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    MIT in the media: 2021 in review

    From Institute-wide efforts to address the climate crisis to responding to Covid-19, members of the MIT community made headlines this year for their innovative work in a variety of areas. Faculty, students, and staff were on the front lines of addressing many pressing issues this year, raising their voices and sharing their findings. Below are highlights of news stories that spotlight the many efforts underway at MIT to help make a better world.

    Fireside chat: Tackling global challenges with a culture of innovationPresident L. Rafael Reif and Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners, took part in a wide-ranging fireside chat during the inaugural Globe Summit, touching upon everything from the urgent need to address the climate crisis to MIT’s response to Covid-19, the Institute’s approach to artificial intelligence education and the greater Boston innovation ecosystem.Full discussion via Globe Summit

    A real-world revolution in economicsProfessor Joshua Angrist, one of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, spoke with The Economist’s Money Talks podcast about the evolution of his research and how his work has helped bring the field of economics closer to real life. “I like to tell graduate students that a good scholar is like a good hitter in baseball,” says Angrist of his advice for economics students. “You get on base about a third of the time you’re doing pretty well, which means you strike out most of the time.”Full story via The Economist

    Paula Hammond guest edits C&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issueC&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issue, curated by guest editor Paula Hammond, celebrated Black chemists and chemical engineers. “As we learn from several of the personal stories highlighted in this issue,” writes Hammond, “that first connection to science and research is critical to engage and inspire the next generation.” Helping propel the issue’s message about the importance of mentorship was a one-on-one with Professor Kristala Prather about her career path and a wide-ranging interview with Hammond herself on building a home at MIT.Full issue via C&EN

    Can fusion put the brakes on climate change? MIT’s new Climate Action Plan for the Decade calls for going as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now — but also asserts that ultimate success depends on breakthroughs. Commercial fusion energy is potentially one such game-changer, and a unique collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is pursuing it. As Joy Dunn ’08, head of manufacturing at CFS, explains to the New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen: “When people ask me, ‘Why fusion? Why not other renewables,’ my thinking is: This is a solution at the scale of the problem.”Full story via New Yorker

    The genius next door: Taylor Perron discusses landscape evolutionProfessor and geomorphologist Taylor Perron, a recipient this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, joined Callie Crossley of GBH’s Under the Radar to discuss his work studying the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. “We try to figure out how we can look at landscapes and read them, and try to figure out what happened in the past and also anticipate what might happen in the future,” says Perron.Full story via GBH

    How the pandemic “re-imagined how we can exhibit” Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, spoke with Cajsa Carlson of Dezeen about how the field of architecture is transforming due to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and efforts to increase diversity and representation. “Talent and imagination are not restricted to advanced development economically,” says Sarkis. “I hope this message comes across in this biennale.”Full story via Dezeen

    10 years at the top of the QS World University RankingsProvost Martin Schmidt spoke with TopUniversities.com reporter Chloe Lane about how MIT has maintained its position as the top university in the world on the QS World University Rankings for 10 consecutive years. “The Institute is full of a diverse community of people from all corners of the globe dedicated to solving the world’s most difficult problems,” says Schmidt. “Their efforts have a demonstrable impact through ambitious high-impact activities.”  Full story via TopUniversities.com

    Tackling Covid-19 and the Impact of a Global PandemicIn 2021, MIT researchers turned their attention to addressing the widespread effects of a global pandemic, exploring everything from supply chain issues to K-12 education.Massachusetts Miracle: “There are a lot of potential Modernas”Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung spotlighted how the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine demonstrates the success of the Massachusetts life sciences sector. “For more than half a century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been the epicenter of that curiosity, with a focus on molecular biology — initially to find a cure for cancer,” writes Leung.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Weak links in the supply chainProfessor Yossi Sheffi spoke with David Pogue of CBS Sunday Morning about what’s causing supply chain breakdowns. “The underlying cause of all of this is actually a huge increase in demand,” says Sheffi. “People did not spend during the pandemic. And then, all the government help came; trillions of dollars went to households. So, they order stuff. They order more and more stuff. And the global markets were not ready for this.”Full story via CBS News

    Recruiting students and teachers to rethink schoolsA report co-authored by Associate Professor Justin Reich proposed a new path forward for rethinking K-12 schools after Covid-19, reported Paul Darvasi for KQED. “The report recommends that educators build on the positive aspects of their pandemic learning experience in the years ahead,” notes Darvasi, “and supports increased student independence to cultivate a safe and healthy environment that is more conducive to learning.”Full story via KQED

    This staff member has been quietly curating a flower box at the Collier MemorialResearch Specialist Kathy Cormier’s dedication to tending a flower planter at the Collier Memorial throughout the pandemic captured the hearts of many in the MIT community. “Here’s something that’s empty that I can fill, and make myself feel better and make other people — hopefully — feel better,” she says.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Amazing Alumni MIT alumni made headlines for their efforts to change the world, both here on Earth and in outer space. NASA selects three new astronaut candidates with MIT rootsMarcos Berríos ’06, Christina Birch PhD ’15 and Christopher Williams PhD ’12 were selected among NASA’s 10-member 2021 astronaut candidate class, reported WBUR’s Bill Chappell. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum — out of many, one,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.Full story via WBUR

