Living Climate Futures initiative showcases holistic approach to the climate crisis

The sun shone bright and warm on the Dertouzos Amphitheater at the Stata Center this past Earth Day as a panel of Indigenous leaders from across the country talked about their experiences with climate activism and shared their natural world philosophies — a worldview that sees humanity as one with the rest of the Earth.

“I was taught the natural world philosophies by those raised by precolonial individuals,” said Jay Julius W’tot Lhem of the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest and founder and president of Se’Si’Le, an organization dedicated to reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate. Since his great-grandmother was born in 1888, he grew up “one hug away from pre-contact,” as he put it.

Natural world philosophies

Natural world philosophies sit at the center of the Indigenous activism taking place all over the country, and they were a highlight of the Indigenous Earth Day panel — one part of a two-day symposium called Living Climate Futures. The events were hosted by the Anthropology and History sections and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability and Project Indigenous MIT.

“The Living Climate Futures initiative began from the recognition that the people who are living most closely with climate and environmental struggles and injustices are especially equipped to lead the way toward other ways of living in the world,” says Briana Meier, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and an organizer of the event. “While much climate action is based in technology-driven policy, we recognize that solutions to climate change are often embedded within and produced in response to existing social systems of injustice and inequity.”

On-the-ground experts from around the country spoke in a series of panels and discussions over the two days, sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to think differently about how to address the environmental crisis.

Gathering experts

The hope, according to faculty organizers, was that an event centered on such voices could create connections among activists and open the eyes of many to the human element of climate solutions.

Over the years, many such solutions have overlooked the needs of the communities they are designed to help. Streams in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been dammed to generate hydroelectric power — promoted as a green alternative to fossil fuel. But these same locations have long been sacred spots for Indigenous swimming rituals, said Ryan Emanuel (Lumbee), associate professor of hydrology at Duke University and a panelist in the Indigenous Earth Day event. Mitigating the environmental damage does not make up for the loss of sacred connection, he emphasized.

To dig into such nuances, the organizers invited an intergenerational group of panelists to share successes with attendees.

Transforming urban spaces

In one panel, for example, urban farmers from Mansfield, Ohio, and Chelsea, Massachusetts, discussed the benefits of growing vegetables in cities.

Transforming urban spaces into farms provides not just healthy food, but a visible symbol of hope, a way for people to connect and grow food that reflects their cultures and homes, an economic development opportunity, and even a safe space for teens to hang out,” said Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability and an event organizer. “We also heard about the challenges — like the cost of real estate in Massachusetts.”

Another panel highlighted the determined efforts of a group of students from George Washington High School in Southeast Chicago to derail a project to build a scrap metal recycling plant across the street from their school. “We’re at school eight hours a day,” said Gregory Miller, a junior at the school. “We refuse to live next door to a metals scrapyard.”

The proposed plant was intended to replace something similar that had been shut down in a predominantly white neighborhood due to its many environmental violations. Southeast Chicago is more culturally diverse and has long suffered from industrial pollution and economic hardship, but the students fought the effort to further pollute their home — and won.

“It was hard, the campaign,” said Destiny Vasquez. “But it was beautiful because the community came together. There is unity in our struggle.”

Recovering a common heritage 

Unity was also at the forefront of the discussion for the Indigenous Earth Day panel in the Stata Amphitheater. This portion of the Living Climate Futures event began with a greeting in the Navajo language from Alvin Harvey, PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics (Aero/Astro) and representative of the MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the MIT Native American Student Association. The greeting identified all who came to the event as relatives.

“Look at the relatives next to you, especially those trees,” he said, gesturing to the budding branches around the amphitheater. “They give you shelter, love … few other beings are willing to do that.”

According to Julius, such reverence for nature is part of the Indigenous way of life, common across tribal backgrounds — and something all of humanity once had in common. “Somewhere along the line we all had Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “We all need an invitation back to that to understand we’re all part of the whole.”

Understanding the oneness of all living things on earth helps people of Indigenous nations feel the distress of the earth when it is under attack, speakers said. Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an elder of the Lumbee tribe, discussed the trauma of having forests near her home in the southeastern United States clear-cut to provide wood chips to Europe.

“They are devastating the lungs of the earth in North Carolina at a rate faster than in the Amazon,” she said. “You can almost hear the pain of the forest.”

Small pictures of everyday life

“People are experiencing a climate crisis that is global in really different ways in different places,” says Heather Paxson, head of MIT Anthropology and an event organizer. “What came out of these two days is a real, palpable sense of the power of listening to individual experience. Not because it gives us the big picture, but because it gives us the small picture.”

Trinity Colón, one of the leaders of the group from George Washington High School, impressed on attendees that environmental justice is much more than an academic pursuit. “We’re not talking about climate change in the sense of statistics, infographics,” she said. “For us this is everyday life … [Future engineers and others training at MIT] should definitely take that into perspective, that these are real people really being affected by these injustices.”

That call to action has already been felt by many at MIT.

