- Intensive agriculture influences U.S. regional summer climate, study finds
- Energy-efficient encryption for the internet of things
- In fieldwork program, students take the lead
- MIT neuroscientists give "invisible" cells a new look
- MIT class reveals, explores Institute’s connections to slavery
- Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 named president of Harvard University
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 09:00 PM PST
Scientists agree that changes in land use such as deforestation, and not just greenhouse gas emissions, can play a significant role altering the world's climate systems. Now, a new study by researchers at MIT and Dartmouth College reveals how another type of land use, intensive agriculture, can impact regional climate.
The researchers show that in the last half of the 20th century, the midwestern U.S. went through an intensification of agricultural practices that led to dramatic increases in production of corn and soybeans. And, over the same period in that region, summers were significantly cooler and had greater rainfall than during the previous half-century. This effect, with regional cooling in a time of overall global warming, may have masked part of the warming effect that would have occurred over that period, and the new finding could help to refine global climate models by incorporating such regional effects.
The findings are being published this week in Geophysical Research Letters, in a paper by Ross Alter, a recent MIT postdoc; Elfatih Eltahir, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate; and two others.
The team showed that there was a strong correlation, in both space and time, between the intensification of agriculture in the Midwest, the decrease in observed average daytime temperatures in the summer, and an increase in the observed local rainfall. In addition to this circumstantial evidence, they identified a mechanism that explains the association, suggesting that there was indeed a cause-and-effect link between the changes in vegetation and the climatic effects.
Eltahir explains that plants "breathe" in the carbon dioxide they require for photosynthesis by opening tiny pores, called stoma, but each time they do this they also lose moisture to the atmosphere. With the combination of improved seeds, fertilizers, and other practices, between 1950 and 2009 the annual yield of corn in the Midwest increased about fourfold and that of soybeans doubled. These changes were associated with denser plants with more leaf mass, which thus increased the amount of moisture released into the atmosphere. That extra moisture served to both cool the air and increase the amount of rainfall, the researchers suggest.
"For some time, we've been interested in how changes in land use can influence climate," Eltahir says. "It's an independent problem from carbon dioxide emissions," which have been more intensively studied.
Eltahir, Alter, and their co-authors noticed that records showed that over the course of the 20th century, "there were substantial changes in regional patterns of temperature and rainfall. A region in the Midwest got colder, which was a surprise," Eltahir says. Because weather records in the U.S are quite extensive, there is "a robust dataset that shows significant changes in temperature and precipitation" in the region.
Over the last half of the century, average summertime rainfall increased by about 15 percent compared to the previous half-century, and average summer temperatures decreased by about half a degree Celsius. The effects are "significant, but small," Eltahir says.
By introducing into a regional U.S. climate model a factor to account for the more intensive agriculture that has made the Midwest one of the world's most productive agricultural areas, the researchers found, "the models show a small increase in precipitation, a drop in temperature, and an increase in atmospheric humidity," Eltahir says — exactly what the climate records actually show.
That distinctive "fingerprint," he says, strongly suggests a causative association. "During the 20th century, the midwestern U.S. experienced regional climate change that's more consistent with what we'd expect from land-use changes as opposed to other forcings," he says.
This finding in no way contradicts the overall pattern of global warming, Eltahir stresses. But in order to refine the models and improve the accuracy of climate predictions, "we need to understand some of these regional and local processes taking place in the background."
Unlike land-use changes such as deforestation, which can reduce the absorption of carbon dioxide by trees that can help to ameliorate emissions of the gas, the changes in this case did not reflect any significant increase in the area under cultivation, but rather a dramatic increase in yields from existing farmland. "The area of crops did not expand by a whole lot over that time, but crop production increased substantially, leading to large increases in crop yield," Alter explains.
The findings suggest the possibility that at least on a small-scale regional or local level, intensification of agriculture on existing farmland could be a way of doing some local geoengineering to at least slightly lessen the impacts of global warming, Eltahir says. A recent paper from another group in Switzerland suggests just that.
But the findings could also portend some negative impacts because the kind of intensification of agricultural yields achieved in the Midwest are unlikely to be repeated, and some of global warming's effects may "have been masked by these regional or local effects. But this was a 20th-century phenomenon, and we don't expect anything similar in the 21st century," Eltahir says. So warming in that region in the future "will not have the benefit of these regional moderators."
