Category Archives: Student research

October 2, 2015

sun brain encoding memories

Sun: How the brain encodes time and place

When you remember a particular experience, that memory has three critical elements — what, when, and where. MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that processes the “when” and “where” components of memory.

This circuit, which connects the hippocampus and a region of the cortex known as entorhinal cortex, separates location and timing into two streams of information. The researchers also identified two populations of neurons in the entorhinal cortex that convey this information, dubbed “ocean cells” and “island cells.”

Previous models of memory had suggested that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for memory formation, separates timing and context information. However, the new study shows that this information is split even before it reaches the hippocampus.

“It suggests that there is a dichotomy of function upstream of the hippocampus,” says Chen Sun, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences and one of the lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Sept. 23 issue of Neuron. “There is one pathway that feeds temporal information into the hippocampus, and another that feeds contextual representations to the hippocampus.”  Read more

October 1, 2015

learning languages by playing games

Narasimhan: Learning language by playing games

MIT researchers have designed a computer system that learns how to play a text-based computer game with no prior assumptions about how language works. Although the system can’t complete the game as a whole, its ability to complete sections of it suggests that, in some sense, it discovers the meanings of words during its training.

In 2011, professor of computer science and engineering Regina Barzilay and her students reported a system that learned to play a computer game called “Civilization” by analyzing the game manual. But in the new work, on which Barzilay is again a co-author, the machine-learning system has no direct access to the underlying “state” of the game program—the data the program is tracking and how it’s being modified.

“When you play these games, every interaction is through text,” says Karthik Narasimhan, an MIT graduate student in computer science and engineering and one of the new paper’s two first authors. “For instance, you get the state of the game through text, and whatever you enter is also a command. It’s not like a console with buttons. So you really need to understand the text to play these games, and you also have more variability in the types of actions you can take.”

Narasimhan is joined on the paper by Barzilay, who’s his thesis advisor, and by fellow first author Tejas Kulkarni, a graduate student in the group of Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. They presented the paper last week at the Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing conference.  Read more

September 30, 2015


Research paper submissions for IAAC due Nov. 30

The 6th IEEE International Advance Computing Conference (IACC- 2016) is accepting research papers for their conference on February 27–28. The deadline to submit is November 30, and the conference listing at IEEE can be viewed here.

Prospective authors are invited to submit full and original research papers in the areas of: High Performance Computing, Advances in Communication and Networks, Advanced Algorithms, Image and Multimedia Processing, Databases and Data Management, and Teaching and Learning Systems. For a detailed list of topics please visit the conference websitePhoto by Ivan Walsh

September 29, 2015

doe scholars program

DOE Scholars Program application, deadline Dec. 15

The Department of Energy (DOE) Scholars Program is now accepting applications for Summer 2016. The deadline is December 15, 2015.

The DOE Scholars Program offers unique opportunities that introduce students or post-graduates to the agency’s mission and operations. Participants in the DOE Scholars Program gain a competitive edge as they apply their education, talent and skills in a variety of scientific research settings within the DOE complex. Appointments are available in a variety of disciplines at participating DOE facilities nationwide.
Being selected as a DOE Scholar offers the following benefits:

* Career possibilities with the nation’s leading sponsor for scientific research
* Opportunities to learn from top scientists and subject matter experts
* Stipends are a minimum of $600 per week (depending on academic status)
* Travel arrangements to and from appointment site

Applicants must be US Citizens and undergraduates, graduates or post-graduates of an accredited college or university. The program is open to majors in: Engineering; Physical Sciences; Environmental Sciences; Computer Science and Information Technology; Physics; Business; Policy; Program Management; Mathematics; Statistics; Safety and Health; Accounting and Finance; Law; Communications; and other related areas.

Visit the website for more information or to apply. Contact:  Photo by: DonkeyHotey

September 29, 2015

inoue rna imaging super resolution

Inoue: Extending super-resolution techniques in RNA imaging

Overcoming limitations of super-resolution microscopy to optimize imaging of RNA in living cells is a key motivation for physics graduate student Takuma Inoue, who works in the lab of MIT assistant professor of physics Ibrahim Cissé.

Inoue, 26, was the first student to join Cissé’s lab at MIT in January 2014, and he built the lab’s super-resolution microscopy setup to study enzyme clusters that enable gene copying and protein production within living cells. Inoue, who this September enters his fourth year toward his PhD, originally started his experimental work in an atomic physics lab, where he worked on an imaging setup to trap extremely cold atoms in a vacuum. He is studying biophysics, atomic physics, and condensed matter physics.

After learning that Cissé needed someone to set up his super-resolution microscopy, Inoue switched to Cissé’s lab. Because he did not have a biology background, Inoue says, “I wasn’t very much familiar with that, but the tools that you use and the methods for imaging are very common with what I had previously done. By building the setup, I got used to what things we can do in the lab. Then I made the transition to actually targeting some biomolecules within the cell to image and for me that was RNA.”  Read more


September 28, 2015

pace 3d heart models surgery

Pace: 3D-printed heart models for surgical planning

Researchers at MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital have developed a system that can take MRI scans of a patient’s heart and, in a matter of hours, convert them into a tangible, physical model that surgeons can use to plan surgery. The models could provide a more intuitive way for surgeons to assess and prepare for the anatomical idiosyncrasies of individual patients. This fall, seven cardiac surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital will participate in a study intended to evaluate the models’ usefulness.

Golland and her colleagues will describe their new system at the International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention in October. Danielle Pace, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, is first author on the paper and spearheaded the development of the software that analyzes the MRI scans.

Mehdi Moghari, a physicist at Boston Children’s Hospital, developed new procedures that increase the precision of MRI scans tenfold, and Andrew Powell, a cardiologist at the hospital, leads the project’s clinical work. Read more

September 21, 2015

Science Research

Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) International Fellowship Program application due Oct. 8

The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) is accepting applications for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) International Student Research Fellowship Program. Students interested should send preliminary application materials directly to the ODGE by 5 pm on Thursday, October 8. MIT is able to submit 7 nominations to HHMI.

HHMI will award three-year fellowships to international predoctoral students studying in the United States who are ineligible for fellowships and training grants through U.S. federal agencies to support years three, four, and five of a Ph.D. program.

Eligible fields include those in the biomedical or related sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, interdisciplinary research at the interface of the physical and biological sciences, among others.

Each fellow will receive an annual stipend of $30,000, an educational allowance of $3,000, and an annual institutional allowance of $10,000 for tuition. MIT is able to nominate 7 students for this fellowship.

More information is available on HHMI’s website.

Preliminary applications must be submitted electronically as a single consolidated PDF file to by 5pm on Thursday, October 8 for review by an internal MIT faculty committee.

Please feel free to contact Scott Tirrell, Manager of Graduate Fellowships in the ODGE with any questions by emailing or calling 617-324-7021.

September 18, 2015

SMART students autonomous golf carts

Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) students: autonomous golf carts

At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September, members of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and their colleagues will describe an experiment conducted over six days at a large public garden in Singapore, in which self-driving golf carts ferried 500 tourists around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional monitor lizard.

“We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone,” says Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a senior author on the conference paper. “The idea is, if you need a ride, you make a booking, maybe using your smartphone or maybe on the Internet, and the car just comes.”

SMART is a collaboration between MIT and the National Research Foundation of Singapore. With lead researchers drawn from both MIT and several Singaporean universities — chiefly the National University of Singapore and the Singapore University of Technology and Design — the program offers four-year graduate fellowships that cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools, as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.

Joining Rus on the paper are Emilio Frazzoli, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT; Marcelo Ang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore; and 16 SMART students, postdocs, and staff members, from both the U.S. and Asia.  Read more.

September 17, 2015

Lee learning spoken language

Lee: Learning spoken language

Knowing a language’s phonemes can make it much easier for automated systems to learn to interpret speech. In the 2015 volume of Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, MIT researchers describe a new machine-learning system that, like several systems before it, can learn to distinguish spoken words. But unlike its predecessors, it can also learn to distinguish lower-level phonetic units, such as syllables and phonemes.

