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Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi presents moral vision in age of crisis

Posted: 01 May 2018 01:10 PM PDT

The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi called for solidarity, love, compassion, and justice as an antidote to the crises of our time spawned by corporate greed. He called for a willingness to act on behalf of people in need, near and distant, including future generations, and on behalf of a living planet. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, spoke at MIT April 19 as part of the inaugural event in the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series sponsored by MIT Global Studies and Languages.

The bespectacled monk, with flowing orange robes, confided to the audience that he was concerned his talk would be "too radical" and shared his notes in advance with one of the event organizers. He said he was assured that MIT, which has been the intellectual home of Noam Chomsky, would be a suitable place for his remarks.

Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed to the social, environmental, and economic problems of today as being driven by "the quest for expanding profits, for higher dividends for shareholders, for higher returns on financial investments, for increased capital accumulation, to be achieved by suppressing of wages and benefits for workers, by precarious contract labor, and by weakening (or abolishing) regulations." He also spoke about the need for justice by fighting racism and police brutality.

"We are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent . . . with countless other people, with the entire intricate web of life" Bhikkhu Bodhi said. "True happiness does not come from 'maximizing one's private self-interest' through rational, detached, economic calculations, but from participating in all the domains of true value. At the human level happiness depends on meaningful, fulfilling, uplifting human relationships, on friendships, on collaboration and cooperation with others, in pursuing the good of all. Our own good comes from the common good, promoting the common good enhances our own good."

Bhikkhu Bodhi discussed the Buddhist Global Relief project he founded in 2007, founded to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition, which does work in Burma, Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Nicaragua, and several other countries. The society has a special focus of promoting the education of girls and women as way to combat poverty.

Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in Brooklyn and was attracted to Buddhism in his early 20s while studying philosophy in graduate school. In 1972 he moved to Sri Lanka where he studied for several years under the late Ananda Maitreya. He was ordained as Theravada Buddhist monk in 1973. He currently lives at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, and is the president of the Buddhist Association of the United States. The Sanskrit word "bodhi" is usually translated as "enlightenment."

Professor Emma Teng emceed the evening's program. She is the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and the Head of MIT Global Studies and Languages.

Introductory remarks by James Robson, the James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, put the evening's lecture in the context of an ongoing conversation between Buddhism and science, including the 2003 conference bringing together the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists (captured in the book "The Dalai Lama at MIT"). Robson pointed out the central role played by Bhikkhu Bodhi in bringing Buddhism to a Western audience through his translations of critical Buddhist texts with commentaries.

Robson explained that Bhikkhu Bodhi "has been stirring things up in the Buddhist World" by speaking out as a social activist. He said that the monk had become "a key figure in speaking about the role of Buddhism in contemporary society." Robson continued, "Despite the almost daily reports about how meditation can help one live a happier and well-adjusted life in a lot of the 'mindfulness' discourse, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi has been urging Western Buddhists to get out of their minds, and not just focus on their own greed, hatred, and delusion, and into the world to deal with some of the key issues of our day that involve issues of social, economic, and political injustice."

Robson pointed to the role Bhikkhu Bodhi played in spotlighting the "plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar/Burma and the massive ethnic cleansing and refugee crisis in Rakhine province as the minority Muslims have been attacked and killed, with Buddhists being complicit."

In addition to the public lecture on April 19, which drew 140 people, Bhikkhu Bodhi led a meditation session on April 20 for about 40 students, faculty, and staff, at the Burton Conner dormitory.

Also on April 20, a lively discussion was held with about 45 students who are members of the Concourse program. After this discussion, Abigail Stein, a first-year undergrad commented, "I was really interested to learn about Bhikkhu Bodhi's humanitarian initiatives and the growing activism in modern Buddhism . . . [He] described the evolution of Buddhism around the world, and entertained our questions about Buddhist philosophy. I had little prior knowledge about Buddhist culture and religion, and I feel so lucky that I got a chance to learn from such an active and well-learned scholar."

Miami and the MIT community of Florida welcome the Better World Tour

Posted: 01 May 2018 12:30 PM PDT

Miami recently became the 12th city to host the MIT Better World tour when it hosted a gathering of 300 MIT alumni and friends at the Alfred I. duPont Building in downtown Miami. A highlight of the evening was MIT President L. Rafael Reif's announcement that as of March 2, the MIT Campaign for a Better World had raised $4.1 billion, or 82 percent of its $5 billion goal, from over 91,000 donors.

