Category Archives: Student research

April 14, 2014


Graduate engineers design ‘living materials’

Inspired by natural materials such as bone — a matrix of minerals and other substances, including living cells — MIT engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate nonliving materials, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots.

These “living materials” combine the advantages of live cells, which respond to their environment, produce complex biological molecules, and span multiple length scales, with the benefits of nonliving materials, which add functions such as conducting electricity or emitting light.

The new materials represent a simple demonstration of the power of this approach, which could one day be used to design more complex devices such as solar cells, self-healing materials, or diagnostic sensors, says Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering. Lu is the senior author of a paper describing the living functional materials in the March 23 issue of Nature Materials.

The paper’s lead author is Allen Chen, an MIT-Harvard MD-PhD student. Other authors are postdocs Zhengtao Deng, Amanda Billings, Urartu Seker, and Bijan Zakeri; recent MIT graduate Michelle Lu; and graduate student Robert Citorik.

Read the article on MIT news.

April 10, 2014


SIAM & CCE Student Seminar: Topological Microfluidics TODAY

Come to the SIAM & CCE Student Seminar on Thursday, April 10th, 2014, at 4:00pm in MIT Room 4-237.  The topic for this seminar will be Topological Microfluidics: Exploring anisotropic fluids in microfluidic environment, with speaker Anupam Sengupta, Roman Stocker group, CEE.  Light refreshments will be served.

Liquid crystals (LCs) are complex anisotropic fluids, well-known for display applications. Their properties are in contrast to the isotropic fluids which we typically encounter in state-of- the-art microfluidic science and technology. This allows us to explore LCs as a suitable functional material for developing a microfluidic technology which harnesses the coupling interactions between the flow, the molecular orientation, and the ordering or topology of the system.

The MIT chapter of The Society for Applied and Industrial Mathematics (SIAM) is open to both undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in applied mathematics, computational science and mathematical applications in an engineering field.  Visit their website for more information.

April 8, 2014


Explore HST research topics at the Forum on Apr. 10

Come to the 2014 HST Forum, an annual showcase of student research, to be held in the TMEC Atrium at Harvard Medical School on Thursday, April 10th, 2014, from 1:00pm to 6:30pm.  The Forum is a great opportunity to support HST students and the program as a whole, as well as discover current research projects. Take this opportunity to share ideas and connect with members of the HST community.  For more information and to RSVP, visit the website.

April 2, 2014

protein synth

Simon devises new way to synthesize drugs quickly

Small protein fragments, also called peptides, are promising as drugs because they can be designed for very specific functions inside living cells. Insulin and the HIV drug Fuzeon are some of the earliest successful examples, and peptide drugs are expected to become a $25 billion market by 2018.

However, a major bottleneck has prevented peptide drugs from reaching their full potential: Manufacturing the peptides takes several weeks, making it difficult to obtain large quantities, and to rapidly test their effectiveness.

That bottleneck may soon disappear: A team of MIT chemists and chemical engineers has designed a way to manufacture peptides in mere hours. [...] The lead author of the paper is Mark Simon, a graduate student in Pentelute’s lab. Other authors include Klavs Jensen, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and Andrea Adamo, a research associate in chemical engineering.

Read more on MIT News.

March 31, 2014


Sellon finds nanopores in the ear that control selective hearing

Even in a crowded room full of background noise, the human ear is remarkably adept at tuning in to a single voice — a feat that has proved remarkably difficult for computers to match. A new analysis of the underlying mechanisms, conducted by researchers at MIT, has provided insights that could ultimately lead to better machine hearing, and perhaps to better hearing aids as well.

Our ears’ selectivity, it turns out, arises from evolution’s precise tuning of a tiny membrane, inside the inner ear, called the tectorial membrane. The viscosity of this membrane — its firmness, or lack thereof — depends on the size and distribution of tiny pores, just a few tens of nanometers wide. This, in turn, provides mechanical filtering that helps to sort out specific sounds.

The new findings are reported in the Biophysical Journal by a team led by MIT graduate student Jonathan Sellon. Continue reading on MIT News.

March 28, 2014


Marchese builds soft robotic fish that moves like the real thing

Soft robots — which don’t just have soft exteriors but are also powered by fluid flowing through flexible channels — have become a sufficiently popular research topic that they now have their own journal, Soft Robotics. In the first issue of that journal, out this month, MIT researchers report the first self-contained autonomous soft robot capable of rapid body motion: a “fish” that can execute an escape maneuver, convulsing its body to change direction in just a fraction of a second, or almost as quickly as a real fish can.

The robotic fish was built by Andrew Marchese, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and lead author on the new paper, where he’s joined by postdoc Cagdas D. Onal and Daniela Rus, a professor of computer science and engineering, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and one of the researchers who designed and built the fish. Each side of the fish’s tail is bored through with a long, tightly undulating channel. Carbon dioxide released from a canister in the fish’s abdomen causes the channel to inflate, bending the tail in the opposite direction.

“We’re excited about soft robots for a variety of reasons,” says Rus. “As robots penetrate the physical world and start interacting with people more and more, it’s much easier to make robots safe if their bodies are so wonderfully soft that there’s no danger if they whack you.”

