Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT announces 2018-19 class of fellows

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT (KSJ), an internationally renowned mid-career fellowship program, announced today that 10 elite science journalists from four countries will make up its Class of 2018-19.

Each year the KSJ program, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, brings journalists to Cambridge for a 10-month fellowship that allows them to explore science, technology, and the craft of journalism in depth, to concentrate on a specialty in science, and to learn at some of the top research universities in the world.

The 10 fellows, selected from more than 120 applicants, are an award-winning and diverse group, ranging from veteran science reporters for The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press to the Cairo-based chief editor of Nature Middle East to a Russian-born PhD in economics who found a new career as an investigative data journalist.

“We are thrilled to again bring a remarkable group of science journalists to MIT,” says Deborah Blum, KSJ director, herself a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and the author of six popular science books. “We know they’ll find this a unique, fascinating, and influential learning experience — and we look forward learning from them as well.”

KSJ@MIT, supported by a generous endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is recognized around the world as the premier mid-career fellowship program for science writers, editors, and multimedia journalists, and as publisher of the award-winning digital magazine Undark. Since its founding in 1983, it has hosted more than 300 fellows representing media outlets from The New York Times to Le Monde, from CNN to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and more.

With support from the program, fellows pursue an academic year of independent study, augmented by twice-weekly science-focused seminars taught by some of the world’s leading scientists and storytellers, as well as a variety of rotating, skills-focused master classes and workshops. The goal: fostering professional growth among the world’s small but essential community of journalists covering science and technology, and encouraging them to pursue that mission, first and foremost, in the public interest.

The 2018-19 KSJ fellows are:

Pakinam Amer, chief editor of Nature Middle East, published by Nature Research and part of Springer Nature, one of the world’s leading global research publishers. Previously, she worked as a journalist for media including the Associated Press, the German Press Agency, Egypt Today, and Business Today. Before becoming a science journalist, she specialized in current affairs and conflict reporting in Egypt and the Arab world. She produces and hosts Nature Middle East’s podcast, the Arab region’s first science podcast in English.

Magnus Bjerg, a digital projects manager at TV 2 in Denmark, the biggest Danish news broadcaster. He is part of the station’s editorial development team, which won five digital awards in 2017, including honors from the Society for News Design Scandinavia and the Association of Danish Media (best digital story of the year), and is president of the Danish Online News Association. Previously he was a digital reporter at, Denmark’s most viewed news site.

Talia Bronshtein, investigative data journalist and former interactives editor at STAT, the Boston-based health news site. After earning a doctorate in economics, she was a Fulbright scholar at Brandeis University, a professor of economics in her native country of Russia, and a consultant on Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Her visualization of 200 years of immigration to the U.S. was featured in “Best American Infographics 2016,” and her investigation of reporting violations in clinical trials won an AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.

Jason Dearen, correspondent and member of the global environment team for The Associated Press. His accountability journalism has spurred regulatory action and policy change at both state and federal levels. His coverage of flooded toxic waste sites during Hurricane Harvey exposed inaction by the EPA, resulting in $115 million in clean-up efforts in Houston. He has received numerous honors, including from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists. He attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Lisa DeBode, a freelance journalist who writes in English and Dutch for The Atlantic, NPR, and The Guardian, among others. A former reporter at Al Jazeera America in New York and a field producer at CNN in Brussels, she is the author of “Europa: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees,” and a 2017 fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation. In 2016, her reporting sparked a law that provides free pads and tampons to New York City shelters, public schools, and prisons.

Tim De Chant, senior digital editor at NOVA, where he is founding editor of the digital magazine NOVA Next, and a lecturer in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. He has written for Wired, The Chicago Tribune, and Ars Technica, among other publications. Before turning to science journalism, he received a PhD in landscape ecology from the University of California at Berkeley, and a BA in environmental studies, English, and biology from St. Olaf College.

Jeff DelViscio, director of multimedia and creative at STAT, where he oversees video, photography, animation, interactives, audio, and social media. He previously spent nearly nine years at The New York Times. He holds dual master’s degrees from Columbia in journalism and in earth and environmental sciences. He has worked aboard oceanographic research vessels and tracked money and politics in science from Washington. When Jeff was 3, science saved his life after a run-in with a lawnmower; he’s been trying to give back to science ever since.

Elana Gordon, reporter and audio producer at WHYY public radio in Philadelphia and a founding member of its health and science show, “The Pulse.” She previously worked at KCUR in Kansas City. She has covered everything from drugs and medical bills to the mystery surrounding a 19th-century horse thief. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Kaiser Health News, “99% Invisible,” The Washington Post, and PRI’s “The World.” In 2017, her documentary about the discovery of Legionnaires’ disease received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.

