MIT Sloan launches MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance

The skills and expertise required for a career in finance are in high demand across industries and the world. To address this need, MIT recently launched the MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance, an online program taught by faculty in the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Institute’s fifth MicroMasters Program to date. Available on the edX platform, the program offers recent graduates, early- to mid-stage professionals, and other individuals interested in or already pursuing a career in finance an opportunity to enhance their financial skill set or to fast-track a master’s degree in finance from MIT Sloan.

“The MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance is part of MIT’s mission to make high-quality education accessible around the world. A pioneer and leader in the field of finance, MIT Sloan is uniquely positioned to drive awareness about financial issues, increase interest, and build skills,” says David Schmittlein, the John C Head III Dean of MIT Sloan. “This program is an exciting opportunity to give learners who cannot come to campus the knowledge, models, and tools needed to advance their careers.”

The MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance includes a bundle of five online courses in finance taught by MIT Sloan faculty on the edX platform. Drawn from the STEM-based curriculum taught on campus, all five courses mirror on-campus, graduate-level MIT coursework and cover topics such as modern finance, financial accounting, mathematical methods for quantitative finance, and derivative markets. Learners will gain a comprehensive understanding of global markets and learn to apply critical financial theories, models, and frameworks across all areas of finance.

MIT Sloan Professor Leonid Kogan, who teaches in the MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance, says, “Finance can fuel progress in the way people live, the health of our world, and the integrity of our global financial systems. MIT Sloan is a robust ecosystem of finance educators, research innovators, and industry practitioners with diverse and accomplished students and alumni working at the forefront of the field to solve high-impact problems and drive progress. The MicroMasters program enables students around the world to engage in this ecosystem and learn how to make a positive difference in finance.”

Heidi Pickett, assistant dean of the Master of Finance Program, agrees. “Finance is the backbone of how economies and companies operate. It is necessary in virtually every part of the world in both the private and public sectors. This program will help meet the growing and evolving needs of finance by training professionals and helping qualified individuals to fast-track their MIT master’s degree in finance.”

Learners who complete and pass each course in the program may apply to the MIT Sloan Master of Finance Program and, upon acceptance, earn credit for the work performed online. This educational pathway allows learners to complete the master’s degree quicker, with only two terms spent on campus at MIT.

The first available course in the MITx MicroMasters Program in Finance starts April 1. To complete this course as part of the program, learners must be enrolled prior to that date.

“We are proud to launch our fifth MITx MicroMasters program for learners around the globe in collaboration with MIT Sloan,” says MIT Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal. “MicroMasters programs unlock the potential of learners with the drive and capability to tackle MIT courses, advancing their careers without interrupting their careers.”

How to stage a revolution

Revolutions are monumental social upheavals that can remake whole nations, dismantling — often violently — old paradigms. But the stories of the epic struggles that leave their mark on the world’s history are frequently fragile, precarious, and idiosyncratic in their details, leaving some key questions only partially understood: Why and how do peoples overthrow their governments? Why do some revolutions succeed and others fail?

These are not simple questions, and, for 12 years, MIT students and faculty have set out to answer them in a survey course that spans centuries and continents.  

Course 21H.001 (How to Stage a Revolution, or Revolutions for short) is an MIT history class that examines the roots, drivers, and complexities of how governments fall. Co-taught this past fall by three historians — History Section head Professor Jeffrey Ravel, Associate Professor Tanalís Padilla, and Lecturer Pouya Alimagham — the semester is divided into three parts, with each instructor covering, respectively, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.

During a mixture of lectures and breakout discussion sessions, students explore the causes, tactics, goals, and significant factors of each revolution, drawing insights from music, film, art, constitutions, declarations, and the writings of revolutionaries themselves.

A wide-angle approach

The topics covered this year span centuries, from the near-mythic French Revolution (1789–99) to the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) to events that have emerged in the students’ own lifetimes, such as the Arab Spring (2010-12). Alimagham brought the semester to a close with a focus on the Iranian Revolution; having students begin their exploration with the roots of American intervention in Iran the latter half of the 20th century, and tracking developments through to today’s western media narrative of the Sunni/Shia conflict.

“Revolutions are a surprisingly good way to learn about a culture,” says Quinn Bowers, a first-year student who took the opportunity to deepen his understanding of history as a parallel to his intended double major in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering. “Revolutions draw attention to the values the culture holds. This class did a lot to dispel assumptions I didn’t even know I had.”

For another first-year student, Somaia Saba, the offering leapt out at her as she browsed the course catalog to plan her first semester at MIT. With an intended major in computation and cognition (Course 6.9), she was drawn to the class by a fascination with major political transformations, “especially because of the tense political climate in which we are currently living.”

The freedom and exploration in essay-writing was a transformative experience for Saba; essay prompts and writing assignments had never been her favorite aspect of the classroom. But, snagged by a brief mention in class about women’s roles during the Mexican Revolution, she found herself writing extensively on the subject, drawing on her personal attentiveness to women’s issues and roles in history.

“I did not realize the extent to which these issues mattered to me until [seeing the professor’s] comments on my essay.” She also notes that the class has given her ways of thinking and analyzing that allow her to be more engaged with current political events.


