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    Convening for cultural change

    Whether working with fellow students in the Netherlands to design floating cities or interning for a local community-led environmental justice organization, Cindy Xie wants to help connect people grappling with the implications of linked social and environmental crises.The MIT senior’s belief that climate action is a collective endeavor grounded in systems change has led her to work at a variety of community organizations, and to travel as far as Malaysia and Cabo Verde to learn about the social and cultural aspects of global environmental change.“With climate action, there is such a need for collective change. We all need to be a part of creating the solutions,” she says.Xie recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, where she attended the Planetary Health Annual Meeting hosted by Sunway University, and met researchers, practitioners, and students from around the world who are working to address challenges facing human and planetary health.Since January 2023, Xie has been involved with the Planetary Health Alliance, a consortium of organizations working at the intersection of human health and global environmental change. As a campus ambassador, she organized events at MIT that built on students’ interests in climate change and health while exploring themes of community and well-being.“I think doing these events on campus and bringing people together has been my way of trying to understand how to put conceptual ideas into action,” she says.Grassroots community-buildingAn urban studies and planning major with minors in anthropology and biology, Xie is also earning her master’s degree in city planning in a dual degree program, which she will finish next year.Through her studies and numerous community activities, she has developed a multidimensional view of public health and the environment that includes spirituality and the arts as well as science and technology. “What I appreciate about being here at MIT is the opportunities to try to connect the sciences back to other disciplines,” she says.As a campus ambassador for the Planetary Health Alliance, Xie hosted a club mixer event during Earth Month last year, that brought together climate, health, and social justice groups from across the Institute. She also created a year-long series that concluded its final event last month, called Cultural Transformation for Planetary Health. Organized with the Radius Forum and other partners, the series explored social and cultural implications of the climate crisis, with a focus on how environmental change affects health and well-being.Xie has also worked with the Planetary Health Alliance’s Constellation Project through a Public Service Fellowship from the PKG Center, which she describes as “an effort to convene people from across different areas of the world to talk about the intersections of spirituality, the climate, and environmental change and planetary health.”She has also interned at the Comunidades Enraizadas Community Land Trust, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Wildlife Fund U.S. Markets Institute. And, she has taken her studies abroad through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). In 2023 she spent her Independent Activities Period in a pilot MISTI Global Classroom program in Amsterdam, and in the summer of 2023, she spent two months in Cabo Verde helping to start a new research collaboration tracking the impacts of climate change on human health.The power of storytellingGrowing up, Xie was drawn to storytelling as a means of understanding the intersections of culture and health within diverse communities. This has largely driven her interest in medical anthropology and medical humanities, and impacts her work as a member of the Asian American Initiative.The AAI is a student-led organization that provides a space for pan-Asian advocacy and community building on campus. Xie joined the group in 2022 and currently serves as a member of the executive board as well as co-leader of the Mental Health Project Team. She credits this team with inspiring discussions on holistic framings of mental health.“Conversations on mental health stigma can sometimes frame it as a fault within certain communities,” she says. “It’s also important to highlight alternate paradigms for conceptualizing mental health beyond the highly individualized models often presented in U.S. higher education settings.”Last spring, the AAI Mental Health team led a listening tour with Asian American clinicians, academic experts, and community organizations in Greater Boston, expanding the group’s connections. That led the group to volunteer last November at the Asian Mental Health Careers Day, hosted by the Let’s Talk! Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In March, the club also traveled to Yale University to participate in the East Coast Asian American Student Union Conference alongside hundreds of attendees from different college campuses.On campus, the team hosts dialogue events where students convene in an informal setting to discuss topics such as family ties and burnout and overachievement. Recently, AAI also hosted a storytelling night in partnership with MIT Taara and the newly formed South Asian Initiative. “There’s been something really powerful about being in those kinds of settings and building collective stories among peers,” Xie says.Community connectionsWriting, both creative and non-fiction, is another of Xie’s longstanding interests. From 2022 to 2023, she wrote for The Yappie, a youth-led news publication covering Asian American and Pacific Islander policy and politics. She has also written articles for The Tech, MIT Science Policy Review, MISTI Blogs, and more. Last year, she was a spread writer for MIT’s fashion publication, Infinite Magazine, for which she interviewed the founder of a local streetwear company that aims to support victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.This year, she performed a spoken word piece in the “MIT Monologues,” an annual production at MIT that features stories of gender, relationships, race, and more. Her poetry was recently published in Sine Theta and included in MassPoetry’s 2024 Intercollegiate Showcase. Xie has previously been involved in the a capella group MIT Muses and enjoys live music and concerts as well. Tapping into her 2023 MISTI experience, Xie recently went to the concert of a Cabo Verdean artist at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. “The crowd was packed,” she says. “It was just like being back in Cabo Verde. I feel very grateful to have seen these local connections.”After graduating, Xie hopes to continue building interdisciplinary connections. “I’m interested in working in policy or academia or somewhere in between the two, sort of around this idea of partnership and alliance building. My experiences abroad during my time at MIT have also made me more interested in working in an international context in the future.” More

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    MIT scholars will take commercial break with entrepreneurial scholarship

