Medical anthropology

July 6, 2015

What is the relationship between religious belief and healing? How does poverty affect who gets sick? And, in what ways do gender inequities influence health outcomes?

These are the kinds of questions that interest Erica Caple James, a medical and psychiatric anthropologist and director of MIT’s new Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative, which launched last fall.

James has spent two decades investigating how behavior, culture, and structural inequalities impact health. While working with rape survivors in the aftermath of Haiti’s 1991 to 1994 coup period, James found that aid designed to improve the lives of victims often had the unintended effect of fracturing community ties. Haitians living in extreme poverty fought to gain access to the unusual flow of funds, and humanitarian organizations themselves fought over lucrative aid contracts.

“The research I’ve done has shown the complexity of trying to intervene to improve people’s lives,” she says.

James’s current research focuses on the health experiences of Haitians who chose to leave their conflict-ridden nation for the relative security of the United States. Her research has revealed that “the vulnerabilities one might have in your country of origin often travel with you, whether it’s illness, conditions of economic vulnerability, or mental health challenges,” James says.

These findings underscore the need to think more broadly about global health impacts, says James, who founded the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative to address just such issues. The goal of the initiative, she says, is “to try to expand and deepen the conversations that occur around medicine and illness, healing and health disparities, and various kinds of inequalities.”

James included “medical humanities” in the name, she says, because “I also want to draw from literature, history, and the arts in future programming — alongside drawing on anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics perspectives to think about medicine, illness, and healing critically.”

The initiative will provide a formal program for MIT students who aspire to take an active role in improving global health. “I want to help students to think in a nuanced way about the determinants of health,” James says, noting that she is hoping the effort will draw expertise from all five MIT schools.

For its inaugural event in October, the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative examined the roots of the recent Ebola epidemic as well as the social and scientific responses to the crisis. “We’ve seen with the Ebola crisis that the mobility of people means that we have to think of disease and healing in a much more complex way,” James says.

Now James is developing an interdisciplinary subject — tentatively titled Infections and Inequalities — that might one day be incorporated into an undergraduate minor in health. Down the line, she hopes the initiative will provide students with firsthand experience in tackling health challenges.

“What’s driving the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative is a recognition that in order to truly understand and improve health and health care, it is vitally important to bring into conversation biomedical and technological perspectives with those of the humanities, arts, and social sciences,” James says. “MIT may be uniquely positioned to offer new research and teaching models that can solve persisting health problems worldwide.”

By Kathryn M. O’Neill | MIT Spectrum

Every time you’ve seen a plane take off or land at a hub airport, you’ve seen the world growing more connected, according to a new model developed by researchers at MIT.

In a study published in the journal Transportation Research Part E, the MIT team outlines a model that determines the degree to which regions around the world are connected via air transportation.

The researchers, at MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment (LAE), analyzed flight schedules between 1990 and 2012 from more than 1,100 airlines connecting over 4,600 airports around the world. They also looked at 1.2 million tickets to gauge passenger behavior — such as the detours that passengers were willing to make to get to their final destination.

They observed that in 1990, airports in the U.S. were, by far, the best-connected. By 2012, thousands of airports around the world, particularly in Europe and Asia, emerged as access points to the global air transportation network, increasing global connectivity, or the links between regions, by 140 percent.

This exploding growth in global connectivity is due largely to the increasing availability and quality of indirect connections, in which passengers have to switch to a connecting flight to continue on to their destination.

While overall, passengers generally prefer nonstop over one-stop flights, the researchers found that the number and quality of indirect connections grew faster than nonstop flights over this period. In part, they attributed this growth to increasing cooperation between airlines: Between 1990 and 2012, global airlines began to team up into multi-airline alliances, such as Oneworld, Sky Team, and Star Alliance. These alliances offer “code-sharing” flights — connecting flights involving two airlines, sold to passengers on a single ticket.

The researchers note that such code-sharing provides global “seamless travel” options for passengers at the point of sale. For example, to get from Newark, N.J., to Singapore, a passenger might purchase a ticket through United Airlines, which is part of an alliance that includes Lufthansa. The ticket may involve a connection in Frankfurt where the passenger switches from a United aircraft to a Lufthansa aircraft — so the cooperation between those two airlines connects Newark to more destinations throughout the world.

Robert Malina, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and LAE’s associate director, says the rising impact of connecting flights on global connectivity is a somewhat counterintuitive and surprising one.

“Even if you take into account that one-stop flights have a lower value for passengers because they involve additional travel time, we still find that one-stop flights become more important over time in connecting regions,” Malina says. “It’s easier to transfer these days, because the airlines are cooperating better than they were in the ’90s. So we get a lot of indirect connectivity. That’s a striking result.”

Malina’s co-authors on the paper are MIT postdoc Florian Allroggen and PhD student Michael Wittman.

Making connections

For their model, the researchers analyzed 1.2 million ticketed flight itineraries, as well as flight schedules at over 4,600 airports. The flight schedules gave them an idea of the direct and indirect routes available to passengers, while ticket sales were used to measure passenger preferences — such as with respect to the maximum detour, or the most out-of-the-way connection, they were willing to accept in order to get to their destination.

Malina and his colleagues also evaluated the economic quality of the markets that surround destination airports, taking into account per-capita gross domestic product, the number of people, and their spatial distribution around the airport.

The group’s model computes a “global connectivity index” score for each airport in the years between 1990 and 2012. This score indicates the degree to which an airport is connected to the global air transport network; the researchers plotted how these connectivity scores changed over the period.

“It’s an interesting time period, because there was a lot of change in the global transportation network,” Malina says. “Let’s take Europe as an example: Back in the early 1990s, you had highly regulated markets. So if you were an Irish airline, you were able to fly from Ireland to other countries, but you were not able to offer services from Spain to Germany, for example.”

Indeed, the researchers’ results showed that in 1990, global nonstop and one-stop connectivity was highly concentrated at North American airports. By 2012, this concentration dropped, especially as European and Asian countries opened up their markets and were better integrated into the global air transport network.

“During this period, we particularly observed the rise of Asia,” Malina says. “Airports like Dubai and Beijing in the 1990s played no role whatsoever in generating global connectivity, and now they’ve become more important.”

Jan Brueckner, a professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine, says the team’s new metric for air transport connectivity improves on existing models, as it uses 20 years’ worth of data to track all possible trips out of a given city, and also measures the “value” of each destination.

“No researchers have produced such a comprehensive index spanning a large range of years,” says Brueckner, who was not involved in the research. “The study shows that connectivity is growing, and an important implication is that it will continue to grow. A policy implication of the study concerns the benefits of international airline alliances, whose ability to stimulate connectivity should be appreciated and fostered by regulators.”

Looking ahead, Malina hopes to apply the model to examine how certain changes in deregulation affect global connectivity, as well as how air transportation affects economic growth. The model may also help to understand how airlines enter and exit certain regional markets.

“For example, we can look at all the markets that United has opened up in the last couple years, and can look at the destination quality, and we might be able to tell that United only enters markets that have certain properties,” Malina says. “So there are a lot of applications for transportation science, regional economics, and also for management scholars.”

