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What will we eat in the year 2050?

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:15 PM PDT

How might climate change alter the global food system by the year 2050? Will diets change to reflect a revamped agriculture designed to adapt to a warming world? MIT Joint Program Principal Research Scientist Erwan Monier and New York University artist Allie Wist grappled with these questions as they developed a dinner menu for the MIT Climate Changed Symposium, a two-day gathering of experts in the sciences, humanities and design focused on the role and impact of models in a changed climate.

Co-sponsored by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and organized by Irmak Turan and Jessica Varner, the symposium — along with an ideas competition and multimedia exhibition — examined how past, present, and future climate-related models can enable us to understand and design the built environment as significant changes unfold in the Earth system through and beyond mid-century.

Held at Café ArtScience in Kendall Square, the symposium dinner consisted of four courses, each representing a different landscape. Signifying the forest, the appetizer was a trio of dried, preserved, and foraged mushrooms, fungi known to help the soil store carbon dioxide and thus slow the pace of climate change.

The next two courses included two options — the first symbolizing more comfortable conditions that climate models project will prevail, on average, by the year 2050 under an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction policy; the second suggesting more hardscrabble environments that the models indicate will likely result in the absence of climate action. For the first course, representing the desert, the choice was between a squash tart with sorghum honey or cactus fruit gel with dehydrated fruits. For the second, representing the ocean, all diners got to eat wild striped bass, with one half receiving their fish filleted and the other half having to contend with bones.

Suggesting melting sea ice and glaciers in an Arctic landscape, the dessert was a pine milk parfait infused with pine smoke and topped with fresh berries and a juniper tuile.    

"Our menu selections were designed to reflect the idea that the impact of climate change on various landscapes will vary widely based on the level of climate action that will take place between now and the year 2050," said Monier.

Prior to the dinner, Monier and Wist delivered a brief presentation on the complexity of modeling the global food system and the visualization of future food landscapes.

Monier noted that to address this complexity, Joint Program researchers integrate a diverse set of models that simulate different aspects of the food system, from atmospheric chemistry to water resource management to crop yields. He then highlighted three key challenges in modeling climate change over the coming decades.

First, how much climate change will we experience? Climate policy scenarios range from business-as-usual to stringent, translated for symposium guests as a more challenging or more comfortable dining experience. Second, how will different regions experience climate change? Monier observed that climate models project crop-yield increases and decreases for different regions of Africa — and that uncertainty in the models can produce a wide range of projections for some regions. This was translated into different landscape storylines for each of the four courses. Finally, how will we adapt to climate change?

"Depending on the severity of climate change, we will either be able to adapt to maintain our current diet," said Monier, "or need to introduce or intensify the use of different drought-tolerant food sources such as seaweed and cactus."    

Monier also appears in the Climate Changed Exhibition, a work curated by Jessica Varner, Irmak Turan, and Irina Chernyakova, and produced by artist Rainar Aasrand and designers from Omnivore. The exhibition is a continuous-loop multimedia exploration of how computational models and design practices have enabled people to represent, understand, assess, communicate, and act upon climate change. On view April 6-May 19 in the Keller Gallery (Room 7-408), it shows how the feedback process between climate models and design has evolved since the development of the first general circulation model in the 1960s.

In multiple interview segments, Monier describes how Earth-system models of different resolution are used to assess environmental change at global and regional levels. He explains how the Joint Program's signature Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework models different components of the Earth system and how they interact, and projects the impact of global environmental change (including climate change) on both Earth and human systems under different climate policy scenarios and degrees of uncertainty about the climate's response to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

MIT Federal Credit Union presents 2018 scholarships, People Helping People Award

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 01:40 PM PDT

Each year, the MIT Federal Credit Union (FCU) presents the People Helping People Award to a credit union member who exemplifies compassion, commitment to helping others, and a sense of social justice within the MIT community. At this year's annual business meeting on April 25, Nick Schwartz, a senior at MIT studying mechanical engineering, was named as the 2018 winner.