Rachel E. Gross, online science editor at Smithsonian magazine, where she helps readers make sense of new scientific discoveries and spotlights unsung women in the history of science. Before that she was a science reporter for Slate, where she won the 2016 Religion News Association’s Best Online News Story Award for her profile of an evangelical creationist who embraced evolution. She has covered religion and science for Moment, America’s leading independent Jewish magazine, and traveled to Auschwitz on a FASPE fellowship to study journalism ethics.

Amina Khan, science writer at The Los Angeles Times. Over nearly nine years at the paper, she has covered Mars landings, explored underground gold mines, and witnessed a brain surgery. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, she’s the author of “Adapt,” a book about the future of biologically inspired design, and was a staff writer for the Netflix show “Bill Nye Saves the World.”

During the nine-month academic year, starting in August, KSJ fellows design their own course of study, exploring the wide range of offerings at MIT, Harvard University, and other institutions in Cambridge and greater Boston.  The program is designed to offer a rich and varied mix of coursework, attendance at departmental colloquia, research trips, lab visits, interviews, reading, and writing.

Fellows are required to produce a research project, which can form the basis of a future story, the foundation of a book proposal, or a detailed report on an area of science. All fellows give a formal presentation on their projects at the conclusion of the fellowship year. (The 2017-18 fellows are pursuing topics as varied as artificial intelligence in journalism, the science of painkillers, plant de-extinction, and the legacy of the McCarthy era among scientists at MIT and Harvard.) 

KSJ was launched in 1983 under the guidance of its founding director, Victor McElheny, with the firm commitment of MIT to play a key role in enriching public understanding of science. It is part of MIT’s acclaimed Program in Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. It is endowed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Kavli Foundation.

Since it began, the KSJ program has hosted some 350 fellows, many of whom continue to cover science for a wide array of platforms, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, and many broadcast and online outlets. In 2016 the program launched a digital science magazine, Undark, and is exploring other innovative ways to interact with and support the global science journalism community.

Empowering refugees worldwide by providing tools for social change

The lives of refugees aren’t just disrupted by the loss of a homeland, but also by massive challenges in accessing educational and professional opportunities. A collaboration between the MITx MicroMasters program in data, economics, and development policy (DEDP), the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) seeks to address these challenges. MIT’s Department of Economics and J-PAL co-developed and launched the MITx MicroMasters Program in DEDP in 2017. The new collaboration will allow refugee learners to receive scholarships for DEDP courses, participate in skills-building workshops, and connect with top organizations and companies in the field of development economics and data analysis.

As Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, and the co-director and co-founder of J-PAL observes, “From the beginning, our objective for the MicroMasters and blended master’s in DEDP was to create an offering that gives people the skills and tools to solve some of the world’s most difficult challenges — whoever they are, and wherever they are. The collaboration with ReACT means we will move one step closer to this goal.”

Admir Masic, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, founded ReACT in 2017 to provide blended learning opportunities in computer and data science and entrepreneurship to refugees around the world. “I’m so excited about the new track within the  DEDP/ReACT MicroMasters certificate program,” says Masic, “because on top of all the other benefits associated with the ReACT blended learning approaches, we open the way for our refugee students to gain a master’s degree from MIT or any other university in this MicroMasters network.”

Blending good intentions with data-driven approaches

The DEDP/ReACT collaboration offers refugees a bespoke combination of attaining scholarships for online learning, gaining connections to paid internships, and coming together as a community at in-person immersive workshops. A group of ReACT-supported refugees will take MicroMasters courses online starting in the summer semester of 2018 with the DEDP online courses, “The Challenges of Global Poverty” and “Data Analysis for Social Scientists.” Refugees will come together in Amman, Jordan in January 2019 for a series of workshops taught by MIT faculty, staff, and students on entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership. The goal is for these learners to begin their online DEDP coursework this June and complete the five courses in the DEDP program by the end of the spring semester next year.

Robert Fadel, the executive director of ReACT, notes, “The new ReACT initiative with the MicroMasters program in DEDP offers refugees a way to gain access to educational and professional opportunities, and helps empower them with the tools to resolve some of the most pressing problems within their own communities.”

Refugees taking the DEDP courses will study the root causes of poverty, while also developing skills in economics and data analysis that will enable them to build data-driven approaches to help drive positive change.

As Anna Schrimpf, associate director of education at J-PAL and DEDP program director explains, “People have strong intuitions about what they think might work to drive change, but we also have a responsibility to inquire whether what we’re doing is impactful — whether we’re spending scarce resources in a way that is actually improving the lives of the poor. Good intentions aren’t enough. You also need to develop data-driven approaches to deliver results and sustainable change.”

Empowering refugees to change lives (including their own)

The new program is personal for Masic, who overcame challenges as a refugee himself. He founded ReACT based on his own experiences in accessing higher education and leveraging its power. When Masic was a child, his family fled from war-ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina to a refugee camp in Croatia. Thanks to receiving opportunities to pursue a higher education, Masic lived and conducted research in Germany and Italy before coming to MIT. “I am realizing a dream that I had when I first came to MIT. I get very emotional about this new DEDP/ReACT initiative, because we’re building something that could impact so many lives around the world, and will give refugees a very unique, extremely powerful opportunity. With this new collaboration, we’re providing concrete pathways for those who believe in education as a key for a better life.”

