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    Helping to make nuclear fusion a reality

    Up until she served in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Rachel Bielajew was open to a career reboot. Having studied nuclear engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduate school had been on her mind. But seeing the drastic impacts of climate change play out in real-time in Malawi — the lives of the country’s subsistence farmers swing wildly, depending on the rains — convinced Bielajew of the importance of nuclear engineering. Bielajew was struck that her high school students in the small town of Chisenga had a shaky understanding of math, but universally understood global warming. “The concept of the changing world due to human impact was evident, and they could see it,” Bielajew says.

    Bielajew was looking to work on solutions that could positively impact global problems and feed her love of physics. Nuclear engineering, especially the study of fusion as a carbon-free energy source, checked off both boxes. Bielajew is now a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). She researches magnetic confinement fusion in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) with Professor Anne White.

    Researching fusion’s big challenge

    You need to confine plasma effectively in order to generate the extremely high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius) fusion needs, without melting the walls of the tokamak, the device that hosts these reactions. Magnets can do the job, but “plasmas are weird, they behave strangely and are challenging to understand,” Bielajew says. Small instabilities in plasma can coalesce into fluctuating turbulence that can drive heat and particles out of the machine.

    In high-confinement mode, the edges of the plasma have less tolerance for such unruly behavior. “The turbulence gets damped out and sheared apart at the edge,” Bielajew says. This might seem like a good thing, but high-confinement plasmas have their own challenges. They are so tightly bound that they create edge-localized modes (ELMs), bursts of damaging particles and energy, that can be extremely damaging to the machine.

    The questions Bielajew is looking to answer: How do we get high confinement without ELMs? How do turbulence and transport play a role in plasmas? “We do not fully understand turbulence, even though we have studied it for a long time,” Bielajew says, “It is a big and important problem to solve for fusion to be a reality. I like that challenge,” Bielajew adds.

    A love of science

    Confronting such challenges head-on has been part of Bielajew’s toolkit since she was a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her father, Alex Bielajew, is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, and Bielajew’s mother also pursued graduate studies.

    Bielajew’s parents encouraged her to follow her own path and she found it led to her father’s chosen profession: nuclear engineering. Once she decided to pursue research in fusion, MIT stood out as a school she could set her sights on. “I knew that MIT had an extensive program in fusion and a lot of faculty in the field,” Bielajew says. The mechanics of the application were challenging: Chisenga had limited internet access, so Bielajew had to ride on the back of a pickup truck to meet a friend in a city a few hours away and use his phone as a hotspot to send the documents.

    A similar tenacity has surfaced in Bielajew’s approach to research during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working off a blueprint, Bielajew built the Correlation Cyclotron Emission Diagnostic, which measures turbulent electron temperature fluctuations. Through a collaboration, Bielajew conducts her plasma research at the ASDEX Upgrade tokamak in Germany. Traditionally, Bielajew would ship the diagnostic to Germany, follow and install it, and conduct the research in person. The pandemic threw a wrench in the plans, so Bielajew shipped the diagnostic and relied on team members to install it. She Zooms into the control room and trusts others to run the plasma experiments.

    DEI advocate

    Bielajew is very hands-on with another endeavor: improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in her own backyard. Having grown up with parental encouragement and in an environment that never doubted her place as a woman in engineering, Bielajew realizes not everyone has the same opportunities. “I wish that the world was in a place where all I had to do was care about my research, but it’s not,” Bielajew says. While science can solve many problems, more fundamental ones about equity need humans to act in specific ways, she points out. “I want to see more women represented, more people of color. Everyone needs a voice in building a better world,” Bielajew says.

    To get there, Bielajew co-launched NSE’s Graduate Application Assistance Program, which connects underrepresented student applicants with NSE mentors. She has been the DEI officer with NSE’s student group, ANS, and is very involved in the department’s DEI committee.

    As for future research, Bielajew hopes to concentrate on the experiments that make her question existing paradigms about plasmas under high confinement. Bielajew has registered more head-scratching “hmm” moments than “a-ha” ones. Measurements from her experiments drive the need for more intensive study.

    Bielajew’s dogs, Dobby and Winky, keep her company through it all. They came home with her from Malawi. More

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    Expanding the conversation about sustainability

    Stacy Godfreey-Igwe sat in her dorm room at MIT, staring frantically at her phone. An unprecedented snowstorm had hit her hometown of Richardson, Texas, and she was having difficulty contacting her family. She felt worried and frustrated, aware that nearby neighborhoods hadn’t lost power during the storm but that her family home had suffered significant damage. She finally got a hold of her parents, who had taken refuge in a nearby office building, but the experience left her shaken and more determined than ever to devote herself to addressing climate injustice.

