- AeroAstro announces graduate fellowships for women and other underrepresented students
- Monitoring activity in the geosynchronous belt
- Revealing an imperfect actor in plant biotechnology
- 3Q: Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart on efforts to combat sexual assault
- Scientists demonstrate one of largest quantum simulators yet, with 51 atoms
- Celebrating Millie
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 03:20 PM PST
With the goal of increasing diversity in the next generation of aerospace engineers, the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) has created a pool of graduate fellowships designated for women and other underrepresented students. The fellowships will be available starting with the 2017-2018 academic year.
"The fellowships are the first of a series of initiatives the department will roll out in coming months," says Professor Nick Roy, AeroAstro graduate admissions chair and member of the department's Diversity and Inclusion Committee. "Our first step is to guarantee funding for the best female and underrepresented graduate students."
Both current MIT undergraduates and students from other universities are encouraged to apply. "As the research in our department is wide-ranging, we encourage applications from students with undergraduate degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer and environmental science, mathematics, and physics, in addition to, of course, aerospace engineering," Roy says.
Graduate student Alexa Aguilar, a first-year master's candidate in the Space Telecommunications, Astronomy and Radiation Laboratory, was selected this year to receive an AeroAstro fellowship. Aguilar says, "Coming from an electrical engineering background, I was nervous about diving head-first into an aerospace program, but having a fellowship has given me the freedom and flexibility to get up to speed with the current research, discover what resonates with my interests, and brainstorm what I want to pursue."
Aguilar said that fellowships let students concentrate on their work without the specter of tuition finance looking over their shoulder. "Fellowships alleviate stress for both you and your advisor when it comes to covering all tuition and housing costs here at MIT," she noted. "They also allow you the time to explore your research interests through your allotted funding."
Cadence Payne, who, like Aguilar, is a graduate student with a fellowship in the department, encourages others to seek AeroAstro fellowships. "Since my arrival, I've been immersed in a world of technological prosperity that's nothing short of inspiring," Payne says. "AeroAstro allows students an insane amount of hands-on, real-world experience. Students in my lab are leading missions and designing entire systems to be integrated on projects that will one day physically reside in space!"
The fellowships will be offered to students after admissions decisions are made.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:30 PM PST
In the darkness of 2 a.m. on Aug. 26, the sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida, lit up with the bright plume of a Minotaur rocket lifting off from its launch pad. Aboard the rocket, a satellite developed by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory for the U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office awaited its deployment into low Earth orbit.
The ORS-5 SensorSat spacecraft is on a 3-year mission to continually scan the geosynchronous belt, which at about 36,000 kilometers above Earth is home to a great number of satellites indispensable to the national economy and security. Data collected by SensorSat will help the United States keep a protective eye on the movements of satellites and space debris in the belt.
"There was nothing like seeing the massive Minotaur IV blast our creation into orbit, and then getting those familiar telemetry messages to indicate that it's really up there and operating just as it did in thermal vacuum testing," says Andrew Stimac, the SensorSat program manager and assistant leader of the Lincoln Laboratory's Integrated Systems and Concepts Group.
In the months that SensorSat has been in orbit, it has undergone a complete checkout process, opened the cover of its optical system, and collected the first imagery of objects in the geosynchronous belt. The quality of the initial images has demonstrated that SensorSat utilizes a highly capable optical system that is able to conduct its required mission.
The 226-pound SensorSat is small in comparison to current U.S. satellites that monitor activity in the geosynchronous belt. SensorSat's size and its optical system design, which uses a smaller aperture, make it a lower-cost, faster-built option for space surveillance missions than the large systems designed for missions of 10 years or more.
"SensorSat is essentially a simple design, but it is a highly sensitive instrument that is one-tenth the size and one-tenth the cost of today's large satellites," says Grant Stokes, head of the Lincoln Laboratory's Space Systems and Technology Division, which collaborated with the Engineering Division to develop and build the satellite.
