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Science as a social practice

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 09:00 PM PST

Marion Boulicault hates making decisions. "I want to do everything," she says, "and one of the effects of making a choice is that other choices are closed off." Alternately drawn to work in environmental science, public policy, and philosophy, she has always felt compelled to bring her interests together.

So when she first began her doctorate in philosophy at MIT, Boulicault assumed that choosing such an abstract field meant letting go of the pragmatic, on-the-ground impact of a career in public service.

But after taking STS.260 (Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society), a class that analyzes science as a human activity, she found the two didn't have to be mutually exclusive. She petitioned her department to allow her to take courses in the Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) for credit, and has been dismantling disciplinary boundaries ever since.

Working at the interface of philosophy and science

Through her HASTS interdisciplinary coursework, Boulicault first encountered a field that intrigued her: the feminist philosophy of science. She was struck that problems of gender in science go far beyond equal representation. "The notion of 'bias' can't be understood only at an individual level — it's also social, cultural, and structural. Although science is often idealized as value-free and purely 'objective,' it's a practice done by people and institutions," she says. "Science is inherently social."

A seminal study in her field, and a favorite of Boulicault's, is detailed in Emily Martin's "The Egg and the Sperm." The 1991 study deconstructs the language of scientific textbooks, arguing that descriptions of the egg and sperm fit a gendered, fairy-tale paradigm: The egg is characterized as a passive damsel in distress, waiting to be awakened, and the sperm are described as energetic and active, in unwavering pursuit of fertilization. This paradigm hindered scientific progress, Martin writes, because it delayed crucial research characterizing the egg's active role recruiting the sperm and the dynamic relationship between the sex cells.

Boulicault's research extends this idea to the most fundamental language of science: numbers, metrics, and measurements. She is currently analyzing the use of metrics in fertility research, particularly the differences between two common infertility tests: the ovarian reserve test, and standard semen analysis. Boulicault's work asks if and how social ideas about gender play a role in fertility measurements, and what this might mean for scientific research into fertility.

"The metaphor of women's ticking biological clocks, and the narrative of an ovarian reserve that is constantly being depleted … these are central frames for the way we measure and think about fertility," Boulicault says. "I worry that these frames might be entangled with potentially problematic ideas and norms about the role of women in society, and that these frames might end up hindering our understanding of how fertility actually functions."

She adds: "What I'm investigating is: If we ask different questions and approach fertility research with different frameworks and measurements, might we find new or surprising things about the phenomenon of human fertility?"

Creating her community

Originally from London, Boulicault still feels homesick at times. She didn't expect moving to the U.S. to be the culture shock that it was; even the differences in the English language gave her pause. "The tone and the cadence and cultural structures [aren't the same]. There are other differences that are hard to articulate. Feeling like you fit in happens in feeling-y ways," she says.

One way in which Boulicault has found a home away from home is through co-op living. In shared houses that emphasize collective living and decision-making, residents build a strong sense of community through weekly dinners and group house project days, and by prioritizing open communication. Boulicault also feels at home in nature; she enjoys hiking in the nearby White Mountains and is an avid biker.

Boulicault's commitment to public service throughout her time in the U.S. has also helped her build connections with the community. She spent summers volunteering at a malaria clinic and a public defender's office, and worked for two years as a researcher at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington before coming to MIT.

Despite the time constraints of graduate school, she continues to channel her desire to work for the public good. Boulicault is a co-director of the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) at MIT, which invites 20 undergraduates from underrepresented groups to spend a week on campus every summer. From planning seminars to booking travel, she has happily thrown herself into the work to make a difference in her own discipline.

Philosophy can be a tough sell for the PIKSI cohorts. Yet through her involvement with PIKSI, Boulicault hopes to show students that despite the subject's seemingly esoteric nature, it offers practical tools for improving the world.

"I also think it's really important for philosophy. If any of these students end up going into philosophy, it will be a great thing for our discipline. … Philosophy can be a better and more inclusive field than it currently is, and these students will help to create that if they end up pursuing PhDs and becoming professors."