The research was funded in part by the German Research Foundation and MIT’s Airline Industry Consortium.

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

If you leave your job, chances are your pattern of cellphone use will also change. Without a commute or workspace, it stands to reason, most people will make a higher portion of their calls from home — and they might make fewer calls, too.

Now a study co-authored by MIT researchers shows that mobile phone data can provide rapid insight into employment levels, precisely because people’s communications patterns change when they are not working.

Indeed, using a plant closing in Europe as the basis for their study, the researchers found that in the months following layoffs, the total number of calls made by laid-off individuals dropped by 51 percent compared with working residents, and by 41 percent compared with all phone users. The number of calls made by a newly unemployed worker to someone in the town where they had worked fell by 5 percentage points, and even the number of individual cellphone towers needed to transmit the calls of unemployed workers dropped by around 20 percent.

“Individuals who we believe to have been laid off display fewer phone calls incoming, contact fewer people each month, and the people they are contacting are different,” says Jameson Toole, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and a co-author of the new paper. “People’s social behavior diminishes, and that might be one of the ways layoffs have these negative consequences. It hurts the networks that might help people find the next job.”

When the factory closes

The paper, just published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, builds a model of cellphone usage that lets the researchers correlate cellphone usage patterns with aggregate changes in employment. The researchers believe the phone data closely aligns with standard unemployment measures, and may allow analysts to make unemployment projections two to eight weeks faster than those made using traditional methods.

“Using mobile phone data to project economic change would allow almost real-time tracking of the economy, and at very fine spatial granularities … both of which are impossible given current methods of collecting economic statistics,” says David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and a co-author of the paper.

In addition to Toole and Lazer, the co-authors of the paper are Marta Gonzalez, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT; Yu-Ru Lin of the University of Pittsburgh; Erich Muehlegger of the University of California at Davis; and Daniel Shoag of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The study’s starting point was an automotive plant in Europe that closed in 2006, leaving about 1,100 workers unemployed in a town of roughly 15,000 people. Having the information about the layoffs allowed the researchers to build an algorithm that, by analyzing phone-use patterns, assigns a probability that someone has become unemployed. The phone data was anonymous at the individual level, ensuring a certain level of privacy.

The researchers then extended that usage model to see how well it corresponded with larger-scale unemployment, using eight quarters of unemployment data in 52 provinces of a European country.

“We were looking for a way to use this data to really understand economic behavior and critical economic indicators,” Toole says.

A complement, not a substitute

However, the researchers emphasize that they are not proposing the new method as a replacement for time-tested ways of measuring unemployment. Instead, they see it as an additional tool for analysts. 

“These methods should not be viewed as substitutes for current methods of collecting data about the economy as much as very powerful complements,” Lazer says.

Toole says the study is conceptually similar to the MIT-based “Billion Prices Project,” which uses sales data to develop nearly real-time inflation estimates. In the same way, he says, this research might make a methodological impact on unemployment estimates.

“The Billion Price Project was one of the things that inspired us,” Toole says.

Other scholars who have seen the paper say it is a promising step in the application of new forms of data toward research questions. Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, calls it a “pretty exciting insight,” and believes “the conclusions they [the researchers] reach are reasonable.”

As Clauset notes, however, the mobile phone data in the study is indirectly related to employment. So while in this instance, he believes, the authors “can reliably connect employment status to mobile phone usage pattern,” in general, “we should recognize that many questions remain about how well this approach generalizes to other economic variables, other contexts, and across time.” Individual privacy issues, Clauset adds, will remain important regarding this mode of research.

For her part, Gonzalez says she intends to construct future studies about cellphone usage changes to see how urban mobility, or a lack thereof, hinders economic opportunities for workers and unemployed people.

“In the future we want to see how the same data can be used to further measure commuting challenges by income group,” she says, adding that the researchers’ intellectual “mission” is “developing methods that convert data from communication technologies into meaningful information.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Samir Luther MBA ’15 and Priya Garg ’15 recently spoke with Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, this year’s commencement speaker, about her work at the White House, her time at MIT, and her view of how technology is changing the world. Luther and Garg are excited to share the interview ahead of commencement so that the MIT community has the opportunity to get to know Smith a bit better before the big day.

Smith is the Chief Technology Officer of the United States and an assistant to President Barack Obama. In the past, she has served as the vice president of Google[x], CEO of PlanetOut, and was the co-founder of the Malala Fund. She served as a member of the MIT Corporation from 1988 to 1993, and again from 2006 to 2014. Smith earned her BS in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1986 and her MS in mechanical engineering in 1988, completing her master’s thesis work in the MIT Media Lab.

Samir Luther is a finance, operations and analytics MBA student who is passionate about financial inclusion, mobile technology, expanding Internet access, and open data. Priya Garg is an undergraduate majoring in mechanical engineering with a focus in medical devices. She is interested in applying tools learned at MIT to create lasting innovation within the healthcare industry.

A full transcript of the interview is below. Readers can also watch an edited version of the interview, embedded here. 

LUTHER: We are really excited to be able to share more about you with the graduating class of MIT undergrad and grad 2015!

SMITH: Thanks, it’s an honor to be here and I am so excited, what a force that this class is going to be.

LUTHER: We know it. One of the reasons we are so excited to speak with you is because you are breaking down barriers, not only as a woman in government, but as a woman in tech.

Most recently, you moved from Google[x] to this position of service for our nation and you have also shown your commitment to serving women around the world by creating the Malala Fund and PlanetOut in the 90s. Can you speak about the role that service has played in your life?

SMITH: Yeah and it’s actually really relevant with MIT because in a lot of ways service is one of the things that you see is a theme that students are part of over and over and over again.

What’s cool with MIT is that we have people who, for whatever reason, have come to love science and technology and are aware of how to use those tools in order to make great change in the world. Sometimes it’s in a very pure science way through discovery of things — look at amazing Nobel Prize winners and others in science — but sometimes in a very applied area. I went to school with Amy Smith, who is on faculty now doing just extraordinary work with the teams around development engineering at MIT and bringing really great collaborations with people all over the world who might not have the design resources and time of MIT students. They bring the ingenuity together with ingenuity of colleagues from poorer places in the world to develop extraordinary solutions. I believe in service as a core part of technology and I love to use tech and science and innovation for particularly helping make the world a better place, helping reduce our impact on the planet, helping people collaborate better, helping bring a peaceful and more engaged society into being together.

LUTHER: Was service a part of your life when you were graduating from MIT?

SMITH: Yeah, I think so. Actually, I was just in Buffalo, New York. I was talking at my high school. I went to this really new intercity magnet school in Buffalo that was great and I was lucky because our teachers founded our school.

One of my favorite things was when one of the teachers applied for a grant, I think it was my sophomore year. The first 10 days of school were almost like a freshman seminar instead of regular class. Our physics teacher taught something called “City as an Ecosystem” and so we got to go to this huge water treatment plant, to the dump, riding our bikes through Buffalo and seeing all the different neighborhoods that have grown and the architecture changes in the city. It was a really great eye-opening way to be very embedded in the city we lived in, in a way that we had never really probably noticed at that level. Thinking about ecosystems and learning about it in such a tangible physical way about our city was so creative and so great. I was lucky to have those kinds of exposures.