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala named WTO director-generalNgozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, a former Nigerian finance minister, was named director-general of the World Trade Organization, reported William Wallace for the Financial Times. “Okonjo-Iweala sees an opportunity for the organization to rediscover some of its original purpose of raising living standards across the board and to bring its outdated rule book up to date at a time of accelerating change,” notes Wallace.Full story via Financial Times

    She doesn’t think skateboarding’s a sport, but she competed for a medalAlexis Sablone MArch ’16 spoke with Washington Post reporter Les Carpenter about street skateboarding, competing at this year’s Olympic Games, and why she is uncomfortable with being defined. “To me, I’m just always like trying to be myself and do things that I love to do and not try to fit into these categories in ways that I don’t feel comfortable with,” says Sablone.Full story via The Washington Post

    Applauding the culture of aerospace engineeringTiera Fletcher ’17, a structural design engineer working on building NASA’s Space Launch System, and her husband Myron Fletcher spoke with the hosts of The Real about what inspired them to pursue careers in aerospace engineering and their organization Rocket with the Fletchers, which is aimed at introducing youth to the field of aerodynamics.Full story via The Real

    Addressing the Climate CrisisThe urgent need to take action on climate change became more apparent in 2021. MIT researchers across campus answered the call and are unleashing innovative ideas to help address the biggest threat of our time.

    Why closing California’s last nuclear power plant would be a mistake The Washington Post Editorial Board highlighted a report co-authored by MIT researchers that found keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California open would help the state reach its climate goals.Full story via The Washington Post

    What will the U.S. do to reach emission reduction targets?Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, spoke with Brian Cheung of Yahoo Finance about climate change, the path to net-zero emissions, and COP26. Paltsev was a lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. Full story via Yahoo News

    Lithium battery costs have fallen by 98% in three decadesA study by Professor Jessika Trancik and postdoc Micah Ziegler examining the plunge in lithium-ion battery costs finds “every time output doubles, as it did five times between 2006 and 2016, battery prices fall by about a quarter,” reports The Economist, which highlighted the work in its popular “Daily chart” feature. (Trancik’s research detailing carbon impacts of different cars was also cited by The Washington Post as a climate-change innovation helping respond to calls for action.)Full story via The Economist

    MIT students display a “climate clock” outside the Green BuildingBoston Globe reporter Matt Berg spotlights how a team from the MIT D-Lab created a climate clock, which was projected on the exterior of the Green Building at MIT in an effort to showcase key data about climate change. “The display highlights goals of the fight against climate change, such as limiting the annual temperature increases to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit,” writes Berg.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Social Impact

    MIT community members increasingly sought to address social issues around the world, from the spread of misinformation to ensuring marginalized communities could share their experiences. At MIT, arts, humanities and STEM fields forge an essential partnershipWriting for Times Higher Ed, Agustín Rayo, interim dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, underscore the importance of the arts, humanities, and design fields as “an essential part of an MIT education, critical to the Institute’s capacity for innovation and vital to its mission to make a better world.” They add that “the MIT mission is to serve humankind, and the arts and humanities are essential resources for knowledge and understanding of the human condition.”Full story via Times Higher Ed

    Helping Bostonians feel heard with MIT’s “Real Talk” portalAn MIT initiative called “Real Talk for Change” launched a new online portal of more than 200 audio stories collected from Boston residents as part of an effort to “help prompt future community dialogues about the lived experiences of everyday Bostonians, particularly those in marginalized communities,” reported Meghan E. Irons for The Boston Globe.Full story via Boston Globe

    Why nations fail, America editionProfessor Daron Acemoglu spoke with Greg Rosalsky of NPR’s Planet Money about his book, “Why Nations Fail,” and whether the attack on the U.S. Capitol signals difficulties for U.S. institutions, and how politicians can create more shared prosperity through a “good jobs” agenda. “We are still at a point where we can reverse things,” Acemoglu says. “But I think if we paper over these issues, we will most likely see a huge deterioration in institutions. And it can happen very rapidly.”Full story via Planet Money

    Why confronting disinformation spreaders online only makes it worseA study by MIT researchers found that correcting people who were spreading misinformation on Twitter led to people retweeting and sharing even more misinformation, reported Matthew Gault for Motherboard. Professor David Rand explains that the research is aimed at identifying “what kinds of interventions increase versus decrease the quality of news people share. There is no question that social media has changed the way people interact. But understanding how exactly it’s changed things is really difficult.” Full story via Motherboard