"This is a really important, excellent study," says Roger Pielke Sr., a senior research scientist at CIRES, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was not involved in this work. "The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities."
Pielke adds that "Professor Eltahir has been one of the pioneers in the improvement of our knowledge on this scientifically and societally important issue." This paper "is a significant contribution on this subject."
The research team also included recent MIT graduate Hunter Douglas '16 and Jonathan Winter at Dartmouth College. Lead author Alter, who carried out this research as an MIT postdoc, is now a research meteorologist for the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, part of the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The work was supported by a cooperative agreement between the Masdar Institute and MIT, and by USDA-NIFA.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 08:59 PM PST
Most sensitive web transactions are protected by public-key cryptography, a type of encryption that lets computers share information securely without first agreeing on a secret encryption key.
Public-key encryption protocols are complicated, and in computer networks, they're executed by software. But that won't work in the internet of things, an envisioned network that would connect many different sensors — embedded in vehicles, appliances, civil structures, manufacturing equipment, and even livestock tags — to online servers. Embedded sensors that need to maximize battery life can't afford the energy and memory space that software execution of encryption protocols would require.
MIT researchers have built a new chip, hardwired to perform public-key encryption, that consumes only 1/400 as much power as software execution of the same protocols would. It also uses about 1/10 as much memory and executes 500 times faster. The researchers describe the chip in a paper they're presenting this week at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference.
Like most modern public-key encryption systems, the researchers' chip uses a technique called elliptic-curve encryption. As its name suggests, elliptic-curve encryption relies on a type of mathematical function called an elliptic curve. In the past, researchers — including the same MIT group that developed the new chip — have built chips hardwired to handle specific elliptic curves or families of curves. What sets the new chip apart is that it is designed to handle any elliptic curve.
"Cryptographers are coming up with curves with different properties, and they use different primes," says Utsav Banerjee, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and first author on the paper. "There is a lot of debate regarding which curve is secure and which curve to use, and there are multiple governments with different standards coming up that talk about different curves. With this chip, we can support all of them, and hopefully, when new curves come along in the future, we can support them as well."
Joining Banerjee on the paper are his thesis advisor, Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of MIT's School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Arvind, the Johnson Professor in Computer Science Engineering; and Andrew Wright and Chiraag Juvekar, both graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science.
To create their general-purpose elliptic-curve chip, the researchers decomposed the cryptographic computation into its constituent parts. Elliptic-curve cryptography relies on modular arithmetic, meaning that the values of the numbers that figure into the computation are assigned a limit. If the result of some calculation exceeds that limit, it's divided by the limit, and only the remainder is preserved. The secrecy of the limit helps ensure cryptographic security.
One of the computations to which the MIT chip devotes a special-purpose circuit is thus modular multiplication. But because elliptic-curve cryptography deals with large numbers, the chip's modular multiplier is massive. Typically, a modular multiplier might be able to handle numbers with 16 or maybe 32 binary digits, or bits. For larger computations, the results of discrete 16- or 32-bit multiplications would be integrated by additional logic circuits.
The MIT chip's modular multiplier can handle 256-bit numbers, however. Eliminating the extra circuitry for integrating smaller computations both reduces the chip's energy consumption and increases its speed.
Another key operation in elliptic-curve cryptography is called inversion. Inversion is the calculation of a number that, when multiplied by a given number, will yield a modular product of 1. In previous chips dedicated to elliptic-curve cryptography, inversions were performed by the same circuits that did the modular multiplications, saving chip space. But the MIT researchers instead equipped their chip with a special-purpose inverter circuit. This increases the chip's surface area by 10 percent, but it cuts the power consumption in half.
The most common encryption protocol to use elliptic-curve cryptography is called the datagram transport layer security protocol, which governs not only the elliptic-curve computations themselves but also the formatting, transmission, and handling of the encrypted data. In fact, the entire protocol is hardwired into the MIT researchers' chip, which dramatically reduces the amount of memory required for its execution.
The chip also features a general-purpose processor that can be used in conjunction with the dedicated circuitry to execute other elliptic-curve-based security protocols. But it can be powered down when not in use, so it doesn't compromise the chip's energy efficiency.