We also were lucky because we had mandatory science fair. You got to learn how to do these things and that the stuff was fun and also the confidence that comes with it. Our swimming coach said practice makes permanent, and we got a lot of that.

So, understanding that science and math aren’t just about learning facts in class or boring, but really about discovery, and thinking about what stuff is made of — I was really lucky. Service and fun was all a part of it.

GARG: You mentioned that you were at MIT with Amy Smith. You got your undergrad and your master’s degrees here. You have since remained extremely active by serving on the board of MIT, as well as the advisory boards of the Media Lab, Draper, and the Technology Review. How has MIT evolved over the years, and in what ways has it stayed the same?

SMITH: That’s an interesting question. Also, I just encourage everybody to take the parts that are interesting to you and keep staying involved in them. It might be your living group, it might be the sport you play or theater or music or student government, the lab that you are in, the UROP that you had. All of those are pieces that you can stay connected to MIT with.

One of the things that’s great and actually is a big change is really the Internet has changed MIT. I think that I had a really interesting experience because I was a mechanical engineering student and so I did my undergrad and then I was in Media Lab as a grad student and we had email. It just seemed like the basic difference of using email together as a collaborative community in the 80s in the Media Lab versus the mechanical engineering students who didn’t really have that yet — I mean we sort of had it, but we didn’t use it in the same way. The classic Media Lab thing is, “Hey there’s an art opening downstairs, there’s food,” and all the grad students, you know, swarm. Or, “Hey, it’s 6 a.m., who’s still here, I think whatever restaurant’s about to open. Whoever pulled all-nighters, where are you sleeping in building?” and then trying to find people, you know, classic MIT behavior. We didn’t have that and so I think people were more isolated in their labs in those days where the communities now have been able to blossom. MIT has always had extraordinary community and collaboration, but I think email has created a much friendlier, happier, more integrated campus in some ways, which has been really good.

LUTHER: I think you would be happy to know, if you don’t already know, that free food Listserv has evolved rather extensively!

GARG: So do you think the progression of technology has actually contributed to a more cohesive community?

SMITH: Yes, I think that people were in more silos and so depending on which group you were in and what was going on, you had that culture. There of course have always been so many unique and fun cultures that are all across MIT, but they are more fluid. You can move fluidly between them a little bit more.

GARG: That’s crazy that the mechanical engineering programs didn’t have email or Internet. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the past four years without it.

SMITH: We sort of got it as we got to school, so it was really interesting to watch the difference in culture as it came. I remember going with two friends—this was later, when I was working for Apple Japan, I was in Tokyo — and I was coming to San Diego to go do some stuff with two MIT friends from the Media Lab. I realized as I got off the plane that I hadn’t spoken to them on the phone. And this is sort of ancient history, but I was like wow, all this organizing in email — the whole future is going to be exactly like this and of course it is, which is cool. There’s these moments when you realize how it’s going to change a lot.

GARG: So along that line of when you realized that you didn’t use the telephone during that trip and you thought, this is the future — what do you think is the future for MIT?

SMITH: Yeah, it’s so exciting right now. I was in the board when we were working on discussions of edX. One of my favorite things: If you go into the Infinite Corridor and you are walking between Building 7 towards Building 10 and take a right on Building 3 and you go down that corridor, there is a little display from the libraries that has maybe the first dozen years of MIT. One time I was looking at it and I realized that in 1865 or ’64, around the first time we started teaching classes, you will notice that we taught for free in the evening.

So from day one this idea of Opencourseware and edX has been part of MIT. We didn’t have an Internet or a telecommunication system in the way we do today so that anyone could attend, but it was through something called the Lowell Institute, which was awesome. This idea of inclusive learning and being in service through communicating and sharing — whether it is that example or the days of the Physics Department with their skinny black ties, in the 50s or the 60s making all these films that high school students all over the United States and the world watch to see demos from MIT labs — just this service to learn and this love of learning is a big part of our culture, which is so great. I think this is the next wave of that, that’s the next iteration.

There’s a really famous lecture former President Paul Gray mentioned, that Edwin Land wrote, which is apparently the foundation of the UROP Program. He wrote in a very sexist voice, so if you happen to read it, take boy and just insert boy and girl. It will be more palatable to read today because it is really annoying to read in that way. But if you do that, it’s filled with this idea of coming to school and being in a much more hands-on experience, coming into the labs of all our amazing faculty and really having a da Vinci–like experience with them where you get to explore in the directions you want to go and you can take the classes as you need them.

There was a hackathon here for the future of school and people were playing with the idea of gaming school. They had this idea to build a “billion-dollar school,” and we were like, what’s a billion-dollar school? The idea was that children would work on “billion-dollar problems.” Meaning, maybe this year we will work on dirty water because it’s costing more than a billion dollars. If you worked on solving dirty water, you have to learn sociology and human behavior, learn some chemistry, some biology, you have to learn some mechanics and some dynamics and fluids, and it’s a really cool way to approach life.

That was what the UROP roots to. And then, of course, Professor MacVicar, who I had for a freshman physics recitation. She was awesome. MacVicar Fellows went on to then adapt that idea and really form what is UROP, which is such a critical part of the MIT education. Hopefully in some ways UROP becomes more of what we do, this hands-on thing. The classes or lectures become only the most extraordinary-performed lectures that we want to go see live, and the rest can happen in a more iterative classroom way.

I know the 3.091 team had done some interesting experiments. They were having people submit their homework and then it got pre-graded. If you wanted 24 more hours, you can have it. That was so great because then emphasis was on learning the thing, learning the subject. Who cares about the grade? Like, learn the thing.

So I am really excited about where MIT will go with iteration and a brilliant group of people working together thinking about it. Lots of fits and starts will happen, some things will work, some things won’t. Sometimes the faculty in a department is doing things in a particular way and people think of them as the fringe faculty who are doing some really weird, crazy thing, but if you look at it, it is the way it is going to be and pretty soon they will move to the center. All the ingredients are there, so a lot of the MITx work that different faculty members are playing around with I think will come to the center.

I am also excited about more students being able to come and go. You can work remotely, do projects in other parts of the world or other parts of the country and have more people be able to come on campus and create even more flow. I love where the Media Lab is going and I love what other labs are doing. It’s a nexus place: the more connections the better, the more interactions the better. The more we interface, the more talent gets unlocked.

LUTHER: Given that you are in a tremendous platform to tackle some huge problems whether it was at Google[x] or whether on the board of MIT or at the White House, what is still keeping you up at night? What are you worried are the things that your children are going to have to face?

SMITH: There is a pretty intense list of those things, whether it is climate change or critical inclusion things, unfairness and poverty. Amazing work that people are doing at MIT and other places around the world around biological threats, Ebola issues, medicine.

I am an optimist, so I really like to work towards solutions of things. What I am trying to do is unlock talent and help people with whatever it is they are incredibly passionate about doing; help enable them to do that and get people more access to resources, including each other.