“I’ve been hearing from grad students lately, in engineering, saying, ‘I like thinking about these problems, but I don’t like where I’m being directed to use my intellectual capital, toward building more corporate wealth,’” said Kate Brown, professor of STS and an event organizer. “As an institution, we could move toward working not for, not to correct, but working with communities.”

The world is what we’ve got

MIT senior Abdulazeez Mohammed Salim, an Aero/Astro major, says he was inspired by these conversations to get involved in urban farming initiatives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he plans to move after graduation.

“We have a responsibility as part of the world around us, not as external observers, not as people removed and displaced from the world. And the world is not an experiment or a lab,” he says. “It’s what we’ve got. It’s who we are. It’s all that we’ve been and all we will be. That stuck with me; it resonated very deeply.”

Salim also appreciated the reality check given by Bianca Bowman from GreenRoots Chelsea, who pointed out that success will not come quickly, and that sustained advocacy is critical.

“Real, valuable change will not happen overnight, will not happen by just getting together a critical mass of people who are upset and concerned,” he said. “Because what we’re dealing with are large, interconnected, messy systems that will try to fight back and survive regardless of how we force them to adapt. And so, long term is really the only way forward. That’s the way we need to think of these struggles.”

21st annual MIT IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge supports students leading social innovation

Over the past 21 years, the MIT PKG Center’s IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge has awarded over $1.1 million in funding to over 200 student-led teams addressing social and environmental challenges globally. Through the work of these extraordinary teams, more than half of which are still active today, IDEAS has impacted over 2.5 million people.

In celebration of this incredible community of students, alumni, judges, and mentors, IDEAS held its first-ever hybrid award ceremony on Sunday, April 24 at the MIT Media Lab. After two years of hosting IDEAS ceremonies virtually due to the pandemic, the PKG Center team was thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to celebrate in person with the many community members who make this program possible.  

This year’s ceremony was dedicated to the late Shirley McBay, co-founder of the PKG Public Service Center. McBay was a trailblazer for women of color in STEM and higher education. A mathematician by training, she served as the first Black dean of student affairs at MIT and was committed to making universities a place where students of color could succeed and thrive, stating, “America must end the educational neglect that wastes so much talent among minority students because ending that neglect is not only morally right, it is essential to America’s future.” 

True to her visionary nature and dedication to justice, she co-founded one of the nation’s first centers for public service in a university, now known as the PKG Public Service Center. Priscilla King Gray, former first lady of MIT and co-founder of the center, shared words of admiration and appreciation for McBay in a recorded message at this year’s IDEAS ceremony. Gray shared, “[Shirley] just had a way of having a good idea and putting it into action and that’s what she’s done with the center. My dream is that [MIT students will] always have time for helping others … and I think that dream was Shirley’s also — that [helping others] was a good habit to form now, and it would tide them over their whole lives.” 

McBay’s legacy of change-making and advocating for equity was also embodied by the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Malia Lazu. Lazu is an award-winning strategist in diversity and inclusion. She began her career as a community organizer and founder of MassVOTE. More recently, she served as executive vice president and regional president at Berkshire Bank, where she worked to generate wealth for communities by expanding access to capital and spurring economic growth — especially in communities of color that have traditionally been left behind.

In a nod to McBay’s legacy, Lazu’s keynote address focused on centering equity in social entrepreneurship, stating, “We know that good intentions do not always lead to impact. So do you have the capacity to build impact in your social business?” She urged the student finalists to think critically about how they are defining social issues and who is involved in these conversations. She also encouraged the audience to acknowledge that even when issues are approached with good intentions, a great deal of harm can be done when equity is not at the center of the conversation. “How do we push back against uninformed definitions of success?” she asked. “What does it mean to positively affect a social issue? As someone who does DE&I work, when I read that sentence, I get scared. It’s fraught with bias — ‘positively affect,’ who decides what the positive effects are? ‘Affecting a social issue,’ who decides what a social issue is?”

Following Lazu’s address, the crowd heard updates from last year’s IDEAS grantees. Critical Healthcare Information Integration Network shared that the IDEAS grant enabled them to bring on a new team of community advisors and launch a program in northern Nigeria focused on providing access to critical medical information from maternal and community health workers. Kivuli presented on the extensive market research they have been conducting on producing high-quality steel case windows that low-skilled artisans in Nairobi can make and sell to high-end large-scale market developers. They have also made connections with training centers in Nairobi to build their network of artisans that can tap into this work. Sustainable Sea has continued its research and development and is focused on designing a low-cost, real-time monitoring system that can be scaled to cover entire seaweed farms. The Knowledge Institute (TKI) is launching Sasa, Eswatini’s version of the Common App to lower barriers to access to higher education. TKI has launched a campaign to visit individual institutions, learn more about their specific needs and challenges, and prepare for the 2022 application season. Overall, IDEAS 2021 grantees are successfully fine-tuning and adjusting their projects to best address the challenges with their communities.

