Advanced Search
DSpace@MIT

Home

Research and Teaching Output of the MIT Community

MIT Research in the News

AeroAstro turns 100

Last week, MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics celebrated its 100th anniversary with a three-day Centennial Symposium. The events included a panel with nine astronauts, all MIT alumni, and a talk by inventor Elon Musk, cofounder of the company SpaceX, which has built several rockets and whose goal is to fly people to other planets, like Mars. Sending more humans into space was one of the themes of the celebration.

The AeroAstro department has been at the forefront of aerospace innovation since it started the country’s first aeronautical engineering course in 1914. In 1961, for example, members of the MIT Instrumentation Lab (now the Draper Lab) developed the computer systems for the Apollo program, which made it possible for Neil Armstrong and MIT alumnus Buzz Aldrin to walk on the moon in 1969.

“[Apollo] became an icon of what we can accomplish through technology,” Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, told the MIT Spectrum.

As the aero-astro field has grown to include the study of unmanned aircraft, flexible spaces suits, and small satellites, MIT’s department is more popular than ever. “We’re seeing a 50% increase in our enrollment in the last two years,” said AeroAstro Department Head Jaime Peraire.

Autism as a disorder of prediction

In a paper published this month, MIT researchers suggest that many of the varied symptoms that characterize autism may be explained by a difficulty with making predictions. The ability to predict is fundamental to tasks as diverse as adjusting to sensory stimuli and inferring other’s mental states based on the context. When prediction is compromised, a person lives in a “seemingly ‘magical’ world wherein events occur unexpectedly and without cause,” write the authors, who include professors Pawan Sinha and Richard Held from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Impaired predictive skills can make the world feel overwhelming and may lead to some of the behaviors linked to autism, such as repetitive behavior or difficulty gauging social situations.

In devising their hypothesis, the researchers reviewed more than 100 studies and accounts of autism over more than three decades, with the goal of finding a common and coherent basis for the disorder. A new theory of autism could help researchers design to more effective therapies to treat it.

“At the moment, the treatments that have been developed are driven by the end symptoms. We’re suggesting that the deeper issue is a predictive difficulty, which may, therefore, be a better target for interventions,” says Sinha.

Study shows "substantial learning" in MOOC

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, appear to be thriving. Want to hear about the “violent universe” from faculty at the Australian National University? Or take an introductory class on the music business from the renowned Berklee College of Music? These and hundreds of other courses have been offered on platforms like edX, Coursera, or Udacity in the two-and-a-half years since edX ran one of the first MOOCs out of MIT. Enticed by personal or professional edification, as well as the by the cost (free), thousands of people worldwide have signed up for online classes.

But are MOOC students learning anything?

This question has been little explored in the online teaching arena. Now, researchers including MIT physics professor David Pritchard, have published a study showing “substantial learning” in an edX MOOC. Using pretest and posttest questions, as well as analyzing homework and test results throughout the course, the researchers found that online students improved as well as or better than those in previously studied traditional classes.

Bhatia wins Lemelson-MIT Prize

Biomedical engineer and professor Sangeeta Bhatia has been awarded the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize, worth $500,000, which goes to mid-career inventors with a commitment to mentoring others and bettering the world with their work. Bhatia was cited for building “tiny technologies” in medicine that address complex problems in areas like drug toxicity, tissue regeneration, cancer therapeutics, and infectious disease. Among her inventions is a paper urine test for detecting cancer that has been adapted for use in developing areas.

Ebola outbreak linked to funeral

In a study published last week, researchers including MIT Biology professor Eric Lander show that this year’s explosive Ebola outbreak in West Africa possibly stemmed from the burial of a traditional healer at which 14 women were infected. Scientists sequenced the Ebola virus from 78 patients treated in Sierra Leone and found that the virus for all 78 could be traced to funeral guests. They also determined that the current Ebola strain is genetically distinct from a previous strain circulating elsewhere in Africa. This information could help scientists and public health officials determine which diagnostic tests and drugs may be most effective on the infection. Five authors on the study, all staff members at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, died of Ebola before the paper was published.

Report on the future of MIT education

This week, MIT President Rafael Reif released the final report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, which “marks the beginning of an exciting new period of educational experimentation at MIT,” he wrote in a letter to the community.

Among other things, the report addresses MIT’s role in MOOCs, or massive open online courses, and suggests that MIT consider offering different levels of certification for students enrolled in classes through MITx and edX. It also recommends increasing the Institute’s undergraduate population or allowing students to complete their degrees in fewer than four years. The Task Force has been chaired by two faculty members: Karen Willcox, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Sanjay Sarma, a professor of engineering who is also MIT’s director of digital learning.