Traditional large surveillance satellites are designed to collect data on objects known to be in the geosynchronous belt. The optical systems on those satellites are mounted on gimbals so that they can turn their focus toward the targeted objects. SensorSat works on a different concept: Its fixed optical system surveys each portion of the belt that is within its current field of view as the satellite orbits Earth.
SensorSat makes approximately 14 passes around Earth each day, providing up-to-date views of activity in the geosynchronous belt. Stokes compared SensorSat's surveillance process to that of airport radars that continuously rotate to visualize a local airspace. Because SensorSat is not aimed at specific known objects, a secondary benefit to its concept of operations is that it may see new objects that pose threats to satellites within the belt.
The adoption of SensorSat-like systems that can be cost-effectively built on short timelines could also make it practical for the United States to more frequently deploy new satellites to keep pace with evolving technology.
SensorSat development and testing were accomplished in just three years, a period about one-third of that needed to develop and field large surveillance satellites. The SensorSat engineering effort involved the design, fabrication, and testing of the satellite structure and cover mechanism, lens optomechanics, telescope baffle, charge-coupled device packaging, electrical cabling, and thermal control.
The assembly, integration, and testing were conducted in Lincoln Laboratory's cleanroom facilities and its Engineering Test Laboratory. According to Mark Bury, assistant leader of the Laboratory's Structural and Thermal-Fluids Engineering Group, the shock, vibration, attitude control system, and thermal-vacuum testing performed were critical in validating SensorSat against the expected launch and space conditions it would need to endure.
"Perhaps the most important events occurred during thermal-vacuum testing," Bury says. "The satellite is exposed to conditions similar to those on orbit, and we used that test to validate our thermal design. Even more important, the thermal-vacuum test enabled us to get significant runtime on the avionics and components within the spacecraft, emulating the communication cadence and data streams that we would eventually see on orbit."
On July 7, less than two months before launch, SensorSat was shipped to Florida for installation on Orbital ATK's Minotaur IV inside a large cleanroom facility at Astrotech Space Operations, locatedjust outside the Kennedy Space Center. A team from the Lincoln Laboratory performed final assembly steps and prepared the satellite with the software uploads needed initially on orbit.
Joint operations were then conducted with Orbital ATK to complete the mechanical and electrical integration prior to encapsulation with the rocket fairing. The integrated assembly was then transported from Astrotech to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pad 46 in mid-August.
SensorSat, which resides directly above the equator, orbits at an inclination of zero degrees, an orientation that Stokes says required very precise deployment of the satellite. The Minotaur IV, modified from a 25-year-old Air Force rocket design and now operated by Orbital ATK, was up to the challenge, using two new rocket motors to provide the extra lift needed to reach the equatorial orbit.
SensorSat is now orbiting Earth and collecting data to fulfill its space surveillance mission.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 02:00 PM PST
A research team led by MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has harnessed metabolomic technologies to unravel the molecular activities of a key protein that enables plants to withstand a common herbicide.
Their findings reveal how the protein — a kind of catalyst or enzyme first isolated in bacteria and introduced into plants such as corn and soybeans in the 1990s — can sometimes act imprecisely, and how it can be successfully re-engineered to be more precise. The new study, which appears online in the journal Nature Plants, raises the standards for bioengineering in the 21st century.
"Our work underscores a critical aspect of bioengineering that we are now becoming technically able to address," says senior author Jing-Ke Weng, a member of the Whitehead Institute and an assistant professor of biology at MIT. "We know that enzymes can behave indiscriminately. Now, we have the scientific capabilities to detect their molecular side effects, and we can leverage those insights to design smarter enzymes with enhanced specificity."
Plants provide an extraordinary model for scientists to study how metabolism changes over time. Because they cannot escape from predators or search for new food sources when supplies run low, plants must often grapple with an array of environmental insults using what is readily available — their own internal biochemistry.
"Although they appear to be stationary, plants have rapidly evolving metabolic systems," Weng explains. "Now, we can gain an unprecedented view of these changes because of cutting-edge techniques like metabolomics, allowing us to analyze metabolites and other biochemicals on a broad scale."