Read the article on MIT news photo by M. Scott Brauer

March 24, 2014


Anderson covers new ground in search for dark matter

Scientists looking for dark matter face a serious challenge: No one knows what dark matter particles look like. So their search covers a wide range of possible traits — different masses, different probabilities of interacting with regular matter. Today, scientists on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or CDMS, announced that they have shifted the border of this search down to a dark-matter particle mass and rate of interaction that has never been probed.

The analysis, led by Adam Anderson, an MIT graduate student in physics, is the first dark matter result using a new sensor technology — developed, in part, at MIT — that shows much better rejection of background events than the previous generation of CDMS detectors. The work was presented today at the Symposium on Sources and Detection of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe, held at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“We’re pushing CDMS to as low mass as we can,” says Fermilab physicist Dan Bauer, the project manager for CDMS. “We’re proving the particle detector technology here.” Continue reading the article on MIT news.

March 19, 2014


Baugher and Yang work on two-dimensional optoelectronics material

A team of MIT researchers has used a novel material that’s just a few atoms thick to create devices that can harness or emit light. This proof-of-concept could lead to ultrathin, lightweight, and flexible photovoltaic cells, light emitting diodes (LEDs), and other optoelectronic devices, they say.

Their report is one of three papers by different groups describing similar results with this material, published in the March 9 issue of Nature Nanotechnology. The MIT research was carried out by Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Physics, graduate students Britton Baugher and Yafang Yang, and postdoc Hugh Churchill. Read the rest of the article on MIT news.

March 17, 2014

Nell Putnam Farr, PhD student and her daughter

Putnam-Farr investigates more effective email marketing

Program marketers can increase participation rates by simply giving people a chance to say “yes” or “no” on email solicitations, MIT Sloan School of Management PhD candidate Nell Putnam-Farr, MBA ’10, has found.

Putnam-Farr teamed with Jason Riis, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School (now visiting the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania), on a study focusing on how a “yes” or “no” email response option affected participation rates in corporate wellness programs offered by RedBrick Health, a health engagement and behavior change technology company.

Continue reading on MIT Sloan Newsroom.

March 7, 2014


Beane studies robotic systems equipped with AI

Long fascinated by artificial intelligence, MIT Sloan PhD candidate Matt Beane finally decided to pursue an academic career after reading about MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s work using technology to evaluate human conversation. “I read this paper and thought, ‘The future is coming way faster than we expect,’” Beane said. “I applied to MIT Sloan because I was very motivated to see how people would react to getting sensitive personal feedback from technology.”

At the time, Beane was a senior consultant for Roger Schwarz & Associates working with top executives on culture change initiatives at large companies. Often, he found he could improve group dynamics simply by helping people to communicate more effectively. But he discovered that Pentland’s technology was able to accomplish much the same task—taking note, for example, when one person was dominating the conversation or interrupting others. What’s more, feedback from the device actually affected the way people behaved. “It immediately changed participation in groups,” Beane said. Pentland’s study made Beane realize that software might someday be doing his job.

Read the rest of the article on the MIT Sloan Newsroom website.

February 27, 2014


Warren, Clark join in restarting of Alcator C-Mod tokamak

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) visited MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) this week for the official restart of the Alcator C-Mod tokamak. The resumption of work by nearly 100 staff, faculty, and graduate students on the project follows recent congressional budget action, which reversed an earlier proposal by the Department of Energy (DOE) to shut down the C-Mod program.

“It’s not enough to fight [for funding] year to year,” Warren said. “Graduate students need to be able to come here and work, and know that they can start projects, and that the lab will still be open a year from now, three years from now, five years from now, as their work continues.”

Read the article on MIT news.

February 24, 2014


Malaria Testing startup wins MIT $100K Accelerate Contest

Disease Diagnostic Group last night won the MIT $100K Accelerate Contest, netting a $10,000 prize. Bragging rights, photos with the big ceremonial check, and applause all pale in comparison to the promise of the company’s mission: developing an inexpensive, portable malaria testing device with the potential to save half a million lives, mostly of children, globally each year.

For Disease Diagnostic Group, founded by MIT mechanical engineering graduate student John Lewandowski, presenter Jonathan Edward, who is pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School, said the resources provided by the Accelerate contest during MIT’s January Independent Activities Period proved invaluable. Malaria is highly treatable with early diagnosis, but expense and access to reliable tests are substantial barriers, Edward said. The team had proven the science of their rapid assessment of malaria device, but through the Accelerate program they developed a plan to make it sturdier, an important attribute for a pocket-sized device that will be carried in military packs into remote villages.

“We’ll be using the prize money to continue to build and refine improvements on the prototype,” Edward said. “Early models were broken in shipping, and [through Accelerate] we were able to access design assistance to make them much more robust. They’re going out with the military; they need to be able to withstand harsh treatment to be effective.”

Read the entire article here.