Masic offers another story to illustrate how refugees can be profoundly impacted by educational opportunity. While eating breakfast with the first cohort of ReACT students in Amman, Jordan a few months ago, Masic noted, “A refugee student whom I didn’t know came to the table, ate quickly, and went away without saying a word to anyone,” said Masic.” The student seemed so embarrassed and so full of insecurity, which connected with my own refugee experience.” After the breakfast, said Masic, “I saw him sitting outside by himself. Well, fast forward just ten days later and the two of us were huddled together and talking about starting a new company. This refugee had become so enthusiastic about everything that was happening around him that he turned from a psychologically-closed person into this incredibly creative and open individual who was excitedly exploring new opportunities.”

J-PAL’s Anna Schrimpf agrees that the goal of this initiative is to empower refugees to mitigate some of the most pressing social problems facing them as individuals and as a community. With over 65 million refugees worldwide and counting, “The mission of the initiative is to bring refugees together to create a global community around online learning,” says Schrimpf. “We have the means to empower refugees to be socially responsible leaders in their own communities — to be the future leaders who show the way.”

Building pathways to opportunity

Blended learning offers important educational and professional pathways for refugees who’ve had their lives and support structures disrupted by displacement. The new MicroMasters DEDP/ReACT initiative provides a foundation and a technical expertise upon which refugees can to rebuild their lives and communities worldwide.  

MIT Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal notes, “With this joint initiative, we are providing a new pathway to opportunity to people whose educational and career paths have been utterly disrupted. Refugees themselves are deeply aware of the challenges they and their communities face, and we are proud to be working alongside ReACT to offer refugees the tools to improve their lives and address these challenges together.”

For those interested in learning more about this program or sharing this program with refugee learners that they might know, please visit the ReACT website for a more in-depth description of the program.

3 Questions: Melissa Nobles and Craig Steven Wilder on the MIT and Legacy of Slavery project

The first class of the “MIT and Slavery” undergraduate research project ran in the fall of 2017. Set in motion by MIT President L. Rafael Reif with Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the course was developed and taught by Craig Steven Wilder — the Barton L. Weller Professor of History and the nation’s leading expert on the links between universities and slavery — in collaboration with Nora Murphy, the MIT archivist for Researcher Services.

The findings from the initial class include insights about the MIT’s role in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction; examples of racism in the culture of the early campus; and the fact that MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, had six enslaved people in his Virginia household, before he moved to Massachusetts in 1853. The findings also suggest new lines of research that will enable MIT to contribute to a larger national conversation about still hidden legacies of slavery, especially the relationship between the Atlantic slave economies, the fields of science and engineering, and U.S. technical institutions.

As the “MIT and Slavery” research continues over the coming semesters, MIT is also conducting a community dialogue series, MIT and the Legacy of Slavery, led by Dean Melissa Nobles. The dialogues are an opening chapter in MIT’s committment to researching this history and making it public. A series of events will create campus-wide and community-wide opportunities for shared discussions of the findings and our responses. The first event in this series was held in February, and the second, The Task of History, takes place Thursday, May 3, 5-7 p.m.

SHASS Communications spoke with Nobles and Wilder to hear their thoughts about the ongoing research project and the community dialogue series. 

Q: MIT’s approach to exploring the Institute’s historical relationship to slavery is unfolding somewhat differently than the process at other universities. Can you describe MIT’s approach, and what it means for the community and the Institute’s responses to the research findings?

Wilder: Our undergraduate students are engaged in an ongoing research project examining MIT’s ties to slavery. As I like to note, MIT students are rewriting the history of MIT for MIT. Their focus on the early history of the Institute allows us to explore the connections between engineering, science, and slavery in antebellum America, which will make a significant and new contribution to the work being done by the dozens of universities that are now researching their historical ties to slavery. MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the research on this subject.

Nobles: It has been 15 years since Brown University launched its three year study of the university’s historical connections to slavery. Since then, several other colleges and universities, including Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale, have taken up similar multi-year studies. Three key features distinguish our project from these earlier efforts — to which we are indebted for the precedents they provide.

The first is that rather than the research project starting unofficially and at the faculty level, in this case President Reif and I initiated the process, consulting with MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder about the best way to respond to inquiries about MIT’s connections to slavery. Neither the president nor I knew the answers to those questions. But we did appreciate our great good fortune in being able to turn to Craig, the nationally recognized expert on the relationship of slavery and American higher education and the author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.” Craig recommended an innovative approach, which he then developed with Archivist Nora Murphy: a new, ongoing MIT undergraduate research class to explore this aspect of MIT’s story. President Reif and I provide resources and support.