Key players in this evolutionary process, and a major focus of research in Weng's laboratory, are enzymes. Traditionally, these naturally occurring catalysts have been viewed as mini-machines, taking the proper starting material (or substrate) and flawlessly converting it to the correct product. But Weng and other scientists now recognize that they make mistakes, often by latching on to an unintended substrate.
"This concept, known as enzyme promiscuity, has a variety of implications, both in enzyme evolution and more broadly, in human disease," Weng says.
It also has implications for bioengineering, as Bastien Christ, a postdoctoral fellow in Weng's laboratory, and his colleagues recently discovered.
Christ, then a graduate student in Stefan Hörtensteiner's lab at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, was studying a particular strain of the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana as part of a separate project when he made a puzzling observation. He found that two biochemical compounds were present at unusually high levels in the plant's leaves.
Strangely, these compounds (called acetyl-aminoadipate and acetyl-tryptophan) weren't present in any of the normal, so-called wild type plants. As he and his colleagues searched for an explanation, they narrowed in on the source: an enzyme, called BAR, that was engineered into the plants as a kind of chemical beacon, enabling scientists to more readily study them.
But BAR is more than just a tool for scientists. It is also one of the most commonly deployed traits in genetically modified crops such as soybeans, corn, and cotton, enabling them to withstand a widely-used herbicide (known as phosphinothricin or glufosinate).
For decades, scientists have known that BAR, originally isolated from bacteria, can render the herbicide inactive by tacking on a short string of chemicals, made of two carbons and one oxygen (also called an acetyl group). As the researchers describe in their Nature Plants paper, BAR has a promiscuous side, and can work on other substrates, too, such as the amino acids tryptophan and aminoadipate (a lysine derivative).
That explains why they can detect the unintended products (acetyl-tryptophan and acetyl-aminoadipate) in crops genetically engineered to carry BAR, such as soybeans and canola.
Their research included detailed studies of the BAR protein, including crystal structures of the protein bound to its substrates. This provided them with a blueprint for how to strategically modify BAR to make it less promiscuous, and favor only the herbicide as a substrate and not the amino acids. Christ and his colleagues created several versions that lack the non-specific activity of the original BAR protein.
"These are natural catalysts, so when we borrow them from an organism and put them into another, they may not necessarily be perfect for our purposes," Christ says. "Gathering this kind of fundamental knowledge about how enzymes work and how their structure influences function can teach us how to select the best tools for bioengineering."
There are other important lessons, too. When the BAR trait was first evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1995 for use in canola, and in subsequent years for other crops, metabolomics was largely non-existent as a technology for biomedical research. Therefore, it could not be applied toward the characterization of genetically engineered plants and foods, as part of their regulatory review. Nevertheless, acetyl-aminoadipate and acetyl-tryptophan, which are normally present in humans, have been reviewed by the FDA and are safe for human and animal consumption.
Weng and his colleagues believe their study makes a strong case for considering metabolomics analyses as part of the review process for future genetically engineered crops.
"This is a cautionary tale," Weng says.
The work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the EU-funded Plant Fellows program, the Pew Scholar Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and the Searle Scholars Program.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 01:38 PM PST
In the fall of 2014, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart released the results of the Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault (CASA) survey, an online survey that was sent to all MIT undergraduates and graduate students to better understand the extent and effects of sexual misconduct at MIT. With information and insights from CASA in hand, the administration has been partnering with students, faculty, and staff to raise awareness about what constitutes misconduct and how to prevent it, and making significant investments in resources. Against the recent backdrop of sexual harassment and assault cases in workplaces and at institutions across the country, Barnhart spoke to MIT News about the Institute's work to address this complex problem.
Q: In the three years since the CASA survey results were released, how has MIT responded to what we learned from students about sexual misconduct on campus?
A: The CASA survey has given us a baseline understanding of sexual assault at MIT — it shed a light on painful problems in our community, and it pointed us in the direction of solutions.