February 21, 2014

End Extinction

Burgess finds end-Permian extinction only took 60,000 years

Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years — practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

In addition to establishing the extinction’s duration, Sam Bowring, graduate student Seth Burgess, and a colleague from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology also found that, 10,000 years before the die-off, the oceans experienced a pulse of light carbon, which likely reflects a massive addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This dramatic change may have led to widespread ocean acidification and increased sea temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius or more, killing the majority of sea life.

Continue reading on MIT News.

February 12, 2014


Wittman shows network carriers receive more complaints than cheaper airlines

Consider the last time you dealt with an airline service mishap: a bag lost in transit, a flight delayed or canceled, or an overbooked plane. Are you more or less likely to make a formal complaint about service quality if you’re flying on a long-established “network” carrier or a newer, budget-friendly airline? According to a new MIT study, passengers of low-cost upstarts tend to complain less, even though the quality of service may be the same as more expensive airlines.

In a study published in the Journal of Air Transport Management, Michael Wittman, a graduate student in MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation, tallied airline-related complaints made to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) from 2002 to 2012. He found that regardless of the type of service failure, passengers complained up to 10 times more often about network carriers than low-cost carriers. Continue reading the article on MIT news.

February 11, 2014

MIT think tank

MIT Think Thank is recruiting

The MIT Think Tank is a new organization which builds interdisciplinary teams of MIT community members (ranging from undergrads to postdocs) to tackle real-world challenges in domains such as medicine, education, government, and the arts. They collaborate with professionals in society such as doctors and educators who experience these problems first hand. MIT Think Tank is currently recruiting! Applications and general information can be found on the MIT Think Tank website.

February 7, 2014


Apply for Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability by Feb. 24

Each MIT faculty member is invited to nominate one outstanding student to become a member of the Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability for 2014-2015. The student should presently be a second- or third-year graduate student pursuing doctoral research and should be a resident at MIT during the Fellowship period. Nominees should be working in, or interested in, an area of environment and sustainability as indicated by his/her clearly articulated statement of interest, subjects taken, and proposed research area. Nominations for Martin Fellowships for Sustainability are due February 24, 2014. See the MITEI nominations website and the attached PDF’s for additional information. Photo by photologue_np

February 4, 2014

Imperial Global Fellows Program 2013 - 2

Develop your professional skills in London! Info session TODAY

MIT and Imperial College London are jointly offering an intensive four-day Global Fellows Program for PhD students. Twenty PhD students from each school, Imperial and MIT, will have the opportunity to develop the professional skills required to launch and manage a successful research career. Program participants will engage in presentations, interactive work, and hands-on activities. Emphasis will be on creating and sustaining successful international research collaborations. The program will be held on June 8-14, 2014 in Wokingham, United Kingdom. Only PhD students are eligible and preference is given to students who have passed qualifying exams and have a few years remaining before completing their PhD program. The fellowship covers the cost of travel, the program, and some meals. Attend the Global Fellows Program information session on Tuesday, February 4, 3:00-4:00pm in 24-121. For further information, visit the website or contact Submit your application here by Friday, February 14.

January 31, 2014


Lenert improves performance of solar energy storage

A new approach to harvesting solar energy, developed by MIT researchers, could improve efficiency by using sunlight to heat a high-temperature material whose infrared radiation would then be collected by a conventional photovoltaic cell. This technique could also make it easier to store the energy for later use, the researchers say. In this case, adding the extra step improves performance, because it makes it possible to take advantage of wavelengths of light that ordinarily go to waste. The process is described in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, written by graduate student Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, and three others. Continue reading the article on MIT NewsPhoto by John Freidah.

January 29, 2014


Hsu develops new transparent display system

Transparent displays have a variety of potential applications — such as the ability to see navigation or dashboard information while looking through the windshield of a car or plane, or to project video onto a window or a pair of eyeglasses. A number of technologies have been developed for such displays, but all have limitations. Now, researchers at MIT have come up with a new approach that can have significant advantages over existing systems, at least for certain kinds of applications: a wide viewing angle, simplicity of manufacture, and potentially low cost and scalability. The innovative system is described in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Communications, co-authored by MIT professors Marin Soljačić and John Joannopoulos, graduate student Chia Wei (Wade) Hsu, and four others. Continue reading the article on MIT News.

January 28, 2014


Apply for Intel PhD Fellowship: internal deadline Feb. 3

The Intel PhD Fellowship is a one-time, external fellowship award for doctoral students performing research on:

  • Applications, programming, and new usage models
  • Computing leadership
  • Semiconductor innovation

The award consists of an educational stipend of $45K and a Research Total Industry Experience (TIE) grant of $5K. MIT can submit six general nominations to Intel. The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) will evaluate, select, and submit the nominations. Intel does not accept direct applications from students or faculty. Visit the website for more information about eligibility.

The internal MIT competition for the Intel PhD Fellowship will require an unofficial graduate transcript, C.V., research summary (500 words maximum), and a letter of recommendation (one page maximum) from current research advisor. Each department within MIT is requested to forward up to three general nominations as well as an unlimited number of applications from highly qualified students from underrepresented groups (e.g. African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders). Each department should send their nominations and accompanying application materials to ODGE Manager of Graduate Fellowships Scott Tirrell ( as single PDF files.