Reader for the visually impaired

Researchers in the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group have built a prototype of a device that helps visually impaired people read printed text. The FingerReader, developed by graduate student Roy Shilkrot and professor Pattie Maes, among others, sits like a ring on a user’s finger and scans words via a built-in camera as the user points to them. Software identifies the words and translates them into an audio track. The FingerReader also alerts users if their finger veers away from a line of text.

Though the FingerReader isn’t on the market, the researchers say they’re looking into this option. As Maes recently told the Associated Press, the FingerReader is “a lot more flexible, a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now.”

Robotics expert Seth Teller dies

Seth Teller, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and head of the Robotics, Vision, and Sensor Networks group, died last week at the age of 50. In a message to the EECS community, several of Teller’s colleagues wrote: “There can be no doubt of the magnitude of the loss we face on both a personal and professional level. Seth’s outstanding contributions as a researcher, teacher, mentor, and colleague set a standard that has inspired many of us. He was a generous, warm person whose passion for his work was contagious. He had a unique ability to envision new approaches to problems, then assemble, motivate, and guide large research teams to accomplish things far beyond what they thought possible.”

Teller worked in a wide range of fields, including robotics, vision, graphics, and human-computer interfaces. He recently led the MIT team that will compete in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, the goal of which is to develop robots that can help humans in disaster zones. He was also a leader of MIT’s Fifth Sense Project, whose researchers develop wearable devices to assist blind and low-vision people.

The cost of patent trolls

A new study by a Sloan researcher suggests that the recent increase of so-called “patent trolls”—companies that do little more than sue others over patent rights—has resulted in a huge loss of entrepreneurial activity in the United States. The study, by marketing professor Catherine Tucker, correlates patent litigation and venture capital (VC) investment using data from 1995 to 2012. The “evidence suggests that more lawsuits can distract management from developing new and innovative products, and may cause them to ignore products targeted by lawsuits, in addition to the more obvious litigation costs,” she writes. The paper says that VC investment would have been more than $21 billion higher over five years if not for lawsuits brought over patents by frequent litigators.

Anand wins 2014 Drucker Medal

Mechanical engineering professor Lallit Anand has won the 2014 Daniel C. Drucker Medal, awarded by the Applied Mechanics Division of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The medal is one of the highest distinctions a mechanician can achieve. Anand was cited for his “seminal contributions to the formulation of constitutive theories for the plastic response of a variety of engineering solids, including polycrystalline metals, metallic glasses, glassy polymers, and granular materials.”

Storms peaking further from tropics

A new study coauthored by an MIT faculty member shows that powerful tropical storms are peaking in intensity further away from the equator. The migration of these cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons is significant in part because residents and infrastructure where the storms now make landfall may be unprepared for them and thus in more danger. As well, the authors write, these cyclones “have an important role in maintaining regional water resources, and a poleward migration of storm tracks could threaten potable water supplies in some regions while increasing flooding events in others.”

While the paper makes a link between the storms’ shift and global warming, coauthor Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science in the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says that researchers are continuing to examine this. Tropical winds have also expanded towards the poles in recent years. And, Emanuel told the MIT News, “as that belt migrates poleward, which surely it must as the whole ocean warms, the tropical cyclone genesis regions might just move with it. But we have more work to do to nail it down.”

The structure of onscreen feelings

Can lines, shapes, and colors express emotions in movies? In her new book, “The Forms of the Affects,” literature professor Eugenie Brinkema closely looks at these properties in films like “Psycho” and “Open Water” and argues that they do. In her view, emotions or “affect” need not only be observed by watching characters embody a feeling like anxiety or grief. Rather, Brinkema says that formal properties like repetition, duration, and lighting show the emotion themselves.

Take the film “Open Water,” in which a husband and wife are accidentally left behind in shark-infested waters during a scuba diving trip. The movie is frightening and anxiety producing, in part, says Brinkema, because of its visual frame. Most scenes show the sea and the sky with a horizontal line between them. As time goes on in the film, that line is interrupted by shark fins above and bodies disappearing below.

“The commonplace assumption is that spectators pay money to go to horror films because it will make us feel anxious, and then we cathartically leave the theater at the end of the day and feel fine. But what if [the film’s] anxiety has to do with the specific visual form of movement and time?” Brinkema told the MIT News.

