Students imagine better products, services, and infrastructure for an aging society

A pop-up hearing aid exposition called HearWeAre. A travel agency that matches older and younger travelers for group adventures. An app that guides outgoing hospital patients through every step of the discharge process.

These are a few of the projects presented by students on the final day in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP)’s class 11.547J/SCM.287J (Global Aging and the Built Environment). Taught by Joseph Coughlin, the director of the MIT AgeLab, and supported by his team of AgeLab researchers, the class guides students toward understanding the impact of increased longevity on systems and markets and invites them to imagine how they might design better products, services, and infrastructure for an aging society.

The class attracted MIT, Harvard University, and Wellesley College students from a diverse array of disciplines, including urban planning, industrial design, supply chain management, engineering, business, and architecture. Their projects, accordingly, spanned a wide range of areas, from re-imagining the physical and service architecture of shopping malls, to addressing challenges in evaluating and purchasing hearing aids, to an analysis of the pain points older (and younger) adults experience when navigating the built environment of the bathroom.

The lengthening human lifespan — a trend in industrialized societies since the early 20th century — is often characterized as a crisis, and aging is often discussed as a problem in need of solutions. But in his research and public appearances, Coughlin stresses that longer lives are a boon to individuals as well as an unfulfilled market opportunity.

“A 100-year lifespan is the new normal for many of us. That’s an unqualified achievement,” Coughlin says. “But I think we need to also focus on ensuring and supporting 100 good years of life. There is a market and a need for improving our quality of life as we age that has yet to be meaningfully explored.”

Sheng-Hung Lee, a graduating master’s student at MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program and the teaching assistant for the course, explains that the class was project- and solution-driven. “We guided students to focus on real unmet needs of users. Learn how to interview real users, understand their pain points, and translate that learning into the design process,” he says.

Students had access to the MIT AgeLab’s research tools, including AGNES, an empathy tool that simulates limitations that are commonly associated with aging. The class also had the opportunity to interview and collaborate with members of the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders Panel, a cohort of research participants aged 85 and older.

Throughout the semester, students worked through the design-thinking process, with their coursework organized around the development and unveiling of their final projects. “The aim of the course was not just to create ideas, but to understand what it takes to bring them out into the world,” Coughlin says. With that goal in mind, the class’s projects were informed by players in the industries they were hoping to participate in. Each group paired with a company or organization — including Adventist Health, Lowe’s, Kohler, Viking Cruises, Boston Properties, and AARP — to receive industry input on their projects.

David Hong, a first-year graduate student at in DUSP, worked on a project that looked to facilitate older adults’ travel to and from hospitals. His project group observed that the “last 50 feet,” from stepping onto the pavement to reaching the hospital receptionist, was a challenging and typically unaided part of the hospital journey for older travelers.

Rather than imagine a new transportation mode or service, Hong and his classmates went with a human solution. Connecting older hospital travelers with a medical volunteer — someone to help with aspects of the journey from getting over the curb onto the sidewalk to patient advocacy in the waiting room — could increase travelers’ levels of ease and safety, make them more willing to travel for medical care, and improve health outcomes.

For Hong, the theoretical underpinnings of the course helped to guide the development of his group’s project from the beginning. “Joe’s framing of global demographic trends — both the issues and the business opportunities behind them — was a paradigm shift for me to begin to view aging as a social construct, as well as to view the issues of older adults as consumer needs that have yet to be met,” he says.

Throughout the semester, the class received support and guest lectures from AgeLab research staff, who instructed them on design thinking, conducting interviews, and research methods. “The supportive and collaborative nature of the AgeLab brings like-minded folks together,” says Hong. “With my project group, there were four researchers attached who provided help to us.”

On the final day of class, the student groups presented their ideas before an audience of their peers, industry representatives, AgeLab researchers, and older adults. They were instructed to imagine themselves pitching their ideas to potential investors. And at least one collaborating company, Kohler, plans to continue working with its affiliated student group after the semester is over.

“The class connects the dots between industry and academia,” says Lee, talking about how the Global Aging course fits the broader institutional philosophy at MIT. “We wanted to prioritize “design making” over design thinking. We asked students to use their hands to think.”  

