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MIT Libraries host Grand Challenges Summit

Posted: 30 Mar 2018 11:15 AM PDT

Forty-five experts from across disciplines gathered at MIT March 19-23 for a week of workshops focused on the most vital issues in information science and scholarly communication. Supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the summit on Grand Challenges in Information Sciences and Scholarly Communication aimed to identify critical problems that are solvable within 10 years and which have broad implications across the scholarly community.

"We gathered experts from across many domains, locations, and social roles," said Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries. "We spent a lot of time developing an idea of what the challenges are from many points of view."

The summit focused on three areas: scholarly discovery, digital curation and preservation, and open scholarship. For each topic, there was a keynote speaker and a one-and-a-half-day workshop to produce a draft research agenda.

Scholarly discovery

In the opening keynote, Kate Zwaard, director of digital strategy at the U.S. Library of Congress, shared creative projects from LC Labs, which encourages innovation with the library's digital collections. One initiative invites the public to develop digital projects using congressional data; others use color as a way to explore the library's catalog. "We're still in the early days of the disruption that computation is going to bring to our profession," said Zwaard. But she sees collaboration and experimentation as critical to keeping libraries welcoming places: "We need to invite people into the tent." 

In the workshop that followed, participants considered several key concerns: how to make discovery environments that reflect the values of transparency, agency, and participation; how to ensure discovery is globally inclusive and supports mutual exchanges of ideas; and the political, social, policy/legal, and economic barriers to creating these kinds of environments.

Curation and preservation

Keynote speaker Anasuya Sengupta leads Whose Knowledge, a global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the Internet. She stressed the responsibility of knowledge curators in deciding whose voices are heard and preserved. Three quarters of the people online today are from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but who is online is not reflected in the content online. Creating a truly global, inclusive sense of knowledge, said Sengupta, is a strategic choice and an ethical one: "So many communities are waiting for us to do this work."

Workshop participants focused on four themes in digital curation and preservation: making knowledge global, making data useful, making participation open and inclusive, and promoting skill building.

Open scholarship

A longtime advocate of internet freedom and open scholarship, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito discussed the profound impact of the internet on scholarship and publishing. "The business model of transferring information was completely turned on its head," he said. "Innovation and research was pushed to the edges because the cost of collaboration was diminished. What's not keeping up are the academic publications." Ito described high-impact "citizen science" projects using open-source technology, his work with Creative Commons to legally share knowledge, and a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Media Lab and the MIT Press to transform publishing.

In the final workshop, participants explored possible incentives to motivate communities to participate in open scholarship and what infrastructures are needed to sustain it. Discussion also examined the challenges to establishing the credibility, durability, and integrity of the record of human knowledge.

A forthcoming summit report will be made available on the open publishing platform PubPub, where the community will be invited to comment. Background readings and presentations are also being shared through PubPub, and each keynote speech can be streamed at grandchallenges.mit.edu.

With buildings and infrastructure, it pays to take a life-cycle perspective

Posted: 30 Mar 2018 11:00 AM PDT

In the face of limited funding to address massive infrastructure needs, and with climate action at top of mind, it is more important than ever for engineers, designers, and policy makers to understand the full economic and environmental costs of infrastructure project decisions — and not just impacts relating to material choice or from initial construction, but the impacts of choices across the entire life cycle of a project.

"As we develop strategies to reach sustainability goals, it is vital that we adopt methodologies that use a life-cycle perspective to evaluate impacts and use that knowledge to create a strategic path moving forward," says Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub).

Life-cycle analysis methodologies exist for both environmental and economic impacts: Life cycle assessment (LCA) examines environmental impacts, while life cycle cost analysis (LCCA) examines economic impacts. LCA and LCCA enable engineers, designers, and decision-makers to better understand opportunities that exist to reduce environmental and economic impacts, but CSHub research has found that these tools are rarely used at a point in the decision-making process when they can have the greatest impact. The CSHub team recently released several new papers and materials discussing research designed to improve life cycle thinking for buildings and pavements. 