New building will house nanoscale research

Starting in summer 2015, construction will begin on a 200,000-square-foot building called “MIT.nano” that will replace Building 12 on the MIT campus. The building, to be completed by 2018, will include cutting edge facilities to support research with nanoscale materials and processes. About one quarter of MIT’s graduate students and 20 percent of its researchers across many fields will make use of the facility, according to Vladimir Bulović, an electrical engineering professor and the faculty lead on the MIT.nano project.

“This building needs to be centrally located, because nanoscale research is now central to so many disciplines,” Bulović told the MIT News. “[It] was designed to encourage collaboration.”

Germs that go to great lengths

A new study by MIT researchers shows that the droplets our noses and mouths release during coughs and sneezes can travel much further than previously thought. John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics, and Lydia Bourouiba, an assistant professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are two of the coauthors on a recent paper, “Violent expiratory events: on coughing and sneezing.” The researchers directly observed sneezing and coughing, and also simulated it in the lab, and found that coughs and sneezes produce “turbulent buoyant momentum puffs,” or respiratory clouds, that can carry potentially infected droplets five to 200 times further than known before. This could mean airborne pathogens are more easily transmitted through ventilation systems and enclosed spaces.

Gleason named Associate Provost

Chemical Engineering professor Karen Gleason was named this week as MIT’s Associate Provost. Gleason, a faculty member since 1987, has previously served in several administrative roles, including associate dean of engineering for research. She holds 18 patents for work in chemical vapor deposition polymers and their applications in optoelectronics, sensing, microfluidics, energy, biomedicine, and membranes. Provost Martin Schmidt said Gleason’s entrepreneurship and experience with industry will be helpful in “strengthening MIT’s industrial engagements.”

New evidence for the ‘bang’ of the Big Bang

This week, a team of astronomers announced the first “smoking gun” evidence of inflation, a theory of cosmology that describes the quick and violent expansion of the universe in its first fractions of a second. Inflation is the “‘bang’ of the Big Bang,” says Alan Guth, an MIT physics professor who first proposed the theory in 1980. “In its original form, the Big Bang theory never was a theory of the bang. It said nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged.”

The astronomers peered into the cosmic microwave background, a bath of radiation from the early universe, and saw the influence of ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These offer extremely strong evidence that the universe expanded by a repulsive form of gravity, as described by Guth and others.

White House co-sponsor big data workshop

Last week, MIT hosted a daylong workshop on big data and privacy, co-sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of a government review of these issues and policies related to them. Several faculty from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory spoke about their work. Among them was John Guttag, who described research done by one of his graduate students to develop an algorithm that uses hospital data to identify patients at risk for bacterial infection. Shafi Goldwasser and Nickolai Zeldovich both discussed schemes that would allow researchers to perform computations on encrypted data without decrypting it.

A breakthrough in endometriosis research

Over the years Linda Griffith has undergone many surgeries for endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally grows in the uterus is found elsewhere in the body and can cause lesions, inflammation, and infertility. The disease is poorly understood, and so it made sense to Griffith, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering, to start researching it. In a paper published earlier this month, Griffith and colleagues, including bioengineering professor Douglas Lauffenburger, studied pelvic fluid from women with endometriosis and in about a third they found elevated levels of a group of immune system proteins. The work is an early step towards classifying the disease and, eventually, finding new treatments for it. “We’re not claiming we found a mechanism — the mechanism for endometriosis,” Griffith told the Boston Globe. “We have found a very convincing approach to understand an immune network.”

MIT names new provost and chancellor

Two MIT faculty members have been named provost and chancellor, the Institute's two most senior academic posts. Martin Schmidt, the new provost, is an electrical engineering professor and had been associate provost since 2008. The provost is the senior academic and budget officer on campus. Cynthia Barnhart, a professor in civil and environmental engineering, has been associate dean of the School of Engineering since 2007. In Barnhart's job as chancellor she’s responsible for undergraduate and graduate education and student life.

Rewriting fearful memories

A study coauthored by MIT economics professor Amy Finkelstein shows that newly health-insured adults are more likely to visit emergency rooms than their uninsured peers. The study, published earlier this month, used data from a 2008 Medicaid expansion program in Oregon and found that the newly insured visited ERs about 40 percent more often. Researchers looked at emergency department records over an 18-month period for about 25,000 low-income adults, some of whom were randomly selected in a lottery to receive Medicaid.

