By any media necessary

November 29, 2014

Nearly a decade ago, Sasha Costanza-Chock — now an assistant professor in MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing — volunteered at the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for the rights of low-wage workers. Activists at the group wanted to inform local garment workers, many of whom are immigrants, about their rights.

To do so, they surveyed workers about which kinds of media or communications they used. Some had cellphones; a few had Internet access. But many workers, especially those instructed not to talk to co-workers on the job, listened to the radio or music at work.

So Costanza-Chock, along with colleagues and workers themselves, produced CDs mixing public service announcements about rights with music, oral histories, poems, and other materials. This way, many of the more than 60,000 garment workers in Los Angeles became better informed about their rights — and, for immigrants, about potential paths to citizenship.

The efforts of the Garment Worker Center were among the many cases in which advocacy groups tried a variety of tools — social media, radio, newspapers, street demonstrations, and more — to organize the nation’s immigrant-rights movement. While the political outcome of the debate remains unclear, the movement has produced unprecedented visibility for the issue, in part because of its diversity of media strategies, according to Costanza-Chock.

“It’s quite rare that a particular tool or platform is the centerpiece of an effective media strategy for a social-movement organization or network,” Costanza-Chock says. “Instead, movements work across many platforms to create strong narratives and symbols that circulate by any media necessary. And increasingly, they invite people to participate in media production as a way of building strong movement identity.”

Now Costanza-Chock has detailed this process in a new book, “Out of the Shadows, into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,” published this month by the MIT Press — and appearing just as the immigration-rights issue is making new headlines, given President Barack Obama’s decision to take executive action on the matter last week. 

In the book, Costanza-Chock enters into the debate of recent years about the role of new social-media platforms in abetting social and political change — a debate that precedes the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, but was amplified by them. Some observers have viewed social media as an essential spark for these movements; skeptics have said such platforms fail to create the lasting connections needed to make social movements successful. But Costanza-Chock thinks asking whether social media can build powerful movements is the “wrong question.” Rather, he offers, it is important to look at all of a movement’s organizing activities.

“If what we want to understand is the relationship between social movements and media technology, I think it’s a mistake to start from the technology, to start from the platform,” Costanza-Chock says. “It’s important to engage deeply with a particular social-movement network, if we want to look at all of the different ways people circulate media.”

Making media, building identity

In conducting his research, as Costanza-Chock makes clear in the book, he worked on several projects that aimed to develop media strategies for immigrant-rights groups, adopting the participatory approach familiar in anthropology. He emphasizes that actually making media — video clips, radio programming, social media messages, posters, newspaper columns — is important in how people start to identify with social movements.

“I felt there was something missing in terms of the way social-movement scholars understood the role of media, and media-making, in social-movement processes,” Costanza-Chock says. “The actual media-making process itself is very much part of forming social-movement identity.”

To be clear, Costanza-Chock does not downplay some of the changes brought about by online communications and communities; rather, in his view, he is placing those changes in a broader perspective.

“I will say that I think the Internet has made the diffusion of social-movement tactics more rapid, so people are now able to more quickly see experiments other movements came up with,” he adds.

And some of those tactics get adopted by developing social movements: The immigrant-rights movement, for instance, has used an approach developed by the gay-rights community, in which immigrants “out” themselves as undocumented residents in YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, street signs, and more. In so doing, they are attempting to humanize what can be an abstract debate.

“It’s a real human being saying, ‘It’s me, I’m a person, and if we’re going to have a real conversation, you need to look me in the eye so we can talk about it,’” Costanza-Chock observes.

Costanza-Chock refrains from making predictions about the future of immigration policy in the U.S. But he hopes he can catch the attention of scholars, commentators, activists, and other observers to reinforce the point that the relationship between social movements and media is multifaceted, and that the starting point for understanding that relationship involves grappling with the dynamics of those movements and their organizations.

“At a very basic level, any social movement is a narrative, a story, an idea,” he notes. “It’s a set of ideas about who we are as people, and what types of values we want to see made real in the world.”

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Deborah K. Fitzgerald announced today that she will step down as Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), effective July 1, 2015. Provost Martin Schmidt shared the news in an email to the MIT community.

Fitzgerald, who has served as dean of SHASS since 2007, and in the two preceding years as associate dean and acting dean, will return to her faculty position as a professor of the history of technology in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. 

“Under Deborah’s inspired leadership, SHASS has maintained the highest standards of academic excellence throughout its departments, centers and programs and has become an increasingly important contributor to the Institute’s overall capacity for innovation in teaching and research,” Schmidt wrote in his letter. “In particular, she was devoted to strengthening the core undergraduate education requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and among her achievements was the recent restructuring of several academic units in the humanities.”

“Deborah Fitzgerald has been a tremendous leader for SHASS and an influential advocate for the humanities, arts, and social sciences well beyond our campus,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “She understands that no matter how rigorously we educate our students in science and engineering, it is when we teach them about human culture and complexity that we truly equip them to change the world. For me personally, she has also been a wonderful colleague and counselor — wise, clear, candid, forward-looking, and deeply in tune with MIT.”