How to Stage a Revolution is also a chameleon course in that its subject matter fluxes from year to year depending on the expertise of the faculty instructors — a plan that allows a venerable course to cover any number of revolutionary histories. Two years ago, for instance, when Alimagham first taught the course, working alongside MIT historians Caley Horan and Malick Ghachem, the class consisted of modules on the Haitian Revolution, the American Civil War (as America’s second revolution), and the Iranian Revolution.

Not only is the course constantly transforming, Alimagham notes, but its three co-instructors are always adapting as well. “When you’re involved in a team-taught course that includes material in which you are not the primary expert, you evolve as an instructor. It keeps you on your toes.”

Ravel agrees: “One benefit of co-teaching is that we learn from each other. It’s a great conversation among the three of us.”

Ravel currently serves as the head of the MIT History Section, as president of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and as a co-director for the Comédie-Française Registers Project, which is producing a collaborative, extensive history of one of France’s iconic theater groups. “Co-teaching reminds me of what it’s like to be a student again,” reflects Padilla. “It makes me more sensitive to how students are taking in information that, for me, is now second nature.”

Padilla is a historian of Latin America and a contributor to numerous publications and volumes surrounding the Mexican Revolution. Her current book project centers on how rural schoolteachers “went from being agents of state consolidation to activists against a government that increasingly abandoned its commitment to social justice.”

The technological contexts of revolutions

Like a number of other humanistic courses at MIT, How to Stage a Revolution is also a hands-on “maker class.” In addition to classroom lectures and discussion sessions, students produce posters on MIT’s Beaver Press, a student-built replica of the wooden, handset printing presses on which the great documents of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution were printed.

Carving linoleum printing plates and inking them by hand, students use their academic understanding of various revolutions to design and produce colorful pro- and counter-revolutionary posters. In one print, the evocative image of a Mexican worker raises the Olympic rings between his hands like chains. In another, the guillotine stands ready with its victims nearby, indicating a mounting death toll, each head labeled respectively with Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité.

Historic revolutionary narratives have a particular urgency in an MIT classroom: From the dissemination of revolutionary messages via an 18th century printing press to changing fuel technologies to the global social media that shaped the Arab Spring, the technological contexts of revolutions are intrinsic to understanding them.

“Whatever we end up doing in our post-MIT lives and careers will be in the context of complex, real-world problems,” says Bowers. “This class sheds light on some of the world’s most volatile problems.”

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand
Writer/reporter: Alison Lanier

Featured video: 50 years of Interphase EDGE

Fifty years ago, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a new legacy was born at MIT: Project Interphase, a summer session for incoming first-year MIT students that aims to ease the transition to MIT and build community among new students.

This fall, alumni, current students, faculty, staff, administrators, friends, and family gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program, today known as Interphase EDGE (Empowering Discovery, Gateway to Excellence).

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the MIT Office of Minority Education, which coordinates the program, welcomed back Shirley Ann Jackson ’68, PhD ’73, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the leaders behind the original idea for the program; as well as several members of the Project Interphase inaugural cohort, including Sylvester “Jim” Gates ’73, PhD ’77, a professor of physics at Brown University.

A new video celebrates the history of Interphase EDGE, which now extends beyond an initial summer session into students’ first two academic years. “I recall that experience being really instrumental in helping me to feel a part of the MIT community,” says Eboney Hearn ’01, who is now the executive director of MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs.

Adds Gates: “It was the singular, most important academic experience I ever had in my life.”

Submitted by: Office of Minority Education | Video by: MIT Video Productions | 3 min, 48 sec

Bose grants for 2019 reward bold ideas across disciplines

Now in its seventh year, the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grants support visionary projects that represent intellectual curiosity and a pioneering spirit. Three MIT faculty members have each been awarded one of these prestigious awards for 2019 to pursue diverse questions in the humanities, biology, and engineering.

At a ceremony hosted by MIT President L. Rafael Reif on Nov. 25 and attended by past awardees, Provost Martin Schmidt, the Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, formally announced this year’s Amar G. Bose Research Fellows: Sandy Alexandre, Mary Gehring, and Kristala L.J. Prather.

The fellowships are named for the late Amar G. Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, a longtime MIT faculty member and the founder of the Bose Corporation. Speaking at the event, President Reif expressed appreciation for the Bose Fellowships, which enable highly creative and unusual research in areas that can be hard to fund through traditional means. “We are tremendously grateful to the Bose family for providing the support that allows bold and curious thinkers at MIT to dream big, challenge themselves, and explore.”

Judith Bose, widow of Amar’s son, Vanu ’87, SM ’94, PhD ’99, congratulated the fellows on behalf of the Bose family. “We talk a lot at this event about the power of a great innovative idea, but I think it was a personal mission of Dr. Bose to nurture the ability, in each individual that he met along the way, to follow through — not just to have the great idea but the agency that comes with being able to pursue your idea, follow it through, and actually see where it leads,” Bose said. “And Vanu was the same way. That care that was epitomized by Dr. Bose not just in the idea itself, but in the personal investment, agency, and nurturing necessary to bring the idea to life — that care is a large part of what makes true change in the world.”