The key takeaways were that we needed to do more to educate people about support resources and reporting options, we needed to make it easier for them to get help, and we needed to change attitudes and behaviors. Over the last three years, thanks to investments in new staff, education and community outreach initiatives, and updates to our policies and procedures, we've been able to make some meaningful progress.
The Title IX and Violence Prevention and Response (VPR) offices have added education, prevention, community outreach, and investigatory specialists to their teams, enabling us to educate more people about how to prevent sexual misconduct from happening, and to effectively respond when incidents occur. Through these efforts, we have sparked the kind of dialogue and awareness that leads to prevention and changes in culture that get at the root of this problem. Here are just a few examples:
• Since 2015, nearly 3,000 fraternity members and undergraduates have taken part in Party-Safe Plus training, which teaches students how to host parties responsibly and includes lessons on bystander intervention.
According to the CASA survey, 63 percent of respondents who reported experiencing unwanted sexual behavior told someone about it; 90 percent of those students sought support from a friend. To respond to this finding, we've made a concerted effort to strengthen our peer-to-peer education and support network. I'm particularly proud about the positive impact of two student-led initiatives:
• In just over two years, 70 Pleasure@MIT student educators have conducted workshops about components of healthy, respectful relationships in more than 21 residence halls and fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. They've reached more than 1,000 of their peers who continue to spread what they learn.
We've also made updates to MIT's policies and procedures. We have expanded and clarified sexual misconduct policies, including those that address sexual assault and sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and stalking. Responding to the recommendations of an Institute task force, we implemented more robust procedures to investigate and adjudicate student complaints of sexual misconduct. And the Title IX office now offers a new online reporting form, accepts anonymous reports of misconduct, and publishes annual reports summarizing aggregate statistics on the types of student cases they handle.
Q: How do you know that the efforts you've undertaken since the CASA survey are having a positive impact? And what new initiatives can you tell the MIT community to expect to see in the coming weeks and months?
A: I am measuring our progress across three key indicators. The first is that we are seeing more students come forward to seek support for or to report unwanted sexual behavior. VPR is serving more clients and taking more calls to their 24/7 hotline than ever before. The Title IX Office handled 118 and 115 student sexual misconduct cases in academic years 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively. This represents a roughly 24 percent increase over their 2014-2015 caseload.
We think these increases can be attributed to our education and outreach work: More members of our community know what sexual assault is, understand where they can turn to for help, and trust our support resources to provide critical services.
The second indicator that tells me we are on the right track is the robust level of engagement we're seeing from all corners of the Institute — more and more students, faculty, and staff are invested in changing attitudes and behaviors and creating a safer, more respectful and inclusive environment on campus. Some examples of this engagement are:
• VPR and Title IX are seeing an uptick in requests from departments, labs, student organizations, and residential life staff for trainings (to request one, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
The third indicator comes from our students. They are telling us that their peers treat one another with respect. In 2015, 80 percent of undergraduates who responded to the Undergraduate Enrolled Student Survey agreed that "Students at MIT treat one another with respect." In the 2017 Student Quality of Life Survey, which went to all MIT students, nearly 90 percent of undergraduates and graduate students agreed with the same statement.
These are all positive signs, but I know that our work is not done. We have to sustain the momentum we've created on student support and education, and constantly evaluate the impact we're having. And we must increase the attention we're paying to what our students, faculty, and staff are experiencing in their classrooms, labs, and offices. Here are some of the ways we plan to do that:
• By the end of this academic year, all current faculty, staff, and postdocs will be expected to complete sexual harassment and misconduct training to increase their understanding about how to prevent and respond to these issues.
Q: A wave of national sexual harassment and abuse cases has come to light in recent months. How do you think this moment will influence MIT's education and prevention efforts?
A: First, I think what's been reported nationally and locally is deeply disturbing, and underscores that sexual misconduct affects individuals, workplaces, and institutions everywhere in our country.