The deadline for the internal MIT competition is 5:00pm on Monday, February 3, 2014. ODGE will notify candidates of the status of their internal application by Friday, February 28. Nominated candidates will be able to complete their full application via the Intel website between March 3-April 4, 2014. Winners will be announced by Intel in May 2014. Contact Scott Tirrell at (617) 325-7021 or for any questions. Photo by infocux Technologies.

January 28, 2014


“High Profile Publishing in Molecular Biology” Jan. 29

Learn more about current trends in the field of molecular biology, the role of the scientific journal editor, and best practices for getting published. The event titled “High Profile Publishing in Molecular Biology” will be held on Wednesday, January 29, 3:00-5:00pm in 69-181. It will feature a presentation by Helene Hodak and Marina Ostankovitch, the scientific editors of the Journal of Molecular Biology, followed by a panel discussion including MIT Professor Amy Keating. This event is sponsored by the Graduate Student Council and Elsevier. Photo by Libertas Academica.

January 24, 2014


Mailoa makes silicon devices sensitive to a broader range of infrared

Researchers have tried a variety of methods to develop detectors that are responsive to a broad range of infrared light — which could form imaging arrays for security systems, or solar cells that harness a broader range of sunlight’s energy — but these methods have all faced limitations. Now, a new system developed by researchers at five institutions, including MIT, could eliminate many of those limitations. The new approach is described in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications by MIT graduate student Jonathan Mailoa, associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, and 11 others. Continue reading this artcle on MIT News.

January 22, 2014

Max Flow

Lee and Sidford help quickly solve “max-flow” problem

Finding the most efficient way to transport items across a network like the U.S. highway system or the Internet is a problem that has taxed mathematicians and computer scientists for decades. To tackle the problem, researchers have traditionally used a maximum-flow algorithm, also known as “max flow,” in which a network is represented as a graph with a series of nodes, known as vertices, and connecting lines between them, called edges. In a paper to be presented at the ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms in Portland, Ore., Kelner and his colleague Lorenzo Orecchia, an applied mathematics instructor, alongside graduate students Yin Tat Lee and Aaron Sidford, describe a new theoretical algorithm that can dramatically reduce the number of operations needed to solve the max-flow problem, making it possible to tackle even huge networks like the Internet or the human genome. Continue reading this article on

January 20, 2014

Nano weight scale

New device weighs at the attogram scale

MIT engineers have devised a way to measure the mass of particles with a resolution better than an attogram — one millionth of a trillionth of a gram. Weighing these tiny particles, including both synthetic nanoparticles and biological components of cells, could help researchers better understand their composition and function. “Now we can weigh small viruses, extracellular vesicles, and most of the engineered nanoparticles that are being used for nanomedicine,” says Selim Olcum, a postdoc in Manalis’ lab and one of the lead authors of a paper describing the system in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Graduate student Nathan Cermak is also a lead author of the paper, and Manalis, a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is the paper’s senior author. Researchers from the labs of MIT professors and Koch Institute members Angela Belcher and Sangeeta Bhatia also contributed to the study. Continue reading this article at MIT News.

January 20, 2014


“Transportation for Tomorrow” Showcase on Feb. 12

Join the MIT Transportation Club for the 4th edition of the MIT Transportation Showcase. The main objectives of the event is to showcase transportation research conducted at MIT and foster connections among the MIT transportation community, particularly between industry and academia. The Showcase is also an excellent avenue for students and faculty to get advice, feedback, and ideas for future research, as well as to connect with possible research collaborators. This year, the Showcase will feature a keynote seminar about tomorrow’s transportation systems. The Showcase will be held on Wednesday, February 12, 6pm-9pm at the MIT Museum. In addition to participating, you can present your research, submit your resume, and/or help as a volunteer. For more information, visit the website or contact Photo by Trey Ratcliff.

January 17, 2014

Battery Materials

Lee finds disordered materials make better batteries

Lithium batteries, with their exceptional ability to store power per a given weight, have been a major focus of research to enable use in everything from portable electronics to electric cars. Now researchers at MIT and Brookhaven National Laboratory have found a whole new avenue for such research: the use of disordered materials, which had generally been considered unsuitable for batteries. Certain kinds of disorder can provide a significant boost in cathode performance, the researchers have found through a combination of computer modeling and laboratory experiments. These surprising findings are reported this week in the journal Science, in a paper by MIT graduate student Jinhyuk Lee, professor of materials science and engineering Gerbrand Ceder, and four others. Continue reading this article on MIT News.

January 15, 2014


Ghaffari creates new approach to vertex connectivity

Computer scientists are constantly searching for ways to squeeze ever more bandwidth from communications networks. Now a new approach to understanding a basic concept in graph theory, known as “vertex connectivity,” could ultimately lead to communications protocols — the rules that govern how digital messages are exchanged — that coax as much bandwidth as possible from networks. Mohsen Ghaffari, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, will present a new technique for addressing vertex-connectivity problems at the ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms in Portland, Ore., in January. Read the whole story on MIT News.