"Even after 12 years, I am continuously amazed at the submissions we receive each year. I love learning about the contributions and positive impacts our members have on their communities," said MIT FCU President and CEO Brian Ducharme. "I am honored to present these students and members of the MIT community with their awards at our annual meeting."

Schwartz has spent the last four years at MIT dedicating himself to the well-being of the MIT community through all of his actions, from formal endeavors to his day-to-day interactions on campus. Since freshman year, Schwartz has been a volunteer counselor with Camp Kesem at MIT, a student-run organization supporting children touched by a parent's cancer diagnosis. This year will be Schwartz's last year as a counselor, but he was recently accepted to be a camp advisor and will work with the national organization to improve Camp Kesem chapters around the country.

In addition to his work with Camp Kesem, Schwartz has mentored others through the Leadership Training Institute and worked with the Practical Education Network in Ghana. He uses his engineering skills to help others as well, working to develop prosthetic devices for use in developing countries through MIT's D-Lab. Recognized both for his exemplary character and exceptional academics, Schwartz has recently been named a Marshall Scholar and will begin graduate studies at the University College London in the fall and will serve as an ambassador between the United States and United Kingdom.

Given all that he does for the MIT community, it is clear how Schwartz is able to translate his many academic and personal interests into a passion for helping others. Schwartz has pledged to donate his $2,000 award to Camp Kesem – MIT.

In addition to the People Helping People Award, MIT FCU awarded six $1,000 Memorial Scholarships to support members investing in their education. Recipients were selected based on essay content, grades, financial need, and extracurricular and community activities. The 2018 Memorial Scholarship winners are:

  • Dianna Gagnon, of Reading, Massachusetts, who is currently finishing her senior year at Reading Memorial High School and plans to attend Wheaton College this fall;
  • Jessica Quaye, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is currently a sophomore at MIT studying electrical engineering;
  • Noam Watt, of Lexington, Massachusetts, who is currently finishing his senior year at Lexington High School and is still deciding between Northwestern and University of Connecticut for the fall;
  • Sloan Kanaski, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is currently a sophomore at MIT studying physics;
  • Talya Klinger, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is currently a sophomore at MIT studying physics; and
  • Haley Clemons, of West Newbury, Massachusetts, who is currently finishing her senior year at Pentucket Regional High School and plans to attend University of Maine Orono this fall.

MIT Federal Credit Union was founded as a nonprofit financial institution in 1940 to provide basic financial services to employees at MIT. Today, with assets in excess of $500,000 million, the credit union offers traditional savings and checking accounts as well as lending programs for mortgages, autos, personal and student loans. With locations and ATMs in Cambridge and Lexington, along with mobile and, online banking services, MITFCU serves the greater MIT-Kendall Square communities which includes employees of Novartis (Cambridge), Lincoln Laboratory, Draper, Whitehead Institute, The Broad Institute, Phillips, and Forsyth. MITFCU also serves MIT students (graduate and undergraduate) and alumni. MITFCU is a member-owned, cooperative financial institution whose primary mission is to provide quality financial services that meet the needs of its members while ensuring the financial well-being of the organization.

3 Questions: Melissa Nobles and Craig Steven Wilder on the MIT and Legacy of Slavery project

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:40 AM PDT

The first class of the "MIT and Slavery" undergraduate research project ran in the fall of 2017. Set in motion by MIT President L. Rafael Reif with Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the course was developed and taught by Craig Steven Wilder — the Barton L. Weller Professor of History and the nation's leading expert on the links between universities and slavery — in collaboration with Nora Murphy, the MIT archivist for Researcher Services.

The findings from the initial class include insights about MIT's role in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction; examples of racism in the culture of the early campus; and the fact that MIT's founder, William Barton Rogers, had six enslaved people in his Virginia household, before he moved to Massachusetts in 1853. The findings also suggest new lines of research that will enable MIT to contribute to a larger national conversation about still hidden legacies of slavery, especially the relationship between the Atlantic slave economies, the fields of science and engineering, and U.S. technical institutions.