The second distinctive quality, which flows from the first, has to do with timing. The norm at other universities is that some years of research predate the public release of the findings. By contrast, MIT announced the initial findings only a few months into the project and will continue releasing new findings each term. This means that the MIT community as a whole has the opportunity to be involved in this endeavor in real-time, as the research matures, learning from the emerging findings — and making informed suggestions for potential official Institute responses. We do not know what the research will find in full, nor what it will ask of us, and I envision a fluid process, one that can respond to new findings, as our community and leadership take the measure of this new dimension of MIT history.

The third distinctive aspect is our project’s intellectual scope, which — by virtue of MIT’s expertise in science and technology — also allows us to explore a more far-reaching question: the connections between the development of scientific and technological knowledge and the institution of slavery and its legacies. The Institute’s founding at the start of the Civil War in 1861 involves MIT in one of the earliest such legacies: the reconstruction of America’s southern states, and new social, legal, and economic realities that arose in the transition from slave to free labor, some of which we continue to grapple with today.
Q: At President Reif’s request, Dean Nobles is leading a series of community dialogues about the early findings from the “MIT and Slavery” class. What plans are there for this phase, and what do you hope the dialogues will produce?

Wilder: The community dialogues are an effort to bring the early and ongoing research from the “MIT and Slavery” course to the various constituencies on campus, to our alumni, and to people and institutions in the Cambridge-Boston area. Our history can help us make new and lasting connections to communities that neighbor MIT but remain separate from it. Dean Nobles is planning an exceptionally rich and inviting range of events and activities to anchor these community exchanges. The forums will provide opportunities for us to receive feedback on the project and to solicit opinions on how MIT can respond to this history as the research continues to unfold.

Nobles: I envision the community dialogues as fulfilling two purposes. The first, and most important, is to engage and deepen our collective understanding of the history and issues surrounding MIT, slavery, and Reconstruction, which was itself the immediate legacy of slavery. The second is to provide various ways by which the MIT community can engage with the ideas and questions raised by the research.

We will shape the dialogues to reflect and advance these two purposes. We will also organize activities, such as small group gatherings, film screenings, panel discussions, and other creative projects designed to encourage and catalyze conversation and reflection. We envision a number of activities each semester. One hope is that the dialogues will inspire MIT community members to incorporate the research findings, and the questions they raise, into their own thinking, teaching, and endeavors.

For example, during our February event, at which the first group of student-researchers announced their early findings, Alaisha Alexander ’18 summoned the audience to a creative investigation. She asked that we all go back to our labs, libraries, and classrooms, and be newly alert for ways in which larger social issues, and specifically, racial issues, may be embedded or reflected in our fields. This strikes me as an extremely important question, one worth asking precisely because now, as in the past, larger social, political, and economic processes are inextricably connected to technological and scientific advances. Examining MIT’s history and its connection to slavery allows us to think in new ways — about our past but also about the present and future.

And, of course, as the research and the dialogue series progresses, we will always be interested in hearing from the MIT community. In addition to responses via emails and participation in scheduled events, we will set up a mechanism so that community members can contribute comments, ideas, suggestions, and insights.

Q: Alongside the MIT and Slavery project, Professor Wilder and others are engaged in creating a consortium of technical universities that will research broader questions of the relationship of the sci/tech fields to the institution of slavery and the U.S. slave economy. Do you envision ways that MIT faculty, students, and staff can participate in this broader research effort?
Wilder: The goal of the consortium is to bring several antebellum and Civil War-era engineering and science schools together to produce a more complete history of the rise of these fields in the Atlantic slave economy. The current plan is to have each school establish a research project that draws on its strengths and reflects its institutional needs. The consortium will help coordinate efforts and move resources between universities, and it will host regular conferences where participating faculty, archivists, librarians, and students can share their research.

Nobles: I am really looking forward to this multi-university research project because it will shine a bright light on long understudied dimensions of the historiography of slavery and of science and technology. For example, in most American history classes, we learn that the introduction of the mechanical cotton gin in the early 1800s exponentially transformed the productivity and hence profitability of cotton cultivation. This technological “advance” for productivity also meant, of course, an intensified need for slave labor, to grow and harvest ever-increasing amounts of cotton. Undoubtedly, the connections between science and technology with slavery go far deeper and wider than the cotton gin. The entanglement of the slave economy, science, and technology is a very rich topic area, and one that MIT is uniquely qualified to examine.

How to assess new solar technologies

Which is a better deal: an established, off-the-shelf type of solar panel or a cutting-edge type that delivers more power for a given area but costs more?

It turns out that’s far from a simple question, but a team of researchers at MIT and elsewhere has come up with a way to figure out the best option for a given location and type of installation. The bottom line is that for household-scale rooftop systems in relatively dry locations, the more efficient but more costly panels would be better, but for grid-scale installations or for those in wetter climates, the established, less efficient but cheaper panels are better.