Inaugural Day of AI brings new digital literacy to classrooms worldwide

The first annual Day of AI on Friday, May 13 introduced artificial intelligence literacy to classrooms all over the world. An initiative of MIT Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), Day of AI is an opportunity for teachers to introduce K-12 students of all backgrounds to artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in their lives.

With over 3,000 registrations from educators across 88 countries — far exceeding the first-year goal of 1,000 registrations in the United States — the initiative has clearly struck a chord with students and teachers who want to better understand the technology that’s increasingly part of everyday life.

In today’s technology-driven world, kids are exposed to and interact with AI in ways they might not realize — from search algorithms to smart devices, video recommendations to facial recognition. Day of AI aims to help educators and students develop AI literacy with an easy entry point, with free curricula and hands-on activities developed by MIT RAISE for grades 3-12.

Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, dean for digital learning, and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, says “We’re so inspired by the enthusiasm that students have expressed about learning about AI. We created this program because we want students and their teachers to be able to learn about these technologies in a way that’s engaging, that’s meaningful, that gives them the experience so they know that they can do AI too.”

AI is for everyone

The MIT RAISE team designed all Day of AI activities to be accessible to educators and students of all backgrounds and abilities, including those with little or no technology experience. In collaboration with education provider i2 Learning, MIT RAISE also offered teachers free professional development sessions prior to teaching the material. “That really helped me understand GANs and how that works,” says Gar-Hay Kit, a sixth-grade teacher from Mary Lyon School in Boston. “The slides that we were given were easy to work with and my class was engaged with all of the activities that we did that day.”

Students engaged with AI topics such as deepfakes, generative adversarial networks (GANs), algorithmic bias in datasets, and responsible design in social media platforms. Through hands-on activities and accessible, age-appropriate lessons, they learned what these technologies do, how they’re built, the potential dangers, along with responsible design and use — to bring benefit while mitigating unintended negative consequences.

To celebrate the inaugural Day of AI, the RAISE team hosted an event at WBUR CitySpace. Students from the fifth and sixth grade at Mary Lyon School shared projects they had created using the Day of AI curriculum during the previous few days. They demonstrated how Google QuickDraw was more likely to recognize spotted cows when the majority of users submit input with drawings of cows with spots; the AI didn’t have a wide enough dataset to draw from to be able to account for other breeds of cows that have different patterns or solid colors.

In a project about responsible social media and game design, students showed how the Roblox game platform only recommends gendered clothing for characters based on the user-entered gender. The solution the students proposed was to change the design of the recommendation system by inputting more options that were less overtly gendered, and allowing all users access to all of the clothing.

When asked what stuck out the most about the Day of AI activities, sixth-grade student Julia said, “It was cool how they were teaching young students AI and how we got to watch videos, and draw on the website.”

“One of the great benefits of this program is that no experience is necessary. You can be from anywhere and still have access to this career,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito at the event. The accessibility of Day of AI curricula relates to the tenet of Massachusetts STEM Week, “See yourself in STEM,” and Massachusetts’ STEM education goals at large. When Polito asked the audience of fifth- and sixth-graders from Mary Lyon School if they saw themselves in STEM, dozens of hands shot up in the air.

Breazeal echoed that sentiment, saying, “No matter your background, we want you to feel empowered and see a place where you can be inventing and driving these technologies in responsible ways to make a better world.” Working professionals and graduate students who use AI aren’t the only ones affected by this technology. RAISE pursues research, innovation, and outreach programs like Day of AI so K-12 students of all ages can recognize AI, evaluate its influence, and learn how to use it responsibly. Addressing the students, Breazeal said, “As you grow up, you’ll have a voice in our democracy to say how you want to see AI used.” 

More than just robots … but sometimes robots

Breazeal also moderated a panel of professionals who work with AI every day: Daniella DiPaola, PhD student at the MIT Media Lab; Steve Idowu, senior manager of strategic innovation at Liberty Mutual; Alex Aronov, executive director of data strategy and solutions at Vertex; and Sara Saperstein, head of data science, cybersecurity, and fraud at MassMutual. The panelists discussed how they’re able to leverage AI in a variety of different ways at their jobs.