January 10, 2014


Kirmani creates 3-D images with only one photon per pixel

In this week’s issue of the journal Science, researchers from MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) describe a new lidar-like system that can gauge depth when only a single photon is detected from each location. Since a conventional lidar system would require about 100 times as many photons to make depth estimates of similar accuracy under comparable conditions, the new system could yield substantial savings in energy and time — which are at a premium in autonomous vehicles trying to avoid collisions.

As Ahmed Kirmani, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and lead author on the new paper, explains, the very idea of forming an image with only a single photon detected at each pixel location is counterintuitive. “The way a camera senses images is through different numbers of detected photons at different pixels,” Kirmani says. “Darker regions would have fewer photons, and therefore accumulate less charge in the detector, while brighter regions would reflect more light and lead to more detected photons and more charge accumulation.”

In a conventional lidar system, the laser fires pulses of light toward a sequence of discrete positions, which collectively form a grid; each location in the grid corresponds to a pixel in the final image. The technique, known as raster scanning, is how old cathode-ray-tube televisions produced images, illuminating one phosphor dot on the screen at a time. Continue reading the article on MIT News.

January 6, 2014


Donohoo balances the needs of energy, water, and climate

In deciding how best to meet the world’s growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions gives a different picture. Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.

That’s one conclusion of a new study led by Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, he says, makes clear that it is crucial to examine these needs together before making decisions about investments in new energy infrastructure, where choices made today could continue to affect the water and energy landscape for decades to come.

In addition to Webster, the work was carried out by graduate student Pearl Donohoo and recent graduate Bryan Pelmintier, of the MIT Engineering Systems Division.  Continue reading the article on MIT News.

January 3, 2014

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Shilkrot melds personal style and technique with computerized control systems

It’s often easy to tell at a glance the difference between a mass-produced object and one that has been handcrafted: The handmade item is likely to have distinctive imperfections and clear signs of an individual’s technique and style.

Now, some researchers at MIT are finding ways to blur those distinctions, making it possible, for example, to sculpt items with those distinctive signs of handicraft, while controlling the outcome so that the object doesn’t stray too far from the desired form. They described their work at the recent Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology.

Amit Zoran, a postdoc at the MIT Media Lab who did much of this work as part of his doctoral thesis research, is the lead author of the reports. He says that, in an age of increasing standardization and mass-production, he has been “searching for this human quality, for ways to translate the long heritage of craft and creativity” into the digital age.

For example, in work with graduate student Roy Shilkrot, Zoran has designed a handheld carving tool that can be programmed with a desired three-dimensional shape. When the user begins to carve a block of material, anytime his motions would extend into the region of the desired final form, the device provides physical feedback that slows the motion. Continue reading the article on MIT News.

December 30, 2013


Media Arts and Sciences grad students build $500 speed-of-light ‘nano-camera’

A $500 “nano-camera” that can operate at the speed of light has been developed by researchers in the MIT Media Lab.  The three-dimensional camera, which was presented last week at Siggraph Asia in Hong Kong, could be used in medical imaging and collision-avoidance detectors for cars, and to improve the accuracy of motion tracking and gesture-recognition devices used in interactive gaming.

The camera is based on “Time of Flight” technology like that used in Microsoft’s recently launched second-generation Kinect device, in which the location of objects is calculated by how long it takes a light signal to reflect off a surface and return to the sensor. However, unlike existing devices based on this technology, the new camera is not fooled by rain, fog, or even translucent objects, says co-author Achuta Kadambi, a graduate student at MIT.

“Using the current state of the art, such as the new Kinect, you cannot capture translucent objects in 3-D,” Kadambi says. “That is because the light that bounces off the transparent object and the background smear into one pixel on the camera. Using our technique you can generate 3-D models of translucent or near-transparent objects.”

Media Arts and Sciences graduate students Ayush Bhandari and Refael Whyte also worked on the nano-camera project.  Continue reading the article on MIT Newsphoto by Bryce Vickmark

December 27, 2013


Kushman writes programs using ordinary language

In a pair of recent papers, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have demonstrated that, for a few specific tasks, it’s possible to write computer programs using ordinary language rather than special-purpose programming languages.

The work may be of some help to programmers, and it could let nonprogrammers manipulate common types of files — like word-processing documents and spreadsheets — in ways that previously required familiarity with programming languages. But the researchers’ methods could also prove applicable to other programming tasks, expanding the range of contexts in which programmers can specify functions using ordinary language.

In work presented in June at the annual Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, Barzilay and graduate student Nate Kushman used examples harvested from the Web to train a computer system to convert natural-language descriptions into so-called “regular expressions”: combinations of symbols that enable file searches that are far more flexible than the standard search functions available in desktop software.  Continue reading the article on MIT NewsPhoto by Christine Daniloff

December 23, 2013


Hsu and Scott improve techniques for gene editing

Earlier this year, MIT researchers developed a way to easily and efficiently edit the genomes of living cells. Now, the researchers have discovered key factors that influence the accuracy of the system, an important step toward making it safer for potential use in humans, says Feng Zhang, leader of the research team.