    Two MIT scholars, each with a strong entrepreneurial drive, have received 2024 Kavanaugh Fellowship awards, advancing their quest to turn pioneering research into profitable commercial enterprises.The Kavanaugh Translational Fellows Program gives scholars training to lead organizations that will bring their research to market. PhD candidates Grant Knappe and Arjav Shah are this year’s recipients. Knappe is developing a drug delivery platform for an emerging class of medicines called nucleic acid therapeutics. Shah is using hydrogel microparticles to clean up water polluted by heavy metals and other contaminants.Knappe and Shah will begin their fellowship with years of entrepreneurial expertise under their belts. They’ve developed and refined their business plans through MIT’s innovation ecosystem, including the Sandbox, the Legatum Center, the Venture Mentoring Service, the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Program, and Blueprint by The Engine. Now, the yearlong Kavanaugh Fellowship will give the scholars time to focus exclusively on testing their business plans and exercising decision-making skills — critical to startup success — with the guidance of MIT mentors.“It’s a testament to the support and direction they’ve received from the MIT community that their entrepreneurial aspirations have evolved and matured over time,” says Michael J. Cima, program director for the Kavanaugh program and the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.Founded in 2016, the Kavanaugh program was instrumental in helping past fellows launch several robust startups, including low-carbon cement manufacturer Sublime Systems and SiTration, which is using a new type of filtration membrane to extract critical materials such as lithium.A safer way to deliver breakthrough medicinesNucleic acid therapeutics, including mRNA and CRISPR, are disrupting today’s clinical landscape thanks to their promise of targeting disease treatment according to genetic blueprints. But the first methods of delivering these molecules to the body used viruses as their transport, raising patient safety concerns.“Humans have figured out how to engineer certain viruses found in nature to deliver specific cargoes [for disease treatment],” says Knappe. “But because they look like viruses, the human immune system sees them as a danger signal and creates an immune reaction that can be harmful to patients.”Given the safety profile issues of viral delivery, researchers turned to non-viral technologies that use lipid nanoparticle technology, a mixture of different lipid-like materials, assembled into particles to protect the mRNA therapeutic from getting degraded before it reaches a cell of interest. “Because they don’t look like viruses there, the immune system generally tolerates them,” adds Knappe.Recent data show lipid nanoparticles can now target the lung, opening the potential for novel treatments of deadly cancers and other diseases.Knappe’s work in MIT’s Bathe BioNanoLab focused on building such a non-viral delivery platform based on a different technology: nucleic acid nanoparticles, which combine the attractive components of both viral and non-viral systems. Knappe will spend his Kavanaugh Fellowship year developing proof-of-concept data for his drug delivery method and building the team and funding needed to commercialize the technology.A PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE), Knappe was initially attracted to MIT because of its intellectual openness. “You can work with any faculty member in other departments. I wasn’t restricted to the chemical engineering faculty,” says Knappe, whose supervisor, Professor Mark Bathe, is in the Department of Biological Engineering.Knappe, who is from New Jersey, welcomes the challenges that will come in his Kavanaugh year, including the need to pinpoint the right story that will convince venture capitalists and other funders to bet on his technology. Attracting talent is also top of mind. “How do you convince really talented people that have a lot of opportunities to work on what you work on? Building the first team is going to be critical,” he says. The network Knappe has been building in his years at MIT is paying dividends now.Targeting “forever chemicals” in waterThat network includes Shah. The two fellows met when they worked on the MIT Science Policy Review, a student-run journal concerned with the intersection of science, technology, and policy. Knappe and Shah did not compete directly academically but used their biweekly coffee walks as a welcome sounding board. Naturally, they were pleased when they found out they had both been chosen for the Kavanaugh Fellowship. So far, they have been too busy to celebrate over a beer.