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Designing synthetic proteins that can act as drugs for cancer or other diseases can be a tedious process: It generally involves creating a library of millions of proteins, then screening the library to find proteins that bind the correct target.
MIT biologists have now come up with a more refined approach in which they use computer modeling to predict how different protein sequences will interact with the target. This strategy generates a larger number of candidates and also offers greater control over a variety of protein traits, says Amy Keating, a professor of biology and biological engineering and the leader of the research team.
“Our method gives you a much bigger playing field where you can select solutions that are very different from one another and are going to have different strengths and liabilities,” she says. “Our hope is that we can provide a broader range of possible solutions to increase the throughput of those initial hits into useful, functional molecules.”
In a paper appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Oct. 15, Keating and her colleagues used this approach to generate several peptides that can target different members of a protein family called Bcl-2, which help to drive cancer growth.
Recent PhD recipients Justin Jenson and Vincent Xue are the lead authors of the paper. Other authors are postdoc Tirtha Mandal, former lab technician Lindsey Stretz, and former postdoc Lothar Reich.
Protein drugs, also called biopharmaceuticals, are a rapidly growing class of drugs that hold promise for treating a wide range of diseases. The usual method for identifying such drugs is to screen millions of proteins, either randomly chosen or selected by creating variants of protein sequences already shown to be promising candidates. This involves engineering viruses or yeast to produce each of the proteins, then exposing them to the target to see which ones bind the best.
“That is the standard approach: Either completely randomly, or with some prior knowledge, design a library of proteins, and then go fishing in the library to pull out the most promising members,” Keating says.
While that method works well, it usually produces proteins that are optimized for only a single trait: how well it binds to the target. It does not allow for any control over other features that could be useful, such as traits that contribute to a protein’s ability to get into cells or its tendency to provoke an immune response.
“There’s no obvious way to do that kind of thing — specify a positively charged peptide, for example — using the brute force library screening,” Keating says.
Another desirable feature is the ability to identify proteins that bind tightly to their target but not to similar targets, which helps to ensure that drugs do not have unintended side effects. The standard approach does allow researchers to do this, but the experiments become more cumbersome, Keating says.
The new strategy involves first creating a computer model that can relate peptide sequences to their binding affinity for the target protein. To create this model, the researchers first chose about 10,000 peptides, each 23 amino acids in length and helical in structure, and tested their binding to three different members of the Bcl-2 family. They intentionally chose some sequences they already knew would bind well, plus others they knew would not, so the model could incorporate data about a range of binding abilities.
From this set of data, the model can produce a “landscape” of how each peptide sequence interacts with each target. The researchers can then use the model to predict how other sequences will interact with the targets, and generate peptides that meet the desired criteria.
Using this model, the researchers produced 36 peptides that were predicted to tightly bind one family member but not the other two. All of the candidates performed extremely well when the researchers tested them experimentally, so they tried a more difficult problem: identifying proteins that bind to two of the members but not the third. Many of these proteins were also successful.
“This approach represents a shift from posing a very specific problem and then designing an experiment to solve it, to investing some work up front to generate this landscape of how sequence is related to function, capturing the landscape in a model, and then being able to explore it at will for multiple properties,” Keating says.
Sagar Khare, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, says the new approach is impressive in its ability to discriminate between closely related protein targets.
“Selectivity of drugs is critical for minimizing off-target effects, and often selectivity is very difficult to encode because there are so many similar-looking molecular competitors that will also bind the drug apart from the intended target. This work shows how to encode this selectivity in the design itself,” says Khare, who was not involved in the research. “Applications in the development of therapeutic peptides will almost certainly ensue.”
Members of the Bcl-2 protein family play an important role in regulating programmed cell death. Dysregulation of these proteins can inhibit cell death, helping tumors to grow unchecked, so many drug companies have been working on developing drugs that target this protein family. For such drugs to be effective, it may be important for them to target just one of the proteins, because disrupting all of them could cause harmful side effects in healthy cells.
“In many cases, cancer cells seem to be using just one or two members of the family to promote cell survival,” Keating says. “In general, it is acknowledged that having a panel of selective agents would be much better than a crude tool that just knocked them all out.”
The researchers have filed for patents on the peptides they identified in this study, and they hope that they will be further tested as possible drugs. Keating’s lab is now working on applying this new modeling approach to other protein targets. This kind of modeling could be useful for not only developing potential drugs, but also generating proteins for use in agricultural or energy applications, she says.
The research was funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships, and the National Institutes of Health.
Seafaring vessels and offshore platforms endure a constant battery of waves and currents. Over decades of operation, these structures can, without warning, meet head-on with a rogue wave, freak storm, or some other extreme event, with potentially damaging consequences.
Now engineers at MIT have developed an algorithm that quickly pinpoints the types of extreme events that are likely to occur in a complex system, such as an ocean environment, where waves of varying magnitudes, lengths, and heights can create stress and pressure on a ship or offshore platform. The researchers can simulate the forces and stresses that extreme events — in the form of waves — may generate on a particular structure.
Compared with traditional methods, the team’s technique provides a much faster, more accurate risk assessment for systems that are likely to endure an extreme event at some point during their expected lifetime, by taking into account not only the statistical nature of the phenomenon but also the underlying dynamics.
“With our approach, you can assess, from the preliminary design phase, how a structure will behave not to one wave but to the overall collection or family of waves that can hit this structure,” says Themistoklis Sapsis, associate professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at MIT. “You can better design your structure so that you don’t have structural problems or stresses that surpass a certain limit.”
Sapsis says that the technique is not limited to ships and ocean platforms, but can be applied to any complex system that is vulnerable to extreme events. For instance, the method may be used to identify the type of storms that can generate severe flooding in a city, and where that flooding may occur. It could also be used to estimate the types of electrical overloads that could cause blackouts, and where those blackouts would occur throughout a city’s power grid.
Sapsis and Mustafa Mohamad, a former graduate student in Sapsis’ group, currently assistant research scientist at Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, are publishing their results this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bypassing a shortcut
Engineers typically gauge a structure’s endurance to extreme events by using computationally intensive simulations to model a structure’s response to, for instance, a wave coming from a particular direction, with a certain height, length, and speed. These simulations are highly complex, as they model not just the wave of interest but also its interaction with the structure. By simulating the entire “wave field” as a particular wave rolls in, engineers can then estimate how a structure might be rocked and pushed by a particular wave, and what resulting forces and stresses may cause damage.
These risk assessment simulations are incredibly precise and in an ideal situation might predict how a structure would react to every single possible wave type, whether extreme or not. But such precision would require engineers to simulate millions of waves, with different parameters such as height and length scale — a process that could take months to compute.
“That’s an insanely expensive problem,” Sapsis says. “To simulate one possible wave that can occur over 100 seconds, it takes a modern graphic processor unit, which is very fast, about 24 hours. We’re interested to understand what is the probability of an extreme event over 100 years.”
As a more practical shortcut, engineers use these simulators to run just a few scenarios, choosing to simulate several random wave types that they think might cause maximum damage. If a structural design survives these extreme, randomly generated waves, engineers assume the design will stand up against similar extreme events in the ocean.
But in choosing random waves to simulate, Sapsis says, engineers may miss other less obvious scenarios, such as combinations of medium-sized waves, or a wave with a certain slope that could develop into a damaging extreme event.
“What we have managed to do is to abandon this random sampling logic,” Sapsis says.
A fast learner
Instead of running millions of waves or even several randomly chosen waves through a computationally intensive simulation, Sapsis and Mohamad developed a machine-learning algorithm to first quickly identify the “most important” or “most informative” wave to run through such a simulation.
The algorithm is based on the idea that each wave has a certain probability of contributing to an extreme event on the structure. The probability itself has some uncertainty, or error, since it represents the effect of a complex dynamical system. Moreover, some waves are more certain to contribute to an extreme event over others.
The researchers designed the algorithm so that they can quickly feed in various types of waves and their physical properties, along with their known effects on a theoretical offshore platform. From the known waves that the researchers plug into the algorithm, it can essentially “learn” and make a rough estimate of how the platform will behave in response to any unknown wave. Through this machine-learning step, the algorithm learns how the offshore structure behaves over all possible waves. It then identifies a particular wave that maximally reduces the error of the probability for extreme events. This wave has a high probability of occuring and leads to an extreme event. In this way the algorithm goes beyond a purely statistical approach and takes into account the dynamical behavior of the system under consideration.
The researchers tested the algorithm on a theoretical scenario involving a simplified offshore platform subjected to incoming waves. The team started out by plugging four typical waves into the machine-learning algorithm, including the waves’ known effects on an offshore platform. From this, the algorithm quickly identified the dimensions of a new wave that has a high probability of occurring, and it maximally reduces the error for the probability of an extreme event.
The team then plugged this wave into a more computationally intensive, open-source simulation to model the response of a simplified offshore platform. They fed the results of this first simulation back into their algorithm to identify the next best wave to simulate, and repeated the entire process. In total, the group ran 16 simulations over several days to model a platform’s behavior under various extreme events. In comparison, the researchers carried out simulations using a more conventional method, in which they blindly simulated as many waves as possible, and were able to generate similar statistical results only after running thousands of scenarios over several months.
MIT researchers simulated the behavior of a simplified offshore platform in response to the waves that are most likely to contribute to an extreme event. Courtesy of the researchers
Sapsis says the results demonstrate that the team’s method quickly hones in on the waves that are most certain to be involved in an extreme event, and provides designers with more informed, realistic scenarios to simulate, in order to test the endurance of not just offshore platforms, but also power grids and flood-prone regions.
“This method paves the way to perform risk assessment, design, and optimization of complex systems based on extreme events statistics, which is something that has not been considered or done before without severe simplifications,” Sapsis says. “We’re now in a position where we can say, using ideas like this, you can understand and optimize your system, according to risk criteria to extreme events.”
This research was supported, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, Army Research Office, and Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and was initiated through a grant from the American Bureau of Shipping.
How does the body renew itself? How do cancer cells use the same or similar processes to form tumors and spread throughout the body? How might we use those processes to heal injuries or fight cancer?
A new research program at MIT is tackling fundamental biological questions about normal adult stem cells and their malignant counterparts, cancer stem cells. Launched last spring with support from Fondation MIT, the MIT Stem Cell Initiative is headed by Jacqueline Lees, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research, professor of biology, and associate director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Other founding members of the initiative are Robert Weinberg, a professor of biology, Whitehead Institute member, and director of the Ludwig Center at MIT; and Omer Yilmaz, an assistant professor of biology.
Normal adult stem cells have been defined for more than a half-century. Relatively rare, they are undifferentiated cells within a tissue that divide to produce two daughter cells. One remains in the stem cell state to maintain the stem cell population, a process called self-renewal. The second daughter cell adopts a partially differentiated state, then goes on to divide and differentiate further to yield multiple cell types that form that tissue. In many fully formed adult tissues, normal stem cells divide periodically to replenish or repair the tissue. Importantly, this division is a carefully controlled process to ensure that tissues are restricted to the appropriate size and cell content.
Cancer stem cells are also of long-standing interest and share many similarities with normal adult stem cells. They perform the same division but, rather than differentiating, the additional cells produced by the second daughter cell amass to form the bulk of the tumor. Following surgery or treatment, cancer stem cells can regrow the tumor — and are frequently resistant to chemotherapy — making them especially dangerous. This unique ability of normal and cancer stem cells to both self-renew and form a tissue or tumor is referred to by researchers as “stemness,” and has important implications for biomedical applications.