    Out of This WorldFrom designing a new instrument that can extract oxygen out of Martian air to investigating gravitational waves, MIT community members continued their longstanding tradition of deepening our understanding of the cosmos. MOXIE pulled breathable oxygen out of thin Martian airMichael Hecht of MIT’s Haystack Observatory spoke with GBH’s Edgar Herwick about how the MIT-designed MOXIE instrument successfully extracted oxygen out of Martian air. “I’ve been using the expression ‘a small breath for man, a giant leap for humankind,’” says Hecht, who is the principal investigator for MOXIE.Full story via GBH

    The down-to-Earth applications of spaceAssistant Professor Danielle Wood joined Bloomberg TV to discuss her work focused on using space technologies as a way to advance the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. She emphasizes how space “is a platform for serving the broad public. We use satellites to observe the environment and the climate, we use satellites to connect people across different parts of the Earth, and they give us information about our positions and our weather. All of these are broad public goods that really can serve people across the world all at once.”Full story via Bloomberg TV

    How Perseverance is hunting for life on MarsIn a conversation with New Scientist reporter Jonathan O’Callaghan, Professor Tanja Bosak discussed her work with the NASA Perseverance rover’s rock reconnaissance mission. “In the middle of a pandemic, I think we needed something good to happen, and that’s why so many people wanted all the science and engineering that goes into landing a rover on Mars to succeed,” says Bosak.Full story via New Scientist

    What scientists have learned from hidden ripples in spacetimeNergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, spoke with Becky Ferreira of Motherboard’s “Space Show” about LIGO’s 2015 discovery of gravitational waves and what researchers in the field have learned since then. “Every one of these observations tells us a little bit more about how nature has assembled our universe,” says Mavalvala. “Really, in the end, the question we’re asking is: ‘How did this universe that we observe come about?’” Full story via MotherboardJoining the Conversation

    MIT authors contributed nearly 100 op-eds and essays to top news outlets this year, along with research-focused deep dives in The Conversation.

    Building on Vannevar Bush’s “wild garden” to cultivate solutions to human needsPresident L. Rafael Reif examined Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking 1945 “Science, the Endless Frontier” report and considered how our needs today have changed. “To meet this moment, we need to ensure that our federally sponsored research addresses questions that will enhance our competitiveness now and in the future,” writes Reif. “Our current system has many strengths … but we must not allow these historical advantages to blind us to gaps that could become fatal weaknesses.”Full story via Issues in Science and Technology

    Good news: There’s a labor shortageWriting for The New York Times, Professor David Autor explored how the current labor shortage provides an opportunity to improve the quality of jobs in the U.S. “The period of labor scarcity, then, is an opportunity to catalyze better working conditions for those who need them most,” writes Autor.Full story via New York Times

    Opening the path to biotechIn an editorial for Science, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, Professor Emerita Nancy Hopkins, and President Emerita Susan Hockfield underscored the importance of addressing the underrepresentation of women and individuals of color in tech transfer. “The discoveries women and minority researchers are making today have great potential as a force for good in the world,” they write, “but reaching that potential is only possible if paths to real-world applications are open to everybody.”Full story via Science

    To protect from lab leaks, we need “banal” safety rules, not anti-terrorism measuresMIT Professor Susan Silbey and Professor Ruthanne Huising of Emlyon Business School made the case that to prevent lab leaks, there should be a greater emphasis placed on biosafety. “The global research community does not need more rules, more layers of oversight, and more intermediary actors,” they write. “What it needs is more attention and respect to already known biosafety measures and techniques.”Full story via Stat

    Boston: The Silicon Valley of longevity?Writing for The Boston Globe, AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin and Research Associate Luke Yoquinto explored how Greater Boston could serve as an innovation hub for aging populations. “By making groundbreaking creativity and inventiveness for older adults both seen and felt, Greater Boston and New England will be able to offer the world a new vision of old age,” they write.Full story via The Boston Globe

    More of the latest MIT In the Media summaries, with links to the original reporting, are available at news.mit.edu/in-the-media. More

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    MIT community in 2021: A year in review

    During 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to color much of the year, as MIT saw both the promise of vaccines as well as the rise of troubling new variants. The Institute also made new commitments to climate action, saw the opening of new and renovated spaces, continued in its efforts to support its diverse voices, and celebrated new Nobel laureates and astronaut candidates. Here are some of the top stories in the MIT community this year.

    Continuing to work through CovidVaccines became widely available to the MIT community early in the year — thanks, in significant part, to the ingenuity of MIT scientists and engineers. In response, the Institute developed a policy requiring vaccination for most members of the community and planned a return to fully in-person teaching and working at MIT for the fall 2021 semester.

    With copious protections in place, the fall semester in many ways embodied MIT’s resilience: In-person teaching expanded, staff returned with new flexible arrangements, and community spirit lifted as face-to-face meetings became possible in many cases once again. Some annual traditions, such as Commencement, stayed remote, while others, like the outdoor Great Glass Pumpkin Patch, and 2.009 grand finale, returned, adding smiles and a sense of gratitude among community members.Melissa Nobles appointed chancellor

    In August, Melissa Nobles, the former Kenin Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, became the Institute’s new chancellor. A political scientist, Nobles succeeded Cynthia Barnhart, who returned to research and teaching after seven years as chancellor.