A really good example: We just had a tech meet-up here at the White House of all the tech meet-up organizers. One of the things that’s interesting is there are many people who will listen to this who will know about and probably have been to things like TEDx or hackathons. A lot of people have never had that experience and yet they are incredibly talented, powerful people who could be playing in that way too. So how can we upgrade everyone? The CEO of Amex says constancy of value is in constancy of reinvention. So how do you scrub everyone into this new way of working and collaborating and making sure people have these resources so that they could?

I love the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative that he did. It really speaks to me personally because it’s not okay that one in three African-American boys in the United States are going into the criminal justice system at some point. What are we doing to make sure that those incredible colleagues of ours on the planet are getting included into this, and are getting to go to tech meet-ups and hackathons and all of that? And figure out what they want to do — what videos and stories and movies and apps and incredible laws or whatever do they want to make to put their impact down the road that we can include them in? 

And in some ways, you know, doing PlanetOut, which is the gay community online, how do we include community, and work through discrimination? How are we working with young women around the globe, and young men and children, who face extreme issues? Malala [Yousafzai] and her father and family are amazing people to work with. How do I unlock the talent of Malala and her father and her family and those around her to do their thing? What will they bring in the world? By the way, her favorite subject is physics, nice little MIT tie in there.

GARG: Keeping on personal theme, but switching gears a little bit, what do the first 60 minutes of your day look like when you wake up? Do you have daily or weekly routines that you credit success to?

SMITH: It sort of changes, the first 60 minutes. We have two boys, so I am doing lots of stuff getting them up and going for school, checking email, getting coffee, running around sort of free-for-all, and then getting over here to the White House, which is just an amazing honor to be able to work here and work with this team.

A lot of people talk about some kind of work-life balance. I don’t think there is any balance, I think there’s a lot of juggling of things. People do it, and you can do it, too. For example, people just went through this whole MIT experience where there’s no way you could do all the things that are assigned to you, you just have to sort of juggle it and do your best. You include some awesome social time with friends and some downtime and some athletic time and some taking care of yourself, being healthy and eating. You figure out how to get that done.

One of the key things is recognizing that being a part of the collaborative teams is incredibly important because no one person can do all the things. It is together, through working together really creatively that that happens. I was lucky, when I was in Media Lab Woodie Flowers was one of my advisors and so was Alan Kay. Alan had been one of the leaders early on. At that time, he was an imagineer at Disney and he had been at Xerox PARC early on. In fact, there is a drawing he made from the 70s of these kids sitting under a tree with basically holding tablet iPads. He was so visionary.

He always said he tried to focus on what were the things that he was good at and what was he not good at, and not get worried about the things that he was not good at—just find teammates who love doing that and then just get together and go. One time I got to have a conversation with Richard Branson and he sort of said the same thing. I think that’s pretty good advice.

LUTHER: In the midst of all that juggling, what’s your favorite way of nerding out right now? Are you playing around with Arduinos or Google Glass?

SMITH:  Hey, I actually have like a Raspberry Pi [pulls out RasPi]. I’m actually taking these around because I try to get people to realize that here’s your phone [holds up phone], and there’s a little board inside here. It is just like Steve Jobs had. This is Homebrew Computer Club for now. The UK has given these to all kids. So I take them out around to kind of demonstrate like, things are made of something!

My main focus is again more around people these days, and just getting people moving. I’m having an amazing time working with the teams here. The government is filled with so much talent and so how do we use this scale to unlock that talent and get things moving on behalf of the American people and the world?

LUTHER: I think we are definitely over time, but we want to thank you so much for spending some time with us and sharing your story with the other MIT graduate class of 2015.

SMITH:  It’s an honor that I have been asked to speak and I am really looking forward to meeting everyone and to that incredible day in June.

GARG:  We can’t wait to see you on June 5th!

By Samir Luther and Priya Garg

Named for the pioneering medical researcher, the Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship is one of the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education’s (ODGE) most prestigious awards. A famed urologist, Young was not only an innovator in medical science, his curiosity and intellectual drive also stirred him in other endeavors such as civic enhancement, the arts, and the burgeoning field of aviation.  Accordingly, the goal of the Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship is to not only recognize academic achievement, but also exceptional personal and character strengths, with heavy emphasis on the perceived overall potential of the candidate to have a positive impact on humanity.

Established in 1965 through an anonymous donor, roughly 150 students have benefited from this award over the last 50 years. “The Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship has always been handled slightly differently than our other opportunities,” says ODGE Manager of Graduate Fellowships Scott Tirrell. “As a stipulation of the award, recipients are chosen by an external selection committee largely comprised of former Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship recipients. Through careful evaluation of candidate application material and personal interviews, the committee seeks individuals exhibiting a blend of broad focus, leadership, and initiative.”

The committee has selected seven new recipients as the 2015-16 fellowship cohort. They will join a legacy of exceptional individuals, and will hopefully go on to make positive impacts on society in the tradition of Young himself. (Accomplishments of former Hugh Hampton Young Fellowship recipients can be seen on the ODGE website.)

John Arroyo is a PhD student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He received his master’s in city planning and a certificate in urban design from MIT and a BA in public relations, with a concentration in planning and development, from the University of Southern California. His professional career includes community development, housing, and arts and cultural programming experience with various nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies. Prior to MIT he was an Executive Fellow at the Coro Foundation’s Southern California Center for Civic Leadership. Arroyo is interested in the interrelationship between the built environment, migration, and policy. In particular, his comparative research investigates how the public-built environment influences and reshapes sociocultural behavior among transnational Latino migrants, and how local urban planning and design policies react to this adjustment phenomenon in both U.S. receiving communities and native Latin American sending communities (Mexico and Central America). In 2012 he co-created Project 51’s “Play the L.A. River,” a public humanities project dedicated to increasing awareness of and access to the Los Angeles River as a civic space.

Or Gadish is a PhD candidate in Health Sciences and Technology at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. His thesis work seeks to combine the advances of vascular biology, biomaterials and tissue engineering, and cancer biology to better understand the relationship between cancer cells and tumor-resident endothelial cells (EC), the cells that line all blood vessels. While healthy ECs are anti-tumorigenic, tumors transform ECs into a pro-tumorigenic state. As such, Gadish is also looking closely at the relationship between tumor-transformed ECs and their healthy brethren, which can be grown in vitro, embedded on biomaterial scaffolds, and implanted next to tumors to both inhibit cancer cell processes and rescue transformed ECs.

Steven Keating is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering focused on novel platforms for additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, and designed growth. Based out of the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, his research covers a diverse range including building-scale 3-D printing, microfluidic digital fabrication, and open patient data access. From gears to genomes, he is interested in exploring new design possibilities. Keating has lectured and helped instruct for several MIT design courses — including 2.00b (Toy Product Design), 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes), MAS.500 (Hands on Foundations in Media Technology), and MAS.S64 (Special Subject in Media Technology) — and is a patient advocate for open health data. Calgary is his hometown and he is invigorated by curiosity, creativity, and maple syrup.