Medicaid increases visits to the ER

Sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes undergo a treatment in which they re-experience a fearful memory in a safe place, with the hope that their brains will rewrite the memory so it no longer triggers them. But this therapy doesn’t always work and its effects may not last, especially if the memory is years old. MIT neuroscientists, including Picower Institute for Learning and Memory director Li-Huei Tsai, have shown they can lessen traumatic memories in mice when pairing the behavioral therapy with a dose of a drug that that makes the brain more malleable. “Our experiments really strongly argue that either the old memories are permanently being modified, or a new much more potent memory is formed that completely overwrites the old memory,” Tsai told the MIT News.

Kastner to be nominated to DOE

Last month, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Marc Kastner, dean of MIT’s School of Science, to head the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The office is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States; its 2013 budget is $4.9 billion. Kastner, who works in condensed matter physics, has led the School of Science since 2007. “A brilliant physicist and highly effective manager, Marc Kastner is ideally suited to manage DOE’s basic science portfolio and its network of national labs,” said MIT President Rafael Reif. “He argues eloquently for the value of basic science but has worked with equal enthusiasm to help MIT faculty transform emerging ideas into important real-world technologies. He knows the challenges of building a sustainable energy future, and I can think of no one better to help the U.S. seize the opportunities, as well.”

Hard math for grade schoolers

After a couple of years of coaching his daughter’s middle-school math team, MIT economist Glenn Ellison compiled his notes into a self-published book, Hard Math for Middle School. The book was intended for members of the math league his daughter participated in, but in the five years since it was published it has sold thousands of copies nationwide. Now (at the urging of his youngest daughter), Ellison has released a second book for third- to sixth-graders looking for a challenge beyond what they learn in the classroom. The goal is to keep math interesting for advanced students. “What would be great is if in 10 to 12 years my MIT students come up to me and say ‘I used your book when I was in fifth grade,’” says Ellison. “That would be really awesome.”

New way to monitor induced-coma patients

Brain injury patients are sometimes deliberately placed in a coma with anesthesia drugs to allow swelling to go down and their brains to heal. Comas can last for days, during which patients’ brain activity must be regularly monitored to ensure the right level of sedation. The constant checking is “totally inefficient,” says Emery Brown, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Brown and his colleagues at MGH have developed a “brain-machine interface” that automatically monitors brain activity and adjusts drug dosages accordingly. They’ve tested the system on rats and are now planning human trials.

Nanoparticles attack aggressive tumors

MIT chemical engineers have developed a new treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer whose tumors resist chemotherapy drugs. Led by David H. Koch Professor in Engineering Paula Hammond, the team designed nanoparticles that pack a one-two punch: They deliver a cancer drug along with short strands of RNA that shut off genes used by cancer cells to escape the drug. The nanoparticles are also coated with an outer layer that protects them from degrading while en route to the cancer cells. The researchers used the particles to successfully shrink breast tumors in mice, as they report in a recent issue of the journal ACS Nano. The lead author on the paper is Jason Deng, a postdoc in Hammond’s lab.

Changes to auditing may help reduce pollution

Economists at MIT have co-authored a study that underscores a troubling aspect of the auditing industry, in which auditors, because they’re paid by the companies they scrutinize, have an incentive to not deliver bad reviews. The study looked at about 500 industrial plants in a western Indian state and found that when auditors were randomly assigned to plants and paid from central funds, their results were very different. For example, auditors in the study found that nearly 60% of the plants were violating India’s particulates emissions laws; previous audits had cited only 7%. The state is now using this information to help enforce pollution laws.

“There is a fundamental conflict of interest in the way auditing markets are set up around the world,” said Professor Michael Greenstone, an author on the paper with his colleague Esther Duflo. “The ultimate hope with the experiment was definitely to see pollution at the firm level drop,” said Duflo.

Faculty win "genius grants"

Two MIT professors are among two dozen nationwide recipients of the 2013 MacArthur Fellowships, known as the “genius grants.” Dina Katabi, a computer scientist, works on wireless data transmission. The MacArthur Foundation cites her leadership in “accelerating our capacity to communicate high volumes of information securely without restricting mobility.” Astrophysicist Sara Seager explores planets outside our solar system; nearly a thousand have been identified since the mid-90s. The Foundation cites her as a “visionary scientist contributing importantly in every aspect of her field.” The fellowship includes a five-year $625,000 prize.