The relationship between literature and engineering

Many technological innovations have resulted from the influence of literature, one of the most notable being the World Wide Web. According to many sources, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, found inspiration from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke titled “Dial F for Frankenstein.” Science fiction has presaged a number of real-life technological innovations, including the defibrillator, noted in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein;” the submarine, described in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea;” and earbuds, described in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” But the data about literature’s influence on STEM innovations are spotty, and these one-to-one relationships are not always clear-cut.

Sandy Alexandre, associate professor of literature, intends to change that by creating a large-scale database of the imaginary inventions found in literature. Alexandre’s project will enact the step-by-step mechanics of STEM innovation via one of its oft-unsung sources: literature. “To deny or sever the ties that bind STEM and literature is to suggest — rather disingenuously — that the ideas for many of the STEM devices that we know and love miraculously just came out of nowhere or from an elsewhere where literature isn’t considered relevant or at all,” she says.

During the first phase of her work, Alexandre will collaborate with students to enter into the database the imaginary inventions as they are described verbatim in a selection of books and other texts that fall under the category of speculative fiction—a category that includes but is not limited to the subgenres of fantasy, Afrofuturism, and science fiction. This first phase will, of course, require that students carefully read these texts in general, but also read for these imaginary inventions more specifically. Additionally, students with drawing skills will be tasked with interpreting the descriptions by illustrating them as two-dimensional images.

From this vast inventory of innovations, Alexandre, in consultation with students involved in the project, will decide on a short list of inventions that meet five criteria: they must be feasible, ethical, worthwhile, useful, and necessary. This vetting process, which constitutes the second phase of the project, is guided by a very important question: what can creating and thinking with a vast database of speculative fiction’s imaginary inventions teach us about what kinds of ideas we should (and shouldn’t) attempt to make into a reality? For the third and final phase, Alexandre will convene a team to build a real-life prototype of one of the imaginary inventions. She envisions this prototype being placed on exhibit at the MIT Museum.

The Bose research grant, Alexandre says, will allow her to take this project from a thought experiment to lab experiment. “This project aims to ensure that literature no longer play an overlooked role in STEM innovations. Therefore, the STEM innovation, which will be the culminating prototype of this research project, will cite a work of literature as the main source of information used in its invention.”

Nature’s role in chemical production

Kristala L.J. Prather ’94, the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering, has been focused on using biological systems for chemical production during the 15 years she’s been at the Institute. Biology as a medium for chemical synthesis has been successfully exploited to commercially produce molecules for uses that range from food to pharmaceuticals — ethanol is a good example. However, there is a range of other molecules with which scientists have been trying to work, but they have faced challenges around an insufficient amount of material being produced and a lack of defined steps needed to make a specific compound.

Prather’s research is rooted in the fact that there are a number of naturally (and unnaturally) occurring chemical compounds in the environment, and cells have evolved to be able to consume them. These cells have evolved or developed a protein that will sense a compound’s presence — a biosensor — and in response will make other proteins that help the cells utilize that compound for its benefit.

“We know biology can do this,” Prather says, “so if we can put together a sufficiently diverse set of microorganisms, can we just let nature make these regulatory molecules for anything that we want to be able to sense or detect?” Her hypothesis is that if her team exposes cells to a new compound for a long enough period of time, the cells will evolve the ability to either utilize that carbon source or develop an ability to respond to it. If Prather and her team can then identify the protein that’s now recognizing what that new compound is, they can isolate it and use it to improve the production of that compound in other systems. “The idea is to let nature evolve specificity for particular molecules that we’re interested in,” she adds.

Prather’s lab has been working with biosensors for some time, but her team has been limited to sensors that are already well characterized and that were readily available. She’s interested in how they can get access to a wider range of what she knows nature has available through the incremental exposure of new compounds to a more comprehensive subset of microorganisms.

“To accelerate the transformation of the chemical industry, we must find a way to create better biological catalysts and to create new tools when the existing ones are insufficient,” Prather says. “I am grateful to the Bose Fellowship Committee for allowing me to explore this novel idea.”

Prather’s findings as a result of this project hold the possibility of broad impacts in the field of metabolic engineering, including the development of microbial systems that can be engineered to enhance degradation of both toxic and nontoxic waste.

Adopting orphan crops to adapt to climate change

In the context of increased environmental pressure and competing land uses, meeting global food security needs is a pressing challenge. Although yield gains in staple grains such as rice, wheat, and corn have been high over the last 50 years, these have been accompanied by a homogenization of the global food supply; only 50 crops provide 90% of global food needs.

However, there are at least 3,000 plants that can be grown and consumed by humans, and many of these species thrive in marginal soils, at high temperatures, and with little rainfall. These “orphan” crops are important food sources for farmers in less developed countries but have been the subject of little research.

Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology at MIT, seeks to bring orphan crops into the molecular age through epigenetic engineering. She is working to promote hybridization, increase genetic diversity, and reveal desired traits for two orphan seed crops: an oilseed crop, Camelina sativa (false flax), and a high-protein legume, Cajanus cajan (pigeon pea).

C. sativa, which produces seeds with potential for uses in food and biofuel applications, can grow on land with low rainfall, requires minimal fertilizer inputs, and is resistant to several common plant pathogens. Until the mid-20th century, C. sativa was widely grown in Europe but was supplanted by canola, with a resulting loss of genetic diversity. Gehring proposes to recover this genetic diversity by creating and characterizing hybrids between C. sativa and wild relatives that have increased genetic diversity.

