Category Archives: Student research

April 18, 2016

MIT-Lifespan-Inequality_0

Stepner and Abrahams: Rich, poor have huge mortality gap in U.S.

Poverty in the U.S. is often associated with deprivation, in areas including housing, employment, and education. Now a study co-authored by two MIT researchers has shown, in unprecedented geographic detail, another stark reality: Poor people live shorter lives, too. More precisely, the study shows that in the U.S., the richest 1 percent of men lives 14.6 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent of men, while among women in those wealth percentiles, the difference is 10.1 years on average.

Michael Stepner and Sarah Abraham, PhD candidates in MIT’s Department of Economics, are among the co-authors of a newly published paper summarizing the study’s findings, and have played central roles in a three-year research project establishing the results. Read more at MIT News.

February 16, 2016

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McPherson: Emotional expression affects the brain’s creativity network

The workings of neural circuits associated with creativity are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to express emotions, according to a new brain-scanning study of jazz pianists. Over the past decade, a collection of neuroimaging studies has begun to identify components of a neural circuit that operates across various domains of creativity. But the new research suggests that creativity cannot be fully explained in terms of the activation or deactivation of a fixed network of brain regions. Rather, the researchers said, when creative acts engage brain areas involved in emotional expression, activity in these regions strongly influences which parts of the brain’s creativity network are activated, and to what extent. The new study was led by first author Malinda McPherson, a classical violist and first-year graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology. Read more at EurekaAlert.

February 8, 2016

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Cho: Your car’s secret weapon against winter?

Most of the advantages of electric cars are about efficiency. But in the winter, it’s the very inefficiency of your petrol-powered engine block that keeps your keister from freezing, since waste heat from the combustion process is what makes it through your heating system. On a January morning, your electric vehicle has to divert battery-stored energy through heating elements to keep you warm, and that’s power that isn’t driving the wheels. By some estimates, keeping your EV toasty warm can cut its range by 30 percent.

But some scientists are figuring solution to this problem. A trio at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which includes graduate student Eugene Cho, has developed a thin, transparent film that can store solar energy when the sun is shining, and release it as heat on command. That means that you can use this afternoon’s sunshine to defrost tomorrow morning’s windscreen. Read more

February 5, 2016

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Rosenzweig: Insights on citizen participation in authoritarian countries

Nigeria is one of just three countries where polio remains endemic, in part because many families there don’t comply with government vaccination programs. In a quest to find out why, Leah Rosenzweig, an MIT Political Science doctoral candidate, undertook a research project, expecting to find that distrust of government was the root cause. But Rosenzweig was surprised to discover a very different explanation. “Using qualitative and quantitative data, my coauthors and I found that distrust of government was not a significant variable,” she explains. “Most people actually know that the polio vaccination is good for them. But when the state and international organizations arrive at citizens’ doorsteps to vaccinate kids, citizens realize it’s a rare opportunity for them to bargain with the state. In this way they can make their voices heard about basic health care, malaria drugs, and other public services that they really need. We think this bargaining motive explains a lot of the non-compliance.”

In other words, declining a vaccination turned out to be a form of political participation — a way for communities to convey their opinions and desires to their leaders. “The question of participation is very interesting,” says Rosenzweig. “We often think of political participation very narrowly — voting, campaigning, basically electoral behavior. But in some contexts, particularly in the developing world, participation is often practiced outside of electoral cycles and systems, especially in authoritarian and transitional countries.” Read more

February 3, 2016

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Simaiakis: Cutting down runway queues

Most frequent fliers are familiar with long lines at airports: at the check-in counter, the departure gate, and in boarding a booked flight. But even after passengers are buckled in, the waiting may continue — when a plane leaves the gate, only to sit on the tarmac, joining a long queue of flights awaiting takeoff. Such runway congestion can keep a plane idling for an hour or more, burning unnecessary fuel. Now engineers at MIT have developed a queuing model that predicts how long a plane will wait before takeoff, given weather conditions, runway traffic, and incoming and outgoing flight schedules. The model may help air traffic controllers direct departures more efficiently, minimizing runway congestion.

Hamsa Balakrishnan, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems and an affiliate of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT, says that in tests at various U.S. airports, the model encouraged controllers to hold flights back during certain times of day, leading to significant fuel savings. “In our field tests, we showed that there were some periods of time when you could decrease your taxi time by 20 percent by holding aircraft back,” Balakrishnan says. “Each gate-held aircraft saves 16 to 20 gallons of fuel, because it’s not idling. And that adds up.” Balakrishnan and former graduate student Ioannis Simaiakis have published their results in the journal Transportation Science. The team is working on airports across the country to further test the model. Read more

February 2, 2016

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Zimanyi, Chen, and Kang: One enzyme maintains a cell’s pool of DNA building blocks

Cell survival depends on having a plentiful and balanced pool of the four chemical building blocks that make up DNA — the deoxyribonucleosides deoxyadenosine, deoxyguanosine, deoxycytidine, and thymidine, often abbreviated as A, G, C, and T. However, if too many of these components pile up, or if their usual ratio is disrupted, that can be deadly for the cell. A new study from MIT chemists sheds light on a longstanding puzzle: how a single enzyme known as ribonucleotide reductase (RNR) generates all four of these building blocks and maintains the correct balance among them. The paper’s lead author is former MIT graduate student Christina Zimanyi. Other authors are graduate students Percival Yang-Ting Chen and Gyunghoon Kang, and former graduate student Michael Funk.