    Godfreey-Igwe, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has long been concerned about how marginalized communities can shoulder a disproportionately heavy environmental burden. At MIT, she chose a double major in mechanical engineering with a concentration in global and sustainable development, and in African and African diaspora studies, a major she helped establish and became the first student to declare. Initially seeing the two fields as separate, she now embraces their intersectionality in her work in and out of the classroom.

    Through an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project with Amah Edoh, the Homer A. Burnell Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at MIT, Godfreey-Igwe has learned more about her Igbo cultural heritage and hopes to understand what the future of climate change poses for the culture’s sustainability. Godfreey-Igwe herself is the “Ada” – or eldest child – in her family, a role that carries a responsibility for keeping her family’s culture alive. That sense of responsibility, to her community and to future generations, has stayed with her at MIT.

    For Independent Activities Period during her first year at the Institute, Godfreey-Igwe traveled to Kazakhstan through MIT’s Global Teaching Labs. As a student teacher, she taught Kazakh high school chemistry students about polymers and the impact plastic materials can have on the Earth’s climate. She was also an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Identity X Ambassador during her time there, blogging about her experiences as a Black woman in the country. She saw the role as an opportunity to shed light on the challenges of navigating her identity abroad, with hopes of fostering community through her posts.

    The following summer, Godfreey-Igwe interned for the Saathi Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins Startup in Ahmedabad, India. During her time there, she researched and wrote articles focused on educating the public about the benefits eco-friendly sanitary pads posed to public health and the environment. She also interviewed a director for the city’s Center for Environmental Education, about the importance of uplifting and supporting marginalized communities hit hardest by climate change. The conversation was eye-opening for Godfreey-Igwe; she saw not only how complex the process of mitigating climate change was, but also how diverse the solutions needed to be.

    She has also pursued her interest in plastics and sustainability through summer research projects. In of the summer of 2020, Godfreey-Igwe worked under a lab in Stanford University’s civil and environmental engineering department to create and design models maximizing the efficiency of bacterial processes leading to the creation of bioplastics. The project’s goal was to find a sustainable form of plastic breakdown for future applications in the environment.  She presented her research at the Harvard National Collegiate Research Conference and received a presentation award during the MIT Mechanical Engineering Research Exhibition. This past summer, she was awarded a grant through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota to work on a research project seeking to understand microplastic generation.

    Ultimately, Godfreey-Igwe recognizes that to propose thoughtful solutions to climate issues, the people hit hardest must be a part of the conversation. For her, a key way to bring more people into conversations about sustainability and inclusion is through mentorship. This role is especially meaningful to Godfreey-Igwe because she knows firsthand how important for members of underrepresented groups to feel supported at a place like MIT. “The experience of coming to an institution like MIT, as someone who is low-income or of color, can be isolating. Especially if you feel like there are people who can’t relate to your background,” she says.

    Godfreey-Igwe is a member of Active Community Engagement FPOP (ACE), a social action group on campus that engages with local communities through public service work. Initially joining as a participant, Godfreey-Igwe became a counselor and then coordinator; she facilitates social action workshops and introduces students to service opportunities both at MIT and around Boston. She says her time in ACE has helped build her confidence in her abilities as a leader, mentor, and cultivator of inclusionary spaces. She is also a member of iHouse (International Development House), where she served for three years as the housing and service co-chair.

    Godfreey-Igwe also tutors one-on-one for Tutoring Plus in Cambridge, where since her first year she has provided mentorship and STEM tutoring to a low-income, high school student of color. Last spring, she was awarded the Tutoring Plus of Cambridge Unwavering Service Award for her service and commitment to the program.

    Looking ahead, Godfreey-Igwe hopes to use the skills learned from her mentorship and leadership roles to establish greater structures for collaboration on climate mitigation technologies, ideas, and practices. Focusing on mentoring young scientists of color, she wants to build up underprivileged groups and institutions for sustainable climate change research, ensuring everyone has a voice in the ongoing conversation.

    “In all this work, I’m hoping to make sure that globally marginalized communities are more visible in climate-related spaces, both in terms of who is doing the engineering and who the engineering works for,” she says. More

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    3 Questions: Tolga Durak on building a safety culture at MIT

    Environment, Health, and Safety Managing Director Tolga Durak heads a team working to build a strong safety culture at the Institute and to implement systems that lead to successful lab and makerspace operations. EHS is also pursuing new opportunities in the areas of safe and sustainable labs and applied makerspace research. 