Aronov explained that in a broad sense, AI can help automate “mundane” tasks so employees can focus on projects that require creative, innately “human” thinking. Idowu uses AI to improve customer and employee experiences, from claims to risk assessments. DiPaola addressed the common misconception that AI refers to sentient robots: when the Media Lab developed the social robot Jibo, the AI in action is not the robot itself but natural language understanding, technology that helps Jibo understand what people say and mean. Throughout her academic career, DiPaola has been interested in how people interact with technology. “AI is helping us uncover things about ourselves,” she said.

The panelists also spoke to the broader goals of Day of AI — not only to introduce a younger generation to the STEM concepts at the core of AI technology, but to help them envision a future for themselves that uses those skills in new ways. “It’s not just the math and computer science, it’s about thinking deeply about what we’re doing — and how,” said Saperstein.

Jeffrey Leiden, executive chair of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (a founding sponsor of Day of AI as well as the CitySpace event), said, “Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us could have predicted how much AI and machine learning would be in our lives. We have Siri on our phones, AI can tell us what’s in our fridges, it can change the temperature automatically on our thermostats,” he said. As someone working in the medical industry, he’s particularly excited for how AI can detect medical events before they happen so patients can be treated proactively.

By introducing STEM subjects as early as elementary and middle school, educators can build pathways for students to pursue STEM in high school and beyond. Exposure to future careers as scientists and researchers working in fields ranging from life sciences to robotics can empower students to bring their ideas forward and come up with even better solutions for science’s great questions.

The first Day of AI was hugely successful, with teachers posting photos and stories of their students’ enthusiasm from all over the world on social media using #DayofAI. Further Day of AI events are planned in Australia and Hong Kong later this summer, and the MIT RAISE team is already planning new curriculum modules, resources, and community-building efforts in advance of next year’s event. Plans include engaging the growing global community for language translation, more cultural localization for curriculum modules, and more.

Linguistics luminaries Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle honored

Nearly 60 years ago, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle established the MIT Department of Linguistics. This spring, the department dedicated a wing of its Stata Center home to these founding fathers.

“Together, they defined and transformed the entire field of linguistics,” says Danny Fox, the Anshen-Chomsky Professor of Language and Thought and department head. “Naming the wing after them seemed like a way of indicating their centrality not only to our discipline but in so many ways to all of cognitive science.”

Halle, who taught at MIT from 1951 to 1996, and became an Institute Professor, died in 2018. Chomsky came to MIT in 1955 and retired in 2002, continuing his research as Institute Professor Emeritus. He moved to the University of Arizona several years ago, where he is laureate professor of linguistics. Halle and Chomsky shared an office in MIT’s fabled Building 20, and when it was demolished, they moved to a space in the Stata Center. After Chomsky’s departure, this area was redesigned for use as the department’s Language Acquisition Lab.

“With our growing emphasis on experimental work, it seemed natural to devote this space to our new lab,” says David Pesetsky, the Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, and former department head. “Both Noam and Morris were my teachers in the early 1980s, and no student today can work in this field without being influenced by them. We thought it would be wonderful to name this area for our beloved colleagues, who taught so many of us.”

Talk and toasts

At an event that combined celebration with reunion, Chomsky delivered a virtual lecture titled “Genuine Explanation and the Strong Minimalist Thesis,” which was made available to the entire MIT community. After the talk, faculty, alumni, and graduate students — representing the ancestral tree of linguists trained by Chomsky and Halle directly, and by their protégées — engaged in lively colloquy with Chomsky in line with time-honored linguistics department tradition.

At the reception afterwards, friends and family toasted the long-lived partnership. Jay Keyser, professor emeritus of linguistics, described the “deep affection” Chomsky and Halle had for each other. “It was one of those rare moments in history when their paths converged,” he said. “Like Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and Niels Bohr, they were scientists who changed the way we looked at ourselves.”

Robert C. Berwick, a professor of computer science and engineering and computational linguistics, characterized the two as “playing together in an especially complementary way.”

Halle’s son Tim spoke of “the lifelong friendship that defined them both,” and John described roaming the halls of Building 20 and noticing “how much fun people were having in their labs,” he said. “There was arguing and the point was to make progress, advance the science, but laughter is what I remember most.”

Just 15 years earlier, Pesetsky remarked, he could walk down the hall if he “wanted to argue with Morris or find out what Noam had to say about something,” Today, in the revamped wing, “we do much the same, learning from and arguing with each other, in the spirit of the department they created.”