Unlike RNR, most enzymes specialize in converting just one type of molecule to another, says Catherine Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT. “Ribonucleotide reductase is very unusual. I’ve been fascinated with this question of how it actually works and how this enzyme’s active site can be molded into four different shapes.” Drennan and colleagues report in the journal eLife that RNR’s interactions with its downstream products via a special effector site causes the enzyme to change its shape, determining which of the four DNA building blocks it will generate. While many other enzymes are controlled by effectors, this type of regulation usually turns enzyme activity up or down. “I can’t think of any other examples of effector binding changing what the substrate is. This is just very unusual,” Drennan says. Read more

February 1, 2016

pacheco-theard

Pacheco-Theard: Free Test Prep Startup

While many high school students spend months studying for the SATs, Rena Pacheco-Theard prepped for hers in a single evening. “A friend gave me her SAT book the night before because she was done with it. I assumed it was like every other test in school,” she recalls. Luckily, she tests well, and her scores were high enough to get into her top choice school. But as anyone who’s applied to college knows, SAT scores are just one piece of an increasingly complex application process that often involves the whole family.

Pacheco-Theard, a Sloan MBA, didn’t have those advantages. Growing up in the middle of five children in Coeur d’Alene, ID, she’s a first generation college student. While her parents were loving and supportive, “they couldn’t tell me what the SAT was or where to apply. Even the cost of applying to schools was prohibitively expensive,” she recalls. Now, Pacheco-Theard is on her second master’s degree, an MBA (’16) at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. But she acknowledges that her path could have turned out very differently. “The way things worked out for me, they don’t work out for most students,” she says. Which is exactly why she’s set out to level the admissions playing field with her startup, Prepify.

Prepify offers free adaptive SAT prep to students anywhere in the world. The startup has partnered with Bell Curves test prep for the content and is in the process of designing a personalized curriculum that responds to each student’s progress through the lessons. Read more

February 1, 2016

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Martin Fellowships for Sustainability, apply by Feb. 29

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 2016-2017.  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.  Selected fellows are awarded two semesters of funding. Complete nomination packets are due by email to the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education no later than 5:00 pm EST on Monday, February 29, 2016. Read more

February 1, 2016

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Girls Day @ the MIT Museum, Mar. 5

The MIT Museum would like to showcase the work of women scientists and engineers during Girls Day. The theme for this event is Formed to Function and will focus on Mechanical Engineering and design for function. If you have a project/prototype/machine that you would like to showcase? If you have developed an activity around engineering design? Everyone is more than welcome to participate as a general volunteer, hands-on activity facilitator, and/or showcase their works! For more information or to participate please email Faith Dukes. You can also check out previous Girls Day events. The event will be held on Saturday, March 5, from 11:00 am – 4:00 pm.

 

January 27, 2016

MIT-Energy-Harvesting_0

Kim and Choi: Harnessing the energy of small bending motions

For many applications such as biomedical, mechanical, or environmental monitoring devices, harnessing the energy of small motions could provide a small but virtually unlimited power supply. While a number of approaches have been attempted, researchers at MIT have now developed a completely new method based on electrochemical principles, which could be capable of harvesting energy from a broader range of natural motions and activities, including walking. The new system, based on the slight bending of a sandwich of metal and polymer sheets, is described in the journal Nature Communications, in a paper by MIT professor Ju Li, graduate students Sangtae Kim and Soon Ju Choi, and four others.

Most previously designed devices for harnessing small motions have been based on the triboelectric effect (essentially friction, like rubbing a balloon against a wool sweater) or piezoelectrics (crystals that produce a small voltage when bent or compressed). These work well for high-frequency sources of motion such as those produced by the vibrations of machinery. But for typical human-scale motions such as walking or exercising, such systems have limits. Read more

January 26, 2016

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Xu: Building Economic Analytical Tools‏

PhD student Yiqing Xu applies new methodology for better insight into the Chinese political economy. It became clear to Xu that politics plays an increasingly important role in determining China’s course, in both economics and social and political development. This led him to pursue a doctorate in political science at MIT. His research has included an extensive experimental study that involved sending letters to local officials in 2,000 Chinese counties. View profile

January 25, 2016

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Rosenweig: Citizen participation in authoritarian countries‏

PhD student Leah Rosenzweig‘s electoral insights shed light on reasons for citizen participation in authoritarian and transitional countries in Sub-Sahara Africa. Of MIT Political Science she says “The professors here are very approachable and great mentors. My advisor, Professor Lily Tsai, who directs the GOV/LAB, is incredibly supportive and sets an example of working hard on important problems that directly affect peoples’ lives.” Story by Peter Dunn

January 22, 2016

lunch time focus group

Lunchtime focus group for graduate students on academic and research advisorship, Jan 25-29

Two lunchtime focus groups (for graduate students only!) are being held the last week of January: (1) on academic and research advisorship, (2) on sub-term (modular subjects). You are invited to attend! Up to 2 spots per department per focus group are open, on a first-come, first-served basis. Participate in a one-hour discussion on graduate affairs with fellow graduate students, and get free lunch!

(1) The MIT Committee on Graduate Programs (CGP) would like get your feedback on how academic and research advising roles are split within your department. Your feedback has the potential to influence future institute policies regarding this issue. If you are willing to share your thoughts and experience with us, please respond with your availability. Some questions we would like to know answers to: (a) who tracks students’ progress on graduate milestones in your department? (b) who tracks students’ academic progress in your department? (c) whose role in your department is it to resolve potential advising issues? (d) what would you like to see done differently? A discussion about what works, what doesn’t, and what should change, will ensue.

(2) The MIT Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) would like to get your feedback on sub-term (modular) subjects. Have you taken or TA-ed a course that took place over half a semester? We would like your input on topics including workload, TA duties, student feedback, course organization and coordination of sub-term subjects with other courses. Your feedback has the potential to influence future institute policies regarding part-term subjects. If you are willing to share your thoughts and experience with us, please respond with your availability. Photograph from Michael Coghlan.

January 20, 2016

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Student-built instrument headed to asteroid and back

Who can say they’ve been to an asteroid and back? In 2023, more than 50 MIT students (including several graduate students) may claim this feat, at least through the activities of a small, shoebox-sized instrument named REXIS (Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer). The instrument, which was designed and built by students from MIT and Harvard University, will be one of five instruments flying aboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), the first U.S. mission to retrieve and return an asteroid sample to Earth. This week, NASA announced that REXIS was successfully integrated onboard the spacecraft, bringing the mission one step closer to its scheduled launch next September.