As the "MIT and Slavery" research continues over the coming semesters, MIT is also conducting a community dialogue series, MIT and the Legacy of Slavery, led by Dean Melissa Nobles. The dialogues are an opening chapter in MIT's commitment to researching this history and making it public. A series of events will create campus-wide and community-wide opportunities for shared discussions of the findings and our responses. The first event in this series was held in February, and the second, The Task of History, takes place Thursday, May 3, 5-7 p.m.

SHASS Communications spoke with Nobles and Wilder to hear their thoughts about the ongoing research project and the community dialogue series. 

Q: MIT's approach to exploring the Institute's historical relationship to slavery is unfolding somewhat differently than the process at other universities. Can you describe MIT's approach, and what it means for the community and the Institute's responses to the research findings?

Wilder: Our undergraduate students are engaged in an ongoing research project examining MIT's ties to slavery. As I like to note, MIT students are rewriting the history of MIT for MIT. Their focus on the early history of the Institute allows us to explore the connections between engineering, science, and slavery in antebellum America, which will make a significant and new contribution to the work being done by the dozens of universities that are now researching their historical ties to slavery. MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the research on this subject.

Nobles: It has been 15 years since Brown University launched its three year study of the university's historical connections to slavery. Since then, several other colleges and universities, including Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale, have taken up similar multi-year studies. Three key features distinguish our project from these earlier efforts — to which we are indebted for the precedents they provide.

The first is that rather than the research project starting unofficially and at the faculty level, in this case President Reif and I initiated the process, consulting with MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder about the best way to respond to inquiries about MIT's connections to slavery. Neither the president nor I knew the answers to those questions. But we did appreciate our great good fortune in being able to turn to Craig, the nationally recognized expert on the relationship of slavery and American higher education and the author of "Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities." Craig recommended an innovative approach, which he then developed with Archivist Nora Murphy: a new, ongoing MIT undergraduate research class to explore this aspect of MIT's story. President Reif and I provide resources and support.

The second distinctive quality, which flows from the first, has to do with timing. The norm at other universities is that some years of research predate the public release of the findings. By contrast, MIT announced the initial findings only a few months into the project and will continue releasing new findings each term. This means that the MIT community as a whole has the opportunity to be involved in this endeavor in real-time, as the research matures, learning from the emerging findings — and making informed suggestions for potential official Institute responses. We do not know what the research will find in full, nor what it will ask of us, and I envision a fluid process, one that can respond to new findings, as our community and leadership take the measure of this new dimension of MIT history.

The third distinctive aspect is our project's intellectual scope, which — by virtue of MIT's expertise in science and technology — also allows us to explore a more far-reaching question: the connections between the development of scientific and technological knowledge and the institution of slavery and its legacies. The Institute's founding at the start of the Civil War in 1861 involves MIT in one of the earliest such legacies: the reconstruction of America's southern states, and new social, legal, and economic realities that arose in the transition from slave to free labor, some of which we continue to grapple with today.
 
Q: At President Reif's request, Dean Nobles is leading a series of community dialogues about the early findings from the "MIT and Slavery" class. What plans are there for this phase, and what do you hope the dialogues will produce?

Wilder: The community dialogues are an effort to bring the early and ongoing research from the "MIT and Slavery" course to the various constituencies on campus, to our alumni, and to people and institutions in the Cambridge-Boston area. Our history can help us make new and lasting connections to communities that neighbor MIT but remain separate from it. Dean Nobles is planning an exceptionally rich and inviting range of events and activities to anchor these community exchanges. The forums will provide opportunities for us to receive feedback on the project and to solicit opinions on how MIT can respond to this history as the research continues to unfold.

Nobles: I envision the community dialogues as fulfilling two purposes. The first, and most important, is to engage and deepen our collective understanding of the history and issues surrounding MIT, slavery, and Reconstruction, which was itself the immediate legacy of slavery. The second is to provide various ways by which the MIT community can engage with the ideas and questions raised by the research.

We will shape the dialogues to reflect and advance these two purposes. We will also organize activities, such as small group gatherings, film screenings, panel discussions, and other creative projects designed to encourage and catalyze conversation and reflection. We envision a number of activities each semester. One hope is that the dialogues will inspire MIT community members to incorporate the research findings, and the questions they raise, into their own thinking, teaching, and endeavors.