I think, though, that good can come out of this moment: People at MIT and across the nation are talking about these problems, and that's the start of finding the solutions we urgently need. Against the backdrop of the national dialogue that's happening right now, I believe we can double down on our commitment to addressing all types of sexual misconduct at MIT. With partners from other offices, I'm prepared to continue this vital work, and I know that there are many students, faculty, and staff who are as well.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 10:00 AM PST
Physicists at MIT and Harvard University have demonstrated a new way to manipulate quantum bits of matter. In a paper published today in the journal Nature, they report using a system of finely tuned lasers to first trap and then tweak the interactions of 51 individual atoms, or quantum bits.
The team's results represent one of the largest arrays of quantum bits, known as qubits, that scientists have been able to individually control. In the same issue of Nature, a team from the University of Maryland reports a similarly sized system using trapped ions as quantum bits.
In the MIT-Harvard approach, the researchers generated a chain of 51 atoms and programmed them to undergo a quantum phase transition, in which every other atom in the chain was excited. The pattern resembles a state of magnetism known as an antiferromagnet, in which the spin of every other atom or molecule is aligned.
The team describes the 51-atom array as not quite a generic quantum computer, which theoretically should be able to solve any computation problem posed to it, but a "quantum simulator" — a system of quantum bits that can be designed to simulate a specific problem or solve for a particular equation, much faster than the fastest classical computer.
For instance, the team can reconfigure the pattern of atoms to simulate and study new states of matter and quantum phenomena such as entanglement. The new quantum simulator could also be the basis for solving optimization problems such as the traveling salesman problem, in which a theoretical salesman must figure out the shortest path to take in order to visit a given list of cities. Slight variations of this problem appear in many other areas of research, such as DNA sequencing, moving an automated soldering tip to many soldering points, or routing packets of data through processing nodes.
"This problem is exponentially hard for a classical computer, meaning it could solve this for a certain number of cities, but if I wanted to add more cities, it would get much harder, very quickly," says study co-author Vladan Vuletić, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics at MIT. "For this kind of problem, you don't need a quantum computer. A simulator is good enough to simulate the correct system. So we think these optimization algorithms are the most straightforward tasks to achieve."
The work was performed in collaboration with Harvard professors Mikhail Lukin and Markus Greiner; MIT visiting scientist Sylvain Schwartz is also a co-author.
Separate but interacting
Quantum computers are largely theoretical devices that could potentially carry out immensely complicated computations in a fraction of the time that it would take for the world's most powerful classical computer. They would do so through qubits — data processing units which, unlike the binary bits of classical computers, can be simultaneously in a position of 0 and 1. This quantum property of superposition allows a single qubit to carry out two separate streams of computation simultaneously. Adding additional qubits to a system can exponentially speed up a computer's calculations.
But major roadblocks have prevented scientists from realizing a fully operational quantum computer. One such challenge: how to get qubits to interact with each other while not engaging with their surrounding environment.
"We know things turn classical very easily when they interact with the environment, so you need [qubits] to be super isolated," says Vuletić, who is a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics and the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms. "On the other hand, they need to strongly interact with another qubit."
Some groups are building quantum systems with ions, or charged atoms, as qubits. They trap or isolate the ions from the rest of the environment using electric fields; once trapped, the ions strongly interact with each other. But many of these interactions are strongly repelling, like magnets of similar orientation, and are therefore difficult to control, particularly in systems with many ions.
Other researchers are experimenting with superconducting qubits — artificial atoms fabricated to behave in a quantum fashion. But Vuletić says such manufactured qubits have their disadvantages compared with those based on actual atoms.
"By definition, every atom is the same as every other atom of the same species," Vuletić says. "But when you build them by hand, then you have fabrication influences, such as slightly different transition frequencies, couplings, et cetera."
Setting the trap
Vuletić and his colleagues came up with a third approach to building a quantum system, using neutral atoms — atoms that hold no electrical charge — as qubits. Unlike ions, neutral atoms do not repel each other, and they have inherently identical properties, unlike fabricated superconducting qubits.
In previous work, the group devised a way to trap individual atoms, by using a laser beam to first cool a cloud of rubidium atoms to close to absolute zero temperatures, slowing their motion to a near standstill. They then employ a second laser, split into more than 100 beams, to trap and hold individual atoms in place. They are able to image the cloud to see which laser beams have trapped an atom, and can switch off certain beams to discard those traps without an atom. They then rearrange all the traps with atoms, to create an ordered, defect-free array of qubits.