"For buildings, placing too much emphasis on minimizing initial costs and not paying enough attention to the use phase can lead to higher costs, both environmentally and economically," says Gregory. "Construction projects that focus on first costs fail to account for costs associated with lifetime energy use, and the stakeholders who aren't typically involved in early planning stages, such as future homeowners, insurance agencies, and taxpayers, are the ones left holding the bill."

The environmental impacts are significant; in the United States, the heating, cooling, and operation of buildings and homes accounts for more than 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions each year. The CSHub has several projects underway that quantify the full life cycle impacts of buildings, from initial construction to demolition, and has developed building LCA tools that allow impacts to be quantified earlier in the design process than is allowed by traditional methodologies. Researchers have published several recent papers on the topic. All five papers can be found on the CSHub website in a section dedicated to building LCA.

"LCA and LCCA approaches work best when they accompany each other, by providing the necessary economic context to implement solutions into the marketplace," explains Gregory. "Poorly insulated and leaky residential construction leads to high annual energy costs, which can result in substantially higher life-cycle costs. Likewise, roadway closures cause traffic congestion, which leads to higher costs for road users."

For pavements, CSHub LCA work considers all life-cycle phases from initial construction to demolition, including operation, maintenance, and end-of-life phases, and factors such as traffic delay, lighting demand, and future maintenance, while LCCA research considers life cycle, context, and future, and also incorporates risk.

The team recently released a pavements LCCA and LCA info sheet, which highlights key concepts and statistics from CSHub studies. CSHub tools use probabilistic price projections compatible with existing software tools used by pavement designers, such as the Federal Highway Administration's RealCost tool. One of the studies highlighted noted a 32 percent improvement on 20-year cost estimates and LCCA results for roadway projects in Colorado when using CSHub models.

CSHub research is supported by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation.

Engineers turn plastic insulator into heat conductor

Posted: 30 Mar 2018 11:00 AM PDT

Plastics are excellent insulators, meaning they can efficiently trap heat — a quality that can be an advantage in something like a coffee cup sleeve. But this insulating property is less desirable in products such as plastic casings for laptops and mobile phones, which can overheat, in part because the coverings trap the heat that the devices produce.

Now a team of engineers at MIT has developed a polymer thermal conductor — a plastic material that, however counterintuitively, works as a heat conductor, dissipating heat rather than insulating it. The new polymers, which are lightweight and flexible, can conduct 10 times as much heat as most commercially used polymers.

"Traditional polymers are both electrically and thermally insulating. The discovery and development of electrically conductive polymers has led to novel electronic applications such as flexible displays and wearable biosensors," says Yanfei Xu, a postdoc in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "Our polymer can thermally conduct and remove heat much more efficiently. We believe polymers could be made into next-generation heat conductors for advanced thermal management applications, such as a self-cooling alternative to existing electronics casings."

Xu and a team of postdocs, graduate students, and faculty, have published their results today in Science Advances. The team includes Xiaoxue Wang, who contributed equally to the research with Xu, along with Jiawei Zhou, Bai Song, Elizabeth Lee, and Samuel Huberman; Zhang Jiang, physicist at Argonne National Laboratory; Karen Gleason, associate provost of MIT and the Alexander I. Michael Kasser Professor of Chemical Engineering; and Gang Chen, head of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering.

Stretching spaghetti

If you were to zoom in on the microstructure of an average polymer, it wouldn't be difficult to see why the material traps heat so easily. At the microscopic level, polymers are made from long chains of monomers, or molecular units, linked end to end. These chains are often tangled in a spaghetti-like ball. Heat carriers have a hard time moving through this disorderly mess and tend to get trapped within the polymeric snarls and knots.

And yet, researchers have attempted to turn these natural thermal insulators into conductors. For electronics, polymers would offer a unique combination of properties, as they are lightweight, flexible, and chemically inert. Polymers are also electrically insulating, meaning they do not conduct electricity, and can therefore be used to prevent devices such as laptops and mobile phones from short-circuiting in their users' hands.