Once in orbit, OSIRIS-REx will set course for Bennu, a small, near-Earth asteroid that may harbor material from the early solar system. The spacecraft is expected to reach Bennu sometime in 2018, when it will survey the space rock for the next year and take a small, 60-gram sample of surface soil before heading back to Earth by 2023. During the spacecraft’s survey phase, REXIS will observe the interaction of solar X-rays with the asteroid’s soil, or regolith, to determine the types of elements present on Bennu’s surface. Read more

January 15, 2016

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A*STAR Investigatorship now open for applications

The A*STAR Investigatorship (A*I) is a prestigious research award designed to attract the most promising young researchers from around the world to do independent research at A*STAR. It was initiated to nurture the next generation of scientific leaders in biomedical sciences, physical sciences and engineering research. The Investigatorship will be tenable at one of A*STAR’s prestigious research institutes. Further details and application materials can be found on the A*STAR website.

January 14, 2016

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Research Art Night: Submit by Jan. 21!

Share the story of your research through an image or a piece of art! Physical artwork or demos are welcomed too. Join us at the exhibition on February 7, 2016 at Sidney Pacific to mingle amidst research images and artwork over wine, chocolate and hors d’oeuvres. Attractive prizes include phone cases (any model) and 13″ Macbook Air case personalized with your research image, vouchers from UPROSA and more! Submission open until January 21st, 2016.

January 12, 2016

brain

Wexler: Zapping your brain‏

Zapping your brain: Why do it? Should it be regulated? Interest is growing in brain stimulation devices — and regulating them may prove tricky. PhD student Anna Wexler‘s research into the matter is the “best encapsulation of the near-history of this phenomenon,” says Peter Reiner, a professor of psychiatry and expert in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia. Wexler was one of the experts asked to speak at an FDA panel held on the topic in November.
Story at MIT News

December 21, 2015

Global Fellows

Learn collaboration skills through Global Fellows; apply by Jan. 18

Now in its sixth year, MIT and Imperial College London are jointly offering an intensive 4 ½ day Global Fellows Program for PhD students. 20 MIT participants will join 20 Imperial College PhD students in a UK location for 4.5 days of presentations, interactive work, and hands-on activities. Participants work in small groups with either an MIT or Imperial facilitator. Faculty members present on the topic of developing and managing international collaborations as an integral part of a research career. Imperial College London is a science-based institution, consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities.

Attend an info session:

Thursday January 7  5:00-5:30 – Location: 4-145
Friday January 8  1:001:30 – Location: 4-145

Fellowship covers cost of travel, housing, program and most meals. (Most international students will need to complete a required visa application process. This cost is covered by the student and typically is around $150).  The program will run June 13-17, 2016. Apply by Monday, January 18 at 11:59 p.m. EST. Interviews will begin the week of January 25. See the GECD website for more information.

December 17, 2015

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Dissertation Boot Camp, Jan. 12-20

Is the Jan deadline looming on you and you have yet to finish your thesis? Or maybe you haven’t even started?! Calm down, calm down. Take a deep breath and relax, and know that the GSC is providing a quiet place for you to work on your thesis with other graduate students during the January Dissertation Bootcamp! This will take place at Dewey Library, January 12-20, 20169-5pmMonday to Fridays, in room 212. Please note that there are two exceptions. On January 14, the room is 208, and on January 18, (which is an institute holiday), it starts at 12-5pm. Breakfast will be provided everyday, and you can sign up to attend everyday or just the days that work best for you. Writing your thesis doesn’t have to be isolating! Students who are graduating earlier get prioritized! Please email gsc-arc@mit.edu if you have questions.

December 4, 2015

alex tinguely nuclear fusion

Tinguely: cutting-edge research in nuclear fusion

Alex Tinguely wonders where he might be today if he had not taken an online physics class in high school. The second-year Department of Physics graduate student from Fort Madison, Iowa, attended a high school with a population of no more than 100 students, and with no available physics courses. In his junior year he decided if he was going to explore the world of physics he would need to do it online, and on his own. With no lab space available, Tinguely adapted the school chapel to his needs. “One experiment I did was stack our hymnals to form a ramp that I could roll a ball down. I was trying to calculate the acceleration due to gravity by varying the slope of the ramp. At least one teacher knew that I was in the chapel, but I’m not sure about the others. They probably would not have been too happy.”  Read more

December 1, 2015

Absorbing-photons

Yang: Harvesting more energy from photons

Yingyi Yang, a graduate student at MIT, along with other researchers at MIT, and elsewhere, have found a way to significantly boost the energy that can be harnessed from sunlight, a finding that could lead to better solar cells or light detectors. The new approach is based on the discovery that unexpected quantum effects increase the number of charge carriers, known as electrons and “holes,” that are knocked loose when photons of light of different wavelengths strikes a metal surface coated with a special class of oxide materials known as high-index dielectrics. The photons generate what are known as surface plasmons — a cloud of oscillating electrons that has the same frequency as the absorbed photons

The surprising finding is reported this week in the journal Physical Review Letters by authors including MIT’s Nicholas Fang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and postdoc Dafei Jin. The researchers used a sheet of silver coated with an oxide, which converts light energy into polarization of atoms at the interface.

November 30, 2015

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Akselrod: New technology colors in the infrared rainbow

In a new study, a team lead by Maiken H. Mikkelsen, the Nortel Networks Assistant Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Physics at Duke University, demonstrates perfect absorbers for small bands of the electromagnetic spectrum from visible light through the near infrared. The fabrication technique is easily scalable, can be applied to any surface geometry and costs much less than current light absorption technologies.

Once adopted, the technique would allow advanced thermal imaging systems to not only be produced faster and cheaper than today’s counterparts, but to have higher sensitivity. It could also be used in a wide variety of other applications, such as masking the heat signatures of objects. The study was published online Nov. 9 in Advanced Materials. Read more.