"They move a certain amount of functionality that used to be in software into hardware," says Xiaolin Lu, director of the internet of things (IOT) lab at Texas Instruments. "That has advantages that include power and cost. But from an industrial IOT perspective, it's also a more user-friendly implementation. For whoever writes the software, it's much simpler."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 01:30 PM PST
A group of MIT students said "Aloha, Hawaii!" during the latest Independent Activities Period, but it wasn't for a month of vacation. The students were tasked with conducting research and collecting data samples, which will help them further understand the environmental conditions of soil and air quality on the Island of Hawaii (a.k.a. "the Big Island").
The research was part of the Traveling Research Environmental eXperiences (TREX) program hosted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), which offers a unique fieldwork opportunity for students.
"It is very important to us in CEE that students get hands-on research experience and tangible skills that they can take with them in their careers, especially in the field where a lot of the action is for our discipline," says Markus Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering and department head of CEE. "TREX continues to do both of these things, while producing impressive environmental research."
TREX brings students out of the classroom to experience firsthand the benefits and challenges of fieldwork. Each year, the projects evolve and adapt to changing research interests and tools, as well as to different environmental issues in Hawaii.
"Returning to Hawaii every year has allowed us to cultivate ongoing relationships with scientists and land owners who live and work on the island," says Ben Kocar, assistant professor of CEE and lead instructor of TREX. "As a result, our projects continuously improve, and our findings become increasingly thorough and impactful. Giving the students control over the projects also means that each year is a little bit different, because the students have their own unique backgrounds and talents."
The students, advised by Kocar, Associate Professor Jesse Kroll, and teaching assistants Josh Moss and Ben Crawford, are the driving force behind the research. While Kocar, Kroll, Moss, and Crawford oversaw the projects and provided guidance, the fieldwork execution was the students' responsibility. Kocar specializes in soil science, and Kroll is an expert in atmospheric chemistry, so students pursued projects on the chemical composition of soil and on monitoring particulate matter in the air.
One project worked on building and managing a network of air quality sensors across the island to monitor the levels of air pollution from volcanoes, while another project used a combination of imagery from unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) and soil samples to monitor plant health. In early January, the students familiarized themselves with the basics of soil science, air quality research, and topography to prepare for the projects in Hawaii.
In addition to the scholarship behind the research, the students built air quality sensors and prepared their UAVs for the fieldwork. With the necessary skills and background information on the projects, the students were in charge of managing the projects and for the data collection.
"We were told our two main projects and given an outline of what should be completed, but all of the detailed decisions were made among our group," explains Meghan Reisenauer, a junior in civil and environmental engineering. "We needed to decide how and where to place our air particle sensors, how and where to sample the corn and surrounding soil, as well as decide how to approach the data analysis once we had collected it."
For the air quality project, the students also built mounts for the air quality sensors and ensured that they were angled to the correct degree, so that the solar panels would have the appropriate amount of sun. The group then installed them around the island, expanding the preexisting network created by previous TREX students. To do this, the students contacted local residents and business owners and asked to mount air quality sensors on their property.
"I learned just how important networking and simple interaction with strangers is to the success of any project. I would be lying if the concept of asking someone for permission to use their property left me without the tiniest bit of apprehension heading into our voyage," wrote Josh Wilson, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, in a blog post about the day. What he found instead was that "everyone was more than willing to help and, moreover, interested and excited about the research we were doing."
For the soil analysis project, teams collected soil samples from a local farm owned by Richard Ha. They compared those results with images taken with UAVs, and, scavenging a forward looking infrared (FLIR) thermal camera from a broken UAV, added an extra dimension to their data collection by capturing aerial soil and crop temperature data to determine whether heat stress was limiting crop growth. The students had to figure out how to integrate and support the FLIR camera on the UAV and how to build a sturdy, lightweight platform for the it on the UAV. Using materials from a hardware store, the students built and tested an effective platform to make their data collection possible.
A key aspect of the fieldwork was troubleshooting and changing direction at the last minute. A few days of heavy rain impeded the data collection, soaking the soil samples, making the farm inaccessible for work and impeding the UAV's ability to fly. When the government unexpectedly shut down, the students were forced to relocate from the Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to nearby, privately owned housing. The move disrupted the research schedule, adding additional pressure to complete the work on time. Combined with the new housing situation, the students were challenged with maintaining an efficient workspace and performing initial analysis on the samples.
"You have this general idea of what you need to do, but you also need to adjust for weather conditions and limitations," explains junior David Wu. "But when you're out in the field, anything can happen, so you have to be ready for it."
The data collection and preliminary fieldwork research from Hawaii is brought back to campus and analyzed as part of 1.092 (Traveling Research Environmental eXperience: Fieldwork Analysis and Communication) in the spring semester, giving students a chance to perform further analysis in a more controlled setting.
Despite initial setbacks and surprising results in their data collection, the students collected and analyzed a wealth of data, and presented their preliminary findings to different audiences. One night, the group met with local MIT alumni and shared their findings and research methods.
"There were alums from all different majors, who each asked very in-depth questions about their field of study in relation to our projects with the particle sensors and drone usage," Reisenauer wrote in a blog post. "Although we didn't have all the answers, we did our best explaining our work and fielding questions from the room."
At the end of the program, the group also presented their research and preliminary results to local citizens of the Big Island.
"When we presented to the public, their response and questions were much broader [than the alumni questions]; they asked mainly about what we thought the long-term effects could be, or our prediction of the material in other air particles they had dealt with," Reisenauer recalls. "They certainly seemed appreciative of our research into an issue that affects them almost every day, so it was satisfying to show our hard work into the topic!"
In addition to collecting and analyzing data, the students also partook in local activities such as hiking around the Kilauea Iki Crater and studying the plants and ecosystem that has developed at the site; snorkeling and learning about local fish species and coral; and visiting a local coffee farm, using the location as a test site for the UAV.
"Besides the beaches that people think of, there's a lot of cool history and a lot of ecosystems in Hawaii," Wu says. "The Big Island has almost every type of ecosystem, from deserts and rainforests, to mountains 14,000 feet tall. Since it's so isolated, it was a good place to do research. It was like a research playground."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 01:05 PM PST
Neurons are the star of the show in brain science, but MIT researchers believe they don't work alone to process information.
In new research funded by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a team at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory is working to uncover the likely crucial role of a supporting cast member with a stellar-sounding name: the astrocyte. The work could ultimately provide insight into many brain disorders.
Astrocytes are at least as abundant in the brain as neurons, but because they don't spike with electrical impulses like neurons do, they've essentially been "invisible" in studies of how brain circuits process information, says Mriganka Sur, the Newton Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and director of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT. Astrocytes have instead been appreciated mostly for shuttling various molecules and ions around to keep the brain's biochemistry balanced and functioning.
While they don't spike, astrocytes do signal their activity with increases of calcium. A decade ago in Science, Sur and colleagues used that insight to discover that astrocyte activity in the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes vision, matched in lock-step with the activity of neurons in response to visual stimuli. That suggested that astrocytes make a vital contribution to vision processing. In the new study, Sur's lab will investigate exactly what astrocytes are doing, for instance, to regulate the formation of neural connections called synapses and how the calcium activity arises and what difference that activity makes. They'll look not only during the course of normal vision, but also during the critical period early in life when vision is first developing.
Using sophisticated and precise imaging tools, Sur's team will monitor astrocyte and neuron activity in the visual cortex as mice see different stimuli. They'll also use genetic and pharmaceutical tools to manipulate astrocyte activity. A key mechanism that's likely involved, Sur says, is the way astrocytes deploy a molecule called GLT1 to regulate the level and time course of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is vital because it mediates communication between neurons across synapses. By systematically manipulating the GLT1 activity of astrocytes in the visual cortex and measuring the effects, Sur says, the team will be able to determine how astrocytes contribute to the performance and formation of neural circuits.
"Just as neurons have their spiking code, we think there is an astrocyte calcium code that reflects and works in partnership with neurons," Sur says. "That's totally underappreciated but very important."
The results will matter for more than just vision, Sur says. The visual cortex is a perfect model system in which to work, he says, but astrocytes are also believed to be important, if poorly understood, in disorders as wide-ranging as Alzheimer's disease and developmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
"Astrocytes are emerging as a major player because disorders of brain development have genetic origins," Sur says. "Genes expressed in astrocytes are emerging as very important risk factors for autism and schizophrenia."
The new grant from the National Eye Institute (grant number R01EY028219) lasts for four years.
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:00 PM PST
MIT's first president, William Barton Rogers, possessed enslaved persons in his Virginia household until the early 1850s, roughly a decade before he founded the Institute, according to new research from an MIT history class scholars and administrators designed to examine the legacy of slavery in relationship to the university.
While Massachusetts outlawed slavery in the early 1780s, Rogers lived in Virginia, where slavery was still legal, from 1819 until 1853, mostly on the campuses of the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. Documents from the time indicate that in those settings, Rogers had enslaved persons in his household in both 1840 and 1850.
MIT was founded in 1861 and began offering classes in 1865, just as the U.S. Civil War was ending the era of legal slavery in the South. But even as the Institute emerged in a new historical period, it bore marks of that older era as well.
"Our founder was a slave owner," says Craig Steven Wilder, the Barton L. Weller Professor of History at MIT and a leading expert on the links between universities and slavery. Given how often such institutions drew personnel and material support from wealthy families that had profited from slavery, "people shouldn't be surprised that MIT has these connections," Wilder notes.
"I think that by looking at MIT's ties to slavery, what you start to see is the centrality of slavery to the rise of the United States and its institutions," Wilder adds.
The discovery comes from an archival research class for undergraduates that was set in motion by MIT's president, L. Rafael Reif, and held in the fall of 2017 under the guidance of Wilder and Nora Murphy, an archivist in the MIT Libraries.
While the students in the class researched a variety of topics using primary sources from the 19th century, Murphy herself discovered that Rogers had six slaves in his household in 1850, and two slaves in his household in 1840. The findings come from Murphy's close examination of household census data.
"We need to ask all kinds of questions, and it's important to keep an open mind because sometimes the findings are unexpected," says Murphy, who is MIT's archivist for researcher services. Once the project was under way, she adds, it was "easy to just begin to look at the censuses and see who was living in the household."
President Reif says the new finding is an important step toward a better understanding of MIT's history, and will lead to a productive dialogue about the Institute's relationship to society, past and present.
"At MIT, we believe in looking at the facts, even when they're painful. So I am deeply grateful to Professor Wilder for giving us a mechanism for finding and sharing the truth," Reif says. "The next challenge is up to all of us: embracing this opportunity to take a new look at our past, and exploring together how to tell a more complete version of our history."
A charge to investigate
The class emerged in part from discussions about MIT's possible historical links to slavery, held among leaders in MIT's Office of Minority Education and MIT's central administration. With Reif seeking ways of examining the subject with a sharper historical lens, the Institute turned to Wilder, a scholar who has established himself as the leading expert on the historical connections between slavery and American universities, and asked him to propose a path forward.
"One of the things that MIT owes all of us, itself, its constituencies, its alumni, its students, its faculty, and the broader public is to be brutually honest about its past," Wilder says.
Wilder's award-winning 2013 book, "Ebony and Ivy," documents how slavery shaped U.S. colleges and universities from the 1600s onward. Such institutions were often founded or run by men who were slaveholders and slave traders, who received financial support from slave-based businesses, or who recruited students from families who had grown wealthy from such forms of commerce.
Few of the oldest universities in the U.S. had examined the issue until recently. But in 2006 Brown University released a report detailing its manifold links to slavery, and since then Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, and Princeton University, among others, have published their own findings. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger has noted that reading "Ebony and Ivy" helped persuade him to initiate his university's own study of the issue.
Given that MIT was founded more recently than those other institutions, it might seem a less obvious candidate for historical scrutiny in this regard. But the pervasive entanglement of slavery in the U.S. made the possibility of connections to the Institute worth examining more closely.
"The MIT way is to confront challenges and not to shrink from them, and so that was the impetus for the class," says Melissa Nobles, dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Wilder and Murphy proposed the class, which became 21H.S01 (MIT and Slavery), to Nobles and Reif, among others in MIT's administration. They received approval and will continue offering the class in the future.
"It has been wonderful to have President Reif's support and his willingness to be as transparent as possible about the class, and what the class is looking into, and what the results of the class are," Murphy says.
Students in the archives
"MIT and Slavery" is designed to have undergraduates do original archival research. While virtually all history courses assign substantial secondary reading, and many ask students to read primary-source documents or visit archives to an extent, 21H.S01 had students performing archival work from the first weeks of the semester onward.
"It was a very different sort of way of teaching and doing a class, working so closely with the archives," Murphy says.
Primary-source archives, Wilder adds, are where historians "spend much of our creative time, and some of the most important intellectual experiences that we have are actually in the archives. So bringing students into that space … was really, in fact, this intense research experience for them … right in the laboratory of history."