Other speakers included MIT faculty, alumni, and current students, such as doctoral candidate Sitan Chen, who opened the program with a piano performance. As a PhD student and an Emerson Music Fellow, Chen is studying the mathematical foundations of machine learning, while also pursuing his life-long passion for music. For Chen, math and music both offer the building blocks for discoveries, and the opportunity to create something fresh and exciting. "If you expand that idea," he said, "it's what we do at MIT, every day."

Judy C. Lewent SM '72 welcomed attendees at the March 8 event on behalf of the host committee and introduced President Reif. Lewent, who is a life-member of the MIT Corporation and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, retired in 2007 as executive vice president and CFO of Merck and Co., Inc. after a successful career in finance. She described her long-term ties to the Institute as "a key part of my life-long learning."

For architect and urban planner, Carlos A. Sainz Caccia MCP '17, MIT's Infinite Corridor embodies one of his own core values: connectivity. Just as the corridor links physical spaces, "we [also] cross through disciplines, creating connections. I think we should be building cities this way." A native of Guadalajara, Sainz works at the Brookline, Massachusetts, firm CivicMoxie to create innovative housing for diverse populations. "Diversity," he observed, "brings vibrancy and resiliency to a building, to a community, to a city. Because of diversity, MIT thrives, too."

The recent extreme weather events endured by Miami are familiar to MIT graduate student Diamilet Pérez-Betancourt. A native of Puerto Rico and doctoral candidate in atmospheric sciences, Pérez-Betancourt studies hurricanes and the little-understood spiral rain bands within these storm systems. Since childhood, she has loved hurricanes, and has devoted her life to studying hurricanes and extreme weather because, "as oceans get warmer, the intensity of hurricanes [will likely] increase," with critical impact for regions like Florida and her home territory.

Venezuelan economist and Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Applied Economics Roberto Rigobon PhD '97 is inspired by another core feature of MIT: a passion for measurement. Using the example of gender discrimination, Rigobon spoke of the importance of examining influences like unconscious bias so that we may accurately measure, and more fully understand, the world around us. MIT is willing to invest in this kind of rigorous research, he said, and philanthropic support from the MIT community makes it happen.

As he concluded the program, President Reif extended an invitation for all attendees to join the MIT Campaign for a Better World and empower MIT to deploy its gifts in service to the world, as each of the speakers have done through their work. The needs have never been greater, he said, but "to the people of MIT, humanity's urgent challenges are invitations to action. And MIT is ready!"

For information about upcoming MIT Better World events, visit betterworld.mit.edu/events

National Academy of Sciences elects four MIT professors for 2018

Posted: 01 May 2018 12:30 PM PDT

Four MIT faculty members have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of their "distinguished and continuing achievements in original research."

MIT's four new NAS members are: Amy Finkelstein, the John and Jennie S. MacDonald Professor of Economics; Mehran Kardar, the Francis Friedman Professor of Physics; Xiao-Gang Wen, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics; and Feng Zhang, the Patricia and James Poitras '63 Professor in Neuroscience at MIT, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and of biological engineering, and member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Broad Institute

The group was among 84 new members and 21 new foreign associates elected to the NAS. Membership in the NAS is one of the most significant honors given to academic researchers.

Amy Finkelstein

Finkelstein is the co-scientific director of J-PAL North America, the co-director of the Public Economics Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a member of the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the Econometric Society. 

She has received numerous awards and fellowships including the John Bates Clark Medal (2012), the American Society of Health Economists' ASHEcon Medal (2014), a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2009), the American Economic Association's Elaine Bennett Research Prize (2008) and a Sloan Research Fellowship (2007). She has also received awards for graduate student teaching (2012) and graduate student advising (2010) at MIT.

She is one of the two principal investigators for the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, a randomized evaluation of the impact of extending Medicaid coverage to low income, uninsured adults.

Mehran Kardar

Kardar obtained a BA from Cambridge University in 1979 and a PhD in physics from MIT in 1983. He was a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1983 to 1986 before returning to MIT as an assistant professor, and was promoted to full professor in 1996. He has been a visiting professor at a number of institutions including Catholic University in Belgium, Oxford University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of California at Berkeley, and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. 