With this technology, scientists can deliver or disrupt multiple genes at once, raising the possibility of treating human disease by targeting malfunctioning genes. To help with that process, Zhang’s team, led by graduate students Patrick Hsu and David Scott, has now created a computer model that can identify the best genetic sequences to target a given gene.

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

December 23, 2013


Volunteer & outreach at the MIT Museum Jan. 11

The MIT Museum is accepting applications for museum volunteers for Saturday, January 11th, 2014 at 9:00am.  This is an opportunity to connect your research to the public and to develop and run educational demonstrators for museum visitors.  Apply here.  For more information, contact

December 20, 2013


Vondrick teaches computers to see — by learning to see like computers

Object-recognition systems — software that tries to identify objects in digital images — typically rely on machine learning. They comb through databases of previously labeled images and look for combinations of visual features that seem to correlate with particular objects. Then, when presented with a new image, they try to determine whether it contains one of the previously identified combinations of features.

Even the best object-recognition systems, however, succeed only around 30 or 40 percent of the time — and their failures can be totally mystifying. Researchers are divided in their explanations: Are the learning algorithms themselves to blame? Or are they being applied to the wrong types of features? Or — the “big-data” explanation — do the systems just need more training data?

Today, the feature set most widely used in object-detection research is called the histogram of oriented gradients, or HOG (hence the name of the MIT researchers’ system: HOGgles).

“This feature space, HOG, is very complex,” says Carl Vondrick, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “A bunch of researchers sat down and tried to engineer, ‘What’s the best feature space we can have?’ It’s very high-dimensional. It’s almost impossible for a human to comprehend intuitively what’s going on. So what we’ve done is built a way to visualize this space.”

Read more on MIT News.

December 18, 2013


Nonato explores the Brazilian language of the Kĩsêdjê in the Amazon rainforest

Wandering through his university’s library in São Paulo one day in 2002, Rafael Nonato noticed a book titled “Language.” Curious, he pulled it off the shelf.

The book was written in 1921 by a linguist named Edward Sapir, who did work on Native American languages. “It’s this very interesting book; he discusses the possible relationships between language and culture. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’” Nonato says.

Then halfway through a computer engineering degree, Nonato found a linguistics program at the nearby State University of Campinas and began coursework there. Now, as a PhD student in linguistics at MIT, Nonato studies the indigenous Brazilian language Kĩsêdjê (keen-seh-jay), dividing his time between a Kĩsêdjê village on the outskirts of the Amazon rainforest and MIT, where he puzzles out the structure of the language.

Read more about Nonato on MIT News.

December 10, 2013


Heubel’s research is advancing X-ray technology

X-rays transformed medicine a century ago by providing a noninvasive way to detect internal structures in the body. Still, they have limitations: X-rays cannot image the body’s soft tissues, except with the use of contrast-enhancing agents that must be swallowed or injected, and their resolution is limited. But a new approach developed by researchers at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) could dramatically change that, enabling the most detailed images ever — including clear views of soft tissue without any need for contrast agents. The work was presented by MIT postdoc Shuo Cheng during the 13th International Workshop on Micro and Nanotechnology for Power Generation and Energy Conversion Applications (PowerMEMS 2013), which was held from December 3 to 6 in London.

The new technology “could make X-rays ubiquitous, because of its higher resolution, the fact that the dose would be smaller and the hardware smaller, cheaper, and more capable than current X-rays,” says Luis Velásquez-García, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories and senior author of the PowerMEMS paper. The research, which also included MIT postdoc Frances Hill and graduate student Eric Heubel, was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Read the article on MIT News.

December 4, 2013


Wang is developing a system to warn programmers about compilers

Compilers are computer programs that translate high-level instructions written in human-readable languages like Java or C into low-level instructions that machines can execute. Most compilers also streamline the code they produce, modifying algorithms specified by programmers so that they’ll run more efficiently. Sometimes that means simply discarding lines of code that appear to serve no purpose. But as it turns out, compilers can be overaggressive, dispensing not only with functional code but also with code that actually performs vital security checks.

A classic example, explains Xi Wang, a graduate student in EECS and first author on the new paper, is the assumption that if a program attempts to store too large a number at a memory location reserved for an integer, the computer will lop off the bits that don’t fit. “In machines, integers have a limit,” Wang says. “Whenever you exceed that limit, the input value basically wraps around to a smaller value.”

Read the article on MIT News.

December 2, 2013


Choi and Ulissi investigate the speed of molecules in nanotubes

Like a pea going through a straw, tiny molecules can pass through microscopic cylinders known as nanotubes. This could potentially be used to select molecules according to size — for example, to purify water by allowing water molecules to pass through while blocking salt or other substances.

Now, researchers at MIT, Seoul University in Korea and Ursinus College in Pennsylvania have found that such tubes are more selective than had been thought: Molecules of a precise size can zip through five times faster than those that are a bit smaller or larger. The new findings are published in the journal Nature Communications by MIT professor Michael Strano, graduate students Wonjoon Choi and Zachary Ulissi, and three others. Read the rest of the article on MIT News.