For example, during our February event, at which the first group of student-researchers announced their early findings, Alaisha Alexander '18 summoned the audience to a creative investigation. She asked that we all go back to our labs, libraries, and classrooms, and be newly alert for ways in which larger social issues, and specifically, racial issues, may be embedded or reflected in our fields. This strikes me as an extremely important question, one worth asking precisely because now, as in the past, larger social, political, and economic processes are inextricably connected to technological and scientific advances. Examining MIT's history and its connection to slavery allows us to think in new ways — about our past but also about the present and future.

And, of course, as the research and the dialogue series progress, we will always be interested in hearing from the MIT community. In addition to responses via emails and participation in scheduled events, we will set up a mechanism so that community members can contribute comments, ideas, suggestions, and insights.

Q: Alongside the MIT and Slavery project, Professor Wilder and others are engaged in creating a consortium of technical universities that will research broader questions of the relationship of the sci/tech fields to the institution of slavery and the U.S. slave economy. Do you envision ways that MIT faculty, students, and staff can participate in this broader research effort?
 
Wilder: The goal of the consortium is to bring several antebellum and Civil War-era engineering and science schools together to produce a more complete history of the rise of these fields in the Atlantic slave economy. The current plan is to have each school establish a research project that draws on its strengths and reflects its institutional needs. The consortium will help coordinate efforts and move resources between universities, and it will host regular conferences where participating faculty, archivists, librarians, and students can share their research.

Nobles: I am really looking forward to this multi-university research project because it will shine a bright light on long understudied dimensions of the historiography of slavery and of science and technology. For example, in most American history classes, we learn that the introduction of the mechanical cotton gin in the early 1800s exponentially transformed the productivity and hence profitability of cotton cultivation. This technological "advance" for productivity also meant, of course, an intensified need for slave labor, to grow and harvest ever-increasing amounts of cotton. Undoubtedly, the connections between science and technology with slavery go far deeper and wider than the cotton gin. The entanglement of the slave economy, science, and technology is a very rich topic area, and one that MIT is uniquely qualified to examine.

Elazer Edelman named director of Institute for Medical Engineering and Science

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:00 AM PDT

Elazer R. Edelman has been named the new director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), effective May 1.

The announcement was made today at a special meeting of the faculty for IMES and the Health Science and Technology (HST) program. "Elazer's strengths as a researcher, a practitioner of medicine, an innovator, and an educator are a fantastic combination," says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering. "We are fortunate to have such a strong leader in so many domains to direct IMES, and I look forward to working with him."

Chandrakasan noted that Edelman succeeds Arup Chakraborty, the inaugural director of IMES. "Arup was fundamental to the institute's creation," he says. "He initiated a wide range of activities and collaborations that have set IMES up for success moving forward. We are deeply grateful for his many contributions."

The Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences at MIT, Edelman has been a core faculty member of IMES since its inception and a professor in the HST program since 1991. He is also the director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center, director of the MIT Clinical Research Center, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a coronary care unit cardiologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Edelman and his laboratory have pioneered basic findings in vascular biology and the development and assessment of biotechnology. His research examining the cellular and molecular mechanisms that produce atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease led to the development and optimization of the first bare-metal stents, as well as subsequent iterations on the technology, including drug-eluting stents and, more recently, mechanical organ support and novel heart valves. His most recent publications have focused on how tissue-engineered cells can be used for the local delivery of growth factors and growth inhibitors in the study of the vascular homeostasis and repair, cancer invasiveness and metastases, and the homology between endothelial paracrine and angiocrine regulation in cancer and vascular diseases.  

As a mentor and educator, Edelman has supervised hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs. He and members of his research group have authored 680 original scientific publications and he holds some 80 patents.

Edelman is a fellow of, member of, or been honored by the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, the Association of University Cardiologists, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many international awards is recognition by Spain with the Order of Civil Merit. He also serves as chief scientific advisor for Science: Translational Medicine and was a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Scientific Board.  