Georgia Lagoudas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Engineering. She completed her undergraduate degree at Rice University in bioengineering. She is interested in investigating the microbes inside of our bodies — in particular our lungs — and how these microbes are associated with health. We have only recently discovered that bacteria exist in the healthy lungs, but we do not have a clear understanding of their role. Lagoudas is focused on using mice as a model system to study the dynamics of the lung microbial population and investigate how changes in the immune system or health status might alter these microbes.

William Li is a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science focused on data science on open government datasets. He develops and applies methods to analyze and visualize large collections of text documents to answer research questions in computational social science and promote public understanding of law, politics, and public policy. Li’s recent work includes predicting the authors of unsigned Supreme Court opinions, quantifying repeated text in Congress, and measuring the complexity of our laws using language and software engineering metrics. Along with these research interests, Li helps run the MIT Assistive Technology Club and co-taught 6.811 (Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology) in 2014, a full-semester course that focuses on accessibility and assistive technologies for people with disabilities. 

Mitali Thakor, a continuing Hugh Hampton Young Fellow, is a PhD candidate in the MIT Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. Her dissertation uses feminist anthropological methods to explore the global carceral politics of anti-trafficking, pornography, and child exploitation in the context of emerging digital technologies. She has conducted fieldwork in the U.S., Netherlands, and Thailand, and hopes that her research will inform critical and comprehensive practices to reduce exploitation and victimization. Outside of research, Mitali is a campus peer educator and organizer on issues of sexual violence and healthy relationships, and is also active with local anti-racist and queer feminist political organizations. Prior to MIT, Mitali worked on community sexual health research in the Philippines, and also holds BA degrees in feminist studies and anthropology from Stanford University.

Iris Zielski is an MS and MBA candidate in the Leaders for Global Operations program. She holds a BS in industrial and systems engineering and a BA in linguists from the University of Florida. As a part of her studies at MIT she has worked with LV Prasad Eye Institute on a designing a prototype for a wearable, electronic device for students with low vision in India and worked with Gradian Health Systems on evaluating their after-sales service strategy for anesthesia machines in East Africa. Her thesis research focuses on digital identification systems for biotechnology supply chains.

By Office of the Dean for Graduate Education

“People and trees are old traveling companions,” observes Lynda Mapes, an environmental reporter for The Seattle Times.

Indeed, whether forests were sheltering our arboreal ancestors in Africa, supplying timber and fuel, soaking up part of our excess carbon emissions, or fending off the invasive pests transferred across oceans by globalization, they’ve long supported our progress as a species, suffered the consequences of our missteps, and acted as living beacons when civilizations fall out of balance. As Mapes puts it, “We’re in this together.”

What does the tree say?

Knight Science Journalism at MIT (KSJ) where Mapes was a Fellow in 2013-14, has just released a short documentary video about her ambitious project to use a single tree as a storytelling device to explore the impact of global climate change. The so-called “Witness Tree” — Mapes borrows the term from 18th-century European settlers, who often used trees to mark the corners of survey sections — is a 100-year-old red oak at the Harvard Forest in rural Petersham, Massachusetts.

Mapes moved to Petersham in the summer of 2014 after the forest, a 3,500-acre research site operated by Harvard University, awarded her a 2014-15 Charles Bullard Fellowship. She has spent the year living among the trees and documenting the work of biologists and ecologists as they study seasonal changes affecting her chosen oak and the surrounding forest.

Data from phenology

In a book forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing in 2016, Mapes tells of the major changes this one tree has witnessed in its century-long history, including a shift in land use in New England away from agriculture, natural disasters such as hurricanes and fires, and, in the last few decades, record increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

By closely observing the phenology of trees and other plants — the seasonal changes in their physical characteristics — researchers at the Harvard Forest are identifying a trend toward longer growing seasons, Mapes says. Winter is arriving later, and spring earlier.  Researchers believe that global warming from human-made greenhouse gas emissions is a contributing factor.

Forest to film

Patrick Wellever, KSJ’s digital media training coordinator from 2011 to 2015, proposed a plan to visit the Harvard Forest at key moments in the fall, winter, and spring and to ask Mapes and the scientists with whom she’s embedded to talk about their work on film.

It was an ideal project for Knight Science Journalism, which offers hands-on media instruction as part of its nine-month fellowship program for experienced science and technology journalists. Not only would it give the program an opportunity to highlight ingenious work by a former Knight Fellow, but it would allow the 2014-15 fellows to hone their videography skills.

Does nature need us?

Rachael Buchanan, Giovana Girardi, and Bob Young of the KSJ 2015 class did camera work for the project, and Wellever served as director, producer, editor, video instructor, and occasional cameraman. The finished 10-minute film cuts between interviews and outdoor footage, conveying Mapes’ passion for her story, the power of sustained scientific reasearch, and the calm majesty of the forest itself.

“Nature doesn’t need us, actually,” Mapes notes in the film. “We need nature. We need a functioning natural world if we are to persist. We are the species most at risk and with the most to lose if we can’t make a change. The tree, to me, represents the beauty of this living world, and how critical it is to keep a place in this beautiful world for ourselves — by taking care of it.”

Knight Science Journalism at MIT, a program of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, helps science and technology journalists build their competence, confidence, and connections through a fellowship program structured around course work, seminars, field trips, and workshops. The nine-month fellowships have now trained more than 320 journalists from every continent except Antarctica. To help meet the demand for multimedia skills across all fields of journalism, KSJ also offers a series of digital media training sessions on topics like videography and audio storytelling. In the U.S., fellows work at all of the top-tier newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets and news services.


Story prepared by Knight Science Journalism at MIT and MIT-SHASS Communications
Editorial collaborators: Wade Roush, Patrick Wellever, Emily Hiestand


By Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Noted atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Mario J. Molina called for rational thinking about climate science and the risks of global climate change, as well as better communication about what experts know, in Monday’s Compton Lecture at MIT.

“We have a responsibility toward future generations,” Molina told a standing-room-only audience in Wong Auditorium. “We need to leave them … an environment where they can have a standard of living at least as good as the one we have now.”

Molina, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California at San Diego, sought to debunk three common myths about climate change. Drawing on his decades of work in climate science — including 14 years on the MIT faculty — he also commented on possible strategies for climate action, while sounding the alarm that continuing business as usual is likely to lead to a climate catastrophe.

The science is solid

“Really, the majority of experts agree that climate change is not only happening, but is a consequence of human activities,” Molina said, debunking the myth that the science behind climate change is not well established. While acknowledging that a “very few” scientists hold a different view, he noted that such scientists’ arguments have not, as some climate-change skeptics have charged, been ignored by the rest of the community; rather, he said, these outlier views haven’t held up to scientific scrutiny.

Molina went on to charge the news media with misrepresenting the broad agreement among climate scientists. “What I’m calling a fact of the consensus of the scientific community is not well-represented in the media,” he said. “We know that this is the result of a very well-financed public relations campaign; it was done on purpose by interest groups. … The consequence is, of course, the public perception is biased because of coverage in the media.”

Despite this, Molina noted that Americans are beginning to accept global climate change in larger numbers, but cautioned that many still think humans have nothing to do with the changes. In one study, for example, two-thirds of randomly sampled participants agreed that the Earth is warming, but less than half believed the warming is connected with human activity.