Nostalgia

“My main reaction when I learned about the dedication was, I must admit, nostalgia,” says Chomsky. “I started thinking how Morris and I had worked together all these years, since we met as graduate students in the mid-20th century.” The two commuted to campus on the subway, and later Chomsky would drive them both in. “When Morris and I decided in the late 1950s to start a department, even to us it seemed a pretty wild idea. Would students come to MIT to study linguistics — which was not yet recognized as a field? To our surprise, a group of outstanding students came the first year, and then our contemporary form of linguistics exploded, moving around to the rest of the country and elsewhere in the world.”

This newly defined discipline aimed to characterize human language acquisition as a unique and biologically based trait. Chomsky specialized in syntax, and Halle on phonology, but they produced seminal texts together, such as “The Sound Pattern of English.” They also served as the engine driving a tight-knit group of graduate researchers and young faculty.

Among them was Donca Steriade, the Class of 1941 Professor of Linguistics. “Morris had a seriousness of purpose in science that obliterated everything else,” she recalls. “One could agree or disagree with him over points of doctrine or the ways in which we carried out our work, but there was no question that he was profoundly dedicated to finding the truth.” As a young researcher, Steriade found it reassuring that Halle and Chomsky “viewed their lives as organized around the act of doing science.”

Steriade and other students were held to high standards. “There were quite a few of us as graduate students whom Morris suggested shouldn’t be in the field, and it wasn’t easy always being tested,” she says. But Halle was also “interested in each of us as individuals as well as a source of ideas, and curious about what kind of human beings we were.” His critiques were intended to compel young researchers to embrace linguistics not as a career so much as a path for advancing science. “Don’t look at data without a purpose; Morris and Noam never forgot this, and I never forget this,” says Steriade.

Advancing the field

At the MIT Language Acquisition Lab, Associate Professor Martin Hackl and Assistant Professor Athulya Aravind currently investigate how human infants and children determine the properties of their native language in a startlingly brief period of time. Aravind is acutely aware of what it means to conduct her research in the newly dedicated wing. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants like Chomsky and Halle,” she says.

While theorists such as Chomsky and Halle laid down the theoretical foundations for language acquisition, the experimental field has lagged, she says. “We are dealing with a special population, infants and young children,” she adds, “which has made it difficult to collect empirical data to help us understand what kids know about language, and the biological origins of language development.”

At the lab, Aravind and her colleagues are devising new methods and behavioral measures to explore how babies and toddlers pick up language. “What are slowing us down are just practicalities,” she says. Joining her in the lab are similarly dedicated graduate researchers, another legacy of the Chomsky-Halle collaboration, she notes. “Their vision was specific: They insisted that graduate students must be part of the process of scientific discovery from the get-go, and their ideas and findings must be taken seriously by senior faculty, and they must take themselves seriously as well.”

Chomsky says he could not be more heartened by the experimental and educational objectives of Aravind and her colleagues. “It is very gratifying to have this wing dedicated to new research, which is really exciting work at the frontiers of understanding,” he says. Chomsky also sees no end of questions to explore in the field. “Every time you make a discovery, it opens up a door to new problems, which will go on indefinitely. Somehow, each of us finds new thoughts in our minds, maybe new in the history of language, or in our experience. How do we do that?  Nobody has a clue. That one we may never solve.”

Congressional seminar introduces MIT faculty to 30 Washington staffers

More than 30 congressional and executive branch staffers were hosted by MIT’s Security Studies Program (SSP) for a series of panels and a keynote address focused on contemporary national security issues. 

Organized by the Security Studies Program, the Executive Branch and Congressional Staff Seminar was held from Wednesday, April 20m to Friday, April 22, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program, supported by a generous grant from the Raymond Frankel Foundation, is hosted by MIT every other year to encourage interaction and exchange between scholars studying national security and policymakers.

Staff members from the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Congressional Research Service were joined by more than 15 MIT SSP faculty members and research affiliates. Each of them is an expert on one of a broad range of topics, from China’s ambitions to great-power competition.

This year’s program included a guided tour of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, four intensive panels with SSP faculty and affiliates, and a keynote address by Admiral John Richardson, the former chief of naval operations.