Because of the key role they play in tissue maintenance and regeneration, normal stem cells hold great promise for use in repairing damaged tissues. Cancer stem cells, correspondingly, are the lifeblood of tumors. Although relatively rare within tumors, they are particularly important because they possess the ability to create tumors and are also chemotherapy-resistant. As a result, cancer stem cells are thought to be responsible for tumor recurrence after remission, and also for the formation of metastases, which account for the majority of cancer-associated deaths. Accordingly, an anti-cancer stem cell therapy that can target and kill cancer stem cells is one of the holy grails of cancer treatment — a means to suppress both tumor recurrence and metastatic disease.
Hiding in plain sight
One of the fundamental challenges to studying normal and cancer stem cells, and to ultimately harnessing that knowledge, is developing the ability to identify, purify, and propagate these cells. This has often proved tricky, as another key similarity between normal and cancer stem cells is that neither is visibly different from other cells in a tissue or tumor. Thus, a major goal in stem cell and cancer stem cell research is finding ways to distinguish these rare specimens from other cells, ideally by identifying unique surface markers that can be used to purify stem cell and cancer stem cell populations and enable their study.
The MIT Stem Cell Initiative is applying new technologies and approaches in pursuit of this goal. More specifically, the program aims to:
- identify the stem cells and cancer stem cells in various tissues and tumor types;
- determine how these cells change during aging (in the case of normal stem cells) or with disease progression (in the case of degenerative conditions and cancer); and
- determine the similarities and differences between normal and cancer stem cells, with the goal of finding vulnerabilities in cancer stem cells that can be viable and specific targets for treatment.
Ultimately, the ability to identify, purify, and establish various populations of stem cells and cancer stem cells could help researchers better understand the biology of these cells, and learn how to utilize them more effectively in regenerative medicine applications and target them in cancer.
When biology meets technology
MIT Stem Cell Initiative studies focus on normal and cancer stem cells of epithelial tissues. Epithelia are one of four general tissue types in the body; they line most organs and are where the vast majority of cancers arise. Epithelial cells from different organs share some biological properties, but also have distinct differences reflecting the organ’s specific role and/or environment. In particular, the MIT Stem Cell Initiative has focused on the breast and colon, as these tissues are quite different from each other, yet each constitutes a major portion of cancer incidence.
New technologies are enabling the researchers to make significant headway in these investigations, progress that was not feasible just a few years ago. Specifically, they are using a combination of specially cultured cells, sophisticated and highly controllable mouse models of cancer, and single-cell RNA sequencing and computational analysis techniques that are uniquely suited to extracting a great deal of information from the relatively small number of stem cells.
While breast and colon work is ongoing, MIT Stem Cell Initiative members are planning studies of additional tissues and recruiting collaborators for pilot projects. The results of the researchers’ studies will advance understandings of stem cell regulation and may ultimately lead to advances in tissue regeneration and/or cancer analysis and treatment.
Students from diverse cultural, racial, ethnic, national or economic backgrounds; students with disabilities; LGBTQ+ students; first-generation students; and others face unique challenges when participating in international programs. MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), based in the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has launched an initiative to address such issues and better understand those perspectives.
The mission is simple: to prepare and support all students while abroad. Through student blogs, guided peer-to-peer conversation sessions and tailored resources, MISTI aims to empower students with new methods for engaging with their identities during the course of their international experiences.
“I have always ‘traveled’ through the course of my life. I have, in my 19 years of life, lived in 19 different buildings, four different states, and two different countries. Being a first-generation, low-income student did impact my confidence in my abilities to do well traveling abroad. …Thankfully, there were MISTI resources available that helped me,” says sophomore Enriko Kurtz Granadoz Chave, who participated in an internship in Santiago, Chile, at the University of Santiago de Chile through MIT-Chile.
Co-sponsored by the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO), MISTI received grant support to host speakers from Diversity Abroad for both staff and students in 2017, and this year received additional funding to foster student leadership. MISTI is focusing on professional development, campus collaboration, and student communication in order to better prepare students before departure to their host countries and to provide thoughtful support while students are abroad.
To develop the new programming, Mala Ghosh, MIT-India managing director and MISTI diversity lead, talked with campus partners, researched current best practices, and sought out student feedback. “We are proud of the diversity represented in MISTI participation,” says Ghosh. “However, we must go beyond numbers and ensure that we are supporting all students to thrive abroad.”
Creating a conversation
MISTI offers a series of dialogue-based sessions, led by students and guided by MISTI staff, partners, and speakers. These gatherings are focused on particular aspects of identity and are open to all MIT students, with the goal of preparing students for traveling and living abroad. Four sessions were held during the past year: “Embracing Your Diversity Abroad”, “Being Out in the World: Being LGBTQ+ Abroad,” “Going Abroad as a Student of Color,” and “Religion & Spirituality Abroad.”
Eduardo Rivera, MIT-Chile program manager, captures the goals for both students and staff, “Every international academic experience is unique. The singularity of those experiences is not only shaped by the particular context of the destination, but more importantly by the unique lens through which the student will see and interact with the new context. Offering our students an opportunity to reflect on their identities and their international experiences is a fundamental step to supporting their personal and academic growth before, during, and after an experience abroad.”
Sharing student perspectives
MISTI also highlights student-to-student learning through MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors, where students write blogs about their MISTI experiences. These blogs start conversations on the ambassador’s identity and how it shaped their global experiences. This summer, 10 students wrote about religion, race, heritage, prejudice, privilege, LGBTQ+ identity, and economic status, among other topics.
“I joined the MISTI IdentityX Ambassador Program because it was a way to capture my thoughts while abroad. I picked South Africa because I had questions about my own identity that I sought to answer and this was a perfect medium,” says IdentityX Ambassador and sophomore Peter Williams, who completed a MISTI internship in South Africa to complement his MIT mechanical engineering studies.
“Participating in IdentityX has provided me the opportunity to frame, process, and write about my experience abroad in the context of identity,” says senior Carrie Watkins, who is pursuing her master’s in city planning and completed her internship in The Netherlands. “It has given me an excuse to enter into real conversations with new friends and colleagues.”
MISTI aims for these conversations to inspire students who don’t feel like international opportunities are for them, or are nervous about being successful in an internship abroad. “I think having honest accounts are valuable for individuals who are considering MISTI,” says Yara Jabbour Al Maalouf, a senior in chemical-biological engineering who wrote her IdentityX blogs during her internship in India. “It isn't necessarily purely for advice on 'how to survive' or reassurance of certain worries, but it is also a unique perspective on how to make the most out of the experience and grow.”
For master's student Trang Luu ’18, who completed MISTI internships in South Africa and Cameroon through MIT-Africa, the international experience forced her to expand and question aspects of her identity. “When I got my acceptance letter to MIT, I felt like I had broken through a glass ceiling,” says Luu. “I decided that the life I was going to live would be the life that I chose — and I chose to be an engineer. Never once did I anticipated that being an engineer could be have a downside; however, during my time in Cameroon, I began to realize that I needed to question my own perspectives and ensure broader social impact not only a technical or physical solution.”
Future MISTI events will continue to highlight different perspectives, the intersection of varying identities, and focus on providing country-specific resources to students. IdentityX Ambassadors will play an important part in that goal as peer mentors and program representatives.
“We believe one of the most effective ways for students to learn is by engaging with one another,” says Ghosh. “We are preparing MISTI IdentityX Ambassadors to help lead pre-departure sessions for students going overseas next year. It is vital for students to hear from other students not only about international academic and career opportunities, but also how their various identities played a role in their time abroad. We have found that students tend to open up more in smaller sessions focused on gender and safety abroad, being LGBTQ+ abroad, concerns around immigration and travel, student wellness while abroad, and preparing ahead for managing wellness or accessibility abroad.”
“The blogs and other identity programming can only make MISTI more approachable as a community,” says IdentityX Ambassador Johnson Huynh, who completed his internship in Mexico and is studying mechanical engineering. “If we could continue this trend of encouraging students to think about their identities, and highlight MISTI student personalities, I believe that it can only draw more participants towards the program and to international programs in general.”
The blogs not only met a student need, but also fulfilled a MISTI goal. “The MISTI blogs are a window to discover our students beyond their course or simple demographic data. The blogs are an exercise of reflection, but moreover, they are an expression of life changing experiences narrated in first person, an open book to the entire MIT community,” says Rivera.
Our cognitive abilities come down to how well the connections, or synapses, between our brain cells transmit signals. Now new study by researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory has dug deeply into the molecular mechanisms that enable synaptic transmission to show the distinct role of a protein that, when mutated, has been linked to causing intellectual disability.
The key protein, called SAP102, is one of four members of a family of proteins, called PSD-MAGUKs, that regulate the transport and placement of key receptors called AMPARs on the receiving end of a synapse. But how each member of the family works — for instance, as the brain progresses through development to maturity — is not well understood. The new study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, shows that SAP102 and other family members like PSD-95, work in different ways, a feature whose evolution may have contributed to the greater cognitive capacity of mammals and other vertebrates.
“Our results show that PSD-95 and SAP102 regulate synaptic AMPAR function differently,” wrote the researchers, who include senior author Weifeng Xu, an assistant professor in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and lead author Mingna Liu, a former postodoc in Xu’s lab who is now at the University of Virginia.
Says Xu: “This study is part of a continuous effort in our lab to elucidate the molecular machinery for tuning synaptic transmission critical for cognition.”
Specifically, the scientists found that the proteins distinctly affected how quickly electrical currents lost strength in postsynaptic cells, or neurons.
“For the first time we show that PSD-95 and SAP102 have differential effects on the decay kinetics of synaptic AMPAR currents,” they wrote.
In one key set of experiments in rats in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, the researchers showed that while knocking out PSD-95 causes a reduction in AMPAR current frequency and amplitude, they could restore those by replacing PSD-95 with a different form, PSD-95alpha, or with SAP102. They did these manipulations by using a virus to make the swap, a technique that Xu has developed called molecular replacement.
But the two proteins are not merely interchangeable. Compared to control neurons with normal PSD-95 or cells in which PSD-95 was replaced with PSD-95alpha, cells in which PSD-95 was replaced with SAP102 had different AMPAR current kinetics, meaning that the currents took longer to decay. That timing difference made by SAP102 could make an important difference in how synapses operate to affect cognition.
“These data showed that PSD-95alpha and SAP102 have distinct effects on the decay time of synaptic AMPAR currents, which potentially lead to differential synaptic integration for neuronal information processing,” the researchers wrote.
In another set of experiments, the team showed that SAP102 uniquely depends on another protein called CNIH-2. Knocking CNIH-2 down on its own didn’t affect AMPAR currents, but when they knocked the protein down in the context of replacing PSD-95 with PSD-95alpha or SAP102, the researchers found that SAP102 could no longer restore the currents. Meanwhile, knocking down CNIH-2 had no effect on PSD-95alpha’s rescue of AMPAR currents.
“These data showed that the effect of SAP102 but not that of PSD-95alpha on synaptic AMPAR currents depends on CNIH-2, suggesting that SAP102 and PSD-95alpha regulate different AMPAR complexes,” they wrote.
In all the findings suggest that the diversity of AMPAR regulation leads to cognitively consequential differences in current timing at synapses.
“It is likely the AMPAR complex diversity contributes to the temporal profile of synaptic events important for information encoding and integration in different cell types and synapses,” they wrote.
In addition to Liu and Xu, the paper’s other authors are Rebecca Shi, Hongik Hwang, Kyng Seiok Han, Man Ho Wong, Xiobai Ren, Laura Lewis, and Emery N. Brown.
The reserch was funded through the National Institutes of Health and an MIT Simons Seed Grant.
The way that ordinary materials undergo a phase change, such as melting or freezing, has been studied in great detail. Now, a team of researchers has observed that when they trigger a phase change by using intense pulses of laser light, instead of by changing the temperature, the process occurs very differently.