The costs of solar cells continue to plummet, while the costs of installation and the associated equipment remain relatively constant. So, figuring out the tradeoffs involved in planning a new installation has gotten more complicated. But the new study provides a clear way to estimate the best technology for a given project, the authors say.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Energy, in a paper by MIT graduate student Sarah Sofia, associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, research scientist I. Marius Peters, and three others at MIT and at First Solar and Siva Power, solar companies in California.

The study compared two basic varieties of solar cells: standard designs that use a single type of photovoltaic material, and advanced designs that combine two different types (called tandem cells) in order to capture more of the energy in sunlight. For the tandem cells, the researchers also compared different varieties: those in which each of the two cells are connected together in series, called two-junction tandem cells, and those where each cell is separately wired, called four-junction tandem cells.

Instead of just looking at the amount of power each kind can deliver, the team analyzed all the associated installation and operational costs over time, to produce a measurement called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), a measure that incorporates all the costs and revenues over the lifetime of the system.

“Standard single-junction cells have a maximum efficiency limit of about 30 percent,” Sofia explains, whereas “tandem cells, using two materials, can have much higher efficiency, above 40 percent.” But while higher efficiency is obviously an advantage in principle, “when you make a tandem, you basically have two solar cells instead of one, so it’s more expensive to manufacture. So, we wanted to see if it’s worth it,” she says.

For their analysis, the team looked at three types of environment — arid (Arizona), temperate (South Dakota), and humid (Florida) — because the amount of water vapor in the air can affect how much sunlight reaches the solar cell. In each of these locations, they compared the standard two kinds of single-junction solar cells (cadmium telluride, or CdTe, and copper-indium-gallium-selenide, or CIGS) with two different types of tandem cells, two-junction or four-junction. Thus, a total of four different technologies were studied in each environment. In addition, they studied how the overall LCOE of the installations would be affected depending on whether overall energy prices remain constant or decline over time, as many analysts expect.

The results were somewhat surprising. “For residential systems, we showed that the four-terminal tandem system [the most efficient solar cell available] was the best option, regardless of location,” Sofia says. But for utility-scale installations, the cell with the lowest production costs is the best deal, the researchers found.

The new findings could be significant for those planning new solar installations, Sofia says. “For me, showing that a four-terminal tandem cell had a clear opportunity to succeed was not obvious. It really shows the importance of having a high energy yield in a residential system.”

But because utility-scale systems can spread the costs of the installation and the control systems over many more panels, and because space tends to be less constrained in such installations, “we never saw an opportunity” for the more costly, efficient cells in such settings. In large arrays, “because the installation costs are so cheap, they just want the cheapest cells [per watt of power],” she says.

The study could help to guide research priorities in solar technology, Sofia says. “There’s been a lot of work in this field, without asking this first [whether the economics would actually make sense]. We should be asking the question before we do all the work. … I hope this can serve as a guide to where research efforts should be focused,” she says.

The methodology the team developed for making the comparisons should be applicable to many other comparisons of solar technologies, not just the specific types chose for this study, Sofia says. “For thin-film technologies, this is generalizable,” she says.

Because the materials they studied for the four-terminal case are already commercialized, Sofia says, “if there was a company that had an interest,” practical, affordable four-junction tandem systems for residential applications could potentially be brought to market quite quickly.

The research team also included Jonathan Mailoa at MIT, Dirk Weiss at First Solar Inc., and Billy Stanbery at Siva Power, both companies in Santa Clara, California. The work was supported by the National Research Foundation Singapore through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

Introducing a user-friendly, step-by-step guide to conducting comparative product evaluations

According to the World Bank, over 1.1 billion people have lifted themselves from extreme poverty since 1990. But even as the global outlook on extreme poverty improves, billions of people continue to struggle to access basic human needs, like water, food, shelter, health care and energy. In response to these challenges, innovators around the world have developed a preponderance of cost-effective, locally implemented solutions, from solar lanterns and water filters to improved cookstoves and refugee shelters.

With such a dizzying array of products on the market, development professionals often struggle to cut through the hype associated with novel technologies, and many are hesitant to pursue innovative approaches to stubborn development challenges, given the high stakes of working with economically vulnerable populations.

MIT researchers are now seeking to help development professionals overcome these challenges by using design thinking, together with a methodology for comparative technology evaluation that is five years in the making.

A Practitioner’s Guide to Technology Evaluation in Global Development offers a user-friendly, step-by-step framework to help organizations identify development solutions that are most likely to succeed in a given context. Co-authored by the MIT Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), a program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Technology Exchange Lab, a Cambridge-based non-governmental organization, the Practitioner’s Guide builds upon five years of research and over 12 comparative evaluations conducted by CITE across eight countries.

A methodology for all

CITE was founded in 2013 as a leading member of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, a coalition of seven universities seeking to leverage the talent of students, researchers, and faculty towards solving major global development challenges. Since then, CITE has evaluated “hardware solutions” — like solar lanterns, solar-powered water pumps, and water test kits — while also evaluating systems-level solutions, such as how distribution models affect the uptake of malaria-diagnostics, and how food-aid packaging impacts the quality and quantity of international food assistance through complex supply chains.