November 27, 2013


Liu creates algorithms to analyze flight delays and social networks

In a paper being presented in December at the annual conference of the Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation, MIT researchers describe a new technique that expands the class of data sets whose structure can be efficiently deduced. Not only that, but their technique naturally describes the data in a way that makes it much easier to work with. In technical terms, the researchers’ work concerns probabilistic graphical models. Historically, graphical models have sped up machine-learning algorithms only when they’ve had a few particular shapes, such as that of a tree. A tree is a graph with no closed loops: In a family tree, for instance, a closed loop would indicate something biologically impossible — that, say, someone is both parent and sibling to the same person.

According to Ying Liu, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who co-wrote the new paper with his advisor, Alan Willsky, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering, loops pose problems because they can make statistical inference algorithms “overconfident.” The algorithm typically used to infer statistical relationships within graphical models, Liu explains, is a “message-passing algorithm, where each node sends messages to only its neighbors, using only local information and incoming messages from other neighbors. It’s a very good way to distribute the computation.”

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

November 19, 2013


Oh is creating better batteries through biology

Lithium-air batteries have become a hot research area in recent years: They hold the promise of drastically increasing power per battery weight, which could lead, for example, to electric cars with a much greater driving range. But bringing that promise to reality has involved a number of challenges, including the need to develop better, more durable materials for the batteries’ electrodes and improving the number of charging-discharging cycles the batteries can withstand.

Now, MIT researchers have found that adding genetically modified viruses to the production of nanowires — wires that are about the width of a red blood cell, and which can serve as one of a battery’s electrodes — could help solve some of these problems. This new work is described in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, co-authored by graduate student Dahyun Oh, professors Angela Belcher and Yang Shao-Horn, and three others. The key to their work was to increase the surface area of the wire, thus increasing the area where electrochemical activity takes place during charging or discharging of the battery.

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

November 15, 2013

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Marvin E. Goody Award Deadline Dec. 13

The Marvin E. Goody Award of $5,000 is awarded to an MIT graduate student in any department at MIT who is expecting to complete his or her Master’s thesis in June 2014.  The thesis research must explore new building methods and materials and combine good design with good building.  Submit an application form, resume, thesis proposal, two letters of recommendation, and a budget indicating the proposed use of funds.  The application deadline is Friday, December 13th, 2013, with the announcement of the winner on the following Friday, December 20th, 2013.  Visit this webpage for more information, or visit the headquarters of the Department of Architecture in MIT Room 7-337.

November 14, 2013


Paxson and Yagüe developing new approach to hydrophobic material

Steam condensation is key to the worldwide production of electricity and clean water: It is part of the power cycle that drives 85 percent of all electricity-generating plants and about half of all desalination plants globally, according to the United Nations and International Energy Agency. So anything that improves the efficiency of this process could have enormous impact on global energy use. Now, a team of researchers at MIT says they have found a way to do just that.

It has been known for years that making steam-condenser surfaces hydrophobic — that is, getting them to repel water — could improve the efficiency of condensation by causing the water to quickly form droplets. But most hydrophobic materials have limited durability, especially in steamy industrial settings. The new approach to coating condenser surfaces should overcome that problem, the MIT researchers say. The findings are reported this week in the journal Advanced Materials by MIT professors Karen Gleason and Kripa Varanasi, graduate student Adam Paxson and postdoc Jose Yagüe.

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

November 12, 2013


Glover is creating better robot vision

Object recognition is one of the most widely studied problems in computer vision. But a robot that manipulates objects in the world needs to do more than just recognize them; it also needs to understand their orientation. Is that mug right-side up or upside-down? And which direction is its handle facing?

To improve robots’ ability to gauge object orientation, Jared Glover, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is exploiting a statistical construct called the Bingham distribution. In a paper they’re presenting in November at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Glover and MIT alumna Sanja Popovic ’12, MEng ’13, who is now at Google, describes a new robot-vision algorithm, based on the Bingham distribution, that is 15 percent better than its best competitor at identifying familiar objects in cluttered scenes.

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

November 5, 2013


Meyer discovers new role for ‘hunger hormone’

About a dozen years ago, scientists discovered that a hormone called ghrelin enhances appetite. Dubbed the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin was quickly targeted by drug companies seeking treatments for obesity — none of which have yet panned out. MIT neuroscientists have now discovered that ghrelin’s role goes far beyond controlling hunger. The researchers found that ghrelin released during chronic stress makes the brain more vulnerable to traumatic events, suggesting that it may predispose people to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Perhaps we could give people who are going to be deployed into an active combat zone a ghrelin vaccine before they go, so they will have a lower incidence of PTSD. That’s exciting because right now there’s nothing given to people to prevent PTSD,” says Goosens, who is also a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Lead author of the paper is Retsina Meyer, a recent MIT PhD recipient, 2009 Hugh Hampton Young Fellow, and former MSRP Program Assistant. Other authors are McGovern postdoc Anthony Burgos-Robles, graduate student Elizabeth Liu, and McGovern research scientist Susana Correia.

Read the rest of the article on MIT News.

November 1, 2013


Reed is building robots that can explore the ocean’s dynamic features

Mechanical Engineering Graduate Student Brooks Reed (MIT WHOI, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) is building fast, cooperating robots that can explore the ocean’s dynamic features using the Charles River as a testbed. If you take a stroll past the MIT Sailing Pavilion on Memorial Drive, you may see, among the usual glut of sailboats on the Charles River, two red child-sized kayaks riding the waves. Instead of the 80-pound human they are each designed to hold, the kayaks carry an array of electronics and a pull-along a string of plastic flags that flutter in the wind. These baby kayaks are a key element of robotic control systems research led by Franz Hover, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, graduate student Brooks Reed, and their colleagues – a project which was just accepted into the International Symposium on Robotics Research (ISRR).

Reed is monitoring real-time data streaming in from the GPS mounted on the kayaks.  Each of the kayaks tow an acoustic WHOI Micro-Modem at a depth of about 1.5 meters. Icarus, the target vehicle, sends out a pulse of sound, called a “ranging ping.” Silvana and Nostromo receive it and calculate the the ping’s travel time. By dividing that number by the speed of sound in water, they can compute their own distances from Icarus. Then, they coordinate. Each swap their own location measurements and control actions by sending data packets to each other using the modems. Therefore, the pursuers know where to go next. The pair achieve their joint goal of maintaining a tight triangular formation relative to the position of Icarus, tracking their target even as it turns in unpredictable loops.

Read more at Oceans at MIT or MIT News.

October 31, 2013


Shum developing automatic speaker tracking in audio recordings

A central topic in spoken-language-systems research is what’s called speaker diarization, or computationally determining how many speakers feature in a recording and which of them speaks when. Speaker diarization would be an essential function of any program that automatically annotated audio or video recordings.

To date, the best diarization systems have used what’s called supervised machine learning: They’re trained on sample recordings that a human has indexed, indicating which speaker enters when. In the October issue of IEEE Transactions on Audio, Speech, and Language Processing, however, MIT researchers describe a new speaker-diarization system that achieves comparable results without supervision: No prior indexing is necessary. Stephen Shum, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is lead author on the new paper.

Continue reading the article on MIT News.

October 30, 2013


New tool helps identify astronauts with better spatial skills

Today, all incoming astronauts complete extensive training to learn to operate a robotic arm on the space station. But the operation isn’t intuitive, and there’s a steep learning curve for some. MIT researchers in the Man Vehicle Laboratory (MVL) are looking for ways to streamline this lengthy training process. They administered standard cognitive spatial tests to 50 astronauts, and compared these initial results with the astronauts’ performance in NASA’s 30-hour Generic Robotics Training (GRT) course. The researchers found that the initial spatial tests were able to predict the top performers in the more extensive course.

The results, says MVL director Charles Oman, suggest that the initial spatial tests may be used as a screening tool to place low-scorers on an in-depth training track, while accelerating high-scorers through a shortened course. Oman and his colleagues have published their results in the journal Acta Astronautica. The paper’s co-authors are research scientists Andrew Liu and Alan Natapoff, and graduate research assistant Raquel Galvan. Continue reading the article on MIT NewsPhoto by NASA.

October 28, 2013


‘Cool’ invention wins first place at MADMEC

Heating or cooling certain parts of your body — such as applying a warm towel to your forehead if you feel chilly — can help maintain your perceived thermal comfort.  Using that concept, four MIT engineering students developed a thermoelectric bracelet that monitors air and skin temperature, and sends tailored pulses of hot or cold waveforms to the wrist to help maintain thermal comfort.  For this invention, the team, called Wristify, took home the $10,000 first prize at this year’s Making And Designing Materials Engineering Competition (MADMEC), held Tuesday afternoon.

“Buildings right now use an incredible amount of energy just in space heating and cooling. In fact, all together this makes up 16.5 percent of all U.S. primary energy consumption.  We wanted to reduce that number, while maintaining individual thermal comfort,” says Sam Shames, a materials science and engineering senior who co-invented the Wristify technology.  “We found the best way to do it was local heating and cooling of parts of the body.” With the prize money, the team plans to further develop the prototype, using advanced algorithms to better automate the thermal pulses, among other things.  Other Wristify co-inventors from DMSE include graduate students Mike Gibson and David Cohen-Tanugi, and postdoc Matt Smith.

Read the article on MIT NewsPhoto by Franklin Hobbs.

October 25, 2013


Regeneron accepting applications for 2014 Postdoctoral Fellows

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is now accepting applications for its 2014 class of Postdoctoral Fellows.  These applications are open until Sunday, December 15th, 2013.  The Regeneron Postdoctoral Program offers three years of formal postdoctoral training in a program directed by an award-winning educator, exposure to the biotechnology industry’s most successful and innovative scientists, and weekly postdoctoral scientist meetings to foster scientific rigor, creative thinking, critical reasoning, and career advancement.  Fellows will be a part of a prestigious, well-resourced, and highly driven industry environment where they will gain encouragement of scholarly productivity through publications and conference presentations.  Fellows will also have the opportunity to pursue their own cutting-edge research ideas in almost any area of biomedicine, including human genetics.  For more information and to apply online, visit the Regeneron website