His expertise is in statistical physics, and he has lectured extensively on this topic at MIT and in workshops at universities and institutes in France, the U.K., Switzerland, and Finland. He is the author of two books based on these lectures. In 2018 he was recognized by the American Association of Physics Teachers with the John David Jackson Excellence in Graduate Physics Education Award.

Kardar is a member of the founding board of the New England Complex Science Institute and the editorial board of Journal of Statistical Physics, and has helped organize Gordon Conference and KITP workshops. His awards include the Bergmann memorial research award, the A. P. Sloan Fellowship, the Presidential Young Investigator award, the Edgerton award for junior faculty achievements (MIT), and the Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Xiao-Gang Wen

Wen received a BS in physics from University of Science and Technology of China in 1982 and a PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1987.

He studied superstring theory under theoretical physicist Edward Witten at Princeton University and later switched his research field to condensed matter physics while working with theoretical physicists Robert Schrieffer, Frank Wilczek, and Anthony Zee in the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara (1987–1989). He became a five-year member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1989 and joined MIT in 1991. Wen is the Cecil and Ida Green professor of Physics at MIT, a Distinguished Moore Scholar at Caltech, and a Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute. In 2017 he received the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize of the American Physical Society.

Wen's main research area is condensed matter theory. His interests include strongly correlated electronic systems, topological order and quantum order, high-temperature superconductors, the origin and unification of elementary particles, and the Quantum Hall Effect and non-Abelian statistics.

Feng Zhang

Zhang is a bioengineer focused on developing tools to better understand nervous system function and disease. His lab applies these novel tools to interrogate gene function and study neuropsychiatric disorders in animal and stem cell models. Since joining MIT and the Broad Institute in January 2011, Zhang has pioneered the development of genome editing tools for use in eukaryotic cells — including human cells — from natural microbial CRISPR systems. He also developed a breakthrough technology called optogenetics with Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University and Edward Boyden, now of MIT.

Zhang joined MIT and the Broad Institute in 2011 and was awarded tenure in 2016. He received his BA in chemistry and physics from Harvard College and his PhD in chemistry from Stanford University. Zhang's award include the Perl/UNC Prize in Neuroscience (2012, shared with Karl Deisseroth and Ed Boyden), the National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award (2012), the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award (2014), the Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine (2014, shared with Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier), the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award (2014), the Okazaki award, the Canada Gairdner International Award (shared with Doudna and Charpentier along with Philippe Horvath and Rodolphe Barrangou) and the 2016 Tang Prize (shared with Doudna and Charpentier).

Zhang is a founder of Editas Medicine, a genome editing company founded by world leaders in the fields of genome editing, protein engineering, and molecular and structural biology.

Compass Group to manage new food and dining contract

Posted: 01 May 2018 11:20 AM PDT

Following a two-year process that started with a review of existing dining data, a selection committee of students, faculty heads of house, and staff from the Division of Student Life (DSL) has selected Compass Group and its subsidiaries Bon Appétit and Restaurant Associates to take on the new, expanded contract for food and dining at MIT, which starts on July 1.

"Of the three companies that submitted bids, Compass presented the best program concepts and fulfilled key requirements related to program management, social responsibility, and sustainability," said Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson in an April 19 email to students announcing the selection. "One addition to this contract is that Compass will install new management at MIT. And at the committee's recommendation, the team from Compass will undergo operations reviews each quarter as well as a complete program review every other year, based on key performance indicators, to ensure that our campus has a food program of outstanding quality."

Selecting the right partner

The three companies that submitted bids — Compass, Aramark, and Sodexo — were graded by the committee on a number of criteria, including a commitment to a continuous improvement plan, the ability to deliver innovative programs, services, and technology, and the strength of their sustainability program. Across those criteria, Compass scored top marks and impressed the committee with their understanding of MIT's needs and values. "Their proposal was filled with a bunch of really exciting changes that will allow students to be getting the dining experience they deserve," says junior Alexa Martin, vice president of the Undergraduate Association and a member of the selection committee.

In addition to reading submittals and meeting the prospective vendors, committee members also visited operations at other schools. The facilities managed by Compass consistently came out on top. "Their food quality at other schools, both in retail and house dining, was generally a notch above the other prospective vendors' operations," says senior Joseph Murphy, Dormcon's dining co-chair and a selection committee member.