Edelman earned his undergraduate degree in bioelectrical engineering and applied biology and a master's in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT in 1978 and 1979, an MD at Harvard University in 1983, and a PhD in medical engineering and medical physics at MIT in 1984. Edelman is also an avid ice hockey goalie and, with his wife Cheryl SM '96, is a parent to comedian and writer Alexander, Olympic athlete AJ '14, and MIT freshman Austin.  
 

How to assess new solar technologies

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 08:00 AM PDT

Which is a better deal: an established, off-the-shelf type of solar panel or a cutting-edge type that delivers more power for a given area but costs more?

It turns out that's far from a simple question, but a team of researchers at MIT and elsewhere has come up with a way to figure out the best option for a given location and type of installation. The bottom line is that for household-scale rooftop systems in relatively dry locations, the more efficient but more costly panels would be better, but for grid-scale installations or for those in wetter climates, the established, less efficient but cheaper panels are better.

The costs of solar cells continue to plummet, while the costs of installation and the associated equipment remain relatively constant. So, figuring out the tradeoffs involved in planning a new installation has gotten more complicated. But the new study provides a clear way to estimate the best technology for a given project, the authors say.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Energy, in a paper by MIT graduate student Sarah Sofia, associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, research scientist I. Marius Peters, and three others at MIT and at First Solar and Siva Power, solar companies in California.

The study compared two basic varieties of solar cells: standard designs that use a single type of photovoltaic material, and advanced designs that combine two different types (called tandem cells) in order to capture more of the energy in sunlight. For the tandem cells, the researchers also compared different varieties: those in which each of the two cells are connected together in series, called two-junction tandem cells, and those where each cell is separately wired, called four-junction tandem cells.

Instead of just looking at the amount of power each kind can deliver, the team analyzed all the associated installation and operational costs over time, to produce a measurement called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), a measure that incorporates all the costs and revenues over the lifetime of the system.

"Standard single-junction cells have a maximum efficiency limit of about 30 percent," Sofia explains, whereas "tandem cells, using two materials, can have much higher efficiency, above 40 percent." But while higher efficiency is obviously an advantage in principle, "when you make a tandem, you basically have two solar cells instead of one, so it's more expensive to manufacture. So, we wanted to see if it's worth it," she says.

For their analysis, the team looked at three types of environment — arid (Arizona), temperate (South Dakota), and humid (Florida) — because the amount of water vapor in the air can affect how much sunlight reaches the solar cell. In each of these locations, they compared the standard two kinds of single-junction solar cells (cadmium telluride, or CdTe, and copper-indium-gallium-selenide, or CIGS) with two different types of tandem cells, two-junction or four-junction. Thus, a total of four different technologies were studied in each environment. In addition, they studied how the overall LCOE of the installations would be affected depending on whether overall energy prices remain constant or decline over time, as many analysts expect.

The results were somewhat surprising. "For residential systems, we showed that the four-terminal tandem system [the most efficient solar cell available] was the best option, regardless of location," Sofia says. But for utility-scale installations, the cell with the lowest production costs is the best deal, the researchers found.

The new findings could be significant for those planning new solar installations, Sofia says. "For me, showing that a four-terminal tandem cell had a clear opportunity to succeed was not obvious. It really shows the importance of having a high energy yield in a residential system."

But because utility-scale systems can spread the costs of the installation and the control systems over many more panels, and because space tends to be less constrained in such installations, "we never saw an opportunity" for the more costly, efficient cells in such settings. In large arrays, "because the installation costs are so cheap, they just want the cheapest cells [per watt of power]," she says.

The study could help to guide research priorities in solar technology, Sofia says. "There's been a lot of work in this field, without asking this first [whether the economics would actually make sense]. We should be asking the question before we do all the work. … I hope this can serve as a guide to where research efforts should be focused," she says.

The methodology the team developed for making the comparisons should be applicable to many other comparisons of solar technologies, not just the specific types chose for this study, Sofia says. "For thin-film technologies, this is generalizable," she says.