 

November 25, 2015

MIT-3D-Soccer

Kaspar: Automatically converting 2-D video to 3-D

Alexandre Kaspar, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science joined Professor Matusik, an associate professor at MIT in EECS and others, in exploiting the graphics-rendering software that powers sports video games. They have developed a system that automatically converts 2-D video of soccer games into 3-D. The converted video can be played back over any 3-D device — a commercial 3-D TV, Google’s new Cardboard system, which turns smartphones into 3-D displays, or special-purpose displays such as Oculus Rift. The researchers presented the new system last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Multimedia conference.

November 24, 2015

gharbi mobile image processing

Gharbi: streamlining mobile image processing

As smartphones become people’s primary computers and their primary cameras, there is growing demand for mobile versions of image-processing applications. Image processing, however, can be computationally intensive and could quickly drain a cellphone’s battery. Some mobile applications try to solve this problem by sending image files to a central server, which processes the images and sends them back. But with large images, this introduces significant delays and could incur costs for increased data usage.

At the Siggraph Asia conference last week, researchers from MIT, Stanford University, and Adobe Systems presented a system that, in experiments, reduced the bandwidth consumed by server-based image processing by as much as 98.5 percent, and the power consumption by as much as 85 percent. The system sends the server a highly compressed version of an image, and the server sends back an even smaller file, which contains simple instructions for modifying the original image.

Michaël Gharbi, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and first author on the Siggraph paper, says that the technique could become more useful as image-processing algorithms become more sophisticated.  Read more

November 23, 2015

schlumpberger efficient shockwave-based process desalination water

Schlumpberger: Shockwave-based process for desalination of water

As the availability of clean, potable water becomes an increasingly urgent issue in many parts of the world, researchers are searching for new ways to treat salty, brackish or contaminated water to make it usable. Now a team at MIT has come up with an innovative approach that, unlike most traditional desalination systems, does not separate ions or water molecules with filters, which can become clogged, or boiling, which consumes great amounts of energy.

Instead, the system uses an electrically driven shockwave within a stream of flowing water, which pushes salty water to one side of the flow and fresh water to the other, allowing easy separation of the two streams. The new approach is described in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, in a paper by professor of chemical engineering and mathematics Martin Bazant, graduate student Sven Schlumpberger, undergraduate Nancy Lu, and former postdoc Matthew Suss.  Read more

November 20, 2015

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Kamath: Tackling cancer research from multiple perspectives

As an MIT undergraduate, Tushar Kamath regularly rode his bike across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to retrieve blood samples from cancer patients; he then analyzed these samples on campus, at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Kamath, who received his BS in biological engineering in June and is now an MIT master’s student in biological engineering, says his trips back and forth across the river reflect his interdisciplinary view of research.

The blood that Kamath pedaled back from MGH helped in an exciting discovery about circulating tumor cells, which move through the blood in very low numbers, making them difficult to capture: He determined that a method of capturing these cells, developed in the lab where he was working, was as good as the method approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The experience showed Kamath that you don’t need a PhD to make a significant discovery.

Kamath is working with William Thilly, a professor of biological engineering at MIT, and research scientist Elena Gostjeva in the new field of metakaryotic biology. Gostjeva discovered the metakaryotic stem cells, which create organs during fetal and juvenile growth, but later serve as the generative stem cells for pathologic lesions including tumors and atherosclerotic plaques. These cells also have peculiarities including X-ray resistance, not using mitosis to divide, and organizing their genomes in a set of circular structures instead of in linear chromosomes. Read more at MIT News.

November 19, 2015

Julian Jara-Ettinger what counts as fair

Jara-Ettinger: Children’s ability to count is key to distributing resources

There are many ways to divvy up a pile of cookies. Among the possibilities: Everyone can get an equal number, or those who contributed more to the cookie baking can get a larger share. In studies, young children usually default to splitting up resources equally. However, as children get older, they shift toward a merit-based approach, in which people who work harder on a task are rewarded with a bigger portion.

New research from neuroscientists at MIT and the University of Rochester suggests that this shift is heavily influenced by children’s ability to count. In a study of children from the Tsimane’ tribe in the Amazon, who learn to count at widely varying ages, they found that counting ability was the biggest predictor of how children would divide resources. “It’s a very strong effect,” says Julian Jara-Ettinger, an MIT graduate student and lead author of the study, which appears in Developmental Science. The paper’s senior author is Steve Piantadosi, a former MIT graduate student who is now an assistant professor at Rochester.  Read more

November 18, 2015

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Yuk: Hydrogel superglue is tougher than natural adhesives

Nature has developed innovative ways to solve a sticky challenge: Mussels and barnacles stubbornly glue themselves to cliff faces, ship hulls, and even the skin of whales. Likewise, tendons and cartilage stick to bone with incredible robustness, giving animals flexibility and agility. The natural adhesive in all these cases is hydrogel — a sticky mix of water and gummy material that creates a tough and durable bond.

Now engineers at MIT have developed a method to make synthetic, sticky hydrogel that is more than 90 percent water. The hydrogel, which is a transparent, rubber-like material, can adhere to surfaces such as glass, silicon, ceramics, aluminum, and titanium with a toughness comparable to the bond between tendon and cartilage on bone.

In experiments to demonstrate its robustness, the researchers applied a small square of their hydrogel between two plates of glass, from which they then suspended a 55-pound weight. They also glued the hydrogel to a silicon wafer, which they then smashed with a hammer. While the silicon shattered, its pieces remained stuck in place.

Such durability makes the hydrogel an ideal candidate for protective coatings on underwater surfaces such as boats and submarines. As the hydrogel is biocompatible, it may also be suitable for a range of health-related applications, such as biomedical coatings for catheters and sensors implanted in the body.