Unlike the machine-learning systems that led to, say, the speech recognition algorithms on today’s smartphones, the MIT researchers’ system is unsupervised, which means it acts directly on raw speech files: It doesn’t depend on the laborious hand-annotation of its training data by human experts. So it could prove much easier to extend to new sets of training data and new languages.

The system could offer some insights into human speech acquisition. “When children learn a language, they don’t learn how to write first,” says Chia-ying Lee, who completed her PhD in computer science and engineering at MIT last year and is first author on the paper. “They just learn the language directly from speech. By looking at patterns, they can figure out the structures of language. That’s pretty much what our paper tries to do.”

Lee is joined on the paper by her former thesis advisor, Jim Glass, a senior research scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and head of the Spoken Language Systems Group, and Timothy O’Donnell, a postdoc in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.  Read more

September 14, 2015

grama mit spinout milk

Grama: MIT spinout’s milk-chillers reduce spoilage in rural India

India is the world’s leading milk producer, with many of its people relying on milk as a primary source of income. Indian dairies buy milk from local farmers at village collection centers, and then sell the milk or use it to make dairy products.

But with rural India’s limited electric grid, often available for only several hours daily, keeping milk fresh — it must be refrigerated within a few hours of milking — becomes very difficult. Many dairies use expensive diesel generators for refrigeration, or risk high percentages of spoiled product: Of the roughly 130 million tons of milk produced by India each year, millions of tons go to waste or reach the market as low-quality dairy products that pose safety threats. All this also reduces the income of Indian farmers

Now MIT startup Promethean Power is bringing India milk-chillers that quickly drop the temperature of milk to reduce bacterial growth, even without electricity. Powering the chillers is a novel thermal battery that stores thermal energy when the grid’s available, and releases the energy without need of electricity. So far, Promethean has installed about 100 chillers for top dairies around India.

“Milk for many Indian farmers is literally like liquid cash,” says Promethean co-founder and chief technology officer Sorin Grama SM ’06. “An entire family may live off the money they make from milk. Each of our systems allows 20 to 30 farming families to generate a steady income by selling a portion of their milk to dairy processors.”  Read more.

September 11, 2015

First new cache coherence mechanism in 30 years

Yu: First new cache-coherence mechanism in 30 years

In a modern, multicore chip, every core—or processor—has its own small memory cache, where it stores frequently used data. But the chip also has a larger, shared cache, which all the cores can access. If one core tries to update data in the shared cache, other cores working on the same data need to know. So the shared cache keeps a directory of which cores have copies of which data. That directory takes up a significant chunk of memory. Envisioned chips will need a more efficient way of maintaining cache coherence.

At the International Conference on Parallel Architectures and Compilation Techniques in October, MIT researchers will unveil the first fundamentally new approach to cache coherence in more than three decades. Whereas with existing techniques, the directory’s memory allotment increases in direct proportion to the number of cores, with the new approach, it increases according to the logarithm of the number of cores.

“Directories guarantee that when a write happens, no stale copies of the data exist,” says Xiangyao Yu, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “After this write happens, no read to the previous version should happen. So this write is ordered after all the previous reads in physical-time order.” Read more.

September 9, 2015

Macdonald researched a way to ID nuclear arms

Macdonald: A tool to identify nuclear weapons—without detection

“Energy is incredibly fundamental to life,” MIT graduate student Ruaridh Macdonald says. “That’s why I keep studying it.”

This tenet has been the thread throughout Macdonald’s nearly eight years at MIT — first as an undergraduate, then as a master’s student, and now as a PhD student — all spent studying nuclear science and engineering. Though he has remained engaged in this one department, he’s participated in a variety of projects, first studying reactor design as he pursued his master’s degree and now working on a nuclear weapons verification project in the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy.

Transportable reactors

Macdonald, who grew up in West London, spent his grade school days equally interested in the arts and humanities and in physics. But he ultimately chose physics when faced with the U.K.’s school system, which requires students to pick a concentration, similar to a major in college.

“I still have immense respect for the arts, but I asked myself which would allow me to help people most broadly, and I chose science,” Macdonald says. Read more.

September 8, 2015

Visual cortex in blind children

Richardson: Brain function in blind children

In 2011, MIT neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe and colleagues reported that in blind adults, brain regions normally dedicated to vision processing instead participate in language tasks such as speech and comprehension. Now, in a study of blind children, Saxe’s lab has found that this transformation occurs very early in life, before the age of 4.

The study, appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that the brains of young children are highly plastic, meaning that regions usually specialized for one task can adapt to new and very different roles. The findings also help to define the extent to which this type of remodeling is possible.

“In some circumstances, patches of cortex appear to take on other roles than the ones that they most typically have,” says Saxe, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “One question that arises from that is, ‘What is the range of possible differences between what a cortical region typically does and what it could possibly do?’”

The paper’s lead author is Marina Bedny, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. MIT graduate student Hilary Richardson is also an author of the paper. Read more.  Illustration: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

September 4, 2015

metallic gels

Holten-Andersen, Chen, Li, and Grindy: New luminescent materials

Researchers at MIT have developed a family of materials that can emit light of precisely controlled colors — even pure white light — and whose output can be tuned to respond to a wide variety of external conditions. The materials could find a variety of uses in detecting chemical and biological compounds, or mechanical and thermal conditions.

The material, a metallic polymer gel made using rare-earth elements, is described in a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society by assistant professor of materials science and engineering Niels Holten-Andersen, postdoc Pangkuan Chen, and graduate students Qiaochu Li and Scott Grindy.

The material, a light-emitting lanthanide metallogel, can be chemically tuned to emit light in response to chemical, mechanical, or thermal stimuli — potentially providing a visible output to indicate the presence of a particular substance or condition. Read more.

September 1, 2015


Chen: Observing invisible vibrations

For Justin Chen, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), there is more to observe in the built environment than meets the eye. So much more, in fact, that he has designed his entire academic attention CEE to center on structural health monitoring. “Everyday, people drive on bridges, enter buildings, obtain water through infrastructure, and so on,” Chen says.

“The central question my collaborators and I are trying to answer is: How do we keep infrastructure operational, even when it’s battered by the elements?” Although most would describe buildings as completely static, Chen says his work reveals structural movement the naked eye alone cannot perceive. Using a computer vision technique called motion magnification, Chen and his colleagues successfully catch imperceptibly tiny vibrations in structures. Read more of this article and a small interview with Chen at MIT News

August 31, 2015


Yu: Searching big data faster

For more than a decade, gene sequencers have been improving more rapidly than the computers required to make sense of their outputs. Searching for DNA sequences in existing genomic databases can already take hours, and the problem is likely to get worse. Recently, Bonnie Berger’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has been investigating techniques to make biological and chemical data easier to analyze by, in some sense, compressing it.

In the latest issue of the journal Cell Systems, Berger and colleagues — first authors Noah Daniels, a postdoc in her group, and William Yu, a graduate student in applied mathematics, and David Danko, an undergraduate major in computational biology — present a theoretical analysis that demonstrates why their previous compression schemes have been so successful. They identify properties of data sets that make them amenable to compression and present an algorithm for determining whether a given data set has those properties. They also show that several existing databases of chemical compounds and biological molecules do indeed exhibit them. Read the full story at MIT News

August 28, 2015

Chan EECS Research

Chen: Crash-tolerant data storage

In a computer operating system, the file system is the part that writes data to disk and tracks where the data is stored. If the computer crashes while it’s writing data, the file system’s records can become corrupt. Hours of work could be lost, or programs could stop working properly. At the ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles in October, MIT researchers will present the first file system that is mathematically guaranteed not to lose track of data during crashes. Although the file system is slow by today’s standards, the techniques the researchers used to verify its performance can be extended to more sophisticated designs. Ultimately, formal verification could make it much easier to develop reliable, efficient file systems.