    Durak holds a BS in mechanical engineering, a MS in industrial and systems engineering, and a PhD in building construction/environmental design and planning. He has over 20 years of experience in engineering and EHS in higher education, having served in such roles as authority having jurisdiction, responsible official, fire marshal, risk manager, radiation safety officer, laser safety officer, safety engineer, project manager, and emergency manager for government agencies, as well as universities with extensive health-care and research facilities.

    Q: What “words of wisdom” regarding lab/shop health and safety would you like to share with the research community? 

    A: EHS staff always strive to help maintain the safety and well-being of the MIT community. When it comes to lab/shop safety or any areas with hazards, first and foremost, we encourage wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling potentially hazardous materials. While PPE needs depend on the hazards and the space, common PPE includes safety glasses, lab coats, gloves, clothes that cover your skin, and closed-toe shoes. Shorts and open-toe shoes have no place in the lab/shop setting when hazardous materials are stored or used. Accidents will and do happen. The severity of injuries due to accidental exposures can be minimized when researchers are wearing PPE. Remember, there is only one you!   

    Overall, be aware of your surroundings, be knowledgeable about the hazards of the materials and equipment you are using, and be prepared for the unexpected. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen during this experiment or procedure?” Prepare by doing a thorough risk assessment, ask others who may be knowledgeable for their ideas and help, and standardize procedures where possible. Be prepared to respond appropriately when an emergency arises. 

    Safety in our classrooms, labs, and makerspaces is paramount and requires a collaborative effort. 

    Q: What are the established programs within EHS that students and researchers should be aware of, and what opportunities and challenges do you face trying to advance a healthy safety culture at MIT? 

    A: The EHS program staff in Biosafety, Industrial Hygiene, Environmental Management, Occupational and Construction Safety, and Radiation Protection are ready to assist with risk assessments, chemical safety, physical hazards, hazard-specific training, materials management, and hazardous waste disposal and reuse/recycling. Locally, each department, laboratory, and center has an EHS coordinator, as well as an assigned EHS team, to assist in the implementation of required EHS programs. Each lab/shop also has a designated EHS representative — someone who has local knowledge of your lab/shop and can help you with safety requirements specific to your work area.  

    One of the biggest challenges we face is that due to the decentralized nature of the Institute, no one size fits all when it comes to implementing successful safety practices. We also view this as an opportunity to enhance our safety culture. A strong safety culture is reflected at MIT when all lab and makerspace members are willing to look out for each other, challenge the status quo when necessary, and do the right thing even when no one is looking. In labs/shops with a strong safety culture, faculty and researchers discuss safety topics at group meetings, group members remind each other to wear the appropriate PPE (lab coats, safety glasses, etc.), more experienced team members mentor the newcomers, and riskier operations are reviewed and assessed to make them as safe as possible.  

    Q: Can you describe the new Safe and Sustainable Laboratories (S2L) efforts and the makerspace operational research programs envisioned for the future? 

    A: The MIT EHS Office has a plan for renewing its dedication to sustainability and climate action. We are dedicated to doing our part to promote a research environment that assures the highest level of health and safety but also strives to reduce energy, water, and waste through educating and supporting faculty, students, and researchers. With the goal of integrating sustainability across the lab sector of campus and bridging that with the Institute’s climate action goals, EHS has partnered with the MIT Office of Sustainability, Department of Facilities, vice president for finance, and vice president for campus services and stewardship to relaunch the “green” labs sustainability efforts under a new Safe and Sustainable Labs program.

    Part of that plan is to implement a Sustainable Labs Certification program. The process is designed to be as easy as possible for the lab groups. We are starting with simple actions like promoting the use of equipment timers in certain locations to conserve energy, fume hood/ventilation management, preventative maintenance for ultra-low-temperature freezers, increasing recycling, and helping labs update their central chemical inventory system, which can help forecast MIT’s potential waste streams. 

    EHS has also partnered with Project Manus to build a test-bed lab to study potential health and environmental exposures present in makerspaces as a result of specialized equipment and processes with our new Applied Makerspace Research Initiative.   More

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    Saving seaweed with machine learning

    Last year, Charlene Xia ’17, SM ’20 found herself at a crossroads. She was finishing up her master’s degree in media arts and sciences from the MIT Media Lab and had just submitted applications to doctoral degree programs. All Xia could do was sit and wait. In the meantime, she narrowed down her career options, regardless of whether she was accepted to any program.