Throughout this work, CITE researchers from across the Institute — from MIT D-Lab, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), Center for Transporation and Logistics (CTL), and Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) — developed and iterated upon a multi-disciplinary evaluation methodology known as ‘3S’ framework, which evaluates technologies from three vantages including: suitability (how well products perform technically), scalability (how effective products are at reaching consumers at scale), and sustainability (how products are adopted and used over time).

While CITE effectively applied its methodology across multiple sectors, past evaluations included rigorous lab testing, and support from faculty, graduate students and additional partners. According to CITE Associate Director Joanne Mathias, “through the Practitioner’s Guide we aim to empower practitioners and smaller-scale NGOs with the tools required to find solutions that work, regardless of the resources or facilities they have at their disposal.”

From lab to field

Translating five years of academic research into a user-friendly toolkit is no small task. By teaming up with the Technology Exchange Lab (TEL) to co-author the guide, CITE sought out a partner capable of articulating their evaluation methodology to a non-academic audience, while also weaving concepts of human-centered design into the evaluation process. Founded by two MIT Sloan School of Management alumni, TEL works with community-based organizations around the world to implement innovative solutions to problems of poverty.

“Partnering with CITE to develop the Practitioner’s Guide was a natural fit,” says TEL Programs Director Brennan Lake.  “So much emphasis is made on driving innovation and research through universities, which is fantastic, but there is a bottleneck when it comes to putting research into practice, and making innovative approaches and development solutions as accessible as possible to communities on the ground.”

Indeed, the Practitioner’s Guide includes real-world examples of everyday challenges faced by development practitioners — such as how to make data-driven trade-offs between a product’s quality, affordability, and time to implement — as well as case studies based off of past CITE evaluations. The Practitioner’s Guide was also designed to be modular, so that organizations at various stages of project development could make use of CITE’s methodology.

“Most aid agencies and international NGOs already have strict procurement protocols in place,” Lake notes. “The Practitioner’s Guide provides program officers with discrete tools for evidence-based decision making, while also offering a more comprehensive framework for NGOs and community-based organizations looking to build programs from the ground up.”

A Practitioner’s Guide for Technology Evaluation in Global Development is now available on the CITE and TEL websites. CITE’s research is funded by the USAID U.S. Global Development Lab. CITE is led by principal investigator Bishwapriya Sanyal of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and supported by MIT faculty and staff from D-Lab, the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, Sociotechnical Systems Research Center, the Center for Transportation and Logistics, School of Engineering, and Sloan School of Management.

In addition to Lake, co-authors of the guide include Jennifer Green, CITE evaluation lead, and Éadaoin Ilten of the Technology Exchange Lab. Additional support was provided by Joanne Mathias.

On the cutting edge

When Jordan Malone’s mother told him his passion for playing with LEGOs might translate into a passion for engineering, the young Denton, Texas, native made it a goal to study engineering at MIT. In the coming years, he committed himself to making that goal a reality — a level of dedication that also earned Malone a bronze medal in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, for short-track speedskating.  

“Before I ever wanted to be an Olympian, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. And if you want to be the best, you’ve got to train with the best,” Malone says. The MIT senior studies mechanical engineering and hopes to draw from both his education and his speedskating experiences to improve the sport in the future.

Although Malone set his sights on MIT at an early age, his love for skating took him on a significant detour along the way. He transferred to MIT in 2015 from the University of North Texas after a 25-year career in the sport. Malone had put his engineering education on hold to prepare for the Sochi Winter Olympics, and he officially retired from the sport in 2014.

He now credits his life experiences with enhancing his education at the Institute. “Maybe I was always meant to be an MIT engineer,” Malone says, “and I needed to wait until I was capable.”

“The amount of uncertainty about what I want to do with my life has curved down to null numbers,” he says. “I’m not just here taking courses and gathering credits, I’m here assembling a skill set.”

Meaningful measurements

Malone’s major is Course 2A, which has a customizable curriculum that allows students to home in on their personal interests. This semester, he is enrolled in 2.996 (Advanced Topics in Mechanical Engineering) with professor of mechanical engineering Martin Culpepper. With Culpepper’s guidance and mentorship, Malone is developing a device that more precisely measures the curvatures of the blades used for speedskates. Though such “rocker gauges” already exist, Malone is designing a machine capable of greater precision and accuracy.

When the blade curvatures are off target, there are consequences for skaters on the ice. “If [the curvature] is 0.0003 inches off, when I start getting up to top speeds, I’m like, ‘Something’s wrong!’” Malone says. If it’s off by more: “Mayday! I can’t skate now — just can’t operate.” 