Because the materials they studied for the four-terminal case are already commercialized, Sofia says, "if there was a company that had an interest," practical, affordable four-junction tandem systems for residential applications could potentially be brought to market quite quickly.

"This paper breaks new ground because it precisely quantifies the cost of solar energy for different solar-panel technologies, in different climate zones, and for different application scales," says Raffi Garabedian, the chief technology officer at First Solar, who was not involved in this research. "As the authors point out, high-efficiency tandem cells, once fully developed, should have the edge in high-installation cost environments such as residential rooftops."

The research team also included Jonathan Mailoa at MIT, Dirk Weiss at First Solar Inc., and Billy Stanbery at Siva Power, both companies in Santa Clara, California. The work was supported by the National Research Foundation Singapore through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation.

Calcium-based MRI sensor enables more sensitive brain imaging

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 07:59 AM PDT

MIT neuroscientists have developed a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that allows them to monitor neural activity deep within the brain by tracking calcium ions.

Because calcium ions are directly linked to neuronal firing — unlike the changes in blood flow detected by other types of MRI, which provide an indirect signal — this new type of sensing could allow researchers to link specific brain functions to their pattern of neuron activity, and to determine how distant brain regions communicate with each other during particular tasks.

"Concentrations of calcium ions are closely correlated with signaling events in the nervous system," says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering, an associate member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study. "We designed a probe with a molecular architecture that can sense relatively subtle changes in extracellular calcium that are correlated with neural activity."

In tests in rats, the researchers showed that their calcium sensor can accurately detect changes in neural activity induced by chemical or electrical stimulation, deep within a part of the brain called the striatum.

MIT research associates Satoshi Okada and Benjamin Bartelle are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the April 30 issue of Nature Nanotechnology. Other authors include professor of brain and cognitive sciences Mriganka Sur, Research Associate Nan Li, postdoc Vincent Breton-Provencher, former postdoc Elisenda Rodriguez, Wellesley College undergraduate Jiyoung Lee, and high school student James Melican.

Tracking calcium

A mainstay of neuroscience research, MRI allows scientists to identify parts of the brain that are active during particular tasks. The most commonly used type, known as functional MRI, measures blood flow in the brain as an indirect marker of neural activity. Jasanoff and his colleagues wanted to devise a way to map patterns of neural activity with specificity and resolution that blood-flow-based MRI techniques can't achieve.

"Methods that are able to map brain activity in deep tissue rely on changes in blood flow, and those are coupled to neural activity through many different physiological pathways," Jasanoff says. "As a result, the signal you see in the end is often difficult to attribute to any particular underlying cause."

Calcium ion flow, on the other hand, can be directly linked with neuron activity. When a neuron fires an electrical impulse, calcium ions rush into the cell. For about a decade, neuroscientists have been using fluorescent molecules to label calcium in the brain and image it with traditional microscopy. This technique allows them to precisely track neuron activity, but its use is limited to small areas of the brain.

The MIT team set out to find a way to image calcium using MRI, which enables much larger tissue volumes to be analyzed. To do that, they designed a new sensor that can detect subtle changes in calcium concentrations outside of cells and respond in a way that can be detected with MRI.

The new sensor consists of two types of particles that cluster together in the presence of calcium. One is a naturally occurring calcium-binding protein called synaptotagmin, and the other is a magnetic iron oxide nanoparticle coated in a lipid that can also bind to synaptotagmin, but only when calcium is present.

Calcium binding induces these particles to clump together, making them appear darker in an MRI image. High levels of calcium outside the neurons correlate with low neuron activity; when calcium concentrations drop, it means neurons in that area are firing electrical impulses.

Detecting brain activity

To test the sensors, the researchers injected them into the striatum of rats, a region that is involved in planning movement and learning new behaviors. They then gave the rats a chemical stimulus that induces short bouts of neural activity, and found that the calcium sensor reflected this activity.

They also found that the sensor picked up activity induced by electrical stimulation in a part of the brain involved in reward.

This approach provides a novel way to examine brain function, says Xin Yu, a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen, Germany, who was not involved in the research.