    “I had two thoughts: I’m either going to get a PhD to work on a project that protects our planet, or I’m going to start a restaurant,” recalls Xia.

    Xia poured over her extensive cookbook collection, researching international cuisines as she anxiously awaited word about her graduate school applications. She even looked into the cost of a food truck permit in the Boston area. Just as she started hatching plans to open a plant-based skewer restaurant, Xia received word that she had been accepted into the mechanical engineering graduate program at MIT.

    Shortly after starting her doctoral studies, Xia’s advisor, Professor David Wallace, approached her with an interesting opportunity. MathWorks, a software company known for developing the MATLAB computing platform, had announced a new seed funding program in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. The program encouraged collaborative research projects focused on the health of the planet.

    “I saw this as a super-fun opportunity to combine my passion for food, my technical expertise in ocean engineering, and my interest in sustainably helping our planet,” says Xia.

    Play video

    From MIT Mechanical Engineering: “Saving Seaweed with Machine Learning”

    Wallace knew Xia would be up to the task of taking an interdisciplinary approach to solve an issue related to the health of the planet. “Charlene is a remarkable student with extraordinary talent and deep thoughtfulness. She is pretty much fearless, embracing challenges in almost any domain with the well-founded belief that, with effort, she will become a master,” says Wallace.

    Alongside Wallace and Associate Professor Stefanie Mueller, Xia proposed a project to predict and prevent the spread of diseases in aquaculture. The team focused on seaweed farms in particular.

    Already popular in East Asian cuisines, seaweed holds tremendous potential as a sustainable food source for the world’s ever-growing population. In addition to its nutritive value, seaweed combats various environmental threats. It helps fight climate change by absorbing excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and can also absorb fertilizer run-off, keeping coasts cleaner.

    As with so much of marine life, seaweed is threatened by the very thing it helps mitigate against: climate change. Climate stressors like warm temperatures or minimal sunlight encourage the growth of harmful bacteria such as ice-ice disease. Within days, entire seaweed farms are decimated by unchecked bacterial growth.

    To solve this problem, Xia turned to the microbiota present in these seaweed farms as a predictive indicator of any threat to the seaweed or livestock. “Our project is to develop a low-cost device that can detect and prevent diseases before they affect seaweed or livestock by monitoring the microbiome of the environment,” says Xia.

    The team pairs old technology with the latest in computing. Using a submersible digital holographic microscope, they take a 2D image. They then use a machine learning system known as a neural network to convert the 2D image into a representation of the microbiome present in the 3D environment.

    “Using a machine learning network, you can take a 2D image and reconstruct it almost in real time to get an idea of what the microbiome looks like in a 3D space,” says Xia.

    The software can be run in a small Raspberry Pi that could be attached to the holographic microscope. To figure out how to communicate these data back to the research team, Xia drew upon her master’s degree research.

    In that work, under the guidance of Professor Allan Adams and Professor Joseph Paradiso in the Media Lab, Xia focused on developing small underwater communication devices that can relay data about the ocean back to researchers. Rather than the usual $4,000, these devices were designed to cost less than $100, helping lower the cost barrier for those interested in uncovering the many mysteries of our oceans. The communication devices can be used to relay data about the ocean environment from the machine learning algorithms.

    By combining these low-cost communication devices along with microscopic images and machine learning, Xia hopes to design a low-cost, real-time monitoring system that can be scaled to cover entire seaweed farms.

    “It’s almost like having the ‘internet of things’ underwater,” adds Xia. “I’m developing this whole underwater camera system alongside the wireless communication I developed that can give me the data while I’m sitting on dry land.”

    Armed with these data about the microbiome, Xia and her team can detect whether or not a disease is about to strike and jeopardize seaweed or livestock before it is too late.

    While Xia still daydreams about opening a restaurant, she hopes the seaweed project will prompt people to rethink how they consider food production in general.

    “We should think about farming and food production in terms of the entire ecosystem,” she says. “My meta-goal for this project would be to get people to think about food production in a more holistic and natural way.” More

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    The language of change

    Ryan Conti came to MIT hoping to find a way to do good things in the world. Now a junior, his path is pointing toward a career in climate science, and he is preparing by majoring in both math and computer science and by minoring in philosophy.