As dean, Fitzgerald has led a school of 170 faculty members in 13 fields of study: anthropology; economics; political science; global studies and languages; history; linguistics; literature; comparative media studies/writing; music, philosophy; theater arts; science, technology, and society; and women’s and gender studies. SHASS, which teaches all MIT undergraduates, is also home to seven graduate programs, and to many labs and centers, including the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab; Center for International Studies; HyperStudio (digital humanities); Security Studies Program; Knight Science Journalism Fellows; Game Lab; Open Documentary Lab; and Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative.

“Serving as dean of this school, at this great Institute, has been a profound and humbling privilege,” Fitzgerald says. “It has been an enormous pleasure to collaborate with distinguished and dedicated colleagues from many disciplines, and with alumni from around the globe, to help advance MIT’s research and educational mission in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.” 

Boosting graduate and undergraduate education

During her tenure, Fitzgerald has been committed to strengthening resources for SHASS’s distinguished graduate program. She also initiated restructuring of MIT’s academic requirements in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS), improving its approach to HASS core education; re-energized undergraduate education in SHASS, including a program for developing innovative new classes; and spearheaded restructuring of several SHASS academic units to create a single, stronger unit centered on media studies and writing. 

Fitzgerald has also strengthened the Institute’s offerings in international education. She was a member of the MIT Global Council that produced a 2009 report, “Mens et Manus et Mundi,” that explored goals for the future of global education and research at MIT. And she has supported the continued growth of the SHASS-based MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the Institute’s international education program, which prepares students to collaborate and lead around the globe. MISTI connects MIT students — some 5,500 to date — to fully funded internship, research, and teaching opportunities in 18 countries.  

The MISTI experience begins with preparatory coursework in the languages and cultures of the destination countries. “Giving MIT students deep knowledge of other languages and cultures, and the capacity to be global citizens and wise leaders, is vital to a 21st century education — and critical to the Institute’s leadership position,” Fitzgerald has said. 

Advancing the arts, empowering students

Fitzgerald also helped spur advances in MIT’s arts programming, including the launch of the MIT Center for Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST), a joint initiative between SHASS, the MIT Office of the Arts, and the School of Architecture and Planning. Established in 2012 with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, CAST was founded to further MIT’s leadership in integrating the arts into the curriculum and research of institutions of higher learning. Recognizing the powerful place that the performing arts have in the creativity, growth, and success of MIT students and alumni, Fitzgerald championed plans for a performing arts facility in music and theater at MIT.

To further share significant ideas, news, and research from SHASS, Fitzgerald established an in-house communications effort, creating a feature-rich website; a monthly digest, “Said and Done”; a permanent exhibition — “Great Ideas Change the World” — in Building 14N; active social media channels, including the Twitter account @SHASS4Students; the Listening Room, a curated, free, web-based collection of MIT’s finest student and faculty music; and the Tour de SHASS, an annual event at which MIT students meet and talk with SHASS faculty and explore the school’s academic offerings through a travel-themed expo.

An MIT faculty member since 1988, Fitzgerald is a leading historian of American agriculture and author of the award-winning “Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture” (Yale University Press, 2003). Fitzgerald is a past president and member of the Agricultural History Society, and a member of the Organization of American Historians and the Society for the History of Technology.

Speaking of her mission in returning to teaching MIT students, Fitzgerald said, “As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both the STEM and HASS disciplines, we aim to empower our young students, thinkers, and citizens with superb skills, habits of mind, and experiences that help them serve the world well, with innovations, and lives, that are rich in meaning and wisdom.” 

In his email to the MIT community, Schmidt said that he intends to appoint a faculty committee in the near future to advise on the selection of the next dean of SHASS. He also asked for insights and suggestions from the MIT community to help identify the best candidates for the next SHASS dean. All correspondence sent by email ( or letter (Room 3-208) will be treated as confidential.

By News Office

For its inaugural event, the recently formed MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative presented “Examining Ebola,” a panel that probed the current global public health emergency from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The gathering, held at MIT on Oct. 28, also encapsulated the goals of the new initiative, which is based in the Anthropology section of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

“We want to bring together scholars in different fields who don’t normally have a chance to talk to each other,” said Erica Caple James, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative. “With this initiative, we hope to encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration on health matters — teaching together, researching together, and mobilizing the creativity of all five MIT schools, as the Institute continues to develop its future role in improving human health.”

Political, economic, and cultural determinants of health

In a series of planned panels and collaborative events, James says she aims to catalyze a “new kind of conversation” at MIT and beyond. “We want to look at illness and disease from a complex perspective, not simply as a matter of individual physiology,” she says. “This means also thinking through the political, economic, social, and cultural determinants of health.”

The six “Examining Ebola” panelists and moderator James provided a wide range of expertise and perspectives — from reports from the front lines of treatment in West Africa, to the latest laboratory advances in viral genetics and diagnostics, to analysis of the cultural and historical contexts for the current epidemic.

The impact of history

“The epidemic started at a crossroads where three countries meet in a forest region,” explained Adia Benton, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. “The history of war and transatlantic slave trade raiding in that region shaped movements of peoples across borders, and also explains some of the hostility that citizens there have toward health workers arriving in the region.”

Benton said such mistrust can grow in the face of “a military medicine intervention,” where there are forceful barriers to movement and when triage and treatment is prioritized according to established social hierarchies.

Referring to allegations that biological agents were used during the 1970s on members of the independence movement in what was then Rhodesia, Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, associate professor of Science, Technology and Society at MIT, noted that, given that history, it is not surprising that in his home country of Zimbabwe “people are hesitant and suspicious of well-meaning scientific initiatives.” Mavhunga called for “scientific innovation diplomacy” to “lay the proper groundwork” for medical advances that could help arrest the Ebola outbreak.

Biomedical engineer works toward a field test for diagnosis

One such medical innovation potentially headed to West Africa is a new paper diagnostic test for Ebola from the laboratory of Boston University biomedical engineer James J. Collins, who has recently accepted an appointment to the MIT faculty. Collins, a MacArthur Award winner and member of the three national academies, described an Ebola diagnostic technique that resembles a simple pregnancy test: a paper strip changes color in reaction to the presence of microscopic samples of Ebola pathogen. The test requires no refrigeration, and Collins hopes this test, along with an inexpensive device that can transmit results digitally, can move to field testing in the near future.

Questions about the virus

Accurate diagnostics and treatment also depend on gaining more intimate knowledge of the Ebola virus itself, observed Stephen Gire, a research scientist with the Sabeti Lab, affiliated with the Eli and Edyth Broad Institute. The virus replicates so fast that “you literally have billions of viral particles in your body, which take a while to clear out,” Gire said. Researchers have discovered RNA fragments in different bodily fluids months after Ebola is cleared from the system, he continued, and “it’s unknown whether this is actually infected virus.”

Gire’s lab is helping to show “how the virus is changing in real time, and where the mutations fall.” With 10,000 reported cases in West Africa — which, Gire says, might actually “be more likely in the 25,000 range” due to underreporting — many samples of this prolific Ebola virus are available for analysis, revealing to scientists the emergence of different strains in human populations.

The role of government policy and public education

Jeanne Guillemin, a senior advisor in the MIT SHASS Security Studies Program, and an authority on outbreaks of exotic disease said that resolving public health crises like the current Ebola outbreak requires the collaboration of researchers and experts from several realms. As critical as science is, she said, “Science alone rarely has all the answers.” For effective control of dangerous epidemics, she explained, the best medical science must be accompanied by astute government leadership and an informed public.

Guillemin also noted that limitations in political cooperation, legislation, and policy can damage our ability to respond well to health crises. For example, due to partisan politics the U.S. currently lacks a surgeon general to handle the Ebola crisis, including public education. 

Although the past century saw dangerous anthrax and smallpox episodes, not enough lessons have been learned, Guillemin said. “We have been here before,” she said. “There is a litany of different outbreaks that more or less look like the one we’re having now.” Guillemin argues that large-scale public health emergencies can lead to policy changes that create long-term, meaningful structural solutions in the healthcare of developing nations, where outbreaks typically originate. “Deploying people to West Africa to help now is wonderful, but it’s a band aid,” she commented.

Transportation, media, and fear, unintended consequences

Yet given the scale of the current emergency, even such provisional aid is essential, said Jarrod Goentzel, the founder and director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab. Goentzel, who is engaged in helping move medical supplies to nations ravaged by Ebola, particularly Liberia, noted that “Africans are taking the lead on health care,” and he envisions that this crisis could eventually lead to strengthening health infrastructure in the affected African nations. 

Today, however, only three counties in Liberia have diagnostic laboratories, and many hospitals and clinics are closed for lack of adequate protective gear, trained staff, and sanitation workers. Moreover, several factors are thwarting the distribution of vital equipment. Not only are African ports, airports, and roads blocked by the rainy season, but actions in the U.S. are complicating the supply chain as well.

With media coverage fanning fear at home, said Goentzel, “a lot of politicians are taking action, and, as just one example, the state of Ohio recently decided to stockpile protective personal equipment.” Actions like this lead to misallocation of resources, he said, and essential equipment “is not getting into the parts of the world where we have the most cases.”

Out of the silos

In the panelists’ conversation, Erica Caple James found confirmation that scholars from disparate fields have much to offer each other and the public on health issues. As the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative gears up, she intends to spark more productive interactions among scholars in the humanities, social sciences, science, and engineering fields.   

“Conversations are happening all over MIT around different components of health and health care,” she says. “But they tend to take place in silos, with institutes and departments each focusing on their research specialties,” she said. “We would like to help generate more cross-school collaboration.”  

As a medical anthropologist, James traces how illness unfolds in the specific contexts of family, social network, and community, and brings to light “the human experience of health.” She has focused on mental health, and in particular the struggles of Haitians in the face of a series of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and government-sponsored violence.

Medical humanities

Her field of medical and psychiatric anthropology is part of the larger, emerging discipline of “medical humanities,” a vein of study offered in medical schools that attempts, James said, to “provide greater insight into questions of human suffering, illness, and diseases, by situating them in historical and cultural contexts.”

Ethics, literature, the history of medicine, and the arts may all be featured in medical humanities programs. One goal is to give clinicians training in how “to think about a patient beyond being a constellation of symptoms on a checklist.”

James has seen that as medical schools “prepare clinicians of the future to encounter many different kinds of patients,” they are increasingly eager to add “cultural competency” to the portfolio of requirements for their graduates. With this in mind, James envisions an interdisciplinary Health Minor for MIT undergraduates who are pursuing medical and public health careers. In concert with the Institute of Medical Engineering and Science, she aims to help graduates and postdocs in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program who are seeking a global health course of study and research opportunities.

The “Examining Ebola” event was co-sponsored by the MIT Global Health and Medical Health Initiative, MIT SHASS Anthropology, and Prehealth Advising in the MIT Global Education & Career Development Office. 


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Leda Zimmerman


By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

MIT has received $15 million in funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to establish an initiative aimed at laying the foundations for a smart, sustainable cybersecurity policy to deal with the growing cyber threats faced by governments, businesses, and individuals.

The MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative (CPI) is one of three new academic initiatives to receive a total of $45 million in support through the Hewlett Foundation’s Cyber Initiative. Simultaneous funding to MIT, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley is intended to jump-start a new field of cyber policy research. The idea is to generate a robust “marketplace of ideas” about how best to enhance the trustworthiness of computer systems while respecting individual privacy and free expression rights, encouraging innovation, and supporting the broader public interest.

With the new awards, the Hewlett Foundation has now allocated $65 million over the next five years to strengthening cybersecurity, the largest-ever private commitment to this nascent field. “Choices we are making today about Internet governance and security have profound implications for the future. To make those choices well, it is imperative that they be made with a sense of what lies ahead and, still more important, of where we want to go,” says Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation. “We view these grants as providing seed capital to begin generating thoughtful options.”

“I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Larry Kramer throughout this process. His dedication and the Hewlett Foundation’s remarkable generosity provide an opportunity for MIT to make a meaningful and lasting impact on cybersecurity policy,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “I am honored by the trust that the Foundation has placed in MIT and excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.”

Each of the three universities will take complementary approaches to addressing this challenge. MIT’s CPI will focus on establishing quantitative metrics and qualitative models to help inform policymakers. Stanford’s Cyber-X Initiative will focus on the core themes of trustworthiness and governance of networks. And UC Berkeley’s Center for Internet Security and Policy will be organized around assessing the possible range of future paths cybersecurity might take.

Interdisciplinary approach

The Institute-wide CPI will bring together scholars from three key disciplinary pillars: engineering, social science, and management. Engineering is vital to understanding the architectural dynamics of the digital systems in which risk occurs. Social science can help explain institutional behavior and frame policy solutions, while management scholars offer insight on practical approaches to institutionalize best practices in operations.

MIT has a strong record of applying interdisciplinary approaches to large-scale problems from energy to cancer. For example, the MIT Energy Initiative has brought together faculty from across campus — including the social sciences — to conduct energy studies designed to inform future energy options and research. These studies include technology policy reports focused on nuclear power, coal, natural gas, and the smart electric grid.

“We’re very good at understanding the system dynamics on the one hand, then translating that understanding into concrete insights and recommendations for policymakers. And we’ll bring that expertise to the understanding of connected digital systems and cybersecurity. That’s our unique contribution to this challenge,” says Daniel Weitzner, the principal investigator for the CPI and a principal research scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Developing a more formal understanding of the security behavior of large-scale systems is a crucial foundation for sound public policy. As an analogy, Weitzner says, imagine trying to shape environmental policy without any way of measuring carbon levels in the atmosphere and no science to assess the cost or effectiveness of carbon mitigation tools. “This is the state of cybersecurity policy today: growing urgency, but no metrics and little science,” he says.

CSAIL is home to much of the technology that is at the core of cybersecurity, such as the RSA cryptography algorithm that protects most online financial transactions, and the development of web standards via the MIT-based World Wide Web Consortium. “That gives us the ability to have our hands on the evolution of these technologies to learn about how to make them more trustworthy,” says Weitzner, who was the United States deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy in the White House from 2011 to 2012, while on leave from his longtime position at MIT.

First steps

In pioneering a new field of study, CPI’s first challenge is to identify key research questions, select appropriate methodologies to guide the work, and establish patterns of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Research challenges include:

  • How policymakers should address security risks to personal health information;
  • How financial institutions can reduce risk by sharing threat intelligence;
  • Developing cybersecurity policy frameworks for autonomous vehicles like drones and self-driving cars; and
  • How to achieve regional and even global agreements on both privacy and security norms in online environments.

To address these issues, CPI will not only bring to bear different disciplines from across MIT — from computer science to management to political science — but also engage with stakeholders outside the Institute, including government, industry, and civil society organizations. “We want to understand their challenges and work with them on formulating solutions,” Weitzner said.

In addition to research, a contribution of the CPI in the long run will be to create a pipeline of students to serve as the next generation of leaders working at this intersection of technology and public policy.

The mission of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is to “help people build measurably better lives.” The Foundation concentrates its resources on activities in education, the environment, global development and population, performing arts, and philanthropy, as well as grants to support disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Foundation was established by the late William Hewlett with his wife, Flora Lamson Hewlett, and their eldest son, Walter B. Hewlett. William Hewlett, who earned an SM degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1936, was co-founder, with David Packard, of the Hewlett-Packard Company, a multinational information technology company.

By Resource Development

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins yesterday urged an MIT audience to “reflect on what our role is as scientists and citizens of the world.”

“What we’re engaged in is a noble enterprise,” Collins told attendees at the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture, who filled Room 10-250. “It is an opportunity to alleviate suffering and reach out to those who need help.”

This is all the more important in the face of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed nearly 5,000 lives and is expected to take many more, Collins said. He noted that the NIH has been supporting the search for Ebola vaccines since the mid-1990s, and now has two candidates poised to enter Phase II clinical trials in December. “I wish we were one or two years ahead of where we are now,” he added.

In what was undoubtedly the first Compton Lecture with a musical conclusion, Collins then summoned Pardis Sabeti, a Broad Institute researcher, guitarist Bob Katsiaficas, and the MIT Logarhythms a cappella group to help him lead the audience in performing a song, “One Truth,” which Sabeti and Katsiaficas wrote after the deaths of three of Sabeti’s colleagues in Sierra Leone who contracted Ebola last summer.

Striking a balance

During his lecture, Collins also acknowledged the budget limitations that have forced his agency to cut back on its funding of medical research. That only makes it more difficult for the NIH to achieve the right balance between its two missions: supporting basic scientific research and applying new knowledge to enhance human health, Collins said.

“We talk about that every day at NIH,” he said. “I wish we had more resources so we could do more of both.”

Collins noted that MIT received $103 million in NIH funding in fiscal year 2014 and highlighted some of the projects supported by that money. Linda Griffith, a professor in MIT’s biological engineering and mechanical engineering departments, is working on a “liver on a chip” — a small device designed to mimic the three-dimensional architecture of the human liver, allowing researchers to test potential drugs before they go into clinical trials. One version of the chip also includes breast cancer cells, enabling an investigation of what happens when cancer metastasizes to the liver.

Projects like this could help translate the vast amount of information scientists have learned about the molecular basis of disease into treatments for patients. Scientists now understand the causes of nearly 5,500 diseases, but effective therapies exist for only about 500 of those, Collins noted. “There’s a huge gap between what we know and what we’re able to do,” he said.

Devices such as the liver on a chip could help close that gap by reducing the time it takes to get a potential drug from the discovery process to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — a process that currently takes an average of 14 years.

“This kind of technology is enormously promising for understanding biology, and also to speed up the process of identifying what is a safe and effective drug,” Collins says.

Several MIT researchers were also among the recipients of the recently announced NIH Brain Initiative grants. Six of the 58 grants went to MIT, more than any other institution. At this early stage, most of the projects are dedicated to developing new technologies that will eventually help researchers understand how the brain’s 86 billion neurons communicate with each other to perform functions such as forming memories, processing sensory information, and initiating movement.

“It’s an audacious idea that we might be able to understand how circuits in the human brain do the amazing things they do,” Collins said.

A louder voice

Asked how scientists can help to persuade government officials and the public that scientific research deserves more resources, Collins said that all scientists should be ready to explain their work to anyone who asks about it.

“The job we all have is to be prepared at any moment to explain what we do and why it matters,” he said. “I don’t think the science community has a voice that has been heard as loudly as it should in terms of the importance of what we do.”

He also pointed out some achievements of health research over the past several decades. Over the past 60 years, U.S. deaths from cardiovascular disease have dropped 70 percent, while deaths from cancer are now falling by about 1 percent a year, a modest but hard-fought advance. Furthermore, patients diagnosed with HIV can now expect to live a full lifespan; 30 years ago, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence.

“We need to be tireless in making people aware of why this is a very important investment in our nation,” Collins said.

By Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

Political tensions between the U.S. and Russia have increased in the last year, raising concerns about how effectively the two states will be able to pursue nuclear arms-reduction goals.

Striking a note of cautious optimism in an MIT talk yesterday, Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, praised Russia’s “businesslike” enforcement of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty, but cited a need for continued progress in other areas of nuclear security.

“The United States and Russia are continuing to implement the treaty in a businesslike manner, despite all the tensions,” Gottemoeller said, referring to the military conflict in the Ukraine. The U.S. accuses Russia of occupying Ukrainian territory in Crimea; Russia claims the area is historically its own.

The U.S. and Russia inspect each other’s facilities 18 times a year as part of the New START Treaty, which was signed in 2010, went into effect in 2011, and calls for a reduction to 1,550 nuclear warheads deployed on certain delivery systems by the year 2018.

Gottemoeller said that “the Russians have been good partners” on issues such as removing chemical weapons from Syria, and reiterated American willingness to reduce nuclear arsenals by a further one-third, an offer President Barack Obama made publicly at a speech in Berlin in 2013.

“The greatest prize at the current time is if we can get the Russians to [pursue] the Berlin” proposal, Gottemoeller said.

Still, as Gottemoeller made clear in her remarks, areas of arms-control friction remain between the two states right now. She noted a central one early in her talk: The U.S. contends that Russia has been in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 U.S.-Soviet Union pact that bans ground-launched nuclear and conventional weapons with a range of up to 5,500 kilometers.

“We have been attempting to press this very serious matter with the Russian Federation,” Gottemoeller said, emphasizing that the U.S. is “fully committed to the continued viability of the INF treaty, and we are in full compliance with it.”

The road ahead

Gottemoeller’s public talk — “Future Prospects for U.S.-Russia Arms Control” — was delivered Thursday afternoon in MIT’s Building 54, in front of an audience that included students, faculty, diplomats, and peace activists. 

She emphasized that public awareness of both the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons and of recent progress in arms control needs to be enhanced.

“At the end of the Cold War, the looming threat of nuclear war seemed to drift away,” Gottemoeller said. Public support for nuclear security has a practical dimension to it, since the U.S. Senate must ratify arms treaties — and public opinion has the ability to sway senators.

The U.S. has also significantly reduced a stockpile of what was once 31,000 nuclear weapons, Gottemoeller noted; in another area of progress, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on a program that has repurposed Russian nuclear materials — the equivalent of thousands of bombs — into nuclear-energy fuel in the U.S.

As for the next steps for nuclear security, Gottemoeller suggested that further bilateral arms reductions between the U.S. and Russia should take precedence over multilateral arms-reduction talks among several of the world’s nuclear powers, including Britain, France, and China.

“To my mind, this [multilateral approach] doesn’t make sense, because the U.S. and Russia control 90 percent of nuclear weapons,” Gottemoeller said.

The U.S. and Russia will also need to work together next spring to perform the mandated five-year review of 1970’s Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Weapons (NPT), the world’s largest and longest-lasting global nuclear-weapons agreement.

Gottemoeller said it could be “a difficult review conference” for multiple reasons, including U.S. concerns over the spread of nuclear materials in the Middle East. However, she stated, “I want the NPT regime to be increasingly and constantly strengthened.”

Moreover, Gottemoeller emphasized, “It is in the U.S. interest, and in the interest of countries around the world, that the 70-year history of nonuse of nuclear weapons be continued.” She concluded her talk by quoting former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, in what could be a mantra for arms negotiators: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

Subrata Ghoshroy, a research affiliate in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering, arranged for the undersecretary’s visit. The Program in Science, Technology, and Global Security; the Technology and Culture Forum; and the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering organized and hosted the event.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has selected MIT historian and engineer David A. Mindell as a 2015 AIAA Associate Fellow. 

“It is great honor to be selected,” said Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program of Science, Technology and Society (STS), and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “As aerospace engineering grapples with the critical importance of human beings in robotic and unmanned systems, it is heartening to see that the profession values humanistic perspectives.”

The AIAA selects individuals who have accomplished important engineering or scientific research; created original works of outstanding merit; or have made notable contributions to the arts, sciences, or technology of aeronautics or astronautics.

“David’s research has spanned all three areas — arts, sciences, and technology — showing how they are inseparable in the history of flight and space exploration,” said Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Head of STS. “His election as an AIAA fellow brings honor to STS, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and to MIT, fittingly on the eve of the Institute’s centennial celebration of the nation’s most distinguished aerospace program.”

Mindell will receive the award on Jan. 5, 2015, at a ceremony held in conjunction with the AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Kissimmee, Florida.


By Kierstin Wesolowski | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

The White House has announced the nomination of MIT’s Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems, as NASA’s deputy administrator, the space agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Newman’s appointment will require approval by the U.S. Senate.

Newman, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1993, is director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and MIT Portugal Program, a faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, and a Margaret McVicar Faculty Fellow.

Newman earned her BS from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, followed by three graduate degrees from MIT: two SM degrees, in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, in 1989, and a PhD in aerospace biomedical engineering, in 1992. She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), an introductory engineering textbook, and more than 200 papers presented in journals and at refereed conferences.

Newman’s research has included the development of a radical new spacesuit design that is tighter-fitting and would afford much greater mobility and lighter weight than today’s bulky pressure suits. She has focused on quantifying astronaut performance in space, including computer modeling of the dynamics of human motion in microgravity conditions. Newman has also developed exercise countermeasures, serving as principal investigator for three spaceflight experiments, and specializes in understanding partial-gravity locomotion for future planetary exploration. Her development of patented, wearable compression suits has also led her into research on assistive technologies for people with locomotion impairment.

“It’s very exciting, and an enormous honor,” Newman says of her nomination as NASA’s deputy administrator. “Aerospace engineering, of course, is my passion. Maybe I’ve been training for this my whole life!”

Newman says that NASA has “a clear vision” aligned with goals set by the Obama administration, with Mars as the destination in its long-term strategic plan. While the space program may draw most of the agency’s public attention, NASA’s research in aeronautics is no less significant, she says, and has produced “significant aviation advancements.”

The deputy administrator’s specific duties, Newman says, include NASA’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs; communications; the Mission Support Directorate; and international relationships, including the multinational partnership that manages the International Space Station. In addition, the post oversees educational programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Helping to spur the interest of young people in space, and in engineering in general, will be “a privilege,” Newman says. “I’d like to change the conversation with kids about what it means to be an engineer” — which she calls “the best job in the world, where you get to solve really challenging and extraordinary problems in the service of humankind.”

Newman and her partner Guillermo Trotti, an architect and designer, completed a round-the-world sailing voyage on their boat in 2003. The two are now live-in housemasters at MIT’s Baker House, an undergraduate residence hall.

Newman says she is eager for the challenges of her new job: “I love NASA’s portfolio, and what it’s tasked to do for the nation: pushing the boundaries and leading in aeronautics and space — aircraft, space, planetary and earth sciences, exploration, technology development, and education. I look forward to doing the best work I can, to applying myself 100 percent, to learning a lot, and to advancing our national aerospace goals.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is very pleased to present the newest members of the MIT SHASS faculty. They come to MIT with diverse backgrounds and vast knowledge in their areas of research: empirics of matching markets; 19th- and 20th-century representations of childhood and the history of children’s literature; international political economy and formal and quantitative methodology; the intersection of philosophy and linguistics; causes and consequences of ethnic conflict; intersection of science, technology, and urban politics in U.S. history; the meaning of natural language expressions; moral philosophy; and game theory, microeconomic theory, and political economy.

Please join us in welcoming these excellent scholars into the MIT community.  

Nikhil Agarwal, Economics

Nikhil Agarwal joins MIT’s Department of Economics faculty in the fall of 2014 as an assistant professor. He received his PhD from Harvard University and was a postdoc at the Cowles Foundation at Yale University.

He studies the empirics of matching markets, or markets where prices do not clear the market. The applications he studies include medical residency markets, kidney donation, and public school choice. His current research focuses on developing methods to analyze data from these markets in order to answer questions about the effects of design on outcomes.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Economics

Charlotte Brathwaite, Music and Theater Arts

Charlotte Brathwaite joins MIT as an assistant professor of theater arts. Prior to coming to MIT, she was a visiting professor of theater and dance at Amherst College. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the Amsterdam School for the Arts in the Netherlands and a Master of Fine Arts in directing from the Yale School of Drama.

Brathwaite is co-founder of the Berlin-based performance group Naturaleza Humana. She has assistant-directed for Yale Repertory Theater, Lincoln Center, Yale Opera, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Francesca Zambello, and Christian Rath. She has shadowed director Joel Zwick on set at Disney Studios in Los Angeles. This summer she assisted director Peter Sellars’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Stratford Festival in Canada. She is recipient of a Princess Grace Foundation George C. Wolfe Award and the Julian Milton Kaufman Prize for Directing Yale University. 
Profile at MIT SHASS Music and Theater Arts Section

Marah Gubar, Literature

Marah Gubar joins the Literature at MIT’s faculty in fall, 2014 as an associate professor. Previously, she was an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she directed the nationally recognized Children’s Literature Program. She earned her PhD in English from Princeton University and did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she received a BA in English and a BFA in musical theatre. 

Gubar teaches and writes about children’s literature from a variety of periods, but she is especially interested in 19th- and 20th-century representations of childhood and the history of children’s theatre. Her book, “Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature,” was published by Oxford University Press in 2009 and won the Children’s Literature Association’s Book Award. She has also received several teaching prizes, including the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award — the highest teaching honor given to faculty at Pitt.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Literature at MIT

In Song Kim, Political Science

In Song Kim joins the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of political science. He received his PhD from the Department of Politics at Princeton University, and was awarded the Harold W. Dodds Fellowship for 2012 to 2013 academic year.

His research interests include international political economy and formal and quantitative methodology. His dissertation examines firm-level political incentives to lobby for trade liberalization. Kim is also interested in “big data” analysis of international trade. He is developing methods for dimension reduction and visualization to investigate how the structure of international trade around the globe has evolved over time.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Political Science

Justin Khoo, Linguistics and Philosophy

Justin Khoo joins the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of philosophy. He earned his PhD from Yale in 2013, and he was a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Philosophy last year. His research interests are in philosophy of language, philosophical logic, and metaphysics.

Khoo is currently working on topics at the border between philosophy and linguistics. He has papers on the meaning and conversational pragmatics of conditionals (“if … then”), modals (“may,” “must”), and their interactions. More broadly, he is interested in the nature of language and communication.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

Evan Lieberman, Political Science

Evan Lieberman joins MIT as the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa. Previously, Lieberman was a member of the faculty at Princeton University for 12 years, and a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale University. He received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and his BA from Princeton.

Lieberman’s research is concerned with understanding the causes and consequences of ethnic conflict, and the determinants of good governance and policy-making, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. He also writes and teaches on research methods for comparative analysis. Lieberman is the author of two scholarly books, “Race and Regionalism in the Politics of Taxation” (Cambridge, 2003) and “Boundaries of Contagion: How Ethnic Politics Have Shaped Government Responses to AIDS” (Princeton, 2009), as well as numerous scholarly articles. He received the David Collier Mid-Career Achievement Award at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Political Science

Jennifer Light, Program in Science, Technology, and Society

Jennifer Light joins the MIT faculty as a professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and as a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (by courtesy). Previously, Light was at Northwestern University, where she was a professor of communication, history, and sociology. She holds degrees from Harvard and the University of Cambridge.

Light is fascinated by technocratic thinking and its uses in programs of social reform and social control. Light has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and received the Catherine Bauer Wurster Prize from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History. Her latest book, “From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age,” co-edited with Danielle Allen, is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in the spring of 2015.  
Profile at MIT SHASS Program in Science, Technology and Society

Roger Schwarzschild, Linguistics and Philosophy

Roger Schwarzschild joins the MIT faculty in the fall of 2014 as a professor of linguistics. His work addresses the meaning of natural language expressions. His research foci include plurality, comparatives, measure phrases, and intonational focus. He has taught at Rutgers University, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at Bar-Ilan University.
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Linguistics and Philosophy

Kieran Setiya, Linguistics and Philosophy

Kieran Setiya joins the MIT faculty as a professor of philosophy. He holds a PhD from Princeton University along with a BA in philosophy from the University of Cambridge; he taught previously at the University of Pittsburgh.

Setiya’s primary interests are in moral philosophy and its intersections with metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. He is the author of two books, “Reasons without Rationalism” (Princeton University Press, 2007) and “Knowing Right From Wrong” (Oxford University Press, 2012). His current work is on the place of love in moral philosophy, the ethics of procreation, and the midlife crisis.
Kieran Setiya website

Alex Wolitzky, Economics

Alex Wolitzky joins the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of economics. Previously, he was an assistant professor of economics at Stanford University, and before that a postdoc at Microsoft Research. He earned his PhD in economics from MIT and did his undergraduate work at Harvard University, where he received a BA in economics and mathematics.

His main areas of research are game theory, microeconomic theory, and political economy. In game theory, Wolitzky is interested in robust behavior in games and in models of bargaining, repeated games, reputation-formation, and networks. In political economy, he is interested in models of conflict and institutions and their implications for economic outcomes. Wolitzky’s current research projects include a model for comparing centralized and decentralized enforcement of social norms, and a model of optimal taxation and redistribution under the threat of political reform. His research has been published in journals including Econometrica, American Economic Review, and Review of Economic Studies.
Profile at MIT SHASS Department of Economics

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Calestous Juma, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT, received a Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize (LAAP) for his leadership in socioeconomic development in Africa. The award will be presented to Juma in Nigeria on Oct. 10 by the Millennium Excellence Foundation.

Juma, a visiting professor at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and a research affiliate of the MIT Center for International Studies, is among 16 recipients of this year’s esteemed award. The Millennium Excellence Foundation noted that the nominations were “unprecedented as the laureates met the mark of excellence of distinction never seen in the continent in several decades.”

African heads of state, leaders of industry across the continent, academicians, the diplomatic corps, and a host of politicians will join in to celebrate this year’s laureates.

The LAAP laureates will also participate in an economic forum to discuss issues rising from food security and sustainability to the scourge of Ebola in Africa. The outcomes of the discussions by the laureates will be communicated to African leaders and the general public.

Every two years, members of the Board of Governors of the Millennium Excellence Foundation nominate those who deserve recognition of merit and leadership within critical areas of socioeconomic development in Africa, and of championing and positively impacting the lives of Africans.

For more information on the 2014 LAAP laureates, visit the Millennium Excellence Foundation’s laureates page

By Center for International Studies