing the climate crisis and forget to bring people and their experiences into our work. Think about your positionality: Who is your community, what are the avenues you have to bring that community along, and what privileges do you hold to empower and amplify voices that need to be heard? Find a piece of this complex puzzle that excites you, and find opportunities to talk and listen to people who are directly impacted by the solutions you are looking to explore. It can get quite overwhelming working in this space, which carries a sense of urgency, politicization, and polarization with it. Stay optimistic, keep advocating, and remember to take care of yourself while doing this important work.

    Ethan Harrison

    After earning his degree in economics and applied science from the College of William and Mary, Ethan Harrison worked at the United Nations Development Program in its Crisis Bureau as a research officer focused on conflict prevention and predictive analysis. He is currently pursuing his SM in technology and policy at MIT. In his Tata Fellowship, he focuses on the impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on global vulnerability and the global energy market.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: Coming to MIT, one of my chief interests was figuring out how we can leverage gains from technology to improve outcomes and build pro-poor solutions in developing and crisis contexts. The Tata Fellowship aligned with many of the conclusions I drew while working in crisis contexts and some of the outstanding questions that I was hoping to answer during my time at MIT, specifically: How can we leverage technology to build sustainable, participatory, and ethically grounded interventions in these contexts?

    My research currently examines the secondary impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on low- and middle-income countries — especially fragile states — with a focus on shocks in the global energy market. This includes the development of a novel framework that systematically identifies factors of vulnerability — such as in energy, food systems, and trade dependence — and quantitatively ranks countries by their level of vulnerability. By identifying the specific mechanisms by which these countries are vulnerable, we can develop a map of global vulnerability and identify key policy solutions that can insulate countries from current and future shocks.

    Q: I understand that your research deals with the relationship between oil and gas price fluctuation and political stability. What has been the most surprising aspect of this relationship, and what are its implications for global decarbonization?

    A: One surprising aspect is the degree to which citizen grievances regarding price fluctuations can quickly expand to broader democratic demands and destabilization. In Sri Lanka last year and in Egypt during the Arab spring, initial protests around fuel prices and power outages eventually led to broader demands and the loss of power by heads of state. Another surprising aspect is the popularity of fuel subsidies despite the fact that they are economically regressive: They often comprise a large proportion of GDP in poor countries, disproportionately benefit higher-income populations, and leave countries vulnerable to fiscal stress during price spikes.

    Regarding implications for global decarbonization, one project we are pursuing examines the implications of directing financing from fuel subsidies toward investments in renewable energy. Countries that rely on fossil fuels for electricity have been hit especially hard 
by price spikes from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, especially since many were carrying costly fuel subsidies to keep the price of fuel and energy artificially low. Much of the international community is advocating for low-income countries to invest in renewables and reduce their fossil fuel burden, but it’s important to explore how global decarbonization can align with efforts to end energy poverty and other Sustainable Development Goals.

    Q: How does your research impact the Tata Center’s goal of transforming policy research into real-world solutions, and why is this important?

    A: The crisis in Ukraine has shifted the international community’s focus away from other countries in crisis, such as Yemen and Lebanon. By developing a global map of vulnerability, we’re building a large evidence base on which countries have been most impacted by this crisis. Most importantly, by identifying individual channels of vulnerability for each country, we can also identify the most effective policy solutions to insulate vulnerable populations from shocks. Whether that’s advocating for short-term social protection programs or identifying more medium-term policy solutions — like fuel banks or investment in renewables — we hope providing a detailed map of sources of vulnerability can help inform the global response to shocks imposed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and post-Covid recovery. More