Each student then settled on a research topic. One examined racial imagery in early MIT student publications; another studied student debate of a mural on campus that reproduced J.M.W. Turner's 1840 painting, "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying," and found that the discussion focused on the history of technology and not the question of slavery itself.
A third student found that in its early years, MIT held a popular class in moral philosophy that discussed slavery, but it dropped the course by the 1880s. A fourth research project examined how MIT drew students from Louisville, Kentucky, and then sent graduates back to the South during the Reconstruction period.
Understanding MIT's involvement in Reconstruction is bound to be a major topic for the class' students in the future, Wilder observes.
"The rise of MIT is in many ways a story of the transformation from a slave economy to a post-slavery industrial economy, with lots of racial legacies and lots of unresolved conflicts that continue to play out in the United States today, including the really quite critical question of the position of black people and black labor in American society, and how we will ultimately define freedom for people who aren't white," Wilder says.
An additional concept for all students to wrestle with, Wilder notes, is that technology itself, and the institutions developing it, do not stand apart from society, but are always entangled in it.
"What we have to understand is that technology, engineering, and science are, in fact, human endeavors that are driven by the economic, the commercial, and the political interests of nations," Wilder says.
Further steps for MIT
Even as further iterations of the class continue, MIT intends the new findings about Rogers and the other topics to form the basis of a community dialogue about the Institute and the legacy of slavery. On Feb. 16, MIT will host an event that features a conversation involving Reif, Wilder, and Murphy, and includes presentations by the students who participated in the class, who will speak about their research projects.
"History burdens all of us, and part of what it means to be in a community is that we share each other's burden," Nobles says. "So my expectation and my hope is, given the nature of the MIT community and our commitment to each other, that we will see this as a shared responsibility and we will all participate … to help each of us understand what it means to us as individuals, and what it means for the institution as a whole."
Beyond campus, Wilder is also working to develop an ongoing research project involving MIT and other prominent technical universities founded in the 19th century, in which all the institutions have a chance to explore the legacies of slavery in science, engineering, and technical education during the 1800s.
"MIT is part of a larger exploration of the ties between American universities and slavery, but we are not just participating, we are also leading a part of it," Wilder says. "We are leading the research about the relationship of technology and science to the institution of slavery — not only to better understand our own history, but to fulfill our role as an elite university and to help build our role for the 21st century."
Posted: 12 Feb 2018 07:30 AM PST
Lawrence S. Bacow '72, whose 24 years on the MIT faculty culminated in three years of service as the Institute's chancellor, was named the next president of Harvard University on Sunday afternoon.
Bacow will assume the Harvard presidency on July 1, succeeding Drew Gilpin Faust, who announced last summer that she would step down after 11 years at the post.
"Today, as our two institutions seek to tackle the world's great challenges, I look forward to working with Larry," President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a letter today to the MIT community.
Bacow earned his SB in economics from MIT in 1972, returning to serve the Institute from 1977 to 2001 as a faculty member and, eventually, as a member of its senior leadership. He left MIT in 2001 to become president of Tufts University, a position he held for 10 years.
"I learned how to be a professor and a university leader at MIT," Bacow told MIT News on Sunday evening. "My family's MIT ties run deep, and they always will."
Two other members of Bacow's immediate family are also MIT alumni: His wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, an urban planner, earned her master's degree in city planning from MIT in 1977. One of the couple's two sons, Jay Bacow, received his SB in physics from MIT in 2002.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Holocaust-era Europe, Bacow, 66, grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, cultivating avid interests in science and mathematics. As an MIT undergraduate, he was a member of the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, as well as the Sailing Club and varsity sailing team.
In a 2001 interview with the MIT News Office, Bacow described the central role played by Institute Professor Emeritus Robert Solow in both his undergraduate experience and in the later trajectory of his career.
"I had an extraordinary experience as an undergraduate at MIT," Bacow said. "As a sophomore, I took a course with Bob Solow, 14.06 (Intermediate Macroeconomics). One day, timidly, I went up to him to ask a question about a footnote to a reading. Bob invited me back to his office to talk. That led to a suggestion that we do a reading course together. So in the second semester of my sophomore year, I got an hour a week, one on one, with one of the foremost economists in the world." (Solow went on to win the 1987 Nobel Prize in economic sciences.)