Nickolai Zeldovich, an associate professor of computer science and engineering and his colleagues — Frans Kaashoek, the Charles A. Piper Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); associate professor of computer science Adam Chlipala; Haogang Chen, a graduate student in EECS; and Daniel Ziegler, an undergraduate in EECS — established the reliability of their file system through a process known as formal verification. Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 21, 2015

Policing SexTrafficking

Thakor: Policing sex trafficking in the digital age

Since 2013, AMBER Alerts — broadcast on television and radio since 1996 — have also been sent automatically to every mobile phone number in the United States. As a doctoral student in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), Mitali Thakor is in tune with the pulse of technology and how it affects our lives — in particular, how it affects sex work and sex trafficking. Thakor, who majored in feminist studies and anthropology as an undergraduate at Stanford University, was initially interested in how sex workers themselves utilize emerging technologies. But over time, her focus has shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum: how sex work and trafficking are policed using digital tools. Her research has now spanned three countries — the United States, the Netherlands, and Thailand.

Earlier this year, Thakor, who ultimately aims for a career in academia, taught her first anthropology and gender studies class, called “Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery.” For 19 MIT undergraduates, she built a curriculum around some of the very tensions in her research: Rather than only requiring reading from experts in the field, she also asked students to read prose and poetry from non-experts, and to look at art that engaged the topics of sex work, trafficking, and policing in the digital age. To read the full article on Thakor’s innovative research visit MIT News.

August 18, 2015

hermes robot

Ramos, Wang: A bipedal robot with human reflexes

Deep in the basement of MIT’s Building 3, a two-legged robot named HERMES is wreaking controlled havoc: punching through drywall, smashing soda cans, kicking over trash buckets, and karate-chopping boards in half. Its actions, however, are not its own. Just a few feet away, PhD student Joao Ramos stands on a platform, wearing an exoskeleton of wires and motors. Ramos’ every move is translated instantly to HERMES, much like a puppeteer controlling his marionette.

Ramos and his colleagues, including PhD student Albert Wang and Sangbae Kim, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Center Career Development Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will present a paper on the interface at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September. Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 14, 2015


Souillard-Mandar: Could a pen change how we diagnose brain function?

For several decades, doctors have screened for conditions including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with the CDT, which asks subjects to draw an analog clock-face showing a specified time, and to copy a pre-drawn clock. But the test has limitations, because its benchmarks rely on doctors’ subjective judgments, such as determining whether a clock circle has “only minor distortion.” CSAIL researchers were particularly struck by the fact that CDT analysis was typically based on the person’s final drawing rather than on the process as a whole.

Enter the Anoto Live Pen, a digitizing ballpoint pen that measures its position on the paper upwards of 80 times a second, using a camera built into the pen. The pen provides data that are far more precise than can be measured on an ordinary drawing, and captures timing information that allows the system to analyze each and every one of a subject’s movements and hesitations. Some of the machine learning techniques they used were designed to produce “transparent” classifiers, which provide insights into what factors are important for screening and diagnosis. “These examples help calibrate the predictive power of each part of the drawing,” says first author William Souillard-Mandar, a graduate student at CSAIL. “They allow us to extract thousands of features from the drawing process that give hints about the subject’s cognitive state, and our algorithms help determine which ones can make the most accurate prediction.” Read the full article at the MIT News Office

August 12, 2015

Y Chromosome Research

Godfrey tackles a chromosome that half the world has — yet few understand

Alexander Godfrey, a PhD student in biology at MIT, is acutely fascinated by the Y chromosome, which confers maleness. This chromosome is often considered a genetic castaway — because its complexity makes it very difficult to study — but Godfrey is undeterred. Four years into his degree, he continues to push forward, attempting to get to know a chromosome that 50 percent of the population has, but few understand.

Composed of repeating DNA patterns, the Y chromosome is especially difficult to study. DNA is usually understood by breaking it up into pieces, and figuring out how active certain genes are by locating where the pieces came from — so if all of the pieces look the same, or very similar, the process becomes nearly impossible. Godfrey likens it to a puzzle full of pieces that are nearly indistinguishable: Putting the puzzle together, and seeing the big picture, is extremely difficult. Determined to contribute to an understudied field, he has delved into answering an enormous question: How do genes in the Y chromosome that are active throughout the body lead to differences between men and women? Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 11, 2015


Futrell: How language gives your brain a break

Here’s a quick task: Take a look at the sentences below and decide which is the most effective.

(1) “John threw out the old trash sitting in the kitchen.”

(2) “John threw the old trash sitting in the kitchen out.”

Either sentence is grammatically acceptable, but you probably found the first one to be more natural. Why? Perhaps because of the placement of the word “out,” which seems to fit better in the middle of this word sequence than the end. In technical terms, the first sentence has a shorter “dependency length” — a shorter total distance, in words, between the crucial elements of a sentence. Now a new study of 37 languages by three MIT researchers has shown that most languages move toward “dependency length minimization” (DLM) in practice. That means language users have a global preference for more locally grouped dependent words, whenever possible.

“People want words that are related to each other in a sentence to be close together,” says Richard Futrell, a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and a lead author of a new paper detailing the results. “There is this idea that the distance between grammatically related words in a sentence should be short, as a principle.” The paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests people modify language in this way because it makes things simpler for our minds — as speakers, listeners, and readers. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 10, 2015


Hernandez: The fashion for wearable technology may get rid of the need for passwords

Watches and spectacles were “wearable technology” long before the marketing maven who dreamed the term up was born. But now that some of these devices are fitted with gizmos which let their wearers monitor and record their lives down to the millisecond, many technologists are asking what else the data thus generated might be used for. One such is Javier Hernandez, a P.h. D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He thinks Apple Watches, Google Glasses and their kin might provide a solution to the problem of password inflation.

Ever longer, ever more numerous, ever more complicated passwords are a curse of modern life. Unless such passwords are used frequently, remembering them is close to impossible. So they get written down, obviating the point of their complexity. One way around this is to use unique bodily characteristics, known as biometrics, to identify people. Fingerprints and iris scans, in particular, have been tried, but both require special equipment. Mr Hernandez’s work offers an alternative that does not: ballistocardiography. Read the full article at The Economist.

August 7, 2015


Pillai: Object recognition for robots

John Leonard’s group in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering specializes in SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, the technique whereby mobile autonomous robots map their environments and determine their locations. Last week, at the Robotics Science and Systems conference, members of Leonard’s group presented a new paper demonstrating how SLAM can be used to improve object-recognition systems, which will be a vital component of future robots that have to manipulate the objects around them in arbitrary ways.

The system uses SLAM information to augment existing object-recognition algorithms. Its performance should thus continue to improve as computer-vision researchers develop better recognition software, and roboticists develop better SLAM software. “Considering object recognition as a black box, and considering SLAM as a black box, how do you integrate them in a nice manner?” asks Sudeep Pillai, a graduate student in computer science and engineering and first author on the new paper. “How do you incorporate probabilities from each viewpoint over time? That’s really what we wanted to achieve.” Read the full article at MIT NEWS

August 6, 2015


Cantu: Computing at the speed of light

For Sergio Cantu, a second-year PhD student in physics, the future of computing is one in which information moves at the speed of light, and through a network with unparalleled security. In Cantu’s eyes, much of this future is predicated on lasers — which he’s worked with not only as a graduate student, but as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Brownsville and in the year after graduating, as a student in MIT’s Physics Bridge Program, which aims to facilitate students’ transition to PhD coursework. It was during the latter experience that he first set foot in MIT’s Center for Ultracold Atoms, where he conducts research today. Cantu uses light as an information carrier in computing and calculating. Because of light’s unmatched speed, it could support extremely fast and efficient computing, well beyond our current capabilities. But, he cautions, light comes with challenges — many of which are caused by its very speed.

“It doesn’t slow down, it’s always moving, and that makes it very hard to use as a carrier of information,” Cantu says. “How do you imprint information on something that you can’t pin down?”