With this technique, the researchers have been able to build a quantum chain of 51 atoms, all trapped at their ground state, or lowest energy level.
In their new paper, the team reports going a step further, to control the interactions of these 51 trapped atoms, a necessary step toward manipulating individual qubits. To do so, they temporarily turned off the laser frequencies that originally trapped the atoms, allowing the quantum system to naturally evolve.
They then exposed the evolving quantum system to a third laser beam to try and excite the atoms into what is known as a Rydberg state — a state in which one of an atom's electrons is excited to a very high energy compared with the rest of the atom's electrons. Finally, they turned the atom-trapping laser beams back on to detect the final states of the individual atoms.
"If all the atoms start in the ground state, it turns out when we try to put all the atoms in this excited state, the state that emerges is one where every second atom is excited," Vuletić says. "So the atoms make a quantum phase transition to something similar to an antiferromagnet."
The transition takes place only in every other atom due to the fact that atoms in Rydberg states interact very strongly with each other, and it would take much more energy to excite two neighboring atoms to Rydberg states than the laser can provide.
Vuletić says the researchers can change the interactions between atoms by changing the arrangement of trapped atoms, as well as the frequency or color of the atom-exciting laser beam. What's more, the system may be easily expanded.
"We think we can scale it up to a few hundred," Vuletić says. "If you want to use this system as a quantum computer, it becomes interesting on the order of 100 atoms, depending on what system you're trying to simulate."
For now, the researchers are planning to test the 51-atom system as a quantum simulator, specifically on path-planning optimization problems that can be solved using adiabatic quantum computing — a form of quantum computing first proposed by Edward Farhi, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics at MIT.
Adiabatic quantum computing proposes that the ground state of a quantum system describes the solution to the problem of interest. When that system can be evolved to produce the problem itself, the end state of the system can confirm the solution.
"You can start by preparing the system in a simple and known state of lowest energy, for instance all atoms in their ground states, then slowly deform it to represent the problem you want to solve, for instance, the traveling salesman problem," Vuletić says. "It's a slow change of some parameters in the system, which is exactly what we do in this experiment. So our system is geared toward these adiabatic quantum computing problems."
This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Posted: 29 Nov 2017 07:30 AM PST
They came from around the globe to commemorate a beloved mentor, collaborator, teacher, and world-renowned pioneer in solid-state physics and nanoscale engineering.
On Sunday, Nov. 26, the MIT community welcomed family, colleagues, friends, former students, and other associates of the late MIT Institute Professor Emerita Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus to a daylong symposium celebrating her life.
Dresselhaus, an MIT faculty member for more than half a century, passed away at age 86 on Feb. 20, after a career in which she led in the development of numerous fields within materials science and engineering, particularly those related to the electronic structure of carbon. For her many accomplishments, Dresselhaus earned copious national and international accolades — including the National Medal of Science, the Kavli Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and worldwide recognition as the "Queen of Carbon."
But Dresselhaus' support of others, especially of women and underrepresented minorities; her service to local and national science and engineering societies; and her devotion to students and family were evidenced in equal measure at Sunday's event, which drew a capacity crowd to Room 10-250 and to sessions in the lobbies of buildings 10 and 13.
"The first thing Millie taught me was the power of noticing," MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who began at the Institute as a young professor in Dresselhaus' home department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said in his opening remarks. "Noticing patterns that others don't see is essential to becoming and being a great scientist, and Millie surely had that gift."
"But she used her amazing mind and heart to notice people, too," Reif added. Dresselhaus, who as a student received guidance and encouragement from eminent physicists Rosalyn Yalow and Enrico Fermi, understood that "being noticed by the right person at the right time" could change the course of one's career. And so, Reif explained, "Millie made part of her life's work to notice others."
Guests from various periods of Dresselhaus' life filled the day with stories of her impact as a researcher and as a member of numerous communities, both at MIT and beyond.