The ceremony concluded with this year’s award presentations. While all teams are recipients of a $1,000 seed grant, four teams received juried grants. A group of volunteer IDEAS judges from around the world with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences reviewed the finalists’ written proposals and conducted virtual interviews. The following teams were awarded juried grants:

  • $20,000 grant: Akavis is improving the safety and livability of affordable housing in Colombia, where low-income homeowners eligible for affordable housing received unfinished houses, by connecting new owners with affordable and speedier options to finish their homes. Akavis also benefits the informal construction workforce by providing them with opportunities to augment their skills and work in more formal settings. 
  • $15,000 grant: Birth by Us is an app that aims to support expectant parents, specifically those who have been systemically oppressed in health care and other social systems, to reduce persistent and preventable maternal mortality rates in Black women. The app also provides health-care providers with comprehensive, routine quality reports incorporating patient feedback and resources to help providers make impactful changes.
  • $10,000 grant: Vaiven is a two-sided marketplace that helps borrowers and lenders match with each other across emerging economies in Latin America. Their marketplace, launching in Mexico first, helps financial institutions such as fintech banks and other non-banks offer customers the loans they need, while also providing customers with financial literacy tools.
  • $7,500 grant: Grain Box is an app that seeks to optimize the post-harvest value chain by decentralizing the storage infrastructure and market connectivity for the smallholder farmers in rural India. 

Leading up to the event, 2,600-plus individuals voted for their favorite finalist team during the 2022 IDEAS Virtual Showcase in partnership with MIT Solve. The following two teams received the highest number of votes, earning them each a $2,500 crowd favorite award:

  • Making Water Visible: Pune’s Water System aims to create documentary films and other multimedia representations of water heritage, capturing the lived experiences, and voices of experts associated with the water sector, to create social change around the displacement caused by large-scale water infrastructures such as dams, long-distance pipelines, promenades, and riverfront developments.
  • Zahara for Education seeks to expand educational opportunities between Sudan and the United States. They are doing so by implementing university course partnerships, such as the MIT-Sudan Global Teaching Labs, creating connections with online learning platforms like edX, and making physical maker spaces for students in Sudan to experience hands-on learning.

Following the award presentations, PKG Center Assistant Dean for Social Innovation Rebecca Obounou shared closing remarks. Obounou highlighted the program’s transition from a “competition” into a robust  “pracademic,” both practical and academic, program in line with the PKG Center’s values of providing students ethics-rooted, rigorous experiential learning opportunities. This is demonstrated throughout the program with the educational sessions throughout the academic year and the seven-week finalist seminar series.

Going forward, all teams will work on their projects over the summer and report back by the start of the next academic year. Additionally, they will have guidance from the PKG Center and an incredible cohort of industry expert mentors. The juried grant recipients will focus on implementing their projects over the next 16 months and the IDEAS team will maintain regular contact with them during that time to help support their success. The program concluded with final recorded remarks from Priscilla King Gray to the student participants — “I would say: Three cheers for them, there’s nothing like an MIT student.”

Living better with algorithms

Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) student Sarah Cen remembers the lecture that sent her down the track to an upstream question.

At a talk on ethical artificial intelligence, the speaker brought up a variation on the famous trolley problem, which outlines a philosophical choice between two undesirable outcomes.

The speaker’s scenario: Say a self-driving car is traveling down a narrow alley with an elderly woman walking on one side and a small child on the other, and no way to thread between both without a fatality. Who should the car hit?

Then the speaker said: Let’s take a step back. Is this the question we should even be asking?

That’s when things clicked for Cen. Instead of considering the point of impact, a self-driving car could have avoided choosing between two bad outcomes by making a decision earlier on — the speaker pointed out that, when entering the alley, the car could have determined that the space was narrow and slowed to a speed that would keep everyone safe.

Recognizing that today’s AI safety approaches often resemble the trolley problem, focusing on downstream regulation such as liability after someone is left with no good choices, Cen wondered: What if we could design better upstream and downstream safeguards to such problems? This question has informed much of Cen’s work.

“Engineering systems are not divorced from the social systems on which they intervene,” Cen says. Ignoring this fact risks creating tools that fail to be useful when deployed or, more worryingly, that are harmful.

Cen arrived at LIDS in 2018 via a slightly roundabout route. She first got a taste for research during her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, where she majored in mechanical engineering. For her master’s degree, she changed course, working on radar solutions in mobile robotics (primarily for self-driving cars) at Oxford University. There, she developed an interest in AI algorithms, curious about when and why they misbehave. So, she came to MIT and LIDS for her doctoral research, working with Professor Devavrat Shah in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, for a stronger theoretical grounding in information systems.

Auditing social media algorithms

Together with Shah and other collaborators, Cen has worked on a wide range of projects during her time at LIDS, many of which tie directly to her interest in the interactions between humans and computational systems. In one such project, Cen studies options for regulating social media. Her recent work provides a method for translating human-readable regulations into implementable audits.

To get a sense of what this means, suppose that regulators require that any public health content — for example, on vaccines — not be vastly different for politically left- and right-leaning users. How should auditors check that a social media platform complies with this regulation? Can a platform be made to comply with the regulation without damaging its bottom line? And how does compliance affect the actual content that users do see?