To support his assertion that climate science is well established, Molina provided an overview dating back to Joseph Fourier, a 19th-century mathematician who pondered global temperature. He also mentioned chemist Svante Arrhenius, who predicted in the late 1800s that atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase because of human activities, and that this would affect the climate. Molina went on to cite work by physicists Albert Einstein and Max Planck, whose revolutionary equations led directly to a new understanding of energy radiation and temperature — and, ultimately, to our understanding of the greenhouse effect.

Molina has been a major contributor to our knowledge of human effects on the environment: In a 1974 paper, he and a colleague predicted that the emission of industrial gases known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would cause damage to the Earth’s protective ozone layer. This work led to a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, and also to the Montreal Protocol regulating the emission of CFCs.

Too late to address the problem?

In addressing a second climate-change myth — that even if climate change is real, and human-caused, we still have plenty of time to take action — Molina stressed that “things are already happening”: Floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events are taking place much more frequently than in the past. 

“Until a few years ago the scientific community was very conservative, saying we don’t have enough evidence. But that has changed in recent years,” Molina said. “You don’t claim that an event such as Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change … [but] the intensity is likely to have increased because of climate change, because of human activities.”

Perhaps Molina’s most pressing concern — and the third myth he aimed to debunk — was that it might be too late to do anything about climate change. He pointed to a nonbinding 2009 accord in which heads of state agreed that “it would be good to attempt to hold the global temperature [increase] to less than 2 degrees [Celsius].” To do this, he said, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to drop by nearly half of present-day levels.

“It can be done, but there is no magic bullet — you have to do many things at the same time,” Molina said, adding: “Economists are beginning to agree that the cost is not very large, surprisingly.” He noted promising recent advances at MIT and elsewhere in wind, solar, and even nuclear energy — “a relatively safe way of generating energy, if you do it correctly,” he said.

Molina stressed that climate action won’t begin in earnest until the public has a better understanding of the magnitude of the risk associated with not doing anything.

“In order for society to make a decision how to tackle this problem, you don’t look at the most likely event. You look at probabilities that something really unacceptable would take place,” Molina said. “If I have a probability of 1 in 10, even 1 in 100 but I have a very bad outcome, I just don’t want to gamble.”

In closing, Molina argued that a major barrier to addressing climate change is Congress. “They don’t quite believe the things we are talking about,” Molina said of climate-change deniers, adding that he is working with economists to try to help these officials better understand the risks and potential dangers to the business-as-usual approach.

Throughout his talk, Molina also mentioned individual researchers and initiatives at MIT that give him hope for the future. “It can be done,” he concluded. “I’m hopeful if we bring rationality, we might be able to do it.”

By Maia Weinstock | MIT News Office

Mention the economy of the United Arab Emirates to people from outside the region, and the first word that may come to their minds is “oil.” But today, the UAE is striving to change that initial response to “innovation.”

As part of a longstanding effort to diversify its economy, the UAE is today focusing on initiatives in a variety of other areas — for instance, finding ways to quench the Gulf nation’s growing thirst for fresh water and develop alternative energy sources. Several MIT faculty members are contributing to those efforts through collaborative long-distance research initiatives with their counterparts at Masdar Institute, a graduate-level technology university in the UAE’s capital city, Abu Dhabi.

“This is one of MIT’s largest, longest-standing, and most important international initiatives,” says Duane Boning, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Cambridge-based MIT and Masdar Institute Cooperative Program, which helped the UAE launch the university in 2007 and has supported its research and academic programs ever since.

Research updates

Currently, MIT and Masdar Institute researchers are collaborating on nine flagship research projects focusing on clean and renewable energy, water purification, and next-generation critical infrastructure “smart” technologies. These three-year efforts, currently at various stages of completion, have been beneficial to both institutions, says Charles Cooney, the Robert T. Haslam Professor in Chemical Engineering and senior MIT faculty member on the Cooperative Program’s steering committee.

The collaborations have fostered a cross-disciplinary community of researchers at the two institutions and served as valuable teaching tools, says Cooney, who has been involved with the collaborative program since its inception. “It’s an opportunity to show students and postdocs how to do interdisciplinary collaborative research,” Cooney says. “It’s a powerful model.”

In 2014, the two schools launched an additional initiative, the Masdar Institute and MIT Innovation Program (MMIP), which competitively awards one-year “ignition” grants to joint MIT-Masdar Institute research teams. “They’re specifically intended to link research at MIT and Masdar Institute with the potential for commercialization,” Cooney says.

The first four MMIP projects include a low-cost water-monitoring device for sensing blooms of potentially toxic algae; a wastewater filtration and treatment system; a high-efficiency membrane-based approach to desalination; and an energy-efficient transmitter for wireless communication. The MMIP grants are sponsored by the Cooperative Program and administered by MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation in cooperation with the Institute Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Masdar Institute.

Investigators from the nine flagship research projects and the four current MMIP projects shared updates at the recent Masdar Institute and MIT Research and Innovation Conference in Abu Dhabi. More than 200 people — including 32 MIT faculty, staff, and students, the largest such MIT delegation ever to visit Masdar Institute — attended the one-day event.

The turnout “is a very, very good indication of the commitment that both institutions have to working hand-in-hand and promoting the interests of the UAE and Abu Dhabi,” Masdar Institute President Fred Moavenzadeh said in his opening remarks. (Moavenzadeh, the James Mason Crafts Professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been on leave to head Masdar Institute since 2010.)

The UAE: Planning for transformation

The UAE, created in 1971 by the union of seven emirates, or principalities, has historically relied on an economy dominated by the oil industry — and hasn’t traditionally emphasized research and development. But this is changing rapidly.

In recent years, the UAE’s leaders have charted a course for a post-oil world with a knowledge-based economy that emphasizes innovation and global leadership in sustainable energy. (Those efforts also reflect the vision of the UAE’s founding leader, the late H.E. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who, during his 33-year tenure as UAE president, often cited education, economic diversification, and environmental protection as priorities for the nation’s future.) Last year, the UAE declared 2015 “the Year of Innovation” and launched a strategic initiative to make the small country one of the world’s most innovative nations by 2021 — an ambitious goal for a 43-year-old nation with a population of less than 10 million.

Masdar Institute, with its graduate-level programs and tight focus on science and technology — and, of course, its MIT affiliation — is a critical component in the UAE’s innovation strategy.

“We are here to develop human capital,” Moavenzadeh says. “We are here to develop an R&D infrastructure.”

But he and other Masdar Institute officials emphasize that the relationship is mutually beneficial, with the UAE’s unique environment and available capital creating plenty of research opportunities for MIT faculty. Most of the joint research projects focus on solving some of the region’s — and the world’s — most pressing problems, especially meeting demand for fresh water and finding new sources of clean and renewable energy. Following are snapshots of just two such projects.

Desalinating water: The UAE’s consumption of fresh water far exceeds what is naturally available in its hot desert climate. As a coastal nation, the UAE relies heavily on desalination to meet its water needs, removing salt and minerals from seawater to render it potable. But traditional thermal desalination processes are costly and have a big carbon footprint, says John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Together with Hassan Arafat, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Masdar Institute, Lienhard has been developing an advanced, highly efficient membrane-based distillation system. The two investigators believe the system — which also has potential applications for wastewater treatment — will lead to far more efficient desalination at lower cost and with reduced environmental impact.