“We are good collaborators with research, as well,” says Shah. “Now we’re going on this entrepreneurial journey together. It’s been exciting.”Shah is a PhD candidate in ChemE’s Chemical Engineering Practice program. He got interested in the global imperative for cleaner water at a young age. His hometown of Surat is the heart of India’s textile industry. “Growing up, it wasn’t hard to see the dye-colored water flowing into your rivers and streams,” Shah says. “Playing a role in fostering positive change in water treatment fills me with a profound sense of purpose.”Shah’s work, broadly, is to clean toxic chemicals called micropollutants from water in an efficient and sustainable manner. “It’s humanly impossible to turn a blind eye to our water problems,” he says, which can be categorized as accessibility, availability, and quality. Water problems are global and complex, not just because of the technological challenges but also sociopolitical ones, he adds.Manufactured chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or “forever chemicals,” are in the news these days. PFAS, which go into making nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing, are just one of more than 10,000 such emerging contaminants that have leached into water streams. “These are extremely difficult to remove using existing systems because of their chemical diversity and low concentrations,” Shah says. “The concentrations are akin to dropping an aspirin tablet in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.” But no less toxic for that.In the lab at MIT, Shah is working with Devashish Gokhale, a fellow PhD student, and Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, to commercialize an innovative microparticle technology, hydroGel, to remove these micropollutants in an effective, facile, and sustainable manner. Hydrogels are a broad class of polymer materials that can hold large quantities of water.“Our materials are like Boba beads. We are trying to save the world with our Boba beads,” says Shah with a laugh. “And we have functionalized these particles with tunable chemistries to target different micropollutants in a single unit operation.”Due to its outsized environmental impact, industrial water is the first application Shah is targeting. Today, wastewater treatment emits more than 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, which is more than the shipping industry’s emissions, for example. The current state of the art for removing micropollutants in the industry is to use activated carbon filters. “[This technology] comes from coal, so it’s unsustainable,” Shah says. And the activated carbon filters are hard to reuse. “Our particles are reusable, theoretically infinitely.”“I’m very excited to be able to take advantage of the mentorship we have from the Kavanaugh team to take this technology to its next inflection point, so that we are ready to go out in the market and start making a huge impact,” he says.A dream communityShah and Knappe have become adept at navigating the array of support and mentorship opportunities MIT has to offer. Shah worked with a small team of seasoned professionals in the water space from the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. “They’ve helped us every step of the way as we think about commercializing the technology,” he says.Shah worked with MIT Sandbox, which provides a seed grant to help find the right product-market fit. He is also a fellow with the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, which focuses on entrepreneurship in emerging countries in growth markets.“We’re exploring the potential for this technology and its application in a lot of different markets, including India. Because that’s close to my heart,” Shah says. “The Legatum community has been unique, where you can have those extremely hard conversations, confront yourself with those fears, and then talk it out with the group of fellows.”The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, or J-WAFS, has been an integral part of Shah’s journey with research and commercialization support through its Solutions Grant and a travel award to the Stockholm World Water Week in August 2023.Knappe has also taken advantage of many innovation programs, including MIT’s Blueprint by the Engine, which helps researchers explore commercial opportunities of their work, plus programs outside of MIT but with strong on-campus ties such as Nucleate Activator and Frequency Bio.It was during one of these programs that he was inspired by two postdocs working in Bathe’s lab and spinning out biotech startups from their research, Floris Engelhardt and James Banal. Engelhardt helped spearhead Kano Therapeutics, and Banal launched Cache DNA.“I was passively absorbing and watching everything that they were going through and what they were excited about and challenged with. I still talk to them pretty regularly to this day,” Knappe says. “It’s been really great to have them as continual mentors, throughout my PhD and as I transition out of the lab.”Shah says he is grateful not only for being selected for the Kavanaugh Fellowship but to MIT as a community. “MIT has been more than a dream come true,” he says. He will have the opportunity to explore a different side of the institution as he enters the MBA program at MIT Sloan School of Management this fall. Shah expects this program, along with his Kavanaugh training, will supply the skills he needs to scale the business so it can make a difference in the world.“I always keep coming back to the question ‘How does what I do matter to the person on the street?’ This guides me to look at the bigger picture, to contextualize my research to solving important problems,” Shah says. “So many great technologies are being worked on each day, but only a minuscule fraction make it to the market.”Knappe is equally dedicated to serving a larger purpose. “With the right infrastructure, between basic fundamental science, conducted in academia, funded by government, and then translated by companies, we can make products that could improve everyone’s life across the world,” he says.Past Kavanaugh Fellows are credited with spearheading commercial outfits that have indeed made a difference. This year’s fellows are poised to follow their lead. But first they will have that beer together to celebrate. More