"The selection process was challenging, but informative," says Elaine Smart, regional vice president for Bon Appétit on behalf of Compass. "We are excited to work with students, community members, and MIT Dining to implement significant retail and residential dining enhancements that will make MIT's program a best-in-class operation."

Coordinating the process over the last two years was Peter Cummings, executive director for administration in DSL. "Starting way back in the winter of 2016, the students, faculty, and staff who have worked on this project have been committed to achieving the best outcome for house dining, retail dining, and catering," he says. "Compass and its subsidiaries will deliver great food, great service, and a great customer experience in all of those areas, with new management and quality control processes to sustain those deliverables throughout the contract."

New house dining cuisines and Rebecca's in Walker Memorial

Students returning to campus in the fall will see changes right away. "Compass proposed some great new cuisines for house dining, like smoked barbecue, Mongolian grill and stir fry, and hearth-style flatbreads," says Mark Hayes, director of dining in DSL. "Meal plan holders will also have more grab-n-go breakfast options, performance bowls, and enhanced late-night dining options."

Murphy hopes the house dining updates result in a greater sense of community in residence halls. "Generally speaking, good food brings people together," he says. "Our whole house dining structure was designed around the premise of community building within each house, so that will always be high on my list of priorities."

One place that will not change, however, is Rebecca's Café located in Pritchett Lounge on the second floor of Walker Memorial (Building 50). With recent alterations to its hours (now 3-11 p.m., Monday through Friday), new furniture, and plans for more programming in the café, staff from Dining and the Campus Activities Complex have heard positive feedback.

Food insecurity and the low-cost grocery store

In her email to students, Nelson observed that Compass would be "a willing partner in making MIT a food-secure community." Prospective vendors' support for this effort was a key consideration in the selection process. Since the fall, Bon Appétit has worked with students and DSL to launch the meals donation program SwipeShare, and will be a helpful partner in the proposed low-cost grocery store that Nelson and Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart aim to open this fall.

Compass will help to obtain products for the store, and will help to guide its launch. The company has operated similar stores and pantries at other schools, and their expertise in this area will inform students and DSL as they plan aspects of the store together.

Dining Dollars and Lobdell

Dining Dollars are a new feature of all 2018-19 dining plans. Students can use Dining Dollars at retail locations across campus, and DSL is working with restaurants and grocery stores off-campus to expand the number of places that will accept Dining Dollars. "I think Dining Dollars will give students the flexibility they need," Martin says. "For example, a student who has class in Stata and doesn't have time to walk all the way back to Maseeh for lunch will have the option to get food where they are and still use their meal plan." According to Hayes, retail dining locations across campus will take Dining Dollars starting in the fall, including Rebecca's in Pritchett. "And we are working on adding more," he says.

On the retail front, there will be some new concepts in existing locations, but major changes to Lobdell Food Court will start in the contract's second year when Compass assumes management of the popular eating destination in the Stratton Student Center (Building W20). "We will start planning for Lobdell with Compass soon, and we will seek lots of input from students on options for the future of that space," Hayes says.

"I am excited by how willing Compass Group is to work with students on designing Lobdell and ensuring the changes we make are truly addressing student wants and needs," Martin adds. "I think there is large potential to make that area a really great place for students to have access to fresh and affordable food, as well as spend time with peers."

What's next?

The seven-year agreement includes options for three additional years based on performance. Work to plan the transition has started, but activity will seriously ramp up after the contract begins on July 1.

Hayes expects a flurry of activity as facilities are upgraded, new equipment is installed, and the new management from Compass get to know MIT and its dining landscape first-hand. "By the time students start returning in August," he says, "I expect things will look different in the dining halls and at a number of retail locations across campus."

Virtual drug trials boost results

Posted: 01 May 2018 10:50 AM PDT

Bringing a new drug to market can cost more than two billion dollars. Not to mention years of work spent developing and testing for scientists, researchers, doctors, and trial participants. By bringing trials to the virtual realm, Belinda H. Tan '96 has found a way to cut all that in half.

Her company, Science 37, is moving the entire drug trial process online, allowing patients anywhere in the U.S. to participate — with ease of access via phone, email, and video chat. Tan and her staff of about 180 provide end-to-end decentralized trial support, including coordinators, project managers, and doctors.