Designing an auditing procedure is difficult in large part because there are so many stakeholders when it comes to social media. Auditors have to inspect the algorithm without accessing sensitive user data. They also have to work around tricky trade secrets, which can prevent them from getting a close look at the very algorithm that they are auditing because these algorithms are legally protected. Other considerations come into play as well, such as balancing the removal of misinformation with the protection of free speech.

To meet these challenges, Cen and Shah developed an auditing procedure that does not need more than black-box access to the social media algorithm (which respects trade secrets), does not remove content (which avoids issues of censorship), and does not require access to users (which preserves users’ privacy).

In their design process, the team also analyzed the properties of their auditing procedure, finding that it ensures a desirable property they call decision robustness. As good news for the platform, they show that a platform can pass the audit without sacrificing profits. Interestingly, they also found the audit naturally incentivizes the platform to show users diverse content, which is known to help reduce the spread of misinformation, counteract echo chambers, and more.

Who gets good outcomes and who gets bad ones?

In another line of research, Cen looks at whether people can receive good long-term outcomes when they not only compete for resources, but also don’t know upfront what resources are best for them.

Some platforms, such as job-search platforms or ride-sharing apps, are part of what is called a matching market, which uses an algorithm to match one set of individuals (such as workers or riders) with another (such as employers or drivers). In many cases, individuals have matching preferences that they learn through trial and error. In labor markets, for example, workers learn their preferences about what kinds of jobs they want, and employers learn their preferences about the qualifications they seek from workers.

But learning can be disrupted by competition. If workers with a particular background are repeatedly denied jobs in tech because of high competition for tech jobs, for instance, they may never get the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about whether they want to work in tech. Similarly, tech employers may never see and learn what these workers could do if they were hired.

Cen’s work examines this interaction between learning and competition, studying whether it is possible for individuals on both sides of the matching market to walk away happy.

Modeling such matching markets, Cen and Shah found that it is indeed possible to get to a stable outcome (workers aren’t incentivized to leave the matching market), with low regret (workers are happy with their long-term outcomes), fairness (happiness is evenly distributed), and high social welfare.

Interestingly, it’s not obvious that it’s possible to get stability, low regret, fairness, and high social welfare simultaneously.  So another important aspect of the research was uncovering when it is possible to achieve all four criteria at once and exploring the implications of those conditions.

What is the effect of X on Y?

For the next few years, though, Cen plans to work on a new project, studying how to quantify the effect of an action X on an outcome Y when it’s expensive — or impossible — to measure this effect, focusing in particular on systems that have complex social behaviors.

For instance, when Covid-19 cases surged in the pandemic, many cities had to decide what restrictions to adopt, such as mask mandates, business closures, or stay-home orders. They had to act fast and balance public health with community and business needs, public spending, and a host of other considerations.

Typically, in order to estimate the effect of restrictions on the rate of infection, one might compare the rates of infection in areas that underwent different interventions. If one county has a mask mandate while its neighboring county does not, one might think comparing the counties’ infection rates would reveal the effectiveness of mask mandates. 

But of course, no county exists in a vacuum. If, for instance, people from both counties gather to watch a football game in the maskless county every week, people from both counties mix. These complex interactions matter, and Sarah plans to study questions of cause and effect in such settings.

“We’re interested in how decisions or interventions affect an outcome of interest, such as how criminal justice reform affects incarceration rates or how an ad campaign might change the public’s behaviors,” Cen says.

Cen has also applied the principles of promoting inclusivity to her work in the MIT community.

As one of three co-presidents of the Graduate Women in MIT EECS student group, she helped organize the inaugural GW6 research summit featuring the research of women graduate students — not only to showcase positive role models to students, but also to highlight the many successful graduate women at MIT who are not to be underestimated.

Whether in computing or in the community, a system taking steps to address bias is one that enjoys legitimacy and trust, Cen says. “Accountability, legitimacy, trust — these principles play crucial roles in society and, ultimately, will determine which systems endure with time.” 

Student robot competition honors the legacy of the late beloved professor, Woodie Flowers

Every year, the student robot competition in class 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I) is centered around a unifying theme. From “Star Wars” to “Back to the Future” and “Willy Wonka,” the theme is reflected in the gameboards where robots designed and built by mechanical engineering students compete for points. On Thursday, May 5, the event featured its most poignant theme to date: “Legacy,” a celebration of the competition’s founder, the late Professor Emeritus Woodie Flowers.

Flowers inspired generations of future engineers as a professor at MIT, a co-founder of the global FIRST Robotics Competition, and host of the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers.” His pedagogical approach to hands-on education shaped the engineering curriculum at MIT. In what was a radical educational method at the time, Flowers incorporated a spirited and boisterous competition as part of class 2.007 (then known as 2.70).

“A testament to Woodie’s impact on education at MIT is the fact that we still use essentially the same format for 2.007 that he conceived of 50 years ago. His spirit and his vision live on in our class,” says Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-instructor of 2.007.