This firsthand experience is an asset for Malone as an engineer. “One of the benefits I have is that I know the problem really well, and I’m learning the engineering that will help me fix that problem. … The need for precision and accuracy has far surpassed the instruments that we use to measure and map the blades.”

As part of his engineering education, Malone is currently enrolled in 2.671 (Go Forth and Measure), a class centered around making accurate and precise measurements in a wide range of applications. “It’s one of the classes that has let me take what I learn in class and apply it immediately toward skating,” Malone says. He enjoys breaking down his project with Culpepper for other undergraduate students in 2.671 who are pursuing projects in different areas. “It’s good to be able to sit down and understand what [knowledge of the problem] I’m taking for granted and what I’m glossing over.”

Part of the problem for skaters, Malone says, involves the way the blades are manufactured and prepared for competition. Currently, blades are shaped by a template, and then individually sharpened by hand by skaters and their coaches.

“The chance of hitting the exact numbers [of curvature needed, by manually sharpening,] are slim to none,” Malone says, “and you’re either going to exhaust yourself or you’re going to have to give up and say, ‘Okay, that’s as good as it’s going to get.’ And the second you step onto the ice, you know in your head it’s not exactly perfect.”

Though Malone is working on improving the instrumental measurements of blades, he also hopes to design a machine that shapes blades accurately and automatically during the manufacturing stage, limiting human error. Malone says he recognizes that the problems he’s tackling aren’t new.

“It’s not like I’m the first person that’s been able to come along and do this, but I’m probably the first person who has a decent enough knowledge of the problem, who has the knowledge of how to fix it, and who cares enough to put myself through the troubles of doing that,” Malone says. “Some of the people who are able to solve problems are just not concerned enough. For me, I have a real, personal stake in it.”

Critical mentorship

Before applying to transfer to the Institute, Malone toured campus with speedskater and MIT alum Hajime Sano ’82. During his visit, Malone met with Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

During his, Malone recalls being asked to perform a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the return-on-investment for solar panel installation, given a few initial parameters. “Nineteen-year-old me would have probably been very scared,” Malone says with a chuckle, “but the 30-year-old me — it made me hungrier.”

One successful calculation and one successful application process later, Malone was enrolled at MIT and sitting in Hosoi’s seminar on sports technology. The course, co-taught by lecturer Christina Chase, led Malone to work further with the two instructors, who have served as his mentors. “They are there to enable you and to provide feedback,” Malone says. “But they definitely won’t hover over you. It’s really good, because that’s my style.”

With the guidance he receives from Culpepper, Hosoi, and Chase, Malone says, “I feel like I have an open door for progress.” Malone notes that this mentorship has helped him focus his interests. “Without guidance, I could go down a thousand different routes, but with the help of a few people, I can limit that to five or 10,” Malone says.


Malone says the resources at MIT for students help enable innovation.

“If you’re looking for help with one thing, you won’t necessarily find it in one spot. You’ll find it in multiple spots,” Malone says as he recalls his current efforts to fund his blade curvature measurement project.  “MIT is about enabling you. They’re not going to hover over you and make sure you get anything done. They’re going to amplify what you choose to get done,” he says.

In the future, Malone hopes to help optimize and implement new wireless athlete-tracking technologies that don’t require wiring and cumbersome installations, unlike currently used technologies such as passive radio-frequency identification tags. He aims to bring this technology to speedskating.
“I think I’m well-suited for that. I speak enough of both languages — to be able to explain to the athletes what’s possible and to be able to explain to the engineers what’s necessary and what’s relevant,” Malone says.

Rock music helps students and educators explore engineering

As far as chance encounters go, the meeting between AnnMarie Thomas ’01 and Damian Kulash, the lead singer for the rock band OK Go, could not have gone better. Thomas and Kulash first met at a coffee shop after a TED conference and later on a flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, where Thomas shared details on her research group, the Playful Learning Lab, which helps PK-12 students and educators create fun, hands-on engineering projects.

“The common theme in our lab is a mix of technology, fun, and STEAM education,” Thomas says, referring to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. “We’re constantly asking: ‘How can we make education engaging for students and teachers?’”

Kulash was keenly interested, especially since OK Go’s unique, one-take music videos have gained fame for incorporating engineering elements. The band’s 2010 video, “This Too Shall Pass,” created with the help of Media Lab graduates, features a complex Rube Goldberg machine and accumulated more than 58 million views on YouTube.

Thomas and Kulash remained in touch and brainstormed ways to collaborate. The end result is the OK Go Sandbox, a joint effort between the band, the lab, and the engineering departments at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Thomas is an associate professor.

The OK Go Sandbox is an online portal that uses the band’s videos as starting points to explore various STEAM concepts. Each video is accompanied by a series of activities and challenges designed to analyze the video with a problem-solving lens. The challenges for “This Too Shall Pass” focus on simple machines and their role in complex structures.

“We want to give teachers whatever tools they need to connect the joy, wonder, and fun in our videos to the underlying concepts that their students are learning,” Kulash says on the Sandbox site.