Several groups have engineered polymer conductors in recent years, including Chen's group, which in 2010 invented a method to create "ultradrawn nanofibers" from a standard sample of polyethylene. The technique stretched the messy, disordered polymers into ultrathin, ordered chains — much like untangling a string of holiday lights. Chen found that the resulting chains enabled heat to skip easily along and through the material, and that the polymer conducted 300 times as much heat compared with ordinary plastics.

But the insulator-turned-conductor could only dissipate heat in one direction, along the length of each polymer chain. Heat couldn't travel between polymer chains, due to weak Van der Waals forces — a phenomenon that essentially attracts two or more molecules close to each other. Xu wondered whether a polymer material could be made to scatter heat away, in all directions.

Xu conceived of the current study as an attempt to engineer polymers with high thermal conductivity, by simultaneously engineering intramolecular and intermolecular forces — a method that she hoped would enable efficient heat transport along and between polymer chains.

The team ultimately produced a heat-conducting polymer known as polythiophene, a type of conjugated polymer that is commonly used in many electronic devices.

Hints of heat in all directions

Xu, Chen, and members of Chen's lab teamed up with Gleason and her lab members to develop a new way to engineer a polymer conductor using oxidative chemical vapor deposition (oCVD), whereby two vapors are directed into a chamber and onto a substrate, where they interact and form a film. "Our reaction was able to create rigid chains of polymers, rather than the twisted, spaghetti-like strands in normal polymers." Xu says.

In this case, Wang flowed the oxidant into a chamber, along with a vapor of monomers — individual molecular units that, when oxidized, form into the chains known as polymers.

"We grew the polymers on silicon/glass substrates, onto which the oxidant and monomers are adsorbed and reacted, leveraging the unique self-templated growth mechanism of CVD technology," Wang says.

Wang produced relatively large-scale samples, each measuring 2 square centimeters — about the size of a thumbprint.

"Because this sample is used so ubiquitously, as in solar cells, organic field-effect transistors, and organic light-emitting diodes, if this material can be made to be thermally conductive, it can dissipate heat in all organic electronics," Xu says.

The team measured each sample's thermal conductivity using time-domain thermal reflectance — a technique in which they shoot a laser onto the material to heat up its surface and then monitor the drop in its surface temperature by measuring the material's reflectance as the heat spreads into the material.

"The temporal profile of the decay of surface temperature is related to the speed of heat spreading, from which we were able to compute the thermal conductivity," Zhou says.

On average, the polymer samples were able to conduct heat at about 2 watts per meter per kelvin — about 10 times faster than what conventional polymers can achieve. At Argonne National Laboratory, Jiang and Xu found that polymer samples appeared nearly isotropic, or uniform. This suggests that the material's properties, such as its thermal conductivity, should also be nearly uniform. Following this reasoning, the team predicted that the material should conduct heat equally well in all directions, increasing its heat-dissipating potential.

Going forward, the team will continue exploring the fundamental physics behind polymer conductivity, as well as ways to enable the material to be used in electronics and other products, such as casings for batteries, and films for printed circuit boards.

"We can directly and conformally coat this material onto silicon wafers and different electronic devices" Xu says. "If we can understand how thermal transport [works] in these disordered structures, maybe we can also push for higher thermal conductivity. Then we can help to resolve this widespread overheating problem, and provide better thermal management."

This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy — Basic Energy Sciences and the MIT Deshpande Center.

KSA meeting puts “Spotlight” on region’s diversity issues

Posted: 30 Mar 2018 09:00 AM PDT

The 10th annual meeting of the Kendall Square Association (KSA) took a hard look at the region's widespread diversity issues, historical and current, and featured members of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, who discussed their latest investigation into racism in Boston.

The KSA is a nonprofit organization of 175 industry and academic partners — including Google, Microsoft, and MIT — in and around Kendall Square that promotes the vibrancy of the district. Each year, the KSA holds a meeting to elect new board members, provide updates on projects, and host guest speakers who share insights on technology, business, education, and other fields.