    Language for catalyzing change

    Philosophy matters to Conti not only because he is interested in ethics — questions of right and wrong — but because he believes the philosophy of language can illuminate how humans communicate, including factors that contribute to miscommunication. “I care a lot about climate change, so I want to do scientific work on it, but I also want to help work on policy — which means conveying arguments well and convincing people so that change can occur,” he says.Conti says a key reason he came to MIT was because the Institute has such a strong School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (MIT SHASS). “One of the big factors in my choosing MIT is that the humanities departments here are really, really good,” says Conti, who was named a 2021 Burchard Scholar in honor of his excellence in the Institute’s humanistic fields. “I was considering literature, writing, philosophy, linguistics, all of that.”Revitalizing endangered indigenous languages

    Within MIT SHASS, Conti has focused academically on the philosophy of language, and he is also personally pursuing another linguistic passion — the preservation and revitalization of endangered indigenous languages. Raised in Plano, Texas, Conti is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, which today has fewer than 50 first-language speakers left.“I’ve been studying the language on my own. It’s something I really care about a lot, the entire endeavor of language revitalization,” says Conti, who credits his maternal grandmother with instilling his appreciation for his heritage. “She would always tell me that I should be proud of it,” he says. “As I got older and understood the history of things, the precarious nature of our language, I got more invested.” Conti says working to revitalize the Chickasaw language “could be one of the most important things I do with my life.”Already, MIT has given him an opportunity — through the MIT Solve initiative — to participate in a website project for speakers of Makah, an endangered indigenous language of the Pacific Northwest. “The thrust at a high level is trying to use AI [artificial intelligence] to develop speech-to-text software for languages in the Wakashan language family,” he says. The project taught him a lot about natural language processing and automatic speech recognition, he adds, although his website design was not chosen for implementation.

    Glacier dynamics, algorithms — and Quizbowl!

    MIT has also given Conti some experience on the front lines of climate change. Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he has been working in MIT’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group, developing machine learning algorithms to improve iceberg detection using satellite imagery. After graduation, Conti plans to pursue a PhD in climate science, perhaps continuing to work in glaciology.He also hopes to participate in a Chickasaw program that pairs students with native speakers to become fluent. He says he sees some natural overlap between his two passions. “Issues of indigenous sovereignty and language preservation are inherently linked with climate change, because the effects of climate change fall unequally on poor communities, which are oftentimes indigenous communities,” he says.For the moment, however, those plans still lie at least two years in the future. In the meantime, Conti is having fun serving as vice president of the MIT Quizbowl Team, an academic quiz team that competes across the region and often participate in national tournaments. What are Conti’s competition specialties? Literature and philosophy. 

    Story prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditor, Designer: Emily Hiestand, Communications DirectorSenior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill, Associate News Manager More

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    Crossing disciplines, adding fresh eyes to nuclear engineering

    Sometimes patterns repeat in nature. Spirals appear in sunflowers and hurricanes. Branches occur in veins and lightning. Limiao Zhang, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, has found another similarity: between street traffic and boiling water, with implications for preventing nuclear meltdowns.

    Growing up in China, Zhang enjoyed watching her father repair things around the house. He couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer, instead joining the police force, but Zhang did have that opportunity and studied mechanical engineering at Three Gorges University. Being one of four girls among about 50 boys in the major didn’t discourage her. “My father always told me girls can do anything,” she says. She graduated at the top of her class.

    In college, she and a team of classmates won a national engineering competition. They designed and built a model of a carousel powered by solar, hydroelectric, and pedal power. One judge asked how long the system could operate safely. “I didn’t have a perfect answer,” she recalls. She realized that engineering means designing products that not only function, but are resilient. So for her master’s degree, at Beihang University, she turned to industrial engineering and analyzed the reliability of critical infrastructure, in particular traffic networks.

    “Among all the critical infrastructures, nuclear power plants are quite special,” Zhang says. “Although one can provide very enormous carbon-free energy, once it fails, it can cause catastrophic results.” So she decided to switch fields again and study nuclear engineering. At the time she had no nuclear background, and hadn’t studied in the United States, but “I tried to step out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I just applied and MIT welcomed me.” Her supervisor, Matteo Bucci, and her classmates explained the basics of fission reactions as she adjusted to the new material, language, and environment. She doubted herself — “my friend told me, ‘I saw clouds above your head’” — but she passed her first-year courses and published her first paper soon afterward.

    Much of the work in Bucci’s lab deals with what’s called the boiling crisis. In many applications, such as nuclear plants and powerful computers, water cools things. When a hot surface boils water, bubbles cling to the surface before rising, but if too many form, they merge into a layer of vapor that insulates the surface. The heat has nowhere to go — a boiling crisis.