“To find the best cultivars of orphan crops that will withstand ever increasing environmental insults requires a deeper understanding of the diversity present within these species. We need to expand the plants we rely on for our food supply if we want to continue to thrive in the future,” says Gehring. “Studying orphan crops represents a significant step in that direction. The Bose grant will allow my lab to focus on this historically neglected but vitally important field.”

Stem Cell Donation – How It Works?

The parent cells through which development of other cells take place are known as stem cells. These can be said as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Factory producing blood cells, bone marrow is among the soft tissues inside the bones like the hip bones and breast bones. These cells are generally discovered inside the bone marrow, peripheral blood and umbilical cord blood in newborns.


About the process

Almost 90% of all donations for PBSC get completed in a single session of apheresis, which typically takes around 8 hours. The 10% remaining donations get completed in a total of 2 sessions of apheresis that takes around 4 to 6 hours.


Chances are that you might experience headaches and bone muscle aches, for a few days before you’re into PBSC donation. For the 5 days that leads to PBSC donation, patients are provided with drug injections known as filgrastim for increasing count of cells that form blood inside the bloodstream.


While the recovery times would vary depending on individual, most donors of PBSC can report total recovery at around 7 to 10 donation days.


Recovery post PBSC donation – 22% of donors can fully recover after 2 days of donation, around 53% of donors can totally recover 7 days post donation, 93% of donors can recover fully after 180 days of donation, >99% of donors can recover entirely after years donation. The median time for recovering PBSC donation is for a week.


How to collect stem cells

 3 main sources are there for collecting stem cells:

  • Bone marrow
  • Umbilical cord blood
  • Peripheral stem cells


All methods of collection can be explained:


Collecting stem cells for bone marrow

 The process can often gets called harvest for bone marrow. This can be done inside operating room, while donor remains under influence of general anesthesia. Doctors take marrow cells from back of bone pelvic (hip). Donor lies with downward face and one large needle is put through skin in hip bone’s backside.


After pushing it to center, the needle pulls out thick marrow.


Peripheral blood cells


For a lot of days before beginning with donation process, the donor is provided with daily shot of figrastim injection. The growth factor drug causes bone marrow to release different stem cells in blood.


A post shot, blood gets removed through catheter that’s put in large arm vein. This is cycled through machine separating stem cells from other cells.


Umbilical cord blood collection


The left placenta and umbilical and placenta cord after baby gets born is cord blood. The collection doesn’t pose any risk or complication for infant. After clamping and cutting umbilical cord, the umbilical and placenta cord get cleaned. The cord blood gets put in sterile container and is mixed with preservative and frozen until this is required.


The stem cell donation procedure of PBSC doesn’t require any surgery. The process takes place at outpatient medical facility and experienced blood center that can participate in PBSC collection for the match.


On PBSC day donation, the blood gets removed through needle in an arm and gets passed through machine that helps in collection of blood forming cells. The remaining blood gets returned through needle inside other arm. The process can be similar to what you use while you donate blood platelets.


When machine learning packs an economic punch

A new study co-authored by an MIT economist shows that improved translation software can significantly boost international trade online — a notable case of machine learning having a clear impact on economic activity.

The research finds that after eBay improved its automatic translation program in 2014, commerce shot up by 10.9 percent among pairs of countries where people could use the new system.   

“That’s a striking number. To have it be so clear in such a short amount of time really says a lot about the power of this technology,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT economist and co-author of a new paper detailing the results.

To put the results in perspective, he adds, consider that physical distance is, by itself, also a significant barrier to global commerce. The 10.9 percent change generated by eBay’s new translation software increases trade by the same amount as “making the world 26 percent smaller, in terms of its impact on the goods that we studied,” he says.

The paper, “Does Machine Translation Affect International Trade? Evidence from a Large Digital Platform,” appears in the December issue of Management Science. The authors are Brynjolfsson, who is the Schussel Family Professor of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Xiang Hui and Meng Liu, who are both assistant professors in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

Just cause

To conduct the study, the scholars examined what happened after eBay, in 2014, introduced its new eBay Machine Translation (eMT) system — a proprietary machine-learning program that, by several objective measures, significantly improved translation quality on eBay’s site. The new system initially was focused on English-Spanish translations, to facilitate trade between the United States and Latin America

Previously, eBay had used Bing Translator to render the titles of objects for sale. By one evaluation measure, called the Human Acceptance Rate (HAR), in which three experts accept or reject translations, the eMT system increased the number of acceptable Spanish-language item titles on eBay from 82 percent to 90 percent.

Using administrative data from eBay, the researchers then examined the volume of trade on the platform, within countries, after the eMT system went into use. Other factors being equal, the study showed that the new translation system not only had an effect on sales, but that trade increased by 1.06 percent for each additional word in the titles of items on eBay.

That is a substantial change for a commerce platform on which, as the paper notes, items for sale often have long, descriptive titles such as “Diamond-Cut Stackable Thin Wedding Ring New .925 Sterling Silver Band Sizes 4-12,” or “Alpine Swiss Keira Women’s Trench Coast Double Breasted Wool Jacket Belted.” In those cases, making the translation clearer helps potential buyers understand exactly what they might be purchasing.