Harnessing solar energy: One of Masdar Institute’s most distinctive landmarks is its 66-foot Beam Down Tower, which investigators are using for research on concentrated solar power. The tower’s 33 heliostats, or mirrors, are designed to follow the sun’s path throughout the day, focusing light downward to achieve intense heat that, in turn, can boil water to create steam, and ultimately generate electricity using an electric turbine.

The problem: The sun isn’t available 24 hours a day, and the region’s natural dustiness and occasional sandstorms sometimes disrupt the solar energy collection process. So MIT and Masdar Institute researchers are experimenting with thermal energy storage (TES) — essentially, harvesting sun-generated heat to draw on when sunlight isn’t available.

“We want to store the heat for later use” — for example, during cloudy periods, or at night, says Nicolas Calvet, an assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Masdar Institute who’s working with Alexander Slocum, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. The advantages of effective TES: higher efficiency, lower cost, and an energy supply that’s unaffected by the weather or time of day.

Overall, the ongoing research projects are “giving us a glimpse of the future, of where we’re heading together,” Boning says. “Fortunately, the future looks really bright.”

By Anne Stuart | MIT Technology Review

Knight Science Journalism at MIT — the Institute’s world-leading fellowship program for working journalists covering science, technology, health, and the environment — announced today that 10 journalists working in four countries have been selected to join the program’s 33rd class of fellows.

The journalists, including five women and five men, will audit courses, visit top New England science destinations, and pursue media projects at MIT during the 2015-16 academic year. They will be the first group of Knight Fellows to be led by incoming Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) director Deborah Blum, who begins her work at MIT on July 1. 

A record number of journalists — 150 in all — applied to join the fellowship in 2015-16. “It was gratifying to see so many applications coming in this spring, and humbling to see the level of achievement these journalists have reached,” said Wade Roush, acting director of Knight Science Journalism at MIT. “I’m honored to have had a role in choosing this group of fellows, and I know they will make MIT proud.”

“We’re looking forward to bringing this remarkable group of science journalists to the Knight Science Journalism fellowship program this year,” added Blum, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. “They’re already making a difference. We hope we can help them make even more of one. I think we’re going to have an exceptional year.”

The new Knight Fellows were selected by a committee composed of Roush; Blum; Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief at Gizmodo; and Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and president of the National Association of Science Writers.

Here are brief biographies of the incoming Knight Fellows, supplied by the fellows themselves:

Alicia Chang is the Los Angeles-based science writer for The Associated Press. She previously worked in the news cooperative’s bureaus in Detroit; Columbia, South Carolina; and Albany, New York. She is the 2009 recipient of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists. Outside the newsroom, she has taught reporting and writing at the University of Southern California.

Sasha Chapman is a senior editor at The Walrus, Canada’s most decorated magazine. In addition to commissioning and editing long-form journalism, she is a feature writer who has produced columns at the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, and Report on Business. Best known for writing about food issues, she explores the environmental and health implications of the industrial food complex, examining the way we produce and consume food to better understand the way we live.

Zack Colman is a Washington-based energy and environmental policy reporter who most recently worked for the Washington Examiner. He has focused on climate change policy, the electric utility and oil and gas industry, and the environmental movement. He has also explored U.S. conservative attitudes and responses to the changing energy and climate landscape in American politics and among the public. Colman’s past stops include The Hill newspaper, trade publication Smart Grid Today, and the Associated Press’ Springfield, Illinois, bureau; while working in Springfield he earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois-Springfield. He is a Metro Detroit native and Michigan State University alumnus.

Courtney Humphries is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes features on new insights and developments in science, medicine, and culture.  She covers a wide range of topics, including neuroscience, microbiology, ecology, architecture, and urban planning. Her work has appeared frequently in The Boston Globe’s Ideas section and MIT Technology Review, and she has written for Nature, Science, New Scientist, WIRED, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. She’s the author of “Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan….And the World,” a nonfiction account of the natural history of street pigeons, published by Smithsonian Books/Harper-Collins in 2008. She has a masters’ degree in science writing from MIT.

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist who has been published in Harper’s, The New Republic, VICE, GQ, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Orion, Earth Island Journal, and many other magazines and websites. He is a native of New York City. In recent years he has reported from the American West about wildlife conflicts, ecology, drought, industry deregulation, and environmental degradation. During his fellowship, he will work on a book about the future of the last wild places in the West’s public lands system.  

Anja Krieger is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, Germany. She reports on the environment, science and technology for the German national public radio network Deutschlandradios and for online and print media such as ZEIT and taz, die tageszeitung. Together with journalists from around the globe, Kreiger experiments with trans-boundary environmental journalism within the Climate News Mosaic. The group’s first project was a “glocal” live-blog covering the 2013 climate summit in Warsaw, published on nine different media platforms. Kreiger holds a graduate degree in cultural sciences from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), and has studied abroad at the University of Salamanca in Spain and as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology.

Federico Kukso is an independent science journalist with 15 years of experience writing about the intersections of science and literature (especially pop culture) and how the arts feed back into scientific research. He writes about science, technology, and culture for popular science magazines such as Muy Interesante Argentina, Quo México, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Scientific American. Previously, he was in charge of the science section of national newspapers like Página/12, Crítica, and Revista Ñ, the cultural magazine of Clarín newspapers. In addition to his writing, Kukso has produced many science TV shows for Discovery Channel, Tecnópolis TV and NatGeo Latin America. He is the author of two books: “All You Need to Know about Science” and “The Bathrooms Weren’t Always Like This.” He is also member of the Argentinian Network of Science Journalism.

Betsy Mason is a California-based science journalist. She was a senior editor at WIRED in charge of online science coverage from 2008 to 2015. She founded the WIRED Science Blogs network and continues to co-author WIRED’s Map Lab blog. Previously, she was the science and national laboratories reporter at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she won the American Geophysical Union’s David Perlman Award in 2007 for coverage of earthquake risk in California. Mason has a master’s degree in geology from Stanford University and is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Science Communication Program. She is a board member of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Rod McCullom is a biomedical and global health journalist who specializes in reporting on medicine, health disparities, and infectious diseases across the African Diaspora. Much of his recent reporting has focused on the domestic and global HIV/AIDS epidemics.  He has reported the epidemic from across Sub-Saharan Africa and been awarded reporting fellowships to Australia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Spain, and Zambia. McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, ABC New York City, NBC Chicago, and FOX Chicago. He is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and his work has appeared at Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony,, Poz, and many other publications. He also contributed to the anthologies “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough” and “Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage.” McCullom attended the University of Chicago.