Welcoming around 350 attendees to the Boston Marriot Cambridge, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern praised the KSA and thanked the Spotlight reporters for taking on the "incredibly important topic" that's critical to his city.

"Even here, in the People's Republic of Cambridge," he quipped, "we have race and class issues that sometimes we don't want to address, because we think they don't happen here, but they do. Putting a spotlight — pun intended — on that issue, and having us take a look at ourselves and self-reflect, is something we have to continuously do."

Cambridge, he added, can be "a city of contradictions." Even with high income levels, Cambridge "has a higher poverty rate than the state average. It's also a community where 500 homeless people are on our streets every night and where death by overdose has doubled in the last year."

The city is currently tackling those issues, he said: "We want to truly be the socially economic and just community we claim to be."

The keynote panel comprised three members of the Globe's current Spotlight team: reporter Andrew Ryan, columnist Adrian Walker, and editor Patricia Wen. The team's latest seven-part project — titled, "Boston. Racism. Image. Reality." — aims to "show through data that we aren't as liberal and progressive in terms of our actions," Wen said.

Projection screens in the front of the room displayed some of the data uncovered as part of the Spotlight series. For instance: A recent national survey by the Globe found black people ranked Boston as the least welcoming city for people of color among eight major U.S. cities; black student enrollment at many top Boston universities is in the single digits; only two black politicians have been elected to statewide office in the last 50 years; at publicly traded firms, only 1 percent of board members are black; and the median net worth for whites is nearly $250,000, while it's a mere $8 for blacks. "That's eight — as in single-digit eight," said panel moderator Malick W. Ghachem, a professor of history at MIT, kicking off the discussion.

Early in the panel, Ghachem asked a core question: Why isn't racism a scandal in Boston? He referenced the bombshell 2002 Spotlight report on the sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese. The reporting team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and the investigation became the basis for the 2015 film "Spotlight."

"My guess is Hollywood won't pick up this story," Ghachem said. "Racism is not a scandal in America, generally speaking, and perhaps especially not a scandal in Boston."

But Walker disagreed. It's a scandal — just more widespread and without "specific bad actors." People react to the issue differently than they would to "a specific, abusive priest, but that doesn't mean it's any less scandalous," he said. "I don't think it gets dismissed."

Agreeing, Wen said media and the public generally seek a "villain" in news stories. "Racism is an issue that is just more ubiquitous" and lacks a specific villain to rail against, she said.

But, as Ghachem pointed out, the recent Spotlight report reveals Boston's diversity issues have, in fact, been largely dismissed. The data indicate not much has changed since Globe reporters tackled the region's racial equality in 1983: In 2015, 4.6 percent of black workers were officials and managers, compared to 4.5 percent from 1983; the black unemployment rate is still, after 30 years, double the rate among whites; and the "Vault" — an organization of Boston's most powerful business leaders, now called "New Vault" — still has zero black members.

Some things have changed, Ryan added, such as that African-Americans "didn't necessarily fear for their safety if they went into certain neighborhoods. But that's a pretty low bar" for measuring progress, he said.

Conversation soon turned to the rising Seaport neighborhood in the South Boston Waterfront — one part of the Spotlight investigation — which has very few black residents. In the past decade, according to the Spotlight team, lenders have issued only three residential mortgages, out of 660, to black buyers. Yet, the neighborhood is funded by nearly $18 billion in taxpayer dollars.

The neighborhood represents a squandered opportunity for Boston to encourage diversity, according to the Spotlight team. Their report, Ryan said, aimed to "underscore the point that … it's not just private funding that has created this situation. … When you tally up what we've spent on those buildings … it was pretty extraordinary," but unrepresentative of Boston's citizens.

Among other issues discussed were: individual vs. systematic racism; how to diversify neighborhoods and schools in Boston; how the general public can fight racism; and Amazon's plans to lease an office building in the Seaport that could create 2,000 jobs, despite black and Latino drivers having filed a 2017 class action suit in Massachusetts accusing the online retailer of racial discrimination.  