    In other news related to MIT’s top administration, Martin Schmidt announced in November that after 40 years at MIT, he plans to step down as provost to become the next president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his alma mater.

    New climate action plan

    MIT unveiled a new action plan to tackle the climate crisis, committing to net-zero emissions by 2026 and charting a course marshaling all of MIT’s capabilities toward decarbonization. The plan includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.

    In November, a delegation from MIT also traveled to Scotland for COP26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, where international negotiators sought to keep global climate goals on track. Approximately 20 MIT faculty, staff, and students were on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    MIT and Harvard transfer edX

    MIT and Harvard University announced in June that assets of edX, the nonprofit they launched in 2012 to provide an open online platform for university courses, would be acquired by the publicly-traded education technology company 2U, and reorganized as a public benefit company under the 2U umbrella. In exchange, 2U was set to transfer net proceeds from the $800 million transaction to a nonprofit organization, also led by MIT and Harvard, to explore the next generation of online education.

    Supporting our diverse communityAs an important step forward in MIT’s ongoing efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive community, the Institute hired six new assistant deans, one in each school and in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to serve as diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. In addition, this week Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier provided an update on the Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the first draft of which was released in March.

    A community discussion also examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity. The forum was held amid a string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, Professor Emma Teng provided historic context for the crisis.

    Three with MIT ties win Nobel PrizesProfessor Joshua Angrist, whose influential work has enhanced rigorous empirical research in economics, shared half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences with Guido Imbens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the other half went to David Card of the University of California at Berkeley.

    In addition, David Julius ’77, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Ardem Patapoutian, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, for their discoveries in how the body senses touch and temperature. And Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines and digital fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with journalist Dmitry Muratov of Russia.

    National STEM leadersBefore taking office in January, President Joe Biden selected two MIT faculty leaders for top science and technology posts in his administration. Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and professor of biology, was named presidential science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Maria Zuber, vice president for research and professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, was named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Caltech chemical engineer Frances Arnold — the first women ever to co-chair PCAST.

    Paula Hammond, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was also chosen to serve as a member of PCAST. Earlier in the year, Hammond, along with chemical engineer Arup Chakraborty, was named an Institute Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon MIT faculty.

    Task Force 2021 final report

    MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond, charged with reimagining the future of MIT, released its final report, 18 months after it began work in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers 17 recommendations to strengthen and streamline MIT, and make the Institute more successful across its teaching, research, and innovation endeavors. In addition to a providing a substantive list of recommendations, the report suggests routes to implementation, and assigns one or more senior leaders or faculty governance committees with oversight, for every idea presented.

    Newly opened or reopened

    A number of facilities, new or newly redesigned, opened in 2021. These included a new MIT Welcome Center in Kendall Square; the new InnovationHQ, a hub for MIT entrepreneurship; the newly renovated and reimagined Hayden Library and courtyard; and the new MIT Press Bookstore. Two new student residences also opened, and the community welcomed programming from the Institute’s new outdoor open space.

    Students win an impressive number of distinguished fellowshipsAs always, MIT students continued to shine. This year, exceptional undergraduates were awarded Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Schwarzman scholarships.

    Remembering those we’ve lostAmong community members who died this year were William Dalzell, Sergio Dominguez, Gene Dresselhaus, Sow Hsin-Chen, Ronald Kurtz, Paul Lagacé, Shirley McBay, ChoKyun Rha, George Shultz, Isadore Singer, James Swan, and Jing Wang. A longer list of 2021 obituaries is available on MIT News.

    In Case You Missed It… 

    Additional top community stories of 2021 included NASA’s selection of three new alumni astronaut candidates; the announcement of the 2021 MIT Solve Global Challenges; the successful conclusion of the MIT Campaign for a Better World; a win for MIT in the American Solar Challenge; a look at chess at the Institute; a roundup of new books from MIT authors; and the introduction of STEM-focused young-adult graphic fiction from the MIT Press. 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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    MIT makes strides on climate action plan

    Two recent online events related to MIT’s ambitious new climate action plan highlighted several areas of progress, including uses of the campus as a real-life testbed for climate impact research, the creation of new planning bodies with opportunities for input from all parts of the MIT community, and a variety of moves toward reducing the Institute’s own carbon footprint in ways that may also provide a useful model for others.

    On Monday, MIT’s Office of Sustainability held its seventh annual “Sustainability Connect” event, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn about and share ideas for addressing climate change. This year’s virtual event emphasized the work toward carrying out the climate plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which was announced in May. An earlier event, the “MIT Climate Tune-in” on Nov. 3, provided an overview of the many areas of MIT’s work to tackle climate change and featured a video message from Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was attending the COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an 18-member team from MIT.