Ashley Smart is a science news reporter and features editor at Physics Today. He reports on all of the physical sciences, but he especially enjoys writing about topics at the intersection of physics and biology. He is a member of the governing board of the DC Science Writers Association and the co-founder of HBSciU, a science news blog that specializes in covering research by scientists of African descent and by scientists affiliated with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Knight Science Journalism at MIT was founded in 1983 as a unit of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. It has gradually increased its reach and scope with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and especially the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

More than 330 staff and freelance journalists from dozens of countries around the world have taken part in the program’s nine-month fellowship program. Another 300-plus reporters and editors have traveled to MIT for the program’s short courses in areas such as brain science, astrophysics, energy, food, and biostatistics. Graduates of the nine-month program have written more than 170 books and have won major journalism prizes, including the Pulitzer (most recently awarded to 2014-15 Knight Fellow Bob Young, part of a team at The Seattle Times recognized for its coverage of the devastating Snohomish County mudslide of March, 2014).

MIT will welcome the new class of Knight Science Journalism Fellows to campus in August 2015. Their term extends through May 2016. For more information about Knight Science Journalism at MIT, visit or write to

By Knight Science Journalism at MIT

For a decade, Catalyst Collaborative at MIT (CC@MIT) has convened scientists and theater artists searching for common ground and, in a partnership between MIT and nearby Central Square Theater (CST), has brought those conversations to life for the wider community. Resident CST troupes Underground Railway Theater and the Nora Theatre Company have produced at least one play per season on a scientific theme, some of which have been commissioned by CC@MIT. The productions frequently include opportunities for the audience to engage directly with scientists, artists, and prominent local thinkers. 

This spring, CC@MIT caps off its 10th anniversary celebration with an adaptation by director/playwright Wesley Savick of Alan Lightman’s 2012 novelMr g,” which imagines the creation of the universe from the creator’s perspective. One of CC@MIT’s co-directors, Lightman is both a physicist and professor of the practice of the humanities in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program. He is no stranger to the stage; his international bestseller “Einstein’s Dreams” has received no fewer than two-dozen theatrical and musical adaptations (including a CC@MIT outing, with Savick, in 2007).

“Mr g” runs at Central Square Theater April 23 – May 24, and was included on the schedule of the sprawling Cambridge Science Festival. Participants in the accompanying discussions include such MIT faculty members as planetary scientist Sara Seager, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, and Lightman himself, as well as MIT-trained theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan ’90, ’91, SM ’11.

MIT Spectrum asked Lightman to look back at the group’s genesis and ahead to its future.

Q: How was Catalyst Collaborative at MIT first hatched? 

A: A little more than 10 years ago, [theater arts faculty member] Alan Brody and I started a monthly salon called “Science on Stage” for MIT scientists and playwrights from all over the Boston area. Our first meeting included physicists George Benedek, Jerry Friedman, Alan Guth, and Bob Jaffe. A biologist, Nancy Hopkins, was in the group, and an ophthalmologist, David Miller. The theater people included Debra Wise, artistic director of Underground Railway Theater; Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre; and Jon Lipsky, a Boston University professor who has since passed away. Our idea was that we would have freewheeling discussions about the intersection of the sciences and the arts.

Q: And is that what happened?

A: We had wine and cheese, and we would go around the table and talk about what we were thinking about, what we were reading, what plays we were seeing. And then after about 20 minutes we would magically focus on some particular topic of conversation. We never knew in advance exactly what it would be and we never had any homework, which was one of the reasons why it worked.

About two years after we started the salon, the idea of the Catalyst Collaborative emerged as a more formal association between MIT and the Underground Railway Theater. The playwrights were getting good ideas about plays that involved science and the scientists were learning how theater people think about the world. There was a very fruitful exchange of ideas that probably would not have occurred in chance meetings in the hallway.

Q: A decade later, you have a large advisory committee of MIT faculty from several disciplines. What is their involvement?

A: We can only commission one or two plays a year and perform a couple a year, so we meet for short play readings and the advisory committee shares its opinions. Another big part of what the faculty does is participate in the post-performance discussions with scientists and artists about the themes of the play. These are particularly appropriate for our audience. There’s no area in the world, certainly not in the United States, that has the assemblage of intellectuals that the Boston/Cambridge area does. We’ve also held performances and talk-backs at various high schools.

Q: Are there certain topics audiences seem especially eager to discuss?

A: People are very interested in ethical issues raised by or dealt with by science, and in science and religion.

And I think the public’s interested in understanding scientists as human beings. Scientists are generally regarded in our culture as being robots, as being from another planet. They have this arcane knowledge which can cause great good and also great destruction. And not many people know the language of science — it’s a kind of a priesthood. Who are these people in the lab coats? Anything we can do to help the public understand scientists as human beings is worthwhile, because science and technology, in addition to religion, are the most powerful forces shaping our world and our society.

Alan Brody’s play Operation Epsilon is a good example. It shows German atomic scientists at the end of WWII, debating the ethics of developing the bomb and questioning their own careers and self-identities. That’s one of the plays, by the way, that emerged from the Science on Stage salons, which continued until a couple of years ago.

Q: Having worked with Wesley Savick previously on “Einstein’s Dreams,” were you excited to explore particular aspects of your book, “Mr g,” with him?

A: My view about a collaboration of that nature is that I don’t want to get in the way of the playwright. I’m very pleased that “Mr g” and “Einstein’s Dreams” inspired Wesley to adapt for the stage. At that point, it’s Wesley’s own creative imagination that takes over. He’s made a number of artistic decisions which depart from the book. For example, he’s made Mr g, who is the God character, a teenage boy.

Q: What was your reaction to that?

A: Well, I was a little startled. After thinking about it a little bit, I could understand the reason behind it, because in the book “Mr g” is a playful, curious character, eager to do experiments. He has a lot of youthful enthusiasm and even naiveté, if you can imagine naiveté in God. Wesley apparently decided that casting a teenage boy would distill all of that. I was more startled when he chose a girl to play Belhor — who is the Satan-like character in the book — and implied a slight romantic flirtation with Mr g. But again, that’s a different artist, following his own star.

Q: What goals do you have for the next decade of Catalyst Collaborative?

A: I would like to see us have a national impact, for some of the plays that we commission to travel beyond the precincts of Boston and Cambridge, and to have talk-back sessions around the country — basically to export what we’ve developed here.

We’d also like to commission more plays where we bring scientists and playwrights together from the beginning. We need money to do that, though we’ve been operating on a pretty low budget and getting a big bang for our buck. And when we commission new plays, I’d like us to be able to draw from an even richer pool of playwrights around the country.

Q: There seems to be a growing interest among playwrights in engaging with these kinds of topics, especially through programs like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s science play commissions.

A: In fact, one of the developments that inspired us to start the Science on Stage salons back in 2003 was the Sloan Foundation’s commissioning program in New York, which I think was just starting around that time, as well as the success of “Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn [about a meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg] and “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard [whose characters grapple with the mathematical and scientific laws that govern the universe].

Q: You straddle the humanities and the sciences in a way most people don’t. Is it difficult to find scientists who want to be involved in a project like this? 

A: It’s true that it’s a minority of scientists who want to do this kind of thing. And of course, it would be nice to have a national rather than just a local net to catch these people. But all of the scientists who came to the salon — and they were just from MIT — are very interested in this. You can find scientists who are interested in the arts and want to participate.

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor | MIT Spectrum