Using solar power to clean water

A team of MIT researchers, led by mechanical engineering professor Steven Dubowsky, are developing a solar-powered system that can produce 1,000 liters of clean drinking water a day—a potential boon in areas where fresh water is scarce and expensive. Over the past several months, the researchers have traveled to remote areas in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to test the purification system, which includes several photovoltaic panels, a tank, pumps, filters, and computers. Communities there can be a day’s drive from drinkable water. “There may be 25 million indigenous people in Mexico alone,” Dubowsky says. “This is not a small problem. The potential for a system like this is huge.” The researchers may do similar tests of the system in other countries.

Maier was “one of the key intellectual figures in her field”

Historian Pauline Maier, who wrote award-winning books on 18th-century America, died last month at age 75. Maier had been on the MIT faculty since 1978. In one of her best-known books, American Scripture, she helped show that the Declaration of Independence was a “secular document” and a collaborative effort, not a sacred text that Thomas Jefferson wrote on his own: In her research Maier found dozens of local resolutions to declare independence from the British Crown. The New York Times named American Scripture one of the 11 best books of 1997.

Maier was on the original faculty committee that put forward the MIT faculty Open Access Policy.

Fighting crime with math

Crimes like burglary often go unwitnessed, which makes it difficult to predict and prevent a criminal’s future acts. Police analysts scour reports and databases for patterns in criminal activity, but the work is labor and time intensive. Two Sloan School of Management researchers, including associate professor Cynthia Rudin, have teamed up with Cambridge police crime analysts to develop an algorithm that quickly detects patterns including where, when, and how a crime happened. “You’re trying to find the [modus operandi] of the suspect,” Rudin told the Boston Globe. “If you can do this really effectively it can lead to an accurate suspect description.” The algorithm, called Series Finder, is built on data from nearly 5,000 housebreaks in Cambridge over a decade.

Programming with natural language

Researchers in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have demonstrated it’s possible to use English instead of specialized programming languages to complete some computing tasks. Regina Barzilay, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering, recently coauthored two new papers: One shows that a computer can take similar natural language requests and convert them into notation that allows flexible and specific searching. In the other, Barzilay and researchers describe a system that can automatically write working software programs based on natural language specifications.

Challenges for women entrepreneurs

Last month, Dell released its first Gender Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI), a report analyzing conditions that help women entrepreneurs flourish in various countries. The United States was the top-ranked nation in the list, though the report notes there is room for improvement in all countries because “women and men are not on a level playing field in terms of access to resources, which continues to impact women’s ability to start and grow businesses.” In light of the GEDI study, MIT News recently spoke with Fiona Murray, a professor in the Sloan School of Management, about her research and MIT’s role in supporting women entrepreneurs.

Bertschinger appointed as Community & Equity Officer

Last week, MIT Provost Chris Kaiser announced that physics department head Edmund Bertschinger will take on a newly created role as Institute Community and Equity Officer. Bertschinger will work with Kaiser and President Rafael Reif to “help make MIT a place where everyone truly feels they belong,” said Reif. Bertschinger has worked for years on issues of diversity and inclusion: he’s served on MIT’s Committee on Race and Diversity since 2009 and has chaired the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Office of Minority Education since 2010. As department head, he has used mentoring to encourage women and underrepresented minorities to get involved in physics research and education. Bertschinger’s research is in cosmology with a focus on the growth of the structure in the universe.

Tracking bird flu

New studies coauthored by biological engineering professor Ram Sasisekharan show that two bird flu strains could become highly infectious among humans with just a few genetic mutations. Both strains have already jumped from birds to humans, though neither has spread beyond a few hundred people. “There is cause for concern,” Sasisekharan told the MIT News. But the researchers hope their work can be used to develop better vaccines. “Our research provides insights to help keep track of potentially important mutations so that proactive steps can be taken to be better prepared against dangerous viruses,” he said.

Modern dance meets robotics

Earlier this month, more than 250 members of the MIT community gathered on Jack Berry Field carrying specially made umbrellas that lit up with red, blue, and green LED lights via handheld controllers. They were there to perform UP: The Umbrella Project, a collaboration between CSAIL’s Distributed Robotics Lab and the dance company Pilobolus. Directed by a Pilobolus team member and shot by video from above, UP participants walked about, changing the hue of their umbrellas in a live performance piece. The purpose wasn’t solely artistic: CSAIL director Daniela Rus and fellow researchers will study the video to explore the behaviors of large groups. “While our work with robotics and Pilobolus’ work with modern dance may seem at first glance unrelated, we have found there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained at the intersection of art and science that offers deep insight into human behavior, findings that are incredibly useful to the field of computer science,” said Rus.

MIT-Mirage