Scientists had long suspected that this may be the case, but the process has not been observed and confirmed until now. With this new understanding, researchers may be able to harness the mechanism for use in new kinds of optoelectronic devices.
The unusual findings are reported today in the journal Nature Physics. The team was led by Nuh Gedik, a professor of physics at MIT, with graduate student Alfred Zong, postdoc Anshul Kogar, and 16 others at MIT, Stanford University, and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Russia.
For this study, instead of using an actual crystal such as ice, the team used an electronic analog called a charge density wave — a frozen electron density modulation within a solid — that closely mimics the characteristics of a crystalline solid.
While typical melting behavior in a material like ice proceeds in a relatively uniform way through the material, when the melting is induced in the charge density wave by ultrafast laser pulses, the process worked quite differently. The researchers found that during the optically induced melting, the phase change proceeds by generating many singularities in the material, known as topological defects, and these in turn affect the ensuing dynamics of electrons and lattice atoms in the material.
These topological defects, Gedik explains, are analogous to tiny vortices, or eddies, that arise in liquids such as water. The key to observing this unique melting process was the use of a set of extremely high-speed and accurate measurement techniques to catch the process in action.
The fast laser pulse, less than a picoseond long (trillionths of a second), simulates the kind of rapid phase changes that occur. One example of a fast phase transition is quenching — such as suddenly plunging a piece of semimolten red-hot iron into water to cool it off almost instantly. This process differs from the way materials change through gradual heating or cooling, where they have enough time to reach equilibrium — that is, to reach a uniform temperature throughout — at each stage of the temperature change.
While these optically induced phase changes have been observed before, the exact mechanism through which they proceed was not known, Gedik says.
The team used a combination of three techniques, known as ultrafast electron diffraction, transient reflectivity, and time- and angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy, to simultaneously observe the response to the laser pulse. For their study, they used a compound of lanthanum and tellurium, LaTe3, which is known to host charge density waves. Together, these instruments make it possible to track the motions of electrons and atoms within the material as they change and respond to the pulse.
Video above shows electron diffraction from the sample being studied. The smaller white spots close on either side of the central dot show the charge density wave, which is analogous to a crystal structure, as it "melts" when hit with an ultrafast laser pulse, and then "refreezes."
Energy bands in the material are depicted in this video, where the density of high-energy electrons is plotted versus their momentum. Bright bands that appear and then disappear correspond to the decrease in order (melting) and the reappearance of that order (freezing).
In the experiments, Gedik says, “we can watch, and make a movie of, the electrons and the atoms as the charge density wave is melting,” and then continue watching as the orderly structure then resolidifies. The researchers were able to clearly observe and confirm the existence of these vortex-like topological defects.
They also found that the time for resolidifying, which involves the dissolution of these defects, is not uniform, but takes place on multiple timescales. The intensity, or amplitude, of the charge density wave recovers much more rapidly than does the orderliness of the lattice. This observation was only possible with the suite of time-resolved techniques used in the study, with each providing a unique perspective.
Zong says that a next step in the research will be to try to determine how they can “engineer these defects in a controlled way.” Potentially, that could be used as a data-storage system, “using these light pulses to write defects into the system, and then another pulse to erase them.”
Peter Baum, a professor of physics at the University of Konstanz in Germany, who was not connected to this research, says “This is great work. One awesome aspect is that three almost entirely different, complicated methodologies have been combined to solve a critical question in ultrafast physics, by looking from multiple perspectives.”
Baum adds that “the results are important for condensed-matter physics and their quest for novel materials, even if they are laser-excited and exist only for a fraction of a second.”
The work was carried out in collaboration between researchers at MIT, Stanford University, and Skoltech. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Skoltech NGP Program.
The following email was sent today to the MIT faculty from Provost Martin Schmidt.
As I trust you have seen, this morning Rafael wrote to the community to announce the creation of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. This is an historic day for the Institute.
The idea for the College emerged from a process of consultation the administration conducted over the past year. In that time, we consulted with many faculty members, both on School Councils and in some departments with significant computing activities. How to handle the explosive growth in student interest in computing, on its own and across other disciplines, has been an administrative concern for some time. As we’ve seen in the sharp rise in majors “with CS,” individual departments have worked hard to respond. But through more than a year’s worth of thoughtful input from many stakeholders, we came to see that if MIT could take a single bold step at scale, we could create important new opportunities for our community.
A central idea behind the College is that a new, shared structure can help deliver the power of computing, and especially AI, to all disciplines at MIT, lead to the development of new disciplines, and provide every discipline with an active channel to help shape the work of computing itself. Among those we have consulted so far, I sense a deep excitement for the power of this idea.
Opportunities for input
Today’s announcement has defined a vision for this College. Now, to realize its full potential, we are eager to launch a process that includes even more voices and perspectives. As a very first step, Rafael announced a set of community forums where we will share more detail on the vision and a process for moving forward. I hope you will join us for the faculty forum — October 18, 5:30–6:30 PM in 32-123 — so that we can learn from your feedback. The October 17th Faculty Meeting will also include discussion of the new College.
The search for the Dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
One immediate step is the search for the College’s inaugural dean. I am grateful to Institute Professor Ronald L. Rivest for agreeing to chair the search, and I am in the process of finalizing a search committee; we will announce the membership soon. I will ask the committee to recommend a short list of the best internal and external candidates by the end of November. It’s important that we work efficiently together to appoint a dean in the coming months, so that the new dean will be able to participle fully in implementing all aspects of the College.
I invite you to share your advice with the committee, including your suggestions for candidates for this important position, by sending email to CollegeOfComputingImplementation@mit.edu. All correspondence will be kept confidential.
The process moving forward
The Chair of the Faculty Susan Silbey and I have discussed ideas for the best process moving forward. Even as we conduct a search for the new dean of the College, we can begin to make progress on several fronts.
At this point, we believe we could form a number of working groups to advise the administration on important details of creating the College, perhaps following the process MIT used during the 2008 budget crisis, which actively engaged all key stakeholders at the Institute. The working groups can evaluate options and make recommendations on issues like the detailed structure of the college, how faculty appointments will be made, and how we envision new degrees and instructional support that cut across the Institute. Again, we welcome your comments, questions, and insights as we move forward with this process. Please feel free to contribute any input via CollegeOfComputingImplementation@mit.edu.
We have much work ahead of us, and I look forward to the excitement and challenge of writing this new chapter of the Institute’s history. I welcome your feedback and advice.
With my best regards,
The following email was sent today to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.
To the members of the MIT community,
The 2010 history, Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, credits MIT’s record of rising impact to turning points when, responding to new challenges, MIT stayed true to its mission with a calculated change of course.
Today, at a turning point of equal consequence, we launch the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing.
This new College is our strategic response to a global phenomenon — the ubiquity of computing and the rise of AI. In this new world, we are building on MIT’s established leadership in these fields to position the Institute for decades to come as a world hub of education, research and innovation, and to prepare our students to lead in every domain.
To state the obvious, AI in particular is reshaping geopolitics, our economy, our daily lives and the very definition of work. It is rapidly enabling new research in every discipline and new solutions to daunting problems. At the same time, it is creating ethical strains and human consequences our society is not yet equipped to control or withstand.
In response, we are reshaping MIT.
By giving MIT’s five Schools a shared structure for collaborative education, research and innovation, the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing aims to:
- foster breakthroughs in computing, particularly artificial intelligence — actively informed by the wisdom of other disciplines;
- deliver the power of AI tools to researchers in every field; and
- advance pioneering work on AI’s ethical use and societal impact.
Most distinctively, by adding new integrated curricula and degree programs in nearly every field, the College will equip students to be as fluent in computing and AI as they are in their own disciplines — and ready to use these digital tools wisely and humanely to help make a better world.
To be clear: In this pivotal AI moment, society has never needed the liberal arts — the path to wise, responsible citizenship — more than it does now. It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest.
How did the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing come to be?
More than a year ago, inspired by the remarkable tide of student interest in majors with computing in the title, we began a process of assessment and exploration with the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation. This quickly expanded to include faculty leadership in every department, including department heads, the School Councils and Academic Council. Faculty Chair Susan Silbey deserves immense credit for the nature and success of this consultative process. We have also gained key insights from Corporation members, students, staff and alumni. Together these conversations crystallized the need for bold action, at scale and with speed.
And so we arrived at the idea we announce as the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing — the most profound restructuring of MIT since the early 1950s. This $1 billion commitment will include a dedicated new building on campus, a new dean and a near doubling of our academic capability in computing and especially AI, with 50 new faculty positions located within the College and jointly with departments across MIT.
Such a bold step requires a bold partner. We are extremely fortunate to have the encouragement, insight and visionary support of one of the world’s most farsighted investors, Stephen A. Schwarzman, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone. His magnificent generosity — a gift of $350 million — gave us the power to take decisive action.
What happens now?
Both the MIT Corporation and its Executive Committee recently approved the establishment of the new College.
It is still, however, a very young idea — a prototype we are improving day by day. Its success will depend on thoughtful refinement and creative problem-solving from people across MIT. To jumpstart that feedback process, we have scheduled a number of forums:
October 18, 5:30–6:30 PM
October 25, 5:00–6:00 PM
October 25, Noon–1:00 PM
In the coming days, we will schedule a forum for alumni in the metro-Boston area, as well as one or more webcasts to reach alumni in other regions and time zones.
Every forum will include lots of time for questions. To focus the conversation and guide our thinking, I hope that you will let us know here what questions interest or concern you the most.
In addition, faculty will receive an email from the Provost today describing the next steps in implementation and our search for a dean. The October 17th Faculty Meeting will also include discussion of the new College.
* * *
As we begin this fresh chapter, I offer thanks to everyone who helped bring us to this day. For shepherding the development of this transformative idea, we owe special gratitude to Provost Marty Schmidt, Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz.
If we hope to make a better world, we must constantly work to make a better MIT. As humanity faces the opportunities and risks of the digital future, the reshaping we begin on campus today will challenge us to think deeply about how the technologies we invent can best serve, support and care for our global human family.
I look forward to joining you all in this profoundly important work.
In enthusiastic anticipation,
L. Rafael Reif
This set of FAQs offers information about the founding of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, announced today, and its implications for the MIT community and beyond.
Q: What is MIT announcing today that’s new?
A: Today MIT is announcing a $1 billion commitment to address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the ubiquity of computing — across industries and academic disciplines — and by the rise of artificial intelligence. At the heart of this endeavor will be the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, made possible by a foundational $350 million gift from Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Blackstone, a leading global asset manager. An additional $300 million has been secured for the College through other fundraising.
Q: Why is MIT creating this College?
A: The Institute is creating the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing in response to clear trends both inside and outside MIT. Inside MIT, students are choosing in record numbers to study computer science, and departments across the Institute are creating joint majors with computer science and hiring faculty with expertise in computing. And externally, the digital fraction of the global economy has been growing much faster than the economy as a whole — and computing and AI are increasingly woven into every part of the global economy.
Process and leadership
Q: What will implementation look like?
A: MIT will launch a task force prior to the College’s opening in September 2019. The task force will make recommendations to the MIT administration on details regarding the structure of the College; its academic appointments and faculty recruiting; and — in particular — how best to structure the College such that there are seamless interactions in research and teaching between the College and other MIT departments.
Q: When will the College’s first dean be appointed? Do you have a list of leading candidates?
A: The Institute is finalizing a search advisory committee, charged by Provost Martin Schmidt, and is beginning the search process. The committee will move forward with appropriate speed and due diligence to ensure that MIT is ready to launch the College in September 2019.
Q: Will the dean come from within MIT?