In one session, colleagues from Mexico, Japan, Belgium, and elsewhere described Dresselhaus' seminal contributions to the development of carbon science — from her work with graphite in the 1970s and 80s, to fullerines in the 1990s, to nanotubes in the 2000s, and back to graphite and two-dimensional graphene in the 2010s. Another session concentrated on her pioneering research developing nanomaterials in thermoelectrics, an area focused on turning temperature differences in materials into electricity.
One presentation slide depicted Dresselhaus' extensive "family tree" of academic influence, which, based on publication citations, included some 900 collaborations over a half-century of research. A printed timeline, several dozen feet long, of life events and key scientific activities compiled by Dresselhaus' granddaughter Shoshi Cooper gave attendees a visceral sense of the Institute Professor's myriad travels, connections, and influences around the world.
But collaborators were often much more than just research partners; in many cases, they became lifelong friends — or family members. This began in the late 1950s with Dresselhaus' partner in science and in life, husband and MIT staff researcher Gene Dresselhaus, who co-authored many papers and, as President Reif noted, four children. But it continued with her mentoring of dozens of graduate students and her connections to individuals across many realms of science research and education.
"What Millie and Gene gave me was deep encouragement," said MIT colleague Jing Kong, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "I'm so thankful for what Millie has taught me and shown me. … I hope we can carry on [her] legacy."
Dresselhaus' service to society — whether as director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science or as president of the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was also on display, as was her devotion to improving conditions for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering, both at MIT and elsewhere. Laurie McNeil, a former postdoc who is now a professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described Dresselhaus' leadership in developing for the APS a nationwide Climate for Women Site Visit Program, which represented a critical step in helping physics departments improve support for female students and faculty.
Closer to home, Institute Professor Sheila Widnall of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who spoke to attendees via prerecorded video, described some of the many positive changes Dresselhaus helped to bring about for women at MIT, who comprised just 4 percent of the student body when Dresselhaus first joined the Lincoln Laboratory in 1960. Later that decade, after becoming only the third woman (after Emily Wick and Widnall) to join MIT's faculty in science or engineering, Dresselhaus felt a strong responsibility to advocate on behalf of female students and colleagues, and to be available for them in various supporting roles. "We all owe Millie a debt of gratitude," Widnall said.
Looking forward, MIT Professor and Associate Dean for Innovation Vladimir Bulovic spoke of the many ways MIT hopes to extend Dresselhaus' legacy in years to come. He noted that her personal papers would soon be donated to MIT's Institute Archives for future generations to explore, and that her spirit would continue on in a series of Rising Stars workshops that bring young women in science and engineering to MIT for career development and networking. Bulovic was especially enthusiastic about Dresselhaus' mark on MIT.nano, the state-of-the-art nanoscience and nanotechnology facility rising in the middle of campus. In a nod to her assertion that "My background is so improbable — that I'd be here from where I started," Bulovic announced that a key courtyard between MIT.nano and the Infinite Corridor will be named "the Improbability Walk" in her honor.
The final session of the evening concluded with inspiration and song. As a lifelong violinist, Dresselhaus cherished orchestral and chamber music, and would play regularly in groups and in impromptu performances with family and friends. In tribute, loved ones including daughter Marianne and granddaughters Elizabeth and Clara capped the day's presentations with pieces by Bach, Schumann, and Brahms.
MIT Corporation Life Member Shirley Ann Jackson '68, PhD '73, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a former student of Dresselhaus (who long held a joint appointment in the Department of Physics), also provided a warm tribute to her mentor via prerecorded video. "She was a woman of extraordinary focus, and always found opportunity within adversity and constraint," Jackson said. "Her graceful adaptability and optimism offered me an important model as I encountered and stepped through my own unexpected windows of opportunity in industry, academia, and government. … Her unwillingness to allow struggling students to quit, and her efforts to break down institutional barriers for young women in science — including me — were a call to action for all of us who followed. … I am forever grateful to Millie Dresselhaus."
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