Tan, who got her MD/PhD at the University of California at Los Angeles, and her co-founder first got the idea to start their venture in 2014 while working for a dermatology telemedicine company, and a drug company requested their help recruiting more people for their trials. They quickly saw the opportunity to be a one-stop-shop for virtual trials.

"There are a lot of inefficiencies with how trials are run when they require a lot of different sites — different lawyers, different contracts, and it all slows things down," says Tan. "Ultimately our mission is to accelerate biomedical research by putting patients first."

Science 37 is conducting trials in a range of therapeutic areas, including dermatology, neurology, diabetes, psychiatry, and oncology, and patient participation varies based on what is being tested. "When we did a trial for AOBiome testing a topical live bacterial drug, patients took photos of the acne on their face over the course of a three-month treatment period," says Tan. The photos were taken on a phone given to them for the trial and they sent them through NORA, Science 37's software platform. Study investigators, who were all dermatologists, evaluated the photos to assess effectiveness of the treatment.

Tan says they are using technology to democratize science. By doing drug trials remotely, people without the ability to travel to a trial or who don't have exposure to information about drug trials now have the opportunity to participate.

"A lot of science research and drug development is confined to a very small group of institutions and participants, major universities and hospital centers," says Tan. "We've built a technology platform to support doing clinical research so that trials can be centered around patients in their homes. Participants don't need to drive four hours to a university to go to a trial every other week. They can just stay at home and an investigator, a doctor who is part of the Science 37 team, will take care of that participant during the trial remotely."

While it may seem that not all trials would be conducive to this model, Science 37 has innovative ways to make virtual trials work. For trials that require blood work or other lab tests beyond photos, the company uses a mobile nurse who can travel to participants' homes and bring back samples to a medical team for evaluation.

Not only does the virtual system help streamline the whole process and remove obstacles, it also allows trials to represent a more diverse population, something that is severely lacking in current trials. "Typically in trials in the U.S. today, less than 10 percent of the average trial will be non-white minority," says Tan. "In our trial, it was about 40 percent, which is really great in many ways. The science is better when you have a more diverse patient population and you have a better indication that your treatment can work for more people."

Science 37 recently completed the first end-to-end entirely virtual drug trial, a huge accomplishment and a benchmark for what can be achieved when this model is applied, Tan says.

"Typically, that kind of trial would have required dozens of clinic sites at hospitals and universities in order to recruit almost 400 patients. We did it with our one site in half the time projected by other companies," she says. "By accelerating trials, it makes them cheaper and also means the drug goes to market faster, patients get better treatment faster, and they have more resources to test different types of treatment."

Although she says there are no other companies doing exactly what they are doing, Tan says she welcomes others to enter the field and even hopes to make their platform software, NORA, available for licensing.

"We don't see ourselves as the sole company doing virtual drug trials," she says. "We want to enable other interested physicians and scientists to use our tools too."

Empowering refugees worldwide by providing tools for social change

Posted: 01 May 2018 10:10 AM PDT

The lives of refugees aren't just disrupted by the loss of a homeland, but also by massive challenges in accessing educational and professional opportunities. A collaboration between the MITx MicroMasters program in data, economics, and development policy (DEDP), the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) seeks to address these challenges. MIT's Department of Economics and J-PAL co-developed and launched the MITx MicroMasters Program in DEDP in 2017. The new collaboration will allow refugee learners to receive scholarships for DEDP courses, participate in skills-building workshops, and connect with top organizations and companies in the field of development economics and data analysis.

As Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, and the co-director and co-founder of J-PAL observes, "From the beginning, our objective for the MicroMasters and blended master's in DEDP was to create an offering that gives people the skills and tools to solve some of the world's most difficult challenges — whoever they are, and wherever they are. The collaboration with ReACT means we will move one step closer to this goal."

Admir Masic, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, founded ReACT in 2017 to provide blended learning opportunities in computer and data science and entrepreneurship to refugees around the world. "I'm so excited about the new track within the  DEDP/ReACT MicroMasters certificate program," says Masic, "because on top of all the other benefits associated with the ReACT blended learning approaches, we open the way for our refugee students to gain a master's degree from MIT or any other university in this MicroMasters network."