“We think 2.007 plays such an important role in training our students to be more like real engineers, ready to tackle open-ended, unstructured problems,” says Sangbae Kim, professor of mechanical engineering and co-instructor alongside Winter. “I’m very much honored to be an instructor, inheriting the pedagogical spirit of Woodie.”

Dressed in bow ties and suspenders — a nod to Flowers’ sartorial style — Kim and Winter served as emcees for the evening. Each round, two robots, built from a kit of materials circulated at the beginning of the semester, navigated a colorful, massive gameboard. They competed for the most points by accomplishing a series of tasks in two minutes. The gameboard itself was inspired by Flowers.

“This year’s competition is a tribute to Woodie Flowers, who was our friend, our colleague, and was instrumental in many of our careers. Tonight’s gameboard is inspired by many of Woodie’s past gameboards,” said Winter as he introduced the event.

The gameboard was modeled partially after the crosswalk in front of 77 Massachusetts Avenue. It is divided by a banister, referencing a famous photograph of Flowers sliding down the banister outside the Building 7 entrance on MIT’s campus. Robots were tasked with collecting and manipulating balls, putting square pegs into round holes, and spinning a “woody flower” to move balls into a Pachinko board — all references to tasks from competitions that Flowers designed when he launched the competition in the 1970s.

Typically taken sophomore year, 2.007 often provides many mechanical engineering students with their first opportunity to build something based on a design of their own creation. They design and program their robots to accomplish tasks on the competition gameboards. Students have the option of operating their robots manually or through a combination of autonomous navigation and manual.

After nearly 100 mechanical engineering students competed in the first round on Wednesday, May 4, the top 32 students came back Thursday night for the finals. Their robots faced off in five sudden-death rounds, with the robot scoring the most points proceeding to the next round.

The event culminated in a final showdown between a robot designed by junior Joshua Rohrbaugh and a robot designed by sophomore Nicholas Schultz. Ultimately, Rohrbaugh’s robot “Salvo” came out on top.

“Overall, my strategy was high-risk, high-reward,” says Rohrbaugh, whose robot scored 325 points in the final round. “Salvo” included multiple projectile launchers to complete tasks of pressing buttons and pulling a weighted pendulum with a grappling hook. The robot also used a multistage lift to raise a 2-kilogram weight, and a spring-loaded hook to spool in a rope.

Hovering over the gameboard was a sign with the phrase “Gracious Professionalism” embossed on it. The phrase, originally coined by Flowers, refers to the act of being kind and respecting others, even in the heat of competitions like the 2.007 robot competition. It became his mantra.Flowers’ kindness and love for educating others was infectious. He had a profound impact, not only on the students he taught, but on his colleagues. At the beginning of Thursday’s competition, Professor Ely Sachs introduced a video of colleagues, students, and mentees describing the ways in which Flowers shaped their own lives.

“Over the course of 47 years, I had the privilege to know Woodie Flowers as my advisor, my mentor, my colleague, and my cherished friend,” said Sachs before introducing the video. Later on, Sachs shared that Flowers’ belief that teaching was the most important profession was instrumental in Sachs’ own decision to become a professor.

Reflecting on the MIT Commencement address she gave in 2015, Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88 said that Flowers embodied MIT’s unofficial motto, “mens et manus et cor” — “mind and hand and heart.” “Thinking about kindness is as important as knowledge, if not probably more,” said Smith, who served as chief technology officer for the United States under President Obama. “His whole concept of gracious professionalism — and how we treat each other, how we include each other, the breadth of our interest and how we drive each other’s passion. We miss him so much”

Former 2.007 instructor and mentee Professor David Wallace concluded, “One can’t leave a better legacy than a well-educated family, and Woodie, we are your family.”

As the cheers of students filled the voluminous Johnson Ice Rink, it was clear that Flowers and his legacy of “gracious professionalism” continues to live on in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.                             

3 Questions: Daniel Anderson on the progress of mRNA vaccines

Two mRNA vaccines, which received emergency authorization in late 2020, have proven critical in the fight against Covid-19. These vaccines, the first of their kind, were the culmination of decades of research on RNA. Delivered as strands of mRNA that encode a viral protein, the vaccines enter cells and begin producing proteins, allowing the immune system to recognize the virus if encountered later. Following the success of Covid-19 vaccines, researchers hope that mRNA vaccines and therapies will prove useful against many other diseases.

Daniel Anderson, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, has spent many years working on ways to package and deliver mRNA. Anderson, who recently co-authored a recent Nature Biotechnology review on mRNA therapies, answered some questions from MIT News on the progress of this technology.

Q: What are some of the advantages of RNA vaccines, and how were they developed so rapidly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic?

A: The beauty of RNA vaccines is that once an effective nanoparticle delivery system has been developed, new vaccines targeting new diseases can be rapidly created. For example, Moderna was able to build an optimized mRNA construct a single day after the SARS-CoV-2 DNA sequence was made public, and began dosing patients only weeks later.  Conventional vaccine technology is much more slow to develop, and relies on bulk production of a vaccine using mammalian cells in a bioreactor or chicken eggs, while mRNA vaccines turn into the final product only once inside a patient’s cells. In some ways, mRNA vaccines are using the human body as its own vaccine production facility.