"At the end of my junior year, I realized I could graduate, but it was too late to get into law school," Bacow added. "Bob discouraged me from becoming a lawyer. He tried to get me to stay at MIT in economics. But when I said no, he steered me to the Kennedy School. … Harvard probably accepted me exclusively on the basis of Bob's recommendation."
After spending five years at Harvard for his graduate studies — earning a JD and both a master's degree and a PhD in public policy — Bacow returned to MIT to begin his academic career. Again, Solow's guidance was pivotal, steering Bacow away from a Washington job in the new Carter administration.
In his 2001 interview, Bacow recalled Solow saying, "The government will always be ready and waiting when you're ready. Teach for a few years; you may like it."
Bacow joined the faculty of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) in 1977. Over the course of his career, he has written on environmental policy, bargaining and negotiation, economics, law, and public policy; he is noted particularly for his expertise on the resolution of environmental disputes. While on the MIT faculty, Bacow held visiting professorships at universities in Israel, Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands.
Bacow ultimately became the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in DUSP, helping to establish both the MIT Consortium on Global Environmental Challenges and the MIT Center for Real Estate. The latter, founded in 1984, was the first such academic center in the United States.
"The real estate capital market accounts for a significant portion of the entire capital stock of this country, but it was little studied, there was no tradition of research, and no place to go to hire people who understood the industry," Bacow recalled in 2001. Dozens of other universities have since established similar centers.
Bacow's first Institute-level leadership role came as chair of the MIT faculty, from 1995 to 1997.
"That put me in the thick of things," he recalled several years later. "Most of us as faculty spend our time tunneling down deeply into our respective disciplines. We know our faculty neighbors, both intellectually and geographically. But we really don't get to know other faculty. The wonderful thing about being chair of the faculty is that I got to know colleagues from throughout the Institute."
In 1998, Bacow was appointed as MIT's chancellor, responsible for undergraduate and graduate education, student life, admissions, financial aid, athletics, campus planning, and MIT's industrial and international partnerships.
Citing Solow's influence on his own undergraduate experience and career, Bacow described his approach to his work as MIT's chancellor as knitting together the academic, campus life, and residential aspects of the student experience at MIT.
"Metaphorically, Massachusetts Avenue has been a wall that has divided our campus — faculty and classes east of Mass. Ave., and student life west of Mass. Ave.," he said in 2001. "Part of what I've tried to do is to poke a few holes in that wall. … A lot of what I've tried to do is to create more opportunities for faculty and students to get together."
While Bacow was chancellor, MIT began work on Simmons Hall; Bacow pushed for five faculty residences within the building. He supported the development of community space on campus, including the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, where students and faculty might interact outside of the classroom.
As chancellor, Bacow also increased support for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which fosters research partnerships between MIT undergraduates and faculty. Today, the program has become a signature of undergraduate education at MIT, with 90 percent of graduating seniors having participated in at least one UROP project.
"It was clear from the moment Larry Bacow became chair of the faculty at MIT that he is someone with a deep commitment to academic excellence, for whom students matter a great deal, and with a very broad perspective across disciplines," physicist Robert J. Birgeneau, who served as dean of MIT's School of Science while Bacow was chair of the faculty and then chancellor, told the Harvard Gazette. "Successful university leaders are clear about what their values are, and those values are reflected in how they lead their institutions. Larry has a very well-defined moral compass, which will serve him and Harvard well in the years to come."
Bacow left MIT in 2001 to become president of Tufts University, a position he held for 10 years. His tenure at Tufts was marked by his dedication to expanding student opportunity; to fostering innovation in education and research; to enhancing collaboration across schools and disciplines; and to spurring consideration of how universities can best serve society.
Upon stepping down from Tufts in 2011, Bacow returned to Harvard as a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university's board of trustees. He also served as president-in-residence at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, moving in 2014 to the Harvard Kennedy School as the Hauser Leader-in-Residence in the Center for Public Leadership. He has devoted considerable time between his two university presidencies to advising new and aspiring college and university leaders, mentoring students interested in careers in education, teaching in executive education programs, and writing and speaking about major issues in higher education.
"Virtually everything I've done at MIT, I've done with others," Bacow told the MIT News Office shortly before embarking on his first presidency, at Tufts, in 2001. "This is a hard place to leave. I have been blessed with truly magnificent colleagues, both faculty and staff. I will miss them all."
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