Bringing a humanities perspective to science

Boulicault has managed to merge her dual passions for conceptual thinking and public service as a founding member of the Harvard GenderSci Lab, which generates feminist critiques, methods, and concepts for scientific research on sex and gender.  

At times, operating within a truly interdisciplinary framework is difficult — the GenderSci Lab consists of biologists, psychologists, philosophers, and historians — but she has found others with similar interests and has created her own interdisciplinary space.

"The dream of interdisciplinarity is that, by bringing together multiple methods and perspectives, you can come to understand a given phenomenon — like gender in science — in new and transformative ways … but there are challenges. I sometimes worry that, by working in so many disciplines at once, I might not end up fitting into any. The philosophers think, 'This isn't real philosophy'; the historians think, 'She's in the philosophy department'; and the scientists think, 'She only has an undergrad degree in the sciences,'" Boulicault laughs. "But I only worry about that in my dark moments!"

Boulicault says the philosophy section at MIT has been hugely supportive of her endeavors and has itself become more interdisciplinary in recent years. But she believes there are even more opportunities for synergy between the humanities and sciences at MIT. It's also a timely perspective for MIT, given the launch of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, which aims to incorporate ethics into the advancement of computing and artificial intelligence.

"Science and technology have essential roles to play in societal development — and figure heavily into MIT's global image — but I think that the broader MIT ethos could be informed by paying more attention to the scholars at MIT in HASTS and philosophy who are asking questions like: 'What is technology? In what ways is it social and how might it be assuming or amplifying existing and possibly problematic social ideas?'" Boulicault says.

Stephen Buchwald awarded 2019 Wolf Prize for chemistry

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 01:25 PM PST

Camille Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry Stephen L. Buchwald has been named one of seven laureates across five categories honored with Israel's 2019 Wolf Prize. Buchwald shares the award in chemistry with Professor John Hartwig of the University of California at Berkeley for their development of the Buchwald-Hartwig animation, a process used to improve the synthesis of large organic molecules.

"This award is due to the hard work and creativity of the graduate students and postdoctoral coworkers that I have been fortunate enough to have in my group during my over 30 years at MIT," said Buchwald. "It also reflects the importance of funding basic research. In this case, the key finding came from work that had no practical application. However, based what we learned, we (and others) were able to develop new chemistry that is now widely used in industry as well as in academia."

Buchwald received his BS from Brown University in 1977, and his PhD from Harvard University in 1982. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech, he joined the faculty at MIT in 1984, and was promoted to professor of chemistry in 1993. Among Buchwald's numerous honors are the Linus Pauling Award, the Roger Adams Award, the Arthur C. Cope Award, BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences, and the Gustavus J. Esselen Award.

Research in the Buchwald Group combines elements of organic synthesis, physical organic chemistry, and organometallic chemistry to devise catalytic processes of use in solving problems of fundamental importance.

Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor who served as Cuba's ambassador to Israel, established the Wolf Foundation in 1975 and the Wolf Prize, given in recognition of "achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples, irrespective of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political view", in 1978. Winners are selected by an international prize committee comprised of renowned experts in each field. The prestigious $100,000 awards are given in the fields of agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, physics, and art, and, within the filed of chemistry are widely regarded as second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of their stature.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will present Buchwald and the other 2019 laureates with their awards this May at a ceremony held at the Knesset Building (Israel's Parliament) in Jerusalem.

Revising the textbook on introns

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 10:00 AM PST

A research team from Whitehead Institute has uncovered a surprising and previously unrecognized role for introns, the parts of genes that lack the instructions for making proteins and are typically cut away and rapidly destroyed. Through studies of baker's yeast, the researchers identified a highly unusual group of introns that linger and accumulate, in their fully intact form, long after they have been freed from their neighboring sequences, which are called exons. Importantly, these persistent introns play a role in regulating yeast growth, particularly under stressful conditions.

The researchers, whose work appears online in the journal Nature, suggest that some introns also might accumulate and carry out functions in other organisms.

"This is the first time anyone has found a biological role for full-length, excised introns," says senior author David Bartel, a member of the Whitehead Institute. "Our findings challenge the view of these introns as simply byproducts of gene expression, destined for rapid degradation."