A: MIT’s objective is to appoint the most highly qualified leader for this vitally important role. Such a leader may come from within MIT — but the best candidate may also come from outside the Institute. In support of the Institute and its mission, the dean will be responsible for ensuring the success of the College within the MIT community, across the broader MIT innovation ecosystem, and globally.
Q: I’m an MIT community member. How can I learn more and offer thoughts?
A: Both the MIT Corporation and its Executive Committee recently approved the establishment of the new College. But its success will depend on feedback from people across MIT. To jumpstart that process, the Institute has scheduled a number of forums:
Thursday, October 18, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Thursday, October 25, 5:00-6:00 p.m.
Thursday, October 25, 12:00-1:00 p.m.
In the coming days, MIT will schedule a forum for alumni in the Boston area, as well as one or more webcasts to reach alumni in other regions and time zones. Every forum will include time for questions. To focus the conversations, members of the community are invited to email CollegeofComputingQuestions@mit.edu with questions or concerns.
Impact on MIT
Q: Why is this a college, rather than a school? What is the difference?
A: The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will work with and across all five of MIT’s existing schools. Its naming as a college differentiates it from the five schools, and signals that it is an Institute-wide entity: The College is designed with cross-cutting education and research as its primary missions.
Q: Why, and how, will the College connect to the schools and other parts of MIT?
A: As MIT’s senior leaders have engaged with faculty and departments across campus, many have spoken of how their fields are being transformed by modern computational methods — specifically, by access to large data sets and the tools to learn from them. Some of the most exciting new work in fields like political science, economics, linguistics, anthropology, and urban studies — as well as in various disciplines in science and engineering — is being made possible when advanced computational capabilities are brought to these fields.
The key connector of the College to MIT’s five schools with be the 25 “bridge” faculty: joint faculty appointments linking the College with departments across MIT. With this new structure, MIT aims to educate students who are “bilingual” — adept in computing, as well as in their primary field. The College will also connect with the rest of MIT through its work to develop shared computing resources — infrastructure, instrumentation, and technical staffing.
Q: Which existing MIT units will move into the College?
A: It is expected that the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and the MIT Quest for Intelligence will all become part of the new College; other units may join the College. EECS (and in particular, the electrical engineering part of the department) will naturally continue to have a strong relationship with the School of Engineering, its current home. A set of faculty committees will be swiftly established to define the relationship between EECS, the School of Engineering, and the new College of Computing, as well as the range of future degree offerings.
Q: What changes for MIT with this new College? Is this just a restructuring?
A: The founding of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is the most significant structural change since 1950, when MIT established the Sloan School of Management and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. But this is much more than a restructuring: With this change, MIT seeks to position itself as a key player in the responsible and ethical evolution of technologies that will fundamentally transform society.
The College will reorient MIT to bring the power of computing and AI to all fields of study — and, in turn, to allow the future direction of computing and AI to be shaped by insights from all of these other disciplines, including the humanities. By design, the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will be the connective tissue for the entire Institute, integrating AI studies and research with disciplines throughout MIT to a degree and with an intensity that, it is believed, is unmatched anywhere else.
Q: The College has been described as a $1 billion endeavor. Where will that $1 billion come from, and how will it be spent?
A: The estimated $1 billion cost to create the College will pay to construct a new building, expected to be complete around 2022; to create an endowment to support the 50 new faculty positions; and to fund computing resources to support teaching and research in the College and across MIT. The hiring of these new faculty, when complete in approximately five years, will represent a 5 percent growth in the Institute’s total faculty. Including the founding $350 million gift from Mr. Schwarzman, MIT has already secured 65 percent of the funds needed to support launch of the College.
Q: How will this College impact MIT’s budget on an ongoing basis?
A: A guiding principle of MIT’s planning is that the College should not dilute the resources of any other part of the Institute. This is why MIT is engaging in new fundraising to secure the remaining part of the estimated $1 billion needed to house the College and to endow its faculty.
Impact on students and alumni
Q: Do you expect that this new structure could change the balance of undergraduate majors at MIT?
A: About 40 percent of MIT undergraduates now major either in computer science alone or in joint programs combining computer science with some other field. It is expected that this new structure will allow interested students to gain a strong background in computer science while also focusing on a paired discipline that’s of greatest interest to them. By greatly expanding the range of disciplines that can be paired with computer science in a coherent undergraduate degree, this move will support MIT’s students in their clear desire to combine computer science with other fields where they might eventually apply their computing skills.
Q: Will the undergraduate class size be increased?
A: This remains to be determined. However, it is expected that the Institute’s population of graduate students will naturally grow with the addition of 50 new faculty positions.
Q: Will current students be able to switch to the College?
A: In general, MIT students are part of the school or college that is home to their academic program. Because the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) will become part of the new College, it is expected that the majority of EECS students will automatically become students within the new College. Students within MIT’s five other schools will, of course, be able to access the College’s faculty, courses, and facilities: Indeed, the College’s cross-Institute structure is intended to make it accessible to students across MIT, and there may be opportunities for students to be affiliated with both the College and their home department and school.
Q: I'm a joint major in computer science and another discipline. How will this new College affect my course selection, and my degree?
A: There should be no effect.
Q: I’m an EECS alum. How will this new College affect my degree?
A: You will continue to hold your MIT degree in your discipline. The creation of the College does not change your degree. This expanded footprint for computing at MIT is expected to enhance the stature of all computing-related fields at MIT.
Impact on faculty
Q: How many new faculty positions will be created with the launch of the College?
A: Fifty faculty positions will be added over the next five years. It’s expected that 25 of these faculty positions will be located fully within the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing; the other 25 new faculty will hold “bridge” positions — dual appointments between the College and academic departments located in any of MIT’s five schools.
Q: I’m a faculty member whose field has little connection to computing or AI. How will this new College affect my position at MIT?
A: While MIT believes this new opportunity brings much possibility for all faculty, engagement with the new College will be entirely voluntary. Faculty who do not wish to engage more deeply with computing or AI will not be required to do so.
Q: What kinds of new joint academic programs or degrees are envisioned?
A: MIT has been making progress in this direction for some time; for example, we already offer undergraduate majors that pair computer science with economics, biology, mathematics, and urban planning. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will allow MIT to respond to the student demand the Institute is seeing in course and major/minor selection more effectively and creatively. It will enable MIT to pursue this vision with unprecedented depth and ambition, and will give MIT’s five schools a shared structure for collaborative education, research, and innovation in computing and AI.
Impact on the physical campus
Q: What is the timeline on construction of a new building for the College? Where will the building be located? Has an architect been selected?
A: The building is expected to be complete by 2022. Many details about the building, including its location on campus, have yet to be finalized. An architect has not been selected.
Q: How big will the new building be?
A: Given the expected growth of the MIT faculty with the launch of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, it is currently projected that the new building will house office and laboratory space for about 65 faculty members and their research groups and affiliated staff. This will likely translate to a building of 150,000 to 165,000 square feet. (For comparison purposes, MIT.nano is 200,000 square feet.)
Q: Who will move into the new building?
A: This remains to be determined. However, not all new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing faculty members will be in the new building, and it is expected that some existing faculty members will move there.
The College’s focus
Q: AI encompasses a broad range of areas, from self-driving cars to robotics. Is MIT’s goal to be a leader in all the major AI areas? Are there specific areas the College will focus on?
A: It is hoped and expected that the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will become a convening force for all of the fields that center on computing and AI. However, the focus of the new College within these fields will be shaped largely by its first dean and by its academic leadership.
Q: Will the new College partner with AI research companies?
A: Numerous such companies are already part of MIT’s broader innovation ecosystem in Kendall Square, and the Institute will continue to collaborate with them. It is fair to assume that projects and research generated by the College will be of interest to industry, and will have commercial relevance. Additionally, it is expected that the “bilingual” graduates who emerge from this new College — combining competence in computing and in other fields — will be of enormous value to employers.
Q: What ethical concerns does MIT have about AI or specific areas of AI research?
A: Advances in computing, and artificial intelligence in particular, have the power to alter the fabric of society. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing aims to be not only a center of advances in computing, but also a place for teaching and research on relevant policy and ethics — to better ensure that the pioneering technologies of the future are responsibly implemented in support of the greater good.
Q: What kind of programs will there be around ethics and advances in computing?
A: Launching the College will involve both an expansion of existing programs and the creation of entirely new ones — with some of these new programs exploring the intersection of ethics and computing. Within this space, the College will offer prestigious undergraduate research opportunities, graduate fellowships in ethics and AI, a seed-grant program for faculty, and a fellowship program to attract distinguished individuals from other universities, government, industry, and journalism.
Q: Why is this focus on ethics important?
A: Technologies reflect the values of those who make them. For this reason, technological advancements must be accompanied by the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. MIT must make sure that the leaders who graduate from the Institute offer the world both technological proficiency and human wisdom — the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good. MIT is founding the College, in part, to educate students in every discipline to responsibly use and develop AI and computing technologies to help make a better world.
Q: At a time of growing economic disparities, there are deep concerns that AI will begin to replace humans and take over their jobs. How will MIT address such issues?
A: AI and related technologies are poised to become a source of new wealth and industries. Together with that, however, is the risk of severe economic dislocation for individuals, communities, and entire nations. Reinventing the future of work must be a society-wide effort — and finding long-term solutions to issues arising from the deployment of AI will require ideas and initiative from every quarter.
The College will unite expertise at the intersection of computing and the society it serves. Joining scientists and engineers with social scientists, it will produce analysis of emerging technology; this research will serve industry, policymakers, and the broader research community. Some of the graduate students who conduct research in policy and ethics may go on to fill critical roles in government and at technology companies.
Additionally, MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, launched in February 2018, is an Institute-wide effort to understand and shape the evolution of jobs during the current age of innovation. It aims to shed new light on the linked evolution of technology and human work, and will issue findings guiding the development and implementation of policy, to suggest how society can continue to offer broad opportunity and prosperity.
Q: Are there any AI areas in which MIT would not participate because of ethical concerns?
A: Yes. In every action it takes, the Institute must understand whether its participation benefits society. Defining these boundaries will be the work of the College’s new leadership.
MIT today announced a new $1 billion commitment to address the global opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). The initiative marks the single largest investment in computing and AI by an American academic institution, and will help position the United States to lead the world in preparing for the rapid evolution of computing and AI.
At the heart of this endeavor will be the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, made possible by a $350 million foundational gift from Mr. Schwarzman, the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, a leading global asset manager.
Headquartered in a signature new building on MIT’s campus, the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will be an interdisciplinary hub for work in computer science, AI, data science, and related fields. The College will:
- reorient MIT to bring the power of computing and AI to all fields of study at MIT, allowing the future of computing and AI to be shaped by insights from all other disciplines;
- create 50 new faculty positions that will be located both within the College and jointly with other departments across MIT — nearly doubling MIT’s academic capability in computing and AI;
- give MIT’s five schools a shared structure for collaborative education, research, and innovation in computing and AI;
- educate students in every discipline to responsibly use and develop AI and computing technologies to help make a better world; and
- transform education and research in public policy and ethical considerations relevant to computing and AI.
With the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing’s founding, MIT seeks to strengthen its position as a key international player in the responsible and ethical evolution of technologies that are poised to fundamentally transform society. Amid a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment that is constantly being reshaped by technology, the College will have significant impact on our nation’s competitiveness and security.
“As computing reshapes our world, MIT intends to help make sure it does so for the good of all,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “In keeping with the scope of this challenge, we are reshaping MIT. The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will constitute both a global center for computing research and education, and an intellectual foundry for powerful new AI tools. Just as important, the College will equip students and researchers in any discipline to use computing and AI to advance their disciplines and vice-versa, as well as to think critically about the human impact of their work. With uncommon insight and generosity, Mr. Schwarzman is enabling a bold agenda that will lead to a better world. I am deeply grateful for his commitment to our shared vision.”