Blending good intentions with data-driven approaches

The DEDP/ReACT collaboration offers refugees a bespoke combination of attaining scholarships for online learning, gaining connections to paid internships, and coming together as a community at in-person immersive workshops. A group of ReACT-supported refugees will take MicroMasters courses online starting in the summer semester of 2018 with the DEDP online courses, "The Challenges of Global Poverty" and "Data Analysis for Social Scientists." Refugees will come together in Amman, Jordan in January 2019 for a series of workshops taught by MIT faculty, staff, and students on entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership. The goal is for these learners to begin their online DEDP coursework this June and complete the five courses in the DEDP program by the end of the spring semester next year.

Robert Fadel, the executive director of ReACT, notes, "The new ReACT initiative with the MicroMasters program in DEDP offers refugees a way to gain access to educational and professional opportunities, and helps empower them with the tools to resolve some of the most pressing problems within their own communities."

Refugees taking the DEDP courses will study the root causes of poverty, while also developing skills in economics and data analysis that will enable them to build data-driven approaches to help drive positive change.

As Anna Schrimpf, associate director of education at J-PAL and DEDP program director explains, "People have strong intuitions about what they think might work to drive change, but we also have a responsibility to inquire whether what we're doing is impactful — whether we're spending scarce resources in a way that is actually improving the lives of the poor. Good intentions aren't enough. You also need to develop data-driven approaches to deliver results and sustainable change."

Empowering refugees to change lives (including their own)

The new program is personal for Masic, who overcame challenges as a refugee himself. He founded ReACT based on his own experiences in accessing higher education and leveraging its power. When Masic was a child, his family fled from war-ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina to a refugee camp in Croatia. Thanks to receiving opportunities to pursue a higher education, Masic lived and conducted research in Germany and Italy before coming to MIT. "I am realizing a dream that I had when I first came to MIT. I get very emotional about this new DEDP/ReACT initiative, because we're building something that could impact so many lives around the world, and will give refugees a very unique, extremely powerful opportunity. With this new collaboration, we're providing concrete pathways for those who believe in education as a key for a better life."

Masic offers another story to illustrate how refugees can be profoundly impacted by educational opportunity. While eating breakfast with the first cohort of ReACT students in Amman, Jordan a few months ago, Masic noted, "A refugee student whom I didn't know came to the table, ate quickly, and went away without saying a word to anyone," said Masic." The student seemed so embarrassed and so full of insecurity, which connected with my own refugee experience." After the breakfast, said Masic, "I saw him sitting outside by himself. Well, fast forward just ten days later and the two of us were huddled together and talking about starting a new company. This refugee had become so enthusiastic about everything that was happening around him that he turned from a psychologically-closed person into this incredibly creative and open individual who was excitedly exploring new opportunities."

J-PAL's Anna Schrimpf agrees that the goal of this initiative is to empower refugees to mitigate some of the most pressing social problems facing them as individuals and as a community. With over 65 million refugees worldwide and counting, "The mission of the initiative is to bring refugees together to create a global community around online learning," says Schrimpf. "We have the means to empower refugees to be socially responsible leaders in their own communities — to be the future leaders who show the way."

Building pathways to opportunity

Blended learning offers important educational and professional pathways for refugees who've had their lives and support structures disrupted by displacement. The new MicroMasters DEDP/ReACT initiative provides a foundation and a technical expertise upon which refugees can to rebuild their lives and communities worldwide.  

MIT Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal notes, "With this joint initiative, we are providing a new pathway to opportunity to people whose educational and career paths have been utterly disrupted. Refugees themselves are deeply aware of the challenges they and their communities face, and we are proud to be working alongside ReACT to offer refugees the tools to improve their lives and address these challenges together."

For those interested in learning more about this program or sharing this program with refugee learners that they might know, please visit the ReACT website for a more in-depth description of the program.

Cognitive scientists define critical period for learning language

Posted: 01 May 2018 01:59 AM PDT

A great deal of evidence suggests that it is more difficult to learn a new language as an adult than as a child, which has led scientists to propose that there is a "critical period" for language learning. However, the length of this period and its underlying causes remain unknown.

A new study performed at MIT suggests that children remain very skilled at learning the grammar of a new language much longer than expected — up to the age of 17 or 18. However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10.

"If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old. We don't see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that," says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who conducted this study as a postdoc at MIT.