    Zuber pointed out some significant progress that was made at the conference, including a broad agreement by over 100 nations to end deforestation by the end of the decade; she also noted that the U.S. and E.U. are leading a global coalition of countries committed to curbing methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by decade’s end. “It’s easy to be pessimistic,” she said, “but being here in Glasgow, I’m actually cautiously optimistic, seeing the thousands and thousands of people here who are working toward meaningful climate action. And I know that same spirit exists on our own campus also.”

    As for MIT’s own climate plan, Zuber emphasized three points: “We’re committed to action; second of all, we’re committed to moving fast; and third, we’ve organized ourselves better for success.” That organization includes the creation of the MIT Climate Steering Committee, to oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change; the Climate Nucleus, to oversee the management and implementation of the new plan; and three working groups that are forming now, to involve all parts of the MIT community.

    The “Fast Forward” plan calls for reducing the campus’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2026 and eliminating all such emissions, including indirect ones, by 2050. At Monday’s event, Director of Sustainability Julie Newman pointed out that the climate plan includes no less than 14 specific commitments related to the campus itself. These can be grouped into five broad areas, she said: mitigation, resiliency, electric vehicle infrastructure, investment portfolio sustainability, and climate leadership. “Each of these commitments has due dates, and they range from the tactical to the strategic,” she said. “We’re in the midst of activating our internal teams” to address these commitments, she added, noting that there are 30 teams that involve 75 faculty and researcher members, plus up to eight student positions.

    One specific project that is well underway involves preparing a detailed map of the flood risks to the campus as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. While previous attempts to map out the campus flooding risks had treated buildings essentially as uniform blocks, the new project has already mapped out in detail the location, elevation, and condition of every access point — doors, windows, and drains — in every building in the main campus, and now plans to extend the work to the residence buildings and outlying parts of campus. The project’s methods for identifying and quantifying the risks to specific parts of the campus, Newman said, represents “part of our mission for leveraging the campus as a test bed” by creating a map that is “true to the nature of the topography and the infrastructure,” in order to be prepared for the effects of climate change.

    Also speaking at the Sustainability Connect event, Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins outlined a variety of measures that are underway to cut the carbon footprint of the campus as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Part of that, he explained, involves using the campus as a testbed for the development of the equivalent of a “smart thermostat” system for campus buildings. While such products exist commercially for homeowners, there is no such system yet for large institutional or commercial buildings.

    There is a team actively developing such a pilot program in some MIT buildings, he said, focusing on some large lab buildings that have especially high energy usage. They are examining the use of artificial intelligence to reduce energy consumption, he noted. By adding systems to monitor energy use, temperatures, occupancy, and so on, and to control heating, lighting and air conditioning systems, Higgins said at least a 3 to 5 percent reduction in energy use can be realized. “It may be well beyond that,” he added. “There’s a huge opportunity here.”

    Higgins also outlined the ongoing plan to convert the existing steam distribution system for campus heating into a hot water system. Though the massive undertaking may take decades to complete, he said that project alone may reduce campus carbon emissions by 10 percent. Other efforts include the installation of an additional 400 kilowatts of rooftop solar installations.

    Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s climate and sustainability consortium, described efforts to deal with the most far-reaching areas of greenhouse gas emission, the so-called Scope 3 emissions. He explained that Scope 1 is the direct emissions from the campus itself, from buildings and vehicles; Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from the generation of electricity; and Scope 3 is “everything else.” That includes employee travel, buildings that MIT leases from others and to others, and all goods and services, he added, “so it includes a lot of different categories of emissions.” Gregory said his team, including several student fellows, is actively investigating and quantifying these Scope 3 emissions at MIT, along with potential methods of reducing them.

    Professor Noelle Selin, who was recently named as co-chair of the new Climate Nucleus along with Professor Anne White, outlined their plans for the coming year, including the setting up of the three working groups.

    Selin said the nucleus consists of representatives of departments, labs, centers, and institutes that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan. That body will make recommendations to the steering committee, which includes the deans of all five of MIT’s schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, “about how to amplify MIT’s impact in the climate sphere. We have an implementation role, but we also have an accelerator pedal that can really make MIT’s climate impact more ambitious, and really push the buttons and make sure that the Institute’s commitments are actually borne out in reality.”

    The MIT Climate Tune-In also featured Selin and White, as well as a presentation on MIT’s expanded educational offerings on climate and sustainability, from Sarah Meyers, ESI’s education program manager; students Derek Allmond and Natalie Northrup; and postdoc Peter Godart. Professor Dennis Whyte also spoke about MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ recent historical advance toward commercial fusion energy. Organizers said that the Climate Tune-In event is the first of what they hope will be many opportunities to hear updates on the wide range of work happening across campus to implement the Fast Forward plan, and to spark conversations within the MIT community. More

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    For campus “porosity hunters,” climate resilience is the goal

    At MIT, it’s not uncommon to see groups navigating campus with smartphones and measuring devices in hand, using the Institute as a test bed for research. During one week this summer more than a dozen students, researchers, and faculty, plus an altimeter, could be seen doing just that as they traveled across MIT to measure the points of entry into campus buildings — including windows, doors, and vents — known as a building’s porosity.