Given the study’s level of specificity, Brynjolfsson calls it “a really fortunate natural experiment, with a before-and-after that sharply distinguished what happened when you had machine translation and when you didn’t.”

The structure of the study, he adds, has enabled the researchers to say with confidence that the new eBay program, and not outside factors, directly generated the change in trade volume among affected countries.

“In economics, it’s often hard to do causal analyses and prove that A caused B, not just that A was associated with B,” says Brynjolfsson. “But in this case, I feel very comfortable using causal language and saying that improvement in machine translation caused the increase in international trade.”

Larger puzzle: The productivity issue

The genesis of the paper stems from an ongoing question about new technology and economic productivity. While many forms of artificial intelligence have been developed and expanded in the last couple of decades, the impact of AI, including things like machine-translation systems, has not been obvious in economics statistics.

“There’s definitely some amazing progress in the core technologies, including in things like natural language processing and translation,” Brynjolfsson says. “But what’s been lacking has been evidence of an economic impact, or business impact. So that’s a bit of a puzzle.”

When looking to see if an economic impact for various forms of AI could be measured, Brynjolfsson, Hui, and Liu thought machine translation “made sense, because it’s a relatively straightforward implementation,” Brynjolfsson adds. That is, better translations could influence economic activity, at least on eBay, without any other changes in technology occurring.

In this vein, the findings fit with a larger postulation Brynjolfsson has developed in recent years — that the adoption of AI technologies produces a “J-curve” in productivity. As Brynjolfsson has previously written, broad-ranging AI technologies nonetheless “require significant complementary investments, including business process redesign, co-invention of new products and business models, and investments in human capital” to have a large economic impact.

As a result, when AI technologies are introduced, productivity may appear to slow down, and when the complementary technologies are developed, productivity may appear to take off — in the “J-curve” shape.

So while Brynjolfsson believes the results of this study are clear, he warns against generalizing too much on the basis of this finding about the impact of machine learning and other forms of AI on economic activity. Every case is different, and AI will not always produce such notable changes by itself.

“This was a case where not a lot of other changes had to happen in order for the technology to benefit the company,” Brynjolfsson says. “But in many other cases, much more complicated, complementary changes are needed. That’s why, in most cases with machine learning, it takes longer for the benefits to be delivered.”

Exploring hip hop history with art and technology

A new museum is coming to New York City in 2023, the year of hip-hop’s 50th birthday, and an MIT team has helped to pave the way for the city to celebrate the legacy of this important musical genre — by designing unique creative experiences at the intersection of art, learning, and contemporary technology.

With “The [R]evolution of Hip Hop Breakbeat Narratives,” a team led by D. Fox Harrell, professor of digital media and artificial intelligence and director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, has created an art installation that takes museum-goers on an interactive, personalized journey through hip hop history.

The installation served as the centerpiece of an event held this month by leaders of the highly anticipated Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), which will officially open in just a few years in the Bronx — the future home of the UHHM, and where many agree that the genre of hip hop music originated.

“Hip hop is much more than a musical genre. It is a global phenomenon, with a rich history and massive social and cultural impact, with local roots in the Bronx,” Harrell says. “As an educational center, the Universal Hip Hop Museum will have the power to connect people to the surrounding community.”

Harrell’s immersive art installation takes museum-goers on a journey through hip hop culture and history, from the 1970s to the present. However, not everyone experiences the installation in the same way. Using a computational model of users’ preferences and artificial intelligence technologies to drive interaction, the team of artists and computer scientists from the Center for Advanced Virtuality has created layered, personalized virtual experiences.

When approaching the exhibit, museum-goers are greeted by “The Elementals,” or novel characters named after the five elements of hip hop (MC, DJ, Breakdance, Graffiti Art, and Knowledge) that guide users and ask key questions — “What is your favorite hip hop song?” or “Which from this pair of lyrics do you like the most?” Based on those answers, the Elementals take users through their own personalized narrative of hip hop history.

Harrell developed the Elementals with professors John Jennings of the University of California at Riverside and Stacey Robinson of the University of Illinois — artists collectively known as Black Kirby. This visual aesthetic ties the work into the rich, imaginative cultures and iconography of the African diaspora.

Through these conversations with the Elementals they encounter, people can explore broad social issues surrounding hip hop, such as gender, fashion, and location. At the end of their journey, they can take home a personalized playlist of songs. 

“We designed the Breakbeat Narratives installation by integrating Microsoft conversational AI technologies, which made our user modeling more personable, with a music visualization platform from the TunesMap Educational Foundation,” Harrell says.

The exploration of social issues is about as close to the heart of Harrell’s mission in the Center for Advanced Virtuality as one can get. In the center, Harrell designs virtual technologies to stimulate creative expression, cultural analysis, and positive social change.

“We wanted to tell stories that pushed beyond stereotypical representations, digging into the complexities of both empowering and problematic representations that often coexist,” he says. “This work fits into our endeavor called the Narrative, Orality, and Improvisation Research (NOIR) Initiative that uses AI technologies to forward the art forms of diverse global cultures.”

Through this art project enabled by contemporary technologies, Harrell hopes that he has helped museum leadership to achieve their goal of celebrating hip-hop’s heritage and legacy.

“Now, people internationally can have a stake in this great art.”