Imagine the DNA that makes up your genes as the raw footage of a movie. The exons are the scenes used in the final cut, whereas the introns are the outtakes — shots that are removed, or spliced out, and therefore not represented in the finished product.

Despite their second-class status, introns are known to play a variety of important roles. Yet these activities are primarily confined to the period prior to splicing — that is, before introns are separated from their nearby exons. After splicing, some introns can be whittled down and retained for other uses — part of a group of so-called "non-coding RNAs." But by and large, introns have been thought to be relegated to the genome's cutting room floor.

Bartel and his Whitehead Institute colleagues, including world-renowned yeast expert Gerald Fink, now add an astonishing new dimension to this view: Full-length introns — that is, those that have been cut out but remain otherwise intact — can persist and carry out useful biological functions. As reported in their Nature paper, the team discovered that these extraordinary introns are regulated by and function within the essential TORC1 growth signaling network, forming a previously unknown branch of this network that controls cell growth during periods of stress.

"Our initial reaction was: 'This is really weird,'" recalls first author Jeffrey Morgan, a former graduate student in Bartel's lab who is now a postdoc in Jared Rutter's lab at the University of Utah. "We came across genes where the introns were much more abundant than the exons, which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect."

The researchers identified a total of 34 of these unusually stable introns, representing 11 percent of all introns in the yeast, also known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Surprisingly, there are very few criteria that determine which introns will become stable introns. For example, the genetic sequences of the introns or the regions that surround them are of no significance. The only defining — and necessary — feature, the team found, is a structural one, and involves the precise shape the introns adopt as they are being excised from their neighboring exons. Excised introns typically form a lasso-shaped structure, known as a lariat. The length of the lasso's handle appears to dictate whether an intron will be stabilized or not.

Remarkably, both yeast and introns have been studied for several decades. Yet until now, these unique introns went undetected. One reason, Bartel and his colleagues believe, is the conditions under which yeast are typically grown. Often, researchers study yeast that are growing very rapidly — so-called log-phase growth. That is because abnormalities are often easiest to detect when cells are multiplying quickly.

"Biologists have focused heavily on log-phase for very good reasons, but in the wild, yeast are very rarely in that condition, whether it's because of limited nutrients or other stresses," says Bartel, who is also professor of biology at MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

He and his colleagues decided to grow yeast under more stressful circumstances, and that is what ultimately led them to their discovery. Although their experiments were confined to yeast, the researchers believe it is possible other organisms may harbor this long-overlooked class of introns — and that similar approaches using less-often-studied conditions could help illuminate them.

"Right now, we can say it is happening in yeast, but we'd be surprised if this is the only organism in which it is happening," Bartel says.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

MIT D-Lab Practical Impact Alliance holds Co-Design Summit

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:55 AM PST

A recent six-day Practical Impact Alliance (PIA) Co-Design Summit, organized by MIT D-Lab and Moroccan PIA member the Phosboucraa Foundation, convened a group of local and national stakeholders, PIA members, MIT D-Lab staff, and aspiring local entrepreneurs working to create collaborative solutions to economic and social development challenges using D-Lab's participatory design methodology. The summit, which took place in the city of Laâyoune in the Western Sahara, focused on youth entrepreneurship with the goal of catalyzing innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

"Our work in general focuses on areas where there are needs in terms of economic and social development, and the choice of Laâyoune came through Phosboucraa Foundation, who asked us about the need to develop a new strategy to promote youth entrepreneurship," explained Saida Benhayoune, co-lead of innovation practice at the D-Lab.

The summit, she said, was an opportunity for young, aspiring entrepreneurs to be in the spotlight, supported by local and national ecosystem actors. She noted that this is a way to "bring these young people on a path to creativity and innovation."

The entrepreneurs who participated in the summit had the opportunity to create solutions to socioeconomic challenges in their region.

"It's not just about the opportunity to grow a business and the potential increased income; it's also about opportunities and identifying your own potential and building confidence," said Mohamed Fadel, a young entrepreneur from Laâyoune, who was asked about his experience during the Co-Design Summit. The summit stressed the importance of co-creation with regards to entrepreneurship, attempting to change the perspective of the participants towards a more collaborative approach. Fadel acknowledged how his thought process changed saying: "I initially thought to try my ideas for a business on my own, but now I see that it is easier and there is greater potential to advance further as part of a team."