"Although we have accumulated sufficient knowledge on intracellular calcium signaling in the past half-century, it has seldom been studied exactly how the dynamic changes in extracellular calcium contribute to brain function, or serve as an indicator of brain function," Yu says. "When we are deciphering such a complicated and self-adapted system like the brain, every piece of information matters."

The current version of the sensor responds within a few seconds of the initial brain stimulation, but the researchers are working on speeding that up. They are also trying to modify the sensor so that it can spread throughout a larger region of the brain and pass through the blood-brain barrier, which would make it possible to deliver the particles without injecting them directly to the test site.

With this kind of sensor, Jasanoff hopes to map patterns of neural activity with greater precision than is now possible. "You could imagine measuring calcium activity in different parts of the brain and trying to determine, for instance, how different types of sensory stimuli are encoded in different ways by the spatial pattern of neural activity that they induce," he says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain.

Direct enrollment provides students an individualized option for study abroad

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 07:10 AM PDT

Each year, MIT students engage in study abroad with assistance from MIT's Global Education Office (GEO). In addition to the Imperial College London Exchange Program and departmental exchange programs with other international universities, including in Japan, Switzerland, South Africa, and France, students can create their own personalized study abroad program through direct enrollment. 

Direct enrollment is a student-initiated global education option that allows students to apply directly to an overseas university. With direct enrollment, students have the opportunity to tailor an international academic experience to match their personal intellectual interests and academic needs. For this option, students work closely with a GEO advisor as well as their departmental academic advisor to select an appropriate university and program, and to prepare for the experience.

Most students choosing direct enrollment coordinate their global studies to occur in a semester during their junior year, but some decide to embark on a course of study during the spring of their sophomore year or fall of their senior year. The timing depends in part on a student's particular academic plan and progress towards their degree.

Because direct enrollment is flexible and individualized, students can use it in a variety of ways. They may select to dive deep into restricted electives or other subjects related to their major, minor, or HASS (humanities, arts, social sciences)-elective requirements, or they may use their time abroad to explore other areas of academic interest. In addition to academics, students have the opportunity to become involved in an array of extracurricular activities and university clubs.

While studying abroad, students earn transfer credit towards their MIT requirements. This arrangement begins with students bringing a curricular proposal to their department's faculty transfer credit examiner for pre-approval. Junior Emily Mu found the transfer credit examiners at MIT to be "very open and willing to discuss your options with you." Mu, who enrolled at St. Peter's College at Oxford University, notes, "I'm a double major in computer science and math and I'm taking courses that will count towards both of those degrees back home. I wanted to experience a significantly different academic experience and challenge myself. It's been really rewarding to meet so many new people of such different backgrounds — I hadn't really spoken to a theology major before coming here!"

GEO staff recommend that students interested in direct enrollment start planning at the end of their freshman year or beginning of their sophomore year to allow time to consider options and share their academic study abroad plan with their MIT departmental advisors. Starting early also allows students adequate time to meet external application deadlines, as international universities differ in their deadlines and academic calendars.

MIT students have directly enrolled in universities around the world. While Oxford University in the U.K. remains a popular choice, students have recently spent semesters at University in Edinburgh in Scotland, University of New South Wales in Australia, University of Hong Kong (HKU), and — thanks to the Chinese Government Scholarship program — Fudan University in Shanghai. "I have learned very much about how the world works outside of a western perspective," observes civil and environmental engineering junior Grace Melcher, who spent a direct enrollment semester at HKU.

Courses are offered in English in many non-English speaking countries. If students have the appropriate foreign language skills they can also take classes in the host country's language, or take a combination of classes in English and a foreign language. Students typically enroll in four classes while doing a semester abroad.

Although they may be the only MIT student at an overseas university during their semester there, students who participate in direct enrollment do not have to fear social isolation. Upon arriving on campus, they participate in an international orientation program with other foreign students and have the opportunity to meet and make friends with exchange students from around the world. "I met a lot of international students and had interesting conversations about politics, culture, and more," says civil and environmental engineering junior Christine Langston who studied last fall at the University of Edinburgh.