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    Elaine Liu: Charging ahead

    MIT senior Elaine Siyu Liu doesn’t own an electric car, or any car. But she sees the impact of electric vehicles (EVs) and renewables on the grid as two pieces of an energy puzzle she wants to solve.The U.S. Department of Energy reports that the number of public and private EV charging ports nearly doubled in the past three years, and many more are in the works. Users expect to plug in at their convenience, charge up, and drive away. But what if the grid can’t handle it?Electricity demand, long stagnant in the United States, has spiked due to EVs, data centers that drive artificial intelligence, and industry. Grid planners forecast an increase of 2.6 percent to 4.7 percent in electricity demand over the next five years, according to data reported to federal regulators. Everyone from EV charging-station operators to utility-system operators needs help navigating a system in flux.That’s where Liu’s work comes in.Liu, who is studying mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), is interested in distribution — how to get electricity from a centralized location to consumers. “I see power systems as a good venue for theoretical research as an application tool,” she says. “I’m interested in it because I’m familiar with the optimization and probability techniques used to map this level of problem.”Liu grew up in Beijing, then after middle school moved with her parents to Canada and enrolled in a prep school in Oakville, Ontario, 30 miles outside Toronto.Liu stumbled upon an opportunity to take part in a regional math competition and eventually started a math club, but at the time, the school’s culture surrounding math surprised her. Being exposed to what seemed to be some students’ aversion to math, she says, “I don’t think my feelings about math changed. I think my feelings about how people feel about math changed.”Liu brought her passion for math to MIT. The summer after her sophomore year, she took on the first of the two Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program projects she completed with electric power system expert Marija Ilić, a joint adjunct professor in EECS and a senior research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.Predicting the gridSince 2022, with the help of funding from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Liu has been working with Ilić on identifying ways in which the grid is challenged.One factor is the addition of renewables to the energy pipeline. A gap in wind or sun might cause a lag in power generation. If this lag occurs during peak demand, it could mean trouble for a grid already taxed by extreme weather and other unforeseen events.If you think of the grid as a network of dozens of interconnected parts, once an element in the network fails — say, a tree downs a transmission line — the electricity that used to go through that line needs to be rerouted. This may overload other lines, creating what’s known as a cascade failure.“This all happens really quickly and has very large downstream effects,” Liu says. “Millions of people will have instant blackouts.”Even if the system can handle a single downed line, Liu notes that “the nuance is that there are now a lot of renewables, and renewables are less predictable. You can’t predict a gap in wind or sun. When such things happen, there’s suddenly not enough generation and too much demand. So the same kind of failure would happen, but on a larger and more uncontrollable scale.”Renewables’ varying output has the added complication of causing voltage fluctuations. “We plug in our devices expecting a voltage of 110, but because of oscillations, you will never get exactly 110,” Liu says. “So even when you can deliver enough electricity, if you can’t deliver it at the specific voltage level that is required, that’s a problem.”Liu and Ilić are building a model to predict how and when the grid might fail. Lacking access to privatized data, Liu runs her models with European industry data and test cases made available to universities. “I have a fake power grid that I run my experiments on,” she says. “You can take the same tool and run it on the real power grid.”Liu’s model predicts cascade failures as they evolve. Supply from a wind generator, for example, might drop precipitously over the course of an hour. The model analyzes which substations and which households will be affected. “After we know we need to do something, this prediction tool can enable system operators to strategically intervene ahead of time,” Liu says.Dictating price and powerLast year, Liu turned her attention to EVs, which provide a different kind of challenge than renewables.In 2022, S&P Global reported that lawmakers argued that the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) wholesale power rate structure was unfair for EV charging station operators.In addition to operators paying by the kilowatt-hour, some also pay more for electricity during peak demand hours. Only a few EVs charging up during those hours could result in higher costs for the operator even if their overall energy use is low.Anticipating how much power EVs will need is more complex than predicting energy needed for, say, heating and cooling. Unlike buildings, EVs move around, making it difficult to predict energy consumption at any given time. “If users don’t like the price at one charging station or how long the line is, they’ll go somewhere else,” Liu says. “Where to allocate EV chargers is a problem that a lot of people are dealing with right now.”One approach would be for FERC to dictate to EV users when and where to charge and what price they’ll pay. To Liu, this isn’t an attractive option. “No one likes to be told what to do,” she says.Liu is looking at optimizing a market-based solution that would be acceptable to top-level energy producers — wind and solar farms and nuclear plants — all the way down to the municipal aggregators that secure electricity at competitive rates and oversee distribution to the consumer.Analyzing the location, movement, and behavior patterns of all the EVs driven daily in Boston and other major energy hubs, she notes, could help demand aggregators determine where to place EV chargers and how much to charge consumers, akin to Walmart deciding how much to mark up wholesale eggs in different markets.Last year, Liu presented the work at MITEI’s annual research conference. This spring, Liu and Ilić are submitting a paper on the market optimization analysis to a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.Liu has come to terms with her early introduction to attitudes toward STEM that struck her as markedly different from those in China. She says, “I think the (prep) school had a very strong ‘math is for nerds’ vibe, especially for girls. There was a ‘why are you giving yourself more work?’ kind of mentality. But over time, I just learned to disregard that.”After graduation, Liu, the only undergraduate researcher in Ilić’s MIT Electric Energy Systems Group, plans to apply to fellowships and graduate programs in EECS, applied math, and operations research.Based on her analysis, Liu says that the market could effectively determine the price and availability of charging stations. Offering incentives for EV owners to charge during the day instead of at night when demand is high could help avoid grid overload and prevent extra costs to operators. “People would still retain the ability to go to a different charging station if they chose to,” she says. “I’m arguing that this works.” More

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    Two MIT PhD students awarded J-WAFS fellowships for their research on water