While the summit had a primary focus on local entrepreneurs, the experience proved to be a growth experience for all participants.

The biggest learning [from the week] for me was how to have the entrepreneurs go through the steps of the design and mindset tools … [and] then use the tools themselves," remarked Naa Ayeleysa Quaynor-Mettle, the sustainability project manager at Fan Milk Ltd., a subsidiary of PIA member Danone. "It was an example of how I can support and learn by leading from behind and encourage them to own their decisions."

Several PIA members learned new strategies from the summit to apply towards their own development work. Stephen Njuguna, a project coordinator and consultant of Safe Water Enterprise Project of Siemens Stiftung in Kenya, explained: "After going through the co-design process, one is able to come up with solutions that will address the needs of the target audience. In the ordinary way of designing we tend to rush to the most obvious solutions at the very beginning due to their convenience, cost, attractiveness, and ease of implementation."

Now, MIT D-Lab staff and the Co-Design Summit participants are looking to the future.

"The summit is just one step in the process, [local] trainers have been trained and the idea is that they will take this methodology and continue to teach it in Laâyoune," Benhayoune said. In this way, the summit creates sustainable solutions to challenges, and the work that was started in Laâyoune during the summit is only beginning. D-Lab will observe the progress in the region and report back within a year after the summit takes place.

Another participant and aspiring entrepreneur, Sabah Aamar, was looking forward to working with the D-Lab looks for the future of entrepreneurs in Laâyoune.

"I want to follow one of the projects that I will work on during the summit in order for it to become a business and [to] share my experience with new young people so they can do the same thing and eventually enrich the local economy," Aamar said.

Applying physics to energy-efficient building design

Posted: 16 Jan 2019 08:25 AM PST

Developing a perfectly energy-efficient building is relatively easy to do — if you don't give the building's occupants any control over their environment. Since nobody wants that kind of building, Professor Christoph Reinhart has focused his career on finding ways to make buildings more energy-efficient while keeping user needs in mind.

"At this point in designing buildings, the biggest uncertainty comes from user behavior," says Reinhart, who heads the Sustainable Design Lab in MIT's Department of Architecture. "Once you understand heat flow, it's a very exact science to see how much heat to add or take from a space."

Trained in physics, Reinhart made the move to architecture because he wanted to apply the scientific concepts he'd learned to make buildings more comfortable and energy-efficient. Today, he is internationally known for his work in what architects call "daylighting" — the use of natural light to illuminate building interiors — and urban-level environmental building performance analysis. The design tools that emerged from his lab are used by architects and urban planners in more than 90 countries.

The Sustainable Design Lab's work has also produced two spinoff companies: Mapdwell, which provides individualized cost-benefit analyses for installing solar panels; and Solemma, which provides environmental analysis tools such as DIVA-for-Rhino, a highly optimized daylighting and energy modeling software component. Reinhart is a co-founder and strategic development advisor at Mapdwell, and he is CEO of Solemma.

Through it all, physics has remained a central underpinning. "Everything our lab develops is based on physics first," says Reinhart, who earned master's degrees in physics from Albert Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg, Germany, and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Informing design

A lifelong environmentalist, Reinhart says he was inspired to study architecture in part by the work of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, which built a completely self-sufficient solar house in Freiburg in the early 1990s.

While finishing his master's thesis, Reinhart says, he also read an article that suggested that features such as color can be more important than performance to architects choosing a solar system — an idea that drove him to find ways to empower architects to consider aesthetics and the environmental performance of their designs at the same time. He began this effort by investigating daylighting at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, Germany.

Light is incredibly important from a design standpoint — architects talk of "painting with light" — but there are also significant technical challenges involved in lighting, such as how to manage heat and glare, Reinhart says.

"You need good sky models and you need good rendering tools to model the light. You also need computer science to make it faster — but that's just the basics," Reinhart says, noting that the next step is to consider how people perceive and use natural light. "This really nuanced way of thinking is what makes daylighting so fun and interesting."