“You can imagine new applications with this very robust, adhesive, yet soft material,” says Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. For example, Zhao’s group is currently exploring uses for the hydrogel in soft robotics, where the material may serve as synthetic tendon and cartilage, or in flexible joints.

“It’s a pretty tough and adhesive gel that’s mostly water,” Hyunwoo Yuk, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and the lead author of a paper on the work, says. “Basically, it’s tough, bonding water.”  Read more

November 17, 2015

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Bylinskii: Eye-tracking research makes better visualizations

Spend 10 minutes on social media, and you’ll learn that people love infographics. But why, exactly, do we gravitate towards articles with titles like “24 Diagrams to Help You Eat Healthier” and “All You Need To Know About Beer In One Chart”? Do they actually serve their purpose of not only being memorable, but actually helping us comprehend and retain information?Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard University are on the case.

In a new study that analyzes people’s eye-movements and text responses as they look at charts, graphs, and infographics, researchers have been able to determine which aspects of visualizations make them memorable, understandable, and informative — and reveal how to make sure your own graphics really pop.

Presenting a paper last week at the proceedings for the IEEE Information Visualization Conference (InfoViz) in Chicago, the team members say that their findings can provide better design principles for communications in industries such as marketing, business, and education, as well as teach us more about how human memory, attention, and comprehension work.

“By integrating multiple methods, including eye-tracking, text recall, and memory tests, we were able to develop what is, to our knowledge, the largest and most comprehensive user study to date on visualizations,” says CSAIL PhD student Zoya Bylinskii, first-author on the paper alongside Michelle Borkin, a former doctoral student at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) who is now an assistant professor at Northeastern University. Read more

November 16, 2015

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Chen & Matsumoto: designing magnetic cell sensors

MIT engineers have designed magnetic protein nanoparticles that can be used to track cells or to monitor interactions within cells. The particles, described today in Nature Communications, are an enhanced version of a naturally occurring, weakly magnetic protein called ferritin. “Ferritin, which is as close as biology has given us to a naturally magnetic protein nanoparticle, is really not that magnetic. That’s what this paper is addressing,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering and the paper’s senior author. “We used the tools of protein engineering to try to boost the magnetic characteristics of this protein.”

The new “hypermagnetic” protein nanoparticles can be produced within cells, allowing the cells to be imaged or sorted using magnetic techniques. This eliminates the need to tag cells with synthetic particles and allows the particles to sense other molecules inside cells. The paper’s lead author is former MIT graduate student Yuri Matsumoto. Other authors are graduate student Ritchie Chen and Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.  Read more

November 12, 2015

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Kamath: Tackling cancer research from multiple perspectives

As an MIT undergraduate, Tushar Kamath regularly rode his bike across the Charles River to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to retrieve blood samples from cancer patients; he then analyzed these samples on campus, at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Kamath, who received his BS in biological engineering in June and is now an MIT master’s student in biological engineering, says his trips back and forth across the river reflect his interdisciplinary view of research.

“You’ve got the top physicians sitting across the river, and you’ve got the top scientists sitting on this side of the river,” Kamath says. “Everybody is so close together, the potential for collaboration is huge.” The blood that Kamath pedaled back from MGH helped in an exciting discovery about circulating tumor cells, which move through the blood in very low numbers, making them difficult to capture: He determined that a method of capturing these cells, developed in the lab where he was working, was as good as the method approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The experience showed Kamath that you don’t need a PhD to make a significant discovery.  Read more

November 11, 2015

DeGennaro hst locate objects memory

DeGennaro: Brain relies on memory to locate objects

Imagine you are looking for your wallet on a cluttered desk. As you scan the area, you hold in your mind a mental picture of what your wallet looks like. MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain region that stores this type of visual representation during a search. The researchers also found that this region sends signals to the parts of the brain that control eye movements, telling individuals where to look next.

This region, known as the ventral pre-arcuate (VPA), is critical for what the researchers call “feature attention,” which allows the brain to seek objects based on their specific properties. Most previous studies of how the brain pays attention have investigated a different type of attention known as spatial attention — that is, what happens when the brain focuses on a certain location.

“The way that people go about their lives most of the time, they don’t know where things are in advance. They’re paying attention to things based on their features,” says Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “In the morning you’re trying to find your car keys so you can go to work. How do you do that? You don’t look at every pixel in your house. You have to use your knowledge of what your car keys look like.”

Desimone, also the Doris and Don Berkey Professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Oct. 29 online edition of Neuron. The paper’s lead author is Narcisse Bichot, a research scientist at the McGovern Institute. Other authors are Matthew Heard, a former research technician, and Ellen DeGennaro, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.  Read more

November 6, 2015

abe weintraub dna

Weintraub: Mapping the 3-D structure of DNA

For graduate student Abe Weintraub, the magic and intrigue of DNA is all in the packaging. Imagine trying to fit 24 miles of string into a tennis ball, the PhD student in biology says: That is, in essence, what it’s like inside every cell nucleus in the human body, each of which contains about 2 meters’ worth of DNA strands. But, as Weintraub is finding, this packaging sometimes goes awry, which may be the basis for disease.

Although the genetic code that resides in DNA has traditionally been thought of as linear, Weintraub is contributing to a body of knowledge about its 3-D organization. Two genes that may exist far apart when a strand is stretched out straight could actually be right next to each other when the strand is folded inside a cell nucleus — and the same applies to regulatory elements, which tell genes to turn on or off.

Looking at DNA as a 3-D phenomenon may yield insights about how certain genes get turned on or off, and thus how cells differentiate — in other words, DNA’s 3-D structure might actually be what’s behind one cell becoming a skin cell, while another becomes a lung cell. Weintraub has now been part of the lab of Richard Young, a professor of biology, for one and a half years; his research began in figuring out how DNA gets folded up the way it does, and has more recently shifted to the consequences of improper folding.  Read more

November 4, 2015

Adib virtual x-ray

Adib: Wireless “X-ray vision” could power virtual reality, smart homes, & Hollywood

A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) has long believed that wireless signals like WiFi can be used to see things that are invisible to the naked eye. Since 2013, CSAIL researchers have been developing technologies that use wireless signals to track human motion. The team has shown that it can detect gestures and body movementsas subtle as the rise and fall of a person’s chest from the other side of a house, allowing a mother to monitor a baby’s breathing or a firefighter to determine if there are survivors inside a burning building.