Each challenge is heavily influenced by students and educators who have to accompany the challenge video shoots and share their expertise and feedback.

“Every time we film a challenge or activity, there is a teacher on set,” Thomas says. “We don’t know the best way to frame these activities — only the students and teachers really do.”

The Playful Learning Lab was created in 2009, the same year that Minnesota added an engineering curriculum to its state-wide K-12 standards. The lab’s other projects include Circus Engineering, which explores equations of motion for circus aerial acts, and a weekly after-school engineering program for deaf middle school students that recreated the Angry Birds video game using plastic balls and cardboard boxes.

Thomas says her hands-on approach to teaching is thanks in large part to her MIT education, especially Professor Emeritus Woodie Flowers SM ’68, SM ’71, PhD ’73.

“Woodie Flowers’ course 2.007 [Design and Manufacturing] was utterly life changing for me,” says Thomas, who majored in ocean engineering via the Department of Mechanical Engineering while at MIT. “He had an amazing way of getting you to learn by doing. Before that course, I was afraid to build things. After 2.007, it was ‘Eureka! I know it can do it.’”

This story was originally posted on the Slice of MIT blog.

Featured video: MIT’s meteorology pioneers

Born 100 years ago, two extraordinary pioneers of meteorology forever changed our understanding of the atmosphere and its patterns: MIT professors Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Charney developed a system of equations capturing important aspects of the atmosphere’s circulation, enabling him to pioneer numerical weather prediction, which we use today. A decade later, Lorenz observed that atmospheric circulation simulations with slightly different initial conditions produced rapidly diverging numerical solutions. This discovery led him to propose that atmospheric dynamics exhibit chaotic behavior, an idea that has since been popularized as “the butterfly effect” and has changed the way we understand the weather and climate.

As MIT professors and department heads, these individuals contributed numerous insights to the field as well as profoundly influenced the next generation of leaders in atmospheric, oceanographic and climate sciences. During their time, Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz left an indelible mark on the field of meteorology, and their legacy lives on within MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Submitted by: EAPS | Video by: Meg Rosenburg | 15 min, 3 sec

Featured video: MIT’s meteorlogy pioneers

Born 100 years ago, two extraordinary pioneers of meteorology forever changed our understanding of the atmosphere and its patterns: MIT professors Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Charney developed a system of equations capturing important aspects of the atmosphere’s circulation, enabling him to pioneer numerical weather prediction, which we use today. A decade later, Lorenz observed that atmospheric circulation simulations with slightly different initial conditions produced rapidly diverging numerical solutions. This discovery led him to propose that atmospheric dynamics exhibit chaotic behavior, an idea that has since been popularized as “the butterfly effect” and has changed the way we understand the weather and climate.

As MIT professors and department heads, these individuals contributed numerous insights to the field as well as profoundly influenced the next generation of leaders in atmospheric, oceanographic and climate sciences. During their time, Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz left an indelible mark on the field of meteorology, and their legacy lives on within MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Submitted by: EAPS | Video by: Meg Rosenburg | 15 min, 3 sec

Inaugural class of MIT-GSK Gertrude B. Elion Research Fellows selected

Jay Mahat from the Sharp Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Benjamin Mead from the Shalek Lab at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, Nicholas Struntz from the Koehler Lab at the Koch Institute, and Sarvesh Varma from the Biological Microtechnology and BioMEMS Group at the Research Laboratory of Electronics have been awarded two-year postdoctoral fellowships through the MIT-GSK Gertrude B. Elion Research Fellowship Program for Drug Discovery and Disease.

The fellowship program is a new initiative between MIT and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) that aims to promote basic research while introducing young scientists to key aspects of pharmaceutical research and development. It honors Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999), an early leader in the field of chemotherapeutic agents who worked for many years at Burroughs Wellcome, which became Glaxo Wellcome in 1995 and GlaxoSmithKline in 2000. Although Elion never finished a PhD due to her need to work full-time, she eventually received at least 25 honorary doctorate degrees and numerous awards in recognition of her scientific achievements. In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discoveries of important principles for drug treatment in developing compounds to treat conditions such as leukemia, viral and bacterial infections, malaria, and gout. In 1991, she was awarded the National Medal of Science and was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 1997, she was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her groundbreaking work in developing therapies for cancer and leukemia.

The Gertrude B. Elion Research Fellows are basic or applied scientists and engineers at MIT who are interested in innovative technology and/or platforms that can enable transformative advances in drug discovery. They will receive funding for salary and benefits, lab supplies, and indirect costs for two years to conduct research in the laboratory of a principal investigator at MIT, and they will have ancillary mentorship from a GSK mentor. A critical component of the program will be ongoing communication and exchange of information amongst the fellow, MIT principal investigator, and GSK mentor.

The next call for applications for the MIT-GSK Gertrude B. Elion Research Fellowship Program for Drug Discovery and Disease will occur in 2019.

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