The uncertain role of natural gas in the transition to clean energy

A new MIT study examines the opposing roles of natural gas in the battle against climate change — as a bridge toward a lower-emissions future, but also a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, is viewed as a significant “bridge fuel” to help the world move away from the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels, since burning natural gas for electricity produces about half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal. But methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas, and it currently leaks from production wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and urban distribution pipes for natural gas. Increasing its usage, as a strategy for decarbonizing the electricity supply, will also increase the potential for such “fugitive” methane emissions, although there is great uncertainty about how much to expect. Recent studies have documented the difficulty in even measuring today’s emissions levels.

This uncertainty adds to the difficulty of assessing natural gas’ role as a bridge to a net-zero-carbon energy system, and in knowing when to transition away from it. But strategic choices must be made now about whether to invest in natural gas infrastructure. This inspired MIT researchers to quantify timelines for cleaning up natural gas infrastructure in the United States or accelerating a shift away from it, while recognizing the uncertainty about fugitive methane emissions.

The study shows that in order for natural gas to be a major component of the nation’s effort to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets over the coming decade, present methods of controlling methane leakage would have to improve by anywhere from 30 to 90 percent. Given current difficulties in monitoring methane, achieving those levels of reduction may be a challenge. Methane is a valuable commodity, and therefore companies producing, storing, and distributing it already have some incentive to minimize its losses. However, despite this, even intentional natural gas venting and flaring (emitting carbon dioxide) continues.

The study also finds policies that favor moving directly to carbon-free power sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear, could meet the emissions targets without requiring such improvements in leakage mitigation, even though natural gas use would still be a significant part of the energy mix.

The researchers compared several different scenarios for curbing methane from the electric generation system in order to meet a target for 2030 of a 32 percent cut in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions relative to 2005 levels, which is consistent with past U.S. commitments to mitigate climate change. The findings appear today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, in a paper by MIT postdoc Magdalena Klemun and Associate Professor Jessika Trancik.

Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although how much more depends on the timeframe you choose to look at. Although methane traps heat much more, it doesn’t last as long once it’s in the atmosphere — for decades, not centuries.  When averaged over a 100-year timeline, which is the comparison most widely used, methane is approximately 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. But averaged over a 20-year period, it is 86 times stronger.

The actual leakage rates associated with the use of methane are widely distributed, highly variable, and very hard to pin down. Using figures from a variety of sources, the researchers found the overall range to be somewhere between 1.5 percent and 4.9 percent of the amount of gas produced and distributed. Some of this happens right at the wells, some occurs during processing and from storage tanks, and some is from the distribution system. Thus, a variety of different kinds of monitoring systems and mitigation measures may be needed to address the different conditions.

“Fugitive emissions can be escaping all the way from where natural gas is being extracted and produced, all the way along to the end user,” Trancik says. “It’s difficult and expensive to monitor it along the way.”

That in itself poses a challenge. “An important thing to keep in mind when thinking about greenhouse gases,” she says, “is that the difficulty in tracking and measuring methane is itself a risk.” If researchers are unsure how much there is and where it is, it’s hard for policymakers to formulate effective strategies to mitigate it. This study’s approach is to embrace the uncertainty instead of being hamstrung by it, Trancik says: The uncertainty itself should inform current strategies, the authors say, by motivating investments in leak detection to reduce uncertainty, or a faster transition away from natural gas.

“Emissions rates for the same type of equipment, in the same year, can vary significantly,” adds Klemun. “It can vary depending on which time of day you measure it, or which time of year. There are a lot of factors.”

Much attention has focused on so-called “super-emitters,” but even these can be difficult to track down. “In many data sets, a small fraction of point sources contributes disproportionately to overall emissions,” Klemun says. “If it were easy to predict where these occur, and if we better understood why, detection and repair programs could become more targeted.” But achieving this will require additional data with high spatial resolution, covering wide areas and many segments of the supply chain, she says.

The researchers looked at the whole range of uncertainties, from how much methane is escaping to how to characterize its climate impacts, under a variety of different scenarios. One approach places strong emphasis on replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas, for example; others increase investment in zero-carbon sources while still maintaining a role for natural gas.

In the first approach, methane emissions from the U.S. power sector would need to be reduced by 30 to 90 percent from today’s levels by 2030, along with a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide. Alternatively, that target could be met through even greater carbon dioxide reductions, such as through faster expansion of low-carbon electricity, without requiring any reductions in natural gas leakage rates. The higher end of the published ranges reflects greater emphasis on methane’s short-term warming contribution.

One question raised by the study is how much to invest in developing technologies and infrastructure for safely expanding natural gas use, given the difficulties in measuring and mitigating methane emissions, and given that virtually all scenarios for meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets call for ultimately phasing out natural gas that doesn’t include carbon capture and storage by mid-century. “A certain amount of investment probably makes sense to improve and make use of current infrastructure, but if you’re interested in really deep reduction targets, our results make it harder to make a case for that expansion right now,” Trancik says.

The detailed analysis in this study should provide guidance for local and regional regulators as well as policymakers all the way to federal agencies, they say. The insights also apply to other economies relying on natural gas. The best choices and exact timelines are likely to vary depending on local circumstances, but the study frames the issue by examining a variety of possibilities that include the extremes in both directions — that is, toward investing mostly in improving the natural gas infrastructure while expanding its use, or accelerating a move away from it.