Next up? Seeing a person’s silhouette and even distinguishing between individuals. In a paper accepted to the SIGGRAPH Asia conference taking place next month, the team presents a new technology called RF Capture that picks up wireless reflections off the human body to see the silhouette of a human standing behind a wall. By tracking the silhouette, the device can trace a person’s hand as he writes in the air and even distinguish between 15 different people through a wall with nearly 90 percent accuracy. In other words, from the opposite side of a building, RF Capture can determine where you are, who you are, and even which hand you are moving.

Researchers say the technology could have major implications for everything from gaming and filmmaking to emergency response and eldercare. Take, for example, motion capture in movie production: “Today actors have to wear markers on their bodies and move in a specific room full of cameras,” says PhD student Fadel Adib, who is lead author on the new paper. “RF Capture would enable motion capture without body sensors and could track actors’ movements even if they are behind furniture or walls.”  Read more

October 30, 2015

cho control bubbles electric charge

Cho: controlling the bubbles of boiling water using a small electric charge

Boiling water, with its commotion of bubbles that rise from a surface as water comes to a boil, is central to most electric power plants, heating and cooling systems, and desalination plants. Now, for the first time, researchers at MIT have found a way to control this process, literally with the flick of an electrical switch.

The system, which could improve the efficiency of electric power generation and other processes, is described in a paper by Department of Mechanical Engineering Professor Evelyn Wang, graduate student Jeremy Cho, and recent graduate Jordan Mizerak ’14, published in the journal Nature Communications.

This degree of control over the boiling process, independent of temperature, Wang says, has not previously been demonstrated despite the ubiquity of boiling in industrial processes. Other systems have been developed to control boiling using electric fields, but these have required special fluids rather than water, and a thousandfold higher voltages, making them economically impractical for most uses.  Read more

October 29, 2015

mit grad students faster optimization algorithm

Lee, Sidford, Wong: A faster optimization algorithm

Optimization problems are everywhere in engineering: Balancing design tradeoffs is an optimization problem, as are scheduling and logistical planning. The theory — and sometimes the implementation — of control systems relies heavily on optimization, and so does machine learning, which has been the basis of most recent advances in artificial intelligence.

This week, at the IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, a trio of present and past MIT graduate students won a best-student-paper award for a new “cutting-plane” algorithm, a general-purpose algorithm for solving optimization problems. The algorithm improves on the running time of its most efficient predecessor, and the researchers offer some reason to think that they may have reached the theoretical limit.

But they also present a new method for applying their general algorithm to specific problems, which yields huge efficiency gains — several orders of magnitude.

“What we are trying to do is revive people’s interest in the general problem the algorithm solves,” says Yin-Tat Lee, an MIT graduate student in mathematics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Previously, people needed to devise different algorithms for each problem, and then they needed to optimize them for a long time. Now we are saying, if for many problems, you have one algorithm, then, in practice, we can try to optimize over one algorithm instead of many algorithms, and we may have a better chance to get faster algorithms for many problems.”

Lee is joined on the paper by Aaron Sidford, who was an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science when the work was done but is now at Microsoft Research New England, and by Sam Wong, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and electrical engineering and computer science at MIT before moving to the University of California at Berkeley for his PhD.  Read more

October 28, 2015

MIT-Natalia-Rigol-01

Rigol: Making banking more effective for the poor

Graduate student Natalia Rigol has followed an unusual path to MIT: Her childhood in Cuba was tainted by poverty, and then her entire family received hard-to-come-by visas, enabling her to live out her elementary and middle school years in Russia and the Czech Republic — but with little understanding of the local languages.

When she was 13, Rigol’s family settled in the United States, where she finally had access to a middle-class life and a more stable education. Now, she is finishing up her PhD in economics, focusing on the use of finance to help poor individuals break the cycle of poverty.

“I often feel that I’m the product of extraordinary circumstances,” Rigol says. “But you shouldn’t have to be extremely fortunate, like I have been, just to live a decent life.”

Through field research in India, Rigol is hoping to devise alternative ways to deliver financing to poverty-stricken communities. For someone who’s still relatively young, she’s been at it for a while: Her work in this discipline—which she classifies primarily as “development work,”  and secondarily as economics—has been ongoing since 2007, when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University. Read more.

October 27, 2015

aditi verma nuclear policy

Verma: A multidisciplinary take on nuclear policy

Aditi Verma’s first encounter with nuclear policy was nearly her last. She represented Germany at a high school version of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and was frustrated by the debate on her group’s topic, nuclear waste. “We had to pass resolutions, but without a science and engineering background, people couldn’t really negotiate,” she recalls.

Today, Verma wonders if this experience paradoxically sparked her interest in the field. A doctoral student in nuclear science and engineering, Verma has spent her academic career acquiring the expertise in science, engineering, and the social sciences required to make sense of complex policy questions that arise around nuclear energy. Her studies have included an internship at the actual IAEA.

Verma’s dissertation, entitled “Towards an International Nuclear Safety Framework,” highlights her distinctive, interdisciplinary approach. She draws on sociology and political science theory and practice, as well as quantitative analysis, to solve what she calls an “empirical puzzle”: how the U.S., French, and Russian nuclear programs developed different safety practices despite starting with similar technologies — and in the case of France, a reactor design identical to and originating from the U.S. (a type of pressurized water reactor).  Read more

October 26, 2015

Schoellhammer ultrasound drug delivery

Schoellhammer: Using ultrasound to improve drug delivery

Using ultrasound waves, researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have found a way to enable ultra-rapid delivery of drugs to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This approach could make it easier to deliver drugs to patients suffering from GI disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, the researchers say.