Stephen A. Schwarzman is chairman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, with approximately $440 billion in assets under management. Mr. Schwarzman is an active philanthropist with a history of supporting education, culture, and the arts, among other things. Whether in business or philanthropy, he has dedicated himself to tackling global-scale problems, with transformative and paradigm-shifting solutions.
This year, he gave $5 million to Harvard Business School to support the development of case studies and other programming that explore the implications of AI on industries and business. In 2015, Mr. Schwarzman donated $150 million to Yale University to establish the Schwarzman Center, a first-of-its-kind campus center in Yale’s historic Commons building. In 2013, he founded a highly selective international scholarship program, Schwarzman Scholars, at Tsinghua University in Beijing to educate future global leaders about China. At $578 million raised to date, the program is modeled on the Rhodes Scholarship and is the single largest philanthropic effort in China’s history coming largely from international donors.
“There is no more important opportunity or challenge facing our nation than to responsibly harness the power of artificial intelligence so that we remain competitive globally and achieve breakthroughs that will improve our entire society,” Mr. Schwarzman says. “We face fundamental questions about how to ensure that technological advancements benefit all — especially those most vulnerable to the radical changes AI will inevitably bring to the nature of the workforce. MIT’s initiative will help America solve these challenges and continue to lead on computing and AI throughout the 21st century and beyond.”
“As one of the world leaders in technological innovation, MIT has the right expertise and the right values to serve as the ‘true north’ of AI in pursuit of the answers we urgently need,” Mr. Schwarzman adds. “With the ability to bring together the best minds in AI research, development, and ethics, higher education is uniquely situated to be the incubator for solving these challenges in ways the private and public sectors cannot. Our hope is that this ambitious initiative serves as a clarion call to our government that massive financial investment in AI is necessary to ensure that America has a leading voice in shaping the future of these powerful and transformative technologies.”
New college, structure, building, and faculty
The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing represents the most significant structural change to MIT since the early 1950s, which saw the establishment of schools for management and for the humanities and social sciences:
- The College is slated to open in Sept. 2019, with construction of a new building for the College scheduled to be completed in 2022.
- Fifty new faculty positions will be created: 25 to be appointed to advance computing in the College, and 25 to be appointed jointly in the College and departments across MIT.
- A new deanship will be established for the College.
Today’s news follows a period of consultation of the MIT faculty led by President Reif, Provost Martin Schmidt, and Dean of the School of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan. The chair of the faculty, Professor Susan Silbey, also participated in these consultations. Reif and Schmidt have also received letters of support for the College from academic leadership across MIT.
“Because the journey we embark on today will be Institute-wide, we needed input from across MIT in order to establish the right vision,” Schmidt says. “Our planning benefited greatly from the imagination of many members of our community — and we will seek a great deal more input over the next year. By design, the College will not be a silo: It will be connective tissue for the whole Institute.”
“I see exciting possibilities in this new structure,” says Melissa Nobles, dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “Faculty in a range of departments have a great deal to gain from new kinds of algorithmic tools — and a great deal of insight to offer their makers. Faculty in every school at MIT will be able to shape the work of the College.”
At its meeting on Oct. 5, the MIT Corporation — MIT’s board of trustees — endorsed the establishment of the College.
Corporation Chair Robert Millard says, “The new College positions MIT to lead in this important area, for the benefit of the United States and the world at large. In making this historic gift, Mr. Schwarzman has not only joined a select group of MIT’s most generous supporters, he has also helped give shape to a vision that will propel MIT into the future. We are all deeply grateful.”
Empowering the pursuit of MIT’s mission
The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will aspire to excellence in MIT’s three main areas of work: education, research, and innovation:
- The College will teach students the foundations of computing broadly and provide integrated curricula designed to satisfy the high level of interest in majors that cross computer science with other disciplines, and in learning how machine learning and data science can be applied to a variety of fields.
- It will seek to enable advances along the full spectrum of research — from fundamental, curiosity-driven inquiry to research on market-ready applications, in a wide range of MIT departments, labs, centers, and initiatives.
“As MIT’s partner in shaping the future of AI, IBM is excited by this new initiative,” says Ginni Rometty IBM chairman, president, and CEO. “The establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is an unprecedented investment in the promise of this technology. It will build powerfully on the pioneering research taking place through the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. Together, we will continue to unlock the massive potential of AI and explore its ethical and economic impacts on society.”
Sparking thought around policy and ethics
The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will seek to be not only a center of advances in computing, but also a place for teaching and research on relevant policy and ethics to better ensure that the groundbreaking technologies of the future are responsibly implemented in support of the greater good. To advance these priorities, the College will:
- develop new curricula that will connect computer science and AI with other disciplines;
- host forums to engage national leaders from business, government, academia, and journalism to examine the anticipated outcomes of advances in AI and machine learning, and to shape policies around the ethics of AI;
- encourage scientists, engineers, and social scientists to collaborate on analysis of emerging technology, and on research that will serve industry, policymakers, and the broader research community; and
- offer selective undergraduate research opportunities, graduate fellowships in ethics and AI, a seed-grant program for faculty, and a fellowship program to attract distinguished individuals from other universities, government, industry, and journalism.
“Computing is no longer the domain of the experts alone. It’s everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone. In that context, for a host of reasons, society is uneasy about technology — and at MIT, that’s a signal we must take very seriously,” President Reif says. “Technological advancements must go hand in hand with the development of ethical guidelines that anticipate the risks of such enormously powerful innovations. This is why we must make sure that the leaders we graduate offer the world not only technological wizardry but also human wisdom — the cultural, ethical, and historical consciousness to use technology for the common good.”
“The College’s attention to ethics matters enormously to me, because we will never realize the full potential of these advancements unless they are guided by a shared understanding of their moral implications for society,” Mr. Schwarzman says. “Advances in computing — and in AI in particular — have increasing power to alter the fabric of society. But left unchecked, these technologies could ultimately hurt more people than they help. We need to do everything we can to ensure all Americans can share in AI’s development. Universities are best positioned for fostering an environment in which everyone can embrace — not fear — the transformations ahead.”
In its pursuit of ethical questions, the College will bring together researchers in a wide range of MIT departments, labs, centers, and initiatives, such as the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab; the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society; the Operations Research Center; the Quest for Intelligence, and beyond.
“There is no doubt that artificial intelligence and automation will impact every facet of society. As we look to the future, we must utilize these important technologies to shape our world for the better and harness their power as a force for social good,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “I believe that MIT’s groundbreaking initiative, particularly its commitment to address policy and ethics alongside technological advancements, will play a crucial role in ensuring that AI is developed responsibly and used to make our world more just.”
Building on history and breadth
The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing will build on MIT’s legacy of excellence in computation and the study of intelligence. In the 1950s, MIT Professor Marvin Minsky and others created the very idea of artificial intelligence:
- Today, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) is by far the largest academic department at MIT. Forty percent of MIT’s most recent graduating class chose it, or a combination of it and another discipline, as their major. Its faculty boasts 10 of the 67 winners of the Turing Award, computing’s highest honor.
- The largest laboratory at MIT is the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which was established in 2003 but has its roots in two pioneering MIT labs: the Artificial Intelligence Lab, established in 1959 to conduct pioneering research across a range of applications, and the Laboratory for Computer Science, established in 1963 to pursue a Department of Defense project for the development of a computer system accessible to a large number of people.
- The College’s network function will rely on academic excellence across MIT. Outside of computer science and AI, the Institute hosts a high number of top-ranked departments, ready to be empowered by advances in these digital fields. U.S. News and World Report cites MIT as No. 1 in six graduate engineering specialties — and No. 1 in 17 disciplines and specialties outside of engineering, too, from biological sciences to economics.
“A bold move to reshape the frontiers of computing is what you would expect from MIT,” says Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet and a visiting innovation fellow at MIT. “I’m especially excited about the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, however, because it has such an obviously human agenda.” Schmidt also serves on the advisory boards of the MIT Quest for Intelligence and the MIT Work of the Future Task Force.
“We count many MIT graduates among our team at Apple, and have long admired how the school and its alumni approach technology with humanity in mind. MIT’s decision to focus on computing and AI across the entire institution shows tremendous foresight that will drive students and the world toward a better future,” says Apple CEO Tim Cook.
The path forward
On top of Mr. Schwarzman’s gift, MIT has raised an additional $300 million in support, totaling $650 million of the $1 billion required for the College. Further fundraising is being actively pursued by MIT’s senior administration.
Provost Schmidt has formed a committee to search for the College’s inaugural dean. He will also host forums in the coming days that will allow members of the MIT community to ask questions and offer suggestions about the College. The provost will work closely with the chair of the faculty and the dean of the School of Engineering to define the process for standing up the College.
“I am truly excited by the work ahead,” Schmidt says. “The MIT community will give shape and energy to the College we launch today.”
Indonesia’s state-owned holding company PT Indonesia Asahan Aluminium (Persero), also known as INALUM, is joining the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as a member company to support research that advances development of low-carbon energy technologies and explore ways to reduce the company’s carbon footprint through MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Center for Materials in Energy and Extreme Environments.
The center is one of seven Low-Carbon Energy Centers that MITEI has established as part of the Institute’s Plan for Action on Climate Change, which calls for strategic engagement with industry, government, and other stakeholders to solve the pressing challenges of decarbonizing the energy sector and meeting global energy demand with advanced technologies.
“By joining MITEI as a member, INALUM will be making valuable contributions to the MIT low-carbon energy research community through its support for faculty and student projects,” says Robert C. Armstrong, director of MITEI and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “Our scientists and engineers look forward to collaborating on solutions to energy and climate challenges our world faces today and tomorrow.”
“MITEI’s unrivaled expertise will help INALUM to ensure that low-carbon initiatives will be adopted in implementing the company’s three given mandates: secure domestic reserve; develop downstream business; and become a world-class company,” says INALUM CEO Budi Gunadi Sadikin, adding: “This collaboration will specifically help INALUM in developing large-scale, cost-effective, and sustainable energy in the mining and metal industry as well as pioneering the use of energy materials for low-carbon applications from metals and minerals.”
The research collaboration was announced at a supporting event of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group Annual Meeting in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 10. The collaboration evolved through the efforts of Wendy Duan, manager of MITEI’s Asia Pacific energy partnerships, and Rudy Setyopurnomo MS ’92, a business executive who founded the MIT Club of Indonesia, working with INALUM officials.
Among INALUM’s research interests with MITEI are developing more environmentally sustainable processes for mining, refining, and smelting metals; investigating high-performance materials for energy storage; and exploring rare earth metal applications such as magnets for use in electric vehicles and wind power.
The MITEI Low-Carbon Energy Centers bring together researchers from multiple disciplines at MIT to engage with companies, government agencies, and other stakeholders, including the philanthropic community, to develop deployable solutions in key technology areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help address climate change. The centers build on MITEI’s existing work with industry members, government, and foundations. MITEI’s membership programs provide key focus, research opportunities, and critical funding for the next generation of energy technologists, including MIT students and postdocs.
The Low-Carbon Energy Center for Materials in Energy and Extreme Environments works to develop new materials, processes, diagnostics, and software with the goal of improving the economy and efficiency of materials while reducing their carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. One key objective is to devise innovative materials solutions to improve performance and reduce the carbon footprint of existing energy technologies. Another is to provide the innovative functional and structural materials needed to enable and enhance new energy technologies. The center’s co-directors are Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yildiz, a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of materials science and engineering.
Center for Theoretical Physics professors Daniel Harlow, Aram Harrow, Hong Liu and Jesse Thaler have been named recipients of research awards in the U.S. Department of Energy’s new program in Quantum Information Science (QIS).