The research was supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. The researchers also received support from MIT’s Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies.

Journalists and academics explore the communication of science

The amount of trust people place in different professions has ebbed and flowed over the years, though in recent years faith in most categories has plummeted, with Congress and the press among the least-trusted groups, surveys have shown. Trust in scientists, by contrast, has remained remarkably steady, at a level that’s comparatively high but still only around 40 percent.

The ways that information about science gets out to the public have changed significantly in recent years, with newsrooms downsizing nationwide, sources of misinformation proliferating, and skepticism growing about what is reported, including about science. To explore ways of building trust in science and communicating accurate information, a daylong symposium at MIT convened journalists working at newspapers, magazines, podcasts and videos; academics who study science communications; and scientists who focus on communicating with the public.

The symposium, titled “Spreading facts: communicating science for a better world,” was co-sponsored by MIT Technology Review, MIT Press, and the Knowledge Futures Group. The Dec. 3 event drew 175 participants at MIT’s Samberg Conference Center despite a snowstorm that had delayed the institute’s opening that day.

In a keynote address, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, mentioned that last year the Oxford English Dictionary picked “post-truth” as its word of the year, referring to a time when “feelings and intuition are valued above scientific analysis.”

In part, that reflects an idea that “science may be motivated by concerns that are not those of the public,” she said. “Many members of the public don’t understand the self-correcting nature of science” and don’t adequately distinguish between the results of a single study and a clear scientific consensus built up over time, McNutt said.

She used the analogy of a giant game of Jenga, where a tall tower is built from blocks that are then removed one at a time until the tower topples. Similarly, she said, scientific consensus is built up from many pieces over time, but it’s always subject to review if one of those lower pieces is removed. If a few key studies are withdrawn or found to have been significantly flawed, the tower may crumble, an event known in science as a paradigm shift, when theories undergo fundamental changes.

She said that in communicating science, while scientists are trained to present everything in a neutral and impersonal way, “for the public, the scientists and their stories are important. They want to know that there are real people involved.”

McNutt offered some suggestions on how the public’s trust in science could be improved. First, there should be improvements in the peer review system, including dealing with issues such as predatory journals that don’t carry out the reviews they claim, and peer review rings where people agree to provide each other positive reviews. People should also be recognized for the work they do in carrying out peer reviews.

“We need to clearly signal which papers have earned trust,” she said, proposing a system of badges for papers that have passed certain specific criteria for validation.

When dealing with people who are skeptical of science or of some particular aspect of it, McNutt said it’s important to be clear about terminology. For example, if asked whether she believes in climate change, she answers: “There is an evidentiary basis for climate change.”

“To say you believe puts it in the same realm as religion. You need to distinguish between what has predictive power and what doesn’t,” she said.

In a panel discussion, Mariette DiChristina, dean of the Boston University College of Communication and former editor of Scientific American, noted that “the industry has fairly imploded in the past 10 years,” with an estimated one in four journalism jobs being eliminated. Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, agreed that “these are hard times for science journalists.” A few years ago, he said, the number of active journalists in comparison to other communications professionals, such as public relations specialists, was 1 to 3. It’s now 1 to 5 or more.

Because of the many new channels of communication available, someone coming right out of journalism school “can build a large audience very quickly, if they have something to say,” Seife said.

A good example of that is recent MIT graduate Dianna Cowern, who has built a large following on YouTube as “Physics Girl,” and who appeared on a separate panel at Tuesday’s event. With more than a million followers, Cowern’s channel has been funded by the PBS network for the last four years, and some of her videos have gone viral. “Going viral is not an easy thing for science videos,” she said, since they have to compete with millions of cute cat videos. One of her most successful videos depicts an experiment to see how high the top ball in a pile of three dropped balls would bounce.

The main thing to strive for to get wide viewership online, she said, is “shareability.” She quipped: “As Einstein said, nothing is worth doing unless you can share it on Facebook.” Novelty, curiosity, and excitement also play a strong part in her short, slightly zany videos.

John Randell, director of science, engineering and technology programs at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, described research on the public’s trust of leaders in various professions since 1973. The military has tended toward the top tiers of trust, although attitudes toward it have seesawed up and down dramatically over the years. By contrast, trust in scientists has remained very steady at around 40 percent over that whole period, though it has shown a recent small uptick. Trust in the press and in Congress, meanwhile, are now under 10 percent.

But in the same surveys, about 70 percent of respondents say that the benefits of scientific research outweigh its harmful effects, Randell said. And younger Americans have greater trust in science than those in older age groups. There is no type or category of people who can be described as “antiscience,” he said; rather, people have a range of opinions on particular issues.

Several participants described novel approaches to communicating ideas about scientific subjects. In addition to Cowern, there was Grant Sanderson, who described a series of mathematics-based podcasts he produces, and Clifford Johnson, a professor of physics, who described his work developing graphical ways of depicting scientific concepts, which he has created in the form of comic books (or “graphical sequences”). His comics are based on dialogues about ideas, he said, which is “one of the oldest forms of communication.” Galileo’s findings, he pointed out, were written in this form.

Another innovative approach to science communications was described by Beth Daley, editor and general manager of The Conversation US. She explained how that organization provides a way for scientists to communicate their work to the public, by helping them to write articles in a journalistic style, aimed at the general public, which are then distributed for use by newspapers around the country.