    Why measure campus building porosity?

    The group was part of the MIT Porosity Hunt, a citizen-science effort that is using the MIT campus as a place to test emerging methodologies, instruments, and data collection processes to better understand the potential impact of a changing climate — and specifically storm scenarios resulting from it — on infrastructure. The hunt is a collaborative effort between the Urban Risk Lab, led by director and associate professor of architecture and urbanism Miho Mazereeuw, and the Office of Sustainability (MITOS), aimed at supporting an MIT that is resilient to the impacts of climate change, including flooding and extreme heat events. Working over three days, members of the hunt catalogued openings in dozens of buildings across campus to better support flood mapping and resiliency planning at MIT.

    For Mazereeuw, the data collection project lies at the nexus of her work with the Urban Risk Lab and as a member of MIT’s Climate Resiliency Committee. While the lab’s mission is to “develop methods, prototypes, and technologies to embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase resilience,” the Climate Resiliency Committee — made up of faculty, staff, and researchers — is focused on assessing, planning, and operationalizing a climate-resilient MIT. The work of both the lab and the committee is embedded in the recently released MIT Climate Resiliency Dashboard, a visualization tool that allows users to understand potential flooding impacts of a number of storm scenarios and drive decision-making.

    While the debut of the tool signaled a big advancement in resiliency planning at MIT, some, including Mazereeuw, saw an opportunity for enhancement. In working with Ken Strzepek, a MITOS Faculty Fellow and research scientist at the MIT Center for Global Change Science who was also an integral part of this work, Mazereeuw says she was surprised to learn that even the most sophisticated flood modeling treats buildings as solid blocks. With all buildings being treated the same, despite varying porosity, the dashboard is limited in some flood scenario analysis. To address this, Mazereeuw and others got to work to fill in that additional layer of data, with the citizen science efforts a key factor of that work. “Understanding the porosity of the building is important to understanding how much water actually goes in the building in these scenarios,” she explains.

    Though surveyors are often used to collect and map this type of information, Mazereeuw wanted to leverage the MIT community in order to collect data quickly while engaging students, faculty, and researchers as resiliency stewards for the campus. “It’s important for projects like this to encourage awareness,” she explains. “Generally, when something fails, we notice it, but otherwise we don’t. With climate change bringing on more uncertainty in the scale and intensity of events, we need everyone to be more aware and help us understand things like vulnerabilities.”

    To do this, MITOS and the Urban Risk Lab reached out to more than a dozen students, who were joined by faculty, staff, and researchers, to map porosity of 31 campus buildings connected by basements. The buildings were chosen based on this connectivity, understanding that water that reaches one basement could potentially flow to another.

    Urban Risk Lab research scientists Aditya Barve and Mayank Ojha aided the group’s efforts by creating a mapping app and chatbot to support consistency in reporting and ease of use. Each team member used the app to find buildings where porosity points needed to be mapped. As teams arrived at the building exteriors, they entered their location in the app, which then triggered the Facebook and LINE-powered chatbot on their phone. There, students were guided through measuring the opening, adjusting for elevation to correlate to the City of Cambridge base datum, and, based on observable features, noting the materials and quality of the opening on a one-through-three scale. Over just three days, the team, which included Mazereeuw herself, mapped 1,030 porosity points that will aid in resiliency planning and preparation on campus in a number of ways.

    “The goal is to understand various heights for flood waters around porous spots on campus,” says Mazereeuw. “But the impact can be different depending on the space. We hope this data can inform safety as well as understanding potential damage to research or disruption to campus operations from future storms.”

    The porosity data collection is complete for this round — future hunts will likely be conducted to confirm and converge data — but one team member’s work continues at the basement level of MIT. Katarina Boukin, a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering and PhD student fellow with MITOS, has been focused on methods of collecting data beneath buildings at MIT to understand how they would be impacted if flood water were to enter. “We have a number of connected basements on campus, and if one of them floods, potentially all of them do,” explains Boukin. “By looking at absolute elevation and porosity, we’re connecting the outside to the inside and tracking how much and where water may flow.” With the added data from the Porosity Hunt, a complete picture of vulnerabilities and resiliency opportunities can be shared.

    Synthesizing much of this data is where Eva Then ’21 comes in. Then was among the students who worked to capture data points over the three days and is now working in ArcGIS — an online mapping software that also powers the Climate Resiliency Dashboard — to process and visualize the data collected. Once completed, the data will be incorporated into the campus flood model to increase the accuracy of projections on the Climate Resiliency Dashboard. “Over the next decades, the model will serve as an adaptive planning tool to make campus safe and resilient amid growing climate risks,” Then says.

    For Mazereeuw, the Porosity Hunt and data collected additionally serve as a study in scalability, providing valuable insight on how similar research efforts inspired by the MIT test bed approach could be undertaken and inform policy beyond MIT. She also hopes it will inspire students to launch their own hunts in the future, becoming resiliency stewards for their campus and dorms. “Going through measuring and documenting turns on and shows a new set of goggles — you see campus and buildings in a slightly different way,” she says, “Having people look carefully and document change is a powerful tool in climate and resiliency planning.” 