Currently, such diseases are usually treated with drugs administered as an enema, which must be maintained in the colon for hours while the drug is absorbed. However, this can be difficult for patients who are suffering from diarrhea and incontinence. To overcome that, the researchers sought a way to stimulate more rapid drug absorption.

“We’re not changing how you administer the drug. What we are changing is the amount of time that the formulation needs to be there, because we’re accelerating how the drug enters the tissue,” says Giovanni Traverso, a research affiliate at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, a gastroenterologist at MGH, and one of the senior authors of a paper describing the technique in the Oct. 21 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“With additional research, our technology could prove invaluable in both clinical and research settings, enabling improved therapies and expansion of research techniques applied to the GI tract. It demonstrates for the first time the active administration of drugs, including biologics, through the GI tract,” says Daniel Blankschtein, the Hermann P. Meissner Professor in Chemical Engineering, who is also a senior author of the paper.

Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute, is also a senior author of the paper. The study’s lead author is Carl Schoellhammer, a graduate student in chemical engineering.  Read more

October 23, 2015

automate big data analysis kanter

Kanter: Automating big-data analysis

Big-data analysis consists of searching for buried patterns that have some kind of predictive power. But choosing which “features” of the data to analyze usually requires some human intuition. In a database containing, say, the beginning and end dates of various sales promotions and weekly profits, the crucial data may not be the dates themselves but the spans between them, or not the total profits but the averages across those spans.

MIT researchers aim to take the human element out of big-data analysis, with a new system that not only searches for patterns but designs the feature set, too. To test the first prototype of their system, they enrolled it in three data science competitions, in which it competed against human teams to find predictive patterns in unfamiliar data sets. Of the 906 teams participating in the three competitions, the researchers’ “Data Science Machine” finished ahead of 615.

In two of the three competitions, the predictions made by the Data Science Machine were 94 percent and 96 percent as accurate as the winning submissions. In the third, the figure was a more modest 87 percent. But where the teams of humans typically labored over their prediction algorithms for months, the Data Science Machine took somewhere between two and 12 hours to produce each of its entries.

“We view the Data Science Machine as a natural complement to human intelligence,” says Max Kanter, whose MIT master’s thesis in computer science is the basis of the Data Science Machine. “There’s so much data out there to be analyzed. And right now it’s just sitting there not doing anything. So maybe we can come up with a solution that will at least get us started on it, at least get us moving.”  Read more

October 21, 2015

App to manage food waste by Sloan MBAs

Malina and Ashenfelter: App to manage food waste by Sloan MBAs

Spoiler Alert, founded by Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter, while working toward their Sloan MBA’s last year, has launched an app to address food waste issues. The app helps organizations and companies manage their surplus food and organic waste by connecting them with organizations that can use them.

With the Spoiler Alert app, the store with the surplus vegetables can post what is available, and nearby food rescue organizations can respond and pick up the food in time to provide the still-fresh items to people who could use them.

“It is designed to seamlessly connect all aspects of the food supply chain,” Ashenfelter says. The app is available through iTunes, and businesses can sign up on the company’s website. Malina and Ashenfelter’s work made headlines this summer in The Boston Globe, Fortune,The Economist, and Tech Crunch. to name a few. The team is currently working on a Web platform as well and is building a version that will be compatible with Android devices. Read more.

October 20, 2015

dalca alzheimers brain

Dalca: Predicting change in the Alzheimer’s brain

MIT researchers are developing a computer system that uses genetic, demographic, and clinical data to help predict the effects of disease on brain anatomy.

In experiments, they trained a machine-learning system on MRI data from patients with neurodegenerative diseases and found that supplementing that training with other patient information improved the system’s predictions. In the cases of patients with drastic changes in brain anatomy, the additional data cut the predictions’ error rate in half, from 20 percent to 10 percent.

“This is the first paper that we’ve ever written on this,” says Polina Golland, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and the senior author on the new paper. “Our goal is not to prove that our model is the best model to do this kind of thing; it’s to prove that the information is actually in the data. So what we’ve done is, we take our model, and we turn off the genetic information and the demographic and clinical information, and we see that with combined information, we can predict anatomical changes better.”

First author on the paper is Adrian Dalca, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of Golland’s group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They’re joined by Ramesh Sridharan, another PhD student in Golland’s group, and by Mert Sabuncu, an assistant professor of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was a postdoc in Golland’s group.  Read more

October 19, 2015

mit canadians research symposium

MIT Canadian Research Symposium , Oct. 20

The Canadian Club is hosting a research symposium on October 20, 6 pm to bring together Canadians and all friends of Canada! Everyone is welcome!  The event will begin with a keynote talk by Dr. George Kenney (3-333), board member of the Canadian Entrepreneurs of New England.  Following the talk, students will showcase their work during a poster session mixer (5-234)! Refreshments will be served.  Poster presenters will be invited early to enjoy dinner before the keynote!  Please RSVP to attend and let us know if you are bringing a poster here.  Contact: b_smith@mit.edu  Photo by Steve Richardson

October 19, 2015

david hill computational models

Hill: Enhancing movement with computational models

It’s not every day that graduate students get to test out their research on their advisors. But MIT’s David Hill, a PhD student in media arts and sciences, builds computational models of human locomotion, which are the basis for designing ever-better prosthetics—and his advisor, Hugh Herr, an associate professor of media arts and sciences, is a double amputee.

Hill says living in the world of theoretical models can be somewhat insular, so having a real-life example of someone who can benefit from—and pilot—some of the work he does is part of what helps him stay focused. “I don’t ever want to do research that doesn’t benefit someone else’s life directly,” Hill says.  Read more

October 16, 2015

voigts How the brain controls sleep

Voigts: How the brain controls sleep

MIT neuroscientists have discovered a brain circuit that can trigger small regions of the brain to fall asleep or become less alert, while the rest of the brain remains awake. The circuit originates in a brain structure known as the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which relays signals to the thalamus and then the brain’s cortex, inducing pockets of the slow, oscillating brain waves characteristic of deep sleep. Slow oscillations also occur during coma and general anesthesia, and are associated with decreased arousal. With enough TRN activity, these waves can take over the entire brain.