For example, designers typically render buildings with all the blinds open. If they learn that people will keep the blinds down 90 percent of the time with a given design, they are likely to rethink it, Reinhart says, because "nobody wants that."

The daylighting analysis software developed by Reinhart's team in 1998 provides just this kind of information. Known as DAYSIM, it is now used all over the world to model annual daylight availability in and around buildings.

Reinhart has also published textbooks on daylighting: "Daylighting Handbook I: Fundamentals and Designing with the Sun" was published in in 2014, and a second volume, "Daylighting Handbook II: Daylight Simulations and Dynamic Facades," was released last October.

"Daylighting was really my first way into architecture," Reinhart says, noting that he thinks it's wonderful that the field combines "rock solid science" like sky modeling with more subjective questions related to the users' experience, such as: "When is sunlight a liability?" and "When does it add visual interest?"

Teaching and advising

After earning his doctorate in architecture from Technical University in 2001, Reinhart taught briefly at McGill University in Canada before being named an associate professor of architecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. In 2009, the student forum there named him faculty member of the year.

In 2012, he joined the faculty at MIT, where he typically supervises seven or eight graduate students, including about three working on their PhDs. Often, he also has students working in his lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Several students majoring in computer science have proved particularly helpful, he says.

"It's amazing what MIT students can implement," he says.

Reinhart is also an instructor, of course, notably teaching 4.401/4.464 (Environmental Technologies in Buildings), which focuses on how to assess the energy efficiency of buildings.

"There's nothing more fun — especially at an institution like MIT — than to teach these concepts," he says.

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) is now working to make that subject available online via MITx, and the class is expected to be part of a planned graduate certificate in energy, according to Antje Danielson, MITEI's director of education.

City-scale modeling

Meanwhile, Reinhart has scaled his own research up to modeling energy use at the city level. In 2016, he and colleagues unveiled an energy model for Boston that estimates the gas and electricity demands of every building in the city — and his team has since assessed other urban areas.

This work has underscored for him how significant user behavior is to calculating energy use.

"For an individual building you can get a sense of the user behavior, but if you want to model a whole city, that problem explodes on you," Reinhart says, noting that his team uses statistical methods such as Bayesian calibration to determine likely behaviors.

Essentially, they collect data on energy use and train the computer to recognize different scenarios, such as the energy used by different numbers of people and appliances.

"We throw 800 user behaviors at a sample of buildings, and since we know how much energy these buildings actually use, we only keep those behavioral patterns that give us the right energy use," Reinhart says, explaining that repeating the process produces a curve that indicates the buildings' most likely uses. "We don't know exactly where people are, but at the urban level, we get it right."

Determining how energy is being used at this broad scale provides critical information for addressing the needs of the energy system as a whole, Reinhart says. That's why Reinhart is currently working with Exelon Corporation, a major national energy provider, to assess energy use in Chicago. "We can say, let's foster these kinds of upgrades and pretty much guarantee that this is how the energy load throughout a neighborhood or for particular substations will change—which is just what utilities want to know," he says.

The food-energy-water nexus

Recently, Reinhart has also begun investigating ways to make food production more energy-efficient and sustainable. His lab is developing a software component that can estimate food yields, associated use of energy and water, and the carbon emissions that result for different types of urban farms.

For example, hydroponic container farming — a system of growing food without soil inside something like a shipping container — is now being promoted by companies in some cities, including Boston. This system typically uses more electricity than conventional farming does, but that energy use can be more than offset by the reduced need for transportation, Reinhart says. Already, Reinhart's team has shown that rooftop and container farming on available land in Lisbon, Portugal, could theoretically meet the city's total vegetable demand.

This work exploring the nexus between food, energy, and water is just the next level of complexity for Reinhart in a career dedicated to moving the needle on sustainability. Fortunately, he's not alone in his work; he has sent a host of young academics out into the world to work on similar concerns.

Reinhart's former graduate students now work at universities including Cornell, Harvard, Syracuse, and the University of Toronto, and he continues to collaborate with them on projects.

It's like having a growing family, says Reinhart, a father of two. "Students never leave. It's like kids."

This article appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.