    Mazereeuw also notes that recent devastating flooding events across the country, including those resulting from Hurricane Ida, have put a special focus on this work. “The loss of life that occurred in that storm, including those who died as waters flooded their basement homes  underscores the urgency of this type of research, planning, and readiness.” More

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    Amy Watterson: Model engineer

    “I love that we are doing something that no one else is doing.”

    Amy Watterson is excited when she talks about SPARC, the pilot fusion plant being developed by MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF). Since being hired as a mechanical engineer at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) two years ago, Watterson has found her skills stretching to accommodate the multiple needs of the project.

    Fusion, which fuels the sun and stars, has long been sought as a carbon-free energy source for the world. For decades researchers have pursued the “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where hot plasma can be contained by magnetic fields and heated to the point where fusion occurs. Sustaining the fusion reactions long enough to draw energy from them has been a challenge.

    Watterson is intimately aware of this difficulty. Much of her life she has heard the quip, “Fusion is 50 years away and always will be.” The daughter of PSFC research scientist Catherine Fiore, who headed the PSFC’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health, and Reich Watterson, an optical engineer working at the center, she had watched her parents devote years to making fusion a reality. She determined before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that she could forgo any attempt to follow her parents into a field that might not produce results during her career.

    Working on SPARC has changed her mindset. Taking advantage of a novel high-temperature superconducting tape, SPARC’s magnets will be compact while generating magnetic fields stronger than would be possible from other mid-sized tokamaks, and producing more fusion power. It suggests a high-field device that produces net fusion gain is not 50 years away. SPARC is scheduled to be begin operation in 2025.

    An education in modeling

    Watterson’s current excitement, and focus, is due to an approaching milestone for SPARC: a test of the Toroidal Field Magnet Coil (TFMC), a scaled prototype for the HTS magnets that will surround SPARC’s toroidal vacuum chamber. Its design and manufacture have been shaped by computer models and simulations. As part of a large research team, Waterson has received an education in modeling over the past two years.

    Computer models move scientific experiments forward by allowing researchers to predict what will happen to an experiment — or its materials — if a parameter is changed. Modeling a component of the TFMC, for example, researchers can test how it is affected by varying amounts of current, different temperatures or different materials. With this information they can make choices that will improve the success of the experiment.

    In preparation for the magnet testing, Watterson has modeled aspects of the cryogenic system that will circulate helium gas around the TFMC to keep it cold enough to remain superconducting. Taking into consideration the amount of cooling entering the system, the flow rate of the helium, the resistance created by valves and transfer lines and other parameters, she can model how much helium flow will be necessary to guarantee the magnet stays cold enough. Adjusting a parameter can make the difference between a magnet remaining superconducting and becoming overheated or even damaged.

    Watterson and her teammates have also modeled pressures and stress on the inside of the TFMC. Pumping helium through the coil to cool it down will add 20 atmospheres of pressure, which could create a degree of flex in elements of the magnet that are welded down. Modeling can help determine how much pressure a weld can sustain.

    “How thick does a weld need to be, and where should you put the weld so that it doesn’t break — that’s something you don’t want to leave until you’re finally assembling it,” says Watterson.

    Modeling the behavior of helium is particularly challenging because its properties change significantly as the pressure and temperature change.

    “A few degrees or a little pressure will affect the fluid’s viscosity, density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity,” says Watterson. “The flow has different pressures and temperatures at different places in the cryogenic loop. You end up with a set of equations that are very dependent on each other, which makes it a challenge to solve.”

    Role model

    Watterson notes that her modeling depends on the contributions of colleagues at the PSFC, and praises the collaborative spirit among researchers and engineers, a community that now feels like family. Her teammates have been her mentors. “I’ve learned so much more on the job in two years than I did in four years at school,” she says.

    She realizes that having her mother as a role model in her own family has always made it easier for her to imagine becoming a scientist or engineer. Tracing her early passion for engineering to a middle school Lego robotics tournament, her eyes widen as she talks about the need for more female engineers, and the importance of encouraging girls to believe they are equal to the challenge.

    “I want to be a role model and tell them ‘I’m a successful engineer, you can be too.’ Something I run into a lot is that little girls will say, ‘I can’t be an engineer, I’m not cut out for that.’ And I say, ‘Well that’s not true. Let me show you. If you can make this Lego robot, then you can be an engineer.’ And it turns out they usually can.”

    Then, as if making an adjustment to one of her computer models, she continues.

    “Actually, they always can.” More

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    Manipulating magnets in the quest for fusion

    “You get the high field, you get the performance.”