    Since 2014, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has advanced interdisciplinary research aimed at solving the world’s most pressing water and food security challenges to meet human needs. In 2017, J-WAFS established the Rasikbhai L. Meswani Water Solutions Fellowship and the J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship. These fellowships provide support to outstanding MIT graduate students who are pursuing research that has the potential to improve water and food systems around the world. Recently, J-WAFS awarded the 2024-25 fellowships to Jonathan Bessette and Akash Ball, two MIT PhD students dedicated to addressing water scarcity by enhancing desalination and purification processes. This work is of important relevance since the world’s freshwater supply has been steadily depleting due to the effects of climate change. In fact, one-third of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water. Bessette and Ball are focused on designing innovative solutions to enhance the resilience and sustainability of global water systems. To support their endeavors, J-WAFS will provide each recipient with funding for one academic semester for continued research and related activities.“This year, we received many strong fellowship applications,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “Bessette and Ball both stood out, even in a very competitive pool of candidates. The award of the J-WAFS fellowships to these two students underscores our confidence in their potential to bring transformative solutions to global water challenges.”2024-25 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water SolutionsThe Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a doctoral fellowship for students pursuing research related to water and water supply at MIT. The fellowship is made possible by Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. Jonathan Bessette is a doctoral student in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Center within the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, advised by Professor Amos Winter. His research is focused on water treatment systems for the developing world, mainly desalination, or the process in which salts are removed from water. Currently, Bessette is working on designing and constructing a low-cost, deployable, community-scale desalination system for humanitarian crises.In arid and semi-arid regions, groundwater often serves as the sole water source, despite its common salinity issues. Many remote and developing areas lack reliable centralized power and water systems, making brackish groundwater desalination a vital, sustainable solution for global water scarcity. “An overlooked need for desalination is inland groundwater aquifers, rather than in coastal areas,” says Bessette. “This is because much of the population lives far enough from a coast that seawater desalination could never reach them. My work involves designing low-cost, sustainable, renewable-powered desalination technologies for highly constrained situations, such as drinking water for remote communities,” he adds.To achieve this goal, Bessette developed a batteryless, renewable electrodialysis desalination system. The technology is energy-efficient, conserves water, and is particularly suited for challenging environments, as it is decentralized and sustainable. The system offers significant advantages over the conventional reverse osmosis method, especially in terms of reduced energy consumption for treating brackish water. Highlighting Bessette’s capacity for engineering insight, his advisor noted the “simple and elegant solution” that Bessette and a staff engineer, Shane Pratt, devised that negated the need for the system to have large batteries. Bessette is now focusing on simplifying the system’s architecture to make it more reliable and cost-effective for deployment in remote areas.Growing up in upstate New York, Bessette completed a bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As an undergrad, he taught middle and high school students in low-income areas of Buffalo about engineering and sustainability. However, he cited his junior-year travel to India and his experience there measuring water contaminants in rural sites as cementing his dedication to a career addressing food, water, and sanitation challenges. In addition to his doctoral research, his commitment to these goals is further evidenced by another project he is pursuing, funded by a J-WAFS India grant, that uses low-cost, remote sensors to better understand water fetching practices. Bessette is conducting this work with fellow MIT student Gokul Sampath in order to help families in rural India gain access to safe drinking water.2024-25 J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship for Water and Food SolutionsThe J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship is supported by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which offers companies the opportunity to engage with MIT on water and food research. Current fellowship support was provided by two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, a leading U.S.-based provider of water treatment and infrastructure solutions, and GoAigua, a Spanish company at the forefront of digital transformation in the water industry through innovative solutions. Akash Ball is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, advised by Professor Heather Kulik. His research focuses on the computational discovery of novel functional materials for energy-efficient ion separation membranes with high selectivity. Advanced membranes like these are increasingly needed for applications such as water desalination, battery recycling, and removal of heavy metals from industrial wastewater. “Climate change, water pollution, and scarce freshwater reserves cause severe water distress for about 4 billion people annually, with 2 billion in India and China’s semiarid regions,” Ball notes. “One potential solution to this global water predicament is the desalination of seawater, since seawater accounts for 97 percent of all water on Earth.”Although several commercial reverse osmosis membranes are currently available, these membranes suffer several problems, like slow water permeation, permeability-selectivity trade-off, and high fabrication costs. Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are porous crystalline materials that are promising candidates for highly selective ion separation with fast water transport due to high surface area, the presence of different pore windows, and the tunability of chemical functionality.In the Kulik lab, Ball is developing a systematic understanding of how MOF chemistry and pore geometry affect water transport and ion rejection rates. By the end of his PhD, Ball plans to identify existing, best-performing MOFs with unparalleled water uptake using machine learning models, propose novel hypothetical MOFs tailored to specific ion separations from water, and discover experimental design rules that enable the synthesis of next-generation membranes.  Ball’s advisor praised the creativity he brings to his research, and his leadership skills that benefit her whole lab. Before coming to MIT, Ball obtained a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Jadavpur University in India. During a research internship at IIT Bombay in 2018, he worked on developing a technology for in situ arsenic detection in water. Like Bessette, he noted the impact of this prior research experience on his interest in global water challenges, along with his personal experience growing up in an area in India where access to safe drinking water was not guaranteed. More

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    Exploring frontiers of mechanical engineering

    From cutting-edge robotics, design, and bioengineering to sustainable energy solutions, ocean engineering, nanotechnology, and innovative materials science, MechE students and their advisors are doing incredibly innovative work. The graduate students highlighted here represent a snapshot of the great work in progress this spring across the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and demonstrate the ways the future of this field is as limitless as the imaginations of its practitioners.Democratizing design through AILyle RegenwetterHometown: Champaign, IllinoisAdvisor: Assistant Professor Faez AhmedInterests: Food, climbing, skiing, soccer, tennis, cookingLyle Regenwetter finds excitement in the prospect of generative AI to “democratize” design and enable inexperienced designers to tackle complex design problems. His research explores new training methods through which generative AI models can be taught to implicitly obey design constraints and synthesize higher-performing designs. Knowing that prospective designers often have an intimate knowledge of the needs of users, but may otherwise lack the technical training to create solutions, Regenwetter also develops human-AI collaborative tools that allow AI models to interact and support designers in popular CAD software and real design problems. Solving a whale of a problem Loïcka BailleHometown: L’Escale, FranceAdvisor: Daniel ZitterbartInterests: Being outdoors — scuba diving, spelunking, or climbing. Sailing on the Charles River, martial arts classes, and playing volleyballLoïcka Baille’s research focuses on developing remote sensing technologies to study and protect marine life. Her main project revolves around improving onboard whale detection technology to prevent vessel strikes, with a special focus on protecting North Atlantic right whales. Baille is also involved in an ongoing study of Emperor penguins. Her team visits Antarctica annually to tag penguins and gather data to enhance their understanding of penguin population dynamics and draw conclusions regarding the overall health of the ecosystem.Water, water anywhereCarlos Díaz-MarínHometown: San José, Costa RicaAdvisor: Professor Gang Chen | Former Advisor: Professor Evelyn WangInterests: New England hiking, biking, and dancingCarlos Díaz-Marín designs and synthesizes inexpensive salt-polymer materials that can capture large amounts of humidity from the air. He aims to change the way we generate potable water from the air, even in arid conditions. In addition to water generation, these salt-polymer materials can also be used as thermal batteries, capable of storing and reusing heat. Beyond the scientific applications, Díaz-Marín is excited to continue doing research that can have big social impacts, and that finds and explains new physical phenomena. As a LatinX person, Díaz-Marín is also driven to help increase diversity in STEM.Scalable fabrication of nano-architected materialsSomayajulu DhulipalaHometown: Hyderabad, IndiaAdvisor: Assistant Professor Carlos PortelaInterests: Space exploration, taekwondo, meditation.Somayajulu Dhulipala works on developing lightweight materials with tunable mechanical properties. He is currently working on methods for the scalable fabrication of nano-architected materials and predicting their mechanical properties. The ability to fine-tune the mechanical properties of specific materials brings versatility and adaptability, making these materials suitable for a wide range of applications across multiple industries. While the research applications are quite diverse, Dhulipala is passionate about making space habitable for humanity, a crucial step toward becoming a spacefaring civilization.Ingestible health-care devicesJimmy McRaeHometown: Woburn, MassachusettsAdvisor: Associate Professor Giovani TraversoInterests: Anything basketball-related: playing, watching, going to games, organizing hometown tournaments Jimmy McRae aims to drastically improve diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities through noninvasive health-care technologies. His research focuses on leveraging materials, mechanics, embedded systems, and microfabrication to develop novel ingestible electronic and mechatronic devices. This ranges from ingestible electroceutical capsules that modulate hunger-regulating hormones to devices capable of continuous ultralong monitoring and remotely triggerable actuations from within the stomach. The principles that guide McRae’s work to develop devices that function in extreme environments can be applied far beyond the gastrointestinal tract, with applications for outer space, the ocean, and more.Freestyle BMX meets machine learningEva NatesHometown: Narberth, Pennsylvania Advisor: Professor Peko HosoiInterests: Rowing, running, biking, hiking, bakingEva Nates is working with the Australian Cycling Team to create a tool to classify Bicycle Motocross Freestyle (BMX FS) tricks. She uses a singular value decomposition method to conduct a principal component analysis of the time-dependent point-tracking data of an athlete and their bike during a run to classify each trick. The 2024 Olympic team hopes to incorporate this tool in their training workflow, and Nates worked alongside the team at their facilities on the Gold Coast of Australia during MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January.Augmenting Astronauts with Wearable Limbs Erik BallesterosHometown: Spring, TexasAdvisor: Professor Harry AsadaInterests: Cosplay, Star Wars, Lego bricksErik Ballesteros’s research seeks to support astronauts who are conducting planetary extravehicular activities through the use of supernumerary robotic limbs (SuperLimbs). His work is tailored toward design and control manifestation to assist astronauts with post-fall recovery, human-leader/robot-follower quadruped locomotion, and coordinated manipulation between the SuperLimbs and the astronaut to perform tasks like excavation and sample handling.This article appeared in the Spring 2024 edition of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s magazine, MechE Connects.  More

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    Bringing an investigator’s eye to complex social challenges

    Anna Russo likes puzzles. They require patience, organization, and a view of the big picture. She brings an investigator’s eye to big institutional and societal challenges whose solutions can have wide-ranging, long-term impacts.

    Russo’s path to MIT began with questions. She didn’t have the whole picture yet. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” says Russo, who is completing her PhD in economics in 2024. “I was good at math and science and thought I wanted to be a doctor.”

    While completing her undergraduate studies at Yale University, where she double majored in economics and applied math, Russo discovered a passion for problem-solving, where she could apply an analytical lens to answering the kinds of thorny questions whose solutions could improve policy. “Empirical research is fun and exciting,” Russo says.

    After Yale, Russo considered what to do next. She worked as a full-time research assistant with MIT economist Amy Finkelstein. Russo’s work with Finkelstein led her toward identifying, studying, and developing answers to complex questions. 

    “My research combines ideas from two fields of economic inquiry — public finance and industrial organization — and applies them to questions about the design of environmental and health care policy,” Russo says. “I like the way economists think analytically about social problems.”

    Narrowing her focus

    Studying with and being advised by renowned economists as both an undergraduate and a doctoral student helped Russo narrow her research focus, fitting more pieces into the puzzle. “What drew me to MIT was its investment in its graduate students,” Russo says.

    Economic research meant digging into policy questions, identifying market failures, and proposing solutions. Doctoral study allowed Russo to assemble data to rigorously follow each line of inquiry.

    “Doctoral study means you get to write about something you’re really interested in,” Russo notes. This led her to study policy responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

    “In my first year, I worked on a project exploring the notion that floodplain regulation design doesn’t do a good job of incentivizing the right level of development in flood-prone areas,” she says. “How can economists help governments convince people to act in society’s best interest?”

    It’s important to understand institutional details, Russo adds, which can help investigators identify and implement solutions. 

    “Feedback, advice, and support from faculty were crucial as I grew as a researcher at MIT,” she says. Beyond her two main MIT advisors, Finkelstein and economist Nikhil Agarwal — educators she describes as “phenomenal, dedicated advisors and mentors” — Russo interacted regularly with faculty across the department. 

    Russo later discovered another challenge she hoped to solve: inefficiencies in conservation and carbon offset programs. She set her sights on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program because she believes it and programs like it can be improved. 

    The CRP is a land conservation plan administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency. In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

    “I think we can tweak the program’s design to improve cost-effectiveness,” Russo says. “There’s a trove of data available.” The data include information like auction participants’ bids in response to well-specified auction rules, which Russo links to satellite data measuring land use outcomes. Understanding how landowners bid in CRP auctions can help identify and improve the program’s function. 

    “We may be able to improve targeting and achieve more cost-effective conservation by adjusting the CRP’s scoring system,” Russo argues. Opportunities may exist to scale the incremental changes under study for other conservation programs and carbon offset markets more generally.  

    Economics, Russo believes, can help us conceptualize problems and recommend effective alternative solutions.

    The next puzzle

    Russo wants to find her next challenge while continuing her research. She plans to continue her work as a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, after which she’ll join the Harvard Department of Economics as an assistant professor. Russo also plans to continue helping other budding economists since she believes in the importance of supporting other students.   

    Russo’s advisors are some of her biggest supporters. 

    Finklestein emphasizes Russo’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and energy as key drivers in her success. “Her genuine curiosity and interest in getting to the bottom of a problem with the data — with an econometric analysis, with a modeling issue — is the best antidote for [the stress that can be associated with research],” Finklestein says. “It’s a key ingredient in her ability to produce important and credible work.”

    “She’s also incredibly generous with her time and advice,” Finklestein continues, “whether it’s helping an undergraduate research assistant with her senior thesis, or helping an advisor such as myself navigate a data access process she’s previously been through.”

    “Instead of an advisor-advisee relationship, working with her on a thesis felt more like a collaboration between equals,” Agarwal adds. “[She] has the maturity and smarts to produce pathbreaking research.

    “Doctoral study is an opportunity for students to find their paths collaboratively,” Russo says. “If I can help someone else solve a small piece of their puzzle, that’s a huge positive. Research is a series of many, many small steps forward.” 

    Identifying important causes for further investigation and study will always be important to Russo. “I also want to dig into some other market that’s not working well and figure out how to make it better,” she says. “Right now I’m really excited about understanding California wildfire mitigation.” 

    Puzzles are made to be solved, after all. More

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    Advancing technology for aquaculture

    According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually. Like land-based farming, shellfish aquaculture requires healthy seed production in order to maintain a sustainable industry. Aquaculture hatchery production of shellfish larvae — seeds — requires close monitoring to track mortality rates and assess health from the earliest stages of life. 

    Careful observation is necessary to inform production scheduling, determine effects of naturally occurring harmful bacteria, and ensure sustainable seed production. This is an essential step for shellfish hatcheries but is currently a time-consuming manual process prone to human error. 

    With funding from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), MIT Sea Grant is working with Associate Professor Otto Cordero of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor Taskin Padir and Research Scientist Mark Zolotas at the Northeastern University Institute for Experiential Robotics, and others at the Aquaculture Research Corporation (ARC), and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, to advance technology for the aquaculture industry. Located on Cape Cod, ARC is a leading shellfish hatchery, farm, and wholesaler that plays a vital role in providing high-quality shellfish seed to local and regional growers.

    Two MIT students have joined the effort this semester, working with Robert Vincent, MIT Sea Grant’s assistant director of advisory services, through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). 

    First-year student Unyime Usua and sophomore Santiago Borrego are using microscopy images of shellfish seed from ARC to train machine learning algorithms that will help automate the identification and counting process. The resulting user-friendly image recognition tool aims to aid aquaculturists in differentiating and counting healthy, unhealthy, and dead shellfish larvae, improving accuracy and reducing time and effort.

    Vincent explains that AI is a powerful tool for environmental science that enables researchers, industry, and resource managers to address challenges that have long been pinch points for accurate data collection, analysis, predictions, and streamlining processes. “Funding support from programs like J-WAFS enable us to tackle these problems head-on,” he says. 

    ARC faces challenges with manually quantifying larvae classes, an important step in their seed production process. “When larvae are in their growing stages they are constantly being sized and counted,” explains Cheryl James, ARC larval/juvenile production manager. “This process is critical to encourage optimal growth and strengthen the population.” 

    Developing an automated identification and counting system will help to improve this step in the production process with time and cost benefits. “This is not an easy task,” says Vincent, “but with the guidance of Dr. Zolotas at the Northeastern University Institute for Experiential Robotics and the work of the UROP students, we have made solid progress.” 

    The UROP program benefits both researchers and students. Involving MIT UROP students in developing these types of systems provides insights into AI applications that they might not have considered, providing opportunities to explore, learn, and apply themselves while contributing to solving real challenges.

    Borrego saw this project as an opportunity to apply what he’d learned in class 6.390 (Introduction to Machine Learning) to a real-world issue. “I was starting to form an idea of how computers can see images and extract information from them,” he says. “I wanted to keep exploring that.”

    Usua decided to pursue the project because of the direct industry impacts it could have. “I’m pretty interested in seeing how we can utilize machine learning to make people’s lives easier. We are using AI to help biologists make this counting and identification process easier.” While Usua wasn’t familiar with aquaculture before starting this project, she explains, “Just hearing about the hatcheries that Dr. Vincent was telling us about, it was unfortunate that not a lot of people know what’s going on and the problems that they’re facing.”

    On Cape Cod alone, aquaculture is an $18 million per year industry. But the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries estimates that hatcheries are only able to meet 70–80 percent of seed demand annually, which impacts local growers and economies. Through this project, the partners aim to develop technology that will increase seed production, advance industry capabilities, and help understand and improve the hatchery microbiome.

    Borrego explains the initial challenge of having limited data to work with. “Starting out, we had to go through and label all of the data, but going through that process helped me learn a lot.” In true MIT fashion, he shares his takeaway from the project: “Try to get the best out of what you’re given with the data you have to work with. You’re going to have to adapt and change your strategies depending on what you have.”