We were lucky that researchers and companies had been working for decades on RNA and nanoparticles, and specifically on the use of mRNA for vaccines for many years. Just as one example, the first RNA nanoparticle drug, Onpattro, was FDA-approved in 2018. While this drug is designed to affect the liver of patients, and has small RNA, not mRNA, the lessons learned in the creation of this drug along with all of the other work helped scientists advance the mRNA vaccines we benefit from today.

Q: What lessons has the development of the Covid-19 vaccines yielded that could help researchers with development of future RNA vaccines? What are some of the challenges that still need to be addressed?

A: There is no question that a lot of important information about Covid-19 vaccines has been learned in the last few years. Today, billions of doses of mRNA vaccines have been given to patients, providing important information about their function, safety, and manufacturing. We have learned that these drugs can be both safe and effective and, importantly, that it is possible to rapidly create a new vaccine to an emergent pathogen. We have also recognized challenges with mRNA vaccines, such as the fact that they must be kept frozen, some at very low temperatures. In the near future I expect we will see mRNA vaccines with improved stability and shelf-life. 

Q: What are some examples of diseases where RNA vaccines and other mRNA therapeutics could prove valuable in the future?

A: We are at the beginning of what I believe will be a revolution in medicine. In the near term we will see new mRNA vaccines to new strains of the coronavirus, as well as vaccines against other important diseases like influenza. I am also optimistic that we will see mRNA vaccines and mRNA therapies for diseases where we really don’t have solutions, such as HIV and some types of cancer. Longer term, I expect that mRNA therapies will play an important role in certain genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, where mRNA delivered to the lung could allow lung cells to function more normally. Finally I am excited by the progress in genome editing, and the potential for mRNA nanoparticles to provide a permanent therapy for patients. While this may sound like science fiction, we already have evidence from human trials that in vivo genome editing of the liver is possible.

Connecting MIT students with women leading in semiconductors

Kim Vo ’98, SM ’99, a corporate vice president at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), joined the semiconductor industry for three reasons. “First, it’s extremely cool technology; it’s cutting edge. The second is all the products we create: they touch everyone,” she recently said in a talk at MIT. “And the third reason is because just like at MIT, I get to work with some of the world’s smartest people.”

Vo revealed her motivation during her keynote presentation at the Global Semiconductor Alliance (GSA) Women’s Leadership Initiative networking event, co-sponsored by MIT.nano and hosted at MIT on April 6. Called “Design the Solution,” the two-hour session brought together MIT female engineering students and women in leadership roles at GSA member companies to discuss career opportunities for women in hard technology.

“Events like this are unique in their importance and their mission,” said MIT Professor Asu Ozdaglar, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and deputy dean of academics at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. “It gathers talents and wisdoms of women leaders who have risen to the top ranks of the semiconductor industry. Their experiences provide inspirations and insights that are bound to propel the next generation of women leaders, scientists, and engineers.”

Vo, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials science and engineering at MIT, opened the event with an overview of current projects at AMD and a narrative of how she got to where she is today. She advised current MIT undergraduate and graduate women to rely on four pillars for success: continually learn, partner with everyone, find sponsors, and have fun.

The afternoon proceeded with a panel discussion featuring Elif Doğruer, senior product marketing specialist at Infineon Technologies; Eve Borden, lithography process senior section manager at GlobalFoundries; Amrita Anbarasu, SoC [system on chip] design engineer at Intel; Kari Crane, DRAM design engineer at Micron Technology; and moderator Namrata Sharma, global partner leader, semiconductors at Amazon Web Services.

The speakers shared their career trajectories, highlighting the wide variety of roles in the semiconductor industry that are not always the first to come to mind — sales and marketing, foundry management, and design engineering. They spoke about moving up the corporate ladder, the transition from academia to the workforce, and what an average day looks like for them.

“The biggest difference I’ve noticed when transitioning from a student to an engineer in the semiconductor industry is that you really have to keep up with the knowledge curve,” said Anbarasu. “Make sure you apply all that you learned in school. And also, realizing that you’re part of a product development that’s actually going out in the ecosystem and creating an impact. That’s pretty cool.”

Following the panel discussion, students were invited to meet with representatives from AMD, AWS, GlobalFoundries, Infineon, Intel, and Micron. This event was one in a series organized by the GSA Women’s Leadership Initiative and hosted at universities across the country to highlight the global impact of a career in semiconductors and recruit more women into the hard-tech ecosystem.

“Have fun and enjoy your journey,” concluded Vo. “Don’t stress about making the wrong decision … It’s OK if you take a job and it’s not where you want to be; you can change it. Don’t worry — if you find something you love and you are determined, you’re going to succeed, whatever that success is to you.”

MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

“We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

“The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.”