Keynote address

In his address, Richardson argued the United States is facing two simultaneous revolutions that have the potential to reshape the world. First, a political revolution of rising powers is returning the world to multipolarity and spreading authoritarianism. Second, a technological revolution of interconnected new technologies, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, promises not only to increase speed and efficiency, but also to allow for entirely new capabilities. 

Richardson compared the current moment to two points in history: the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the Cold War. In both periods, he said, the United States faced intertwined political and technological revolutions. 

In each case, he said, the U.S. and its allies prevailed. This success was won in both the political and technological spheres. 

In those areas, there was a sense of existential urgency that enabled a more adaptable and learning-based approach to the rapid changes of the Cold War, he said. In the end, the United States benefited from a coherent strategy to address worldwide changes.

The current challenges, Richardson said, demand a similar sense of urgency, adaptability, and learning if the U.S. is to prevail in preserving its influence in the world, and its quality of life.

The changing international order

During a panel on the “Changing International Order,” staffers heard from Ford International Professor of Political Science Barry Posen, SSP Senior Advisor Carol Saivetz, and Jonathan Kirshner, a professor of political science and international studies at Boston College.

Posen focused his remarks on Russia and China’s growing power relative to the United States, in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Kirshner identified the domestic politics of key participants in the international order, especially domestic dysfunction in the United States, as the chief driver of change. Saivetz offered several hypotheses on the cause of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which include pushing back against the expansion of NATO and the European Union, the desire for great power status, concerns about a liberal democracy on its borders, and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

New tools of statecraft

A panel on “New Tools of Statecraft” featured remarks by Richard Nielsen, associate professor of political science at MIT, Mariya Grinberg, assistant professor of political science at MIT, and Joel Brenner, senior advisor to MIT SSP. MIT’s R. David Edelman, director of the Project on Technology, Economy and National Security and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory affiliate, chaired the panel.

Nielsen discussed the role of U.S. influence in a world beset by misinformation. He emphasized that the internet is more fragmented than it has ever been, and America’s ability to shape people’s opinions through the internet is extremely limited. Grinberg, an expert on conflict economies, addressed what policy changes are necessary — and what policy changes were unnecessary — in response to the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on markets. Brenner observed that many existing tools of statecraft are not “new,” but the speed, coordination, and synchronization of tools is new, as demonstrated by both the Russians and the Ukrainians in the ongoing war.

China’s growing ambitions

A panel on “China’s Growing Ambitions” featured remarks by MIT SSP director and Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science M. Taylor Fravel along with two SSP alumni: Joseph Torigian PhD ’16, an assistant professor with the School of International Service at American University, and Fiona Cunningham PhD ’18, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Torigian suggested that Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s views are likely a balance between pursuing the Communist Party’s ideals and mission with a deep skepticism of radical policies, and the kind of leftism and radicalism associated with events such as the Cultural Revolution. Xi is ideological, he said, but is flexible. Cunningham spoke broadly on China’s ambitions, and concluded with an argument that the U.S. needs to do more work to implement a more competitive Indo-Pacific policy, especially in terms of trade, and that U.S. officials should work to protect and strengthen existing channels of communication so that they can be functional in a crisis. Fravel discussed recent military changes in China. He noted that China adopted a new military strategy in 2019, which identifies the U.S. and Taiwan as principal adversaries, but stated that this was fundamentally not much more than top-level cosmetic changes to the 2014 military strategy in order to help cement Xi’s role as a military leader. 

The new nuclear era

The “New Nuclear Era” panel featured three MIT faculty and affiliates: Senior Research Associate Jim Walsh, Principal Research Scientist Eric Heginbotham, and Caitlin Talmadge PhD ’11, an associate professor with the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an SSP alumna.

Heginbotham discussed the increasing number and variety of roles that nuclear weapons play in international affairs, emphasizing how multipolarity and nuclear proliferation create “nested security dilemmas.” Talmadge similarly highlighted the complexity of the deterrence environment with multiple, multi-sided nuclear competitions occurring at once. Walsh framed the war in Ukraine as a reminder of nuclear danger that motivates the public both to “hug nuclear weapons more closely in a more dangerous world” and to “reduce nuclear danger before unimaginably bad things happen.”

Virtual worlds apart

What is virtual reality? On a technical level, it is a headset-enabled system using images and sounds to make the user feel as if they are in another place altogether. But in terms of the content and essence of virtual reality — well, that may depend on where you are.