    Usua describes her experience going through the research process, communicating in a team, and deciding what approaches to take. “Research is a difficult and long process, but there is a lot to gain from it because it teaches you to look for things on your own and find your own solutions to problems.”

    In addition to increasing seed production and reducing the human labor required in the hatchery process, the collaborators expect this project to contribute to cost savings and technology integration to support one of the most underserved industries in the United States. 

    Borrego and Usua both plan to continue their work for a second semester with MIT Sea Grant. Borrego is interested in learning more about how technology can be used to protect the environment and wildlife. Usua says she hopes to explore more projects related to aquaculture. “It seems like there’s an infinite amount of ways to tackle these issues.” More

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    New major crosses disciplines to address climate change

    Lauren Aguilar knew she wanted to study energy systems at MIT, but before Course 1-12 (Climate System Science and Engineering) became a new undergraduate major, she didn’t see an obvious path to study the systems aspects of energy, policy, and climate associated with the energy transition.

    Aguilar was drawn to the new major that was jointly launched by the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) in 2023. She could take engineering systems classes and gain knowledge in climate.

    “Having climate knowledge enriches my understanding of how to build reliable and resilient energy systems for climate change mitigation. Understanding upon what scale we can forecast and predict climate change is crucial to build the appropriate level of energy infrastructure,” says Aguilar.

    The interdisciplinary structure of the 1-12 major has students engaging with and learning from professors in different disciplines across the Institute. The blended major was designed to provide a foundational understanding of the Earth system and engineering principles — as well as an understanding of human and institutional behavior as it relates to the climate challenge. Students learn the fundamental sciences through subjects like an atmospheric chemistry class focused on the global carbon cycle or a physics class on low-carbon energy systems. The major also covers topics in data science and machine learning as they relate to forecasting climate risks and building resilience, in addition to policy, economics, and environmental justice studies.

    Junior Ananda Figueiredo was one of the first students to declare the 1-12 major. Her decision to change majors stemmed from a motivation to improve people’s lives, especially when it comes to equality. “I like to look at things from a systems perspective, and climate change is such a complicated issue connected to many different pieces of our society,” says Figueiredo.

    A multifaceted field of study

    The 1-12 major prepares students with the necessary foundational expertise across disciplines to confront climate change. Andrew Babbin, an academic advisor in the new degree program and the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor in EAPS, says the new major harnesses rigorous training encompassing science, engineering, and policy to design and execute a way forward for society.

    Within its first year, Course 1-12 has attracted students with a diverse set of interests, ranging from machine learning for sustainability to nature-based solutions for carbon management to developing the next renewable energy technology and integrating it into the power system.

    Academic advisor Michael Howland, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says the best part of this degree is the students, and the enthusiasm and optimism they bring to the climate challenge.

    “We have students seeking to impact policy and students double-majoring in computer science. For this generation, climate change is a challenge for today, not for the future. Their actions inside and outside the classroom speak to the urgency of the challenge and the promise that we can solve it,” Howland says.

    The degree program also leaves plenty of space for students to develop and follow their interests. Sophomore Katherine Kempff began this spring semester as a 1-12 major interested in sustainability and renewable energy. Kempff was worried she wouldn’t be able to finish 1-12 once she made the switch to a different set of classes, but Howland assured her there would be no problems, based on the structure of 1-12.

    “I really like how flexible 1-12 is. There’s a lot of classes that satisfy the requirements, and you are not pigeonholed. I feel like I’m going to be able to do what I’m interested in, rather than just following a set path of a major,” says Kempff.

    Kempff is leveraging her skills she developed this semester and exploring different career interests. She is interviewing for sustainability and energy-sector internships in Boston and MIT this summer, and is particularly interested in assisting MIT in meeting its new sustainability goals.

    Engineering a sustainable future

    The new major dovetail’s MIT’s commitment to address climate change with its steps in prioritizing and enhancing climate education. As the Institute continues making strides to accelerate solutions, students can play a leading role in changing the future.   

    “Climate awareness is critical to all MIT students, most of whom will face the consequences of the projection models for the end of the century,” says Babbin. “One-12 will be a focal point of the climate education mission to train the brightest and most creative students to engineer a better world and understand the complex science necessary to design and verify any solutions they invent.”

    Justin Cole, who transferred to MIT in January from the University of Colorado, served in the U.S. Air Force for nine years. Over the course of his service, he had a front row seat to the changing climate. From helping with the wildfire cleanup in Black Forest, Colorado — after the state’s most destructive fire at the time — to witnessing two category 5 typhoons in Japan in 2018, Cole’s experiences of these natural disasters impressed upon him that climate security was a prerequisite to international security. 

    Cole was recently accepted into the MIT Energy and Climate Club Launchpad initiative where he will work to solve real-world climate and energy problems with professionals in industry.

    “All of the dots are connecting so far in my classes, and all the hopes that I have for studying the climate crisis and the solutions to it at MIT are coming true,” says Cole.

    With a career path that is increasingly growing, there is a rising demand for scientists and engineers who have both deep knowledge of environmental and climate systems and expertise in methods for climate change mitigation.

    “Climate science must be coupled with climate solutions. As we experience worsening climate change, the environmental system will increasingly behave in new ways that we haven’t seen in the past,” says Howland. “Solutions to climate change must go beyond good engineering of small-scale components. We need to ensure that our system-scale solutions are maximally effective in reducing climate change, but are also resilient to climate change. And there is no time to waste,” he says. More