Absent legislative victory, the president can still meet US climate goals

The most recent United Nations climate change report indicates that without significant action to mitigate global warming, the extent and magnitude of climate impacts — from floods to droughts to the spread of disease — could outpace the world’s ability to adapt to them. The latest effort to introduce meaningful climate legislation in the United States Congress, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled. The climate package in that bill — $555 billion in funding for climate resilience and clean energy — aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the nation’s current Paris Agreement pledge. With prospects of passing a standalone climate package in the Senate far from assured, is there another pathway to fulfilling that pledge?

Recent detailed legal analysis shows that there is at least one viable option for the United States to achieve the 2030 target without legislative action. Under Section 115 on International Air Pollution of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assign emissions targets to the states that collectively meet the national goal. The president could simply issue an executive order to empower the EPA to do just that. But would that be prudent?

A new study led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change explores how, under a federally coordinated carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade program aligned with the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge and implemented through Section 115 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA might allocate emissions cuts among states. Recognizing that the Biden or any future administration considering this strategy would need to carefully weigh its benefits against its potential political risks, the study highlights the policy’s net economic benefits to the nation.

The researchers calculate those net benefits by combining the estimated total cost of carbon dioxide emissions reduction under the policy with the corresponding estimated expenditures that would be avoided as a result of the policy’s implementation — expenditures on health care due to particulate air pollution, and on society at large due to climate impacts.

Assessing three carbon dioxide emissions allocation strategies (each with legal precedent) for implementing Section 115 to return cap-and-trade program revenue to the states and distribute it to state residents on an equal per-capita basis, the study finds that at the national level, the economic net benefits are substantial, ranging from $70 to $150 billion in 2030. The results appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“Our findings not only show significant net gains to the U.S. economy under a national emissions policy implemented through the Clean Air Act’s Section 115,” says Mei Yuan, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and lead author of the study. “They also show the policy impact on consumer costs may differ across states depending on the choice of allocation strategy.”

The national price on carbon needed to achieve the policy’s emissions target, as well as the policy’s ultimate cost to consumers, are substantially lower than those found in studies a decade earlier, although in line with other recent studies. The researchers speculate that this is largely due to ongoing expansion of ambitious state policies in the electricity sector and declining renewable energy costs. The policy is also progressive, consistent with earlier studies, in that equal lump-sum distribution of allowance revenue to state residents generally leads to net benefits to lower-income households. Regional disparities in consumer costs can be moderated by the allocation of allowances among states.

State-by-state emissions estimates for the study are derived from MIT’s U.S. Regional Energy Policy model, with electricity sector detail of the Renewable Energy Development System model developed by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory; air quality benefits are estimated using U.S. EPA and other models; and the climate benefits estimate is based on the social cost of carbon, the U.S. federal government’s assessment of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (currently $51/ton, adjusted for inflation). 

“In addition to illustrating the economic, health, and climate benefits of a Section 115 implementation, our study underscores the advantages of a policy that imposes a uniform carbon price across all economic sectors,” says John Reilly, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a study co-author. “A national carbon price would serve as a major incentive for all sectors to decarbonize.”

MIT Research Slam showcases postdoc and PhD communication skills

Can you tell the story of a complex research project in only three minutes? Could a presentation emerge from extreme time compression transformed like a diamond from coal? The MIT Research Slam Public Showcase on April 11 put these questions and more center stage as the four postdoc and five PhD student finalists competed for cash prizes. 

The ability to compellingly pitch scientific research to a smart but non-specialized audience is a bankable skill central to success in any professional context, within academia or beyond — and the MIT Research Slam competition provides a supportive but competitive arena to hone this skill set. The Research Slam Public Showcase gives each participant 180 seconds to present their research, a format embraced by over 200 universities around the world for annual competitions. Aside from the thrill of competition, these events provide opportunities for trainees to develop and showcase their research communication skills. 

During the weeks leading up to the event, participants joined training workshops on pitch content and delivery, and had the opportunity to work one-on-one with educators from Career Advising and Professional Development (CAPD), the Engineering Communication Labs, and the Writing and Communication Center, all of which co-sponsored and co-produced the event.

Simona Rosu, senior assistant director of postdoctoral career and professional development at CAPD, explains why this event is of particular value to PhD students and postdocs: “The ability to present their research accomplishments in a clear, compelling, and concise manner to non-experts is a key skill for the career development of PhD students and postdocs. It will help them put together strong job application materials; shine in interviews, job talks, and networking; and compete convincingly for funding opportunities, whether in academia or industry.”

The finalists included five PhD students — Leonard Boussioux, Juana De La O, Reuven “Beny” Falkovich, Olivia Kim, and Vrindaa Somjit — and four postdocs — Maria Kanelli, Jamie Karthein, Constantinos Katsimpouras, and Scott Odell. Topics ranged from superconducting qubits to melting protons. 

A panel of accomplished judges gave feedback after each of the talks. Alisa Machalek, team lead and science communication and outreach at the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease; Jermey Matthews, senior acquisitions editor at MIT Press; and Babak Movassaghi, CEO of Vitruvia Holding, served as judges. Following the event, Movassaghi reflected, “What a joy to be part of this year’s MIT Research Slam as a judge. Kudos to all the passionate PhD candidates and postdocs mastering splendidly the challenge to explain their complex scientific research in only three minutes.”