    Senior Research Scientist Brian LaBombard is summarizing what might be considered a guiding philosophy behind designing and engineering fusion devices at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). Beginning in 1972 with the Alcator A tokamak, through Alcator C (1978) and Alcator C-Mod (1991), the PSFC has used magnets with high fields to confine the hot plasma in compact, high-performance tokamaks. Joining what was then the Plasma Fusion Center as a graduate student in 1978, just as Alcator A was finishing its run, LaBombard is one of the few who has worked with each iteration of the high-field concept. Now he has turned his attention to the PSFC’s latest fusion venture, a fusion energy project called SPARC.

    Designed in collaboration with MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), SPARC employs novel high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets at high-field to achieve fusion that will produce net energy gain. Some of these magnets will wrap toroidally around the tokamak’s doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, confining fusion reactions and preventing damage to the walls of the device.

    The PSFC has spent three years researching, developing, and manufacturing a scaled version of these toroidal field (TF) coils — the toroidal field model coil, or TFMC. Before the TF coils can be built for SPARC, LaBombard and his team need to test the model coil under the conditions that it will experience in this tokamak.

    HTS magnets need to be cooled in order to remain superconducting, and to be protected from the heat generated by current. For testing, the TFMC will be enclosed in a cryostat, cooled to the low temperatures needed for eventual tokamak operation, and charged with current to produce magnetic field. How the magnet responds as the current is provided to the coil will determine if the technology is in hand to construct the 18 TF coils for SPARC.

    A history of achievement

    That LaBombard is part of the PSFC’s next fusion project is not unusual; that he is involved in designing, engineering, and testing the magnets is. Until 2018, when he led the R&D research team for one of the magnet designs being considered for SPARC, LaBombard’s 30-plus years of celebrated research had focused on other areas of the fusion question.

    As a graduate student, he gained early acclaim for the research he reported in his PhD thesis. Working on Alcator C, he made groundbreaking discoveries about the plasma physics in the “boundary” region of the tokamak, between the edge of the fusing core and the wall of the machine. With typical modesty, LaBombard credits some of his success to the fact that the topic was not well-studied, and that Alcator C provided measurements not possible on other machines.

    “People knew about the boundary, but nobody was really studying it in detail. On Alcator C, there were interesting phenomena, such as marfes [multifaceted asymmetric radiation from the edge], being detected for the first time. This pushed me to make boundary layer measurements in great detail that no one had ever seen before. It was all new territory, so I made a big splash.”

    That splash established him as a leading researcher in the field of boundary plasmas. After a two-year turn at the University of California at Los Angeles working on a plasma-wall test facility called PISCES, LaBombard, who grew up in New England, was happy to return to MIT to join the PSFC’s new Alcator C-Mod project.

    Over the next 28 years of C-Mod’s construction phase and operation, LaBombard continued to make groundbreaking contributions to understanding tokamak edge and divertor plasmas, and to design internal components that can survive the harsh conditions and provide plasma control — including C-Mod’s vertical target plate divertor and a unique divertor cryopump system. That experience led him to conceive of the “X-point target divertor” for handling extreme fusion power exhaust and to propose a national Advanced Divertor tokamak eXperiment (ADX) to test such ideas.

    All along, LaBombard’s true passion was in creating revolutionary diagnostics to unfold boundary layer physics and in guiding graduate students to do the same: an Omegatron, to measure impurity concentrations directly in the boundary plasma, resolved by charge-to-mass ratio; fast-scanning Langmuir-Mach probes to measure plasma flows; a Shoelace Antenna to provide insight into plasma fluctuations at the edge; the invention of a Mirror Langmuir Probe for the real-time measurements of plasma turbulence at high bandwidth.

    Switching sides

    His expertise established, he could have continued this focus on the edge of the plasma through collaborations with other laboratories and at the PSFC. Instead, he finds himself on the other side of the vacuum chamber, immersed in magnet design and technology. Challenged with finding an effective HTS magnet design for SPARC, he and his team were able to propose a winning strategy, one that seemed most likely to achieve the compact high field and high performance that PSFC tokamaks have been known for.

    LaBombard is stimulated by his new direction and excited about the upcoming test of the TFMC. His new role takes advantage of his physics background in electricity and magnetism. It also supports his passion for designing and building things, which he honed as high school apprentice to his machinist father and explored professionally building systems for Alcator C-Mod.

    “I view my principal role is to make sure the TF coil works electrically, the way it’s supposed to,” he says. “So it produces the magnetic field without damaging the coil.”

    A successful test would validate the understanding of how the new magnet technology works, and will prepare the team to build magnets for SPARC.

    Among those overseeing the hours of TFMC testing will be graduate students, current and former, reminding LaBombard of his own student days working on Alcator C, and of his years supervising students on Alcator C-Mod.

    “Those students were directly involved with Alcator C-Mod. They would jump in, make things happen — and as a team. This team spirit really enabled everyone to excel.

    “And looking to when SPARC was taking shape, you could see that across the board, from the new folks to the younger folks, they really got engaged by the spirit of Alcator — by recognition of the plasma performance that can be made possible by high magnetic fields.”

    He laughs as he looks to the past and to the future.

    “And they are taking it to SPARC.” More