One of the techniques that Cantu and his colleagues use is called electromagnetically induced transparency. This technique allows scientists to slow the speed of propagation of light, while it travels through an atomic gas, to about 100 meters per second, more than a million times slower than the speed of light in a vacuum. This allows him to manipulate matter — clusters of atoms — one unit of light at a time. Light doesn’t like to interact with much — sometimes not even with itself — but Cantu and his team can map specific interactions between light and atoms, at the level of individual photons, and use that as a way to transmit and exchange information. Read the full article at MIT News

August 5, 2015


Hussam: Understanding economic behavior through hygiene

Graduate student Reshmaan Hussam has always seen economics as more than a collection of numbers: For her, it also entails history, health, and human behavior. Now, as a fifth-year PhD student in economics at MIT, she applies this outlook to understanding sanitation and hygiene behavior in the developing world, with an eye toward affecting policy and behavioral changes.

Among the many factors that affect economic decision-making is health. Hussam quickly realized that a key means to self-empowerment is empowerment in health and hygiene — where women, particularly mothers, often play a significant role.

“When you’re sick, that becomes your entire focus,” she says. “Repeated, preventable illnesses — with which the developing world is too familiar — have huge, long-term physical and cognitive consequences. Education, labor, and financial security suffer — all of which are channels to self-determination and empowerment.” “Every home has soap, and everyone knows that handwashing with soap is important, yet hardly anyone does it,” Hussam says. “Existing public health campaigns don’t ask why. If we want to see progress on these simple but valuable preventable health activities, we need to understand the behavioral reasons for why people aren’t taking up [healthy habits].” Read the full article at MIT News

August 3, 2015


Steponaitis, Andrews: Stalagmites pinpoint drying of American West

Researchers from MIT, David McGee and graduate students Elena Steponaitis and Alexandra Andrews and elsewhere have now determined that the western U.S. — a region including Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and parts of California — was a rather damp setting until approximately 8,200 years ago, when the region began to dry out, eventually assuming the arid environments we see today.

The team identified this climatic turning point after analyzing stalagmites from a cave in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Stalagmites are pillars of deposited cave drippings that form over hundreds of thousands of years, as water slowly seeps down through the ground, and into caves. A stalagmite’s layers are essentially a record of a region’s moisture over time.

The researchers used a dating technique to determine the ages of certain layers within two stalagmites, then analyzed these layers for chemical signatures of moisture. They dated stalagmite layers ranging from 4,000 to 16,000 years old, observing that moisture content appears to drop dramatically in samples that are less than 8,200 years old. Read the full story at MIT News

July 31, 2015


Mendis, Bosboom, Wu: What takes coders months, CSAIL’s “Helium” can do in an hour

Last year, MIT computer scientists and Adobe engineers came together to try to solve a major problem that many companies face: bit-rot. A good example is Adobe’s successful Photoshop photo editor, which just celebrated its 25th birthday. Over the years Photoshop had accumulated heaps of code that had been optimized for what is now old hardware.

“For high-performance code used for image-processing, you have to optimize the heck out of the software,” says Saman Amarasinghe, a professor at MIT and researcher at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “The downside is that the code becomes much less effective and much more difficult to understand.” This results in what Amarasinghe describes as “a billion-dollar problem”: companies like Adobe having to devote massive manpower to going back into the code every few years and, by hand, testing out a bunch of different strategies to try to patch it.

The paper was written by Charith Mendis, fellow graduate students Jeffrey Bosboom and Kevin Wu, research scientist Shoaib Kamil, postdoc Jonathan Ragan-Kelley PhD ’14, Amarasinghe, and researchers from Adobe and Google. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 29, 2015


Long’s team develops Automatic Bug Repair System

At the Association for Computing Machinery’s Programming Language Design and Implementation conference this month, MIT researchers presented a new system that repairs dangerous software bugs by automatically importing functionality from other, more secure applications. Remarkably, the system, dubbed CodePhage, doesn’t require access to the source code of the applications whose functionality it’s borrowing. Instead, it analyzes the applications’ execution and characterizes the types of security checks they perform. As a consequence, it can import checks from applications written in programming languages other than the one in which the program it’s repairing was written.

Sidiroglou-Douskos and his coauthors — MIT professor of computer science and engineering Martin Rinard, graduate student Fan Long, and Eric Lahtinen, a researcher in Rinard’s group — refer to the program CodePhage is repairing as the “recipient” and the program whose functionality it’s borrowing as the “donor.” To begin its analysis, CodePhage requires two sample inputs: one that causes the recipient to crash and one that doesn’t. A bug-locating program that the same group reported in March, dubbed DIODE, generates crash-inducing inputs automatically. But a user may simply have found that trying to open a particular file caused a crash. Read the full article at MIT News

July 23, 2015


Jun, Liu, Xu: Cutting cost and power consumption for big data

Random-access memory, or RAM, is where computers like to store the data they’re working on. A processor can retrieve data from RAM tens of thousands of times more rapidly than it can from the computer’s disk drive. But in the age of big data, data sets are often much too large to fit in a single computer’s RAM. Sequencing data describing a single large genome could take up the RAM of somewhere between 40 and 100 typical computers.

Flash memory — the type of memory used by most portable devices — could provide an alternative to conventional RAM for big-data applications. It’s about a tenth as expensive, and it consumes about a tenth as much power. The problem is that it’s also a tenth as fast. But at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture in June, MIT researchers presented a new system that, for several common big-data applications, should make servers using flash memory as efficient as those using conventional RAM, while preserving their power and cost savings.

Joining Arvind on the new paper are Sang Woo Jun and Ming Liu, MIT graduate students in computer science and engineering and joint first authors; their fellow grad student Shuotao Xu; Sungjin Lee, a postdoc in Arvind’s group; Myron King and Jamey Hicks, who did their PhDs with Arvind and were researchers at Quanta Computer when the new system was developed; and one of their colleagues from Quanta, John Ankcorn — who is also an MIT alumnus. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 22, 2015


Pahlavan: Why do puddles stop spreading?

When you spill a bit of water onto a tabletop, the puddle spreads — and then stops, leaving a well-defined area of water with a sharp boundary. There’s just one problem: The formulas scientists use to describe such a fluid flow say that the water should just keep spreading endlessly. Everyone knows that’s not the case — but why?

This mystery has now been solved by researchers at MIT — and while this phenomenon might seem trivial, the finding’s ramifications could be significant: Understanding such flowing fluids is essential for processes from the lubrication of gears and machinery to the potential sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions in porous underground formations.The new findings are reported in the journal Physical Review Letters in a paper by Ruben Juanes, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, graduate student Amir Pahlavan, research associate Luis Cueto-Felgueroso, and mechanical engineering professor Gareth McKinley.

“The classic thin-film model describes the spreading of a liquid film, but it doesn’t predict it stopping,” Pahlavan says. It turns out that the problem is one of scale, he says: It’s only at the molecular level that the forces responsible for stopping the flow begin to show up. And even though these forces are minuscule, their effect changes how the liquid behaves in a way that is obvious at a much larger scale. “Within a macroscopic view of this problem, there’s nothing that stops the puddle from spreading. There’s something missing here,” Pahlavan says. Read the full article at MIT NEWS

July 21, 2015


Earle: NASA’s New Horizons mission and first images of Pluto

Tuesday July 11 will go down as a huge day in the history of NASA. After traveling 3 billion miles over the course of nearly a decade, the spacecraft called New Horizons reached its target, passing close by the dwarf planet, Pluto. Members of the New Horizons science team, including MIT Professor Richard Binzel, graduate student Alissa Earle (MIT), and Cristina Dalle Ore (SETI Institute), react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day. It was also a big day for MIT Professor Richard Binzel, who spent almost 35 years trying to get a mission to Pluto. For the past 15 of those years, he’s worked to make it possible for New Horizons to collect immense amounts of data from the ninth planet from the sun. He spent the day observing and celebrating at mission headquarters at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Follow this radio news item at Radio Boston WBUR.