The researchers believe the TRN may help the brain consolidate new memories by coordinating slow waves between different parts of the brain, allowing them to share information more easily. “During sleep, maybe specific brain regions have slow waves at the same time because they need to exchange information with each other, whereas other ones don’t,” says Laura Lewis, a research affiliate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of the lead authors of the new study, appearing in the journal eLife.

The TRN may also be responsible for what happens in the brain when sleep-deprived people experience brief sensations of “zoning out” while struggling to stay awake, the researchers say.

The paper’s other first author is Jakob Voigts, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences. Senior authors are Emery Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience at MIT and an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael Halassa, an assistant professor at New York University. Other authors are MIT research affiliate Francisco Flores and Matthew Wilson, the Sherman Fairchild Professor in Neurobiology and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.  Read more

October 15, 2015

hong brain identify objects

Hong: How the brain identifies objects

When the eyes are open, visual information flows from the retina through the optic nerve and into the brain, which assembles this raw information into objects and scenes.

Scientists have previously hypothesized that objects are distinguished in the inferior temporal (IT) cortex, which is near the end of this flow of information, also called the ventral stream. Anew study from MIT neuroscientists offers evidence that this is indeed the case.

Using data from both humans and nonhuman primates, the researchers found that neuron firing patterns in the IT cortex correlate strongly with success in object-recognition tasks.

“While we knew from prior work that neuronal population activity in inferior temporal cortex was likely to underlie visual object recognition, we did not have a predictive map that could accurately link that neural activity to object perception and behavior. The results from this study demonstrate that a particular map from particular aspects of IT population activity to behavior is highly accurate over all types of objects that were tested,” says James DiCarlo, head of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The paper’s lead author is Najib Majaj, a former postdoc in DiCarlo’s lab who is now at New York University. Other authors are former MIT graduate student Ha Hong and former MIT undergraduate Ethan Solomon.  Read more

October 14, 2015

soft robotic hand CSAIL

Grad students help give robots rubber grip and object-ID algorithm

Robots have many strong suits, but delicacy traditionally hasn’t been one of them. Rigid limbs and digits make it difficult for them to grasp, hold, and manipulate a range of everyday objects without dropping or crushing them.

Recently, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have discovered that the solution may be to turn to a substance more commonly associated with new buildings and Silly Putty: silicone.

At a conference this month, researchers from CSAIL Director Daniela Rus’ Distributed Robotics Lab demonstrated a 3-D-printed robotic hand made out of silicone rubber that can lift and handle objects as delicate as an egg and as thin as a compact disc.

Just as impressively, its three fingers have special sensors that can estimate the size and shape of an object accurately enough to identify it from a set of multiple items.

“Robots are often limited in what they can do because of how hard it is to interact with objects of different sizes and materials,” Rus says. “Grasping is an important step in being able to do useful tasks; with this work we set out to develop both the soft hands and the supporting control and planning systems that make dynamic grasping possible.”

The paper, which was co-written by Rus and graduate student Bianca Homberg, PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, and postdoc Mehmet Dogar, will be presented at this month’s International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.  Read more

October 13, 2015

mit grad students natural light switch proteins

Grad students meet the protein behind a light-sensing mechanism

MIT scientists, working with colleagues in Spain, have discovered and mapped a light-sensing protein that uses vitamin B12 to perform key functions, including gene regulation.

The result, derived from studying proteins from the bacterium Thermus thermophilus, involves at least two findings of broad interest. First, it expands our knowledge of the biological role of vitamin B12, which was already understood to help convert fat into energy, and to be involved in brain formation, but has now been identified as a key part of photoreceptor proteins — the structures that allow organisms to sense and respond to light.

Second, the research describes a new mode of gene regulation, in which the light-sensing proteins play a key role. In so doing, the scientists observe, the bacteria have repurposed existing protein structures that use vitamin B12, and put them to work in new ways.

“Nature borrowed not just the vitamin, but really the whole enzyme unit, and modified it … and made it a light sensor,” says Catherine Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT.

The findings are detailed this week in the journal Nature. The paper describes the photoreceptors in three different states: in the dark, bound to DNA, and after being exposed to light.

“It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to get all the series of structures, to understand how it works at each stage,” Drennan says.

The paper has nine co-authors, including Drennan; graduate students Percival Yang-Ting Chen, Marco Jost, and Gyunghoon Kang of MIT; Jesus Fernandez-Zapata and S. Padmanabhan of the Institute of Physical Chemistry Rocasolano, in Madrid; and Monserrat Elias-Arnanz, Juan Manuel Ortiz-Guerreo, and Maria Carmen Polanco, of the University of Murcia, in Murcia, Spain.  Read more

October 12, 2015

David-Hill-Biomechatronics copy

Hill: Enhancing movement with computational models

It’s not every day that graduate students get to test out their research on their advisors. But MIT’s David Hill, a PhD student in media arts and sciences, builds computational models of human locomotion, which are the basis for designing ever-better prosthetics — and his advisor, Hugh Herr, an associate professor of media arts and sciences, is a double amputee. Continue reading on MIT News.

October 9, 2015

lemelson mit student prize logo

Lemelson-MIT student prize, deadline Oct. 13

The Lemelson-MIT Program is searching for the most inventive students to apply for the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.  Winning Grad students will receive $15K in each category: healthcare, food and agriculture, transportation, and consumer devices.  In order to qualify, applicants must be the lead/primary inventor of at least two inventions with tested prototypes.  In addition, eligible graduate students must be full-time, degree-seeking students as of Spring 2016.  Applications are open now through October 13, 2015. Contact: marlenam@mit.edu