    Bucci invited Zhang into his lab in part because she saw a connection between traffic and heat transfer. The data plots of both phenomena look surprisingly similar. “The mathematical tools she had developed for the study of traffic jams were a completely different way of looking into our problem” Bucci says, “by using something which is intuitively not connected.”

    One can view bubbles as cars. The more there are, the more they interfere with each other. People studying boiling had focused on the physics of individual bubbles. Zhang instead uses statistical physics to analyze collective patterns of behavior. “She brings a different set of skills, a different set of knowledge, to our research,” says Guanyu Su, a postdoc in the lab. “That’s very refreshing.”

    In her first paper on the boiling crisis, published in Physical Review Letters, Zhang used theory and simulations to identify scale-free behavior in boiling: just as in traffic, the same patterns appear whether zoomed in or out, in terms of space or time. Both small and large bubbles matter. Using this insight, the team found certain physical parameters that could predict a boiling crisis. Zhang’s mathematical tools both explain experimental data and suggest new experiments to try. For a second paper, the team collected more data and found ways to predict the boiling crisis in a wider variety of conditions.

    Zhang’s thesis and third paper, both in progress, propose a universal law for explaining the crisis. “She translated the mechanism into a physical law, like F=ma or E=mc2,” Bucci says. “She came up with an equally simple equation.” Zhang says she’s learned a lot from colleagues in the department who are pioneering new nuclear reactors or other technologies, “but for my own work, I try to get down to the very basics of a phenomenon.”

    Bucci describes Zhang as determined, open-minded, and commendably self-critical. Su says she’s careful, optimistic, and courageous. “If I imagine going from heat transfer to city planning, that would be almost impossible for me,” he says. “She has a strong mind.” Last year, Zhang gave birth to a boy, whom she’s raising on her own as she does her research. (Her husband is stuck in China during the pandemic.) “This, to me,” Bucci says, “is almost superhuman.”

    Zhang will graduate at the end of the year, and has started looking for jobs back in China. She wants to continue in the energy field, though maybe not nuclear. “I will use my interdisciplinary knowledge,” she says. “I hope I can design safer and more efficient and more reliable systems to provide energy for our society.” More

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    Mitigating hazards with vulnerability in mind

    From tropical storms to landslides, the form and frequency of natural hazards vary widely. But the feelings of vulnerability they can provoke are universal.

    Growing up in hazard-prone cities, Ipek Bensu Manav, a civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate with the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), noticed that this vulnerability was always at the periphery. Today, she’s studying vulnerability, in both its engineering and social dimensions, with the aim of promoting more hazard-resilient communities.

    Her research at CSHub has taken her across the country to attend impactful conferences and allowed her to engage with prominent experts and decision-makers in the realm of resilience. But more fundamentally, it has also taken her beyond the conventional bounds of engineering, reshaping her understanding of the practice.

    From her time in Miami, Florida, and Istanbul, Turkey, Manav is no stranger to natural hazards. Istanbul, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1999, is predicted to experience an equally violent tremor in the near future, while Miami ranks among the top cities in the U.S. in terms of natural disaster risk due to its vulnerability to hurricanes.

    “Growing up in Miami, I’d always hear about hurricane season on the news,” recounts Manav, “While in Istanbul there was a constant fear about the next big earthquake. Losing people and [witnessing] those kinds of events instilled in me a desire to tame nature.”

    It was this desire to “push the bounds of what is possible” — and to protect lives in the process — that motivated Manav to study civil engineering at Boğaziçi University. Her studies there affirmed her belief in the formidable power of engineering to “outsmart nature.”

    This, in part, led her to continue her studies at MIT CSHub — a team of interdisciplinary researchers who study how to achieve resilient and sustainable infrastructure. Her role at CSHub has given her the opportunity to study resilience in depth. It has also challenged her understanding of natural disasters — and whether they are “natural” at all.

    “Over the past few decades, some policy choices have increased the risk of experiencing disasters,” explains Manav. “An increasingly popular sentiment among resilience researchers is that natural disasters are not ‘natural,’ but are actually man-made. At CSHub we believe there is an opportunity to do better with the growing knowledge and engineering and policy research.”

    As a part of the CSHub portfolio, Manav’s research looks not just at resilient engineering, but the engineering of resilient communities.

    Her work draws on a metric developed at CSHub known as city texture, which is a measurement of the rectilinearity of a city’s layout. City texture, Manav and her colleagues have found, is a versatile and informative measurement. By capturing a city’s order or disorder, it can predict variations in wind flow — variations currently too computationally intensive for most cities to easily render.  