People who start learning a language between 10 and 18 will still learn quickly, but since they have a shorter window before their learning ability declines, they do not achieve the proficiency of native speakers, the researchers found. The findings are based on an analysis of a grammar quiz taken by nearly 670,000 people, which is by far the largest dataset that anyone has assembled for a study of language-learning ability.

"It's been very difficult until now to get all the data you would need to answer this question of how long the critical period lasts," says Josh Tenenbaum, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an author of the paper. "This is one of those rare opportunities in science where we could work on a question that is very old, that many smart people have thought about and written about, and take a new perspective and see something that maybe other people haven't."

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is also an author of the paper, which appears in the journal Cognition on May 1.

Quick learners

While it's typical for children to pick up languages more easily than adults — a phenomenon often seen in families that immigrate to a new country — this trend has been difficult to study in a laboratory setting. Researchers who brought adults and children into a lab, taught them some new elements of language, and then tested them, found that adults were actually better at learning under those conditions. Such studies likely do not accurately replicate the process of long-term learning, Hartshorne says.

"Whatever it is that results in what we see in day-to-day life with adults having difficulty in fully acquiring the language, it happens over a really long timescale," he says.

Following people as they learn a language over many years is difficult and time-consuming, so the researchers came up with a different approach. They decided to take snapshots of hundreds of thousands of people who were in different stages of learning English. By measuring the grammatical ability of many people of different ages, who started learning English at different points in their life, they could get enough data to come to some meaningful conclusions.

Hartshorne's original estimate was that they needed at least half a million participants — unprecedented for this type of study. Faced with the challenge of attracting so many test subjects, he set out to create a grammar quiz that would be entertaining enough to go viral.

With the help of some MIT undergraduates, Hartshorne scoured scientific papers on language learning to discover the grammatical rules most likely to trip up a non-native speaker. He wrote questions that would reveal these errors, such as determining whether a sentence such as "Yesterday John wanted to won the race" is grammatically correct. 

To entice more people to take the test, he also included questions that were not necessary for measuring language learning, but were designed to reveal which dialect of English the test-taker speaks. For example, an English speaker from Canada might find the sentence "I'm done dinner" correct, while most others would not.

Within hours after being posted on Facebook, the 10-minute quiz "Which English?" had gone viral.

"The next few weeks were spent keeping the website running, because the amount of traffic we were getting was just overwhelming," Hartshorne says. "That's how I knew the experiment was sufficiently fun."

A long critical period

After taking the quiz, users were asked to reveal their current age and the age at which they began learning English, as well as other information about their language background. The researchers ended up with complete data for 669,498 people, and once they had this huge amount of data, they had to figure out how to analyze it.

"We had to tease apart how many years has someone been studying this language, when they started speaking it, and what kind of exposure have they been getting: Were they learning in a class or were they immigrants to an English-speaking country?" Hartshorne says.

The researchers developed and tested a variety of computational models to see which was most consistent with their results, and found that the best explanation for their data is that grammar-learning ability remains strong until age 17 or 18, at which point it drops. The findings suggest that the critical period for learning language is much longer than cognitive scientists had previously thought.

"It was surprising to us," Hartshorne says. "The debate had been over whether it declines from birth, starts declining at 5 years old, or starts declining starting at puberty."

The authors note that adults are still good at learning foreign languages, but they will not be able to reach the level of a native speaker if they begin learning as a teenager or as an adult.

Still unknown is what causes the critical period to end around age 18. The researchers suggest that cultural factors may play a role, but there may also be changes in brain plasticity that occur around that age.

"It's possible that there's a biological change. It's also possible that it's something social or cultural," Tenenbaum says. "There's roughly a period of being a minor that goes up to about age 17 or 18 in many societies. After that, you leave your home, maybe you work full time, or you become a specialized university student. All of those might impact your learning rate for any language."

Hartshorne now plans to run some related studies in his lab at Boston College, including one that will compare native and non-native speakers of Spanish. He also plans to study whether individual aspects of grammar have different critical periods, and whether other elements of language skill such as accent have a shorter critical period.

The researchers also hope that other scientists will make use of their data, which they have posted online, for additional studies.

"There are lots of other things going on in this data that somebody could analyze," Hartshorne says. "We do want to draw other scientists' attention to the fact that the data is out there and they can use it."

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and MIT's Center for Minds, Brains, and Machines.