Direct enrollment offers motivated students the chance for both intellectual and personal growth by giving them the freedom to design their own academic experience in the country and school of their choosing. Students who participate in direct enrollment speak of discovering new passions, rekindling existing interests, and returning to MIT with a better sense of what they hope to accomplish on campus and in the future.

"I've learned so much about the world, myself, and so much more through studying abroad," affirms electrical engineering and computer science junior Udgam Goyal of his time at St. Catherine's College at Oxford University. "Studying abroad has been one of the best experiences of my life." Junior Riley Quinn, who majors in finance and also studied at "Catz" echoes these sentiments: "I have loved challenging myself in a new academic environment and immersing myself in new cultures. I 100 percent recommend that every MIT student should study abroad in some capacity."

Featured video: Scootah hockey, the silly sport of Simmons Hall

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 06:45 AM PDT

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in April, pedestrians walking down Vassar Street past Simmons Hall — a.k.a. the Sponge — were treated to a unique look at MIT culture. Unlike the usual snacking students they would normally have seen, passers-by peering through Simmons' dining hall windows witnessed a crowd of undergraduates dressed in pastel tutus, feather boas, and propeller hats. The students cheered and honked — annoyingly — on vuvuzelas as their peers, perched on the kind of plastic scooters most often seen in elementary school gym classes, scuttled after colored hockey pucks.

Welcome to the fifth annual Scootah Hockey World Championship.

The students of Simmons Hall had cleared away the tables in their dining hall to form SimDin Arena, the playing field for their proud sport. As the set up was completed, participants gathered to sing the Simmons Hall anthem, "O Spongey-Sponge" (sung to the tune of "O Canada," and referencing the building's unique architecture). Once the dorm's praises had been sung, the competition began.

Scootah Hockey is simple. Players sit on plastic scooters and use small paddles to hit a hockey puck into the opposing team's goal. The most important rule of Scootah Hockey is to stay on one's scooter, which the referees constantly reiterate by shouting, "On your scooter!"

The April 8 championship was organized into brackets, and teams played against each other until the final two were left to compete head-to-head. The prize? A scooter with each year's winning team memorialized on plaques to be kept until the next championship.

This year's champs were from C-Tower. Senior Garrison Snyder spoke about the final moments leading up to their win. "It was tied up, overtime, next shot wins it. I saw the puck in my field of vision and I just knew I had to slap it in. It went into the far side of the net and there was the goal, there was the game," he said. "The championship title for C-Tower. Couldn't have done it without the team, though."

Scootah Hockey has been a Simmons Hall tradition since 2014 and has been elaborated on by the residents ever since. In recent years, students have given more structure to the sport, including the founding of the Federation d'International du Scootah Hockey and Sports That Inquire Cool Kids (FISHSTICK), establishing commissioners of Scootah Hockey, and creating the Every Scootah Hockey Person's Network (ESHPN), which provides highlights and statistics.

Sophomore Nicolas Arons, FISHSTICK's current commissioner, was inspired by last year's commissioner, Evan Denmark, to bear the responsibility and honor of organizing the game. "He was one of the absolute funniest people I have ever met," he said. "He would come out wearing [spandex] in bright neon colors and the shortest shorts you've ever seen and he'd just do ridiculous stuff to make people have fun. So that's something I learned from him — to try to be ridiculous and to let ourselves be kids again."

Arons said he was immediately drawn into the game's playful competition during his first year at MIT. "I was pretty involved with Scootah Hockey. That's sort of why I was chosen to become the next commissioner, because I really liked it and I really enjoyed the atmosphere," he said. "Everyone is rooting for their section, but they're all doing it for fun. It's not super aggressive or competitive, because it's sort of a ridiculous sport."

Arons said the best part of Scootah Hockey is the feeling of community the game inspires.

"I think it really brings together the whole dorm," he said. "You have all of these different groups and you get to make friends with people you might not have gotten to know and have fun with them."

Submitted by: Isabel Stewart | Video by: Division of Student Life | 1 min, 53 sec