At the end of the night, Jamie Karthein was the judges’ choice in the postdoc category, Scott Odell was the runner-up, and Jamie also won the hearts of the viewers and walked away with the Audience Choice award for postdocs. After the competition, Jamie reflected: “What I found to be most valuable was using a new communication technique to engage with a broad audience about my very fundamental physics research. I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the audience during the Q&A session.”

In the PhD student class, Leonard Boussioux took the top honor as well as the Audience Choice prize, with Reuven “Beny” Falkovich close behind.  Leonard summed up his Research Slam experience with enthusiasm: “Since I am interested in an academic position after my PhD, I found the Three Minute Thesis exercise highly insightful … I also realized that it is handy to be prepared to pitch anytime to any audience what I am doing with my time, and I saw myself naturally explaining what I do in the past few weeks.”

The first place finishers received a $600 cash prize, while runners up and Audience Choice winners each received $300. 

A full list of showcase finalists and the titles of their talks is below. Video entries made public by the presenters will be available for viewing on the MIT Research Slam Youtube channel.

Research Slam organizers included Diana Chien, director of MIT School of Engineering Communication Lab; Simona Rosu, senior assistant director of postdoctoral career and professional development at CAPD; Elena Kallestinova, director of the MIT Writing and Communication Center; Alexis Boyer, assistant director of graduate career services at CAPD; Amanda Cornwall, associate director of graduate student professional development at CAPD; Viraat Goel, PhD student in biological engineering at MIT, Communication Lab Fellow, and representative of the Graduate Student Council External Affairs Board; and Pradeep Natarajan, PhD student in chemical engineering at MIT and Communication Lab Fellow. Prizes were sponsored by the MIT Career Advising and Professional Development.

An early bird takes flight

“I’m in denial, you know?”

Bob Bright, MIT Medical’s director of facilities, usually loves spring on campus, but this year, the bright yellows and greens of the daffodils and budding trees are muted; Maria Bachini, facilities coordinator at MIT Medical and Bright’s colleague of 20 years, is retiring on April 29.

Although Bachini has worked with Bright for a long while, it only represents a fraction of her overall time at the Institute — which has spanned just shy of 57 years.

In these days of freelance work and the gig economy, spending even a few years in the same place might be hard to picture. Now imagine having a single job interview that unlocks a lifelong career.

When Bachini joined the Institute in May 1965, MIT was a very different place. “When I interviewed — which was basically my first job interview, by the way, I was given a typing test, and the hiring manager asked which kind of typewriter I wanted to use — a manual or an IBM Selectric,” Bachini recalls, “I requested the Selectric, of course … it was the latest thing.” 

That first interview and typing test led to a career marked by adaptation and reinvention. She spent 16 years in the Department of Physics before moving to MIT Medical. Across the years, Bachini had a front seat to a juggernaut of technical innovation as we moved from electrified typewriters and room-sized computers to laptops, smartphones, and Zoom. How did she do it? Being the consummate go-getter certainly helped.

“Maria had this great quote from her father: ‘If you’re 15 minutes early, you’re late,’” recalls William Kettyle, MIT Medical’s former medical director. “Maria was my assistant for 20 years, and in all that time, I beat her to the office just once — because I had done the overnight shift at the clinic.”

Cheryl Baranauskas, who worked with her on MIT Medical’s administrative support team, fondly remembers those early mornings with Bachini. “My best days at MIT Medical were working with Maria, sharing a morning coffee and conversation,” she remembers. “Maria’s work ethic is like no other, but she’s also a great mentor and a great listener. … Maria just makes everyone better.”

When Kettyle retired in 2014, Bachini took on a new challenge, working alongside Bright as MIT Medical’s facilities coordinator. Though the work has been different — ranging from construction projects to elevator maintenance — Bachini has thrived. As Bright put it, “Maria can do anything and work with anyone — I always get a kick out of how people from across campus react to Maria — her positive energy and sense of humor always puts everyone in a good mood.”

Even the pandemic did little to slow Bachini down. When she was unable to come to campus, she was on the front lines remotely, working with MIT Medical’s housekeeping and facilities teams to ensure that the facility was safe for patients. That’s not to say it wasn’t a challenge. As Bright explains, “Maria is a doer, and she likes to be where the action is. … Her commitment to MIT is phenomenal, and it was hard for her to be away from campus.”

Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis puts it this way: “In many ways, Maria Bachini is MIT Medical — her dedication, positivity, and can-do attitude are an inspiration to all of us. We are going to miss her, but we’re also so fortunate to have learned from her.”

Over the years, a lot has changed at MIT, but according to Bachini, some things have remained constant: “It’s a welcoming community and a phenomenal institution. I just can’t imagine working anywhere else. If I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing.”

Soon she’ll be away from campus, and as the weather warms, Bachini is excited to use her newfound leisure time to take beach walks with her sister. As for what she’s looking forward to most on that first day of retired life? “Not waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for work,” she laughs.

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