    Manav has derived this metric for her native South Florida. A city texture analysis she conducted there found that numerous census tracts could experience wind speeds 50 percent greater than currently predicted. Mitigating these wind variations could lead to some $697 million in savings annually.

    Such enormous hazard losses and the growing threat of climate change have presented her with a new understanding of engineering.

    “With resilience and climate change at the forefront of engineering, the focus has shifted,” she explains, “from defying limits and building impressive structures to making structures that adapt to the changing environment around us.”

    Witnessing this shift has reoriented her relationship with engineering. Rather than viewing it as a distinct science, she has begun to place it in its broader social and political context — and to recognize how those social and political dynamics often determine engineering outcomes.

    “When I started grad school, I often felt ‘Oh this is an engineering problem. I can engineer a solution’,” recounts Manav. “But as I’ve read more about resilience, I’ve realized that it’s just as much a concern of politics and policy as it is of engineering.”

    She attributes her awareness of policy to MIT CSHub’s collaboration with the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research & Education Foundation. The commitment of the concrete and cement industries to resilient construction has exposed her to the myriad policies that dictate the resilience of communities.

    “Spending time with our partners made me realize how much of a policy issue [resilience] is,” she explains. “And working with them has provided me with a seat at the table with the people engaged in resilience.”

    Opportunities for engagement have been plentiful. She has attended numerous conferences and met with leaders in the realm of sustainability and resilience, including the International Code Council (ICC), Smart Home America, and Strengthen Alabama Homes.

    Some opportunities have proven particularly fortuitous. When attending a presentation hosted by the ICC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that highlighted people of color working on building codes, Manav felt inspired to reach out to the presenters. Soon after, she found herself collaborating with them on a policy report on resilience in communities of color.

    “For me, it was a shifting point, going from prophesizing about what we could be doing, to observing what is being done. It was a very humbling experience,” she says. “Having worked in this lab made me feel more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone and reaching out.”

    Manav credits this growing confidence to her mentorship at CSHub. More than just providing support, CSHub Co-director Randy Kirchain has routinely challenged her and inspired further growth.

    “There have been countless times that I’ve reached out to him because I was feeling unsure of myself or my ideas,” says Manav. “And he’s offered clarity and assurance.”

    Before her first conference, she recalls Kirchain staying in the office well into the evening to help her practice and hone her presentation. He’s also advocated for her on research projects to ensure that her insight is included and that she receives the credit she deserves. But most of all, he’s been a great person to work with.

    “Randy is a lighthearted, funny, and honest person to be around,” recounts Manav. “He builds in me the confidence to dive straight into whatever task I’m tackling.”

    That current task is related to equity. Inspired by her conversations with members of the NAACP, Manav has introduced a new dimension to her research — social vulnerability.

    In contrast to place vulnerability, which captures the geographical susceptibility to hazards, social vulnerability captures the extent to which residents have the resources to respond to and recover from hazard events. Household income could act as a proxy for these resources, and the spread of household income across geographies and demographics can help derive metrics of place and social vulnerability. And these metrics matter.

    “Selecting different metrics favors different people when distributing hazard mitigation and recovery funds,” explains Manav. “If we’re looking at just the dollar value of losses, then wealthy households with more valuable properties disproportionally benefit. But, conversely, if we look at losses as a percentage of income, we’re going to prioritize low-income households that might not necessarily have the resources to recover.”

    Manav has incorporated metrics of social vulnerability into her city texture loss estimations. The resulting approach could predict unmitigated damage, estimate subsequent hazard losses, and measure the disparate impact of those losses on low-income and socially vulnerable communities.

    Her hope is that this streamlined approach could change how funds are disbursed and give communities the tools to solve the entwined challenges of climate change and equity.

    The city texture work Manav has adopted is quite different from the gravity-defying engineering that drew her to the field. But she’s found that it is often more pragmatic and impactful.

    Rather than mastering the elements, she’s learning how to adapt to them and help others do the same. Solutions to climate change, she’s discovered, demand the collaboration of numerous parties — as well as a willingness to confront one’s own vulnerabilities and make the decision to reach out.  More

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    The boiling crisis — and how to avoid it

    It’s rare for a pre-teen to become enamored with thermodynamics, but those consumed by such a passion may consider themselves lucky to end up at a place like MIT. Madhumitha Ravichandran certainly does. A PhD student in Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), Ravichandran first encountered the laws of thermodynamics as a middle school student in Chennai, India. “They made complete sense to me,” she says. “While looking at the refrigerator at home, I wondered if I might someday build energy systems that utilized these same principles. That’s how it started, and I’ve sustained that interest ever since.”