This new approach has been quite effective, she said. A staff of about 30 people edits, fact-checks, and works with the scientists, helping them to write a popular piece “in their own voice.” To achieve that, she said, “they often need a lot of help in translating” their work into accessible language. The organization currently publishes about 10 news stories a day.

In closing remarks, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, pointed out that despite an increasingly polarized society in which people are disagreeing even on the nature of facts, polls showing a relatively steady level of trust in science are encouraging. “I’m optimistic for the next generation,” he said.

Uncovering the role of technology and medicine in deaf and signing worlds

If the joy and excitement of following your own path could be personified, it would look like Timothy Loh. A love of languages led him nearly around the world to study, and then to MIT, where he is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist-in-training.

Now in his second year in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences doctoral program in History/Anthropology/Science, Technology and Society — HASTS for short — Loh marvels at what he has already learned and at the “happy confluence” that led him to MIT.

Growing up in Singapore, Loh was already fascinated with languages. In school there, he studied French and started learning sign language. Add his native languages — English and Mandarin Chinese — and Loh was a polyglot before he arrived at Georgetown University in 2012. There, he studied in the School of Foreign Service where, to satisfy a language requirement, he opted for Arabic, a language he had never before encountered.  

“Structurally, I found it very compelling,” says Loh. “There’s a tri-consonantal root in Arabic, so every word has three letters that form the root of a word, and they can be manipulated into different ways to create new words. I was really blown away.”

“But I also remember very distinctly in Arabic class when my classmates were talking about the Syrian crisis and I couldn’t understand their conversation. Not because I didn’t understand the words, but because I didn’t know anything about Syria. That marked a turning point for me. I started taking classes in the history, politics, and economics of the Middle East. I realized that you can’t really understand a language without knowing the culture and history behind it.”

Sign language, identity, and assistive technology

For an undergraduate research project, Loh merged these two interests — sign language and the Middle East — and received a grant to study the pedagogical structure of a school for the deaf in Jordan, picking up some Jordanian Sign Language in the process to carry out the research.

“Sign languages are different in every country,” Loh explains, “because they emerge naturally within communities. They develop individually and become different languages, just as spoken languages do. American Sign Language and British Sign Language, for example, are different sign languages even though these signers are all surrounded by English speakers.”

Soon, however, Loh began to explore assistive technology and, in particular, cochlear implants. These devices are surgically implanted and bypass the normal acoustic hearing process with electronic signals; these stimulate the auditory nerve to provide a sense of sound to the user.

“Implants were controversial within the deaf community in the United States at first,” says Loh, “and still are, to some extent. There was a fear of what they would mean for the future of the deaf community. There were scholars who described cochlear implants for the deaf as a form of cultural or linguistic genocide. That sounds like an extreme description, but it really does index the depth of attachment that people have to a sense of themselves as deaf. So, I started thinking about the implications that technology has in the world of the deaf and for their ability to navigate the world.”

Teaching and learning in the Middle East

Returning from Jordan to Georgetown, Loh completed a master’s degree in Arab Studies, considered starting a PhD in anthropology, then decided to spent two years first working in the Middle East: the first year with a refugee program for Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese families in urban areas in Amman; and the second at a boarding school in Madaba, teaching Chinese and Middle East history.

By then, Loh knew his next step was a doctoral program in anthropology, in which he could explore deafness, sign language, and the role of technology and medicine. “MIT is the best place to be an anthropologist studying issues of science and technology,” he says. “We’re right beside colleagues who are inventing the very technologies and devices whose ethical and social implications we’re trying to understand. It’s a place where we’re able to think deeply and critically about how scientific knowledge and authority is constructed.

Loh is now framing his doctoral thesis and taking advantage of features available to HASTS students, such as auditing MIT classes in technical fields and also taking Harvard classes. “It’s such a privilege to be able to draw on the intellectual resources of two universities in one city,” says Loh.

“I’ve also found that as a program and a cohort of students, MIT HASTS is very collegial and welcoming,” he says. “As doctoral students, we benefit from a level of focused attention from professors across all three HASTS departments that’s really rare and generative for interdisciplinary work.”

Speaking truth to power

Reflecting on his first year at MIT, Loh says it was humbling for several reasons: realizing how much he didn’t yet know; doing research in languages in which he’s not a native speaker; and the politics of writing about the deaf community, particularly as a person who is not deaf.

“The history of anthropology is full of foreigners, often ones with privilege and social capital, coming in and speaking for a group that, for some reason, might not be able to speak for itself. With that history in mind, we as anthropologists are constantly thinking, ‘How do we represent social life responsibly?’

“Last summer, when I was doing fieldwork, one of my deaf friends asked me straight up, ‘How does your work benefit the deaf community in Jordan?’ That’s a fair question. I told him I am still thinking about this. It’s an important question to answer well. How do anthropologists give back to the community that we’re learning from?

“I think for many anthropologists, we hope that our work can ‘speak truth to power,’ to resist and complicate simplistic and hegemonic narratives, like the idea that technology can provide technical solutions for political problems. I do hope that my research can eventually inform policymaking for people in the Middle East whose voices need to be heard.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer, Photographer: Maria Iacobo

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