In the U.S., for instance, virtual reality (VR) has its deep roots as a form of military training technology. Later it took on a “techno-utopian” air when it started getting more attention in the 1980s and 1990s, as MIT Professor Paul Roquet observes in a new book about the subject. But in Japan, virtual reality has become heavily oriented around “isekai,” or “other world” fantasies, including scenarios where the VR user enters a portal to another world and must find their way back.

“Part of my goal, in pulling out these different senses of virtual reality, is that it can mean different things in different parts of the world, and is changing a lot over time,” says Roquet, an associate professor of media studies and Japan studies in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program.

As such, VR constitutes a useful case study in the interactions of society and technology, and the way innovations can evolve in relation to the cultures that adopt them. Roquet details these differences in the new book, “The Immersive Enclosure: Virtual reality in Japan,” published this week by Columbia University Press.

Different lineages

As Roquet notes in the book, virtual reality has a lengthy lineage of precursor innovations, dating at least to early 20th-century military flight simulators. A 1960s stereoscopic arcade machine, the Sensorama, is regarded as the first commercial VR device. Later in the decade, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist with an MIT PhD, developed a pioneering computerized head-mounted display.

By the 1980s in the U.S., however, virtual reality, often linked with technologist Jaron Lanier, had veered off in a different direction, being cast as a liberatory tool, “more pure than what came before,” as Roquet puts it. He adds: “It goes back to the Platonic ideal of the world that can be separated from everyday materiality. And in the popular imagination, VR becomes this space where we can fix things like sexism, racism, discrimination, and inequality. There’s a lot of promises being made in the U.S. context.”

In Japan, though, VR has a different trajectory. Partly because Japan’s postwar constitution prohibited most military activities, virtual reality developed more in relation to forms of popular entertainment such as manga, anime, and video games. Roquet believes its Japanese technological lineage also includes the Sony Walkman, which created private space for media consumption.

“It’s going in different directions,” Roquet says. “The technology moves away from the kind of military and industrial uses promised in the U.S.”

As Roquet details in the book, different Japanese phrases for virtual reality reflect this. One term, “bacharu riariti,” reflects the more idealistic notion that a virtual space could functionally substitute for a real one; another, “kaso genjitsu,” situates virtual reality more as entertainment where the “feeling matters as much as technology itself.”

The actual content of VR entertainment can vary, from multiplayer battle games to other kinds of fantasy-world activities. As Roquet examines in the book, Japanese virtual reality also has a distinct gender profile: One survey in Japan showed that 87 percent of social virtual reality users were male, but 88 percent of them were embodying female lead characters, and not necessarily in scenarios that are empowering to women. Men are thus “everywhere in control yet nowhere to be seen,” Roquet writes, while “covertly reinscribing gender norms.”

A rather different potential application for virtual reality is telework. As Roquet also details, considerable research has been applied to the idea of using VR to control robots for use in numerous settings, from health care to industrial tasks. This is something Japanese technologists share with, say, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, whose company has become the leading U.S. backer of virtual reality.

“It’s not so much that there’s an absolute divide [between the U.S. and Japan], Roquet says; instead, he notes, there is a different emphasis in terms of “what virtual reality is about.”

What escapism cannot escape

Other scholars have praised “The Immersive Enclosure.” Yuriko Furuhata, an associate professor at McGill University, has called the book “a refreshing new take on VR  as a consumer technology.” James J. Hodge, an associate professor at Northwestern University, has called the book “a must-read for scholars in media studies and general readers alike fascinated by the flawed revolutionary potential of VR.”

Ultimately, as Roquet concludes as the end of the book, virtual reality still faces key political, commercial, and social questions. One of them, he writes, is “how to envision a VR future governed by something other than a small set of corporate landlords and the same old geopolitical struggles.” Another, as the book notes, is “what it means for a media interface to assert control over someone’s spatial awareness.”

In both matters, that means understanding virtual reality — and technology broadly — as it gets shaped by society. Virtual reality may often present itself as a form of escapism, but there is no escaping the circumstances in which it has been developed and refined.

“You can create a space that’s outside of the social world, but it ends up being highly shaped by whoever is doing the creation,” Roquet says.

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.

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