July 16, 2015


Abraham: Networking groups come up short on referrals for women

“It’s not what you know, but who you know” says the old adage, but new research shows when it comes to business referrals, gender can matter a great deal. Mabel Abraham, PhD ’15, spent two years reviewing years of records from a referral-generating organization where entrepreneurs share contacts, pitch their services, and win new business. Her findings help explain the disproportionate results achieved by women in social networks, notably the disparity in receiving referrals from colleagues.

When it came to referring colleagues to others—friends, family and clients—women came up short in being connected to new business. Abraham found the gap is largely driven by male-dominated fields, where women received fewer referrals than men in the same field. Abraham calls this “anticipatory third-party bias” to explain when group members “expect that a client, friend, or family member has a preference for men over women, they disproportionately give referrals to male rather than female network group members.” Follow the full article on this research at the MIT Sloan Newsroom

July 15, 2015


DESERT LIFE: Field Studies of Art + Nature in the Southwest

The ART+BIO Collaborative, a Cambridge, MA non-profit, is offering DESERT LIFE: Field Studies of Art+Nature in the Southwest this August 3-9, providing a great travel opportunity that will bring together a unique group of Biologists and Artists to explore the desert borderlands of Texas and New Mexico. The program is designed for students, artists, scientists, professionals and people generally interested in nature, art, and biology. Register today! DESERT LIFE is a hands-on, immersive, and project-based program that integrates biology and art in the field. We camp at various sites in west Texas and southwest New Mexico. The program provides an immersive experience of the diverse environments of the Chihuahuan Desert, such as white sand dunes, black lava rocks, mountain caves, and riparian habitats.

See photos and get more information, and help spread the word about this unique summer course to anyone who may be interested. Please email if you have questions. Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds

July 15, 2015


Mirvakili: Research shows tiny wires could provide a big energy boost

Wearable electronic devices for health and fitness monitoring are a rapidly growing area of consumer electronics; one of their biggest limitations is the capacity of their tiny batteries to deliver enough power to transmit data. Now, researchers at MIT and in Canada have found a promising new approach to delivering the short but intense bursts of power needed by such small devices. The key is a new approach to making supercapacitors — devices that can store and release electrical power in such bursts, which are needed for brief transmissions of data from wearable devices such as heart-rate monitors, computers, or smartphones, the researchers say. They may also be useful for other applications where high power is needed in small volumes, such as autonomous microrobots.

The new approach uses yarns, made from nanowires of the element niobium, as the electrodes in tiny supercapacitors (which are essentially pairs of electrically conducting fibers with an insulator between). The concept is described in a paper in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Ian W. Hunter, doctoral student Seyed M. Mirvakili, and three others at the University of British Columbia. Read the full article on MIT News

July 14, 2015


Taylor and Simon: Pushing the limits of pump design for small farmers in India

The Ganges River basin of eastern India is some of the most fertile farmland in the world. With shallow groundwater and rich soil, the area is instrumental in India’s agricultural ecosystem. However, all is not well for the roughly 480 million people who rely on the basin for their livelihood. “Eastern India is one of the lowest agricultural productivity areas in the country, and it should be much higher, because it has excellent water resources,” says Katherine Taylor, graduate student in mechanical engineering and a fellow at the Tata Center for Technology and Design, part of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Taylor is part of an MIT team developing a solar-powered pump designed to the specifications of small-acreage farmers in eastern India, many of whom currently use costly, inefficient diesel pumps to irrigate their crops, or have no pumping capacity at all. The project grew out of the MIT course 2.760 (Global Engineering), where Taylor met Kevin Simon, another Tata Fellow and a graduate student in systems engineering, and Marcos Esparza, a senior in mechanical engineering. Led by Assistant Professor Amos Winter, “we explored pump design, and a good idea emerged. In true Tata Center spirit, we ran with it.” At a time when Indian agriculture is edging toward crisis, Taylor, Simon, and Esparza believe their pump can contribute to higher yields and greater profits for these small farmers. Read the full article at MIT News

July 12, 2015


Davis: The camera that can reconstruct sound from another room

Researchers at MIT CSAIL have been experimenting with a technique that can reconstruct sound from silent video recordings. Using powerful high-speed cameras and software it is possible to rebuild sound from objects in a different room. “I think what’s really different about this technology is that it provides you with a way to image this information,” says graduate student Abe Davis. Follow the coverage of this research in a video by BBC News. Photo by KEIK Bureau

July 10, 2015


The Completion Agenda: Revising Your Dissertation

If you had to pick a cliché that best describes completing a dissertation, “it ain’t over till it’s over” would work well. So far in this series we have discussed finishing a submittable draft and successfully defending the dissertation. But as every doctoral candidate knows, no matter how well the defense goes you are very likely not quite free and clear yet.

In my case, while I waited outside the meeting room, my committee discussed my dissertation for either 10 minutes or two hours; I honestly can’t recall through the fog of tension and time. I do remember encountering a friend in the hallway to whom I described my situation. She asked, “What’s the best possible outcome?” I had no doubt: “Ideally, they pass me without asking for any revisions.” She arched an eyebrow and asked in Spock-like tones: “Has that happened with any dissertation defense, ever?”

Obviously, every field is different, with varying requirements for the dissertation. Based on the many hundreds of conversations I have had with Ph.D. students in all sorts of disciplines, I have put together a to-do list that may help you successfully make the revisions sought by your committee. Read the full article at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Photo by Graham Holliday

July 9, 2015


Boyer: Helping students stick with MOOCs

MOOCs — massive open online courses — grant huge numbers of people access to world-class educational resources, but they also suffer high rates of attrition. To some degree, that’s inevitable: Many people who enroll in MOOCs may have no interest in doing homework, but simply plan to listen to video lectures in their spare time. Others, however, may begin courses with the firm intention of completing them but get derailed by life’s other demands. Identifying those people before they drop out and providing them with extra help could make their MOOC participation much more productive.

The problem is that you don’t know who’s actually dropped out — or, in MOOC parlance, “stopped out” — until the MOOC has been completed. One missed deadline does not a stopout make; but after the second or third missed deadline, it may be too late for an intervention to do any good. Last week, at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, Kalyan Veeramachaneni, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who conducted the study together with Sebastien Boyer, a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program showed that a dropout-prediction model trained on data from one offering of a course can help predict which students will stop out of the next offering. The prediction remains fairly accurate even if the organization of the course changes, so that the data collected during one offering doesn’t exactly match the data collected during the next. Read the full article on this technology at the MIT News Room

July 7, 2015


El-Damak: Toward tiny, solar-powered sensors

Last week, at the Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits, MIT researchers presented a new power converter chip that can harvest more than 80 percent of the energy trickling into it, even at the extremely low power levels characteristic of tiny solar cells. Previous ultralow-power converters that used the same approach had efficiencies of only 40 or 50 percent.

Moreover, the researchers’ chip achieves those efficiency improvements while assuming additional responsibilities. Where most of its ultralow-power predecessors could use a solar cell to either charge a battery or directly power a device, this new chip can do both, and it can power the device directly from the battery. All of those operations also share a single inductor — the chip’s main electrical component — which saves on circuit board space but increases the circuit complexity even further. Nonetheless, the chip’s power consumption remains low.

“We still want to have battery-charging capability, and we still want to provide a regulated output voltage,” says Dina Reda El-Damak, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the new paper. “We need to regulate the input to extract the maximum power, and we really want to do all these tasks with inductor sharing and see which operational mode is the best. And we want to do it without compromising the performance, at very limited input power levels — 10 nanowatts to 1 microwatt — for the Internet of things.” Read the full article at MIT News

July 6, 2015


Ramirez artificially recalls happier memories to reverse depression

MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can cure the symptoms of depression in mice by artificially reactivating happy memories that were formed before the onset of depression. The findings, described in the June 18 issue of Nature, offer a possible explanation for the success of psychotherapies in which depression patients are encouraged to recall pleasant experiences. They also suggest new ways to treat depression by manipulating the brain cells where memories are stored. The researchers believe this kind of targeted approach could have fewer side effects than most existing antidepressant drugs, which bathe the entire brain.

“Once you identify specific sites in the memory circuit which are not functioning well, or whose boosting will bring a beneficial consequence, there is a possibility of inventing new medical technology where the improvement will be targeted to the specific part of the circuit, rather than administering a drug and letting that drug function everywhere in the brain,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and senior author of the paper.

Although this type of intervention is not yet possible in humans, “This type of analysis gives information as to where to target specific disorders,” Tonegawa adds. Graduate student Steve Ramirez is the paper’s lead author. Read the full story on MIT News.

June 23, 2015

MRI Conflict Resolution

Landau-Wells: MRIs for a More Peaceful World

An MRI scanner is an unusual tool for resolving war and conflict, but an MIT collaboration now underway is deploying MRIs as an instrument for peace. The goal of the collaboration—among the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab; the Department of Political Science; and Beyond Conflict, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to global challenges to peace and reconciliation—is to use knowledge of neuroscience to develop innovative, more effective conflict-resolution strategies. Already the groups are putting into practice what they are learning in instances of extreme prejudice against Roma populations in Hungary, and between Israelis and Palestinians. Marika Landau-Wells, a PhD student in political science and in MIT’s Comparative Politics and Security Studies Program that focuses on war and conflict, is helping to bridge conflict resolution, neuroscience, and political science. Read the full article on this research at MIT Spectrum. Photo: Len Rubenstein

June 15, 2015

discover art app

Gonzalez and Andrew’s Artbot engineers the discovery of art

Is it possible to engineer the discovery of art? In 2013, two graduate students in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) set out to answer that question, and today, thanks to their work as research assistants — there’s an app for that! Artbot, developed by Desi Gonzalez and Liam Andrew in the HyperStudio research group of Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W), is a mobile website app that mines both user preferences and event tags to provide serendipitous connections to the local art scene.

“We’re trying to make Boston one museum,” Gonzalez says. “We were really interested in unearthing hidden gems, things you didn’t realize you’d like. Hopefully, users will fall through the rabbit hole of connection.” Read the full article at MIT News.

June 11, 2015


Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship celebrates 50 years

Named for the pioneering medical researcher, the Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship is one of the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education’s (ODGE) most prestigious awards. A famed urologist, Young was not only an innovator in medical science, his curiosity and intellectual drive also stirred him in other endeavors such as civic enhancement, the arts, and the burgeoning field of aviation. Established in 1965 through an anonymous donor, roughly 150 students have benefited from this award over the last 50 years.

The committee has selected seven new recipients as the 2015-16 fellowship cohort: John Arroyo, Or Gadish, Steven Keating, Georgia Lagoudas, William Li, Mitali Thakor and Iris Zielski. They will join a legacy of exceptional individuals, and will hopefully go on to make positive impacts on society in the tradition of Young himself. (Accomplishments of former Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship recipients can be seen on the ODGE website.) Learn more about the new fellows are at MIT News.

June 3, 2015

Lawrence Cheuk

Cheuk builds new fermion microscope

Fermions are the building blocks of matter, interacting in a multitude of permutations to give rise to the elements of the periodic table. Without fermions, the physical world would not exist. Examples of fermions are electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and atoms consisting of an odd number of these elementary particles. But atoms are extremely sensitive to light: When a single photon hits an atom, it can knock the particle out of place — an effect that has made imaging individual fermionic atoms devilishly hard. Now a team of MIT physicists, led by physics professor Martin Zwierlein and grad student Lawrence Cheuk, has built a microscope that is able to see up to 1,000 individual fermionic atoms. The researchers devised a laser-based technique to trap and freeze fermions in place, and image the particles simultaneously. Read the full article at MIT News. Photo: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT


June 3, 2015

Tech Poster Reunion

Tech Reunions Graduate Poster Session Jun. 6

Want to present your research in poster format and network with MIT alumni? The GSC and MIT Alumni Association are sponsoring a networking lunch and poster session for graduate students and alumni during Tech Reunions on June 6, 2015 from 12 – 2pm in Maseeh Hall. Presenters can network with alumni, gain feedback on their research, and will receive free lunch and a $10 gift card for participating. Space is limited. Sign up today. Presenters are eligible to attend Toast to Tech, our festive late-night party with live music and hosted bar. Contact Greg Batcheler ( Photo by Justin Knight

May 28, 2015

D. Roy Memory Recovery

Roy researches ways memories lost to amnesia may be recalled by light

“Memories that have been ‘lost’ as a result of amnesia can be recalled by activating brain cells with light. In a paper published in the journal Science, researchers at MIT reveal that they were able to reactivate memories that could not otherwise be retrieved, using a technology known as optogenetics.”

Yes! Does this mean we can reclaim our long-forgotten halcyon childhood days with a bit of a laser boost to the right neurons? Um, no, not today. But it’s still fascinating. The study explores the difference between how a memory is stored — in a group of brain cells called an engram — and how it is retrieved. It quotes Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa, who leads the group that did the work, on the evolving concept of what a memory is, in our brains:

“We are proposing a new concept, in which there is an engram cell ensemble pathway, or circuit, for each memory,” he says. “This circuit encompasses multiple brain areas and the engram cell ensembles in these areas are connected specifically for a particular memory.”

WBUR’s Rachel Paiste spoke with Dheeraj Roy, a grad student in Tonegawa’s MIT lab who worked on the research. Read their conversation at 90.9 wbur. 3-D reconstruction of mouse neurons (Zeiss Microscopy)

May 26, 2015


Namburi identifies neurons associating emotions with memories

Eating a slice of chocolate cake or spending time with a friend usually stimulates positive feelings, while getting in a car accident or anticipating a difficult exam is more likely to generate a fearful or anxious response. An almond-shaped brain structure called the amygdala is believed to be responsible for assigning these emotional reactions. Neuroscientists from MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have now identified two populations of neurons in the amygdala that process positive and negative emotions. These neurons then relay the information to other brain regions that initiate the appropriate behavioral response.

The findings could also help scientists to better understand how mental illnesses such as depression arise, she says. Many psychiatric symptoms may reflect impairments in emotional processing. For example, people who are depressed do not find positive experiences rewarding, and people who suffer from addiction are not deterred by the negative outcomes of their behavior. Graduate student Praneeth Namburi and postdoc Anna Beyeler are the paper’s lead authors. Continue reading on MIT News.

May 18, 2015


Chen and Wadhwa develop way to visualize minute vibrations

To the naked eye, buildings and bridges appear fixed in place, unmoved by forces like wind and rain. But in fact, these large structures do experience imperceptibly small vibrations that, depending on their frequency, may indicate instability or structural damage. MIT researchers have now developed a technique to “see” vibrations that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye, combining high-speed video with computer vision techniques.

Normally, high-speed video wouldn’t pick up such subtle vibrations from a building. To do this, the researchers employed a computer vision technique called “motion magnification” to break down high-speed frames into certain frequencies, essentially exaggerating tiny, subpixel motions. Buyukozturk has co-authored a paper, along with lead author and graduate student Justin Chen, which appears in the Journal of Sound and Vibration. The paper’s other co-authors are graduate student Neal Wadhwa and postdoc Young-Jin Cha, along with professors of computer science and engineering Fredo Durand and William Freeman. Continue reading on MIT News.

May 6, 2015


Leonard finds links between brain anatomy, academic achievement, and family income

Many years of research have shown that for students from lower-income families, standardized test scores and other measures of academic success tend to lag behind those of wealthier students. A new study led by researchers at MIT, including grad student, Julia Leonard, and Harvard University offers another dimension to this so-called “achievement gap”: After imaging the brains of high- and low-income students, they found that the higher-income students had thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation. Furthermore, these differences also correlated with one measure of academic achievement — performance on standardized tests.

“Just as you would expect, there’s a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children,” says MIT’s John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and one of the study’s authors. “To me, it’s a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn’t come easily in their environment.” Continue reading at MIT News.

May 4, 2015


Arndt solves mystery underlying beetle’s attack

Bombardier beetles, which exist on every continent except Antarctica, have a pretty easy life. Virtually no other animals prey on them, because of one particularly effective defense mechanism: When disturbed or attacked, the beetles produce an internal chemical explosion in their abdomen and then expel a jet of boiling, irritating liquid toward their attackers. Researchers had been baffled by the half-inch beetles’ ability to produce this noxious spray while avoiding any physical damage. But now that conundrum has been solved, thanks to research by a team at MIT, the University of Arizona, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. The findings are published this week in the journal Science by MIT graduate student Eric Arndt, professor of materials science and engineering Christine Ortiz, Wah-Keat Lee of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Wendy Moore of the University of Arizona.

“Their defensive mechanism is highly effective,” Arndt says, making bombardier beetles “invulnerable to most vertebrates, and invertebrates” — except for a few very specialized predators that have developed countermeasures against the noxious spray. Continue reading on MIT News. Photo by Charles Hedgcock.

April 30, 2015


Zhu, Opel, and Gai stimulate both sides of immune system to combat tumors

The human immune system is poised to spring into action at the first sign of a foreign invader, but it often fails to eliminate tumors that arise from the body’s own cells. Cancer biologists hope to harness that untapped power using an approach known as cancer immunotherapy. Orchestrating a successful immune attack against tumors has proven difficult so far, but a new study from MIT suggests that such therapies could be improved by simultaneously activating both arms of the immune system. Until now, most researchers have focused on one of two strategies: attacking tumors with antibodies, […] the innate immune system, or stimulating T cells, […] the adaptive immune system.

By combining these approaches, the MIT team was able to halt the growth of a very aggressive form of melanoma in mice. “An anti-tumor antibody can improve adoptive T-cell therapy to a surprising extent,” says Dane Wittrup, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT. “These two different parts of the immune therapy are interdependent and synergistic.”  Wittrup, an associate director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and also a faculty member in the Department of Biological Engineering, is the senior author of a paper describing the work this week in the journal Cancer Cell. Lead authors are graduate students Eric Zhu and Cary Opel and recent PhD recipient Shuning GaiContinue reading on MIT News.

April 22, 2015


Kao and Dementyev create thumbnail track pad for devices

Researchers at the MIT Media Laboratory are developing a new wearable device that turns the user’s thumbnail into a miniature wireless track pad. They envision that the technology could let users control wireless devices when their hands are full — answering the phone while cooking, for instance. It could also augment other interfaces, allowing someone texting on a cellphone, say, to toggle between symbol sets without interrupting his or her typing. Finally, it could enable subtle communication in circumstances that require it, such as sending a quick text to a child while attending an important meeting. The researchers describe a prototype of the device, called NailO, in a paper they’re presenting next week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction conference in Seoul, South Korea.

According to Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, an MIT graduate student in media arts and sciences and one of the new paper’s lead authors, the device was inspired by the colorful stickers that some women apply to their nails. “It’s a cosmetic product, popular in Asian countries,” says Kao, who is Taiwanese. “When I came here, I was looking for them, but I couldn’t find them, so I’d have my family mail them to me.”  To build their prototype, the researchers needed to find a way to pack capacitive sensors, a battery, and three separate chips — a microcontroller, a Bluetooth radio chip, and a capacitive-sensing chip — into a space no larger than a thumbnail. “The hardest part was probably the antenna design,” says Artem Dementyev, a graduate student in media arts and sciences and the paper’s other lead author. Continue reading on MIT News.

April 17, 2015


Liu makes sensor to detect rotting meat

MIT chemists have devised an inexpensive, portable sensor that can detect gases emitted by rotting meat, allowing consumers to determine whether the meat in their grocery store or refrigerator is safe to eat. The sensor, which consists of chemically modified carbon nanotubes, could be deployed in “smart packaging” that would offer much more accurate safety information than the expiration date on the package, says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

It could also cut down on food waste, he adds. “People are constantly throwing things out that probably aren’t bad,” says Swager, who is the senior author of a paper describing the new sensor this week in the journal Angewandte Chemie. The paper’s lead author is graduate student Sophie Liu. Other authors are former lab technician Alexander Petty and postdoc Graham Sazama. Continue reading on MIT News.

April 2, 2015


SOLAR Cities Community Biodigesters Apr. 6

Join Ph D. Thomas H. Culhane, National Geographic Explorer and Co-founder of SOLAR cities. SOLAR cities is an international non-profit educational organization that aims to provide an open-source virtual Hackspace for “Biogas Innoventors and Practitioners.” SOLAR cities also provides training for all those researching, developing and deploying sustainable solutions for flourishing societies. The event will take place on Monday, April 6th, at noon in 4-237. RSVP if you’re interested in attending or email for more information.  Photo by IntelFreePress

March 23, 2015


Chen and Christiansen create noninvasive method to locally stimulate brain

Researchers at MIT have developed a method to stimulate brain tissue using external magnetic fields and injected magnetic nanoparticles — a technique allowing direct stimulation of neurons, which could be an effective treatment for a variety of neurological diseases, without the need for implants or external connections. The research, conducted by Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, graduate student Ritchie Chen, and three others, has been published in the journal Science.

In addition to Anikeeva and Chen, the research team also included postdoc Gabriela Romero, graduate student Michael Christiansen, and undergraduate Alan Mohr. The work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the National Science Foundation. Continue reading on MIT News.

March 18, 2015


Wang uses new device to detect and analyze methane formation

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its capacity to trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere for a long time. The gas can originate from lakes and swamps, natural-gas pipelines, deep-sea vents, and livestock. Understanding the sources of methane, and how the gas is formed, could give scientists a better understanding of its role in warming the planet. Now a research team led by scientists at MIT and including colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere has developed an instrument that can rapidly and precisely analyze samples of environmental methane to determine how the gas was formed.

“We are interested in the question, ‘Where does methane come from?’” says Shuhei Ono, an assistant professor of geochemistry in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “If we can partition how much is from cows, natural gas, and other sources, we can more reliably strategize what to do about global warming.” Ono and his colleagues, including first author and graduate student David Wang, publish their results this week in the journal Science. Continue reading on MIT News.

March 16, 2015


Webber develops method for analyzing exoplanet clouds

In a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT describe a technique that analyzes data from NASA’s Kepler space observatory to determine the types of clouds on planets that orbit other stars, known as exoplanets. The team, led by Kerri Cahoy, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has already used the method to determine the properties of clouds on the exoplanet Kepler-7b. The planet is known as a “hot Jupiter,” as temperatures in its atmosphere hover at around 1,700 kelvins.

Researchers have previously shown that by studying the variations in the amount of light coming from these star systems as a planet transits, or crosses in front or behind them, they can detect the presence of clouds in that planet’s atmosphere. That is because particles within the clouds will scatter different wavelengths of light. To find out if this data could be used to determine the composition of these clouds, the MIT researchers studied the light signal from Kepler-7b. They used models of the temperature and pressure of the planet’s atmosphere to determine how different types of clouds would form within it, says lead author Matthew Webber, a graduate student in Cahoy’s group at MIT. Continue reading on MIT News.

March 6, 2015

Radio Leakage

Paidimarri finds way to greatly reduce circuit power leakage

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the big theme was the “Internet of things” — the idea that everything in the human environment, from kitchen appliances to industrial equipment, could be equipped with sensors and processors that can exchange data, helping with maintenance and the coordination of tasks. Realizing that vision, however, requires transmitters that are powerful enough to broadcast to devices dozens of yards away but energy-efficient enough to last for months — or even to harvest energy from heat or mechanical vibrations.

“A key challenge is designing these circuits with extremely low standby power, because most of these devices are just sitting idling, waiting for some event to trigger a communication,” explains Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor in Electrical Engineering at MIT. “When it’s on, you want to be as efficient as possible, and when it’s off, you want to really cut off the off-state power, the leakage power.” Chandrakasan — along with Arun Paidimarri, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the paper, and Nathan Ickes, a research scientist in Chandrakasan’s lab — reduces the leakage by applying a negative charge to the gate when the transmitter is idle. That drives electrons away from the electrical leads, making the semiconductor a much better insulator.  Continue reading on MIT News.

February 27, 2015

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Borenstein makes chess more accessible to spectators

Graduate student Greg Borenstein spoke with BBC News about his efforts to turn chess into a spectator sport like American football or poker. His group in the Media Lab wants to make the game more accessible to the uninitiated, by presenting complex information on matches in a simple, visually appealing way and give an expert insight into the state of a game. “There’s really something magical about the ability to use computation and statistics to take that drama and that excitement and those brilliant moments an make them visible,” Borenstein explains. To watch Borenstein’s interview visit BBC News. Photo by maorix

February 25, 2015


Kim coauthors paper on crowd sourced video annotation

Educational researchers have long held that presenting students with clear outlines of the material covered in lectures improves their retention. Recent studies indicate that the same is true of online how-to videos, and in a paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in March, researchers at MIT and Harvard University describe a new system that recruits viewers to create high-level conceptual outlines.

‘That addresses one of the fundamental problems with videos,’ says Juho Kim, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the paper’s co-authors. “It’s really hard to find the exact spots that you want to watch. You end up scrubbing on the timeline carefully and looking at thumbnails. And with educational videos, especially, it’s really hard, because it’s not that visually dynamic. So we thought that having this semantic information about the video really helps. Continue reading on MIT News.

February 25, 2015


Apply for Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability by Feb. 28

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 2015-2016. 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 28, 2015. See the MITEI nominations website and the attached PDF’s for additional information. Photo by photologue_np

February 20, 2015


Sanchez and Tsai designing quicker multicore chips

“Computer chips’ clocks have stopped getting faster. To keep delivering performance improvements, chipmakers are instead giving chips more processing units, or cores, which can execute computations in parallel. But the ways in which a chip carves up computations can make a big difference to performance. In a 2013 paper, Daniel Sanchez, the TIBCO Founders Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and his student, Nathan Beckmann, described a system that cleverly distributes data around multicore chips’ memory banks, improving execution times by 18 percent on average while actually increasing energy efficiency.” Continue reading on MIT News.

February 4, 2015

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Mork on locking energy-transfer rates in quantum dots

MIT chemistry graduate student Jolene Mork examines rates of excitonic-energy transfer. Energy transfer in light-sensitive materials such as quantum dots is of interest for better solar cells, LEDs, and other devices. MIT chemistry graduate student A. Jolene Mork examines how fast energy transfers from one quantum dot to another, a phenomenon known as hopping. Mork is lead author of a Journal of Physical Chemistry paper that analyzed energy transfer in colloidal quantum dots. “It’s not looking at how far can an exciton go within a film; it is how fast does it transfer from one quantum dot to another,” she says. Mork is a fifth-year MIT graduate student in the lab of William A. Tisdale, the Charles and Hilda Roddey Career Development Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT. Read on at MIT News. Photo by Denis Paiste.

January 30, 2015


Weidman shows how to synthesize lead sulfide nanocrystals of uniform size

Lead sulfide nanocrystals suitable for solar cells have a nearly one-to-one ratio of lead to sulfur atoms, but MIT researchers discovered that to make uniformly sized quantum dots, a higher ratio of lead to sulfur precursors – 24 to 1 – is better. MIT chemical engineering graduate student Mark C. Weidman developed the synthetic recipe in the lab of William A. Tisdale, the Charles and Hilda Roddey Career Development Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT, with colleagues Ferry Prins, Rachel S. Hoffman and 2013 Summer Scholar Megan Beck. Uniformity of size can promote long exciton diffusion lengths in lead sulfide (PbS) quantum-dot films, Weidman says.

Usually quantum dots are synthesized as a colloid, with particles suspended in a liquid. If the quantum dots are all of the same size, they can self-assemble into an ordered lattice. “If they are monodisperse enough, it’s the thermodynamically favored state,” Weidman explains. Read on at MIT News. Photo by Denis Paiste.

January 28, 2015


Chen and Tillberg on enlarging brain samples for better imaging

Fei Chen and Paul Tillberg are lead authors of paper on enlarging brain tissue samples. Beginning with the invention of the first microscope in the late 1500s, scientists have been trying to peer into preserved cells and tissues with ever-greater magnification. The latest generation of so-called “super-resolution” microscopes can see inside cells with resolution better than 250 nanometers. A team of researchers from MIT has now taken a novel approach to gaining such high-resolution images: Instead of making their microscopes more powerful, they have discovered a method that enlarges tissue samples by embedding them in a polymer that swells when water is added. This allows specimens to be physically magnified, and then imaged at a much higher resolution. This technique, which uses inexpensive, commercially available chemicals and microscopes commonly found in research labs, should give many more scientists access to super-resolution imaging, the researchers say. Read on at MIT News.

January 27, 2015


Wong’s vision system for household robots

For household robots ever to be practical, they’ll need to be able to recognize the objects they’re supposed to manipulate. But while object recognition is one of the most widely studied topics in artificial intelligence, even the best object detectors still fail much of the time.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory believe that household robots should take advantage of their mobility and their relatively static environments to make object recognition easier, by imaging objects from multiple perspectives before making judgments about their identity. Matching up the objects depicted in the different images, however, poses its own computational challenges.

In a paper appearing in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Robotics Research, the MIT researchers show that a system using an off-the-shelf algorithm to aggregate different perspectives can recognize four times as many objects as one that uses a single perspective, while reducing the number of misidentifications.

Read more at MIT News as PhD student and lead author on the new paper, Lawson Wong, talks about the project. Photo by John Boyd.

January 22, 2015


Dura watches how cells interact

The immune system is a complex network of many different cells working together to defend against invaders. Successfully fighting off an infection depends on the interactions between these cells. A new device developed by MIT engineers offers a much more detailed picture of that cellular communication. Using this device, which captures pairs of cells and collects data on each as they interact with each other, the researchers have already learned more about how T cells — major players in the immune response — become activated during infection.

The device is based on microfluidic technology developed by Joel Voldman, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), in 2009. His team used that earlier version to fuse adult cells with embryonic stem cells, allowing the researchers to observe the genetic reprogramming that occurred in these hybrids. Read more at MIT News, as graduate student and lead author on the new paper, Burak Dura, talks about her research.

January 21, 2015


MIT students represented in Forbes “30 under 30”

Forbes recently released its “30 under 30” lists for 2015. For its fourth annual celebration, the publication has selected 600 movers, makers, and game changers in 20 fields — all under the age of 30. This year’s lists are populated with numerous MIT faculty, students, and alumni. Check out MIT News for a complete list of students honored, and see the MIT Alumni Association’s Slice of MIT for a complete list of alumni honorees.

January 16, 2015


Najafi: Toward quantum chips

A team of researchers has built an array of light detectors sensitive enough to register the arrival of individual light particles, or photons, and mounted them on a silicon optical chip. Such arrays are crucial components of devices that use photons to perform quantum computations.

Single-photon detectors are notoriously temperamental: Of 100 deposited on a chip using standard manufacturing techniques, only a handful will generally work. In a paper appearing today in Nature Communications, the researchers at MIT and elsewhere describe a procedure for fabricating and testing the detectors separately and then transferring those that work to an optical chip built using standard manufacturing processes.

In addition to yielding much denser and larger arrays, the approach also increases the detectors’ sensitivity. In experiments, the researchers found that their detectors were up to 100 times more likely to accurately register the arrival of a single photon than those found in earlier arrays. Read on at MIT News as graduate student and first author on the new paper, Faraz Najafi, talks more about building the detectors.