MIT Faculty NewsletterYou can get a glimpse of what your former professors are thinking about in the MIT Faculty Newsletter. A faculty editorial board runs the MFN, and most articles are written by faculty. Some matters are about MIT’s own governance, others are about global issues that intertwine with the Institute’s community life. Here are some highlights of the most recent issue:

Editorial: Our “Inescapable Network:” Haiti, the Diversity Initiative, and MLK

This editorial calls on the MIT administration to increase their efforts in response to the earthquake in Haiti. Faculty Chair Tom Kochan asks “Are We Doing Enough?” and three related articles address MIT faculty responses to the earthquake.

The Demand for MIT Graduates

Although graduating during the worst economic crisis in recent history, MIT’s class of 2009 still fared better than their peers. How was that accomplished?

Teach Talk: Toward a Personalized Graduate Curriculum

Learn how the grad school experience is changing because of student needs and changing knowledge.

2010 MIT Briefing Book Available Online

This comprehensive overview of MIT, which focuses on research activities, is compiled by Office of the Vice President for Research and the MIT Washington Office.

Erez Lieberman-Aiden won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Erez Lieberman-Aiden won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

A scientific Renaissance man who works in mathematics, linguistics, biotechnology, and polymer physics, Erez Lieberman-Aiden, has won the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. His inventions range from a new 3-D method of genome sequencing to evolutionary graph theory to the iShoe, a sensor-laden insole for the elderly. And he’s a visual artist and a creative writer.

A graduate student at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Lieberman-Aiden’s most recent invention is the Hi-C method for three-dimensional genome sequencing. Developed with his advisor Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute, and colleagues, Lieberman-Aiden hopes that Hi-C will help scientists understand how genes are turned on and off inside the cell and shed light on diseases like cancer.

Lieberman-Aiden and a Harvard mathematics professor developed evolutionary graph theory, which provides a quantitative language to describe replication of entities—such as organisms or ideas—along networks that can be applied fields ranging from cancer biology to social networks.

In 3-D genome imaging, nearby regions of DNA are depicted in different colors

In 3-D genome imaging, nearby regions of DNA are depicted in different colors.

A speaker of English, Hebrew, and Hungarian, he and a colleague have also contributed to the understanding of how languages follow the laws of natural selection in predictable ways, leading to specific equations that describe the evolution of verbs.

He and his wife, Aviva Presser Aiden, an MIT graduate student, run a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, Bears Without Borders, dedicated to the creation and delivery of toys and childhood necessities to children worldwide. An inventor herself, Aviva was on the team that developed a dirt-powered battery designed for rural, off-grid communities, which was named one of Popular Mechanics 10 Most Brilliant Innovations of 2009.


Firefly creates 3-D digital images in the air.

Firefly creates 3-D digital images in the air.

Swarm robots are lighting up the sky! Firefly, an MIT SENSEable City Laboratory project developed in collaboration with ARES Lab (Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems Laboratory), is launching a swarm of tiny helicopters embedded with sparkling LED lights. The swarm, on command, can render an uncanny representation of the Mona Lisa, then reform into complex 3-D shapes such as a moving face or the ocean’s surface alive with waves.

These fireflies act as ‘smart pixels’ soaring through the air and working in concert to produce digital displays with animated color and free-form images that are still or in motion and viewable from any angle. Though SENSEable has only a handful now in flight, the group wants to scale up the project quickly.

A fabulous video shows Firefly’s potential.


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MIT is a powerhouse when it comes to problem solving. Some of the world’s most talented scientists engineers study and work at the Institute, and breakthroughs across different disciplines are often a part of daily life.

However some problems, particularly in the energy sector, transcend the scope of a single discipline and require a systems-wide approach. A new video by AMPS and the Alumni Association focuses on that multidisciplinary strategy, showing how innovation in energy technology has to be combined with innovation in business models and policies in order to create and promote a sustainable energy system.

View the seven minute Energy Innovation video above or watch it on TechTV.

the BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers

The BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers.

The latest issue of Quick Take, in case you haven’t read it yet, celebrates MIT advancements that could transform the future of communications, gadgets, transportation, construction, and computing.

In the computing category, for example, the BiDi Screen created by Media Lab researchers turns LCD displays into giant lensless cameras that can both capture images and display them and allow users to control on-screen objects with hand gestures.

Since Quick Take’s publication, gestural interfaces have been attracting a lot of media buzz. Alumnus John Underkoffler ’88, SM ’91, PhD ’99 demonstrated the g-speak Spatial Operating Environment (SOE) at last week’s TED conference in California (see video of it in action below). The idea behind the technology can be seen in the 2002 film Minority Report, for which Underkoffler served as a science advisor. He based the movie’s technology on his earlier work in the Media Lab. Several MIT alumni, who all work for Oblong Industries, were instrumental in creating the SOE.

Of course, other noteworthy MIT innovations have cropped up as well recently. One is in the new field of network coding. MIT researchers discovered that communications networks could be made more efficient—that is, Internet file sharing faster, streaming video more reliable, and cell-phone reception better—by randomly combining data at routers. Read the two-part article about MIT’s contributions to making the most of a network’s bandwidth.

What other inventions and innovations are on the horizon? Here’s a peek: shotgun-riding robots, radiation-resistant steel alloys, redesigned silicon transistors, and computational photography. Read Quick Take: Future to find out more.