The awards were made in conjunction with the White House Summit on Advancing American Leadership in QIS, highlighting the high priority that the current administration places on advancing this multidisciplinary area of research, which is expected to lay the foundation for the next generation of computing and information processing as well as an array of other innovative technologies.
The awards honor scientists at 28 institutions of higher learning across the nation and nine Department of Energy national laboratories. They cover a range of topics from developing hardware and software for a new generation of quantum computers, to the synthesis and characterization of new materials with special quantum properties, to probing the ways in which quantum computing and information processing provide insights into such cosmic phenomena as dark matter and black holes.
Harlow, Harrow, Liu, and Thaler, who are all researchers in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and professors in the Department of Physics, are principles on two separate projects.
The first project, directed by Harlow, Harrow and Liu, will study connections between algebraic quantum field theory, holographic quantum codes, and approximate Markov states. These subjects have all been of much recent interest: The algebraic approach to quantum field theory has recently been used to prove remarkable general results such as the quantum null energy condition, and holographic quantum codes have given us a new perspective on classic problems in quantum gravity.
In both cases the technical tools which lead to the new results can be understood as using the special properties of quantum Markov states — states that saturate strong sub-additivity. These states are also of interest in quantum computing, with applications to quantum error-correction, efficient preparation of Gibbs states on quantum computers, efficient compression with side information, and many other areas. The project will combine these three issues, seeking to systematically understand the connections between them, seeking new insights about quantum field theory, quantum gravity, and quantum information.
“In recent years tools from quantum information theory have been very useful in studying the deep problems of quantum gravity, and I'm glad that the Department of Energy has recognized this,” Harlow says. “Hopefully continuing research in this direction will lead to additional insights, both about the fundamental structure of the universe and about what to do with quantum computers once we have them.”
In the second award, professors Harrow and Thaler were recognized for seeking to unite powerful analysis techniques in high energy physics with cutting-edge advances in quantum computation. Thaler’s research is aimed at discovering new physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Harrow’s is directed at unlocking the capabilities of quantum computers. Through this innovative work at the interface of high-energy physics and quantum information science, the investigators aim to maximize the discovery potential of the LHC and future colliders by demonstrating how quantum algorithms can expose important features in collision events that would otherwise be intractable with classical methods.
By exploiting the capabilities of quantum computation, this research confronts the challenge of data analysis in collider physics and may pave the way for future applications of quantum machine learning beyond high energy physics, in particular clustering problems in other application domains.
“I'm excited to collaborate with experts in quantum information science,” says Thaler, speaking on the possibilities of the project. “While quantum mechanics is at the heart of particle physics, we currently rely on classical algorithms to analyze particle data. Quantum algorithms could enable discoveries at the LHC that would simply be intractable using classical methods.”
The work is funded by three programs in the Department of Energy's Office of Science: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, and High Energy Physics.
Yoel Fink stands under an unassuming LED ceiling lamp wearing what appears to be just an ordinary baseball cap. “Do you hear it?” he asks. Semiconductor technology within the fibers of the hat is converting the audio encoded in light pulses to electrical pulses, he explains, and those pulses are then converted to sound. “This is one of the first examples of an advanced fabric. It looks like an ordinary hat but it’s really a sophisticated optical communication system.”
Fink and his team are shaping a new destiny for fabrics. Clothing as a communications system: A hat that picks up light transmissions and converts them to sound can hold life-saving potential. “Think about pedestrian safety and self-driving cars. Tremendous investments are going into cars. How about the pedestrians? Do we as pedestrians or bikers get to know if the car has detected us?” Fink asks. “With fabric optical communications your baseball cap can not only alert a car to your presence but importantly let you know if the car detected you. Fabrics for the self-driving future.”
This is just one example, Fink says, of how the next generation of fabrics could change how we think about all of them. An MIT professor of materials science and electrical engineering and CEO of Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a $300 million institute on the edge of campus, Fink is eager to share his enthusiasm for fabrics with the MIT community. “While all of this originated in basic science and engineering, we are focusing our efforts on transition to manufacturing and product,” he says. “We would not be here today if not for MIT’s focus on the importance of transitioning technology to the marketplace.”
Fink is a high-energy ideas person. He walks quickly and talks even faster during a tour of the AFFOA facility. He and his staff lean toward the same casual clothing – t-shirts and jeans (his are typically black, “the fastest way to lose two pounds” he quips), and there is a pronounced clarity of purpose as he darts through the building, highlighting the rapid prototyping space and describing AFFOA’s national advanced fabric prototyping network and the dozens of fabric ventures it’s helping to get started.
The overarching plan is to increase the value of fabrics to society, transforming them from something you buy-use-throw away to a platform for experiences and services such as communications and design-on-demand. Transforming fabrics requires new types of fiber technologies that encompass communications, energy storage, color change, physiological monitoring, and more. “We are proposing a ‘Moore’s Law’ analog for fibers,” Fink says. Just as the capabilities of microchips have grown exponentially over the last several decades, the capabilities of fibers are about to take off.
To enable a transformation of this magnitude one needs partners, AFFOA has assembled 130 organizations into a national advanced fabric prototyping network. Many from industry are involved in dozens of projects aimed at getting “Moore’s law fibers” into their products and processes. To rapidly engage industry and academia AFFOA has launched an innovative MicroAward program that is 12 weeks in duration and involves rapid iterations between AFFOA and a member seeking to address challenges in getting advanced fibers into fabrics and product. “At AFFOA our year is 90 days long. We call it shot-clock innovation,” says Fink.
These new “advanced fabrics” incorporate high-speed semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes and diode photodetectors, into soft fabric materials. “A lot of groups in the world today talk about ‘smart fabrics’ but in fact end up just inserting conductive materials into fabrics,” Fink says. “Metals on their own cannot do very complex operations. You can’t compute with a piece of metal,” Fink says. “To get sophisticated functionality into anything, you better involve the basic ingredient of modern technology – a semiconductor, which is what we are focusing on. We like to think about fabrics as the new software, capturing the opportunities to create new experiences and services through fabrics much in the same way that software has done over the past decade. For that we need not only technology but importantly entrepreneurs and investors to achieve that transformation and industry to make the product and help inform consumer preferences.”
Fink traces the root of his success to MIT’s meritocratic culture, it’s entrepreneurial spirit, the presence of mentors, and embrace of game-changing ideas. As an MIT student, Fink developed the confidence to ask a group of professors a question that led him to the basis for the discovery of a new type of mirror that has since been commercialized and used to treat hundreds and thousands of patients as part of a life-saving medical device. It also laid the groundwork for the creation of AFFOA. “I think there is a lot of respect for students built into the system at MIT. People realize that ideas come from different directions and from all levels, that student sitting in front of you may eventually discover a cure for a disease, discover a fundamental law or form a great company so you are always listening. I found my calling at MIT and that led to where I am today,” he says.
Representatives from the MIT-Germany Program and the University of Stuttgart (USTUTT) recently came together to formally extend a strategic partnership first created in 2015. The agreement aims to forge a closer relationship between the two universities in both research and teaching.
Professor Markus Buehler, MIT-Germany faculty director and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a PhD in Chemistry and Materials Science from USTUTT and knows both universities well. “I am thrilled about the renewal of the partnership agreement between MIT and the University of Stuttgart, and look forward to seeing the many new collaborations that it will enable,” he says. “This partnership is very important for us, as the joint work of faculty and students from both universities offers many new avenues for high-impact discoveries in science and engineering.” MIT-Germany Program Manager Justin Leahey agrees. “The German Research Foundation’s recent awarding of not one but two multi-million euro Excellence Clusters to the University of Stuttgart [“Data-integrated simulation sciences” and “Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture”] shows how it is on forefront of research in Germany that we want to connect to MIT.”
Wolfgang Holtkamp, senior advisor of international affairs at USTUTT, drew special attention to the innovative concepts in research and teaching that USTUTT implements, and the complimentary goals behind the partnership with MIT. “We want to provide knowledge and strategies for a meaningful and sustainable development. Our basic research is both knowledge-oriented and application-related,” says Holtkamp. “[This partnership] brings together excellent researchers, outstanding teachers and highly motivated students from both sides of the Atlantic to design, test, and experience tomorrow's world today.”
MIT Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), a part of the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, connects students and faculty members with research and industry partners abroad. Within MISTI, the MIT-Germany Program’s partnership with USTUTT centers around a faculty Seed Fund, internship opportunities and a Global Teaching Labs program.
Through the MIT-Germany - University of Stuttgart Seed Fund, a part of the MISTI Global Seed Funds (GSF), researchers at the two universities have the opportunity to apply for joint funding for collaborative early stage research projects and create new, international synergies. Open to any discipline, GSF applicants are encouraged to include undergraduate and graduate students in the projects. To date, there have been five funded projects between MIT and USTUTT researchers:
- "Quantum Processors in Diamond": Paola Cappellaro, MIT associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, and Jörg Wrachtrup, USTUTT professor of physics
- "System-Theoretic Analysis of Dependable Systems in the Automotive Domain": Nancy Leveson, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Stefan Wagner, USTUTT professor of informatics
- "Gate-Stack Engineering for High-Quality MOS Transistor Control Gates for Ge-based Tunneling Field-Effect Transistors": Jesus del Alamo, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and Jörg Schulze, USTUTT professor of electrical engineering
- "Electro-Chromic Stimuli-Responsive Photonic Fibers": Mathias Kolle, MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sabine Ludwigs, USTUTT professor of chemistry
- "Optimal and secure control of large-scale networked cyber-physical systems": Munther Dahleh, MIT professor and associate department head of electrical engineering and computer science, and Frank Allgöwer, USTUTT professor of mechanical engineering, director of the Institute for Systems Theory and Automatic Control, and director of the Stuttgart Research Centre for Systems Biology
As MIT’s Mathias Kolle and USTUTT’s Sabine Ludwigs noted in their joint report, the funding was critical in starting their collaborative project. The report reads, “The seed fund has allowed us to get to the point where we have gauged the potential of our idea and can work in a targeted fashion to realize it.” The team members, who expect to publish their experimental results in a paper, included that they hope their work highlights opportunities at the intersection of conductive polymers and photonic structures. Their research involved several student visits to their partner labs: from MIT, PhD students Joseph Sandt, Sara Nagelberg, and Ben Miller contributed, as well as USTUTT PhD student Carsten Dingler. The exchange allowed the students to become immersed in their counterpart’s research environment firsthand. “They gained subtle insights into the variations in culture in different research labs, and learned something about the wider scope of projects,” the report noted.
In addition to contributing to international faculty research, students from both universities are also able to intern and teach through the collaboration. Bahrudin Trbalic, junior in physics and electrical engineering, took part in the Stuttgart University Program for Experiencing Research (SUPER) this past summer, where he conducted research on hydrogen-like atoms in strong confinements, which has applications in developing new types of semiconductors. “Since this project didn’t have much precedence, I had to find novel algorithms to tackle it,” Trbalic says. Through SUPER, which he says creates fertile ground for mutual exchange of scientific information, Trbalic was strongly supported as a guest student. “I had the time, space and resources to explore my interests in physics but also to explore Germany,” he says.
Students from both institutes also collaborate through MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs Program, which allows MIT students to teach STEM subjects abroad in January over MIT’s Independent Activities Period. The partnership with USTUTT involves a deeper level of student collaboration, partnering MIT students with USTUTT graduate students to plan modules and topics together in advance. The USTUTT team follows up with a visit to MIT in the spring to reconnect with their MIT teaching partners, to experience both campus and hands-on MIT teaching firsthand and to explore possible future research opportunities at MIT.
Riley Davis, a senior in mechanical engineering, worked with USTUTT students to teach STEM disciplines in Stuttgart. “The knowledge of the education system and local culture that the USTUTT students provided was extremely helpful as I prepared my lessons and sought to pour into the local academic community while introducing the hands on learning styles of MIT,” Davis says.
Andrea Schön, a master's student in electrical engineering and information technology at USTUTT, also values the intercultural aspect of the program after spending a week in April at MIT along with three other USTUTT students. “We met many inspiring people and learnt a lot about MIT and the cooperation with our university. This extraordinary intercultural experience was very rewarding for all of us and will be remembered fondly for years to come.”
In 2015 the Paris Agreement specified the need for its nearly 200 signatory nations to implement greenhouse gas emissions reduction policies consistent with keeping the increase in the global average temperature since preindustrial times to well below 2 degrees Celsius — and pursue efforts to further limit that increase to 1.5 C.
Recognizing that the initial, near-term Paris pledges, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are inadequate by themselves to put the globe on track to achieve those goals and thus avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the agreement calls for participating nations to strengthen their NDCs over time. Toward that end, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on Oct. 8 on pathways to achieving the 1.5 C goal, and the next Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convenes in December.
In line with these developments, the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has released its 2018 Food, Water, Energy and Climate Outlook. Based on a rigorous, integrated analysis of population and economic growth, technological change, Paris Agreement NDCs, and other factors, the MIT report projects likely global and regional environmental changes over the course of this century and identifies steps needed to align near-term Paris pledges with the long-term 2 C and 1.5 C goals.
This year’s Outlook extends the program’s analysis of Paris Agreement pledges to include commitments of most of the countries of the world, uses a newly updated version of the Joint Program’s Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework, and relies on updated gross national product (GDP) projections. Projections of the Outlook, which assume that all NDCs (generally including commitments only through 2025 or 2030) are met and retained throughout the century, map out the future of energy and land use; water and agriculture; and emissions and climate. The Outlook concludes with expert perspectives on the progress of key countries and regions in fulfilling their short-term Paris pledges, and potential pathways to meeting the long-term Paris goals.
Future of energy, water and food
Between 2015 and 2050, population and economic growth are projected to lead to further increases in primary energy of about 33 percent, growth in the global vehicle stock by nearly 61 percent, further electrification of the economy, and, with continued land productivity improvement, relatively modest changes in land use.
While successful achievement of Paris Agreement pledges should accelerate a shift away from fossil fuels (from 84 percent in 2015 to 78 percent of primary energy use by 2050) and temper potential rises in fossil fuel prices, it is likely to contribute to increasing global average electricity prices (rising to about 31 percent above 2015 levels by 2050).
Water and agriculture are key sectors that will be shaped not only by increasing demands from population and economic growth but also by the changing global environment. Climate change is likely to add to water stress and reduce agricultural productivity, but adaptation and agricultural development offer opportunities to overcome these challenges.
Projections for the U.S. show a central tendency of increases in water stress between 2015 and 2050 for much of eastern half of the country and the far west, and a slight reduction in water stress for the upper plains and lower western mountains.
Projections for agricultural production and prices reflect the effects of the Paris Agreement on energy and land-use decisions. Results show that at the global level between 2015 and 2050, the value of overall food production increases by about 130 percent, crop production increases by 75 percent and livestock production by 120 percent. Simulating yield effects of climate change ranging from reductions of approximately 5 percent to about 25 percent varying by crop, livestock type, and region drawn from studies reviewed by the IPCC, the Outlook finds that commodity prices increase above the baseline projection by about 4-7 percent by 2050 for major crops, 25-30 percent for livestock and forestry products, and less than 5 percent for other crops and food.
Emissions and climate projections
Total global emissions of greenhouse gases remain essentially unchanged through 2030, but gradually increase thereafter (rising by about 33 percent between 2015 and 2100) as regions of the world that have not adopted absolute emissions constraints see emissions increases. Future emissions growth will increase the risks associated with global environmental change.
The projected median increase in global mean surface temperature by 2100, above the 1861-1880 mean value, is 3.0 C (the 10 and 90 percent confidence limits of the distribution are 2.6 and 3.5 C). Other important projected changes in the Earth system include: a median ocean pH drop to 7.85 from a preindustrial level of 8.14 in 1861 and, relative to 1861-1880 mean values, a median global precipitation increase of 0.18 millimeters per day and median sea-level rise of 0.23 meters in 2100. The latter figure, based solely on thermal expansion, will likely be higher due to contributions from melting glaciers and ice sheets.
Prospects for meeting near- and long-term Paris goals
The MIT Joint Program invited leading experts on policy developments around the world to provide their perspectives on how well key countries and regions are progressing in fulfilling their NDCs. They report on some bright prospects, including expectations that China may exceed its commitments and that India is on a course to meet its goals. But they also observe a number of dark clouds, from U.S. climate policy developments to the increasing likelihood that financing to assist the least developed countries in sustainable development will not be forthcoming at the levels needed.
Looking at the long-term, the 2018 Outlook finds that the Paris Agreement’s ambitious targets of keeping global warming well below 2 C and ideally below 1.5 C remain technically achievable, but require much deeper, more near-term reductions than those embodied in current NDCs. Making deeper cuts immediately (2020) rather than as a next step in the Paris process (waiting until 2030) would lower the carbon prices needed to achieve long-term goals, and lessen the need for unproven options to achieve zero or negative emissions after 2050.
“More aggressive action sooner rather than later on mitigation will give us a better chance of meeting the long-term targets,” says MIT Joint Program co-director John Reilly. “At the same time, we need to prepare our homes, communities and the industries on which we depend for the climate change we will experience, even if we manage to hold the increase to less than 2 or 1.5 degrees, and make even greater preparations to account for the risk that we may fail to hold the line on the temperature rise.”
Genetically complex and hard to detect in its early stages, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer mortality in the U.S. It is also a long-standing staple of the MIT cancer research portfolio, with multiple active projects at the Koch Institute and beyond seeking to transform the way the disease is studied and treated.
On Sept. 21, the Lustgarten Foundation, the nation’s largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research, honored MIT’s commitment to pancreatic cancer research with the naming of the Lustgarten Laboratory for Pancreatic Cancer Research at MIT. The Lustgarten Laboratory is headed by Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute and the David H. Koch Professor of Biology.
The Lustgarten Foundation’s investment will support postdocs, graduate students, technicians and a senior scientist for its duration. The Lustgarten Lab’s goals are to better understand the immunological conditions and genetic events that contribute to the development of pancreatic cancer, to study the disease on a single-cell level in both humans and mouse models, and to develop novel high throughput tools for culture and drug testing using mini-organs known as organoids.
The Jacks lab is ideally suited for this massive undertaking, thanks to its solid portfolio of pancreatic cancer research, developed with the support of the Lustgarten Foundation and others, and its deep connections with both biology and engineering laboratories at the Koch Institute and across the MIT campus.
At the dedication ceremony, David Tuveson, the chief scientist of the Lustgarten Foundation, praised the Jacks lab’s “collective skills and talents” and its “highly collaborative approach” as the driving force behind many advances in pancreatic cancer research over the last two decades, a legacy of which Tuveson is part.
Of mice and mentorship
Jacks is widely considered a pioneer in the development of engineered mouse models of human cancers. It was in his laboratory, then a part of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, the predecessor to the Koch Institute, that Tuveson began work on what would become the KPC mouse model of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC). The model, which centers around the exploitation of commonly mutated genes Kras (a cancer driver) and p53 (a tumor suppressor) is now the gold standard for pre-clinical studies of the disease. With it, scientists can trace the development of tumors inside a living pancreas from a single mutated cell to metastatic invasion of distant organs.
In a way, the model presents a microcosm of the robust training environment within the Jacks Lab. Current postdoctoral researcher and designated Lustgarten Lab lead scientist Will Freed-Pastor praises his mentor’s willingness to step back and give his mentees space to make their own marks on the world. “Training future leaders,” he says, “is one of Tyler’s most valuable contributions to the field.”
With the new resources from Lustgarten, Jacks looks forward to bringing even more researchers into field and applying knowledge gained from his lab’s work in lung cancer, immunology, and gene editing to the unique challenges of pancreatic tumors.
“We have a formidable team and it is only going to get stronger,” Jacks says. “We are grateful for the Lustgarten Foundation’s investment in our work as it allows us to recruit new investigators from across MIT who have never worked in pancreatic cancer before but whose tools and approaches will help us develop new treatment paradigms for early diagnosis and intervention.”
A signature investment
The naming of the Lustgarten Laboratory for Pancreatic Cancer Research at MIT is happening side-by-side with that of Brian Wolpin’s lab across the river at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In addition to serving as the Jacks lab’s clinical liaison, Wolpin has collaborated on pancreatic cancer research with Matthew Vander Heiden, professor of biology and associate director of the Koch Institute.
The dual investment represents a milestone for the Lustgarten Foundation — the second and third lab spaces dedicated to pancreatic cancer research — in its 20th anniversary year. Tuveson heads the first, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he is now a professor and the director of the Cancer Center.
“We are so excited to usher in a new era of pancreatic cancer research,” says Kerri Kaplan, president and chief executive officer of the Lustgarten Foundation. “Twenty years ago, this was truly an ‘orphan’ disease, but thanks to the commitment and innovative approaches of these researchers at MIT and beyond, we are rapidly expanding our knowledge and ability to improve patient outcomes.”
As a researcher himself and the shepherd of MIT’s transition from the Center for Cancer Research to the Koch Institute, Jacks has long sought to balance basic science research with clinical applications. Pancreatic cancer was among the first disease areas identified as a priority for the Bridge Project, the Koch Institute’s signature collaboration between MIT and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. The Lustgarten Foundation was among the primary supporters of the Bridge Project in its inaugural year. Even with these resources, however, pancreatic cancer continues to be a difficult disease to approach.
Jacks and his colleagues describe the Lustgarten investment as high-risk, high-reward — an innovation fund to move beyond incremental improvements at both the bench and the bedside.
“This gives us the freedom to ask very challenging questions about cancer cells themselves and the immune system,” Freed-Pastor says.
Jacks agrees. “This is exactly the right time for this work,” he says. “We understand so much more about this disease than we did two decades ago, and we now have the teams and technologies to transform that knowledge into actionable solutions for patients. We are honored by the Lustgarten Foundation’s trust in that endeavor.”
Since the 2003 discovery of the single-atom-thick carbon material known as graphene, there has been significant interest in other types of 2-D materials as well.
These materials could be stacked together like Lego bricks to form a range of devices with different functions, including operating as semiconductors. In this way, they could be used to create ultra-thin, flexible, transparent and wearable electronic devices.
However, separating a bulk crystal material into 2-D flakes for use in electronics has proven difficult to do on a commercial scale.
The existing process, in which individual flakes are split off from the bulk crystals by repeatedly stamping the crystals onto an adhesive tape, is unreliable and time-consuming, requiring many hours to harvest enough material and form a device.
Now researchers in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT have developed a technique to harvest 2-inch diameter wafers of 2-D material within just a few minutes. They can then be stacked together to form an electronic device within an hour.
The technique, which they describe in a paper published in the journal Science, could open up the possibility of commercializing electronic devices based on a variety of 2-D materials, according to Jeehwan Kim, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who led the research.
The paper’s co-first authors were Sanghoon Bae, who was involved in flexible device fabrication, and Jaewoo Shim, who worked on the stacking of the 2-D material monolayers. Both are postdocs in Kim’s group.
The paper’s co-authors also included students and postdocs from within Kim’s group, as well as collaborators at Georgia Tech, the University of Texas, Yonsei University in South Korea, and the University of Virginia. Sang-Hoon Bae, Jaewoo Shim, Wei Kong, and Doyoon Lee in Kim’s research group equally contributed to this work.