    She’s now drawing on her knowledge of thermodynamics in research carried out in the laboratory of NSE Assistant Professor Matteo Bucci, her doctoral supervisor. Ravichandran and Bucci are gaining key insights into the “boiling crisis” — a problem that has long saddled the energy industry.

    Ravichandran was well prepared for this work by the time she arrived at MIT in 2017. As an undergraduate at India’s Sastra University, she pursued research on “two-phase flows,” examining the transitions water undergoes between its liquid and gaseous forms. She continued to study droplet evaporation and related phenomena during an internship in early 2017 in the Bucci Lab. That was an eye-opening experience, Ravichandran explains. “Back at my university in India, only 2 to 3 percent of the mechanical engineering students were women, and there were no women on the faculty. It was the first time I had faced social inequities because of my gender, and I went through some struggles, to say the least.”

    MIT offered a welcome contrast. “The amount of freedom I was given made me extremely happy,” she says. “I was always encouraged to explore my ideas, and I always felt included.” She was doubly happy because, midway through the internship, she learned that she’d been accepted to MIT’s graduate program.

    As a PhD student, her research has followed a similar path. She continues to study boiling and heat transfer, but Bucci gave this work some added urgency. They’re now investigating the aforementioned boiling crisis, which affects nuclear reactors and other kinds of power plants that rely on steam generation to drive turbines. In a light water nuclear reactor, water is heated by fuel rods in which nuclear fission has occurred. Heat removal is most efficient when the water circulating past the rods boils. However, if too many bubbles form on the surface, enveloping the fuel rods in a layer of vapor, heat transfer is greatly reduced. That’s not only diminishes power generation, it can also be dangerous because the fuel rods must be continuously cooled to avoid a dreaded meltdown accident.

    Nuclear plants operate at low power ratings to provide an ample safety margin and thereby prevent such a scenario from occurring. Ravichandran believes these standards may be overly cautious, owing to the fact that people aren’t yet sure of the conditions that bring about the boiling crisis. This hurts the economic viability of nuclear power, she says, at a time when we desperately need carbon-free power sources. But Ravichandran and other researchers in the Bucci Lab are starting to fill some major gaps in our understanding.

    They initially ran experiments to determine how quickly bubbles form when water hits a hot surface, how big the bubbles get, how long they grow, and how the surface temperature changes. “A typical experiment lasted two minutes, but it took more than three weeks to pick out every bubble that formed and track its growth and evolution,” Ravichandran explains.

    To streamline this process, she and Bucci are implementing a machine learning approach, based on neural network technology. Neural networks are good at recognizing patterns, including those associated with bubble nucleation. “These networks are data hungry,” Ravichandran says. “The more data they’re fed, the better they perform.” The networks were trained on experimental results pertaining to bubble formation on different surfaces; the networks were then tested on surfaces for which the NSE researchers had no data and didn’t know what to expect.

    After gaining experimental validation of the output from the machine learning models, the team is now trying to get these models to make reliable predictions as to when the bubble crisis, itself, will occur. The ultimate goal is to have a fully autonomous system that can not only predict the boiling crisis, but also show why it happens and automatically shut down experiments before things go too far and lab equipment starts melting.

    In the meantime, Ravichandran and Bucci have made some important theoretical advances, which they report on in a recently published paper for Applied Physics Letters. There had been a debate in the nuclear engineering community as to whether the boiling crisis is caused by bubbles covering the fuel rod surface or due to bubbles growing on top of each other, extending outward from the surface. Ravichandran and Bucci determined that it is a surface-level phenomenon. In addition, they’ve identified the three main factors that trigger the boiling crisis. First, there’s the number of bubbles that form over a given surface area and, second, the average bubble size. The third factor is the product of the bubble frequency (the number of bubbles forming within a second at a given site) and the time it takes for a bubble to reach its full size.

    Ravichandran is happy to have shed some new light on this issue but acknowledges that there’s still much work to be done. Although her research agenda is ambitious and nearly all consuming, she never forgets where she came from and the sense of isolation she felt while studying engineering as an undergraduate. She has, on her own initiative, been mentoring female engineering students in India, providing both research guidance and career advice.

    “I sometimes feel there was a reason I went through those early hardships,” Ravichandran says. “That’s what made me decide that I want to be an educator.” She’s also grateful for the opportunities that have opened up for her since coming to MIT. A recipient of a 2021-22 MathWorks Engineering Fellowship, she says, “now it feels like the only limits on me are those that I’ve placed on myself.” More