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Guest Blogger Shan Wu, graduate student in biological engineering

I am in Beijing for five months interning with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) through the MIT-China Program. UNIDO works with various developing countries to develop more sustainable industrial practices while maintaining economic growth. My project in China will study carbon emissions standards for consumer products.

Shan Wu visiting China's Great Wall.

Shan Wu visiting China's Great Wall.

As global climate change awareness increases, consumers are becoming more and more environmentally conscious. From eating organic foods to recycling to purchasing responsible and green products, many of us are making deliberate life-style decisions and changes to reduce our personal carbon footprint. These changes in global spending patterns are also starting to take hold in developing countries like China. A bigger and more immediate impact, however, lies in how changing consumer sentiments in the West will affect China’s massive import and export industries, worth $1,133 and $1,428 billion dollars respectively in 2008.

Toward answering this question, one big challenge is the lack of global measurement standards for determining a product’s carbon footprint. This makes comparisons between Chinese products, Western products, and potential import and export restrictions based on environmental impacts difficult. My internship with UNIDO will be to develop recommendations for measuring product carbon emissions in China and how to apply them within the trade industry.

China, in collaboration with several frontrunner organizations in Asia and Europe, has already developed voluntary environmental certification standards for a variety of products ranging from household appliances to writing instruments. Thus, the first goal of my project is to evaluate how these standards compare to international ones as well as to determine how the standards can be expanded to include carbon emissions footprints in the certification process. The second goal of this project is to establish recommendations for what roles the environmental and carbon impacts of a product should play in China’s trade agreements with the rest of the world.

My long-term career interests are in science policy and particularly energy policy. I am extremely grateful to have this tremendous opportunity through MISTI and the MIT-China Program to be in Beijing and to work in an area immediately relevant to my career development.

Davos, Switzerland, hosts the World Economic Forum.John Santini PhD ’99 is having a really good January. He is traveling to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, because his company, MicroCHIPS, a Bedford, MA-startup, is being recognized as one of the forum’s Technology Pioneers. Add to that another $16.5 million investors are providing to continue developing a new implantable medical device capable of delivering drugs inside the body or sensing changing disease states, you’ve got a darn good month.

This new round of funding will help support the company’s first clinical trials, including tests for a no-needle means of testing blood in diabetics, and support a new collaboration that will work on products that deliver drugs to the eye.

Who else from MIT is attending Davos?

A squad of MIT leaders and faculty regularly attend the forum. This year President Susan Hockfield is hosting a session exploring the frontiers of intelligence in natural and artificial systems, at scales ranging from individuals up to societies and down to cells and circuits. Speakers include Associate Professor Josh Tenenbaum PhD ’99, who hopes to establish an Intelligence Initiative at MIT; he was to discuss his work on building machines that learn by generalizing from a few examples, the way children do.

Update: Watch videos of Davos talks by Tim Berners-Lee, Tenenbaum, and other MIT faculty or read a New York Times blog post about their presentation.

Divya Jani, Deirdre Hatfield, and Calvin Cheung researched puppy choice

MBA students Divya Jani, Deirdre Hatfield, and Calvin Cheung researched dog choice.

A group of MBA students recently researched the decision-making process involved in selecting a pet dog in Drazen Prelec’s Listening to the Customer class. Calvin Cheung, Deirdre Hatfield, Divya Jani, John Curry, and Lauren Ready, all MBAs set to graduate in June, wanted to understand how households acquire dogs as pets. So they examined  the thought processes behind how families and individuals decide which dogs are best for them.

The team used a method known as the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), an interview process that encourages participants to use images to highlight the subconscious thoughts behind their decisions. Then they asked their interview subjects detailed questions about how they obtained their dogs. A News@MITSloan article describes the results.

The ZMET technique proved valuable, according to Curry. “ZMET allowed us to use images, visualization, and stories to understand dog owners’ underlying choices and behaviors,” he said. “Since dogs are inherently a personal topic, ZMET was ideal for this study. For example, if someone says, ‘I like dogs with powerful looks,’ they likely have deeper feelings that drive that affinity,” he said.

Unemployment is a pressing national problem and, for individuals, a personal crisis. And, unfortunately, lots of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues are in the midst of this experience. However, an MIT economist has been thinking about how the experience of being unemployed can be improved.

In the News Office’s 3 Questions series, MIT economist Ivan Werning, who teaches macroeconomic theory, talks about his proposal to change the length and level of unemployment benefits and how that might help the nation.

The MIT AgeLab has given birth to a new understanding of how people over 50 can thrive, from mobility issues to lifelong productivity. How can elders be safe drivers? When should they give up their car keys? How can businesses create products and services that help this group? How can technology promote healthy, independent living? The AgeLab is working on all these questions.

Joseph Coughlin leads the AgeLab, which is set to celebrate its 10th birthday in February. Ever-dapper with a bow tie and ready grin, Coughlin was trained as a political scientist who turned his passion into new ideas and products to promote healthy, vital aging of the burgeoning post-50 population. A Boston Globe Q&A probes recent developments and a local television video takes you on a virtual spin of the Aware Car, a test car that tracks road conditions and the driver’s responses including fatigue levels. In fact, when the driver is stressed, the built in massager kicks on.

Check out the AgeLab Website to learn about new research, volunteer for a study, check resources for links to organizations that work on policy or services for older people, and download a new publication, Your Road Ahead: A Guide to Comprehensive Driving Evaluation.

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