“We have shown that we can do monolayer-by-monolayer isolation of 2-D materials at the wafer scale,” Kim says. “Secondly, we have demonstrated a way to easily stack up these wafer-scale monolayers of 2-D material.”
The researchers first grew a thick stack of 2-D material on top of a sapphire wafer. They then applied a 600-nanometer-thick nickel film to the top of the stack.
Since 2-D materials adhere much more strongly to nickel than to sapphire, lifting off this film allowed the researchers to separate the entire stack from the wafer.
What’s more, the adhesion between the nickel and the individual layers of 2-D material is also greater than that between each of the layers themselves.
As a result, when a second nickel film was then added to the bottom of the stack, the researchers were able to peel off individual, single-atom thick monolayers of 2-D material.
That is because peeling off the first nickel film generates cracks in the material that propagate right through to the bottom of the stack, Kim says.
Once the first monolayer collected by the nickel film has been transferred to a substrate, the process can be repeated for each layer.
“We use very simple mechanics, and by using this controlled crack propagation concept we are able to isolate monolayer 2-D material at the wafer scale,” he says.
The universal technique can be used with a range of different 2-D materials, including hexagonal boron nitride, tungsten disulfide, and molybdenum disulfide.
In this way it can be used to produce different types of monolayer 2-D materials, such as semiconductors, metals, and insulators, which can then be stacked together to form the 2-D heterostructures needed for an electronic device.
“If you fabricate electronic and photonic devices using 2-D materials, the devices will be just a few monolayers thick,” Kim says. “They will be extremely flexible, and can be stamped on to anything,” he says.
The process is fast and low-cost, making it suitable for commercial operations, he adds.
The researchers have also demonstrated the technique by successfully fabricating arrays of field-effect transistors at the wafer scale, with a thickness of just a few atoms.
“The work has a lot of potential to bring 2-D materials and their heterostructures towards real-world applications,” says Philip Kim, a professor of physics at Harvard University, who was not involved in the research.
The researchers are now planning to apply the technique to develop a range of electronic devices, including a nonvolatile memory array and flexible devices that can be worn on the skin.
They are also interested in applying the technique to develop devices for use in the “internet of things,” Kim says.
“All you need to do is grow these thick 2-D materials, then isolate them in monolayers and stack them up. So it is extremely cheap — much cheaper than the existing semiconductor process. This means it will bring laboratory-level 2-D materials into manufacturing for commercialization,” Kim says.
“That makes it perfect for IoT networks, because if you were to use conventional semiconductors for the sensing systems it would be expensive.”
The MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab has been honored by the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), which recently announced its second annual Humanitarian Logistics Awards at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) EDGE conference. The awards highlight the critical role of logistics in saving lives in times of natural disaster.
The 2017 collaboration between the MIT lab (then known as the Humanitarian Response Lab), ALAN, and LIFT began in August during Hurricane Harvey. Efforts accelerated at the 2017 CSCMP EDGE conference when the three organizations initiated a daily private sector supply chain coordination call for Hurricane Maria relief. Representatives from FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico also participated.
The call served as a forum for information and resource sharing, problem identification, and resolution. The collaboration contributed to efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ranging from survivors’ safe evacuation to key deliveries of food, water, fuel, and medicine. Based on requests from call participants during the Maria response, including FEMA, the team also responded to 2018 hurricanes Lane and Florence.
“During the unique set of crises during the 2017 hurricane season, we simply took action to support companies who had capacity to respond and needed information to operate more effectively,” said Jarrod Goentzel, director of the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab. “We have continued efforts to cultivate relationships and improve information flow among public and private entities to accelerate operations following disasters.”
As the 2017 hurricane season closed, MIT convened several companies and government leaders at a December roundtable to document recent experiences and develop insights. The roundtable report highlights the hurricanes’ impacts on critical supply chains, documents solutions employed to address issues, and identifies opportunities to improve data gathering, analysis, and communication, and prioritization.
Some of these opportunities are already being pursued through a FEMA-sponsored study on post-hurricane supply chain adaptability led by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which then contracted the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab for further research. The study aims to better understand supply chain adaptability following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria for impacted areas in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
MIT will conduct data collection and advanced analysis to understand the nature of supply chain contingencies and to identify crucial links, nodes, or sub-systems that have the potential to expand or constrain operations and/or increase resilience. And the MIT lab members plan to continue support of coordination efforts with ALAN and LIFT when crisis calls.
ALAN’s Humanitarian Logistics Awards recognize organizations and individuals who exemplify the best that the supply chain has to offer by assuring that aid and comfort are rapidly delivered to communities in crisis.
“Each of these recipients is living proof that humanitarianism isn’t just a one-time event — and that true service extends well beyond a single disaster,” said Kathy Fulton, ALAN executive director. “We’re grateful to them for the many contributions they have made, and we are proud to recognize them today.”
Professor Frances Ross joined the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering this fall after a career of developing techniques that probe materials reactions while they take place. Formerly with the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, Ross brings to MIT her expertise in applying transmission electron microscopy to understand how nanostructures form in real time and using the data from such movies to develop new structures and growth pathways. She addressed the MIT Materials Research Laboratory Materials Day Symposium “Materials Research at the Nanoscale” on Oct. 10.
Q: What insights do we gain from observing nanoscale crystal structures forming in real-time that were missed when observation was limited to analyzing structures only after their formation?
A: Recording a movie of something growing, rather than images before and after growth, has many exciting advantages. The movie gives us a continuous view of a process, which shows the full evolution. This can include detailed information like the growth rate of an individual nanocrystal. Recording a continuous view makes it easier to catch a rapid nucleation event or a really short-lived intermediate shape, which may often be quite unexpected. The movie also gives us a window into the behavior of materials under real processing conditions, avoiding the changes that usually occur when you stop growth to get ready for post-growth analysis. And finally, it is possible to grow a single object then measure its properties, such as the electrical conductivity of one nanowire or the melting point of a nanocrystal. Of course obtaining such information involves greater experimental complexity, but the results make this extra effort worthwhile, and we really enjoy designing and carrying out these experiments.
Q: What will your role be in moving these techniques forward through the new MIT.nano facility?
A: MIT.nano has some very quiet rooms downstairs. The rooms are designed to have a stable temperature and minimize vibrations and electromagnetic fields from the surroundings, including the nearby T line [subway]. Our plan is to use one of these rooms for a unique new electron microscope. It will be designed for growth experiments that involve two-dimensional materials: not just the famous graphene but others as well. We plan to study growth reactions where “conventional” (three-dimensional) nanocrystals grow on two-dimensional materials — a necessary step in making full use of the interesting new opportunities offered by two-dimensional materials. Growth reactions involving two-dimensional materials are difficult to study using our existing equipment because the materials are damaged by the electrons used for imaging. The new microscope will use lower voltage electrons and will have a high vacuum for precise control of the environment and capabilities for carrying out growth and other processes using reactive gases. This microscope will benefit growth studies in many other materials as well. But not every experiment requires such state-of-the-art equipment, and we also plan to develop new capabilities, particularly for looking at reactions in liquids, in the microscopes that are already operating in Building 13.
Q: What technologies will most immediately benefit through enhanced observation of nanoscale structure formation?
A: I think that any new way of looking at a material or a process tends to impact a much broader area than you at first imagine. It has been very exciting to see how many areas have made use of the opportunities presented by these types of growth experiment. Growth processes in liquids have already probed catalysts in action, biomineralization, fluid physics (such as nanoscale bubbles), corrosion, and materials for rechargeable batteries. Some biological, geological, or atmospheric processes will also eventually benefit from this type of microscopy. Growth reactions involving gases are particularly well suited to addressing questions in catalysis (again), thin films and coatings, processing for microelectronics, structures used in solid-state lighting, and a variety of other technology areas. Our approach has been to choose relatively simple materials that have useful applications — silicon, germanium, copper — but then use the experiments to probe the basic physics underlying the materials’ reaction and see how that might teach us how to build more complex structures. The simpler and more general the model is that explains our observations, the happier we are.
Technology that uses light to clean water filtration systems in real time won the 2018 MADMEC competition on Oct. 9.
The team that developed the system, Fiat Flux, received the $10,000 grand prize after five student teams presented their final results from the five-month materials science competition. Each team, made up entirely of current MIT students, spent the summer participating in mini-contests and feasibility studies that encouraged hands-on experimentation.
Fiat Flux, which was also an MIT Clean Energy semifinalist this year, uses light to trigger a chemical reaction that combats the accumulation of dirt and other foulants in membrane-based water filtration systems. The foulants can lead to degradation, increased energy expenditures, high operating pressures, and other inefficiencies that can cut such systems’ productivity by more than half.
“We’ve done interviews with people in the field and they all tell us the same thing: These [filtration] membranes never operate at the rate they are supposed to,” said Fiat Flux Chief Technology Officer Alvin Tan, who is pursuing a PhD in materials science and engineering at MIT.
With roughly a third of the world’s population currently living in water-stressed regions, the solution offers a potential path to improving access to clean water.
The Gryffindor team took home the second-place prize of $6,000 after its three members, all of whom are materials science graduate students, developed an inexpensive system for efficiently applying graphene to the surface of metal substrates to improve fatigue resistance. Using a custom electro-thermo-mechanical measurement system, the team showed that a copper wire coated in graphene exhibited less damage when exposed to cyclic stresses over time, compared to bare copper wires.
“This is a huge problem, both with respect to wasted energy and wasted money,” Gryffindor team member Skylar Deckoff-Jones said of fatigue in systems such as wires, infrastructure, and aerospace and consumer products. “It’s estimated that roughly 4 percent of the U.S. GDP is used annually just to replace old components that degrade over time because of fatigue failure.”
Boston Boron Company was awarded third place for its novel design of a system that leverages a process called molten oxide electrolysis (MOE) to produce boron. When compared to traditional processes, the company’s prototype produced boron for less than one-tenth the cost at a similar purity.
The other two teams that presented were Technologies for Integrated Photonic Sensors, or TIPS, which developed a solution that addresses problems related to using integrated photonic chips in sensors; and HydroHome, which identified a mechanism for sustaining deep sea microorganisms in a laboratory setting.
The teams gave oral and poster presentations to judges and attendees as the last step of the competition. MADMEC is a competition for student teams to develop and build technologies that use materials science to address problems of sustainability. Teams are provided with lab space, up to $1,000 in funding, and expert guidance to work through a series of developmental milestones and develop a prototype.
“The real goal here is for students to do some prototyping, get their hands dirty, literally and figuratively, and learn how to drive a project,” Michael Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) who runs MADMEC, said during opening remarks.
MADMEC is hosted by DMSE and sponsored by Saint Gobain and the Dow Chemical Company. It is different from accelerators and startup competitions on campus in that it focuses on research and prototyping rather than developing business plans and starting a company. Tarkanian says that approach allows students to pursue ideas they may not think are immediately commercially viable.
“[MADMEC’s] emphasis is on students getting experience with hands-on materials processing, and learning how to run their own research project,” Tarkanian explained.
That said, since MADMEC’s founding in 2007, a number of participants have gone on to win larger competitions and start companies, including AquaFresco (the 2014 MADMEC winner), Embr (2013 winner) and Clear Motion (formerly Levant Power, third-place winner in 2007).
The judges of this year’s competition were C. Cem Taşan, the Thomas B. King Career Development Professor of Metallurgy at MIT; Thomas Kalantar PhD ’90 of Dow Chemical; Nicholas Orf PhD ’09 of Saint Gobain; and Ockert Van Der Schijff of Exponent.