Ghachem's final question centered on bringing "inclusion riders" to sectors in Boston. Made popular by actress Frances McDormand's Oscar speech this year, the concept refers to actors demanding, in contract, diversity among a film's cast and crew. "Can inclusion riders work in the tech world?" Ghachem asked. "Is this a concept people can use to diversify higher education, technology, construction?"

There's a good chance they could, Wen said. Using an example of law firms, she said some corporations are starting to hold law firms accountable for lack of partner diversity — which has encouraged greater diversity. "The pressure point has to come from somewhere," she said. "That's the only thing sometimes that will trigger change."

The meeting included the official announcement of new KSA President C.A. Webb, who in 2015 co-founded Underscore VC, a tech venture firm, and led the New England Venture Capital Association for four years. She has served on the KSA board for years and as interim president for the past nine months.

KSA is a "connective tissue," Webb said, that builds relationships around Kendall Square, gathers feedback from community members, and conducts research. "Then, we look for the actions that we can take that have the greatest impact, that best leverage our resources, and will respond to the needs of this community," she said.

Her vision of Kendall Square's future, she said, "is one of shared prosperity, a broad inclusivity, and an open access." Plans include improvements to MBTA, including more maintenance, fixes to service advancements, and mobility solutions, "so all of us can move into, out of, and through Kendall Square more easily."

Inviting the Spotlight team to speak at the meeting was "a carefully considered choice," she said, as it would address racism, sexism, homophobia, and other issues rife in the region and around the world. "Today marks an important part of our journey …  to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what we must do to develop … strategies for building truly diverse and truly inclusive organizations," she said.

Fueling collaborations between MIT faculty and researchers across the globe

Posted: 30 Mar 2018 06:30 AM PDT

Celebrating its 35th year, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) continues to ignite new international collaborations between MIT faculty and researchers abroad through the Global Seed Funds (GSF) program. MISTI GSF enables participating teams — comprised of faculty and students — to connect with their international peers with the aim of developing and launching joint projects. Many of these collaborations have led to published papers, subsequent grants, and lasting connections between individuals, and between MIT and other leading research institutions.

This year MISTI GSF received 253 applications and awarded over $2 million to 110 faculty from 23 departments across the Institute. "Through these collaborations," explains Suzanne Berger, professor of political science and former director of MISTI, "faculty gain an access to knowledge they don't have within their own labs." Launched under Berger's leadership in 2008, the grants program has tripled in size, offering more than 25 location- or institute-specific funds in the 2017-2018 grant cycle. 

Additionally, the MIT Global Partnerships Fund (GPF), administered by MISTI, was launched this year through the Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities. Created in response to MIT's Global Strategy to cultivate region-specific faculty and Institute-level collaborations in targeted regions, the GPF will allow MIT to connect and engage with regions and areas where we have strategically decided to deepen our engagement; develop stronger collaborations with peer institutions; and explore opportunities for collaboration in education and innovation / entrepreneurship as well as research. In its first year, the MIT GPF focused on projects in Africa and Mexico. Eight faculty projects were awarded, representing eight departments and four MIT schools: Architecture and Planning; Engineering; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and Science

MISTI also administers the MIT-Imperial College London Seed Fund, which was created through a partnership between the MIT Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities and Imperial College London. Since 2015, 11 MIT-Imperial College London collaborations have received funding totaling $177,000.

Over the last decade MISTI GSF has awarded over $15.7 million to 735 faculty projects across MIT. From exploring the properties of the Higgs boson at CERN in Switzerland to leading policy reforms to change the future of hydropower in Chile, GSF faculty are working with peers to better understand — and help solve — today's pressing global challenges.

The next MISTI GSF call for proposals will be announced in May with a deadline in early fall. For more details about the GSF program, please visit the MISTI site.

Originally launched as the MIT-Japan Program in 1983, MISTI has expanded to include opportunities for students and faculty in more than 20 countries. This past year over 1,200 MISTI students interned, researched, and taught aboard. To prepare for their experiences abroad, MISTI students complete coursework in the language and culture of their host country and attend MISTI-prepared, location-specific training sessions.

MISTI is a part of the Center for International Studies within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS).